Possibility Overload

I am almost finished with the semester and will be student teaching in January.  This is what I have been waiting for all semester – the chance to actually apply everything I have learned in college and to get experience.  I am still very excited for that opportunity, but I am also a little worried.  When I finish student teaching in May, I will be an actual teacher with my own classroom and my own students.  And at this moment, that scares me.

I have learned so much about teaching, especially this past semester in my education classes and my methods class.  For the most part, I feel ready to teach.  But I am overwhelmed by all the possibilities of what I could do in my classroom.  In just this semester alone, I have learned a lot about workshop style classrooms, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and teaching for social justice classrooms.

I used to like the workshop style classroom and that is how I planned on teaching for a long time.  But when I learned about the other styles, I started to wonder if a workshop style classroom is really what I want.  I still really like the idea of a workshop classroom, but I also really like some aspects of all the other styles.  I could combine aspects of each, but would that be too much for the students?  I don’t want them to feel as overwhelmed as I do.

I also worry about how I will teach and meet the Common Core standards.  I never thought much about the standards, but after meeting with my cooperating teacher for next semester, I wonder if I should have learned more about them.  I wish I could have taken a class that explained all the standards and exactly what they mean for teachers and students.

In our methods class, we’ve talked some about the standards.  I’ve learned that as long as students are doing authentic work, they will meet the standards and be able to pass the tests. This seems simple enough and actually makes more sense to me than other methods I have heard about.  I have just learned so many different ways for students to learn authentically that I’m not sure which way is best.

So as I end this semester and prepare to start the next one, I hope to learn more about what works best for students.  Hopefully once I have some real classroom experience, the possibilities won’t be as overwhelming as they are now.  I’m excited to start my work with students and apply everything I’ve learned this semester.  I hope that next semester is as great as this one.

NCTE Words of Wisdom

Out of the hundreds of sessions at NCTE, I was able to attend nine of them.  Out of those nine sessions, though, I learned more than I would in a semester of classes.  There were so many excellent presenters at NCTE; some were well-known people like Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Donalyn Miller, and Nancie Atwell, who are teachers and authors, but there were also many regular teachers that had great things to share.  I want to share my favorite words of wisdom with everyone.  I’ve tried to put the names next to each quote if I remember who said it, but if not, I put the session next to each quote.

We are not copy-editors; we are teachers and should teach students how to correct their errors. – Faking the Grade

Mid-process feedback is key for students to learn and develop writing skills. – Joe Brekke

Ten minutes a day of (students) talking in the classroom highly impacts students’ learning.  – Donalyn Miller

Some high-achieving students needs permission to take a break from their responsibilities (homework) and read. – Cindy Minnich

86% of written feedback focuses on surface errors. – Reinventing the Writing Conference

Conferencing is differentiation – you meet every writer where they are at that moment. – Joe Brekke

Not every day is game day; not every piece of writing needs to be evaluated.  – Reinventing the Writing Conference

Grit = perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  Students who have grit do better in school. – Student’s Metacognition Regulation

Start the year with poetry – every writing lesson can be taught with poetry. – Nancie Atwell

Students want to think BIG thoughts; teachers often underestimate what students are capable of. – Core Standards: Minding the Gaps Ignite session

Practice does not make perfect – practice makes permanent.  Students will only get better if they practice correctly. – Lisa Waner

Rigor without relevance is simply hard. – Kylene Beers

My NCTE Surprise

When I found out that Nancie Atwell was presenting at NCTE, I knew that was one session I was not going to miss.  I learned at the first session, though, that rooms filled quickly, which meant that I had to make a sacrifice. I would get to Nancie Atwell’s scheduled room 90 minutes early to make sure I had a seat.  That meant that I would be missing a session with Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher, which was unfortunate, but I was set on seeing Nancie Atwell.

Instead of sitting in the hall like I had originally planned, I decided to go to the session that was in the room Nancie Atwell would be presenting in.  This session was called Students’ Metacognitive Regulation and the Common Core, which didn’t sound interesting at all.

I had planned to just sit in the back and catch up on my tweeting for the conference, so I only half-listened to what the presenters were saying.  But what they said quickly caught my attention.  They were discussing what to do with the students who don’t succeed in school.  The ones who don’t seem to do well and, more often than not, end up dropping out and maybe later getting their GED.  These were students that we had talked about in our Methods class and that I have personally worried about.

So I put down my iPad and took out my notebook.  Giving the presenters my full attention, I learned a lot about how to help these students succeed in school.  Did you know that students who get their GED tend to be smarter than students who get the traditional diploma?  They are, but they lack the will to persist and delay gratification.  They lack grit, which the presenters defined as perseverance and the passion for long-term goals.  Students with grit do better in school.

Teachers need to help students who lack grit.  They need to teach those students how to self-assess, self-reflect, set goals, and direct their learning, which is all part of the process of metacognition.  Metacognition can help students monitor their learning and take control of it.  Students already make decisions that affect their learning, but they don’t realize it.  Recognizing this is the first step for students to take charge of their learning.

The students that lack grit will not do this on their own; the teacher needs to show them how and hold them accountable. Simply have students set a goal at the beginning of class and then complete a self-evaluation at the end of class.  Have them think metacognitively about what they will be learning that day.  Have students ask themselves what do I already know and what do I need to learn.

Have students think about everything they do in the classroom. Give students the control.  When writing, have them reflect on how they evaluate good writing.  Have them analyze feedback, both good and bad.  Have them identify trends in their own writing.

When reading, have students establish a purpose for reading.  Have them recognize when their comprehension stops.  Have them ask themselves if they are aware of it and what they do to fix it. Have them reflect and respond to the reading. Make them aware of their comprehension by having them ask how do they know what they know or by responding emotionally to what they just read.

Students who lack grit will not sit quietly at their desks and complete a worksheet or read the text because you told them to.  These students don’t complete boring assignments.  And these students will be in your classroom.  They will either be the ones misbehaving and causing problems or, if they are old enough, they will be the ones that drop out of school completely.

Some teachers may refer to these students as “unreachable” but they’re not.  Our methods teacher told us in class that there are no unreachable students, and this presentation proves that by showing teachers how to reach all students.

I can honestly say that I was surprised by the content of this session and am grateful that I went, even though I had no intention of attending it.  I didn’t attend the Penny Kittle/Kelly Gallagher session, so I don’t know what I missed, but I do know that I didn’t sacrifice as much as I thought.  I learned so much about how to help students succeed in school.  And I also got excellent seats for Nancie Atwell’s session, so I would say this was a win-win situation for me.  Definitely a great surprise.

NCTE 2013 Session: Reinventing the Writing Conference

The Reinventing the Writing Conference session at NCTE 2013 was one of my favorite sessions.  This session focused on how three high school teachers used different approaches to conference with their students.  They all used to do the basic written comments on student papers once they were turned in, but none of the teachers were happy with the results.

They stated that 86% of written comments focus on surface errors and not the actual writing.  To me, fixing or commenting on surface errors is the easiest thing to do.  I could probably do it without even thinking about what I’m doing; just see an error and fix it.  But I know that is not helpful to students.  They knew that, too, which is why they found new methods to provide feedback.

The main focus in the their new feedback methods was based on if their comments/process was helping the writer and not the writing.  Whatever feedback they gave to the student should actually help the student become a better writer and not just make the writing in the paper better.  This can’t be done if the majority of comments focuses on surface errors.  Also, mid-process feedback is key for students to learn and develop writing skills.  Teachers can’t give feedback at the end of the writing process and expect students to learn; writing, like any skill, doesn’t work that way.

The three methods the teachers discussed were face-to-face conferences, digital oral feedback, and Google Docs conferences.  The face-to-face conferences are student led, which is an aspect that I really like, Students are expected to come to each conference prepared and to actually start the discussion.  The teacher does not say anything about the paper until the student explains what he/she wants to discuss.

Because some students find it hard to start the discussion, the teacher provides a conversation starter handout.  The conversation starters are a script that students can follow if they don’t know what to say to start the conference.  During the conference, the teacher only reads the part of the paper that the student wants feedback on.  The teacher and student discuss the section and then the student writes a concrete plan for revision and what to do next.  Each conference should only last for about five minutes.

The digital oral feedback is a method that I plan to use in my classroom.  This method uses a program called Jing, which you can download on your computer for free.  It allows you to take a screenshot or 5 minute screencast of your screen and then send the link to the student.  The verbal feedback is great because students can hear the teacher’s tone of voice and are less likely to misinterpret the meaning.  Also, it takes us about six minutes to write what it takes us one minute to say, so using verbal feedback can shorten the amount of time it takes to grade papers, which is something I’m sure every teacher will appreciate.

Google Docs is another feedback method.  Students write their papers on Google Docs and the teacher can read the paper as the student is writing and provide ongoing feedback.  This method is best used with face-to-face conferences and not as a stand-alone method.

From this session, I really liked the idea of conversation starters for conferences and using Jing for verbal feedback.  Finding time to respond to every student is difficult, but using these methods could make it easier for me as the teacher and hopefully more meaningful to the students.

Providing feedback to students has been something I’ve worried about.  I don’t want to unintentionally provide hurtful feedback, but I also don’t want to critically analyze every word I write on a student’s paper.  If I did, it would take me weeks to evaluate every paper!  But verbal feedback, either face-to-face or through Jing, makes that less of a problem.  I am glad that I was able to attend this session at NCTE.  It was definitely one of the best!

NCTE 2013 Session: Faking the Grade

The first session I attended at the NCTE Conference was called Faking the Grade and the presenters discussed how to make grading simpler, quicker, and more accurate.    Grading is something that I have thought a lot about this semester.  I hate the traditional grading system because I think it is inaccurate and does not represent the skills of the student, but I don’t know what I can do to change it.  I did, however, love the grading system the presenters explained.

For the English classes, there were five categories: Reading and Literature, Writing, Language (Grammar), Speaking and Listening, and Work Habits.  Each category was weighted equally at 20% and three grades were assigned at the end of the grading period.  One grade combined all five categories, another grade combined the four skill areas, and the final grade was just the work habits.  This system allowed the teachers to accurately represent the students’ skills, knowledge, and progress.

The presenters mentioned the common dilemma about how to grade an essay that is well-written but a week late.  This grading system makes that easy. Taking off points or lowering the paper a letter grade if it is turned in late does not accurately reflect the student’s writing ability, yet this is what most teachers do if they use the traditional grading system. With this categorical system, a student can still earn a high grade in writing for a well-written essay but a low grade in work habits if it is turned in late.

Also with this system, one assignment earns multiple grades.  An essay could earn a grade for writing, for language, and for work habits.  This idea might seem counterintuitive, but this is what makes grading easier and quicker.  Because teachers can read a paper and only give a grade for the writing, they have a specific focus and can assess the essay quickly. They can then read it again and look just at the language and give a grade for that.  They don’t have to try to grade multiple aspects at once and debate about what grade the student should earn if their writing is good but their language needs some work.  You grade for one thing and move on.  This is a system I can see myself using in my classroom.

Another part that I love about this system is that it is beneficial for the middle/average achieving students.  So many times only the students on the extreme ends, the high achieving and low achieving students, get the attention of the teacher.  Students who perform in the middle are often overlooked.  This grading system helps to prevent that because it helps teachers and students to see what students need to work on.  With this system, it is very easy to see what each student needs and what needs to be done to help them. It is a very individualized grading system that  I think is more accurate and meaningful that the traditional system.

Finally, the last thing I loved from this presentation was the idea of a bottom-up movement, meaning that teachers inspire change.  The teachers speaking at this presentation started this movement and were successful.  I love this grading system, so wherever I end up teaching, I plan to start my own bottom-up movement and inspire change in my school.

My Experience at NCTE 2013

Our Methods class recently went to the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Boston.  I had such a great time at the conference.  It wads definitely one of the best experiences of my life.  This conference is something that you have to experience for yourself in order to understand how wonderful it is.

I learned so much at this conference – more than I really would have thought possible.  At first I thought the conference would be a lot like school.  After all, I would be spending at least 8 hours sitting and listening to people talk, which is essentially what I do in school.  But I was wrong – it wasn’t like school at all.  There were no assignments that I had to finish.  No expectations that I had to meet.  Nothing specific that I had to learn.  There were hundreds of sessions and I could choose which ones I attended.  I had total freedom in a structured system.  My only complaint is that I did not have enough time to attend all the sessions I wanted to.  The conference lasted three days but I wish it was at least a month.

I attended nine sessions at the NCTE Conference.  Out of those nine, there was only one that I didn’t enjoy.  There were a few sessions times I missed because there was no more space in the room or because I went to the Exhibit Hall.  The very first session was one that I missed.   I spent the first session of NCTE sitting on the floor in a hallway.  Not exactly a great start, but I did learn to show up early to sessions I really wanted to attend, especially if they had big-name presenters.

Most of the sessions I attended were very beneficial.  I learned about how to make grading quicker and easier.  I learned several different strategies for writing conferences and how to make comments more meaningful for students.  I also learned how to help students improve their writing, and this information has completely changed everything I thought I should do as an English teacher.  One session I attended simply so I could get a seat for Nancie Atwell’s presentation.  This session was on Student Metacognition Regulation and was not something that I ever planned to attend.  I have to say, however, that I am glad I did.  I learned a lot from this session and now have new information and strategies to help under-achieving students.

Even more exciting than the great sessions were free books.  Tons of free books!  Even free books signed by the author!  I left the conference with a small suitcase full of books.  My plan for Christmas break is to read at least half of the books I took home from the conference.

Overall, I am very glad that I was able to attend the NCTE conference.  I hope that I have many opportunities in the future to attend the conference.  I would recommend any English teacher or school administrator to attend this conference because there are so many benefits.  I didn’t just learn about teaching writing or reading – I learned about teaching real students.  As teachers and administrators, we will be working with real students every day so we should learn everything we can in order to do our best.

My Grading Policy – Part 2

In Part 1 of this post I explained the different types of grading systems I want to use in my classroom.  In this part of the post I will explain how I actually plan to use those systems to grade student work.  These ideas are mainly for writing assignments.  I still haven’t figured out what to do with reading.

I would start each grading period with pre-determined assignments and point values.  This is probably the only way that backward grading will work.  Students would have to complete a certain number of assignments each grading period.  Some of the assignments would be required of every student; these are the assignments that would show that students have met the standards.  For the remaining assignments, students could choose which ones they want to complete.  The purpose of these assignments would be to give students more choice and control in their learning.

So, for example, students would have to complete ten assignments for the first grading period.  They would be required to write a narrative essay, write an essay about a theme in a book of their choice, read a fiction book of their choice, read a nonfiction text of their choice, and write a summary/response to the fiction and nonfiction texts that uses details/evidence from the text.  Students would then be able to choose the other five assignments they need to complete.  These could include book talks, writing short stories or poetry, writing another narrative, responding to books in a way the student chooses, and other things.

I’m not entirely sure how this will work in practice, but I definitely want a system that gives students more freedom in what they can do in class and helps them succeed.  I would only require ten assignments per grading period, but students would be able to complete as many as they wanted to earn the grade they wanted.

I would use the rubric for every writing assignment students turn in.  Students would receive a traditional percentage and letter grade, but the rubric would provide specific comments and feedback that I think are more meaningful than a number or a letter.

Even after spending more than a week thinking about how I would like to grade in my classroom, I’m still not confident in what I’ve planned.  Some things seem to work better in my mind than when I try to explain them.  I hope that grading is something that is easier to accomplish when it is actually being done rather than thinking of possible scenarios.  And even though I don’t have every detail planned out, I still know my overall goal and purpose for grading.  I want students to have more choice and freedom and I want them to feel good about the work they have done and I think using backward grading and rubrics is the best way to accomplish that.

My Grading Policy – Part 1

I want to have a grading system that combines backward grading, traditional percentage/letter grading, and rubric grading.  Part 1 of this post will explain each grading system and Part 2 will explain how I plan to use them in my classroom.

Backward grading is pretty simple: instead of starting at 100% and going down after missing points on an assignment, students start at 0% and continually work toward 100% with every assignment they turn in.  With this system, students no longer have to feel bad about a 15/20 because it is no longer a -5 assignment; it is now a +15 assignment.  Backward grading makes every assignment a positive grade.

I’m guessing that using this system would take a lot of planning and work on the teacher’s part.  I would have to know exactly what assignments will be included in every grading period and how much each assignment is worth.  I have never used a gradebook or grading program, but I know as a student that every grade entered affects the final grade.  For this system, every assignment would probably have to be entered as a o at the start of the grading period and then later changed once the assignment is complete.  Even though I really have no experience with grading systems, I’m sure I can make this one work and I am excited to use it.

I would also use the traditional percentage/letter grading system.  I know that this is the system I will probably have to use as a teacher and this is what students and parents will be most familiar with.  Students will still earn the normal letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) and I would use whatever point system the school district uses.

Rubric grading has always been something I liked as a student.  There are certain requirements that students have to meet and they are generally given a 4, 3, 2, 1 score for each requirement.  These scores are then added for the total score of the assignment.  I like rubrics because students know exactly what they did well and what they could improve on.   When I use rubrics, though, I will use a modified rubric.  I will not use the 4, 3, 2, 1 scoring system.  I want to use words, such as Excellent, Strong, Satisfactory, and Weak.  I would put a mark under the word that I think describes the students’ level of work.  I would then write comments about why I scored them the way I did and what they could do to improve on their next paper.

So my grading system will include the traditional percentage/letter grades, but students will start at the bottom and continue to add points throughout the semester.  There will be no opportunity to lose points or for their grade to go down.  All writing assignments will receive a rubric grade with comments and feedback so that students know what they did well and what they need to continue to work on.  In Part 2 of this blog, I will explain in more detail exactly how I plan to grade assignments in my class.

Grading Policies

Throughout my education classes, I have thought about my grading and homework policies that I will have as a teacher.  It seems like the more I learn, though, the more unsure I become about what I want to do.  At first, I planned to use a very traditional system: teacher assigns work, students complete work (or not), teacher assigns a grade.

After reading and learning a lot about grading, I now want it to be different than the traditional method of grading.  I read an article that explained how grades are harmful for students and I completely agree.  I think our current grading system is seriously flawed and should no longer be used.  But since that is not likely to happen anytime soon, I have tried to think of ways to make grading meaningful for students while also meeting the requirements of the school district.

Grading has been something that I have not been very confident about.  I struggle with how to meet the needs of my students while still providing meaningful feedback to the students and necessary data to the school district.  I want my grading system to be a positive aspect of school for students, something that they can control.  I don’t want grades to be the only motivator for learning or to discourage students because they never seem to do as well as they want.  I don’t want grades to cause unnecessary stress in my students’ lives.  Grades definitely did that to me and actually made me sick in high school.  I don’t want my students to experience that.

What I would like to use in my classroom is a blended grading system.  I want to combine backward grading, traditional percentage/letter grading, and rubric grading into a system that allows students to essentially choose what grade they want in the class and what work they will do to get that grade.

The Power of Listening

As a teacher, I’m sure I will do a lot of talking.  I will talk to students, parents, and co-workers every day.  I used to think that as long as I could clearly express myself while speaking, I would be an effective teacher.  As long as students, parents, and co-workers understood what I was saying, then I was doing a good job.  Good speaking skills were the key to good teaching, or so I thought.

I read an article that discussed the common misconception of the importance of speaking well.  Speaking well is not really important.  Listening well is the important skill.  It is only by listening to others that we know what they understand.  In school, knowing what students understand is the whole point.  But if teachers are the ones who are talking all the time, how can students show us what they understand?

Listening seems like such a simple thing to do, but it is, in fact, a challenge.  Really listening to people takes concentration.  Also, when listening, you have to forget about how you are going to respond.  You need to focus only on understanding the other person.

Imagine if all teachers really listened to their students.  There would be such a difference in education today.  I think most students know what they need in school; they know what works for them and what doesn’t, but unless the teachers are listening, they won’t say it.  For students to really learn in school, teachers need to listen to them.  Only then will teachers really know what to teach.

I think many times I overlook the importance of listening.  I’ve been told by others that I am a good listener, but sometimes I think I can be better.  Listening will be something I will focus on when I student teach.  I want to be better at understanding what students need and giving them a chance to explain.  I want to listen so I can learn as much from them as I want them to learn from me.