Life as I know it

My husband gets a kick out of me.
I'm glad he still finds my quirks funny and not annoying.
The problem is that I love talking about how we learn, which, of course, involves how we teach. Whether it's a Tweet from The Washington Post about homework

Kids, Parents and Teachers Disagree on How Much Homework Is Too Much –

Researcher Cooper says studies show that up until fifth grade, homework should be very limited. Kids in middle school shouldn't be spending more than 90 minutes a night on homework. In high school, the limit is two hours, Cooper says.

or a link via a colleague about an open, free online international university, I immediately click, read, and start chatting with him.

"How much homework did you have in fourth grade?" I ask.
"I don't remember," he says.
"WELL, this says we should limit high schools students to two hours," I say, mulling over how much I assign, whether our students really have two hours of homework a night, and how we know whether our homework assignments truly help students learn.

Suddenly, I'm wondering if learning is possible without homework, or if our new schedule means they have less. Then I flip my brain to Alfie Kohn, or John Medina, or Carol Sweck, remembering what I've read recently about brain research and learning.
The other night I kept him at the table arguing about Shirky's book, telling him that the ease of collaboration and sharing had changed the way many people view institutions, authority, and structure. I shared this from a recent post on The Chronicle Review:

Wake Up and Smell the New Epistemology

One of my students put it this way: "It is imperative that someone studying this generation realize that we have the world at our fingertips — and the world has been at our fingertips for our entire lives. I think this access to information seriously undermines this generation's view of authority, especially traditional scholastic authority." Today's students know full well that authorities can be found for every position and any knowledge claim, and consequently the students are dubious (privately, that is) about anything we claim to be true or important.

Contrast that with 50 years ago, when students would arrive in awe of the institution and its faculty.

He just sat there and smiled.

He's not there yet, but he lets me go on and on.
My RSS reader has more than 300 blogs, feeds from four major news organizations, various shared items,and feeds from my students' blogs and wikis.
Google Reader (892)

Sigh. No wonder I can't sleep.
I find it all fascinating, and the more I read, the more I think. People wonder how I have the time to keep up with all this, but I tell them it's what I do. I don't like to cook or garden, paint or watch television. I do run and workout everyday, but… learning about learning is what I enjoy.
So, on our first snow day of the year, I look forward to catching up with this and this today. I will also create a screencast about wikispaces for our teachers. There are also several podcasts I haven't had a chance to listen to yet.
Someone once said to me, "Get a life."
My response? Thank you. I like my life just fine!

How much are they getting……..

When I was in middle and high school, I read books. Oh, some I read more carefully than others. But I read.
By the time I was in college, I discovered CliffsNotes. If memory serves, I didn't use them frequently; I don't think they existed for most of my assignments. I was a strong reader, and English was one of my favorite subjects. (Had they existed for math as they do now, I would have been all over them!)

By the time I started teaching, I realized that many of my students thought they didn't really need to read; the word was CliffsNotes were substituted whenever possible. We tried establishing department policies, stating Cliff's Notes or other summary/supplementary materials were not allowed. However, their use was difficult to track.

Still, kids had to get to a bookstore and then find the appropriate title (assuming it wasn't sold out), so I consoled myself, thinking at least SOME of them were actually reading and developing the deeper understanding I was after.

These days online and with our 1:1 laptop program, no barriers exist. And it's not just Cliff's stuff. Don't get All Quiet on the Western Front? Need an essay idea for Fahrenheit 451? Trying to find some quotes to analyze the theme in The Scarlet Letter?

It's all a few clicks away.

So what's a teacher to do? A friend of mine believes we need to use the substitute to show the value of the real thing:

If, as teachers, we think readers really are missing
something important when they substitute scanning the notes for reading
the book, shouldn't we consider teaching in ways that attempt to make
good on that claim?

He suggests:

…make the SparkNotes summaries assigned reading and assumed as a or the
source for basic information students are responsible to know

And then this powerful idea:

When papers are assigned, make it a preliminary assignment for them to
find and select an online paper  – and give it a grade, along with a
comment explaining why they believe the paper they selected to be an A,
B, C or whatever paper.

Finally, he offers this:

Read passages in class with them, framing in-class reading and
discussion in ways that invite each of them to hear how uniquely
reading intrudes on their separate intelligences — and how pointless
substituting another's reading (including and especially their
teachers') for their own is…

I love his optimism that students who ARE reading won't accept the feeble substitute, and students who aren't YET reading, may use this for greater understanding and as a step toward finally reading on their own.

The idea of evaluating these online essays, too, takes the problem (a glut of ready-made essays) and makes it part of the process of learning: students must assess the quality, both in form and content, as they then write their own.

I am approaching our study of Antigone following his suggestions. We scanned Shmoop together, looking for key ideas and character descriptions. But we are reading the play aloud, pausing to let Creon's tone echo in the room, or Antigone's anger show us how a moral dilemma today is not so different.

One other technique I will "borrow" is from Academic Commons, a site I have recently discovered devoted to the sharing of ideas focused on liberal arts education. Sharona Levy, from Brooklyn College, writes in "Reading the Reader":

Reading is the active construction of meaning. Because there is no
inherent meaning in the words or marks themselves, meaning can only
arise at the nexus of what the reader brings to the text, the text, and
the situation within which the text is placed.

Critical Inquiry trains students “to regard reading as an activity that
requires multiple drafts in much the same way that they are trained to
write multiple drafts of an essay.” Critical Inquiry encourages
students to become active participants responsible for their own
learning. They ask questions, not answer them. By centering the class
on their experiences of the text, the underlying premise is that they
belong in the academy, not outside of it.

Her explanation of using digital tools to gain an understanding of the text and the visual examples on the site have inspired me to try this with the play. We will copy the online translation we are using into MS Word and use the commenting feature to ask key questions.

Levy ends her piece with this: "The reason I teach my students the importance of annotating and
questioning the text is because it is the only way for them to meet the
author on a level playing field and make the text their own."

I'm looking forward to seeing what my students do with this.

But is it working?

Six of us, all members of the Powerful Learning Practice, have been discussing our teaching shifts and pondering these thoughts all year:

  • how do we know these 21st Century skills of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, information literacy, and digital citizenship (borrowed liberally from here and here) are key for students' success? success at what? are they skills? how do we assess any of this?
  • what are our goals?
  • how do they affect our current teaching practices?
  • where does technology fit into all of this?

Often the conversations we spin in, around, and through each others PLN's make me dizzy. Sometimes, though, we don't talk, we act.
And when I see a group of teachers learning, sharing, creating, and living the conversations, I feel content.

Today, for example, I watched FA Blogs grow! I noticed that Carey's 8th grade classes were adding their blogs today, getting ready to reflect on what they were learning in French class. Then Jennifer opted to jump in with another, putting our creative writing magazine online. Before long, both Carey and Susanne had commented on her new blog.
I was busy teaching, but when I finished, I checked Twitter to see that they had managed to figure out all the details themselves.
A former student, studying at Georgia Tech, even chimed in to comment on the design.




Jennifer is also blogging with her seniors, though we haven't moved them to FA Blogs yet. However, as I was working on the admin side of WPMU today, I noticed another blog.
"Who is that?" I wondered…..
One of our math teachers has decided to read and blog along with Jennifer's students this semester, so she is putting her thoughts out there. Wow. I'm speechless.
Our math teacher, writing with our English students. Sharing, learning, reflecting.
Sigh. Happy sigh. Yes, it's working.

Why we teach…

Life has been crazy lately.
We jumped back into reading and writing on Monday, I had a class Tuesday night, and today I helped a teacher with a video after school and then raced home to participate in two Elluminate online discussions with people from the Powerful Learning Practice. The online chats ended a little after 6, and then it was time for dinner and work on the yearbook.
Feeling just a little tired, I was having one of those, "Is this really worth it moments…"
Then I opened an email that made me smile.  This young woman, a student in my ninth-grade English class, will be the Head Page during this year's General Assembly, missing many weeks of class. To keep her connected, we are putting much of her work online, and we'll Skype her in when we can.
Her advisor suggested she might want to blog about her experiences.
Yes, great idea!
Since we are in the process of setting up our blogging platform, this seemed a perfect way to test it.
I gave M. a blog yesterday, and she has already replaced the header, posted, and received three comments. Tonight, she sent me this email (and I asked if I could share it here):

parents haven’t heard the end of the “world of blogging.” They
still don’t get it…. “So you’re saying that if I know
something special about gardening, I can write about…but why would I want
to just write down what I know…how does it help me?” I guess they
really are from a different generation.
I am completely enthralled with every bit of it. It seems now that I am aware,
blogging’s everywhere—tv, newspapers, online… One of my
favorite sections of the Free Lance Star, today, (the it! section-comes every Thursday)
and there’s an entire spread dedicated to the ‘blogosphere’
and neat blogs to check out. I can’t stop looking through all the neat
blogs! I’ll bring it in tomorrow, in case you don’t get a chance to
look at it.

fellow blogger,


read your entry about the ‘first day back’ to school. The last line
is SO powerful, and TRUE! I guess if I were a true blogger, I would have
commented this…I’ll get the hang of it, eventually!

I am delighted she is discovering the joys of connecting, reading, and writing. That she cared enough to share her thoughts with me makes it even better.

Yes, indeed, M. A fellow blogger.
I love the sound of that.