Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What is Quality (in a Blog Post or Comment)?

Our 5th graders took part in the Student Blogging Challenge this fall. This was a positive way to kick off our blog-folios; it gave students plenty of choice within a structure, as well as providing motivation to comment and be commented upon. Students were also to be assigned a teacher-mentor to comment on their blog regularly. All good, right? Well... sort of...

As is often the case, good intentions and good ideas for teaching/learning don't always result in high quality work.
I observed:
•teacher-mentors (and other adult commenters) whose comments did not model quality in either content or form
•in my role as a teacher-mentor, I visited blogs that had only one or two, poorly-written posts and then seemed to have been abandoned by the student-blogger (which to me says there was no follow through by a teacher or adult mentor/guide who most likely started the "project"
with their students)

I've also observed what I judge to be excellent, thoughtful, high-quality posting and commenting in a developmentally appropriate student voice. I am completely sold on student blog-folio-ing as a practice for many reasons (which I hope to outline in detail in another blog post), but the question is how to identify and inspire excellence.

Blogging is not a "one-off." It's not a worksheet. It's not an assignment. Blogging is a process- one that involves both reading and writing. By definition, a process is a series of actions, changes or functions to achieve a goal or result. If the goal is to run a marathon, would one day of running around the block qualify?Why then do teachers set up student blogs and assign a writing prompt or two- and then abandon the whole thing for other "assignments?" Blogging is game-changing precisely because it is a long-term practice- a blog is a platform for sharing in a variety of formats and can be a chronicle of student development. I'm going to go so far as to say that a non-blogging teacher can not possibly do justice to student blogging. I believe that you can not teach what you do not practice yourself.

And that is just the introduction! The impetus for this post is a meme started by Silvia Tolisano asking teachers to identify quality blog posts and comments. Silvia is working on an incredible series of posts for teachers that breaks down and explains the entire process of blogging. Called "Stepping it Up- Learning About Blogs FOR Your Students" this is a MUST-read for any teacher even remotely interested in student blogging.

In part VII of the series, she tackles the elusive issue of quality- identifying it and evaluating it. As part of that post, Silvia provides multiple examples of student posts and comments with a breakdown of what she feels exemplifies quality and what could be improved. The meme was created to challenge other teachers to do the same:

In order to gather more audit samples from a large variety of age groups and authors, I challenge you to publish a blog post with a post or comment audit.

1. Select a blog post or blog comment to audit (Professional or Student)

2. Take a screenshot or copy and past the post or comment into your blog post (be sensitive whether you want to reveal any names or references)

3. Include or link to the rubric you use to assess the quality of post or comment

4. Audit the post or comment by describing your train of thought regarding the level of quality you would assess your chosen post or comment

5. Suggest how you would coach the author of audited post or comment to improve

6. Tag (at least) three educators and challenge them to audit a post or comment

7. Leave a comment with the link to your audit post on Langwitches

Kathleen Morris has very quickly responded to the meme with a superb audit of student comments.

For my own participation in the meme, I must begin with an admission-- I don't currently use a formal tool for assessment. I have used a number of strategies in the attempt to teach students how to recognize and produce high-quality writing. A rubric is a good idea and one I will explore with my co-teachers.
One other thing that I find so valuable about engaging in this process is that it helps give me a barometer of what I can reasonably expect from a student of a particular age. Of course, all students are on their own path of development. That's another piece of the beauty of blogging- by it's nature it documents the growth of the individual in comparison only to him or herself. However, I've noticed that it's very useful for me to have "touchstones" (especially since I work with students of all grade levels. I think I sometimes tend to expect too much from my own students. When I view their work in the light of a larger sample, I am often very pleasantly surprised at how well they are actually doing :-)

This post was written by a 5th grader in response to the student blogging challenge prompt of "favorites." What I like best about this post is the introduction, where the writer explores the whole idea of what "favorites" are. That intro drew me in and made me interested in what else the writer had to say. I also appreciated that she didn't just list her favorites, but included a bit of additional info telling why she likes the things she likes. I felt that she made an attempt to tie her ideas together with the conclusion, by revisiting ideas from the introduction. Overall, I felt that this was a fairly cohesive piece of writing- with a beginning, middle and end.

There are several ways I could see to coach this writer-
•End sentences with proper punctuation (What are your favorite things?)
•Consider not starting a sentence with "like."
•I see that this student needs some instruction on when to use a comma.
•There is a mistake with matching a singular noun (animal) with a plural (mosquitoes). Those types of grammatical mistakes can often be "heard" by students if you ask them to read the sentence out loud and listen for what doesn't sound right.
•"I will tell you some of my favorite things...." -I could ask the student if she thinks this line is really necessary.
• Overuse of "smart and cool"- what are some synonyms for these words? What is she really trying to describe with use of the word "cool?"

I'm going to stop my audit here. However, this has been a valuable activity, and I thank you, Silvia, for tagging me. It is enlightening to take the the time to bring internal processes (that I have in my head after so many years of teaching) out into the open and think more deeply about them.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Making Shift Happen- HOW?

It's interesting how things sometimes appear at just the right moment. Grappling with feelings of frustration can be productive. It can prepare the soil of the mind for new seeds to take root and begin to grow. I have been struggling with what sometimes feels like a growing chasm, wondering how to bridge the gap. I am lucky to work in a supportive environment. I have like-mindedpeople to talk to, as well as people to challenge my ideas. When I take time to stop and look back, I see progress. But the road ahead sometimes appears riddled with obstacles and mountains to climb. My expectations, for myself and others, are high and time is of the essence.

I have moved into the role of instructional coach, but the organizational culture that exists doesn't naturally support this role. Not only do I have to learn how to fulfill the responsibilities, I have to figure out how to "sell my services" to those who might use them. I find that, as part of forging a new path, I am often working without a roadmap. So I adapt to what I think is needed or I do what people seem to want. I often find myself falling back into old, familiar roles.

Today, our head of school returned from a conference energized with new ideas about leadership and team-building. He talked excitedly about the need to transform culture. He stated the bold fact that we can't keep calling our team "21st century learning"- that it is, plain and simple, "learning." Changing school culture is complex; it can't be done by just one person, and will not happen in a quick, linear process. But it can and will happen we keep the vision at the forefront of our minds.

"Probably the most important--and most difficult--job of an instructional leader is to change the prevailing culture of a school...A school's culture is a complex pattern of norms, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, values, ceremonies, traditions and myths that are deeply ingrained in the very core of the organization." - from "The Culture Builder" by Roland S. Barth

From that same article was this E.B. White quote:

"A person must have something to cling to. Without that we are as a pea vine sprawling of a trellis."

What I have been seeking-- something external to support the growth of our school and to use as a roadmap formyself--is a structure to cling to.

Some structures are part of the problem- those that are outdated or restrictive, that don't support the vision for a reflective and collaborative culture. It seems important to commit once you've decided on a particular approach so that the structure can become embedded. However, it's also important, in a reflective learning environment, to be free to adapt or abandon what seems not to be working. How do we know when the structure itself needs more time or when to jump ship and change directions? Finally, the structure can't be so difficult or time-consuming to implement that it becomes the focus of the work.

At this point, I am collecting ideas and tools. One thing I have found that I think holds great potential for our school is this rubric, "Evidence of Learning in the 21st Century Classroom,"which I think, once adapted, can be used as a tool for goal-setting and self-evaluation. Is this a viable structure? What can school leadership to to make this structure work? (One thing I have already done is to post the rubric on our faculty Ning and ask for input from everyone as far as re-writing/adapting to make relevant for our school).

Why the need for an external structure? I think the right structures or systems may serve the following goals:
-model and support
-define priorities
-make values and vision explicit
-data collection
-build a common vocabulary
What else? What am I missing?

Are tools structures?
Can tool implementation support growth? I think the answer to that is yes (sometimes and it depends on the tool and the way it is implemented). School wide implementation of Wordpress MU and Google Apps for Education has created an infrastructure that allows us to do many of the things we want to do.

Can changing structures shift culture?
I ask this because I wonder, not because I think I know. I'm curious. If we only have so much time and we spend that time doing certain things because we've always done them, can changing the way that time is used be part of the process of shift?
One example that comes to mind is the process of having teachers turn in lesson plans. This is a common structure that exists in many, many schools. How does this support the school's vision of learning? Is is a meaningful activity or a hoop to jump through? Would teachers still plan lessons if not for this requirement? What is the follow-up? Are teachers given meaningful feedback on the work? Are they offered alternative ways to reflect upon or share their lessons? I wonder how many principals engage, without much thought, in this process of collecting lesson plans simply because the structure is so embedded in the life of the school and the idea of what the job of principal or instructional leader includes. If we would like teachers to think critically about the things they do in the classroom, we have to model this by questioning how things are done and asking if there is a better way.

What structures do teachers use in their classrooms to support the growth of their students? Can those be modified or adapted for use in professional development settings? What structures do other schools use, and more importantly, what structures work well? What old and well-worn structures are choking educational reform and absolutely must be abolished?

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurenipsum/2687279551/