I’m Staking my Digital Footprint Claim…

After research, questions to my PLN on Twitter and more; I decided it was better to take the plunge and self-host sooner rather than later.  While my new website is still under construction, you can find all my old posts there and new posts soon too.

Where?

Here…

http://www.vanessaalander.com/

Hope to “see” you there!

~~Vanessa

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Syllabus Redesign (Eighth Version)

I swear, it will be the death of me.

Just when I say, that’s it.  I’m done.  Fall 2011 syllabus can be uploaded to the blog.  I have a new brainstorm or I read an article online, or I participate in #engchat or #FYCchat and my entire thought-process is demolished (in a good way).  With three weeks to go to the start of the semester, I know I need to just fine-tune and polish them and call them good.  I always deviate from them anyways.

Here are a few of my most recent struggles with syllabus course revision:

1.  The Balance between Reading and Writing

My First Year Composition course has a lot of writing.  I know that.  My students know that.  At first, they are overwhelmed, then it just becomes second nature.  Every semester, my evaluations state that the level and amount of writing is what helped them to become better writers (the overall purpose of this course).  Last term, I realized that we only discussed reading 10-15% of the time.  The rest was dedicated to writing.  I firmly believe that to write well, you must read well.  With this in mind, I have assigned a reader for this semester as a tester.  Ideally, I’d like to try a thematic approach and have readings all within that theme.  Perhaps in the Spring (as I just thought of this over the last week and three weeks is not enough time to pull it all together).

2.  Role of Technology

Students today must be able to not only navigate the online world, they must be comfortable claiming their own and leaving their digital footprint behind (and no, not those weekend party pictures on Facebook do not count).  With this in mind, my students this year will be using a blog (platform their choice) for reflective writings about their learning as well as a platform to share their writing with the world and each other.  This semester, my courses are also paperless.  I will restrict the papers I handout out (none planned at the moment, except for a QR business card) and students will not be handing in hard copies.  I will be using JotForm uploaded from our class blog.  The files is saved into my Dropbox and then I will annotate and provide narrative feedback on the iPad2 and email the PDF back to the student.  Toting around 70 student essays of 7-10 pages was a bit crazy.

From the #FYCchat Twitter chat on August 3rd, I was happily encouraged to see another professor using Twitter in her course.  I like this idea and plan on using it as well.  I will create a hash-tag for each course and students will be able to reach out to me and others.  In addition, students will have to tweet in questions for our reading discussions using the hash-tag that I can then pull up in class so we can guide our discussions.  I’m excited for this.

3.  Writing Assignments

While I have the big assignments that stay the same in theory from semester to semester, I am constantly adding new frames around them or redirecting their focus.  My research paper is a prime example of this.  When I first started teaching it, I used the standard I-Search format (hybrid of the 3-Search paper).  My second semester, I moved it to a Multi-Genre Research Project (MGRP).  I was okay with the student products, but still, not quite what I had imagined.  My third semester, I combined my argument paper with the MGRP.  The results were better, but it was still missing something.  This year, my fourth semester, students will be creating the MGRP digitally.  This will be a great first step to the online collection of work that is due at the end of the semester that they will be using to help validate their grades for the term.  I think this evolution make logical sense for me.  I just wonder what the students will think.  Will this next step in the MGRP-Digital be too much?

4.  Assessment/Grading

I have struggled with this aspect of teaching the most (and I’ve only been teaching for two years!)  I started with points–2,260 points a student could accrue during the course of the semester.  This was ghastly and placing a grade on a paper and then converting it to points… I’m a writing instructor.  Math is not my forte.  I spent most of my grading time on calculations.  Even then, grades were “adjusted.”  After that, I moved to a percentage-based system.  Still, most of my time was spent on an Excel spreadsheet calculating percentages instead of points.  This semester… I am tossing grades out the proverbial window.  Students will grade themselves on criteria that we establish in class: together.  And I am relieved.  Off all my revisions, additions and subtractions to my syllabus I feel the most confident with this change.  Yes, I know students will be ambivalent and unsure of what to expect.  I know, that after the are knee-deep in it, once they experience the freedom of writing and learning without the competitive grades; they will excel.

Now… to tackle my”Outsiders in Literature” course syllabus.  I still have three weeks.. plenty of time… (I hope…)

Grades are a Crutch

Living in Northern New Hampshire, I often feel as though my teaching philosophy leaves me stranded on an island.

I am the only educator I know that uses an iPad to teach.  I am the only educator I know locally that not only believes that grades are punitive and as such am abolishing grades.  I am also the only educator I know that will not be using traditional 3-5 question “reading checks” in my literature course.

In my twitter PLN and conversations I’ve been having with a few people in my PLN (Mark Barnes and Joe Bower) they have helped to guide me that this way of thinking is what’s not only right for me, but right for my students.

My History with Grading

The way my courses are structured are that at least three (3) drafts of each larger paper is created, discussed, revised, edited.  I have 70+ students,  and six larger papers a semester for each student.  Along with these larger papers, my students have weekly writings.  My first semester of teaching, i quickly discovered that the traditional grading scheme was not going to work for me and my students.  I had too many arguments with myself over just what to assign for a grade.  I spent more time over the letter grade than I did reading and writing narrative feedback.  I did this for the first year.

The second year of teaching, I did away with points, percentages and just graded the “final” product.  My dissonance with grading still existed, now it was just more focused.  I hated grading.  Hated placing a B or C on a paper and watching students flip past comments for the grade, look at it and shove their paper in their bags.  It felt as if all my hard work, effort and struggle was negated by that silly letter at the end.

How can I change the motivation of the students?

I don’t think students should “earn” a grade.  I don’t believe grades should be used, as they are often done, TO students without their input.  Grades are punitive and fester competition.  If students are competing with each other, their parents and the system, then when does that leave time for actual learning?  When I take the competitive nature out of the classroom by removing the grades I also take away the external motivation of the students. I no longer am saying to them, complete all areas of this checklist/rubric/etc., tally them up and there is your grade.  Grades are no longer done “to” them.

The motivation is now intrinsic.  I ask my students, “What would you do with more time?” and then give it to them.  This switch in approach triggers the students to want to make their writing better.   This leads to more collaboration between students and teacher and more student ownership.  This student ownership also fosters the change in motivation from outward to intrinsic.

Don’t we all want our students to want to do better because they know they can without being motivated by grades?

Think of how we are “graded” in real world.  Through narrative feedback and conversation with our bosses and peers.  The bank manager doesn’t give their tellers a “C”, why should we in education? Authentic and meaningful feedback is the prefered method of grading post schooling, why not match it in school?

I like to state that education today uses the act of grading as a crutch.  

Teachers, school districts and even the Federal Government assign grades because it looks nice and neat.  Oh, this school is a C school, this one fails.  Teachers manipulate grades in an effort to extort some power and control.  We hear teachers talk about not being able to “do” that activity as their students would go crazy.  The teachers are afraid to lose control or better yet, to transfer that control to the students.  Teachers who stress upon “classroom management” and expect students to sit in the desks, listen attentively and absorb all the education the teachers are pouring into the brains are often frustrated with the structure of school (even though many may not see anything inherently wrong with it).  Teachers rely on the act of grading as their last push for ultimate control of their class.  Hardly ever are students allowed any feedback for the grades they receive or are they allowed to offer their own feedback into what they feel their grades should be.

Losing the Crutch

I have looked at my grading scheme that I thought I had settled on a mere month ago; however, after attending #RSCON3 I am ready (and more than willing) to relinquish full control of my class.  I will not be assigning grades to my students come this fall.  Students will be grading themselves (I predict that they will be harder than I would have been anyways).  My plan to implement this is as follows:

  1. Discuss with students on Day 1 my expectations and what I want them to learn for the course.
  2. Create the courses essential questions together.
  3. Brainstorm a list of ways throughout the semester and with our books on how we can demonstrate not only learning, but mastery too.
  4. Sign students up for days when they lead the classroom discussion.
  5. Conference with the students at least every 2-3 weeks (or as needed) on their progress.
  6. Offer narrative feedback on all assignments and stay away from empty praise.  Note what works, what intrigued me, and question students next steps with the piece.
  7. Sit with the students and watch their work come rolling in.
Okay with Living on an Island…For Now…
I will not mind being an educational island of one come this fall.  I have my PLN that will support me.  I am looking forward to finally being able to teach without the crutch that has slowed me down for the last two years.  I am already imagining what I could do without the stress and the time of grading.
My hope is that one by one I can start to show my fellow educators that they are relying on a crutch while teaching and hope that they can then lose it.  One at a time.

We Need A Trust Revolution

In the chat box of one of the multitude of sessions at  the Reform Symposium 3  (#RSCON3) a participant posted that we needed a teacher revolution.

I would like to refute that.

I say we don’t need a teacher or learning revolution; we need to take it a step further.

We need a trust revolution.

We need students to trust teachers, teachers to trust students, administrators to trust their teachers, parents to trust their schools, the United States Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan to trust schools.  Congressman, laypeople, professionals need to trust teachers.

We need to build that trust back.  Schools and teachers once had that trust.  I’m not sure where we lost it. No Child Left Behind and ESEA?  Race to the Top?  Standardized testing?  Further back?  I’m not sure…

So many of the sessions I attended during #RSCON3 were centered around trust.  The fantastic opening keynote with Timo Ilomäki and Aki Puustinen regarding the Finnish Educational system where their entire system is built upon the foundation of trust.  Teachers trusted students to put in the effort to work and learn. Students trusted that their teachers were not  placating them with busy work.  The students works and projects held intense meaning for the students.  The entire country trusts teachers.  They focus on education.  It’s a top priority.  Finland makes education the focal point.

It is nearly impossible to have  education be a focal point of a nation, when  you don’t have trust present.

Everyone who is involved in overseeing, regulating, mandating, assessing, evaluating, reforming, teaching and learning in an education needs to breathe and take a step back.

If we can’t trust the Secretary of Education to know what is truly in the best interests of education (and it’s not standardized testing linked to teacher effectiveness and school funding).  If we can’t trust our administrators to look beyond those same test results and at the learning (or the lack of learning).  If students can’t trust their teachers to provide them with opportunities for ownership in their learning; for opportunities for deeper learning that is personal and will stick with student far beyond the test and school year.  If teachers can’t trust their students to take the risks that will allow students to step outside of their boxes; outside of their comfort zones of worksheets and multiple choice tests.

Then we know how and why today’s educational system is broken.

This is why we are now in a educational system where education is now a competition and me, doing my best as a student is now compared with someone elses best.  Yet, our interests are diverse, our backgrounds are diverse, our starting points are diverse, our endings too will be diverse.

We have placed our trust in the educational system with scaled scores of one student that are normed against other students.  How is that trust?

You’re trusting a machine and bubbles.  You’re trusting the fact that students had breakfast the day of the test and restful sleep the night before.  You’re trusting that the student wasn’t up all night because of hunger pains or listening to their parents fighting.  You’re trusting the fact that they followed the directions, that they understood the directions.  That they understood what the questions were asking of them.  That they filled in the correct bubble for the corresponding question.  You’re trusting that their handwriting is legible and neat.  You’re trusting machines over people.  You’re trusting an evaluative tool that is a mere snapshot in time.  That is just the tiniest pixel of the smallest section in the whole picture of a students knowledge.

Instead of trusting teachers that know their students.  Teachers can help push the student  beyond test scores.  Teachers can guide the students to explore themselves, their families, their communities the world.

If only given the trust that teachers need to do their job to the best of their ability.

During #RSCON3 this past weekend, THOUSANDS of teachers marched on Washington DC and marched all over the country to stand up for education at the #SOSMarch.  One the the key speakers was actor Matt Damon.  Yes, Boston-Boy, Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon.  Of all the presenters and speakers, Damon’s speech struck a lot of nerves for those in attendance and around the country.  Reading his speech and listening to it, I realized, he might not have used the word trust, but he too was call for a Trust Revolution.

 My teachers were EMPOWERED to teach me. Their time wasn’t taken up with a bunch of test prep— this silly drill and kill nonsense that any serious person knows doesn’t promote real learning. No, my teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.

~~Matt Damon, #SOSMarch, July30, 2011