About Me

After 23 years as a high school social studies teacher, I have taken a leap into library media.
This blog chronicles my experiences making this transition and my learning in that process.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Big Takeaways on Personalizing Instruction through Use of Technology

As the year comes to an end, I am reflecting on how I worked to personalize instruction through the use of
Photo taken while visiting colleges
with my daughter
technology as an instructional tool.

Technology for Demonstration of Mastery:
In working with an English teacher on her op-ed unit for her sophomore classes we discussed and planned ways for students to select topics that are meaningful and interesting to them. This unit is key for enabling each student to focus on a personal topic of interest or concern. Furthermore, we planned for digital writing, informed by Troy Hicks' book, Crafting Digital Writing, so that students would be creating for an audience beyond the teacher and include multimedia extensions of the their writing to expand the discussion of the issue they selected.

Technology and Media Information Influences:
With another member of the English department, we planned a unit that focused on student exposure to media and advertising through various outlets -- print and digital. We guided the students to choose an aspect of their lives and American society and examine the influence that media has on it. This unit enabled students to practice their research skills and apply them to an aspect of their own lives particularly influenced by technology and digital media. Together we watched and discussed advertisements for the products of companies like Apple and analyzed how those ads changed over decades in response to current events, societal concerns, and target audiences.

Technology Tools for Feedback and Formative Assessment:
For all classes, whether they were working on the junior research paper or other research-based projects, we streamlined the feedback loop for the steps of the research process. When students were brainstorming topic ideas, they submitted these ideas and the reason why those topics were interesting to a Google Form. This allowed me to review their ideas, use the Google Sheet that held the Form responses to provide feedback, and pose questions to help the students refine their topic selection when I visited class. The classroom teachers also began adding their feedback to the Google Sheet when they realized the utility of the sheet for tracking feedback and the students' revised thinking. The next step was for the students to add a draft of their research questions to the Sheet so I could provide feedback on their question development. Entries into the sheet were followed by a class session where I co-taught with the classroom teacher. Working one-on-one with students in class helped to ensure that students were choosing fruitful and manageable topics. As the research projects evolved, I joined the classes for multiple days dedicated to source location and provided instruction on citations and works cited. We developed a research journal as a Google Doc to help students organize their sources, notes, questions, citations, and thinking about their topic. These journals were excellent formative assessment opportunities for the classroom teacher and I to give students feedback on the depth of their questions and sources, gaps in their thinking or understanding, and next steps in the process.

Tech Tools for Conveying Information:
Second semester we built a rich MLA 8 citation website. After our first semester frustrations with Noodle Tools and EasyBib, we agreed that students would be better served by learning to build their citations from scratch. Doing so pushes them to thoroughly examine the scope and quality of their sources of information and become savvier consumers of information. Teachers in the Social Studies and English departments value accurate citation protocols and several of them supported our initiative by granting us class time to work one-on-one with students and recognized the value of the students' increased access to educator (librarian and content teacher) support and feedback in class. 

The Google Site includes a slideshow that steps students through the citation building process, an infographic illustrating the nine elements of an MLA 8 citation, a video showing how to create a hanging indent, copious models of works cited pages and citations, and a form for receiving librarian feedback on works cited and warnings about most common student errors. This site continues to be a work in progress as we refine the resources and streamline individualized student feedback.

Our Google Form for submitting final works cited for feedback before submitting the product of their research to their classroom teacher gave us insight into the most common errors that students were making so we could supplement the resources in the MLA 8 Citation Google Site that we created during second semester. The data we collected showed a dramatic difference in the quality of works cited being submitted by students who had received library instruction as opposed to those who worked only with their classroom teacher. The average score out of 5 for students receiving library instruction was a 3.34; those who did not receive this instruction scored an average of 2.33.


The Value of the (Virtual) Library:
My use of forms to collect individualized information from students on their stages in the research process and provide feedback combined with one-on-one in-class instruction and the library texting service were key elements differentiating library instruction. Teachers benefited by having me provide feedback to their students throughout the research process which essentially means I shared their grading load. Students benefited by having increased access to educator support and copious feedback to help them refine their work. At a time when districts are eliminating library media specialists and our profession is being maligned, my first year in this role is evidence of how vital information literacy skills are and necessary a library media specialist is to this skill development.

Supplement: Anonymous Feedback from Our Colleagues:
Thank you for all of your help with the research process. Having never taught this before, I would have been lost without your help! I greatly appreciate every lesson and helping hand you gave to me and my students during this process. Additionally, you both have such a knowledge of a range of books, and it helped open the variety of books I could offer for book groups!
 Additionally, you both have such a knowledge of a range of books, and it helped open the variety of books I could offer for book groups!
Library services are crucial to the mission of the social studies department. I would love it if there were quizzes for the most frequently used videos so that we can ensure students understand and access the information.
The opportunity to work together with library staff is invaluable to my teaching
I believe the Media specialists are all knowledgeable and collaborate with both each other and the teachers. It has been a pleasure working with them this year.
It was a great unit -- I appreciated the support and the help on this inquiry based learning!
The planning stage went very smoothly as my library/media collaborator was attuned to my specific goals and even to my work style. The lesson she planned was focused directly on the needs of my particular students at that particular stage of our unit.
With the failing implementation of MLA8 by easybib, working with the librarians on building a citation from scratch was important.
The question generator was awesome Help with MLA 8 citations was absolutely excellent! Teacher and students ALL benefited immensely from the face-to-face interactions with incredibly knowledgeable librarians.
There are so many skills students need to learn to be effective researchers that it is easy for them to be overwhelmed. By presenting kids with tools they can use to ensure the validity of their sources, the collaboration allowed me to focus my instruction on the reading skills necessary to master the research essay task.
having librarians in the class room during the start of the jr research project, assisting with research question tweaking and thesis development was incredibly helpful
I found it effective to have multiple perspectives on research questions, thesis statements and citations.
I like the op-ed format to create a dialogue in writing.
Yes, we chose new texts for the speech unit, which were excellent!!! And your help on MLA 8 with both the freshman speeches and the junior research paper were invaluable!
Keep listening to individual teachers and customizing your presentation so it dovetails with the individual teacher's experience and eccentricities.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Overcoming Impediments to Student Close Reading

I was talking with a colleague whose students are engaged in a lengthy research project inspired by Jared Diamond's Collapse. Inspired by this mentor text, students research, create infographics, present to their peers and write about the health and future prospects of our civilization. The problem my colleague was lamenting was that students were, at best, skimming the mentor text. At worst, they were randomly choosing excerpts to share before jumping ahead to the creation portions of the project. Needless to say, without a close reading of Diamond, the final presentations will be superficial and generic. So, my colleague's question was two-fold: 1) why aren't they reading? 2) how can I get them to read?

Here are my recommendations on students and close reading.

For this project in particular I suggested a re-structuring of the student groupings and tasks. As the project is designed now, students work in pairs with each pair presenting the reading about one of twelve different societies. Instead, I suggested, focus only on six civilizations and have four students assigned to a society with two of them responsible for presenting the reading about that society to the class and the other two responsible for critiquing the presentation based on their reading of the same text. They can do this in a fishbowl so the rest of the class is learning the content and how to be critical friends.

Furthermore, I surmised that one reason students weren't reading was because they were given, all at once, the entire scope of the exercise from the initial reading assignment to the final stage that was still weeks away. Students were jumping to the product and skipping the process because they needed more scaffolding. I suggested putting them in groups and giving them the reading assignment as a discrete exercise. Keep their focus in the moment.

Even if the assignment was scaffolded, Diamond's texts have a lexile measure of about 1400. Students need specific support to unpack the text. To that end, I had other suggestions:

Students could keep a dialectical (double-entry) notebook while reading. There are lots of models of these notebooks. Some are basic and have one column designated for student summary of an aspect of the text and the other for student questions based on those summaries. Others give different column headings like "Point of View" or "Comparison" which prompt students to think critically and analytically about what they are reading.

In non-fiction lit circles, students are assigned a focus while reading. They then meet in small groups to share the conclusions they reached given their individual focus and discuss the importance of the reading evidence and insights. Reading roles can be adapted to different texts and types of media. Here are some suggested ones:

  • Questioner: what would you ask the people in the passage if you could? Why?
  • Connector: of what are you reminded when you read this passage? (book, movie, tv, current event…) Why?
  • Wonderer: what do you want to know about this situation? Why?
  • Predictor: what do you think the outcome of the conflict will be? Explain.
  • Passage Picker: select the passage you think is key to understanding the text. Explain its importance.
Partner annotations is one of my favorite tools when a text can be shared digitally. For example, in a Google Doc, two students can share a text and annotate it by inserting comments. When a student highlights a portion of the text s/he thinks is important s/he can add a comment about why it is important, questions it raises, connections to other issues, etc. Paired students can respond to each other's annotations thereby carrying on a dialogue about the text in the margins.

Some of these strategies can be combined to further enhance student close reading. Consider asking students to keep a dialectical notebook using the reading roles as column headings and then bring that notebook to share in a lit circle discussion!

Happy reading!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Teaching students to understand bias

Students frequently ask: can you help me find a source that's not biased? When they ask that question we know what they mean, what it shows us the students need to learn is that 1) there are degrees of bias and 2) everyone has bias, so 3) there is no such thing as unbiased. Instead, we need to teach students to recognize what a text creator's bias is and how or whether that bias negates the usefulness of that source for the student's purpose.

Today we worked with a class of grade 11 students doing research for an in-depth research paper. The focus of the class unit is on the relationship between socioeconomic status and educational experience so this topic will frame the research questions the students are seeking to answer. To facilitate the students' resource selection and understanding of the impact of bias on source credibility we worked with the class unpacking an editorial from the "Room for Debate" section of the New York Times in response to the question: "Is School Reform Hopeless?"

We scaffolded this exercise to help students begin to understand their own biases on this topic and how their bias will influence how they understand what they read and how they convey what they ultimately write. We selected one of the editorials and provided the students just the conclusion to that text. We selectively removed words from the paragraph and asked students to replace the blanks with whatever word they each thought would best convey the meaning of the paragraph. When they completed this exercise individually, we asked them to work with 2 or 3 other students in the class to compile their words on one document and compare how they each completed the paragraph and how their choice of words changed the meaning of the paragraph. The pictures below are of the excerpted paragraph with the students' words on post-it notes.


Here is an example of a phrase with blanks to be filled:

...too many are climbing stairwells with broken handrails and missing steps, tripping and falling as they ________ to keep up, while others are _________ up on elevators...

In one group students said:

  • struggling to keep up, while others racing up
  • trying to keep up, while others rising up
  • attempting to keep up, while others moving up

The students were able to see that racing implies competition, rising implies progress and maybe increase in status, while moving is more passive. They were surprised that none of those were the words that the author used but they couldn't think of another word to use.

The actual sentence is: "...too many are climbing stairwells with broken handrails and missing steps, tripping and falling as they work to keep up, while others are zooming up on elevators..."

Certainly working implies a conscious sense of purpose and purposefulness to the effort that is not reflected in struggle, try or attempt. Work may also imply a degree of success and ability absent in those other terms. Zooming also has a very different connotation than the words the students chose, particularly in contrast to working. So, we asked students to compare their bias with that of the author and consider how differing opinions might influence their assessment of the source's credibility.

For the next phase of this exercise, we provided the students with the rest of the editorial where we had highlighted words or phrases and added questions to invite students to discuss the writer's choice of word and how those words affected the meaning of her editorial.

Here is an example paragraph:
"In addition to attending to these basic survival needs, schools have to attract experienced teachers and leaders with the right sensibilities and training to educate youth from diverse social and cultural backgrounds. Successful school districts also enhance youth development through extracurricular activities and additional enrichment. When families cannot afford costly after-school programs, personal tutors and experiential summer vacations, effective school-communities invest in programs to offset these opportunity gaps." 

Here are the questions we posed corresponding to each of the highlighted phrases:

  1. What does this phrase imply? (basic survival needs)
  2. What do you think these are? (right sensibilities)
  3. How is this different than education? (youth development)
  4. What other gaps have you heard of? (opportunity gaps)

As they shared their conclusions and questions the students raised questions like: what does equity mean? One student said it meant equality. At that point, we directed the class to the Allsides Dictionary. Here is how Allsides describes their dictionary:


Click to see how Allsides defines equity and the cartoon they use to distinguish "equity" from "equality". We think this resource is incredibly valuable to students as they learn to navigate the information they encounter and develop information literacy -- particularly in the face of fake news!



Carter, Prudence L. “Poor Schools Need to Encompass More Than Instruction to Succeed.” The Opinion Pages: Room for Debate, New York Times, 14 Sept. 2016, www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/09/14/is-school-reform-hopeless/poor-schools-need-to-encompass-more-than-instruction-to-succeed.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Do you have the time?

Image Credit: NasimAhmed96$, CC BY-SA 4.0
commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44772050
Time. A highly valuable human intangible. We cherish good times, lament bad times, wish for more time. Lately I've been pondering the allocation of time during the school day.

Yesterday we had teams visit us from a couple of other local districts. One of the side conversations at the beginning of the open house was about schedules. The concept of a block schedule was tossed about in comparison to a rotating, eight-period day. The participants in the conversation seemed to agree that the block was the preferred schedule and discussed the two models as though those were the only allocations of time.

As I eavesdropped on that conversation it reminded me of an initiative being undertaken in my previous district: a review and possible revision of the daily schedule. Now in my 24th year as an educator I need both of my hands to count the number of times I have participated in a committee that was charged with reviewing and proposing revisions to the daily schedule. Each committee worked in the same way: what are other similar schools doing? what are the costs/benefits of those types of schedules in our school? How can we tweak our schedule a little to make apparent improvements without really upsetting the apple cart. Ultimately, changing very little in terms of the quality of teaching and learning vis-à-vis the allocation of time.

Time is a resource like computers, classrooms, athletic equipment, staff members, etc. While it may be intangible, it still should be considered in the same way other resources are considered: what are our educational priorities and how do we allocate our resources to maximize fulfilling those priorities? It was the focus on that question that set the current initiative in my previous district apart from any other schedule revision I had experienced. The process began with the faculty discussing and determining what their educational priorities were. These priorities were then separated into categories: which were non-negotiable and which were secondary drivers?

Consider this list of priorities:

  • one-on-one meeting time with students
  • minimizing interruptions to instructional time for "special events"
  • PLC or other meetings of faculty instructional teams
  • genius hour, passion projects, etc.
  • advisory program
  • flexible instructional minutes
  • maximizing the number of courses a student can take
  • study halls, extra help OR maximizing course enrollment and minimizing study halls
  • capping class size

How might time be sliced, diced, and served if these are the criteria that determine the best schedule? What secondary benefits does this allocation of time create? What costs are associated with this schedule? Ultimately, does satisfying the non-negotiables make paying the costs a worthwhile trade-off? If not, were you honest about your priorities?

How is the schedule that emerges different if these are the priorities:

  • all classes meet everyday
  • changing district test scores
  • aligning with assessments for AP, IB or other standardized curricula
  • ease of moving students from one section of a course to another
  • ease of accommodating students new to the district into the course offerings

Return to the same reflection questions: how must time be divided to satisfy these requirements? what other benefits will the school realize because of this allocation of time? What costs are associated with this schedule? Ultimately, does satisfying the non-negotiables make paying the costs a worthwhile trade-off? If not, were you honest about your priorities?

Just a little food for thought to start the new year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

ISTE Standards for EDUCATORS... another infographic

Standard, standards, everywhere! Whether we are developing curricula, teaching, or assessing with Common Core, C3, Next Gen Science or some other set of standards, our focus is on standards for student achievement.

What I don't see or hear discussed as much, are standards for educator achievement, and lately I've been thinking a lot about ISTE's standards for teachers. (See infographic below.) I envision professional development that focuses on these standards. Teachers can self-assess with these standards as a measure in order to suggest learning that they need. Developing sessions in response to such reflection means the PD is self-directed and standards-based.

On a related ISTE note: my library partner, @mluhtala, and I just heard that our proposal to present at #ISTE17 was accepted -- so please come see us on Sunday, June 25 to discuss Libraries in Transitional Times where Kids Love to Learn!


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Stanford Report as an infographic: Student Vulnerability to Fake News

The Stanford Graduate School of Education Study recently released its report, Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Their findings in this two-year study about students' ability to critically interpret information they encounter online are frightening.

There has been abundant media coverage of this issue and the SHEG study by PBS News Hour, NPR, and The Washington Post, among others. Here is my unpacking of that report in an infographic:


Monday, December 19, 2016

Using Question Stems to Spark Inquiry

As I am working with students on research exercises I am working to find ways to help them with the development of their research questions. The scope of their research and the means by which they explore what they learn are all products of a well-crafted research question. I am observing that students can ask very narrow questions that begin with "what" and very broad questions that begin with "why." Without prompting, they get stuck here: too narrow or too broad. To help them expand their inquiry strategies I have begun using these question stems to push their thinking:

Which?  This stem helps you to collect information to make an informed choice. For example: Which Twentieth Century president did the most to promote civil rights?

How? When you seek to understand problems and perspectives, weigh options, and propose solutions, try starting your question with this stem. For example: How should we solve the problem of water pollution in Long Island Sound?

What if? Your question can change history! Use the knowledge you have to pose a hypothesis and consider options. For example: What if the Apollo 13 Astronauts had not survived?

Should?  A question can invite self or community examination. Using this stem, you can make a moral or practical decision based on evidence. For example: Should we clone humans?

Why? Understand and explain relationships to get to the essence of a complicated issue. For example: Why do people engage in human trafficking?

I like these stems because students can decide on the purpose of their inquiry and use the stem best suited to that end. They also are versatile and can be used in any discipline. What is really key, is they push students away from bias confirmation, from the tendency to ask questions to which they believe they already know the right answer. By using these stems and asking many questions about the same topic, they are pushed to think critically about the subject of their research and remain open to a range of evidence and perspectives before developing their thesis.

Here are examples of the stems being used all about the Civil War:

  • Which Civil War general was the best military strategist?
  • How did King Cotton affect the Confederacy’s waging of war?
  • What if General Lee had better intelligence at Gettysburg?
  • Should Confederate symbols be used in official state flags and logos today?
  • Why did Great Britain favor the South during the Civil War?

And here are literary examples focused on Shakespeare's plays:

  • Which of the characters in Henry IV has the most relevance for today’s politicians?
  • How does Hal’s ascension to the throne affect perceptions of his father’s coup?
  • What if Brutus had made the final funeral oration in Julius Caesar?
  • Should Hamlet have minded his own business?
  • Why does Shakespeare use so many references to the natural and unnatural in Macbeth?

I have used these this year with grade 11 students researching the relationship between socioeconomic class and opportunity in modern America. These stems helped the students focus their topics under the umbrella of the unit essential question.

Today I will use them with grade 10 students. Their essential question is "What should be America's response to the current refugee crisis?" Imagine the research possibilities with each of these stems: Which country has a fair, enforceable policy in this current refugee crisis? How does US response to Syrian refugees compare with US response to Holocaust / Bosnia / Vietnam refugees? What if the US reinstated quotas like those of the 1920s? Should the UN establish and monitor camps for the refugees? Why did the French respond to the Calais Jungle as they did? Using these question stems, the students can focus their research on the aspect of this issue that is most interesting to them, and the teacher can engage with the students about content that the student has chosen so the curricular experience is personalized. Ultimately the students will be writing Op-Ed pieces and they range of issues and perspectives considered will read to rich classroom discussion and mean the teacher is not reading twenty five identical papers. A win-win exercise!