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Toward the end of this year, I realized one very important fact about the innovative work at my school – much of the successful inquiry and project based learning that goes on is a direct result of the work of our teacher-librarians. Their ETTC courses, their partnerships with teachers, and their willingness to share their incredible knowledge is vital to the progress toward our school’s vision. As Margaret Wheatley would say, they are “willing to be disturbed,” and, even more impressive and valuable, they are willing to help others through the most uncomfortable aspects of learner-driven, formative practice.

Every professional risk I have taken has been with the guidance of  Heather Hersey and Marci Zane our school librarians. As inquiry and research experts, they are invaluable resources to my students, but they are equally integral to my growth as an educator. Inspired by Meg Donhauser’s incredible work with her Brit Lit classes, Heather and I team-taught two sections of American Lit, working to transform the class into a completely individualized, student-driven learning experience. Truly making American Lit our class, she was there with me to introduce the Information Search Process, conference with the students about their work, provide formative feedback to the students, and assess their learning plans and final products. Heather even came to Back-to-School Night to discuss her work with our class! By co-planning, co-teaching, and co-assessing, we were able to create systems for feedback that helped students improve their thinking and questioning but to also help them develop methods to display their learning.

This year was the richest professional learning experience of my career, but it was also one of the most challenging. I had to become a different kind of teacher. I was no longer a dispenser of information. Instead, Heather taught me how to ask really good questions and how to help students ask really good questions. She helped us all understand how to look for answers and carve paths for learning. Were it not for Heather’s guidance, support, and expertise, I would have thrown in the towel several times. But, because she helped me stick it out through the toughest times, I can say that we were able to provide a truly unique and meaningful learning experience for our students.

After these incredible experiences, I have only stronger assurance that the library’s role is critical in every school. The AASL standards for information literacy should be an integral building block in every subject area. Focusing on them will enhance our students’ ability to question and their ability to find, evaluate, and use information in any circumstance – the first steps toward life-long learning. And, most important, we need to invite partnerships with the teacher-librarians, the experts in those skills, to make it happen.

As I have written about several times, Heather Hersey and I tried a new approach to my American Literature course this year. Inspired by Meg Donhauser‘s work with her British Literature course, I wanted my students to have a collaborative but differentiated learning experience that they shape. After one run-through during 3rd quarter, I was eager to rework the process. I know that the initial experience was generally a good one, but there were tons of improvements I wanted to make. There were a lot of things my students felt unprepared for and several times throughout the process where they felt overwhelmed with too many tools, too many strategies, and far too many things to keep track of. So, I met with some real inquiry experts to further develop some tools and strategies that would help our students manage their learning in a literature class. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had as an educator. Heather, Meg, Marci Zane, two students, and I met to figure out how we could improve the overall process. The students were particularly helpful in determining what skills, strategies, and content knowledge our future students would need frontloaded before engaging in the inquiry process. Below are the materials and strategies we recognized as essential to begin an inquiry project (in bold) with explanations of the adjustments we made.

  • An explanation of inquiry and what they can expect while they go through the Information Search Process: To introduce all of this, we started with this revised syllabus and then used Carol Kuhlthau’s work to take the students through a mini-ISP as I wrote about here.
  • A way to group students who might want to get feedback or work with others to learn: For this, we developed a Text Interest Survey on Google Docs. It automatically puts all of the results in a spreadsheet, which we can then sort to show similarities and contrasts. We tried to initially group students by types of books so that they could help each other find texts as well as develop questions that would help them explore their interests. For example, we had a group that wanted to explore fear and horror throughout American Literature, so they developed questions around that and explored fear tactics in Jonathan Edwards’ sermons, Edgar Allen Poe short stories, and Stephen King novels.
  • Guidelines to develop strong questions: We used several sources for this. One was Moeller and Moeller’s Socratic Seminars and Literature Circles for Middle and High School English in which the authors identify three types of questions as they apply to reading: Factual, Interpretive, and Evaluative. We adapted their explanations slightly and combined them with Bloom’s Taxonomy to show how to get at really deep thinking through questions. Factual questions, we explained, are based on the responder’s ability to remember and recite information. Ex. “What authors were prominent during the American Modernism Era?” Interpretive questions are slightly more involved in that they require more analysis and application. They ask for an opinion in regards to some content knowledge. For example, one might ask, “Was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry representative of the values of  the post-war, 1950s?” And, Evaluative questions ask the responder to make a judgment based on his or her own values and experiences, thus requiring synthesis and evaluation. Ex. “Do people need to go through times of struggle to truly feel at peace?” The final question can be answered using the texts that a student might read, but it can also be answered by investigating his or her own experience with struggle and peacefulness. By examining the texts with this lens, he or she will be able to see connections among the works and to his or her life experiences.
  • Ways to identify standards that will truly help students improve skills, not just practice what they already know: We struggled to find a way that students could still be held accountable for meeting state and national standards without compromising the integrity of the student’s natural direction, so we went with Meg’s plan to have students align each activity in their learning plans to at least one standard. They had to explain how they improved their understandings and developed skills as well as provide evidence for their explanations. We planned to model those procedures with the students in the first week of the course.
  • Suggest ways in which students can demonstrate proficiency and/or progress toward meeting standards. The reading standards seemed most difficult to prove for the students, so we began our focus with those. We implemented lessons, practice opportunities, and teacher modeling with reading strategies that would help them show evidence of their thoughts while they read as well as help them make connections between the readings and their own lives and their pursuits in our class.
  • Digital tools to track learning and reflections. Some students in our classes used Diigo to log all of their online text reflections, and students in Meg’s class had used blogs to track their learning about themselves as learners. We thought that those mediums were ones that everyone should be exposed to as a means to produce and publish thoughts as they went through these processes. So, we developed lessons using Heather’s and Marci’s online resource pages (Diigo and Blogs) to introduce these tools as well as activities to practice using them in meaningful ways.
  • Access to Instructional Media Center resources and practice with using them. Heather developed LibGuides for the American Literature Adventure and for the British Literature Pilgrimage that put all of the resources into one place. We used those to show students where they could go for help, and we also used those resources with the students to model the research process. The links to movements and helpful websites were to give students a starting point for their research with each era. Additionally, Heather created a Text Assistance Request Form that students could use if they still struggled after trying all available resources. This was meant to help them articulate their questions as well as to help us prepare to help them.

Now that I have completed my second attempt at the new structure, I am beginning the reflection process all over again, examining student work and taking into consideration their explicit suggestions. I will post again with my thoughts!

What I See

In his most recent blog post, Rob Mancabelli makes some poignant arguments about learning today in an environment with an “evolving online ecosystem that is available 24/7/365.” He asks, “What Should Learning Look Like?” Below is my answer to that question – my reflections and notes from two observations of Meg Donhauser’s British Literature Class.

Day 1:

When I walked in, there were clusters of students around the room, each working in different ways. There were five students who were reading by themselves and one who was writing a reflection. Two students read a little, turned and asked questions of each other, and then went back to their books. A boy and a girl discussed different publications of the text, War of the Worlds. One group explained to the English Supervisor (who is also there to observe and learn) what they were learning and how they were learning it, although they were focusing on different texts.

Meanwhile, Meg conferenced with a student who was trying to decide what state standards he wanted to meet. He needed to choose a writing standard, a reading standard, a speaking/listening standard, an edtech standard, and a 21st Century Skills standard. Meg was advising him to choose ones that he hadn’t already mastered so that he could learn how to do them better.

When I asked a student what they thought of the class’s format, she, shocked and visibly disappointed that the class was almost over, said, “It’s just a matter of [students] stepping up to the plate. If I wanted to be on facebook all block, I could be, but then I wouldn’t get this done. I mean, I’m actually reading. For real!” She added, “It’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s cool that we get to choose what we do, and once you get the hang of it, it’s not bad at all.”

The students were engaged in a course-long inquiry project where they completed their own learning plans by choosing state standards to meet, generating questions to explore, reading books they want to read, and developing artifacts that show what they learned and how they learned it. They use Google Docs and blogs to track and share their thoughts and reflect on the activities that they’re designing and participating in. Meg’s role was not to deliver content, but to help them make connections, ask them questions, guide their thinking, and collaboratively assess their learning.

Day 2:

This time, students were huddled around a corner of the room where Meg had put out tea and freshly baked scones. She asked them to get a snack and sit down next to someone new so that they could talk about the books they were independently reading. Then something fascinating happened – they all started congregating on one side of the room. They wanted to be near each other and near Meg.

One student asks the class, “Who wants to hear a story?” And, that set the tone for what happened next – a sort of community book talk. He talked about Frankenstein having a story within a story, and someone else shared that her book had three subplots. Another student shared the structure of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to which a classmate replied that it’s his favorite book, and Meg suggested they talk. She knew what everyone was reading and exploring, so she could facilitate connections while she heard them discussing.  She asked questions like, “Who is your author?”,  ”Who else is reading that author?”, “Can you share your stories?”, “Are any of you reading similar themes as you read before?”, “Does this unit feel more disconnected than the others?”

As students talked, they shared books; they actually passed them around and read snippets of others’ texts. By the end of the conversation, they found a couple of common threads, and then they had some time to work with what they heard.

I walked around to talk to a few clusters of students. The first student I talked with was reading a novel online. He explained that he was using Diigo to track notes. He said that he uses public notes to help him think through his learning: “Sometimes they’re spam, but sometimes they’re really helpful.” When I asked if he ever makes his notes public, he said that he always saves them to Ms. Donhauser’s group, but he sometimes makes his comments public if he likes something enough. And, sometimes he gets feedback from other readers!

And he wasn’t the only one sharing his thinking with the outside world. Another student was working on a reflection that she had posted for all of her friends to see on a Facebook note. Obviously, there were different comfort levels with this, but those students who were ready to share were making those leaps.

So, what did I see during those two classroom visits? I saw real, connected, and unique learning. In his post, Rob said that learning today should be “more agile, more customized, and more engaging.” Meg’s classroom is exactly that.

I learn from great people every day. Many of them are online, but even more are from my in-person PLN. In the fall, as part of a climate survey for school, I was asked to name the top three people with whom I collaborate on a regular basis. As a naturally social learner, I work with tons of people every day to get feedback, learn from setbacks, seek support, develop understandings, and generally better my practice and my interactions with my students. Narrowing down this list to the “top three” was extremely difficult. Recently, I’ve noticed the same trouble when I try to recommend my in-person learning network to my online colleagues, so in an attempt to name all of the #hcrhs tweeters who regularly inspire my teaching, I am using this post to write a sort of extended #FollowFriday list, categorized by their areas of expertise (as I see them) and by their subject areas. Each is linked up to his or her Twitter handle. Many are listed under several categories, but all of them have innumerable talents and areas of expertise. I wish that everyone could work with these amazing and truly innovative educators every day like I do, but learning from them online can be just as amazing! Continue Reading »

The Learning Journey

You can throw theory and possibility at people all you want, but in the end, most teachers want to know how to apply it to their classrooms in a practical way. Last week, at my Communities for Learning Fellowship, Giselle Martin-Kniep  discussed the ways people share best practices from their classrooms. For the most part, we share products or outcomes. However, she pointed out that “If people want to learn from an outcome or implement a product, they’re usually more interested in the process that got you there.” This got me thinking about all of the push toward 21st Century learning, formative assessment, web 2.0 tools, and inquiry. I see the value there and I understand that these things benefit students. What I and most teachers struggle with is the how. How can we implement these things and still meet all of the district, state, and national requirements? How can we still prepare kids for state exams, AP tests, and the SATs? How can keep student interest without tons of grades? And, how can we put learning into the students’ hands and still ensure that they will learn what they need to learn?

So, this is my first post to explain the processes I’m going through as I try to create a learner-centered classroom. C. Stutz Learn, right? I’ll do my best to update with successes, failures, reflections, and lessons. I invite you to comment, leave suggestions, and help me clarify my plans at any point. Continue Reading »

A guest post from English Teacher, Dan Van Antwerp.

Here’s an important question for teachers: how do you feel about Wikipedia as a research source? Do you believe that, since Wikipedia is open to editing by everyone and anyone, entries can easily be sabotaged and information fouled up? Or, do you embrace the hope that access to all means that anyone can fix or improve the content? The answer to this question may be more significant than it first seems, because it’s not just about Wikipedia: it reveals, at least to some degree, your assumptions about human nature.

Teachers, because we are human, make assumptions all the time. That last period class is sure going to be rowdy…that kid who gave Mr. Simmons such a hard time last semester is really going to challenge my classroom management skills… I shouldn’t smile until Christmas…

And, those assumptions have consequences: they influence how we act. If I fear a rowdy class, I may take a more highly structured, less creative approach. If I assume Mrs. Simmons’ challenging student will also challenge me, I may expect less of him, limiting his potential for growth.

But maybe the most potentially detrimental assumption we tend to make is that kids won’t do the reading unless we force the issue by prodding them with punishments and rewards. Continue Reading »

What is a text?

I just started a new quarter at school, and I’m attempting a new approach to my American Literature course. Inspired by Meg Donhauser (a real visionary!) and what she’s doing in her British Literature course, I am using her learner-centered framework and adapting it for a 1-1 computing environment. We are using web 2.0 tools like Google Docs and social bookmarking to collaborate and individualize learning. I also joined forces with our school’s Head Teacher-Librarian, Heather Hersey. As an expert in the information search process, she is a brilliant educator committed to authentic inquiry in the classroom.

Meg’s class is run like a choose-your-own British literature adventure! Students move through literary eras together, but they choose their own texts and areas of focus. Students track their learning by basically writing their own learning plans. They identify standards they work toward, they write their own questions, and they identify their own understandings. Meg conferences with them, monitors their progress, and teaches them to question and reflect. I love this whole concept. It makes learning collaboratively differentiated and amazing! I wanted the same opportunities for my American Lit kids, so Heather and I started them off thinking about the American literature not as static, but as something they could help define. Continue Reading »

Connectors

I’ve been doing two things regularly during my unexpected snow days: re-watching old episodes of Lost and reading Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In light of the new year, I’ve been using those mediums to think a lot about the attitude surrounding education reform and the role that we all play as educators within that system.

In my favorite episode of Lost, “Tricia Tanaka is Dead,” the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 are in their bleakest times. The group’s leaders have been captured by the “Others,” leaving the rest of the group to fend for themselves on the beach. At this point, Hurley, an unlikely leader, begins to make his mark. He is not the outspoken, impulsive, or aggressive type that imposes power, nor is he charismatic and confident like those who typically have power placed in their hands. He is empathetic, genuine, and hopeful, and his influence stems from the strong friendships he builds in one-on-one conversations. With great insight into the other survivors’ flaws and virtues, he is able to help them realize their latent heroism as well as form a community in the most trying of circumstances.

Hurley Reaches Out for Help

Hurley Reaches Out for Help

Hurley is what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as a Connector Continue Reading »

As part of a fellowship with Communities for Learning, I have been thinking a lot about the potential for interdisciplinary courses. I have been a team-teacher in a freshmen Humanities class (combined social studies and English) for five years, and I see a lot of possibilities in that curriculum, but have little chance to execute all that I want to accomplish. Partly that’s because I do not have a common prep with my social studies counterpart, which means all major curriculum redesign is done over the summer before we actually get to meet our kids and truly understand what they need as unique individuals and as members of a class with an equally unique group dynamic. But, I feel that there is something larger, something in our culture, that inhibits a true blend of curricula on a large scale.

I have been trying to  implement some interdisciplinary work in my other English classes with some success. This year, I co-planned a unit with my good friend, Trese Lang, that combined her physical education curriculum with my Honors English II coursework. And, every chance I get, I work with my school’s incredible librarians. Last year, I teamed up with Heather Hersey to team-teach a unit about learning, and that turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. All of these partnerships relied completely on my drive and the volition of my colleagues, and although it is encouraged fundamentally and pedagogically by my school’s administration, there is little systemic support for true collaboration among subject areas. Continue Reading »

What I love most about going to conferences geared toward disciplines other than my own is that I get to see things from a different perspective. I get new ideas for collaboration, and I get a deeper understanding of the practices of educators and administrators in other subject areas and at different levels.

This weekend, I had the great opportunity to attend the New Jersey Association of School Librarians‘ Fall Conference. As an English teacher, I felt an extra responsibility to really soak in all I could and gather as many resources for my department as I could. I went in with the obvious interest in reading and literacy, but the connections I made by listening to Buffy Hamilton speak about “transliteracy” and her Media 21 project as well as Carol Gordon discuss her studies about summer reading assignments got me to re-examine my school’s approach to our curriculum. Continue Reading »

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