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Preview: My Continuing Education

My Continuing Education

As a teacher of British and American literature in a private 1:1 laptop school, my own education never ends. Here I record my experiences learning and teaching with web 2.0 applications in my classroom.

Updated: 2018-02-14T17:47:21.714-05:00


Evaluating Teachers


Here's an interesting article. 

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR: Want to Ruin Teaching? Give Ratings

A government-run teacher evaluation bureaucracy would be a disaster for the teaching profession — and thus the future of public education — in our country.

I work in a private school where my Head of School has the power to hire and fire and my Head of Upper School has the responsibility to evaluate the effectiveness of individual teachers. I like this because the US Head knows me as a person and as a teacher. Every year he helps me to reflect on what unique traits I bring to my job and what areas I CAN improve. Do we want to be taught by robots who all act and respond the same way? Should different classrooms be different because of the unique personality of the teacher? Or, do we want to set minimum standards and hope that teachers reach higher on their own? (Seems to me that all of these questions can be applied to evaluation of student performance as well)
I wonder what you think about this article and what teacher evaluation looks like at your school. 

The Great Gatsby


After reading The Great Gatsby I have my students read an excerpt from Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. When teaching American literature in Tehran during the beginning of the Iranian revolution, Nafisi's students struggled with the concepts that they encountered in this classic work of American literature. I invite my students to see the book through the eyes of a foreigner and ask:
  • How can American literature help or hinder the perception other have of us? 

So I'm thinking of how I will introduce the assignment today and I came across this quote: "Like all other ideologues before them the Islamic revolutionaries seemed to believe that writers were the guardians of morality" (Nafisi 136). In literature there are no moral lessons. The writer certainly has ideas that he/she wishes to share and have the reader consider. But reading is a dialogue. An educated reader participates in this dialogue by bringing his/her previous experiences and ideas to the discussion. As a work of literature ages the discussion can change and interpretations can lead to directions that the writer never forecast. Likewise, if the text has nothing to offer later generations then the discussion ends and the literature is no longer valued.

As suggested by several end of the 20th century "Best Of" lists, Gatsby still has much to say to us, Americans. And elevating it so high in our own canon draws the attention of the outside world who is interested in "understanding" us. But understanding takes effort, especially in reserving our initial reactions and our previous stereotypes and judgements. How do you react to something foreign? With curiosity? With disdain? Would we like to think that we are like Nick: "inclined to reserve all judgements" (Fitzgerald 5)? But also like Nick, we do not see how difficult this lofty ideal really is to attain. So, that makes us a bit like Gatsby too.

  • What can the character of Gatsby tell me about myself?
  • What can this novel tell me about my country? in the '20's? today?
  • What can this novel tell foreigners about my country?
  • How will I respond to World literature that I read next year? 
American Ideals Considered:
  • perseverance
  • hard work
  • self improvement
  • reason vs. passion
  • challenging traditions
  • compassion
  • responsibility to self and community
  • responsibility to the past
These are ideas presented in our literature throughout the year.
  • What do they mean to you? 
  • How are they presented in The Great Gatsby?
  • Are there any ideals that you would add to the list?

My kid's school rocks!


Front page news today - Gwyneth pictured blogging in the Free-Lance Star :) I'm still working on ways to make blogging more meaningful so that my students don't say "I have a blog, but not by choice." How can I help them use blogging as a way to explore their ideas and share them? The enthusiasm bubbling in the Lower School today reminds me to continue developing my curriculum so that my students can see their blogs as one way to show their writing and thinking skills as part of their positive web image.
My students: American Literature and British Literature.
My daughter's blog.

Sonnets Aren't So Scary


My sophomores in British Literature class are writing sonnets, and when I mentioned this at the family dinner table the other night, my husband's reaction was not surprising. He hated sonnets and especially that iambic pentameter! We've talked before about his experiences in high school English class and from those conversations I've developed my own primer of what not to do to my students as their English teacher. But, they just HAVE to write sonnets, and I do my best to make the experience as non-traumatic as possible.

First, we have studied poetry throughout the year and they have developed skills, and hopefully, confidence in previous writing assignments, including a character sketch in rhyming couplets and accentual meter ala Geoffrey Chaucer and a poem in the style of the Anglo Saxon poet including caesuras and alliterative verse. Now, the ultimate challenge - the sonnet :)

(image) I introduce the concept in its historical context as a popular form of writing during the English Renaissance. Poets would write sonnets to prove their worth as a writer. It's considered a puzzle to the writer and it's a puzzle to the reader - who doesn't like puzzles?! We also talk about other forms of art that we have made and how satisfying it can be to create something beautiful. I show them a double wedding knot quilt that I spent a year making and we compare the pattern to the pattern of the sonnet.

I guess what I try to emphasize is that if you develop and set the right attitude sonnets, like anything else, can be tackled and conquered. Push yourself, be creative, and you may discover something about yourself - that you didn't know before - You CAN do it! That's what real education should be about.

So, those are my intentions, how about the results? All of my students scored A's and B's on the sonnet quiz (higher grades than on previous assessments). And now, they are writing some pretty strong sonnets of their own. Here's one that not only fits my Shakespearean sonnet assignment but also was entered in a 100 word contest about technology:

It has always been deep in our nature to want

to break the chains in which we were bound by birth.

Each law of physics or nature is like a taunt,

or an obstacle as old as mother Earth.

But no walls ever built will always last,

for we were all born to break them down,

doing what we have done throughout our past;

reinventing ourselves and breaking new ground.

Sure, technology is not always right,

but it’s few failures are easy to forgive.

And anyone who, against it, puts up a fight,

forgets that technology allows them to live.

I hope he wins the contest :)

I've also asked my students to respond to this post with their perspective about studying sonnets to help me improve for next year. I'm watching them write right now. Some are counting syllables on their fingers, some sharing lines with a neighbor and smiling, others thinking hard - looking up at the ceiling, closing their eyes and bending their head, then scribbling another attempt. All working, trying, and experimenting with words. Though challenging, I hope that they remember this one day as a challenge they faced, not a trauma they survived.

This brings a little tear to my eye


Here is how students use and benefit from laptops in the classroom.
First week of school. Second year teaching this group of students. Third year they have used laptops in the classroom.
One of my students knew that she would be absent and knew that the day's class period was time for working on a paper with a partner. So, she made arrangements. First, she talked with her partner to coordinate getting the work done. Then, she emailed me to let me know that she would be absent and that she had communicated with her partner.
During 8th period that day, all students were working on separate Google Docs to write scripts. My absent student was also working on the Google Doc with her partner and using the chat function to clarify directions and plan together.
Here is a screen shot that I took from my computer. I could watch them talking to each other and interject my own pointers along the way.
Why was this so seamless? The students were familiar with the applications used. They had experience using Google Docs and understood how to use it for their own purposes. These were also highly independent students. They did not wait for me to remind them how to use this online tool to their advantage, but instead took charge of the learning situation for themselves.
It brings a little tear to my eye when I see that ultimately my students don't need me. They can function and excel in this brave new 21st Century world just fine on their own!

Senior Exhibits


One of my favorite aspects of my job as a teacher at Fredericksburg Academy is the opportunity to work with students as their Senior Exhibit mentor. Students begin a year long study in an area of their choosing the spring of their junior year then complete a learning activity, application, and formal presentation by the spring of their senior year. I have worked with some great students in the past on their individual projects, including learning to become a certified Red Cross instructor, working with the elderly, and setting up a new program at our school to benefit students in the future. This year two juniors have asked me to work with them and I am very excited about their initial ideas. You can follow their blogs about learning Russian culture and physiology. I can't guarantee that they will still be with those topics come next spring, but they are both off to a great start!

Book Versus Scroll


Over the years my English department has tried to incorporate tech in our classrooms, especially when it makes learning better and more economical for our students. This is all made easier as I teach in a one-to-one laptop school. I have used a program called Vital Source, but I have found that the texts are not always accurate or as complete as their printed counterparts; for example no line numbers on epic poem texts. I have also used some e-texts with my classes but haven't always gotten the best feedback from students when I use these resources. We can't annotate them as we can a book. They are not as easily referenced during class discussions, although when the Ctrl F search feature works finding the same place to discuss is quick and easy. Of course, managing distractions is always an issue when anyone, not just students, are working online. Learning to self discipline in this area is a life skill that I encourage my students to practice. Ignoring Facebook, chat pop ups, constant checking of email, and more are all real distractions which I find myself falling into often, so I certainly sympathize with my students struggles in this area as well. For example, I set aside some time to grade lovely satires written by my sophomores and here I am writing a blog post (for the first time in three months!). An advantage to the e-text, besides the free price, is also the ease of access-no book to forget at school.This morning I found some recent research that describes my biggest struggle with using online texts. As someone who has always studied books, I find it difficult to find my place in online texts. Maybe I need to use resources like Diigo and its annotation feature more often. I have also thought that this is because I am a strongly visual learner and "see" where on the page I am looking for in order to locate a relevant quote or section when analyzing a text. But this research suggests that another factor is memory processing.So my questions are:Do students of this new generation have different memory functioning than I do? Am I just getting old and losing it!Is the digital world that they are growing up in changing how their brains develop (I know that there is research on this out there)?Should I use online texts in order to facilitate this development, continue using a combination of print and online sources, or go back to the "good old days" of tattered, well read paperbacks?I hope that teachers who have used scrolling texts share what they do in order to use this resource effectively as a learning tool. And I hope that students also share their perspectives on these questions as well.One more thought, more than anything I have found that variety is not only the spice of life but also the best way to teach. Whether for "keeping it fresh" and interesting or to reach students with multiple learning styles in the same 45 minutes. So I guess I'm leaning toward sticking to the combination (I have turned in my book list for next year), but what about the year after that (do teachers plan two years in advance?!) I'm also always open to change, which helps adapting to this whole new world of teaching a bit easier.[...]

Information Consumption


What would your pie chart look like?
I asked my students who are overwhelmingly computer based, with high use of phone, and variable amounts of TV.
I use the TV very infrequently, but question what these categories actually mean. I no longer subscribe to cable so I get no TV at my house, but use my computer to access, netflix, and youtube for TV shows. Does that count for computer?
Also, what about reading print material on the computer, as opposed to reading non-print blogs and other social media sites? I think it's time to get more specific on the computer category.

Future Trends


I just stumbled across this from my Diigo education Group. It's a "Map of Future Forces Affecting Education" made by Knowledge Works. Have you seen this map or know anything about the company. We're getting ready for exams next week, so I won't be able to look into this too closely, but it's something that I want to come back to soon. Happy holidays!

the business world


I just skimmed some new posts in my aggregator and was surprised to see that a prime topic of discussion these days is how businesses are using social media and online tools to improve their business model (and ultimately their profitability). The cutting edge of education is actively using and exploring available online tools to 1) enhance learning and 2) better prepare students for work in the 21st Century. We may not know what exactly that work will look like, but we do know that it will involve harnassing information available on the Internet. With the rapid growth of the Internet industry, it's also safe to say that learning to be flexible and adaptable to new technologies is also a key component of future jobs. What else do you predict we are preparing our students for by using technology in the classroom today?

Getting Students Involved


(image) To enliven a presentation on the history of the English language and how Old English was formed for my British Literature class, I got all student involved. As they entered the classroom, I gave each student a card with a role: Saxon, Celt, Roman, Christian monk, etc. I told students that I was playing the role of the scop, the Anglo Saxon storyteller, and they would be various characters in my production. I began the story of the "Birth of the Little Baby English Language" and throughout various students entered the "stage" and participated as everyone listened and waited for their part.

When my story was finished, I asked everyone to open a new blog post on their class blogs and record the same story for themselves. In this way they too became the scop. Here are some of their posts:
Their stories aren't elegant, but the facts are there and they are all pretty consistent. Getting students involved as active participants in their learning instead of passive listeners makes learning more fun and ultimately more meaningful.

Stepping Out of the Way


One of the best conferences that I went to last year was not a technology conference. The speaker spent the day reviewing recent brain research and how it applies to teaching and learning. This school year I have been consciously applying some of the lessons learned with great results in my classroom.Friday was Spirit Day, the culmination of a week of dressing up, competing for class spirit points, and general chaos. Class periods were shortened for the end of the day parade and pep rally. Here is a picture of my class that day:All students were actively engaged in a task that involved reviewing dates in American history. It certainly wasn't the task that was so engaging, but how it was framed and presented. After a quick review of our last unit, Puritanism, I told the class that the rest of the period would be spent in a class challenge. My next class period would do the same task and the groups would be timed. Their task was to match dates to important events in American history, but I also told them that it was not important to know the date but instead to understand the overall chronology. I then gave a stack of dates to one half of the class and a stack of events to the other half. No one moved at first so I asked if anyone had a strategy for tackling this task. Students jumped up and started posting the dates in chronological order on the board while other students sifted through the events.Whenever the students reached a stumbling block I threw out a question, not about the task but about how they could solve the problems they encountered. At one point everyone was standing around the table looking at the cards. I said "are these all of the resources that you have available?" and looked pointedly at each of them. Someone tentatively suggested that they could use their history books. I said "why not!" Then they pulled out the computers too. When the same thing happened in the second class, I showed one student this picture of the first class as a hint. "We can use our books and laptops," he announced to the rest of the class, and they opened notes from a Power Point used in their history class. This was a curious point for me, why did they wait until I gave them "permission" to use their outside resources?In the end, it was a tie between the two classes, which was also interesting because one of the classes has twice as many students. Instead of having everyone copy down the dates, I'll send them digital pictures of the board.It's not the task, but how you frame it that helps create a productive learning environment. Students now have a sense of how different the time period was between the Puritans and the Revolutionary writers, like Thomas Paine. They are now prepared to tackle their reading, "The Crisis, No. 1," with a general understanding of who he was, what he was writing about and why, and how all of this makes him so different from his Puritan predecessors.[...]

Authentic Writing


Throughout their study of American literature, my students are asked to examine who they are as Americans. We are beginning the year with a study of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a contemporary novel that does not challenge students in decoding language, but rather in uncovering meaning for themselves. I hope that my students are coming to an understanding that they bring meaning to a text from their own experiences and prior knowledge. The questions that they bring to the text are just as worthy of consideration as any question that I could propose as their teacher. I like the idea that we are studying a novel that I have not taught before and that others have not taught and prepared lesson plans posted online. We have a situation where there is no "expert" on this text in the classroom or online.Of course, I am the expert reader, modeling questioning and how to discover valid hypotheses about the text, the author's intentions, and the universal meanings presented by the story. In their discussions, my students are beginning to make some great connections between their own lives and the circumstances of this novel. A question that I would like them to continue to explore is: What can this novel say to me in my life now?Now it's time for some assessment. How can I test their understanding of this process of self discovery that I hope is building a foundation that we will continue to develop throughout the year? In terms of examining the novel, reflecting, sharing their ideas, and developing understandings about McCarthy's impact as a writer, my students are working on a class wiki. They use individual pages to post initial thinking about the novel, group pages to post their group discussion notes, and a class page when we have whole class discussions of the novel. I will use these pages to construct a final unit test including sections of quotation explanation, vocabulary enrichment, and McCarthy's writing techniques. These sections will be individualized to each group using ideas and points that they found to be most relevant in their discussions. (I'm not exactly looking forward to making six tests though!) But, I think that makes them more authentic, especially in light of the unit goal that students understand the validity of their own examination of texts, not teacher or expert driven. I hope that the test does not ask them to "regurgitate" any material that I alone value, but rather to synthesize ideas examined throughout the unit in their own reading of the text and in their small group discussions.A writing task: my English department has a consistent approach to writing and as a school we produce strong writers. I would be remiss in serving this goal of my department if I didn't include a writing assignment in this unit of study. In continuing the concept of self discovery and the idea that we all "bring something to the table," my students are going to make short presentations about who they are. After these oral presentations I want them to synthesize all of the ideas presented by their classmates and write a paper about "who we all are as Americans." At this point, my writing assignment is as vague as that. They could write an essay focusing on certain qualities shared by a number of their classmates. I want their papers to be interesting and authentic so I am trying to consider alternative audiences besides just myself and their peers (they're not going to read all of the papers anyway).As I imagine this paper I keep thinking about The Breakfast Club and the final letter those teenagers left for their teacher. And, as a teacher of the 21st Century, I think something like that would be really cool too!What ideas or suggestions do you have? If you were to write this paper, what kind of di[...]

Learning to Understand


The entire faculty at my school is studying Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe this year. While the ideas are not completely new to me, it is an interesting exercise in trying to get the whole school thinking on the same page. I find that every year I am rethinking my classes and approaches and making small adjustments. Using web 2.0 technologies both in the classroom and to build my own personal learning network has certainly prompted and encouraged much of this thinking.
This year my American Literature course is getting a bit of an overhaul. I'm starting the year with the contemporary novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Students are studying it in cooperative learning groups, recording their work on a wiki, and then sharing their insights with the whole class. Working with such a contemporary novel has been an interesting challenge for my students and myself. While they do not need to decode language, the structure of the plot and the message are mysteries to them at this point. I am trying hard not to give them ready answers and instead encouraging them to see this overarching idea:
There is no right answer to what the text is about. But that doesn't mean that all answers are equal. There may be no right answers, but some answers are better than others, and figuring our what that means and how it can be so is one of your major challenges. (Grant 143)
Working in their own literature circles, with their peers, I encourage them to be persistent and not give up on a discussion question too quickly but instead to "consider, propose, test, question, criticize, and verify" (129). In developing their own theories about the literature and seeing these develop and change throughout their reading of the novel, I hope to instill the understanding that they make their own meaning from the literature that they read which is based on their own skills and prior experiences and not solely reliant on an expert opinion about the literature. If they can then transfer this confidence in their own reading and theory making to our next unit, a study of Puritan writings, I'll be ecstatic!

Personal Connections


Here is the value of Twitter and my RSS reader for me. I was playing around online for about 10 minutes, saw the following and got inspired to write this blog post. I started out by skimming my RSS reader and stumbling across an invitation to check out #steconf on Twitter. Summarized, this is what I gained:
  1. checked out and added one new follower
  2. searched for the hashtag #steconf to find out what was happening yesterday at the Social Technology in Education Conference
  3. Saw this tweet and thought it was worth reflecting on in my blog
(image) As a classroom teacher/facilitator, I think that one of my main jobs is to facilitate personal connections between my students. Or maybe it's because I'm an English teacher and our classes tend to be discussion based. I need my students to think and consider alternative points of view in order to develop their own opinions. So first and foremost they need to get along with and respect each other.

This is particularly challenging for me as my school has about 100 students total in the Upper School. Sometimes it's difficult getting my students past the assumption that they know each other too well. And sometimes it's an advantage for them to know each other so well.

One of the reasons that I have jumped into using web 2.0 tools is because they are an avenue for facilitating these personal connections. I have used discussion boards to not only encourage students who are less likely to speak up during class discussions to voice their opinions, but also to connect different sections of a class so that we could get more opinions and ideas into our discussion of a topic. Of course, blogging and helping form connections with students in other schools is valuable too in gaining a broader perspective, which is so important for my students in their small, insulated school experience.

As a teacher, I want my students to know and discover who they are and who they want to be. In this journey of self discovery, seeing the potentials offered by the experience of others is invaluable. Of course, breaking down stereotypes by recognizing generalizations and assumptions are a means to this end of valuing others. It's not about mastering a particular curriculum or who knows the most. Instead learning is about seeing what others have to offer and whether that insight can help you develop yourself in positive ways toward your own goals in learning and in living a rewarding life.

I learn and gain so much from the social connections that I make online everyday by following others' blogs, skimming tweets on Twitter, and the various Nings that I belong to. Thanks to all of you for sharing yourselves and helping me to develop my ideas and learn new things about myself.

The New Progressivism


I kept a folder on my desk last year and titled it "Ideas." Throughout the year I put in articles to ponder, strategies big and small to use, handouts from faculty meetings, my own lists of notes and intentions for next year. It's next year now so I dusted off the folder this afternoon, found some gems and threw away just as many pages that are now either not as thought provoking or have become incorporated into my lesson plans already.

In the batch I found an article titled "The New Progressivism Is Here" by Peter Gow for NAIS, National Association of Independent Schools, April 30, 2008. Here are my notes.

Gow defines key characteristics of the New Progressivism as practiced in independent schools throughout the nation as the following.
  • assessment against high standard: drawing on Gardner, Wiggins, and Sternberg including backwards planning, variety in assessments, project & problem based learning, and seeing textbooks and teachers as resources
  • professional development is mission-driven and collaborative
  • encouraging students to make real-world connections
  • multiculturalism as a process, not a program
  • character and creativity are encouraged and rewarded and "help students discover and strengthen deep and abiding personal values"
  • civic engagement
  • technology as tool to enhance learning and "freeing the mind for more interesting and worthy challenges"
the goal: "innovative, flexible, and resourceful citizens and thinkers"

Now for my reflections:
This year I'd like to spend some time evaluating my assessments. As a school, we are reading Understanding By Design by Wiggins and McTighe (that should take care of the prof dev point too). Stage two in the UbD pattern is on assessment, so I prarticularly looking forward to that part.
Do you have any great assessments that encourage your students to be "innovative, flexible, and resourceful"?

Dusting Off the Computer


It's been a while since I wrote a blog, so it's time to get back to work. I gave myself the entire month of July off. Off of the computer, Twitter, Nings, blogging, my RSS. Off from reading educational treatises online and off, off from reading school books. Now, I'm feeling a little behind the eight ball, but refreshed and ready to start a new school year.I've been reading the latest issue of The English Journal (Vol. 98, no. 6, July 2009) and enjoying the theme of fun in the English classroom. Teaching is fun for me and that's why I do it. I spent too long in college and graduate school because I refused to get into a career that was not intrinsically rewarding to me. I didn't want to spend my life earning a paycheck. I wanted to spend my life pursuing a calling that would allow me to continue to grow and learn about myself. A career that benefited others, but also (selfishly?) benefited myself. My first couple of years in the classroom were tough and I vowed that I would stick it out for ten years then find myself another calling. After my fourth year, I no longer entertained thoughts of ever leaving the teaching profession. I am now excited to begin my thirteenth year of teaching and looking forward to the changes and opportunities that this new school year offers.I enjoyed Tom Romano's essay "Defining Fun and Seeking Flow in English Language Arts." I was first introduced to flow, a concept identified and studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in my senior seminar for Psychology majors in college. Now I'm thinking about how to help my students experience it in a 45 minute class period. I find it to be a bit unfair to put this kind of goal or expectation on ourselves as teachers. My students travel from class to class with two minutes of passing time, social concerns buzzing in their minds, a laptop to distract them throughout the class period. How can I create a meaningful learning experience which they value and willingly participate in. Well, that's the real challenge isn't it. And, I'm not afraid of a challenge.The following points are summarized from Csikszentmihalyi's descriptions of elements reported by people who experienced flow in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.we can experience flow when we confront tasks that we have a chance of completingwe must be able to concentrate on what we are doingconcentration is possible because the task has clear goals and provides immediate feedbackdeep and effortless involvement removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday lifeenjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of controlconcern for the self disappears, and the sense of self emerges strongerthe sense of the duration of time is alteredThinking of teenagers with these concepts in mind is daunting. Can I invent a lesson that distracts a teen from the worries of his/her social life, left just minutes before in the hallway before class? Can we complete tasks in the 45 minute class period (minus settling in time)? In the above list, numbers 1-4 worry me, but 5-7 give me courage that this is possible and that these are the goals that teens want for themselves too. And, while no one is going to experience flow in my English classroom everyday, not even me, this is a goal worth setting for ourselves.Romano continues in his essay to examine various angles of the English classroom and curriculum that invite fun in to help in achieving these daunting goals. This year I'd like to work toward emphasizing these areas in all of my classes:read a poem to the class (and have students take turns) for the fun sounds of language every day. This would be a great way to sta[...]

National Conversation on Writing


Just submitted this video that I made with my sophomores this past year to the National Conversation on Writing project. We made it at the beginning of the school year, but I had trouble uploading it to You Tube or Teacher Tube. Just tried Vimeo with great success. Guess I'll be using that for my video projects in the future.

allowFullScreen='true' webkitallowfullscreen='true' mozallowfullscreen='true' width='320' height='266' src='' class='b-hbp-video b-uploaded' FRAMEBORDER='0' />

wikispaces in the classroom


In the recent e-newsletter from Wikispaces there was a call for sharing stories about using Wikispaces. Here is my response to them. It's a little pro-wikispaces, but as I was writing it I realized that each year I am finding even more ways to use and tie this resouce into the daily work of my classroom. Here are a couple of non-Wikispaces wikis that I used this year as well: Black Ice literature circles, A Thousand Splendid Suns book study.

To Wikispaces:
I began using wikispaces in my high school English classroom two years ago. In 2007 I learned about the power of using web 2.0 tools in the classroom at the VAIS (VA Assoc of Independent Schools) annual technology conference. After feeling overwhelmed, and a little inadequate because I was "behind the curve," I quickly started my own blog and wikispace. This is my main resource for my students now. On it I share my curriculum, classroom resources, and publish student work. Students have enjoyed using the discussion board feature to comment on each others' work. I have also created wikispaces for particular projects throughout the year. I have juniors work cooperatively in literature circles online. Here they complete their homework to prepare for the in-class group work, then record their group notes for the day. In a senior level course this year, students worked cooperatively to create a class novel. They used wikispaces to share their ideas and early drafts with each other to help them develop cohesive characters and plot lines. My sophomores have used wikispaces to work with a partner to complete research and present historical topics to their class.

I love using wikispaces because it is flexible and easy to manage. It has helped me take my previous lesson plans to a new level, making them more effective and meaningful to my students. My focus as a 21st Century teacher is on engaging my students in my curriculum to foster their own appreciations and curiosity in persuing the subject beyond my classroom. Wikispaces gives me the place to do this transparently online. Getting my students to think and work online cooperatively with each other and with me, is one of the greatest values of wikispaces that I have found.



I was a little jealous this year when my husband was featured in a local magazine Virginia Neighbors for his extraordinary teaching and cycling (I can't say "hobby" it's more like a "lifestyle"). This week I got my own notoriety in the PLP (Powerful Learning Practice with Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach) newsletter. I posted the entire article below, which sums up my intensive personal learning this school year.
Seeing Tech in a Different Light

By Mary Worrell

Jennifer Clark Evans is an English teacher at Fredericksburg Academy in Virginia and a member of the PLP International Schools Cohort. She's been teaching for 12 years. As the year-long PLP experience winded down, Evans had a chance to reflect on her personal experience and what she'd learned along the way.

"PLP has been an interesting process. I felt all along I wasn't sure what I was doing, but I've been using technology in the classroom for a while," Evans said. "It really gave me a chance to get outside support and ideas and make connections outside of my little school. That was the most advantageous part for me."

Even though Evans had been using technology, including wikis and blogs, in her classroom for some time, the way she viewed incorporating it changed over the course of the year.

"Whenever I think about my lesson planning, I'm always thinking about the benefit of doing it with technology versus just paper and pencil," she said. "I'm much more careful to ensure that using the technology is an advantage. Now it's more purpose-driven and more transparent to me and the parents than before."

Evans incorporates blogging into her classroom.

"I had my students involved in the blogging and they showed me the many different advantages they got out of the blog," she said. "Students were discovering it for themselves rather than me just telling them."

Another tool Evans uses in her classroom is wikis to enhance literature circles where students work in small groups together to study a book.

"Traditionally they would prepare homework on paper and bring it to class. With the wiki they can post it online and the group can see their homework," Evans said. "It much more ensures that they do their homework - their team is counting on them. And they can see how other people do their homework and can improve."

While Evans considered herself a veteran to incorporating technology in the classroom, her view of it changed over the course of her involvement with PLP.

"It's to the point where I don't realize I'm using it in my lessons with students," she said. "It's not an add-on, it's just a part of what we do."

Push to online learning


(image) I just got this on Twitter. I've been wondering, too, what would happen if my school closed, as we only have four weeks left. The last week is exams, so that doesn't count. It's the end of the year again, and again I am not where I would want to be in my curriculum. I have a bit of an excuse this year because we switched to a new schedule that makes little logical sense, but actually has many advantages. One of the biggest issues in shifting to the new schedule was that we would lose about two weeks of class time. There are blocks of unscheduled time for students to work at school with their classmates on group projects or with me conferencing about their writing, or just getting homework done earlier in the day. I have seen a tremendous decrease in the number of students posting blogs at midnight, and group projects completed outside of class but during school time have gone well this year. But, I'm still stressed at the end to "get it all done" on time without stressing my students out in return.
I have found, in the past couple of weeks, that I am turning more and more to online learning and discussing as opposed to directing it all from the classroom. To expedite our study of The Glass Menagerie my students created blog posts about characters in class, then revisited them for homework with the direction to 1) add new understanding in the original post and in comments on other characters' posts and 2) use that as the means to study for the upcoming quiz. Tonight students will use a Voice Thread to examine the meanings of symbols throughout the play.
One of the reasons that this works is that we have studied these concepts (character development and symbolism) all year. Now is the time for application, not introduction of ideas. I predict that this will also help as we are beginning to review for the final exam. My expectations of the students are that they will be more independent in their application of the concepts and their use of the online tools, ultimately really testing their understanding more authentically. Understanding does not, and should not, always be tested in a student's participation during class discussions or on quizzes. Using tools to replace some of these traditional real time class activities is beneficial and prevents monotony!

Analysis of Symbolism


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Friday was the final face to meeting of the PLP lead by Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach. It was a powerful :) day after a very hard week for me. The part that resonated the most with me was this quote that Will shared at the end from Howard Gardner:
...we may well have reached a set of tipping points: Going forward, learning may be far more individualized, far more in the hands (and the minds) of the learner, and far more interactive than ever before. This constitutes a paradox: As the digital era progresses, learning may be at once more individual (contoured to a person’s own style, proclivities, and interests) yet more social (involving networking, group work, the wisdom of crowds, etc.). How these seemingly contradictory directions are addressed impacts the future complexion of learning.
We have plenty of teachers at my school who are not re-envisioning education in terms of 21st Century learning for many reasons. We hope that our efforts to create a Ning for our school faculty will engage more in these conversations, as active participation in the conversation is a key element of 21st century learning. However, some aren't there and that is discouraging to me sometimes. It was particularly on Friday as I learned some in-house decisions that are being made which will affect my family members, and not positively in the direction described above. Sometimes its hard to keep the personal out of the professional when they so directly impact each other. I'm trying not to be too specific here. But, ultimately, how do we dream and work so hard for the future when our own children may not get to particpate in that kind of learning directly themselves?!?

Here's my solution for now. 1) model it transparently at my own school and 2) teach her myself-now I'm going to help my third grader set up her own blog!

A colorful examination of The Great Gatsby


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Pop Quiz for Teachers


My students know that I love the "pop" quiz, which isn't always very much of a surprise :)
Here's one for me from Jenny at Lucacept:

Am I “network literate”? I strive to be.

Am I “Googled well”? Yes. This gets better every year, and I love finding myself on other people's blogs and presentation wikis.

Am I learning with others “out there”? Canada, Australia, and all over the US - YES

Am I a “mobile learner”? No, I don't own a cell phone (maybe that will change soon)

Am I reading and writing differently? As an English teacher, I think NO. Although I try to skim online, it's very difficult for me. I go to catch up on my reader and get stuck on the first two posts I come across. There is SO much great info out there; I just can't skip over it. I'm fascinated by it all.

Am I collaborating, co-constructing and collectively acting with others? My collaborations have improved this year, but I want to do much more with this whole area.

Am I a learner first, teacher second? I don't know that I can put it in this kind of hierarchy. I feel that learning in a continual process running over everything that I do, and teaching is a framework underneath that - the structure and prior knowledge that I need to progress and help my students progress more efficiently.

So, final grade? I'm definitely a work in progress.