Saturday, September 29, 2012

Flipping testing skills in Week 3

I identify with the tenets of flipped approached and find that it is a natural fit for much of what I do in my student-centered, collaborative learning environment. A hybrid-mastery approach works well for my style, but I cannot be completely asynchronous for a number of reasons both curricular and logistical.

To highlight Cheryl Morris' explanation of the Flipped Method in English/Language Arts:

Flipping English is about two things: 1) helping students take responsibility for their own learning by understanding them and their unique skills, abilities, and needs, and 

2) leveraging technology to build a student-centred learning environment that meaningfully engages the cultural context in which our students live.

#1 is relatively easy to do with student-centered learning. The teacher is the conductor on the train of learning.

#2 can seem daunting when thinking that in order to flip the teacher has to be connected to the internet, has the ability to make effective videos, and has a way for videos to be available to students. But it is NOT daunting when you, the teacher, take what you have done in a traditional manner on paper and apply the flip process. You do NOT need videos! The flip is not the video; the flip is in the PROCESS of HOW the students learn, not WHAT they learn from!

This week, using a flipped approach, I introduced to my students to testing strategies that align with NJ's HSPA standardized test (Take a look at this Post on testing in NJ).  My 9th grade colleagues and I teach the testing strategies in context with the literature taught in class. We do not teach exclusively to the test, nor can we ignore the test. Instead, we show the students strategies that can be transferred to any standardized test. The NJ Department of Ed states that this year's sophmores will be the last group to take the HSPA, but without a clear plan from the state (lots of mentions of EOC's and PARCC's), I am fearful of completely forgoing teaching testing skills. Something is coming, and I'd like the students to have some semblance of preparation.

Traditionally, I've given a PowerPoint presentation on how to mark up prompts and questions using the Circle & RUN strategy and an additional PPT on how to write an open-ended response. The students copy down the notes, then they are drilled until they get it right (ie. conform), and then through out the year, we reinforce the skills to maintain proficiency. Students take diagnostic tests in 9th & 10th grade to prepare for the real State test in 11th grade.While this approach has worked-- our HSPA language arts scores show a 98.4% passing rate for general education students-- it requires the teacher to determine proficiency and maintain the skill set.

Using a flipped approach for introducing and initial practicing of HSPA skills, activities were group and inquiry oriented. Students became detectives for figuring out the meaning of the strategies and how to apply them.

The Process:
  1. At home, students viewed a quick video on using the Circle-RUN strategy that I posted on Edmodo. I just used a PPT I had and made my very first screencast using Screencast-O-Matic. The hardest part was keeping my girls (ages 4.5 & 6) quiet for 2 mins to record the video-- you'll hear when I try shouting over them. Students took notes on the video and marked up practice questions which I checked the next day.
  2. The next day in class, students were sat in groups of their choosing. They were given a paper copy of the RACES PPT presentation  instead of listening to me lecture. (Google doesn't like the formatting of my PPT, but you get the idea) Students were also given a sample scored Open-Ended question with multiple sample scored answers that aligned with steps on the rubric. All papers were hole punched for inclusion in their 3-ring binders. I gave general directions ("Figure out what the meaning of this "stuff" and what are you supposed to do?") and while students worked, I circulated around the group asking guiding questions as needed. Any of their questions were answered with an additional question from me. I did not give them answers.
  3. Next day in class (today-Friday), I gave them an Open-Ended question and with minimal directions said: use your resources to answer the question and earn a score of 4 on the rubric. Student responses were not collected.
  4. Next day in class (this coming Monday), and still in groups, students will revise a sample answer. Students will then self-assess their own open-ended responses from Friday and make any changes as needed.
  5. Students will do their first structured peer editing and evaluate each other's open ended responses.

As far as leveraging technology, I did not use videos for most of the flip, and in this case, it was mostly paper copies of notes and presentation slides. I'm new to the whole video creation process, so most of my flipping will be done without videos for now. The students were engaged in the process and had to be responsible for their own understanding of the strategies. Students used collaborative thinking skills to help guide each other in the direction of their understanding. Listening to their group conversations and asking questions to formatively assess their understanding, it was evident that the students "got it."  There still needs to be further summative assessments, but at least the students weren't drilled to death in the process.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Week #2- Artistry & Collaboration

Week 2 Break Down:

1. Narrative Terms & Literary Devices
2. Collaborative Google Docs
3. Socrative Space Race
4. Seniors vs Freshmen

"Bouquet of Sunflowers" by Claude Monet
Oil on Canvas, 1881
"Flower"by Katherine Baker,
Microsoft Paint, 2012
With the freshmen, I start the year off working with Narrative Terms and showing how an author can add artistry to writing. This is akin to at home finger painting versus museum quality artwork: I can fingerpaint a picture of a flower,  but an artist can enhance the picture of the flower by using artistic techniques-- brushstrokes, type of paint, shading, etc. Both are artistic in their own sense, but I doubt you'll see my fingerpainting hung in the Museum of Modern Art. Likewise in writing, a person can write a simple sentence about a flower, but an author can add depth and meaning by using literary devices.

The flower bloomed in the spring. -K. Baker

Like the lily,That once was mistress of the field and flourish'd, I'll hang my head and perish. - William Shakespeare, Henry VIII (3.1.168-70)

There is the use of consonance of the "L, "S" and "D" sounds, alliteration of the "F" and "H" sounds, as well as the use of meter and simile in Shakespeare's sentence. I may be a decent English teacher, but I am certainly not published like Shakespeare! 

So this is what my freshmen students did one day this week. We read the short story, "Priscilla and the Wimps" by Richard Peck and then used a collaborative Google Doc to mark up the text as a class. After identifying the literary devices in the text, students were then directed to another Googe Doc for collaboratively answering analysis questions and writing a group paragraph response. The focus with this activity is on the PROCESS. I wanted to "formatively" assess their understanding and ability to collaborate. I was not expecting students to be able to give me a final product in one class period.

Since I am not a 1:1 district, I had to sign out the computer lab and since many students use technology for entertainment purposes, this was their first exposure to Google Docs and the collaborative process. At the conclusion of the activity, students were directed to a Google Form on which they relfected on the process.


  1. The students enjoyed working together, but the students did not like working together on such a large scale. Too many students on the same document made it lag and some students deleted/undid other students' submissions. I figured this would happen, but I wanted them to understand the process. I wanted them to make mistakes so that when I put them in small collaborative groups, they will make fewer mistakes and I will get a final finished product from the group.
  2. The students had some trouble applying their knowledge of the terms-- probably because they still needed to obtain the knowledge. They could pick out obvious narrative terms (simile, alliteration) but had trouble with irony and diction.
  3. While they could "search & locate" narrative terms and input their individual responses on the group questions, students struggled with writing collaboratively. They could not create a group paragraph answer in the time given. I didn't expect them to complete the paragraph, but I wanted to give them the opportunity to exceed my expectations.
The next day in class (Friday), we reviewed the collaborative document and went over some of the errors and missed terms. We discussed how an author can build a story around an allusion, in this case the Garden of Eden, and use narrative terms to enhance the story. I saw light bulbs going off when they made the connections! We also went over how to make the collaborative process easier.

To finish off the class period, the students used their personal devices to work in groups on a 5 minute Socrative Space Race.  Despite some hiccups with connecting to the wi-fi and getting the students acclimated, the race was a success: students were animated, on task, and used teamwork to finish the race. I'm also checking out Infuse Learning and Naiku's Quick Question to add to my arsenal of clicker-type activities using personal devices.

Where do we go from here?

We will continue to work on identifying and analyzing narrative terms/literary devices throughout the year. I'll be giving them a test on narrative terms at the end of this week, as well as a quiz on "Priscilla & the Wimps" to assess their knowledge and comprehension. In addition, we'll be doing more collaborative writing using a flipped and mastery approach. I will be assigning the same group questions again, but this time the groups will be student chosen and each group will receive their own GDoc to complete the writing task. 

A Little More on Flipped & Mastery Writing
The only way for the students to become better writers is to write, but I need them to be thinking about their writing while doing it, and I can't have them waiting for me to give them back their papers covered in red ink. So, if they write with partners or groups, they should be able to edit and make choices while in the group process. This should increase the frequency of feedback from each other and me since I can "drop in" on the collaborative Gdocs or look over the shoulder when writing on paper and they can talk to each other about the choices they are making. I can increase the number of formative writing tasks (notice I did not say assignment!), and decrease the number (but increase the quality) of summative assignments. This will also take the pressure off of students and hopefully they won't procrastinate writing in general. I have been so tired of doing writing the traditional way and getting poor quality final essays. Writing is a process, so why should I only focus on the final product. It doesn't make sense!

Any additional ideas on writing?

Seniors vs. Freshmen
For the first time in my 14 year career, I'm teaching one section of senior general level English. I'm enjoying the class, but I'm concerned. While the seniors are agreeable and behaved, they have also been well-trained in the traditional mode: they love listening to me talk and tell them answers. This is great if I were a traditional type teacher-- but as you can guess from my blog, I'm not. We did a version of the collaborative Google Doc, but it was focused on finding answers to a web quest on Beowulf. It was not as involved of a lesson as the freshmen. While it is nice to not have to deal with behavior issues and the traditional model here would be soooooo easy to implement, I still want the students to think for themselves-- and frankly, I'd get bored with the traditional method. I like flipping, using cooperative learning, and meta-cognition. My initial focus this year with the seniors will be to connect the literature to the students' lives, showing them how the concepts are universal and to apply that knowledge to making decisions out in the real world. I can try to un-train them from the traditional model, but I'm concerned that there won't be much time for reprogramming. 

Any thoughts or advice on teaching seniors? 

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Dog in BYOD-- make sure you have tissues ready

On the Moose River near Jackman, ME
UPDATE:  I'm sorry to share that Brody crossed the Rainbow Bridge in Spring of 2016, just a day shy of his 13th birthday. Brody will always be remembered for his calm demeanor and ability to brighten the day of anyone he encountered, as well as his superpower for charming anyone and everyone in to giving him a treat.

Below is the original post I wrote in 2012 about his 11-year tenure as a therapy dog at Southern Regional High School.


Brody is 8.5 years old and with his graying muzzle, it is evident that he is starting to show his age. I'm reminded that my super-hero dog is mortal. This scares me.

Brody has been a faithful companion, trail buddy, swim partner, and emotional rock for 8.5 years now. For 7 of those years he has walked the halls of Southern Regional with me, saying hi to students and staff, offering an ear for reading,  snoozing while I teach, and soothing anyone in need.

You have to understand that while Brody is my family pet, he has been a therapy dog for over 2,000 people a year for the past 7 years. He isn't just my dog, and he is much much more than an unofficial school mascot. Brody is a founding member of the PAWS therapy dog program at Southern.

A portion of The Southern PAWS pack: Brody, Sage, & Dusty (Not pictured: Marker & Harley)
8.5 years ago my district went through a crisis: we had multiple deaths from car accidents, suicides, and illness. In a 2 year period, we had over 10 student/staff deaths. One of those deaths broke me and it took a puppy, my husband, and amazing staff (B.D. especially!) at my school to put me back together. One of my swimmers, left me a suicide note on my desk, the cliche, "By the time you read this...." By the time I read her note, she was gone. After staying after school with me, she had walked with me to the main entrance, as I continued on to my car, she ran back to my room and put the note on my desk. That night, she killed herself. I have learned that despite no matter how many times I go over in my mind ways to prevent her death or things I could have done differently, there is nothing I could actually do. It was out of my control. 8.5 years later, I have accepted & excepted that as much as anyone can accept & except it: LIFE goes on, even after death.

Brody is 2nd from the right wearing a purple ribbon.
Two weeks after my swimmer's death, our 6 week old chocolate lab puppy was delivered from the breeder. Oh, those sad puppy dog eyes! Raising and training Brody over the course of the next year helped get me through the depression, and it was from our basic obedience trainer that I first learned about therapy dogs.

Brody on his first morning "walk".
The science behind therapy dogs focuses on one simple premise: petting a dog makes one feel good. Studies have been done on the physical effect of interacting with animals. I could bore you with statistics on how one's blood pressure is lowered when petting, but the simple fact is this: being with a dog makes a person happy. Why else did we domesticate dogs and let them in our homes eons ago? Go read Bruce Cameron's A Dog's Purpose and Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain and don't tell me you don't think of your own dog while reading and get teary-eyed.

Thank you  R.M. for this great shot! Brody plays "Sandy" in Annie.
Long story short, I realized what an amazing and simple thing therapy dogs could do for students in the classroom and the overall school environment, and made it my mission to get Brody certified. Longer story shorter, after getting certified, another teacher and I wrote proposals, gave presentations and the two of us got approval to start the Pets Assisting Willing Students (PAWS) therapy dog program. As far as I know, we are the only high school in NJ that has therapy dogs in school 5 days a week.

In the 7 years of the program, we've had 5 dogs (Brody, Sage, Dusty, Marker, & Harley) attend classes, participate in an after school reading program (BARK: Books And Reading with K-9s), interact with students, visit the special ed and autism classrooms, and when called upon, participate in crisis intervention and management. Brody even played the role of "Sandy" in the school's production of Annie. In the 7 years that Brody has attended school-- he still hasn't made it out of the 9th grade-- he and the other PAWS pack members have impacted thousands of people, staff and students alike.

In my classroom, I have ZERO truancy. I have ZERO lates. My behavior issues have also decreased. I have witnessed the surliest, meanest looking student in school, break into a big, goofy grin and get o the floor to pet Brody. I have watched regular education students stop in the halls to talk to a special education student who was walking Brody on leash. A dog is a bridge that connects us to ourselves and each other.

While I fear his mortality, Brody's years of service aren't over yet, and if he has made you smile, laugh, and be happy to be here (even from looking at these pictures), then he has done his job.

Here are some shots of the PAWS pack in action over the years.

Always remember, more wag & less bark!
Go get your dreams, like a lab retrieves a ball!
Happy Tails!

Start the Year with Contracts, 9/11 & BWP

Breaking Down the First Week:
1. BWP
2. Class Contract for Mid-level classes
3. Class Procedures for all
4. Using Edmodo for posting activities and assignments and having online discussions
5. Using Quizlet as a study resource
6. Student reflection responses

Blank White Page Project was a big hit for starting off the year. Students were intrigued about the idea of questioning and researching for the sake of questioning and researching. I'm still in the process of categorizing my students' questions, but I'm hopeful that in October, I can get them started on the researching process. This was certainly a quick way for me to get to know my students. They revealed much about themselves in the questions they asked. I am looking forward to getting them connected to students across the country. This will be a valuable lesson in learning to be part of a greater community.

On to the Contracts: My "general" or "average" level classes are usually where I have the most behavior problems. Could it be a vicious cycle: student is placed in general/average level and will therefore act in a general/average way because he/she was not identified as advanced despite possessing unrecognized "advanced" potential? In the MS, students are labeled as advanced or general, but when they move up to 9th grade, there are 4 tracks to take: Basic, General, Advanced, Honors.   Placement is based on test scores and marking period grades, but it isn't a perfect system. I've also noticed a pattern: the students who are more well-behaved (good at playing the game of school) are placed in Advanced. There are some smart students in those General classes, but the lack of maturity in 9th grade impedes learning.  My opinion: too many tracks for 9th graders and if the student is not placed in his/her desired track, the student shuts down. To combat this vicious cycle, this year the classes and I negotiated an academic contract and am implementing a hybrid-mastery model.

In order for this to work, I and the students both need to follow through. I need to stay organized and up to date on assignments, and the students need to honor holding themselves to a higher standard. Edmodo's quiz feature will help with managing tests. I have two options to explore:

  1. Create a small group with in my class for retakes, loading the retake tests to just the small group and selecting the students as needed. I'm toying with the idea of delineating each retake group: instead of one large retake group, create a group for each unit. I'm just afraid that I will have too many small groups within the main class group. And if I deselect students from the small group, I think their scores get erased as well, so I want to make sure I think this through.
  2. My other option is to create an additional class for students to join to take the retakes. I would be able to set permissions to read-only if needed, but their scores would be in a separate gradebook. I want all scores in one place....maybe this won't work.

A third option is to forgo technology for the retakes and do paper-pen tests. I have a cache of them at my fingertips. I'm still in the process of moving to paperless environment, so this would alleviate the issue of having to get multiple versions on the web. Ugh, I dunno....trials and errors!

The writing revisions will be the most time consuming on my part. I need to mull this over more. I intend on doing more frequent small formative writing that is not graded, but I need to make sure the students are getting valid feedback. Peer assessment will help, but it won't be able to do all. I could do screencast videos and discuss common errors, but I don't know if students will be able to apply the general comments to their specific writing.  Must mull this....The goal is to be efficient and effective!

Speaking of small groups, the 9-11 mini-discussion in assigned Edmodo small groups went well. Students examined two infographs, read articles from a New York Times site, found something interesting and wrote a post in their small group about what they found interesting and why. Part two of the activity involved students watching an amazing video from Mrs. Syollis' class on how to write a quality comment and then applied the newly acquired knowledge to replying to other group members' posts.

Finally for week one, students reflected on this week using a google form. Many enjoyed the 9-11 activity-- weird to think that they enjoyed learning about something that was so gut-wrenching. I have to keep reminding myself that they do not have an active memory of this event. I clearly remember everything about that day, my students were too young to understand. I received positive responses on the contract process, the introduction to Edmodo and Quizlet, and overall favorable outlook for the year.

Week 1 is DONE!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Beast of the East

Me, going down & up a hill
While this title sounds like something my cross-country, Californian colleagues might call me (#thatsajoke), this is really referring to the 10K McGuire Mud Run held at Fort Dix, NJ.

Yes, 10k.... And I'm not a great runner. I don't usually run. But the focus in this race is on the process: my mom, siblings & I encouraging each other and using team work to overcome ridiculously muddy obstacles. Run up a big muddy hill and when you reach the top, you'll see what I mean.

My mom & brother give me a boost.
My brother gives me a hand up.

During today's race, I ran into  (figuratively) one of my students in class this year. Talk about awkward: We just finished the first 3 days of school and are still in the "getting to know you" phase, and here I am dressed in silly costumes with my family covered in mud. But the great thing was, I got to cheer that student on while really climbing a giant muddy hill, not a metaphorical one, and he and his family cheered me on while I made my climb. How many times in one's teaching career can that be done? And there is more: we, the student and I, both know exactly what obstacles and challenges we each faced and overcame. How often can that be said in the classroom? 

Teaching is similar to doing a mud run: it is a messy process that requires teamwork and problem solving skills to surmount obstacles.Often times we, students and teachers, forget that we are facing the same challenges and engaging in the same process.  Do you think this student will look at me differently after this run-in? Do you think I will know that this student is capable of meeting challenges?

But I do know this: both he and I know that we are capable of doing great things with just a bit of teamwork.

One of the Big Hills-- Student's mom is the one climbing on the right. My Student is waiting to go; he'll be up next.
My mom (very last person in red with bi on back) and I (all the way to the left in black with my bib on back)
watch on and wait our turn.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Students are Coming!

Tomorrow starts the first day with students, and as a way to ease them (all of us) back into the schedule, we have 1/2 days with 20 minute periods. The next few days will be hectic as well with class meetings and the inevitable shaking out the kinks of student schedules. Despite the distractions, I'm starting off the year with a list of things I want to do balanced with things I'm told to do.

So, to start the year off, I begin with the Blank White Page.

As a way to BUILD the classroom climate, students will be given as their syllabus/class expectations a blank white piece of paper. I have my syllabus and class expectations from previous years, and I'm sure they know what the usual things will be on the list, so I refuse to belabor it and talk to the students. Instead, I want them to have a voice and to tell ME what they expect from this class and me, the teacher. Obviously, the comments of "no homework," "Easy A" will be addressed. We are all in this together, so why not establish class expectations together? With 7 other periods reading off their class expectations and giving the usual lectures, I hope this will intrigue them and help them to be invested in the class.

The Blank White Class Expectation page will then lead into the BWP inquiry project. More on this later....

Other items on my To-Do list include (in no particular order):

1. Creating a flipped-mastery unit for the mandatory SAT vocab words the entire district is using. Don't get me started on authentic vocabulary acquisition, but I hope this Word of the Day bit will be as painless as possible. I have the list of words, but just need to create the activities & quizzes.

2. Creating a flipped-mastery unit for the mandatory grammar skills. Grammar will also be integrated into daily lessons and activities, but I'd like to make grammar as painless as possible, too. I'm waiting on the list of skills that the 9th grade is supposed to cover.

3. Adapting some of my paper permission slips (BYOD, PAWS program) to an online format using Google forms. This won't take me long to do once I get the students on Edmodo.

I'm excited for this year with really going paperless, integrating BYOD, and delving more into the flipped classroom model. On my short list of classroom tools, we'll be using Edmodo (of course!), Google docs/forms/sites,, Quizlet, and Socrative.

More to come soon!