Friday, November 10, 2017

Maintaining Student Equity in Classroom Discussions

As an English teacher, I often have discussion days in class either in the form of Socratic inner/outer circles or in a Harkness-style context. One thing that Harkness has taught me is that there is often a disconnect between how I perceive the discussion to go and what the data actually reveals upon reflection afterwards. What I mean to say is that many times in class I thought a discussion went really well: the energy was high, and the insights were diverse and illuminating, and I didn’t have to say very much at all. However, the data may have painted a very different picture; for instance, whether I immediately realized it or not, perhaps the conversation lacked the proper balance of gender equity. Or perhaps only 80% of the class truly participated, and the excluded 20% were the same students who always seem to be overlooked and therefore not heard.

How do we maintain real equity in classroom conversations, and more importantly, how do we track that over a sustained period of time?

One program that has been a game-changer for me as a teacher is the iPad-based app, Equity Maps. The program allows you to map the room digitally in terms of who sits where, thereby allowing the teacher to enter each student’s name as well as his or her gender. Once the discussion begins, the teacher can tap a student’s avatar to signal that the student is speaking; when the next student responds, the instructor taps that person’s figure on the screen, and the program draws a line to the next participant (just like one would do on paper in a traditional Harkness discussion). There are also options to mark when there’s chaos, silence, or smaller group exchanges during the live discussion. 


What’s amazing about the program, however, is what it provides once the class activity is done. Immediately, the instructor has the following data for reflection and assessment:

1. Instant playback of the group discussion
2. Data about how many times a student spoke
3. Data about how long that student actually spoke


4. Analysis of gender equity and whether one gender dominated the conversation


5. Overall assessment of levels of inclusiveness for the entire conversation


Equity Maps dispels any misguided perceptions on the teacher’s or student’s part about how well the conversation went and therefore forces one to be more honest about the greater value of that day’s discussion. It has made me a better facilitator, encourager, and evaluator of what needs to happen every day in a conversation whose main priority is promoting equity among all participants. What I’ve also come to discover is that the information can be insightful feedback for students: they need to see and reflect upon the data as well because deeper learning can only happen if we build in time for reflection upon that learning.


How do you maintain real equity in classroom conversations, and more importantly, how do you track that over a sustained period of time?

Friday, October 27, 2017

Reflections on OESIS Boston: Humanities without Textbooks & Bringing Poetry to the MakerSpace

Two weeks ago, I attended the OESIS conference in Boston, MA, and I’m still processing all the things I learned over such a short period of time. I had the privilege of sitting on two panels, one on online collaboration and another on student agency, as well as presenting with my colleague, Joel Garza, on some of our previous collaborative projects.


I wanted take a moment to share some notes and observations about a couple sessions I attended that relate to English instruction (Also, for more reflections on OESIS Boston, check out the article just published by Global Online Academy, The Power of Networks: 10 Ways Schools Are Tackling Innovation):

1. Humanities without the Narrative by Deborah Shaul from La Jolla Country Day School

Deborah’s session was about blending a US History curriculum with an American Literature class without using an anchor textbook for the course. When Deborah ditched the textbook, it freed her to approach the content in a less linear fashion, and instead, scope and sequencing were often shaped or influenced by the interests and choices of the students as they immersed themselves in a deeper, more interconnected investigation of American literature and history. As she stressed, by allowing to make more choices as to what primary documents they wanted to research, the teacher and the author of the textbook were no longer the “keeper of the keys” to the narrative. One thing I appreciated about Deborah’s session was her candidness about student and parent responses, which were not always positive. Doing away with the textbook created fear and anxiety for some. They weren’t always sure what to study or how to do so, but I think such push back always happens when we truly turn over agency to students in relation to their learning. Why do some students prefer having a textbook?

(a) It serves as a security blanket because the answers are explicitly provided
(b) Students don’t always trust their own answers nor those of their peers
(c) It’s easier to perform well on a test when one can memorize pre-packaged content

She surveyed her students, asking them how they prefer to learn, and Deborah was a little disappointed to see that many students still prefer lecture/power point formats. However, I think it’s important to step back and ask ourselves: are students conflating “getting good grades” with learning? Perhaps the survey results reflect that kind of confusion that one would expect from the average independent school learner whose main priority is his or her transcript.

If you have more questions, you can reach out to Deborah at @Dshaul3.

2. Discovering Poetry Through Maker-Space Projects by Amy Alsip from The Oakridge School

Amy shared with us a project she did where students made poetry as well as artifacts inspired by their literary creations in the context of a MakerSpace. One through-line I noticed that connects Amy’s project to Deborah’s curricular innovations was the role of student agency in each scenario. Students would enter the MakerSpace, and there were several stations/choices for poetry creation:

(a) Dice Roll haikus
(b) Using book spines to create poetry
(c) Using the name of paint samples to create poetry
(d) “Blackout poetry” using markers and a found text (like a newspaper)
(e) Using scrabble games to construct poetry
And there were a few more stations that escape me now…

Amy Alsip presenting her poetry/maker project at OESIS Boston
Students would then share their 20+ poetry creations with peers to get feedback. Once they had selected their favorite 3-5 poems, each poet would return to the MakerSpace to create an artifact inspired by the poem in question, and once again, they had many options:

(a) Coding
(b) Sowing
(c) 3D Printing
(d) Repurposing found materials
(e) Circuitry Boxes
(f) Legos
Again, I believe there were 1 or 2 more options that I cannot recall now

The whole project culminated in a poetry read-aloud night at the school for the community to attend. Of course, the students got to showcase their fabrications as well. As an English teacher, I like how a project like this reminds us that English classes have always been spaces for making.

If you have more questions, you can reach out to Amy at @amyalsip.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What is Student Agency? Some Provisional Notes

Next week I will be speaking at the Online Education Symposium for Independent Schools Conference in Boston on October 15-16.  One of several things I'll be doing is participating on a panel titled, "Student Agency - Strategies and Opportunities."  I'm excited to be a part of such an exciting conversation with so many impressive fellow educators. 



I'd like to share some of my preliminary thoughts as they relate to 5 crucial questions for our upcoming panel, and any critical feedback from those of you who are reading this post would be much appreciated as I prepare for next week:

Question 1: What is Student Agency?

First off, I think it’s important to note that there are two terms here: “student” and “agency.” The word "student" makes me think of the following modalities: learner, investigator, inquirer, maker, practitioner, deconstructor, apprentice, evaluator. In other words, to be a student, we must be willing to move outside or beyond the self for purposes of encountering teachers, experts, peers, as well as a body of knowledge in a given field of constructed inquiry.

As I think about the word "agency" some words that come to mind are will, choice, autonomy, ownership, personalization, and individuality. If being a student demands us to "get outside our selves" to experience the world and others, agency is the practice of taking responsibility for the self by being one's own advocate and by managing one's priorities, capacities, and interests autonomously. Agency relates to choices about pacing, sequencing, and scope when it comes to curricular engagement as well as deciding how to demonstrate one's knowledge and learning.

With all this in mind, here's my working definition: Student Agency is empowering students to develop, not only the hard skills necessary for a particular curricular scope and sequence of content, but the soft skills as well to map that scope and sequence for themselves in a personalized fashion that fits their sense of purpose while doing so responsibly and productively in partnership with a community of learners (teachers, experts, peers, etc.).




Question 2: Why does it matter?

Students are capable of learning anything, and they need to take responsibility for that innate capacity, but that can only happen if we expect and demand that of them in their formative years of socialization and education. Otherwise, we risk messaging something much less inspiring: that there are those who are good at school and those who are not, when in reality everyone is good at learning, especially if we’ve been given the time and space to develop the soft skills needed to manage that innate capacity productively. However, this can only happen if students have a safe place to practice agency during the formative years of their educational development.

Question 3: What structural and cultural barriers in our schools inhibit the development of student agency?


For structural barriers, here are some insights that came to mind for me:

1. It can take more TIME: pacing can be unpredictable and varied, and not every student moves according to the same timeline. As a result, teachers may not be able to cover as much ground.
2. School schedules can be a hindrance, but the reality is we need to "have the minutes match the mission" - meaning if cultivating agency is important for your school then there needs to be a schedule that allows for such environments to flourish. I think it's harder to achieve this when students meet for shorter time periods (such as the 45 minute, 5-days-a-week schedule).
3. Technology is often a supporting tool for scaffolding agency, so inequity can be an obstacle when it comes to having access to such resources.
4. Sometimes there can be "mixed messaging" for a given student when traveling from one classroom environment to another.  Some classes demand the exercise of agency, while other classes may inadvertently suppress it, making it difficult to develop the kinds of habits of mind that are necessary for students to take ownership of their learning.
5. High stakes testing.
6. I believe agency is motivated by authenticity, so it's important a student's educational experience is (inter)connected across departments as well as to the real world (beyond our campuses).  

For cultural barriers, here are some thoughts that occurred to me:

1. The tug-of-war between the scope of content vs. the depth of the learning experience can make it difficult for teachers to prioritize student agency. This gets back to the structural barrier mentioned in #1: it takes time to cultivate agency.
2. For some of us, there is a real fear of losing control of the classroom, and the fear is well-founded.  One does lose control, but we have to ask ourselves: What does active learning look like? I think the answer to that question makes clear that there is a need to cede some control in our classrooms.
3. Our cultural perceptions of the role of the teacher can get in the way: there's little room for the distribution of agency when the teacher is content king/queen. We have to rethink our role if we are to empower students to drive their learning.
4. The “messiness” and diversity of student demonstrations of learning can be daunting: How do we assess them? What are we assessing in a classroom that prioritizes agency?
5. It can be difficult to trust students to take responsibility for their learning, but we all know that they need to practice having such responsibility before the stakes are raised in college.

Question 4: Are all students capable of driving their own learning? What gets in the way?

In my experience there are 3 identifiable cases of students who have a hard time driving their own learning:

(1) The student who has always “schooled school”: usually this type of student is a “high achiever,” but his or her strategy for success is to give the teacher “exactly what they want to hear or read.” I like to think in terms of “mapping” versus “tracing,” and the kind of student I’m describing here is very comfortable with “tracing” what the teacher “maps” - instead of taking the risk of leaving his or her comfort zone to map the learning for his or herself. Oftentimes this kind of student needs to be challenged to exercise agency - especially before they leave for college where more independence and agency will be expected of them. Usually consistent conversations (of a metacognitive nature) that reflect upon why such experiences matter can be enough to get this kind of student to understand what’s demanded of them and why. The real challenge here is when the “high achieving” parent of that student expresses skepticism about what you’re trying to get your students to achieve. Again, I think frank conversations about the soft skills that will be demanded of them once they leave for college can be a good starting pointing for winning this type of parent over.


(2) The student who struggles with executive functioning or related skills that are the foundation for exercising agency successfully and productively: some learners, for a variety of reasons, have a hard time self-initiating and staying organized, as well as understanding strategies for prioritizing tasks to get a job done efficiently. A student who has these challenges sometimes necessitates intervention and assistance from the instructor, but I believe this can only work if there is a communicative partnership with parents or guardians behind the scenes. It’s important to let these students make mistakes, but it’s also important to vigilantly serve as a source of support. I often schedule weekly meetings with students to help them identify what priorities matter for them this week and strategize ways to get it done.

(3) The student who is (nearly) completely disengaged from school and perhaps from the greater community: this to me has been the most challenging case in terms of winning a student over to the idea that he or she can drive the learning. No single classroom environment can completely solve this conundrum; that’s why I mentioned community because it has to be a communal effort to reengage the student. Most importantly, there has to be a mutual partnership with parents/guardians as well. The best place to start I think is to get to know the student as well as his/her interests and/or hobbies, but if the parent/guardian is disengaged as well, it becomes a difficult, uphill battle. One thing that can work here (I think) is peer mentorship, namely finding student(s) who have bought in and could collaborate with (aka mentor) the student in question.

Question 5: How do you determine if a student is motivated, engaged and taking charge of their own learning?

First off, I strongly recommend looking at the Bartle Test for Gamer Types. There are 4 categories: (1) Achiever (2) Explorer (3) Socializer & (4) Killer/Griever; and the test results reveal where you fall (in terms of percentile) with each given category. It measures what’s motivating different types of gamers by identifying what keeps them engaged with the game over a sustained period of time. (Go here to learn more about the taxonomy of types). I suggest using this resource to better understand what type of learner you are working with as well as what motivates them to stay engaged with a project or task. If you have a “socializer,” the student is most likely motivated by social factors; therefore, make them a group leader who reports back to the teacher about the success of the group’s work. An “achiever” wants to feel a sense of accomplishment, and they want it sooner than later, whereas “explorers” want to investigate all options and pathways in a given unit of study. The “killers” are interesting; they like sabotaging other people’s progress. I like to gamify my units, and I always recruit the killers to be beta-testers who look for glitches or loopholes in a given unit (and they are very motivated by this role).
Here are a few more observations about indicators that students are truly motivated to take charge:

1. They stop asking about grades and the bare minimum requirements; instead they start focusing on completing the task they have envisioned

2. I know there's a shift towards agency when students stop asking what I want (for a given assignment) and instead start telling me what they’d like to do.

3. I know they're engaged when students demand that I adjust, alter, or modify an assignment, not because they don’t want to do the work, but because they see a connection or direction that motivates their inquiry elsewhere.

4. Students are taking control when what I’ve planned (in terms of a lesson) gets derailed by the demands of what students need that day for purposes of getting done whatever it is they are working on (in terms of an ongoing project, etc.).

5. I know something is going well when students start talking about what they’re doing/learning outside my class and start making connections with other learning experiences both in other classes and in the real world.

6. (In the context of gamification) I know they're engaged when students go beyond the required amount of XP points because they want to finish the task, “beat the game,” or have the most points.


Wow, I didn't expect this post to be this long, but I've been thinking about this a lot over the past several weeks. Again, please share feedback; these notes are provisional so I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the matter.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What Does a Flipped English Class Look Like? An Example Using Chaucer

Back when flipping classes became the newest trend in conversations about pedagogy, it always bugged me when people would say that "English teachers already flip their classes." Behind such statements the assumption, I think, was that because English students would get content at home (by reading a novel, for instance) it makes possible opportunities for active learning at school (an example being a lively classroom discussion perhaps). As an English instructor, I've always thought that such an assessment misses the point when it comes to "flipping".

The questions we should be asking when designing a flipped course are as follows:

1. What doesn't have to take place during class time (due to tech tools and connectivity)?

2. What should be taking place during class time (but usually doesn't due to time constraints)?

If reading and writing are the skills that dominate the focus of a given English class, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that those are the 2 things that should be taking place in class (even if they demand a lot of time). If discussions and what I call "setting up the book lectures" don't have to take place in the four walls of the classroom (due to technological resources), perhaps activities such as these can take place a-synchronistically outside of class.


Here's something I did this week, for instance, for a unit covering Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

Step One: Instead of "setting up" Chaucer in class by lecturing about or discussing together the historical and literary contexts of Chaucer's work, I recorded a podcast (using GarageBand, but if you don't have a mac, check out Audacity, which is free online) that covered in 20 mins. what would have taken at least one entire class period. (You can listen to the podcast by going here).

Step Two: I also created an online discussion thread that prompted students to share insights and thoughts about the podcast they were required to listen to. Every student had to contribute at least once to the discussion, which also was a way for me to monitor that students were listening to the required material. In my case, I utilized the class's portal page to set up the discussion (we use Finalsite at Oakridge), but one could make use of several free, online programs such as Slack.

For almost every unit now, I follow steps 1 & 2.  Students can complete the requirements easily over a weekend, and they're ready to get down to the business of practicing the skills of reading (and writing) together come Monday morning.

Step Three: Students come to class, and first thing, there's highlights from the weekend's online discussion projected on the digital screen for everyone to see. Naturally, it creates conversation at the beginning of class, but quickly, we turn to the text, reading closely together the first lines of Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Each person gets a specific task (like determining tone, cataloging imagery, detecting allusions, etc.), and with everyone, I model how to read closely the opening passages on the Knight and the Squire. (This gives me the chance to show the difference between idealizing or satirizing a given character...)

Step Four: Students break into groups, and each group gets a character that's portrayed in the opening Prologue. I project on the screen a URL to a Google Doc that everyone can access and edit, and on that doc are questions to guide each group as they read critically the passages that were assigned to them. (The doc looks something like this).

As groups, students must catalog and cite the concrete details that "stick out" after reading the passage in question. Second, they have to discuss and write down any commentary they infer collectively based on the details they've cited. At this point, they're also determining whether the passage is satire or something else. Their third task is to pretend that they're going to write a paragraph about the character in question. With this in mind, they write collaboratively a topic sentence that makes clear the main idea of the passage. (While all this is going on, I get to hover from group to group, helping where I can but mostly listening to the learning that's taking place among peers)

Step Five: After each group is finished, they have to present their work to the class. Someone reads the passage aloud, followed by a brief presentation of the concrete details and commentary they noted. Lastly, we workshop as a class the topic sentence they've constructed, discussing together its merits as well as where we see room for more development. Everyone participates in this process.

Step Six: Once everyone has shared their work, we return to the Google Doc to complete the final task: namely, to create a Meme that makes clear the most important characteristic or flaw related to the character in question. Of course, this activity gets a lot of laughs, and sometimes we post them online for others to see as well.


The lesson I describe above works well with block scheduling. One would have to modify or break apart the stages if dealing with shorter class periods. To me, this is what a "flipped" English class would look like: We front-load the need-to-know info and facilitate much of the more open discussion outside of class so that class time can be spent practicing the art of reading and writing for each other in real time. It went well this week, and students appreciated the collaborative approach. Now we're repeating a similar process (minus the podcast) as we read some of the stories (specifically, "Pardoner's Tale" and "Wife of Bath's Tale"). After that, it's Macbeth, which means another podcast (which you can check out here).