Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Rethinking Class Participation using Annotations - A Guest Post by Joel Garza

I called roll for the first time twenty-four years ago. For the past eleven years, I've taught high school English at Greenhill school in Addison. We're an independent school. Our learning management system is Canvas. We've got students who take Global Online Academy courses. Our students are tech-savvy. I'm not emailing you about tech. I'm emailing you about relationships, relationships that, an online free annotation platform, helps me develop.

I entered teaching because of relationships. I wanted to honor several teachers that I knew—if I’m honest, my becoming a teacher was an act of discipleship. I wanted to continue the conversations that they had started with me that excited me. I wanted to spread that good news. 

The setting of these relationships was always very simple--most of the time we were in some shabby room.

But we were all looking at each other, we were all trying to figure out the same text, we were all trying to answer questions that had been asked for centuries. You know, Socratic seminar stuff. I love it. Those conversations, that format of learning taught me the value of daily engagement. I was taught that participation was necessary, not only to shape my understanding but also to shape my classmates’ understanding.

In every department where I studied and taught, daily engagement was worth a grade, usually a huge part of the grade.

Years later, I recognized that calling that part of the course “participation” might, in effect, create a bias against certain kids.

It's not that these kids don't have anything to say. It's just that they aren't at their most comfortable speaking up like that every day. Last trimester, I tried to find out how many students were like this. So I conducted an unofficial survey. I told students, “Introverts are energized by private solitary moments; extroverts are energized by public social moments. Which one are you?”

I discovered that there are a lot of students who are not energized by the Socratic seminar. There's a lot who would benefit sometimes from some other entrance to the conversation. Enter

By means of, I've got another entrance for these students, and I've got another word besides “participation”, another way of evaluating them. I keep my antenna up for their “tenacity”—How are they grabbing hold of the material? Twitter hashtags, e-mails to the entire class, or in the case that I'm about to walk through for you here, annotations.

So that's the first thing that I want you to know about It gives students an entrance to the material in a public, trackable, shareable way that benefits the entire room.

So in many cases, I would “prime the pump” of the discussion. I would post questions in advance about particular passages.

Within the first hour of posting these “discussion” questions, though, students responded—before class. They responded in great detail. They added their own questions. 

The next thing I want to share with you is the easy way that user interface allows me to offer targeted feedback to individual students. Here's a student that in my old way of grading was below average with respect to participation. He was reluctant to speak up even when asked a direct question. By means of, though, you can see he has probed each reading each day in a single unique way. Before, I did not hear from him every day—with, everybody did.

What this allowed me to do also was check to see the kind of annotations that he made. Very often this student would swoop into the reading, drop an annotation, and swoop back out. So I asked him, “For the next reading, please read not only the work, but jump in later so that you can see and read other annotations. I want you to make a comment on a classmate's annotation. I want you to get a conversation started.” 

So by means of, I was able, first of all, to give this student an entrance, but I was also able to give him a way of engaging his classmates, not just the material.

Another student was very good at understanding the thematic importance of a particular passage.

What I had to ask her was, “Pretty please, ground your observation in a specific literary device next time. I want to make sure that you've got a hold of the stuff in terms specific to poetry, not just in terms specific to you personally.” 

This student had the opposite problem.

You know, she could slice and dice literary devices.  She had clearly been quizzed on them at her previous school. What I needed her to do was to move beyond merely pointing out the literary device to demonstrating how that literary device shaped meaning. So those are the two big takeaways that I had first of all. grants entrance to the material that a traditional classroom format sometimes does not. Also, allows instructors to encourage students to take risks.

And they do. 

Please reach out to me if you have any questions, comments, or ideas for a collaboration!

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?