Teaching to the Tech

Online Reading Chart

We’re in our state testing season (weak, sarcastic shout of ‘yea’ to the world), and this year, for the first time, our students are doing the entire testing regime (ELA this week and Math, in a few weeks) online. Although I integrate technology all the time into my sixth grade ELA classroom as means to extend the notion of composition, this use of technology for testing is obviously very different.

And watching my students spend nearly three hours yesterday on the first of two sections of online testing for the state, as well as doing both review and practice with some of the technology tools within the testing structure, I have come away with a few observations.

First, years ago, I took part in a week-long technology seminar in Boston for the New Literacies Institute (I still have connections with some of the leaders of that institute in various online space) and one of the research focal points of this group (mostly connected to the University of Connecticut and Professor Don Leu) was the notion of online reading comprehension — of thinking of how our reading habits with screens is fundamentally different than our reading on paper.

I even wrote about the nature of online reading myself, for the now defunct Learn NC (accessed now via Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20170525150113/http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/6958 ) The chart embedded above was a crowdsourced activity I did, trying to hone in on the differences between reading experiences.

I bring this topic up because I have some students who clearly struggle with reading the online text for comprehension, never mind the issues of source credibility and other critical items that Ian talks about in the video.

While difficulties with online reading may have to do with the lay-out of the pages (texts are first displayed as full page and then reduced to a scrollable text box when paired with questions), I am realizing that I have not done enough to explicitly teach how to read for content and information on a screen.

I remember this chart, too, which tracked eye movement of a reader reading on a webpage. A typical person on a screen reads in what is known as an F Pattern, first quickly across, and then down and then across, and then zigzagging for links and information. It’s a treasure hunt style of reading, not an act of continuity.

Now imagine a student reader, who might have attention difficulties to begin with, trying to stay focused on reading a text on a screen, and how their eyes probably jump all over the place. Reading left to the right, and then down to next line, comes into contrast with how their brains are conditioned to read screens, for good or bad. This hampers the ability to fully understand the entire text as well as find important information.

So I need to do a better job of teaching this, and not just for the test, but all the reasons that the New Literacies folks shared with me years ago: most people now read most of the texts in their lives on the screen (albeit, on the smaller screens). Online reading comprehension skills have to be part of our reading curriculum.

Our state testing system — designed by, who else, Pearson — has some useful tools inside of it, which I taught my students to use during some practice sessions. There are highlighting features, a pop-out notepad, an answer eliminator, zoom features and a layered box that allows you to focus on just small bits of reading text at a time.

There are also some questions where answer options can get dragged around the page, and I had few questions related to that (it wasn’t on the practice test), which makes me wonder how I might do some work with this (and think: paper cut-outs, perhaps, and manually manipulating chunks of text). I could only point them to the directions for the activity.

One of the biggest challenges, I think, is the planning of the longer essays and narrative stories. I teach graphic organizers all year long and my students work with them for pre-writing all year long. And they have blank paper to use for the test, for graphic organizers or notes.

But here’s what I observed: Fewer students than usual were making any kind of writing plan. If I had to guess, I would say this is likely the result of taking the test on the computer, and a disconnect between the paper on the desk and the writing on the screen. (And I can’t say a thing about it to any student during testing, even though I want to shout: Make a graphic organizer!). Their focus during testing is on the screen, on the keyboard, not on the pencil and paper on the desk, and I think either some forget, or decide it’s not worth the trouble, or whatever.

I also know, from discussions before the text, that my confident writers were anxious about the character length limits for the longer writing (5,000 characters) and the little countdown box in the corner of the writing space made them even more anxious. They worried they would get to zero, and still have things to say. I had told them, if that happens, it’s time for some editing of what you had already written, and trim for clarity and importance. Which is what I would have said in any writing activity. But the character countdown box gave it a negative gamification element that I had not predicted.

As a teacher, finding this balance of teaching students about writing and reading on the computer and reading and writing on paper, and the places where those skills naturally overlap, is important, and I will be doing more research on this.

Probably, via my computer. There you go.

Peace (on the think),
Kevin

PS — I was also thinking about a fascinating book I recently reviewed for Middleweb by Troy Hicks and Kristen Hawley Turner entitled Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World. There, the thinking was about real-life reading, about the act of taking reading skills beyond oneself and using technology to make sense of the world. What I have written up above here seems so far removed from that. I guess that’s state testing for you.

That Poem In Your Pocket Should Be Shared

Yesterday was Poem in your Pocket Day. I love this annual celebration of carrying poems around to share.

All day long in school, I had a folded poem sticking up out of my shirt pocket, and during each of my writing classes, I would take it out with great fanfare and read it to my students.

Which poem?

Words are Birds by Francisco Alarcon.

words
are birds
that arrive
with books
and spring

they
love
clouds
the wind
and trees

some words
are messengers
that come
from far away
from distant lands

for them
there are
no borders
only stars
moon and sun

some words
are familiar
like canaries
others are exotic
like the quetzal bird

some can stand
the cold
others migrate
with the sun
to the south

some words
die
caged—
they’re difficult
to translate

and others
build nests
have chicks
warm them
feed them

teach them
how to fly
and one day
they go away
in flocks

the letters
on this page
are the prints
they leave
by the sea

Then, I gave each student a different poem, as a gift, from a collection of poems that I had downloaded last year from Poem In Your Pocket Day, and we spent part of the class just reading the poems out loud, letting the words dance in the air, sharing the writing.
Finally, all of my sixth graders folded up their poems and put them in their pocket for the day. They got a kick out of that.
“At recess,” a student in one of my later classes shared, just before I read out Words are Birds, “all my friends were pulling poems out of their pockets and reading me their poems.”
Another student knew of the Poem in the Pocket event, from home.
“My mom and my dad put poems in their pockets today,” he said, before folding up his own, too, which he intended to share with his parents later.

Peace (sharing poems),
Kevin

Slice of Life: The Boy Who Wants to Hit Delete

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

I’ve had a conversation a few times with one of my students that goes along the lines of something like this.

“Mr. H, can I trash all of my writing?”

“What? No. Of course not. Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know. My Google account seems full of files. Can I get rid of them?”

“You don’t need to do that. First of all, your school Google account has plenty of space — more than you will probably ever need. Second, I want you to be able to look back when you graduate high school and see what writing you did in sixth grade. This account will follow you for the next seven years.”

“Oh.”

“And third, we will be working on a digital writing portfolio this Spring, pulling pieces from the entire year, to showcase your work. If they are in the trash, you can’t easily find them.”

“Oh. Ok.”

I’ve had at least three iterations of this same conversation with this same student over the last four months or so. He is an avid technology user, and he has benefitted from our extensive work with technology to improve his writing. I’m not sure why he feels the need to delete his files in his Google account. It clearly is on his mind.

I suspect it is not so much to do with his feelings about his writing — which was my first thought, as writing does not come naturally to him but he works hard on every assignment — and more to do with the untidiness of the Google architectural design system. Even with folder systems, the Google digital file architecture can be tricky and confusing to navigate.

Yesterday afternoon, at the bus loop, he told me he wasn’t sure anymore if he wants to be an engineer. I told him I was surprised to hear him say that, and that I thought he would make a fantastic engineer — he loves to design and build things, and solve problems — and when he asked me what kind of engineer I thought he would become, I said: architectural engineer.

Later, thinking of our conversations about files and computers, I wondered if he might be the one to finally solve the problems of curating digital content in meaningful ways for all of us as a networking engineer or something.

Maybe so.

Peace (don’t delete),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: Bag o’ Work Left at School

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

This is the first Spring vacation week in memory where I didn’t have an overflowing bag of student writing (either literally, or figuratively, now that I use Google Classroom for much of our writing) to read and assess and comment upon. My carrying bag, the one that is often filled with student work, is still in my classroom. I didn’t need it.

Either through planning (there was some of that, to be sure) or sheer luck of where our unit is right now (there is some of that), I’ve been able to mostly keep it relaxed so far this week.

So, why does that make me feel guilty? Sheesh.

I’m so used to spending time outside of school with student writing, and thinking of lesson plans and activity flow, that when things slow down, I feel as if something should be happening. Helping students make progress with their learning — with their writing — that’s what teachers do.

Ok, but … still … relax.

Enjoy your books. Enjoy your family. Enjoy Spring (even with snow and sleet still on the ground from yesterday’s storm that gave us permission to stay inside most of the day). Think about the days ahead when we get back, but not too much.

The dog needs a walk. Go on and do it.

Peace (on the horizon),
Kevin

At Middleweb: Mistakes Were Made


Broken Glass flickr photo by spi516 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

Hmm. I guess I never posted this. Another mistake.

I had wanted to share this column I wrote for Middleweb a few weeks back, about reflecting on where things have gone wrong in my classroom. This is a necessary ballast to stories I often share of where things go right in my classrooms. Reality is messier. Kids are unpredictable. And I don’t always know what to do.

Head to Middleweb to read Mistakes Were Made

Peace (fixing it, slowly),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Stories on the Wall

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

Like many teachers, I try to display student work throughout the year, both as a way to get some of our stories read by classmates and to showcase some exemplary work. I often will take names off the work, for various reasons, and my closet door often becomes one of the classroom posting sites. Students line up near the closet at the end of class, so it becomes a prime viewing spot.

I had placed a bunch of stories written as part of a lesson around remixing stories from a different character perspective — we used Rikki Tikki Tavi as our core story — and it was a few days later that one of the writers was reading the stories during a lull when he gasped, and shouted out that he recognized his writing. (The stories were typed, so handwriting was not a visual give-away).

“Hey, that’s my story! I wrote that! That’s my story!”

His friends all came over to look and read with him. Then, they started to read and re-read the others.

Student Writing on Display

Peace (displayed, read, celebrated),
Kevin

 

Six Word Slice of Life: Quiet Wriot

(For this month’s Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, I am aiming to do Six Word Slices most days, with some extended slices on other days.)

Context: There’s something magical about watching classrooms of students, working hard at a piece of writing. The quiet focus, and deep attention, of the young writing talent is evidence in the quiet. Yesterday, my students were working on a “story remix” activity — retelling a story from another character’s perspective (in this case, Rikki Tikki Tavi) — and I just marveled at the way so many them were so quickly lost in their writing, nearly oblivious to the time on the clock. Forty-five minutes after starting their stories, I brought them up for air, as we wrapped up our writing session.

Six Word Slice of Life Quiet

Peace (write it),
Kevin

 

Six Word Slice of Life: Computer Use

(For this month’s Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, I am aiming to do Six Word Slices most days, with some extended slices on other days.)

Context: As a professional development facilitator with our Western Massachusetts Writing Project, I’ve too often run into situations where our teachers and programs have been shut out of computer labs for weeks at a time, all because the computers were being used for testing and data collection. Mostly, this was in our urban high-needs schools, where access to computers was already limited for many students. It drove me crazy. Now, my own school is making the shift to have students take our state’s standardized testing system (MCAS) online, with computers. During our training session yesterday after school, as we learned about the teacher portal and the student interface, it occurred to me again that the vision of how I see computers — as a means for composing with media and pushing the boundaries of what we define as writing — and how state administrators see computers — a means of gathering data on students and schools — are often in conflict with each other. On the other hand, our school community — not one to often provide money for our school, which is near the lowest in the state in per pupil expenditures — did allocate quite a bit of investment last year for new computers. However, the town did that because of the worry about state testing, not for fear that our students aren’t learning important technology and communication skills. We take what we can get, I guess, and make the most of it.

Six Word Slice of Life Testing

Peace (power it up),
Kevin

Six Word Slice of Life: From Design Flow to Interactive Story

(For this month’s Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, I am aiming to do Six Word Slices most days, with some extended slices on other days.)

Context: I wrote the other day about the ways my sixth graders were making design plans to create Interactive Fiction stories inside Google Slides. Since then, they have been working hard to bring the stories to fruition, and by yesterday, many were finishing up the writing and proofreading of their stories. I enjoy this time of reading the finished game/stories, after so much work with conferencing on narrative ideas and technical assistance.

Six Word Slice of Life Student Stories

You can read a few of their stories (It’s best to go full screen to experience the pieces … use the hyperlinks to move along the narrative choices):

 

Peace (make a choice),
Kevin