In Praise of Teachers …

Yesterday, I wrote about a workshop I was to give during the afternoon in a school in the large city down the road (I have another one this afternoon). My idea is to show free/no-cost tools to teachers in hopes of giving them time to play in the workshop and envision use in the classroom.

I sing in praise of the 20 teachers in the session because, despite emails back two weeks and urges from me to the administration and tech person to check out the sites and unblock the filter, there were hurdles galore.

First, the filter was full-on, blocking most of the sites that we intended to use. I had to run through the halls and offices to find the administrator, who had to call the tech support person (in other building) and then finally, most of what I needed was unblocked.

Then, the browsers on the computers in the lab where we were located were not updated and had no Adobe Flash software. You realize when Flash is not there how important it is to so many sites (maybe Steve Jobs has a point!). And of course, I did not have any administrative access so I could not load Flash myself. Yikes! I asked for patience from the group of teachers and began tinkering around and came up with a solution that worked, but was confusing: we needed to use one browser (Firefox) for one site, and then another browser (Internet Explorer) for the other sites.

For many of us, this does not seem like a big deal.

But I know from experience that the last thing you want is for teachers who little technology background to have too many hurdles. It just reinforces in their heads how difficult it is to do this “tech stuff” and they quit before they start.

That didn’t happen.

This group of teachers was game for whatever I threw out there and were ready to play and explore. I bounced around a lot, helping navigate browsers and websites, but it worked. No one stormed out of the room. No one threw up their hands in frustration. They stuck with it, and soon, they were putting up notes on a Wallwisher, making a webcomic and creating a Glog.

We’ll see how it goes today …

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

New England Writing Project Retreat

I’m off to Connecticut this weekend for the New England Writing Project Retreat, which is a gathering of the “tribe,” so to speak, as teachers in various writing projects around New England come together to write, share resources and think about our writing project work (we are part of the National Writing Project).

The theme this year is around how to best use technology resources for recruiting new teachers into our sites, and then how to use technology to keep folks connected to the work around the teaching of writing. So, as you can imagine, this is right up my alley!

There is also time to write and tonight, after a dinner and some discussions, we are invited to head out to an Open Mic night and the Connecticut folks are hoping that we bring some writing along to share. There will also be high school writers sharing their work. I love mixing things up like that and I have a poem that I wrote earlier this week that I will read.

On tap for the retreat are topics such as strengthening a presence on the web,  the pedagogy of the socially networked (person? student? teacher? not clear) by my old friend, Paul Oh, who will be bringing in another friend, Andrea Z., via some teleconferencing system (skype?). It will be good to see Paul again and also, to see Andrea on the big screen.

For me, too, it is a sort of return to some old grounds. I went to college right down the street and often hit the bars (and played at a few bars with my band) at UConn, and I lived in Storrs for a bit of time, too. I also wrote at the nearby newspaper, The Willimantic Chronicle, as a sports reporter, although I did not know what I was doing. I guess that’s how you cut your teeth, right?

I’ll probably reflect out about the retreat over at the NWP Walkabout site.

Peace (in Conn),
Kevin

A Mentor of Mine gets Featured, Props

When I first starting teaching and did not know what I was doing in the classroom, I took a course offered by the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and I was so thankful for the support and philosophy around writing that I discovered there that I became completely immersed into the work of the writing project. One of the teachers in that course was Bruce Penniman, who was also the site director of our WMWP site at the time, and I learned a lot about teaching, and leading, from Bruce. Much of it was no explicit (except for the class). Instead, I learned by watching and listening and stealing ideas that had potential for me (Bruce did a whole unit around reading the Bible as literature … I didn’t go there.)

Bruce, a former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, retired a few years ago, and stepped down from his official duties from the WMWP, but he wrote a book about teaching English in high school and yesterday, I opened up my Council Chr0nicle journal from National Council of Teachers of English, and found a nice profile of Bruce and his teaching strategies in there.

Read the article online

It was through working with Bruce that I began to use the concept of what Bruce calls a “stakes” approach to writing, in which students are working for different audiences and therefore, different stakes. For example, in low stakes writing, they are writing in their notebooks, mostly for themselves. In middle stakes, students are writing something to be shared in our class only. High stakes writing is writing for the Web or a newspaper, or some wider audience. By viewing their writing through these lens, I realized I could put more effort into various phases of writing. In order words, I don’t need to correct everything but I can focus on what work I want to do with my young writers. For me, as a young teacher, this changed everything.

You can view my modified version of Bruce’s Stakes Writing Approach on this Google Doc and also, see the website that I created to map out my writing projects and curriculum over the school year, which reflects this approach (I  hope).

Product Image

Bruce’s book — Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support and Success — is out now and the website for the book has some PDF samples that you can check out to see if it is right for you.

I’m grateful that I had Bruce in my circle of people I could learn from. Who did you have in your first years that you could look to for help and understanding? Or, um, theft of good teaching practice?

Peace (in the Bruce),
Kevin

“Free” but not taken

I am a bit disappointed that a morning conference/workshop that our Western Massachusetts Writing Project was planning for teachers in our region later this month sparked almost no interest whatsoever from anyone (it was open to anyone, not just WMWP folks). Only six people signed up (two of those are colleagues at my school) and so we made the decision this week to cancel the event.

I am trying now to think about why this is.

In the past two years, we’ve had about 25 people sign up for similar technology events and this year, we had the theme of “No-Cost Technology” for teachers and classrooms, thinking it dovetailed nicely with the state of the economy and the limited resources of teachers.

Our WMWP Tech Team was going to show how to use Glogster EDU, and Open Office software, and Voicethread, Wallwisher and more.  It was advertised as a hands-on workshop, full of play with these tools and guidance on the possibilities in the classroom. These tools are all parts of the tapestry of the Net that are so easy to use and cost no money. I hoped there would be interest and thought there would be.

But maybe the time of year is not so good (we are in the midst of state testing), or folks are not interested in “free” but in a special focus (in other years, for example, we focused in on digital storytelling and technology across the curriculum). Maybe the location wasn’t convenient for folks. Did the token registration fee of $30 drive some people away? (Did the fact that there was any kind of fee for a conference billed as free tech strike folks as odd?)

Or maybe technology integration into the classroom just is not a priority for many folks these days, which alarms me a bit.

So, we canceled the event and now we, the WMWP Tech Team, have another Saturday to spend with our families, which is not such a bad thing, right?

Peace (in the reflection),
Kevin

The workings of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project

I spent a good part of the day yesterday at a leadership retreat for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. We worked in collaborative groups to explore the varied programs we are offering for teachers and students, and then began to lay the foundation for a vision for the future of our site. The writing project is always looking ahead (not withstanding concerns about funding at the federal level, of course) and the visioning process is often done as a group, and not by an individual. It’ s so heartening to be in a room of such smart people, particularly as we discussed strategies for creating leadership opportunities for even more people in our network.

On the chalkboard, our site director had etched out all of the work of our site from last year and it covered the entire chalkboard. I jotted down what she had written because I am working on a redesign of our website and it seemed like very useful information.

See for yourself:

Invitational Summer Institute

Co-directors: Joanne and Dawn

(A four-week intensive summer program that includes writing, research and inquiry, sharing of ideas and connecting with other teachers in many content areas.)

Orientation

Post-Invitational Summer Institute Inquiry Groups/Projects

Invitational Summer Institute Inquiry Task Force

Continuity
Co-director: Sherill

(Programs and offerings that allow teachers to remain connected to the work of the writing project site.)

Digital Is technology resources developed by WMWP Technology Team

Massachusetts Writing Project

New England Writing Project

Executive Board

Teachers as Writers

Writing Response groups

Writing Contest (annual)

iAnthology online network

Writing Mini-Marathons

Summer program: Teachers as Writers

Retirees network

Newsletter (twice a year)

In-Service
Co-director: Tracy

(Programs that support teachers through professional development sessions to learn more about literacy and writing instruction.)

English Language Learners Network

Technology Spring Conferences

Content-area Literacy Inquiry

School/district-based in-service/Professional Development

Department of Youth Services Initiative

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Summer Institutes

Literacy/ Non-fiction Seminar

Expository/Persuasive Writing Seminar

MTEL Test Support Group

Best Practices Fall Conference (annual Fall event)

Certificate in Writing Program at UMass

Living Holyoke Institute

Youth and Family Outreach

Co-director: Joanne

(Programs that reach young writers and connect with families through writing, technology and literacy).

SummerWRITE for Youths

Smith Voke (Claymation/Comics)

UMass SummerWRITE

Springfield YMCA digital storytelling

Springfield Housing Authority digital storytelling

Peace (in the reach),
Kevin

Our No-Cost Tech for Teachers event

If you are part of the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts and you want to have a little “play time” with technology tools that don’t cost a dime, then consider joining us in a few weeks for a few hours.

The flier and registration form is here.

We’ll be exploring sites like Glogster, Wallwisher and more and reflect upon the possibilities for the classroom. We’ve kept the cost low and there is room for all technology users — from beginners on up.

I hope to see you there!

Peace (in the sharing),
Kevin

Supporting Writing in Content Areas

(This is an edited version of a blog post I wrote yesterday for another site)

A roomful of teachers in various content areas — ELA, Math, Science, Social Studies, Technology, etc. — came together this evening to talk about ways that our Western Massachusetts Writing Project can support writing across the curriculum. This meeting is part of a grant that our site has received around Writing Across the Curriculum. We had a nice dinner and then worked in small groups on a number of questions before sharing out what we were discovering from each other.

In my small group, we identified a few areas of concern with our students:

  • Non-fiction reading and writing seem to be an overall area of weakness and our students need more support in interpreting non-fiction text and then, analyzing and reflecting on that text;
  • Our students need to do a better job (or we teachers need to do a better job) of transferring the skills they are learning in the ELA classrooms around writing skills in the other content areas. They don’t leave their “writers’ hat” on the hook when they leave the ELA classroom, but students need to be taught to remember and use those skills;
  • Our students need more help with interpretative skills, going deeper with their writing in all areas, and really tapping into the “writing to learn” mentality.

We also talked about how our writing project can help teachers in these areas:

  • Develop strategies for content-area teachers who are afraid of correcting writing (or don’t see the value in writing skills in their content);
  • Refashion the identity of our writing project so that it is welcoming to all teachers, not just ELA teachers because we have “writing” in our title;
  • Show the connections of reading and writing skills in the “real world” or marketplace for students;
  • Showcase more digital media and use of technology to engage students in all content areas, and get them writing and composing even when they don’t quite realize that is what they are doing.

And this was just a tip of the discussions around the table.

Peace (in the talks),
Kevin

Dear Senator Scott Brown: Support NWP

Some of you may know that we have a new senator in these parts — Republican Scott Brown to replace Democrat Ted Kennedy — and this is the first time I am going to be contacting his office (Sen. John Kerry is next). This comes as the National Writing Project is concerned about the reorganization of funding for educational programs. NWP receives substantial funds from the federal government for its work with teachers across the country. There’s a worry that the reorganization may cripple the NWP.

So, I composed this letter to my new senator:

Dear Senator Scott Brown,

First of all, congratulations on your election. I hope you get settled soon and act in the interests of all your constituents in our state in your work as our United States Senator.
I am writing to you today as a sixth grade teacher and as a constituent with three young boys in the public school system. I am writing to you also as someone who cares deeply about the children who come to my classroom every day. I am a member of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, which is based at the University of Massachusetts and a site of the National Writing Project network. The National Writing Project is an organization that I have been part of ever since I began teaching seven years ago and it has changed the way I approach my students as learners in countless, positive ways. The Writing Project has become a second home to me as I continue to develop my skills as a teacher of writing and literacy, and of technology, and its support of my endeavors have been invaluable over the years.
In case you are not familiar with it, the National Writing is an organization with teachers at the center of its work and it empowers us teachers to share our best practices with other educators, to network with each other, to learn from each other, and to make share classroom research around what works best to teach students in all the content areas. We strongly believe that writing is a  crucial way that students learn, whether it is in the Language Arts, the math or the science classroom.
Here in the Pioneer Valley, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project provides professional development for schools by tapping into the expertise of teachers themselves. Our writing project hosts a four-week Summer Institute where teachers conduct research, examine the teaching of writing and become writers themselves. We host numerous conferences for teachers and we have established ourselves as a leader in emerging technology in the Pioneer Valley.
I am writing to you because of proposed changes in the federal educational budget that could negatively impact this work. As you may know, President Obama and his administration are proposing a revamping of the educational funding system. The National Writing Project has been consolidated in the administration’s budget proposal with five other education-related projects as part of a proposed competitive funding stream directed toward State Education Authorities. Money would flow from the states to organizations that the state’s deem worthy.
My concern is that support for the National Writing Project could be in danger under this umbrella plan for block grants. While our Western Massachusetts Writing Project has worked hard to forge connections and partnerships (and run joint programs) with our Massachusetts Department of Education, not all states and not all writing projects have the same bonds. I worry about the competitive nature of the block grant concept and question whether the approach is the right one for educational organizations that work directly with teachers.
If  funding dries up for National Writing Project sites, then proven initiatives that improve instruction and put effective tools of literacy learning into the hands of students might be in jeopardy. The mission statement of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project centers on access and diversity issues for all students and teachers. We work hard to reach those classrooms in urban and rural areas, places where resources are already limited. The strength of an organization like the National Writing Project is that we, the teachers, and our students are tied together with a desire to use literacy for authentic learning.
Let me give you an example of a project that the National Writing Project funded here in Western Massachusetts.
A few years ago, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project launched an initiative known as Making Connections. The goal of our venture was to use technology (weblogs and podcasting) to create an online writing space for middle school students in urban (Holyoke, Chicopee) and rural (Athol) and we had about 20 teachers in a half dozen school districts involved over the three years that we were funded by the National Writing Project. More than 200 students wrote about, and learned about, what it means to live in a rural community or an urban community. Some classes did shared science experiments and collaborated on scientific abstracts. Other students wrote poems and stories. High School students in Chicopee were mentor writers with elementary students in South Hadley. The NWP grant also funded a free summer writing camp for students in Holyoke and Athol. These were opportunities that many of these students would never had had without the vital support of the National Writing Project, and that support began with funding from the United States government.
Here is another example. In the past year, I have helped launch an online social networking site for teachers in writing projects in the New England and New York area. Our aim is to find ways for teachers to connect through tools that break down the geographic barriers. We now have almost 200 members on our site and teachers are using this technology to share lesson plans, to ask questions about classroom activities, to share their own writing and to connect with other teachers. This project is funded directly from the National Writing Project. Without that support, our site might never have gotten off the ground.
The National Writing Project provides numerous other opportunities for teachers right here in our state to to conduct research on the best methods for teaching writing, to write for professional publications, to interact with experts in the field as well as expert teachers from all 50 states. This active network of teachers allows us to share and learn innovative and improved ways of teaching, and I fear that the loss of funding under President Obama’s plan will, at the least, make those opportunities for connections much less likely.
Senator, I am asking for your support in efforts to continue direct appropriations for the National Writing Project and to support the work of teachers in classrooms across the state. By supporting the National Writing Project, you are showing support for teachers and for children. Even teachers who are not part of the National Writing Project benefit, through exposure to best practices at conferences and through discussions with colleagues. If improving schools is a goal, then the National Writing Project deserves your support. Please urge your colleagues in Congress to support the National Writing Project.

Sincerely,

Kevin Hodgson

I also created this quick video for Sen. Brown:

Peace (in the future),
Kevin

Planning a No-Cost Tech for Teachers Conference

Our Western Massachusetts Writing Project is in the midst of planning our third Spring Technology Conference and each year, we try to find a theme. One year, it was Tech Across the Curriculum. The next, it was Digital Storytelling. This year, we are trying to provide time to explore some of the free platforms that are available for teachers and students. We are calling it Unlock the Power of No-Cost Tech Tools for Teachers.

For us at WMWP, this easily falls under one of our main missions of providing access to resources to as many students and teachers as possible. Our hope is that teachers will play and explore, and then reflect on the possibilities for the classroom.

Here are the tools we intend to showcase during the conference, which takes place in late March.

  • Voicethread, for digital storytelling and sharing ideas;
  • Glogster, for creating multimedia posters;
  • Wallwisher, for brainstorming;
  • Open Office, for an alternative to costly software suites;
  • and a few more things here and there.

If you live or work in Western Massachusetts and are interested in more information, leave me a note here and I will contact you. Or you can keep an eye out at our WMWP website for an upcoming announcement.

Peace (in the free stuff),
Kevin

Building a teacher/writer network

Bonnie and I (and a few others) are about three months into a project funded by the National Writing Project to create an online writing community for NWP teachers called the iAnthology. It’s been pretty exciting. We are using a Ning and we have created it to resemble another online network that all NWP folks use during their Summer Institute (a four week professional development that will change the way you teach and connect with others … guaranteed).

Although we began with folks in New England and New York (our home turf, so to speak), we have slowly opened up the doors to teachers from other parts of the country. It’s a closed site with a public face, but we want to reserve the space for teachers who are connected with NWP.

We were looking at some raw numbers the other and I was amazed at the amount of activity it shows.

We now have 165 members

15 Writing groups

Total amount of posts: 173
Total amount of comments: 1,510

Combined total (amount of writing on site): 1,683

(Note: in late September, we had 443 pieces of writing on the site)

Some things I’ve noticed:

  • Our site follows the mathematical power law data tail that Clay Shirkey talks about in his book — Here Comes Everybody — in that we do have a large pool of teachers, but most are either lurkers or joiners, with a select group doing most of the writing and connecting. This a common trend for social networks. What we want to do is entice those in the middle of the data tail to remain engaged and join us from time to time.
  • We’ve set up the iAnthology site to resemble the site most of our folks used during their own Summer Institute (called the eAnthology — get the connection?), so that the interface will seem familiar to folks. Of course, there is not a direct correlation, as they are different platforms. But we used a lot of the same language for peer feedback and created groups with similar names to the other network. We want the hurdles low. We don’t expect the teachers in our network to be tech specialists.
  • We have places (groups) for people to develop longer pieces of writing (creative writing and professional writing) but Bonnie made the smart move early on to set up a weekly writing prompt. We have found that this simple activity brings a lot of folks to the site for some writing, and then connecting. Again, a low hurdle is key.
  • Our site has been used by folks writing for publication, for sharing ideas for the National Novel Writing Month and more. It’s a sounding board for review and revision of pieces of writing, and a supportive place to hang out, too.
  • We are all part of a common experience — the National Writing Project — and that common identity binds us together in really cool ways, so that geography is not so important, even though we bring our localized experiences to the online environment. I see this sense of identity as crucial for the life of any online social network.
  • It’s vital that a small group of people be the face of the site, welcoming new folks in and providing frequent feedback to any writing. The last thing we want is for someone to be excited about our site, post some writing and then receive nothing but a gaping maw of silence. So, we have a team of moderators who go in periodically to comment and respond, and to model commenting and responding for others. It did not take long, though, for members to take over themselves, which is what we want.
  • When Bonnie and I started, we did not know if anyone would come or want such a space. They do. And we know teachers are busy people — there is no right time to launch such a site — September is busy, then you are into the holidays, etc. — so we did it and then have been nurturing periods of growth.

We’re excited about what we set in motion and wonder where it will be heading. If you are part of the National Writing Project and want to join us,  leave a note in the comment box here, and we’ll send you an invite.

Peace (in the connections),
Kevin