Considering MOOCs and the Future of Learning

Earlier this fall, I saw a call by Bud Hunt to join a class at P2PU, which is a space for open courses. Bud’s class was centered around writing and the Common Core standards. I jumped at the chance not only to explore the Common Core with the writing focus, but also to figure out what a Massively Online Open Course (or MOOC) was all about. I found it fascinating that free courses are available, although what we also found is that while a lot of people join at the start, only a few make it to the end. It’s all driven by intrinsic motivation, by the desire to learn, and not because you paid a few hundred dollars to go to class.

Bud structured the class with various entry paths — from discussions, and activities, and webinars each week. We also were tasked with designing a lesson plan or project, or redesigning an existing one, with the new frameworks in mind. (I did mine on an imaginary land brochure project. I’ll share that revamped lesson plan on another day).

It was engaging work, picking apart the writing strand of the Common Core and then reflecting on what it is all about with other folks. We talked about the strengths (connections to technology, complexity of thinking, connections to content areas, etc.) and weaknesses (shift from narrative writing, etc.) I found the whole process of the course incredibly valuable as our state now has new curriculum standards based on the Common Core and our school district is revamping our curriculum to meet the new state standards. Also, our Western Massachusetts Writing Project is emerging as a leader in curriculum design around the Common Core in our region.

One fascinating thing about P2PU is that anyone can start a course.

If you go to their homepage, you can see the wide variety of offerings — from computer programming to writing poetry to learning how to draw. You could leverage that openness of the site for more online groups and classes, although the connection to graduate credits and professional development advancement is tenuous right now, and depends a lot on the state in which you live. Another interesting element is that all of the classes offered at P2PU, and at most MOOC sites, become “modules” that anyone can then borrow, adapt and re-use for their own purposes.

Think about that. As time moves on, there will be entire databases of learning packets that organizations, such as the National Writing Project, might be able to use for online professional development, even as your own expertise gets meshed into the overall architecture of learning. I suppose there will be concerns about “ownership” of ideas and whatnot, but I think this is an interesting shift around learning possibilities.

The other night, I joined some other teachers on Teachers Teaching Teachers to chat about MOOCs and the online learning experience. Here is the video of the chat we had, posted by TTT host Paul Allison.


Peace (in the open),


Unpacking Guiding Principles: Massachusetts Common Core

Yesterday afternoon, I spent the second of three planned afternoon PD sessions with colleagues in ELA, unpacking various elements of the new Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks that reflect our state’s adoption of the Common Core Curriculum. Much of our inquiry yesterday was looking at the Guiding Principles, which form the underpinning of the entire document. Each of us was given a Guiding Principle to read and understand, and then we identified key words and phrases that captures the essence of our principle, which we then shared out to the larger group.

I took notes and made this word cloud.
Mass Common Core Guiding Principles

I’d like to point out a few things that we noticed:

  • Mostly, we thought the Guiding Principles were on track with our views of teaching;
  • We noticed that cultural differences and heritages were represented, although they exist in the shadows of “standard English” and “American culture” references;
  • Creativity gets only a few mentions but the phrases of nurturing “the power of imagination” and for students to “create worlds unseen” are at least areas where we can drop anchor for creative writing;
  • The scaffolding of increasing complex texts and writing is evident throughout the document;
  • Struggling students, and the various techniques to reach them, are noted in the document, which was appreciated by our group of teachers;
  • Connections to families, the community and role models were a bit surprising to see as their own principle, and greatly appreciated by our group.

Peace (in the principles),


Thoughts from WMWP on Common Core

We spent a good part of a Leadership Meeting for the Western Massachusetts Writing Project yesterday, looking at and talking about the new Massachusetts Language Arts curriculum that is framed around the Common Core. Here are some notes from that discussion:

  • Most of our school districts have not yet begun to do much of anything related to the upcoming shift to the new state frameworks (mine seems to be ahead at this point, as we are using almost all of our professional development time with curriculum mapping as it relates to the shift)
  • There are “openings” for more collaboration between ELA teachers and content-area teachers, but we worry that our colleagues in the disciplines are not prepared for the ways literacy is framed to be taught “across the curriculum.” The content-area literacy ideas are bundled under the ELA frameworks, and those documents are not necessarily being given to non-ELA teachers (if there is such a thing, right?)
  • There’s an important theme of the introduction of the Massachusetts ELA document that stresses that the frameworks are not designed to dictate how things are taught, but rather, what students should be expected to have learned by the time they graduate high school. We appreciated that kind of language, as if feels more like adults talking as opposed to autocratic finger-pointing. Sort of.
  • ELA teachers are going to have to learn to teach new genres (scientific abstracts, “reading” data, understanding facets of historical documents, etc.) and shift the balance of fiction reading and fiction writing towards more informational text and expository/persuasive writing.
  • We all wonder what the assessment will look like and how that will drive the way the new curriculum is used by school districts. While the new curriculum seems on the surface to have flexibility, the nature of the assessment (our state is part of the PARCC group) will play a huge role for many schools. There was a genuine worry that financial considerations and logistical considerations will shape the assessment, rather than educational and learning practice.
  • While the Massachusetts curriculum acknowledges cultural and language diversity in its Guiding Principles, it seems like those principles get the back seat in the actual standards. This concerns our group, since one of our focus areas has been ways to support and nurture student voices. We talked about ways that a teacher could navigate through this minefield of language and expectations.
  • It was pointed out that while we often talk of the importance of an educated populace built around the three concepts of a strong democracy, pursuit of personal goals, and employment, the focus of the Common Core around college and career-ready goals says a lot about who was working on the original document.
  • While the Common Core may not be billed as a national curriculum, it sure is looking like it to us, and we noted that textbook companies are ramping up production of textbooks that tap into shared curriculum ideas among states, and we all know how often textbooks drive curriculum. That worries us, particularly if “canned curriculum” starts coming down the pike of Common Core.

It was a great discussion and we used an article from NCTE called “Keeping Students at the Center of the Common Core Classroom” by Lorna Collier (it was published in The Council Chronicle in September) as a piece of shared reading that shows ways that teachers can use and adapt the Common Core while still focusing on students as individuals. It’s a good piece to read, if you haven’t done so yet.

Peace (in the core),


Book Review: Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading

Now, this is a book I can use, although I pilfered it from my wife’s collection of teaching resources.

Texts and Lessons for Content-Area Reading (by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke) may not sound all that alluring but this resource of more than 75 news and magazine articles tied to various reading strategies in the various content areas (science and social studies being the main focus) is a goldmine of great ideas and handouts. Daniels and Steineke cull through The New York Times, Rolling Stone magazine, Car & Driver, and more to gather up great examples of topics that can be used for teaching reading skills.

As we talk more and more about the shift to the Common Core, with its emphasis on reading and writing in the content areas, this book provides another bridge for English teachers like me to bring various genres of writing beyond the narrative into the classroom, and for content-area teachers to bring more reading and writing skills into their classrooms.  Plus, the push for more reading of informational texts (charts, maps, data sets, etc.) and expository/persuasive writing is front and center in the Common Core, no matter what state you live in in.

Here, Daniels and Steineke make that work accessible and fun, with many of the activities geared around collaborative work by students. They also provide multiple extension activities so that a lesson could last 20 minutes or become an entire unit of instruction.

I already have in mind four of the ideas here for my sixth graders:

  • A jigsaw activity that uses two articles around genetic cloning — of dogs and cats. The students learn to annotate their text in preparation for sharing out their findings to their partners.
  • An activity called Quotation Mingle, in which students are given small pieces of an article that has been cut up, and their job — like a detective parlor game — is to determine the theme of the article. In this case, Daniels and Steineke provide an article about girls, driving and texting (high interest? you bet), and a handout of quotes taken from the article.
  • There is a whole lesson around the science of Invasive Species that nicely connects to science and geography, with articles on Fire Ants, and Killer Bees, and Asian Carp, and more.
  • And there is a very interesting activity called “Country X” in which students are given maps to a mystery country and they need to make inferences and judgements about that country. This “reading” of maps is important, as is the reading of data, and it is something I am working more on with my students.

I’m bringing this book into my school to show my principal, in hopes he might purchase it for our school library. My wife wants her book back.

Peace (in the sharing),


Digging into the Common Core


project image

A few weeks ago, I saw a link for an online course for educators wanting to learn  more about the writing standards of the Common Core, which my state has fully adopted and is starting to roll out this year. In fact, our school district is in the midst of learning about Understanding by Design (backwards design), curriculum mapping and more as we begin to make the shift to the Massachusetts version of Common Core.

I checked out the link and saw that my friend, Bud Hunt, was the facilitator (Check out his post about his dissertation thesis about school-based online writing and reading spaces. Very intriguing.) Yeah, I signed up.

The other night, a bunch of folks in the Writing & Common Core: Deeper Learning for All course at P2PU (Peer to Peer University) gathered together in a Webinar to chat about expectations of the course, which runs about six weeks, and began some initial discussions around topics that are on our mind with the Common Core. These included: shifting towards more information/expository writing; writing across the content areas; the references to digital media; implementation at various states; and more. It was quite interesting and is an indication of some intriguing discussions to come.

Our first assignment is an online annotation project, in which we are making comments and notes about the writing strands of the Common Core. This kind of activity is valuable, as it not only provides us with an incentive to read the Common Core deeply, but also to engage in some observations and discussions. Bud noted that most teachers don’t seem to have had a chance to really read the Common Core and spend time with it to understand it, and I agree. The annotation activity seems like a nice way in.

My own interest is, of course, for my own classroom. I am already making shifts in what I have done and what I will be doing to reflect more of the new state curriculum. But I have another new motive, too. I have been asked to help facilitate some summer Professional Development session at a local university on implementing the new Massachusetts ELA standards, and in order to do that, I need to have a deeper understanding of the curriculum expectations.

So, I’m diving in, but I am not alone. I’m grateful for the chance to be part of the P2PU Common Core group, and to learn from them and with them. And having Bud as a guide is a great start.

Peace (in the curriculum),