Monday, September 15, 2008


For my school's after-school program I will be teaching the book Matilda by Roald Dahl. I developed a unit to go with the book because I wanted to focus my teaching. I can be lazy when it comes to reading. I love to read, don't care so much about giving worksheets. My focus was to create a unit that allowed my students to really get into the novel, and allow me to have them learn some important skills.

I plan to put my unit online using Google docs and will be posting it for you to use if you see fit. You will also be able to modify it fit your needs.

To begin with, I create a booklet that is bound with a comb binder. I use card stock for the front and back cover to give the book more protection. I also like to use colored paper in the booklet. Usually I use a different color for each separate smaller unit. This makes it much easier for my students to find the page we are working on.

The first page of my unit is a settings page. I have my students identify the setting for each chapter. It may be overkill for them to identify the time and place of each chapter, but I really want them to learn the skill.

The second page of my unit is a page devoted to describing character traits of some of the main characters. I believe that great stories have characters that the author makes you care about. I will have my students continually update the character traits throughout the novel. This can lead to great discussions on how some characters like Miss Honey change through the story, while others like the Trunchbull don't.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What is Wrong with Our Parent/Teacher Organization?

Last night we had our first parent/teacher meeting of the year. Out of almost 400 students enrolled we only had 14 adults show up. This includes teachers, parents, and teachers who are parents.

This has been a continuous problem for many years. Despite letters home, having meetings piggyback on other activities that bring parents in, and lots of pleading there has been no real progress.

We also have a major problem getting teachers active. Although there is a small group of us that regularly attend. Usually teachers only show up when they want something. It became so bad that the organization passed a rule that requires teachers to attend several meetings before they can request something. This doesn't work, because the principal usually asks for them when they don't show.

Our community is obviously apathetic to the organization, but they will show up for sporting events and music programs. They can be there, they choose not to. I have even suggested the principal require teachers create a small program with their class to encourage parents to show, but they (I have had several) don't want to require teachers to attend.

I would love to get some advice from you. What does your organization do to attract parents? What things has your organization done to encourage parents to attend? What can we do to solve this problem?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why Student Blogging Can't Work in the Classroom

For over a year now I have been using my class blog for a way to assess my students' learning. First I used my blog posts as a way to ask a short answer question and had my students give me an answer using comments. Finally last spring I created blogs for my home room and aggregated their posts into a single blog.

Typically when I have my students post I allow them 20-25 minutes to write their response. The students are never surprised by the question, they are always based specifically on something covered in class. If they know the answer to the question, the time is more than enough for them to answer. If they don't know the answer, they don't have enough time to do research to find it. Since I have a 1:2 student computer ratio this takes one class period to have every student respond.

I realized pretty quickly that my students were not getting the most out of the experience. The reason people blog is for the community, the give and take of posting and commenting on posts. My students didn't have that opportunity. I wanted them to have that opportunity.

In the spring I created individual blogs for my homeroom class. I wanted them to post and have other students comment on their posts. I made a mistake and did not give them time to spend commenting on each others blogs. The students that took time to make comments were very encouraging, but I realized my mistake and decided that I must create time for my students to comment on the posts.

Now I have come to the point where I realize that student blogging won't work. When my students write answers to my questions, they should already know the answers. The time they are given is simply the time it takes to respond. This would be similar to an in class assignment. How long should it take to comment on another students post? I want my students to think critically about the response they are commenting on. I want them to address their thoughts coherently. How much time will this take?

If I truly believe that posting online is a better option than answering on paper, then I better have a reason. The reason is because the size of the audience increases and the ability to provide feedback also increases. If I think students commenting on other students' posts is what makes blogging the best tool, then I must give them time to do it. I must also provide time for the students to read the responses and respond to them if necessary. Now a 25 minute assignment done once or twice a week has become a 75+ minute excercise. This amounts to one quarter of time my students spend in class each week. Worse still, because I have a 2:1 ratio I can only have half my class online at a time.

What do you think? Is it worth the extra time? Should I have my students post less often? Or, should I give them the time necessary to do it right?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Deconstruction of The Biome Project

I was reading a post by Elaine Plybon on her blog Cruel Shoes. On her post:
Teaching Truth #7: Bells and Whistles to You May be Same Old to Your Students she asks the question, "...teachers must really look at the technology, say “is this the best way to deliver this instruction?” and know what they are doing." This made me think about the number of times I have talked to other teachers about things I am doing in my classroom without ever explaining why I choose to do it the way I do. So, I decide that I should write this post and explain how and why I came up with the idea for The Biome Project.

My original idea was driven by the need to give my students a learning experience that they could get really interested in. There was only two weeks of school left and I knew if I didn't have enough time to introduce something new so I decided to review some of the learning they had from fourth grade. I know students like animals and therefor I chose to go with biomes. I would use biomes to teach biotic and abiotic factors.

I also wanted my students to give an oral presentation of what they learned, and I wanted them to make a physical representation of the biome they researched. I decided to have students create representations of their biomes using cut paper, which I use every year for a weather cycle assessment, or dioramas. This allowed for students to have a choice between how they created their representations.

We had used Voicethread before and many of my students liked to work with the medium. They could narrate their project without having to stand up in front of the class. This allowed students that did not feel comfortable in front of the class a choice. I decided that students would use Voicethread if they chose to use cut paper. I thought two dimensional representations would work better for Voicethread.

Creating video in my classroom is a pretty normal experience and I knew that many students like to be in front of the camera. I chose to have those students make the dioramas. I gave them a pointer to use so they would not be covering the camera and they could point out what they needed to.

Another option I gave them, but one I eventually dropped, was creating travel brochures. I have used this before when I taught my reading unit on the book "Holes" by Louis Sachar. The students were to use the brochures to describe the biotic and abiotic factors for a biome that could be visited. They were to also give an oral presentation that would be video recorded.

I used video and online resources to introduce the biomes we were studying as well as what biotic and abiotic factors could be found in them. Of course I wrote a blog post on the class blog linking the biomes for my students to refer to.

When I gave my students the assignment I created a document using Google Docs. In it I explained the assignment and gave them more links for them to explore. Unfortunately, due to time I decided that creating the travel brochures was too ambitious and so I dropped it as an option. I chose to put the assignment on Google Docs instead of just adding it to the blog because I wanted my students to become aware that it could be used to create word documents that could be accessed online. Hopefully this is something they can remember for future use.

I took pictures of my students working on their projects and created an Animoto video. This is an example of my using technology. This can be a very good motiviation tool because the students know you are taking their picture and it could end up on the blog.

I had given my students a firm date when their projects were due, but I knew that Voicethread can take a lot of time for each student and I only had one computer set up for the students to use. I had students finish their cut paper projects early and I had them do their Voicethreads as they completed them and this helped keep away from a big wait for the computer.

Finally, on the day the dioramas were due I set up a web cam using my laptop and Ustream, a streaming webcam site that I use to stream live video from my classroom every day. Ustream has a record function which I used to record the videos. After a quick briefing of what I wanted them to do, the students stepped up and gave their presentations. Although a few students mixed up biotic and abiotic factors, I thought that overall presentations were excellent.

I created a blog that I linked to the class blog called The Biome Project. I spent a couple hours adding the Voicethreads and the Ustream videos to the blog and tagging them so the students could find them easily. (I did have difficulty with the Ustream videos because of some left out code, but I figured out what I needed to add to the code to make it work. I had the same problem before and that saved me a lot of trouble shooting time.)

There are several lessons I took away from this project. One, students like to have options with their work. Two, students work harder and produce better work when they know there is a larger audience than the peers in their room. Three, although students only directly used technology for research and Voicethread, the technology was a driving part of the assignment. The last thing I learned which has had a big impact on what I want to do is that students need time and access to critically assess each others project. This year all my students will be expected to not only post on a blog, but to comment critcally on other students blogs.

I hope this walk through of the unit helps you think critically about what how you use technology in the classroom. Remember, always use the best tool to meet your students' needs.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Why Don't We Aggregate Class Blogs Too?

I have been looking through my own blog roll and I noticed that the blogs I follow are not classroom blogs. I understand and appreciate the need to read blogs created by educators for educators. What I don't understand is why I don't subscribe to classroom blogs that can give me insight into what is actually being done in the classroom.

I am on the hunt for class blogs that I can subscribe to in my aggregator. If you know a class blog that is updated regularly, I would love for you to give me the url. Please don't link to sites that have lists of class blogs. I want you to recommend blogs that you look at on a regular basis.

Is Fluency Important?

The University of Oregon has a few web pages devoted to fluency. The explanation is that fluency allows students the ability to focus on the meaning of the word, but only when word calling is automatic. This means that students understand what they read better when they are not having to sound out the words. If you accept this conclusion, the next step is to ask, "How do I teach fluency?"

I don't remember being taught fluency. I do remember reading along as my teacher read to me. I remember rereading stories over and over again. I even remember doing round-robin reading. I think all these are pretty good strategies. I think that our reading series are obvious ways to teach fluency, if for no other reason than we only have one story a week and can cover it several times and in several ways.

What strategies do you use to teach fluency? Do you think it is an important skill?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Don't Be a Whina and Compare Us to China!

After leaving a comment on Dr. Scott McLeod's blog Dangerously Irrelevant referencing Jeff Utecht's blog The Thinking Stick I decided to write my own post on response. Below is my comment that I left.

I think the point is moot. Does it really matter what we are doing in comparison to other schools in other countries? The conversation that needs to take place is, "What is the purpose of our schools?" In the United States today, nobody can answer that question, because we as a society have not decided. We cannot expect our schools to direct our students toward a goal we have not set.

I have heard some say the purpose of education is to get kids ready for the marketplace. Others say it is to create well rounded individuals. We all espouse the goal of creating lifelong learners. Which is it? Are there better goals for education than these?

There have been many books, many ideas floating through the edublogosphere lately, The Wisdom of Crowds, A Whole New Mind, The World is Flat, but they haven't answered the question either. They are more likely to confuse it. We need to work harder in math and science because we aren't producing enough engineers. We need to develop creativity if we are to compete. This is all wonderful, thought provoking stuff, but it still doesn't answer the question.

Now No Child Left Behind has focused my school and many others to work towards a test that measures memorization instead of application. Is this the goal our schools should strive for? Does this represent the wisdom of the educational crowd?

I love the mental stimulation of the conversations we have on the internet, but I don't think any of them compares in importance to answering the simple question of, "What is the purpose of our school?"

I would love to read your comments on my take.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Creating Individual Blogs vs. Co-Authoring One Blog

I am trying to decide if I should create sixty blogs for my students to use or have them co-author one blog. I guess I need to consider the pros and cons of each.

Pros of each student having their own blogs:
1. Students get to change themes to reflect their personality.
2. Students can add widgets to their blog they choose.
3. Students feel pride when their cluster map shows people visiting.
4. Students can continue to use their blog after they move to 6th grade.

Cons of each student having their own blogs:
1. Set up time is huge.
2. I have to spend time checking students blogs to make sure the widgets are
3. Some students never change anything on their blogs.
4. Most of last years students have not posted on their blogs since my last assignment.
5. The way I have our blog aggregator set up, when a student changes a post the changes do not get updated on the aggregated blog.

Pros of having a co-authored blog:
1. Set up time is much smaller.
2. When a student modifies a post, it automatically updates the aggregated blog.
3. I don't need to spend time showing students how to change things or how to keep
their blog safe.

Unknowns of a co-authored blog.
1. Don't know how many people can be creating new posts on the blog at one time.

I think I will try to set up the co-authored blog and see how it works. The time saving by itself makes it very appealing. I can always show students that want to create their own blog how to do it without having to spend important instruction time on it.