Monthly Archives: March 2014

When White was White, and Other Ugly Truths from My First Year Teaching

I am constantly inspired by the positive work that I see others sharing on blogs and social media.  I, too, find value in sharing what works, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value of learning from mistakes.  So, I am sharing some of the poor choices I made when I first  taught and reflecting on my growth since then. Isn’t it wonderful that we have the capacity to grow and we are not defined by our past mistakes?

During my first year teaching, I entered the classroom of a rural and mostly poor community unprepared. Not only were my practices instructionally poor, but they were culturally blind. I did not consider my students’ cultures at all, and I wrongly assumed that their beliefs, interests, and values were identical to mine simply because I was white and so were most of them. I set the same standard for all students.

For example, I taught two standard-level English IV classes that first semester. I assigned a paper that required the students to write about Beowulf’s heroic characteristics. Assigned is the appropriate word because I did not really teach my students. I never assessed their prior knowledge to determine how they viewed the term hero, nor did I ask them about people who they believed to be heroes. In essence, I did not tailor my instruction to students at all; I believed that they all viewed the concept of hero in the same way that I did. My practice at the time reminds me of a quote from Gloria Ladson-Billings in her book The Dreamkeepers, “Often they [teachers] believe that ‘culture is what other people have; what we have is just truth.” I thought that my view was true, and I could not understand why my students did not share it.

I did provide my students with a rubric and a thorough explanation of the assignment; however, I never truly taught them how to write.  I never modeled writing, never use pre-writing activities to help them brainstorm ideas, and never helped them organize their ideas. I believed that, as seniors, they had these “prerequisite” skills.

Since I did not assess my students’ prior knowledge, did not know them as people, and I did not provide quality instruction, most of my students did not achieve. Many did not write papers. Some turned in papers that they had plagiarized from the Internet. I gave them zeroes. I was angry, and I blamed them. Most of the students who received zeroes were economically disadvantaged. I unknowingly punished them for lacking my culture and knowledge; thus, I perpetuated their learned helplessness. For the rest of that semester, I developed much lower expectations for those students. My instruction did not excite or challenge them, and I had many discipline issues.  I still think about those students today, and how I underserved them.

So, it is quite serendipitious how I began reflecting on this part of my career that I’d rather forget.   As a literacy coach in my school district, I now work with teachers to integrate effective, engaging literacy practices in their classrooms. Now, I am much more cognizant of and responsive to cultural differences. My current role operates on the philosophy that we as educators should have high expectations about student capabilities and that we are responsible for tailoring our instructional practices to support all students. It is through this work that Beowulf came back into my life.

Recently I had the opportunity to collaborate with a new teacher who was teaching Beowulf. There is a stark contrast between my first-year of teaching this material and the way I co-planned and co-taught this time. The new teacher and I decided to collaborate on a lesson where she would have students read an informational text, introducing the Anglo-Saxon culture of Beowulf to her students. Her class is culturally and linguistically diverse, and the text she had chosen was quite difficult. I encouraged her to use the difficult text but to use scaffolding to support students in a way that respected their differences.

Before the students read the text, we had them do the “Say What?” strategy. This strategy lets students preview the text for unfamiliar words and share the meanings they know with one another. Next, we gave explicit instruction on any remaining words that students could not teach one another. We operated on the belief that students were competent enough to teach one another words they knew; in fact, they were more effective than we were because they explained terms in language their classmates readily understood.

We also assessed the students’ prior knowledge so we could give appropriate instruction. We used several other techniques to support students such as chunking text and establishing cooperative groups. After several difficult weeks with these students, the new teacher was pleasantly surprised by both the students’ excitement and the sophistication of their work. She told me that she had originally planned to make them copy overhead notes before we decided to work on the lesson together. In fact, she said the students developed much better summaries of the introduction than she would have.

And in my own personal “re-do” of Beowulf from my first year teaching, we planned lessons where students described characteristics and examples of “heroes” according to their own viewpoints, and then they compared and contrasted their views to how Anglo-Saxons viewed heroism.

When I look at my teaching journey, I notice that early on I only tended to behave in more culturally proficient ways when I worked with students who were  linguistically or racially different from me. Ironically, I was most unsympathetic to white students, who I believed were intentionally doing the “wrong” thing. Most of the students I failed in my first year were white. Since our skins shared color, I mistakenly believed we shared culture. Thus, I think we as teachers need to understand that culture is not fixed by race nor ethnicity or even income. Culture is a complex set of ever-changing factors that are different for every individual . We must look critically at our own cultures to understand that they are not the “truth”.  Our goal should be to learn about each of our students as individuals, allow them to connect to their own background knowledge to make connections to content, and become more cautious in how we interpret the actions of our students through our own cultural lenses.

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How QR Codes Support Teaching and Learning

A QR (Quick Response) code is a special type of barcode than can hold more information than traditional UPC barcodes. With a QR code reader app, information can be retrieved and displayed quickly using the camera on a smartphone or a tablet device. Most QR readers can also create QR codes. These barcodes can connect to web URL’s, text documents, e-mail addresses, and other information.

Information Stations

Are there certain areas of your space where it would be convenient for students to regularly access information? Consider creating QR codes that allow students to easily retrieve important information. For example, in a weight training class, a teacher could post QR codes at each piece of exercise equipment. The featured poster links to videos that show proper form for chest exercises.

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Differentiated Skills Groups Oftentimes, we need to differentiate instruction for varying student needs, but we are unsure of how to accomplish the task. QR codes can be linked to different online tasks that develop students’ skills. Teachers can assign students to scan a particular QR code, or students can self-assess and choose for themselves. The codes pictured were created after students had completed writing drafts. The teacher identified three areas for different groups of students to develop: parallel structure, subject-verb agreement, and correct use of apostrophes.  The QR codes link to related activities at chompchomp.com.

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Promoting Self-Selected Reading Connecting students with books that meet their interests is a vital for creating motivated independent readers. Online book trailers are an engaging way to convey information about books in the 21st century. Create a display of books with QR codes to initiate a visual “booktalk” that students can access on demand. The photo below is a book display created by Samantha Gallman (@hav2laugh), the media coordinator in one of the schools I serve.

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Group “Scavenger Hunts” QR codes are a great tool for classroom scavenger hunts. First, teachers can determine the types of information they want students to explore. Then, they can search for websites, videos, maps, and documents that support students learning the information. The pictured scavenger hunt had earth and environmental science students explore the effects of pollution in regards to ocean acidification, the greenhouse effect, and other aspects of climate change.

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Reading Scaffolds Teachers can create reading scaffolds for students with QR codes.  For example, QR codes can be attached to a text’s margins. When 9th grade students read “The Sniper,” I created QR codes that linked to background information, pictures, and YouTube videos that would support and enrich their reading experience.

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Create Your Own QR Reader and Qrafter are free QR Code apps that can create QR codes. You can also create your own QR codes on your desktop or laptop using The QR Code Generator. Please use the comments section below to share ideas about how you are using QR codes to support learning in your schools.

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Quizlet Engages Students in Vocabulary Learning

Quizlet Engages Students in Vocabulary Learning Quizlet is a free website providing learning tools for students, including flashcards, study activities, and games. All of the material is user-generated.  Students enjoy studying terms with Quizlet because of its interactive nature.  Quizlet even has an app so students can easily (and for many teens, discreetly!) study vocabulary!

I recently created two sets of terms for sophomore English language arts students.  If you have never used Quizlet before, check out these links to get an idea of how Quizlet works.  Feel free to use them if you would like.

English I and II Common Core Literary Terms 

English I and II Common Core Academic Language

Quizlet can become one tool for students to learn new vocabulary.  Based upon the work of Robert J. Marzano and Deborah J. Pickering in Building Academic Vocabulary, games are a vital part of their six-step process of learning vocabulary.  Quizlet on its own will not solve all of your vocabulary problems, but it will powerfully enhance your classroom instruction.

Want to begin?  I have compiled some information to help you navigate Quizlet if it is new for you.

Creating an Account

Creating an account on Quizlet is relatively simple, but it is not always necessary.  One can click “Create a Set” on the top bar of the screen to make a set of terms to study.  The set will be searchable on Quizlet, or you could save the weblink of the card set to get back to it it later.  However, the advantage of having your own account is that you can find all of the card sets you have created easily.

To create a free account, simply click on “Sign Up” in the upper right hand bar on the website.  You will need to enter your birthdate, a username, and a password.  You will also need to check the box that says that you agree to the terms of service.  Once you have an account created, you can simply click on “Log In” in the upper righthand corner of the site to enter your username and password.

Creating a Set of Vocabulary Terms

Simply click “Create a Set” on the top bar of the website.  You will be prompted to enter a title and description for your set of terms.  Select a language for terms and definitions (these may be different if you are a world language teacher).

Quizlet has a new “auto-define” feature, which can save you a lot of time. When you enter a word, Quizlet will offer you some suggestions for definitions.  You may choose to select one of the auto-define selections or enter your own definition.

To add words to your list, simply click the “+” at the bottom of the text boxes.

Using the Vocabulary Sets

Students can retrieve terms easily if you place a link to your set on your teacher website or other webpage.  Once they have found the set, they can study using (1) Flashcards, (2) Learn, (3) Speller, (4) Test, (5) Scatter or (6) Space Race.

Creating a Class

Another option is to create a class.  Click “Join or Create a Class” in the lefthand column.  Enter the name of your class.  Then you can enter the name of your school.  You may add your card sets into the class.  Students can be invited into your class two ways.  First, you can send an invitation through the student e-mail.  If you choose this method, students will need to be able to access their school e-mail accounts.  Second, you can post an invitation link.  This link can be embedded on your teacher website or another web page.

Many educators have found Quizlet to be an amazing tool for enhancing vocabulary learning.  If you’re new to Quizlet, or if you haven’t used it in a while, I highly recommend checking it out.

After attending the NCTIES 2014 conference, I have learned about so many cool new technology tools.

I have to share the really awesome ColAR app.  This morning I printed some of the free coloring pages from colarapp.com.  This particular one  is  a “holiday” image of pumpkins.  My son loves pumpkins all year, so I thought it would be a perfect one to try.  He and I commenced coloring the pumpkins together which resulted in this final product.

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But then, using the the ColAR (the capital AR stands for Augmented Reality) app on the iPad brought the coloring page to life.

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These are not static images.  They are dancing, jumping, and spinning.  My son loves this, and so do I.  You must check out this fun app whether you are a parent or a teacher!

You are sure to hear more about things I learned at NCTIES over the next few weeks.

Mentor Texts and the NC Graduation Project

Recently, a friend and colleague who teaches 12th grade English approached me about a troubling situation.  Her students had turned in drafts of their research papers for the NC Graduation Project, and she had provided feedback to all of them on how to move forward.  One particular student became upset.  He said that he had worked really hard on his project, and he could not believe all the corrections he must make.

The teacher took what he said to heart.  She knew that he had put a lot of effort in to his paper, but it was so far from her expectations.  As an instructional coach, I know I don’t always have the answers, but I understand the power of questions.  After a few questions, I asked the one that led to our “A-ha” moment:  “Have students ever seen a completed research paper for graduation project?”  Well, they hadn’t.

This leads me to the power of using mentor texts for teaching writing.  A “mentor text” is simply a finished example of a particular genre or style of writing.  If you would like to study mentor texts more deeply, you can always check out the work of teacher/author Kelly Gallagher who has written extensively on them.  I have learned much about mentor texts from my colleague, middle school instructional coach Kendra Jarvis (@KCameronJarvis).

The teacher and I decided to collaborate by introducing the research paper when she had a new class of students during the second semester.  We asked former student authors for permission to use their completed graduation project papers for instruction.  They agreed.  We did remove their names and replaced them with fun pseudonyms.  The paper I used for the lesson I taught was on the health benefits of martial arts and written by Tony Stark.  The paper met the classroom teacher’s requirements, but it still had room for improvement.

Here is what happened in the lesson:

1.  Real Collaborative Inquiry

Instead of giving students a rubric for evaluating the paper at first or telling them what I thought about it, I asked them to work with a class mate to find (1) what was effective, (2) what recommendations they would they to the writer, and (3) what questions they had.  Students had the option of collecting their thoughts on 3-column charts or through text codes and annotations (E-effective, R-recommendations, ?-Questions).  Many students raised good questions about the format of in-text citations, and how often/where they should be used.  Some discussed ways the author could have varied his sentences after noticing a series of sentences beginning “Karate is…Karate is…Karate is….”  In addition students praised the well-crafted first paragraph, understanding that the author clearly stated his thesis and prepared the reader for the information in the paper.   Organization was also a strength.

2.  Beginning with the End in Mind

Early in the lesson, I asked the students, who have all heard about the impending graduation project since 9th grade, “Have you ever seen a finished graduation project paper?”  Not a single one had.  As Stephen Covey said, highly effective people begin with the end in mind.  These students had no idea of how the end of this long research road would look.  After reading and discussing the mentor text, I literally saw the students’ stress diminish.  They all said that they believed that they could accomplish their own papers, now that they had seen a finished one.

3. Formative Assessment Increasing Knowledge and Motivation

Once students had seen a finished paper, they became more motivated to ask questions about the process.  Because we were not focused on what was “right”, students’ questioning and ideas flowed in a safe, collaborative learning environment, where even the teachers were questioning and learning from students.  Instead of beginning with a barrage of lessons about correct citations, students first learned the purpose of citations.  Then, their questions drove the instruction.  Their motivation increased because they were now the ones steering the learning.  Later, I shared the NC Graduation Project Paper Rubric with students.  I asked them to make note of where they had noticed effective writing that the rubric also valued.  I also asked them to mark elements we hadn’t discussed.  Areas we missed became the topics of future lessons because students and the classroom teacher now understood that those areas would be their “blind spots” in the writing process.