Saturday, July 21, 2007

Instructional Practices

The more I read through Strategies That Work, the more I'm reminded that everything we do is supported by our instructional practices. The authors provide several examples of lessons that teachers have done with particular pieces of literature, including quotes from students and teachers taken from the lesson itself. And I think about how the practice, the teacher's support of student thinking, the student input back to the class and to the content are all so important. But it's the instructional practice that will make a difference.

Here's how my brain is connecting with this in terms of helping teachers to use technology: if we don't teach the instructional practice as the basis right along with the technology tools, we're not getting anywhere. If I want students to use Diigo, for instance, I have to have built some background knowledge about research, notetaking, etc. as well as supporting their learning through collaboration in order for students to fully understand the power of this particular tool. If I were just to show students how to use Diigo to bookmark, highlight and annotate online material it would mean nothing because there is no real connection to anything that they already have knowledge of to pull from. But, if I spend time helping students understand the research process and I've worked to give them multiple opportunities to collaborate with each other then these experiences would give them some background knowledge to pull from. In order to learn new skills, we require practice. In order to form new understandings, we need to be able to connect prior knowledge to new information. In our rush to use any tools, whether they are so-called Web 2.0 tools or the kinds of tools of the classroom that we hold in our hands, we must have some knowledge of what it takes to learn the skills needed for these tools or order to implement them for lasting results.

That's my thought for today....and I'm stickin' with it!

I'm going to use this one...

I love quotes! That's why I have a feed so I get 3 or 4 in my Bloglines everyday. Today there was one that I just had to save and I'll be working it into the workshops I'm planning for right now. Here it is:

"The shortest distance between two points is under construction." --Noelie Altito

Sometimes we forget that the learning process is always under construction. It seem especially so when we're talking about technology. Teachers feel that they can't use technology effectively if the students know more than them. Tough position to put yourself in! What about thinking about building connections between your instructional practice and student learning by constructing the best road possible? For some that construction will take a long time and will be filled with many potholes. For others, the work will go smoothly and will take only minor adjustments to perfect. But for all of us, there is a need to keep on working together to find and build the best pathway that we can.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Connecting with Literacy

For me, preparing to teach a workshop for teachers is sometimes a long process. Beginning with a kernal of an idea, I create a description of the workshop that tends to summarize the concept of what I hope to get across. From there, I begin to look at all the supporting skills that will be needed as well as the background information that participants will need. This is where it gets a little messy. Many times I have so many ideas I'd like to convey but not enough time to do so effectively. So, I then begin to refine my thinking and try to let go of some of the content, no matter how cool I think it is, and focus on the simplest, most effective ideas that teachers could begin with - we can always build onto these ideas later.

Knowing about the technology is the easy part - I spend a lot of time trying to keep as current as I can on what's available online. Our district software is also familiar to me so, no problem there. Let's face it - some of the stuff on the web today is just way too cool! You get sucked into it right away and somewhere in your head you're saying, " Wow! I can't believe you can do this kind of stuff! This is too cool!" But, "cool" doesn't last too long when you're a classroom teacher pressured by the demands of the curriculum, the testing and any number of other concerns.

The real meat of the workshop, for me, really has less to do with the technology and more to do with the pedagogy - what teaching practices or research based strategies are teachers reading about, are currently in publication, or support the work I know is going on in our buildings. Even more importantly, what do I think teachers need to be aware of that they may not be aware of (new publications, new research) or that we can draw upon from their background knowledge in order to make connections to the use of the tools that we'll be addressing in the workshop?

The curriculum - research - professional literature - tools connections are important to me for a number of reasons. My job title used to be under the supervision of the technology department. That put me in a position of knowing a lot about the tools but there was also the larger misconception that I was technical support. More frequently than not, I was being asked for technical support rather than teaching support. In other words, no connection to teaching practice.

Now my job title is under the supervision of the curriculum department. That change is about two years old now. Before that occurred, I had begun to participate in the work of the district to construct better curriculum documents. By doing this, I was able to better understand the curriculum that was being established and could make some suggestions about how technology could support student learning in each of the content areas. The more I can engage a teacher in a discussion about their curriculum and their pedagogical practices the better advantage I have in helping to make that curriculum to technology connection.

As I continue to formulate this workshop, I'm using as my prime resource the second edition of a book titled Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Undersatnding and Engagement by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis. I read the first edition so when I saw that a second edition had been published I was interested to see what had changed. They've added lots of new content and I'm finding myself writing lots of notes about technology connections around the margins of the pages. Because I've been involved in data analysis related to our ELA assessments, I'm also seeing this book as a resource for strategies that teachers can use to address some of the needs we've been identifying. Another way for me to connect with the work of our classrooms!

So, I'm going to go back to work on the reading, thinking and planning and will make myself stop to reflect on my work by writing a little bit more.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Podcasting as an Assessment of the Research Process

I've been thinking about podcasting for a long time - learning the tools needed (easy!) and trying to understand what it takes to really make podcasting a learning experience that makes a difference in instruction (a little more challenging!).

A while back I had worked at looking at what it takes to create a podcast and that brought my thoughts back to Understanding by Design. In their book, Wiggins and McTighe discuss lesson design using what they call a backwards design - establish the learning goals then begin to work on the assessment. Interesting... Most of us were probably taught to design a lesson from beginning to end. The problem became that, by the time you got to wrapping up the lesson, no worthwhile assessment was in sight or the assessment had nothing to do with the learning goals in the first place.

I was brought back to UbD in a conversation with a school librarian who has been thinking about how he could make use of podcasting in his program. As we began to discuss this, the conversation turned to the thought that the podcast itself isn't the point of the learning, it's really the assessment. If we use the UbD idea of lesson planning then, we need to think about the skills that need to be taught or reinforced in order for the student to be successful in completing the assessment of learning. Well...if we want our students to present information orally, then we need to teach them how to find good information in the first place. That information seeking needs some definition - what are we looking for? what questions are going to be addressed? The research process - no matter what the information task is - perfectly supports the process of creating a podcast. So we drew a visual to help ourselves think through this:What do students need to know and be able to do in order to successfully create the podcast? The students will be taken carefully through the skills with the research process.

What's the podcast going to be about? We thought about two things realizing that there are many, many possibilities:
• book reviews (taking a look at the really nicely done book reviews at BookLook as an example)
• content area focus such as Social Studies: take on the role of an early 20th century immigrant and tell us about your decision to come to the US and what your life was like after you settled in this country.

So our information specialist then has his work cut out for him but he also has a very clear focus on the skills that he'll be working to refine with his students. We're also looking at what other technology tools will support this. For example, for task definition and information seeking strategies, we'd like students to know more about using Inspiration for organizing information. For location and access, we'd like students to learn more about using search tools and library subscription sources. Not only do we want them to bookmark what they find for easy access but we're thinking that if we show them how to bookmark using Diigo then we can easily have them gather notes from their sources by using the annotation feature of this tool - this will apply to use of information. Then we'll work with them to synthesize what they've learned - probably taking some wisdom from Tony Vincent's work on Radio WillowWeb and the strategies he shares for structuring podcasts with students. And finally, the podcast! We'd like to employ some learning from 6+1 writing traits and make use of the RAFTS strategy. We'll define a role, give the students an idea of their audience (worldwide and published on the web!), describe and model the format, present the topic and explain the focus, and provide them with the strong verbs that will guide them - describe, explain.

Recent talk among edubloggers has been focused on our thinking about the product as being the end of the learning rather than the beginning of new possibilities, new learning. I believe that, with a project such as this, we'll be forming new thinking about learning with our students and will be giving them a solid foundation for thinking about the creative expression of learning and the process that's involved. This is going to be an exciting project which might also serve to be an advertisement for the possibilities when you collaborate in meaningful ways with your building's true information specialist.

Collaborating with the Most Important Resource in the School

During the past two years, I've been involved in a project called PALS through our regional library system. What's an instructional technology specialist doing involved in a library system initiative? Learning! Learning! Learning! and, I hope, helping to promote the technology tools that can empower the learning of our students.

We're working toward building collaborative relationships with classroom teachers.
Toni Buzzeo worked with us for two days this week. She helped us learn about the different types of relationships that exist between teachers and librarians and begin to develop ideas for getting through the challenges of making changes in those relationships despite the sometimes impossibly inflexible schedules that exist in our buildings. After some learning with Toni, we worked solidly for a full day and a half building lessons and units designed to tap into the expertise of both the teacher and the librarian to affect student achievement. We've also been privileged to work with David Loertscher who helped us explore better ways to write collaborative plans that take learning to a higher level.

Through data analysis, we're working on helping our librarians understand the kinds of skills that students are being asked to use to perform on state assessments. Until last year, the first group of librarians to be part of the PALS project had not been exposed to any of our state assessments. Many didn't know what the test consisted of and hadn't seen any of the sources we have for looking at the data analysis related to these assessments. (OK...I know all about the evils of state assessments. If there's one thing we can gain from them it's the understanding that we're just not expecting very high level thinking from our students on a regular basis.)

We're working on understanding the relationships between the data we get from assessments, the classroom curriculum and how the library program supports the development of skills.
We've been looking at our data for the past two years in terms of the skills needed to answer questions, where that skill is reflected in our curriculum documents and what strategies we're already using to teach those skills. I think it's a good process. In some of our elementary buildings, our librarians are being included in the data analysis process for the first time ever. This is a step in the right direction. Including our information specialists in on the results of an assessment that's all about dealing with information is a step in the right direction.
One thing that makes this process especially effective is that we have some great curriculum documents in my school district. The state standards are way too broad, the performance indicators get a little bit closer. But, by having the documents that we do, we can really focus in more closely on the skills and we've been able to be more specific at each grade level rather than just a general statement that is supposed to apply to the range from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Two things I would recommend to school librarians if I may be so bold. :)
1. Start asking questions about the testing that's going on locally or at the state level. Ask to see a test booklet, think about the skills that students are being asked to demonstrate and begin to examine your own teaching practices where those skills are concerned. Get somebody to help you understand what the learning gaps are.
2. Read the professional literature about instruction and about the brain and learning. Some recommendations: