Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Hashtag hatching, continued

This blog entry could be subtitled: one upside of Twitter.

A month ago, I wrote about coining a hashtag as part of an effort to build a middle-school reading community. The first of those readers began contributing last week, and this slice documents what happened next.

I'd describe the whole endeavor as cautious toe-dipping into the shallow (though still potentially deep) end of social media. My students are mostly younger than 13, so they have the option to post via my Twitter handle as proxy. Two students accepted this invitation within 24 hours of me extending it, and one of those wrote to a favorite reread: Ingrid Law's middle-grade fantasy, Savvy. 'It' wrote back!

Having responded to clarify the quirks of Robert speaking through my account, I figured there was little risk in pushing the dialogue further. See, Robert and I had been talking in class about how the Savvy series is one of his favorites, which made it feel hard to try other titles for fear that they would only disappoint him. He wasn't ready to embrace that risk. I hoped an invitation from a beloved author might encourage him, so I asked. Once more, a gracious response!

Needless to say, Robert's reading life just became a little more energized. I've experienced more than once how Twitter, among other platforms, helps make connections like this possible. Though the milieu's not all peaches and cream, sometimes it can be.

Mean time, if you'd like to explore 100 Best Middle Grade Fantasy Books of the Last 10 Years, well, that digital gift just keeps on giving.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018


Three scenes from the week in biking...

My wife grinding her mountain bike up a steep hill one persistent crank at a time, showing my skeptical brain that it can be done.

A swarm of youngsters after school, buzzing around my electric bicycle locked to its rack -- pushing buttons, turning lights on, dinging the bell, giggling in between infectious 'Oohs' and 'Ahs.'

Woman in backwards baseball cap, resting her skateboard on its tail as she confronts a lycraed cyclist on the multi-use path. The only snippet I hear from her as I pedal past: "But you have brakes, so it's easier for you."

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Litany of changes

The school schedule where I teach used to be seven periods; now it's eight. We used to spend 240 minutes per week with each class; that total's now 225.

We're figuring out how to navigate and use a new school website at the same time the district has rolled out refreshed technology. Our desktops or laptops have been replaced by Chromebooks.

The faces of students this August look so different from the ones I remember from May, yet not so different from Augusts past.

Of course, change can create door-opening excitement. It can also roil. Today's weather -- both external and internal -- felt stormy. One thing I know for certain in these parts: it'll change.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

First-day field trip

Monday represented a first on my 23rd first day of the school year, wearing teacher shoes. Colleagues and I were pre-arranged in groups for our initial staff meeting, and we were given marching orders: Visit one student at home along with at least one family member for about 20 minutes to see how they're feeling about the start of school, to get to know them a little better on their home field, and to find out if they needed any additional support before classes next week. Each destination family had been set up in advance.

So, the orchestra teacher, a science teacher, and I all piled into the assistant principal's car (because I had taken the bus to work and the two other personal vehicles were both coincidentally loaded with mattresses). We made our way to the next town over from school. There, we met a beaming sixth-grader and her mother. New to our learning community, they had several questions about which they were curious, and we could see the girl's shoulders visibly ease as a clearer picture of what her school future might look like began to develop. We learned about her, too, in an informal, relaxed way that even the best classroom icebreakers would never quite match.

Back at school after an hour, we compared experiences with colleagues, trading observations that might be useful to others in the teaching team and also stepping back to reflect on this new step interacting with our community. While this was a first, the positive outcomes left me feeling confident it's an event that deserves to be repeated.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Charting a course: learning vs. learned

The subtitle of this blog entry captures an idea I heard from English teacher Monte Syrie in Washington state. Contributing long-distance to a panel in Colorado discussing alternatives to traditional grading, Monte sketched an idea he plans to focus on in 2018-19: favoring learning as an ongoing, continuous, present-tense process over the notion that content can be learned (that is to say, mastered) with past-tense finality. Monte's words have been niggling my brain for a week.

As part of preparing for the imminent school year, I started sifting standards for two of the courses I'll teach. Loose units began to coalesce around these standards, with areas of focus for reading, writing, and speaking. Still, the past-tenseness of the standards irked me in ways it never had before -- the proclamations about mastery seemed more mirage than meaningful. The standards make shiny targets, but they're of debatable worth for every single student in my care: compliance as fool's gold.

Consider representative eighth-grade reading standards like these: "I read to find and record information. I sequence or outline events in note form. I paraphrase or summarize a variety of readings, spotlighting relevant learning."

For students who aren't yet reading like that when warranted, how might standards like these better point readers to incremental ways forward? And for students who have already performed as such readers, what then?

What if I were to revise course standards foregrounding growth? Here's one draft using the above examples, with emphasis added: "I read to find and record information more efficiently. I sequence or outline increasingly complex events in note form. I paraphrase or summarize a variety of readings, spotlighting relevant learning more concisely."

Might students and I be able to use standards like those to meaningfully distinguish how readers are progressing or, if they're stalled, how to get their reading lives moving again?

I'm reminded of micro-progressions that I learned about two summers ago during a #cyberPD book study of DIY Literacy. (Tricia Ebarvia sums up this structure in her blog here.) I posit that rungs on a micro-progression might enable growth momentum, helping students and me hash out what progress along the continuum of a particular standard looks like; or when particular students reach the envelope's edge, how we might push it in service of literacy that knows no -- or fewer -- limits.

Now, my leading worry: Once past the heady, often hermetically sealed days of back-to-school planning, these ideas may prove to be pipe dreamy or too murky to implement in a world still governed by black-and-white grades. (For the record, I've got thoughts there, too. Inspired by California educator Mari Venturino, I'm considering tweaking her mastery tasks as growth challenges that will yield a body of evidence that bridges us to grades.)

This is a path I see value in exploring, and I'm stating my in-progress thinking here because I welcome feedback and/or push-back from you. What do you see down this road I'm imagining? How much here might be specific to English Language Arts versus having commonalities with other disciplines? If you've been down any part of this road before, what's it like, and what should I know that I don't?