Continuing the Old Factory Model of Education and Expecting 21st Century Results

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I have been frustrated lately in my current new 5th grade position. I have been impatient, and critical, and negative. I am happy to say that most of this has been in my head. However, some of this negativity has been shared with my poor husband in our house, and I am embarrassed to admit, sometimes to my friends and family. February is a notorious month for teachers. There is said to be a slump that occurs with teachers in February. The cold winter months have been particularly harsh this season and the time between winter break and spring break can seem endless!

Anyway, I am searching, searching for ways that I can make an impact in my field. I have been so blessed to have the opportunity to truly practice my craft of teaching at my school. In addition, they have been so incredibly supportive of my efforts to grow and become a better teacher for my students. I have been critical of decisions, or perhaps more specifically, a lack there-of from my administrators. I want more curricular leadership, but I also want to keep my autonomy. I would not want to be in their positions and I am mature enough to realize my own irrational wants. I have been a learner for sure; however, my skill at being an empathetic learner has been lacking. My lack of empathy, I believe, has stemmed from a lack of understanding of what to do next.

While reading Michael Gorman’s post “10Steps for PreSearch Strategies…Digital Literacy Series Part I” I realized a couple of things. In order for 21st century teaching and learning to occur, a great deal of planning (i.e.time) needs to go into it. You cannot just throw Common Core Standards at teachers (which is what public schools in Baltimore are doing at the moment), tell them to teach in a 21st century way (for example, by creating project based learning units), create rubrics, embed all necessary skills, give formative and summative assessments, and at the same time, not adequately train teachers how to do this and not give them the proper amount of time to plan and learn!

It seems to me, we are still treating teachers using the old factory style of education—  Input:  Common Core, no time to learn, not enough training…and expect an output:  Students that are creative, innovative thinkers that pass all state tests. It is a simple recipe, you put crappy ingredients in without enough cooking time, you will not get a tasty dish.

I suppose all of this has led me to understand that I have to be willing to understand that this new road technology has paved for education is new for all of us. Learning happens not only on the part of students and teachers, but also on the part of administrators. I need to speak up and say, “Look! Look what you are expecting! It isn’t a realistic model and you cannot change some parts of this new educational path and not the other. It won’t work, it hasn’t worked and it will never work that way.” Students are not little empty cans waiting to be filled and neither are teachers. This may be where my new next step comes in. I have such a great desire to help reignite passion into teachers loving their incredibly demanding jobs and I also have the desire to help bridge trust and respect back into the administrator-teacher relationship.

I have an idea of where to start and also know I need to put-up or shut-up. It’s certainly exciting to fantasize about where this may lead me!

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10 Easy Steps to Teach Writing through Blogging

I have been thinking of writing this post for the past six months. Blogging has done more for my students’ writing than anything I have ever tried. Students are writing so much that it is hard for me to keep up with them! Here is how I began:

1.  Students need to be able to critically read blogs and evaluate others’ writing before they can write themselves. I asked my students what they were interested in reading about. With the help of a couple of colleagues, we created a list of blogs that were safe for them to read using Mentor Mob. Feel free to use it yourself or create one in the same way! 

2.  We then had a discussion about why they liked or disliked particular blogs. Opportunities for digital and information literacy skills are endless! We discussed layout, graphics, advertisements vs. no advertisements, grammar and how it affected their understanding, safety (Some kids used their full names and we decided that was not a good idea.), content (Did the writer do a good job of explaining their topic-why or why not?), and also intended audience (Could they tell who this was intended for?), as well as information literacy skills (Would they consider this writer an expert on the topic? Would it be worthy of using as a resource for research purposes? Was it only intended for entertainment as an opinion piece?)

3.  We copied a style of another writer.  Students are allowed to copy the style of writing another person uses. It is very important to distinguish copying style to copying words. Copying the way a person writes is good practice. Eventually their own voice comes through and they develop their own style through practice. I am reminded of the book, Steal Like an Artist, which I am still thinking about reading to my students!

4.  We then participated in The Student Blogging Challenge through Edublogs. Although we started a little later than the official challenge began, I chose challenges for students to give them some focus. In the past, allowing students to freely write about anything they wanted right from the git-go did not provide the structure they needed. They needed to learn how to write. I was able to structure mini-lessons on opening/topic sentences, writing supporting sentences, and also lessons on specific grammar topics that came up in their own writing. I was able to differentiate instruction based on their own writing style. The challenges I chose also gave enough choice that they felt as though they had some say in what they were writing about! Students had choice and were able to direct their own learning in many ways.

5.  The most influential piece of blogging for my students has been having an authentic audience! I Tweeted their blogs out to my PLN (personal learning network) and they commented on my students’ writing. The creator of Edublogs Student Blogging Challenge, Miss W., commented on my students’ writing! Parents read their children’s writing, invited other family members and friends to comment on their child’s writing. Parents, family and friends began commenting on other student’s writing! This was also great because parents often want to know what their child’s work looks like in comparison to other kids their age. This is also a very difficult and sticky thing to show. As a teacher, you do not necessarily want parents to compare their kid to another, but being a parent, I get it. Blogging allows parents to see all different kinds of writing and how sometimes, topic and purpose affects how well a child writes. Sometimes it is better than others just like it is in real life!

6.  We talk about commenting throughout the whole process. Students critically read other comments and as a result, were able to write better comments themselves! They were so motivated to write because people were reading what they wrote about. Although they still write one-liner comments sometimes with way too many exclamation marks, most of the time, they are thoughtful about their comments. They are fifth graders…a million exclamation marks are fun sometimes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

7.  Students edit and revise even after I published their work! After a few revisions, and I always struggle with not beating them to death with revising, I publish a student’s work. Because I use Kid Blog, I am the one who pushed the “Publish button.” This is a great feature! What I have found most amazing about using blogging to teach writing skills, is that many times, students go back in after it is published to revise again. What happens is that they read their friends’ work and realize they need to add more detail, or a picture, or a link that will make their piece even better. I think this is so incredible! What more could you ask for as a teacher?!

8.  Students finally move in and out of what we call “Free Blogging” between assigned blogging challenges. I didn’t allow students to begin free blogging about whatever they wanted until I felt they had a good handle on the purpose and intended audience of writing. I know this may sound awful, but I do not believe that all thoughts are worthy of publishing. Students have often asked me why teachers allow students to publish with so many mistakes. Now, of course sometimes it is because of the developmental stage and age of students, but other times, I believe it must be a difference in philosophy. Just like math, and foreign language, and music and sports, writing takes practice. I explained to students that because they began a new sport this year, should they play in a stadium and invite the world to watch them yet? No, of course not, they need practice. Writing is a muscle that also needs practice and it needs to be clear enough for others to read it.  

9.  Students become self-directed learners of writing through blogging. In allowing “free blogging,” students can explore different genres of writing through trying them out on their own. Although I am still struggling with keeping up because it takes me some time to read and then individually respond to students, I still feel that they are motivated to read other students’ writing and write their own posts. The 21st century learner isn’t so different from learners of the past. I think we all innately want to be self-directed learners. However, the 21st century learner has the unique opportunity of being provided the experience to self-direct their learning. They are all researchers of information. Technology has provided us with some really cool tools to help students become better readers, writers, and problem solvers. 

10.  Students are reminded that learning to write happens through making mistakes and most importantly, through reflection! Throughout the year, no matter what we learn about, students are reminded that perfection is not necessary and would make life boring. I would also be out of a job if everything they did and wrote about was perfect. Their uniqueness in all that they are and all that they do, including writing, is what makes our community so much fun and so interesting. The next step I will take with my students is to list ways in which students’ writing can improve…a sort of brainstorming list. We will then look at the writing of a peer and share three things that person has improved in with their writing since we first began to blog.  I hope to have students then evaluate their own progress and even blog about it if they are brave enough!

Lastly, I must add that students have been so excited to blog, that other fifth grade students who do not have me as a teacher, have come to me to ask if they too could learn how to blog. As a result, I created a blogging site for them to blog as well. Feel free to visit all three of our sites and comment! Friends of the Fifth Dimension , Ms. Hutch’s Marvelous Math Students , and Kids Who Just Wanna Blog.