Changes in Practice: A Look Back at Summer Doc Classes

What a whirlwind six weeks! My first round of doctoral classes are done–physically anyway. I have one last assignment that I’m currently drafting, but for all intents and purposes this semester is in the books. What have I learned? Good question.

Going back to school to get my doctorate was an easy choice because I’ve known its what I wanted to do since I was fifteen years old. (I’m an odd bird in that respect, I think.) I remember distinctly that I was both excited and nervous to start the program. Would I be good enough? Can I manage my time? Am I honestly smart enough to pursue this degree? What I found out this semester is what I believe to be a ‘yes’ to all three of those questions, but it’s early, and I’m a good year and half, two years away from the dissertation. In the meantime, what I really discovered from this summer is a re-energized spirit to take into my classroom this year along with several great ideas. My head is swimming with new possibilities and practices! What have I learned this semester? Everything. (Excuse the hyperbole, but I seriously feel like I’ve been drinking from the fire hose.)

Below are some rough sketches of what I’d like to do in both by PBL classroom as well as my more traditional classrooms:

  • Use service-learning projects to develop a bigger and more important audience for my students and to foster more civic engagement.
  • Create an honest, dialogic classroom where students really command the conversation and develop co-knowledge.
  • Use a conference-style panel to change up project presentations. (Think ISTE or NCTE)
  • Using journaling more pragmatically to help set up future writing instruction and assignments.
  • Really discuss writing, its purpose, and its domains with my students.
  • Use Socratic methods during project proposal inceptions and approval. (Large circle think-alouds and questioning to develop a project’s purpose.)
  •  Use dialog among students as a pre-writing method. (Create specific roles for the discussion, but students become co-authors of knowledge before a writing assignment)

There is a great deal more than this of course rattling around in my head, but these are some highlights. The best part is–they’re all fairly easy to implement this year without breaking my back as an educator. What do you think? Could you see yourself using any of this in your classroom? Feel free to reach out to me if you want to dialog about any of these ideas more. (Twitter: @theprofjones)



What Literacies Do Students Bring to the Table on Day One?

So I’m thinking of doing a pilot study.

I’ve surprised myself at how quickly I’ve already altered my thoughts on approaching my teaching next year whilst starting this doctoral program. My pilot study has been inspired by two points of interest in research I’ve reviewed so far: collaborative writing and alternative literacies.

Collaborative writing grabbed my attention immediately due to my extensive belief in and practice with PBL (project-based learning). My initial research both supports my preconceived notions of collaboration in the classroom as well as complicates, or even problematizes, its practice in the classroom. For instance, as long as we continue to posit that the teacher is the center of all learning in a classroom and retains all authority, then writing in collaboration cannot happen, nor can it help students with their traditional literacy skills. So I agree that we have to get the classroom more student-centered as you must do with PBL, for instance, but I also acknowledge that a fully student-centered classroom if a hard sell as well as difficult to navigate at times. Still, my interest in the pros and cons of collaborative writing has also forced me to reconsider my views on literacy.

Since I was an undergraduate student, I’ve been told about literacy. I’ve been told that literacy’s very definition is always morphing and recognizing new literacies emerging is vital. Before this summer, I had continued to think of literacy as a box of skills we as teachers must stack into our students’ minds. In other words, it’s our responsibility and our teaching and our knowledge that makes these literacies happen. But that isn’t really true is it? My point here is we are far too often ignorant of the literacies students already have and bring into a classroom. We’re simply not giving any credit to what students already know. It isn’t that research doesn’t support these literacies or even promote them, but rather most teachers are simply ignorant to the thought process that they have the option of recognizing these literacies.  I know, for one, that I have not always been so aware of the literacy a student brings into my classroom.

Here’s my question: what literacies are my students bringing into my classroom that I haven’t noticed or given credence to before? Can they write raps? Can they write music and lyrics? Can a student draw and storyboard a comic strip? Can a student manipulate multimedia sources? This is what I want to find out. What I want to know more than even these concerns is can these literacies be used legitimately to inform language arts writing instruction?

Cool, huh? Maybe it’s just the English nerd in me, but this to me is worth studying.

Drinking from the Firehose: A New Journey Begins

Today starts a new and exciting chapter in my life. Since I was roughly fifteen years old, I’ve wanted my doctorate degree. At noon on this very day, I officially started that journey. I’m going back to Kennesaw State to achieve my Ed. D. in English education. Day one has been great so far and the content is already revving my life-long-learner engine. As the title might suggest, there is plenty of information to process already, but the information fascinates me. Some of the reading can be dry, but as I’ve navigated the first few chapters of each book, I find myself locked into the history and sociological implications of early learning and writing research.

The road will be long but well worth the troubles and challenges. I’ll continue to post about my PBL experience, but I plan on throwing in some of my doctorate experience as well. Cheers!

2013: How Project-Based Learning Could Change Everything

Happy New Year!

Each new year brings with it a promise; a promise that this year could be the best year of our lives; a promise that we will form good habits and get rid of the bad ones. And we’re right–for the most part. We also know that truthfully it is quite hard to change bad habits, form better ones, and there is no way to predict what a new year will bring. Still, the promise of what could be is one of the many magical parts of life.

This particular year, for me, already carries with it at least one bitter disappointment. I falsely believed I would be a shoe-in to be approved to present at this year’s ISTE conference in San Antonio; alas, it is not to be. I found out about midway through December that my proposal was not accepted. It was initially a blow to both my pride and ego, but once I had a chance to think about it, I had to admit that I was also simply disappointed because what I get to do for a living is something I want to share with the world!

I was as wary as anyone when I first started to explore and research project-based learning (PBL), but I very quickly realized that this might be a game changer in public education. You see, our politicians are all looking for quick fix legislation to help improve student performance. I think most who would read this blog can agree that this will never help alleviate our educational woes. For instance, most recently, the state of Georgia passed a constitutional amendment that allows the state to approve more charter schools. The claim for the need for this direct change was that parents and students need more choice. I agree, but not with more charter schools that one, will only siphon more money away from money strapped public systems and two, many of them will never close due to parent outcry no matter how bad the performance of the school is nor how underfunded it is. No, I believe it is all about generating choice within our current public schools.

PBL, as well as problem-based learning, could be a very viable solution.

Don’t get me wrong, for a program like the one I helped to develop in The Studio, it does take a bit of money, or at the very least being very creative with whatever current technology a school possesses. Still, with the implementation of PBL programs within public schools, you immediately give students and parents choice. PBL involves a different type of learning and is renowned for its ability to develop very strong soft and analysis skills. The emphasis is taken off the teacher and put more squarely on the student, their choices, and ownership of their learning. Without changing everything about a school and by offering a separate program that becomes a part of the DNA of a school, all stakeholders involved have an opportunity to win. Our program isn’t perfect, but in many ways it is starting to thrive. Students entering their first year of the program dote on it constantly as do their parents, students are interacting with real world problems and developing an understanding of required standards, and maybe more impressive is that some students are falling in love with learning again–something that is often lost during middle school years. It isn’t for everyone, but that’s why it would be an option, a new way to learn, something different from the status quo–a choice.

My sincere hope is that this upcoming year will hold the promise of spreading this message, changing a few mindsets, and maybe helping those making big decisions to see there are still good alternatives out there don’t decimate what many consider to be an important staple to the freedoms we enjoy here in our country–the public school system.

For the record, I hope to attend ISTE nonetheless this year. Maybe I’ll have better luck in 2014!

The Wonderful World of Google Apps: How We Use Spreadsheet in PBL

This is part three of an ongoing series. To see the previous entries click here and here.

Spreadsheets in Google Drive is probably the most significant of the apps we use through Google in our PBL classroom The Studio.  One of the tenants of PBL is to have students take ownership of their learning and to have choice. Well, if you’re an educator you know all to well that choice has been restricted quite a bit in many cases due to standardization. To be clear, I am not anti-standardization. There is something to be said for having everyone work towards a common goal; however, a classroom’s, teacher’s and student’s autonomy has to fit into the balance as well. I feel strongly that PBL (Project Based Learning) allows this to happen. Just last year, the federal government implemented the Common Core in an attempt to revamp the country’s educational focus and try to bring cohesion to our nation’s schools learning practices. I, for one, was very impressed with the end result of the standards presented to the country. They are everything PBL needs to thrive including a heavy focus on the development of skills and not just rote memorization of random facts and ideas. (Not that there is anything wrong with memorizing something from time to time.) The problem is that most school systems took these standards and decided they needed to tweak them for their own needs. Good intentions, sure, but the result is nothing more than further bureaucracy and more force-feeding of underdeveloped curricula. Really, my point here is that the Common Core is steering us in the right direction, even if our own school system is to some degree bastardizing them.

So what does this mean for my class and Google Spreadsheets?

As mentioned above, PBL is about student ownership and choice, and although we are stuck with the standards the nation and state hand us, that doesn’t mean we can’t give choice to our students. Whenever we begin a project, students are first to go to a spreadsheet that is already set up for them with a preexisting rubric that contains every standard of every subject they are attempting in the PBL class. From here, students can then choose the standards in which the believe they will achieve by conducting their next project. This simple idea gives us a two-fold effect by allowing students immediate choice in their learning while adhering to important standards, and it causes students to take immediate ownership of their learning due to this choice. Below are a few screen shots that show the basic set up of the spreadsheet:











It takes quite a bit of effort and time to set up this kind of spreadsheet, and it has evolved over the course of the last three years; however, by taking the time to create this, we’ve been able to really allow students more autonomy while holding them accountable for the learning they will be tested on later. It is also a simple tech skill they develop by learning to navigate and manipulate a spreadsheet.

To be successful, we do set ground rules with the amount of standards that must be implemented in each project. We learned the hard way that with no set criteria some students will simply choose only a few standards to hit, which defeats the overall purpose of our expanded learning. We sell this standard by calling it a ‘strong suggestion’ but the students know what it really means. We advocate that students use no less than eight standards for the LA and APHG and they actually implement all the standards for the BC  as they hit most of those standards in every project anyway.

There is certainly more to this than just what I’ve shared here, but this should give you an excellent idea of how we manage our project rubrics and basic scoring. Spreadsheets is just another reason why in The Studio we love Google Apps.