Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Re-Visioning the Writing Classroom

"Show me, don't tell me," a line I have no doubt lifted from the famous Lucy Calkins. In all of the writing we do in our class I am constantly asking my fifth graders to do just that, show don't tell. "If in your story you are writing about a time when you are scared then how can you show me that with your words? If the alien you are writing about is "ugly" then describe that crazy beast in a way that will create a visual and mental image in your readers mind."

We have made incredible gains over the last couple of weeks in our writing and the students work is jumping off the page. Their word choice is strategic and well planned, they're finding their voice, and becoming much more confident with the conventions of writing. Perhaps it's because spring has sprung or is it something more?

So let me dig in and reflect for but a moment.

I believe the difference is the computer lab. After our planning time and the first drafts were written on paper in class I then had the students type those rough drafts using Microsoft Word at the computer lab. Their first drafts were then sent to me through the Digital Drop Box within Blackboard where I had a chance to embed comments within their work and resend it back to the student within the Digital Drop Box.

I very quickly realized that there were immediate advantages with conferencing this way and there were immediate disadvantages as well. Ultimately, I want my writing class to be a fluid time where conversations about word choice and voice are common among all but much of that writing talk disappeared and I found the Digital Drop Box became a bottle neck during class time.

So the immediate solution was to have the students print out their work so I can sit with them and write comments and suggestions all over their papers. Then they could go back to the computers and take their time with my comments and play around with their work until they found how they liked it. It really worked for me. It was fast, very business like, and gave me a chance to see immediate progress in the writer not just the writing.

Through this process however, I was able to identify an immediate gap within my class; they really don't know how to use Microsoft Word very well. So, not only did I have mini-lessons on how to incorporate dialogue or how to use similes in their writing, but many of my mid-point lessons were about the basic skills of using Microsoft Word.

Our writing class has been at the computer lab over the last week or two and the students have discovered that Microsoft Word is a tool that can take some of the sting out of revising; they are no longer dreading having to rewrite each draft over and over by hand. Rather there has been a huge weight lifted off the shoulders of these young writers and they are free to express themselves and don't mind the hard work or the Re-Visioning of their stories.

It has been as much a learning experience for me as it has been for the students, and as Brian Crosby would say, "it's messy." The look and feel of my writing class has changed. If at any time you walk into my classroom/computer lab you will see kids conferencing with one another, other students helping out with basic tech skills, other students might be fixing a printer issue, or other students discussing some other crafty cool gadget that they discovered Microsoft Word could do. These kids are talking about changing their opening paragraphs or starting with the last paragraph and moving text around and playing with words in a way that I have never really experienced before.

It is an amazingly productive time and I am so proud of how hard these kids are working.

I will post a link to their blogs so those interested can read their final copies.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Unspoken Gift

So I get to my classroom only to find a gift; a copy of the article Characteristics of a 21st Century Classroom on my desk that was given to me by my new principal. It felt like an unspoken homework assignment had just been handed out, so I have taken the time to sift through this article very closely this evening.

The article is a quick read but I will pull out this snip:

The focus of student learning in this classroom is different. The focus is no longer on learning by memorization or recalling information but on learning how to learn. Now, students use the information they have learned and demonstrate their mastery of the content in the projects they work on. Students learn how to ask the right questions, how to conduct the appropriate investigation, how to find answers, and how to use information. The emphasis in this classroom is on creating life long learners. With this goal in mind, students move beyond the student role to learn through real world experiences.

I am fired up! My principal gets it ~ clearly he understands the bigger picture of the challenges that we are faced with and this gift that he has placed on my desk means more than he may yet know. For over two years I have been steeped in the theoretical versions of what a 21st Century Classroom looks like and for the first time I feel as though I am ready to walk the walk.

I believe the role of the teacher changes dramatically in this kind of classroom environment. I must say that it is an easy class to manage when you are giving lectures, teaching memorization or simply having student recall information. However, the management of a 21st Century Classroom can be an absolutely exhausting experience if there is not a great deal of back work done to setup procedures and routines. The snip below really spoke to me towards that end:

The teacher must know how to:
  • establish a safe, supportive, and positive learning environment for all students. This requires planning on the part of the teacher to avoid safety risks, to create room arrangements that support learning, and to provide accessibility to students with special needs. The teacher is skilled in managing multiple learning experiences to create a positive and productive learning environment for all the students in the classroom. Classroom procedures and policies are an important part of creating a positive learning environment. The teacher evaluates and implements effective classroom management techniques in a consistent manner. She uses routines and procedures that maximize instructional time. Students know what is expected of them, and the teacher knows how to effectively handle disruptions so there is no adverse impact on students' instructional time.

Doesn't that sound like an amazingly diverse and exciting classroom to be a part of? I have been pushing myself to create a classroom like this on a daily basis. My expectations have shifted and the way I view myself as a teacher has shifted as well and it's helped me embrace the expectations mentioned above. It's not easy! I will say that again...it's not easy to conduct business like this in a classroom but it's exhilarating when it works well. I am still a work in progress and I have miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.

At the end of the article my principal wrote down this question: "John, another valuable comparison...Have you taken the time to celebrate the 21st Century skills, experiences, & opportunities you have given your students?"

Not yet, but I can't wait to get back in the trenches tomorrow to start celebrating.