Monday, July 17, 2017

An Open Letter to ILA

Dear ILA,

I have been participating and attending the International Literacy Association (ILA) conference since 2013. In that time, I have seen tremendous change. Beyond the name and branding change, I have been very impressed with how ILA has reached out to educators who are in classrooms and schools to determine the future trajectory of this international organization. As a participant, seeing how teachers’ voices have driven change has been remarkable and filled me with hope for the future.

In a time when more and more teachers are pursuing free avenues of professional growth, ILA has embraced the changing needs of teachers by providing opportunities such as Twitter chats and Edcamp Literacy where participants can drive their own learning. By pairing participant-driven learning with formal sessions, as well as exciting interactive Putting Books to Work workshops and current event panels that do not require special ticketing, ILA provides teachers with the best possible blending of professional learning.

In my experience, this year’s program is the strongest one to date. From EdcampLiteracy to the highly engaging and relevant general sessions speakers, to the panels filled with passionate educators and authors, to the formal sessions, I have walked away with tools, strategies, ideas, and a renewed passion for teaching from every single opportunity, something that I can’t say of many professional learning events.

As a veteran educator, it brings me hope for the future of literacy education to see an emphasis on sound and current educational trends while remaining grounded in best practices in literacy education. With a focus on recognizing phenomenal young educators in The 30 Under 30, it demonstrates that ILA has their eyes on the future by recognizing the work of young educators.

So as I head home, I feel incredibly grateful to ILA for providing all of these opportunities to me and all the other participants. My head is full of ideas, my heart is full of love for teaching, my bag is full of great new books, and my pocket is full of new connections….and I was able to add an ILA17 button to my collection.

With my new wand in hand, I want to extend a sincere thank you. When teachers, authors, and professional organizations work together hand-in-hand, I believe anything is possible. And isn’t that what all of our students deserve?

With love,
Julie D. Ramsay, NBCT

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Growing Beyond Our Own Comfort Zone:Doing What's Best for Students

While facilitating a workshop on how makerspaces provide students an authentic way to employ literacy standards, I provided mini makerspace kits my students assembled for the participants to use. As I traveled around the groups of teachers working on making and creating  (some for the first time), I noticed there was a teacher sitting with her arms crossed. The others at her table were encouraging her to engage in the challenges; she created reasons why she couldn't participate. Upon engaging her in conversation, she stated that she never liked these types of challenges. With further prompting, she explained that she knew these type of problem-solving, critical thinking challenges were good for students, but that she never enjoyed these type of activities even as a child, and it was unlikely she would ever do them for her students.

This spurred some reflection. I could identify with her to a point. As a learner and as a teacher, it was difficult for me to leave the pattern that I had found comfortable....a list with rules and specific guidelines. I like knowing where things belong and what expectations are for any project in which I participate. Neat stacks, labels, detailed calendars, and to-do lists, those feel comfortable to me. However, as educators, we know this is not the end-all-be-all of what our students need.

Our job as educators is to prepare our students for the world they live in now AND the world of the future. Our students need to be able to attack problems to find solutions. They must be able to fail, evaluate different options, design a new path, and move towards their goals. Perseverance, grit, growth mindset, and the ability to look at things creatively is what is going to make them successful. All of the linear "book learning" alone will not make them successful. They have to be able to leverage that learning and apply creative problem solving, collaboration and communication to solve real problems, big or small. It takes BOTH. Leaving one or the other out hinders our students from our ultimate goal of preparing them for the world beyond the classroom walls.

Change is scary. Historically, new ideas draw fear. But with fear, we have the ability to grow both as teachers and as individuals and provide out students the best learning opportunities possible. And isn't that why we're in the classroom in the first place?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Making Plans: Celebrating International Dot Day

For many teachers, we are in the midst of the good old summertime. And while many of us are catching up on much-needed sun, fun, and quality time with family and friends, this is also a time to reflect. We spend time reading professional books, reconnecting with members of our PLN, attending professional development events, and searching for new ways to reach our incoming students.

Each year, I ask my students to provide me with honest feedback on what they enjoy most about our classroom and explain to me why that learning opportunity ranks high with them. Each year, many of my students name one or more of the different "special days" that we have. These are days where we take a break from our usual routine and focus on specific topic or idea.   

One of their favorite days is International Dot Day. International Dot Day is a day centered on Peter H. Reynolds’ book, The Dot. The official day is September 15th. Based on the book, the entire day is spent focusing on the importance of creativity, imagination, and individual talents and how each individual can harness their own uniqueness to make a mark on the world.

For many students, they don't see themselves as leaders or world-changers. By reading and discussing this book, students take the time to reflect on their own unique personal strengths within the context of how they can use those talents to make a positive mark on the world. Learners connect with their global peers through Twitter (and Instagram) using the hashtag #DotDay and #MakeYourMark and having conversations on how they can make their mark. We also take the time to blog about our plans for the future through this lens and students comment upon one another's posts turning their writing into a conversation tied to specific ideas and plans.

In addition to reading, discussing and tweeting, posting, learners also create personalized dot-shaped word clouds using 30 words that describe who they are as a person. We also used recycled lids from jars and students paint their own dot that represents who they are as a person. We turn these into magnets that they hang inside their lockers reminding them of why being unique empowers them to make a difference in the world.

By participating in Dot Day, learners not only discuss the overarching theme of The Dot but also internalize the text by making applications to their own lives, something we often do not provide for our students in our regular classroom time. They love this time and often refer to the lessons they've learned on Dot Day throughout the school year. (They also enjoy the dot-themed snacks we enjoy.)

This is a one-day event that could very easily become an overarching theme for a week or month-long study. As a teacher, you can connect with other teachers through Twitter (#DotDay), Facebook, and Pinterest to share ideas for implementing it into your schedule. This network of very creative and imaginative teachers is more than willing to give you all the ideas you need to bring this international book discussion to your students.

So while you are making plans for next year, I encourage you to take some time to look into International Dot Day. It's a day of deep-thinking and reflection for our students that help them to realize that being different is good and that by embracing their own gifts they can make the world, even the world of one person, a better place.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Are Master Teachers Also Master Storytellers?

I love stories. Reading them, listening to them, watching them. Through stories, we can live many lifetimes. Travel to exotic places. Have amazing, death-defying adventures. Save the world. Experience life from a different perspective. As humans, we enjoy connecting with others. Through compelling stories, we get that opportunity, whether the characters are fact or fiction. Great stories touch our hearts and propel us forward as new, different individuals. When we read, hear, or view great stories, we want to know what happens to these characters. Will they survive? Will they be happy? We become invested in them.

As I reflect upon this, I can't help but think back to some of the most compelling stories that have stuck with me over the years. I remember having some fantastic teachers who wove the most intriguing stories that drew their audience (their students) into the world they were sharing with us, whether it was fact or fiction. What they said mattered to us as students because we became invested.

When I entered the classroom, without recognizing it (at first), I began emulating these fantastic teachers by weaving stories for my own students. It wasn't until I was observed by another teacher who pointed out that the students were hanging on my every word; they were engaging and interacting just when the story called for it. It was a history class and I was telling "The True History Story" about a historical that history books dared to leave out. That's when I realized that storytelling is a crucial skill for teachers to employ with their students.

We want our students to connect with our content. We want it to matter to them. By creating stories that set the stage for a lesson or frame a new concept, we are opening up a new world for them. When it's done well, learners connect and ask questions. They develop empathy for others. Students see the relevance of why they are learning what we are asking them to learn. Students become invested.

So when you enter the classroom and it's time to teach a new concept, introduce a new style of writing, dive into a new author, or explore a new principle, ask yourself, "How can I weave this into a story that will hook my students and make the learning meaningful?" It can be as simple as changing the lighting or arrangement of the classroom. Sometimes you take on a different persona or change your voice. Stories have power, a power to elevate our students and propel them forward to do great things. What story will you tell?

Monday, January 9, 2017

Data: Hero or Villain?

If you're in education long enough, you will see trends come and go. Terminology changes. Instructional focus swings back and forth on a pendulum. As educators, it is very easy to get caught up in the pressure of jumping on the newest bandwagon. However, we must always keep our eyes on doing what is best for our students. We need to question each new strategy, tool, or practice that comes our way to see if it's a fit for our unique learners.

One word which I've heard come and go is "data." Because much of my career "data" has also come with a punitive connotation, it isn't my favorite word. It frequently is used in conjunction with standardized test in these test scores must go up or else. I can read and disaggregate data with the best of them, but it wasn't until I realized what a disservice I was doing to my students by focusing solely on standardized test data that I began to dig deeper into the crucial role of data, valid data, that I began to reframe my ideas.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is based on Five Common Core Propositions. Proposition Number Three states:

Teachers Are Responsible for Managing and Monitoring Student Learning

Managing data is clearly an expectation for all educators, but how do we weave this into our daily practice without losing sight of what each of our students needs?

As I see it, teachers fall into one of three categories. Teachers may be data-driven with a singular focus on hard numbers. Often times these educators put on blinders and only look at their students through the lens of raising test scores. I've been in schools where we were all mandated to justify our instructional choices based on how it would raise those numbers. One day a week, every week, we were required to spend the day doing test prep. What I've observed is that in these situations, students and teachers get burned out. The love of learning and teaching dwindles for everyone. Often we resort to bribes to try to get teachers and students to care about those numbers without seeing the long-term damage it's reeking on our profession and our students as life-long learners, creative problem solvers, and empathetic human beings. The danger of being data-driven is that all of our focus becomes about numbers for one small aspect of learning and growing and we lose sight of what our students need. It tends to eliminate creative ventures, inquiry, exploration, self-expression, and student-voice.

When looking at data, there is another category of teacher. This is one who is living in data-denial. We all know these teachers. We may have been these teachers at some point. Ones who have complete disregard for data, formal or informal. Diagnostic, formative, summative or standardized. These are the teachers who are going to teach the way they want to teach regardless of what students need...because they really don't know what their students need. The danger here is that students easily fall between the cracks. Students go unchallenged and begin to fall behind in their growth. Individual interests aren't nurtured. Potential and hidden talents remained untapped.

Finally, there are teachers who are data-informed. These are the teachers who gather data from a wide range of sources. Data-informed teachers listen. They observe. They analyze...every student, every day. Data-informed teachers look at formal and informal data also taking into account students' interest and learning preferences. They create learning activities that foster student-voice, creativity, innovation, and individuality. These teachers understand that every student is in a different place on the learning continuum and by using a wide-range of data, from multiple sources, he/she is working as a partner with each learner to help him/her reach personal goals. In this type of classroom, the focus is on the student; the learning is diverse. Is there data? Absolutely. It's gathered every day to shape and inform the instruction for each student.

Data. It's easy to fall victim to the pressure and band-wagon of focusing solely on numbers from one source. We can easily become buried in all of those numbers. So much so, that we are tempted to completely disregard any data at all. Either way, if we do that, we have to take our eyes off of our learners and what they need. We aren't doing what's best for them. Students aren't going to remember some test that they took. They will remember how they felt when they were in your class. They will remember the things they created, their triumphs, the connections they made and how they used what they learned to make the world a better place.

Data: Hero or Villian? The answer ultimately is up to you.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Using Tech to Meet Learning Challenges: Dyslexia

We all have students who present specific learning challenges. As teachers, we look for ways to remove the challenges impeding their learning...or at least find strategies that we can teach them to become successful on the learning continuum. In the last several years, I have had several students who have arrived with a diagnosis of Dyslexia. The thing about a diagnosis is there is a danger that we make assumptions that every child with the same diagnosis is the same...they need the same types of supports. This is simply not true. Each student is special and unique. They are much more than their diagnosis. They have interests, fears, strengths, and challenges like all of their peers. As teachers, we must look at each student as a unique case and compile a cadre of tools, strategies, and practices that will not only help meet the unique needs of each learner but also empower them beyond our classroom walls.

I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of the tools that I have found that work really well with students who may be faced with the challenge of Dyslexia. Some of these work very well to support the learning of struggling readers or those with limited language proficiency. The key is for us to find the tool that will best need the unique learning needs of each one of our learners.

  • Audio books: I know that this may seem like a given to many, but I know personally, I overlooked this option for many years. Yes, we want our students to be able to read, analyze, and enjoy reading. However, when we want our students to apply content area standards like comparing and contrasting texts, identifying a theme, or supporting an argument with textual evidence, an inability to physically read the text, impedes a student mastering those standards. One thing that I discovered in my research is that the processing that takes place when one's eyeballs read a text and the processing that take place when one hears a text is very similar. With this tool, all students will have the opportunity to discuss and analyze a text with peers. (Digital audio books can generally be checked out from school or public libraries.) 
  • Voice Typing: For students with Dyslexia, writing is a major challenge. One simple tool that we've discovered is "voice typing" in Google Drive. This allows a student to speak their writing into a document. They do have to tell it when to punctuate and when to go to a new paragraph. I've had students who it would normally take 30-45 minutes to type a couple of sentences, who could compose and entire narrative within 20 minutes using "voice typing." For the first time, I was able to see their creativity and ability to compose in different genres because "voice typing" removed an obstacle to their learning.
  • Dyslexie font: Did you know that there is a special font that makes it easier for students with Dyslexia to read? It's called Dyslexie. With this font, students have an easier time reading things that are written. When creating printed material for students, my interns and I have started using this font for all of the students. For someone without Dyslexia, it simply looks like any other font. It's just simpler and easier to read.
  • Google Chrome Extensions: There are several extensions that students can add to their Chromebook Google accounts. Speak It will read selected texts out loud. The Open Dyslexic extension overrides all fonts on web pages with the OpenDyslexic font, and formats pages to be more easily readable. It works at preventing the "funny things" that happen to letters for those with Dyslexia. Sometimes, we need our student to read a text in order to build background knowledge. With TLDR (too long didn't read) by, learners can get a summary of a web page without leaving the actual site. We've had various levels of success with each of these. It all comes down to the individual student. My middle schoolers are very conscious of being different. These extensions allow them to continue doing the same thing on the same sites as their peers but provide them the support that they need. 
  • Video diaries, building, making: When it comes to assessing a student's level of mastery, there may be challenges for students with reading obstacles. However, their obstacles should not impede our ability to assess their level of mastery of content standards. All of my learners have the freedom to choose how they demonstrate mastery of standards. Often students with Dyslexia are very intelligent and creative and they have struggled to keep their heads above water at school. Many of them are exhausted by school. By providing them the opportunity to build, make, or create they are able to excel in spite of their specific challenges. 
When we can empower our students with tools, practices, or strategies, we see their passions and hear their voices...and so do their peers. They become an integral part of the learning environment. 

I'd love to hear some of the tools and strategies that you've found successful with your students. Please share them in a comment below.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Managing the Mess of a Makerspace

In previous posts, Let's Make a Mess and Makerspaces in a Content Area Classroom, I outlined how we transformed our 6th grade ELA classroom into a makerspace. One thing that Caylyn Harden (my intern at the time) and I discussed early in the planning stages is how we could manage all the mess within our learning environment.

With our middle school schedule, we taught multiple classes of ELA. Furthermore, our classroom was originally designed as a resource classroom for a class of no more than 8 students. The physical space of our classroom is small...postage stamp small. Our largest class was 32. I already had dove into research on learning spaces and determined that each student didn't require formal seating...which is a good thing as there wasn't enough room for desks, tables, and chairs for 32 students. In our classroom, we have flexible seating, including several nontraditional seating options like camp chairs, ottomans, stools, floor pillows, a futon, small armchairs and carpet remnants. (we also have many different lighting options.) The students flourish within this space, but we knew that adding all other plus 80+ different project at various stages of completion was a challenge that we needed to meet BEFORE we began. Many would have looked at our small and cozy space and said that adding a makerspace to it was impossible. We didn't want our space limitation to hinder our students' ability to engage in making, so we put our heads together to find some solutions.

Since our floor space was at a premium, we cleaned out a section of cabinets and drawers to house the items that were donated for the students to use to make and create. I know ideally, the students could see all the materials, but this was the only space we had. There wasn't much usable storage space in our room. Then, Caylyn acquired a large storage bin with a lid for each class. These were the largest that they make. We had zip-lock bags for each student to store their work in each day (gallon to 2.5-gallon bags depending on what size they needed). Those bags would go into their class' tub and be closed up, preventing other students from accidentally damaging their work or pieces of their work from getting lost. Then, thanks to the generosity of a fellow teacher who has a large lab classroom, the tubs were stored in her room. If a student had something that needed to dry, he/she would leave it on our small counter space.

Regarding time management, after taking the last 10 minutes of class to clean up their work for the first couple of days, the students got much faster at storing their work away....and help those who needed additional hands to clean up their "making-in-progress."

Was this an ideal situation? No, it wasn't. However, with these we simple practices, students were able to excel with a makerspace in our ELA classroom. The learning wasn't impeded by our lack of space. Did our Makery look like other makerspaces? It did not, but isn't that what's wonderful about teaching and learning? It can be adapted to fit the needs of our learners in our learning spaces....and our makerspace did just that.