Sunday, 14 September 2014

More MOOCs

With the workload of finishing off the last school year, and preparing for a new baby, there hasn't been much time for blogging, so a quick update...

Over the 'summer' break, I have been exploring numerous MOOCs on a range of topics from Irish history to the fundamentals of teaching. September sees me enrolled on several courses with varying levels of engagement but two I intend to complete fully are Learning to Teach Online from the University of New South Wales and Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (or ModPo for short) by Al Filreis from Pennsylvania University.

Learning to Teach Online has been an interesting in terms of confirming much of my own theory around online or blended learning, and the reflections involved in this course have made me consider alignment of curriculum, assessment and methodology in a very structured (and useful) way. Should it run again, I would thoroughly recommend it for anyone seeking to embark on - or improve the efficacy of - online learning, whether for part or all of a course.

Having a stronger academic background in language than literature, I am always keen to 'up' my knowledge and skills around the latter, so the course on American poetry has been most enlightening. So far, we have focused on Dickinson and Whitman. Dickinson manages to create such densely-packed lines, often musing on the nature of poetry itself and the insights gained so far have been beneficial in informing me of various perspectives on a writer with many possible interpretations.

The Whitman materials await my attention so, as the baby naps, that's where I'm heading now. See you there perhaps!

Monday, 16 June 2014

Marking: From Loathing to Loving

Earlier today, I read a couple of blog posts (including this one) about 'common language' and its pros and cons. I then sat down to continue checking my Year 8s writing corrections and realised that I was actually enjoying it; definitely progression in my attitude toward a task that I met with procrastination more often than not.

What's the link?

In the past, when I've annotated a learner's writing, I have struggled to give them enough direction to self-correct without a. 'telling' them the 'correct' answer (and thereby robbing them of a learning opportunity) or b. being so vague that the learner really doesn't know where to start with how to improve what they originally penned.

However, over the last couple of weeks, I've been trialling a resource from Laura Randazzo on TeachersPayTeachers and it has been transformational for both me and my learners. The idea is that there is a shared set of codes used to annotate texts - nothing new there - but the feature that separates it from the rest is that the reference sheet gives technical guidance on the error, using authentic concise and accurate terminology. I like to think that my editing of the reference sheet has also enhanced its efficacy as I inserted shortened urls (using Bitly) linking to further guidance and self-tests.

The first 'win' with this resource occurred after I asked learners to go through, and note in their workbooks, the error codes. Lots of mental sweat visible here! Next, they wrote out the guidance, followed by the corrected version of the extract. At that point, I did an anonymous feedback survey and the results were most encouraging. While a couple (surprisingly, not more) of the 24 surveyed mentioned they hadn't enjoyed the physical wrist tiredness they'd experienced in writing out at such length, every single one (yes, without even one exception) gave positive feedback. They said they felt it made them more aware of their errors, how to correct them and that the exercise meant it was less likely they'd repeat the errors in their next writing task, partly because of their raised awareness and partly because they would proofread more carefully so as to avoid such onerous writing out of corrections again. (At the point of writing this post, this remains to be seen, so I'll be back to update on whether this is indeed the case or not.) I had explained to the class that I would make a decision on whether to continue using the system or not based on their feedback, so a positive response was effectively the class telling me, "We want more!" 

The next victory came as I sat down to mark their corrections and realised that having this common understanding of technical terms made it so much easier for me to mark up their work. As learners had already corrected themselves following guidance on aspects such as 'preposition', 'tense shifting', 'fragment', 'subject', 'verb' and a range of punctuation terms, it was effortless to concisely note where their focus should lie for future proofreading. 

Furthermore, an added bonus was that the learners I would usually worry most about understanding my feedback found they had an advantage over the rest of the class: my EAL learners. As they have all experienced learning English with regular exposure to grammatical terminology - especially around tense formation - I was able to be even more specific in my feedback to them, using terms like 'past participle', 'present perfect' and other such terms the rest of the learners (and many English teachers) would baulk at.

The enjoyment factor for marking now comes from the strong sense that it is a constructive, collaborative experience that is visibly building the learners' skills, while being differentiated, personalised and putting the onus of learning where is should be: with the learner.

A massive thanks to Laura Randazzo for this resource; I receive nothing for promoting her materials, monetary or otherwise, but I do wholeheartedly recommend a look here.

Friday, 13 June 2014

From 'Good Teacher' to 'Effective Teacher'

My last post reflected on my thoughts at the start of the Coursera MOOC on Coaching Teachers, and as it draws to a close, I have to say it has been some of the best PL I've had in a long time.

One of the big things it's prompted me to think about is how a teacher moves from being a good teacher to being an effective teacher. Good teachers are often judged on their classroom performance, implementation of school policies and respected pedagogical approaches, but effective teachers are judged on the outcomes achieved for their learners, plain and simple. So the guy that regularly gets his guitar out in a lesson for a singalong and the teacher who requires absolute silence for most of a lesson might have different approaches and classroom environments, but to judge their efficacy, it's the learners we should be focusing on. Do they learn and retain that learning over time? Can they apply the learning in appropriate contexts? Does learner feedback indicate high levels of engagement with intellectually stimulating learning experiences? Only the answers to these questions (among others) will indicate if the teacher is effective or not, regardless of what we can observe in a one-hour session plucked at random from the school year.

This post from Class Teaching (a blog I recommend to anyone who'll listen) reinforces the idea and adds to it. Consider this graphic (taken from the same blog) for a moment:

A common complaint among teachers is, 'I taught this last year and they've forgotten it. They don't remember anything!' but if we are regularly teaching 'in a spiral' with revision and revisiting being prominent features, that would surely be less of a feature. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that many curricula from around the world are so dense with content that many feel it's nigh on impossible to touch upon many standards more than once a year, but I'm thinking that the key is to prioritise according to individual learning goals and go from there. I'm not talking about unmanageable IEPs for the thirty or so kids you have in every class, but as you get to know your class through formative assessments, the areas that need more attention should become clearer and allow for a sharper focus on what's most needed. 

What is referred to as "spaced retrieval practice" is supported by research as an extremely effective method so click through to the original post for guidance on starting points on implementing this in your own classroom.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Coaching Teachers: A MOOC from Coursera

I almost deleted the Recommended Courses for You email from Coursera this morning, but what a mistake that would have been. Reading it made me see I had already missed the first week of a course entitled 'Coaching Teachers' and although the first 5 minutes of the first lecture made me cringe with its cheesiness, I soon realised it just being tongue-in-cheek and making a valid point, one not exclusive to coaches but anyone in a teaching role.
It started off by introducing 'Mr Good Coach' and soon led us to understand that he's not the all-star he's hailed at until he becomes 'Mr Effective Coach'. I suppose it's like the difference between the teachers that appear to be doing all the right things; the learners love them, their classes are innovative and engaging, their colleagues admire their out-of-the-box ideas, but are they actually having a positive impact on learning? The point was not to denigrate great teachers, but to ask ourselves if the practices we deem to be effective actually are.
With the focus on coaching, this was the first key idea to consider in the arena of meaningful feedback and potential for growth.
In the following lectures, they outline 'The Four Horsemen' in relation to Dweck's ideas on growth and fixed mindsets. These 'horsemen' are behaviours that appear when giving feedback after observations and lessen the effectiveness of the coaching session. Briefly, they are:

  1. 'I suck' - this teacher takes feedback extremely personally and becomes despondent to the point where the coach has to take on the role of therapist and loses focus on the point of the session.
  2. 'You're wrong' - this teacher disputes the feedback and solutions offered, so the coach spends the time justifying instead of discussing ways to move forward.
  3. 'Blame it on the rain' - with this teacher it is always elements beyond their control that upset the lesson e.g. hyperactivity / tiredness after lunch, 1 learner having a particularly bad day etc but it's 'not usually like that'.
  4. 'Optimist without a cause' - here the teacher seems to be accepting the feedback but in reality there will be no action on the advice because the teacher reckons they are doing just fine.
Although I've observed and recognised all of these behaviours, considering them all together brought me to the realisation that I've probably been guilty of all 4 over the years; indeed, the course creators suggest that watching these examples does much to mitigate the fixed mindset and immediately provide a common language toward managing the coaching process, so they recommend using them to prepare teachers for critical feedback.
With these aspects having already stimulated reflection and discussion, I intend to see the course through its 5-week duration. I'm optimistic about what I'll learn and I encourage anyone, regardless of teaching role or subject, to check out the course.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Digital Poetry Resources

Poetry is something that many teens approach with great trepidation, but it doesn't have to be that way. I've seen learners really come alive and grow in confidence once they explore enough poetry, with guidance, to be able to say what they like and what they don't like - and more importantly, to be able to explain why.
In an effort to connect technology, learners and poetry, this site section offers a variety of ways to make the whole process more interactive and engaging. Well worth a browse so take a look at the Slideshare below for a taster and then click through to see the rest.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Austin's Butterfly

Apparently this video is 'legendary' but I only came across it for the first time today. Although it focuses on an example from primary school, the lessons from it are clear and uncontroversial.

Austin's Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work - Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback from Expeditionary Learning on Vimeo.

The teacher describes the learning journey of Austin (a 1st-grader) drawing a butterfly. His first attempt is rather off-the-mark, but with specific, constructive, critical feedback from his peers, the results of formative assessment speak for themselves.
A great lesson for learners of any age.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Simple Formative Assessment

This minute-long video shows a lo-tech, common-sense approach to formative assessment during group tasks. I think I have the disruptive habit of noticing an issue and drawing the class' attention to it immediately, thereby interrupting the workflow; this provides a much better way of not only recording issues but also building up notes over time to track progress and performance.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Evidence-Based Teaching

Whether or not you've read or skimmed Visible Learning, this video is invaluable in exploring some of they key findings. In this talk, Hattie calls on all teachers to root their practice in what we know - through research - works. If you feel you are passionate about teaching and are pouring energy into your teaching, make sure you're focusing it with tried and tested methods.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Taggstar: Another Thinglink?

A site where you can upload pictures and then create hotspots which link to various media. Try it out the free tool here. For ideas on how it might be useful, check out the ideas at the bottom of the Thinglink post.