Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How to Inspire a New Generation of Writers Through Blogging

Image Credit: Pixabay / Public Domain
The moment has finally arrived. It’s every teacher’s dream. Students are no longer writing for a grade or for their teacher. Instead, they are writing for their peers and generating their own topics. Can this really be possible?

In the fall of 2011, I introduced my students to blogging for the first time. Little did I know what a game-changer it would be in my classroom. Blogging has enabled my writers to discover their unique voices and uncover a true love of writing. It has given them a creative outlet where they can express themselves, challenge their writing skills, and build their self-esteem.

There are many approaches to incorporating blogging into the curriculum. Some teachers assign topics, and some don’t. In my class, we have a combination of teacher-directed blog posts and student-initiated pieces.

Throughout the year, my students respond to specific prompts as an assignment. They may be asked to reflect on their learning at the end of a unit of study or explore a topic that is directly linked to an upcoming lesson. My students’ blogs also serve as an ePortfolio showcasing the projects they have completed throughout the year.

However, because I also want my students to have ownership of their own blogs, I encourage them to write on topics that resonate with them personally. They are allowed to write about any topic as long as the content is appropriate for the educational space. It is through these self-directed writings that I learn wonderful details about my students. I discover that some have a passion for dancing or golfing. Others grapple with what it means to be a teenager or how to live up to their parents’ expectations. Some are quite opinionated and aren’t shy to tell you exactly what they think of the world. Others use their blogs to publish short stories that they have written. I love that some have found their own niches and that they find blogging to be a powerful form of self-expression.

There are also writers who move me with their intellectualism and maturity, like my former 8th grade student Crystal. She was an extremely high-achieving student who was very shy in class. She was brilliant but had few opportunities to share her hidden talents. Her debut came in the form of a beautiful post she wrote about teaching her immigrant grandmother to use the Internet. In her piece, she comes to an epiphany about her heritage and her relationship with her grandmother.

Image Credit: Pixabay / Public Domain
“We were so different: me, with my slang and my grandma with her traditional Korean. Our history drew a barrier between us and yet it was the very thing that drew a common thread, stringing us together. Sometimes I would wonder, where would it all go, the traditional practices, the languages, the cultural legends, and customs? With our society so muffled by the trend of modernized-speaking and entertainment-based culture, who will carry on the source of our identities, the history of our very existence?”

Her blog post was outstanding, worthy of publication, and now, because of blogging, she had a platform for her creativity.

I am now no longer the sole reader of my students’ writings. The world has become their audience, and I have sought ways to expand their readership beyond the confines of my own classroom. I’ve reached out to my Personal Learning Network (PLN) on social media, solicited readers using the Twitter hashtag #comments4kids, found educators through S2S Blog Connect, and signed up to form partnerships with other teachers via Quadblogging.net. As a result of these connections, our blogs have readers from many parts of the world. My students regularly look forward to reading comments left for them by our visitors, and they swell with pride at all the praise they have received. As for me, I am as excited as they are. I am awed by how reflective, mature and intellectual their posts have become.

Blogging may not be a typical writing genre in many English classrooms. But perhaps it should be, especially if it means we can inspire a generation of students to become prolific writers and talented bloggers. Our students are incredibly creative; they just need a stage where they can shine.

If you are interested in forming a blogging partnership with me, please let me know by connecting with me.

Ready to get your students blogging?

Below are some tips I share with my student bloggers to help them to increase readership to their posts.

  1. Come up with a clickable title. Create a title that compels readers to click on the blog post.
  2. Include a vibrant picture. Choose a header image that will generate interest.
  3. Hook the audience with the first few sentences. Start with an intriguing question or draw the readers in by creating suspense.
  4. Tag the post with popular keywords. Make the post easily searchable.
These tips are available as an infocard. Click here to download a copy to use in your classroom.

Blogging Websites

Nowadays, lots of great blogging websites are available for budding writers. Here are some that many educators use with their students: Kidblog, Edublogs, WordPress, Blogger, Weebly and Wix. Please note: Some blogging sites are blocked by schools’ Internet filter. Be sure to check with your school first before setting your heart on one.

Originally published on KQED's "In the Classroom" blog. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Maximize Learning with Digital Tools: Moving from Consumption to Creation

“Students as Creators” © 2016 Alice Chen | All Rights Reserved
We are starting to see them pop up more frequently in U.S. classrooms: the iPads, the Chromebooks, and the laptops. As more schools move toward using technology in the classroom, we are faced with the question of how to use these devices effectively in our instruction.

Undoubtedly, it's an exciting time to be an educator. We are no longer limited to just using textbooks or curriculum guides. The number of apps and websites available to us has exploded exponentially in the online educational space. Students are using math apps to brush up on much-needed skills. They can watch science videos that bring concepts to life. With social media, they are able to access the latest news within minutes of the occurrence of an event. However, is that all we wish our students to be able to do, to only become consumers of information?

I believe that students should be using technology to its fullest potential in the classroom. This means that not only should students be using it to access the wealth of information on the Internet but that they also should be using digital tools to create meaningful content from what they have consumed.

Cross-Curricular Integration
Though I teach English Language Arts, I believe in integrating other academic content whenever possible. I always try to provide a scientific or historical perspective when the lesson lends itself, and PBS LearningMedia is perfect for this purpose. This fantastic and free online platform has over 100,000 resources available that covers topics from all content areas and grade levels.

For example, my students just finished reading a wide selection of speeches for our rhetoric unit. We studied various speeches for their beauty of language, persuasive elements, and powerful message. One of my favorite speeches from this unit is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” I want this speech to come to life for my students and for them to also appreciate the historical significance of this time period. Below is my approach to teaching this piece by leveraging digital media resources and Google Drawings.

Lesson Plan for “I Have a Dream”
  1. Introduce the Civil Right Movement by showing students these media pieces: "The Legacy of the Gettysburg Address" and "Civil Rights and the 1950s | Crash Course US History #39".
  2. Students read "I Have a Dream" in groups, stopping to discuss each paragraph and the rhetorical strategies Dr. King used.
  3. Divide the speech into different sections and have each group create a Padlet to demonstrate their understanding of this piece. Each group must include the following components: a quoted passage, an explanation of the quote, two analysis of the rhetorical strategies used, and proper attribution for any media they included. Here is an example that my students created.
  4. Based on the information from the three historical documents above, students create a 21st century flyer advertising the event. Below is an example of one group’s work on this project.

“Digital Flyer” © 2016 Anisha & Jake | All Rights Reserved
Using Digital Tools for Authentic Assessment
Instead of giving my students a traditional test to assess their comprehension of the significance of the speech and the historical documents they examined, I prefer to have my students express their understanding by creating an authentic product. Because I’m constantly trying to cultivate my students’ creativity and critical thinking skills by emulating the “real world” as much as possible, I also emphasize the importance of artistic design when creating a project. I find that this last step is often overlooked in our instruction. However, in life, how an idea is presented is just as important as the idea itself, and I want my students to realize this.

Let’s Get Them Creating
My students used Padlet and Google Drawings for this particular lesson, but there are also a plethora of other digital tools that students can use to foster their creativity. Below is a list of digital creation tools that are great for the classroom. It is no means an exhaustive list, but many students find them fun and easy-to-use.
  1. Thinglink makes images and videos interactive
  2. Canva is easy to use design software with templates for infographics, posters, and more
  3. Storybird is a beautiful app that inspires writing with art
  4. Powtoon makes creating animated presentations full of awesome
  5. Zoodle Comics a comic strip app for the iPad
  6. Sock Puppets if you love sock puppets…
  7. Video editing tools (i.e. YouTube Editor, WeVideo)
  8. Screencasting tools (i.e. Snagit, Screencast-O-Matic, Screencastify, Movenote, Explain Everything)
Which digital tools do your students like to use to show what they know? Please share in the comments below.

Originally published on KQED's "In the Classroom" blog. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How Sharing on Social Media Helped Me Become a Better Educator

"The Art of Social Media" by Flickr user mkhmarketing | CC BY 2.0
I used to think Twitter was just for celebrities. What they wore, who they’re with, and where they went. Then, I discovered that the true superstars on Twitter were educators.

My foray into social media started in 2011 when I received the opportunity to teach with an iPad in my classroom. I was ready to transform my teaching, but I didn’t know where to start. I did not have access to technology trainings, and no one else I knew used an iPad for teaching. Thus, I did what many people who do in situations like this: I went on the Internet to find inspiration. That’s where I discovered that some of the most dynamic and creative teachers were on Twitter. They were using this social media tool to connect over ideas, share resources, and participate in meaningful conversations.

At first, I was hesitant about using social media so publicly. My Facebook account was solely used to share my personal life with family and friends. My privacy settings were rather strict, and I didn’t “friend” anyone who I had never met in person. However, I realized that if I truly wanted to grow as a teacher and collaborate with other educators, I had to force myself out of my comfort zone and leave my metaphorical island. It turned out to be the best decision of my teaching career.

On Twitter, I discovered that I could learn from educators from all around the world. Through this platform, I was able to expand my Professional Learning Community beyond my own district and create a Personal Learning Network (PLN) on my own terms and based on my interests. It was a place where I could design my own professional development by learning from other educators, all while sitting in my pajamas.

From Tweeter to Blogger
Twitter’s 140 character limited really forced me to be focused and concise in what I shared. I found it an extremely fitting and useful platform for sharing links that I think other educators would find valuable or tweeting out ideas that others would find interesting. However, there were times when my thoughts could not be expressed in such a succinct format, and soon, I found myself blogging to meet that need.

My First Dive Into Blogging
When I first decided to start a blog, I didn’t really have a plan. I hadn’t studied the art of publication and my sole purpose for writing was to share ideas. For my first blog post, it felt natural to introduce myself and my approach to using technology in the classroom. I didn’t have aspirations to be a blogger. I was writing for me, not necessarily the world.

Developing My Voice
Over time, I realized that many bloggers write for three basic reasons: to be informative, to be reflective, or to be entertaining. I became a teacher to help others so I easily gravitated towards the first two reasons. I wanted to share what I was working for me, and in turn, hopefully help someone else in return. Soon, I was writing about, which learning management system I liked best, why I gave up my iPads for Chromebooks, and how I was implementing Google Apps in my classroom. I found that readers really enjoyed hearing from my personal experiences and how it differed from theirs. Many teachers read blogs to gain new ideas and to find tips to make their jobs easier. Soon readers were leaving comments on my blog, asking questions or wanting to continue the dialogue. This is what blogging is all about, the interchange of ideas and the exploration of other perspectives.

My blog gave me the space to further share my pedagogy and reflect on my practice. It gave me a place to challenge myself, organize my thoughts, and find my voice. Blogging provided a creative outlet where I could push myself to become a better educator.

Becoming an Active Participant
To be honest, I never thought I would carve out an identity for myself on social media. That was the most surprising outcome when I first set out to use this platform to improve my practice as a teacher. At first, I thought I would just be a quiet observer. However, being an active participant is definitely much more rewarding, allowing me to explore new territories as a learner and new worlds of possibilities.

I hope your quest to finding your voice is a rewarding one. Taking the plunge isn’t as scary as some may think. Please share your adventures with social media in the comments below.

Originally published on KQED's "In the Classroom" blog. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Better Classroom Discussions Through Choice and a Little Bit of Chaos

Photo by USAG Livorno PAO via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Some of us have been there. You have a room full of 30+ students, and you wonder how it is possible that so many kids or teenagers could actually be that quiet. Many avert their eyes, thinking that if they don’t make eye contact, they can achieve the superpower of invisibility. Then, there are those five students who confidently and regularly raise their hands, waiting to be called on to answer the question that has been posed by the teacher. Regardless of the topic, regardless of the questions, it is usually the same five hands that sprout up each time.
How can we improve our practice so that more engagement occurs for all students and not just the confident few? A successful discussion is typically dependent on two factors: the topic and the level of participation. How can we choose subjects for discussion that interest and yet educate students? How can we run our discussions so that all students have a voice?
As an English Language Arts teacher, literacy is at the core of my curriculum. This is not new to our content area. For years, the traditional genres we teach include short stories, poetry, and novels. However, in this world where news can literally be transmitted the minute we click the share button, we need to expand the breadth of what our students are reading. Our world is increasingly digital, and it’s time we add that to our warehouse of genres. This is why I regularly supplement my students’ readings with online sources, like articles from KQED’s The Lowdown. The Lowdown provides current and educational topics that are fantastic for incorporating informational text into the classroom. What better way to meet this requirement in the Common Core State Standards than to introduce stories that also resonant with our students?
The Challenge
Whole class discussions come with limitations. This is why, over many years of teaching, I’ve tried different approaches to encourage meaningful dialogue among students. To me, a conversation isn’t meaningful if only 15 to 20% of the class is talking during the period. This is why I think the following strategies are great alternatives to the traditional approach of whole class discussions.
Student Choice
Ever mindful that students love choice, I let my students choose what they wish to read and discuss each week. On Mondays, the first task of the day is to browse the topics offered on The Lowdown to see which topics interest them. Next, I ask for a volunteer to facilitate the decision-making process. This person takes up to five suggestions before polling the class. Students are allowed to vote as many times as they want, and the article that receives the most votes is the one that we read that week.
Socratic Seminars with a Twist
Socratic Seminars are formal, small group discussions that explore open-ended, critical-thinking questions based upon an assigned text. Before the seminar, students are given a set of questions that will be discussed. They prepare for the talk by taking notes or annotating the text. There are some excellent online resources that support teachers in using Socratic Seminars like this video from the Teaching Channel or the National Paideia Center, which offers a helpful overview of how to use this method in the classroom.
However, in my classroom, I feel it’s more empowering to have my students ask and answer their own questions. Students are encouraged to jot down questions during and after reading a text. Then, they submit their best question and the class votes on the ones they want to explore. Sometimes I tweak their submissions a little to ensure that the questions have the substance needed for a Socratic Seminar.
Due to class size, most teachers divide their students into two groups: an inner circle and an outer circle. The participants in the seminar sit in the inner circle, while the students in the outer circle take on the role of observers and coaches. However, in a secondary California classroom where we easily have more than 30 students, a socratic seminar with 15+ participants is still too large. Instead, I break my class into three groups: participants, coaches, and notetakers. The notetakers are each assigned to follow the contributions of one member of the inner circle and documents the conversation during the discussion on a shared Google Doc. I find that these smaller groups work best with an advanced class where students are usually competing for an opportunity to speak.
Table Talks
Even though Socratic Seminars are great for cultivating public speaking skills, I also want to create an environment where the engagement and participation in my class is high and constant. To do this, I created a method I coined Table Talks. Like I mentioned previously, I prefer to have my class submit and choose their own questions. Once the voting has ended, the top nine questions are shared, and students choose three that they want to explore. They prepare for the Table Talk the day before by choosing a position, gathering evidence, and writing a rationale. On the day of the Table Talk, students join the table that corresponds to the question they have chosen. This is repeated three times during the period. With multiple conversations occurring simultaneously, it may feel a little chaotic, but I love the animated discussions that arise. It also gets my students moving, and it gives them the opportunity to hear different perspectives.
Online Discussion Threads
If you have access to technology, online discussions are a wonderful way to ensure that every student’s voice is heard. Many learning management systems (LMS) include a discussion tool in their product, and the one I use is Schoology. With their analytics tool, I can quickly see who participated and how frequently they contributed to the conversation. When using a discussion tool, students have the opportunity to process their thoughts before sharing them. This allows for more thoughtful discourse and the occasion to practice their writing skills. Sometimes the opening question is posed by me, and sometimes I have all my students post one question of their own. To encourage active engagement and follow-up, I institute a “3 Post Rule.” Each student must contribute an original post, respond to another peer’s original post, and respond to someone’s reply.
In my classroom, I try to utilize a variety of strategies to give my students choice and to increase engagement. My goal is to foster a collaborative environment where all participants can feel they are a part of a larger conversation.

Originally published on KQED's "In the Classroom" blog. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

10 Ways to Use Google Hangouts to Transform Learning

My class "hanging out" with Education Secretary Duncan on Google Hangouts
In our world today, we can stay connected in unprecedented ways. Why just call or text when you can “see” someone who is hundreds or thousands of miles away? Even President Obama used Google Hangouts in 2013 during his fireside chat with the country. If you haven’t used Hangouts before, it’s time to examine the possibilities.

In education, using Hangouts is a great way to connect and collaborate with other educators without giving out your phone number. It’s a powerful tool for making connections, working collaboratively, and introducing the world to your students. Many educators have embraced Hangouts to enrich both their students’ learning experiences and their own professional development. Below are some ways educators are using Hangouts to step up the learning.

Make Student Connections
You can connect students with their peers from around the country, or even from abroad if time zone differences permit. Below are some ideas on how teachers are using this fabulous video calling tool in their classrooms.
  1. Book Talks: Classes that are reading the same book or similar genres can discuss novels together and make book recommendations to one another.
  2. Mystery Hangouts: In this activity, two classrooms video chat with each other but do not reveal their individual locations. Before meeting online, both classes research facts about their own state and create clues about their location. Then, each class takes turns asking “Yes” or “No” type questions in a race to solve the mystery. More details on how to get started could be found on my blog here. To find classes to connect with yours, visit the Mystery Location Calls Google+ Community or reach out to members of the Connected Classrooms Workshop Google+ Community.
  3. Presentations: Give students an authentic audience. They can present their projects to other classes or adults. Recruit parents, community members, or career professionals to provide a captive audience for your students.
  4. Project Collaboration: Classes that are studying similar themes or topics can collaborate on a project together in a way never possible before.

Bring in the Experts...For Free!
  1. Guest Speakers: Inviting a speaker into the classroom has never been easier...or cheaper. Video calling enables anyone from around the world to “visit” a school. Also, as an added plus, Google Hangouts has the ability to handle up to ten people in a video call at once and up to fifteen using a Google Apps account. This means that there’s never a dull moment or radio silence during the call. Last year, my classes were able to participate in two amazing Hangouts on Air. We got to speak with Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee and Education Secretary Duncan.
  2. Virtual Field Trips: With video calling technology becoming more popular, many companies are now offering virtual field trips via Hangouts on Air, which is a public Google Hangout that broadcasts a live recording of the event. After the video call ends, it is archived on the host’s YouTube channel for anyone to view again later. Here are a few companies that are offering or (have recently offered) virtual field trips that could bring that out of classroom experience to your students: Learn Around the World, Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, and SeaTrek.TV. Occasionally, announcements of virtual field trips from various members of the Connected Classrooms Workshop Google+ Community will be posted.

Learn and Collaborate from Anywhere
  1. Virtual Classes: One year, we had one student at my middle school who progressed so quickly through his math studies that he was ready for Algebra II. Unfortunately, we didn’t offer this course on our campus, but we did at another school in our district. Thanks to Google Hangouts, this student didn’t have to transfer schools and, instead, he attended math class virtually and received all his instruction online.
  2. Office Hours: Sometimes students need more one-on-one attention or perhaps they were absent and need to catch up on what they missed. Teachers can schedule Hangouts to hold virtual office hours to provide the assistance students need.
  3. Professional Collaborations: With everyone just a video call away, educators can work on projects and share ideas with anyone around the world. Many educators have forged powerful connections (called PLNs) via social media platforms like Twitter and Google+, and they’re using Google Hangouts to learn together or to plan professional development events for educators like Edcamps and PLAYDATEs.
  4. New Twist to Webinars: More and more, companies are turning to Hangouts on Air to host their webinars. It gives educators a choice: watch the webinar live and participate in a “Question & Answer” session with the presenter or watch it later at one’s convenience. A great example of this is the webinar series from Imagine Easy Solutions.

The possibilities of using Hangouts in education are endless. How will you transform your learning and the learning of your students?

Abbreviated version of this post was originally published on WeAreTeachers.