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So, I’ve been thinking about student choice and format of work. I have been trying to remember and put into action what Marc Prensky said at an ADVIS event several years ago, “assign the verb not the noun.” This means assign what I want students to do, not exactly the tool or format it must take. (I wrote about something else from the event at the time; isn’t it interesting what you think is going to really stick with you and then what does stick with you?)

To date, I have been able to put this idea into action on more creative assignments. This year I have assigned things like “research and share your findings” or “demonstrate interdisciplinary thought” (that one really made folks crazy) but not “powerpoint presentation” or “podcast”. As it turns out, most students ended up choosing a similar format for these exercises, but I made a real point to talk about the actions and the important thinking work rather than numbers of slides or minutes of audio.

The current assignment my English 12 students are working on is the first time I have assigned “write” and not added “a paper” or “a story” after it. The assignment is, for the most part, an analytical paper that is meant to get students thinking about two works of fantasy and some other big ideas of the course. It is an assignment that lends itself to a typical English paper, but it is not an assignment that REQUIRES a typical English paper. It turns out that for the vast majority of my students, a regular, old English paper is just fine right about now. However, for one student a screenplay was the format of choice. He is SO excited about this prospect. Now, I did not just say, “great. Go for it. See you later.” We chatted about some of his plot options, and I definitely pushed for one particular idea over the others (which I thought was manageable and better answered the requirements of the assignment). It still may not be great. However, the student has been working hard on it, and, given that. I think there is a better chance that the finished product will be a better representation of this student’s best work.

Whenever I assess work, I want to learn something about the student’s progress with a particular skill or mastery of a particular concept. If I know that the student didn’t put forth much effort or that the format in which I collected this data was particularly difficult for the student, then the results on the assessment are less meaningful for me. Of course, there are some assessment formats that may be important skills as well. In that case, I just need to be aware of what I am actually measuring when I evaluate the particular assessment.

Back to my student. I have read the first draft and have made a number of significant suggestions. So far, the student continues to be willing to engage in the discussion; therefore, I am still positive about the experience for the student and the amount of thinking the student has had to do about the ideas and content. Since I always want my students to be successful, I hope that there is a lot of revising between now and the final draft. The screenplay has a lot of potential. But, even if it doesn’t get a lot better, I will know that I am looking at the result of significant time and engagement.

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So, I’ve been thinking about the iterative process in Digital Fabrication, the STEAM class that I teach. The course is a minor and only a semester long. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t have some goals.

One of the things my STEAM colleagues and I have been talking about is how important it is that everyone who takes a course in our department, major or minor, experiences and practices of the iterative design process. We really want students to try to make something and then try to make it better. Most importantly, we want students to believe that this process is the way design and creation work, not just what you do when something doesn’t work the first time.

What I have been noticing is that some students want to keep working on that first design until they think it is perfect before trying it out on the 3D printer or laser cutter. Here are my issues with that strategy:

  • Too much time has been spent on the initial design without any testing
  • So much time leads to so much investment and often less willingness to alter fundamental parts of the design
  • And, now there is just less time to spend on the next drafts

So, I’m looking for ways to force my students to get that “shitty first draft” (term courtesy of Ann Lamott and her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which I am reading at the moment.) out of the way so that we can move on to the better second draft. Currently, we are working on making geared drawing machines. (We are basing our design on this Tinker Crate project.) Finally today, I gave the group a time limit to get a cardboard model built and ready. Students were in groups and I may also have said that I was also trying to complete this challenge and it would be sad if with many people to work they could not get something done and I could. I do NOT like to do that kind of thing where I put myself in competition with the students in this way, but I was desperate. I did make it clear that I had not done this project either.

In the time frame, we had 3 models. Then, we made a list of information we learned that we could take to our next versions of the various parts–actual sizes, relative sizes, pieces to be made with each tool and in each material. We also considered some ways that we would stage the creation of some of the pieces to give ourselves more margin for error. Then in a next draft, we could add in another set of specifics. And, we divided up the jobs so that we can get a next draft completed very quickly.

Finally!

I think there might be something to the idea that we make several cardboard models so that we each have to wrestle with the project as a whole, and then collaborate in bigger groups or one big group to make the next version. Once we get a few more pieces ready, we can test our machine for real. If it works, I totally want one.

 

 

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So, I’ve been thinking about observing classes. Last spring I joined our upper school division head in doing short, unannounced observations of classes. The observations are only 10 minutes long.

Last year I followed up with a short conversation and then an email that summarized my observations and our discussion. I made it to see 35+ classes last spring. I was very nervous at first. I have worked very hard to build positive relationships with as many teachers as possible; it’s the only way I know to get people to consider using technology in the classroom and keep using it once I am not around. Adding observing to the list of things I do changes things. I admit that I started with some folks with whom I felt comfortable. I steered clear of departments in which I teach, unless I asked if I could come to see something in particular. I built up my own comfort with this new role and moved to other teachers and departments. I loved it. (I wrote about it twice last school year.)

This school year I am continuing with general observing and have three teachers that I am evaluating. For those teachers, my goal is to see a class (still 10 minutes) once a rotation (7 teaching days), with a goal of 20 observations for the year. As a group, the evaluation team in all divisions is using many ideas from the Marshall Method for mini-observations. So, we are doing lots of short observations, having a brief follow up conversation, and sending an email with several positives and one item that might be a question or a suggestion. For the folks I am not evaluating, but simply observing, I just send a follow-up email.

That’s a lot of introduction to get to my point. It’s going great overall. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

  • I make time for this every week and block out time on my calendar to make time for this work.
  • It really does only take 10 minutes to see a lot and then another 10 to write a follow-up email.
  • A lot of teachers reply to my email which leads to either a face-to-face conversation or email exchange about strategies, technology, or students.
  • Some teachers still want to make time to sit down and hear more about what I saw.
  • One teacher who is being evaluated, but not by me, asked if I would still come in and observe because my feedback was very useful last year.
  • When I get to see teachers a second time, I start to notice their “signature moves,” some of which I am adapting for myself or recommending to others.
  • As I get to know teachers as teachers rather than lunch table companions, I can recommend or share techniques from one teacher to another or suggest that a teacher observe another teacher in particular.
  • The culture of the classroom, although invisible to my eyes, is obvious to the rest of me.
  • In particular, I tend to focus on student engagement and class culture.

Earlier this fall I had a real victory with a particular teacher. First, a little background. I waited quite a while before observing this teacher last year. I wasn’t too sure there was much enthusiasm for my visit; the follow-up conversation was difficult to schedule. This year I checked in with this teacher about a student I teach whom this teacher had taught the year before. We had a lovely conversation and it turned out my write up had been helpful to the teacher later in the year in other circumstances. Then, after my first observation this year I got this reply to my follow-up email:

Wendy,

Thanks for this. When you have a few minutes (ha) I would love to hear more of your impressions, thoughts,  and—in addition– advice. I found our conversation from your previous observation enormously helpful.

Sincerely,

teacher-who-might-not-have-been-very-excited-to-see-me-last-year (not a real name)

Now, not to reveal too much here, but to receive this email made my day. As I have said before, I play the long game. I think I first learned this when I taught in Chicago Public Schools. I just kept showing up, not quitting, figuring out a little more, ignoring the little stuff (and some big stuff), trying again, hoping that people were giving me another chance (just like I was trying to do). Don’t get me wrong, the little and big stuff does get to me. I just try not to let that be visible in public. Because it’s a long game, sometimes it’s hard to see the progress. This email was great proof that it’s not just a long stalemate; it’s a long game, and I am putting points on the board.

So, I’ve been thinking about contour line drawings. It’s fall and that is what my personal kids were dong in art class; so, that is what I did as well. The other thing I have been thinking about a lot is layering. At the moment, I just don’t seem to think any of my art is finished if there is just one layer.

A colleague of mine was relating a conversation between two former students. One asked the other why he always worked abstractly or something like that. He replied (and this part I do have correctly) that he “couldn’t hide behind brushstroke” like she could. This led the good-brushstroker to reconsider the other student’s opinion and even seek it out when it came to composition in particular. This little story really got me thinking.

First of all, I really relate to the one student’s recognition that brushstroke (or technical ability to represent what is in front of you) was not his area of expertise. I used to have more ability in the brushstroke department, but as it turns out if you don’t practice, you not only don’t get better, you do a little backsliding. Shocking, I know. The fact that I can see this change in technical proficiency does not make me feel good and probably contributes to why I have trouble even calling the things I make art. It’s so easy to see the expression of that skill, and therefore it’s easy to be impressed by it. While I could with practice get back some of that skill, it is just not something I have enough time for at the moment. I’ll get to it. That’s where the layering comes in. Taking bits and pieces of other works or images or whatnot and combining them is a way of working with which I can experiment. I can put pieces together, move them around, move them again, try something else, all in a reasonable time and, if I don’t glue anything, I can put it down and look again a few days later. Lots of actual drawing or painting I can’t do.

For these images (part of my ongoing taxonomy work where I try to make 5 images in a series), I started with those contour line drawings of chairs on music score paper, kept with my Audubon birds theme (preferably in a totally different scale), and added some other this and that. Also, I cannot say enough how much the self-imposed 5 images requirement is a catalyst.

Here we go. In no particular order, this is what I made.

Very basic in a lot of ways. I like the different scales of the chair (which is a kid-size chair) and the bird.

 

 

Maybe the garden image on the right doesn’t work–wrong size, too dark? The bird and chair combo works for me.

 

This one also includes a woodblock print. The chair got a little too washed out. The blue stripe on the right seemed too dark, so I added some thin paper over it to tone it down.

 

I thought there needed to be something significant on the left, and so I added a print of a cabbage, which extends the size of the image. Not sure about that. I do like the birds in the tree/cabbage.

 

The bark paper on top of the image around the chair works for me. Not sure if there needs to be something else here too.

So there you have it. Conour line drawing of chairs, birds, music, and other spare parts.

So I’ve been thinking about homework. Anyone who has taught for any length of time has thought about homework. I have assigned a lot of homework in my time, and I don’t say that as a badge of honor or to brag.

My ideas about homework have changed over the years. Some of that has to do with my experience assigning, correcting, and reflecting on the homework that I give my students. And, some of that change has to do with my experience as the parent of students who have to do the homework that others assign. Full disclosure–I know there are those on the no homework at all bandwagon; I just can’t get there for reading and writing. 

When I first started teaching I was just trying to make it through the day, follow the directions, and not mess up too dramatically. My school had rules and expectations about homework, although we did not necessarily have the resources in terms of books to follow through on those rules, and I tried to do what I was supposed to do. However, in the end, I really could not give much homework.

When I came to 5th grade at my current school, there were a lot of resources and therefore a lot of potential for homework– spelling, vocabulary, reading, writing, and math, sometimes social studies, projects etc. I won’t pretend that I have never assigned less than worthwhile homework, but I can honestly say that over the years I worked hard to strip away anything that I didn’t think was really worth the time. Teaching in a self-contained classroom, I gave the vast majority of the homework. So, I could balance things. If I wanted students to do any social studies, I cut way back on language arts. Language arts represented the bulk of 5th grade homework, and there were not many other items. Over the course of two nights, I generally assigned some reading and a blog comment. It definitely took students some time to do the work, and I honestly felt I saw the positive results. The comfort with writing that my students developed and the level of thoughtfulness and critical thinking about the reading that they acquired over the course of the year would not, I think, have been possible without this very regular practice that happened at home and was then discussed and expanded on in class.

Looking back on it now though, and comparing it to the homework load that I see in high school and in my own kids in middle and high school, one of the key characteristics of that fifth-grade homework was that there was generally one key item. There might be some vocabulary that from this distance might qualify as skippable (is that a word? Maybe we shouldn’t skip the vocab), there was some math practice, not a lot, and then the main item–usually language arts. Students always had two days to work on a reading and writing combination. The work was structured in such a way that there was, if students did not put it off, time to read, think, and write. What I heard from families was that students did spread the work out, as intended. 

What I worry about with the homework that I assign now (to seniors) is that it doesn’t get translated into a chance to spend some time thinking and working at a personal pace on ideas that we are talking about in class. When I started teaching in Upper School, I was told assigning work in two-night chunks was not going to work. I was told this repeatedly, by many people. Students would just put it off and then not complete the work. As the newbie, I believed it and made my assignment sheets accordingly. I’m starting to wonder if I should rethink this.

Time to ask the people actually doing the homework. Duh. When I asked the 5th graders, they were overwhelmingly in favor of the two-night plan for reading and writing. Why aren’t I asking these almost-adults?

I start the flipgrid conversation, with fun yellow glasses.

So I’ve been thinking about formative assessment. Originally I began this post “I’ve been thinking about how much/often to check in on student progress.” However, “checking in on student progress” is really the same thing as formative assessment, so I’m going to say that I’ve been thinking about formative assessment; it makes me feel better. Formative assessment is something I am trying to work on.

A little background. Students in my class are engaged in a medium-term project (see hyperdoc, some links deactivated) The project was structured so that the initial work was some thinking and writing about book we recently read followed by some independent research that went a little farther afield and then to is followed by group work on a question to be determined by the group that is presumably going to be informed by the independent research. There are a couple of potentially contradictory characteristics about the students in the class. They are seniors in an honors-level course and therefore should be able to keep up with independent research, stay on track, and do all the things. And, they are seniors in honors-level class and therefore are smart people who sometimes put things off and can BS their way through. Since I come from a lower school background, I tend to include lots of checking in points. Older students are may be less a fan of that. I want to balance expecting and respecting their independence with assessing how their research is going early on before it goes too far off track.

I made a grand plan for this little mini unit. (Those of you who are familiar with my planning will not be surprised that it was perhaps a grander plan than was necessary or was advisable given that this is a new-to-me class, but there you have it.) And, I Incorporated some check-ins, which I’m now calling formative assessment, along the way. As I wrote last year, I am a fan of the audio response, and I thought this was another good opportunity for audio. The other thing that I wanted to happen with these little formative-assessment-check-ins was the ability for classmates to listen in on one each other. There are two reasons for this. First, I want us to feel like a group working on connected work, and it’s hard to feel very connected to other people’s work if you don’t know what it is. And second, the students need to form groups based on research that they think goes together, not just people they like to sit with in class. Therefore, I chose to use flipgrid, which I have recommended to people before and seen others use, but have not actually used myself. It was a great opportunity to try something new for me as well.

When it came time for the students, according to my grand plan, to have done a little flipgrid checking in, I was worried that they would forget. We were heading into a long weekend; there was a lot going on; there a lot of moving parts to this project overall. I really wanted to email the group on Friday and remind them. However, I resisted. know better. Come the end of the long weekend, there were not too many flipgrid videos. I was the first one to add a video; I thought I would model the assignment. Flipgrid lets the recorder add goofy hats or whatnot to the still image, which I could not resist. The student comments started coming in. I think every person who has commented has had some little drawing, do-dad, or design on their picture, and it is so funny to me that these mostly full-grown people are also still those 10-year-olds who loved to fancify their mindmaps in 5th grade. I love that.

As I listened to the student flip grade comments, I was really struck by a couple of things. First, of course, students could have done a little bit more research. But one of the other things I noticed was that a lot of what they shared was information I thought they already knew. Now, some of this could be students telling me things they already know, as opposed to things they researched, but I don’t think that’s true for all of. I’m fairly certain that I misjudged just how much background many students had. I learned something I needed to know. Isn’t this the point of formative assessment? These little check-ins were super helpful for me in terms of getting my head around what to expect and how to help support students in coming up with their next research questions.

Another thing I noticed was that several of the students were doing a good job of seeing patterns and generalizing. For example one of the things students needed to do was look at a wide range of images in the art database Art Store. Again, there is a wide range of experience in the class. We have practiced looking at art, we haven’t gotten very far, but we’ve done some good “slow looking.” A lot of students were able to see trends and patterns in the images they reviewed. More good information for me from this formative assessment.

This little formative assessment moment had a great return on investment. From two brief (2 minutes max) flipgrids from each student, I was able to have a more specific conversation with that student, assess some new skills (looking at art), and adjust my instruction along the way. Bonanza!

So, I’ve been thinking about secrets, redacted text, and how we don’t have access to all the information.

As part of my ongoing taxonomy series where I create 5 works of some sort, I decided to head back to blackout poetry. I’ve been a fan blackout poetry for a long time. In some of my wanderings around the interwebs (hello, Pinterest!) I’ve seen a lot of interesting embroidery and sewing combined with words. That’s where I started.

I started with the same old children’s book, I Know a Secret by Christopher Morely (1927), that I used in my beet images and others works. I thought the book title, visible at the top of each page, was a nice touch for each image. Instead of using a sharpie to get to the poem, I stitched across words that I did not want. I mixed up the colors of the thread and tried a few different stitching patterns. I like the 2x zigzag strategy that looks like cross-stitch. The straight stitch with loose threads is another combo that appeals to me.

Once the poems and stitching patterns were finished, I thought that there needed to be more hidden; the poems were too easy to read. I really wanted to say something about how hard it is to get to information sometimes. Things get fuzzy. In addition, I wanted to consider the idea of crossing something out, but maybe also decorating to distract, hence the ribbons. I used whatever ribbon I could find in my boxes of odds and ends. As usual, some of the results are more successful than others.

The pictures below are in pairs. The image on the left is with the vellum and ribbon layer; the image on the right shows what is visible when the vellum is raised. The text of the “poem” is at the top.

I Know a Secret 4 “a warm morning/round the house/leathery smells from the garage/and sweet biscuits”

 

I Know a Secret 6 “quarreling over the world/worried about that/we all have to do sooner or later/Startled by a voice beside her/with a slight foreign accent”

 

I Know a Secret 8 “with nervous hopefulness/I continued/I heard your name/mentioned at the station/Before my marriage/I had connections/and worked in France”

 

I Know a Secret 14 “Mr. Perez/in the evenings/peered timidly/waved boldly and/began eating Escargot./Every morning they would sit quietly together”

 

I Know a Secret 16 “he grew stronger/meditated on the meanings of things/he withdrew/into his personal fortress./A secret fear/a sudden scream”

 

Some of them look almost like awards or presentations, which was intentional. I thought it was a contradiction worth trying. Others are more about more layers of hiding and blocking, which, with the festiveness of ribbon still has potential. Again, sometimes working out, sometimes not.

I’m definitely interested in the combination of words and sewing. Not sure I’ve found the final version, but this is a start.