Archive for March, 2016

So, I’ve been thinking about my next taxonomy project (explanation of the project here.) I have a few sets of objects in the works. As you may recall, I decided that 5 objects in a set, rather than 10, was a more reasonable number for me, given that I have some other things on my plate.

I’ve been having a MakerSpace moment. I started before winter break on some patterned pieces that I thought I could connect into bracelets by linking many identical pieces together. I started by creating a 3D printer design. I tried it over and over. It was not working or getting better. As I once asked my 5th graders, “do we know the expression ‘beating a dead horse?'” Time to regroup.

I decided to switch to the laser cutter. I managed to translate my original pattern into a cuttable pattern in Adobe Illustrator. This was not a speedy process for me given my very elementary Illustrator skills. I decided creating images/patterns from scratch might not be the most efficient and started do some internet searching for radiator patterns–the patterned metal sheets that go in radiator covers, that’s what I was thinking about. Having found a few images that I liked, I had to do a little messing with them in Illustrator, which probably would take no time for anyone who actually has any Illustrator skills (adding this to be “to learn” list). Finally, I ended up with panels in black and clear acrylic that I turned into bracelets by linking the panels together with wire. It’s very temporary until I get some better fasteners. So, my first batch of patterns are the following:

Photo on 12-18-15 at 3.23 PM

Photo on 12-18-15 at 3.00 PM #2








Then, recently I was thinking about Greek key patterns and those repeating boarder patterns. Many of those patterns were not really cut-able in the way I wanted. A little searching lead me to a few options that I put into Illustrator and cut down. Then I cut them out of wood and acrylic, black and clear.

Photo on 2-18-16 at 10.33 AM

I like the wood ones myself. I had thought about painting the wood, but I really like them as is. I have sets of each color and pattern. More bracelets on the way.


Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking and thinking about podcasting and getting an audience for my students’ work. I tried one version in the fall. Didn’t quite work the way I imagined, although students’ creative writing was really good and enthusiasm was solid.

I planned out a different version for this spring semester course. I tried to take into account some of what held the project back in the fall.

  • I thought about having a set time each rotation/week where some part of class would be devoted to this.
  • I thought about how to have regular, new content on our podcasting site and made a schedule for students to sign up for dates to complete work.
  • I thought about the ability to leave comments and decided to change to Soundcloud as the podcast home.
  • I thought about what I might not have thought about and asked my wonderful colleagues @TeacherDebra and @Betney802 to give me feedback on my plan.

Still not working out.

The varied due date thing is just not something that I can make work. This might be me, might be my second semester seniors, might be a combination. So, I ditched that.

Then, the audience part. This is something about which I feel very strongly. However, in reflecting, again, I think that it’s time to scale back on my audience. Instead of using Soundcloud, I am posting the podcasts on our class Moodle page. This does not give us a very large reach, but that’s where I’m landing. As I have mentioned before, I do tend to plan bigger than is realistic.

In discussing this with my colleague @Betny802 with whom I talk about the power of audience a lot, we realized that we might be able to work together next school year to get an audience that is within the school, but beyond my classroom. I’m just not ready to give up on this idea.

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking about literature circles in my senior English elective. This is a YA literature elective and we are reading a lot of books in not a lot of time. About half the time we are reading a book as a class and the other half students have some choice and read in groups. (I’ve written about my set up and addition of a new job already.)

Our second unit is well underway. The whole class read was The Phantom Tollbooth. I have to say I was curious to see how this book fared with 17 and 18 year olds in 2016. A few students had read the book when they were younger and had generally positive memories of the book. Well, I have to say it was a success, IMO. I do not have a lot of experience teaching second semester seniors, so let me tell you what I have determined to be a success (note I am saying this before grading the test):

  • People read the book.
  • People participated in discussions. We did have a few very squirrel-y days in there, but we regrouped.
  • Several students made a point to tell me how much they liked the book and our discussions. (And, no, I was not giving extra points for this)

Now we are back to literature circles for Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente. (I wrote about some of the idea in this book a while ago.) Day 1 of literature circle discussions dawned with high absenteeism. Of the three book groups, two were missing discussion leaders. Not promising. Thank goodness I had checked attendance before class and could regroup. The two Haroun groups could meet together with the remaining discussion leader. The other group I thought I would tackle.

Class began. I had students record some information for their jobs on their summary sheets before the discussion started. As it turned out, the Fairyland group did not need me in the slightest (except to do a little interpreting of other possible meanings for “there will be blood.”). They were discussing who would take on leading before we even got going, were starting to talk about the book before everyone even arrived (promptness also not a big thing for this group). They made connections to The Phantom Tollbooth, Peter Pan, other movies and stories. One of the things they also did, which represented real progress, was to discuss both the big ideas and specifics. I heard them referring to specific passages in the book, or details at least, to defend their ideas. Now, this may not sound very impressive. I would expect all of this in a discussion of any sort. What was exciting was that the group was doing this independently. I sat with them some, but was in no way a leader. Since it was clear they were not in need of my help, I went on to the patched together group reading Haroun. They did need some support.

After class, I asked myself why the Fairyland group was so successful?

  • Group make up played a part for sure.
  • Everyone coming prepared was key.
  • I like to think that last week’s added direction and instruction about the parts of discussion and how to build and foster all those pieces played a part.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

One of the things about reading these YA works is that we can read and discuss them in reasonable depth in a length of time that allows for a lot of titles. A lot of titles means a lot of repeated practice of the skills I want to foster, but with new material. For each literature circle book there are three or four literature circle meetings. Students keep the same job for all the meeting around a book. So, the students are getting a lot of practice, some reasonable feedback, and a chance to see others do various jobs.

For seniors, I think this independent practice is very valuable. These students are about to head to college and beyond. Practicing not just doing a project with a group at the end of the learning, but actually doing the learning with the group is time well spent. Alternating between whole class books with discussions lead and carefully planned out by me and student led literature circles is providing a good variety for class too. Just as we may be getting tired of one format, it’s time to change to a different one.

I hope the Fairyland group continues to set such a good example for the class. (I emailed them to say what a good job they did. I know they think they are grown, but they’re kids who like you to notice when they do something well.)


So, I’ve been thinking about how to adjust my teaching so that my students get better at having independent discussions in their literature circles.

It turns out that my students need more guidance in order to increase the level of discussion in their literature circles. Reasonable enough. So, I adjusted my instruction. We started our current unit with a whole class book directed by me. I tried to do some of my best, most careful planning for these discussions. And, because I am teaching seniors, some of whom are probably counting the remaining days, I also made a light up sign using Chibitronics lights and copper tape.

The first class discussion went fairly well. I used my light up sign to signal when I was sharing something that might fall squarely to a particular literature circle role. Yes, it’s like being back in 5th grade, but I’m good at that and as I wrote before, the seniors are not totally unlike 5th graders. And, based on my review of the previous discussion feedback, I added another job to our literature circle job list. Character Captain is a standard job, which I had thought might be too basic or would be gobbled up by Discussion Leader or Literary Luminary. I was wrong. It needs its own job. So, I’ve got my sign, I’m moving through my plan, there’s some decent discussion. But, will it change what the students do in their next literature circles when we move to other books? Probably not unless I make some more of my process clear to them.

I realized that I needed to give them more of a peek behind the teacher curtain. Therefore, at the start of the second class period’s discussion, I began by reviewing my outline from our discussion the day before. I went so far as to put a bullet pointed list on the board of the order of things from the day before and related each back to the big question I wanted to discuss and the corresponding literature circle job (and light up sign flash). I will not lie to you and say that this was genius or that everyone was moved to tears. However, since then I have had a question about what teachers do to think of all of this. Do we have secret teacher files of all this symbolism and references and what to say about books? And, I have continued to mention the planning and adjusting process over the course of our discussions. I mentioned that with me doing all of the jobs, I can make it all fit together, and I can adjust and move off script if my plan bombs. They might not even realize I am doing that. Experience matters.

The question is, will some of this transfer as the students begin another round of literature circle discussions. Fingers crossed.

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching seniors, the pedagogy behind literature circles, and how I can know if my instruction is effective. (Yes, I do know about tests.)

I have been begging, harassing, talking about reflection and digital portfolios to anyone who will listen, or stand still, for years at this point. I will even walk with someone and talk about this if given half a chance. And, I know it’s hard to fit it in to an already packed curriculum. For me, if I don’t make a new strategy part of my regular teaching routine, it falls by the wayside as soon as a bird flies by the window or there’s something exciting for lunch.

Yet, once again I am reminded that asking the students to summarize their learning and reflect on it is valuable to me and my teaching practice, which through trickle down education theory (have you heard of that?) means it’s going to help the students.

Here’s what happened this time.

So, I have a small class (14) and even with that number, I don’t get a chance to hear from everyone or know what sort of impact my strategy du jour is making on individuals. Those who are more vocal, who give away more with their body language, who seek feedback or affirmation are easier to figure out. And I end up turning towards them in the sense that I get affirmation from them that what I am doing is working for them, so I do that more. Or, I get the idea that what I am doing is not good for them and I do whatever it is less. All good, hearts, unicorns, rainbows for those students and for me. However, what about those students who keep their cards close to the vest? I am responsible for and to them as well. My strategies must meet the needs of all my students. Not everyone is going to love the activity every day, but no students should come to class knowing that my teaching style or mode never works for them.

In my YA Elective, we have finished a two book, literature circle focused unit. Most class periods involved student lead discussion groups. I moved around and joined each group for some minutes each period, but a lot of the work was student driven, which means that some of it wasn’t up to the standards I might have set. After each round of 3 discussions (per book), I asked students to turn in a set of discussion summaries and reflections. (I wrote about how this convinced me to stay the course with literature circles a few weeks ago.) Yes, some of these are minimal. However, I am consistently enlightened by them. I learned that I had reached some folks; I learned that there are ideas in these books (which are not “hard” in the typical sense) which really grab students; I learned how unaware some of the students are about racial justice issues; I learned how thoughtful some students are about what it means to learn hard lessons.

This is a good example of another little known education theory: the if you ask it, they will answer theory (with apologies to Field of Dreams). I am never sorry when I ask students to tell me about their learning. I do have to take a deep breath sometimes, because as my if you ask it theory suggests, they will answer, but not necessarily with opinions about how wonderful I am. However, I give students feedback all the time that is about a what to fix or do differently; I surely need to be able to hear similar feedback myself. I have made some adjustments to my instruction already in our current unit based on this feedback.

What sort of reflection do you ask of your students and what do you do with what you get back?

So, I’ve been thinking about professional development and the TPACK model. As usual for me, this combination of ideas came about through various conversations with different colleagues that I then put together (the conversations, not the people).

First, I was at a department meeting where we were discussing some changes in courses for the department. The next day I was chatting with a colleague about the meeting, reviewing some of the key ideas, and I had a flash. I realized that with this big a shift some very specific, department-wide PD might be appropriate. (Have I mentioned how much I like to talk to people in my school? I’m not saying everyone is a rocket scientist, and I probably couldn’t have a very lengthy conversation with a rocket scientist anyway, but there are some super thoughtful and interesting folks walking amongst us.) So that’s the first part: targeted professional development.

Then I was talking with my fellow tech coach and one of the other people I talk to as much as possible at my school, @TeacherDebra, and she reminded me of TPACK model, which somehow I had put to the back of my mind.  The model shows the interplay of technical, pedagogical, and content knowledge (full explanation on the website).

Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by

We started talking about using it as a guide for choosing appropriate summer learning opportunities. Here’s how it might work:

  • a teacher would consider his or her teaching assignments,
  • compare those assignments to his or her knowledge base in the technology, pedagogy, and content areas,
  • notice areas of strength and challenge,
  • plan his or her learning accordingly.

Is that not a beautiful vision? I mean, how could we not all become better and better with all that reflection and focused learning?

Finally, I put these two conversations together: department specific needs and TPACK. I think the department chair group, which I co-lead, could use this model with their department members in relationship to professional learning this coming summer. I would like to support the department chairs and their ownership of what is needed in their discipline and with their teachers. Would this tool help them have conversations about professional development? Would this tool help them make some executive decisions about department-wide needs?

Well, we shall see. I am planning to contact the department chairs group (we don’t have a meeting for a while) and follow-up with the individuals that I support more directly. The key points I would like to make are:

  • TPACK model is a productive way to think about the range of learning that might support your department’s progress
  • Could the TPACK model help frame consideration of where your department is changing and if there is pressing need for some department-wide learning (a reading, a web course, articles, A/V or technical training, etc)?
  • Could the TPACK model help department members think about their own needs and strengths?
  • Could a department conversation using the TPACK model allow the group to consider specifics goals in relation to each circle?
  • Could this sort of investigation help department chairs have specific and personalized discussions with teachers and provide some direction for summer learning?

I have always thought that the TPACK model was an effective one, even though I routinely forget about it. I love a good color-coded chart; I believe in the importance of technological knowledge and use in the classroom; I think pedagogical knowledge is critical at every level of education. However, it’s a lot to think about in one chart.

So, I guess my question here is, good idea? Not so good idea?