A New School Year in the Southern Hemisphere

Expat Educator Down UndIt feels like August. For the first 18 years of my career in education, school started in August. In Australia, the new teaching year begins this week.

Today’s post is a shout out to all teachers in the Southern hemisphere. Those in my beloved North may find something new too.

Why Are You Blogging?

Many posts are dedicated to teacher blogging and the notion that all teachers should blog. Last week, I wrote a piece for The Edublogger highlighting the many purposes behind blogs. If you’re looking to set up a class blog anytime soon, this post is worth a read.

First Day Lesson Plans

If you’re like me, you stare the first few pages of a lesson plan book and wonder How do I begin? Most of the time, I go back to first day games and activities that have worked successfully in the past.

This past year, I compiled a list of first year activities that are used by fellow bloggers. Feel free to use any of the ideas. Also, please share some of your favourites.

A Walk Down Memory Lane

If you’re simply feeling nostalgic, you might read about technology that has been used in education over the past 30 years. The post was inspired by my former school’s tech museum.

While you’re on Jaqui’s site, take a look through her posts. You’ll find helpful websites that enhance curriculum. You’ll also find written curriculum for tech instruction at each grade level. Jaqui is truly a master teacher – and an amazing person.

If you know of anyone who might find this article helpful, please pass it on. Also consider subscribing to Expat Educator for immediate email feeds. Your address will never be shared. Promise.

photo credit: Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer via photopin cc

Quick Formative Assessment of Student Writing

Since reading Bill Ferriter’s post on whether or not true formative assessment is possible, I’ve been wondering how I could make my own formative assessments more efficient. This post features a screencast of me looking at student work for the purposes of formative assessment.

Formative assessment is continuous assessment. In the context of writing workshop, formative assessment occurs during mini-lessons when I ask students to do a small task and I circulate to watch what students are writing. Formative assessment happens as I conference with individual students. And, formative assessment requires me glancing at student work as I prepare for lessons.

One common misconception of formative assessment is that teachers need to collect and “grade” all work multiple times. Continual collecting and grading takes tons of time. I feel buried in piles of stories. I also find myself writing the same type of comment over and over again – which takes even more time. Do students even read the comments I write?

Below are some tricks to make formative assessments go more quickly.

1. Know exactly what you’re looking for.
Formative assessment in writing isn’t about making a piece “perfect.” The purpose is to see whether or not students have internalized the teaching points from prior lessons. Find a couple star examples to show the class. The example may be only a sentence or two. Write down names of students who need small group or individual review.

2. Have students highlight examples of mini-lesson mastery in their work.
Formative assessment is also about student self-reflection. To what extent does a student believe he or she has mastered the mini-lesson? Does his/her idea of mastery meet the grade-level standard? Not only do highlights demonstrate student understanding of the objective, the highlights allow you to more easily skim through a piece of work.

3. Skim
Yes, skim. Assuming you’ve planned a unit of mini-lessons that will scaffold students to quality final products, you are are free to skim in order to make sure each scaffolded piece is in place. Yes, you will carefully read student work for the summative assessment. Do that later. Right now, you’re looking for mastery of specific objectives.

4. Refrain from writing comments on individual papers. Write post-its instead.
It takes a long time to write a comment over and over and over. Instead, write the teaching point on a post it. As you skim, write down names of a few students who have mastered the teaching point(s). Also, write names of students who need reteaching. Those who need reteaching will later be pulled into a small group. Also, they can be assigned temporary “mentors”, or students who can help and encourage their growth on that particular skill.

5. Look for patterns in student work.
Those patterns become the basis for future mini-lessons.

Below is an example of how I do quick formative assessments. While I generally do it without paper, the process can be easily adapted to paper-based settings.

It took me around 8 minutes to look at three student papers. That is longer than I anticipated it would take, but I don’t look at every child’s paper every day. I view only four to five papers per day and then pull those students for small group or individual conferences during writing time.

Based on what I saw in the screencast papers, I would plan subsequent lessons with consideration for the following:

  • “Brag” about the description I’m seeing in student work. I’d highlight a few sentences from student 1’s work. Student 1 is a struggling writer, so I do my best to make him or her feel proud of accomplishments. I’d then ask all student to see if they had specific room features and smells in their pieces of writing.
  • Ask students to find setting description in the middle and end of their pieces – description is  important throughout the story. Could they describe the magical creatures encountered? The sweat-stained uniforms at the end of the sporting event? (Give students time to search with their writing partners and make suggestions)
  • For independent writing time, I’d have student 4 work with students 1 and 3 on punctuation of dialogue. While student 4s dialogue wasn’t punctuated perfectly, his/her paragraphing as well as capitalization at the beginning of dialogue is the next step for students 1 and 3. I’d then pull student 4 individually to discuss commas vs. periods before the end of quotations as well as the use of capital letters after the quotation. Basically, student 4 needs a sense of where a dialogue sentence ends.

Finally, I’d ask some of my teaching partners whether or not they are seeing the same things? Could we team up and trade students for quick follow-up mini-lessons?

What tricks do you have for efficient management of formative assessments? Please share.

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10 Ways to Help Students Create Quality Video and Audio Productions

Picture by: totton.ac.uk

I shied away from tech productions projects. I was a scaredy-cat. Why? Whenever I gave my students a video project, the products demonstrated fun and engagement, but little learning. I needed to learn how to help students create quality productions.

Over the past three years, I’ve discovered a system that helps me help students create media productions that demonstrate quality writing and subject-matter learning.

1. Begin the year by having students practice with presentation formats. I resisted this for a number of years, believing that everything students did with technology should be done in the context of content learning. I now believe that 95% of what students do with technology should be in the context of content learning. The other 5%? Practice in order to become familiar with formats. Students begin by re-creating a 17-second iMovie. Then, they make a podcast using a picture book. Finally, they set up basic Google sites that will be used for learning logs and electronic portfolios. The practice time early in the year saves lots of time later.

2. Focus on content before production. Instead of starting a lesson with “We’re going to make an iMovie about…”, begin with “We want to communicate to the audience [insert purpose of the presentation]. The end product may be a podcast or a video or an eBook…but we will decide that once we’re crystal clear about what we want to say.” Good writing is key. Colleen Cruz writes about how to manage multiple student writing projects, putting content before presentation.

3. Honor what your students already know. Classrooms often have “experts” in different types of media productions. They might have worked on YouTube videos at home. Former teachers might have taught them basics of Garage Band or Google sites. Capitalize on students’ knowledge. Have a “class expert” wall so that students know who to go to with technical questions.

4. Help students critically evaluate media. The web is now full of examples of student video productions. I guide the class to two or three examples of sites and of productions (some good, some not-so-good). As they watch, students think about and respond to the following questions: What was the purpose of the site? The particular production? Do the purposes match? Do they communicate the intended message? What compliments would you give them? If you could give one suggestion, what would it be? Then, teach students to ask the same critical questions of their own productions.

5. Plan separate lessons for photography/videography. When you have a few extra minutes of transition time, teach students about good photography/videography. What makes a good picture? What happens when you point a camera toward a window? Students are allowed “press passes” cameras and videocameras when I know they can get footage efficiently. Students should know they can trim out blunders later. They also need to know exactly what footage they want to get and how long it will take them to get that footage.

6. Keep groups small. Only one or two people can effectively edit at any given time. If students are working in larger groups, help them break the project into smaller tasks. Two students can be editing video while two other students are practicing vocal fluency for the audio portion of the production. The pairs can then switch.

7. Continually ask students What is your purpose? and Who is your audience? Yes, those are writing questions, but tech productions are writing pieces.

8. When technical issues arise, ask students What do you know?What do you need to know?, and Where might you go to find that answer? Those are my math problem-solving questions. Truthfully, I’m not a techie. I can answer some questions, but not the complicated ones. I am good at using the little “help” key at the top of most programs. I’m also good at Googling questions. I want to teach students to do the same.

9. Openly and frequently show appreciation for your school tech experts. Students should email thank-yous with statements of specific things they learned and will remember in the future.

10. Celebrate with Academy Award Ceremonies. It sounds silly, but following parent night, the principals enter the classroom in fancy clothes to regally announce awards for Best Script, Best, Video Footage, Creative Screenplay, Best Audio, Best Picture, and whatever else I can think of to complement quality work.

What do you do to help ensure quality productions?

Parent Night Activities: Getting Parents and Students Actively Involved

It’s never too early in the year to begin thinking about Parent Night.

The thought of talking for an hour to a group of adults seems daunting. Even with children, I try to speak no more than five minutes before directing them to an activity that synthesizes what was shared.

I have parents and students do the talking. Here are some suggestions if you want to get parents and students more active in the process:

1. Have parents active from the moment they enter the classroom.

2. Get parents involved. This builds community. As a student’s name and picture pops up, the parents are prompted to say the sentences they prepared when they entered.

(Childhood picture of Expat Educator)

3. After parents are finished saying something about their children, show them how students responded to the question, “What do you think your parents were like in x-grade?” Use the animation option to make the statement appear on the second Power Point or Keynote slide click. The comments from students often bring about giggles from parents (especially comments from younger students).

4. After two or three student slides, insert a curriculum information slide. Examples of informational slides are posted below. I put two or three student slides between informational slides to break up the talk.

5. On most of the informational slides, I insert hyperlinks to videos created by students. Subsequent posts will explain the lessons necessary to create such videos. Videos are the biggest hits with parents. Students create videos for reading, writing, math, PE, Art, and Music.

Each video includes the following:

  • Why we learn the subject
  • Classroom procedures
  • What we’ve learned so far this year
  • How we’ve used technology to learn more about the subject
  • What we’re looking forward to later in the year

For student privacy reasons, the video has been removed. Fill out the form below, and I will send you a link to a video from a previous year.

6. Have parents do a closing activity. Before the Apple 1:1 laptop initiative, parents wrote short notes to students (the notes were actually on paper that looked like a pair of shorts).

By the end, I’ve done about 10-15 minutes of talking. The parents and students have done all the rest. For the Power Point template, you can click here: Parent Night PPT Example

What are other ideas to involve both parents and students?

Last-Minute Classroom Purchases

I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t spend personal time and money shopping for classroom resources. By contract, I begin work in two days. I spent the afternoon picking up some last-minute items.

In order to purchase items, they need to fulfill at least two of three criteria:

  1. They must enhance student learning
  2. They must increase classroom efficiency
  3. They must be cheap (i.e. under US$1.50 per student)
Plain-Colored Cotton Material
The purpose is to increase classroom efficiency. When I interview for teaching positions and am asked my biggest weakness, I tell the committee I don’t change bulletin boards. If I have to choose between planning, teaching, assessing, communicating with parents, and changing bulletin boards, the bulletin boards lose.That said, it is important that bulletin boards look fresh. Cotton material stays bright for years – sunlight will not dull the color. My favorite color is black because borders and bright letters pop. I attach boarders that can be used year-around (I might change the border for Christmas).Material is also an example to the students of ways in which we can use less paper. Cotton fabric is inexpensive – especially since it can be used multiple years.

Plastic Sunglasses
I do my best to teach student to keep online identities private. When taking whole-class pictures of students for my class blog banner, I think it would be both safe and “cool” to have students wear sunglasses. Then they can cop their best “spy” poses for the shot.

I went to the HK$10 (US$1.28) store and bought 23 pairs of dark glasses that I will keep and use every fall.

The sunglasses increase efficiency because my ten-year-old students do not need parent permission to create avatars on sites like Voki where the terms of use state that the service is for children 13 and older.

When asking questions in class, I call on students randomly. To facilitate the random questioning, I write student names on chopsticks and draw the chopsticks out of a jar. I feel strongly about not having students raise hands. If I call on students who raise their hands, I give other students permission to not participate.

While the same thing can be accomplished with popsicle sticks, the chopsticks have two advantages. First, chopsticks are culturally relevant in my teaching context. Second, the cheap, wooden chopsticks have a flat top. I color the tops – red for girls and blue for boys. I can then make sure I’m calling on even numbers of boys and girls.

I also use chopsticks for grouping students – it’s quick and easy to grab names.

iPad Applications
I downloaded Stick Pick because my jar of chopsticks is not always within reach. More accurately, I lose my jar as often as I lose my coffee cup (once or twice daily). I dislike interrupting the flow of a lesson to ask Has anyone seen the chopsticks? 

On the other hand, I carry my iPad with me as I teach so that I can make quick, anecdotal notes on observations. Stick pick will allow me to call on students randomly when my chopsticks are out of reach. I will still use chopsticks for student grouping and I will encourage substitute teachers to use chopsticks to call on students. Tick Pick is a great back-up.

Confer was a lifesaver last year. While the US$9.99 is a bit steep, the cost averages out over time. Confer is useful for taking anecdotal notes, especially in literacy. I’ve tried to keep running records on students using notebooks and post-its, but I lose paper. Who has time to sort, organize, and file at the end of each day? As Leo Babauta says, “Deal with something once. Do it now. Then it’s off your mind, and you can fully focus on the next matter.”

When I add a student note in Confer, I input or re-use a tag, a strength, a teaching point, and a next step. These are recorded and seen when I meet with the student for subsequent conferences. Even better, I can export all the notes to a Google Spreadsheet. The spreadsheet becomes my template for written comments at the end of each semester.

Final Thoughts
Looking back over my list, my purchases mostly met criteria for efficiency. I’m okay spending a little extra to have a life outside of the classroom. What are some of your end-of-summer purchases for the classroom?