You ask, “How do digital portfolios promote literacy?”

Dear colleagues,

Some of you seem to be having a difficult time connecting our digital portfolio space  with the concept of literacy.  When I sit at our division literacy meetings I am inundated with techniques and terms that relate to literacy at the elementary level. There’s lots of discussion of levelled reading, and Fountas and Pinnell are household terms. I know you too, are wondering who they are; I’ve learned they are some big literacy names in the elementary world that have little relevance for high school.

As you might imagine, promoting literacy at the high school level when we are all silo-ed into our towers of coursework–this is a daunting task. Thus, the idea of a very versatile digital space where we could encourage both staff and students to write and read each other’s writing, where we could showcase and write about the exciting projects and learning that we are doing outside of the realm of paper and pencil–this seemed like an exciting possibility.  The more I researched digital portfolios and saw how they were being used for different subject areas and grade levels, the more they seemed to be a really good fit for developing literacy in a high school environment, for getting students to write write write , and for writing for an authentic audience.

However, it is evident that where the Literacy Team sees literacy building –writing and reading –at every turn, there are those of you who see no connection. Where we see development of students and of literacy skills that are cross-curricular and cross-career, there are those of you see only an infringement on your course.  Our Literacy Team has worked so hard this first year to provide opportunities to show you the possibilities,  and to work together as a staff to brainstorm possibilities, but clearly we have not been very successful.  

Alas, as I lament, here is a list of examples that I am compelled to compile. This list is a small sampling of easy and obvious ways that I see literacy being developed through tasks that we already do in some form, that can be improved upon through the digital platform, Edublogs, that we have access to. Perhaps you can come to see some of these things as promoting literacy…..

1. You know that survey that you do at the beginning of teaching Romeo and Juliet? The one where you ask if there is such thing as love at first site? Or would you date a boy/girl that your parents forbid you from dating?  And do you know how the same kids want to be heard and the same ones wish to stay invisible? Having students respond via portfolio, helps everyone to have a voice. It could be that they all could comment in the comment string of your controversial question, and then respectfully respond to the comments of their peers. Or perhaps they each pick a controversial question that they feel passionate about or could safely write about, and do a five minute quick write before the class discusses orally.  Total time needed…7 to 15 minutes.

2. You know when students are finished their unit exam, and they maybe veg on their phones until their classmates are done? What if they first had to add one of the following to their “course page”?  Total time needed….10 to 20 minutes.

  • A summary of the unit
  • What they found most difficult/confusing/challenging or easiest in the last unit
  • Something they learned that surprised them in this unit
  • A new skill that they learned or improved in this unit
  • Or, if nothing else, a point form list of the objectives for the unit

3.  You know in English or Social when you ask students to take a position or write a thesis and then support it with their best evidence? Or maybe defend or refute a controversial scientifictopic? What if they wrote that paragraph or body paragraph in a blog post, and then were grouped with 2 to 4 other students whose work they would read.  First of all, when they know they are writing for peers, not just for the teacher, quality and care often improve. Secondly, they are now exposed to 3 other ways to handle the same task, gaining valuable ideas and strategies for future writing tasks.  In addition, you can ask them to respectfully comment with a challenge, an addition, or an “I hadn’t considered that”.  The commenting process is a great place to teach and enforce tone and audience. Moreover, providing this type of appropriate business-like feedback is an important work-place writing skill that needs to be practiced –they aren’t learning it from their YouTube channels!

4. You know how most of the reading we do is on the internet, and  that internet  writing is formatted in ways to keep our attention? This will be the writing that many of our students will be expected to do in their jobs or careers.  I’m not suggesting we discontinue essay writing, or formal lab writing, but I am suggesting that students most definitely need practice with producing text that appeals to an audience in an easily readable format. They need practice with organizing their work with headings and subtitles and bullet points and short conscience summaries.  These are exactly the literacy skills  that students will develop and practice as they build their course “pages” on the portfolio side of their blog.

Our colleague, Mrs. Krause,  describes the digital portfolio building process to the parents of her Info Processing students as ‘building a web page’. Essentially, that is one of the skills our students are developing as they work in Edublogs.  While one has to learn a few technicalities of button pushing to operate the blog, the very process of having a web space is about writing!

Thus, in the creation of our digital portfolio space, this is very much a literacy focus.  Is anyone with me yet?

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Blogging: Where teachers ‘go to grow’

One of the topics for #IMMOOC Season 2, Week 5 (based on  George Couros’ book The Innovator’s Mindset), is to reflect on the impact that the process of blogging has on us as a teacher.

Like most teachers I was interested in the concept of blogging but it took me a heckuva long time to pluck up the courage to actually think that I had something to write about.  It has been four years now and over 60 posts and even though few people actually read what I write, the process has certainly been an important one. I have found that the most powerful thing is going back and reading what I’ve written in the past, even if few other people did. It is amazing to be able to say,  “Wow, have I ever learned a lot more about that new thing I tried.”  If for no other reason, the blogging platform is a great way to follow our personal growth and morphing as educators.

But there are other reasons!

As a side gig, I teach an Education Technology course to pre-service teachers at our local college. When I took over the course, I really only made one significant change to what the previous prof had covered. I knew I had to help these new teachers grow their PLN and get connected to the thousands of other teachers out there who are pushing at the boundaries of what education can and should become.  To accomplish this, I had them create  a blog and a Twitter account.

Without fail, their first reactions involve eye-rolling.  As one student put it, “Isn’t blogging something that stay at home mom’s do to fill their time posting about recipes and hair-dos?”  And a typical reaction to Twitter: “Twitter is so ’10th grade’.”

Every semester I re-evaluate the value of these two platforms to educators, and come to the same conclusion….Twitter and the blogoshpere are two places where teachers “go to grow”. Perfect evidence is the tasks set out in the #IMMOOC Challenges every week: they involve Twitter and blogging.

Over the semesters, I have refined my approach to introducing these platforms to my college pre-service teachers, and it has resulted in greater buy-in. I have them start by reading pieces from two of my favourite educational bloggers: Tom Whitby’s “Do Educator’s Really Need Blog Posts”, and “4 Reasons People Don’t Blog and Ideas to Help Change Their Minds” by George Couros. I then send them off to a “Top 100” Educational Bloggers type site to hunt around; invariably, their minds are blown by the teacher-blogoshpere that they had no idea was in existence. I show them sites from around the world where teachers use the blogging platform as a window into their students’ learning such as  “Mrs. Cassidy’s Classroom Blog” where she showcases Grade 1 learners.  And so the value of blogging as a teacher is planted as a seed. Over the course of the semester, they create their own blogs, many assignments are submitted as blog posts, and we practice respectfully commenting on the posts of our peers.  At the end, most see the value of reading educational blogs, and some see themselves as teachers who will use blogging as a teacher or student process/tool in their future classrooms.

To sum up, whether as readers or writers, blogging is where teachers ‘go to grow.’

Chromebooks and the Substitute Teacher

I did something with my sub plans recently that I would not have dreamed of doing in the past few years: I had my students type important in-class essay exams with the “portable technology” with a substitute teacher.

Chromebooks are so reliable that I took this risk.  I would NEVER have left a sub with this task a month ago when we had to rely on using Office 365 on the iPads.

There were a few steps I took to help this process go more smoothly.

  1. I had the class (who had not yet used the Chromebooks for writing an essay) totally set up their new document the day before. We named it and shared it, so that all they would have to do is open Office 365 and start typing.
  2. I created step by step visual instructions on the SMART board for the next day when students would have to find their way back to the document.

I was pretty confident this would work and it did! Every single student successfully completed their document. (One exception was a student that I have in another class who was absent on the set up day; he chose to use Google Docs as that is what his other class was using to type and share with me.)

Not only that, but because students had shared their documents, I was able to mark all of their essays online before the end of Christmas break without having to travel to school to get their work.

Never Say Never!

The Chromebook journey begins at EBHS!

September: In the early weeks of the college course on education technology that I teach to pre-service teachers, one student, let’s call him Wade, casually noted his surprise that the course didn’t have much to do with Google so far. In his observation of his own Jr. High aged students, Google and Chromebooks WERE technology in the classroom. I assured him that we had a whole week dedicated to Google coming soon, and then mentioned that my school division did not use Chromebooks. He was stunned and asked if I thought they would ever start using Chromebooks.  My answer was “probably never”. I proceeded to explain that I had been asking for Chromebooks for several years, and kept getting told by our school tech liaison that when he went to division-wide tech meetings, it was made clear that we were going in the iPad direction, not Chromebooks.

October: My principal pops into my class and asks if I would be interested in a pilot project involving a class set of Chromebooks. My initial, likely-unprofessional reaction sounded something like this: “You mean the Chromebooks that I’ve been requesting for years, but have instead spent 3 years investing and planning in the iPad platform? Those Chromebooks?”  Quickly followed by, “Of course I’m not passing up an offer for a class set of technology.  When you say a ‘class set’, do you really mean a whole class set?”…. and a litany of other questions that he did not have answer for at the time.

November: I haven’t heard much about this project going forward, but when I go to a meeting at Division Office, they physically have a cart with Chromebooks in a PRSD building. I begin to realise that this Chromebook pilot may come tchromebook-1rue.  Maybe using Google apps will actually become a reality!

December 5, 2016: Sometime between 2:30 and 3:00 pm, there is a knock at my classroom door and a set of 30 Chromebooks ire-purposes cart are waiting to be wheeled into my room and plugged in.  I open the cart doors to make sure it’s not a cruel joke — yes, the Chromebook are really in there. I take one out, as of course the class and I
are curious….embarrassing, but I can’t get the machine to power up! I try again after school and get power and a successful log in, first time. However as soon as the first internet page shows up, it loops back to the login process.  This happens repeatedly until I have to leave to teach my final Ed Tech course of the semester…..

Tomorrow I have several opportunities to use these new tools…if we can get them turned on and logged in!

EBHS Wordlist Goes School Wide

What started out as a pilot project based on a first-ever book study has morphed into a key element of our high school’s 2016 literacy plan.

Today our newly formed “Literacy Team” at EBHS met for a first informal meeting to put some wheels on projects that had already been set in motion for the fall; one of these projects is the school-wide implementation of our EBHS Word List.

We’ve added some basic math and science words (horizontal, vertical, factor, hypothesis, hypothesize), and we’ve added lists of transitional phrases.  Hopefully these additions will help this simple tool to have a broader appeal across subject areas and academic levels.

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Sample student word list from pilot project

Our vision is that this tool will become a valuable go-to for students in all subjects, any time there is writing to do. As we learned from our pilot project, the success of this tool largely depends on how well each teacher integrates it into their classroom processes.  To this end, part of our fall implementation will involve an “infomercial” for students and staff to explain the what, when, how, where and why of this tool. Hopefully, if every school citizen has the same starting point of understanding of this tool, it will help to make its use common place.

Here’s to implementing strategies for improved literacy!

 

High School Literacy – Lightbulb?

Our school division, PRSD 8, has adopted a real focus on promoting and improving literacy since the beginning of this current school year. I’ve ended up, perhaps by default, as the Literacy Council rep for our high school.

From the very first meeting that I attended, I realized that having literacy as a FOCUS at the high school level would be somewhat of a challenge. So much of the discussion, the existing vocabulary, the current literacy focus was centered around younger learners. The division mandate however was increased literacy focus from K-12. Most high school teachers will agree that literacy is important, but will also state that they don’t have time to teach anything related to literacy in their core classes with jam-packed curricula. So as a high school teacher representative for the Literacy Council, this mandate feels like such an uphill climb.

Fortunately, I recently had a moment that could be a light bulb connection. At Teacher’s Convention, I attended some sessions with George Couros, an innovative Alberta educator who I’ve followed on Twitter for several years. In one session, George showed us Edublog as a student blog platform where students had multiple years of their work showcased – school work across all subject areas, not just the typical “writing” subjects.  Showcased work could include traditional written pieces but also photos and videos demonstrating their learning through out high school.

This digital portfolio could travel with them beyond high school as their own learning library. Currently, every grade 11 student at our school completes a portfolio in a 3-ring binder as part of their CALM (Career And Life Management) class.  This is a 1-credit project that has been occurring for at least 15 years at our school. While most students complete it and get the project credit, it is not an engaging literacy activity. In fact, other than a high school souvenir, most students rarely use it as a “portfolio” that anyone sees.  Changing this to a digital portfolio could make this a valuable real-world document. (Watch this video as George Couros explains how he uses a blog platform as both a personal learning tool and a career showcase tool).

What if we used this digital platform as the springboard for literacy -which includes digital literacy – in the challenging environment of an increased focus on high school literacy. Each of our grade 10 students takes a mandatory Information Processing course where they could be introduced to the blogging platform and become familiar with the operational side.  Each student spends 40 minutes a school day in TAG (Teacher Advisory Group) where they would have time to update, edit and curate their blog space. Various teachers who already use blogging in class could continue to have students blog, but in what is now a multi-use space.  Click here for a rough idea of the concept.

Check out this sample student portfolio/blog space via George Couros and Parkland School Division.