Inquiry, redux

I haven’t written here in ages, but instead of writing a long explanation as to why I haven’t written here in ages, I’m simply going to start writing again. (The explanation is pretty simple, anyway: I got really busy.)

I am embarking on the third year of my inquiry into student-determined outcomes, and I’m very interested in how I can use a workshop approach as a basis for organizing my instruction toward this end.

If I were to sum up my learning from the past two years, it would be:

2015-16 – My students needed support and scaffolding in order to take on self-directed projects. I wasn’t quite successful at providing that support in most cases.

2016-17 – I provided more structure and scaffolding for my students, and they were more successful at completing their projects. However, the projects did not reach the level of quality that I had hoped for; more importantly, we did not succeed in taking the projects beyond our classroom to a wider audience (either in-person or online).

This summer, I had a wonderful experience teaching two periods of the first semester of junior English. Because the periods are 160 minutes long, I organized the periods into three sessions based on a workshop model: a reading workshop in which we read The Stranger; a research workshop in which students created a report about self-selected topics; and a writing workshop. When I use the term “workshop model,” I am referring to this essential structure:

  • Mini-lesson (5 – 10 minutes)
  • Work time, with peer support and teacher coaching available (20 – 25 minutes)
  • Reflection and/or sharing (5 – 10 minutes)

The major insight I gained from this summer: my students are hungry to write about their experiences. They are hungry to choose their topics for writing. They are hungry for their writing to have meaning outside of the classroom. They tended to see themselves as writers when I encouraged them and supported them in tackling the topics that they selected as being meaningful for their lives. I don’t think – in my “regular,” year-long courses, that is – that I’ve been giving students space or support to engage in that kind of writing.

As a result, I have resolved to teach a writing workshop in my senior English class, which I teach in block periods. Half of the period, then, will be devoted to the Expository Reading and Writing Course curriculum, which was developed in a collaboration between Cal State professors and high school English teachers with the goal of preparing students for college freshman English; the other half will be a writing workshop.

James Beane, whose Curriculum Integration has been my model for this inquiry, discusses the need to create community with students before attempting to tackle student-directed projects; he recommends autobiographical writing as a method in building this community. With this in mind, I am going to begin my inquiry this year with what Dave Cormier calls a “learning subjective.” In introducing this idea, Cormier asks the question, “How do we design learning when we aren’t sure where we’re going?” At this point, I have a vision for my inquiry – my students will take part in meaningful writing and/or projects that engage an audience outside our classroom. The “learning subjective” has to do with method: I know that I need to listen to students to find out where they want to go with their learning, and I believe that writing workshop can be a starting point for this. Perhaps some students will express interest in community-based projects; the workshop can expand to become a space to explore this. Other students may find that they want to explore writing about intellectually-authentic topics for audiences beyond the classroom; the workshop can accommodate this as well.

There may be – almost certainly are – other expressions of authentic intellectual endeavor that this approach might support.

So my research brief for this year is a bit less well-defined – which is okay, since I didn’t really follow my research plans with fidelity the past two years! My goal this year is to spend more time writing about my inquiry, even if it’s a series of “rough drafts” in the form of blog posts.

We’ll see how it goes!

One more neat thing: I may be able to collaborate with a former student, Brenda, who has become a teacher in Oakland. We talked about our goals for the upcoming year last week and we are going to check in next month to see if there are any ways that our students – she teaches a 9th-grade humanities/ethnic studies course – can work together. At the very least, I hope that they will be able to share their work with each other and thus broaden their audiences.

RESEARCH BRIEF

This is an update on last year’s brief, with italics added where I have made updates.

Question

How can I involve students in setting their own learning outcomes and meaningfully pursuing these outcomes?

Subquestions

How do the power relationships at my school affect (or even constrain) efforts to create democratic spaces?

Can teaching practice that is non-coercive or non-deficit influence student motivation positively?

If students are involved in co-designing curriculum with teachers, will students have more meaningful learning experiences?

What is a meaningful learning experience?  How can teachers collaborate with students and families to determine what a meaningful learning experience is in their context?

What scaffolding or support is needed for students to design and pursue self-determined outcomes?

How can a workshop approach encourage students to pursue such outcomes?

Purpose

I am hoping to discover and describe practical ways to empower students and create a learning space that is more democratic. I am also hoping to include families in an authentic (non-coercive, non-deficit) manner. Finally, I hope to create opportunities for students to compose for and address audiences outside our classroom.

Literature Review

As I conduct the inquiry, I will conduct a limited research review by blogging about relevant research once a month.

Method(s)

I will draw on James Beane’s Curriculum Integration model as an inspiration for inquiry.  In particular, I am interested in the approach described in Chapter 4.

Though I intend to use similar methods with my junior U.S. History classes, for purposes of manageability I will limit this inquiry to my two senior English classes.

I will begin the year by implementing a writing workshop that will take place each period. (We have block periods, so I will teach the required content of the course as well as the writing workshop.) The writing workshop, I expect, will provide the students and me with entry points to authentic writing and inquiry. After building community and a student-driven learning environment in this manner, I will engage students in considering possible directions for inquiry as well as in addressing audiences outside the classroom.

We will also create a Class Constitution and attempt to build a collaborative, non-coercive classroom culture that is based on honoring our agreements to each other.  We will also have brief but regular “check-ins” to discuss how well our Constitution is working for us. Check-ins will take place on Mondays/Tuesdays (i.e., the first meeting of the week in our block schedule).

I will use surveys, interviews, and perhaps sociograms to gather data from students on their perceptions in October, January & May.

Data collection

  • Field notes
  • Teacher blog posts
  • Student questionnaires/interviews/sociograms re perceptions of power
  • Student work
  • Student blog posts

Data analysis  

I will analyze my field notes daily using a version of Shagoury & Power’s method of “cooking” notes, or reflecting on notes shortly after you take them (page 45-50).

I will reflect in writing in my inquiry journal regularly – daily, if possible; otherwise at least three times weekly.

I will blog at least once every two weeks about the inquiry’s progress.

I will also meet monthly, and more frequently if possible, with our instructional coach, Jennifer Yoo-Brannon to reflect on the data collected.

Calendar

August 1 – 16 – draft research brief

August 17 – September 2 – obtain permissions from students, revise research brief as needed

September 5 – September 23 – initial data collection (student perceptions of power); implement strategies; begin field notes

September 26 – December – implement strategies, collect data, analyze data, blog, meet with Jennifer and/or lesson study group

December, end of semester – ask students to comment/write about perceptions of power

January, February, March, April, May – continue to collect & analyze data, implement strategies, blog, meet with Jennifer and/or lesson study group

May – ask students to comment/write about perceptions of power

May/June – final data analysis

June/July – draft report

Publication

I will publish the report on my research on my blog by the first week of August 2018.

Reflection before beginning

I am interested in how I can broaden my conception of authentic outcomes. For example, in summer school, one of my students wrote a translation of an excerpt from Mexican anthropologist Miguel León Portilla’s Visión de los Vencidos. This was fantastic, and certainly an authentic, student-driven product. I hope that bringing back writing workshop – after drifting away from this approach to teaching writing over the past few years – will provide an entry point for student-driven selection of topics. From there, I hope to engage students in forming groups (as needed) and addressing audiences outside the classroom.

The Kindness Calendar, hacked

Earlier this month, I posted about the Kindness Calendar that Tania Sheko proposed hacking for education; since my return to work, I’ve taken on the challenge.

My hack is a simple one: I challenged myself to praise or pay special attention to a different student each day. I mentioned this to my wife, and she said, “Start with your most challenging student” – good advice!

This year, my most challenging students have been the quietest ones. These are the kids who easily slip under my radar because they are so quiet. So I started to think: which students struggled the most in the first semester? Which students passed but perhaps received a grade below their potential? I thought of about a dozen students whom I allowed to struggle in silence during the fall, without realizing it.

I decided that I would start by making a special effort to pay attention to these students. To document my effort, I downloaded a free blank calendar in Word, and adjusted the cells so that I could make brief notes each day about my interactions with students.

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I’ve noticed a few things.

One, keeping the calendar has re-focused my attention on ensuring that I focus on spending equitable time with each student. I am reminded that equitable interaction doesn’t necessarily mean identical interaction.

Two, I’ve taken a fresh look at some of my existing practices – for example, I frequently share student work; now, in sharing such models of excellent work (as on January 13), I’ve asked myself, “Am I sharing everyone’s strong work, or only a percentage of the students?”

(I didn’t note this on the calendar, but one student whose work I shared expressed surprise when I told her that her response was especially strong. This is extremely useful feedback: I know now that I need to spend more time building this young person’s confidence by praising her work more often.)

Three, keeping the calendar increases my sense of accountability to myself. On January 18, I realized that I hadn’t performed a specific act of kindness or praise. It was a hectic day: I had to co-chair a lunch meeting, then attend a collaboration meeting with the U.S. History team. Thus, while it was a very productive day, it was a day that saw me less focused on my classroom practice. When I sat down to fill out the calendar, I realized that I needed to re-focus my attention the next day.

These ten or so acts of kindness have not changed the world, of course, but I do hope that this effort – sustained over the course of a semester – will make a difference for my students. The process of keeping this calendar – and thinking about it during the day – has forced me to avoid being complacent about making my interactions equitable.

Special thanks to Tania for sharing the calendar and to the poster of the original calendar, Helen at Make Today Happy.

My vision: part 1

In my post on political involvement, I wrote about an in-progress draft of my vision for education. I went back to my notes in Evernote & Scapple, and found that I had drafted about one-tenth of that vision; the rest was in the form of a rough outline.

A year and a half ago, I encountered the idea “working out loud” on Tanya Lau’s blog . I’d like to work out loud more often in 2017, so I’m going to post my vision in installments instead of waiting till I finish the entire piece.

MY VISION OF EDUCATION

At the moment, I have five elements in my vision of an effective school.

  • Meaningful learning for all students
  • Accountability to community
  • Culture of care
  • Access to resources for all students and family
  • Sustainable facility

1.Meaningful Learning for All Students

Meaningful instruction is not limited to “career readiness” or preparing for state assessments. In my opinion, meaningful instruction begins with student choice.

While it is reasonable for the state to exert some influence in the determination of expected student outcomes, the state’s current influence is shockingly disproportionate to the influence of the school community. Teachers and administration should have a say in student outcomes, but more importantly, students and their families should have at least equal influence – and probably more influence – in determining what these outcomes should be.

Educators and communities should be wary of statements such as “Students need x to be prepared for y” and particularly wary of uncritical definitions of “student success.” We must always ask, “Whose definition of success?” We must also ask, “Whose interests are served by this definition of success?”

We need to re-evaluate the word “success” and create a much more inclusive, much broader definition for this word.

To be continued!

A Kindness Calendar

Tania Sheko shared a “Kindness Calendar” yesterday in the CLMOOC Facebook group, and she posed the question as to how CLMOOCers might hack the idea.

One idea that occurred to me: use this calendar as a guide or jumping-off point to making a commitment toward one act of kindness or praise to a different student, classmate, or colleague each day.

Those of us in classroom contexts might also ask our students to re-interpret the calendar for their own lives.

This calendar reminds me that I could improve some of my practices by systematizing and documenting them more effectively. That is to say, I make an effort every day to interact with students and provide positive feedback, but do I provide this feedback equally? Even if I do, I have no way of knowing because I do not always document these interactions.

This is not to say that acts of kindness should be audited, or that I should create some sort of arcane, complicated accounting system that will distract me from more important priorities (like interacting with students!). However, something simple, like a calendar, might be an excellent way of keeping track of kindness by reminding myself, at least once a day, that I need to interact equally with everyone. Revisiting such a calendar as part of my daily routine can keep my focus on equal interaction for the day; if the morning goes badly and I run out of time, checking in with the calendar later in the day can get me back on track.

The calendar idea could also help me to improve at creating positive interactions with my colleagues. I have close relationships with about a dozen or so colleagues, and I try to be pleasant to everyone – but I’m also sure that I can be more intentional about showing kindness to everyone. I can write thank-you notes more often, for example, or make an effort to praise or otherwise be kind to colleagues whom I typically have less interaction with.

What do other CLMOOC folk think about this calendar?

Inquiry Update

My effort to establish routines has been of mixed success. I have been able to establish certain routines, such as the weekly check-in I describe below, as well as the “research workshop” on Fridays. On the other hand, I have not written as regularly as I would like – at least not publicly.

My classes have made some progress with the research workshop; it is more clearly structured than last year. I also believe that our Class Constitutions are working better this year than they have in years past. One reason for this: I’ve done a weekly check-in on Mondays (or Tuesdays, due to our block schedule), where students quickwrite about how things are going. Students then have the opportunity to share concerns or positive feedback. In one class, students shared that they enjoyed our biweekly visit to the library and that they enjoyed working on Letters to the Next President.

This week, in place of the quickwrite, I conducted a survey in three of my four classes (I’ll conduct the survey with the fourth class on Friday). I’ll write more about that later this week.

Starting this week, I would like to re-focus on my goal: to write at least weekly, in a public space, about my inquiry. I also want to set aside time, each day, to write in my teaching journal – in sentences! – about my progress and my practice. As my fortieth birthday rapidly approaches, I need to put these routines in place.

“Share Something Small Every Day”

I’m reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, and one of the book’s many great ideas is “share something small everyday.”

I’d really like to do this, and I think Twitter would be an excellent place to start. Condensing my reflection on my work day into 140 characters (or, I suppose, 134 characters, since I’ll add the CLMOOC hashtag) would be an interesting, and I hope useful, experiment. Perhaps, if I can write a focused tweet every day for an extended period of time, I can expand on that as the semester goes on.

So, here’s my first daily share.

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Research Brief: 2016-17

When I sat down to write my research plan for the upcoming school year, I began my re-reading my brief from last year. I realized that much of last year’s brief still applied; I also realized with some embarrassment that I had written some sections last year and then completely failed to follow through with them.

So, rather than write a new brief, I’ve updated last year’s brief:

The text in italics is new.

The text in blue indicates plans from last year’s brief that I failed to complete last year but want to pursue this year.

Dates are updated to reflect this year’s calendar.

Question

How can I involve students in setting their own learning outcomes and meaningfully pursuing these outcomes?

Subquestions

How do the power relationships at my school affect (or even constrain) efforts to create democratic spaces?

Can teaching practice that is non-coercive or non-deficit influence student motivation positively?

If students are involved in co-designing curriculum with teachers, will students have more meaningful learning experiences?

What is a meaningful learning experience?  How can teachers collaborate with students and families to determine what a meaningful learning experience is in their context?

What scaffolding or support is needed for students to design and pursue self-determined outcomes?

Purpose

I am hoping to discover and describe practical ways to empower students and create a learning space that is more democratic. I am also hoping to include families in an authentic (non-coercive, non-deficit) manner.

Literature Review 

As I conduct the inquiry, I will conduct a limited research review by blogging about relevant research.  (I did not do this last year. It would be fun to do a monthly “research corner” post.)

Method(s)

We will use James Beane’s Curriculum Integration model as a starting point for inquiry.  In particular, we will use the approach described in Chapter 4.  I will blog about this model at greater length in future posts.

I am going to modify this somewhat, in part due to this year’s special circumstances.

In the spring, our district and teachers’ union agreed to end the Fall 2016 semester at Christmas – an excellent idea, in my opinion, given that our previous model had two weeks of class plus finals after winter break before the change of semesters, which made January seem rushed and disconnected from what came before break. However, because an earlier start to the year was deemed too disruptive, we will have an 81-day fall semester with a 99-day spring semester. 

Another special circumstance is the presidential election, which has ramifications for all of my classes but especially, I think, for U.S. History.
As a result, I plan to use the following modifications this year:

  •  In the fall, seniors (English) will work in groups complete a project that is smaller and less student-directed than I would ideally like. I will structure our workshop time more carefully and spend more time up front helping the students think about time management and outcomes
  • In the spring, seniors will work more independently to pursue a project that is closer to the ideal described in Beane’s work.
  • In the fall, juniors (U.S. History) will deepen their research skills by writing Letters to the Next President.
  • In the spring, juniors will complete a Common Core Project, as described by Peter Paccone of San Marino High School. I will blog about this project later in the year.

We will create a Class Constitution and attempt to build a collaborative, non-coercive classroom culture that is based on honoring our agreements to each other.  We will also have brief but regular “check-ins” to discuss how well our Constitution is working for us. Check-ins will take place on Mondays/Tuesdays (i.e., the first meeting of the week in our block schedule).
I will use surveys, interviews, and perhaps sociograms to gather data from students on their perceptions in October, January & May.  I did surveys last year but not interviews or sociograms. 

Data collection 

  • Field notes
  • Teacher blog posts
  • Student questionnaires/interviews/sociograms re perceptions of power
  • Student work
  • Student blog posts

Data analysis  
I will analyze my field notes daily using a version of Shagoury & Power’s method of “cooking” notes, or reflecting on notes shortly after you take them (page 45-50).

I will reflect in writing in my inquiry journal regularly – daily, if possible; otherwise at least three times weekly.

I will blog weekly about the inquiry’s progress.

I will meet twice monthly, or weekly if possible, with our instructional coach, Jennifer Yoo-Brannon, and/or my lesson study group, to reflect on the data collected.

Calendar

August 22 – publish research brief on my blog
August 23 – September 2 – obtain permissions from students, revise research brief as needed
September 5 – September 23 – initial data collection (student perceptions of power); implement strategies; begin field notes
September 26 – December – implement strategies, collect data, analyze data, blog, meet with Jennifer and/or lesson study group
December, end of semester – ask students to comment/write about perceptions of power
January, February, March, April, May – continue to collect & analyze data, implement strategies, blog, meet with Jennifer and/or lesson study group
May – ask students to comment/write about perceptions of power
May/June – final data analysis
June/July – draft report

Publication

I will publish the report on my research on my blog & at Digital Is by the end of August 2017.

Reflection before beginning
 
I learned a lot last year, but I failed to make the inquiry systematic and organic. That’s my goal for this year: to establish inquiry – and especially writing in public about my inquiry – as a part of my professional routine.