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Monday, November 12, 2012

Analytics Won the Election and Other Hard Truths about New Literacies

I joke with the few family and friends I have in the analytics business and call them a bunch of "click counters." Yet analytics as a field is shaping our lives in ways we simply do not know. Most recently Barack Obama can thank his analytics team for a second term. It was a a socially connected ground game driven by analytics support that help to seal the White House. In fact Mitch Stewart who directed much of the analytics team drove this point homw to campaign staffers in the eve of the election:
Our analytics team constantly evaluates our program so we can ensure these volunteers are making a difference in the conversations they have with voters, especially after graduating from our interactive trainings.
On the flip side the Romney camp, Rassmussen Polling, and American Crossroads failed to utilize analytics correctly had distorted polls and lost the White House.

This failure was especcialy true for Romney headquaters on election day. They had a voter identification and analytics machine dubbed ORCA. It was more of a beached whale then a killer whale. Politico's MAGGIE HABERMAN and ALEXANDER BURNS report that the ORCA analytics was a disaster:

Numerous Republicans in and around the Romney campaign called the ORCA platform a total bust, stranding thousands of volunteers without a way of reporting data back to headquarters and leaving Romney central command without a clear view of developments on the ground.
Sure there were other mitigating factors that lead to the President's win (Romney's careening to severely conservative principles,  backfired efforts to limit access to the polls, an improving economy, etc) but 2012 was the year analytics helped to win the white house.

This why I tried to stress the issue of social networking and data driven marketing when I spoke at the Connecticut Business Educators Association Annual Conference. My basic premise was if you are not preparing business students for a world in which data drives your marketing decisions then you are not graduating students that are college and career ready.

If 2012 taught us anything it that data is everything. I attach my talk below:

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Space is Place to Begin: #MNLI Day 4 Reflection

I had a conversation with Polly today that the majority of work we are seeing during design studio involves teachers creating a Wikispaces for their classroom.

This was not intentional. We used Wikispaces to organize or conference. Maybe providing the model lead to many teachers using this as their platform for connected learning. I like more robust solutions such as CanvasGoogle Sites, or Wordpress but I understand the comfort teachers have and the control they get with Wikispaces.

Building your Online Space.

At the same time I also joined the personal learning seminar yesterday as part of the Connected Educators Month. It was hosted by Barbara Bray, Darren Cambridge, Mimi Ito, Steve Nordmark, and Sylvia Martinez.

They asked the audience, where teachers should start. I argued, after seeing the work teachers have done at #MNLI12, that you have to start by building an online space for you classroom.

So in the end it doesn't matter what tool you use just get your class online. When you open your classroom up to an online space you:

  • Provide voice to the disenfranchised.
  • Open up opportunities to assess process over product.
  • Model the creation of a digital footprint
  • Create opportunities for reflective learning and teaching.

I am amazed, and slightly disappointed, that so many of the participating districts still do not have a district wide solution for a CMS or a LMS.

Kevin Leander and Michelle Knobel have long argued that new literacies involve new spaces and new stuff for learning. I am so happy to see that many teachers built an online space as an extension of their classroom. Maybe their districts will respond:

Thursday, August 2, 2012

#HackJam: #MNLI12 Day 3 Reflection

On day 3 of the Massachusetts New Literacies Institute I hosted a #hackjam. We all fought some torrential rain and found a restaurant with wifi. It was spotty so we couldn't develop too may remixes but still participants were amazed about x-ray goggles.

Basically a #hackjam is a self-organized event to show some of the great Mozilla tools such as x-ray goggles that allow you to remix websites.

It is such an easy tool to use and a great way to introduce some basic coding to students. I have used it in the past to highlight how words can shape persuasive language.

We began by remixing the New York Times and giving everyone at the table an Olympic medal. We then discussed classroom implications.

No Publishing Feature

This is when we noticed a hiccup. The publishing button for x-ray goggles no longer works. I posted a message to the hackasaurus google group.

Atul Varma, of the Mozilla, Foundation, suggested it was a litigation or security issue. Emma Irwin said it was x-ray goggles getting ready for full deployment out of alpha release.

Either way we needed a work-around. We developed three: screenshots, screencasts, Evernote Webclipper, and Google Drive.


The easiest solution was to take a screenshot. Stephanie did this with her remix of a Facebook page. She created one for a math class studying prime numbers:

The screenshot only worked with very small frames. We could not take a screenshot using Skitch, or Grabit longer than the window.


I used a screencast to share my remix. It was a tribute to our logistics team Zach and Jim. I apologize ahead of the time for the feedback. I should have downloaded the audio track and reuploaded rather than record it through the speakers. It also short as I clicked on a video link I embedded. It must have refreshed while I was using x-ray goggles.

Evernote Webclipper

The work around that I see with the most potential is Evernote. We took a screenshot with Evernote woebclipper and then added it to a shared notebook. I see potential for this for educators. They could share the notebook with everyone in the class. Teachers could then add comments on the remixes and students could add reflections. This would provide important evidence.

Here is Jared's example

Google Drive

Jared also printed his screenshots as a pdf. He then combined the two documents into one PDF document. He then uploaded that document to Google Drive.

This is nice because you can embed the pdf on other sites.


The #hackjam was very successful. Teachers found new ways to teach code and the ideas for the classroom were huge. I look forward to sharing more events in the future.

Striking the Balance: #MNLI2 Day 2 Reflection

Its Tuesday (or it least it was when I was supposed to write this post) and we are moving into the hard work at the Microsoft NERD Center. Teachers worked to  shape their final products, attended a wonderful keynote by Polly Parker, and got to pick digital text and tool sessions.

I am left with one major take away. Striking a balance is hard.

It has always been our goal at MNLI to be agnostic about the tools and stress the pedagogy, but working with teachers demonstrates how important differentiating technology will be for students.

I came up with my solution. I am not going to teach you how to use a tech tool. Period.

I cannot strike a balance. I have to stress the digital text  side and show you how to transform the classroom.

The Basics

If you want to learn the basics I will show you, but it will be in the context of using digital text and tools to enhance your pedagogical goals.

If you want to learn the basics teach yourself. I have posted videos for all of my sessions on how to use the basic features of the digital tools we will be working with.

Trust me. After doing professional development around technology for the last decade I have come to the conclusion that this is the best solution.

The alternative is me saying, "Now click here" over and over again as I work the room to make sure everyone clicked at the same time. It is not a good use of instructional time.

Play Time

Instead I will offer play time. Experimentation is at the heart of the #MNLI12 experience. You see this in design studio and in the digital text and tool sessions.

So in my DT&T session I offer play time. This is after I share my pedagogical reasons for using a digital text and tool. During play time you can try out the lesson or you can sit and watch the video tutorials.

This approach builds in the level of differentiation necessary for our success. It also frees me up to provide support to participants regardless of their ability. If after watching the one or two minute clips you are still stuck...then I will help. But in the meantime I am going to focus on using the digital text and tool to enhance my pedagogical goal.

 As teachers we should do the same in our classroom. Provide resources to students, whether they are videos, peers, or handouts, that will reinforce basic skills of using technology while as educators we focus on transforming literacy practices.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

1st Reflection of #mnli12

Yesterday we gathered at the Microsoft NERD Center for the third annual Massachusetts New Literacies Institute (follow along on Twitter with #mnli12).

I enjoy every minute of the conference. The conference follows in a tradition of great educators who plan New Literacies Institutes across the globe

Each day I am going to try and share my basic take aways:

The learning matters not the tool

Our focus on the last two years has not been on technology. We define the issue as a tech issue and not a text issue. For us the goal is to get teachers to ask how are these digital texts and tools enhancing or inhibiting my pedagogical goal.

Digging Deeper

Thus every teacher will attend three different digging deeper sessions. These focus on online collaborative inquiry, online reading comprehension, and online content construction.
These 120 minute sessions focus on in depth pedagogical shifts in our schools. Two facilitators lead a series of hands-on activities.

Digital Text and Tools

They then get to choose eight digital text and tool sessions from a collection of twenty we have put together. Once again the learning takes precedent over the tool.

 Each session is designed to highlight digital text and tools can help students meet the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards of the Common Core.

Design Studio

Participants also work each day in design studio. They have to self-organize into groups and create a learning activity to bring back to the class.

We had some great ideas yesterday. Librarians are focusing on source evaluation; math teachers on tablet integration to improve assessment and instruction; technology teachers working on digital storytelling; science teachers focusing on seismology; and many more.

We do a plus/delta chart each day. The teachers were so grateful to attend a PD workshop where they were actually creating classroom materials and not just warming seats.

The Internet is THE defining text.

Don Leu was our opening keynote presenter. Don reminded us that we are in epochal times and at no point in human history has literacy evolved so quickly.

He further pointed out that when it comes to online research and media skills are students are "digital "doofuses" not "digital natives." Don chared a series of assessments being developed by the New Literacies Research Lab. 

He left us thinking about three changes we must consider 
  1. The internet is the text
  2. The workplace has changed
  3. Literacy will now always change

Teachers Need Support in Building Networks

We, as conference organizers, need to provide better support for teachers in building their professional learning networks. These are teachers, many who are paying out of pocket, to attend a summer conference. They want to effectively integrate digital texts and tools into the classroom.

Yet very few are connected. We did a brief tutorial on yotube, wkis, twitter, and blogs yesterday. Only a handful of teachers had a twitter handle or any online presence. 

As I move on to day two this will be my focus. I want participants to build connections that will help transform their classrooms.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Using Current Events, the iPad, and NEU.Annotate to Teach Argumentative Writing

As teachers address the  Common Core State Standrads they will have to make an instructional shift to  focus on Argumentative writing versus persuasive writing.

Argumentative writing requires a focus on evidence and not simply the emotional pull of persuasive writing. This does not mean, however, that persuasive techniques will not be used in argumentative writing.

In this tutorial I discuss how to use current events and NEU.Annotate to model, teach, and assess students ability to evaluate persuasive techniques.

Steps to Teaching Persuasive Techniques in Argumentative Writing.

1. Choose a current event article with an active discussion (the more vitriol the better). Take a screenshot. To take a screenshot you hit the sleep button and the home button at the same time.

2. Open up NEU.Annotate and insert the image. Click on the Mountain Icon. Choose the camera roll and pick the pic you just took.

 2. Add a second page. Cluck on the arrow icon. Then click on the gear icon. Choose add a page after. I would pick three pages so you can use the I do (model), We do (guided practice), You do (indpendent practice) model.

3. Find a persuasive technique. Using the drawing feature or the arrow point students to the technique.

4. Add a text box identifying the technique.

5. Move the text box above your arrow.

6. Finally have the students send the completed document to you. This can be done via email, as a pic, or Dropbox.

Overtime you will build a collection of annotated exemplars and mentor texts that students can use to model their own writing skills.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Supporting Argumentative Writing on the iPad

One of the biggest adjustment elementary  and middle school teachers will have to make as they integrate the Common Core State Standards into their writing will be a shift in the focus to argumentation.

Much of the writing in elementary school focuses on narrative writing and when we move into the informational genre we have our students compare and contrast on topics or try to persuade parents to give everyone an allowance?

What is missing? Textual based evidence. This key delineation defines the difference between persuasive writing and argumentative writing. One i based on feeling and the other on evidence.

How can we utilize the iPad, or other digital tools to scaffold the argumentative writing? I would suggest the use of a Vee Diagram.

Vee Diagram

I stumbled on Vee diagrams at my first educational research conference, American Educational Research Association, in Chicago  a few years back. It was one of those perfect sessions, you now one you never intended to attend. My original game plan was to sneak off to Wrigley Field for the first time and see the Cubs play. Yet on this dreary late April day a cold wet snow began to fall, and the game canceled.

So I decided to invest some time in a few sessions. Given the weather conditions, however, I did not want to leave my hotel. If you have ever attended AERA you know it is a behemoth. In Chicago that year it was spread over a dozen hotels on Michigan Avenue.

So I entered the third day of my first conference with no game plan. As a new graduate student, and still a classroom teacher at the time, you enter the conference with the ideas concrete and the names and faces of the authors and researchers as abstract. You leave with the ideas a more abstract and the authors more concrete.

For me it was my idea of how to teach persuasive writing. I was a 6th grade teacher, and in CT we have a writing portion of the Connecticut Mastery Test; at the time 6th graders were tested in persuasive writing.

So I randomly chose a room a room in the middle of the day and sat down. One of the papers being presented at the time was by Michael Nussbaum. It discussed the use of something called a Vee diagram (which I have since learned have been used in rhetoric for quite some time but it was, and still is novel to me),

Dr. Nussbaum was discussing a study he did in an online class and he tried to frame the discussion not around persuasive writing but argumentative writing (sound familiar CCSS fans and detractors?). His basic premise was he too often have students start with their position and then do the research. Nussbaum used the Vee diagram to have students research both sides and then develop their position.

How Does it Work?

I simplified the original design for my 6th graders (if you are interested to learn more drop me a comment and I can send you the original paper from AERA). 

  1. Basically I have my students choose, or I give them an issue. 
  2. Then I have students develop two positions on that issue.
  3. Next the students find 3-4  claims for each issue.
  4. Then they must find a rebuttal claim for each of their claims.
  5. Then, if you wish to extend the learning. they have two find evidence to back up each claim
  6. Finally the students write a position statement.

Using the iPad and the Vee Diagram

Lately I have been using the Vee diagram to support argumentative writing on the iPad. Basically I open the blank diagram in Pages and have it act as a pre-writing guide for my students. I have done variations where the students work in pairs and one student finds the claims for both sides, and the other finds the rebuttals. 

Using Pages (or NEU.Annotate) and dropbox (or gDocs, or a WebDav server) the students can send the document back and forth to each other. Once complete I have students write their own position statement that must contain a thesis and their  three most powerful  claims.

Extending the Learning

Once activity missing from the lesson, and it is critical, is source evaluation. I want to create another section where students must evaluate the source of their claims and evidence. This could be done individually, or better yet, in pairs (small groups) where students try to invalidate each others' sources based on author expertise, publisher affiliation, evidence, etc.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

21st Century Equity

It has happened already, and it is only going to get worse.

When it comes to using digital texts and tools for meaningful, purposeful, and connected learning students born whiter and wealthier  are afforded more opportunities than their peers. This disparity will become another reaffirming gap in the quality of education between the have and have nots.

If you read the trends in the Pew Internet and The American Life project you will notice that access barriers have greatly leveled off (with broadband access still an issue). In fact minority students now spend more hours with screen time when compared to their white peers.

So what's is the problem? 

It is quality screen time not quantity of screen time that will matter most in education.

I already see this problem in full swing in the state of Connecticut. When I walk into high SES schools students are using computers to complete Voicethread projects, discussing literature on blogs or Edmodo doing multimodal compositions in music, creating wikis in social studies. In other words they are using computers to redefine what it means to be literate in today's digital society.

I wish I could say the same about students in low SES school district. It reminds my of a maxim my advisor was always fond of, "Those who need are help the most will get it the least."

In many schools in poor urban and rural districts the computers are used for assessment and remediation. Instead of focusing on new comprehension and composition skills students are tethered to a machine doing self-paced reading classes or looking up  a book they read to see if they earned a few meager points for a free pencil. Whoo-hoo.

Once again the rich are getting richer.

A Deficit of Skills is Emerging

The lack of quality of screen time is already reeling its ugly head. In fact in a recent study with conducted by my peers and I at the New Literacies Research Lab found that  even after adjusting for CMT reading scores, there was a significant difference bon the mean scores of a measure of online reading comprehension between students in a high SES schools and students in a low SES ORCA score, F(1,203) =12.763, p = .000; partial eta squared = .052). This simply means even after accounting for the known gap in reading ability the wealthier and the whiter kids are better at locating, evaluating, synthesizing, and communicating information in online spaces. 

The Common Core and SB 458 Could Make this Worse

Assessment is THE major focus of recent reform efforts in Connecticut. Much of this reform will center on the use of technology to provide faster and more responsive computer adaptive questions (computers picks your next question based on how well you do). There is also the potential to rethink assessment sand embed data mining procedures in computerized activities. I applaud these efforts.

Yet I worry about screen time. Quality screen time

There simply are nowhere near enough desktops, laptops, or tablets in Connecticut's 165 school districts to provide this level of computerized assessment. Even if there were enough machines every Internet accessible device would have to be monopolized for most of the year to ensure a short enough teting time frame for the results to have any chance to mean anything.

This push to test the Common Core online will exacerbate the screen equity. So could recent changes in SB 458. The law requires two week and six week assessments to be completed in every school identified as needing improvement. Chances are the state or schools will purchase some software package. Say goodbye to your last chance of signing out the computer lab.

Fight for Quality Technology Access

It is one of the major education equity issues of our time. How will schools be able to claim students are graduating college and career ready when all they can do on a computing device is select a multiple choice answer? I fear teachers everywhere are going to need to stand their ground. We need to ensure our computers are not relegated to simply tools for analyzing data. We need to ensure digital texts and tools are used to open dreams.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Using SB 458 to Enhance Teacher Preparation and Improve the Classroom

The Role of Assessment:

There are many new requirements in the Connecticut education reform bill. Many changes I agree with, some I do not.

I do agree with the increased focus on early childhood reading and reading in the K-3 classrooms. I also believe in the power and usefulness of short term assessments and repeated measures to monitor student progress. 

Using assessment data to inform practice can be truly beneficial to students. The problem: having a teacher available to actually teach is even more (if not astronomically) more beneficial.

In the new bill any school (please correct me if my interpretation is incorrect) labeled as a category four or five school  must give students short assessments in reading and mathematics every two weeks. 

The bill reads:

Section 28 (8) Students receive regular assessments, including short assessment tests every two weeks, that evaluate short-term progress and district-wide assessment tests every six weeks that evaluate a student's progress toward long-term objectives.

I worry about this implementation. As any P-3 classroom teacher can tell you there is nothing "short" about reading assessments with emergent readers. They have to be completed one-on-one. 

While I believe, and have written, that the future of P-3 assessments is in tablet based solutions these do not exist yet. Teachers will have to rely on running records and assessments such as the DRA2.

This amount of assessment, every two weeks, may leave little instructional time. In the past year when I visit schools that will be labeled as category 4 or 5, there is often  already a steady stream of assessments. In fact I often see the classroom teacher assessing more than teaching.

While the teacher is conduction benchmark assessments the students must be provided another activity. This, in my experience, is usually independent reading. While I am a huge proponent of choice and independent reading, if the time spent with books is not connected with meaningful (accountable) classroom talk and learning activities it is wasted instructional time.

If SB 458 is to have any impact on reading something must be done.

Training Future Teachers

I find a possible solution in section 35 (j):

 On and after July 1, 2015, any program of teacher preparation leading to professional certification shall require, as part of the curriculum, clinical experience, field experience or student teaching experience in a classroom during four semesters of such program of teacher preparation.

Schools of education, and programs for alternative routes to certification, could utilize future teachers to build an assessment support system. 

How it would work

Based on the bill I would suggest every teacher preparation program needs a clinical approach to teaching reading instruction and assessment. Candidates, as part of their clinical field work could:

1. Be identified by schools of education, or alternative certification programs as  top tier students who also have a desire to reform urban education. 
2. Undergo extensive training in the assessment systems approved by the state (Department of Education must approve these by July, 2013).
3. Have to administer the bi-weekly assessments.
4. In conjunction with the classroom and university supervisor develop an instructional routine for individual ans small group instruction,
5. Use data to inform their instruction and track progress.

 Such an answer could unleash numerous benefits.

Teachers Prepared to Assess and Teach Reading

Assessing Reading 

Teacher preparation programs have, and in some cases justifiably so, come under fire for the readiness level of candidates to provide explicit instruction in the areas of phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension. 

This is evident in both anecdotal evidence from the classroom and scores on the Reading Foundations test, which for many preparation programs are abysmally low. 

Given the large emphasis on P-3 reading in SB 458 teacher preparation programs must begin to reform their programs now so a cadre of well trained teachers wil be prepared when many of the reforms come to fruition.

One of the four required field experiences should focus on literacy instruction guided by literacy assessments. SB 458 carriers major consequences and put  a lot of blind faith a in assessment. Allocating resources, developing a student's plan of study, and determining teachers career paths all hinge, partially, on student scores. 

If these scores are to have any use at all every effort should be made to ensure the administration, evaluation, and interpretation of the approved assessments is as similar as possible at the classroom level. Achieving such widespread fidelity, to give the scores any meaning, will be almost, if not, impossible.

Teacher preparation programs should try to ensure teachers stepping into classrooms  have a basic knowledge of how to administer these tests and interpret results. This knowledge will improve instruction and serve the long term interest of teachers 

Teaching Reading

Using this information, during the hypothetical field experience, the teacher candidates could then use data from the  assessments to develop lessons for the literacy blocks required in SB 458. Their field experience could  require observing whole group, small group, and individual instruction. During student teaching the teacher candidates would be responsible for developing and delivering this instruction.

Freeing Classroom Teachers to Actually Teach

I have to reiterate how taxing it will be on category 4 and 5 schools to provide bi-weekly assessments. It will be a logistical and classroom management nightmare. If schools can work in partnership with teacher preparation programs then classroom teacher will be able to use the data gleaned from the clinical experience to provide targeted whole group mini-lessons and one-on-one support. 

Challenges to Such an Approach

1. Reliability of scores- One threat to this proposal would be ensuring that undergraduate students and graduate students can reliably administer assessments. Given, however, the low inter-rater reliability (how well two people score the same person/test) of assessments currently used in the classroom it cannot get much worse. A strong training program with inter-rater reliability exit requirements, fidelity checks could help.

2. Lack of credit hours-SB 458 doubles down on subject area majores for teacher candidates. This is especially challenging for early childhood and elementary majors who teach EVERY subject. There is little time in the schedule for flexibility as students must meet their subject area requirements. 

I would have suggested a 5 year approach, similar to UCONN's IBM, but my reading of SB 458 suggests that subject area major is now required for the MA degree eliminating the Masters degree. I am not sure if this is the case, or how the State Board of Ed will define subject area major (PLEASE, PLEASE, allow reading to be a subject area major for Masters degree and interdisciplinary  or general ed at the undergraduate level).

Either way, even increasing the amount of field work, let alone creating a truly clinical experience, will take coordination with subject area majors of the fulfillment of many credits online.

3. The Unknown

I am sure there are greater challenges to this approach that I have not identified. Please if you see any please let me know.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Affirmative: Don't Fear the Robots

A firestorm broke out when a study released by Hewlett Foundation suggested that automated scoring systems can produce scores similar (have a high correlation) with those scored by us human folk.

Based on the reactions posted on the #ncte and the #engchat feeds you would have thought armageddon was upon us and Pearson merged with the  Cyberdyne Systems Corporation.

It is affirmative. We do not need to fear the robots. In fact they can be our friends (I will not go into the methodology and limitations of automated scoring systems...mainly because I cannot do a better job that Justin Reich did in his three part treatsie).

Basically the cries over the rise of robots was misguided. It seemed to fall in two strands. The first was they cannot recognize good literature. No one is asking the robots to do this. Basically they are being asked to identify textual elements n patterns that replicate what their human trainers would do.

The second big fear was that the scoring systems could be gamed. Students could  use long sentences and big words but write gibberish. This does not concern me in the least. If you show me a student who is creative enough, and has the ability to say nothing while stringing together a massive vocabulary and complex sentences--well you are showing me a very talented writer.

Overall, automated systems will improve HST testings as it can include the assessment of more complex and open ended questions. However you feel about HST moving away from bubbles has to be a good thing? Right?

High stakes tests and accountability do not get at the practices used by good writers nor does it enage stduents in connected learning. I think the robots, however, can also help on this front.

Assessing the Stream

I recently had the pleasure of setting on in on  #ConnectedLearning Google+hangout panel with Paul Oh, of the National Writing Project, Ellen Middaugh,  Associate Director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College, and Howard Reinghold. We were commenting on the work of Anetero Garcia is doing wonderful things around agency and active involvement.

A question from the audience came up asking how do we bring in principles of connected and participatory learning in classrooms so focused on student achievement . While these two outcome do seem dichotomously opposed they do not have to be. And the robots can help.

The digitization of literacy creates a lot of data. Achievement folks love data. They salivate for it. Teachers can use this as a hook to demonstrate that participatory learning can lead to gains when you assess what Dan Hickey calls the residue of learning.

Basically, as Justing Reich pointed out in his third post, automated scoring systems can provide wonderful formative assessment data. This also involves assessing the growth over time and looking for gains more in the process and social practices of writing rather than a final product.

Imagine if an automated scoring system could look at drafts of an essay and analyze the amount of sourced material (already possible). You could take this further and what if blogs could be analyzed for their use of having a clear main idea, media, and supporting evidence. The analyzing the stream would allow you to look at discurse patterns in online discussion.

All of this can be used to inform your practice-the essence of formative assessment. The robots just make it quicker-the challenge of most formative assessments.

Replacing the Teacher

Does this mean the teacher isn't necessary? Of course not. No one said this. All the humans are not gone. You will still conference with writers and set individual goals. That is the heart of what it means to work with young writers. The robots, not even a T-800, would could possibly complete such a feat.

The robots, when trained, can just find elements in a text that we want students to use. I do not think this is a bad thing.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Connecticut Achievement Gap

On Friday Southern recognized two very influential educational leaders who have shaped our understanding of the achievement gap. Dr. Edmund Gordon and Dr. James Comer.

(A video on Dr. Gordon discussing the achievement gap at a previous event)

(A previous  discussion of developmental science by Dr. Comer)

 It was a wonderful experience. The event was setup as a discussion between the two icons. More often than not they were in complete agreement but their nuanced differences deserve a closer examination.

The talk began with Dr. Gordon recognizing it had been fifty years since the Comer studies first examined the idea of the achievement gap. He said one of his biggest regrets is that we are still discussing the issue a half a century later.

On the Roots of the Gap

Both of the educators agreed that the achievement gap was more about opportunity than a deficit of skills. Gordon opened the discussion by reviewing the corollary studies that connect performance to skin color. Basically a series of studies have shown the darker the skin the lower the performance. Although he argued that the gap has more to do with access rather than skin color. Gordon also noted, however, that his friend W. EB. Du Bois would have challenged this notion and say we could never forget about skin color.

Gordon argued that the only way to overcome the gap is to give access to both economic access and power. He stated even knowing you have access to economic advantages gives a child power and that sense of agency in turn gives her access to economic advantages.  Gordon concluded that it will take revitalization of the community and economy in black neighborhoods to truly address the Connecticut achievement gap.

Dr. Comer began his discussion of the achievement gap by defining it as a development gap. Comer agreed the achievement gap does have something to do with color. He argued, however, it had more to do with history. Comer noted that we have a country built on the value of inequity and inequality. He noted that things happen in the past that are transmitted from generation to generation that impacted development in the future. He makes no bones about being a supporter of reparations. Not in the fortty acres and a mule sense but in society investing heavily in black neighborhoods.

Dr. Comer felt that it isn't about achievement but the opportunity to develop. Comer stated that students can overcome if they know who they are and can process out the noise. Socio-economic status isn't the only cause but we need to process out the noise and believe we can achieve. It is this, belief, Comer argued that privileged children enter school with  and minority students do not.

It is for this reason Comer stated he hated the term "integration"  Comer stated it should have been about opportunity. He defined opportunity as all the factors that influence achievement and integration as putting people together.

On the Role of Schools

The two speakers differed on their beliefs on the role of schools. Comer argued that it was the only central place where the needs of students could be met. Gordon was suspicious of the idea that schools could be the central focus of ending the achievement gap.

Dr. Comer believed that the gap had to be closed at school. It could not be done solely around the dinner table. He argued for staring early by focusing in on executive functioning in  preschool. Since Comer believed that the achievement gap was rooted in basic decision making at the earliest stages of development he believed schools had to create opportunities for students to make decisions and express agency and power. Gordon said, "Black youth need to be taught how to deal with a society not organized for blacks."

Dr. Gordon posited that there were severe limits on what the schools can do to overcome the achievement gap. Gordon stated there were three main reasons for his suspicion. First off he argued that so much of what happens in schools is predicated b what happens in the family before schooling begins. Second reform efforts in school are misguided. Finally, and most importantly, Gordon felt that disadvantaged youth need access to supplemental education beyond schools.

The two speakers also disagreed on the role of teachers in fighting the inherent bias in the world. Comber believed we had to reach teachers and recruit them in tackling bias. Gordon did not believe it was possible.

In what was the most memorable line of the talk Dr. Gordon exclaimed, "I gave up preaching because I realized preaching could not keep people from sinning." He went on and stated that we cannot overcome the bias that teachers bring to the classroom. Instead Dr. Gordon felt the youth of the classroom must be empowered to challenge their teachers and injustice in the classroom.

Finally the two scholars disagreed on the role of unions. Comer felt that unions had done some wonderful things in the past. Gordon, while recognizing a storied past felt unions had devolved into self serving and self preservationist institutions.

On the Role of Testing

Both speakers not only argued against our current accountability driven education reform frenzy but were both highly suspicious of the overall motives.

Dr. Gordon, an assessment expert, stated he was penning a letter to President Obama attacking the current focus on testing. He said the focus on using tests to reform schools is simply wrong. Dr. Gordon was more forthright in his disdain for testing. He felt that the goal was to simply show that schools are failing. This in turn would garner public disgust. At that point the test scores could be used to dismantle the public education system.

Dr. Comer felt the tests were just telling us something we already know. There is an achievement gap. We are spending hundreds f millions of dollars to come to a forgone conclusion. He worried about this emphasis trickling down into early childhood education. Dr. Comer felt that the tests actually contribute to the achievement gap by stripping away all the joy in education for minority students. Well off students do not need the focus on raising scores so they can concentrate on joy of learning. Comer felt that the tests rob poor students of this opportunity.

On the Role of Schools of Education

There was slight disagreement on how schools of education should be organized. Dr. Comer felt that the schools should focus on the science of learning. Naturally he felt a strong affinity for teaching developmental science. Dr. Comer felt there was a lot schools of education could gain from the medical model.

Dr. Gordon retorted it wasn't really the advances in medicine as a science that lead to improved health care but more public health policy. It was sanitization and immunization efforts that transformed society. He felt schools were the same way. It had to be a community effort and not simply science. Dr. Gordon said it wasn't the pedagogical science that mattered for pre-service teachers but their ability to think. He said their content majors were more important as teachers needed to "know something." Dr. Gordon argued for harder admissions criteria and more or a liberal education focus for teachers.

Overall the day was quite an experience. It ended with a panel of teachers, principals, and students reflecting on how best Connecticut and New Haven could overcome the achievement gap.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Using neu.Annotate to Model, Teach, and Assess Text Dependent Questions

Text Dependent Questions

One of the major shifts ( or really one of the better pedagogical practices) highlighted by the Common Core revolves around asking text dependent questions.

Text dependent questions do not rely on background knowledge or making connections to the world or other texts.

As P. David Pearson noted, in a recent discussion about the Common Core. Comprehension includes the text but also what a reader brings to the text. In recent years, Pearson argues, many teachers have tipped the scales to favor the reader and have all but ignored the text. Pearson is quoted saying:

In too many classrooms, the actual text never enters the discussion," he said. "It's all about kids' feelings about it, or their experiences related to it. The teacher spends 45 minutes wallowing in that space, but never gets into the information in the text.

The goal is to focus students on the meaning of the texts. In simplest terms a text dependent question can not be answered without referring back to the text.

Let us look at an example. The article  Hobbits: our tine cousins from from Science News for Kids provides a text that meets the quantitative and qualitative definition of a complex text for upper elementary and middle school.
Now pick the text dependent question:
  • How are the hobbits, or smaller humans, just like us? Cite examples from the text in your answer.
  • Examine the possible evolutionary paths outlined by the author. Given the evidence in the text which seems most plausible?
Notice that the second question relies more heavily and requires students to dig deeper in the text. Simple adding the phrase "Cite examples from the text in your answer"does not make a question text dependent.

Neu. Annotate, the iPad, and Text Dependent Questions

How can teachers model, teach, and assess how to address text dependent questions? I once again turn to tablet computing as a means to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of instruction that can be driven by student performance. Specifically, I find the neu.Annotate app to be one of the most powerful tools teachers can utilize.

Basically neu.Annotate allows you to mark up and annotate pdf documents. Teachers can use this app to track students close reads as they attend to text dependent questions.

Steps to using neu.Annotate

This post isn't a tutorial on the app but focuses more on the pedagogical affordances of using neu.Annotate to assess and teach analytic reading and the asking of text dependent questions.

1. Cold Read

 I like to begin any close reading activity by first collecting students thoughts after a cold read. That is I begin the lesson before discussing any of the texts, providing background, or explaining the central thesis (this of course does not apply to ELL students or others who require pre-teaching based on an IEP).

To do this I make one version of the article and add a question and a text box at the end of the article for the students.

2. Analyze individual paragraphs.

The next activity I like to do is to look at the text at a local, before a global level. Use neu.Annotate to examine paragraphs at a sentence or word level.

3. Investigate word choice.

Another activity I like to do with students is to then have them look at individual word choice by the author.

5. Examine each idea in the informational text.

My next step is to probe the the organizational strategy the author used. I do this in neu.Annotate by having students highlight the main idea in one color (yellow) and then have them highlight details in another color (blue). Finally students have to rewrite the gist of each paragraph at the end of the document.

6. Final activity

To finish a close read, using text dependent question. I return to the orginal question or task I posed to students followed by some expansion:

  • Outline the author's main thesis. 
  • Examine the possible evolutionary paths outlined by the author. Given the evidence in the text which seems most plausible?

Using neu.Annotate in the classroom

I would begin by first modeling the series of activities with another article. I would follow this by a a group think-aloud as you attack a text. This may take a few classroom sessions as you analyze the different elements of the text from the local to the global. 

Then you can have students complete a similar activity on their own. This can result in some assessment data. Hopefully you will recognize some growth and areas the student needs to focus on by comparing the initial close read with the final activity.

As neu.Annotate creates a digital record of the students data you can easily track how well students respond to text dependent questions. Teachers could have students either email their responses as a pdf or simply share the files by connecting neu.Annotate to dropbox.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Socially Complex Text and The Common Core

A lot of hay is being made about the Common Core State Standards, and the biggest hubbub revolves around text complexity.

I am not sure why one anchor standard, number ten if your counting, is getting all the attention. It could be the debate around leveled books versus grade level texts. Some believe that the idea of giving an 11th grader with a 3rd grade reading level an on level book is detrimental. Others believe that limiting students based on their lexile score actually dumbs down the curriculum. This debate ignores the massive amount of scaffolding called for in the CCSS for below grade level reading.

The other debate around text complexity may swirl around some folks who call for severely limiting pre reading activities and the teaching of reading strategies. This of course flies in the face of thirty years of comprehension research. The authors of CCS toned down their initial disdain for pre-reading and the standards now read,
“Care should be taken that introducing broad themes and questions in advance of reading does not prompt overly general conversations rather than focusing reading on the specific ideas and details, drawing evidence from the text, and gleaning meaning and knowledge from it.”
Defining Text Complexity

Neither of these critical issues, however, are the root of my woes. I feel the standard, "Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently" simply ignores the digital texts and tools that will shape the literary lives of today's youth.

I know the Common Core claims to embed technology across all of the standards:

To be ready for college, workforce training, and life in a technological society,
students need the ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, and
report on information and ideas, to conduct original research in order to answer
questions or solve problems, and to analyze and create a high volume and
extensive range of print and nonprint texts in media forms old and new. The
need to conduct research and to produce and consume media is embedded
into every aspect of today’s curriculum. In like fashion, research and media
skills and understandings are embedded throughout the Standards rather than
treated in a separate section.

Yet if you do a  close read of the standards the Internet only makes a strong appearance in the writing standards. It is treated as a publishing tool not a text for reading. I do not see digital texts and tools mentioned explicitly in a definition of text complexity.

You could of course, infer that technology is embedded into standard 10, but if you look closely at the definition for text complexity I do not see it.

Quantitative- This involves standard measures of reading difficulty. Anyone who has tried to determine the reading difficulty of websites knows that this is problematic. Navigation links are often read as one word sentences, multimodal texts are ignored, and texts are often multigenre. I know websites I assign will be well above the grade band standards called for by the CCSS but will have low reading difficulty scores.

Qualitative- This base of the triangle refers to the meaning, structure, and knowledge demands. These qualitative text factors shift constantly online; especially as students engage in "self-directed text construction."

Reader and Task- Teachers can find the most freedom in defining text complexity in this base. One could argue that online inquiry would fit in the task. Yet I find even defining the task as involving the digital text and tools does not capture the socially complex nature of texts.

Socially Complex Text

I define socially complex texts as concurrent arguments that unfold in print and social media with varying degrees of authority and amplification. Basically socially complex texts are authored by opposing focus discussing an issue with equal passion and mutual disdain.  

I would add a fourth rung to text complexity and include socially complex.

How do I find and use socially complex texts?

I would begin with Twitter. I view Twitter as an endless hallway of doors that open to countless texts. If you choose a socially charged issue you can find opposing views.

Then you can follow the links back to the articles that the different positions cite in their tweets. From those articles you can go to the comment sections. These comments are great exemplars for explaining the differences between persuasive texts and argumentation. While these comment sections are full of vitriol and persuasive techniques there is often a lack of evidence.

On the articles you can also highlight how the authors use evidence from outside sources to back up their claims. You can also note who wrote the article and the studies.

The final step is to find the primary sources and investigate the points of view and biases of the authors of the articles and the study.

If you want to step up the complexity of the text you can than have the students complete an inquiry task on both positions. Even more complex would be to have students role play from different positions.

How do I use socially complex text in the classroom?

I am assuming Twitter is blocked in most schools. This does not have to limit your use of socialy complex text.

-You could find the sources ahead of time and create a search engine using Google Custom Search.
-You could take screenshots of the twitter feeds.
-You could recreate the twitter feed using a table in word.

The bottom line: the social nature of today's digital texts and tools are the most complex text students now read. It is impossible to claim your curriculum is addressing the true nature of text complexity without using the Internet to read and write.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Teaching Phonological Awareness on the iPad

As I wrote in last week's post I believe the iPad, and tablet computing, if it is to play a part in transforming schools, will have one of its biggest impacts on early childhood education. One area ripe for touch manipulation is the building of phonological awareness.

Sharon Walpole and Mike  McKenna point out that phonological awareness is a progression from basic alphabet knowledge, letter sounds, and then using letter patterns. In their book on differentiating K-3 literacy instruction they highlight the importance of direct and explicit instruction for basic reading skills.

I thought the whiteboard apps would be great for introducing and providing direct instruction in phonological awareness. I have had success using the magnetic letters app but I have been intrigued by the idea of using the iPad as a replacement for interactive white boards...So I gave the white board app a try.

The Letters

The first problem I encountered was the lack of a typing tool in most (at least the ones I tried) of the whiteboard apps. I tried Screenchomp and educreations and I could not find either. So I had to create a series of images for individual letters, onsets, and rimes.

I have made these publicly avaialable in my dropbox account as a zip file. Currently they are limited to a few onsets and rimes for CVC words. I hope to add blends, digraphs, CVCe, and other sound combinations in the future.

The images are also not perfectly sized. Basically I typed the letters in Word and used skitch to capture a screenshot.

If you would like the images visit my public dropbox folder (If you come across letters that need to be reformatted or would like to request specific elements drop me a comment)

The Apps

I must say I was underwhelmed by the whiteboard apps I tried (Screenchomp and educreations). If anyone uses a better app please let me know. First the good. Both the apps allowed me to import images from dropbox.

However, with Screenchomp, I could only have one image on the board at a time. The ability to manipulate multiple images is either nonexistent or not intuitive. Not something I am looking for in an app.

Educreations provided a workspace much more suitable to my needs. However I could not save whiteboards for later use. Worse still, each time I tried to record the activity I got an error message and lost the slides I had just spent time working on.

I must say both of these apps are young in their developmental lifespan and I have had a few conversations with either PR folks or developers and more feature rich (and hopefully stable) versions will be released in due time.

My solution: I used educreations, but I mirrored onto my laptop with reflection and did a screencast.

The Activity

For the lesson I focused on different elements of phonemic awareness (which is a subset of phonological awareness). Basically I wanted three activities that focused on the individual sounds of phonemes in words. I tried to create an example of onset and rime awareness, sound isolation, and phoneme manipulation.

First I put letters on the board. Specifically, m, r, and r. 
-Open the whiteboard app.
-Choose dropbox.
-Select the letter.

Next I found images of a rat, a map, and a rag. I saved these to my camera roll on the ipad.
-Go to an image search engine.
-Search for the required image
-Navigate to the image source (if quality is a concern)
-Hold down on image and select save image.
-Go back to the whiteboard app
-Add an image
-Select camera roll.
-Select image.

Next I added the required rime.

From there students could go in and draw lines from an onset to a rime. They could also move ending letter sounds to their corresponding image. Finally they could switch letters and sounds to make new words.

The Example

This is a real quick mock-up I did with my son. I hope over the next few weeks to create a variety of these examples with my pre-teaching students. Note: Even though I set out to build a lesson on phonemic awareness the letters and the semantic clues (pictures) does expand the activity beyond the realms of just phonemes (sounds) and into letter and sound relationships. In fact separating out lessons focused specifically on phonemic awareness without highlighting other elements of phonological  is rare.

Either way the iPad provided a great outlet to focus on sounds, letters, and the sounds letters make.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The iPad and Early Childhood Education

I do think tablets are a game changer for education. Moreover I think the rules for early childhood education  will change the most. No longer having access tied up in a mouse or keyboard cord.

When I watch my 3 year old, or any toddler on an iPad, I am just amazed. They have access to a wealth (that is if they are lucky enough to be born in a family with enough wealth) of information and literacy practices.

The possibilities are endless. I just hope to highlight three: science ed, music ed, and writing.

Science Education

In pre-school my son is currently studying the solar system. It just happens to be one of the topics he latched on to with a passion. Its one of what James Gee so aptly titled an "island of knoweldge" for my son.

John has recently become enamored with the iLearn Solar Systems app  on the ipad. There is information about each planet and satellite. John skips over these and goes right to the quizzes. Over time he has tried enough that he starts to remember some of the esoteric facts. All this to hear an animated alien make the most annoying sound in the Milky way.

Music Ed

When John and I were traveling on the train he wrote his first song using Garage Band. We discussed how all music is patterns. He created a song with a violin, cello, guitars. The pattern he chose was more alphabetical than musical. John then added some drums. I lost the song he made, and boy do those multitrack songs eat up memory.

Luckily today though he didn't want to sing a song. Just wanted to JAM.


In early childhood writing instruction usually revolves around three basic components. Letter formation,  inventive writing through drawing, and oral language. I use an app called magnetic alphabet for John to practice his oral storytelling. This is turn will help to improve not only his writing but also his reading compehension (I also use the app to practice onsets and rimes and phoneme manipulation but that is for another post). In the meantime enjoy the tale of the buses versus the garbage truck.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Using Picture Books on the iPad

Picture Books

I have always been an advocate more picture books in the classroom. As a sixth grade teacher I relied on picture books as a cornerstone of my curriculum.

For example I'd use picture books, such as The Wretched Stone to explicitly teach and model new comprehension strategies. I would model and have students make inferences as we tried to unravel what happened to the crew.

 I would also use picture books to build background knowledge for novels we read set in our turbulent past to allow students to build background knowledge, well  more empathy than knowledge, on subjects such as genocide, racism, and slavery. In my sixth grade class we read Sounder every year. My students struggled with the tribulations of sharecropping and Jim Crow so I would use picture books about slavery, civil rights and Jim Crow. I would then create my own picture books using images of sharecroppers found online.

Picture Books on the iPad

I thought the iPad would be a perfect tool for sharing picture books. So when I was prepping my lesson on using picture books I hopped right on to the itunes store and into the children's section.

I was dismayed.

Most of the titles I found in the store were garabage of the supermarket variety. Most of the titles were connected to children's TV shows. None of the classic picture books have been made available or atleast were easy to find. I searched by titles and author.

 I am sure this has to do with publishers, authors, and illustrators trying to figure out digital royalties, but it saddened me to know that for many of today's readers the classics are not available.

Luckily I was able to purchase The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. It is a story of a Jewish family that has passed down a keepsake for generations.

Using the iPad for picture books was a natural fit. I was able to zoom in on pictures when we wanted to analyze illustrations and zoom in on words as we read.

The story itself was fantastic for my pre-service teachers who really witnessed the power of using picture books to learn about other cultures compared to a text book.

I have a quick clip of some of the activities we completed as a class.