DigiLit Sunday: Going digital with those first-week-of-the-school-year surveys

digilit sunday

Digilit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche as an invitation for educators to share ideas for digital literacy and learning.

Reading Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by Franki Sibberson and Bill Bass  nudged me into thinking about how to go digital with my beginning of the year surveys, and also how to incorporate questions about how students navigate their way through digital texts in their reading lives, and in order to conduct research.

We began working with Google Classrooms midway through our last school year, and I knew that I had not even begun to scratch the surface of what could be done using this amazing digital tool.  I thought I’d begin experimenting with Google Forms for  all those first week of the school year surveys which are so essential to gaining insight into how my students think of themselves as readers and writers, what they want their sixth grade year to be like, and what their parents’ hopes and expectations are as well.  By the end of that first week, my kids and their parents have dutifully filled out these forms, and then the fun begins for me – reading, evaluating, searching between the lines, and taking notes for planning.  I love this work, and it’s important work, but I do NOT love the reams of paper that float across my desk, and get jumbled up in spite of my best efforts.

This year, I want to experiment with another idea from Franki and Bill’s book – a digital portfolio for each student.  One of the first items that should go into each student’s portfolio are these surveys, I think.  These would be valuable to re-examine at conference and report card time, they are the jumping off points for goal setting after all.  So, I took my old paper-and-pencil forms, rewrote them to incorporate digital reading/writing/research goals, and fashioned these:

Reading Survey Final

Reading Survey

Writing Survey Header

Writing Survey

New parent survey header

Parent Survey

Student Survey

My idea is to have each student create a “Portfolio Folder”, and, once these surveys have been completed and I have left comments and observations, they will drop these forms into their folders.  As we make our way through the year, the folders will become a repository of specific drafts and published pieces, of poems and projects and digital compositions.  This would also be a great place for end of the marking period notes for each student, since our school does not have student led parent conferences at the end of each quarter and the comments available for us are so generic as to be useless.  Two short notes, one from the student and one from me, would a thoughtful way to sum up the learning and goal meeting accomplished in each quarter.

So, thanks to Franki and Bill, I have the beginnings of a digital portfolio for each student, and “upgraded” reading surveys.

#CelebrateLu: A great July…


Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because, we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get!

The first day of August!  The last time I participated in the Celebrate community, it was the first day of July and I was celebrating the start of summer…and now that August is here, even though it’s still officially summer, I’m beginning to let my thoughts drift towards this place, my school (my classroom is on the second floor, the middle window):

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But, before I bid goodbye to July, here’s what I want to celebrate about this July:

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Moving to the farm on a rainy 4th.of July weekend with the entire family there to pack up the truck, unload the truck, unpack our “stuff”, and help us settle in.  That first weekend, the kids lined up their air mattresses on the living room floor and had a sleepover party that lasted until the early morning.  I will never forget coming downstairs in the morning and seeing their gently sleeping bodies in a cozy row – just like the old days.  So, I celebrate a summer of sleepovers with whichever of the children who happened to be there together.  This is what we had hoped for when we bought the farm: a place to gather and have times like the “old times”.

July was a mad cap busy month – painting, cleaning, weeding, from dawn to dusk.  Now, it feels wonderful to wander from room to room and see how this house has become our home.  So I celebrate the fact that all the “sweat equity” (in the words of my lawyer husband) of July has yielded a lovely place for us to enjoy, even though my back and knees will take some time to recover!

Even so, July was a month of learning to be still and in the moment.  Every time I looked up from weeding or painting to take in the sweeping views on all sides of our farm, I learned to be still and enjoy the moment.  On many an afternoon, or evening, when there were no other sounds save for valley breezes and every variety of songbird, I learned to cultivate the habit of being still and in the moment.  And on hushed nights, when there was only moonlight and stars to illuminate the front porch, I sat still and in the moment.  I am a restless person, so I celebrate what July taught me.

July was a month of reading and thinking about how to write about reading, thanks to the inspirational group  of #WabtR educators.  I have learned so much from all they have shared, and I feel, once again, so blessed to have such a generous and thoughtful fellowship with which to learn … even in the summer.

And, in the same spirit of learning and giving, there was the #CyberPD15 group with which I read this year’s book – Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by Franki Sibberson and Bill Bass.  I loved the way this group shared their reflections about this important book – this helped me figure out how I would/could change my own approaches to digital literacy.  It was powerful groupthink.

So, thank you, July – I celebrate all that came into my life last month, and feel all the better for each and every one of those experiences.

Poetry Friday: Heat by H.D.

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Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is hosted by Keri

“Hazy, hot, and humid” days are here at last…lingering day after day, and rendering everyone and everything listless and languid.   This morning, the farm is enveloped in a thick mist, but even that radiates heat and promises another sweltering day.

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O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters.

Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air–
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes.

Cut the heat–
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.


Join the Tuesday Slice of Life community at Two Writing Teachers!

Slice of Life Tuesday: Teaching connections (of course!) at the vet’s office…

Over the course of raising three active children, I’ve had many opportunities to visit  doctor’s offices and  emergency wards in every town we lived in.  There were broken limbs, bleeding wounds, and the time my son decided to see if what mom said about never, ever putting something metal into an electric socket was true.  The short answer: Yes!  So, I’m inured to the whole ritual of bundling a screaming, bleeding child into a mini van and driving him or her (usually with crying siblings or friends in tow) to immediate treatment.  It’s different, however, with the family pet.  Last Friday morning, I found myself driving a whimpering Sophie to the good Dr. Fariello’s office (her story is here) and hoping for the best.

cambridge vets

Driving back, I couldn’t help my teacher self from intruding; I began thinking about what I learned from the way Dr. Fariello and her amazing staff handled their new patient, and how that experience compares to parent teacher conferences.  I kid you not.  And here’s how:

It’s a team effort:

Everyone greeted us, made us feel welcome, and let us know that we were in good hands.  Even though it would be the doctor who would be in charge of Sophie’s treatment, her care was a team effort.  I wonder if we can do a better job of projecting the same spirit when it comes to our students?  No teacher works in isolation, after all, and do we allow our parents to see that their child has a team of experts all working together to ensure the best possible learning experience.  I felt reassured by Sophie’s team and their collective effort, I think our parents would feel the same way, too.

Listen to the story – let the parent talk

Dr. Fariello wanted to hear Sophie’s story: where she had come from (she’s a rescue dog), her life with us, her attitudes and general temperament.  In my anxiety, I rambled a bit, also telling her about other dogs we’ve had, and their stories.  Upon reflection, I thought I talked too much.  Did I really need to waste her time with all that information? But, then I realized that she must have learned a lot about how Sophie would be cared for once she had been released back to our care: could we be counted on to be reliable in making sure each step was carried out so that Sophie could make a good recovery? would we be gentle in administering medication and the hot compresses? would we be vigilant about infections setting in?  By letting me talk, she had gathered insight.  Do we give our parents enough of a chance to do the same? We can learn so much through learning about the backstory – who our kids are, how their parents view them, the environment they live in outside our classrooms.  What we learn can so influence how we teach that child.

Be specific and clear about what you are going to do…take the parent seriously

At each step of the process, from evaluation through diagnosis and treatment, Dr.Fariello was specific and clear about what she had come to learn and how she was going to treat Sophie’s wound.  She didn’t need to explain, she could have sent me out into the waiting room with a: “We’ll take of it from here on!”, but she didn’t.  She took me seriously, she knew that I would want to know, and she was crystal clear in the way she explained each step along the way.   As worried as I was about Sophie’s prognosis, I knew that she was getting thoughtful and smart care.  This made me wonder about how clear I was when I communicated with my students’ parents.  Do I break down their child’s learning issues so that they can have a coherent idea of what I see and how I envision a teaching plan for their child?

Be positive about the patient

I, of course, love my dog, and think the world of Sophie.  The entire team “got” that.  No one was impatient with me for rambling on, asking millions of stupid questions, or needing to be reassured that all would be well.  There were other patients waiting to be treated, but while the doctor and her staff was with me, they gave us all their attention.  Most importantly, they showed me that they liked Sophie, too, and so I felt immediately at ease – I could trust them to take good care of her.  That’s what our parents want, too.  Deep down, they most often know about the issues we may raise in conferences, but they want to know that their kid is liked and will be taken good care of.  They need this so they can place their trust in us, and work with us.

So there it is…my teaching connection at the vet’s office.  The teaching life, it seems, can be found in the most unexpected places.

Sophie, getting ready for laser treatment.

Sophie, getting ready for laser treatment.


It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading (#IMWAYR): Takeaways from Colleen Cruz’s “The Unstoppable Writing Teacher”


For my first PD book of the summer, I turned to Colleen Cruz because (having been in several of her sessions at TC over the years) I think I needed to hear her voice: calm, knowledgeable, reassuring, and full of delightful humor.  And, having come through a year of many stops in my writing teacher life, I loved the title of her book.  I, too, would like to be an unstoppable writing teacher.  Here are some of my takeaways, notes to myself that I will follow through with in the new school year.

From Chapter 1: A Teaching Mindset

Colleen uses the metaphor of the sand mandala (created after much study and thought by Buddhist monks, only to be swept away once created) to get at an essential truth about teaching: its impermanence.  Here’s what she has to say:

I encourage you to consider, just for this moment, your teaching as crafting a sand mandala.  You go through your year, a year that took many years and months to prepare for.  You create something beautiful and intricate and exquisite to admire.  Then, you sweep it away.  You drop it in the river of teaching time as a blessing for your future teaching self, for other teachers, and more importantly, all the children who have not yet been taught.

This is such a liberating way to look at each teaching year – you gave it your all, based on all you’ve learned and all you know, but when it ends, it’s time to look to the future and, in a sense, begin again.  This is why I throw away my lesson plan books at the end of each year; I don’t want last year to be a template for this new year, when I will have new knowledge and new kids. Each new school year should be a sand mandala of its own, well designed and carefully crafted, but when it ends…it ends.

From Chapter 2: I don’t know what to teach this student.  He’s a much better writer than I am:

I would have to say, this is my favorite chapter; it is so filled with meaty ideas about addressing the writing needs of our gifted students, and it answered so many of the questions I have had about how to teach these kids in a meaningful, lasting way.

When someone is a good writer…they are used to compliments.  They know they are good at what they do…Those general pieces of praise do nothing to move the writer to new heights.  What can help is to see, really see, and to describe what is being seen to the writer…you will notice the things that you are not saying much about, or finding yourself sort of looking for things that you expect to be there that might not be as honed as you might have expected.  You might also be able to best see what the student is gesturing toward but hasn’t quite mastered.

I see this kind of re-seeing as part and parcel of what Colleen asks us to do with our gifted students – to reconsider our stance. When a student like this sits next to me for a conference, I have most likely just met with students who are struggling to find ways to say what they want to say.  These students are not gesturing towards sophisticated craft moves or thematic stances, they are still discovering what these moves look like and sound like.  The inclination to compliment and move on is so natural, and I always feel as though I am in some way letting this student down – both in terms of what I have to offer, as well as in the amount of time I allow for what little I have to say.  This chapter was full of ideas about how to nudge gifted writers forward:

  • building better tool boxes with more sophisticated mentor texts
  • sharpening the “upper reaches” of our own writing knowledge
  • reaching for common go-to teaching points that even sophisticated writers need specific guidance in

Finally, I loved the idea of creating a plan for acceleration for these writers – this would be so motivational; it would ensure that these writers will remain engaged and challenged all year.

From Chapter 5: “I’m finding some student writing repetitive and boring”:

When I read this line, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders: “It’s one of the dirty little secrets of teaching writing. Sometimes it can feel boring.”  Umm…yes!  This is really my writing teacher life!  It does get trying, at times, to maintain a certain freshness in terms of response when you are reading about that amazing roller coaster ride and a secret part of yourself is going: this is the 1,250th. time that I’ve read about a roller coaster ride in my teaching life…sigh.

Colleen asks us to do two important things which can shift our stance: invite risk taking and believe in the writer’s intent.  In the case of the latter, I loved this:

The last suggestion I would make is probably the toughest, most risky , and also the most rewarding…It requires a leap of faith.  It’s something I learned directly from Lucy Calkins, which is that we need to believe that students do have something important to say and they need us to help them get at it.  When we read the sort of dull generic story…we need to act bowled over.  We should say, “Wow! Look at this writing. It feels so big to me.” And it’s in the act of believing in the author’s intent and prodding the writer to talk more about his intent, always leaving room for the young writer to draw her own conclusions about significance, that many writer’s find their way to their own truth – a truth they sometimes felt but didn’t know.  We need to do this even if we have some doubts and aren’t entirely convinced there is something more meaningful there.

That act of believing is one of those deliberate teacher stances that is vital to our kids, but something we really have to will ourselves to do.  The act of truly believing in the author’s intent allows us to prod her into something more than just another story about a roller coaster ride.  This is something to remember and live by every teaching day.

The second part of this equation is to create and maintain an environment that encourages risk taking.  So much of real learning takes place when we allow our kids to step outside our lesson plan box and figure out something for them selves. Letting kids know that taking risks is something to be celebrated in our classrooms invites creativity and authentic learning.  As Colleen writes: “When we make a child famous for doing something, or getting close to doing something we want the rest of the class to try, we go a long way toward making this option more enticing to others.”  A classroom full of famous kids – that’s what I want.

Chapter 9: “I teach grammar but my kids don’t learn it”.

I grew up in a time when grammar was taught like math, and was all about being called up to the board to diagram sentences and be able to identify obscure grammar rules in long-winded sentences.  It wasn’t much fun, which is why I think I tend to try to infuse my grammar lessons with so many games – fun, but not necessarily the way to teach grammar so that it makes sense, sticks, and shows up consistently in my kids’ writing.

I loved the way Colleen explained grammar as inquiry work, where students can study mentor texts and note “what they were seeing, not seeing, and saying about what they saw.” Collaboration and conversations built around such inquiry work and carried through the year would be a rich way to expose our students to grammar in a way that would stick.  Colleen also points out that schools should develop a grammar scope and sequence so that there is a clear and consistent progression of grammar knowledge and skills for students to build upon.  This was a chapter full of concrete ideas I can teach, as well as “big picture”planning guides which I can use.

Chapter 12: “I want kids to write about what they care about, but so much of what they care about feels brainless and superficial to me.”

No surprise, but my eleven and twelve year old kiddos could care less about most of the issues I feel most passionately about.  And, of course, the reverse is also true.  So, reading what Colleen has to say about this was so interesting and it, too, has shifted my thinking and planning for next year:

Pop culture can be used as a carrot to get students in the door to learn about the things we wish they would learn about.  We can use the things we know our students are most passionate about to teach them the things we know they most need to know.  All of a sudden, pop culture is my favorite thing on the planet.

Student interest questionnaires, and specific ways of using pop culture references to teach structure, craft, or meaning, and examples of ongoing classroom work were really helpful in terms of offering me a “how to do this”.

Chapter 13: “Name your monster”:

This chapter connected to the work I’ve been doing with Dr. Mary Howard’s Good to Great Teaching.  It’s a given that problems arise in teaching, and it’s also a given that there are some issues that remain a teaching challenge no matter what we try or where we turn.  Rather than sweeping these under a rug in some far away attic, Colleen and Mary offer a way for us to evaluate these stumbling blocks, and begin to craft ways of growing our teaching practices out of quagmires into and into productive solutions that work for us…and our kids.                                                                                                                           Colleen encourages us to name these monsters, list them and then:

…try to use what patterns you saw when looking across your list.  What does this pattern say about you? What does it say about your situation? See if you can rename your monster as a challenge that you can overcome…We are all more likely to vanquish more of our monsters  if we not only envision our plan and the monsters demise, but also if we anticipate the obstacles we will face and make a plan for overcoming those as well.

This is work we can accomplish as individuals, but also as teams and departments.  I can see this as an excellent alternative to dry and meaningless faculty meetings – how much more meaningful would it be to sit down with our colleagues and help each other name problems we see and work through plans of action together?

The Unstoppable Writing Teacher  was a wonderful gateway back into thinking about writing workshop for the new school year with excitement and anticipation.  Bring it on, sixth graders!

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Digital Reading: What’s Essential Chapters 6&7 #cyberPD

#CyberPD is an online professional development learning community where teachers read and discuss a common professional development text. Visit Reflect & Refine for more details and links to connect with the group. This year’s book isDigital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by Franki Sibberson and Bill Bass.

digital reading

Chapter 6:

I had two takeaways for this chapter.  First, I need to reformat my first week of school reading survey questions to incorporate digital reading questions as well.  The questions Franki shared on page 87 were comprehensive, and I would only add a question that tries to ascertain what a student’s habits are when it comes to searching digital media for information: it is hit or miss? or has the student already figured out a way to do this and can the student then share his or her techniques with the class (and with me!).  I loved the idea of doing this on Google Forms, so that it can become part of the student’s portfolio for the year.

Second, I need to enlarge my assessment toolbox to include a variety of digital tools.  At the moment, my toolbox is pretty old school – conferring notes, rubrics, xeroxed copies of notebook work, etc.  It would be so much more authentic if I was to create Google Folders for each student which included photographs, video and audio files, as well as student annotations – the ideas presented on page 95.  Our school does not conduct student led conferences, sadly, but I imagine that the idea of creating a Google Presentation to showcase growth at the end of each quarter would give each student an opportunity to evaluate his or growth and progress, as well as set new goals. That would shift the entire assessment dynamic, placing the student in an empowered position and requiring a greater sense of involvement and assessment. The student is not a passive receiver of “this is where you need to go”, but an active participant in shaping “this is where I want to go.”

Chapter 7:

We began having access to Google Classroom and Google Drive half way through the year, so I did not have a chance to present exactly how it was all going to work to my students’ parents on back to school night.  The truth is, I didn’t know how it was all going to work, either – and many lessons were learned from January to June!

I so agree with this:

…technology has opened up the ways in which we not only communicate with parents but actually make them a part of their child’s learning experience.  Digital tools have made the connection between school and home so much more effective because we are no longer confined to the space of the classroom or the time constraints of the school day. Parents can engage in their child’s learning on a daily basis and in a variety of ways. (page 100)

This is exactly what I began to see happening in our classroom last year – the goings on in our classroom were much more visible to parents because everything was accessible online, via our Google Classroom pages, or our work on Google Docs for a variety of purposes.  It is a well-known and well-worn truth that our children rarely communicate about school work beyond: “nothing much”, “I don’t know”, and “I can’t remember”.  It was incredibly helpful for parents to know that they could access resources to see for themselves what and how learning is taking place in their child’s day.  I love the idea of weaving in Google Calendar, too, so parents can be part of the process of teaching kids how to manage their time and prioritize their work.  As a middle school teacher, this is a critical goal – and I know that it is important to have my students’ parents on my team.

I’ve come away from reading this book with concrete goals and ideas for next year; I keep coming back to the word intentional – I think I’ve learned that intentionality in digital literacy comes from practicing it ourselves, learning from the experience, and figuring out how to embed it in all we already do.  We want our kids to have that holistic goal: “we want our students to be active communicators in the complex world they live in.” (page 110).

I’m looking forward to the Twitter chat!

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Digital Reading: What’s Essential Chapters 3,4 & 5 #cyberPD

#CyberPD is an online professional development learning community where teachers read and discuss a common professional development text. Visit Reflect & Refine for more details and links to connect with the group. This year’s book isDigital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8 by Franki Sibberson and Bill Bass.

digital reading

Chapter 3:

Most often, when I discuss the use of digital tools in the classroom with my colleagues, I hear this common refrain: “Well, it’s just one more thing to have to do, and where can we fit it in anyway?”  The idea being, I suppose, that digital tools are a separate entity entirely from the rest of reading workshop.  This was a wonderful chapter to read because it points the way to authentic digital literacy and how it should be an integral part of our reading curriculum.  If we “learn digital tools in the midst of learning experiences, not as a separate experience” (pg. 29) we pave the way towards seamless shift in our classroom practices.

Diana’s example (30 &31) was a beautiful example of what this looks like, I loved this part: “Diana quickly learned that she didn’t have to teach every single skill for every single tool; what she did have to do was explain herself as she was teaching so that students could not only see what she was doing with a specific tool but why she was doing it.”  I, too, find that my kids are tech savvy out of school, but are unsure as to how to put that knowledge to use IN school – sharing our own process allows kids to make that transfer.  This is definitely something I mean to do more of in the coming school year.

Chapter 4:

This chapter really resonated with me, beginning with the line:” Intentionality is the difference between thoughtful understanding and random clicking and scanning.”  I had to gulp when I read this, because I thought immediately of those clickers and scanners in my classroom, and how their  time in the computer lab so often yielded so little.  Becoming “thoughtful, strategic, and intentional readers of all media” cannot be a hit or miss, random learning experience, where we throw a bunch of digital tools at our kids and let them have a go at it all, in the hopes that they will find something that will work.  We need to “talk about how to navigate a digital text and understand the attributes of these texts that are unique to the digital world.”  It’s this part that takes careful planning, modeling, and practice in class so that our kids understand what authentic and meaningful digital reading is all about.  The table on page 60 is the foundation for this type of work, I think – they need to understand and practice with these attributes so that they can navigate through digital texts.

I also appreciated this: “Sometimes the best strategy for a teacher is to simply get out of the way and let students make some of the decisions that traditionally be made by their teacher” (p.63).  One of the great benefits, after all, of the variety of digital tools that are available, is that kids can match the digital tool they choose to use based on their learning styles and needs…once they’ve learned how to navigate with intention in the first place.  I am always amazed at the way my kids take take an app and fly with it, creating things I would never have imagined.

Chapter 5:

This was a rich chapter, it really made the case for why digital reading is such an important component of reading workshop.  I read this many times, highlighting and starring it for future reference (it will definitely be a part of my back to school night presentation): “When students come to expect to connect with people and information to deepen understanding, their reading and learning change.  They begin to see the unlimited possibilities for learning and can internalize it so that these practices become part of their own reading lives outside of school.”  Isn’t this what we want most for our kids – that their learning lives are connected in this way?

I loved the resources and the way they were thoughtfully explained, and the voices of classroom teachers sharing “real world” experiences was really inspirational.  The idea of the digital bulletin board, in particular, provided a solution for a problem I’ve been grappling with for some time: how to extend the discussions and ideas in social studies beyond the classroom in a meaningful way?  How can my kids connect and extend the ideas and issues we grapple with in history to current events and debates?  A digital bulletin board addresses this beautifully.