Do Break the Chain

The summer I wrote my dissertation, I posted here about a productivity strategy called Don’t Break the Chain.  Click the link for the backstory, but the gist of it is that it’s easier to maintain a habit if you keep at it – even for a little bit – every day, and monitor your progress visually (e.g., Xing off days on a calendar).

The good news is that it worked for me to help me get the last two chapters of that dissertation drafted and finalized over the months of July and August.  The bad news is that is also works in reverse – I’ve now maintained a chain of 143 days uninterrupted by blogging.  This is not a trend I’m proud of; in fact, it’s the longest break between blog posts I’ve had since I started blogging in the summer of 2007.

It’s been bothering me that I haven’t found the capacity to sit with my thoughts and write, especially since I’ve spoken time and time again about how therapeutic and valuable I find writing, I guess just not enough to actually force me to sit down and do it.

Enter Christina Torresblog post in my RSS reader earlier today.  Who knows how and why circumstances come together the way they do, but she wrote just what I needed to read at the time I needed to read it.  Rather than try to sit down, gather my thoughts, and put together a coherent, “like-and-fave-worthy” statement of profound educational import, I’m taking the advice I gave students for however many years (and the message I took from Christina’s post) – just write.  And I’m not doing it sat in my office, or in my living room, or some other “writer-friendly” space – I’m banging this out standing in my kitchen, dripping wet after a run, just to get the words on the page.

It’s my hope that by breaking the chain of bloglessness (?), I can kickstart whatever reflective and creative juices have powered my writing for as many years as they have.  It’s something I’ve done here before – a quickie post, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, just to get myself back on the horse.  It’s worked in the past; let’s see if it takes this time.

Thanks, Christina.  Just goes to show you never know the impact your thoughts and ideas – whether they’re blogged, tweeted, podcasted, or simply shared face-to-face between colleagues and friends – can have on another person, and it’s yet another reason why I’m not ready to give up on Twitter for one aspect – albeit an important one – of my professional learning, despite the increasingly unmanageable signal to noise ratio.

Back in the Classroom: How’d I Do?

As I mentioned back in February, I had the opportunity to get back into the classroom this past semester and teach an undergraduate course called Literacy in the Content Area Classroom at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, PA. I taught a pretty small class of mostly sophomores and junior secondary ed majors in a variety of disciplines, and while I don’t think any of us were enthused about the idea of a 3-hour long class on a Monday night, you’d never know it by the level of energy and commitment these future teachers brought to class each week.

I still haven’t received my official course evaluations as conducted by the university, but toward the end of the course I asked my students to reflect in writing on some elements of the course; specifically, what I did this semester that they found particularly valuable as well as what I could improve upon for next time.

I appreciated the feedback I received from my students. I have no specific reason to believe they pulled their punches (although it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge their potential for discomfort with critiquing their teacher), and much of what they said to me aligned with my own observations & reflection. Below are some of the common themes that emerged from their feedback (not every single suggestion) as well as my own reflections.

Improvements for Next Time

More emphasis on Bloom’s Taxonomy. At some point toward the end of our first class period, I noticed I kept getting quizzical looks whenever I referenced Bloom’s Taxonomy. I naively assumed that all students had at least a passing familiarity with Bloom’s, which they informed me they did not. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I got slammed with the flu later that week and had to cancel the second class. In between shivering spats and vomiting spells, I managed to put together an assignment for them to complete over the week that would provide a “101” intro to Bloom and get it uploaded to Blackboard. Upon my return, we dug in a little deeper, looking at Bloom through the lens of questioning. I got a lot of positive feedback on that along with the suggestion that I spend even more time on Bloom next time I teach the course. Roger that.

More time on discussing fiction. This one surprised me. For a class with very few students majoring in the humanities, I tried to tailor the course to what I thought would be most beneficial to agriculture and science majors (the majority of the students) and emphasize approaches to non-fiction texts (we did cover fiction, but in about 2-3 classes, instead of the 6 or 7 devoted to non-fiction). My English teacher soul loved this response, so I’ll do a better job balancing fiction and non-fiction next time.

More in-depth looks at technology tools (e.g., Newsela). This I added toward the end of the class almost as an afterthought. The students seemed to like it but I think we were all a bit frayed at this point in the semester (or maybe just me?) so it was hard for me to get a good read on how valuable it was for them in the moment. This suggestion came up a few times so I’ll definitely have to reconsider not only how I approach this (I considered having them explore NoRedInk as well but scrapped it because of time constraints) but what larger structural changes I’ll have to make to the course in order to accommodate it all.

What They Liked About This Time

Midterm conferences. Taking a page from Dean Shareski (can’t think of a specific blog post to link to but I’ve followed his writing about teaching undergraduates closely over the years) I took my assigned midterm “period” and divided it up into 15 minute segments for individual conferences with each student. This was facilitated greatly by the fact that I only had 13 students in my class; I’m not sure how (or if) I would do it with a much larger class, but I’ll cross that bridge if/when I come to it.

Optional second mini-lesson. To make a long story short, I had originally required and planned for each student to conduct two mini-lessons. A few factors led me to decide to scrap the second, but keeping in mind that some students may already have started work on their second lesson, I didn’t want that work to be for naught. I presented my students with a choice: you can either skip the second lesson (in which case the score from your first lesson would count twice in the overall accounting of the final grade) or you can present your second lesson. Nobody chose to present their second lesson after all, but many students told me they appreciated having the option to choose which way to go rather than being told.

New (to them) types of assignments. For one assignment, students were given a choice of working solo or in pairs on either a) giving a book talk with a corresponding close reading activity or b) choosing a reading selection, developing a discussion prompt, and actively moderating an online discussion over the course of a week. Many students had never seen or heard of book talks before but said they liked getting exposure to books they wouldn’t have read otherwise (my only stipulation was the book had to be about teaching). Most students had participated in online discussions before, but developing and moderating them gave them a whole new appreciation for the potential of the medium (as well as how they feel that potential is not often reached and how much work is involved in getting there).

My Reflections

Aside from generally really enjoying getting back into the teaching groove after so many years away, one big takeaway from this semester has been the single-point rubric. After hearing about it on the Cult of Pedagogy podcast and then finding it referenced elsewhere, I used them pretty much exclusively this semester. The students told me they much preferred them to the typical 4-point rubric, as did I. I even shared the rubrics I developed with some teachers and administrators I work with for their own implementation. Initial feedback from them has been positive as well, so looks like we may be onto something here.

Not that I didn’t know this already, but this semester reinforced for me just how hard teaching is. My inner perfectionist knows I would have done a better job had I not been teaching at 6pm on Monday nights after having already worked a full day and commuted 45 minutes to the university, but regardless – teaching is intellectually taxing (one of the reasons I like it so much, tbh) and proportionately rewarding. Aside from the course content, I also did my best to imbue my students with relevant pearls of wisdom here and there gleaned from my years of experience and my current position, especially as someone who hires teachers and has some insight as to what might set them apart from other candidates. Perhaps the job hunt is too far away for most of them, but hopefully in a year or two when they’re prepping for their first round of interviews, their memories will jog with something I said and maybe it’ll do some good for them.

All in all, it was a simultaneously tiring and energizing experience, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to teach the course again, tweaked ever so slightly for the better, with a new crop of future teachers.

Progress Monitoring: Checking In On My 2018 Reading Challenge

At the risk of turning this blog into a reading log…

As I have for the past few years, in January I took the annual Goodreads Reading Challenge and set myself a goal of reading 30 books in 2018 (I also set a goal of running 300 miles in 2018, but the less said about that right now, the better).

At just past 1/3 of the way through the year, I’ve finished 15 books.  As in past years, I have my 10+ hour weekly commute and access to multiple audiobook sources to thank for much of my productivity here.  In reverse chronological, these are the books I’ve enjoyed so far this year:

  • A Higher Loyalty, by James Comey
  • Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, & Consent on Campus, by Vanessa Grigoriadis
  • The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
  • Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, by Adam Alter
  • Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers & Bob Probst
  • All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire, by Jonathan Abrams
  • The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter
  • Dear Martin, by Nic Stone
  • 50 Instructional Routines to Develop Content Literacy (3rd ed.), by Douglas Fisher, William G. Brozo, Nancy Frey, & Gay Ivey
  • Civil War, by Mark Millar
  • Brain Myths Exploded: Lessons from Neuroscience, by Indre Viskontas
  • Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, & Strategies, by Kylene Beers & Bob Probst
  • On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder
  • A Life in Parts, by Bryan Cranston
  • Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, by bell hooks

I’ve got two books in progress right now: the audiobook of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here is my commute buddy for the next week or so, and I’m just about done with Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir.

Next up in the hopper: Morrissey’s Autobiography, and I’m really excited about next month’s American release of the latest book by one of my favorite authors, Irvine Welsh’s Dead Men’s Trousers, a continuation of the events of the Trainspotting universe.

I suppose I like to share the books I’m reading in an effort to provide my fellow educators some suggestions for something valuable to read.  I know I rely heavily on suggestions from friends, colleagues, and social media connections, especially when it comes to books about education.

On a related note, I just wrapped up teaching my first undergraduate course in teaching literacy in the content area classroom, and one of the choice assignments my students could choose was to do a book talk and close reading activity on an education-related book of their choice.

I liked this assignment because it was a low-risk way for students to read something they might not otherwise have the opportunity (or inclination) to read and reflect a bit on why they liked it, and why we might like it too.  While I will definitely refine the parameters of the assignment if I teach the class again, it was interesting to hear my students share their takes on books like Teach Like a PirateReadicide, and Understanding by Design with their classmates.  These are books that I’ve only ever heard discussed through the lens of veteran teachers, so to hear pre-service teachers’ perspectives on them was a treat for me, and more importantly, will hopefully inspire their classmates to read them and consider their messages as well as they head into their own classrooms in the coming months and years.

Broadening Our Audience: Published Again!

After our short article “Teaching Social Media at Lawrence High School” was published in NJASA‘s newsletter On Target last spring (itself a follow-up to our January 2017 presentation at Techspo ’17 in Atlantic City, NJ), I spoke with my colleagues Dr. Andrew Zuckerman and Ms. Natalie Richey about fleshing it out further with more details and examples and maybe trying to get it published in a more widely circulated publication.

Just under a year later, our work paid off!  Andrew, Natalie, and I are proud that our updated, more fully fleshed-out article (with the same title) was published this week in Educational Viewpoints, the annual peer-reviewed publication by the NJ Principals & Supervisors’ Association (NJPSA).

Educational Viewpoints is also published in hard-copy format, but you can read the article online at their website (or mine).

I’ve been a member of NJPSA for four years now and have always been thoroughly impressed with the quality of professional support (including workshops) they provide.  I’m very proud to have been selected for inclusion in this year’s edition of EV.

Reclaiming My Time(line)

(…with apologies to Rep. Maxine Waters)

Back in August I ruminated a bit on how my experience with Twitter as a professional networking tool has changed over the past ten years.  Among other topics, I spoke briefly on how Twitter has become less conversational for me and more about broadcasting, for better or for worse.  I think a big part of that stemmed from the fact that as my network grew, the number of tweets in my timeline grew from a trickle to a stream to a full-on firehose in the face.  Throw in the functional additions of native retweets at some point in the last few years (tweets from people I don’t necessarily follow being shared with the click of an icon by people I do follow, thereby adding even more detritus to my timeline) and not even filtering apps like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck could adequately tame the mess that my Twitter timeline had become.

I recently came across two tools that appeared to hold some promise in helping trim some of the distractions of 2018 Twitter.  First is a browser extension called Refined Twitter.  Check out Lifehacker’s writeup on it here, but the tl;dr of it is that the extension (for Chrome, Opera, and Firefox) strips away the sidebar trending hashtags, suggestions of who to follow, and personal stats that I can always get on my profile page if I really need to see them (does anyone?).  The other key component is that it removes Promoted Tweets from your timeline.

Like pairing liver with fava beans and/or a nice chianti, I’ve found this extension to go very well with a third-party Twitter app called Blindfold.  Once you enable access to your Twitter account at Blindfold’s site, the service removes retweeted tweets from your timeline (not including those that were retweeted with original commentary, just the straight-up retweets).

After using these services for only a few hours, I was shocked at how much more manageable my timeline was.  Despite following nearly 1,500 people, I was once again able to scroll back a bit in my timeline and actually find where I had left off reading a little while ago.  I didn’t realize how much of my timeline was actually just retweeted content, much of which I found to be of little to no value to me.  I’ve actually found myself better able to track conversations and even participate in a few from time to time, which is what I found so wonderful about Twitter in the first place all those years ago.  Far less noise and far more signal.

As always, caveat emptor and YMMV with any third party apps or extensions, especially those that require you to authorize access to a social media account.  After less than a week of using these two services in tandem, for the first time in a long time, I feel optimistic that I’ll be able to bring that broadcasting/interacting ratio back into a reasonable balance and perhaps start to feel like I’m getting similar value out of the tool as I did back in the day.