As the need arose, the tool emerged

For those of us born in the 1960s, the tools of today feel miraculous. They allow me–one person in one time/space context–to teach in more than one time and space, simultaneously, on-goingly! Of course I still work in a school building–my classes meet in real time–but they are largely web-mediated and increasingly “flipped,” so that the learning that happens under my supervision is archived, searchable, mashable, and, incredibly, has grown a “tail.” I have no LMS, but the daily agenda and reading calendar come out of GoogleApps, are shared on Edmodo, and in addition to and Powerschool, they function together as an asynchronous learning management system. The difficult-to-use SchoolLoop pages the district uses are scarcely better than Blackboard. 

But these digital technologies on which my classes run are rather common and latent. What I wish to describe in this post are the ways in which other technologies underlie my teaching. Whether ICT-enabled digital and web-based, or interpersonal, “real-time,” and face-to-face, I use a variety of tools to efficiently engage my students in literacy learning.

Yesterday’s teaching provided several examples of the ways in which I use technology to fill class needs in real time. It showcased not only how much my classes are based on the non-digital technologies of discussion and role-play scenarios, but also how fantastically digital tools avail themselves to connected learners in 2014. 

First period yesterday, with winter fog outside, my juniors were about to meet Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the first time, but before that it was “induction time,” and I got to observe as they stepped up to the ELMO and white board and engaged in this role-play scenario, which I use as both a community-builder and a means to give them practice in efficiently and systematically making logical inferences. The “inductions” are a role-playing scenario that emerged as a tool (technology) to engage students in authentic interaction with each other. What they do is compelling, too–engaging with their peers in an authentic rhetorical situation: the brand-constructing, or identity-making of their classmates. Talking/thinking about their emerging adolescent selves, they both engage in and reflect on the process by which people evaluate themselves and their peers, which is a huge part of the high school social experience.  

One of the satisfying aspects of these inductions is that by midpoint in the year, this on-going communal exercise brings 75% active engagement (those who independently speak) and 100% passive engagement (from the universal rapt listening). I know from former students that these interactions have long-term positive effects in students’ character and literacy development.

The other distinguished quality of these “inductions” is that they are 85% student-run. I have not yet been able to remain entirely quiet (inappropriate talking will need addressing, or absurd logic is accepted by the chief detective–see below), but that is the goal–a 100% student-run activity. Once they have internalized the culture of respectful communication and co-learning that I want to create and that the activity is designed to give students practice in, it is possible that by April or May students would run the sessions without teacher intervention. That is the discussion I would like to video record to demonstrate my proficiency to those evaluating my practice (oh, when will we have public classrooms with always-on video cameras?)

The “induction” activity takes all semester, sometimes longer, but it works to establish a learning community in language arts, and so I have relied on this tool for the past several years to bring my sophomores and juniors along. What basically happens is a kind of “naming ceremony,” in which 

  1. each student’s self-portrait is displayed anonymously on the screen through the ELMO camera (sometimes it is fun to hyperfocus and force them to experience inferencing with too little, or poorly cropped edited evidence)
  2. members of the class examine the self-portrait and then–led by another student who functions as the “chief detective”–take turns making inferences about–characterizing–the person who has depicted him/herself that way
  3. using deductive reasoning, students make tentative claims of traits possessed by the self-portraitist. Students raise their hands to make logical claims about the self-portraitist (e.g., “This is a shy person” “It’s a ‘girly’ girl” “He’s a soccer player”). The chief detective requires all claims to tie back to details in the drawing–thus students get into the habit of supporting their claims with evidence (e.g., “The soccer ball suggests it’s a soccer player, and they have to be athletic, so s/he must be athletic.”)  They finish the sentence starter, “The person who drew this is a ________ kind of person.” If they do not make a logical connection between the evidence and the claim, the chief detective will question or reject their claim and not put it on the board
  4. once no more inferences are made, an “APB” is put out (e.g., “A-341 [the room number], please be on the lookout for a happy, smart male who looks confused and is athletic. That is all.” 
  5. detectives who believe they know who the self portraitist is make cases–three matches between the criteria on the board and the suspected classmate result in an “arrest warrant” As each accusation is made, another student marks the evidence accumulation with ascending notes on a xylophone (e.g., “Well, I think it’s John because he’s happy *ding*, smart *ding*, athletic *ding*, and confused *ding*“). 
  6. Once a set of suspects (usually 2-3) have been accused, the chief detective “arrests for questioning” the suspects,  saying “John, you’ve been called ____, ____ and ____.  It could be you. Is it?”  
  7. The self-portraitist is thus discovered, and the activity culminates with the student explaining who s/he is, correcting the record where necessary, and adding additional information to self-brand him/herself. 
  8. The activity then requires the self-portraitist to adopt an adjective or noun “tag”(e.g., “Active Andrew,” “Happy Katie,” and “Lacrosse Lee”) or to accept one from a classmate. Because the curriculum is based on logical reasoning, no “tags” are admissible without evidence of their presence. For instance, two of her friends say that Katie is “always happy,” while Lee plays Lacrosse indoors and out, which is warrantable basis for allowing their “tags.”
  9. Finally, there is an induction song that students then sing to welcome into the classroom community. Drums and percussion instruments are distributed around the classroom, allowing multiple students to participate. I or a student plays the guitar in a style of music the self-portraitist requests (anything from opera or gospel to rap or smooth jazz). The class sings together:
English 11/Not quite heaven/But it improves your language/And gives you courage/to say ‘My name is ______.’ (all sing) Welcome, __________ .

For English 10, the song goes,

A-hem, it’s English 10
we’re making better claims:
No evidence?
It won’t make sense.
____ [self-portraitist says his “tag” name; e.g., “Athletic Annie”] is his/her name.
[the entire class then sings] Welcome, _______.

At the end of each student’s induction, there is applause, and the student who has just self-identified chooses the next anonymous subject. The activity goes on for at most three students, since it takes approximately 10 minutes of class time per student. Shy or otherwise unengaged students are drawn into the communal life of the classroom through this game-like, non-graded community builder. 

In second and fourth periods, with my sophomores, we use the tool of 1-minute Extemporaneous Speeches at least once a week, as we did yesterday. Here the engagement is also total, with students either giving speeches or listening, raptly–100% of the time to the student-selected, un-teacher-mediated topics. Yesterday, there was a movie review and a young woman’s talking about her BFF’s recent diagnosis of leukemia and her response to it. My student has to Skype with her friend, who is losing her hair and so my 15 year old is learning how to be a friend in extremis. It’s very touching to all, who listen, and look to me for a model of how to reply. I assure the speaker that she is being a wonderful friend, increasing her friend’s state of mind, which is associated with better prognoses. And I nod to what I know is her religiosity, saying in a safe, secular way, “so would you ask for prayers from those of your classmates who do so? These have also been shown to help.” And she nods, and so we move on.

When a student wishes to make a film review, it is now very easy to go to the official trailer to see 30-60 seconds and allow the reviewer to show some of what s/he is talking about. This would not have been possible without the hi-speed wi-fi that our building now enjoys. 

And when engaged in a role-play scenario in which sophomores explore the bard’s biography, making inferences and judgements, there is anxiety about which student will have to face the Lord Chancellor (played by me, in sometimes high dudgeon) and her majesty? I had left my real die in the other classroom, but I thought in a web direction (connectedly? networkedly?) and googled “digital dice,” and voilà! the dice roller at appeared, providing transparent and fair selection for all. The role-play provided engagement for 90%. If they weren’t practicing and delivering the speeches, they were listening and taking notes, to better prepare for their reflective response paragraphs, due at the end of the period.

Later, in the day, when my juniors were putting together their productions of Act 1, Scene 1 of Macbeth, some wanted to establish a mood or sound effect through music. Thus, iTunes were pulled out and plugged into our speakers, or youtube videos for the first minute of the Doors “Riders on the Storm” were effortlessly produced.

It really is an amazing world of technology-enabled learning in which I am privileged to work. Monday the next tool I use will be a teacher-paced quiz on, another tool that has emerged to facilitate my quick assessment of their comprehension.
The “induction” naming ceremony activity, also called “self-portrait investigation,” demonstrates multiple Illinois Professional Teaching Standards (IPTS, 2010) (Doe, 2012). It fulfills 

  • Standard 4 – Learning Environment – by establishing a “safe and healthy learning environment” that competent teachers use to “[facilitate] cultural and linguistic responsiveness, emotional well-being, self-efficacy, positive social interaction, mutual respect, active engagement, academic risk-taking, [and] self-motivation” through the rest of the school year (ISBE 2010). Because it is an activity that gets the class talking to itself, authentic community-building results, and group values are clarified. According to the teacher, it also makes sure that no child–even the quiet or strange ones–are not “left behind.” The activity also provides students practice in the norms of appropriate interaction in the classroom (turn-taking, calling on the next speaker, “uptake,” autonomously leading investigations, etc.) and provides information about each class member, which engenders the “cultural and linguistic responsiveness, mutual respect,” and “positive social relationships” that are necessary components of a successful learning community (ISBE, 2010).
The activity also fulfills two other IPTS:  
  • Standard 1 -Teaching Diverse Students by facilitating “a learning community in which individual differences are respected” while using “information about students’ individual experiences, families, cultures, and communities to create meaningful learning opportunities and enrich instruction for all students” (ISBE, 2010)
  • Standard 5 -Instruction by delivering instructional content (regarding argument-making) in a way that “uses student information to…[meet] the diverse needs of students and leads to ongoing growth and achievement,” and “[stimulates] prior knowledge and links new ideas to already familiar ideas and experiences” diverse learners are engaged in the activity. With its musical delivery and student-based subject matter, the activity also demonstrates differentiation of “strategies, materials, pace, levels of complexity, and language to introduce concepts and principles so that they are meaningful to students at varying levels of development and to students with diverse learning needs” (ISBE, 2010) Standard 5’s requirement that instruction be delivered by a “variety of strategies that support critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, and continuous growth and learning” can also be observed in this activity. 

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