Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Indispensable Tool for Teaching Writing: Google Docs

English language arts teachers may be the hardest working teachers in America's secondary schools. This is a bold and generalized statement, but it reflects the countless hours that writing teachers spend from their personal and family time on evenings and weekends checking stacks of lengthy term papers in addition to reading ahead in the literature, preparing for upcoming lessons, and coaching speech or sports and directing the school play. I was an English teacher once, but I could not take the hours and the workload, so I retired from teaching English to become an administrator.

Nonetheless, I am almost tempted to return to an English classroom now that new technology tools are making writing instruction so much more powerful and productive. My favorite is Google Documents. Every English and language arts teacher needs the high-tech devices to be able to utilize Google Docs in class.

Writing is a process; however, teachers historically treat it as a product. We assign a writing topic at the beginning of the week. Sometimes we may ask students to submit outlines or note cards along the way. We may discuss in class how the compositions are progressing. But then the final products are submitted on Friday for summary judgment by the teacher. And the teacher judges the product of each student's labor.

Google Docs allows instructors to teach writing as a process. A teacher can set up a Google document for each student in his or her class. Then the teacher has access to the document. The teacher can review it periodically and coach the student through the writing process.

A teacher could follow along and check students as they work through daily writing process assignments like the ones below.

  • Monday:          Students will brainstorm possible topics and create word webs.
  • Tuesday:          Students will write thesis statements and rough outlines.
  • Wednesday:     Students will revise their rough outlines into sentence outlines.
  • Thursday:         Students will re-write their sentence outlines into paragraphs.
  • Friday:             Students will add concluding paragraphs and polish final drafts of their essays.

Instead of disposing of each step in the process or handing in each to the teacher as a separate assignment, the steps could all remain in the single composition with new material added at the beginning of the doc each day.

By providing time in class daily to work on the writing process, the teacher can review the writing assignments in class, offer suggestions on word usage and syntax, and coach the students on their writing.

Moreover, if the writing assignments are monitored along the way, students will be less able to cheat. It will be harder for students to simply cut and paste an assignment belonging to someone else because teachers will be watching the writing progress. Also, students will be more likely to be on track by the end of the week. It will be hard to claim the dog ate the homework when the teacher knows what was done prior to the due date.

Finally, this is not just for English teachers. Reading and writing instruction is the responsibility of every teacher in the school system. I have heard too many teachers say something like, "I am a history teacher. I am only interested in how the students describe history in their papers. It is not my job to correct spelling, grammar, or word usage." This is a flaw in our system that we have compartmentalized subject areas. It is the job of every teacher to tie all the curricular areas together.

I encourage all teachers to use these tech tools. They have the potential for turning around our criticized educational institutions. Now let us get the technology devices into the hands of our teachers so they can use these tools to teach students.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Living Life for the Fewest Regrets

Each spring, one of the things I look forward to is speaking to our graduating class. Below are my brief remarks for this year.
Greetings and welcome to the 19th annual commencement ceremony of the Sioux Central Community School District. 

You have passed through the doorways of Sioux Central school—for a couple of you for just a few months—and for some of you for up to 14 years. You have had your challenges along the way. But you have had your fun as well, and you have been supported by a caring faculty, staff, and administration that truly wanted each and every one of you to succeed. 

In addition, you had the love of family and friends, some of whom are here today to watch you complete your journey. They have come this far with you, they want to be here with you to watch you enjoy your final rewards. 

But in a few short minutes, you will turn your tassels, toss your caps, and walk out through our doors for the last time, some of you for the very last time. As you step through the door as high school graduates, an hour glass just for you will be turned over somewhere. The tiny grains of sand will slowly and inexorably begin to trickle from the upper glass chamber to the lower chamber. 

As you look at the hour glass in your minds eye, you will see today so many grains of sand in the upper chamber that it appears it may never run out. You will all be tempted to ignore most of the grains as they fall because there are so many. 

But some time today, or some time soon, I want you to talk about this metaphor with some of these people who are here to see you graduate today. You need to spend some time talking with some of these people whose faces are lined by experience and whose hair is lightened by wisdom. They know more about this hour glass today than you possibly could. 

Visitors and honored guests, I ask you to seek out your graduates to discuss this with them. There are so many distractions when a person graduates, but they need to hear from you. 

You see, graduates, the sand in this hour glass will never speed up or slow down. The sand keeps moving at the same pace. But your perception of the sand will change. It will seem to move faster every year. And every year that passes, you will realize more and more how little sand was really in that upper chamber at the beginning. 

And every grain of sand that drops represents an opportunity, . . . 
  • an opportunity to move forward, 
  • or one to step back, 
  • an opportunity to accomplish something, 
  • a time to build a relationship, 
  • a chance to contribute, 
  • a moment to love and be loved. 

The experienced and wise people I mentioned know this to be true: as we look back on the grains of sand that have passed through the hour glass—and you will remember each and every one—you only truly regret the missed opportunities: 
  • You will never regret building a relationship.
  • You will never regret the money you gave to charity.
  • You will never regret the book you took the time to read.
  • You will never regret the times you stayed sober.
  • You will never regret the money you saved.
  • You will never regret expressing gratitude.
  • You will never regret the loyalty you showed to others.
  • You will never regret the times you have loved and the times you have shown your love. 

One of my favorite poems is by the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier. One of his poems concludes with this simple couplet: 

     “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, 
     The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'” 

For each of us, when the sands in the hourglass run low, the happiest of us will be those who have the fewest regrets. 

Sioux Central Graduates of the Class of 2012, the whole world lies before you today. Go out and make your lives extraordinary.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Every Educator Needs Two Blogs

My title suggests every teacher and administrator should maintain two blog sites on a regular basis. I know that's just not feasible for many. Perhaps when they were young, they were punished when they were naughty by having to write an essay. Now writing is a burden. That is all right. We all have our burdens to bear.

But for those educators who can and should write on a regular basis, I suggest it is time for them to embrace the social media known as the blog. The word Blog is a portmanteau for "web log". There are a number of free and high quality web sites that allow users to post blogs of all sorts on the internet. People around the world are discovering the benefits of reading blogs and the rewards of creating their own blogs.
I suggest educators should maintain and regularly update two separate blog sites--one directly connected with their professional duties and one for reflecting and sharing on professional practice.

The School Blog
In this day and age, a standard of competence for the profession is current and quality communication. The School Blog, as I call it, should be for the purposes of information. Write what is going on in your professional role. Keep your parents, students, and colleagues up-to-date. Jot anything from a sentence or two up to a few brief paragraphs on the latest and greatest news from your classroom or office.

I sometimes read school blogs where the writer felt compelled to write a lengthy treatise on educational philosophy. Not too many people want to read such an essay. The public wants relevant and late-breaking information, and they like brevity. So write a brief post on the students' science project for next week. Talk about how to help with homework. Post a simple, brief sentence for each of a few students who have distinguished themselves in class. This will make people want to return to your blog. They will learn what is truly going on.

The Professional Blog
The professional blog is the educator's chance to write and reflect on his or her professional practice. It can be a journal for the teacher or administrator to log weekly pursuits. Or it can be more topical. The blog can be an opportunity to think about our philosophy of education and how we bring it to action. By writing things down, we can think about our professional practice.

But this blog is for more than just the individual blogger. All of us in education are teachers at heart. We have colleagues who need information and ideas. They may even need mentoring and guidance. Let others benefit from your experience. Allow them the insight to see how you have met challenges, made mistakes, and ultimately succeeded. This is valuable. Share with others what you have learned.

Still some educators are skeptical. When I am sometimes asked where I find the time to blog, I reply that it is simply a new and essential part of the job. After all, there was a time when the job of a school administrator required research in the library and in periodicals and extensive postal correspondence with colleagues in order to make informed decisions. Now the information is more readily accessible and the correspondence is nearly instantaneous. That time from the old days can be re-channeled into new efforts today.

One more thing:
Blogging offers the opportunity for an audience and interaction. So what do you think? Are there other reasons to blog? Are there other types of blogs I have missed? Feel free to add your ideas for me, . . . and maybe someone else to find.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Will the Postal Service Survive? Will Public Schools?

Many in our national are predicting the demise of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), an institution that has served its people since the birth of our nation. Some say it is electronic media that is heralding the end of snail mail. Certainly that is a factor. However, as the internet has boomed so has online purchasing and home delivery. At the same time when the USPS is struggling, private industry is stepping in and prospering. Private carriers are quickly and efficiently delivering the goods and providing service superior to the USPS and at a competitive price.

What led to this decline in the USPS was not simply the advent of e-mail. It was hubris. The USPS felt that no one could compete with them. They were established in every town across our nation and supported by our federal government. With this hubris, this arrogant pride, came an apathy for service. Envelopes not addressed to USPS standards are returned in order to teach the sender a lesson. "Service with a smile" is an ironic joke quipped by customers at the windows. Meanwhile, the USPS leadership flagrantly throws multi-million dollar extravagant parties for its leadership at the expense of its patrons. This hubris is the greatest threat to the future of the USPS.
So what is the greatest threat to America's public schools? The same hubris. It is this hubris that is being exploited in the latest expose, "The War on Kids."

Schools have been slow to respond to the needs of its customers. At the same time, competition is springing up, and it is flourishing. After two decades of charter schools, no evidence shows charter schools offer any better education than public schools. Yet they are more successful in many situations. The research shows that charter school parents are happier with their charter schools than they are with public schools. And in our competitive economy, happy customers are the true measure of who will survive.

But public schools are not as far down the long pier as the USPS. We have time to respond, and we have a loyal public that truly wants us to succeed. We need to break the paradigm that schools have something that kids need, and they have to play by our rules or miss out. We need to meet the needs of our customers, facilitate the type of learning environments where kids are drawn, and work to satisfy our parents. Let our schools be a place where education is tailored to the individual, where school work captivates the students, where teaching meets the days and hours of service our public would like, and where parents are shown the value of what we are doing for their children.