Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Virtual Education Success: Organization is the Key

I have been in virtual education for nine years. I have been both a virtual teacher and a virtual student. Virtual education is the “new” platform in education. It is being touted as a great alternative to the brick and mortar programs. And for some, it can be, but only if they have one key skill - organization.

In order to be successful in a virtual program, students need to be organized. Most middle school students are not capable to organize their time and space. Students need a schedule that the family can adhere to and mostly respect.  Time needs to be designated for lessons, study, project, and breaks.  Students need a space to call their own that is designated for learning that is not in a bedroom or a dining room table.

As a homeroom teacher for a virtual educational program, I on-board new students to our program very frequently.  My first few questions I ask a new family are about their organization for both time and space. If a family has figured out a schedule for the student and a space for the student to work, then most of the time, the student will thrive in the virtual environment. These parents understand how education will be their primary focus for their student, and they have organized their time and space for this education. They have taken into consideration the importance of a schedule that includes breaks as well as work time.

However, when I hear from a new family that no time or space had been discussed or that the student will be doing it on his/her own, then the student is most likely doomed.  Most of these parents lack the understanding of how much time they need to invest into organization because they have always relied on the brick and mortar programs to organize time and space.  These parents never had to arrange a learning space or schedule in a lunch time. These parents don’t understand that virtual education is not an extended homework time.  Virtual education is a replacement for the brick and mortar education.  These parents need a lot of help with organization of time and space. Unfortunately, very few are able to commit to such a daunting task due to a variety of reasons.

In order to be successful in a virtual educational environment, the parent and the student need to be able to organize their time in such a way that there is adequate time for school and for other activities.  The parent and the student need to be able to organize space, so that the student has a place of his/her own for supervised work.  With a little work in organization, most people can be very successful in a virtual educational environment.   

Auman, Maureen E. Step up to Writing. Longmont, CO: Sopris West, 2003. Print.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Just Tell Students What You Want and How You Want It

Okay - well I might just be old-fashioned, but I truly believe when it come to writing, students just need to be told what should be done and how it should be done.  I had a conversation with a brand new, fresh from college teacher  about writing.  She said that students don’t need lots of instruction; they just need time to create.  My question was how do the student know what to create if you don’t tell them - I was truly confused.

I teach 7th and 8th grade Language Arts.  When I give a writing assignment, I tell the students what I actually expect them to do.  For example, my students write a letter to the editor for composition assignment.  I tell them that I expect it to be in a business letter format, with a persuasive focus, and have a call to action in the conclusion.  I tell them that I expect that they revise for clarity and edit using CUPS - capitalization, usage, punctuation, and spelling (Step Up to Writing).  I give them a model of exactly what I am looking for them to do. I give them the rubric of how I am going to grade them. I have taken a generic 6 Traits rubric and adapted it to my own assignments.  The only aspect of the assignment that I don’t give is the topic.  I let them choose their own topics for two reasons:  first, students are more likely to write if they like the topic; and two, I like variety and don’t really want to read 50 compositions about the same topic.  

When I explain this to the new teacher, she was truly befuddled because she was taught that students need to explore how to do assignments and have freedom to interpret the assignment.  I have found that students, regardless of the age group,  get very stressed and parents get very confused if assignments are not clear. Also, I find myself very stressed and confused if I don’t know what is expected.  I mean, really, how am I to grade an assignment if I don’t know what is expected from the students?

Now I understand that students need time to be creative and explore.  I love free writing, journaling, creative writing, but only if it is not a graded assignment.   I also have found that once students have been given the basics, then they are more comfortable taking risks because they feel they have a firm command of the basics. I feel that my job is to give them the basics, then they can be as creative they want.  

Auman, Maureen E. Step up to Writing. Longmont, CO: Sopris West, 2003. Print.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

How do We Teachers Sharpen the Saw

The program that I work in is BIG on the 7 Traits of Highly Effective Students, which is a Stephen Covey program.  We spend each month working on a trait with the students- being proactive, keeping the end in mind, putting first things first, win-win, seeking first to understand and then be understood, synergy, and sharpen the saw.  We expect our students to learn and live the habits.  It is in our common language.  We see wonderful things happen because of the habits.  More students are proactive by asking for help.  They learn to use the Google calendars to keep the end in mind and to put first things first.  They look for win-win situations instead of just failing.  They listen to seek first to understand.  Group work helps with synergy.   I purposely do not assign any homework or projects over winter or spring break so that students can sharpen their saws. We are a virtual program, so it is easy for students to keep working in the curriculum without teachers. I encourage students to turn off the computers and do ANYTHING besides the school work.

Teacher are pretty good at most of the habits.  The teachers with whom I work are proactive with their curriculum.  They keep a calendar for students so that they keep the end in mind and put first things first.  They are constantly working with students for win-win situations.  They listen to the parents to seek understanding before being understood.  PLC takes care of all synergy.  

What we are terrible at is sharpening the saw.  We talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.  We spend our after school time and/or plan time in PLCs and meetings.  We spend our weekends grading what we could get done during our plan time because we were in PLCs and meetings. We spend our 3-day weekends catching up or trying to get ahead.  We spend winter break getting fall semester grades done.  We spend spring break trying to figure out what we need to get done now that state testing is done.  We spend summer working on changes for the next year.

Teachers need to sharpen the saw. This is really hard because the stack of papers, the email, the lesson plans are always staring at us.  Even when I am with my family, in the back of my mind are the things that I feel I need to get done.  I haven’t read a book that I wasn’t teaching in YEARS!  However, there are some things that I do to try to sharpen the saw.  I knit in the evenings instead of grade papers.  I am a 4H leader (okay, that may not be exactly leaving the "job" behind because I am still with kids).  I play hand bells our the church's hand bell choir, so once a week for 90 minutes I am not in charge of anything or anyone.

One of the things that I have done to sharpen my saw that is the hardest thing to do is to go tech free for a weekend.  I leave the papers behind, turn the laptop off, and turn the phone off.  I don’t turn on anything that might tempt me to work.  This is INCREDIBLY hard.  But it is as INCREDIBLY necessary. Not only as a model for students, but for our own sanity.

I still can’t go all of a winter break, spring break, or summer break without working.  I doubt that I ever will be.  However, baby steps and taking time to sharpen my saw helps me to be able to live the other 6 habits with a more positive attitude.  

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. London: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Covey, Stephen R. The Leader in Me: How Extraordinary, Everyday Schools Are Inspiring
Greatness, One Child at a Time. New York: Free, 2008. Print

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why I don't tell students to study

I don’t tell students to study anymore.  I just don’t use the word.   It is not that I don’t believe in students studying.  It has nothing to do with the anti-common core movement.  It has nothing to do with testing in general. I have found that these terms are ambiguous and meaningless. I am a 7th/8th Language Arts virtual teacher.  I teach reading, writing, grammar, and studying.  

When I asked my students what they did to prepare for a test, the answers that I got back was study and review.  My follow up question was what does it mean to study.  The answers back was “Mrs. Kerr - study means to study”  I asked how do you study, and the answer back was reread. Now granted it, I teach middle school students, so I was not expecting well-thought out answers.  However, I was expecting something more that “rereading.”    

Students don’t know how to study.  It is assumed that they were taught to study somewhere in their education, but I have found that they were not.  Rereading is not an effective activity to prepare for a test.  It is time consuming and boring.  

The students know how to take tests; however, they do not know how to study.  Teachers need to take time to teach how to study.  Now, I am not saying the teachers need to add one more thing to their long list of things to teacher.  This can easily be incorporated into teaching.  My favorite way to teach how to study is teaching the use of graphic organizers.  As we are learning a piece of literature, a graphic organizer is filled out. As we are learning a new grammar lesson, a graphic organizer is filled out.  I use a variety of graphic organizers.  Since I teach virtually, there is no need to copying.  I also keep templates online available - the students all have access to Google.  The students are to keep a folder on their desktop or in cloud storage of the graphic organizers.  

My second favorite technique is the use of sticky notes.  I encourage students to put labeled sticky notes in their books at strategic places.  For example, if students can’t remember the linking verbs, I tell them to put a sticky note on the page that has the list of linking verbs and label the sticky note “linking verbs.”  This helps the students to organize the grammar book so that it more manageable and easier to review.

When we get close to a unit test, I ask the students to share their folders so I can review them.  This takes minimal time on my part.  The students are encouraged to use the graphic organizers when they take their tests.  This is done for two reasons:  one, because I can’t actually see the students when they test, there is no possible way that I can assure that they are not using their notes and book; and two, this motivates students to fill out the graphic organizers and use the sticky notes.  

Parents seem to like these techniques because it takes the overwhelming responsibility of trying to get a child to spend hours rereading away.  Parents only need to ask 2 questions:  Please show me the graphic organizers for this unit.  Please show me the sticky notes in the book and tell me why you put the sticky notes there.  Now parents and students know what to focus on to review without spending hours of rereading.  And students are not engaging in the ambiguous task of studying.

Marzano, Robert J., Debra Pickering, and Jane E. Pollock. Classroom Instruction That Works:
Research-based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001. Print.

Urquhart, Vicki, and Dana Frazee. Teaching Reading in the Content Areas: If Not Me, Then
Who? Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2012. Print.

Constructive Complaining

People like to complain.  Teachers are no exceptions.  It is a way to vent about situations that they feel they can’t control nor change.  Constant complaining can lead to a toxic and negative work environment. However, complaining can be the first step to identifying an issue so that we can ask the questions to make a change.
The virtual educational program with which I work is REALLY BIG into Stephen Covey’s seven habits.  One of the habits is seek to understand before being understood.  Listening, I mean really listening - not the look like listening - is an effective skill in understanding other people.  This sounds simple enough; however, we, especially teachers, spend most of our time trying to get other people, specifically students, to understand what we are saying.  That is our job.  However, when it comes to complaining, it is sometimes better to listen.
For example, eight years ago, virtual education was basically non-existent in the state where I live.  We had to develop everything from basic policy and procedure, to testing, to policy enforcement, to curriculum adaptations; you name it, we had to create it.  There were a lot of complaints from teachers, parents, and students.  The middle school team decided early on to listen to the parent complaints - what wasn’t working and why.  Some of the things we could fix, like a consistent homework policy for the entire middle school instead of each teacher having his/her own homework policy.  Some of the things we could not fix, like their child refusing to work.  As the lead teacher for the middle school program, I am on the “front lines” of complaints from the other middle school teachers.  I listen to what they have to say, repeat key points so that I know what the issue is, then I ask “Okay, how do we change this for the better?” From here, we can make positive changes; we feel like a team; and we feel that our ideas are validated.  
Now I know that this all seems simplistic - that is because it is.  We don’t solve every problem we encounter through this.  Some problems just can’t be solved like state mandates that make no sense in the virtual platform, parents who refuse to monitor their students’ internet activity, students who want to hide from school by enrolling in a virtual program and then not working.  We still complain about these things because we are powerless to change them.  However, we have solved many complaints.  For example, now if students do not work in their educational program, they are put on an academic probation type plan.  This doesn’t not stop students from trying to hide, but we now can hold them accountable.  
Julian Baggini, a British philosopher, wrote that “constructive complaints requires only two things:  that what you are complaining about should be different, and that it can be different.  It sounds simple, but too often our protests fail this test.” When we start to complain, maybe instead of focusing on what isn’t happening, we should focus on what we can do to change the situation.  

Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. London: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Covey, Stephen R. The Leader in Me: How Extraordinary, Everyday Schools Are Inspiring
Greatness, One Child at a Time. New York: Free, 2008. Print