Online Discussions: Frustrating and Ineffective?

Having pursued my bachelor’s degree in a face-to-face setting I was not aware of how commonly discussion threads were used in online education. I had online courses and hybrid courses during my undergraduate and MBA coursework, but none of these courses featured any discussion threads. Discussion threads were viewed as ineffective as discussions could occur within the class meetings. Additionally, other assessment measures were taken to “test” for student achievement. Assessments such as papers, tests, homework assignments, and presentations were common.

Then, I pursued two other graduate degrees online. I noticed a disturbing trend, the overuses of online discussion threads. These courses were asynchronous in nature [no set meeting time like a synchronous course would have]. At first the discussion threads seemed to replace the homework aspect of the grading scale. Then, it became clear that the online discussion threads were being used as a means to check whether or not students were completing the assigned literature. Readings were assigned over periods of the course; called modules, that were generally one to two weeks long.

This is where the problem came to exist. As educators we should strive to have all assessments associated with learning objectives and the course curriculum. Having assessments that have no direct or indirect correlation with objectives and the course are viewed as busy work. Busy work is viewed as an unnecessary request by students. I have seen first hand that undergraduate students struggle to understand what busy work actually is, but graduate students have a firm grasp.

Why are discussion threads busy work? They require a limited response related to a small piece of information. For example, you may have been assigned to read 100 pages in a given week and the discussion thread has to do with three of those pages. These three pages may have been viewed as irrelevant to you and their focus is not in line with the learning objectives of the course or the course curriculum, but the instructor thought it was something interesting.

Why are discussion threads frustrating and ineffective? The focus is on obscurity; rather than understanding. All discussion threads I have seen focus on an obscure fact or comment made within a module’s readings that needs to be addressed. These are often statements that have nothing to do with the course content or learning objectives, but were interesting to the instructor when they glossed over the readings. How to fix this? Online discussion threads need to focus on a broader outcome that can be tied to the learning objectives. For example, if the learning objective of Module 1 is to ensure students can identify a communication style in education, the question should be associated with that, not a question on a few pages out of the 100 pages a student read. Another issue is the setup and execution of the discussion thread itself. In my experience the discussion threads have required an initial post by a certain day of the week and then two responses by the end of the week. This hamstrings students who are go-getters and want to get their coursework done; as they are relying on their classmates who are likely to procrastinate until the due date. This limits the effectiveness of the discussion thread. The focus becomes more on responding just to fill the quota and complete by the deadline. How to fix this? Make the discussion threads more organic. Give overall parameters [or a rubric] of what is expected in the responses, but do not exercise a limit or strong deadlines. Discussions are more effective when they are done like they would be in person. For example, if someone sends me an email asking intriguing questions it may take me more than 24 hours to consider a response. I would not write a response simply to have it done, but would contemplate the questions, formulate an effective response, and respond when appropriate.

Online discussion threads can be much more effective than they currently are. Due to their current setup that are viewed as busy work that just needs to get done. Online instructors need to find an effective way to make their discussion threads appropriate in relation to the learning objectives and the course; as opposed to simply a manner to check a student read or as a manner of attendance.

 

Making Reading Real!

Avid readers realize how a great book can transport you to another world. Elementary age students can gain approximately 3,000 new words per year. Unfortunately struggling readers do not make those same gains and are faced with the ongoing struggle of catching up to their peers.

We have all asked the same question. What can I do as a teacher to make a difference? Research based strategies are the first step. Students must be exposed to daily interventions which include: word building, sight words, encoding, decoding and fluency. In addition, students should be afforded opportunities to read leveled books that are engaging, high-interest and on their independent reading level. I have found the following  to be helpful:

1. Listen to the experts. Making Sense of Phonics by Isabel Beck is a wonderful resource for all. The book offers insight as to the research behind reading and links teachers to prepared activities.

2. Build a leveled library. Pioneer Valley Books has many collections that include a variety of genres and themes.

3. Offer students activities they perceive as breaks, but are cleverly incorporating reading skills within the instructional time. A few rewards I have found to be purposeful are Education City, Starfall and ABC Mouse.

4. Be Consistent, Keep lessons structured and predictable. The routine helps students to focus their attention on the reading.

5. Don’t be afraid to challenge your struggling readers. Picture books are a favorite of most students because of the colorful pictures that support their reading. Emerging readers feel safe when presented with a picture book, but it is our job to strategically nudge students outside of their comfort zone. Novels allow students to dig deeper into their comprehension. With appropriate support, students can read grade level novels that challenge their abilities in a safe setting. These opportunities allow students to feel a sense of accomplishment and realize how much fun it is to be a part of a “book club”. 

6. Keep Parents Informed! Using technology such as Remind allows teachers to share messages with parents throughout the day or on a scheduled basis. Good news notices can be sent to congratulate a child on extra effort. A free and interesting site is Wonderopolis! http://wonderopolis.org/ Children can explore wonders and submit their wonders to the site to be answered too. 

7. Connect with the world. Through the use of Skype technology students can connect with other classrooms around the world. Renowned teacher, Pernille Ripp created the Global Read Aloud in 2010 and her 6 week project continues to be a motivation to teachers all over the world. Sign-up for the 2016 project at:  http://theglobalreadaloud.com/category/2016/

Maintaining effective practices for struggling readers is a necessary component, but motivation to read is also key in making a change. Make books readily accessible, high-interest and connect reading to the real-world when possible.

If we were making widgets…

There aren’t too many professions where the raw material a person works with is unique in every circumstance. It makes the process of creating an end product unwieldy, unreliable, unstable. It is inefficient to use unique and heterogeneous raw materials. In short, it is against every model of business practice known around the world.

Enter education, public, private, charter – any at all.

A teacher is expected to take the person that walks in the room, and bring all of the other young people in the room on a journey where they all reach a high-end result. It doesn’t seem to matter to the pundits whether the “raw material” being supplied is high-grade, low-grade or nonexistent. Somehow, teachers should be held accountable for the quality of the material being supplied to produce the end product.

It also doesn’t seem to matter to the pundits that there are external forces that weigh on students that have impact in the classroom.

No, none of that makes for good media.

So, as I teach my college Career Development course for future school counselors late into the night, as every piece of academic literature seems to consistently remind us to take account of the myriad contextual variables that all inform a person’s decisions every single day, I am reminded of one thing: Education is personal. What I am willing to put into it is defined by where I came from, what tools, both physical and mental I have been provided to work with, whether anyone fed me breakfast or not or if there was anything to eat, what’s it going to be like when I get home, how long will I be home alone, are my clothes clean, do I need to pick up and watch my sister, are the water or lights going to turn off?

Many have some of these or other burdens they carry throughout the school day, and some have none of these. And you, teacher, counselor, principal, custodian, cafeteria staff, receptionists, school data managers, teaching assistants, bus drivers, media center specialists, you work everyday to take an inconsistent set of variables and hopefully add them to at least 13. Hopefully, without any repeat or retention, but trying nonetheless.

June comes soon, to soon for some to pull it together. But you, there is a student who needs someone just like you to realize the variables can add up.

Substitute Survival Guide

 

While I’ve been active in the education profession as a writer, consultant, and trainer for the past 6 years, I haven’t actually held a classroom teaching position in that time. Recently, I decided to avoid being disconnected from the classroom by taking up a position as a substitute teacher. In the midst of all the chaos – classrooms without plans, students trying to take advantage you, or getting called for a shift 15 minutes before the school day starts – I do really love subbing. I learn more about connecting with students, lesson delivery, and classroom management in a day or two of subbing than hours logged in university education or professional development. For those of you who share in this role as a substitute teacher, whether on-call daily or in a long-term position, here’s my top five tips for surviving subbing.

 

  1. Don’t undervalue your role. I get asked by students, “Why aren’t you a real teacher?” I usually reply with dramatically feigned surprise, “This isn’t real?!?” Subbing is seen as the bottom of the totem pole for education careers. There’s a mindset that if a substitute is below retirement age, then obviously they have this job because they just couldn’t land a full time job. Anyone over retirement age is just filling in for nostalgia’s sake or to cure boredom. Regardless of your reasons for subbing, you have a really important job. You need to provide stability in an unstable situation. Teachers need to be out of the classroom due to illness, professional development, family needs, or even for a vacation (yes, those a real!). You need to hold down the fort. Like a soldier taking over the post, you are responsible for this group of students – even if it’s for just a few hours. You are not “only a sub.” You are the superhero swooping in to hold back the chaos of routine disruption.
  2. Build relationships. Sure, you might just be a day-to-day sub in a different classroom, building, or even district each day of the week, but it’s still critical to connect with people (children and adults) everywhere you go. Every time you walk through the halls of a school, smile and greet people. You’ll find it makes your day generally more enjoyable. If you re in an elementary building, also make an attempt to get to know all of the “specials” teachers because chances are you will see at least one of them each time you work. Build a relationship with the building secretary; this is the person whom you see first and last each day. They wield an awful lot of power and act as the glue pulling everyone else together. Finally, try to get to know the children. Try to learn their names. Let them know you care. Too many children have adults come in and out of their lives and they never feel valued. In a class period, or over the course of a day show them how important they are.
  3. Observe to learn. Look around the classroom and the building. You can learn a lot about the school culture and classroom social environment by taking a few minutes to just look around. Don’t go through cupboards or desks in a snooping, invasive sense – but even a superficial evaluation could be enough. See what teachers are doing that works. Do you like a center strategy, library arrangement, job chart, or seating plan? Jot it down, or take a photo (but do NOT photograph students or their likenesses). Write down materials you like and consider writing a note to the teacher to ask where materials were purchased. If you are familiar with the school and are a frequent visitor, you can even ask to borrow a book or resource. Learn from each room that you are a guest in.
  4. Try it all. Go through your Pinterest board, web bookmarks, favorite blogs, or dog eared book pages and give a try to behavior modifications, bell-ringer activities, popcorn reading strategies, review games, transition ideas, and time fillers. Each day, you get a new set of students to be your guinea pigs for pedagogical experimentation. Keep a log book or chart noting the strategy you tried, the age level of the children, and pros/cons of your facilitation. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you come to learn what works well for you. This trial and error process can be critical research as you reaffirm your personal philosophy of education. You will know what you believe in because you have not only tried it with success, you know that it is better than other strategies that have failed for you.
  5. Keep a bag of tricks. What’s in my bag? Multiples copies of a daily evaluation sheet that I leave for teachers. (I use this Teachers Pay Teachers freebie: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Freebie-While-you-were-outA-Substitute-Feedback-Form-685967) I also keep stickers, a smiley face stamp and scented ink pad, pencils, erasers, and a box of crayons to share with students. The placement company I work for forbids giving food to students (it’s a liability given food sensitives, allergies, and dietary restrictions) but I know many other substitutes who keep crackers, pretzels, or small candies in their bag as well. For my own use, I also have hand sanitizer, tissues, cough drops, a granola bar, and a notebook. I also usually throw in a book to keep me occupied if I have a long lunch or planning period (those are the days to live for!).

 

Hopefully these tips can help my fellow substitutes embrace their role and arrive prepared to create a great day of learning for students!


Education around the world

Education is a very personal issue. The recipients could experience the repercussions of a solid or a poor education for the duration of their lives. Those who are professional educators experience it in a way that is often different from business professionals, because they carry the experiences and successes and defeats of the children they serve with them as they move forward in their careers. One educator I worked with from 1999-2002 recently told me that she still wonders if we did the right thing for a student in a particularly difficult situation. These are the trials and tribulations of the professional educator: Your decisions in the moment could have impact over the long haul.

The personal nature of it makes education an easy target to create an audience. It is an easy news item, and a simple way to roil people into thinking their community is in dire jeopardy because we are “not keeping up with our global competitors.” This is a false statement on its face, but it is fairly simple to use some juggling of numbers to make the statement appear to be true. (I intend to address this in upcoming articles.)

So, more than anything today, here and now, if you are an educator, a parent with a child who benefits from education, a teacher who hears all the rhetoric and wonders where the support is, a community member who wants great education for children but hears all the blather, an administrator who knows we have a great thing going here but becomes so disheartened hearing the media talking points, take heart. Our children are learning more than they ever have before. There is more content packed into the K-8 curriculum in most instances than there was at some high schools 50 years ago. There are more 8th graders taking Algebra 1 or higher than at any other time in the nation’s history. There are more and more early college programs available in school districts each year, affording students the opportunity to advance their learning AND earn college credit, often for free!

If you teach, if you work in a school, if you care about and participate in your child’s education, you are making a difference and an opportunity. There will be students and families who do not take advantage of the opportunity made available. There are only so many tweaks and changes you can make to that. Keep teaching, keep learning, and keep making us all better with your time, your energy and your knowledge.


Empathy with Students Goes a Long Way

Recently I read the story of Teddy who was struggling to find his footing in the classroom. According to the information posted he had been a great student with a number of friends, but the loss of a parent derailed his academic success to a degree. His teacher reviewed his previous teachers’ commentary on his classroom performance. Once she noticed the pattern she took a stronger interest in Teddy and the relationship continued to grow until after Teddy left her class, including Teddy returning to inform the teacher of all the important things going on in his life.

Most educators dream of these situations, where you have such an impact in a student’s life that their success is often your success, as they are so excited to inform you of the new chapters in their lives.

Your question might be “How do I show empathy for my students”?

Empathy can be shown in a number of ways with your students. The one aspect you need to understand is there can be a small line between students taking advantage of you and you showing empathy for their situations. For example, if you see provide an extension to a student once due to an incident they may expect you to do this every time. So be firm with your classroom policies.

Empathy can be a tool used to connect with your students as well. Some students, like Teddy, may require you to work harder than your normal interactions, but the pay off is well worth it. You are not friends with your students, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pull for them in the same manner that their friends do.

Some scenarios I have seen play out in the classroom include the following:

  • A student has a poor home life and does not like to go home:
  • A teacher can consider offering additional after school hours and if the student needs help with their work, use this time to help them navigate through their assignments.

  • A student may have a parent who is terminally ill:
  • A teacher may allow a student to periodically check their cell phone even if it goes against school policy or setup an alternative for reaching the student in case something happens.

  • A student has concerns that limit their concentration:
  • A teacher must not get frustrated with this type of student and instead work with the student individually to ensure they are comprehending all necessary materials. Usually if an IEP or 504 mentions such an issue there may be recommendations for the educator.

    Ultimately showing empathy for situations that come up may help you in connecting with your students and secure a stronger level of respect, as long as you establish that you aren’t a pushover, but aren’t unreasonable.


    Multimodalities in the Classroom

    Multi modalities are at the forefront of education in today’s 21st century classroom. Teaching and learning encompass many modalities: speech, gaze, gestures, body language, writing. When technology is added to the classroom, the multimodal aspects are heightened. Pre-classroom education preparation and experiences have changed for students. Most students have exposure to electronics such as computers, tablets, and video games prior to entering school. Students are now expected to come ready to learn computer literacy, or have some background knowledge of it, much like kindergarten students practice their alphabet before entering school. In the English Language Arts classroom, literacy is now multimodal and is redefined with the introduction of computers and tablets into the classroom. The introduction of technology has provided new opportunities for students to work in their preferred learning modality. This touches in both cognitive and effective domains and allows for greater individualized student growth, achievement, and more student-specific assessment. The move to a digitally influenced classroom changes the nature of education and because of this shift, multimodality in the classroom has become more necessary than ever before.

    Multimodal Literacy is evident in my English Language Arts classroom on a daily basis. As a Google school with Chromebooks, I have recreated my curriculum to pull in multimodal experiences with nearly every topic students encounter. This supports new models of student learning as students are often the expert in the classroom, integrating their technology skills and aptitudes for technology. Students share their knowledge with one another as they collaborate on classwork and projects using Google Applications for Education (GAFE). They use the Chromebooks to complete quizzes on Socrative and they play review games on Kahoot, both which allow for greater peer interactivity. Students participate in Socratic seminars via video chats with students from other school districts, which globalizes their experiential educational interactions. Multimodal literacy is changing how content is published in the ELA classroom as students create digital video PSA’s using their written persuasive essays, and they turn book talks about their required readings into movie trailers. They also take narratives, crafted from drafting to revision and create, edit, and publish multimodal narratives. These multimodal narratives use videos, graphics, music, written phrases, and take into consideration design, content, and auditory selection, in order to create a piece that reflects the mood and ideas students are trying to express.

    Multimodal experiences heighten student motivation as they insist that students invest in the learning process as they create and share their work. Lifelong learning is now more applicable than ever as the multimodal skills students hone are highly transferable to the workforce. It seems that education, with the coupling of multimodal experiences, has begun to answer the relevancy question, “When am I ever going to use this?” The answer in today’s technology based society, is every single day in the workplace, at home, with your children, in continuing education. In the new era of digitized education, schools now offer students preparation for the technological world that awaits them beyond school doors.

    Back to School Basics: Some Relationship Advice

    Now, I know some of my teacher friends have argued that it’s hard to date and teach, but that’s not the relationship advice I’m here to give. I’m talking about the relationships you have with your colleagues in your building.

    Do you remember the show Scrubs? It’s a favorite of mine. A running theme throughout the show is that JD, a new doctor, insists that veteran Dr. Cox is his mentor. Then Dr. Cox usually has some reason why he is unfit to be a mentor and brushes off this title. Throughout the years of the show, even as JD becomes older and more experienced, he is still seeking that mentoring relationship. He remains hungry for learning and advice, and seeks it from the person his gut tells him to follow. I can think of a few fellow teachers whom I have sought this relationship from and I can honestly say having been mentored in several different aspects of my career, I have grown exponentially.

    I’ve been reading a lot about peer coaching and teacher mentoring programs, and how it is much more effective than traditional professional development. This is someone startling and saddening to see from my perspective, given that I own an organization with the primary purpose of providing professional development. However, we are carefully looking at this research and considering ways to incorporate more follow-up and coaching aspects into our PD sessions. Why? Well, consider this chart from Models of Professional Development: A Celebration of Educators (Joyce & Calhoun, 2010, p. 79).

    While interactive, engaging professional development (which is one of our core principles) appears to have an impact in the short-term for teachers, without follow-up and further engagement the effects taper off with only 5-10% of teachers implementing what was covered in the training. However, if a peer coach is involved, the rate of implementation remained steady around 90%. That’s a big difference.

    The Microsoft Innovative Teaching and Learning Research project states: Innovative teaching practices are more likely to flourish when particular support conditions are in place. These conditions include:

    • Teacher collaboration that focuses on peer support and the sharing of teaching practices
    • Professional development that involves the active and direct engagement of teachers, particularly in practicing and researching new methods
    • A school culture that offers a common vision of innovation as well as a consistent support that encourages new types of teaching. (Microsoft, 2011, p. 12).

     Consider those points and think about your professional practice. Do you share ideas with your fellow teachers? Do you seek out engaging learning opportunities? Does your school administration support your development and learning goals?

    I am challenging you now: seek out a peer coach or a mentor in your school. Someone who can guide you, offer ideas, and support you. Even veteran teachers can benefit from this relationship. Or, perhaps, you can coach someone else. Here are some attributes to look for in a peer coach:

    • Is able to build trust with peers
    • Builds on what a teacher needs
    • Communicates well and listens to teachers
    • Is flexible
    • Provides a safe, risk-taking environment and is non-threatening, nonjudgmental, and accepting
    • Is recognized by staff as a strong / outstanding teacher (Foltos, 2013; Meyer et al. 2011).

    Whichever side of the relationship you feel ready to be on – coach or colleague, mentor or mentee – take the time to recognize the power of this bond. Both teachers will find themselves learning from each other and discovering new ways to impact their classrooms.