Reflections on Skills-Building: 360

As part of our faculty assessment and professional growth program, called 360, I took part in a Teacher Reflection Group this year. Monthly, our cohort meets over a long, yummy lunch to dive into a question of practice that each of us is facing by unpacking a problem, asking questions to generate understanding, sharing observations about that problem, and offering action-steps to follow up.

Today, my question was: How can I provide students with immediate feedback on their listening and speaking skills without causing embarrassment?

Unsurprisingly, my colleagues were able to offer a lot in the way of observations and suggestions — and I hope to write a follow up post about those suggestions.  But by far the my biggest insight today is how hungry we all are for skills-oriented work. All of my colleagues, in the humanities, modern language, and in the arts, expressed interest  in developing shared assessment tools, vocabulary, and strategies around Speaking and Listening. So even as I muddle through rubrics, checklists, verbal and written feedback, today left me inspired to do that work on behalf of my students, and by my colleagues’ desires to collaborate around these critical skills.

The broader question I carry forward is: How best can we, as colleagues, across disciplines, share in this skills building work?

And, I leave inspired to attend to my reading list around Listening and Speaking and formative assessment strategies.  At present, that list includes:

  • Teaching the Core Skills of Listening and Speaking by Erik Palmer
  • How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students by Susan M. Brookhart

I would be so grateful if you could share other materials that inform your work with these skills, as well as experiences you have in cross-disciplinary skills building.



Participation, or Speaking & Listening?

We all want student participation. After all, we know that students who are more engaged  are more likely to succeed in class.

At a recent Humanities department meeting, this commitment to participation was clear when my colleagues shared their grading schemes. For many, participation weighed somewhere on the order of 10-25% of students’ overall grades.  Most used a rubric that prioritizes behaviors like eye contact, having materials for class, and active listening.  But I wondered:  what skills are participation tied to?  And how does participation move away from a teacher’s subjective impression over the course of a semester, to helping support student growth and engagement? 

Thanks to Sandi Novak and Cara Slattery‘s presentation at the ASCD conference in New Orleans this past summer, my subjective impression of student participation has shifted to a skills-based focus on the skills of Speaking and Listening.

The key to this shift has been disentangling the Common Core standards on speaking and listening into manageable bits, directly teaching key skills, and providing students with plenty of opportunity to practice and to receive immediate feedback.


Now, instead of “Participation” as a grading category, my students are assessed as speakers and listeners, with discernible skills like Challenging Ideas and Presenting & Analyzing Evidence.  And, rather than leading most class discussions, I now observe, providing feedback to students with rubrics and checklists that measure their progress.  Moreover, students are empowered to measure their own progress, and to reflect on their own growth.


Publish or Perish

As I work to put together a presentation for my colleagues on digital publishing, I can’t help but be struck by how emphatically all of the national standards demand that we give students the opportunity to publish:

ISTE International Standards for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 1:

Creativity and innovation: Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct  knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.


Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

And, even according to the National Catholic Education Association’s National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Primary and Secondary Catholic Education 7.4:

Curriculum and instruction for 21st century learning prepares students to become expert users of technology, able to create, publish, and critique digital products that reflect their understanding of the content and their technological skills.

What strikes me looking at these standards, is that they are content-area neutral: all teachers and all courses must provide students with the opportunity to allow students to publish.

And I can’t help but understand this emphasis on student publishing and creativity when I reflect on my own practice, moving students from content consumers to content creators.

So what strategies can work to help all teachers empower students to publish?  A few ideas I’ve employed are…

What tools and strategies have you used to help students publish for a real-world audience?  Clearly, it’s time to get publishing.


Hsilgne: Flipped Instruction in the English Classroom

Flipped instruction is everywhere these days… but how does that translate into the English classroom?  When I first learned about flipped instruction, I assumed that it was a natural fit for content-heavy courses like science and history, but I struggled to make the flip work in my English course, which centers on skills.

After working to incorporate flipped instruction for a few months in my English courses, the flip works in three areas:

Delivering Content

This is the most intuitive and well-documented function of the flip.  In the English classroom, it most obviously means vocabulary, lit terms and grammatical concepts, as above.  But, it can also mean front-loading activities, like an introduction to a text or unit, or a means to provide materials for synthesis.

Modeling Skills

Short videos work well for modeling discrete  writing skills – using a killer hook, structuring a counter-argument, attacking the prompt – you get the idea. These videos allow students to see me demonstrate a particular skill, and to revisit it as often as necessary.  Better yet, these videos serve double-duty when I can link to them as comments in writing feedback for students, providing them with an instant, individualized lesson.

And, the flip works equally well for modeling reading skills. Here, students learn the TPCASTT techinque for analyzing a poem.  In another video, students learn how to analyze literature through a critical lens. I can imagine future videos about reading nonfiction texts, satire, or analyzing rhetoric.

Providing Remediation

Even as a veteran teacher, I still struggle to provide individualized writing  instruction.  So, using a series of videos, grouping students to receive that feedback, and holding students accountable for integrating those revisions, allows me to achieve individualized results, even in a large class.  After grading a class set of essays, I’ll often make a few quick videos to help students with weak areas of their writing, and group students up to work together on those revisions.

What makes it all work?

What makes it all work is keeping students accountable for the materials.  In all cases, I ask students to keep notes in their Writing Notebook.  Additionally, for most videos, students answer a question or a short prompt at the completion of the video, so they can practice their new skill in advance of class.  Finally, I follow up with students in class to check for understanding (and occasionally reteach), using formative assessment tools like Socrative, online discussions, or partner work.

And what do the students think?  Unsolicited, in the anonymous class-check ins I give bi-weekly, students report:

I have liked the Vocabulary videos.


Having and taking notes on the mini lesson videos really has helped me understand the different topics that we are learning.

And what surprised me most is that students have picked up on all the shifts that flipped instruction has allowed us to make in the classroom, towards doing.  They report that what they like best about our class:

I liked that we work a lot with our classmates.


That it is inclusive and give good feed back on what to do better or what we can work on.


I like starting essays in class and finishing them at home so we get to know the layout and get inspiration.



Speak Up!: Authentic Book Talks

I am good at asking questions.  I’m sure a lot of you are, too.  And for most of my teaching career, I’ve actually defined my job as asking questions of my students: questions lead to connections, to critical thinking, to closer examination of one’s own ideas.   Over the last year or so, though, I’ve come to re-examine that role.  After all, isn’t it students who should be asking questions?

In their 2013 text, Notice and Note, Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst describe the result of this teacher-centered approach to education, as it applies to student readers:

…we saw…  too many readers who finish the page or the chapter and then, rather than express a thought, ask a question, or leap into conversation, look up at the teacher and wait.

I (sometimes) have that silent classroom, filled with students waiting, some eagerly, for me to lead them to my interpretation of a poem, scene, or text.   What Beers and Probst propose instead is that we teach students to recognize six significant types of scenes that occur across all types of literature (they call these signposts), and for each scene, to ask a single question.  These signposts scaffold the path for students to notice and interpret significant moments in all literature, to speculate, to connect, and to authentically inquire.  And, unlike my well-crafted, text-specific questions, these signposts are transferable, which means that they can empower even reluctant readers.

What really excites me about this strategy – beyond fostering independent critical thinking and engagement – is the ability to directly instruct and capture speaking and listening skills as students use these signposts to engage in book talks with a partner.  Starting in the fall, I will roll out these strategies to my freshman English students.  Each week, I will ask them to record a minute or two of their partner book talk using YouTube Capture, and to share the link with me in their Digital Portfolios.  In a non-1:1 environment, teachers could establish a Book Talk station, where students could record conversations at an interval used by the teacher. These captured student conversations can be used

  • directly in whole-class discussion following their partner book talks to guide listening and speaking strategies
  • to self-assess with a discussion rubric
  • to  show student growth  in literary analysis and speaking and listening over the course of a semester and year.

Moreover, as a teacher, I will be able to hear much more of what my students have to say – and this strategy will give them the opportunity to share the best parts of their discussions.

As I put this strategy into practice, I will update with sample student discussions – and with any further best practices.

Perfect Portfolios: Easy Templates for Student Writing

In terms of best practices, portfolios are pretty close to the top of the list. The rise of 1:1 and cloud-based storage means that asking students to evaluate, revise and curate their own work is getting easier every minute. And, colleges and employers are increasingly considering students’ portfolios in lieu of traditional applications.  At the same time, digital portfolios act to create a positive digital footprint for our students.

So, as an English teacher, I’ve been looking to add digital portfolios to my repertoire for a few years, but have been unable to find the perfect template. Certainly, (and Dr. Helen Barett’s website is the holy grail, but lacks a contemporary template.  And, as always, Catlin Tucker shared an enlightening post on portfolios with gorgeous student work examples of end-of-the-year portfolios.  While inspirational, I feel reluctant to assign portfolios to students as an additional assignment: instead, I’d like them to be process-oriented, and integrated into our regular class structure, to better capture student learning and growth as it occurs.  With a mind towards beginning these portfolios in the freshman year, and allowing students to contribute to them over their high school careers, I hoped for something that would easily be up and running in a 9th grade classroom, while allowing students to create that portfolio habit as they transition beyond.

With those qualifiers in mind, I created an easy-to-use Digital Portfolio Template in Google Sites.  While other sites may be glitzier, Google Sites is one of the few that is consistently editable on an iPad, the device my students use.  And, unlike other “freemium” sites, it allows the user to embed nearly anything. Instructions for the assignment, and the rubric, are also available to students in the template.  I’m excited to see how it works starting in just a few weeks.
Cartwright Portfolio Template

Please feel free to make use of this template – and please let me know how it works for you! If you’re curious about book talks – that post will follow shortly.

Want Great Slides? Peer Edit

As teachers, I think we do a lot wrong when it comes to teaching presentation skills.  We pack slides full of text, expecting a presentation to stand in for a reading assignment; we fail to cite digital images; and we read from our own slides, rather than from presenter notes.  So, when we assign student presentations, we get often suffer a taste of our own medicine: clip art, tacky fonts, illegible slides, and poor speaking technique.

So, for my students’ most recent presentation project, modeled after a TED talk, I took perhaps the most obvious step toward remediating these errors: peer editing our slides. 

Before peer editing, I modeled good and bad slides using one deck,  The Ten Commandments of Presentations, from the team at Haiku Deck, a highly visual presentation app and webtool, and Writing Short, a presentation by Margot Lester

With this inspiration, students headed home to make their rough draft slides.  The following  class meeting, we used this Google form to peer-edit these slides and provide feedback:


And the results were fabulous.  Check out these before-and-after revisions:

Rough Draft

Final Draft

Needless to say, this peer editing step is one that I’ll keep in my presentation curriculum.  Additionally, I look forward to using tools like Haiku Deck to model the types of presentations in my classroom that I’d like to see from my students (and colleagues!).

7 Ways to Use G+

Preparing for a Professional Development session this month, I’ve been compiling ways I’ve used Google+ Community discussions in my high school English classes.  Below are my top seven uses.  If you have additional suggestions, I would love to hear them and pass them along, as well.

When It All Comes Together…

Synchrony.  We’ve all seen it as educators.  Oftentimes, it is the “Aha!” moment when a particular concept clicks with a student.  Increasingly, though, I find that moment occurring in my classroom when students are able to make connections among texts – and between various types of media.  Perhaps that’s the result of our students’ increasingly connected world today, or perhaps it’s a result of our ability to increasingly bring a variety of types of media into the classroom.


Today, that synchronous moment stemmed from a Google+ discussion that asked students to consider the interrelationship of Huckleberry Finn, Jane Smiley’s article from Harpers, “Say It Ain’t So, Huck,” and two recent video clips: Richard Sherman’s response to being called a thug after the Seattle Seahawk’s win against the San Francisco 49ers, and the Saturday Night Live clip, “28 Reasons,” spoofing Black History Month.   I’ve shared two groups’ responses to the SNL clip through the lens of Smiley’s argument.

What arises from these types of moments, where texts gain meaning from one another, is insight into our culture at large.  Moreover, these types of synchronous moments allow students to see the value of these canonical texts in their lives.  And, perhaps most importantly, these synchronous moments allow students to navigate the media landscape that composes their lives… all while addressing CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.


Socrative Vocab Caption Contest

My sure-fire way to bring laughter in the classroom is to bring in silly images.  Thanks, internet.  But one of the challenges of  Evanescent any classroom is allowing students to quickly share the work that they’ve created, to further inform instruction and student understanding.  I’ve found that Socrative meets that need, by allowing students to share and contribute their work from any wireless-enabled device.  While Socrative is designed as a traditional formative assessment tool, to allow the teacher to quickly poll the class, given that it also allows short answers, I’ve found that it can also be used to spur student creativity and competition.

Enter the Vocabulary Caption Contest.  To encourage my students to use their vocabulary words, I’ll pair a silly image (thanks, Buzzfeed!)  and a vocabulary word, and ask them to write the best caption for the image.  This allows me to review word use as student responses are immediately displayed in the “Live Results” function and gives students the opportunity to practice using their vocabulary words.

Other ideas for Socrative creativity and competition:

  • Foreign Language classrooms could write captions, or lines of dialogue, based on images.
  • Analogies: History or Science teachers could post an image and ask students to explain how the image is like a given concept
  • English class rooms could  practice lilterary device creativity on demand: the teacher could post a literary device (ie. metaphor, synecdoche) and ask students to write a sentence using the device about a particular image.

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