Writing with a Purpose

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I am a voracious reader. In fact, I’m most happy when I have anywhere between three to five books that I’m reading at the same time. I mean, doesn’t everyone leave a book in strategic places around their house?!?!

Having said that, I just finished rereading Vygotsky’s (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. I chose to read this book again because one of the theoretical frameworks that guided the development of my dissertation study is sociocultural learning theory.

It was a quick read, and one that reminded me of some key takeaways that I need to remember come fall when a new group of middle schoolers walk through my door.

“Teaching should be organized in such a way that reading and writing are necessary for something”

(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 117)

In this case, I’m reminded to make sure that the tasks and activities that I design for my students should be authentic and meaningful. Sure, students need to know proper writing conventions; but why not make the practice of writing more meaningful to what interests middle schoolers?

I teach medieval world history (500 – 1500 C.E.), and most students come to my class hating history. I mean hating it. I think that may be due in large part to the fact that in previous grades they were forced to memorize people, places, and dates which were far removed from any context that connects to them personally. As someone who suffered through that as a student, I empathize with their plight, which is why I go out of my way to make sure that they know that memorizing people, places, and dates are not a high priority in my class. Yes, they need to know people and the general time frame but that’s a topic for another blog post.

“Writing should be incorporated into a task that is necessary and relevant for life”

(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 118)

Many of my students are on social media. Not all of them, but most of them. But even if they aren’t, being able to effectively communicate through the written word is necessary. Working with a large population of English language learners dictates that I must pay particular attention to helping them navigate the speaking and writing conventions of another language.

What this means is that the writing tasks that I give to my students need to help them practice the English language while also evoking a sense of purpose. One idea is to incorporate blogging or journaling for my students. I’ve been wanting to introduce blogging to my students for years, but I’ve yet to wrap my head around how to introduce that concept so that it’s part of the learning process instead of an add-on.

“Writing should be cultivated rather than imposed”

(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 118)

For this takeaway, I see that writing should be something that naturally occurs during the learning process. My students should want to use writing if that medium is the best form for communicating their ideas. This is where differentiation comes into play. For some students, the written word is preferable, whether it’s because it’s easier, faster, or more convenient. But the same could be said for students who choose to use visuals to convey their thoughts. So when it comes to students sharing or reflecting on their learning, I believe that this year will be the one in which I finally incorporate blogging. But I’m going to give students a choice in how they share their learning: public vs. private and blog vs. journal.

I don’t want to think too much on the logistics because I might overlook what would make this learning process meaningful for students. For now, I’m going to give them the task–reflect on their learning–but I’m going to leave the how up to them.

Reference

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Personalized Learning…It’s Possible.

About eight years ago, my district eliminated advanced classes for history.  This meant that gifted students were placed in the general education population which posed a problem because the question now became…how do I differentiate for all the various academic levels in the same class?

[Enter technology]

When I started my master’s program in 2008 little did I know that technology was going to be part of the solution to help differentiate learning in my classroom.  I was creating lessons that utilized a variety of technology tools that I could incorporate into my lessons that would allow me to create a learning environment that was closer to what I defined to as personalized learning.

[Flash forward to 2011]

I was graciously given a class set of iPads by my principal because through our conversations I was able to convince her that technology was going to enable me to provide learning opportunities that would help all levels of students in my mixed ability classes.

It’s a work in progress and it is by no means near completion…

But we’re happy with the results thus far.

[Backstory]

Our district brought in Robert Marzano as a guest speaker.  From there we were encouraged to utilize his idea of learning scales.  My department (true to form) took the idea and ran with it.  We created learning scales for all of our units:  world and US.  That was in 2011.

[Flash forward to today]

Each member in my department now has their own set of iPads.  Our principal purchased licenses for Haiku Learning.  We’ve changed our units so that we are offering our students opportunities to work in a blended learning environment.  With that, we’re able to create tasks that are required and optional.

[Backstory]

Level 3 tasks which fall under the describe/define category of Bloom’s are required.  It’s the bare basic concept attainment for our respective curricular areas.  Level 4 tasks are analysis and Level 5 tasks focus on evaluation and/or creation.  Levels 4 & 5 are optional. Students who complete Level 3 tasks will earn the equivalent of a C for that unit.  Students who complete Level 4 tasks have the potential to earn the equivalent of a B for that unit.  Likewise, students who complete Level 5 tasks have the potential to earn the equivalent of an A for the unit.  Level 4 does not count if students do not demonstrate mastery of Level 3.  Level 5 does not count if students do not demonstrate mastery of Levels 3 and 4.  Students choose their level of learning.  It’s just one part of the personalized learning that occurs in our classes.

[Flash forward to today]

In Haiku Learning, we’re able to create leveled tasks for students.  Not only do they have a choice in their learning level, but they also have a choice in how they want to demonstrate their learning.  Students who are interpersonal can choose to work with a partner.  Students who are artistic can choose to use creation apps like Paper 53 or Notability.  Students who are musically inclined can use Garageband or Songify.  The point being…the integration of technology into our classes has given us the means to offer our students a personalized learning experience.  We can create differentiated lessons and activities, but students also have a choice in their learning.  It’s been a crazy first month of school and I’m totally pooped but it’s been fun.  I love watching my students get excited when looking at the various options that they can choose from.  I don’t think that students often get a choice in how they learn but we’re trying our best to make that happen in our classes.  And for that…we’re super thankful that our administration believes in our vision because we’re not done yet.  =)