Why I Want My Students to Blog

Having had the past two days off from school thanks to Hurricane Sandy, I “discovered” time to do some research on student blogging. I was reading the help pages of edublogs.com, an affiliate of WordPress, which hosts this blog, when the power cut out at my house.

I then was granted about twelve hours of time with my family, without the distraction of electricity.

My kids are young, in kindergarten and pre-school, and so, while I’m not in the same place as many of my readers who are parents of current high school students, I want to keep them safe above all. I understand how creepy the internet can be and that there are people out using the internet for uses other than education.  But I also understand that technology is already a part of their lives and I want to carefully monitor their use of it and keep it educational more than for entertainment.  One day, I will surrender to the idea that they will, alas, use it to socialize as well.

As a teacher, I have plenty of evidence that my students use the technology with which their parents entrust them for positive, educational purposes.  I get many emails, tweets, and direct messages on Edmodo each day and evening from my students asking for clarification or for help.  They use it often to collaborate with their peers on homework, projects, and other school-related activities.

As a blogger, I can tell you that having an instant audience to my writing, forces me to choose my words and my topics with care.  I have learned this lesson the hard way over the past two weeks as I have posted before being completely satisfied with my content.  I haven’t figured out how to save my post as a draft, especially when using the WP app on my iPhone.  That explains why my followers on Twitter and LinkedIn have had to tolerate multiple broadcasts for publication of single posts.  Every time you edit a post, you have to publish it anew, which sends out an automatic blast to your followers.  However, on the positive side, publishing a weekly blog has been exciting and rewarding, while it has made me feel even more invested in what I do in the classroom.

So, I want my students to blog to develop the skills of:

1.  writing to a world-wide audience

2.  organizing thoughts through writing for a purpose

3.  engaging in discussions with teachers and students all over the world

4.  collaborating with classmates in the production of high quality content

5.  formulating, expressing & owning personal viewpoints

6.  being an active participant in learning

As far as getting started, my approach is cautious and measured.  I have read our schools acceptable use policy and am aware that parents can opt out if they don’t want their student to blog.  I also am going to review the guidelines with my students, so they can act in accordance with the policy, especially around guideline #3 (prohibiting the revealing of personal information).

I will begin with creating a class blog for my Modern Global classes, as we being our Term 1 Project dealing with the essential question:

Once you are informed of a violation of basic human rights, how do you, as a global citizen, carry out your responsibility?

I will get students signed up for free accounts and have them work in groups to create pages for that blog.  The web address for that site is: modernglobalcommunities.edublogs.org.

As for my Juniors, I will begin in the next term with “microblogging” and will work to build their facility using Twitter as an educational tool.

If you would like to do more reading about student blogging, here’s a link to Larry Ferlazzo’s Website of the Day.., which is one of my go to sources for help in all things edtech.  If you like it, please leave him a comment!

And as always, I appreciate your supportive comments and I welcome any feedback you might have to offer!

MassCUE 2012

Today was a very special day for me.

I attended the Power Up Conference of Massachusetts Computer Using Educators held at Gillette Stadium.  In addition to touching base with some colleagues I don’t get to see on a daily basis at school, I got a chance to meet some new people who share similar interests and forge new collegial friendships.  There were over 1800 educators in attendance, of whom I met about three face-to-face.  Even though it was an all day affair, there was only about 90 minutes of unstructured time during which I had a chance to chat with a few new friends. 

I decided when I arrived that I was going to fully engage in posting comments on Twitter throughout the day, both as a way to take notes during presentations and to make new connections with other educators.  We were all invited by the MassCUE President, Mr. Leo Brehm, who also works at Newton Public Schools, to use a common hashtag (#MassCUE2012) so that all the Tweets from the conference would be unified in a single stream.

Looking back at the conference, I realize that using Twitter throughout the day enhanced my engagement in the discussions I was physically a part of and it allowed me to keep up with the ones that were happening in other rooms.  So by following the stream of tweets in real time during the conference, I was able to connect with 20 additional educators who share my interests.  I went into the conference following about 110 people on Twitter and being followed by about 100.  Coming out of the conference, I am now following 142 people and am followed by 125.  These people are now part of Personal Learning Network (PLN).  Every time I log onto Twitter, I will be able to see what’s new with my PLN, read articles that they post, and communicated directly with each of them when I tweet.  As of today, I have 398 Tweets, all of which can be accessed from my page on Twitter.

I learned about Storify in one of the workshops today, so I used it to create a story of all my tweets from today.  I’m going to try to embed the story into the blog, but if that doesn’t work, I’ll link to it here.

In the end, conferences are social gatherings.  I attended and met with a handful of colleagues and found that experience to be worth the price of admission.  I took away much more than that in terms of the network I built by attending, both by reading other educators’ tweets and by gaining followers by posting tweets of my own.

I’ll be back in the classroom tomorrow and at the end of the day, I’ll be able to open the Twitter app on my iPhone and check in with my growing PLN and see what’s new.  Being a part of a PLN of connected educators on Twitter helps me renew and refresh my passion for teaching and learning.

My Tweets from #MassCUE2012

  1. joesco77
    @leobrehm welcomes over 1800 educators to #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 05:59:00
  2. joesco77
    Educators are all multitasking during keynote #masscue2012 ! Where are your manners?
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:02:18
  3. joesco77
    What’s this speaker’s name again? I want to follow him #Masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:20:26
  4. joesco77
    RT @booksue: #masscue2012 Tech problems with the keynote. Oh, the irony.
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:22:44
  5. joesco77
    @ptwiraga There are quite a few Tony Scotts on Twitter. Rats! #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:29:01
  6. joesco77
    RT “@ptwiraga: @joesco77 all speakers should list there twitter handle on the screen, just like the media does” #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:33:39
  7. joesco77
    @JulieEvans_PT technology becoming one of the issues that wakes up admins at night #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:36:29
  8. joesco77
    RT @libraryreeder Looking forward to presenting with @brianhammel #masscue2012 Nervous? Intimidating audience here!
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:39:38
  9. joesco77
    RT @ebhsprincipal2: “@neotech03: Students are frustrated by unsophisticated use of tech in education NOT access. Julie Evans keynote #masscue2012” valid point
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:40:04
  10. joesco77
    @JulieEvans_PT students want to be able to use their device at school or want the school to provide equivalent device #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:43:12
  11. joesco77
    @JulieEvans_PT 45% of high school students want to take online courses to be more in control of their learning #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:45:24
  12. joesco77
    @JulieEvans_PT in evaluating quality of online resources, teachers want reliability of source, admins, impact on achievement #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:54:27
  13. joesco77
    @JulieEvans_PT Parents report Internet safety as biggest concern #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:55:25
  14. joesco77
    @JulieEvans_PT there are now many different generations of digital natives #masscue2012 students have wide range of abilities
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:56:50
  15. joesco77
    @JulieEvans_PT students want to be assessed on their progress toward a learning goal, not just on end product #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 06:59:01
  16. joesco77
    Good to see Dr. David Fleishman at #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 07:50:05
  17. joesco77
    Rick Roque “School districts need to focus on the Why not the What w technology; focus on the vision and culture not the tools #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 07:54:28
  18. joesco77
    Rick Roque ” we have erase some of boundaries that exist between teachers and parents by implementing district plans” #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 08:00:06
  19. joesco77
    Rick Roque “Google Glasses will be in every classroom in 10 yrs” #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 08:03:11
  20. joesco77
    Rick Roque “As Teachers we shouldn’t fear Virtual Classrooms; it can promote intellectual equity, challenge adv learner #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 08:08:52
  21. joesco77
    @RickPRoque “power of social media is to build communities and is transforming learning” #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 08:16:40
  22. joesco77
    @EricOstroff2 west side 2nd floor down long hallway on right. #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 08:29:31
  23. joesco77
    At Tools for Empowering 21st C Ed Leaders #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 08:31:18
  24. joesco77
    Moved to @itunesU at #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 08:41:29
  25. joesco77
    Taken while viewing @iTunesU presentation at #masscue2012 http://pic.twitter.com/xtZ9feR0
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 09:04:04
  26. joesco77
    @nicoleobr Where is @baldy7 right now at #masscue2012?
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 09:13:13
  27. joesco77
    @librarybrods @libraryreeder @hammelb Lunch? #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 09:26:36
  28. joesco77
    Excited to participate in #learnpln at #masscue2012 presented by @hammelb @libraryreeder
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 11:07:03
  29. joesco77
    Just #learnpln ‘ed how to shorten urls using http://tinyurl.com/ thanks, @libraryreeder @hammelb #masscue2012 #neverknewthat
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 11:15:18
  30. joesco77
    #learnpln just pointed to http://twictionary.pbworks.com/w/page/22547584/FrontPage to help decode twitter lingo #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 11:28:53
  31. joesco77
    Ah-ha moment during #learnpln How to keep up with flow of Internet torrent using @Zite #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 11:39:12
  32. joesco77
    @hammelb delivers easy way to participate in #edchat s using http://tweetchat.com/ #masscue2012 #learnpln
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 11:47:03
  33. joesco77
    @libraryreeder @hammelb You guys nailed it! Great workshop #learnpln Will make @partrickmlarkin proud! #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 11:56:13
  34. joesco77
    @baldy7 “Learning is the foundation of how and why educators use Twitter” #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 12:51:13
  35. joesco77
    Twitter helps the introvert reach out and interact in a comfortable space @baldy7 #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 13:02:06
  36. joesco77
    @baldy7 Twitter PD is very individualized and challenges notion of traditional PD #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 13:12:52
  37. joesco77
    @baldy7 Good presentation! Thank you and hope to cross paths again one day #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 13:17:09
  38. joesco77
    Thanks to @leobrehm @schamberlain29 for a fantastic #masscue2012
    Wed, Oct 24 2012 14:04:35

A Day In The Life

I just finished dinner with the family.

I sat down in my chair after queuing up an episode of “Dora The Explorer” on the DVR for my kids. I picked up my smartphone, put on my reading glasses (the text is so small on these things!), checked my Edmodo notifications, and gmail. I had a couple of messages from students with questions about tonight’s homework and what to expect in class tomorrow. I fired off the replies before the intro song finished. Then, as I usually do in the evening, I checked my Twitter feed.

For those of you who don’t know much about Twitter, it is growing in popularity among teachers, school leaders, and parents as a way to collaborate and discuss big picture issues affecting education today. There are many “chats” that take place regularly. I saw a Tweet from someone I follow that mentioned the topic of tonight’s “parent-teacher chat,” called #ptchat, which is “planning a parent camp.”

I began to think of all the ways I have communicated with parents so far this year. Many of the exchanges were focused on topics of blog posts, but many more were emails from parents asking for clarity on comments that I sent home at mid-term. Some parents write to share information about important things that have happened at home and they just want to keep the teachers in the loop. All of these email exchanges are priceless. The more chances we have to interact and share information about our students and what we are learning in school, the better we are able to individualize the instruction that we deliver to students.

I sat on the chair tonight and thought how great it would be to be able to chat with the parents of my students while they were sitting down at home with their kids as the kids began their evening routine. I’m sure many parents would love to be able to exchange a quick message with a teacher just to hear some news about what’s going on in the classroom.

Then my rapture was broken as I thought of pragmatics. I thought of how I spent my time this day and my head began to spin at how fast and furious the day moves. Here’s a brief recap of what I recall of my day today:

5:45 AM Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head

6:30 AM Ironed my shirt in the kitchen

7:00 AM Drove to work listening to pundits haggle about the 2nd Presidential Debate

7:50 AM Meet with two colleagues to discuss Junior SAM class. We talk of ways to differentiate instruction to meet students where they are. We are currently working on an essay on a novel by Sherman Alexie.

8:40 AM Meet with parent, student, and team of colleagues in Wheeler House

9:00 AM Junior English 1 class meets in the computer lab to work on rough draft of Ties That Bind Unit literary analysis paper

10:00 AM Prep block. Check and respond to email, schedule meetings for coming days, filled out “permission to be absent” form for a WORKSHOP I will attend next Wednesday.

11:00 AM Deliver the “permission to be absent” form to front office only to be told that I need to get the formed signed by my Department Head. (There is no line on the form that says ‘Signature of Dept. Head’)

11:30 AM Meet with teaching partner, Kirsten Russell, for Modern Global Communities program. We meet weekly and discuss students who seem to be struggling and how to reach them. We came up with a policy a few weeks back where we require all 44 of our students to check in with either of us once a week during J block. So far, the kids who struggle seem to avoid us! But we don’t give up on these kids; instead we work together to figure out action steps. We also write our interdisciplinary curriculum during this time. Last week, we created this document about our Global Citizenship Project for T1. This time flies by as we often talk about ways our English and history classes intersect and we generate ideas for activities and projects in coming days and in future terms.

12:30 PM Lunch with colleagues in Goldrick teacher room.

12:50 PM Sophomore MGC classes meet in Library classroom for a presentation by Ms. Jen Dimmick on how to search for articles outlined in the document linked to above. Ms. Dimmick rocks our world with the web page she created in collaboration with her colleagues in the Library Department. After her presentation, students use laptops to find current event articles about their country’s involvement in the International Criminal Court.

2:00 PM Sophomore MGC class meet back in 1301 to complete 1984 Dialogue Journals, then to discuss reading from last night. Here’s our reading schedule with a description of what to do in a Dialogue Journal. We discuss Orwell’s vision of a dystopian future and how the masses lose the ability to think critically and thus are oppressed by an authoritarian government bent on maintaining power.

2:50 PM. J Block. During the next 40 minutes, approximately a dozen students check in with me. I have fairly involved discussions of about 5 to 10 minutes each with about 4 or them while the other kids approach me with quick questions. This is a veritable gauntlet that makes my head spin but I keep up beat and listen as patiently as I can to student concerns.

3:45 PM. I sit at my computer and grade quizzes that my MGC honors student submitted to Edmodo on the essay “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell.

4:40 PM I get a call from my wife which snaps me out of my trance. I grab my bag, run down the stairs and jump in the car for the 45 minute drive down to Canton (which is only about 15 miles from Newton).

5:30 PM I play tennis on the patio with my 3 yr old son.

6:00 PM bath time and then dinner

7:00 PM Sit down to check email and Twitter and ponder how awesome it would be to have a Twitter chat with parents of my students on a nightly basis.

7:25 PM Reality check, realizing that I have an idea for the week’s blog post; run upstairs to type out the draft of this blog

8:30 PM Bedtime stories

9:00 PM pecking out the finishing touches of this blog on my smartphone as my daughter falls asleep.

I realize after writing this that at the end of the day, I am human and I can’t do everything.  I can’t personally reach out to all parents each day.  I can’t do all the reading I assign my students in three different classes I teach.  I can’t read new books to feed my own passion for learning.  I can’t possibly grade all of the essays I have neatly tucked away in my school bag.  (At the moment, I have about 6 class sets of student essay to grade.  This will be the topic of another post). I can’t do it all.

But I can be present in the moment I am face to face with students.  I can communicate personally with 3 or 4 parents per day.  I can publish most of my course material on the web for parents and students to access.  I can write a weekly blog to keep parents abreast of news from the classroom. I can design and deliver high quality lessons that spark interest and motivate action in my students.

And I can come downstairs when my wife calls me to carry my three year old son up to bed.

Educational Technology Inventory

Good evening, readers!  

I wanted to make an annotated list of the tools we are currently using in English class so that you:

1. are kept up-to-date with what’s going on in class

2. can explore these tools for yourself

3. can offer to help your student if/when a problem arises

Before I get into the list, I wanted to acknowledge a concern raised by a couple of different parents via email regarding my previous post.  I encourage students to use the mobile apps for the tools listed below, but I don’t mean to imply that having a smartphone is required.  All of these  tools are web-based so all students can have access with an internet connection. I understand and respect that some families have decided against smartphones for their own reasons.  I’m still an English teacher with full curricula for each of my courses. I am merely looking for ways to bring technology into our practice to help with efficiency, communication and collaboration.

That said, I’m really excited to report on our uses of the following web tools:

1.  Edmodo  This is our class social network.  As a parent, you can get access to this by asking your student for his/her “parent access code.”  Or you can just ask your kid to show you what it looks like.  I post assignments, notes, and links that the whole class can view.  I update grades so that each student can view his/her grades as they are entered.  In Global class last Friday, we did a fishbowl discussion with 44 students.  There were 10 or so students sitting at a table in the center of a large circle having a discussion about the rights and responsibilities that go along with citizenship.  The 34 students on the outside circle used their smartphones to post their “notes” on the discussion.  At the end of the discussion, we had a very good transcript of the discussion on edmodo so students are able to return to it and reference it for further study. This has a handy iPhone app that allows students to get notifications, communicate with me directly and see their grades.

2.  Goodreads  All of my students from all four of my classes have created accounts, added books, begun reading, and posted comments on their reading.  My Juniors selected books on their own, so there’s a wide range of books being read.  I did notice that in both junior classes, there were small groups of students who decided to read the same book.  This is encouraging to me as it shows that (some) students like being able to talk about a book with others who are reading the same book.  My sophomore global students were asked to select one or two books from a list of 8-10 books that Dr. Russell and I came up with.  These books are thematically relevant to our first term study of the rights and responsibilities of global citizenship.  This too has a decent app that allows students to make progress updates right from their phone after they finish reading.

3. Turnitin.com  Newton Public Schools has purchased a subscription for all English classes at South to use this site.  This site helps us teach students to maintain academic integrity, while also providing us with an efficient interface to grade and comment on student writing.  So far my junior SAM class and my soph global classes have written and submitted papers here and my junior 1s will be doing so shortly.  Even with this nifty tool, it still takes me on average about 20-30 minutes per paper to read, comment and grade.

4.  Diigo  This tool helps me share links to online readings with students.  Students log on to the site and enter our group page, which is closed only to members of the class.  Students can use a diigo toolbar to highlight, annotate, and engage in discussion with their classmates on the reading.  When ever you return to that page, you see the notes of all your classmates, which will make studying for exams a little easier.  Students also can return to see their highlighted quotations so that they can include them in papers and projects.

Diigo is a great way to save and organize bookmarks of all the reading you may do on the web.  I have linked my Diigo account with my Twitter account.  Whenever I favorite or retweet something that I read on Twitter, it gets saved and tagged automatically to my Diigo account.  This is extremely helpful to those of us who use the web for professional purposes.  I encourage students to use it to keep track of their research and  annotated readings for all classes.  If they start now, they will be able to use Diigo throughout college as a way to track everything they have read on the web!

So far that has been it.  It hasn’t been easy getting everyone connected, but it has been a thrill seeing students run with these tools.

I’ve been communicating with parents on my school email:  joseph_scozzaro@newton.k12.ma.us as well as my gmail:  jscozzaro@gmail.com.  I’ve added students and parents into separate “circles” on google+, but I still haven’t quite figure out what G+ is all about yet.  If you use it and see the benefit, please comment and share!

For those of you who have been reading this blog steadily, thanks for your supportive comments!

And to those who might be here for the first time, I invite you to get in touch with me and keep me updated about how your student is getting along with these tools so far.  

I can’t be an effective teacher without supportive and engaged parents, so thanks for all you are doing!

Watershed moment

Remember when you got your first library card?

For “digital immigrants” like myself, the moment my town’s library entrusted me with my very own library card, I could explore the knowledge of the ages as it appeared on the shelves of the library. I was thrilled to be able to check out two, three, or even a dozen books at a time. I felt like I could conquer the world!

Teenagers nowadays experience that same thrill when they are entrusted by their parents with their very own smartphone. These kids are “digital natives” and they immediately see the value in having a smartphone because it facilitates their use of social media. Kids need to be connected to friends and peer groups. This is part of growing up.

In my day, kids used to furtively pass notes in class. If the teacher caught you passing a note, you would have to stay after as punishment. We understood that teachers weren’t opposed to students’ socializing. We knew that the classroom was a serious place and that we had to maintain our attention. But that didn’t mean that we gave up on our social lives. We learned how to do both.

In schools now, teachers respond similarly as our predecessors to the specter of distraction. When we catch students furtively texting in class, we read them the same riot act that was read to us when we were caught passing notes. We are not opposed to students having social lives, but we want them to learn how to balance their academic and social lives.

But smartphones are more than nifty texting devices. Today’s smartphone is much more than our first library card. It provides students access to all the knowledge of the ages on the internet. The smartphone brings content into the classroom that can enhance, deepen, and extend the lessons that teachers guide students through. Students are empowered not by merely possessing the smartphone. They become empowered when a wise guide helps them figure out how to use the digital device to find, understand, contextualize, synthesize and make use of the information accessed from the device. I use my device to bring me blogs like Teachthought and Edutopia, which have helped me develop my fledgling philosophy of digital learning. If I didn’t get my smartphone last year, I would never have discovered Twitter, I would never have connected to a world-wide network of educators, and I would never have started to blog as a way to engage parents in discussions relevant to the education of their children.

Still, many of my colleagues are on the fence when it comes to technology in the classroom. They use it to help their delivery of content but they are nervous about the disruptions that the students’ own devices may cause. This is a valid concern. But they sell themselves short as most career teachers are masters of marshalling student attention. So they ignore smartphones and ban them in class.

We mustn’t ignore smartphones any longer. We have to acknowledge that BYOD is not a fad. The smartphone is here to stay. Take a look at this list of the biggest trends disrupting education today. The trends on this list are not going away, even if we ask students to keep their phones switched off in their backpacks.

We as educators and parents need to help students re-imagine their smartphone for its potential to change the trajectory of their public lives.

We don’t have to have all the answers beforehand. We can learn how to integrate smartphones into the fabric of the classroom right alongside our students. We will model appropriate use and “digital citizenship” for them. We will acknowledge their desire to connect with friends and help them learn how to find a balance.

Those of us who ignore the potential smartphones offer us as teachers and learners, those of us who ban even the sight of a smartphone while class is in session, those of us who feel a bit disingenuous browbeating our students for checking a message during class as our phone buzzes in our pocket have to realize that we can’t hold back the tide forever.

The tide is surging and the smartphone’s watershed moment is here.

Coming next: How my students have used smartphones in class recently.