As I walked into school this morning, I couldn’t convince myself to return to business as usual so soon after the tragic events that unfolded on Friday in Newton, CT.

My instinct told me that I had to be honest with my students about how I was feeling and that needed to allow them space to process their thoughts and feelings.

I followed the same procedure with each of my four classes:

I asked them to reflect in writing about what was on their mind.  I let them know that it was ok to write about anything they felt was necessary.  I played some quiet, reflective music and just let them write for 10 minutes.

I waited until it looked like most students had finished writing and I invited students to share what they were thinking or feeling.  I let them know that it was a safe, non-judgmental space.  I began by telling students that I felt that as a teacher, it is my key responsibility to make sure they were safe, and part of that job means giving them as much time as needed to process what they were feeling.  As a teacher, I care more about each student individually than I do my content.  At this difficult time, it’s important that we are there for each other and we set aside homework, worksheets and quizzes in order to support one another.

And then I waited and listened.  I tried my best to listen attentively to each student who shared.  I resisted the urge to comment or respond.  I just listened and acknowledged that I shared what they were going through.  When a student asked a question about details, I tried to be factual but kept the focus on us and our feelings.

The students impressed me and made me feel proud to be associated with them.

In one class, we discussed the need to have a more coherent national policy toward gun control, care and support for people living with mental illness, and more emphasis on security in schools.

In another class, students needed to talk about the what-if scenario.  We reviewed our own safety protocols and talked about how the most important thing in a time of crisis is to stick together and look out for one another.

In other classes, we talked about our fears and how it helps to be able to talk about fear with each other and get and give support.

I left school today reassured that school is the safest place in the world and that I am honored to work with such committed and caring young people.

Looking back on what I learned today, I reaffirm that tragedies like the one in Sandy Hook Elementary remind us to appreciate every moment we have with our students and with our own children.

Today I rediscovered the wisdom in the words of Kahlil Gibran in his poem “On Children:”

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, 
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, 
and He bends you with His might 
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, 
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

While the investigators search for answers and motive, while the families of the victims grieve, while the politicians begin the debate, we who work and live with young people have to keep reminding them that we love them, that we will keep them safe, and that we are always ready to listen.

7 Ways To Assess Students with Web 2.0

On Saturday morning, before heading off to activities with my kids, I participated briefly in a very popular Twitter chat for educators called #satchat.  The general topic was using web 2.0 tools in the classroom.  There were hundreds of educators all logged-in and participating so the tweets were streaming in faster than I could keep up with.  Many were sharing links to many of the “best of” sites.  I wasn’t really interested in finding new web 2.0 tools, but I was impressed with the vibrancy of the discussion.  Thousands of educators discussing their experiences, their methods, and their philosophies on a Saturday morning.  What I took away from that chat is a renewed sense that web 2.0 tools help teachers and students communicate.  This year, I have been able to communicate more broadly and more deeply with my students and their parents, thanks to technology.  A teacher’s biggest challenge every day is to effectively gauge each student’s grasp of the content at hand.  We call this kind of assessment “formative” because it instructs our pacing and sequencing of new material.  In a regular 55-minute period, it is quite challenging to check-in meaningfully with each student.  In each of my English classes, we spend a majority of the time discussing the major and minor details of the previous night’s reading.  I encourage students to write down comments made in class, especially when their thinking about a character, a conflict, or a theme changes or deepens.  The discussions I have with my students this year look about the same as the ones I have had  since I started teaching back in the 1990s. I may ask students to use their smartphones to tweet notes or, if we have the laptop cart, to add notes to a common Google doc. The skill of notetaking is still worthwhile and challenging, and students need to practice it daily.  We rely on technology to share notes so that students can self-assess and add pieces that might be missing.  The function of class is still pretty much low tech or traditional.  What has changed is how I am able to reach out daily to students using edmodo, twitter, gmail, and goodreads to informally assess their progress towards our greater learning goals.

For this reason, I see technology, mainly web 2.0 tools, as a game-changer for how I  conduct formative assessment.

The tools that we use in the classroom are simply that: tools.  Our purpose is not teaching the tool or the use of tool.  Of course, we have to explain how to use the tool to our students and we have to be willing to explain it again and again.  Once the student becomes adept at using the tool, we can begin to assess the student’s engagement with the material and understanding of the themes at hand.  The tools also allow us to evaluate how the student is progressing in developing essential skills.

Here are a few ways web 2.0 tools have helped me figure out where students are in terms of current knowledge, understanding, misconceptions, and mindsets:

1.  I can post highlights to in class discussions on Edmodo and ask students follow up questions to evaluate their grasp of the concepts discussed in class.  Here’s an example of such a post on edmodo from recently. This helps students make thinking visible to me and to themselves.

2.  I can assign outside reading books that deal with similar themes as the books studied in class, and can read comments on goodreads posted by students as they make their way through the outside reading to see if they need any support.  I can use what I find out to plan lessons that help link class content to the outside world.

3. I can view student comments on web-based readings that they do for homework using Diigo to check what points they are picking up and what they are missing.  This link also might not work if you do not have a Diigo account.

4. I can answer student questions about HW and larger assignments using web-based email and social media like Twitter & Edmodo so that students so they can hand in work that contains their best effort, or at least an effort they are confident about. Check out our #modglobalcom hashtag on twitter!

5. I can create projects that put students in a position to use critical thinking skills in real-world contexts to create authentic products that will be a foundation for further endeavors.

6.  I can create, assign and evaluate quick writing assignments that aim to build capacity by helping students and teacher understand where to go next. These can be uploaded to edmodo and results are gathered into an integrated grade book.

7.  I can provide ongoing assessment at every step of the way to give students multiple pathways toward the content goals.

The exciting part for me is using web 2.0 is that it helps me manage students learning to use the tools at their own pace.  Some students are very comfortable with technology and others are wary of it.  I can get them comfortable using one tool that will then lead comfortably into use of another one.  If I know one student used one tool effectively, I can return to that tool to make sure each student can communicate with me in a way that is most comfortable.

My job as an educator is to build a trusting relationship with students and using web 2.0 technologies helps me be available to students, to listen to their questions, to read their revelations about texts, to coach them on their pathways toward success.

I would love to hear how you use web 2.0 in your practice!