Thursday, December 31, 2009

Creativity and Critical Thinking: An Unlikely Comparison?

Sir Ken Robinson and Steve Martin

As I began sorting through the idea of creativity and critical thinking, I remembered watching Steve Martin’s biography. In 1993, Martin wrote a play called Picasso at the Lapin Agile in which he creates a fictional encounter between Picasso and Einstein in the year 1904. In Martin’s words, “the play attempts to explain, in a light-hearted way, the similarity of the creative process involved in great leaps of imagination in art and science.” Picasso brags about his artistic ability, commenting that it is all in the wrist and the wrist starts in the head. He says, “If I think it, I can draw it.” Einstein confesses that he works “the same way” and makes “beautiful things with a pencil.”

I started thinking about Picasso at the Lapin Agile after reading this statement by Sir Ken Robinson:

A big part of being creative is looking for new ways of doing things within whatever activity you’re involved in. 

Einstein and Picasso did this.

Robinson also states that you "can be creative in math, science, music, dance, cuisine, teaching, running a family or engineering. Because creativity is a process of having original ideas that have value."

Martin understands that the creative process applies to any activity (as well he should, since he is an art collector, musician, comedian, actor, author, director and playwright).

If you are interested, watch part of Charleston Stage’s version of Picasso at the Lapin Agile (a little explicit language at the beginning). If you cue the video to 8:35 you will see Picasso and Einstein compete to make something beautiful with their pencils. When they are done they argue.

Picasso: Mine touches the heart
Einstein: Mine touches the head
Picasso: Mine will change the future
Einstein: And mine won’t?

Photo by: / CC BY-NC 2.0

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Exploring the Relationship Between Creativity and Critical Thinking

One of the problems that I face in my job as a curriculum co-ordinator is making sense of large amounts of new information and research, particularly if the new information pushes against some of my previously held beliefs and understandings. I am also challenged to turn a sea of information into a clear picture or message I can share with others.  If I exposed my process for sorting through information, you would see that I take a lot of tangents, engage people in conversations that help me verbalize my thoughts, and make connections to texts that provide examples, or non examples, to help me clarify my thinking.

Over the next few posts, I am going to expose my thinking as I try to sort through something that Sir Ken Robinson said about creativity and critical thinking in his a September interview for ASCD’s Educational Leadership.  He stated that “people see creativity and critical thinking as being opposed.”  I am guilty of this.  When I think of critical thinking, I think of analyzing and deconstructing, questioning and challenging.  When I think of creativity I see inspiration and the formulation or making of something. I agree with Robinson when he says, “you can’t be creative if you don’t do something” and I also agree when he goes on to explain how creativity applies to any subject or activity.  In this particular interview, however, he alludes to the idea that creativity and critical thinking are not opposites, but he doesn’t help me reconcile my definitions of creativity and critical thinking.  Add to this all of the reading I have been doing about 21st century skills (including creativity and critical thinking) and my thinking is muddy. 
If you want to wade through the mud with me, click here to listen to an excerpt of Why Creativity Now? A Conversation with Sir Ken Robinson or click here for the full interview.  

Photo by: / CC BY-NC 2.0

Monday, December 28, 2009

Wordle - Key Words from all 2009 Open School Network Posts

To Reflect on our work in 2009, I created a wordle from all 2009 Open School Network posts. I simply pasted the text from all 2009 posts into wordle.  The more frequently a word occurs, the larger the word appears in the image. I think that this wordle image speaks to our focus on improving student writing in the Avon Maitland DSB.  It is also interesting that the word "students" ended up at the centre, since students are at the centre of all that we do in education.

Click on the image for a closer look and try playing with wordle yourself.  Many teachers are using it in the classroom to help students edit for overused words or to create poetry.  How could you use wordle?

Image by

Friday, December 11, 2009

Big Ideas: Character, Environmental Education and Equity should include conversations about Technology

Beginning last spring, a group of board consultants, administrators and curriculum resource teachers, met to explore how we would implement the big ideas coming forward in many of the Ontario Ministry of Education documents.  Our guiding question for our work is: What are the skills, knowledge, and principles needed to live and to work for sustainable development?  Although technology does not have its own ministry document and receives remarkably little attention in any of the ministry materials, we felt it was crucial to our conversations about sustainability.  My sense is that if the ministry is rolling out documents around character education, environmental education and equity, to name a few, the internet should be a significant part of these conversations.
Character Education
If teaching students about respect, citizenship and leadership is important in our brick and mortar spaces, it is just as important in our virtual spaces.  I recently received a letter home from my daughter’s school explaining that someone had generated an email with a list of girls’ names (called a ‘hoe list’ note the spelling).  This list had circulated online inviting students to add new names and ‘rank’ the girls. The students involved are in grade 7 and many were very upset.  I am pleased to report that the school is treating this as a learning experience for the children and an opportunity to talk about character and online behaviour.  Personally, I’m interested in how this event differs from a note being passed around the school.  It isn’t quite the same thing.  The action of passing the email version of a note takes place outside of school time.  It would be interesting if the outcome saw these same students participate in a online activity to reinforce positive character attributes.  Anytime, anywhere learning applies to the unwritten curriculum too. 
Environment: Our Ecological Footprint
This is not an area of strength for me.  I rarely reflect on where my possessions ‘go to die’.  Yet, in the past 8 years we, as a family, have gone through 1 Personal Computer, 3 laptops, a netbook, a number of cell phones, satellite radio devices, and much more if I move into what we did with our VCRs or the many MP3 players that were lost.  So, there is an issue around materials consumption and waste when we make a connection between the environment and technology, but also around the energy required to operate home/office computers and data centres.  Internet data centres require energy to operate and to run cooling systems.  Bill St. Arnaud claims that the internet is the fastest growing source of CO2 to the atmosphere.  This doesn’t mean that companies aren’t taking a green approach; many, such as google have developed zero-carbon policies. 
Equity and Universal Access: Who gets access and how?
There are many logistical issues that impact internet access, such as limited bandwidth in remote areas (Northern Ontario is a local example).  When we think globally, Africa is an example of a continent with limited internet access.  According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, “Africa’s only connection to the internet backbone is an undersea cable running from Portugal along Africa’s west coast.”  Add to this that
  • monopolies held by telecommunications companies make internet access very expensive;
  • the hope of another fiber optics project was stalled for political reasons;
  • East Africa is primarily dependent on satellite connections for internet access;
  • “land-locked countries” such as Rwanda, “face a special challenge as they will only be able to access bandwidth via an intermediary country.”
When we talk about equity and internet access, we have to ask, “who gets what content and how?”  Even when we reflect on recent events in Iran we recognize that this is an issue as countries develop different regulations around accessing content on the internet. Our schools are a microcosm of this issue when they block sites like YouTube.  They are doing more than inconveniencing teachers and students, more than sending a message about internet safety and undesirable content. They are embodying the kind censorship that we fear and that we would not tolerate if imposed on a national level in Canada.  They are preventing the students who need internet access the most from learning with and about the internet (I am referring to those students who may not have internet access at home, or may not have permission to use the home computer). 
Other Equity Questions
  • In what languages is content available?
  • Will all countries be supportive of the free use of knowledge?
I want to mention that our Big Ideas group doesn’t focus on technology alone.  We delve into ministry documents that we are expected to implement and topics like student voice, aboriginal education and inclusivity. The important part is that we are working at making connections and trying to incorporate these big ideas into our work with teachers, but we would be remiss if we did not make connections to technology.  I welcome your thoughts on the big ideas and hope that you will push my thinking.
Read more about internet access in Rwanda
Listen to Bill St. Arnaud on CBC Radio as he discusses how Canada’s broadband access compares to the rest of the world. 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Avon Maitland Web 2.0 Experts at ECOO – Second String Steps-Up for PD Day

Tomorrow I'm giving a presentation on using Jing, Bitstrips, Google Apps and Glogster in the classroom. This wouldn't be an issue if I felt confident about it. But, it's a board PA day, our Web 2.0 experts (like @msjweir) are at the ECOO conference and teachers want PD that fits with 21st century learning (surprise). When I expressed my concern about the level of my knowledge with these programs I was told (by a few teachers) that teachers don't want to hear from an 'expert'. They want to hear from someone who is learning and closer to understanding the challenges that teachers face with using technology (the truth is, their choices are limited this week).

Is this true? I began thinking about the people whom I admire for their use of technology in the classroom and to generalize about their characteristics and teaching styles.

Our tech adopters are willing to take risks. They are reflective practitioners, so when something does not go as planned with their teaching, they are able to problem solve and try again without any major blows to their egos. They believe in the pedagogy behind 21st century learning and work for inquiry-based lessons; collaborative learning; and the analysis and creation of media. But they would never call themselves experts. They see themselves as continually learning and they have a genuine interest in doing so. If a challenge arises, they would use their Personal Learning Networks (PLN) to tap into or co-create the expertise required for a given question or situation. They use the internet to access people, and people, collectively, offer expertise.

So, in the spirit of the collective, my PD day audience and I will explore Jing, Bitstrips, Google Apps and Glogster together, using my fake class wiki, new netbooks and the wireless access now available in many of our high schools. Words of wisdom and student work samples are welcome @kimmcgill

Saturday, November 7, 2009

What Does Reading Look Like?

Literacy activities look different in subjects across the curriculum and I have done a poor job of modeling literacy strategies in subjects other than English or arts-based courses.

A few years ago I was invited to present the think aloud strategy to my colleagues at a staff meeting. A think aloud is a strategy where teachers model their thinking and decoding while reading aloud to students. For the presentation, I wanted the reader to be unfamiliar with the text they were reading, so I found an English teacher to perform the strategy for the staff. That part was easy. The difficulty was in finding a text that would challenge the English teacher and be relevant to non-English teachers. It was important that the text not be too 'Englishy'. My audience represented various subject disciplines, and therefore expertise in different types of texts. Since the high school I taught at had an amazing Technical Education program I decided to find a 'tech text' for the think aloud.

Transportation Tech Class

I approached the Transportation Tech teacher in his classroom, car on hoist, kids in coveralls, music playing and me in my high heels stepping over tools and looking concerned – a funny picture I'm sure. The teacher welcomed me and I explained the upcoming presentation. Then I asked him, "What does reading and writing look like in your class?" He walked over to an area of the shop with desks, a blackboard, and a shelf holding a class set of textbooks. He pulled one textbook off the shelf and opened it to a chapter.

"This is what we read," he said. I scanned the text noting that key vocabulary words were bolded and notated in the margins. I could work with this. "And this is what we write." He turned the pages to the end of the chapter to show me chapter questions, but as he did, the book cracked like the spine had never been broken in.

"How long have you had these books for?" I asked.

"4 years."

"They've never been used?"

"Yes they have. When the kids do something wrong I make them read and answer questions for their detention."

I found this funny and disheartening at the same time. So I asked, "Why did you tell me that the textbook was what you read in class?"

He confessed, "I thought it was what you wanted to hear."

Then, the teacher walked out into the shop and picked up a piece of paper from the floor. He looked doubtful. It had a footprint on it and greasy smudges. He handed it to me and I couldn't understand the diagram, the vocabulary or the instructions. I could make out the image of a tire, but all of the other items on the diagram meant nothing to me. "This is what we read. We download it off the database, print it and put it on the floor because we're working under the car. This isn't going to help your presentation."

But it Did

The teacher had provided me with a text that was authentic to Transportation Tech. Since then I have learned about other literacy activities that Transportation Tech teachers use, like work orders, log books and diagnostic trees. These are all texts that students would never learn from me, an English teacher.

Personally, I want to understand what communication looks like in disciplines other than my own (History and English). Literacy activities look different in subjects across the curriculum and I have done a poor job of modeling literacy strategies in subjects other than English or arts-based courses. It's no wonder some teachers resist the idea that they are teachers of literacy. Many have never seen themselves in the examples provided and often secondary school literacy coaches and literacy consultants are former English teachers who are not comfortable modeling instructional strategies in subjects outside of their own disciplines.

Back to the Think Aloud

Admittedly, the think aloud did not go well for the poor English teacher who did not have any background knowledge that would allow her to decode the text used in the Transportation Tech class. But the discussion with the whole staff was incredible. We talked about background knowledge, making meaning and the importance of subject area teachers in teaching discipline-specific literacy skills to students. Most importantly, we valued the literacy skills the Transportation Tech teachers possess and the fact that only these teachers can impart their subject-specific literacy skills to their students. We need to do more of this.

What does reading look like in your class and what is happening in your school to support all teachers becoming literacy teachers?

Photo by / CC BY-ND 2.0

Monday, October 12, 2009

First Meetings with Writing Across the Curriculum Teams Underway

I am almost through my first round of visits with our school's Writing Across the Curriculum teams and, while it feels comfortable and familiar for me as a facilitator, most participating teachers did not take part in the project last year. This is an opportunity to bring job embedded professional learning to an entirely new group of Avon Maitland teachers and to build on the learning from last year's groups.

What do you need to know about our WAC teams this year?

  1. Every high school has a Writing Across the Curriculum team.
  2. Teams are comprised of 5 – 8 teachers representing different subjects. 3 of the teams within our board have cross panel representation (7-12 teachers).
  3. Each team has a Science teacher, Tech Ed teacher and Canada World Studies teacher.
  4. Although we call ourselves Writing Across the Curriculum Teams, teachers explore written communication within the context of their discipline.
  5. Teachers develop an inquiry question that focuses on improving student writing. This question may change in second semester as timetables change.
  6. The work is integrated into to what the teachers are already teaching and where they are in their curriculum (content).
  7. The focus in on the 'how' of teaching and assessing.
  8. Teachers focus on one of their classes, so the work is manageable.
  9. Teachers will select 3 students for whom they will collect a continuum of work. This work, with student names removed, will ground our discussions at inquiry team meetings.
  10. Teachers will try new instructional strategies and differentiate instruction.

Goals for the first meeting:

  1. Establish an understanding of the kind of work we will be doing.

    Inquiry-based; critical friends; developed from real needs/dilemmas in our classes; focused on writing; examining records of practice.

  2. Broaden our definition of literacy, reading, text and writing and establish a common understanding of these terms.

    Teams have decided that reading is decoding, understanding, interpreting and making connections. Text is anything a student has to decode, interpret and understand. Text could be a novel, handout, film, plans, a map, art, dance, etc. Writing can occur to help students acquire information (input), such as note making. Writing can occur when students process information (we call this 'writing to learn' or writing for learning) and writing can be a product that reveals what the student knows and can do (output).

Teachers will spend the remainder of October

  1. Honing their inquiry questions and direction.
  2. Developing and implementing diagnostic assessments that relate to their inquiries.
  3. Collecting work for their selected three students.

Monday, May 4, 2009

More Process Writing (I’m Writing to Learn)

I'm still stuck on the writing process question: does the changing nature of text alter the writing process, or does it merely alter how we teach the writing process. Today I grabbed a copy of Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools (by National Writing Project and Carl Nagin) from the bookshelf at work. The following three excerpts (quoted directly from the book) stood out for me.

Excerpt One
The writing process is anything a writer does from the time the idea came until the piece is completed or abandoned. There is no particular order. So it's not effective to teach writing process in a lock-step, rigid manner.
- Donald Graves

Excerpt Two
Most research today supports the view that writing is recursive, that it does not proceed linearly but instead cycles and recycles through subprocesses that can be described this way:

  1. Planning (generating ideas, setting goals and organizing)
  2. Translating (turning plans into written language)
  3. Reviewing (evaluating and revising)

Excerpt Three

A mark of the writing process movement was that it grappled with the messiness of composing itself. Many writers don't know their subject well until they've written a draft. . . As author Tracy Kidder has said, "I write because I don't know what I really think about anything until I get it down on paper."

Perhaps the writing process hasn't changed with technology, but the way we teach it should. I'm flooded with a wave of ideas for modeling the writing process, for explicitly showing how ideas evolve and focus narrows with each piece or revision. As that focus becomes a clearer, language and word choice change. . . I still wonder about what needs to be at the heart of a writing assignment for this process to be authentic?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Rethinking the Writing Process

When I talk with English teachers about how they teach the writing process, they outline various methods of brainstorming and planning and then share samples of graphic organizers. Students are expected to create first drafts (often written by hand, but sometimes typed) and final drafts typed with corrections and improvements. Most English teachers in our school board require students to submit all of their process work with the final product and the process work is assessed as part of the assignment (included on the rubric).

But I don’t write this way. Why would I expect my students to?

I think it is because I can’t imagine or understand the alternative.

When I was in university (the first time) I used the ‘traditional’ writing process, because I didn’t grow up writing on a computer. I was taught how to plan and draft and when I completed that process I booked time in the school’s computer lab. Upon my return to university 6 years later, I typed everything on my PC, but I still had to print copies so I could revise and edit. I couldn’t read my errors on the screen. Now, writing just seems ‘to happen’ on my laptop. I know I am using a process, but it seems fluid and keeps pace with my thoughts. I revise. I move text around, but I don’t think of this as happening in stages or steps. My writing process has changed with technology. As the nature of text has changed, so has the nature of writing.

I’m honestly struggling to envision the teaching of this new writing process.

My questions are:

1. What does your writing process look like?

2. Is it the same as it was ten years ago?

3. What does this mean for English teachers who teach students the writing process?

4. How might we teach this explicitly?

5. How might we model it?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Making Collaborative Writing Authentic

There isn’t any doubt that collaborative writing, when used properly in class, is beneficial to learners: Learning is social and collaborative writing improves both writing and collaboration skills. Collaboration can also lead to a better end-product than that created by any one individual. My fear is that teachers use collaborative writing as a promising practice, but they struggle to recreate authentic, real-world applications of collaborative writing in their classrooms.

Authentic Collaborative Writing Requires a Purpose for Collaboration

For collaborative writing to be authentic, there needs to be a purpose for writing that calls for collaboration, collective intelligence, and/or a unified voice. I work with teachers from across my school board and they are putting forth a powerful effort to engage students in writing. I have witnessed collaborative writing on white boards with different coloured markers that help the teacher track student contributions. I have listened to accounts of students who resent the time it takes to come to consensus and the work required to co-construct a simple paragraph. My sense is that in many instances, students are questioning the purpose and the value of collaborative writing activities.

Outside of the school-world, we use collaborative writing when we

  • want the product to be the best it can be instead of the best we are able to produce individually and independently.
  • need to represent the ‘power of the people’ in a unified voice.
  • need to represent various perspectives in one text.
  • recognize the value in vetting ideas and creating work with others who may have perspectives that differ from our own.

These same opportunities or needs should drive collaborative writing in the classroom.

Authentic Collaborative Writing Calls for the Right Tools

Word Processing - Let them type the ideas, the draft and the final version, please. When I’ve co-written memos or reports with coworkers we talk, correct and one person types. There are no pens involved because pens can’t keep up with the dialogue.

Google Docs or Etherpad - We often assume that our students know how to use the technology available to them. They don’t, but they need to learn. Just before Christmas, my daughter had a group project due. The group was supposed to write and then perform a 15 minute play. When we were hit with a snow-day, my daughter worried about meeting her due date. I suggested Google Docs. After 10 minutes of explaining (me) and locating classmates (her - all online) they were writing and they added an element that I wouldn’t have considered: instant messaging. The combination of these two tools allowed them to co-construct a text and share their OMG moments when they felt they had written something brilliant. If they had wanted to, they could have invited their teacher as a reader and she could have tracked their contributions.

When we teach students how to use tools like Google Docs or Etherpad to collaboratively create a piece of writing, we give them transportable skills and tools. They can collaborate anywhere (almost) and any time, inside or outside of school. They become better collaborators; they become better writers.

I look forward to your input on this topic. A text about collaborative writing should be collaboratively written, don’t you think?

Photo by bgblogging

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Help Students Develop Summarization Skills

Marzano lists summarization as one of the top nine effective teaching strategies. This idea is reinforced by Avon Maitland teacher inquiry groups, who have recognized that students' introductions and conclusions improve as students' summarization skills advance.

Teachers help students develop summarization skills by

Activating Background Knowledge

A person's background/experience influences what he notices and understands when reading. If a student is going to be successful at identifying the important points to be included in a summary, we must ensure the student has the background to do so, or teach to create that background. If, for example, you want students to summarize instructions about how to use a piece of equipment in the woodshop, you might have students watch a demonstration before you have them read about how the equipment works.

Teaching Text Structures

Students will have an easier time summarizing when they understand the structures of texts. Teach students how to identify chronological order, comparison and contrast, problem and solution and cause and effect structures in texts.

Priming Students' Brains

Without a purpose for reading, students may struggle to identify the important information in a text. The teacher can help students by giving them a purpose for reading. "Read this article and summarize the safety tips you need to know when operating a table saw" will get a different summary from students than "read this article and summarize how to use a table saw."

Summarizing Lessons at the Opening and Closing of Class

When we introduce a lesson by summarizing what students are going to do and learn, and then close the lesson again by revisiting the key learning expectations of that class, we model summarization for our students.

Giving Students Tools for Encountering Text

Reading a text more than once is important to identifying and understanding information. Students also need to know how to 'mark' a text with symbols or words that indicate, this part is important, I agree with this, etc. If they are using textbooks, give students sticky notes for marking a text.

Explore note making as a way to help develop summarization skills. Visit

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Explicit Teaching of Summarization Improves Student Writing

I have tracked down a few suggestions for teaching summary writing. Educational research on writing strategies and our own Avon Maitland inquiry group questions indicate that many adolescents struggle when asked to summarize what they’ve read. Research also acknowledges that through the explicit teaching of summarization skills, we can improve student writing.

In Writing Next, Graham and Perin tell us to

[t]each adolescents strategies and procedures for summarizing reading material, as this improves their ability to concisely and accurately present this information in writing. Various online and print sources on summarization outline six basic rules.
  1. Delete trivial material.
  2. Delete repetitious material.
  3. Substitute a general term for a list of specific terms (collapse lists).
  4. Combine a list of actions into a broader, single action (integrate information).
  5. Select a topic sentence.
  6. Create a topic sentence.

Summary Skills in Grades 5, 7 and Beyond

According to Hahn and Garner, authors of Synthesis of Research on Students’ Ability to Summarize Text, by 5th and 7th grade students can work through rules one and two. Secondary school students can follow the rules up to rule five, but have difficulty with rule six, creating a topic sentence.

Mentor Texts

To help students build summary skills, teachers can use mentor texts. To do this, have students read short articles and corresponding summaries of those articles. When reviewing the summaries, students should identify where the six basic rules for summarization have been implemented. Students may also need time to practice each one of the six basic rules in smaller tasks as a way to scaffold learning.

Explicit Teaching

The Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat recognizes that

there is a growing body of research and evidence-based findings that identify summarization as one of the essential skills that improves reading comprehension, writing proficiency and student achievement in general. The skill of summarization needs to be explicitly taught, in all subject areas in order
for students to effectively create and interpret increasingly complex texts.

Watch the a Podcast on Summary Writing – from the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat, January 2009

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Eleven Elements of Effective Writing Instruction

In the report, Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools, Steve Graham and Delores Perin outline Eleven Elements of Effective Writing Instruction. Avon Maitland teacher inquiry groups are referencing these eleven elements to support their work in improving student writing.

In Graham and Perin's words, the Eleven Elements of Effective Writing Instruction are:

  1. Writing Strategies – teaching students strategies for planning, writing and editing.
  2. Summarization – explicitly and systematically teaching students how to summarize.
  3. Collaborative Writing – structural arrangements to work together to plan, draft and edit writing.
  4. Specific Product Goals – assigning specific reachable goals for the writing assignment.
  5. Word Processing – using computers and word processors as instructional supports.
  6. Sentence Combining – teaching students to construct more complex sentences.
  7. Prewriting – activities designed to help students generate and organize ideas.
  8. Inquiry Activities – analyzing immediate, concrete data to develop ideas for a writing task.
  9. Process Writing Approach – interweaving a number of activities in a workshop environment (writing for authentic audiences, personalized instruction, cycle of writing).
  10. Study of Models – opportunities for students to read, analyze and emulate good models of writing.
  11. Writing for Content Learning – writing as a tool for learning content material.

The use of technology, specifically Web 2.0 tools, is notably absent from Graham and Perin's work and I can think of two possible reasons for this. First, Web 2.0, or work with new literacies, may be excluded from the report, because the research into this topic was still relatively thin in 2006. Writing Next was released in 2006 and summarizes the research conducted on adolescent literacy; it conveys trends that were seen across this body of research. It cannot, however reflect research that was not conducted prior to 2006. On the other hand, the Eleven Elements may actually encompass the strategies used when writing for the web and on the web.

Either way, these Eleven Elements provide a solid starting place for teachers trying to improve student writing in their classes.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Can I Call That Good Writing?

If you've spent time teaching students the proper format for writing anything, be it an essay or a lab report, you have probably noticed that it is impossible to separate the thinking from the form. Teachers have a lot of questions about this, because in Ontario the subject achievement charts used to guide assessment and evaluation, separate thinking from communication.

Let's use procedural writing as an example. When we teach students the format for writing a recipe or a lab report, we are teaching them a framework for communicating information and ideas (thinking). However, as a science teacher from one Writing Across the Curriculum team noted,

I have a student who uses all of the appropriate terminology and flawless format
when writing a lab, but when I read what she has written it's obvious that she doesn't understand the concepts that she's writing about. Her critical thinking and analysis is flawed, so her lab doesn't make sense. Under communication, I have to give her a reasonable mark, but can I call that good writing?

No. If writing is indeed thinking through the end of a pen, or thinking through the keys of a computer, then writing is about organizing thought into words and into a form. The thinking is what the writing is all about. We cannot divorce the thinking from the form, even if our achievement chart suggests we do this for assessment purposes.

Can you think of any exceptions?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Teacher Inquiry Groups Narrow their Focus

In the first semester, AMDSB Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) teams established inquiry questions, practiced protocols, and expanded their understanding of the issues and challenges facing teachers in various subject areas. As teacher groups examined student work, themes and patterns began to emerge. Based on their inquiry questions and on the collaborative examination of student writing, teachers aim to improve

  • how students explain and support their thinking in writing;

  • student use of the writing process;

  • students’ summarization skills;

  • student use of subject specific vocabulary/terminology;

  • students’ written responses to questions;

  • student writing of conclusions in science labs;

  • students’ report writing skills;

  • the transfer of student knowledge of writing forms (from one context to another).

In second semester, the work of the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) inquiry teams is more focused as teacher give diagnostic assessments and gather results that will inform their teaching and their selection of instructional strategies. Over the coming weeks, I will post items that relate to the topics, activities and instructional strategies explored by the WAC teams.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

How do we Harness Collective Intelligence?

A video clip of Professor Michael Wesch of Kansas State University inspired me to research the term Collective Intelligence.

When Michael Wesch looks out at his large classes of 400 students, he asks himself, "How can I get all of their intelligence to work together so that we can do something really amazing? If you think about what one person can do, that's interesting, but when you think about what 400 people can do when they all work together, that's really interesting."

Wesch's Question: How do we help student learning by harnessing the collective intelligence of students instead of just lecturing to them?

Watch this short video clip of Mike Wesch talking about what he calls his anti-teaching method.

Collective Intelligence Defined (by Wikipedia)

Collective Intelligence (C.I.) is a group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals. It is important to distinguish Collective Intelligence (C.I.) from shared intelligence. Collective Intelligence is the knowledge available to all members of a community, while shared intelligence is knowledge known by all members of a community. C.I. is not merely a quantitative contribution, but qualitative as well.

MIT's Centre for Collective Intelligence

The Webpage for MIT's Centre for Collective Intelligence says the following:

While people have talked about collective intelligence for decades, new communication technologies—especially the Internet—now allow huge numbers of people all over the planet to work together in new ways. The recent successes of systems like Google and Wikipedia suggest that the time is now ripe for many more such systems, and the goal of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence is to understand how to take advantage of these possibilities.

MIT's Question
: How can people and computers be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?'

My Question: How do we harness the collective intelligence of our teachers?

Visit Wesch's blog, Digital Ethnography

Watch The Machine is us/ing us

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Watch An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube by Michael Wesch

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Connecting Teachers with Online Resources

To add to recent posts about resources, here are some links to connect teachers to online resources that will help them in their quest to integrate technology into the classroom.

Paper Blog – this lesson has students blog using sticky notes. It helps to scaffold student understanding of the difference between academic and social blogging and about online safety, netiquette, and commenting guidelines before students move to the online version. I love this idea.

In Plain English - On our last PA Day, the system principal of information services shared the In Plain English videos on blogs, wikis and googledocs with English and Canadian World Studies teachers. If you have wondered about blogs, wikis and googledocs or struggle to explain them to your students, these short, entertaining videos created by Common Craft and posted on YouTube will help.

Twitter - In The Open Classroom, Jo McLeay from Melbourne Australia, lists a variety of links about using Twitter in the classroom.

Appropriate Online Presence - Do your students use Facebook? This article, entitled Three Rules for Stalking Potential Employees on Facebook, might be a revelation for students who don’t think about how they present themselves online. Will Richardson would argue that it is our responsibility as educators to teach students how to maintain an appropriate online 'presence'.

In my November 30th blog I wrote about teachers wanting hands-on time to learn how to use technology in the classroom and on the December 5th PA day, many teachers received valuable PD about Web 2.0 tools, software and SMARTboards. More importantly, they had time to do what their students do with technology – experiment. The conversation shouldn’t end here, however. If you want some hands-on time to work with an IT trainer, Avon Maitland teachers can arrange a visit from a trainer who specializes in Web 2.0 applications. She will spend some time with a small group of teachers, or even one-on-one. You can use the system tech help on FirstClass to make this request or, if you would like more information, contact me at

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Curriculum Connects the Pieces of the AMDSB Professional Learning Plan

Over the past two weeks, the curriculum team has focused on explaining the alignment of our professional learning plan to principals and vice-principals. School administrators get pieces of information at meetings and school visits and the curriculum team recognized the need to illustrate how all of the pieces fit together. We also wanted to have a bit of fun with the way we share our work.

Please view our first curriculum production, All the Pieces, created with the help of the Avon Maitland communications department. This video will explain the system’s professional learning plan for secondary schools.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Amazing Teenage Brain

When my daughter was less than one day old, she suffered a stroke that destroyed one sixth of her brain. If you met her today, nearly 16 years later, you would not observe any traces of the stroke, because as our daughter grew, her brain ‘rewired’ itself. While we were struggling to understand our daughter’s situation, doctors and scientists were conducting unprecedented research on the brain with the help of MRI technology. This brain research has influenced studies and practice in medicine, psychiatry, sociology, nutrition, and, of course, education.

Interestingly, the brain has two significant growth spurts: one takes place before the age of 18 months and another takes place during the teenage years. According to Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind,

teenage behaviour may result from a complex array of fast-changing factors – not just hormones.

When dealing with teens, Jensen’s book suggests the following:

Be Succinct
Teens’ frontal lobes may not be good at dealing with multiple ideas at a time. When giving instructions, give just one step at a time.

Use Modelling
Early teens need concrete and realistic models in the classroom.

Be a Coach
Many unpruned connections in the teenage brain may impair their ability to make decisions. Many teens aren’t able to recognize the universe of options available.

Be Understanding
Jensen says that teens’ ability to recognize emotions in others is weaker by 20 percent up until age 18. In fact, it’s weaker at ages 11 and 12 than at age 10!

The most significant improvements in my daughter’s abilities occurred when her brain was in a growth spurt. I have witnessed, first hand, the ability of the brain to change and learn and this has fueled my belief that all students can learn if they are given the right supports and strategies. As teachers, we need to become familiar with the brain research that will help us teach with the brain in mind.

Read Teaching With the Brain in Mind, available in your school libraries.
Watch the PBS program Inside the Teenage Brain.

Take a 3DTour of the Brain
Read, This is Your Brain Online

Order The Teenage Brain: A World of Their Own or Inside the Teenage Brain from the Avon Maitland media centre.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Educational Resources: Who's Reading What and Where Can I Find It?

I’m convinced that publishing educational resources is a lucrative business. Each year we turn to catalogues, conference displays, and word of mouth to select professional readings that relate to our board and school improvement goals. In the 2008-2009 school year, secondary teachers, schools or professional learning communities across Avon Maitland are reading the following books:

Creating Literacy-Rich Schools for Adolescents by Gay Ivey and Douglas Fisher, contains suggestions for literacy leadership, support, and interventions. If you read only one chapter, read chapter two on Transportable and Transparent Strategies for Content Literacy Instruction. This book is available in your school library.

Taking Action on Adolescent Literacy by Judith L. Ivrin, Julie Meltzer and Melinda Dukes, outlines action steps for schools that want to help students improve their academic achievement through a focus on literacy. Given our board goal, chapter two, Integrating Literacy and Learning Across the Content Areas, is a must read. Each secondary school principal received a copy and department heads at LDSS read this book for heads’ meetings. An online study guide is available by clicking here.

Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher integrates humour, anecdotes and many practical strategies. It makes an excellent text for English Department PLCs. If I had to recommend one chapter, it would be Beyond the Grecian Urn: The Teacher as a Writing Model. Teaching Adolescent Writers is a PLC reading for Literacy Chairs and will be added to school libraries at the end of the year.

Teaching Writing in the Content Areas by Vicki Urquhart and Monette McIver, dedicates half of its pages to strategies for teaching writing in any subject. I’m a fan of Strategy 31 which outlines the benefits of using examples to show student writers what their final product should or should not look like. This book is available in school libraries.

Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice edited by Kylene Beers, Robert E. Probst and Linda Rief contains chapters that can be read as stand alone readings. Topics vary from vocabulary instruction to the power of inquiry. English heads and Literacy Chairs received a copy of this book. Chairs should have turned their copy over to school libraries at the end of last year.

More Books
Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Educators by Will Richardson (SCSS English Department PLC. Available in school libraries)
Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching And Learning. Edited by Douglas Reeves (Vice Principal PLC)
Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen (Available in school libraries)
Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey (Available in school libraries).
Educational Leadership (Available in school libraries in February ’09)

Are you reading something that you would like to share? Please improve upon our list by adding a comment or emailing me at

See an error in my writing? Let me know and I’ll correct it.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Help Students Organize Their Writing. Revisit 'Think Literacy'.

If you need a quick idea to help students with their writing, revisit the Think Literacy writing strategies. Think Literacy offers templates for writing a procedure, writing an information report, writing a business report, and writing an explanation. Subject specific writing templates can be found in the Subject-Specific Think Literacy documents or you can link to the documents from the Ministry of Education Website.

As we approach the end of first semester, students are working on their culminating activities and, while most students will benefit from using a template to organize their ideas, some students need to use templates to guide their thinking and planning. After all, writing is thinking through the end of a pen and very few adults can settle into writing without some planning or ‘front end thinking’. It is important to recognize that when providing students with templates for writing you are offering a transferrable strategy to help students organize thoughts and create patterns in their thinking. Organized thought leads to organized writing.

Did You Know?

  • Most universities and colleges have websites, handbooks and services dedicated to helping students plan and organize their writing. See examples for the University of Western Ontario and Fanshawe College.

  • All subjects (Ontario Curriculum) have a statement in the Communication area of the Achievement Chart that refers to the expression and organization of ideas.

  • One of the three writing expectations assessed on the OSSLT is ‘organizing information and ideas in a coherent manner’.

  • To improve student writing, EQAO recommends helping students organize their writing around well-developed and well-supported, clear and specific ideas.