Monthly Archives: September 2011

Zapping Apathy with Chat-Based Test Review

One of the year-end rituals with debatable value is final exams. At our school, most classes are required to end with a 90-minute final exam that comprehensively tests a semester’s worth of curriculum. This test is to be preceded by some kind of meaningful review.

I’m not a big fan of those tests or the reviews. Some teachers hand out massive review packets that students labor over for several days before the test. Maybe that works. I’m not judging, but it seems to me that if you can teach the whole class from a single packet in a few days, why not do that at the beginning instead of the end, and then move on to some kind of individualized learning projects for the rest of the semester?

My own approach is to post the essay questions online at the beginning of the semester so that students know exactly what’s coming and their thoughts can sort of incubate as the semester goes along. My review sessions sort of go like this: “OK. Does anyone have any questions about the final exam material?” As exam day draws closer, the questions become more specific, and I can see that the students are preparing, connecting ideas, considering organizational plans, and talking things over with each other.

Which brings me to what happened this week. In our American Studies class, our Ning provides a lot of resources and learning possibilities. One of the features that I don’t use very often is chat. I’m concerned that if I just left it on 24/7 it would be abused. My students are pretty solid, but I’m not comfortable with leaving a chat window wide open around the clock, so I don’t.

On the two evenings before our final exam, however, I opened up the chat, and good things happened. On the first night 9 or 10 students (out of 52) popped in and out. They asked some questions. I answered them, although they also answered questions for each other if I was away from the computer for a bit.

On the second night—Final Exam Eve—about half the class participated in a rich, flowing review session that was more satisfying than any in-class discussion we had all year! Joshua said he was having trouble thinking of a third example for his essay. Katie gave him an idea. I’ve never seen Joshua and Katie exchange a word to each other in class, but online they were learning together. Mike asked a question about how to organize his essay. Scott and Sam threw in their advice. Sara asked me to explain a phrase that I’d used in class a few times—“Individual Liberty vs. Preservation of Order.” I explained it, giving a few examples, and then a different Sara chimed in with another perfect example. At one point I said, “”Why do I have the feeling that our class would be different if we met at 10:00 at night instead of 7:30 in the morning?”

As the two-hour session continued, Sam and Kyle started teasing each a little bit, which I watched carefully, but I didn’t mind too much as they included our Greek roots-based vocabulary words in their gentle barbs: “Sam, I don’t understand you. Your language is too esoteric!” “Oh, my antipathy is boiling over!” “I’m LOL-ing so hard I’m afraid my endocrine gland is gonna burst!”

At about 10:30 p.m., I gave fair warning that I would be ending the chat and removing it from the Ning at 11:00 p.m. Immediately, students started organizing a way to move the chat to Facebook. They talked about who would set it up, which happened in a flash, and how to invite everybody in. At 11:05, I asked if anyone had last-minute questions for me. A few students said thanks, and then I removed the chat feature and went to bed.

The next morning the test session began at 7:30 a.m. The chat participants didn’t seem particularly sleep-deprived. On the contrary, they seemed energized. Mike said, “That Ning chat was awesome.” Kim, who hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for anything all year, actually threw her fist in the year and yelled, “Woo, Ning chat!”

As it turns out, the students created the “American Studies Chat after 11:00” group on Facebook, complete with an avatar photo of my teaching partner and I recreating the famous 1890 Burnham and Root photo in The Rookery. They continued chatting there for another hour or so, and although I haven’t seen a transcript, they told me it continued in the same vein as the Ning chat that I was monitoring. (They posted a few ideas in the Group that were mostly funny, but most of the productive conversation happened through live messaging, they tell me.)

So what did I learn from this? First of all, students who are reluctant to participate in class can thrive in an online discussion. Second, online activities can be productive, good-natured, and valuable. (One of my colleagues the next morning poo-pooed the idea of an online test review as “a waste of time.” Um, not really.) Third, online activities can increase a sense of community as students interact with each other in ways that may not happen in a classroom. Finally, learning occurred because of the technology involved. If we had not conducted this chat-based test review, those students probably would not have communicated with each other or with me in the same way, and their learning would not have been enriched by that communication.

In the future, I’m looking for ways to use live, chat-based sessions for other learning opportunities. I’ve got some ideas, but I’d appreciate suggestions, success stories, and reactions. Thanks.

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Teachers, tell us about how you manage feedback.

What’s your best advice for managing feedback on student writing? How can teachers make feedback effective, useful, personal … and still do it in a timely manner? Thanks.

Posted in Discussions for Teachers

Tell us about your inspirations.

Tell about what has helped you become a better writer. Did you have a particularly influential teacher? What kinds of class activities were useful to you?

Posted in Discussions for Students

The Brave Faces

My heart is with kids who say to themselves:

• I try but I still fail, and I don’t know why.
• If someone in my family doesn’t get a job soon, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
• I don’t like to read. I know most of the words but they don’t connect.
• My teacher has favorites. I’m not one of them.
• I go to a school with thousands of students and hundreds of grown-ups but no one talks to me.
• My parents check my grades every day and always find something to complain about even when my grades are all good.
• My friends are bad influences but I don’t know what to do about it.
• I’ve never had a boyfriend/girlfriend. Am I normal?
• I’d like to go to prom but we can’t afford it.
• My classes don’t teach me anything I need to know.
• I try to be friendly but people act like I’m not there.
• If my parent goes to prison, I’m not sure what will happen to my family.
• I’m angry and afraid I’m going to hurt somebody.
• I don’t have a computer at home so I can’t do certain homework like other kids.
• My teacher doesn’t like me and I don’t know why.
• I’d like to have friends but I don’t know how.
• I don’t understand math the way other kids do.
• Everybody tells me to take advanced classes but they’re so hard that it’s ruining my life.
• I don’t see where I fit in at school.
• When my teacher calls on me I’m afraid to answer in case I’m wrong, so I always say, “I don’t know.”
• I think I’m depressed but I don’t know what to do about it.
• My boyfriend hits me.
• My mom hits me.
• My dad hits me.
• I’m going to graduate but I know I’m not ready for college.
• There are people in my school who scare me.

Those of us who work in schools are surrounded by brave faces suffering in silence. Today’s challenge: Say, “Hello. How are you doing?” We might get an answer; we might not. Either way, a simple exchange like that can do more than the words convey as we let students know they are not alone and not invisible.

We can’t solve all the problems, but we can smile and say, “Hello.”


Posted in General Tagged , , , ,

Surprise! Students Read!

Our school has a huge number of students with very active reading lives! I thought that most students only read books when they were required to do so for school, and a certain amount of that reading was “enhanced” by SparkNotes. It’s not true. We have many, many, many, many students who enjoy reading, talking to each other about books, and hunting for their next good book to read.

Why did I have this misconception? Several years ago we had a school-wide “silent sustained reading (SSR)” program. It died a miserable, ugly death. Many students and teachers looked for ways to not do the program. This year, several teachers have introduced SSR dimensions to their individual classes, and in every case, it’s working extremely well. Students who have never read books are doing it and finding it rewarding.

It’s no big secret that our school’s English Department and numerous other school personnel read Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. That books explains how schools are killing a love of reading in four specific ways:

– Focusing on test preparation skills at the expense of reading instruction

– Overteaching books and sucking all of the life and joy out of them

– Assigning books that are irrelevant and too difficult for the students

– Not providing authentic reading experiences

I’m guilty of all of the above, but my eyes are open now. I’ll do better.

Another book has also influenced my thinking about students’ reading habits: Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Miller is a sixth-grade teacher in Texas whose students read at least forty books a year and consistently exceed state standards in reading. Her students all do the same assignments, but they never read the same books. Her approach is highly successful in developing lifelong readers. Sixth grade and high school have obvious differences, but Donalyn Miller is on to something, and her ideas deserve consideration at the high school level.

I’m also inspired by Daniel Pennac’s “The Rights of the Reader”:

1. The right to not read.

2. The right to skip pages.

3. The right to not finish.

4. The right to reread.

5. The right to read anything.

6. The right to escapism.

7. The right to read anywhere.

8. The right to browse.

9. The right to read out loud.

10. The right not to defend your tastes.

If we can somehow find ways to encourage students to exercise these rights, we will take huge steps in developing a culture of readers in our school.

So, to all of you readers, congratulations. You’re doing yourself a huge favor by finding time to read, reflect, and talk about books. You don’t have to be underground about it. There are a lot of you. If some people think you’re wasting your time, it says more about them than it does about you. Keep going.

If you’re a student who hasn’t yet found the book that lights your fire, let’s see what we can do about that. It’s not too late. We’ll gladly help you find a book that suits your tastes. Take a look at for some suggestions. Talk to your school or public librarian.  They exist to help you find books.

For any parents who happen to be reading this: Please help your sons and daughters get books in their hands that they will enjoy.

As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

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