Connected Learning Teacher Inquiry

“Bringing CLMOOC Back Home” Parts 1-5 #ce14

Curators notes:

This resource highlights one teacher's CURIOSITY as he participated in a massive open online course (MOOC) about connected learning and then sought to use technology in his own classroom to not only increase efficiency, but also transform his teaching. It demonstrates the power of inquiry to help you see your own practice from new perspectives and encourage you to take productive new risks.


Micheal Weller realizes that although he had been using technology to make his classroom teaching more efficient, he could use it to transform his teaching instead. Included is a link to his blog where he details his time spent learning with other teachers at CLMOOC

Part 1

A version of this post originally appeared on my blog.

In the spring of 2013, when I accepted Carolyn Frank’s offer to be the Connected Learning liaison for the Los Angeles Writing Project (LAWP), I was excited at the opportunity. When the Connected Learning Massively Open Online Collaboration (CLMOOC) began in the summer, however, my excitement turned to puzzlement, as I struggled to make sense of this new learning environment.

I had decided to make my presentation for the LAWP Summer Institute (SI) about my liaison work, and I scheduled time in the computer lab for a workshop on the principles of Connected Learning and digital tools for writing. First, though, I needed to understand what I would be presenting. In particular, I was learning about a wide variety of digital tools from the members of the CLMOOC community, and I was struggling to figure out how I could adapt and scale these tools to my classroom. In addition, while I grasped the Connected Learning principles fairly quickly, I was struggling to understand CLMOOC itself. Since CLMOOC was not a traditional, linear course, I realized that it would be difficult to explain to the other fellows in the SI.

Yet, despite my confusion, as I planned my SI presentation, I had an epiphany:

I’d been using technology to make my classroom teaching more efficient, but I could use technology to transform my teaching.

By way of background, I should add that, while I’m not especially brilliant with educational technology, I am pretty fearless. I try out new things and don’t get discouraged if my ideas need revision. Still, though I’ve gained a reputation for being tech­-savvy at my site, I really think I’m a big fish in a small pond. In CLMOOC, on the other hand, I felt like a micro­organism in the Pacific Ocean. Everyone seemed to know more and have done more; they talked about badges and Thinglink and something called DS106.

Literary critic Kenneth Burke famously compared academic writing to a conversation at a party:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. (The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd ed. (1941; rpt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 110­-111)

Well, at the start of CLMOOC, the oar flew out of my hands and the boat capsized.

However, this sense of frustration, ­ of swimming to shore in a storm like Odysseus, if I may badly belabor the metaphor (and relocate it from a stream to the Mediterranean) ­ was probably an excellent environment for developing my understanding and reaching my epiphany.

As a tool for understanding Connected Learning and the CLMOOC, I created a Real­Time Board that mapped my use of technology as a learner as well as my use and my students’ use of technology in my classroom.

This led to another insight: I was doing most of the technology use in my classroom. Oh, sure, kids used computers, but I was doing most of the creative work; the kids were essentially doing really expensive worksheets. Obviously, I needed to shift the balance toward greater student use of digital tools.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the inquiries I pursued last year in an effort to shift that balance.

(I am indebted to Paul Oh & Christina Cantrill, both for the title of this post, which comes from an episode of NWP Radio in which they invited me to participate, and for their encouragement to reflect on and write about my experiences.)

Part 2

A version of this post originally appeared at my blog.

In her book ELL Shadowing As A Catalyst for Change, Ivania Soto quotes a teacher who – after following a protocol to shadow an English Learner student for several periods – discovered that she was doing most of the talking in her classroom.  The teacher goes on to note that the person who talks the most tends to learn the most; she had realized the need to shift the speaking from herself to her students.

In CLMOOC 2013, I realized that I was doing most of the technology use in my classroom – and, just as the teacher in Soto’s book observed, that meant that I was doing most of the learning.  I decided that I needed to shift the balance to give my students more opportunities to explore.

To promote this change, I implemented two inquiries during the school year: blogging in the fall, and interest­-driven research in the spring. My inquiries had mixed results, and I was not as successful as I had hoped. However, like a science experiment that fails, my inquiries yielded useful insight, and I am hopeful in that 2014­-15 my students and I will see further progress.

For my blogging inquiry, I chose Kidblog as a platform because it was free and easy to manage. While blogging is certainly not the latest tool – ­ in fact, it’s quite 2006 – ­ it was a logical first step for me because I understood it well and felt confident about blogging with my students.

In the fall, I taught two 9th-­grade English classes, a senior English class, and CAHSEE Prep, an “intervention” class intended to help students do better on the California High School Exit Exam. The 9th­grade class was the most rigidly paced, and, not surprisingly, I spent the least amount of time blogging with these students. My seniors were a well-­prepared, mature group, and I expected them to be successful with blogging; I was surprised when blogging failed to “take hold” with that group.

My CAHSEE Prep class, on the other hand, was the most successful at blogging. they latched on to my admonition to “write about what interests you” and produced some wonderful results. A junior wrote a series about the culture and history of her native Sri Lanka; another student wrote about raising roosters; a third (a young man with a learning disability who, incidentally, taught us that the plural of “mantis” is “mantes”) wrote about fixing bicycles.

At the end of the semester, I gave my classes a questionnaire, and “more time to write” was a popular response. I realized that I needed to avoid making blogging just another assignment and create a workshop environment that blogging could be a part of.

At about the same time, I came across the idea of the Genius Hour. Based on a practice at Google of allowing employees to use company time to work on “passion projects,” the Genius Hour is an effort by educators to give students class time to pursue projects that deeply interest them. The idea is that students have 1 day per week to work on projects that they design in consultation with the teacher. This would be a perfect application of Connected Learning, I thought, and I decided to try it out with my new Period 1 and my senior class. (Period 1 was new because my CAHSEE class had been closed at the semester; I taught a “make­up” 9th­-grade English class in the spring.)

I started the project by giving my students a Google Form questionnaire in which they “pitched” their projects. The students had exciting ideas ­ one senior wanted to use Auto CAD to design a doghouse; another proposed collaborating with a classmate on a podcast review of video games; a third student wanted to create a blog about “The Walking Dead.”

However, the project quickly stalled.

Several students did produce successful Genius Hour work. The most notable was a wonderful webpage of food reviews for local eateries; other projects, like a blog about slaughterhouses, showed signs of promise despite being incomplete. However, most of my students were not successful in pursuing the project they had pitched on the questionnaire. I discovered that I had not created enough structure, nor had I been clear enough about my expectations.

In the senior class, one obstacle was time: students often used the Friday Genius Hour to complete class assignments that they had fallen behind on. This class was a section of the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC), whose challenging curriculum was developed by Cal State University professors in collaboration with high school teachers. I was teaching ERWC for the first time, and the students and I struggled all semester to find a balance between the demands of the course and the students’ developmental needs. These kids were high­-performing and mature, about to be adults ­ and yet not quite adults.

The students also indicated in an end­ of ­the ­year questionnaire that they would have liked to have more structure for the assignment. I realized that even these seniors would benefit from scaffolding and a gradual release of responsibility with a research project like this.

The students in the 9th-­grade course, meanwhile, needed more instruction on how to conduct research. Many lacked the background in research and academic writing to be able to pursue a research project without slipping into time­-wasting. With these younger students, I needed to teach the research process before giving them the added responsibility of researching with greater independence.

I will continue to explore interest­-based research in 2014­-15, with my learning from 2013-­14 as a starting point. My great learning from the past school year, if I can sum it up in a sentence, is that I need to teach kids how to use tools and how to select the best tools for a particular situation.

In my next post, I’ll write about how CLMOOC 2014 helped me see that those tools can be, but need not always be, digital.

Part 3

A version of this post appeared earlier today at my blog.

Just as my CLMOOC 2013 adventure began with an invitation in the spring, my CLMOOC 2014 experiences began in the spring with an invitation from Christina Cantrill and Kevin Hodgson to be a member of 2014 CLMOOC support team.

The team’s role was to support, coach, and encourage CLMOOC participants as they created and connected during the Make Cycles.  Being a part of this team was a fascinating and fruitful experience, which I will expand on in a later blog post.

In this post, I’d like to discuss one of my major insights from CLMOOC 2014:  Connected Learning does not have to be digital.  I discovered this mainly through conversations, on blogs and on Twitter, with CLMOOCers, in particular Maha Bali, Karen Fasimpaur, & Terry Elliot.

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 4.59.09 PM

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 4.59.49 PM

Screenshots from CLMOOC Twitter Chat, July 31, 2014:

Digital technology is a powerful leveraging force, of course, and one we ought not to ignore.  Nevertheless, teachers can facilitate Connected Learning without computers or tablets.

Connected Learning can happen with a pen, a notebook and a class set of novels.

I’m writing specifically here of the inquiry I’ve begun in Fall 2014 into the ideas presented in Sheridan Blau’s commentary workshop.

I’ve linked below to several posts that discuss the Blau workshop, as well as to a video from the New York City Writing Project that documents a version of the workshop presented in 2011.  For the purposes of my blog, I’ll describe my experience with the workshop and how the workshop inspired me to undertake an inquiry in my own classroom.

Blau used the poem “Nineteen,” by George Bogin, as the text for the workshop.  He told us that we would read the poem and write a commentary, then asked us if we had any questions about this task.  We asked various questions, and most of the answers were “We’ll see.”  So we read the poem, and then Blau asked if we had any questions about specific words.  If we asked a question about a phrase, he clarified each word, but didn’t speculate on how the words worked together – this, he said, was for us to consider and examine in our commentaries.

So we wrote our commentaries, and when we had finished, we got into groups of 3 to share – and to take notes on what we noticed about our commentaries.  After we’d shared in groups, we shared out as a whole group.

The idea behind the commentary is that, rather than prescribe a form, the teacher engages students in an authentic discussion of the poem through their writing.  Students learn from each other as well as from the teacher, who becomes a co-learner in the discourse.

Blau told us that he uses an online bulletin board (Blackboard or Moodle, I don’t remember which) and asks his students to post one commentary, and one response to a classmate, each week.

In 2013, Blau presented this workshop at UCLA, with both the UCLA Writing Project and my site, the LA Writing Project, in attendance.  Perhaps it was the due to the fact that the room in Moore Hall was not big enough to accommodate both projects comfortably, or perhaps it was a result of the grumpiness that almost inevitably accompanies a cross-town commute in the L.A. metro area, but I did not enjoy the presentation.  I was quite confident, in fact, that the ideas Blau presented were impractical, ivory-towered, and ultimately not worth contemplating.

This year, Blau presented to our Summer Institute group at Cal State LA.  12 months later – perhaps because I was on my home turf, with 15 minutes in the car instead of an hour – I saw the commentary workshop in a completely new light.  Now, instead of seeing an impractical approach, I saw profound possibilities.

Blau’s method put students at the center of the discourse; his approach made the radical assumption that young people had something interesting to say about literature.  I was reminded of Bob Land’s definition of academic writing:  reading something that someone wrote and saying something smart about it.  Here was a framework that used the inquiry and socially-situated learning to engage students in “saying something smart” about books.

Of course, I’d need to modify the instruction:  ninth graders are not undergraduates, after all.  But my ninth graders could do this, I thought; and I could figure out, and share, the modifications that might be beneficial in teaching the commentary workshop for high school students.

I decided to try it out with The House on Mango Street, the first text we read in the freshman English course at my school.  The vignettes would be the perfect length; we could read the book in 5-10 page chunks, and kids could respond to one or more vignette from each chunk.

So far, it’s working.  Students are excited about the reading, and I’ve seen encouraging signs of a nascent learning community among my 9th graders:  a willingness to share ideas, to listen to others, and to be patient and support each other when we can’t quite find the words we want to express our thoughts.

In my next post, I’ll write more about our experiences with Mango Street and commentary, and discuss what I’ve learned this term about both Connected Learning and writing the Blau commentary with students.

Sheridan Blau’s commentary workshop

Blau presented a version of the commentary workshop to the New York City Writing Project in 2011.

Sheri RysdamEmily Cruz, and Brian Baron have written about Blau’s commentary workshop.

Part 4 (An Interlude)

This post appeared earlier today at my blog.

I intended to blog about writing commentaries with my students in this post, but my thoughts went in a different direction this week.

In Chapter 4 of In the Middle, Nancie Atwell recounts a visit to her classroom from the legendary writer and teacher Don Graves.

At the end of the day Graves came and stood in my doorway with his coat on, smiling. “What are you smiling about?” I asked.

“I’m smiling at you,” he said. “You know what makes you such a good writing teacher?”

Oh God, I thought. Here it comes: validation from one of the world’s most famous writing teachers. In a split second I flipped through the best possibilities. Was he going to remark on the piercing intelligence of my conferences? My commitment to the kids? My sensitivity to written language?

“What?” I asked.

He answered, “You’re so damned organized.”

It’s a good thing, I suppose, that Don Graves never visited my classroom.

Organization has been my Achilles’ heel throughout my career.  When I was a beginning teacher, working in middle schools, it was noticeable in the form of a chronically chaotic teacher’s desk, which attracted solicitous fretting from colleagues and, once, a reprimand from an administrator.  My rollbook was a mess, too, and I was known to lose a student’s paper or two.

When I made the move to high school, I got my paper-based problems under control.  The physical rollbook is no longer of the same importance, of course, with the advent of digital attendance-keeping, but mine is orderly; a substitute can make sense of it and use it while I’m out.  My desk has been tamed through a rigorously-implemented routine of cleaning-up-and-putting-away, once a day and sometimes even twice; just as my face will inevitably require shaving after a day, I’ve accepted that my style of working will mean that my desk will also require regular grooming.  Digital technology, and some big metal filing shelves that I inherited, have made keeping track of student work much easier; I don’t lose papers now.

Still, while I am organized – at least organized enough – on the surface, I am afraid that, to paraphrase Robert Pollard, the classroom of my mind is a cluttered mess.  I have many ideas that I want to put into practice, both professionally and personally, but I struggle to do so in any meaningful way because my thoughts are so disorganized.

One reason for this is lies with my frequent relapses into Trying To Do Too Much Disorder, where I load myself up with so many virtuous activities that I fail to be really effective at any of them.  But I think there’s more to my struggles with a disordered mind than my tendency to bite off more than I can (professionally) chew.

This leads me to a piece that I’ve had on my mind since I read it earlier this term:  “Toward Developing A Definition of Teacher Research” by Marian M. Mohr, a chapter from Teacher Research for Better Schools.

I’ve decided that my next step as a connected educator is to move from using inquiry merely as a stance and a mindset toward performing what Mohr calls “teacher research.”  In particular, I’m interested in two elements of Mohr’s definition of teacher research:  teacher research, she writes, is systematic and public.

Teacher researchers…document the research process, identify assumptions, collect and analyze both qualitative and quantitative data, and articulate theories, findings, and implications.  Teacher researchers collect a variety of kinds of data to triangulate findings, engage in constant comparison of data they have collected, and check their interpretations with colleagues, students, or parents involved in the study. They respond to challenges to their thinking that other teacher researchers present to them during discussions or in response to drafts of research reports. They formulate theories in relation to their analysis.  In these ways, teacher researchers systematically seek to establish an accurate and full picture of a teaching and learning context that will lead to deeper understanding of that context.

…teacher research is a public endeavor. When teachers conduct research, they examine their assumptions, withhold judgments, and look at issues from alternative perspectives in an effort to make apparent to themselves that which has been unseen or silent. They intentionally shift from a private perspective to a more open, public perspective in order to encourage challenges to their understanding. … 

Efforts to make their research public involve sharing research processes, findings, and implications with colleagues in their schools and with those in communities beyond their schools through informal exchanges, the publication of research stories and research reports…they make their research public in order to add to the body of knowledge about teaching and learning.

I believe that my CLMOOC-inspired inquiries over the past two-and-a-half terms have been positive steps forward for my teaching practice.  This term, for example, my inquiry into teaching the Sheridan Blau commentary with ninth-graders has led my students to ask questions and to tolerate ambiguity as we read.  I’ve noticed that our classroom feels and sounds more like a community of learners than in years past, with almost none of the put-downs of classmates so common among ninth-graders.

Perhaps this is connected to the inductive nature of the commentary.  If kids can see that questioning and lingering over questions is a sign of intelligence, not a sign of incompetence; if learning is not a zero-sum game but a collaborative inquiry where students can respond to each other and build off each other’s efforts; if the teacher has consciously and explicitly positioned himself as a co-learner rather than an authority (and I’ve tried really, really hard to point out possible questions and invite students to write about those questions rather than give my interpretations), then it may be that students are more likely to be kind to each other than to try to tear each other down.

But this is all conjecture, and while I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater – good things are happening with this inquiry – I realize that my approach to inquiry is limited.  How can I share my findings without a plan to make my research public?  How can I convince other teachers to take this approach when my lack of a systematic approach means I can’t say for certain if the approach is what is producing my positive results?  I want to take a more rigorous approach to inquiry starting with the spring semester.

Part 5

A version of this post appeared yesterday at my blog.

My students have been writing commentaries about The House on Mango Street for about a month.

I modified Sheridan Blau’s format to account for the fact that I’m working with 9th-graders instead of college students. At the beginning of the year, my students often respond to challenging tasks by remaining quiet and waiting for help.  With this in mind, rather than relying on the kids to ask questions about the commentary, I prepped my own questions & answers beforehand and included those in my initial talk. I was also very lenient about the length of the commentary; although I told the students that I was looking for responses of half a page to a page and a half, I accepted 2-sentence responses at the beginning.  Instead of requiring students to post their commentaries online, we wrote our commentaries on paper, shared with partners, and turned them in at the end of the period. I gave credit for completing a commentary. I made copies and then shared certain commentaries on the docucam at the start of the next period to illustrate certain possibilities and moves.

We’re just now getting to the point where students are familiar enough with the online forum (we have been using Collaborize Classroom) – to begin regular online posting.  It was in using the online component that I made my mistakes, I think. For example, rather than getting kids to post their commentaries, I took too long introducing the kids to the forum with starter topics. I had to close one of these starter topics because the kids turned it into a platform for socializing instead of a forum for academic conversation. (I’m not opposed to socializing, but that wasn’t the purpose of the forum.)  Worse, I spent this time setting up Collaborize Classroom only to discover that School Loop, our school-wide software for grading and communicating with students, has an online bulletin board feature that would have taken considerably less time to implement.

These questions – Which online forum is best? How should teachers introduce ninth graders to the norms of writing on an online forum for academic purposes? – are worthy, and I will return to them.  For a moment, though, I’d like to comment on the Connected Learning aspects of my inquiry that are independent of using computers.

In my last post, I wrote about my struggle with organization and how this limits the power of my inquiry.  I realized as I was writing these last two posts that I need to get permission from my students before I share their writing on my blog, which limits my ability to discuss our work.

(A cursory Google search on the ethics of using student work in a teacher blog brought to my mind some questions that deserve their own post.  Part 6 or Part 7, perhaps?)

I can discuss, however, some patterns that I’ve seen in the work that we’ve done together.

    • Students have begun to move beyond re-telling toward analysis and critique. This is a development worth celebrating; ninth-graders often struggle with the jump from summary to more sophisticated responses that involve inference, argument, and evaluation.
    • Most students are not yet writing responses that go beyond a sentence or two of facile agreement. This needs to be our next area of focus.
    • I need to put more student work on the board. I also need to facilitate more frequent sharing of commentaries, with a greater variety of different partners.

I think that the commentary approach depends most on the socially-situated nature of the learning: the key point that Blau sought to make in his presentation is that academic discourse is essentially a conversation.  However, there are also elements of student interest, to be sure; though students are not choosing the text, they are able to make choices about how to connect their interests and experiences to the text.

My next steps involve organizing our learning community to maximize students’ ability to learn from their peers and engage in a conversation.  This will involve having students post commentaries online, but will not be limited to digital communication; tomorrow, I plan to have students do a Read Around with their commentaries to increase the number of classmates whose work they have read.

(For further discussion of the Read Around, which I learned from Bob Land, see Carol Booth Olson’s compilation Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing As A Process, p. 148 – 154.)

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