Using Technology to Increase Accountability and Efficiency

21 Jul

Whether or not you’re using the ILP or some of its individual strategies, approaching learning through inquiry can be time consuming. This is especially true in the beginning stages as students learn how to go through the process and overcome challenges and frustrations. But in order for students to progress in their inquiry, we need to provide timely  feedback on activities and reflections which can be overwhelming, particularly when a teacher has 100 students all turning in about an activity a day. That’s not to say that the responsibility should rest solely on the teacher’s shoulders; there are strategies for peer assessment and even group or self-assessment that should be used to prevent the teacher from being overloaded and unable to provide timely feedback. However, when kids need their teacher’s expertise, there are several technology tools that can make this part of the process much more manageable and efficient while also providing easy ways to document student progress.

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How Technology Supports Inquiry

8 Jul

Former Hunterdon Central Information Systems Supervisor, and current BrightBytes CEO and Co-Founder, Rob Mancabelli once said that the only piece of technology that is 100% reliable is a chalkboard. It doesn’t have a blue screen of death, connectivity issues, or other glitches. But, Rob reminded us, it also doesn’t permit students to share their learning with an audience, connect with resources, and communicate with each other outside of their classroom. Using technology requires a lot of flexibility and daring on the parts of both teachers and students. Although the first class to ever use the ILP did so via handwritten plans, a few other early iterations of our ILP work occurred in classes that were a part of a 1:1 computing pilot, and initiative that really opened the doors for us as educators. Teachers involved in the initial pilot received training in the summer prior to students receiving netbooks.  During the training sessions, the small cohort of teachers met to discuss ways to rethink our teaching practices to make the most of the technology that was now available. As Heather pointed out in a blog post written after these sessions, simply providing a means for students to collaborate or share their learning doesn’t mean that it’s easily done:

During our 1:1 sessions, [the facilitators] focused on two significant things: changing the way we teach and, more importantly, giving us the freedom from fear to make these changes. They realized that the 1:1 program wasn’t about the netbooks and that it couldn’t start with lesson reform. It had to start with psychology. It took quite a long time, a visit from our superintendent, and a lot of support, but they did indeed allow our small group to break through the walls that so many of us construct around ourselves.

Students and teachers alike need coaching, reassurance, freedom, and confidence in order to get past the vulnerability that a connected classroom experiences. It requires willingness to share work beyond the immediate learning community, and that can open the possibility or the perceived possibility for judgment–a scary notion for many students and teachers. At the same time, we know that standing in front of the classroom and dispensing information was not going to work anymore either. With information at their fingertips, it seemed a waste of our precious time with students to spend it giving them content that they could easily look up. And so, we focused a lot of our instruction reform on inquiry as a means to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities the technology offered. Web 2.0 tools and the netbooks were supplementary to turning over responsibility to students; we saw technology as means through which our students could achieve their best, often times with more efficiency and collaboration.

Although for financial reasons we have since abandoned the 1:1 model at Hunterdon Central, we have moved to a Bring-Your-Own-Device policy in which students can use their personal computing devices in classes. We are fortunate to have about 50% of our students participating, and we have several laptop carts and computer labs to support those who are not participating. However, we want to be clear that this is not required for the ILP. Remember, Meg’s first use of the ILP was done without computers. And since then, Meg and I have taught classes with only an occasional trip to the library for students to use the desktops to find resources. Despite technology’s growing pervasiveness, it remains a luxury for many schools and unreliable equipment in others. All of the strategies and pedagogy associated with the ILP can be done without technology, but, if available, web-based tools, computers, and reliable internet connections can enhance the experience by allowing for collaboration, communication, accountability, creativity, and accessibility beyond the classroom setting. In upcoming posts, we will highlight a few tools that we have used to heighten students’ learning experiences with the ILP.

Reflecting to Discover

5 Jul

What we love about this type of student-driven learning is that often, students are making connections to their personal lives and creating meaning in a way that we would not be able to engineer. When we first created and began implementing the ILP, I’m not sure we foresaw how students would be moving beyond content to uncover bigger truths about life and themselves, but since then we’ve realized that creating an open atmosphere for learning allows students the space for these sort of discoveries.

For many students, it isn’t until they to think about the ideas revealed in their activities that they discovered a greater takeaway. By having multiple points of reflection, one student, Miles was able to synthesize multiple sources, develop respect for the sometimes arduous task of narrative writing, and eventually see how his learning during that particular unit taught him so much more than World War I or about Paul Baumer and his buddies in All Quiet on the Western Front. In his final reflection for the unit, Miles wrote that his work helped him to see the need for education reform.

His final reflection, while not especially specific to his progress in answering his essential question or his progress with specific skills, does reveal his understanding of the creative process as well as the dispositions that helped him get to an obviously optimistic and satisfied place by the end of his inquiry. His takeaway of self-guided, “vertical growth” led him to a “So What?” proposal to change the way students are educated at his school, advocating for more of what he calls “free creation.” This call to action about education is not something we would have predicted from a unit about WWI and narrative writing; however, because the content combined with Miles’ unique view of the world, he was able to create something truly individual.

Embrace Differences as Opportunities

9 Jun

In many traditional classes, students explore topics that have commonly accepted answers – causes and effects of the Civil War or symbols in To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. Inquiry can fall into a similar pattern if students ask questions they already have an answer to. They use their time to find sources that simply support their ideas, and they may ignore sources that contradict their thinking. Rather than discover what a wide range of people think about a certain topic, they limit their learning by finding something they already know (or think they know). With the ILP, we ultimately want students to find information from a variety of perspectives and synthesize them in the reflections. That means students need to see differences as unique opportunities to expand their thinking because they’re learning something new. In many ways, this goes against human nature. It’s a tough job, but Smith, Appleman, and Wilhelm (2014) argue, “It’s on us as teachers to create classroom environments that honor diversity, that require students to work together in various configurations, that confront them with multiple perspectives on various issues, and that help students interrogate themselves and their own positions to develop new angles of vision” (14). Hearing differing opinions is one thing, but “interrogating” ourselves is extremely difficult. So, how can we teach students to use differences to form “new angles of vision”? Let’s start at the beginning of a course.

Although it’s the end of the school year, and we’re thinking more about final projects than we are about the start of a course, it is a great time to consider how we can better set our students up for success, and for that, we have to go back to the start. Over the first few days of every course, teachers often orchestrate ice breaker activities to help students get to know each other–a great exercise in learning a little something about people who will eventually become a community of learners. In order to make the most of these activities, however, some teachers who use the ILP require students to connect with people who have different interests or people who surprised them in some way. I use an icebreaker adapted from an exercise that Giselle Martin-Kniep uses with adult learners. Students write the following on individual post-it notes:

  • Three experiences they have had – one on each post-it
  • Three passions they have – one on each post-it
  • Three areas of expertise – one on each post-it

All in all, students create nine post-it notes. On the sticky sides, participants write their names and then they hang them in designated areas throughout the room. Everyone else is then asked to survey the post-it notes and find one at each station (experiences, passions, expertise) that seem interesting to them but not the same as something they wrote down. Below are some samples from a junior-level English class. 

They can then look on the back of the post-it to see who wrote it and find that person. Next, they need to introduce themselves and ask two questions about the person’s response. After everyone has met three people, they return to their seats and share what they learned about their peers. At the end of the exercise, students write a brief reflection: If they spoke with  someone they already knew, they are asked to consider how this new information shifts the way they see that person. If they spoke with someone they didn’t know well, they are asked to consider what impression this makes on them. By going through this exercise, students begin to think about how perception can change based on information they gather and even how perceptions can stick if someone is unwilling to consider new information.

“Have you read this book?”

31 May

A couple weeks ago, I sat down with one of my seniors to conference with her about her reading activities. I started by asking, “What are you learning?” She dove right in, talking about how the author had introduced the main character and explaining what she thought the theme might be. The ideas spilled out quickly, until she started to question why he included certain details. She grew frustrated, saying, “Well, have you read this book?” I knew she wanted the answer to be “yes,” so that I could come to her rescue and guide her to some understanding about the author’s choices. But I hadn’t the read the book, so I couldn’t ask her the exact guiding question to get her there. I had to think broader, asking lots of “Why?” and “How do you know that?” questions. Eventually, our discussion led her to some resolution and she felt satisfied and prepared enough to move on to her next activity.

In reflecting on this experience, I’m so excited that my student even got to ask that question. When I first started the ILP and my students were venturing into independent reading, they had the expectation that I had somehow read every book; they were absolutely gobsmacked that I couldn’t tell them the answer. But now the culture at Hunterdon Central is shifting to the student as the expert on the text, not the teacher. This speaks to the comfort that my colleagues and our students are starting to feel about letting go of the traditional model that the teacher is all-knowing about the text. This shift started with student choice in terms of reading but is now a part of learning in general. My students are finding information about ideas I know nothing about— how cool is it that I get to learn as much as they do?

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Misconceptions About the ILP

25 May

Not long ago, my good friend, Sarah, came to visit me at school. She’s an English teacher, too, and she was curious about this crazy Inquiry Learning Plan thing she’s been hearing about for 5 years. She sat in on my conferences with students, she observed their work habits, and she asked them lots of questions about their processes. The classes were finishing up a unit, and so much of their work was independently driven. According to every teacher evaluation model out there, this setup looks phenomenal – student led learning, self-assessment, choice, and ample peer and teacher feedback. But, it does take a lot of prep work to get to that independent stage, which is something Sarah recognized when she observed. This also debunks a common misconception about the ILP–that students are completely on their own or that there’s no structure to the approach.  

Yes, students do take on the responsibility of learning, but that doesn’t mean that teachers are hands-off. Rather, at the beginning of every unit, we are leading students through mini-lessons for question development, close-reads of standards, rubric creation, synthesis, writing techniques, and reading strategies. Students are also engaging with reading at the beginning of every single class period. The ILP becomes a routine–build skills, reflect, repeat. Toward the end of the unit though, at the time when Sarah visited, the class looked very different from the time when students were going through their first few rounds of activities. Here’s what Sarah saw:

  • students finishing reading activities–one was coloring, many were typing, some were reading, others were graphing.
  • students starting or revising essays.
  • students conferencing with each other using their own peer review questions that focus on standard-based rubric criteria.
  • students conferencing with me–they signed up for a time slot and led the conference by presenting what they had already accomplished and what they were stuck on and by asking specific questions about their work and its connection to the standards-based criteria for evaluation.


That sounds great, right? But, students were also:

  • playing around on their computers or chatting with their neighbors while I was busy with a conference.
  • feverishly trying to catch up after falling behind.
  • staring off into space.


This is where the second misconception–that the ILP solves all classroom problems–is clearly shattered. I’d love to say that the ILP magically allows every student to be engaged 100% of the time, but that’s just not accurate. Like with any class, there are still students whose lives outside of school limit their ability to complete work. There are still those who are unmotivated. And, there are those who are easily distracted in class workshop time.

But, the difference between this classroom approach and others is that the students share equal responsibility when motivation drags or when it comes to using time wisely. As part of our regular conferences with kids, we hold them accountable for their daily habits, and those habits are cumulatively assessed at the end of the every unit for a summative grade. With regular check-ins, students are very aware of their work ethic and the value of the workshop time that they are given in class. That doesn’t mean that goofing off is eliminated; students are just more aware of the repercussions of those unproductive days, and, for the most part, they cut back on them.

About midway through each unit, I ask students to reflect on their work using the criteria established in the ILP Rubric and to set personal goals for improvement in the second half of the unit. This gives them a chance to see what their grades might be if they were to continue in the same fashion and to recalibrate their behavior and work if they don’t feel that they are meeting their potential. For example, a student might be aligning activities to standards, but isn’t pushing himself to improve with each attempt at a skill. Or, a student might need reminders to stay focused on coursework. Those can both be marked as areas for improvement, becoming discussion points during teacher conferences. Then it is the student’s responsibility to demonstrate growth in those areas or admit that he is content with his current performance.

“Something Good:” Celebrating Small Successes

20 Jan

In Cathy’s last post, she encouraged educators to find something great each day. Her post coincided with my starting a class on teacher leadership through Walden University, and in our weekly discussion, my classmates and I reflected on roadblocks to being a leader in our schools and what we can do to overcome those issues. We all had the usual complaints: not enough time, disconnected administrators, unsupportive colleagues. But over and over again, the solutions came back to the individual and her response to the setback. Certainly easier said than done, but crucial nonetheless.

Dr. Roland Barth, founder of the Principals’ Center at Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote something that really stood out to me: “…the teacher leaders who succeed, in addition to being purposeful and persistent, seem to be able to settle for, and to even celebrate, small, partial success” (“The Teacher Leader: Words of Wisdom From Those Who Know Best”). This is really tough for me–both personally and professionally. I dream big! I chucked my entire curriculum to go totally student- and inquiry-driven. I co-wrote a book about my favorite tv show (anybody a LOST fan?). I’ve seen 49 of the 50 states (I’m coming for you Alaska!). This means I now have goals like publishing a book and getting a doctorate. So, when a proposal gets rejected or I do poorly on a paper, how can I possibly find the good? We certainly have those moments with students, and we would never dismiss any triumphs. I remember my first year teaching when a student really wanted to raise his failing grade, but ended up with a C. I told him how proud I was of how he was able to change his habits to improve his work. His tears let me know that he was still disappointed, but I hope that lesson settled in, that it’s the hard work we should celebrate.

This isn’t to say that we should celebrate every moment of improvement or hard work (even Carol Dweck is telling us to rethink that strategy). But I want my students to see that setting a goal and learning to overcome obstacles to get to it are even more valuable than writing the perfect poem. And, of course, I need to do this for myself. It’s okay to encounter setbacks–to have to continually revise a piece of writing or to be told the new class I wanted to teach won’t be running. Instead, I’ll focus on the “something good”– the ability to collaborate with two of my best friends or how nine years into teaching, I’m still learning!


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