Real-World Experiences: Next-Level Student Response with Padlet

We’ve all been in a class of some kind (professional development, undergrad, graduate) where the instructor hands out sticky notes and asks you to write down a quick response as a check for understanding. In my experience, I’ve had to do a variety of things with this sticky note, including but not limited to: post it on the board, put it on my forehead, post it on a peers forehead, crumple it up and throw it to a random person across the room, etc. The conceits of this tried-and-trusted teaching strategy are no-brainers/important buzzwords: check for understanding, making connections or formative assessments. You get the idea. Teaching 101: student responses frame instruction, in the short-term or the long-term.

We English teachers especially love these kinds of strategies. An essential component of our curriculum (although, unfortunately one that is the first to get the chopping block when we get swamped) is the incorporating the reflective practice. As I tell my students, reflecting is a natural, human being thing that we all need to know how to do in order to be successful. In order to be a real person, you have to know how to take in information, consider how you feel about it and then tell someone about it. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

But what if we took this to the next level? Are there ways to extend these reflective moments within our practice? Can we make them even more of a natural part of our teaching using a digital learning tool?

I’ve had a lot of success with a tool called Padlet this year. I first heard about it at a conference a few years ago, but never got around to trying it. To be honest, I first associated it with a more elementary level teaching tool (don’t ask why, I can’t remember), but over the past year as I’ve played around with it, I’ve quickly figured out that this tool could be an essential part of my arsenal of digital learning tools, especially in an ELA classroom.

Essentially, Padlet gives teachers and students an opportunity to quickly share work. Think of it as a digital bulletin board that can put sticky notes on, except these sticky notes are even cooler: you can embed images, videos, hyperlinks, etc. Anything you can attach in an email you can attach to a post on padlet. Here’s a screenshot:

padlet screenshot 1

In this example, my students used Padlet to share how they thought Rebecca Skloot, the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, used primary resource devices to enhance the storytelling.

In my classroom, Padlet has become an essential part of the digital learning landscape. In a flash, students can access my Padlet domain (they have it bookmarked) and can easily add their thoughts to Padlets large and small. I teach my classes in reading groups (students are grouped in fours or fives at all times – inspired by @msbethhughes), so Padlet allows for me to quickly formatively assess my students and the work they are doing in their groups. Plus, it easily allows for me to see where the whole class is at.

Students will often discuss something in their small groups and then add their observations/writing to the Padlet so the whole class can see. I’ve used Padlet in my classes for art critiques, thesis statement sharing, research collaboration and creative writing.

You might be thinking: “this all sounds great, but haven’t you heard of a Google Doc?” Yes, the products created in Padlet could be created in a Google Doc, but in Padlet, the interface and ease of use gives the students a more streamlined and accessible experience.

Padlet is free to use, but if you pay $45 a year, you can upgrade to Padlet Backpack. Backpack gives you added functunality and security, including:

  • User management: you can easily create usernames and passwords (don’t worry, you can do this in batches. You don’t have to give up your Saturday) so the experience is more secure and organized for your students.
  • Privacy: your Padlets are automatically private, and only live within your domain.
  • Customization: Backpack allows for you to customize your Padlets with your own logo (for the brand-concious teacher) and even your own custom domain. Mine is mrgosselin.padlet.org, which is very easy for my students to remember.
  • Bigger file uploads (big movies, images, etc.)
  • Analytics: you can check to see if and when students accessed the Padlets you create, to appease the the “big brother” in you.

I don’t work for Padlet. Really. If you haven’t checked it out, I say go for it. The more tools we can leverage for student response, the better. Our students are better for it and we are stronger teachers because of it. If we aren’t finding ways to be responsive in our teaching, we are doing our craft, and more importantly our students, a disservice.

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Why any of this works.

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One of the elements that has made our collaborative research project so interesting this year has been the diversity of our separate class schedules. While Beth taught all honors classes this year, I taught one honors class and two inclusion English classes, one of which being co-taught, meaning that I co-teach the class with a full-time Moderate Special Needs teacher. The co-taught model is especially effective in English Language Arts, and even more so because of the “project-based” mindset of my teaching practice for that particular course: students own their learning and work independently and collaboratively on a daily basis and work to achieve their individual goals. More on that later.

So how does that apply to the love of reading? Good question. You might say that the majority of my English classes this year have a bit of a “tough crowd.” We’re talking about a few students who, while the principal is sitting in a desk next to them observing me, decided it would be at this very moment the best time to start making animal noises in response to our group reading of a scene from A Raisin in the Sun. I’m not kidding.

This morning, I’m going to talk about the foundation of this whole project. Why does it work for Beth and me? Because we believe in the power of meaningful, effective and authentic relationships with our students. Beth isn’t giving herself enough credit… why does she have fifty plus requests for letters of recommendation? Because she is a teacher who genuinely cares about the students in front of her. Whenever a student walks into her room, they feel like her favorite student. And that’s a good thing.

I’ve learned that the most impactful form of discipline isn’t a reactionary approach, but a proactive one. A mentor teacher of mine once told me something that I think about every day:

“Always remember that there are twenty five more important people in the room than you.”

In my first five years of teaching, I haven’t thrown a student out of my room yet. Don’t misinterpret: I’ve come close. I’ve been lucky enough to figure something out pretty early on in my career about the way I want to teach. I certainly don’t think I have found the way to promote a culture of respect and authenticity in my classes, but the very least, I’ve figured something out that works for me, something that’s at the root of who I am as a teacher and what I think the profession of teaching should be all about.

I work every day to build and maintain positive, meaningful relationships with my students. It’s a long, hard process that often takes a while. I’ve noticed that when mutual respect is achieved between me and a class of high school students, great things can happen. Powerful conversations take place. The best part? The need for “discipline” disappears. You just don’t need it. There’s no room for it. My classes are respectful of me and interested in what I have to say simply because I reciprocate.

When I was in high school, I respected the teachers who respected me back. I took interest in those teachers who took interest in me. When we reminisce on the “glory days” of high school, I’m sure we all can think of a teacher or two who was more interested in hearing their own voice than relating to teenagers. It’s funny, because we often forget that students (really at any age) are much keener than we presume – they know who which of theirs teachers are are interested in establishing relationships, and those who aren’t.

As teachers, we show up at work every day for one reason: our students. We are invested in them: their well-being, comfort and learning rest and rely on the learning community that we establish in our classroom every day. It’s our responsibility to give those students a safe place where they feel valued, accepted and cared for.

Students need fewer people in their lives telling them “this is how it’s supposed to be” and more trusted adults saying “this is who you are right now, and thats okay.” I try to meet my students where they are when they walk in the door, but not forgetting about where they could be going.

At some point during any given school day, I’ll hear or read about an initiative that doesn’t necessarily make me uncomfortable, but perks up my ears. Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that new ideas or policy in education are important and promote and foster change in the “business” of what we do. Common Core is a good thing. New policies and procedures in educator supervision and evaluation are good things. It is important for the culture of education to continue to evolve, shift and change based on the world in which our students live. This is a fact. Things are changing, so teachers must too.

But, with that being said, one thing that shouldn’t change is our commitment to the social and emotional well-being of our students. This is at the center of what I do.

High school, like many of us can remember, is a weird time for a lot of reasons. Spoiler alert: most teenagers are more worried about who they are going to sit next to at lunch rather than their English homework. Instead of condemning this mindset, only continuing to fulfill the role of being the mean adult looking over your shoulder, it’s important for trusted adults (in and out of school) to recognize that adolescence is a critical point in a young person’s life. Neurons are firing on overtime trying to make sense of the stresses of seeking a place to fit in. Of course social pressures and mores take precedent. It’s natural.

As teachers, we have to make a choice: We can either ignore this behavior, putting it off as just a “phase” and playing down the social-emotional needs of our students, or, we can recognize that this stress has a direct impact on student learning, and develop and implement effective strategies that teach our students how to cope with this very normal time. The strategy I’ve chosen to focus on is creating and maintaining positive and meaningful relationships with my students, and I leverage these relationships to promote a culture of understanding and respect in my classes.

It works for me, and the results are awesome.

Emulation 201: Crafting a Narrative

Thanks to Beth’s (cough, Penny’s) fantastic teaching strategy known as emulation, I’ve officially become hooked on the idea of guiding my students to actively apply best practices in writing so that their own writing can be enhanced.

My personal choice book right now is the beautiful written Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. The dynamic and lyrical narrator, Cal, shares with us her unique life story in a way that I’ve never seen before. Below is a quotation:

“And so now, having been born, I’m going to rewind the film, so that my pink blanket flies off, my crib scoots across the floor as my umbilical cord reattaches, and I cry out as I’m sucked back between my mother’s legs. She gets really fat again. Then back some more as a spoon stops swinging and a thermometer goes back into its velvet case. Sputnik chases its rocket trail back to the launching pad and polio stalks the land. There’s a quick shot of my father as a twenty-year-old clarinetist, playing an Artie Shaw number into the phone, and then he’s in church, age eight, being scandalized by the price of candles; and next my grandfather is untaping his first U.S. dollar bill over a cash register in 1931. Then we’re out of America completely; we’re in the middle of the ocean, the sound track sounding funny in reverse. A steamship appears, and up on a deck a lifeboat is curiously rocking; but then the boat docks, stern first, and we’re up on dry land again, where the film unspools, back at the beginning…”

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

A little background info: right now, students are writing a narrative piece about their childhood. We’ve emulated Lee’s writing in To Kill a Mockingbird a few times, and it has helped the students uncover the “lyrical” (second time I’ve used that word!) nature of a well-constructed personal memoir/narrative piece. They are in the drafting phase of the writing assignment now.

Back to Middlesex.

I took this passage and shared it with my students, and asked for them first to create a timeline on the board. It looked like this:

Timeline

Then, we had a discussion about whether or not the passage would have been more effective if Eugenides had written it in chronological order. (At this point, one could engage the students in a sidebar on authorial intention/”what does ‘effective’ really mean?” type conversation here, but we only had forty-five minutes left. Too bad, so sad.)

At this point in the lesson, students started to figure out what Eugenides is doing in the passage and why it is so effective: the use of the film spool as a metaphor for the narrator’s recalling of her complex past/family history, resulting in a reverse timeline summary of the events of the first thirty-five pages of the text.

I challenged the students to write out a few events (three to five) from their own personal narrative in bullet form, and then we emulated! As expected, most students borrowed the film spool references to get started, but some creatively shifted the metaphor to an audio tape and even a Facebook feed (“scrolling down from the top, you see the first post…”)

It was a fun way to start a Monday morning!

Donalyn Miller on Cultivating Wild Readers

Donalyn Miller has been at the forefront of the “book whisperer” movement in American schools. To learn more about her philosophy and her ideas about how we as teachers can cultivate wild readers, check out this article featured on Scholastic.com.

Some key points:

Dedicate time to reading: If you don’t help your students to find the time to read, how can you help them value reading? We’ve made the commitment to allowing our students 10 minutes a day of reading in our classes, and the results have been awesome. Imagine high schoolers who want to come to class early so they can read.

Successfully self-select, and share books with others: It’s all about student voice and choice with the Common Core, so why not translate that to our journey to enhance the love of reading? Give students an opportunity to choose what to read. Create book lists. Encourage conversation about literature. The possibilities are endless.

Validate and expand: Praise those wild readers in your classes, don’t limit them. Teach them the appropriate times to read and when not to, but at the same time, give them opportunities to expand their repertoire as readers. Encourage new authors, titles and genres that will “push the envelope”, as Miller says.

Have any of these strategies worked for you in your teaching? Let us know!

For the Love of Reading, on the road!

We are excited to be presenting at “Leading Future Learning“, a conference sponsored by MassCUE and edtechteacher, at the College of the Holy Cross on Friday, March 6. You can register for the conference here.

At our 9:30 a.m. session, we will explore how technology has played a major role in the development of our year-long project to explore our students’ relationship with reading.

Let us know if you will be there!