5 Reasons and 5 Ways to Use a Classroom Blog during Formative Assessment


[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”This post was originally published in February, 2015. ” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]

Formative Assessment: What is it?

If you already know all about formative assessment, I recommend skipping to the next part of this blog post.

According to the CCSSO (The Council of Chief State School Officers),

Formative assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes (FAST SCASS & McManus, 2008).

The first thing to notice about this definition – and something that tends to get lost when training teachers on formative assessment – is that formative assessment is a process. It is a practice used by teachers and students while in the instructional period to inform one’s teaching and learning. The idea of formative assessment often devolves into speaking of types of formative assessment, which is natural when teachers discuss it together with summative, diagnostic, and benchmark assessment types. When we speak of the latter assessment types, we often give examples of these tests, which occur at regular intervals and result in a terminal classification of some sort, such as a grade or competency level. Formative assessment, however, is an ongoing process that often does not result in a grade or a mark. According to the PA DOE, “there is no such thing as a ‘formative test’” (Pennsylvania Department of Education, n.d.). Therefore, while teachers and students may make notes about a student’s or a class’ progress, those notes do not end up in a gradebook, a test database, or a transcript. With student performance management software, a teacher can keep a record of formative assessment, if he or she wishes, but only for analysis, not for grading. The records can be used for teacher-student conferences, for example, to show the student how much he or she has progressed since the beginning of the unit. In other words, those records become evidence of formative assessment.

Another important thing to remember about formative assessment is that it is a two-way form of communication. Teachers and students must participate in the process for it to be effective.

In my opinion, a third important aspect of formative assessment is that it must take place within an environment where students feel supported, cared for, and respected. When students feel this way, they are more likely to take risks, make mistakes with confidence, and strive toward mastery of a skill or concept. Formative assessment should be used to support progress toward a goal, not to expect perfection.
Physical education teachers, coaches, senseis, and music teachers use formative assessment all the time. Rarely do they expect someone to master a skill immediately. Rather, they want to see someone try, then to commit to practicing those skills they find challenging. Two key words here are see and practice. When teachers practice formative assessment, they are looking for evidence of learning. They then give feedback to the student, who returns to practicing with new ideas for mastering the concept or skill, often after sharing their concerns with the teacher. The teacher encourages the student to keep working at it, whatever “it” is. The teacher explains where the student is progressing and what he or she needs to do to keep progressing. If the teacher sees evidence of near mastery or mastery, then it is time to celebrate the student’s success and present him or her with more challenging material.

During formative assessment, teachers will often scaffold instruction to better support the students as they work on a unit of instruction. Teachers can choose which scaffolds will work best based on their observation of the students. One scaffold could be re-teaching the concept or skill in a different way, for example. Another scaffold might be using a graphic organizer to help students organize their thoughts. A third example would be to let a student use an audiobook to support a reading assignment. These choices are made after observing students, and are examples of differentiated instruction.

The West Virginia Department of Education provides a great list of formative assessment tools at this link. Teachers can adapt at least four of these activities for use with a classroom blog.

  • Observations: This formative assessment tool was described pretty thoroughly above, so I won’t describe it again here.
  • Questioning and Discussion: Teachers who use Q&A and Discussion effectively can gather a lot of information about their students’ learning. Asking questions that do not allow for “yes/no” answers or regurgitating facts learned are the best questions to ask. Using “wait time” effectively will generate more thoughtful answers. The teacher can then take notes about the Q&A or discussion and make adjustments to instruction as needed. This formative assessment tool can also be used to mitigate misconceptions before they take root.
  • Exit Slips: When I think of checking for understanding, I immediately think of exit slips, a technique I first encountered when training adults to use software. Back then, they called them “smiley sheets.” Basically, students answer questions in writing about the lesson and the teacher uses the responses to adjust instruction and address misconceptions. The only problem I have with this technique is that the teacher usually has to wait until the next class period to intervene, and that might be too long a wait.
  • Learning / Response Logs: I call them journals, but you may disagree. When students keep a journal of their learning, they improve their writing skills, but also provide the teacher with great clues about how they are doing with the material worked on in class. Teachers can respond to these logs, which gives students great feedback they can use to better understand something, overcome cognitive dissonance, and relearn something they misunderstood.
  • Constructive Quizzes: These quizzes (sometimes called “knowledge checks”) are opened and closed during the class period, and the results are immediately shared with the students. A discussion about the results can help students understand the material better and relearn what they misunderstood.

5 Reasons to Use a Blog during Formative Assessment

Why use a blog during formative assessment?

It becomes an archive of student understanding.
All entries made by your students: blog posts, comments, image suggestions, poll responses, video submissions, PDF uploads, and anything else you can think of are stored in the blog’s database. You can retrieve them at any time for reflection on instruction or conferences with the students, parents, or administrators.

It gives students a chance to practice sharing their ideas.
When students respond to blog entries, they are practicing informal communication and learning how to express themselves in ways that others will understand. Other forms of informal communication, such as text messaging, are great, but when young people get into the workforce, they will have to know how to communicate informally in standard English. It’s unlikely that the word “you” will be replaced by “u” any time soon, for example. Hopefully, no teacher would accept that in a blog entry or comments!

WordPress has a plugin that helps me proofread my writing. It’s called After the Deadline. Before I publish a post, AtD analyzes it and makes suggestions for improvement, including correcting misspelled words, eliminating passive voice, and replacing jargon with a more appropriate word. I clicked the AtD button on the editor toolbar while writing this paragraph, and you should see the “suggestions” they have for me to wade through in paragraphs above this one! This plugin is also available as a browser extension, and I would highly recommend that your IT folks install it so students can benefit from a proofreader. It doesn’t catch everything, of course, but if we can improve the spelling skills of just one eighth grader, I think it’s worth it.

You and your students will have a web presence.
There are probably hundreds of education blogs out there, written by scores of teachers, students, parents, concerned citizens, researchers, “thought leaders,” and others. Why add your class to that large population? Why not? At this time (February, 2015), there is another wave of controversy coming – this time pushed by the reauthorization of the ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Our legislators are arguing over the merits of Title I portability, testing, and accountability programs. Now would be a great time to have students speak to the subject, as their careers as students are going to be affected. Students demonstrate and practice their critical thinking, organizational, and writing skills when creating posts like these. The blog platform organizes this content to make it easy for you to review, just like an editor would review a newspaper article before it’s published. Once published, other stakeholders in education might see the posts. Who knows where that will lead? Most importantly, though, being able to publish to the world about important issues might give your students a sense of pride and purpose.

Man, I love the Internet.

You can flip your classroom.
You may have heard the term “The Flipped Classroom,” but you may not know its history. Two teachers from Woodland Park High School in Woodland Park, CO, named Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, created the first flipped classrooms. Click the link in the previous sentence to read the article they wrote about how they came up with this idea. Why they decided to flip their classrooms is important:

One of the problems we noticed right away about teaching in a relatively rural school is that many of our students missed a lot of school due to sports and activities. The nearby schools are not nearby. Students spent an inordinate amount of time on buses traveling to and from events. Thus, students missed our classes and struggled to stay caught up.

As the flipped classroom has been interpreted and reinterpreted, using class time for active learning has become the focus. Students study the information they would normally be “given” in class during prep time (aka, while doing homework). For example, they might be asked to watch a YouTube video of a lecture on frogs and an introduction to the dissection lab they will be doing in class. During class, the students are actively working on concepts, skills, or constructing knowledge. Again, for example, while in class they dissect the frog in front of them (or visit the nurse because they passed out). What would have taken two or three class periods using the traditional classroom model – a lecture on frogs, a lecture to prepare for the lab, and the lab itself – might only take one class period.

Class time is precious, and the flipped classroom idea helps teachers to make the most of it by eliminating the lecture and letting students get to work. It’s the “working meeting” of the K-12 world. When students are doing more than listening, teachers have many more opportunities for formative assessment, because they are able to see behavior related to learning, to listen to students and not talk at them, and to create plans with students to adjust (scaffold) instruction when students need more help.

It teaches your students about digital citizenship.
Digital citizenship is a popular topic today. How should we use technology responsibly? That’s a small question that leads to a multitude of other questions. Just as we can’t learn to tie our shoes without actually tying our shoes, we can’t learn about using technology responsibly without actually using it responsibly. We made mistakes when we were learning to tie our shoes; we’ll make mistakes when learning the tenants of digital citizenship. Better, in both cases, to make those mistakes within a supportive, caring environment than to make them when the consequences are much more dire. If your blog is set up properly, the outside world will never see the mistakes that your students make, but you will be able to use their work product to teach them about what responsible technology use looks like. When you see students making mistakes or misusing technology, and then take steps to correct them, you are trying to help the students learn the tenets of digital citizenship. Think of those tenets in terms of learning outcomes. Once you do, you might find it easy to see that you’re practicing formative assessment.

Here are some ways to keep your students safe when using the classroom blog.

  • Receive permission to have a classroom blog and to allow students to contribute to it.
  • Ensure that your blog only allows comments to show after the comments have been manually approved.
  • Add your students to your blog as contributors, so they will be able to write posts, but not publish them.
  • Make sure that your users’ display names only show the first initial of their last name, not their full name.
  • Do not allow users to use a picture of themselves in their profile; instead, they can use an abstract graphic that best reflects their personality.

5 Ways to Use a Blog during Formative Assessment

Before asking minors to post anything online, make sure that you have received permission from administrators and parents / guardians.

How can you use a classroom blog during Formative assessment? Here are five ways.

To Deliver a Bell-Ringer Assignment
At the beginning of class, any number of things could happen. Students need to ask the teacher questions, so they stroll up to the teacher’s desk. The teacher needs to take attendance, so she is trying to answer the question as she rubbernecks around the student to see who is in their seats already. Students see that the teacher is distracted, so they start talking to each other about the game last night, or that party they are going to this weekend. The noise level rises, and the minutes tick by until five minutes of a forty-five minute period has been wasted on what we call “housekeeping” issues.

Instead of that, try posting a bell-ringer assignment to the classroom blog and create a routine for your class that includes going to the classroom blog at the beginning of the period. The assignment should be relevant, meaning it is aligned to the learning objectives and standards of the unit you and your students are working on. It should not take just a few seconds to do, either, but no longer than five or ten minutes, I think. Some examples of bell-ringers include: writing prompts, a problem set based on the math concept the students are studying, an ungraded quiz built using a poll plugin, and a riddle about a scientific topic that the students need to solve. There are many sites on the Internet that can give you ideas for bell-ringers. Instead of asking students to write their answers on paper, have them use the comments section of the blog to submit their answers. In the case of a poll-quiz, students can usually submit their answers using the poll embedded in the post.

To follow are some examples of polls and quizzes you can create with polldaddy.com. WordPress sites work very well with Polldaddy, but other sites like surveymonkey.com can be used too.

Note: Examples have been removed.

To Deliver a Homework Assignment
Click this link [link removed… sorry!] to see an example of a homework assignment delivered using a classroom blog. In this example, I pretended that I was in a traditional classroom. Our lecture that day had been about the short story element called “conflict.” I gave them a recap of the lecture, then asked them to read the story “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry and respond to the post with the conflict(s) they discovered in the story and to explain their answer. None of the comments will be visible until I approve them, so I can control which comments end up on the blog and which do not. As I review the comments, I can assess the students’ learning, make changes to instruction if necessary, or celebrate their accomplishment with them during the next class.

To Deliver a Lecture at Home
Your blog can become home to lectures that you record and upload to Screencast.com, YouTube, Vimeo, SlideShare, Reveal.js, Office Mix, or any other site. You might use many products to create your lectures, so why not have one central place to store links to them? That makes it easier for you and for the students, in the long-term. Storing links to them along with other materials makes the most of blogging platforms such as WordPress, which are really content management systems that people overwhelmingly use just for blogs. WordPress has so many more capabilities, many of which I’m just starting to discover.

Here’s an example of a post [link removed… sorry!] that contains a YouTube video called “Training the Accidental Trainer Lecturette.” After creating the slides and recording the video, I uploaded the video to YouTube. Then, I created a post, embedded the video, and wrote a short description of the purpose of the video below it. If I’d wanted to check students’ understanding of the content, I could have added a poll or a quiz to the post for them to complete, or asked them to answer some questions using the comments section.

Since formative assessment is a process that requires communication between teachers and students, it’s good to mention that you can reply to comments, too. Usually, the person who made the original comment receives the reply through email. This is a great way to give your students feedback and encouragement.

As a side note: Posts can be tagged with keywords to make them easier to find, and organized according to category so they display on “Pages” within your site. So, you could have a page for “Homework,” “Lectures,” “Bell Ringers,” “Projects,” or whatever other category makes sense to you.

To Record Team Meeting Minutes
If your students are working on a team project, ask the note taker to record the team minutes in a blog post, and let them know you are monitoring the posts. As an administrator, you would be able to see these drafts when you want, so while they are working in a team and the note taker is recording the minutes, you will be able to follow along. The trick to this would be to preview the post, instead of viewing it in the editor. Refresh the post every few minutes or so. Be ready to jump in when you see an issue brewing within the team. This is a great way to assess students’ listening and collaborative skills, and help students become better teammates with constructive feedback.

I guarantee that the students will be excellent note takers by the end of their time with you, if they know you are watching. Well, all right, perhaps not. One can dream though, right?

To Create Learning/Response logs (Journals)
This last suggestion might have been the first one you thought of, actually. Students can use the classroom blog for journal entries if they are in your system as contributors. Once they submit their journal entry, it goes into a “Pending Review” status. Well, it does on WordPress, anyway. As the administrator, you are then able to read those posts and make comments on them using the comments box provided. This allows for collaboration between you and the student on all sorts of topics: writing skills, grammar, spelling, thought process, organizational skills, the content you are working on, and the list goes on. You can ask the student to edit their work according to your suggestions, and recommend ways they can improve their writing and organizational skills. As the students practice writing these journal entries and receive your guidance, they will become better writers and thinkers.

You do not have to publish these posts, although you might want to publish the stellar ones. That would be up to you and the student.

I’m sure there are many other ways to use a classroom blog during formative assessment. I welcome your comments below. Thanks for reading this article.


The references in this section are for those sources that I did not link to in the article.

FAST SCASS, & McManus, S. (2008). Attributes of effective formative assessment. Washington, DC: The Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from http://www.ccsso.org/Documents/2008/Attributes_of_Effective_2008.pdf
Pennsylvania Department of Education. (n.d.). Assessment Creator. Retrieved February 1, 2015, from http://www.pdesas.org/module/Assessment/questions/search/


Here Are The First Five Reasons Why I Love Sensei Steve’s Class

Before you start reading about the topic of this post, I want to mention that all the classes at [google-map-fb-popup id=”2″] are taught by well-trained, committed teachers who care about their students.  I wanted to focus on one class in particular, but that is no reflection on the other classes whatsoever.

Sensei Steve Turoscy, Jr. is a fighter.  I don’t mean that he is simply an excellent martial artist and an instinctive fighter.  I mean that Sensei Steve has overcome a number of challenges in the time I have known him, challenges that less-motivated human beings would have considered too difficult.   He has an internal locus of control that is inspirational.  He will not be held back by his circumstances; instead, he wants everyone to know that he is going to overcome them, and that if you find yourself in the same kind of situation, you will overcome them, too.



[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#000000″ text=”#000000″ width=”100%” height=”auto” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”You have to aspire to inspire before you expire.” cite=”Sensei Steve” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]

Reason One: Everyone Is Welcome

I started Sensei Steve’s class as a white belt, after Sensei Kristie told me about the class and said I should try it out.  Others told me it was a very difficult class and that I should wait, but Kristie convinced me that I would be fine.  Therefore, I showed up the following Saturday morning at 8:00 AM, hoping that I would not be turned away.  On the contrary, I was welcomed.  I was also told to do what I can, and encouraged to continue to improve instead of expect to be able to do everything the first class, or even for several classes after that.  If I remember correctly, I was the only one wearing a white shirt that day.  Everyone else was a black belt.  Although that was intimidating at first, by the end of class I felt better.  I have been attending that class as often as possible since then.   Since then, too, other white shirts have joined the class.  They feel just as welcome, too.

Reason Two: You Are Always Challenged

When I think back to that first time and about how little I could actually do, and compare it to now when I can do so much more, I think it’s that Sensei Steve and the other students do not accept that a challenge is insurmountable.  What they do believe is that practice is the only way overcome internal and external obstacles to your progress.




[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#222222″ text=”#000000″ width=”100%” height=”auto” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” cite=”Sensei Steve” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]

Reason Three: You Never Know When Sensei Will Break the Routine

We have a format that combines PT, traditional martial arts, and fighting, and there is a certain rhythm to the class.  You never know, though, when Sensei Steve will say he wants to try something different.  He’s very creative, too, so those “different” things could be almost anything.

Our current schedule is:

– First Saturday: Regular Class
– Second Saturday: “Creative” Class
– Third Saturday: Regular Class
– Fourth or Last Saturday: Technique Class

Still, you never know if that regular class is going to turn into something you weren’t expecting.  Sensei Steve can add something much more challenging when he is in the mood.  He is also an observant teacher and knows when to change the routine to accommodate those of us whose achy joints and bones just can’t handle the regular routine that day.  He has also been very kind to me personally, allowing me to modify as I must when doing some things.  The point is: Sensei does what every good teacher should do.  He reads the room and acts accordingly.

We often have more students join us the fourth / last Saturday of the month for Technique Class.  It’s a great class!  It gives us a chance to work on the techniques and kata that we need to know for our next test.  I wish more people would come to the other classes, too.  I’m sure they would find them enjoyable.

When I was training somewhere else, our classes were all the same.  It was cookie-cutter curriculum that had to be followed by every teacher, handed down from corporate headquarters to the franchise owners.  It was boring.  So, it’s special to me to have teachers be able to try something new to get their point across.  Additionally, Sensei Hoover is not one to sit back and let the curriculum get stale.  He is constantly thinking about it, it seems.  Changes to the curriculum happen all the time, in the hopes that our techniques will become more effective and efficient.

When you come regularly to a Saturday class at the North Dojo, you learn so much – about yourself, about the practice, and about dozens of absolutely wonderful people.

Reason Four: He Has Welcomed My Son into Class

My son is 15 1/2 years old, and this class is for adults.  However, when he started working last May, I asked Sensei Steve if my son could come to class so he wouldn’t miss training on a Saturday.  He agreed without hesitating.  Recently, my son has been a regular in class, and in just the short time he has been coming regularly, I have seen a change in my son, both in practice and in spirit.  He works very hard in that class; as a result, he is stronger, a bit more confident, a bit more strategic in his practice, and a lot more skilled as a fighter.  My son has always been my best teacher, but now he is my teacher in martial arts class, too.  Being able to train with him on Saturdays (as well as on Tuesdays) has been a blessing.

He isn’t the only young adult who has been able to train with us on Saturday, and those who do are special kids.  They are bright, talented, and mature.  We who are able to train with our children have been given a special gift.  Sensei Steve would be the first to tell you about how much that gift meant to him while he was training with his own son, also named Steve, who now teaches at the West Dojo.  One day, he told Lucas and I about how important those years were to him.  Having seen the senseis interact, I know they were special to his son as well.

One of my favorite stories comes from another Mom who trains on Tuesdays and Saturdays.  Her daughter often trains with us on Saturdays now.  She says that at times she will think of a technique or a kata and struggle to visualize it properly.  Usually, her daughter is on the bus going to school when this happens.  So, she will call her daughter and ask her about it, which always leads to her daughter asking her in an exasperated voice why she is thinking about that now when she has work to do.  Nonetheless, her daughter has the answer!   Training with her child has added a complexity to their relationship, and another stretch of common ground upon which they can stand together.

How cool is that?

Reason Five: Class Starts at 8:00 AM

For the longest time, my workday has started at 5:00 AM when I first shuffle down the stairs to make coffee.  Some days, I do start working at about 5:15, but more often, I am trying to wake up and ease into my day.  Therefore, a class that starts at 8:00 gives me a chance to sleep in a bit (till 6:00!), but still get in a class early enough in the day that the rest of my day is mine to do with what I will.  That usually involves a nap!

Because of the early hour of the class, my son is able to attend and still go to work on Saturdays.  He loves that.  Those of us who go to that class all agree that it is an ideal time, for any number of reasons.

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#000000″ text=”#000000″ width=”100%” height=”auto” align=”center” size=”1″ quote=”Come in at eight, punch your ticket, and the rest of the day is yours.” cite=”Sensei Steve (paraphrased)” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]




These are just some of the reasons I love Saturday’s 8 AM class so much.  I’m sure that my classmates have many more to contribute as well.  Please leave a comment using the form below.  Thank you for reading.

The Hardest Test

Last night I took the yellow belt test, and it was the hardest test I have ever taken.  I finally have experienced a test that was harder to deal with than the Praxis test I took when I was a student teacher.  That day, as I pulled into the parking lot at Dieruff High School, I almost blacked out.  Then, I almost threw up.  Waiting in line to get into the classroom, I thought about going home, coming back another day, and burying my head in the mulch in our front yard.  I made it through the test, however, by sheer force of will.  It was the hardest thing I had ever done until that point in my life.  Even giving birth to my son was easier, thanks to the epidural man.  Last night, I experienced something more difficult than the Praxis test.  I almost failed myself…almost.  Fortunately for me, the people I train with would not allow me to fail.  I wanted to get up and run away.  They would not let me.  I am so grateful to them for that.

Therefore, I would like to thank everyone who was in class last night, especially Sensei Steve Jr., Sensei Bausch, Sensei Kristie, Sensei Jason, and Sensei Steven.  Steven said it best when he said that everyone who trains with us only wants to see everyone else succeed.  They really do.  The folks I just mentioned have been training at that school for many, many years, and have accepted responsibility for teaching and supporting others even as they continue to develop their skills.

Sensei Steve Jr. said something very important when we spoke after the class, that goes to show just how good a teacher he is.  He said that teaching is not about him, or his agenda.  Instead, it’s about all of us who take his classes.  I said to him, “You know someone is a good teacher when it’s about the students shining and progressing, not about the teacher’s ego.”  It’s not just Steve who seems to think that way; everyone who teaches there leaves their ego at the door and focuses on the students.  In a word, it’s awesome.

That being said, I barely slept last night, as I kept thinking about all the things I could have done better or differently.  I could have NOT panicked, for instance.  I still can’t believe I did that.  I actually heard myself say that I would come back another time and do the test, but it felt like someone else was saying it.  While I was on the ground, I couldn’t breathe.  I thought I was going to have a heart attack right then and there.  Like I said before, however, they would not let me give up.  On the wall of that dojo are the words, “Never say die.”  I will remember that for the rest of my life, I think, and will try to remember what I have learned and put it to use, not only while training, but in other parts of my life as well.

Bausch nailed it when he said that of the seven selves we learn about, self-confidence is probably one that I need to work on the most.  No kidding.  If you know me, you know that is my Achilles heel.  It never seems to matter how much I accomplish, because I always think I just got lucky that time.  My husband, Douglas, tries to teach me that I make my own luck.  My son Lucas seems to accept that fact naturally.  Perhaps this experience will finally help me realize that it is up to me to successfully complete something, or pull back and let the opportunity pass, and that I make my way always on my terms.  Do you think that will happen?  Considering how I feel today, it is probable.

I feel resolved today to continue my training, to acknowledge my strengths and work to mitigate my weaknesses, and to really enjoy the journey.

Thank you for reading this.


PS: Those who read this blog (all two of you) know that in December I made some New Year’s resolutions regarding my martial arts training.  Well, I’m happy to report that I have learned how to do a proper break-fall and a forward roll, and I’ll continue working on the resolution to run a mile.  🙂

Tagul – A New Site for Creating Word Clouds

Tagul is a site for creating word clouds that is, so far, more versatile and useful than Wordle, a site I have loved for years! Check it out.

What about Walt?


Meet Walt.  Walt is going into his sophomore year of high school.  He is facing all the things a typical teen faces: teenage ennui, peer-pressure, awkwardness, hormonal imbalance, and pressure at school to succeed.  One thing that he is not dealing with is the decision about what to do when he grows up.  He made that decision three years ago, the first time he saw his father, a plumber, at work.  After high school, he is going to join his father’s company and become a plumber, too.

His father is thrilled.  His mother is not.  She wants him to go to college because she feels that is the only way he’ll become successful in life.  “Your father and I didn’t have to go to college when we were young.  Today, though, everyone has to go to college!”  Walt has heard this many times.  It has not changed his mind.

College, he responds, has nothing to offer him.  Is there a plumber’s college around? he asks.  If there is, I’ll go to that.

The school district has a vocational-technical school a few miles from the high school.  Last year, he applied to the school and was accepted.  This summer, after he turns 16, he and his 21-year-old brother are going to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, where he will combine a need to help others with a need to learn more about house building.  He is very excited about school and his summer plans.

So, this year will be quite different for Walt.  In the morning, he will attend the high school.  At 11:45, the bus will transport him and his classmates to the technical school, where he will be in the Plumbing and Heating program.  He is worried about his grades in his academic subjects and about managing his time, but that does not dampen the excitement at all.

What might concern his teachers, however, is that he will not be prepared well enough for the graduation exams recently implemented in their state.  If he spends so much time on plumbing, when will he find the time to learn what he needs to know to pass the test?  Will he be able to graduate?  They are not just concerned about Walt; they are worried about all the vo-tech students.  They made their opinions clear at the last board meeting, too, when the union president raised the issue with the board.  She told them they barely have time to teach the full-time students everything they need to know for these challenging tests.  Perhaps it is time the vo-tech school limit its enrollment or change into an adult education format and leave children’s education to the other schools.  She showed them graphs and statistics that claimed that the students in the vo-tech school did not perform as well academically as the students that attended high school full-time.  With their focus on their technical education, she said, their attention to academic subjects suffered.

The school board president, a house builder by trade, asked the union president for a few days to respond to her facts and figures.  The president agreed and the meeting adjourned.  In an open letter to the union president, the state department of education, parents, teachers, and students, the president asked the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of the graduation exams implemented by the DOE?  What does a passing grade mean?  What does that grade show mastery of?
  2. Are we truly addressing the needs of society through our current curriculum or have we decided to focus too narrowly on college readiness, even though we know that there are many students who do not want to go to college?  What about preparing these students to enter the workforce?
  3. Do the graduation exams actually limit a student’s successful transition from childhood to adulthood by not allowing for time to prepare for a career that does not require a college education?
  4. What can be done with our local curriculum, both academic and vocational, to ensure that the students will learn what they need to learn to pass these tests and still receive the education they want and deserve?
  5. Teachers at all schools: Are you prepared to revamp the curriculum to ensure every student’s success?  I am not prepared to limit vocational education opportunities, so you’re going to have to come up with something.

Of course, this was not the end of the discussion, and it will not be the end of my discussion here in this blog.  After reading an article about a teacher’s concern over the demise of vocational education, I just had to write this little vignette.  I’m concerned, too, that vo-tech will suffer because of standardized tests and how they are written to favor those who are on a college path.  One who is on a vocational path may, indeed, be learning the same things that the college path students are learning, but within a different context.  For instance, how can a plumber possibly do the job without understanding geometry and science?  What about being able to remember how things were done in housing fifty years ago to explain to a homeowner why their current plumbing system no longer works?  What about being able to explain it using well-formed sentences and a logical progression from one point to another?  How about being able to build a quote for a job that is understandable, logical, and accurate?  Are the exam writers going to ask questions couched in that context?  Of course not.  They have no idea what a plumber does and, besides, questions like that would not ‘serve’ the majority of students, because they would not grasp the context either.  I hope I have demonstrated in this paragraph just one of the many problems with standardized tests.  Honestly, I believe they are often lacking in ways to demonstrate mastery of skills that will serve kids well as they construct adult lives that will make them happy, healthy, and fulfilled human beings.

Portfolios would demonstrate that kids have learned things they can take with them beyond high school.  Yes, yes, I know that evaluating portfolios would take a long time, longer than anyone has really.  When I was in graduate school, however, I had to take part in a portfolio examination called PACT (Performance Assessment for California Teachers) and somehow they managed to assess all of the teacher-candidates graduating from “30 universities, 1 district internship program, and 1 charter school network.”  The process was grueling, believe me, but one of the more rewarding processes I have been through.  I felt a sense of accomplishment I never felt before.  Despite the time commitment, it could be a better alternative to standardized tests.

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#BSNMooc Post #5: The Great Gatsby in the Flipped Classroom

This blog post is an example of a lesson assignment I would give if I flipped my classroom while we studied The Great Gatsby.

After studying the lost generation and other cultural issues related to the novel, we would need to start reading.  I believe reading aloud in class is a good strategy and would want to do that in class.  However, chapter one of the novel is quite daunting, so I would prepare my students to conquer chapter one with an activity that combines reading with vocabulary attack strategies.

Their preparation activity would be to go through the following Prezi, so they would know what we were going to do in class over the next two or three days.  Please note that I converted my text to speech for the Prezi below because it is 4:54 AM and my family is sleeping as I write this post, so I could not record my voice without waking them.  Perhaps at some point I will replace the voice over, but do not have time at the moment.  There may be some pronunciation or cadence issues.

In class, we would follow this procedure.  The students would practice valuable skills (namely, deciphering words that are unknown to them within context) as they read (and re-read) chapter one.  The entire activity is authentic, in my opinion, as students will encounter unknown words throughout their lives and need to know that going to the dictionary is not always the best first step.

While they are working on vocabulary and comprehension, I would have many opportunities to assess the students through observation and discussion.  I could modify approaches based on the students’ needs by scaffolding the activity with teacher and peer support as necessary.

It would be a great experience, I think!



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#BSNMooc Post #4 – Digital Citizenship, A Literary Time Machine, and The Great Gatsby (Of Course)

They say that Abraham Lincoln had quite a temper.  He would dash off letters in his anger and, by the time he had finished, his anger spent, he would think twice about dispatching it and place it on the mantle instead.  He would wait until the morning, reevaluate his position and, if it was still warranted in his mind, then he would send the letter.  Imagine if he had a smart phone and Twitter?  He may have indeed tweeted: “If McClellan isn’t interested in using the army at present, perhaps I could borrow it for a while?”  What would the Confederacy have made of that breakdown of command in the North?

I digress.  My point is that today we have the ability to communicate so easily that many of us end up saying things we regret later.  Our responsibilities in this area have increased many times over from the time in which verbal communications reigned and others were secondary.  Before we click on send, tweet, or any other button that supports communication with the outside world, we need to think hard about the consequences.

The problem is, many of us don’t.  We spread rumors, say hurtful things, and generally make fools of ourselves because we don’t have those few minutes that we used to have.  We can’t put a tweet on the mantle till morning.  (Actually, we can, but that’s aside from the point because many of us don’t use Buffer or schedule tweets through TweetDeck or Hootsuite.)  Google or other search engines cache the communication and it’s out there forever, haunting us.

Part of the responsibilities of a teacher is to teach citizenship.  These days, that includes digital citizenship, the rights and responsibilities that relate to our communications and interactions on the Internet and via digital means of any sort.  There are many ways to teach digital citizenship.  For this post, I would like to teach it within the context of the novel unit I’ve been working on, The Great Gatsby.  Why not?  

Rumors, Innuendo, and a Literary Time Machine

It would be nice to take a Friday and have the students work together on an assignment like this.

Imagine that a literary time machine has transported the Gatsby characters to the present and provided them with the tools they would need to navigate and interact in the digital space (smart phones, twitter accounts, Facebook accounts, etc.).  How might the events of the novel be different?  Let’s focus on the rumors and innuendo spread about Gatsby in the novel.

  • Create a twitter stream regarding Gatsby, his history, and his profession, using the information in the novel.  Predict what would happen to Gatsby legally or regarding Daisy.
  • What are the effects of such rapid communication on the reputation of others, the development of stories (true or false), and the resolution of investigations?  Do you remember that a news reporter came to Gatsby’s house for a comment on the rumors he’d heard?  What might that reporter have done with a twitter stream or a Facebook conversation?  What if he were a news reporter and brought the ‘story’ to television, complete with photos of Gatsby and interviews with ‘sources’?
  • Write your opinion of the use of these technologies today, the rights we have to free speech (even gossip), and our responsibilities as digital citizens

It’s my belief that this assignment is a good extension of the study of the novel into a new context: our culture.  It reminds me of the time that a friend of mine had her students rewrite the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet using text messages.  The students took to that assignment with earnest, and produced some absolutely stunning results that demonstrated understanding of the young lovers’ relationship.  I would hope that this assignment would help students gain a new appreciation of the main character and the impact of communications today.  I would also hope they would think twice before pushing send, tweet, or post.


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#BSNMooc Post #3: Higher Order Thinking Questions and The Great Gatsby

This week, I have chosen to blog about the following topic.

Anatomy of a Question

Make a public blog post sharing some well-written question that challenge higher order thinking. Explain to your potential audience what makes this a question worth asking students. Think of this as an opportunity to help other teachers in your subject area understand some of what you learned in this unit through a case study.

Honestly, I took this assignment and twisted it to suit my purposes.  I hope that is all right.  🙂

A Confession

I must admit that my experience creating online assessments is limited to my training days, when I would assess users’ knowledge of the applications that were the subject of the training.  I did not get too complex with my questions; instead, I tried to find out if they were actually paying attention during the training and hands-on practice or if they were more interested in their mobile phone and email. I also knew that the participants did not have as much time with the topics as someone participating in a traditional course, so my hope was that they would take what they have learned and apply it once they were back at their desks, using the job aids I gave them.  My assessments were better than smiley-sheets, but not by much.

That’s not to say I did not try the other types of assessments.  I did!  They failed miserably.  I believe that might be because I did not have as much time with my students as a traditional teacher and so many of my students had been out of school so long they were ‘out of practice.’  Or, it could just be that I did not create successful assessments.

So, I am back to the problem of lack of practice.  That needs to change, so this is a good opportunity to make that change.

One more note: When I was teaching, I saved the higher-order questions for the short answer and essay.  Since we are talking about online assessment, however, I am going to avoid those types of questions and focus on multiple choice.  Of course I know that you can administer the short answer and essay questions in online assessment, but I consider my experience with multiple choice questions my Achilles’ heel.

A Quiz

[slickquiz id=2]

I struggled mightily with the very short quiz above, because I would be much more comfortable giving the students essay questions or short answer questions to “formatively” assess their understanding of the novel.  I actually put a twist on this assignment, but since this is a non-graded course, I am taking a risk and asking for help with my questions rather than researching “well written questions” (which I did) and posting them here.  I hope no one minds!

I’m moving on now!  Thanks for reading.


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BSNMOOC Post #1 – Ideal Blended Learning Environment in the Year 2013

Our assignment this week is to create a post that reflects upon one of four projects.  I decided to write the “Pie in the Sky” post, describing an ideal blended learning environment in the year 2013.  The questions we are to answer are:

  • What sort of content is delivered online? What is delivered face-to-face?
  • Which assessments use the Internet? Which assessments do not?
  • What benefits does this environment have for students?
  • What sort of resources are being used in the classroom?


Cover of "The Great Gatsby"
Cover of The Great Gatsby


I’ll take each one in turn and put it in the context of a unit on the novel The Great Gatsby.  Since I have been reading Gatsby (for the fourth time), a question has been niggling at me: “How would I make this relevant to youth today so they might enjoy reading a terrific novel?” I must tell you that I tried blended learning with this novel when I was student teaching and the results were disastrous.  That unit haunts me to this day.  Therefore, I think it interesting that I chose to read it again just as this MOOC was starting up and fortuitous that I can reflect and project upon it as I try to come up with a more successful unit plan.

I must also confess that I long to have my own classroom.  Writing this post is sad in a way, because it describes something that isn’t – and may never be.  Nevertheless, it will be written.

My classroom would exist in two spaces, the physical and the virtual, as any blended learning environment would.  I would use a learning management system like Moodle to develop online activities that required independent thought and collaboration.  I would use authentic assessment ideas to create assessments that asked students to think about events and characters in the novel and construct new knowledge (technical or cultural), or to develop their value system, personal philosophy, or writing skills.  I would provide opportunities for those who not comfortable with classroom discussion to contribute to the overall discussion through forum posts and replies. I would couch the novel within our current context, always trying to pull from our culture to make connections with the culture of the 1920s and the lost generation.

What sort of content is delivered online? What is delivered face-to-face?

I would start out with a video presented through the LMS on the lost generation and Fitzgerald.  I have one I used back in pre-service and I do think that it is good.  The students could watch the video outside of class and respond to it via a forum, sharing their ideas with their peers.

I think I would like to have students read the novel a bit at a time in preparation for class.  There are some teachers that cannot afford to let the books out of the classroom because they would not get them back; I hope I would not fall into that group and would let students take the book throughout the unit.  I believe 15 – 20 minutes of reading on certain nights is enough to ask.  Then, I would ask them to log into the LMS and write a forum post based on a question I pose for that evening’s homework.  I would also ask them to respond during the week to at least three classmates’ posts.

Once in class, I would like the students to write for five minutes about a quote that they should have encountered during their reading the night before.  Then, I would like to read aloud for fifteen minutes, with someone as the narrator and others taking roles and reading their character’s “lines.”  After that, we can have a guided discussion, an authentic activity, or group discussions about what they read.  An example of an authentic activity, in my opinion, is one I tried while teaching the unit in my pre-service days.  I had most of the students act as journalists and interview other students who volunteered to play Nick, Daisy, and Gatsby.  The journalists were to ask the characters questions like, “How do you feel about how you were portrayed in the book?” This time around, I would also ask someone to portray Fitzgerald.  Perhaps I would portray Hemingway and add what I think he would say about the book and the characters.  The two authors always had a love-hate relationship.  I think this is a good opportunity to do formative assessment, to see how well the students understand the characters and can ask good questions.

Other homework ideas include using Animoto to create a music video about a character, using Wordle or Tagxedo to create a word cloud about an event in the novel and to analyze the results of that cloud, or using another app from the web to create something that extends their reading into a new context. There are so many resources out there that it’s hard to start this paragraph without going on for pages!

Which assessments use the Internet? Which assessments do not?

I would tend to use formative assessment on the Internet.  For instance, the observations I could clean from the forum posts or activities are examples of formative assessment.  I would prefer the summative assessments to take place on-site.

What benefits does this environment have for students?

The first thing that comes to mind is that the blended learning environment affords students who are shy or need more time to think to work in a comfortable space.  As an online student over the past seven years, I appreciated the extra time that online activities provided me.  I needed that time to digest information and construct knowledge for myself so that I could share my thoughts with others.  I feel I learned a lot more because I was given that time to form more complex thoughts.

What sort of resources are being used in the classroom?

Online resources include web applications, the learning management system, and resources the student or I could find using Google.  I would also load rubrics to the learning management system that include self-assessment rubrics.

Resources on-site include print copies of the text (I have a graphic novel version as well as the traditional book), Kindle versions, and audio versions of the text.  There are some who prefer to listen to a book or some who could supplement their reading with the audio version.  English Language Learners might benefit from the audio version, for example, to hear cadence, pronunciation, and pace.  Other resources include re-printed articles and handouts for activities.


This “plan,” such as it is, assumes that kids will have access to technology and the Internet.  I found a resource for low-cost access to both that is worth noting: http://www.internetessentials.com/.  This site offers low-cost access to the Internet and computers if families have at least one child who qualifies for free lunch.

This plan also supports a BYOD model that encourages students to bring their own technology to school.

Finally, this model assumes that the teacher will keep the students’ needs and capabilities in mind and make adjustments as necessary.  🙂





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