Learning on the Run

from Masters to Marathons

Improvement Science Part 2- DO-Making the Leap toward Change

It is amazing what happens the minute you step out of your comfort zone and try something new. This plan for change has provided me the opportunity to really spread my wings and fly, even in the span of one week. Though I have had the computers in my classroom for almost a month now, I have hesitated to use them without a solid plan in place. This Improvement Science Project gave me the gentle nudge I needed to do just that. Kids came into my classroom this week and saw the lab open and computers out and with gleeful excitement exclaimed, “We get to go on the computer’s today?” I signed up for a Google Classroom account, spent time over the weekend adding assignments, and familiarizing myself with the process. I asked teammates and colleagues for help, and found this book (that I bought per Tweet recommendations from the author @alicekeeler) also very helpful in getting up and getting started:

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As I mentioned last week, my students are writing their personal narratives. Since we have already done several pre write components including life maps, brainstorming and quick-writes, getting the computers out and going couldn’t have come at a better time. Students helped take the Springboard rubric/criteria for writing and added elements that we felt made a good story. I enjoyed bringing my students into the process as a way to involve them in answering the question: What should our final product look like? Students generated lists of quality narrative elements and discussed with team mates what quality should look like. We created our vision for what we’d like to see in our final product and then they took to writing. Despite initial shenanigans trying to get everyone on Google Classroom and logged on correctly (this did take some time but subsequent attempts have gone much faster), I realized that with 25 hands raised and one me, I’d need to ask for help. At the AMLE conference in Austin last month, I attended a workshop designed to get schools moving to a 1:1 program. In that session, Shannon Siegler  (@ShannonSiegler) provided some great insight into how to get the ball rolling. She described how she tells her classes that, “If you are logged on and know what to do, please stand up and help someone who is seated and still struggling.” On day one, I looked around the room to a sea of hands and flashed back to that pivotal moment where Shannon described her strategy, and immediately set forth to employ my helpers. Within five minutes, we were all up and running, and those students who made their way around the room providing tech support were full of elation and self confidence. It was a beautiful, collaborative moment.

Then, the writing began. It was quiet, focused and the creative energy that filled my classroom made my teacher heart soar with joy. Kids were typing away, creating, enjoying and completely on task.

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I had asked them prior to starting  our journey as writers, to put away their “Inner Editor”- a term I had learned from our school’s writing club that I help run. According to NanoWriMo, celebrating November as National Writing month where our students are challenging themselves by writing a novel in a month, students should envision what their Inner Editor looks like and zap him or her into a containment center until the creative drafting phase moves into the editing phase. I had students close their eyes, picture this beast that steals our creativity and sucks it out with questions like, “How do I spell this word?” or “Does this sound good?” and replace it with the creative thoughts that immediately begin to flow when we sit back and let them.

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Some amazing things have happened that I hadn’t anticipated. In addition to my initial change plan, where I would have students form peer editing groups and eventually invite parents in (we have not gotten there yet), through the use of Google Docs, I as a teacher am able to provided encouraging feedback in real time. Over the weekend, I had students logged on and working, and I could see that! Without technology, I never would know who was working and who wasn’t. I hadn’t even assigned it as homework, so this was totally voluntary. And to make it even sweeter, one student was someone I would consider a bit disinterested in school. She seems to just go through the motions, but in my eyes, is never truly excited. I popped on yesterday and at 7:30 at night on a Saturday, saw she was writing up a storm. I jumped in and told her I would give her the creative space to write but wanted to pop in and tell her how proud I was of her. In addition, I have a Special Education student who struggles just to come to school. He has been absent as much as he’s been present this year. When he logged on to draft his story, he didn’t want to leave when the bell rang after class! “Ms. Var, P-l-e-a-s-e  can I keep writing?”  I had him working after school, and promised next period he could log on again next period. All of these amazing new happenings, that I would never have experienced without this leap, have brought me to the third and final piece of my change idea-the importance of teacher input and timely feedback, and how powerful it is to “be there” in the moment when students are excited and engaged versus returning a paper 1-2 weeks later when the moment has passed, and it gets tucked into their back pack, never to be seen again. I’ve been missing out on huge learning opportunities with my students, and just this week I realized that through the power of technology.

One resource I found through Edutopia, entitled 5 Research Based Tips for Providing Students with Meaningful Feedback was very informative. In the article, it mentions that according to psychologist Edward Deci, students cannot feel that they are being too closely monitored, or they end up feeling nervous and learning can become hindered (Stenger, 2014). As a result, I’ve been very cautious in how and when I get on to my students Google Docs. If they are actively drafting and working, I avoid it, as I don’t want them to feel stressed out and fearful of making mistakes and thus, lose their creativity. Additionally, when I saw students working on a weekend evening, I immediately praised them for taking  the initiative but logged off. According to Stenger, feedback should be both specific and timely, and students should know how they are doing as they move toward mastery (2014).

In further examining best practices for providing students timely feedback, I did some research on how feedback should be delivered. According to Cynthia Desrochers, affirming feedback is necessary for learning to take place (2005). She elaborates by breaking down feedback into three key areas: what students are doing well on, what they should aim to improve and clear guidelines for making that improvement. She goes on to explain that although these key areas are indeed the recipe for success, it is the factor of time that is most important, along with encouraging students to  actually read and use the feedback for improvement. She recommends having each student do a reflection on the feedback provided to really ensure that they read and took to heart the comments, versus just ignoring them. This made a lot of sense to me, as I’ve spent hours providing feedback, only to find, kids just want to know their grade, but don’t bother even reading my comments. Descrochers suggests the following to avoid this scenario: ” When turning back papers, provide each student with a sheet of colored paper to resubmit in a week, with answers to these questions: 1) What was my feedback to you in this paper? 2) What did you learn about the assignment from my feedback? 3) What did you learn about yourself from my feedback? No grade is recorded until this sheet comes back,” (Descrochers, 2005). I think I will implement some sort of accountability in this regard, when the feedback from both myself and peers begins to surface.

According to the article Investigating the Impact of Feedback Instruction: Partnering Preservice Teachers with Middle School Students to Provide Digital, Scaffolded Feedback, feedback should be detailed enough so that students are able to build on their strengths and have a clear sense of their struggles in an effort to fix them. Feedback should not overwhelm a student, but instead “be actionable” so that it is clear what needs to be done to fix the errors independently (Thomas & Sondergeld, 2015).


My Action Research, although still in the beginning stages, has morphed into something greater than I anticipated. Last week, I provided  resources regarding the benefits of parent input, which will unfortunately not occur until a bit later than I had hoped. Students will begin peer editing this week, which was also part of my research last week regarding the benefits of peers working with one another. Now I have the final piece of my puzzle- my input- to think about in a new and fresh way. It’s all coming together, and I’m so incredibly excited. Between my ability to provide timely feedback on the spot, giving students the ability to peer edit and discuss what they are doing well on and areas to improve in, as well as increased parent involvement in the writing process, my change plan is taking shape in a connected and positive way.



To get some feedback on the process, I put together a Google survey that I will give my students this week (my first!) just to get a sense for where they are in the writing process and how they feel about it. Here is a snapshot of the first responses:


I also put out this memo to parents, which will also get sent electronically. I want to make sure parents without access to computers/internet will still have the chance to take part if they are willing, even if it means I am printing their child’s story and have them hand write in comments. I am also planning a parent survey at the end of the process, just to get some insight from them as well.

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Full letter found here

Personal Narrative Parent Letter

So, although the plan is taking longer than I had hoped (this week we begin parent/teacher conferences and I see my periods  6 and 7 ONE time this WHOLE week) I am going to do what I can with what I have. The bottom line is that kids are excited, I’m excited, and I’ve grown in leaps and bounds in the course of one week. Not to mention, no more carrying home buckets of papers. I have my trusty computer and that’s all! Amazing things are on the horizon! I can feel it.


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