Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rocking the Docs- revisited

I'm a bit horrified that we are one week away from EduCon.  Don't get me wrong, I am ridiculously excited to be attending in person this year after participating via live streaming the past two years. I cannot wait to get to Philly and, of course, enjoy an authentic cheese steak.

What I am horrified about is that my awesome co-teacher and I are leading a conversation on Sunday (Session 6 for any of you going) and we are completely unprepared. Somehow in the next week, between report cards, IEPs, and our general hectic teaching schedules we need to put together something slightly interesting. We'd love advice from any of you who have gone to EduCon before- what should we expect?  How should we prepare?

Our conversation is based on how we've been using Google Docs this year in writing workshop to take anecdotal notes. What started out as a cool idea to make sure we were all on the same page snowballed into truly authentic collaboration that led to improved instruction, in turn leading toward significant improvements in our children's writing ability. Of course, why we do anything in education should be to improve learning, but we had no idea we'd see such improvements from our new method of collaborating.

If you're not familiar with Google Docs the program allows you to create a document and share it with anyone who also has a google account. It saves continuously so that everyone is able to access the document at the same time and for the most part see exactly what everyone else is working on, with maybe one or two seconds of delay. It also has a chat feature so that all the collaborates can discuss the document on the side while still working in the original document. Fabulous.

What we did was set up a spread sheet with a tab for each child in our class. Each page/child has cells labeled "date" "observations", "teaching point" and "focus for the future", and "initials". Whenever we sit down to conference with a child we quickly type in the date and our initials so we can always track who worked with who every day. In the observations cell we record what we're noticing before we intervene or teach- is the child using spaces, does the child plan a story or just start to write, is the child using sentences with good structure, etc. Then, based on our observations we choose one thing to focus the conference on. (Just one is huge- otherwise you overwhelm your writer and the child starts trying to just please you instead of internalizing one skill he or she will remember to use next time).  We record what we taught- spaces, "writers are never finished" or my personal favorite conferences topic, "Would Mo Willems poke his friend in the arm with a pencil instead of write?".  And, because of course there are a million things we didn't teach that we know we want to get to next time we record those in the "Focus for Future" cell. We end the conference with "Now, every time you write remember to use spaces!" and head off to the next student.

Truthfully everything I just described isn't that different than what we did before we used Google Docs. We followed that format for all our writing conferences and recorded the notes on a print out in a notebook, or even saved on our computer. What's changed is that now we all have access to each other's notes all the time.

Now when I sit down to conference with a child I quickly look back at what their conference notes say. My co-teacher had written to focus on spaces in the "focus for future" instruction, so I keep that in mind as I watch the writer work. The co-teacher also wrote that her lesson for the student was to not write about the same topic over and over again. Scanning above I see that every conference the child has is focused on this same lesson. The kid really likes writing about his dog.
Since the kid is once again writing about his dog I quickly ask him to get a new piece of paper. "Mrs. Splattypus already talked to you about that" I say, not needing to go any further- he remembers what Mrs. Splattypus said. When the child comes back I help him choose another topic and then quickly take notes on how he does with this and what I needed to do to help him. We focus on including spaces in his work. In the focus for future box I write that we need to follow up and see if he is able to plan a new story. Whoever meets with him next will see the chain of conferences- choosing a topic is something we need to focus on, but he should also be using spaces.

Because the three of us who teach writing together are frequently busy and are not always in the room for writing we're able to see what we missed by logging into google docs and scanning the day's conferences. We can see trends in what we're conferencing about. Just recently we realized we're spending a lot of time focusing on getting kids to write for all of writing workshop. We wouldn't have realized just how bad it was without going back and looking at our patterns, we would have been frustrated, but would have also focused on spaces, writing words with beginning and ending sounds, etc. Because until we saw the pattern written out there in Google Docs, we had no idea that we had so many kids who needed reminders to stay on task. Clearly this isn't something we've done a good job teaching and/or supporting. When we met to plan last Wednesday we developed a strategy to work on this and planned out  next week to teach/support the expectation that writers will write for the entire writing workshop.

The chat feature also lets us collaborate mid-conference. "I'm stuck- how do I get Johnny to hear the middle sounds in words?" immediately leads to suggestions from our co-teachers- suggestions we can immediately apply and then report if it worked or not. It was almost as though Johnny's individual writing conference was taught by 3 teachers instead of just one.

All this being said we really weren't expecting to see the increase in writing ability that we've seen. We're shocked when we look at their writing. At this point in the year every child but one, who has an intellectual disability, has met kindergarten benchmark in writing. Every. Child.
Clearly something we are doing is working.

I think the reason we're seeing the increase in their writing development is that our instruction is so much more meaningful. Even on the worst Friday when none of us want to be there and we just want to put minimal thought into our writing conferences we're able to so quickly glance back at the "focus for future" and immediately know what each individual child needs. Right there our instruction has improved. The kids also have a sense that what we are teaching them is important since all three of us keep following up with them on their writing. "I know you were working on spaces with Mrs. Splattypus last time," I start, "How's that going?"

Reviewing our notes helps us plan our whole group instruction as well. A lot of times our whole group instruction planning stems from our google chats during writing itself. When we start to notice we're having similar problems teaching, or that our chats have evolved into larger theoretical discussions about exactly what we want our writers to be doing, we begin to realize that we've left holes in our instruction. We go back and re-teach based on these chats and our notes.

Of course, these kindergartners do have three teachers in the room for at least two days a week in writing workshop, which is huge and absolutely plays a role in their writing improvements. But I've been in rooms before where there were three of us for writing workshop and I did not see this sort of academic gains. It's not just three teachers- it is three teachers who are taking full advantage of their collaborate work by making sure they are on the same page 100% of the time.

So, if you were attending a conversation on how to use Google Docs to collaborate in real-time and improve student achievement- what would you want to talk about?  Thoughts? Questions? Ideas to improve using Google Docs?


The Science Goddess said...

First of all, thank you for doing this session---might be the only one I watch as opposed to all the "sit and bitch" sessions. :)

I think something key for you to share is what the collaborative documentation has changed about your thinking and activity. You mentioned that you collaborated before---what is it that you are seeing now that has made the difference? (Is it the "prompts" you see? The real-time peer support?) What supports are in place for you (administrative, tech, knowledge of your subject/teaching skill)? What are the next steps for you? How would you adapt this method if you didn't have someone to collaborate with (e.g. small school where you are the only 1st grade teacher)?

Anonymous said...

This is awesome...and oh, so timely. I just attended a PD session on how to use Google docs for collecting data. I plan to use it as a progress monitoring tool for IEP goals. It is a quick way to also send teachers a quick little sheet to fill out at the end of each day if you 'share' a child and need to share information as well.

Thanks for your great post!