#SOL15: Day 15, Reflections on Tech in Writing Workshop

Margaret Simon’s blog Reflections on the Teche has link up every Sunday that highlights technology use. I haven’t posted much because I didn’t think I had anything to share.

The Slice of Life Story Challenge has changed my understanding of this link up. Today I’m not highlighting anything new and amazing. Today I’m sharing a reflection on my technology usage in the classroom.


On Friday, in honor of Digital Learning Day I borrowed enough iPads to have a 1:1 learning environment. My intent was to give students a large block of time to blog and comment. Initially, I saw this as celebratory move of our digital learning.  What I didn’t anticipate was how this would change my outlook on teaching in this environment.

After a few technical issues, all students were engaged on their blogs. I walked around with my laptop (thankfully a Mac Air) balanced on my arm, looking over shoulders. Conferences in this electronic mode happened in a slightly different way.

Timely feedback is always an issue in my writing workshop. With so many students, I always feel like I don’t get to them quickly enough, making my feedback less “effective” and sometimes too late.

Seeing their work come up on my screen for “teacher review” was my invitation to step up. While the feedback wasn’t perfect, it was close to immediate in timing.  In those moments, my teaching went up a notch or two on John Hattie scale of effectiveness.

The mid workshop interruption I made was decidedly tech related, yet edged into a real life writing concern, respecting copyrights. I saw a lot of students pulling up pictures from the internet for their posts.  A perfect and necessary time for me to introduce the need for using the advanced search tool on Google.

I projected the images for a sunset on my class iPad. Then demonstrated how to find usage rights. Most understood that they had to pay for a song on iTunes.  I explained this is the same thing. To use some pictures, we must either give credit to or pay for the author’s work.  If we don’t, we are stealing. There is a practical and an ethical side to this lesson I hope a few of them got.

Another outcome of this work was how students naturally moved from publishing a post, to reading other posts. The mentor effect of this was immediate. I didn’t have to tell anyone to try a technique another writer used. If a student found inspiration, they did this naturally.  Writing work continued throughout our workshop. No one said, “I’m done! What do I do now?”  No one wanted to stop writing.

The work was smooth and glitches in technology were minimal. The work was writing work. The technological aspects of the work enhanced writing. As a writing teacher this matters. In the early stages, using devices can seem to be more about the technology and less about the writing. We are finally getting to a point where the technology is a tool for writing.

Student blogging offers an authentic world for students to grow as writers and a 1:1 environment allows teachers better access to student work and ability to provide better feedback. At the end of the day, I decided that 1:1 needs to be a weekly practice. Sharing 15 iPads is good, but 1:1 is great.

Thank you, Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the Slice of Life March Story Challenge. Read other bloggers slices here.



Celebrating: Technology in Writing Workshop, Year Two

This week I am celebrating technology in the Writing Workshop.

celebrate link up

We just finished our first writing unit: Personal Narrative.  It may seem like the most natural thing to write about oneself.  But, to write in a way that shows who we are is not an easy thing for anyone let alone a fifth grader. If  you don’t believe me, try it. It takes courage, self reflection, and a lot revision.

Last year, I started writing weekly with two writing communities. First with Ruth Ayers’ Celebration link up. The weekly practice of celebrating the past week was and is a perfect place for reflection on my teaching. Not too long after that jump, I added a “Slice of Life” weekly post with Two Writing Teachers to my writing life. With these weekly posts, my perception of myself as a writer changed dramatically. These writing communities offered models and support for my writing and pushed me quite naturally towards a new understanding of reflection, “small moment” writing, and myself as a writer and a teacher of writing. I knew I wanted this community experience for my students, but by the time I figured this out I wasn’t sure where or how to fit it into Writer’s Workshop.

This year, with our narrative unit of study sitting behind us, in fact beside us as a tool, “slicing” bits of our life seems to be a natural next step. All of what we learned or started to learn can now be practiced and supported by our community of bloggers. We have a toolbox of strategies, models and checklists. And as our “slices” accumulate, we will have home-grown models to reflect on, a community to learn from. This week I celebrate our new writing unit:  Slice of Life writing on our blog. Other teachers have done this work with their students, most notably Tara Smith who is guiding a lot of my work through her posts here and here.

Last year, one of the biggest benefits of blogging was the feedback kids got from each other. Kids wrote for other kids. This made blogging like no kind of writing they had ever experienced. Many didn’t consider it writing. It was more like a conversation. It was fun! My concern was while blogging and iPads are engaging, and students were writing more, does the blogging environment and iPad technology make better writers.

This week, I’m happy to report a few ahas about technology.

1) Viewing the blog as a publishing tool limited its power. This year, students put their writing on the blog during their revision stages. That move alone has opened doors. Things I didn’t anticipate.

2)  The power of “pinch and pull” typed text. Typed text, even in an approximated form, is easier for students to see what has and has not been done. We can look at mentor text and then at our own writing. It is there in a typed format. Not a crossed out, whited out, taped over, hand written form but typed text that can be enlarged by a pinch and pull on the screen making it easier for students to see what they have written and compare it to mentor text.

“S” had written three simple sentences: “We went to the park. It was warm. I wanted to swim.”  He writes simply throughout his piece.  His thoughts are there. I wanted to teach him to vary his sentence length to develop a more complex writing style. A quick “I-do, we-do, you-do” move in a conference got him to revise his work easily and teach into this skill for all of his writing, not just this piece. With the iPad “S” can play with different sentence structure possibilities without being frustrated.

Another group of students were approximating dialogue and we celebrated. Their next steps were to tag, punctuate and paragraph so readers can understand who is saying what. This is difficult to teach with hand written documents. But with typed text the differences and similarities between student and mentor text become more apparent. The leap is less and the approximation closer still.

3) Emojis can provide a bridge to elaboration and craft moves. Some students found the emoji keyboard and “secretively” started to play with it. My first reaction was ok, just don’t over do it. But then I saw the power in it. One English Language Learner put an image of a rocket into his text. “I ran fast (rocket image) to the park.” He had done the thinking work towards figurative language with an image naturally. He understood the move but not how words could give him the same image. It was an obvious leap for me, but it took some coaching for him to “see” this. The leap wasn’t vocabulary, he knew the word rocket; it was how to use the word like an image. Other students who understood similes had already written the words, and then found the image to enhance their words.

Showing not telling emotions is still a struggle and emojis created a perfect bridge for some students. Students looked for the emotion they felt with the emojis and inserted it into their text. Then we worked together to describe the way the eyes and mouth looked in the text. Mind you, I had taught this lesson explicitly earlier, and some got the idea. The emojis helped others see how to show not just tell their emotions.

4) Editing with typed text makes the tricky stuff teachable. The issues surrounding editing when keyboarding is involved are interesting. Some of the work requires typing lessons:  how to shift so capitals are created and where spaces need to be placed. This is something you don’t know until you start to type. Tricky but very teachable when text can be enlarged with a simple pinch and pull and then compared to a mentor.

5) There are limitations to technology access, and that’s good because it pushes use of all of our writing tools. I have one iPad for every two students. That means all can’t be blogging at the same time. This limitation allows for continued use  of “old school” tools. When one partner is blogging, reading blogs or commenting on blogs, the other partner is in their notebook, ruminating in that space, drawing on old entries, lists, heart maps, stored strategies — using the pen and notebook to craft. This isn’t bad, in fact it is good.  Sort of cross training for writing muscles.

Year two of blogging with iPad technology in Writing Workshop has just begun.  Today I celebrate the writing  we have done and the learning how, why and when to use our our tools, new and old.  We are grateful for all of it: notebooks, looseleaf paper, Flair pens, Kidblog and iPads. These tools grow us as writers.

Celebration: The Gift of Learning

Happy late celebration! Thank your Ruth Ayers for your link up where we (you too) can link up and share our week’s celebratory moments.

celebrate link up

I’m late in this posting  because of the gift I gave myself:  a spot at The Whole Language/ NCTE sponsored a conference, located a mere 60 minutes from my house. I need some time to digest all I got from this conference (posts for later this week?) but for now I’ll share a few words and links that highlight some of what I experienced Friday and Saturday.

All sessions I attended were lead by teams of teachers who were passionate about their teaching and their mission with children. All had students at the center of their work. What I share here is no particular order. I hope as you read this you will think of how these little pieces might spark something in your classroom. That’s how I entered this conference and I’m still ruminating on how these ideas will find there way into my teaching world.

First… Social Studies Simulations

The 5th grade team from the Edison School in Elmshurst, Illinois presented their work titled, Building a Bridge: Connecting Language Arts and Social Studies. In their classrooms, students take on the responsibilities and challenges of a colonist. Students read, discuss, debate, write and work through the various issues that colonists had to deal with. This team of teachers have created and curated great resources you can find on their blog, writing2learn.  

Second.. Prezi for Student Work

Technology was present in the form of  Prezi.  My aha was the power of Prezi as an alternative thinking and writing tool for students.  If you aren’t familiar with this, hit the link and give yourself about an hour, no pressure time to play with it. Go though a few tutorials and consider what thinking skills you used when creating. Now imagine your students creating a character web or an research report with this tool. Prezi has low barriers to entry (free, web based),  high engagement possibilities (multimedia), and opportunity for higher level thinking.

Third… Whole School Project Based Learning

The Borton Elementary Magnet School in Tucson, Arizona is committed  to Project Based Learning in grades k-5.  Some essentials for this work included:

  • Significant Content (big and relevant issues)
  • Collaboration
  • In depth inquiry  ( lasting 8-10 weeks)
  • Driving questions
  • Student Need to Know
  • Student Voice and (managed) Choice
  • Revision and Reflection
  • Public Audiences (authentic)

Getting a school to do this as a whole community takes training (they utilize the Buck Institute for Education)  and staff dedication. This team shared student work from all grade levels and talked of their own work to revise and work toward continued growth as a staff.  This panel shows some of the work of their fourth grade’s anti-bullying project.

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 Four.. The Opal School

The Opal School of Portland provided the opening keynote. I had read about this school’s work on Vidki Vinton’s blog and was intrigued by what their approach could bring to my Reading and Writing Workshop. Their presentation was breathtaking and their hands on workshop inspirational. Today, I’m only gong to share a few thoughts…

Listening is not easy. It requires a deep awareness and a suspension of our judgement and prejudice. To do this teachers need to allow for listening by slowing down.

We need to consider questions for our students to ponder, but also for teachers, looking to foster growth in students and in teaching practices. Some questions for teachers:

  • What do I notice
  • What am I wondering about
  • How can I make children’s learning visible
  • How do I know core values and beliefs are being reflected in day-to-day practice

Saturday sessions featured hands on work with Opal School teachers. Here’s a peak at some of the materials and artifacts we got to play with.  More on this later. Too much to process now!

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Each session I attended was filled with enthusiastic teachers as presenters and attendees. The sharing and celebration of knowledge and learning about and for students was inspiring.

Five — Words about Play 

I love quotes but never remember them when I want them. Fortunately there are people like the Opal School and my very literate son who do and share them with me. Here are a few I’d like to share.

Play is not the opposite of work. – Opal

A person’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play. – Nietzche

Play is more than fun, it’s vital. — Stuart Brown

Have a playful weekend



Slice of Life Day 27: Failure to Connect

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hDuring the month of March I am blogging daily with others in the Slice of Life Daily Challenge. Thank you  TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth at Two Writing Teachers for providing and supporting this place to learn and grow. Read more slices here.

After school.The class is relatively clean and it’s quiet. Perfect. Prime time for responding, writing, tweeting.

Pull out the computer.

Internet not responding.

Try again.

Same thing.

Change wireless connections. Nada.

Hard wire.

It just spins.

My hands are tied. Everything I need access to is on the web.  Can’t look at student work, it’s on the blog. No reading blogs, writing, tweeting.  Serious irritation.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have even known the internet was down. Last year I wasn’t anywhere near twitter or blogs; my kids’ work was on paper, in notebooks..

Social media and technology in the classroom has opened my world and lightened the load of papers I take home. Opportunities and connections are only limited by the amount of sleep I want to deprive myself of.

But when it doesn’t work, how do I work?

I sit back. The phone. Access. (Can you hear my sigh of relief?)

My teaching partner walks in to tell me the office just put the service call in.  He laughs at me. Just yesterday he came in I had an iPad in one hand, phone in the other.

My after school students are reading, taking this all in.  One looks up from her book and says, “What’s the problem Mrs. Harmatz you were born before the internet, you should be fine.” She laughs. “We’re the ones who are suppose to be all into the internet we’re fine just reading books.”

So wise. I love these kids. They are readers of books with pages made of paper and ink. They are happy just to have space, quiet and time with magazines and books surrounding them.

Old school I think. I open up a document on Microsoft word and start to type.

4:30 rolls around, TCRWP chat time PST. I pull out the  phone and introduce myself. The tweet goes through. I see the first question. and then, a spinning wheel — no tweets loaded.

Really? You’ve got to be kidding me, I say out loud.

My students laugh at me.

I wait. Keep trying other ways. I walk outside, thinking maybe it’s the room. It’s got to come back, I think.

“Ha!  Look at Mrs. Harmatz trying to get reception.”

5:00. Still nothing. Ok that’s it. I’m done. “Kids, sorry I gotta go.”

They look at me. I’m embarrassed to tell them the truth. I think they know.  They pick up and say goodbye. I’m a bit guilty but they are the ultimate benefactors, I rationalize.

Out the parking lot, up the street, and into a local strip mall’s parking lot. Check for signal. Yes!

I’m back.


Re reading this slice, I wonder, do I need a social media 12-step program?  I’m probably asking the wrong audience, but perhaps there is a balance. Anyone?

Celebrate: Our First Classroom Skype

celebrate link upToday I want to celebrate my classroom’s first Skype adventure. We (eventually) Skyped with students in New York on the book Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper.

I have to admit, I was worried. I was worried because we were Skyping on a book that we were just finishing that day. I was worried because I hadn’t prepared my students for what they would be encountering and how to be good Skyping partners. (Largely because I wasn’t sure what a good Skyping partners looked like.) I was also worried because when technology is involved, something can and probably will go wrong.

Fortunately, I had a very understanding teacher and classroom on my side, Erin Varley and her class of 5th graders. They were old hands at this (they have done it once!). “Don’t worry it’s just me,” she DM’ed me on twitter days before the scheduled chat. But I was worried. I didn’t want to fail her or our students.

At the planned time, 10:00 am PST, 1:00 pm EST, my students are all on the carpet, ready for the call. 10:05 nothing. We call. No connection. My students, who were at first quietly assembled on the carpet, are getting a little restless. I DM Erin. Do I have the right Erin Varley? I check. I try. Still nothing. Students and two adults, who came to watch, are all getting a little more than restless. We try. We test with someone else. Try again, still nothing. I DM Erin with lots of confused thoughts. The combination of failing technology and noisy students makes my thinking jumble. Students are offering suggestions of what to do. Time is passing. The noise level is rising. The focus is diminishing.  But we keep trying. Time is passing. Keep trying.

At 10:25 am PST, 5 minutes before recess. The call goes through. Yeah!! Erin’s class is lovely, sitting quietly on the carpet, and we all see Erin looking calm. My kids are going berserk. Waving and elbowing for the tiny screen in front of them. Erin thankfully starts us up with a question from one of her students.

Eventually we get the idea of what to do. The chat continues. And I breathe a sigh of relief.

Even though I lost some students to recess, a core group kept chatting till recess ended. They learned about the three hour time difference. Some found it amazing that Miss Varley’s students didn’t have recess when they had recess.

For you Skyping veterans, this may seem like a big yawn, but for my students and me it was awesome.  Student questions were thoughtful and answers interesting. My students loved seeing the students they had been blogging with for the past two amazing books — Wonder and Out of My Mind. Thank you Erin and your students. Can’t wait to do it again!

Accept the Blessings of Technology and Avoid the Curse – Don’t Forget the Kid

First some blessings…

I have fallen in love with technology. It allows my students  to connect to each other and like-minded people. It’s exciting to “meet” and “talk” to someone who shares your passions, your experiences. My students have connected with other students: blogging, commenting, questioning, sharing. They started with @ErinVarley ‘s class on the other side of the country. They blog and respond to our shared read aloud, Wonder, a precursor to our Global Read Aloud, Out of My Mind. They notice their similarities and ask questions. They comment on personal narratives with “I like your story” and “thank you.”  This has been such a blessing finding students and teachers who are “just like me!”  You share my name… I think so too… I like your writing… thank you… that’s a good idea, here’s mine… me too. Community — what we all seek.

More blessings…

I have found like-minded thinkers, resources, opportunities by the boat load through technology. I thought I was alone, little did I know the world was bursting with these ideas and people, just waiting for me, all I needed to do was “click” and  jump in. There they were, these people boldly sharing ideas and opportunities.

Truthfully it is an addiction. You get a jolt of energy reading blogs and tweets by ubercool, uberpositive, uberconnected educators like @MattBGomez, @PernilleRipp, @Katsok, @PaulSolarz (the list goes on and on). I have grown, I can’t say how many fold, since making this tool a part of my teaching life.  I eagerly awaited the blogs that came out of the Close Reading Blog-a-Thon instigated by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts. Vicki Vinton’s blog is always filled with meat and potatoes thinking for reading teachers, but served up like a dessert. Then there are the many contributors to Two Writing Teachers and Nerdy Book Club  showcasing tremendous thinking and writing of passionate teachers of writing and reading (love those people). Shannon Clark and her blog-a-day challenge that included thoughts and examples from her 6th graders was inspirational. And at the end of the day, I wonder when do these people sleep?

The curse of technology… unforeseen problems

Technology is a tool, a powerful one. One that we gladly welcome into our world. Integrating it fully. We rush to our computer,  our phone, our iPad, to connect, to learn. How could we live, teach, learn without it? When something doesn’t work or something isn’t completely thought out, then we have to live with the consequences of this dependence.   On a personal level, I had a life-altering technological catastrophe: I lost all my data on my iPhone. It is now a grey, lifeless, machine. Its personality, dare I say soul, that was developed over years, is gone. Why? Long story, I could and did point fingers and raged. I’m still grieving the loss,  but the bottom line, the reason it happened was because I didn’t think something out completely. I moved too fast and made a big mistake.

This leads me to another concern/potential problem of technology: loss of control.  One student in my classroom has, shockingly, not followed the guidelines for iPad usage. Nothing horrible, but clearly not being productive, just playing. Of course others ratted him out. Later, one student came up to me and asked,  “Would you like me to help you with the iPads, Mrs. Harmatz? I know how you can stop kids from messing with things.” This made me think of what Cornelius Minor (I’m paraphrasing here) cited as one of the tools every connected educator needs: someone under the age of 14.  Yep! Got the iPad, all those apps, but  I forgot the kid!  I gratefully accepted this student’s help and learned from him.

The experience in my classroom was minor. But scale that up to the high school level and you get what happened in my school district and other districts, high schoolers getting past the firewalls on their district-purchased iPads. Gasp! Shocking? Not really, I’m actually kinda proud of them. Now I applaud my district for venturing into technology. And I hope this won’t sideline the move to connect our students and equalize the opportunity for learning with 21st century resources. What I wonder about is this: Did they ask any students to give input into the development, adoption, and roll out of the technology? Perhaps they did, but if they didn’t maybe they should consider bringing the most important “stakeholders” into the conversation — the kids.

I learned from my mistake and I’m getting help from my students. We still have the technology, and the blessings that go with it. MIstakes happen the trick is learning from them. I will be more thoughtful. We will work through the bumps and learn to overcome them, to lessen the curse and grow the benefits from the many blessings associated with technology.

We could all learn a thing or two from out students. With all the bright, shinny, exciting technology, don’t forget the other “must have” tool: someone under 14.