Empowering students with language-based learning differences grades 4-12
The Siena School Blog
By Maya Furukawa, Middle School English Teacher at The Siena School
There is a multitude of uses for blogging that many of us interact with daily. Perhaps you write a parenting blog. Perhaps you read a cooking blog. Perhaps your best friend has a movie review blog with thousands of followers. Perhaps, like me, you write a blog just for yourself, tucked away in the depths of the internet.
Either way, blogging is a part of many people's daily lives. And it can be done at school.
What's defined as a "blog"?
According to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, a blog is "a website that contains online personal reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks, videos, and photographs provided by the writer". There are teacher blogs, like Science Fix, which highlights classroom experiments. There are cooking blogs, like Food52. There are even blogs about blogging! And, of course, there is The Siena School's Blog on which you are reading this.
Why Blog in School?
In her post, "Why Teachers and Students Should Blog: 18 Benefits of Educational Blogging", Kathleen Morris states that "there can be so many educational benefits from having a well-run classroom blogging program." She goes on to list some of these benefits:
- Owning Your Content
- Home-School Connections
- Digital Citizenship
- Social Skills and Confidence
- Developing Thinking
- Classroom Community
- Global Connections
- Purposeful, Productive, and Fun!
Put simply, the benefits of blogging are what you make them. They allow students to express themselves through narrative writing, informative writing, analytical writing, and more. They provide a platform through which students may share not only their thoughts and feelings but, in certain cases, images and videos that go with them. They allow students to interact with one another (as well as the teacher!) in a different and interesting way. Perhaps most importantly, blogs provide students with a specific skill (blogging) which is supported by a plethora of additional skills (composition, editing, proofreading, writing for a specific audience) which they will continue to utilize in their adult life, both professional and personal.
Why Edublogs, Specifically?
Edublogs is precisely what it sounds like: a blogging platform intentionally centered around education. On its homepage, one can read the words, "EASY BLOGGING FOR EDUCATION" in bold, white letters. It allows the teacher to:
- Create student accounts
- Moderate the content of student blogs
- Control blogs' privacy settings
- Leave private comments on student writing
- Organize students into groups, and
- Monitor student progress
Because of the ample teacher control — and because one can set student blogs to be as private as they desire — this platform lends itself wonderfully to education.
What Does This Look Like in a Classroom?
In my English 6 and English 7 classes, students access and write on Edublogs every Monday-Thursday, as their warm-up at the start of class. They are provided with a variety of prompts — some personal, some academic — to which they respond. For example:
- Introduce yourself to an unfamiliar audience.
- Write a story about where you see yourself in three years.
- Compose a diary entry from the point of view of your research subject.
- Write a story (fiction or nonfiction) using at least six of your vocabulary words.
- Read "The Rose That Grew From Concrete" by Tupac Shakur. Then, write a poem about something beautiful coming from something mundane/plain.
I generally provide 5-10 minutes at the beginning of each class to work on these and two days for students to complete each blog post. In my classroom, students' blog privacy settings are set such that only other students in my Edublogs "class" can read their posts. Every few weeks, students take their regular blog-writing time to read and comment on their peers' posts.
Here are some examples of their work:
For the last two years, students in my classes wrote journal entries. These journals were composed 2-3 times per week and were written in response to prompts very similar to those being used on Edublogs this year. However, students are far more engaged in composing their blogs than they ever were with their journals. They are excited to read their peers' compositions and leave positive comments for them. After all, wouldn't you rather read blog posts than a document in Google Drive?
Interested in Learning More?
Written by Jennifer Chambers, Math and Science Department Chair, Middle School Science Teacher, and Environmental Education Coordinator at The Siena School
I can’t ever remember being taught how to study, to succeed on high school unit tests, midterm, final or regent exams, or collegiate compulsory exams. I figured it out myself, particularly in college. I read, highlighted, took notes, reread my notes and prided myself on my photographic memory. In my mind, it worked because I did well. Did I really learn and retain all of this knowledge?
Now, I’m a teacher and one of my responsibilities is to help students learn. My understanding of what it means to be a successful learner, and that which I teach my students, has come a long way since my time in high school and college. At Siena, we have systems for instilling study strategy best practices, such as modeling and practicing a variety of studying activities during class, adding tests and quizzes into student's long term planning and reminding students and parents about the study activities students can utilize at home through links in an email. However, there is always more that we can do to help our students reach success, in particular, students who have more challenges with knowledge retention and application. Therefore this summer, our teachers were asked to read Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. While reading this book, ideas filled my mind of ways to implement the powerful strategies recommended in this book. Not only did the authors write these strategies in accessible language with authentic examples but they explained the brain science behind them. As a Science teacher, this amped up my interest level. So what do Brown, Roediger and McDaniel recommend to retain knowledge long-term in Make it Stick?
Retrieval Practice (Quizzing): Learners need to pull information from their brains and do this often. This is output processing. The best way is through quizzing oneself, such as with flashcards or Quizlet. Reading, rereading and highlighting isn’t enough to retain knowledge.
Varying Practice: Whether quizzing or practicing a skill or concept, it is important to vary the type and difficulty level of this practice, such as using Deck Toys. Generalization and retention of knowledge are more difficult when the practice is homogeneous.
Spacing Practice: When embracing quizzing and varied practice, space it out over multiple days or longer to improve retention. Cramming is the antithesis of retaining knowledge long term.
Interleaving or Spiraling: Review prior information to create connections between that and new knowledge being learned. This new knowledge gets hooked to create a chain inside long term memory; stacked learning without linking creates silos.
Embrace Difficulties: Learning is hard. When we make our brains struggle through desirable difficulties retention is increased. Grappling creates new neurological paths in the brain.
While reading Make it Stick, I made many annotations in my copy anchoring the author’s recommendations to my teaching methodologies to create connections for how I could help my students improve their learning.
- Being transparent with my interleaving. Naming it when it occurs and explaining the importance of hooking information to prior knowledge. Moreover, students will be accountable for prior knowledge when assessed.
- Using positive affirmations when students encounter desirable difficulties and explaining the brain science behind this growth mindset.
- Increasing the amount of opportunities students need to purposefully retrieve information learned during class through varied practice and assessments.
- Creating and varying the types of quizzing mechanisms students can use to prepare and be successful on vocabulary assessments. Besides using flashcards, Quizlet and a variety of card games, students will have an opportunity to increase their varied practice with Deck Toys.
- Monitoring and creating an accountability system for when students apply vocabulary used verbally or in their writing through the use of unit word walls.
Piggybacking off of and under the mentorship of Roediger, an author of Make it Stick, Pooja Agarwal, a Cognitive Scientist, created RetrievalPractice.org. Agarwal and collaborators provide a wealth of resources to help educators and learners maximize their learning potential. These five are my favorite:
- Weekly Teaching Tips
- Retrieval Tic-Tac-Toe
- Retrieval Grids
- Metacognition Line Up
- Sketchnotes of each chapter of Make it Stick
During high school and college, I created an illusion of knowing through my reliance on photographic memory, only inputting and imprinting knowledge. I thought I was learning, but I was really learning for the next day’s exam. I didn’t retain this knowledge into my long term memory. Similarly, many of my students struggle with this mode of learning; however, Make it Stick provides an enlightened path to become a life long learner. The conclusions drawn in Make it Stick were scientific, yet accessible, and provided authentic examples for teachers to model or students to practice, which is why this book was chosen as Siena’s faculty summer reading.
And then the tears began.
Unfortunately for this parent, this was not an unexpected response to a question about her child’s school day. She had been advocating for accommodations for her child’s struggles, but each year, the concerns were dismissed, and each year, the gap in reading ability became wider. The teachers were kind, well-meaning, and dedicated; unfortunately, they were also misinformed:
Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence, and it’s not about effort, intellect, or gender. Neuroscience teaches us otherwise.
Our expanding understanding of dyslexia, a specific learning disability, and its neurobiological origins is helping to develop appropriate interventions. With science informing practice, our ability to respond to reading difficulties is advancing, and evidence-based interventions can now be implemented. Learn more from leading dyslexia expert, Dr. Guinevere Eden, by viewing Understood.org’s video Dyslexia and the Brain and reading the International Dyslexia Association’s article Compensatory Skills and Dyslexia: What Does the Science Say?
According to recent surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, almost 90% of teens feel under pressure to achieve good grades. With the detrimental effect of stress on learning, the best educational practice is to reduce stress by removing barriers so that every child may engage in their education. If a child without a learning disability is stressed, imagine how a child with dyslexia feels as they struggle to keep up with literacy requirements.
As reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of children (approximately a third) served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are diagnosed with a specific learning disability, defined as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written ...” Furthermore, according to the International Dyslexia Association, possibly 15-20% of the population exhibit some symptoms of dyslexia.
So what does this mean? It means that there is probably a student with dyslexia, diagnosed or not, in every classroom. As such, let’s ensure that opportunities for equitable learning are available for every child. Let’s not wait for mandated support but make it the norm to provide access to tools and strategies commonly considered accommodations.
Technology provides opportunities to seamlessly integrate tools such as speech-to-text into everyday life. Pause a moment and think about how many times a day you say “Hey Google,” “Hey Siri,” or “Alexa.” Is this an accommodation or just the new norm?
Recently downloaded an audiobook? Take time to brainstorm and plan your ideas? Are these accommodations or just the new norm?
As adults, we use ‘accommodations’ throughout our daily lives, so shouldn’t we be providing the same opportunities for our children?
Let’s explore some options further:
Speech-to-text (dictation) provides students with an opportunity to write without being concerned about spelling. By speaking into a device, children may use more sophisticated vocabulary and progress faster because the mechanics of writing do not hamper them. The good news? Speech-to-text is built in and available for free through a variety of devices, such as laptops, iPads, and cell phones.
Audiobooks and text-to-speech provide opportunities to access high-level, complex text without being disadvantaged by one’s independent reading level. Ear reading allows a child’s intellect and curiosity to drive book choice, not reading ability. Schools and families of children with documented print disabilities may subscribe to Learning Ally and have access to over 80,000 human-read audiobooks, with many also synched to text. Other fee-based options include Audible, Google Play Books, and Apple Books. However, access is also available at no cost through apps like Libby that provide free access through the library to audiobooks and ebooks. Furthermore, Bookshare offers free ebook access for U.S. students with qualifying reading disabilities.
Mind maps and other graphic organizers help students organize their ideas through visual tools. Another way to remove barriers to learning, graphic organizers are beneficial to all students as a system for approaching multi-step tasks and can support reading comprehension, writing, and study skills across all subject areas. Free templates are readily available online.
The adage that equity and equality are not the same continues to hold. For those with dyslexia, embedded accommodations that are available to all learners can remove the stigma associated with reading difficulties. Imagine a classroom where every child’s educational experience is optimized, a learning environment that provides a range of tools not only to assist the learning of those with documented learning differences but to help all students. Let’s remove barriers to learning and replace the word accommodation with options or choice.
Isn’t it the new norm anyway?