Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Connect, Collect, AND ContextualizeL Vocabulary.com

IRA was an amazing conference. There was a lot I loved about this conference, not the least of which was connecting to friends, ideas, content, even media.  took some time to wander the exhibit hall. I had my eye on Vocabulary.com's swag: magnetic poetry sheets with words like insouciant and pulchitrudinous.How can such an ungainly word mean beautiful?

I had great fun at the Vocabulary.com booth and am  wowed by what the web-based tool will do.

 In my classroom, students are in charge of vocabulary learning. We keep academic journals and students have learned to be on the look out for words they want to learn.  They cull words from the books they read, from the articles of the week or poems we read together, even from things I or their other teachers say.  They create personal dictionaries in the academic journals, much like Linda Reif's do in her students' Readers Writers Notebooks. Students do a variety of things to learn the words: notes, definitions, illustrations, model sentences (culled from the wild world of their reading lives), vocabulary fortunes, etc. I also explicity teach some words to the whole-class. I model word learning and use language that peeks their interest in words in my own talk (and in my own journal), still I tinker.

This year I've tinkered with connections. Giving kids model texts to mentor not only their writing and grammar knowledge but also vocabulary. Stephanie Harvey may say that education is all about "modeling, modeling, modeling" and I'd add that learning and memory depend on "connecting, connecting, connecting." If I can connect a text and weave or layer lessons in reading, writing, grammar and word learning I'm more than halfway to home base.

Welcome screen at Vocabulary.com

Vocabulary.com is the first tool I've seen that contextualizes vocabulary in ways similar to what we do in class. The dictionary on the site has thousands or hundreds of thousands of model sentences. AND users can click the model sentence and be taken directly to the article where the word is used in the wild. Articles vary AND users don't only have to depend on Vocabulary.com's feed to pull articles, they can reverse the process. Type a URL link into a command box and ask Vocabulary.com to "grab the vocab." The site pulls words it predicts users will want to learn and provides definitions, synonyms, and model sentences from the article of interest. Voilà! AND--yes, there's more--students can "play" at learning the words grabbed from the article by answering multiple choice questions about the word.

Well, play is suspect. When the sales representative demonstrated the feature I remarked at how multiple choice questions were really "gamifying" the learning (his word). True there are no a, b, c, or d markers on the answer choiecs and true, learners get to rack up points and move through "levels", but really it was simple quizzing. Still, I can overlook that for it's other features. And Ivan said they're working on other games users could play with the words.

What I like best is the site's ability to grab vocabulary from an article, create a list and collect model sentences from text. Exactly the work students have been doing on their own in their journals: finding the words, writing the down, noting the definitions, synonyms, antonyms and the model sentence. Students can find and save these at Vocabulary.com and focus their energy on learning the words instead of using up all of their writing them down.

Once on the site, choose vocabulary lists.

Then choose to create a list.


Have the article open in another tab or window in your browser. Click the printer icon on the article. Then copy and paste the printer-friendly text into the text box on Vocabulary.com.

Students can add specific words grabbed from the article (or you can and create a list for students to learn). Immediately differentiate vocabulary learning by having students choose only the words they do not know and wish to learn. When they decide to learn the list, questions using those words will appear. Over time, Vocabulary.com will track words students have learned (gotten correct).

To access the site users sign up with an email account and must verifying the link sent by Vocabulary.com. Then they are free to create and save word lists culled from articles or from Vocabulary.com's extensive themed- collection.

I can't wait to share this resource with teachers at my school!


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

On Testing and Speaking Out

Bubble test tunnel vision
My school board representative, Mr. Rick Roach, took a  version of our state's high-stakes test last year. He failed the reading portion and his math scores were miserable. Marion Brady wrote about it here and the Washington Post revealed Roach in this piece.

Last week, Roach talked to the faculty at my school. He demonstrated my one little word intention for April: bespeak. He is speaking out against how high-stakes tests are used in my state. He was given the last thirty minutes of the day to talk to teachers about the work he has done to oppose the FCAT. His purpose, to ask teachers to weigh in on his work. Should he continue fighting or should he desist.

Roach echoes how many talk about standardized tests using the snapshot  metaphor, "the test is a snapshot, one picture, of students' knowledge and abilities." Yes, to really see a student's work we need to collect enough pictures to fill an album of several volumes to capture growth over time. I would add that  pictures we take differ. If all you have in your album are driver's license photos or mug shots, what sort of image do you catalogue? Students' assessment albums should capture variety and depth of performance across the curriculum.

Kaleioscope of testing materials
If teachers were teenagers chants of "Fight, fight, fight!" would have filled the room. Instead we listened. Some clapped or whispered yes--a quiet revolution in a  high school media center. Many spoke to Roach at meeting's end--staying beyond the duty day to do so.

Most surprising to the teachers sitting at my table were the numbers Roach shared:

In  2000, 15,000 children entered Orange County Public Schools and started kindergarten.
In 2010, 9,000 of them failed the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).
Last  year, 17,000 high school students were enrolled in a remedial reading class, enough to fill our Amway Arena.

Rick Roach's refrain: why?

Why are we doing this to children? Testing is not teaching. In Florida, progress monitoring via tests are required by law. That means students must take benchmark tests along the way. My district also gives "mini-benchmark" tests to target specific skills or benchmarks from the state standards. All of this testing means teachers lose instructional time. I tried to track days lost last year, but the growing list disgusted me and made me feel powerless. I abandoned my tracking at nineteen days lost. Still, that's nearly a month. Time may be relative but instructional time seems to shrink in direct proportion to the number of tests we require. Budget dollars, computer availability, even access to the school library dissipates too: all taken over by testing.

Much of the why is well-detailed in Lindsey Layton's recent piece in the Washington Post on parents opting out of testing for their children. Why not opt out? That's another post, but to find answers to why our leaders continue to push tests and up the stakes try following the money, try following political demands, try following who's being funded, try following corporate test creators. Look anywhere but to the children these tests were to save and you'll likely discover why we're test-crazed.