English teacher shakes up learning with positive results
Ask Karrie Brown’s students how they feel about English at the start of Grade 11, and they respond with words like “fear,” “boring” and “hate.” Ask them how they feel about it at the end of the year, and they tell you they “get it,” “like it” and “it’s fun.”
In the fall of 2007, nearly three dozen students, eyes down turned and with feelings of anxiety and resolution, entered Brown’s classroom at Pioneer Career and Technology Center. Each teenager had high school English credit deficiencies or hadn’t passed the English portion of the Ohio Graduation Tests (OGT) or both. Doomed for failure, they thought.
“I had an attitude about English,” said student Robert Baker. “I failed it in eighth grade, got a C my freshman year and failed it my sophomore year. I was arrogant, judgmental, self-righteous and uninvolved about the whole subject until Mrs. Brown shook things up."
"Now, I’m an A student
and in love with English.”
-- Student Robert Baker
By spring 2008, nearly all of Brown’s students, including Robert, had passed the OGT and demonstrated growth in Lexile reading test scores. In between jobs at fast-food restaurants and school, several were making serious plans to be a teacher, underwater welder, construction manager and politician.
Karrie Brown provides assistance to Tiffany Thompson
What happened? Technology. Not just any technology but tools that look and feel like MySpace or Facebook – integral social networks for most American teens. Using Read 180, a reading intervention program, Brown facilitates differentiated learning for reading and writing through a Wiki, a collection of Web pages and other documents that can be created and edited individually or collectively on line.
In the name of English Language Arts, Brown’s students post pictures, research projects, thoughts and questions on Wikispace. Their discussions are blogs. Their bibliographies appear with the help of NoodleTools, a Web-based program that allows notetaking, creation and exportation of citations and bibliographies into Microsoft Word. They aren’t reading Shakespeare, but they are reading books they choose – about cars, travel to interesting places, people they’d like to meet or careers they’re pursuing.
“The books they are reading, including career-technical textbooks and manuals, are at the same or higher levels of reading than literature from traditional high school English classes,” the 30-year-old teacher said. “I try to instill the love of reading by linking it to their individual interests.”
Tiffany Thompson, who wants to be a teacher, read A Child Called It, David Pelzer’s true story of his abusive childhood. Another student read a book about tool and dye making – one of 18 books he personally completed this year. The former “non-readers” in Brown’s class read a total of nearly 500 books in the 2007-2008 school year.
“My dad came home one night and was shocked to see me reading,” one student, Josh Nutter said, adding with a laugh. “He wasn’t sure that I was his son.”
Every good English teacher knows that reading and writing go hand-in-hand. While the Wiki site for the class has links to appropriate YouTube videos, news articles and other required reading, its primary function is to serve as a venue for student writing. Interspersed among pictures of students and the things they like are their originally written summaries of what they’ve read, people they’ve met and places they’ve been; student-to-student-to-teacher dialogues, including questions about the content; blogs; resumes; research papers (May 2008 topics included underwater welding, pediatrics and restaurant ownership) and more.
“In other classes, we had to memorize what an adjective was and how to break down a sentence; I never understood why that was important,” student Ryan Lawrence said. “In this class, we’re using adjectives in sentences but we don’t sit around and talk about them. It makes more sense.”
In a blog dialogue in May, students provided anecdotal testimony to their English learning method. They said they liked the immediate response from a teacher and other classmates. They said they can see how English is important. Some of their comments are:
- My spelling and grammar did get better the more I was responding to the blogs.
- Doing projects on Wikispace helped me read and follow directions better.
- When we are not here (absent from class), we can still keep up and know what’s going on through the Wiki.
One student is quick to point out that the student success isn’t confined to technology. While the students like working on computers in class and on their own schedules, teacher personality, as usual, comes into play. Robert Baker said, “What really makes it work is that she likes us. This teacher really does like us.”
Brown, who holds a B.A. in integrated language arts and an M.S. in library and media science from Kent State University, didn’t learn English the way she’s teaching it, and she didn’t learn to teach this way.
- Continual teacher monitoring/control
- Quick feedback
- Less paperwork
- More technology
- Less lecture
- More student engagement/activities
Her strategies resulted from a combination of desire to remove student frustration and confidence barriers, ideas from a summer 2007 professional development experience and “risk taking.” The spark ignited during last summer’s workshop with former teacher and national technology education guru Alan November (senior partner, November Learning).
“I knew I had to do something,” she said. “The workshop gave me the idea for that something. It was a risk; it might not have worked. But it was a risk worth taking.”
Brown, who also has served on state committees involved with the creation of Ohio academic and technical content standards, knows that new strategies aren’t embraced by everybody. She feels fortunate that she received a warm reception from many, including Superintendent Glenna Cannon and Director Jim Grubbs. She knew that she needed to convince the technology support staff that her methodology would have rules and guidelines – including about plagiarism, profanity and appropriate dialogue.
“I’m monitoring our Wiki all the time. I know who is saying what and making what revisions and at what time. The students know I can take this away any time if they violate the rules. They don’t want that.”
Support for the strategy grows when Brown shares her one-year data. Two striking examples are:
- OGT – all but three have passed the ELA portion; and
- Lexile – all but two students showed gains, with others showing growth from eight to 315 points in eight months.
Brown's Wiki site engages students
An added lesson with Wiki teaching is that it “allows me to reinforce the value of preserving the environment,” Brown said. “Doing research and papers online makes us a paperless class.”
She isn’t willing to say what she does will work for all students. She reminds her students that part of adapting in life, including in school, is to be able to adjust to different rules and processes. The students know they will have new and different teachers next year with other strategies to help them learn.
Brown plans to keep revising her curriculum. She wants to be stricter with some of the grammar, punctuation and spelling and to eliminate the Instant Messaging (IM) writing next year. Teachers, like students, need to continue to grow and change, she said.
“Over the summer, I’m going to put together some more ideas,” she said. “I do believe that younger people are wired a bit differently than I am. In order to help them, I have to keep blending my world with theirs.”
For more information about this story, contact Pat Huston at email@example.com.