I know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed when meeting students’ literacy needs, to lose touch with my family because of long hours at school, and to drop into bed exhausted at the end of every day—I had to take a break from teaching because the stress of being an educator was affecting my health. However, the innovation of web-based technology, cloud coaching is showing promise as an effective inquiry-based intervention to reduce stress, improve instructional practices, and increase students’ academic performance by creating the conditions for having quality conversations and empowering literacy leadership.
The rise of teacher stress
A recent Pennsylvania State University report found 46% of teachers say they have high levels of stress on a daily basis, which is affecting their health and their ability to teach effectively. Mark Greenberg, a professor of human development and psychology at Penn State, explained the stress is causing “between 30 and 40% of teachers to leave the profession in their first five years,” which costs taxpayers billions of dollars a year to train new teachers. Teacher burnout isn’t plaguing just U.S. schools. A survey of 4,000 teachers in England report 82% of educators felt the workload expected of them was unmanageable and 73% said their health was being affected. As a way to reduce stress and retain teachers, school districts are integrating web-based technology to provide cloud coaching for mentorship, professional development, and instructional support.
What is cloud coaching?
Cloud coaching, also known as virtual or online coaching, uses the Internet and a webcam to create a collaborative partnership between two or more individuals in a digital environment. The coaching takes place through a variety of online platforms that are free, like Skype and Google Hangout, or require a small monthly fee, like Zoom and Gotomeeting. This online coaching experience cultivates leadership skills by engaging a teacher in quality conversations about possibilities, targeting effective instructional methods, and providing implementation support as the teacher takes action to systematize classroom literacy routines. The frequency and structure of cloud coaching is differentiated to meet the needs of each individual teacher.
Examples of cloud coaching
Executive coaching for administrators: Once a month, administrators from a small, rural school district spend one hour individually receiving cloud coaching with Dr. Ray Jorgensen. The focused inquiry process creates a shift in thinking, which allows the administrator to see situations from a different perspective, triggering new ideas and creating the conditions for more effective leadership.
Content-focused coaching for educators: The University of Pittsburgh has implemented an eight-week online workshop to develop pedagogical knowledge of effective literacy routines. This is followed by one-on-one cloud coaching to support the implementation process. Results suggest cloud coaching has been effective at improving reading comprehension instruction and students’ reading achievement in high-poverty elementary schools.
Literacy leadership for instructional coaches: I provided cloud coaching to instructional coaches who were responsible for designing and conducting school-embedded English Language Arts professional development. Meg Rishel, a K–5 instruction coach, said, “Cloud coaching helped me grow as a literacy leader. I went from talking at teachers to talking with teachers. Additionally, I went from telling what I know to listening to what others know.”
Each coaching session began with a guided inquiry into educators’ successes and challenges as they implement effective literacy routines. After needs were identified, we collaborated to build an action plan that included gathering resources, generating an interactive presentation with open-ended questions that created the conditions for quality conversations among teachers.
Academic coaching for students: Students of all ages receive the same benefits from cloud coaching as their teachers. An 11th-grade student shared, “Before cloud coaching, I rarely thought I was good enough in school, and I would often shut down and stop being productive because of it. Coaching helped me organize the work I was doing, and more important, helped me to be proud of my work and to not limit myself. Now I feel much more capable and motivated to get things done!” Every Sunday I met with students to help them break down their academic workload into manageable chunks, provide feedback on essays, and suggest strategies to improve their study habits.
At a time when school districts may not have the resources to hire a full-time instructional coach or afford ongoing professional development, cloud coaching is an effective and innovative alternative to reduce teacher stress and empower literacy leadership. I learned it’s never too late to ask for help. Engaging in the inquiry-based process of cloud coaching not only improved my effectiveness as a literacy leader but also helped me reduce my stress by creating the conditions for quality conversations and relationships.
Julie B. Wise, an ILA member since 2000, is an international coach and consultant. Her research examines cloud coaching as an inquiry-based intervention to reduce stress so that individuals and organizations can cultivate literacy leadership. You can subscribe to her newsletter to stay up-to-date on mindfulness, literacy, and technology.
This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).
As educators in British Columbia, we never set out to be app designers.
Our school district challenged educators to be innovative in the classroom, and they were finding a lot of pressure was put on the school system to get up to date with technology. At the same time, they were struggling with the cost of new technology and how to justify it as it applies to student achievement. Does technology make a difference?
The other pressure on schools concerning achievement was focusing on foundational skills, particularly skills in literacy and comprehension. Schools were noticing a significant lack of growth in literacy results after grade 4. A conversation started between Gloria Ramirez, an education professor from Thompson Rivers University, the district literacy coordinator, and me to address the drop in literacy at the grade 4 level. A plan began to form.
We knew that at about grade 4 the curriculum and structure of learning shifted in our school system, with a greater focus on nonfiction reading and literacy and an increased use of subject-specific academic language and vocabulary.
We turned to the school district to ask if they would allow us to work with a small group of teachers and target academic- and subject-specific vocabulary instruction. We also wanted to focus on rural and high-risk classrooms in grade 4. We were fairly certain that targeted support in vocabulary at grade 4 would make a difference but wanted to prove our theory. The other part to our plan was almost an afterthought. The district, as well as our education research team, wanted to know if using technology would help. Wanting some advice on how best to approach introducing technology into the classroom, we invited a technology professor from a local university to join us.
From there, we started our study. Using a number of classes in grade 4, we compared classes on the basis of the following parameters:
But even with support from Musfiq Rahman, a technology professor from Thompson Rivers, we ran into challenges right away.
We struggled with finding applicable apps to match the instruction in the classroom around vocabulary. We found most of the commercial apps were too standardized in their approaches. In other words, the vocabulary selection did not match the specific academic and subject vocabulary introduced by the teacher in the classroom, so it lacked relevance.
Also, the way the apps introduced vocabulary was not always using high-yield strategies on how we learn and comprehend vocabulary. Finally, the information gathered by the apps and shared with the teacher was subject to privacy issues.
Even with all of these challenges around using technology and finding the best app, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that classes using technology showed greater improvement than those that didn’t.
Excited to discover that technology makes a difference, but also frustrated with the flexibility of available commercial apps, we asked if it was possible to design an app, LearningApp, to meet the needs of our teachers and perhaps even produce better achievement results than what we found in our initial study.
The answer was yes!
Rahman set out to bring some of his programming students to help design an app that could be customized by the teachers and integrate some of gaming features students would find engaging.
Students and educators from the university started working with classroom teachers and students from the elementary school to design an app that would meet their needs. If you want a lively discussion, you need only to ask your class what video games they enjoy and why. You can engage a whole class by just talking about their gaming experience. Even before the prevalence of video games, games from cards to board games have captured the attention of children and even involve learning. If only we can tap into that motivation!
We learned that the use of technology allowed for increased opportunities to individualize learning. This was especially helpful in isolated rural areas or where a child’s opportunity for exposure to diverse vocabulary might be limited.
We have currently developed a back-end platform with a number of capabilities requested by teachers and students:
The back-end platform was designed to allow expansion of more complex instructional tasks. It can also be hosted on a secure server at the school board office to address privacy issues. Finally, it is a web-based program that can be used on all devices capable of accessing the Internet.
The next phase of the project is developing a gaming platform to work with the back-end platform and present students with a gaming experience. We are involving students in helping design a game that will work with the instructional components of the program and allow students to access the motivational aspects of gaming technology.
Once the app is completed, we will be able to follow up with action research to determine the level of impact on student achievement. With our initial research, in addition to what we know about gamification of learning and individualized instruction, we are positive we will see great results.
Michael Bowden is principal at Raft River Elementary in British Columbia, Canada.
Writing fanfiction—creative works that fans write based on storylines and characters in existing books, movies, or other media—has moved from the fringes of fandom activity to having more mainstream visibility. Some of the earliest examples of fanfiction appeared in science fiction fan magazines in the 1930s. However, the advent of the Internet and the popularity of online sites like FanFiction.net, Archive of Our Own, and Wattpad have brought fanfiction writing to millions of readers and writers worldwide and garnered the attention of literacy researchers and the popular press.
Literacy teachers can connect their classrooms to these online communities to foster their students’ development as writers. As a literacy activity that requires authors to become experts on the original source material, fanfiction has opportunities to practice reading and writing skills valued by the Common Core State Standards, including close reading and writing narratives. Sharing their work in an online fanfiction community further provides youths with authentic opportunities to produce and distribute their writing with the help of technology (also covered in Common Core) as they collaborate with others and receive feedback, though not always very helpful feedback, from the online audience.
Because of the intermittent quality of feedback available in online fanfiction communities, teachers can play an important role in guiding their students’ writing for and with online audiences. As my own long-term research with one fanfiction author has revealed, even skilled writers may be only haphazardly tapping into the potential of a site like FanFiction.net. Young writers need teacher support to fully benefit from participation in these online writing spaces. Such support might include the following:
I recently talked with literacy teachers about these suggestions when I gave a presentation at the New York State Reading Association conference in Rochester, NY. During this session, we shared ideas for how teachers interested in connecting their students to online fanfiction communities find space to do so in already crowded curriculums and school days. One local high school teacher planned to return to her building and suggest that they consider turning an existing Creative Writing elective into one that explicitly and systematically connects young writers to online writing communities. Two teachers from Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in Omaha, NE, told us about their FanGirl Club, which meets monthly after school. Members run sessions to teach other kids about writing fanfiction and host a fanfiction writing contest at the end of each year. Finally, we discussed possibilities for structuring an ongoing unit about online writing spaces as part of a literacy or language arts block, in which students research, select, write for, and maintain a connection to an online writing community of their choice throughout the school year.
Whether you find space through electives, after school, or as a small part of the existing literacy curriculum, providing teacher guidance can go a long way to helping young writers benefit from the rich learning opportunities in online writing communities.
Jayne C. Lammers is an assistant professor and director of the secondary English teacher preparation program at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education. She can also be reached on Twitter.
Looking to inspire some creative writing fun with your students? The Comics Head app will delight your students and help chase away any writing blues. Comics Head is a colorful writing-focused app that has earned a five-star rating from the Educational App Store. This visual storytelling tool engages children and adults of all ages and makes creating comics a snap.
With a few taps on your iPad, you create fun settings, adding characters and speech bubbles for your dialogue. With a few more taps, you explore a variety of layout options, including some that can be the focus for beginning, middle, and ending story activities. You can select template comics and simply add or edit dialogue. You also have the ability to upload your own photos into the comics. Create one-page posters or multiframe storyboards and personal templates. How much fun is that?
I recently demonstrated the app at a technology workshop for a school district with their grade 3–5 teachers, literacy coaches, and principals. The app was a hit; my teacher candidates love it, too. Seeing everyone exploring and creating their own masterpieces is such fun. I wish I had something like Comics Head to help illustrate my stories growing up. Using an art tool like this sure would have helped me to feel like an expert illustrator. I suppose that is why I love their catchphrase, “Not an Artist? Not a Problem!” Integrating this user-friendly storytelling writing tool across the curriculum is limited only by your imagination. Create posters, alternate endings, new characters, character profiles, debates, and more.
There are two versions of the app: the free Comics Head Lite and Comics Head, a paid version for $4.99. This, of course, has more bells and whistles, or should I say superheroes and powers? The website supports a blog with instructional demo videos to help get you started. To begin creating comics, you simply click Create New Comic Image. You make a selection from the white canvas panel layouts. The template section has stories ready to use, or you can edit the dialogue text. With the paid version, there is a My Templates option that allows you to design custom templates. After selecting your storyboard, you then create backgrounds, characters, props, and photos. The paid version includes themes along with web and map access, where screenshots of Internet webpages and map locations can be integrated to enhance your comic designs. Audio can be recorded. The camera tool and paint tool provide customization options. Once finished with the storyboard, you can preview, save, and share to Facebook or Twitter or via e-mail with the Lite version. With the paid version, the storyboard can be posted to YouTube. Creating a slideshow is an another option. Both versions allow for printing.
In my opinion, the Lite version provides endless possibilities for free, but the paid version provides additional design and creative potential. Start Lite, explore Comics Head, and go from there. Get excited, get motivated, and create engaging comics that will add a flare to your creative writing lessons.
Mary Beth Scumaci is a clinical associate professor and technology coordinator with the Division of Education at Medaille College in Buffalo, NY. She designs and instructs technology and online courses in addition to facilitating technology trainings for students, faculty, and staff.
This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).
Last week, I had the pleasure of volunteering with Mozilla for the biannual workweek. A workweek is a meeting where all the Mozilla employees meet in person with their teammates to work on their projects while planning and discovering more about the goals of the organization for the next quarter. As a K–12 teacher and doctoral student at the University of Calgary, what fascinated me most about the experience was the emphasis on learning throughout a workweek.
Although the communication was primarily face-to-face during the Mozilla workweek, these participants are usually communicating and working collaboratively in digital asynchronous spaces around the world. Throughout the week, online tools and mediums were integrated as a key means to work and collaborate as teams. This workweek experience is an example of a week in the life of the world in which our K–12 students are and will be living and working.
I am working on a collaborative project called the Open Innovation Toolkit with Emma Irwin (Mozilla-Open Innovation), Greg McVerry (Assistant Professor of Education at Southern Connecticut State University), and Mikko Kontto (Finnish schoolteacher). We are working with fellow volunteer Mozillians in a wide variety of projects around the world, to remix content and create workshops to support key personal leadership skills and behaviors focused on four key pillars: Build, Empower, Communicate, Open. I’d like to share two of the many workshops that hold particular significance for classroom teachers seeking to support students’ communication in digital learning environments.
The first project is designed around the concept of deep listening. Originally, I started a workshop about giving and receiving feedback, but the feedback for version 1 was that it was too complicated; we needed something that helped describe what to do before you give feedback, which is to listen, read, and/or watch. Considering that Mozillians work around the world in multiple time zones, online communication (through a variety of tools) is mostly asynchronous. As such, the way in which they communicate with each other and respond to each other is key in ensuring collaboration and the success of any project. Kerri Laryea writes in “A Pedagogy of Deep Listening in E-Learning”that deep listening can lead to transformational learning. Although her research focused primarily on e-learning in particular, it reminds us of the importance of deep listening in multimodal contexts in order to scaffold deeper and more meaningful learning opportunities.
Using powerful questions
Jane Finette created a second workshop titled “Using Powerful Questions.” In her current Mozilla work examining communication throughout the Mozilla organization and in her coaching work for future women leaders, Jane noticed the need for examining how to use powerful questions. Jane turned to Judith Blanchette’s research in her article “Questions in the Online Learning Environment” to inform the development of her workshop. This research examined the syntax, structure, cognitive function, and communicative characteristics of questions in asynchronous learning environments. Results of the study suggested that unlike face-to-face interactions in postsecondary classrooms, students in the asynchronous online learning course asked most of the questions. In addition, students in the online course exhibited higher levels of cognition, as they asked more rhetorical questions, using them to persuade, think aloud, and indirectly challenge other participants. Findings from this study may provide guidance for other educators seeking to engage learners in asking powerful questions that lead to deeper learning.
As we consider how to communicate in digital learning environments, it is important to consider the intention and clarity behind our communications. As research and experiences suggest, there is a tremendous opportunity for transformational and deep learning for all in technology-mediated learning environments. Anyone considering contributing to the Mozilla Open Leadership Project should contact Emma Irwin.
Verena Roberts is a K–12 educator, consultant, Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute (MVLRI) fellow, and doctoral student in the Learning Sciences program in the Werkland School of Education (University of Calgary). Verena has taught, designed courses, and consulted about curriculum and technology integration from pre-K to higher education in Canada and the United States. She has facilitated and developed a wide range of open networked learning projects with a focus on open educational resources, emerging blended learning professional learning opportunities, and personalized learning pathways for teachers and students. She was the 2013 iNACOL Innovative Online and Blended Learning Practice Award Recipient. Verena is currently a technology for learning specialist with Rocky View Schools, in Alberta, Canada.