“No More AoWs, Matey”

Back in June, students gave me anonymous feedback about the year on the last day of school.  The feedback form was intentionally short and open-ended, as to elicit honest thoughts from the students about the course. The three questions I used were:

  • If you were to take this class again, what would you want to stay the same?
  • If you were to take this class again, what would you want to change?
  • What other reactions do you have to this class?

I hoped that these questions would allow students to share the positive or negative experiences that stuck with them most.  Memory and emotion are so closely tied, so the moments where students were excited, bored, happy or sad are valuable for me to consider.

For me, directly acknowledging areas of my teaching that aren’t going as well as I’d like them to is difficult. It takes admitting a certain level of failure, and then some deep thinking about what might work better.  Using the students’ comments as a starting point for this reflection allows me to see through my own emotions and biases, and get to the facts about the students’ experience in my class.  If enough students said it, it just might be the truth. This type of candid reflection would be difficult or impossible if I used my own memory as a starting point instead.

When it comes to collecting and analyzing feedback, fortunately Google Forms exists. I have all of the student responses in an easy to view and search spreadsheet.  A simple “CTRL+F” shows some of the most popular terms, and  today, I’ll start with the term that was mentioned most often, a rousing 35 times in fact…the Article of the Week.

Made famous by Kelly Gallagher in Readicide, the Article of the Week (AoW) is a magazine or newspaper article given to students to read and/or respond to every week. The intention from the teacher is to increase students’ background knowledge, which will help them become more informed citizens and help them use this prior knowledge in other reading situations. This sounds like a simple solution to address the common problem, and I was very enthusiastic about using the AoW as part of last year’s class.

Here’s what my students had to say about my beloved Article of the Week.  These comments all responded to the question, If you were to take this class again, what would you want to change?

“No more AoWs matey”

“I didn’t enjoy the long AoWs”

“I felt as if constantly doing a new AoW didn’t improve my writing”

“I would want there to be no weekly assignments like AoWs”

“I didn’t enjoy AoWs so please don’t do them ever again”

“No AoWs please. I found it boring and tedious to constantly read and annotate things that I did not care about”

And so on.  The 29 other mentions of “AoW” were similar in tone and content.

Why was there such a disconnect between my well-meaning intentions, my belief that this was a reasonable assignment, and the students’ responses?  This is especially confusing considering the positive responses I received regarding other assignments, which the students found meaningful and even fun.

I find the first step in reflection is to return to my broad beliefs about teaching, and analyze more specific aspects of my teaching against these broad beliefs.

If there were three “themes” to my teaching this year that drove my planning and instruction, I believe they were choice, inquiry and authenticity.  In most cases, when I planned units and activities that were centered around those themes, students were engaged and seemed to enjoy their learning experience.  We wrote memoirs about meaningful experiences, created editorials about important issues in the students’ communities, presented reviews of student-selected books.  But how does the Article of the Week stand up to my three-theme test?

Choice: Students didn’t have a choice about what they read. I selected and distributed the articles every week.

Inquiry: While the students did respond to questions about the articles in writing, I developed the questions.  They were “school” questions, which often leaned towards one “right” answer.

Authenticity: Do adults often read articles about topics they are uninterested in, simply because they feel they should know about the topic? I doubt many do.

This last idea, authenticity, inspired the changed that I’d like to make to the AoWs, which will still accomplish the overarching goals of the assignment.

How do adults authentically find, read, and sometimes respond to periodical publications in today’s world?  There are newspapers and magazines, but most of this reading is now done digitally. The technology of RSS feeds allows people to manage the sources they read, and delivers newly published articles directly into one place, instead of requiring the reader to search the Internet to find sources and articles he or she would would like to read.  You’ve seen RSS before, whether you use it or not.  You know, that little symbol that looks like this:

The RSS feed, which stands for Rich Site Summary, or more casually, Really Simple Syndication, is a web function that allows users to subscribe to web pages that are updated frequently with new content. These pages could be blogs, news sites, or pages that post podcasts or YouTube videos.  There are many online tools known as RSS readers, which allow users to keep track of and view the sites that they subscribe to (Feedly is my favorite).  Every time a site that a user subscribes to is updated, the new content appears in the user’s RSS reader feed. Think of it like a personalized Twitter feed, but with long(er)-form content contained in each post. 

Here’s how I see RSS feeds as a way to potentially balance my students’ disdain for AoWs with my feeling that developing background knowledge is a crucial part of succeeding in school, social situations, and life:  students can choose a topic of interest (either freely or from a teacher-provided list), and subscribe to several news sites or blogs that post about this topic. This is an opportunity for some digital literacy lessons.  Students can be taught about identifying writers’ perspectives or bias on certain issues, especially when navigating the vast amount of content available online.  The class can discuss the importance of reading news from a variety of sources in order to develop one’s own opinion. Not to mention, many RSS readers have mobile apps, so students could use their own familiar devices to do some meaningful reading.

If I put myself in my students’ positions, I think, would I rather choose a few interesting topics, have an online tool like Feedly automatically gather interesting articles about these topics, then read and respond to the articles that I’m most interested in…OR…receive an article from the teacher once a week about a topic that I did not choose?

If I know anything about students, I think that they’d prefer the first choice.

Reflecting on the survey results from students shows me that formative assessment can be used not only to check for understanding and competency in content and skills, but also to garner feedback about students’ engagement and feelings about the activities used in instruction.  

Have any other teachers reading here used RSS feeds as part of your curriculum?  Has anyone else realized a major disconnect between how you feel about an aspect of your class and the way your students feel? 

Please share your comments below or with me at Gerard.Dawson1@gmail.com or on Twitter @GerardDawson3





2 thoughts on ““No More AoWs, Matey”

  1. I had the same feedback. What I did to change my approach was by eliminating random annotations and giving them specific instructions for each article, depending on what I was teaching them. For example, if the purpose of the article was to figure out words based on context clues, the required annotations were targeted specifically on that.

    Another idea is to try inquiry of the week, where you give them a research question, and they find an article that answers it.

    I have played around with having my students create their own PLN (personal learning network) via twitter, facebook, rss, etc, but I haven’t gone beyond the brainstorming stage with this.

    Hope this helps. If you have done the RSS thing, let me know.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Sarah.

      Other teachers have had success with giving students a particular focus as they read their articles, and it is something I’ll try this year most likely. The inquiry of the week sounds very interesting, too, especially because the students are practicing research skills in addition to reading and annotation.

      My students set up Feedly accounts in September, and have been reading and annotating one article per week. They choose the articles, so it’s become a good way to learn about students’ interests and observe the difficulty of the articles that they choose. I get a lot of good information about students just by thinking about their choices.

      A future idea is to have students use Diigo to annotate articles together. Diigo allows for threaded comments, so the students can respond to both the article and each other.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

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