The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 50 Transcript
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
Listen to this episode:
One of the greatest things about technology is how it allows us to differentiate instruction for our students. We no longer have to set our classroom up to keep all students doing the same thing at the same time.
If you’ve been a podcast listener for a while, you may remember Episode 30, when I interviewed math teacher Natalie McCutchen about how she runs a self-paced classroom. This was a really popular blog post and podcast episode, I think because lots of teachers want to do a better job with differentiating, we just don’t all know exactly how to manage it. In that episode, Natalie explained how she sets up her curriculum so that each student works through it at their own pace, freeing her up to work one-on-one with students when they need it. She has a really great system, and if you haven’t heard it yet, I’d recommend you check out Episode 30.
When I aired that episode, my friend Tracy Enos, who teaches language arts, told me about a similar system she uses in her classroom, where each student is given an individual playlist of assignments to complete, based on their individual needs. The playlist might contain links to videos, online articles, or interactive lessons that live somewhere online. It could also include reading assignments from actual physical books or even written exercises that come from a station or center in the classroom. I thought it sounded like such a neat system, something that could be used for any grade level and any subject area, so I invited Tracy to come on the podcast and talk to us about how it works.
When this episode is published, I will also be putting out a blog post to go with it, including images of Tracy’s playlists and links directly to a few samples, so you can get an up-close look at how they work. I will also invite Tracy to respond to any questions you have about the nuts and bolts of the system. To find all this stuff, go to cultofpedagogy.com/pod, click episode 50, and you’ll be taken right to the post.
Before I play the interview, I want to thank everyone who has left a review for this podcast on iTunes. To know that you set aside that time means so much to me, and by doing that you are really helping to bring more listeners to the show. If you like what I’m doing here and you haven’t left a review yet, I would love it if you’d take a few minutes to go over to iTunes and do that. Thanks so much.
Now here’s my interview with Tracy Enos about student playlists.
GONZALEZ: Tracy Enos!
ENOS: All right!
GONZALEZ: Hi. Thank you so much for coming on.
ENOS: Yeah. I’m happy to be here.
GONZALEZ: So let me give the listeners a little bit of background on how you and I know each other. First of all, Tracy is an eighth-grade language arts teacher in Rhode Island, and so how we know each other is that we have belonged to the same Voxer group for, I’d say, at least a year now, and this is a group that’s been going on for quite awhile. This is just a whole bunch of teachers that were pulled together by Brian Sztabnik who is the host of the Talks with Teachers podcast. He just pulled us all together randomly, I think. And so we just talk about teaching, basically.
And one of the things that Tracy has been talking about a lot are these things that she uses in her class called playlists. And before we even get started, I want to make sure that everybody listening understands that these are something that can be used by teachers of any subject. These are not language arts-specific. I just want to make sure, because sometimes I think if people hear “language arts,” they’re like, “Oh, this one’s not for me.” So, Tracy, explain what a playlist is and what function does it serve in your classroom?
What are Playlists?
ENOS: Oh sure. And I also want to emphasize that playlists really can be used in all different classrooms. I first heard about a playlist from a math teacher in Barrington, Rhode Island, and then my twin sister, who is also a math teacher, started using them in her classroom. She needed something out of the box that was able to reach learners from all different levels. And I started using them in my classroom when I looked at my room full of 26 students and I saw the variety in their levels and their abilities, I knew that I needed something different, a little bit out of the box so that I could individualize my instruction and meet the needs of each one of those kids. Instead of just having, “OK, everybody, we’re going to work on this lesson today,” I needed to individualize it so that different kids are working on things that they needed. So we are fortunate enough to be one-to-one, so our students have Chromebooks. A playlist is basically like a roadmap. I break down a unit, and the playlist includes different activities and different video lessons that the students progress through as we work on a specific unit of instruction.
GONZALEZ: OK. And you’ve actually provided me with a couple of examples, and I’m going to be putting them on the website, so that people can see. But what they ultimately look like is it’s a chart that has a list of activities or lessons that the students work through at their own pace, correct?
ENOS: Exactly. And I use Google Docs. There are a couple of other different formats that people can use, but I like just the simplicity of Google Docs, and I like the live nature of them, that I can go in there and change them and adjust them, so it’s a very simple, basic chart of activities.
GONZALEZ: And now you do these … so some of them are containing … I can’t get my words out right now. Some of the activities that you are assigning on these are actually linked to video lessons. It looks like you use a lot of EDpuzzle lessons.
ENOS: Exactly. I love EDpuzzle.
GONZALEZ: And then other times, they’re just linking to like a Google Doc where they have to go and access that through Google Classroom and just complete sort of a reflection or writing activity or something like that, so the actual end product is something that they write down.
ENOS: For certain projects, yep, for certain activities. So there’s different group activities, there’s some games online, there’s different discussion boards, sometimes I link to my blog to a different resource on there, so it’s all very just depending on the task, it’s very flexible.
GONZALEZ: OK. And now when you give these to students … so let’s say, for example, you’ve got like a short story unit where students have to write a short story, and you’ve got them working through all different parts of developing that. Do you give different versions of this playlist to different students?
ENOS: Well each student starts off with the regular playlist, it’s almost like a building block, like a pattern that we’re going to be following, and then I kind of tailor it to the kid’s needs as we go individually. And I started off, you mentioned short stories, I started off … the short story playlist was the first one that I made, because this year in my class, I have three different collaborative settings. I’ve got some ESL kids, and I’ve got some various levels of different special education students with me. So I knew that I needed to do things differently for them. And also, just … writing is a very, in my opinion, writing is a very personal process for anybody, so it’s always been hard for me, as a teacher, to say, “OK, students. Your graphic organizer is going to look like this. We’re going to this activity today, then we’re going to do the next one.” So I really wanted to … I saw the writing workshop as a way to truly make it fluid through the playlist. So the kids would work through their activities. A lot of it is the same as far as, like, I give them different options, so if we’re doing some type of organization, maybe I give you choice, which I feel is really important. So someone might choose to fill in a graphic organizer. Someone might choose to use index cards, like physical index cards. Somebody might choose to use Padlet. So I put a lot of different choice within the activities. And then, as we progress, for my writing ones, I tend to leave two spots blank where I give the kids individualized revision focuses. So there are some blank areas that I’ll go in later, once we’ve gone through their draft and I’ve taken their feedback as far as where they want to strengthen their piece, and I’ve looked at it, so we kind of decide together about some points of it. But the majority of them … they’re basic building blocks, they might start the same.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it.
ENOS: If that makes sense.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, it does. I’m going to describe what I’m looking at right now, so that if somebody’s listening to this in their car or something, they actually can picture something.
GONZALEZ: So what I’m looking at is a four-column chart. You’ve got some introductory text at the beginning that’s basically saying, “This is what the unit is. This is what our kind of goal is,” and then here comes the chart. The first column says, “Activity,” and these are numbered, it’s almost like a little title of the thing that they’re going to do. The second column is “Directions,” which gives them more specific directions. So, for example, your very, very first activity in this short story playlist is for them to introduce everybody to their protagonist. They’ve got to choose a main character. So “Activity” says, “Number 1. Introduce us to your protagonist.” Then under Directions, you’ve actually told them what to do in Google Classroom. There’s going to be discussion questions, and they’ve got to answer these in Google Classroom. And when you say “in Google Classroom,” is that going to be a discussion that you’ve set up, or is it a document that they create, and then they submit it?
ENOS: It was actually … I believe that was the first time I was using Google Classroom’s discussion tools.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
ENOS: So it is the discussion question, so everybody could see it, which was just kind of a fun way for people to be like, “Oh, that sounds like a great character,” then they kind of get little pats on the backs, which is fun.
GONZALEZ: You know, as a writing teacher, I’ve found that’s one of the most helpful things I can do too is for students to just share some of their ideas, because it helps other kids think of their own ideas when they hear somebody else’s. They’re like, “Oh, that makes me think of this. I’m going to try that.”
ENOS: Absolutely, absolutely. I love the discussion feature.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. OK, so the first task is for them to just go in and participate in this discussion with these two main points. And then the next two columns after that are “Notes” and then “Date completed.” So the students, I’m assuming, enter their own date completed once they’ve done the thing, they go into the “Date completed” and put the date? Or do you do it?
ENOS: Yeah. Nope, the students put it in, and I kind of equate that as almost like a timecard, so that they have to keep track of what they’ve accomplished. I should be able to pull up any student’s Google Doc, and I do share them through Google Classroom, which automatically makes a copy for each student.
ENOS: And as soon as they open it, I have access to it, so I can go in and see, “Oh, yep. We’ve got these four steps completed.” So they are responsible, which I didn’t necessarily realize at the beginning, but with eighth-graders, that was almost like a new thing for them, for some of them, to be responsible for … just because you did a step, if you don’t mark it, I can’t see that it’s done. I have ways of checking if I go into the, whatever it is that they’re working on, but I wanted to re-emphasize, you need to keep track of what you’re working on. And then the “Notes” section specifically, is notes that they take. So maybe they finish an activity, or maybe they need to go back, or maybe they need to make a note to ask Ms. Enos about something or email me about something. So those are their notes for them personally.
GONZALEZ: OK, so then the next activity that you’ve got on this one is just for them to go sign up for an account on EDpuzzle, and you’ve given them instructions. So it’s nice, because there’s a real mix of activities. Some of them are just super quick to-dos that they can just take care of in no time, and then other things are probably things that’ll take them much longer.
ENOS: Exactly. But I felt too like including those short little things gives them a sense of accomplishment. It’s almost like when you write tasks in your to-dos. You just like to mark it off, check it as done. So yep, you’ve gone on.
ENOS: Which is kind of fun … for me.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. I agree too. If you break something down into small bits it’s, yeah. You get a lot of a sense of accomplishment. So I just want to look at one more activity so people get a sense of the variety. The next one is a link to a video lesson on EDpuzzle. And you even say on the directions, “You will need earbuds for this lesson,” which I think is great, because this is so, kind of, open-ended. You can really give as much detail as you want to in the directions, telling kids whatever it is that they need to do, and then there’s a practice section that they need to complete at the end of the document. And so it’s sort of all there for them, and they just work through this at their own pace, right?
ENOS: Yep, exactly.
ENOS: And then you’ll see there are intermittently points where they need to check in with me, so they are structured within there. Just points where we kind of go over whatever it is that we’re looking at. If it’s their graphic organizer or something, just so that we can touch base. And it’s nice when it’s kind of more sporadic. If I’ve got a class of 26, I can’t check in with everyone at the same time, but with the playlist, it’s more scattered, which is great.
GONZALEZ: Yes, I can see this. So it’s after step number 5, after they’ve started to develop their plot, and you’ve given them two different ways that they can actually document that they’re developing their plot, then they have to check in with you, and so that’s really nice. Another thing that I noticed on here is that in some of the “Date completed” cells, you have actually manually entered what date it has to be done. So like, they have to have their first draft submitted by a certain date, and you’ve written that in there. That’s not something that they put, so that will kind of keep them on track, so that they get it done, at minimum, by a certain time?
ENOS: Exactly. So although they are working on the journey at their own pace so they can decide — some writers spend more time with pre-writing, some writers are just ready to jump into drafting — there are still deadlines within the task. And they’re not arbitrary. For my rough drafts, I always have them due on a Friday, so that I have the weekend to read, you know? I’m sure we all know that. So if a student didn’t turn it in, it’s not that I’m penalizing them for not getting it in on the due date, it’s just that I might not have enough time to read it before you want feedback. You know what I mean? So they’re not arbitrary, but it’s real life. They can’t take three weeks to work on something that we only have two weeks to do. You know what I mean? So it’s a kind of combination.
GONZALEZ: And so this really does … gosh, for an eighth-grader, I’m thinking some kids don’t have a chance to practice these, I mean, these are executive functioning skills, basically.
GONZALEZ: They don’t get a chance to even apply this stuff until college, which is why a lot of college students fall on their face freshman year.
ENOS: Exactly, the time management, even as far as what’s homework and what’s not homework. So the students realize, “These are the tasks that I need to accomplish.” Maybe you did a lot in class the past couple of days, so don’t worry about taking anything home if you feel that you’re on a good pace. Or maybe you’ve just had a rough couple of days in class that you just want to spend some time at home. So they get to choose even the place as far as where this is being accomplished.
GONZALEZ: Got it. That’s nice. So they give themselves homework.
ENOS: They do, yeah.
GONZALEZ: And so, this is it. This is your class for a month, roughly. This is what’s going on. There’s not something else separately also happening.
ENOS: No. We might do reading. Usually at the beginning, too, we’ll do independent reading for 10 minutes or so, but this is our main focus.
Handling Varied Student Pacing
GONZALEZ: OK. So one of my main questions, and I know a lot of teachers are going to ask this, is … well I’ve got two. We’ve got the go-getters and the slackers. Let’s talk about the slackers first. What happens, and I’m assuming that this does happen, when you give this much freedom and independence to students, and some of them just do not make good use of their time? How do you manage that?
ENOS: Well, my first instinct would be to try to get them to work on something that they feel is important and relevant to their life, something that they’re interested in. so if it is a writing task, I’m going to do everything I can to get them a topic that they’re passionate about, that they’re interested in. So hopefully, that encourages engagement, because it’s something that they’re interested in, you know? When we do short stories, I let them choose what they’re writing about. I don’t give them, necessarily, a topic to write about what you did over the summer. So I work with them a lot at the beginning, just to kind of make sure that it’s something that they’re interested in. Then I also, doing the blended learning, I am able to float around a lot, so I’m able to touch base and speak to students on an individual level just to kind of check in with them, make suggestions, give them alternatives and a variety of different activities helped that as well. So if they’re working on the short stories, so maybe they get to … it might be work on your piece, and when you’re ready to add some dialogue, check out this dialogue lesson and this dialogue game. So some kids might just be playing a game on BrainRush, which kind of gets them excited, so I think the variety of activities helps as well. And also, eighth-graders are very social. So I try to put them into groups as much as we can, so if they’re working on a draft, if they’ve got to that point where I think that they can use, you know, a peer adviser or somebody to work through some problems with them, and I trust them and then they’ve proven themselves that they can work on tasks and be productive, I’ll let them work in groups. So we’ve got lots of different things going on in the classroom.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
ENOS: Which I think helps.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. I know that one of the things, and you and I talked about this before we started to record, but we talked about episode 30 of my podcast where I interviewed Natalie McCutchen, and this is the one about self-paced learning. And she has a similar system to this, but she’s a math teacher, and there’s a little bit more, sort of, assessment that goes on.
GONZALEZ: But one of the things that she does — and I want to mention this for anybody who’s listening, tell me how you think this would work with yours — for kids who just aren’t on task and are not sort of getting with the system on their own, she sort of removes the privilege of working independently, and she has them work in a group with her. And so she treats the playlist, as it were, as a privilege that has to be earned, and if the students demonstrate that they can make good use of their time, then they get that privilege, otherwise it reverts back to more traditional instruction with her, which I think, it sounds like a lot of the students would rather not have that.
ENOS: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, I think that could definitely work, even with as far as, like, the lessons, because a lot of times when we’re doing writing, the main lessons are a good meat of it. So if it’s “How to write a thesis statement,” if I feel like a student isn’t going to really focus on a video, I might pull them aside and say, “Listen. I’m just going to do this lesson one-to-one with you.” So it could be like a literal thing. Actually, I started putting that choice in my later playlists, giving them the options so even if a kid is more comfortable with a face-to-face instruction, I’ve built that right into my playlist, “Look at this video on EDpuzzle, or see me for a face-to-face lesson.” So sometimes it works for kids who have trouble focusing, or kids that just prefer that way.
ENOS: So it’s nice and flexible enough. And, because you have all the other kids working on the playlist, you can spend that extra time … even the math teacher, she is able to do that, because the students are working through their playlists.
GONZALEZ: Everybody else is engaged and busy …
ENOS: Exactly, which you couldn’t necessarily do, you know, with a regular structure.
GONZALEZ: Right. So what about early finishers? You’ve got these deadlines, and these are sort of as late as possible, so what about the kids that work quickly and get everything done, and then they have sort of five days to spare?
ENOS: See, it’s funny, because in English that doesn’t really happen.
GONZALEZ: That’s interesting.
ENOS: Because, in my opinion, it’s like art. Any piece of art, an artist isn’t finished, they just stop, you know?
ENOS: So there’s always things that they can go in and challenge themselves, and if we build in the different tiered activities or responsibilities, so to speak, you’re not just using punctuation right, but you’re using it as an artist. So we’re going in there and playing around with different things. It doesn’t happen very often that I have a student finish so early, because they can always go in and do something with writing, in my opinion.
ENOS: My sister, she does teach math, which I know, they have a specific amount to cover, so her response was to actually set up a separate class in Google Classroom where she calls “The Class of Champions.” And it’s extra work, kind of like deeper stuff, really interesting material that the kids are working on, challenges where they can earn special privileges and different things like that. But once a student finishes a unit, they have to come see her to get the secret code to The Class of Champions, and then they get to join the class. And she teaches freshmen, so these aren’t elementary kids, but they were digging this, and they have to join the class, and then they’re kind of part of this, like, secret, elite club, where she can share different things, she posts little contests, and it’s just kind of fun.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. See, she’s making it something special, and not just extra work that they have to do.
ENOS: Exactly, and nobody knows who’s working on what, you know? In her classroom, she had a student in her classroom that wasn’t even literally doing algebra. They were new, there was no room in another class, so they don’t even know what the kids are working on, because they’re all kind of working on their own projects and different things like that. So it was just … it’s just a really cool use of technology for that.
GONZALEZ: Definitely. Yeah, because I was going to ask you, with writing, I agree with you that because it’s an art, you’re never really finished. So then I was looking at your skills lab, this is one of the other playlists that I’m going to put up for people to see, and this is pretty much just straight parts of speech, you know, grammar stuff.
ENOS: Yes. This is my experiment for the year. I haven’t done this yet. This is the first time I’ve done it. I’ve always kind of taught, you know, I do Sentences of the Week with the kids, so we all kind of work on the same skills week after week, so to speak, not every single week. But really, grammar is by far, I feel, like an area in English where you have such vast differences and abilities, so I said, “This is just going to be perfect to work on grammar.” So these are going to be the part of speech is my review, because hopefully eighth grade, they definitely should come to me knowing this, although they need a little kick at the beginning, so hopefully it won’t take long. But then it’s my goal that once they finish playlist one, I’m going to have a whole series of them, so they’re just going to kind of move on at their own pace, and I’ve got kids who are still … they don’t understand how to punctuate with a comma, they’re going to stay a little bit longer through the playlist.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
Individualizing Assignments for Different Student Needs
GONZALEZ: Got it, OK. So I want to return to this idea of the individualization that you do. So I’m looking, again, at the short story playlist, and I’m going to go down to items number 9 and 10, because you’ve got all the other activities mapped out for the students to work through, but then 9 and 10 say, “Personalized activity for focus number 1” and then “number 2,” and it’s just question marks under the directions. So how do you manage … I’m assuming that you have over a hundred students or roughly that amount.
GONZALEZ: OK. So how does that work for you? How does that get filled in?
ENOS: Well it gets filled in, this is my shout out to Kelly Gallagher, because this is all Kelly Gallagher, how once I read the rough drafts, I decide — typically it’s two different focuses. One craft focus, where we’re working on, you know, writing as an art, and then one editing focus where there might be some type of issue on punctuation. So this is where my eager beavers come in. If I could get some of the rough drafts turned in early, by not giving them a specific “All drafts are due today,” I do get some turned in early, so it kind of breaks it up a little bit, which is nice.
ENOS: And I might even stagger the dates. I teach four ELA classes, but I might stagger the days they’re turning them in just for sanity’s sake.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, I did the same thing. You can’t read a hundred essays in one day. Yeah, right.
ENOS: No. And, yeah. And as I make comments, I read their drafts on Google Docs. I never ever thought that I would be able to read a student work on Google Docs, but I do, and I love it.
ENOS: Anyone who’s still printing them out should stop and try this, because I can give feedback. I use Google Keep, and I keep a set of, because we’re constantly giving the same feedback to students over and over again, so I can copy and paste a lot of my comments that I’ve used in the past. So that kind of makes things quicker as well. And then I just … I also have a survey, it should be on the playlist too, where I ask the kids, “What do you want to work on? What do you want to focus on for your piece?” So I take what they want to, their input, and what I got from their draft, and I just choose two things to focus on, because if we give too many things, it’s just going to overwhelm them.
GONZALEZ: Yes, I agree, I agree.
ENOS: Yeah. I try to make it a quick, “OK, yeah, this sounds good. Let’s work on your transitions. Let’s work on your opening,” those kinds of things. I don’t give them the activity right away. So I give them the comments, I return their draft back to them. Usually the next day is more like a digesting kind of day where they look through my comments. And the next three or four days, I’ll just kind of choose … I’ll group students together who have same focuses, and then I’ll add it onto their playlist. So they might walk in, and I’ll say, “Open up your playlists, guys. See if anyone has any individualized revision activities.” They’ll open it up and see, “Oh. I’m supposed to work with this person today.” So it’s not necessarily … they don’t all go in at once.
ENOS: It’s kind of throughout the—whatever, how many days we have for revision. Definitely not all at once.
GONZALEZ: OK. Are there often duplicates? Do you sort of see, “All 2o of these kids, I’m going to give them this extra work in dialogue,” or something like that? Or is it completely individualized for every single student?
ENOS: No, it is grouped.
ENOS: It is grouped by common needs, you know.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
ENOS: Because of something like “punctuating dialogue,” there are a number of people that are just going to need practice with that, but that’s fun, because then I can group them. If I’ve got four or five kids in one class that really need that, I can have them work together.
GONZALEZ: Yes. And you might just assign them to go to another EDpuzzle activity, or would you even give them a lesson in a grammar book to look at?
ENOS: Yep, sure, yeah. Depending on the thing I’ve collected … I have a Google Doc where I have my different revision activities, and I do, I either make them myself or I find a YouTube video, or sometimes it’s just literally sit down with this person and talk this through. Yeah, so it’s all very depending on … some of it’s me leading the lesson, some of it’s in EDpuzzle.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it.
ENOS: Super flexible.
Introducing Playlists to Students
GONZALEZ: OK. So you’re getting ready to start a new school year here in just a few weeks, correct?
ENOS: Yes. Yep. We start at the end of the month.
GONZALEZ: So fresh batch of kids. Probably a lot of them have never seen a playlist or heard of it before, except they probably are very familiar with it from their own electronics, but how do you actually introduce this and sort of train students in how to use these at the beginning of the school year?
ENOS: Well the first step that I’ve really discovered is very important is to just kind of go over the format of the playlist, the expectations about what the class should look like, and how they need to be prepared. And I also really emphasize that it’s not me telling you necessarily what to do, but I’m putting you in control of your learning environment, so you are given a lot of responsibility, but you need to step up and see the value in that. And one of the things that surprised me when I first started to do this is how students are so used to us just handing them something to do, and then they do it and turn it back. They’re not generally given a lot of responsibility as far as looking at something, really digging in, looking up the directions, following the steps or organizing their time. They’re not doing that. They didn’t have a problem with the activity when they first started. It was really the directions, and I would have kids, like, if it was something as simple as “Log into EDpuzzle.” Each class has a different code, so maybe they would log in, but they would ignore the code, and they would sign up for a different class. So it was just things like … or if I said, “You’ve got a choice from either this or this,” two different choices, they would do both of them, because they weren’t necessarily looking closely at the directions.
ENOS: So it really helped train the kids to really pay attention to what it said. And I was shocked by that, but at the same time, kind of like, “Thank God that we’re doing this now at 13 that you are getting into the habit of being self sufficient.”
ENOS: Or if it was even like, “I don’t know how to use this tool,” I’ve started to put in my playlist, Techie Tricks or different things like that, so I’m giving them little hints and little things to check out, so that they can … “Oh, let me search on YouTube how do I do this.” And they can, you know? So they’re getting more independent, which is a complete side effect that I wasn’t expecting. I just wanted to help them write better, you know? But I feel like that management, and figuring those things out, and the more playlists I do, the more choice I’m getting as far as, “You can do this or this or this, or hey, if you have another idea, come and see me.” So I feel like they’re getting more independent. At the beginning, they are going to need help, you know. They have to remember to bring earbuds. I mean, it’s just those kinds of things. My sister, it’s funny, when she did it, she actually had a student that I had had the year before, and they were starting their playlist at the beginning of the year, and they were using EDpuzzle. And Heather, my sister, was walking around, and she noticed the student was actually watching one of my EDpuzzles about writing in the math class, and Heather was like, “What are you doing? You’re not even paying attention to what you’re doing.” She just went on autopilot and wasn’t even thinking, because you just get so used to people saying, “Open to this page. Do this, do this, do this.”
ENOS: So it’s just a … that was the thing that surprised me. So really be explicit in the directions would be my recommendation. Really make sure that they go through and fill out those things, the date completed, if they need to make notes. So just really hold them accountable for their learning instead of just sitting there and digesting it …
ENOS: … that they are in charge, so they are responsible.
ENOS: And they will step up to that.
GONZALEZ: I wonder, it might almost make sense for a teacher who is just going to get started with this for the first time to make a shorter playlist and something that might not be as high stakes in terms of the students’ grades, just to run through it for like a week and see how everybody does to give them some training and practice with it.
ENOS: Absolutely, yeah, that’s a great idea.
GONZALEZ: So, OK. I got a couple more questions, because I’m looking at some of these. You’ve got, I want to remember to ask you about how long it takes you to plan for this ahead of time, and I want to ask you about grading. But first, I’m looking now at your dystopian literature book club student playlist. This one is students chose a novel to read, and they got into groups, which is something that a lot of language arts teachers do, you put kids in groups, and they have a book club where they read a book together. So you’ve actually got the path kind of laid out for them of how the steps that they need to take as part of this book club. However, so some of it is, you know, just set some goals as a group, set up your reading schedule, and all of that makes perfect sense, then I scroll down, and they’ve got all these check-ins with you and everything, but then you’ve got a couple of Common Core standards here about, like number 12, it says, “Find a theme from a novel and analyze its development over the course of a story.” You’ve got another one where they have to analyze lines of dialogue. And what you’ve done is you’ve just copied the text of the standard in that first column. Under “Directions,” all you have written is, “What does the standard look like, and how will we show mastery of the standard?”
GONZALEZ: What’s that? You’re throwing it to the kids there?
ENOS: I’m totally throwing it to the kids. So it was my goal, I wanted to book clubs, but I didn’t necessarily want to lay out what it looked like. I wanted it to be individualized. And lately I’ve just been all about, “This is what we need to do. How can you show me that you’ve mastered this?” So really, just putting the ball in their court. And instead of me saying, “OK, we’re going to do this Venn diagram” of whatever it is, but I think the kids think about it deeper, because not only do they have to understand the standards, and I put some of the standards into eighth-grade-ese, because some of them are very confusing, so they had to really look at what was being asked of them, and then come up with an activity or something that would show that. And I felt that that was really important as far as both ensuring that the kids were really thinking about what they were doing instead of just being on autopilot. And then also, they can dig deeper into their text that way. So it was the first time I’d ever done that. Actually it was the first time I’d ever done book clubs, but it was really interesting. I really enjoyed doing it. I’m going to continue doing it.
GONZALEZ: Can you give me an example of something … so the kids came up with their own activity, basically, for demonstrating mastery of those standards.
ENOS: Yeah. So, for example, the point of view standard. It talks about how point of view affects the story. So one student, they chose to do diary entries from a different character’s point of view, so they did a little bit of creative writing, so that was, you know, how they chose. Or maybe it was about character analysis, so some group did a collage based on a character, and matched it up with some text evidence from the book. So some kids did physical things, some kids did digital things, and they all had options and choice depending on their groups and what they were interested in.
ENOS: And what really stuck out, because I had 20 different books at the same time.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, I remember you talking about this. That was nuts.
ENOS: So I knew I couldn’t give … and they were dystopian themed, but I was using “dystopian” a little bit loose. Because just to match different genres, not everyone’s into sci-fi, so I had some realistic things, so I needed something really open-ended, so that they can apply it to their books, so it worked out perfectly.
GONZALEZ: How did they like having that opportunity? How did they respond to it? Did you have some kids that were just like, “Uh, we don’t know what to do. Just tell us”?
ENOS: Absolutely. Yep. “What does this mean? I don’t understand.”
ENOS: Yeah, absolutely. Because they’re so used to playing the game of school.
ENOS: You know? They’re just used to doing that, so I feel like the more and more that we put ownership on the kids and have them in the driver’s seat of the experience, you know, part of me doesn’t even want to give suggestions. I gave some suggestions …
GONZALEZ: Right, yep.
ENOS: … but part of me just doesn’t even want to do it, because they, you know, it’s a lot easier for someone to say, “Oh, why don’t you make a Venn diagram to show the differences and similarities?”
ENOS: Absolutely. So they had to work through that. It was helpful that they were together in a group, so they could bounce ideas off of each other.
GONZALEZ: Did they have to get their ideas approved by you? I mean, I would think at some point somebody would have to have just like made a complete misfire and been like, “Eh, that’s probably not going to … “ Were all ideas accepted?
ENOS: Yeah. You know, they were. The points that they could really hit on were more flexible, so if they can justify it to me. And I kind of checked in, because as they’re working, I could, because it was on the Google Doc, I could access everything that they were doing, and I could check in with them. So yeah. We didn’t have any problems with anyone doing something completely different.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it.
ENOS: I would be intrigued if they thought … that would almost intrigue me. Be like, “Where … what are you thinking?”
ENOS: Yeah. And just as a side note too: This was the very last thing that we did, so we did it right up to the end of the year.
ENOS: So they were working on the standards things when a lot of other classes were having parties and watching movies and different things like that, so they were in it, they were very engaged with their text, and they loved working in groups. And I think doing that at the beginning, making sure they chose what they were working with and what they were working on, I strategically put them into groups with people that they liked, and that were interested in the same thing. It really helped.
GONZALEZ: Nice. I’m remembering now you talking about this unit at the end of the year and how excited you were that everybody else was just packing up their rooms and fooling around, and your kids were doing rigorous, academic work and happy to do it.
ENOS: Yeah, it was crazy. You don’t see a lot of 13-year-olds just reading. Like, they were silently reading on our reading days for a good chunk of the period, and it was perfect. They were great.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. I love dystopian literature though. I mean, that’ll grab most people pretty well.
GONZALEZ: OK. I’ve got another pragmatic question. You’re in a standards-based grading school, is that right?
ENOS: We are. Yep.
ENOS: We are standards-based. We finished our second year last year.
GONZALEZ: All right. So that’s almost like a whole separate podcast that I still have not even touched on standard-based grading at all on my blog. So this … I think teachers who work in a traditional grading school, I would imagine that for entering these activities in the grade book, they could just assign points to each one as they’re completed, and then they go into the grade book as they’re done. Is that how you would handle it if you were in a regular school that didn’t do standard-base?
ENOS: Yeah. I mean … or I would probably … honestly, I don’t know if I would add … that would be classwork kind of activities as we were going.
ENOS: I would maybe have shorter, you know, kind of units and do like a little unit quiz or something at the end.
ENOS: At the high school, they are not standards-based, so my sister used the playlist in a regular, traditional classroom, and I think that’s kind of what it looked on. So they weren’t necessarily grading homework, you know, or classwork, so to speak, but it really was just about learning …
ENOS: … the material, so they had like a quiz.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, so like some of the steps. Like step number 8 might be a graded assignment, step number 15 might be a graded assignment, and then some of the other ones are just for completion?
ENOS: Exactly. Or like, for the writing unit, do you have your rough draft in on time?
ENOS: You know, you don’t necessarily need to grade it, but you can give it some type of effort equivalent grade.
How Long Does it Take to Prepare a Playlist?
GONZALEZ: Got it. OK. I want to make sure … the other question I was going to ask you, and I think this is kind of an obvious answer, but I want to make sure I cover it, is that this seems like it could take a lot of planning up front, because you have to have the playlist basically finished before you hand it over to students? Or have you given them half-completed playlists?
ENOS: No. And it does take some time up front. I tend to have all of the playlists complete. I might have, except for, like, the individualized parts.
GONZALEZ: Right. Leave some gaps.
ENOS: I lucked out, because I started teaching eighth grade, I was at the high school previously, the year we got Chromebooks, so I was recreating everything. Like I said, the dystopian book club, this is the first time I’ve done that, so I was creating everything at the beginning. I was just doing it anyway.
ENOS: I like to have the idea in my head. It does take time at the beginning. You could have … that’s the nice thing about Google Docs too. It’s not like I’m giving them a handout, you know, that they’re going to have a hard copy. I can go in and change things.
ENOS: Or I could say, “Everybody skip this step,” or maybe I can go in and change, you know, if I want to redo the video, I can go in and change that or add it. There’s a lot of flexibility with technology that if you don’t have everything necessarily ready, you can add it, you can change it. Just put an announcement in Classroom, “There’s a new video for this.” It’s very flexible, but I like to get everything done beforehand.
GONZALEZ: That’s really good planning anyway, because if you don’t really know where you want them to end up. I mean, I’m such a strong believer in backward design anyway.
GONZALEZ: So if you don’t really know where you’re trying to end up with them, it’s kind of … it’s too haphazard. OK. I’m just so excited that we got to kind of dissect this whole process, because I just … I feel like this could become such a thing in education where it’s just such a standard format for teachers, do you know? Because it’s so intuitive if we have this technology to be able to just set things up this way. And anyway, just thank you for bringing this up and … who came up with the name “playlist” by the way? Was that you or your sister or this other teacher?
ENOS: The other teacher. His name is Jason Appel, and he does playlists in a math class. He was the first one that I’ve heard, but I love it, because we know what playlists are.
ENOS: So it’s, to me, it’s just really relevant.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. You kind of get it right away.
ENOS: I thought it was a really good point. Yeah. And it’s fun.
Should You Use Playlists All the Time?
ENOS: And I don’t do … a lot of math teachers, my sister, she did playlists all throughout the year. I don’t do playlists for everything, because especially in an English class, I feel like there are some things that I want to do as a class.
ENOS: So I might do a playlist to introduce Anne Frank and the Holocaust, but when we read the play, we do it together as a class.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
ENOS: You know?
GONZALEZ: That’s an important point.
ENOS: Or a short story unit. Because I think having that balance is really powerful.
GONZALEZ: You want to have some experiences together as a whole class.
ENOS: And then, even in any subject, find that point where you have that vast difference in abilities, because now, I know most schools, they don’t have college prep kids or general kids …
ENOS: … everyone’s mixed together. So find that place, that kind of sweet spot in your curriculum, where you’ve got vast differences, and then seize that for an opportunity to really blend it. And a lot of people think, “Oh, you’re just giving kids activities. They’re not having personalization or meeting with you face-to-face,” but that’s the complete opposite. I have way more time to meet with kids individually when I have them working on a playlist.
ENOS: So it’s great. We’re still learning. Last year was my first year doing it. We have a saying in West Warwick that we are not experts, we’re explorers, so we see something that needs to be changed, and we just try things out and find what works for us.
ENOS: I’ve got another eighth grade English teacher who uses her warm-ups or like a bellringer equivalent as a playlist. So she’s got five different little activities, and if the kid rushes through or even if a kid does it at home, because they want to read their books or something, that’s fine. It’s up to them. They know they need to get this work done. So just find what works for you …
ENOS: … which is the beauty of Google Docs and the flexibility. Not everything’s going to look the same, but the possibilities are endless, so it’s just fun.
ENOS: It’s fun to be a teacher right now.
GONZALEZ: It is. Thank you so much. I’m going to have copies of three of your sample playlists up for people to look at on the website. So after this recording, I’ll say which episode this is going to be, because I’m still not totally sure, and then people will be able to go and look at those more carefully so that they can see those examples.
ENOS: Awesome, sounds great.
GONZALEZ: Thank you so much, Tracy.
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