Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Accessing MY Access!

Hello Colleagues!

Ms. Spring is toying with us again! Because she splits her time with winter, it's hard to believe both warmer weather and fourth quarter are at hand! As the school year winds down, so does the roll-out of two important programs: Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) and MY Access! My last posting discusses the what and why-fores of implementing SRI, and obviously, this entry explores "MY Access!" (MA), the online writing program developed by Vantage Learning.

The draw to using this tool is the "program's powerful scoring engine [that scores] students' essays instantly and provides targeted feedback, freeing teachers from [scoring] thousands of papers by hand, [thus] giving them more time to conduct differentiated instruction and curriculum planning" (Vantage Learning). This does not mean teachers do not read or grade their students' writing. It does mean, however, that students can write more, receive instant feedback, revise numerous times, and improve their scores before handing in a final copy that the teacher will grade.

Jordan School District piloted this program during the 2007-08 school year with five schools: two middle and three high schools on both sides of the district. Starting with the 2008-09, 17 schools requested that the program be extended to their students. Because of a joint venture with several other school districts, JSD was able to do this. Over the summer, fall, and winter, "lead" teachers from the 17 schools received training that they passed onto their language arts colleagues.

While LA teachers are the initial users, it hoped that MY Access! content area teachers will use this tool in their classrooms as well. Many of the prompts address topics in science, social studies, math, and other content areas. For example, one middle school health teacher saw how she could use a MA pilot prompt about "crossing the Rubicon" (going beyond the point of no return). She wants her students to write about a life choice they might make where there would be no turning back and how that would affect the rest of their lives.

Teachers' responses to MY Access! have been overwhelmingly positive. This is not to say that glitches and problems are not present, but the strengths of the program currently outweigh the weaknesses. At a meeting where we discussed "praises & problems," we heard comments about students who rarely wrote a word in the past. Not only were they composing, they were revising over and over to improve their writing. Several other responses noted the improvement in student-teacher dialogue about writing. Teachers noted the elevated discourse that used understood common vocabulary, thus improving process and product.

One of my favorite teacher comments came from Terry Jensen of Valley High School. He said his students look at raising their writing scores in the same light as raising their video game scores. While that may not be the best motivation for writing, it does get them writing!

After listening to teachers' comments, I wanted to know what students thought about MY Access!, so I asked for volunteers to allow me to visit classrooms and interview students. Jill Jenkins and Shauna Mitchell of South Jordan Middle School kindly invited me to talk with their kids, and it was a terrific experience because of their willing and candid remarks! While I cannot list all their comments, I do want to share several responses with visitors and followers of Link2Literacy.

  • Not every student in Jill Jenkins' third period loves to write, but they agree with their classmate Eric that if they have to, they'd rather write with MY Access! as it helps them be better writers.
  • Jordan was writing his first draft of a letter to Governor Huntsman about the driving age. (By the way, he does not want that age raised to 18.) He said he likes the fact that he can get feedback that helps improve his writing.
  • Carlie and Carlee said they really liked the preparation for DWA that the program provided.
  • Jessica talked about the feedback. Most the time it’s right on, but she’s smart enough to realize it’s still a program that occasionally suggests replacing overused words that don’t make sense. For example, “housework” for homework.
  • Kendal submitted a request to Vantage Learning. He’d like MY Access! to indicate spelling and grammar errors as he writes – like Microsoft Word.
  • Kyle mentioned he raised his score from 4.5 to 5.3 by adding transitions and an example. He also noted that his teacher guided him through this revision process.

When I interviewed the 24 students in Mrs. Mitchell's second period a few days later, only one student said he liked to write. But when I asked how many thought MA helped ease the pain of writing, all hands went up. Furthermore, 17 students indicated that they submit more than one revision, and 21 have used MA at home. Here are some comments from Mrs. M's students:

  • Jace appreciates the way MA helps writers change what they don't like, especially "voice."
  • Dane said he keeps revising until his score is better than a "4," while Connor revises his writing until the work surpasses the "proficient" standard.
  • Parker and Tyler feel MA helps them become better writers because of the instant feedback, and Parker added that now he develops his writing more, and the "voice" is stronger.
  • Colton recognizes that ultimately he has the option to change or not change his writing as suggested by the feedback's recommendations. Ultimately, he knows he's still in charge.
  • Amanda really likes the Wizards that help her organize her thoughts before writing.
  • Sarah, like Kendal in Mrs. Jenkins' class, wishes MA would embed spell and grammar checks into the program, but when I asked the class why that might NOT be a good idea, we concluded that students may learn more by revisiting the errors before correcting them.

I also visited Mrs. Jenkins' ninth grade honors class, and received many of the same positive responses. One student, however, stated that MY Access! was not helpful at all. She feels confident in her own writing and thinks the feedback is ineffective. A few other students agreed with her in part, noting that sometimes the score was significantly higher or lower than the ultimate grade they received from their teacher.

The bottom line is that MY Access! is a tool for both teachers and students, and as with any tool, we can use it when we need it. Young writers and their teachers are still in charge of how and when to use MY Access!

Some teachers are much more confident with the program than others. For teachers who feel less than confident and have little time to "play around" with the program, I recommend that you click onto the "Resource and Training Center," and then scroll down to "MY Access! Instructional Documentation" heading. "Lesson Plans" is the 16th entry, and the last choice after the heading is "MY Access! Instructional Units." Checkout these two options to find step-by-step units and lesson plans for various genres and topics. THEY ARE EXCELLENT!! By using them with your students, you will learn so much about this program and your students will, too. Best of all, I wager they will enjoy a positive and successful writing experience!

Please leave your comments. I'd love to hear from you!

Take care, my friends,