Get off the stage, sage

I have a confession to make.  I don’t know how to write computer code.  I don’t know how to animate digital art.  And I don’t know how to create 3D architectural designs.

So how could I possibly teach a class in which my students are learning these skills?

If we waited until we had coding teachers and animation teachers and architectural design teachers, our students would never encounter these potential careers until college. So rather than make them wait, I decided to let my 8th graders take advantage of the online tutorials and free programs that allow anyone to teach themselves coding, animation, architectural drawing, and more.

If a 3rd grader can code and sell apps in the Google Play store, and a 17-year-old can become a millionaire by selling his own app to Yahoo, then clearly our students don’t have to wait for teachers to impart knowledge. They can go out and find it on their own. Just listen to Sam, Luke and Dakota talk about the coding journey they’ve been on in my Digital Media class:

It was 1988, my first year of teaching, when I heard that teachers should be less a “sage on the stage” and more a “guide on the side.”  And here we are, 26 years later, and teachers still need to be encouraged to let go of their role as the all-knowing sage and let students learn through hands-on projects and outside sources. With so much available to our students via the internet, why don’t we let them explore and learn through experience?

As Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org, says, the problem facing our future coders isn’t that coding isn’t cool. The problem is that coding isn’t available.  Let’s give our kids a chance to discover coding — whether as a hobby or a future career — but let’s not wait until we have coding teachers and coding classes.  It’s time to find ways to guide from the side. Time to get off the stage, sage.

They need to learn to yearn

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Programs like the Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School inspire me to keep looking for ways to give my students as much control over their own learning as I can. In my 8th grade English classes, students choose the novels they want to read, the genres of writing they want to tackle, and the topics they want to research. But it wasn’t until I started teaching a digital media elective class that I was able to give my students genuine control over their learning. I built a resource website and loaded it up with project ideas, program suggestions (almost all of them free) and links to video tutorials so that students could choose and learn on their own.

The result has been a learning experience for all of us: my students, as they learn to make use of so much freedom; and me, as my role as teacher transitions to one of resource, coach and guide.

As one would expect, some students thrive in this environment. They find what they’re interested in, search out resources to learn more, and take off. Other students jump from project to project, learning a little about one, a little about another. And then there are those students who struggle with the freedom. They shrug their shoulders, say “I dunno,” and are listless and bored without someone telling them what to do.

I’m pretty sure, though, that I need to gently push them to search out their own interests, take advantage of self-teaching resources, and create products of their own design. How else will they some day make decisions about high school classes, college majors, life hobbies, career options? Making all the decisions for our kids, whether it’s which sport to play or what to do in their free time, robs them of the opportunity to learn how to take charge of their own learning and their own lives.

A typical class for my digital media students starts with me sharing project ideas or tutorials, and then we pull out the laptops and off to work the students go, some continuing a project, some starting a new one, some solo, some in partners or groups. Here are some projects-in-progress this semester…

Lindsey uses an online tutorial to create 3D animations with Blender:

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Ryan plots his computer game, first on graph paper and then with AgentSheets:

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Andrea designs her own info-graphic resume with re.vu:

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Chris crafts a 3D sculpture with Sculptris:

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Jolene uses a Wacom tablet and SketchbookExpress to create drawings of her favorite characters:

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Hands are hard, especially backwards and knuckles:

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Jolene is also building a digital portfolio of her art work:

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T.J. and Isabella use Gimp to edit Minecraft stacks:

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Ernan works on a how-to-draw movie; Ian helps to get the camera angle right:

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Danielle uses SketchUp, a 3D architectural modeling program, to design a Japanese garden :

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Dakota, Sam, Luke and Greg have formed their own company, each taking on a specific role in the development of an app game. They have been teaching themselves how to code so they can build their app from scratch:

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Molly explores cartooning with SketchbookExpress:

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James films Miguel’s sleight-of-hand to make an intro short for our school news show:

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Sara uses WeVideo to make a book review movie for her English class:

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Domenic works on a movie to submit to the first White House Student Film Festival:

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Simon adds a car to his computer game that he is programming with the help of Alice:

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One of the best outcomes of my kids-in-charge classroom is that my students experience failure in a relatively risk-free environment. They have time to learn from their mistakes, revise, start over and abandon projects without the threat of a failing grade intimidating their learning.

In reflecting on his first movie, Jacob said, “I had to fail over and over again before I got it right.  I’m really proud of how it finally turned out.”  And when I told Dakota that he and his team of coders would need to document their journey, he said, “It will be full of our failures!” How often do kids smile when reporting on their own failures?  Dakota has learned that failures have been an important part of the learning process that is getting him closer to selling his own app game.

How do you give your students opportunities to learn to yearn? Are they choosing what to study? Or how to demonstrate their learning?  I would love to hear below how you put students in the driver’s seat of their education.

 

 

 

Fighting for the dream, continued

This was my very first blog post, written in 2011, in response to my growing frustrations and fears over NCLB.  I had met and spoken with Stephen Krashen, who encouraged me to start blogging, to get my voice of experience out there for others to hear.  Although our ongoing battles in education may not compare to the historic (and ongoing) struggles for civil rights, we do know that inequality in the schools contributes a great deal to inequality in opportunities: opportunities for higher education, income, job security, health care, etc.  While NCLB may be on its way out, the Common Core and its Smarter Balanced Assessments are on their way in.  And so the struggle  continues…

Ten years ago [now 13], President George W. Bush, in whose symbolic shadow our children now shiver, signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of children who had been seared in the flames of educational injustice. It promised a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their inferior education.

But ten years later, many children have indeed been left behind. Ten years later, many children’s minds are still sadly crippled by the manacles of under-funded schools and the chains of standardized tests. Ten years later, many children still live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Ten years later, many children still languish in the corners of American schools and find themselves an exile in their own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

When the architects of our education system wrote the magnificent words of every state standard and the questions and multiple-choice answers on every state test, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all children, yes, all children of America, would be offered a quality, rigorous education. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her children and schools and teachers are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its children and schools and teachers a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of education is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of learning and the security of education.

I know that not all of my students come from homes where parents have read to them, fed them nutritious meals, engaged them in healthy activities, sat together at the dinner table and spoken with them.  I know that many of my students come to my classroom from places of great trials, homes that are cold, kitchens that are lacking family meals, walls that do not hold shelves of books, conversations wanting in warmth, support and a rich and varied vocabulary.  But I continue to work with the faith that I, a middle school teacher, have the power to make a difference in the lives of my students.

Let us not wallow in the valley of No Child Left Behind.  And even though we face the difficulties of mandated textbooks and standardized tests, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of the American school system.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that although all children are created equal, and although all children have the right to a quality education, this does not mean that all children should have the exact same books and the exact same lessons and the exact same assessments.”

I have a dream that one day children will learn to read by reading literature of great variety; that teachers will read to them from great books; that children will choose books to read that ignite great passion and that inspire them to read even more; that reading will be made a pleasure for all children, not a task, not a race, not a recitation of meaningless sounds and chunks of meaning.

I have a dream that all of my students will one day attend a school where they will not be judged by the bubbling of a test answer but by the unique demonstration of their talents and abilities, of their knowledge and understanding.

I have a dream that one day even the state of California, a state sweltering with the heat of overflowing classes, sweltering with the heat of one-size-fits-all curriculum, sweltering with the heat of annual assessments that tell more about a child’s parents’ income than about the child’s learning or the teacher’s teaching, yes even the sorry state of California will be transformed into an oasis of authentic assessments and project-based learning, a refuge of writing workshop and reading for pleasure, a sanctuary of art, music, woodshop, cooking, theater, languages, film making, journalism and life-long learning.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, in Washington, D.C., with Education Secretary Arne Duncan having his lips dripping with the words of “merit pay” and “data-driven” — one day right there in Washington, D.C. teachers will be able to join hands with one another as sisters and brothers working together to build the best schools for America’s students based on the knowledge and experience and wisdom and practice of the teachers who know children and curriculum better than any fly-by-night CEO whose only education experience is playing basketball with the students of his mother’s after-school tutoring program.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every child’s accomplishments shall be exalted, and every so-called-researched-based scripted curriculum shall be made low, the cash-strapped schools will be fully funded, and every library will be staffed with a credentialed librarian where the shelves will overflow with books; and the glory of a quality education for all shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is my hope, and this is the faith that I go back to my classroom with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the benchmarks of despair a student-designed project of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of API and AYP into a beautiful symphony of respect for the teaching profession. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to read together, to write together, to experiment together, to design, build, create, perform together, to stand up for education together, knowing that all children will have the opportunity to learn one day in classrooms fully funded where respected professionals are empowered to do their work.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of America’s children will be able to learn with new meaning, to write for understanding, to read for personal growth, to explore their interests and feed their curiosities.  This will be the day that my dream of enthusiastic, joyful schoolchildren taught by empowered, professional educators in classrooms stocked with books and paper and technology and dreams and opportunities and joy will become a reality for all.

Oh, the skillz they will learn!

Asking middle school students to write (and share) book recommendations isn’t new.  It gives them the opportunity to write about literature they have enjoyed, be inspired to check out books that their peers have loved, and demonstrate their growing reading and writing skills for their teacher.

But move those book recommendations to the students’ own blogs, and suddenly they are learning a whole hard drive’s worth of new skills.  As my students created their own blogs and crafted book reviews for their first blog posts, I wandered around the room, amazed at the myriad skills they were learning.  Here’s a list, probably incomplete:

  • creating online accounts (emails, usernames, passwords)
  • confirming online accounts via email
  • “edit” = “make changes to” a blog/website
  • adding pages to a website
  • writing an “about the author” blurb
  • using images and text to personalize a blog/website/post
  • finding copyright-free images on Google, pics4learning, etc.
  • choosing images that represent (symbolize) ideas in a post
  • inserting copyright-free images into a blog/website
  • writing an original title for a blog post
  • saving a draft before going “live”
  • changing blog settings to “approve comments,” giving them control over what appears on their blogs
  • changing a blog’s style: fonts, themes, colors, images
  • formatting columns in a post
  • formatting text around images
  • inserting links in a blog post
  • adding linked buttons in a blog post
  • proofreading and correcting a draft before publishing
  • and finally, publishing a post and viewing it “live”

Next class we will talk about how to post appropriate, academic comments on a blog.  And wouldn’t it be nice if all online users had the same lesson?

Are your students blogging?  What benefits do you see?

Assessing your WriMos

Best LinesIf your students are feverishly writing novels as fast their little fingers can fly across the keyboards, anxious to meet their NaNoWriMo word goals by the end of November, you may be wondering how best to assess their work during this glorious month of literary abandon.  Since it may be unrealistic for you to read the complete texts of their novels (I have 98 students writing an average of 15,000 words each, so I don’t plan to read them all cover to cover), I offer you these more realistic assessments:

  • have them choose one beautiful line from their writing to be shared publicly (on a blog, on a bulletin board, etc.).  If you’d like to make it a more specific assessment, direct them to choose a line with a particularly effective metaphor or powerful imagery.
  • give them a grade for making it to their individual goals by November 30.  If they don’t make it, give them the percentage that they do achieve.  Consider rewarding students who choose but don’t quite make it to an unusually high goal.
  • once November is over, have students pull one-two page excerpts that demonstrate certain aspects of narrative writing: dialogue, character development, setting description, conflict, etc., and give them directions for revising those excerpts.  Imagine the joy of grading just those short pieces that they have had time to fully polish, rather than tackling pages and pages that they won’t have time to revise.
  • assign literary analysis of their own writing. My students have done some work analyzing why an author chose certain words or created certain characters; think of how powerful it would be for them to write analysis of their own novels. These  shorter pieces would also be great on a blog so that students can respond to one another’s work.
  • add public speaking to the experience.  Our local bookstore hosted my students as visiting authors, and the work they did to prepare for that event was an assignment worthy of its own grade.  They wrote an introduction of their novels, including titBest Linesle, genre, basic set up and themes; then they wrote an introduction of the excerpt so that the audience would understand it in context; and then they practiced reading aloud so that their work could be appreciated.  The evening event was listed by many of my students as one of their favorite parts of the project, even though most of them said they were terrified of speaking in public.
  • extensions of the NaNoWriMo experience could include creating book trailers for their novels; book jackets with author information and critics’ quotes; posters with images and quotes from the text; and of course polishing their novels so they can take advantage of the free publication offered to them from CreateSpace.

The month-long journey of writing a lengthy story is valuable all by itself.  Don’t work yourself too hard or put unnecessary stress on your students by trying to evaluate too much of what they have written.  Focus on the beauty of smaller pieces and celebrate your students’ accomplishments as NaNoWriMo winners!

#NaNoPrep: ready for Day 1, Page 1?

Here it is, NaNoEve, and you’re too busy assembling your Halloween costume to think about your novel.  Don’t let me scare you too much, but TOMORROW IS THE DAY YOU START WRITING YOUR NOVEL!  BOO!

Ah, fear not.  It is not as scary as you might think.  All you need to do is come up with an inciting incident (fancy writer talk for “the event that started it all”) that will launch your main character into his or her adventure.  What change in his/her life sets the story in motion?  Is it a tragedy?  Or an adventure?  Or simply a change in location/friendships/class schedules?

If you’re still stumped, check out these familiar inciting incidents in literature.  Go ahead, let yourself be inspired by those who’ve already taken this novel-writing journey — just click on Chapter 1 below:

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#NaNoPrep – are your WriMos ready?

photo 1 (43)If your students are participating in NaNoWriMo (in T – 3 days), then they are probably chomping at the bit to start writing.  There’s nothing like telling students they CAN’T write until a certain date to get them begging for permission to write!  If they have created their characters, crafted their conflicts and plotted their plot, then they are probably more than ready to start chapter one.

But being ready to write doesn’t mean they are ready to deal with the inevitable road blocks that will get in their way once they get past the first page.  Be proactive and get your students ready before they crash and burn:

  • give them time to explore the resources on the Young Writers Program site for NaNoWriMo.  Not only should they create and personalize their accounts, but they also need time to check out the Dare Machine, the NaNo News and the Author Pep Talks, and to find their writing buddies on the site. When they start writing on November 1st, tell them to open the NaNo site in another tab so they can access it during writing time.
  • get them familiar with gmail and Google docs (assuming your students have access).  We use Google docs because it stores their work in their gmail accounts (which means no need for flash drives), and also because all work is saved automatically.  But most young students don’t have much experience with gmail or docs, so they’ll need time before November to get comfortable with them.  You don’t want to waste time on November 1st explaining it (and dealing with forgotten passwords), so practice with Google in the days up to NaNo Day 1.
  • teach them how to write dialogue and have them practice.  My students are 13, and most of them have not written much dialogue, but they will definitely want to include dialogue in their novels.  Better to have them practice with it now, before they write pages and pages of indecipherable dialogue.nano ywp icon
  • have basic directions posted in your room for logging in to online accounts, for what to do when they get stuck, and for updating their word count at the end of each writing session. That way you won’t need to interrupt their writing to give directions.
  • create a shared document for all your students and have them come up with their own dares; another shared doc of their own excerpts can also be motivational.
  • consider letting them listen to music while they write.  The first year my students wrote novels, the silence in the room was a distraction in itself.  When I let them plug in earbuds and listen to music on their phones, they were able to stay focused much longer.  Or you could play music for the whole class.  Anything to break the eerie silence of writers writing.

If you are a teacher interested in bringing the magic of NaNoWriMo to your students, check out my NaNoTeacher website for oodles of help.

Bring it on, November!  We are ready-WriMos.