Greetings! I have been teaching middle school since 1988: first English Language Arts, and now also Digital Design Lab and Broadcast Media. I present workshops for teachers on technology in the classroom, project-based learning, and writing; plus I work with Edutopia and KQED Learning. I love to connect with other educators, so please enjoy my site, check out my how-to NaNoWriMo site, see my students’ novels for sale on Amazon, and contact me here or via Twitter @LAMBRADLEY.
In my last post I shared the beautiful and inspirational bulletin boards that my students created when they were given the challenge to make our classroom walls their own. Not content to end this project with their displays, I then asked them to choose one part of a bulletin board that they liked and reflect on its value to them and our community. Here are some of their responses, which they added to their digital portfolios:
Finally, I surveyed my students to find out what they thought of this assignment. What were they proud of from their own contributions? Did they think the activity improved our classroom environment? Did they learn from it? Do they think I should do it with future classes? This is what some of them said:
“I am most proud of the the melted crayon art, because it was very hard to do and it turned out pretty good. I think the many different colors on this canvas represent how everyone is different but together we do great things.”
“I think that it was a good teamwork exercise because it requires people to work together and listen to each other… or it can go down the drain fast because you’ll have fighting, random things on the boards, and people just in overall bad moods. I learned that I can work with a lot of people, all of us with very different personalities, and we can still make a board that looks amazing and one that we’re proud of.”
“I think it was really fun and let everyone put a part of what they like in the classroom. I enjoyed looking at it when taking breaks from working, it gave me some inspiration.”
“The item I enjoyed the most was the quote by Michael Jordan. I enjoy this quote mainly because it has the most meaning to me. I think this picture and quote can inspire the class to keep working hard and stay positive. Overall I think this quote has been very useful.”
“I think this experience was good and very positive. Personally I didn’t think that getting the materials was hard, but our bulletin board still may have had an affect on somebody’s day. I think at the end of the process the walls looked very bright and organized, and I think they sent powerful messages.”
“It was a lot of fun, and because we had to communicate with each other, we got a little closer.”
“I think letting students be in charge of what we see everyday is fun and gives us a chance to think outside the box, but it can get bad when the group does not work well together. If the group doesn’t agree with one person, drama can start and it can change the students’ behavior in the class with that person. That is why I think it was a good idea to let the students pick their partners.”
“It was cool that something I played a part in was on the walls for my class and other classes to see.”
But of course not everyone enjoyed the project:
“I honestly did not like it – too much responsibility – but I am pretty sure other people liked it.”
“It wasn’t that great and it didn’t really feel like it made a difference to the class.”
“I would have liked it more if my group had done some of the work, but it was kind of fun.”
“It was fun to do, but I don’t think very many people really pay attention to the bulletin boards and look at what’s on it.”
This feedback is helpful for how I can improve the project next year. Because I had made a last-minute decision to experiment with the bulletin boards, I didn’t have a full plan for how it would work. I can see now that we need to spend more time noticing what students put on their boards, talking about its impact, and digging in more to the symbolism. As I have learned many times in education, next year this will be even better!
Overall, I’m happy with their participation and feedback. Even students who didn’t love the project noticed benefits beyond what I had anticipated. While I wanted them to feel that their contributions mattered and see symbolism in classroom decorations, many students also commented on how much they enjoyed the chance to be creative, to work with a group, to learn about each other’s interests, and to feel part of our community of learners. The few negative experiences were far outnumbered by the many who said, “Yes, keep doing this!” I’m looking forward to seeing what future classes do with our classroom décor, especially since it means I will have one fewer task on my to-do list.
They arrived early on Day 1 of their bulletin board rotation, laden with bags of decorations, eyes and smiles full of anticipation and excitement. I handed them staplers and push pins, and stepped back to watch them work.
I had assigned this group to the largest bulletin board in the first round because I knew them well enough to expect them to produce a creative, thought-provoking display. I also hoped they would be an inspiration for the rest of the class. And they did not disappoint! They brought in beautiful pictures, inspirational quotes, 3-dimensional objects, bright flowers, and even two different strands of twinkly lights. They filled the enormous board with their creations, and then came back the following class day with more. They weren’t content to leave any large empty spaces.
When the bell rang and their classmates started arriving, their hard work was rewarded with “oohs,” “ahhs,” “wows” and “OMG did you bring anything for OUR board?!” Groups who had been assigned to the smaller boards formed quick huddles and started strategizing how they would get their decorations up later in the week. Yes, they were frustrated that they had forgotten, but they were also excited to show that they, too, could inspire their classmates with their own bulletin boards. And they did:
My students were clearly proud of their work and enjoyed seeing their classmates pore over the various images, quotes and objects they had contributed to our classroom. But I wanted more from this project. I wanted my students to better understand symbolism, to see how flowers or twinkly lights or a basketball jersey could represent bigger ideas, concepts that may be hard to explain but could be understood through symbolic objects. So after the boards had been up for a couple weeks, I had students take pictures of the items that were meaningful to them, and then write about the symbolic meanings of one of them.
Tune in next week for part 4 of this bulletin board experiment to see how the students responded….
It took me a few weeks to get our bulletin board remodel going, but now we’re making progress. (See Part 1 here.) The bulletin boards are bare and my students are planning what they will create and bring in to hang on the walls.
(I left the life skill posters up on the green bulletin board because they are too high for me to reach and the students agreed that they were helpful reminders. The cursive alphabet is staying, too, if only for nostalgia. Maybe it will even inspire some students to give it a try.)
I surveyed my students a few weeks ago to find out who they would like to work with on a bulletin board, and then I put them in groups based on these requests. Some groups are big (6 or even 8 students) and some are smaller (the smallest is a pair). The size of their bulletin board will depend on their group size.
Today they started by brainstorming what kind of classroom environment they need in order to be successful. Their lists include:
- a celebration of accomplishments
- a reflection of their interests
We talked about where they might find such inspiration: words of wisdom from people they admire (including song lyrics); photos of places and things that matter to them; humor that makes them laugh and helps them relax; their own artwork and creative expressions.
I can’t wait to see what they do with this! Photos to follow…
In my ongoing efforts to give my students more voice and choice in our classroom, I decided last summer that I would hand over the bulletin boards to them. I wasn’t sure my students even noticed what was on our walls, and I was pretty sure that I didn’t know what they needed to see that might impact their learning. But the start of the year came and we hit the ground running with our NaNoWriMo work. My bulletin boards continued to be filled with traditional classroom stuff: reminders of rules and procedures, inspirational quotes, book posters, comics that reflected fun with language, and occasionally some student work.
Over winter break I decided that the start of a new semester in January would be a good time to address this. Our classroom was now an established community, so it might be easier to talk about what we need on the walls: How could the walls support our learning? What could students add to the walls to make the room more their own while also inspiring them and their classmates?
I thought I would go in over the break and take everything off the walls, but then I decided it would be worth taking the time to have my students first notice what was there and try to figure out why I chose it and how it might affect our environment.
Then I opened my plan book and realized that I had a tight schedule in January that included lessons introducing literary analysis and the start of a novel that the class would read together. How could I squeeze in the bulletin board remodel? But then I noticed that the work I wanted my students to do with our current walls (what do you notice? how does it affect us?) could be tied to the very literary analysis lessons we needed to do. So this is my plan for Monday:
- First I will introduce analysis in simple terms:
- what do you notice?
- why does it matter?
- Then I will demonstrate this thinking with a couple items from our classroom walls:
- “I notice a poster of a runner going over a hurdle, and the words, ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.'”
- “This matters because it helps athletes connect the work they do in a sport to the work they have to do in school. This also matters because it reminds us that we have to keep working hard, even if we are already talented at the work we need to do.”
- Students will then spend time reading the walls of our classroom and taking notes on what they notice and why it might matter to our environment and our learning.
- We will come back together to share out what we’ve discovered and talk about what they would like to see on the walls.
The next step is still a little hazy for me. I don’t think I should have all 32 students decorating the walls at the same time, and I have another class of 32 students who will also need to participate. My plan is to divide the semester up into 2 or 3-week time periods and assign small groups to be in charge of certain areas of the classroom. To get them thinking about their contributions (while also practicing analysis), they will take pictures of their wall, add it to their Google Sites portfolio, and write a paragraph about what they added, why they chose it, and how it might positively affect our environment.
This is a brand new idea for me and I have no idea how it will be received and what my students will choose to put on the walls. But they didn’t let me down when I gave them ownership over other aspects of their learning (like writing their own novels, publishing their own magazines, choosing their own digital projects, or producing the school’s daily news show), so I am confident that they will surprise and impress me with (and I will learn a lot from) their bulletin boards.
I’ll share again in a couple weeks when our first student-designed bulletin boards are up! In the meantime, has anyone out there given students ownership over classroom walls? I’d love to hear your story.
What’s a holiday movie without a dozen relatives (and a newcomer) crowded around a food-laden table, trying to dodge conversational land mines (or in some cases, hit them) as they settle in for a chaotic, tension-filled meal? Those annual feasts bring together so many elements that make for great scenes: people of all different ages (who have known each other forever) trying to get along; fancy food dishes that may or may meet Grandmother’s expectations; significant others new to the family and unfamiliar with the traditions and family histories; and generations of relationships, resentments and regrets that surface and collide when families gather in one room. Add alcohol and meat to be carved, and the set-up is complete.
So how about adding a holiday meal scene to your NaNoWriMo novel? My goodness, the potential for increased conflict, fresh character details, and snappy dialogue is so great! And any holiday will do – it doesn’t have to be the traditional turkey-stuffing-and-gramma’s-pie holiday. Your scene could be set at a 4th of July BBQ, a Mother’s Day brunch, a birthday picnic at the park, or a welcome-to-the-family wedding rehearsal dinner in a fancy restaurant. As long as you seat lots of people around one table, you are sure to find a novel-worthy scene.
When my students return from fall break this week, we’ll talk about why big family meals can provide us with such great material for stories, and then we’ll watch some movie scenes for inspiration:
- the boisterous Easter gathering from My Big, Fat Greek Wedding:
- the hilarious Christmas dinner from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation:
But not every meal has to be chaotic to add tension and depth to a story. This awkwardly quiet dinner scene from My Big, Fat Greek Wedding makes a great contrast to the loud Easter scene.
And it doesn’t take a holiday to make a meal memorable. This dinner scene from New in Town introduces a big-city girl to a small-town Minnesota family, where she manages to offend nearly everyone at the table. It’s often that fish-out-of-water that makes a meal scene sizzle with tension.
So set the table, light the candles, bring on the food, and let your characters dig in!
Most of our class time during NaNoWriMo is spent in silence (except for the tap-tap-tapping of the laptop keys), as my students need a quiet environment to focus on their writing. Many of them use earbuds to listen to music while they write, but they know that the room needs to be quiet so we all can concentrate.
But we have also learned that talking about what we are writing helps us get clear on our story while also giving us ideas for our next chapter. So we schedule in times to share aloud with one another. One of our favorite ways to do that is with a whip, which is simply a whip around the room, with each writer sharing just a sentence or two about their novel-in-progress. First I have students write a quick response to a certain whip topic, and then we move our chairs into one huge circle so we can all see and hear each other.
Here are some whips we have enjoyed:
- Synopsis: Tell us about your main character and his/her status quo, the inciting incident that launches the story, and how the character reacts: My main character, _______________________, is ________________________ until ______________________ so then ________________________.
- Tell us about your main character’s big dreams/goals and what is getting in the way of him/her achieving them: My protagonist, ______________________, wants ____________ more than anything, but __________________________ so _____________________________.
- Status of the story: Tell us what just happened in your story, what will happen next, and what your “long game” is.
- What is one secret in your story? What is it that a character does not want anyone to find out?
- How has (or will) your character change throughout the story? In the beginning, my protagonist was ___________________________________, but in the end, he/she will be ________________________________ because ______________________________.
- What has surprised you in your story? What is one plot idea that came to you that is changing the original direction of your story?
The best part about doing a whip at the start of class is that students go into writing time with some specific ideas about what they will write today. But whips work any time – in fact, if your writers are having a hard time concentrating during writing time, that’s also a good time to break up the silence with a quick whip.
So tell me – what’s happening in YOUR novel?
[Get more tips and tricks for using NaNoWriMo in the classroom from my NaNoTeacher website.]
The first few years that my students and I wrote novels with NaNoWriMo, I neglected settings. This wasn’t intentional, but my main concern was helping my students plan enough of a plot that they would be able to keep writing for the full month. My lack of novel-writing experience caused me to miss the fact that settings make a big difference in adding more story, more conflict, more ways to move the story forward while also revealing more about our characters. Last year we discovered a great way to detail settings for our novels before we start writing.
First, though, I want my students to see why settings matter. They read The Outsiders in 7th grade, and since it is a story that most of them love and remember, it serves as a great reference when we plan our own novels. The settings in S.E. Hinton’s classic novel show us just how valuable our own stories’ settings can be:
- Ponyboy’s home and neighborhood, where we see the bond of the brothers who try to support each other without their parents; plus we see the fear and danger of walking the streets of their neighborhood, and the support the Greasers give each other when one of them is jumped by Socs.
- The drive-in theater, where we see Cherry take on Dallas, and where she and Ponyboy begin to get to know each other.
- The abandoned church, where Johnny and Ponyboy hide, and where we see their friendship develop. Later we see how courageous and generous the Greasers are when they risk their own lives to save children who are trapped in the burning church.
Looking back at these settings helps my students understand why they need to decide which settings will be important in their novels. But where do they get ideas for settings? How do they create settings that are realistic? #TinyTip answer: the Chamber of Commerce.
After my husband and I enjoyed a vacation in Grand Lake, Colorado, I decided to set my next novel there. I loved the tiny mountain town, the beautiful lake, the downtown boardwalks, and the live theater. But as a California native, I didn’t know much about living in Colorado. Thank you, Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, for providing ideas for not just places, but also local hangouts, activities, festivals, and weather. After all, a novel set in Colorado must have some snowy winter scenes, and that is far outside my own experience.
Even if my students want to set their stories in fictional towns, using a Chamber of Commerce site for that area of the country will help them plan settings that will improve their stories. Writing science fiction? Fantasy? Your characters still need places to live, to travel, to hangout, to enjoy a burger… and Chamber of Commerce sites are gold mines for setting ideas. Students can even visit Chamber of Commerce sites all over the world with this international list.
Where do you get ideas for your novel’s settings? How do you make them realistic?