Always a learner; also a teacher.

Screen shot 2014-10-04 at 1.29.05 PMGreetings! I am a veteran middle school teacher with nearly 30 years experience teaching English language arts. In recent years I have added Digital Design and Broadcast Media to my schedule, and discovered the joys and power that Chromebooks, iPads, Google Apps, and the internet can bring to a classroom. Revising my curriculum to take advantage of 21st century tools while also developing our digital media programs have kept me engaged and excited to be in the classroom every day. In addition to teaching, I keep busy presenting workshops for teachers on Google Apps, project-based learning, and writing; and work as a community facilitator for Edutopia. I love to connect with other educators; please check out my site and contact me via Twitter @LAMBRADLEY.

Make Text Pop in Google Drawings

My students and I love to use Google Drawings for a variety of purposes: creating memes, advertisements, flow charts, graphic organizers, magazine and book covers … pretty much anything with images, shapes and text is designed and formatted with ease in Google Drawings. It’s simple to layer text over images, allowing students to create realistic graphics while also learning how advertisers try to manipulate them with the same elements.

Sometimes, though, it’s difficult to see the text on top of the image. One great way to fix that is to back the text with a semi-transparent color. With the right color combinations, your text will pop off the page! The steps are simple, but not as intuitive as most of the other Google tools. Here’s how to give a text box a semi-transparent fill color:

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How do you and your students use Google Drawing? Please share below!

Coding in English class? Yes! And not just an #HourOfCode, but a #MonthOfCode!

My students have participated in the Hour of Code since it launched in 2013. Regardless of the class I’m teaching (English 8, Digital Design 7/8 or Broadcast Media 7/8), we take a break from our current projects and spend a class period dipping our toes in the waters of computer coding. Thanks to a wide variety of video tutorials provided by the good folks at Code.org, I don’t have to be a coding expert to give my students this opportunity. Even better, the tutorials differentiate the experience for my students, some of whom have been learning to code on their own via Khan Academy, and others who have never heard of coding. Best of all? The online tutorials are all free and continue to be available beyond Computer Science Education Week, which is when Hour of Code is officially held.

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Three years later I decided it was time to take my English students beyond just an hour. Our first semester had been devoted to narrative writing, when my students wrote their own novels for National Novel Writing Month. When that project ended on November 30, we had three and a half weeks before winter break and the end of the semester. I decided those weeks would be a great time to go deeper into coding.

Although I am not a gamer, I know enough about games to recognize the link between narratives and games. I asked my students to brainstorm elements of novels (something they had become quite expert in) and elements of games. Eventually they saw these similarities:

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Then I told them about Computer Science Education Week and Code.org’s vision to give “every student in every school the opportunity to learn computer science.” We watched a couple of introductory videos, and then I introduced them to Scratch, the free online coding program launched by creative thinkers at MIT. Using a step-by-step lesson for creating a simple Scratch game, I set my students loose on the Scratch site to get familiar with the drag-and-drop platform that introduces them to the  language and logic of coding. And that’s where Hour of Code would usually end. But I had a better idea…

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Here’s the assignment I gave them: create a computer game based on the novel you just wrote. Their eyes lit up and their creative juices started flowing. Having just invested over a month into that novel, they knew their characters, plots, and conflicts inside and out. I hoped that the chance to create a game from that story would honor their writing and stretch some different brain muscles, while also giving them the basis for a richer game than they might create if it didn’t come from a well-developed story.

Their enthusiasm was exciting, but I knew many of them were nervous about tackling something as foreign as coding. And that’s where the geniuses at MIT make the significant difference between a one-hour tutorial and an entire unit, semester, or even year of coding instruction possible. I showed my students the many help options on the Scratch site, and told them to please work with friends so they could learn from each other. Each day, as they developed their games, we stopped midway to share out our questions, discoveries, and excitement. With a few weeks to devote to the project, students who thought they were done one day discovered a neighbor who added sound effects to her game, so they were inspired to go back in and do the same.

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The next week, I gave my students small tasks each day in case they thought their game was done and they were ready to quit. One day they added introductory information on their game info page; another day they traded rough draft feedback with a peer; and another day they updated their online portfolios with reflections on their coding experience and screenshots of their games. Some students had so much fun they chose to stay in at lunch to keep working on their games:

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And what will these students be doing on their “final exam” day next week? They will each create a Google Form feedback survey for their game, and then they will post the links to their games and feedback forms on a shared doc. Their work will then be assessed by their peers as they play each other’s games and submit feedback for revision.

There is so much about this project that mirrors the writing process: in addition to creating a story, they brainstormed and outlined their games, drafted them, tested them, found errors to fix, drafted some more, tested some more, revised some more. And eventually they will publish their games to an audience as big as the internet (via the Scratch site), where this creative gaming community can play, rate, and give  them feedback. And if they didn’t proofread their game carefully? It won’t run.

Do I expect all of my students to pursue computer science? Of course not. But will they all benefit from their month of coding? Absolutely. They were immersed in a new language and area of study in a collaborative, student-driven, interactive, face-to-face and online environment. Their narrative skills were sharpened, along with logic and critical thinking, and they got first hand experience in how computer devices are programmed. They saw their work published and learned the value of revision, proofreading, and peer feedback. It was well worth our time to devote weeks, instead of just an hour, to coding.

Have your students gone beyond an #HourOfCode? Have you found a way to integrate coding into your subject area? Please share!

#NaNoWriMo: ask the experts

I’ve never published a novel of my own, so it’s intimidating to ask my students to write a novel under my tutelage. But since the answer to just about every question can now be found online, I decided this year to ask my students to search the web for writing advice from those most qualified to give it: published writers.

Much of the wisdom they found echoes what I will be teaching them in the next few weeks. Maybe my lessons will carry a bit more weight since the experts said it first!

  • Don’t give up. Trust your journey.

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  • Editing matters. Write truth.

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  • Your story matters.

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  • Make it real; make it scary; and … cliffhangers.

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  • Make it human (but don’t let your mom read it).

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  • Also good: tension and snap.

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  • When you get discouraged, remember: the world needs your novel!

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What advice do YOU have for my #WriMos?

 

Thank you (so much) and I’m so (very) sorry.

I know I’m not the only teacher who struggles to meet the needs of all her students, but after 25 years, I am still surprised by the wide range of responses I get from my students and their parents. The following comments come from parents of students (and students, too) who have been in the same class period with me this year:

“Thank you so much! I think you are such an amazing teacher, and my son says you are the best teacher he has ever had. Thank you!”

“My son thinks you don’t like him, and I agree. And that’s why he isn’t doing well in your class.”

from Megan Harris

“My daughter is so much more confident now about her writing! Thank you so much for pushing her and challenging her. She struggled a lot in your class, but she says she has learned so much.”

“She has no desire to learn because of the way you teach. You need to teach so that she will want to do the work.”

“Thank you for all that you’ve done for my son. He really likes English now and thinks the world of you as his English teacher. I know you’ll be one of those teachers he looks back on in years to come as the one who taught him how to read and understand books.

“I think I’m going to pull him out of your class. This whole experience is hurting his personality.”

from Maya Shern

“She said she actually likes to read now! I am thrilled, she hasn’t liked to read since pre-school!”

These students have been in the same classroom, with the same teacher, doing the same assignments, and they have had such different experiences. As the year comes to an end and my students move on to high school, I would like to say:

I am so very sorry for failing to reach you. For all you students who struggled in my class, who didn’t love the books we read, who couldn’t find good books to read, who didn’t get the help you needed, I am truly sorry. I wish we could have a do-over, go back to August and start over again, so I could see you in a new light; so I could see what you needed as a reader and writer; so I could try again to find the right books to get you hooked on reading; so I could offer the right suggestions for you to find your voice in writing. I am so very sorry.

Thank you so much, all you parents, for reading to your kids, bringing your kids to the library, reading books yourselves, and talking about the value of reading. When your kids came to my classroom already identifying themselves as readers, they were one step ahead of the game. Their literacy skills were already above grade level, so they were prepared to tackle the reading and writing of 8th grade. They were ready to analyze writing, to pick apart figurative language, because they could easily move through comprehension and up into a richer, more complex appreciation of literature.

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Thank you so much, all you parents, who supported your kids in their school work. I have never met a parent who said, “I don’t think school is important,” but I have met plenty who didn’t know how to make school important for their kids. Thank you for asking your kids about their homework, for holding them accountable for completing their work, for checking the online gradebook for how your child is doing, for contacting me when you had questions or concerns, for supporting me in my role as teacher. Thank you for doing your part in making me a good teacher.

Thank you so much, all you students, who came to class with a thirst for knowledge. Thank you for asking questions, for seeking answers, for coming in at lunch to get help on your work. Your desire to learn and efforts to improve are a significant factor in why you have succeeded this year. You didn’t watch the clock, counting down the minutes until you could leave. You focused on the work, which made the work more interesting to you, which made you a better student. You call me a great teacher, but maybe it is your great desire to learn that makes me look good.

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Photograph 022 by Katie Purnell found on minimography.com

I have heard from enough students and parents over the years to be confident that my work impacts my students. But I also know that there are many other factors that impact my students, factors that can improve their learning experiences and those that can impede them. And that’s what makes me say “I’m sorry” as the year comes to a close and I know that, once again, I have not been successful with some of my students.

To all my students, thank you for teaching me more about how to be a good teacher. I learn from you every year, and every year I hope that I can take what you teach me and bring it to my next class in the fall.

Have a great summer and keep on reading those good books!

Loving the homestretch: meaningful work and active engagement

Oh, these crazy days of May! As sure as the weather gets warmer, our students get antsy, lose their focus and challenge our well established rules and expectations. Attention spans wither and distractions bloom. But thanks to the engaging nature of PBL and student choice, I love my classroom in May.

Although my students know the year is almost over, they are (for the most part) fully engaged in meaningful work. They have invested weeks (even months) into final projects, and they know that due dates are right around the corner. They are proud of the work they have done and eager to see it all come to fruition in a completed, published form.

So instead of battling distracted students and misbehavior in May, I have the pleasure of circulating as they work, answering questions, admiring their progress, and enjoying the beauty of students blushing with pride as they show off their best work.

My 8th grade English students are putting the final touches on their magazines, a project that allows them to pursue a topic of interest to them, while also building their skills in essay writing, graphic design, media, advertising, target audience, and long-term project completion.

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Overlapping with the publication of their magazines is the completion of their digital portfolios, where they reflect on the work they have done this year, highlight their best pieces, and add symbolic images. Students spend the final class days presenting their portfolios to the class.

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My favorite part of their portfolios is the final piece: a gratitude slide, where students represent their journey with one final symbolic image and thank an adult on campus for their impact on their lives. Middle schoolers can be a bit self-absorbed, but with just a little prompting, they can see and appreciate how the adults in their lives have affected them. And it is through these final slides that we see not just the appreciation of teachers, but also counselors, administrators, campus supervisors, coaches, office and cafeteria staff. My students are fortunate to have so many inspirational role models across our campus:

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How do you keep your students engaged in meaningful work during these final, crazy days of May?