Update on my plans to integrate Hope Theory into my Design Lab classes: it was a really great way to wrap up our difficult year on Zoom. You can read about it here on Edutopia:
Usually I’m a planner. I like to-do lists and calendars and vision boards and check boxes. But I’m also fond of those lightbulb moments when an idea pops into my head and I can see an entire project unfold that my students could start tomorrow. And that’s what happened when I read this article from Edutopia: In Schools, Finding Hope in a Hopeless Time, by Nora Fleming.
I have worried so much this year about my students, 7th and 8th graders I have never met face-to-face. We have been learning on Zoom all year, and while I have seen lots of growth, creativity and community in our Zoom classes, I know there has been plenty of pain and struggle that I haven’t been able to see or respond to online.
But now we are on Spring Break, and in a couple weeks we will return to a campus that will be brand new for most of my students. We will finally see each other in person! The sun is out, the days are warmer, flowers are blooming and the cold, rainy weather is fading. Hope is in the air.
But when we do meet in person on campus, with only seven weeks left in the semester, how will I engage my students in a positive way to wrap up this really hard year? How will I motivate and inspire students who may have struggled throughout these past months of isolation and distance learning? How can I give them hope, not only for our immediate situation, but also hope for their futures?
And why hope? Why bother to weave hope throughout my curriculum? I love what the research tells us about hope:
“…people who are hopeful aren’t simply optimists or Pollyannas but are able to think proactively about the future and plan ahead to get there. Research shows that hope is a learnable, measurable skill, and one that has a sizable impact on students’ success and persistence in school. Children who are hopeful are also found to have higher self-esteem and social skills, are more likely to set and achieve goals, and can more easily bounce back from adversity.”https://www.edutopia.org/article/schools-finding-hope-hopeless-time
While middle school students tend to get stuck in the present, there are ways we can shift their focus to the future and help them be strategic about defining and pursuing their own hopes and dreams. The Edutopia article includes a project from high school teacher Allison Berryhill, who had her students choose a hope they had for their future, and then work backwards to figure out how to make that hope a reality. Thinking about what that might look like in my middle school Design Lab class, my mind went to one of our favorite mediums: computer games. Since games revolve around a character trying to reach a goal, they are a natural for representing one’s own hopes and dreams.
What if my students created a game that took a character through potential obstacles on the way to reaching something they hope for in their own futures? Thanks to Scratch coding, my students will be able to not only design their games, but even code them and share the link with their friends so they can all play. And with remove.bg, my students can use a picture of themselves as the main character in their games. They will be able to literally move themselves past obstacles on their way to seeing their hopes realized. Thinking of the fun they will have as they code toward their dreams fills me with hope. I can’t wait.
If your students have been pounding away on their keyboards for the past month, drafting a (very very rough) first draft of a novel (thank you, NaNoWriMo!), you might be wondering how you can assess the work they’ve done. It wouldn’t be fair to assess their first drafts, especially since one rule of NaNoWriMo is that we all “silence our inner editors.” How painful would it be for us to read all those unedited first drafts? (insert scream emoji here)
There is great value in having our students spend an entire month working on one lengthy piece of writing (see just a few of the reasons here), but when it comes time to assess their work, I recommend asking students to choose an excerpt from their novel that they will revise and polish to be worthy of publication. I give some basic parameters for this excerpt, such as:
- between 1 and 2 pages long (800-1200 words)
- includes dialogue
- includes details of setting
- includes details of at least one character (appearance, actions, thoughts)
- has been proofread carefully
- demonstrates your best narrative writing
My students copy and paste their excerpt into a new doc, print it out and bring it to class. I distribute a rubric based on recommendations from the Young Writers Program, and we go over the qualities one would find in an effective excerpt.
Then with highlighters in hand, they identify elements they are proud of and areas that need improvement. They trade excerpts with classmates to get feedback, and they take turns stepping outside to read their writing aloud so they can better hear how it sounds and catch more errors.
Once they have revised, proofread and corrected their excerpt, they add a brief introduction at the beginning to give the reader the broader context from which the excerpt was taken. These polished excerpts are then published in a variety of ways:
- on their digital portfolios
- on our classroom walls
- read aloud at our local bookstore at our own Meet-the-Author event
Since my students have been invested in these stories for most of the semester, their excerpts demonstrate the kind of writing we love to read: student-centered, passionate, and rich with the voice and authority of engaged writers.
Instead of viewing them as just another stack of papers to grade, enjoy them and celebrate the writing journey your students have taken!
Check out more tips for NaNoWriMo assessment here.
Returning from Fall Break this week, my students have four more days before NaNoWriMo ends. We have two class periods together, plus they will write at home. Our focus this week, after months of planning our stories, collecting writing advice from authors, working through writer’s block, and figuring out how to conclude our novels, is to just get to our word goals. We know the draft we’ve written this month is very, very rough, and we know we want to revise it significantly, but this week it’s all about that sprint to the finish line.
But today, before we dive into writing, we’re going to take some time to brainstorm ideas for titles for our novels. No matter what kind of writing my students are working on, I tell them to wait on a title until they are finished. So often the best ideas for titles come from within the piece itself, so why struggle to name it if it hasn’t been written yet?
Another reason we wait to come up with our titles is that brainstorming titles can generate more ideas for our stories. We look at how authors often title novels with conflicts from the story itself (like Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games), or with important symbols (like Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, or Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie, by Jordan Sonnenblick). The time we spend listing potential titles can give us ideas for how we will finally conclude our stories, or how we will add more words by inserting a flashback or two.
Here is the brainstorming page that my students will be using this week. You’re welcome to use it, too. Who knows, maybe the activity will inspire an entirely new ending for your novel.
When my students create characters for their NaNoWriMo novels, I push them to get super detailed: to hear the songs their characters will listen to when they plug in their earbuds; to picture the snack food they’ll pull from their backpack as they walk home from school; to feel the clothes they’ll grab from their closet on a Saturday morning. But those details don’t get to the heart of a character, to the backstory and soul that really drive a person.
So this year I added some layers to our character development lessons. I found this great article by Roxanna Elden on the three layers of a complex character:
- the outer, protective layer, which is usually “socially acceptable but superficial”
- the middle, defective layer, which we try to hide with our outer layer
- underneath it all is our inner, human core, the part of us that helps explain our other two layers. This core is also the part of us that is most universal. Elden says, “If we can see the human core of a character, we will understand and care for them. If a character can find and learn to accept their own human core, they will achieve inner peace to the degree it’s possible.”
Middle school students (and many adults) are not usually fully aware of their own layers, but after just a brief lesson on the topic, along with examples of characters we know well, my students started crafting some deep, layered characters for their novels.
We started, of course, by watching the “ogres are like onions” scene from Shrek (click image to view):
This was meant to be just a fun introduction, but as we watched I realized that Donkey really helped to drive the point home. When he suggested cake or parfait instead of onions, he clarified another reason that an onion is the best metaphor. I put these images on the screen and asked my students what they noticed:
It took them a little while to see what I saw (I’m learning to let it be quiet longer than is comfortable so they can THINK), but eventually someone got it:
“Oh! I know! The onion has a center, but the cake and parfaits don’t. They are stacked layers, not layers that wrap around and hide inner layers.”
And – BAM – that sweet little insight really nailed the concept for many of us. We looked at the character of Snape, from the Harry Potter series, and how in the beginning he seemed to be an angry man who unfairly picked on Harry. But throughout the series he becomes one of the most complex, layered characters of all:
My students spent the rest of class detailing the three layers of their protagonist. At the end of class we shared our characters’ layers in a quick whip around the room, and the depth was staggering. I can’t wait to read the stories of these layered characters!
Bonus: I could see a chipping away of the façade that teens often wear as they heard their classmates speak of the deep, human core at the heart of their characters. This fresh understanding of human layers just might help my students develop empathy both for each other and for characters in the books they read (and write).
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.
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?
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.
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:
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…
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.
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:
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!
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.
- Editing matters. Write truth.
- Your story matters.
- Make it real; make it scary; and … cliffhangers.
- Make it human (but don’t let your mom read it).
- Also good: tension and snap.
- When you get discouraged, remember: the world needs your novel!
What advice do YOU have for my #WriMos?