Digital Media

Oh, the skillz they will learn!

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Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

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)

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    Photo by Alexandre Debiève on Unsplash

  • confirming online accounts via email
  • “edit” = “make changes to”
  • 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?

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Who’s in charge here?

SocialNetworkToday starts Digital Citizenship Week in the middle of Connected Educator Month, and thanks to tech-happy teachers all over the web, I am quite happily connected.  Just a few minutes on the English Companion ning or Google+ or Pinterest or Twitter and I’m sure to find a wealth of ideas quite literally at my fingertips

And with a nod to tradition, I still garner great classroom ideas from hard copy magazines that arrive in my curb-side mailbox.  An article in this month’s issue of Learning & Leading with Technology gave me a great idea for how to address one of the Common Core State Standards.  Thanks to all those great teachers sharing their great strategies!

English class is about stories: the stories we read and the stories we write.  I am confident that the current push for non-fiction will not bump fiction from its rightful place at the center of my curriculum, but I also recognize the value of having students read non-fiction texts in response to themes they encounter in literature.  Long before the CCSS, I gave my students news articles on gang violence when we read The Outsiders and on lottery winners to help them understand The Pearl.  But I like Mark Barnes’ student-centered approach much better.

Rather than choosing articles for my students to read, what if I give them the task of finding articles that relate to laptopsour literature?  They would have to start by identifying topics and issues in the novel that could be found in non-fiction articles.  That step alone is a great way to reinforce the concept of theme.  When we open our laptops and the students work together to find articles, we will need to have conversations about how to search effectively and how to identify a credible source.  When the students share their articles with the class, they will need to explain how their articles connect to the themes in the literature and defend their choices.

My goodness, putting the students in charge means that they will start doing a lot of the work that I have been doing!  And just look at all the 21st century skills they will be practicing instead of just sitting at their desks while I choose and distribute the reading.

Yes, being a connected educator makes a big difference in my classroom, for me and for my students. Thank you, @markbarnes19!

A pro-choices classroom

thank youWe teachers of young adolescents learn early on to grab our students’ gratitude when we can: their glee over a clever assignment, their pride in a hard-earned grade, their bashful “thanks” as they hand over a holiday gift probably bought and wrapped by a parent.  It’s a rare treat indeed when our students communicate their gratitude to us in writing.

Even better is when a student thanks us for something that we had hoped would be a valuable teaching strategy or meaningful lesson.

This student’s thank-you note was especially sweet: not only did he remember that I love dark chocolate, but he also recognized the value in having choices in the work he did in my class.

When my students write literary analysis, they get to choose which part of the literature they want to address and through which lens they will analyze it.  When they join National Novel Writing Month, they completely own the novel they write: the genre, the plot, the characters, the conflicts.  When it’s time to develop their expository writing skills, they create a magazine on a topic of their own choosing.  In digital media class, my students choose what kind of project they want to create: architectural design, computer game design, movie-making, animation, computer coding, etc.

I am staunchly pro-choice in my classroom.  I am pretty sure that the best learning happens when students have some say in how and what they learn.

How do you let your students own their work?  What kinds of choices do you give them in the classroom?

What’s up in Digital Media class?

2018 update: if you are interested in the details of this class, check out my latest article about it here.

I’ve been teaching English language arts for over 20 years, and as much as I love it, I have always wanted to add some variety to my work load by teaching an elective class.  I envisioned this class as a break from the deluge of papers and a respite from the pressure of test scores, a place where I could have more fun with my students and let them explore interests outside of the traditional academic subjects.  And I was right.

Last year my principal asked me to design an elective class around digital media, and she put her money where her mouth was by sending me to the CUE conference in Palm Springs, the ISTE conference in San Diego and a Google Apps for Education Summit in Santa Clara; and when I got accepted to the Google Teacher Academy, she paid my way there, too.  I spent last summer building a Moodle page for this new class, offering my students choices and tutorials in a wide range of digital media opportunities.

Our digital media class changes as often as we find more websites, programs and tutorials to add to our list of choices.  Take a look at what we have done so far:

Final Project 2.0

Our junior high semester ends with three days of finals: two classes per day, two hours for each class.  I could easily create a semester final exam that would take my students two hours to complete, but I’m not sure that would be the best use of our time (nor am I convinced that junior high students should be taking two-hour finals).  So each year I look for effective ways to fill that two-hour block of time, allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways, providing time for breaks and collaboration.

This year’s two-hour block of time?  Best. Final. Ever.

When my students walked into the classroom, they found the desks arranged in groups of four, with a laptop on each desk.  They located their seats by checking a list of teams that I had projected onto the whiteboard. Once they were settled, I distributed a page of directions, and they were off and running.

The designated team leaders were given directions to create a new presentation in their Google Drive, and then share it with their teammates (via gmail) and with me.  Then each team worked together to create a presentation about themes in literature.  Using lines from a poem as a prompt, they identified one theme that was expressed in a novel and two movies we had studied.  They were directed to create slides to present the information, and to include a symbolic image on each slide.

A sign of success, right off the bat, was that all the groups got to work right away.  If they had questions, they asked each other.  Most had never used Google Presentations before, but they are familiar with PowerPoint,  so they could figure it out.  And while they were demonstrating their knowledge of theme, they were also learning how to create effective visual presentations: carefully choosing the words for each slide, finding compelling symbolic images, inserting and citing the images, and creating a unified appearance from one slide to the next.

They worked for a little over an hour, and then each group shared their presentation with the class.  Although many groups were working from the same lines of the poem, their interpretations of the themes varied, as did their examples from the literature and movies.  One student asked if she could play a song from her phone during their presentation.  I asked her why and she said the song expressed the same theme and would add “mood” to their project.  Beautiful.

Three days before winter break, junior high students actively engaged in academic work for over an hour, and then attentively watching their classmates’ presentations?

Best. Final. Ever.

Bonus for me?  I could grade them as they presented and have my semester grades done before winter break starts.  Awesome.

PBL conquers spring fever

One more reason to love project-based learning: as the weather gets warmer and the kids’ minds wander to summer, my students stay focused, working hard to complete projects that are due at the end of the semester.   Of course one reason they continue to work so hard in spite of rampant spring fever is that their semester grade depends on their performance on these projects.  But I know they are also working hard because they are engaged in meaningful work of which they are very proud.

This is how we stay focused and learning at the end of the school year in my 8th grade English language arts classroom:

The Magazine Project: my students have been writing, editing, designing, formatting, and printing their own magazines since February.  Along with learning to write academic essays, they are also building their word-processing, graphic design, and new technology skills.  Each student’s magazine centers on a topic of his/her choice, which helps them stay engaged in this semester-long project.  The final product is a glossy, multi-page publication that looks like a professional magazine.  The students glow with pride when they turn them in, and very few fail to complete the project.

Online Portfolios: rather than assigning a paper portfolio of my students’ best work, this year I taught them to build online portfolios using Weebly.  Not only does this digital project capture their interest, but it teaches them to create an academic portfolio that they can keep, add to, revise, and improve until their senior year of high school, giving them an application-ready portfolio worthy of sending to colleges.  The 8th grade work they post on their portfolios this year probably won’t make the cut four years from now, but the process engages them in an activity that builds their digital media skills while giving them real-world experience they can use throughout their academic careers.

Children’s Books: we ran out of time this year, but in past years my students have ended the spring semester by writing children’s books for schools in Uganda.  In addition to the writing and publishing skills gained from the project, my young teens are exposed to the poverty and lack of educational opportunities faced by children in another country.  I see their eyes opened and hearts broken by these innocent victims, and the book project gives them a very real way to make a difference in their lives.

Once the projects are complete, we spend our last couple class days of the school year sharing each other’s work.  It’s so much fun to thumb through the magazines and children’s books, and check out portfolios on the LCD.  And I’m pretty sure they enjoy that a lot more than wading through worksheets and gagging over grammar.  Uh, yeah.