making

Teach writing? Then you’d better BE writing.

I told my husband that he needed to come with me for an evening canoe ride. We were vacationing at our cabin, and although I was working very hard at not working, I was also working on a piece of writing that had to get done. And I needed to bounce some ideas off of him.

We paddled up the lake a bit, the late sun bright and low, the water calm and clear. My mind was racing with an idea that had come to me in the middle of a sleepless night, and I thought it might work but I needed to verbalize it first, needed to hear it aloud before I could be sure.

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Fortunately my husband is used to this, as I often ask him to just listen while I try out an idea on him; sometimes it’s my writing, often it’s an idea for a lesson for my students. We reached the end of the lake and he listened while I ran through my idea. Saying it aloud not only helped me get clear on what I was thinking; it also gave me the opportunity to get feedback from someone else. And by the time we tied up the canoe at our dock, I was confident and ready to get these new ideas on paper.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this summer, far more than usual, and it has reminded me (again and again) how important it is that, as a writing teacher, I am also writing. It seems so obvious: how can I really understand and teach the writing process if I am not experiencing it myself? But for many years I taught writing without actually writing myself. I gave students assignments; I gave them graphic organizers; I gave them feedback on their drafts; and I gave them grades. But what I didn’t give them was honest writing practice based on my own writing struggles. And, yes, writing is a struggle. Every time we put pen to paper (or, let’s be honest, fingers to keyboard), it is a struggle. It is making something out of nothing. It is creating something new. It is an art and a science and a production.

So when I tell my husband, “I’m going for a walk. I need to get away from my writing in order to find my writing again,” it’s only fair that I make a mental note: how can I let my students “go for a walk” so they can find their writing again, too?

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The writing classroom needs to be quiet, of that I’m sure. Writing is hard work, it requires concentration, and when writers are interrupted by noise, it takes a Herculean effort to find the writing again. So during writing time, I insist on a quiet writing classroom. So how can I give my students opportunities like I needed to go for a canoe ride or a walk, or to talk out their ideas with someone? Here are a few ways I try to support their writing needs:

  • in our flexible seating classroom, students are able to get up and move when they need to. They know that they need to be quiet, but they also know the value of movement as part of the creative process. Our furniture is on wheels, which allows them to move even as they write, but they are also free to get up and move, to walk around, even go outside (weather permitting) to walk a little.
  • we use Google Docs for most of our writing, so my students are able to bounce ideas off their friends via comments on their Docs. I also jump into their Docs during writing time so I can give them feedback as they work, rather than waiting until an entire draft is written and turned in.
  • homework: debate rages over whether or not homework is beneficial or even necessary for our students, but I am certain that writing for homework is critical, if only because it allows my students to figure out how they write (work) best. During NaNoWriMo, I have my students reflect on what they are learning about their own writing preferences; their answers help them see how they can work best on any assignment. They discover if they work best with music, with quiet, with snacks, and what time of day is ideal. These are discoveries that will help them now and in future work endeavors.

I may not be able to send my students out in canoes when they need a writing break, but I can learn from my own writing needs so that I can help my students find theirs. How about you? What have you learned about writing from your own writing experiences?

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Learn innovation from the heart of American innovation: The Henry Ford

Why should you apply for the Henry Ford Teacher Innovator Award? You might think the title and accolades would be nice, and of course you’d be right. Even better, a beautiful award crafted in the glass blowing shop in Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village sure beats the suitable-for-framing document usually given to teachers. But the real reason you should apply is for the week-long, all-expenses-paid, innovation immersion experience given to the 10 first place winners. Three months later and I’m still reflecting back on all that I learned from that week, planning for our some-day trip to return to The Henry Ford for more inspiration.

Maker Faire Detroit 2015 at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich. Sunday, July 26, 2015. Gary Malerba/Special To The Henry Ford

First Place Teacher Innovator Awards from The Henry Ford (photo credit: Gary Malerba/Special To The Henry Ford)

I’ve always known that Henry Ford had a significant role in America’s identity as an innovative, risk-taking, hands-on, problem-solving country, but I had no idea how much of his philosophy extended to education. A week at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan opened my eyes to not only Ford’s legacy, but also to the power of teaching our students to be innovators themselves.

After arriving in Michigan (all flight, transportation, hotel and meal details arranged and paid for by The Henry Ford), our week started with the Maker Faire Detroit, a “three-ring circus of innovation. Robotics, electronics, rockets, food, music, fashion, science — if somebody makes it, we’ll find a place for it at Maker Faire Detroit.” It is a living example of the power and creativity of innovation, and an inspiration to those of us wanting to find ways to bring innovation to our students.

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The Maker Shed at Maker Faire, Detroit, Henry Ford Museum.

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A maker in action (Maker Faire Detroit, Henry Ford Museum).

When I heard we would be touring the Henry Ford Museum, I pictured an institution honoring the work of Henry Ford in the automobile and factory industry. What I didn’t expect was to discover that Henry Ford himself created the museum because he wanted to honor the innovation and ingenuity of Americans. He was so fascinated with this work that he collected examples of American innovation every chance he could. And he saw innovation in more ways than his assembly line might suggest: while that was an innovation of process and product, Ford also honored innovation of ideas. His museum is there not for his own glory; rather, it is a walk through generations of genius in America, including the innovative thinking that challenged the social status quo of sexism, racism, and classism. Included in the museum is the American progression of automobiles, furniture, appliances, etc., as well as artifacts of innovative thinking, such as the founding of our country, women’s suffrage, and the Civil Rights Movement, including the very bus that Rosa Parks occupied.

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Engineering is art (Henry Ford Museum).

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Rosa Parks’ bus (Henry Ford Museum).

If you have spent any time touring California colleges, you have probably heard of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s philosophy of “learn by doing.” I didn’t know that clear back in 1929, Henry Ford established a “learn by doing” school on the site of his museum. The children studied in the actual museum, exploring and using the contents as part of their education. There is still a school in the museum today, where students learn through “real-world experiences that focus on innovation and creativity.”

Our week of innovation immersion at The Henry Ford was spent with curators, archivists, and historians, passionate experts in their fields, who led us on tours of Ford’s legacy of innovation, including:

  • The Henry Ford Museum: nine acres of space dedicated to documenting the “genius of ordinary people.”
  • The Benson Ford Research Center archives: an astounding collection of American ingenuity and enterprise, such as Thomas Edison’s patent models, folk art and paintings, the personal and business papers of Henry Ford, domestic textiles such as quilts and coverlets, and couture fashion and accessories.
  • Greenfield Village: 80 acres dedicated to recreating an American village from the 19th century. It includes 83 authentic, historic structures, from Noah Webster’s home, where he wrote the first American dictionary, to Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, to the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law (even Sonoma County is represented there, as Ford brought Luther Burbank’s office and garden spade to the Village). In Greenfield Village, you can “ride in a genuine Model T or ‘pull’ glass with world-class artisans; you can watch 1867 baseball or ride a train with a 19th-century steam engine. Greenfield Village is a celebration of the people whose unbridled optimism came to define modern-day America.”
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Henry Ford and Thomas Edison often visited Luther Burbank at his experimental gardens in Santa Rosa, CA. In 1928, Burbank’s tiny office building was moved to Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.

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America’s 19th-century farms, operating now just as they did then (Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford).

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The Wright Brothers Cycle Shop (and aeronautical laboratory) in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.

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Thomas Edison’s laboratory in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford.

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Skilled artisans practice authentic period crafts and trades with techniques and equipment that are, in some cases, centuries old (Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford).

  • The Ford Rouge Factory: we saw the Ford assembly line in action, learned about the factory’s history, and heard how the current ownership endeavors to further innovate the factory workplace. No pressure, Bill Ford, great-grandson of Henry!
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The history of Ford automobiles (The Ford Rouge Factory).

  • The Henry Ford Estate: although closed to the public for restoration, we were treated to a tour by the curator who is in charge of identifying every rug, painting, wall color, window trim, book, and bedding that would have been in the original estate. True to Ford’s belief that hands-on is the best way to learn, the restoration plan allows visitors to choose a book from a shelf, pull up a chair, and enjoy reading in Ford’s library.
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The Henry Ford Estate.

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Library in the Henry Ford Estate.

As if the expert-led tours weren’t enough, our week also included workshops to help us teach our students to be innovators. Instead of asking students to memorize and recite back, curriculum from The Henry Ford helps teachers inspire their students to be the same kind of innovative, risk-taking, hands-on, problem-solving people that made America so great.

On Innovation curriculum from The Henry Ford.

On Innovation curriculum from The Henry Ford.

I can’t recommend this experience highly enough! I encourage all you innovative teachers out there to apply for next summer’s Innovation Immersion experience.

See a quick promotion here: https://vimeo.com/user24471526/review/140475331/8f8054da91 

Get application information here: http://www.thehenryford.org/teacherInnovator/

Let me know if you have any questions! This application is well worth your time.

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Henry Ford

It’s beginning to look a lot like #NaNoWriMo!

nanopostcardThe first time I introduced National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) to my 8th graders, I was terrified. One of my teacher friends had said, “They’ll run screaming from the classroom in tears!”

Some students did later confess to a brief moment of panic (“I almost lost my lunch!”), but the end result was resoundingly the most powerful and successful writing project I have ever seen in my classroom. So before you click away in fear at the words “novel writing,” let me share what NaNoWriMo is and why you should offer your students this literary challenge.

  • what it is: according to the Young Writers Program, NaNoWriMo is “a fun, seat-of-your-pants writing event where the challenge is to complete an entire novel in just 30 days. For one month, you get to lock away your inner editor, let your imagination take over, and just create!” According to me, 8th grade English teacher, NaNoWriMo is the best writing project I have ever seen my students tackle, and it includes writing process, community, strategies, revision, and publishing. So how does NaNoWriMo turn students into enthusiastic writers?
  • challenge: we know that challenging our students to aim high can motivate and inspire them, but who would think challenging them to write a novel in a month wouldn’t just terrify them? I don’t think my typical student dreams of writing a novel, but here’s what I discovered: given a meaningful challenge, plus resources, support and lots of time to write, students will write with enthusiasm.
  • student ownership: my students do their best writing when they own the genre, topic and final product. With NaNoWriMo, students write the stories of their choice. Often they mimic the books that they love to read: dystopian worlds, wizard fantasies, historical fiction, teen romance, zombie gore. With guidance, they choose a challenging yet attainable word goal, allowing each student to be successful while tackling a significant piece of writing. I have spent many years devising clever projects to motivate my students to write, but for the first time in my career students came to class begging, “Can we please start writing now?”
  • online support: my students join the online NaNoWriMo writing community, where they create their own author page, upload a book cover they have designed themselves, share their book’s title, genre, summary and an excerpt, connect with other young writers, compete in “word wars,” track their daily progress towards their goals, and read tips from published authors.  As they encounter the inevitable writer’s block, they learn to jump to the writing community for productive distractions and genuine writing help. Bonus: the online NaNo community serves as a perfect avenue for teaching (and practicing) digital citizenship.
  • publication: one of the most exciting aspects of the Young Writers Program is that Best Linesstudents who successfully make it to their writing goal by November 30 are rewarded with the opportunity to publish their novel, receive five copies for free, and sell their novels on Amazon. (See my own students’ novels for sale here.) But there’s no need to wait until the month is over to start publishing. We publish our work in a variety of ways:
    • sharing one great line on a class bulletin board
    • posting a proud excerpt on the NaNoWriMo site
    • exchanging excerpts in a shared Google Doc
    • Author’s Chair at the end of class: reading aloud from our works-in-progress
    • sharing our work with the community: our local bookstore hosts Author Nights for students who want to read aloud from their completed novels
  • Common Core aligned: while “Common Core aligned” doesn’t really make my heart sing, the reality is that most of us must use curriculum that meets certain standards. Fortunately, the folks at the Young Writers Program provide detailed documentation of how NaNoWriMo does align with Common Core Standards, so if your boss, school board, community members or parents question the value of “30 days of literary abandon,” you’ve got back-up.
  • confidence and pride: I’m certain that the best way to build our students’ self-esteem is to give them opportunities to struggle, work through difficulties, and find their own voices in the process. My students validated this in their enthusiastic responses to the NaNoWriMo project. My favorite comes from Jessie, a girl who had been labeled below grade level in her reading and writing skills, and who was not successfully engaged in her own education:

“I just think this whole thing about writing a novel is really cool. It made me think that a lot of things could be possible in the world. I mean I am thirteen years old and I just wrote my own dang novel! How cool is that? I think it is honestly amazing. I loved the writing time and I wish it wasn’t over!”    -Jessie, 13

The actual writing of the novels starts on November 1, but free curriculum provided by the Young Writers Program of NaNoWriMo makes it easy for teachers to devote weeks (even a couple months) of valuable class time to the project. Go here to get started, and check out my own NaNoTeacher site for help bringing this awesome writing experience to your students.

Stay tuned over the next couple months for a few more posts on the NaNoWriMo project: getting your classroom ready, getting your students ready, assessing their work, and publishing. And please share your own NaNoWriMo stories below!

(originally published on edutopia.org)