Reading

Read > blog > discuss > repeat

Blogging isn’t new. In fact, blogging came on the scene a full decade before my current students were born. But have our students discovered the power of their own blogging?

If your students are writing, I challenge you to move that writing to blogs. And if your students aren’t writing, blogging is one way to change that. When students move their work from paper to blogs, they:

  • publish their writing to a bigger (and more significant) audience;
  • can easily access and read their peers’ writing;
  • can engage in online conversations in response to their peers’ writing;
  • learn to work online for academic purposes;
  • learn a variety of digital skills within a meaningful project.

For a few years now I have had my students create digital portfolios using Weebly.com, where they showcase and reflect on the learning they have done throughout the year. I like Weebly because it is a free and easy program that allows students to create beautiful and personalized websites with their own blog pages.

wong blog

pportfolioed

blog sample jennifer

So this year my students built their Weebly sites and published one blog post… and then, in ongoing efforts to regulate students’ access to the internet, our district tightened up the filter. And just like that, we lost access to Weebly.

Sigh. Such is life in a tech-integrated classroom. But we know from experience to think fast, change gears, and pivot to the back-up plan.

Did you know that Google Docs make pretty good blogs? Students write their blog post in a Doc, and then their classmates use the insert-comment option to respond to the post. The authors are then able to read and reply to the comments, and shazam, we have our own blogs with comment threads. Take that, filter.

blog sample Tito

Last week my students finished reading Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, by David Lubar, and they were eager to talk about the story. Since they had already blogged their responses throughout the reading, they had a wealth of resources from which to draw for a class discussion.

At the start of class they went to our document of blog links and read entries from six of their classmates’ blogs. In their notebooks, they jotted down the names of bloggers to recommend and topics for our discussion. They shared out what they found and I started a list on the board:

blog topics

(Bonus points for Mikaela for pointing out the red herrings!)

Then we moved our chairs into one huge circle (thank you, flexible furniture with wheels!) so we could see each other as we talked about these big issues.

I am so proud of and impressed by the discussion my students had. They are 8th graders, which means that sometimes they have the insight and sensitivity of adults, grappling with issues like poverty and the presidential election; and then the very next day (or minute) they are more like 4th graders, rediscovering the humor of bodily functions. But after reading each others’ blogs, they entered our discussion understanding that many of their peers, like Lee and Mouth, have been victims of bullying. They saw themselves in Scott’s family dynamics, as well as in the familiar cliques of Scott’s classmates. They recognized the angst Scott experienced as he pined for Julia while discovering unexpected friendship in Lee. And although depression and suicide may seem like scary and far away concepts for 8th graders, my students discovered through blogging that some of their classmates had been close to those very situations. Their class discussion was polite, mature and sensitive, and covered a wide range of topics inspired by the novel. With all of their blogs as starting points, they could have continued their conversations well past the final bell.

Blogging is a natural for English class (and a powerful platform for English language learners), but teachers and students are also discovering the benefits of blogging in classes like math, sciencehistory and more across the curriculum.

How could your students benefit from blogging? What could they blog about that would further their own learning, as well as prompt their classmates to deeper thinking?

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Give your students a New Year reboot

The start of a new semester can feel a lot like a do-over, like a chance to start fresh, with the wisdom of the first semester to inform us. But after two long weeks away from the classroom, my students need time to reflect on the previous semester, revisit what they learned, and recharge their academic batteries. Here are some welcome-back, New Year strategies that have worked with my 8th graders:

Reflect

New year = New Year’s resolutions, right? But after a long vacation, few students will be able to put a finger on what went well (or wrong) a few months ago and how they can improve in the new semester. If we give our students guidance in identifying their successes and struggles, along with prompts for writing specific, attainable resolutions for the coming semester, they can start their new year with a clear focus on success. One way I facilitate this is instead of sending my students’ graded work folders home in December, I hold on to them until January. Once the holiday distractions are behind us, I give them time to review their work, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and plan for improvement. They keep these written reflections + resolutions in their notebooks as reminders for the new semester.

Revisit

My students work hard in the fall semester learning to annotate and write thoughtfully about what they read, but I know they will need to continue to practice and hone these skills for the rest of the year. To get them back in the swing of literary analysis, I try to spark their interest with some unusually engaging reading. Maybe it will be news articles about local events (like the torrential rain and flooding we experienced that resulted in two days of school being cancelled); or maybe a short story that will surprise DSCN9418them with its relevance (like Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” – after they thought they had experienced non-stop rain!). If I need to keep them engaged in academic reading, compelling text is a great way to hook them as they revisit the analysis skills they worked on last semester.

Recharge

A few years ago I discovered the hilarious satirical reviews written for products on Amazon. Rave reviews for the banana slicer were the first to catch my eye:

“What can I say about the 571B Banana Slicer that hasn’t already been said about the wheel, penicillin, or the iPhone…. this is one of the greatest inventions of all time. My husband and I would argue constantly over who had to cut the day’s banana slices. It’s one of those chores NO ONE wants to do!… The Banana Slicer saved our marriage!”

Not only would these clever reviews help my students learn to recognize satire, but I was pretty confident they would inspire them to try writing satire themselves. So after reading through some of the best banana slicer testimonials, we identified the elements of satire and watched some infomercials for equally ridiculous products (remember the Hawaii chair? or the Flowbee haircutting system?). My students wrote with glee, eagerly sharing their satirical wit with their classmates. They posted them on our own Banana Blog, commented on each other’s posts, and got swept right back into reading, writing and learning while laughing and having fun. They may not have been thrilled to come back to school after their winter break, but the Banana Blog gave them the recharge they needed to get focused and on track again. And maybe they will become such savvy satirists that they won’t fall victim to sites like The Onion.

How do you kick off the new year with your students? Please share your best reboot strategies below!

(Originally published on Edutopia.org.)

Macbeth & Musical Chairs: The Power of Teachers Connecting

Balanced Teaching musical chairsI have read some great posts this month about the benefits of being a connected educator: Tom Whitby’s on collaboration, another from Tom featuring six educators’ journeys to connectedness, and Edutopia’s valuable set of resources to help educators become more connected. As I pondered my own journey to being a connected educator, I couldn’t think of much I could add to the discussion. And then I had a day when I saw so clearly the power of connected educating. So instead of a list of the benefits, I thought I’d share just one lovely illustration of how we all (students included) can benefit from connecting with other educators.

On Saturday I read Brian Sztabnik’s post about how he uses a musical chairs activity to introduce his high school juniors to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I saw right away how Brian’s activity could help ease my 8th graders into Steinbeck’s The Pearl. I tucked the idea in my “gotta use this strategy!” file and then shared it on Facebook. Connecting with Brian, a high school teacher on the East Coast, was going to benefit my California middle-schoolers in a big way come second semester.

On Tuesday, I saw that my friend Debbie, who teaches 7th grade world history in Idaho, had grabbed Brian’s musical chairs activity and put 1798616_10100161664051264_7377945748914770431_nit into practice the very next day. She posted a picture of how she set it up in her classroom, and said, “Musical chairs for deciphering history documents…. giggling, happy, engaged students means they learn hard stuff … despite themselves… I even asked my administrator to come watch!” In just a few days, one educator’s clever idea bounced from his blog on the East Coast to a teacher in California, then to students in Idaho, and will come back to California for more students in January.

And that, my friends, is why I love being a connected educator: no longer isolated in my classroom, trying to come up with yet another clever lesson to hook my students, I can now, with a few mouse clicks, find and share a wealth of resources from clever educators all over the planet. What a GREAT time it is to be a teacher!

What are some ways that being connected has benefited you or your students? Any great ideas that we can start pinging back and forth across the country?  Please share in the comments below!

connected ed map

[also posted on Edutopia.org]

Fighting for the dream, continued

This was my very first blog post, written in 2011, in response to my growing frustrations and fears over NCLB.  I had met and spoken with Stephen Krashen, who encouraged me to start blogging, to get my voice of experience out there for others to hear.  Although our ongoing battles in education may not compare to the historic (and ongoing) struggles for civil rights, we do know that inequality in the schools contributes a great deal to inequality in opportunities: opportunities for higher education, income, job security, health care, etc.  While NCLB may be on its way out, the Common Core and its Smarter Balanced Assessments are on their way in.  And so the struggle  continues…

Ten years ago [now 13], President George W. Bush, in whose symbolic shadow our children now shiver, signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of children who had been seared in the flames of educational injustice. It promised a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their inferior education.

But ten years later, many children have indeed been left behind. Ten years later, many children’s minds are still sadly crippled by the manacles of under-funded schools and the chains of standardized tests. Ten years later, many children still live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Ten years later, many children still languish in the corners of American schools and find themselves an exile in their own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

When the architects of our education system wrote the magnificent words of every state standard and the questions and multiple-choice answers on every state test, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all children, yes, all children of America, would be offered a quality, rigorous education. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her children and schools and teachers are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its children and schools and teachers a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of education is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of learning and the security of education.

I know that not all of my students come from homes where parents have read to them, fed them nutritious meals, engaged them in healthy activities, sat together at the dinner table and spoken with them.  I know that many of my students come to my classroom from places of great trials, homes that are cold, kitchens that are lacking family meals, walls that do not hold shelves of books, conversations wanting in warmth, support and a rich and varied vocabulary.  But I continue to work with the faith that I, a middle school teacher, have the power to make a difference in the lives of my students.

Let us not wallow in the valley of No Child Left Behind.  And even though we face the difficulties of mandated textbooks and standardized tests, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of the American school system.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that although all children are created equal, and although all children have the right to a quality education, this does not mean that all children should have the exact same books and the exact same lessons and the exact same assessments.”

I have a dream that one day children will learn to read by reading literature of great variety; that teachers will read to them from great books; that children will choose books to read that ignite great passion and that inspire them to read even more; that reading will be made a pleasure for all children, not a task, not a race, not a recitation of meaningless sounds and chunks of meaning.

I have a dream that all of my students will one day attend a school where they will not be judged by the bubbling of a test answer but by the unique demonstration of their talents and abilities, of their knowledge and understanding.

I have a dream that one day even the state of California, a state sweltering with the heat of overflowing classes, sweltering with the heat of one-size-fits-all curriculum, sweltering with the heat of annual assessments that tell more about a child’s parents’ income than about the child’s learning or the teacher’s teaching, yes even the sorry state of California will be transformed into an oasis of authentic assessments and project-based learning, a refuge of writing workshop and reading for pleasure, a sanctuary of art, music, woodshop, cooking, theater, languages, film making, journalism and life-long learning.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, in Washington, D.C., with Education Secretary Arne Duncan having his lips dripping with the words of “merit pay” and “data-driven” — one day right there in Washington, D.C. teachers will be able to join hands with one another as sisters and brothers working together to build the best schools for America’s students based on the knowledge and experience and wisdom and practice of the teachers who know children and curriculum better than any fly-by-night CEO whose only education experience is playing basketball with the students of his mother’s after-school tutoring program.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every child’s accomplishments shall be exalted, and every so-called-researched-based scripted curriculum shall be made low, the cash-strapped schools will be fully funded, and every library will be staffed with a credentialed librarian where the shelves will overflow with books; and the glory of a quality education for all shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is my hope, and this is the faith that I go back to my classroom with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the benchmarks of despair a student-designed project of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of API and AYP into a beautiful symphony of respect for the teaching profession. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to read together, to write together, to experiment together, to design, build, create, perform together, to stand up for education together, knowing that all children will have the opportunity to learn one day in classrooms fully funded where respected professionals are empowered to do their work.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of America’s children will be able to learn with new meaning, to write for understanding, to read for personal growth, to explore their interests and feed their curiosities.  This will be the day that my dream of enthusiastic, joyful schoolchildren taught by empowered, professional educators in classrooms stocked with books and paper and technology and dreams and opportunities and joy will become a reality for all.