BAWP

“I’d like to thank the Academy…” a.k.a. What do teachers need?

Did you see the new thank-you ticker crawling across the screen at this year’s Oscars? The long list of names reminded me that whether we are actors or teachers, directors or principals, we didn’t get where we are without the help of a lot of people. I was reminded of all the people who have contributed to my own, albeit less glamorous, career in education.

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I was reminded that I have not become the teacher I am today without the help, encouragement, mentoring, and resources of others. And I was reminded that too many teachers don’t get what they need to support their growth as effective educators.

Teaching can be an isolating profession: we spend most of our time with students and have few opportunities to work with and learn from our peers. Social media has changed that in big ways, but when I started teaching, the internet was barely a blip on the paper in my typewriter. So who helped me develop my teaching skills? Who made a difference in my growth as an educator? Which names would run across my thank-you ticker?

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Photo credit: Chloe Bradley

Maybe a better question is: what do teachers need if they are to become great teachers? After 25 years in the classroom, I’ve got a longer-than-Oscar-speech ticker of gratitude, starting with:

Effective master teachers: prior to student teaching, I observed a couple master teachers in action: Joan Price and Mary Jackson welcomed me into their high school classrooms, allowed me to work with their students, and gave me valuable insights that got me started on my teacher training. When I was placed in two classrooms for my student teaching, I struck gold with junior high master teacher Carol Treu and high school master teacher Ana Byerly. Learning at the feet of these excellent teachers told me that I really had no excuse for not becoming a great teacher! But as outstanding as they were, I needed more help once I took charge of my very own classroom as a full time teacher. Then I needed:

Supportive administrators: once again, I struck gold when I landed my first job at Altimira Middle School under the leadership of Dr. Marilyn Kelly. Typical of most new teachers, I couldn’t even imagine all that I didn’t know. As enthusiastic and educated as I was, and even as successful I’d been in my student teaching, I was woefully unprepared for the demands of full time teaching in a middle school classroom.

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Fortunately for me, my boss saw my panic as well as my potential, and she made time to meet with me, coach me, and further the training that all teachers need when they first enter a classroom. I shudder to think what would have become of me (and my students) without Marilyn’s support. But years later, after I developed some good strategies and felt pretty confident about my work, I wanted to keep growing and learning and strengthening my skills, so I needed:

Ongoing support and effective professional development: just because we become effective teachers doesn’t mean we no longer need our administrators’ support. In fact, that support can be the difference between a teacher stagnating or even declining in effectiveness vs. growing into a teacher who impacts not just his/her students but also other teachers and the profession. Even after I left Altimira and Marilyn retired, she continued to be a mentor to me, encouraging me to pursue powerful professional development, such as National Board Certification and a master’s degree. When I finally carved out the time to do both, I benefited from the support of principals Dave Rose and Emily Dunnagan, who assisted me in the process, excused me from meetings when I had classes, honored my commitment to my growth, and celebrated with me when I finished.

Google Teacher Academy

I can still see Dave, following me around my classroom with a video camera, taking time out of his busy schedule to film my students for my National Board portfolio. And Emily contributed to my video application for Google Teacher Academy, another example of the kind of paradigm-changing professional development that has greatly impacted my work. Dr. Jessica Parker, my advisor in my M.A. program, has been a significant mentor whose work has had a tremendous influence on my classroom.

Other valuable professional development I have had include the Bay Area Writing Project Summer Institute (thank you, Greta Vollmer!) and conferences such as CUE, ISTE and NCTE. I have been lucky to have administrators who support my need to choose the professional development that benefits my teaching the most. Quality professional development and support from administration is critical, but teachers also need:

Autonomy to choose, revise, and deliver curriculum: after just one year of teaching, I read Nancie Atwell‘s groundbreaking book In the Middle, which introduced me to the writing workshop model. I met with Marilyn (my principal at the time) to ask if I could try this approach in the fall. There I was, a brand-new-sometimes-still-struggling teacher, asking to experiment with a pretty radical method for writing instruction. And Marilyn said yes. But more than that, she asked about the details: how would I handle assessment? accountability? parent concerns? And then she checked in with me throughout the year to see how it was going. She let me take charge of my classroom, but she didn’t walk away.

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I’ve been the lucky recipient of this kind of admin. support in recent years, too. I still remember that September day in 2011 when I sat down with my then-principal, Emily Dunnagan, to propose that my 8th graders participate in NaNoWriMo, which meant I would be challenging them to write a novel in a month. She didn’t even hesitate; I still remember her exact words: “I love it! They would be writing every day! This is great!” And then, when we dove into NaNoWriMo for the first time, Emily joined my students on the journey. She brought her laptop to my classroom and wrote with the students; she competed with them in word counts on the Young Writers Program website; and she threw a pizza celebration for all the winners when it was all over.

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Emily can take a great deal of credit for my students’ enthusiastic participation in NaNoWriMo and their resulting growth in writing skills. But my students would not have loved writing their novels if they didn’t have laptops, which means teachers need:

Resources: when I decided that my students needed laptops in our classroom (instead of trying to book our school’s one, shared computer lab), I turned to Petaluma Educational Foundation, a local non-profit that has been raising money for our schools since 1982. They awarded us with a $15,000 grant, which gave my students a half-set of laptops for classroom use. That was enough to get my students off and running with their novels, and the following year, PEF granted us another $15,000 to complete our classroom set. Those laptops brought about the single, most significant change in my curriculum and teaching, a change that only came about because of the resources available from PEF.

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I’ve since received a grant for a weather system on our campus that allows our students to use real-time weather data from our site as well as sites across the country to learn about the science of weather (thank you, PEF); a smaller grant for a 3D printer for our Maker Space (thank you, Donors Choose); and two more grants for technology upgrades for our KTV broadcast media program (thank you, PEF and Educator Innovator). Grant writing is time-consuming and difficult, but well worth the efforts when one discovers the wealth of resources available to teachers. But we can still find ourselves alone in our classroom, facing the day-to-day demands of teaching on our own. How can we take advantage of the wisdom, expertise, and support of our colleagues? Teachers also need:

Collaboration time: a teacher’s day is jam-picked with in-my-face-need-it-now demands. There is never an opportunity to close my door, put my head down on my desk, and ask my non-existent secretary to cancel my afternoon appointments so I can meet with another teacher. The kids are there, every day, and I need to be with them. But sometimes our best resources are the teachers right next door to us, doing amazing things in their classrooms, yet the traditional school schedule doesn’t give us opportunities to collaborate with them. It wasn’t until I was asked to partner with colleague Isaac Raya on our school’s daily news show that I discovered the power of ongoing collaboration. Isaac and I didn’t teach together and we didn’t have much time to collaborate, but we started meeting each morning in our TV studio (along with five or six students) to broadcast our live news show. That 20 minute collaboration before school every day continued for three years, and we nurtured our little news show into a pretty professional student-run production. This year our KTV club has become an official class: two sections of broadcast media where students produce all the content and work every job of a professional news show, and we’ve added a third teacher to our digital media collaboration.

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Kenilworth teachers Neil Radke, Laura Bradley and Isaac Raya share a classroom and collaborate on their digital media program.

Isaac and I continue to collaborate on our KTV program, although without the daily face-to-face time. Much of our collaboration takes place via email, Twitter, and our class website. And our program is better because of our collaboration. How much better would all of our classes be if we had more opportunities to collaborate?

I’ve already broken the rule to keep-blog-posts-short-and-pithy, but maybe that makes my point: for teachers to be successful, we need a lot from the people in our schools, as well as from the greater community around us. It is a big and complex job to support teachers and give them resources to be successful. But if we want our students to succeed, shouldn’t we be investing all we can in their teachers?

What names would run across the screen during your Oscar speech? How did you become the teacher you are today?

 

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Student agency: voice, choice and making

In anticipation of the new Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessments, which students will take online, teachers are being asked to help students prepare by giving them more time on computers. After all, if the testing environment is all online, students need to be familiar with and comfortable using basic computer commands and options, as well as keyboarding and computation.

But as with any significant shift in classroom practices, there has been some push-back, as parents and educators alike ask about the potential downsides of too much “screen time” for kids. New technologies offer a wealth of opportunities for students to discover their own agency: to take control of their learning, to make choices in their education, to find their unique voice. But will students become passive learners, sitting in front of a screen and consuming, instead of actively  interacting with and producing new content?

Yesterday I participated in a webinar with the National Writing Project and Educator Innovator on how we can create opportunities, space, and time for all youth to be agents in their own learning. Kicking off Connected Educator Month, we take inspiration from the Maker Movement as well as Connected Learning principles to support the sharing of ideas and strategies related to this notion of youth agency throughout October and beyond.

As my students prepare for NaNoWriMo, they find their own voices honored as they choose all aspects of the novel they will create. How do you give your kids opportunities to find their voices and claim agency in your classroom? Please share in the comments below!

(Also published here on Edutopia.)

Evolution of a lesson

It all started with a Facebook post by a friend of mine:

“Check out these customer reviews on Amazon!  It’s like a whole new kind of writing!”

bananaslicer2The Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer has generated nearly 3,000 customer reviews that mock the absurdity of this unnecessary product. Ranging from “What can I say about the 571B Banana Slicer that hasn’t already been said about the wheel, penicillin, or the iPhone,” to “Evil comes in many forms, and sometimes that form is banana-shaped,” one could spend hours reading through these very clever and entertaining reviews.  I decided my students would probably enjoy them as well, so I crafted a lesson on satire, with the Hutzler reviews as models.

I gave my students class time to practice writing their own satirical reviews, and then the next day I presented them with our own banana slicer-inspired blog.  Embedded in the blog are eleven infomercials for products such as the FlowBee, the Hawaii Chair, and the Fish Pen. We watched all eleven, and then each student drew a product name out of a hat and got to work writing a satirical review worthy of banana-slicer status.

The next day we talked about what blogs are and how they differ from other websites, and we reviewed some online safety practices. Then we pulled out laptops and the students got to work posting their reviews, paying close attention to proofreading and writing quality since they knew all their classmates would see their work.  The end result is a funny blog that they enjoy going back to time and again to read the clever reviews and to comment on each other’s writing.

And this is one of my favorite aspects of my job: designing my own curriculum, injecting humor into the classroom, integrating new technologies, and taking advantage of current trends to hook my students on reading and writing. I am fortunate to work in a school and district where I am trusted to be the professional curriculum expert that I am; I fear losing that autonomy to a standardized test-universal curriculum-driven approach to education.

The Common Core is supposed to focus more on the “what” students need, allowing teachers more say in the “how” it is taught, but the final assessment is still multiple choice tests and the stakes are still too high.

A Novel and Most Excellent Cause

You are frustrated with the testing emphasis in education, and you really resent politicians and non-educators trying to tell teachers what to do in their classrooms.  You are especially upset over the shift away from creative, artistic pursuits in the classroom as drill-and-kill math and reading replace the arts.  So what can you do to make a difference?

Don’t despair, my friend!  The Office of Letters and Light is a non-profit organization that believes in “ambitious acts of the imagination,” and they really put their money where their mouth is.  They provide the complete National Novel Writing Month curriculum, including student workbooks, teacher lesson plans, online support for students and teachers, AND it is all linked to the new Common Core Standards AND it is all FREE.  What more could a teacher ask for?  

My daughter, Chloe, and I are fundraising for this most excellent cause so that more students and teachers can write novels as part of their school experience.  You have read about my students’ NaNoWriMo experiences here and here (and my current students are right in the middle of their month of “literary abandon” here) — now you can help us help them keep doing this important and beautiful work.

Just click on our fundraising page here: Laura and Chloe’s NaNoWriMo fundraising page and donate today!  This is a last minute plea, as the race to be the top fundraiser ends this Weds. 11/14.  Will you be the donor who gets us to our goal?

Chloe is offering a unique opportunity: donors’ stories may be written in to her current novel!  Watch her video here to see how.

Watch this video to learn more about the great work of The Office of Letters and Light.

Thank you!

Call me NaNo…

It’s Day One of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and my 8th graders wrote for a full hour in class, tap-tap-tapping away on the first chapters of their novels.   They wrote in a Google Doc, which they shared with me, so when I should have been working on my own novel, I was taking peeks at theirs.  Wow!  Some great stuff.  Here are just a handful of opening lines that caught my attention:

My favorite sound in the world is the click of a camera shutter, not the crack of a gunshot.  (AG)

School sucks. Yet another black eye from yet another dumb brute who plays football. (NB)

We barely slid under the first gate before it was slammed shut.  (DH)

Look at those NaNos go! (And hooray for our principal, who worked on her novel with us today!)

My window overlooked New York City and I knew that somewhere past the newly constructed and the old historic buildings of New York were the graffitied and dangerous streets of the Bronx, leading to my favorite place in the world, Yankee Stadium.  (SL)

The beginning of the end for me was when I moved to San Francisco. (PB)

He expected it to be just like any other school year: normal stupid friends, normal jerk teacher, normal inedible food, normal everything. (BK)

It was the long bitter winter of 2040 when all this began. (DW)

“Is he dead?”
“Of course he’s dead! That’s usually what happens when someone gets shot!” (BL)

Charlie stood in the doorway, a ripped piece of paper clutched in his hand—his good hand. (EB)

I took a deep breath, inhale, exhale, and stepped back into the monotony of my life. (JG)

Not even a Halloween candy hangover got in the way of our writing today!

It was september 2, 2033, the fourth week of school, and already I was wishing it was summer. (DG)

Life is like Russian Roulette, a game, a risk you take. It is a choice that comes with a chance, and the thrill, the temptation, of death. (RP)

Terry stared down at his scar as the rain splashed against the glass of the taxi car window. (DW)

Nate didn’t get it.“You’re fired, Nate. I’m sorry.” Only his boss, Mr. Newman, wasn’t sorry.  (JS)

The woman clutched the man’s arm as the impact of the bombs shook the ground.  (HD)

The sounds of blaring horns and rhythmic footsteps came echoing up through the narrow streets of the commerce district. (HH)

Hi, I’m Desean Rodriguez and I am a ninja. Yeah, no big deal really.  (HK)

My sleep was plagued with nightmares, and I found little comfort in the darkness of my room. (JK)

I knew that at that very moment, I had been infected, I had been diseased, and I would never be the same again.   (EF)

He had eaten out again, and having left without paying, the police were after him. (HH)

My name is Aurora Swayley.  I am 17 years old.  There is nothing special about me.  That is until they entered my life.  (GW)

Rain rolls down the window in time with my tears. (DC)

Ben Jackson was on his way to his dream – his Nobel Prize. (CM)

The frosty November air bit at my cheeks and water drops from the trees splashed down on my already wet hair. (EM)

School had been out for just a half hour when I checked my Google Drive again — and there I could see students working on their novels from home.  Can’t wait to read more!

“A, B, C or D? Really?!?”

Our frenzied novel writing was repeatedly interrupted on November 30 as students let out yelps of joy when they met their word count goals.  Even I disturbed the quiet when I took a writing break, loaded my novel into the NaNoWriMo word validator, and saw “WINNER!” flash across my screen.

“I made it!” I yelled, jumping out of my chair and bowing to my students as they applauded my success.  Whew.  Last day of November and just hours left in the NaNoWriMo challenge — nothing like having students watch my progress online to motivate me to get that novel written!

Kyle is a novelist!

The next day my students came to class bubbling with excitement over their success.  Of my 91 8th graders, 87 met the word goal they had set for themselves in October (and the remaining four students continued to write until they met their goals — maybe not in a month, but they made it!).  Many wrote far beyond their goals, and most of them said, “I’m not done yet, Mrs. Bradley!” They came back to class in December knowing that they needed to put the finishing touches on their novels, and then we would dive into the hard work of revising and proofreading.

Ivette and Hailey celebrate making their goals.

But first – their task that day was to log in to an online, multiple-choice test that would supposedly assess their progress in English so far this year, give me a print-out of their current abilities, and, MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL, predict how they will perform on the high-stakes STAR test in the spring.

The terrible irony in the contrast between the hard work they had done in November and the assessment they were asked to do on December 1 was not lost on my novelists.  (“Mrs. Bradley, I wrote a NOVEL!”)  But they are well trained little monkey students.  They sighed, set down their backpacks, opened the laptops and logged in to the assessment site.  A, B, C, D, click, click, click.

I am confident that my students are better readers and writers because of our novel-writing month, and I am sure their improved skills will be reflected in their performances on the multiple-choice assessments that drive our schools today.  But doesn’t it make more sense to assess their writing skills with writing?  Doesn’t it make more sense to look at the larger body of work they have done this year as an assessment of their learning than to trust isolated, unrelated bubble tests?

On the other hand, hooray for the local news, which recognizes the power of project-based learning like the NaNoWriMo project:

“Students inspired by novel writing.”           

“Can we write today, Mrs. Bradley?”       

“Teacher tells students: just write.”

“Petaluma’s Kenilworth students write novels in a month.”

And hot off the presses!  A cover story on our NaNoWriMo project: “A Novel Idea.”

Mihir, Julia and I show off the covers we designed for our novels.

“Pleeeeze, can we write today?”

National Novel Writing Month offers a Young Writers Program for students.

The bell rings, my classroom door flies open, and Tony comes hurtling through.  “Can we write today, Mrs. Bradley?  Please, please tell me we’re gonna write today!”  He glances at the white board, sees “writing” on the agenda, and throws his hands up in celebration.  “Yes!”

In 20 years of teaching, I have never seen students this eager to write.  Sure, I have had success in the past with writing assignments that were tailored to engage my often-reluctant 8th grade writers, and I have seen them respond with enthusiasm to many writing pieces.  But I am sure that I have never had students beg for writing time day after day.  Nor have I seen them write silently and focused for a solid 45 minutes, day after day.  We are ten days into this project, and I am still in shock.  So what is this magic assignment?

National Novel Writing Month offers a bold challenge to writers: pen a 50,000-word novel in the month of November.  Never mind that published authors usually spend a year or more writing their books; NaNoWriMo encourages writers of all levels to “silence their inner editor” and write, write, write for 30 days, aiming only for the word-count goal.  Those who join the online NaNo challenge are given a profile page (similar to a social network site), where they can upload a profile pic (what would you wear for the author picture on the back of your future-novel?), along with a summary of and excerpt from their novel and a picture for its front cover.  Writers may also add “writing buddies” to their NaNo page, allowing them to follow each other’s progress toward the completion of their novels.

Students plot their novels in anticipation of November 1.

Probably one of the most exciting parts of the NaNo site is the daily uploading of one’s writing to the NaNo “word count validator” box.  The site doesn’t keep or publish the writing, but it counts the words, updates the writer’s progress, and then graphs it to show one’s progress compared to what the writer needs to do to make the goal.  Each time we load our words for counting, we are told, “At this rate, you will complete your novel on…” I imagine there are editors out there who would like to offer this kind of progress-tracking to their contracted writers!

I first heard about NaNoWriMo a couple years ago, and my college-age daughter participated last year.  Although I was intrigued by it, I never considered offering it to my students.  50,000 words is no small writing task, and the last thing I want to do is set my kids up for failure.  Then I discovered the Young Writers Program department of NaNoWriMo, and the magic began.

Thanks to classroom laptops, we can write faster and chart our progress on our NaNoWriMo pages.

I couldn’t sleep the night before I told my students that they would be writing a novel in a month.  I told a colleague about the project, and he predicted they would run screaming from the classroom or sob with fear.  Write a novel in 8th grade?  Write a novel in a month?  One seems impossible.  Both?  Crazy.  So I tried to hook them by appealing to their desire to be the first:  “You are about to do something that no student at our school has ever done!  No teacher at our school has ever done it either! You are going to write a novel in a month!”  Then I promised that they would have time in October to plan their novels, and that I would help them through the process in November.  The icing on the cake was that I would suspend all other class work and homework for the month of November; I would only ask them to write their novels.  Also, the Young Writers Program allows students to choose their own word count goal.  After lessons on how many words they can write in one sitting and what would be a reasonable 30-day goal for them, we were ready to dive in and take the challenge. “Trust me,” I said.  They were excited but wary.

Allowing students to listen to music makes the project more fun — and reduces distractions from neighboring writers.

When November 1 finally arrived, my students came to class armed with character descriptions, conflict plans and plot outlines.  And they wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote some more.  And they didn’t talk.  And didn’t complain.  And had to be told to stop writing when it was time to pack up for lunch.  Day 1 of NaNoWriMo was a hit.  And so was Day 2, Day 3 and every day that we have worked on our novels since.  They are invested in their writing, have taken ownership of their novels and are fully engaged in this crazy “month of literary abandon.”  They are writing more than they have ever written in their lives.  And they are loving it.

But there is one more factor that I know has made this project a success; in fact, without this piece, I am certain the project would fail.  Thanks to a generous $15,000 grant from the Petaluma Educational Foundation, I have a cart of 16 laptops in my classroom, allowing half of my class to write on laptops. That means that in a 90-minute class period, half of my class writes their novels on the laptops and the other half reads or works on their novels by hand.  Mid-way through the period, we switch.  On some days, I am able to take half the class to the library computer lab, while a volunteer stays with the laptop-group in my classroom, allowing them all to write for more than a full hour.

8th graders still love stickers for charting their progress!

We know that word processing is not necessary for great writing.  And people who love to write will write anywhere and with anything.  But we also know the tremendous ease and benefits that come with word processing programs.  Give an 8th grader a writing assignment, and no matter how engaging the task is, if they are writing by hand, they will soon tire and become distracted (as will many adults, I suspect).  But give them a laptop and watch them write… and write… and write.  In fact, it may have been the word processing that made this project seem do-able for my students; imagine writing 5, 10 or 20,000 words by hand.  Now imagine writing them on a laptop.  That they can do.

I am writing a novel along with my students, and sharing the process with them has been great fun (and so hard!  what a challenge!).  Our principal has even signed on, and often brings her laptop into our classroom to write with us.  We are all novelists, hard at work.

Stay tuned for the further adventures of my NaNoWriMo students… We’ll check in after the Thanksgiving break.  In the meantime, listen to the sound of novelists at work…