Good thing I have the whole summer off!
Good thing I have the whole summer off!
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:
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.
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.
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:
(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, science, history 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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Programs like the Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School inspire me to keep looking for ways to give my students as much control over their own learning as I can. In my 8th grade English classes, students choose the novels they want to read, the genres of writing they want to tackle, and the topics they want to research. But it wasn’t until I started teaching a digital media elective class that I was able to give my students genuine control over their learning. I built a resource website and loaded it up with project ideas, program suggestions (almost all of them free) and links to video tutorials so that students could choose and learn on their own.
The result has been a learning experience for all of us: my students, as they learn to make use of so much freedom; and me, as my role as teacher transitions to one of resource, coach and guide.
As one would expect, some students thrive in this environment. They find what they’re interested in, search out resources to learn more, and take off. Other students jump from project to project, learning a little about one, a little about another. And then there are those students who struggle with the freedom. They shrug their shoulders, say “I dunno,” and are listless and bored without someone telling them what to do.
I’m pretty sure, though, that I need to gently push them to search out their own interests, take advantage of self-teaching resources, and create products of their own design. How else will they some day make decisions about high school classes, college majors, life hobbies, career options? Making all the decisions for our kids, whether it’s which sport to play or what to do in their free time, robs them of the opportunity to learn how to take charge of their own learning and their own lives.
A typical class for my digital media students starts with me sharing project ideas or tutorials, and then we pull out the laptops and off to work the students go, some continuing a project, some starting a new one, some solo, some in partners or groups. Here are some projects-in-progress this semester…
Lindsey uses an online tutorial to create 3D animations with Blender:
Ryan plots his computer game, first on graph paper and then with AgentSheets:
Andrea designs her own info-graphic resume with re.vu:
Chris crafts a 3D sculpture with Sculptris:
Hands are hard, especially backwards and knuckles:
Jolene is also building a digital portfolio of her art work:
T.J. and Isabella use Gimp to edit Minecraft stacks:
Ernan works on a how-to-draw movie; Ian helps to get the camera angle right:
Danielle uses SketchUp, a 3D architectural modeling program, to design a Japanese garden :
Dakota, Sam, Luke and Greg have formed their own company, each taking on a specific role in the development of an app game. They have been teaching themselves how to code so they can build their app from scratch:
Molly explores cartooning with SketchbookExpress:
Sara uses WeVideo to make a book review movie for her English class:
Domenic works on a movie to submit to the first White House Student Film Festival:
Simon adds a car to his computer game that he is programming with the help of Alice:
One of the best outcomes of my kids-in-charge classroom is that my students experience failure in a relatively risk-free environment. They have time to learn from their mistakes, revise, start over and abandon projects without the threat of a failing grade intimidating their learning.
In reflecting on his first movie, Jacob said, “I had to fail over and over again before I got it right. I’m really proud of how it finally turned out.” And when I told Dakota that he and his team of coders would need to document their journey, he said, “It will be full of our failures!” How often do kids smile when reporting on their own failures? Dakota has learned that failures have been an important part of the learning process that is getting him closer to selling his own app game.
How do you give your students opportunities to learn to yearn? Are they choosing what to study? Or how to demonstrate their learning? I would love to hear below how you put students in the driver’s seat of their education.
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:
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?
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:
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!”
The 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.
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.
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.