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!

The power of positive technology

Convincing my students to work with new technology is a snap — if the laptops are on their desks, they are usually happy and productive.  But recently I presented the wonders of technology to a tougher audience: older folks in a retirement community.  Although they came willingly to my presentation, which was part of a series on  keeping their brains active, I heard a bit of grumbling along the lines of, “This is about technology?  I’m not staying,” “I don’t even have a computer,” and “I hate blogs!”

I knew they had recently learned about the power of positive thinking, so I focused my presentation on how they can take advantage of technology to improve their own lives.  And as I spoke, I realized that those same benefits are what make new technology vital to my classroom today.  If you’re a teacher who has wondered if it’s worth the effort to make new technology part of your classroom, I encourage you to consider these powerful perks:

collaboration1. Collaboration: working in groups is tricky when my 8th graders are crowded 32 students to a room.  When they drag their desks into groups, they are crammed so close together they have a hard time focusing on their tasks.  But move those same groups online, and magic happens.  Students collaborate on writing projects, literary analysis, and more, and they aren’t distracted by the cute boy next to them, the annoying girl behind them or the soon-to-ring lunch bell.

Although most retirement communities offer a wide array of activities to keep residents busy, those unable to drive or without family nearby may feel cut off from the outside world.  On a ning or a wiki, though, they can join like-minded folks working together on a common project.

2. Audience: as a student so honestly said to me, “No offense, Mrs. Bradley, but if our friends are going to read our work on the class blog, we are going to spend audiencea lot more time proofreading it than if it’s just you reading it.”  Posting their writing on a blog or wiki meant that my students’ peers would see their work, and this shift brought about profound changes in my students’ efforts.  They spent considerably more time proofreading their work, reading it aloud (as I had been begging them to do all year), and making sure it was as good as it could be before they clicked that magic button that would publish their writing for all their classmates to read.

The senior residents I spoke to told me about a Life Stories class they had taken, where they learned to write short memoirs.  I encouraged them to start their own blogs so they could publish these stories for family and friends to read.  They were nervous about putting their writing online, so I showed them how they could set their blogs for various levels of privacy, giving them control over their growing audience.

connections3. Connections: when my students joined National Novel Writing Month, they discovered an international online writing community of other students also attempting the crazy challenge of writing a novel in a month.  They found that their teacher wasn’t the only one who thought this would be fun; in fact, their teacher was one of many worldwide riding the novelist roller-coaster.  And when they encountered writers’ block, they chatted online with other writers in efforts to break through their blocks and write again.  Thanks to writing online (with Google docs) and joining the NaNoWriMo challenge, my students connected with each other, with students in other classes, with teachers, and with writers around the world.  And that’s pretty powerful.

Students aren’t the only ones connecting with others online.  Senior dating sites and high school reunion pages are keeping pace with the teenagers, and suddenly a whole new world opens up to those willing to take a peek.

My fourth powerful positive of new technology is so exciting that it needs its own post.  I’ll save it for next week — just in time for <gasp> the new school year.

So why do you love new technology in your classroom?  How does it improve how you teach and how your students learn?

“…where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

I’m feeling like Marty McFly this summer, jumping from the futuristic world of 24/7 technology at the ISTE conference, to the distinctly old-school peace and quiet of our total no-tech Sierra summer cabin… and then back to the future again at the Google Apps for Education Summit.


I kicked off my summer by co-teaching a flipped-class workshop, then flew down to San Diego for ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education).  I spent four days lugging my laptop and iPad around San Diego’s enormous convention center, taking workshops  like “Teach your students game design in one week,” “Fired up with SketchUp,” and “Interactive games, movies and animations with Alice and Scratch.”  I will be teaching a new, digital media elective class for 8th graders this year, so I spent my time at ISTE gathering as many resources as I could for this not-yet-developed curriculum.  I was overwhelmed but very excited about what I would be able to offer my students in the fall.

Then I flew home, traded my laptop and iPad for shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, and headed for the hills and my parents’ summer cabin.  Perched up the mountain above a tiny jewel of a lake, the cabin has changed very little since it was built in 1930.  There are no roads around the lake (thus no cars) and no electricity.  We rely on boats to get to and from the cabins, our water is piped to us from a snow-melt spring up the mountain, and we live without most modern conveniences while we are there. Kerosene lamps light the table for board games at night; the days are filled with traditional mountain activities like hiking, swimming, reading and soaking up the sun.  Until cell phones interrupted our tranquility, we got by without outside contact (if we needed to make a phone call, we canoed to a pay phone at the end of the lake).

I know that I need to teach my students how to be successful citizens in a digital world; while most of them live in tech-rich homes, I have learned that precious few are savvy in the new literacies that our 2.0 world commands (see my “Myth of the Digital Native” post here).  But my time at the cabin reminded me just how precious is a life lived close to the land, and I wondered: are parents teaching kids to be successful citizens in the natural world, too?

I love how new technologies have improved the way I teach and my students learn; writing and reading become more collaborative, interactive and creative, and with just one mouse-click our work is published.  But I am pretty sure that in our fascination with and reliance on new technology, we are losing our connection to the land, to nature, to the very Earth that we so love to navigate (virtually) via Google Earth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile I teach my students to be responsible digital citizens, where they design computer games, create digital animations and share cat videos on YouTube and tumblr, I wonder: who will bring them back to the land?  Who will teach them to live as responsible citizens of our natural world? Who will show them how richly satisfying it is to unplug, walk outside and enjoy all that Mother Earth has to offer?  More important, who will teach them to protect and care for her?

I don’t think we can assume that kids are learning this on family camping trips and at summer camp.  My own students write about family vacations on cruise ships, in luxury hotels in Hawaii or driving from one soccer tournament to another.  And the last summer camp I saw offered zip-lines and BMX biking: hardly a recipe for teaching a reverence for the land.  So it looks like it falls to the schools to raise up the next generation of nature’s stewards.

There is hope: recently I stumbled upon Green Ribbon Schools, which recognizes schools for achieving four cornerstones: Environmentally-friendly Campus; Nature Adventure; Health, Fitness and Nutrition; and Natural Classrooms.   Of course, I was noodling around the internet when I discovered this great program on Twitter…

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.

The Myth of the Digital Native

babyKids today are born with a mouse in their hand, right? They navigate websites intuitively, clicking their way around the Internet with their eyes closed. Their teachers are stuck in the binder-paper-and-#2-pencil routine, while the students go home to blogs, wikis and websites. Our students are the digital natives, while we are the immigrants, relying on pre-teens to show us how to tweet and upload… right?

Well, no, not really. While kids today may be less intimidated by technology than their older teachers, they are no more likely to be competent with technological applications than a child growing up in a kitchen is a competent chef.
A few years ago I decided to introduce my 8th grade students to blogging. I suspected the on-line factor of the assignment would make writing more appealing to these digital natives. I was right about that — they were indeed very excited about posting their work on a blog. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was how much I would need to teach them about basic Internet use. Most of these students were from educated, upper middle class homes, and they had years of online experience, yet they needed plenty of instruction in basic technological applications. As a result, I offer you some myths of our so-called digital native generation:
Myth #1: Students will know how to set up an on-line account.
Whether it’s for e-mail or blogging or shopping, setting up an on-line account is a literacytask that a teenager will not instinctively know how to do. Choosing an appropriate user name and a password that can be remembered is not simple; remember when you opened your first account and had to click the “forgot password” link? Teens will need their teacher’s help to:
  • choose a user name. No, “hotchick69” is not an appropriate user name for an academic e-mail account, but that is what middle school user names look like. It is up to us to teach them the difference between a social e-mail account (kootchiekoo@mail) and an academic one (joe.smith@mail).
  • choose a password. You’ve seen the news — a frightening number of passwords for personal banking accounts are “password.” Or “12345.” Or “qwerty.” Students need direct instruction in how to choose both letters and numbers that they will remember, yet will not be easily stolen. Today it protects their e-mail and blog; tomorrow it will be their bank account and personal privacy.
Myth #2: Students will know how to use e-mail.

emailMy students needed to have an e-mail account in order to join our class blog, but applicants for most e-mail accounts have to enter their birthdate. If they are under 13 years old, they are denied an account. Assuming that my 8th graders would know how to use e-mail was obviously off the mark. They needed explicit instruction in:
  • choosing user names and passwords (see Myth #1).
  • accessing their e-mail accounts. Students would assure me that they had an e-mail account and that they knew how to use it, but then we would go online and the truth was revealed: “Um, it just comes up on the screen at home…” Since their parents usually set up the accounts at home, many of my students didn’t know how to get to the webpage and log-in. They needed explicit instruction in how to access their e-mail home page, and how to log-in to their accounts.
  • sending an e-mail. OK, for real? Surely today’s teens know how to send an e-mail. But here’s the reality: the current generation has bypassed e-mail altogether and opted for social networking, chatting sites and texting in order to stay in touch with their friends. Until now their Internet use has been all about friends, not about school work. So many of them need basic instruction in composing an e-mail, proofreading it and, yes, sending it.
  • sending an e-mail to themselves. I know, pretty obvious, right? But I had students who didn’t realize they could send an e-mail to themselves. Since this is a surefire way to save a document in progress, our students should know how to do it.
  • attach a document. Again, this was a great way to save their document when their flash drive failed, yet many didn’t know how to attach their latest document to an e-mail. A simple task to teach.
Myth #3: Students will know that school work posted on a blog should meet academic standards.

One would think that if a teacher assigns it, students will know that “OMG… JK… textc u l8r” would not be appropriate. But if they have only used their computer for chatting, they may not realize that yes, all 26 letters of the alphabet are indeed on the keyboard. Integrating technology into schoolwork actually provides a nice opportunity to teach our students the difference between informal (chatting, texting) and academic writing. In fact, I think that students today are writing MORE than teens of my generation did. Instead of trading gossip out loud on the phone, my students are tapping their gossip on a tiny screen on a cell phone. It is up to us to make sure they understand the difference between chatting with their friends and posting an academic piece.
Myth #4: Students will know that their comments on a blog are seen not only by their peers, but also by their teacher (and possibly parents).

If their computer use has primarily been chatting one-on-one and texting with friends, teens today may not realize that comments posted on a blog post are seen by anyone who happens to stumble across that website. While teens take great pleasure in commenting back and forth on their classmates’ work, they often forget that their comments are visible for all the world to see. Students need to know that anytime they comment on a post, the website will record the origin of the comment. The temptation to bully other students on a blog is great; students may feel anonymous when they are posting behind a computer screen in the safety of their home. Teachers who bring blogging to their students need to be clear about this up front so that students aren’t caught after the fact.
Myth #5Teens today are using the Internet to expand their world.

techteenThe potential for expanding one’s world via the Internet is infinite: websites, blogs, wikis and nings allow us to meet, talk to, exchange ideas with and learn from people from all over the world, not to mention read about and view local and international news items as they are happening. But are teens today taking advantage of the word-wide-ness of the web? I don’t think so.
In my own home, reading the newspaper is a daily breakfast ritual. My own children started by reading the comics, and gradually worked their way up to reading articles they found interesting. But just when their little world should have grown through reading newspapers and websites, social networking exploded on the scene. Instead of going online to expand their world, they logged on to Facebook and YouTube to see what the kids at school were saying, to watch videos that their friends liked, to reinforce their social circles. The Internet replaced the breakfast table newspaper, and their sphere of influence was reduced to the people they were already seeing at school everyday. Kids today use the Internet to socialize; they need to be taught how to take advantage of the web for discovering people, places and ideas outside of their own.
Although my students and I ran into these myths when we started our own class blog, we found the benefits of blogging far outweighed the missteps we took. Now I blog with my students with our prior year’s myths demystified. Next week, for instance, we will take time to read and understand Google’s G-mail Terms of Use agreement… after all, it’s only 17 pages of tech-speak and legalese. No problem.

“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…

Rallying from the kitchen table

Today is the perfect day to take a drive down to San Francisco: the sky is blue, the air is crisp, and a tiny bit of snow (the first in 30 years) dusted the City this morning. But while my friends and colleagues rally today in San Francisco (and across the country) for our fellow workers in Wisconsin, I am at home, working.  I would rather be in San Francisco — I am an activist and protestor at heart — but my work, as it so often does, has crept into my weekend.  And so this is what I will be doing today as I rally from my kitchen table:

1. Grading papers. No, I don’t mean the “right/wrong,” “true/false,” “noun/verb” kind of grading.  Instead of “grading papers,” I really should say “responding to papers,” but most people wouldn’t know what that means.  I teach English, which translates to reading and writing.  And although the state assesses my students’ reading and writing with multiple choice tests, I know that the best work and assessments I can have my students do is read, read, read (a lot), write about what they read (a lot), and then write, write, write (a lot).  And my role?  To read their writing and give them thoughtful, constructive, questioning, prodding feedback.  And that takes time.  While I might attempt to do some of this work during the school week, my best responding calls for a clear head and alert mind, which I rarely have after a day of working with 8th graders.

2. Working on my master’s degree.  I am in the fourth semester of a master’s degree program in Education (Curriculum, Teaching and Learning), which means that most of my weekends are spent reading research and writing papers.  There are some who think teachers with master’s degrees should no longer receive a bonus (they question whether or not a master’s degree has any impact on the teacher’s students), so why am I spending all this extra time and money going back to school?

  • It’s not the money, that’s for sure.  My school district offers teachers a small stipend ($1100./year) for a master’s degree. While the recognition (tiny that it is) is nice, it won’t make a change in our lifestyle, nor come close to paying back what it cost me to earn the degree.
  • It’s the kids. Effectively teaching writing and literature to 150 8th graders each year, adolescents who represent a wide range of cultures, abilities, gifts, struggles and dreams, is a challenge of magnificent proportion.  This challenge has taken me on a career-long journey to identify, adopt and hone the strategies, methods and curriculum that will bring the most success to my students.  This ongoing professional endeavor has led to certification from the California Association for the Gifted, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the Bay Area Writing Project, plus nearly 20 years of reading books and participating in conferences and workshops, and now working towards a master’s degree.  While “data” may not confirm the value of this degree, I can certainly speak to the significant impact this work has already had on my classroom and my students.
  • It’s the teaching.  My degree emphasis is Educational Technology, which means I have been reading research on the tremendous impact that new technologies are having on today’s youth, as well as the profound effect they can have in our classrooms.  Integrating blogging into my 8th graders’ curriculum has already opened my eyes to the powerful potential that new technologies can bring to my students, and since then e-mail and Google docs (and soon digital storytelling) have revolutionized my classroom, my teaching and the potential for my students to learn 21st century media and new technology skills in schools that too often look like the 20th century.  Without the research and work associated with my master’s program, I am sure that my students would still be writing with pencil and paper, wondering when their tech-savvy lives would be reflected in their classrooms.

So while my heart is with those across the country who are standing tall and proud for our embattled colleagues in Wisconsin, the rest of my body is here in my kitchen, working to provide my students with the best education I can possibly give them.