Final Project 2.0

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.

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!

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.