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Macbeth & Musical Chairs: The Power of Teachers Connecting

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

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

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

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

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

connected ed map

[also posted on Edutopia.org]

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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.)

It’s beginning to look a lot like #NaNoWriMo!

nanopostcardThe first time I introduced National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) to my 8th graders, I was terrified. One of my teacher friends had said, “They’ll run screaming from the classroom in tears!”

Some students did later confess to a brief moment of panic (“I almost lost my lunch!”), but the end result was resoundingly the most powerful and successful writing project I have ever seen in my classroom. So before you click away in fear at the words “novel writing,” let me share what NaNoWriMo is and why you should offer your students this literary challenge.

  • what it is: according to the Young Writers Program, NaNoWriMo is “a fun, seat-of-your-pants writing event where the challenge is to complete an entire novel in just 30 days. For one month, you get to lock away your inner editor, let your imagination take over, and just create!” According to me, 8th grade English teacher, NaNoWriMo is the best writing project I have ever seen my students tackle, and it includes writing process, community, strategies, revision, and publishing. So how does NaNoWriMo turn students into enthusiastic writers?
  • challenge: we know that challenging our students to aim high can motivate and inspire them, but who would think challenging them to write a novel in a month wouldn’t just terrify them? I don’t think my typical student dreams of writing a novel, but here’s what I discovered: given a meaningful challenge, plus resources, support and lots of time to write, students will write with enthusiasm.
  • student ownership: my students do their best writing when they own the genre, topic and final product. With NaNoWriMo, students write the stories of their choice. Often they mimic the books that they love to read: dystopian worlds, wizard fantasies, historical fiction, teen romance, zombie gore. With guidance, they choose a challenging yet attainable word goal, allowing each student to be successful while tackling a significant piece of writing. I have spent many years devising clever projects to motivate my students to write, but for the first time in my career students came to class begging, “Can we please start writing now?”
  • online support: my students join the online NaNoWriMo writing community, where they create their own author page, upload a book cover they have designed themselves, share their book’s title, genre, summary and an excerpt, connect with other young writers, compete in “word wars,” track their daily progress towards their goals, and read tips from published authors.  As they encounter the inevitable writer’s block, they learn to jump to the writing community for productive distractions and genuine writing help. Bonus: the online NaNo community serves as a perfect avenue for teaching (and practicing) digital citizenship.
  • publication: one of the most exciting aspects of the Young Writers Program is that Best Linesstudents who successfully make it to their writing goal by November 30 are rewarded with the opportunity to publish their novel, receive five copies for free, and sell their novels on Amazon. (See my own students’ novels for sale here.) But there’s no need to wait until the month is over to start publishing. We publish our work in a variety of ways:
    • sharing one great line on a class bulletin board
    • posting a proud excerpt on the NaNoWriMo site
    • exchanging excerpts in a shared Google Doc
    • Author’s Chair at the end of class: reading aloud from our works-in-progress
    • sharing our work with the community: our local bookstore hosts Author Nights for students who want to read aloud from their completed novels
  • Common Core aligned: while “Common Core aligned” doesn’t really make my heart sing, the reality is that most of us must use curriculum that meets certain standards. Fortunately, the folks at the Young Writers Program provide detailed documentation of how NaNoWriMo does align with Common Core Standards, so if your boss, school board, community members or parents question the value of “30 days of literary abandon,” you’ve got back-up.
  • confidence and pride: I’m certain that the best way to build our students’ self-esteem is to give them opportunities to struggle, work through difficulties, and find their own voices in the process. My students validated this in their enthusiastic responses to the NaNoWriMo project. My favorite comes from Jessie, a girl who had been labeled below grade level in her reading and writing skills, and who was not successfully engaged in her own education:

“I just think this whole thing about writing a novel is really cool. It made me think that a lot of things could be possible in the world. I mean I am thirteen years old and I just wrote my own dang novel! How cool is that? I think it is honestly amazing. I loved the writing time and I wish it wasn’t over!”    -Jessie, 13

The actual writing of the novels starts on November 1, but free curriculum provided by the Young Writers Program of NaNoWriMo makes it easy for teachers to devote weeks (even a couple months) of valuable class time to the project. Go here to get started, and check out my own NaNoTeacher site for help bringing this awesome writing experience to your students.

Stay tuned over the next couple months for a few more posts on the NaNoWriMo project: getting your classroom ready, getting your students ready, assessing their work, and publishing. And please share your own NaNoWriMo stories below!

(originally published on edutopia.org)