NWP

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…

Will writing get me in trouble?

Magazines produced by my 8th graders.

Magazines produced by my 8th graders.

My students were hard at work outlining the first essays for their self-published magazines.  They were writing about cars, gymnastics, football, teen fashion, traveling, music, cooking, skateboarding and whatever else grabbed their fancy. This project would carry them through the rest of the semester, and because they get to choose the topics for their magazines, they usually enjoy the work.  Writing is an art, and the more freedom and power I can give my students, the better.  Every year, though, there are a few students who struggle to find a topic for their magazine.

Jessi is one of them.  A shy student who barely completes most assignments, Jessi appears uninterested in most of the work we do.  When I try to talk with her one on one, she swings her black, stringy hair in front of her face, looks away and shrugs her shoulders.  Since she needs to choose her magazine topic before she can move on to the writing, I ask her to join me for lunch so we can work on it together.  She sighs and rolls her eyes, grabs her backpack and moves to a desk next to mine.

“So what do you like to do after school?” I ask, unwrapping my sandwich.  She shrugs again, her face blank and unreadable.  “Do you play any sports?”  Jessi shakes her head ‘no.’  I sigh a little myself, frustrated with the apathy that so often afflicts my students.  “How about movies?  Or food?  You must love to eat!”  But no, not even food catches her interest.

“Has anyone ever gotten in trouble for what they put in their magazine?” Jessi asks, her make-up smudged eyes making contact with mine for the first time this year.

Now I know she really has a topic in mind, but she’s too afraid to ask about it.  “Well, since I read the drafts of the magazine pieces before they are published, I usually know what the magazines are about.  What are you thinking of?”  I set down my sandwich, lean forward and look into Jessi’s sad eyes.  This may be my only chance to show a lost student that she really does matter, that those thoughts swirling through her confused adolescent mind are the ones she really should be writing about.

“Well, what about Prop. 8?”  Jessi’s eyes twinkle a bit, her narrow chin juts forward and her face reveals a bit of a challenge as she waits to see how I will respond.

“What are you thinking about Prop. 8?” I ask, urging her to own the topic.

“I just think it’s dumb.  My uncle is gay and he has been with the same guy for years and they want to get married but they can’t but my parents are divorced and they hate each other and why can’t people who are in love just get married?”  Jessi pulls back, as if startled by her own words, caught off guard by her own honesty.  Her eyes hold onto mine, though, and she seems to hold her breath in fear she will be reprimanded for her voice.

“Jessi, that’s a wonderful topic for a magazine!” I assure her, smiling wide and clapping my hands.  She smiles too, her posture softens and she laughs at my glee.  “What would you like to focus on for your first essay?”

By the end of the lunch period, I am overjoyed at the new Jessi that I see.  No longer hunched and silent, frowning and apathetic, she has outlined her first essay and has a vision for her entire magazine project.  She has a passion for her topic and the guidance and freedom and power to explore what she thinks.  Maybe, just maybe, this will be the ticket to keeping her engaged in her own learning for the rest of the year.

Sadly, when it comes time to assess what she has learned this year (and to assess how I have performed as her teacher), Jessi will be asked to read short, unrelated passages that range from fiction to informational to historical to poetry, and she will be assessed on her ability to correctly bubble one of four possible answers.  Even her writing skills will be assessed this way, as she will be asked to choose the best revision of a sentence pulled from an excerpt.  She will have no voice, no passion, no interest in the topics at hand, but she will be expected to engage in the process as if it really means something to her.

And this is the disconnect I face in my classroom every year: I am a writing teacher because I love the written word and I love empowering teenagers with their own words.  I am a writing teacher because I know the value that writing has, both in our professional worlds and our personal lives.  I am a writing teacher because I know that if we write about what we are learning, we learn what we are thinking.  And I am a writing teacher because, yes, we can get in trouble for what we write, and that may be the best reason of all for writing.  So, yes, Jessi, write about Prop. 8 and your uncle and love and marriage, and write about what makes you angry and happy and sad and scared and delirious.  And maybe you will get in trouble and maybe you will change the world.  But please don’t stop writing just because at the end of the year it all comes down to a multiple choice test.  Please remember how writing made you smile and sit up straight and laugh with your English teacher. Please don’t lose your voice or your passion just because the state tries to silence it with #2 pencils and bubble forms.