Reading

Read > blog > discuss > repeat

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:

  • publish their writing to a bigger (and more significant) audience;
  • can easily access and read their peers’ writing;
  • can engage in online conversations in response to their peers’ writing;
  • learn to work online for academic purposes;
  • learn a variety of digital skills within a meaningful project.

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.

wong blog

pportfolioed

blog sample jennifer

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.

blog sample Tito

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:

blog topics

(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, sciencehistory 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?

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Give your students a New Year reboot

The start of a new semester can feel a lot like a do-over, like a chance to start fresh, with the wisdom of the first semester to inform us. But after two long weeks away from the classroom, my students need time to reflect on the previous semester, revisit what they learned, and recharge their academic batteries. Here are some welcome-back, New Year strategies that have worked with my 8th graders:

Reflect

New year = New Year’s resolutions, right? But after a long vacation, few students will be able to put a finger on what went well (or wrong) a few months ago and how they can improve in the new semester. If we give our students guidance in identifying their successes and struggles, along with prompts for writing specific, attainable resolutions for the coming semester, they can start their new year with a clear focus on success. One way I facilitate this is instead of sending my students’ graded work folders home in December, I hold on to them until January. Once the holiday distractions are behind us, I give them time to review their work, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and plan for improvement. They keep these written reflections + resolutions in their notebooks as reminders for the new semester.

Revisit

My students work hard in the fall semester learning to annotate and write thoughtfully about what they read, but I know they will need to continue to practice and hone these skills for the rest of the year. To get them back in the swing of literary analysis, I try to spark their interest with some unusually engaging reading. Maybe it will be news articles about local events (like the torrential rain and flooding we experienced that resulted in two days of school being cancelled); or maybe a short story that will surprise DSCN9418them with its relevance (like Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” – after they thought they had experienced non-stop rain!). If I need to keep them engaged in academic reading, compelling text is a great way to hook them as they revisit the analysis skills they worked on last semester.

Recharge

A few years ago I discovered the hilarious satirical reviews written for products on Amazon. Rave reviews for the banana slicer were the first to catch my eye:

“What can I say about the 571B Banana Slicer that hasn’t already been said about the wheel, penicillin, or the iPhone…. this is one of the greatest inventions of all time. My husband and I would argue constantly over who had to cut the day’s banana slices. It’s one of those chores NO ONE wants to do!… The Banana Slicer saved our marriage!”

Not only would these clever reviews help my students learn to recognize satire, but I was pretty confident they would inspire them to try writing satire themselves. So after reading through some of the best banana slicer testimonials, we identified the elements of satire and watched some infomercials for equally ridiculous products (remember the Hawaii chair? or the Flowbee haircutting system?). My students wrote with glee, eagerly sharing their satirical wit with their classmates. They posted them on our own Banana Blog, commented on each other’s posts, and got swept right back into reading, writing and learning while laughing and having fun. They may not have been thrilled to come back to school after their winter break, but the Banana Blog gave them the recharge they needed to get focused and on track again. And maybe they will become such savvy satirists that they won’t fall victim to sites like The Onion.

How do you kick off the new year with your students? Please share your best reboot strategies below!

(Originally published on Edutopia.org.)

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]

Oh, the skillz they will learn!

we invent

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:

  • creating online accounts (emails, usernames, passwords)digital-literacy-image
  • confirming online accounts via email
  • “edit” = “make changes to”
  • adding pages to a website
  • writing an “about the author” blurb
  • using images and text to personalize a blog/website/post
  • finding copyright-free images on Google, pics4learning, etc.
  • choosing images that represent (symbolize) ideas in a post
  • inserting copyright-free images into a blog/website
  • writing an original title for a blog post
  • saving a draft before going “live”
  • changing blog settings to “approve comments,” giving them control over what appears on their blogs
  • changing a blog’s style: fonts, themes, colors, images
  • formatting columns in a post
  • formatting text around images
  • inserting links in a blog post
  • adding linked buttons in a blog post
  • proofreading and correcting a draft before publishing
  • and finally, publishing a post and viewing it “live”

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?

Hook ’em on day-one

First day of school!

First day of school!

Although I have conveniently forgotten most of my student-teaching experiences (oh, the magnitude of what I did not know that I did not know), there is one critical piece of advice that I have tried to heed each year since:  on the first day of school, do something that makes the students want to come back on the second day.  Our students might be required to return to school the second (and the third and the ninety-third) day,  but that certainly doesn’t mean that they want to. So instead of boring my students out of their minds on the first day of school with rules, policies and a curriculum map, I try to engage them in at least one activity that will surprise and intrigue them enough to bring them back to class the next day curious about what is in store for them in 8th grade English this year.

In an effort to motivate my students to read good books, I begin every class period with Storytime.  Rather than read an entire novel to them (one chapter per day, which makes me a little crazy when repeated with all five of my classes), I read aloud one compelling excerpt from one really great book each day.  That way my students are exposed to a huge variety of books and authors, and hopefully are enticed enough to check out a few of them.  This year, I decided to greet my brand new 8th graders with a hilarious (and a bit scandalous) excerpt from John Green‘s Paper Towns.    I introduced the reading by telling them that although Paper Towns has some inappropriate-for-school language that I will edit out as I read, it is a great story that I am sure they will enjoy.

So here’s the gist of the excerpt:  four teenage boys are traveling in a van, on a very tight time schedule, in an effort to find and help a friend they think might be suicidal.  They have so tightly calculated the timing of the trip that they will only stop for gas, where they will also stock up on food and take necessary bathroom breaks.  Unfortunately, one of the teens has some bladder trouble and needs his potty break a good two hours before the next scheduled stop.  What follows includes great panic, warnings to “hold it!”, the frenzied opening, emptying and refilling of a beer bottle (quickly followed by a second bottle) and the disposal of the refilled bottles.  The combination of the potty humor, taboo content and high school situation has my students fully engaged, their mouths open in shock and laughter — which is pretty exciting to see on the first day of school.  And so all went well when I read to my 1st period class.

I gave the same pre-reading explanation to my 2nd period class and started the chapter.  Just as I read, “I think I’m going to cry and pee tears will come out,” my classroom door opened and in walked my principal.  I stopped reading, assuming she needed to see a student, but she said she was just there to observe.  So… I kept on reading.  My students couldn’t decide who would get in more trouble, they or their teacher, so they kept looking from me to my principal and back again, hiding their laughter behind their hands, their eyes dancing with delight.  When I finished, my principal smiled and said, “I think you got their attention,” and walked out.

I’m pretty sure I’ve got my 2nd period class hooked for the year, but I’m afraid I may have set the bar a little too high on the first day.