teaching

Teach writing? Then you’d better BE writing.

I told my husband that he needed to come with me for an evening canoe ride. We were vacationing at our cabin, and although I was working very hard at not working, I was also working on a piece of writing that had to get done. And I needed to bounce some ideas off of him.

We paddled up the lake a bit, the late sun bright and low, the water calm and clear. My mind was racing with an idea that had come to me in the middle of a sleepless night, and I thought it might work but I needed to verbalize it first, needed to hear it aloud before I could be sure.

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Fortunately my husband is used to this, as I often ask him to just listen while I try out an idea on him; sometimes it’s my writing, often it’s an idea for a lesson for my students. We reached the end of the lake and he listened while I ran through my idea. Saying it aloud not only helped me get clear on what I was thinking; it also gave me the opportunity to get feedback from someone else. And by the time we tied up the canoe at our dock, I was confident and ready to get these new ideas on paper.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this summer, far more than usual, and it has reminded me (again and again) how important it is that, as a writing teacher, I am also writing. It seems so obvious: how can I really understand and teach the writing process if I am not experiencing it myself? But for many years I taught writing without actually writing myself. I gave students assignments; I gave them graphic organizers; I gave them feedback on their drafts; and I gave them grades. But what I didn’t give them was honest writing practice based on my own writing struggles. And, yes, writing is a struggle. Every time we put pen to paper (or, let’s be honest, fingers to keyboard), it is a struggle. It is making something out of nothing. It is creating something new. It is an art and a science and a production.

So when I tell my husband, “I’m going for a walk. I need to get away from my writing in order to find my writing again,” it’s only fair that I make a mental note: how can I let my students “go for a walk” so they can find their writing again, too?

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The writing classroom needs to be quiet, of that I’m sure. Writing is hard work, it requires concentration, and when writers are interrupted by noise, it takes a Herculean effort to find the writing again. So during writing time, I insist on a quiet writing classroom. So how can I give my students opportunities like I needed to go for a canoe ride or a walk, or to talk out their ideas with someone? Here are a few ways I try to support their writing needs:

  • in our flexible seating classroom, students are able to get up and move when they need to. They know that they need to be quiet, but they also know the value of movement as part of the creative process. Our furniture is on wheels, which allows them to move even as they write, but they are also free to get up and move, to walk around, even go outside (weather permitting) to walk a little.
  • we use Google Docs for most of our writing, so my students are able to bounce ideas off their friends via comments on their Docs. I also jump into their Docs during writing time so I can give them feedback as they work, rather than waiting until an entire draft is written and turned in.
  • homework: debate rages over whether or not homework is beneficial or even necessary for our students, but I am certain that writing for homework is critical, if only because it allows my students to figure out how they write (work) best. During NaNoWriMo, I have my students reflect on what they are learning about their own writing preferences; their answers help them see how they can work best on any assignment. They discover if they work best with music, with quiet, with snacks, and what time of day is ideal. These are discoveries that will help them now and in future work endeavors.

I may not be able to send my students out in canoes when they need a writing break, but I can learn from my own writing needs so that I can help my students find theirs. How about you? What have you learned about writing from your own writing experiences?

#NaNoWriMo: ask the experts

I’ve never published a novel of my own, so it’s intimidating to ask my students to write a novel under my tutelage. But since the answer to just about every question can now be found online, I decided this year to ask my students to search the web for writing advice from those most qualified to give it: published writers.

Much of the wisdom they found echoes what I will be teaching them in the next few weeks. Maybe my lessons will carry a bit more weight since the experts said it first!

  • Don’t give up. Trust your journey.

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  • Editing matters. Write truth.

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  • Your story matters.

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  • Make it real; make it scary; and … cliffhangers.

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  • Make it human (but don’t let your mom read it).

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  • Also good: tension and snap.

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  • When you get discouraged, remember: the world needs your novel!

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What advice do YOU have for my #WriMos?

 

Always a learner; also a teacher.

Screen shot 2014-10-04 at 1.29.05 PMGreetings! I am a veteran middle school teacher with nearly 30 years experience teaching English language arts. In 2012 I added Digital Design and Broadcast Media to my schedule, and discovered the joys and power that an internet-connected 1:1 classroom can bring to my students. Revising my curriculum to take advantage of 21st century tools while also developing our digital media programs have kept me engaged and excited to be in the classroom every day. In addition to teaching, I also present workshops for teachers on Google Apps, project-based learning, and writing; plus I work as a community facilitator for Edutopia and write for KQED Learning and Edutopia. I love to connect with other educators, so please enjoy this site, check out my how-to NaNoWriMo site, and contact me here or via Twitter @LAMBRADLEY.

Loving the homestretch: meaningful work and active engagement

Oh, these crazy days of May! As sure as the weather gets warmer, our students get antsy, lose their focus and challenge our well established rules and expectations. Attention spans wither and distractions bloom. But thanks to the engaging nature of PBL and student choice, I love my classroom in May.

Although my students know the year is almost over, they are (for the most part) fully engaged in meaningful work. They have invested weeks (even months) into final projects, and they know that due dates are right around the corner. They are proud of the work they have done and eager to see it all come to fruition in a completed, published form.

So instead of battling distracted students and misbehavior in May, I have the pleasure of circulating as they work, answering questions, admiring their progress, and enjoying the beauty of students blushing with pride as they show off their best work.

My 8th grade English students are putting the final touches on their magazines, a project that allows them to pursue a topic of interest to them, while also building their skills in essay writing, graphic design, media, advertising, target audience, and long-term project completion.

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Overlapping with the publication of their magazines is the completion of their digital portfolios, where they reflect on the work they have done this year, highlight their best pieces, and add symbolic images. Students spend the final class days presenting their portfolios to the class.

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My favorite part of their portfolios is the final piece: a gratitude slide, where students represent their journey with one final symbolic image and thank an adult on campus for their impact on their lives. Middle schoolers can be a bit self-absorbed, but with just a little prompting, they can see and appreciate how the adults in their lives have affected them. And it is through these final slides that we see not just the appreciation of teachers, but also counselors, administrators, campus supervisors, coaches, office and cafeteria staff. My students are fortunate to have so many inspirational role models across our campus:

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How do you keep your students engaged in meaningful work during these final, crazy days of May?

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.

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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.

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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:

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(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?

“I’d like to thank the Academy…” a.k.a. What do teachers need?

Did you see the new thank-you ticker crawling across the screen at this year’s Oscars? The long list of names reminded me that whether we are actors or teachers, directors or principals, we didn’t get where we are without the help of a lot of people. I was reminded of all the people who have contributed to my own, albeit less glamorous, career in education.

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I was reminded that I have not become the teacher I am today without the help, encouragement, mentoring, and resources of others. And I was reminded that too many teachers don’t get what they need to support their growth as effective educators.

Teaching can be an isolating profession: we spend most of our time with students and have few opportunities to work with and learn from our peers. Social media has changed that in big ways, but when I started teaching, the internet was barely a blip on the paper in my typewriter. So who helped me develop my teaching skills? Who made a difference in my growth as an educator? Which names would run across my thank-you ticker?

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Photo credit: Chloe Bradley

Maybe a better question is: what do teachers need if they are to become great teachers? After 25 years in the classroom, I’ve got a longer-than-Oscar-speech ticker of gratitude, starting with:

Effective master teachers: prior to student teaching, I observed a couple master teachers in action: Joan Price and Mary Jackson welcomed me into their high school classrooms, allowed me to work with their students, and gave me valuable insights that got me started on my teacher training. When I was placed in two classrooms for my student teaching, I struck gold with junior high master teacher Carol Treu and high school master teacher Ana Byerly. Learning at the feet of these excellent teachers told me that I really had no excuse for not becoming a great teacher! But as outstanding as they were, I needed more help once I took charge of my very own classroom as a full time teacher. Then I needed:

Supportive administrators: once again, I struck gold when I landed my first job at Altimira Middle School under the leadership of Dr. Marilyn Kelly. Typical of most new teachers, I couldn’t even imagine all that I didn’t know. As enthusiastic and educated as I was, and even as successful I’d been in my student teaching, I was woefully unprepared for the demands of full time teaching in a middle school classroom.

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Fortunately for me, my boss saw my panic as well as my potential, and she made time to meet with me, coach me, and further the training that all teachers need when they first enter a classroom. I shudder to think what would have become of me (and my students) without Marilyn’s support. But years later, after I developed some good strategies and felt pretty confident about my work, I wanted to keep growing and learning and strengthening my skills, so I needed:

Ongoing support and effective professional development: just because we become effective teachers doesn’t mean we no longer need our administrators’ support. In fact, that support can be the difference between a teacher stagnating or even declining in effectiveness vs. growing into a teacher who impacts not just his/her students but also other teachers and the profession. Even after I left Altimira and Marilyn retired, she continued to be a mentor to me, encouraging me to pursue powerful professional development, such as National Board Certification and a master’s degree. When I finally carved out the time to do both, I benefited from the support of principals Dave Rose and Emily Dunnagan, who assisted me in the process, excused me from meetings when I had classes, honored my commitment to my growth, and celebrated with me when I finished.

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I can still see Dave, following me around my classroom with a video camera, taking time out of his busy schedule to film my students for my National Board portfolio. And Emily contributed to my video application for Google Teacher Academy, another example of the kind of paradigm-changing professional development that has greatly impacted my work. Dr. Jessica Parker, my advisor in my M.A. program, has been a significant mentor whose work has had a tremendous influence on my classroom.

Other valuable professional development I have had include the Bay Area Writing Project Summer Institute (thank you, Greta Vollmer!) and conferences such as CUE, ISTE and NCTE. I have been lucky to have administrators who support my need to choose the professional development that benefits my teaching the most. Quality professional development and support from administration is critical, but teachers also need:

Autonomy to choose, revise, and deliver curriculum: after just one year of teaching, I read Nancie Atwell‘s groundbreaking book In the Middle, which introduced me to the writing workshop model. I met with Marilyn (my principal at the time) to ask if I could try this approach in the fall. There I was, a brand-new-sometimes-still-struggling teacher, asking to experiment with a pretty radical method for writing instruction. And Marilyn said yes. But more than that, she asked about the details: how would I handle assessment? accountability? parent concerns? And then she checked in with me throughout the year to see how it was going. She let me take charge of my classroom, but she didn’t walk away.

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I’ve been the lucky recipient of this kind of admin. support in recent years, too. I still remember that September day in 2011 when I sat down with my then-principal, Emily Dunnagan, to propose that my 8th graders participate in NaNoWriMo, which meant I would be challenging them to write a novel in a month. She didn’t even hesitate; I still remember her exact words: “I love it! They would be writing every day! This is great!” And then, when we dove into NaNoWriMo for the first time, Emily joined my students on the journey. She brought her laptop to my classroom and wrote with the students; she competed with them in word counts on the Young Writers Program website; and she threw a pizza celebration for all the winners when it was all over.

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Emily can take a great deal of credit for my students’ enthusiastic participation in NaNoWriMo and their resulting growth in writing skills. But my students would not have loved writing their novels if they didn’t have laptops, which means teachers need:

Resources: when I decided that my students needed laptops in our classroom (instead of trying to book our school’s one, shared computer lab), I turned to Petaluma Educational Foundation, a local non-profit that has been raising money for our schools since 1982. They awarded us with a $15,000 grant, which gave my students a half-set of laptops for classroom use. That was enough to get my students off and running with their novels, and the following year, PEF granted us another $15,000 to complete our classroom set. Those laptops brought about the single, most significant change in my curriculum and teaching, a change that only came about because of the resources available from PEF.

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I’ve since received a grant for a weather system on our campus that allows our students to use real-time weather data from our site as well as sites across the country to learn about the science of weather (thank you, PEF); a smaller grant for a 3D printer for our Maker Space (thank you, Donors Choose); and two more grants for technology upgrades for our KTV broadcast media program (thank you, PEF and Educator Innovator). Grant writing is time-consuming and difficult, but well worth the efforts when one discovers the wealth of resources available to teachers. But we can still find ourselves alone in our classroom, facing the day-to-day demands of teaching on our own. How can we take advantage of the wisdom, expertise, and support of our colleagues? Teachers also need:

Collaboration time: a teacher’s day is jam-picked with in-my-face-need-it-now demands. There is never an opportunity to close my door, put my head down on my desk, and ask my non-existent secretary to cancel my afternoon appointments so I can meet with another teacher. The kids are there, every day, and I need to be with them. But sometimes our best resources are the teachers right next door to us, doing amazing things in their classrooms, yet the traditional school schedule doesn’t give us opportunities to collaborate with them. It wasn’t until I was asked to partner with colleague Isaac Raya on our school’s daily news show that I discovered the power of ongoing collaboration. Isaac and I didn’t teach together and we didn’t have much time to collaborate, but we started meeting each morning in our TV studio (along with five or six students) to broadcast our live news show. That 20 minute collaboration before school every day continued for three years, and we nurtured our little news show into a pretty professional student-run production. This year our KTV club has become an official class: two sections of broadcast media where students produce all the content and work every job of a professional news show, and we’ve added a third teacher to our digital media collaboration.

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Kenilworth teachers Neil Radke, Laura Bradley and Isaac Raya share a classroom and collaborate on their digital media program.

Isaac and I continue to collaborate on our KTV program, although without the daily face-to-face time. Much of our collaboration takes place via email, Twitter, and our class website. And our program is better because of our collaboration. How much better would all of our classes be if we had more opportunities to collaborate?

I’ve already broken the rule to keep-blog-posts-short-and-pithy, but maybe that makes my point: for teachers to be successful, we need a lot from the people in our schools, as well as from the greater community around us. It is a big and complex job to support teachers and give them resources to be successful. But if we want our students to succeed, shouldn’t we be investing all we can in their teachers?

What names would run across the screen during your Oscar speech? How did you become the teacher you are today?