teaching

Put the kids in charge

There’s nothing quite like the intensity, the chaos, the one-crisis-after-another, the sorry-I-can’t-help-you-go-find-someone-who-can, the exhilaration, jubilation and exhaustion of the first day of production in a middle school broadcast media class.

My brand new group of 7th and 8th graders had met six times in the first couple weeks of school (90 minutes, every other day) and our audience was antsy for a show. Our news program delivers the daily announcements to the staff and students, and at the start of the school year there is a lot of information that students need.

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Adjusting the sports/weather camera and tele-prompter.

So after just six class periods of training 12- and 13-year-olds to write scripts, create graphics, film and edit video shorts, set up cameras and lights, read from (and pace) tele-prompters, load media onto a TriCaster, manage the audio, direct the anchors, and operate a video bus and TriCaster during filming (which includes green screen technology, switching between four cameras and four student anchors, and incorporating graphics and videos during filming), it was time to get our first show on the air.

Anchors and tele-prompter manager.

7th grade student learns to pace the tele-prompter for the KTV news anchors.

Suffice it to say, chaos reigned. The script team struggled with the language of dates (“If I’m writing the script today for a show that airs tomorrow, which day is “today,” which is “tomorrow” and what is “next week”?); the graphics team spent far too much time looking for just the right “labeled for reuse” image for the Icebreaker Dance announcement; the producer couldn’t find camera angles that worked for students under five feet tall and those well over six feet; the floor manager nearly fried her Fitbit chasing down graphics and videos from computers all over the classroom and delivering them to the tech team; the audio team assured us the audio was fine (but, par for the course, it was not fine at all); the bus operator kept switching to the wrong camera at the wrong time; and the TriCaster team fought the never-ending battle of green fuzz around the anchors’ heads.

Graphics team

Students learn to create graphics for the KTV news show.

But when the bell rang for lunch, our first show was finished, uploaded to YouTube and tweeted out on Twitter. And the best part? The kids applauded, slapped high fives, and walked out of the classroom taller, prouder and more confident than they had felt that morning. That show was theirs, warts and all, and they knew that they had a part in its production. (Click below to watch our first show of the 2018-19 school year.)KTV

In my 25+ years as a middle school teacher, I have never seen a class that inspires students to take responsibility, invest in their work, own their efforts and develop confidence like I see in this broadcast media class. And I’m pretty sure this happens in large part because I can’t answer all their questions and I can’t solve all their problems. There are far too many tasks and far too many crises for a teacher to be in charge. No, the smartest move I made in that class was to tell them from day 1, “I will not be able to solve all the problems, so don’t ask. Find someone who can help you.”

KTV job board

It takes all hands on deck to produce a daily news show.

KTV tech team

Students run the entire show, including the bus, TriCaster and audio.

It’s not easy to let students struggle, to watch them fail, but when I don’t step in to help, they collaborate, communicate and problem-solve to get that show produced. As their “teacher,” it is an honor and inspiration to step back and watch them take charge.

(For more information on our award-winning broadcast media program, see this post that I wrote for KQED; this series on EducatorInnovator’s The Current; and this video from our 2016 Jack London Award for Innovation in Education from Sonoma State University.)

 

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Go ahead: ask your students what they want to write about. They will amaze you!

On my first-day-of-school survey, I asked my 8th graders:

If you could write about anything this year, what would it be?

Their answers remind me why it’s so valuable to give students choice in their writing. I never would have guessed they would want to write about so many interesting topics. Here are some of their plans:

I would write about…

  • a kid who is anxious about the future.
  • equal treatment for everyone. Or mental health.
  • social difficulties and internal conflicts in the modern times because I can easily relate.
  • my dog because he’s really goofy.

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    Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

  • an imaginary island.
  • people who are stuck in the wilderness, like in Hatchet.
  • a realistic fiction novel

(NOTE FROM THE TEACHER: WHAT 8TH GRADER SAYS THEY WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL?!? Must be an 8th grader who knows she will be a NaNoWriMo novelist this year!)

I would write about…

  • the U.S. military because it is something I want to be a part of.
  • Disneyland!
  • owning a corporation and the crazy antics that would follow because one of my dreams is to own a company.
  • politics and feminism.
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Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

  • the impact of a family that loves and supports you, compared to the opposite because I’ve always wondered.
  • natural disasters.
  • my friend Jack, who has Down Syndrome. He means the world to me.
  • history.
  • my puppy being able to talk. It would be really funny.
  • a family surviving in a bunker after the world ends.
  • different cultures. The stories we would learn would be very interesting and it would be nice to know about other people’s cultures.
  • having to evacuate my cabin over the summer due to the Carr fire. I think I can be very descriptive about what happened.
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Photo by Denys Argyriou on Unsplash

  • current events. It’s important to know what’s happening in the world.
  • politics. There are a lot of political issues that need to be addressed.
  • intentional and unintentional racism in public schools. It’s a real issue.
  • mental disorders, because it’s a topic that nobody ever addresses.
  • my trip to Niagara Falls. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

An added bonus to giving students choice in their writing is how it affects our relationship. When I ask them to tell me about their topics, their faces light up with enthusiasm as they share about the puppy they rescued, the rally they went to with a friend, the business they started over the summer, or the post-apocalyptic world they’ve created. What better way to get students invested in their writing (which means they are more likely to write thoughtfully, proofread carefully, and invest in the final product) than to let them write about their passions? Go ahead, try it! What would YOU write about?

 

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Houses & Hamburgers

The first few years that my students and I wrote novels with NaNoWriMo, I neglected settings. This wasn’t intentional, but my main concern was helping my students plan enough of a plot that they would be able to keep writing for the full month. My lack of novel-writing experience caused me to miss the fact that settings make a big difference in adding more story, more conflict, more ways to move the story forward while also revealing more about our characters. Last year we discovered a great way to detail settings for our novels before we start writing.

First, though, I want my students to see why settings matter. They read The Outsiders in 7th grade, and since it is a story that most of them love and remember, it serves as a great reference when we plan our own novels. The settings in S.E. Hinton’s classic novel show us just how valuable our own stories’ settings can be:

  • Ponyboy’s home and neighborhood, where we see the bond of the brothers who try to support each other without their parents; plus we see the fear and danger of walking the streets of their neighborhood, and the support the Greasers give each other when one of them is jumped by Socs.
  • The drive-in theater, where we see Cherry take on Dallas, and where she and Ponyboy begin to get to know each other.
  • The abandoned church, where Johnny and Ponyboy hide, and where we see their friendship develop. Later we see how courageous and generous the Greasers are when they risk their own lives to save children who are trapped in the burning church.
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Photo by Harry Miller on Unsplash

Looking back at these settings helps my students understand why they need to decide which settings will be important in their novels. But where do they get ideas for settings? How do they create settings that are realistic? #TinyTip answer: the Chamber of Commerce.

After my husband and I enjoyed a vacation in Grand Lake, Colorado, I decided to set my next novel there. I loved the tiny mountain town, the beautiful lake, the downtown boardwalks, and the live theater. But as a California native, I didn’t know much about living in Colorado. Thank you, Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, for providing ideas for not just places, but also local hangouts, activities, festivals, and weather. After all, a novel set in Colorado must have some snowy winter scenes, and that is far outside my own experience.

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Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

Even if my students want to set their stories in fictional towns, using a Chamber of Commerce site for that area of the country will help them plan settings that will improve their stories. Writing science fiction? Fantasy? Your characters still need places to live, to travel, to hangout, to enjoy a burger… and Chamber of Commerce sites are gold mines for setting ideas. Students can even visit Chamber of Commerce sites all over the world with this international list.

Where do you get ideas for your novel’s settings? How do you make them realistic?

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Ask & Suggest

My students are deep in the planning stages of NaNoWriMo, which means they have crafted their main characters and plotted some main events. But we are all a bit foggy about where our stories might go. Brainstorming ideas and bouncing them off our friends only takes us so far. So today we tried something new, and my students (and I) were so excited about the results that we knew it must be shared.

First I should confess: my own novel plan this year is painfully thin. I’ve got a main character and her dad, I’ve got a setting, and I’ve got a touch of mystery, but that’s about it. So my reason for today’s lesson is a bit self-serving: I needed my students’ help.

Photo by Callum Chapman on Unsplash

So I wrote a couple paragraphs about the story I have so far, and then I read them aloud to my students. I told them I wanted two things from them: questions about and suggestions for my story. As they peppered me with questions, I didn’t try to answer them. I just wrote down exactly what they said, using my laptop and projector so my students could see that I was writing down their exact words: “Where’s the mom?” “Why did they move?” “Who’s in the photograph?” Whether or not I could answer the questions didn’t matter; the ideas sparked by the questions would.

Then I asked them for suggestions, and that’s when they went crazy! I think we love to tell others what to write because we know we won’t have to actually make those ideas work. And again, as students shouted, “They live in an RV!” “The mom is a spy!” and “Her dad is actually her older brother,” I dutifully wrote down everything they said, smiling and nodding as if every suggestion would save my story (and some of those ideas really did!).

After I modeled the exercise in front of the class, my students partnered up and did the same. I had to remind them a couple times to just write down whatever their partner said and not worry about whether or not the ideas even made sense, and by the end of class they were glowing with excitement.

“Did this help?” I asked. They clutched their notebooks and grinned up at me. “Yes!” “I got so many great ideas!” “Mrs. Bradley, listen to this….!” Writing is usually a solitary endeavor, but the benefits of participating in a writing group are touted by many. We don’t need to (and shouldn’t) make this journey alone!

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Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash.

Sometimes the best lessons come out of our own desperation, and sometimes we just need our writing friends to inject some inspiration into our stories. My protagonist doesn’t live in an RV, but that suggestion triggered the idea of a mysterious friend who walks miles home from school every day because she doesn’t want anyone to see that she and her mom live in an RV on the outskirts of town…

This is what the Dare Machine on the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program website does for us when we struggle with writer’s block. With one click we’re given a suggestion that might make no sense at all in our story, but if we just try writing about it, chances are our creative juices will start flowing again and our stories will get right back on track.

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Where do you get ideas for your novel? What’s your best strategy for developing your plot? Please share!

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 have been teaching middle school since 1988: first English Language Arts, and now also Digital Design Lab and Broadcast Media. I present workshops for teachers on technology in the classroom, project-based learning, and writing; plus I work with Edutopia and KQED Learning. I love to connect with other educators, so please enjoy my site, check out my how-to NaNoWriMo site, see my students’ novels for sale on Amazon, and contact me here or via Twitter @LAMBRADLEY.