Good thing I have the whole summer off!
Good thing I have the whole summer off!
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.
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.
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:
How do you keep your students engaged in meaningful work during these final, crazy days of May?
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:
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.
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.
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:
(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, science, history 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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Share #yourEdustory, week 1: What is your #oneword for 2015?
In spite of the ongoing attacks on public schools and teachers; in spite of too many students in my room; in spite of too many papers to grade; in spite of never enough time or resources, my one word for 2015 is this:
There are so many factors beyond my control that affect my work as a middle school teacher, that it is easy to whine, complain and be negative. But what good would that do? I’m not a Pollyanna, but I do know that each morning when I walk into my classroom, I have the choice to focus on what makes me smile or I can dwell on what makes my job difficult. And here’s the thing: if I am smiling and finding the joy in my days, there is a better chance that my students will also smile and find their joy, and that translates into a POSITIVE classroom environment, which means more fun and learning for all of us.
My #1 reason for staying POSITIVE in 2015 is my students: they are 8th graders, full of all that 8th grade brings, which means mood swings, enthusiasm, questioning authority, goofy giddiness and deep compassion. They can be hooked into a lesson by a silly grammar video just as easily as by one that exposes life’s tragic injustices. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and they need my POSITIVITY every day.
So how will I stay POSITIVE this year? One area of challenge for me is including lots of POSITIVE feedback on my students’ writing. With 160 students who need to do a lot of writing and who need lots of help strengthening their writing, it’s easy to fall into the habit of marking what needs improvement and ignoring what was done well. This year I aim to amp up my POSITIVE comments on my students’ work, building their confidence and boosting their self-esteem by honoring their successes, even those as seemingly tiny as one excellent word or brilliant sentence in an essay.
How do you stay POSITIVE in the classroom? What aspect of teaching challenges you the most to stay POSITIVE? Share below and let’s make 2015 a year of POSITIVITY!
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Programs like the Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School inspire me to keep looking for ways to give my students as much control over their own learning as I can. In my 8th grade English classes, students choose the novels they want to read, the genres of writing they want to tackle, and the topics they want to research. But it wasn’t until I started teaching a digital media elective class that I was able to give my students genuine control over their learning. I built a resource website and loaded it up with project ideas, program suggestions (almost all of them free) and links to video tutorials so that students could choose and learn on their own.
The result has been a learning experience for all of us: my students, as they learn to make use of so much freedom; and me, as my role as teacher transitions to one of resource, coach and guide.
As one would expect, some students thrive in this environment. They find what they’re interested in, search out resources to learn more, and take off. Other students jump from project to project, learning a little about one, a little about another. And then there are those students who struggle with the freedom. They shrug their shoulders, say “I dunno,” and are listless and bored without someone telling them what to do.
I’m pretty sure, though, that I need to gently push them to search out their own interests, take advantage of self-teaching resources, and create products of their own design. How else will they some day make decisions about high school classes, college majors, life hobbies, career options? Making all the decisions for our kids, whether it’s which sport to play or what to do in their free time, robs them of the opportunity to learn how to take charge of their own learning and their own lives.
A typical class for my digital media students starts with me sharing project ideas or tutorials, and then we pull out the laptops and off to work the students go, some continuing a project, some starting a new one, some solo, some in partners or groups. Here are some projects-in-progress this semester…
Lindsey uses an online tutorial to create 3D animations with Blender:
Ryan plots his computer game, first on graph paper and then with AgentSheets:
Andrea designs her own info-graphic resume with re.vu:
Chris crafts a 3D sculpture with Sculptris:
Hands are hard, especially backwards and knuckles:
Jolene is also building a digital portfolio of her art work:
T.J. and Isabella use Gimp to edit Minecraft stacks:
Ernan works on a how-to-draw movie; Ian helps to get the camera angle right:
Danielle uses SketchUp, a 3D architectural modeling program, to design a Japanese garden :
Dakota, Sam, Luke and Greg have formed their own company, each taking on a specific role in the development of an app game. They have been teaching themselves how to code so they can build their app from scratch:
Molly explores cartooning with SketchbookExpress:
Sara uses WeVideo to make a book review movie for her English class:
Domenic works on a movie to submit to the first White House Student Film Festival:
Simon adds a car to his computer game that he is programming with the help of Alice:
One of the best outcomes of my kids-in-charge classroom is that my students experience failure in a relatively risk-free environment. They have time to learn from their mistakes, revise, start over and abandon projects without the threat of a failing grade intimidating their learning.
In reflecting on his first movie, Jacob said, “I had to fail over and over again before I got it right. I’m really proud of how it finally turned out.” And when I told Dakota that he and his team of coders would need to document their journey, he said, “It will be full of our failures!” How often do kids smile when reporting on their own failures? Dakota has learned that failures have been an important part of the learning process that is getting him closer to selling his own app game.
How do you give your students opportunities to learn to yearn? Are they choosing what to study? Or how to demonstrate their learning? I would love to hear below how you put students in the driver’s seat of their education.
This was my very first blog post, written in 2011, in response to my growing frustrations and fears over NCLB. I had met and spoken with Stephen Krashen, who encouraged me to start blogging, to get my voice of experience out there for others to hear. Although our ongoing battles in education may not compare to the historic (and ongoing) struggles for civil rights, we do know that inequality in the schools contributes a great deal to inequality in opportunities: opportunities for higher education, income, job security, health care, etc. While NCLB may be on its way out, the Common Core and its Smarter Balanced Assessments are on their way in. And so the struggle continues…
Ten years ago [now 13], President George W. Bush, in whose symbolic shadow our children now shiver, signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of children who had been seared in the flames of educational injustice. It promised a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their inferior education.
But ten years later, many children have indeed been left behind. Ten years later, many children’s minds are still sadly crippled by the manacles of under-funded schools and the chains of standardized tests. Ten years later, many children still live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Ten years later, many children still languish in the corners of American schools and find themselves an exile in their own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.
When the architects of our education system wrote the magnificent words of every state standard and the questions and multiple-choice answers on every state test, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all children, yes, all children of America, would be offered a quality, rigorous education. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her children and schools and teachers are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its children and schools and teachers a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of education is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of learning and the security of education.
I know that not all of my students come from homes where parents have read to them, fed them nutritious meals, engaged them in healthy activities, sat together at the dinner table and spoken with them. I know that many of my students come to my classroom from places of great trials, homes that are cold, kitchens that are lacking family meals, walls that do not hold shelves of books, conversations wanting in warmth, support and a rich and varied vocabulary. But I continue to work with the faith that I, a middle school teacher, have the power to make a difference in the lives of my students.
Let us not wallow in the valley of No Child Left Behind. And even though we face the difficulties of mandated textbooks and standardized tests, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of the American school system.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that although all children are created equal, and although all children have the right to a quality education, this does not mean that all children should have the exact same books and the exact same lessons and the exact same assessments.”
I have a dream that one day children will learn to read by reading literature of great variety; that teachers will read to them from great books; that children will choose books to read that ignite great passion and that inspire them to read even more; that reading will be made a pleasure for all children, not a task, not a race, not a recitation of meaningless sounds and chunks of meaning.
I have a dream that all of my students will one day attend a school where they will not be judged by the bubbling of a test answer but by the unique demonstration of their talents and abilities, of their knowledge and understanding.
I have a dream that one day even the state of California, a state sweltering with the heat of overflowing classes, sweltering with the heat of one-size-fits-all curriculum, sweltering with the heat of annual assessments that tell more about a child’s parents’ income than about the child’s learning or the teacher’s teaching, yes even the sorry state of California will be transformed into an oasis of authentic assessments and project-based learning, a refuge of writing workshop and reading for pleasure, a sanctuary of art, music, woodshop, cooking, theater, languages, film making, journalism and life-long learning.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, in Washington, D.C., with Education Secretary Arne Duncan having his lips dripping with the words of “merit pay” and “data-driven” — one day right there in Washington, D.C. teachers will be able to join hands with one another as sisters and brothers working together to build the best schools for America’s students based on the knowledge and experience and wisdom and practice of the teachers who know children and curriculum better than any fly-by-night CEO whose only education experience is playing basketball with the students of his mother’s after-school tutoring program.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every child’s accomplishments shall be exalted, and every so-called-researched-based scripted curriculum shall be made low, the cash-strapped schools will be fully funded, and every library will be staffed with a credentialed librarian where the shelves will overflow with books; and the glory of a quality education for all shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
This is my hope, and this is the faith that I go back to my classroom with.
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the benchmarks of despair a student-designed project of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of API and AYP into a beautiful symphony of respect for the teaching profession. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to read together, to write together, to experiment together, to design, build, create, perform together, to stand up for education together, knowing that all children will have the opportunity to learn one day in classrooms fully funded where respected professionals are empowered to do their work.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of America’s children will be able to learn with new meaning, to write for understanding, to read for personal growth, to explore their interests and feed their curiosities. This will be the day that my dream of enthusiastic, joyful schoolchildren taught by empowered, professional educators in classrooms stocked with books and paper and technology and dreams and opportunities and joy will become a reality for all.
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:
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?
We teachers of young adolescents learn early on to grab our students’ gratitude when we can: their glee over a clever assignment, their pride in a hard-earned grade, their bashful “thanks” as they hand over a holiday gift probably bought and wrapped by a parent. It’s a rare treat indeed when our students communicate their gratitude to us in writing.
Even better is when a student thanks us for something that we had hoped would be a valuable teaching strategy or meaningful lesson.
This student’s thank-you note was especially sweet: not only did he remember that I love dark chocolate, but he also recognized the value in having choices in the work he did in my class.
When my students write literary analysis, they get to choose which part of the literature they want to address and through which lens they will analyze it. When they join National Novel Writing Month, they completely own the novel they write: the genre, the plot, the characters, the conflicts. When it’s time to develop their expository writing skills, they create a magazine on a topic of their own choosing. In digital media class, my students choose what kind of project they want to create: architectural design, computer game design, movie-making, animation, computer coding, etc.
I am staunchly pro-choice in my classroom. I am pretty sure that the best learning happens when students have some say in how and what they learn.
How do you let your students own their work? What kinds of choices do you give them in the classroom?
2018 update: if you are interested in the details of this class, check out my latest article about it here.
I’ve been teaching English language arts for over 20 years, and as much as I love it, I have always wanted to add some variety to my work load by teaching an elective class. I envisioned this class as a break from the deluge of papers and a respite from the pressure of test scores, a place where I could have more fun with my students and let them explore interests outside of the traditional academic subjects. And I was right.
Last year my principal asked me to design an elective class around digital media, and she put her money where her mouth was by sending me to the CUE conference in Palm Springs, the ISTE conference in San Diego and a Google Apps for Education Summit in Santa Clara; and when I got accepted to the Google Teacher Academy, she paid my way there, too. I spent last summer building a Moodle page for this new class, offering my students choices and tutorials in a wide range of digital media opportunities.
Our digital media class changes as often as we find more websites, programs and tutorials to add to our list of choices. Take a look at what we have done so far: