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.

Final Project 2.0

Our junior high semester ends with three days of finals: two classes per day, two hours for each class.  I could easily create a semester final exam that would take my students two hours to complete, but I’m not sure that would be the best use of our time (nor am I convinced that junior high students should be taking two-hour finals).  So each year I look for effective ways to fill that two-hour block of time, allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways, providing time for breaks and collaboration.

This year’s two-hour block of time?  Best. Final. Ever.

When my students walked into the classroom, they found the desks arranged in groups of four, with a laptop on each desk.  They located their seats by checking a list of teams that I had projected onto the whiteboard. Once they were settled, I distributed a page of directions, and they were off and running.

The designated team leaders were given directions to create a new presentation in their Google Drive, and then share it with their teammates (via gmail) and with me.  Then each team worked together to create a presentation about themes in literature.  Using lines from a poem as a prompt, they identified one theme that was expressed in a novel and two movies we had studied.  They were directed to create slides to present the information, and to include a symbolic image on each slide.

A sign of success, right off the bat, was that all the groups got to work right away.  If they had questions, they asked each other.  Most had never used Google Presentations before, but they are familiar with PowerPoint,  so they could figure it out.  And while they were demonstrating their knowledge of theme, they were also learning how to create effective visual presentations: carefully choosing the words for each slide, finding compelling symbolic images, inserting and citing the images, and creating a unified appearance from one slide to the next.

They worked for a little over an hour, and then each group shared their presentation with the class.  Although many groups were working from the same lines of the poem, their interpretations of the themes varied, as did their examples from the literature and movies.  One student asked if she could play a song from her phone during their presentation.  I asked her why and she said the song expressed the same theme and would add “mood” to their project.  Beautiful.

Three days before winter break, junior high students actively engaged in academic work for over an hour, and then attentively watching their classmates’ presentations?

Best. Final. Ever.

Bonus for me?  I could grade them as they presented and have my semester grades done before winter break starts.  Awesome.

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!

…and then life happened

I had planned a follow-up to my recent Power of Positive Technology post… but then life happened.  The new school year started on a Wednesday, and Thursday night my father died.  He and my mom had been living with us for about five months, waiting to move into their new house.  Dad had been sick for a long time, and we knew the end was near, but I was still (and continue to be) blindsided by grief.  It comes in waves, rolls over me, recedes for awhile, and then – BAM – it’s back.

As I struggled to focus on my work, I thought of how hard it must be for my students to focus and learn new concepts and complete homework and study for tests… when their lives are in chaos.  In my own fog of grief, I would leave work and drive towards the grocery store, knowing we needed food for dinner, but as I approached the parking lot, I would just keep driving toward home.  “I’ll order pizza,” I would think.  I didn’t have the energy to park the car and go into the store.

My students are probably not suffering grief on a regular basis, but from what I read in their journals, there is plenty of chaos in their lives: parents in the throes of divorce, siblings in the angst of adolescence, friends in the midst of middle school drama.  And every year I have a student or two who have recently lost a parent or who lose a parent during the school year.

I want to teach my students to persevere in the face of adversity.  I know that life is hard and they need to learn to keep plugging through the most difficult times.  But I also know that there are days when it’s all we can do to get dressed and make it to class on time.  And my own bout with grief makes me wonder: if all we care about is test scores, what do we expect our children to become?  Are we neglecting their emotional selves?  Are we asking them to be robots?

I don’t have an answer.  But I do know that when grief strikes, it’s all we can do to face the day, not to mention learn a new concept, demonstrate proficiency, perform on demand.

PBL conquers spring fever

One more reason to love project-based learning: as the weather gets warmer and the kids’ minds wander to summer, my students stay focused, working hard to complete projects that are due at the end of the semester.   Of course one reason they continue to work so hard in spite of rampant spring fever is that their semester grade depends on their performance on these projects.  But I know they are also working hard because they are engaged in meaningful work of which they are very proud.

This is how we stay focused and learning at the end of the school year in my 8th grade English language arts classroom:

The Magazine Project: my students have been writing, editing, designing, formatting, and printing their own magazines since February.  Along with learning to write academic essays, they are also building their word-processing, graphic design, and new technology skills.  Each student’s magazine centers on a topic of his/her choice, which helps them stay engaged in this semester-long project.  The final product is a glossy, multi-page publication that looks like a professional magazine.  The students glow with pride when they turn them in, and very few fail to complete the project.

Online Portfolios: rather than assigning a paper portfolio of my students’ best work, this year I taught them to build online portfolios using Weebly.  Not only does this digital project capture their interest, but it teaches them to create an academic portfolio that they can keep, add to, revise, and improve until their senior year of high school, giving them an application-ready portfolio worthy of sending to colleges.  The 8th grade work they post on their portfolios this year probably won’t make the cut four years from now, but the process engages them in an activity that builds their digital media skills while giving them real-world experience they can use throughout their academic careers.

Children’s Books: we ran out of time this year, but in past years my students have ended the spring semester by writing children’s books for schools in Uganda.  In addition to the writing and publishing skills gained from the project, my young teens are exposed to the poverty and lack of educational opportunities faced by children in another country.  I see their eyes opened and hearts broken by these innocent victims, and the book project gives them a very real way to make a difference in their lives.

Once the projects are complete, we spend our last couple class days of the school year sharing each other’s work.  It’s so much fun to thumb through the magazines and children’s books, and check out portfolios on the LCD.  And I’m pretty sure they enjoy that a lot more than wading through worksheets and gagging over grammar.  Uh, yeah.

They’re kids, not Olympians

We work hard all year, writing and reading and analyzing and discussing and reading and writing some more.  And then, all of our hard work and learning are testevaluated and assessed in two days of state exams.  Multiple-choice exams, mind you, no writing necessary.

So we also work hard to create a testing environment that supports our students.  We keep our daily routine the same.  We schedule the tests so that students take them in the same classroom, with the same teacher, where they have learned the content that year.  Students are tested in only one subject each week, so that their other classes are kept on a familiar routine.  And we encourage our students to approach the tests as an opportunity to show everyone what they know, what they have learned.

And then this happens: a beloved 2nd grade teacher is gunned down by her husband, who then kills himself.  Their 18-month-old twins are left orphaned and her two teen daughters from a previous marriage lose their mother.  Many of our students were in this teacher’s class.  One of her daughters is a student at our school.  The victim was a local girl, attending high school here with many of us.  Her mother was our teacher when we were in junior high.  The ripple effects of this horrific tragedy continue to splash against the hearts of so many lives here in our tight-knit Northern California community. We are devastated, in shock, angry, grieving.

flowersThe day after the shooting my 8th grade students were scheduled to take the first half of their state exams in English language arts.  Wisely, our administration postponed that day’s testing.  So that Monday back to school we did the other kind of work so common to teachers: we acted more as counselors, walking our students through grief, giving them time to write, draw, talk, share.  We let them leave class to go to counseling rooms.  We ignored the mandated curriculum because we knew that nothing was as important as acknowledging their grief, allowing time for healing.  Some needed to cry; some needed to get back to a normal routine, whatever “normal” might be.  We straddled that precarious line, offering solace to those in need, some semblance of regular “school” to those who wanted it.  The first day was exhausting, the second, a little better.

By Thursday of that week, we needed to be back on track.  We have little flexibility in the timing of the state tests, so four days after the shooting, my students took the first 90-minute portion of their English language arts exam.  I watched them as they read, contemplated, and bubbled, and I thought, does it make sense to anyone that all the work we have done this year is assessed in this one sitting?

This is not about the horrors of domestic violence, and in no way am I suggesting sadthat issues with state testing can compare to the losses faced by this family and their community.  But as we reeled from the shock of this tragedy, the absurdity of our situation was magnified.  We all have good days and bad days, we all have struggles and tragedies and life’s curve balls thrown at us, but over the course of the school year, we do a lot of good work.  Why, then, must we perform in a one-shot, high-stakes testing scenario?

Maybe it makes sense for law students taking the bar exam.  Maybe it makes sense for Olympic athletes competing for gold.  But does it make sense for 13-year-old students?  And what about their 7-year-old siblings?  Seven. Years. Old.

Adults learn to set aside whatever is going on in their lives in order to perform in a high-stakes situation, but children? No, it doesn’t make sense.  And this is why some of us are trying to fight back.  Join us?

The Myth of the Digital Native

babyKids today are born with a mouse in their hand, right? They navigate websites intuitively, clicking their way around the Internet with their eyes closed. Their teachers are stuck in the binder-paper-and-#2-pencil routine, while the students go home to blogs, wikis and websites. Our students are the digital natives, while we are the immigrants, relying on pre-teens to show us how to tweet and upload… right?

Well, no, not really. While kids today may be less intimidated by technology than their older teachers, they are no more likely to be competent with technological applications than a child growing up in a kitchen is a competent chef.
A few years ago I decided to introduce my 8th grade students to blogging. I suspected the on-line factor of the assignment would make writing more appealing to these digital natives. I was right about that — they were indeed very excited about posting their work on a blog. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was how much I would need to teach them about basic Internet use. Most of these students were from educated, upper middle class homes, and they had years of online experience, yet they needed plenty of instruction in basic technological applications. As a result, I offer you some myths of our so-called digital native generation:
Myth #1: Students will know how to set up an on-line account.
Whether it’s for e-mail or blogging or shopping, setting up an on-line account is a literacytask that a teenager will not instinctively know how to do. Choosing an appropriate user name and a password that can be remembered is not simple; remember when you opened your first account and had to click the “forgot password” link? Teens will need their teacher’s help to:
  • choose a user name. No, “hotchick69” is not an appropriate user name for an academic e-mail account, but that is what middle school user names look like. It is up to us to teach them the difference between a social e-mail account (kootchiekoo@mail) and an academic one (joe.smith@mail).
  • choose a password. You’ve seen the news — a frightening number of passwords for personal banking accounts are “password.” Or “12345.” Or “qwerty.” Students need direct instruction in how to choose both letters and numbers that they will remember, yet will not be easily stolen. Today it protects their e-mail and blog; tomorrow it will be their bank account and personal privacy.
Myth #2: Students will know how to use e-mail.

emailMy students needed to have an e-mail account in order to join our class blog, but applicants for most e-mail accounts have to enter their birthdate. If they are under 13 years old, they are denied an account. Assuming that my 8th graders would know how to use e-mail was obviously off the mark. They needed explicit instruction in:
  • choosing user names and passwords (see Myth #1).
  • accessing their e-mail accounts. Students would assure me that they had an e-mail account and that they knew how to use it, but then we would go online and the truth was revealed: “Um, it just comes up on the screen at home…” Since their parents usually set up the accounts at home, many of my students didn’t know how to get to the webpage and log-in. They needed explicit instruction in how to access their e-mail home page, and how to log-in to their accounts.
  • sending an e-mail. OK, for real? Surely today’s teens know how to send an e-mail. But here’s the reality: the current generation has bypassed e-mail altogether and opted for social networking, chatting sites and texting in order to stay in touch with their friends. Until now their Internet use has been all about friends, not about school work. So many of them need basic instruction in composing an e-mail, proofreading it and, yes, sending it.
  • sending an e-mail to themselves. I know, pretty obvious, right? But I had students who didn’t realize they could send an e-mail to themselves. Since this is a surefire way to save a document in progress, our students should know how to do it.
  • attach a document. Again, this was a great way to save their document when their flash drive failed, yet many didn’t know how to attach their latest document to an e-mail. A simple task to teach.
Myth #3: Students will know that school work posted on a blog should meet academic standards.

One would think that if a teacher assigns it, students will know that “OMG… JK… textc u l8r” would not be appropriate. But if they have only used their computer for chatting, they may not realize that yes, all 26 letters of the alphabet are indeed on the keyboard. Integrating technology into schoolwork actually provides a nice opportunity to teach our students the difference between informal (chatting, texting) and academic writing. In fact, I think that students today are writing MORE than teens of my generation did. Instead of trading gossip out loud on the phone, my students are tapping their gossip on a tiny screen on a cell phone. It is up to us to make sure they understand the difference between chatting with their friends and posting an academic piece.
Myth #4: Students will know that their comments on a blog are seen not only by their peers, but also by their teacher (and possibly parents).

If their computer use has primarily been chatting one-on-one and texting with friends, teens today may not realize that comments posted on a blog post are seen by anyone who happens to stumble across that website. While teens take great pleasure in commenting back and forth on their classmates’ work, they often forget that their comments are visible for all the world to see. Students need to know that anytime they comment on a post, the website will record the origin of the comment. The temptation to bully other students on a blog is great; students may feel anonymous when they are posting behind a computer screen in the safety of their home. Teachers who bring blogging to their students need to be clear about this up front so that students aren’t caught after the fact.
Myth #5Teens today are using the Internet to expand their world.

techteenThe potential for expanding one’s world via the Internet is infinite: websites, blogs, wikis and nings allow us to meet, talk to, exchange ideas with and learn from people from all over the world, not to mention read about and view local and international news items as they are happening. But are teens today taking advantage of the word-wide-ness of the web? I don’t think so.
In my own home, reading the newspaper is a daily breakfast ritual. My own children started by reading the comics, and gradually worked their way up to reading articles they found interesting. But just when their little world should have grown through reading newspapers and websites, social networking exploded on the scene. Instead of going online to expand their world, they logged on to Facebook and YouTube to see what the kids at school were saying, to watch videos that their friends liked, to reinforce their social circles. The Internet replaced the breakfast table newspaper, and their sphere of influence was reduced to the people they were already seeing at school everyday. Kids today use the Internet to socialize; they need to be taught how to take advantage of the web for discovering people, places and ideas outside of their own.
Although my students and I ran into these myths when we started our own class blog, we found the benefits of blogging far outweighed the missteps we took. Now I blog with my students with our prior year’s myths demystified. Next week, for instance, we will take time to read and understand Google’s G-mail Terms of Use agreement… after all, it’s only 17 pages of tech-speak and legalese. No problem.

“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…