KRLitClub Begins!

How do you get your principal who hates rocking the boat to sign on to controversial YA Lit book clubs? Well, let me tell you a story…

My principal and I have known each other for almost ten years. He knows that I love to try new things, from flexible seating to taking students to hear a Holocaust survivor in the final year of his life. He also knows that he’s gotten parent complaints about the new things I’ve tried, like the year I tried to flip my classroom instruction. And he hates parent complaints with a passion.

So when I heard about Project Lit Community and its philosophy I knew two things up front.

  1. My students desperately need to know what the world outside is like. Their parents and grandparents fled Appalachia for the factory rich town we live in, and those factory jobs have dried up. Even though almost all the staff I work with grew up here, our students can’t stay here. Not and have a high paying, satisfying job, that is.
  2. My principal is worried that exposing them to the outside world, with its diverse cultures, would upset parents.

I did what any rebel teacher would do. I did it anyway. And I held my breath, to see if anyone would push back. They didn’t.

It helped I started small, with five books for my dual enrollment Intro to Literature class to choose from: Beloved, The Other Wes Moore, and three modern, controversial books: Dear Martin, The Hate U Give, and Long Way Down. The students got to pick. They discussed their choice in small groups, in the last three weeks of school. I listened in, and when they needed some help making connections, I helped them with comments in their required written reflections.

And then I went to Project Lit Summit 18. And I knew I wanted more for my students.

Today was my first day back. And he asked me how the conference went. The perfect time to ask.

His first comment? “Just be careful which books you pick. You don’t want any controversy.”

Well, if you know anything about Project Lit Community, you’d know that they deal with the lives of kids today. That means there are books about LGBTQ kiddos, Pakastani kiddos, Latinx kiddos, African American kiddos, kiddos in poverty, and all kinds of folks my principal would say is controversial. So I knew I work to do.

Luckily, before the summit we had talked about a book I recently read, The 57 Bus. I had talked to him about how rich the informational text was, mixing a strong narrative with LGBTQ concepts. And thanks to the wonderful advice from Nic Stone, author of Dear Martin, I knew what to say.

“John,” I said, “you know some of our students are gender fluid. It’s really important that they see themselves in the books they read. They need to know that their stories are important, too. Remember the book I talked to you about? Project Lit books reflect more than the world they know. Our students need to know what the real world is like.  And besides, if their parents object, they can just skip the book for that month.”

It was enough. He agreed! And now, for the planning, the fundraising, the work. And I don’t have to fly under the radar anymore.

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Amplifying Student Voice

Three years ago I started teaching College Composition to juniors at my school. The curriculum was designed to mirror a local college’s expectations, which meant that the genre and number of papers were set ahead of time. Don’t get me wrong, I love the papers we write and think they are meaningful and connected to workplace and career after college. The problem is that they limit the voice and choice of my students. Something had to give.

Thanks to my time with the Ohio Writing Project, I knew that voice and choice improves student writing. I also knew that authentic audiences and real world problems help students to see the purpose behind the projects. My solution: blogging.

In this third year of student blogs, I have fine tuned many expectations. Students know how to find and cite Creative Commons licensed works so they don’t plagiarize. They know how to tag and categorize their posts so others can find them. They know how to write meaningful comments so they can interact with other writers. They have followers outside of our school that read and comment on their posts. Some, in fact, even blog when it’s not assigned. By teaching them the ground rules and opening the door to whatever they passionately want to write about, I have solved my conundrum.

If you are interested in teaching your students to blog, below are two playlists I wrote for LRNG, a local nonprofit.

Blogging part 1: media literacy

Blogging part 2: creating your blog

I also highly recommend the Student Blogging Challenge over on Edublogs for some great “how to” challenges to help students learn the skills they need in order to successfully blog.

Shout out to some of my favorite student bloggers:

https://creatorcorner.wordpress.com/

https://krcwriting.wordpress.com/ (this one started blogging in Creative Writing in 9th grade w/me)

A previous year’s blog

https://greenteatuesdays.wordpress.com/

Blog” by airpix is shared under a CC by 2.0 license.

Generation Z Comes to KR

No, Generation Z does not mean Generation Zombie, although to the misinformed, watching students zone out with phones in hand might give that impression. But these students are not passively consuming media or mindlessly texting their friends. They are creators, innovators, entrepreneurs who see digital media as their way to share their thoughts with the world.

Recently, I attended a district provided professional development. The keynote speaker, Dr. Corey Seemiller, shared her research with what she sees as the latest generational shift. It seems that this generation, which she calls Generation Z, is just now entering colleges across the nation. According to Dr. Seemiller, this generation encompasses not only my own children, ages 8 and 11, but also the students that I am currently teaching in high school.

After hearing her talk, which confirmed many of my own beliefs about the young people with which I interact every day, I knew some general truths. Here are my revelations:

  1. Student agency is key. This generation craves the power to make their own choices, including how and when they learn.
  2. Be the guide, not the sage. Students still desire support from their instructors and enjoy meeting with them face to face. They want teachers to support their interests, not require them to be in lockstep with their peers.
  3. Connect learning to reality Learning should not be solely because “it prepares you for next year,” but have real world connections to adult life.

To implement these ideas, I am moving from a whole class approach, where everyone does everything at the same time and sits in an assigned desk chair, to flexible seating and flexible planning.

Flexible seating, lite

photo (1)

How we like to ACT

I wish all of my seats allowed for student agency, but this corner is where I keep my flexible seating. Pillows, a carpet, some plastic chairs, and letting my students be the ones to choose: will they read or practice online for the ACT? In addition to 16 traditional desks, I have a standing desk (created by adding bed risers to a table), a round table, and a trapezoid table.

Digital Badges & Microcredentials

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LRNG is a nonprofit company that focuses on student engagement and learning. Learning is organized by playlists, which are made up of XPs, or experiences, that students must complete in order to earn badges. These badges, along with the evidence to which they are attached, are visible evidence of their learning.

In my classes, I have created several playlists in lieu of direct instruction. In this way, I hope to allow my students some flexibility in when and how they learn. In addition, I am adding some real world connections. For example, students are interviewing a professional in the field they wish to pursue, instead of interviewing a family member. LRNG has helped by connecting my students with mentors in the professional world.


As the year progresses, I hope to share more of my adventures in connecting with Generation Z.

“Gen Z” by  Abhijit Bhaduri is shared under CC by 2.0 license.

Better Together: Days 1-3

For the last two years, I have taught College Composition, and these last two years have been an unending digital stack of student writing. To provide a clear picture of what those years have been like, when other teachers are sitting down for Thanksgiving pie, I’m in the back bedroom, recording hours of revision feedback. And it is appreciated, as one of my students below emailed me to say:

Screenshot 2017-07-16 at 11.01.35 AM

But it’s time for a change: time to empower my students to be the experts. Time to employ the tenets of one of my summer readings: Peer Feedback in the Classroom by Starr Sackstein. Sackstein believes that teaching students to support each other with revision suggestions provides them with agency. Since empowering students to think and learn for themselves remains my why, I really have to try giving up some control when it comes to writing feedback.

The first move Sackstein suggests is to build strong relationships within the classroom. If students don’t trust each other, and if they don’t trust me, then peer feedback will fail. “Respect can’t be assumed; it must be taught explicityly and modeled continuously” (Sackstein 20). Luckily for me, I had half of my next year’s students as 10th graders, but I will still need to set the stage. In the first three days, as we wait for students to get their very own Chromebooks in a new 1 to 1 initiative, I plan to work on some relationship and respect building.

Day 1: My very own Breakout EDU game, complete with students wearing first name tags, so I can start to get to know who they are and how they think.

Day 2: Open forum backchannel discussion: about such topics as flexible seating, silent reading, technology vs old school paper notes, the use of cell phones, and whatever else I can think of. The theme of the course is community, so we’ll use this discussion to build our ground rules. After a brief intro to the three essential questions of nonfiction from Beers and Probst’s Reading Nonfiction,

  1. What surprised me?
  2. What does the author think I already know?
  3. What challenged, changed, or confirmed what I already know?

We’ll watch one of my favorite TED Talks:

Students will take notes for their first writing assignment, connecting the three Qs of nonfiction to the video. For homework, students will write a reflection. I use this reflection as their first venture into college writing, as part of my measurement of their student growth. I should be able to use it to learn more about who they are as students, too.

Day 3: A short entry ticket: what is a single story and why is it dangerous? After a quiet 5 min quick write, we’ll have a brief, 5 min norming session of what it looks like to pair up to share ideas. What does it look like? Sound like? How will they know it is over? After a pair and a share with the class, we’ll dive into telling our own stories. How will we do this? With a fun round of two truths and a lie. This game should be a fun way to end the week. I will, of course, go first. Want my two truths? I shaved my head in college, and I once caught crickets that we fried up and ate. Yep, I’m a wild child at heart.

How about you, fellow readers? How will you build relationships with your students in the first three days?

“Learning Community Wordle” by Balboa Park Cultural Partnership is shared under a CC by-SA 2.0 license.

How a silent discussion opened the door for my students

I sat with the group, silently observing their small group discussion. Although normally she finds ways around it, on this day,  my student who struggles with stuttering had an almost impossible time getting her ideas out. When she is nervous, the words seem to break apart in her mouth. I know she has amazing things to say, because her blog is thoughtful, sweet, and expresses the thoughts of a deep thinker, but speaking to others while being watched was making that ability to dig deep into a text and pull out the heart of an idea invisible to the others. I knew I had to do something.

Backchannel chat and Twitter to the rescue.

In preparation of a student led, Socratic discussion, students had read almost half of Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup. They had close read passages, analyzed them for ethos and pathos, and written countless short answer responses. I had asked them to come up with open ended questions in anticipation of this discussion, but I didn’t think putting this student on display was fair to her. So I proposed a silent, Twitter style, chat instead.

First, I created a free backchannel chat at http://backchannelchat.com/. Then I created an assignment in Google Classroom with the link to the chatroom. I explained the format of a Twitter chat, with Q1 representing the first question and A1 its answer. I reviewed the norms of a good discussion, with interaction between its members, and let them appoint a student discussion leader. Students typed their favorite open ended question into the public comments on the assignment, and the discussion leader added the appropriate Q1 etc. to the question and pasted it in the chat. She monitored when student comments seemed to die down and added the next Q when it seemed to fit.

The chat was a success. Not only did the student who struggles with stuttering have success, but several of my more introverted students shone as well. In fact, if you look at the exchange they had in the above screenshot, you can just see the connections building. It was epic. I will definitely do this again.

Game on!

Often the biggest barrier to innovation is our own way of thinking. –George Couros

Ever wondered how to implement gamification into your classes beyond kill and drill review games? Me, too. Last year, I tried implementing Classcraft last year, but it didn’t quite fit. The excitement wasn’t there, and the energy to gamify flagged when kids leveled up enough to get their favorite outfits. I was just debating whether or not to try again when my husband stepped in.

He’s my favorite sounding board, because he believes I can do anything I set my mind to achieve. And when I told him about my epic fail to make the energy spike in my room, he jumped in with an awesome idea: create a storyline that is more epic than merely leveling up.

Some wild drawings later, we came up with this: a massive game of RISK, with students trying to dominate the world of the classroom. With his background in geology and our backgrounds in gaming, he painstakingly came up with a world map for my kids to dominate.

Each Classcraft team begins in a city on the map. They move one hexagon for every assignment they turn in on time. Together, the team is more powerful, but each member can go on their own to explore the map. As they conquer each square, they will uncover side quests that align with the unit we’re about to begin. Some quests will be available only for higher level characters. Each team has a resource they must first find and then protect from the other teams, and teams can challenge each other in a Boss Battle to conquer the world, all while deepening their connects to each other and to the content of the course. Students who fail to complete their work cannot move forward in the game and risk weakening their teams. One team will rule supreme, as kings and queens of our kingdom. After dominating, they can move on to conquer the other continents (that represent the other classes I teach.)

Gaming ties right in with my desire to create deeper connections within my classroom, as well as fits right in with the novel we read this summer, Ready Player One.

Let the games begin, and may the odds be ever in your favor!

Photo credit to https://www.flickr.com/photos/94086507@N00/

 

Invoking empathy

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

George Couros says that “to be innovative, . . .focus on having empathy for those we serve.” To truly have empathy for others, we have to learn more than the single story students present to us in the classroom. It is not enough to look at students as they sit in our rooms and think we know who they are. It is not enough to pass out an index card or a link to a Google form. It is not enough to analyze a pre-test or assessment data.

Relationship building is key for reaching students where they are, rather than where we think they are. Without empathy, we teach in the style in which we are most comfortable, not in the style that is best for each learner. Truly working to know our students takes time, effort, and multiple attempts. I need to know my students’ passions. I need to know their background, where they come from, in order to know where they are going. And they need to know that I care, and that I am interested in them as people, not just data in my spreadsheet.