Sunday, May 26, 2013

Working WITH Students, Not AT Them

This year, my classroom has taken the turn toward the writer's workshop method of teaching.

I couldn't be happier.

It feels so much better to be working with my students instead of at them. One of the sayings that swirls around the workshop model is this: if you cannot automatically find the teacher in the classroom, you know you're doing it right. If it weren't for my receding hairline and established lines at the corner of my eyes, you wouldn't be able to find me.

For my hour-long class, I'm proud to say that I'm sitting among my students (writing, reading, talking, thinking, re-writing, sharing, and more) for fifty minutes. In previous years, even when I focused on discussion and sharing ideas, it was probably the reverse of that. I mean, over the last nine years, I could check and send emails during class. Now, there is no time for it. We're just too busy working together.

But "working together" has never quite looked like it did yesterday morning.

Four students and I were working together to create a podcast for the #MichED website (

This idea came from Brad Wilson (Twitter: @dreambition), a connection I made via the MACUL conference in March, who is trying to build up a Michigan Education podcast which focuses on student and teacher voices. When I said we'd be up for taking a session, Brad gave us the freedom to create.

So, with blank page, we started. The students and I were equal as we took on the challenge of creating. All of a sudden, I was working on a process with my students. We started like we start in class--with audience and purpose. Then, the students just let the conversation flow. They talked a bit about the frustrations (and importance) of standardized tests; they talked about the powerful and limiting effect of grades and rubrics; they talked about good teaching and what that looked like.

All the while, I was listening, learning, and taking notes. Then, just as it would with my colleagues, the idea came out--it was born out of conversation. We would talk about change. Because, when a teacher changes, he is not the only one who goes through that change, that transformation. When a teacher changes, the students have to change with him.

So, change it is.

That will be our topic in an upcoming #MichEd podcast and I couldn't be happier to be working with these students on the project.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Devaluing Diversity?

Once again, Sir Ken Robinson has helped me to see the light. Not only have I watched his MANY motivating and thought-provoking TED talks (Are Schools Killing Creativity? and Bring on the Learning Revolution to name a couple), but I've spent the last month reading The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything with a few colleagues where we've used Twitter (#SLelement) to share thoughts along the way as well as some face-to-face conversations.  It's been a thrilling ride to see Sir Ken's words through the eyes of my colleagues. Mostly, we think he sheds light on some pretty vital issues in our schools.

Personally, I've highlighted over 100 lines in the book.  But, NONE as important as the one I read last night. My jaw dropped and my eyes got wide when I read this sentence from Chapter 11: "...two things that most people eventually discover in their education. One is the hierarchy of disciplines in schools that we discussed in the first chapter. The other is that conformity has a higher value than diversity."

Is this true?

In under a minute, I came to the conclusion that, yes, it was. Until this year, when a student had an extreme view on an assignment, it would often get docked in the rubric and the idea would not praised in the classroom. In fact, I find it rare that a student even ponders a unique thought about an assignment because that's been beaten out of him/her since he/she started school.

This is a major problem. This CANNOT go on.

Let me clear about how I understand Sir Robinson's statement: he's not talking racial diversity or even fashion diversity. He's talking about a diversity in thought, a diversity in creativity.

So, let's get straight to the fix. We need to get straight to the fix. We cannot simply point out the problem and walk away. So, here it is:

WE CANNOT EXPECT THE SAME OUTCOMES FROM EVERY STUDENT. (I know, educators. It's hard to do when those are the legislations from on high--the same standards for every student.) So, let's pay attention to the standards and make them the MINIMUM, not the end all-be all. We must PRAISE students who see assignments differently and investigate pieces of a problem that even the teacher might not have considered.

Too often, as educators, we talk about the problem students coming up (and, yes, the students do have to own some of their behavior), but we MUST ask if we are doing everything we can to have the student succeed.

  • Are we accepting and praising different learning styles?
  • Are our assignments prepared so that every student can succeed within it?
  • Are we prepared for the diversity that is OBVIOUSLY in our classroom?
If the answer to any of the above questions is 'NO', then we must look at our teaching practices. 
  • We must get rid of that single rubric which does NOT fit every student.  
  • We must allow choice within the assignment, so the student can have invested interest in discovering his answers. 
  • And we MUST celebrate each child when he/she has success which is not solely defined by the state, administration, or individual teacher.
We must celebrate diversity of thought in our students.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

When Schools & Communities Connect, EVERYONE WINS

This week, two of my students were published.

Two or three months ago, a friend, Dr. Brian Stork (connect with him at OR on Twitter: @StorkBrian) and I connected over breakfast when, individually, we were dreaming up the idea of trying to connect the community to the schools. As it turns out, we didn't see what was right in front of us: a connection between OUR fields and OUR communities & schools.

Dr. Stork is a urologist in Muskegon, Michigan and I am a public school teacher in Spring Lake, Michigan--only twenty miles away. Our connection started over Twitter by sharing each other's successes and sharing links to articles we thought the other would enjoy.

Then, the collaboration stepped up to physical presence and support.

Just ten days ago, my class hosted a 19th Century Literary Museum--and Dr. Stork showed up and gave comments on the student work.  (See the recording of our live stream here:

Then, just last week, Dr. Stork wondered if I had any students who would want to compose a poem for Nurses' Week. (He wasn't too confident in his own poetic skills, but he wanted to honor his colleagues in this unique way and he knew where to look.)

And that is how my students were published to a much larger audience than I could provide.

This kind of collaboration is essential to the future of education. In this kind of connection, everyone wins:

  • Students Win--by being published, these two poems have the potential to be seen by anyone in the world. Once Dr. Stork published the two poems, I received an email from a local hospital asking if they could post the poems to their Facebook page. Now, the students' work has been read by over 200 people--that we know of. This entire experience never would have happened without the connection to Dr. Brian Stork. The students win.
  • Communities Win--Through these connections, students can learn so much more about their community that they might not have known otherwise. In this particular case, it was nice for my students to recognize nurses through their writing and it was good to take a look at Dr. Stork's blogs, to see that professionals who are non-writers still write.  It was real-life writing before them. This could, should, and hopefully will happen on a much bigger scale in the years to come. The community wins.
  • Educators Win--There has been a lot of grief given to teachers lately through the lambasting of unions and the shame of our national test scores. Of course, we know the good work we're doing, but much of the press is negative and assumes that our work is dry or meaningless. The community will only know of our great work by giving it to them, by asking them to be involved with our students. When that happens, the tone will change. The educators win.
So, finally, please check out my students' work at one of these two spots. I'm proud of them for their great connection with the community.

Let's press this issue, everyone. Let's connect public schools with the community because, when that happens, EVERYONE WINS!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Fun is the Byproduct of Rigorous, Meaningful Learning

Who said learning couldn't be fun?  Who said learning shouldn't be fun?  In my year of transformation, especially towards the end of it, my classroom has been called fun--AS A DEROGATORY WORD.

To that, I'm offended.

The truth: I NEVER think of fun when planning an educational unit; it's simply a byproduct of genuine, meaningful work.

And the fact that something "fun" is not learning is just wrong. Anyone with that view should get out of education. Do people NOT have fun when coming up with a new invention? A new idea? Practicing for a sport, a musical instrument? Why, then, shouldn't a classroom be that same kind of fun? Sure, it can be frustrating; learning often is. Sure, it can be time-consuming; learning often is. Sure, it can be rewarding; learning often is.

If it can be all of those things, why can't it be fun?

This week, both of my English classes wrapped up with projects: Advanced Composition created digital personal narrative essays and Survey of American Literature invented a 19th Century Literary Museum.

My students, on their journey to meaningful work had to slug through some pretty deep thinking, deep reading, and deep criticism.

Advanced Composition students deleted multiple beginnings before finding the right choice of topic. Then, they had to voice record themselves multiple times because the readings weren't quite right or they continuously stumbled on a word. After that, they had to work through some major video editing issues including how to add music to the piece without it being distracting. This is not fun. This is rigor. This is challenge. This is creation. The fun comes in the creation when, at the end of the process, students realize that their voices have power as many of the videos now have close to 100 views on YouTube.

Fun is a product of purposeful work.

The link to our playlist: Advanced Composition Digital Personal Narrative Playlist

Survey of American Literature students had to read challenging literature including Poe, Dickinson, and Hawthorne. Then, they had to contextualize it, figure out why it was important to the time and why it's lasted all these years. Then, the students had to figure out the best way to show their learning to an audience that would be in the room gawking at their creations. This stressed a lot of students out. Students were asking challenging questions: how do I connect literature to life? how do I make this meaningful for people who come in to spend fifteen minutes of their life looking at my work? This is not fun. This is rigor. This is thought. This is creation. The fun comes, again, in the creation when, at the end of the process, students realize that their creation made our superintendent think and made a woman in Cleveland comment on our live stream.

Fun, again, is a product of purposeful work.

The link to our recorded live stream: 19th Century Literary Museum

Don't just take my word for it.  Here are some comments from the students.

"I think I did pretty well on making a connection with people because I had at least 4 people come up to me later and ask me questions and that's never happened to me."

"Let me begin- with my love for video editing and writing. I'm constantly dreaming up new ideas on imovie and writing down all my thoughts on anything and everything I come across. I consider myself a writer and an amateur movie maker. To say the least- one of my favorite projects I've ever had in school. (It didn't even feel like homework!) During this assignment my writing evolved from little picture to big picture. I learned to say everything I wanted to say from 100 words to 10. I believe this was so effective with the help of the music and pictures. The whole time I was clearly thinking my audience was my family or anyone who knows my sisters and I. BUT- I just happen to have a very supportive Advanced Comp. teacher who shared my work with the whole district. Then my mother and aunt emailed the link to all of my family members. And the results... have been very rewarding! I've gotten so much excellent feedback. All great writing will lead to more great writing. So, moving forward I want to improve myself as a writer my pushing myself outside of my comfort zone."

What can I say? The students see the rigor. They feel the challenge.

And they have FUN while doing it.