Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Best Week Ever: Teacher Edition

There might have been better single moments--getting hired, some outstanding rehearsals--in my teaching career, but there has NEVER been a better week.

MONDAY--I've just started being an active presenter on education and I love it. On Monday, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of student teachers about my experiences transitioning the class into one that provides an authentic audience to my students. This group of student teachers made for an excellent audience. I loved their energy; I loved their idealism. And one of the things I hoped to get across in my presentation was that, even after eleven years of teaching, that doesn't go away.

TUESDAY--This past summer, I had an idea. In my attempt to reach real audiences (along with my deep passion for giving back to the community), I decided to make something better of the MLA-style research paper: we'd write them on behalf of local non-profit organizations. Those organizations can use my students' work in any way they choose. To up the ante, I asked our local community foundation if they would find donors to sponsor an in-class competition, so that we could be responsible for giving money to the organizations after a class vote. The fact that they agreed to my crazy idea is just a testament to our community and its willingness to give when opportunities present themselves. This Tuesday, I rolled out the WORDS HAVE POWER essay contest to my students and their eyes got wide. It didn't take much for them to start working hard.

WEDNESDAY--Running the community book club (see previous posts) has been an honor for me. I've had incredible conversations with both friends and strangers. As the book club comes to a close (though the initiatives and the real work on elevating empathy is just beginning), one of the highlights was welcoming author Emily Bazelon to our community for a luncheon with about fifty book club members. Long story short, Ms. Bazelon missed the connection in Chicago and could not make it in time. Instead of canceling the event, we changed the event. Emily was kind enough to join us for ten minutes via phone and then we broke into small groups to discuss three things: how was the book? what does bullying look like in our community? what are some possible solutions? We broke up the students who were in attendance and those teens really made the significant detour a very good path. The conversations were engaging and revealing.

Then, as scheduled, Ms. Bazelon gave her lecture on the Grand Rapids Community College campus. (She got into town a few hours later than scheduled, but in plenty of time to make the lecture.) The lecture itself was very impressive. I found it most encouraging when Emily showed a slide showing that real care on an issue can help that issue (think drunk driving numbers going down and seat belt wearer numbers going up). It tells me that a real focus on this issue can and will improve this issue.

Next (and this part is purely selfish), I was able to grab a bite to eat with Ms. Bazelon: one-on-one. Much of my last four months has been studying her book and thinking about her solutions and how they connect to our community. So, to have this opportunity to exchange thoughts, ideas, and stories was nothing short of a career highlight for me. If you don't know Emily Bazelon as journalist/writer, seek her out. She is smart, talented, humorous--all of that. While I wish I had an audio recording of our meal for the whole book club to hear, I will simply hold on to that moment tenderly and share it as much as possible.

THURSDAY--The school day, itself, was pretty spectacular. We worked on research techniques and composed letters to the directors of our local non-profits. We were making connections in our community. More than that, however, I had the privilege to take three young women out to dinner and then to my alma mater, Hope College to hear a reading from Domingo Martinez. The reading was great, for sure, but the time spent with these students in this way was even more special. It was a great introduction to what reading/writing can be.

FRIDAY--When the bell rang after another fine day of vocabulary study and research, I was able to connect with those I love the most: my family. We ate and then danced together to our favorite songs at our girls' elementary fundraiser.

A perfect ending to a perfect week.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Case for Digital Narration

For the past three weeks, my students have been working on personal narrative essays--digital personal narrative essays. But, why? What does creating a digital version of this essay allow that a regular type-on-paper essay does not?

Let's start, actually, with what we're giving up by doing this. The truth is--there is very little loss. In the past, I would introduce the topic, run a session on generating the topic, allow for a bit of drafting and revising, and then we'd call it done. All in the same three-week span because I filled the space with a movie, a quick grammar lesson, along with some other ideas. (Okay, okay--let me confess. For this assignment, we spend very little time on grammar and punctuation because, in the end, it just doesn't matter for this particular form of writing.)

By using the digital essay format, my classes are going through the exact same process of writing an essay on paper--I introduce the topic, generate ideas, draft, revise--but, this time, we're far from done.

  • First, we record the voice. This allows us to focus on our speech patterns. Pauses in the reading allows the student to highlight an important moment. A fast reading by the student tells the reader that there is anxiety. It teaches us that how we use our voice to give emotion to the audience is meaningful. 
  • Then, we find and include photos that go along with the essay. Here, students are going through a deciphering process making sure that they communicate their essay the best they can. Students ask themselves if personal photos are the only way to go. Or, what if they pull some from the Internet? How can the essay work if video is included? They see their essay differently.
  • After that, we add music--or not. Even the decision of adding music or not is an interesting choice. Some students think music adds to the tone of the essay (yes, they are now actually thinking about tone) while others think it distracts. They have to think about the mood they want to communicate to the audience and then follow through accordingly. 
  • Finally, the students have to manipulate all of these elements to tell the story they want to tell. They speed up video, hit a picture on a certain line of writing, use special effects--all to make a bigger impact on the audience. 
Though students are well-versed in uploading pictures to social media and downloading music from iTunes, manipulating media to tell a story about themselves--sometimes silly, sometimes serious, ALWAYS REVEALING--simply results in a better piece of work.

The Essays (some essays do contain swearing):

1st Hour:

3rd Hour:

4th Hour:

5th Hour:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Death by Essay Assessment

I have suffered DEATH BY ESSAY ASSESSMENT today after eight hours of staring at the screen.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Thank You, Daniel Pink

I'd like to thank Daniel Pink for putting my educational philosophy so eloquently and so simply. When I usually start talking about my pedagogical theories with my friends, or colleagues, or parents, or administration, I start taking up all kinds of time trying to explain my constant push toward internal motivation and away from grade shaming. I reference all kinds of texts I've read and motivational speakers I've heard. Finally, about thirty minutes later (and about twenty-five minutes after people have stopped listening), I get to the end of my mantra.

I've been reading Daniel Pink's Drive this week and I came across this beauty of a quote--five words that sum up my educational thoughts: "Only engagement can produce mastery." I look at it like this:


It's my belief that the best learning happens at engagement. When the teacher and the students are fully engaged, learning is optimal. So, two things need to happen: 1) the teacher constantly needs to push his lesson plans to be more engaging and 2) the student has to find optimal engagement in the activities presented. I refuse to believe that it is just one person's job. Like most jobs and activities, to have a great classroom, the whole group is needed.

To maximize engagement, I've made some major changes to the classroom. I do NOT claim that I have the answers, but I DO claim that I have been working very hard to create a more engaging classroom than I've offered in the past. Some specifics that have helped:
  • Change the seats so students face each other and then create the classroom environment so students don't get yelled at for talking. That collaboration is essential.
  • Create assignments that matter, that go beyond the classroom. For my writing class, we try to reach out to authentic audiences. Daily assignments are meant to help us get better for that purpose.
  • Be prepared to make changes mid-term. I had to do this with my vocabulary work last week. Students just didn't care about how we were doing it. So, I made changes to aim for more engagement. 
But there are important lessons for the students, too.
  • Not everything will be fun and engaging all the time. You may have to fake it and be okay with mildly engaging activities from time-to-time. 
  • When students get choice, they MUST make the reading/writing topic/journal entry engaging. If it isn't, that is squarely on them.
  • They should also, calmly and appropriately, ask the teacher why a certain assignment is being done. We teachers need to have answers to this question. If asked nicely (no sass allowed), most teachers will happily give the reasons.
So, it's a two-way street. But it's a beautiful journey because the destination is engagement. And, when engagement happens, so can mastery.

Right, Mr. Pink?