Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Life of Purpose

This week, I had the opportunity to talk about my class's WORDS HAVE POWER essay project on Shelley Irwin's WGVU Morning Radio Show. (Read about the project here: WORDS HAVE POWER and listen to the Podcast here: Shelley Irwin's WGVU Morning Radio Show.) I'm not going to lie. It was a cool moment and my ego was sufficiently stroked.

But, that same day, my ego was stroked in an even better way--a much less public way: I got to hang out with Olivia, the student who joined me on the show. We drove to Grand Rapids and talked about school; we did our show--she blowing me away with her intelligence and communication skills; we had lunch and talked about the future. It's those connections, those human connections that make teaching my passion.

And Olivia is just one of many student connections I've had in the past few months. With each hour-long coffee date, I'm filled with a sense of pride that I could be a moment in their lives. My students give me--well--purpose. They make me laugh and think and care. Yes, my wife, my daughters, and my family give that to me, too, but it's so refreshing to claim that I have purpose in my career.

It's that human connection, that exchange of ideas, that matters most. Over the past few months, I've been fortunate to have phenomenal face-to-face connections, but humanity can connect in other ways, too: through technology, through silence, and through words.

Humans have connected through words, through story, since the beginning of time and, now, to complete a cycle that started in the fall through our community book club, I'm making the final push for meaningful stories now. Please consider changing our corner of the world by sharing your stories of empathy. While it might seem obvious that you can affect others with your story, you might just be surprised by what sharing your story will do for you.

It might just give you a purpose you never knew existed.

Share here: ELEVATE EMPATHY Submission Form

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Turning the Tables: MY Turn in Front of the Audience

Over the last 600 days (the last two years of teaching), I've made a significant shift to authentic assessment. That is, for each major piece of work in class, the assessment has been a product to share with a real audience--whether it be peers from other school districts, parents, social media, etc. If you've been following my blog or following me on Twitter or if you're friends with me on Facebook or in real life, this is NOT news.

What is news is that I got to play the role of the student a couple times in the last two weeks. That's right. For two different reasons--I presented on the value of our fall community book club AND I sang as part of a fundraiser for a phenomenal local non-profit--I was in front of audiences. And it did some pretty miraculous things for me.

  • I worked harder knowing there was an audience. I have not sung publicly in seventeen years, but when asked, I worked hard to do it well. I went to the one optional rehearsal. I recorded the accompanist. I sang it once a day until the event. As for the Lightning Talk at MACUL, I went through multiple written drafts to get the talk just right, to match the message up with the slides that accompanied it (see the video below). I practiced and practiced and practiced. 
  • I had fun knowing there was an audience. When preparing for the audience, I was having a good time dreaming of the moment. It just feels good to get meaningful feedback--to prepare, perform, and receive the credit for that. It's good for the soul when people recognize effort.
  • I connected with community because of the audience. Through the performances, I met new people. I shook hands with people I had never met and probably never would have had I not given the time to these endeavors. From those connections, ideas spread, thoughts are given legs to walk into others' lives.
  • I did it to communicate my ideas to an audience, NOT to get an official assessment. When preparing for the performances, I thought of ways to communicate my main ideas differently. I considered what the audience might like and let it inform my delivery. I did not use a rigid rubric. I used past examples. I looked up other Lightning Talks and other performances of "Mister Cellophane". I wondered how others did it and then I made it my own. I had the freedom to create, so I did.
And you know what? The EXACT same thing happens for my students when they create for audiences: they work harder, they have fun, they connect with community, and they care more about developing their thoughts than the final grade.

Having an AUDIENCE provides more CARE which means more THOUGHT and that results in more LEARNING.



Sunday, March 16, 2014

MACUL 2014--Elevate Empathy Through a Book Club & FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

Usually, I pontificate about something in the educational world in my blog. But not today. Today, the blog is directly informative and practical.

I had the great fortune of giving a Lightning Talk at this year's MACUL conference in Grand Rapids. In it, I encouraged other communities to consider a community book club of their own. AND I COULDN'T BE HAPPIER THAT THERE WAS A BUZZ ABOUT IT.

So, here it is: what you need to know to start your own community book club and, later in the blog, the presentation to my session titled FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

Thank you,

About the Book Club

If you're thinking about creating your own community book club, I strongly recommend the following steps as your first three steps:

  1. Find and read the book. I strongly recommend Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones, but it isn't a nice book to read. It calls out all of the complexities of bullying and has a fair share of difficult language. It is rooted in narratives AND data. 
  2. Get support from your superintendent. I think it's just very wise to get the top person behind you. Be honest about the book, get his/her support, and then move forward with confidence.
  3. Form a committee. My recommendation is to get some power players in the schools--and in the community. A few willing folks have far reach to get people signed up. Just find people who have a passion and the book club will fly.
Now, links to all kinds of links we used. Take what you like:
Finally, this: I asked a student to chime in on her experience in the community book club. Here is her response.

When I think about the community book club we had last fall there are two things about it that stick out me: conversations between all types of people and the instrument of discussion. Discussion between teenagers and adults was the part I found to be most interesting. As a teenager I feel like there are very few times honest conversation about serious topics (or any topic) takes place between people of my age and people of our parent's age. We might have serious conversations with our parents or a few other close, trusted adults but most conversation with adults isn't real. It was nice to talk openly about a topic everyone has been affected by at some point in their life. It was interesting to hear the adult perspective and their stories. In order to have everyone be comfortable with sharing their thoughts and feelings I think it was important to have meetings with smaller groups as well as the whole group. Which brings me to the instrument of communication: Facebook. Facebook allowed me to participate in every talk we had with my busy schedule. It's much too hard to try to find a day a group that big can all go somewhere and meet face-to-face. Having discussion on Facebook eliminated a lot of organizational problems. It also meant there was an automatic record of everything said for those who weren't able to participate in real time. One problem with talking about such heated issues in a big group is that only one person can talk at once so whoever is loudest normally gets heard. On Facebook more than one person can post their opinion at the same time and no one has to worry about being interrupted. Typing helped me to articulate my thoughts better than when trying to speak them instantly. So, if I was to give any advice to someone looking to do a community book club (on any issue), it would be to involve people of all ages and backgrounds and to hold at least a few of your discussions online in order to make it as easy as possible for people to participate. Overall, it was a valuable experience and I would highly recommend other students to participate. -Carlyn

I SO badly want this idea to be a chain reaction. I'm willing to answer emails or have Google Hangout/Skype sessions. Please, just contact me:

Starting a community book club is a lot of work, yes, but it is incredibly rewarding. My best!



I absolutely encourage students to work for real purposes and for real audiences. Here is the link to my presentation. Friday Night Lights, Classroom Style

Let me know if you have questions. I'd love to have conversation about this.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jeff Anderson, Grammar Guru, Helps with Classroom Management?

Last Tuesday, my district was fortunate enough to have grammar guru, Jeff Anderson, leading the 3-6 general education teachers and 7-12 English/Language Arts teachers in professional development. We teachers have been clamoring for this discussion for some time now. We know in our heart of hearts that standard worksheets of years ago is NOT right, but that integrating grammar into the curriculum to the point of its entire disappearance is not good either.

So, how did Jeff present the opportunity to learn grammar?

H suggested we should be models of correctness: show good examples (or mentor sentences as we called them in the workshop), model it, admit mistakes, and then allow or encourage the students to follow in the footsteps of that mentor and model.

There were many takeaways from Jeff's presentation, but I implemented two the very next day--always the sign of a good presentation when one can do that (I've been able to do this before as well. See Room Re-Decorated).

  1. I showcased a very good sentence, a mentor, from Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" which reads, "In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands." Then, I gave all of one minute for students to mention things they noticed. Just that question, nothing else. What do you notice in this sentence? Right away, I was getting it all: capital letter to start the sentence, commas to separate the adjectives, hyphens (initially called dashes by most students, but that's easily corrected) to combine words, even that there were five adjectives in a thirteen-word sentence. That's--well--a lot. Then the magic came in the second question. What do those noticings DO for the sentence? And, again, I got what I wanted: it adds detail, it clearly communicates the sentence, it tells us how we should read the sentence silently and out loud. But there was one unexpected comment from a student. He said, "Well, the adjectives actually give us back story." In eleven years of teaching and many years of studying, I've never considered it that way. I always saw adjectives as just detail to a noun--you know, the rad flames on my beat-up car. So, in this sentence, I learned, from a student, that the adjectives show us the history of a woman who has worked hard. After that, I asked the students to watch me write a sentence using much of the same structure. Immediately after that, I asked the students to do the same. In no time, students were writing sentences in the vein of Alice Walker. Not bad.
  2. Then, the addition of Sentence of the Week in my classroom. Celebration of language is simple and important. (Besides, the sentence does not only have good structure; it is also timely in its topic.)

Over the rest of the week, though, I noticed something about Jeff's work. It wasn't just about grammar for me. It was a great reminder of how I use classroom management. I'm fortunate that I don't have issues in my classroom. Because of the administration I have, the parents I have, the students I have, and--yes--probably the personality I have, I just don't have issues. But every couple years, there is a big issue: a student--or students--significantly distracts the class from learning. Before seeing Jeff, I was going through this whole mind game where I allow one or three students shake me. I allowed them to question if I should be a yeller and a screamer, a person who demands students be in their seats at all times and things of that nature, all of which are foreign to me and are not naturally in my being.

But, no, not according to Jeff. I was reminded that my classroom management should, in fact, mirror Jeff's grammar instruction: SHOW students the behavior you expect, ALLOW them opportunities for practice, and CELEBRATE the many students who are following through with it.

Toward the end of Jeff's time with us teachers, he reminded us that, at the very least--the very minimum--nothing can be wrong about spending time with a good sentence. He suggested that we teachers just spent too much time looking at bad sentences.

The same can be said in my classroom. At the very least--the very minimum--nothing can be wrong when students see good behavior from their teacher.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Reaching Yin Yang in a Workshop Classroom

Over the past year and a half, my class has turned from a teacher-led classroom to a workshop model where I'm trying very hard to achieve student ownership in the work. If you've read my blog, you know I've done this

  • by encouraging struggle/failure by allowing opportunities for students to make up lost points or by just not taking points away in the first place
  • by offering a lot of choice in writing topics and reading specifics by focusing more on the skills of reading and writing instead of on the particular piece of literature or composition
  • by increasing relevance of the work by making major works be for authentic audiences beyond me, the teacher.

While this transition has been wonderful and I wouldn't change any of it, every move is up for reflection. Sometimes I wonder if I'm providing enough leadership for those who need it. I mean, reading Thoreau's Walden is a massive challenge and though I give models on how to make understanding and analysis, I'm just not sure if it's enough to understand the most challenging texts. I feel more confident in my writing class, offering my students models of word usage and rhetorical strategies, but I still wonder if the students are pushing themselves in their own practice. I always wonder how I can push that, how I can guarantee that without being overly prescriptive. I need my students to have freedom to make decisions, but if they're not shown a variety of options in reading and writing strategies with time to analyze and practice, they'll just keep making the writing and reading decisions they've been making over the past several years. Isn't that right?

In short (and, yes, to oversimplify in order to make the point) to teach as I had for the first ten years of my career, students would not have the choices to believe in their writing and they wouldn't have the writing time in class to put their learning into practice.

But to go too far on the workshop side, students might not see their potential. They might lack focus in their writing and reading strategies; they might make safe decisions because safe literacy decisions could be the only decisions they know.

Like everything else in life, there must be a YIN YANG to this challenge as well--a way to allow a lot of time for writing/reading while providing guidance and risk-taking opportunities. There must be a way to demand complete, finished work while allowing opportunities for students to wander in their work--that is, to go back to something early in the term to revise it because the opportunity exists to make it better and they want to because they believe in the work and what they're doing.

So, what's the YIN YANG?

The YIN YANG is in the hybrid text--an idea discussed this weekend with my well-respected, hard-working, composition/poetry-teaching brother who lives in Bloomington, Illinois and teaches at Illinois Wesleyan University. Through a great conversation on how to make my upcoming class, Creative Writing, its absolute best, we came up with this. In this hybrid text, I can ask students to play with genres (poetry, fiction, drama, etc.) and show them all of the great elements of these genres, but give them the time to play and revise because the term will be working toward this final blog portfolio.

They will have more opportunity for choice, for struggle, for revision and I will have more opportunity to guide and lead them into writing fearlessness--in other words, the YIN YANG.