Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Safety Versus Security: We Want to Talk with You!

We invite you to participate in a wonderful learning conversation with our ninth grade honors classes on February 3, 2011. After studying the world of dystopian fiction through classics such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s 1984 and the modern response, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, our students will engage in an intense discussion as their final project. We are inviting you to participate to help our students examine how these works play an enormous part in their world today through such relevant issues as Homeland Security, government censorship, information leaks, and safety versus security, to name just a few.

Our students will participate in a fishbowl discussion with live blogging and we will Ustream out the fishbowl discussion live so that you can hear the in-class discussion while participating in the live blogging.

This is what we need from you:

Sign up on the wiki. You’ll notice that we’re asking you to indicate which side of the security versus privacy fence you lean toward. We know this is not a black-and-white issue, but in the attempt to get diverse voices with differing opinions into our discussion, we’re going to try to get folks on both “sides” of that fence. So please do your best to put yourself on one “side” or the other for this discussion to help us do that.

We are looking for at least 3-4 participants per class period. The classes meet for 59 minutes. You can certainly sign up for more than one class if you are interested.

Period 2: 8:25-9:24 am MST

Period 3: 9:29-10:30 am MST

Period 4: 10:35- 11:34 am MST

Period 5: 12:14-1:12 pm MST

•You do not have to have read all the texts to be a participant, but a quick review of the texts and a familiarization of the issues would be helpful to keep up with our kids.

Our goal is not necessarily a debate, but a learning conversation for all parties involved. We don't want a winning group and a losing group, but a healthy discussion where we all walk away having learned something new. Thanks for your interest! If this is not your cup of tea, please consider passing this along to someone who might be interested.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Parent classroom communication

One of the goals I set for myself this year was to be a better communicator with the parents of my all boys’ class. I picked this class since they are my biggest strugglers and tend to need the most support from me and from home.

With my own kids, as they progress through school, I hear less and less out of their mouths about what happened during the school day. The primary focus of our conversations is usually what they did during recess not what learning took place in the classrooms. Their teachers however provide me a connection to the learning in the classroom through parent letters. I really enjoy hearing about activities in the classroom, upcoming work that we need to support at home, and interesting ways I too can help in the classroom.

Thinking that my boys in my 9th grade classroom are similar to my own children with the lack of revealing truths about what is occurring each day in C-11, I decided to employ my own version of the parent letter home to my 9th grade parents. At the beginning of the year, it was more of an introduction to me, and to our class expectations especially the No D policy. As the year has progressed, it has proven valuable to communicate about writing:

Also, we are still working through vocabulary with each week focusing on a new word. The list is available on our class webpage. We review the word on Monday and Wednesday completing our note cards. On Friday, the young men are expected to turn in their vocab card, and apply the word to a piece of writing. ( )

Big projects:
As for the final project for our class, the young men will be writing, publishing and delivering a speech based on National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” ( ) segment. If that is not scary enough, I have also told all the young men, that I am going to be broadcasting out their final to you via U-Stream ( so that you can watch them present their final-LIVE! I will have more details on this as the time gets closer; for now, I would make sure they are writing, revising, revising some more, and then practicing.

Next week marks the end of the second six weeks, and that means all work from the second six weeks is due by next Friday. There are a few major projects we have completed during this time. The young gentlemen in my class have been reminded that they can redo their short story essay ( )and Into the Wild essay ( by either coming in to see me, or going into writing lab on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Once they have met those expectations, they can rewrite their essay submitting their original, edited and finalized drafts.

And methods of support:
With the end of the six weeks behind us, we are starting fresh in class with a new six weeks to be successful. Some of the young men are already falling behind, and so I wanted to keep you up-to-date on what we are doing. Right now, we are reading Into the Wild. Accompanying our novel, we have read a short story from Jack London called "To Build a Fire"( and a short excerpt from Thoreau's Walden ( - paragraph one only). I am attaching both of those so that you can read them as well. While we are reading, we are working on annotating our texts- actually writing down our thoughts, connections from this text to ourselves, to other texts, to the world, and asking good questions (i.e. "What is Krakauer's purpose intelling us about the death of Chris so early in the story?, why does Chris choose to abandon his family? What matters to Chris?).

Annotations are incredibly important for the young men in order to develop their critical thinking and cognitive abilities. I would encourage the young men to work on their annotations at home. We stop and annotate frequently in class so it would be important for them to continue this skill at home. We want them to be active readers, not passive readers.

With Google Earth (, your child should have four posts by Monday. The posts are about what we are reading and thinking. We are still working on writing good, effective paragraphs so three of their entries are in paragraph format (complete topic sentencesincluding title, author, restate question, answer question and why, background on story, clear examples with explanations, and concluding sentences).

I have received such positive praise from my 9th grade parents about this additional source of information and insight into our classroom. Now, I would love to do this with all my classes, but I don’t have anymore than the little time that I allow for myself to write these bi-monthly letters. As much as I relish the insight into my children’s classrooms, I know that the parents of my own students feel the same way. Through an easy letter, explanations, and links, I have opened up the door for further conversation and participation in my classroom.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Why do I have to study [Fill in the Blank]?

A few weeks ago, as my all boys class was presenting their PLN entries, one student presented an interesting reaction regarding what classes are necessary for students to take in high school. This student felt that classes such as history, math, etc… were not relevant to high school students, but rather that in high school, students should be able to take classes that address their future careers. We talked about this for some time since many others have written about this in the educational blog-o-sphere as well as this student’s classmates had some insights of their own to offer. I was really surprised and amazed how many students are quite adamant about what classes students should and should not have to take in school. There are a number of my boys who feel that math is a ridiculous subject to take (trigonometry seems to be their focal point), history is outdated and is just a bunch of facts( why do we learn about stuff from the past), and I even had one student in particular who thought that learning how to write well was meaningless (my heart broke right there).

With this conversation, I asked the kids what jobs they are interested in the future. Therapists, counselors, police officers, culinary arts, meteorologists, biologists, bio technology, chemical engineer, astronauts, graphic designers, special operations forces were among the group. What puzzled me was not only that the one boy in particular found no relevance in writing being part of his journey towards his career as a counselor and therapist, but that many of the kids don’t see a point to their learning in high school. Which begs the question I hear from my own kids one of whom is 9 and the other is 8: “Why do I have to study [Fill in the Blank]?”

I wonder as a teacher, parent, woman, valued member of society, etc… what kind of job are we doing in education, if kids don’t see the relevance to what we are spending 59 minutes per day, 5 days per week, 36 weeks per year over 13 years? What am I doing if this boy thinks he doesn’t need to know how to write well? Is it he doesn’t see writing as a valuable form of communication? Is it because he has no frame of reference in regards to his future job? Do I need to hook up each of these kids with someone in their dream profession to see why they need History, Math, Language Arts, PE, etc…? What do I need to do in my own classroom so that my boys see the relevance and purpose behind being able to write, read, listen and communicate effectively? I want them to be able to fill in their own blanks.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This I Believe Goes Global 10-11

For the past four years, I have had my classes write their versions of National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” segment. I was introduced to this idea by a colleague and have been always impressed by what my students hold as their personal values and beliefs. Writing these essays has allowed for them to do something they don’t get to do all that often at school - express their heartfelt beliefs.

After writing the essays the first year, we submitted them to NPR, but we also decided to podcast them ourselves – no need to wait to see if NPR might choose to broadcast them. The writing was good at expressing their values, but once their voice was added to their written expression, WOW, it simply transformed that personal essay. Instead of the words simply being words, the words conveyed deeply held emotions. Now, this is the standard.

Here are some previous class examples:
Period 2 06-07
Period 5 06-07
Period 3 06-07
Period 2 07-08
Period 5 07-08
Period 3 07-08
Wiki 09-10

We are approaching that time of year, when I am going to start the kids on this writing adventure, but this year I wanted to invite you in the blog-o-sphere to join us again. I want “This I Believe” to go global. I want my students to benefit not only from knowing what their peers believe, or what the other AHS classes believe, but to hear and see what the world values. What do kids elsewhere in the U.S. believe in? What do kids elsewhere in the world believe in? What do some of the learned professionals that I know believe in? I want my students to walk away from this experience realizing the power they have as professional writers as well as connecting to other teenagers and adults from around the world. I want to see them exchange ideas, foster relationships, and appreciate the variety of perspectives. Maybe you can challenge your principal, your school board members, your local politicians, heck, maybe your entire school. Maybe we can even get our President to write his own “This I Believe.”

So, how do we accomplish this? Karl Fisch, of course, is willing to be my master facilitator. He has set up a wiki (still a work in progress) that will provide the guidelines for the classes to follow. I am making Maura Moritz’s classes join us again, so there will be five classes (ninth grade, 14 and 15 years old) from AHS writing and podcasting their essays: Moritz 3, Moritz 4, Smith 1, Smith 2, and Smith 5. We are hoping to attract at least five other classes from around the world, one each to pair up with each of our five classes. If we get more than five classes that are interested, then we will try to pair up any additional classes with another class somewhere in the world.

If your class(es) are interested, please complete this Google Form with some basic information (your name, your email address, school name, location, grade level(s)/ages, how many classes, number of students in each class, and time frame that you’d like to do this) so we can setup those partnerships. (Our thinking is that pairing one class with one class will keep this from becoming too overwhelming for the students, although of course anyone can read/listen/comment to any of the essays on any of the wiki pages).

We will create a wiki page for each set of paired classes and each student will upload their written essay as well as their podcast (the podcast can either be uploaded directly to the wiki, or you can use a variety of other services for that and then link to them). Each pair of classes will be in charge of their own wiki page and we’ll use the discussion tabs on each page to give feedback to the students.

If you are an adult interested in writing a piece yourself, simply add them to the “adults” page on the wiki. I am hoping to get some notable edubloggers as well as my superintendent, CIO, and others to participate. It would also be helpful to include a brief bio so the kids can know who they are reading about.Obviously you don’t have to do this with us or on our wiki, you can create your own. But we thought it might be interesting and helpful to have one wiki that aggregated all these essays/podcasts, one place that students (and others) could visit to learn about beliefs all over the world. Wondering where to start? NPR has a number of education friendly links to help you along the process:

For Educators
For Students
Essay writing tips
How to contribute an essay to NPR

Timeline: For our honors classes we are going to start writing our essays, November 4th with a final due date of November 12th for their essay. For my English 9 all boys class (Smith 1), they will start writing their essay November 19th, with the essay due December 3rd. The week following their due date, they will begin podcasting their essays. The paired classes don’t have to match this timeline exactly (although that would be great), but we’re hoping they can have theirs completed by Thanksgiving so that the students can start commenting on each other’s essays/podcasts.But for other pairings you can set whatever time frame works best for you – that’s the beauty of the wiki, it’s a living document with no “end” to the assignment (although that’s why we need you to include your time frame when you email us so that we can try to match folks up). We would really appreciate any feedback (now or as this progresses) to make this an experience that is truly relevant and meaningful for these kids.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wonder Woman Gone Country 10-11

Every week in English Nine Honors, students are given a set of 15 SAT preparatory vocabulary words. Last week’s words were antipathy, elucidate, imminent, banal, obdurate, peruse, bedlam, affluence, scurrilous, parody, sedulous, onerous, amoral, eschew, denouement . They are expected to know and use these words appropriately by the end of the week. One exciting part of getting a new set of words to learn, besides of course learning new words, is our end of the week vocabulary quiz. Students have created bumper stickers, pick up lines, written letters of complaint and recommendation, made me, their teacher, wanted by the law, and written tabloid headlines.

However, none are as clever as when they are asked to create a country western song about Wonder Woman (yes, the lady with the golden lasso and bracelets). In their groups of four to five, after completing their fantastic composition and practicing for a few moments, the next step was for the students to record their “original” work in Audacity. After saving their recording, students were to export the files into an MP3 format and voila! We have Wonder Woman Gone Country!

While none of these may be destined to win a Grammy, take a listen and see if you can pick out the vocab words. Also, take our poll and vote for your favorite version...

Period 2

Tune in next week for Facebook pages of literary characters using SAT words.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Third Grade is the New Cut Sport

In an era where we can’t get kids to participate in many activities, why are we cutting kids out of opportunities they want to succeed at?

This is the question I have been grappling with since Wednesday afternoon, when my 8 year old daughter told me she didn’t get a speaking part in her school musical. Emma tried out for over 10 speaking parts, and didn’t get one-no parts available for her. She was crushed, mortified, heartbroken, and I, for the first time, realized what it was like to be the kid who didn’t make it. It still brings tears to my eyes today as I write this thinking about how here is another opportunity for us to do right by kids, and we limit those who can have a role. Why in third grade can’t there be a role for everyone who wants one? Is third grade a cut sport now? Is third grade the time that we are telling kids, “hey, you are not quite good enough, sorry.”

Growing up as a competitive athlete, heck, I am competitive in about every thing, I really can’t say I ever remember the feeling of being cut out of something-sure when I was older, but not as an 8 year old. I was the kid picked to be on the Dodgeball team, Red Rover team, soccer, volleyball, etc… I never tried out for a play, but would rather have been behind the scenes, and there was always a place for me there. I was cut from my college volleyball team, but I was ready to be done playing then. I was ok with my career being over after playing competitive volleyball for many years.

Wednesday with Emma was the first time I felt like what it was to be the kid no one wanted. (It was so hard being her parent then when all I wanted to do was yell and scream composing some really nasty email to the person who denied my child her heart’s desire). And it made me think a lot about my own classroom. How I am extending learning opportunities and chances to perform, succeed, challenge to everyone; not just those that always get those roles? How am I making a place for everyone in my community of learners? How am I making sure kids don’t feel cut out of my class and making sure they feel as though they have a role?

I have always supported cuts in activities. It helps kids understand that we are all gifted in different ways. This is the conversation that Emma’s step dad, dad and I had with her. She has succeeded in many other ways: art, swimming, soccer. But after our conversation, I had a lot of questions about what we are doing to kids. I am wondering, when did elementary school become a cut sport? When did third grade become the deciding factor in whether Emma is good enough to speak in front of the school? When did third grade become the time for my daughter to start feeling as though she isn’t as “good” a kid as those that did receive roles?

I am not trying to demean the school’s choices; I am sure all those that received speaking roles will be fabulous, but at what point did we decide to limit the participants in school? At what point did we decide that 8 year olds don’t get to do something creative and important to them? (Everyday Emma came home and talked about her excitement over waiting to find out who got a role). If everyone wants a chance to stand up and participate, why would we say no? Why is third grade the new cut sport?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Conversation to Improve

With the suggestion of Mr. Kohn, I set up the classroom early on Monday morning circling all the chairs into the center of the room moving all the tables aside. I opened the class explaining to the class about the past few days: my initial blog, the response from Alfie Kohn and others, and the importance of today’s conversation. I explained my frustrations to the class regarding their work completion, efforts at achieving successes, and reminding them how intelligent I think they all are. Then I talked to them about the three questions I wanted us to discuss for the rest of the class: What is working? What isn’t working? How can WE do better? Here is what they said:

What is working?
· Reading as a group and annotating together- talking through what we are reading
· Food
· Writing topic sentences
· Using technology
· Watching movies
· Editing in class
· Six weeks to redo work
· Redo work allows us to learn more, less pressure, more flexibility, not happy with my grade until work is satisfactory
· Class blog keeps me organized, scribes are extremely helpful
· Skype- nice to have direct contact with you
· No books, nice to have print outs
· You aren’t a hypocrite- you do the work with us
· PLN- helps so much with my writing, I can voice my opinion
· PLN presentations- it is great that we get to pick what we can do and present on
· Like the interactive methods of teaching
· Nice to have time to work on writing paragraphs in school
· Note taking is minimal
· Nice to be able to pick the day you scribe
· Rolly chairs and tables
· Make up days- nice to have the time to make-up work and get caught up; you can prioritize your other classes with the flexibility of this class
· Not strict about talking and behavior

What isn’t working? (we talked about solutions with the problems- those are indicated in parenthesis where we had a solution)

  • Hand writing is hard to read (online comments work best)
  • Annotations: it is really hard to read to understand, make connections and ask questions all at the same time (can we read a bit, then stop and pause to write questions and make comments; reading could be the night before so that we can read for understanding during the night, and then leave annotations for the next day in class; small group reading based off of reading ability)
  • Big assignments (can these be broken down more into a day by day format; or paragraph by paragraph format)
  • Annotating in the format you suggest doesn’t work for me (don’t worry about the literary devices, move on and ask big questions, make big connections)
  • Don’t like downloading programs such as Picasa and Google Earth (?)
  • Homework can be overwhelming (?)
  • Hard to get used to blogging and homework (?)
  • Structure paragraphs (go over paragraph structures again and again, go over different parts of the paragraph to redo; breakdown each paragraph and give work time to finish)
  • Assign rough drafts (next day could be a work day, edit, and then edit again, and then final draft)
  • Show examples of what you mean, don’t just tell

How can WE do better?

  • Bring in work the next day when it is assigned
  • Get homework in on time
  • Turn in work on time so you get time to redo the work
  • Work in smaller groups based on how fast we work
  • Hold us accountable when we don’t do what we are supposed to
  • When we do good things, can you bake for us? YES!
  • If we all do good things, can we all get rewards?
  • Be more specific with online comments
  • Have more group projects
  • Hold one another accountable
  • Slow down
  • Take time with our annotating
  • Talk about our PLN’s and maybe do one together
  • Read in circles more often
  • Put questions up- expand on what questions need to be about

Friday, September 24, 2010

Alfie Kohn Comes to the Rescue

After posting yesterday about my struggles in class, I tweeted out the blog post. A few hours later, a DM from none other than Mr. Kohn appeared in my Tweetdeck letting me know he had read my post (I practically fell on the floor), and that he wanted to know more: he wanted to know, "At what pt do I get to hold the studs responsble?" What wd that mean, exactly? Punishing them? Wd that improve lrng? Interest?". Since Mr. Kohn doesn't follow me, I couldn't get back to him through DM-ing, but he suggested an email exchange. He didn't promise a detailed response, but did encourage me to write out my questions and concerns and he would respond back when he had time.

Here is the email I sent:

Mr. Kohn-I don't believe in punishing kids- I think all kids learn from their mistakes. Your book The Schools Our Children Deserve changed many perceptions I had about schooling. Your work on homework has changed how and what I do with homework. My husband and I use your Unconditional Parenting with Love and Logic at home. So, please know I am a huge fan... but, I am running into a problem in my school, district and state, where I am continually being measured for things my students are supposed to be able to do. I wonder how I am supposed to be measured by these tests when kids have no stake in the test? Why can't we hold kids accountable when all the factors for success are there? I use Atwell's writing strategies and Daniels work on reading.

I am wondering how do I reinforce turning in homework such as writing, reading, and speaking? How do I help my kids avoid being lazy and come to class prepared? I don't have this problem, of course, with my honors level classes, but with my boys- 33 boys and me! We read current literature, watch videos, read in class, and model good writing in class; they comment about how much they like it, but they don't respond to what I ask them to do with writing or reading homework. I do most of the reading in class with them because I value the reading and writing components greatly. As far as work, my class has a no D policy so kids can't turn in what we call "crap work." As a class, we agreed to only turn in quality work- they defined for themselves and they class what constitutes quality work. Also, I accept work up until the six week grading period so they can redo an assignment as many times as necessary until they have demonstrated they have learned and understood the concept. (This is a change I made a couple of years ago based off my graduate school work with Gary Stager and Margaret Riel).

How do I hold kids accountable without "punishing" kids? How do I get them to do more quallity work and thinking without holding their hands and being the task master teacher I don't want to be? How do I get them to want to be more and hold themselves to a higher standard?

Thanks for inviting the conversation,
Anne Smith

And today, here is the response I received: (this is reprinted with his permission)

I, too, taught difficult kids once upon a time, so I sympathize. But I needed some distance from the situation to realize that I was too quick to blame them for their lack of interest in what I was trying to get them to do. I thought of them as unmotivated or resistant rather than asking how I had failed to engage them.

It's particularly important, I think, when you're on the receiving end of all this accountability nonsense (and top-down control), not to turn around and treat students the way you're being treated, but instead to treat them the way you wish you were being treated.

The high-achieving kids know how to play the game, and they jump through our hoops. Sometimes I worry more about them (over the long haul) than about the kids who don't care so much about the extrinsic inducements and are more likely to say, in effect, like Bartleby, "I prefer not to" when they don't see the point.

Maybe the problem is that you're telling them to do this stuff at home, in effect making them work a second shift after they've spent all day at school. Given that many teachers assign no homework at all (with fabulous results); given that research finds absolutely no benefit to homework, at least before high school; given that it's questionable whether schools have any business telling kids how to spend their time when they're home -- I frankly don't blame them. If you've seen my book The Homework Myth, you know I'm doing more than just asking teachers to assign less of it. At the least, it should be assigned only on those occasions when it's truly necessary (to help kids think more deeply and get them more excited about the topic), not on a regular basis.

Or maybe the problem isn't with what you're asking them to do so much as with the students' perception that they had nothing to say about it. Kids are more likely to respond positively when they participate in making meaningful decisions about the curriculum and other aspects of their education. (I write about this in the current issue of English Journal:>.)

There are plenty of consultants out there who are happy to answer a question like "How can I reinforce turning in homework?" -- a question that (a) simply assumes homework is necessary and useful, (b) draws from a behaviorist tradition (in which the idea of reinforcement is grounded), and (c) seems focused mostly on getting compliance. I think what you really want to ask is "How do I nourish their interest in learning?" [Bold is my addition] If so, then a focus on accountability and reinforcement, as well as traditional practices like grades and tests, can only get in the way.

To reach kids who are (understandably) turned off to school means you have to meet them where they are, realize that their lack of interest in what they're being made to do doesn't mean they're "lazy," think about how to create a more democratic classroom (which involves giving up some control -- a frightening prospect for most of us), and be willing to rethink many features of your curriculum and instruction -- what you're teaching and how. That's a long-term process, one that requires not only skill but courage, and it's best undertaken with at least one or two colleagues who are also more interested in creating truly student-centered classrooms than in looking for tricks to make the kids more compliant.

The first step may be something as simple as holding a class meeting, with everyone in a circle, in which you confess your frustration, ask your boys to tell you what is and isn't working for them in your class, listen without defensiveness, and request their help in improving the class. Regardless of what they tell you, the fact that you're willing to ask may itself make an impression on them.

I know my response raises more questions than it answers, and I apologize that I don't have the time to do justice to the issues you're struggling with. (My inbox is perpetually full, and I've already spent more time than I should have.) I do appreciate your reaching out for help, though -- something that complacent and cynical teachers rarely do -- and I wish you luck in this journey.

-- Alfie Kohn

Yes, Alfie Kohn lived up to all I have believed him to embody- he came to the rescue of a teacher in need of some direction. A teacher who wants to do best by her students. He answered the call and left me thinking of how to approach my students and my teaching in a whole new direction. I know Monday will be a different day with me focusing on "How do I nourish their interest in learning?" rather than "How do I reinforce turning in homework?" or "When do [students] get to be held accountable?". Thanks for Mr. Kohn for showing me which side of the fork in the road I want to follow.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Alfie Kohn- I Need You

About a week ago, Alfie Kohn tweeted a new article “Schools would be great if it weren’t for the kids” that he composed in response to a previous article written by Robert J. Samuelson. Samuelson placed much of the blame for the lack of success in schools on the students, and Kohn took issue. Kohn explains:

People who blame students for not being “motivated” tend to think educational success means little more than higher scores on bad tests and they’re apt to see education itself as a means to making sure our corporations will beat their corporations. The sort of schooling that results is the type almost guaranteed to . . . kill students’ motivation.

What may look like simple apathy, laziness, or opposition on the part of kids often reflects a problem with what, and how, they’re being taught, or the extent to which they’ve been excluded from the process of making decisions about their own learning.

Conversely, if you want to see (intrinsically) motivated kids, you need to visit classrooms or schools that take a nontraditional approach to education, places where students are more likely to be absorbed and frequently delighted, where what they’re doing is not merely “rigorous” (a word often applied to very difficult busywork) but meaningful.

Those who presume to weigh in on problems with education should visit schools that look very different from the ones that most of us attended -- and even more different from the chillingly militaristic places that rich white people cheerfully recommend for poor black children. Read Dewey, Piaget, Bruner, and Montessori.

Read the contemporary giants: Meier, Sizer, Goodlad. Read other educators who are thoughtful about what great classrooms look like and how to create them: Lilian Katz, Eleanor Duckworth, Constance Kamii, Harvey Daniels, Nancie Atwell, Jackie and Marty Brooks, Jim Beane, Steven Wolk, and many more.

I want to preface what I am about to say with how much I respect and value Kohn’s work in education. I have read his books, follow him on Twitter, and appreciate his information regarding how to change education. But, I wish he could come into my classroom, and work with my kids, and deal with the constraints, and challenges of a public school. (See new standards post)

I see myself somewhere between the two positions: I see that my students aren’t to blame for my inadequacies as a teacher- if I am not excited, motivated and passionate about what I am teaching, then they shouldn’t be either. If I don’t provide sufficient resources for them to not just meet their expectations, learning and understanding, then they can’t turn in their work. If I am not challenging them, being open for their feedback, or am placing too high of expectations on them, then they can’t succeed. If I don’t fully explain assignments or requirements, then they can’t learn. If I can’t provide a safe, secure, supportive learning environment with extensive resources, then they can’t flourish.


What if I am doing all those things, and the kids still aren’t doing the work, turning in assignments, being engaged, motivated, succeeding, and flourishing? When do the kids take some of the responsibility for their learning? When are they supposed to accept responsibility for their half of education? When do they get to be held accountable as teachers are?

As I have previously written, my all boys class continues to be one of my favorites as well as one of the most challenging for me. With my reading of Kohn’s article, and my belief in what he advocates for, I am left wondering how to change my class? As we are working on writing their first essay, we spent one full class just outlining an essay. On Thursday night, their homework was to follow the examples and write their own outline of their paper to bring to class on Friday. On Friday, we took those outlines and started writing the intro paragraph in class. Over the weekend, they were to finish writing their essay for Monday so that we could peer edit their essay before its due date on Wednesday. NINE kids had it completed. So, at the end of class on Monday, I asked how many would prefer another peer editing day so more kids could receive some feedback before their final piece was turned in. Unanimously the class all voted for another day. Before the kids left, I reminded them that all would need to bring a piece for editing tomorrow. Of the 33 boys in the class, only EIGHT had a piece the next day ready to edit. Why? Because as they admitted, they didn’t do their homework.

I wonder what it is going to take to change the state of “work completion” in my class. I don’t accept mediocrity for my students and so I return any work that isn’t satisfactory. They HAVE TO turn in quality work. Is this too much to ask? I don’t think I assign work that is simple completion assignments or mere regurgitation. Also ,I don’t assign work that is meaningless and without purpose. I feel like what I am doing in classroom is meaningful and engaging, but I still don’t see kids completing simple assignments- writing a paragraph, posting a topic sentence, completing a vocab card, adding a vocab word to a piece of writing, etc… My classroom, definitely as Kohn points out, “looks different” from others, and yet I still can’t kids to complete work. My boys have the six week period as the grade deadline and so much of what we do in class is paced by each student not by me. My classroom does a number of untraditional assignments (blogging, Google Earth, podcasts, reading more boy centered literature). We use laptops each day to help my boys write. We don’t do book reports instead we do PLNs. Are my boys too overscheduled in their academic careers to be successful? Are they too unscheduled outside of school to be successful? I don’t even think it is a question of can they do it? I think it is simply some won’t do it. Maybe there are more kids who lack basic technology skills? I am pretty sure we have 8th grade competencies they need to meet, but if they don’t, what’s the consequence? What is going to happen to these kids who still don’t know how to post to their own blog? Who can’t proofread something before they post it online? Who can’t comment properly to another blog? Is this a problem because of the hour I teach the class- 7:21 am – 8:19 am?

Maybe I need to revisit the purpose of why it is important to read critically, write effectively and speak eloquently? As I realized only eight had completed their homework, I was angry. I gave them a very serious talk about how they want to live their lives and was this the kind of behavior that will get them into a college, a job, let them keep a job, or move up in this world? Is this who they want to be?

I have read Dewey, Piaget, Montessori, and I have studied the classrooms of Atwell and Daniels. So Mr. Kohn, at what point do I get to hold the students responsible as I am held responsible? At what point to do they accept and are held accountable for their part in changing education? Mr. Kohn, maybe you want to take a visit to Littleton, CO and come help me out- I am sure my students and I would thanks you for it. Also, I think there are a number of teachers and students here who would love the conversation and learning adventure.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A New Mix

One part teacher values+ one part state standards= one hard to swallow pill

Over the past few years, as our school has undergone the transformation from teacher led departmental meetings to district Professional Learning Communities, the challenge of being a good teacher has increased dramatically. With each PLC meeting, I feel an ever-growing urgency to defend practices and assignments in my classroom that I think hold larger value than the state standards that are passed down onto me and my colleagues.

As I was sitting in my last PLC meeting, I began reflecting over the last two years of PLC time. Here we were two to three years ago being handed state standards and asked to write essential learnings and common assessments. It literally took us two years to get to a place where we all agreed on the essential learnings and common assessments for those standards. And now, we have a new set of standards to address. A new set of essential learnings we are asked to create and assess.

Rather than approach the state standards as I have done in the past with much contempt and stubbornness, I looked over what the CDE is asking me to do as a teacher:

Standard 1: Oral Expression and Listening: Deliver organized and effective oral presentations for diverse audiences and varied purposes. Demonstrate skill in inferential and evaluative listening.
1. Oral presentations require effective preparation strategies
a. Give formal and informal talks to various audiences for various purposes using appropriate level of formality and rhetorical devices
b. Use verbal and non-verbal speaking techniques to communicate information
c. Define a position and select evidence to support that position
d. Develop a well organizes presentation and defend a position
e. Use effective audience and oral delivery skills to persuade an audience
2. Listening critically to comprehend a speaker’s message requires mental and physical strategies to direct and maintain attention
a. Follow the speaker’s arguments as they develop; take notes when appropriate
b. Give verbal and non-verbal feedback to the speaker
c. Ask clarifying questions
d. Evaluate arguments and evidence
e. Explain how variables such as background knowledge, experiences, values and beliefs can affect communication.

Standard 2: Reading for all Purposes: Read a wide range of literature (American and world) to understand important universal themes and the human experience. Demonstrate comprehension of a variety of informational, literary, and persuasive texts.
1. Increasingly complex literary elements in traditional and contemporary works of literature require scrutiny and comparison.
a. Analyze character types, including dynamic and round character, static/flat character, stereotype, and caricature
b. Explain the relationship among elements of literature: characters, plot, setting, tone, point of view and theme
c. Identify the characteristics that distinguish literary forms and genres
d. Examine the ways in which works of literature are related to the issues and themes of their historical periods
e. Use literary terms to describe and analyze selections.
2. Increasingly complex informational texts require mature interpretation and study
a. Identify the intended effects of rhetorical strategies the author uses to influence readers perspectives.
b. Evaluate the clarity and accuracy of information through close text study and investigation via other sources
c. Describe how the organizational structure and text features support the meaning and purpose of the text.
d. Use flexible reading and note taking strategies (outlining, mapping systems, skimming, scanning, key word search) to organize information and make connections within and across informational texts.
e. Critique the author’s choice of expository, narrative, or descriptive modes to convey a message.

Standard 3: Writing and Composition: Master the techniques of effective informational, literary, and persuasive writing. Apply standard English conventions to effectively communicate with written language.
1. Literary and narrative texts develop a controlling idea or theme with descriptive and expressive language.

a. Write well focused texts with an explicit or implicit theme and details that contribute to a definite point of view and tone.
b. Organize paragraphs or stanzas to present ideas clearly and purposefully for a specific audience
c. Write literary and narrative texts using a range of poetic techniques, figurative language, and graphic elements to engage or entertain the intended audience.
d. Refine the expression of voice and tone in a text by selecting and using appropriate vocabulary, sentence structure, and sentence organization.
e. Review and revise ideas and development in substantive ways to improve the depth of ideas and vividness in supporting details.
f. Explain the strengths and weaknesses of own writing and the writing of others using criteria.
2. Informational and persuasive texts develop a topic and establish a controlling idea or thesis with relevant support.
a. Develop texts that define or classify a topic
b. Use appropriate rhetorical appeals and genre to engage and guide the intended audience
c. Arrange paragraphs into a logical progression
d. Anticipate and address readers’ biases and expectations
e. Revise ideas and structure to improve depth of information and logic of organization
f. Explain and imitate emotional , logical and ethical appeals used by writers who are trying to persuade and audience.
3. Writing for grammar, usage, mechanics, and clarity requires ongoing refinement and revision
a. Use punctuation correctly (semi-colons with conjunctive adverbs to combine clauses; colons for emphasis and to introduce a list)
b. Identify comma splices and fused sentences writing and revise to eliminate them
c. Distinguish between phrases and clauses and use this knowledge to write varied, strong, correct, complete sentences
d. Use various reference tools to vary word choice and make sure words and spelled correctly

Standard 4: Research and Reasoning: Gather information from a variety of sources; analyze and evaluate the quality and relevance of the source; and use it to answer complex questions. Demonstrate the use of a range of strategies, research techniques, and persistence, when engaging with difficult texts or examining complex problems or issues.

1. Informational materials, including electronic resources, need to be collected, evaluated, and analyzed for accuracy, relevance, and effectiveness for answering research questions
a. Integrate information from different sources to research and complete a project
b. Integrate information from different sources to form conclusions about an author’s assumptions, biases, credibility, cultural and social perspectives, or world views
c. Judge the usefulness of information based on relevance to purpose, sources, objectivity, copyright date, cultural and world perspective (such as editorials), and support the decision.
d. Examine materials to determine appropriate primary and secondary sources to use for investigating a question, topic, or issue (e.g., library databases, print and electronic encyclopedia and or other reference materials, pamphlets, book excerpts, online and print newspaper and magazine articles, letters to an editor, digital forums, oral records, research summaries, scientific and trade journals)
2. Effective problem solving strategies require high-quality reasoning
a. Analyze the purpose, question at issue, information, points of view, implications and consequences, inferences, assumptions and concepts inherent in thinking
b. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of their thinking and thinking of others by using criteria including relevance, clarity, accuracy, fairness, significance, depth, breadth, logic and precision
c. Implement a purposeful and articulated process to solve a problem
d. Monitor and reflect on the rationale for, and effectiveness of, choices made throughout the problem solving process.

With each standard, we are to create one essential learning and common assessment. Thinking about what I value in my own classroom, I am not sure where my values align with what the state and district is asking me to do? How as a 21st century teacher and learner can I contribute to effective discussions about the standards, make sure my students are achieving these standards and at the same time feel as though I am preparing my kids for more than just another year of school? I do believe many of the learning activities my students currently are engaged in are present in these standards, but what is going to happen if my department doesn’t agree? If my PLC doesn’t agree? What happens if our interpretations don’t match? I really do fear giving up what I value most: the creative genius, the out of the box thinking, the critical thinking and problem solving nature, the independence, the autonomy to be my own teacher and learner and for my kids to feel and be the same in my classroom. What happens when I have to give out 9 common assessments throughout the school year, not including the pretest and post tests that accompany each assessment? What happens when all I am doing is giving assessments that measure essential learnings? What happens when the mix doesn’t work?

I don’t have answers to all of my questions. Like cooking, I know recipes for success can always vary. I know with each new recipe I try, I am tempting fate that it might not turn out. I feel the same way approaching this year of PLC meetings, new standards, new assessments, and essential learnings- it might not turn out like the picture in the recipe book. But, with each new recipe I try, I also can create a new formula for success. I can challenge the way previous ingredients have been combined and make a new and improved version. I can create a new mix that improves both the product and the chef.

On a side note, the old state standards for Language Arts (reading and writing) comprised 21 pages, the new state standards (reading, writing, and communicating) 168 pages.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Giving Myself Six Weeks

This past week has been a struggle for me on a number of accounts. However, I am having a growing concern regarding my all boys class- they simply aren’t turning in work. Even what I have received from them has been minimal in depth and quality. It seems as though I am working harder than they are in order to help them improve as learners and human beings.
TO paint the picture more accurately, and to help me vent more in-depthly, I want to give you an idea of what I am facing. Each morning at 7:21 am, my 33 boys show up bright eyed and bushy tailed ready for another day of reading, writing, and discussion. (I might be exaggerating about them being bright eyed and bushy tailed, but as I stand at the door greeting them, they seem ready to go. ) The moment I start class, the boys take out their student calendars and we go over the homework for the day. Often times we clarify about what the expectations are for each assignment, review the previous day’s work, check in to see who is scribing and should be recording all this valuable information for the class, and then move on to the real learning.
We have been studying the big question of “how do the words and actions of others affect who others become?” We watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Rope, read Richard Connell’s “Most Dangerous Game”, David Brenner’s “Fish Eyes”, and then this weekend they are reading Ray Bradbury’s “The Utterly Perfect Murder.” With each story, we are practicing annotating by asking good questions, circling words we don’t know, looking for literary devices, and then answering our guiding question at the end of the story. I haven’t given one pop quiz, one reading check, or asked them to fill out one worksheet. I simply want them to read with a focus, to answer one question and to do some thinking while we are reading.

In addition to the short stories, despite what the other 9th grade teachers are doing, I am focusing on one vocabulary word a week. On Monday I introduce the word, we break it down looking at the root word, the prefix or suffix and then we complete a vocabulary frame card for Wednesday. On Wednesday, we review the vocabulary frame. On Friday, we take a quiz on the one word. Last week, the boys had to some how include the word misogynist in their personal reflection to me. There were some real doozies! This week, they need to incorporate the word misanthrope into their PLN entry about Will Richardson’s article “Footprints in the Digital Age.”
Finally, during the week, instead of doing the typical outside reading book, my kids write two PLN (Personal Learning Network) entries, one on Tuesday and one on Friday. On Friday, we have five students present one entry from their PLNs to the class using good speaking strategies, discussing what matters from their entry, how it connects to him personally, to education, and to the world. At the end of the presentation, the student needs to ask a question of his audience and then facilitate a discussion. The students give the presenter feedback on his own blog so that he knows immediately what he needs to do to improve on his next presentation.
After writing all this down, it seems like we are doing A LOT. As I was working out Thursday morning, I suddenly had this thought that maybe what my kids need is a day to get their stuff together. I mean we all have those days where the work seems to pile up, and you get lazy making simple mistakes where if you had just take a little more time, it would have been completed correctly. Maybe they needed a breather- a day to get themselves put back together. So, on Thursday I opened up class with a polleverywhere question:

Now some kids couldn’t text in their vote-I couldn’t believe some kids didn’t have texting capabilities on their cell-phones- but we still included their votes after. We established the conditions for work that day: quiet work time, ask questions if necessary, write down in your planner all your missing or incomplete work, and get to work giving me a sticky note with your completed work that needs to be re-graded. By the end of the hour, I had about 60+ sticky notes not including all those I did the day before, of make-up work from my boys. The problem, and the frustration, was that the work they submitted was not their best- it was CRAP!
Here I had given them the time to work, to help themselves and their grade out, and here I am going to have to grade all this work again, because it still isn’t done to the best of their ability. (Note: I don’t accept crap work in my class- if it is not done as A, B, or C quality work, it is returned to them to redo. My boys have up to the six week grading period to redo their work as many times as necessary to produce their best quality work. )

Which brings us to today and I conversation I had with my favorite, Karl Fisch. As I was venting about my class, I came back to a conversation I had with my student’s parents at Back to School night. I asked the parents that night to give their child six weeks- six weeks to get their act together, six weeks of freedom from mom and dad checking on everything they do, six weeks to own their learning. If I am asking the parents to do this, why am I not expecting the same of myself as their teacher? They need this time to figure things out. I am giving them the time, the resources, and most of all the learning experiences to mess-up and fix it. There is no mess-up and not fix it in my class. If it takes them to the bottom of the grade-dom, then they have to find a way (of course with my help, when they ask) to get them out. I need them to struggle so that the next four years and beyond aren’t spent still trying to figure life out. I need to give myself six weeks.

In today’s class, we talked about all the grading I did yesterday, and what I realized about their quality of work. I asked them how many of them had just turned in the work to get it done. Many hands were raised. When I asked them about the frustration I felt for having to re-grade their work, many agreed that this would be frustrating. So, as one bright, shiny, bushy-tailed student pointed out in our discussion, “if we would just do our best work the first time, this wouldn’t happen.”

Things might be looking up….

Friday, September 03, 2010

Reality Check for the Teacher

This week, I asked my class to reflect on how the first three weeks have gone for them and to set some goals for the rest of the semester. The students submitted their answers to my questions in letter form- it is simply a way to easily and privately communicate to me what’s going on in their lives. The questions they were to answer were (some of these were ones I have used before; others were added courtesy of Karl Fisch):

Looking back at our first couple of weeks in English 9 or English 9 Honors, how are you feeling? What’s going well or you are excited about? What’s challenging or are you concerned about? Let me know how I can help. Please answer in complete, thoughtful sentences.Then I want you to set three goals for yourself for this semester.
· One goal specifically related to English 9 or English 9 Honors
· One goal related to AHS in general (can be related to classwork, sports, activities or something else at AHS)
· One goal outside of AHS.
Make these goals fairly specific, not just “I want to get a good grade.” For each one, answer with what, why and how – what is your goal, why is it your goal, and how will you accomplish it. Also, let me know how I can help you achieve your goals.

I thought it would be meaningful for my students to answer my own questions.

So here goes:

I am feeling ok. Physically, I am feeling good, but tired. I always forget every school year how exhausting teaching is. I get up every morning about 4:30 am just to exercise and by the time the school day is over, I am ready for bed. But, we, my husband Jeff and I, are usually off carting one of our kids to some activity, or running (yes, literally running) home to get them started on their own homework. I feel much more in the swing of things after getting week three under my belt.

I am really excited about my classes. I was worried after the first couple of weeks regarding my all boys class. Last year, they were probably my favorite, and I wasn’t sure if my new set of young men could go above and beyond as last year’s group did. But here on week three, we are hitting a new stride. They are finally getting to understand high school is different, expectations are higher, and you have to turn in your work. There are no easy assignments.

With my Honors classes, we are finally getting started with reading Macbeth. This is always a tenuous time because Maura and I don’t teach them Macbeth-we expect them to teach one another. It is so challenging watching them sit there and not ask ANY questions of one another. I mean they are reading one of the most challenging of Shakespeare's texts, their teacher is not spoon feeding them an interpretation, and they have NO QUESTIONS? HOW CAN THAT BE? However, period 5 today did a fantastic job dissecting their reading, and I enjoyed listening to the class help one another figure things out. Hopefully, this gets them started on a good trend. I am hoping to see them use the blog to help one another understand, but as classes in the past have done, sometimes it takes the first quiz for them to see how important asking questions can be. Failing a detailed quiz often motivates them to ask questions of one another in class and on the blog.

Challenges and concern continue to be what I have talked about before: are the kids going to catch on, are they going to get their work turned in, are they going to ask good thinking questions, are they going to take charge of their learning, are they going to push themselves to do more and be more, and of course, are they going to change the world?

My goals are a little different from the kids. I blogged before about my goals for the year, but as I was talking with the kids, I wanted to set another goal that I would see each one of them in one of their activities this year. They simply just have to let me know what game/activity/ performance they want me to come to. I used to do this a few years ago BK-before kids- but thinking out loud here, I know how much my own kids love coming to AHS activities, it is just me now making time to get them over here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Scribing about scribing

As Plato did for Socrates, as my students hope to do for our class, we are embarking on a well worn venture of scribing. Each year, I ask my senior class to scribe our class periods together in hopes of making a living history of their senior year of high school. I always tell them at their 20 year high school reunion for them to be able to look back and see all they did and discussed as seniors. This year, I am not teaching seniors (see previous upset blog re: Spelling Vocab) and wanted to still continue with the valuable practice of scribing.

I have had my second semester Honors class scribe before, but with their every seeming tendency to out do the previous year by talking to authors, I have lost the practice. There is only so much time! Or is there?

As I discussed scribing with my all boys class, and two Honors classes, they all seemed to value the idea of a scribe. They realized what a benefit it would be to their learning since it could contain the homework, discussions and notes from class, links to valuable resources, and maybe, just maybe, a little humor from class that day. As we talked about what each post should contain, we came up with an oral list of expectations regarding a scribe post. (Note to self: next time record this and write them down)

Scribe Expectations- from Smith’s recall
· Should contain the date
· Should contain the homework
· Should contain what happened in class: detailed enough but not boring
· Should contain notes and discussion information
· Should contain links to anything that was referenced
· Should have a “feel” of the class and classroom
· Humorous
· Well written and proofread
After signing up the kids with posting privileges, deciding the scribe schedule, debriefing after the first few scribes have been posted, reviewing expectations, learning how to scribe, post, hyperlink, embed, etc…, I am still not seeing what I hope to see in the scribes.

For example, here is a post from my all boys’ class:
Today we went over the correct prompt for a blog on PLN’s: Author, Title, What matters? Why? Link Summarize, Conections (self world) Conclusion. Example Topic: “A vision of Students today” by Dr Michael Wesch, Technology Rules people’s lives because technology is entertaining.PLN1. We then got time to Blog if some people forgot. We need to do PLN2 “what matters” on your CLASS blog for homework due Monday/Tuesday. Put any pictures for “what matters” in a folder/on a jump drive. Create collage. Post on Blog.

Notice how there aren’t any links, it is one giant ramble, and no additional information is provided. What this post tells me is that my class is boring, it is jumbled together, there is no explanation of the homework or what we did in class, and my class is boring.

I am not trying to be degrading to myself through this post, but I remember Alan November saying this summer at ISTE, that scribes are a great source of feedback for the teacher. It can tell you exactly what your students are taking away. I have never thought of scribes like that, but more as a tool for my students to help each other out. I guess I need to rethink what my boys are taking away each day. And, why are their posts so limited in content and depth? Why aren’t they helping each other learn?

My Honors kids haven’t completed any outstanding scribes either. Take a look at these two examples:
Today in English 9 honors we came into class, worked for 5 minutes to finish up our projects and then started to present. The first group to go was the group on King James. They made a movie about a guy needing help on a Macbeth research project. He seeks help from a king he found in Burger King who retells his life story. The next group to go was witch craft. They made a power point and showed a video clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They brought up volunteers to be accused of being a witch and tried them for being witches. Most of them died. I counted two survivors out of ten. After them came husbands and wives. They too had volunteers come up and act out different types of skits. The group after them was tragic heros who also had people come up and act out a skit. We did not get through all of the of the groups so we will finish up on Monday. Over the weekend we need to read and annotate the first 3 chapters of Lord of the Flies. Also we need to blog about those chapters on the Class Blog.

First matter of the day, each student was handed an SAT vocabulary book and was told to write their names in the front cover. You are going to be required to memorize 15 words a week. Flip books to page 16. Complete lesson 1 until page 24 but do not do the writing portion. Make responses legible and neat. They are due Friday but do not take more than 15 minutes to complete. Wednesday is word day where you are quizzed on the words you learn and Fridays are the word tests. LOF annotation and blog also due Friday. All students are required to watch a video on Shakespeare as shown below the presentation notes. Take the Elizabethan presentation quiz on the computer and print it out. Sheet was passed around to sign the SAT books out. Globe Theater group came up first and presented their Prezi with small quizzes for the audience. They also asked class members to come up and give summaries of the facts they presented. Very creative presentation. Feudal System group went up and assigned every student a social position (i.e. serf, night, king). Members of the groups explained portions of their role of the social class they were assigned.

Globe Theater
• Globe theater built in 1599 with help of William Shakespeare
• Burned downed once
• No costumes and used bags of pig blood for death scenes
• Actors died/ injured in stunts
• Plays held in “Inn Yards” before theaters
• Many special effects and grand entrances
• Plays took place in afternoon and lasted around two hours
• Theaters used for many weird purposes and flags represented types of plays

The Feudal System
• King and queen pass out fifes to all nobles.
• King passed down to first born son in every generation
• Nobles gave land to nights and peasants.
• Laws restricted the wearing of certain clothes
• Clergy almost equal to nobles
• Clergy were spiritual leaders and were bonded to a church and they were much like priests.
• Knights were part of army and wore large portions of armor
• Hired by nobles for protections of land
• Serfs make up 90% of the population and were poor.
• Serfs lived poorly and farmed land for their higher ranking nobles
Discovery Video

Once again, my basic take away is BORING. So, what needs to change? I think I need to revisit the expectations and see what the kids think about the scribing. I know one student asked a follow up question about a piece of software I used in class because it wasn’t on the post- that is progress. I also had another student create his own duct tape picture version of Shakespeare to post with his entry. I know there are good parts of what we are doing, it just isn’t yet where I want them to be. How can I help them get there?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Funny Story

Today was my youngest’s, Max (formerly known as Will- but that is another whole story)- first day to ride the bus home. Max had his special name tag all filled out indicating what bus he should take home, what special animal is on that bus, and his two older siblings looking out for him. Unfortunately, none of that worked for him today. I put the wrong number bus on his nametag-apparently it was last year’s number- someone hadn’t updated the website! His brother and sister noticed his absence but only after his wrong bus had already left with him on it. Wonderful siblings that they are, they ran off their bus, found three teachers, a couple of secretaries, and an administrator who all found him. After a whirlwind adventure with the bus driver, he safely navigated his way back to his school, where I proceeded to pick him and his caring older siblings up. Although Max had an adventure, he was so scared- it was so hard to see him fighting back the tears so he wouldn’t cry in front of everyone. I can’t thank enough the people who watch over him keeping him safe: his sister and brother were ROCK STARS, his teacher was the knight in shining armor- even though she is a girl, and the secretaries were hailing the cavalry all to bring him back home safely. What would we do without you?

SV: Not another Law and Order Class

This summer I found out I was going to be teaching another section of Spelling Vocabulary, a class we offer at AHS. Rather than teaching another section of ninth grade or a section of English World Literature, I was asked to teach another section of a class that I think is pointless. It is basically a drill and kill type class that meets only on Tuesdays and Thursday for kids to “learn” SAT vocab words. We also have incorporated many of the commonly misspelled and confused words on essays (i.e. effect/affect, it’s/its).

Each set of three class periods, the students are assigned 10 SAT words, and 10 spelling words. From the list, they are to know the definition, spelling, synonyms, antonyms, and be able to use it in a sentence. After the first class of introducing the words, the kids are in-charge of the second class period. They pick groups at the beginning of the semester, and each group is assigned one set of SAT words. On their assigned review day, they create games/activities to review the words. The students created a rubric to assess their organization and teaching of the review day. To prepare the kids to teach a full class period, we spend time talking about what good teaching looks like. On the final day of the set of words, the kids review, then take the test, and then we grade them together. Each test contains multiple parts: spelling words, matching word to definition, synonym and antonym matching, fill in the blank, and finally short essay. The essay is really creative (and my favorite part) because we have them use the vocabulary words, but writing about crazy things (videos, movie posters, slideshows, songs, cartoons, etc…)

The challenging point of teaching a class like this is that many of the words are out of context. Although I like the book we use for practice, I still can’t seem to separate the feeling that the kids regurgitate these words for one test, only to be forgotten when the next week’s words roll out. How do I teach this class in a relevant and meaningful way that keeps these words ingrained in their memories?

So I began this year talking with my best buddy Kristin Leclaire about how to change my feelings about the class- she luckily, also gets to teach one section. We decided that the more creative approaches we used with the words (drawing, movement, songs, stories, etc…) the better these kids would actually know the words.

This past week, we did an exercise called Vocabulary Frames. The kids were to take each word and write it on a notecard. After the word was written down, they were to break it down. Then in the top right corner, they were to define the word. The top left corner contained the antonym of the word, and then they crossed it out. In the bottom right, they were to draw a simple picture of the word and in the bottom left, use the word in a sentence that conveys the meaning of the word. We talked in class about how useful these cards would be in reviewing for their test. They could cover up each section to review, slowly revealing each answer they need.

We have some other great ideas in store, but I am hoping to hear some more from you. What has worked well for you in your class? What are creative approaches you have to learning vocabulary? Any links you can provide would be helpful. More than anything, I can see that the more enthusiastic I am about the words the more the kids will hopefully be. If I can find a way to match my passion of technology with learning these words, the kids will be all the better for it!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Writing and Boys- The Challenge

Each year, we are asked to submit a professional growth plan that sets forth a growth objective and goal for us as individual teachers as well as identifying a way to support PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) at our school. We can select from six different areas for our goal (Instructional Planning, Instructional Delivery, Assessment of Student Learning, Management of the Learning Environment, Professional Growth, Professional Responsibility). After selecting the area, we need to state our goal, decide on the instructional strategies that will help us achieve the goal, determine how will we know if the goal has been achieved, and what assistance do we need to achieve our goal. In regards to PLCs, we need to indicate how we will directly support PLCs and what assistance do we need in that support.

After listening to our former administrator now turned classroom teacher and CSAP expert go over our CSAP scores for our 09-10 9th graders, I decided to focus my instruction this next year on boys and writing. No easy task. Our boys are significantly behind our girls and most especially in the areas of extended writing. With most boys, it seems as though as much as they dislike reading, they HATE writing. If I am going to help boys improve their writing skills, I must first change their perceptions of writing.

One way I am focusing on doing this is through writing in various forms. I have found incredible success in past years with using PLNs with my 9th graders. PLNs (Personal Learning Networks) are a way to get kids to read articles, view videos and respond to items of interest rather than the required textbook. Next week my 9th graders are setting up their PLNs for the first time. I ask the kids to read from the blogs, newspapers, and magazines we subscribe to through our Google Reader rather than doing the typical outside reading novel. After they are finished reading/ viewing their choice, they answer the question “What Matters?” In a paragraph format, they must state clearly the author, title and point of what matters from what they read. Then, they write a summary of what they read, connect their response to themselves, to their education, and to the world around them. Finally, they end the paragraph with a concluding sentence summing up their argument or point. Last year, my all boys’ class really loved these PLNs- they didn’t care for the number of them I asked them to write, but they did enjoy reading and responding to what they were digesting. They loved hearing from one another on Fridays what the presenters had read. One area I want to do a better job on is to give more detailed feedback to their PLNs to help them improve their writing rather than just assigning a grade. With more students this year, this will be a challenge. I also want to find a way to help my boys become better peer editors. I think this will aide in improving their own writing as well as the writing of their peers. On a side note, this will help me with the grading/ assessing/ feedback overload I tend to feel.

Another way I am going to focus on writing is through using blogs to share topic sentences. When each student is asked to post his/her topic sentence for the world to see, students seem to take that responsibility into account. Also, I am going to have the boys use Google Earth to share their interactions with Chris McCandless from Into the Wild and Odysseus from The Odyssey. Using the graphic of Google Earth to give a picture to their words helps the boys put down their thoughts.

I am also counting on the support of my administrators to help me look over my incoming 9th graders Assess track data to see in what areas of writing my boys most struggle. This past year we implemented a writing lab to assist our struggling writers and many of my freshmen sought out its assistance and feedback. I am hoping and encouraging the kids this year to do the same.

Combining some of the writing strategies that I have found successful in the past, along with the technologies that we use in class everyday, meeting with my students at least twice outside of class to discuss their CSAP and MAP test scores, reviewing Assess track data, writing lab, constant writing feedback and practice should make a change for the better for me as a teacher, and more importantly for my boys with their writing.

Defining Quality Work

For the past three years, I have asked my students to participate in my No D Policy. No student can earn a D in my class- this ultimately means anything at a 69% and below is a failing grade. For a large majority of my classes, this is a tremendous motivating factor to achieve. Many comment that "no one should pass with a D; a D is below average work anyway." Because of the No D policy, the students and I have agreed that they need multiple opportunities to redo their work so that they can achieve to the best of their ability. Here is the perfect example to illustrate the need to redo work:

A few years ago I had a student named Molly, who was never a successful writer in her LA classes. After working with her throughout the school year on redoing her writing assignments time and again until they were A quality work, Molly realized how much she had grown as a writer. Before she used to struggle with writing basically avoiding it until last minute. After seeing writing as a continual process through revision and feedback, she grew to like writing- not sure about loving writing. Every year she continues to improve as I have kept track of her in her other LA classes.

To me this says so much about holding kids accountable to be better than they think they can do. Teaching 9th grade, I see many kids who let themselves off the hook with poor quality work because that is all they think they can do. If we take away the possibility of "crap work" kids have to achieve. And, when we give them time to redo work, and feedback in multiple ways, they will achieve.

Along with all of this, I have the kids define what A, B, and C quality work looks like. We did this in my all boys class today. Here is their list so far:
Period 1 Quality Work Defined

A quality:
· Proofread: error free
· Exceeds expectations
· On time
· Organized
· Proper formatting
· Great effort shown
· Originality and creativity
· Neat
· Quality work
· Thinking shown-deep thoughts
· Voice is used throughout
· Flow- consistent stream of information, thoughts flow easily from one to another
B Quality:
· Above expectations
· Above average work
· Few errors
· A little late is ok
· Few organizational errors
· Mostly original ideas
· Few neatness errors
· Thinking shown in work
· Few flow problems
· Few formatting mistakes
C Quality:
· Average
· Just meets expectations
· Some errors but not enough to be distracting
· A little late
· Some organizational errors
· Some formatting errors
· Some originality
· Some neatness errors
· Some thinking shown
· Some flow problems
Unacceptable work:
Not acceptable, crap work
Last minute or extremely late
Doesn’t meet expectations
Multiple errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, flow, and neatness- so many they are distracting to reader
No originality, creativity, thinking shown

Tomorrow, we are going to go back over their list seeing if there is anything else they thought of. We will use this as a rubric to grade/assess all their class work. They created it, they know the expectations to achieve.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Literary Analysis in the 21st Century

For almost the past year, I have taught a lovely young woman in Spain named Rachel. The learning environment Rachel and I have is ideal: we meet twice a week-although it is at 4:30 am MST, class is one student to one teacher, whatever questions problems, concerns Rachel has, we can work through without having to get an administrators ok, see a counselor, etc… she simply calls/Skypes/emails and we handle it. There are considerable benefits to having a teacher all to yourself! The feedback and dialogue we are able to exchange remind me of how precious each individual moment we need to make with our students in classes of 30+. But all of that is not the reason for this post, Rachel has done something impressive I want to share with all of you.

Rachel, by her own admission, is not a big fan of writing. Writing is time consuming, often involving struggles with getting it right the first time, word choice, and questioning if this is what the teacher wants. Verbally and creatively, she can express her ideas, but holding true to traditional forms of writing often proves to be a challenge. Our classes together focused on Fiction to Film and then the recently completed Modern Political Struggles in Literature. During the time between the Fiction to Film and the political struggle unit, I wanted Rachel to read Persepolis and watch the movie. Afterwards, she was to write a literary analysis but with a twist- the essay was to be completed in graphic novel form.

I am sure there are many out there who would argue that what I am about to link to is not a literary analysis per se, but it does meet all the requirements of a literary analysis. Rachel still needed to have a strong argumentative thesis/essay, to use the texts (both novel and video) as evidence to support her essay, and even more challenging, she needed to find images to support her thoughts.

Before Rachel wrote anything, I introduced her to using Webspiration to map her graphic novel essay. What was amazing is how visually helpful this was to Rachel’s organization and thought process. After graphing out her essay, Rachel then started collecting images and text that would support her thesis.

After meeting off and on over the course of the semester reagarding this project, Rachel put it all together. Here is her finished work. I know she would love for you to comment on her accompishment.

Think about the graphic novel form in your own classes. I know one thing I am going to ask my students to do is to do graphic novel sticky notes- an idea I learned/ stole from Christian Long. Think about using images to support writing versus just text and quotes. Think about how well this works as a way to change the way we teaching writing. Think about it.

Monday, August 16, 2010


I think back to school for teachers is similar to New Year’s Resolutions for the rest of the world- it is the time to make promises, to get a fresh start, to reexamine your teaching and learning, and plot a course forward.

Each year, I ask Karl Fisch to write some goals for me; these are the ideas meant to inspire me, give me the light at the end of my tunnel, and of course, give me something to constantly think about. Some years the goals are minimal (i.e. Change the World), other years they are vast in numbers and ideas. This year, he went simple but profound:

1. Do less . . . by having your students do more. By that I mean continue to try to turn over more stuff to them.
2. Blog more. Not just because it's good for you (although it is). Not just because it's good for teachers elsewhere that read you (although it is). But because it's good for your students. Not only will it improve your practice, but you'll be modeling for them what a thoughtful, reflective learner looks like. Be the PLN. Just do it.
3. Do one thing. I don't know what it is, but pick one really important thing and focus in on it all semester or year. What's one thing that will really impact your students and your teaching? Find it, and focus.

Number 1-do less. I am all for doing less and shifting (that shifts for you, Karl) the ownership of learning onto my students. One thing I wish I did a better job of last year was helping my all boys class become better peer editors. With increasing class sizes, this will be a good life long skill for them to add to their arsenal but also assist me in providing relevant and immediate feedback to one another. I am going to also blog later about redoing Spelling and Vocab, but I need to find a way for kids to do more with words- to own the words not simply memorize the words.

Number 2-Blog- This is one goal I am not just holding myself to. One of my deskmates, Lauren Lee, has started a new blog and a new focus on us blogging regularly (blogging is much more fun with a partner). And she asked if I would do this with her. I was thinking about blogging regularly with my students. Since I ask them to be part of the network, I think this is something I should commit to as well. I already have three posts in my head I want to get out, and hopefully they will keep coming. I encourage you to follow Lauren as well.

Number 3-Do one thing-this one is easy and NOT, all at the same time. This year, I really want to focus on learning differently with my students. I want to help them develop a mindset that there is not one way to solve the problem, complete the project, write the essay, or take notes. I want there to be a multitude of ways for them to demonstrate their learning and understanding. I also want to focus on writing-A LOT. I want my boys to be better writers, and to realize that writing is a good thing (thanks Martha Stewart). In this life, you need to know how to write, and more importantly, how to write/ communicate effectively. I want to move away from the standardized practice of the 5 paragraph essay, and have them write in a wide variety of forms- movie scripts, cartoons, editorials, memoirs, etc… Any interesting writing ideas that you come across, please pass my way. I plan on meeting with them individually to assess their writing and work on their writing throughout the semester. But Karl- that is my one thing!

So here it is, another school year, another set of goals, but a new chance to start fresh, to change lives, and to change the world.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Have you tried these tools?

Last weekend, I attended Learning2.0 up in Loveland and heard Amy White talk about some tools she uses in her classrom. I showed these to my students as soon as I got bakc Monday morning. They wanted the tools to all be in one place so they could come back and find them. SO... resource of things that help with web 2.0 applications (go look at the e-learning tab) -Marilyn Western’s Technology Tips for Classroom Teachers presentation and summarization of reading make a video from images- (every time you create something, you get points)-create own people and scenes; more time consuming than Xtranormal. going beyond Powerpoint –show relationships between three ideas/symbols/pictures Kaleidocycle
make your own photo collage –create posters
create posters with photos post reading of novel.


PowerPoint- illuminated texts- animate words to come alive with words or phrases in text
Great idea for poetry!Select text and animate text using animate feature

Garage Band-podcasting and music –could use for interviews (Audacity and Finale Notepad)
(Create a song for the character in the novel- make sure to couple this with narrative and reflection about creating piece)

iMovie- digital storytelling instead of personal narrative (Photostory? Moviemaker)
make the example with video, stills, and voiceover so kids can see all those elements