Category: Reflections

They Remember Who We Are: The Immense Impact of the Individual Classroom Teacher

At the end of this summer, I proudly completed my Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In the culminating weeks of my coursework, I wrote an in-depth literature review on the topic of character education. I was exploring several questions; most prominently, I was seeking a way to sort through the broad spectrum of existing programs, strategies, and beliefs about how schools teach our students to become good citizens in addition to becoming savvy scholars. What strategies are effective? How is that effectiveness measured? How does the complicated history of character education inform our present? Does developing character translate to academic achievement?

As you might imagine, the deeper I dug into those questions, the more complex and conflicting my findings became. On one particular afternoon, feeling overwhelmed at the process of synthesizing and interpreting the research I had read, I resorted to wandering around Golda Meir library. I had this strong sense that, if only I could find the perfect spot in the meandering depths of the stacks, inspiration would flood me and all my struggles would dissipate. Weirdly enough, it happened. It all started with this:

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I moved to a desk below an unassuming plaque mounted to the brick. It’s you and me, Walter Hewitt Cheever, I thought, plunking my bag down on the chair. I started to read the information below the name, and there it was:

Inspirer of high ideals. Molder of character. Teacher and friend.

We loved him.

Walter Hewitt Cheever, whoever he was, taught at UWM from age 38 until his death nearly three decades later. He “served faithfully.” My grandfather wasn’t even born yet when Cheever died, but yet here was I, a teacher from 2016, finishing up my master’s degree in the company of his modest little memorial. What struck me was that nothing of Cheever’s academic discipline or scholarship was mentioned. I don’t know what his subject matter of expertise was, what he published, or what content his students learned. Tears, out of nowhere, started to push at my eyelids as I read the epitaph over again. Love. Ideals. Character. These are the words that Cheever’s students and colleagues decided to put on his plaque, way back at the beginning of the Roaring 20’s. And oddly enough, the story of this piece of metal in the odd corner of the university library mirrors what, to me, were the most fascinating aspects of my research on character education.

On that day and those that followed, I started to articulate, in writing, everything that I learned about the ways that schools attempt to teach students about things like kindness, leadership, and responsibility. Part of it breaks down to this: the individual classroom teacher has a bigger impact than nearly any other school-based factor–not just on learning, but on the people our students grow up to be.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

*In 2003, Williams, et.al interviewed students about their feelings regarding a newly implemented character education program at their schools. The responses that the researchers got, however, had little to do with the actual curriculum that the program used. Instead, individual teachers’ behavior and attitudes were consistently mentioned. The questions were about the program, but the answers were about the teachers as role models.

*Also in 2003, another researcher named Richard Weissbourd found that even when schools have been massively restructured in policy or curriculum, students remained largely oblivious to the changes; yet, when questioned about their feelings regarding new initiatives, they typically responded with observations about a specific teacher’s actions or lessons. Again, we see that students interpret individual teachers’ behavior and messages as the voice of their school’s character mission. This puts a lot of moral responsibility on teachers’ shoulders! Weissbourd acknowledged that a special support and training of teachers is needed in order to help character education work: “Schools can best support students’ moral development by helping teachers manage the stresses of their profession and by increasing teachers’ capacity for reflection and empathy” (p. 6).

*Especially for students who may not have a home life that provides safety and empathy, the environments of their classrooms can make a profound difference in academic success as well as social, emotional, and ethical development (Schaps, 2005).

*While mission statements and stated values may create a formal message about the school’s environment, students are keenly aware of the implicit messages about values that they receive via their daily interactions at school. The positive quality of students’ relationships with teachers dramatically affects their receptiveness to character education (Berkowitz and Bier, 2004).

In today’s educational environment, the collection and interpretation of academic proficiency data is highly prioritized. But there’s a huge part of teaching that isn’t addressed in that sphere. Parents, teachers, administrators, and community stakeholders also care deeply about helping to raise students who can connect with and care for one another. A teacher’s work goes beyond teaching content. In their own classrooms every day, teachers directly impact a student’s potential to flourish, empathize, collaborate, create, and lead. 

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I’ve begun my school year reflecting on these things and thinking back to Walter Hewitt Cheever’s memorial plaque. It’s humbling to think that, especially as the years pass, students may remember relatively little of what we teach, and relatively much more about the kind of people we seem to be in the classroom. To help remind myself of this, I’ve framed my classroom expectations within four core values: bravery, compassion, dedication, and joy–these are ways of thinking and being that have helped me prosper as a person, as a student, and as a teacher. Throughout the year, when I can, I’m going to connect these values to what we do in class. (Bravery and public speaking, dedication and research writing…) It’s my way of purposefully honoring the seamless relationship between building young scholars and guiding young citizens. If they’re watching and listening that closely, I want to make sure that I share something of value when it comes to the things that we fall back on when mere knowledge won’t suffice.

The next time you feel like maybe what you do in the classroom doesn’t matter, think of Cheever. Inspirer of high ideals. Molder of character. Teacher and friend. We loved him.

 

 

References

Berkowitz, M. W., & Bier, M. C. (2004). Research-based character education. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 72-85.

Schaps, E. (2005). The role of supportive school environments in promoting academic success. In T. Hansen, H. Knoff, C. Muller & E. Schaps (Eds.), Getting results: Developing safe and healthy kids, update 5 (p. 37). Sacramento: California Department of Education.

Weissbourd, R. (2003). Moral teachers, moral students. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 6.

Williams, D. D., Yanchar, S. C., Jensen, L. C., & Lewis, C. (2003). Character education in a public high school: A multi-year inquiry into Unified Studies. Journal of Moral Education, 32(1), 3-33.

 

Back to School Feels Like This

I was doing some professional reading recently, and was struck by a quote from D. Jean Clandinin in an 1989 article, entitled “Developing Rhythm in Teaching: The Narrative Study of a Beginning Teacher’s Personal and Practical Knowledge of Classrooms.” Here’s the quote:

“The cyclical organization of time is a particularly striking feature of the professional context of teaching. […] In our work with experienced teachers, these cycles are experienced not merely as objectively imposed cycles but as having meaning; that is, they are experienced rhythmically. In the narrative of experienced teachers, there is an annual reconstruction of experience and it is through this cyclic repetition of school life that teachers come to “know” their classrooms rhythmically” (123). 

We find ourselves here again, at the beginning of another school year cycle. What Clandinin says is true: the longer you teach, the more fundamentally and personally you experience the cycle of teaching as a natural ebb and flow marked by long slow climbs, determined momentum gathering, and frantic happy bursts. It’s a special type of rhythmic understanding that only teachers have.

Everyone who has school age children (and everyone working in big box store retail) knows that it’s Back to School time. That’s as clear as the calendar. But what does Back to School feel like for educators, as we stand, ready to hurtle into the orbit of another new teaching cycle? I’ve heard it jokingly described as “one long Sunday night,” but that’s not quite it. At least, that’s not the rhythm that beats for me.

The end of August is like waking from a sound sleep, still dreaming, but with eyes slowly registering the sight of the sun rising. It’s a charged stillness. Colored paper signs and decorations on the classroom wall flutter, almost imperceptibly, in the quiet humid air of the empty school. Waiting. It’s imaginings of raised hands and the knowledge that sometimes there will be dull headaches that will be instantaneously forgotten when a student approaches the desk asking, “Can I talk to you?” It’s planning out particular blends of tea you will drink at your desk while you read and hold the words of the young, struggling, and bold.

It’s being in the wise company of other teachers, just before the voices in the halls return. It’s the sweet final feel of summer sun on shoulders, running in 5K races and screaming with joy at each other to sprint faster to the finish line. It’s notes of support and love for the teachers who start early, laughing at the familiar stories of negotiating new spaces and new young brains. It’s cardamom zucchini bread and the quiet laughter of Christmas lights misplaced on a foggy lakefront porch, sharing questions and knowings in bare feet. It’s iced chai-fueled conference session planning. It’s eye on the horizon, greeting tanned colleagues with nod and knowing look. It’s being convinced that you are now, suddenly, working harder than you ever have in your life.

It’s saying, “I’m back.”

It’s “This is what I do.”

It’s “Here we go.”

 

It’s newness.

 

Happy BTS14, everyone. Make it your best.

No Year Like a First Year

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Some years come with more of a sense of renewal and ceremony than others, and this past year was a big one for me.

The end of my first year at PWHS actually begins with a look back to my previous teaching position at SFHS. I was honored to be an invitee once again to the Top Ten celebration at Sheboygan Falls, where high achieving students speak about their most influential teachers. (You may remember my posts about the memorable students who invited me last year and the year before that.) This was a really special occasion, since I got to catch up with a brilliant former student and his family. This particular student was one whom I continued to support this year in his college recommendations, and the one who helped me start Shakespeare Club last year. The degree to which this kid understands me was evident from his send off gift–the collection of sharks and flowers that you see in the collage above. I was truly touched by his speech (you can read it here), which reminded me that sometimes the students who are most impacted by an English teacher are the ones who come into their English class dead set against it. This particular student was captured not at first by my love of literature, but by my strange infatuation with sharks and satirical running commentary. This same young man informed me that one of his most recent purchases included Plato’s The Republic. For this reason, ladies and gentlemen, I say, “Whatever it takes,” with a smile of pride and confidence in this young man’s bright future, not only as an engineer-to-be, but as a lifelong reader and writer.

Thinking back to my three years at SFHS and the relationships that I was able to build with students and colleagues make me all the more excited for the years ahead at Port Washington High School. I’ve already started to build some bonds (and the ever-important sense of lore) with many students. I’m particularly grateful to my photography students, for supporting me in my interim art teaching apprenticeship, as we made new discoveries in the darkroom together. One of my students was sweet enough to give me the vintage camera that you see above, a spectacular Kodak Pony 135 from the 1950’s, as a thank you gift, accompanied by an earnest hug. My AP Literature and Composition students were also excited, eager participants in the journey of my first year in the community, willing to come along with whatever difficult or strange approach I devised to engage them in English canonical and contemporary works. Every time I pushed them in their writing skills, they adapted, relishing the work of getting better, sharper, and more precise. My Communications III students, by contrast, were not a highly literary bunch. But one of my favorite moments of the year came when a rough-around-the-edges junior, wearing a size large hunting jacket, turned to me and said, “Ms. H., I really think I’ve gotten better at writing this year. It’s weird, but… I kinda like it now.”

I am thankful to the members of my department who welcomed me with friendship and support. They made it easy to transition and call a new high school “home.”

As I look forward to next year, I’m filled with excitement as I think about building the AP Literature and Composition program even more, forming new bonds with students, and spreading my appreciation both of literature and of sharks to more and more young people.

This is what I adore about teaching:

Every year is a new year.

Every year, I get a chance to be better.

Every year, I get a chance to make a student’s life different than it was before, and to inject their day with a bit of humor, challenge, intellectualism, and a true love for what I do.

Happy summer to all.

 

 

P.s. I made the little photo collage that accompanies this post using PicMonkey.com , which is a free, easy way to make cool picture compilations in seconds! Useful teaching resource for projects and presentations!

 

 

 

The War Against Time: Teaching Well Without Bringing Work Home

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When I started my teaching career, I worked like an absolute fiend. I would get to school an hour early, stay an hour past the last bell, go home, eat, and keep working from 6:30pm to 10:00pm. I would also reserve eight hours every Saturday for grading. While I loved teaching, a desperate panic would often set in as I looked, utterly overwhelmed, at the pile of work to be done that just never seemed to go away. I didn’t see how it was possible to sustain this level of dedication for a whole career. I remember other teachers at my first job telling me, “Don’t take work home–you need time for yourself, too.” I remember thinking “How? I have to design three brand new lessons every night, create materials, find resources, read and give feedback on my students’ multi-page essays… There’s NO WAY I can do my job without taking work home.” I remember asking my district mentor to level with me. “Honestly,” I asked her, “is it even possible for an English teacher to do her job well without taking work home? Will I ever get there?” She smiled knowingly and admitted that she, as a very experienced educator, still spent weekend time grading, but she did dangle a purportedly real-world example of what would become the (seemingly unachievable) goal that I would strive for over the next five years–a colleague of hers who taught English full time, and never did a single moment of work outside of school. “He never stops moving,” she said, “He’s never without his stack of grading or his laptop… But when he leaves for the day, he’s done.” I knew that I needed to get there if I was going to be happy as a teacher. I needed to never stop moving.

Fast forward to this, my fifth year teaching. This year has been the first in which I have actually succeeded–I simply do not do work outside of work. It is my hope that sharing some of my time management strategies can help others who want to make more time for their waking lives to harmonize with–rather than be crushed beneath–their teaching careers. As a result, it is my strong belief that we become better teachers.

A Quick Disclaimer: I have a beautiful career situation that sets me up for success.  I can devote more time to actually doing my job because my commute is all of five minutes. (For two years of my teaching career, I had an hour commute; nobody appreciates a short commute more than I.) Also, my school gives its teachers both a period for prep as well as a period reserved for department collaboration every day–this saves time for all of us to be on the same page and work on projects together as a team while at school. The biggest deal? My class sizes never get much higher than 25. As someone who started her career with classes of 35+, this also plays a huge role in my ability to manage time. (I also do not have children at home, which I’m sure contributes to a nice reserve of mental energy that those who do have kids cannot always count on!) Without all of these perks, I would never be able to handle a schedule of four different courses in five sections without bringing work home.

How Is This Accomplished?

Use the internet to do your lesson planning. My life has gotten so much easier since I took my lesson planning online. For the past two years, I’ve been posting each of my lessons daily on my class websites. Each post includes learning targets, a narrative of the class agenda, and links to all materials (videos, documents, links) that students need to complete the lesson. This helps me blend several tasks into one. What used to be writing out notes to myself, making copies, designing instructional materials, and writing out directions on the board is now one simple step. It also keeps everything organized by date and time, and negates the need to hunt down work for students who were absent. And revising posts from year to year becomes unbelievably simple. No more looking through clunky binders… CTRL + F, and you’ve got exactly what you need in a matter of seconds. Also, I can work on my lesson posts from anywhere, anytime. Thanks, Internet!

Build on previous material. One of the biggest reasons that I was not able to get away from doing work at home early in my career was that I wrote all my own curricular material rather than working from a textbook. Every single school night, I was designing or compiling several somethings for my classes–maybe writing a skit that transformed two chapters of Pride and Prejudice into modern language, creating a “How to write an annotated bibliography” guide, and inventing a grammar review game. ALL IN ONE NIGHT! EVERY NIGHT! FYI: This is insane, and should probably not be attempted, but it is how I operated for the first three years. And it has worked to my benefit over time. I have thousands of pages of curricular material that I’ve written, which creates a library that I can draw from to modify and reuse. I also keep my entire collection of material online using Dropbox and/or Google Docs, so it is instantaneously accessible, searchable, and linkable. If you made it, use it. Revise and recycle successful activities.

Be smart with assessment. Not every assignment needs to have a unique point value. All of my daily assignments are worth 5 points, and I grade them on a formative scale. I try to remember that little daily practice writings are practices. Kids need to know what level of understanding they are reaching. They do not need me to make it worth twelve points and write down three sentences that explain each point that I’ve taken off. This helps grading go by quickly. Is the skill demonstrated perfectly, fairly, not quite, barely, or not at all? This is a question that I can discern and mark extremely quickly. I also do a lot of what I call “live grading,” where I literally record the grade for the assignment as a student is presenting it or as I am walking around the room during student work time. I don’t need to collect things in a pile if I just walked up to a kid’s desk, read it, and gave him verbal feedback that he immediately applied–so I collect as little actual work as possible. I save lengthy written feedback for major assignments, and these I collect in shared Google Docs folders that are organized by my students’ last names. This way, I can type my feedback (SO much faster than handwriting), and I don’t have to sort anything as I transcribe scores into my online gradebook. Students also receive their feedback the instant that I write it.

My formative assessment scale, used for all small assignments. (Point values are 5, 4, 3, 2 out of 5, respectively)
My formative assessment scale, used for all small assignments. (Point values are 5, 4, 3, 2 out of 5, respectively)

Never stop moving. Every minute of time is precious. I know you want to spend the first five minutes of your prep staring at the wall being overwhelmed. I have been there, my friend. But seriously, bring your laptop or notebook or whatever you are using to plan lessons or assess student work wherever you go. Those ten minutes waiting for a staff meeting to begin are useable minutes. The five minutes you’ve given students to silently read an article at the start of class are usable minutes. The twenty minutes that your students are taking to work with a guidance counselor to enroll for classes are usable minutes. I try to keep my focus and drive razor sharp throughout the school day (with the exception of lunch, which should be a mental break). The incentive of not doing work at home helps me keep checking things off of my list rapidly.

Don’t leave the building until you’re done. Since I’ve vowed to do no work at home, I sometimes stay in the building late. But I tell myself that I can’t leave until I’m completely prepared for everything the next day. And I stick to it. If I have to stay until 4:30pm or even 5pm once in a week, it is still absolutely worth the mental freedom of knowing that the moment I get into my car to go home, the rest of the night is always my own time.

Sometimes, you might still take work home. But schedule and adhere to it like a mandatory work commitment. There is one exception to this rule for me, and it’s grading formal essays for my AP Literature and Composition classes. This takes quite a bit of time, because the writing is longer, more complex, and the feedback that I need to give has to move students into a college level of insight and argumentation. Every three weeks or so, I need to schedule extra time to grade these–I usually need about seven hours to accomplish this for my 31 AP students. So I schedule my “work day” on a Saturday. If possible, I do it outside my home, which is supposed to be a relaxing, work-free space. But I go hard and do it all in a row. Because the sooner I have fulfilled my responsibilities to my students, the sooner I can get back to spending time with people I love and freeing my mind up so that I can get to school fresh, excited, and positive on Monday. 🙂

Essentially, I just want others out there to know that it can be done. But it doesn’t happen overnight. My second year of teaching, I actually felt irresponsible for making 9:30pm my “cut-off” point for work, but I had to do it for my own sanity. My third year, I made the cut-off 7:30pm. My fourth year, I added on a “no work on weekends” rule in addition to a 6pm cut-off on weeknights. And now I’m here. I’m living proof that it can be done, without sacrificing doing an excellent job for your students. Challenge yourself to work better, not longer!

Becoming a Hometown Teacher: “The truth is… I am Ironman.”

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 If you’ve seen the movie Ironman (2008)you’ve already probably got the reference–after becoming an improbable, impossibly cool superhero who saves humanity in spite of himself, the multimillionaire Tony Stark is required to deny any allegations of being the-man-behind-the-suit at a packed press conference. He is expected to preserve his personal identity and slink quietly away with his secret, as we’ve seen Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent do time and time again. But, at the last moment of the film, Tony decides to do things his own way. As cameras flash and he starts with “The truth is…” Tony pauses thoughtfully. Then, he throws a curveball that flouts every superhero’s most sacred rule. He just goes ahead and says it:

“I am Ironman.”  And fin.

That line is the perfect punctuation to a film that is masterful in many ways, principally as a character study of Tony “Ironman” Stark. It’s also the line that I’ve started to use as a metaphor for my new role as a teacher in the Communications department at the local high school in the community where I live.

For my whole teaching career thus far, I’ve been more or less harboring a secret identity. Long commutes drew very clear boundaries of space between work and home. Especially in my first couple years of teaching, I found a sense of safety in the fact that my teacher self was completely separated from my “mild alter ego.” As a beginning teacher, the sheer effort of creating and maintaining the role of in-control, assertive expert from 8am to 4pm was exhausting. There was a heavy aspect of performance to my hours in the classroom, where I was still doing the interior work of convincing myself that I could handle the authority I’d been given. I was trying on the suit, as it were. I, like Ironman, accomplished things both heroic and occasionally haphazard. But I was very content to leave the mask at work, whether the day’s outcome had been good or bad. I could always escape to a place where nobody knew me as Ms. H.

Around my third year of teaching, I started becoming much more confident and comfortable in the classroom. My teacher identity had become less and less of a disguise, and more of a natural extension of who I was. Just as Tony Stark tinkers with his suit in his basement lab, I was constantly modifying my mannerisms to more exactly reflect the kind of teacher that I found myself becoming. My classroom demeanor, still assertive, became more organic and playful while remaining smart. I grew immensely in confidence and professionalism, and not just during teaching hours. Before I knew it, I started to actually wish for a teaching situation where I was no longer an import. I wanted to know the impact of being an active part of the community where I taught. My flight patterns were becoming more complex and reliable, and I felt ready to take credit for them.

Here, at the cusp of my fifth year, this wish has been granted as I try out, for the first time, living and working in the same community. I will see my students at the grocery store, the gas station, and at the Memorial Day parade. I will have colleagues and parents living just a few doors down. I will wave at familiar faces when I go out exercising. Most of all, I will do what I do best as a teacher of reading, writing, and thinking–I’m here, and I’m excited about it.  I’m ready to let the full gamut of my reputation as a teacher flow into my “real” life. I get to be a leader in my own city, and impact it positively and visibly. I get to share a sense of community with my students.

And, anyway, like Tony Stark, I’m ready to own up:

I am Ironman.

Writing = Community

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We’ve reached the final day of the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project 2013 summer institute. Being a leader in this community has been so positive for me, and it’s work very worth doing. The more I am involved with people associated with the National Writing Project, the more I want to meet every single one of them. The experience of growing together as creative and professional writers, and of grappling together with the big questions surrounding the teaching of writing in our schools is one that engenders a highly satisfying mix of professional work and personal closeness. It’s a phenomenon I’ve experienced many times in my life… those that share and develop their writing together form strong, trusting, personal connections.

As a facilitator, I enjoyed mentoring fellow educators through the inquiry and presentation process. Leading a writing critique group was also a natural, fulfilling role for me. But I was also learning from my colleagues as much as I was mentoring them. As I reflect on the most thought-provoking presentations, I found that my biggest takeaway from the summer was a re-affirmation of this fact: Writing cannot be separated from community. Writing fosters community, and strong communities support the development of successful writers in turn.

Mrs. S’s presentation on the implementation of writing circles in the classroom (after James Vopat) reminded me anew that providing a safe and smart classroom community where student writers are expected to share, connect, and uphold one another will help young writers flourish and take ownership in their work. In combination with strong teacher leadership and modelling, students will develop immensely as writers because of the daily supportive community provided by their writing partners.

Ms. C’s work was oriented around the idea of using writing as social action (guided by Randy and Catherine Bomer). Listening to her work, I was refreshed in my goal of making writing authentic, purposeful, and immediately useful in my classes. In order to see the change we want in our local communities, we need to take action. When students discover the power that comes with an ability to write in diverse genres with a strong sense of purpose/audience/tone, they unlock their ability to create change in the community where they live. It is our social responsibility as educators to train our students in this regard. Young people need to have the experience of composing for a cause, of using writing to solve problems, forward new ideas, and articulate what is important to them here and now. Writing for an authentic audience to create social change empowers youth in our local communities and sets them up for a lifetime of responsible citizenship.

Mrs. R’s research took the picture even bigger as she discussed the use of fulcrum and texture texts to forward students’ writing skill (as recommended by Sarah Brown Wessling) in conjunction with their sense of cultural understanding and global citizenship. This presentation made me think hard about the connection between literature and empathy. Students who use texts from many varied perspectives surrounding a place, time, or culture will in turn create work that reflects a fuller, more nuanced understanding of the world in comparison to those who process informational text alone. Asking students to create and consider texts of many different textures–both fictional and non-fictional–helps them avoid the “danger of the single story,” as Chimimanda Adichie calls it. In other words, it allows them to step into the lives of others as global citizens, able to relate compassionately to voices outside their own. Writing requires the forward-imagining of the various reactions, thoughts, and experiences of others, and positions the author’s identity in relation to the world around them. When students understand that, they grow to comprehend and respect the richness of voices that contribute to the chorus of the collective human experience.

Thank you, UW-Milwaukee Writing Project participants, for your work in bettering the teaching of writing in Wisconsin, and for the reminder that without strong writers, strong communities cannot exist. Whether in our classroom, our towns, or our world, the power of writing is the key to learning and progress.

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Digital Storytelling around the Media Campfire

We’re almost through with week one of the Writing Project summer institute, and I am once again amazed at the knowledge base and cumulative creative power of all our participants and leaders. On Wednesday, we had a Digital Storytelling Workshop day led by educator and Minnesota Writing Project site leader Candance Doerr-Stevens. (Follow her on Twitter @digflicks). She has also made the slides from her presentation public: see them here! There are wonderful bits of research, pedagogical processes, and example digital stories to be found.

Candance’s infectious energy made the entire day go by in what seemed like a flash. As we learned about the applications for digital storytelling in the classroom and crafted a video piece of our own, I found myself thinking about how participating in the creation of stories through the form of online content is so much more than just “playing on the computer.” It’s taking part in the new, digital tradition of storytelling. Our inner thoughts, emotions surrounding ideas, creative imaginings–in the old tradition, it was rare that these elements of story would ever leave our own homes. Scrawled words seldom traveled beyond a pile of closeted notebooks. Images filled dusty shoeboxes or albums on the bookshelf. But this new digital storytelling makes the world our family room, and we are able to turn our words inside out to craft messages that reach other people around the world. The post-millennium era is often criticized for alienating us from one another as we all stare at our smartphones, but I’d argue that the internet is actually making us into a global family at a crowded, ongoing reunion… We are all out here online together, and it’s easier than ever to share stories instantaneously over space and time. Just as occurs during family reunions, sometimes harsh words are uttered, and sometimes people share a little too much personal information. But often, there is also the bearing of truth, the sharing of support, and the chance for meaningful conversation. Teachers need to be able to help their students be a good family, and part of that is knowing how to pass a good story around–to use Gloria Steinem’s term–the “new campfire” of media. The internet is the new family room, and young people who can wield the power of sound, image, and words to tell stories worth telling are those who will shape and inherit our culture. We just have to look and listen.

See the digital story I created during the workshop below! I used Windows Live Movie Maker to create my video. Both this program and iMovie come standard on Windows PCs and Macs respectively, and are easy to learn and use. If you haven’t ever dabbled in them, now is the time! The only way to learn is to do… I found, edited, and repurposed images and sound to create a new product, with credit to the original authors at the end of the video. As the purpose of this work is solely for personal expression and as an educational example, it is protected under fair use.

 

Top Ten, the Sequel

A year ago, I wrote a post about attending the Top Ten banquet at my school for the first time. The event is organized at the end of each year to give the top ten academically ranked students a chance to gather along with their parents and the school administrators to pay tribute to their chosen most influential teachers. I was lucky enough to be invited back this year, as the guest of a student that I’ve worked with over the past three years in English 10, AP Literature and Composition, and on the school newspaper editorial staff. Here we are in all our plaque-holding smileyness:

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The Top Ten banquet was the perfect special event to mark the end of my time at my current school. Seeing students taking an evening to honor their teachers is always touching and gratifying, but in many ways this year meant so much more to me than the last. Seeing the young people who were my very first batch of sophomores during my first year at SFHS grow up and graduate has given me a taste of what it’s like to become a veteran teacher–one whom students know, trust, and come to for guidance each and every year of their high school career. Seeing this particular young man and his classmates come of age is sparking in me the first inklings of that classic realization which we all understand more the older we get: time is moving very, very quickly. And the time that we share with students in our classrooms can be quite a small space afforded to make a lifetime of impact.

As I listened to my student give me the best tribute speech ever, I got a little teary-eyed. The emotional weight of being handed that wondrous “you meant something to my life” type of recognition is overwhelming, especially when it brings into clear focus how much time, care, work, and trust we’ve  invested, hoping that our teaching will have lasting meaning. I think most teachers, from time to time, secretly dread that… maybe no good has actually been done. Maybe no matter what we do, our students will become who they will become and we’re just here to watch over them for a while. Maybe they won’t retain a dang thing I worked so hard to get across to their young, distracted minds. I know I’ve felt that way on my bad days. But then you have moments like this, where a kid who cares about you stands up and says, Hey. You made me see things I couldn’t see. You helped me learn what I am capable of. You’ve made me want to be better. I wouldn’t be who I am without you, and I will not forget it.  And when that happens, you remember all kinds of things about why you chose this career in the first place.

Endless thanks to all my SF kids for being my shipmates on this six-semester voyage. I won’t forget you, either. 

The Last Three Years: What makes a great teaching team?

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Most teachers find themselves at a crossroads or two, as careers reach transitional points and the best teaching “home” turns up in a new place. I now find myself at such a crossroads for the second time in my career, as I prepare to leave my current placement, which I’ve held for three years, to pursue a new position in the Communications department at Port Washington High School. This fills me with excitement and zeal for discovery as I look forward to connecting with new students, advancing my career, and learning new things from colleagues with vast experience and wisdom to share. Still, while packing up my classroom this weekend, I realized how difficult it will be for me to face this final week of teaching at Sheboygan Falls High.

The experience of teaching at SFHS gave me so much that one might think it would be difficult to pinpoint just one particular thing that made three years’ worth of plans, projects, presentations, performances, professional development, and pedagogy memorable. But it’s not. All alliteration aside, when I think about the last three years, it’s the people that will keep this chapter of my career ingrained in my heart. Specifically, the people in my department. As we all move on to shift our teaching directions in big and small ways next year, I know that I need to thank the stars that I somehow landed in such an amazing team. So, I’ve decided, as my tribute to these many days spent teaching together, I’d write my thank you in the form of a list: Things that Make a Great Teaching Team. This, of course, comes with the implication that I could not have learned these things without working alongside my outstanding team, lovingly and forever known as “the superdepartment.”

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Things that Make a Great Teaching Team

Laughter: Teachers who work together with positivity are able to find humor in all situations–to ease frustration, to find a way through befuddlement, to celebrate success, to delight in the work of teaching.

Expertise: A fantastic team is made up of wickedly smart teachers, who have measured expertise in specific content/pedagogical areas. The members of the team know each other’s strengths, and put each other in the position to share, develop, and actively use their specialized outstanding knowledge and abilities.

Drive: The team is comprised of people who have a strong desire to work together in order to make each day better and more successful for students. They simply don’t ever stop creating, reading, questioning, revising, experimenting, and collaborating.

Communication: Effective team members trust one another, and are clear about what they are thinking, needing, and doing. They ask questions, challenge one another when appropriate, and relate to and support each other openly. They build lessons, curriculum, and initiatives together, working in person and online as a group.

Risk-Taking: An outstanding team is not afraid of doing things that have never been done before. In fact, when convinced of positive potential, they actively pursue it. They welcome challenge, ambitious projects, and new approaches. They know that as a team, their risk-taking will result in new knowledge and breakthroughs.

Compassion: A truly cohesive team cares for one another and their students unconditionally. A warm, receptive, caring attitude towards every team member is something that can be counted on at all times.

Purpose: Team members are able to develop and define their mission(s) for the year. This mission unites the team as each teacher does what he or she can to make progress toward the team goals, with the knowledge that results will be seen. A sense of purpose pervades the cohort and inspires them to work for results.

 

Thanks for a great ride, guys. This has been three years well spent. 🙂

Senior Showcase 1.0

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Earlier this month, Ms. J and I celebrated our first year of project-based English 12 along with our students at the 2013 Senior Showcase, an ambitious evening community event where our students could display their final projects and talk about their research experience with family, teachers, peers, and other visitors.

We had an amazing array of student projects spread across the campus, both inside and outside the school, involving students with vehicles, animals, blogs, websites, games, demonstrations, performances, service experiences, galleries, publications, policies, business plans, original music, machines, documentaries, designs, tutorials, interviews, recipes, charts, kits, excursions, experiments and more.

I was very proud to see the passion and purpose that so many students invested in their products. For many, it was a way to challenge themselves and grow into professionals in an unprecedented way. While watching my students interact with adults at the showcase, I saw the adult in them emerge. Everything from the heels and ties to the small, adultlike mannerisms in fingers and eyebrows suddenly jolted me and made me realize that these kids–sophomores in my classroom just two years ago–have arrived and are ready for the world beyond high school. At the heart of it, that was the purpose of this course: preparing students in a better way for real world success. The showcase event was a wonderful way for the students to also see each other in that capacity–as capable, mature, ingenious new adults.

For others attempting a large-scale project based class, here are some of the logistics, challenges, and results of the process of bringing the showcase to life:

Steps we Took to Make the Showcase Happen

*Discussed/approved evening event date with school board back in August

*Created postcard advertisements/invitations based on a student-created brand

*Sent invitations to school faculty, student mentors, and prominent community members

*Surveyed students about needs for space, tables, technology, and other special needs

*Reserved all building facilities, including outdoor space, select classrooms, library, and auditorium

*Created a program, organized by project field of study, that listed the title of each project along with its author

*Created a map of student tables that took student needs (such as electrical outlets) into consideration

*Worked with students on communication skills, documentation, and reflection

*Set up event with tables, chairs, snacks for guests, programs, etc.

*Requested feedback from visitors

Challenges and Revisions

For some reason (overconfidence?), Ms. J and I felt that we could plan, organize, and facilitate this whole event between just the two of us (with some very generous help from our maintenance department and our director of instruction, Ms. L). While we did manage to pull it off, the next time I attempt something like this, I see a lot of value to creating an event planning team of students, who could help with the organization, facilitation, and cleanup for the night. Extra hands and minds would have given the students even more ownership of the event as well as made the workload less daunting on us. While I did get to spend a portion of the two hour event visiting student tables, I spent equal amounts of time fetching extension cords, rearranging stations, replenishing refreshments, monitoring technology usage, and helping students troubleshoot. A student event team would’ve helped ease the adrenaline-fueled on-the-spot managing that took time away from welcoming guests and observing students.

We also found that we needed better publicity before and during the event to attract guests in general and to draw visitors into the classrooms of the school. Most visitors circled the large-traffic areas such as the cafeteria, but many of them weren’t aware of some very cool classroom and outdoor sessions in other areas. I’d like to see students more actively inviting guests and promoting their participation in the evening in the weeks preceding, and creating better signage on the night-of to draw more guests to more sessions. Since this was our first attempt, we were unsure of what the turnout would look like. While we did have a significant amount of visitors, I think that the more people that can see positive things happening in their community high school, the better!

What We Did Right

The strength of an experience like this is that the students feel that they have done something real. One of the most meaningful pieces of feedback that I heard from visitors was the approval of these kids not only having done some impressive work, but in many cases work that is a contribution toward a specific need in a community or field of study. The experience of designing solutions and innovations created an authentic experience and audience that students just can’t get while working out of a literature textbook. Students were able to take ownership of their own learning and got recognized by real professionals for it.

Another thing that was very successful was equipping our students with knowledge of how to use Google sites and Google calendar to chronicle their experiences. Each student was responsible for–in addition to their project work–maintaining a website with an “About Me” page, the text of their research paper, a project proposal, a project log where they documented their progress with artifacts, a final project page featuring image/video/files of their product, and a reflection where they had the chance to explain how they felt they met the six core competencies of the project design experience (independence, design thinking, professional communication, innovation, self-marketing, and integrity). This allowed students a chance to support the grade they felt they deserved and gives them a permanent record of their work from concept to product.

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Overall, this whole year was a valuable, exciting time of learning as I approached my first large scale project-based learning experience. Special thanks to Ms. J for working alongside me and often guiding me as we piloted this grand teaching experiment. 🙂