Category: Reflections

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. 🙂

Reflections on TECH Forum Chicago

At the beginning of the month, I got the chance to attend an educational technology conference called TECH Forum, sponsored by Tech & LearningI headed down to Lincolnshire, IL along with my superstar colleague Ms. J and our school’s technology specialist, Mr. L. This was the first teaching conference I’ve attended where technology was the sole, specialized focus, and it was really refreshing to be able to consider both educational theory and practical methodology side by side.

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The opening keynote, given by the hilarious and brilliant Dr. Yong Zhao, reinforced the message that our schools are in a creativity crisis. He discussed the “side effects” of a standardized test chasing culture that leave students dry in their desire to learn and create, and called attention to the value of asking where we really want our students to go: “Sure, we have the Race to the Top. But… Race to the Top of what?” The essential messsage of the keynote can be boiled down to simple, but powerful terms–Through the incorporation of technology and teaching methods that allow for students to ideate, create, and disrupt the status quo, we can better prepare our students for the astounding modern world, where the norm is persistent reinvention.

The morning session I attended, “Approaching a Holistic Technology Integration Strategy” presented by Daniel Rezac, Andy Kohl, and Elizabeth Greene, focused on how to inspire true teacher buy-in for technology initiatives. It grappled with the question of how to establish teams to help tech integration become more than just the delivery of gadgets but rather a way of teaching and learning. I could very much relate to the key points and problems raised–with time stretched thin and new technology rolling out at a breakneck pace, how do we establish a space for educators to embrace and integrate new classroom technologies? The solutions offered gave the overall impression that a “coaching”/co-teaching model of school IT can help make that space that is needed to launch new methodologies in a more relevant way, in more classrooms, for a more lasting impact.

In the afternoon, I facilitated a roundtable discussion, “Teachers as Bloggers,” where I shared my experience as a teacher-blogger both in and out of the classroom. [My handout from the discussion can be found here: Teachers as Bloggers ] While I was expecting more of a mini blogger convention to be happening at my table, I was surprised that the majority of my participants came with questions of their own about the purpose and effectiveness of blogging–many were from schools where a blog for every teacher was newly mandatory. It seems that maintaining a web presence is quickly becoming an expectation for every educator… And indeed it must become so, if teaching is to develop alongside other disciplines. We had some great conversations, and ultimately defined four key components of successful blogging: (1) Visual content such as photos/video, (2) Candor and the sharing of true anecdotes, (3) Demonstrated expertise, and (4) Practical, immediately applicable information or resources. In such a young genre, there’s still much to explore. But if we’re teaching kids who are already cultivating their own online presence, it’s crucial for us to go there as well, as teachers and participants in the digital-social landscape.

After eating WAY too many of some of the most elegant mini-desserts I’ve ever seen, I finished up the day by attending “Managing Schools, Classrooms, and Information with Google Apps” presented by Hank Thiele and Jennie Magiera, to refresh my knowledge of all things Google. The things teachers can use Google to do…for free…just continue to amaze my brain. In the five past years, the possibilities have exploded: sharing and co-editing content, giving/receiving feedback, building websites, gathering data, conducting synchronous meetings through messaging/videochat, relying on self-saving, self-updating everything that’s accessible from everywhere. It’s. Just. INSANE!

Today’s students have so much power to impact their world. All they need is an internet connection. As teachers, we have new responsibility to guide them in how to wield that power for good, for themselves, in order to alter the futurescape in the countless new ways that they will envision.

An Exercise in Imagination: Immersive Classroom Experiences

I continue to draw inspiration in my own teaching from my favorite experiences as a learner. Of course, most of these I pull from memories of my undergraduate instruction and my own high school English classes, but I can honestly say that one of the schooling experiences that had the biggest impression on me—and still does—was my K5 year kindergarten class at Sacred Heart of Jesus School in St. Francis, Wisconsin, back in 1991.

Our K5 teacher, Mrs. G, was absolutely delightful. I still remember her clearly as a kind, energetic, fun teacher who truly cared about her students; I recognized all of that even as a five year old. What I can more greatly appreciate now is the absolutely insane amount of work she must have put into planning, designing, and maintaining her beautiful kindergarten classroom. The units that we did involved these large scale classroom transformations that immersed us into a world of imagination related to the topics we studied in class.  The interior of a spacecraft, Plains Indians traditional homes, the Amazon jungle, under the sea—not only was the classroom a place of learning, but also of wonder and color, the ultimate playground. And the students participated in the creation of these worlds, too. I can still remember helping to craft, stick, hang, and drape things for our Ocean-themed classroom during Open House week.

Recently in my own classroom, I was reflecting back on those kindergarten days and found myself thinking, “Man, that was fun. Too bad high school can’t be more like that…” Often, we’re way too busy grading research essays or worrying about curriculum alignment to even consider taking the time to turn our classrooms into deserts or courtrooms. But you know what? I think that, at least a couple times a year, we should make the time. Because high schoolers love to play, too. And they learn better while doing it.

A perfect example of an idea for creating an immersive classroom experience in the high school classroom comes from one of my former colleagues from Milwaukee School of Languages, Ms. L. (She has her own wonderful blog called The Art of Seeing in AP English—check it out!) Her class was famous among the students for, among many other things, its transformation from classroom to Speakeasy during her unit on The Great Gatsby. When I asked her to share a little bit about the process, she wrote:

When I have done a speakeasy as part of the school day, students were expected to come dressed up in some way (beads and dresses for the girls, ties or hats for the boys). Each hour had a different password (example: “the cat’s pajamas” or “the bee’s knees”) that they had to know to get into class (and also something like a draft of their Gatsby essay). Once inside, the fluorescent lights were off, Christmas lights were on, and we would drink apple juice (“cider”) or one year a boy brought glass bottles of Coke. We tried out all our 1920s slang and learned how to dance the Charleston (through the power of YouTube). I definitely believe in imaginative play being beneficial to students. Too often I think something that is left out of the conversation in education is that school can and should be fun. We always remember things better and understand things more thoroughly when we’re having fun. For me, events like these are key to classroom culture and team-building, and they’re things that underclassmen see going on and then get excited about being in my class eventually to do. I see it as part of my overall English class Marketing program–always got to work on your brand, right?

Right. If we offer our students the often-ignored or skimmed-over chance to play and imagine, we get higher interest and investment. And, as Ms. L wisely observes, that process of thinking positively about a classroom experience sometimes even starts years before students get into our classrooms.

So, I’ve decided to try incorporating more of these immersive experiences into my classroom. The most recent one (which was enhanced by some brilliant ideas from Mr. M’s students next door), was creating a classroom crime scene investigation to correspond with Act III, Scene I of Romeo and Juliet. I dubbed this activity “CSI: Verona.”

After reading and acting out the scene dramatically, we used colored electrical tape to create an outline where Tybalt had fallen, collected the weapons that were strewn when the battle had occurred, and used index cards to create some nice blood spatter where Mercutio had been dragged offstage. Then we took on the role of crime scene investigators—I had my students create a detailed report of the crime scene, and then they conducted suspect interviews with various characters who had different perspectives of what happened (Benvolio, Lady Capulet, Citizen, Montague, Balthasar, Tybalt’s cronies, etc.) Based on their observations, the students decided who to charge, what to charge them with, and what their recommended sentence was. They ate it up, and when we left Tybalt’s body print on the floor for a few days, my other classes were all intrigued. (Several students from other classes even laid down to test their silhouette against the body imprint, with bemused grins.)

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Our CSI Verona activity was only one class period long, and altered the appearance of the classroom only in a fairly minor way. Still, the power of imaginative play created an environment of laughter, fascination, and thinking that no list of textbook questions could ever come close to spurring.

 

I think it’s time to take a lesson from kindergarten and create more immersive classroom experiences that use the power of imaginative play to take high schoolers by the hand and pull them back into the sandbox where learning and fun go hand in hand.

If there are readers out there with awesome examples of immersive classroom experiences like this, please leave a message in the comments or on the new Universe as Text Facebook page! The button at the top of this page will take you straight there. Like us for notifications of new postings and other updates!

Managing Teacher Morale from the Inside

Unfortunately for me, I began my teaching career in a place and in a time that is… well… maybe not the best place and time to be a teacher. Teacher morale across the U.S. is at the lowest it’s been in 25 years.  And in case anybody’s wondering if, as just one teacher in just one school, you can tell that there are some serious morale issues in the system, trust me: you can tell. It’s an issue of politics. It’s an issue of economics. It’s an issue of the performance of our national public education system. But for teachers, it necessarily becomes personal. The first time I wrote about this was in 2011, when I shared some reflections and a mental approach for dealing with some of the uncomfortable realities of how public education has changed in my own state. I find myself needing to weigh in on the topic again, after reading this sobering teacher morale-related blog post from one of my longtime colleagues and friends, Ms. S. She expresses many of the same concerns I’ve heard about from fellow teachers from many different schools–the burden of exponentially increasing responsibilities and accountability, the financially crippling cuts and freezes in pay, the sense of powerlessness, and the fear associated with speaking up about any of it. Some of these I’ve experienced myself. Plainly said, it’s an injustice, especially to highly effective, early-career educators who are trying to establish themselves as leaders and innovators in the churning belly of a system that seems hell-bent on merely spitting them back out.  

Taking political action, on local, state, and national levels is one way to try to make a difference in the current climate, but that’s not useful for making a personal difference right now. As professionals with a daily, important job to do, we can’t just tune out until the next election term rolls around. So, what do we do–today–about teacher morale… as teachers?

I don’t have all the answers. But I have a couple. I am, after all, the very official self-appointed Morale Officer of the English department at my school. Yeah, it’s a made up title, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not legitimate! 🙂  Sometimes, to get out of a very deep, dark hole, one has to be creative. And that’s not limited to inventing honorary titles. Here are some other things you can do:

Morale Toolkit

I think the absolute best defense against low morale is building a strong support system via a professional support network. I wrote in-depth about how to do that in this post from a couple years back. Nothing is more helpful during times of struggle than relating to and seeking support from other educators.

Also, don’t let this job kill you! Stay strong, literally, by being kind to yourself in what you eat, how much mental and physical rest you afford yourself, and opportunities you give yourself to exercise and feel physically alive and well. If your devotion to your teaching (and associated responsibilities) are impinging on your ability to fulfill these things, you have taken on too much. Teachers are heroes, but they don’t need to be martyrs. You’ll be a better educator if you are healthy and whole. Jealously guard your own health and sanity. Sometimes, the grading can wait.

While I don’t think that “do it for the kids” should be a reason to pile extra expectation without compensation onto our educators, I do think that teachers should take a moment each day to look around at the difference that they are creating. Look at those kids, and what they can do, and what they love to do that they never thought they would, because of your influence. No amount of bureaucracy will ever be able to stomp out the wonder or beauty of that.

One very specific thing to try in order to stay interested in and inspired by your teaching career is incorporating your own interests and hobbies into your teaching methods. Since I can’t always find the time or money to pursue creative endeavors, I sometimes make my teaching into my creative endeavor. For example, I love to write, draw, and perform. So, I’ll make a comic strip to teach my students a new skill. Or I’ll write a piece of short fiction to demonstrate author craft. I’ll recite a rap to my class to teach them something. These things give me joy and fulfillment because they are my favorite things to do! By applying them to my teaching, I’m making my job fun, and my students also get to feed off of my engaged interest in the method/medium of the day’s lesson.

Another strategy that’s a bit harder to define is… silliness. Laughter is a necessary remedy in low-morale environments. It’s ok to be a little “out there” sometimes in one’s efforts to make colleagues smile or to create a positive vibe in the teaching day. How about a short, relevant-to-the-curriculum Play-Doh activity at the beginning of class? Maybe have your students write a parody skit to review some literature. Play very, very mild practical jokes on your colleagues, if they are up for such a challenge. Or, when all else fails, you can make a poster of your department members as superheroes like I did.

Oh, yes I did: omg_dept2

Courtesy of Marvel.com’s “Create Your Own Superhero” game.

Finally, the gold standard for beating low morale is what I like to call stupidly stubborn positivity. This means coming into work with a (stupid?) grin and calling out “good morning!” to everyone you pass. This means smiling at and personally meeting every student at the door. This means occasionally responding to the dreaded, “How’s it going?” question in the copyroom with a brave, non-sarcastic, “Pretty fantastic!” Think I’m crazy? Try it. Things are going to get better–that possibility needs to become a fact in your mind in order for you to reframe your reality into a positive one. There is such a thing as good days. Don’t let the bad things–because there will always be bad things–completely steal the spirit that got you into this career. You’re here. You are doing good things. Keep. Fighting.

I know that none of these suggestions will make the struggles evaporate, pay the bills, or protect us from forces over which we have little control. But they might help in the meantime. Please share other strategies, connect, and lift up. From our joined sense of mission and our combined intelligence as educational leaders, we can help keep the otherwise overwhelming tide of low morale at bay.

 

Project-Based English 12–Semester One

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What is English 12?

That’s the question my colleague Ms. J and I found ourselves asking last summer, as we prepared to roll out a brand new version of senior language arts. Our department had found a need for a new way of looking at things as the new Common Core State Standards were being presented, 21st century skills were becoming the most touted measuring stick for student achievement post-high school, and voices in our community were calling for graduates who were more professionally savvy. Our previous English 12 courses were very traditional literature-based classes, with no real identity to ground them as anything other than a basic senior English course. Our vision was to completely revamp the curriculum: Align curriculum to the standards. Create a project-based course that gives freedom and ownership to the students. Find ways to constantly connect learning to the community and to real life experiences. We hoped to see higher student engagement/buy-in, higher achievement, and an emerging professional demeanor in our students.

Here’s what we came up with:What’s English 12? Infographic

As the year unfolded, the students were occasionally mystified or daunted by the new, challenging things we were asking of them. The largest of these is the senior research proposal, paper, and project. Students are asked to select a defining topic that pertains to their interests, skills, or future plans. Throughout the year, they develop research on that topic which eventually results in a project, of their own design, that the students display for the community at the end of the year showcase. During semester one, we’ve planted the seeds for this epic undertaking in several special ways. I’ve given a snapshot below.

September – October: Introduced “big picture” of course, linking to Tony Wagner’s idea of Passion, Play, and Purpose as the most important cornerstones of learning that creates innovation and creativity. Students were asked to begin considering their topic choices, keeping these ideas in mind.

Early November: Over 30 local professionals from many different fields were our guests at the Professional Symposium, an event designed for students to learn more about the real expectations of the different corners of the work world. Each professional had a table where they brought in things related to their career (like a model of a human spine, a laptop video display, architectural drafts, plants…). The students, who were required to dress professionally, then circulated and asked both prepared and impromptu interview questions to prompt conversations. Students also had important roles in the event, such as being in charge of lighting/sound and giving the closing address. This experience offered important insight, and helped several students select a topic.

Late November: Students were required to select their topics by this time. (True to the student-ownership goal, these ranged from the history of comics to Spina Bifida awareness to Bigfoot to sports medicine.) We took the students on a research field trip to the Golda Meir Library at UW-Milwaukee. The staff worked amazingly well with our massive group of students. During this experience, our rural students got to see what a respected university library is like, and they had access to a nearly-endless collection of both digital and print resources to inform their topic. They spent the day taking resource-specific notes and refining their topic choices.

December: In class, we offered instruction on specialized research skills, like how to conduct an email interview, using electronic databases, how to take notes, and choosing what to read in a lengthy  source. During this unit, students wrote a detailed annotated bibliography of 20+ credible sources related to their topics. Students were expected to give periodic reports to the full class about their reading and discoveries.

January: For the semester exam, students were asked to write a formal proposal for their researchEnglish 12 Research Proposal. I was so impressed with my students’ overall excitement and true scholarship associated with their topics. I found myself reading things like…

  • “Philosophy does not get the respect and credit it well deserves. Few people in the world today realize how much philosophy has impacted society and the human race. My stance on this is that philosophy is an invaluable and irreplaceable building block to modern knowledge.” Alex L.
  • “I would say that modern comics are stepping away from old ideas and greeting new ones more openly as well as [showing a] more true step into maturity, unlike the hollow, pandering “maturity” of the 90’s. This is evident in things like superhero comics becoming somewhat less popular, indie and comics that deal with much different subject matters than the mainstream seeing much more popularity, the early 2000’s seeing the abandoning of the comics code almost altogether, and the far more respectful portrayal of modern war and tragic events like 9/11.” Stephen P.

  • “The juvenile system has flourished over time and helps create life saving opportunities for adolescents. Continuing over each generation adolescents will do bad things, but it is the system’s job to help save their lives, and create a better tomorrow. I arrived at my stance through trial and error. First I wanted to research the history of juvenile justice, but then I decided I want to find out what the juvenile system can offer adolescents. What can the system do for kids whose families have given up on them? Samantha S.

Our students have already grown so much in intellectual and professional maturity throughout this process, and I can tell that they are feeling proud to call this class their own. I’m looking forward to second semester, to see what happens as more and more responsibility is released over to them, and they are enabled and empowered to do interesting, contributive things. Students light up when you ask them about the right things–we’re channeling the power of those right things in order to activate remarkable learning.

Things I’ve already observed during semester one of English 12:

-Project-based learning is just as powerful as all the research claims it us! It targets a comprehensive skill set dealing with academics, technology, and professional demeanor.

-Project-based learning is absolutely achieveable in a public school environment, with all levels of students, though those who need to grow in their ability to self-direct have the most work to do to succeed. This type of format requires educators who are able to and interested in keeping close tabs on the progress/development of each individual.

-Project-based learning helps students, even those prone to “senioritis” remember how much they actually do love to learn.

Things I’m still wondering:

-How does project-based learning look in other senior classes around the state and country? Do you teach one or know of one? Please share! Examples have not been the easiest to find.

-What are the best assessment techniques for such a wide variety of outcomes? While many aspects of student acheivement are observable in this format, measuring it objectively and accurately may become a challenge. Are there any educators out there with ideas about this?

 

The Sketchbook Project–Ideas about sketchbooks for storytelling, learning, and reflection

This year I participated for the first time in The Sketchbook Project, a massive public art project managed by the Art House Co-op and Brooklyn Art Library. The process is simple–you register online, and Art House sends you a small sketchbook. It’s then up to every artist to determine how he/she will fill the blank pages until the mail-back deadline, at which time the artist sends the filled book back. The sketchbooks (which come from thousands of artists, amateur and professional, from all over the world) are then made part of a touring exhibition where museum and library goers can browse the sketchbook collection. After a year of touring, the sketchbooks are made a permanent part of the collection at the Brooklyn Art Library, and some are made part of a digital collection.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this, as I love to draw and I felt that this could provide a channel and a motivation for it. I think it’s important for teachers to participate in their discipline, and this was a chance for me to exercise my storytelling ability and author something of my own. I ended up creating something intensely reflective. The very process of completing the work helped me think about and process aspects of my own experience. (You can see my finished work in the gallery above.) But I also had an interest in The Sketchbook Project because of something new I’m trying in my English 12 classroom this year–requiring students to keep a school sketchbook as part of their English experience and grade.

My colleague Ms. J and I first got the idea of the English 12 sketchbook at the 2011  NCTE conference. In imitation of a strategy used by some teachers in a Chicago suburb, we decided to make drawing a regular component of our classroom, utilizing the playful, generative nature of drawing to help students interact with texts, brainstorm, and map out their own intellectual landscapes at specific moments in time. (Here’s the overview handout that we gave the students at the beginning of the year explaining the assignment: The English 12 Sketchbook). The students as a whole have responded in a very positive way, and in many cases their drawings are remarkably innovative and rich with abstract ideas. This semester, we’ve done the sketches as stand-alone activities… one about a poem here, another about a thinking process there… but after completing my own sketchbook, I’m wondering if there might be something important to the idea of continuity, of a story. Completing my book in a style that was part literary response, part memoir caused me to reflect on how each piece of an individual sketch (word + image) related to the sketches before and after, as well as how they related to me, to what I was trying to say.

Since my seniors are undertaking a major research paper and project during semester two, these ideas of reflection and cohesiveness are important for success. I may experiment with a sort of “visual journaling” progression that will ask students to use related sequential drawings in order to track the meanderings, epiphanies, frustrations, questioning, and connecting that go along with research. Even as a series of unrelated activities, though, the sketchbook is one of those teaching strategies that I absolutely stand behind, even after just one semester of trying it in class. Here’s why:

*Students peek over each other’s shoulders to see what’s being created–interest in each other’s ideas leads to academic conversation.

*Ideas are recorded in a visually very “presentable” format, using a document camera or scanning images into an online format allows students to show their thinking dynamically.

*Sketchbook activities require a knowledge and application of visual rhetoric–a crucial skill in analyzing film, web, and other media.

*It’s fun to do and fun to watch. Play lessens inhibition, and enables students to take advantage of what they perceive as a low pressure chance to display thinking.

*Asking students to create and explain symbolic representations requires true metaphorical thinking that cannot be faked.

*The time it takes to shade in a space or carefully draw a line creates extended minutes for students to think about what they are creating and why, often yielding deep understanding.

Upon finishing my own sketchbook, I feel like I used my brain and heart to create something of worth. There are very few feelings better than that. Knowing that my book will be held and examined by other people, also, creates a sense of connection. This is something I really want for my students, one of those sort of “intangible standards” that I try to weave into my teaching. I want my students to understand the joy and fulfillment of creating something, whether it’s through words, image/design, or performance. The Sketchbook Project helped remind me of that, and I think I’ll be returning to do it again next year. I may even invite some interested students to try it as well!

Do you use drawing in your classroom? How does it work for you?  Tell me more in the comments section below!

On a Personal Note

Teaching brings peace in personal crisis. This is an observation I’ve been making since September, and it’s one that I’ll add to my collection of general truths about this profession that transcend buzzwords, initiatives, and mandates of all kinds.

In recent months, my life has been uprooted and changed before my eyes in many ways. As we all come to understand at one time or another, the challenges that life provides us can carry with them a bludgeoning impact. (An impact, some might say, that causes bloggers to update far less frequently than normal…) When processing loss, even getting out of bed in the morning can take tremendous effort. But once you get out of bed, you can go to work. That’s what I’ve been doing–going to work. And in so many ways, the familiar routine and positivity created and received by those who teach has sustained me. Uplifted me.

I walk into work, usually joking all the way with my carpooling colleague Ms. D, and I see a student population that operates much like a family. I watch kids roughhouse, laugh, support one another, yell and grin and hug. The eternal energy and effervescence of youth is unstoppable as the day begins and the halls fill with a rowdy but happy noise, and I can’t help but feed off of the energy that spills off of them. Students that I teach currently and those that I’ve taught in years past smile and say “Hi, Ms. H!!” like saying hi is a new and incredible thing. And I get to share books with them. I get to write poetry with them. I get to challenge their thinking and watch glazed processing turn to intent puzzling turn to flickering realization. I get to teach them to speak and reason and create.

In dark times when I feel nearly out of control of my own life, my role as a teacher reminds me that it is my job to reassure students who are nervous, to hoist up the students who try to give up, and to bring words out of students who might otherwise conceal themselves in a shroud of apathy. Good teachers get so much trust and faith from their students. And it just reminds me that if I am worthy of a young person’s trust, I can probably trust myself too. This profession gives us the honor of being the looked-to, steadying force for young adults that need us. And when life’s calamities make us feel a little broken for a while, we can remember that we are the healers, and–especially with the help of one another–we can Teach ourselves how to cope, strengthen, and self-renew.

Words are medicine, art is life.

Speaking of Commencement

 I was given the great honor of being chosen as the commencement speaker for this year’s graduation ceremony at the school where I teach. While I was, of course, flattered and excited by the opportunity, I was also a bit daunted by the task initially. Graduation speeches are so often overly cliche, irrelevant to graduates’ actual lives, or simply forgettable. I really wanted to craft something that would transcend the pitfalls of the typical commencement speech, and say something worth saying. As teachers, I think all of us have a desire to pass on something memorable to our students. In the classroom, sometimes it works like a charm and sometimes it comes out as confusing gobbeldygook–it depends on the day! But at a graduation ceremony, it has to come out right, and I hoped that I’d be able to make it so.

Luckily, I was struck by inspiration when I saw a video showcasing a quote from Dr. Neil De Grasse Tyson, that hit a deep, resonating chord with me and sent me on my way to craft a speech that helped turn my love of stories and my love of science into one message for living, one that I was proud to share with the Class of 2012, their families, and many former and future students. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to speak at a graduation, and the moment felt perfect to me. Something about being surrounded by my seniors from this year, as well as recieving enthusiastic congrats from last year’s returning seniors and the students I’ll have in my senior classes next year really created a feeling of continuity, of community, and family. Schools are more than just gathering places–things happen in them that unify young people and those who mentor them. 

The transcript of my June 3rd commencement speech is found below for (A) other educators who may be looking for an example commencement speech, (B) students who may want to look back and consider the words spoken on their graduation day, and (C) simple posterity. Thank you, Class of 2012, for this awesome chance to fill a special role in our school and local community!

Good afternoon! You know, as a teacher, I am very used to addressing young people, but today I get an introduction and applause? Man—I really don’t think I can go “back to before” now that this has happened. Thank you—that was lovely.

Pretty much the moment I became a teacher, I had people, for a whole variety of reasons, I’m sure, asking me why. You know: “Why did you become an English teacher? Why would you want to be that?” And while I’ve got many answers for that question, the most prominent one is this: I’m fascinated by the power of stories. When we read a book or view a film, we inhabit another life for a little while, and we see places, feel things, and think in ways that we might have never otherwise imagined. Stories have always played a role in forming our culture, and they still do—just look at the phenomenon surrounding The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings. Everyone is able to tap into the magic of story and gain something from it. Personally, many of my first revelations about life came from my incessant viewing of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS. I will never forget the tiny, green, and wise creature Yoda explaining to the young, overeager Luke Skywalker how he could harness power from the world around him. “My ally is The Force,” he tells Luke. “And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” He pinches Luke’s shoulder at that last part. As a kid, I was fascinated by this idea that people could be more. You know… more than just a body, but rather a “luminous being” filled with the life force of everything around us. Of course, that’s just a story. But that’s the thing—while stories aren’t true, they point us toward a deeper understanding of truth and reality.

If we look closely, we discover that the world is full of metaphor—full of symbols to read and interpret. Sometimes these symbols are woven into a poem that I might share with my third hour class; other times they appear out here in our lives for us to observe. Often, things from the natural world inspire common symbols that are universally understood. One of these symbols is the star. Stars, as we all know, often stand for the ideas of excellence, or fate. Destiny. You can read this meaning ten thousand different times, from a certain Shakespearean play, where Romeo tells Benvolio “my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars” to the 2011 hit song “Written in the Stars” by hip hop artist Tinie Tempah. Stars also appear everywhere at graduations, on cards and balloons, signifying all that the graduates are destined to achieve. Stars, and humanity’s endless fascination with them, hint at that fact that our universe, too, can be a story in itself.

There’s perhaps nobody better to illustrate this idea than celebrated American astrophysicist and science ambassador Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. In an interview for TIME magazine, Dr. deGrasse Tyson was asked the challenging question “What’s the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?” His answer was something that really resonated with me, and I’d like to share it with you, Class of 2012. He said that the most astounding fact is that “the same atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body […] carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life”—are the same atoms that comprise the stars. He continues, saying, “…I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up. Many people feel small, because they’re small and the universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.” Now if that isn’t astounding, I don’t know what is. The same elements that make you, graduates, are the elements of the whole beautiful starry sky. That means that you are a star, literally! You are a luminous being—so much more than a crude shell. You are a part of a legacy as old as eternity, and you have a precious blip of time in which to fulfill it. And this exact moment in your life, as you transition from being a high school student to being an adult in our society, is the perfect time to consider it.

Now, by nature, stars develop, shift, and slowly scatter throughout the universe. Some of you will become scientists, some storytellers. Some will till the earth and help it grow. Some will negotiate the fast-paced obstacle course of economic markets. Some of you will invent new forms of cuisine. You might pledge yourself to art or medicine, education or religion, or service to your country. Or maybe you just want to earn an honest wage and live a simple life. We each pursue our own directions—like the universe, we are always expanding, shifting, changing and moving, as forces like this ceremony here today, act upon us. Today, you are an emerging star. You can feel yourself on the precipice of the unknown.

While this big moment is thrilling, it can also bring with it some very big uncertainties: things like, “How do I make use of this time I’ve been given, this space in front of me? How do I know what to do? How do I matter?” When we face these huge questions, even we stars are in danger of feeling small, insignificant, or lost. For many of you, this is your first solo journey, your first time being the decider of your own fate without anyone else directing your path. Before you cross this stage, I want to offer you a starchart, a bit of guidance to help you find your place in this incredible universe. This comes in the form of two things to remember.

The first thing to remember is that you are not only a star, but a star with a backpack full of useful things. A good question to ask yourself in any moment of decision is “Well, what have I got?” After twelve years of education, of algebra and literature and biology and history, you have a basic knowledge of the world around you. And after years’ worth of touchdown passes, opening nights, robot building, writing to meet deadlines, speaking as a part of your student organization, practicing the perfect serve, free throw, goal, or pace, or mastering songs with your instrument, voice, or dancing body, you’ve begun to taste what it’s like to create an effect that impacts others. And after surviving adolescence, you have started to explore those experiences that make up this thing called being human—the passions, the broken hearts, the wild joy, the dizzying freedom of choice, the pride of achievement, the pain of disappointment, and the restoration of hope and healing. You’ve been through these things, and you will recognize them when life sends them your way again.

So you’ve got quite a bit in your backpack, really… knowledge, skills, achievements, and the priceless insight that will one day, when you’re WAY older than me, turn into wisdom. That was the whole point of your childhood and your education—to make sure that you set off into life with a bit of a starter kit in your metaphorical backpack. Some things were handed to you, others you picked up yourself along the way. That’s the first comfort as you face this oncoming challenge of living up to your own universal legacy. You’ll always carry your past with you, and if you use it as a tool, you’ll be prepared for anything.

The second thing: If you still feel small as you face this expanse of universe before you, consider the idea, that you, young stars, are not alone in the cosmos. You’ll remember that Dr. deGrasse Tyson—the guy that reminded us of that astounding fact that people and stars are essentially made up of the same ingredients, said that he feels big instead of insignificant when he thinks about the sky. In that same interview, he goes on to tell us why. He says, “There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You wanna feel connected. You wanna feel relevant. You wanna feel like you’re a participant in the activities and the goings-on around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.” Think about that and how amazing that is—that each of us has an intrinsic connection to the universe, and therefore to life, to all creation, and to one another. Sometimes we get so caught up in ourselves that we forget that fact.

When you go home today, and you begin the string of graduation celebrations with family and friends, the conversations will be in that language of individual achievement. Relatives will bombard you with many questions that all essentially mean “What are YOU going to do with YOUR life?” as if you are a comet rather than a star, with only one possible trajectory. You know, one shot… and it’s all on you. That can be a lot of pressure!  And while you might smile at Uncle Bill when he claps you on the back and says you’re headed for great things, you might find yourself lying awake at night wondering, “What will I really do with my life? Am I making the right choice? Am I heading in the right direction?” If and when that happens, remember that if we are all made of stardust, that old phrase “Reach for the stars” doesn’t actually mean to strain toward a single goal, but rather to reach out to each other. The possibilities of life are indeed infinite, but it’s a certainty that, just as the night sky is breathtaking because of the sheer number of stars overhead, our lives gain meaning because of the connections we make together. You can feel it here, in the overwhelming love that the all the people out here have for all the people up here. It’s part of our nature to be connected, and those connections give us power. So if you can find a way to serve others, to hold their hands along your way, you’ll no doubt find your individual path in the process.

So I’ll leave you with the astounding fact that there is a star in every last one of you, and I wish you blessings and luck as you find your places in the universe. Welcome to adulthood.

Top Ten

The school that I work for has the tradition of holding a formal banquet to honor the top ten students in the graduating class and a group of ten influential teachers as chosen by the students. This year, I was lucky and surprised to be chosen by Miss D., a shining young literary scholar who took my AP Literature and Composition class as well as my Theater Arts class this year. It was interesting and enjoyable to say the least to meet the parents of these fine young individuals, to get a nod from administration, to eat delicious food, and to see everyone dressed up in formal attire..

It really is special to attend a banquet that honors outstanding academic achievement as well as the role that teachers play in creating the atmosphere for that achievement to occur. The honors and accolades earned by this group of students was impressive to say the least, but what made the occasion memorable was how honestly and precisely the students were able to pinpoint, in their brief speeches, ways in which a particular teacher was able to spark something important in them, to light their path on the journey of self-discovery. Each student needs something a little different to discover his or her genius, and that made me sit and ponder the vast diversity in teaching styles, personalities, and types of expertise among teachers. As much as popular culture may at times reinforce a single image of what “the teacher” looks like or does, real teachers have extremely individualized ways of doing what they do. All teachers have an individual, unique potential to really strike a particular type of student. Skilled teachers are able to engage every kid in their classroom. But really clicking with a student to the point that he or she views you as truly influential? That’s something rare… and has much to do with the chemistry between a student’s way of seeing the world and the unique style and spirit of the teacher whom they admire.

Thinking about the fact that I clicked with one of these outstanding students, that I sparked something within her, makes me feel proud to be her teacher. It also makes me feel proud to be a teacher, since we have such an exceptional opportunity to connect to other human beings in a meaningful way by virtue of our profession. And the best thing is that each new year presents new opportunities for unique connections, as the cards are reshuffled and both students and teachers hopefully anticipate a lucky hand.

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