Category Archives: Reflections

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:


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?


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.”


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.


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.

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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.)


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’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


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?


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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.