Category: Project-based learning

What to Do After the AP Literature Exam? The Make-Your-Own Writing Project!

Being an AP Literature and Composition teacher is awesome. It means that I get to challenge students at a very rigorous academic level, using sophisticated texts and thought-provoking classroom discussions. I get to teach The Greats–keeping the love of classical literature alive for the next generation. I get to interact with students on an intensive, one-on-one level as they work to master analytical academic writing. It’s a demanding course that attracts remarkable learners thirsty for a challenge. But the experience of an AP class does have its drawbacks when it comes to… well… freedom. All year long, we adhere to a laser-focused schedule, which is designed to prepare them for the AP exam in May. It’s a working system, but one without much wiggle room when it comes to individual interests and true experimentation. That’s why I love those three or four weeks at the end of the year so much.

After the exam, all bets are off! Many teachers come up with truly genius ideas for how to fill this time. (For instance, check out this amazing project from the AP English Facebook Page.) My approach is one that embraces the individual talents of my student writers, and grants them a daunting and magical amount of freedom to create. I call it the Make-Your-Own Writing Project, and it serves as the final exam for the second semester.

The Make-Your-Own Writing Project asks students a simple question: What have you always wanted to write? Then, it enables them, with an instructor’s guidance and resources, to make it happen. Every year, it’s different for every single student. With focused mini-lessons on writing craft, technology, conventions, copyright, and even the publishing industry, I really try to push my students to adopt a true writer identity. For the first time all year, I’m stepping all the way to the background, watering the garden of their talents and watching it bloom. I conference with individuals, but they steer the process. Some students create websites. Some do academic research. Some make graphic novels. There are poetry collections, speeches, vlogs, blogs, novel chapters, short fiction pieces, journals, artist portfolios, and screenplays. It’s a festival of creativity and commitment, all with a 100% personalized spin.

The best part of all of this is that it creates a spotlight for any student to step into, to create something that they sincerely enjoy, all the while keeping up the momentum and challenge of the year until the very end. I’m always inspired by what they create and present.

Want to try it this year? I’ll post my guidesheets here to get you started.

The Make-Your-Own Writing Project assignment description

Customizable Process-Based Rubric for assessment

Please feel free to use or modify my materials for your own teaching use, and tell me how it went in the comments. 🙂

Thanks, AP Lit kids of 2016-2017, for making this year another great one!

**All recognizable student images used with formal consent of students’ guardians  and/or student self-consent if eighteen.

Sacred Stories: Transcendental Personal Narratives Using Cowbird

Eleventh graders can be more insightful than you might think. When I asked my second semester classes to list what makes a fulfilling life as a kickoff activity to our Transcendentalism unit, this is what they said:

I love ending the year in  Communications III with Transcendentalism for several reasons. For one, the bitter Wisconsin tundra starts to warm and bloom and the concept of nature being revelatory becomes a little easier of an idea to buy into. For another, it’s an ideal time in my students’ lives for them to try developing a little personal philosophy. They’re on the cusp of senior year, and about to start feeling the pressure to make huge decisions: Which career to head toward? Which relationships to prioritize? Which college to attend? Which beliefs to live by? Which kind of adult to be? For these students, huge questions suddenly need answers, as they always have. What a great time to kick it way back to the mid-1800’s.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the rest of their Transcendental Club sought to define their beliefs as different from the mainstream philosophies surrounding them. Their devotion to ideals of self-reliance, confidence, free thought, and non-conformity resonate with young people readily, even through the thick vocabulary of “Nature” and Walden. My students seek to define themselves as well, and for that reason my colleagues and I balance this unit with a mixture of historic Transcendental information/texts and more modern examples of personal philosophy, such as the YouTube video “How To Be Alone” and Charles Harper Webb’s poem “How To Live.”  Toward the end of the unit, we explore specifically the link between nature and the abstract ideals of these varied sources. Where does nature come in to our understanding of ourselves as people, according to Emerson? Thoreau? What about according to us?

As a culminating project for the unit this year, I was very interested in doing something that would allow students to identify how Transcendentalist ideas have functioned in their own lives through a narrative composition. As luck would have it, right around the time I was thinking about this assignment, I was introduced to the digital story-collecting site Cowbird. It turned out to be the perfect tool: students could use a mixture of image and audio to create a multimedia narrative.

We started by browsing the stories already on the site that were tagged under the topic “Nature.” Using our own reactions, we discussed the features of an engaging narrative, which gave me the chance to insert some additional instruction about narrative composition as well. We then took our stories through a writing workshop. I modeled the process for them, walking them through the website and audio recording app, sharing my own idea-generating web as I brainstormed, showing my drafts-in-progress as they changed each day, and finally posting my final product. I’m a big believer in demonstrating the writing process, as replete with frustration and reward as it can be.

What I loved about watching my students move through this process was how invested and honest they were as they worked. The new technology skills I asked of them were challenging enough to be interesting but not so difficult as to inhibit success. They worked hard on their written drafts and recordings, persevering through many takes in order to get it right. The final compositions were entertaining, moving, and some of the most real writing I saw from my students all year long. Experiencing the stories through an audio format really honored the life experiences and voices, quite literally, of each student author. I found myself smiling, chuckling,and holding my breath as I listened. These students processed the ideas of Transcendentalism to the point of owning them, and that was really cool to witness. Sometimes students don’t understand how powerful their own voices and stories can be. I hope that, after this project, that’s changing for some of them.

Want to try this project, or a version of it, in your own classroom? See my assignment sheet, rubric, and example story below: 

Sacred Spaces: A Transcendentalist Storytelling Experience

Simple Rubric – Cowbird Project

The Writer’s Sandbox

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Sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful. 

When seeking to create a new unit for our junior Communications students, my teaching team and I kept bumping up against one very important thing: we didn’t feel like we were teaching enough writing. The variety of writing types wasn’t enough. The amount of writing wasn’t enough. The frequency of writing instruction wasn’t enough. And we wanted to do something about it. This is how the Writer’s Sandbox unit was born–an experimental writing unit that focused on flexibility, authorship, craft study, and play.

We didn’t know what we were doing. And that was the greatest part of it. We could invent along the way, as long as we had a “how” before the what. So we gathered our knowledge about good writing instruction. We knew that we’d have to help students understand the different conventions that accompany different genres. We knew we could find and use good mentor texts as models, and we knew we could write alongside our kids and share our own processes. We hoped that our students could come away with a greater sens of independence, adaptability, and joy in writing: this was the biggest goal.

This particular group of students is much more familiar with the “just follow the formula” types of written assignments that are all too easy for teachers to assign. I am guilty of this at times–sometimes students’ skills or motivation can be so desperately low that it is vastly easier to provide them with an all-inclusive, paint-by-number assignment structure that will minimize panic and guarantee them a feeling of success, if only they follow the steps. And maybe there’s a place for that somewhere. But that’s not the path to any kind of good writing or thinking in the real world.

Unsure of how our students would react, we used the presentation below to introduce the concept of The Writer’s Sandbox to our perked-up (but perhaps slightly wary) group of students…

The beauty of a unit like this is that it’s process-oriented, which means it can be customized to fit any length of time and any types of writing that one can dream up. The process we used can be seen on my classroom notepad in the picture at the beginning of this post. Each day had a slightly different vibe as we tackled different genres or phases of the writing process. But, to keep a sense of routine and structure, every day had the same elements: progress charted, writing shared aloud, a creativity or skills-building warm-up, information about conventions and purpose, a mentor text, and time to write. It was a path that students were quick to adapt to. Having the visual reminder was reassuring to them.

The types of writing that we worked on included poetry, flash fiction, application essays, infographic, satire, and thank-you letters. The end of the unit moved into lessons on revision, and student-led writing conferences were a big part of the final grade, whereas initial drafts were non-threatening “check off” compliance grades. Teaching was fun, because it became more about trying things, about “what did you come up with?”, laughing together at the failures, puzzling together at the challenges, and cheering on the moments when, as one student put it, “Once the words start flowing, they just don’t stop until they run out.”

The culminating project was a formalized portfolio of three polished pieces. We required the application essay, since we want every junior to have a starting point for their real college essays next year. The choice and direction of the other two pieces were completely up to the student. In many cases, a type of theme emerged organically among the three pieces, as students crafted verse and image that reflected what / where / who they care about most. Precious things. Things that, to them, have shaped the foundation of their lives, identify, and vision of the future.

Was every portfolio of student writing life-changingly good? No. But lives were changed in the process of making them. I know I’ve said this before, but every time I give my students a new measure of freedom and control over their own learning, I am astounded at what they create, and at how much they actually teach themselves and each other. One thing I can say with honesty is that every student was truly proud of his or her final product. They cared about that writing, and that is an excellent place to start. I think it’s fair to say that the unit worked.

Like any fledgling unit, this one has given me things to think about, to alter, to keep and replace. But it’s a dang good idea. Maybe you can use it!

Radio and the High School Experience: A Guest Post from Joe Belknap

I have had the privilege of working with many brilliant educators as coworkers, collaborators, and friends throughout my career, and this year is no exception to that trend. I love it when another teacher has a beautiful, ingenious teaching idea that inspires my work in my own classroom. Sometimes the creativity and innovation of other teachers is so utterly cool that I want to shout it from the rooftops, and that’s what I’m going to do digitally here. Without further ado, listen and learn from the words of my colleague, sometimes movie star, and today’s guest writer, Joe Belknap.

This American Life

Okay. So here’s the deal. I have two confessions. Ready?

Confession #1: I am a writing teacher who is still very much trying to understand what it means to be an effective writing teacher.

Confession #2: I kind of want to be Ira Glass, host of This American Life.

Whew! You know what? Confession is cathartic. I. Feel. Good. Let’s examine these revelations more closely, beginning with what we know about effective writing instruction.

We know that writing instruction is most effective when it’s taught as a process, when powerful mentor texts are examined in such a way that help students understand and emulate the moves a writer makes. Writers make choices, and we want to empower students to understand the purpose and power behind those choices so that they, too, can make effective choices in their own writing in order to discover or create meaning and to be heard.

“Text,” traditionally, is defined as words on the page, but this definition is too simplistic, too confined. I prefer Ms. Amy Harter’s definition, which is, in short, somethingthat can be read, pondered or interpreted.

Finally, if you’re a fan of Ira Glass, then you’re already familiar with the storytelling power of his radio show, This American Life. If you’re not familiar (And you really should be. Seriously. Stop reading this, go to their website, and binge listen to as many episodes as possible.), it’s a program that connects disparate stories–true stories of everyday people, usually, but short fiction and spoken word find their way into episodes also–to a single theme, all of which illuminate some truth about the human experience. As host, Ira Glass is so very attentive and insightful and sincere.

So here’s where my confessions intersected last year when putting together curriculum for my Creative Writing class: why not use This American Life as a mentor text? 

Using This American Life as a mentor text in my Creative Writing classes has been popular with my students. They deserve to laugh, love, learn, and be moved by the collected stories that have been compiled into episodes over the years. While listening to the episodes, my students have kept one central question in mind: What moves are the This American Life journalists, interviewers, authors, and sound engineers making in order to construct effective, memorable episodes?

As a final project, then, my students act as writers, field journalists, and engineers to create and combine their own stories in the style of This American Life. In the process they can’t help but learn about themselves and the world around them. They use digital voice recorders to collect interviews, natural sounds, and narration. They use Audacity, a free audio editing software program, to upload audio and edit their episodes. They work collaboratively to discover connections and meaning in their episodes and, I hope, in their lives.

Before embarking on this project, I created my own one act episode as a model for my students. It’s entitled “High School Relationships,” and it’s a story of awkward encounters in high school dating. You can listen to it here.

My students are currently finishing their episodes, and the work they’ve done is just so impressive. One girl elected to dedicate her entire episode to “What Happens in the Hallways,” which has proven to be both hilarious and interesting. One young man, a senior, is chronicling the amount of change that occurs over the four years spent in high school. “Who were you then, and who are you know?” he asks his peers and, inadvertently, himself.

Which leads me to one final confession: this is the best part of teaching. When student engagement, choice, and creativity collide, students construct amazing pieces of work. I become a facilitator, answering questions, offering guidance, but I also get to step back and witness them create.

Write on!

Joe Belknap 

P.s. Love this idea as much as I do? Questions or Comments for Joe can be left in the comments here, or you can find him at Joe.Belknap@pwssd.k12.wi.us

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. 🙂

Design Thinking and the Classroom of the Future

I recently joined my district’s ReDesign team, a group of teachers and administrators who meet once a month to share ideas about design thinking, and work together to find ways to start applying it in our classrooms. Especially considering the project-based senior English class taught by myself and Ms. J, I felt that this would be an important group to take part in. At the first meeting I attended, our facilitator led the returning and new members in a design thinking challenge, to get us acquainted with what design thinking really means. Since design thinking involves a process based on interaction and problem solving, learning by doing was ideal. Our fearless leader, Mr. L, used materials from Stanford University’s Institute of Design (known as the d. school) to train us–I am quickly learning that the d. school has many invaluable, free resources available for those who want to learn more about design thinking. To get an idea of what it’s all about, and what kinds of things we examine on our ReDesign team, check out the Stanford Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking.

My first ReDesign meeting was a little over a month ago, and two very cool things have come out of it–one practical, and one a little more imaginative. I’d like to share both quickly in this post.

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First, the practical example. As mentioned above, design thinking is a natural extension of the work we’ve started with our seniors in English 12. (For more on our course design, see this post.) Now that our students have finished their inquiry-driven academic research papers, we are officially transitioning into the most design-heavy portion of the course, where students design, produce, and promote a project that relates to their area of research. Before we set the students loose solo, however, we decided to do a mini project with a little bit of guidance to get them used to this way of thinking and learning. This was an excellent time to share what I learned about design thinking directly with my students. (Here’s a version of the presentation that we shared with students, while mentoring them on a small scale project that spanned about a week from conceptualization to distribution: Design Thinking) Ms. J and I look forward to seeing what our kids can do when it comes to their independent projects… I am already solidly impressed with how much they have grown in their ability to work together, respond to feedback, iterate freely,  and think about the logistics of a final product with a specific audience in mind. We’ve since moved on to the initial prototyping for their individual senior projects, and it’s so exciting watching the students struggle but succeed through the problem solving process of finding the correct solution to a pertinent real-world problem or need associated with their topic. (Here’s our expectations guide that we’ve used to help students develop and frame their project/process plans: The English 12 Senior Project Expectations Guide) They are currently overwhelmed by the possibilities and the vastness of the task, but they are starting to trust the process, and that will guide each student to the right place in the end, even if that means that hundreds of different places are the right one!

The second cool thing that has already come out of my involvement with the ReDesign team has been the chance to imagine a little bit. During the first workshop, I was partnered with my colleague Mr. M, and we were tasked with envisioning a product that could help address a specific need within our classrooms. As we discussed the needs that we feel as teachers, many different things came up: better ways of communicating with students, ways to streamline and combine the many emerging classroom technologies that we already use, better ways to collect, assess, and archive student work in a meaningful fashion… So, since our challenge was on an imaginary unlimited budget, Mr. M and I designed the ultimate technological tool: smart desks with touchscreen surfaces that would instantly customize for each student. The desktop would contain the content and student work for all classes throughout a student’s career, allowing for archiving and review by teachers, students, and parents. Messaging capabilities would allow teachers to send quick reminders or notes to students. Students could type, speak, or write with a stylus to complete their work, which would be stored in the cloud and accessible from anywhere. Videochat and live workspaces would enable collaboration across classes and even schools. Media editing and learning software would be customizable and built-in. There would even be a mood indicator light on the side, so that teachers could know at a glance if a student was compromised or energized by emotion on that particular day. Students could touch and share, or group their assignments with a flick of the hand or the touch of a button. How cool would that be?!  We gloried in the freedom to ideate without limits and wondered how much money it would take to really bring the smart desk to life. But the most staggering thing was the realization that we came to: this kind of thing *will* be a reality in the years to come. In fact, as our friend Mrs. D tipped us off to, there are many others out there who are way ahead of us in envisioning the classroom of the future: Click here…

Adults often start to forget this, but really, anything that we can imagine, can be. By the time they turn 18, our students should believe that more than they did in kindergarten, not less. Because it’s possible and true.  Here’s to design thinking, and the wonder it brings.