Monthly Archives: May 2013

If you haven’t heard of TED, you probably haven’t spent much time around the internet. This non-profit organization’s online community, recorded lectures (known as “TED Talks”), and events are hands-down one of the most amazing resources available, not only for teachers, but for all intelligent people who want to partake of the “Ideas Worth Spreading” gathered from some of the best minds in all types of fields.

Throughout second semester, I’ve been (secretly!) collaborating with TED-Ed, a branch of TED that focuses on making great lessons from real teachers available online in the form of short, animated videos. The site also allows teachers to easily flip the video as a full lesson, with links to supplementary materials as well as the ability to add objectives, ask questions, and monitor online discussion. For anyone into teaching and learning, it’s seriously awesome.

So you can imagine my excitement when, this winter, I was contacted by TED-Ed to talk about a lesson that I had submitted: tips on how to find the “deeper meaning” of a text when writing about works of literature. After my lesson was chosen for development, I went through a phone interview, revised several written drafts of my script, and eventually got approved to record. Using a special portable soundbooth that was sent to me in the mail, I was able to upload several takes of the narration, and eventually moved to online collaboration with an animator that I was matched with. The final result is the video below, which went live today!  I am so proud to be a contributing member of the TED community–creating this video was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had as an educator. 🙂

Those of you who know me know this: I have a Shakespeare problem. Well, maybe more of an obsession than a problem. In fact, the only problem is that the world does not have enough Shakespeare-related things in it! As much as I do consider myself a teacher with very contemporary methods and an eye to the future, I also look forward to teaching Shakespearean texts each year with the anticipation of a child before a birthday party. I love the stories. I love the language! I love the drama!! SHAKESPEARE!!!

…Like I said, I have a problem. But the point of this story is how I have proudly transferred this problem to the next generation: a very satisfying accomplishment. After our Romeo and Juliet unit this year, a small group of my sixth hour sophomores were sad that it was over. They half-jokingly requested that I set aside one day a week during our enhancement (RtI) period to preside over a Shakespeare club so that we could act out more Shakespearean plays together. I narrowed my eyes momentarily as I attempted to discern if this was some type of crude joke. My heart fluttered. As it turns out, it was an earnest request. Shakespeare Club was formed in the next 30 seconds with my single word response: “Done.”

 To my great delight, Mr. M agreed to join me in the teaching/ play/ performance/ monitoring of Shakespeare Club. I gathered a list of interested parties (about 12 students), and sent each one a sealed invitation, anonymously delivered during lunch or via friends:


We started with Macbeth, reading from the No Fear Shakespeare text for maximum accessibility during our brief time each week. Before each meeting, I previewed the section so that I could explain and narrate as needed while student actors milled about. I also created index card nametags with brief descriptors for each character that would be speaking (such as “Lady Macbeth – Straight-up Crazy” or “Donalbain – Duncan’s other son”), so that we could keep straight who was playing whom. Each week, students could select a part to read and take part in the action. All were welcome. Overjoyed but still dubious, I thought it might last two weeks at best.

That, however, was not the case. We eventually had pretty consistent attendance of over twenty kids who came each week to read Macbeth. We got T-shirts made. We also held a brief discussion of the play and had a “Monologue-Off” where both teachers and students prepared original-language Shakespearean monologues to perform for the group. We rewarded these actors with copies of Shakespearean texts that I was able to pick up at Half Price Books for a steal. Shakespeare Club was pretty darn awesome, and it’s something I hope I can take with me into future years of teaching, because–in my humble opinion–there are more kids out there who need to get irreversibly hooked on Shakespeare.

10 Things I learned in Shakespeare Club

1. Shakespeare attracts a great mix of kids–spotlight hoggers, Ivy league aspirers, fun lovers, romantics, literature heads, misfits, and kids who just like to pretend that they have swords.

2. Shakespeare Club is actually an acronym (C.L.U.B) for Come Learn Ur Bard.

3. Even kids who aren’t confident inhabiting themselves can bravely inhabit a Shakespearean role.

4. Don’t take advice from witches.

5. Caliban’s hunched, bumpy back can be crafted by shoving plastic cups beneath one’s shirt.

6. There actually is such a thing as a freshman who will independently memorize and then perform Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy flawlessly for absolutely no other reason than having the opportunity to do it.

7. Cool t-shirts are one of the best ways to raise awareness for a niche academic club. (Thank you, CustomInk.)

8. Students love to cheer for each other.

9. Students get important things from reading modernized Shakespeare. They also get important things from working with the original language.

10. Shakespeare continues to “amaze indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears,” even on Fridays, at the end of the day, amidst a group of squirrely 14-18 year olds.


Does anybody else out there have a Shakespeare Club for high school students? When and how do you run it? Does anybody want to start a ring of Shakespeare Clubs that can communicate online and/or occasionally meet in person to attend plays and such? What do you think? Like the Universe as Text Facebook page to start the conversation! 🙂

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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. 🙂

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.