Some Things I’ve Been Saying

two men talking

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in quite a few schools in our district lately. Whether it’s middle school teachers who will have new mobile devices in their hands and their classrooms in the next month or elementary teachers who have a couple years before the full deployment of mobile technologies in their room, they are beginning to think about how this change in setting will lead to a change in practice.

I find myself saying many of the same things. Much of what I’m saying is related not at all to devices or technology. Below are my current top three ideas in heavy rotation at the moment.

  1. It’s about the things kids are doing, rather than the things they are holding. I get the learning curve for the basics of turning on devices, loading them with content, etc. To make the impact, though, we’ve got to think of what we are asking students to do. We always have. The difference now is the things they are holding have become “personal” and mobile. The best question, “Are they doing things they couldn’t do yesterday and that you couldn’t do when you were in their place?”
  2. What is made and exists within the classroom in the time you have with your students that didn’t exist at the beginning of that class? It’s basic constructivism, and we don’t need to wait for computers to be guided by considerations of what we are asking students to create in our classrooms. If students are making things, it’s not guaranteed, but it’s much more likely than not that they are learning.
  3. Equally important are the questions of what is being created and for whom. There’s always going to be a piece (hopefully a sliver) of the teacher’s promoting in the things our students make in our classrooms. That’s okay. Dewey was sure to acknowledge that there was a reason teachers were in the room. He chalked it up to greater maturity. Still, if teachers finish creating with the answer of “Because it was assigned” or a derivative thereof when asked why they made what they made, we’ve missed the mark and missed the possibilities of choice and creation. Often this means envisioning what we want them to hold as ideas and understandings in their heads at the end of a project and leaving what they hold in their hands to them.

If we can grab hold of these three ideas as we investigate how coming technological changes will allow for shifts of teaching practices, we stand to see a sea change in the depths of our students’ learning.

Image via lovelornpoets

How do you say what your kids say?

A few weeks ago, I was observing a student teacher. In our debrief, I said, “When you’re asking students for answers, you put those answers into your own words much of the time. What might that say to the students?”

We then had a conversation about the possible implication that changing the students’ words could be perceived as correcting them – that what they were saying wasn’t good enough to be repeated as stated or written on the board verbatim during class notes.

My thinking has been that such switching of language could lead to decreased participation from students:

When I speak, she changes my words. This must mean that my answers are wrong. I should stop speaking so I don’t sound stupid.

I challenged the student teacher to make an effort to repeat answers as given and start writing them on the board verbatim.

As I read the second essay in Eleanor Duckworth’s “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. I’m starting to question this thinking. Discussing the work of one linguist, Duckworth writes:

If the children were asked to repeat a sentence of a form that did not correspond to their grammar (for instance, “I asked Alvin whether he knows how to play basketball”), they repeated the sentence, but with their own grammar (“I asked Alvin do he know how to play basketball”). It was not the words they retained, it was the sense. Then the sense was translated back into words, words that said the same thing but were not the same words.

That sound you might be hearing is my brain bubbling with questions:

  • If we accept that children’s retention of meaning, but discarding of words is a valid communication of meaning, does the same hold true for teacher’s repetition of children’s words?
  • Given the power structure of the classroom, does the teacher’s re-phrasing of a student’s response mean something different (or negative) than a student’s re-phrasing?
  • When do we decided re-phrasing student responses is teaching and when do we decide not to in favor of letting students know they’re free to share and expand on ideas?

I don’t have answers here, and would definitely benefit from hearing how other people think about how they accept student answers.

What does this look like in your practice?

Classy: A student’s vignette

As I wrote before, my G11 students are writing their autobiographies of their reading lives as vignettes. Semaj turned in the rough draft below and said I could share it. It’s a lovely thing.

My First Love

I can remember the first time I fell in love. His cover was smooth and smelled like the words had been freshly printed onto the page, the bind was crisp and hadn’t been broken. “The Pinballs” was neatly and evenly typed across the cover in big yellow letters. I knew I had to get used to the image of those words for that would be all I would see for the next couple of days. I learned to love his flaws, the way he randomly stopped starting a new chapter breaking the flow of our connection, or the way he told me just enough to leave me hanging but not enough to give me what I wanted in that moment. But I loved him. I stayed up with him every night and held him close to me everywhere I went.

We were inseparable – me and him.

I stayed up past curfew for him, hiding my face under the blankets using the light from my phone to illuminate up the words on the page. We were only together for 3 days. Three days is all it took for him to steal my heart. Three days is all it took for me to fall in love with him. When our time together had come to an end, I shed my first and last tear in honor of him and the characters we had met and had become a part of over those 3 days.

I will never forget my first love. I will never love another the way I loved him, because he was my first. He made me realize, although I may never love another the way I loved him, there are other out there worth loving . I will always love my first book.

Classy: Using social media to tell stories…real stories

I wrote a while ago about the stories my seniors are writing in our storytelling class. Each randomly drew one of Aristotle’s identified human emotions from a hat and was asked to let that emotion inspire a short story.

A few days later, the students partnered with one another with the goal of getting to know each other’s protagonists.

“What’s the name of one of your characters?” was the starting question. From there, the sky was the limit. They inquired about the characters’ favorite colors, their histories with their parents, what kind of students they were in middle school, their appearances – anything.

As partners questioned, they took notes on the answers. Those notes were handed over to the writers when the interviews were over as reminders of whom they were writing about. The activity proved informative.

“I’ve never really thought about who a character was before a story I was writing.”

“This makes me feel like I know the character, like she’s real.”

That’s the idea.

Then they wrote.

And wrote.

And wrote.

Last week, we read Atlantic Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal’s story outing Chicagoan Dan Singer as the man behind the twitory of @MayorEmanuel.

We discussed the idea that an entirely new genre of literature (or several) was being created in our lifetimes. Story was being transformed.

As it’s a storytelling class guided in part by the essential question, “How does the way we tell stories affect those stories,” it seemed a good idea to try our hands at these new genres.

Enter the project.

Description: Taking the story you wrote based off of one of Aristotle’s identified emotions, plot the timeline of your story, select the tool or tools you’ll want to use and tell your story in real time. Think of it as a mix of 24 and @MayorEmanuel.

I informally launched it Friday as an idea I’d been playing around with. Nothing formal. Just words in a conversation.

Monday, I handed out project descriptions and we started building. Today, we collaborated on the rubric.

Any online tool is fair game – Facebook, tumblr, twitter, youtube, anything.

In traditional arts and letters, we have fiction and nonfiction with the line blurring from time to time.

If everything can be read as a text and if the more traditional texts are moving online, is anything inherently nonfiction?

Some of what they’re writing violates user agreements. I don’t feel badly about that. If Mark Zuckerberg can play in my backyard, I can play in his.

One student has solicited his friends to also build character profiles to improvisationally interact with his protagonist and the events of the narrative. Other students have created public profiles on Facebook for their characters’ public thoughts and anonymous tumblr accounts for those same characters’ private thoughts. Anyone with both links will have the whole story, but either link will provide a different narrative.

Differing from Singer, we built blueprints and timelines for these stories. As I checked them in today, the students explained how they’d begun posting as exposition already.

Thursday I received a friend request on ‘Book from someone named Kwadwo Watcher. A few minutes later, I received the message below.

Another character started following me on twitter. A few students’ characters are following and friending one another with plans for intertextual cross-pollination.

All signs are pointing to the probability that this will be an interesting project.

Classy: When food drives the English curriculum

This semester, I’ve taken on teaching a new elective course called FOOD.

We met for the first time today.

Over the course of the semester, we’ll be meeting twice per week to look a the literary, social and scientific intersections of the foods we eat and our relationships to them.

Class today started with my description of one of my top comfort foods – mashed potatoes, with excessive butter, mixed with corn.

Then, I asked students to share their comfort foods.

It’s the opening to the first class assignment. A mentor professor of mine at Illinois State, Dr. Justice, is teaching a similar class for undergrad, grad and doctoral students this spring as well.

She designed the assignment.

From the comfort food discussion, we read Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River Part I.”

“River” is one of Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical Nick Adams stories wherein Nick returns to Michigan’s upper peninsula on a camping trip after a tour in Italy during World War I.

After making camp, Nick fixes a supper of pork and beans with spaghetti and tomato ketchup.

All along, we’re told his pack has been too heavy, that he’s carry too much around.

Dr. Justice (a leading Hemingway scholar) explained to me Nick is making a camp version of minestra di pasta e fagiole in an effort to hold on to his time in Italy.

Food as memory.

For next class, the students (and I) will be writing personal essays about our comfort foods and how they burrowed into our food identities. Part of the assignment asks them to explain how they would alter the assignment in the same way Nick does to fit the restrictions of hiking and camping.

For many more than I expected, the adaptation won’t be difficult. Several of them proffered comfort foods bought in boxes or bags. I’ll be curious to tally the final real-to-processed ratio of responses. Even more, I’m looking forward to the discussion of what cultural significance that ratio might imply.

I’m thinking of asking the students to research the inspirations for the processed comfort foods and compare the healthiness of the two versions.

Either way, I’m pretty jazzed about where this course is heading.


Classy: When is a table more than a table?

SLA had an influx of IKEA tables a few weeks ago. Our architect neighbors are moving away and donated furniture rather than moving it.

Yesterday, I had an idea.

I sat Will at one of the tables in the hall and we started to plan his essay.

At the end of the day, he’d done this:

Today, my seniors were planning their benchmark projects.

Here’s what they came up with:

By the end of the day, I’m hoping to transition completely the dry-erase tables.

Think of the possibilities.

Classy: Communal notes in gDocs

As I’ve written, Google Apps for Education is truly changing my practice this year.

We’re studying Jung’s idea of archetypes as they pertain to literature in my Sexuality & Society in Literature class. For an introduction, today, we read a simple introduction.

While the students were reading, I took my notes on key information and put them in a new gDoc.

On the side, I included comments on the ideas found in the notes. (We’ve been working on summarizing before offering up commentary.)

When the class was done reading, I had them close their computers and share their initial thinking on the ideas from the write-up. It was slow going. One of those moments where I can see the bigger picture and am thereby inherently more excited about the ideas we’re investigating.

When it felt like the conversation had reached critical mass, I moved to the screen and pulled up my gDoc of notes.

I pointed out that I’d included the title of the article (linked to the original text), author information, my name and notes on the key ideas, and notes containing my thinking and questions.

From there, I set them free to find more information with the directive of “build notes about archetypes in literature that work to answer our questions.”

The link to the editable gDoc was posted on the class moodle page. They logged in and started building notes.

As they built, I asked questions via the commenting tool to prod their individual investigation.

In the doc’s chat sidebar, I asked questions of the entire class to make sure our notes took on greater breadth.

Soon, the class will be writing essays with the help of their notes. Because of what they’re building, they’ll have the benefit of many minds as points of reference.

Next semester, when I’m teaching Storytelling, I’ll be able to produce the gDoc to introduce archetypes in conjunction with The Hero’s Journey.

Here’s what I didn’t do:

  • I didn’t build a wiki. I’m not interested in worrying about architecture, and a wiki would have required more click-throughs than seemed logical.
  • I didn’t have them blog. Though I’m making the work public here, the notes were meant for in-class use. Additionally, I wanted everything to live in the same place. While a common tag would have allowed the gathering of the posts, it wouldn’t serve the purpose of notes.
  • I didn’t use a discussion forum. The goal was putting the information in one place and allowing for the common culling of ideas. A discussion forum would have, again, required clicks. As the ideas within the students’ courses found connections at different points, threading discussion would have limited the intertextual connectivity of the reading.
  • I didn’t use guided notes. With the goal of exploration and investigation of dynamic concepts, guided notes would have put the onus on me and prevented one student’s uncovering of the periodic table of archetypes.

Though not perfected, this approach will be one I take again.

Classy: Bringing silly and embracing unsatisfactory

In the eyes of the over-trained, I was an unsatisfactory teacher for a good long time today.
My instructions to my junior English classes sounded something like this, “I’m going to give you five minutes. Talk to your team members about the high and low points of your break. Also, talk about what you’d like to get out of the first half of 2011.”
That was it.
At the end of five minutes, no one was held responsible for doing something with the information they just gained. No one reported out.
It gets better.
The next instruction, “You have two minutes to come up with a team cheer.”
Two minutes later, the class watched as each of the 8 teams of four performed their cheers.
A personal favorite, “My name is Jeff and I invite you to experience the bountiful garden that is Team 7.”
It was a good 10 minutes of class.
I left out the opening. I left out the new material. I left out the guided and independent practice. No objective was on the board. All told, I was fairly unsatisfactory.
I don’t care.
My students got new seats today. Many of them are sitting with kids with whom they might not otherwise socialize. For 10 minutes, they took time to get to know one another, to collaborate with their new team to create something without academic penalty and to present as a group something that built a collective identity.
And, to practice being silly.
For the rest of the class, focused research on a writing project with the potential to create positive change in their communities.
For 10 minutes, though, pure, unsatisfactory silliness.

Classy: Rethinking the conversation of revision in writing

As much as I believe the tools should be in the background, this is as much about tools as it is about learning.

Two years ago, I started asking my G11 students to write bi-weekly analytical essays on topics of their choosing. Every other week, they are responsible for drafting an original thesis, doing research to back it up and then composing a brief analytical essay proving their points.

The essays were dubbed “2fers,” as they were due every two weeks and assigned as being 2 pages in length.

Larissa Pahomov, my G11 English teaching counterpart also decided to have her students complete these papers. This quickly became a lesson in the effects of a grade-wide assignment. Every SLA senior knows 2fers, and every SLA sophomore knows they’re on the horizon.

This year, we tried something new.

Revision and editing are always difficult components of the writing process in a 1:1 program (and any other program, for that matter). Whereas my English teachers asked me to turn in copies of each of my drafts with my final copy, writing on the computer calls for something else.

I edit and revise as I compose on the computer. I’m editing and revising as I type this. My first sentence of this piece went through three drafts the world will never see.

Still, when I’m done writing something that’s a little shaky, I’ll send it to someone else to check out.

Most of my students don’t have that switch in their brain.

Physiologically, the adolescent brain isn’t built for reflection. Sharing an electronic doc via e-mail can end up with many copies. Printing can waste paper and creates one more thing to keep track of. If I think I’ve edited it whilst writing, wasting time to have someone else do the same thing, well, wastes time.

This year, the students are utilizing our new installation of google apps for education in their 2fer writing.

Here’s how it went down:

  • With a max of three 2fers per quarter, each student created a file in the first quarter that would contain that quarter’s 2fers.
  • Those files were shared with me.
  • I dropped each file in a shared folder so all students could see every other student’s work.

At first, students were told to pick the most ruthless editor they could think of and ask them to look at their first papers.

The first go wasn’t great. Not everyone looked at their chosen partner’s essay. Some people chose editors with skill levels insufficient for pushing their writing forward as far as possible.

For the second go round, I assigned each student to a group of three. They kept their original editors, but were also responsible for looking at the two others in their group.

Results improved.

Now, this is not to say I was completely removed from the process. On the contrary, I was in there as well.

When I was assessing, my comments were added to their peers’. The rubric was pasted at the end of each essay with targeted comments for improvement.

Here’s the beauty. On the second round of 2fers, I saw the students using the same language as I had used in my feedback. I didn’t need to correct formatting, they were doing it for one another.

At its best, the revision became wonderful asynchronous conversations about the ideas and arguments being made. At its worst, it was surface level revision. Either way, it brought improvement, and students were learning the habits and language of revision.

I know this looks like a writing workshop, but it’s not quite. I know it looks like an electronic portfolio, but it’s not quite.

It’s asynchronous nature challenges that. The fact that no conversation or draft is never really done challenges that.

What’s more, in a writing workshop, what gets turned in at the end is usually the final copy. The conversation that led to that copy is hidden or lost unless, like my high school English teachers, students are asked to turn in all drafts. Even then, I’m fairly certain that was a check for completion, not a check for conversation.

At the start of the second quarter, I asked students to review their Q1 docs and look for trends in the comments their editors and I left. From their, they wrote goals for improvement in the second quarter. Those goals were posted at the top of their Q2 2fer doc.

They brought the most important pieces of the old conversation with them to the new conversation.

I realize the pieces of this aren’t anything new. The process, on the other hand, and the tools utilize to build the process, strike me as something new. I’m throwing this in the “Doing old things better in new ways” category.

Classy: Long-form journalism, writing in digital margins and class discussion

A few months ago, my friend Max and another friend of his launched a site called

A week ago, Ben tweeted out a link to

I noted each site in the cache of my mind as something that could be useful in class.

I like the cache because it’s a place where ideas can marinate. (Pardon the mixed metaphor.)

My G11 students are completing a benchmark project right now. It’s one of those pieces where they have a bunch to work on, and we hand over class time to that collaboration. Doing only that can be monotonous.

To break the monotony this week, we’re playing with and

Last week, I ask each team of kids (they sit in tables of four) to head to longform an find a piece of journalism they thought would hold the class’ attention and produce thoughtful conversation.

The directions were simple:

  1. Work with your team to come to unanimous approval of the article you’d like to lead discussion on.
  2. Tell me.
  3. Using, read the article and draft discussion points and questions.
  4. Prepare to lead discussion for 35 minutes of one class period.

That’s it.

The discussions and debates about which articles to select were as interesting as the comments that started showing up in the digital margins. One team of all girls made it halfway through an article they agreed was highly interesting, but too mature for some of their classmates. I’d made the same judgment when they told me what they’d selected, but they needed to come to that conclusion on their own. Choice means realizing when you’ve made a bad one. They shifted and all is well.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll have a shared reading experience of some amazingly diverse and high-quality long-form journalism. The students will collaborate on how they interpret and question what they’re reading. The class will build their abilities to converse about a given text and build comprehension, analysis and intertextual reading.

My role will be that of a reader and thinker.

When I showed the class the first time, all I did was give them time to play and told them we’d be sharing our first impressions at the end of play time. Several times, their evaluation danced around the idea that they could see it as possibly useful if they had a clear purpose for using it. Its existence wasn’t inherently useful.

That’s what cache marinading is for.