Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Breaking Up and Moving On

Sometimes, teaching American Literature is tough. Early American lit involves so many historical documents and so much dense nonfiction. It can be daunting and overwhelming for students. While we want them to see the relevance of our forefathers in our everyday lives, and while those historical documents do frame the nation in which we now live, I really believe it's important for teachers to throw some spice and excitement into the writings of our founding fathers. We have to help kids find their own, personal meaning in these old letters, speeches, and founding documents.

One of my favorite writing projects that I ask my students to complete is a companion assignment to the Declaration of Independence. A fabulous teacher in my department, Terri Newton, gave me this assignment and allowed me to share it here. Terri is an incredible writing teacher. What I love the most about her is the heart she has for her students. She empathizes with and relates to kids in a way that is truly inspiring to me. She is also a lifeline for me as a "new to high school" teacher. The work she has shared with me has helped me so much in my transition to this new teaching position.

 The assignment is a breakup letter. We've all written them. We were probably in middle school, writing the letter on a ripped half-sheet of notebook paper, folding it up, and passing it across a lunch room. I ask my students to look at the Declaration of Independence not as a stuffy, old legal document, but as the ultimate guide to writing a break up letter. You can see the breakdown here. Terri created this excellent guide, and I can't thank her enough for sharing it with me and allowing me to share it with you.

I give kids this document, and I also give them a five paragraph outline. It looks like this:

  1. State the reasons that this breakup is necessary. What is wrong in the relationship? 
  2. Describe the ideal relationship. What would a healthy relationship look like? 
  3. Explain your right to end the relationship. What rights do you have as a person seeking happiness?
  4. Prove your accusations and state the "deal breakers." What makes this relationship unfixable? 
  5. State the consequences of ignoring your breakup letter. What is your final warning? 
I tell kids that they can write to anything or anyone. They can write to a negative person in their lives, a bad habit, a personal quality they dislike. My only condition is that they write to someone or something that really needs to leave their lives. 

Some students are pretty silly with this. I had several students write to their high school jobs, which are typically in fast food restaurants: 

Dear Taco Bell, 
Dear Wendy's, 

Others wrote to bad habits:

Dear Procrastination, 
Dear Junk Food, 

But I had far more kids write real, meaningful letters to people and things that have caused them pain and heartbreak. 

Dear Addiction,
Dear Ex-boyfriend, 
Dear Lack of Self Esteem, 
Dear Regret, 

As I was reading these letters my heart broke into a million pieces. At first, I wondered if students forgot I was going to be reading what they wrote, and I think some of them did. I think the act of writing and purging all of that frustration and sadness was so therapeutic for some of my students that they didn't think for a second about there being any kind of audience. It just felt right to get out all of their feelings. For others, I think they wrote these letters because they wanted someone to know. 

What I've noticed more and more this year is that kids need a champion. I've always known that, but I'm constantly reminded, now more than ever, that my job as a teacher isn't to talk; it's to listen. My job is to be present, to be available, to be a cheerleader, to be the person that kids know will challenge them and push them to be their best, not just as students but as human beings. I want the opportunity to challenge kids every day to tell stories in interesting ways, to address their feelings, and to grow and stretch themselves, even when it's hard and even when it hurts.

This assignment makes kids uncomfortable and vulnerable, and that's the place you have to go to tell the best stories. It's the place you go to stretch yourself and figure out how you're going to stand up for yourself and make yourself better. I found myself commenting on letter after letter: "I am so proud of you! You are awesome, and you deserve the BEST!" And it's true. Our kids DO deserve the best. There is nothing that hurts my heart more that the idea that my students don't feel loved and valued. I want them to know how much they matter. I want to make sure that I can give them my best when they walk in my classroom everyday. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Moving the Bookshelves

My high school has officially completed its first week as a 1:1 Macbook school. No one has done anything crazy with his computer or broken it...yet, although I'm sure some of those things will happen. Every student with whom I've interacted has been generally responsible and definitely excited about having this new device as a tool for learning. I've been so impressed with how easily students have made this transition. Typically, any change is going to be accompanied by grumbling and complaining of some kind, but I haven't seen that here.

I've been particularly impressed with my group of seniors. This week, I assigned them a poetry project in which they would work in small groups to teach an Anglo-Saxon poem to the class. I asked them to provide a recitation of the poem, analyze the poem and teach it to the class, and create some sort of assessment for their peers. I told them that they couldn't just allow their peers to sit and consume this new information; they needed to design a way for them to interact with it or show their new understanding. 

Those are pretty general guidelines. They could have simply stood in front of the class, recited the poem, droned on a bit with the help of a PowerPoint, and asked a few discussion questions. But that's not what they did at all. They got so excited about the opportunity to create something! One group used the green screen to create a filmed recitation of "The Seafarer." They reasoned that a true seafarer would not be standing in a high school hallway. He would be on the ocean. Obviously. So clearly the video also needed to have an authentic setting. One group decided to create an animation of their poem, similar to a mock epic we watched as a class called "The Wifi Hero." A third group, analyzing "The Wife's Lament," wanted to create a true song of mourning by using Final Cut Pro to make a music video of their poem. Several groups are creating Kahoot! reviews for their peers to complete at the end of the presentations.

I didn't ask for any of this. All I did was encourage them, cheer them on, and give them the space to figure it out on their own. What I think is often forgotten in traditional educational settings is that students really are dying to show what they know. The assumption is made that the motivation isn't there, or kids definitely want to do something wrong, or they don't have the energy to solve their own problems, but that's just not true. Yesterday, as I was helping one group with their video, another group moved a bookshelf to get to an outlet, so they could plug in their Macbooks to charge while they worked. A student laughed and commented, "They totally would not move a bookshelf in some of their classes." I asked why, and she said, "You can just tell which teachers mind if you move their bookshelves, and which teachers just want you to figure out on your own how to keep working and learning."

For the love, let's keep them working and learning please. You can move all the bookshelves if it means you're going to create these incredible products and guide your own learning process and discover your own resources. We have to remove the parameters of the factory model of education, with it's nice, neat rows and one-size-fits-all mentality. Learning should be personalized and engaging and enjoyable; sometimes that means things get a little messy, and you have to move the bookshelves. Isn't it worth it if we're teaching kids to be thinkers and creators in the process?

As I sit at home on this snow day and reflect on how fun it was to teach my classes this week, I can't help but get giddy, thinking about where we'll go from here.  We have so many incredible teachers in our building that are already engaging their students in innovative and exciting ways. I love my job all the time, but it's just so darn invigorating to be a part of this change and watch these students truly take ownership of their learning. Let's move the bookshelves and open up opportunities for students. They're ready and waiting for us to do so.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Rolling on the River: Huck Finn & Sphero

I wrote early in the semester about my first experience with using Spheros in a lesson in my English classes. While it was incredibly engaging and fun for the kids, what I loved most about the lesson was the critical thinking that it generated about complex texts. Giving students the opportunity to have an active, hands-on experience related to the text seemed to trigger a different kind of thinking in my students. It created a sort of relatability to these older texts that my kids couldn't gain by just having a class discussion about it.

My students have been asking about "those little robots" all semester, so I decided that early December was the perfect time to pull them back out for another lesson. This time, Dr. Michael Mills came to co-teach the lesson with me. We decided to have students use the SPRK app to do some block-based coding rather than having them use the basic Sphero app to manually control each Sphero during the activity. This added another layer of engagement but also another level of challenge to the activity. Many of my students had never been exposed to a program like this before.

The first time I used the Spheros, we had just read John Smith's A General History of Virginia and William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. This time, Dr. Mills and I decided that Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the perfect novel with which to integrate the use of the Spheros. After reading the novel, students completed a plot map and a character chart to ensure that they all had the necessary background knowledge to participate in the Sphero activity. 

Next, we moved all the desks into one corner of my room, so we had lots of space. Guys, I think my co-workers thought I was crazy, but the kids were so excited to walk into this altered classroom environment! After we cleared the room, we created the Mississippi River on my classroom floor. 
We placed markers along the river to represent various settings in the novel. When students came in to class, we asked them to form small groups. We had six Spheros for this activity, so we formed groups of 4-5 students. Each group was asked to pick a character for their Sphero to represent. We asked the kids to first create a storyboard for a small piece of the plot in Huck Finn in which their chosen character played an integral role. Then we asked them to create a second storyboard explaining how the Sphero could illustrate the character's emotions and actions in this part of the story. In addition, students could take notes about their code.
Once students had brainstormed as a group and completed the storyboard handout, they began programming the Spheros on the iPad. As they created, they began engaging in the process of inquiry by testing their code and making adjustments in order to make the Sphero do exactly what they wanted it to do. It was incredible to watch them cooperate with each other to problem solve and test their work until they got it just right. 

At the end of the class period, students got to present their Sphero's program to the class. They had to explain which character their Sphero represented, which part of the plot the Sphero was reenacting, and why they had chosen certain colors and actions for their Sphero's program. This forced them to go back to the text and establish a strong link between this activity and the novel. 

I have never seen my students so engaged! They were working together, discussing the characters' emotions, motivations, and actions, and they were learning some basic coding. Typically, when you throw all that at a reluctant learner, they throw up their hands and say "I can't!" Not a single kid said "I can't do this" during this lesson. What was great about the open-endedness of the challenge was that kids could differentiate for themselves. If they didn't feel very comfortable with the programming of the Sphero, they could choose a fairly simply section of the plot to reenact. If they felt really comfortable, they could choose more elaborate pieces of the story and create longer programs for the Sphero. It eliminated the struggle of having some students racing ahead while others needed more time.

As we head into Christmas break, I am already brainstorming new ways to incorporate the Spheros in my spring classes. Story identification races for The Canterbury Tales? Sphero battles for Beowulf? I just can't wait to see what we can make happen with these little robots next!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Thanks for the Struggle

With Finals week around the corner, I find myself reflecting on the chaos and the awesomeness of this semester of my life. One thing that I've always loved about being a teacher is the defined beginning and ending of each season within which I work. This year, since my students will be moving on to new classes in the spring rather than coming back to English class, I find myself feeling oddly nostalgic already. Teaching kids for only a semester is so bittersweet. I'm saying goodbye to such a fun, interesting group of students; I'm so excited for a restful Christmas break, but I am definitely sad to think that I won't see this group of kids everyday when we return in January. I feel like I'm really just getting to know some of them.

In reflecting on this semester, I realized that one thing I've really tried to stress through the literature we've read is the importance of thinking for oneself. I want my students to be free thinkers. I want them to be confident in their own ability to justify their opinions. I want them to pull away from the group think of the herd and figure things out for themselves. That is so hard in high school. Let's be real, it's difficult in adulthood, too. There is so much pressure to keep your head down and fit in; there is so much pressure to do what you're "supposed" to do. Society constantly tries to dictate our choices if we let it.

As I scroll through the news and social media lately, I can't help but start to worry about this herd mentality, this lack of critical thinking in our society.  Our kids have to learn to look critically and objectively at a problem and decide for themselves what they believe about that problem and its solution. There's a lot of danger in the alternative.

I've also found that removing the "right" answers has been liberating for many of my students this semester. Students that have been told for most of their secondary education that they aren't "good at school" have opened up and flourished in an environment of inquiry, a place where it's safe to ask questions and struggle and fail forward.

I'm so thankful everyday for the opportunity to be a part of this journey with my students. I love that I get to build a community of learning where we walk through open doors of thought instead of standing in front of closed doors of conformity and wrong answers and doing what's always been done.

This semester, I feel like I've stretched myself as a teacher more than I ever have before. Having a clean slate to plan a course gave me the freedom to take things I've always wanted to do and do them. It gave me the courage to change it up because what did I really have to lose? It's been frustrating and intense and stressful at times, but it's definitely been worth it. If I'm going to ask kids to struggle, then it's only fair that I join them in that struggle to be better every day. I'll just tell you this. It's been a great struggle so far.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Remembering Why I Teach

It's very easy to lose perspective in the classroom. So many things have to be done right this second that, at times, the bigger picture gets blurry; I'm so hyper-focused on the to-do list items that have the most immediate implications for my stress level that I lose the why. Recently I was reminded exactly why I teach when I received a letter from a former student that brought me back to the big picture, and it couldn't have come at a better time.

Dear Ms. Herring, 

I am in 8th grade Careers class. Our assignment is to pick our favorite teacher and write why you're so special. I picked you! I want to start off by saying you were the best teacher ever. You made things fun. Every day in your class, I felt so safe. I felt like it was okay to fail, and if I did, you would help me. I never liked English until 7th grade. I was a slow learner, but you kept trying and didn't give up on me. Most teachers didn't care. Without you, I most likely wouldn't be where I am now. I just want to say thank you so much for not giving up on me throughout the school year. 

Every afternoon when I would leave your class, we would say goodbye, but you would say "Have a great day, Raven!" It might not seem like a big thing to you, but it was to me, knowing that after class you would be there smiling at me. You always made my day when I left. It really meant a lot to me when you would not let me fail. You always said "You can do it" or "You can be better. I know you can." 

I know you might not remember me, but that's okay. I just want you to know I am thankful I got to meet you. 

Ya'll. I literally got closer to tears with every. single. word. this child wrote to me. Teaching is a struggle sometimes. Between the paperwork, planning, grading, and classroom managing, there are days when it's hard to remember the "why," but this sweet student reminded me exactly why I chose this profession. I chose it because kids are important, and the idea that there are kids in our educational system that feel forgotten and lost breaks my heart into a million pieces. I love my content, but I can live in a world where I don't talk about beautiful literature everyday. I simply can't live in a world where there are kids who need to be loved and nurtured and reminded that they have the potential for awesomeness.

As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I find myself reflecting on things for which I'm thankful. My job is definitely one of those things. It may be frustrating and overwhelming at times, but it also provides me with the opportunity to interact with kids everyday who need to be reminded that they are capable of more than they think. It gives me the opportunity to encourage kids to fail forward. We grow the most when we mess up and figure out how to pick ourselves up and try again. These moments of painful growth are probably our most valuable, but in an age where quick fixes make failure seem like the stuff of losers, our students need us to help them dust themselves off, so they can try again. They need to be reminded that they can do better and that our classrooms are the safest places for them to figure out how to be successful.

So as we finish out this final week before Thanksgiving break, and as we inch toward the close of the semester, I find myself recommitted to the why. I teach for kids like Raven. I teach because every kid matters. I teach because every kid deserves to know he matters.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Six Word Story Short Films

One of the classes that I'm teaching this year is a nine-week course for sophomores called Beyond Writing. The course is a required elective that every sophomore takes in the fall as an introduction to high school writing. We teach four weeks of narrative writing, followed by four weeks of research and synthesis writing, and we weave in academic vocabulary and ACT grammar skills throughout the course. I really enjoy teaching this course because I love to teach writing. My students, however, sometimes come into the course feeling like it's redundant. Some of them don't understand how this class is any different from their English 10 courses.

Because of this, I decided that I wanted to choose writing topics and mentor texts that would be highly engaging and relevant to students. I also wanted to incorporate forms of writing that used less words to share big ideas. This summer, I met fellow Apple Distinguished Educator, Don Goble, and learned about the six word story films that his students create. I knew immediately that this was the first narrative I wanted my students to write for me.

Now, I'm not a film teacher. I can use iMovie on the iPad and Mac fairly well, but I really had no prior knowledge about camera angles for shots. I just knew that I wanted my students to tell me a story about themselves in six words. I wanted my reluctant writers to see that brevity is just as challenging and verbosity. I wanted them to find powerful images in just one phrase or sentence. I started by sharing this handout with my students in Google Classroom. I like giving them access to information through hyperlinks rather than making hundreds of copies and wasting paper.
Students complete this project in three 90-minutes class periods. The lessons look like this: 
  • Day 1 - Introduce project; read and discuss New York Times article about the importance of brevity; brainstorm and workshop six word stories in small groups. 
  • Day 2 - Choose one six word story with which to continue working; review camera shots and angles; complete a storyboard graphic organizer, so you know what you need to film at home.
    • Day 2 Homework - Students must film their six shots for their six word stories and upload them to Google Drive. Since my iPads stay in my classroom, this is the simplest way for students to access their videos on our school devices. 
  • Day 3 - Provide a short tutorial on iMovie; students create their films and upload them to Google Classroom for grading and sharing with the class. 
My first set of students completed this project in August, and it went fairly well. It was the first week of school, and it was my first week teaching a new grade level. While I was happy with what my students were able to create, I felt that I could have done a better job of facilitating the process for them. My second quarter class just completed their projects, and I could not be more proud of their hard work and excitement for this project. What I love about these projects is that each one really shows that student's personality, so it's a great way to get to know your students at the start of the course. I also love that it challenges students to choose their words carefully. Not only do they have to be brief by narrowing their ideas to six words, but they also have to be sure that there are strong images in the words that they choose. This is just good writing, plain and simple. 




Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Welcome to Shakescenter: My First Green Screen Lesson

I survived my first quarter as a high school English teacher! I've been meaning to write a post for weeks, but it seems like weeks are flying by at an alarming rate these days. I realized this week that I only have six and a half more weeks with these students. That's crazy! 

The past few weeks have been full of learning experiences as I continue to navigate my way through this new position, the new planning, and the new age group. One of my biggest goals in this new position was to find ways to make complex, challenging literature more accessible to my students, who often find themselves asking, "Why are you making me read this?" 

Shakespeare is no exception. I was excited to teach Hamlet this quarter, but I was also nervous. The language is beautiful, but it can also be daunting for students who are already struggling readers. I wanted to find a way to help my students gain confidence with this difficult text, and I wanted them to walk away with a true understanding of the play's plot and the interactions among the characters. When I was in high school, I loved English class, but I hated writing commentaries. I find that many of my students have a similar aversion to analytical writing. They can talk about the text and always have insightful comments in class discussion, but when I ask them to write, that somehow goes out the window. 

Therefore, I decided that we were going to create video commentaries of Shakespeare. I also decided that we were going to model them after Sportscenter. I give you, Shakescenter!
You can view the student handout here. After reviewing some basics about Shakespeare's life and work, I showed the Folger Shakespeare Library's Insider's guide video on Hamlet. We also discussed the connections between the main characters since there are a lot of important characters that are interconnected in this play. Then, I asked students to select a partner with which to complete a scene analysis and commentary video. I assigned each group a different, critical scene from the play. Students followed this process: 
  • Read the scene with a partner. 
  • Compare the original language to a modern adaptation to ensure comprehension and understanding. 
  • Identify the 2-3 most critical moments in the scene.
Once students had completed this work, I asked them to write a script for their episode of Shakescenter. The script had to include an introduction, analysis and commentary of the 2-3 critical moments on which they chose to focus, and a sign-off.  I used an episode of Sportscenter from YouTube to model what I was wanting students to do. On Sportscenter, you don't watch a whole game or a whole press conference; you only get the highlights. I wanted students to identify the "highlights" of Hamlet and explain their significance to the class.

After students composed and practiced their scripts, they were asked to create a storyboard of the scenes they would include in their Shakescenter episode. At this time, with the help of Dr. Michael Mills at UCA, I also gave students access to movie clips of the play that coincided with their assigned scenes. In order to ensure that students were still having to analyze and create, we gave students big chunks of the film, so they had to identify the 15-20 second "highlights" they had chosen and edit down their pieces of film to only include the most critical moments. This challenged them to analyze the film version in addition to the text version

Finally, after my students had done all this writing, planning, and practicing, we were ready to film. Dr. Mills came and joined us for class, and it was awesome to be able to co-teach this lesson, especially since it was my first time using a green screen. 
We used Green Screen by Do Ink for the green screen portions of the video, and it worked perfectly. Once they had filmed the scripted pieces of their work, they used iMovie to cut and edit their clips from Hamlet and to piece their work together into a finished product. Once each group was finished editing, they turned the finished product in to me through Google Classroom. We watched each episode of Shakescenter: Hamlet Edition in order, and we discussed whether the class thought each group had truly chosen the most critical pieces of the scene. Students also noted the growing tension in each scene as the play progresses toward the demise of all the main characters in the final fight scene. 

This project held a lot of firsts for me. It was my first time to teach Shakespeare, and it was my first time to green screen in the classroom (or anywhere for that matter). It was also the first time I've ever "flipped" the study of a major literary work in my classroom and given students this much creative license. I loved all of these firsts so much. My kids were truly engaged in this work. They knew their scenes well and understood how the scenes of the play were connected and moved the action forward. They decoded language with their peers and drew connections to song lyrics and modern-day situations. Were there some snags and some things that I'll do better next time? Absolutely. But overall, I feel like it was a success because my kids were so excited about Shakespeare. They couldn't wait to share their videos with the class. 

You can view some of their work here.