Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Pre-writing with Pinterest and Other Projects

Two posts ago, I mentioned that I used Pinterest with my seventh graders for the first time this past spring and loved every minute of it! Now that it's almost a new school year, I wanted to post a little more about the nuts and bolts of how this worked in my classroom. Hopefully, you'll consider using Pinterest for student assignments, too! It's an awesome curation tool that kids are already familiar with because most of their moms use it to craft or decide what they want to cook for dinner.

Before I talk about the wonderful parts of working with Pinterest, I feel like it's only fair to share the struggles. First, if students do not have email addresses that they check and can use to verify their accounts, you're going to be stuck dealing with the dreaded "safe mode" after about three days of working, which locks students out of their Pinterest accounts. However, if you're working with younger students, or you are in a district where students don't have email access, you can set up dummy accounts using a personal Gmail account. Here's a link to an easy tutorial on how to do this. This allows you as the teacher to go in and validate all of their accounts. If I had known I would run into this problem, I would have taken this route with my kids from the beginning. You live and you learn.

The only other "struggle" I would say I initially had was shifting students' ideas about the purpose of Pinterest. When we started the project, boys saw Pinterest as a "girl website," and girls saw Pinterest as a place to collect cute outfits and inspirational quotes. I had to teach my students that Pinterest was basically a digital scrapbook or storyboard. It was a place to curate research and story ideas. Some students grasped this fairly quickly, while it took others a day of pinning to start to understand the purpose of their work.


Instead of using a traditional character development worksheet for pre-writing in our narrative unit, I asked students to create two Pinterest boards, a Main Characters board and a Setting board. I then asked them to add pins to these boards that would help them add detail and description to their writing. At first, I asked them to add "brainstorm pins" that would help them visualize the basic beginnings of the stories in their minds. After our first class period working with Pinterest, I asked students to go beyond searching pins within Pinterest to doing story research with Google and pinning from other sources. After our second day of work, students started to ask if they could create additional boards for Conflicts and Secondary Characters. I was thrilled! Students really took ownership of this process, and the engagement I saw during research was awesome! I could easily see using this same process for research on nonfiction topics as well.


As I mentioned in my earlier post, not only did students enjoy this pre-writing process, but they also showed significant gains in their writing. On average, students' narratives were twice as long as narratives written from a traditional pre-writing worksheet, and they included rich detail that students could not have included without first researching their topics. For example, one of my students wanted to set her story at Sea World. Her main character was a dolphin trainer working with a dolphin that had a prosthetic fin. The technical detail she incorporated into her story would not have been included had she not deeply researched the topic. Students also scored higher on our narrative writing rubric than they had when using traditional brainstorming methods.



I was telling a teacher friend how excited I was about this project last spring, and she decided to add Pinterest as a project option in her mythology unit. Students had to role play as their chosen Greek god or goddess and create a Pinterest board to represent the characteristics of that person. What a great way to get students to analyze characters and myths! Her kids really got into this project. You can see screenshots from her students' Pinterest boards here. I love this idea, and I feel like you could do something similar with character analysis in a novel study.

In all honesty, I went in to this project a little skeptical about whether or not it would have an impact on kids' academically. At first glance, it definitely seems like kids would find this fun, which I am all about, but I was pleasantly surprised by the ways in which it made research feel more accessible to my students. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Reflections on #ADE2015

Now that I've had a couple days to recover from the overwhelmingly awesome experience that was Apple Distinguished Educator Institute 2015, I feel like I can begin to properly express all the excitement I feel about beginning a new school year and all the gratitude I feel for the opportunity to be surrounded by such seriously amazing educators.

I took a lot of things away from my time in Miami, but I think the most important thing I brought home with me was a renewed mentality about teaching. I ended last school year thrilled about my new job but also incredibly tired. I've been struggling all summer to wrap my mind around this new curriculum and how I want to teach it. The four days of ADE 2015 were the first days of this summer when I felt really and truly thrilled about this opportunity for change next year. Part of that was because of the amazing English teachers I met. I gained so many fresh ideas and had so many meaningful conversations about teaching English that I went home literally giddy about how I want to structure my class this year.

The other, bigger part of this renewed mindset has to do with the culture of the Apple Distinguished Educator program. When I arrived at the airport to go home, I happened to be at the same gate as three other ADEs who were traveling home as well. Two of these people were new members like myself, and one of them had attended Institute as an alum of the program. As we sat talking about our week, he said that one of the most important pieces of ADE culture is "Yes, and..." Instead of saying "Yes, but" when someone brings an idea to the table, you say "Yes, and..." Add to the idea instead of taking it away. Continue to grow and nurture that idea into something even more awesome.

As I traveled home on Tuesday and started to unpack and return to "normal life" yesterday, I kept coming back to this idea of responding "Yes, and..." I realized that earlier this summer I had been responding "Yes, but" to a lot of things. If you think about it, it's the knee jerk reaction we often have to any new idea or way of thinking. It's the response we hear a lot of the time in education.

Yes, but it's too expensive, and we can't fund it.

Yes, but that's not the way we've always done it. 

Yes, but those students will never be able to do that. 

"Yes, but" is an exhausting answer. It stifles creativity and innovation and discounts what we could accomplish if we just went for it and trusted that with hard work and focus we could create something amazing. What if we started responding like this?

Yes, and I feel sure we can find the funding to make that happen. Let's look for grants. 

Yes, and we can take this idea and take it to an even higher level of innovation. Let's work together. 

Yes, and all students can achieve if we guide them toward greatness. Let's help these students feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in doing something they thought they never could. 

I am officially a huge fan of "Yes, and..." This year, let's start answering, not with doubt, but with faith in the abilities of teachers and students and administrators.  Let's be team players who are excited about innovation and creativity and generally making the education world a much cooler place to work. I'm so excited I have a whole new ADE family to keep me responding with a strong "Yes, and..."

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Change and Excitement and Busyness

I'm back! May and June were such a crazy whirlwind of change and excitement and busyness! There have been so many things I've wanted to write about in the past two months, but when it came down to it, I typically ended up having to choose between blogging and sleeping, and it's clear which of those things won out for me. It's been a long time since I let things lag for so long on here, so I'll give you a little update on my life in the classroom.

Toward the end of April, I found out that I was accepted into the Apple Distinguished Educator Class of 2015. I have never been so excited about anything related to my work! I literally jumped on my couch like a 12-year-old girl, and I am not even exaggerating. My roommate, bless her, got excited with me and for me and joined in this excessive celebration, which is why I love her. There's nothing better than a friend who celebrates successes, even if she's not 100% clear on why you're so excited. Anyway, I leave for ADE Institute tomorrow, and I am thrilled to be learning from and working with some of the most innovative educators in North America. I just know that this experience is going to rekindle a sense of excitement and newness in my work, and I am so ready for that! I can't wait to meet the rest of the Class of 2015 and get to work.

In the month of May, I completed a newer version of the Science Fiction iBook project that I've completed in past years. This year, in cooperation with some colleagues at the University of Central Arkansas and a fellow teacher at my school, I introduced my students to Pinterest as a research and character-building tool as part of an action research study. It made for a very busy month of May, but I am thrilled with the results! Students who used Pinterest to develop their short stories wrote almost twice as much as students who used a traditional character development sheet, and they included so many intense, vivid details about their characters and settings. It was so exciting to watch their writing, and their excitement about their writing, develop throughout the project. This project is a whole separate blog post in itself, so I promise I'll share more. Just know this: Pinterest is a powerful curation tool for students. I'm so glad this project provided the opportunity to teach kids that it's more than a place for recipes and crafts.

In June, I taught two sections of a Models of Teaching course at UCA, and I gained a whole new respect for every professor I ever had in a summer session. I know it was an intense experience for my students, many of whom were taking multiple five-week courses at once, but it was an intense experience for me, too. Adjusting to teaching the course in that shorter time span, rather than in a traditional semester, was definitely interesting, and, having done it once, I look forward to the opportunity to being better at teaching it in this abbreviated form the next time around.

The biggest and most bittersweet change I experienced in the past two months was moving out of "the middle." About halfway through this past school year, I started to feel like I needed a change of pace. I love middle school, particularly my middle school, so much. It's been such a warm and wonderful environment, and it was the perfect place to spend the first four years of my career. But when a position became available at our high school, I decided it was worth a shot. Next year, I'll be teaching 11th grade American Literature, Honors 12 British Literature, and some nine-week writing courses. While I'm very excited about this change, I'm also not ashamed to admit that I'm a little overwhelmed. There is so much to do and plan and figure out. I'll be working with a great team of teachers, but I need to wrap my brain around this new content and this new age group. So I've moved to a new "middle place" that's also old and familiar. It's the middle place where you have to "fake it 'til you make it," at least a little bit.

With all this newness, I'm sure I'll have plenty of blogging material moving forward, and I won't go another two months before I post anything again. I'm ready for a whole new set of challenges and a whole new sense of being "in the middle." It's going to be just great!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Stirring Up Fresh Life, Endlessly

We completed PARCC testing today. Before we started the test yesterday, a student asked me, "Ms. Herring, does the PARCC test help me get into anything?" I asked him what he meant, and he said, "like, will this help me get into 8th grade? or high school? or college?" I said that his performance on this test would not, in fact, get him into or out of anything. However, his performance would potentially be a reflection on my teaching ability, so I would appreciate it if he would just try his very hardest to do his best. He smiled and said he would do that for me.

After the test, I was flipping through a copy of Madeleine L'engle's A Wrinkle in Time that was sitting on my desk. We just finished reading the novel earlier this week before testing began. As I flipped through the back of the novel, I noticed that her 1963 Newberry Award acceptance speech was printed after the last chapter.  I had never read it before, so I stopped to read those few pages. You can read the full text here. As I was reading, this particular passage really stuck out to me:

Because of the very nature of the world as it is today, our children receive in school a heavy load of scientific and analytic subjects, so it is in their reading for fun, for pleasure, that they must be guided into creativity. These are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin. This is the limited universe, the drying, dissipating universe that we can help our children avoid by providing them with "explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly."

Guys, she wrote this in 1963. I read that, and I couldn't help but think about the fact that I had just administered a test which is both standardized and regimented. So much of education does give the appearance, as L'engle suggests, of making "muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin." But that's not why I became a teacher. I became a teacher because I wanted to engage students in a true, in-depth look at who they want to be as unique and awesome human beings. I became a teacher because I want to provide students with that explosive material that will stir up real life and stir up imagined worlds that they can create in their own minds and stir up all the infinite possibilities that lie ahead of them if they only manage to hold on to their creativity in a world of education that sometimes seems to just value filling in the blank.

I want my students to be so excited to walk into my classroom. I want them to know that it's cool to make mistakes because that's what leads to innovation. I don't want to contribute to "the drying, dissipating universe." I mean, yikes! That's some strong language. I wonder what Madeleine L'engle would think about today's educational landscape. There are so many amazing teachers encouraging their students to be change-makers and inventors and writers. However, for every teacher who is doing everything they can to ignite creativity and a passion for learning, it feels like there is also a politician who is trying to steal autonomy and creativity away from teachers. I don't have any of the answers. All I know if that I'm on Team L'engle. I want to create little sparks of excitement for learning every. single. day.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Differences Make Us Stronger

In this year's study of A Wrinkle in Time, I've decided to really focus on characterization. I love all the characters in this fantastic book, but my favorite character is definitely Meg Murry. I love how awkward and unsure of herself she is because I feel like so many of my seventh graders can relate to her. Meg sees herself as a "biological mistake," but without her perceived weaknesses, she would never be able to find her strength and save the day at the end of the book.

Before having students analyze the characters in the book this week, I asked them to analyze themselves. I told them not to give me the first answer that came to mind or the answer that they thought I wanted to hear. I reminded them that we don't just read books for the sake of reading; we read books to get to know ourselves better and to make us better, more informed human beings. I was amazed at how many of my students really listened and took what I said to heart. Most of my students throughout the day sat and really, truly thought about their personal traits. It was so interesting to me how many of my students stared blankly at their papers, struggling to decide on a personal trait, maybe even a personal "weakness" that could make them stronger.

Here are some of my favorite answers...

Everyone knows that I'm a shy, isolated person. But sometimes I can use it to my advantage. No, the shyness doesn't give me strength, but choosing to isolate myself does. It allows me to think about the good and bad things that have happened each day and what I could have done or said. That helps me with tomorrow because I will push myself into being a better person tomorrow. 
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I think one special trait that has helped me in life is that I'm weird. A good weird. I'm like a mix of every personality balled up into one human. I'm sporty; I'm outgoing, but I'm also shy. I like to look nice, but not too fancy. I have many friends, but not enough to make me "popular." It has given me strength because it allows me to be friends with all kinds of people, and it's easy to work with many people. I use this quality every day. 
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To me, the ability to be imaginative is a very important part of my personality because my imagination has a very big effect on how I go about life. My imagination allows me to be open-minded to new ideas in life, but does not affect my stubbornness in other things like my loyalty to my friends. Imagination is also what fuels my love for writing, art, reading, and music, among other things. But above all these things, imagination is what fuels my ability to believe and to add life to my stories. 
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One special trait that has helped me through life is that I don't care what people say I can't do. It has given me strength because even though people say I can't do something, it just makes me want to do that thing even more. I use this trait everyday and always. Our differences make us stronger because we are unique in our own way. 
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The one thing about me that makes me unique is my creativeness. The inside of my head is an entire city of things and characters. Everyday my creativeness and imagination will forge a new thought from the fires of my spinal cord, and the forge masters of my brain. Some days, I brings them to life, whether on paper, or by Legos and video games. My creativity is my best friend and my only escape. 

What I loved the most about this assignment was that I feel like I rediscovered some of my students. As we muddle through "testing season" at school, it's easy to feel overloaded with clerical tasks and test prep and altered daily schedules. This assignment was like a breath of fresh air. It was so delightful to see my students open this door into their personalities for me. Their differences definitely make them stronger, and knowing what they value in themselves encourages me to be a stronger teacher, the kind of teacher that values their individuality and fosters their strengths everyday.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Serenity Prayer for Teachers

One year for Christmas, when I was in college, my mom got me a little silver plaque with the Serenity Prayer engraved on it. She's always known that I like to be in control, and apparently she knew much better than I did that I needed a constant reminder that I don't always get to make the decisions. When I first started teaching, that little Serenity Prayer plaque was the first thing I set up on my very first teacher desk. It's been on my desk at work, in basically the same place, ever since then. Honestly, there are many days when I forget that it's there at all. But lately, I've found myself repeating that little prayer in my head throughout the day.

If you've every read any post I have ever written before, you may have a sense that I am a girl who likes to be in control of things. I like order and focus and a clear plan of action. However, I have been reminded in so many ways over the past month or so that I simply can't have all those things all the time. Our English team at the middle school has been doing a book study on Deliberate Optimism by Debbie Silver, Jack Berckemeyer, and Judith Baenen since January and today in our discussion I was reminded all over again that I may not always get to make the choices, but I definitely get to choose how I live with them. In honor of my fellow teachers, I would like to recommit myself today to being more deliberately optimistic. We may not get to make all the choices, and we may sometimes feel like we're under attack with all the choices that are being made for us. I'm not saying we need to just lay down and take that. I'm simply saying that there are adult-centered mindsets and then there are student-centered mindsets, and we have to remember why we choose to get up and walk into our classrooms each and every day. 

So here's the Serenity Prayer I've been saying recently:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...
  • I can't change the fact that I have to give a state mandated standardized test that takes away from instructional time.
  • I can't change the fact that this legislative session has felt like an attack on my professionalism.
  • I can't change the fact that there are more administrative tasks to be done in my classroom than hours in a day.
Courage to change the things I can...
  • I can change my attitude toward tasks I'd rather not complete.
  • I can change my emotional reaction to things beyond my control.
  • I can change my approach to each day by choosing to focus on the positive.
And wisdom to know the difference...

This is the real struggle. I find that it's in my nature to want to fix things that aren't working. However, there are moments when we just have to realize that, while parts of the system are struggling, there are some really awesome bright spots in education. There are fantastic educators making amazing, student-centered choices everyday in public education, and I want to be one of those people. I want to keep making lemonade out of my lemons. I had a very awesome, very student-centered principal who used to start every morning by reminding the students and teachers to "Make it a great day or not; the choice is yours." I've been so conscious of that choice lately. I hope I can find the serenity to always make the right ones. 


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Busy Doesn't Equal "Not Bored"

I have really been struggling to find my voice over the past couple of weeks. The month of March has been ridiculously busy so far. I spent the first week of March trying to recuperate from snow days and triage my lesson plans and pacing guide after missing seven school days in three weeks. Then I spent the second week of March at SXSWedu in Austin experiencing so many fantastic panels and sessions and meeting so many wonderful people in the ed tech landscape. Now, I'm spending the third week of March PARCC testing my students and scrambling to get grades posted for report cards, so that I can enjoy spring break during the fourth week of March. And just like that, the month of March is gone.

Each time I've had a moment to breathe in the past two or three weeks, I've opened my laptop to blog, and nothing productive has come out of my brain. I've deleted several drafts after reading them and feeling like there was nothing there that I really wanted to say. It's been so frustrating to have so many thoughts in my brain and feel like I can't really articulate them in any kind of cohesive way.

However, for the past week I have had the same quote ringing through my brain, and it won't go away. One of the keynote speakers at SXSWedu this year was Emily Pilloton, the founder and director of Project H. During her presentation about empowering kids through design, she said, "No one has any reason, in the entire world, to be bored. There are so many things that need to be done." Dang.

Now, I know this statement to be true. I preach it to my students every day. I have this Louis CK poster in my room to remind my students every day that they literally have zero reasons to be bored every day.
But here's the thing. I think sometimes we confuse being busy with being "not bored." And I think that is something that I do constantly. I love teaching kids, and I work in a vibrant, exciting school culture. I am constantly saying yes to any opportunity that comes my way because I don't want to miss out on anything that could make me a better, stronger, wiser version of my teaching self. I'm more busy than I probably need to be. Over this past year, I feel like I've written several posts about feeling overwhelmed, yet I just keep adding things to my life plate. Maybe it's not about being busy. Maybe it's about finding the thing that really, really needs to be done and working hard to make it happen. 

As a teacher, I sometimes feel like I'm spinning my wheels and struggling to fit in all the required things that need to be accomplished in a class period and in an instructional day. I think sometimes just the monotony of that kind of rote busyness can be exhausting. Last week in Austin, I presented on a panel with three other educators about the importance of hacking professional development and allowing time for teachers to explore more passion-based professional learning. I know after coming back from Austin, I feel so incredibly excited to innovate in new ways in my classroom instruction, and I don't want to let that excitement wane as I "actively monitor" during PARCC testing this week.  I want to model for my students that it's not ok to say "I'm bored." There are so many things that need to be done.