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. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Robots in English Class?

For the past two weeks, we've been studying early American literature in my English 11 classes. We've read Of Plymouth Plantation, General History of Virginia, Anne Bradstreet poems, slave narratives, "Young Goodman Brown," and Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. We've been busy and working hard, and by Thursday my students were over it. It was the perfect day to bring out my new Spheros.

This past summer at ADE Institute, I met fellow Apple Distinguished Educator Richard Perry from New York, and he told me about how he used Sphero robots to teach The Grapes of Wrath to his high school students. It was literally one of the most fascinating lessons I have ever listened to someone describe, and I knew by the end of that conversation that I had to try to integrate Spheros into my high school English classes this year. I mean, what better way to engage kids in literature than to find some way to connect it to playing with robots? 

So the first step was to purchase the Spheros. I did not have the classroom budget to make this purchase, so I decided I would try Donors Choose for the first time. It was a great experience. The site is so user-friendly, and my Sphero project was fully funded in under 24 hours! I was so excited! The Spheros arrived last week on the second day of school, and I could not wait to get them out of their boxes and into the hands of my students. However, this is when I really had to stop and think: How am I going to make these cool little robots relevant to our study of literature? 

Here's what we did. I decided to teach Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford and General History of Virginia by John Smith as paired texts. We read each text with a strong focus on author's purpose and author's perspective. I really wanted students to identify each man's objective for traveling to the New World. Next, I created two identical mazes on my classroom floor with blue masking tape. At each end of the maze was a sign that said "Europe;" at the place where the two mazes met in the middle of the room, I placed a sign that said "The New World."

Students stood on each end of the maze, in "Europe," and had to guide the Sphero through the "Atlantic Ocean" maze in order to reach "The New World." They raced to see which Sphero could get there the fastest and the most accurately. I told them that if the Sphero went outside the lines, the "ship" was damaged, and they had to start over on the journey. Students LOVED this activity. I had reluctant readers who had been complaining about this literature all week jumping out of their desks to be involved. We even had our principal participating in the activity during 2nd block.
It was so awesome to watch students interacting with each other and helping each other learn how best to guide the Sphero through the maze. For this first activity, I decided to use the basic Sphero app since I was just introducing Sphero to my students. In future activities, I hope to implement some basic coding skills as well by using other third party apps. 

So this was a lot of fun, but the best part of this activity was listening to the connections that students made to the texts we had been reading prior to this activity. Once every student had an opportunity to try to guide the Sphero to the New World, I asked students to go back to their seats for a discussion. I simply said, "Now that you've completed this activity, tell me what connections you can make to the lives of early American settlers." Here are some of the answers I received: 
  • It was really difficult to control the Sphero; just like the settlers struggled to control their own lives. The Pilgrims and the Jamestown settlers both struggled to grow food and take care of themselves in their new homes. 
  • When you had to recalibrate the Sphero, it's like when the Mayflower ran into all those storms on the Atlantic in "Of Plymouth Plantation." They had to decide whether to go back to England or continue their journey, and they had to fix their ship, just like you had to fix the Sphero. 
  • The more slowly you went, the more control you had over the Sphero. The settlers had a long, slow journey across the ocean. 
  • Everyone had to work together. Even if only one person was guiding the Sphero, the rest of us were helping to explain the controls or providing encouragement. Everyone in the settlements had to work together, too. 
I loved this conversation. It was so awesome to see my students make these connections and be so completely engaged. Even students who really struggled with some of these difficult texts earlier in the week were able to make literary connections after the activity and expressed a stronger understanding of the time period in general. It was a great way to spend a Friday with my kids, and I can't wait to experiment with new ways to use the Sphero as we move through the rest of the semester!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Swimming in a New Pool

Happy Back to School! I am thrilled to report that I've made it through my first two days as a high school teacher. It's been exhausting. I came home this afternoon and promptly took an nap, and now I feel like I can finally write a little bit about my new gig as a teacher of high school sophomores and juniors.

One thing on which I really wanted to focus this school year was optimism. I've blogged before about reading Deliberate Optimism last spring with my middle school team. I just loved that book. I can't tell you that starting a new job hasn't been stressful. I know how to teach, but I have spent the past two days feeling like a brand new teacher. So needless to say, I've been doing everything I can to stay positive. Everything I do can't be perfect, no matter how badly I'd like for that to be the case. I'm definitely feeling like I'm back in a "fake it 'til you make it" phase of my work life. 

However, there were some things I implemented in my first day of school routines that I feel were a real success. My favorite thing that happened yesterday was the Positive Thoughts board in my classroom. My new classroom feels pretty spacious compared to my old space. I have three whiteboards! (Yes, I was super excited about this since my old classroom had one whiteboard that badly needed replacing.) I also had a blank wall in one corner of my classroom. I covered it with whiteboard and chalkboard contact paper, so it looks like this. 

We'll use the chalkboard to track great contributions to classroom discussion and to write down great lines from literature that we love. I've already had a few students add their favorite quotes from their favorite books to our Literature Graffiti board. The Google It whiteboard will be a place for questions that need answering during class discussion and for new vocabulary we need to investigate. My favorite part of this wall is the space for positive thoughts. Yesterday, I asked my students to raise their hands if they had ever had a bad day at school before. Every hand in my room went up in every class period. Bad days happen. I asked students to keep their hands up if someone had ever had a bad day get better because someone said something nice to them. Lots of hands stayed in the air. I explained that the Positive Thoughts board would operate on a "give what you can, take what you need" basis. Students who are having a great day can write a compliment or an inspirational quote on a sticky note and stick it to the board. That way, when someone has a bad day, he can take a positive thought with him when he leaves. Hopefully it will make that person's day a little better. Here's a sample of what the board looked like at the end of the day. 

This was my favorite part of my day. I got to spend my day with awesome kids who were willing to put some goodness out into the world, and I loved it. At the same time, I was also letting my inner perfectionist get the best of me by the end of the day. I really felt like I struggled with pacing on this longer block class period and there are so many things to remember in the first days of school. I felt like it took me all day to finally hit my stride and get it together. Then, the school day ended, and I thought, "Yikes, I have to figure this all out again for tomorrow!" Just when I was about to let myself get overwhelmed, one of my new colleagues came in my room to check in, and she gave me the most encouraging pep talk. She said, "Jessica, just remember that you know how to swim. You've been swimming really well for a few years now. Just because you're in a new pool doesn't mean you forgot how to swim." Our short conversation was exactly what I needed to keep going. I'm not sure if she knew how much I needed to hear what she had to say or not, but her positive words made me feel like everything will be just fine. I do know how to swim, but I'm definitely having to adjust to the new current in which I'm swimming. I'm excited for the challenge and ready to see where this year takes me!

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..."