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..."

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.