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!