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.