Monday, December 5, 2016

BreakoutEDU: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

TODAY WAS SO FUN! I've been wanting to try a BreakoutEDU game in my classroom since last spring, and this fall, I talked my librarian into purchasing five BreakoutEDU boxes.  I've been looking for opportunities to integrate these games into my American Literature curriculum all semester, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn felt like the perfect opportunity for students to flex their problem solving and communication skills!

If you've never seen a BreakoutEDU box, the idea is pretty simple. Buy a box and a bunch of locks, and build a series of clues and riddles that guide students to open each lock and, ultimately, open the box. On the BreakoutEDU website, they provide an open source list of everything you need to build your own box, and all the games they've built are FREE to use, which is always great! The escape room games that are popping up in cities around the country have a similar premise. With the game in class, you're just asking students to break IN to something rather than OUT of it.
I searched Twitter and the internet in general and couldn't find a pre-made game for Huck Finn, so I decided to make my own. I was a little nervous to dive into this since I'd never built a game before, but I think it helped a lot that I was working from a piece of literature. I was able to create codes for the locks that related directly to the text. This required students to go back into the literature and do some close reading and problem solving to determine the codes for each lock.
I also met with our district's technology coach, and she gave me some pointers, based on games she had built for other classes. All of my lock codes were linked to QR codes that I hid around the room. Students had to scan the codes to gather clues, complete quizzes, view resources, and puzzle out the meanings and significance of each clue. This was hilarious to watch! I had 7 foot tall basketball players sprawled out on the floor to scan codes hidden under desks.

What was probably the most awesome about this activity was that literally EVERY kid was engaged and excited. I had students that I've been struggling to engage all semester that were running around the room to make sure their group hadn't missed any clues. Students really had to work together and encourage each other in order to solve all the clues and open the box. And even though they didn't all complete the challenge, they didn't give up and quit. They worked through their frustrations. In each class, I had at least one group break into their box, but I had more students that were not able to complete the challenge. It was awesome to see the way these groups were still proud of their hard work, even if they were a little frustrated that they couldn't work their way through all the clues.

In past semesters, I've implemented the Spheros in our study of Huck Finn, but this semester it felt right to do something a little different. We had used the Spheros with both early explorer narratives and Hamlet, and I really wanted to see what would happen if we used this strategy. What happened is that students dug more deeply into Huck Finn, worked together, dealt with frustrations, and had a lot of fun. I'd say that's an end-of-semester success!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Heart Work is Hard Work, But It's Necessary Now

I have been struggling for a couple of weeks to write. My feelings about what's happening in our world right now feel so big. In a time of what should be healing and unity, it seems that every day brings more division and anger, more sadness and fear for so many Americans.

The consolation and brightness and hope I found this week at NCTE is that while times may seem dark and struggles may seem insurmountable and division may seem too deep a chasm to bridge, there are thousands of teachers across this country who are ready to advocate for students, to create safe spaces for reading and writing and dialogue, for healing. It is my job to support and encourage and love every kid that walks in my room, and I refuse to let angry, hateful rhetoric dampen the joy of learning in my classroom. I am one voice, but my voice matters. The voices of my students matter. And it is my hope that I can create an environment for them where they feel safe to speak their truths, to be themselves, to express their fear and sadness at an America that isn't giving all of them a fair deal right now. 

I've tried hard in the last year to keep my opinions to myself because, as a teacher, I feel it's my job to teach students to think for themselves instead of thinking like me. I don't want to upset any balances. But my job is bigger than teaching novels and poems and writing. My job is teaching character, principles, love, acceptance, diversity, understanding. Diane Ravitch challenged teachers at the opening session of NCTE to "speak out as an advocate, quietly if you must and loudly if you can." I can't be quiet anymore, not when I think about walking into school on November 9 to the sight of two Hispanic girls embracing and crying and talking about their fear for their families, their worry of if they'll stay together. I can't stay silent when our first amendment freedoms feel more important than ever. We must stand up for kindness, for justice, for love of our fellow man. 

In one session, Georgia Heard reminded us that "teaching is heart work. In a world that feels fractured, coming back to our heart work can bring us back to center." I'm inspired and challenged this week to come back to the heart work of what I do. It's not about the mechanics of a text; it's about the soul of a text. It's about valuing the unique qualities of every child and giving them wings because "hope is the thing with feathers," according to Emily Dickinson, and every. single. child. deserves the opportunity to hope in a better, more beautiful future. 

I listened to so many incredible speakers at NCTE, and I left feeling challenged, not necessarily to change my pedagogy but more strongly than ever before to amplify my voice as an educator. We must teach our children that the only way to repair the fractures in the fabric of our nation is to build bridges instead of walls, to listen instead of rant, to share our personal truths instead of parroting a party line. I will be an advocate for kindness. I will be an advocate for fact-checking. I will be an advocate for empathetic listening. I will use my one voice for loud and relentless love for people. What will you do? 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Putting a Dent in the Universe

This summer, at the Apple Distinguished Educator Global Institute in Berlin, we were challenged to consider how we could put a dent in the universe. That's a big question. At the time, I really felt strongly that I wanted to make that dent, that kind of big global impact, through my work with pre-service teachers at the University of Central Arkansas. However, as the year has progressed, I've found my passions shifting into my high school English classroom.

Don't get me wrong, I'm passionate about working with pre-service teachers, and I'm excited about the work I've been able to do with my Models class on unit planning and instructional strategies. I'm excited about the progress we're making this semester. I'm just really feeling like the dent I want to make on the universe has a lot to do with "denting" the universe enough for my 11th graders to see that they are not isolated learners, and are instead, part of a global community. 

As I started this year, I found myself constantly noticing how disconnected my students felt from their learning, especially since they are, literally, constantly connected to each other. They talk in the halls, they check Facebook before class starts, they update their Snap Story as soon as they walk out of school at 3 o'clock. They very rarely unplug. And yet, many students still lack connection in their lives. For some of them, they lack connection as they deal with difficult family situations, others struggle to connect with peers, and still others feel a huge disconnect from what they're learning in high school. The "why do I have to learn this" argument has to be addressed. We are failing kids that will not seek out higher education if we don't find ways to bring the real world into the classroom and prepare them for a future and adulthood that's looming very close. I am finding that a growing portion of my students are feeling this way, especially as the rising cost of higher education leaves more and more students feeling helpless to avoid college without large amounts of debt. 

So I decided I needed to make a dent in the universe that brought the real world into my classroom and made learning feel like necessary, important work, and I decided to do this through research. Research is an often dreaded piece of an English class, so I've decided to make it my mission this semester to show students that we do research all the time. We do research every time we Google something, and we discern the reliability of a source every time we decide to "fact check" with a second website. In this case, I wanted students to see that research isn't typically the end goal. Often, we use research as a means to an end, as a way to learn how to do something. 

We started by reading these articles about using 3D printing and virtual reality to preserve world landmarks. Many of our world's most incredible historical and cultural sites are at risk of being destroyed due to national disasters, war, and acts of terrorism, and even those not at risk are still too far away for students to take a field trip and see them in person. Preserving these places digitally provides greater access to each site. Next, I asked students to choose one landmark to research and argue why that landmark is significant enough to be digitally preserved. Finally, I asked my students to create their chosen landmark using Minecraft or SketchUp and a 3D printer. 

This is definitely the biggest research project I've ever taken on, and I was so excited and SO nervous about how my students would respond. They could get excited and jump right into this, or they could get overwhelmed and shut down on me. Fortunately the minute I said "Minecraft and 3D printer" my kids were pumped! Bringing a real tangible product into the research process created a "hook" for students. They knew they had to complete a successful research paper in order to begin the design process, and that has been incredibly motivating for many of them. 

In addition to bringing all of these global landmarks into the classroom, we've also been able to make the world a little smaller by partnering with another classroom for the peer editing process. Fellow ADE Richard Perry is a huge inspiration to me, and he's been kind enough to partner his students with mine to work as peer editors in the writing process. Our kids have "met" each other using Flipgrid to send videos back and forth, introducing themselves and discussing their research papers. Watching how excited my kids are to receive feedback has me just about giddy. It's created an opportunity for them to receive honest, objective feedback, and it's teaching them that they can seek out resources outside of the classroom. Once the writing process is complete, students will also hear from fellow Canadian ADE, Marc Gobeil about the design process and the incredible design work he and his students are doing. In all of this, I hope I'm bringing the "learning universe" a little bit closer to my students in my classroom. 

Working through this research process with my students has been exhausting and awesome and rewarding. Their final research papers and projects in Minecraft and Sketchup will be turned in at the end of next week, but I just couldn't wait to share all the hard work we've been doing this month! The final step in this project will be for students to share their digitally recreated landmarks with a global audience, so please be watching Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram for their work! I'm so proud and excited to share all of it with you and keep on creating that dent in the universe. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Selecting Sound Bites

On Monday, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to co-teach a lesson with Dr. Michael Mills. It's my second year as a high school teacher and my third semester to teach American literature. While I have some lessons that I really love, I definitely have others that I have a tougher time getting excited about. Let's be honest, historical speeches probably weren't at the top of your reading list when you were seventeen, and I have a lot of those in my very traditional curriculum. It's a constant challenge to find new ways to make these texts relatable and engaging for my students, and this lesson ended up feeling like a real win!

We started off this week talking about Patrick Henry's speech to the Virginia Convention, more easily recognized as the "Give me liberty, or give me death" speech. This speech provides a great opportunity to teach rhetorical analysis and persuasive appeals; however, it can also be really dense, and the vocabulary is pretty advanced. I was excited when Dr. Mills brought a different perspective to the lesson.

He talked to my classes about how persuasive speaking and political speaking have evolved. As average people, we typically don't hear an entire speech or an entire press conference; we hear the snippet that the media found most interesting, most important, or sometimes most inflammatory. Similarly, we may not remember all of Patrick Henry's speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775, but we do know that famous last line.

We modeled close reading and annotating strategies on the last paragraph of the speech since it's the most familiar piece. Then, we divided the speech into five sections and asked students to work with a partner to analyze the persuasive appeals in their assigned section of the speech. Finally, we asked students to find the "sound bite" in their assigned section. If they were members of the media, covering this speech in 1775, what snippet would they decide to share with the masses? This speech called for revolution, and a revolution needs buy-in from the people. We reminded students that this line should feel "retweetable" or repeatable, just like "Give me liberty or give me death."

Finally, students used Adobe Spark Post to create posters of their selected sound bites, which they shared to a Padlet page, so all my classes could see each other's designs and ideas. This gave us the opportunity to talk about design principles as well, and I was thrilled with the results. I love how easy the Adobe Spark apps are for students to learn and use. This was their first introduction to Spark Post, and my kids loved it! I can't wait to introduce them to Spark Page and Video in future lessons. You can see their posts here:

And here are a few of my favorites...

One of the things I love most about this lesson is that it is so adaptable. I was talking to my department head today about this lesson, and she got so excited about it that she's going to have students do a similar activity tomorrow with a speech from Julius Caesar as they analyze Cassius's persuasive appeals to the Romans. I think you could just as easily adapt it to other works of fiction or nonfiction to have students identify and illustrate theme statements or main ideas. Asking students to illustrate as well requires them to look more deeply at an idea and determine how best to convey that idea not only through text but also through image. 

So needless to say, my week is off to a great start! Looking forward to seeing where our learning takes us next! 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Reflections on iPadpaloozaOU

The first two weeks of school, as always, have been a whirlwind of activity as students and teachers settle in to the schedule of school. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend and speak at iPadpaloozaOU in Norman, OK. What I loved about this conference was the fact that the entire day on Friday was devoted to providing authentic professional learning to pre-service teachers.  Anne Beck, Dr. Terri Cullen, and the faculty at the OU College of Education are creating such incredible opportunities for these undergrads to engage in their profession, even before entering their own classrooms. I loved getting to speak with these students and watching them engage on Twitter and build their own professional learning networks. We even took a selfie in my green screen session.
We spent a lot of time in this session actually working with apps and experiencing the green screen, and we even took some pictures with Beyonce, which I thought was hilarious.
The best part of this day was the general sense of excitement and enthusiasm. You could feel it in the air. These junior and seniors are so pumped to be teachers! It makes my heart so happy to know that these are the people that are coming into our schools and are preparing to make a difference in the lives of students. As the morning keynote speaker on Friday, I spoke to this audience of about 150 pre-service teachers about the importance of creating a safe haven for all students in our classrooms. Technology can help us foster that sense of community as it connects us to students in new ways and allows them to share their lives and learning experiences with us as teachers. I know that teaching my students to blog and journal with technology has given me so much insight into their interests, passions, fears, and joys. Teaching my students to code with Sphero and create with iMovie has built their confidence and helped them to see their own awesomeness in the classroom. Being with these soon-to-be teachers on Friday just got me so excited to get back into my own classroom and make this year the best year yet!  

On Monday, we had our first lesson with the Spheros, and I wish I could bottle up the joy and excitement I saw on those kids' faces! When you can get a kid that excited over reading early American literature, it feels like a real teacher win. As I reflect on the past few days, I can't help but feel a renewed sense of passion for what I get to do every day. It's a privilege to learn and create and improve every day with these kids, and I can't wait to see where this year takes us! 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Be a Bridge Builder

I just completed my 23rd first day of school, my 6th as a teacher. For some reason, that feels bigger than my other first days as a teacher. Time really does fly faster with every year in the classroom. Today, I found myself reflecting on all the relationships I have built with other teachers in my short time in the classroom. I feel so fortunate to have friends and colleagues and mentors that constantly help me to grow in my work. Those relationships are part of what continues to fuel my love for the classroom. 

As I was meeting students today and watching them in the halls, I was intrigued by watching the way groups of students ebb and flow and the way some students walk the halls alone. I was struck by the idea that “no man is an island.” When we think about teenagers, we often think about them traveling in packs; we think about the way kids operate in cliques or groups or whatever you want to call them. But I was really struck by the number of students I noticed going it alone on the first day of school today. 

Often, kids do spend some time in their adolescence as an island. Even when they are standing in the middle of a group, they can feel isolated, as if no one really understands them. They hold back because they’re afraid to share all of who they are with another person. That’s not always something we grow out of as we become adults. 

As I was watching all of this today, I found myself thinking about my role as a teacher in this intricate infrastructure of student “islands.” In addition to the many other roles that teachers fill each day, I think one of our most important roles is that of the bridge builder. It’s incumbent on us as teachers to be architects of relationship, to reach out to students who isolate themselves and those who hide their isolation in plain sight as they stand in the middle of a group but don’t fully engage. 

We’re meant to learn together. Learning in isolation doesn’t stay with us the way it does when we can talk about what we know and share it with others. If we want to be bridge builders of concepts in our content, we have to be bridge builders of relationships and trust first. I’m looking forward to continuing to build the foundations of those bridges tomorrow. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Process Over Perfection

Well, it's been quite some time since my last post. "BLOG" has been on my to-do list in big, bold letters for months now, and it somehow kept getting pushed to the bottom of the list. Recently, I ran into one of my old high school teachers at Whole Foods, and she asked if I was still blogging. Embarrassed, I said "kind of..." and apparently that was the motivation I needed because here I am. Writing again finally.

I want to be clear that my lack of writing does not come from a lack of excitement about what I've been doing in the classroom. I think I can honestly say that this past spring semester was one of my most rewarding teaching experiences. In the fall, I felt insecure and uncomfortable as a high school teacher. I was trying to fit into some mold I thought existed for upper secondary teachers instead of just being myself in the classroom. It was awkward and frustrating, and I finally had to tell myself to just settle down. This spring, though, all that awkwardness and all those growing pains paid off, and I found myself so much more willing to try new things in my classroom.

So why couldn't I seem to get myself to sit down and write about all those experiences through the spring and even the experiences I've had this summer at conferences? Great question. I could blame it on busyness, but that's not really fair. Everyone is busy. If I'm honest, I just wasn't prioritizing the time and space for written reflection. Every time I would sit down to start a post, my mind would wander to other seemingly more pressing items on my agenda. I'd start to ramble as I wrote, feeling like I was writing in circles and deleting whole paragraphs because they didn't feel good enough. I saved and deleted drafts all through the spring; it was like I couldn't ever get anything to come across in a satisfying way.

In thinking about this yesterday, I realized that I had gotten stuck in a loop where perfection became more important than process. As I looked at my to do list and started to think about this new school year, my eyes came across the word "BLOG" in all caps again, and I decided it was time to break my silent streak. It's a new school year, and I'm preparing to teach another group of incredible kids. They have stories that need to be shared. They're going to create and grow and learn and teach me important things that will continue to shape my practice as an educator.

Today I'm committing to process over perfection. I tell kids that's what I expect from them all the time, but I realized this week that I haven't been holding myself to the same standard. Sometimes, even in the professional world, it can become easy to let self doubt sneak up on you and convince you that your narrative isn't worth sharing, but that's just not the case. Our collective voice as educators is what will create change and advance our profession. Every story matters, and I'm so excited to see what incredible stories I get to hear and tell and engage in during this new school year.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Breaking Up and Moving On

Sometimes, teaching American Literature is tough. Early American lit involves so many historical documents and so much dense nonfiction. It can be daunting and overwhelming for students. While we want them to see the relevance of our forefathers in our everyday lives, and while those historical documents do frame the nation in which we now live, I really believe it's important for teachers to throw some spice and excitement into the writings of our founding fathers. We have to help kids find their own, personal meaning in these old letters, speeches, and founding documents.

One of my favorite writing projects that I ask my students to complete is a companion assignment to the Declaration of Independence. A fabulous teacher in my department, Terri Newton, gave me this assignment and allowed me to share it here. Terri is an incredible writing teacher. What I love the most about her is the heart she has for her students. She empathizes with and relates to kids in a way that is truly inspiring to me. She is also a lifeline for me as a "new to high school" teacher. The work she has shared with me has helped me so much in my transition to this new teaching position.

 The assignment is a breakup letter. We've all written them. We were probably in middle school, writing the letter on a ripped half-sheet of notebook paper, folding it up, and passing it across a lunch room. I ask my students to look at the Declaration of Independence not as a stuffy, old legal document, but as the ultimate guide to writing a break up letter. You can see the breakdown here. Terri created this excellent guide, and I can't thank her enough for sharing it with me and allowing me to share it with you.

I give kids this document, and I also give them a five paragraph outline. It looks like this:

  1. State the reasons that this breakup is necessary. What is wrong in the relationship? 
  2. Describe the ideal relationship. What would a healthy relationship look like? 
  3. Explain your right to end the relationship. What rights do you have as a person seeking happiness?
  4. Prove your accusations and state the "deal breakers." What makes this relationship unfixable? 
  5. State the consequences of ignoring your breakup letter. What is your final warning? 
I tell kids that they can write to anything or anyone. They can write to a negative person in their lives, a bad habit, a personal quality they dislike. My only condition is that they write to someone or something that really needs to leave their lives. 

Some students are pretty silly with this. I had several students write to their high school jobs, which are typically in fast food restaurants: 

Dear Taco Bell, 
Dear Wendy's, 

Others wrote to bad habits:

Dear Procrastination, 
Dear Junk Food, 

But I had far more kids write real, meaningful letters to people and things that have caused them pain and heartbreak. 

Dear Addiction,
Dear Ex-boyfriend, 
Dear Lack of Self Esteem, 
Dear Regret, 

As I was reading these letters my heart broke into a million pieces. At first, I wondered if students forgot I was going to be reading what they wrote, and I think some of them did. I think the act of writing and purging all of that frustration and sadness was so therapeutic for some of my students that they didn't think for a second about there being any kind of audience. It just felt right to get out all of their feelings. For others, I think they wrote these letters because they wanted someone to know. 

What I've noticed more and more this year is that kids need a champion. I've always known that, but I'm constantly reminded, now more than ever, that my job as a teacher isn't to talk; it's to listen. My job is to be present, to be available, to be a cheerleader, to be the person that kids know will challenge them and push them to be their best, not just as students but as human beings. I want the opportunity to challenge kids every day to tell stories in interesting ways, to address their feelings, and to grow and stretch themselves, even when it's hard and even when it hurts.

This assignment makes kids uncomfortable and vulnerable, and that's the place you have to go to tell the best stories. It's the place you go to stretch yourself and figure out how you're going to stand up for yourself and make yourself better. I found myself commenting on letter after letter: "I am so proud of you! You are awesome, and you deserve the BEST!" And it's true. Our kids DO deserve the best. There is nothing that hurts my heart more that the idea that my students don't feel loved and valued. I want them to know how much they matter. I want to make sure that I can give them my best when they walk in my classroom everyday. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Moving the Bookshelves

My high school has officially completed its first week as a 1:1 Macbook school. No one has done anything crazy with his computer or broken it...yet, although I'm sure some of those things will happen. Every student with whom I've interacted has been generally responsible and definitely excited about having this new device as a tool for learning. I've been so impressed with how easily students have made this transition. Typically, any change is going to be accompanied by grumbling and complaining of some kind, but I haven't seen that here.

I've been particularly impressed with my group of seniors. This week, I assigned them a poetry project in which they would work in small groups to teach an Anglo-Saxon poem to the class. I asked them to provide a recitation of the poem, analyze the poem and teach it to the class, and create some sort of assessment for their peers. I told them that they couldn't just allow their peers to sit and consume this new information; they needed to design a way for them to interact with it or show their new understanding. 

Those are pretty general guidelines. They could have simply stood in front of the class, recited the poem, droned on a bit with the help of a PowerPoint, and asked a few discussion questions. But that's not what they did at all. They got so excited about the opportunity to create something! One group used the green screen to create a filmed recitation of "The Seafarer." They reasoned that a true seafarer would not be standing in a high school hallway. He would be on the ocean. Obviously. So clearly the video also needed to have an authentic setting. One group decided to create an animation of their poem, similar to a mock epic we watched as a class called "The Wifi Hero." A third group, analyzing "The Wife's Lament," wanted to create a true song of mourning by using Final Cut Pro to make a music video of their poem. Several groups are creating Kahoot! reviews for their peers to complete at the end of the presentations.

I didn't ask for any of this. All I did was encourage them, cheer them on, and give them the space to figure it out on their own. What I think is often forgotten in traditional educational settings is that students really are dying to show what they know. The assumption is made that the motivation isn't there, or kids definitely want to do something wrong, or they don't have the energy to solve their own problems, but that's just not true. Yesterday, as I was helping one group with their video, another group moved a bookshelf to get to an outlet, so they could plug in their Macbooks to charge while they worked. A student laughed and commented, "They totally would not move a bookshelf in some of their classes." I asked why, and she said, "You can just tell which teachers mind if you move their bookshelves, and which teachers just want you to figure out on your own how to keep working and learning."

For the love, let's keep them working and learning please. You can move all the bookshelves if it means you're going to create these incredible products and guide your own learning process and discover your own resources. We have to remove the parameters of the factory model of education, with it's nice, neat rows and one-size-fits-all mentality. Learning should be personalized and engaging and enjoyable; sometimes that means things get a little messy, and you have to move the bookshelves. Isn't it worth it if we're teaching kids to be thinkers and creators in the process?

As I sit at home on this snow day and reflect on how fun it was to teach my classes this week, I can't help but get giddy, thinking about where we'll go from here.  We have so many incredible teachers in our building that are already engaging their students in innovative and exciting ways. I love my job all the time, but it's just so darn invigorating to be a part of this change and watch these students truly take ownership of their learning. Let's move the bookshelves and open up opportunities for students. They're ready and waiting for us to do so.