Deal Me In

Once again I have been given the opportunity to be part of something that is much greater than myself. I am at the annual meeting for the National Writing Projoct (NWP) and as always, I am filling my brain to the brim with new ideas to take back to my students, colleagues, and school. My brain will overflowith.

Every year there is a plenary where members of NWP get to listen about the state of the writing project and where we have been and where we are going in the future. This year our director Elyse Eidman-Aadahl discussed where we should “double down” as teachers in certain areas and the importance of taking a stand for what we believe in. After all, it is through the narratives we write that gives us power and makes our story known.

As I thought about the gambling term “double down”, I began to think that most educators  do double down, don’t we? We do it because we care about our students and want them to succeed. Yes, there are educators who don’t go “all in” when it comes to their job or doing what is best for student. Let’s face it, we know at least one. Needless to say though, most of our hearts and minds have a passion for our career and our students.

This year has been odd for me, other than the new teaching assignment. I have struggled at times this year to the point where the environment that I was working in was having such a negative impact on me that I just wanted to stay home. Other days were fine, but for almost three weeks, I rode the struggle bus. As I began to reflect on my 1/2 hour drive home one afternoon, I knew I couldn’t give up on my students. My relationship with them was becoming very positive from where I was at with them last year as 7th graders. They drove me nuts. I knew that I had to be there for them and continue to walk with them in their journey through school and life.

I had a hard time leaving my students to come to this conference. We laugh, we learn, we get frustrated with each other. We are a family. As one of my writing project colleagues has said, ” The learning is in the struggle”.  A statement that couldn’t be more true for me right now, but I am starting to better understand what I need to do and it became more clear today while attending the conference.

So, being “all in” and thinking about the power of narrative reminds me our writing is what gives us a voice. On the other hand, I know I have to keep fighting for my students and not let a negative school culture give way for them having a negative teacher where they don’t want to go to class or have hope.

I will continue to use my voice in writing to help me be more positive for my students so they too can see there is hope with the right attitude and the right tools. I want to model for them that they too have a voice and can make a difference. Even when it is with their pen.
It’s time to stay positive!

It’s time to go to work!

It’s time to write!


Just Hanging Out…and Learning

This week has been crazy to say the least.  On the other hand, it has been phenomenal!

Tuesday, my 2nd hour seventh grade class began an adventure I felt was worth taking.  For quite some time a writing project colleague and myself had discussed having our classes collaborate with each other using Google Hangout.  If you do not have prior knowledge of Google Hangout, it is just that, an online space for people to collaborate via web cams and voice chat, or…hangout!  I believe up to 10 people can chat at the same time. The idea was brought on by our discussions we have had previously about using digital portfolios.  Eventually we decided we wanted our students to collaborate and discuss the myths that each our classrooms were reading and writing along with have the students publish their writing to a broader audience.

As we searched for a common time for our students to meet online, it occurred to us that we needed to introduce our students to each other before we did any real collaboration about the myths.  Each of our classes had written “This I Believe” essays, and we decided we would use these essays as a mean for our students to get to know one another. Because my own students had already written their essays at the beginning of the year, it was a great time for my students to reflect back on their writing to polish it and decide if their beliefs had changed at all.  Furthermore, they needed to understand their writing was going out into the bigger world for people to see and they needed to clean it up before publishing.

Prior to work with the essays, we showed our classes our school websites, discussing  with students what they noticed.  In addition, any questions they might have.  Before our meeting on Tuesday each of our classes composed questions to ask one another.  As we were hanging out, the students went in front of the camera  and asked questions about each other’s school.  For example:

  1. What types of writing have you done this year?
  2. How many students do you have in your middle school?
  3. What sports can you play at your school
  4. What do you do for fun?
  5. Can you choose your own electives in middle school?

After the students took turns asking questions and answering them, we talked with the students about what we were going to do next with them.

As I mentioned earlier, the students are using their “This I Believe Essay”  to get to know each other more. My colleague and I decided we would have the students post their essays on Youth Voices. Youth Voices is an online platform where students can publish their writing where other students can discuss the same topics or issues.  By having the students post here, they could read each other’s essays and respond appropriately.

Youth Voices (youthvoices.net)

Youth Voices (youthvoices.net)

This allows the students to see what beliefs they may have in common or what they may not have in common as well.  Regardless, we feel that our students are now publishing their writing for a broader audience besides their teacher or classmates. Furthermore, they will get feedback that can have the potential to make them better writers in the future.  After our students have posted to Youth Voices and everyone has had a chance to be paired up to respond to at least one other student, we will move forward and participate in doing more live hangouts where our students can discuss myths.

Reflection

Doing something this simple with technology has long lasting impacts on the students from each class.  First, I would like to say our schools are very different when it comes to the dynamics of the number of students and the cultural diversity.  My middle school consists of 120 seventh and eighth graders.  My colleague has just over 500 in the same two grades.  My school consists of about 98% whites where his school has Latinos, Hispanics, Arab, African American, and whites.  With this being said, I felt it was wonderful for my students to be emerged into this type of cultural diversity.  Our students need to learn they will be working with a very diverse culture when they enter the work force.

I was also surprised at how my students “locked up” when it came time to talk on camera.  They were dead silent and if it wasn’t for the fact I had students assigned for each question being asked, I would not have had volunteers.  My students were very shy and I was shocked at this.  In the end, when it came to them talking on camera, they needed to speak up too.  My colleague actually felt his students were rude and too loud.  A concern, I actually thought was going to arise.

Overall, Google Hangout and Youth Voices are great tools, especially ones that can help meet the demands of the Common Core Standards. The ideas behind using the online tools were to:

  • Collaborate
  • Practice communication skills
  • Publish student writing to a broader audience
  • Receive feedback on student writing
  • Become connected with other learners
  • Be exposed to more diversity as is such in the real world

Cheers!


Rigor -vs- Vigor

I have officially arrived at NCTE. As a first time Vegas guest, I must say it is crazy. My body has not transitioned to the time change and I am up at 5:00 a.m. working on my blog. A nap may be order later, but who knows with so many great sessions.

Speaking of great sessions, yesterday evening Barry Lane gave another one of his spectacular performances for NWP teachers. Though I didn’t attend earlier annual meeting sessions, my NWP peeps convinced me to peek in on what Mr. Lane was doing. If you have ever been to one of Barry Lane’s presentations, you know it is very entertaining and informative.

After laughing continuously and feeling energized as ever, he brought up the term “rigor”, which has been associated with the Common Core Standards since they have been released. Teachers are supposed to have more “rigor” in the classroom with the CCSS. When he asked a woman in a video what her definition of rigor was she stumbled and passed the buck on to her friends that she was standing with. Needless to say, their definition was less than perfect. So Mr. Lane put up the first six definitions of rigor from the dictionary. Here are a few of them!

1. Strictness, severity, or harshness, as in dealing with people.

2. A sever or harsh act, circumstance, etc.

Does this sound like something we should be infusing into our classrooms? Barry Lane had a few other definitions from the medical dictionary too. One medical definition is, shivering or trembling, as caused by a chill. Again, do we really want to be teaching something like this in our classroom? Tom Romano was even in a video where he said rigor is the sister of mortis. I cracked up on that one.

Instead of “rigor”, Mr. Lane said we should be teaching “vigor” instead. I couldn’t agree more, especially after seeing that definition

Vigor

1. Healthy physical or mental energy or power; vitality.

2. Force of healthy growth in any living matter or living organism.

Perhaps the two are easy to confuse. I know that vigor sounds much more appealing and attainable in my classroom. I also know “rigor” can occur in my classroom too and if I adhere to the definition, my students are going to get turned off as learners. Can there be a balance of both? What are your thoughts?

Cheers!


This I Believe and Memoirs

I want to take a moment and say thank-you to everyone who comments on my blog and actually read it.  Though I don’t get a lot of readers compared to most bloggers, I am happy to be as transparent as I can be to any teacher or educator.

With that being said, I took a few days off from blogging because I have been working on my book.  I will continue to give updates on the book status as things continue to progress. Rest assured, I have been writing, just not on my blog.

The last few days have been rather adventurous for my students and myself.  We kicked off Monday right away with the mobile laptops in the classroom.

7th graders are writing their first drafts of their “This I Believe” essays. As mentioned before the students did a Wordle as their brainstorming and on Monday they visited a website where they could read and listen to some sample essays.  They visited http://thisibelieve.org/themes/. There the students could choose from thousands of essays.  The students brought their ear buds in that day and I instructed them to listen to and read along to three different essays of their choice. As they were doing this, they had their writing journals next to them and they were listing characteristics they found similar between the three essays. When they finished I gave them all a link to a Google Document titled: “Characteristics of “This I Believe Essays”.  All of the students accessed this link I posted on Schoology they began to feverishly type on the document while it was projected on the screen.  When students were done after about 8 minutes, we discussed all of the characteristics they found in common between the three essays by looking at what they posted on the Google Document.  This class discussion let us into our rubric for their essay.  I asked the students if they noticed the similarities between the characteristics they noticed and what was listed on the rubric.  Many faces lit up and it started to click with them that they already knew what was required of them and it wasn’t going to be too difficult.  Students then had time to begin their rough drafts that were due today.

Common Core Standards Covered by “This I Believe” Essay:

 W.7.3 – Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

  1. Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.
  2. Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.
  3. Use a variety of transition words, phrases, and clauses to convey sequence and signal shifts from one time frame or setting to another.
  4. Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to capture the action and convey experiences and events.
  5. Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on the narrated experiences or events.

W.7.4 – Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

 W.7.6 – Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and link to and cite sources as well as to interact and collaborate with others, including linking to and citing sources.

With the narrative unit pushing forward in 8th grade as well as 7th grade, the 8th graders continued their work on memoirs Monday.  Similar to the 7th graders, they had to look at two memoirs and discuss the characteristics they saw in each of them. I then asked them to extend their thinking and give each one of them a grade and give reasons as to why the student earned the grade they gave them.  It was very interesting to see the grades assigned for each of the memoirs and the comments the students gave.  Many students discussed detail or lack of detail, grammar mistakes, and spelling mistakes.  Both essays that were given to the students were polished student writing and we discussed this as we began to discuss the rubric for the memoirs.  A great extension would be for the students to grade the pieces using the rubric I assigned to them.  As with a lot of things I used a rubric I found online that is aligned with the Common Core State Standards.  Again, the students were given time to start their rough draft in class.

Common Core Standards Covered by Student Memoirs:

W.8.3 – Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

  1. Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and point of view and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.
  2. Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, and reflection, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.
  3. Use a variety of transition words, phrases, and clauses to convey sequence, signal shifts from one time frame or setting to another, and show the relationships among experiences and events.
  4. Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to capture the action and convey experiences and events.
  5. Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on the narrated experiences or events.

W.8.4 – Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. 

W.8.6 – Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and present the relationships between information and ideas efficiently as well as to interact and collaborate with others.

We are rolling!  Not only are the students writing narratives, they are reading narratives.  The 7th graders are reading The Acorn People by Ron Jones and the 8th graders are reading The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.  Though we just have just started the reading part, the students are going to be busy.  Between Article of the Week, writing their drafts, and completing vocabulary assignments, we are moving forward with full steam. Enough for now.

Cheers!


Not Enough Time: Digital Citizenship/Mobile Devices/Discussions

Day 2 of school had its bright spots and its challenges.  We are fortunate enough to have a mobile lab with 30 Dell Laptops for our students to use.  After finishing some typical house keeping items, I was ready to deploy the laptops to my students.  Before I assigned students to a computer, I began by asking students to help me make a list of examples of mobile devices.  The list the students compiled looked like this:

  1. laptops
  2. cell phones
  3. Kindles
  4. PSP
  5. Nintendo DS
  6. Ipad
  7. Ipod
  8. Itouch
  9. Nexus
  10. tablets

It was clear to me, whether it was 7th or 8th grade, the students had a clear grasp on the concept of what a mobile device is.  Upon completing our list on the whiteboard, I shifted their thinking to another topic that involved using mobile technologies; digital citizenship.  As an educator and an advocate for the use of mobile technology in the classroom, I was disappointed when I posed the question: “Who has heard of digital citizenship?” Out of all three of my 7th grade classes, not one student raised their hand.  This is a problem.  By 7th grade students need to be made well aware of what it means to be a responsible digital citizen.  Needless to say, I felt it was necessary to discuss this topic with them.  During our conversation we discussed the characteristics of being a citizen. Students knew that a good citizen participated in community activities, was respectful, followed rules/laws, and needed to be helpful to others.  After students exhausted all the characteristics we talked about how they apply to being a digital citizen as well. Furthermore, I took the time to address cyber-bullying and sexting.  By the end of the week, I would like to develop a handout or sheet for the students to put inside of their planners stating their responsibilities as a digital citizen.  I also want to send the handout home to parents to help educate them as well.  The 8th graders were much  better when it came to digital citizenship and that is because I discussed it with them last year.  I did revisit cyber-bullying and sexting to pound home the importance behind what NOT to do when using a mobile device.

Even though I took more time discussing digital citizenship than what I wanted, it will be worth it in the long wrong.  Laptops were handed out to each student.  I called up 5 students at a time and assigned them a number.  The number they are assigned will be the same number laptop they will use in other classes.  This helps us as the teachers and our tech guy who to talk to if the computer has been used maliciously or it gets broken.  On the whiteboard the students were given written directions on what to do with the computer.

  1. Turn on the laptop
  2. Login to your school account
  3. Access Internet Explorer
  4. Go to www.schoology.com
  5. Watch the short video on the home page

After all of the students completed the tasks on the board, I walked them through the sign-up process for Schoology.  Students were given their individual course codes and then they had to fill in their names, usernames, and passwords.  I directed students to use their last name and first initial of their first name for their username.  For example, mine would by hylerj.  I asked them to make their passwords something easy to remember or use the same password they use for Facebook.  Schoology has an excellent feature available to teachers where they can reset a student’s password if they happen to forget it.  Now, I did run into a few glitches today with students not being able to log in to their school accounts meaning they couldn’t use the laptop that was in front of them.  Such is life when it comes to technology.  I had these students look on with other students who didn’t have difficulty logging in.

Despite the typical issues that came about today, I was able to get everyone signed into their courses I created.  We then walked through the files/links tab and the discussion tab.  We focused more of our attention on the discussion tab.  It is here where we will be collaborating as a class.  I will have the students post discussion questions for socratic discussions we will have in class.  It will be a place I may post reading questions after the students finish a reading homework assignment, and it is a space where students can ask me questions about homework or other assignments.  Today, I simply posted the question, what is your favorite music, music artist and why?  I instructed the students to post their reply and respond to 2 other members in the class.  Prior to releasing them to work on their own, I modeled for them what a quality response is to another member.  Responses like nice, wow, I agree, I like that, and great are not accessible.  I want my students to actually have a discussion, so I direct them to ask questions, be thoughtful and to put some time into their responses.  This conversation and modeling is worth it because students really start to have quality discussions.  Below is an example of what a discussion page looks like.

Once students got started, there weren’t any issues with them operating the site.  A lot of students were shocked how much it is like Facebook.  Even though it appears my students may not have done a lot in class today, they did complete at least one of the Common Core Standards.

  • Standards W.7.6 and W.8.6 – Use technology, including the internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Students were able to identify technology (Schoology) and collaborated with peers and their teacher through technology to enhance their writing.

By the time the end of the day came, I felt like I had been holding my breath all day long.  It never seems like there is enough time to cover what needs to be done.  Tomorrow brings us to Narrative reading.

Cheers!


1st Day Reflections

As mentioned in my last blog, my goal is to write every day this year to reflect back on my experience.  Perhaps some of what I write tonight should have been written prior to the start of the first day of school, but if I didn’t take time to think about what I did, I couldn’t reflect, right?

This is my second year teaching both 7th and 8th grade language arts. I have to say I am completely amazed at the differences between the two grades.  There is a huge difference in maturity, both socially and academically.

Despite the differences, I felt both groups of students did fairly well today.  I am not sure what other teachers do on their first day of class, but I do not go over any classroom rules with my students.  Part of me believes that is what their expectation is from me and I like to keep my students guessing. Bwaaahaaahaaa! That was my evil, take over the world, laugh.  Instead of the rules, I jumped right in and had both my 7th and 8th grade students take a narrative reading pre-test.  The state of Michigan has required teachers and schools to measure student growth.  Our district has decided on a pre and post test as a way to measure student growth.  I was not about to give my students an eight page reading document and 36 questions for the reading portion.  Instead, I discussed with my principal how I have broken down my units into Narrative, Informational, and Argumentative.  This mirrors the Common Core Standards and three major areas of writing that the CCSS focuses on.  I do not however, teach just tree units, I teach six total units.  So, I have broken down my pre-tests and the students took a short seven question narrative reading pre-test.  This is only one part of the narrative pre-test.  I will be giving them a small grammar pre-test in the coming days over the grammar concepts we will cover during our narrative unit.  As a language arts department, the students will show growth through a writing portfolio throughout the year.  I know, it sounds confusing right?  If you haven’t already checked out Kevin Hodgson’s blog today, I encourage you to do so at Kevin’s Meandering Mind.  I think we all feel the way he has portrayed the teacher in his comic when it comes to juggling the Common Core.

I also addressed the homework policy for my classroom.  Now, as any middle school teacher knows, it is our job to prepare them for high school.  I am always amazed at the 7th graders response when we go over the homework policy.  Usually their mouths are wide open and they are disbelief.  This year I feel I am going hardcore my students.  To put in simply, they lose 50% for being one day late unless it is a major project where they will lose 30%.  If it is more than one day late, they get no credit. If you would like a copy of my homework policy just leave me a comment.  If my students bring it back signed by them and their parents tomorrow, I will give them extra credit.

I also took time with my students today setting up their writing notebooks or journals.  This is important because most days we start the hour by doing “writing into the hour”.  I set my notebook up very similar to how Jeff Anderson discusses journal writing in his book Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage and Style into Writer’s Workshop. My classroom is indeed a writer’s workshop and this book was read by our language arts department prior to the start of last year.  This year we are reading Write Like This by Kelly Gallagher.  “Writing into the hour” is basic.  I give students a topic to write about.  The students can choose to write about the given topic or they can write about what is on their mind that day.  In addition, I allow my students to even go back to a previous days entry and either continue or revise that piece of writing.  With having so many choices, the students have no excuse not to be writing.  I give my students 5-7 minutes to write and ask them to forget about the editor in their head and just write.

With those two activities, there wasn’t a lot of time left in class.  I did hand out reading textbooks to my 8th graders and I tried to become more acquainted with my 7th graders by playing 2 truths and a lie with them.  It isn’t the most thought-provoking activity, but it is fun and the students seem to enjoy it.

Now tomorrow and the rest of the week is going to bring in a whirlwind of technology to the students.  Tomorrow the students will set-up their Schoology account and I will demonstrate and walk them through the reason we will be using this digital tool.  Thursday the students will set-up their Twitter accounts and Friday we will do a recap and then move our way towards getting our Celly accounts ready.  It is a busy week, so I am off to bed and ready to start another adventure tomorrow.  Email or leave a comment with any questions

Cheers!


Grammar, A Debate We Will Have Forever

All summer I have been writing in some capacity. I will be the first to admit, I struggle with grammar from time to time, but who doesn’t?  Grammar has been a perplexing issue for language arts/English teachers for year and years.  Some teachers may argue for a constant drill and kill approach, thinking the more that students do it, the better they will get at grammar.  Other educators let their student’s writing do the talking and examine where their weakness lie in their writing, then they plan and teach accordingly. A balance of both approaches is also used in classrooms.  Despite how you or your district take on the daunting task of hoping your students “get it”, I am here to tell you I don’t believe there is a magic spell out there for the proverbial lightbulb to click on instantly.

My lightbulb burns, at best, about as bright as lamp.  Experts are argue time and time again that we as the writing teachers aren’t doing our job and students are falling further and further behind. Of course, these “experts” are examining standardized test scores as part of their conclusion, and I am not even going to go down that road.  In addition, others believe the use of cell phone and social media is causing students to fall further and further behind because of their “text talk”.  Read this post in Education Week and let me know and others what you think.  I was outraged when I finished reading the post as were others that I have professional relationships with.  It is one more way to blame technology for shortcomings on standardized testing.  Articles such as this gives educators and districts more reason not to embrace technology.  It is bad enough students aren’t getting more of a 21st century education and aren’t connected the way they should be.  I am not saying technology is going to fix the grammar issues that seem to plaque our students.

What I want to say is I can remember all the way back to 8th grade when I had my orange grammar handbook. As a middle schooler, I was clueless from time to time when it came to things such as misplaced modifiers or using a semi-colon correctly.  There were concepts I understood and there were some I did not fully grasp.  I can also remember there were classmates that were way better at grammar than I was.  Sound familiar?  Yeah, the same thing we see with our students today.  Are there better approaches to teaching grammar? My goodness gracious, yes!  I encourage everyone to check out Jeff Anderson’s approach to grammar in his book Mechanically Inclined. I particularly like his express lane checkout approach to the writing his students do in Journals.  There are other methods available too.  Needless to say, our students aren’t going to be grammar experts by a long shot.  Yes, they should be achieving at a certain level, but grammar takes years and years to master in my opinion.  It isn’t going to happen over night and we need to stop whipping a horse that really hasn’t changed much over the years.  Every year I am looking for new ways to engage my students with grammar as should anyone else.  Some ideas work better than others, you just need to find what works for you and your class.  Furthermore, being a writing teacher, means we need to write with our students and only then will our students start taking more of a vested interest in their writing and then maybe they will start listening to those grammar lessons we give.

Cheers!