Wednesday, December 3, 2014

When in doubt, move closer

  It is all-school meeting.  We are gathered on the carpet of our common room for announcements and commendations.  Some students are flopped over each other, some stand slightly outside the circle. The "circle" is really more like a sloppy oval that someone really unskilled with an etch a sketch might draw.  There are always a few students who get fidgety and began to murmur or giggle to the person next to them.  Teachers may shush them, but then another one pops up.  I don't expect perfect silence, but I find myself grumpy by the end of these meetings.

Today, I want to feel less grumpy. It's just the fifty or so high school students, as the middle school is holding their own meeting.   So after the announcements, I spontaneously try a simple drill when I sense that people are beginning to lose their focus. It is so simple, yet so effective.  It goes something like this:

"Ok, everyone stand up."  (They stand)
"Ok, now everyone move in about a foot or two" (Curious, they walk closer, and the circle is instantly more intimate)
"Now, stop talking."  (The room falls silent.  It's as if we are playing Simon Says.)
"Now, just like that--without talking--sit down."  (They sit.  They are still quiet)

It's amazing. They are focused again.

And somehow (or perhaps it was my imagination), this simple tightening of the circle--and perhaps the brief pause in the meeting--helps change the dynamic of the rest of the meeting.  Students listen closely to celebrations and commendations, and the closer proximity even seems to lend itself to these sweet articulations of gratitude to teachers and to peers.

Classroom management is a dance--a dance of planning and implementing curriculum carefully,  establishing routines, of managing student numbers, and moving yourself around the room, as you use a variety of voice levels and one-liners ("eyes up here" or "it's her turn" or, "it's all about me now").  The dance doesn't stop with the details, for it's also about how you connect with students.  Mutual respect goes a long with with this dance.  Sometimes, behavioral problems can be solved with a simple rearrangement of  the space you have--from moving desks, to asking students to stand around me in a semi circle while I give directions.  Sometimes, a pause in speaking or moving is helpful (see my blog post about other benefits of the pause).

Sometimes, like today, simply moving a little closer makes all the difference.

Here are some other tips for classroom management:

1.  Use routines, like silent reading or journal writing at the start of class to help students make the transition into working.  I know some teachers who tell a quick story at the beginning of class, or do a math problem warm-up.

2. Be consistent: whether you use discipline slips, yellow/red cards, or old fashioned consequences like cleaning your board after school, try your best to always use these.  When students know what to expect, it's easier for them to contain their distracting behaviors.

3. Mix it up: students often misbehave when they're bored.  Like it or not, many of us have short attention spans, and a change in activity can help us sustain interest.  My rule of thumb is to have some opportunity for writing or reading, some opportunity for talking (ideally, students talking more than me), and some chance to move/do or watch something (a quick YouTube video or Ted Talk or whatever is relevant to the lesson)

4. Alway have the agenda on the board, and ideally, with time estimations.  I've had students tell me that they really like to know what's up, and how long it'll last.  Sometimes students act out when they don't know what to do or when they don't know where things are going.  A simple "roadmap" can do wonders for behavior.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Best Writing Assignments: The Real Ones

My 13 year-old son, who attends the small school where I teach, hates homework.  He declared last night, "it's by far my least favorite thing about school."   Yet I watched him eagerly working on an assignment last night.  No, it wasn't the pages and pages of algebra problems.  He was writing an article about a recent change in a studyhall policy our director announced to students the other day. Aside from the excitement and pride he exuded, I loved that he was writing it to fulfill his current events assignment.  His humanities teacher assigns traditional bi-weekly current events: students look through newspapers and choose an article to summarize. They then use these summaries to discuss national or international news in their 7/8th grade classroom.  A fine assignment, but nothing mind-blowing.

However, this week, my son asked his teacher if he could use the new studyhall policy as his current event.  I'm guessing that many teachers would simply tell my sometimes flippant, sarcastic son, no--that's not a "true" current event, and of course, there's no article about it.  However, this wise humanities teacher said, sure you can--but you'll have to provide the article.  So my son has spent the last two days as a journalist.  After he shared an initial draft of his article, his teacher told him he'd need to provide some quotes from actual interviews.  So my son talked to teachers and peers, recording their interviews on his Ipod.  He then came home and transcribed them, while also talking to me about how to work direct quotes into his article.  In other words, he is writing much more than a summary. What could have been an obligatory reading/writing assignment became an engaging, valuable writing exercise.

I commend my colleague for being flexible, and realizing that it can be valuable for teachers to put aside our expectations for an assignment, and really think about what a student will gain from a slightly (or even drastically) different version.  In this case, the teacher quickly surmised that my son would follow through and write an article if he told him that this would be the only way to cover that  current event.  And he also knew that there was already more interest in this particular "event" than a more national event that my son might have chosen, just to get the assignment completed.  In the end,  my son is learning that writing has purpose--and potentially, power.  Afterall, his article is already creating more dialogue about the new policy and he's learning about how to listen to differing perspectives on an issue.  You can't ask for much more than that from a homework assignment.

Monday, May 26, 2014

How to survive (or even thrive in) the last days of the teaching year: a basic to-do list

I've noticed several recent tumblr jokes, blog posts, and Facebook warnings about the cruelness of the end of a teacher's year.  It's a given that this is a challenging time of the school year, perhaps even more so than the beginning, when we're thrown into the whirlwind of students' needs, curriculum planning, and grading, having come out of the calmness of reading books in the back yard with a glass of lemonade (not that this is what teachers do all summer: many work to make ends meet or take graduate courses, plan curriculum, re-organize our classrooms, and so on).

Ideally, the end of year feels celebratory and reflective, but often it feels hectic: we facilitate and assess final projects/tests, complete report cards, clean our rooms, and organize end-of-year events such as portfolio roundtables or concerts. The students are antsy, our colleagues are tired, and the school may feel oppressive as the sunshine and spring air wafts through our windows.

So, in the name of getting things done in these final weeks, here's my basic to-do list for the end of the year.  It omits the obvious things, like complete your grading and clear off your desk. . .

1. Make sure to reflect on your year: If you do nothing else, make three quick lists as you look honestly and critically at the past year:
what to keep
what to revise,
and what to ditch.

If you have more time, choose one problem to focus on--maybe a student who continues to struggle, or a project that needs tweaking.  Give it a 20-minute written reflection or discussion with a colleague over lunch. Then let it go for now. You'll get a fresh look at it in July, as you sit in the backyard with that lemonade.

2. Write to some of your students' parents and thank them for their support. This simple email will fill you with gratitude and propel you to the next school event.

3.  Ask your students about their thoughts about or plans for summer. You might learn something interesting, like one plans to travel to England, and another is dreading summer, as he often misses his friends and gets bored.  At the very least, you can agree that sleeping in is something to look forward to.

4. Delegate! Ask for a student's (or parent's) help in collecting books and crossing them off your list, organizing your book shelves, or even sweeping under your desk.

5. At home, do one simple thing that will make you feel like things are under control.  I clean my bathroom sink. The shiny fixtures and clean whiteness make me sigh with relief, even if my lawn looks like a jungle and there's a layer of cat hair on every floor and surface.

6.  Buy a pair of sandals (on sale at Target)--or some object that screams summer.  Even bug repellent. Or pick some flowers and bring them inside. The end is in sight!

Happy end of year!  May your summer be rejuvenating, productive, and fun.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Embrace the Mess: Collaborative, Student-driven Projects

Embracing the messiness of important learning . . .

Student's display on Frank Sinatra. 
I'm getting ready for it--the mess in my classroom.  In fact, it has already begun.  Today, there were three tri-fold display boards, splayed across tables next to a huge paper cutter, piles of cut paper strips, scattered glue sticks, and scissors as I wove my way to my desk.  A sewing dummy, wearing a cute forties jacket shares space with the desktop. In the next several days--if all goes well--my room will slowly collect objects--an old record player and radio from the 1940s, fabric, lamps, and other odd objects.  One week from today, a couple classrooms, along with the adjoining common room will be transformed into a "living museum" of the 1940s--the culmination of a 8-week unit for two sections of 9/10th graders.

A student's display in progress on fashion of the 1940s.

But it's not the physical mess that is most challenging.  The other mess I refer to is letting go (somewhat) of control--allowing students to plan and create.  After all, I don't know what they will come up with for the museum, and though my humanities colleague and I guide them with rubrics, ideas, pictures from past years, and they have a solid background of the era, it's up to them to create a space that takes us into the past. And the museum opens to the public.  Student-led projects like this, with an authentic audience, require me to let go, to truly trust that the students will create something of value and that they are learning.  It means I'll feel that little pit in my stomach as I watch the inevitably rocky start of the group planning--as students bicker and brainstorm, bicker some more, and then come up with some vague idea before they prance off to lunch, and I'm sitting there thinking, it's not happening.  Every year I watch the beginning and think, nope, they are going to run out of time; they're going to continue to waste time and argue.  Then, a week or so later, I walk into a space that resembles a dimly lit 1920's speakeasy, with jazz, dancing flappers, a table of card players, and organized displays on topics such as music, art, and politics of the 1920s.  I watch in wonderment as students act as a forties "family" in a mock living room, complete with newspapers and Life magazines from the 1940s that they (or I) found at local thrift stores. They've even rolled paper "cigarettes" because they want to be authentic of the era.  For the sixties, we've burned "draft cards" and created anti-war posters.  For the last ten or so years that I've been assigning this project, the students have always come through.  But the beginning is hard to watch.
I tell students, this is your mantra this week.

As I told my students today, collaboration is hard.  Yet you can't avoid it, so it's worth practicing.  And as I go from group to group, stepping in to help with the process or an idea, I know that they're practicing crucial skills.  As they flounder  (and yesterday this looked like two students monopolizing the brainstorming session with an argument), they must learn strategies to communicate more effectively (today I watched a student grab a marker from a desk and tell her group assertively, "we need a talking stick!").  Today, I reminded them of the important skill of delegating, and I watched later as one student asked a "wandering" student if he could go find her something her group needed. These are skills we don't necessarily teach in schools, yet almost any job (not to speak of family life) will require some form of collaboration.

Learning to swing dance

So, I embrace the messiness of learning: learning to work with others, to create quality visual presentations, to innovate, to communicate knowledge to an outside audience, and to manage time.  In a week, I'll be in the common room enjoying a students' performance of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, listening to "Henry Wallace" give a speech, getting my "ration tickets," and eating Wonder Bread and Spam from the 1940s cafe.

Top Five Tips for student-driven projects:
1. Before and as they start, show and discuss models from past years (of writing, displays, any final products)
2. Make the planning visible: post planning sheets, to-do lists, supplies lists, and schedules.
3. Create small groups, making sure that there's some student leadership in each one.
4. Stress that the goal is the final project, but also remind them of and assess the skills that they're practicing: collaboration, communication, and problem solving.  Provide (and model) tools for collaborating effectively.
5. Provide an authentic, out of school audience, if possible, for the final project. Parents, alumni, and local community members are often willing to come support student work.

Student's display on V.P. Wallace that raised the bar: now all students want 3-D parts on their tri-folds.

Learning to dance the Charleston in the "speakeasy" from past 1920s Project
Vignette from past 1940s "Living Museum".  One year we even purchased a giant old radio from the decade.  Sometimes, antique stores are willing to loan us clothing and artifacts.

Monday, April 28, 2014

How to grow a student writer, in ten easy steps

How to grow a writer: A simple, but crucial step-by-step approach:

1. Start early.

Surround your sapling-writer with books--and read often.  Tell them stories about themselves.
The goals:
They delight in the sound of words.
They observe the world around them.
They want to tell stories.

 2. Once settled into school, encourage dabbling in all genres. Provide a sampling of writing assignments, encouraging her to find her writing voice.  Does she do humor?  Memoir?  Poetry? Historical fiction?  Newspaper articles or book reviews?  Whenever you can, allow her to choose topics for writing--perhaps within a theme.

Have you tried 2nd person?  Read Lorrie Moore's satirical essay,  How to become a Writer

3. Be an enthusiastic reader.  Criticize lightly.  Read her work in a comfortable chair, with a cup of something yummy next to you (rather than with a red pen and a tired frown).
Respond as a reader might: I loved this because I could imagine being in this spot you describe or, This is funny! or,  Huh--I was confused here. What's missing? Or, if you're really at a loss, I sense that your heart wasn't in this--  want to start again?

Don't edit for spelling until you have to.

4. Cultivate people to share her writing pieces with, but only when she's comfortable doing so, and maybe even let her choose her partner.  Provide the peer-reader with specific things to respond to (for instance, what is the main point the writer seems to want to make?)

5. If you have the right conditions, two writers can write something together  (Examples:  a scene of dialogue, perhaps a whole play--perhaps an abridged re-make of Macbeth, that is then performed).

6. Provide models!  How can he know how to write without seeing how others do it?  Read lots and ask him to "point" to specifically what he likes (or doesn't like).
Sample recommendation:  short memoir piece, My Name, by Sandra Cisneros.

Please note: Novels by John Green have been know to cultivate massive reading habits, and this can't hurt the writing habit.  

7. Demystify the writer's process: Share your own possibly painful, evolved writing process; invite writers into the classroom, and have them share their process. Invite peers to talk about how they write. (great essay, A. Lamott's Shitty First Drafts)

8. Seek authentic readers for your growing writer (and keep those diverse assignments coming):

Hold a poetry/fiction reading with low stakes and chocolate-covered strawberries.  Instead of forcing shy ones to read out loud, place stories at tables with comfy chairs for others to read and respond to.
Have her start a blog.
Have him send his essay to your parents or to your smart, kind friends for feedback.
Tell her to send a funny letter to your friend, telling her (creative) lies about what you do in the classroom.
Put on a performance of their ten-minute plays at an evening event.  Send invitations to parents, local writers and alumni.

9. Be patient with your writer.  She will grow!

10. Water regularly . . . with specific feedback and encouragement (and the rule for semicolons).

                       Celebrate--you've put another writer in the world!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Let's Play a Game: Questions about Competition

For the most part, I enjoyed elementary school, but one of my least favorite memories of those school days is playing duck-duck-goose in gym class. I recall my stomach lurching as one of my peers came around the circle, uttering: "duck, duck, duck. . . ".  Goose?! Augh . . . would she tag me?  I dreaded the moment that I'd have to jump up and run as fast as I could around the circle, while everyone watched. Would I run fast enough?  Would I make it around without tripping? I wasn't clumsy, and I was capable of running fast, so it wasn't a matter of incapability. It was fear of looking like a fool.  Fear of failing in front of others.  Despite my love for teaching, I'm inherently shy, and according to Susan Cain's new book, Quiet, I'm all-introvert.  And one of the things introverts hate is being in the spotlight, especially if others are watching us as we complete a task/answer a question.  So, the act of standing up when tagged and running around a circle of my peers, under pressure to not lose, was pretty much torture for me.

Recently, I played my first game of Bananagrams with some dear old college friends, and I admit to not only being bad at it, but also to not enjoying it (ok, there's a connection there).  I like words, and I like scrabble, but what I felt when I had to race to create words, was not unlike that old duck-duck-goose lurch. It was the competitive element--in tandem with my genuine desire to create words--that I found frustrating and downright unpleasant.  I'm guessing that my brain even worked slower as I was overtaken with the anxiety the game provoked.  The experience soured even more when a couple of my friends fiercely argued over words (are two-letter words only used in the math world valid?). Granted, it was all in fun for them (I think), but I experienced a vague sense of anxiety, not fun.  After several rounds, I ended up playing a slower, non-competitive version of the game with one other friend--something I made up with my son, who also didn't want to play Bananagrams by the usual rules.  My friends went out and bought a dictionary the next day to help mediate future arguments.

School is full of games.  In fact, school, depending on how it's played, can be all about competing: GPA's, SAT's, awards, sports teams, spelling bees, prom king/queen . . . all about competition. For some, school is simply a game: we figure out the rules made by teachers, and we jump the hoops (do the HW, take the tests, etc).   Is this a good thing or a disservice to those not motivated by winning--or for whom games makes us anxious?  I know that being an introvert doesn't necessarily mean one isn't driven by competition (just like being an introvert doesn't mean I don't love being in front of the classroom), but given that I'm sure there are other students like me in our schools, do we depend too much on fast-paced, competitive, public games?  Do we organize schools in a way that most benefits those who are motivated by winning, instead of those who are more inherently motivated?  (According to Cain, schools definitely favor the extroverts, as speaking up in class, being the outspoken leader in groups are rewarded above quietly reflecting in writing or deeply focusing on work by oneself, though she doesn't address any link between introverts and competition).

What is the role of competition in learning?  Does it motivate students?  Does it help or hinder learning?I don't know enough about brain research to understand exactly what happens to the brain when we compete.  I wonder if the part of the brain that is activated during a fast-paced game is helpful to learning.

Do those games we play in the classroom to review content or learn vocabulary provoke fear or excitement in students?  My answer is yes.  Yes, some students are motivated and excited by competitive games, which was clear as I watched my two friends battle it out in bananagrams. And yes, others will be filled with fear when you utter the words, "we're going to play a game."  I suspect that this feeling will not help those students learn.  On a more dramatic level, I wonder if students who always feel like they're losing the "game" of school are also the ones who sit in the back, not saying a word--or who eventually drop out. What would happen if it felt less like a game?

I wonder what percentage of people/students are motivated by competition. Do we live in a culture that assumes this is the way to go?

I wonder if the usual teacher practice is to think of ways to make it a game, making the assumption that game equals fun.

I know that I have used competitive games in my classroom.  I am a believer in variety because in my experience, students learn in different ways and are motivated by a variety of factors.  I need to mix it up in order to reach many students.  However, I think we as teachers also need to ask ourselves what our goal is when we create a climate of competition in our classrooms.  Administrators may ask themselves the same about competition in schools.

Here are a few ways I've used competition in the classroom--and feel (mostly) good about the results:

1) Definition game, Balderdash, works great on a Friday afternoon, when students may need a break from content or after a test. I keep it low stakes (no one is put on the spot, for the group works together and even though we keep score, it's kept light by goofy team names and the focus is on the fun of the definitions).  This game often results in creative, hilarious word definitions--and lots of laughter.  (message me if you want to know my process/rules).

2) Jeopardy-like game for test review.  I have mixed feelings about this one: on one hand, students seem to have fun and the material is covered.  On the other hand, does it also result in a loud, even mean-spirited activity that quieter students feel uncomfortable with?

3) Film-making class (see earlier entry, Want to Challenge  . . .). Although not the main focus of the class, there are competitive elements.  For instance, not all students' screenplays are chosen to produce (out of necessity), so students make their preferences.  And on the final film festival night, there are "judges" who give feedback and decide on winners.  Usually, out of the four films, there's one "best picture" prize, and 3 others for specific elements that were done well (things like, best editing, best use of ensemble cast, etc.). I decided to follow in the footsteps of the tradition of Hollywood film awards in this case, and I don't think it has hindered students' learning (though I have no actual proof).

What do you think?  Do you like games or not, and what is the place of competition in school?

"Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.” 
― David Sarnoff founder of RCA

“Real learning comes about when the competitive spirit has ceased.”
-Jiddu Krishnamurti

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Commendations and Celebrations

Post-Film Festival commendations are rolled around a treat for each student

My all-time favorite faculty meeting activity: all of us draw the name of one of our colleagues and spend a few minutes writing that person a note.  We either describe what we appreciate about them, or perhaps give them one "wish" (anything from a painless, successful completion of report cards to a weekend in the Caribbean).  I think we do this twice a year, and I still have most of the notes I've received through the years, stuffed into a folder that I take out once in while if I'm feeling low.

I've noticed that it's easy to hold in our minds the negative stories we tell ourselves, or the inklings of criticism that others have shared with us.  Or maybe that's just me.  In my experience, it's harder to hold on to the complements I've received and the successes I've enjoyed.  In the same way, I think students tend to experience school (partially) as a place to receive criticism, and I wonder how this impacts their learning.  I think teachers--in our desire to see improvements in our students--tend to forget to call students out on their achievements.  Yes, schools have annual award ceremonies where the "successful students" are publicly recognized for good grades or sports, but I'm talking about the smaller, equally important moments of success--perhaps when a student stayed after class and helped you clean your white board, or the time a quiet student raised his hand in class.  Or, maybe a student (finally) mastered the use of the semi-colon.

Do you remember getting a paper back from a teacher that highlighted only the positive aspects of your writing?  I wonder how that would have changed your writing practice. I remember reading in graduate school about a study that found that specific positive feedback on student writing was just as effective as marking errors. Seems counterintuitive, I know.  In any case, it's clear to me that students think of teachers as the judges, the critics--not the cheerleaders.  Yes, it's our job to help students improve and to learn from their mistakes, so of course, we need to point out weaknesses and errors.  But what if we spent as much time calling attention to the positive as we did the negative?

I call for more commendations and celebrations.

Here's some specific ideas:

1. After the recent film festival at school, which also marks the end of a challenging 6-week course (see my last post), I wanted to highlight a positive from each student's work in class.  I typed up brief, but specific messages and rolled them around a couple tootsie pops (I know, sugar is bad), placing each one on a program that the students could use for their portfolios. The students were excited to see a little prize after their hard work on their films, and even though they'll get a report card for the class, those messages highlighted something very specific, with no hint of constructive criticism. I also have them write a lengthy reflection, and I feel certain that this initial boost gave some of them a place to start, or helped put them in a mindset to look closely at their performance.

2. If your school has all-school meetings, use part of that time to commend.  Allow students and teachers to commend each other for a minor (or major) academic accomplishment or a moment of generosity. We've been doing commendations at all-school meetings at Compass School for years, and students have become good at appreciating not only each other but their teachers as well.  This could be done in a school newsletter or assembly, but works best in a setting where students feel comfortable enough speaking up.

3. And finally, you could spend a few moments each week e-mailing a couple parents (and cc'ing the  students' themselves) about a positive moment from class.  Maybe their child aced a vocabulary quiz, helped a peer with a math problem, or just exhibited a positive attitude all week. Especially at the high school level, parents often don't hear very much about what's going on at school, so I find that these notes are much appreciated.  I tend to do this when I've had a hard week, and I am in whine mode.  Counter intuitive again, perhaps, but I find that it makes all the difference on a Friday afternoon if I commend rather than criticize.

So, I commend you all for reading this post and for considering who you'd like to celebrate.  Well done.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Want to challenge your students? Ask them to make a film.

Film-Making: A wonderful mix of creativity, collaboration, and organization

This Thursday evening marks the 10th anniversary of the Student Film Festival at the Compass School, where I teach high school humanities. I vividly recall the moment I conceived of the film-making course.  I had been at the school for a couple years, and it was near the end of the year. The school was immersed in a week of independent student-chosen projects, and I watched a group of several 11th and 12th graders work on a short film based on one of the popular TV shows of the time, Survivor.  I was struck by how much fun they were having. They cast their science teacher as the leader, filming themselves as characters challenged to make it out of school alive. The final product was fun, and it got lots of laughs at the end-of-year presentation.

I wanted to harness that excitement, but I also wanted to challenge my students to make something non-derivative.  I also love movies.

The next spring, the science/technology teacher and I launched a six-week elective. Knowing nothing about film-making myself, I had easily convinced my tech-savy colleague that if he taught the technical end, I could teach the writing and film analysis part. I would help students generate ideas for screenplays and analyze films in order to inform their own. With his experience as a photographer and tech-guy, he would teach them how to shoot wisely and efficiently, how to frame good shots, and how to edit (we use Premiere Pro).  So, an interdisciplinary course for 11/12th graders was born at Compass.

Since then, I have watched the popular course challenge students like perhaps nothing else I teach. One of the challenges is that the whole course takes place in six or seven weeks, and they make two short films in that time. I provide a few lessons on what makes a good story (including the theory that there are only two stories in the whole world) and the screenplay format, and then we work on generating ideas for their scripts (see my earlier post, SnowGlobe for some of the prompts). We discuss scenes and short films in class, and they watch and write about films as homework.  

As they're in the midst of the screenplay writing process, they're simultaneously thrown into camera work, including the creation of a short silent film to try out the idea of telling a story visually.  Three weeks into the course, they pitch their original scripts, and then quickly began to cast and seek locations with their four-member production crews. Finally, one of the keys to the success of the course is the public exhibition of the films in a evening event. The public venue, even if it's just at our little school, raises the stakes.  I even invite a few local film-makers to act as judges. The students' pride and gratification at seeing their stories come to fruition on screen, with a rapt audience, is powerful. 

Like any course, different things challenge different students, but in their final reflections, most students point to the hardest thing of all--organization. To produce a film, they need to constantly think ahead, create (and revise) a schedule, communicate with outside community members (for acting and locations), and deal with forces beyond their control (weather, sick actors, etc).  If they don't have someone in their group who naturally keeps track of costumes, props, and details like mic batteries, they learn quickly the need to keep a list and a storage place. They also need to immerse themselves in the messy creative process with peers who they didn't necessarily choose to work with (though we choose groups carefully). I've watched this assignment of creating a film throw some of my brightest, most motivated students.  I've also watched many diverse groups pull together their different skills, and create some powerful, beautifully shot films. 

The beauty of the course is that students are at the center of the work, and they take complete ownership. In the end, I just stand behind them (or sometimes in front of the camera), push a little, and provide some guidance as needed; my role is the coach rather than the teacher.  They are the leaders/artists/teachers.  (see the Coalition of Essential Schools Principles: 

A senior in the course last year, who had been at Compass since 7th grade, spoke eloquently at the film festival Q and A session about how he saw the film-making course as the ideal culminating project for his secondary education, for it involved all the skills he'd been honing for years: communication, creativity, technology, problem solving, collaboration and organization.  (see his group's film below)

So, I encourage teachers to look around and watch what students are excited by. Then harness that energy. Create a course that will require them to take ownership of a challenging, interdisciplinary, creative task. Then step back and watch the learning happen.

Here's a good article about the importance of the arts in schools.  The author posits that companies need people who can problem solve, collaborate, and tell a story:

Finally, here is a 13 minute film created (in about 2.5 weeks) by a group of four 11/12th grade students in 2013    (warning: some car violence)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Best Teaching Tool Ever? The Pause.

One of the most undervalued teaching strategies of all time?


The pause.

I was reminded of this tool the other day when my student (let's call him Sam, even though it's not even close to his real name) launched into reasons that he couldn't possibly do any homework for the next week.  Sam has the challenging mix of some anxiety, a need to process verbally, and a tendency to speak in extremes.  So, too often I find myself in a verbal tangle with him.
 He gets me (nearly) every time.

To avoid the tangle with Sam, it's as simple as remembering to pause.  If I don't get pulled into his faulty line of logic and anxiety-ridden thoughts, I can diffuse his anxiety (and mine). The pause not only gives me a chance to remind myself to not get snared by his story, but it also allows me to listen fully.  In turn, my full attention helps him calm down.

Other places for the pause in the classroom:

1. Post-Question Pause: Obviously, pause after you ask a question.  That's teacher training 101.  But wait longer than you think you need to, and see what happens.  I think we are often so in a hurry to get to the (our) point in the discussion, or we're uncomfortable with silence, that we rush the post-question pause.  Just wait, glance at your shoes--like you could wait all day if you needed to.  Sometimes students just need a little processing time. Or, they think you'll just answer the question without them.

Also, by pausing, you're reminding them that it's not all about your thoughts.  Invite their thoughts--by not giving them yours so frequently.  If you really want deeper thinking, and not just obligatory answers, try responding with: "I hadn't thought of that.  What do others think?"  Or, "I'm intrigued, tell me more about that."

See this blog for a helpful discussion of the importance of higher order questioning, including a question bank

2. Pause of Patience: when you want your students to really hear you, pause.  Perhaps for dramatic effect, or if you're in the middle of a sentence, and you realize that some students have drifted off, or heaven forbid, turned to talk to someone more interesting than you, just pause.  Not in an evil-eye, shaming way, but just a little moment of breath, as if to say, come back.  I'm waiting patiently.

3. Pause before a decision. Teachers make hundreds of decisions a day.  At times, I'm sure I make them without thinking.  A student may ask me for an alternative assignment, an extension, or to leave the room, for instance.  A pause gives me the chance to collect my thoughts, ask myself what my goal is with the assignment, and stay firm--or be flexible.

4. Pause before pouncing: after a student says something offensive to your sensibilities, take a breath. That could be a difficult one.  A racist or sexist remark, usually said in ignorant innocence, can derail a class. In the past, I think I jumped too quickly--not down their throats, but perhaps close.  Now I take a breath, and think about how to respond.  Then I'm ready to grab onto a possible teaching moment.

5, Finally, pause to praise: those moments of genuine specific praise (I like how you've been listening to each other or "thank you for focusing for these last few minutes") can go a long way.

So, I invite you to try out the pause more often in your classroom--and in your life, for that matter.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

My Top Five Texts to Teach

I love lists.  The clean lines, the simplicity, the order.
When I'm overwhelmed by work, a to-do list is my best strategy.
When students don't know how to start a writing assignment, I suggest a list.
I create daily or weekly lists of to-do's, but I also hold happy lists: places to go, things that make me happy, and things/people to feel grateful for.

So, time for a list.

I've been teaching literature and humanities courses for about twenty years.  In all of that time, I've taught many texts--novels, stories, films, cartoons, ads, and maybe even cereal boxes (though I could be making that last one up).

But here are the ones that have consistently triggered substantial reactions and discussions from high school-aged students, and I never seem to get tired of exploring these with students.

Never-fail-me texts:
1. Macbeth  (Lady Macbeth--cool badass or evil? What's/who's to blame for Macbeth's fall from grace? Why do good people do bad things?)
2. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Gilman  (students are both puzzled and fascinated by what's going on--and they have to look closer)
3. Thelma and Louise  (ok, women w/ guns and booze--maybe not a great one for HS, but for discussing defiance, gender roles, and power, it's great)
4.  Mushrooms, poem by Sylvia Plath  (so simple and accessible.  Use it to introduce metaphor and/or literary theory.  Read it first without the title; ask them, what's being described? So many interpretations.)
5. The Zebra Storyteller, by Holst (so surprising and so short.  Good one for reluctant and as well as strong readers. The question it raises--what is the purpose of stories, is a rich one.)

Teachers--I would love to hear about your no-fail texts . . .

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sounding like a Beginner

I took up the cello a few weeks ago.  All I can do so far (even though I spent years playing the violin) is to pull the bow slowly across the strings, one at a time.  I've put a few fingers down, but the sound automatically changes to something less round and deep once I do. I have to stop, return to the open G or D string until I remember just the right amount of pressure the bow needs from my arm, while remembering to keep my arm straight as I move toward the tip. I sound like a beginner, and I hate it.

I'm pretty sure that these lessons are helping me as an English teacher. That feeling of being a beginner reminds me that I often ask my students to feel like that. I teach high school, so I'm not teaching new readers or writers, but when these skills don't come easily to a student, I'm asking them--when I say, now try a poem, now try lines written in iambic pentameter--to put themselves in a vulnerable spot.

Want to be a better teacher? Learn something completely new. Try to practice in front of someone else--whether it's belly dance, or basketball, or baking a souffle.  Stick with it until you feel frustrated and want to quit.

Then imagine that student who doesn't write a journal entry when everyone else is scribbling away, or think of the one who keeps forgetting the formulas you've gone over a zillion times. Think of the student who doesn't want to share her drawing or who struggles with spelling.

I think it's easy to get impatient with our students, especially if they are timid about subjects and skills we love and can do readily. We're in our element in the classroom, but our students aren't necessarily.   It may not be enough to say, I know this is hard for you. Go out on a limb yourself, take up something that is really hard for you, maybe something you're scared of learning.

Even better, ask a student who struggles in your class to help you learn something that she's good at--like play a song on the guitar, say some phrases in another language, or ride a skateboard. Sharing your vulnerability may allow your student the courage to make mistakes in your class. Then learning is more likely.

 I think we may sometimes forget, it's not always laziness or a lack of motivation that keeps a student from working, it might just be the fear of looking or sounding like a beginner.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Once I flushed my wallet down the toilet: Creativity within a Framework

As a teacher, we have lots of options when we ask students to write. We know we want them to write, but what’s the best way to improve this crucial skill? How much structure do student-writers need? Is the five-paragraph format the way to go, or does this format only make them into little robot-writers? How do we make sure that they have a structure that we as readers can follow, and yet also an individual voice--that creative, personalized edge that makes for engaging writing (that we don’t mind sitting down to grade)?   I used to be more in the camp of anti-five paragraph, and even anti-format of any sort because I hated to read the crap that came from those structures. But I’ve learned that there’s compromises to be made, and that giving students a roadmap is crucial. 

Structure is important

I have found that some students really benefit from some structure as they write, like I might need bumpers when go I bowling.  It doesn’t mean I won’t learn to bowl well without them, it just means that I’ll feel more inclined to keep bowling if I have some success; some students will write next to nothing unless you give them a first sentence, a topic sentence for each paragraph, or some other roadmap.

My advice is to balance those structured assignments with plenty of opportunities for students to explore what they believe, to talk about those beliefs with others, and to enrich their writing with those thoughts.  Those five-paragraph essays are boring when students merely write what they think they should be saying, not what they’ve actually thought about (perhaps the SAT writing scorers discovered this, and that drove College Board to make the essay optional). In other words, structure can stymie genuine thought and fresh ideas.

Write outside the box:

Also, make sure to give plenty of opportunities for students to write outside the box.  Ask them to write poems, five- word memoirs, and scripts. Give them the common sentence, “the dog barked” and tell them to write a story with that sentence in it somewhere. Tell them to write the longest sentence they can.  Give them a list of the funniest words in English to use in a story.  Go wild.
Balance structure with chances to be creative:

Finally, structure can mate with creativity--and perhaps that's the ideal.  Like Madlibs.  This is a fill-in-the-blank writing exercise, yet I’m amazed when I challenge kids to come up with words beyond the pedestrian they come up with a very creative, often hilarious little story (something involving a butt).

I've also come to realize that there's structure everywhere, and that this doesn't mean it's not creative. Look at a snowflake, for goodness sake, or a flower garden.  And all stories hold a very similar structure.

Yesterday in my 11/12th grade film-making class, I wanted to suggest that a story is a simple matter, and that for their screenplays, all they need is: a character who wants something and can’t get it.  Until he or she does.  My purpose was to slice through the fear I felt in the room—fear of writing 5-8 pages of stage direction and dialogue.  To make my point (and to trigger ideas), I gave them this framework, insisting that all stories are basically this format:

Once. . .
Then one day. . . .
But suddenly. . .
And next, unfortunately. . . .
Then it was discovered that. . . .
Luckily, in the end. . .

Now, I said, fill in the blanks, and you’ve got your story concept and plot.  I know, it could result in crap, but I tried it anyway as an experiment.  One of my students came up with this:  

“Once, I flushed my wallet down the toilet. Then one day, I found it in my garden. But suddenly, I realized that it was actually my neighbor's! And next, unfortunately, I maxed out all his credit cards. And got pulled over with his license. And got into an argument with the cop, who set me up with a court date. And I liked her, so we went out a few times, at least until I realized that she was a Satanist. Thankfully, I had given her my neighbor's name, so just as things were getting to serious, I was able to
fake my own death by vanishing into the labyrinth of the sewers! And wouldn't you know it, but I found my wallet down there! And I all lived happily ever after.  The end.”

And there you have it, creativity within a framework.  And a chuckle to boot.

(Note: I think I stole the prompts, but I have no idea from whom.  Sorry I haven’t given credit where credit is due)


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Learning and Teaching--best done away from desks

At my desk--but not for long.

I need to explain the title of this blog.  First of all, I wanted several other titles that were already taken, including, "Begin Anywhere" which is one of my favorite quotes (from John Cage), and I use it all the time with students when they're stuck with writing.  I settled on "Teacher Away From Her Desk" because it gets at the kind of teacher I am.  No, I'm not often on vacation.  But I can often be found sitting on the tables in my room, eliciting responses to Catcher in the Rye or Othello.  I might be in the big multi-purpose room of our school, checking in with a student who could focus better outside the classroom.  I might be acting in a student's film, hiking up Mount Monadnock, or painting a mural in a homeless shelter.  I can be found in the bathroom rolling a student's hair into victory rolls for our 1940's Living Museum.  And my favorite teaching moment of all--running toward the warm blue ocean of Cabarete with my 11th grade advisees.  It was a moment of joy and discovery that I'll remember forever, and no lesson planning was involved (though lots of fund-raising was).  I'm lucky enough to teach in a small school where we emphasize learning in a variety of settings and I'm expected to include projects that take me out of the classroom.  But I think even in a traditional, larger school, I'd find myself teaching in the hallways, or side by side students in a circle, and yes, in front of the classroom. I like my desk, and I do spend a fair amount of time there, but that's not where I do my best teaching.

Teaching away from my desk means I'm not talking at the students (though I do that occasionally), but rather I'm asking them to write something, to collaborate with one another, to solve real problems, to create art, and to connect with me and their peers.  The core for me is this--learning is most powerful when students and teachers are doing meaningful work together; that might be writing and producing ten minute plays or planning an event to demonstrate their learning.  It could be reading and discussing a novel together.  Perhaps best of all, it might be traveling to a new place together.

Also, yesterday, as I watched my 9th and 10th grade students tackle some primary and secondary sources relating to WW I, I noticed that they too prefer to learn away from their desks, even when it's something one would think is desk work.  After I handed out the assignment with the packet of readings, a couple students wanted to go out and sit on the stage that is set up for the upcoming play (we don't have an auditorium, so we have hand-built stage that gets folded up when the play it over). They wanted to go over the reading together, discussing the questions as they go, collaborating on answers. These students are bright and inquisitive, and were not just looking to get the answers from one another.  One student wanted to sit by himself on the floor outside the classroom, and another needed to talk through the questions with me.  The entire class worked.  It was a productive hour or so.  Really, I was a bit surprised. They had each selected the place and modality that helped them read and think. And it worked.

So I encourage teachers to keep this in mind--if allowed to, students figure out how they work best, and sometimes it's away from their desks.

And teachers, step away from that desk--run toward the sea with your students.
students who self-selected to work together on reading

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Snow Globes and Writing

Triggering Creative Writing

Sometimes, inspiring a student to write involves a simple object—like this silly little penguin snow globe.  Let me explain . . .

I co-teach a film-making elective for 11/12th graders.  In this six week course, students boldly venture through each stage of the film-making process, including the creation of an original live action short film of about 6-10 minutes. The first task is to write a short screenplay that can be produced in the final weeks of the class.  I have struggling writers as well as “natural” writers in the group, and it’s often a challenge to get them all to write a complete 5-10 page script, which they then pitch  to the class. In the class of anywhere between 10-17, they decide on about four scripts to produce.  We’re also challenged by time; ideally, the class would be at least eight weeks, and there would be time to draft the scripts before production weeks.

So, with a couple weeks and a diverse group of writers, I’ve tried many things to inspire the screenplays.

I’ve tried music.  I play various songs (everything from jazz to Vivaldi or rap), and ask students to close their eyes until they start to see a scene or a person.  I then ask them to open their eyes and describe what they see, embellishing if they want.  We go through 4-6 songs, followed by a brief writing time.  Those scenes sometimes result in at least a character, if not a story concept or location idea.

I’ve also tried pictures, and I’ve tried shoes, which I tell them I found along the side of roads.  I ask, who lost this shoe and how?  Today, I brought in a bag of random objects from my house, including an old cowboy boot, a dusty 1950’s camera, a bracelet from the Dominican Republic, a box of cheerios, and a penguin snow globe that is part of my daughter’s old collection.  I spread them out on the tables in front of the students, and told them to see which object calls to them.  My instructions: Examine it and then decide who it belongs to.  Imagine this person, in as much detail as you can, and then describe that person.  Once they’ve got their character, I ask them to look at the list of prompts on the board to help them think more deeply about him or her.  They use these prompts to further learn about/create their character, and possibly even think of a conflict for a story.

Prompts to develop character:

A person who . . .
likes. . .  (i.e.: cheerios, Beethoven, belly dancing, or her 5th grade teacher, etc.)
hates. . . (i.e: beets, his mother, people who lie etc.)
spends every afternoon . . . (i.e: knitting, riding a bike along the beach, filing, etc)
wants . . . (i.e: a girlfriend, attention, to be able to fly, etc.)
forgets . . . (i.e: most things, his students’ names,  his keys, etc.)
eats . . . (i.e: rye toast and cheese; popcorn without butter, etc.)
needs (i.e: a new robe, a job, a ride home, etc.)

Today in class, one of my students was intrigued by the snow globe, and quickly came away with an idea not only for a character who owned that object, but also for a whole story line.  After class, she chattered excitedly to me in the lunch line about her story about a young girl who loses her favorite object, even thanking me for doing that activity.

It was one of those gratifying teaching moments.  And all it took was a few objects from my closets.

I look forward to reading the scripts that students will write in the next week.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Teaching Shakespeare: Let Them Find It

Teaching Shakespeare to high school students can be both exhilarating and frustrating.  I love it every time. The key for me is to not force the play down their throats right away, but to slowly give them a taste.

I am trying Macbeth with mixed ability/multi- grade 9/10th graders this semester for the first time.  I have always taught Shakespeare to 11/12th graders, so I’m a little nervous about how it will go.  After a few days of our new unit, I’m enthusiastic. 

My clever, though sometimes obscure student explained to us in class today that the difference between hip hop and Shakespeare is that although both are like being given 500 bucks, hip hop is when you find it on the street, and Shakespeare is when someone shoves it in your face.  Huh?
What he was trying to say (I think) was that you gain a lot with both hip hop and Shakespeare, but it’s the manner of access that matters.  He’d rather find the money than have someone “shove it in his face”—even if he wants that money.

Even if that's not quite what he meant, I got the message—don’t force Shakespeare on them.  Let them “find it”.

Not an easy task.

I am grateful for the zillion (give or take) resources out there in Google-land to help me.  For instance, I was happy with a resource I found on Youtube that I used the first week as an introduction to the language.  It’s a Ted Talk with Akala:

In this 20-minute video, Akala impressively performs sonnets, but also shares an apt comparison between hip hop artists and Shakespeare, not only for the obvious use of rhyme and meter, but also because these artists took it upon themselves to be the “custodians of knowledge.”

His talk led nicely into a brief discussion in my class about what he meant by “a custodian of knowledge.” What is that exactly?  What does he mean by “knowledge,”  and who is the keeper of it today?  I asked my students to come up with a two-sentence summary of his main points.  From their summaries, we collaborated on figuring out what Akala meant. We decided that “knowledge” in this case isn’t necessarily about school learning or facts, but rather, people’s stories, struggles, and thoughts.  Why is this idea important as we move into Shakespeare?  I think it helped students to think of Shakespeare as just another guy trying to tell the stories of his time and people. Our discussion also touched on people’s --perhaps their parents’--perceptions of hip hop, and then I could (gently) point out how their own perceptions of Shakespeare could be skewed as well.  It’s all about allaying their fears, even if not all of them have trepidation.

Next time—some line "tossing,"  dialogue writing/performing with thou and thee, and maybe Elizabethan insults before we launch into Macbeth.  The time I spend warming them to the language will mean a smoother ride down the road, and more of a likelihood that they will find that 500 bucks.

Great resource: Folger Library's Shakespeare Set Free series (this is where "line tossing" comes from).