Tuesday, May 20, 2014

6 Lessons Confirmed (& Learned) From My Students

This last week, my students have composed letters to their successors. This isn't a new activity for many of us. Although this learning activity was not designed to provide feedback on our class, it was full of their experiences and perceptions which provided me honest insights into our classroom. As I read through their letters jammed packed with conventional (and unconventional) advice, highlights from this school year, carefully worded hints for thriving in 6th grade and best wishes on an amazing year full of learning adventures, I was thrilled at their expert ability in sharing their unique voice. In their voices, I found some hidden lessons (some old, some new) waiting for me that I thought I would share. Some of it was expected....and some of it was not.

1- Cross-curricular learning topped many of their lists. As a grade level, we have planned and implemented six full-day, hands-on/simulation days, in addition to a month-long unit that led up to our Space Camp trip. My learners' writing exuded enthusiasm for the connections that they discovered which bridged the gap between content areas. This brought to mind hearing Tony Wagner say that innovation comes where content areas intersect. Innovation is a team sport dedicated to removing the boundaries of content disciples in order to create, not simply consume content. My students confirmed these ideas for me and led me to resolve to create further cross-curricular units of study in the near future.

2- Learning is active, not passive. In a great majority of their letters they described their favorite learning activities, from our Book Tasting to the Case of the Missing Teacher. They enumerated all the fun (yes, I used that "f" word) they had in their Lit Centers where they actively created, read, wrote, published, explored, discussed, and discovered new things not only about content but also about themselves, their peers, and the world around them. Their letters were overflowing with action verbs outlined what they had done during this school year. 

3- Technology is a powerful tool, if used correctly. Many of the students shared some of the specific tools they used to write, publish or connect with their peers in class and worldwide. However, the one constant was what they gained from using these tools, not the actual tool. Yes, they mentioned Twitter, Instagram, Skype, Smore, Tackk, Weebly, and Google Drive (plus a host of other tools). Yet, what they valued most was the learning and connecting that transpired due to these tools. They learned how to explore new ideas, question themselves, and develop as learners. One student stated, "We have devices in class every day, but that doesn't mean we're always on it. But, they are always there when we need them to help us grow and learn."

4- Choice reigns supreme. In almost every letter to their successors, students mentioned that they had the freedom of choice...from their reading selection to their genre of writing, from their method of publishing to the goals that they set for themselves. Many of my learners shared their excitement for our Innovation Day and our class' Genius Hour. What did these have in common? The ability to pursue personal interests in a way that was meaningful for them. They had the ability to solve problems, learn new content, and create something new to share with others. As I mentioned in The Power of One Word, Choice,  choice makes a world of difference to students who have had "school" done to them instead of having the control to help themselves move along their own learning continuum. This was especially evident in the letters composed by my students who are struggling students...students who (I hope) can now see the power of learning in transforming their lives.

5- Everyone's voice matters. When I conferred with my students, one observation I immediately discovered was how different each letter was. It was in the unique style and personality of each student. Several students mentioned in their letters how important blogging had been to them. Through their letters they described their journey as hesitant writers who struggled with sharing their ideas due to lack of confidence or unwillingness to put words to a screen (pen to paper). They explained that because of regular practice, encouragement, and conversations with peers, near and far, through their blogging, they realized that they had something important to say. This motivated them to join more conversations in class and through digital mediums. One student said, "I learned that I really do have the power to make a difference."

6- Habits are hard to break. Here was the surprising part of the letters. Although they mentioned the previous items, what surprised me was how often traditional advice along the lines of "complete your homework on time, don't talk during class, and study for tests to get good grades" appeared in their letters. I do not assign homework. Our classes are filled with talking with less than 10% of the time of me being in the front of the class. Most of our assessments are project based/performance assessments as students are scored according to standards mastery. So why did they include that advice for their successors? I've spent days contemplating this and I couldn't really come up with a good answer. Their advice seemed so contrary to what we've done for the last 170 something days we have been together. 

Perplexed, I finally asked my students to explain. And honestly, they didn't have a great answer other than that's what they felt like needed to be included. Several students even pointed to previous experience with previous teachers who had encouraged these types of letters with that type of advice. Habits. That's what they have heard for the last six years of school. Many hear the same advice from their families. When it comes down to it, it was a knee-jerk reaction. Is any of this advice necessarily bad? No. Does it fit within the structure of our classroom? No. Do my students truly believe that this year was a break from the "reality of school"and that they will return to that traditional method next year?  I hope not. My first instinct was to ask them to remove it, but ultimately I decided not to. It is their letter. Their voice. Their message. I would be taking away their voice. Their freedom. That is not something I will do.

What will I do? We will do what we've always done. We'll have an open discussion about it. We'll explore what learning really is and who they want to be as individuals. Because ultimately, like in our classroom, it really is all about them, their needs, goals, wishes, and dreams. We're just along for the ride.

photo credit: Justin in SD via photopin cc

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Power of One Word, Choice

As this year's IRA conference is coming to a close, there is one word that has emerged as a central theme across general sessions, social media feeds, presentations, and informal gatherings...the power of choice. This message was one that organically became the talking point at the heart of all other messages. If you want students to become readers, writers, and ultimately lifelong learners, choice is the key ingredient. Choice, the ingredient that is missing from prescriptive programs, most pacing guides, directives and mandates coming from the "higher ups." Too often we are pressured to focus solely on numbers while slowly losing our focus on what really matters...our students.

I have written many times about the impact that choice has upon student learning (see below), but after joining the conversations this week, I have come to the conclusion that it goes much deeper than their learning. I think that giving students a voice is empowering them with the ability to take ownership and control over their lives. We are giving them a sense of self-efficacy in both their academic and personal lives. We are showing them that what they say matters; their needs are our priority; they have value in this world.

Does this impact their lives in the classroom? Without a doubt! We have all seen students read books that were "higher than their reading level" because they WANTED to read it. We've seen students become prolific writers because they had a choice in the topic, genre, and means of publishing for an authentic audience. In our classroom, it is very common for students to choose to write or read over other "more popular activities" because they want to...and these are students that enter a classroom at the beginning of the year claiming to hate reading and/or writing.

As teachers, we understand the importance of a strong education to set students on a successful lifelong adventure. But I couldn't help but wonder, if we take away their choice in controlling their own future, are we truly preparing them for life outside our classroom walls? Are they gaining the life skills of decision making, problem solving, conflict resolution, time management, choices-consequences relationship, collaboration, and communication when we are continuing to make those choices for them? Are they being given the opportunity to fail, learn from their mistakes, and grow as individuals? Yes, there is no doubt of the power of an education, but isn't it our job to prepare the whole child, not just the one that appears on a page as a test number?

So as the learning at the IRA conference draws to a close, I am more committed than ever to provide my students with a choice in all aspects of life in our classroom. Our support should only be in place until the edifice is in place...after all, this is their life, not ours.

A few of the pieces I've written on choice and student voice:

photo credit: The Rocketeer via photopin cc

Sunday, May 11, 2014

How to Avoid Inflicting Atomic Wedgies on Our Students

Dav Pilkey, known for his wildly popular Captain Underpants series, just completed his keynote for day two of the IRA Conference. Over the years,  my students (especially my struggling readers, Ex Ed and ELL) have loved his books. However, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would I find inspiration from the author of these wildly funny books? What could he say that that would help me sharpen my teaching practice?

I received a major reminder about the lasting influence that a teacher can have upon a learner for the rest of their lives. Now, those of you that know me, know that I am a teacher because of one teacher; a teacher whose thoughtless words and negative attitude led me to the realization that no student should ever have to sit in a classroom and feel the way that I was feeling. This is a sensitive area for me...one where I am vigilant in monitoring in my own practice. So, when Dav Pilkey was explaining how his teacher tore up his "silly" comic in elementary school and told him that he should "grow up" and that he could never make a living writing silly books (boy, was she wrong), I began to look inward. Have I inadvertently said or done something that negatively impacted a student and the course of their lives? I sincerely hope that is not the case. This is an area we all need to be consistently conscientious. 

I thought I would share some of the lessons (and reminders) that I gained from hearing about Dav Pilkey's journey in hopes that it would spur some of your thinking as it did mine.
  1. Reading is reading. Pilkey shared that for an individual to be considered an expert, he/she mus
    t put in at least 10,000 hours of practice. That applies to reading. They need to read. Read often; read what interests them...regardless of our perceived value of the text, print or digital. Reading is reading is reading. We want them to become master readers.
  2. Our evaluation of literature doesn't matter. We aren't the ones reading it, they are. They must have a choice. If they want to read comic books, guides to video games, or Mad Magazines, that's okay. They are still reading... learning, thinking, and becoming a stronger reader. They are becoming lifelong readers. Pilkey loved to read, Mad Magazine, Dynamite Magazine, joke books, and comics.  However, the adults in his life took away those books from him because those adults did not deem them as valuable. We can’t do this to our students. That will zap a love of reading faster than Captain Underpants can inflict an atomic wedgie.
  3. Don't judge a book by it's cover. Just because a book has a cartoon superhero clad in underwear does not mean that it will not challenge our students as readers. When was the last time you read a comic, graphic novel, or a Captain Underpants book?The vocabulary is challenging for students. The plots are complex with multilayered, deep, and complicated characters. To comprehend these texts students have to employ a host of higher order reading and reasoning strategies....because they WANT to. Why would we, as teachers, ever want to take that away from our students? 
  4. Don't judge a book by it's cover. When we see a student drawn to books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Bone, the Middle School series, or Captain Underpants series, as their teacher, we need to take clues as to how we can support their learning in a way that is meaningful to them. They have reached for those texts for a reason. Dav Pilkey shared his struggle functioning in school because of learning disabilities partnered with ADHD. Teachers often got frustrated with him and devalued his reading and his writing instead of seeing the enormous amount of inspiration and creativity they could have harnessed to help him become successful in their classroom. Dav Pilkey reminded us of the importance of using creativity to inspire others inspire of challenges. “People with challenges can change the world."
  5. Involve students in designing expectations. Pilkey explained that his criteria for books were things like short chapters (gives students a sense of accomplishment), lots of illustrations (supports understanding of text), and fun characters (mad scientists, superheroes, robots, and monsters) which didn't align with the teachers' expectations. When he began creating books for kids like him, he took the two lists and combined them. By including our students in creating a list of expectations, we are valuing their voice while also empowering them with ownership over their learning.
I can think of no better way to wrap up my reflections than to share his final words. Pilkey ended his presentations with this thought: A reading revolution is happening. We just need to get out of the way!

Isn't that the truth?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

#IRA14: Frivolous or Founded? Opening Our View in the Classroom

Today at the IRA conference, I had an epiphany. As teachers, so many times we write off things as having very little value in the workings of our classrooms: doodling, sketching, humor, video games. Yet, these are things that are part of who our students are as people. They doodle, sketch, crack jokes (even those involving bathroom humor), read comic books, and spend an enormous amount of time playing video games.Often as teachers, we make the mistake of seeing all of these elements as competition to our instruction when in reality they need to be invited into classrooms.

Jeff Kinney, the author of the wildly popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, did just that. He spent an enormous amount of time reading and creating comics. Then, after a Washington Post article touted his new comic as the "next great thing" only to receive an onslaught of rejection letters, he left his world of drawing and writing comics to immerse himself in video games, including working with FunBrain. He knew he needed to snap out of his video game streak, so he began to write in a journal. When I saw a page from his journal, I sent this tweet:

I think that sometimes our vision for our classroom is too narrow. Those journals are what eventually led to his Wimpy Kid books. They gave him time to formulate ideas, play with plot lines, and explore characters. Because he took that time, many of our students have found books that they can relate to. Like Greg, they find humor in everyday events...eventually.

When our students come to class and they want to read comic books, we need to remember that we never know who the next Jeff Kinney will be. Sometimes a student who is intimidated by a book, will open a comic and become so engaged and enamored with the possibilities, they become voracious readers. These learners are reading, exploring new worlds, igniting imaginations, and for most kids, formulating new stories based on these characters.

Our learners' experiences playing multi-user games are teaching them how to communicate, strategize, collaborate, and formulate solutions to challenges. These games are complex and sophisticated. They take an an enormous amount of stamina...and yes, in many of these games, there is a vast amount of reading and writing embedded into them (something that had escaped my attention until last summer).

So as I end my IRA day, I am beginning to think about the small things that my students do that could easily be harnessed to support their learning. As teachers it is our responsibility to meet our students wherever they are as learners and move them forward.  Who knows, the next Jeff Kinney could be sitting in our classroom right now? We need to be the one to encourage that in our students because the next generation of students will need inspiration too.

#IRA14: In the Beginning There was...a Flood?

Yesterday, IRA kicked off it's 59th Annual Conference. This year it's in New Orleans. With that came the rain. Cell phones had their emergency warnings sound for the flood. Stories poured out about many of the restaurants and shops flooding. People were getting caught in different parts of town trying to wait out the deluge. However, nothing could dampen the spirit of the thousands of educators who flooded New Orleans. As I began to reflect on this occurrence (and dry out), several ideas came to me. There truly was a flood happening...one that had nothing to do with what brings to mind animals entering an ark two-by-two. I thought I'd share my observations and I'd welcome you to add yours to this list as well.

  1. Flood of optimism- In spite of seriously torrential downpour, no one complained. No one let the rain dampen their excitement for learning with and from fellow educators. Everyone took this as a minor inconvenience and kept with their plans to have informal conversations at one of the many locations around New Orleans. This speaks volumes about the type of educators that I am fortunate to be among for the next three days. Teachers who look at something like a flood as a mere gnat buzzing around their faces while they continue to connect and learn.
  2. Flood of learning- I was unable to join the pre-conference this year. Yet, I was still able to learn all day yesterday...through the social media feeds. There was a constant moving stream of learning begin shared through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (#IRA14). This speaks to the vision of the educators here. They are not here just to learn for themselves, but to pass it along to others. The streams were flooded with so many epiphanies, resources, recommendations and learning that I found myself becoming completely engulfed in the events taking place yesterday. I couldn't wait to join the conversations and sharing today.
  3. Flood of passion- I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in conferences and learning events all over this country....which I totally enjoy. But this year, there is something a little bit different about this year's conference. It brings to mind the time several years ago when my mother, sister and I met at the beach...we were overwhelmed with excitement, laughter, and the opportunity to make new memories. Through our precarious drive, I had ongoing conversations with friends and colleagues through text, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.  Through all of these communications, what became very apparent is our shared passion for positively impacting student learning.
So as the conference is about to "kick off," join the conversation, either face-to-face or digitally. Jump in, wade in, or do your favorite belly flop. The water is great here at IRA14 and we're all in the for the ride of our lives.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

IRA14: New Orleans, Here We Come!

Now is the time that thousands of educators are packing their bags and descending on New Orleans, host of the International Reading Association's 59th Annual Conference. In April's Plugged In column, Confessions of an Avid Conference Participant, I shared some my tips for preparing for an large professional learning event. I love professional learning and connecting with fellow educators. For me, it's often like a family reunion, getting to re-connect with educators that I haven't seen, other than on social media, for the last year. Without a doubt, meeting with friends and making new ones, fans the fires of my passion for providing students with the best possible learning opportunities possible.

With so many formal and informal learning opportunities at IRA, I thought I would share where you can find me while you are in New Orleans so that we can connect.  I hope to get to see you there and hear about the wonderful things that you are doing at your school.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Global Read Aloud: One Book to Connect the World (1:00-2:00; Room 348-349) Do you want to give your students an exciting, authentic reason to read and discuss a great book? Through different web tools and apps, the Global Read Aloud provides students an authentic reason to read, discuss, write, and publish with thousands of other students from around the world. By connecting with a strong network of fellow educators, you bring the world into your classroom promoting literacy and supporting digital standards. Learn about the Global Read Aloud project, methods of becoming connected with other classes, and strategies for making this project work in your classroom or school.

Book Signing (2:15-3:00, Stenhouse Publishers, Booth #2423) I will be there to sign copies of Can You Skip Lunch and Keep Writing? Collaborating in Class and Online, Grades 3-8. This is also an opportunity where we can chat, connect, and begin collaborations.

Sunday, May 11, 2014 

Twitter-a-ture: Creating Content and Connections (11:20-11:40, Digital Classroom, Booth #1010) Twitter is more than a byte-sized social network-it's a powerful writing and publishing tool. Learn how you can use Twitter with your students to create book reports, short stories, and six-word memoirs, among other projects.

Mid-level Educators Tweetup (1:00-1:45, Tweet Suite, Booth #1056) Do you work with learners in Grades 3-8? This tweetup is for you! Come meet other mid-level educators for this informal gathering in IRA's new Tweet Suite. Not on Twitter? No problem! Expand your personal learning network (PLN) the old-fashioned way with face-to-face contact.

Of course, you can always find me on Twitter and Instagram. I'll be posting my learning and using the #IRA14 hashtag throughout the conference. I look forward to seeing you soon!