Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Bringing the Outside In

I have been incredibly fortunate this school year to host a number of speakers and writers in my classroom. The opportunity for students to meet with published authors, with poets, and with a Holocaust survivor have enlarged the conversations we have about history, about writing, about identity, and how about we connect through the stories we tell.  "Stories," as novelist Madeleine L'Engle stated, "make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving."

Check out all the speakers and authors who have visited with my classes during the 2014-2015 school year (so far):

Click on the images below to watch each presentation.

Elise Juska, author of the recent fiction novel The Blessings, visited on January 15, 2015
  • The Philadelipia Inquirer described Ms. Juska's book, The Blessings as a "bighearted novel... Juska's moving, multifaceted portrait of the Blessing family." Join our creative writing class as we listen to the author and question her about her process.

Cameron Conaway, mixed martial arts fighter and poet, spoke with students on January 13, 2015
  • Cameron Conaway, author of The Malaria Poems, shares his experiences and process, including mindfulness, with students from our creative writing and 10th grade English classes.

Dave Patten, singer/song writer, novelist, actor, and Haverford High alum, met with students on December 22, 2014.
  • Dave Patten, author of the recently published Run of the Mill, spoke with creative writing and 10th grade English students about what it takes to succeed in creative fields and shared some advice for aspiring creative types.

Three young adult novelists speak with students on November 6, 2014.
  • Young adult (YA) genre authors, E.C. Myers, Ellen Jensen Abbott and Marie Lamba introduce their new work, discuss their writing process and answer questions from high school creative writing classes.

Holocaust survivor Mr. Michael Herskovitz speaks with students about his experiences in three death camps on September 29, 2014.
  • Michael Herskovitz was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 to hard working parents and a happy family. In March 1944 he noticed German soldiers in the village and learned that Germany had invaded his country. Mr. Herskovitz shares experiences inside Auschwitz and other "work camps", through to liberation and finally realizing a successful family life and business in the USA. An earlier recording of his presentation can be found here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Anything? Really? Really!

When I first describe our #HavPassion research project to students, I get this quizzical look. "I can research anything? Really?" Really!

For the last eight weeks, my tenth grade students have delved into the origins of the word passion, explored what it means to have grit and persevere through initial stumbles and failures, and ultimately share their passion with readers and audiences outside of the classroom.

Today after school, I listened in as Skylar interviewed someone form the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education in order to learn about how one gets into this field of study. Earlier in the day, TJ pulled up curriculum outlines for computer programming language courses and computer science classes taught at a high school in Washington. He mentioned that he was going to try contacting a principal from the school to help with his current research. He thought he was just going to be building a computer from scratch (which he did), but then he asked the question, "Why don't students have the opportunity to do this is school?" So this weekend, he put together a course proposal and research curriculum guidelines and state teaching regulations which he plans to share with our principal and hopefully the school board. Jillian connected with Duckworth Labs and with professors to learn more about growth mindset and its impact on student success in the classroom. Juliet was excited when her free book arrived after she connected with Ed Lebetikin, store owner and teacher at The Woodwright's School (if you are a fan of PBS, you might be familiar with this show). We tweeted best-selling author of Born to Run and running advocate Christopher McDougall when Abigail started to research how to prevent running injuries. He's making a visit to our school next month! Students have been taking cake decorating classes, shadowing landscape business owners, composing scores for orchestration, conducting and teaching middle school band students, and so much more. And all the while students have been blogging, sharing their research and their reflections with students both around the country, as well as those around the block.

As my tenth graders selected their topics and looked for mentor texts and experts to interview, we also connected with fifth grade students in our district completing a very similar inquiry project. Using Google Hangouts, elementary library Christina Brennan and I connected our students, encouraged them to share their inquiry interests, and then we connected our learners further using collaborative Google docs.  My high schools students read through her students' initial questions and research findings and commented back to the fifth grade students, sharing research strategies and connections. My students moved from finding mentors to being mentors.

We have come to our final week for our #HavPassion inquiry projects. When I shared this with students on Monday, I had groans. But they were not groans complaining about having a week to work on research. Instead, they were groans hoping for more time. Students want to do more, read more, blog more, connect more. Now they are saying, "We can research anything! Really!"

Next weekend, some of my students will be joining Christina and me as we present at EduCon on the mentorship relationship forged between our two groups of students. My students aren't being graded for their presentations. In fact, they are joining me after our class together has come to a close. But this is what passion-based learning inspires. Student and teachers building a community of learning that extends well beyond our physical classrooms and beyond the boundaries of one particular class.

Please check out their blogs. This week they are adding up their final reflection posts and we will be celebrating their accomplishments in class on Friday. I would love to share any words of encouragement that you might have, so use the comments section below to share!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Overwhelmed...but in a good way

I have too many blog posts in me! So right off the bat, know that this post is almost more of a reminder to me of all the things that I want to write more in depth about in the coming weeks. It has been an overwhelming semester, filled with a classroom makeover, presentations, author visits, and so much more.   I look forward to sharing these developments with you in the new year.

Feature on Classroom CribsFirst, I need to share a bit more about my classroom redesign.  I shared some of the early steps in my classroom makeover in September, but I need to post my more recent learning space redesigns. My initial steps to create a more student-focused, student-driven classroom have lead to even more changes. As I spent time reflecting on my educational philosophy, I realized I needed to make a few more changes to my classroom space so that my philosophy was mirrored in my physical  classroom space. My classroom is open, with flexible seating in the form of stools, pillows, ottomans (which double as book storage), and a couch.  And I'm also happy to share that our classroom is featured as part of the #ClassroomCribs challenge. If you are looking for inspiration for your own classroom makeover, be sure to check out the work of Erin Klein, Ben Gilpin, and A.J. Juliani over at ClassroomCribs.com.

UPDATE: Shortly after posting this I learned that I am one of the Grand Finalists in the ClassroomCribs Challenge!

Click to enlarge our four essential questions.
In addition to redesigning my physical classroom, my curriculum got a big makeover this semester too. For the last decade, our tenth grade English class has focused on world literatures, connecting with the writers of the non-western world.  However this semester, our department took a more thematic approach to our tenth grade curriculum, focusing on four essential questions to guide our new thematic focus on "Perspectives of the Individual." And although initially a bit apprehensive about this change, it has afforded me an opportunity to reimagine my curriculum. I revisited the work of my language arts gurus to help me rethink what was possible. Kelly Gallagher helped me think through how I provide writing feedback (students should write four times more than you can grade) and how I teach close reading (Articles of the Week). Chris Lehman helped me think through possibilities for teaching analytic reading. And so many more mentors than I could name helped inspire my renewed focus on cultivating a student-driven classroom with students doing, speaking, and sharing more than I do. And in addition to adding new core texts, I figured now was the time to make some other big changes, the most significant of which is the move to a 100% paperless classroom. Now, four months into it, I can't imagine teaching any other way.  Going paperless has meant finding better, more collaborative ways of working with students and with working with readers and writers outside of the classroom.

Although I have been pushing my emerging writers to connect with audiences outside the classroom for a number of years now, this semester I have witnessed the pinnacle success of that focus.  My students and I used social media to connect with and invite in a number of writers from a variety of genres into our classroom.  In the last four months we have:

And the next four months look equally as packed with connections! We will be hosting:
So many of these connections have come as a result of my students and I reaching out on social media and asking.  This has been a big take-away that I need to explore more in the coming months.  In talking with Teen Ink's founder Stephanie Meyers when we first connected my students with her via Skype, she graciously showed us virtually around her office and said, "No one has ever asked me to do this, and I love it!"  In putting myself out there and asking anyone and everyone to come into my classroom - fellow teachers, writers, parents, other students - whether it is done in person or virtually, I have opened up opportunities for my students to connect with real audiences. Very little of their written work is seen by only me. We blog using Blogger and respond to classrooms around the country. Students post their work in online portfolios which can easily be shared with fellow teachers, students, and even parents.  And in talking with my students about these opportunities, I have also encouraged them to ask.  They are reaching out through their blogs and through Twitter in order to build their own personal learning network (PLN). I hope to share more of this particular adventure both here and in some upcoming presentations.

Yup, that's me presenting.
Speaking of which, wow! I need to share more of the presentations I've been doing! In the last few months I have had the opportunity to present at the Pennsylvania Council for Teachers of English Language Arts (PCTELA) as well as at the Michigan Google Summit. I was honored as an Emerging Leader at the recent PASCD conference. In a few short weeks, I'll be presenting at the upcoming EduCon conference in Philly with Christina Brennan on "Mentoring Passion" about how we connected my high school students with her elementary students through passion-based learning. And I need to share more about what I have learned from these fantastic organizations and connections.

So, I'm overwhelmed...but in a good way.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Love poems

We're deep into poetry.  My creative writing students have played with pantoums and rolled around in ovillenjos. We've explored ballads and free verse, sonnets and limericks. But the other day, we toyed around with love.  Our goal was to craft a love poem to someone or something.  Our inspiration came from these two pieces, which we used as muses for our own pieces on love.

Here is my little love poem:


by J. Ward

It is joy and fear, swaddled
20.5 inches, 7 pounds, 8 ounces
that rips my heart open
and stitches it back together
stronger than ever.
Like nothing I have ever known,
raw and untamed.
When Grandma called you “colicy”
and later “bossy,”
it came on fierce, defensive
and ready with a sweater sleeve
to dry your tears and
wipe away the sadness
that crashed over you.
My arms swing wide and tight,
armor to protect both our hearts,
which you melted
with the word


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Connecting Passion

Just before Thanksgiving break, my tenth grade students opened up Blogger and started to design their first blogs. Well, now we are up and running.  Over the course of December and January, my students are using their blogs to connect with other students, supporters, and experts interested in learning with them as they explore an inquiry question they are passionate about. We call it our #HavPassion project.  Students have selected a wide range of topics to research, everything from how to refinish vintage furniture to how to prevent injuries while running. Interested in learning more about how we have conceptualized and organized our research? Here are the details of our inquiry project.

And we would love to connect with other students and classes also completing 20% time / project-based learning research! Below you will find images with links to our blogs. Hover over the image to learn more about our inquiry topics. Connect with us! Leave a link to your blog / class site in the comments section below.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fortunate Failure

I'm taking up Jeremy Hyler's weekly NWP iAnthology prompt today:  "Share a lesson that failed, a student, a piece of writing, etc. Let's embrace failure this week." 

Flickr Creative Commons image by John Liu
With over a decade of teaching experience, I have a number of stories I could share. As I've heard other veteran teachers say, there are days when I wish that I could go back to those students I had my first few years of teaching and apologize. And, I have. I now call a couple of my former students colleagues. But so many of those students and those failures have shaped who I am in the classroom today. I wouldn't be where I am today without them.

In thinking about how a moment of failure shaped how I teach today, I remember Drew.  I had Drew in my honors tenth grade English class about seven years ago.  I was in my fifth year of teaching and had recently switched from teaching ninth grade English to tenth grade English. We were reading Elie Wiesel's Holocaust memoir Night when I asked students about how the memoir was applicable to modern times. Drew sighed and declared:
"What does it matter? Teenagers don't have power, anyway. We can't change anything."
In one of my very first blog posts, I reflected:
"I stood there gaping for a few moments, the class watching intently to see how I would respond. How could someone so young, just at the start of his journey, be so disenfranchised? How does someone at 16 years old lose all hope? What is it that this student and others in the class who agreed with him be so afraid of, be so demoralized by? Now I know in part that such a comment was meant to goad me; I’m obviously a teacher who believes that the individual can make a difference, can change the world; otherwise, I wouldn’t be a teacher. ...It is a sad day when our future leaders lose their idealism, a belief that they can make a difference, can change the world. What hope does that leave for any of us?"
I had failed Drew and his classmates. I was teaching a book to them. Students were not engaged in the content and ideas of our class because it was something I was doing to them. Learning was not in the hands of my students. It was not meaningful because I was not facilitating learning; I was dictating it. And along with many other failures that year, Drew's question helped to propel my teaching in new directions.

Just this past weekend, one of my friends and fellow Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project teachers Judy Jester shared a quote from her recent trip to Washington D.C. for the National Writing Project annual conference.  In reviewing the 40-year history of NWP, one of the sessions speakers made the distinction between directions and direction, which applies to my role as a writing teacher today: it is not our job to provide directions; instead, it is our role to provide direction.  Kylene Beers, former president of the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE), writes on a similar idea in her book Why Kids Can't Read, asking her readers to reflect on how much time we spend giving instructions rather than on effective instruction.  I first stumbled upon Beers' ideas not long after Drew posed his response to me. That initial failure lead to some critical reflection and revision on how I think about teaching and how I facilitate learning.

I needed that failure to reorient my thinking. In many ways, it was a rather fortunate failure.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Little Help, Please!

We could use your help! We've mapped our passion and identified our inquiry questions. We've located mentor texts and started out blogs, but now we need to connect. In the coming weeks, my students are looking to connect with experts in the fields of their research. And they are researching a wide-range of topics, everything from cake decorating to auto mechanics, from refinishing historic furniture to the psychological impact of art.

And that's where you come in. Take a look at our open spreadsheet.  On it you will find our inquiry questions, mentor texts, links to our blogs, and some ideas for who we are interested in interviewing. If you have expertise in any of these areas and wouldn't mind a student emailing you or calling you with a few questions, please add your name and contact information in the boxes to the right of the spreadsheet for the topic you have knowledge of.  This is an open document, so if you would rather email me information privately or if you have questions or ideas, please don't hesitate to email me.

Please considering adding to our research HERE.


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