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.


Powerful Connections

It is my lunch hour...okay, half hour. I am standing here nearly in tears and a bit at a loss for words. Just a few minutes ago, the bell rang and my tenth graders hurriedly shelved their Chromebooks and scuttled down to lunch. Today was our #HavPassion research day, the one day each week that my students have to work on their independent inquiry projects. They had 90 minutes. And now that I have a moment to reflect on those 90 minutes, I am in awe.

In 90 minutes, my students not only blogged the introductory posts to their research and shared a video pitch of their project, but they connected. Really connected. As part of our #HavPassion project, I have been encouraging students to develop their own personal learning networks by engaging other researchers and bloggers. As part of helping to foster those connections, I've reached out to a few other teachers who are also blogging with their students. My students will be reading and commenting on the blogs of other students who are completing similar 20% time / Genius Hour projects. But some of the most important connections are not those that you can plan for; they just happen.

A fellow Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP) teacher, Brian Kelley shot me a quick email yesterday after I shared a link to my students' blogs.  He was contemplating opening up his classroom blog for others to comment on his students' writing.  Would it be okay for his students to respond to my students' blogs? Yes! Would we respond to his? Of course. And so today in class, I posted the web address for Mr. Kelley's 8th grade writers.  I'm not going to lie, I was a little nervous. How would my high school writers respond to his middle school writers? How would his students respond to mine?

When my students logged into their blogs this morning, I heard an audible wave crescendo around the room. "I have 55 views on this post!" "Ms. Ward, I have 11 comments!" "Holy cow, people are reading my work!"  And then my students started to respond to Mr. Kelley's writers.

Julia, an eighth grader in Mr. Kelley's class, wrote about her struggles with blogging, with coming up with topics.  And my students responded, honestly, with empathy, and with encouragement.

This is the power of having students compose for real readers. This is the power of connection!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Beginning Bloggers: Sharing our Research

Welcome to 2nd block.  This is my group of inspired researchers. They are learning about music production, about the perceived value of homework, about opening a bakery, and how to tell if someone is lying. And they would love to learn with you. You'll find their blogs connected in the image below. Please read, share, connect - learn with us!


The basic premise of our #HavPassion project is that it is student-driven, passion-based inquiry research. The idea behind this project started with Daniel Pink’s book Drive.  Pink, a former speech writer for Al Gore turned author, cites an idea that started with the 3M company and was expanded by Google. Google encourages its employees to spend one day each work week, 20 percent of their work time, focusing on their own projects. Why? It turns out that when people have autonomy over their work, time to master their skills, and a clear purpose, they are more motivated to learn. And scientific studies and research supports this claim. In fact, Google’s philosophy of 20 percent time is how we have Gmail!


What do you want to learn? Each Friday during the second quarter my students and I will be using our time to research the topic of our choice, an idea we are passionate about. Our goal is to become an expert on that topic. But this project is not just about researching…it is about doing something with what we learn. To complete this project successfully we will:
  1. Pick a topic we are truly passionate about, something we want to learn. Students may work alone or in small groups. Keep in mind what we learned about the origins of the word "passion." Passion is rooted in suffering; what is it that you are willing to suffer through, to push yourself to learn?
  2. Find a book to guide our learning.
  3. Pitch the project idea in a project proposal to the class for topic approval. Students will submit both a written proposal and produce a video proposal to be posted to our class site for our community of learners to vote on.
  4. Connect with an expert to interview.
  5. Blog each Friday reflecting on our progress. Each post should also incorporate reflections on how our selected mentor text is guiding our research.
  6. Produce something – a presentation, a writing piece, a show, something tangible – to share with people outside of our classroom.
  7. Reflect on what we have learned in a TED-style talk.
  8. Share all of our work on our online portfolio.
This is not simply a research project.  Once we’ve finished the research phase of this project, we must do something with our new found knowledge.  Students will be creating products and presentations (either individually or in small groups) that will extend beyond the classroom, such as documentary videos, web pages, pamphlets, newspaper or magazine editorials, an article for the school or local newspaper, letters, public speaking presentations, fund raising, music, plays…or whatever we can think of to best make our community aware of our research topic.  The idea is to reach an audience outside the doors of our classroom in order to share our research.  We will need to identify leaders in the field of our research in order to connect and engage with those thought leaders. 

Need some inspiration? Here you go!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Let's Blog It

My tenth grade English students have jumped in, feet first, to our #HavPassion inquiry research projects.  Last week, we mapped our passions as we tried to narrow our research questions. This week, not only did we share our initial inquiry questions with one another, but we also had an opportunity to connect with fifth grade students at an elementary school in our district.  We used Google Hangouts to share our inquiry topics with the elementary students, and they in turn, shared their research questions with us.  In the coming weeks, both groups of students will be using Google docs to collaborate. We'll be looking for connections with our inquiry questions, building our knowledge together.

And, as a way to share our process and reflections, we set up our blogs.  This is a new adventure for me.  In the past, I have had students blog on our closed website, a Ning, which made it difficult for students to reach a readership outside of our classroom. But this time around, I'm jumping in feet first as well.  We're using Blogger, allowing for a greater connection to a wide range of readers.

Another change that I have made this year is spending a bit more time deliberately introducing the concept of blogging to my students. Today we examined the 20% time blogs of the Nerdy Teacher, Nicholas Provenzano's high school English classes as well as blogs from Mrs. Scheffer's Burlington High School students. Rather than standing in front of the room and dictating a list of what to do and not to do when blogging, I had the students use a shared Google doc to come up with the list themselves. Before they began, we reviewed our earlier discussions on the impact of written and digital rhetoric, and I asked students to pay attention to not only what they were reading on each blog but also how they were reading. Here's what they noticed:

What Works?
Having looked at a number of sample blogs, use the space below to note what works. What do successful bloggers do to engage their readers? Take into account both written and digital rhetorical choices made on the part of the author.

  • No longer than 2 paragraphs.
  • Black/white or blue/yellow text (contrast makes text easier to read)
  • Times New Roman font is easy to read.
  • Some posts are long and detailed, and others are simple and sweet. A mix of lengths, which is something that I like.
  • I like how they give a brief description and then explain what they did to accomplish their task.
  • Short headers, capitalizing works well and use of colors to separate sections of a post.
  • Explain why they chose what topic they wanted to use for the project and the story behind it.
  • Pictures!!!! Make it interesting.
  • Actually title the post. Please don't title it Blog Post #3 and the date.
  • Spell check!!!!
  • Bullets are okay, but numbering is boring.
  • Keeping posts short lets readers read the post without losing interest, while in a long 5 paragraph blog post, readers could lose interest.
  • I like when they have pictures of themselves and when its colorful, not just boring white.
  • Bold letters with color emphasize important points.
  • Make sure the background picture doesn't distract from the text!!!!!!!!!!!!
I shouldn't be surprised, but for both sections of my tenth grade class today, we were hard at work to the last minutes of class.  In fact, I had a couple of groans in each class that our 90 minute class period had come to an end. On a Friday!  Students wanted more time to write. What more could an English teacher ask for!?

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