Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Much of my lesson planning is done in the shower. Turns out, this is true for quite a few people.  Scott Berkun summarizes some of the research of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in a blog post titled "Why You Get Ideas in the Shower."   Berkun writes,
"We have fewer and fewer places in our lives where we are not bombarded by inputs. For some people it’s yoga, going for a run, or going for a walk that quiets the conscious mind down enough for the sub-conscious to speak up. For other people it’s driving in the car. Everyone’s psychology is different and will relax in different environments, or at different times."
So, it makes sense that a great deal of my inspired lessons come to me during my early morning showers.

Take for example this morning. While washing my hair, I have this thought: why not use Twitter to teach students about the economy of words? By having students craft poetic lines in the space of 140 characters, we can use Twitter to talk about the power of word choice while at the same time using a public space to write for a real audience.  Two lessons in one!  Initially I posted using the hashtag #Twitterverse (clever, right?) but quickly realized the error of my ways when I searched the hashtag to see just how overused it is already.  So instead, we'll be using the hashtag #TwitterPoem to share our short verses.  Join us!

Share your #TwitterPoem with us.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Passion in Class

A few weeks back, before the hallways filled with chatter about summer adventures and schedule comparisons, I had the opportunity to both participate in and lead a number of professional development workshops for teachers in my district. It was a week filled with conversations and collaborations around flipping learning, using technology to connect learners, and about passion. And it is a couple of those conversations about passion that have been replaying in my head the last two weeks.

Mapping our heartbreak with Angela Maiers
It was Tuesday morning, 9:00 am bright and early, reminding many of us sitting in the room that summer was coming to an end. Elementary librarian Christy Brennan was leading a small group of teachers from our district in a discussion about passion-driven learning. It was a conversation that started many months earlier in late June, when both Christy and I were invited by Downingtown STEM Academy teacher Dr. Justin Staub to join his ninth and tenth grade students as they met with Angela Maiers to explore their passions. I have been struggling to write a post about our day at Downingtown STEM Academy for months. It is difficult to put into words the transformations and collaborations that we not only witnessed but also were invited to join. Students and teachers spent two days connecting. And it was an honor to witness how deeply their community of learners connected - connected with one another, connected with their passions, connected with others across the globe who shared their passion - all in search of ways to address heartbreaking problems. I watched as students who confessed that they would never really have connected in the classroom started to brainstorm together ways they might help abused animals in our area. In small groups, students shared their heartbreak, and then began to gather into smaller groups to map the issues and connections around those problems. When students were given the time, space, and support to address real-world issues, magic happened. It happened when students were encouraged to drive their own learning, and teachers became part of the learning community rather than leaders of it. And as Christy and I watched this magic unfold, we started to brainstorm ways to bring passion back to our district. So before our school ended last spring, Christy started a summer staff book club with a group of us committing to read Angela Maier's The Passion-Driven Classroom. That's what were discussing early that Tuesday morning in late August.

As we started to talk about what it meant to get out of our learners way, Christy's phone rang. For nearly an hour, we had an opportunity to chat with Angela Maiers. Angela shared with our group what it means to bring passion into the classroom. Many of us mistakenly think of passion as being a frivolous idea, lacking the rigor necessary for the real work of the classroom. But, as Angela pointed out during our conversation, "You don't have a shot at the brain unless you engage the heart." Maiers and Sandvold write in The Passion-Driven Driven Classroom:
"Passion comes from the Latin word 'patior,' meaning to suffer or to endure. In its origin, passion is used to describe someone who willingly opens up to suffering and finds fulfillment therein. ...In order to tap into passion as a resource to motivate, engage and empower our learners, we must understand these underlying values of passion." (16-17)
We teach in districts and systems that are ruled by standards and data-driven outcomes. But this is not at odds with passion. In fact, the empowerment and creativity that passion-driven learning inspires is the very type of inquiry-driven, higher-order thinking called for by our Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Passion-driven learning opens opportunities for students to wonder, to question, to reflect, to demonstrate their grit and resilience. "Passion isn't a nicety," Angela told us. "It's a necessity."

As a high school English teacher, it is this concept that has me rethinking how I foster learning opportunities in my classroom.  Rather than taking center stage, my role as the teacher is to curate and create moments where students take ownership of their own learning, reflect on and revise their thinking, and demonstrate the skills they are attempting to master.  I am a facilitator of learning. And I am not the only leader in the room.
Last fall, my students and I completed 20% time research projects in which my students were given time and space to research whatever topic they were interested in learning more about. I encouraged them to research something they ordinarily do not have opportunities to learn about in school. As a high school English teacher, I realized that my goals were to help students think reflectively, research responsibly, and grow their writing skills by adapting their tone for a specific audience of readers. It didn't matter what they researched. What mattered was the how.  Each Friday, students had a full block, 90 minutes, to read, conduct interviews, practice what they were learning. My students learned to quilt, decorate cakes, code apps, write lesson plans for middle school students, set-up experiments, shoot footage for documentary, revise a screen play, connect with resources helping our local homeless community, and so much more. We struggled together. Many of my students experienced success throughout the process, but just as many failed. And the students that butted up against their frustration, were challenged by the process of their learning, ended up learning incredibly valuable lessons about how to deal with complications and failures. In the end, students blogged weekly, interviewed experts, and filmed reflection videos on their learning. They created, collaborated, and connected. They wrote more and more often than previous classes. They conducted primary research. They integrated mentor texts with what they learned while interviewing an expert. And by opening up choice, my students were empowered to develop their voice, share with audiences outside our classroom, and demonstrate their learning in creative ways. This is the power of bringing passion into the classroom.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Classroom Makeover

My high school classroom, like my teaching, has undergone quite a few changes in the past few years.  As I have incorporated aspects of flipped learning and passion-based learning into my curriculum, I needed a classroom space that would accommodate movement, choice, and self-directed learning.  So, this summer I ditched my teacher's desk in favor of a standing work station, rearranged the desks into learning communities, added pillows, storage ottomans, and rugs for a more comfortable reading/break-out area, and made sure that students had easy access to what they would need to connect and collaborate in class by making supplies and multiple outlets accessible.

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