Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reflections on ETTSummit and Empowering Writers

I can't thank Chris Loeffler enough. I borrowed a lesson that he originally shared at Edcamp Delaware a few months back. In order to inspire his elementary students to reflect on how they learn, he asks them to fold an origami crane in silence, without the help of a YouTube tutorial or the ability to talk with friends, in a set amount of time. And this was how I started my presentation this morning at Chicago's EdTech Teacher Summit. Educators from all over the country sat in silence for two minutes trying to fold a crane based on a worksheet of directions. Not one was able to complete the task. And as we talked afterward about what they would need in order to be successful - flexibility with time, the ability to collaborate and to connect with others completing the same task, access to a model, availability to look at a visual tutorial - the inherent lesson of this activity became apparent.

When I first started teaching high school English, this is what my classroom looked like. I was even one of those teachers that during the first week of class would hand out that ubiquitous “Directions Test.” You know, the one that had a list of 30 to 50 questions, but in the directions it states that students should do nothing, and then you sit and wait for students to yell out, “shark!” or go sharpen their pencil 12 times, and the class has a good chuckle at the students who didn't read the directions. My class was organized around directions and instructions and not centered on learning. And for my first couple of years, as I taught primarily honors students, this worked. My honors students were good at following directions. They were good at playing school. However a couple years in, I was given both mixed ability courses and a group of struggling ninth graders, students who did not chuckle when we played the directions test. And it was in that moment that I was called to reassess what I was really teaching and why?

In May 2013, I attended my first EdCamp conference, EdCamp Philly, and it was here that I met Angela Maiers and learned of her Choose2Matter initiative, a project largely based on the work of teachers using Genius Hour and 20% Time projects in their classrooms. Learning more about these passion-based learning experiences in the context of the EdCamp unconference format helped me rethink how I was teaching writing. I had heard of Google’s 20% time in the past and had been using a writing workshop approach in my 10th grade classroom as a way to teach research skills, but when I heard other area teachers talking about their experiences with Project-Based Learning (PBL) and 20% Time Projects, it clicked how crucial choice, voice, and purpose was to the composing process.

Following EdCamp Philly, I started to learn more about passion-based learning experiences so that in the Fall of 2013 I could engage in 20% time research writing with my 10th grade English students. So what’s the 20% Project all about? The basic premise of the 20% Time Project is that it is student-driven, passion-based learning. Student writers are empowered when choice goes hand-in-hand with autonomy over their learning, opportunities to connect and learn from mentors, and safe spaces to reflect on the failures and successes that come as part of their research process. What my students and I learned as we engaged in our 20% research projects was our most memorable learning experiences came when we were sharing our reflections. This is a component that is often times missing from the more ubiquitous research writing assignments that students complete in school. And as a writing teacher, I wanted to know more about this? What impact does choice, autonomy, purpose, and reflection have on the writing skills that students develop as they engage in research? So, following the completion of their 20% projects, I spent some time researching what other writing teachers have had to say about these elements but have also surveyed and interviewed my 10th grade English students.

Over the last few months I have been both surveying and interviewing former students about their experiences with our research endeavors. I asked students to review our Pennsylvania Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for expository writing and reflect on what skills we addressed as we engaged in our research and writing processes. Additionally, I asked students to think about how they decided on their research topics, how they found their mentor texts and experts, and their thoughts what worked and didn't as we engaged in both our traditional research writing and our more inquiry driven 20% research writing project. In reviewing my students’ responses, what I discovered was that the strengths they reflected on most were those that fell into seven themes. EMPOWER is an acronym for the seven elements of our research writing that students identified as being crucial elements in their success.
And these elements are not only key for developing student writing skills but connect with learning in all content areas.  Empowering students through choice, voice, authentic purposes is not something that is unique to teaching writers. We know this. Yet even though we know that in combination these elements grow creative, collaborative, and critical thinkers in all content areas, we don't always see these sorts of learning opportunities in our secondary schools.  Passion-based learning sounds too "fluffy" or too messy or too risky. However, what my research has shown me is that this "messy" learning does more to grow both academic skills as well as those intangible skills of grit, resiliency, and perseverance. 

As I reviewed my student survey results, as I spoke with my students about what they had learned and how they had learned it, so many of their responses echoed the research done by other educators and psychologists interested in passion-based learning. Students learned more from the process of being able to not just decide on a topic to research, but on the multitude of choices they needed to make in order to find a mentor, craft both traditional writing and digital writing pieces for real audiences outside of the classroom, and decide upon how, when, and where to present their work to a larger audience.  My students discussed the tone of their writing as they crafted emails to contact potential people to interview. They had to analyze their intended audience as they prepare their pitch videos and final TED-style talks. Students reflected not just on the steps of their process but on their pitfalls, revisions, and how they learned in their weekly blog posts. And these are the higher order thinking skills that we want our students working toward.  Their writing was audience and context-driven.  It was purposeful. It was meaningful. It was empowering. 

I shared some of this research in my recent EdTech Teacher Summit presentation.  Feel free to take a peek at my slides and notes below. I would love to hear from you! Are you completing passion-based learning projects with your students? What questions or suggestions do you have? 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Don't Just Open the Door. It's Time to Step Outside.

This past Monday, I had the opportunity to present my research on empowering student writers through choice, voice, and purpose at the New Jersey Chromebooks and the Common Core conference. It was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with familiar faces and chat with many educators new to using Chromebooks in the classroom. The excitement and enthusiasm for using technology in meaningful ways was palatable from keynote to close. In each session I attended, participants asked questions, shared insights, and reflected on new ideas. I love this community, this connection to committed, hopeful, energetic educators.

Following my presentation, I sat down with one of the participants who had, like me, introduced 20% time/passion-based projects to his students. His excitement was contagious. He shared with me some of the success stories of his individual students, stories about students who learned to cobble shoes, who sent care packages to soldiers serving over seas, who initially faced set-backs but forged ahead to find success. Students who, like mine, had engaged in deep levels of critical and reflective thinking, who wrote more, connected more, shared more than they ever had in the classroom setting. I asked him if any other teachers in his building were also designing passion-based learning projects for their students. Silence. No, he was the only one. "If teachers come to me asking for support, I am happy to share my experiences," he said, but he was tired of working so hard to convince others of the value of passion-based learning only to be met with silence. Close the classroom door and continue working in isolation.

And unfortunately, his experience is not an anomaly. A few months back, I had nearly the same conversation with a fellow high school English teacher at FlipCon14. Are there other teachers in your building using the flipped learning approach? Silence. No, I'm on my own.

I have been to a number of conferences and professional development workshops this summer and have found a sort of professional family, a network of teachers who I can connect with in person and online that support and challenge my thinking about teaching, about pedagogy, about the role of technology in the classroom. And I have found that many of the educators that I connect with at Google summits are also the same teachers who will give up a beautiful spring Saturday to attend an Edcamp or flipped learning event. We are an engaged, overly-involved group. I am also fortunate to count a couple of teachers from my district in my personal learning network (PLN) who are both equally connected and energized by the role of passion-based inquiry, flipped learning, and all things digital. That said, I am the only teacher in my content/grade level utilizing these tools. Over the past few years, I have had many conversations about why choice inquiry projects need to stay in our curriculum, many times as the only voice arguing that inquiry does indeed belong in the English/language arts classroom. So despite having a well-developed network of educators at my fingertips, I, too, have felt isolated. I, too, have shut my classroom door.

Advocating for change requires courage, stepping outside our comfort zones. And becoming the voice of change makes us vulnerable, but this is how change happens.  I am coming to realize the value of leaving my door open, but I need to be willing to step outside that door as well. Change happens slowly, one person at a time, and it does not happen in a vacuum. Change will not happen behind closed classroom doors but through connections and conversations.  The question of how do we best encourage change in our schools has come up as well in a number of recent Twitter chats. Many educators, myself included, have responded that we must be models of our beliefs, that as models of change, we encourage an environment of change. I'm starting to rethink this response. I don't think simply being a model is enough.

Flickr Creative Commons image by Anyjazz65
As teachers, we must be willing to share our stories, our successes and failures, our resources and time. I also am keenly aware that this is not easy. Not only do many of us walk into buildings with many, many closed doors, but many of us face institutional, curricular, and administrative barriers. We don't all work in environments that encourage collaboration and change.  In fact, some of us work in spaces that actively discourage change. However, if we are unwilling to share our stories, to step out of our classrooms and have conversations with our colleagues, nothing will change. That cliche that I share with my tenth grade students - "If you always do what you have always done, you'll always get the same as you've always got" - holds true for teachers as well. It is not just about opening up the doors of our classroom and modeling change, we must be willing to step outside our doors, meet our colleagues where they are at, share our stories, and create new stories of change together.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Teacher as Poet. Poet as Teacher.

Flickr photograph by Steve Johnson 
I began with poetry.  My entry into writing started with rhymed couplets, with Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. And I wrote reams of poems, spiral notebooks filled with lines and later disks filled with hundreds of word processing documents that stored my free verse, oddly spaced stanzas.  I was fortunate enough to have teachers that supported and encouraged my love of verse.  Mrs. Zeinstra, my middle school English teacher, who turned us loose on her library of poetry books to find the lines that inspired us. We copied them into our daily writer's notebooks, selecting one or two to memorize and share. And Mr. Dik, who pulled me aside after senior English class one day to ask if he could help me revise a poem I wanted to submit to a local writing competition.  He encouraged me to reflect on my word choices but left authorial decisions in my hands.

But somewhere during my undergraduate studies, poetry became something I studied rather than wrote. Notebooks were filed away into storage boxes, and my focus was drawn to how others crafted lines. Poetry became something to analyze rather than write. It wasn't until I entered the classroom again years later as a high school teacher that I rediscovered my love of poetry.

Shortly after starting my first high school teaching position, I sought out my local Writing Project. One of my undergraduate professors spoke so highly of his involvement with NWP, about how much his connection with fellow writing teachers helped him grow as a teacher of writing and as a writer. I enrolled in my first Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP)  course in the summer of 2003: Teacher as Writer. It was in this course that I first read Anne Lamott, Georgia Heard, and Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge.  We used these memoirs as mentor texts, not for how to teach writing but as guides for our own writing.  As many of us rediscovered ourselves as writers, we also came to reflect on how we brought writing into our classrooms. We became writing teachers that wrote alongside our students. It was this first class that inspired me to once again put pen to page in a writer's notebook.  And class after class, lead me to reflect on my role not just as a poetry teacher but as a poet teacher.

I have been fortunate to have a couple of my poems published, but even had I not sought opportunities to publish, my connections with the National Writing Project and what I have learned from so many wonderful mentors through PAWLP have helped me grow more confident in declaring myself a writer. I am a poet. This is what I do. Poetry is my means of making sense of my world, my tool of reflection.  I listen to the rhythm of language, become entranced by well-crafted metaphors. Poetry is how I distill emotions, capture a memory, mark a moment.

As a teacher, I know that not every student who walks through my classroom door loves poetry.  But many do.  Whether or not they decide to pursue writing as a career, one of my jobs as a teacher of writing is to support students in finding avenues for engaging critically and creatively with their world. Writing is a tool for inquiry and a tool for reflection. Poetry, specifically, takes what often we find most difficult to understand and gives language to our confusion.  As a teacher of poetry, my hope is that I do not dampen that love of the well-crafted line. Poetry is not simply something I want my students to analyze. Poetry is a tool for making sense of who we are in our world. Verse helps us come to terms with life's overwhelming complications and joys. Poetry is who we are.

And so I share another poem in progress. This came from a moment just the other day as I sat on my porch with my soon-to-be kindergartener.

To the Driver Who Blared His Horn and Cursed at the Student Driver:

Stop.
Remember hands at 10 and 2,
tight knuckles white,
instructor to the right,
foot on the brake
as you eased for the first time
into oncoming traffic.
My first car, held together mostly by Bondo
I couldn't resist remixing this little poem using Zeega, a great and easy-to-use app for digital storytelling.

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