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 hurt was hurled in mocking tones
and labels like “bossy” pinned to your chest,
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!?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

And So It Begins

I have been waiting for this week since the start of our school year - the start of our #HavPassion projects.

Last fall my students and I completed our first 20% time projects. While my students researched the most effective ways of addressing the homeless problem in our area and learned how to quilt, I completed my own research on the teaching of research writing. In the process of my researching and presenting, I connected with so many educators interested in how passion-based inquiry changes our learning communities. It is a growing community, a community of teachers excited about sharing how voice and choice impact student learning.

It was at July's Chromebooks and the Common Core conference that I met Chris Aviles. Following my presentation on Empowering Writers through passion-based inquiry, Chris shared how he and his students are creating and collaborating in a similar way through his Be About It project. Since that first meeting, I've had opportunities to hear Chris present on his 20% time inquiry research project, and specifically, how he renamed it for his unique group of learners, branding his passion-based project to meet the needs of his students. The combination of meeting Angela Maiers in June and talking with Chris in July inspired our own name change. And so #HavPassion was born.

But we've made a few other important changes as well.  Some of the feedback that I received last fall from students was about how overwhelming it was in the beginning to be faced with so much choice.  Initially, many students selected topics they were interested in but not necessarily that they were passionate about. So this past week when I introduced our passion-based inquiry project to students, we spent more time exploring just what passion entails. It started with sending students home with this assignment:
You have this page. Use it to depict your understanding of “passion.” Consider researching the definition and etymology of passion. Reflect on the ideas and issues that you are passionate about.

You have 8 ½ x 11 inches to share your passion. How will you do it?

Be creative.
  • Try Canva or PiktoChart to create a stunning visual.
  • Use Tagxedo to craft an image using words.
  • Take a picture of your passion and use Aviary or Pixlr to alter your image.

What is passion?

The next day in class, we shared our representations of passion and discussed our definitions.  A number of students discovered that the etymological roots of passion lie in suffering. The Latin root of passion, pati, means to suffer, to endure. What is it that you are willing to suffer for? We used this question to help us map our passions.

In a similar way that Angela Maiers has students map their heartbreak, I asked my students to create a visual map of our passion. We started with the big categories: what are the issues and ideas that we are most passionate about?
I got us started by adding "education" to our map. Students added art, bakingmusic, languages, and helping others as our initial categories.  Then, I directed students to help each other think through the issues and concerns that stem from these categories.  I added literacy and digital literacy as off shoots from the larger category of education. Then from digital literacy, I added access as a concern. And that's all it took. Students jumped up to surround our map, adding connections and concerns to their initial categories, helping their peers think through different perspectives on our initial categories. More categories lead to more concerns. After five minutes, I stopped students and directed them to only contribute to the growing map in the form of questions in order to push our thinking further. Questions, connections, and collaboration helped us to think through potential inquiry topics.

By spending a bit more time helping students develop a more nuanced understanding of passion, my hope is that they develop inquiry questions that will lead to inspired learning in the weeks to come. Passion and purpose must be connected. As A.J. Juliani writes in his recent book titled Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom,
"Passion may get you going. It may have you fired up about a new project or opportunity. It may lead you to shout it from the mountain tops. But purpose is a different animal. It keeps you going when others fade away. It drives your everyday actions because there is a reason behind everything you do" (60).
In the coming week, students will continue to brainstorm and explore.  As they do, we will be using collaborative tools like Google Docs and Hangouts to connect with Christy Brennan's fifth grade students who are undertaking a very similar learning adventure. I'll be asking my high school students to not only find mentors for their own learning but also become mentors to younger learners.  And along the way, all of us will be blogging our adventures in learning. So, stay tuned! Our adventure is just beginning.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Edcamp Delco

My obsession started in May 2013.

And now I must confess, I am addicted to Edcamps. What are Edcamps, you ask. An Edcamp is an informal unconference-style day of professional development organized and given by the local participants with sessions determined at the time of the event. The goal of these free, participant-drive professional development conferences are to connect educators, to share innovative instructional strategies and technologies, and to collaborate about ways to transform education for all students.

Typically, the focus of an Edcamp is on conversation and participation, rather than on presentation. Participants choose what topics to discuss and decide where the conversations go. Arrive with an idea for a session that you would like to lead and be ready to learn. A session might explore a technology tool, a discussion about best practices or a collaborative presentation with multiple facilitators. If one session does not meet your needs, "vote with your feet" and head to a different session. Session topics may include instructional best practices, technology tools in the classroom, proficiency-based grading, homework and more.

My obsession started with Edcamp Philly in May of 2013 and culminated today with Edcamp Delco, of which I am one of the founders.  I'll be sharing more in the coming week about what we did to plan this event as well as what I learned from participating in today's Edcamp Delco.  But for now, check out some of the resources and connections that we shared this morning through Twitter.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

In Other News...

Check it out!  I made the news!

My district shared news of my being selected as a PASCD Emerging Leader on our school's website.  The story was in turn picked up by our local newspaper. So of course I had to snap a pic of my story in the paper. I didn't realize how unfortunate my crop job was on the headline until later!

originally posted at


Haverford School District Educator Selected for PASCD’s 2014 Class of Emerging Leaders

PASCD, state affiliate of ASCD, the leading international nonprofit education leadership association, has selected Ms. Jennifer Ward at Haverford High School for its 2014 class of emerging leaders. The PASCD Emerging Leaders program recognizes and prepares promising educators to influence education programs, policy, and practice at the state level.

This year's leaders were invited to apply for the competitive program based on self-nominations and recommendations made by past program participants, current PASCD members, and the greater education community. Once PASCD received the online applications, an advisory panel composed of PASCD leaders, and current ASCD emerging leaders reviewed and selected this year's class.

The leaders are enrolled in the program for two years and may be paired with an PASCD mentor—an Executive Board member, a local region board member, or a current ASCD Emerging Leader—who will provide support and help guide their development. Ms. Ward is also invited to attend PASCD's 64th Annual Conference held in November 2014, where she will have the chance to grow as a PASCD emerging leader and access new ideas, resources, and best practices from PASCD leaders, presenters, and staff.

“Meaningful leadership supports everyone in a school community, from teachers and administrators to support staff and parents, all in the effort to help our students reach their highest potential,” said Jennifer. “I am excited for the opportunity to develop my own leadership skills as part of PASCD’s Emerging Leaders program.”

PASCD emerging leaders have typically been in the profession between 5 and 15 years, have a marked interest in making a positive contribution to education policy and practice, and have invested in professional growth opportunities aimed at improving student outcomes. The 2014 class is both professionally and regionally diverse, ranging from classroom teachers to administrators, hailing from across the state, and educating students from Erie to Philadelphia.

“I’m pleased to welcome Jennifer Ward to PASCD’s Emerging Leaders program,” said PASCD President Dr. Lori Stollar. "Jen joins a passionate group of educators from around the state dedicated to providing the best educational experience for Pennsylvania’s students, and I look forward to working with her.”

For more information on PASCD’s Emerging Leaders program, visit 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Opening Up

I am jovial. I wear my heart on my sleeve, as the idiom goes. Teachers and students playfully tease me that I cackle. Yup, like a witch. Big and loud. When I laugh, which is quite a bit, it echoes down the hallway. And early on in our new school year, I cackled a lot.  See, we start our semester in tenth grade English writing "This I Believe" essays, personal essays that focus on a core belief.  Not only have I found these essays to be a great way as a teacher to get to know my new students, but it is also a wonderful tool to help begin building our classroom community. We get to know one another, we have opportunities to contemplate rhetoric and style, we search out mentor texts, and we spend a great deal of time reading and responding to one another's short essays. Students share their beliefs about love, about life, about pets, about loss, about magic. I have been working on an essay about my cackle.

A few weeks ago, as we were in the midst of our drafting process, a student shot me a quick text message after school via our daily homework text service.  I use Celly, an awesome tool for sending students quick reminders and a way for students to quickly contact me without us having to share cell numbers.
I responded, letting the student know that she was welcome to write about her experiences and reflect on how they helped to shape her belief.  I have had students share a great deal through our process of writing "This I Believe" essays over the years. Students have shared their experiences about losing parents, about family members who suffer with addiction, about loved ones who have ended up in jail, about struggling to overcome their own difficulties with illness.  Through our writing, we reflect on how these experiences as well as others have helped us grow in our beliefs and come to understand what it is that we hold to be true. We share ourselves, and we also have valuable conversations about the subtitles of writing a personal narrative versus crafting a well-written personal essay. So this was not the first time that I have been asked this question.

But about twenty minutes following our text exchange, my phone rang. My dad was on the other end of the line, many miles away, three states between us, telling me that his biopsy had come back earlier that day showing cancer cells growing in his stomach. Cancer. My dad has cancer.

The next morning in class, as we are working on drafting our "This I Believe" essays, the student approached me to share where she was in her drafting. It was late in the class, the bell about to ring. She began her essay sharing her experience of coming to terms with what she learned from her father's death as a result of cancer. I couldn't read the whole essay. I started to cry. Trying to pull myself together, I quickly explained to the student that shortly after our text exchange, I learned that my father has cancer. I will never forget the compassion, the empathy, and the maturity of her response. She turned to me and said, "I'm not going to pretend that our experiences are the same. Everyone deals with cancer differently. But I do know that this is a difficult and scary time. I'm sorry."      

At the close of our class the following morning, she handed me an envelope.  "I know that I should have been working on my draft last night, Ms. Ward, but I wrote this instead."  She walked out of the room with some friends on her way to her next class. Inside the envelope was a five-page letter, typed, single-spaced. She shared with me her experiences, her struggles, her beliefs - her story. Later that night, when parents were filing into my classroom for our Back to School Night, the student's mother came over to introduce herself. The student's mother shared that her daughter had showed her the letter shortly after printing it out the previous evening. She was able to share things through this letter that she hasn't ever said, her mother told me. The experience that the three of us shared - student, parent, and teacher - help to reinforce the power of personal writing and the need to open up space for empathy in the classroom.

Personal writing is not tested by our Common Core State Standards (CCSS). We have state rubrics for expository/informational writing and another for argumentative/persuasive writing. We do not value stories. Just under a decade ago, every one of the other English teachers I worked with had their tenth grade students complete "This I Believe" essays. This year, I am the only teacher. And, I have had to fight to keep it in my curriculum, arguing the value of personal writing. It is an addition to our core curriculum. It is something extra that I have my students complete. I have been told that the assignment does not have value.

My student writers draft, craft, and revise their personal belief essays, post them to our class blog site, revise based on feedback, meet with me in writing conferences, again revise based on feedback, adapt their written essays to video presentations, and then post their written and video creations to our online writing portfolios. As we write we find mentor texts, discuss written and digital rhetoric, and perhaps most importantly, empathize.  We share our stories, hear one another. We build a community of thinkers and writers. We value reflection. We value revision. We value empathy. But these are not skills that can easily be bubbled in on scantron tests.

I understand the need for accountability in the classroom, the desire to demonstrate progress. However, with so much emphasis being placed on high-stakes state testing as the measure of that growth, we inevitably under value those skills that are difficult to measure - resiliency, grit, empathy, creativity, reflection, and revision.  And as so many have already argued, these are the skills that students will need as they move into an unpredictable job market. Testing a student on whether or not he or she can identify the mood of a short passage of literature does not measure how successful the student will be upon high school graduation. Focusing exclusively on how well students know, or even on how well they can apply, a particular set of literary terms to a text does little to prepare them for the world outside the doors of school. Instead, we need to open up our thinking about what we value. What value is an education that excludes the individual's experience? What value is learning that does not incorporate complex critical and creative thinking skills that take time to develop? What value is school when it does not open up opportunities to learn from mistakes, to revise thinking, to reflect? What value is a class that does not encourage learners to empathize?

I opened up to my student. She opened up to me. Together we wrote, we reflected, we revised, we collaborated. We learned together. There is value in that. There is so much value in opening up.

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.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Are We Virtually Connected Or Are We Connected?

I attended elementary school in the early 80s. My school pictures are filled with a lot of vests and big feathered bangs. At one point or another, every one of my classmates came to school with the "bowl cut," when mom stuck a Tupperware bowl on your head and cut around it. I knew every one of my classmates, and not just because I grew up in a small town in upper Michigan. Our families relied on one another for information, for advice, and for support. We didn't turn to the web to figure out how to sign our children up for a bus to and from kindergarten. We didn't scroll through the school's online portal to to learn about which standardized tests were being given and when. Instead, we asked the parent who had a child older than ours. We talked with our neighbors. We built our community, both students and parents, through face-to-face connections and informal mentorships. And having just spent the morning clicking and filling out online forms so that my soon-to-be kindergartener is signed up for the correct bus and so that I receive text messages and phone calls and email alerts of every change, I'm beginning to question how impersonal school has become.

I find this ironic having just spent the summer attending and presenting at a wide variety of education conferences where many of the presenters, myself included, are sharing strategies and ideas for addressing individual learners needs.  Recently, while attending a session at the EdTech Teacher Summit in Chicago, I participated in a two hour session in which we wondered about the impact of individualized learning on the development of learning communities. When I look at how I am connecting with my own child's school, it is increasingly impersonal. Our avenues for learning about the school are typically through a screen of one sort or another. And when information is not emailed or posted to an online portal, it comes in the form of paper...lots and lots of paper.

When I attended kindergarten orientation in early summer with my son, he was led to a room with other soon-to-be school-age children and sent through a series of "stations." At each station, he met briefly with a teacher or school staff member who assessed his "level" in 10 to 15 minutes. Can you read this word? Can you count to 10? Do you know your phone number? I stayed in the auditorium with other parents where we were handed a bag of papers that contained procedural information about getting our student's health and dental records for the school but which also contained packet after packet of homework we were to go over with our child during the summer months. Yup, pre-kindergarten homework. Handwriting exercises and shape sorting games, basic math problems and sight words. And my son's school is not unique. Just a few weeks ago blogger Philip Kovacs posted "An Open Letter to My Son's Kindergarten Teacher," and like Philip and his son, my son and I have not opened that bag of homework.

However, what surprised me most was a little brochure tucked into our parent packets on Virtual K, an online kindergarten program that the school encouraged parents and students to access as a supplement to their half-day kindergarten program. The staff member standing before the parents at kindergarten orientation explained that the school used the virtual program to provide the instructional time that kindergarten students needed to be successful in later grades but which the school couldn't provide in person. Wait! What? So our schools are encouraging our youngest students to disengage with the school community in order to learn from a screen?

Technology has opened up so many avenues and possibilities that were not available to students of the 80s like me. When used well, technology can connect and engage both parents and students to the larger school community. And we see so many examples of teachers and schools doing this well: teachers who email welcome letters during the summer and encourage students to share their pictures and descriptions of summer adventures through blogs and online bulletin boards, schools that use Google Hangouts to virtually meet with students over the summer, and teachers who share video playlists introducing new students to their future classroom and learning adventures. However, each of these examples illustrates how technology is used to supplement the community that is also being built in person. Without that face-to-face connection, technology instead serves as a wall to divide parents and even students from the school. Simply moving all those handouts and information to an online space does nothing to build a sense of connection to a school. Just because information is easily accessible, does not mean that community is. It is worrisome that during kindergarten orientation parents are told with pride about online kindergarten. Remember that poster that hangs in nearly every faculty workroom -  "All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten"? Read through it. Most of these lessons cannot be learned online.

But it's early. The school year hasn't officially started, so perhaps I am wrong. I just hope that my son and I have more opportunities to be connected to our school community rather than virtually connected.

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:

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

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