Thursday, November 19, 2015

Crucible Connections

I love how easy ThingLink makes it to both share resources and also collaborate with others to build a resource. At the start of my current unit with my honors American literature students, a unit on group identity and conformity, I started to build a unit resource using ThingLink.  The core text of our unit is Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, so many of the resources linked are those that we've discussed in connection with our reading.

I'm using our ThingLink unit resource in a couple of ways. First, the collection is easy to share out with others. Initially, I have been the sole person adding to the ThingLink, but next week I'll be opening it up and asking my students to share their finds.  Not only will students be actively involved in building our unit resources, but they will also be unknowingly practicing the research skills they will need for an upcoming project.  In the coming weeks, students will be building their own similar resource for an independent reading novel they have been immersed in this semester. In contributing to our unit ThingLink, we'll have an opportunity to discuss what makes a resource valuable and credible. They will then apply these skills to the creation of their own ThingLink.

So stop back in the coming weeks to see how the ThingLink below has grown and changed thanks to the collaborative input of my students!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Contentious Crucible

The Crucible has gotten contentious.

I'm two months into my new teaching position, and my 10th grade honors American literature students have finished their first unit. We have started our online portfolios, written personal essays, delivered an in-class speech. We have read together, laughed together, and cried together. And although every day is not perfect, our classes have formed learning communities, connections where we support and challenge one another.

That is until we started our study of The Crucible.

An underlying tension started to ripple last week during our opening activities.  As students walked into the classroom, I had five large posters hanging around the room, each with a different position statement that would connect to our reading of The Crucible in the coming week. Apathy is worse than ignorance. Everyone is capable of cruelty. Everyone behaves differently in a group. Silence = consent. It is important to always follow authority. As homework the previous evening, students read the New York Times' article about the murder of Kitty Genovese titled "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police."  Students were primed to talk about group dynamics and the bystander effect.  As they circulated about the room to read and respond to each statement, students were already discussing, disagreeing, bringing up examples to explain their rationale. Everything was going as I had planned.  To follow up with our initial responses, students annotated an article titled "We Are All Bystanders" knowing that we would be using the article as a basis for a more in-depth full class discussion on group dynamics in the coming days.

As we briefly discussed the article in class the following day, students in one particular section focused more on the what the article had to say about when people chose to break from groups to help.  The article mentioned a study done by professor John Darley at Princeton University which found that people were more likely to help those in need if the person needing help looked like the person offering help.  My students wanted to talk about this, wanted to analyze how we judge one another based on our appearance.  We were off to a good start.

I then had students read the opening act of The Crucible, and in particular asked my readers to pay attention to who the witches are and how they were judged and reacted.  What does The Crucible help us understand about group behavior? Students then answered a series of pre-discussion questions to get them back into our article reading looking for evidence to support our responses during a full class discussion of why people act differently in groups.  Students were ready. They wanted to talk.

My plan was that we would discuss group thinking, and students would bring in evidence from our various readings.  My hope was that I would be able to hear students making connections to current events. Where else do we see group-thinking and witch hunts happening in our world today?  And for two of my three sections of honors tenth grade English, this is exactly what happened.  We have spent two days discussing the various groups we are members of, how social norms are established, why people judge one another, connections to recent social media reactions to the attacks in Beruit and Paris,  connections to scenes and characters in The Crucible.  For two of my three sections, students were excited, jumping up, leaning forward, eager to share and discuss and argue different points of view. These were fruitful conversations where students left the classroom wishing we had more time to discuss. But then there was my other section.

They are my largest tenth grade honors English class. Thirty-one students sitting in a very large circle.  At first, our class discussion started out strong.  Students began talking about how fear and judgement from others impacted how people behaved in a group.  We discussed how social norms and conformity can be found in our hallways, classrooms, in every aspect of our life.  Students wanted to talk, to share, the multitude of ways they felt judged. We began to discuss how privilege and money impacts how we interact with others and with other groups.  And this is where the conversation got difficult for some in the room.  Suddenly, thirty-one voices weren't talking.  Instead, a handful of students, from each side of privilege began talking about the pain felt when others judge them.

This is an important conversation but also a very difficult one.  I have recently moved from a more economically stable district outside of Philadelphia to a Title 1 district in rural West Michigan.  And although I am working with tenth grade honors students in my new district as I have for most of my teaching career, the population is night and day different from some of my previous experiences. My previous district had great economic differences.  Last year I had a student in my class who was essentially homeless, living week to week in a motel with his family, who sat near a student whose home had seven bedrooms and an electric gate.  My new district does not quite have the same gap in economic difference. Sixty-five percent of the students utilize the free and reduced lunch program. The difference between those with little and those with more is slight. So it was apparent that the conversation that was happening in my classroom was not necessarily about money.

Before starting the conversation again on day two, I tried to get it back on track with an activity that asked students to think about the groups we each belong to.  I asked students to stand if they were comfortable when I called out a group that they were a member of.

I am… 
______ a member of a sports team. 
______ a member of an club or religious organization. 
______ someone who can play a musical instrument. 
______ someone who has traveled to another country. 
______ someone who has a large circle of friends. 
______ someone who has siblings. 
______ someone who works an after-school or weekend job. 
______ someone who drives my own car. 
______ someone who lives with a family pet. 
______ someone who lives with both of my biological parents. 
______ someone who has moved homes more than twice. 
______ someone who has felt insecure about the way I look. 
______ someone who has lost a loved one or family member. 
______ someone who lives with a parent or guardian that works more than one job.  
______ someone who lives with at least one parent who has graduated college with a bachelor’s degree. 
______ someone who has felt silenced. 
______ someone who has been teased because of my clothing. 
______ someone who has felt discrimination because of the color of my skin. 
______ someone who has felt discrimination because of a physical or medical condition. 
______ someone who has felt discrimination because of my perceived sexuality or gender. 
______ someone who has felt discrimination because of my religion and/or beliefs. 
______ someone who has felt isolated at times.

By the close of this activity, students reflected on how much more we had in common than they thought.  We are connected in more ways than we are different.  This was a promising start. But as we started to discuss group behavior, again students wanted to talk about privilege. Two students walked out frustrated. However, pretty quickly the conversation shifted and students began to talk about how everyone has a story that we don't see. We are not just want others see on the outside.  Okay, so the conversation didn't go quite the direction I had hoped, but this wasn't bad.  Yet, at the close of the discussion, I noticed three girls in tears. They still felt judged, felt as though classmates were pointing fingers.  They came from families of privilege and felt misunderstood.  And I was surprised.  I didn't see their reactions coming. Weren't we just talking about how we needed to remember that everyone has a story that we don't see? But the students in front of me in tears seemed to have participated in a different conversation. Other students in the class noticed the tears as they walked out to go to their next class.  The class left riled up, still wanting to talk. And suddenly the conversation which I thought was about understanding one another's story was once again about privilege, who was wearing name brands and who was not.

There are clearly tensions between two groups in my one section of tenth grade honors English.  On the surface it has to do with privilege, but there's so much more going on here.  Some of the students in their written reflections at the close of the second day of discussion pointed this out. But they were the students that did not participate verbally in the class discussion. They chose to remain silent. Remain bystanders.

I have the story of The Crucible being recreated in my classroom.  Particular students are on a witch hunt, wanting to point fingers at who is judging them. Others elect to remain silent, either figuring the conversation doesn't directly impact them or out of fear of being judged themselves.  And I am unsure how, or if, I should point this dynamic out to our class.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The ThingLink Summer Challenge for Educators

If you've been following my blog recently, you'll know that I've become obsessed with ThingLink as a creative curation tool. I have Christy Brennan to thank for this. She introduced me to ThingLink about this point last year when she used it in one of our professional development workshops. I've been hooked ever since.

A few months ago, I shared how my students have also been using ThingLink to share their research and writing on their independent reading novels. And as a teacher, ThingLink is a perfect tool for sharing out student work. So when ThingLink announced last week that they would be hosting a summer challenge for educators, I signed up as soon as I learned about it.  And you can too! (Plus, you'll earn a free 3-month upgrade to the educator level of the platform!)

For the first challenge, participants used ThinkLink to design a digital portfolio. I used my existing avatar from FaceYourManga and added some graphic details by importing and improving the image using Canva (another of my favorite tools). Then I uploaded my image to ThingLink and started layering on my links. Having completed my own digital self, I can see that this would be a fantastic first week activity with my high school students. Not only would it help me get to know my students better, but it would also help us start conversations about digital responsibility, privacy, and transparency.

I'm looking forward to week 2 of the #TLChallenge.  Hope you are able to join in the fun!

More details about the challenge can be found by following #TLChallenge on social media and guessed it, the ThingLink below:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Presenting with Students

Photo by Billy Krakower as we took our morning brain break at #TCT15
This past Friday, as teachers from all over the world started packing their suitcases for the annual International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference held in our own City of Brotherly Love, a group of excited and passionate teachers were getting up early, having scheduled their trips to arrive a few days in advance of ISTE in order to participate in the inaugural Tomorrow's Classrooms Today conference organized by the amazing team of Evolving EducatorsBilly Krakower, Scott Rocco, and Brad Currie. The opening keynote by Cybraryman, Jerry Blumengarten (who really does have a web page for everything), and a crowdsourced lunchtime keynote by my friend Rich Kiker helped to frame an afternoon of learning that was filled with sessions on gamification, flipped-learning, project-based learning and assessment, blogging, and innovations of all sorts.

Christy Brennan's sketchnotes of Jerry Blumengarten's keynote
And perhaps my favorite part, presenting with my colleague and friend Christy Brennan and three of my students!  I was fortunate to present with Christy and a few of my students at this past January's EduCon in Philly, and it went so well that we though, let's do it again!  One of my former students, Jenna, who presented with us at EduCon, joined us again on Friday for our session on Mentoring Passion. Two other students, Kristin and Emily, who had just finished 10th grade English with me also joined to talk about what they each had learned when Kristin surveyed the student body to design an new elective course and Emily interviewed and worked with learning space designers to propose (and have accepted by our school!) a new design for our upstairs library space. And because we had a small group of teachers in our session on Friday, there was time to talk more collaboratively about passion-based learning, fostering mentorship opportunities, and for my students to share their experiences of what worked and what didn't as they pursued their inquiry. The teachers that joined us for Friday's session were able to ask my students about their process undertaking our #HavPassion research.

There are so many, many positives that come out of asking students to present at conferences. Perhaps the most obvious reason to encourage student participation in education conferences and workshops is that as a group of teachers sitting in a room talking about educational philosophies and practices we're not getting a full picture of what is happening in the classroom if students aren't also seated at the table.  For all our talk of student-driven learning and student-ownership, there are very few students presenting their work outside of the classroom. If our goal is to innovate, to change what is happening in education in order to help support more critical and creative thinking, students need to be involved in our conversations about what that looks like. My students showed up on a Friday during their summer vacation to present to a bunch of teachers. Hang on. Let me repeat that.

My students showed up on a Friday during their summer vacation to present to a bunch of teachers.

The students were not getting any points for showing up. There wasn't a grade involved. They were not getting extra credit. So why did they want to present? Because what they undertook in our classroom, authentic research that included contacting and conducting interviews and primary research, that involved finding mentor texts and becoming a mentor, that involved a lot of blogging, and time, and effort, was something they want others to hear about. They are passionate and proud of their work. So passionate that they took time out of their summer vacation, arranged their own transportation, and volunteered to talk in front of strangers about what they had learned. When was the last time a student got that invested in a multiple-choice test?

So here's a little more about what they presented. Below you will find our slide deck on Mentoring Passion. Be sure to check out the speaker's notes as Christy and I loaded them up with links and information.  Beneath that you will find the recording of our presentation shared live via Google Hangouts.

Monday, June 29, 2015

No more CheckBrics

During my first year of teaching high school, a colleague shared with me her practice of completing every one of the assignments she gave to her social studies students before she actually assigned it to her class. By completing the assignment herself, not only could she better anticipate where students might need extra support, but she also had a better grasp on what exactly she was asking her students to know, understand, and do. This was perhaps the best advice I got my first year, that and to make sure that I ate lunch with colleagues instead of working through lunch each day. For the past thirteen years of teaching high school, I have made every effort to keep this practice. In doing so, I come into a unit or a lesson with a better understanding of what I am asking of my students and why. This same framework, suggested by Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design, has greatly influenced how I think about the work that is done by students in my classroom. Busy-work has no place in my classroom.

Instead, much of the “work” of my tenth grade English classes falls into two categories - practice and performance. Students begin a unit with the summative rubrics already in hand. We need to know what we are working toward. The work of the unit is to figure out why these goals are important. We practice strategies and skills in order to work toward that summative performance. But here’s where we run into some problems. A performance assessment, especially when it is used as a summative assessment tool, is only as good as its assessment criteria. Bad rubric = worthless assessment tool and useless feedback.

What type of feedback does a student get from this?
As Peter Afflerbach points out in Understanding and Using Reading Assessment K-12, “...performance assessments provide illustrative and educative details that complement the general statements made up such single, summative assessment markers” (97). However, this is only true when those performance assessments are carefully crafted to provide relevant feedback on the skills that students are working toward. Too often I have been guilty of taking the easy way out. Instead of creating a true rubric which outlines what an exemplary versus a below basic performance of a task looks like, I have created a checkbric, a list of things the must be included in the summative task.

A checkbric is not an assessment tool. It does not provide students with a model or anchor of what the successful completion of the assignment looks like. It does not focus on skills, but rather focuses on discrete facts or items. A checkbric does not help a student self-assess their work in any sort of reflective way. Instead, a checkbric functions as a to-do list.

So, I am banning checkbrics from my classroom.

Well-developed rubrics are the backbone of performance assessments. Afflerbach writes, “Over time, our use of rubrics and work samples in the classroom contributes to students developing specific schemata for what good work looks like, strategies for progress, and a schema for the ongoing self-assessment of their progress toward performance goals” (103). It is for this reason that I firmly believe that students should have such well-developed performance rubrics at the onset of the unit. In order to understand what we are working toward, students must have a clear understanding of the end goals.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Portfolios and Self-Assessment

Portfolio based assessments are not new. I remember researching authentic and holistic portfolio-based assessments for my final undergraduate inquiry project. Authentic and holistic. This was in the mid-nineties, when many educators were talking about holistic assessments. We discussed the whole child, whole language, holistic learning. With the backlash increasing against the proliferation of data-driven, high-stakes, multiple-choice tests, the assessment pendulum seems to be making a swing back toward more holistic, portfolio-based assessments.
As Peter Afflerbach points out in Understanding and Using Reading Assessment K-12, there are many valuable reasons for using portfolio assessments in the classroom: “The public forum provided by the portfolio process requires students to anticipate different audiences, communicate effectively with their classmates, and clearly reason about their learning based on the evidence provided in the portfolio” (83). Afflerbach sums up nicely why I use online portfolios with my tenth grade and creative writing students. My students begin our course with the construction of their online portfolio on day one, creating an opening web page that explains a self-selected metaphor for their writing process. We talk not about both the written rhetorical choices that a writer makes as well as the digital rhetorical choices that impact the viewer/reader. Throughout the semester, students post a variety of their work: multi-media research projects on their independent reading selections, benchmark literary analysis essays with reflections on their growth over time, embeded research blogs, and the text of our personal essays accompanied by video recordings of that text turned into a speech. Their final portfolio is part documentation, part a showcase of their work over time. Students self-assess their work, posting their reflections on what they have discovered and changed.

I have seen first-hand how incorporating writing portfolios can encourage more self-reflection on the part of my students. Especially given that our portfolios are online, students are constantly reflecting and reassessing how they present themselves digitally. And having created online portfolios with my students over the past few years, I now have a collection of models and mentors for my students to access as they are building their own. Afflerbach points to self-assessing as being one of the strongest reasons from employing portfolios in the classroom: “When students experience the control that accompanies self-assessment, they grow in self-esteem and agency” (90). I whole-heartedly agree. In fact, for the past two years, as a result of my students spending more time on self-assessment throughout our course, I have opened the opportunity for my classes to create their own rubric for their final online portfolio assessment.

In the last few weeks of our course, my students and I spend time reflecting on our learning experiences. What have we learned about reading? What have we learned about writing? What are the skills we have spent time developing? I ask students to think about how they know they have grown in their skills and abilities. What does evidence of learning look like? On a note card, students individually write down the skills on which they feel their final online portfolio should be assessed. Then, they meet in pairs and small groups to compare criteria. Finally, the class comes together to build our collaborative rubric for their final portfolios, and using a shared Google document, we spend about a week reflecting, revising, and rewriting the assessment criteria. Students not only collaborate to write the assessment criteria, what they are assessed on, they also decide how those points are assigned. I tell them that the final portfolio assessment must be worth 200 points, but they have to agree on how those points are assigned. As the teacher will I be assessing their portfolio for those 200 points? Will students take some of the ownership of that assessment process? Will students self-assess their entire portfolio?
Students in my Creative Writing and tenth grade English classes have been creating their final portfolio grading rubrics for the past two years. And each class is different. This past semester, my Creative Writing students wanted me to assess 50 percent of their final portfolios. I used the class-designed rubric to assign 100 points, and they used the same rubric to assess for the other 100 points. My honors English students didn’t want to split the grade. Instead, they wanted to be 100 percent responsible for assessing their final portfolio, but with the caveat that they completed their assessment through either a peer or teacher conference. My honors students wanted to talk through each of the criteria and how it applied to their portfolio as a whole.

Although each class ends up with a slightly different set of criteria, for the most part, their final rubrics end up looking quite similar. I attribute this to the consistency with which we engage in self-reflection and assessment throughout the semester. At the onset of each unit, students have the criteria and rubrics which will be used for their summative assessments. They know what they are working toward. Following each unit, as students are posting their work to their online portfolio, students are once again assessing how well they met the criteria outlined on the rubric. So by the time we get to the close of the class, students have been using the same sets of criteria throughout our course. Afflerbach states that student success with portfolio assessment can be measured when “...students are expected to grow in their ability to use the assessment strategies that are modeled and taught by their teachers” (88). I would argue that an even more powerful measure of that success comes when students are empowered to create those assessment strategies.

Here's how I manage my student portfolios.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Getting Testy about Testing

The most recent round of backlash to high-stakes, state-mandated testing comes as no surprise to anyone who has been paying even the smallest bit of attention to changes in educational policies over the last decade. From the onset of No Child Left Behind to state-mandated tests as a result of the recently implemented Race to the Top initiative and Common Core State Standards, our culture has been more focused on what tests have to say about what is happening in our schools. We expect more transparency. Testing has been seen as the easy window into the classroom. Not only do I see this in my own tenth grade classroom, but in the classroom of my own children.

My son started kindergarten this year. Early this past May, we attended Kindergarten Round-up, a morning set aside to meet teachers and administrators, to meet future classmates, and tour the school. At least that is what I thought it was going to be. Instead, my son and I were separated. He was taken into a separate room with four stations, asked to sound out words, arrange letters, make stories from building with bricks, and spoke with the school psychologist. In the span of circulating through four stations in 30 minutes, his reading and reasoning skills were assessed so that he could be “leveled.” Meanwhile, the other parents and I sat with a group of teachers and the school’s principal, listening to how important the kindergarten assessment would be when students took the test the following May. We were continually reassured that the elementary school routinely performed well on the state tests, which children would take every year from kindergarten through eighth grade. A state standardized test for kindergartners. The focus of this initial meeting was not on helping young learners build relationships, understand connections, or foster a love of reading and learning; instead, the overwhelming message was about the importance of testing. My six year old son was sent home with weekly homework packets filled with practice sheets in preparation for the routine DIBELS tests, popcorn words lists to memorize, and handwriting practice sheets. After the first month of school, recess was taken out of the schedule as parents were told that the time was needed to better prepare students for the tests students would be taking. Instead, recess time was replaced with time in a computer lab. My six year old son spent a portion of his time at school in front of a screen in order to prepare him to take a test.

The backlash against the proliferation of high-stakes testing should not be a surprise to anyone.

As Peter Afflerbach points out in his text Understanding and Using Reading Assessment K-12, high-stakes multiple-choices tests are not a recent addition to our educational landscape. Testing and sorting of students is a century-old practice. What has changed is the increased use of such tests in early grades despite the fact that experts in the field of reading instruction, including professional groups like the International Reading Association and the National Council of English Teachers, have all questioned the validity, reliability, and appropriateness of using such high-stakes tests to measure student ability (148). Additionally, as Afflerbach states,
High stakes assessments are used to focus responsibility for students’ failure and success on schools, which has the effect of placing the entire burden for students’ education and well-being on parents and teachers rather than the social systems that contributes to the poverty that influences students’ reading development in the first place. (150-1)
It is much more difficult to address the systemic issues that contribute to a student’s success or failure. Test results are easy to get and easy to interpret.

In the case of my own classroom, my tenth grade students recently took the Pennsylvania Keystone Literature test, a test which students must pass in order to graduate. This is a recent change, with my current group of tenth graders being the first class of students who face this new graduation requirement (fortunately, this now seems to be on the way out). As a result, our curriculum and even course offerings have changed. I have a state reading assessments workbook I was asked to use with my students which consists of short non-fiction passages and multiple-choice questions to work through. Instead of having students read full texts, we are moving more and more to passage-based reading. As research is not something assessed by state-standardized tests, teachers have dropped the more intensive project-based learning opportunities in favor of short reading assessments with multiple-choice questions aligned to our state standards and replicating those questions that students will see on the Keystone literature exam.

During the actual testing itself, the state told us that not only did we need to cover or remove any content specific posters/decor in our rooms but that we also need to remove any motivational posters. Over the last year, the state conducted a study and found that students testing in classrooms with motivational posters performing statistically better than those in rooms without. So to level the field, we needed to make our classrooms as bare as possible.

Reread that.

We have gotten to a point in our testing craze that teachers are being told to remove decorations and motivational posters from their walls to accommodate high-stakes testing.

As Afflerbach states, the negative consequences of such high-stakes assessments far outweigh the positives. Students broke down and cried during our six days of state assessments. Students began school with two hours of state tests and then went through their regular classes. A full day of classes following a grueling two hours of high stakes tests upon which their graduation is dependent. And a number of students will find out this summer that their efforts were for naught. They will be labeled “Below Basic” and rescheduled into a “Keystone Reading Class,” which students all know as the code of a remedial English class. “Labels from test results are accompanied with myriad related consequences, such as lowered expectations, differential treatment in the reading classroom, and decreased perseverance for those labeled as low-achieving readers” (160). So rather than providing support for our struggling readers, such tests do much more harm than good.

And this should come as no surprise when educational policies are made by those outside of education.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Bringing our Time to a Close

These are the days that are difficult to write about. These ending days. As the school year comes to a close, as seniors don their graduation gowns and teachers begin to pack up their rooms, I am reminded that this year is a closing of a different sort. I am moving on with my graduating seniors.

Monday night was graduation.  I gathered with my group of 19 advisory seniors, students who I have seen nearly every school day since their first day as freshman, shared with them congratulations and tears, and watched them walk across the stage, reach out for their diploma. My 19 rowdy and resilient advisory students.

Just a few days before we shared our final homeroom together, celebrating with water ice and gifts. With the help and generosity of some fantastic writers, I was able to give my seniors a personalized and signed copy of a book as a graduation gift. Daniel Pink, Charles Duhigg, Brene Brown, K.M. Walton, and Tiffany Schmidt helped me pull off quite a surprise by signing copies of their books for my students. And I also was able to give them something back. The first day of their freshman year, I had my students write a letter to themselves, telling them that I would give it back to them when they graduated. A few of them had forgotten about the letter. Reading that letter helped bring to a close their high school experience by remembering where it all began.

On Monday night as I sat with them listening to the evening's graduation speakers, I was reminded of where my experiences as a teacher began. It began with them. Their first day of kindergarten, September 3, 2002, was also my first day as a teacher. It seems fitting that I am moving on along with them. This will be my last graduation with this district as I prepare for my summer move back to my home state of Michigan. My last graduation, last speeches, last final exams.  These past few days have been quickly bringing my first teaching position to a close.  And just like it was for my graduating seniors, it is an emotional time.  We are both taking time to look behind us, look at how far we've come, as well as to look ahead, both anxious and excited.

My classroom has become a metaphor for change. Earlier this year, my classroom won an award for the makeover I undertook this past summer in order to make my classroom a more brain-friendly, collaborative learning environment. Now, it is bare. As I pack my classroom library into rubber bins, take down the international flags, student work, and posters, students comment on how it no longer feels like "home." They've walked into our classroom each day this week with exaggerated pouts, "Ms. Ward, this isn't our room."  I couldn't agree more. Students no longer see themselves reflected on the four walls of our room. I no longer see myself reflected here. It reminds me how hard these closings can be. But at the same time, these empty walls are also full of possibility. They will welcome a new class and a new teacher next fall, all full of their own hope and potential. And I hope to find a new home, new students and teachers to work with. As the saying goes, when one door closes...

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Where I'm From

I need to remember this for the beginning of the year.

We began by brainstorming lists of what someone would see upon entering the door to our house, what a stranger would see lying on the floor, piled in the corner. For today’s writing exercise, we answered a series of questions, and each response became a different line in our poems. By combining elements from each list and beginning them with the statement, “I am from…,” we began to write about who we are and also about what we bring with us into our writing.

We based our writing on George Ella Lyon's poem "Where I'm From."

image from Paines Plough
"Where I’m From"
        by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
     from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
     and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
     with a cottonball lamb
     and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
     to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Now, you give it a try:

I am from (specific ordinary item)________________________________________________
from (product name)________________and (another product name)_______________
I am from the (home description)_________________________________________________
Adjective that describes the above home description_____________, ______________
It (tasted, sounded, looked , felt –choose one)__________________________________
I am from the (plant, flower, or natural item)_______________________________________,
the (plant, flower, or natural item)____________________________________________
(Description of natural item)__________________________________________________
I’m from the (family tradition)___________________and (family trait)__________________
from (name of family member)___________and (name of family member)___________
and (another name)______________________
I’m from the (description of family tendency)_______________________________________
and (Another family tendency)________________________________________________
From (something you were told as a child)__________________________________________
and (another thing you were told as a child)_____________________________________
I’m from (representation of religious or spiritual beliefs or lack of it)___________________,
(further description of spiritual beliefs)________________________________________
I’m from (place of birth and family ancestry)_______________________________________,
(Two food items that represent your ancestry)________________and ______________.
I am from (general statement with DETAILS about who you are or where you are from)______________

Students are encouraged to deviate from this form, to make it their own.  Here's my take on our "Where I'm From" poem:

I am from 16 count crayola boxes,
     more than 8
     but longing for 64.
I am from mint green double-wide,
     Formica counters, linoleum floors, wood-burning stove
     filling our home with campfire smoke each October through April.

I am from sweet-peas and dandelions,
     spilling onto the lawn from neighboring woods,
     boundaries between the wild areas unclear.
I am from the cherry pickers,
     telling stories while spitting pits,
     from guttural consonants,
     and European vagabonds
     with a hint of Ojibwa on
     the tip of my nose.

I am from "I shall not want,"
     from green pastures and still waters
     lead by grandmother's hand
     to church, but also to value
     fiercely its separate place.
I am from Tigers and Vernors.

We sit at the flaking red picnic table,
     crammed together on the bench,
     swapping stories, swatting flies.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Please Take Out Your Phone

A colleague walked into our faculty workroom during lunch, excited.  A quick push of buttons and ten copies of this article flew off the copy machine. "Did you see this?" he asked those of us chatting over lunch. "There's research proving that phones should be banned in school." The table chimed in, decrying the proliferation of smartphones in school, complaining about how often teachers catch students texting during class.  Someone suggested making a copy of the article for our principal. That's when the table started to share strategies for dealing with phones in class.

Flickr Creative Commons image by Johan Larsson
Two doors down from me, a teacher has the sign "NO PHONES IN CLASS" posted in large, bold font on her classroom door.  Around the corner, another teacher hangs an over-the-door shoe organizer near the front of her room to collect students' cell phones as they enter class.  Yet another teacher on my floor collects phones in a basket that sits on the teacher's desk, proclaiming that students will not get points for that day's activities if their phone is not in the basket. Another uses envelops and keeps her students' cell phones lined up at the front of the room on the tray of the whiteboard.

This made me want to scream.

But I didn't.

Instead, I picked up the copy of this month's Educational Leadership magazine which I had placed in our workroom's reading area a few weeks earlier. The focus of the current edition - "Teaching with Mobile Tech." The articles by edtech guru (and fantastic English teacher extraordinaire) Caitlin Tucker titled "Five Tips for Managing Mobile Devices" and the piece about smartphone integration by experts Lisa Nielsen and Willyn Webb titled "Teaching with Cell Phones" both point out the flaws in recent calls to ban smartphones from the classroom.  However, instead of engaging in a conversation about our differing points of view, my colleague misunderstood my gesture and instead slipped one of his photocopied articles into the magazine as to discredit the use of mobile technology in the classroom.

The bell called an end to our lunchtime. There was no time to discuss, persuade, or share. But I wasn't ready to just forget the interaction. So I took it to my class.  I described to my 22 Creative Writing students, varying in experience and grade level from 9-12, the interaction I had over lunch, without using teachers' names, of course. They were finishing up first drafts of their stories, and next week we will be writing personal essay and opinion pieces. I figured a quick debate might spur some ideas for writing we will do next week. It was not a quick debate. Students were eager to share their frustration.

We discussed when students use their phones in class.  A senior said that he turns his phone off in class most of the time, but during work time or group work, he'll turn it on just so that he can check homework from other classes or to quick dip into group chats about assignments.  Another student said that when a teacher takes her phone, she ends up turning to her notebook, doodling while the teacher talks. "It's not like the phone causes the distractions," she said. "I'm already distracted. Take away my phone, and I'll find something else." And that's when I said something that I often think but have not voiced in front of students. It just came slipping out. "Perhaps it's not the fault of students. If we're teaching in a way that students turn to their phones, maybe it's not effective teaching." And that's when the conversation opened up.  One of my students jumped on this immediately.  He pointed out that I don't ban phones in our class but that students also aren't tempted to use them at inappropriate times either.  Another student, one who doesn't often speak in our large group discussions, talked about how banning something does more to highlight the object, make it sought after, than does teaching about it. Students then went on to discuss what responsible phone use looks like in the classroom, where having phones in class has helped, and where they have at times served as a distraction.  Students didn't understand how teachers could ban phones in the classroom when not all of our classrooms have technology in them, including mine.  Some of my creative writers would not be able to publish online if it were not for their phones.  I need them to take their phones out and use them.

There are so many missed opportunities when cell phones are banned in the classroom. We miss out on the opportunity to connect students with readers and writers outside the four walls of our room, outside of our content areas. When policy makers and teachers talk about banning phones, they often bring up how often students are using phones to text friends or play games. But this is only part of the picture. Those little hand-held computers help teachers and students do so much more. As educators, we have a responsibility to teach our students about the potentials and the pitfalls mobile technology offers which is hard to do when it is kept under lock and key.

So much of what my students and I have been able to accomplish in the classroom would not be possible without the use of smart phones.  We (yes, I'm including myself in this) use our phones in class to:

  • record speeches and make videos using WeVideo,
  • participate in formative assessment polls and open-ended questions using Celly and Polleverywhere,
  • write and share poetry using Twitter and the hashtag #twitterpoem,
  • snap pictures and share our blackout poetry creations with other writers using Instagram,
  • listen to and record our StoryCorps interviews,
  • watch and record our This I Believe personal essays,
  • connect with and ask questions of the authors we are reading via Twitter and Google+ (hi +John Green!), and
  • watch and participate in Google Hangouts (like when +Don Eckert's students broadcast their Ted Talks last Friday).
These are not activities I can replicate with pen and paper. They are unique to mobile technology. And by including such opportunities in my courses, students are writing more and more often, connecting and collaborating with others outside of our classroom, and creating. Why would I want to ban that? 

  Follow Jennifer's board Please Take Your Cell Phone Out In Class on Pinterest.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


I'm just starting my first online graduate course for a grade. I've participated in MOOCs but not for graduate credit. This class, a requirement by the state of Michigan to move from my Provisional License to a Professional Certificate, focuses on reading strategies. And our course reading has me reflecting on the role of questioning in class. But let me first describe where I am now.

I am 83 minutes into the first day of proctoring our state literature exams. I'm covertly jotting notes because for 90 minutes I am to stare intently at the nine students currently testing in this room. No grading, no reading a book, no writing, no. I am to walk around and monitor these eight students as one just finished her test. Closing her test book, she put her head down to sleep. While monitoring, I am not to look at what they are reading or writing. I am not to answer questions that will clarify anything in any way. The walls are to be free not just of content specific posters and artwork, but of all motivational posters. Rooms should be sterile. Proctors should stoic. What does having all these protocols in place ensure? How does this impact the test takers?

The questions these eight students are grappling with have a right answer that can be bubbled into a form. As fast as they can, these eight students are reading four excerpts from longer texts. Stripped of context and plot development, this excerpts are literally only part of the story. These students darken bubbles for seven or eight questions on each passage and then write a one-page response to each. All in the span of 90 minutes. What is this test purporting to measure? What is this test actually measuring?

What are we telling our students when we realign our curriculums to better prepare students for this type of testing, tests which feature only excerpts and ask students to scribble down responses as fast as they can?

My students will sit in a desk from 7:30 to 9:30 each morning for six days in order to bubble in responses on the Pennsylvania Keystone exams, and then they will have a short five minute break before they are asked to head to their first block class and go through a shortened schedule of their regular classes from 9:40 am - 2:22 pm. Their graduation is dependent upon their success on these tests. My teacher evaluation is dependent upon their success on these tests. It will be a long six days. And by the end of the six days of testing, everyone - teachers and students alike - just want to get back to learning. I question this type of questioning.

Reading through the opening scenarios of Peter Afflerbach’s text, Understanding and Using Reading Assessment K-12, I was struck by a sentence he used to describe the ideal reading instruction given in a fourth grade classroom: “Reading assessment that gives students useful feedback while shoring up their self-esteem is important to the students and the teacher” (2). That is certainly not happening in our classrooms this week. Afflerbach writes, “Teaching to the test is, in effect, teaching to an impoverished notion of what questions can tell us,” (55). I could not agree more! If you can Google the response to a question, then you likely shouldn’t be asking it. So, why are we putting so much emphasis on these tests? What is the purpose?

When they finish their state tests and head to our first block class, I will ask my tenth grade students to think about the role of questions. As we wait for some of our classmates to finish testing, we will critically questions the types of questions asked by our state assessment. What is the purpose? And I will give my students an opportunity to creatively respond. And then I will ask them to come up with better questions for the texts we are currently reading. I will share with them the Webb's Depth of Knowledge chart, asking them to reflect, much like I am for my graduate class, on what makes a good question. I'll ask them to anticipate the responses and consider their purpose in asking. And then I will give them the opportunity to post their questions to the class, selecting a couple of students each day to become our in-class discussion leaders and our online discussion leaders.

And in questioning questions, we'll together craft better questions and more critical responses.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Thank you

Instead of hitting "print" once, I accidentally sent the job to my printer twice early Friday morning. Fingers crossed that my children in the next room wouldn't wake each time the color ink cartridges slid across the printer, I let my mistake go. I'm sure someone else could use the extra copies. But they didn't. I needed all of the extra copies. In fact, I wish I had accidentally printed more.

On Friday morning, I printed out a simple template for a note card, an apple at the bottom of the page with the note "you are appreciated."  For the last day of Teacher Appreciation Week, I had my high school students write a note to a teacher that made an impact on their lives, any teacher from kindergarten through high school.  Instead of cracking jokes or dashing off a hastily written thank-you, I watched as my students quietly set to work, pen in hand and crouching low over their desks, crafting heartfelt letters to second grade teachers and biology teachers and middle school social studies teachers. And then the first hand shot up. At first I thought he had made a mistake, wanted to write his letter over. Instead, "Ms. Ward? Can I please have another one? I'd like to write another letter." Then another hand and another.  Throughout the day this scene repeated itself. I had printed out about 96 note cards. By my last class of the day, I had completely run out.

During my second block, as I walked around the room watching students craft letters and share stories, I was hit in the arm with a paper airplane. I looked over my left shoulder and was met with a sheepish smile. "For you, Ms. Ward."  Inside, the student had quickly scrawled, "Thank you Ms. Ward for helping me discover a talent I never knew I had."

This is a student who I had earlier in the year as a creative writing student and who now sits in my tenth grade honors English class. I got to know him first through his writing: snarky and clever, quick-witted and insightful. The voice of his narrator leapt from the page; his poetry sang honest and vulnerable. But when he started in my tenth grade English class the following semester, his first essay lacked that voice. So I told him that he needed to bring our creative writing class into tenth grade English. His academic writing would be stronger if he let his voice shine. He is a writer. I'm not sure how he did not know this. But I think this is the unquantifiable part of what it means to be a teacher. A teacher opens up space for discovery. This was reinforced over and over again in the letters that my students wrote Friday.

My students were not writing letters to say thank-you for a good grade or for performing well on a particular test. Instead, my students wrote to the teachers who had pushed them, to the teachers who did not give them the best grade but who had challenged them and saw potential. Students wrote letters to the teachers who opened opportunities for students to explore, who gave them space to share their stories. They crafted thank-you letters to the teachers who had helped them come through problems at home, helped them come to terms with loss, who helped them realize their personal responsibility and power.

By the close of Friday, I had the pleasure of sharing 96 thank-you notes with my colleagues and friends who make a difference every single day. I am grateful to work with such talented and caring peers and with students who recognize these qualities in their teachers.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Bringing Visual Art into the English Classroom

Vivi's poem will rest under the horizon
I love getting hands-on with literature. My creative writing students are currently taking their favorite poem or an original verse and creating a visual representation of the lines.  I shared with students one of my favorite series from the New York Times T Magazine, "Picture and a Poem." Then I asked students to think how they might use a variety of mediums to depict their lines. Some snatched their Prismacolor pencils from the depths of their backpacks before I even finished explaining. My artists had been longing for this assignment. But other students looked at me confused, not sure where to begin or what medium to use.  This was what I was hoping for.  Their hesitation was the start of a very important conversation.

For the last week, we've been examining verse in a variety of ways. Students have been contemplating the importance of titles, reflecting on Dana Gioia's philosophy of lineation, and playing with form.  But now I've tasked students with creating three poems for publication, three pieces that we'll be submitting out into the world and sharing with others on our online portfolios. This is scary for some most of the students sitting in my room. Sending our work out for publication means that we need to spend time with the lines, carefully considering each rhetorical choice.  But mention rhetoric to high school students and immediately eyes start to glaze over. So as a way to begin a conversation about rhetorical choices, I first ask students to create a visual representation of a poem.

Kat's illustration of Sylvia Plath's "Lady Lazarus"
We are visual creatures. When I ask students why they are making particular design choices with their visual representations, they clearly articulate their thinking. I selected this program or this medium because... I selected this image and placed it to the right of the screen because it represents... I elected to use this color theme because....  And all of these are rhetorical choices. By beginning with conversations about visual rhetoric, I can easily guide students into making connections to the rhetorical choices they are making in their own writing. Selecting a medium for their visual representation is much like selecting the form a poem will take. Talking about the placement of an image translates to talking about line spacing, line breaks, and white space on the page. Suddenly students understand how the choices that they carefully consider with their visual work connect to the choices they are making as they revise their original poems for publication. Instead of me defining all those rhetorical decisions, students discover them for themselves as they make connections between their visual creations and the poems they are crafting with words.

And along the way, I am not teaching design or tech.  I let the students figure that out as well. For those students interested in creating in a digital space, I share a few user-friendly programs that students might consider. Animoto, Haiku Deck, and Canva are all versatile and easy to navigate, which ensures that students stay focused on the creation decisions and not on problems learning a particular program. As they create, we talk about what works visually and why. We search for mentor texts, both for our visual creations as well as for the poems we are crafting.  We discuss the decisions made by artists, why they work and when they don't.  By focusing on rhetoric, both visual and written, I am asking my students to engage in close reading. Okay, and it is a lot of fun to create our visual pieces, too!

Here's a Haiku Deck creation by Nick:

Nicosia Poem - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

Saturday, May 2, 2015


Monday marks the beginning of Teacher Appreciation Week, May 4-8, 2015.  I love the initiative started by the Center for Teaching Quality to take back the narrative, take back the public story of education. All too often our news outlets are filled with stories of regret, of ridicule, and of shame in our public education systems.  But in this coming week, the Center for Teaching Quality is encouraging teachers to use the hashtag #TeachingIs to open the doors of our classrooms and share what it means to be a teacher today.  Rather than the conversation of education being told by those outside the classroom, it is time for teachers to share their joys, their struggles, their fears, and successes.  The story of what teaching is must be told by teachers.

My friend, fellow high school English teacher, and PASCD member, Brianna Crowley, put together this video to share the #TeachingIs initiative.

And so here is my #TeachingIs story:

Teaching is
     twenty-two voices clamoring
     for space, for a taste, for a chance
     to be heard, to lead, to learn
     in the span of eighty-five minutes,
     marked at both ends by bells
     that yell at students and teachers
     where to be and when,
     dictating how long to connect and to what.
Teaching is
     skillfully sliding, seamless
     into facilitator, coach, counselor,
     confidante, cheerleader, learner,
     disciplinarian and librarian,
     before the period brings learning
     to a close.
     But as a lover of literature,
     of well-crafted lines,
     of stories that sing from their bindings,
     a teacher hands over the pen,
     shows students how to see
     the blank, white page as more
     empowering than scary
     and education as something that
     expands and extends
     beyond the mark of a period.
Teaching is
     teasing out
     the nuance,
     teaching students to do
     the same.
     Look for the purpose,
     the bias, the audience,
     consider the meaning,
     the cost and the claim.
Teaching is
     the art of
     figuring out
     how to turn
     mandates into moments
     of meaningful mastery,
     how to advocate for collaboration,
     for cross-content connection,
     how to share the story of
     learning as more than just numbers
     shared as data and charts
     under headlines which cry for reform.
Teaching is
     being present,
     bearing witness
     to the joy and the tears,
     the laughter and fears,
     to listen and share
     the diversity of stories
     that enter our hallways
     and slip into our classrooms
     each day.
     We are more than the
     numbers and marks on a page.
     Our classrooms, a platform,
     where student stories take stage,
     helping students find voice,
     recognize power in choice,
     and encouraging resilience
     instead of silence.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Searching for a Few Good Experts

We're looking for a few good experts. My tenth grade English students have carefully crafted their inquiry questions, found mentor texts, written their initial inquiry proposals, created a pitch video, and outline their action plans for our #HavPassion research projects. But now we need some help.

You'll find my students' research blogs linked below. Roll over each picture to find a description and link to each student's blog.  We'd love to hear your ideas and feedback.

10th grade honors English students

10th grade English students

And we also would love to interview experts in our inquiry fields.  In addition to consulting mentor texts, we are looking for mentors to help us learn more about our inquiry topics.  Do you have a passion for crochet or mixing music? Maybe you know a MLB coach that we could email a few questions? We are looking to interview, either in person or via email, experts.  Please take a few moments to review our inquiry questions below, and if you wouldn't mind if one of my students contacting you, add your name and information to our list below.

Click here for the full document.

Reblog from Student Newspaper

David Escobar-Martin slams down verses with visit to Creative Writing class

The Fordian
Jack Durfee, Contributor
April 30, 2015

On Wednesday, April 30th, Ms. Ward’s 3rd block Creative Writing class was treated to a very special guest. Slam poet, and Montgomery County Poet Laureate David Escobar-Martin came in to perform some of his well-regarded and entertaining slam poetry. Escobar-Martin put together about a 20 minute set that kept the 9th through 12th grade students on the edge of their seats, snapping and really getting into the poetry with almost every line as  Escobar-Martin’s work is personal and rooted in family past.

“If it weren’t for how accepting the poetry community is, I wouldn’t be able to perform such personal poems” Escobar-Martin says, as his personal works look to create a trust between the listeners and the performer which is something that the Creative Writing students and poetry audiences everywhere seem to appreciate.

After the “oohs”, “ahhs” and snaps were silenced from room 330, it was time to get to work. After his performance David ran a writing workshop for the rest of class, which gave the students a chance to share some of their work with a published poet and receive some important feedback. Escobar-Martin taught skills not only in writing poetry, but also in performing it as well; something students don’t really learn about in a typical poetry unit.

Martin’s visit was in connection to April which is National poetry month, but his visit is nothing new to Ward’s classes as she always tries to bring guests into the classroom.

“I’m a firm believer in bringing the outside into the classroom”, Ward says, because “bringing professionals in opens up opportunities for students to learn from experts in the field, as well as learn about what careers are out there.” Ward uses her connections through local libraries and connecting with anyone she can online to bring in experts who are able to improve whatever lesson she may be teaching. She says it’s also important for these professionals to see all the important and creative work being done in local high school classrooms.

This year alone, Ward has remarkably organized and had over 10 different authors, poets, and speakers come in to her classes and larger groups. She also worked again this year with the Haverford Township Free Library  and Free Library of Philadelphia to have the One Book One Philadelphia author come speak to the school.

The school district video site even had to create a new folder for all the author visits that Ward has had this year, not to mention the many from years past. Watch author visits here

Escobar-Martin’s visit gave Ward’s third block a taste of live slam poetry, insight into poetry and the creative process, but also a glimpse into the dedication and remarkable ability of Ms. Ward to bring variety and experts into her classes.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Beginning of an End

I have been putting it off for weeks...okay, months. I knew how difficult this process of moving on was going to be, and so I delayed the first few steps for as long as I could.  Twelve years ago, I could not have imagined all the opportunities, collaborations, the families and friends that my first teaching position would connect me with. I have taught entire families, seven siblings who each had me for high school English. I have former students that I now happily, thankfully call colleagues. I have shared in moments large and small: moments of overwhelming joy at the arrival of college acceptance letters and moments of sorrow at the passing of a friend, or worse, a parent. Former students who bickered in my ninth grade English class are now happily married. I keep a folder of letters and printed emails from students and parents, letters of thanks and appreciation, and I pull these letters out to reread them on the days that try my will-power and patience, on the days that break my heart. And through it all, I call these halls home. It is the home that nurtured me, helped me grow to the teacher I am today.

So I should have anticipated how emotional I would get when I sat down with my principal earlier this semester to let him know that I was starting the process of renewing my Michigan teaching license in order to return to my home state following the close of this school year. Walking out of his office and turning the corner to see the glowing red "EXIT" sign brought me to the edge of tears. This process of moving on, of dismantling what I have built here, is heart wrenching. And I have only just begun.

Today, I shared with my advisory, a group of students that I have been with their entire four years of high school, that I would be "graduating" with them.  We are marking moments together, and I am struck by all the "lasts" that connect us.

As a first-year teacher, you focus on firsts: the first essay you give, first test, the first homecoming dance, the first pep rally, the first prom you attend, the first graduation ceremony, the first time you cry in class or break-up an argument, the first time a student is published. But my advisory students and I are taking time to revel in the "lasts": last assembly, last midterm and last final exam, last Mr. Haverford, and tomorrow night - last prom.

But I am taking a cue from my gregarious group of seniors. This is not a time to focus on what we will miss. Instead, these "lasts" are memories being built. We must live in them so that they live on as we continue on our separate journeys. I will certainly miss my chaotic classroom, filled with laughter and tears, filled with collaboration and creativity. I will miss the students and their friends that pop-in whenever. I will miss these hallways, filled with such supportive colleagues. I will miss this community. But like my seniors, I am also looking forward to the next part of my journey, wondering what new adventures are in store. And like my seniors, I have stories that I will always carry with me.

Sharing Verse

What a beautiful close to National Poetry Month! Blue skies and sunshine looked down on us as we chalked the sidewalks in front of our school with the titles and lines from our favorite poems.
We also wrote the lines of favorite poems onto strips of paper in order to make poetry ornaments to decorate our "poet-trees" outside the main doors of our school.  

And the entire time we were sharing verse. In the hallways between class, in the lunchroom, poetry slams in chemistry, and writing verse in Creative Writing - poetry was everywhere today! 

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