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 nine...now 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 http://havsd.pegcentral.com/index.php?search_f=subject&search_v=School%20Board%20Meeting

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.

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