Friday, March 25, 2016

What is the Opposite of Bullying?

I've had the opportunity to connect with Spring Lake teacher David Theune and his student Elise McGannon at a number of conferences around Michigan recently. When I saw that David was presenting with students at December's ECET2 Conference on Michigan State's campus, I knew it was a session that I didn't want to miss.  It was at this session that I was introduced to the Share Chair, a regular podcast David and Elise produce to introduce their learning community to the diversity of voices in their midst. In February, I was happy to see the pair presenting and podcasting a conversation live at NovaNow. And again last week at MACUL, the pair presented their work, introducing their project with a simple question:
"What is the opposite of bullying?"
Especially at the secondary level, teachers and administrators tend to focus more energy on addressing the negative consequences of bullying. However by focusing only on the negative, we leave a vacuum for the positive message. What are the values of our learning community? Rather than focus a majority of our energy on punishing the negative behavior, what are we doing to promote a positive culture in our learning community? Punishment is a reaction. What are we doing to create a community that it is not built on the shaky and destructive foundation of punitive reactions?

Prior to yesterday's professional development day, I posed many of these questions to my high school students. It began months earlier with our study of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. Our guiding essential question for this unit was "Who are the witches today?" and I asked my students to consider who were the groups in our community that might feel ostracized and isolated. Our class discussed ways in which society isolates the elderly, refugees and immigrants, the homeless and poor. Many students identified the victims of bullying in our school community as being treated as witches, as outsiders. But our conversation didn't end there. Students wanted to find ways to help those in our community that felt isolated and had been victims of bullying.

Initially, our conversations revolved around how to best help the victims, but in allowing space for discussions and sometimes disagreements, the group of students also started to discuss our school culture and community. What were we doing to promote a culture of support, of kindness? What started as a unit project for our study of The Crucible became something much more.

Our unit has long since ended. Some of the students that were initially in my class, switched to other classes when the new semester began but continue to stop by my classroom regularly. Students brought friends into our discussions. This wasn't about a grade or a class project. Because the group was bringing together students from all grade-levels and a variety of classes, students started a Facebook group as a way to communicate with each other and with our larger community. They meet weekly in my classroom to spend time discussing and planning ways to promote kindness in our community. Based on an activity we did earlier in the year, the students have recently sought permission to paint a Kindness Wall near our cafeteria, a visual reminder of the values of our community. They have spoken with the assistant principal and high school principal about their vision and values. And then there was yesterday.

Yesterday was a professional development day for teachers in our district. Students had the day off. However instead of sleeping in, the core members of the Anti-Bullying group rose early in order to be at school by 7:30. Why? Because yesterday they taught the teachers.

The group has been working hard the past few weeks, researching, planning, and practicing a 30-minute presentation for our entire teaching staff on the topic of what bullying looks like in our classrooms. Initially, they started with a 12-slide PowerPoint.  However, after a bit of discussion about what they like to see happen in their own classes, they ditched the PowerPoint in favor of hands-on activities.  So at 8 am on Thursday morning, my students lead us through a quick round of warm-up jumping jacks before we emptied tubes of toothpaste and tried to unsuccessfully smash the paste back into the tube. We then created a Wrinkled Wanda and reflected on what happens when we don't address name-calling in our classrooms. The students also shared with the teachers that they had designed and would be selling anti-bullying t-shirts prior to their April presentation to our student body. Yes, the group not only presented to teachers, but they are also working on a 60-minute presentation for our student body. As the presentation wound to a close, something truly magical happened.

The assistant principal announced that he would be speaking with school administration in the coming days in order to seek funding to send these students to a leadership camp this summer. And that's when you felt the energy in the room build. These are our students, all of ours. How might we support them, their efforts, help them expand their ideas to others in our community?  A fellow English teacher volunteered the idea of having a dress down day for teachers. "I would pay to wear jeans, especially if the money helped to purchase the t-shirts for the students and would send them to leadership camp." This idea was quickly seconded. And then another teacher jumped up, literally jumped up, "Next week is the week before spring break; let's have a jeans week. If we all paid $15 we could buy the t-shirts for the students and send them all to camp." You could feel the excitement. Nods and affirmations flooded the room. I had goosebumps, which I quickly showed the student sitting next to me. She whispered back, "Wow, I didn't expect this!"   

At our mid-morning break, teachers came up to the students to share congratulations, share ideas, and share support.  When students came back to my classroom to reflect on the morning's activities, they were bubbling with energy and ideas.  They were excited to be heading to the leadership camp, but also had ideas for what they would like to do in the future. They want to run their own summer camp next year, a camp to help other schools replicate what they've started: a conversation about what's the opposite of bullying.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Power of Performing Poetry

Today is World Poetry Day, which falls each year on the cusp of our National Poetry Month celebration during the month of April. I love this time of year! Spring is in the air, and my daily writing prompts are peppered with verse. We'll spend time throughout the month connecting poems to our course readings and sharing favorite verses on Poem in Your Pocket Day. There is such potential in poetry - the potential of connection, of passion, and emotion. It is for this reason that I weave poetry throughout all of my units, but I love having the opportunity (and excuse) to dwell more deeply in lines of verse at this time each year. And this year, I got a bit of an early start.

I cried in class this past Friday, and it was all Poetry's fault.  Okay, it was poetry performed by some amazing local poets that brought me to tears. And I wasn't alone. I heard from many students who were deeply moved by the verses performed by the Grand Rapids' collective known as Diatribe when they visited our school this past Friday. Throughout Friday and again today, teachers and students described and recited the lines they have been carrying around with them since Friday morning, the lines that cling and reverberate. Through the support of a Donors Choose grant, I was able to bring four members of the group - Fable, May Day, Rachel Gleason, and G. Foster II - into my high school to share their work with a group of public speaking, creative writing, and ninth and tenth grade English students. Each poet performed two original pieces and led our group through an exercise that had us reflecting on all that connects us.

Perhaps my most memorable moment from this morning came as I was asking my students to reflect and respond to the pieces shared by the member of Diatribe.  Students were enthusiastic, but I don't think I will soon forget Ethan's response. Ethan is a no-nonsense senior. He is the definition of pragmatic.  "Ms. Ward, I don't like all that touchy feely kinda stuff. But, yeah, they were good. Really good." It doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but trust me, it is.

Like me, many students felt overwhelmed and awed at the trust and courage demonstrated by the poets. "Ms. Ward, I kinda felt bi-polar. I can't believe I laughed and cried so much in just 55 minutes." Students called out favorite lines and shared connections that they made with the poets over the weekend. "Ms. Ward, I looked up May Day on Facebook, and she got back to me," squealed one of my tenth grade students. "She shared links to all her work!"  Students asked me look up the poets' websites while in class today. "Ms. Ward, can you pull up Gray Theory? That's Foster's group. Can we listen to him again?"  Over the weekend, on their own time, my students were thinking about poetry. The words of these performance poets hit home. Their lines echoed truth and connected us. This is the power of poetry.
Photo by reporter Darcy Meade of the Ionia Sentinel-Standard

Friday, March 11, 2016

Writing My Keynote

No, I haven't been asked to keynote a conference. However, after attending Todd Bloch and Heather Gauck's session titled "Finding Educator Voice" at the Michigan Association of Computer Users in Learning (MACUL) conference yesterday, I had a bit of an ah-ha moment. I need to write my keynote.

I go to a lot of conferences and professional development workshops.  I'm a bit of a self-confessed PD junkie. An Edcamp in 60 miles and I am there! The conference sessions that I am drawn to are both interactive and story-driven, much like a good keynote address. They draw you in with the speaker's personal experience but leave you with a "now what," as in, "Now what are you going to do about this?" Good presentations are those that hone in on a theme and drive thinking forward by coming back to a motif that reminds the audience of that central theme. Jennie Magiera does just this when she speaks. Her keynote at the Chicago ETTSummit in 2014 connected a large group of educators both by having us interact with one another and by reminding us how we connect global for a singular purpose - empower learners.

Now I have done a lot of presentations and workshops in the last two years, over twenty presentations focused mainly on the getting students to write and create for authentic audiences.  A recurring theme in many of my presentations has been the idea of moving from engaging students to empowering learners. But many of these presentations have been how-to workshops, or at their worst they have been how-did, meaning here's how I did this. I hope that some of these presentations have been helpful for those educators in attendance, but my guess is that they may not have been very inspiring.

I need to stop thinking of my audience as teachers and begin addressing them as learners. That's what we are.  All of us who are PD junkies are just that because we love learning.  So for my next presentation, I need to reflect on how to empower and inspire the educators in the room to move to that now-what moment.  I need to present my keynote and not simply a how-to manual.

And I have an idea for my theme, something about getting out of your seat and onto your feet.  So just in case you are in need of a keynote presenter, I'll be ready.
Flickr CC image by Thomas Hawk

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Simply Incredible Week

It is Thursday, and the week isn't even over, but I'm confident in saying that this may just be one of my best weeks ever!

Please forgive this not-so-humble-but-totally-excited brag:

Sunday afternoon I received an email invitation from Fox News to attend and ask a question at the Democratic Town Hall hosted in Detroit. So on Monday afternoon, my husband and I hopped on the road to Detroit.

As we were driving, I learned that my classroom was one of the selected recipients of a 1:1 grant by the EdTechTeam. We have 36 Chromebooks on their way! I couldn't resist. I immediately texted my students when I found out.  When I returned to the classroom on Tuesday morning, the excitement was palatable.

Yesterday, a reporter from the Ionia Sentinel-Standard visited my class to do a story on how my students started an anti-bullying group at our school. I could not be prouder of the students who have spearheaded this initiative. Their worked stemmed from a project-based learning activity connected with our reading of The Crucible last semester. And although the project has long since been completed, the students are still working hard to address issues of bullying and promote kindness in our community. 

Today I am presenting with four of my students at the #‎MACUL16‬ conference in Grand Rapids.  Together with Brad Wilson of, we are sharing how writing for authentic purposes and audiences changes how emerging writers engage with the process of writing. And of course, I needed to take my student presenters out for Philly cheese steaks as a way to say thanks!

Not sure what I did to deserve so many blessings, but I am certainly grateful!

Friday, March 4, 2016

Growing Community Connections

It started as a conversation in my tenth grade English class last semester.

We were studying The Crucible and discussing how it applied to our world today. Who are the witches today? Who are the groups of people that we ostracize, isolate, push aside? My tenth graders reflected on the lives of refugees, homeless people, those who felt bullied. But one young man in my third period class made an astute observation - the elderly. We push older generations to the outskirts of our communities. This sparked an insightful conversation and planted a seed for how our high school community might connect with the assisted living facility just across the street.

Despite the snow and ice, that seed bloomed today. My public speaking students have been practicing interview skills. However, rather than sitting in our classroom and playing pretend, I asked my students to conduct and record real interviews using the StoryCorps app. Our purpose was to capture moments of our community's history. Students practiced their interview skills by asking their siblings, parents, and grandparents to share about their childhood.  And today, we took our skills on the road.

My students spent our class period interviewing the residents of Ionia's Green Acres Assisted Living Facility. Working in pairs, my students introduced themselves to residents who were eager to share stories of their childhood.  In arranging this opportunity, the Life Enrichment Director asked me about how long I thought the interviews would take. I guessed about 10 minutes. I was wrong.

My students and the residents didn't want these conversations to end. As my student interviewers emerged from their conversations 30 minutes later, they were eager to share. "My person went to clown school! Can you believe it?!" "My resident lost her husband just one year after he built their dream home." "My person was kicked out of summer camp, and when he came home, his family had gone on vacation!"

My students didn't just practice their interview skills today. they made community connections.  And in talking with my students, the residents, and the staff, this is a connection that we are all looking forward to growing.

Hover over the image below to find links to our interviews.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Keepin' It Real

Snow day #7.

This time, I have the house to myself. My boys had a two-hour delay this morning, so after scuttling them out the door, I parked myself in front of the fireplace to plan. And email. And follow-up. To make arrangements and get permission.

But this is not a bad thing. In fact, it is perfect timing. I laid out a challenge for myself at the beginning of this school year: each writing assignment I asked my students to complete needed to be for an authentic purpose, an authentic audience. This has been a passion of my since I began teaching and working with my regional Writing Project over a decade ago. But up until this year, I had been teaching in the Philadelphia area, rich with connections and resources. This year, I am teaching in a rural district in central Michigan. Would I be able to connect my rural readers and writers with similar authentic experiences? Sounded like a perfect challenge for me!

My students and I have been incredibly fortunate this year to connect with so many different experts in a variety of fields. We've had the local university newspaper editors in to speak with my journalism students, we've Skyped with the Salem Witch Museum while studying Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, and the last two weeks have been all about connections!

My tenth graders began our American Nightmares unit at the start of our new semester near the close of January. We've discussed what identifies a literary work as a piece of Dark Romantic or Gothic literature. We've read Poe's "The Raven" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," discussed T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," reviewed "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "Young Goodman Brown," next week we'll read Stephen King, and all the while, we've been using these as mentor texts for writing our own Gothic-inspired short stories.  But the students are not simply writing a story for me to read, and they aren't putting together a simple class anthology. No. We are writing for publication.

Inspired by fellow Writing Project teacher Brian Kelly and his amazing group of eighth graders, my students and I are publishing our short stories in a collected book via Amazon's CreateSpace. I knew that when I began my year teaching American Literature that this is where we were headed. And it has taken all of the last 20 weeks to get here.

Each writing lesson has built to the past two weeks.  Early in our year together, students submitted work for publication in other venues. A number of my students were published a few months back after submitting creative work to spaces like Teen Ink and Figment, but now we are not simply submitting our work to an outside editor to approve or reject. I have asked my students to become the writers, the editors, the producers, and production managers as well.

In preparation, we needed to know a lot about writing Gothic and horror-inspired short stories. We needed expert help. So not only did we look to our texts as our mentors, but we opened up our classroom doors and invited the experts in. Last week we were so fortunate to have two fantastic Michigan horror writers, Peggy Christie and MontiLee Stormer, from the Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers (GLAHW) join our classes. Yup, multiple classes. These two women hit the road early to travel from the Detroit area to spend the entire day in rural, mid-Michigan and connect with my high school writers.  And we learned so much! They shared their inspiration for crafting stories, advice for building suspense, thoughts on current writers and movies (boo to "gore-porn"), and answered so many of our questions as we were drafting our own stories. Walking out the door at the end of the day, Ms. Stormer shared that the GLAHW also used Amazon's CreateSpace to publish their group's annual editions and offered to help with our process of using the space if we needed it. The whole experience invigorated our classroom of writers. Students have drafted and crafted in earnest. And the snow days helped. Over the course of last week's snow days, I had students return to class this past Monday with 9, 10, and 11 page short stories!

And then came Monday.  In an effort to better understand what makes something frightening, psychologist Dr. Robin Ward joined my tenth grade English classes to talk about the origins of fear, dread, and the uncanny.  Our stories are focused on psychological terror and dread, less on gore. We needed to better understand what triggered that sense of dread. Dr. Ward spoke about our innate flight or fight responses, what triggers those responses, and how the body physically responds to these sensations, all of which helped us add more concrete details to our stories. And no Gothic-inspired story would be complete with out a sense of the uncanny, so Dr. Ward shared a bit of Freud's essay on the uncanny, which he referred to as the unheimlich, or "un-homelike." And the students scribbled down notes in their writer's notebooks while he spoke. Were they listening? Heck yes! How do I know?

Today. I'm parked in front of my fireplace, laptop teetering on my knees as I enjoy my second snow day this week. My inbox is filling up by the minute with "So and So's Google Doc (Invitation to edit)." Story after story drops into my Google Drive folder. Students are spending their snow day writing, just like I am. What more could an English teacher ask for? Students have a "day off" and they are spending it as a "day on." They are writing and revising, using their mentor texts and advice from experts to craft clear narratives that employ the rhetorical strategies of Gothic literature. It has been an incredibly productive day off, if you ask me.

And me, well not only have I had time to write as well, but I already have my next connection planned. On Friday, my public speaking students and I will head over to our local assisted living center to interview elderly residents about their childhood for StoryCorps.  But that's for another blog post. Until then, we're keepin' it real.

Interested in my American Nightmares unit resources?  Find my unit materials HERE.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Slice of Life Blogging Challenge

March begins with a stutter start.

For the second week in a row, I will likely be out of school for multiple days. Last week, under a wet blanket of 10 inches of snow, we were out of school on Thursday and Friday.  I'm off today as a result of the piling snow, currently at about six inches with more still coming down.  I expect we will be out again tomorrow.

Usually, I am pressed for time to write.  Starting a new position this year - new state, new home, new school, new curriculum, and lots of new students - I have struggled to make time to blog.  So this stutter start to March - our multiple snow days - brings with it a welcome return to reflection through the annual Slice of Life blogging challenge issued by Two Writing Teachers.

The goal: blog. every. single. day. At least for the month of March.  I tried to do this in earnest last year, and I nearly made it. Okay, so I only had 14 entries in March of 2015.  But in 2014, I got a bit closer with 22 entries for the month and even had one of the entries published in the book Elevate Empathy. This year, I'm aiming for a perfect 31.

But what is this whole "slice of life" thing?  The blog challenge started with an inspired English teacher. Stacey Shubitz shared her experience about discovering "slice of life" writing while reading her students' writer's notebook entries:
"In February 2008, Stacey was reading one of her student’s writer’s notebooks and came across a piece of writing about his sister’s lost necklace. Christian wrote an entire entry about the outrage he felt when his mother made the family drop everything to search for his sister’s lost necklace in their apartment. Thirty minutes after they lifted up couch cushions and checked under all of the beds, her necklace turned up on her neck! There was something about his entry, this little snippet of Christian’s life. It seemed like a slice of life story. Stacey googled “slice of life” and found that it’s a term frequently used in literature and entertainment. It essentially means to describe everyday experiences with as much realism as possible. Stacey realized that was exactly the kind of entry Christian had written."
So the annual Slice of Life blogging challenge asks writers to share snippets of their every day, their ordinary, to write with details about a particular moment.

And so I am thankful for this stutter start to March. It is a much needed pause. Time to reflect.  Time to soak in and respond to the ordinary, the every day, and to capture a moment. Too often I am concerned about what is happening next, what is over the horizon. Today, I get to sit at my dining room table, watch the snow fall and birds flock to my feeder, and reinvest in my writing.

At least until the kids, who also have a snow day, burst through the back door in dripping wet snow pants and bright red cheeks come in search of cups of marshmallow-filled warmth. "I don't wanna get frost-nipped, Mom, so I neeeeed hot cocoa," my little one looks up at me with laughing eyes.

This blog is my hot-cocoa, my warmth. When I have felt out in the cold for too long, this is where I need to warm up, to write my way into understanding. So thank you, March, for this snow day stutter start.

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