Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Mindfulness Meditation in Middle School

This past June faculty at my school were treated to a presentation on mindfulness, and much of what we learned in that hour really resonated with me. I made it one of my summer projects to learn more about mindfulness and mindfulness meditations, and discovered quite a few apps and articles that inspired me to pursue the idea further. Throughout my summer vacation I found myself using these guided meditations to clear my mind or relax before bed, and it was immediately clear that there might be a way to incorporate them into my classroom. 

Last week I told my 5th Graders we would occasionally do a mindfulness practice, and many were already familiar with what this meant, eager to share their own examples from home. For our first meditation I used my favorite mindfulness app, Stop, Breathe & Think by Tools for Peace. I told my students they could sit at their desks or lay down somewhere else in the room, and while some stayed seated many chose to lean against a bookcase or stretch out on their desks or on the floor. I was impressed with how quickly these nine and ten year olds engaged with the quiet, introspective work of mindfulness. There were a few giggles to begin with, but a gentle reminder that they were disrupting the calm was all it took, and a minute in the room was silent and peaceful. 

At the end of that first, short meditation, many of my students said their bodies felt relaxed or their minds calm, and I was delighted today when a few of them asked to do another meditation and the rest chimed in with enthusiastic agreement. One of my favorite things about doing these practices with my class is that I, like them, get the chance to breathe deeply and refocus my mind in the middle of a busy day. It really feels like a critical part of our day - a chance to incorporate some wellness and self-care into our school experience. 

In addition to continuing this practice with my homeroom, I'd also like to explore using Stop, Breathe & Think's "Mindful Breathing" meditation (which comes in 3, 5, 10 or 20 minute versions) as a pre-writing exercise in my English classes. More on that once I've had a chance to try it out, though this article from the Atlantic leaves me feeling confident it will be valuable for my students! 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Yarn Podcast - A Must-Listen for Educators, Readers, and Fans of Graphic Novels

Those of you who already follow #kidlit Twitter stars like Colby Sharp, Travis Jonker, or Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller have probably already binged on The Yarn, a new podcast from Sharp and Jonker which made its debut this August. The Yarn followed the genesis of Sunny Side Up, the newest graphic novel from brother/sister team Jenni Holm and Matt Holm, of Baby Mouse fame. I don't know that I've ever written a first paragraph so full of links, but it is fitting that a brief write-up of The Yarn would be jam-packed with them, given that the podcast itself was incredibly rich and managed to fill each of its seven episodes with big names and delightful details of YA literature. 

After an introductory episode explaining the premise of their podcast, Sharp and Jonker jumped right into their interviews, starting with graphic novel celebrity Raina Telgemeier. Telgemeier's books are perennial favorites in my 5th Grade classroom library, and to date they are the only books which prompted students to create a rogue checkout system in order to minimize the wait time for Smile, Drama and Sisters. Much like her books, Telgemeier's interview was captivating and immediately had me (and many others, judging by my Twitter feed) hooked on The Yarn. Subsequent episodes were equally enchanting. From interviews with Sunny Side Up's publishing team, cover artists, and colorists, to the final episodes in which we heard from the author and illustrator themselves, every episode of this podcast was a must-listen. I found myself thinking about the genesis of some of my favorite YA lit in a brand new way, and as someone who loves knowing "how things work," I was fascinated to hear the process of publishing Sunny Side Up dissected and approached from every angle. 

Upon the release of the final episode, Sharp and Jonker tweeted out a link to their Kickstarter, which they hoped would fund a second season of The Yarn. It came as no surprise to any of us on Twitter who were eagerly tweeting about this podcast that the Kickstarter campaign reached its goal within 24 hours. With 22 days left, the campaign has nearly doubled that goal, which leaves fans like me hoping that Sharp and Jonker will be making Seasons 2 and 3 of The Yarn. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

The CARLE Institute: Critical Analysis of Race and Learning in Education

In early July I had the good fortune to attend the week long CARLE Institute, a program designed for white educators in the independent school system. In the words of the program's founders "The CARLE Institute for White Educators in Independent Schools is structured to give white faculty members the necessary historical framework, interpersonal skills, and curriculum development strategies they need to teach a diverse student body."

I was not exactly sure what to expect from CARLE, although I was struggling with what my role as a white woman ought to be in my school's diversity/inclusivity work, and CARLE seemed like a good place to explore this. On the first day we heard from many attendees who said they came to CARLE because of colleagues who had deemed the previous summer's workshop, "life changing." High praise indeed, but, as I came to learn over the course of four intense days of work, "life changing" was indeed an accurate descriptor for the institute.

I am still working through all that I learned at CARLE, so rather than blog a complete account of the program, I'm instead putting down a few of the important concepts I have been ruminating on for the last few weeks:

  • White Privilege: I have begun to notice that I've started to see the world through the lens of the white privilege I have always been afforded, and have always been able to ignore. This is perhaps one of the fundamental lesson of CARLE: As white educators, we have the luxury of ignoring our race, but also the responsibility to recognize our privilege, understand our history, and do the work of forwarding anti-racism*.
  • Race as a Social Construct: Margery Freeman of The People’s Institute spoke about how race is not based in science or DNA, but rather is a specious construct, a classification system designed to put white people at the top of the pyramid under the guise of “scientific” evidence. This history was new to me, and something I feel eager to make others aware of. It’s a hole in so many of our educational experiences and one that is important for us and our students to be aware of. For those who want to know more about the history of race as a social construct, "Race: The Power of an Illusion" by California Newsreel is a good resource.
  • Intent vs Impact:  A great emphasis was placed on understanding that good intentions do not negate the impact of our words and actions. A well-developed sense of identity as a white person, along with a strong understanding of the power and privilege that comes along with that identity, is necessary for us to teach our students about what it means for them to grow up in this country. Good intentions are not enough - we must act purposefully and consider the impact of our intentions.
  • Organizing: In a powerful session on white racial identity development, Elizabeth Denevi said, “You have to be rooted in your own identity in order to understand the identity of others.” Schools cannot rely on the people of color in their community to do this work alone, and so it’s critical that we engage as many of our white faculty members as we can in the process of developing an understanding of white racial identity and privilege among our students and faculty. Seeing race is not racism, nor is racial colorblindness a solution to the problem of racism.

I cannot overemphasize the value of the CARLE Institute. I highly encourage white independent school educators to seek out the organizers of this program. 

*Anti-racism was a new term for me. I had never come across it before my work with CARLE. While I am hesitant to link to the wikipedia definition, I found the site to be preferable to many others on the internet. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Animating Poetry Using Scratch

I knew I wanted to end the year with a digital storytelling project, and had a vision in my mind of students making short animations to accompany their poetry. I struggled to find the right tool for this idea, but Erik Nauman, my truly amazing colleague in our EdTech department, realized that Scratch would be ideal for what I had in mind. He quickly created a model animation to show my students, and after a few short conversations about lesson planning, we were ready to begin!

Erik led the students through a short tutorial on using Scratch, focused mainly on adding backdrops, sprites, and simple animation. While Scratch has been a challenge for me to wrap my mind around (I'm getting better, but s l o w l y), my 5th Graders were fearless as they explored, experimented, and problem solved using the programming language.

They came up with endlessly clever ways to visually represent their poetry, and used what Erik had taught them to build more complex blocks of code. We spent about 2.5 class periods on this project, and in that short time they discovered how to draw their own sprites, import images from the web, and not only make their sprites appear and hide, but glide as well.

The final results are incredibly sweet and simple short animations (between 10-15 seconds long) of original student poetry.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Color Poems on Twitter (#clrpoem)

In previous years I have introduced my students to social media via a classroom Twitter account, but did not expect to use the platform this year. However, in early April a prized member of my PLN, fellow Google Certified Teacher Linda Yollis, invited me and my class to participate in a Twitter Color Poem project. Linda and I have collaborated digitally before, and I was excited to connect our classes once again.

I decided to give it a go by introducing Twitter through the #clrpoem project. We would start with red and see if my students showed enough interest to make it through the rainbow.

While interest in Twitter and the project varied from one student to the next, I did have one class section who immediately latched onto the idea. They were eager to participate, each week asking me if we could start class with Twitter poems. By the time we made it to blue and purple, these students were emailing me scads of potential images to use for our poems. Though we completed purple last week, they want to continue with rainbow, black, white, and brown poems before we wrap up our school year. Given how much they're enjoying Twitter, and how they've started to learn work with hashtags and write well within the confines of a character limit, it seems that the project is not over for us just yet! 

In addition to being a great extension of our April/May poetry study, the Twitter #clrpoem project turned out to be a small but effective way to incorporate some digital citizenship lessons into my classroom, as my students learned about how to represent themselves online, how to use Twitter, and even had the chance to interact via the platform with Linda's class. Thank you, Linda, for the invitation and inspiration. For a broader wrap-up of the Twitter #clrpoem project, visit Linda's blog


Monday, May 18, 2015

Writing in the Zones

This week I used a new Writing to Learn practice with my students: Writing in the Zones. I first encountered the practice at Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking, and with a bit of guidance from Carley Moore I was able to adapt it into a 5th Grade friendly writing activity. In it's original form Writing in the Zones is already quite accessible to writers of all ages, as it involves dividing a large sheet of paper into several sections, each of which is filled with the response to a specific prompt about a single text. The practice is fast-paced, relies on writing and drawing, and involves peer feedback, which makes it an ideal activity for students.

I used Writing in the Zones as a way for my students to reflect back on the novel we had just completed in class. However, it is a writing practice that can be used with texts of any length, so long as they are complex and meaty enough for students to sink their teeth into. As we're at the end of our school year and running out of time for larger assignments, Writing in the Zones was a perfect final 'project', but it can also serve as a pre-writing assignment that leads to essays, papers, or even poems.

After we completed our 'zones,' I asked my students why this was a valuable experience. A sampling of their responses:

"It made me think about the book in a different way. I paid closer attention to specific words or poems when I was writing about them." 

"It felt like we were taking notes on the book, like we were preparing for an essay."

"I liked getting to express my feelings about the book and getting to read other points of view."

"All of my annotations in the book made Writing in the Zones much easier. I liked being able to look back and find my notes to use for my writing."

"This was like a bunch of different mini writing assignments all at once." 

"I liked that each zone was different. Some were harder than others." 

"This assignment was a chance to ask questions to the book, express my curiosity and explore how I felt about it." 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Digital Storytelling - The Results!

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a new digital storytelling project I was working on in 5th Grade English. My students wrapped up their comics last week, and I wanted to share some of the results here. First, a few screenshots of their final projects, made using Comic Life. I was really impressed with how my students used a combination of hand drawn and printed backgrounds to achieve dimensionality and depth, and how some of them took advantage of Comic Life's thought bubbles to add complexity to their storytelling:

A few days after they published their comics, I asked my students to do a little reflective writing about the process of telling a story digitally. Below, some of their insights into how digital storytelling compares to more traditional forms of writing. I loved seeing them make connections between the two forms:

"The process of writing my comic was similar to a more traditional writing assignment because it still told a story. When I have written all of my other assignments they have all had to tell a story. It was different using Comic Life because I didn't have to include what the characters were doing and who was talking. The pictures did that for me."

"I liked how I still told a story with dialogue and characters, but I also got to use pictures to give a better idea about who was saying what to who and what the characters looked like. But, traditional writing gives me more imaginative freedom." 

"The process of writing the comic was quite similar to traditional writing. I still had to edit, proofread, create a draft, and change the comic significantly from the beginning to the final draft." 

"For both assignments I needed to tell a story. A traditional writing assignment is a story in paragraphs, and a comic is still the same story but broken down into small bits of dialogue. There still has to be a beginning, middle, and end. I still have to be creative. Some people might think a writing assignment is harder than a comic, that a comic is just random words put together to make a dialogue. But you need to dig deep and put yourself in the characters' shoes to have an actual comic."