Sunday, August 24, 2014

Free-Writing for Personal Growth

Much of my summer has been spent thinking about writing practices and how they can benefit our students and faculty. In preparation for the work I'll be doing this school year, I attended a weeklong workshop at Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking, met with colleagues to discuss projects and outline writing goals for our school, and reviewed various resources to help us achieve those goals. It was an incredibly pleasant surprise, then, to find that free-writing, a basic tenet of the practices we use in school, played a major role in the leadership retreat from which I've just returned. 

In preparation for the retreat I worked my way through several readings, including Primal Leadership by Daniel Golman et al, Change Leadership by Tony Wagner et al, and On Leadership from the Harvard Business Review. While we explored some of these materials via group discussions, unconference sessions, and partner-work, I was most struck by those moments in which we were asked to participate in focused free-writing using prompts inspired by the readings. 

For example, in Primal Leadership the authors encourage readers to envision their ideal self, 15 years from now. Our retreat leaders, George Swain and Marcy Mann, structured the exercise as a free-write using the following prompts:

In 15 years...
What will my personal theme be?
Not what I'm doing, but how I'm doing it?
How can I get myself ready for this?

Left with these guidelines, I began my focused free write, and found myself pretty surprised by where I ended up. I tried to let myself follow the same instructions I give my students - to simply write, to let my ideas guide me and take unexpected turns. When I began to write I felt unsure of my destination, but as I thought about the how of my ideal self in 15 years, I was able to focus in on areas of my professional life I don't normally examine as thoughtfully and deeply as I did with this writing practice. 

I experienced a similar sense of self-discovery through free-writing while addressing the question of why I chose to teach. The prompt, "I teach because..." was in part inspired by Simon Sinek's TEDtalk, Start With Why. I was struck by how much deeper I was able to dig into my feelings when given 15 minutes to write independently, as opposed to having to formulate my response immediately or out loud. 

In both cases, my writing took me from a superficial, obvious response - one formulated simply to be able to answer a question - towards a more considered, complicated view of myself and the work I do. The writing was difficult, challenging in a way I did not expect, but ultimately it provided the time and medium I needed to work through my ideas and feelings. While working with others provided excellent feedback and allowed me to see different points of view, I was reminded of the unique experience independent free writing provides for self-reflection and personal growth. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Exploring Digital Storytelling

I've just returned from a workshop on Writing Through Technology at Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking. Throughout the week we examined various methods of digital storytelling (video essays, podcasts, digital poems, blog posts enhanced with hypertext and media), and, of course, we were also tasked with creating our own piece of digital writing. Like many of my classmates, I spent a few hours on false starts as I explored different digital tools. I considered iMovie, but felt it would be too time consuming to use given the constraints of my English curriculum. Blogging and Tweeting were appealing options, but as my students and I already do quite a bit with those mediums, I put them aside in search of something that would be new to them and me.

As I thought back to my first year of associate teaching with Monica Edinger, I remembered a project she led in her 4th Grade classroom using ComicLife. It was easy to download a free trial of the app to my laptop, and even easier to sort through their modular and customizable templates, fonts, captions and word art. ComicLife allows users to incorporate a variety of images (personal photos, drawings, images from the web, snapshots from the laptop's camera) into the pages, and users can create text boxes and speech bubbles as they see fit. I based my comic book on a story I had written earlier in the week, and found myself surprised at how many 'writing skills' I relied on in order to tell a primarily visual story.

My hours spent in ComicLife reminded me that I need not always use pencil and paper (or word processing) in order to encourage my students to improve and refine their writing skills. Indeed, despite this being a digital project, I still spent quite a bit of mental energy on plot development, pacing, tone, organization, and language.

I'm already thinking about digital writing assignments I can use this fall. I think it will be difficult to move away from traditional writing as the first step, and indeed my ideas thus far use digital storytelling as a companion to more traditional writing. However, during the week at IWT we had great fun mapping out our ideas with storyboards (which students can fill out with writing or drawings), and those may be a happy compromise for my hesitancy to jump straight into writing through technology.

For those who are curious, my IWT project, Evocative Eels:




Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Middle School Author Visit: Monica Edinger

This year our 5th and 6th Graders welcomed Monica Edinger, children's book author, blogger, and 4th Grade teacher, for a book talk. Ms. Edinger spoke about her recent children's book, Africa is My Home, which was inspired by the her own experience in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. The story takes place in 1839, when a 9-year-old girl named Margru is taken captive in Sierra Leone and put on board the Amistad. After older slaves aboard the Amistad gain control of the ship, Edinger tells the story of Margru’s long journey home, enhancing her fictionalized narrative with primary sources like news clippings and engravings. As my 5th Graders were deep into their own Historical Fiction unit in Writers' Workshop, Ms. Edinger's visit was a perfectly timed treat. My students had been learning about Kenya, gathering historical details and developing composite characters, and listening to Ms. Edinger discuss her writing process, the research that went into her book, and her experiences working in the historical fiction genre were enlightening. As any writing teacher knows, it's always fantastic and inspiring when our students can hear from, and ask questions of, published authors. Since Ms. Edinger is a veteran educator, she was an absolute pro with our students, reminding them of the hard work and sweet rewards that come to dedicated writers! 

Figuratively Speaking

After their study of figurative language and literary devices, my 5th Graders began expertly incorporating simile, metaphor, hyperbole, onomatopoeia and alliteration into their writing. They've also become quite skilled at noticing when published authors use these devices, which adds a new layer of complexity to the annotations they make in class novels. A sample of a few strong (and entertaining!) examples written and illustrated by our 5th Graders:




Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Adventures With @5thGradeEnglish

Last year I introduced a class Twitter account to my 5th Graders, and while my students enjoyed the project very much, I had some hesitation about revisiting the project this year. I can't put my finger on what exactly what gave me pause about using Twitter in my classroom again, although I think it had something to do with doubting whether the experience was as 'valuable' as it was fun. I wondered if tweeting with my students was really a legitimate use of my English class time.

Well, I spent the last two weeks on spring vacation, and of course I found myself on Twitter quite a bit during that time. (When it comes to my personal/professional use of the social media platform, I am all-in!). I happened upon a #digcit chat in which several educators were sharing how they use Twitter with their students, and after a few tweets back and forth with them, I was recommitted to launching the project again this year.

Today, @5thGradeEnglish was dusted off, and I'm feeling more confident than ever that Twitter is an indispensable writing tool for students. Before getting down to business, I began by discussing the online safety and the importance of anonymity with my incredibly media savvy 5th Graders. We also reviewed what we knew about the platform itself - its advantages, limitations, and what makes Twitter different from other forms of social media.

Then, it was time to tweet! My students composed tweets sharing what we were learning about in English, as well as other interesting or fun things that had happened during the day. Watching them work collaboratively to compose a thoughtful, interesting tweet in 140 characters was inspiring. One student came up with the idea for a tweet, while another chimed in with a way to put that idea into writing. Still others tweaked the wording, added detail, improved our vocabulary choices. We chatted for a bit about what our goals were - what we hoped to convey to our audience with our tweets - and the students started editing and revising their 140 characters to try and hit just the right tone (in some cases a sense of respect, in others a feeling of good humor or irony).

We reflected on the process and together we shared the epiphany that the 10+ minutes we'd spent sending two tweets included all the characteristics of our longer writing projects. We brainstormed, wrote, edited, revised, looked for ways to add emotion and vivid imagery, and finally, published. After just one day of tweeting with my 5th Graders, I can't remember why I ever doubted the value and importance of using Twitter in the classroom!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Using Google Forms in the English Classroom

It's been a year and a half since I attended the Google Teacher Academy and became a Google Certified Teacher, and in that time I've incorporated lots of what I learned into my English classroom. My students and I use Chrome and Google Docs nearly every day, and have enjoyed exploring Google Hangouts, YouTube, and Chrome apps and extensions as often as we can. Google Forms, however, always felt like a tool meant for someone else. Though we certainly use forms at school (to take polls, register for clubs, provide feedback, etc.) I had trouble thinking of the role forms might play in my English classes, and so left them to the Math and Science teachers of the world.

All that changed when Megan Rose Ellis, a fellow Google Certified Teacher, tweeted about her English students' independent reading achievements.

Inspired by Megan and her awesome idea to have students fill out a form to log their independent reading, I started thinking about how forms might work for me and my 5th Graders. The above Twitter conversation is from December 2013, and roughly three months (and many email/Twitter troubleshooting sessions with Megan!) later, I find myself using forms with my students in ways I had never considered. 

My first experiment was a Reading Recommendation Form. I'm always thinking about how to motivate my more reluctant readers to read independently, and I thought a chance to suggest a title for our classroom library might be a fun way to get everyone bragging about and sharing their favorite books. 

My students loved being able to submit their personal recommendations, and we all loved that they could do so paperlessly. 

Next up I tried a vocabulary assignment using forms. In my English classes we annotate the novels we read, and while the students have become highly skilled at this, they sometimes need an extra reminder to actually go and look up the challenging vocabulary they've highlighted. For my first attempt, I assigned students specific chapters to reread and mine for juicy vocabulary words. They then filled out the below form: 

Their responses were fantastic, and because Google Forms automatically imports all results into a spreadsheet, I was able to sort the data to a) confirm that all my students had completed the assignment and b) to organize the vocabulary words by chapters. 

For our next novel, I plan to try the vocabulary assignment again, but rather than assigning them individual chapters, each student will submit the form once a week. 

My plan is to assign the form every Monday, and ask the students to collect five juicy or interesting vocabulary words from that week's reading to define and submit for homework. I'm not sure if this weekly form will be superior to the individual chapter assignments, but I'm hopeful it will. 

In general, I'm finding forms to be a great tool for my classes. They're easy for students to use and low-impact for teachers, as submissions are automatically organized and stored in my Drive. I can make a form using any combination of multiple choice, short answer, long answer, check box, or list questions. 

The main challenge I've come across so far is that the form spreadsheet (which is automatically generated when I create a form) grabs hold of every question I put on the form, even those I think better of and edit and/or remove. This means that the response spreadsheet includes columns for questions I've deleted from the form itself, questions which students who fill out the form will never see. An annoying flaw for sure, but not one that's insurmountable. More than anything, this little glitch has quickly forced me to be much more thoughtful and careful in planning out my forms, which overall is not a bad outcome. 




Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Stock Market Game - Interdisciplinary Project Based Learning




For the last several weeks, our 5th Graders have been successfully researching, buying, and selling stocks as they participate in The Stock Market Game. Under the guidance of their math teacher, our students have shown themselves to be savvy investors, and our teams have regularly placed in the top ten for our region.  This week, The Stock Market Game comes to 5th Grade English! The Game includes an essay contest component, and 5th Graders will use their developing writing skills to begin drafting their submissions. After deciding which of their stocks would make for a good long term investment, students will write persuasive essays, using concrete evidence from their research and trading experience to support their opinions. While they conduct research and gather evidence in Math class, the girls will work on planning out their essays, complete with strong topic sentences, supporting details and conclusions, in English. This collaboration between the two disciplines came about quite organically, and we're looking forward to seeing the results of this interdisciplinary unit of study.