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."  

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Digital Storytelling: Comic Life

Last summer I blogged about my experiences exploring digital storytelling at a Bard IWT workshop. Many months later, I've finally had the opportunity to use some of the ideas generated from that workshop in my 5th Grade English classroom. Using ComicLife, my students are creating comics that feature the protagonists of some of the novels we've read so far this school year, and I feel absolutely giddy with excitement over the progress they've made in just a few class periods.

The first step of this project was to write scripts of conversations between 2-3 fictional characters (Esperanza from Esperanza Rising, Parvana from The Breadwinner, and Serafina from Serafina's Promise). As a class, we brainstormed various topics of conversation these characters might have (i.e. what are their shared experiences, where might they cross paths as young adults or even grown ups, what would their interests be) and then I gave my students time to plan out their settings, plots, and conversations. 

Once first draft writing was complete, I asked students to pick two settings or backgrounds for their scripts, which they then drew on paper. In order to appeal to a variety of artistic sensibilities, I invited them to draw by hand, print images from the internet, or combine both mediums to create a collaged background. The results were stellar, and I've spent the past week walking around my classroom completely full of awe and excitement over this project. 

As students finished their backgrounds, their next step was to create characters to place in the scenes. We settled on referring to these characters as paper dolls, as they were static figures but could be enhanced with various accessories and expressions. The paper dolls could be as simple or elaborate as each student desired, and we had great fun exploring how easy it is to turn a basic stick figure into a character full of personality and attitude. 


With scripts, settings, and characters ready to go, students then began using Comic Life, an absolutely incredible app available across multiple platforms. We worked on iPads, but I know from experience that Comic Life is just as user friendly on tablets as it is on the web interface. After I showed one of my sections a brief (extremely brief!) tutorial on how to use Comic Life, I decided that for the remaining sections I'd let them take a problem solving approach to the app. I demonstrated only how to create, name, and save a new file, then let my 5th Graders figure out how to change graphics and color schemes, resize frames and images, and play with photo filters. It was, of course, no surprise that they quickly became Comic Life experts, occasionally coming to me for more nuanced problems but primarily helping one another solve problems. 



As they moved their characters through scenes and added speech bubbles to incorporate dialogue, students recognized that they were relying on some of the knowledge they gained during a previous stop-motion animation project to help plan out scenes and move their stories forward. I wondered if the connections between digital and traditional storytelling would also be apparent to my students, who frequently came to ask me if it was OK to change something from their original script in order to fit the parameters of this new medium. This proved to be an excellent opportunity for me to remind them that they make changes to their written work all the time, and we call that drafting, editing, or revising. Thought they're currently working in a digital format, they're still relying on the traditional writing process of collecting ideas, drafting a story, revising and editing that story, and ultimately publishing a final product. 

Final comics should be completed next week, and I'll post some of them here then! 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Independent Reading Projects

Most English teachers spend a fair amount of time thinking of ways to encourage students to read independently. I am fortunate in that the vast majority of my students are eager readers, so it takes little convincing to get them engaged with a new novel. I start all of my English classes with 10 minutes of D.E.A.R. (Drop Everything and Read), and this year introduced Independent Reading Projects as part of my curriculum.

To develop the assignment linked above, I first consulted with colleagues and poked around the internet looking for a variety of book projects my students could complete without too much adult assistance. I then focused on narrowing down the choices so that I had something that would appeal to everyone. I included traditional writing projects like imagining the sequel or crafting a poetry chapbook, visual and digital projects such as book trailers and comic strips, and a character monologue, which taps into both writing and performance skills.

My students were wary at first ("We're doing this all by ourselves? At home?") and we had many, many discussions about how they would manage their time. But soon, the initial anxiety gave way to excitement about working on a book project that they chose themselves. The final results were fantastic - clever, entertaining, and truly representative of my students' and their personal styles.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Setting a Default Font in Google Drive

Last week, in an effort to figure out a way to set a default font in Google Drive, I started pinging my PLN on Twitter. As a fan of serif fonts (I'm partial to Cambria), I found it frustrating to have to change every new document from the preset Ariel, and knew there had to be a better way. Cue Jonathan Rochelle and Alice Keeler, who immediately replied to my tweet with helpful advice. Indeed, there is a way to set a default font in Google Drive, and I direct you to Alice's excellent post for a tutorial on doing just that. At the risk of being dramatic, I find this new knowledge life changing!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

For Teachers, Doesn't New Year's Eve Come in September?

Every now and then I'm reminded that my entire life has run on a school calendar. Like most of my peers, I've spent the majority of my life as a student: After graduating high school I went straight to college, followed by graduate school. But unlike many others in my age group, when my tenure as a student ended, my life as a teacher began. Perhaps because of this, when I say "next year" I am almost always referring to the following September, when my school year begins anew. December 31st have never been the time for resolutions and goal setting, as these things happen for me in July and August, as I prepare to return to a new school year. If New Year's Eve reminds me of anything, it's that the start of January signals the end of winter break, the return to my classroom and my students. Of course, I am aware of my sense of time being skewed, as I live and socialize with many folks who are not in the teaching profession, for whom January 1st truly does feel like the start of something new. I wonder if other teachers share my perspective on this. Just how skewed is my sense of time?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

In November by Cynthia Rylant

Each November, on the last day before Thanksgiving break, my school holds our annual Thanksgiving Assembly. Students, faculty, and administrators in grades K-12 gather together to share in some of our community's favorite holiday traditions, a highlight of which is the kindergartners singing "The Turkey Song," replete with turkey costumes. A student from each division is chosen to share a reading with the community, and for the past few years I have been responsible for picking both the student and the text for my division. While choosing one middle school student to represent us at the assembly is always a daunting task, I have found it considerably easier to pick the words she will read.

In November is a gorgeous picture book written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Jill Kastner. Rylant's writing is simple, poetic, and deliciously vivid, which has made this book a favored read-aloud during my 5th Grade memoir writing project. When I was first asked to help with our Thanksgiving Assembly, my mind immediately rushed to Rylant's lovely lines, which are imbued with a sense of peace and calm and love. I have yet to come across a more beautiful reading for this time of year.

In November
Cynthia Rylant 

In November, the earth is growing quiet. It is making its bed, a winter bed for flowers and small creatures. The bed is white and silent, and much life can hide beneath its blankets.

In November the trees are standing all sticks and bones. Without their leaves, how lovely they are, spreading their arms like dancers. They know it is time to be still.

In November, some birds move away and some birds stay. The air is full of good-byes and well-wishes. The birds that are leaving look very serious. No silly spring chirping now. They have long journeys and must watch where they are going.

The staying birds are serious too, for cold times lie ahead. Hard times. All berries will be treasures. In November, animals sleep more. The air is chilly and they shiver. Cats pile up in the corners of barns. Mice pile up under logs. Bees pile up in deep, earthy holes. And dogs lie before the fire.

In November, the smell of food is different. It is an orange smell. A squash and pumpkin smell. It tastes like cinnamon and can fill up a house in the morning, can pull everyone from bed in a fog. Food is better in November than any other time of year.

In November, people are good to each other. They carry pies to each other’s homes and talk by crackling woodstoves, sipping mellow cider.  They travel very far on a special November day just to share a meal with one another and to give thanks for their many blessings – for the food on their tables and the babies in their arms. And then they travel home.


In November, at winter’s gate, the stars are brittle. The sun is a sometime friend. And the world has tucked her children in, with a kiss on their heads, till spring.