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Category Archives: Project Based Learning

Research in These Times

We all love those days when everything goes perfectly.  I’m not talking about getting your grading done and entered, sending all the emails you meant to send, or making sure you’ve made the requisite parent contacts.

I’m talking about days where your lesson planning paid off and the students engaged in a meaningful learning opportunity. Think about those days where the kids work bell to bell and it feels like all you did was confer with as many writers as possible (Amy wrote about the importance of conferences here). I’m slowing building toward a place where this happens more and more and it’s both exciting and rewarding.

Teacher Book Talk:

Maja Wilson’s book,  Reimagining Writing Assessment: From Scales to Stories, is introducing me the ideas of John Dewey, someone who’s thinking I need to know more about. Its also a well-written book with some amazing insight.

When talking about Dewey’s phrase, “growth in the right direction,” Maja suggests, “I have to be transparent about my primary aim: the healthy and sustainable growth of young writers within an inclusive and equal democracy.”

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….Um, wow.

 

Growing young writers….within an inclusive and equal…democracy.

 Lesson Talk:

Our English IV classes are investigating research through several modes this year.  We’ve read, talked about, and written: Letters to the Editor, Op Eds, Infographics, and now we are looking at TED Talks.

I wanted this exploration to be as pure to the workshop pedagogy as possible.  Instead of giving them an anchor chart or watching a TED Talk as a whole class, I asked them what they already knew about the medium and invited them to create a list of traits they looked for when consuming media.  Each class period was slightly different in what appealed to them and what they wanted to see in a TED Talk. Of course I guided them through this process of discovery, but one way I formatively assess them is by noticing what they already know and planning my lessons around filling in the blanks or extending their experience.

We laid the ground work of noticing by accessing our schema and I set them loose to seek out TED talks that appealed to their thinking.  The students engaged themselves in media that appealed to them.  They wrote about what they saw in their self-selected TED Talks that engaged the media as learners. I gave up control and gave them choice.

Of course, our forward looking thoughts aren’t just towards making us more savvy consumers of digital media.  Our thoughts should guide us toward being savvy producers of media as well.

 Growing young writers….within an inclusive and equal…democracy.

By late February, the seniors at my campus will produce a research project.  The fun part is that they will have choice in how they publish it.

I think the choices that we made as teachers are facilitating the, “sustainable growth of young writers within an inclusive and equal democracy.”  I’m proud of this work.  I’m also thankful for the teachers I have the pleasure of working with every single day.

How have others set free their students to explore their place in our democracy? What are other modes within which we can explore the research process?  Please share your successes; they are powerful.

Charles Moore has now totally lost control over his book spending habits. So much so that the cashiers at Barnes and Nobles don’t even ask for his teacher discount card and Amazon chose his house for their newest headquarters.  He loves the sound of a classroom full of readers and he likes to imagine word counts ticking higher as they hover above the students’ heads during reading time. His sometimes humourous musing can be viewed on his twitter page @ctcoach and his embarrasing short form poetry and, eventually, book recommendations are on instagram @mooreliteracy1

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What I Didn’t Teach This Year

The end of the year is upon us (finally!), and I’ve been reflecting as I always do.  This year, though, I’m thinking about something I’ve rarely considered before–not just what I taught, what worked, or what I want to do next year.  I’m thinking about all the things I didn’t teach this year.

There are 180 precious days in a school year, and the way my school is structured means I spend 90 days with each set of students.  That seems so fast.  There was no time to waste, so here’s what I didn’t fill that time with:

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As Sabra stepped up for her reading ladder picture, she said, “This is pretty good for someone who didn’t finish a book until your class!”

Whole class novels.  This was a controversial choice for me, given that I love so many authors of American literature–Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc.  But, no matter what novels I’ve chosen in the past, there’s always a student that book isn’t right for.  Fahrenheit 451, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, The Glass Castle, Maus–none of them is a perfect match for every child.  I’ve used a wide variety of strategies to get students to be able to read those books, and every ounce of passion I can muster to get them to want to read those books, but still–students have been conditioned to not read, to just get on SparkNotes, or ask an older sibling, or use Wikipedia.  When the stacks of matching novels come out, groans abound and engagement tangibly disappears.  I’ve seen this.  I’ve battled it.  No more.

So, I scratched whole class novels altogether.  Students worked in book club groups twice, and engaged in independent reading challenges two other times.  We read tons of short stories, articles, essays, and middle-length writings together.  But we didn’t read a single whole-class novel, and my readers still thrived.

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“I found myself as a reader this year,” Jordan writes.

Did my students grow as readers this year?  Yes.  I watched students who hated reading come to love it.  I watched students who couldn’t read well at all increase their stamina, passion, and skills related to reading.  I watched students who were good readers but bored with books fall in love with nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, or award winners as they discovered new genres.  I watched students who loved to read flourish and challenge themselves with complex texts and childhood favorites alike.  Most of all, I watched a community of real readers spring up in my classroom–students recommending books to one another, self-selecting books and keeping long to-read lists, telling me all about their finds at Barnes & Noble.  These readers have become truly independent.  “Now,” Taylor writes, “I think I can read anything that’s put in front of me…and enjoy it.”

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Isaac performs a poem for Nathan on poem-in-your-pocket day.

A movie.  As I’ve walked the halls this last week or so, I hear the unmistakeable sounds of cinema from behind closed classroom doors and darkened rooms.  I have no doubt that students are watching relevant films–movie adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in English, Forrest Gump in History, etc.  But this year, I felt I had absolutely no extra time…there was SO MUCH I wanted to do!  I used to love showing O Brother Where Art Thou with The Odyssey, and my students really delved into the symbolism of both texts.  But this year, my SmartBoard was full of YouTube videos, slam poets, or the still, quiet images of a document camera showing some writing.

I didn’t have time to show a movie, but I also wasn’t pressured by the crush of hours of grading that usually prompted me to show films in the past.  I’ve taken Kelly Gallagher’s rule about student work to heart–students should be doing four times as much reading and writing as we could ever grade.  So, I’ve read and responded to about a quarter of my students’ work, and let self-evaluations, peer conferences, and notebook passes do the rest.

Most of what I taught last year.  Last year was great, don’t get me wrong–but this year, my students were a new batch.  They’re different kids than last year’s group, so the same things won’t work for them.  After seven years in teaching, I know that.  I didn’t waste time trying to figure that out…I just started fresh.  I know I’ll do the same thing next year…out with the old, and in with the new.

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Shailyn read almost all of my YA fiction, and wrote reviews about nearly every book for our school newspaper.

Tests or formal essays.  Tom Romano likes to call the typical English essay a “five-paragraph you-know-what,” and it truly is a dirty little assignment.  At an NWP workshop I attended, each teacher was asked to bring some samples of student writing.  All around me emerged typed, double-spaced, Times New Roman, size 12, thesis-at-the-end-of-the-first-paragraph essays.  From my own bag came photocopies of messy scrawls in notebooks, multimedia This I Believes, strongly-voiced commentaries, poetic musings developed from quickwrites, and lengthy, involved, multigenre research papers.  No two pieces looked alike, and they certainly looked nothing like most other teachers’ samples.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a faint nostalgia for my own high school days, when I took pride in being able to punch out a perfectly formatted five paragraph essay in just under an hour, and which made absolutely no sense but looked great, and which constantly netted me As.  But I listened to my neighbors rant about poorly integrated in-text citations and incoherent thesis statements, I dismissed that nostalgia and read my own students’ work for what truly matters–good writing, heart and soul on a page, and authenticity at work.  As my husband said when he saw me dwarfed behind a pile of multigenre papers to grade, “I could read some of those for you.” “You wouldn’t know what to look for,” I said.

“Good writing is just good writing,” he replied, and he is right.  As the year ends, my students are good writers and good readers–not all of them are great, and there are kids I feel I could’ve pushed harder, but all are certainly better than they were when the year began.  I’ll look forward to our last day of class, when I’ll gift them each a new composition notebook and a pile of classroom library books to read over summer…and to months beyond, when I get to hear their stories of summer literacy in the fall.

Zombie Test Prep–Continued

I wish I could definitively say that I know my students performed better on STAAR because of the activities we did with this zombie project, but that would be a bit like being overconfident in surviving when 200 of the “Undead” are trying to eat my arm off. The English I Reading and Writing tests are hard–at least for my non-readers.

In response to several requests I received via Twitter. Here’s an outline of the project:

First, I did some backwards planning. What are the primary skills students need to master in order to achieve satisfactory scores on STAAR?

  • Write a literary essay with engaging characters, plot, theme, etc

  • Write an expository essay with a strong thesis, good organization, solid supporting details, etc.

  • Respond to reading–literary, expository, poetry, etc.–in paragraph form with embedded textual evidence

  • Read critically and answer questions about content, text structures, author’s purpose, etc.

No Sweat! Well, actually, a lot of sweat, tears, blood. . . Well, not blood. Not really. But I worry about my students A LOT. They come from homes in poverty with hard-working parents. By and large, they are sweet, good-hearted teens. But– they do not read, and this one thing impacts their learning in pretty much every aspect of my English class.

Thus, Z O M B I E S. I can hopefully get them interesting in the reading, which will hopefully get them interested in the learning.

I set the project up like PBL, but since I have limited training in how to actually carry out a PBL project, and my students have no experience with the requirements of this student-centered approach, which requires strong student leadership, the PBL part of the project was the first victim of our zombie attack. PBL lingered but it didn’t take an active part of the learning process. My students were too needy, and I felt rushed for time.

Introduction:  Entry Document/s

Part I. Silent Discussion. In my last post I shared the Intro to Zombie Project I used first  to spark student thinking about the project.  After students watched the video, they completed a Poster Activity (strategy idea from Bob Probst) where I gave them each a colored marker, and on each table I put a poster-size paper. I told students that they must use their marker to think on the paper. What things did you see in the video that you think you will be required to do in this project? Students wrote their thoughts in a silent discussion for about 15 minutes, and I circled the room, reading their comments and writing comments and questions to promote more thinking on their posters.

Part II. Memorandum. Next, I gave each student a copy of Zombie Apocalypse entry doc. They had to read it, and then I gave them time to talk with their table mates about their thinking. I gave each group a sheet of paper. On the paper, I had them make a T-chart. On the left they wrote what they KNOW about the project, based on their reading of the memo and the video; on the right they wrote what they NEED to KNOW. Finally, we had whole class discussion, and students helped me complete a class KNOW/ NEED to KNOW chart that stayed posted on the wall throughout the project.

[This intro worked better than I could have imaged. We did it on a day I happened to have a group observe my classroom: Student engagement high. Evidence of student thinking high. Collaboration high. Literacy in action high. Higher-level questioning high.]

Reading and Writing 

Part III. Self-Selected Reading, Throughout the year I’ve required students to read books of their choosing. If you’ve read other posts, or seen Reel Reading on Fridays, you know I talk YA books incessantly. In an attempt to get students to read something that might tie into the texts and topics we were talking about in class, I wanted to bring in as many books about zombies as possible.

I turned to my Twitter PLN first, and with their help, I build this Zombie shelf at Goodreads.com. I hit the bookstore and spent way too much money on books for my classroom library. Then asked the awesome librarians at my school to pull all the books they had that dealt with zombies. They gave me about 45 titles that I book talked with my kids. The first book to go? World War Z. I had two copies and had to start a waiting list for checkout. Personally, I read the first two books in the Rot and Ruin  series by Jonathan Maberry. Good, gory books. Too thick and intimidating for my kids though.

I didn’t care if students read a book about zombies. I just really wanted them reading something. If I do this project again though, I think I would like them all to be reading a book that ties in thematically. I have to think about this more.

Part IV. Expository Reading to Become Better Expository Writers. Expository is a big umbrella, but the state of Texas defines it as INFORMATIONAL. Our students must write an explanation of a topic, using a clear and organized structure and evidence to clarify their points and support their explanation. Essays only have to be 26 lines handwritten, or about 300 words typed. It sounds easier than it is–especially for non-readers.

Students also have to be able to answer short answer reading questions. I kind of hate that we call these short answers–they are really essay questions that require essay responses. You know, with embedded text evidence: Quote something, analyze it, make your response a complete paragraph? Again, it sounds easy, but for my students it is the most difficult thing. Ever.

I know that before I can get students to focus on the writing skill. I have to get them interested in the reading passage. I struck zombie gold when I typed “zombie” and “Valentine’s” into Google. Here’s a sampling of the articles and the questions my students answered to practice writing short answer responses.

Zombie Valentine expository articleSAQ with Zombie Valentine article

SAQ Test- What Rhymes with Undead

We also read the introduction to SAQ Zombies vs Unicorns and practiced short answers. (These folks are serious and even have a Facebook page.)

News Articles. Most of my students have no idea what is going on outside of their own communities. I try to bring news of the world to them as often, and in any way, I can. To prepare them for their expository essay on STAAR, I wanted to expose them to as many types of expository writing, and as many topics in the news that I could. So, under the guise of “You are the survivors of this zombie apocalypse  What would people 100 years from now what to know about your civilization?” I had students look up news articles, practice writing summaries, and explain.

Part V. Literary Writing. Another part of the Texas STAAR test for English I is a literary essay. Students are given a prompt, and they must write a little story that shows evidence of their understanding and ability to develop characters, conflict, plot, setting, and theme. Here’s the Literary Story- Zombie Project we used for our project. If you’d like student essay samples, let me know.

Part VI. Poetry. Finally, although students do not have to write poems for their STAAR test, they might have to read and analyze it. We had already read many poems in class, so for this project, I really wanted students to just play with word choice. Most did a zombie-like job on their poems. Plagiarism 5 times. Way below grade level work at least a 100 others. Here’s a sampling of Zombie poems. I especially like a few of the blackout poems:

the helpless

are able

to

be

a little daring

Rubric and Reflection

If I ever do this project again, I will allow for more creative time in class. Most of my students rarely do homework, so if I don’t capture the time I have them, I rarely see work once students leave the room. Most groups did not pay attention to the Zombie Project Rubric. They focused on one area much more than they focused on others. For example, I had one group that did a sensational job on the items in their survival backpack, but they did not take the time to write engaging stories or read and evaluate news articles. Therefore, their overall grade was low. A lot of this was my fault for not allowing equal time in class for each part of the project.

As our final event, the day after our second STAAR test, we watched the first episode of “The Walking Dead.” I wished that the movie “Warm Bodies” was on DVD because that would have been a great lead into our next unit:  Romeo and Juliet. It’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s play, you know? Check out this video for a fun re-mix:

Do you have any ideas for Zombie test prep? I’d love to add your resources to my growing file. Who knew zombies could be so . . . well, alive?

Stealing Second Base

Guest Post by Melanie Gonzales

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“Progress always involves risk; you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first,” said Frederick Wilcox.  This quote spoke to me this week as I reflected on my role as Liaison, our Professional Development conversations, and the new season for the Rangers.

Taking the job as liaison was a risk. The role of the liaison is to support the work of the principal in improving instruction in every classroom, through coaching, consulting, collaborating, and co-teaching with teachers as well as to align professional learning with district and school goals. In order to take on this role, I had to leave my comfortable team, my comfort zone in teaching a grade level that I had been teaching for a long period of time, and a school that I have been at for more than a decade.  Has it been challenging? Yes! Has it been rewarding? Yes!  I was comforted at our last get together that we went over the research on change.  William Bridges’ “transitions of change” and Michael Fullan’s “implementation dip” assured me that it is normal to grieve an ending and maybe feel some discomfort as I move toward the new beginning.  It is normal to feel some disillusionment before finding rejuvenation.

I am also asking teachers to take risks.  This might involve letting go of a much-loved unit because it no longer matches the learners of today.  This might be trying new technology.  This might mean teaching in a new way.

If I want my teachers to take risks, I must model risk taking myself.  Recently, I used Nearpod in addition to a PowerPoint presentation that I had planned for my staff.  Of course I was a little nervous because I had never used it before.  I learned about Nearpod at the last “Appy Hour” hosted by GCISD digital coach, Sarra Smith.  What I loved was how the app allows participants or students to have their very own interactive presentation on their own iPad screen. It was very effective.  For my presentation, We used the app to view images, and to gain clarity about the design of our work.  We also used it to interact by taking a quiz to formatively assess how we plan and to poll the staff about the most important elements of PBL they wanted to discuss in our faculty discussion session at the end of the morning.  Yes, there were a few tense moments when loading took longer than anticipated and the transition between two of the slides did not work at first, but I feel that when the staff saw me taking risks and having my own uncomfortable moments, I became more “real” in their eyes.  I am not the “one who knows all”, or the expert, or the evaluator, but someone is who learning and taking risks right along side each of them.  I might just steal third base next.

I don’t know where the Rangers are heading this season, but it looks hopeful.  I am also optimistic about the new risks my teachers will take as I continue to create an environment where it is OK to steal second base.

What makes risk taking so difficult?  How can we support each other to take more risks?

Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class John Collins / Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

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