Tag Archives: student voice

Every Child Matters and Sharing the Stories that Matter

residential-school-books-display_origEarlier this week we observed Orange Shirt Day at my school. Orange Shirt day is a day to recognize, remember, and reflect on the many Indigenous children who were taken away from their homes to live in residential schools. The residential school system has a dark legacy in Canada and the United States and the after effects still ripple through Indigenous communities today. In fact, the last residential school located in Saskatchewan did not close its doors until 1996 – a fact that is always shocking to my students when I share it with them.

The tagline of Orange Shirt Day is Every Child Matters and it is a tagline that has resonated with me as I participated in Orange Shirt Day, as we ran in the Terry Fox run as a school to raise money for cancer research, and as I plan with my student council for National Coming Out day on October 11th. While we promote the message that Every Child Matters and we hope our students feel that way as they leave our classrooms, the reality is that in the current world political climate and with the news stories our students are surrounded with each day, it is so easy for our female students, our LGBTQ students, our minority students, our refugee students, or any of our students who feel a little different to feel like they do not matter.

Last year I had the privilege of seeing author Thomas King speak at a conference. Thomas King is an American-Canadian First Nations author who has written numerous novels dealing with the First Nations experience. In his session, King was asked if he believed that story has the power to enact change in the world and his answer resonated with me. King answered that if you had asked him that question years ago, he would have answered with a firm yes, but now that he is older, he can not answer the same way. He was, like so many First Nations people, angry and fed up with the government’s inaction to follow through with promises they had made during the last election. He said that story is powerful, but often not enough and sometimes you just need to get angry and speak your mind. His final point was that if you are going to use story to change the world, you better find those voices that are strong, angry, and give voice to the voiceless because those are the stories with power.

King’s answer has stuck with me as I feel like too often I have used the empty platitude that “stories can change the world” with my students, but then I look at the stories they are being shared and the voices are often so heterogenous and not reflective of their voices and their concerns.

So, I have started a quest to diversify the stories I introduce to my students and to find those angry voices, those suppressed voices, and the voices that speak for them. In this post I will introduce you to a few of these powerful stories and will share others I discover in later blog posts.

The Inconvenient Indian: Thomas King

This powerful work is King’s reflection on what it means to be Native in modern North American. He discusses the historical events that have so impacted his people, but also ruminates on how popular culture has served to frame the narrative that many First Nations people are stuck in. King does not shy away from exploring the darker parts of history in this work, so it would be most suitable for Grades 10-12 students.

We Should All Be Feminists: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ngozi Adichie’s name may sound familiar. Perhaps you have seen her powerful TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story  (I love to use this TED talk to spark discussion about the missing voices), or have read her beautiful novel Half a Yellow Sun. Her work We Should All Be Feminists is a short piece, an extended essay, but it is an important exploration of the need for Feminism in the 21st century and how 21st century feminism must be one of inclusion and awareness. In fact, the Swedish government felt that this book held such an important voice for today’s youth that in 2015 they decided to give every 16 year old in their country a copy. We have used this book with Grades 8-12 students at our school and how found content accessible to all age levels in the range.

These are just two of many amazing books that share the voices and stories of people with powerful and important messages. Over the next few months, I will share some more I have come across and I would love it if you could share some of your own suggested titles in the comments below!

To read more about harnessing student voice in a time of political unrest and fear, check out Lisa Dennis’ powerful post.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is currently on a quest to help empower student voice through reading and writing and welcomes any suggestions you may have in regards to either.  Find Pam on Twitter @psmcmartin.

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Authenticity: Making it Real with Student Blogs

North Star of Texas Writing Project (NSTWP), in which I am a teacher consultant, asserts that authenticity is connecting student learning with significant audiences, tasks, and purposes.

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Blogging with my students is one way in which I make that connection happen. Writing posts and commenting on the work of our peers has become an integral part of my readers/writers workshop classroom.

photo: Petras Kudaras

During the second week of school, once schedule changes calm down a bit, I introduced the idea of blogging to my students. This year I wrote a post on my class blog and imbedded an article that made them see that blogging can have value to their futures. You can see that here.

I’ve had students use Edublogs as their blog platform in the past, and I know some teachers have their students use Kidblogs. I decided to go with WordPress this year. I thought using the “real world” blog platform would be a good idea. You know, just in case some students loved the idea and kept writing long after they leave my classroom. Finally, eight weeks into the school year, I am glad I went this route, but the set-up, especially with my 9th graders took a lot longer than I’ve had to spend in the past. (Most of my students are not as tech savvy as many technology advocates would like to believe. For more on that read this post:  Digital Novices vs Digital Natives.)

These are some ways I’m transforming my teaching by using student blogs this year (See this SAMR model for ideas on instructional transformation):

Timed Writing. I need students to be able to think quickly about a topic, organize their thoughts, and write effectively in a short period of time. Years ago I had students complete timed writings on paper with a pen, and I’d take the stack of essays home and laboriously grade them. By having students post to blogs, my classroom is getting close to being green. We do very little writing on paper anymore. I can read student posts with the swipe on my finger on my iPad, and I try to leave comments that inspire improvement in their writing. Sometimes I put the score from a rubric. Most times I say something I like about what students have written. They like that kind of feedback best, and it usually prompts some kind of improvement in their next post–something that rarely happened with the marks of my red pen.

For our first timed writing, students wrote about their reading lives. We spend 10 minutes at the beginning of each class period reading our self-selected books. I conference with each student, brief one-on-one chats. I learned more while reading student posts about their reading habits than I did in the prior eight weeks of school. I posted a reflection of my own reading life on my class blog with the actual assignment, and then students wrote on theirs. The response to our wide reading warmed my teacher heart. Read a few of these students’ posts, and you will see why: Helen–A Path Led by Wise Words; Gina–Lay Down the Bridges; Mian–A Passion for Books; Emilio–Reading Life

Our second timed writing, students wrote an argument in response to our in-class study of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” Some student posts were thoughtful and wise; most were ineffective and needed major revisions. All students wrote and showed what they’d learned from their reading and our class discussions.

Persuasive Practice. The AP Lang exam and the 10th grade STAAR test both require students to be effective persuasive writers. I like this blogger’s post:  Blogging is the New Persuasive Essay. As I teach my students how to use persuasive techniques, I also want them learning about their world. They have to know “stuff” to build their credibility after all. So every Monday my students write a post that they base upon something they read in the news. They scan headlines until they find a topic that interests them. Then they pull an idea from the article, and then they write an argument based on that idea. So far, we haven’t delved too deeply in the art of persuasion; we’ve talked mostly about form and structure and a few rhetorical devices, but some of my students have taken ownership of this weekly recurring assignment. Here’s a few to give you an idea:  Kathryn–Words Hurt; Ashley–Recycled Look or Recycled Lives; Jason–Smoking is Safer? Impossible; Adrian–Chemical Mistakes

Published Polished Pieces. As we move through different genres of writing, I need my students to fully immerse themselves in the process of creating effective and moving texts. We started the year with a focus on narrative. I know, it’s not on the AP exam or the STAAR test anymore. But story is so important. It’s what connects us as humans, and it’s story that has helped create a classroom community where students are not afraid to take risks and throw their hearts out on the page. While a few student narratives are not as polished as I would have liked prior to publication (grades being due always seems to interfere with authenticity), if you read just these three, you’ll see why story is important. I can be a better teacher to these PreAP students because of what I know from these posts. Esmeralda–Memories; Mercedes–What Do You Think About Moving? Bryanna–Why Batman?

I remember learning from Kelly Gallagher that students should write more than I can ever grade. Well, of all things in my teaching life, I’ve finally figured that one out the best. I cannot read every post my students write, but I can read a lot, and I can give a lot of feedback in a way that is meaningful so that students respond. We just started reading and leaving feedback for one another. I can already tell that this will be more valuable than just me giving feedback. After we spent two class days reading one another’s narrative posts, I had students tell me on their own narrative evaluations:  “I knew I could do better after I read other people’s.” For an example of our student feedback, read the comments on this one: Amy–Forever a Bye. The instruction I gave students was 1) Be polite but honest, 2) Bless something you think the writer did well, 3) Press a moment that needs more detail or description, 3) Address an issue of concern in regard to style, grammar, etc. For our first time, I’m proud of these students for the feedback they gave their friend.

Engaging student writers is often more than half the battle. So many times they have the attitutde “What’s in it for me?” By allowing students to choose their topics, and allowing them to express their true and authentic voices, I get better participation, and I get better writing, and I get to know the hearts and minds of my students.

That is all I ever really want.

photo: Dee Bamford

#NCTE13  Writing Teachers (Re)Inventing Literacy Instruction by Following the North Star

“Blog, blog, blog…that is all I ever hear.”

'student_ipad_school - 025' photo (c) 2012, Brad Flickinger - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

An Open Letter to Parents:

I have heard you have some questions about our student blogs and writing in my class. I hope this letter answers them.

Did you know that our classroom blog is each student’s portfolio of work, which includes all types of writing? It is a combination of digital journal and portfolio. So far this year, students have been given opportunities to write in many modes: expository, narrative, literary response, and personal reflection. In addition to the assigned writing tasks, I encourage students to write about topics that interest them. The growth I have seen in my student writers has been easy to measure, since so many of them have taken ownership of their blogs and write to their personal world-wide audiences.

This summer I attended a conference where Alan November, an international leader in educational technology, described the urgency teachers must take in changing practices that limit learning to one-year increments. Teachers must expand learning practices so students retain and build upon the knowledge they gain each year. This idea of expanding learning practices resonated within me because I have often found it frustrating that a student’s body of work is essentially not available to him for reflection, or continued study, after a given school year.

For my students, their blogs are a collection of their work. For some, this blog will become a place where they can explore and express complex ideas about our society, even after they leave my classroom. Research shows that bloggers are more prolific writers than their teenage counterparts who do not blog. Additionally, blogging allows for an authentic voice in student writing.

When a student writes for the teacher, as grader and sole audience, the writing is often contrived and trite. However, when we give students the opportunity to find an audience outside the walls of the classroom, they find their voices and their writing dramatically improves. In addition, the feedback students receive on their writing is not just from me, the teacher. The feedback may come from anyone who reads their posts, which makes the opportunity for connections to the real-world exciting for student writers. Just last month, a student elatedly read a comment on her blog from a pastor who said that her post gave him a refreshing view of heroism–a thought he would love to share with his congregation.

I received another bit of positive feedback recently. An author contacted me saying he was interested in publishing for his readers a visual literacy piece one of my students created about that author’s book. My student had posted this original piece on his blog. Again, feedback from our beyond-the-classroom audience.

In my classroom we do not “do blogging;” blogging is the medium students use to publish their work.

Many people, some personal friends of mine, have received book publication contracts simply from the body of work they have posted to their blogs. Why would I not encourage blogs as a place for students to publish their authentic work?

Still not convinced? Consider this: Blogging can be a great equalizer in a Digital Classroom.

The author is not struggling to physically form letters, and the reader is not struggling to read cramped handwriting. When students type, they are no longer judged by their penmanship. In addition, technology supports the author’s spelling. Without these limitations, students are judged by the depth of their ideas and the connections they make to their world and our society. Isn’t that the kind of thinking and learning we want?

Parents, please, I encourage you to frequently read your student’s blog. Share the link to your son or daughter’s blog with grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and all the important people in your child’s life. Imagine the kind of writing we can develop in our student writers if we show them we care about what they have to say. And, believe me, my students have a lot of good things to say.

Help me expand the Learning Community and comment on your child’s blog posts. The opportunities for growth are endless!

Respectfully,

Mrs. Cato

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