The Power of Student Blogging: A Simple Reflection

My 8th grade students recently finished editorials.  Throughout the process, I had told them that these editorials would also serve as their first posts on our class blog.  After multiple drafts and a great deal of effort, students have begun to excitedly post their work, eager for feedback.  Today,  I had students reflect on what they learned about their writing process from the assignment.  If people still wonder whether or not their students should be blogging, I offer this comment from a student’s reflection:

“At times in my writing, I felt like giving up, but then I’d remember we were posting on our blogs and I became excited.”

The writing got hard, but she persisted.  Why? She knew her voice would be heard.  The power of an audience of many.

Student Choice Doubters – Read On.

There always seems to be debate amongst educators regarding how much choice students should have in their own education.  And although there has been plenty of research done by both psychologists and educators regarding how important choice to both  learning and motivation – Thank you, Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink! – there still remains doubters.  I’d thought I’d share three stories that have occurred to me recently that made me once again appreciate how important choice is not only for students but also for their teachers.

  •  An “Un-conference”:  I am a member of my school’s vision steering committee and one of our main purposes is to help plan and offer faculty professional development that will both inspire and move us forward as we delve deeper into PBL and begin using a block schedule.  Knowing that in the past, teachers have had little, if any, say in what would happen on these days, our committee thought we would shake it up a bit by using the un-conference model. An un-conference, as its name suggests, is not a typical PD experience.  Instead of having pre-determined sessions and speakers, the day is created by those in attendance.  Individuals share topics of interest  and the schedule is created from this list of ideas.  (My colleague Dana Huff gives a great overview of our process on her blog if you are interested in how we ran this.)  In a nutshell, our faculty members had a significant amount of choice what types of sessions they would partake in. As a result, people seemed genuinely more engaged in the process, those who tend to be more reluctant to participate had strong voices, and I can speak from personal experience to say that I found it energizing and inspiring to discuss ideas that I found important with colleagues who felt the same way.  My discussions would also immediately have an impact on my teaching.  Most of us as teachers have sat through uninspiring PD.  Many of us may have only gotten through these experiences by checking email or playing Words with Friends.   Neither helps our students.  What does help?  Giving faculty members some choice over their own growth and trusting that what they will choose will be worth it.
  • Adopting independent reading: I had the privilege to participate in a week-long internship at The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a school in Maine founded by Nancie Atwell, where I observed how to run a reading and writing workshop.  One of Atwell’s philosophies that is evident throughout the school and in any of her writing is the importance of choice in both reading and writing.  Students at the school have almost complete authority in choosing what they read.  In the middle school, where I spent most of my time, there are no class reads; reading skills are developed primarily through choice books and reading conferences.  At first I challenged this idea as I do see the value in having an entire class read the same book and think the discussion that results from doing so is important, I quickly changed my viewpoint.  The students there were incredibly well-spoken, had astounding analytical ability, and most importantly, loved reading.  And though I will not be giving up my class reads, I very quickly realized that I had to figure out how to also get my students to read books of their own choosing.  Though I had always encouraged my students to read on their own, I never required it, and their reading was dwindling. Using the CTL model, I  now expect my students to read for 20 minutes each night in addition to the 45 minute period we spend reading and conferencing in class once a week.  The catch?  They could only read books they found enjoyable.  Although at first some students balked at the idea, proclaiming that 20 minutes every day was far too much, it has not taken long to completely win them over.  My proof occurred this Tuesday, our first day back from a long winter break. As I walked up the stairs to my class, I realized my students were already present, so I got ready to settle them down, expecting them to all be conversing about their time off. Imagine my surprise when I see every student in the class frantically recording all the books they read over winter break into their reading log, proud of their achievement and eager to share their accomplishments. Not only did this happen in my first class but also my second.  Every student, even my most reluctant readers, finished at least one book.  One student finished as many as eight.  Books ranged from the latest John Green to a Tom Clancy thriller to Animal Farm.  Not only are they choosing books that are enjoyable but they are also picking ones with high literary merit.  During our combined reading workshop the following day, 10 of my students presented book talks; it is obvious they are starting to love reading and are not afraid to show it.  Their vocabulary is improving.  Their writing is getting stronger.  Their understanding of what makes something a valuable piece of literature is developing.  It is hard for me not to beam with pride.  I’m finally achieving what I sought out to do when I decided to become an English teacher: share my love of reading with my students and help build theirs.  I don’t for one second think this would have happened if I told my students exactly what book they had to read over vacation.
  • Allowing student choice in writing:  I have always been a firm believer in allowing students as much choice as possible in their writing.  I have had my students blog every year for the past six years and typically allow them to blog about any topic of their choice as long as it remains school appropriate.  In doing so, I am often amazed at what actually interests them, how they see the world, and how much better they voice their opinions and put together an argument when the topic matters.  In the past few weeks, my students have written editorials on topics of their choice which have ranged from the Richie Incognito scandal to gay marriage to child labor.  I was a little nervous when one of my students decided that she was going to defend Miley Cyrus – really, how can you defend her, I asked – but I was glad I let her go with it.  Her final product argued that although what Miley was doing at the MTV Video Music Awards wasn’t great, the focus was completely on Miley and not on her “twerking” partner Robin Thicke. She went on to discuss double standards and maintained that the focus should be on the demeaning nature of Thicke’s song, which many believe is about rape.  Many people might fear, and I’ll acknowledge I did a bit, that when an 8th grader decides to defend Miley Cyrus that their argument will be immature and lack substance.   This was not the case here.  I gave this student expectations regarding the assignment and she surpassed them. And because she was writing about a topic that mattered to her, her voice was strong and her writing sound.  Amazing.

What prevents us from allowing people to choose their own paths?  Trust.  When we tell people how to act or what to do, it is because we assume that they are not able to figure that out for themselves or that they are going to make the wrong decision.  They might not choose the best workshop or pick the best book or write something of substance.  They don’t know what’s best for them.  Therefore, we have to do it for them.

Now, I am not someone who believes that an 8th grader should determine every aspect of their academic career.  I, as a teacher, also know that I cannot control absolutely everything about my curriculum or job.  But I do realize how  important it is for me to have some choice in my learning process.  And how much more enthusiastic I am about the process when I do.   Honestly, my students are not that different.

A Must Read: A Letter to my Students

Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden

Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden

Dear Students,

Recently, I’ve asked you to read for at least 20 minutes a night, and not just any type of reading, but books, preferably fiction – novels.  Some of you have balked at this, rolled your eyes, sighed heavily, screamed bloody murder, and likely cussed me out behind my back.  None of this bothers me, by the way.  But I did feel like I should explain to you not just why this is so important to me but why it is so important for you(more…)


Growth Mindset and The Great Honor Roll “But”

As part of our advisory curriculum this year, I have been leading my advisees in conversations about the growth mindset and have been impressed by their candor and their willingness to reflect upon their own mindsets.  My students have acknowledged that it is often not easy for them to focus solely on the grade they receive.  Though  we talked about many reasons for this, one observation from an advisee really hit me:

“You say you want us to develop a growth mindset and that you value effort, but then the Headmaster’s list comes out, and no matter how hard I worked, if I don’t get A’s, I don’t make that list.”

I honestly did not know what to say to that, except that she was right.  Honor rolls often do not celebrate effort; they celebrate performance.  Sure, for many who achieve honor roll or headmaster’s list status, there are great amounts of effort put in to get there but do most of our students ever stop to realize or reflect on that?  Do their parents? When the newspaper publishes the names of students making the honor roll, is there ever an asterisk denoting the hard work that it took for the students to achieve this accomplishment?  And what will happen to that honor roll student next term if he struggles and doesn’t make the grade?  Will mom and dad then have to remove their bumper sticker?  Will they be less proud?

I am not necessarily arguing that there should be no honor rolls or that we should never take the time to celebrate achievement.  Although I have thought a lot about this, I honestly do not know how I feel about the matter yet.  What I do know is that we have to think about what messages we are sending our students.  What does it actually mean to achieve?  Is the student who puts in little effort all term but still manages to get straight A’s because of his innate ability more deserving of his name in the newspaper than the student who battles learning disabilities, works tirelessly, and truly grows but ends up with a C?  It’s a question that my advisee has definitely got me thinking about.

STRESS – Learning’s Mortal Enemy

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver

Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver

Stress: The Mortal Enemy to Learning

I’ve had a stressful summer.  I’ve dealt with knee surgery, a grandmother whom I’m very close to being diagnosed with dementia, moving, and coming a day away from putting one of my dogs to sleep (thankfully, I have a good vet).  The fact that all this happened in a one month span while I could do nothing but lay down and think about it meant that all I was doing was lying down and thinking about it.   The only thing I was thankfully not stressing over was work since – praise the Lord – it was summer.

John Medina’s 8th Brain Rule deals with STRESS.  We all have felt it.  We’ve all been impacted by it. Been exhausted from it.  Eaten ice cream because of it.  For some of us, the same stressors affect us differently, and it’s hard to predict just how an event will impact an individual.  What we can practically predict now though is just how much impact stress can have on the brain and on learning.  Stress – the bad, ongoing, terrible, uncontrollable kind – is not a friend to the brain.  It affects cognition, memory, and attention – basically anything you hope to foster in school.  And it’s not like you can go stress free when you are not in the stressful environment.  As Medina says, the brain doesn’t work that way.  If kids are stressed at home, then they are stressed at school, and vice versa.  It’s the same for adults.  Good thing I wasn’t working.

I know that what I was going through might not seem very stressful to many people, and at times I felt somewhat guilty for feeling so badly when people in the world are “actually suffering.”  But the truth was – these things were stressful for me, and, as we sometimes quickly forget, however minor or major something might seem to you does not mean someone else will have the same reaction.   I know this from the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon.  Most of my students watched the gruesome coverage on television; some of them were near where the bombs went off.  Needless to say, a few were quite stressed by the happenings.  But they didn’t all have the same reaction.  The majority were fine while a few needed to be supported to overcome their anxiety.  The reaction was exactly what would likely be expected from an event such as this.   What was unusual about this happening, however, was that I knew it had happened.  It was fairly easy for me to determine who was affected by it and how that might have impacted the school setting.  It was something I was looking for and ready to deal with when I returned to school that Tuesday.  Unfortunately, this type of knowledge is rarely the case.

Most of the stressors that students face are not obvious national headlines.  They are quiet, hidden stressors that are sometimes hard to figure out.  We might not be able to control these situations for our students, but that doesn’t mean we get to ignore them.  Whether someone’s grandmother is sick, his dog is dying, or her mom and dad are fighting, if it is something that causes great stress, it will impact the classroom and the student’s ability to learn.  This has been proven.  To combat this, I believe we must work hard to know our students so that they trust us to let us know if they are having issues with their life.  It is our job to point them in the direction – in most cases a school counselor (a must!) or their parents – to allow them to find coping mechanisms for dealing with their stress.

Sitting behind a desk or standing in front of a chalkboard with the perfect lesson planned will do absolutely nothing if we pay no attention to the fact that these kids in front of us are actually people who often have real problems.  If a student fails a test and we were blindsided by this, ask why.  What else might be going on for that child? If a student behaves atypically, acts out, or all of a sudden stops doing his homework, question it.  Why is the student suddenly acting this way? When we take the time to educate the whole person, to think about the student’s life beyond the classroom, to give students strategies for dealing with whatever is on their mind,  we may actually be able to battle some of the issues that stress can cause.  Our job, as a result, can become a little less stressful and a little more rewarding.

Photo Credit: wacky badger

Recipe for a Growth Mindset? A Growth Mindset

In order to switch to the growth mindset, you must be willing to grow.What If? That’s the question that seemed to enter my head most often as I read Carol Dweck’s Mindset recently.  What if students cannot move out of the fixed mindset or refuse to?  What if other teachers or parents value grades and the act of being “smart” so much that it prevents students from truly growing? What if parents or others battle you when you refuse to call someone smart or when explaining to them that grades are not as important?  What if I have difficulty moving in to the growth mindset myself?  What if students fail at something after they put in a lot of effort – will they still see the reward of this hard work?  Clearly, I had some concerns.

The fact of the matter is, helping students, parents, other colleagues, and even me start thinking more along the lines of the growth mindset will take a lot of effort.  In many ways, many of us – including our students – have come to believe that what matters most of all is the end result – the grade on the test, what college you get into, who wins the game, etc.  We might all know that Michael Jordan did not make his high school basketball team at first attempt, but we look at that as a “what was the coach thinking” kind of moment.  We forget that he might not have been good enough at that point in his career, and as Dweck notes, that he used his failure as motivation for the player he became.  Effort is often not as important as the end result.

But Dweck proves to us that it not just as important, it is more important.  In order for our students to fully grow and open them to immense possibilities, we must stop valuing individual performances, stop comparing them to others, and let them know that we care more about the process than the end result.  We must let them know that failure is okay, that in fact failure allows us to grow.  We must show them the importance of effort, in knowing one’s own shortcomings, what to do when things go wrong.  Once these things are valued, once students aren’t afraid to fail and embrace growth, the end result will most often be quite good, and in the process students will become more confident and willing to try new things.

There are a lot of what ifs that could come out of shifting mindsets, but what kind of teachers would we be if we didn’t make this attempt?  I know I don’t want my students to submit to cheating because they are afraid of what might happen if they don’t pass the test.  Nor do I want to add to the growing anxiety levels and lack of sleep many of my students face because they are so afraid of failure. I know there might be times when it is a battle, where it will take a lot of effort in order for my students and me to grow, and at times it won’t be easy or pretty.  But isn’t that what the growth mindset is all about?

Photo Credit: Gibson Regester

Summer Reading Blog = Writing Pre-Assessment

Photo Credit: Gibson Regester

Photo Credit: Gibson Regester

Just Say No to Book Reports and Yes to Blogging!

I wish I could remember the name of the graduate school professor I had who facetiously made this statement about book reports – “Yes, the first thing I want to do when I finish a great book, is to make a diorama” – because that really struck a chord. Not that there’s anything wrong with dioramas per se, but like many, usually when I read a great book, I want to process it and talk about it.  I do not want to make a mobile of important characters and symbols (is it bazaar that I can still picture the mobile I made in third grade but have no idea what book said mobile was on) or run to find the nearest empty shoebox.  Thus, in my attempt to stop destroying reading for my students, I have tried to change up the dreaded summer reading project to hopefully! make it a bit more interesting.

In the past few years, I have asked students to write a book review of the various required readings that they have done, and although I don’t think this was a bad approach, it really only allowed me to view their writing once school had already started.  This was helpful but would have been more beneficial over the summer when I try to do a lot of planning.  So, in trying to work “smarter not harder,” I have dropped this activity and instead am asking my students to respond to some discussion boards via our classroom blog.

Although I firmly believe in having students create the content on the blog, for this summer blogging experience, I have asked students to respond to questions I have created, seeing as the majority of these students have not done any form of blogging before. Basically, I am using the blog as the means for threaded discussions.    Below, you will find my process for creating the posts regarding our summer reading book The Book Thief.  You can also check out our Summer Reading Page and feel free to add to our discussion if you have read The Book Thief!

Thoughts about Process:

  • Why a blog and not Schoology or something similar: If this were done during the school year, Schoology discussion boards would be a great tool, but seeing as the summer is a time to create new classes and archive previous information on the site, I felt this activity would be easiest with something I could easily control and that was also very simple to use for new students.
  • Optional “I’m confused” posts:  The Book Thief is a fairly long book that can sometimes be confusing due to the unique narration style.  I decided to create a few posts allowing students to ask questions regarding the book as I didn’t want them to continue reading not having any idea what was going on.  So far, these haven’t been used, and they may not, but at least the students (and parents) know they are there if need be.  I monitor all posts, so students can respond to their classroom’s questions but if there is an error in information, I can easily delete the post.
  • Limited number of discussion boards:  I will be teaching a small class next year of about 48 students.  I did not want to have so many discussion boards that there ended up being little discussion.  I also wanted to make sure my students responses to said discussions were varied and not repetitive.
  • Required number of sentences per posts: I’ll admit that this is something I hemmed and hawed about as I am not a firm believer in this approach.  However, I do not know these students all that well nor they me.  They do not know my expectations, and I do not want them to “mess up” because they didn’t understand what I was looking for.  Requiring a certain amount of sentences and providing models for what good responses look like makes sure that students are taking the easy out and also makes sure they provide enough information that I can use as pre-assessments.
  • More  required responses to classmates than individual thoughts:  I want my students to read what their peers are writing.  This will allow them to see a book at a different level.  If they are only writing down their own thoughts, they will never stop and read what their classmates have written.  So, I can guarantee that they will read at least four of their classmates thoughts simply by making this requirement.
  • Models, Models, Models:  It’s no surprise that I just finished Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like Us, a book that discusses the importance of modeling while teaching writing.  I have provided many models of both good and bad comments so that my students know exactly the type of writing I am looking for. (more…)

Command F or How I Got 8th Graders to Actually Edit their Essays

My education instructors would probably be terribly disappointed to find out that some of my “best teaching moments” have not come from careful planning and thought but were merely off the cuff ideas.  Case in point – finally finding something to actually get 8th graders to edit a piece of writing – ON THEIR OWN!

I view editing differently than revising and always tell my students that it is the last thing they should do before turning in a piece of work.  Students write all their essays on GoogleDocs in my class, and although I do typically have them print out a paper to revise, they often will stick to the computer for editing.  This doesn’t mean they do it well or even have any idea where to start.  I finally came to the conclusion this year that I could not leave my students to edit on their own, even after what I believed was careful instruction, but that I needed to give them time in class to edit their writing, so I could actually watch their approach.

This year as I reviewed some tips with students regarding things they should look over and some strategies for doing so, I suggested they use the Find feature on their browser to look for common errors.  Little did I know that this one spur of the moment thought – and it was just that –  would have such a great effect on my students’ writing.  We brainstormed things that we could put into the Find feature: we found commas to make sure we were putting them in the right places, looked for words that frequently cause fragments (if you’re familiar with Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined, they are known as AAAWWUBBIS words), and even typed in some commonly misspelled words among other things.

In about fifteen minutes, students realized that they found a good number of errors in their work, but more importantly that they found errors that they knew how to fix.  They were excited to make the changes and felt accomplished at the work they put in. . At the end of the year, when I asked students to edit their papers on their own and reflect on the strategies that they used to edit their work, the majority of the class used the Find feature.  Several even commented on their formal evaluations that this was something that greatly helped them as writers.  It was important that they realized how quick this strategy was and how much it could improve their work.  Let’s face it – 8th graders don’t exactly have long attention spans, especially for things they do not think work.

Something often so simple is easily overlooked but can be extremely powerful.  This tool was helpful for my students because it was tangible and allowed them to focus on one thing at at time.   I often tell them that the best writers are not those that do not make mistakes but are those that realize the mistakes they frequently made. This simple strategy allowed my students better understanding of their own writing and better grades as a result.  And who can complain about that!

Photo Credit:

Ch- Ch- Ch- Changes

I declared at the start of the New Year that 2013 was going to be the year to make things happen. It has yet to disappoint. This summer will bring a new position, a new apartment, and a new anterior cruciate ligament. Needless to say, the former two are a bit more exciting. Although I am eager to start my new position as Dean of Middle School students and to move from residential life to the suburbs, I am actually most excited about the changes I will get to bring to my teaching next year.

At my school, we have had some major changes in administration, which has worked hard to connect our educational practice to our mission and best practices in education. We are attempting to move beyond the fifty block periods (although we still have them for right now) and are being encouraged to build interdisciplinary unit plans and dabble in project based learning. F.I.N.A.L.L.Y.

Although I am not always on board with change and do sometimes view decisions with cynicism, to me, I am finally being asked to teach in a way that I truly believe works best. It’s also helpful that there is so much research to align with these ideas.

As I approach my ninth year teaching, seventh year of teaching the same course (holy cow!), I feel a sense of renewal regarding what I can potentially infuse into the curriculum and parlay to my students. No seven year itch here. I’m just itching to begin! This summer will be my first summer where I actually am required to work, but I don’t think it’s going to be a problem at all. Any advice regarding PBL projects, particularly, in the English classroom, please feel free to share!