Monday, October 13, 2014

Idea: Easing into the Launch of a Class Blog

I stumbled upon a process for launching a class blog that was non-threatening to struggling writers and yet, still engaged the more confident scribes in the room.

For our first post, I had students collect ten images (self-created or not) representing different aspects of their lives or personalities.

They then created a slideshow with the images and embedded it into the main page of their blog.  The only requirements: (1) images must be "appropriate" enough to show a roomful of grand-folks, and (2) no text.   No text piques readers' curiosity and prompts them to comment with their questions, thereby inspiring the blogger to draft another post in response.

The next day, I had students create a list of "Top Ten" (any topic of their choosing). I used my own blog as an exemplar, sharing my list of "Top Ten Moments of Bliss" (in no particular order):
  1. Snowboarding with Tommy, my nephew
  2. Receiving my Bachelor's degree- my whole family was there.
  3. Falling in love and realizing it for the first time
  4. Rock climbing, making it to the top, breathing, and then turning around to take in the view
  5. Biking down the Sandia Crest trail
  6. Backpacking around Cuba, up to the mountain valleys (lush)
  7. Bungee jumping off of a New Zealand mining bridge (where bungee jumping first originated)
  8. Walking along the Nova Scotian coastline
  9. Waking up on mornings after a big trek along the New Zealand coast (Akaroa)
  10. Floating on a river through a cave- looking up and seeing glow worms (they looked like stars!)
I asked the class which item on my list was most intriguing to them and conveyed how I could use their feedback to determine the topic for my next post.

Happy blogging!
P.S. I use Google Sites as a platform for our class blog.
If you'd like a template that you can simply copy, leave a comment and I'll kick it your way.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Welcome to Being Human- A Syllabus Intro to Humanities

Syllabus Intro to Humanities, Gr 10

Once upon a time, roughly 5 billion years ago, a gravitational collapse gave birth to the solar system you're presently spinning around in. At first, things were a mess. Most of the cosmic matter gathered and fused at the core while the rest of it scattered outwardly into a flat, orbiting disc of debris. 

As that debris field spun, it slowly (over the course of a billion years) started massing into clumps, thereby forming a number of stars and satellites, one of which we're all sitting on as it orbits its own star (the sun).

A billion years later, after things cooled down a bit on this home-planet, conditions were ripe for simple life forms to emerge, and eventually they evolved into increasingly-diverse complex organisms. It took mammalian life billions more years to emerge, but the planet was still hostile to larger forms of life, so there were a few mass extinctions. Each time, though, life continued to evolve.

Tens of millions of years after the last of those mass extinctions (that of the dinosaurs), ape-like animals began to emerge and at some point, they adapted by standing upright on two legs, thus heralding an evolutionary chain of events that would lead to the emergence of the species you, yourself, are a part of. That species' brain slowly grew and evolved to become self-aware of its own existence, and with the use of language (this one, the one you're using as you read this), created words to carry and record ideas from one generation to the next, words such as "human," which conveyed a category of life separate from all the rest.

Which brings us to this moment, whereby we find ourselves here in this class focusing on that very thing we call human. Welcome to World Studies, fellow human beings. Here, we'll explore what it means to be human and, if things go as planned, you may see more clearly your part in the ongoing story.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Idea: 30-Day Challenge Blog

Matt Cutts, in his short TED Talk, shares how he was inspired to change one little thing in his life and commit to it for at least 30 days. It changed him in ways he didn't anticipate.  Since my advisory students were setting academic goals, I decided to share Cutts' Talk with them since it validated my own advice about how changing habits takes time and a commitment to being consistent over a period of time.

I love moonlighting as an advisor.  Sure, I'm an englush teecher at heart, but I chose that path as a career because it held the most potential for positively impacting the lives of others, and being an advisor significantly ups that mojo.  Also, much of what we address is stuff I need reminding about to keep my own house in order, which brings me back to the 30-Day Challenge.

What I hadn't anticipated was how inspired my students would be after veiwing Cutts' Talk.  They proposed we each take on a goal for the next month just as Cutts had done.  I loved the idea, especially since it furthered my own advisory agenda! 

That evening, I built a group blog using a Google Site as the platform.  First we used it to brainstorm ideas for goals, then once they were decided, we chronicled our attempts to either rid ourselves of our habits or develop them.   We spent roughly ten minutes at the start of each class crafting our posts and providing supportive feedback to one another.  Those students who had a hard time deciding on a goal found it easier to piggy-back off of an idea that was already started, like turning in work on time, or drinking a certain amount of water each day.  

Shortly after, another advisory class joined us and our blogroll grew to 37, including the other teacher, who had a newborn infant and felt the family pet was being neglected, so her daily goal was to spend at least 5 minutes playing with her dog.  

Even though the challenge was optional, most of the students joined the blog by the second week, having been inspired by the other class joining us or by the attention given to bloggers whose pursuits from the very first day became a topic of discussion among peers. 

Looking back, I can see there was a wonderful burst of organic energy around this endeavor.  Teachers know this kind of momentum is pure gold when it comes directly from the students themselves, inspired by their own ideas and interests.  Still, there are times when that energy requires the invisible hand of the facilitator to ensure the flow, intensity, and direction of the energy so that it's sure to be sustained.  And that's where I kind of dropped the ball.
As the month rolled on, it became difficult for some to keep up with their daily posts, especially during the weekend when it wasn't a part of their usual day to post to a blog.  A few students had set some high-maintenance goals and started falling behind.  Admittedly, I was a slacker myself when it came to maintaining consistency since I let the blog time slide if there was a school-wide event or grade-wide activity we had to complete.  The other advisor's dog got the ball thrown a few times but by the end of the month, it was clear that tug-time on the rope would remain a rare treat. 

There was definitely  a loss of momentum by the time we reached the finish line. Many had already dropped out of the race and watched as the remaining goal-setters hobbled in.  Regardless, throughout the challenge, some really cool things emerged that helped me to see it as something worth replicating and improving upon.  

Something I hadn't anticipated was how much (and how quickly) I could learn about my students through their chronicles.  The goals they set served as a formative assessment, conveying their interests, values, and a sense of their personalities.  

A few wanted to publish a photograph each day, and their pictures were like a window into their worlds.  Oftentimes, I was taken aback by the beauty they had captured, which conveyed a special connectedness to the natural world. 

One of Noah's photos

Others set athletic goals, like jogging a mile each day or doing something at daily dance practice that would push them further toward a longer-term goal.   Dominic went from a 7:18 mile to ending the month at 6:27.  Ashley wanted to be sure and say something nice to someone each day. She told her mom how much she meant to her and she blogged that her mom wanted to know what she did wrong.   Ivan set out to compliment five people a day, telling them how much he admired them for their humor or athleticism. Curious about the reaction he kept getting, which was a mix of suspicion and gratitude, he began wondering if people, across the board, were under-appreciated.

Christina decided she'd "try not to be mean" to other people, and in the process, she realized it wasn't as hard as she thought.  In my comment to her post, I wrote, "Could it be that being more mindful of our own actions toward others helps us become better human beings?  Does it help us see ourselves in a light that's closer to who we actually are?  Or is it a way toward becoming more compassionate, toward others and toward ourselves?"

Rayne decided to go meatless and curse-less.  It didn't last the month, but after a couple of weeks, he noted there was a change in his mood and wasn't sure if it was the lack of meat or expletives that was doing it.

Mikaela tried to break her habit of saying, "I'm sorry," something her friends told her she did all the time.  She wrote about how they began helping her with the challenge since, even though she tried, she couldn't catch herself saying it. It compelled her to reflect on where it was coming from, which lead to some interesting insights around her own self-concept.

So, I'm going to try this again at the start of the Spring semester with the same advisory group, and I'll build on what worked and change what didn't.

What worked:

  • Making it optional and not attaching a grade to it
  • Inviting other advisories- perhaps this time, inviting the entire sophomore class!
  • Supportive commenting

What didn't:
  • Inconsistency.  We'll make it a for-sure start-of-advisory ritual, no matter what's on our plate.  
  • Weekend lag.  We'll decide, as a group, to give ourselves a break over the weekends, unless otherwise compelled to keep it up.  I'll try to be a model for the "keep it up" crowd.

What I'll add:
  • Reflecting on the experience of the first round so that we can address goals that might've been unrealistic or impractical, what worked, what didn't (their perspective)
  • Adding resources on the blog for generating ideas and how to set realistic goals, with students' contributions
  • End of writing time share-out to the class, for those who'd like to, or for those who'd like to give kudos to someone deserving whose blog they read
  • Amp up the public spin on it with students' permission, sharing kudos on our school's Facebook page.
  • Discussion around the quality of comments and the effects they have on bloggers' motivation 
  • Allowing for students to set their blogs to "private" if they want (Google Sites makes this possible)
  • End-of-week celebration, in some form
  • A reflective written piece, or a video blog for their ePortfolios: "take-aways" around goal-setting 
  • End-of-month wrap-up party, and possibly the launch of a third round...?

Emmy's dog: "The most photographic dog ever!"

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Confessions of an Ed App Junkie

I've been an app slut.  For reasons not yet hashed out during therapy, I've registered for every new online edu-tool I've come across, even if the web app was a clone of one I'd already been happily married to.  

I suspect I've been motivated by a fear of missing the beta-boat should the holy grail of edu-apps makes itself known.  For the last few years,  I've kept up with ed tech and the various movements therein, but it's been from a distance for fear of getting sucked into committed relationships (See?  Online life is like real life!)

Needless to say, all these new accounts and half-baked attempts at curating the all-time best resources have made my virtual workspace cluttered and coffee-stained. Sure, I'm the go-to gal at work for finding the right match between task and e-tool, but when you're relatively new at a project-based learning gig like I am, there's little time to consistently build a meaningful network online. The day-to-day need-to-knows of my students take precedence over time to blog, vlog, tweet, pin, poke, post, comment, or respond, much less navigating newly-born interfaces and keeping up with the latest online teacher toys.  

And yet, I've still found myself trying.

What's different, however, is that I've reached a tipping point in my personal life where I've slowly begun to shed unnecessary things.  It started with a box of clothes I'd been hoping I could fit back into once I returned to my glorious rock-climbing-enabled body size. It felt good getting rid of that antagonistic big turd of a box glaring at me every time I turned the closet light on. 

Weeding out the bookcases was easier, for the most part.  Much of their content could now be found online.  Next, I'm digitizing photos and VHS tapes.  It's a slow, ongoing process but at least now I'm in that place where I'm getting rid of more than I take in.  It's felt good, which is why I've started to consider how to simplify my online life so that it's less about quantity (memberships, feeds, web tools, bookmarks, email alerts) and more about quality.
The question over the next year will be how can I spend the time I have online in those virtual spaces where educators are building knowledge together through sharing and collaboration? That's where I want and need to be.  I know where these places are because I've mostly been that person passing by and gawkin' through the window at the goings on thinking, aw man, someday when I have the time, I'm going to knock at the front door and get in on this.

I have so many ideas and so much energy when it comes to teaching.  Connecting with others who are equally as passionate amplifies the potential for inspiration, collaboration, and growth. I'm not ready to knock on the door just yet, but I'll be there shortly.

One of the first items on my action plan is to consolidate some of the platforms I use.  Google's kind of a no-brainer as a dashboard since its apps seamlessly integrate (which is why I'll be shutting down two other blogs and have started fresh on Blogger).  Also, the clean interface is sparklin' clean, which gives me a standard to shoot for when clearing out the rest of my actual closet.  

I'll be meandering all things pedagogical (keeping it short) mostly about project-based learning, ELA instruction, and general issues around public ed and I'll be doing it as regularly as possible with the hope of landing on a consistent, habit-of-mind-induced schedule.  As is with the whittling down of my worldly possessions, it'll be a process getting from the window to the door.  

But until then, if you should happen to be at this window, feel free to holler in and I'll be sure to greet you.

Thanks for your time reading this. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Resource Wiki: Big Ideas & Guiding Questions

I created a wiki as a store for collecting big ideas and guiding questions. I completely forgot about it until I recently began brainstorming ideas for new Humanities projects and needed to consider some essential ideas I'd want my students to explore. It was exactly what I needed and I was glad to have already done some preliminary work on building the collection. 

Since it's a wiki, feel free to join and contribute.  There are plenty of big ideas, so far, but not all have been expanded on. 

The site address is

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Idea: Prewriting Strategy- "List of Memories"

At the start of the year, I have students fold a piece of paper into six squares and choose from a list of categories to put into each of the boxes.  The categories are: happiest moments, saddest moments, most embarrassing, scariest, proudest, angriest, most regretful, etc.

They then list memories that fall under those categories- at least four to a box, and then afterwards, a star is placed next to the one memory in each box they would most like to write about.

In groups, writers share the lists and their peers help them decide on a second memory from each box that they would like them to write about (keeping the audience in mind). Those are starred, too.

For each day after, students begin the class by taking time to do a "zero draft" (no-risk) using one of the ideas from their list. Students share their zero drafts to elicit questions and comments written on stickies (we call them "writer's gold") which are placed on the draft for later use, should it be a piece the student chooses to take through the entire process.

Tech note: The last time I did this, students posted to our class blog. Peers responded online, oftentimes requesting the writer choose a topic from the list they were especially curious about.  The only thing I felt made it worth doing online was the larger audience (thus more feedback) for each of the writers.