Sometimes I forget that my students cannot (yet) read my mind during instruction. Not to say I haven’t often imagined a future where the classroom happened in a virtual reality space, much like Neo of The Matrix. Imagine it: just as Neo spars with Orpheus to learn judo, so could students visual project their paper outlines as teachers move their claims into sound 3-D structures. Building the better paper, literally. We’re not far away, especially when you consider that a virtual reality pen app already exists. Until then, I am perpetually on the prowl for different ways students can visualize the writing process and ways they can embrace the inevitable messiness of it all.
The latter can be particularly difficult for many of my students. They see their outlines and thesis as a fixed thing: once complete, it remains unchanged and untouched. Last year, I mandated a “no delete” code in OneNote. Every outline could be covered in the strike-through function but nothing ever gets deleted. While it did help them feel less married to a structure and liberated some ideas in favor of better ones, their thesis remained a point of contention. How would I get them to see a thesis as a changing, breathable thing if it was “the driving claim of my [their] paper?” How could I get them past “but if I don’t know my thesis, how will I start” and less surprised when I confess that I often write my own introductory paragraphs last?
Full disclosure: I don’t have the perfect solution.
I did, however, have a small revelation. I am an odd person with some odd night-time rituals. For example, my ablution supplies share nightstand space with a pack of post it notes and a pen. I am also a list fanatic. At the end of many a day, I still have them in my head- lists of books I want to read, lists of new apps someone shared, lists of family members I still need to call, bills yet to be paid, short essays topics I should write- and sleep is a lot easier if I just write them out of my head. It was in moving these notes to their designated window (this method, while a bit ludicrous, is much more cost effective than a curtain) that it dawns on me. Sometimes, the analog method is just as effective; sometimes, a post it note can be as trans-formative as a digital notebook.
This last round of essays, I had each student write their first attempt at a thesis in a post it note and then claim a window pane in the classroom windows (I’m blessed with many windows). The second transcription was a brief glance at their working outline. Each time a thesis was re-drafted, an outline modified, new post-it notes went on glass. Many students would come the next day with last night’s progress, ready to
update their progress. After a week of workshops, feedback, conferences, and rough drafts, every student re-wrote their final thesis before turning in a rough draft. I wasn’t surprised that many of them expressed contempt for their original pieces; I was shocked to find that many of them would often return to their window panes to modify not just their thesis but parts of their outline that no longer matched. I had one student who choose to do a post-it per claim, allowing her to physically see how a different structure might feel to the reader. Many times, a simple walk to the window yielded wonderful, impromptu conversations about paper structures, syntax solutions, and peer feedback. My classroom became a hive of activity, the good kind. The simply act of moving the pieces as opposed to typing was crucial in changing the paradigm.
I’m looking forward to see how this works in other modules. And I’m taking stock in Post Its.
In July, my application was accepted by the Smithsonian Summer Institute at the American Art Museum (I promise a blog post/review about this to follow soon!).
During the two week long program, teachers learned effective ways to incorporate Visual Thinking Routines from Harvard’s Project Zero into the classroom. VTR utilizes any non-text source material to engage students in critical thinking skills; this workshop focused particularly on using American Art in application. The workshop fundamentally re-shaped how I teach analysis and re-invigorated the “warm up” in my classroom.
There are many arguments for using VTR in the classroom (including the innate interdisciplinary mode of thinking), but I was really invested in the analysis piece. Many of my students struggle in understanding rhetorical analysis. This is problematic for any student taking the AP Language exam which includes several types of non-textual components in at least one essay component. Using VTR propels students into evidence building, claim composition, and technique identification- all cornerstone skills necessary for a well written analysis. This year, I’ve decided to incorporate art and VTR into my junior and senior classrooms.
My first introduction of VTR has many different routines, but at the heart of all of them is the idea of claim and support (see above picture). This is a great way to warm up in the classroom; for my particular course (Native American and Asian American Voices), I chose artwork that would allow students to understand the module as an examination of marginalized voices. We started with George Caitlin’s “Going To and Returning From Washington.” The piece explores the effects of European culture on the Native American and many students articulate that tension in different ways. All of them are pressed to show exactly where in the art is this claim embedded:
Both students arrive at similar conclusion and both provide evidence to support their claim. This routine is crucial when moving into the next step: comparing visual text to a literary counterpart.
For this particular module, I modeled how to do a comparison of visual and literary text using the artwork from warm-ups; previous exposure help students feel more comfortable in the writing process. This time, students would view Caitlin’s piece (see above) with Tanaya Winder’s poem, “Missing More Than a Word.”
When paired with the poetry scaffolding lesson I created (see here), this becomes a powerful method in thesis creation. Many students were able to form a claim about both pieces and identify a technique the artist and poet utilize in their works:
Once evidence building becomes an important part of forming a claim, many feel much more comfortable developing a stronger thesis. This was particularly evident in our second comparison (using Hieu Minh Nguyen’s “White Boy Time Machine” and Roger Shimormura’s “Diary: December 12, 1941”).
At the end of the course, students are asked to answer a comparative analysis prompt within 45 minutes (message me or comment for the prompt). Between this year and last year’s response, there is a tangible difference: using the VTR has yielded well-supported, sophisticated analysis paragraphs while last year’s response seem to falter in organization structure.
More importantly than all of the quantifiable data is this: my students love the inclusion of art. It’s the most requested warm-up!
And I’m just as excited to continue using VTR in the classroom this year; I’ll continue to post progress. Thank you to the Smithsonian Learning Lab for beautiful high-definition free access to their collection!
I firmly believe that in every teacher, there is a student eager to return to the classroom. I see in my colleagues the same eagerness in choosing their PD (professional development) as I feel when taking a new class. We are innate learners and we learn well. It is in this spirit that I elected to take two courses as my PD. It is in this spirit that I chose a course to refresh my history and a course to invigorate my love of poetry. It is in this spirit that I realize I have fundamentally stubbled into some powerful realizations, beyond the affirmation that taking a class, even an online one, is a great PD option for any teacher. (I took mine with the Harvard Extension School; I’ll be happy to share the application process with anyone interested.) While I could write long, lengthy paragraphs about each of these realizations, I also understand that the average student (teacher-in-training) may only survive four paragraphs to a blog post about someone else’s PD experience. So, in this spirit, I’m sharing a more “interdisciplinary epiphany”: if you want to teach empathy, begin with history. If you want to train civil rights champions, give them art. If you want them to understand empathy and logically argue about its necessity in our everyday world, temper this infusion of history and art with the sciences.
Allow me to explain.
The history course selected is titled, “From Nat Turner to the Roots: Slavery and Civil Rights in America.” My selection of this was pragmatic: it’s been a while since I visited the historical contexts of African American literature. Last year, in the middle of restructuring the junior modules, Dr. Keith Ward and I thought it fitting to pair rhetorical analysis in the Slavery to Civil Rights component. So much of the rhetoric of that time-period is impossible to divorce of historical context. Taking this course was a great way to refresh my own memory and improve the content delivery for many of the 11th grade English modules. In that way, the course was very successful; in a completely different way, it fundamentally re-shaped how I want to teach cornerstone abolitionists and civil rights texts. The course forces students to re-analyze the Civil War in terms of collective belief and community rhetoric; in this examination, much of the narrative of the Civil War is controlled by an archaic, protected Southern ideal (much of which is couched in the “the war was also about state’s rights” arguments found in many past and contemporary pieces). This controlling narrative, this push to re-frame the Civil War in terms of a disagreement about economy or about the over-reaching federal government has become a way to continue avoiding difficult conversations concerning racism in our country today.
I think in another life I would have been a history teacher.
How does this all relate to an English classroom? Some of my focus this year has been justifying the rhetorical additions based on an AP Language exam and giving students experiences to master this skill set. After taking this course, I’m realizing this is the wrong focus. Instead, I want to help my students understand how and why rhetoric is necessary to battle injustice, to create narratives that are true, genuine, and empowering. Frederick Douglass wasn’t just speaking about his experience as a slave; he was risking his life to tell the truth, to force a nation into confrontation, and reveal the hypocrisy of a promised ideal. So much of Douglass’ vernacular is found again in Lincoln’s rhetoric; the transference of knowledge is evident in the changed rhetoric of both men post meeting. That’s how effective rhetoric is– it can bring a nation to war and unite it again under different terms, simply by sharing words. In many ways, the documents surrounding the Civil War- political cartoons, speeches, newspaper articles, photographs- are incredible real-world examples of how rhetoric is an important part of cultural currency, citizenship, and literacy. I hope that re-working some of my own lessons and assessments becomes a way for my students to understand the very real implications we face as a society when we stop questioning a narrative, when we take an argument at face value, when we stop asking questions and responding to our world in words. This course not only affirmed my own faith in the power of rhetoric but forced me to evaluate the effectiveness of delivering that same affirmation for my students.
Even more so, I’m more motivated than ever to create spaces in my schedule to write. Company is welcome. (Email me.) And if prose isn’t your forte, ask me about my poetry class. Just bring your good pen.
April is National Poetry Month and with a bit of scheduling luck, I find myself knee-deep in Harlem Renaissance poetry. Let me be upfront: I love poetry. (I make no claims of ability to write poetry. ) I love that a line break can mean so much more than the return stroke on a keyboard; I love deciphering how one writer selected this adjective, that phrase, these punctuation marks. I love teaching the Harlem Renaissance greats: Langston Hughes, Angela Weld Grimke, Claude McKay- their works answer tradition with a mixing and reinventing so unique to their experience of the 20th century.
I. Love. Poetry.
Many of my students, however, struggle to find the same comfortableness in poetry that they have in novel study. This is not particularly a new truth for teachers; many students report poetry analysis as the most difficult or elusive task. A quick google search will yield thousands of worksheets, methodologies, acronyms, and suggested poems for implementation. For years, I’ve proscribed to the the TPCASTT method (Title, Paraphrase, Connotation, Attitudes, Shift, Title, Theme) and in the last three, I’m not entirely sold on its effectiveness. Understanding connotation means understanding the intentional inferences of a word; attitudes relies on knowing the difference between tone and mood. In this method, all of this happens before a realization of theme. This year, I decided I would do a study of comparison. I used TPCASTT in the early modules of the Modernism class and in these last modules, I am implementing my own poetry toolkit for classroom use.
My early Modernism modules demonstrated exactly what I feared: my students did not identify poetic terms or differentiate their use from novel study and their annotations focused too much on basic understanding of figurative language. Many of my students felt so overwhelmed by the TPCASTT system that their thesis compositions included every device, rather than selecting the best use of that term according to their claim. I knew that in developing my own annotation system, I wanted some kind a scaffolding, a way for my students to feel the move from simple annotation to complicated analysis. I knew that the first scaffold would be an exploration of the poem and its meaning. The second scaffold would narrow a literary analysis to just the essentials. The last step would involve syntax focus and claim development. The difference has meant a much more organized approach to annotating yet still relies on the student to understand and select poetic devices; the chart has greatly improved the evaluation of syntax. As seen in the student artifact below, leveling the scaffold asks the student to evaluate the intent of the poem before a dive into syntax; the syntax progresses into a thesis or claim about the poem.
Implementation is just one part of re-inventing how I teach poetry (more soon on helping students categorize kinds of literary terms). I am hoping the third tier in this technique will push them into a thesis development. Since I am a firm believer in providing examples or demonstrating active practice, we reviewed Langston Hughes’ “Advertisement for Waldorf-Astoria” using this technique and then color coded parts of the chart used for introductory paragraph building.
I’m anxious to see how this system helps move them into analysis and paper construction. Mostly, I’m excited to explore poetry during National Poetry Month!
I’ve spent the last two years of teaching juniors trying to answer this very question and each year I arrive at some same things and some different. This year I taught a class of freshman for the first time. While I learned many things while teaching freshmen, the course itself demanded that both student and teacher have a clear understanding of what exactly is a good reader. In fact, one could argue that freshman year objectives are centered around habits of a good reader. So how do teachers answer that question?
If taking 9th grade “Coming of Age” Module, it means reflective interaction with the text. Don’t be fooled; this is just a fancy way of saying good annotations. I was somewhat suprised that most freshmen do not know how to annotate. Only somewhat surprised because I did not know how to annotate well until college. But what exactly are good annotations? And do annotations make strong readers? The short answer is yes and no.
Growing up, I was never allowed to mark in my books. Books were assigned and the classroom copy recieved was kept in near pristine condition despite years of use. My teachers threatened us with hefty fines if a book dare have a stray pencil mark. This was problematic; I am a visual learner who needs a tactile experience to remember things. I need to write in books. I need to ask my questions in the moments I read them. (And believe me, sticky notes and the book are not the same thing. ) My senior year in high school, my mother decided she was through buying massive amounts of sticky notes. She bought my books for the AP Literature and AP Language classes. The struggle then was not “could I write in a book and get away with it” but “what do I write in the book now that I own it?” My current color coded system seemed out of place. The pink sticky notes that indicated a vocabulary word or the blue sticky notes that indicated a good quote lacked the immediate silent scream they once had when they hung over the page edge. “This page, right here, this page” became very irrelevant when I could write in the book. But what would I write?
I started the AP course and the first thing the teacher told me was that I did not know how to annotate, that it didn’t matter if I used sticky notes or if I wrote them in myself: it was not annotating. (I’ll spare you the grief-striken two days I spent moping over sticky notes.) I’ll never forget that moment, the teacher looking at my highlighted, color coded inked notes while we read Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5. Lady Macbeth musing over a letter from Macbeth, newly Thane of Cawdor:
Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way.” (Shakespeare I.V)
“That’s not annotating. Where are your questions for Lady Macbeth? Your own reactions? Why is that word important? How do know that quote means more than a series of phrases?”
When I teach good annotations, I start with this story. I think my students feel the same I did all those years ago; they know to define words that are new to them. They know how to identify strong passages. But like me, they don’t know why they are important or how to use annotations to breathe into a text, to let the story completely overtake your thoughts (or corrupt your thoughts in the case of Macbeth). They don’t know how to interact with both story and their own curiosity. I knew enough to highlight Lady Macbeth’s famous lines, but I didn’t know to engage them. I had to learn, to be pushed into what I’m calling annotation justification. I had to ask myself why that word, that phrase, that moment was important to both me the reader and me the audience. One digests information; the other reacts. I had to learn how to change my annotations from “this is Lady Macbeth commenting on Macbeth’s inability to act on his ambitions” to “fascinating that Shakespeare makes a woman the villian, and that she is labeled such because she chooses to aggressively pursue power through her husband.”
It didn’t happen overnight. It did happen though. My teacher spent the first ten minutes of every class sharing her annotations, quite literally, under a document camera. She justified each notation. And when she couldn’t, she asked questions about why that seemed important; she predicted why it might become crucial to a character. She did this every day of the six months I spent in her class senior year. Did I still define words for clarity? Yes. But I hunted down better words, words that pushed on the text (“the milk of
human kindess” instantly feminizes Macbeth). And it changed the way I read.
I provided the same courtesy to the freshman. Under a document camera (even old technology can be the best for a particular purpose), I justified every annotation of mine for Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and for Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist. And I let them ask questions, interrogate my selections or sometimes dialogue about the questions we shared as a class. Will it make them better readers? Maybe. Do I worry they will create systems of organizations so complex it will overwhelm more than help? A bit. But at the end of the day if the only lesson learned is that becoming a good reader is hard work, I’ll take it. If at the end of the day, they find value in their own questioning and engage words that push through meaning, then I know I’ve created readers who will keep reading.
And I’m wondering what that might look like when I see them again as juniors.
I make no secret that I am a technology fan: OneNote has been an integral part of my classroom for four years. It is the best tool I have to grade, share material, and demonstrate good writing. And, while I might have the occasional student who loathes most technology (except the cellphone), most of my students love the ease of the application. I too love OneNote. And then I met Microsoft Teams.
Last year at ISTE (the International Society of Technology) 2017 Conference, Microsoft previewed their program Teams. It’s a software platform that combines OneNote, Planner, Cloud, and the Microsoft Office Suite. I knew I would love Teams; I had already started learning Microsoft Planner. As a natural list maker, Planner easily integrated into my work day. However, the software is a bit limited; it’s still just an agenda built for individual or team use. Teams, however, is built for whole classroom integration. The Planner add-in allows anyone enrolled to assign tasks. With that integration, I knew instantly that Teams is how the school newspaper will get done this year.
I’ve been on the hunt for something to match the hurried, somewhat organized, fast paced, year round (ish), task based newspaper classroom. We tried just using OneDrive; file management felt tedious. We tried OneNote last year; it felt clumsy and just not innate to the many tasks editors had to navigate. (InDesign is just not friendly with OneNote, even as a storage locker.) Teams looked just right.
I implement the software last week. I’ve already had six students ask me how they could use it for other classes and clubs. Some just want the Planner add-in; my assistant editor is a list fanatic and is already scheming how to use Planner. I can’t blame her. It’s also my favorite function. For newspaper, assigning articles and jobs outside writing is suddenly easy, organized, and visually pleasing. Within each task, you can start conversations; since I share newspaper with another teacher, this is often a great way to check in when not in the classroom. For example, while the layout editor creates the new master document for the new paper, I can communicate with her via checklist or the comment function about that task. In turn, she can check them off the list. The tabs for each task help students prioritize; I’ve labeled ours according to issue and time.
Teams also has an instant chat function. The girls can communicate with each other while in the field. Even more so, because the class doesn’t meet December through February, it gives the students a space to continue building community and sharing ideas. I’m also realizing what a great tool this will be for our spring editor. The paper shifts leadership with a new editor in spring, and I have high hopes Teams will allow for a more seamless transition. It will definitely allow for better record keeping. One of our headaches from last year was locating files from previous issues, other editors, last year…it just seemed that every editor preferred a different way to name and store files. Teams solves that right away; it has a file function built into the platform. The students can create folders and upload files right in the application. Of our current files, I created one; the editors have taken over, something I’ve loved to see for some time.
I will admit right now that the students learn faster than I do. Quite frankly, they need to: this is their publication. I’m thrilled that Teams has been the vehicle pushing them into ownership.
I’m not sure this is class ready; it doesn’t quite match my English classroom structure. I’ve started to think about how the chat function could be instructive rather than the distracting thing I’m sure it will become. I’m also keenly aware that many students can repel away from technology overload. If I ask them to use their OneNote, upkeep their planner, and then upload files, it feels a little like overkill. I’m not sure the agenda won’t just feel like a tedious task; many students are assigned one thing unlike the newspaper. OneNote also allows for individual spaces; Teams is very much a collaborative environment. So while I’m currently enjoying my new crush, OneNote and I are still in love. At least, when it comes to my English classroom.
In the meantime, I’m thrilled to see newspaper crushing on Teams as much as I am.
Every teacher I know is playing their first day out- whether with the experience of last year fresh in mind or the optimism of the very first year ahead. I quite enjoy the anticipation; it forces me to reflect on last year’s good intentions, last year’s “what worked and what did not work” so to speak. I’m also a goal-orientated educator; articulating objectives or reflecting on past practices helps set the tone for the year ahead. And, since I have a captive audience, I’m adding my list to the millions of other posted lists about the first days of school. Only this list is the real list; the list of things you most need to do. After twelve years of teaching, this is the list that works for me.
Eat breakfast. Even a small one. This may sound like practical advice more than teaching advice. Eat breakfast. I spent many a school year running out the door without something in my stomach. I spent many a school year wondering why my mornings just didn’t run as smoothly as my afternoons. The one thing I did last year that change everything: breakfast. Even if it was on the go, I had something prepared in my stomach every day. Soon, I was up early so I could eat breakfast which means I was in my room a little bit earlier and I was in a great mood to attack the day. It’s the same for students as it is for teachers- a little breakfast goes a long way. Before I knew it, I was a morning person. This year, I was gifted a kerig machine for my classroom and I’m tempted. Very skeptical, but tempted; after I do number 3, I may add it to my classroom tech arsenal.
Have templates, will use. My teacher mentor from years ago gave me one of the best gifts: a collection of templates. Have a student who has been absent and needs a reminder to check in? I have a template for that email. Need to contact a parent about a student update? I have a template for that email. Need to update class on snow day make up work? I even have a template for that email. Figure out what you need for the year and create those before the first day. Leave room to make them personal (I do not make templates for feedback or comments in a gradebook) but efficient. I have a template for the first email to all parents that I modify depending on the year. I use my absent student one all the time. Keep these electronically; mine live in my OneNote Teacher notebook in word doc form.
Clean your room. I sound like my mother who insisted that you really couldn’t do anything in a messy environment. She’s right; last year I opted to clean my room before leaving for the summer. I really spent time thinking about how the space was used (turns out I don’t need an extra bookcase for supplies) and how I want it to be used (I moved the lending library near the door- students grab and go with ease). I eliminated the need for a desk two years ago; it just seemed to be a collection of things I didn’t want anyway. Now heading back, I’ve got some leftover supplies from my summer class that need a home. I’m excited to clean the department supply cart (a solution we came up with after declaring that no one wanted to keep the same supplies in every room), and I’m using washi tape to re-organize my dry erase boards. I’m also re-examining how to better situate technology in my very old classroom; the document camera needs a new space and I’m hoping to convince technology to re-wire my projector. And I clean. With Clorox. Everywhere.
Establish your core. I’m not talking about exercise, at least not physical exercise. I mean your support group, your colleague core. If you are new to your school, reach out to the person you will most work with and establish some mutual grounds. Email your librarian, your IT department, and your department head. Ask questions, schedule a time to meet before the school year gets started. I reach out to the librarians with my course syllabus; the IT department and I meet to discuss the new technology I’m implementing. I usually lunch with a few teachers in my discipline and invite new ones. It’s important to feel connected to a sense of community, whether that be big or small. Teaching very much takes a village and realizing how each of us connect is a big part of student success. Any teacher who feels like an island is never well placed for a good year; if you aren’t a fan of big groups in the lunchroom, invite others for a coffee break. While it takes time to develop a professional learning community, it takes one coffee break to feel connected. And that’s a start, for both you and your students.
Plan your next break. I know, school hasn’t even started and I’m suggesting planning your next break! I learned this years ago, when teacher burnout really threatened to end my career. Before school starts, I plan the first vacation break in the new school year. It can be as big as a week long diving trip (oh March, you can’t come soon enough) or a small weekend get away. Have one in mind; better yet have one planned. You will not have time to do this during the first months of school. It will motivate you, re-invigorate you, and absolutely sustain you. My first trip involves Harper’s Ferry, a convenient hour away. I have a cute bed and breakfast planned right in the middle of October when the leaves are at their best. I may bring grading along, but I will at least be resting as the first two months of school are marked down on the books.
Get a haircut. Maybe a manicure. Okay, this one is maybe not a hard fast rule, but a spirited one. Make yourself physically ready to greet the first day. Find a first day outfit, get a first day haircut, or treat yourself to a manicure. When you feel your best, you will be at your best. Maybe rock that brand new pursehandbag patagonia messenger. Do something that signifies a new start. After all, that’s exactly what a first day is, no matter how many years of teaching: a new start. This year I may do all three.
Start mapping your collaborations or projects now. Most teachers spend a lot of their summer re-inventing their curriculum, excited about how to make it new. I will be honest: I spend most my summer trying not to think about my curriculum. It rarely works in entirety; by this time I have an idea about new things I’m willing to do or new projects I’d like to try. My first project is relatively easy to start: I’m re-doing the vintage game Guess Who? for the literary classroom. (More on that soon.) I’m also re-thinking the science fiction elective and hoping for a buy in from the science department. Newspaper will utilize Microsoft’s Teams this year and this week I’ve started to establish their group site. (Remember that utilizing a new technology can sometimes be a project itself.) I’m also re-doing a play I wrote because a student asked to produce it this year and wondering how to package the script. All of this really gets my brain thinking and excited for the first day!
Bring your kitten to work. I’m just kidding. Probably not an advisable thing, even if your kitten is just as cute as mine. Instead, bring a happy photo for your classroom. Just one or two; your students don’t need your life story in pictures. Have one photo that makes you smile on those days you may need one. I rotate mine out- sometimes it is my mom, sometimes its a kitty picture, and sometimes it’s just pictures of cupcakes. (I’m not kidding.)
Invest in a good planner and then use it. I’m a moleskine devotee; my planner is a red 5 by 7 moleskine notebook. I fill it in well before the first day, even taking an hour to double check my school email for events I might have missed. I also utilize Microsoft Outlook on my laptop as well as Google cal for my phone. Even so, the red moleskin is my dedicated school planner. And I love the size- I can fit it into a bag with ease, the color is quick to spot, and the binding doesn’t catch on fabric. I take notes right next to the calendar grid which is essential in faculty staff meetings. Trust me, if you are navigating both a calendar and a notebook during a quick meeting, you will miss things. I highly suggest a planner that leaves you room for both. I have my planner with me through everything but lunch.
Leave room to have room. There is such a thing as the overplanned, overscheduled teacher who has a spot for everything. That is just not me, and I find that often times it leaves little room for collaboration or those wonderful spontaneous moments when a project just clicks with the class. Prepare, but don’t over prepare so much that you leave no room for the grinds to grease. Let your students help guide your curriculum; leave room for them to explore. I’m teaching Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and intentionally leaving some room in the course schedule for discussion. And in the event there is no discussion, it will be okay. I’m going to let them guide me that week.
Now I’m feeling like I need cupcakes, a kitten, and my course schedule completed. Happy first day to all my teacher friends, and be sure to add to my list. What did I miss?
When I first started teaching in 2005, my principal was horrified at my request for a classroom wifi hotspot. Horrified. I received a document camera instead. The next year I asked for the new iPad- just one for my classroom. (It’s hard to believe, but iPads have only been around seven years!) The horrified look. Again.
I left for graduate school the next year, thinking a graduate degree would help negotiate my bargining power with administration.
Now, having returned to the high school classroom some years later, I’m having the same conversations about technology and the classroom. It is less about personal devices (we are a bring-your-own-device school); classrooms with laptops are the new norm. And while there are still worthy conversations about social media, time on task, and access to new technology, I have full administrative support on the need for technology in the classroom. (I even have my own hotspot!) Yet there is a new battlefront brewing, and I’m wondering how much this one might re-shape or redefine teaching. I wonder how much teachers, particularly humanities teachers, are willing to embrace the new virtual reality technologies.
For the past four years, I’ve been an aggressive advocator for problem-based learning and game-based learning. It comes from my own experience as a learner. I simply retain knowledge best when learning to solve a problem or competing. Between my many years on team sports and family game nights, my brain is hard wired to want learning to be at the very least fun. I don’t think today’s generations are much different. And I don’t deny the value of lecturing or even socratic methods; I just think problem-based learning and game-based learning are better frameworks to structure (preferably) interdisciplinary design. So when VR (virtual reality) entered mainstream markets this year, I saw no reason why education wouldn’t be the first frontier for this relatively new technology.
Before I launch into my diatribe about how VR could re-shape the classroom, I do need to pay service to a growing concern among educators. Grant Lichtman author of #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education says it best, “Technology enables education; it doesn’t drive education…[technology] is just another one those changes that require a growth mindset.” Many educators and even administrations focus more on integrating new technologies long before evaluating how that technology encourages learning or even if there is already implemented training for that new technology. This can scare many would-be tech users away. Simply implementing new technology for the sake of declaring the school has that technology is a slippery slope: I’ve visited many a classroom where the SmartBoard is just a projector screen or the classroom iPad is still in the box. Just the same, there are classrooms that declare their innovation simply by using technology. Using is much different than implementation, and successful implementation happens when technology is allowed to be the vehicle to get to an answer or objective beyond simply use.
Nonetheless, the new augmented (AR) and virtual realities (VR) excite me. There are some obvious reasons: AR and VR give access to students that they may not have otherwise- like the ability to see Greek ruins and never leave the room. Virtual fieldtrips, while not an argument for replacing the real experience, could subsidize the cost of fieldtrips. The internet has made so many of my students visual learners that I imagine VR and AR as just an extension of their visual mind-mapping, particularly for complex subjects. There are other reasons to be interested in the AR/VR classroom. Imagine problem-based learning in an augmented reality. Team playing through a dangerous viral outbreak. Role playing as a crew member aboard Ahab’s ship. Participating in an archaelogical dig. Studying the eco-system of the rain forest. The possibilities are endless. More than anything, I want my students to build stories, build worlds with a complex understanding of how a story works. I want them to watch Gatsby become consumed with materialism and I want them to work alongside student coders to create new games, new escape rooms.
Essentially, I want teachers to start envisioning the classroom as its own VR- something they can use to engage students in the 21st century beyond recitation of facts. I want my students to have safe spaces to practice digital citizenship, a growing necessity in this very connected world. And, just as important, I want resources and professional development to grow with the new technology, rather than a learn as you go approach that many teachers are forced to do when faced with new technology. I want that to be a key argument for putting new technology in the hands of educators while partnering with the IT department, who can often be territorial even when it comes to letting teachers teach or write tech focused professional development. More than anything, I want to challenge the old boundaries with the new reality; I want the classroom to extend beyond four walls for my students. That technology is here, and if we are really going to be innovative, we need to embrace VR as an extention of student ability.
So. Who else is asking their administration for VR gear?
It’s day five of the snow apocalypse in Northern Virginia. Snow days can be a teacher’s wish come true and their worst nightmare all in one. A former me would be scrambling to piece together an email, maybe some way to scan something in pdf form, and then hoping my students had both a computer and a printer at home.
Not this year and never again.
Not only am I on schedule with my lesson plans but in our five days off, my students have completed a quiz, a timed essay, and three collaborative activities that correlate to the reading. I’ve even sent a link to help a student who left her book at school, all via OneNote.
The beauty of OneNote is realtime- things move in OneNote immediately. When my students take a quiz, they can take it at the same time as normal class. When they take a timed essay, I use OneNote’s time stamp to track when completion happened and page history to tell me when they started. I dropped my audio lecture and powerpoint in the class content library so I could introduce Poe and start reading him as soon as we return.
While this is all good, the one thing I really love about OneNote is the collaboration space. For example, yesterday we did a group scavenger hunt for details about Edgar Allan Poe’s life. A simple table grid helped organize the data.
In another class, we used the collaboration space to generate a chat board, a way to post questions about their reading of George Orwell’s 1984.
And today, I’ve been dropping in on each student’s outline page in their own personal notebooks to answer outlining questions.
Makes me think that you could almost do an entire class virtual in OneNote….
I tried to write a post all about VSTE, and well, it just made me want to write about what I presented at VSTE (The Virginia Society of Technology in Education). So, two birds, one stone.
Let me tell you about this game I started playing last year.
My school runs on the modular schedule which means our academic year is broken up into 5 week units. I teach mostly juniors- so junior year of English looks a bit like this: each junior must take the required Slavery to Civil Rights module (junior year is American Literature) and the research paper module (I don’t want to discuss how this works for AP History students in this post). For the remainder of the year, they select three of four options. In the modernism module, I teach Hemingway’s In Our Time and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in five weeks.
Take that in for a minute. Five weeks.
As you can imagine, that’s a small amount of time to condense a lot of context, both literary and historical. When I first start with this venture last year, I spent the first four modules trying to bet on the right horse- how much is enough to read Hemingway? To read Gatsby? To teach about the Lost Generation? Where do I put poetry? Interwar period? THE WAR(s)? At the same time, I was starting to really entrench (sorry, I wrote Hemingway and then he was in my head) myself in game-based learning. (Now, what I do isn’t true to the current definition. I’ve come to learn that I’m more of a “playbased learning.” I’ll talk about that perhaps in a different post.) To me, the module schedule timing felt right for that kind of environment- five weeks. But I would have to create the elements first. And, because Hemingway was already complicated enough for an all girls audience, I choose to start with Gatsby.
The first play of this game was relatively easy, but in many ways not quite a success. I created stock figures, stereotypes of the 1920s: the mob boss, the mobster, the dectective, the police, the socialite, the press, the bank. Each figure had a particular perk- the mob could steal, the press could publish, the socialites could curry favor, and the bank did what banks do. Each character also had a security deposit box where they could keep evidence, pass messages, keep money. The objective was simple: convince the public that Gatsby was either guilty or innocent (depending on your character) by collecting or fabricating evidence from the story. We played for a week; the students even built alliances, something I hadn’t considered. They robbed with delight and I recieved everything from the hotel receipt from Myrtle and Tom’s affair, a faux newspaper that connect them mob boss to Gatsby bank accounts, a printout of Gatsby’s bank accounts, a string of pearls, a crime scene report…they were true to the text while being creative. It was incredible.
And yet, I still felt that the game was amiss. My students spent a lot of time trying to create evidence (sometimes just to create it) rather than thinking about the objective. Moreover, while they were alive in the world of Gatsby, I didn’t feel they were connected to the time period, let alone connecting Hemingway and Fitzgerald to a movement. And, to top it off, I’m a tech teacher. I pride myself on integrating technology. This game operated mostly with brown envelopes and paper money.
In the middle of all this, I took the game on the road with my work partner. We present at VAIS (Virginia Association of Independent Schools). I kind of turned my talk into a “how to play a game in class” to “it’s not quite ready, what would you do” session. The session was really invigorating- it was nice to see that other English teachers wanted to do the same thing- create worlds (whether virtual or digital) for their students to understand context. However, we didn’t really come up with a good way to modify the game.
So. I finished last year learning OneNote, going completely paperless, and trying to figure out how to make Modernism different with a game that was going well for my students, but not for me. Summer needed to be about work. I’m going to flash forward a bit here- just imagine me at my desk, fast forward mode, bending furiously like a puppet on absurd amounts of caffeine, a furrowed brow while I pretend that I didn’t just cram everything for this year into the last week of summer. You get the idea.
This year, the game has changed and I am loving it. It started with Lauren (my work wife/partner):
“Well, if you don’t want them to create their own artifacts, you’ll have to reconsider your objective.”
(Cue my groaning) “That would require taking the emphasis off Gatsby.”
“Yea. Perhaps. Or what if Gatsby was just an access point. What if, Fitzgerald, and not Gatsby was the point?”
And from there, the new edition was born. The characters are chosen a bit the same- each student picks a historical figure to play as and they create a facebook page for that character. This is still done in secrecy; we hold a Gatsby tea party to introduce the players to each other. (I’m told I make a very good barkeep.) They come in costume, and ask questions (with some help on what kinds of questions to ask- no questions that can be answered with yes or no statements). And then…then they get the rules.
There are five ways to win, depending on the alliance you’ve created/chosen. Each alliance has certain pieces of evidence and a certain amount of money they must collect to win. In this version, I have already created the evidence and I have already printed the money.
What’s the difference, you might say.
In this version, you win evidence, skill cards, and money through challenges. Now, these can be as Gatsby-related as I want or they can be time period related. I even threw in a few writing challenges. And, I DID IT ALL IN ONENOTE.
It. Was. Amazing.
I have everything from the Charleston set to modern day music, a written piece on why Lucious Lyon in Empire is a modern day Gatsby, a recreated Depression era advertisement and even an MLA citation for every Fitzgerald book our library owned. This version allowed my students to get really entrenched in Modernism. What’s more, we played for FOUR WEEKS. Alliances shifted, challenges became harder, and the competition was fierce. Every single student was engaged.
The game still needs some tweeking- I’ve learned that evidence should move into circulation quickly (the last time we played, I was sure the mod would end before a winner declared) and that challenges were a great way to scaffold learning when applied correctly. I am also considering taking the money bit out- it seems to complicate the game more than move the players. I did love using OneNote, but the cards were challenging to keep up with; while my students didn’t know that they could easily copy cards into their notebook and I would be none-the-wiser, I should have a better system. I experimented a bit with a twitter board in the collaboration space of OneNote with some degree of success, but I’d like to move away from having a tupperware container of “security deposit boxes” (aka brown mailing envelopes).
I took this to VSTE (Virginia Society of Technology in Education) in December. Despite my nerves, I managed to explain this to a group of educators (I won’t claim I did it well). Point is, I’m learning that there are other teachers craving the same immersed environment. They keep me alive. (Shameless plug: go to VSTE. If you are a technology oriented teacher, GO TO VSTE. You will find your people. I did.) I connected with one teacher who plans to do something similar with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and another who might take this to his history class. Please do- take and adopt. Maybe we can be friends, and I’ll tell you all about the Edgar Allan Poe/Forensics mashup I built with a fellow science teacher (next post spoiler alert). I posted the pdf of the rules (thank you Lauren for being much more skilled in InDesign than me). By all means, email or comment below, and let’s start having fun in the classroom!
PS: I have consent and permission to share student content on this post.