I have much to post this week, but I thought I’d do a quick share: my favorite week at school was last week, or Kindness Week! It runs in conjunction with National Kindness Week, and I’m happy to see that tradition grow. At my school, we keep it simple. Sometimes, this is the best way- after all, kindness in its most simple form is a powerful thing.
Our guidance counselors invited the whole school to write notes- of encouragement, of gratitude, of greeting- to anyone in the school. Teachers were encouraged to write colleagues, students, and staff; students the same. The cafeteria dedicated a whole table to notecards of all sorts, makers, crayons, pens, and stickers so that anyone could write their note during the day. The notes were delivered via snail mail, which in our school means the student board or your faculty box.
I cannot tell you how incredible, how moving it is to watch a student squeal in delight (I teach all girls, so squeal is really the right word) when they get a card. I cannot tell you how much it just makes my week to open up my own notes and find words that make my job so meaningful, even from the most unlikely sources.
And so, while I am behind in posting, know that I spent my time writing others. If only we all did this year round!
Whew! The school year FLEW by- before I could collect my thoughts, the juniors were now seniors and the seniors were, well, gone. So was my time…
I have so much to reflect about the year- the OneNote introduction to the junior class, the changing curriculum to come, moving The Adventures of Huck Finn to AP English…and that’s just the beginning. I have all summer to share the year, starting with some amazing project examples. I started the year dedicated to open projects, meaning that no project had a list of “things” it had to be. More like each project had a list of objectives and meanings it needed to express. It was a bit scary at first- letting the students take the wheel on how and what their final products would be- and there were some failures. But I’m a proponent of failure in the classroom as well as letting the student set their standard. Most of them will set it higher than a teacher ever would.
I did this project with two different modules; the first round you can read about in my previous post. The second time around wasn’t much different save for this: it had to be a product. (No emojii comic books, please.) Same rules- the chosen annotations/project had to be from either Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. For project completion, each student had to complete an “interview” about their project (click Project Annotation for the questions). This module did not disappoint- many of them developed projects so innovative and creative, I plan to use several as examples next year. So, with much ado, here is the first of many showcases.
This is a Marauder’s Map of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Pretty amazing, yes? I’m excited to see what this could look like when applied to Song of Solomon. I’m pretty excited in general that Harry Potter found a way into my classroom…stay tuned and I’ll share the Tarot Cards next!
*Note to reader: the original published version is here.*
“Learning to love reading is easy; learning how to be an active reader is not,” I say often to my students. I hope they start believing me because this is precisely what Madeira English is about: active reading. From the moment they start ninth grade, we push students to articulate the why or significance of a text. By sophomore year, we ask them to expand their ability to express how a writer’s technique creates shades of meaning. In junior year, we inch toward research mode by asking how that significance might correlate to a movement, a historical time period, or even an abstract concept. It is a process and it begins with active reading. But what does that mean?
This is the question asked most often in my classroom usually in some form of “How should I read this?” or “Am I doing annotations the right way?” From a teacher’s perspective, there are many answers to those concerns. For some, annotating means a highlighted, scribbled-in-the-margins book. For others, it means a Cornell-style note page. Last year in my class, it meant a presentation of insights in a shared document. The teacher in me loved this; the reader in me started a rebellion. After all, isn’t part of the assignment how you enjoyed the novel? Why you may not like it? Aren’t annotations a little too forced? I am trying to read, after all.
I really began investing how to join those two things- how to move my students to both a personal response and an academic view of a novel. I spent the summer like most English teachers, reading, only this time, I really tried to examine how or when my love of the book merged with my thinking about the book. And, while I may be closer to an answer, I do not have a perfect one. I did, however, emerge with new thinking about annotations. When we began Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in the junior English Slavery to Civil Rights module, I asked students to do two kinds of annotations. The first is what I’m coining “commitment.” The assignment was simple: pick a chapter you liked, a chapter you felt connected the reader to a bigger idea, then organize your annotations for sharing. Not much different than last year; the significance here is “pick a chapter you like.” I’m coining the second collected annotations “invent.” I asked the students to do the same thing except, this time, they were to take the annotations and make something. Anything except notes. Make something that illustrates understanding and demonstrates why they liked the book.
I’m still trying to convince my students, particularly my art afficionados, that OneNote is an amazing tool for graphic drawing. So when I said, “Your OneNote is a sketchbook- use it!” for one of the activities this week, my artists looked at me a bit skeptical.
Let me explain.
Some of my classroom activities involve creating a graphic organizer of sorts; this week it was to create a visual infographic that demonstates gothic elements in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. I started small- you can use any platform. Paper, pen, marker, computer, performance- any and all modes were available to them. Much to my dismay, most of them chose paper, pen, marker, crayon.
Now, while I don’t fault anyone for this (I love the feel of a gel pen on a moleskin myself), in the process of trying to convince the students that OneNote is much more viable and much more than a simple organizational tool, I was failing. On one hand, I was getting good work:
On the other hand, they weren’t realizing they could transfer the same techinique to OneNote. In fact, this is what happened when I told them to think about doing their graphic digitally:
Admittedly, not a bad start, but not quite the same as the first attempt.
Part of this is that we are a bring-your-own-device school. I was asking girls who didn’t have a surface to work with the draw function and a mouse. I was also expecting girls who hardly ever touched a surface to fight at the opportunity to use mine-many remain unconvinced it could do the same thing. I did have three takers though. Here is the beginning of a different “The Black Cat”:
After watching and seeing P. create this, I turned over at least six. Only time will see if those six establish a sketchbook via OneNote. I’m at least happy they are fascinated by the Surface computer.
So, while I have convinced five of six in my department to switch to OneNote and two in the History department, I’ve still got some ways to go with my students. Ultimately, I think a rotating set of Surfaces, a classroom set so to speak, might be the best route. Now, I just have to find the money…..
Hang tight, my teacher friends. I promised a OneNote present soon- it’s coming, and I still have yet to tell you about the Socratic Circle done in OneNote!
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.
Newly returned from the VSTE (Virginia Society of Technology in Education) conference, I know I need to post about the amazing sessions I attended or about the two topics I nervously bumbled through in front of other educators. I know I need to email other teachers some things I mean to share.
And I will, I promise.
But right now, I want to use this space to promote one of my favorite places and some of my favorite things.
This past month, my work wife Lauren (@iteacherFlorida) and I have been just swamped. The modular schedule is still a bit challenging and this year we are co teaching journalism. We’ve spent the past four weeks pushing 16 girls of varying abilities and grades into journalistic writing and the software program InDesign. It hasn’t been easy. It’s a good day if I’m driving away from campus by five o’clock.
Lauren took off for Budapest this weekend. I am a little jealous. (I have my own vacation around the corner, so no hard feelings.) Luckily, I knew just the place to lift my tired spirits. Lauren and I have a few favorite places that we are religiously devoted to and Labyrinth is at the top of that list. I think I’ve professed my love of games to any one who knows me, but if not: I LOVE GAMES. Tabletop games in particular; I grew up with “family game night,” a night dedicated to Scrabble, Sorry, Trivial Pursuit, and the like. My family visits toy stores not for toys, but for the games. (They want me to share that they have since found a local store to buy their new games- I even took my mom to Labyrinth her first visit to DC and now its a staple on her return list to DC.)
Labyrinth isn’t a toy store. Well, not in the way we think of toy stores. Instead, it is a carefully organized and crafted collection of some popular games, a lot of new games, and games you never knew you will love. What’s more, they partner with local schools to build communities of play. It’s not uncommon to visit the store and find a member of their staff hosting a school, running a birthday party, or (and this is my favorite reason to come) teaching literally ANYONE how to play a new game. Labyrinth has a store copy of almost every item, allowing customers to play the game before taking home their own copy.
I usually do just that- open the store copy up and examine how the mechanics works. This really helps me think about how game mechanics are so drastically different (I talked about this a bit at VSTE). I am, however, spoiled by Kathleen, the most knowledgeable tabletop gamer I know. And, she’s really nice!
When I popped in this Saturday, she had the two games for me- both games she recommended based on my previous purchases and what she knows about the types of games I and my students play (I cannot begin to tell you how on the mark she is about this or how incredible it is that she remembers her returning customers, both young and old). Today I picked up Spyfall and Codenames, and couldn’t help but add Batman Fluxx and Holiday Fluxx (thank you Looney Labs!).
And then, just when things couldn’t get any better, Kathleen whips up a creeper and a keeper for both editions of Fluxx and hands me a reject pack for Cards Against Humanity.
See? She gets me. Labyrinth gets me.
I love that place.
You should too. They’re right off the Eastern Market Metro- walk past the CVS and you can’t miss it. And if you don’t live anywhere near DC, I’m sure there is a local game store in most areas. Indy shop owners are very dedicated people and the customer service will be unbeatable.
I can’t wait to play Spyfall and Codenames. I’ll post reviews, but I’ve got to first post about VSTE and then I’ve promised a Fluxx Basics tutorial for the classroom.
PS. I taught my other half how to play Fluxx, and now he insists this be the way we settle any disagreement. Ever. (I might have created a Fluxx monster.)
I was supposed to write a back-to-school post, but then back-to-school happened. I promised I’d write by the end of August, and then September happened while October keeps on happening. I promised myself it would be all warm and fuzzy and “yay back to school.”
Instead, I want to write to you today about some pretty complicated things, and if I’m being honest, I’m at a loss where to begin. I’m going to try anyway: I teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain in my classroom. In case you are unaware of the complication involved in that task, here’s a short briefing. In this literary text, the author chose to use a derogatory term in describing the novel’s runaway slave, Jim. He didn’t just use it once; he used some 271 times. This fact has made Adventures of Huckleberry Finn arguably one of the most banned books of our century. It is still officially and unofficially banned in parts of the United States. I tell you this so that you will understand how controversial my next statement is: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a necessary book in a high school curriculum.
My intent is not to justify the literary merits of a book that challenged the status quo in its day, or to explain why Huck’s familiarity with that derogatory term is crucial to understanding the novel as an indictment of inherent racism. You will have to read the book, without any personal agenda or attempt at racial politics to understand why Huck’s “alright then, I’ll go to hell” moment was and is a siren call in American literature. You’ll have to read it to understand that when Huck calls Jim “my nigger”, it isn’t just a term of affection but an acknowledgement that in a corrupt, sickened culture, it is Huck’s white privilege that saves Jim and shames Huck. You’ll have to read it to understand why Toni Morrison’s states “the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged, and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed.”
I say this in so many words to every class I teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I want my students to talk about that word, the history of racism in our country, and even the racism that still exists. Most of the time, the conversations surrounding that novel are genuine, reflective, difficult, and redeeming. For me, it’s an acknowledgement of my own white guilt, my own white privilege, and my own cultural heritage. It reminds me that we still have so much more to do.
This is all just part of why I write you.
Today, a colleague shared with me an incident that happened while on dorm duty (I work at a boarding school). Four students at my school took it upon themselves to reproach another student for supposedly using that same derogatory term in class. This may not seem so terrible. Everyone is allowed to voice their hurt, their uncomfortableness in being offended, intended or not. Let me also share with you that none of these four girls are in the class that this offense was rumored to have been said. These four students approached the other student in her bedroom. One more thing- this class is currently studying, you guessed it, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
My first thoughts were scrambled in outrage. Rage became questions: how does this cultivate an environment that promises integrity, compassion, or awareness of self and others, a motto my school holds dear? How does this cultivate an environment that promises integrity, compassion, or awareness of self and others, a motto my country holds dear?
The United States we all live in is built on innovation, creativity, and diversity. It’s also built on the backs of slaves, the blood of brothers (and sisters, my inner feminist reminds me), and a complicated history. And we can’t even begin to understand this legacy or inspire progress if we can’t find a way to talk about it. I worry that my students are so occupied with the politicalness of their identities that they are unable to divorce themselves to think analytically about something. But what worries me most is that what could have been a great conversation was instead an accusation. There is no clear cut answer on many issues surrounding race, racism, and identity. But there is a way to talk about it.
I don’t believe this is the way, and I really believe we as a communitynation should start talking about how to talk so that our studentswe can have those genuine, reflective, difficult, and redeeming conversations. And until we can do that, we doom every generation after us to not only dismiss Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the uncomfortableness it invokes, but we also deny any opportunity for the next generation to understand why Jim is crucial to progress.
When teaching English, it’s easy to forget that visual literacy isn’t just the ability to read and interpret written text. Especially in today’s world- infographics, ads, commercials, movies- they all demand some inference and interpretation very similar to analyzing a story. This was very much at the heart of one of my favorite teaching activities to do with students.
In this particular case, I asked them to gather items for a character’s suitcase. See if you can guess what character it might be (Some hints: I was teaching American Drama and the movie is a classic).
A pearl necklace, a scarf, a bit of lace, perfume, lipstick, tea, and heels? This can only mean Blanche DuBois. They even arranged it artfully so- leading us to discuss the things that would upset Stanley or how one might modernize the movie by substituting certain items (“who drinks tea anymore? I’d drop a Starbucks card in there bruh”) or updating her wardrobe (“girl has a thing for lace. Someone get her some Gucci leather”).
The best part: this can be modified to do any character from literature. Have a knapsack? Huck Finn does. How about a green tarp? Better see to Pilate (Song of Solomon).
And then, if you are really ambitious, snap a photo and you have an instant quiz/test question: “choose an item from the suitcase that symbolically represents that character. Explain it’s significance and compare the item to the character.” As I tell my students, no surprises here. Just pictures turned into words. Make it so.