PBL, what a way to end the year!

28 Sep

So my English class is not exactly traditional. The “rules” about what to teach and how just don’t seem to prepare students for their future. That’s why instead of writing a final paper at the end of junior year, my students participated in a project-based learning experience. It was the best end to a school year that I have ever been a part of.

Here’s a quote about the project that I’ll never forget, “We’re actually, like, doing stuff in this class. That’s so weird for the end of the year. Usually we don’t do a whole lot.” And let me tell you, that is pretty enthusiastic approval from a junior! So project-based learning will make a return to junior English this year, that’s for sure.

Schools tend to breed question answerers. We want students to be able to recall information and use it to display their knowledge. This is no longer enough in our world where information is so readily available to those who wish to find it. It is the thinking that matters.

The next step is to help students to become problem solvers. Apply available knowledge to solve a problem. But even that is lacking something. We need to train students to look for problems and find them if we want to help students become independent thinkers and have the chance to innovative.

Enter project-based learning.

First of all every project needs to have a driving question, one that asks students to truly solve a problem. Here was ours:

How can we, as a PR firm, positively influence the perception of Red River High School?

Students have to evaluate and discover where the problems with perception lie in our own student body as well as in the public. Are these perceptions related to RRHS or to students/teenagers in general? Should effort be focused to influence our own student body or the community?

The students ranked their preferred roles and were assigned one of the following:

  • Presentation coordinator – Leader of presentations, creating slideshow, notes/script, gathering information from other team members and generating one document, coordinate a schedule
  • Video coordinator/Field coordinator – Script writing, film director, set up, planning and execution of strategy
  • Communications coordinator – Publish work , promote positive public image, contacting resources and individuals in the community, gathering resources

The groups then proposed and carried out their project ideas. We had greeters at our doors in the morning (and one day even the band was playing), we had random acts of car washes (students would find their previously dirty car now sparkling in the parking lot), and we had Cuts for Mutts (mowing a lawn after receiving pledges for donations to the humane society). We had a music club with students with special needs and musical performers, an ELL pen pals group, interactions with elementary school classrooms, a book drive, a revamped system to nominate classmates for positive actions, and many more.

But the part that really added incentive to the project was that each group would present their accomplishments as well as the impact that it had to a panel of judges. Our principal, associate principal, a technology partner, our activities director, and our school district’s communications director each generously gave up their time to choose a winner from each class.

Because of this final presentation, students had to learn how to give an effective presentation that did not involve mindlessly reading bullets in a slideshow. They had to truly engage with their audience. And that’s just the presentation part. While carrying out the project, students had to engage with members of the community or school administration in order to carry out their plan and change perceptions. If you want to take a look at one period’s collection presentations, here is the link. What you’ll find is that students actually had to present, a skill that is sometime lost when creating presentations.


What many groups began to discover was that they wanted to build community in our school, then the public would see more positive students. Instead of just being given a problem, these students had to determine what they actually wanted to address then formulate a plan to make a difference. Some might say that isn’t really “English,” but I’d argue that these skills are the skills these students need in their future. And that’s better.

Instead of watching Netflix, I just read now

16 Sep


When a student chooses a book over Netflix, it’s a victory. When a student tries to read straight through from before the bell rings through my instructions, and into reading time, it’s a victory. And when a student is already on his fourth book just 15 days into the school year, it is a huge victory!

For the past two years in my classroom we read on Mondays. It was a great way to start the week, give students time to read for pleasure, and build reading stamina. But in the interest of improving, I had to move out of my comfort zone.

This year we are doing it a little differently. Each class period starts with 10 minutes of reading. Being the time protestor that I am, there are days when we go 12. I admit it. But I do my best to stick to a quick book talk to start class (2-3 minutes), independent reading (10 minutes), then our instruction for the day. The shift was a little different for students right away, especially those who had been expecting full reading days, but it seems like we have gotten ourselves into a nice groove now.

Here’s what I notice:

  1. I never have to wake anyone up. We start first period at 8:00 am, and there were times when students would fall asleep. I get it. It is a lot to ask of a 17-year-old kid to be awake enough and engaged enough to read for 40 minutes at the beginning of a day on only a few hours of sleep. This problem is no more. I once heard someone say, “You can do anything for 10 minutes.” Even students who see themselves as nonreaders. My hope is that I can even trick a few students into becoming readers through these painless reading sessions.
  2. The pace of class is much faster. Everything we do has to be done with a sense of urgency. Instead of taking an entire hour to write, we have to get things done quicker. Instead of me babbling on a tangent, I have to be focused and know where we need to get to during the class. One piece of feedback I got in my first year teaching high school English was that the pace needed to increase. I finally feel like I have done it.
  3. It is not as hard to get into a book for a short time. To start the year I have been reading at the same time as students. I was a little concerned after the first class because I had a little trouble settling in and getting going. This went away after a few sessions. Now when we get to reading, the room is quiet within a few seconds and everyone is reading. They know that there is only 10 minutes, so it isn’t nearly as cool to waste time now.
  4. When I begin conferencing with students in the next few weeks, I will be forced to be focused with my questions and discussions. The goal will be to get to 3 students each day. My note-taking sills will need to be sharp so that I am prepared and make sure each conference builds on the previous one.
  5. Having a book talk each day right when the bell rings gives students insight to the possibilities that are out there. It is building this idea that books are important enough to talk about every single day.

My hope is that by reading every day our class builds a culture that is centered around reading and a celebration of books. When I over heard a junior girl say, “Instead of watching Netflix, I just read now,” I have to say, I felt pretty good about the culture we have here in the basement.

Just shut up already

9 Sep

Sometimes as a teacher I think I have to keep guiding, pushing, and leading my students. Let’s do this. Let’s talk about this. Here’s what you need to know.

In my innovations class everything is so new. We have to break some of the traditional rules of school, rules that students have followed for up to eleven years. Much of our success depends on how quickly we can get past those, get into something new, and create and design experiences.

Funny that I tried to teach them to break the rules by following those same rules myself.

Yes, there are things they need to know. Yes, we have to have the basics. But when I finally made myself just shut up and let the students go, it was the most energizing class we have had so far.

Here’s where we started this year. We did a brainstorm on day one of what we care about – passions, interests, what gets you up in the morning. Those tend to be big ideas, but when we dig deeper we can narrow those down. A number of students took some of those ideas and found inspiration for their first project.

To start week two we did a gripe/dream session. You complain to your partner who takes notes on everything the griper/dreamer says. When that is done, the recorder asks probing questions to see where the two of them can come up with potential project ideas. A note on this is that it is tough for students to get past the initial complaints, but that is what I have to teach.

That’s when I finally got out of the way. My last piece of advice about choosing projects was to make sure they chose something small enough to not overwhelm themselves. What happened? Exactly what was supposed to happen.

Groups came up with great ideas. Visiting an elderly-care home and interviewing residents about their experiences. Making dog beds and treats for our animal shelter. Blogging using art and film inspired by and for domestic abuse. Learning how to edit videos and create something using GoPro. Cooking those cool Facebook videos and reviewing them.

Will they all be huge successes? Who knows? But the key is that we are starting. And once we start, we can learn. Fail or succeed, we are going to start, reflect, and grow. That is the only that we can move towards innovation!


Pass the genius on

5 Feb

My innovations students love sharing what we are doing. This is one of the ways I have been able to see success in our innovations class, through the excitement that my students have developed about doing something. It is clear that their confidence has far surpassed where they thought it would be at this point. We visited with one elementary class, and after the visit everyone asked if we could find another class to go to. Now it’s my turn to share what happened!

For our second class visit, one Mrs. Freund, a second grade teacher, invited us in to help her begin genius hour. I sent her a few ideas that I’ve collected from other elementary teachers.

I would think that 2nd grade projects should only take 1-3 weeks at the start of the process. It is best to start small. Learn something, share it, move on to the next thing. Build their confidence in the process of learning and directing themselves.

Here is one interesting blog post about 2nd grade genius hour.

Here is an email from @BetseyMcIntyre, whose class we visited a few weeks ago:

“Okay, I started by showing some sort of short video every day for about a week to try to get them thinking. A couple examples are the Ted Talk Richard Turere: My invention that made peace with lions and Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation Documentary. After that, I introduced Genius Hour with a PowerPoint Tiffany Mannasau shared with me. Then we brainstormed. They had post-its and I had 4 categories on my bulletin board: learn to do, learn to change, learn about, learn to make.We spent a good amount of time brainstorming. We use that board now when we are ready to start a new project.”

Week two – our first visit

Five students from our class went to visit the classroom. We discussed everything that we thought was important and that the students wished they knew as they began their projects – coming up with ideas, current projects, biggest successes, biggest failures, and what we learned through them all. The hope is that the 2nd graders can see the possibilities and be inspired to do something awesome.


Week three – now what?

After our initial visit, I heard from Mrs. Freund about how genius hour week three went. Kids had started planning and researching with their partners. She is already seeing some of the difficulties that come with genius hour – it isn’t that easy! We are asking students to start breaking the rules of school, and that is a little strange.

A few students want to make a poster to get people to stop smoking. One group wants to find out if the Sasquatch is real. And while interest is a big part of genius hour, these ideas just aren’t good enough. But how do we push students to go beyond the easy and the obvious?

My advice for the smoking poster group: your first idea is usually not your best idea. We train our students, whether implicitly or explicitly, to go with that first conventional and safe idea. Genius hour is to encourage students to try new things and maybe even fail. We don’t fail by doing what we’ve always done or what everyone else is doing. Here are a few ideas to prove that point:

  1. Tell students to line up in birthday order without talking. The best part of this one is to hear the initial complaints even though they aren’t supposed to be speaking. Eventually one students will start doing something, usually hand signals for months. They will get in an order then figure out days from there, and they’ll be mostly accurate. But the key to this is the conversation afterwards. “Why did you go with that strategy?” The answer is always, “Because it was our best idea.” Was it? Or was it the only idea? So often we just go with the first idea because it seems like the easiest or best, but we don’t spend the time to explore other options. Students could have written their birthdays on a scrap of paper, taken out their driver’s licenses, created a timeline on the floor and found their correct spots. What about singing? I said no talking. Break the rules! (taken from inGenius by Tina Seelig)
  2. Come up with a list of 20 ways to share your project or findings. How can you get students to move beyond the initial set of ideas, past the better set, and into the deeper stuff that is actually innovative?
  3. Ask questions. Ask enough to help students realize the potential their idea has and that a poster just isn’t good enough to realize that potential.

For the Sasquatch group whose topic doesn’t seem to offer much depth, ask questions, encourage, let them find out if their project has no legs. The excitement for learning is an important part of genius hour, and we don’t want to squash it. But we do have to help students realize the importance of a powerful question. Help this group discover what really interests them about the Sasquatch. Maybe they research for a day, present to the class, and move on. Maybe they find something that fascinates them in terms of conspiracies that they can learn about. They will hopefully figure out what makes a good project. This is where sharing with our classmates can be effective. What questions are groups asking in order to be successful? Understanding what makes a good project is an important skill to learn at any age.

These classroom visits have beneficial to the elementary students, of course, but so have mine. I’ve learned, and so have the elementary teachers. Genius hour is a great movement when we have dedicated teachers who are planning what is best for our students. It’s a pleasure for my students and I to be a part of the process!


16 Oct

Here I am asking my students in my innovations class to blog every week, and I’m just walking around visiting about their blogs, talking to them, and, most importantly, not blogging myself. Embarrassing.

Here is what innovations class is all about. First, let me give most, if not all, credit to Don Wettrick for the ideas to make it happen. The basics of the class are we propose a project along with a due date, plan of action, and other necessary information; we carry out a project in our school, community, or worldwide; then we reflect on the project.

I’ll highlight a few projects going on right now, but feel free to take a look at my students’ blogs to hear what they are all about. You can also see our project overviews here.

Seth and Kelly’s project is “ASL in our schools.” They have started a snapchat and they send out daily videos or pictures of signs for their followers to learn. The first day’s snap was a video of “please” and “thank you,” a pretty basic place to start. When I was home after school talking with my wife and mother-in-law about babies signing, I was asked, “What is the sign for please?” I had an answer!

The ASL in school’s project is an example of two students who learned all sorts of things about a topic that mattered to them. Seth and Kelly both had experiences where they felt unprepared to deal with a person who could not hear. They wanted to fix that for themselves and others. And the best part is that they started doing something about it.

One group is helping to put a stop to rape culture by creating a video featuring students that talks about what is right. Their goal is for this video to be shown in health class as part of a discussion on some of the problems in our society that lead to sexual assaults. These three girls have been learning by reading Missoula, by John Krakauer, which is an absolutely fascinating book. They’re passionate about the topic, and passionate about making our world a better place.

These projects are not coming without obstacles. Students have been told “no,” have ran into dead ends, and have gone days without hearing back from possible mentors. My hope is that this class teaches my students perseverance. My secondary hope is that my students also learn when to give up and move on. It does no good to sit around and wait for a response from someone for a week before acting on an idea. If the idea matters enough, make something happen.

I was asked today in class about how we would present what we have done and learned. I told the class that we would be giving a TED Talk, similar to the ones we watch each week. “Do you mean like a TED-style talk in class or a like on stage?” Now we’re talking! Yes, on stage in the theatre or performance hall! And we can invite everyone! That’s when the panicked looks replaced the friendly smiles. But this class is all about getting us out of our comfort zone! Anyone want to come watch?

Penny Kittle – my newest hero

10 Aug

I could make some excuses about my blog like becoming a father, but let’s just get past that part for now.

What better than a great conference experience to get me back to blogging? The North Dakota Council of Teachers of English Conference did it again this year. After a great day with Kelly Gallagher in 2014, Penny Kittle lived up to the already-raised bar.

Back to the fatherhood part. I’m not sure that I can blame becoming a dad, but I seem to be a little more emotional than I remember myself being. I’ve noticed myself becoming a little more invested in characters in books. I won’t go into the details, but one drive to work in the morning involved the Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close audiobook, peanut butter toast, and tears.

But I didn’t expect to feel what I felt listening to Penny Kittle talk about books! What she had to say and lives that have been changed in her classroom are truly inspiring.

I’ve always taken pride in getting students to read. I love telling a student,”There is no such thing as someone who hates to read; it is just someone who hasn’t found the right book yet.” I can be better. And Penny Kittle has helped me see why I need to be better and how I can be better.

I’ll take a few of my favorite quotes from Penny Kittle and respond with SOMETHING HERE

200 pages per week is the average amount of reading needed for a freshman in college to succeed.

Can any of us say that we are building the reading stamina needed for college success, let alone survival? She goes on to say that more prestigious universities, Ivy League colleges for example, require 600 pages for their freshmen. When we ask students to read the four required novels for an English class, we are telling our students that that’s what is needed for success. Wrong message.

Professors didn’t care whether all students read any particular books, only that they read a lot so they would have a variety of experiences to draw on and the ability to handle the volume of reading expected in college. (Book Love)

If kids have no reading life, we are pushing them to be part of the 50% of kids who drop out after their freshman year of college.

Now that we know why we must help our students become readers, let’s talk about the emotional part of the whole thing. The joy and love that come with the experience of books is where we develop life-long learners and readers.

Small wins test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover resources and barriers that were previously invisible – Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit

When we see our students start reading, and I can picture some of my favorite success stories…let me take a second to keep my emotions in check, we see them overcome something that they thought was not in their realm of possibilities. They start to see themselves as readers, start to talk about books with friends, and start to spread the love! Can you tell that I’m slightly excited about the reading that I am going to see in my classroom next year?

Stacks of books and stories about overcoming the fear of books. I can’t wait. So how do we do it?

Help students develop a plan for their reading. Every student needs a plan for their reading. My middle school students always had this, but when I made the switch to high school, I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I didn’t require it. It was one of those things that I didn’t think my students would need. I saw such a huge difference when kids finished a book. There was too much time spent milling around the book shelves and never ending up with a great book. I’m debating the merits of or just good old pen and paper as the tool for planning what students will read next.

Book talks. Every. Single. Day.

Give students books that they feel just have to be recorded on that “Next” page. I will be committing to this idea that we should be talking about great books all the time. And if there is a teacher that doesn’t think that sounds like a community that they want to create, I’m guessing they already quit reading this post by now.

Reading conferences every day as a way to push readers as well as to support them. We can help students become better readers while they read something that they truly care about. I will not be so arrogant as to say that the only way a student can learn about revenge is by reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Meet students where they are and help them develop their thinking.

And my last big takeaway from Book Love, and possibly the most daunting, is to reorganize my classroom library. I’m lucky enough to have four big bookcases stuffed full of great books (with stacks piling up on top of them even). I have some beautiful signs labeling the genres to make it easy to find books. After hearing how Penny Kittle has her library organized, I started to think about how my system makes it easy for me to find books. Kids don’t say, “Hmmm I’m in the mood for some great realistic fiction. Let’s see… Here we have The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, or maybe Hoot by Carl Hiasson right next to that. Those books have nothing in common besides the fact that they take place in our contemporary world.

I plan to organize my classroom library by subject. Interested in war? We have that section. Interested in love? Over here. Life in high school? The World? Death and dying? LGBTQ? Comedians? Athletes? Prisoners? History? Poetry? Understanding differences? We have just what you’re looking for.

A book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it.

If students do not read the assigned texts, nothing important is happening in your lit classroom.

Here’s a list of books that I frantically typed when I decided it would be too slow to try to purchase them on Amazon during the keynote. These books are going to get kids reading, not fake reading. I left the list unedited to let you judge my speed-typing skills:

Butter, Alabama Moon, Dirt Road Home, Werewolf, The Monster Calls, Reality Boy, The Girl Who Could, Please Ignore Very Dietz, Beserck, Hive, Fascinating Pathetic LIfe, BEfore I die, Thank you for your service, No easy day, The good soldier, The Forever War, Soldier Dogs, REdeployment, The Yellow Birds, Bitter End, The Unschooled Mind, Nothing to Envy, I was Here, Love leatters to the dead, Before I fall, Held Stil, Me EArl Dying girl, My Heart and Other Black Holes, Memoirs of a teenage amnesiac, Lost in the Meritocracy, One Amazing Thing, Juvenile in Justice (pictures), Prisoners – Wally Lamb Women of york, Hole in my life, a place to stand, last chance in texas, Homeboyz, Period 8, The Reason I Jump, Wake Fade and Gone trilogy, Winger, Food Girls and other things I can’t Have, Stick by Andrew Smith, The Sky is Everywhere, LIttle Bee, Best Night of my pathetic life, Above the Dreamless Dead

Book love. It’s a surprisingly emotional topic!

Oh yeah, and we even got to have lunch with Mrs. Kittle.

Oh yeah, and we even got to have lunch with Mrs. Kittle.

It doesn’t have to be Genius Hour

6 Mar

Genius Hour, what isn’t there to love? And it is easy to see why – learning becomes a joyful experience that is owned by each student. Our classes become authentic environments where students choose what to learn. Of course this sounds great!

But I’m slightly afraid.

I love the idea of inspiring kids to learn by giving them ownership over the topic. I have been experimenting with Genius Hour/20% Time/Innovation Hour in my junior English classes this year, and let’s just say that I’ve learned a lot.

What happens if we ruin it?

My biggest fear is that I’ll have a group of juniors walk in to my room and moan because, “We did this last year,” or, “I never know what to do,” or, “This is boring,” – all sure signs that we ruined it. But it is so important that we do not destroy this experience.

In order to do my part in avoiding ruining Genius Hour, I decided to do something different with my sophomore English classes, something with a little more structure. We created magazines in small groups in order to address real-world writing purposes. It has been a great experience and has helped my students develop a sense of the audience they are writing for.

We still had the most important element in a project like this – student choice.

We created a magazine for each of the first two quarters, and there was some great work! But now it is time to switch things up. Students are going to create a blog or a video blog/YouTube channel on the topic of their choice. The goal is to build a following and create their own brand.

Our first brainstorming session had a great buzz. Students were coming up with great ideas, thinking deeper about those ideas and their potential audiences, and coming up with even better ideas. Some student were working together, and some were working in a group of up to three. There were even a few people who are going to do their own thing but be in the videos of another group.

One key that we discussed in the brainstorming process is that usually our first idea is not our best idea. If I were to sum up my inspirational speech of that day, I think it would sound something like, Get past that first idea, take it out of the mix. What else do you have? Keep building on something unique. Find you niche. What can you offer that others cannot? 

The highlights of my day were the few interactions that went just like this one:

Student: Mr. Sanders, this (a makeup blog) is actually what I want to do for my career.

Me: Yes, this is the start of your career! In a year you will be able to point to your blog and say that you have been doing this for a long time.

And the young man who wants to be a baseball scout will be able to point to his portfolio and show off how much experience he has.

There are groups doing fashion advice and makeup advice and spoofs on makeup advice with guys who are clueless. Food, hockey, tattoos and more.

Give students some choice and see the excitement build. Instead of prodding students to get going, you’ll answering the question, “Can we get started right now?!” Trust me, that’s slightly more fun.

It isn’t Genius Hour, but it sure feels genius to me!