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When we need to recharge

10 Nov

What happens when you hit a rut? In the 180 plus days of school, it is bound to happen. The mid-semester innovations slump seems to be upon us here in the basement. We have had a few failures, a few successes, but now it is time to take what we have learned and do something amazing.

As I sit and listen to an unusually quite room here in innovations class, it is clear that my pre-blogging speech inspired some reflection today. So what do we do when we need to be inspired?

Reexamine your passions

Why are we even here? What are we good at? How can I align those passions and skills with a problem that lies ahead? On Monday for our brainstorm activity, we made a list of our passions and skills. We then narrowed them down by grouping them together in order to find “the sweet spot” where our passions intersect. We then made a list of problems we have seen around us. How can our passions and skills help to solve those problems?

Take a look at the video below to see what we did at the start of the week.

The next step is for those who were unable to determine a problem they cared about in that session. The assignment over the weekend will be to start a “Bug List” in the notes app of their phone.

Put yourself and your beliefs out there

When we are challenged, we have to determine whether we will stand behind our beliefs or want to disregard them. Blogs help us do to this. My most important example came from innovations class last year. She and I each tweeted her blog post about sexual assault and a discussion with a teacher. The responses she got were rude, offensive, and ignorant. She came to class and asked, “What should I do? Should I take it down?” What we learned was that when trying to make a change, we often run into resistance. This is the time when we determine how strong our beliefs are. That resistance meant that she hit a nerve and needed to keep going. After seeing that response, the student had a renewed commitment to her project and her ultimate goal of educating her fellow students on sexual assault and rape culture. If our beliefs go unchallenged, it can be difficult to find the dedication and determination to make something happen.

Collaborate with trusted peers

When we work with others whom we respect, we have an opportunity to grow our thinking. Even more important is the energy that comes from a great sharing session with a group. We have a chance to be that source of energy for others each day. Think about the last time you met to talk about a great idea, great book, or great speaker. When we have something to discuss that truly matters to us, it is energizing to share that sense of community and build ideas together. Be an energy creator, not an energy vampire!

My hope is that our innovations class continues to see the potential in their ideas and the world around them. Looking back at these three ideas, I find that I use them in my professional life, and that is what makes innovations class so important. If these students can build these skills in high school, they will be far ahead of their peers as they head on to their next steps in life.

Knowing and addressing this slump is an important step on our road to big successes.

 

Innovations

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?

What would Atticus say about Ferguson?

4 Dec

After participating in a #gfedchat (the hashtag for our district’s online PD) on Twitter Monday night about empowering students, I thought, “Why not empower my students tomorrow?!” I had planned to take what was happening in Ferguson and tie that in with To Kill a Mockingbird in sophomore English because of the many tweets like this one:

In terms of student empowerment I wanted my students to learn as much about this situation as possible so that they could be informed citizens, but how they did that and proved it was up to them. This quote became a point of contention for my students. Was this the most applicable quote from the book to the situation in Ferguson? Here is what we have done the past three days:

Day 1 – Track your thinking and start learning

I want to know what my students think and how their thinking changed. I asked them to create a map of their thinking throughout the week. I gave an example of how it might be done, but they had freedom in choosing what point they want to prove. I offered this as a starting point if they wanted:

Innocent


Guilty

The goal of this activity is to make students aware of their thinking. What changes their opinions? What changes their goals in this assignment? Maybe guilty and innocent do not matter anymore to a student, and the most important issue becomes racist vs. empathetic or good vs. evil.

At the end of the first day, I asked students to return to their map and determine where they were. They also asked what questions they had about anything that they had read, watched, or thought about.

 

Day 2 – What is important, and how do we use it?

We discussed some of the areas of confusion in the Ferguson case. The Washington Post’s article on eyewitness testimony of Michael Brown approaching Officer Wilson offers a variety of different stories about what happened. We discussed the reliability of witnesses as well as the reliability of what people say. Who can we trust? How do we determine what websites and news sources to trust?

We also looked at NFL player Benjamin Watson’s Facebook post on his feelings. As a white teacher, Atticus Finch’s words are important: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Does this post offer facts that help students understand the case? Nope. But if we are going to strictly look at the facts, it is going to be impossible to understand why riots were spilling over into the streets.

We had a student-centered discussion on their opinions before returning to the computer lab. Our research time there was very focused. The students are starting to see the relevance in something that is happening right now.

 

Day 3 – Big questions and determining our product

Today we mapped our thinking again at the beginning of class. I showed my map where I switched from “guilty vs. innocent” to “racist vs. empathetic.” My students had the chance to do the same. What really matters in this case? We need to get past the focus of just one dead person and understand what implications this has for our world – issues of trust, judgment, class, poverty, and so much more.

Big questions. We started to discuss what some of those topics might be. We talked about the riots and celebrity opinions to determine what those tell us about the importance of this issue. An example from Kenny Smith’s open letter to Charles Barkley was, “Why is there so much distrust in the police and the legal system from the African American community?” My goal is for my students to walk around in someone else’s skin and understand the importance of this situation.

We then moved on to determining how we will prove what we know and answer our big question. Here is what I was told that I will see on Monday: debates, conversations, email conversations, papers, TED talks, and videos.

What has become clear through these three days is that students are becoming less concerned with guilt and innocence, and more concerned with bigger questions and ideas. It has taken some prompting, but it has been fun to watch students start to think deeply. And I hope the students learn just as much about themselves as they do about Ferguson.

Innovations Class

4 Nov

This year, for the first time in my English classes, we started using Fridays for 20% Time or Genius Hour. It actually started with an idea that a colleague and I joked was called my Vague Friday Project because I wasn’t sure exactly where it was going. This type of thinking initially came from Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators. This is such a great collection of various outlier teachers who put students in charge of their own real-life learning.

I was inspired to do that in my own room. It’s possible that being in the basement of my new school helped encourage that outlier attitude.

So I’ve been doing a little reading. Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Innovation and Taking 20% Time to the Next Level by Don Wettrick (@donwettrick) is a book that you MUST check out if you’re considering anything that has to do with teaching innovation. I found out that I’m definitely not the only one who is finding their way through the exciting and unpredictable world of Genius Hour.

I immediately became excited about the possibility of creating a new class at my high school. It is called Innovations Class and falls under our state board’s classification of Applied Communications. Thanks to Don Wettrick, I have a plan and a passion for creating this new learning experience for my students.

Here is how it works:
Students choose a problem that needs to be solved. They decide if they are going to work on that alone or in a group of up to three students. They propose a plan, their timeline, the point value of the project, and at least three CCSS English standards that they will master through this project.

Here is the basic class structure:

  • Brainstorming sessions every Monday – but not just the average ones, more directed and unique ways of brainstorming that come from inGenius: A Crash Course in Creativity by Tina Seelig and Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelly and David Kelly.
  • Working on projects Tuesday through Thursday – students choose a mentor (that isn’t the teacher) and meet or talk with that person for guidance. Students research their topic, carry out their plans, and build their proposals and presentations, and basically get the job done.
  • Blog/Vlog on Friday – reflecting on how their project is going, their struggles and successes, etc. This is a key to the innovation process.

When the project is finished, the students:
Present their project to their chosen stakeholders.
Argue for their grade and what they believe they have earned.
Choose another project to begin, create a proposal, and start innovating and creating.

One of the biggest parts of this is that we are preparing students for success in the real world. It should never be possible to hear someone question whether or not they will use this in real life. The mentor aspect opens the doors to students who would not normally meet someone in our community, state, or world with connections. Now our students will have someone that they know in the world, and that might become valuable down the road. Might? Okay, it will be.

How do you grade it?
Students determine their approximate point value for the project in their proposal. When they are finished, they will assess themselves and support their case. Talk about students being advocates for themselves! Blogs or Vlogs that are done on a weekly basis will be assessed for reflection.

“When you treat yourself like a professional, other people will do the same.” – Don Wettrick

This class is all about students becoming professionals, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Essentially speaking

7 Oct

Wow, time sure does go by fast! Apparently I’m already a month into this whole high school thing. At least that’s what they tell me.

Recently we had a chance, as English teachers, to examine all of the secondary English curriculum maps. One thing stood out, well I guess we better say that two things stood out. The first point was that English teachers are protective. Don’t you dare take my books to that grade level! Just kidding (sort of).

But the main point, at least in my eyes, was that an essential question framing a unit makes a huge difference in how that unit is perceived. I have written about Jeffrey Wilhelm before, but his views on essential questions are starting to spread throughout English teachers in our district because of our work last week.

Essential questions must:

  • Get to the heart of the discipline
  • Be compelling and “sexy” in order to capture the students’ attention
  • Not be able to be answered by Googling it

As part of the seventh grade team of teachers who worked on creating essential questions last year, I was proud to hear the chatter of those great questions. Although using the word “sexy” when describing an English lesson might sound ridiculous to some (we almost had to use earmuffs at one point), it is true! How can we be edgy enough to motivate our students to learn?

Here are the unit titles or essential questions that we came up with:

  • How much control do I have over who I am?
  • What would I give up to be free?
  • How can I get people to do what I want?
  • How can I be a hero?

All important to students’ lives, unanswerable through a Google search, and lead students to important parts of English.

New to the tenth and eleventh grade curriculums (curricula? Apparently they are both correct. Thank you, dictionary.com.), I am trying to create some essential questions that are even more powerful and important to my students’ lives. Here is what I have for quarter one.

In American Lit, my first unit is shaped around the question “What power does a label have over me?” We have looked at labels through multiple This I Believe essays dealing with labels. This week we read about the controversy about yoga pants in a local North Dakota school and how the students were shown a clip of Pretty Woman – some pretty interesting labels were being applied to both males and females there – and a blogger’s response to the dress code. And we are moving towards The Scarlet Letter, one of the most famous labels of all. Supporting that will be a look at a girl named Jada who was raped, photographed, and became a hashtag joke on Twitter. Rather than hide in shame Jada stood up for herself and many others and gained national support. Talk about taking over a label!

Creating a unit like this is fun to teach! When I want to be a student in my classroom, and I get fired up about making a connection from a supporting text to a larger piece, it tells me that something great is going to come of it. It also gives me focus in looking for nonfiction articles to support the larger texts.

The hardest part of essential questions is coming up with them! What matters to students right now? What do you know will get their attention?

Challenge yourself to be more engaging in your themes and units. Your student engagement will show you that it was worth it.

Just wasting time

12 Sep

Call me a softie, go ahead.

I’ve done enough talking about the importance of relationships and rapport with students that I am not ashamed of focusing on it. Whatever time I spend in the first three days (our first week) of school that builds relationships is not going to be wasted time. I truly believe that.

Thanks to Dave Burgess and Teach Like a Pirate, I began my year with both sophomores and juniors playing with Play-Doh. And as the new guy in the building, I heard all kinds of comments from other students and teachers. And they were good! The Play-Doh was to be shaped in a way to represent something about the student sculptor. This gave me a chance to try to learn everyone’s name and something about them. Learning names has always been easy for me because I knew students in the upcoming grades, and my classes weren’t as big. Now with 125 students that is a different story. Calling each student by name is one of my first yearly goals.

The second day was a collaborative group experience where students had to determine which 5 out of 10 people on a deserted island would be brought back to safety and which 5 would be left on their own. I patched a variety of images and youtube videos together to tell the scenario’s story. I added a little ridiculous voiceover and let the students decide. It was a great introduction to the collaborative projects that are coming up this year.

The connections that I have made with students will help me throughout the year. If I can convince a few reluctant students that English might be worth some effort this year, I’ve accomplished a lot. I don’t think I’ve wasted a minute.

Google tricks to make life easier

24 Jun

Google really does it right. Last weekend’s Google Apps For Education (GAFE) Summit in Grand Forks was energizing, engaging, and full of learning experiences. After a session was finished, I found myself staying in my seat in an attempt to absorb as much what we had just done and learned. Is that normal? The good news is that we had 30 minutes between sessions that provided time for collaboration, questions, and recovery. Brain sweat is fun!

Some of the most exciting things to me were the little things. The things that I might use every day or every week in the classroom to make life a little easier. I’ll let you in on a few of those things today!

I use my computer all the time to show students all sorts of things. When our presenters asked us to follow along, they made it easy by zooming in as well as highlighting the mouse. Both tricks were highly effective. The first one is to highlight the mouse. I spent the $4.99 on the Mouseposé app in the Apple App Store without regret!

MouseSo now when I want my students to see where I am navigating, I press F1 and highlight my cursor. Brilliant!

Another often-used trick was zooming on a Mac. Whenever a presenter wanted to help us focus in on something, give us a web address, or anything else that did not require the full screen, he quickly scrolled up and zoomed in on that area. I know it’s a small thing, but I was impressed! I can imagine using this daily.

Here is how you set it up for your Mac. Go under Universal Access in the System Preferences. Turn the zoom on, go to Options, and check “Use scroll wheel with modifier keys to zoom.” I think it is set to be the control key, so now when I hold down control and scroll up with two fingers, my screen zooms in. These little things will help keep the focus on where it needs to be during any sort of presentation.

My students constantly point out the extreme amount of tabs that I have open in Google Chrome. Here are a few tricks that deal with tabs:

One Tab is an extension found in the Chrome Web Store that takes each of your tabs and condenses them down into one tab. That tab can then be shared as a link with students or saved for later. It saves on memory and reduces clutter!

Tab Scissors is another extension that divides up your tabs into a split-screen look allowing you to type on one side while viewing another page at the same time.

Tab Glue, you guessed it, puts the tabs back together!

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 9.36.21 AM

And a few other tricks that everyone already has if you right click on a tab – ctrl+click or two-finger click with a Mac:

You can pin the tab to your task bar, and that will remove the X that would close it.

You can also close all other tabs.

Or close all tabs to the right of the one that you clicked on.

And lastly, you can reopen your last closed tab with this click or ctrl+shift+t.

I know this is going to make my life easier. I hope it does the same for you!