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?

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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 goodreads.com 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!

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.

Stop being safe, and start failing

20 Nov

Book drives, winter clothing drives, and canned food drives.

This was not what I had planned when I ventured into my Vague Friday Projects/Genius Hour. But you know what? I just jumped in. Am I failing? Yes, I’d say that I am.

Hey, at least I’m modeling failure for my students!

If I want to see innovation, creativity, and genius in my Genius Hour, I need to start getting kids to question what school is supposed to look and feel like. After one quarter, it’s time to do some reflecting, changing, and flipping upside down. Here’s what I wish I knew at the start of this process, and what I will work to change for my classes now:

Break the rules. Innovation is all about getting people out of their comfort zone. We have to get past the first wave of ideas, past the second wave of ideas, and get to something that is truly innovative. Book drives happen because students think, “I know this will work.” It is my responsibility to open their minds and keep going when the easy and safe answer is staring at them. Innovators do not follow rules. Know the rules so that you can break the rules.

Start with something small. Ideas are hard. If we are going to work on something for one hour on Fridays only, it is tough to expect all students to be ready with their idea in a short amount of time. Students should choose something that they are interested in, write a proposal for the length of the project, the amount of points it will be worth, and what they will accomplish. This will give them practice with the process and experience finding something that they care about. This first project should last three weeks or less.

Keep the groups small or work individually. So much of this type of project depends on students being passionate about learning something. If you get to the point where a group is choosing to do something because it sounds the easiest, it’s time to do some reflecting. Trust me. Some students may want to learn a certain skill, some may want to research a current event, and some may want to invent a new product. Just make sure that each student is following what he or she wants to do.

My next step is to break down the rules that I inadvertently created and start to encourage risk taking. I will use my failure and the reflection that I have done as a model for my students. We’re all in this together, and we don’t learn anything new without failing along the way!

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.