Sometimes Choice Frustrates

I had this great idea. I am going to let all my students choose everything they read and write- even the kids taking the AP Lit exam. It would be awesome! Students completely excited about reading and writing because they have ultimate autonomy. I. Was. So. Wrong.

At the heart of everything I do is choice and voice. I value freedom in what I do so, why wouldn’t my students? I think to an extent that is true, but for so long students have been mandated as to what to read and write that they don’t really know what to do when they are given utter freedom in school. I have learned this week there is a time for structure, a time for leading, and a process to giving over control. It cannot happen immediately. There is that first moment where students are celebrating, but then they flounder and don’t know what to do.

A little backstory. I embarked on this year determined to have my AP students choose what they wanted to read. A young man I met in Louisville at an independent bookstore told me about something called the Tournament of Books. An idea took root. The real-world tournament of books is kind of like March Madness, but for books. This year’s winner- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I picked it up at the bookstore, and it was a worthy champion. I decided to run my own TOB in the classroom. Students would choose one book they absolutely wanted to read in class this year, research it, compile a sales pitch, and fight for their title. I imagined this space where book love reigned. Unfortunately, as we got into it over the past couple weeks, I became increasingly disappointed with their book choices. We had a roundtable discussion about books we have loved over the years. I thought this would spark their imagination, but instead it reminded them of all those great books they read in middle school before high school squelched their love of reading. As they excitedly vetted their choices with me, I realized they were picking books my daughter had read in 5th and 6th grade, books that were serialized, and generally unacceptable for a college credit class to garner any kind of deep discussion and study. I wrestled with what to do to help them because it was not that they wanted an easy book. It was more they did not know how to choose a challenging book they would like because choice was not a concept they had dealt with before.

Enter Shelfari. I was surfing around looking at book lists and happened upon somebody’s shelfari- a virtual bookshelf through Amazon. I was intrigued and started my own “bookshelf” as an experiment. As I was populating my bookshelf, an epiphany came to me- I could create a possibilities bookshelf for my students to shop as they were choosing their book for our tournament. I am not going to lie, it took me hours to set the shelf up, import information, and write pieces of the  book profiles. I am still not completely finished with the “ridiculously short summaries” section. Regardless, I introduced it to my classes on Thursday. And, they were impressed. I showed them how to go to the shelf, click on the covers and look at the book profiles which include summaries, character lists, themes, awards won, and reviews. A discussion sparked about why I chose certain books, which were my favorites, and how I found books that I had not read. I am hopeful for a really good title fight on Monday!

Lesson for the week- choice is important, but so is guidance on how to make informed choices. Sometimes we have to be the sage before we can be the guide.

Resources for Innovation Hour project

Sitting in my library looking out on the quiet street, my thoughts have turned to curriculum planning for next year, which is only a few short weeks away. I have thought a great deal about the 20% Time project for last year and started to develop some resources to help me stay more on track with this new crop of students I will meet shortly. As I implemented the 20 Time model last year, I found TED Talks, and Youtube videos to be particularly helpful along the way. Below are the links to the the resources I used, as well as a short description of how I used them.

“The Puzzle of Motivation” by Dan Pink

I used this TED Talk on the first day of class as an opener to talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, as well as a segway into discussion of the Innovation Hour project. I followed this up with Chris Kesler’s Youtube video “What is Genius Hour?“.  I will also show our own Innovation Hour video this year since I now have student examples.

Another important step to getting this project off on the right foot, is to provide students some real-world examples of people following their bliss and finding success. Last year I showed Apple’s ipad commercial, “Slow Roll,” that features a Detroit entrepreneur working to revitalize his city with bike tours. I also showed them the Holstee Manifesto– another great resource for people running a company with passion. I plan to include the “Ben and Jerry” story this year as well after seeing it on the factory tour- two guys making ice cream in a gas station because they loved it, what better inspiration can you get? The point is to get students to see the value of doing something that you love and how the passion you have for an idea can drive success.

The next step once students decide on an idea for how they want to spend their 20% class time, is the pitch proposal. Shark Tank has become an increasingly popular TV show and Business Insider wrote an article outlining some of the most successful pitches. I plan to use this as a resource this year to help students prepare to pitch their ideas to peers and administration. Most students are readily familiar with the show though, and you could just talk them through a pitch. I also plan to use a clip from “Thirteen Going on Thirty” where Jennifer Garner pitches her magazine idea to the think tank. It is a fun clip and focused less on funding, and more on concepts. This will help some of my students who plan less business-like projects.

The next few months are spent with students doing the actual work of the project. In January, we turn to presentation planning. After experimenting with a number of TED Talks last year, I have whittled down my list to what I consider the most important ones and students plan presentations. Here they are in the order I think they should be shown and discussed:

“How to Live Before You Die”– Steve Jobs

“8 Secrets of Success”– Richard St. John

“What Fear Can Teach Us”– Karen Thompson Walker

“Teach Every Child About Food”– Jamie Oliver

“Start with Why”– Simon Sinek

“Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce”– Malcolm Gladwell

I also like the videos on Toastmasters. They have approachable tips for students about public speaking, AND they will come and speak to your students if you have a local chapter and ask far enough in advance. Unfortunately, I asked too late last year and was not able to schedule a speaker, but they have promised to come next year with enough advanced notice!

Each video has something to offer for presentations, from structure, to catchphrases, to opening and closing effectively. Students are used to giving presentations to a comfortable group of peers, but many have never spoken in front of a large audience. This is scary, but happens a lot in the “real world” which makes public speaking an important skill for them to leave high school having acquired. Preparation and practice are two things I can’t stress enough. They need dry runs, videos of themselves to critique and lots of feedback before the actual event. I fell down on this some last year, but plan to be ready next year!

My thoughts on 20 Time Projects

Finally a few minutes to view the Innovation Hour presentations and I was more impressed watching them after the fact than while I was there. So much great work by students came out of these projects, but viewing the montage video has helped me think more about what I want to do differently next year. The video below was produced by one of my fabulous students, Madeline Cobbler.

First, I want more time to prepare for the presentations and more time for reflection about the journey of the project. I will introduce this project again in the Fall, but with some changes. Student project work will finish at the end of the first semester. This will allow a more focused amount of time for the students to plan their timelines. There was definitely some dead time this year. Progress updates will be bi-weekly and I will give the option of keeping a notebook or blog so students that enjoy the act of writing rather than using technology have more freedom in how they express their learning to me. The Innovation Hour will happen in February next year to coincide with our school-wide Titan 21 night where all students showcase interesting work being done in various classes. This will give a wider audience for Innovation Hour presentations. I found throughout the year students were fueled by outside interest in their work. Whenever I brought people in to talk to them about their projects, they found renewed passion in what they were doing. I want to replicate that effect more next year. The goal of this project was always to allow students the freedom to pursue something they were passionate about and give them the tools and time to bring that passion to fruition. In many ways I consider this first year a success. Students found things they were interested in and some even found paths for their future.

For me, I started out trying to complete my own 20 Time project, a collection of blog posts chronicling my adventures with my daughter in the kitchen, but often I found myself overwhelmed trying to chart my classroom journey while maintaining my personal project. I realized I missed many moments on both fronts. Next year, my goal will be to give voice regularly to what I have going on in the classroom, and work on my food blog as worthy occasions arise.

Innovation Hour

The curtain has fallen. The stage has cleared. Our first year of 20 time projects has closed. This week marked our 20 time showcase event, Innovation Hour. Students have been viewing TED talks, discussing public speaking styles, and preparing their final presentations of their yearlong journey with their 20 time projects. It has been eye-opening for me to see how they feel about their project progress and what they want to say about it. I noticed that similar comments kept cropping up. The theme was “this was not what I originally planned, but I am happy with how it turned out.” No matter what the outcome, students learned something about themselves, collaboration and long-term planning along the way.

Here are some of my lessons learned:

1. Make the time span for the actual project shorter and the presentation planning time span longer.

2. Practice more- in class, on stage and with technology.

3. Be more clear about the blog purpose early on.

4. Show the video feedback from this year about failure and end games.

5. Bring more community members in and facilitate more mentorship.

6. Require a research element.

7. Require more frequent status updates and opportunities for progress sharing with wider audiences.

8. Keep schedule of one full class period every other week for 20 time.

9. Enlist HELP with evening showcase event.

10. Set a 3-5 minute cap on all final presentations and schedule 3, rather than 2 hours.

11. Start year with Dan Pink TED talk about motivation to set stage for project purpose.

12. Schedule Toastmasters early!

13. Directly instruct about various presentation technologies.

I am sure there are more, and I am sure I will add to this list as I disseminate all the data and student video reflections over the next couple of weeks. I plan to create and post a video montage of our actual Innovation Hour, as well as snippets from the video reflections to help other teachers interested in trying out a project like this. I will also plan to post my own, more complete reflection as I round out my first experiment with a project of this magnitude. I am proud of what my students accomplished and what they taught me about implementing ultimate choice in the classroom!

5 Mentor Sentences to Help Students Writer Better Analysis

Great tools to add to my teaching analysis cadre!

moving writers

Photo by Alan Cleaver via Flickr Photo by Alan Cleaver via Flickr

If you haven’t checked out Rebekah’s series on analysis, stop what you’re doing and go read about her brilliant work with her IB students! I’ve never been more excited to teach analysis than after reading her thoughtful blog series.

I’m going to piggyback on her posts and share something that I have found useful in the teaching of analysis with my ninth graders: using mentor sentences to help them articulate their thinking about a text.
Like Rebekah, I, too, am searching for ways to make literary analysis a richer experience for my young writers. While my students are working on a fairly traditional literary analysis of a poem right now, I have been able to complicate the simplistic formula they have been trained to use for far too long (5 paragraphs, claim as last sentence in introduction, sentences that start with the phrase “This quote shows that…” and…

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Writing Workshop Finals (or Wrapping Up a Year of Writing Workshop)

Love these ideas!

moving writers

In our workshops, we want our students to learn to craft moving pieces of authentic writing. But we hope that this will extend far past our classroom — how do we do this? How do we assess and ensure the independence we hope we have instilled in students all year long?  As a final project (or final exam, as we are currently required to give one), we ask our students to use the processes and resources of the class — specifically mentor texts — to create one final piece of writing.

In a way, this is similar to the beginning-of-the-year mentor text activities we use to open class (Here is what I did last year, and here is what Allison did). For these final, independent writing projects, we look for mentor texts that are engaging (often this means that they are highly visual), easily accessible to students of all…

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A Technique-Based Literary Analysis Workshop

Awesome way to approach literary analysis in the workshop classroom. This is often so difficult and these guys offered a refreshing perspective and great examples!

moving writers

But even if we want to, how can we teach literary analysis in writing studies throughout the school year using a workshop approach?

Do we just repeat the same mini-lessons again and again until the students have mastered them? Do we teach the mini-lessons once at the beginning of the year and just bring out new mentor texts for each subsequent go-round? Do we only teach literary analysis in one study of the year and hope it sticks?

Technique-Based Analysis Studies

To combine the study of literary analysis writing and writing workshop, one trick I have found is to break literary analysis into sub-genres: analyzing theme, analyzing character, analyzing symbol, analyzing a key passage, etc. Not all analysis is created equal —  in different kinds of analysis the techniques differ. The structures differ. The way we read, think, and unpack our ideas differs. So, we can teach students to look…

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Day of Writing

Perfect weather for a Writing Marathon!

Perfect weather for a Writing Marathon!

They brought pens, pencils, laptops, and smartphones all for one purpose- a day of writing with the Blue Ridge Writing Project.

Coincidentally, it was also the day of the Remembrance Run which provided an inspirational backdrop for some fruitful writing. We asked participants to bring an artifact, something that represented them as teachers, writers or both. One of the ladies at my table shared her Teacher’s Calendar book. It contained interesting facts and important events that happen on each day of the year. The coolest thing about this book though, was what the teacher did with it. She collects birthdays of her students at the beginning of the school year, and then wait for it…on their birthday, she brings them a passage from a famous author who shares their birthday. Such an awesome idea to bring some writing into the classroom and make it personal and relatable. Hearing the stories of the artifacts was such a heartwarming way to start the day! I use this activity at the beginning of the school year with my own students. I ask them to bring an artifact to school that says something about them and we write and share around. I have found it is a great way to get to know the students and everybody enjoys hearing the stories other students tell.

From the artifacts, we moved into a traditional National Writing Project activity- a Writing Marathon. I have blogged about the usefulness of writing marathons before, but it was a whole new level to share it with other teachers as people ran around us in the Remembrance Run. It was sunny and the smell of fresh cut grass was all around us. This one we ran in groups of 6-7 all camped out in one area of Hillcrest Honors Dorm. We used prompts more geared towards adults and an escalating amount of time to write with each prompt. Most centered on the concept of loss and forgiveness and the pens were flying. I love writing marathons because they are a forum where you write, share and there is no feedback. The absence of commentary creates a safe space for writing about personal issues. We concluded the writing marathon with a breakdown of how these can be used in any age classroom- from writing about seasons, to writing about novels, to writing to expose prior knowledge. These are perennially some of my students’ favorite activities.

After lunch, we convened for some poetry and prose writing. Aileen Murphy, BRWP Director, led us in a poetic form writing using what participants had written on the marathon. The activity originated in one of our Summer Institutes as a final presentation by a BRWP fellow. I have used the attached handout a variety of ways including a meditation creative writing exercise, as well as an introduction to various poetic forms.

A FEW POETIC Forms(1)-1

We also did a few writing stations where participants wrote from prompts, composed qualities poems based on Ruth Gendler’s book, created flash fiction from different parts of speech, and did some fiction writing. After about an hour of moving from station-to-station, we shared some of the pieces we were proud of with the larger group. The creativity was palpable!

The day ended with a short gallery of digital compositions with an explanation of how to take what was written during the day to a multimedia presentation. We viewed video versions of multigenre personal narratives, “Where I am From” poems, and an illuminated text of Hemingway’s “Cat In the Rain”.

It was inspirational to see all the writing and passion for writing produced throughout the day. Participating in days like this renews my love of the written word and the recognition of its power to transform, heal and unite. Below is how we said farewell- an interactive board celebrating why we write!

Popping Up Some Poetry


The word poetry often brings cringes and groans in the average high school student, but today was the first day of National Poetry Month and it was time to get past that disdain. The past few days we viewed some spoken word poetry videos to prime the poetry pumps. Today I introduced the students to the Pop-Up Poets of NYC. I was lucky enough to be a spectator at one of their Times Square pop-up performances a couple of years ago and thought then what a cool way to infuse poetry in unexpected places.

The poetry sharing fever caught on rapidly among my students. They chose their poems, mostly from Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 site, and set out to pop-up some poetry around the school. A few elected to go outside and sidewalk chalk their poems around the school, one copied a bunch of mini-poems and put them in books in our library to be found by an unsuspecting student at some later date. We also had some poems about self confidence and inner beauty posted in bathrooms around the school, but the most viral thing that happened was the guerilla-style poetry performances in random classrooms. I sent an email out to warn the staff of the possibility of students popping into their rooms with poetry to read first and then sent them out on their adventures. The videos of their performances were just awesome! One group read food poems to Culinary Arts, another group visited Anatomy classes with poems about science and still others went to random classrooms around the school spreading their poems about smiles, the future, hope and Chipotle burritos. They had so much fun they came back and asked if they could spend all period running around to classrooms reading poetry. What a great way to kick off National Poetry Month, and one of my students even asked if we could continue this after Spring Break!

Reading and Writing Workshop: The Essentials of Getting Organized

Great tools to help facilitate effective writing workshop model!

moving writers

I found Rebekah’s visual guide to planning for writing workshop tremendously helpful, and I know many of you did, too. In an effort to be transparent and share the systems that work for us, this week I am going to write a little bit about the various organizational tools that help my workshops run more smoothly and keep the materials my students and I need at our fingertips.

Master Workshop Binder

My Master Workshop Binder

For a year or two I tried to go completely paperless. I condensed dozens of binders (one for each study or unit) into two or three by making or finding digital copies of everything. I forced myself to move conference notes online, and I asked the students to set up digital writing folders. At first, I loved how much space a purely digital system opened up in my room. Our classroom unfettered by papers, thick 2-inch binders, and…

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