Sunday, 24 February 2013

An Email a Day...

Remember the old adage, "An apple a day keeps the doctor  away?"  I've often wondered what the adage should be for education.  Well, it's that time of year that I'm reminded of one possibility, an email a day keeps the problems at bay.

It's February.  You can tell just by walking through the halls and stepping into the classrooms. The students' noise levels have increased as have their forgetfulness to bring things to class and propensity to blurt things out.  It's not all bad.  Part of the February Blahs is due to the fact that students are more comfortable with us and with their peers.  They've fallen into the routine of the school year, chugging along like a reliable steam engine.

The problem with steam engines is that sometimes they end up derailing.  And yes, that's my classroom these days.  Unfortunately, my knee-jerk reaction is to stop the presses and lecture to them about the importance of listening, achieving one's potential, and not succumbing to a primal version of their beautiful selves.  It works, for about eight minutes.

That's why in recent years I've come up with another idea to turn the February Blahs into the February Hurrahs:  an email a day keeps the problems at bay.  

Basically, I am on the constant lookout for one of my students doing something good.  It's not hard.  In a span of 80+ minutes across two blocks, I've got loads to choose from.  That afternoon, I spend three minutes writing home, sharing something great about that student.   And while it doesn't totally fix all of the blah-ish issues, it does a world of good.  Here's how:

  • It gets me to focus on the positive instead of the negative.
  • It allows me to notice those students who don't derail the class and continue to work hard each day.  With this approach, they don't get lost in the mix.
  • It enables me to reinforce the positive in some of the derailers when they do something good, thereby building on a moment of strength instead of highlighting a weakness.
  • It provides positive feedback for parents who are so appreciative of receiving it.
  • It only takes three minutes.  Really, that's all.
  • It puts positivity at the forefront of my mind each day.  I often begin class thinking, alright, who's going to get that email today.
  • When I end up focusing on positivity, it invariably sneaks into other parts of my life (colleagues, family, myself).  
So with four weeks until Spring Break, consider trying this out.  Who knows, your students might just stay on track better as a result.  

Images from:  

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Teaching 21st Century "Genres"

"Just as we would rarely [teach] a unit or a lesson in any subject 
without incorporating some reading, we should also rarely do anything in school 
without incorporating technology—used powerfully and not trivially. 
If we do not do this, our kids will not be getting what they need from our education.”

Blogs, tweets, text messages, status updates, Skype, Youtube, let's face it, people today are communicating in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago. In fact, we'd be hard-pressed to find another time in human history when there was such an explosion of new communication tools, and it doesn't seem like it will let up any time soon.

While many experts refer to these as Web 2.0 or 21st century "tools," I like to think of them as 21st century "genres." Like the more traditional genres we know and love, these genres have specific features, characteristics and rules that authors know and use to make their ideas stand out. As teachers of reading and writing, we must consider teaching to these genres in our classrooms. After all, our students are far more likely to become avid authors in these genres than they are in the traditional ones. 

With a quick Google search, you can find tons of "tools" out there that can help jazz up an idea or message (just check out the magic 8 ball message or the "cool links" geogreeting and the ninja message below), but these aren't really genres. According to Merriam-Webster, a genre is a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.

One genre that some of us are currently using with our students is the blog. With mini-lessons on commenting, adding videos and images, labeling posts, and ensuring that everything we publish passes through the POST Filter (Purpose, Offer new insight, Skillful writing, and The Core Values), we've added it to our Personal Essay unit in Grade 6.

With that model of teaching into a 21st century genre in mind, some of us recently sought out other genres that require students to apply effective conventions and communication techniques that emulate real-world 21st century genres. We didn't need to look far as our counterparts in the Intermediate School have used Fakebook, and we came across others like fake Twitter feeds, iPhone chats and Google stories. They were just what we were looking for as we asked our students to respond to their Greek mythology reading.

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Many of us use Facebook to connect with friends and family both near and far and share what's going on in our lives. And while students need to wait to create their own accounts, they can become familiar with the genre through Fakebook, a site where students can create a fake profile, friend list and string of status updates.

When we asked our students to pick a Greek mythology character and retell the myth from his/her point of view, we were impressed with what they came up with. Check out Bryanna E.'s sample on Pandora (click View Full Screen to remove the ads):

View Fullscreen | Create your own

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Twitter is another genre that has taken the world by storm. I have to admit that I'm more of a novice with this one, but every loyal user I know swears by it. Through Twitter, users are able to follow others (i.e. experts in their field) as they tweet out messages and announcements in 140 characters or less. There are also specific features with user names and hashtags that help users manage their tweets.

While the fake Twitter feed seemed to be a bit trickier than Fakebook, it worked for Claire R.:

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If you don't think students need to learn Twitter quite yet, how about iPhone chats? Chances are if they don't own an iPhone, they may know someone who does.

By focusing on how to write succinct messages with the abbreviated text language, they learn how this genre is unique from the rest (and how these conventions don't work in other forms of communication).

Here is AJ K's chat from Perseus to Persephone:

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Finally, with Google Story Builder, students can capture a group of characters' collaboration on a Google Doc.  Our students found this option to be the trickiest, but it is also one that leaves a lasting impression.  Here's my sample: 

I'm sure we'll come across more genres like this in the future, but for now, I know one thing is for sure: when our students sat down to try them out, they were engaging with the content like never before. Not only did they enjoy taking on the voices of the mythical characters, they knew the skills they were practicing would be useful to them. In short, the learning was relevant, purposeful, and, according to them, "fun."

So, consider trying one of these out. Add it to the possible repertoire of reader responses. Alternatively, if you know of another genre/site, leave a comment. One word of caution though. As with any technological project, be prepared for some unexpected hiccups along the way. Whatever you do, try it out yourself beforehand, and be sure to have a tech guru on speed dial. Thanks, Heather!

Common Craft Explanations
Web Tools 4U2 Use
Cool Tools for Schools
The Daring Librarian

Images from:

Sunday, 3 February 2013

It's All About the Process

Two weeks ago, I made a bold proclamation that 2013 should be the "Year of Revision."  In an uncannily ironic move, I'd like to revise that.  Now, before you throw your hands in the air, hear me out.  You see, I just spent a day and a half with four amazing award-winning authors and illustrators at SAS's Children's Literature Conference, and one of my many take-aways from the experience is that it's not only about revision, it's about the entire process.

With Debbie Wiles and her heart-warming tales of small town southern charm, Chris Crutcher and his edgy teen characters who face impossible odds, Kadir Nelson and his awe-inspiring portraits of people whom history can't forget, and Laura Vacarro Seeger and her bold colors and simple words that aim at the heart of an idea in such complex ways, the presenters couldn't have seemed more diverse.  Yet throughout the course of their sessions, as they each shared their experiences and processes, I saw well beyond their final products to something greater.

What was common in all of their work was the process.   When they work, they trust their voice, they listen to it, and they “bring total intimacy to it.”  They draw on their experiences as far back as childhood to inform it.  They use it to "link their mind to their heart and let it come out with actions."  And while every idea may not work out in the end, they are brave enough to put pencil to paper and try it out.  In short, they trust in the process.

So what does this mean for us as teachers?  I know that we (and our students) may never be Coretta Scott King nor Caldecott winners, and I know that we have certain obligations that these professionals don’t.  But I also know that we are committed to developing the best readers and writers we can.  With that in mind, I wonder about the following:

  • How do we honor the process vs. the final product?
  • How do we invite our students (and ourselves) to “try it out?”  Do they see the value in it?
  • Is voice something we teach or something we foster?
  • How do the units of study help and/or hinder our writers in developing voice?
  • How does our pacing of units affect our writers?
  • Isn't this the same process we use when we teach?

And while I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, I do know that by asking them in our PLCs and setting possible plans with colleagues, we’ll continue to learn and grow.  After all, there’s no way we can know the answers without going through a process.