Sunday, December 11, 2016

"The Tide" Revisited

A few weeks ago, we did a soft launch of The Tide (http://www.enmtide.org/, @enmtide), our digital literary magazine. During the course of the school year, there are various writing contests. We thought that timing the launch of the magazine with the conclusion of the Creepy Story Contest at school would be smart. We published the top stories that were submitted for that contest. Since then, a few other non-contest stories have come in and we published them as well. Needless to say, the magazine is in its infancy and there will be many tweaks and changes along the way.


Once we launched, there were a few things that my colleague, Brad Basinger (@sitting0vation), and I wanted to change. This is how we work. We publish the first iteration and then think of things that we want to tweak. After tweaking those, we see what else we can do to improve the magazine. I think this is how most people work. Of course, there are the perfectionists who will not put up anything until it is absolutely perfect. I can't abide that. I have to live with something for awhile, getting the feel of it, before realizing what needs tweaking. Having Brad as a second set of eyes is extremely helpful. He has a ton of ideas, most of which I hadn't thought of. Between the two of us, the magazine is shaping up to be a pretty cool venue for showcasing our kiddos' work. I think we are both excited to see how far we can develop this project.

We think it is important for kids to have many places to display their work, both at school and beyond the school walls. There is something very special about the moment a student sees their work published either in print or online. Sure, kids post stuff on social media all of the time but having their work displayed in a literary magazine that others control is something special. 

While this project is just beginning, we predict that it will grow quickly. Brad is making the rounds to all of the English classes over the next couple of weeks to promote our site and get more kids involved. Once they see it, many will want to be a part of it. We are happy that our writers will have a place of their own to showcase their work. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Recess and Recreation

Over the last ten years or so, schools have put more emphasis on curricular on-task time, often shortening recess as a result. The idea is that kids will learn more if they spend more time in the classroom and less time on the playground. As I observe my kiddos everyday, I know that the education experts who promote this line of thinking have it exactly wrong. Obviously they do not understand the workings of a school or classroom and make rules based on their ignorance. They THINK something will gain a desired result and don't bother to consult the real experts, the teachers, before codifying these decisions.

When kiddos are deprived of enough time to run and play, their classroom studies suffer. Twenty minutes of recess per day is not nearly enough time to nurture well-rounded kids. With too little time for recreation, kids' focus suffers and they try to have recreational experiences in the classroom. Right now, we hear all kinds of positive stories in the news about education in Finland. It is the hot topic right now. I read about how schools in Finland operate and know one thing to be true - the amount of time that schools there devote to recess and recreation is one reason that the kids perform so well. They seem to understand that when kids run and play for long periods of time several times per day, their focus in the classroom sharpens and they can learn more in less time. Our focus here in the USA has been on quantity of time instead of quality of time.

I see the kids' pent-up energy in my own classroom. While we try to include lots of activities in which kids can move and use their social skills, class time is no substitute for recess. Kids need play time and lots of it. A school day in which kids have thirty minutes of recess three times per day would be ideal. We would see kids learning when they should be learning and playing when they should be playing. Now, we often see kids playing when they should be learning because there is so little time to play. Play is an essential part of being a kid. Kids need unstructured play time. It fosters their imaginations, helps build social skills and gives them a chance to exercise their bodies.

In our "more is better" culture, we miss an essential point. We mistake quantity for quality. If we want kids learning more then they need to play more. We have to build pockets of time into the day during which kids can burn off some of their energy and be kids. When kids have those times, several times per day, then they will focus more in class and learn more. It is not rocket science. It is what the best school systems in the world are doing.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

We Learn in Stories

This past week, we wrote essays in class. Not very glamorous, I know. The purpose was to take what the kids had learned in their civics classes and shape that knowledge into basic essays. The topic was the Articles of Confederation and how the US Constitution improved on them. It was a challenge. Many kids came with varying degrees of knowledge about the topic. Some knew the difference between the Articles and Constitution and some had no idea. It really is a challenging topic that most adults could not explain. Our amazing civics teachers, who are subject to a hellish pacing guide, set the kids up with enough information for the kids to perform. The materials they use have all of the necessary facts about the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution. But there is no story.

Human beings learn in stories. We need context and narrative in order to learn. Kids came to seventh grade not knowing anything about this topic. They didn't know who James Madison was. They did not know about the system of checks and balances and shared power among the branches of government. They finished this unit not knowing much more than they knew when they started it. There was no story. The kids could not weave the new information into their existing knowledge base. New knowledge is like half of a zipper. As we learn it, it connects with what we already know, like one side of a zipper connects with the other side. If we don't access kids' existing knowledge, there is no connection.

Florida is doing itself no favors by insisting on such a massive amount of information to be "taught" to our seventh graders. No teacher can properly tell the story of our government in such a short period of time. No student is going to fully understand our rich history of revolution and democracy from packets full of facts. They need action. They need color. They need drama and tension. They need the story. We have to give our teachers the time and space to create for kids living, breathing civics classes in Florida classrooms. We have to give teachers the ability to create an environment where kids can see the context in what happened then and what happens now.

All teachers feel pressure to "cover" the material but "covering" is not "teaching". The state almost guarantees that kids will only memorize what they need in order to pass the EOC. They will not learn it. The shallow glance at our rich history that teachers are forced to rush through leaves kids confused and ignorant. Unfortunately, what has happened in Florida has also happened around the country. States keep introducing curriculum standards that require more and more while teachers have less and less time to devote to topics that need more time. Kids are not computers. We can't just enter data into their brains. We have to master the art of connecting new knowledge with their existing knowledge base. Only then will kids really learn the stories we want to teach them.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Tide: A Digital Literary Magazine

One of the ideas that I had been kicking around for a while is launching a digital literary magazine at school. We have a school newspaper but there is no place for kids to showcase their literary works. Since we are in the digital age, it only makes sense that our magazine be digital as well. A few weeks ago, I created a template in Wix for a literary magazine website. It is really just a very attractive blog template. In collaboration with our creative writing club sponsor and my other ELA department colleagues, we hammered out the details. Now, as soon as our initial content is polished, we will launch. I will post in this space about our launch.

Why is this important? Well, kids have a chance to showcase their talents in school. We have athletic events, academic events and extracurricular events. We don't really have "literary events" so there is room for something like this. Those kids who are amazing writers should have an audience beyond their classroom teachers. We should celebrate and showcase their work. We should live the message that there is value to their talent and we want to show it to the world. We know that kids will "up their game" when they know that they will have an authentic audience for their work. They will put more time and effort, more care, into their work when they know that all eyes will see it. They will also walk a little taller when they see their work published. We experience this with the Teen Lit Review. Kids write reviews not only for points in their English class, but also because they want to be able to show others their published work. There is a sense of pride there that many kids don't get anywhere else.

The Tide will be a way for another segment of our school population to display their talents. It is really important that every student in school has some outlet for their talents. School is not just a place to complete work given to them by the teacher. It is a place to grow both as a student and person. It is a place to develop their best talents. It is a place to make attempts at great things, fail, and attempt again. It is a place where kids can see their value, see that they are an important part of the community, and know that there is an outlet for their contributions. The Tide will be one of those outlets.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Introducing GAFE to ENMS

For the past few months, we have been trying to figure out a way to use Google Apps for Education in our classroom. Our district does not support GAFE but there is some autonomy in the schools. Through a lot of brainstorming with my administration and coordinators, I think we've come up with a way. Soon, the kids will have access to the suite of applications that make education so much more efficient and easy. Soon the kids will have some amazing creation tools in their hands.

In my last school, we had a 1:1 laptop program and we were completely open and using GAFE. It was amazing what the kids could do without using a single sheet of paper. Indeed, we were a paperless classroom for at least three years. Our kids used all of the apps: Docs, Sheets, Slides, YouTube, Blogger and more. We were able to share and collaborate efficiently and the kids got more out of their education than if they did not have access to the apps. This is the environment that I want to bring to the kids at East Naples Middle School.

For other teachers who are in similar situations, where the district does not support GAFE, here is what we are doing. First, we are buying a domain, probably @eckertsgators.com. Then, we will designate it an educational domain with Google, allowing us to use GAFE. I sent home permission slips so that the kids' parents sign off on the use of GAFE and I will assign each of my kids an @eckertsgators.com email address to be used in our Google cloud. Once each of the kiddos is equipped with their e-mail address, they will have access to everything and we can start using all of the apps. For the meantime, we will keep our accounts within our school domain using the privacy settings but later on, we may be able to open them up.

We are an experimental classroom charting the way for our school and district. When we troubleshoot the problems and get things running smoothly, we foresee other teachers bringing their classes into the fold. In our book, Cultivating Genius, I talked about "The Lone Wolf" and "The Second Person". In this instance, I am acting as The Lone Wolf because I am trying something that most others don't want to try. One day soon, I expect to find my Second Person, the one who will buy into the program with me and validate what I am doing. Slowly, we will build critical mass and most of the school will adopt GAFE for classroom use. Maybe even one day, the district will also incorporate GAFE into the educational program here. That's the way things usually work. We have to show that things work before most will try. That's okay. We only need a few of us who will take the chance to create something cool for the kids.

One big difference between my previous school, Hixson Middle School, and my current school is that our kids at East Naples Middle School are not in a 1:1 laptop program. We do have a BYOD program and about 60-70% of the kids have devices. We do have 3-4 classroom computers to use but access may be an issue. My next step will be to write a few technology grants to get more devices into my classroom. We must start small and grow the program. There will be bumps and potholes along the way, but we will get there, learning together.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

PBS Day!

Schools across the nation do a lot of things to encourage good behavior and learning habits in kids. We institute program after program to make a difference. A lot of time, these programs fall under their own weight because we don't constantly work at them to keep them going and improve them. I have been in many situations where we had a PBS (Positive Behavior Support) or PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support) program that didn't work because the application of the program was uneven. Some teachers and administrators in the school pushed it hard and others did nothing to support the program. They were destined for failure.

At East Naples Middle School, we have an impressive PBS program. Kids are encouraged everyday to do their best. Behavior expectations are taught explicitly, we celebrate achievement and we reward positive behaviors. Once a month, we have a grade-level awards assembly to celebrate the kiddos who achieved great things during the previous month. This regular recognition system allows kids to see tangible recognition for their hard work. Roughly every six weeks, we also have a PBS day. Our PBS day is a half day when kids can choose their activity and go play for that half day. It is based on criteria determined beforehand and kids are aware of the expectation.

Tomorrow is our second PBS day of the year. In the afternoon, kids will go outside to play soccer, basketball, and run track while other kiddos will be in the computer labs playing games or working on projects. The kids get to choose. There will also be snacks, common student areas and other bonuses for kids. It is a really cool day for the students.

This program is applied evenly and consistently. Our principal laid out the expectation and all teachers are on board. We organize the activities each time and set things in motion. This is a team effort and it pays off in a good school climate, happy kids and happy teachers. The way the PBS program at East Naples Middle School is done is a good model for other schools.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

More Bang for the Buck with Kindles

Every teacher tries to stretch a dollar. ELA teachers have it particularly tough because we are constantly building great classroom libraries. A classroom library is essential for kids. They need to see books around them all of the time. Their environment has to be language-rich and accessible. Kids need to be able to immerse themselves in books, pile them on their desks and rummage through them in order to find the perfect books for themselves. I encourage all of this.

Starting at a new school this fall, I had zero books in my classroom library. Through some diligent shopping at thrift shops and used bookstores, I've been able to accumulate a few hundred titles. Kids have been reading many of them ravenously. We have our very popular titles and we have some that I thought would be more popular but are not. Oh well, maybe some kids will discover them later in the year.

Over the past few years, I had built up a Kindle e-book library of over 120 books. These books stay attached to my "school" account so that I can access them anywhere. My "school" Amazon account is a second account that I set up for all of my school purchases. It is not a school e-mail; it is a second Gmail account that I use for school purposes. Anytime I have a Kindle or the Kindle app, I can access any of these e-books by logging in on Amazon. Easy peasy.

Since August, I have been hunting around on Ebay and Amazon for inexpensive Kindles. I've lucked out. I was able to buy ten Kindles for between fifteen and thirty dollars each. Having these ten Kindles in class allows ten kids at a time to access any of those 120+ books that I have. Amazon allows you to register many devices to the same e-mail address (account) and put the same book on up to six devices at the same time. That means that six kids can read the same book simultaneously. Now, I get my Kindle e-books when they are on sale and I never spend more than 2.99 for a title. If you're patient, the books that you want will go on sale at some point. Bookbub.com and the Amazon Kindle Daily Deal e-mail are both helpful for me to see what is on sale each day. I subscribe to both. So, for 2.99, and sometimes less, I can have six kids reading the same book. Those books never go away, never get destroyed and never get lost. That's what I call stretching a dollar!

So far this year, the program has been awesome. The kids take good care of the Kindles and always check in to see if one is available. Management is a breeze. I sticker each Kindle with a "Return to Don Eckert, Room 39, East Naples Middle School" label and a sticker identifying which Kindle it is (Spiderman, Star Wars, Hello Kitty, etc). On a part of our whiteboard, I write the Kindle (Spiderman) and the name of the student who has checked it out (Aracely). When Aracely returns the Kindle, I erase her name and check it out to the next kiddo on the waiting list. On and on we go. If a student has kept a Kindle for an inordinate amount of time, I will check in with them to see if they are still reading it or ask for it to be returned.

While most of the kids are excited about the Kindles, many kiddos still prefer the paper books. That is why it is essential for me to keep beefing up our classroom library. The search for great, cheap (or free) YA Lit books goes on. It's kind of fun, like a treasure hunt. I will be happily hunting for the rest of the year! Fun times.