Monday, January 16, 2017

Our Reading Culture

Getting middle school kiddos to read is often difficult. Early grade children usually love reading and story time but as kids get older, they lose the love of reading. At the beginning of the year, I hear "I hate reading" and "I don't read" often...too often. Inevitably, every year, I am tasked with getting my kiddos to love reading and for that, we normally need a shift in culture.

Many kids come to me with a love of reading. Those are not the kids who shout out in class. The kids with negative feelings about reading usually shout it out and many others join in. It is as if the tone is set once the first student speaks. Kids who love reading don't want to speak up and look "uncool". So how do we make reading cool? How do we make even the most anti-reading, book-hating kids want to read? Well, it isn't easy.

From the beginning of the year, I talk about books, show book trailers, model reading, help kids choose books, and give kids time to read in class. Giving kids reading time in class is the most important thing that I do. I also read along with them, modeling as best I can. We all read. This is not busy work that I have the kids do while I grade papers and prepare for classes. I value reading and so I read with them. I also tell them that the minutes that they reading during the day are the most important minutes of their day.

As the year goes on, kids discover books that they love. They begin to talk about those books and share them. After a month or so, roughly 75% of the kids are happily reading. We have reached critical mass. The others see most of the kids reading during our class time, talking about books, eagerly copying titles on to their "To Read Next" lists and generally loving reading. More join in the fun because of peer pressure. Peer pressure works both ways and so I work at changing the conditions so that I can get peer pressure to work for me.

Since I have all of my kids doing the 40-Book Challenge, I have a classroom wall dedicated to our reading experience. Each child has a large index card with a sticker representing each book they have read so far this year. Every Thursday, I check in with the kids to see how many books they've completed since the last time we spoke. I read their reader response journals every Friday. Some of our reluctant readers have only read four books so far this year and some of our avid readers have read over forty books already. When I ask, nearly all of the kids say that they have read far more this year than any other year in their school lives.

There is no magic to creating a culture of reading. It is constant and hard work. The essential element of a robust reading culture is choice. We cannot assign books for kids to read and expect them to be joyous about them. We have to give kids a chance to exercise their choice and voice by picking their own books. That is why I have stocked my room with books, get kids to the library multiple times a week, show book trailers every other week or so, and continue to devote class time to reading. Kids will read and kids will love reading. It all comes down to how we as teachers build our reading culture.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Our First Breakout!

For a couple of years, I have been hearing great things about Breakout EDU. During a Breakout, kids have to solve puzzles in order to open locks and discover what is inside the Breakout box. This kind of classroom gamification seemed like a great way to get kids to think critically, work together and have some fun. It's funny how kids will eagerly do the work we want them to do if it comes in the form of a game. Breakout EDU has capitalized on this human tendency to solve puzzles.

The game I chose was "Commander in Mis-Chief" created by Joe Welch, a social studies teacher. The premise was that a newly-elected president was trying to destroy all primary source documents and rewrite history with his own version. Kids had to solve several puzzles to get inside the box and find the one thing that could stop the president. They had 45 minutes to do so. During this time, I saw many positive learning traits. Some kids took leadership roles and other kids were helpful followers. At some points during this exercise, those followers became leaders for a bit and the leaders became followers. The kids collaborated, conversed, debated and tried over and over again to solve the problem.

Each of my classes solved the puzzle. Since it was our first Breakout, I nudged and hinted a bit in order to keep them working toward their goal. Some of my kids lack persistence and grit, and things like Breakout will help them develop those traits. I made sure that they were engaged during the entire process so that they would feel the success of solving the puzzle.

This year has been one of discovery. Kids are discovering many things about themselves from our work in class, our Genius Hour projects (see more at and activities like Breakout EDU. I am confident that, at the end of the year, they will move on to eighth grade as more confident and tenacious learners who see themselves differently and aspire to do great things. We still have a semester to help them recast themselves in this light and we will be working hard to do so. Breakout EDU is one tool that we will use again and again to achieve this goal.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Our Breakout EDU Kit Came!

For a long time, I have been hearing teachers tell stories about their Breakout EDU experiences. They created games, or used the existing ones, so that their kiddos would have a cool problem-solving challenge. One time last year during our social studies PD day, Chris McGee (@cmcgee200), our coordinator, had us play a game of Breakout. It was fascinating to see how each of us thought through the problem, how we collaborated and worked to solve it and how we treated it as a game instead of a traditional learning experience. We know that gaming in the classroom brings learning to a new level; the kiddos don't even realize that they are learning.

I want that experience for my kiddos. I want my kids to learn through play. I always mix traditional learning with new experiences in class. The kids prefer the new and different experiences and I don't blame them. Trying to create new experiences for them is my challenge. I must admit that I have been relying more on traditional learning experiences than fun learning experiences this year because I was trying to get my bearings in my new school. Now, I feel much more comfortable in my new role, have launched a couple of new projects and even started a Genius Hour program here. It's time to change things up in the regular classroom as well.

I ordered a Breakout EDU kit a few weeks ago. I hoped that I would have enough time to prepare a session with the kiddos before break but alas, we are running out of time. The kit came a few days ago and instead of trying to rush and get a session in, I'll use winter break to really plan a session so that kids have a fun and challenging day when they return to school. If it is well-planned, challenging and fun, kids will want to do it more. I don't want the Breakout EDU session to be a bad one for the kids because of my poor planning. The first time doing something is always the most important time. It is the time that kids assess whether or not they like the activity and whether they will have positive or negative feelings toward it in the future. It's like winning them over all over again.

Over break, I'm going to investigate Breakout EDU more, the website, and the games. I'll find or create a game that I think is great for my kiddos and plan it out. Upon returning to school, we'll start the new semester with a challenge. Hopefully this will set the tone for the rest of the school year.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"The Tide" Revisited

A few weeks ago, we did a soft launch of The Tide (, @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.