Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Gator Gazette


This year I am teaching Journalism. The class includes running the student newspaper at East Naples Middle School, the Gator Gazette (thegatorgazette.com), and creating the yearbook. While the yearbook is still in its preliminary planning stages, the newspaper has taken off. 

Over the past month of school, the kids have really come around. I remember that during our first couple of Monday story-planning sessions, a time when we brainstorm story ideas, they resembled quiet time rather than a brainstorming period. The kids didn't know what we should be reporting on and were very hesitant to offer suggestions. It took some time to coach kids into realizing that many things that are going on around them are newsworthy. That awesome project kids are doing in Civics class? That's a story! The roller coasters kids are building in science classes? That's a story! New teachers to the building? Definitely stories! 

We have decided not only to report on the usual happenings of our middle school, but also to feature as many kids and their accomplishments as possible. We look for stories about kids who are doing amazing things outside the classroom. We have musicians, artists, athletes, and scholars who are involved in programs in the evenings and on the weekends. We try to find out about those and feature those stories in the paper as well. It is our mission to feature our students, as many as possible, so that the community can see the awesome things going on in our school. Some parts of the paper, particularly the Features section, are more publicity than "news". That's okay because our human interest stories are the things that bring in readership.

Our newspaper is online-only. Because it is online, we can be more nimble. We update the paper every other day. There is a constant stream of new stories and the kids are now identifying things they can write about. They are now making suggestions without me having to ask. Many kids drop by to borrow the cameras so they can take pics in their classes or after-school activities. I even made press passes for the kids to wear so that teachers can identify them and allow them to take pics. 


The downside to being digital-only is that we must advertise to get readership. We created fliers with our URL and a QR code and hung them around our building. One challenge is that our school frowns on cellphone use so kids cannot immediately scan the code or input the URL. We will occasionally publish a feature story on paper as a sort of sample story, hoping that it will drive more readers to our site. Getting kids to realize that our newspaper exists is a big goal for us during first quarter. We think that once kids see what we are doing, they will be regular visitors to our site. When they see pics of themselves and their friends, they will be hooked!

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Seating Challenge

Every year I try to learn as much about my kids as possible. I want to know what makes them tick, what they like to read, what they do in their leisure time, what their family situations are, what their passions are, and what their personalities are like. One way to learn a lot about the kids in a short amount of time is to plan activities that show personality traits that I would otherwise not discover during regular classroom routines. One great idea I came across was the Seating Challenge. I read about the Seating Challenge in an article by Sandy Merz in Education Week (link here). In the article, Merz described five different scenarios that the kids had to fulfill in order to begin class. I loved the idea and incorporated all five. 

Right off the bat, I was able to see who instantly took a leadership role. Sadly, there were not many. Unfortunately, our kids are taught to comply from the moment they get to school in Kindergarten and that compliance can have a very negative effect. It seemed like every student was waiting for me, the teacher, to tell them what to do. It was as if they were afraid of doing something without me telling them to do it. That is so dangerous because these kids are going to have to make their own decisions very soon, and if they are constantly looking for someone else to make those decisions, then they are ill-equipped to enter high school, college, or the "real world". Every year, my goal is to make my kids more independent, able to think for themselves and problem-solve. 



Once the kids read the challenge on the board, I waited. Most kids looked at me with a "What now?" look on their faces. I just stood there and smiled. Eventually, sometimes after a torturous six or seven minutes of this, a student finally started moving kids around to satisfy the challenge. After fifteen minutes or so, the challenge was complete. Three of my four classes solved the challenge each day. My sixth hour journalism, full of excellent students, only solved three of five. I had a feeling that this would happen because the class is full of great students, not independent thinkers. Since these kids have learned to play the "school game", they excel at school. When they need skills like independent thinking and problem solving that are not in demand in our typical classroom, they flounder.



During our debrief, I talked to the kids about leadership, following, compliance, and collaboration. Together, they could solve any problem I threw at them. They noted the lack of leadership and also noted the kids who finally did step up and lead. After the first day, kids stepped up to lead quicker than on the first day, but it seemed like it was always the same three or four kids. The others had replaced me giving directions with another student. I'm not sure how much progress that shows. 

In a typical school year for me, the kids start out mousy and meek. Over the course of the year, as they come out of their shells and participate more in the classroom adventure, they learn that they have skills that have not been highlighted in school before. They find that their social or personal skills are important. They find out that leadership and problem solving are things in which they excel. By the end of the year, these kids are much less compliant and more likely to take on projects of their own invention or substitute a project for one I have assigned. These kids find their voice and use it well. Sometimes it is hard to manage. Twenty three kids want to go in twenty three different directions. I get frustrated but step back and realize that the bigger picture is a good one. While these kids could barely function on their own in August, they are taking control of their learning by April. That is how I define success. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Ready, Set, Go!

Like all teachers, toward the end of the summer, I begin to get jazzed up about the coming school year. This summer, it happened a bit earlier than in previous years, but I think that is because my schedule was changing, and I like change. This year, I moved grade levels (from seventh to eighth) for ELA and picked up a couple of journalism classes. I'm pretty stoked about my course load. I find journalism to be an intriguing class and have always been interested in the subject. In fact, I went to the University of Missouri specifically to go into journalism, since it is the best journalism school in the nation. Go Tigers! Of course, I switched to education because I get to work with kiddos.

Moving to eighth grade has many benefits. I know several students that I have in class; I had them last year. We can build on the community and learning from last year and I can help them develop further, both as learners and as people. They will prepare for high school, and life, by setting high goals and working all year to achieve them. I am fortunate to have kids who are energetic, smart, and happy. I know that many of my kids have life circumstances that cause them worry, but while they are in class, we make sure that we have a positive, productive, fun environment where they can problem-solve and build confidence to tackle problems in other aspects of their lives. We are a community and together we can accomplish so much.

While our ELA classes will practice their independent reading and build on reading and writing skills using the teaching philosophies of Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Donalyn Miller, our journalism classes will be immersed in year-long projects as we learn about the various forms of journalism. We are responsible for the Gator Gazette (our student newspaper), our yearbook, the ENM Tide (our literary magazine), and the Teen Lit Review. As the year goes on, we may launch more publications so that we can feature more students and events from East Naples Middle School. The kids are full of ideas and we have a LOT of kids enrolled in journalism (over 60) so the sky really is the limit. These kids are full of energy and ideas and it is my mission to harness that energy and direct it into productive and engaging projects.

After only a few days of classes, I am full of hope and energy. I want to do right by these kids and give them an experience that they will not soon forget.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Google's Technology Curriculum

It's not often that you get a robocall and act immediately on it. A couple of weeks ago, I got a robocall from DonorsChoose.org about a partnership they had with Google. They were trying to entice teachers to try some of the Google Applied Digital Skills curriculum, and if teachers tried it, they would receive a gift code to use on a DonorsChoose.org grant. Well, I took a look at the materials and found that Google has an extensive curriculum that allows kids to learn, through video tutorial and guided practice, many technology skills that they will need later in life. I was sold (as if that was even going to be a question). The next day, we embarked on our journey into Digital Adventure Stories.

The kids wrote adventure stories using Google Slides. They were able to import photos and videos in to enhance their text. They also learned how to link slides so that the reader could choose the pathway of the story. For example, if given two characters to follow, a reader could click on a character's link and just follow that character through the story. Kids learned how to create pathways of slides so that various story lines were possible. It was interesting to watch the kids try to map out the different avenues the stories could take while matching up the link to the appropriate slide. While all of this complex planning and thinking was occurring, the kids still had to create good stories.

On the instruction page of the Google curriculum, it said that this learning should take 2-3 hours. Well, our kids took longer. My kiddos averaged four hours in this activity partly because they were learning some new skills and also because they had to think through all of the possibilities. Some experienced paralysis by analysis.

When kids filled out the accompanying survey, they overwhelmingly said that they liked the unit. They liked using Google Slides and many thought of other uses for the app. Anytime I use technology in class, the kids are overwhelmingly positive about it because they don't get much exposure to technology in school and they value the new skills that they are learning. I constantly stress to them the value of digital literacy. They are learning and I think they are gaining new appreciation for what we are trying to do in class. Not only do they learn to read, write, speak, and think better, but also to do all of those things in a digital environment.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Using Scratch and Google

Once in a while we get a good opportunity to infuse a tech project into our class. We always take that opportunity. When I talk to the kids about it, I tell them that digital literacy is going to be as important to their future as language literacy. Unfortunately, our kiddos get too few opportunities to learn digital literacy, coding, and technology in general. I feel responsible for teaching them as much as I can and giving them opportunities to learn from others as well.

This week, we had an Hour of Code opportunity to use Scratch to design new Google Doodle logos. Kids were given a login to begin the project and they learned how Scratch works. They used the blocks of code to construct components of their logo. I enjoyed watching them struggle a bit with figuring out how it all works and seeing their creativity as they made decisions about how they wanted their logos to look.

Jonas teaching his classmates how to manipulate blocks of code.

So many of our kids want to learn because for them, it's something different and they like technology. We often think of kids as digital natives because their lives revolve around their phones. That is partly true. The kids are comfortable in a digital environment but expecting them to know how something works by looking at it is unfair to the kids. They don't know everything about tech. They are experts at using Snap Chat and posting to Instagram, but I have found that kids are not comfortable using many of the apps and technology that we use in class.

The advantage that kids have over adults is that they are fearless. When I taught computer classes to adults, they were so afraid of pushing buttons because "something might go wrong". Kids will push buttons until something goes right. That is the difference. Kids are comfortable with trial and error. Adults are not. When I put technology in front of kids, I have the fearless early adopters who are very comfortable plucking away and figuring it out themselves. I also have kids who want a step-by-step instruction sheet explaining everything they will do. I try to get them to experiment and discover the technology. When kids are rushing around the room sharing with others something they just learned, I am a happy guy. 

JP showing his classmates how to create a logo on devices.

Why is this type of learning going on in an ELA classroom? It's good for the kids. The more pressing question is why isn't this kind of learning happening in EVERY classroom? Digital literacy is something kids are going to deal with a lot in their future. They have to know how technology works and be able to choose the best tool for each task they will have. We have to prepare kids for their future, not our past. Even my district reading standards are covered in activities like this. Kids have to read carefully and execute the instructions that they read. Designing with code is a great learning experience on so many levels. As a bonus, the kids really like it. We will continue to take these opportunities as the year progresses. If we didn't, I would be doing these kiddos a disservice.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

DonorsChoose.org

A few years ago when I was at Hixson Middle School in Webster Groves, MO (before the move to Florida) my teaching partner, Melissa Hellwig, and I discovered donorschoose.org. It was a new entity that paired those who wanted to donate to public education classrooms with those classrooms in need. Individuals and businesses could donate to a specific classroom and support a particular teacher or classroom program. The benefactor could see exactly where their money was going. Businesses also could set up a funding source and give to classrooms that satisfied certain conditions (like STEM projects, art projects, etc.). During my last 3-4 years at Hixson, we wrote grants for a class set of Chromebooks, a dozen Kindles, a 3D printer, 3D doodle pens, and a trip for our entire school of 700 to see "He Named Me Malala". We wrote nine or ten successful grants. It was amazing.

Since moving to Florida and starting at East Naples Middle School, I have not written any grants through donorschoose.org. Our district has its own grant system and so I applied for three different grants through our district grant site. None have been funded. Oh well, there is only so much money to go around. But then a week ago, I received an email from donorschoose.org telling me that the Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation was fully funding grants for athletics programs in Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. Those were the three states affected by hurricanes this fall and Dick's wanted to help schools in those states rebuild their athletics programs. Well, I don't have to be told twice to apply for a grant that will be fully funded.

I got in touch with our Phys Ed teachers and our after-school athletics program coordinator and they put together a list of our needs. Since I already had an up-and-running donorschoose.org account, I wrote the grant for our school needs based on their lists. Two days after posting our grant, it was funded. We were all blown away. Amazing! After the grant was funded, I got an email from a staff member at donorschoose.org telling me that if we needed more, I should submit another grant proposal. They also said to share the email so that other schools could benefit. I contacted my colleagues and we put together another grant proposal. It's funny, all of my colleagues were worried about "asking for too much". Teachers are trained to ask for nothing and feel guilty when they ask for anything. It's in our DNA. After overcoming our reservations, we submitted another grant for more equipment, things that we need but were too afraid to ask for in the first grant. I just submitted that grant two days ago and we're waiting to hear if it gets approved. We are crossing our fingers. Update: We got the second grant too!

Donorschoose.org is an amazing organization that gives businesses that want to donate to public education a chance to do so the way they want to. Companies don't have to throw money out there hoping that schools will use it for its intended purposes. They can put criteria on the grant and make sure that it is going exactly where they want it to go. When these funding opportunities come up, donorschoose.org is great about getting the word out. Savvy teachers all over the country know to act as soon as they are notified. Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation put up 1.5 million dollars to help schools recover from hurricanes (in our case, Irma). That money will positively affect the lives of millions and millions of kiddos. Donorschoose.org made it all happen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Experimenting with FlipGrid

Our district is pushing FlipGrid as a tool for kids to use to demonstrate their learning. A few weeks ago, I went to a technology workshop and the app was featured. I saw a lot of potential there. It is something that kids would like, I thought. When I got back to class, I had two of my students, Brandon and CJ, play around with the app and record a "How-To" video showing the other kids how to use the app. It took a couple of days but they became familiar enough with the app that they could make a pretty good video.

On Monday, I introduced the app to the rest of the kiddos. We saw the website, took a look at how it worked, and watched the video that Brandon and CJ made. The kids were hooked. After forming small groups, making sure that each group had a device, I gave the class twenty minutes to play around with the app. I wanted them to make some sort of video even if it was just introducing themselves. For the next twenty minutes, chaos ensued. Kids were experimenting, asking questions, sharing information, discovering tricks and hacks, and having a good time learning. While some kids stuck to the basics, some groups got a little creative. It is that space where kids have some freedom to make learning choices that we often see them shine.


What will we do with FlipGrid? Well, I can see a lot of uses for it in our current classroom configuration. I have also put the word out to the kids that if they see a use for FlipGrid that we can incorporate into our class work, I want to know about it. After all, 24 heads are better than one. The first thing they will do with FlipGrid is create a 60-90 second "How-To" video like the one Brandon and CJ created. The video will be an instructional video demonstrating how to do something at which each student excels. This assignment is a chance for the kids to show some of their expertise and also is a precursor to our Genius Hour program that we will launch in January.

The idea that our class values each child's talent and genius is beginning to sink in for them. They have more choice and voice than they have ever been given before. I know from the past that when kids embrace the idea that they are an active learner, they will initiate learning and problem solving on their own. That is what we want to see. I want kids to find problems to solve and work on the solution. I want kids to make their own reading choices according to what they love. I want kids to see school as a way for their own personal learning goals to be met. After all, what else should our schools be doing if not that?