Sunday, March 26, 2017

Author Polly Holyoke Visits ENMS

On Friday, YA Lit author Polly Holyoke (@pollyholyoke) visited our school to talk to the kiddos. It is not every day that kids get a chance to talk to the authors of the books they read so I am glad that we had this opportunity. Polly Holyoke wrote The Neptune Project, a Sunshine State Young Readers Award Book nominee. It is one of fifteen books that will compete for that prize.


Polly talked to the kids about her own life of adventure: climbing mountains, swimming with dolphins, and being bitten by a rattlesnake. To say that the kids were interested would be an understatement. Polly also talked about her writing process, the publishing process, and how she comes up with here ideas. She said, "Most people tell you to write what you know," but in her dystopian underwater novels, she instead wrote what she could imagine. 



Since The Neptune Project and the follow-up, The Neptune Challenge, are underwater adventures, Polly brought in some of her SCUBA gear to show the kiddos. She talked a little bit about snorkeling, diving, and spear fishing. Since we live right on the Gulf of Mexico, the kids could relate. Many had done these activities themselves. Polly told the kids that while her writing process is unique to her, there are some similarities among authors' processes. Almost all authors read a lot, write everyday, unplug from technology to clear their minds, and daydream. She talked about the lost art of daydreaming and how daydreaming is often the time when people are most creative. She encouraged the kids to develop their own storytelling abilities. "There will always be jobs for storytellers," she said. 


The time that Polly Holyoke spent with us was awesome. Kids need to see that they can do what they love for personal fulfillment, learning, and career opportunities. In the audience were many budding writers. Seeing a successful published author and being able to interact with her will only help push these kids in that direction. This was one of those essential learning opportunities that we try to get for our kiddos. It is a meaningful experience that kids won't forget anytime soon.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Experimenting with Easel.ly

One of the things I tell the kids all of the time is that we are in class to learn to read better, write better, and use technology better. My kiddos have not had great exposure to educational technology and so I feature as many new apps, sites, and programs as possible. The kids take to the technology quite well even though some put up an initial resistance because they are a bit afraid to try something new. I reiterate to them that their futures will include a lot of technology both in college and in their careers. I do not want my kiddos to be at a competitive disadvantage because they are not as technology savvy as other kids in middle schools across the nation.

This week we experimented with infographics. When kiddos create infographics, they have to think a bit differently than when they write text. They have to visualize the organization of their topic graphically and then create that vision. There can be a whole lot of thinking involved. I introduced Easel.ly to the kids. It is a great infographic creation site. Kids can start from scratch or use one of dozens of templates. Most kids sifted through the templates, trying to find the one that would best fit their needs. Some started with the blank option and created from scratch.

Over the course of our class period, kids discovered different things about the program. Could they use their own photos in their infographic? Yes. When a student learned the work flow for that task, they became the expert in class, teaching the other kids. How do we download the infographic to turn in online? After a minute, another student figured out that work flow and shared it with the class. There were dozens of decisions that the kiddos had to make in order to produce their infographic and there were numerous problems that they had to troubleshoot. That is how we learn.

This type of learning is not quiet learning. When a student figures out the solution to a problem, they often yell out, "I figured it out!" At that point, I tell the rest of the class that we have an expert at this solution. As more and more problems are solved, the kids keep teaching one another how the program works until all kids have a working understanding of the site. This is how we learn in class. I give the kids a task and allow them the time to explore, tinker, and learn. Once they discover how to work the technology, they teach each other. I manage the environment. This is the best kind of learning because it is immediate, relevant, and student-centered. This is the learning that sticks.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Learning Outside the Classroom

I've long been a proponent of learning beyond the classroom walls. The more learning kids can do outside of school and outside of the curriculum, the better off they will be. Certainly the curriculum is important, but often kids do not find their way in life because of something they learned in the school curriculum. It is the experiences that they have or the innovative ideas that they see that pull them in the direction that they are supposed to go in life. Field trips are essential to learning and give kids the one thing they remember most...the experience. Experiences matter more for kids in school than anything else. They may not remember an eighth grade math worksheet as life-changing, but a trip to the symphony, a college campus, a medical school laboratory, a repertory theater company, or a nature preserve may just give kids an idea of what they want to do in life. Sometimes when you cannot take the kids to the learning, you have to bring the learning in to the kids.

This week at school, we did not go on a field trip. Instead, our administration brought in a guest-speaker, Collier County Judge Janeice Martin. She spoke and answered the kids' questions for over an hour. She talked about her experience as a lawyer and a judge, spinning interesting stories about her career. The kids were interested because her talk had direct application to their lives. She grew up in the very neighborhoods where our kiddos live. Martin talked about what it takes to become a lawyer and the ability of someone in her position to help people. She also talked about her most difficult cases, both professionally and emotionally. The overarching message that came through to our kiddos is that she loves her career. That is inspirational to everyone. When you talk to someone who clearly loves what they do, you are inspired.

Many of the kids in the audience have never given a second thought to becoming a lawyer, judge, or any part of the justice system. After the assembly, many of them will. The important thing is exposure. We have to expose kids to many things and give them countless experiences so that they can see the numerous choices they have in their lives. When kids only see a few pathways in their lives, then those few choices become their world. It is up to us as educators to expand what the kids see. They must see that they can do anything with their lives. The worst thing is for a young adult to go into a field, based on limited exposure, and hate it, only to find out fifteen years later that there was a better career for them.

One of the reasons I have my little Creative Genius segment in class each week is because I want kids to see futuristic ideas and products, many of which are still in development. I always end the segment by telling them, "Some of you may end up working at these companies or coming up with an even better idea." Kids need to see a variety of pathways for themselves in the arts, math and science, journalism, publishing, athletics, construction and many other fields. If we don't show them that these careers exist, they may never know. It is these very ideas that kids latch on to and think to themselves, "I want to do that when I'm older." Anytime we get kids thinking like that, we can chalk up a win.

Is giving up class time for field trips, assemblies, Creative Genius and other segments of exposure worth it? Absolutely. I would argue that it is probably the most important part of the kids' week. It is the time that kids can wonder, explore, be awed, and see themselves in these positions later in life. It is the experiences we give them that they remember. We must make those experiences numerous and worthwhile for the kids. Their lives often depend on it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Article of the Week - Newsela

When I read Kelly Gallagher's Readicide, I saw the value of the Article of the Week. Kids read a news article and reflect on the content. It is a way to build background knowledge while practicing writing skills. Since I read the book, I have adopted an Article of the Week into our classroom. Kids have read about circuses, presidents, sports, technology and lots of current events. The kids become better-informed and can also construct an argumentative paragraph or essay about the article.

I have used Junior Scholastic in the past for our news articles but this year, I have gravitated toward Newsela. Newsela is an easy-to-use news source that has many great features. One big win for kids is that Newsela allows students to adjust the reading level of the article. Press a button and the article becomes easier or more difficult to read (lexile levels range from 1120+ to 540). This is especially helpful with students whose first language is not English. Newsela is free to use and teachers can set up classes, share the class code with students, and assign articles. Within the Newsela site, teachers can assign quizzes and other reading checks. I prefer to have my kiddos read the articles and then write about them. Too many times I have seen kids look at the questions and then search for the answers in the text. When they write, they have to finish the article to get the information and form their opinions.

One of the great features of Newsela is the ease with which teachers can assign articles. We can assign within the Newsela site itself or share out to Google Classroom, email, Twitter and a few other venues. The ease with which teachers and students can access the news articles is astounding. The ease with which we teachers can use free, current, relevant news articles to build kids' background knowledge is a win for all of us. The Article of the Week is a bedrock element of our class. It serves the purpose of introducing kids to nonfiction articles and gives us more material about which to write. Using Newsela as our current events source is free and easy.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Blogging to Reflect

Most teachers know that reflection is a key element of learning. We practice reflection in many ways. We blog, we engage on Twitter, we converse with other teachers, we read, we think and we wonder. We try to analyze what is going well and what needs adjustment. We try to figure out why something succeeded or failed and map out ways to do better next time. Reflection may very well be where most of the learning occurs. We teachers know that reflection is essential to developing a deep understanding of material and how we ourselves learn best.

Sometimes we overlook the reflection piece with our students. We are busy generating assignments so that they can perform and sometimes we don't allow enough time for kids to do their own analysis about their learning. Now, surely kiddos are not experts at reflection. They may not even know why reflection is important. "This is dumb. Can't we just do something else?" is a common refrain. Why would kids be so opposed to reflection? Well, for one thing, kids often don't know how to reflect. The way many schools work usually does not allow time for deep thinking about learning. We have material to cover. We cannot take time to think about what we are doing. Because of this rushed curriculum, kids are never given the opportunity to develop their reflective selves.

Kids have to learn to reflect on their learning just as we teachers did. We have to give them time and scaffold some activities for them so that they get the hang of it. With practice, they will develop the ability to analyze their work for the purpose of improving their learning. We have to give them time. One way we English teachers have been coaching reflection with kids is reader response. Kids spend time analyzing the books they are reading and also reflecting on their own reading skills and preferences. They take a long look at what they are doing for the purpose of improving their learning. That is the kind of reflection we want for our kids in all of their learning.

Our Genius Hour blogs are perfect for developing reflection skills in our students. They are in charge of their learning, making almost all of the decisions about their projects. Once a week, I ask them to write a blog post about their learning. What have they accomplished during the past week? What is the next step in their project? Is the project going the way they thought it would? Have they been surprised by the results of the decisions that they have made? Are they on track to complete their project? Given the work that they have done so far, what materials or resources do they need for the next step? All of these questions bounce around their brains. They have to take a long look at their learning. They have to reflect.

Our kids are making dozens of decisions about their projects each week. With each decision they make, a handful of new decisions appears on the horizon. They are figuring out that learning is a continuous process and that we are never really "finished" learning. One door leads to another and another. What we hope to accomplish with our blogs is to have kids take the first steps toward figuring out their talents and gifts and maybe take a look down the road to see how they can use these talents and gifts in their lives and in their work. We hope that they start planning some long-range goals. Some kids will discover new talents during our Genius Hour projects. That's what our projects are all about. We are learning a bit about a topic but we are learning a great deal about ourselves.

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 harmonizedlearning.blogspot.com) 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.