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 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 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.