Saturday, October 19, 2013

What I Have to Say Matters

I recently wrote my first #25WordStory.
Anne Barnhart, an amazing English teacher in my Writing Project cohort, first introduced me to the concept of the #25WordStory. The #25WordStory challenge, pioneered by the great Kevin Hodgson, is to write a story in exactly 25 words--no cheating--and then share it on Twitter.

The actual writing of the story was a lot of fun (even if I did miscount and create a #24WordStory which I embarrassingly shared with the world). The word limit forced me to be more deliberate with with my diction and creative with my syntax--two places that I can get lazy when writing longer prose. Keeping my story within the bounds of the 25 word limit was tricky enough but couple that restriction with Twitter's 140 character limit and now you've got a real challenge.  Goodbye empty modifiers!  I can afford you no longer.

Now the sharing of my piece was another story altogether. Up until this point I had used Twitter primarily as a means to find and share professional resources.  I had yet to take the next step of creating original content. I felt vulnerable putting my work on display for strangers.  And yet there is something exhilarating about a person who you have never met liking your stuff.  It's different than the feedback you get from trusted peers/colleagues.  This person who chanced upon your work does not owe you their attention, they are not obligated to validate your work because familial, social, or business ties.  Thus when they favorite or share your material, it is a encouraging reminder that what you have to say matters (at least to the two people who retweeted your stuff).

And so I took a risk, shared my story, and loved it. When my time at the Writing Project came to the close, I didn't want to squander the creative energy I'd built up. I wanted to immediately set to work on my blog, to create lessons based on the incredible stuff we'd just done. Yet on our last day, I headed to the Cape for a week long family vacation. On our way there, sitting in an endless sea of traffic, I came up with an idea to keep up the energy flowing. . .#25WordPostcards!

I quickly put out an offer to my Writing Project peeps and Twitter friends to send them a postcard from the Cape.  To my excitement several people took me up on the offer.  Off to the gift shops I went in search of funky postcards to use (FYI: The National Seashore Visitor Center in Eastham, MA had the best ones).  I decided at the start to use our real life vacation exploits as inspiration for the #25WordPostcards.  I also wanted to make each one unique (no repeats).  Boiling down our outings at the Cape to 25 words gave them a sort of magical quality.  Little things like reading the information board at Coast Guard Beach morphed into dramatic scenes of joy, wonder, disappointment, even conflict.

Below is a photo of my son Malcolm getting ready to turn in for his first night of camping and on the right is the postcard inspired by this adventure:

He did really make it to 11 p.m. and he did suddenly stop crying when he noticed the stars.  It was a special moment that may have only lived in my memory if not for the #25WordPostcard.

So what does this all mean for teaching?  
Since participating in the Rhode Island Writing Project: Summer Institute, I've been more committed than ever to daily writing. The #25WordStory is a clever alternative to the free write. It's word limit forces the writer to think more carefully about his/her word choice and syntax. And unlike longer pieces we can be daunting to revise, the pithiness of the #25WordStory encourages multiple attempts at perfection.

This school year, my co-teacher and I have instituted Free Write Fridays.  We challenged our sophomores to create and share a #25WordStory every week.  Our students were intrigued.  So much so, that before I could finish explaining the concept of the #25WordStory, my student, Patrick, interrupted me to inquire when I'd be done talking because he had a great idea for a story and he wanted to write it down before he forgot. Here was a student who had barely passed English his freshman year, clamoring for a chance to write.

Inspired by his love of the Walking Dead, Patrick wrote the following story:

The end- 
I woke up at 12 pm and everyone was dead. 
All I could see was walkers everywhere so it was time to kill!!     

It's not quite Shakespeare but it is beautiful.  It represents a "in" for a young man who for so much of his school career has been on the outs. You should have seen him when I asked for his permission to share his work on our class website and in my blog.  He was at first flabbergasted then bashfully proud.  By asking to share his piece, I was validating his work, his voice like those wonderful strangers on Twitter had validated my own work.  And just like me, Patrick got a boost of confidence in his ability to create meaningful pieces of writing.

Now don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that the #25WordStory changed Patrick's life.  Honestly Patrick continues to struggle to find the meaning/purpose in school.  But regardless of how the rest of the week has played out for him, every Friday without fail, Patrick is the first to write his #25WordStory.

No Excuses

We must hold our students to high standards. Unfortunately in my experience this sometimes translates into a "no excuses" approach to education.  

It's not about giving Jimmy a pass because his home life is a wreck.  But we often contextualize situations through our own experiences, our own stories.  Most teachers at my school are middle-class Caucasians like myself.  And while I cannot speak for my colleagues, I know that my own childhood was idyllic when compared to those of some of my students.  I could never have imagined the kids of things my students have gone through--homelessness, abuse, foster care, rape, etc.  And this ignorance, this reliance on an incomplete story, has dangerous consequences in the classroom. 

When we hold kids to high standards without doing the hard work of building appropriate scaffolds to help them live up to those expectations, we send the message that our curriculum is more important than they are.  It's lazy teaching disguised as rigor.  We can be both mindful of our students stories AND support them in accessing the skills they need to be successful.  But to do so, we must first be willing to listen.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Opening The Door A Bit Wider

The chaos of my learning
Premises I believe in:  People are messy.  Learning is messy.  And people learning stuff is super messy.

I kind of fell in love with Thomas Newkirk (shhh, don't tell Tobey) while reading the first chapter of his book, Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones.  I really liked how he described expression as "too individual and idiosyncratic to be evaluated by a machine" (4).  And then he started dropping expressions like "mechanized literacy" and "totalitarian logic" and I was hooked.

And while I could go on at length about the ideas I found interesting and applicable in this book, I am going to focus on two--depth over breath people!  My first "Ah ha!" moment in the reading was in Chapter Five "Popular Culture as a Literacy Tool" when Newkirk describes the use of movies as a "scaffold" for writing.  Mind blown.  Seriously.  I'd never thought of it that way. Allowing/encouraging students to create a new writing piece based on a pre-existing story is the equivalent of using sentence starters to help them transition to a new idea or refute a claim.  Students don't have to worry about being overwhelmed by the possibilities, the paralysis that sometimes overtakes us when we must build from scratch.
Unconstrained choice can be as disabling, as paralyzing as unconstrained direction (147).
The characters, conflict, props, setting, etc. have all been established allowing students to build upon or remix the basic elements of the story.  It's a way in for students who are overwhelmed by writing.  Training wheels for would-be storytellers.  Genius!

Newkirk also emphasizes the importance of validating student interest arguing that "the surest way to alienate any group is to indicate that their allegiances and interest are not respected." (109).  Just because you could care less about dragons or Asking Alexandria (ugh) doesn't mean that your students interests aren't worth exploring.  Interest fosters engagement.  If we forget this, we alienate students from their own learning.  At the high school level, the emphasis is on analytic writing.  All of our writing PD is focused on how to help the students craft better arguments.  Yet instead of allowing them to choose issues they feel passionate about, we force students to write about prescribed MCAS driven topics.  And we wonder why so many students hate to write.

I loved how Newkirk challenged the artificial dichotomy between "serious" writing and pleasure:

Any effort to teach analytic or reflective literacy skills [. . .] is built on the premise of engagement, for analysis is an unpacking of our reactions and involvement.  Without that engagement, there is nothing to unpack--indeed, no reason to read or write in the first place (129).
So that's my goal this year.  To provide students with more opportunities to play, to explore, to create.  I still want them to learn to construct powerful arguments but I'm going to take a cue from Gary McPail and open the door a little wider when it comes to what kids write about.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What the Hack?

Confession:  I hate the use of the word "hack" in educational context--Hack Jam, Toy Hack, what have you. It just feels gimmicky.  But I love, repeat love, the concept of hacking (ugh. I feel dirty writing it).  So I've opted to use the words tinker, remix, reimagine, redefine in its place.

I thought about my toy remix the entire drive home from RIC.  I even forced my husband to help me brainstorm some ideas.  The best we could come up with was to melt down some of Malcolm's toy soliders and recreate them into something innocuous like a bunny.  I nixed this concept because I felt like a true remix should leave some trace of the original toy.  If we'd melted down the soldiers, at some point they would cease being soldiers and just revert to liquidified plastic.  While I'm sure there's some fancy way to explain that transformation--Who are we really? Are we all just liquidified plastic at the core waiting for society to mold us into being?--I didn't want to go there.  I was more interested in the notion of relooking at something whose purpose/function you have taken for granted and trying to figure out what else it could be.

This is what I love about the concept of tinkering.  It forces you to not only think outside the box but to reimagine the box althogether.  (It's not a box, dammit!  It's a portal to the Xeres quadrant in the Flotsum galaxy!)  Just because Toy R Us says this thing is a sandtoy doesn't mean that it's the only thing it can be.  It gives you the creator control, puts you in the driver seat.

Little kids are good at this kind of thinking.  That's not a bucket, it's a hat.

That's shovel?  See that shovel there?  Yes, the one as big as my head.  That'd make an awesome spoon. Hand it over.

But as the opportunities to tinker, discover, and create are slowly replaced by more passive forms of learning, our ability to see possibilities atrophies.  And so we begin to accept the version of the world that is presented to us.  It is, what it is.

There is a danger to this kind of thinking.  It breeds cynicism and hopelessness; it makes you feel powerless. Tinkering helps to remind us of the complexity of things and empowers us by giving us license to explore, to fail, to try again in pursuit of a it self-determined objective.

And on that hefty note, let me present to a quick overview of my toy remix.  After abandoing the toy soldier idea, I decided to turn an old sand toy into a post-apocalyptic survival garden.  I chose the sand toy because I liked how the sand made the wheels move.  I thought it would be neat to water plants this way so I cut off the strainer at the bottom of the toy and replaced it with a plastic frying pan to make a container garden.    

In the end, my creation was only a partial success.  For while the garden actually came out quite lovely, the water stream is a bit too forceful (not to mention messy) to be a great watering mechanism.  I'm still thinking of  ways to modify my creation to make it truly functional.  Even though it's kind of jacked up, I'm ridiculously proud of it.  So much so, that I created a backstory to explain the concept behind the toy.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

25 (ahhh make that 24) Word Story

When I checked my phone today, in the car on the way home from Mystic Aquarium, I noticed a tweet from Anne.
Hmmm. . .was I? Creative writing has never come as easily to me as other forms of writing. I fall into the "It was a dark and stormy night" category of would be authors. Did I really want thousands of strangers to bear witness to my feeble attempt at creativity? After thinking it over for the rest of the car ride, I decided to go for it. Why not? What did I really have to lose? And taking risks is what we, writing workshop people, are all about, right? So I wrote (or at least tried to write) a #25WordStory:
I know. I know. It's really a 24 word story. An embarrassing fact that I didn't noticed until after I tweeted it out to the masses.  Sigh.  I blame the aforementioned gremlin who was trying desperately to stand on the kitchen table whilst I was composing.  Still 25 words or 24, I feel pretty proud of my piece.

This is another reason I dig Twitter.  There I was just going about my day trying to keep my kids from jumping into the belgua whale tank when out of the blue I get a message from Anne seeing if I want to write a story (albeit a very short story).  Without Anne's gentle prodding and words of encouragement, I would never have written that piece, never have felt the satisfaction of creating it, sharing it.  Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are many things.  I'm not just a mom or an educator; I'm also a writer, a creator.  And I have things to say worth hearing.

Thanks for reminding me of that today Anne.  You rock!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Creating With Intention

In the chapter on presentations from Troy Hicks' Crafting Digital Writing, he defines two essential characteristics of an effective presentation--"stickiness" and storytelling.  I love this.  Particularly the idea of "stickiness."  It is a great way to start talking with our students about choice and intention in their own work and the work of others.  What stuck with you? How did the author/presenter achieve this stickitude? 

Wouldn't it be cool after discussing the criteria of effective presentations and viewing models to have students "hack" a terrible presentation?  To remix it, revamp it, reshoot it, to enhance its effectiveness?  Kids could turn boring PowerPoint presentations into movies, interactive timelines, podcasts, infographics, etc. If the objective--to enhance a presentation's message using digital tools--is all we care about.  The sky's the limit. Even if it was as simple as a student using a more interactive data visualization tool (like to bring to life a static, two-dimensional graph, there would still be a valuable conversation to be had about choice and impact when it comes to representing data/information.

These are the experiences and conversations which will hopefully increase the "stickiness" of our own instruction.  I can tell my students that their presentations should be "simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and storylike" (Hicks 2013, p. 73).  But if I really want them to internalize this message, I need them to play around with these concepts. To judge their work against the models that we've analyzed together in class. To see for themselves what works and what doesn't work.

Personally, I've been guilty of denying my students the opportunity to get messy, to tinker.  I've diligently gone over my expectations for the presentation of their work--and yes I've even required a set number of slides--only to be disappointed, angry even, when the students "failed" to live up to those expectations. Looking back, it's clear that I was the one who had failed.  I just assumed they'd figure "it" out on their own. I mean I'd told them to use "powerful visuals," to "limit the amount of text" on each slide,  right?

We have to do better than give students a checklist of criteria and hope that they'll figure it out.  If we truly wish them to become powerful producers of digital content, then we have to teach them how to make purposeful decisions, to "think intentionally about creating meaning" in a digital medium (p. 13).  Adults sometimes drink too much of the "digital native" kool aid.  But Hicks reminds us that just because students are "tech comfortable" doesn't necessarily mean that they are "tech savvy" (p. 20).  Just because a student knows what Tumblr is or has made a Vine, doesn't necessarily mean that he/she is a producer of meaningful digital content.

The danger in forgetting this is that we sometimes fail to act as the guides/mentors students need to fully tap into the potential as learners and creators.  To be truly creative, one needs to know so much more than how to operate a piece of technology. Technology isn't a tool until you figure out how to manipulate it to your fit your needs--not the other way around.  A rock was just a rock until someone figured out it could also be a hammer.  

Wrapping up, I encourage you to read my blog post, Youth in Action, to see what kids are capable of creating with the guidance and support of their teachers.