Saturday, December 10, 2011

How My Students Rekindled My Love of Writing

This fall, two seniors approached me with the idea of starting a new writing club.  When I asked exactly what they were thinking, they explained they just wanted a "quiet place to write." How could I say no to that? Two graduating seniors who I didn't even have in class anymore asking me to give them a quiet space to write? How could I not give a room of their own to students who really just love writing so much that they want me to help them find a way to make time for it? Obviously it had to happen. We decided to make it a society rather than a club; it sounds fancier and seemed to fit us well.

We started having lunch together on Fridays, and we made a small list of students who we thought might be interested (it's not an exclusive group, but we wanted to seek out people who we thought would be passionate about our vision). Our goal was to make this something they (and I) would enjoy, not something they felt was yet another obligation to fulfill. The way it works is simple; we are in my room every Friday for whomever needs it. We don't take attendance, and students can come for five minutes or the whole period. If they don't want to come, they don't have to. If they only want to pop by once all year, that's great, too. We joked that it's kind of like the Room of Requirement in the Harry Potter series, and thus our society's name was born. 

Once I started thinking about it, I might have become more excited than the kids. I realized that I didn't have a quiet room of my own to write either, which is why I haven't been exactly prolific over the past few years. I always say I want to write a book about teaching, and I go on and on about how I want to blog more, but I just don't. Room of Requirement (or ROR, as we affectionally call it) has given me that. 

The ironic thing is that we don't usually get any actual writing done at our ROR lunches. We tend to end up just chatting, laughing, venting, and sometimes sharing the work we've been doing on our own time. We did put together a collaborative poem for our school's open mic night, which was a great experience for me (and I think for them, too). But even most of the collabopoem took place at home in a Google Doc. Despite the fact that our lunches are less than productive in terms of actual time writing, we have noticed that we have been writing more on our own time. I wrote a piece for Project PLN, as well as my piece of the collabopoem and another poem of my own for open mic night. The kids have been bringing more and more work to our lunches so they can share with us and get constructive feedback. We only have one rule: NO DISCLAIMERS. We don't allow anyone to put him/herself down, especially when it comes to the words on the page. No one is permitted to feel like his/her words are any less valuable than anyone else's. It is a safe place.

At first I felt guilty that we weren't buckling down to actually write when we meet; I felt that it was my responsibility to keep the group "on task," whatever that means. However, I have gradually started to let that go. First of all, no one seems to care except me, and besides, it doesn't seem to be about that. It is about having a safe place to talk about writing, share our fears, laugh about things we find ridiculous, and learn who we are and why we write.  The kids have remarked that they start looking forward to ROR toward the middle of the week, and I have realized that I do the same. We missed two meetings in a row this past month because of Thanksgiving and a class trip, and I know that I for one missed ROR, and some of the students said that they did as well. 

Obviously this experience has reminded me of why I love teaching; I know how important it is to provide outlets for students who need it, and I love to see kids get inspired. I like to think that ROR will continue to mean something to them long after they graduate. But what surprised me most about being a part of this society is the fact that it has rekindled my own love and passion for writing. I hadn't realized how little I was writing for myself over the past few years, and since we started ROR, I find myself doing so more and more. It has helped me fall back in love with the excitement of finding just the right word or phrase. It has made me remember the sense of accomplishment from finishing a piece after struggling through it. But most of all (and perhaps most importantly), it has reminded me of simply how good it makes me feel when I write. Even if no one ever sees my composition, it's there for me, and sometimes that's all I need. I have my students to thank for that.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


I don't even know where to begin with this post. Today my friend and I attended a conference called Edscape, which was at New Milford High School in New Milford, NJ. The principal and event organizer, Eric Sheninger, is becoming a big name in edtech these days (if you're reading this, you probably already follow him on twitter), and he did a bang-up job of organizing this awesome event. I learned about the conference through his tweets, and when I saw that it was only $35 for a full day of tech PD (including breakfast and lunch!), I knew I had to get a ticket. Hopefully I can do the day justice here, but if I can't, I hope to at least sort out all I have learned because right now (six hours after I got home), my mind is still reeling.

The day started with a fantastic keynote speaker by the name of Diana Laufenberg. I can tell she's an amazing teacher because she gave a stellar presentation with fewer than twelve hours to prepare (the original keynote got stuck at the airport in Chicago). She spoke about her school's core values of  inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection. It was clear from the way she spoke and the student examples she showed that everything she does in class reflects those core values. I loved when she reminded us that our kids are capable of GOOD WORK...and not just "kid good," but actual GOOD WORK. She talked about the fact that we teach as though we have an information deficit, but in reality, we should be helping our students learn how to manage an information surplus. She also reminded me that "I am the least creative person in my classroom," and "it's ok to stumble. Fail early, fail often!" You have probably guessed by now that I left the auditorium feeling inspired.

After the keynote, we began moving to our sessions. I attended:
  • Google Apps at Your Fingertips
  • The 20 Coolest Things That You Can Do with a SMARTBoard
  • Creating a 21st-Century Classroom
  • Building a Culture of Literacy
Session 1 was pretty much the basics of GDocs. There were a lot of beginners in the room, so I think we spent longer than the presenter wanted on Docs and didn't really get to other apps. I'm not complaining, though; it was still fun to talk tech and mess around in a doc that everyone in the room was able to access. I was psyched to learn about, which is a URL-shortening site. I will most definitely use this for shortening my GDoc links in the future. I also enjoyed volunteering during the session, and it made me realize that I'm really anxious to present at a professional conference. Now I just have to think of a topic!

I don't think I was mentally prepared for my second session, and as a result, it blew my mind. I have a SMARTBoard, but I don't really use it because of logistical concerns (we're working on it). Additionally, I haven't really taken the time to think it through and figure out ways that I can integrate it into my class in a meaningful way. But I really do want to make it a part of my everyday routine, so I decided to go see the 20 cool things I was promised. We didn't end up finishing all 20, but to be honest, I'm kind of glad. I don't think my brain could have handled it. We learned about all sorts of things you can do with the SMARTBoard, from finding, downloading, and inserting Flash into Notebook to recognizing tables to doing magic reveals of images. I literally was dizzy when I walked out of that room, and I wish it were Monday already so I could get right to practicing! 

The third session, which was presented by Samantha Morra, focused on building the 21st-century classroom. I had originally thought it would be more of a metaphorical classroom (get kids thinking, problem solving, etc.), but instead, she actually discussed the ways in which the physical design and layout of a classroom could impact learning. She had a wiki with tons of resources. My favorite quote by her was "pedagogy should not be driven by the furniture layout." It has me thinking...there is so much more I can do with the design of my room, and I plan to start soon! 

Finally, I went to a session called Building a Culture of Literacy, which was led by Patrick Higgins (a self-proclaimed all-around swell guy). This may have been my favorite because even though it was about tech, it was also about my first love, which is literacy. One of my major goals this year is to foster a true love of reading and writing in my students, and a huge part of that is to have them reading books they love and writing for authentic audiences. This session was all about that. Patrick presented the concepts of "viral reading" and "buzz books," and I loved those because of how cool they make reading sound. And reading really IS's just about getting kids to see that. I particularly loved when he remarked that "reading can catch fire," mostly because it's true, but also because he had the cover of The Hunger Games projecting when he said it, so it was punny to me (the second novel in this awesome trilogy is called Catching Fire). I left this discussion feeling energized and ready to show kids just how much fun reading and writing can be!

If you're still reading this, you know by now that Edscape was an amazing day. But it's just day. Now it's time to bring home everything and make sense of it so I can move forward with improving my practice. And when I make sense of it, how can I help others do the same? And how can they help me deepen my understanding even more? It's one thing if I go back to school and implement all these cool new ideas in my own room. Sure, that would be fun and all, but imagine the possibilities if others will listen and try some of them as well. Imagine all I can learn from my colleagues just from chit chatting about my day at NMHS. I am ready to stumble and fail on my way to making sense of that information surplus. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why I Love Having a Class Facebook Page

Last August, I was at my local Barnes & Noble doing some work. Ok, you've got me. I was SUPPOSED to be doing some work, but in truth, like so many of my students, I was Facebooking instead. For some reason, I started messing around with the "pages" option, and I decided to make a page for my class. I wasn't quite sure what would happen with it, but I thought if nothing else, I could spend the next hour fiddling around with that rather than writing lesson plans. 

I ended up with my class Facebook page. I think I uploaded a photo of my classroom, wrote a silly status message about how no one would "like" it, finished my grande skinny decaf caramel macchiato, and went home.

One hundred and seventy Two hundred twenty-seven "likes" later, I have to say that the class page was the best thing I could have done last year. As the year progressed, I realized that what had started out as a way to procrastinate had somehow transformed my classroom. It became a way for students to communicate with me in a way that they enjoy. I chuckled this past June when I was still getting one or two student posts on my wall every much for summer vacation!

Here are just a few of the ways I have come to utilize a Facebook class page.

Develop relationships with students
It is called SOCIAL media, after all. Even though I'm not comfortable with "friending" current students on Facebook, the class page enables me to talk to them and get to know them better than I normally would. The public nature of the posts/comments engages a variety of students and gives me a chance to communicate with them in a different way.

Post links that relate to class
I love to post links for my students, from SAT tips to book reviews to news articles about my favorite authors. These links do not necessarily have to relate directly to class. I share links with news about the upcoming Hunger Games films (I can't wait!), funny comics that I think the kids will like, music videos, and other things that I happen to find interesting. 

Inspired by FridayReads, I decided to post a status on my page every Friday and ask students what they're reading. Sometimes I get 20 or more comments. Sometimes I get zero. Either way, I think it's an easy way to get kids fired up about what they're reading and share their latest literary conquests with their friends. 

Answer questions from students
I don't know why I was so surprised when kids started posting homework questions on my wall. I guess it's because I just saw the class page as a fun thing rather than a work thing. Eventually, students started using FB to reach me instead of the email system that our school provides to all staff and students. A couple of students remarked on my course eval this year that they liked when others asked questions because they often were wondering the same thing but were too afraid or lazy (their words, not mine) to ask.

Get feedback from students
I sometimes make surveys in Google Docs if I'm looking for feedback from kids. For instance, this summer I moved my homework blog over to a wiki. I was having trouble deciding how to organize the homework assignments for students, so I made a quick survey and posted it on my page. I got about fifteen responses (ironically enough, mostly from kids who I'm not even teaching next year) with great feedback and suggestions. This was on August 15. I'm pretty confident when I say that if I had sent the survey to students via email, I would have been lucky to get even one response.

Allow students to share what they find
Students have started posting things to my class page, and I especially (selfishly) love this because it's enabling me to gather lots and lots of supplemental resources to use for years to come. I mean really, how cool is it when a kid posts a link to a web comic about Pride and Prejudice at 2am on a Saturday night? If that's not taking learning beyond the classroom walls, I don't know what is.

I know that social media in the classroom can be scary. I'm a huge techie, and it even took me a couple of years to feel comfortable communicating with my kids in this way. However, this is their world, and even if Facebook goes to the wayside like MySpace did (hello, G+), social media is here to stay. If we don't teach our students appropriate, professional, and educational ways to use the media, who will?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

First Post

I don't really know where this blog will go, but I've been wanting to start one for a long time. Last year inspired me and reignited my love of reading, writing, teaching, and technology. I want to write about these things. While I hope that people eventually read what I have to say, the point for me is really to help myself reflect and organize my thoughts in one place. I also think it will be fun to read old posts in a few years...hopefully this will be a way to watch myself grow as a teacher and maybe even as a writer. 

I thought a good place to start would be with reflecting about last year's goals and setting new goals for this year. 

Reflections about 2010-11 school goals: 
  • Keep a positive attitude. -hmmm...I'd say I was able to do that about 70% of the time. Not bad!
  • Mind my own business. -I'm getting there
  • Don't take on more than I can handle. -March was rough, but otherwise, any overflow was due to my own procrastination.
  • Grade most written assignments on (be green!).-success!!
  • Go to the gym three days after school per week. -overall I give myself an A for this, but there were some times where I didn't stick to this. We can't win 'em all.
  • Keep my iPhone in the car when I go into the building. -not even a little bit, but I decided after writing these goals that this one really shouldn't be here anyway.
  • Find a fun and fair way to use udemy as a valuable part of class. -success!
  • Listen to student feedback about udemy and adjust accordingly. -success! Still tweaking to get it to be where I want it to be, but the online component transformed our class. 
  • Create more detailed discussion guides to focus discussion more. -I get a B- on this...I did improve, but I need to be more consistent.
  • Start giving lit quizzes again. -I got better. Still needs work.
  • Get a normal bedtime. -I was doing so well with this, but I fell off the wagon a lot toward the end of the year. It is a priority again this year.
  • Drink enough water. -Usually. 
  • Don't bite nails. -This didn't happen during the school year, but I'm optimistic now that I have the color gels.
  • Don't do schoolwork on Saturdays. -I actually came to enjoy my Saturday B&N time, so I can't complain that I didn't stick to this.
  • Wear makeup more often. -Still not nearly enough. I should probably go to the MAC store and get some new eye shadow. You know, for motivational purposes only.
  • Be at school by 7:15 (leave the house by 6:45). -I stuck with this until winter break and then fell apart in January. Maybe this year I can keep it up until Feb!
  • Stay at school till 4:00 three days per week; use the time productively so I don't have to bring work home. -While I did manage my time better, I didn't quite stick to this. 
  • Start watching Jeopardy! again. -I did well with this in the fall and winter, but once spring hit, I let myself get too far behind. The Watson week was awesome, though.
  • Keep blog updated. -this is referring to my homework blog, not this one (obviously). I'd say I had it updated 90% of the time. Not bad.
  • Make lesson plans more detailed. -let's try this again now that I'm using GDocs for LPs.
  • No whining! -I'm getting there.
  • Crochet something. -I made at hat but frogged it. I think that still counts.
  • Cook more. -Yes, and I even started taking cooking classes!
  • Keep to-do list updated. -I really, really need to be better at making to-do lists this year.
  • Actually do things on to-do list. -Haha. See above.
  • Don't get complacent. -I didn't! I'm more fired up than ever before.
  • Choose your battles. -I did.
  • Stay funny. -How could I not?
  • And again (because it's most important), stay positive! -Woo hoo!

    New goals for 2011-12 school year:

    • Stay positive!
    • Get a bedtime routine (10-11pm on weeknights; midnight on weekends).
    • Read every night before bed.
    • Put away the tech (except Kindle) by 10pm on school nights.
    • Blog once a week.
    • Tweet blog posts and hope for retweets.
    • When things are nice, pause and say, "Well if this isn't nice, I don't know what is." 
    • Read edtech articles once a week (preferably via Twitter/Tweetdeck).
    • Grade all written work within two weeks.
    • Take risks and have fun with new IB Lang/Lit curriculum.
    • Become comfortable with new IB Lang/Lit curriculum.
    • Take a pottery class.
    • Continue taking cooking classes. 
    • Keep class wiki updated.
    • Curb the sarcasm, especially with the frosh (and my mom).
    • Keep getting the color gels.
    • Make GDocs lesson plans uber detailed.
    • Go on dates.
    • Go to the gym three days after school per week.
    • Add one weekend day to gym schedule.
    • Eat right (ice cream is ok).
    • Complete the half marathon on October 2 (run/walk is ok).
    • Arrive at school by 7:15 every day.
    • Stay organized.
    • Get an apartment.
    • Decorate apartment in a cohesive way. 
    • Wear makeup more often.
    • Continue going to bookstores/coffee shops to grade.
    • No whining!
    • Keep a current to-do list.
    • Be funny.
    • Be assertive but not mean.
    • Co-write an article about NBC process.
    • Post one new poem or prose piece to Figment every month.
    • Learn something new every day.
    • Let the students be the teacher from time to time.
    • Reread the Harry Potter series when it comes out on pottermore.
    • Have fun and laugh every day!