Snowball fight!


paper by TanteTati via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

It’s February.

It was 60 degrees today.

We had a snowball fight in Digital Communications.

Let me explain.

One of the issues I fight the most is that my students don’t like being put on the spot, don’t like speaking up, sharing their ideas. There are a couple of reasons. DigiComm is a one-semester class, so we really haven’t been together but about five weeks, and much of that, they’ve been at their computer stations creating whatever it is that I’ve asked them to do, which will likely turn into a blog post. Another reason is that I allow them to sit where they want. I have a mix of iMacs along the walls and some laptops they can take back to the tables in the center of the room, whatever they prefer. So they generally prefer to sit with those they know or in solitude if they don’t know others well. There’s been little (though some) opportunity to “mingle.” Another reason is that I don’t believe this age group has been taught to “mingle.” Sure there are groups of friends, but those groups become cliques that one is accepted into or not. Few have the type of personality that gets along with everyone. In addition, social media can be awesome – there are so many opportunities to network and learn and share material – BUT people often hide behind it to socialize without having to be in others’ presence. Consequently, being in others’ presence has become more difficult for these kids. It’s a trend I’ve noticed.

Here we are, however, trying to develop ideas for Passion Projects and, as usual, there are some blank looks. Those looks could be illustrating blank minds behind them, but they could also be hiding moving gears, ideas being generated. It’s just that students are very often afraid of sharing those ideas because they’ve had the experience of being ridiculed or told they’re wrong or stupid. In a brainstorming session, there are (almost) no dumb ideas.

I had a “not dumb” idea come to me yesterday. Snowball fight. I didn’t invent it. I just decided to use it for sharing ideas for Passion Projects. My first paper snowball fight was at a Herff Jones Adviser Essentials workshop a couple of summers ago. I truthfully cannot remember what we were writing on our sheets of paper, but I knew then that the idea could be used many different ways.

This is what we did today: After some time for researching ideas (either looking into a passion they already have for a project idea, or just Googling Genius Hour or 20% Time), they were to jot down 2-3 ideas, whether those were ideas they wanted to do themselves or not. Then I provided half sheets of paper (waste not, want not – #budgetcuts) and asked them to write individual ideas down on separate sheets of paper. I requested a sentence or two describing what the project was and in most cases, that’s what happened. Several began to fold their papers and hand them to me.

No, no, no! Scrunch them up! I demonstrated. It took a couple of minutes and some very animated movements, but I finally got all of the students to move from the computers to the middle-ish of the room. I explained we were going to have a snowball fight on the count of three.

One-two-three! We began to throw them at each other, pick them up from the floor and throw them again. Then we all grabbed a couple, making sure everyone had at least one and none were left on the floor.

Naturally, I volunteered to go first, and I read the idea on my crumpled paper. Then I expanded on the idea and asked for other ideas that would work. Sure enough, I got a couple comments. Next? Someone else read theirs. We shared some expansion ideas, then moved on to the next. Everyone shared, most people helped expand on the ideas. I think everyone got a wider idea of what could be done for projects.

Tomorrow they are to try to decide on their own project, a driving question, an end product envisioned, maybe some steps to get there and a potential mentor. I’m excited to see some of the things they come up with. I know some will struggle, but hopefully today’s activity will give them some ideas and will have made them a little more comfortable interacting with each other.

If nothing else, they got to chunk things at other people.

News from the pathway to student self-assessment

Students must take ownership of their learning. That’s what it all boils down to.

That concept is new and challenging to many, if not most, of them.

I began this school year on a new path to implement a no-grades school year. Students would receive continuous feedback from me, both verbal and written, the written occurring on Google docs, on hard copies of their work, even on sticky-notes, as it turned out. This feedback – with no letter or number attached – would provide them the real information they needed to improve their work, continue to develop their skills, to shoot for the target again. Isn’t that how we learn most things, from riding our bikes to manipulating our parents? When something doesn’t work, we apply the feedback (skinned knees or lectures), and we go back to the drawing board (or back on the bike), and we try again … and again. Soon we’re flying down the street with a trick or two to show, and we have Mom thinking it was Dad’s idea and vice versa. Feedback helps us grow and develop much more than does a number like 72, and that’s how I explained it to students and the (very) few parents who inquired.

And so it began.

Working with the students

Yes, students did the work – at least the students who would have done the work anyway. So grades are not the driving force behind getting kids to work. There were a few, as there always are, who didn’t do the work for one reason or another, and grade or no grade, they did not complete assignments. Some loved the opportunity to re-do content until they got it better and better, learning from feedback how to construct better sentences, what to capitalize and where description can improve a piece. Some simply appreciated it on a simpler level. Some followed procedure (or not) and mostly did what the teacher wanted. For those few, it was hard for me to tell whether they preferred this do-over at no cost over one-and-done with a grade.

Knowing reflection was a big part of what I wanted to implement, I “assigned” reflections, showing them by example what I expected. To say some got it and some didn’t is pointless, because that’s how everything is in the classroom. The real problem here, was that I was still providing feedback on the assignment itself and didn’t follow-up well on the reflection portion, so not everyone did it. Since I didn’t follow-up, I lost credibility.

Posting to the gradebook for transparency

When I posed my plan to my principal, I described how I could create the assignments in our digital grade book (we use Infinite Campus) as I always had, using standards as tasks (instead of homework, daily work, tests, etc). But then, instead of posting a grade, I would make the assignment worth zero points and mark it as either “Incomplete”, if they were revising from feedback, or “turned in” when they were finished. In the comment section, I would compose a tweet-sized remark based on Mark Barnes’s SE2R feedback system, with a more complete explanation on their document. That all actually worked for the most part. I did fall behind in posting what I had planned, just like many of us fall behind on grading. For some classes with more specific assignments, it was easier. For some, creating the “assignment” is what held me up, as three of my classes are very differentiated.

Teaching reflection and self-assessment

Though reflection had been an issue earlier, I did require it at the end of the semester. Taking an idea from Sarah Donovan, I had them write it in the form of a letter to me, reflecting on the main standards our work related to, describing that work, their experience and how it did meet, did almost meet or did exceed the standards, and assessing themselves for a grade. I provided a guideline for what constitutes an A (over and above), a B (on target, basically), C (might not have finished everything or done all revisions), D (did some work, but too little to assess well and little revision) and F (no evidence). Then I began meeting individually with them. I have six classes, five preps, but relatively small class sizes, so I was able to get through all in about three days. My classes are Reading for Fun, two sections of Intro to Journalism, Newspaper production, Yearbook production and Digital Communication.

Conferencing with students

In the conferences, I would pull up their reflection from Google Drive (had usually already read through them and offered feedback) and we discussed it. This gave me a chance to talk to them about what assignments they enjoyed, what they found tough, why some were never finished (I had a list on a clipboard showing what assignments were finished or not for each student. For DigiComm students, I just had to pull up their blog as evidence of what was/was not done; for Reading, I used their Gdrive reading log). I even asked some of them what they thought I should add or drop to make the class better. In most cases, they were pretty spot-on with their grade. The fact that they had to cite evidence from their work to back up their grade request is where owning their work comes in.

When my old grading self wanted to creep in and make me second guess my strategies or how accurately the students had assessed themselves, I reminded myself that, learning cannot be measured. If I’ve been arguing that grades and grade-point averages do not reflect real learning, then why would I now worry that the grade the student and I have settled on isn’t accurate? Everyone is different, so their learning will be different. What’s important, I believe, is how they approach learning. That’s where I want to make an impact.


Though we went through the entire semester with feedback instead of grades, and each student either took advantage of learning and progressing or didn’t, at the end of the semester, they had to be the judge of how they did, and I think that was the right way to do it. They saw that they had had control of their learning, their grade, the entire time. Some realized it early on; some not until that conference. If they did have to give themselves a C or even a D, I asked what they could do differently next semester to learn more, improve skills, complete work, meet deadlines. The answers usually came from them, but I could make some suggestions when it seemed they didn’t know how to improve, how to use resources to their advantage. They have control, and that’s what I wanted them to see. One told me he wanted a B, but figured he deserved a C. We talked about his work, what he had and hadn’t done, what others had helped him with or taken over for him, what he could have done differently. It was a good discussion. Then we looked at the grade guidelines again, and the difference between a B and a C was unmistakable. So I asked what he could do differently next semester to earn that B or even an A – he’s perfectly capable. He made suggestions that were all pretty good. With that, it was resolved that, though he accurately assessed himself at a C this time, he could easily do better. I know he wanted me to “give” him a B, but then he’d have had little motivation to do differently next semester. He gave himself the grade he knew he’d earned. And he gave himself a plan to do better. #owning.

A few students who had not taken responsibility for producing their content, also did not take responsibility for writing the reflection or assessing themselves. These were not at school for their conference. I am left with no choice but to assess for them, and this displeases me. I want them to own their experience like everyone else has.

Making improvements to the plan

I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. I do believe feedback instead of grades is the better way to go. I believe self-assessment is a good eye-opener. But as I reflect on my part in all of this, I, too, have goals for the coming semester:

  • Talk up front about owning, about controlling their own learning experience. Make expectations more clear.
  • Plan ahead better. Avoid flying by seat of pants from time to time on lessons or about when the deadline is expected.
  • As I plan lessons, post assignments in Infinite Campus so I can more easily post feedback when it’s time.
  • Get feedback to students sooner. It’s more effective if received right away.
  • Make sure I’m not just working with the squeaking wheels. Too many try to fly under the radar. They count, too. May have to keep a blank roster spreadsheet on a clipboard and note when I’ve connected with whom on what assignment.
  • Set aside time every week to post to the gradebook. This will mean that I have to tell students who have dropped by to ‘hang out’ and visit that I have work to do, but I have to do it. Students hang out in my room at lunch, before and after school and even during my plan period. I want my journalism lab to be open for my journalists and for students who need to catch up, and I want to be a listening ear for students who need one, but I have to draw a line. I have a commitment to the students in my classes for timely feedback and a proper learning environment.
  • Finish some critical reading:
    • Finish Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment. This is an all-in-one, simplified version of what I’m trying to do. Much of it, I already have implemented, thanks in no small part to my friendship with Starr and her openness to sharing what she has learned, but I haven’t had a chance to finish reading.
    • Starr Sackstein’s Teaching Students to Self-Assess. I got it late in the semester, too late to get a good plan for teaching reflection in place.
    • Finish Erik Palmer’s Well Spoken. We’re at crisis level getting students to present or even speak within small groups. Too much cram and test. We’re not teaching life skills like communication, and I want my students to have this advantage. I want to implement more, early, easier opportunities to speak before presentations.
    • Finish Don Wettrick’s Pure Genius. In another post, I discussed my disillusionment with Passion Projects in my digital communications class this semester. It’s too valuable to scrap, so I need to fine tune. I need my own passion back.
    • Read George Couros’s The Innovator Mindset. Amazon’s one-click has nearly gotten me in trouble, but I think this one will be valuable. Just need to find the time to read so I can improve my capacity to motivate my students to create and innovate!

Do you have experiences to share, advice to offer or questions to ask? Let’s get a conversation going.

The struggle is real. Where’s the passion gone?

We’re nearing the end of the semester, and we’re in the middle of presentations for Passion Projects. I have mixed feelings.

My idea of Passion Projects is that it’s an opportunity for students to spend part of their school week exploring an interest of their own, instead of what the teacher tells them to. It’s an opportunity to control their own learning – to a degree. Sure, there are parameters, but who wouldn’t want a chance to spend legitimate school time learning about and creating a project of their own choice?

Their idea of Passion Projects is that it’s some torture device. It’s as if I’ve thrown them into a room full of spikes with loud opera music playing. They don’t understand why, and they just don’t want do it. Especially when I mention that they’ll be presenting their projects and what they’ve learned at the end.

Firing squad. That’s what they are thinking.

Now they have to have a mentor for their project? What? They have to talk to people?

Un. Bearable.

In spite of those initial reactions, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the presentations and the learning they showed. I’m not dumb. I know a lot of it happened at the last minute, and based on what was shared, it certainly didn’t constitute 12 hours of learning (12 weeks at about an hour per), of digging, researching, exploring and creating.

Some good ideas did come from the class: How are airports run? What’s a vegan diet really like? How does a radio station work? What can I learn about the career options of nursing and athletic training? I want to learn to crochet, speak French. If I’m “with the band” what might my job be?

Presenting to a small class is a stepping stone to being able to handle bigger presentations later on, especially in college, and I am determined to make presentations a small part of my curriculum in all my classes so they can get comfortable with it now. But I was disheartened when a full one-third of my class really – really – did not want to present to the class. The class has 15 people in it, 15 people who’ve been around each other all semester. Nevertheless, I provided the option of bringing in three friends and presenting during their lunch or after school. But what’s to make them show up for that?

Though this is my third semester for including Passion Projects, I still researched before presenting the unit, so that I could make it better. I guess engaging students is a passion of mine. I’d had my eye on Don Wettrick’s “Pure Genius” ever since missing out on it at an EdCamp drawing. Got it at the tail-end of summer and didn’t have time to digest the whole thing (maybe I should make speed-reading a project of my own next semester?), but I did read some and watched some of his videos. I picked up the idea to add the requirement of a mentor. It didn’t go over well. Some kind of, sort of, had a mentor – sort of. Do YouTube videos count? Some really did get an authentic mentor, while others did not.

What’s happened? Why are students so afraid of presenting? Why won’t students question their world, find their passion, explore ideas? Why do they have such a tough time planning? Over half of students to whom I suggest using a web or something to “plan” a story, a speech, a presentation, tell me they do better “winging it”.

No. They don’t.

It can’t be that they don’t know how to plan. I’ve demonstrated over and over and over. There is certainly a disconnect there, and I can’t seem to make that connection.

The new semester will begin in three weeks (it’s a semester class), and already I’m reflecting about what went well, what I’ll keep, what didn’t and how I should reconstruct. I’m really wondering if I should keep Passion Projects. I’m considering going back to what I did before that – a group project with topic that goes with a unit (it was cyberbullying then), but they choose the purpose, the direction, the actual project, the audience, the tasks, the rubric, etc.

What alarms me is that I’m considering watering down, dumbing down my curriculum and tossing presentations. But that’s like not giving your child vaccinations because he cries too much.

I’d really like to know what my peers in other places think. Is the tendency to be this passive in learning, to not know what they want to learn, to detest the idea of presenting even though this is the most transparent generation ever the same everywhere else? What have we done to these kids and how do we turn it around? How do we help them see that they need to be able to generate ideas and solutions, they need to be able to communicate, both verbally and in writing. They need to know what they need and how to make it happen.

I’m struggling here. What are your thoughts?

Evaluation as a means of measure

Because I’ve asked my students to evaluate the websites they are using for their passion projects, I am doing the same, even though, like them, I’m running a bit behind. Good thing I don’t deduct points for being late.

My project, as you know if you are reading my posts, is to try to write a novel first draft during November with participation and guidance of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. And they have a kick-butt website.

In fact the site is the machination of the whole endeavor. It is there that we register; it is there that we post a synopsis of our WIP (work in progress) and it is there that we post and update our word count. It’s also there that we can join forums, find people like ourselves, writing pieces similar to or vastly different from our own. Big projects are usually easier if you feel you have others in it with you. That’s what makes NaNo work so well, I think.

The site is run as a non-profit with a staff and a board of directors. The staff is 15-people big, including an Executive Director, Operations Officer and someone in charge of every aspect of NaNoWriMo. Reading their bios was fascinating – after all, they are writers, and they made it interesting.

The yearly project includes guest “coaches” – real writers who post affirming and motivating words. They also include a serious helping of how-to.

With all these professionals, I find the site quite professional, itself.

Turning the evaluation criteria on my own site, I feel mine is mostly professional, but there are things I could do if I wanted to up the ante.

I post about teaching and advising publications. But I also throw in a post about personal events occasionally. If I were to streamline my content to a more specific topic, it would be more professional.

As far as being an expert on the topic, I am a teacher and adviser, so I believe I am credible and taken as credible, since I’m posting about real experiences and I often link to anything I reference. In fact, I was asked recently by a friend in yearbook circles to make suggestions for an issue being encountered by someone else advising yearbook. I directed that person to my blog. Today I received thanks and compliments for what I’ve done with it. I’m glad it can be helpful to someone.

I love to read blogs, I love to write blog posts, I love to get others interested in blogging. And I may take a few blogs at face value, that is, until I run up against something that doesn’t seem quite right. To have an established format for evaluating sites is helpful in determining what you should and should not use if you, yourself, want to be taken seriously.

Getting back on track

It’s Sunday. A day of reflection and looking forward – sure, it’s that. But it’s also time to get my butt in gear because I spent yesterday doing home and family things.

Today is getting back to work.

So I’ve been reflecting. I feel bad that the last couple weeks haven’t been as productive in my classes as I would have liked, and it’s easy to blame never having enough time. I’ve had a medium case of “meh,” and it’s time to get over it.

Particularly in my mind is the fact that my digital communications class isn’t going the direction I wanted it to. Today’s Twitter #sunchat was about learning from mistakes. Teachers talked about modeling for their students how to learn from mistakes, admit when something wasn’t going as well as they’d like, even tossing a plan and starting over. I feel I need to back up and clarify a few things for my students to get the learning in that class heading the right way again.

I knew I was onto something when I re-read a couple chapters of “Crafting Digital Writing” by Troy Hicks, and experienced an “aha” moment.

Here’s the deal: Digital Communications is a COMMUNICATIONS class. And it’s lost its way. I teach a lesson and give an assignment to be completed during that week. Students, by and large, tend to simply address the minimum requirements of the assignment. It’s a laid-back class, and I am not holding them accountable for developing their communications skills. They post their responses to assignments on their blogs, but I am not seeing the kind of development I would like to see. Whose fault is this?

As I reflect, I realize that originally I required that they draft in Google Docs and share with me so that I could provide narrative feedback to help them improve. They did this at first, but began somewhere along the way to simply post their responses directly to the blog. I will not critique their assignments where they will be shared by a world-wide audience. I reminded them a few times that they were supposed to draft in Google and share first, but they still mostly did not. I gave up. I settled for providing occasional short narrative feedback via verbal comment or sticky note. This is not adequate. I have to address this, either by going back and making them understand why we need to draft in Google, or by coming up with another platform for providing the narrative feedback about what they have posted to the blog.

I have also decided that this week’s lesson needs to be re-enforcing the differences between basic written work like they do in other classes and the digitally enhanced written work they should be trying to accomplish in my class.

If an English or history teacher is asking for an essay on a topic within the scope of a particular lesson and expects planning, some research, organization, good writing with well developed ideas, good sentence structure and word choice, proper usage and punctuation, then I certainly expect the same. However, I want them to explore possibilities granted by the digital world: links to more information (definitions, articles, biography pages, books), images, video, info-graphics and other things I’ve shown them or that they’ve gone out and discovered for themselves.

What I’m often getting is straight-forward answers to questions I’ve posed, with no “writing”, little research, very few links, unless I’ve specifically asked for them.

If they do not understand what it is that I’m wanting from them, it’s on me, and it’s time to make that clear. If my instructions are not clear, I need for them to let me know that. Although, each week, I provide written instructions, often with images and links and videos (I’m modeling what I want them to do), on the class blog, and I provide verbal instructions as well.

Ironically, this message was relayed to me by one of those students when she shared the following video on Facebook this afternoon (Thanks, Kenz.)

My goal this week is to make things more clear for them and to allow them an opportunity to let me know what they need from me. I will put this in the form of a written, digitally enhanced, assignment.

Wish us all luck and wisdom.

Passion Project Update No. 1

In the last week, I have done the easy part of my project, mostly. It’s the part I don’t mind doing. It’s the part I use to procrastinate on the part that’s hard.

I’ve been reading about writing.

Pinterest is my ultimate sandbox of buried treasure. I can look at my regular feed, which is a mix of recipes, teaching tools – mostly digital – and articles about writing. If I want to feel like I’m being productive, I put writing in the search bar and get such suggestions as writing ideas, writing tips, writing inspiration, writing prompts, and writing process. I can go on from there to look at blog posts, articles and graphic illustrations on anything from writing great villains to plotting to how to handle that first chapter. I pinned a few articles. I read a few that didn’t rate pinning.

One of the more interesting articles was about figuring out where to start your story. My plan is to start over on a project I did for NaNo last year. I had plotted it out, first in a notebook, just jotting down scenes as I saw them, then I moved them onto a Google spreadsheet. This allowed me to lump them into chapters, which were then lumped into three sections of the book. Since I’m playing with alternating narrator points of view, I have a column for the POV character, too. I had a column for links to articles that were helpful when I developed that scene.

But last year I only got to, like, 4400 words, and the goal is 50,000. Over the year, I tried to get enthused about working on it, even starting over – don’t remember why I thought that was a good thing. What I eventually figured out was that I was mired in the beginning of the story, which I thought was necessary, but it was really those scenes later on that I was interested in delving into.

That recent article I read gave me permission to start the story in a later scene and allow my protagonist to slowly relate the “backstory” as it becomes necessary. Said it would give a little “mystery” to the character, and I liked that idea.

But then I had to figure out which scene to start with. After several evenings of torturing myself, I realized there wasn’t an absolutely right answer, and no matter where I started, I just needed to start. I can always revise later. So I started. I may have only gotten 453 words, but considering I’ll need about 12,500 words per week, I knew I needed a head start. After all, I have this day job thing going on.

Teacher see, teacher do

NaNo screenshot

Anyone who follows my posts knows that more often than not, if I give an assignment, I do the assignment. Maybe that comes from proving it’s do-able; maybe it comes from all those years in my childhood of forcing my little brother to play school. I just like both sides of school – the teaching and the learning.

Passion Projects provide the perfect opportunity for both, and my DigiComm students have just chosen their projects and will be posting, researching and learning in earnest this week. During the couple of days of brainstorming and solidifying our projects, someone asked what my project was going to be. Believe it or not, I told them, I’d actually been thinking about it the previous few days. I’d considered learning about world religions and providing some sort of report and presentation comparing the ones I chose (and had time) to learn about. But then I realized that would take time away from something I’d planned to do with my November – something I’d attempted last November and hadn’t been totally successful. That’s when I realized I could make NaNoWriMo my Passion Project.

NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month and it excites and inspires official and could-be novelists from all over every November. You sign up at the NaNoWriMo website and join thousands of others who are lining up at the starting gate. NaNo offers motivational emails, badges for accomplishments, forums where like-minded writers can share ideas (and lose time they could be writing), as well as writing buddies – someone to hold accountable and help hold you accountable, if everyone is doing their job. Last year I had two writing buddies, one from Oklahoma City and one from somewhere in Great Britain. We had a few email convos, but in the end, we were all busy, and it didn’t work out the way I’d imagined.

This year, I have a local buddy, someone I work with on occasion, and we will be able to share progress, even though we’re writing in different genres.

By way of demonstration as well as to get myself organized, I used the graphic organizer I had created and noted a couple of driving questions: Can I draft a novel (50,000 words) in a month? and What can I learn in this process? I noted what research I needed, some of which I’ll admit that I already have. I pin a lot of writing articles and blogs on Pinterest. In the mentor section, I listed the co-worker and that I would try to hook up with writing buddies through NaNo, as well as try to find real mentors, possibly beta readers at some point, through Twitter. I listed the steps to my goal as I saw them at that time. Heck, everything is subject to change – just like in the first draft of this novel. But you have to start somewhere, right?

We will all, including myself, post weekly updates on our progress, and we will each present – TEDTalks style – at the end of the semester. I have lots of examples from teachers who have gone before me.

What I hope to learn and to teach my students is that we are all in charge of our own learning, ultimately. We can’t passively sit at a desk and wait for teachers and professors to feed us our education. Sure, some of that is required in order to get that coveted piece of paper at the end of the trail and to get that nice GPA that tells those we love that we were compliant when it counted (but tells our future bosses or clients absolutely nothing about our skills, knowledge or capabilities). We have to know what we want and go after it. Learning is a lifelong endeavor, and we must be active in pursuing knowledge and knowing from where and from whom to gain the best education.

If you could take 20 percent of your week to learn anything you wanted or to create a project to do some good in your community, what would you do?