Injecting passion into class

Eleven weeks of school left. We’re on the downhill slide, and from the vantage point I have as of Thursday, I think it will be a scenic view. I feel good about the rest of the year.

It is so tough to keep kids engaged, but I believe, as I’ve said over and over, that if you give them voice and choice, you’re ahead of the game. You’ll never get 100 percent participation, and there will always be units to be covered that don’t excite many of them, but the drill of reading, taking notes, taking tests doesn’t enthuse anyone. The compliant may be comfortable in this arena, but it doesn’t challenge them.

Introduction to Journalism

Last week I prepped a Google slide presentation to go along with my History of Journalism unit, I usually use the textbook, Inside Reporting, and an outline for the students to take notes on. I usually lose a few of them, and I realized they like visuals, but seem to be allergic to text books, even good ones. On the presentation I was able to load photos of some of the journalists and the documents from history, and it made a huge improvement in class engagement. Actually, the part I was most surprised by was simply presenting the first slide: “The History of Journalism,” and several kids got excited. Seems they’ve been looking forward to this part for several weeks. Do they get this excited for their history classes?

With each slide, each segment of history, I was able to supplement with some additional info, sometimes tying the content to something relevant to today, to me or to them. They were shocked that television used to go off the air at 10 p.m. after the National Anthem. The discussion was good. Next, they’ll each choose one of 30 journalists from history up to the present to research. They’ll choose their favorite digital presentation tool (Google Slides, Prezi, Dipity) and show us what they learned. I always look forward to these presentations. Some of the kids get a little nervous, but I tell them it’s good for them, like spinach. We encourage each other with questions and applause. One day, I want to video these.

Digital Communications and Passion Projects

A little later than planned, I’ve introduced Passion Projects. I showed a couple brief videos to get their minds headed in the right direction. I started with an inspiring talk by Sean Aiken about passion. Then we went right into Genius Hour and how Google’s take on letting employees spend 20 percent of their work week working on projects has worked its way into the classroom in the form of projects. With some guidelines such as the need for a guiding or essential question, the requirement of research beyond “Googling it” and a final presentation somewhat like the TED talks we’ve watched throughout the semester, students get to choose a project to learn something they are interested in. Some know right away what they want to explore and are able to make it fit within the guidelines. Some struggle, after years of being told what to do and how to do it (color within the lines, dear), (mark a, b, c or d, and if you’re not sure, mark c), that they have real trouble generating ideas. They simply haven’t been allowed to choose something for themselves. Now, faced with the opportunity, they are stumped.

Giving them the “homework” assignment to come up with some ideas, we met the next day in class to share. Drawing on my own experience, I set it up like my newspaper staff’s meetings. We gathered around the center of the room, and one by one, each shared the idea he or she had. The rest of us (mainly me, but after a while others pitched in) put in ideas or helped the person narrow it down or figure out what, exactly the project should be or what research element might help or what steps they might include. Collaboration rocks.

It was beautiful. I have one wanting to experiment with fashion merchandising. No, she doesn’t own a store and can’t really buy anything, but she can look into shadowing a store manager, and she can research designers and brands and what styles and designs are upcoming, and she can simulate what she might choose for a summer or fall collection. Great ideas going on there.

Another is planning to write a short story or novella. He loves to write, so he knows his steps include coming up with a plot and characters. We suggested a few ideas for research – like finding someone who might offer critique services or even some competitions he might enter his piece in.

One young lady dreams of restoring old homes. As fortune would have it, our city has plenty and she has a connection with a realtor. So she plans to visit one or more of these homes, take pictures and do some sketching to reflect what she might do if she owned it. Her research involves all kinds of design ideas. At the end of class she told me how excited she was about this project.

What skills will they develop from this? Research, communication, technology, trouble shooting, presentation, and failing and learning from failure.

I have the luxury (many luxuries, actually) of being able to implement this in my one semester elective class. I’m the only one who teaches this so I do not have to align with anyone else. It’s a digital communications class and they are using skills in the standards I use for the class. I also have a Mac lab in my room because I teach journalism and advise newspaper and yearbook. I’ll go on teaching an app at the beginning of each week and requiring an assignment regarding that app, but these will be with passion projects in mind.

There is no reason teachers of any subject couldn’t take this idea, size it for the time they have to put toward it (20% of the time remaining in the latter half of the year? Latter half of the semester?) and put energy and excitement into their classes. Write a grant for some iPads or Chromebooks, and let kids use their own devices. It makes a world of difference when the kids look forward to coming to your class, when they ask if they can come in during lunch, when they share with you what they’ve learned, the obstacles they’ve hit and gotten around. Does it inspire absolutely everyone? No. But engagement increases in a very obvious way.

Do you already do some form of Passion Projects in your classes? What would it take for you to consider implementing Genius Hour/Passion Projects?


Building skills while connecting to real life


School lunches.



Taking responsibility.

LGBT issues.

One of my favorite units in my introduction to journalism class is opinion writing. There are so many lessons within that unit. We begin with the dull parts about the different kinds of editorials: argumentative, explanatory, persuasive, commendatory, and even humorous, if you can pull it off. At that point, they almost seem the same to half the class.

We read some examples I’ve culled from texts, the Internet and friends. I slip in one or two of my own from when I was managing editor at my college paper and the short time I worked at the local paper.

Then we brainstorm potential topics. I try to blow them away with my own list, not just to blow them away, but to show them how limitless ideas really are.

They narrow their own down to favorites, and then, staff meeting style, we go around the room and each of them pitches their best idea. I love this day. I love to hear what they are passionate about, and I love to hear what their classmates, their “staff,” have to say, the suggestions they make to help them with fine-tuning angles. I love it when they offer up opposition even, because in that place, in that newsroom, there is tolerance. They realize they can express themselves safely there in that room. They have a voice. Students so seldom have a voice in anything.

At first some of them bring up their ideas tentatively because, though they sense that I’m going to be OK with most things, they are also accustomed to knowing that certain topics are just off limits at school. I haven’t run across anything yet that I won’t allow a student to explore. After all, it’s going to mean research and backing up your position.

Then the research and backing up your position begins. Everyone’s is different, so there’s no “how did you answer number three?” They are pursuing their own topics, and they are interested in what they are doing.

They draft in Google Docs. Good heavens – what did we do before Google Docs? By nearly the middle of the year and the third thing they’ve written, they know the drill. Draft in Gdocs in the folder shared with Snider (so I can peek in at progress whenever I want), but when they’ve finished, they share with a classmate for comments. And oh, my goodness. I peeked at some of the commenting today, and they have really stepped it up there. We’ve gone from their first attempts early in the semester when they hesitated to say anything but “I like it!” to real, real editing. And I don’t mean correcting spelling. I saw good constructive comments, and that really makes me feel like progress has been made. To be able to give and receive comments like “That’s a little harsh. Could you say it a different way?” when earlier they were just afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings – that’s real growth. And in reverse, I think they really desire feedback to help them make their own pieces better.

I can’t wait to read more drafts and to see all the finished products. Chances are several will be of publishing quality, so in addition to choosing their own topics, participating in the peer editing process, reading good pieces by peers, they may get published, too.

It’s all win-win.

I love my job.

To blog with abandon or purpose?

My teaching strategies have changed so much in the past year. I credit my Twitter PLN for so much of that. I find myself teaching more critical thinking than ever, giving student choice wherever possible and inviting technology where it would enhance the lesson,  further engage my students or help prepare them for college and the work world.

Enter blogging for almost all of my students. Have I taken on too much? Maybe. Have I discovered things I’ll do differently next time around? Definitely.

It all started last year, my first with the intro to journalism class I requested. Previously I had been teaching newspaper, yearbook and English I. I did lots of research before I started the blogging project, and I had been blogging myself for a while. I found Pernille Ripp‘s post about paper blogging with all of its links to other resources. Though she blogs with elementary kids, I still thought the idea had merit for my mostly 9th graders. It went over well, and soon we transferred what we learned over to Kidblog. On that platform, the students’ posts automatically came to me for approval before going live, something my principal appreciated.

This year, I asked for and got permission to create another class: Digital Communications. I pitched this for students, not necessarily journalism students, to develop their online communication skills, preparing them for college and the real world. We would look at Internet protocol, safety, privacy, and ethics as well as plagiarism and learning about copyright law and how fair use works. Most of their work would be based on blogs that would serve as portfolios. After learning basics of posting, linking, inserting images and sharpening their writing skills with an audience in mind, we would learn some research skills using social media. Then would come curation apps and learning some audio and video skills and web-based presentation software. We’ve stalled out a bit as their motivation has caused the earlier lessons to take much longer than I had planned. I had this largely senior class using WordPress, feeling Kidblog was a little too limiting. After all, most were near or already 18.

The more I read online and heard from my tweeps, the more excited I got about everybody blogging, so I made plans to get my English class blogging this year as well. That’s when I discovered that Kidblog had changed how they do things and in order for students to have more than one option of theme, I’d have to pay. In Oklahoma, schools are receiving less per student than they were in 2008. I’m not even going to ask for money. I already pay for pencils, paper, Germ-X and tissues from my own pocket. I am not going to shell out a monthly amount so my students can have different themes like they did last year. I compromised by using WordPress for these youngsters as well, the caveat being that they give me editor user privileges and the password in case I need to intervene for any real reason.

I got the new intro to journalism class started blogging on this same system as soon as we’d gone through an opinion writing unit.

My real dilemma, and the reason for this post is that though I’ve explained over and over that much of their credibility depends on correctness of their writing, I still have some students for whom spelling, correct capitalization and punctuation, sentence structure and usage are less than secondary to their content. I’ve tried to tell them that their readers will not stick around if they have to work at understanding what they are trying to read – to no avail. Their process is supposed to be drafting in GoogleDocs, sharing for editing, which works great in my newspaper and yearbook classes, even sharing with me for feedback – maybe they don’t like my feedback? I think it’s pretty darn helpful – before they post.

Do I grade those posts on correctness of writing? I don’t want to decrease their excitement for blogging, but they have to know that in real life, these kinds of errors may cost them jobs. Did I just answer my own question? I love how writing helps me work through processes and develop ideas, and yet hate that I cannot convince many students that this magic exists. I would love to hear suggestions on how to assess correctness of writing in their posts when I had truly planned on only giving credit for completion, leaving them to explore the process and their own ideas for the joy it should bring.

In DigiComm, assignments might be a post with a link to another page, or a post with a copyright-free image, etc., so completion was all I had planned, until I realized that some posts were only a few sentences long with no craft and several writing errors, as compared to another student, passionate about his topic who wrote on about something with great sentence structure, good vocabulary, etc. They shouldn’t both get the same grade. Learning as I go …

The English class is doing group blogs, with groups ranging from 2-4 people in each. They will rotate with each assignment, which I tie to whatever we are doing. They’ve chosen topics for their blogs, so they will tie my assignment in with their topic. For instance, after reading two short stories that both dealt with suspense, my assignment was to write a post that deals somehow with suspense, but tied to their own topic. For a pair of students writing about music, they could talk about scoring a movie based on either story and what type of music would best create the suspenseful mood. Within their group they are to discuss the assignment, so everyone has some input, but one of them writes in Gdocs, shares with others who get to comment/edit, then it goes live. Next assignment, someone else is in charge.

The intro class each has their own blog and most of them have been great. Consider though, that these kids chose a journalism elective. They knew there was writing involved, so for the most part, these have no problems. However, there are a few who have issues as mentioned above: lots of grammatical and mechanical mistakes and no desire for making the posts better. In one case, the student doesn’t see the point, thinking it won’t matter to the reader like it doesn’t matter to him. In another case, the student is disappointed that I’m making something fun, like a blog, into something like an assignment. His two posts have been one sentence each, nothing that would make anyone come back for more, as I explained to him.

While I feel I’m doing dozens of things right, like I tell my students, there are always ways to improve. I’m looking for methods to improve my students’ online writing through my teaching and assessment, and I welcome suggestions.

Teacher Moment

This one should have gone up over a week ago, when, in the space of a few days, I had three former students inform me that they will be writing for their respective college newspapers.

An ’09 grad, a former entertainment editor, will be writing for the Cameron Collegian, with the very real possibility of an editorship next semester. That’s my alma mater – and the very newsroom in which I fell in love with this gig – so it’s very special to me.

My ’10 yearbook editor will be writing for, and being paid by, Oklahoma State’s O’Colly, a daily paper. She’ll do great, and I’m looking forward to reading her stuff.

The buck-stops-here yearbook editor of 2011 has gigs going for the University of Oklahoma Daily as well as a spot on the yearbook staff. She’s already sent links for her first two Daily stories and dropped by with a print version of one.

I am so proud of these kids, as well as those who have taken the skills they gained in my classes and used them in other pursuits. This is the best job in the world.