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.

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?

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?

The Plan: NFIG?

My first try at Google Draw

My first try at Google Draw

I’m not a risk-taker. I plan. I envision. Before I set anything in motion, I learn all I can, and I imagine, play out all the possible scenarios in my head. I want it right before I begin. That’s not to say I don’t handle failure well. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, actually. Failure can be part of the planning process if you look at it in a bigger picture kind of way. It didn’t work that way; let’s try it another way.

In that way, last school year was planning and trying out small changes in order to transition to “The Plan.” I want to use narrative feedback instead of grades. But I’m afraid to ask.

The directive at my high school for the past several years has been “two grades per week.” I did express to my principal two years ago that I did not like that rule and explained that it didn’t work with my classes. And I’ve learned so much more since then.

Last year I implemented a few things I knew I could:

  • No zeros. A 50 is an F, and that only happened when no work was turned in.
  • No reduction in points for late work.
  • I quit making students feel guilty for needing to go to the bathroom. If you gotta go, you gotta go. Just let me know. Guess what? It was not abused.
  • I had my publications students (newspaper & yearbook) grade their own production weekly. This involved setting goals, keeping a log, reflecting and assessing. Frankly, they didn’t like it much.
  • I provided written, narrative feedback (and taught students to peer edit), so that they had multiple chances to improve work before they turned it in. I had kids thank me for this service.
  • In some cases, I mini-conferenced with students to arrive at a grade on part of an assignment. I need to build my confidence on conferencing.

These changes did make some improvement, but where I really wanted to see improvement – more student participation and assignment completion – well, these changes weren’t enough to effect the kind of improvement I’d hoped for. They weren’t enough because the biggest change I needed to make was still a glaring problem. There were still grades. Kids were still labeled “D”, “F” (I can’t win. I don’t know what to do.), even “A” (I don’t need to work very hard; I’m already there).

Now I need to go full throttle: No grades. Well, I’m calling it “Narrative Feedback Instead of Grades.” NFIG? Not as pretty as TOG, but I think Throwing Out Grades gives the wrong impression, and I have to worry about that as I pursue The Plan.

I spent a huge chunk of yesterday writing up, in narrative form with lovely bullets and bolded parts, my proposal as I plan to present it to my principal – soon as I gather the courage and he has a chunk of time in his schedule. School starts in three weeks. What I produced yesterday was five pages, but I included links to reading material with summaries and a page or so of FAQs so I’m prepared for what he/they might ask me.

For you, dear readers, I will try to be brief (but it’s hard. You see how I wordy I am?)

The Plan

  • I will use narrative feedback instead of grades. On assignments, this will look like Mark Barnes’s SE2R formula (Summarize, Explain, Redirect and Resubmit). This feedback will be on their Google Doc in most cases. In cases where there is a hard copy, I’ll (egad!) handwrite it, being careful to remember that students now have little training in cursive (omg). In the online gradebook (we use Infinite Campus), I will check the “Incomplete” box and write a brief (I swear I can) version of the SE2R in the comments section. When the student turns in his/her final version, I will check the “Turned In” box and make a new note (leaving the first in place, each with dates), that the goals were met or exceeded. I think this can work. An administrator or parent should be able to see this through the online portal, and wouldn’t this bit of information be more informative than a 72?
  • I will “unpack standards” with the students, an idea borrowed from Starr Sackstein. I do have to decide WHICH standards. Oklahoma repealed Common Core and is in the process of finalizing new standards, so we are one more year with what we used before, PASS. I “invented” journalism standards to use last year by doing a mashup of what I saw from other states. So my options are: CCSS ELA + ISTE or the new Oklahoma standards in draft form + ISTE. My journalism standards were too tedious, I decided, and they don’t apply to digital communications. Either way, the “unpacking process”, as I will apply it, means the students and I will learn them, simplify them, tossing what we don’t need, combining some, and putting what’s left in their language. Through all this, they should have an understanding and ownership of them. How to do that with five classes of four preps (2X intro to journalism; newspaper; yearbook; digital communications) still puzzles me. Input? What we come up with will be the categories I use in the online gradebook where my peers use “daily work”, “quizzes”, “homework”, and “tests” or something along those lines. As I create an assignment in InfCamp, I will note which standard it applies to. When it hits two or more, it’s entered that many times so that we focus on each standard; i.e. a writing one and a tech one. Whew, I gotta work on brevity.
  • I will teach reflective writing. I learned last year (and, really, before that) that it isn’t common sense. Few “get it.” Reflective writing, especially as it has to do with self-assessment, standards and evidence, has to be explained, modeled and feedback given, just like other work. Hopefully by grade reporting time, they’ll be used to it and will be able to manage reflective self-assessment with evidence for the grading period. I plan to use Starr’s book on reflection as my Bible for this. It will be published in October. She has also written about reflection quite a bit on her blog.
  • Students will create digital portfolios to curate their work, track their progress and do their reflection writing. Intro to J and DigiComm have always had blogs on WordPress, and I’ve encouraged newspaper to have blogs also, but the whole thing needs fine-tuning. Here’s what I’ve come up with: Choice. I love that idea. All my students use Google Drive. It’s the one thing they all have in common. So – eportfolios can be as simple as a folder in their Drive marked “eportfolio” with obvious organization within. Or, students may choose to create a Google site. I’ve only dabbled in this myself, but I don’t mind learning alongside my students. Absolutely love it when one of them teaches me something and you can visibly see their pride swell as they get up to show the others. Students could also opt for using their WordPress blog, though to me, that may be too public to be reflecting on their progress and grade, but it’s up to them. And if they come in telling me they have experience with Weebly, that’s cool too. Gimme the link. If one starts with a Google folder but after a few weeks gets brave and decides to create a site, well, we probably have a tech standard he can tie to for some reflection on progress. The goal is to curate work and track progress so that they can be ready for self-assessment at grade-reporting time. And that reflective self-assessment? I’ll probably go the “choice” route again: written in a Google doc; screencast; video; Voxer; whatever; but a conference will happen too.
  • In each class, I’ll have One Big Ongoing Assignment, handy for when some finish a project early and others are still working or reworking. Also great for sub days or THOSE days when I just don’t have my stuff together. For newspaper and yearbook, it’s obvi: their publications and anything extra they want to put into them. For DigiComm, I’ve had them do Passion Projects (just bought Don Wettrick’s Pure Genius and can’t wait to dig in), but I had a tough time figuring out how to do this for Intro. In Mark Barnes’s ROLE Reversal, he talks about having his 7th grade ELA students do a Read All Year (RAY) project with lots of novels and big team goals. There’s no grade attached, but there are different activities kids can do when they complete a book. So I borrowed and tweaked this idea with a little help from Mark. I want my kids to read long-form narrative journalism. That could be feature articles in magazines (think TIME or The Week) or book-length journalism (think All the President’s Men, All the Right Stuff, Into the Wild). Collections of essays and journalist biographies could work, too. Time to go to some used book stores. I’ll contract with each student, just outside his/her comfort zone, but quantifying will be tough. At Mark’s suggestion, we’ll count pages instead of books. So for the first grade-reporting period (9-weeks or semester, I haven’t decided), a student might contract for 150 pages (small book or multiple longish articles) up to 300. I’ll set up some sort of celebration board where kids can post accomplishments, but I also want to encourage them to do something for each piece they read, though I won’t be keeping tabs (they will, in their portfolio). They could write a review, a reflective blog post, a mini review on Instagram or Twitter with a shoutout to the author, discuss the item with classmates in a small group “book talk”, create a book trailer or just Vox about it. I’ll pose it as collecting info for our library of potential reads. Classmates and students who come after will appreciate having another student’s take on a piece to help them make a decision about reading it. One thing I envision is a tab on the class website that functions as our “library” with the book and article lists. Some articles could be linked to their sources online, but in all cases, student responses could be linked beneath each title as a reference to future readers.

So there you go, too many pages, but that’s my plan. Now I just need confidence to ask for permission and to get it all in motion. How can you help me? Can you poke any holes in this? Offer any suggestions for improvement? Suggestions for proposing? Did I help you with anything?

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?