Letting them lead … me to reddit

This week I let a couple of my students present a lesson on reddit. This came about when I asked a couple weeks ago what else they’d like to learn in the digital communications class they’d unwittingly found themselves in at the beginning of the semester. What I like best about this class is the fact that the class is fluid and malleable. It is different every semester. Sure, it has the major components of learning to use Google Drive and creating a blog on WordPress. And I have an educational obligation to teach digital citizenship; however, beyond that, I teach lots of apps, programs and social media that we can use to expand our learning network and resources.

So when these two guys suggested reddit, I didn’t mind, but I didn’t know anything about it either. Then there’s that whole thing about it not seeming to me to be very educational. They argued otherwise, and I challenged them to create a lesson. So they did.

Since they were the teachers this week, I figured I was a student this week, so to reddit I went. I looked at a couple subreddits (look at me, using the lingo and all), and then decided to go to the journalism subreddit, since they’d dropped that possibility especially for me into the lesson. *wink

That’s where I found the original AP report of Lincoln’s assassination. Fascinating read on a couple levels. First, reading about everything that happened that night at the theatre was interesting in and of itself. The reporter was able to go into the president’s box and examine the, erm, results after the event. He describes blood on the back of the chair on which Lincoln sat. The account of the president being taken across the street to a nearby house to await the Surgeon General and other surgeons created a vivid image in my mind. Of course, from paying attention in second grade (or was it third or fourth?), I know the end of the story, but now I have more first-hand detail.

That detail was told in a very editorializing way, which is the second reason I was drawn to the article. Journalism has changed dramatically in two centuries. The flowery prose, with no apparent guilt over the lengthiness, was incredibly different from the concise clarity we strive for now. The writer’s opinion was openly posed through his prose. I suppose, with no potential for images in the newspaper, writers went for imagery in their writing. That’s not to say that today’s writers are not capable of writing with imagery – they are. But they use their words more frugally.

After several days of messing around with reddit, I’ve come to the conclusion that reddit itself is the flowery prose of yesteryear. The story is definitely there, but there are so many words to wade through (read: subreddits, articles, comments, upscores, downscores and other distractions) that I cannot get to the meat of the story easily. My conclusion is that, though I can see the draw to some people, to me, reddit is a huge universe of too many ideas and the time it takes me to move through them to find something remotely useful to me is time I could have spent being productive in another way.

I appreciate the lesson. Now I know what reddit is, but I won’t likely go there often, and as for “using” it – probably not.

Connecting with students in a shared space

A few years back, it was taboo to friend your students on social media. I never bought into that. And here’s why:

I am a role model on social media, and I don’t even try. The way I conduct myself on Facebook and Twitter – if only I could get to using my Instagram with an regularity – is the way I’d like to see students conduct themselves. I don’t use bad language, usually. And if I do, it carries the impact desired because I rarely use it. That might be a turn off for some, but I’m still being true to myself, something teens understand.

A devil’s advocate approach often gets things going in a civil debate with folks. A good debate is a healthy thing. Not that I participate in debate for the sole purpose of teaching students how to offer up evidence and use sound reasoning for arguments, but when I am in a back-and-forth with someone on Facebook, I am aware that a large part of my potential audience is students.

I sometimes get into discussions regarding policy issues that I’m not always completely knowledgeable on, but I take part if I want to learn or if I have a strong opinion. It’s always educational, and I have a list of people I enjoy “verbal fencing matches” with, as one friend put it just the other day.

One of the most important reasons for being friends with students on social media is hearing what they have to say, getting a point of view you might not get in the classroom. Now, if students have requested friending me, they have to realize I’m going to see what they post. I’ve been known to private message them to call them on something I saw that was inappropriate, but by and large that hasn’t happened much. I’ve messaged students to suggest other ways to go about whatever it was they were trying to get across in their posts so they didn’t come off so negatively. And even to check on someone who seemed particularly down in the dumps. Being able to communicate with your students in this other atmosphere is just another way to “teach” and connect.

I was a little distressed last night, and similar situations have happened in the past, to hear a student stressing out over school. She was specific in how school is affecting her, how she struggles just to be able to accomplish her goals, which are the goals we would want for most students.

It made me realize – AGAIN – that we teachers often are not paying attention to students’ points of view. These kids have seven classes with teachers who all think their curriculum is the most important. Most of their seven teachers probably give homework. Most of their seven teachers know their own content so well they take it for granted and it seems so freaking simple, but to the kid who just came from science and had new material crammed into probably less than 30 minutes because of interruptions and is now seated in the algebra class where the teacher is cranky because the previous class did not behave well, it’s a little rough when she starts with a quiz over yesterday’s material, while this student is still trying to process what she just got in science and remember what her homework is. She is stressed because the short classes follow one another quickly, content is crammed in, some classes are chaotic because many students’ behavior is less than model – school is a place to be dreaded but gotten through so one can proceed to the next level, instead of a place to learn.

We have to fix this.

We can start by hearing what they are saying. One place to do this, besides while they are conveniently sitting in our classrooms, is on social medial.

Listen to these kids.

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.

A little help from my friends

I get by with a little help from my friends.

Lately I do more than get by with a little help from my tweeps.

Today was like that. Though I knew I had tons to do – a teacher’s work is never, ever, remotely near completion – I gave myself permission for that chocolate treat of social media: a tweet chat. A switch from daylight savings to standard time found me waking an hour earlier than I needed to, but just in time for #sunchat.

Since there was no specific topic this morning, lots of side chats were going on. Something about student blogging popped up and I remembered I had been frustrated last week by the fact that a student blogging platform I had used with success last year, @kidblog, was now charging for the modest attributes it offered its young bloggers, especially the theme variety. Oh, I could stick with the basic, free version, but that limited everyone’s blog to looking exactly the same. So I tweeted about it and tagged @kidblog. They actually responded, which I appreciate, but the response was’t helpful. They want me to upgrade. I already pay for Germ-X, tissues, Expo markers and extra mechanical pencils out of my own pocket, not to mention occasionally giving away cracker packages and granola bars to kids who somehow missed breakfast. Even $5 a month is just one more expense I cannot afford and I shouldn’t have to.

So I posted the issue in #sunchat and got several responses for alternative ways to help my students blog. In fact, the conversation went on for several minutes.

A little while later I found myself in another side convo about whether or not points should be deducted for late work, which was really a smaller issue of student motivation. That turned into a chat that lasted an hour beyond the #sunchat. One tweep suggested we should have had our own hashtag.

We disagreed with each other on a couple of points, but kept it civil and kept on discussing, sharing points of view and an occasional link to one authoritative article or another. Though we were not in agreement with each other, I found it to be one of the most stimulating conversations I’ve been in for a while. Seeing other points of view helped me to think through how I manage some of my classroom situations.

I can’t say enough about the value I find in communicating through social media with others who do what I do. I get inspiration, I get ideas, I get actual lesson plans and other materials, I get questions answered, I get laughs. It’s just a beautiful thing, and though I continue to preach it to my co-workers, I do not see them taking advantage the way that I do. I know they are missing out.

If I just keep sharing what I’m learning, how I’m learning and from whom I’m learning, if I just model the behavior that I know would work for others, maybe, just maybe some of them will pick up on it. Once they realize the vast network of helpful educators out there, they can’t help but join in.

The Good, the Bad and the Overwhelming

When I meet with my English department counterparts, I think about their lives, the fact that they have six – SIX  – English classes to prep, teach and grade for, and I am so happy that I do not.

I am a journalism adviser, who happens to teach a couple of English classes.

Something will come up in our meeting about my newspaper or yearbook responsibilities, and I inevitably hear, “Oh, I wouldn’t want to be you,” or something of the sort. So I guess the feeling is mutual – sort of.

I look at their days and see hour after hour of students mostly sitting in rows, putting up with my going on about participial phrases or topic sentences or some piece of literature that I and maybe four of them find fascinating. I think about the mountain of formal paragraphs, essays or research papers that they have to grade, and I count my blessings.

To be fair, they know that I put in a lot of extra hours.

Advising is not for everyone, but it’s the only kind of teaching I really want to do. When I begin to think it’s more than I want to handle, I hear from a former student that he’s going to be managing editor of his university newspaper next year or another who has realized that she wants to teach journalism and English – like I do. There are plenty of good reasons to do what I do. But when it all gets frustrating, I cannot help but break it down into the Good, the Bad, and what’s currently eating at me: the Overwhelming.

The Good

1.  I get to connect with kids on staffs in a way that I do not in a regular class. We spend a lot of time together as they produce content, come to me for advice on how to get sources to talk to them, how to get a parent to understand why they need to be able to stay a little later, or how to handle an issue with an other staffer. Conversations about their lives, both present and future is better than any shiny apple, even if I am supposed to be posting my lesson plans. How can I tell them I don’t have time for that?

2.  We bond over crises. Over the years, it’s not farfetched to say that some of our content has not been received well. Sometimes we’ve messed up, and we have a staff meeting – which sounds way more formal than what it is – and figure out where we went wrong and how to resolve it. I mostly guide, play devil’s advocate, try to get them to see different perspectives. Sometimes the staff and I have done our jobs, but the readers don’t appreciate a viewpoint that differs from the mainstream. Empowering students to use their voices, to be responsible, to understand their freedoms and their limitations is exhilarating.

3.  Students do work in here that they are proud of. Watching new staffers beam over their first bylines and photo credits is pretty priceless. The kids love to hear from fellow students about something that was in the paper or yearbook. It gets even better when a faculty or community member takes the time to write or email to commend something we have done. And, of course, in the fall both staffs trek to conference for yearbook awards, and in the spring, the same happens for newspaper awards. Both staffs always do well, and they support each other. It’s validation that they are doing something worthwhile, and they are doing it well.

4.  At the end of the year, along with whatever I’ve conceived for a final, I have staffers write a reflection of the year. What are you most proud of? What do you still need to work on? How will the skills you have developed in this class help you? I get some of the best responses. Truth be told, I do these reflections for me. It’s purely selfish. After the long year of ups and downs, I need a mood-lifter, and I always get it. One of my favorites this year: “This is the only class I actually work in.”

The Bad

1. I put in A LOT of time. I stay at school daily until 5 p.m. or so, then stay with newspaper for late night each cycle and a work Saturday for each deadline for yearbook. Every year I think that if I could only get more organized in the summer, things would go more smoothly and require less time. I work all summer long looking for new ideas to make things run more smoothly or just make them better. While my teacher counterparts are spending time at the lake, or Schlitterbaun or wherever else real people go when they don’t have to be at work, I am opening the lab for yearbookers to come in to complete spreads. My teacher counterparts rib me about spending so much time at school. This usually hits me the wrong way.

2.  Advising is kind of a dangerous job. My students’ work is published. It’s out there for criticism. It is the nature of the journalism beast to be a watchdog. If real-world journalists are to keep government and other officials in line, reporting wrong doing as well as successes, shouldn’t student journalists be doing the same in their world, the school? Shouldn’t they get to cover issues that affect them, issues that are important to them? Yes, they should, and without censorship, which my students are lucky enough to get to do, but there is still a background of self-censoring. I’ve been called to the office a couple of times in the past six years, and these were not comfortable situations. To keep their right to publish without prior review, they have to be careful about what they choose to write about and how they go about it. See No. 2 above. These can make for some scary times. Advisers are fired or moved to other positions quite commonly, and quite, quite often for questionable reasons. I advise a student-run newspaper. Content decisions are theirs, but I have to advise, get them to see all possible outcomes of what they decide to cover.

3.  Grading and expectations are tough teaching issues with publications classes. In these project-based labs, every student has different aptitudes, different levels of ability in different areas. And they all have a variety of assignments. Make that fit a gradebook. I’ve found ways over the years. But it’s never as truly even and fair as I’d like. What do you do about a student you’ve had for four years, who is capable, but has suffered progressive senioritis since the end of his freshman year? He’s there and his stuff is complete when you need it to be, but no earlier. And if you only kind of need him, he’s only kind of there. How do you grade that? It’s tricky. What about the super editor who is so busy helping everyone make their stories and pages better that her own assignments are almost always late? Doesn’t set a good example of meeting deadlines for the staff, and it always makes me nervous. But she always comes through. Always.

4.  Some students just never find their niche. For some student staffers, the production class simply isn’t what they’d bargained for and they continually hold things up. Maybe their writing requires so much editing that it’s no longer their story by the time it’s FINALLY finished, and that process never seems to improve. Or maybe editors have to give them photo assignments, but always feel they must send backup. Or maybe that student just never seems to have the sense of urgency required to get things done. Student staffers who hold up the entire process are probably what irritate me the most, as I can never seem to find a way to “fix” the problem. They usually know this isn’t their thing and don’t return the following year, but once in a while, it’s clear to everyone but them. That’s a tough situation.

The Overwhelming

1.  Grading can get overwhelming. When English essays have been in my grading folder for over a week, but newspaper drafts have stacked up near the RTG (Ready to Go) deadline and the yearbook spread proofs are over a week late being edited and returned, I get overwhelmed. I’ll spend a weekend drowning myself in grading, give only deadline grades on newspaper stories, cursory glances over yearbook spreads, having faith that editors have caught name misspellings and apostrophe catastrophes, and I move on.

2.  Yearbook staffers who don’t stay caught up on their work during the year and don’t come in on summer lab days prolong the task for me and for the dedicated editors who are there cleaning up everyone else’s messes. And that really ticks me off. And it makes me feel like a bad teacher. Even though I have tried to get those slackers to get caught up in those last few weeks, the fact remains that by the end of the year (some years have been worse than others), there are spreads that should have been finished that are not. Yes, their grades reflected their unfinished work. But now the person in charge of that spread has a new summer job or church camp (how can I say anything bad about church camp?) or they don’t have a way to get to the school. They knew this was coming. Did they think it would magically get done? Did they think the editors would just finish it on up? Did they think I would do it (maniacal laughter here). It breaks my heart to see the dedicated ones paying for their good work by having to work more, having to lose a part of their summer just because they care.

3.  The yearbook index almost kills me every year. And this year is no different. It’s a position that doesn’t really need anyone until second semester at which time everyone is neck deep in their own assignments. I’m with a new company this year, so I had hoped the index might be easier, better. It’s not. I put myself in charge, so I could see it done thoroughly, correctly. Seems this system only indexes by portraits. That means only students who had yearbook photos taken will be automoatically indexed, and only by the name on that portrait. So anyone who moved in after school pics, but was photographed and captioned has to be added in. Also any Christopher who also goes by Chris will not be complete. After placing and formatting my index (before I discovered how limited it was), I printed it and proceeded to CHECK EVERY SPREAD for names and pages that may not show up on the index. We’re talking hours of pouring over pages and cross checking with index content. I hate indexing. And, yes, if I had realized what I was getting into, there was a better way, but by the time I figured it out, I was too far in. Fortunately, I have a good teacher friend who came in and helped me out the past couple days. Before me, she advised the book for two years. She gets it, she really does.

Once I get past the Overwhelming, read over and smile at the Good, make a respectful nod toward the Bad, I can keep going. Without the Bad, I might not fully appreciate the Good. Without surviving the Overwhelming, I might not realize how strong and determined I am.

I will remember you

It’s funny how a teacher’s memory works.

School’s out. Nearly 100 kids I’ve seen nearly every day for nine months have checked out for summer. Of the graduated seniors, I’ve gotten to know many of them over a period of one, two, three or even four years. Some I got to know as part of one of my journalism staffs this year, others have been on staff for two or even three years, but a few I’ve known since they were in my freshman English class. One special student was even on the one and only middle school staff I did a yearbook for, so I’ve had her on staff for five years. But no matter how long I’ve known them, they all leave their unique mark on my memory, and while I’m interacting with them on a daily basis, I can’t imagine ever not knowing them.

Okay, I’ve only been doing this for six years, but it’s funny how a teacher’s memory works.

Today was a workday, closing out the end of the year with final grades and inventories and such.

Coming to a stopping place around noon, I left for a bite to eat. I drove through a nearby chain establishment for a neat little chicken sandwich and was greeted by a friendly and enthusiastic voice that apologized for keeping me waiting, and I believe he truly meant it. In fact, I found the voice warm and friendly, and subconsciously, I suppose, even familiar. When I pulled around, there was instant recognition, although not an instant name.

It’s funny how a teacher’s memory works.

I automatically raised my voice a pitch or two showing recognition and delight, for it was a friendly, familiar face I had encountered. I knew it belonged to a student I liked. I just couldn’t find his name.

I asked how in the world he was doing, and he told me he was great. In fact, he’d inquired about a particular school’s course of study and had heard back from them that morning and was really excited about it. And I was excited for him. I just couldn’t come up with his name. We chatted, and all the while I knew he had graduated the year before, I could have told you where in my class he sat as a freshman.

I bid him farewell and good luck, told him I’d see him later. Felt guilty that I couldn’t call him by name. As I drove away, I knew exactly who he’d interacted with in class. I could tell you they didn’t get along well, and while I liked both boys, they certainly didn’t like each other. Halfway across the parking lot, I got it.


It’s funny how a teacher’s memory works.

It’s happened before. I see a face and immediately have the impression of how well I knew this student, how well I liked this student. I may even be aware of whether this student had brothers or sisters and who her best friend was. I often remember where they sat in my classroom, maybe even a bit of a piece of writing they did. But so often, as much as I seem to recollect, the name is one of the last things that comes to me.

Is it because we see so many Hailey/Haleys? So many Brittany/Britney/Brittnis? And don’t forget the Shawn/Seans and the Derek/Derricks and the Dillon/Dylans.

I want all my students to know that even if their names somehow escape the not-quite-steel-trap that is my mind, their thoughtfulness, their quirkiness, whether they rocked back in their chair, their innate ability to read my mind, their tendency to push all my buttons except the very one that will actually push me over the edge – those are the things that won’t leave me. I’ve got you right here. I might lose your name at some point, but I knew you and I’ll know you.

It’s funny, and even quite amazing, how a teacher’s memory works.