Wednesday, January 8, 2014

"Why do we have to write these stories about ourselves, Mr. Joseph? I mean, what's the point?"
With characteristic 5th grade skepticism, I found myself facing a key question from my student, Tate, that speaks to the heart of the question of student voice - that of audience. What Tate really wanted to know was, Would anybody care about this? Would anybody see this? Would it have any meaning beyond simply a skill that I'm supposed to know?

As teachers, we all have students who are compliant and willful, who will readily produce whatever output we ask or demand of them to please the teacher or earn a desired grade. There is no question that narrative and non-fiction writing are critical skills that must be taught explicitly at all levels every year. Increasingly, however, in an era of daily online publishing and daily digital content production on social media sites, students need to know that whatever they are asked to generate will have a meaningful audience and make a difference to someone. In 2014, kids have never known a world where they haven't been able to reach out around the globe in seconds and make an impact with words, pictures, and video on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

Central, of course, to student voice is student choice. When asked to write a small moment narrative this past fall, students in my writing workshop were given the opportunity to not only write traditional text-based stories using words, but also to create a "performance piece" that involved a demonstration of the story through some digtial medium. Some students chose to make digital stories, matching their own podcasted voice to images and create a movie. Others chose to learn the ancient art of storytelling, and videorecord their performance. Some reenacted their story as a movie and filmed the experience. Still others used animation techniques to tell the story. The possibilities generated by the students and the products that they ultimately produced far exceeded anything I could have imagined.

 The students in my workshop all have blogs, so they posted both their stories and the digital counterparts online. They were asked to send the link to at least three people in three different states or countries around the world and solicit feedback. In this way, the students saw the exponential possibilities of global sharing, and how their work does indeed make an impact - however large or small - on the lives of people, often countless individuals beyond friends and family. Their voice was not only honored, but broadcast on the widest possible stage.

We all know that technology tools are constantly evolving and changing. What will remain immutable, however, is the architecture of story - problem, solution, characters and setting. As long as we enable our students the choice to decide what multi-modal output they would like to try, they will be motivated to learn the fundamental writing skills they need to grow and develop as writers. Furthermore, their work will have meaning for the maximum number of people possible, as it should. Kids care about writing and creating when they know people pay attention to and care about their work . Writers' voices will be heard.

Check out Shin Be telling her story the old fashioned way:

Here's Tate's Paintball Party in pictures and words:

Nicolae uses Lego animation to tell his tale.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A New Era in Literacy PD in Michigan


What do you get when you combine dynamic K-12 writing units of study with over 500 dedicated Michigan teachers from throughout the state? An amazingly powerful literacy professional development experience with nationwide repercussions.

It has been nearly a month since the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA) English Language Arts Conference in Lansing kicked off the summer PD season June 24-27. This event was truly historical due to the confluence of people and events that led to its creation. Led by a team of literacy consultants from multiple ISD's across the state of Michigan, writing units of study have been refined and written at all levels, K-12, to align with the Common Core State Standards. While the units themselves enshrine practices and protocols that are familiar to veteran teachers, and informed by decades of effective practice informed by Lucy Calkins and other practitioners of a workshop-approach to the teaching of writing, the units are all extremely accessible to all teachers regardless of their level of experience. Last year these units were endorsed statewide by MAISA, which precipitated the establishment of the conference. They are public and available to all online.

The four-day experience featured dynamic keynotes each day. These were followed by breakout sessions by grade level which were led by teacher-leaders from throughout the state. I had the pleasure of co-facilitating a 6th grade section with Jianna Taylor, an outstanding teacher from West Bloomfield Public Schools. We led our 23 teachers and literacy coaches through an exploration of four of the units – narrative writing/launching, argument, literary essay, and information writing on each of the four days.

What makes this conference experience so exciting is that it was all locally led and executed. The leadership came from ISD’s throughout the state. The keynotes and facilitators were all Michigan teachers. We know that the best kind of PD is that which is meaningful and sustainable, and is peer-led. As a result, these are people who will see each other throughout the months and years to come. We will serve as ongoing resources to and for each other. This approach is also very cost-effective and sustainable in an era of limited funding. With this conference we were able to harness our own expertise to drive our own PD. This is a powerful way to lead and grow as professionals.

Plans are already afoot for the 2014 conference, which will focus on reading. As we continue to build PD capital in Michigan, we serve as a powerful complement to the kind of professional development offered by institutions like the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. We may even attract teachers from throughout the country to come to Michigan to learn and grow right here in the Midwest.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Thanks, Pauline!

Gratitude. I am so grateful to so many people for the opportunity to have gone to Prague for the Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum last week. I certainly appreciate the hard work and dedication of the Microsoft team who pulled off an amazing event. As Pauline Roberts has eloquently articulated, I thank Anthony Salcito, Lauren Woodman, Sophie Tual, Rob Bayuk and Carrie Hoople Hispsher for their ability to bring together a world-class collection of educators for a powerful professional development experience. Thank you, Microsoft, for your willingness to honor and uplift the work of students and teachers around the world who value effective, transformative teaching and learning from the classrooms of our schools to the streets of our communities.  

I was humbled and inspired as I walked the aisles of the forum. The breadth and depth of projects that my international colleagues are undertaking is very familiar in structure to ours and also motivating at the same time. I look forward to the chance to spend more time deconstructing other projects and creating more global connections. I am certainly grateful to my new friends from all over the planet for their dedication to their students and the real learning that takes place when students’ learning leaves the classroom and enters their lives beyond the school building.

I am certainly appreciative of the support from the administration, teachers, school board members, and parents of Birmingham Public Schools. The opportunity to participate in the Global Forum is certainly a career-altering event, and the chance to participate has been a gift that will reap dividends in my classroom for years to come.

I deeply appreciate the most compelling reason I was able to attend the Forum in the first place, and that is the vision, dedication, and hard work of my teaching partner, Pauline Roberts. “Queen Pauline the Green”, as she is known around the Joberts 56 team (54 students and two teachers), Pauline has long been a champion of educational experiences that enable students to view themselves as stewards of their own learning.

Pauline came to me with the idea of participation in Partners in Learning last year, after going through the experience by herself the previous year. The conversation went something like this:

Pauline: “Hey Rick, what do you think about our kids’ getting involved in Partners in Learning?”

Rick: “Okay!”

End of conversation.

My implicit trust in all things Pauline stems from the fact that Mrs. Roberts encourages each child to develop a relationship to self from a place of deep integrity, and to live the principle of “see a need, fill a need”. On the Joberts team, kids don’t need to wait for an adult to tell them what to do. Students are encouraged to identify problem areas in the world in which they live, and to act on them. It is this guiding principle, I believe, which has enabled our Doing Business in Birmingham Project to be successful.

Queen Pauline lives constructivist practice every day. She enables our students, through inquiry, to develop their own realizations and take ownership for bringing them to fruition. A recent example took place last week during our sciracy class (science and literacy – rhymes with piracy). It is during sciracy when we have to creative freedom to give students the chance to engage in project-based learning experiences like Doing Business in Birmingham.

We were in the midst of planning our “Global Celebration Manipulation” in the wake of our first place win in the Collaboration category at the Global Forum. Pauline asked the kids,

 “So, what do you want to do for our celebration?”

The responses varied from surprisingly reasonable (“Let’s have cake”) to more predictably daring suggestions. Pauline skillfully facilitated the conversation to honor and uphold the students’ suggestions with the minimum amount of necessary teacher parameters. Her consistent message to the kids was clear: This is your party. What do you want to do?

The empowerment of our students on a daily basis is a hallmark of who Pauline is as an educator. It is part of her charisma. Kids flock to her with ideas because they know that their thoughts – no matter how outlandish - matter and will be heard. Queen Pauline the Green makes kids and their visions her own. She uplifts and empowers, from Birmingham, Michigan to Prague and back. Every day.

Thanks, Pauline.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Teacher, Know thy students

What part is the teacher to play in forming a pupil's character? In general he must both inculcate 
principles and foster the formation of habits. This requires constant activity and elaborate but definite 
knowledge. Mere acquaintance with certain common foibles of human nature is not sufficient. 
Each [student] in particular must be known intimately and trained individually. Otherwise 
there is much useless beating of the air (Tierney, 106).

This timeless quote from 1914’s Teacher and Teaching by John Tierney, S.J. presumes a fundamental, timeless truth about what effective education has always really been about: the quality of the interpersonal relationships between a teacher and her students. Whether in the context of “character” or “academic” disciplines, relationships are at the heart of differentiated instruction, as they presume that the practitioner not simply cares about her students or has a desire to get to know them as people, but actively and systematically goes about the process of gathering knowledge to determine exactly who these human beings are before her and what motivates them to learn new concepts, and more importantly, take risks. When a teacher can facilitate a willing amount of risk-taking in a learning community, then that behavior becomes infectious. Transformative practices occur both individually and communally.

While the question of the quality of relationships may seem a bit nebulous to qualify, and much less to quantify, the first standard in all certificate areas for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, “Knowledge of Students”, states:  Accomplished teachers use their knowledge of child development, their knowledge of students as individuals, and their knowledge of students as learners to develop and strengthen relationships that enhance learning.

Essentially, a key component of quality relationships boils down to how I prioritize my time. How much time am I dedicating to getting to know my students and what they value? What are their interests outside of school? What do they like to do for fun? What are their hobbies and interests? What do they enjoy and celebrate within their families? What are their future aspirations?

As a teacher and instructional leader I am well acquainted with the truth in this quote from Haim Ginott, “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.”

The quality of the relationships in my room are controlled by me. We have a principle on our teaching team of KVKW, pronounced "Kuh-vak-wuh", which stands for "kind voice, kind words." I remind my students of the power of their voices, and how their words are often the least important component of their conversation. My students easily recognize effective communication not so much for what it sounds like but for what it feels like. They will respond when a classmate is sharp-tongued by telling that child, "Hey, KVKW."

I am aware of the need not only to gather information about who my kids are and what makes them tick, but to actually use that data to drive instruction. A few years ago, I realized toward the end of a two year relationship with a student named Paul that he was fascinated by model airplanes, particularly those from World War II. Paul was a very reluctant writer who chronically complained of writer's block, and bemoaned the labor of the craft.
"I hate writing. It's so boring," Paul would proclaim on a near daily basis. "Why do we have to write every day in this class?" he remarked at the beginning of a narrative writing unit.
"Well, Paul, let's see," I replied. "There's plenty to write about. Think about something that happened in your life that you remember or a person that you care about."
"Nothing happens in my life. My life is boring."
I knew there had to be a way to enable Paul to access his experiences, but how?

The next day I was telling the class a story about how when I was between the ages of 11 and 13 I enjoyed building plastic models of military aircraft. I hung a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-24 Liberator bomber from the ceiling in my bedroom. At the end of my interest, I gathered up my painstakingly constructed models, to which I had dedicated hours of time and systematically destroyed them. Just for fun.

When I relayed how I stuck firecrackers in the crevices throughout the aircraft and watched with glee as the models exploded into tiny fragments, I noticed the mix of disbelief on the part of some and complete understanding on the faces of others, particularly the boys. I had made a connection. The kids' own stories of destruction and detonation came tumbling out.
"Yeah, Mr. Joe, I remember when I stuck a firecracker in a pumpkin and the mushy stuff went everywhere," came one reaction.
"Yeah, and I remember a time when my friend put an M-80 underneath an upside-down garbage can and launched it, like ten feet off the ground," said another.
  Paul offered, "Yeah, that reminds me of the time when my friend poured gasoline on his model car and lit it on fire. It melted into his driveway and left a black mark.”


Had I taken the time to share a few of my stories, both as structural mentor text pieces, but also as bridges to Paul's and other students' experiences, I would have enabled my kids to generate more stories with greater ease. A classic example of the link between reading and writing, yes, but also an awareness on my part to access my students' schema and utilize it to a constructive end. My students all have lives. It is my job to help them reflect on and unearth their own stories, facilitate connections between their experiences and those of others, and enable them to draw on their daily adventures to forge new learning paths. I knew then that when my students saw me as a human being, my ability to reach and teach them was significantly enhanced and they were able to perform more effectively and efficiently. I pledged to get to know my kids, many of whom were virtual strangers to me, despite the fact that I saw them for two hours a day, five days a week.

Many surveys and countless conversations later, I'd like to believe that I am better able than ever to differentiate my instruction through cultivating relationships with my students. I still have much work to do to build a consistent, disciplined approach that maximizes the information I glean with the productivity of my students. Ultimately, I realize that the responsibility lies squarely on my shoulders. As noted by Rick Weissbourd, “The moral development of students does not depend primarily on explicit character education efforts but on the maturity and ethical capacities of the adults with whom they interact—especially parents, but also teachers.”
That’s me.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Not Just a Teacher - Best Teacher Blog of 2012!

I heartily recommend Pauline Roberts' Not Just a Teacher Blog for Edublog's Best Teacher Blog of 2012. Pauline always manages to combine the perfect blend of anecdotes and evidence to create a reading experience that uplifts and inspires me. She artfully "blends the boxes" of her personal and professional lives to put forth gripping and relevant ideas. Pauline writes with a clarity and passion that only intensify with each passing post. In an offering from the beginning of October entitled The Purpose of Education, Pauline writes: They (students) should leave the education system with a clear sense of their own significance, their own potential to make a positive contribution as global citizens and a thorough knowledge and understanding of the tools that will enable them to successfully make that contribution: creative thinking, productivity, digital literacy, communication skills, integrity, responsibility, reliability, and accountability. Pauline's ability to distill big ideas into their essential parts is one of her gifts. By offering a voice that ultimately speaks to the need to promote service to others through the application of practical skills, Pauline clarifies the priorities in education that matter most. Her awareness of the need to think globally and act locally are a further indication of her wisdom and dedication to children. I always manage to feel extremely motivated and optimistic for the future of education after reading Pauline's posts. She inspires me to be my very best and reminds me to dream big. Not Just a Teacher is a perfect pick for Best Teacher Blog of 2012.