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It’s Not About the Donuts: When the Learner is the Teacher

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My students teach me so much. I mean that. I feel like I’m always apologizing to my 1st period class.

I’ll use today as an example, but first, let me back up a step.

We have been working on persuasion. We studied the rhetorical devices (repetition, parallelism, analogy) used in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” Students practiced using those devices in their own writing. Students performed persuasive skits using ethos, pathos, and logos. We then analyzed Super Bowl commercials for persuasive techniques. Now, students are embarking upon a journey to practice persuasive writing and argumentative writing which we spent Monday distinguishing.

Here is a list of differences that  students generated:

Persuasive Writing Argumentative Writing
  • Aims to get readers to believe you opinion
  • Supported with persuasive techniques
  • Informal
  • Supported with facts and statistics
  • Involves two sides
    • counterclaim/rebuttal
  • Involves research
    • Investigative
  • More formal

Tuesday, we officially started our persuasive writing unit. We told each class that they’d work together to write and publish a blog, so each class period voted on a topic. Our desks are in groups of four, and we asked groups to discuss the topic and then craft claims. This caused quite a bit of fun, healthy debate, but in each class period, we were able to come to a decision.

  • Period 1: The driving age should be lowered to 15.5, and teens should be able to get their temps by 14.5.
  • Period 2: Dublin Coffman High School should start at 9:00AM (instead of 7:55).
  • Period 3:Schools should never completely block social media use nor search engines, but these technologies should be heavily monitored.
  • Period 5:Dublin Coffman High School should adopt an open campus schedule like colleges.
  • Period 6:The legal drinking age should be raised to twenty-five.

We showed students a model from last year as well as the requirements of the assignment.

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We have 7 groups of desks in our classroom, so we decided to have groups volunteer to complete different parts of our persuasive blog post, so three groups chose three different persuasive techniques, three other groups claimed the rhetorical devices, and one group found media to include. This all happened on Monday, and it was AWESOME. It went so well, in fact, that I emailed our literacy coach to brag. I just knew that she’d be so proud of all the modeling, scaffolding, and most importantly, learning happening in our room.

Fast-forward to today. I enter 1st period with 1 goal in mind. I want the whole class to collaboratively work on piecing together the parts of the blog that groups crafted separately yesterday. I tell them this. I stand at the board and ask students to help me outline our blog. One student helps me do this. One student. One. So, we are not off to a great start when it comes to collaboratively writing a blog post, but I have high hopes for the next part. I ask a student from each group to get on a shared Google Doc. I ask them to copy and paste their group’s work from yesterday into the document. This takes longer than expected, and as I look around the room, only the 7 students logged onto the document are engaged in organizing the blog. The other 20 are not interested in what we are doing no matter how hard I try to redirect their attention to what is happening on the projector. It doesn’t take me long to realize that THIS IS NOT WORKING. It’ll be torture to continue this for another 30 minutes, and I definitely can’t continue this all day long, so after 10 minutes of this unbearable struggle, I abandon ship and QUICKLY come up with an alternative.

I tell 1st period, “I’m sorry guys, and I’m sorry again for having to apologize to your class period so often, but this is not working like I imagined it would. I really wanted us all to craft a blog together, but this is just not going well, so here’s what we’re going to do. Students currently on the Google Doc, make a copy of the document and then share your copy with the rest of your group that you’re sitting with now and that you worked with yesterday. You’re now going to work in teams of just four rather than as a whole class. I want you to act like you’re a real editing team for a real blog. Turn what you and your classmates came up with yesterday into a cohesive blog. The best blog of the class wins donuts tomorrow, and I’ll also publish your blog to my real blog. You only have until the rest of the period. Ready? Go!”

And just like that, all students are involved again, and many are more invested in their writing than I have ever seen before!

… and then we run out of time.

Darn.

I’ll have to give them more time tomorrow….  

BUT, at least I know what to do 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th period because I have learned so much about what not to do during 1st period.

2nd period enters, and so does my co-teacher, Deb (she was in a meeting during 1st period). I get the students all set up to use the entire period productively in groups of four, and I use the same incentives of donuts and the most authentic audience I can conceivably provide on the spot(this blog). I fill Deb in on the debacle of 1st period.

We watch second period closely. We celebrate. We celebrate because we’ve been reading Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, and therefore, we no longer want to make decisions for our students that they can make for themselves. Our conversation goes something like this:

“This is going so much better than last period”

“This is good. I like this.”

“They’re struggling, and struggling is good.”

“They’re having to use each other and their resources instead of us. ”

“You’re right! Remember last year?

“We gave them a blog template to fill in. That was dumb.”

“We designed their blogs for them and removed all of the creative fun on accident”

“Look at them arguing over titles and fonts this year.”

“They’re really getting into it!”

We continue to watch closely. We circle the room. We listen to conversations. We mostly try to remain hands-off so that students figure it out on their own. Toward the end, we start to peek over shoulders. Many of the blogs don’t look like blogs at all. They look like a bunch of copied and pasted elements lacking any cohesive whole. Even the blogs that look like blogs don’t really read like blogs. We troubleshoot, and we try to explain this quickly before they head out the door.

3rd period enters.  We know what to do now. We explain everything just as we did last period including the donut incentive and semi-authentic audience deal, but this time, we get them set up for even more success than our 1st and 2nd periods by showing the model again and emphasizing what the end product should look like. We watch closely. It’s going well but not perfectly. I notice that some groups are totally engaged. I pick up on the fact that some students really want to win the donuts. Some students really want to show up on my blog. Some students just want to win. Some students are not engaged. Some students are letting their group members carry all the weight, so Deb and I chat.

“This is going pretty well, but it could be better. Why aren’t all our kids empowered?”

I think about the Empower book again.

What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?

“Next period, let’s let students pick their own groups. I don’t think we’d see the lack of engagement if we let them pick their own groups.”

“Let’s try it!”

5th period enters. We really know what to do now. As students walk in, we tell them to choose their own seats and to choose wisely because they’re expected to communicate well and work collaboratively. We show the model and explain expectations. We incentivize with donuts and a chance to appear on this blog. Groups are working fanatically! Everyone is engaged. This is what teachers dream of.

I watch closely. I keep thinking. I start to worry. I’m a worrier. This is going well… right? I’m not just imagining it, am I? It took a lot to get here. I bribed kids with donuts. I’m pretty sure that’s a huge pedagogical NO-NO, but I was desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. They look engaged. They even look empowered. I wonder what would have happened if I had never mentioned donuts, but I can’t renege on that now.

6th period enters. Despite my worries, we do everything the same as 5th period because it worked and because I can’t offer donuts to 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th period without offering them to 6th period. Deb and I stand in the middle and watch closely. There’s no doubt;  they’re engaged; they’re empowered. They’re working so hard, and they’re learning so much. They bell is about to ring, and one group is arguing. I listen.

“We should NOT have all of our names in the header.”

“Yeah, then all our names show up on EVERY page!”

“Yes, we should! It looks good!”

“No, we shouldn’t. It looks dumb!”

[warning bell rings]

“Mrs. Belden will just remove our names anyways.”

“Yeah, because we’re going to win and make it on her blog.”

“Well, we’re NOT going to win with our names on EVERY page!”

“Yeah, remove the names so that we can win the donuts!”

“We’re not going to win guys. We’re NOT going to get the donuts!”

“YES, we ARE going to win the donuts!”

“Guys, we did really good today, AND IT’S NOT ABOUT THE DONUTS!!!”

“Yeah, IT’S ABOUT THE JOURNEY!” [boys exit in fits of laughter]

The room is empty, and I’m sitting at my desk smiling like a fool because they have NO IDEA what a journey the day has been.

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TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY All High School Teachers Should Read Young Adult Books

blog41. For all of the same reasons that you read adult books!

In all seriousness, young adult books can be just as fun, entertaining, moving, informational, important, and challenging as books that are written for adults.

2. To realize that YA books have a place in the classroom.

By exposing yourself to a wide range of YA texts, you’ll be able to purposefully expose your students to those texts, too. More importantly, you’ll want to do so. Much of this post may sounds like it is for English teachers, but that is absolutely not the case. In recent years, we have had both history and science teachers add libraries to their classrooms because our staff is recognizing the importance of promoting literacy across the contents. The more I read YA, the more I recognize that these books(plural!) NEED to be in the hands of my students.

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3. To teach students how to read.

After recognizing the value of YA Literature, I came to realize the necessity of teaching students how to read whatever they’re reading rather than teaching what I’m looking for students to gain from a whole-class novel. In a sense, by valuing YA books, I like to think that I’m now focusing on teaching the reader, not the reading. This includes teaching basic and specific reading skills as well as universal themes and archetypes.

4. To be able to actually converse with students about books (and not interview, quiz, interrogate, or grade them).

There’s nothing shocking here. When you’re reading books that students are reading, you’re able to authentically dialogue with students. I will be the first to admit that when I wasn’t reading YA books, “conversations” with students about books were somewhat phony. Students need to see adults who read for pleasure, and students need reassurance and reinforcement that reading is both a delightful and a worthwhile pastime. If we as educators always associate required assignments and grades with students’ reading, we are killing these notions. Make your passion for reading visible to students and show students that you care about their passions by reading YA books.

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5. To build rapport with your students – truly!

THIS IS MY FAVORITE REASON! I’m not sure that there is any better, quicker, easier way to get to know students than by showing interest in their reading lives. You can learn a LOT about students’ interests, hobbies, after school life, home life, etc. by asking some simple questions such as these: What are you currently reading? What did you read this summer? What’s the best book that you’ve ever read? Why do you think you enjoy that genre so much? How many books do you have in your home?

Rapport is built by continuing to show interest in students’ reading lives beyond the first week of school (after beginning of the year reading surveys). It is built by finding ways to celebrate students’ individual reading successes and by finding that book to make a difference for a non-reader.  Imagine recommending a book to a student that becomes their favorite or changes their life. By starting the conversation now, this is the type of work that lays the foundation for a life-long relationship, one where you can genuinely ask students “What are you reading?” when you run into them ten years from now. This is the type of work that feeds the soul. This is why we became teachers.

6. To be reminded of what teen life is like.

From attending prom senior year, to combating bullying on a daily basis, to experiencing lovesickness and hormones for the first time, to living in less-than-ideal homes, to navigating the cafeteria, to finding a place where you fit in, to feeling anxious about college admissions, to playing on a team and learning how to be coached, to learning about your sexuality or questioning it, etc. etc. etc. Let me just put it this way: when you’re reading YA books, it’s a little easier to empathize with students and understand why your class’s assignment may not be at the forefront of their priorities. More importantly, it may be a little easier to understand why your class’s assignment shouldn’t be at the forefront of their priorities.

7. To stay focused on what is most important.

If you start to prioritize time to read young adult books when you haven’t in the past, you may find yourself re-prioritizing many aspects of your personal and professional worlds. Since it is obvious that students need me to make time for them to read, when making decisions for my students and my classroom, I now ask myself questions such as these: What do students really need to learn? What do students truly need to do? Is that lesson actually important to students’ growth, or do we just do it because we’ve always done it? And, if I don’t prioritize time to read, how can I expect students to?

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8. To become a better book matchmaker.

Students desperately need help finding books that they enjoy! It’s no surprise that the more YA I read, the better I become at this. Nothing excites me more than (after engaging in conversation with a student) being able to exclaim, “OHH! I have the PERFECTbook for you!” Also, now that I’ve read a fairly large percentage of the books in my classroom library, I am able to notice patterns between books and students. For example, I can make recommendations such as, “You liked All the Bright Places? Then try A Million Junes. I think you’ll like it, too!”

Admittedly, I used to recommend books pretty superficially, based on the little that I knew about them from reviews, colleagues, word of mouth, and the descriptions on the books’ covers. Let me be clear – I still do this and probably always will (with a disclaimer that I haven’t actually read the book); I just don’t do this as often as I used to for two reasons. (1) I’ve read more books and continue to read YA books. (2) I sometimes cringe now when I’m currently reading a book that I have recommended in the past while thinking to myself, “Yikes… I recommended this book to that student?”

9. To be able to book talk – an art in itself.

Magic happens when students trust your judgment. Because students quickly learn that I read YA books regularly, students are willing to try books that I recommend. I am able to reach multiple students at once through book talks. When I book talk, I choose one, two, or three titles to present to students. I love exposing students to different genres, topics, and authors, and I try to let the books speak for themselves by reading short passages aloud. Book talking is just one way to celebrate reading publicly and routinely. Sometimes, I have to create waiting lists for titles or scrounge up extra copies of books because the demand for the titles is so high after book talking them.

10. To build a classroom library for your students.

Notice the emphasis on your. Nobody knows what books your students need better than you and your students. Every year, I ask students what books should be added to our classroom library. It is important to me that students know our classroom is truly a community where their voices matter. Also, students want to read books that I wouldn’t have chosen for our classroom myself. Personally, I don’t enjoy sci-fi/fantasy much, but my students do, so I need their help in selecting titles to add to this genre. This year, I plan on asking my students to help me identify gaps that need to be filled in library. By using Goodreads.com and a few other sites and blogs, I am able to keep up with the newest, hottest YA releases and popular authors, which excites me and my students.

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11. To get to know your students’ academic abilities better.

Now that I’m reading what students are reading, I have a better grasp on students’ current reading abilities, what reading skills I need to teach, who just needs a confidence boost, who doesn’t read at all, who reads avidly, who has access to books at home, who is good at faking it (playing the “game” of school), who has reading stamina and who needs to build it, and I don’t have to test or survey students for this information. I can gather it simply by observing what students are choosing to read.

12. To be a role model for colleagues and to build a reading culture/community in your school.

If you’re genuinely enthusiastic about reading YA for your students’ sake and for your personal pleasure, your excitement will spread! Just a few years ago, I was inspired to make independent reading a priority in my classroom, and now I’m reading 50-75 books a year when I used to read just a handful. In the last 3 years, a student book club has formed (lead by a history teacher!), two different staff book clubs have formed, non-ELA classrooms have added libraries to their rooms, and relationships between students and colleagues have been strengthened. We (Dublin Coffman High School) legitimately have a reading community to be proud of now.

I feel a calling to model and spread enthusiasm for reading YA books to my colleagues because every single year there are students that I fail to reach in English class, that I fail to recommend the perfect books to in order to turn non-readers into readers and occasional readers into avid readers. I truly believe that the right book(s) can have this impact, which drives me to read as many books as I do. It also makes me acutely aware of the fact that I won’t ever be able to reach all of my students, BUT I have high hopes that my students’ sophomore, junior, and senior year teachers will be able to reach them with their book recommendations! As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village,’ and an entire school community of readers will obviously have a much bigger impact than a few teachers, so I am begging you; if you work with adolescents, please read young adult books.

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13. To #bewhatyouteach

“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” – W.E.B. Du Bois