Tag Archives: National Writing Project

A Day on the Hill

Representative government, a staple of our democracy, is something we often learn about in school…and yet seldom engage in beyond voting.  But for the last several years, through my interactions with the National Writing Project, I have had the opportunity to push myself to delve more deeply into the governing process as I visit the congressional representatives of our region to advocate for our organization by heading to Capitol Hill in Washington DC.  This means making appointments with our congress people, meeting with them to talk about the work we do locally, and often making a request that they sign onto a Dear Colleague letter or support a particular piece of legislation coming up for a vote.

And for the last few years, my friend and San Diego Area Writing Project colleague, Abby Robles, has been coming with me, setting up appointments, and helping to build relationships with the representatives and their staffs.

There’s something larger than life about this city.  Monuments loom large, bringing the history of our country into focus.  The streets teem with people…and when you are on Capitol Hill, most are in dark suits rushing here and there.  Armed sentries stand at attention and the entryway to all governmental buildings require passage through metal detectors.

Like hives, the houses of representatives buzz with groups of people in conversation.  Tiny elevators carry people from floor to floor of massive marble hallways, old fashioned clocks beep and wink indicating voting in progress.  Impossibly young interns man the phones, handle queries, and usher people in and out for appointments.  Each office is decorated with artifacts of “home,” the place the congressperson represents.

Last year Abby decided to make a movie about her trip to DC to show her students.  So we talked through her plan, scoped out potential shots, and considered how we could use our time in at the Capitol to tell a story.  With Abby as the star, I was pressed into service as cinematographer, filming pieces of our visit that she would stitch together into the movie.  It was great fun…and the movie was quite a hit!

And so this morning, Abby was eager to make a new movie for her students and we began talking as we walked to the Capitol for our meeting.  A conversation we have had before is about the word capitol with an “o” and how it is different from the word capital with an “a.”  This led us to the discussion of the multiple meanings of words…and what ultimately became the inspiration for the story Abby would create for her students.

I was studying carefully today, taking in Abby’s process as we thought about the different movie scenes and planned the shots.  I have tiptoed into some movie making…but have only used photos…no video at this point.  (Here is a movie I made a year ago) We had lots of fun with word play as we considered the many possibilities for words that had meaning in this place where our government lives. And as we shot each scene, we were thinking about what would come next…knowing that we would ask our representative, Scott Peters, to play a role in the video.  And what a great sport he was, not only agreeing to play along, but also adding his own twist to the plot, creating complexity and authenticity.

Making the movie kept our day lively, as each place we went became fodder for our thinking about multiple meaning words.  And by including the congressman in the movie, our conversation with him became more genuine.  We laughed, shared stories about our work and his, and engaged his staff in our video vision.  The making made us curious…about words, about this place, about angles and light and sound.  And it felt good to find a suitable end piece…and a crazy coda with Abby dancing on the steps of the Supreme Court.

Abby pieced the movie together…some during our lunch in the House of Representatives cafeteria…and the rest in the hotel bar as people came together to share the results of their day on the hill.  And here it is!  A lovely movie that reflects Abby’s thinking and her hard work…and I can’t wait to share it with my students too!

I think I’m ready to try a movie of my own.  I don’t think I will be starring in it…I don’t see myself as quite the actress that Abby is.  But I’m ready to try my hand at thinking through scenes, planning shots, and creating a story through the process.  Wish me luck!

“Do we get iterations?” : Creating a Culture of Innovation

Over the last few years, my teaching partner Margit Boyesen and I have been working to help our young students develop persistence and grit…and to see themselves as producers in the learning process. We’ve been trying to explode the notion that learning is something that takes place only within the walls of the classroom and is assigned by teachers. We aim to have students learn more by doing than by listening, and as much as we can, we try to have students engage in meaningful projects that extend the learning environment beyond the school and whenever possible connect them to others who are interested in or engaged in similar endeavors.

These are lofty goals—and like other classroom teachers we are faced with state standards, accountability measures, and even the often slow to change expectations of parents, the community, and the educational system. But we also believe that students who are persistent problem solvers, designers, and communicators will have the skills they need to succeed in testing situations and in the world. But mostly, we believe learning should be fun…for our students and for ourselves.

And we’re lucky. Margit and I co-teach a multiage class of first, second, and third graders. Twice as many students, two interconnected classroom spaces, and students we get to teach for three years. Unlike many teachers, Margit and I don’t teach in isolation and our planning involves starting with an idea and building on each other’s thinking, adding to and challenging the whys and hows until we land on the lessons we will facilitate with our students. Two teachers in the classroom give us flexibility in supporting students…and in challenging them.

Thanks to our San Diego Area Writing Project colleague, Abby Robles, we added an advanced vocabulary routine to our instruction a few years ago. We include the target word without defining it (last week’s was precarious) in our morning message and ask students to think of possible synonyms based on the context. Students refine their guesses through the week, continuing to use new context clues from each day’s message until the definition is revealed on Thursday. Students help to generate a gesture to use each time they hear the word…a gesture that also helps with remembering the meaning.  We select words to enhance the learning we have planned–to give authentic context for using the word and for our students to incorporate it into their personal vocabulary through experience.

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Because we are interested in design and making, last year we introduced the word iteration to our class…and the practice of iteration as an intentional part of our teaching. (I wrote last year about a project that focused on iteration here.) And not only did our students learn the definition of the word iteration, they also began to recognize the value of iteration in their learning. It was obvious when we started programming using the app Hopscotch, that computer programmers value iteration. And that language of designing: imagining, trying out, testing, and improving as a continual loop began to permeate our classroom. Instead of talking about writing as drafting, revising, and final drafts…we started to talk about iterations, and gave students opportunities to plan, write, try out, improve. Another iteration became a much friendlier and positive way to talk about revision…and better yet, students started to ask for opportunities to iterate, in their writing and in all their projects.

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“Do we get iterations?” became a common question as students began a new project or a new writing piece. And Margit and I found ourselves asking whether we had given students enough opportunity to iterate when we saw the elevated level of work and the increased creativity of products students produced when they could go beyond a single try.

As school began this year, we intentionally built opportunities for iteration into our instruction. And when we forgot, we often revised our lessons to allow for time to iterate. On our first day of school this year we planned a “mini make” out of a piece of aluminum foil and before the end of the lesson, we added time for a second iteration the following day. This practice of iteration has developed a culture in our classroom that supports collaboration, persistence and innovation. I was reminded of this today as students were working on an Alexander Calder-inspired mobile design challenge. Our forty-four students were at different stages of work on two projects: getting their individual blog titled and about me page posted and gathering materials to start on the mobile project. While it was “a lovely mess” in the words of my teaching partner, it was calm, productive, and collaborative. Margit and I each helped individual students…with their blogs, with cutting pipe cleaners and ribbon lengths, threading strings through “doo-dads,” and more. And what’s better, students were helping each other too. They were free to move around, collect materials as needed, be the second set of hands for tying a tricky piece of string or holding the growing mobile from the top as the creator worked on balance elements. And as time flew by, I could feel the flow of learning our students were engaged in.

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When I think of cultivating a culture of innovation, I think of the power of iteration and the design process. In order to risk doing something new or different, its important to know that your first effort isn’t your only effort. When students ask about iterations, they are asking if they can try something new, if they can start over again, if they can learn from their attempts—even those that didn’t work the first time around. And they learn to persist and help each other out too, because that’s what we do in this culture of exploration and deep learning.

And even better, this attitude toward learning changes our teaching too. We also find ourselves in a culture of innovation, as teachers and co-learners. We can try that project that involves something new that we aren’t even sure exactly how it will work—especially with a classroom full of students—because we know that our first attempt isn’t the only attempt. Like our students, we get to iterate too, refining our teaching, our expectations, our processes as we innovate and work to provide meaningful learning experiences for this generation of learners.

A Closer Look at the Ordinary

Sometimes we take things for granted.  Especially those ordinary things that we are so accustomed to that we almost don’t even notice their usefulness or necessity.  I’ve been reminded to pay attention to the ordinary in a couple of ways lately.

A blogger I follow (who takes some spectacular photos!) mentioned in a post recently that she was participating in a macro photo challenge…and was reminded that macro is not all about flowers and bugs. That prompted me to put the macro lens on my phone/camera this morning and to snap some macro shots of ordinary things around my house.

The zipper on my sweatshirt immediately attracted my attention, I like seeing how the teeth interconnect.

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I noticed the banana…and focused my lens on the dark end.  It is definitely more interesting than I originally thought!

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And then since I wrote about being more playful about ordinary things like brushing my teeth in my Summer Manifesto yesterday, I couldn’t resist a quick shot of the bristles…and the toothpaste tube!

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Later today while I was outside on a long walk–of the exercise persuasion–I found myself thinking about the NWP radio show I taped today.  The show focused on formative assessment and a resource, an e-book, that NWP colleagues, Beth Rimer from Ohio and Terri McAvoy from Missouri, have put together to help their writing project colleagues and other educators understand and use formative assessment effectively…in classrooms and in professional development.  (The e-book will be available on the NWP website on June 26th…and you can hear the radio show that same evening!)

I realized in my work with Terri and Beth (I acted as their coach and editor…and cheerleader!) that formative assessment is one of the taken for granted, ordinary practices that becomes nearly invisible–even to those who use it well–and totally unacknowledged and often dismissed by those who aren’t familiar with its powerful outcomes.  What I love most about the new e-book, Formative Assessment as a Compass: Looking at Student Work as an Intentional Part of Ongoing Professional Development, is that it shines a light on all the reasons this is an essential practice for educators–in classrooms and in professional development.  Like my zipper and my toothbrush, it’s easy to overlook formative assessment.  It’s not flashy and doesn’t get much press, but effective educators understand that paying attention to learners–what they “get” and what they don’t–is essential to planning for effective teaching and requires a willingness to abandon the carefully created lesson plans and attend to the learners in the moment.

Since working with Beth and Terri, I have been more aware of the use of formative assessment in my classroom and I can’t wait to use this resource in my work with my SDAWP colleagues. Like a macro lens, this e-book will help people look more closely, examining the details that are often overlooked and considering intentional and systematic practices that support learners (and teachers too!).

What of the ordinary are you overlooking or taking for granted?  How will you take a closer look and consider the consequences of doing without this thing?  I’m glad for reminders to pay attention in different ways…to make the familiar new, allowing me to appreciate what I might otherwise dismiss as ordinary.

Walking the Halls of Congress

For the last several years I have traveled to our nation’s capitol each spring to advocate for teachers, students, and writing.  As part of that process I walk the halls of congress and meet with elected representatives, telling the story of teaching and learning in my hometown and the power of the National Writing Project network to support teachers and learners.

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I’ve never considered myself political.  Although I have always voted, I hadn’t really considered my role in the political process as a citizen beyond placing my vote at election time.  And honestly, the first time I agreed to meet with elected representatives I wasn’t sure I would be able to find the words and the courage to speak to these strangers about the profession I love.  But I did it…and have continued to do it, because students deserve the best learning opportunities we can provide.  And in the process I have learned a lot about the political process and the power of building relationships with the people who represent us in congress.

In San Diego there are five congressional representatives for the area the San Diego Area Writing Project serves.  There are democrats and republicans, veteran politicians and those new to the job.  Sometimes we meet directly with the representative, sometimes we meet with one of their aides.  Some are knowledgeable about education, some are not.  Sometimes we meet with the same person from year to year, others times we meet someone new.  Sometimes our representatives are upbeat and hopeful, other times they are frustrated, and sometimes even curt.  I can’t imagine how many people they meet with, each wanting their interest to be the priority.

And over the years I have learned some things:

  • Education doesn’t need to be partisan.  Remind the representative of the ways that students in their district benefit from opportunities for high quality learning.  And remind them that teachers work hard and want the best for their students.
  • Our elected representatives understand the value of good writing skills.  They tell us stories every time we meet with them about the difficulty finding employees and interns with good writing skills.
  • Be direct and positive.  That doesn’t mean to sugar coat the truth, but it does mean being pleasant and being prepared with the information you plan to share and the request you have.
  • Work to build a relationship–both locally and in the capitol.  Send information, follow up with emails, invite them and their staff to visit local events…who doesn’t want a photo op with an adorable student?

This year, my friend and colleague Abby, who traveled to Washington D.C. with me, decided to make a video for her second grade students featuring our local representatives.  With each of the representatives we spoke with directly, she asked them if they would mind saying a few words to her students.  (We met with three of our five representatives directly–they are featured in the video.) Each representative was happy to participate…and Abby sent them each a link to the finished movie.  (Hope you enjoy it too! I served as cinematographer for the scenes featuring Abby.)

And here’s a couple of behind the scenes photos of Abby in action.

I’ve also learned the power of social media in advocacy.  After Abby tweeted the link to the video she also had responses from the congressional twitter feed.  And it wasn’t long before a photo we had taken with a local congressman was tweeted out as well.

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The only way we can improve the political process is to participate in it.  And although it isn’t necessary to travel to Washington to participate, being there expands my understanding of how the processes work (and don’t) and helps me think beyond the partisan politics that dominate the rhetoric about our government.

I am more convinced than ever that we need to move beyond binary thinking, beyond democrat and republican, beyond right and wrong, and black and white and move toward more complex understandings of how our government works.  For me, these efforts to advocate on behalf of my profession and the students we teach have been steps in that direction.

Hour of Code

Coding, programming…words that are used to describe the process of “speaking” a machine language.  This week classrooms and schools all over are participating in the Hour of Code, an attempt to get 10 million students to try computer science for an hour during Computer Science Education Week.

If you read this blog you already know that we have been working on computer programming using the Hopscotch app for a while now.  (See here, here, and here)  So in honor of the Hour of Code, we decided to pose a Winter Scene Design Challenge for our students.

Today was the day.  Students were asked to create a scene using Hopscotch that depicts some aspect of winter.  As you might expect, students thought snow, snowmen, Christmas trees, and more.  They were super excited…with my speech students arranging to get out of speech (something they love!) so they could be part of the challenge.

And there were many highlights today–lots of successes, lots of students genuinely collaborating with one another and supporting each other without teacher direction.  But my favorite moment was Esther.  Esther is an 84 year old grandmother who lives in Australia and visits her daughter in our town each year in the winter.  I taught her grandson and granddaughter many years ago (they are both college students now) and Esther has continued to come to our classroom several days a week when she is in town to help out and hang out.

As Esther began to watch the students at work on their winter scenes, I asked her if she would like to try it too.  I handed her my iPad and asked Sophie if she would show Ms. Esther how Hopscotch (and the iPad) worked.

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Esther was delighted!  And so was Sophie.  It is wonderful for my students to see the embodiment of lifelong learning…and Esther is just that!

An article I read recently points out the advantages of learning to code:  problem solving, (digital) confidence, and understanding the world.  And I see those advantages when my students work to program.  They also learn about systems…and working through the many variables to figure out why their plan isn’t working as they imagined.  They become persistent and learn the value of iteration.  Each mistake becomes another opportunity for learning rather than a sign of failure.

Here are a few examples of students’ winter scenes:

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A first grader who figured out how to use o’s as text features for eyes and nose on his snowman.

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A second grader’s winter tree.

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A third grader’s winter scene.

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A peppermint candy created by a third grader.

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And a holiday greeting card, Hopscotch style!

You can see that students are gaining confidence and expertise with this programming tool. Most of these projects were completed in less than 30 minutes and they represent only a fraction of the programming that was happening in the classroom today.  Some of our students are still struggling while others can’t wait to go home and try some more programming on their own time.

Next week we plan to have student-led tutorials where students will teach and learn from each other in small groups.

How was your Hour of Code?  What did students learn and create?

Working from the Why

Everyone loves a field trip…right?  Or maybe not…  As a teacher I like the way that field trips give my students a shared experience and helps to make abstract science or social studies concepts more concrete.  I also like to give my students access to experts in the field and help them imagine professions where this content learning is applied.  But…to get these outcomes, teachers have to plan carefully and connect classroom learning to the resources of the field trip destination.

The San Diego Area Writing Project (SDAWP), along with the San Diego Natural History Museum (SDNHM) and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (Fleet) are partnering in a National Writing Project (NWP) and Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) initiative investigating the intersections of science (or STEM) and literacy (with an emphasis on writing).  Yesterday we launched our work  with ten formal educators (who work in public schools) and ten informal educators (who work in the museums mentioned above), with a particular focus on field trips.

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The facilitation team (of which I am a part) decided to launch our work by focusing on the why of the work.  Why is it important to re-examine field trips and consider ways to improve the experience for students and to create supportive structures for teachers and other adults who accompany young people to museums and other field trip sites?

Inspired by a TED Talk by Simon Sinek entitled How Great Leaders Inspire Actionwe spent our first (of 5) sessions focused not on the what or how of our project.  We sent teams of educators out into the museums to observe and experience an exhibit through a set of prompts that invited them to look and try through a variety of different lenses, and write about their experiences.  They critiqued the exhibit–not to find fault with it–but as a way to consider what structures might support learners’ interest, inquiry, and pique curiosity.

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Our short, but intense day left us with a desire to take action…to figure out how to make field trips amazing learning experiences, with students at the center.  One comment from the end of the day reflections is still bouncing in my head,

…the “why”has the power to transform educational practices.  From field trips to worksheets to projects, I wonder how many educators push past the “what.”

Our goal with this project is to do just that–to push past the what and consider the why. The why is where the action sits…and we want to take action toward improving field trip experiences for students by supporting the adults who facilitate them: teachers, museums educators, chaperones, and parents.

I can’t wait to see where this project takes us…  If only I had a window into the future to get a hint at just what the possibilities might be!

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What do you love about field trips?  What does your ideal experience look like, feel like, leave you thinking about?

Thinking about MOOCs

MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) are becoming more prevalent.  They seem to be the new “thing” in learning.  Zac over at Autodizactic is asking folks to help him think about MOOCs.

I’m not sure I even know what I think about MOOCs.  Like Zac, I have signed up for MOOCs that I have then abandoned.  It seems easy to both sign up for something that sounds interesting and that you can “attend” asynchronously.  And then when it actually begins, it seems easy to let it go when life gets too busy or the tasks seem too arduous or mundane.

I’m currently signed up for a MOOC, led by people whose work I admire, focused on academic language development for English language learners…and I’m very interested in the subject matter.  But already I’m having trouble finding time to do the readings and complete the tasks assigned.  I’m pretty certain I won’t be completing this MOOC.

This summer I had a completely different experience with the Connected Learning MOOC, clmooc, through the National Writing Project.  And maybe the most important difference was in the way the acronym “mooc” was defined.  Instead of being a “Massive Open Online Course”, the clmooc was defined as a Massive Open Online Collaboration.

There were still facilitators.  And instead of assignments, there were make cycles.  And participants were invited to add to make cycles, interpret them in their own ways, create totally new makes…generally make the experience work for them.

I found the experience exhilarating!  I expected to “lurk” around the edges of this experience.  I knew when I signed up that this would be an extremely busy time for me.  I was coordinating the SDAWP Summer Institute, starting a new grant-funded project, and supporting resource development for another project.  But, because I found it relevant and because of the interaction with facilitators and participants, I was compelled to continue and experiment and learn and grow.

Drawing on Connected Learning principles, my learning was interest-driven, peer supported, and openly networked.  It was also production-centered, academically oriented, and had a shared purpose.  And best of all, it was fun.  Each effort made me interested in trying something else.

I was both connected and learning…and I have a badge to show for it!

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I have many reservations about MOOCs, especially those that are trying to be courses.  I am all for open learning opportunities–I’m just not so sure that we need “courses,” in the formal sense of the word, to achieve the goal of opening access to learning.  And for me, the “course-ness” is the very quality that causes me to “drop out” of MOOCs.

So, Zac (and anyone else who is thinking about MOOCs), I’m not so sure my musing are helpful here…but this thinking is helping me understand why the CLMOOC worked for me and these other MOOCs haven’t.

And now about those badges…I’m not so sure I’m sure what I think about them either. And I have two of them…

Here’s my other one.  It was awarded me by a peer for being a connected educator.

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What are you thinking about MOOCs…and about badges?