Friday, July 11, 2014

Teacher as Poet. Poet as Teacher.

Flickr photograph by Steve Johnson 
I began with poetry.  My entry into writing started with rhymed couplets, with Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. And I wrote reams of poems, spiral notebooks filled with lines and later disks filled with hundreds of word processing documents that stored my free verse, oddly spaced stanzas.  I was fortunate enough to have teachers that supported and encouraged my love of verse.  Mrs. Zeinstra, my middle school English teacher, who turned us loose on her library of poetry books to find the lines that inspired us. We copied them into our daily writer's notebooks, selecting one or two to memorize and share. And Mr. Dik, who pulled me aside after senior English class one day to ask if he could help me revise a poem I wanted to submit to a local writing competition.  He encouraged me to reflect on my word choices but left authorial decisions in my hands.

But somewhere during my undergraduate studies, poetry became something I studied rather than wrote. Notebooks were filed away into storage boxes, and my focus was drawn to how others crafted lines. Poetry became something to analyze rather than write. It wasn't until I entered the classroom again years later as a high school teacher that I rediscovered my love of poetry.

Shortly after starting my first high school teaching position, I sought out my local Writing Project. One of my undergraduate professors spoke so highly of his involvement with NWP, about how much his connection with fellow writing teachers helped him grow as a teacher of writing and as a writer. I enrolled in my first Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP)  course in the summer of 2003: Teacher as Writer. It was in this course that I first read Anne Lamott, Georgia Heard, and Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge.  We used these memoirs as mentor texts, not for how to teach writing but as guides for our own writing.  As many of us rediscovered ourselves as writers, we also came to reflect on how we brought writing into our classrooms. We became writing teachers that wrote alongside our students. It was this first class that inspired me to once again put pen to page in a writer's notebook.  And class after class, lead me to reflect on my role not just as a poetry teacher but as a poet teacher.

I have been fortunate to have a couple of my poems published, but even had I not sought opportunities to publish, my connections with the National Writing Project and what I have learned from so many wonderful mentors through PAWLP have helped me grow more confident in declaring myself a writer. I am a poet. This is what I do. Poetry is my means of making sense of my world, my tool of reflection.  I listen to the rhythm of language, become entranced by well-crafted metaphors. Poetry is how I distill emotions, capture a memory, mark a moment.

As a teacher, I know that not every student who walks through my classroom door loves poetry.  But many do.  Whether or not they decide to pursue writing as a career, one of my jobs as a teacher of writing is to support students in finding avenues for engaging critically and creatively with their world. Writing is a tool for inquiry and a tool for reflection. Poetry, specifically, takes what often we find most difficult to understand and gives language to our confusion.  As a teacher of poetry, my hope is that I do not dampen that love of the well-crafted line. Poetry is not simply something I want my students to analyze. Poetry is a tool for making sense of who we are in our world. Verse helps us come to terms with life's overwhelming complications and joys. Poetry is who we are.

And so I share another poem in progress. This came from a moment just the other day as I sat on my porch with my soon-to-be kindergartener.

To the Driver Who Blared His Horn and Cursed at the Student Driver:

Remember hands at 10 and 2,
tight knuckles white,
instructor to the right,
foot on the brake
as you eased for the first time
into oncoming traffic.
My first car, held together mostly by Bondo
I couldn't resist remixing this little poem using Zeega, a great and easy-to-use app for digital storytelling.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Reflections on #FlipCon14

It began with my first Voxer conversation a few days before FlipCon14.  Chris Crouch and I connected using Voxer, looking for a way to share our upcoming conference experiences.  I was headed to FlipCon, the annual conference for educators involved with flipped learning, and he was going to be traveling to Atlanta for the annual ISTE conference. Both of us agreed to share the cool tools we learned about at our conferences, but by the first morning of FlipCon, we hadn't quite figured out the best way to do that.  Not long after I picked up my nametag and sat down with a cup of coffee in Mars, Pennsylvania, eagerly waiting for the opening keynote address by Molly Schroeder, I heard the now familiar chirp of a Vox alert.  Chris wondered if he might use Voxer to "sit in" on FlipCon. I wasn't quite sure how to do that without running through my phone battery quickly, but I had another idea.  What about a collaborative Google Doc of session notes?  And rather than just me sharing my notes from each session, I asked the community of educators attending FlipCon14 both in person and virtually to help me.  I tweeted out a link to my open Google doc, requesting help building a  collaborative session notes for the presentations given at the conference.  What I didn't expect was just how many people were interested in helping build our digital conference resource.

ELA Flippers - Cheryl Morris, Andrew Thomasson, Kate Baker, Beth Oing, and others
Over the course of my two days at FlipCon14, I had people both in person and virtually sharing ideas, links, and presentation resources via our open document.  By the close of the conference yesterday, the Google doc, which got its start just a few minutes before Molly took the stage on Tuesday, was already over 35 pages long. It continues to be a living document, filled with session links, quotes from presenters, photos, and tools of all sorts. And in a way, we used this collaborative document to flip our Flipped Learning conference.  Teachers from all disciplines and levels, from a variety of education backgrounds, connected to explore ideas, share with one another, and build our own resource for learning. We took ownership of our learning experiences, shared new knowledge, and applied it to our collaborative space.  And these are the ideals of flipped learning.

Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams sharing stories
Aaron Sams and Jon Bergmann, founders of FlipCon, share in the new book Flipped Learning: Gateway to Student Engagement that flipped learning transforms the learning space into one that is student-centered, with learners using face-to-face class time to engage in creative and critical thinking.  "Flipped learning is a pedagogical approach..." Sams and Bergmann write, that transforms the classroom into a "dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter" (6).  So it was powerful experience for me as an educator to also be emersed in that dynamic environment at FlipCon.  Throughout the two days of FlipCon14, participants were encouraged to connect, collaborate, and create.  This was not your sit-and-get type of conference.  I walked away from FlipCon not only with a some new tools (and a couple new books!) but with many new connections and the start of a number of new classroom collaborations for this coming fall. FlipCon was just the beginnning, and much like I hope my students do, I walk away from the experience with more questions than answers and excitement about where those questions will lead me.  

Jason Bretzmann leads a fantastic panel discussion
FlipCon14 = Selfie Bingo. Here's a selfie with Kate Baker

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Principles of Flipped Learning

I had an opportunity to connect with teachers at the William Penn Charter School today interested in learning more about the flipped learning approach to teaching. As I shared the explore - flip - apply model that I use most often in my own high school English classroom, I was reminded of just how similar this approach to teaching is to the inquiry and experiential-based models of education that have come before. Both of these pedagogies place student learning at their center, and like these previous models, the flipped approach encourages flexibility, choice, autonomy, and opportunities to master content and demonstrate skill development.

Interested in learning more? Check out this introduction to flipped learning. You'll find a planning sheet linked in this presentation to help you design your first flipped lesson.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Cutting In

Not long ago, I lurked as Paul Allison, teacher, writer, blogger, and host of the weekly Teachers Teaching Teachers Hangout, chatted with some of the contributors to the recently published collection of poetry titled Teaching with Heart. Their previous collection, Teaching with Fire, rests comfortably on my bookshelf, a gift from a former colleague, with many more pages dog-earred than not. And as I listened to that night's chat with Sam Intrator, Kevin Hodgson, and others, I was inspired by the power of poets. Carefully selected words speak to the desires and fears that linger in all of us, whether we are 13 or 93. Poetry confronts us, connects us, calls us to respond. So the other morning when Teaching with Heart arrived on my doorstep along with Austin Kelon's Newspaper Blackout (the inspiration for this creation), and Michael Cirelli's The Grind, I had poetry on my mind, words and ideas swimming through my thoughts, waiting to be written.

It rained the other night, not a downpour, but the kind of rain that pulls you into a deeper sleep when it slips down your windows in the pre-dawn hours. And when I stepped outside to load my boys into the car, our morning routine to get them off to preschool, I was struck by the smell of wet soil. Our garden is just beginning to pop with green. Soybeans, green and yellow beans, radishes, and kale. This is the first year that I've grown kale. My family eats a lot of kale, but I've hesitated to grow it not because it is difficult to grow, it isn't, but because I have a history with kale.

At 13 and 14, I worked in the muck. In Western Michigan, where the soil is damp and dark, farmers grow kale, collard and mustard greens, cabbage, and letteuce of all varieties in large farms we simply called "the muck." For two summers, I worked with other teens from break of dawn to late afternoon, weeding rows two and three times the length of football fields, slicing stalks of kale, washing and boxing greens. It was the most physically demanding job I have ever had. I would come home each night needing to clean soil from my fingernails, ears, and nose. By close of summer my palms were callosed, stained a mucky brown that soap would not wash away. But, I made enough money to pay for my first car.

With about 25 years of distance, I can see those fields of kale a bit differently. But for about 24 years, I hated kale.

Cutting In
     by Jennifer Ward

Lingering damp
the scent of soil seeps
beneath my skin
awakes memories packed away
of summers spent
in yellow slickers
sharpening knives
each morning
in the barn.
Teenage girls to one side
eyeing each other
watching the older farm hands
not yet men
like a middle school dance
comparing nicks and scars left
behind when we cut
a bit too close.
Piling into trailers
hauled out to beds
where we'd never sleep
but would bare our backs
to midday sun
and work our
calloused fingers deep
gossiping between
rows of green.

We were trying on women
as we labored
in the fields
and peddled our bikes
home each night
pockets full of
piece work pay.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

All About Poetry

The last few days have been all about poetry. Early this past week, I was offered the opportunity to attend next weekend's West Chester University Poetry Conference. I am very much looking forward to participating in a workshop session with slam poet Michael Cirelli, who was recently interviewed by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation's for a Poetry Friday post. And coincidentally, I received a flyer just a few days ago from the Dodge Foundation about their upcoming Teacher Day in October, part of the biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. And so I've been reflecting on the importance of poetry, both in terms of my role as a literature teacher as well as to me personally.

When meeting someone for the first time, I don't usually declare myself a writer. However, this past year I have come to realize that in many ways I am. I mark moments with lines of poetry. My bookshelves are home to writing notebooks of varying sizes and varying saturation of coffee stains. Inspired lines are quickly scribbled on post-it notes and napkins, stuffed unceremoniously into my book bag or purse. Google Drive and Evernote safely keep untold number of drafts, moments in progress. I write to understand, to be understood, to remember, and to hold fast to the emotions of particular moments.

So, since the universe seems to be calling me to reflect on the power of poetry, I thought I would take a moment to share a piece that I've been working on recently, inspired by a few still moments in my otherwise chaotic home.

Patron of Their Art

Each room filled with absurd still lifes:
A rubber chicken swims with whales,
Mighty Thor defends against the Rancor
though Mjölnir is no match for Lego claws,
Ann and Andy rest easy in the rocking chair
Comfortably clutching Wampa and baby black bear.
Mother bear finds respite on brother's bed.

Warm silence cradles each work in progress
While artists are off to study other subjects.
Scenes crafted and unfinished,
Ready to be rearranged.

I will not disturb this Dada,
The irrationality and intuition of childhood,
To shuffle it away into drawers of logic and order.
Instead, I will let Legos lie underfoot,
Leave the menagerie that crowds out sleep,
Knowing that too soon the day will come when
little fingers will forget about such art.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In the Name of Rigor

My English department is undergoing quite a bit of change in order to accomodate the reality of state testing in the era of Common Core State Standards (CCSS). I was told yesterday our current curriculum overhaul is an attempt to add rigor and help students prepare for the state tests our students will take in their tenth grade year, tests that are now tied to student graduation as well as to my teacher evaluation.  That word rigor has found its way into quite a few of our conversations recently.  And while on its surface, I wholeheartedly agree that our curriculums need to be challenging, need to engage students in higher order thinking skills, and encourage students to think critically about our content areas, I worry at how many are taking up the word "rigor" in light of the CCSS.

Barbara Blackburn knows quite a bit about this.  She's been writing and presenting on ideas of classroom rigor for quite a while.  And in her recent post on the MiddleWeb blog, "Five Myths About Rigor and the Common Core," Blackburn highlights just a few of the ways that idea of rigor has been misused in attempts to prepare students for CCSS realities.

Rigor is not additive.  It is not about adding more books or adding more homework. Instead, Blackburn points out,
"An environment that supports rigor focuses on risk-taking, since working at higher levels requires that students take a risk. How do we do this? By reinforcing progress, effort, and grit, or persistence."
Rigor is not found in State Reading Assessment workbooks.  Rigor lies in creative and critical thinking, in encouraging students to pursue inquiry, in choice and ownership over the learning process.  So why is it that there seems to be such a disconnect between the goals of rigor as presented by CCSS and how it is taken up by districts and departments?

This past Saturday, I helped organize Edcamp Philly, an unconference for teachers that encourages discussions about pedagogy and practice over your typical conference presentations.  It was a whole day filled with collaborations and connections.  I talked with other educators interested in inquiry and passion-based learning.  I learned how a local school has called their inquiry project DaVinci Days.  I met with other teachers interested in flipped learning and teaching for mastery.  All around me were energized teachers talking about the learning happening in their classrooms, talking about that learning in rigorous ways.  And no one was talking about using workbooks to teach students already struggling with reading.  And no one was talking about simply adding more books as a way to add rigor.

It is disheartening to hear rigor being thought of in terms of test preparation. It breaks my heart to hear justification for returning to traditional teaching methods - e.g. workbooks, assigned full class readings, required constructed written responses without audience or purpose - as a way to better prepare students.  But prepare them for what? To take more tests?  Who benefits from this? In the long run, it is not our students.

I am not opposed to the Common Core State Standards. They provide a foundation for teachers to talk about the skills we want to foster in our group of learners. However, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are not a pedagogy.  The CCSS are not a theory for teaching reading and writing. And the CCSS certainly were not intended to be an assessment strategy. Yet it seems that so much of what we are hearing is about how schools are moving away from the pedagogies and best practices of teaching reading and writing that research has shown to help develop the skills necessary for students to succeed beyond the classroom.  Choice, autonomy, purpose, creativity, inquiry, and reflection are pushed aside to make room for "rigor."

I have spent the last few months researching and presenting on why such inquiry-based teaching in the English classroom does more to grow writing and analytical reading skills than test preparation. In fact, it's what I'll be presenting in Chicago in a few months and at the PCTELA conference in October. It feels a bit of a backwards move to be talking about adding rigor in terms of simply requiring that our students "read more" instead of inspiring true rigor which comes from the student, not forced upon her. As an English teacher, my content is more than books. My content is certainly more than workbooks. It breaks my heart to see all that we know about growing engaged and empowered readers and writers undone by tests.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Banning Posters and PowerPoints

Image from Toothpaste For Dinner
That's is. I am banning posters and PowerPoints from my classroom. And I am banning them not simply because they are just not used outside the classroom (when was the last time you cut and pasted letters onto posterboard for your job?).  I am banning them because there is no audience for them once students create them.  At least, no authentic audience. When students create posters and PowerPoints, they are typically only viewed by the teacher and the 20-30 students in the same class.  But if we want our students to be collaborative and creative content creators, we need to encourage them to create content that can be widely shared with actual audiences.  Troy Hicks points out in Crafting Digital Writing that encouraging our students to think critically about the design choices they make while creating in digital spaces also translates to the rhetorical choices they make while writing.  "With digital writing," Hicks writes, "we need to think with words, of course; yet we also need to begin thinking like artists, web designers, recording engineers, photographers, and filmmakers.  In other words, intentional choices about craft can lead to creative work in a variety of media" (18-19).  And there's a whole bunch of 2.0 tools that can help our students create dynamic, engaging presentations for audiences outside our classroom.

To encourage more digital content creation in my classes next fall, I'm going to use one of my bulletin boards to a share a variety of digital presentation tools using QR Codes. I don't plan on teaching each of these tools, but instead direct students to find the presentation tool that will be most effective for the task and tone they are trying to accomplish.  Because each of these tools is created and shared online, many with the ability to embed and export into other locations, real audiences outside of our classroom will also have the ability to connect and view my students' work. Below you'll find not only the list of tools and their basic descriptions, but also a document you can print so that you can post and share these tools with your students as well (scroll to the bottom of the list). I selected these apps in part because they are available to use on multiple platforms, including use on Chromebooks which is what my school is moving toward. If you know of any that I should add, please let me know!
  • PowToons 4Edu is a simple-to-use, animated presentation tool that incorporates comic book style illustration and sound to create engaging videos.  PowToons is also releasing #Slides in beta form which is a version of dynamic slides that pull in thousands of royalty-free images for you and your students to use as you create engaging presentations to share online. 
  • Haiku Deck also pulls in thousands of royalty-free images from Flickr Creative Commons image search and automatically cites the selected images. The slide designs in Haiku Deck limit the amount of text students can include, making for more visually engaging presentations. Haiku Decks can be shared with a link, embedded, downloaded as a PDF, or even exported.
  • TouchCast is all sorts of interactive.  Create short videos and then overlay the video with interactive widgest called vApps which are allow viewers of your video to interact with live web pages and social media sites.  You can include a live poll in your video which viewers can click on or your can pull up a live Twitter feed.  
  • Smore Flyers are versatile.  Once you pick a theme, you can use Smore to create infographics, newsletters, simple websites, and online posters. Embed videos or pictures, maps or apps to further engage your audience.  They share your Smore through social media or embed it on your own site.  Smore is an incredibly easy-to-use, easy-to-share tool.   
  • Snapguide is a new tool for me, but one that I can already tell will become a staple in my teaching toolbox.  Why?  Not only is it easy to use, but its clean layout and simple design make Snapguide a great curation tool for both teachers and students. Have students use this app to create "guidebooks" for their unit materials, a studyguide for a unit, or track the historical influences on a character found in a Dickens' novel.   
  • Canva gives users a bit more design control to its users over other infographic apps like or  And Canva's library of royalty free images helps students create beautiful images, posters, website banners, infographics and more. But beware, you could easily get sucked into all the cool desgin templates and possibilitites that Canva has to offer.   
  • Piktochart is another great tools for creating infographics. The pre-loaded themes available through Piktochart make it easy for students to share their research and writing in clean, easy-to-follow digital spaces. This is a great tool for helping visual learners think through how organization of ideas impacts their audience/reader.
  • Prezi for Education is used a great deal by students and teachers already, but I would be remiss if I didn't include it on this list. Students can collaboratively edit and share their Prezis making this a great tool for students working both inside and outside of class to craft group presentations. It may take a bit of time for students to become familiar with how to use the design wheel, but once they do, the options for creating dynamic presentations are nearly limitless.
  • VoiceThread another already widely used tool by teachers.  The ability to upload lesson materials and then have students login to respond using text, their voice, or their webcam makes VoiceThread a fantasitic tools for the flipped or blended classroom. But it can also be an engaging tool for students to use in the creation of their own presentations.  If we want students to create presentations that connect with actual audiences, VoiceThread is a great tools for doing just that.  And because you can embed VoiceThread into other sites, students could easily share their creations through multiple venues.
  • RawShorts is another video creation tool.  Rather than using a comic book style of drawing, RawShorts relies on photography.  Images and pictures are moved on and off screen by hands, making the final video similar to that of a Common Craft video. But a word of warning, make sure you let your tech department know what the site is. RawShorts was inadvertently blocked by our school's filter for having "Adult Content."  Apparently our filter didn't think too highly of the name "Raw Shorts." 
  • VideoScribe is also a tool for video creation and is a lot like PowToons in that students can use this app to create dynamic, animated videos.  However, it is visually quite different.  Rather than animated drawings, VideoScribe animates the actual drawing.  So if you were looking to have you students create a Common Craft or RSA Animate type of whiteboard video, this would be the app to use.
CLICK HERE for an explanation and QR Code for each of the apps mentioned above. Print it out and share with your students or post to a classroom bulletin board.