Friday, November 21, 2014

Let's Blog It

My tenth grade English students have jumped in, feet first, to our #HavPassion inquiry research projects.  Last week, we mapped our passions as we tried to narrow our research questions. This week, not only did we share our initial inquiry questions with one another, but we also had an opportunity to connect with fifth grade students at an elementary school in our district.  We used Google Hangouts to share our inquiry topics with the elementary students, and they in turn, shared their research questions with us.  In the coming weeks, both groups of students will be using Google docs to collaborate. We'll be looking for connections with our inquiry questions, building our knowledge together.

And, as a way to share our process and reflections, we set up our blogs.  This is a new adventure for me.  In the past, I have had students blog on our closed website, a Ning, which made it difficult for students to reach a readership outside of our classroom. But this time around, I'm jumping in feet first as well.  We're using Blogger, allowing for a greater connection to a wide range of readers.

Another change that I have made this year is spending a bit more time deliberately introducing the concept of blogging to my students. Today we examined the 20% time blogs of the Nerdy Teacher, Nicholas Provenzano's high school English classes as well as blogs from Mrs. Scheffer's Burlington High School students. Rather than standing in front of the room and dictating a list of what to do and not to do when blogging, I had the students use a shared Google doc to come up with the list themselves. Before they began, we reviewed our earlier discussions on the impact of written and digital rhetoric, and I asked students to pay attention to not only what they were reading on each blog but also how they were reading. Here's what they noticed:

What Works?
Having looked at a number of sample blogs, use the space below to note what works. What do successful bloggers do to engage their readers? Take into account both written and digital rhetorical choices made on the part of the author.

  • No longer than 2 paragraphs.
  • Black/white or blue/yellow text (contrast makes text easier to read)
  • Times New Roman font is easy to read.
  • Some posts are long and detailed, and others are simple and sweet. A mix of lengths, which is something that I like.
  • I like how they give a brief description and then explain what they did to accomplish their task.
  • Short headers, capitalizing works well and use of colors to separate sections of a post.
  • Explain why they chose what topic they wanted to use for the project and the story behind it.
  • Pictures!!!! Make it interesting.
  • Actually title the post. Please don't title it Blog Post #3 and the date.
  • Spell check!!!!
  • Bullets are okay, but numbering is boring.
  • Keeping posts short lets readers read the post without losing interest, while in a long 5 paragraph blog post, readers could lose interest.
  • I like when they have pictures of themselves and when its colorful, not just boring white.
  • Bold letters with color emphasize important points.
  • Make sure the background picture doesn't distract from the text!!!!!!!!!!!!
I shouldn't be surprised, but for both sections of my tenth grade class today, we were hard at work to the last minutes of class.  In fact, I had a couple of groans in each class that our 90 minute class period had come to an end. On a Friday!  Students wanted more time to write. What more could an English teacher ask for!?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

And So It Begins

I have been waiting for this week since the start of our school year - the start of our #HavPassion projects.

Last fall my students and I completed our first 20% time projects. While my students researched the most effective ways of addressing the homeless problem in our area and learned how to quilt, I completed my own research on the teaching of research writing. In the process of my researching and presenting, I connected with so many educators interested in how passion-based inquiry changes our learning communities. It is a growing community, a community of teachers excited about sharing how voice and choice impact student learning.

It was at July's Chromebooks and the Common Core conference that I met Chris Aviles. Following my presentation on Empowering Writers through passion-based inquiry, Chris shared how he and his students are creating and collaborating in a similar way through his Be About It project. Since that first meeting, I've had opportunities to hear Chris present on his 20% time inquiry research project, and specifically, how he renamed it for his unique group of learners, branding his passion-based project to meet the needs of his students. The combination of meeting Angela Maiers in June and talking with Chris in July inspired our own name change. And so #HavPassion was born.

But we've made a few other important changes as well.  Some of the feedback that I received last fall from students was about how overwhelming it was in the beginning to be faced with so much choice.  Initially, many students selected topics they were interested in but not necessarily that they were passionate about. So this past week when I introduced our passion-based inquiry project to students, we spent more time exploring just what passion entails. It started with sending students home with this assignment:
You have this page. Use it to depict your understanding of “passion.” Consider researching the definition and etymology of passion. Reflect on the ideas and issues that you are passionate about.

You have 8 ½ x 11 inches to share your passion. How will you do it?

Be creative.
  • Try Canva or PiktoChart to create a stunning visual.
  • Use Tagxedo to craft an image using words.
  • Take a picture of your passion and use Aviary or Pixlr to alter your image.

What is passion?

The next day in class, we shared our representations of passion and discussed our definitions.  A number of students discovered that the etymological roots of passion lie in suffering. The Latin root of passion, pati, means to suffer, to endure. What is it that you are willing to suffer for? We used this question to help us map our passions.

In a similar way that Angela Maiers has students map their heartbreak, I asked my students to create a visual map of our passion. We started with the big categories: what are the issues and ideas that we are most passionate about?
I got us started by adding "education" to our map. Students added art, bakingmusic, languages, and helping others as our initial categories.  Then, I directed students to help each other think through the issues and concerns that stem from these categories.  I added literacy and digital literacy as off shoots from the larger category of education. Then from digital literacy, I added access as a concern. And that's all it took. Students jumped up to surround our map, adding connections and concerns to their initial categories, helping their peers think through different perspectives on our initial categories. More categories lead to more concerns. After five minutes, I stopped students and directed them to only contribute to the growing map in the form of questions in order to push our thinking further. Questions, connections, and collaboration helped us to think through potential inquiry topics.

By spending a bit more time helping students develop a more nuanced understanding of passion, my hope is that they develop inquiry questions that will lead to inspired learning in the weeks to come. Passion and purpose must be connected. As A.J. Juliani writes in his recent book titled Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom,
"Passion may get you going. It may have you fired up about a new project or opportunity. It may lead you to shout it from the mountain tops. But purpose is a different animal. It keeps you going when others fade away. It drives your everyday actions because there is a reason behind everything you do" (60).
In the coming week, students will continue to brainstorm and explore.  As they do, we will be using collaborative tools like Google Docs and Hangouts to connect with Christy Brennan's fifth grade students who are undertaking a very similar learning adventure. I'll be asking my high school students to not only find mentors for their own learning but also become mentors to younger learners.  And along the way, all of us will be blogging our adventures in learning. So, stay tuned! Our adventure is just beginning.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Edcamp Delco

My obsession started in May 2013.

And now I must confess, I am addicted to Edcamps. What are Edcamps, you ask. An Edcamp is an informal unconference-style day of professional development organized and given by the local participants with sessions determined at the time of the event. The goal of these free, participant-drive professional development conferences are to connect educators, to share innovative instructional strategies and technologies, and to collaborate about ways to transform education for all students.

Typically, the focus of an Edcamp is on conversation and participation, rather than on presentation. Participants choose what topics to discuss and decide where the conversations go. Arrive with an idea for a session that you would like to lead and be ready to learn. A session might explore a technology tool, a discussion about best practices or a collaborative presentation with multiple facilitators. If one session does not meet your needs, "vote with your feet" and head to a different session. Session topics may include instructional best practices, technology tools in the classroom, proficiency-based grading, homework and more.

My obsession started with Edcamp Philly in May of 2013 and culminated today with Edcamp Delco, of which I am one of the founders.  I'll be sharing more in the coming week about what we did to plan this event as well as what I learned from participating in today's Edcamp Delco.  But for now, check out some of the resources and connections that we shared this morning through Twitter.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

In Other News...

Check it out!  I made the news!

My district shared news of my being selected as a PASCD Emerging Leader on our school's website.  The story was in turn picked up by our local newspaper. So of course I had to snap a pic of my story in the paper. I didn't realize how unfortunate my crop job was on the headline until later!

originally posted at


Haverford School District Educator Selected for PASCD’s 2014 Class of Emerging Leaders

PASCD, state affiliate of ASCD, the leading international nonprofit education leadership association, has selected Ms. Jennifer Ward at Haverford High School for its 2014 class of emerging leaders. The PASCD Emerging Leaders program recognizes and prepares promising educators to influence education programs, policy, and practice at the state level.

This year's leaders were invited to apply for the competitive program based on self-nominations and recommendations made by past program participants, current PASCD members, and the greater education community. Once PASCD received the online applications, an advisory panel composed of PASCD leaders, and current ASCD emerging leaders reviewed and selected this year's class.

The leaders are enrolled in the program for two years and may be paired with an PASCD mentor—an Executive Board member, a local region board member, or a current ASCD Emerging Leader—who will provide support and help guide their development. Ms. Ward is also invited to attend PASCD's 64th Annual Conference held in November 2014, where she will have the chance to grow as a PASCD emerging leader and access new ideas, resources, and best practices from PASCD leaders, presenters, and staff.

“Meaningful leadership supports everyone in a school community, from teachers and administrators to support staff and parents, all in the effort to help our students reach their highest potential,” said Jennifer. “I am excited for the opportunity to develop my own leadership skills as part of PASCD’s Emerging Leaders program.”

PASCD emerging leaders have typically been in the profession between 5 and 15 years, have a marked interest in making a positive contribution to education policy and practice, and have invested in professional growth opportunities aimed at improving student outcomes. The 2014 class is both professionally and regionally diverse, ranging from classroom teachers to administrators, hailing from across the state, and educating students from Erie to Philadelphia.

“I’m pleased to welcome Jennifer Ward to PASCD’s Emerging Leaders program,” said PASCD President Dr. Lori Stollar. "Jen joins a passionate group of educators from around the state dedicated to providing the best educational experience for Pennsylvania’s students, and I look forward to working with her.”

For more information on PASCD’s Emerging Leaders program, visit 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Opening Up

I am jovial. I wear my heart on my sleeve, as the idiom goes. Teachers and students playfully tease me that I cackle. Yup, like a witch. Big and loud. When I laugh, which is quite a bit, it echoes down the hallway. And early on in our new school year, I cackled a lot.  See, we start our semester in tenth grade English writing "This I Believe" essays, personal essays that focus on a core belief.  Not only have I found these essays to be a great way as a teacher to get to know my new students, but it is also a wonderful tool to help begin building our classroom community. We get to know one another, we have opportunities to contemplate rhetoric and style, we search out mentor texts, and we spend a great deal of time reading and responding to one another's short essays. Students share their beliefs about love, about life, about pets, about loss, about magic. I have been working on an essay about my cackle.

A few weeks ago, as we were in the midst of our drafting process, a student shot me a quick text message after school via our daily homework text service.  I use Celly, an awesome tool for sending students quick reminders and a way for students to quickly contact me without us having to share cell numbers.
I responded, letting the student know that she was welcome to write about her experiences and reflect on how they helped to shape her belief.  I have had students share a great deal through our process of writing "This I Believe" essays over the years. Students have shared their experiences about losing parents, about family members who suffer with addiction, about loved ones who have ended up in jail, about struggling to overcome their own difficulties with illness.  Through our writing, we reflect on how these experiences as well as others have helped us grow in our beliefs and come to understand what it is that we hold to be true. We share ourselves, and we also have valuable conversations about the subtitles of writing a personal narrative versus crafting a well-written personal essay. So this was not the first time that I have been asked this question.

But about twenty minutes following our text exchange, my phone rang. My dad was on the other end of the line, many miles away, three states between us, telling me that his biopsy had come back earlier that day showing cancer cells growing in his stomach. Cancer. My dad has cancer.

The next morning in class, as we are working on drafting our "This I Believe" essays, the student approached me to share where she was in her drafting. It was late in the class, the bell about to ring. She began her essay sharing her experience of coming to terms with what she learned from her father's death as a result of cancer. I couldn't read the whole essay. I started to cry. Trying to pull myself together, I quickly explained to the student that shortly after our text exchange, I learned that my father has cancer. I will never forget the compassion, the empathy, and the maturity of her response. She turned to me and said, "I'm not going to pretend that our experiences are the same. Everyone deals with cancer differently. But I do know that this is a difficult and scary time. I'm sorry."      

At the close of our class the following morning, she handed me an envelope.  "I know that I should have been working on my draft last night, Ms. Ward, but I wrote this instead."  She walked out of the room with some friends on her way to her next class. Inside the envelope was a five-page letter, typed, single-spaced. She shared with me her experiences, her struggles, her beliefs - her story. Later that night, when parents were filing into my classroom for our Back to School Night, the student's mother came over to introduce herself. The student's mother shared that her daughter had showed her the letter shortly after printing it out the previous evening. She was able to share things through this letter that she hasn't ever said, her mother told me. The experience that the three of us shared - student, parent, and teacher - help to reinforce the power of personal writing and the need to open up space for empathy in the classroom.

Personal writing is not tested by our Common Core State Standards (CCSS). We have state rubrics for expository/informational writing and another for argumentative/persuasive writing. We do not value stories. Just under a decade ago, every one of the other English teachers I worked with had their tenth grade students complete "This I Believe" essays. This year, I am the only teacher. And, I have had to fight to keep it in my curriculum, arguing the value of personal writing. It is an addition to our core curriculum. It is something extra that I have my students complete. I have been told that the assignment does not have value.

My student writers draft, craft, and revise their personal belief essays, post them to our class blog site, revise based on feedback, meet with me in writing conferences, again revise based on feedback, adapt their written essays to video presentations, and then post their written and video creations to our online writing portfolios. As we write we find mentor texts, discuss written and digital rhetoric, and perhaps most importantly, empathize.  We share our stories, hear one another. We build a community of thinkers and writers. We value reflection. We value revision. We value empathy. But these are not skills that can easily be bubbled in on scantron tests.

I understand the need for accountability in the classroom, the desire to demonstrate progress. However, with so much emphasis being placed on high-stakes state testing as the measure of that growth, we inevitably under value those skills that are difficult to measure - resiliency, grit, empathy, creativity, reflection, and revision.  And as so many have already argued, these are the skills that students will need as they move into an unpredictable job market. Testing a student on whether or not he or she can identify the mood of a short passage of literature does not measure how successful the student will be upon high school graduation. Focusing exclusively on how well students know, or even on how well they can apply, a particular set of literary terms to a text does little to prepare them for the world outside the doors of school. Instead, we need to open up our thinking about what we value. What value is an education that excludes the individual's experience? What value is learning that does not incorporate complex critical and creative thinking skills that take time to develop? What value is school when it does not open up opportunities to learn from mistakes, to revise thinking, to reflect? What value is a class that does not encourage learners to empathize?

I opened up to my student. She opened up to me. Together we wrote, we reflected, we revised, we collaborated. We learned together. There is value in that. There is so much value in opening up.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Much of my lesson planning is done in the shower. Turns out, this is true for quite a few people.  Scott Berkun summarizes some of the research of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in a blog post titled "Why You Get Ideas in the Shower."   Berkun writes,
"We have fewer and fewer places in our lives where we are not bombarded by inputs. For some people it’s yoga, going for a run, or going for a walk that quiets the conscious mind down enough for the sub-conscious to speak up. For other people it’s driving in the car. Everyone’s psychology is different and will relax in different environments, or at different times."
So, it makes sense that a great deal of my inspired lessons come to me during my early morning showers.

Take for example this morning. While washing my hair, I have this thought: why not use Twitter to teach students about the economy of words? By having students craft poetic lines in the space of 140 characters, we can use Twitter to talk about the power of word choice while at the same time using a public space to write for a real audience.  Two lessons in one!  Initially I posted using the hashtag #Twitterverse (clever, right?) but quickly realized the error of my ways when I searched the hashtag to see just how overused it is already.  So instead, we'll be using the hashtag #TwitterPoem to share our short verses.  Join us!

Share your #TwitterPoem with us.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Passion in Class

A few weeks back, before the hallways filled with chatter about summer adventures and schedule comparisons, I had the opportunity to both participate in and lead a number of professional development workshops for teachers in my district. It was a week filled with conversations and collaborations around flipping learning, using technology to connect learners, and about passion. And it is a couple of those conversations about passion that have been replaying in my head the last two weeks.

Mapping our heartbreak with Angela Maiers
It was Tuesday morning, 9:00 am bright and early, reminding many of us sitting in the room that summer was coming to an end. Elementary librarian Christy Brennan was leading a small group of teachers from our district in a discussion about passion-driven learning. It was a conversation that started many months earlier in late June, when both Christy and I were invited by Downingtown STEM Academy teacher Dr. Justin Staub to join his ninth and tenth grade students as they met with Angela Maiers to explore their passions. I have been struggling to write a post about our day at Downingtown STEM Academy for months. It is difficult to put into words the transformations and collaborations that we not only witnessed but also were invited to join. Students and teachers spent two days connecting. And it was an honor to witness how deeply their community of learners connected - connected with one another, connected with their passions, connected with others across the globe who shared their passion - all in search of ways to address heartbreaking problems. I watched as students who confessed that they would never really have connected in the classroom started to brainstorm together ways they might help abused animals in our area. In small groups, students shared their heartbreak, and then began to gather into smaller groups to map the issues and connections around those problems. When students were given the time, space, and support to address real-world issues, magic happened. It happened when students were encouraged to drive their own learning, and teachers became part of the learning community rather than leaders of it. And as Christy and I watched this magic unfold, we started to brainstorm ways to bring passion back to our district. So before our school ended last spring, Christy started a summer staff book club with a group of us committing to read Angela Maier's The Passion-Driven Classroom. That's what were discussing early that Tuesday morning in late August.

As we started to talk about what it meant to get out of our learners way, Christy's phone rang. For nearly an hour, we had an opportunity to chat with Angela Maiers. Angela shared with our group what it means to bring passion into the classroom. Many of us mistakenly think of passion as being a frivolous idea, lacking the rigor necessary for the real work of the classroom. But, as Angela pointed out during our conversation, "You don't have a shot at the brain unless you engage the heart." Maiers and Sandvold write in The Passion-Driven Driven Classroom:
"Passion comes from the Latin word 'patior,' meaning to suffer or to endure. In its origin, passion is used to describe someone who willingly opens up to suffering and finds fulfillment therein. ...In order to tap into passion as a resource to motivate, engage and empower our learners, we must understand these underlying values of passion." (16-17)
We teach in districts and systems that are ruled by standards and data-driven outcomes. But this is not at odds with passion. In fact, the empowerment and creativity that passion-driven learning inspires is the very type of inquiry-driven, higher-order thinking called for by our Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Passion-driven learning opens opportunities for students to wonder, to question, to reflect, to demonstrate their grit and resilience. "Passion isn't a nicety," Angela told us. "It's a necessity."

As a high school English teacher, it is this concept that has me rethinking how I foster learning opportunities in my classroom.  Rather than taking center stage, my role as the teacher is to curate and create moments where students take ownership of their own learning, reflect on and revise their thinking, and demonstrate the skills they are attempting to master.  I am a facilitator of learning. And I am not the only leader in the room.
Last fall, my students and I completed 20% time research projects in which my students were given time and space to research whatever topic they were interested in learning more about. I encouraged them to research something they ordinarily do not have opportunities to learn about in school. As a high school English teacher, I realized that my goals were to help students think reflectively, research responsibly, and grow their writing skills by adapting their tone for a specific audience of readers. It didn't matter what they researched. What mattered was the how.  Each Friday, students had a full block, 90 minutes, to read, conduct interviews, practice what they were learning. My students learned to quilt, decorate cakes, code apps, write lesson plans for middle school students, set-up experiments, shoot footage for documentary, revise a screen play, connect with resources helping our local homeless community, and so much more. We struggled together. Many of my students experienced success throughout the process, but just as many failed. And the students that butted up against their frustration, were challenged by the process of their learning, ended up learning incredibly valuable lessons about how to deal with complications and failures. In the end, students blogged weekly, interviewed experts, and filmed reflection videos on their learning. They created, collaborated, and connected. They wrote more and more often than previous classes. They conducted primary research. They integrated mentor texts with what they learned while interviewing an expert. And by opening up choice, my students were empowered to develop their voice, share with audiences outside our classroom, and demonstrate their learning in creative ways. This is the power of bringing passion into the classroom.