Sunday, July 27, 2014

Don't Just Open the Door. It's Time to Step Outside.

This past Monday, I had the opportunity to present my research on empowering student writers through choice, voice, and purpose at the New Jersey Chromebooks and the Common Core conference. It was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with familiar faces and chat with many educators new to using Chromebooks in the classroom. The excitement and enthusiasm for using technology in meaningful ways was palatable from keynote to close. In each session I attended, participants asked questions, shared insights, and reflected on new ideas. I love this community, this connection to committed, hopeful, energetic educators.

Following my presentation, I sat down with one of the participants who had, like me, introduced 20% time/passion-based projects to his students. His excitement was contagious. He shared with me some of the success stories of his individual students, stories about students who learned to cobble shoes, who sent care packages to soldiers serving over seas, who initially faced set-backs but forged ahead to find success. Students who, like mine, had engaged in deep levels of critical and reflective thinking, who wrote more, connected more, shared more than they ever had in the classroom setting. I asked him if any other teachers in his building were also designing passion-based learning projects for their students. Silence. No, he was the only one. "If teachers come to me asking for support, I am happy to share my experiences," he said, but he was tired of working so hard to convince others of the value of passion-based learning only to be met with silence. Close the classroom door and continue working in isolation.

And unfortunately, his experience is not an anomaly. A few months back, I had nearly the same conversation with a fellow high school English teacher at FlipCon14. Are there other teachers in your building using the flipped learning approach? Silence. No, I'm on my own.

I have been to a number of conferences and professional development workshops this summer and have found a sort of professional family, a network of teachers who I can connect with in person and online that support and challenge my thinking about teaching, about pedagogy, about the role of technology in the classroom. And I have found that many of the educators that I connect with at Google summits are also the same teachers who will give up a beautiful spring Saturday to attend an Edcamp or flipped learning event. We are an engaged, overly-involved group. I am also fortunate to count a couple of teachers from my district in my personal learning network (PLN) who are both equally connected and energized by the role of passion-based inquiry, flipped learning, and all things digital. That said, I am the only teacher in my content/grade level utilizing these tools. Over the past few years, I have had many conversations about why choice inquiry projects need to stay in our curriculum, many times as the only voice arguing that inquiry does indeed belong in the English/language arts classroom. So despite having a well-developed network of educators at my fingertips, I, too, have felt isolated. I, too, have shut my classroom door.

Advocating for change requires courage, stepping outside our comfort zones. And becoming the voice of change makes us vulnerable, but this is how change happens.  I am coming to realize the value of leaving my door open, but I need to be willing to step outside that door as well. Change happens slowly, one person at a time, and it does not happen in a vacuum. Change will not happen behind closed classroom doors but through connections and conversations.  The question of how do we best encourage change in our schools has come up as well in a number of recent Twitter chats. Many educators, myself included, have responded that we must be models of our beliefs, that as models of change, we encourage an environment of change. I'm starting to rethink this response. I don't think simply being a model is enough.

Flickr Creative Commons image by Anyjazz65
As teachers, we must be willing to share our stories, our successes and failures, our resources and time. I also am keenly aware that this is not easy. Not only do many of us walk into buildings with many, many closed doors, but many of us face institutional, curricular, and administrative barriers. We don't all work in environments that encourage collaboration and change.  In fact, some of us work in spaces that actively discourage change. However, if we are unwilling to share our stories, to step out of our classrooms and have conversations with our colleagues, nothing will change. That cliche that I share with my tenth grade students - "If you always do what you have always done, you'll always get the same as you've always got" - holds true for teachers as well. It is not just about opening up the doors of our classroom and modeling change, we must be willing to step outside our doors, meet our colleagues where they are at, share our stories, and create new stories of change together.

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.