It may be early in the school year, but we’re moving right into the craft of writing. While we will shift into some narrative, creative writing next week, these first two weeks have had a focus on the start of “response to literature” writing pieces. This is a big focus of sixth grade — responding to reading, using evidence from the text, adding insights to understanding.
Yesterday, I shared four “not-really-random” student samples of some open responses that they wrote a few days ago (after listening to Rikki Tikki Tavi, they wrote about protagonist and antagonist), and we went through an activity in which students read the sample responses, identified strengths in the pieces before them, put observations on sticky notes, and then stuck the notes up on the wall where the student exemplars were located.
I like the visual here (who doesn’t love sticky notes?), and I like making the notes about the positive public to the students. But most of all, I loved the conversations we had about “noticing” and “reflecting” on the pieces, particularly as they made connections to their own writing. This reflective stance and being able to see the strategies of others is the first step in a year-long push for reflective practice.
Reflection will move into revision, if all goes according to plan. But you can’t revise if you don’t see what needs revising, right?
Last week, there were two moments that stood out for me on the first days of school because they shone a light on the influence of pop culture and television programming on my sixth graders. Both were funny, but also … a little disconcerting.
First, every morning, our school has the typical “morning announcements” on our system television, and music comes on as a way to alert us to turn on our televisions. The music choice is recommended by students, but ultimately approved by a teacher in charge of morning announcements. We have preschool through sixth grade in our school, so no Kanye … if you know what I mean.
On Friday, the theme from the Little Einsteins show came on, and with the very first note of the melody, my entire classroom of sixth graders began singing the song. It was an immediate thing. A chorus of voices. I was laughing, but thinking: Wow, they remember this theme from when they were toddlers. That’s a commercial hook.
Second, earlier in the week, we were going over some vocabulary words, and I was explaining the meaning of “lofty” and how to remember its various definitions. I referenced Bob the Builder, which has a character named Lofty, and one girl mentioned how they were revamping the cartoon for a new generation of kids.
“You know your childhood is over when they remake your childhood cartoons!” she moaned. She’s only 11 years old. I hope her childhood is far from over.
This is the first year that I can remember that we started school on a Monday and went five days to Friday. Normally, we come mid-week for a few days and then hit the ground running the next week. Instead, we had five full days and now a three-day weekend before coming back to a short week.
I admit: I was exhausted yesterday afternoon.
But I think my new students – 76 sixth graders — are wonderful, and engaged already. Here’s a bit of what we accomplished in our first five days of school:
Community Building (but I wish we had time to have done more … I will write another time about schedule changes this year that have taken away from this)
Created accounts and created avatars in our webcomic site
Finished up an introductory webcomic (an activity called Pro Card), which gets us ready to dive into our first year real project next week, called Dream Scenes
Did two writing prompts, including a creative writing/expository writing/art element about an imaginary treehouse
Introduced vocabulary and set the bi-weekly system in motion
Read a short story and began to connect with literary concepts (protagonist/antagonist, foreshadowing, etc.)
Worked on an organizational chart for planning a literature response piece, which will get written next week
Laughed a lot and had students feeling like writers
That last one is important, even if it is not on the standards. It sets the stage for all the hard work and deep writing I hope we can accomplish as the year progresses.
Day One has come and gone, and we dove right into technology yesterday, with identity/avatar creation via Bitstrips for Schools. As always, my sixth graders were highly engaged, helping each other with questions and answers, and learning quite a bit about how we appropriately use our laptops and how we might think about comics as a tool for writing.
Today, I bring the other three classes into the comic site, too, as we move towards our first project of the year called Dream Scenes.
In just a few hours, I will get to meet and hang out with my new crop of sixth graders for the school year. I’m excited about that, and nervous about the first day. Even though I have a plan in place for beginning our community-building, and even though I have been doing this for a few years now, I still get nervous.
But I slept mostly OK. So, there’s that.
I spent part of the weekend working on student learning and professional practice goals for the year, but those are still “under development” for now. We have some class schedule changes this year, so the timing of the day is a bit disjointed than in the past; and I have some students with specific needs that I need to be cognizant of on a regular basis, and we have a new lunch count system; and add to all that, I have reading assessments already hanging over my head; and ….
Still, this is where we start … at the beginning.
As we begin this new school year, I wanted to share out my latest post over at Middleweb, in which I write back to a former student, as writer to writer more than teacher to student. (I write a monthly column there called Working Draft.)
One of the offshoot projects (and there seem to be quite a few this year, which is so very cool, as they are coming as much from participants as from facilitators) of the Making Learning Connected MOOC is Michael Weller’s concept of Make an Inquiry, in which he is encouraging a group of us teachers to consider a classroom inquiry project. By coming together as a collective, the hope is to keep momentum going forward through the summer and into the school year.
I shared out this video that I created for some professional development work that our writing project site has done with some schools in our area. It is a simple overview of how classroom inquiry might proceed (you might have a different path).
And here is a quick video of some recent presentations by teachers at a middle school STEM school. I worked as a facilitator with this school for a year, ending with inquiry presentations to colleagues. For many, this was the first time they had ever done an inquiry project for their own classroom. It was a learning experience, for sure, but valuable in that the reflective stance — of noticing something you wonder about, asking a pertinent question, gathering some resources, trying something out, sharing out the experience — made for a wonderful way to draw our work to a close.
Our writing project is working on curating the Inquiry Project presentations and when that is done this summer, I will share out via the CLMOOC and Make an Inquiry group. We learn from each other, right?
So, here is my own inquiry question that I am beginning to ponder for my sixth grade classroom. The question is sparked by our school district’s move (finally) into Google Apps for Education. I am wondering:
How can my students engage deeply in the revision process when the “peer review” process moves beyond the walls of the classroom?
In other words, using Google Apps not just for writing to the teacher (me) and even the classroom, but beyond that. And if the audience shifts, how does the revising process shift to meet that audience of the world? This will tie into my professional goals next year of starting the process of “digital portfolios” for students. That could be its own inquiry question, right?
I’m still abuzz from this past year’s version of the Crazy Collaborative Dictionary Project. What’s that, you say? What’s a Crazy Collaborative Dictionary? It’s part of our annual exploration of the origins of words, with a project in which my sixth graders invent new words and then add them to an ongoing collaborative dictionary.
There are now more than 900 words, from over 12 years worth of students. Siblings are writing with siblings … across time. Think about that for a second. A collaboration across time. And a nutty dictionary emerges as a result, too, that completely engaged my students in the art of vocabulary creation.
Oh, and we podcast the words and definitions, too, preserving the voices of sixth graders.
So, from Abamao (The skill of tripping/falling for no reason and being congratulated for it) to Zzzzzzzzzzcratching (The act of using a zebra leg as a back scratcher), there is an entirely new vocabulary out there.
This was a fine way to end the school year – writing stories and connecting back to a running theme of the year of game design. For the last two weeks of school, students worked on writing a short story in which someone from history was stuck inside a game and the protagonist must go into the game and get them out within 48 hours. Think Jumanji as a mentor text.
My students were really invested in this story writing, working hard for days, right up until the very last day they could write, and because they were using their Google Docs accounts, it will continue for many of them right into the summer. The whole concept here was to use game dynamics as a setting element and plot device for story writing, and since we have been talking, hacking, creating games all year, it tied together some threads for the year.
I hate to kill the playful mojo of the CLMOOC, which has been streaming in channels in social media spaces around the #untro — or “unintroducing yourself” by mashing up media and glitching images and smashing ideas. But in the midst of all this play, I can’t help but think about the headlines and events of the past week, and how identity in the form of flags and race are right now part of the national conversation.
Check out this interview transcript with Kanye West, who made a point a few years ago about the use of the confederate flag. As always, he went farther than he needed to, in order to generate controversy. Still, Kanye had a point — we can try to take media and mediate it for our own message.
“React how you want,” West said. “Any energy is good energy. The Confederate flag represented slavery in a way. That’s my abstract take on what I know about it, right? So I wrote the song ‘New Slaves.’ So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag now.” — from http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/ct-kanye-west-confederate-flag-20150623-story.html#page=1
So , how do we make our own messages on where we stand when it comes to equity and fairness, and to get a bit fuzzy with it, peace and love and understanding towards everyone, no matter the race or creed or religion, or color of skin. How do we make a difference when we are not Kanye, with his platform to the world? How can teachers make a difference in their own communities?
At our “end of year” ceremonies for our sixth graders this week, one of the highlighted endeavors from the past year had to do with a Peace Poster art project. This project is overseen by our fantastic art teacher each year and is part of a Lion’s Club contest to have students represent peaceful ideas on the canvas. The theme this year was “peace, love and understanding.”
Take a look at some of their work:
And take a listen to some of their artist statements:
This brings me back around to the confederate flag issue in South Carolina — the move underfoot to remove the flag from public buildings — and the purposeful killing of those nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Church, which seems to be rooted in deep racism and violence by the perpetrator. The confederate flag issue makes clear how powerful these media symbols are in culture, how people connect and identify themselves to the world, and how fragile/powerful those connections can be. At the heart of this controversy is identity, as some people see the flag as some landmark of heritage and pride. They use the flag as a cornerstone of their identity. We even see that confederate flag around here, too, in the northeast, in liberal Massachusetts, particularly with high school students who live in some of our more remote hill towns but come into town for the vocational school. I’m trying not to stereotype here. Not every student in the remote foothills are racist and not every student with a confederate flag on their truck bumper is intolerant. But it’s hard not to see that and think, really?
I’m not one who sees that flag that way, that it can be some source of pride of culture. It has too much history. I am more on the side of, this confederate flag represents oppression and hate and distrust. It has no place on public buildings. Anywhere. Period.
Is there a way for me, one teacher, to mediate media, as part the CLMOOC Make Cycle, to make a political point about this? To engage in the national conversation from my dining room table in Massachusetts?
I tried a few things these last few days, but all seemed to miss the mark. Either it was too overt or too mean or just ineffective in my ability to craft a message with media. My brand of poking fun through satire … it wasn’t working because the issue is bigger than that. I feel like I am failing here to use what I know, and experiment with on a regular basis, to make a point.
I am at a loss.
Luckily, Terry Elliott began a collaborative poem the other day, inviting others in to write stanzas and make a podcast (still unfolding in the mix stage by Terry) about the shooting at the “Mother Emanuel” Church. I felt grateful to be invited, as if maybe I was able to contribute something — a few written words, a few spoken words, some music — that empowered me to take a stand. I felt useful, and part of a community of others, making art to lead to some understanding. It may not resonate on the national stage. Kanye did not contribute to the poem.
But it resonates with us.
Maybe what I most need to do here, as I am doing here with this post, is to return to my students’ work on peace as something that will sustain me, and give me hope for change. Maybe what they drew and painted, and what they wrote about, is more than platitudes. Their media has power. Maybe one of my now-former students will change the world. No. Not maybe. Not one. Many of them will change the world. Maybe we all will change the world. Maybe it is in the way we collaborate and interact and seek to understand our differences and similarities — maybe that is what we can do.
Maybe we shape our identities together. Is this the fabric and thread of the first Make Cycle? Maybe we Make a Better World. Let’s get started.
At this year’s school talent show, I suggested the staff learn the song Shut Up and Dance, but change it to Get Up and Dance, and so we did. The other night, teachers packed the stage. I played the bass on the song, and I had to learn my part via YouTube (Thank you, YouTube).
Other teachers coordinated the whole thing — t-shirts, balloons, kazoos, etc, and it was a blast. Kids loved it when teachers left the stage to dance in the audience. I was tethered to my bass amp, so I stayed on stage.