We’re in the midst of our version of the Letters to the President project right now. My students are too young to partake in posting to the site, but wow … I think I saw there are nearly 2,700 letters at the site already. What a rich resource of student writing and ideas!
My sixth graders have had lesson on the Electoral College (an eye-opener to them, who thought the candidate with the most votes wins the election) and worked on a short essay on whether voting should be mandatory or not. We’ve read articles and watched some videos. Yesterday, I had them set up a Research Journey in Google Docs and showed them the Research tool inside of their Doc. Today, they will determine a topic for their Letter and start diving into some websites to be informed when they start writing (and hopefully, podcasting).
And in-between, we had them work on a Political Button (via Make Beliefs Comix) in which they had to invent or use an imaginary candidate and create a catchy button for their candidate. We talked about phrases, rhyming and loaded words. Some of their buttons were very funny. It was a nice creative break from the serious talk of our country’s future.
(This is part of Slice of Life, a regular writing activity designed to look at the small moments of life. It is hosted by Two Writing Teachers. You are invited to write, too.)
The paraprofessional who works alongside me with my sixth graders — she’s someone for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration and gratitude for, on so many levels — pulled me aside yesterday.
“They’re so afraid that they will be wrong that they don’t even know where to start,” she whispered. I nodded. Like her, I too had noticed a sense of reluctance in the room. Many students were staring off, empty page in front of them.
“That’s because there is no right or wrong answer here. That confuses them,” I responded. She agreed. We both were saddened by that insight.
What we were doing was writing short stories as a daily writing prompt. Now, this is not the first time we have done writing into the day, but it was the first time that I pulled out Chris Van Allsberg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick as a story generator. If you don’t know what this picture book is all about, check out this video I found by a high school student on YouTube. This YouTuber does a pretty decent job of explaining it.
I had featured four of the 15 mysterious illustrations from the book (I have a portfolio version), instructed my students to choose one of the images (which have a title and caption but no story), and use it as inspiration for 15 minutes of short story writing in their writing notebooks. My only stipulation was that they had to write in First Person Narrative Point of View. Other than that, they were free to use the illustration anyway they wanted.
“There is no wrong way to do this,” I instructed. “The story is yours to write.”
But for some, this open-ended instruction stopped them dead in their tracks. They didn’t know how to begin or where to begin. They didn’t know what I was looking for. How could they write “the story that had gone missing” if they didn’t have the story in front of them?
It saddens me that we have to wrestle creativity like this out of sixth graders. At age 11 and 12, they should always be brimming with ideas, bursting with stories. But their response raises questions: Is this what standardized testing is doing to our students? Has the right/wrong dichotomy immobilized our students into inaction? Is this what the Common Core push away from narrative/poetry writing is doing to our classrooms?
Yes. It is.
In all of our edu-talk about “inquiry”, the question remains: how do we best help our young people see the rich possibilities in the blank slate before them if we don’t give them more opportunities, more freedom, more chances to explore their ideas on the page? Perhaps this happens more in your school than it does in mine. I get them at the end of their time at our school. I notice the echoes of past lessons. I can sense the shift in instructional practices.
Let me end on a positive note: when it came time to share the stories they had written (and we always build in sharing time), there were so many amazing pieces of writing. Stories told from the strangest perspectives. Dialogue-rich and thought-rich stories of characters struggling against the oddity of the world. Stories told in the present, the past, the future. Descriptive language that brought us deep into the landscape of the imagination.
They had it in them. Of course, they had it in them. They needed permission to write the way they wanted to write. Let’s provide them with more of those opportunities, and understand, as teachers, that this kind of creative writing pays dividends in the future.
Writing stories just for the sake of writing stories — no assessment, no grades — is a small gift we can give to our students in this time of data points and standardized testing. Give it, freely, won’t you?
Yesterday, as part of the National Day on Writing, my four classes of sixth graders went into a reflective pose, and wrote about why they write. I invited them to come into our “podcast station” (a comfy chair, Snowball Microphone, and Garageband up on the screen) and share their words with the world. Many did. It was wonderful.
As a teacher and parent, I appreciated the first question from the “audience” during the second United States Presidential Debate, where the question talked about decorum and how to explain the presidential race to children. It was a question I have been asking myself ever since Friday’s release of the Trump video, and the responses to it. (Too bad Trump ignored the question almost completely and Clinton skirted over it, although she did come back to the question a few times, at least).
I think we educators have to both tread lightly here, depending on the age of our students, and address some of the important issues that seem to get sidelined by the personalities, and conflicts, in the race. This is a delicate act. But we can do it. We have to do it. This is their world, even if they don’t have a vote.
Yesterday, during the second half of a Professional Development day, my social studies colleague and I were given time to plan out an entire unit on teaching the presidential campaign. Over the course of about 2 1/2 hours, we debated between ourselves about how to best approach it and then got down to the planning of lessons that will weave in and out of my English Language Arts/Technology class and his Social Studies/Civics class. I’m appreciative that we were given the time and space to work on it, and I am pretty satisfied we have a solid plan in place that will give our students information, and a voice, in the 2016 Presidential Campaign.
A rough sequence of activities/lessons/projects include:
An overview of the electoral college/election system that counters the narrative of the popular vote that most young people seem to think is the way presidents are elected;
Highlighting main topics of concern for the nation;
Lessons on conducting focused research projects, with citations from sources;
A “Letter to the Next President” project (modeled on the Letters to the Next President site, open only to students 13 and up) that will be backed up with some research queries;
Possible entry into the Youth Voices network, for authentic audience for the Letters to the President (and maybe podcasting);
A political cartoon lesson and project;
A mock election for grades three through six at our school.
Our goal as teachers is to be neutral and balanced in our own political views, which is a necessity for our community, while trying to keep the focus on the issues themselves more than on the candidates. Who knows where this campaign will go in the next four weeks?
We may yet be dodging and weaving issues yet to appear on the front pages while digging down into the important issues that the candidates should be spending more time talking about. If they won’t, we will.
These are the aspirations of my sixth grade students. This is our Dream Scene project, which we used to do in webcomic form but have now moved into Google Slides (see my explanation of this shift at Middleweb). These are just one of four slides every student did, so I focused only on the telling of the dream. I like how it call meshes together into one inspirational aspiration.
I taught them about image and media, design elements, copyright, creative commons and, for many them doing a presentation for the first time, the mechanics of a slide show. (Which I didn’t think I would have to teach but I did.)
I now know them all a bit better … which is the whole idea.
I also printed these out (Old School!) and our back wall is plasted with them.
I recently co-facilitated a PD session with fourth, fifth and sixth grade colleagues, and my co-presenter and I chose the theme of Collaboration, as we are feeling more and more like we don’t have time to collaborate across the curriculum and across grade levels with other teachers anymore. (We used to have a PLC time but that got lost a few years ago).
We began with a Gallery Walk activity, in which we asked us all to think and notate ways one discipline (say, math) is visible in another discipline (say, social studies), and to notice as we did the activity which subject areas seem a more natural fit than others. It was a great discussion piece, that sparked the idea of how to be thoughtful about lesson planning.
It also laid the groundwork for discussions about collaboration, since each of the grades represented (4,5,6) are all departmentalized to some degree. I teach ELA and technology to all sixth graders, for example. I can’t say we were able to get plans in motion for everyone, as we had hoped. As usual, we ran out of time. But the conversations and activities sparked cross-grade and cross-discipline discussions, and that is always a good starting point.
I wrote a column for our regional newspaper about teaching the election to our students. The quote above is how I began it, as I wondered how to make an election in which they have no voting power meaningful.
You can read my column, although the newspaper has a paywall. I believe the first few views are free. Our Western Mass Writing Project has a partnership with the Daily Hampshire Gazette around the Chalk Talk column and writing, in which we help teachers get published once a month.
Meanwhile, I also joined in on Teachers Teaching Teachers webcast the other night, as host Paul Allison and other guests and I were talking about how we might extend the Letters to the President concept to students under the age of 13, by considering the revamped Youth Voices online space. (The Letters to the President publishing site is open to students 13 and older)
We’re making some plans …
Paul also shared out this great video documentary — Letters to the Next Mayor — which, while being site specific, lays out a foundation for how Letters to the President might unfold as a (digital) writing activity.
Yesterday was International Dot Day, and this is the first year I had my students join the millions (6.6 million from 139 countries, in fact) people making circles and dots as a way to nurture a sense of creativity and imagination. The Dot Day idea stems from a picture book by Peter Reynolds, called The Dot. We connected with Peter and his brother, Paul, last school year, and we hope to do so again this year.
I decided to have my students write short one-paragraph stories on a circular theme — the story could have circular objects or have some other element of a circle — and then we used Visual Poetry to “draw with the words as ink.” That concept really intrigued them and blew them away. Finally, I had them upload their visual stories to a collaborative Padlet site, which has become this very cool digital wall of circle stories.
Watching them write, and then watching them paint, and then watching them navigate the download/upload instructions has given me a lot of insight into them as learners already. They were fully engaged in this, partially because they knew their work (which we were tweeting out during the day from our classroom Twitter account) was part of a global conversation about creativity. Their stories were in the mix.
That’s one element of Connected Learning that we teachers explore during the summer via CLMOOC — that idea of reaching out beyond the walls of your school, into the World at large — and I hope it is just a taste of things to come this year for us. Certainly, we will be doing something again around National Day on Writing and other ventures.
Meanwhile, Dot Day also took place over at the DS106 Daily Create site, with Dots as the prompt. There were 31 responses. I loved seeing my DS106 friends doing all sorts of strange things with dots, and more than that, I loved extending the connected element from the Global Community to my classroom to DS106 and beyond. All sorts of strands come together at times.
My start-of-the-year post for my Middleweb blog — Working Draft — is about what happened when I realized that the technology platform that I use at the beginning of the school year for a few projects with my sixth graders … died and disappeared on me. I had that slight panic of now what and then realized, again, it is never about the technology.
Yesterday, I wrote about my struggles on the first days of school with technology, and how it went awry. But the week also had success, too. For example, on Friday, I was able to get all 70ish of my sixth graders to activate their Google Apps for Education accounts, with very little problems, and all of them were able to dive into Google Slides to “play” for a small bit of time. (I purposely don’t show them what to do, so they have to navigate a new system on their own, with help of friends. Mini-lessons will come later)
A fair number of my homeroom students did, in fact, get a chance to complete their Six Word Memoirs and their Summer Experiences within the collaborative project that fell apart on us on that first day. I can see I have a very sports-orientated bunch of kids with me this year.
And we began our classroom routines (writing prompts, discussions, dedicated reading time, Circle of Power and Respect, etc.) and I began reading the first half of Rikki Tikki Tavi, which will be our touchstone text all year long when it comes to thinking and writing about literature.
So, overall, it was a great start to the year, with a few stumbles, and I can’t wait to get back with them on Tuesday. That said, I also don’t mind an extra day home for Labor Day.