Fight The Despair/Hold On To Hope

Don't Despare: David Remnick

There’s still too much swirling around my head, and my world, about the election to make sense of what I am thinking. I know that I am worried about this man being charge of the most powerful country of the world. I am angry when I read about people saying “wait for the real Trump to now appear.” As if.  I am confused with the knowledge that what I thought was my country … may not be “my country” after all. Or it may not be the country that holds the same ideals that I believe in.

I’m turning to writing because I have always believed that we write to understand the world. I am hoping my words will give me anchor again.

And I won’t despair.

Peace Posters 2016

I understand why people voted the way they did. I’ve been around to enough parts and regions of our country (visiting as presenters or participants of events, traveling for other reasons, and spending six years as an infantry soldier in the National Guard certainly opened my eyes to the different viewpoints that exist in our country) to know that my corner of the Northeast is not how everyone views the world. I have plenty of friends who are right of center on the political map, living on the edge of the middle class and angry at the “system.”

They hated Clinton with a passion and venom that always surprised me (but, of course, shouldn’t, now that we see demographics of the election). They hate Washington DC with even more passion for leaving them behind and for being ineffectual (although, it is the Tea Party that has ground progress to a halt). Government, to my friends, is the problem, not the solution.  (You can imagine the very heated discussion my friends and I have all year long). Of course, some of those same friends benefit from government support programs, like the VA and health care. I won’t get into the sad irony of voters who may have just sealed their own economic decline in order to “send a message” by electing a racist, misogynistic, and more than slightly addled leader to the White House. When even commentator Glen Beck calls Trump “unhinged,” you have to take notice.

I also know there is resentment against the so-called elite and educated. And, I know plenty of families continue to struggle economically, even in the face of positive news across all sectors (Bill Clinton (D) left the country in solid economic shape; Bush (R) burned the economy to the ground on his way out the door with his trickle down illusions; Obama (D) built it back up … see a political pattern here?). I believe that economic concern for the present and the future was/is at the core of this election, more than race and gender.

Peace Posters 2016

I won’t despair. But I won’t turn my back, either.

How this man governs will set the stage for the world my own children will grow up in, live in, becomes citizens of. I don’t think he sees anything beyond his own personal gain (and won’t be surprised if the absolute power corrupts him even further). My only faith is that the rest of the government will be the ballast (although I fear the Republicans holding Congress will see the election as a means for the Tea Party to ascend even further.) I am hoping my own senator, Elizabeth Warren, remains the powerful voice she needs to be, and that Chuck Schumer is the right leader of a minority party at the right time in history. I don’t even know what to say about the Supreme Court, which is the one thing that I have the most worry about. Again, this is my children’s world we are talking about. 

Peace Posters 2016

No. No despair. Not quite hope, either. Not today, anyway. Maybe tomorrow. My friend, Ron, sent a message to my other friend, Simon, and me, about some of our tweets back and forth. Ron reminded us about love.

I believe in that notion of love and understanding, too. It’s why I teach. It’s why I write. It’s why I connect. It’s why I love my own children so dearly. This election has rattled me but not shaken me to the point where I lose faith in what I believe in — which is the potential goodness of people coming together to make the world a better place. One man elected leader can’t rob me of that. One election can’t change me. I am stronger than that.

You are, too.

Peace Posters 2016

Note: These Peace Posters were made in art class by my sixth grade students. I found comfort in wandering the hallways yesterday, taking in their notions of peace. It gave me a sense of hope that was in short supply.

Peace (I mean it),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: Virtual and Collaborative Peer Review

(This is a post for Slice of Life, a regular writing activity hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are invited to notice the small moments. You write, too.)

Peer editing

There’s always an edge of chaos when I introduce something new and technology-related to our writing process. We’ve been working for about two weeks on a small research/writing project in which my sixth graders are composing Letters to the Next President based on a topic of choice. I wrote about it yesterday.

Last Friday, I put students across my four classes into Virtual Writing Groups. They “invited” other students from their groups into their documents in comment mode. Then yesterday, after a mini-lesson on Warm and Cool Feedback and how to comment in Google Docs, they spent about 30 minutes reading other students’ letters, using the comment tool to offer support and suggestions for improvements.

Letter to Prez Collab Peer Editing

For most, this is the first time they have used the commenting feature as collaboration and the first time they found themselves in a single document with other students, sometimes in the same document at the same time (since all groups had at least one or two other students from the same class as well as students from others).

letteredit1

If you’ve ever been with young writers then they suddenly discover the power and potential of commenting into Google Docs, as well as its potential collaborative features, you know what the room suddenly becomes. A scream out loud, a laugh across the room, a shout to someone else, a burst of confusion. We had it all, in each of the sixth grade classes yesterday.

Peer editing

My role, as teacher, was to allow those moments to happen, put what they were finding out into context (“Now, imagine if we extended your Writing Group to students beyond our own sixth grade in our own school ….”) and then guide them forward to keep actively reading and offering suggestions for improvement.

I asked that they NOT yet read the comments on their own letters, as we will be doing that today in a lesson around accepting/rejecting feedback from others while acknowledging the authority of the “outside reader.” I wasn’t strict on that point, but most were fully engaged in reading what others had written and offering comments.

Next up? Final editing/revision of the Letters in today’s classes, printing them off and mailing them to the White House in the coming weeks. It’s a nice bit of symmetry that our letter project comes to an end on the day of the election.

Peace (it’s collaborative),
Kevin

 

The Final Stretch of Writing Letters with Argument and Research

Letters to President Collage

Check out Letters to the Next President — there are more than 6,500 letters of all media types from students 13 and older and more seem to arrive every day. Since my students are under 13, I have been working on a similar project but not for that site (which does not allow letters for writers under the age of 13). Letters to the Next President is part of a National Writing Project/Educator Innovator project.

Letters to President Research Journals Collage

I’ve been able to guide my students into the research component of Google Docs, using tables to track information and sources. This rather small-scale research component sets the stage for longer research pieces later in the year. We’ve color-coded a few letters from high school students as a way to notice facts and opinion as a way to visualize how they can use facts from research to bolster their opinion on the topic they have chosen to write about. And they have been writing their own letters on a topic of choice, laying out an argument for action by the next president.

Last week, I put them into “virtual writing groups” with students in all four of my classes — they “invited” other students in other classes to comment on their Google Doc letters —  and today, they will be peer reading and reviewing other letters, with the Warm/Cool Feedback approach. Tomorrow, just in time for election day, they will read peer comments, revise their letters and then be just about done with the project. Well, except for the printing and mailing to the White House, which we will be doing.

I admit that I missed a few opportunities: I had an offer from a CLMOOC friend who teaches upper middle school to have his students peer review my students. I dropped the ball (maybe it’s not too late). I keep contemplating using Youth Voices as a publishing platform. I still might offer that option up, but it requires parent sign-off, and so I need to get my act together.

So, we are the finish line and yet, maybe not quite yet.

Peace (in words and wonder),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Time Gone Wild

sol16(This is a post for Slice of Life, a weekly writing share hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We look at the small moments. You write, too.)

I noticed something amiss the fourth or fifth time I looked at the wall clock. It was still 7:40 a.m. Or so said the clock. It wasn’t. It was 8:25 a.m. and students would be arriving soon.

The clock was dead and I was nearly out of time.

I scrambled to see if it was just my clock. It was. Time had stopped on me. I notified the custodians, who promised to replace it, and finished up my morning message for students. I was thankful for my Saxophone Clock at the back room (although it was interesting when some students who have been with me for two months now only noticed it now, when the school wall clock was busted. So much for being observant.)

Later, while my students were at Physical Education and I was working on plans for the day’s writing, the custodians did indeed come in. They took down the old clock and put up a new one, and then told me that it would take a day to settle into the automated system.

Time Gone Wild

Ten minutes later (I think), I looked up and time, as they say, was flying. The seconds hand looked like it had a jolt of caffeine and the minutes hand was doing its steady dance around the hours. By 3:45 p.m., after school had ended, the clock read 5:20.

It was time for me to head home.

Peace (ticking away),
Kevin

Making Political Buttons (and Using Loaded Words)

Political Buttons

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.

Peace (right on the button),
Kevin

Slice of Life: They Should Be Bursting With Stories

sol16(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?

Peace (don’t be afraid to make it happen),
Kevin

 

Why THEY Write (Student Voices)

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.

Peace (in the share),
Kevin

Once Every Four Years (But Not Like This)


flickr photo shared by dmaleus under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

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.


flickr photo shared by Ryan Bretag under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

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?


flickr photo shared by NedraI under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-SA ) license

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.

Peace (vote for it),
Kevin

 

Of Aspirations: Student Dream Scenes

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.

Peace (dreaming it),
Kevin

 

What This (Discipline) Looks Likes In That (Discipline)

Curricular Connections

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).

Curricular Connections

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.

Peace (here, there, everywhere),
Kevin