The Voice in the Room is Mine

This is a quick follow up to some of my posts around my thinking around the concepts of Literacy.

Yesterday, I attended our school district meeting that will lead to the launch of a two-year Literacy Initiative for our schools, beginning in earnest in November with two full days of literacy professional development. This is the first time we have used two full days back to back for any one topic, so we are excited about the possibilities here. And there is pressure on the administration to put on a good show that really energizes our teachers. The teachers brought together at our meeting yesterday were mostly k-3 and reading/special education specialists, so I felt as if I had to represent the upper elementary grades as the sole sixth grade classroom teacher. (For some reason, our regional middle and high school are not even involved in the initiative.)

The discussions were rich and fruitful, centering around ways to connect literacy ideas across grade levels, provide some ways to track progress of students and open up collaborative discussions among teachers from various schools and grades.We talked a lot about the common things we are all doing and how we can learn from each other.

I noted at one point that so much of our talk was centered around reading skills and that writing was getting short shrift … again. Why do we do that? Why does reading take over writing when it comes to literacy? Where is the balance between the two? (And listening and oral language skills never even got onto the table, to be honest) Luckily, a colleague jumped in and passionately explained how good writing is also good reading, and that teachers often cut writing because they don’t know how to teach good writing skills to students. Our administration seemed to hear that loud and clear.

I had my own ideas, of course, and made sure I was up high on my virtual sandbox, advocating that any new literacy work should also include the technology and media skills of the 21st Century. When it came time to try our hand at a Vision Statement, mine centered on using multi-modal platforms for reading and for writing, and for writing for an authentic purpose.

But I was mostly alone on this topic and I know it will be a tough sell for teachers who don’t use technology themselves in their own classrooms to think about how they could actually use it with students. I argued that the reading and writing that goes on outside of school in our students’ real lives (text messaging, web reading, online collaborative games, etc.) needs to be reflected and used inside the classroom if we want our students to make sense of the skills we are teaching them and for those skills to have value for them. Everyone listened respectfully, but my soapbox did not lead to any discussions or further talk about Digital Literacies. It was a sort of an awkward silence.

So, we’ll see where all this leads in the next two years.

Peace (in the talk),

The Internet Mapping Project: My Perceptions

Kevin Kelly has an interesting project going on — asking people to visually map out their perceptions of the Internet World and then sending it in to him for a collection. I decided to use Boolean and Mr. Teach to get at my own perceptions of the passive and active divide I see with my students — at home, they are passive; in school, they are active. These are broad generalities, of course, and there are many exceptions to the rule. I added in Funk to remind us not to forget about those kids being left behind in the digital revolution.

Be sure to visit Kevin Kelly’s site. It’s a fascinating look at people’s perceptions.

Peace (in the map),

What my theories look like in action …

Yesterday, I posted some ideas that I have when it comes to Literacy. As I thought more about it over the course of the day, I began to watch the work my students were doing through that same lens. I thought it might be useful, then, to reflect on what I saw and why it seemed important.

A little perspective: we are near the end of our poetry unit (songwriting is on the horizon to end the year!) and students have a poetry journal that we have been using just about every day. I would say they have about 15 to 20 poems in their journal. Yesterday, we first took one of those poems called Inside This … (which uses figurative language to get at the essence of an inanimate object) and podcast them for our class blog site. Then, we began an assignment called Hyperlinked Poetry Books, in which they take at least six of their favorite poems, create a book in Powerpoint and then learn and use the architecture of hyperlinks to create a series of “connected paths” between their poems so that the book is no longer linear.

First: the Inside This podcast poem.

This short poem covers a lot of ground. My students have to use the Figurative Language techniques that we learned about earlier in the year — reviewing similes, metaphors, alliteration and more — as part of their writing toolbox. They are writing to learn by exploring some object from an entirely non-physical perspective, with a poet’s stance, using tools that are a center of the curriculum. The Stakes Approach is on full display, too, as they move from low stakes (their journal) to high stakes (the podcast for a web-based audience). The various elements of language arts are on display — writing the poem, reading the poem for errors, speaking the poem for podcast, and then listening to others (and later, at the blog, to themselves). Certainly technology is here, with the podcasting, but this prompt does not push its way into other curricular areas.

Next: the Hyperlinked Poetry Book.

Since this assignment is self-evaluate poems that they have written, my students must look at their own writing through the eye of an editor. How will they choose which poems to feature? This, in itself, is a writing process. And part of their book are two reflections: which poetry style did they enjoy and why and which did they not enjoy and why not? Again, the Stakes Writing approach encompasses much of this work, as they move from their own journal (low stakes) to sharing with their writing class (mid-stakes) to potentially sharing their poems with the world on our blog site (high stakes). This is not even a graded assignment, but NOT ONE of my 75 young writers even asked about that. They were totally engaged in creating this book of poems and links.  For most, this assignment will cover writing and reading in the Language Arts umbrella, but for others, they might add them reading their poems — pushing the spectrum out a little further. The technology and writing are hand-in-hand for this assignment, as they both publish their writing on a digital platform and learn how hyperlinks are the backbone of the Internet through shared informational traits (why did you choose that keyword? What connects this poem to the next? How do you avoid setting up an “endless loop” between two poems?). In some years, we do write poems around curricular areas (we read math-themed Poems for Two Voices this year but did not write our own) and so my concept of writing into other curricular areas … not so good again.
Peace (in sharing),

Articulating some thoughts on Literacy and Writing

I’ve been asked by my school principal to join in a conversation on Monday about literacy and Language Arts in our school district. Our district focus next year will be to revamp our Language Arts curriculum, or at least move in that direction, and the administration is trying to bring together some teachers to discuss what literacy should look like in our schools.We’re planning a two-day Literacy Event for our district in the fall, too, and they want to get ideas from us.

I am trying to articulate what my own ideas are about Language Arts before that meeting and so, true to my nature, I am using this writing as a way to process some of my thoughts. Bare with me and please feel free to add your own ideas.

  • We write to learn. This is a central tenet in my thinking. We use writing to understand the world, to make sense of information and to reflect upon our own experiences. Writing gives us private inroads into making sense of things. When we write, we organize, articulate and explore the things we know, the things we want to know, and the things we don’t quite yet know.
  • Language Arts is all four spheres. Yes, we focus a lot on writing and reading, but listening and talking are also important elements of literacy. I wish we did more in the areas of listening (I try to work that in to as many lessons as possible) and speaking (beyond just oral reports).
  • A “Stakes Approach” to writing provides multiple opportunities for expression. I stole this one from my friend, Bruce Penniman. The Stakes Approach is built on the concept of tiered writing opportunities, moving from low stakes (journal writing, writing for the self, etc) that is not necessarily shared with anyone to mid stakes (collaborative writing in the classroom, informal projects, etc.) that is for a comfortable audience to high stakes (published work, performances, etc.) that moves into the bigger world. This spectrum of writing allows students to try on different hats and use different voices and concentrate on different skills. (See this Google Doc for my own organization of Stakes Writing).
  • Writing across the Curriculum is a key to learning. We need to integrate Language Arts more into all curricular areas so that writing is not just stories composed on paper, but thinking put into words. Math, in particular, gets short-changed with our fairly rote district-wide curriculum. It’s mostly drill and kill, and not the reasoning. For me, this has meant writing prompts connected to social studies, and digital projects connected with Science and Math. I’m not doing enough, but I am aware how important it is. (Note: my colleagues in the other disciplines do a lot of writing with the students, too, so it is not a vacuum.)
  • Technology and multi-media should be components of Language Arts. Students are highly engaged and very aware of audience when they start using technology for showcasing their knowledge and understanding. They rise to the occaision when they realize that they are in the high stakes field of writing — the web is the world.  The Web 2.0 opportunities opens up many doors for collaboration, integration of resources and multiple angles for students of all diverse learning backgrounds. Even the NCTE has come out strongly in favor of this kind of literacy. Given the world today and the world unfolding for tomorrow, to ignore this possibility to help show students how to “create” and “compose” (a better term) with technology would have terrible consequences.

What do you think? Am I on the right path? What am I missing?

Peace (in articulation),

The Claymation Project: Tolerance

We have ambitions. And focus (for the most part). But whether my class can complete stopmotion claymation movies before our school year ends in three weeks is uncertain. We’re going to try. We’re going to try. And boy, they are very engaged for a June project.

Since my literature groups just read two books that center on racism and tolerance (The Watsons Go to Birmingham and Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry), I decided it might be interesting to have them create short claymation movies on the theme of “tolerance.” And so, we have stories developing, and clay characters being created, and next week: let’s get filming!

One group of boys who have been loving the study of Sparta in Social Studies are working on a story with Spartans and how a group of hero-warriors come to understanding the differences of others. One particular student is very adept at clay and it is pretty amazing to watch him in action (his mother has been giving him clay to keep him busy since he was a little dude).

(These pics are also shared over at Photo Fridays)

I’m excited but stressed about finding enough time for them to create a movie they will be proud of before the school year ends. I’ll need to keep moving them along, pushing them to focus, and hoping the technology works as it should.

Peace (in frames),


Oh, what the heck … one more digital book

This is the final sharing of student digital science books. These guys worked hard to use a comic book style for their production, layering in sound effects, narration and speech bubbles. It didn’t quite convert into video the best, but it is still effective. (Note: Charlie and Steve are the custodians at our school and favorites with the kids).
This book is called Mitosis with Charlie and Steve.

Peace (in the books),

Some final thoughts on Digital Science Books

You know how when you are in a group of teachers, talking about ways that you could boost student achievement, the topic that always comes up is: time. We need more time. More time to engage our students, more time to go deeper into the topic, more time for play. We all suffer from this lack of time, I think.

As my 75 students worked on their Digital Science Books on the theme of an adventure story with cell mitosis (see past posts for examples and other reflections), I once again was caught with moving deadlines for completion of work. The original deadline was a Thursday, then the Friday, then the following Tuesday and finally another Monday. The deadline kept shifting as I kept careful track of where they were with their projects (which involved using Powerpoint as a publishing platform).

And even now, there more than a few students who would have loved another week to work on it. But, in the end, we had to move on. And there is nothing like a deadline to capture the focus of young learners. With the project over, I still have two incomplete books and I need to make more time for them to finish, and I am not sure how I will do that.

Looking back, I can see a lot of great success this year. The stories were pretty engaging and full of surprises as they really used their creativity to get at the stages of cell mitosis (not an easy task, given the vocabularly involved). Each day, they had their science study guides out, making sure they were using factual information. I believe most did quite well on their Cell Unit test and I would like to believe that the work on these digital books played a part in that.

My students also showed me a thing or two. One group of boys wanted to do a comic-book style of project and after I showed them how to create comic speech bubbles, they quickly discovered how to embed audio into each individual bubble, so that when one bubble fades out and another appears, the audio narration kicks in automatically. Very cool.

This year, the audio component was big, and I was smart to purchase a dozen Dual Headphone Jacks so that teams could listen to the audio together. This was great because it eliminated much of the background noise that often invades audio projects. I love those little white adapter jacks! I thought more groups would take me up on the use of video, but only two groups did. One created a Mitosis Rap song that was wonderful and another used a video of a genie coming up out of a bottle. Video is tricky, though, but again: more time would have led to more innovation, I think.

A crucial element to this project continues to be storyboarding, story mapping and also, a checklist that keeps the projects in focus. These three resources were incredibly valuable for all the groups, and I kept reminding them: Where are you on the checklist? Do you have everything you need? Are you following your storyboard? (Storyboards often change, which is fine, but it should form the skeleton of the story).

On the day the students shared their books (with other sixth grade classes), there was so much laughter and discussion and revision. The beauty of the digital book is that editing can happen automatically, so a peer review comment can lead to instant revision. I love that aspect of the project.

I’m a bit disappointed that we could not print out the books this year, but given budget cuts and the cost of color books, I could not justify it. Plus, the books need to be revamped if they are to be printed. The animation that makes the books digital makes it less conducive to printing out paper copies. Many students took the books home on flash drives (another valuable tool) and I will burn on discs some of the books for others, if necessary. I may also set up all of the books on a Box.Net site, so they can download the books at home. I want to provide as many options for them to gain access to the books as possible.

So, all in all, it was a great project, with lots of learning (tech, writing and science) and lots of engaged students over a three to four week period.

Here are a few final comments from my students after I asked them to write about how I could improve the project for next year:

  • I would have the kids who do this project to make a movie on mitosis and one about anything that they want. I think that would make the experience a lot more fun. Also it would let the kids learn even more things that Microsoft Power Point is capable  of.
  • ….GIVE US MORE TIME!! and give an instruction sheet on how to do things like adding links and sound.
  • I think that you should have a contest to see who can make the craziest story that still gets a scientific/what ever concept through.
  • I’m not sure because I don’t know what kind of technology were going to have in the future years  to come. but I would recommend anything popular or good to use in the “to come” stories. =]
  • I would say to give the kids more freedom with their creativity. Let them branch out on their story ideas, or have one of the Harris Burdick story be the PowerPoint. That would be awesome.

Peace (in the books),

Powerful Video of Birmingham, 1963

My class is finishing up reading either The Watsons Go to Birmingham or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and I have been on the search for a good end-of-novel project. Both books revolve around racism and how families cope (or don’t) with the times they are living in. We’ve had some real powerful discussions about racism of the past and racism of the present.
I found this video this morning and it is perfect for what we have been talking about.

The movie is part of the Media that Matters Film site, which seems like a great resource. I downloaded the activity/discussion guide but I need time to look it over. We did watch the beginning of Spike Lee’s Four Little Girls (the inspiration for the Watsons book) and it was powerful … a bit too much. A few kids went home really shaken. That emotional response allowed us to have more discussions about our country’s past and how far we have come.
Meanwhile, I think we may move into creating Claymation movies that address the bigger idea of tolerance for a final project that will just about wrap up our school year (we go until June 25 this year due to ice and snow this past winter). I just worry about having enough time …

Peace (everywhere, all the time),

And another digital science book

I have two more digital books to share — one today and then one tomorrow — and then I will post some post-project reflections on what I have learned along the way.

Peace (under the skin),