The Transformative Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers

Doc Emily's Groovy Writers

Photo courtesy Andy Sidle

I spent June 27 to July 2 in Gambier, Ohio at Kenyon College as a participant in the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. Given how much writing I did while I was there, I had a difficult time figuring out how to begin talking about it here on my blog. I thought about it for a few days. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to put the experience into words, which is ironic given how I did rediscover a writing voice I thought I had lost.

I think one of the reasons I was nervous about going to Kenyon was that I didn’t necessarily consider myself a writer anymore. I don’t really want to characterize what I did as “giving up,” but I guess it was. I no longer did any of the things I told my students to do—to just dump out ideas, to write first and revise later, to write for themselves. I had this internal editor going all the time. Most of all, I just didn’t write. Not really. I mean, I wrote the occasional blog post. But I couldn’t have told you the last time I wrote a poem. I used to write poetry all the time. I always had a notebook for my poems, pretty much all through high school and college. I can’t even tell you when I stopped. I think one day I just thought maybe I wasn’t very good at writing poetry. I have written fiction off and on for a while, but it had even been a while since I had written fiction.

What this writing workshop did is crack me wide open. Now I have all these ideas and all this material to work with, and I feel like I found my voice again. I am a writer again. There was a time when writing was something I thought I would always do. I even started an application to study creative writing Emerson College in Boston (I abandoned it once I realized I would not be able to attend college out of state, and at that time, I lived in Georgia). My high school English teacher, Shelia Keener, encouraged me to write and has been telling me for years that I missed my calling. I do believe that I should be an English teacher, but Shelia is right that I should have kept up the writing.

I feel like I found my tribe at Kenyon. We had excellent instructors, for one thing. Real teachers who work with students in the classroom. My instructor, Emily Moore, is a gifted writing instructor. I am stealing simply everything she did with us. The participants were also writing teachers. I was struck not only by their dedication to the craft of writing but also to their dedication to their students. Many of them are practicing writers, and I admit to feeling a bit intimidated by them. They are really good writers. I was thrilled when one of our tribe, Joe Carriere, not only took on the task of creating a literary magazine out of our work, but also created a Facebook group for us. All of us wrote something to share at a reading, even our instructors. Each time we did a writing prompt, they wrote with us. In fact, Emily has a great technique of freewriting on the board with her students, making the messiness of freewriting public. It is freeing to see writers in process. I knew, as a writing teacher, that writing didn’t come fully formed and perfect from anyone’s pen, but for some reason, this inner critic inside me expected my writing to be different from every other writer. If I had to pick one moment when I realized what I had been doing, it might have been when we read the Robert Frost poem “Design.” Emily shared two versions: a rough draft and a final draft. It was like something clicked into place. Even Robert Frost wrote shitty drafts. Even Robert Frost!

Seeing that poem in draft form really helped me see that I am not a bad writer. I probably need to spend more time revising. Just like my students. And a writer’s workshop is extremely valuable. Given how much workshop I have done with my students the last two years, you’d think I’d have figured that out. Somehow I always separated what I did as a writer from what I did as a teacher.

The five days and change that I spent at Kenyon were transformative. I actually see myself as a writer again. I feel like I have been given a gift. The people I met were amazing. I think I have made new lifelong friends. I really do. The campus is gorgeous. The stained glass windows in the dining hall depict scenes from books! It truly is English teacher (or English major) heaven. In addition to giving me back my writing life and helping me make excellent friends, I also met two writers and had an opportunity to talk shop and now have a year’s subscription to The Kenyon Review. I actually read poetry on the plane back home. When was the last time I read so much poetry? I discovered Andrew Grace in the May/June 2015 issue and liked his poem so much I ordered a copy of his collection Shadeland. I really, really can’t remember the last time I read contemporary poetry.

At the workshop, I ran into Sam Bradford, a friend and former colleague from the Weber School, where I worked in Georgia.

Dana and SamSam has been writing fiction for years and will be the department chair at Weber next year, so we will have a lot to talk about, and I am so grateful we are back in touch. Neither of us knew the other would be there. I was so excited to see him, but even more excited to see him connect with Charley Mull, a colleague from Worcester Academy and one of my favorite people. I made them both take a picture with me on the last day.

Charley, Dana, and Sam

Charley, Dana, and Sam

I am so glad they became friends. Charley and Sam were in the same group, which was not my group with Emily. We still had plenty of opportunities to interact.

Here is a picture Sam took of me doing my reading.

Dana Reading

Photo courtesy Sam Bradford

A photo of me with my new friend Whitney (and a photobomb with my new friend, Andy).

Whitney, Dana, and AndyAnd a photo of me with my instructor, Emily. Andy somehow photobombed that one, too!

Emily and DanaWhat a phenomenal experience. I have to thank my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, for convincing me to go.

I learned some new techniques for teaching writing. I wrote some things I feel pretty good about. In fact, I am actually thinking about pursuing publication, which is something I haven’t thought about doing for many years (and that is one reason I haven’t shared anything I wrote at the workshop here). Honestly, I thought that ship had sailed a long time ago. I truly can’t remember the last time I thought about publication for myself.

You should go next summer.

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Covering Isn’t Teaching… Or Learning

surface photo

Right about this time of year, teachers everywhere (particularly secondary school teachers) are looking at the calendar and freaking out about what they haven’t covered.

I, like many teachers, have fallen into the trap of thinking that certain content has to be covered, even at the expense of engaging in deeper learning, because of time constraints. I should have known better. Because my family moved around quite a bit, I went to three different high schools. I had what I perceived as “gaps” in my education. I didn’t read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t learn much about history after World War II. I could think of other examples of things everyone is supposed to learn in high school, but you get the general idea. I’m not sure if I realized I had gaps when I was in school. I did have a sense that I missed things because the school I left hadn’t covered them yet, and the school I moved to had already covered them.

At some point I started to worry I wasn’t ready for college and asked my English teacher for a reading list. Just to cover my bases, I found a library book that had a list of books every student should read before they went to college. I’m not sure, but I think the list was about 100 years old. It was a great, long list alphabetized by title. I stalled out in the middle of Agamemnon. I managed to make it through college without reading Agamemnon, and given I graduated magna cum laude, I suppose I did okay. In fact, I managed to make it all the way to last summer before finally reading Agamemnon, and though I enjoyed it just fine, I think I could have lived my whole life without reading Agamemnon and nothing dire would have happened.

The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that the most important thing we do is help students learn how to learn. If you can learn how to learn, you can teach yourself anything, and if you need help, you can generally figure out who can help you learn it.

I have loved reading since before I could read by myself. I taught myself all about dinosaurs when I was little. I found all sorts of books about dinosaurs. As I grew older, I turned to books to learn about ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, and making soap. Books are a great way to teach yourself.

If we English teachers can cultivate a love of reading and help students learn to think and learn, the content we use can take a variety of forms. Students don’t have to read Agamemnon in particular in order to be prepared for college or the world. But they do have to learn to read critically, identify themes, analyze ideas. The particular content we use doesn’t matter as much as what we do with it. Just because I covered material doesn’t mean students learned it. I have learned over time that if I really want students to learn content, then I need to let them wrestle with it. That takes time. If I rush it, students will not learn it. Oh, they might know it long enough to do some assessment, but they don’t really learn it. Are they going to be able to apply the information? Who decides what information is critical and what isn’t? And why?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was my crutch, and I covered it. It’s liberating not to have a textbook. It forced me to think about broad themes and ideas and create units of study based on those big ideas. Unless I completely misread my students, I think it’s more engaging, too.

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe urge teachers to ask, “What should [the students] walk out the door able to understand, regardless of what activities or texts we use?” and “What is evidence of such ability?” (17). Only after those questions are answered should teachers ask, “What texts, activities, and methods will best enable such a result?” (17). Much of the time, the texts come first. After first reading Understanding by Design, I realized my problem as a teacher was that I relied on covering material, and then I was upset when students didn’t learn. As Wiggins and McTighe state, “When our teaching merely covers content without subjecting it to inquiry, we may well be perpetrating the very misunderstanding and amnesia we decry” (132).

We don’t have all the time in the world to teach everything worth knowing. There isn’t enough time in a lifetime, or even in several lifetimes, to do that job. As teachers, we do have the ability to ignite curiosity. We should be figuring out how to create curious learners instead of worrying about covering material.

I came across these resources that might be of interest:

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Evolution

gardening photoI have been writing this blog post in my head for months now, and I’m not sure I will really capture what I’m thinking.

I have changed a lot as a teacher over the years. I no longer agree with many of the ideas I expressed earlier in this blog. Perhaps some of the ways I have changed can best be expressed by exploring some of those opinions, why I held them then, and why I no longer hold them.

I used to be strict about late work. As in, I didn’t want to take it. Sometimes, I still would, despite saying, here on this blog, that I didn’t do it. I struggled with the issue of keeping track. It was easier for me, organizationally, if I asked students to turn in work on time. And that has not changed. It is still easier on me if they turn their work in on time. However, despite the fact that my school has a policy about late work, I take work late, and I don’t really penalize for it unless it becomes a chronic issue with a student who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have come to believe that perhaps students do not always meet a standard at the same time. Sometimes, some students need to take a little longer. Sometimes, things happen, and maybe it’s not even that catastrophic. Maybe they forgot. I forget stuff, too. That’s why, when I asked a student about a late project today, and she sheepishly said, “I’m still working on it,” I replied, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar.” It does cause a bit of an organizational issue for me, but one way I manage it is to have students do work electronically (which, by the way, was a suggestion from a commenter on the blog post I linked above). Keeping track of Google Docs and online quizzes works better for me than having bits of paper everywhere, and I find I can manage the work more easily.

Students also ask me if they can revise their work, and I always let them. Why? Because I think it helps them become better writers when they do. And I care more about that progress than I care about keeping a grade at a certain level. Some folks disagree with that stance and call it grade inflation. I used to have some real issues with grading myself, but partly those issues were based on expectations of an administrator who thought I was too easy on the kids. I was actually threatened with my job, so I decided I needed to be harder, and I tried to justify it to myself philosophically as part of being a rigorous teacher with high expectations. I just don’t think my students would say I don’t have high expectations today, even if I allow late work and revision. If I didn’t have to give grades, I don’t think I would. I have come to see them as a false construct. They have the value that we give them, and we can’t really even agree on what that value is. Some folks bestow A’s on students unwillingly and always sparingly, but the grade inflation battle was lost a long time ago. We can keep trying to defend that hill if we want to, I suppose, but I don’t want to die on it myself. So, I have a lot of high grades, and I didn’t used to have as many. I don’t think they came easy. I am quite concerned that students and parents focus too much on grades and not enough on the learning, and the funny thing that happens when you allow students to revise and to turn in late is that it doesn’t really become about the grade. It does seem to help students understand that the issue at hand is the learning, and they will work harder for me and do more than they did when I felt like I had to keep grades lower to please my administrator. At the time, however, I was very concerned that too many A’s said something negative about my expectations and the level of challenge in my class. Now, I think they tend to say students are learning the material successfully.

I used to talk too much in my classes, and some days, I probably still do. But I have really worked on it over the years. I can remember writing lectures that were basically scripts, if you can believe that, when I first started teaching. I had to have complete control and go bell to bell. My second day in my own classroom was a complete disaster. I had just received my 33rd student in the class, and I was trying to get him sorted. I only had 28 desks, I think, and the kids were being too talkative, and I wasn’t starting class on time because I was dealing with this new student, and I said to the kids that they should be working quietly while I handled the situation, adding that “It should be so quiet I could hear a pin drop.” Geez, does that make me cringe. Guess what happened? Every kid in the class dropped his or her pen. I was furious, but then we “started” class, and I pushed through. That first year is not something I like to think about at all. I made so many mistakes. Part of the issue, though I didn’t understand it at the time, is that it was all about me and my control and not about the students. Today, one of my classes had a Socratic seminar. They are actually one of my favorite things to do with students, and I should do them more than I do. Students do all of the work in a seminar. I look down at my notes and do not say anything. Students run the discussion themselves. One of the girls in the class today remarked that it was the best Socratic seminar she’d had in school. The students really need to be taken seriously as leaders of their own learning, and they need to be given the control. Giving students control doesn’t mean we have lost control. Letting them take control of the class, the direction of the discussion, tells me much more about what students have learned than standing in front of a room talking at kids did.

I actually sent this article to my students, my students, today. I honestly believe that ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have shared it with them because I wouldn’t have wanted them to get ideas. A few years ago, I heard a student ask one of my colleagues, “Why do we have to learn this?” and the guy actually responded, “Because I said so.” I cringed. But that the same time, I used to think certain content was dreadfully important to learn. I used to give regular tests. I can’t remember the last time I gave a test (aside from a final, which I was required to give or which I agreed to give because the department wanted to). What I want students to learn has changed completely compared to my early years as a teacher.

  • I want students to learn to work together collaboratively.
  • I want them to learn that writing takes work, and you need to revise. The writing process helps.
  • I want them to learn to communicate their ideas to others with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • I want them to learn to think critically: to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. I want them to learn to ask questions.
  • I want them to learn to create. All kinds of things: videos, podcasts, poems, essays, stories.
  • I want them to learn metaphors. We think in metaphors. When we learn new information, we compare it to what we know and classify it through metaphor.
  • I want them to learn to comprehend, use, and enjoy what they read.
  • I want them to learn the value of critique: how to do it helpfully and how to use it to improve their own work.

These are all important skills and habits of mind that can be taught in a variety of ways. None of it really requires certain content, which is what the article I linked is getting at. Working with content is a means toward teaching these more important skills, but the content is not the end itself. When I began teaching and relied on lecture, content was all I taught. I don’t think students learned a lot of the more important skills in my bullet list. And the truth is, they didn’t really learn the content either.

One of the messy aspects of having a blog is that some of that evolution of thought has taken place in public. As a result, I have had to field emails or comments from people who quibble with some stance or other that I took seven years ago because my thinking on the issue is still published here. I actually had to close comments on older posts because 1) after a year, everyone else has moved on, and the only person who will see the comment is me, so it’s not really a conversation anymore, and 2) most of the time, if it’s a comment on a post that old, the commenter really isn’t invested in a conversation anyway, and they can be downright trolls on occasion. The occasional negative or even rude comment is part of blogging, I suppose, but we all want folks to judge us on what we’ve learned and the progress we’ve made. We don’t want to be held to ideas and opinions we no longer think are important. Maybe we have learned some things that have changed our minds about something we used to believe. We grow, we change, we evolve. Maybe we should let the learning be a little messy and give students that same time to evolve.

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Using Evernote for Lesson Plans

Before I get into the meat of this post, I wanted to mention that I’ve been having some issues with pages taking a long time to load and general slowness on this site. I put in a help ticket with my web host after trying to fix it myself without much success. The site appears to be running more smoothly, so even though I haven’t heard from my host, I am wondering if they took a look already and figured out the problem. At any rate, please be patient with me if you are having issues.

This year, I am trying a new experiment using Evernote for my lesson plans. I love Evernote. I use it quite extensively for personal note-taking, such as keeping my soap-making journal, planning trips, and the random article or PDF I want to save. I have Evernote Premium, which allows me to annotate and take notes on PDF’s as well. I also have offline access to notes, higher monthly uploads, and some other additional features, but I mainly wanted to be able to annotate PDF’s without using a separate app.

As much as I use Evernote, I wasn’t really using it for lesson planning at all. When I inquired on Twitter, I discovered Jim Burke would not be publishing a 2014-2015 Teacher’s Daybook. I had decided to go back to the Daybook after trying an electronic planbook that was brilliant, but just wasn’t working for me (not sure why). I was bummed about the Daybook, and though Jim publishes the templates online, I just didn’t want to print them out. Something told me that I wouldn’t stick with it. I happened on Nick Provenzano’s post about using Evernote to plan a while back, and I decided to give it a shot, particularly since I already liked Evernote.

First, I created Evernote notebooks for each of my classes. This process is fairly straightforward, so I’ll skip the explanation, but if you have trouble with it, feel free to ask for clarification in the comments.

I created a calendar template next. The dates can easily be changed each month. In order to create new calendar notes, I use the following process:

  • Navigate to the appropriate notebook (in my case, World Literature II or American Studies in Literature—whatever you called your class).
  • Add a new note and name it with the correct month and year.
  • Go to my calendar template note and copy the text in the note (the calendar grid).
  • Paste the text into my new note.

After I created the calendar template, I created a daily lesson plan template. This template suits my needs. It includes my school’s Portrait of a Learner (objectives), which are not as extensive or complicated as CCSS. This template forces me to think about a good hook or interest grabber at the start and how to tie everything back together at the end of the lesson with a good wrap up. In between, I can list all the parts of the lesson with detail. I can think about which areas of Bloom’s Taxonomy the lesson addresses and be thoughtful about the kind of homework (if any) required. My favorite part, however, is a reflection. After the lesson, at the end of the day usually, I take about five minutes and write short reflections on the lessons.

I can link the daily lessons on the calendar template by right-clicking on the note and selecting “Copy Note Link” in Evernote. Here is Evernote’s Knowledge Base article on this topic in case you need help. Then I paste that note link on the appropriate date in the calendar, and I have a nice, linked up monthly planner that organizes my daily plans.

In addition, I use tags, such as unit titles, course titles, book or other literary work titles, authors, and types of lesson (e. g. writing workshop) to further link my notes. I can then search my notebooks using any of these tags and see all my lessons from a given unit, course, etc.

Evernote notebooks can be shared, so using Evernote is a solution for teachers who are planning together as well.

So far, I am liking it quite a bit. I’ll keep you posted on the experiment.

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On the Horizon

On the Horizon photoI’m interrupting my alphabet series as the year closes. Today was our last day of post-planning, or post-sessionals, as my school terms it. I had a great year. My students were awesome, and I tried some great things in my classroom.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned my changing role on this blog yet. A few years ago, I went into technology integration. I am going back to teaching English full time next year as the English department chair at my school. I am very excited about this changing role, and I believe in some ways it’s a return to my first love. I did enjoy technology integration, but if it had ever taken me completely out of the classroom, I’m not sure I could have handled it. I don’t think this transition means I will not be talking about technology. I do anticipate this blog will shift back towards more of a focus on teaching English, however.

My school is moving toward backwards design/UbD, and long-time readers of this blog will know how thrilled I am about it. Many of our teachers already use the format for planning, but with a more institutional focus on UbD, I think the teaching and learning will become even better. I work with some excellent teachers, and I think we have the best kids anywhere, so I’m really excited to see the ways in which project-based learning and UbD makes my school even better.

Even more exciting than seeing our school embrace UbD? Grant Wiggins is coming to our school to do a workshop during our pre-planning (pre-sessional) meetings. I am so excited to have the opportunity to meet Grant and learn from him in person.

I also recently had the opportunity to attend a CLA/CWRA Performance Task Academy led by Marc Chun. If you have ever struggled with creating performance tasks, I can highly recommend the workshop, which really helps break down the process and offers opportunities for you to build your performance task with Marc’s guidance.

In preparation for working with Grant, my school has combined our curriculum mapping (which greatly resembled UbD) with our new learning management system. I was one of the early adopters, and I was asked to flesh out one of my unit pages so that I could model use of the LMS to colleagues. I chose to flesh out my unit on The Catcher in the Rye. I will be teaching the novel again next year in a sophomore World Literature class (and I will also be teaching American literature again after a few years’ hiatus—perhaps folks who have been reading a while will remember I taught American literature for quite a long time, and that it was the focus of many blog entries and lesson ideas posted here). Because I’d recently been to the Performance Task Academy, and also perhaps because I love planning, I couldn’t just build my unit page without actually tackling my UbD unit for The Catcher in the Rye. I did borrow the idea behind the performance task that Wiggins and McTighe describe on pp. 199-200 of Understanding by Design. I have used the performance task before without as much success as I would have liked. I realized at the Performance Task Academy that the missing piece was grounding the performance task more solidly in a real-world situation and giving more definitive parameters. The general idea is the same, but the performance task as I revised it will make more use of real-world tools and materials and will have real-world stakes that more closely mimic the work a psychiatrist treating Holden might do. I am really happy with it, though the unit as it is posted is still a little incomplete, as I haven’t finished thinking about discussion questions I will want to use in class discussion.

I have also been fortunate enough to find a fabulous friend and mentor in my Dean of Faculty, Cindy (and I hope she doesn’t mind my calling her out on my blog when I didn’t ask first). It’s been so refreshing to work with her this year (and last), especially as I transition into my new role. She’s my English teaching soulmate, and anyone who has ever worked in a vacuum with no like-minded administrators knows how it feels to find someone like that in your workplace. It doesn’t just make it easier to go to work every day, it makes it fun, invigorating, and challenging (in the best way) to go to work every day. Under her leadership, I joined our school’s Vision Committee, and it has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done with colleagues. Together we designed a professional development day unconference.

With all of this buzzing around in my mind, I’m so eager to get started on planning for next year. I’m really excited about the work on the horizon.

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D is for Deeper Learning

EinsteinWhen I taught pre-K, science was my favorite subject to teach because all of the science lessons I taught involved experiments. What happens if you plant a potato eye? What happens if you let an egg sit in a glass of cola? How can you make a tornado out of two bottles? My favorite science teacher was Mr. Tusa. I was in 7th grade. All I remember about his class was doing experimental labs—everything from combining chemicals and recording reactions to raising small rodents.

Science wasn’t my only experience with deeper learning, or inquiry-based learning, when I was in school. I have written previously about a role-playing game my 7th grade history teacher had us play. In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe write about the “twin sins of design.” The “sin” more often committed at the secondary level (in my experience) is focus on coverage-based teaching. Coverage-based teaching is marching through the content, often at breakneck speed, which doesn’t allow for deeper learning.

Deeper learning offers students an opportunity to explore a topic. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has a good explanation of what, exactly, deeper learning is. One persistent criticism I have heard about deeper learning, project-based learning, and its cousins is that it removes any emphasis on knowledge and comprehension, the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. I don’t think deeper learning or project-based learning means you do away with these foundational types of learning, but I think it asks that you not stop there and that you move into application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation.

The ways in which I try to engage my students in deeper learning mostly involve writing. I have recently described the writing workshop model at the center of my classroom:

Writing workshop involves student collaboration in writing and opportunities to give and receive feedback. It has also improved my students’ writing. Yes, it takes longer, and it results in higher grades (two somewhat controversial sticking points). However, I would argue that the goal of teaching writing is that students become better writers. Period. The goal is not to write essays every single week if students never engage deeply enough with the writing to revise and edit their work, much less receive and offer feedback. Nor is the goal to slap a grade on it and move on to the next one. I know too many English teachers who use writing as a stick to hold students back, and I don’t understand why. I’m not sure they’re consciously doing it, but they are making students hate writing instead of engaging them in learning how to write well.

My students recently selected topics for multigenre writing projects. The way I described the projects was that they were a way to “go deeper” with the material we had learned in class this year. I want to write more about multigenre writing projects later when I get to letter “m,” but essentially I asked the students to pick something we had studied this year that they wished they could learn more about or go deeper with, and the end result was an incredible variety of genres and a profound connection to the texts. One of my students declared, “I’d rather do two of these projects than write one essay.” Truthfully, the multigenre projects were more work than a traditional essay. However, students enjoyed the choice and creative license that the projects offered.

As I was writing, I rediscovered an old post in which I described writing a test with my students. I haven’t tried writing a test or a quiz with my students in a while, and it was a worthwhile activity. I should try it again. It was, I recalled as I re-read the piece, an interesting way to engage students in deeper learning, thinking about the material in ways they had not. It also made instructional design and assessment explicit to them.

One thing we have to consider when we teach, especially at the secondary level, and especially in AP courses, is whether or not we are giving students the time and space to engage deeply with the subject matter. We need to allow them to see the relevance of what they are learning by giving them opportunities to apply it, take it apart, put it together, and connect it. Deeper learning takes more time, and it means not “covering” everything.

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Professional Development Books that Influenced my Teaching Practices

I am asked often enough for recommendations of this sort of thing that I thought I’d share.

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe was the first truly useful and completely life-changing professional development book I read. I utterly altered the way I taught after reading it. It seems obvious to think about larger questions and determine what I want students to learn or be able to do by the end of a lesson or unit, but I wasn’t doing it before I read this book. This book is an essential in project-based learning. Some of my older posts written as I reflected on reading this book still get more traffic than anything else on this blog. Try searching for the tags “ubd” or “understanding by design” to read them.

After reading An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students by Ron Berger this summer, I completely revamped the way I teach writing, and it’s really working well. For more information about writing workshop in my classes, check out these posts: Writing Workshop Part 1, Writing Workshop Part 2, and Writing Workshop Part 3. One of our history teachers and I discussed how this process could be used in his classes as well, and he has begun to implement it with excellent results. We had an enthusiastic sharing session about it last week. I am so thrilled. The side benefits: 1) students are returning to the work, even after it’s been graded, to refine it further (not every student, true, but the fact that any student is doing this is remarkable to me); 2) no issues with plagiarism, which is a benefit I didn’t even consider when I started (but it makes sense if you are sharing your work with all your peers, you wouldn’t plagiarize it); 3) our classroom is a true community—one student commented on course evaluations that “we are always collaborating” and another said that the class is like “a family.” Students are beginning to ask for workshop. It’s amazing. I can’t say enough good things about how it has changed my classroom for the better, and it’s really because I read this book that I opted to try it out. One thing I’d like to see: an update of this book with consideration of using technology tools. Ron Berger carries around a massive amount of original student work, and digitizing it or doing the projects using digital tools would really help. A new section explaining how to do that would be great (I volunteer as tribute, if the folks at Heinemann or Ron Berger himself are interested).

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember the summer I went to a Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It was phenomenal. The performance-based methods advocated by Folger have increased my students’ engagement in Shakespeare and have helped them grapple with his language and themes. I have used Folger methods with students of all backgrounds and levels, and they just work. I couldn’t teach without this book. It makes me sad that there isn’t one for every play I’d consider teaching, but this volume has Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth, and two other volumes have been published that incorporate 1) Hamlet and Henry IV, Part One and 2) Twelfth Night and Othello. I would love to see one on Julius Caesar. I think that play is hard to teach, and it is so frequently taught. Could be useful. Anyone want to go in with me to design a good Caesar unit? Let me know.

Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing helped me understand the importance of modeling, of the teacher as learner. The book includes a DVD, so you can see Penny’s writing workshop in progress. She discusses how her students keep writer’s notebooks, how she incorporates minilessons and conferences, the ways in which she teaches genre, and how she assesses. It’s fantastic.

I have a lot of books on my shelf that I really need to get through. Hopefully, with some changes coming soon, I’ll have some time to do that.

So now it’s time for the real conversation: which resources do you recommend?

Just for the purposes of full disclosure, I’m an Amazon associate; however, none of the authors or publishers have offered me compensation for sharing these books, and I share these books with you because they have truly been helpful to me. The associate links are a convenience for those who wish to purchase from Amazon.

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UbD Educators Wiki

Keep Calm and Wiki OnSome years ago, after reading Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, I started a wiki for teachers to learn and share UbD units and ideas. Despite having over 500 members, the wiki doesn’t see a lot of new content. At this stage, I think only two members regularly contribute new content, and one of them is me.

If you are interested in helping, this is what we need:

  • Units and ideas from teachers in a variety of fields. Perhaps because I am an English teacher, and mostly English teachers keep up with this blog, most of the early contributors to the UbD Educators wiki were and still are English teachers, but as I said, aside from me, only one other English teacher is still actively posting units. I admit to using it myself just to keep track of my unit plans, which is fine, but it isn’t very interactive. If you teach using UbD, especially if you don’t teach English (but even if you do), please consider sharing your plans.
  • Chapter reflections. Miguel Guhlin made shell pages for chapter summaries. I admit I am conflicted about this because ASCD, Grant Wiggins, and Jay McTighe have been so supportive of the wiki, and I would hate to do anything that might prevent people from purchasing their book (which I think all teachers should read). However, I think it might be a great idea for people to use those pages to share their reflections and insights from chapters. If you have insights to contribute, please do.
  • What’s missing? What subject areas do we need to include? Links? Resources? If you think something should be on the wiki that isn’t, please add it.

Despite the fact that the main page has included a note that all the materials can be viewed by lurkers, and that you do not have to join the wiki to see anything, I still receive requests to join at the rate of one or two people a week, and none of the new members has made contributions in years. I don’t mind lurkers. If the early contributors had minded lurkers, we would have put the information behind some kind of registration wall. I am opposed to making people jump through hoops to access the materials, but I think this wiki has the potential to be a much greater repository than it is, and it can only become a great repository if we build it together.

I would be interested to know if people join with the intention of contributing but then feel shy about sharing their work online (overheard and paraphrased at the ISTE conference: Share your work. Teachers don’t share their work because they don’t think they’re doing great work. They ARE doing great work, but no one knows about it if you don’t share). Do people skim over the note about lurking and join because they think they will get to see more more materials if they do? I am genuinely curious, and I am not sure of the answer.

My hunch, as much as I hate the idea, is that folks are joining without reading that page, thinking they will access more materials if they do. The reason I think this might be the case is that I had a wiki for my students, and even though I clearly stated that only my students would be permitted to join the wiki, I still received requests until I finally had to turn off the ability to request membership because I was really tired of processing the membership denials for teachers who simply didn’t read. In the case of the UbD Educators wiki, over 500 people have joined, which is awesome, but they haven’t contributed, which is a lot less awesome.

On a side note, most of the visits to this blog are from folks looking to read UbD-related content, so I know there is real interest in the subject, and I know that teachers are looking for guidance and ideas. It might be nice if we could build up the wiki a bit so that they had some resources. In case you are worried, the materials are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, Noncommercial, Share-Alike license, meaning that work posted there can freely be used and remixed with credit given to the original author, but not for profit.

I guess I will get into how I feel about sites like Teachers Pay Teachers some other time. Not sure I want to stir that particular pot right now, and to be honest, I’m not really even sure why I feel the way I do about the site, so until I can articulate my thoughts more clearly, I’m just steering clear. I will say I think teachers fall into two camps when it comes to sharing: 1) people who share everything; 2) people who refuse to share anything. I have been lucky enough to know a lot of teachers who share, and I have benefited enormously from their ideas. Through their generosity, they have made a better teacher. At it’s core, that is all the UbD Educators wiki is about—sharing ideas so that we can all benefit and become better teachers.

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First Week

I just finished my first week as Technology Integration Specialist at Worcester Academy. My preliminary verdict? I’ve never been this happy at any job before. I have been working on SMART Board training and Wikispaces training for faculty, learning how to use Schoology (a great tool that is overshadowed by big competitors Moodle and Blackboard), building LEGO robots, and just generally becoming acclimated to the new environment.

I’m really excited about the role I will be playing in the school. In addition to my technology integration duties, I will also teach a middle school class on digital citizenship and a tenth grade English class, and I will co-sponsor the school’s LEGO Robotics club for middle schoolers. I am super excited about the LEGO Robotics club, especially after one of my new buddies from Carolina Day School reached out to me via Twitter to suggest a collaboration between our two schools.

Besides having colleagues who are excited about technology and are doing exciting things with technology integration in an environment that encourages and requires technology integration, I also have a variety of tools at my disposal. I have never been able to have access to all the tools—including professional development—that I need to do my job. That may sound like an astonishing statement, but most educators can completely relate to it. In fact, that’s the most overwhelming part: not knowing what to use.

I haven’t even taken time yet to process my first ISTE experience on this blog, but that will be forthcoming. I’m really excited about the year ahead. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, moving my family so far away, particularly when my children are on the autism spectrum and don’t like change. They had no memories of ever living in any other house than the one we lived in. They have adjusted surprisingly well, and I think once school starts, they will be happy. I like New England, too. Moving can be such a stressful event, and our move didn’t go as smoothly as we’d have liked. (Word of caution: Don’t hire Summit Van Lines to move your things. They gave us a low initial quote, but turned out not to be terribly cheap in the end, AND they took two weeks to deliver our stuff. I was not happy with them at all. They were almost impossible to communicate with, in addition to the other issues. Steer clear!)

In all, it’s looking like a very good change, and I’m really happy.

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RPG’s in Education

This morning I was thinking about an activity my 7th grade social studies teacher assigned called the Redwood Controversy. My classmates and I were each given different roles. In order to understand how great this assignment was, I need to preface my description of the activity and my role in it by explaining I was easily the most liberal child in my class. In our class election, I was the lone student who voted for Walter Mondale. I remember going with my parents to the polls, begging them not to vote for Ronald Reagan (I knew they planned to). I remember desperately trying to change their minds. The Redwood Controversy (look: you can buy it here) is essentially an RPG, or role-playing game, in which students are given roles in a senate hearing about a logging company wanting to begin logging on protected forest land. I was outraged. How could a company want to do that? Of course they were in the wrong. Then Ms. Snyder assigned me my role: I was to be the logging company’s attorney. It was a big role. I had to research my position and answer my senator classmates’ questions. I knew the case wasn’t going my way, but as the game progressed, I wanted to win. Even though I didn’t agree with my own position, I was increasingly frustrated by my classmates’ inability to see how reasonable my arguments were.

Well, I didn’t win. The environmentalists won the day in my class. Some few days later, I was called to the assistant principal’s office while I was once again in Ms. Snyder’s class. I was terrified. I had never been called to an administrator’s office for any reason. I couldn’t imagine what I had done. My fear must have shown on my face because I remember he said to me, “I’ll bet you’re wondering what you did.” He reassured me that I was not in trouble. He had a certificate in his hand and he read it to me, presented it to me, and congratulated me. Ms. Snyder had given me an award for my performance in the Redwood Controversy debate. When I went back to class, I remember she caught my eye and gave me a sort of smile. Being recognized for my hard work felt good. I still have the certificate somewhere, and naturally, when I looked for it to include the exact wording here in this post, I couldn’t find it, but I remember Ms. Snyder wrote that I defended my position well without becoming overwhelmed. This learning experience stands out in my mind today as one of my best. I had to think about my arguments and do research about my position. I had to look at an issue from a point of view that differed from my own, which was actually the most important part of the learning experience for me. Taking on a role, especially one I wouldn’t have chosen, taught me a great deal about the environmental issue at hand. It was early exposure to bias, too: I remember seeing some of the materials my classmates had and realizing that the information was presented to them in a much different light in their materials than it was in mine.

My point in bringing it up again (because I’ve written about it before) is that it is easily one of the most memorable learning experiences of my K-12 education. I think I learned more about environmental issues and controversy in that one assignment than I did in the rest of my education experiences, even in college. I still remember it quite clearly. Admittedly I don’t haven’t done any research to back this up, but I am wondering if role-playing gives students an active way to learn that will not only make students learn better but also personalize learning. Any readers have similar experiences with RPG’s? I do intend to see if I can find some research to back up this assumption, and I am sure I’m not the first person to examine the question of how good RPG’s might be for education. After all, I think a lot of us remember playing Oregon Trail in order to learn about what westward expansion was really like for pioneers. However, I haven’t noticed it being used a lot. My current school has Mock Trial, and I know other schools do Model U.N., but I haven’t personally witnessed (or experienced) a lot of teachers harnessing the power of RPG’s, whether computer games or physical games, to teach students. One time in which I used an RPG to great effect was a Thoreau lesson I found on Discovery’s website.

I’m wondering if introducing students to reenactment might not be a great way to pique students’ interest, too. Historical reenactors, such as Civil War Reenactors and Society for Creative Anachronism members, are often viewed as huge history buffs. They read everything they can get their hands on about the time they reenact, but they reach a certain point at which they really want to live it, not just read and learn about it. Rather than being the endpoint of serious historical interest, reenactment could be the gateway for learning. Have any readers taken students to reenactments, had students participate in reenactments, or invited reenactors to school?

Many long-time readers know I have participated in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It took place the week after school let out, and I have never wanted to get back into the classroom so badly the week after school let out as I did that week. I immediately wanted to take everything I had learned back into the classroom. Essentially, drama, RPG’s, and reenactment have many similarities and involve many of the same kinds of thinking skills, decisions, and learning experiences.

I can’t help but think we really need to be doing more with RPG’s in education. Do any of you have resources you can point me toward? Interested in joining me on this research excursion? Might be a good project for a group wiki on RPG’s in education, which could be a collection of ideas, resources, and research citations (wish educational research wasn’t so often behind a paywall).

Are you in?

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