More Than Technically Engaged

We’re at the end of our poetry study and my students have written some amazing poems. I structure the unit so that as we examine each feature of craft, we practice that feature and focus on it, while building each layer. It unlocks the reading process and helps demystify the moves poets make.

In the past, I’ve asked my students to revise a poem based on all the craft features and use it to demonstrate what they have learned about poetry. For some reason, this ability to look closely at their writing and make revisions on creative writing never seemed to gel when the work was on paper. This time I took a different approach and brought in a few digital tools.

The poetry project asks students to revise all five poetry assignments and choose how best to share them with a larger audience. We’re using flipsnack, Google Story Builder, and WeVideo to transform their typed documents into digital books with flipping pages and images, living poems, and photo stories. What’s been exciting for me is that in the process of creating their digital products, revision becomes more attractive to my students. They read, reread, reflect, and consider their poems carefully when choosing which lines to add to a page and which images to include. The digital product options also encourage them to consider how the poem might “speak” to a viewer best and it hones their media literacy eyes.

When we opened our Chromebooks today, my students dove deep into their work. They drafted, revised, reformatted, tried again–and kept experimenting. The room was nearly silent at times as each student focused on her (or his) poetry so intently that there was no temptation to drift away from the work. Every now and then I would hear, “You’ve got to see my sonnet,” or “What do you think of my rhyme scheme here?” As I circulated through the room, student questions allowed me to teach them computer literacy skills like keyboard shortcuts, design tips, eyeflow, and even terms like PDF.

I’m looking forward to their final projects and on Friday we will celebrate their artistry by setting up the Chromebooks to display their poems in a digital gallery, ready for comments, laughter, and appreciation. The best part for me are the many ways their performance on this assessment shows me what they have learned deeply and much more meaningfully than a traditional unit test.

Cross-posted on Sanderling.

Fingerpainting with Perfectionism

Recently, I assigned students to read a nonfiction article by art historian Richard Mühlberger called “What Makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt?” We had spent time as a class using the Artful Thinking strategy Claim-Support-Question (from Harvard’s Project Zero) to examine Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch.”

The Lesson: Part 1

For the protocol, students first observed the painting on Google Art Project and we discussed what we thought we saw in the image. The levels of zoom on Google Art project allowed us to see the image more accurately than if we had merely used a full-screen image of the whole painting.

After we had discussed what we noticed, I invited the class to make a claim based on their observations. They then had to support that claim with evidence from the painting. Finally, I invited each student to ask a lingering question about the painting that we may or may not be able to answer. I collected these responses at the end of the class period, gave individual feedback, and returned their responses at the beginning of the next class.

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as de ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1642

The Lesson: Part 2

We spent some time previewing the Mühlberger article, looking at the embedded images, title, and subheadings. I asked them how previewing these elements might help them better read and remember.

Next, we built a KWL on the board and focused on building the K and W. My seventh graders told me they were not familiar with this graphic organizer, but they were surprised and excited to see just how much they already “knew” about the topic before they read.

Finally, I asked the class to read the article on their own and see if they could answer their W column “wonders” or “want to know” questions through their reading.

I chose three critical thinking questions from the textbook to assess both reading comprehension and drawing conclusions based on the painting, their reading, and their analysis.


What makes this lesson effective are the many ways students have to use their observations to draw inferences and build a mental model of their understanding. If we had read the article without previewing the art, my students would likely have seen this reading exercise as nothing more than “something to do in Mrs. Leung’s class.” Learning how to use claim-support-question as a strategy for approaching art allows students to practice engaging with a visual “text” while drawing conclusions that are not limited to one single interpretation. This is good practice before asking students to read research or write an argument.

The students who struggled the most with reading and responding to the critical thinking questions were high achieving students who tend to worry about whether or not their work is “right” in the eyes of authority. One student in particular who is an admitted perfectionist chafed at one of the first questions.

The question asked the student to consider the painting’s incorrect, informal title “The Night Watch.” After examining the way the painting looks to a viewer and reading the background information about the painting’s true subject, the student was supposed to generate her own alternate title and support it with reasons. Since this was an open-ended response, as long as the student could support her choice of title with reasonable evidence from the painting and the article, almost any response would be considered correct. When we talked, her frustration was clear, so I asked her to try something different. Before writing a “good” title, I wanted her to write three “terrible” ones. If she was able to write a terrible one, I hoped that would help her continue to think about the painting and what would make a good title (or not). That tip didn’t work instantly, but it did offer her a strategy for coping with the paralysis of perfectionism through play. The student did overcome her mental block and wrote a new title (in addition to three pretty silly ones!)

As I continue to grow in my practice, I see a need for more opportunities for students to meet the challenge of “no one right answer” and to give themselves the permission to use divergent thinking in order to fuel creative thinking.

Cross-posted on Sanderling.

Argument: Was this in the cards?

According to the student handbook, playing cards of any kind are not allowed at school. It’s an obscure rule buried deep in the handbook and has its reasons, but isn’t on the list of top student infractions.

"Wave" by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

“Wave” by Caleb Roenigk cc Attribution License

A few of my students had been using a deck at some point during their lunch break to perform magic tricks, and an adult rightly asked them to put the cards away.

This is where things got interesting.

The students came to me, their language arts teacher. We’ve been studying argument writing and my students, instead of wanting to complain or protest, wanted to write an argument to defend their use of the playing cards as appropriate and to ask for an exception to the school rules. I’ve seen this movie before. Over the years I have witnessed student petition drives, performance art, handbills plastered across every public surface, and even outright rebellion as students fought to have their voices heard. Often there was an edge of immaturity to these protests because, let’s face it, adults have the power and the advantage. The immature response is a result of their perceived lack of power or frustration due to feeling unheard. The adult reaction isn’t always as constructive as it could be, often devolving into a “because we said so” or “sorry you feel that way; too bad.”

That wasn’t happening this time. These students were calm, rational, and respectful. They acknowledged that the adult in charge who had asked them to put the cards away was following the rules and they held no grudge. They had done their research, brought a copy of the handbook rule to me with the significant parts highlighted, and simply asked: how can we have our point of view heard?

What is a teacher to do? I knew the rule and the simple thing would be to tell the students there was no point in arguing. This is the rule; we have to abide by it with no exceptions. Instead, I offered to help them put their thoughts in order. The rule is inconsistently applied with some playing cards allowed at certain times of day, including a four-table Pokémon game before school officially begins. They had been using a standard deck of playing cards and the rule assumes these cards are a distraction while the other games’ cards are not.

The students came to my room during team time to get my advice and to start putting their argument together. I will read it and likely give them advice for revision or editing, but the words and opinions will be theirs. As I listened to their thoughts, I was so impressed with the way they turned to writing and dispassionate argument as a way to find their voice and a sense of personal power. Real world writing, indeed!

Are the adults in administration ready for these voices? Are we prepared for students to take the lessons we teach them about analyzing evidence and defending a position to challenge our rules, policies, and procedures?

When a student uses close-reading strategies to mark up the handbook, are we ready for honest conversation and to possibly admit we need to change?

I hope we are. There could be nothing worse than to teach students how to become their own advocates through reason, logic, and maturity to tell them it only works when it’s for a grade.

The 30-Day Challenge

At the beginning of January, I like to talk with my students about goal setting. We’re in the middle of the school year and now that the honeymoon is over, it’s time for us to make some choices about how we orient ourselves toward the work to be done in our remaining months together. In the past, I have asked students to write a personal goal statement or even reflect on their personal new year’s resolutions, but then I watched a TED talk by Google engineer Matt Cutts.

In this very brief talk, Matt Cutts argues very simply that by selecting a personal challenge for thirty days can be a way to revitalize your life and either add something new that you’ve always wanted to try, or it can be a chance to do without something that might be a bad habit. I watched the video with my classes and we’ve been inspired to try the thirty-day challenge.

In these doldrums of the school year, it can be hard to face the cold, early mornings and the flat, uninterrupted greyness of the world outside. It’s easy for students and teachers to focus on the long months ahead. By making the next thirty days meaningful, I am hoping my classes will feel purposeful and fresh.

Starting on Monday, in each of my classes, we are either going to have the “vocabulary word of the day” or the “fun fact” of the day. I plan to post a schedule for student volunteers to sign up for a word or fact, then we’ll spend two minutes each day exploring language or ideas. I hope to report back on how this challenge shapes up for us, and I hope that my students will still be energized enough after thirty days to tackle something new.

The Invisibles

We all have them in our classes, the students who have learned to sit back, blend in, and not call attention to themselves. They do their work without complaints, and even more often, without asking the kinds of questions that would help them better understand and deepen their learning. Many of the Invisibles feel this way because they are not the hair-trigger question-askers or answerers, so they let their more extroverted peers and the “smart kids” do all the talking. They are also not the attention seekers, the talkative, or disruptive. Their work is generally good, if sometimes shallow or superficial, and often they have learned to work this way because compliance and obedience have “worked” for them. It’s not that they don’t want to stand in the spotlight or take more risks, but the cost of moving out of their comfortable, familiar role can seem too high.

These students need us to see them, to let them know that we see their potential and that we believe in them, to challenge their fixed mindsets and perceptions of themselves. I remember the first time I knew one of my teachers saw ME: the person, quiet–but capable, and at the same time, unsure. I was in seventh grade and my science teacher asked me to join the varsity academic bowl team–as the only girl and only seventh grader on the eighth grade team. It opened a whole world of possibilities to me, just knowing that my teacher saw potential in me. If she believed in me, maybe I could take the risk. I think about this now as a seventh grade teacher myself. I realize she knew exactly what she was doing and she was helping me become Visible, to trust myself.

To borrow an idea from the Velveteen Rabbit, once someone SEES you, you become Visible; you can never go back to being Invisible.

Not a weed, but a wildflower. Not bought or sold, but bravely beautiful. Defiant.

Not a weed, but a wildflower. Not bought or sold, but bravely beautiful. Defiant.

Who in your classroom needs you to SEE them, maybe for the first time in their school career? I challenge you to reach out and offer that student an opportunity to see themselves as something other than Invisible.

Lessons Learned from a Social Networking SIM

The Lesson: Part 1

Close reading and the ability to engage with text instead of just letting words flow over eyeballs are skills that I enjoyed developing. I was a voracious reader in middle school and read through complete shelves of books in the school library, one shelf at a time.

When I entered high school, it was my creative writing teacher who introduced me to annotation. I had never before dared to mark in a book or on the pristine margins of a photocopied handout. When I did, it set free a different way of reading. I looked closer, thought harder, questioned and relished more.

You would think with my love for reading and annotation that it would be easy for me to convince my skeptical students to give it a try. Cajoling, begging, demonstrating: none of these approaches seemed to work. After a few random and perfunctory underlines and non sequiturs scrawled here and there out of obligation, I tried a new approach.

The Lesson: Part 2

We talked about their drug of choice: Instagram. I asked my seventh graders to explain to me how social media works on Instagram. They told me how to post and share content, use hashtags to label it, and how to add comments to give feedback. We also talked about meaningful vs. meaningless comments.

Then I made a proposal: Imagine this classroom is a social networking platform called desktop and the poem we read is a piece of shared content. What kinds of comments or hashtags would you add to this poem if you wanted comments or feedback?

The response was instantaneous. They started rereading and marking almost every line of the poem “The Limited” by Sherman Alexie.#noviolence #poetrysaveslives

After they finished, we walked around the room in complete silence using our pens to comment on one another’s desktop posts. Checkmarks for likes, of course.

I have never seen my students so focused, pausing to read and respond over and over. I told them we’d work for seven minutes; they wanted ten.

The Lesson: Part 3

I was part of the conversation, too, and as I scanned the “posts” it became clear how my students position themselves in social media. While there was much thoughtful commentary, there were few connections. Many of the hashtags were appended at random with someone marking #yolo and #swagg on every page, though there was no meaning behind the tag.

Students also tended to bandwagon. There were many comments of: Yes. I agree. Me too. Yup. Good idea. With no extension or challenge to anyone’s thinking. Questions and differing points of view were disregarded altogether.

In one class period, it became a race to see who could garner the most checkmark “likes” on silly tags like #gobyu or #poem.


After the end of the experiment, I led a debrief with each class. They did not fully understand how superficial much of their commentary was.

I was disheartened by the superficiality and their unwillingness to engage in anything that wasn’t trite, cute, or as they put it “double-tap” worthy. (One for a like, one for a repost.) They don’t see social media as a communication genre, but as a self-promotion and posturing venue. Posts are less about the value of the content and more about the analytics: How many likes? How many comments? How many shares?

I think I will try this experiment again, but with more guidance and clearer expectations for communicating thoughtfully.

(Cross-Posted on Sanderling)