When the Ponies, Unicorns, and Rainbows Finally Come: Welcome to Believeland or Growing Writers in the War Eagle Writing Studio

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The first twelve weeks of school have been a roller coaster in the War Eagle Writing Studio.  I’ll share more about our struggles and successes in a blog post I’ll publish this weekend, but over the last few days I’m observing signs that my students are growing as writers.  This week we’ve been inquiring into”Where I’m From” poems with mentor texts and “noticings” activities (another blog post in the making); we began working on our brainstorming list for ideas with a graphic organizer on Wednesday, and most students began drafting yesterday or today.

I’ve been struck by how so many students, especially my 6th and 7th graders, have been writing with a very deliberate and noticeable intention and purpose the last few days.  I began thinking about the parallels of intention and process in art studio work and writing studio work after my friend and fellow teaching colleague Dorsey Sammataro (did I mention how amazing she is?) showed me a video in early September created by one of her AP Art Studio students, Megan Dammann:

In our writing conferences and observations I’ve made of students thinking and writing over the last two days, I’ve been struck by how focused and invested students have been in their writing.  There is a new intensity I’m seeing as they think and write.  Many students now are talking about their writing process, what they are thinking about in their current drafts, and/or next drafts instead of merely asking if their draft “is good” when they talk to me about their work.  They also seem more responsive to my questioning I’m doing in our writing conferences (thank you Carl Anderson) as I try to ask them questions to prompt their thinking rather than tell them what I think.  Our writing conferences are starting to shift to conversations about process and decision-making by students; they have never been about how I would suggest they “fix” anything, but I see students now are starting to articulate their own thinking more clearly and in deeper ways.

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How do you assess and capture intention and process with your writers?  How do you celebrate that and make it more visible in your classroom?  I would love to hear what others are doing.

One class in particular, my 4th period group of 7th grade writers, has been especially invested in the poetry unit we’ve been doing for the last six weeks.  Earlier this week, they were asking about doing another poetry reading.  Today our principal, Jennifer Kogod, dropped in to visit and took time to chat with every writer and read his/her work.  As a teacher, nothing thrilled your heart like having a principal who is a literacy advocate who interacts with the students; for the students, her presence clearly conveyed to them that our principal genuinely cares about their work.  As we continued to conference and draft the last half of class, two of my male students said, “I wish I could stay in here and work on my poems the rest of the day!”  One asked if he could get permission from his last period teacher to come and work in my room; I told him I would email her and that if he had completed all his work and she was fine with the request, I was fine for him to join my last class of the day which is a 6th grade section of writing workshop.   The other student wanted to know if he could come in before school and work on his poems!

I KNOW, RIGHT?!?!

The class then wanted to do an impromptu poetry reading, so that we did.  The two students, Ben and Ryland, shared their drafts in progress.  Ben then asked me if I could text the video I made of him reading his poem to his mother (and I did).  His 6th period teacher graciously agreed to let him join us, and he helped me kick off my class by reading his poem in progress to my 6th graders.

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I cannot tell you what this kind of cross-grade pollination does to a teacher’s heart—I literally felt like we were all soaring as he shared his draft, his advice for my 6th grade writers, and how he went about the process of getting his first draft composed.  How amazing is this kind of participatory learning where the novices become the experts and share that expertise they are growing?  He then worked on his poem for a little while before breaking off to conference with 6th grade writers and serve as a writing buddy to listen to drafts and share glows and grows to those writers.

I am sure we’ll move and back along this continuum of growth throughout the year, but I feel like I’m seeing many of my students finally start to turn an important corner as writers and learners.  I am seeing my students to think more deeply about process and to work with more intention.   I can’t measure any of this growth with a test, and I need better ways of documenting that though I’m still figuring that out.  All of my classes were so engaged in their writing—-today is the first day I can truly say that about every single section–all six of them—and it is truly music to my ears.  It’s the kind of day I thought about all summer as I looked forward to returning to the classroom and this opportunity to teach writing all day.  I’m excited to be part of this journey as a teacher AND a learner with my students, and I can’t wait to see where we go next together.  The fact I’m sharing this with you on a Friday night probably speaks to how epic of an experience the last few days have been.   Welcome to BELIEVELAND!

 

Sharing Their Voices with the World: Helping our ESOL Students Self-Publish with Smashwords

The Hooch Learning Studio, in conjunction with Ms. Balogh’s ESOL students, is delighted to announce the publication of Twelve Worlds, One Book.  This book is an anthology of student writing created by Ms. Balogh’s students crafted as part of the work they crafted in Ms. Balogh’s writer’s workshop approach to composition instruction.  The book contains many pieces of writing, including poetry, short stories, essays, memoirs, monologues, plays, a biosketch, and microfiction.

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How did this book project come about?  Earlier this semester as I was working with Ms. Balogh and her students on mini-research assignments, Ms. Balogh told me about the writer’s workshop approach she had implemented this academic year.  I asked her what they were going to do with their finished pieces, and at the time, the students were just keeping them for themselves.  When I suggested we publish their work as a collection of original writing in eBook format, she and the students enthusiastically said yes!  Since I had previously worked on a collaborative eBook project using the Smashwords publishing platform, I decided to use it for this project.  What is Smashwords?

Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of indie ebooks. We make it fast, free and easy for any author or publisher, anywhere in the world, to publish and distribute ebooks to the major retailers.

Students began submitting the completed manuscripts of their works they had composed over the course of this academic year this earlier this month.  The students also chose the book title, decided how the book would be organized, and Hitoshi Akiyama designed the book cover.  My task was to compile the pieces into one master manuscript and then format it according to the Smashwords style guide.  This process took me about three full days to complete.

Yesterday, we debuted the book at our eBook launch party after school and celebrated our students’ success with each other, parents, fellow teachers, and administrators.   Students are already talking about eBook projects for 2016-17!

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The class eBook is now available for FREE at Smashwords!  You can download it in several formats:

  • PDF file
  • Mobi (for Kindles or Kindle apps)
  • ePub format (works on multiple devices and platforms including iBooks (iPad, iPhone) and the Overdrive app.

Our class eBook has its very own ISBN number (!!!) and we are waiting approval for premium distribution.  We are so very excited to be able to support Ms. Balogh and her students and to help them have a medium for sharing their voices with the world!  We also plan to integrate the eBook into our school library digital collection.

Here are some reflections on this experience from Ms. Balogh and her students:

Ms. Balogh:

When I saw the book and saw the copyright page, I got tears in my eyes.  My students wrote a book!!  What an amazing experience.  This group of students is one of the best I’ve ever worked with.  I’m so very proud of them.

Vrajna P.

It was amazing to be part of this project. I would love to do it again. I learn so many things from writing and it helped me to improve my English. After launching this book I feel so happy and I feel like that I am something. I feel like I have achieved something.

Sofia R.

Being part of this book  was a amazing experience, and I’m so glad to have this journey in my story, to take with me for the rest of my life.  I can’t wait to tell everyone about this awesome project that me and my class just done.

Hyesun K.

This is first time [for me] to make books; I was the author.  I like to make different genres for us.  When I made the poem or short story, memory, essay it was enjoyable to make it,  and I think my English is better.   It’s really fantastic experience to make a book.  I am really thankful for Ms.B and Ms. Hamilton.  And to make relationships with friends.  In class we enjoyed writing and thinking about it.  I want to do it again next year.  Some of students are leaving ESOL, but they will remember the  experience with Ms.B, Ms. Hamilton and me.  Thanks for giving great experience.

Pessi L.

It was amazing to be part of this project. I really liked publishing my own work and reading other students’ writings. Usually I write essays just for a grade and the teacher is only person who reads them. But this time it was different. It feels like there is a reason to write if someone actually reads it.

As you can see, this project had tremendous personal meaning for our students.  It is my hope that our eBook project will inspire other teachers and students to think about how the media center program here can help them self-publish student work and to expand the possibilities for our media center program in 2016-17!

The Culture of Inquiry-Driven Learning in Art Classes: Inspiring the Possibilities for Research and Composing Literacy Practices

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Last fall  I had the pleasure of spending a good bit of time with Dorsey Sammataro’s art classes during the first nine weeks of the semester.  One of the things that struck me about her classes was the inquiry-driven approach that felt like a real-world workshop because there is shared ownership of learning by the students.   In late October, I was really thinking about how her approach to teaching and learning reflected the ideals of inquiry-driven learning and how could her art classes inspire how we approach research projects.

While I’ve been busy with other projects, assignments/initiatives, and working with other academic classes, Dorsey and I have continued to muse and think together.   Earlier this month,  I had the chance to observe Dorsey’s 1st period students, and this experience crystallized the possibilities of learning I want to see happening as part of our instructional program.  At the same time, it really brought to the surface a lot of the frustrations I have felt in recent years as I’ve tried to elevate my work and role as an instructional designer.   If you’ve taught in a high school, you know that these learning environments are often the most difficult to frame from an inquiry stance on learning and literacy.

I thought it would be helpful to share the aspects of the learner experience I’ve seen in Dorsey’s classes since starting here last August.  Dorsey provides learning structures, but students ultimately make choices.  Some elements I’ve observed include:

  • Students set learning goals—short terms and long term.
  • Students engage in multiple “drafts” and passes at art work.
  • Student have freedom to “fail” because failure is viewed as positive and part of the learning experience that values experimenting and mistakes.
  • Students keep idea books/sketchbooks that they share and serve as a place to pen ideas for immediate use or to revisit at a later time.
  • Students do regular peer review and discussion of their works; collaboration is encouraged and an integral part of daily life in these classes.
  • Students engage in frequent reflection and self-assessment.
  • Formative assessment is integral in these classes as is time to actually engage in the craft of creating art.
  • There is always something to learn from completed projects even if they did not turn out the way students planned or if they are not completely successful in the eyes of the student.

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As I have been drafting this post, I was taken back to the roots of my interest in an inquiry stance in learning:  READ 8100 (Inquiry Based Literacy) with Dr. Bob Fecho at the University of Georgia.  I could write an entire post about this life-changing course, but instead, I’ll point you to some reflections I composed (2002!) in response to a reading on Paulo Freire. Here are some of the qualities of a learning space that takes an inquiry stance on learning (this list was compiled by my classmate Sharon Murphy Augustine, and I incorporated them into my response):

  • DIS-ease. There are many questions raised without answers
  • Establishes more than the teacher as validator of knowledge/work
  • Feeling of responsibility to yourself and the class
  • Recognizes classroom as a complicated, non-laboratory place filled with complex, caring human beings
  • Fights culture of school that wants THE right answer
  • Doesn’t hide what is occurring in class and makes class part of determining what is occurring.
  • Patience- doesn’t give up too quickly and realizes community/learning/inquiry doesn’t happen overnight.

Unlike the banking concept of education,  Freire says,  “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(72).

Of course, these qualities dovetail with those of participatory learning spaces, something I’ve written and spoken about extensively over the last few years.   You can search my blog if you are interested in reading more, check out my pieces in print, or view my presentations.

One of the regular learning structures of Dorsey’s class is peer critique—students have an opportunity to share a completed piece of work and share the successes as well as the struggles.  It’s a fantastic reflective experience for the student sharing as well as the peers providing feedback.

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Here is a sample set of reflection questions that Dorsey uses when students are ready to share out individual projects with the larger class:

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Students write or type a narrative based on these questions to help them think about the verbal/oral discussion with the group.  Over a series of a couple of days, each student has an opportunity to share these reflections with the group, and classmates then provide on the spot feedback.  It’s a relaxed conversation, and I’m always struck by how articulate, candid, and invested students are in their work and assessment of their work.

So what does the exemplary work of an art teacher have to do with me as a school librarian?

What I see in Dorsey’s art classes invites us to rethink how we see literacy practices like research projects and writing assignments.  What if more teachers approached research and writing the way Dorsey’s artists approach their work?  What if students had more say in topic selections?  What if the processes of topic selection, developing questions, investigating, wrestling with information, drafting, and composing final products (whether a paper or alternative forms of expressions/composing/creating) were valued as much as the end product (usually a traditional paper)?  What if formative assessments were integrated and valued as much as the summative assessment?  I think we would see deeper learning, higher quality of work, authenticity, and more excitement because students would be taking responsibility for their learning rather than the experience being completely teacher driven.   It’s hard to be emotionally invested in something when you have little to no input or voice.

I’ve been lucky to experience this sustained, inquiry-driven approach with different teachers in recent years, but these experiences are often the exception, not the norm.   I become giddy when I get to help co-design learning experiences where we can go deep and kids are not rushed through some of the most important life skills they will acquire and take with them wherever they go.  I relish these opportunities to do deep dives and give students choice and ownership of their learning as well as meaningful learning structures to scaffold that decision making.  I worry about the consequences of these kinds of literacy practices are increasingly commonplace and  limit kids to certain kinds of assignments that are often couched in “college and career” readiness rather than a broader mindset of life readiness where literacy practices are evolving as people move through different careers and personal experiences.  Many of you teachers, librarians, and students are weary of research assignments that feel formulaic and artificial.    I have always aspired to be someone who helps grow a learning environment of inquiry and curiosity and meaning making like Dorsey does in her classrooms.  As a teacher and librarian, I worry about the practices I’ve seen in recent years with research assignments and how it seems increasingly marginalized at the high school level.

Maybe it’s my life and professional experiences of recent years, maybe it’s part of being this far in my career with only a few years left to go, or maybe it’s the culmination of these factors and more, but whatever the case, I feel a sense of urgency to be a catalyst and team in player in a larger learning environment that dares to re-imagine not only research and literacy practices in academic areas, but also the public school learning experience from an inquiry, participatory lens.   The art studio experiences that Dorsey and her students live and breathe serve as inspiration for how we might rethink the dominant research and composing practices and framework.  I am looking forward to continued collaboration with Dorsey, art teacher Donna Jones, and their students as we all learn from each other.