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The Epic Classroom: Being The Hero of Your Own Story (Part One)

I was at a professional development meeting today on the topic of close reading. I'm actually a fan of close reading if it's done well. For example, it should begin with a truly difficult and yet also high interest text. It also needs to be a flexible strategy that meets the needs of each student. 

Unfortunately, I noticed a trend in the opposite direction. For example, annotation in my district is a lockstep process with students memorizing a set of annotation symbols. For all the talk of "reading with a purpose," this style puts the process over the person. In addition, we were reminded in a very David Coleman-style article that it's not about prior knowledge and that our questions shouldn't be about personal connection. Every question should be text-dependent, meaning they should find the answer from the reading. 

I've seen what happens with this approach. The rigid annotation process means that students obsess over doing it the "right way" rather than analyzing the text.  They view close reading as the goal of reading rather than a method used to make the reading come alive. They buy into a mistaken notion that reading is safe, neutral and antiseptic; and that their prior knowledge, ideas and beliefs have no place in making sense out of information. 

In the entire focus on close reading, we haven't asked why students would want to read something. We never delved into the notion of students choosing their own annotation process or figuring out when they want to read closely or independently. We never asked about the bias of information and the notion that students might just be engaged in something conflict-ridden and dangerous when they search for truth. Instead, we focussed on symbols and recipes. 

So, it has me thinking about the structure of a story. The best stories have active protagonists who are driven by their desires, motives, fears and character traits. Meanwhile, the worst stories are the types where the characters are simply the consequential figures in a series of events. Those are the stories where the backstory and personality are merely a set of descriptions rather than the driving force of a plot. 

This has me thinking about the story of a classroom. I believe every student wants to be the hero or his or her story. When we push lockstep processes on students and say that personal connections don't matter, what we are saying to kids is essentially, "You will always be a flat character in a plot that we determined without your input."  In other words, we end up creating bad stories with the best of intentions. 

Photo by Jonas Tana
 
John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About.He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.
Seven Shifts in How Students Do Research

Image Credit: Research by Andrew Nolte from The Noun Project


When I first began teaching, I viewed research as something separate from the rest of learning. We did research projects or we kept the research as a phase within a project. Since then, I've had some shifts in how we do research:

1. Start with questions. 
I'm not sure why this took me so long to figure out. Outside of school, research often begins with a question (often a bigger question) followed by smaller questions. In my first few years of teaching, I had kids research topics. Essentially, I had asked all the questions and turned the questions into statements that they then used for research.

2. Begin with curiosity. 
This is similar to the first shift, but it has more to do with the driving motivation for research. I try and begin with student curiosity. It is not only more authentic, but it forces kids to think deeper about the facts they are finding. Instead of saying, "You'll be researching globalization and its effect on our economic systems," I say, "In looking at globalization, what are you most intrigued by? What sticks out to you as something you want to know more about?"

3. Make it flexible. 
I remember giving kids a specific research grid. Then, I changed it to notecards the next year. Later, I realized that different kids could have their own methods of organizing their research. Some would use a concept map, others would use tables or lists and still others preferred visual curation or digital notecards. If my goal is to empower students to be self-directed learners, using a flexible organizational structure is helpful.

4. Pay attention to bias. 
I think we do a disservice to kids when we teach them that there is a binary difference between fact and opinion, when, in fact, it's more of a sliding scale. We rob them of the controversy of "facts" and the conflict necessary in order to make sense out of their world. This is why we use research as a chance to find and identify bias in sources. It's why we pay attention to loaded language and the construction of arguments. We ask hard questions about the omission of certain facts. It takes time, but ultimately it's worth it.

5. Start early. 
Often, research happens at the end of the year. It's sort-of a culminating project, often connected to a topic (state reports, animal report, etc.). What if we started research in the beginning? What if students began seeing research as a normal part of reading and thinking? I've found that Geek Out Projects can be a great introduction to research. Kids take something they are passionate about already and then research it in-depth. This guarantees that they have prior knowledge while also getting a chance to share their interests and passions with the world.

6. Rethink sources. 
Although my students find information from books and magazines, they also use social media to connect with experts. When researching social issues, they interview people in their community. In the past, I had students conduct Needs Assessments, where they used polls to collect data that they then analyzed in their research. I might just do the Needs Assessments again this year.

7. Cycle back. 
I used to have students go through phases where they asked questions, did research and then created something. Now, I see the need to have them cycle back to research when writing a blog post, creating a video or doing a project. Often, in making something new they find a gap that they hadn't seen. So, we take some time to go back to the research phase again.

 
John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers. 
If a Villain Used Digital Tools


I've been thinking about what villains would be like if they embraced digital technology. Here are a few of my ideas:

Yelp: 
  • I asked him to blow up the Taj Mahal. He was ten days late and only knocked down one spire. Ugh. 
  • He sold me a ray gun, but it was a Ronald Ray Gun, which meant it was only able to shrink the middle class. Not cool. 

Air B&B:
  • Do not rent here. Not kid-friendly at all. Ray guns out in the open. But he did leave free peanuts. That was a nice touch.  
  • Great view of the city, but accessibility to parking was a pain. 
  • Dr. Cyborg was helpful and courteous. However, his maniacal laughter kept us up all night. 
 
Uber: 
  • I called him to take me from D.C. to Baltimore. Next thing I know, we're in Indianapolis for him to battle Iron Deficient Man (Iron Man's under-achieving younger brother). If I had known he was a villain, I would have hired a cab instead.
  • Great driver, but he has a tendency to blow things up on the way to your destination. Not bad, if you're into explosions.  

Kickstarter:  
  • If you donate $100 or more for the Super Duper Death Ray, I'll leave an solo version of 'My Endless Love' on your voicemail.
 
Twitter: 
  • Turns out superheroes don't actually hang out at the supermarket. Bummed. #notthatsuper #grocerychat 
  • Some dude just asked me if this is my "real face" or if it's cos play. Not even sure what cosplay is. #villainproblems 
  • Okay, now that I know what cosplay is, I'm doing Cosby Cosplay and busting out my gaudiest sweater. Just because Cosby Cosplay sounds fun. #villainsgottahavefun 

LinkedIn
  • I have never worked with such an unprofessional super-villain. I get it, I'm a hero. I wear tights. But does that mean he has to keep calling them jeggings?
  • Look, we heroes have feelings, too. Asking me if I'm a "real hero" because I use technology instead of superpowers? That's simply not professional. I spent the rest of the night downing a bucket of Chunky Monkey in the Bat Cave. 
 
John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About.
He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.
Download Ten Free Writing Ideas for the First Week of School

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the visual writing ideas I use in the first week of school. I decided to put all of the ideas into sets with some ideas on how they can be used and some additional explanations for each writing idea.


Check out the visual writing idea for the first week of school. This set comes with both a curriculum and a set of visual ideas (as .png). Simply click on the icon above and it should download. Click on the .zip file (most likely in your Download folder of your computer) and everything should work. The resource is Creative Commons, meaning you can print, display or distribute it as you wish. 


Check out the visual writing idea for the first week of school. This set comes with both a curriculum and a set of visual ideas (as .png). Simply click on the icon above and it should download. Click on the .zip file (most likely in your Download folder of your computer) and everything should work. The resource is Creative Commons, meaning you can print, display or distribute it as you wish. 


 
John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.
The Epic Classroom: When the Conflict Fails


This is the third in the series "The Epic Classroom." Last post was about conflict. This one is about four ways that conflict fails to work in classrooms.

Failure #1: The Conflict Doesn't Matter
I couldn't read Twilight, because I simply didn't care about the protagonist and her love triangle. Similarly, I didn't care about matrices in Pre-Calculus, because I just didn't find them interesting (and nobody gave me a reason to care). Lessons work best when they begin with conflicts that draw students in.   

Failure #2: The Conflict Isn't Real
The worst math problem I ever saw was a catcher trying to figure out if he would throw a runner out at second. he was supposed to use rate and speed while also calculating the Pythagorean Theorem. That's not a realistic problem and students realize it.

The conflict doesn't have to be "real world," for that matter. Kids do a great job convincing people to buy canned unicorn meat or designing the ultimate treehouse. They enjoy making up a creature and explaining its adaptations. The issue isn't "real world" so much as suspension of disbelief.  The best stories, even while being fantastical, feel real to us.

Failure #3: The Conflict Is Too Easy
I never liked Superman, because he seemed invincible. He was so far away and so distant and so perfect. Now, Batman, on the other hand, seemed vulnerable - even with all of his wealth. Spiderman seemed approachable in his humble surroundings.

The best stories have conflicts that feel insurmountable. Similarly, the best lessons begin with huge problems that are really hard to solve. It requires a certain amount of struggling before they solve things. Failure is happening and sometimes it looks more frustrating than epic.

Failure #4: The Conflict Is Someone Else's Problem
I remember a moment in teaching math when I realized that the students were not solving their own problems. They weren't developing their own equations or asking their own questions. I realize that there are times when teachers craft great questions for students. However, too often students don't ask questions. They don't find their own conflict. They're not active participants in the story of the classroom.

photo credit: Zach Dischner via photopin cc

 
John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.
Writing Idea: Little Red Riding Hood


Genre: 
Narrative

Subject: 
Language Arts

Age Group: 
All Ages

Topics: 
stories, fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood

Idea Explanation:
Little Red Riding Hood is now part of an elite group of fairy tale crime scene investigators. You remember Humpty Dumpty? He didn't fall. He was pushed. Or so it seemed at first.

Language Explanation:
1. Crime Scene Investigators: people who check the crime scene to see what happened
2. Investigate: look into something, figure it out

Click here to see the previous writing idea. 

If you are intrigued by visual writing ideas, check out Write About, a social publishing platform that incorporates hundreds of writing ideas, personalized galleries, and customized user groups into student publishing. 




 
John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. 
 He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About.
He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.
Encouragement in the Classroom (A Review)


I first met Joan Young at an ISTE conference a few years back. There were a few things I noticed about her off-line that seemed to carry over from who she was online. She was a great listener who asked amazing questions. Also, she listened intently, helping to push the conversation into personal reflection. In a conference abuzz with the latest gadgets, it was this deeply human aspect that caught my attention. 

The other thing I noticed was her positive outlook. It wasn't schmaltzy and feel good. It didn't have that "calendar from the mall kiosk" feel to it. It was a realistic optimism, rooted in being mindful and reflective -- even critical. 

So, when I read Encouragement in the Classroom: How do I help students stay positive and focused? (ASCD Arias), I appreciated the thoughts that seemed to spring from her identity as someone who truly understands encouragement. In her biography, it mentions, "Joan holds a master's degree in clinical psychology and worked as a foster care social worker for seven years before becoming a teacher." 

The result is a book that is both boldly human and surprisingly practical. My favorite parts involved thinking about mindfulness. She gave some great specific examples of what this looks like. I also found the parts about student reflection to be helpful. I guess I've always thought about reflection through the lens of, "Why did I get this wrong?" However, this book is pushing me to rethink the way I approach student reflection. 

If you're interested in helping students develop mindfulness, intentionality, meaningful goals and motivation, I highly recommend this book. You can buy it here.  
 

 
John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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