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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.
The Epic Classroom: It Starts With Conflict


I once wrote a story that wasn't really a story. It was more like an episodic set of actions that sort-of landed with a general ending. It had action. After all, it was a first-person story of a kid who becomes a superhero and ends up in an island for other superheroes. However, it had no suspense, because it had no conflict. 

The best stories begin with a conflict that draws the reader in. You're dying to know what will happen next, because the conflict feels so big and so real and so important that you don't want to put the book down. Even the most character-driven novels create this tension that keep you wanting to read more. 

The same is true of lessons, units and projects. We use words like "project-based" and "problem-based," but the reality is that every time you're learning, you are wrestling with a conflict. I noticed this while watching Mythbusters. The show works, because you are dying to find out if the myth will turn out to be true. This external conflict pulls you in. It's the same curiosity that drives maker projects and real science - the messy kind that begins with inquiry. 

I notice this one Saturday while watching my kids play. Micah was at one corner trying to sketch out a Pokemon he had invented in his mind. The floor was littered with crumpled papers. His face was scrunched up and he looked like he was going to cry. Still, he pushed through it, because he knew it mattered. Will I make it? was the conflict. In the backyard,  Joel was trying to figure out why he could balance a pipe on his hand but not a pencil. What makes things balance? was a conflict and I watched the rising action happen. Meanwhile, Brenna was trying to figure out why some things would float and others didn't. 

It was play. It was fun. However, it was also frustrating. It was tough. There was a real struggle behind the play, because every great story has a very real struggle.  So, it has me thinking about why this conflict worked:

1. It was relevant to them. In other words, they choose the conflict -- or at least they engaged in the external conflict they saw in their world. 

2. There wasn't too much help. I'm always bothered in movies when they have the special help that comes out of nowhere. I have a hunch my kids felt the same way. If I had stepped in too much, it wouldn't have felt like their story anymore. 

3. It took time. We weren't trying to rush from event to event. Oddly enough, in taking time, the time seemed to go by quickly. 

4. It was messy. I didn't have a set of objectives on our refrigerator. I allowed the rising action to happen. 

5. Uncertainty. They really didn't know if it would work. Micah eventually drew his Pokemon. Brenna never did figure out buoyancy and Joel only partially understood what made objects easier to balance.  

I'm not sure how to guarantee this happens in the classroom, but I know that the best projects manage to incorporate messiness, struggle, a leisurely pace, relevance and a sense of uncertainty.  


 
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: What are five things that will have been invented by 2058?



Genre: 
Expository

Subject: 
Language Arts, Technology, Social Studies

Age Group: 
Middle Grades and High School

Topics: 
futurism, technology, inventions

Idea Explanation:
Initially, students get into the ideas of flying cars and cities in the sky. However, when we discuss social and economic trends and policies, certain inventions seem less likely (think of the shrapnel from a flying car, for example). This helps students think about the nature of humanity and the nature of technology at the same time. Ultimately, they're left asking, "Will things really feel all that different?"

Language Explanation:
The vocabulary here is not all that difficult, but the verb tense (future perfect with passive voice) can be challenging for English Language Learners. Many struggle to see how "will have been" takes place in the future while talking about what has already been done. It is essentially telling students, "These are things that have not been invented but will already be invented by the time we reach 2058." A quick verb tense study might be helpful:

Subject (a noun in the form of a direct object) + will + have + been + past participle (past tense of a verb) + predicate.
Flying cars will have been invented by 2058. 

Sometimes it helps to show students the active voice version of the past perfect tense as they write an answer:
Subject (noun or pronoun) + will + have + past participle (past tense of a verb) + predicate.
Car manufacturers will have developed solar-fueled cars. 

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.
Cuts in Education (A Quick, Quirky Video)


I created this video a few weeks ago with the idea of what cuts we could and should make in education. Feel free to click below to view it. 





 
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


I'm standing in a classroom watching a fourth grade classroom during center time. In one area, students are engaged in deep conversation about the properties of numbers.  At another center, a group of students compare and contrast their strategies for solving an equation. Meanwhile, the teacher is working with a small group of students who are still struggling with negative and positive integers. 

"I'm impressed," I whisper to Javi the Hippie (his real name is Javier). 

"It's epic," he says. 

I cringe at this term. Gilgamesh is epic. Odysseus is epic. This . . . is a classroom. It feels, in this moment, like yet another word that has lost its meaning. Add it to beautiful and awesome and every other powerful word that is now used for anything that is mildly amusing. 

"Epic, Javi? Really?" 

"Absolutely," he answers. 

"Three and two, bases loaded, ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. Now, that's what I call . . ." 

"A game. That's a game. A tense moment of a really important game. But this right here. This is epic." He points to a girl at a table a few feet away. "She didn't even know what a fraction was last week. She was so lost and now she's adding them, not through memorization, but because she gets it. That's epic." 

I look around at the classroom again. Javi's right. This is epic. True, it's small. It's humble. It's nothing that you hear about in a conference keynote or in a Twitter chat or in one of those movies where the Silverscreen Superteachers get Lou Diamond Philips to do AP Calculus. But, still, it's epic. 

*      *      * 

I've been thinking about lesson planning through the lens of storytelling. The best lessons we have are the ones that feel like great stories*.  Here's what I mean. The best lessons or units or projects seem to fit into the following narrative structure:

Active protagonists: they are active in making sense out of their world, solving their problems and using their creativity along the way

Character development: it's happening through the experience of learning and the participation in a meaningful community

Antagonist: the recognition that most conflict isn't a villain, but rather a battle against the injustice of this world

Conflict is both internal and external: teachers are tapping into both the internal and external problems while allowing students to struggle a little along the way

The setting is realistic: or at least as realistic as a school can be with as little pseudo-context as possible 

Tight plot: the lesson is a cohesive whole, moving from a meaningful inciting incident all the way up to a resolution through suspense rather than simply packing it full of action

Theme: The themes are emerging from deeper ethical thinking rather than a preachy set of answers handed over by the teacher

So, with that in mind, I'm starting a series called The Epic Classroom. (By the way, AJ Juliani wrote a great post on Epic Learning. You might want to go check it out.) The idea is to explore what it means to teach well through the lens of story. 
 

*I'm reticent to call the lessons epic, because, well, I don't leave the classroom on most days feeling like Odysseus. Or maybe I do. Maybe I feel overwhelmed and a little lost and unsure about what the year will hold. So, yeah, maybe I do feel a bit like Odysseus. 

Photo Credit: Ship by Housin Aziz from The Noun Project


 
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.
I Am Bowled


Michael Doyle made the suggestion that I put everything on the same site - even things that are "off brand." So, here's a bad pun picture. 


 
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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