Is Anything Truly Original?

My Post

For decades, perhaps even earlier as some claim origins dating back to Aristotle’s Poetics, writers, and literary critics have uncovered a finite amount of story plots in fiction. Even the great Kurt Vonnegut argued this theory of story “shapes” in his College thesis that was rejected for its simplistic nature that there were indeed a set of shapes that all writing could be categorized by citing such favorites as Cinderella as a spin-off of the Bible.

What it boils down to is this… there are seven original story plots, Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Rebirth, etc., and that every piece of fiction is actually a spin-off of the original. Beyond those first 7, no piece of fictional writing is truly original. So should new writing be published? Should new stories be shared?

This year marks my 19th in Education. Shorter than some, longer than others. Most of my years have been as a high school English teacher (thus, the connection to the aforementioned example) and for the past few years as a regional support consultant in the state in the areas of literacy, technology, and school improvement; but I digress.

Because of this, I am going to take some liberties… much of education parallels the 7 original story plots. Things are repackaged, renamed, shined up, fine-tuned, and sent back into the education community as “New” or “Innovative”. In fact, I would venture many seasoned teachers out there would agree with me and have seen the circular nature of programs and instructional strategies recycled and the educational wheel spinning and spitting them back out again when their number is called. Very few things that we as Educators use or do in our classrooms are Original.

I will repeat, you, and I for that matter, are not as original as we think we are.

We are spinoffs from the educators before us. And what we do, say, and use in our classrooms are mostly variations of what has been done before.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but one that is mostly true, teachers have been doing variations of what you and I have done long before it was an idea in our heads. We are not the first… (fill in the blank…)

Take, for instance, a recent experience I had at Flipgrid Live. The first Day consisted of an Edcamp and a social gathering of Educators at Flipgrid HQ.

Day 2 was much the same. A Student Voice Conference with keynotes and breakout sessions and a sharing of personal stories and ideas to spark change. This was followed by a grand reveal of new updates, modifications, acquisitions, celebrations, photos, videos, singing, and on and on and on all focused on empowering student voice and connected classrooms. To many educators, these events are not considered as completely original or new. Even the new releases, ideas, and social media sharing celebrated variations that educators have been using for decades.

This brings me to my second point, or liberty I am going to take,,, Change, passion, meaningful learning does not take place vicariously. I attended this event as a learner, not a presenter, and while many know my story, the majority at this event did not. I have always been a Student Voice Advocate and Connected Educator. I have connected classrooms around the globe, traveled with kids internationally based off of those connections, connected teachers to resources and communities (in fact, many of you reading this could probably attest to the way I have helped connect you) but I am not the first one to do this. Many educators before me have been working towards similar verbs, connecting, student voice, the difference is this… social media and the desire to one-up each other often times brings out the negativity in people, and flipping through my Twitter feed I found these tweets and educators I respect trying to one-up the celebrations taking place at FlipgridLive.

When I became a connected educator and shared my story I met a wonderful educator named Sean Nash. We were prepping for a conference (Bacon Wrapped Lessons) and getting to know the other educators on the team (I was known as the student voice cheerleader). Sharing my classroom stories about amplification and connection was met with support and enthusiasm from the group. I felt proud and I had passion. Come to find out, Nash had been doing this for years- connecting his kids, traveling internationally, amplifying their voice; but not once did he squash my voice or diminish my experience. My story was not interrupted or replaced by his.

Educators, students, humans need to share their story. It may not be an original, but a spin-off, just as many argue what fiction is, but passion and change do not happen through vicarious circumstances. We are all working towards similar verbs, and as hard as it was for me not to interject my stories and past experiences as a connected educator and student voice cheerleader at the Flipgrid Live event I knew it was essential for their story to be told, the excitement be shared, and I, as a seasoned educator stood next to, not in front of, these educators and helped to lift them up just as so many have done for me. I was not there to interrupt, disvalue, or one-up them on social media that I have been doing it for years… every story should be told,,, whether it is one of the originals or a spin-off, each story adds value to our profession and supports the same passions or calls to actions that many of us support.

Blogging in the Classroom: Teacher Roles

blogging-in-the-classroomBlogging is a powerful way for students to share their voice on a public platform. Depending on the purpose, blog posts demonstrate student understanding, allow for a virtual space to share ideas or thinking, and acts as an interactive mode to question, create and share. While I believe blogging is useful across the curriculum and applicable to multiple grade levels, I do believe that there are teacher and student roles or responsibilities that are essential to establish when embarking on blogging in the classroom.

In February I wrote a post on Blogging in the Classroom: Student Roles which shared my own personal experience of having my students blog, as well as the student roles to consider when adding blogging to your classroom. This post will highlight the Teacher Roles that are important to consider when having students blog.

Teacher Roles

  1. Model, Be a Writer! – You are the best writer in the room. To have students be successful at blogging the teacher must see themselves as a blogger too. Modeling writing skills by sharing your own work takes the mystery out of the process. Post regularly, fine-tune your own craft and share. Providing students with “mentor examples” of digital writing and bloggers provides students with people’s work to emulate. Modeling also provides an opportunity to create a positive, online presence; as well as address digital citizenship areas that frequently surface when writing for a public audience.
  2. Explicit & Scaffolded Instruction – Like traditional unimodal writing, blogging requires a mastery of skills and strategies that students do not naturally have in their toolbox. Direct instruction through mini-lessons and then application in their own writing helps set students up for success. Not only should content be a focus of learning, but the structure, format, and design elements need to be explicitly taught to our young bloggers. Start with length, visuals, and typography as a way to communicate their message effectively.
  3. Read & Respond – As the teacher, it is important to read and respond to student blog posts. To alleviate the volume of posts I would have to read in my own classroom I would divide the class in half and read and respond to half of the students each week. Students were to read and respond to peers in our blogging community (made up of 4 classrooms around the country) twice a week. Teaching students how to respond on a digital platform was another area that demanded explicit teaching. The driver in their response was to connect personally to at least one thing in a post and to comment in a way that moved the writer forward.
  4. Assess – Finally, assessment of blog posts. While you can use some or all of the posts as a type of summative assessment I would frequently use the students’ posts as formative assessment. This type of formative assessment would help drive my instruction. It was clear what the students grasped as well as what needed further reteaching. When assessing blog posts, it is important to consider both content and product. Aesthetics, voice, design elements are important to bloggers and were all part of the feedback I would provide to students.

A classroom full of bloggers is a daunting and exciting symphony to orchestrate. Depending on the purpose for blogging, teachers can view their roles and responsibilities as ones that are helping develop digital writers now and whenever they write in the future. Interaction with a public audience helps to make writing engaging and relevance and it is through the intentional instruction by the teacher that our youngest bloggers can find success!

10 Tenets of a Student-Centered Writing Classroom

 

shfarnsworth-1

Today my work consisted of supporting educators on how to teach writing. Upon reflection, we realized that very few of us remember being specifically taught how to teach writing. Sure, we learned a lot about content, genres, and types of writing; but not one person raised their hand when I asked if they had an undergrad program that explicitly taught them how to teach writing. Empowering kids through writing is my passion, and I am driven to change the writing landscape that is found in many schools!

As a teacher of writing, I believe there are 10 Tenets of a Student-Centered Writing Classroom

  1. Teach the Writer, not the Writing – Focus on the learning, not the end product.
  2. Write in Front of your Students – Dispel the notion that writing is magic. Let young writers see and hear your process as you write in front of them.
  3. State the Why – Explain why Good Writers use specific skills, strategies, and resources when they write.
  4. Focus on Transferable Skills and Strategies – Answer and remind young writers how the skill or strategy can be used today and whenever they write. 
  5. Student Choice – Transfer ownership by letting students choose what they write about. Is it really about the content or is the content the vehicle in which demonstration occurs? Learning to Write, not Writing to Learn.
  6. Student Voice – Developing voice takes practice. Have students write often and in various genres. 
  7. Write for Real – An authentic audience and writing purpose engages young writers, provides relevance to writing, and allows them to share their story with the world.
  8. Surround Writers with Exemplars– Collect and share examples of writers and writings that students can gain inspiration from or that challenge them to apply a similar technique in their own writing.
  9. Differentiate – Pull small groups of writers or confer one to one with students based on needs and goals. While whole class instruction is efficient, small groups or one to one learning is more effective.
  10. Never Forget the Share – Honor the hard work young writers do through the share at the end of the class. Sharing promotes a safe community, builds relationships, and can target a teaching point!

A Platform for Student Voice: My Inspiring Idea presented at the Google Teacher Academy

B4VL6rDCIAAQX1H

At the Google Teacher Academy, I was selected to share an “Inspiring Idea” with the group. It was with great honor that I shared my passion with the cohort; Utilizing Technology to Connect Students, Enabling Them to Share Their Voice with the World.  (Student names have been changed)

******

I smiled at Mr. Noonan through the screen of our shared Google Hangout as he read the next question for debate. Our students, standing on opposite sides of the globe, nervously listened to him speak as they sheepishly smiled at one another. Noonan began, “Did Man invent God as a reason to exist? Sylvia,” he added, “you may go first.”

Sylvia, Noonan’s student from Sweden, moved a bit closer to the computer so her words and body language were evident to both classes. She greeted Michael, my student in Iowa who waved backed, poised to debate with Sylvia. Sylvia was a top student in Noonan’s class; a skilled speaker with great intellect. But, in Iowa, my student Michael was the student body president, a thespian, a leader in our school who possessed skill and knowledge to match that of Sylvia. Sylvia began, arguing that God was not real, citing multiple personal experiences, backing them up with the philosophical thinking of Sartre and Kierkegaard; she spoke with ease. And although I was impressed, I was excited for Michael to counter, I knew that my student had experience in debate, but also the confidence and charisma to engage an audience.

Sylvia recapped her points and Michael moved towards the screen. The class smiled knowing that they were going to witness a master student weave his experiences as a preacher’s son, with his vast theology knowledge to argue against Sylvia.

Michael opened his mouth to speak and out tumbled the word, “Sorry….. I guess I disagree.”

I shifted in my seat from the uncomfortableness of the moment. The word “Sorry” ringing through my head! This was not the Michael I knew. His struggle continued; his voice weakened. I clenched my fist, digging my nails into my palm, wanting to bail Michael out of an awkward moment, but knowing I shouldn’t. As his time came to an end, he once again apologized for his opinion and quickly sat down. The bell rang; we were all saved.

With advances in technology, our world is shrinking. And while we want our students to contribute to the sea of global communication that they are immersed in, that one example shined a light onto what was missing in my teaching. From that point forward, I made it my priority to equip all students with the skills necessary to communicate effectively through various modes while maintaining their own identity. Realizing that their truth and opinion is just as strong and “right” as another person’s truth. Growing up in Iowa helped shaped them into who they were today and they should be proud they experienced bonfires and fireflies, playing with cousins in a hayloft, or the humidity that made bugs stick to their legs in the summer.

Through a connection on Twitter, I had met John Noonan, a philosophy teacher at an IB school in Sweden, which was comprised with mostly diplomat’s children from around the world. In Iowa, I had a homogeneous makeup of white, middle-class, Christian students who had connected with students around the state and nation but not globally.

We designed a unit around Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Co-teaching, John would focus on existentialism and other philosophies and I would apply the different lenses to the literature and poetry we were reading. Google hangouts and Google docs allowed for the real-time collaboration necessary to not only increase student understanding on a difficult concepts, but the shared document between the two classes served as a backchannel during the lectures; allowing us to view student thinking,misconceptions or questions, and to provide a common place for collective learning. When the planned hangouts were completed, the students urged us to continue the collaboration.

Noonan and I paired the students for a collaborative debate/presentation, using digital means to cross the global divide and broaden knowledge. Students once again turned to GAFE because of the collaborative nature, creative possibilities and ease that were needed to connect and communicate. What we didn’t expect to happen was the out-of-class friendships that were built. Our students started using google chat and hangouts to work on their projects, and also build relationships with their new classmates. They soon realized that they had more in common than different and what started as an off-the-cuff remark of “We want to go to Sweden to meet our friends” turned into a reality. In September the students approached the school board for approval for their international trip. We were immediately approved and began raising money, acquiring passports, and determining schedules and lodging.  In the fall we were in Iowa reading Hamlet,,, later that spring we were standing in Hamlet’s castle.

Just because something is difficult to measure on standardized tests does not mean that it is not important to teach. Communication is changing as rapidly as technology, and because of this, we need students to be able to communicate effectively, advocate for themselves and others and realize the importance of maintaining their identity. Although this connection was a springboard for an international learning experience; connecting, collaborating and creating beyond the four walls of the school building increases engagement, is easily replicated, and can provide a platform for students to share their voice!