This week, for the first time ever, I have the privilege of hosting a guest blogger. This post comes from Jen Moyers, a phenomenal teacher (and, even more importantly, an awesome person) I've had the pleasure of meeting and working with here in Virginia. This has been Jen's twelfth year teaching, and during this past school year, she taught Dual-Enrollment to seniors, Honors English 11, and English 11. She is innovative and creative in everything that she does, and she constantly tries new approaches and new technology. She inspires her colleagues as well as her students, and it is an honor to share her ideas about student blogging here on this site.
Here's Jen Moyers' Post:
Ironically, I suppose, this is my first blog post. Well, sort of. It’s my first “public” blog post that’s going on a for-real, accessible-to-everyone blog.
I have posted before, though, on a private blog that I maintain for my English 12 Dual Enrollment class. I have used this blog for the past five years to great effect with my DE seniors, for whom the blog becomes the repository for some of their best writing. I think it’s because I let them write in any way about any thing.
Normally, you see, I’m a bit of a control freak. I try to plan every moment of every class, every outcome of every assignment. With blogs, I finally started to let go . . . and it really worked. (I kind of hate exclamation points, or I’d use one here.)
Now, those student blogs have become something I look forward to reading, the way I truly get to know my students, the way that they develop their voices, the way they build confidence as writers. Often, I find myself teary-eyed, awed at the beauty with which a boy describes his first broken heart or the vulnerability with which a girl confesses her fears about graduating and leaving her friends. Oh, I suppose these topics sound hackneyed, clichéd, but for these kids, they’re reality . . . and they’re beautiful.
Even with blogs, I struggle with the details, with the control: Do I require them to post weekly? Do I give them a word count? Do I ask them to blog about something we’re discussing in class? Should they be public or password-protected? The more I use blogs, though, the more I realize that it’s the freedom of blogs that makes them empowering. Given the choice, most students will post throughout the grading period (there’s always a procrastinator or two, but—as I found out this year—even a weekly posting requirement won’t change that). I’ve found there’s something to be said for not worrying about the word count and just letting them express themselves. And, while I’m certainly open to their continuing a class discussion online, requiring them to do so doesn’t result in inspiration but in frustration (for them and for me).
So, my new school year’s resolution is this: Yes, we’re going to blog (and I’m expanding to all of my classes). Yes, the blogs will be public. Beyond that? Well, I’m going to hand over control to the students. That, after all, is what has made the blogging experience so successful thus far, so I’m trusting that it will only become better with increased ownership on their part.
* * * * *
This year, I taught 16 supremely talented students with vastly different voices, lives, and interests. I was running behind on my grading (as I have all year. Ah, the life of an English teacher), so I was reading their blogs during exam week while scrambling to come up with an idea for their end-of-year gift. Each year, I give my DE students something to commemorate our year together, to celebrate their graduation. Some years, I’ve made a movie using footage or photographs of our class; one year, for a class of seven, I made a photo album for each student with excerpts from their favorite writing for the year and with a word cloud of each of their names composed of a list of adjectives submitted by their classmates.
Anyway, this year, I had 16 students (so I couldn’t have expensive gifts) and not much time (so a film was out of the question—plus, I didn’t have footage or photos). As I read their blogs, stressing all the while about how best to say goodbye, I was blown away. They were gorgeous. I laughed, I cried, I beamed with pride. And I thought. About poetry, of all things. (And I’m definitely NOT a poet.) But their blogs—which were unique, completely disparate efforts—somehow seemed to be circling the same topics, the same accounts of their year, the same thoughts of looking back, and forward, of yearning to leave and yet recognizing what they were leaving.
So. I went through their blogs (some of them again—inspiration hit after I’d read through three or four students’ blogs). And I copied and pasted all of my favorite lines into a Word document. I ended up with six pages—about 160 separate “best lines”—of gorgeously written prose and poetry. I printed them out, sliced them up, and then started organizing, literally laying out the lines on my desk.
Disaster nearly struck with an unexpected cough (luckily, only a few lines sailed across my desk), but I finally had used MOST of the lines from students’ blogs. I typed them into yet another document, and then continued shifting, moving this idea here, that line there, until finally I had something that made sense, to me at least. I had labeled all of the lines with the students’ initials because I wanted part of their gift to be the way that they had come together unconsciously to form this (semi-)cohesive meditation on their senior years. I also wanted, however, the final poem to look “poemy,” so I re-saved, inserted some additional line breaks. And VOILA! (That exclamation point is warranted, I think.) I had a seven-page found poem written by all sixteen of my wonderful, lovely DE students.
I recorded an introduction so I could explain my process, then recorded myself reading the poem (‘cause the kids like to hear my voice—they love getting audio feedback on their essays a la Jim Burke). I then sent them (via Schoology, a site I highly recommend) the Word document versions of the final poem, the draft of the poem with the kids’ initials, and my two recordings. They loved it. It made them cry, which made me cry, which made me realize all over again how much I’ll miss them.
Anyway, this blog post is reaching epic proportions, and I haven’t even included the poem! (Sorry, Ashley.) All of this comes back to the main point: I use blogs with my classes. And I love it.
P.S. (from Ashley) Jen and I agreed to feature the poem on the writing portion of this site, and we also decided to include the audio of her reading the poem below. The text of the poem can be found here. I hope that it is inspirational for you; I know that it was for me. On the writing portion, there's another post about student blogs and Comments 4 Kids, an awesome site (and hashtag on twitter) that helps your students get more readers and comments. Jen also shared her assignment sheet with the rubric that she used this year (though, excellent teacher as she is, she plans to revise for next year). Enjoy!
"High school is a scary concept, especially when you are an eighth grader walking into it. To be honest, high school isn't all that scary once you get going. My ninth grade year has been my best year so far. All of the teachers are so helpful and caring. They listen to what you have to say and also give great advice when it's needed." ~current 9th grade student
For their final writing assignment this year, my English 9 students wrote letters of advice to the incoming freshman class. We studied Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to explore the use of logos, pathos, and ethos in persuasion, and then my students applied those techniques in their letters as they passed along the wisdom they’d gained over the course of the year. Tomorrow, we’ll post the best letters on the bulletin board, and we’ll place all of them in a binder for the incoming class. The students will have an opportunity to look over the letters and to make signs and posters demonstrating the best pieces of advice.
I first came up with this idea after reading Karen Finneyfrock’s novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door. In that amazing story, young Celia finds her way in the world as she navigates the challenges of her freshman year. See my previous post for more information about that novel and the kinds of students who might best benefit from reading it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this assignment, but what I noticed right away is that many students who often take a long time getting started with writing assignments jumped into this one immediately. They outlined their ideas, came up with clear thesis statements, and spoke directly to their audience. They admitted their own mistakes and expressed their regrets about some of the choices that they had made.
I've read about half of the letters, and here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve read so far:
“You should be able to be who you are and not what others expect of you. Become the new cool. Even when everyone else judges you. “
“Before you start to make fun of someone, just think how much it will hurt them. Would you like to be that person?”
“[The teachers] just ask that you respect them and all of the other students. Your teachers don’t want to sit through a whole year and argue with you. They want you to be successful and respectful. Treating my teachers right really got me a long ways. Sometimes you may not agree with their decisions, but you have to give them the respect that they deserve.”
“Don’t listen to drama because everything you hear might not be true. It helps if you keep just a small group of friends who you can trust. Participating and listening to drama doesn’t show good things about your character and can hurt others as well as yourself.”
I’d like to note that most of the students who gave the best advice were not students getting straight As and behaving appropriately at all times. The ones whose letters were the most authentic and compassionate were the students who had struggled in earnest this year and who knew from hard-earned experience the things that would help them achieve success. The students also had to mark the different kinds of persuasion that they used (we selected different fonts for each kind), so we had a lot of good discussions about what logos, pathos, and ethos are and how to incorporate them into our writing.
Another great benefit of this assignment is that almost all of the students mastered the concept of using a concession and a counterargument. While I’ve tried various ways to help them understand and apply this concept, most of them have been unsuccessful in their previous applications. However, this time, they thoroughly understood why the students might not listen to them, and they knew what the younger students’ objections might be. They addressed those directly and highlighted why the other students should see things from their perspective. Some of the students included this kind of logical reasoning for each of their main points, which really strengthened their argument.
Students said things like:
“You may be shy and think that you don’t want any more friends, but trust me if you’re in a club or a sport, you are bound to make a new friend or two.”
“At this point in your life, I’m sure you aren’t worried about your grades, but they are more important now than ever before.”
“I understand that sometimes you are afraid to stand up because you are shy or simply because you are indeed a freshman but participation can help you in so many ways.”
"You can’t erase the past from everyone’s minds but you can have a fresh start to make more of yourself when you get to high school."
Overall, the students had brilliant points to make to their future underclassmen. They advised them about things like homework and grades, but they also talked to them about participating in sports and clubs, about bullying and making friends, about respect and standing up for beliefs. I should get back to them, so that they can see my feedback tomorrow!
It is with hope and encouragement that we wrap up this year and prepare for the next one.
P.S. I took off last week to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday, but it mostly caused me to feel a bit lost and lazy, so I will do my best to keep up each Sunday over the summer :). Coming next week: a post about the phenomenal Infernal Devices series!
In this honest, uplifting novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, Karen Finneyfrock does a phenomenal job of depicting the struggles and agony that many students experience during high school. At the end of Celia's eighth grade year, her best friend's mother removes her friend from the school in favor of homeschooling. Almost immediately thereafter, her parents announce that they are separating. The situation continues to worsen as Celia deals with bullying, the separation, and the difficulty of standing up for herself. She discovers poetry and finds that writing poetry becomes her only consolation in an increasingly lonely life.
Then she meets Drake, another freshman who just moved from NYC to live with his grandmother in Hershey, PA. They become friends and Drake reveals his own secret, one he had been too terrified to tell anyone before. But even their friendship cannot protect them from the cruelty of others and Celia and Drake both become targets for bullying as their world spirals out of control. They must take drastic measures to try to regain control in their fragile lives.
This novel illuminates the way that feelings of alienation and estrangement can consume you during those early teen years. With poignancy, humor, and compassion, Karen Finneyfrock forces readers to consider the role that we (teachers, parents, mentors, other teens) all play in helping teens become who they are and helping them find their way in the world.
Translation for Teen Readers and the Classroom: This book is excellent for students who are struggling to find friends and who feel alone. It's also good for students who are experiencing the separation of their parents. Additionally, students struggling with their sexuality and with the prospect of "coming out" to their friends and family will benefit from the honesty in this novel. While some districts may disapprove of classroom teaching of this novel because of the controversial issues such as homosexuality and suicide, the novel enables students to take a hard look at the impact of bullying. Finneyfrock reveals the power that words have to harm and to heal, and she shines a light on the reasons behind some of the seemingly irrational behaviors of teenagers. She unveils her characters' deepest secrets with compassion and tenderness while simultaneously showing how frightening it can be to admit vulnerability.
Classroom Project Idea: Celia learns much about herself, the world, and her future during her ninth grade year. Drawing on this narrative focus, I am having my freshmen students write a final project that will be advice to the incoming ninth graders. In addition to the writing piece, I will let them make signs and posters. We'll post their tips and ideas around the room so that it's the first thing that the incoming freshmen will see. Perhaps the words of their more experienced classmates will help ease them into the realm of high school, making them feel a little more comfortable and a little less afraid.
“There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text. I am not convinced. I don’t know how I survived; I was weak, rather shy; I did nothing to save myself. A miracle? Certainly not. If heaven could or would perform a miracle for me, why not for others more deserving than myself? It was nothing more than chance. However, having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival. Was it to protect the meaning that I set to paper an experience in which nothing made any sense?” ~Elie Wiesel, Preface to the new translation of Night
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon, and I’m running low on imagination… which reminds me of the inspiring speech by Julia Alvarez that I attended this week. I’ve been teaching Night at school, the Holocaust account written by Elie Wiesel. While these two events might seem unrelated, Julia Alvarez’s words helped to illuminate the task of making the Night unit meaningful and effective for my students.
Night has proven to be a challenging text for me because while I feel strongly about the issues of discrimination and the power of personal strength to rise up against oppression, I want studying the text to be more than exoticism of the Other and fascination with a story riddled with senseless cruelty and endless violence. The students love the text, but to a certain extent, they feel comfortable exploring the cruelty of the Nazi regime and the injustice of the Holocaust. They know it was wrong; they feel assured that they would have spoken out and taken action if they had been there. I want the reading of the text to go beyond them acknowledging the horrible atrocity (though there is certainly value in bearing witness to the suffering and deaths of so many millions). It is my hope that they will begin to realize the biases and intolerance in their own world and that they will take steps toward addressing those injustices.
As I'm struggling with this text, in steps serendipity in the form of a lovely and charismatic Dominican American woman. This week at Bridgewater College, Julia Alvarez spoke of the power of stories to change the world. It was a message I needed to hear. She spoke of the Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic (a story she recounts in her historical fiction novel, In the Time of the Butterflies) and expressed the way that three sisters (and the story of their deaths as martyrs) brought about the destruction of Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship because of the power of their story. She also talked about the uplifting story that she tells in her most recent publication, the non-fiction book A Wedding in Haiti.
Alvarez stated, “Nothing human is alien to the storyteller.” As she explained what she meant by that statement, she illuminated the fact that the storyteller makes it possible for nothing human to be alien to the reader, either. She said that stories help us navigate through our lives and steer us toward remaining “humane”—that they enable the reader to become the Other. She commented that most problems in our world “come from a lack of imagination,” from people’s inability to imagine a perspective different from their own. I’ve been thinking about how to help students have a little more imagination when it comes to understanding others with compassion.
We watched the PBS frontline documentary called "A Class Divided" about a teacher, Jane Elliott, who wanted her students to experience discrimination firsthand, so she imposed a rule that “blue-eyed people are better than brown-eyed people.” She enforced the discriminatory system by making brown-eyed students wear collars and by continually proclaiming prejudicial statements that reinforced the paradigm. The third-grade students took to the new system instantly.
Two boys got into a fight on the playground, and the boy who did the punching explained that he hit his friend because the blue-eyed friend had called him “brown eyes.” This testimony showed how quickly harmless words can become vicious. We discussed the role of name-calling in discrimination and the damage that derogatory terms can cause.
The second day, the teacher flipped the system, explaining that she had lied to them and that brown-eyed people were superior to blue-eyed people. Again, the students instantly absorbed and reinforced the new paradigm. The students who were now on top were vicious and arrogant; those on the bottom were self-deprecating and despairing. The day ended with a debriefing, during which the students confessed how much the oppression had hurt them and how easy it had been to be merciless and cruel when they were the oppressors.
The documentary resonated with my students, many of whom wrote thoughtful reflections about the ways that they had treated others poorly because of personal prejudices or the way that they had experienced discrimination firsthand and the pain that it caused them. They made connections to Night and to our world today (especially in light of the media coverage of the Boston marathon bombing). However, when the time came for our Socratic discussion addressing tolerance and discrimination, many students, despite their preparations and all of the notes that they had taken to organize their ideas, were hesitant to speak. A few brave students spoke out, but they were often met with downcast eyes and long pauses before the student moderators found a way to transition to a new question. I hope that they were at least thinking deeply about these issues so that one day, when they witness injustice, they are able to speak.
What more can we do to help students discuss these vital issues of prejudice and discrimination? What are you doing in your classrooms to help your students learn tolerance and compassion? Please post your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section.
A quick pitch for the POETRY app by the Poetry Foundation: (1) It’s a phenomenal app, and a great way to get kids interested in poems if they have access to mobile devices or iPads. They can “spin” to find poems under various categories. I use it to let my students choose poems for their poetry research project and for other poetry analysis activities. When teaching AP Lit (and with any student who is looking for easy ways to read daily), I encourage them to use it daily to practice close reading and analysis. (2) It is in the running for a webby award. You can vote between now and April 26th, so there are only a few days left! If you like the app, please vote TODAY at the poetry foundation site: http://bit.ly/11rD63K.
For National Poetry Month, we’ve been starting class with a different entry activity (which I will call bell ringers). I learned it from someone who works with the Northwestern Virginia Writing project (whose name I will try to locate next week at school). She called it Borrow-a-Line and it goes like this: the students read a poem (I project it onto the screen) and then choose a line or phrase from the poem to begin their writing. They then write for three minutes straight. They should keep their writing utensil moving that whole time, even if they run out of things to say. They might write something amazing and then get stuck and write something random such as I have no idea what else to say. I’m hungry. I wonder what’s for lunch, etc.
In my class, I chose the first poem, but I’ve let students choose the poems for every day after the first one. They’ve chosen some amazing poems that I’d never seen before. Several of them have actually printed out the poem and brought it in to class; one student brought in a poem hand-written by his father.
Here are some of the poems they’ve selected:
“Defending My Insanity” by Nicolas Kokonas
“Fast Break” by Edward Hirsch
“The Law of the Jungle” by Rudyard Kipling
“Little or Nothing” by Ken Mikolowski
“I Looked Out at Life with Holocaust Eyes” by Alan Freshman
Some of them selected poems from the poets that they researched, but others chose poems that were completely new. For their research project, they use the poetry foundation app (and other resources) to find a poet that they like--each student chooses a different poet. Then they select and analyze two poems by the poet. Finally, they research that poet’s life and write a research essay exploring how knowledge of the biographical information illuminates the two poems they are analyzing.
During the bell ringer, the students and I all write for three minutes. Then they share their work with their group. Next week, they will turn in one piece that they like and that they’ve revised. I’m excited about seeing their products. At the end of this month, I will let them choose whether to continue with this bell ringer or go back to the ones we previously used. I’m curious to see what they decide.
In honor of National Poetry Month, here’s one I wrote during the three minutes, building off of Nicolas Kokonas’s poem:
I’ve had conversations with the rain--
It talks to me
Whispering the secrets of the world
In waves of water
Washing down the streets
And gutters and drains.
I’ve had conversations with the rain
As it echoes through the air
Often loud and angry—then
Quiet and hushed
And gentle on my face
Like the brush of a butterfly wing.
I’ve had conversations with the rain
And yet it will not answer me—not
What I most need to know.
It hides its secrets
Deep within its sky’s domain.
I’ve had conversations with the rain
And I’ve also heard
I’m waiting for it
To speak to me again.
So here’s to using poetry in class, and here’s to celebrating poetry! It’s beautiful, powerful, and useful, and there are so many ways that we can make it an authentic part of students’ learning. If you’re interested in trying the bell ringers, you can use Poetry Foundation’s poem of the day (and you can even listen to the audio!) to get started.
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.