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Walton Middle School’s Spring Global Fiction Reading

March 18, 2013

Hey everyone,

I just wanted to extend an invitation to join us on Tuesday, March 19th for another Global Fiction Reading. Students from all over the world can tune in to hear Walton Middle School’s 6th graders read their favorite work, whether it’s a blog entry, short story, poetry, or something else.
We will be reading at the following times (ALL TIMES EST):
You can access the readings through the following link: 
Please feel free to anyone you think would be interested. Thank you for your support.


February 19, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 5.21.00 PM

It’s safe to say that Twitter is here to stay. Regardless of whether you Tweet or not, for sure you’ve felt the #impact of Twitter, whether it’s @tv, @home, or @work. While most of my students don’t have Twitter accounts yet, they have used the one set up for the 6th grade, @waltonwriters. Students are also learning how to use FakeTweetBuilder, a free fake Twitter generator.

While the site is not perfect, as it only allows you to have six lines of dialogue in the image before cutting you off, meaning you have to copy and paste a longer “fake” conversation multiple times, it is an awesome site for simulating a Twitter conversation. I’ve used it during novel studies for kids to imagine what characters might have said had they been on Twitter or to replay an important part of the novel in a different way. Here’s what I love about this process:

  • easy check for comprehension of text
  • engaging for kids
  • kids learn the language of Twitter
  • allows for creative use of user ID names based on the character’s personality
  • allows for customization of avatars and other graphics, but also not required, depending on how much time there is for this activity
  • utilizes tech skills, from copy and pasting text to saving images to their computer and uploading to either email or their blog for turn-in
Students created a Twitter conversation between characters in The Outsiders

Students created a Twitter conversation between characters in The Outsiders

Part 2 of The Outsiders conversation

Part 2 of The Outsiders conversation

There are also many uses for this. Some of the ways I’m thinking of using FakeTweetBuilder include:

  • conversations between characters in the same book
  • conversations between characters in different books
  • conversations between historical figures

When students finish, their final image can be hung in their classroom, posted to the class website, or posted to their individual blog. And, unlike MyFakeWall (which is up for auction for $84 right now), FakeTweetBuilder doesn’t have the glitches that will frustrate students.

Using Instagram to Capture our Moments

February 19, 2013


When I became the web page coordinator of my school’s website four years ago, my main job was making sure the teacher web pages were correctly linked and that important announcements were posted to the website about twice a year. Getting the stipend check felt more like a handout than a check that I’d earned, but that would soon change.

With the help of administration, the Walton website quickly turned into a hybrid of a school site with the typical links to teachers’ pages and resources along with news of what was happening. As the updates became more frequent, more teachers began utilizing this outlet as a means for getting their news out there. Throw in some fancy graphics courtesy of one assistant principal, and within two years the web page coordinator was a full-time stipend.

The next year, it grew even more by embedding a Twitter account on the home page. Most people see the Twitter news of our school not through following us on Twitter but through seeing the embedded box on the homepage of the site. This is another place to give updates to what’s going on, and one of the best ways to let other students, parents, and the community know what is happening in our school is by showing them through pictures.

Enter Instagram. The photo-editing app was voted App of the Year in 2011 by Apple. Instagram earned its popularity through the various filters and effects you could add to your photos, taking ordinary photos and giving them an artsy or nostalgic feel. The app also developed an easy sharing method for photos, linking straight to a Twitter account. Thus, every time I publish an Instagram photo, I can link the publication of it to Walton’s Twitter account. If anyone clicks on the link in the school’s Twitter feed, they can instantly see the picture on their computer. The Instagram account can also be followed through Instagram. Simply put, there’s plenty of ways for our community to see what’s going on with our school by publishing a picture once through Instagram.

One of the best parts about using Instagram is being able to share our Instagram page with the students. This allows them to see what’s going on in other parts of the building and gets them excited about contributing to the page. The page is really set up for them, so the shots they can publish are much more meaningful. As more kids talk about the page, it also gets the teachers more excited about sending pictures when I do an email all-call for new pictures.

I hope to expand the Walton Instagram by gaining more student submissions on a regular basis. I’d also like to try out a feature “A Day in the Life” where a student takes pictures throughout the day of what’s really exciting and even the mundane and then have them publish the pictures to the school Instagram. There are many embedded skills students learn in taking and editing pictures for an authentic audience, and building a buzz around this should help students feel more ownership about the place they spend so much time in.

The Different Paths to Finding Voice

October 12, 2012

Students are great at showing their voice. Too often, it’s just not how teachers want it. If students can write a coherent rant on Facebook for why they can’t stand school but they “just can’t master the expository format,” then that student is suffering more from an engagement problem than a writing problem. If you ask a language arts teacher why it’s important to teach writing, a common response will probably be, “Because writing is everywhere.” All good writing has voice, and if writing lacks voice and you’re not reading an instruction manual for installing a garbage disposal, then there’s a problem. As teachers of writing, and that should include teachers of any content, we have to help our students find their voice, and the truest way to do this is to give students choice in the writing they engage in and the modes they display their writing, their voice will be heard and appreciated by many.

Last year, I started Global Fiction Readings for my students in language arts. After students edited their writing pieces, they practiced reading it with a partner. After much practice, we went to our school’s library and broadcast students reading their pieces to the world through UStream. At first, other teachers were skeptical that this was more of a distraction than something important. Students were also tentative to share, unsure of what exactly a Global Fiction Reading was. For our first reading, only a few students from my one class participated, and at the time, they did not know exactly who they were reading to, as all they could see was their classmates and an intimidating webcam staring at them. At the end of the reading, I was able to share what people shared about their readings. Students who participated were impressed that college professors in other states, other classes, and teachers on planning tuned in to hear what they had to say. Not only did students receive instant feedback from their peers through laughter and gasps, but they saw that their audience was much more expansive than the walls of their classroom. When I shared with them that their superintendent watched their readings, they nodded. After explaining that a superintendent was our principal’s boss, a collective “ooh” went through the crowd. One student said that he didn’t think his piece was very good, but realized it was funny once his classmates laughed. This was reinforced by a teacher from Australia commenting that she enjoyed the piece by our “little comedian.”

For students’ second creative writing piece, there was a dramatic improvement in effort and care to craft an original, engaging story from students who had participated in the reading. They wanted to be great, and not because they wanted a grade in the grade book, but because they knew they would be sharing their work with the world. More students from our class chose to participate in the second Global Fiction Reading, with other teachers joining in as well.

One student with an intellectual disability found her voice through telling stories about our school. Each day, she would take a picture of something happening in our school (the place or subject of the photo was her choice). She would then edit her photograph, save the edited version with captions, and then upload that picture to a Tumblr site. This site was then shared with others so they could see what she did. It was very motivating for this student to tell people that she had done her photo for the day as well as asking people if they’d seen her latest post. Not only did this student improve her writing skills as she worked on this year-long project, but she was able to practice independence, engage in high level thinking on a consistent basis, and receive authentic feedback from an authentic audience for her work. Because these elements were in place, the project was looked at more as something fun to work on than an assignment that had to be completed.

Students are also able to realize that their voice is more than how loud you speak. It’s what you put out into the world about yourself, and the mode with which you give the world your voice is entirely negotiable. Just as no two students in a class have the same voice, their paths to letting the world hear their voice will probably be very different. As a teacher, it’s important to help students find the mode students can be most engaged in. Some students may be natural comic makers while others are budding film directors. Not every mode will or should be the conventional five paragraph essay (don’t know when the five paragraph essay is a good thing, ever), and that’s okay. Students may choose a mode to bring forth their voice that the teacher is entirely unfamiliar with, and that too is okay. If a teacher is always comfortable in their class, then that’s exactly what it is – “their” class. A truly student-centered class will shift the power of learning and the power of voices to the students, which means the teacher will not always be the holder of all knowledge. If this makes the teacher feel uncomfortable or unprepared, then that teacher has made a great first step towards becoming a learner again. What I’ve learned from experience is that when students are in the driver’s seat, not only are they great at teaching me new things, but that we become a true community of learners that all enjoy class more.

The Responsibility of Older Learners

September 20, 2012

Students share their patterns with kindergartners.

Today my sixth grade students Skype’d with a kindergarten class to teach them about patterns. We started with a focus on ABAB-type patterns and as the students got those right, the sixth graders created patterns of a higher-level difficulty. We ended the Skype with one of my students writing 9, 18, 27 on the board and groaning when one of the kindergartners said, “It goes up by nine.” When asked how he knew, he said he figured it must have because the first number was nine and then he added nine to nine. The reasoning of this five year-old was spot-on and I know the sixth-graders were able to learn something from him, even though they thought they’d be in the driver’s seat the entire time. If they didn’t already realize it, they realized after the Skype that we can all learn something from someone else, regardless of age. It was also fun to watch the excitement as they tried to create new patterns and show them to the kindergartners before realizing that these kids would not be stumped. When the call ended and the kids said their goodbyes, I reflected on what had just happened: a group of 12 year-olds just delivered a lesson to a group of 5 year-olds with two teachers present who only jumped in when necessary.

Another observation I was able to make was that the sixth-graders were thinking about how the kindergartners were learning as they created their patterns. They were able to see that once they understood a certain kind of pattern, they were ready for the next level of difficulty. Once they mastered the ABAB, students threw in ABCABC or AABAAB, intuitively knowing that was the next logical step, as opposed to 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and stumping the kids. Even if students aren’t working on a concept they will be tested on at the end of the year, what teacher can argue that they don’t want their students participating in a lesson that has them engaged in how people learn and how to teach others where they’re at?

This kind of learning needs to take place more. It often doesn’t, because teachers of older kids need to stay on track with the pacing guide, obligatory pre-assessments, and other obstacles that get in the way of real learning. In no way am I arguing that older kids should teach younger kids all day, but what I am arguing for is that all older students need to take time to work with younger students, whether it’s a group of high schoolers delivering a writing lesson to middle schoolers or middle schoolers teaching kindergartners about patterns. That kind of learning and responsibility needs to be embedded in our teaching because students would often rather learn from each other and usually kids can teach a concept in kid-speak, which has to increase retention. Unfortunately, this kind of teaching is more of an exception than an expectation at this point.

I’ve heard a lot about some schools in Ireland who teach multi-age classrooms, which puts older kids in a leadership position on a daily basis and sends the message to younger students that they, too, will be leaders of the class one day. While those types of classes probably won’t be happening in the United States anytime soon, what we can take away is that we need to think about the types of situations our students are in on a daily basis. Are they consumers, sitting in class, digesting information, and spitting it right back, or are they more of a combination, learning, collaborating, and creating at high levels that not only gives them a deeper understanding of the curriculum but also improves their communication, collaborative, and higher-order thinking skills at the same time?

The sixth-graders will definitely be delivering more lessons in the future to younger learners, but I also hope to connect with some older students and have them be able to work with the sixth-graders. It would also be great if some of the younger classes could teach us about what they’re learning. Every kid needs to know they have skills and talents to help others, and if they truly believe that, it makes learning happen for everyone while knocking down the traditional confines of their classroom.

Celebrating Dot Day

September 17, 2012

The first couple weeks of school are spent, or at least should be spent, getting to know the kids and making them feel comfortable in their classroom. In language arts, that means engaging the kids in writing about themselves and reading about others with a focus on identity and what makes us who we are. That makes the timing of International Dot Day perfect. The day, inspired by Peter Reynolds’ The Dot, focuses on how kids make, or want to make, their mark on the world, gets the kids engaged in a fun and meaningful book while giving them the chance to write and think about themselves.

For our celebration of Dot Day at Walton Middle School, we read The Dot and had students create their own dots, either describing the mark they made on the world or the mark they wanted to make on the world in the future. This was a great first day activity because not only did it get the kids thinking about their goals for the year, it also gave them the chance to create their own dots while talking to their tablemates, something very necessary to building a classroom community when five elementary schools are feeding into the middle school. When kids finished their dots, they had the choice to hang them wherever they wanted in the classroom, and most chose the door. By the end of the day, both sides of the door was covered in dots.

Our door at the end of the day.

We planned our own Dot Day celebration at Walton Middle School by setting up conversations with local schools about the mark we leave or want to leave on the world. Schools we linked up with included Greer, Brownsville, Broadus-Wood, and Burley, as well as inviting other grade levels within our school to participate. We also had Liz Armenio (@lizarmenio) join us at five in the morning from Sydney, Australia, before she went to teach at St. Augustine’s, which was very cool for the kids to see that someone so far away was excited to hear what they had to say as well as have the opportunity to ask her questions about Australia.

As far as who joined us, some classes chose to, others didn’t. Many other schools were invited as well, but for whatever reasons did not join us. I learned no matter how many emails and tweets you send out, and no matter how many people send their emails and tweets promoting the event, whether or not the kids can participate and benefit from an event like this relies completely on the teacher’s personal feelings about connectedness and communication, which means some kids will always benefit from days like this while others will only be able to look in the amphitheater windows on the conversation on their way to the bathroom or water fountain.

For our Dot Day celebration, we set up four Google Plus Hangouts. The times of the Hangouts were sent to teachers at other schools through a Google Doc, and teachers signed up for slots that were convenient for them and their students. Once teachers were signed up, we did test connections with those who had not done a Google Plus Hangout before, an option that was better than Skype because it allowed for multiple schools to be connected at once.

Only one of our Hangouts had kids from the same grade level. Most of our sixth graders talked with kindergartners, first graders, third graders, and fifth graders, which was really cool. It put them in a leadership role and made them the big ones in a school where the eighth graders generally tower over them. It also allowed them to see the difference in their work compared to that of younger kids’ as well as see how excited the younger kids got when they shared their work.

Students share their “Dots” with students at other schools through Google Plus Hangouts.

One of most amazing parts of the day was watching kids walk up to the camera to share how they wanted to make their mark on the world. Kids who usually don’t raise their hand wanted to share in front of the camera, and they often watched for the reaction of the other kids projected on the screen. Almost every kid shared, watched the screen, and breathed a sigh of relief followed by a smile when the younger kids clapped and screamed for them. Our kids also had the opportunity to be a good audience member, asking questions to other kids and applauding for their work.

Too often kids don’t get the chance to share their work with anyone outside of their class. Days like this are invaluable to teaching kids there is a world beyond their classroom and that world does value what they’re doing. These days also motivate kids who maybe didn’t do their best work this time, but knowing that it will be on display, will probably work harder on the next project. That kind of authentic motivation does more for a kid than any teacher standing over their shoulder telling them to “just try a little harder.”

One Bean Bag at a Time: Creating a Student-Centered Classroom

August 16, 2012

Today was the first grade level team meeting we had for the upcoming school year. Usually those meetings are continuations of policies from last year, with improvements and suggestions peppered throughout on how to make things better for everyone. When the question was asked, “Who wants to supervise the lunch detention room,” I raised my hand and said, “I’ll do break duty every day for the year. I don’t care. I just don’t want to do that.” That triggered a question from one of our administrators: If you don’t want to do it so badly, then how do you think the kids feel about it?

How the kids feel about something is probably one of the most divisive questions you could ask in a school, and the answers are not dependent on age, gender, or any other factors like that. It’s a question of philosophy. You get some who say, “Who cares how the kids feel? They’re here to learn. What about me and how I feel,” while others say, “If the kids don’t feel good about where they are, there’s no way they can learn.” That question often hints at the underlying issue of control and what the teacher’s idea of control is.

Too often, what I’ve found from collaborating in teacher-centered classrooms, the control is shown by telling the students where to sit, when they can go to the bathroom, what utensil they need to write with, how they must research a topic, how to structure an essay, how to add fractions (‘cause there’s only one way, right?), and how to behave. Generally, that teacher believes that if all of those factors are “taken care of,” the students are ready to learn, only to be disappointed that after they’ve stripped the students of any choice and dignity (because how humane is it to ask a student – “do you really have to go the bathroom right now or can it wait?…If it’s an emergency, fine, you can go, but grab the pass.” If a principal did that to a teacher, there’d be a grievance in HR by the end of the day), those students actually didn’t learn the material.

In no way am I innocent of all the above charges. But I’m working every day to grow and be better at what I do.

In a student-centered classroom, in no way does the teacher ever not have control of the classroom, but the teacher is controlling other things besides compliance. It should go without saying that the teacher is always responsible for creating a safe environment for students. In the student-centered classroom, the teacher controls that students are set up to learn. What that actual set up looks like changes for every student. For some, it may be using an iPod to research while another kid uses a laptop. Some may sit in a plastic chair at a table, others may want to sit somewhere on the floor. If learning is happening for both kids and they’re safe, does it matter where they’re sitting?

The teacher has to be flexible enough to give students choices for how they learn and where they learn, but before that can ever happen, the teacher has to give students the right to make choices for themselves, good or bad, and learn from them. Like a colleague of mine, Michael Thornton, who I am lucky to bounce ideas off of says, “Give students the chance and they’ll figure it out.” The only thing they have to figure out in a class where they have an assigned seat, where there is only proper way to sit, and only one path to the correct answer is how much they hate that class.

There’s also plenty of places for kids to write, whether they want to stick with paper or use tables, floors, and windows. Again, shout out to Michael and Ira Socol  for the inspiration here. I’ve stolen so much from people like them!

While all the standards kids need to know will still be taught to them this year, the kids are going to take more ownership of the content in ways like creating their own lessons to teach the class, another great thing Michael does. Lecture is dead, but students learning how to research and evaluate both content and mode of presentation is not, and I’m hoping that the information is a) easier for them to understand when it’s coming from one of their peers and b) more relevant and retainable (new word!) because it’s coming from them. Where students sit is another issue I’m not going to stress over this year, as long as we can all see each other. There’ll be times when kids need to be in certain places, but other times when it truly does not matter.

I’ve added a few things to my class, the first year I’ve ever had a room to myself and been able to go HGTV on it. Here are some of the additions (none of which are groundbreaking, but when combined, the class looks and feels really comfortable):

  • corner area with rug and pillows
  • husband pillows (can use anywhere in class and hall)
  • bean bag chairs
  • rubber interlocking tile mat (where a teacher desk used to be)
  • round tables instead of desks
  • a couch in one corner of the class (where file cabinets used to be)
  • floor space/huge floor writing space in the back of the class (where another teacher desk used to be)
  • blank walls (no posters, which leaves all the room for student work)

When the kids come for the first day, I hope they have suggestions for how to make the space better for them. Here’s a panorama view of the classroom so far. Any feedback or suggestions is greatly appreciated.