The month of May on the school calendar represents grueling tests of will, perseverance, and endurance… and I’m just speaking for educators. If it is this great a struggle for adults, imagine what wanders through the young, developing minds of our students?
In my ninth grade Visions in Literature and Composition courses, May presents the final stage of freshman training. In attempt to maintain the attention of students (and the teacher), I save the popular dystopian literature unit for the end of the year. And traditionally, it delivers.
Last year’s freshmen were treated to a different approach to close the school year. I gamified the entire dystopian literature unit and presented the ultimate challenge: Escape from Durstopia! They were hooked from the outset, but when they began discovering new missions with links to next steps for success, they were locked in. I communicated from the InfoTech Hub (Google Classroom) and added slides to a shared Google presentation.
Teams formed when necessary and individuals raced to conquer challenges. Students were slipping side quests to me before anyone else recognized the opportunities to learn or create. A group comprised of students from both classes even joined forces and stayed for hours after school to stump their peers with a coded scavenger hunt. Impressive. My students were doing more work and producing greater outcomes than I would ever consider assigning. Learners were not merely invested; they were immersed in our gamified literary universe.
So why would I save this level of engagement for the final month when I have an entire school year to plan? Why not start the year in game mode and see where it leads?
With a final pep talk from Michael Matera (I urge you to read Explore Like a Pirate and follow the action of #XPLAP on Twitter), Tisha Richmond, Adam Bold, Nick Davis, and Carrie Baughcam in June, I left University School’s Summer Spark with the vision and motivation necessary to construct my story for freshman English. Thus, Durstopia expanded from a single unit concept to a year-long experience. Plans are currently underway in my imagination and on dry erase boards in my office.
The transition in planning is an invigorating challenge after years of teaching the freshman curriculum. I am restructuring the order of our department units (with common standards, learning targets, and assessments)—units I have helped create throughout the last two decades—to tell a learning story within the theme. Here’s what it looks like at this point in midsummer form (questions, suggestions, and brilliant insights are always welcome!).
After months of building community through activities and analysis of our individual learning styles, one thing is clear: I am a random thinker. I see the big picture, need to express creativity through original thought, resent limitations, do not appreciate hard deadlines, and rely on my wife to make many household decisions–but appreciate some structure in my day. I prefer real, open-ended problem solving to quench my curiosity, I always have multiple projects started, and I take risks in leading change (or starting Twitter chats like #slowchatGSD). My concrete randomness is painfully evident when I compete with myself, miss certain steps (helps to read all directions), or have to deal with perceived ignorance. I understand my learning style so I may be cognizant of the diverse learners in the classroom and improve my instruction of sequential learners. I often struggle to relate (or appeal) to the concrete sequentials, although they are possibly the easiest to teach.
And if I were concrete sequential, I would craft a simple numbered list of what I love most about school. But that’s not how my brain works… Continue reading
I put considerable thought into planning my classes, but the best lessons result from the spontaneity of my students. While I take comfort in being organized for each hour, the random-abstract part of my brain cringes at the limitations of set routines in a cookie-cutter classroom. That would explain why I teach 4-5 different preps throughout the day–the variety keeps every day exciting and reminds me to experience school from a student’s perspective. I can empathize as the bell interrupts one thought process and insists on passage to another. However, for learners who need structure to alleviate anxiety, I use a simple strategy of establishing theme days at the outset of class. Class periods are 52 minute long (45 minutes on late start Wednesdays) so I dedicate the first 5-15 minutes, depending on the plan for the rest of the hour.
In Creative Writing (an elective English course for juniors and seniors), the theme days are as follows:
We need to make the most of fresh minds at the beginning of each week, so Metaphor Monday launches the critical thought process. I approach the prompt from the standpoint of thinking at two levels, emphasizing the figurative beyond the literal. We start with an intangible concept related to one of the week’s learning targets and make a direct comparison to something tangible. Of course, students must then provide the rationale for the connection. Our first example (to initiate a conversation about writing) is:
Good writing is a(n) __________________________, because…
The variety of thought processes is fascinating and worth noting how many writers want to turn metaphors into similes. They overuse like as a natural part of their language, and are totally unwilling to state anything with–like–conviction. Right? It also provides a first impression of my learners and how I should approach instruction.
On Tuesdays, I take advantage of my students’ obsession with social media. Adolescents are undaunted by the 140 character limit and attack this prompt. After composing the thought in their writer’s notebook, many students opt to publish via Twitter. The purpose is to get writers thinking before the day’s lesson, but teachable moments are plentiful (and may be habit-forming).
Please don’t tell my students they are learning to:
1. Write for an authentic audience
2. Increase self-reflection and social awareness
3. Leave a respectable digital footprint (possibly making up for careless social media posts they might someday regret)
4. Appreciate the potential and value of social media as a means of global communication
5. Write clearly and coherently, edit, and revise before publishing (including the importance of word choice, effects of punctuation, and beauty of a clever hashtag #creativewritingrocks)
Wednesday Wellness (not a writing prompt, but oh, so necessary)
By midweek, the creative process calls for celebration and a break from the writing workshop (in the computer lab). We move to my classroom–a field trip of sorts–where the desks are arranged in a semi-circle, inviting whole class conversation (see Clubhouse in Learning With a Purpose page). Writers use this time to celebrate, sharing their work within a circle of trust. When the sharing is complete, everyone reads independently selected books in silence (SSR!) for the remainder of the 45 minute period. Students exit the Clubhouse with a sense of pride (in their work), community (of mutual respect and support), and well-being (relaxed and appreciative of quality time with a good book). The teacher also deserves some guilt-free wellness time to recharge for the remainder of the week.
Deep Thought Thursday
On Thursday, we return to the writing workshop, but before the lesson of the day, we need time to contemplate life. For days when inspiration is lacking, I suggest writers start by asking themselves a question (possibly about something nagging just beneath the surface) or begin with “I wonder…” or “What if…” prompts. Hopefully, a thought is sparked. One unintentional result of the Deep Thought Thursday journal entry is the potential for a future research topic, argument paper, or premise of a story–all of which could become publishable works.
Free Write Friday
Alas, the end of the week arrives. What could possibly maintain our attention? Can anything be more important than getting the weekend party started? Should we shut it down–call it a week? Let’s be real–we need Free Write Fridays, our version of 20% time. Not everyone is going to appreciate each of the genres we cover throughout the semester (from creative nonfiction personal narratives to fictional poetry, short stories, and screenplays). Students signed up for Creative Writing with different intentions and strengths. Based on last year’s feedback to the previous Creative Writing teacher, students crave the freedom to experiment with and explore individual passions in writing beyond the established curriculum. How awesome will it be to someday hear their song on the radio, read their best seller, or watch their movie in the theater?
Whether the alliterative theme days are simply cheesy or possibly clever, they set an expectation and generate enthusiastic, memorable learning experiences at the outset of class. And for those with color-coded planners–ease that anxiety–there is structure within our creative chaos. Of course, I make no promises of what will take place for the remainder of each class period.