Maya Angelou’s Words Are Worth The Fight

This morning the BBC played softly in the background as I shuttled my children to school. Most mornings they whine when I turned the radio to a news station, but this morning they were absorbed in their own worlds in the backseat.Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 3.36.44 PM

As the news anchor reviewed the day’s top stories, he announced “Maya Angelou has died at the age of 86.” I couldn’t process what I was hearing. I’ve revered Angelou my entire life. Her words, her voice, her insight, her honesty and her humor.

As a poet, she gave me gifts like “Phenomenal Woman” that taught me to see beauty in “the span of my hips, the stride of my step, the curl of my lips” and  “the arch of my back, the sun of my smile.” Her poem “Alone” reminded me that “nobody can make it out here alone,” and that life is, at its core, about human connection.

Ironically, this woman, who I never met, inspired me to fight the hardest battle of my professional career. The first year I taught her early autobiography, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, a small but vocal group of parents in my district bombarded me with abrasive phone calls and accusatory emails. They called her beautifully written story “pornography.” I was stunned. The attack on my decision to teach this book, and, subsequently, on me as a person was intense. I had to ask myself, why was I teaching this book?

The answer is simple. Hope. For all of the students who walk through my door carrying more than just their backpacks. For those students who carry sadness, pain, insecurities, self-loathing, and despair. For every child who comes to school hungry and is afraid to go home. For anyone who has ever felt they have no voice. This autobiography is a reminder that there is hope.

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Every time I read Angelou’s early autobiography, I am amazed that she was able to overcome life’s obstacles and blossom into the accomplished woman she was. She endured poverty, discrimination, sexual and physical violence, abandonment, and pregnancy all before she turned 18. Angelou’s story is one of resilience, tenacity and a love for life.

In life’s darkest moments, it is stories like Angelou’s that remind us we are not alone and that beyond the darkness there is light. I feel fortunate to have read her story as a teenager and to be able to share her words with my students.


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Prewriting: Why Should Students Go It Alone?

When asked, “What is the most challenging part of writing an essay?” Most of my students agree, “It’s just getting started that’s hard.” I remember feeling this same way as a student. The blank page was daunting. So, I decided to try a new strategy.

The first stage of our formal essay on Shakespeare’s play, Othello, was a prewriting activity designed to tap into the collective potential of the class. I wanted students working together to generate ideas and collect textual evidence.

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I pushed desks together and laid down a long sheet of yellow butcher paper. The essay prompt was written on the board:

Prompt: Identify and analyze three factors that led to the tragedy in William Shakespeare’s play, Othello.

I explained that I wanted them to work together to brainstorm and collect textual evidence in preparation for their essay. That was where my involvement ended. The rest of the activity was student directed.

One student wrote the word tragedy in the center of the paper. Then they had an interesting conversation about what the actual tragedy was. Was it Desdemona’s death? Was it Othello and Desdemona’s lost love? Was it the inherent lack of trust in human nature?

Then students brainstormed factors they believed led to the tragedy. They had conversations as they captured their ideas on the paper. They wrote words and phrases like lack of communication, Iago’s greed, Othello’s “otherness” and status as an outsider.

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Once they identified a dozen different factors, they began searching for textual evidence (with citations!) to support those factors. The energy in the room was palpable. Students were flipping through pages, referencing devices, writing on the paper, and discussing their ideas. It was so different from the individual prewriting sessions of the past.

After their prewriting was done, I took pictures of the paper and posted them to our class website for my students to reference. When they wrote their first body paragraph in class, I laid out their prewriting paper. As they wrote, students would pause, come to the paper and reference the factors and quotes generated the previous class.

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This strategy was fairly low tech since my classroom doesn’t have any actual technology save the devices my students bring into the room. If everyone had access to a device, I could have done this same activity using a web tool, like Padlet, to facilitate real time collaboration and capture their ideas.

The success of this activity was evident as I began to edit their drafts in progress. The quality of their ideas, strength of their quotes, and the depth of their analysis improved dramatically.

Too often the collective intelligence in a classroom is ignored. It’s so important that we give students more opportunities to learn from one another.


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After 12 Years of Teaching Writing…an Epiphany!

I’ve been teaching students how to write for 12 years, but this week I had a realization that made me question the purpose of writing in school.

When I was in high school and later in college, my English classes focused primarily on reading novels and writing papers to demonstrate a strong understanding of the literature we had read, annotated and discussed as a class. The purpose of writing was assessment. Did we understand what we read? Were we able to identify strong textual evidence and analyze it? Did we demonstrate higher-order thinking in our writing?

I took this same philosophy and applied it to my own work with students. Like so many teachers, my own practice is, in many ways, grounded in my past experiences as a student. Even though I strive to continually grow, learn and improve as an educator, I sometimes don’t think to question the assumptions that are at the heart of my craft.

Two years ago I began flipping my writing instruction. I created short videos to replace the “mini-lessons” I had traditionally presented in class. I saw value in allowing students the opportunity to control the pace of their learning. As a teacher, I love having a resource I can point a student to if they are continuing to struggle with the structure of an argument body paragraph or how to write a thesis statement. In the past, I had to repeatedly explain these concepts. Flipping my writing instruction also creates more time in the classroom to actually write.

Last year, I wrote a blog about synchronous editing. I described a class period when I took my students to the computer lab part way through their essays to provide them with formative feedback. I opened every document and left extensive comments. In that blog, I commented on how miraculous it is that technology has given me a vehicle to collaborate in real time, meet students where they are at, and provide support during their writing. I’ve continued to provide synchronous edits in the computer lab at least once each time students write a process paper. 

So what changed?

This week my students finished writing an essay on Shakespeare’s play, Othello. It is one of the most challenging pieces of reading we do all year. I knew my students would need support during the writing process. I planned time in class for them to write, so I could answer questions and lend support. Then I reserved the computer lab three days in a row and had students working on their papers as I synchronously edited them. I edited most of my studentsGoogle documents 2 or 3 times before they actually “submitted” their essays.

As I walked away from the last round of edits exhausted but satisfied with both my effort and theirs, it hit me. My 9th and 10th grade students are still learning how to write. Many of my students come into my class without a strong foundation in writing. Most don’t have the skills they need to tackle the meaty essay prompts I present without serious support. So, why am I so focused on the product when I should be focusing on the process? The time I spend helping my students to edit and refine their writing as they write is exponentially more valuable for them than the final comments I leave on their essays.

My big realization is that writing shouldn’t be used as simply an assessment tool. Assigning an essay to be completed at home and collected to grade is a missed opportunity for everyone. The student misses out on valuable feedback and support as they write, and teachers collect enormous stacks of paper that must be graded outside of the school day. This old model can be a frustrating and exhausting experience for everyone involved. 

Why not move writing back into the classroom? Doesn’t it make more sense to spend our time and energy providing feedback as students write, instead of waiting until papers are collected to spend hours editing them? We are fortunate enough to teach in a time when technology is making it easier than ever to collaborate on documents and provide instant feedback, so we can embrace the process!

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Maker Movement: Let Them Build it & They’ll Learn!

The Maker Movement happening in education right now is exciting. It makes so much sense to create “more opportunities for all young people to develop confidence, creativity, and interest in science, technology, engineering, math,  arts, and learning as a whole through making.” photo 3

Turning Students into Makers

The Maker Movement:

    • places students at the center of learning.
    • shifts students from consumers to producers.
    • is cross disciplinary.
    • requires critical thinking to solve problems and design solutions.
    • develops communication, collaboration and research skills.
    • yields a finished product that students can be proud of and share.

At first, I was not sure how to introduce elements of the Maker philosophy into my English classroom. Much of the conversation around this movement focuses on technology and STEM subjects, but I see value in getting students to design and create in all subject areas. Since I don’t have any actual technology in my classroom, I had to get creative in my approach.

We were reading (performing is more accurate) Shakespeare’s play, Othello. I usually do a mini-lesson on the Globe Theatre to introduce its design, layout, symbolic spaces, and genius construction. That’s when I had an idea! Why not ask students to build replicas of the Globe Theatre? To build a model of the Globe, they would have to complete research, get creative with their materials and work collaboratively in groups. I realized that through the act of making their replicas they would probably learn more and have more fun.

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Building a Replica of the Globe Theatre

I was struck by two things as I watched my students work. First, each group took a very different approach to building their models. It was a reminder that students are immensely creative when given the autonomy and freedom to decide on the path they want to take to complete a project. I simply provided an assortment of materials — construction paper, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, glue and tape. I left all the design and construction decisions up to the students.

The second thing that both surprised and amused me was how “hard” my students felt this task was. Because the assignment didn’t come with a clear set of instructions, they had to work together to make decisions. They found the process of trial and error frustrating.

Despite the challenges they faced and frustration they felt during the process, I could tell they were extremely proud of their finished products. By the end of our 90 minute class period, each group had a replica of the Globe Theatre and a stop motion movie of their work.

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Creating Stop Motion Videos of Their Work

Prior to beginning their work, I asked one member of each group to upload the iMotion HD app (free) to capture a stop motion film of their work. They propped up the phone and the iMotion HD app took one picture per second and strung them together into short stop motion movies showing their process. They enjoyed watching their work evolve in this short stop motion movie.

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ISTE Standards and The Common Core in Action

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 3.30.01 PMAre you daunted by the prospect of implementing the Common Core State Standards? Don’t be! The Common Core opens the door for innovative teaching techniques to ensure students are college and career ready.

Join me on Wednesday, April 23rd at 4PM PST/7PM EST for my ISTE webinar titled “ISTE Standards and The Common Core Integration in Action.”  I’ll share the strategies I am using to blend technology and tradition to teach the new standards in my classroom.

Learn how to leverage web 2.0 tools to engage students and teach creative problem solving, critical thinking, and effective communication and collaboration. Leave this webinar with concrete lesson ideas you can use with students today! Teachers, Curriculum Directors, Tech Integration Specialists, Tech Coordinators, Tech Coaches, School Leaders are all welcome to attend.

Nicole Krueger interviewed me about this webinar and my thoughts on the Common Core in action. Check out the ISTE blog post “What does Common Core in the classroom look like?”


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Shakespeare Trivia with Remind101

At the start of our Othello unit, I wanted to get my students excited about Shakespeare. This is no small task as most high school students cringe and recoil when they hear the name William Shakespeare. They assume they will hate every moment of reading his plays. Each year I am on a mission to prove them wrong!

On the first day of our unit, I sent a Remind101 text to all of my students during their morning break informing them that there was a Shakespeare trivia question on the board. I told them the first student to correctly answer the question would receive extra credit. I decided to record a movie to see how long it would take for a student to come to my class and answer the question correctly.

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I’m not sure what I expected, but I definitely didn’t expect a student to come blazing through the door fists of triumph in the air 46 seconds after sending the text message. I was stunned. My student was stoked.

I’ve continued to post Shakespeare Trivia questions each day to keep Shakespeare at the forefront of their minds. It’s fun to see them research the questions and excitedly write them on the board. I love that technology can make learning so fun and engaging.

I want to thank Ramsey Musallam for inspiring my Shakespeare Trivia! He uses Remind101 to alert his students to chemistry problems that need to be solved. I am so grateful to my PLN for sharing awesome ideas and continuing to inspire me.

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Research Meets Gamification With A Google A Day

As with any skill, research takes practice. The more students search, the better they will become at finding what they need online. I use A Google a Day to “gamify” research in my classroom.

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After I present tips for searching smarter, I want students to have ample opportunities to practice those tips and strategies. A Google a Day is a free game offered by Google that presents 6 trivia questions each day. If students opt to play the “basic game,” there is no sign in required and they can access the first three questions. If they sign in with their Google+ account, they have access to all six questions.

Students are timed and receive points based on how long it takes them to correctly answer each question. The faster students search, the higher their scores will be. New questions are posted daily and relate to a variety of categories ranging from sports to history to science.

Tips for getting the most out of A Google a Day:

  1. Put students into “teams” or groups as they play. They tend to have more stamina when working together, and the competitive element motivates them to stay focused.

  2. If possible, make sure each member of the group has a device. It’s fun to watch groups of students, devices in hand, doing simultaneous searches and talking about the information they are finding. The energy in the room during a Google a Day activity is electric!

  3. If you are working with middle school students, the “basic game” with just three questions is probably enough for them. The questions are really challenging and require several searches to find the right answer. Asking them to do the full game with all six questions can be a bit overwhelming and cause research fatigue.

  4. Play a game each week to keep research a part of your curriculum all year.

  5. End each activity by asking groups to share their own search tips. What search strategies did they use that they found helpful? I’m a big fan of crowdsourcing information, so this is a great way to get students sharing what they learned after each activity.

For more on teaching students how to evaluate digital resources, check out my blog “Common Core: Evaluating The Credibility of Digital Sources.”


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An Experiment: Badging & The Pursuit of Mastery

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 1.09.25 PMMy article “Five Musts for Mastery” was published by ASCD and explores how educators can leverage technology to support students on their individual roads toward mastery. I was quick to point out that “the term mastery creates this illusion that we can master a concept or skill—when, in reality, mastery isn’t an end point but rather an elusive goal that remains forever out of reach. This may dishearten some, but I prefer this definition. There is no dead end in learning.

In my journey towards embracing a mastery model in my own classroom, I decided to use Class Badges to identify key skills I wanted my students to “master” before leaving my class. The Common Core Standards for 9-10th grade English clearly state where my students should be on their road to mastery by the time they leave my class to ensure they are prepared for the next year. I decided to use the Standards as a guide when I created my badges at the start of second semester.

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I designed 10 badges total with artwork, catchy names and descriptions grounded in the Common Core Standards for my grade level and subject area. I explained to my classes that I would be awarding badges for the remainder of the year to students who demonstrated mastery for their grade level in a particular skill. Once a student had demonstrated mastery, I told them they would be not be assessed on that skill any more this year.

For example, I designed a Savvy with Citations badge to give students who were able to properly cite a range of sources correctly using MLA citation.

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I had taught them how to cite properly, linked them to the Owl Purdue website for reference, and allowed them half a dozen opportunities to practice this skill collaboratively with their peers before they were individually assessed. I was dismayed when only three of my students demonstrated mastery, passed out of this skill, and earned a badge. Given the time we had dedicated to practicing citations, I was shocked that a larger percentage of my students did not successfully complete the assessment.

In the past, students would practice a skill and complete some form of assessment after working on that skill. Regardless of their individual grades, we would eventually move on to the next skill. I realize now that in that traditional model the majority of students might never learn the nuances of a skill being practiced.

In my desire to get of my students to mastery, I allowed them to discuss the results of their citation assessment and identify what they had done incorrectly. Then we practiced some more, and I assessed them again. Only the three students who demonstrated mastery were excused from the second assessment.

The second time around almost a third of my students demonstrated mastery, passed out of the citation skill, and earned a badge. We continued in this cycle as more and more students earned their badges. What amazed me was how excited and proud my students were to have earned a badge. The accomplishment clearly meant more to them because they had taken several assessments and work extremely hard to demonstrate their ability to properly cite sources.

I began to think of the moments in my own life when I have been most proud of myself. They are times when I have worked hard to accomplish something that I initially was not sure I could do. I believe this is the reason so many students were so elated to earn a badge. It was a recognition of their hard work and ability to master a challenging skill.

There is a dramatic shift that happens in a classroom when students know they will be asked to continually work on a task or skill until they have mastered it. They become invested in their work. They begin to take pride in their successes. They are more eager to learn and engage in the classroom.

Are you attending the BLC (Building Learning Communities) Conference in Boston this July? I’m leading a workshop titled “Embracing Mastery Learning in a Traditional Classroom” on Monday, July 14th from 1-5pm. Please join me if you are in town!




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TED Active: The Talks & My Thoughts

In the last three days, I have heard over 20 TED Talks delivered by articulate speakers on a wide range of topics. As a teacher and professional development facilitator, I was definitely thinking about each talk in the context of the work I do.

Here are three of the early TED Talks that resonated with me because they offered insights relevant to education:

1. Chris Hadfield, an astronaut, captured my attention with a terrifying story about losing his vision while dangling by one arm in space. When his shocking story was through, he asked us, “So, what are you afraid of?”

I work with so many teachers who are afraid of technology. I thought of all these teachers as I listened to Hadfield talk. He made an interesting distinction when he said, “Danger is entirely different from fear.” This statement resonated with me. People have a lot of fears, but they are not necessarily in any actual danger. I had never thought about that subtle difference.

I walked away from his talk thinking how ironic is is that human beings tend to initially fear those advances that ultimately yield so much positive change in our lives. Hadfield’s talk was a great reminder to embrace moments of fear and retrain our primal reactions to them, so they no longer limit us.

2. Amanda Burden, an urban planner, spoke about her work transforming many of New York City’s abandoned or neglected areas into vibrant social spaces to attract New Yorkers.

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As I listened to Burden share her work, I was thinking of the blog I wrote when I first arrived at TED Active about the need to create collaborative and inviting spaces in education similar to the spaces all over the conference.

The images Burden shared in her talk reflected the transformations that took place all over the city as a result of her work. She talked about what she learned observing popular parks and successful social spaces. I realized that much of what draws people to these places in a city (comfortable, moveable chairs and a social component) can be applied to the classroom.

3. Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father and education activist, talked about his great pride at being “Malala’s father.” He eloquently explained why he encouraged his daughter to speak out for both women’s and children’s rights despite the dangers this posed.

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Yousafzai’s talk reminded me how fortunate I am to live in a country where women have made such incredible strides towards equality. Women all over the world are deprived the basic right to an education. I was struck when Yousafzai said that an education for a girl in Pakistan gives her a name and an identity. I wish more of the children I teach understood how very fortunate they are to have an education.

He ended by saying, “I did not clip her wings.” As a mother and a teacher, that was the most poignant part of his talk. I, too, want to live without clipping the wings or limiting the potential of my children or my students.


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TED Active: Creating Collaborative Spaces

TED Active officially begins today! It’s thrilling to know that in a couple of hours I will be watching TED Talks and chatting about those talks with the diverse collection of people attending TED Active.

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I’ve spent the morning wandering around the conference area exploring. I’m struck by the intention and mindfulness that has gone into the design of each room. The spaces have been laid out with a range of furniture, tech tools and interactive work stations to foster creativity, connections, collaboration, and conversation.

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As soon as I enter a room, I am curious. I want to push buttons, add my ideas to a white board, start a discussion, and learn from the people who wander in and out of each room. This is how learning environments should be. They should by their very design invite movement, experimentation and curiosity.

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Unfortunately, my own classroom is a far cry from these collaborative spaces. By necessity, my students sit at desks. There are so many students crammed into my classroom that there are few opportunities to move furniture and make the space work for them.

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As we think about what future classrooms should look like, we need to be mindful of the design, layout, and furniture.

If we want to change the traditional teaching paradigm and shift the focus from teacher to student, the physical design of the room must reflect this shift. If we want to cultivate curiosity, we need to embrace spaces that encourage discovery. If we want students to talk and collaborate, they need to be comfortable and have a degree of mobility in their learning environment.

I’d like to see the design of classrooms discussed more. As a learner, I can attest that the feel of a room (classroom or otherwise) plays a huge role in how successful a learning experience will be.



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