Learning Through Them

On Friday, US History students submitted their Immigrant Experience letters. This project is the first substantial independent work students do in the blended learning class. This year I asked them to submit an evaluation of three sources they planned to use a week before the letter was due, just to ensure that they’d given it some thought before the night before it’s due.

One thing I’m working to do even more of in this class this year is to create the sense that work doesn’t fall into a dark hole that only a teacher has access to once it is submitted. I asked students to upload their letters to a wiki, so they are available for other teachers and students to access.
This year, I also took time in class for students to respond to each others’ letters. I used an activity that we did at the UNCCWP Summer Institute.  Students used sticky notes to offer feedback about something they learned, wondered about, and a connection they made to the immigrant group they studied after reading their classmates’ letter. We spent about 30 minutes with students standing up whenever they finished a letter and swapping with someone else who was finished. (This allowed everyone to read at his or her own pace.)
After the written feedback, students returned to their computers and read the feedback that had been left for them. We then had a brief discussion about commonalities and differences students saw in the letters that they read.
Finally, we debriefed the project itself. The biggest challenge was that a few students who had chosen to focus on British immigrants had difficulty finding resources specific to the time period we were examining. Next year, I’ll likely drop that group and add Jewish immigrants as an option instead.
Students agreed that the project allowed them to gain a good sense of what the everyday life of an immigrant in the late 19th/early 20th century would have been like. They also expressed that it was helpful to have annotations to the letter, rather than trying to cram the historical explanations into the letter, which they thought would have felt inauthentic. In thinking about how writing the letter might have differed from taking a test or writing an essay about the immigrant group, students noted that they prefer the work of “getting inside the head” of the immigrant persona they crafted. One student wonderfully noted, “We learned through the immigrants, rather than about them.”

Mashup, Mixtape Culture

I never feel comfort
Steeped in commodity
Tangible artifacts and wasted ideas

Counting joy uncovered exits
Changed the argument
The beginnings of the difference

Dusty road
Gets me where I need to be

-A found poem pulled from final UNCCWP SI reading


Had this song in my head as I was writing


Tomorrow is the last day of the UNCC National Writing Project Summer Institute. I’ve written my final reflection, but I also wanted a post in which to collect the posts I’ve written during the Institute.

Inquiry blog posts

Looking at the idea of helping students understand history as a more nuanced and complicated narrative, while at the same time, one to which they can relate.

The Familiarity and Strangeness of History
Defamiliarization and Wonder
Two Things at Once
Making the Familiar Strange
Writing in History Class

My Day in the Life post
Continuing the Conversation(s)

Poetry posts
Poetry Crawl
10am at Amelie’s Bakery
Mashup, Mixtape Culture

Other NWP SI related blog posts
Writing at IKEA
Digital Writing Autobiography
Writing Timeline
Review of The Energy to Teach

My self-selected piece is an article about using Creative Commons licensed images in the classroom. Because I’m hoping to submit it for publication, I’m not posting it publicly, but happy to share via email if you’re interested.

Leaving and Taking

As part of this morning’s improv activity, we were invited to think about what we would take away from the UNCC National Writing Project Summer Institute and what we would leave. I decided to use those categories for my reflection on SI.

What I’ll Leave

The feeling that if I don’t do it it won’t get done and that won’t be ok
The whole group video portfolio project feels like it’s consumed a big chunk of my thoughts over the past several days. It’s reminded me what an incredibly complex kind of text a video can be. Even a six minute video has required hours of work spread across a number of people. At some point, I started to feel responsible for the video and simultaneously frustrated that I didn’t feel like I had the right tech (in this case a Mac) to make it happen the way I’d hoped. In the past, I might have pushed through anyway, volunteering to finish the project anyway. Instead, I talked with other people who were working on the project and we figured out a way to share the load some. (Many props to Laura, who ended up pulling the final cut together.)

The feeling that I’ve somehow escaped “having” to teach writing because I teach history
Last year when I was teaching all history classes for the first time, I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized that I was no longer going to be a “writing teacher.” In some ways this was really freeing, but it also meant that I didn’t work as hard to find creative ways for my students to connect to the material through writing. Many of the demos over the course of SI have given me ideas for writing in different ways as a part of history class. Next year I get to teach writing as part of history class.

A sour taste in my mouth for tech
Over the past year, I’d been really wrestling with my use of digital tech in the classroom, or lack thereof. Tech had started to feel like just a shiny toy, rather than a useful tool. Being able to incorporate tech in useful ways in my demo at SI and seeing the use of tech in others’ demos reminded me of the joy that I used to find in using technology with students.

The sense that all writing has to be directed toward an end product
I’m a goal-orientated person who doesn’t like to feel like I’m wasting effort. I want my writing to be directed toward something- a blog post, an article, even a tweet. I sometimes feel that if writing doesn’t end up in some publishable or shareable form, it’s not worth doing. The sheer amount of writing that we’ve done over the course of the Institute means that there’s no way that it could all make it into a form that makes sense to share. It’s been freeing, though, to let those scraps be.

What I’ll Take Away

A reminder that good teaching requires careful planning to look effortless and create space for messiness
Prepping for my demo reminded me that really good lessons create space for the surprising to happen, but that space requires careful thought to ensure that things don’t get chaotic or seem haphazard. This will be the first year in my teaching career that I’ll be teaching the same classes as I taught the year before. (Yay!) I’m hoping that not having to be in “just one step ahead of the students” mood will allow me to spend some more time thinking about how I craft space for student learning and inquiry.

A reminder of how much I love learning
I’ve heard it said that some people become teachers because they don’t ever want to leave school. Guilty as charged. I don’t see this as a bad thing though. My love of school isn’t about being a sage on the stage or a power trip. It’s about getting to have the opportunity to learn alongside students, to curate sources to pique their curiosity, and to help them ask good questions. It was fun to get to be get to be a student in the formal sense again.

Gratitude for thoughtful, passionate teachers
Throughout the SI, I’ve been impressed by the skill and dedication, both of the Teacher Consultants facilitating the Institute and the other participants. In a country where the media and politicians sometimes portray teachers as lazy and ignorant, it’s been a privilege to work and learn with people who are the diametric opposite of that portrayal. It’s also been fun to have the opportunity to “talk shop” with people who care as deeply about issues of teaching and learning as I do. I’m deeply grateful for the experience and for those who encouraged me to pursue it.

The Familiarity and Strangeness of History

Today I presented my demonstration lesson as part of the UNCC National Writing Project Summer Institute. In part, I based the demo on a lesson that I’ve done with both adults and students, but I also made some changes to it. I’d never used Lino with a group of folks and wanted to try it out as a potential alternative to Wall Wisher, which has been unstable for me and not particularly aesthetically pleasing.

One of the things  that I really enjoy about the demos is the chance to give and receive feedback afterward. Several people said is that they felt the use of technology in the lesson was seamlessly integrated. As someone who is constantly thinking about ways to integrate tech in ways that feel authentic and not just flashy, I was really happy to hear this.

The primary sources related to Japanese-American internment during WWII I chose generated some really interesting and passionate discussion and got at several of the larger themes of identity and use of language that I was hoping to address. There was definitely more material than I’d try to pack into a typical 45 minute lesson, but I think it got at the issue of connection to and disconnection from historical material (avoiding an overly simplified historical narrative) that I’m thinking about for my inquiry project.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to Google doc and presentation slides. Jessie also wrote a post about the lesson and captured some of our chat discussion.


Poetry Crawl

In Melissa’s demo today, we reflected on our experiences with poetry. I hated poetry in school, mostly because I felt like I didn’t “get” it. There weren’t clear right answers, and it often seemed like analysis of poems was just the teacher or students BS-ing about how it made them feel.

My best teachers of poetry weren’t teachers I had in school. They were friends who shared poems they loved with me. They loved the poems in front of me. (Mister Rogers says teachers are “people who have passion for their art or their science or their craft and love it right in front of us”)

As we were choosing a poem to share for the gallery crawl, I noticed how intently everyone was working. I wanted my poem to be a good representation of what I cared about and found beautiful. I decided to pull together a quick video- a title, a picture from one of my hikes, and my reading of the poem. 10 minutes was not enough time to do it justice, but did give me a sense of having completed something that I could share. I was impressed by the variety of poems people chose- songs, haiku, funny, penetrating.

Defamiliarization and Wonder

Today in Tricia’s demo we were invited to express a simple mathematical equation in words. Many of the groups wrote word problems and our group wrote a description of the communicative property. Some groups even drew pictures. As many of us spend less time working with math rather than other areas, this activity forced us to encounter a text (the math equation) differently than we might have otherwise.* By asking us, without a great deal of direction, to represent the familiar in a new way, we were forced to think more creatively about the text and the way our students learn.

The demo led me to continue thinking about how to make what my students encounter in history class fresh or strange, to problematize easy and potentially incorrect assumptions. My high students especially come to American history with some deeply help and often implicit assumptions about history.

Defamilarization was a term coined in early 1900s by Russian formalists to describe the process of making something familiar seem strange for the audience or reader for the purposes of enhancing his or her perception. Although Samuel Taylor Coleridge predates the term, I think he describes the idea well in Biographia Literaria

To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood; to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which every day for perhaps forty years had rendered familiar. . . this is the character and privilege of genius. 

It’s that sense of wonder and strangeness that’s part of what I’d like to help my students cultivate when they approach historical texts.

*I’m resisting the temptation to call us English people (as opposed to math people) because I think, influenced by Carol Dweck’s Mindset, that those categories are ultimately less useful and limiting.