Language Arts

Article of the Week: 21st Century Literacies

One of my goals this year was to institute a video of the week and an article of the week in my classroom to aid my students in continuing to develop 21st century literacies. After watching the video or reading the article, I ask students to spend a few minutes discussing in small groups what they think about it. I hope that this time helps students think critically and disagree kindly, all while looking each other in the eye.

Through this process, I also hope that students will learn that reading non-fiction can be fun and a life-long pursuit. Reading the news does not have to be boring. I try to choose a wide variety of texts from a wide variety of sources in hopes of exposing students to the breadth of information available to them. This also allows us to discuss bias and validity in sources. After students discuss in their small groups, I ask them to give me a thumb-o-meter on two questions: 1) How much did you agree with the viewpoints shared in this article? and 2) How much did you enjoy this article? I enjoy seeing their diverse opinions.

Here are some of the articles we have read so far this year:

“What happened when I tried the U.S. Army’s tactic to fall asleep in two minutes”
”Readers Howl Over Insult to Canine Intelligence”
”4 Strategies for Overcoming Distraction”
”The only six words parents need to say to their kids about sports—or any performance”
”Skim reading is the new profound. The effect on society is profound”
”We Spend Too Much Time Teaching Students to Argue”
”Are pro athletes playing too much Fortnite?”
”This Is Personal” - Steph Curry

One of the things I have loved the most about this process is that students send me articles that they recommend we read as the Article of the Week. This means that they’re reading what they come across online and that they actually like it!

Give 'Em a Microphone!

"Middle school students are the most underestimated people in the world. I love that technology can amplify their voices." If you've heard me speak, you've probably heard me say this, but I believe it more every day. This week, my students gave TED-style speeches, and I was once again reminded how we need to give our students microphones and get out of the way. 

Our journey started by reading I Am Malala, and learning how the world isn't just our little San Jose bubble. We discussed religion and education and women's rights and terrorism and so many more big, heavy things. But in the midst of it all, we saw a girl who stood up for what she believed in, empowered by those around her. And when she was given a microphone, she just kept going. One day, in the midst of Malala and her friends' frustration with the Taliban, Malala's teacher and father helped them compose speeches and essays about their feelings on the issue. Soon, she was given a microphone. She writes, 

"And I knew in that instant that it wasn't me, Malala, speaking; my voice was the voice of so many others who wanted to speak but couldn't. Microphones made me feel as if I were speaking to the whole world" (71).

I want that for my students. I want them to be a voice for the voiceless. To stand up and speak to the world confidently about what they believe to be true. So we started on a journey. 

We began by watching Nancy Duarte's video on the secret behind great talks. She argues that all of the world's great speeches alternate back and forth between a "what is" and a "what could be." How perfect for standing up for the voiceless. 

My students chose topics that they were passionate about. We created sexy slides (thanks, Unsplash!), and we practiced. We said our speeches pacing back and forth on stage. We practiced with our shoes tied together. We shared with each other. We said it to the air. 

But then we took it to the stage. Under the lights, with a microphone, using a clicker. And their voices brought power. 

"Be strong in your opinion, but do it with wisdom, not foolishness, and do it with respect to those who have lost their lives fighting for the opportunity for you to speak out."

"Disregard everything, and run after what you love."

"How can you stop stereotypes and judging others?"

"I've never have had to worry about working or staying at home to cook or clean. All I've ever had to do is show up and learn."

"Instead of indulging in our own negative emotions and then affecting the people around us, we should learn how to release our emotions in another way."

"There are more than 63 million orphans around the world."

"Shoot for the stars, and never give up, living your worth, your voice, and your dreams."

I could go on and on and on. These students blew my mind with their poise and passion as they took the stage, the opportunity and the microphone empowering them to make a difference. 

Our students just need a chance to be heard. To share their passions. To ask their questions. To make a difference. Let's give them a microphone! 

I Have a Dream

If you've spent a significant amount of time talking to me, you've probably heard me so that I think middle schoolers are the most underestimated people in our world. If you'v spent a significant amount of time with middle schoolers, you know that's true, but you also know that it can take a considerable amount of effort to dig them out of living in the world's expectations. It can be exhausting and disheartening, and then there's one of those moments that reminds you of why you believe in them so much. 

Last week we watched Martin Luther King Junior's "I Have a Dream" speech in preparation of our reading of The Cay, which is dedicated to "Dr King's dream, which can only come true if the very young know and understand." Every year as I watch this speech, I'm inspired by Dr. King and his message for our nation. This year I find it has even more meaning to me as I hear the voices of the racially oppressed in our media every day. It's not an easy speech for my seventh graders to understand, but it's such an important one. 

The next day, I asked them to write their own "I Have a Dream" speech, speaking up for an injustice that they see around them. After they wrote, they went on the soccer field outside of my classroom to practice. It didn't go as well as I hoped. There were funny voices. There were papers stuck to faces. There were students doing anything but what I hoped for. And to be honest, maybe this wasn't the best activity for 2:30 in the afternoon right before a long weekend, but I was so frustrated. 

I pulled them back inside, and told them, "You guys, Dr. King was assassinated for his beliefs. Assassinated. Because he was standing up for an injustice he believes in. I hope that you see injustices too and stand up for them. I hope you have causes that you believe in enough to be willing to be assassinated for them. I'm having you write and give these speeches because I believe in you and the things that you have to say, and I hope you live into that." 

And did they ever.

Yesterday we set up the podium in the auditorium, put on the stage lights, and turned on the microphone. And one by one, my seventh graders came up and shared their dreams: 

I have a dream that one day there will be an end to terrorism. I hope that people can go places and not be scared about what might happen to them.

I have a dream that will change the school system for the better.

I have a dream that future generations will learn to coexist and that we can live with peace and prosperity... if we work together we can mend the wounds we have inflicted on society.

I have a dream that one day gender inequality will vanish.

I have a dream that humans will be appreciative towards animals and animals towards humans. To let man’s best friend really be man’s best friend.

I have a dream that there will be no more cancer.

I have a dream where homeless people would have a second chance

I have a dream that kids around the world will have a say in what goes on around them. I see a world where adults won’t drag kids along to places and will spend time doing something with their kids.

It was beautiful. They confidently spoke their dreams and their classmates listened. I listened. Now you're listening. 

I have big dreams for my students and their dreams. I can't wait to see them work to make their dreams realities. 

(Want to know more, check out this post from 2014: "Students, I Have Dreams for You.")

Small Ideas, Big Change

This week I'm at the MERIT program at the Krause Center for Innovation at Foothill College, helping to lead 50 teachers through one of the best PD experiences. Yesterday, Lisa Highfill came and shared with us about the power of video. Lisa is the one who got me started with video, and I always love learning from her. 

Yesterday inspired a new playlist and lesson idea for me: 

Small Ideas, Big Change

If we think about it, some of the smallest ideas are those that spread the most happiness or change the most lives. For example, Lisa shared this video about the power of "eyebombing":

Small Idea, Big Change. Even though these people just added some eyes to some objects, it made all the difference. 

As I work with middle schoolers, I find that they often feel like they can't make a difference because they don't have the finances or because they can't drive or because adults don't want to learn from them. This is one of the main reasons I love the idea of amplifying student voices. Kids have some of the best ideas. I want to empower them to use those ideas, no matter how small. 

Or look at this video about the "Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables":

Small Idea, Big Change. So cool, huh? Come to find out, there's actually a Bay Area CSA that does this same thing: Imperfect Fruits. I just signed up for it, and I can't wait to see my ugly fruits & veggies! (Mention my name if you sign up; we'll both get a discount!)

Thank you to Imperfect Fruits for this photo! 

Thank you to Imperfect Fruits for this photo! 

Now I've been thinking about how I might use this with students. I think this Small Ideas, Big Change would be an awesome project to do with my students. Maybe I'll make it as a design thinking project after analyzing The Hunger Games as a dystopian novel. Or maybe I'll just make it its own thing. 

What videos would you add to the playlist? What novels or articles would you pair with it? How might we continue to empower students to use their ideas, no matter how small, to create big change in the world? 

Control + F Checklist

Do you have a list of words and phrases that make you cringe when you read student writing?

As you can see.
First person pronouns.
There are many reasons _____ is ____. 


This year I stumbled on a solution for these unsightly words. Let me introduce to you the Control + F Checklist - a way for students to search their documents and remove these words that make me twitch. 

Open a document filled with writing (or even just use this webpage). 
Press Control + F (or Command + F if you're on a Mac).

This will create a box in the upper right-hand corner of your document that looks like this:

This gives you the power to search your document for any word or piece of punctuation that you'd like. 

For example, type the word is. Now every is is highlighted within your document. Press spacebar before and after the word is in your search, and now it'll only highlight where you've used that nasty state-of-being verb (as opposed to this, for example). 

This allows students to quickly and easily see how and where they've used the words you hate to see in their writing. By pressing the arrows in the search, a student can scroll through his or her entire piece of writing. 

By giving them a Control + F Checklist, you can guide students to making corrections in their writing. I even use it for comma usage. I love that I can tell them what to search for, questions to think about in regards to that search, and even offer some better alternatives. 

I've even been experimenting with having students create their personalized checklist. For example, some of my students want to put a comma before because - we add because to their list and they slow down and search for this improper comma usage. 

So go ahead and try it. Open my document, make yourself a copy, and start editing it to include the list of words you hate to see in your students' writing.