Teaching Composition as Activism in the Real World

My 10th graders and I just finished Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. To say that we loved the experience of working through it together is not only minimizing, it doesn’t capture the heartache and heaviness that we shared as we grappled with the reality of human suffering. We were moved by it.

When designing the unit we would use together, my goals echoed what I understand Wiesel’s to be, which is to push everyone, students included, to understand the critical weight their voices hold in the age-old battle against those who would oppress, consume, and destroy humanity. Following the publication of Wiesel’s memoir, his countless books, speeches, and essays all seem to focus on one central theme: what can we do to stand with and for those who suffer? In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel states clearly,

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

For me, the design of this unit had to strengthen critical thinking and composition skills while also honoring Wiesel’s legacy by asking students to engage personally and practically with issues of human suffering in the world around them. As it turns out, these two goals complement each other in beautiful ways.

The unit itself was a truly meaningful one to share together; however, where my students blew me away most was in the final assignment. The assignment, based on this one which I found from a fellow teacher’s blog, asked students to choose a current instance of human suffering and pain and then to use their composition skills to create artifacts that enacted change in the world around them to benefit those in pain as a result of the issue they had chosen. See the assignment statement below for what I gave them to work from.

As you can see from the assignment, the constraints were few. They had no rubrics. They had a high degree of choice. They had total control over how they implemented and pursued the choices they made. I was nervous that they would go rogue or use this as an opportunity to avoid work. They were nervous that I wouldn’t like what they did or that they wouldn’t get a good grade. We pushed through it, and, per usual, they stunned me into silence.

My beautiful, kind, clever, empathetic, and motivated students made this project their own. They chose a wide array of issues ranging from the faraway, like the drought in Somalia and the Syrian refugee crisis, to the local, diving into homelessness and sex trafficking in Boston. They built blogs, pamphlets, videos, sculptures, audio pieces, children’s books, and maps that informed, implored, and supported. Their creations traveled extensively within their communities, with letters being sent to local government officials, funds being raised within churches, information being shared with friend groups, and resources being distributed in all of these. Students created complex, strategic compositions with specific rhetorical goals that we then set loose into the real world to see how they performed.

Returning to my two initial goals, which were to build composition skills while making an impact on human suffering, I can see in retrospect that they are meant to walk hand in hand. When you give students a real reason to compose, and then you assure them that their compositions can make an impact, they rise to the circumstances. Using real-world activism to teach and explore composition not only gives students real-world experience with how their compositions can work, it shows them why good composition matters and how it can change the world around them.

I’ve compiled some shots of samples from different projects so you can see the smart and creative things students ran with. The gallery below has a variety of the visual pieces.

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The digital creations were no less impressive.

Some students made informational sites like…
– this one on South Sudan
this one on the persecuted Yazidis in Iraq
this one about the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar (complete with a Storify outlining the background of the conflict if you’re interested!).

Other students created videos like…
this one about working with children in rural Chinese schools
this one on the genocide in Darfur
this one on the persecuted Yazidis

Another student conducted first person interviews with individuals directly involved in combatting homelessness in Boston, two of which can be heard here and here.

Students made incredible use of social media, using Instagram to share artwork along with facts and links to organizations that can support those suffering OR using Twitter and Facebook to gather first hand accounts to compile into profiles. One student wanted to gauge the impact Planned Parenthood had had on those she was connected to, so she placed an open call for firsthand stories of experiences with and care received at Planned Parenthood. She received a wide variety of responses and was able to synthesize those into an audio/video presentation to her class.

I could go on, but I know I have gone on too long already. All I will say in conclusion is that correcting these projects has been one of the most wonderful and inspiring things I have ever done. Students used their developing composition skills to chip away at injustice, both in the world at large and in their own lives. In reflecting on this project, I take heart that the future of our world will be placed in pretty good hands.

All student work shared with permission.

Storify Fun

Remember that time I blogged about all the ways to incorporate Storify into classroom work? Well, at the time I was writing that post, my only practical experience using Storify had been for my own personal scholarship (see this collaboratively written story) or exploration. Fortunately, since that time, I’ve had the chance to give my students a go at integrating Storify into their writing processes! And I was thrilled with the results.

The assignment was to perform a rhetorical analysis on a set of photos from an international photographer of their choice. The end product needed to be an alphabetic essay outlining their reading of the photo’s main arguments and appeals. The work leading up to drafting the essay, however, involved a whole lot of research into the rhetorical situation surrounding the photos. I asked students to dive deep into social media, news articles, and museum archives to learn more about their photographers, the photos, the audience, the context surrounding the photos, and whatever else they could dig up. We had a lot of fun with it, but we needed a space in which to organize our very multimedia findings. Students were coming up with podcasts, video interviews, personal blogs, and all manner of information on their topics of research. This is where Storify shone.

I asked each student to hand in a story outlining the rhetorical situation that gave rise the photos they had chosen. The stories served as dynamic, visually engaging, easily updated, and shareable hubs for their delightfully scattered research. Students pulled from photographers’ Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. Selections from personal blogs were incorporated. All the while, students were able to organize and annotate their research as they assembled it.

The BEST part of all of this was how shareable the information was. I saw this resulting in high levels of naturally occurring, voluntary collaboration. Students who chose different photographers from one another were able to send links to their research and show their classmates what they were finding and how they had formatted their research. I had students sharing photos they found particularly beautiful or information they found unusually interesting. The consolidated nature of the Storify story made that an easy, natural option for them.

There were indeed struggles.

  • Not all students had their own Instagram, Facebook, and/or Twitter accounts, which is necessary to link your Storify account to those outlets. However, we found workarounds where students could simply screenshot and then textually reference the selections they wanted. Some students simply manually entered the URL for the social media page they wanted to refer to.
  • The prospect of using a new software was more intimidating to some students than it was to others. Fortunately, Storify has a largely user-friendly interface and most students felt comfortable working independently on their stories by the end of the unit.
  • The ease with which sources can be pulled into Storify led to some students accumulating an impossibly daunting number of sources that they never actually read through or annotated.

In my humble opinion, none of these hurdles outweighed the ease with which Storify facilitated incredibly interdisciplinary, multimodal, and collaborative research.

Two of my stellar students gave permission for their stories to be featured in this post so you could see some examples of the different ways in which students interacted with Storify!

  1. This Storify story explores the work of Daniel Beltrá, a Spanish photographer who is interested in the destruction of African rainforests and animal rights.
  2. This one chronicles research into Matilde Gattoni, a French-Italian photographer, who photographs issues relating to feminist agency and environmental preservation.

As you browse those two (of the many) excellent student-authored stories, I encourage you to notice the beautiful and interesting ways that the personalities and visions of the two students come through. Storify for the win!

 

 

 

What is this, an art room or something?

If I had a nickel for every time someone walked into my room and asked this question with a smirk on their face…

I’m not offended by it; in fact, quite the opposite is true. What I could do without, however, is the tone in which the question is often pronounced. The asker almost always seems to be suggesting a subtle amusement at the frivolity of a room that should be dedicated to “serious literary scholarship.” It’s as if they are skeptical that real academic rigor in the literary discipline could possibly occur in a room such as this one.

This question, and the attitude that so often accompanies it, represents a school of thought that I find deeply concerning when it comes to the way we tend to approach the study of the English language. In our concern surrounding declining literacy rates and plummeting standardized test scores, we seem to have lost sight of something big. Reading and writing are artistic endeavors. Scholarship in the realms of composition and meaningful interactions with texts has to take place against a backdrop of curiosity, play, and creativity. I have seen this most poignantly in my own teaching. When students are able to play with texts, probe them, translate them into different modes, and wrestle with them, their work comes alive. This kind of learning, in my opinion, relies very heavily on the affordances of incorporating multimodality into the English classroom, which I’ve blogged about before. It also relies on an emphasis on the interdisciplinary nature of composition and reading. Why can’t my classroom be an English room and an art room and a science room and a programming room and whatever else my kids want to mess around with in order to create and interact with texts?

When we panic in the face of test scores and standards, we end up stifling our students under the weight of our own ideas on what makes for competitive literary studies.  We suffocate their ability to love reading and writing in our efforts to make them literate. Instead, I believe our goal should be to teach them how to dive headlong into all the different ways meaning can be made and experienced through composition.

And so, when I am asked that dismissive question about my room and, by extension, my student’s work, I proudly answer: Yep, among other things. 

And if you want to see some legitimate literary scholarship performed in ways that may fall under the category of art, feast your eyes on the smart and explorative compositions by many of my students in the slide show below. It strikes me as very worth noting that a good portion of these works were done entirely voluntarily, in addition to required classwork, simply because those students felt like they wanted to augment the meaning of their pieces using some of the tools at their disposal.

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Many of these images above show visual representations of academic essays, illustrations from short stories, or brainstorms for poetry. And if you think these artistic endeavors didn’t make for some wildly excellent written texts, you obviously haven’t read my students’ work.

Fall Vibes

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It feels like I blinked and October was over! A whole month sped by in a flash and I didn’t even get the chance to sit down and blog about all the exciting things that have been going on in my classroom, pedagogy, professional development, and life as a teacher. I definitely have some catching up to do, but, fortunately, my lack of activity on this blog has been due to an incredibly full, fun, and engaging fall season at Lexington Christian Academy. My charming, smart, and driven students and colleagues have made for a truly rewarding first few months of lead teaching. And so, until I get a chance to sit down and reflect with a little more depth on some of the things I’ve been learning and experiencing, please enjoy some images of fall vibes, compliments of my classroom.

 

 

Room 212

 

Anyone who knows me knows that I value the spaces I live and work in highly. I firmly believe that certain physical environments can stimulate and encourage certain intellectual and emotional behaviors, attitudes, and activities. As an educator, this longstanding personal belief is something that causes me to take the design of learning spaces seriously.

Accordingly, I began very early on in my career as an educator to accumulate ideas and research on creating generative learning spaces in my own future classroom. Throughout the years, this endeavor has been both a hobby and a passion of mine. I have been particularly fascinated by some of the research and theories surrounding the idea of flexible seating, a classroom design principle that encourages students to consider their personal learning styles and preferences and to choose their classroom seat from a variety of options. I have also used this blog to explore research on the value of plants in the classroom and to brainstorm potential aesthetics that I might like my classroom to have. Essentially, I have been preparing for a classroom of my own for some time now.

And the time has come to put that preparation to good use.

My new position as a high school English teacher at Lexington Christian Academy has afforded me the opportunity to see some of my ideas and research in action in good old Room 212, my very own classroom. With the enthusiastic assistance of my extremely dedicated team of helpers, I was able to build a space that I truly believe will encourage deep discussion, real collaboration, experimental creativity, and quiet reflection. I’ve included a gallery of images below, but I have to say that, unless you’re plunked in one of the beanbags, smelling the Capri Blue reed diffuser, and taking it all in, you aren’t getting the full effect!

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In planning for and designing complex intellectual experiences for my students, I believe it is important not to forget the physical experience. Real learning is holistic, requiring the body and the mind. My hope is that Room 212 is the kind of place where students can be physically, mentally, and emotionally poised to tackle the intellectual undertakings I will ask them to. All I need now are some students!

P.S. – Those desks are feeling painfully teacher-centric to me right now. Thumbs down. My plan is to rearrange them into small groups ASAP once we get through our introductory class together!

Using Digital Activities in the Classroom – Part 2 of 5: Blogs

In this somewhat delayed continuation of my opening post for this series, I would like to turn the spotlight on one of my personal favorite tools for bringing digital writing into the high school classroom: blogs! Blogs are an effective and relevant way to ask students to build their digital literacy skills and incorporate multimodal material into their learning.

Before we get too deep into the HOW part of this post, I’d like to take a quick moment to cover exactly what a blog is. The concept behind blogging is fairly straightforward. The word blog actually comes from the term “web log,” where an online site would function as a log or journal, chronicling a particular subject or movement. This idea of a web log eventually came to be known as a weblog which was further simplified into the word “blog,” which the Oxford English dictionary currently defines as “a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.” So a blog is any webpage that is monitored and composed over time by an author or group of authors in order to address or explore some topic of interest. This can include cooking blogs, like this one, where the author regularly posts new recipes and accompanying images. Other individuals run lifestyle blogs, like this one, where the author shares her family stories, adventures, and photos. This post that you are currently reading is part of my education blog. As the Oxford dictionary entry states, these blogs tend to employ an informal, casual tone while informing you on a subject from the perspective of the author or authors. Simple enough!

The beauty of blogs however is that, despite the seeming simplicity behind the idea of blogging, the ways in which blogs can be and are used are incredibly diverse. The unique affordances that blogging allows for can be adjusted and modified to suit a wide array of rhetorical purposes. It is this extreme flexibility that makes blogs so useful as well as prevalent.

With this understanding of blogging in mind, my goal for this post is to explore how blogs can be used in the high school classroom, basing much of my discussion on my own personal experience as well as current research. It is my belief that the ways blogs can be utilized in the classroom can be boiled down into two separate categories.

  1. Authored and maintained primarily by the teacher
  2. Authored and maintained primarily by the students

Which one of these categories a teacher chooses to employ in her classroom depends heavily on each class’ needs and exactly which 21st century literacy skills that teacher is working to develop in her students.

      1. Blogs Authored and Maintained Primarily by Teachers:
        This kind of blog is generally used to keep students organized, give them practice accessing, navigating, and evaluating digital documents and texts, and potentially afford them the opportunity to contribute to an ongoing digital conversation. Students, and sometimes parents, have total access to this blog and can use it to engage with the material in ways that are meaningful to them. Teachers construct and maintain these blogs, but can also choose to host student conversations or comments on these blogs in order to give students some buy-in.I have incorporated blogs in this manner when teaching Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to CP Seniors; I’ve included a few screenshots of these blogs below. As the teacher of this course, I had complete control over the authorship and maintenance of these blogs. I posted the links to content and orchestrated any group chats; however, students were very active on the blogs, engaging in serious digital reading and often posting in response to multimedia material or ongoing discussions.

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        This page of the blog houses an informal syllabus that I updated regularly, giving students the ability to plan for upcoming assignments or look up missed classwork.

         

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        Here is an example of using the blog to integrate related multimedia content into the coursework. This post was shared with all students and included a link to the song itself. Students were able to comment and discuss the song, and several students chose to reference this work in their later papers.

        Blogs that are authored and maintained by the teacher can give students valuable experience with conducting research online using a variety of digital resources, interacting and collaborating in digital spaces, and integrating multimedia content into their work.

      2. Blogs Authored and Maintained Primarily by Students
        This kind of blog affords students a much greater degree of authority and ownership over their work, which can be both intimidating and extremely generative. A blog that has been created and maintained by a student can be a powerful forum for student interaction and publication, widening the audience for a student’s writing. Giving a student ownership over their blog allows them to assert their opinions and interpretations on a subject or issue into a real life scenario that takes place outside of the classroom. This level of control also allows students to experiment with the design of their blogs, which affords them priceless experience in strategically choosing a layout, considering their audiences, and composing with color, font, and graphics.I had the opportunity to see student-authored blogs in action while co-teaching a unit on Shakespeare’s Macbeth with Megan Grandmont of A Classroom With a View. Throughout this unit, which developed students’ ability to write from the point of view of a literary character, students selected a character from the play, designed a blog as that character, and then blogged from that character’s perspective for the duration of the unit. Each student created, designed, and maintained their own blog, exploring blog genre norms, digital composition, and the complexities of publishing original work on the internet. I have included screenshots from sample student blogs below; all work is used with student and parent permission.

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        This student blog, written from the perspective of Lady Macbeth, capitalized on aesthetics and design, creating meaning and point of view through the use of color, image, font, layout, and text.

         

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        This student used his blog’s About page to make inferences about Macbeth, taking advantage of blog norms to explore his understanding of the character’s point of view.

        These blogs, which were incredible across the board, were created independently by the students; I did not have control over the content posted on each blog. As previously mentioned, this created the potential for immense student ownership and creativity. It also, however, resulted in opportunities for larger complications and ethical issues. When employing blogs authored and maintained by students in the classroom, it becomes necessary to address some of the very real concerns that accompany internet publication, some of which include:

    • cyberbullying
    • appropriate language and content
    • an understanding of the permanency of your internet footprint
    • ethical source use (which is something I have addressed at length in a prior series)
    • privacy and protection of personal information
       
      We addressed these issues in our classes by drawing up a Blog Use Contract, which committed students to a certain code of behavior when blogging as part of this classwork. Something like the one we used can be seen here. By drawing up a contract and taking the time to have some serious, honest discussion about the importance of online conduct, many of these ethical concerns can be avoided. In fact, the process of considering these concerns, discussing them, and signing the contract together as a class can be an important piece of a student’s digital literacy skills, as it helps them to understand the impact of their online writing and how their behavior on the internet can impact the world around them.

Depending on your unique goals and needs as a teacher, blogs in the classroom can be modified and employed to suit a multitude of different strategies geared to accomplish diverse rhetorical goals. Blogs as a digital writing genre are also extremely prevalent, which means that, whichever type of blog you decide to use in your classroom, there will be plenty of relevant samples out there for your students to perform a genre analysis on, which will only serve to further their sophistication and skill when working in digital realms.

As is the case with most attempts to integrate technology into the classroom, teachers can start small with blogs. If the idea of student-authored blogs seems overwhelming, teachers can create and maintain their own, self-authored blog for a particular unit within a particular class and use this as a way to gather information about what does or does not work for them and their classes. The important thing is for students to begin gaining a level of comfort and confidence when experimenting, playing, and working with digital tools. Blogs can be an effective and achievable place to start!

To that end, a few of the better-known and commonly used blogging platforms out there are as follows:

  • WordPress: it’s free, the templates are visually engaging and varied, and it has a pretty big array of privacy settings that you can decide on for use with your class. All of the blogs shown in this post were completed on WordPress.
  • Edublogs: this platform is designed specifically with classroom use in mind. The basic access account is free; however, based on what I have read, it sounds as though that account is not worth having. The annual, paid account is reviewed as much more useful.
  • Blogger: this platform is free, but has some limitations in terms of templates. It doesn’t have the array of options that WordPress offers, but it’s been around for a long time and some users find that the limited options make it more approachable and easy to navigate.

Happy blogging!