A Defense of Classroom Tea Parties

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This whole thing started because I personally drink a lot of tea. And, since I’m usually brewing said tea in bulk, I often end up sharing the extra with whichever interested students are in my immediate vicinity. Over my time here at LCA, the classroom tea situation has evolved into something of a ritual. Particularly on days when we read and discuss together, we all get out our mugs, I boil the water, and we drink tea. Lots of tea.

I never meant for this to be a central or strategic feature of my classroom pedagogy; however, as time has gone on, I’ve discovered some hidden advantages to our classroom tea parties. As a colleague and I were discussing this somewhat bizarre classroom expectation that I have accidentally cultivated, I found myself reflecting on some of the ways in which a hot cup of tea can bring out the best in my kiddos. Am I looking for psuedo-pedagogical reasons to buy/brew/drink more tea? Yes. But hear me out.

  1. Holding a warm cup of tea and taking periodic sips gives nervous, fidgety students an outlet for some of their anxiety. Classroom discussions can be a genuinely overwhelming prospect for certain personality types. Oddly enough, I have found that handing an intimidated student a mug gives them something to steady their hands and to intermittently retreat behind, channeling their anxious energy.
  2. A sleepy student who is tired or has a tendency to disengage and nod off is much more likely to stay engaged and alert when they have a (lightly) caffeinated beverage to sample throughout the block.
  3. Sharing tea creates a classroom culture of community and care. Students feel known and connected when I make them tea. It cultivates trust and camaraderie between us, both of which are things I need from them in the work we do together.
  4. Even though taking the 3 minutes of classroom time to fill mugs doesn’t really detract from our overall time together, it communicates to students that I am not looking to rush them in the hopes of maximizing our productivity. It demonstrates that I care about their experience and process in my class. It invites them to lay the academic rigamarole aside for a block and just focus on what we like and what interests us.

I recognize that I am uniquely privileged to teach smaller classes that allow this tea time tradition. LCA classes tend to max out at around 18 kids, so it’s more feasible for me. I also don’t really mind doing the dishes somewhat regularly, although students usually do them for me throughout the day. We do sometimes break mugs or spill tea on books, but, if I’m being honest, that’s part of the fun. And it’s part of my process of modeling what it looks like to honestly enjoy literature, discussion, and collaborative discovery. So, bottoms up to classroom tea parties!

 

 

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Playing with Padlet

My recent posts have centered almost exclusively around the looming demise of Storify. I swear I’ll move on from that soon, BUT I did want to write a post about the program I used to get me through one of my assignments this year that I usually use Storify for! I have since then discovered Wakelet, which I blogged about here and which I will most likely use for this particular assignment in the future, but I did get some interesting experience with a new option in the meantime.

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Created in 2012, Padlet has been around for awhile. I’d heard teachers talk about it, I’d seen demonstrations, and students had shown me some work they’d done using it, but I’d never actually used it. When I discovered that Storify was dying approximately 24 hours before the class in which I needed to use it, I shrugged and decided to give Padlet a try.

Padlet has been described quite accurately in my opinion as “an online virtual ‘bulletin’ board, where students and teachers can collaborate, reflect, share links and pictures, in a secure location.” Upon creating an account, users can set up a background using any color or image on which they can arrange the information they choose to curate. That information can either be imported using links to images, sites, social media accounts etc. OR it can be uploaded directly from your computer. The Padlet creator can then decide if they want their Padlet to be public or private and if they want to invite collaborators to contribute to the work.

For this assignment, students had to research and create a summary of the rhetorical situation surrounding a set of photos by a particular photographer as a pre-writing activity to an essay in which they read the photos.

Pros:
Padlet worked well for the students in that it was profoundly flexible. Unlike Storify, which featured a single, linear layout, Padlet is more open-ended. Students could arrange information and links in ways that were more spatially and visually diverse. This reflected their individual learning styles more accurately. The linear thinkers could choose a layout more similar to Storify, but some students chose layouts that more closely resembled word webs or flow charts. The visual nature of Padlet, much like Storify, prompted students to consider the way their visuals communicated the ethos of the photographer they were researching, engaging some unconscious multimodal thought. Also, much like Storify, the shareable nature of the information made it easy for students to collaborate and compare notes.

Cons:
As with all things in life, there were aspects that created difficulties. The open-ended nature of Padlet was overwhelming for some students, particularly those who were not as experienced in visual composition or those who did not have much background using digital apps. These students tended to shy away from thinking too deeply about the role of their information’s layout, which led several of them to simply throw information onto the board in a haphazard manner. For these students, a pre-determined linear layout would have been beneficial. The difficulty of learning an unfamiliar program was stressful for some students, although I believe that is an important process for them to experience safely and with my support.

Ultimately, while Padlet actually created more affordances and opportunities for some students, it was a little too free-form for others. Because of this, I will most likely use Wakelet for this assignment next time, but I MAY recommend Padlet to a few select students who I think it would be a good fit for.

Here are some examples of students who created what I consider to be really smart Padlets that served as their research hubs for the essays they went on to write:

  • Padlet on Sergey Ponomarev’s photos of Syrian refugees

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  • Padlet on Uriel Sinai’s photos of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake

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  • Padlet on Uriel Sinai’s photos of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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At the end of the day, if you give smart students cool tools, they’ll do smart and cool things with them. And Padlet is a cool tool to have in my set.

 

 

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!


Updated on 04 January 2018: Due to Storify’s shutting down and deleting their content, which I cover in this post, I’ve included a selection of screenshots of the selected Storify stories to show highlights once the links are no longer active.

  • Daniel Beltrá

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  • Matilde Gattoni
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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.