Thursday, May 22, 2014

Presentation Day

Last Friday the kids had their 20 Time presentations in our media center. I went back and forth about exactly how I wanted to do this. Originally, my thought had been to have the students create something using multi-media (not Power Point - ugh). However, some teachers at my school have been expressing interest in the project, and wanted to stop by with their classes. To allow for flexibility I decided to go with ye olde tri-fold board, and have a gallery walk. The students had to write and rehearse a speech, utilize the tri-fold board in their speech, and still had to incorporate some sort of multi-media into the presentation. I had some students choose to use their iPods to play background music to their speech, some had their laptops cycling through a picture show, others displayed their laptops, and one demonstrated on the animation software she had used to create her short film.

I created graphic organizers for their speeches based on the students falling into one of four categories: I completed and loved my 20 Time, I did not complete but still loved my 20 Time, I completed but did not enjoy my 20 Time, and I did not complete and did not enjoy my 20 Time. I found that for most students, the reason they did not enjoy the process came down to poor topic selection. For example, one group was really successful playing the stock market game, but they found that they just completely thought that anything having to do with the stock market was incredibly boring. Moving towards next year, I am considering how I can best help students select a topic without giving them any ideas; however, I still recognize the value of learning what you definitely do not enjoy. The stock market kids know decidedly that following the bears and bulls is not for them. It was great to see the kids presenting to other students, parents, and teachers. I also invited the local newspaper, and you can see the lovely article they did here:
I think that having all of these community members present adds an authenticity to the projects, and is a complete necessity.The students deserve to have their work viewed and understood by others.

I am at the point of reflection now, and frankly, today is not the day it is going to happen. I put together a survey for the kids, and next week, after I have submitted grades, signed report cards, and detoxed my room, I will begin the process of reading them and learning. However, it is clear to me that overall this was a success, but like any pilot year, tweaks will need to be made.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Who Will You Be When You Grow Up?

Today marked the completion of our unit on the memoir Night by Elie Wiesel. If I am being honest, I always struggle a bit with this work. It is, of course, one of the most important writings of the 20th Century. And beyond that it is a beautfully written piece of literature with its symbolism, use of juxtaposition, and poetic prose.

But - and I realize how absolutely horrible this sounds - I just don't want to teach it sometimes.

Reading passages three times in a day about the murder of babies and the torture of an entire people  becomes depressing. Even typing that makes me feel like a complete jerk. People had to live this horror, and I can't even bring myself to read it?

Because I recognize the deep value of this work, I knew I had to shake things up a bit. I began by creating reading groups that would work through the memoir together. Instead of a traditional reading guide, I gave them activities to do while reading that asked them to deeply consider what Wiesel was trying to accomplish when he wrote his memoir. They had to complete the work together, and come to consensus about what he was trying to say, and how he hoped his readers to responde. I purposely created groups that forced students who were very different from one another to work together. This led to some lengthy debates within the reading groups which is exactly what I had hoped.

Most importantly I started the unit with the question: who do you want to be when you grow up? Right away students started shouting out career choices. No, I told them, that is not what I asked. I asked WHO you wanted to be. This stumped them. It occured to me that we don't ever ask students this question. We focus so much on a career path, that we forget the much more important path to becoming a person character, depth, and impact. Does it matter if you become a doctor, but you cannot show compassion? Or an architect who designs beautiful buildings, but cannot assess the impact of the designs on the community?

As we moved through the story, I kept asking the students to consider who they wanted to be. There were many difficult discussions. The easy route is to dismiss the Nazi's as "others" - monsters who are somehow very far from who we are as humans. The truth is they were people with families and dreams who somehow (and I am sure I will never understand this) became capable of one the greatest atrocities our world has ever known. One student said that there was no way he would ever do such a thing, and that he would have resisted and spoken up. I pointedly asked him how much he had spoken up when he saw other kids getting bullied. Many students seemed fazed by this point, but then aren't we all guilty of turning a blind eye now and then?

The truth is we are very good at saying we would have done better and been better, but we often fall short when injustice on a small scale is staring us in the face. I looked at my students' expressions today as we watched Wiesel's interview with Oprah at Auschwitz. I was proud of their discomfort, and proud that they were allowing themselves to feel.

If we read a book like Night and simply respond with shock and disgust, then we have turned it into nothing more than a cheap reality television show. A book like this begs you to struggle with your own humanity, and with the choices you make daily. To not allow the book to change you, is to miss its point entirely.

At the end of class today I had a student approach me. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "I wasn't excited to read this book. I felt like we already read too many books about the Holocaust. But this one was different. I could feel what he felt. It was like I struggled with him. And I am afraid that I am not the person I thought I was."

What a beautiful and honest assessment of how we all feel at times. "No," I told him. "We are often not all that we hoped we would be. But the point is that we keep trying to be."

That kid's gonna be all right in this world.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Getting Through the Valleys of 20 Time in the Classroom

Last week I gave my students a survey about how they thought the first 9 weeks had gone (I just use I've given anonymous surveys like this since I began teaching. It helps me to get a pulse on how effective the lessons have been, and on how the students are feeling about the atmosphere of the classroom. I have always found this helpful in making decisions, and in improving my practice. When you ask kids to be honest, and there is no fear of any sort of repercussions, they will be honest - very honest.

I always ask the students to rank units and activities based on enjoyment, and then based on how much they learned. 20% Time ranked first in enjoyment and learning. There is also space to write anonymous comments in each of these sections.

Honestly, I was surprised. It had seemed to me over the past few weeks that enthusiasm had been waning a bit. Don't get me wrong, they were still clearly enjoying their time, but most of the kids just appeared to be moving a little slower. I wasn't quite seeing the leaps forward I was hoping to see.

The day after the survey, I brought this up to my classes. I asked them to help me to understand how my perception of the time was off from their perception of the time. I had quite a few interesting answers, and I have compiled them to create a list of 20 Time Valley Truths - because, I realized we had left the mountaintop of "shiny new idea land" and had entered the valley of "wait I might hit some snags land."

20 Time Valley Truths
1) The excitement of a new idea will wear off. That is ok. The calm focus that appears afterward is what moves the project forward. Rest comfortably in this atmosphere.
2) Students have a hard time recognizing their own progress and learning. You have to help them.
3) Many students have never had to plan out steps and goals to achieve a larger vision. This can't be taught in one lesson in one day. You will have to constantly help in this area.
4) Some kids will realize that their project is not feasible. They will feel like a failure. You have to refocus their energies on the learning aspect of the project, and the importance of failure as it relates to growth.
5) There will be students who come across a step towards reaching their goal that requires a skill they do not have. Be available to fill in this gap, so that the project moves forward.
6) Even when students are intrinsically motivated, they will still desire your praise and feedback.
7) Upbeat music and snacks are always a good idea when trying to up the energy in any situation.
In response to these truths I created a 20 Time Update Sheet. I had been informally meeting with all of the students about their projects, but I had not been formally recording their progress or goals. Now, I sit down and have a formal conference with the students. We discuss any progress, learning, or difficulties from the last week. We then set a feasible, but still challenging, goal for the next week. The students responded well to this new set-up. Many had expressed feelings of being overwhelmed and "stuck," but felt much better after setting a weekly goal. Also, the students were incredibly surprised by just how much they had accomplished - it just hadn't occurred to them before. Finally, my rule has always been that when I am conferencing with a student, you better not interrupt me unless someone is bleeding from the head. I had quite a few students comment that they were glad to have focused attention from me for a few minutes as they talked their ideas out loud.
So, I have made myself comfortable with the valley we are in. The work is moving forwards, the kids are learning, and while they are not "excited" like before they are engaged and learning. Make sure to check out their blogs - some of their topics hurt my brain a little, but that is fine by me! 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Students Need to Laugh - The Smarty-Pants Scientists Said So!!

Today the kids wore hats. Not just any hats, but bejeweled crowns, sparkly joker hats with bells, and giant blue top hats. They also wore glitter necklaces and one chose to answer all questions while speaking into a sparkly microphone.

Please don't make the tragic error of assuming that these antics had anything at all to do with curriculum because they most certainly did not! Instead, they had everything to do with laughter and fun. Research has consistently shown time and again just how deeply stress interrupts the learning process. In a nutshell, brain mapping has revealed that the hormones released from stress actually act as barriers to the parts of the brain that deal with higher cognitive functions making it almost impossible to learn at deeper levels. Also, when students are experiencing joy, dopamine and acetylcholinem (say that 5 times fast) are released in their brains. These have a positive effect on memory and even help to improve attention and focus. To me laughter=decreased stress and increased joy!

One particularly interesting study found that students were more likely to retain information presented in a lecture that included jokes - as long as the jokes did not take center stage. I love that science backs up something that so many educators already know in their bones. Students absolutely want to be able to find the fun in their day, but they actually want to learn as well.

I also believe that laughter provides us with the best way to deal with most of a classroom's management and discipline issues. The other day a student just simply would not get to work. Every time I looked at him he was doodling, staring at the ceiling, bothering the student next to him, or sorting through endless piles of paper. Instead of asking him - again - to get to work, I walked over to his desk and fell prostrate to the floor. I proceeded to beg him, amid gasping sobs, to begin working because his laziness was literally killing me. After about a second of stunned silence, the class roared with laughter...and lazy-bones got to work. Of course their are times that you will just have to bust out your "I - ain't -playin' - with - you - child" voice, but I am convinced that is only necessary on the rarest of occasions. If a kid thinks your mad, he/she will begin to experience stress, and we already know what that leads to.

I would like to say that the main reason I let kids wear a pair of fairy wings while writing an essay is because neuroscience tells me it is a good idea. I'd like to make it seem like that is what informed my deep thoughts about the value of ribbons and glitter. But, alas, that is a lie. Truthfully, it just makes me laugh to see a linebacker sized teenager furiously typing in a pair of fairy wings. Maybe it is selfishness on some level, but my day is just so much better if I have a handful of tears-in-the-eyes laugh sessions with my kids. I wonder how many educators can say that they have these each day?

If you want to read more about some of the science I reference check out the article here or here.

I have also attached a list of my favorite strategies for planning - that's right, planning - for laughter in the classroom!

And finally, I think it is most appropriate to end with a joke.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Why Teaching Is Simply the Best Job. Period.

My students researched modern day slavery this week. They wrote letters to the President or Governor of Alabama about what they learned, and what they hope his response will be. These letters will placed in the mail this weekend. As an English teacher, I was proud to see their use of pathos, ethos, and logos. I was proud of their awareness of their audience.

I was proud to see transition words.

But as a human, I was proud of their outrage. I was proud that they were shocked and appalled by this new information. I was proud that they insisted their President or Governor do something about one of the most shameful human rights issues of our time. I was proud that their minds are not clouded with dollar signs and politics, but are instead firmly fixed on what is just and what is unjust.

Everyday, but especially today, I am proud to be their teacher.

Dear President Obama/Governor Bentley,

You might think slavery is a relic of the past, but in actuality it is an ongoing unchecked issue. – Ryan Smith

These victims live all over the world, within 101 different countries.– Brenda Chang

What shocked me was that there are as many as thirty million people that live as slaves in the entire world. Some goods are even made by children as young as five years old. – Brady Long

Nearly 11.7 million people are stuck in bonded labor in India. That’s about the population of Ohio. – Layne Woodall

Pakistan is home to over four million modern day slaves which is one of the highest rates in the world. – Shamiracle Thomas 

One type of slavery that I want to address is child slavery. I have read things about child slavery in one day that have made me sick, mad, and want to fight for every child that needs help. – Tyrone Williams

If you have not really seen slavery in your life or just don’t think it is a huge problem, I would like you to sit down with “Abuk Bak” without saying, “I want to help you”.  Her village where she lived was in southern Sudan. In 1987 Abuk was only 12; she was kidnapped and enslaved for 10 years.
– Zachary Hunter

Do you enjoy chocolate? I do. I enjoy all kinds of chocolate! As I mentioned earlier West Africa is the second largest producer of cocoa in the world. Slaves right now as you're reading this are chopping up cocoa beans. – Nykiah Williams

There is a type of slavery called bonded labor, where a person owes another person money and he/she are forced to work for that person until the amount of money is paid back. – Madison Bevis

How would you feel if you were Ramphal, who was a slave in India? He had to ask permission to do anything he wanted to do. How would you feel if you had to do dangerous work in unsafe conditions all the time and not get any freedom? – Lane Galloway
I was astonished that our country is home to about 60,000 modern slaves. – Tamya Tolbert

Even in “the land of the free” around 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked. – Anthony Moncrief

I know we have many other issues to solve as a country but I think the United States should lend a hand in helping these countries overcome slavery. As the governor you know the negative legacy Alabama has associated with slavery; however we have the opportunity of becoming leaders in the movement against slavery, and we can change that legacy forever. – Cionni Yates

While all of this is heartbreaking, there are some steps you can take to end this horrible act. First of all, you could crack down on traffickers, track them down, and then arrest them. This could eliminate some human trafficking.  In order to stop child labor, you should ban the companies that are participating in it. Another thing you could do is fund anti-slavery work worldwide. – Ellie Hart

If we all know that slavery is bad then why don’t we stop it, we should have stopped it years ago. Anyway, if you don’t stop it, who will? – Axel Baltazar

Imagine a world free of slavery. – Luis Cabello


The Students of Mrs. Raville's English 9 Classes 


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Debate Smackdown Leads to Peace, Love, and Harmony

If you want to inject instant energy and warm-fuzzies into a room, you need to try holding debates. I know that this seems counter intuitive: argument=positive bonding. But I have a working theory on this one.

To begin with, it is a group activity with clearly defined roles, each of which relies on the others. I set up my debates almost like extended essays. There is an opening statement with a hook that introduces the main points of the argument. There is also a person who goes about the process of defending these arguments using ethos, pathos, and logos. The rebuttal works to predict and undermine the arguments of the other team. And the conclusion brings it all home. You can see the graphic organizers here. The students must truly collaborate in order to even remotely make sense. Also, during the actual debate there is a large amount of peer pressure to do your best since your team is relying on you. Many kids really rise to the challenge, and I am often surprised by the one's that shine. Since I don't let the students choose who they work with (they vote privately about which topic they want to argue), they often work someone they don't know well. This helps to boost the family atmosphere I love in a classroom.

Another reason that debates breed positivity is that they initially cause some anxiety and fear. This might sound completely crazy, but hear me out. All of those pent up nerves get released when the students actually argue their part in front of the class. In their place, I think the kids get a rush of endorphins similar to the ones I felt when I went bungee jumping years ago! The atmosphere post-debate is electric. The kids tend to be brimming with compliments for each other. In the midst of that you are able to have some very honest conversations about how to overcome fears, and how to be successful in areas that aren't your strongest. I loved it today when a student said he was surprised by another because she was always so quiet in class, but had one of the best arguments. When I asked him what the lesson was, he responded, "I know she is a hard worker. She probably prepared more than any of us. So I think maybe she used her strength in another area to help her in an area she is not strong." The girl was positively GLOWING because this was authentic praise. Also, all of the students were able to learn an invaluable life lesson from one of their peers.

Finally, I make Debate Day fancy. I bring in cookies and we have guest judges. I know that extra touches like this show the kids that their work is worth the spotlight and is worth the attention of others. Praise from complete strangers far outweighs my praise.

Today we debated two topics: the purpose of education is teach students job skills, and the best way to ensure equality is through government intervention. These tied in nicely to our study of DuBois and Booker T. Washington, but I also picked them because - well - they are interesting.

At the end of each period I had at least 2-3 students asking me when we would debate again. This is despite the fact that some were so nervous they literally hyperventilated, despite the fact that they had to conduct authentic research and create a works cited, and despite the fact that they had to work with students who were not their best friends.

Mrs. Raville - 1, Fuddie Duddies - 0

Friday, February 28, 2014

A Gentle Reminder

I wanted to highlight some of my favorite quotes and images from last week's blogs. It is always remarkable to me when my students uncover deep truths, and find a way to remind me what it means to be human. Or, to just help me celebrate the beauty. As teachers, I think it is important to be constantly reminded that our students are capable of introspection, growth, and creating change - if we give them the space to do it. Let the thought provocation begin!!

"I feel like it is easy to get caught up in life and not realize what we are doing- if we are truly being kind or not." - Ellie

"We have a lot more to get done, but I am still satisfied." - Shae


"I have a new respect for people who have natural ability and still work hard to get better." - Seyller

"I know that by the end of the school year, I’m probably not going to have finished this, but this might help me get started with this or find out if it’s possible." - Lane

"We watched a lot of videos about girls in third world countries & what they go through. When I was watching those videos, I wanted to cry because it was so sad." - Latisha
"I think everybody should try something new and blog about your experience and feelings." - Madison Brown