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076: You'll Love the "This I Believe" Writing Project



This weekend I spent three days in Richmond, Virginia in my first ever experience as a keynote speaker. It was delightful to get to meet so many wonderful educators and hear about their work. As I watched two young teachers spending all their free time at the conference planning a Halloween escape room to engage their 8th graders, I was reminded for the millionth time how much I believe in teachers. How much I wish our system believed in each teacher and put their work and their artistry above scripts, standardized tests, and purchased programs.

I found myself itching to write a manifesto about this, and it reminded me of the This I Believe essays I wrote years ago with my students in Bulgaria. So today, I want to share this writing project with you, and show you the simple steps you can take to launch a high-engagement personal writing project that culminates in a public performance of student work. This was one of my favorite writing units that I’ve ever done, and it’s an ideal way to help juniors and seniors with college essays too. So let’s get into it.

Read on, or listen in on the podcast player below, or on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher.



I love so many things about NPR, but their This I Believe radio series is right up there in the top tier. In this series, NPR invited people to write short essays explaining a dearly held belief, using specific, detailed stories to give evidence for their belief.

These beliefs varied hugely, and were not always the big picture idealized beliefs you might expect. "Be Cool to the Pizza Dude" and "Find a Good Frog" (written by a 9th grader) are both featured on the This I Believe project website, which has extended the project into the present.

So how does this all translate into the classroom? Funny you should ask.

Setting up the Project

You can begin by playing a few of the recorded essays from the site and talking about what makes the pieces so colorful and fun to read or hear. Explain that you'll be doing a lot of writing and discussion about what matters to your students prior to writing essays of their own and eventually performing them in a live radio-style show.

Then you can move into reflective prompts from the free NPR curriculum set or prompts of your own devising to get students to think about their own strong beliefs, discuss them in small groups or with partners, and begin different types of reflective and personal narrative writing.

For example, you might:
  • Ask students to journal on prompts like: What advice about life do you think you would give to your own children, based on your experiences so far? What's one experience you've had that changed the way you look at the world? Who do you most admire and why? What's your motto? What's something you've learned from your family over the years? Have you ever read a book, heard a song, or watched a movie that made you think about life differently? Why?
  • Invite students to participate in small group discussions around prompts like: What's your favorite quotation and why? What do you wish everyone in the world would agree on and do? What's unfair in the world and what could be done about it? 
  • Try a #makewriting project in which students first build the answer to the question "what do you care most about?" using loose parts, then reflect on what they've made and why they care so much about it. 
  • Ask students to find a photograph from their phones that shows an important moment in their lives. Have them talk to a partner about the image and why that moment felt important, and what it shows about what they care about. 
  • Play "The Truth about Me"  as a class
  • Read a short piece of memoir and try a six-word memoir project, then dive into some aspect of the six-word memoir in search of a key belief, either in writing or with small groups or partners
Once you have spent several days thinking and talking about beliefs as well as building community, share the This I Believe essay guidelines with your students and let them begin drafting final essays.

Prepping for the Performance Event

Along the way, students can choose a committee to join to help prepare for the final performance event.

I divided students into the following committees, based on their interests:

  • P.R. (these folks worked on programs, inviting guests, and capturing photos and ideas from the event to share out afterwards)
  • Event Planning (these folks worked on food and drinks, designing the space, and decorating it)
  • M.C. /Tech (these folks figured out lights and speakers and made sure we had a working microphone, then they supplied either an M.C. or cohosts for the show to welcome everyone and close the show)
As we wrote and revised essays, students also met regularly in committees to prepare for the event. Committees received a small grade and feedback, and I also watched over their progress lightly to make sure everything got done so we could have a successful event.  

As students finished their essays, they also practiced reading aloud, or arranged to read aloud the work of another student if they felt uncomfortable reading their own in front of a group. At this point, you could also arrange for students to choose a variety of the essays to represent the class if you have a large class and don't have time for each piece to be performed. 



Student-designed programs for two live events

The Big Day

On the day of our final performances, we gathered with our guests in the main entryway of our building, where seating, fun decor, a mic, and food were ready to go. The students performed their pieces (or in many cases, performed others' pieces so they felt more comfortable in front of the crowd) as the class and guests watched and cheered them on. The M.C.s hosted the event, the P.R. committee took photos, and the event planning group made sure there were some treats on hand and cleaned up after the shows.

To help keep kids focused during the event, I recommend you either have them vote for their top three essays (with reasons to back up their choices) or fill out several compliment cards you can hand out later to the writers. This is a nice reminder to pay attention without feeling onerous, since it just contributes to a culture of appreciation for what their peers are doing.

You don't really need to grade the performances, though you could make it a nominal grade if you're worried some kids won't take it seriously. You'll get the actual essays that you can read and comment on afterwards. Mostly, it's a fun day to celebrate the work of the students and build a community as everyone shares beliefs that really matter to them - some funny, some serious.

Finally

I encouraged the students to send their work in to the This I Believe project, and two were published online. Unfortunately, the website is no longer accepting work, but you might consider encouraging students to send them to the local newspaper or the school newspaper, or you could put up your own This I Believe blog at your school and publish all the essays there, or even publish the essays into a binder in the library that kids can continue to add to year after year. This will turn into a great resource as the project continues.

These essays can also make quality springboards for the college essay process. This personal and reflective writing is an ideal beginning to thinking about how to represent themselves to their future colleges.

As I said earlier, I started to think back on this project after my weekend at VATE, so here's the This I Believe essay I've been pondering myself since then...

I Believe in the Creativity of Teachers
by Betsy Potash

I believe in the end of standardized testing. I believe in the beginning of a new era of education in the United States, in which teachers know and care for the students they have, wherever those students are in their journey, and design curriculum that will help their students rise. 

I believe in the teacher who went to the community institutions in her town and asked them what problems they had, then worked with her students to start solving those problems. They visited lonely people with dementia and helped record their stories with Storycorp. They invited their heroes to a special banquet and read them gratitude essays. They designed and recorded a public service announcement encouraging their community to support a better school budget. 

I'm glad that teacher didn't have to read from a script, and spend every class practicing multiple choice questions. 

I believe in the teachers starting Twitter chats like #weneeddiversevoices, #makewriting, #projectlit and #disrupttexts, trying to change the system through social media, since they can't get access to the change makers inside the system. 

I believe it's worth noting that the private schools of our country, where the wealthy and advantaged send their children, trust their teachers to design the educational experience without the least notice of the standards or the standardized tests. 

I believe in the teachers at my son's school, who found the budget and time to design a beautiful "cool-down" zone for students who were upset, where they can sit cozily and play with fidget toys, surrounded by softness and glitter that takes the sting out of whatever just happened. These teachers never take away recess from kids who are struggling. They know forcing the kids to keep their nose to the standardized grindstone at all costs isn't going to bring them happiness and success. 

I believe in the teachers launching literary food truck projects, independent reading programs, and class plays, despite the time it takes away from drilling. Whoever learned anything that really mattered to them from a drill?

I believe in the teachers who see the Target Dollar Spot as a little bit of heaven and register book projects on Donors Choose, because their budgets are being spent on ludicrous programs of reading snippets and testing software. 

I believe no government official has ever known the kids as well as their teachers. 

I know no standard exists that I'd prioritize over the happiness and creativity of my own son and daughter. 

I believe it's time to treat our teachers as the artists, creators, and magic-makers that they are. I believe it's time to give them the keys to the kingdom.



In Search of Deeper Learning: Join the Book Club


I get to read a lot of great books about teaching. Recently, I read one I want to share with EVERYONE. It feels that important, like the guidebook that will help us leave old-school learning in the dust and sprint up the golden stairs to the new era of creative education.

It's called In Search of Deeper Learning, by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine. And I'd like to invite you to discuss it with me and a community of forward-thinking, creative educators online through a book club in my Facebook group, Creative High School English. We're going to begin the conversation on the first two chapters come October 15th, and will continue to discuss the book over the coming months. Please join us! Right now the invitation is pinned to the top of the group as an announcement, and as I introduce new threads for discussion throughout the fall and early winter I'll use the hashtag #deeperlearningbookclub so you can easily find them all.



Mehta and Fine spent many hundreds of hours in high schools across America, exploring how school structures, teaching styles, and content choices influenced the deeper learning outcomes of students. They did deep research dives into project-based learning schools, I.B. Schools, No Excuses Schools, Harkness schools, and large public high schools. They also did a careful examination of what they call the periphery - clubs, after-school activities, and electives - and came to the conclusion that core academic disciplines have a lot to learn from the alternative "grammar of schooling" that exists outside of the core.

By the end of the book, I was singing along to their tune. Loudly. Think Journey.

They push for many wonderful things, like...
  • giving teachers the respect they deserve to create meaningful courses in their own ways
  • treating students as meaning makers in their own right
  • blurring the lines between our disciplines as they work out in the world and as they function in our classrooms, adopting David Perkins' idea of "the whole game at the junior level" 
  • creating learning communities with aspects of apprenticeship - in which younger learners can learn from adults and older, more skilled peers about how to be successful
  • choosing depth, choice, and habits of mind over breadth of content
  • respecting engagement as an important part of learning, not just some song and dance contrived to entertain students
I was so anxious not to forget anything, that I made my own GIANT sketchnotes to refer to as we discuss this book. Maybe you'll want to make some of your own - there's so much of value to discover and apply. (Still working on my sketchnote figure drawing - don't be offended, Jal and Sarah, or anonymous everystudent stick figure!)



There's more I could say here, but I really want to invite you to dive into the book and find your own favorite takeaways and ideas, so we can discuss them in the book club. Check it out from your library, download it to your Kindle, get your department to buy it, or order your own copy and come join us! 








Let's Teach Students how to Collaborate




Do you teach collaboration in your classroom? Or do you just assume that students will figure it out? Or that someone taught them long ago?

In my experience as a teacher, the foundations for good group dynamics are not an integral part of most curriculums. The process of learning how to learn together is rarely if ever discussed in faculty meetings, professional development seminars, or department meetings.

And yet, in a world where collaboration is increasingly valued as a vital 21st century skill, our students need to succeed with this. When we say "get into groups...", we are assuming that they understand how to share a space, value everyone's voice, and build a conversation or group process that will actually work for everyone. And they probably don't.

Very few people really know how to do those things. 

Celebrate Ally Week: 4 Ways to Show your Support all Year


Happy Ally Week! This week is a great reminder for us to turn our attention to creating safe spaces for our LGBTQ+ students, and finding ways to show them our support in class. But of course, it shouldn't be the only time we do this. In this post, I want to share four ways you can support your LGBTQ+ students all year long. 

It's not very hard. It won't take much time. But it just might change someone's life, to feel your acceptance and support in a world that's still making it hard for them to be who they are. 


Show your Support on your Walls


Find a little corner of your room to display posters, signs, or stickers that show your students you accept them. I love these posters, free from The SuperHERO teacher, who often shares ideas and resources for teachers on LGBTQ+ issues on her beautiful Instagram feed.  But there are lots more options out there. You can print the GLSEN safe space sticker set here or just do a quick Google search to find more safe space posters and signs to choose from. 

Show your Support on Yourself


This week is a great time to pick up a shirt that shows your support to wear throughout the year. I got this one from Hear our Voice. I also like the ones over at Human Rights Campaign. Or maybe you could spearhead a project at your school to design one people can order during Ally Week.

Show your Support on your Shelves

As English teachers, I think this is one of our most important jobs. Students need to be able to see themselves on your shelves. Their stories. Their dreams. Their pain. I read two books this year that would be powerful LGBTQ+ themed additions to your shelf.

The first, Birthday, is an #ownvoices story by a transgender woman about two best friends. Told in alternating perspectives, it shows the journey of a transgender teen as she struggles with who she really is in a highly conservative, rural football town. The story doesn't shy away from intense pain along the way, but finishes with a beautifully happy ending. It's gritty and real but also, in the end, so hopeful. As I often do with fiction, I found it expanded my ability to imagine a totally different experience of life.


The second, The 57 Bus, is an exploration of a series of events in the life of a teenager who identifies as neither male or female. Sasha loves to invent games and languages and spend time with their best friends. They understand who they are and they are accepted in their school and home. Then one day a young man touches a lighter to their skirt on the bus and sets them on fire. The book explores the lives of Sasha and the young man responsible for Sasha's terrible pain, discussing a huge range of important modern issues in the process. This is a great book for your independent reading shelves or for a whole class read. 


Of course, there are many more books exploring LGBTQ+ issues worth including on your shelves or in your curriculum. Always remember The Danger of a Single Story. While their website design leaves something to be desired, the Rainbow Book Lists are a great source for finding strong titles. Each year they select the best of the best books including LGBTQ+ themes or characters. Queer Books for Teens is also a good place to look.

Show your Support with your Words 

Another important way to support your LGBTQ+ students is to find out what pronouns and names they prefer to be called, and whether those pronouns and names are the ones they want to be referred by when you talk to their families, who may not accept their evolving identities yet.

A simple survey will tell you their answers, and give you the chance to honor who they really are every day in class. If your students prefer "they/them" as their pronouns, you may struggle at first. But don't let fear of making a mistake stop you from trying. It is much better to try and mess up than not to acknowledge this important part of your students' identities.

Merriam-Webster has officially recognized the nonbinary "they" now too, so don't let grammar hang-ups stop you.

For me, sometimes just using a student's name at first makes it easier for me to avoid using the wrong pronoun while I'm making the transition to "they." For example, "Look at Sasha's incredible first paragraph" instead of "Look at their incredible first paragraph," if you're afraid you might accidentally say "Look at her incredible first paragraph" when you're scattered mid-class. Make it easy for yourself to honor your students' preferences as your language adjusts to the way things are now.

I hope you can easily incorporate some or all of these strategies into your classroom. It'll make a big difference to some of your students, whether or not they ever feel ready to tell you.

Selected Further Resources:
Ally Week for Educators
LGBTQ+ Student Resources and Support
6 Ways Teacher can Support Trans Students






3 Easy Ways to Display Student Work


There's a common suggestion in business these days to use "social proof." Show people happy customers, and you'll find new customers.

Can we apply this business model to the classroom? I think so, though in this case it's really more of an inspiration model.

Putting amazing student work from the past on display will help inspire your students in their efforts. It will give them something to reach for and put their work in context. Putting amazing student work from the present on display will honor their efforts and give them a larger audience than just you, their teacher. It will also continue to push the standards up, as students see the heights to which their peers are reaching.

75: 10 Review Activities for any Unit


So you've finished a unit, and you'd like to go back over the material a bit. Give everyone a chance to peruse their memories and reinforce what they've learned. But how?

It's easy for review to get a little mundane, quickly going back over everything through a teacher-led Powerpoint or silent study with flashcards. But there are lots of other options. In this post and podcast, I'm going to share ten easy ideas to get your students thinking back clearly and creatively.

Read on, or listen in on the podcast player below, or on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher.



Unit Sketchnotes

This is my personal favorite way to study. Right now I'm creating a posterboard-sized set of sketchnotes about a book in preparation for a podcast interview. All I have to do is close my eyes and I can see what I've put on the sketchnotes - that's how memorable the process of creating a visual version of the most important information is. Teach your students the basics of sketchnoting with this quick, three minute-video and then give them time to create their own sketchnotes version of your unit. This review activity lends itself beautifully to a gallery walk at the end, giving students a chance to see everyone's visual representations of the material and reinforce their knowledge even more.



Podcast Version

There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there, and chances are, your students have noticed. Podcasting as a platform is not going anywhere anytime soon. Getting students thinking about podcasts and how they are used to share information is a nice side benefit of this quick review activity. Ask students to imagine a worldwide project in which high school courses are being made available to all kids for free, via podcasts. Ask them to outline a podcast episode version of the unit you've just finished, including the most vital information. Whether or not to go the extra mile and do some recording is up to you!



Google Slides Group Review

If you use Google classroom, this is a great form of collaborative review. Open up a set of Google slides, label them with the important topics in your unit, and share them with your class. Assign one, two, or a group of students to each slide, and let them create the most powerful one-slide review for that topic they can, including images, ideas, and maybe even sound clips and videos.

As they work, they'll see their classmates building the rest of the review right in their shared slide deck. When everyone's done, either let the whole class work individually through the slides to review, present them all to the class on your projector, or let each group take a minute to walk the class through their slide.

The Lightning Version

If the material you're trying to review is a book or a play that you've been enmeshed in for weeks, one fun way to sum it all up is to have groups of students script and perform two-minute versions. Ask them to hit the most important highlights as quickly (and perhaps, hilariously) as possible. They will need to write out a script, rehearse, and then perform for the class.

Instagram or Twitter Account for the Unit

Social media provides tiny snapshots of a day, a week, a life. Why not a unit? Invite students to look back through your material and put together a series of social posts for an Instagram account or Twitter feed named your unit. For example, what would the Instagram feed for Transcendentalism look like? How could students combine images and captions to share the most important ideas they've learned from Thoreau and Emerson? What would the Twitter feed for The Great Gatsby look like? What key moments, ideas, and symbols would students feature to capture what mattered most about the book and its context and significance?



One-Pagers

A one-pager is an easy way to review a book or a set of ideas before launching into another type of assessment. If you don't have them yet, you can sign up for a set of free novel-based one-pager templates here.


Review Donuts

OK, this one's a little silly. But that's kind of why I like it. Review doesn't have to be too serious. Get your students thinking about what twelve things they'd frost onto the top of a dozen donuts if they could bring a box of donuts in on the day of your assessment. They'll have to choose only the MOST important ideas as they review the unit materials.


Hyperdoc Table of Contents

The hyperdoc is a great classroom tool if you've got tech, and a review activity could be a perfect way to introduce it to your students. Have everyone open up a Google doc. Tell them that they're basically creating a clickable Table of Contents for the unit. They'll need to put in the most important topics from the unit, then hyperlink short descriptions of them to videos, websites, images, docs, articles, etc. around the web that help explain those topics or add layers of context or connection to them.

Have everyone send you their shareable links and put them all on a single doc or slide once everyone's done so each student in your class can choose several other hyperdocs to explore as part of their review.

Review Mural

For this collaborative review activity, you need a blank board somewhere in your room - a white board or a chalkboard will work.

Give each pair or group of students a topic from your unit and ask them to come up with a way to represent it clearly and memorably on a part of the board, combining words and images. Let everyone brainstorm on paper together before transferring their final products to the board. Then ask everyone to walk around viewing the mural and jotting down the material they see that they think will help them in their own review.



Two-Slide Powerpoints (GOOD Powerpoints, really)

If you'd like to teach your students the basics of creating an effective slide presentation, you can build a mini-lesson in to a review activity. Check out Jennifer Gonzalez's wonderful article on creating better slideshows over on Cult of Pedagogy, and choose some of the insights you'll find there to share with your students. Then ask them, in groups, to create two strong slides each on whatever topic you assign to them. Ask every group to present back briefly and powerfully.

Ready for action? Hopefully you've found some helpful creative activities for the next time you've got material to review. No need to put together a big lecture, your students can take charge of their own review.


Looking for the print-and-go handouts featured in this blog post? You'll find them here. 




074: Infographics: Research, Writing, & Visuals for the Win


Don't you love it when someone takes an incredibly confusing topic you need to understand and presents it to you as a striking, clear infographic? Like this?

A good infographic can distill a concept so clearly. Take a hugely complex issue and boil it down to a beautiful display of the most important stats, facts, quotations, and images. Creating an infographic is the work of an artist, a writer, a researcher, and a critical thinker.

It is an ideal medium for our students.

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