Teaching Students about Positive Social Media

In the classroom and school communities, social media gets a bad rap. We all blame it for so many things - cyber bullying, constant distraction, time wasting, the destruction of grammar and good writing.

And yet. National Geographic has Snapchat. The New York Times tweets constantly. Major organizations and individuals around the world use social media to inspire, to show compassion, to raise money for good causes, to help people connect.

How can we help students see social media platforms as places where people can build each other up instead of tearing each other down? The reality is, many of our students DO check social media dozens of times a day. Probably nothing we say is going to change that.

During a media literacy unit, as a flip side to a unit on fake news, or just as a series of interesting jumpstarts to class, share these social media campaigns with your students. Show them the positive action being taken in the world through hashtags, feeds, and videos. Help them use their social power (and obsession) for good.

And as a final activity, download the free handout at the end of this post that invites students to participate in a positive social media campaign of their own, #StudentsBreaktheBoundaries.

Campaign #1: HeforShe
When Emma Watson became the UN Women's Goodwill Ambassador, she threw her support behind a campaign for women's equality called #HeForShe. Her Tweet galvanizing people to the campaign brought interest from hundreds of thousands of people.

"Wonderful men out there. I'm launching a campaign – #heforshe. Support the women in ur lives and sign up here now! ❤️ http://t.co/EXa64CncgP

— Emma Watson (@EmWatson) September 21, 2014"

According to an article at The Social Media Monthly, Tweets about feminism have risen 115% since the campaign and the discussions about it have doubled. Hundreds of thousands of people are liking the #HeforShe Facebook page, following its Twitter accounts, and tagging photos with the hashtag on Instagram. Celebrities have flocked to respond to Emma Watson's call, and political leaders have reached out as well.

Campaign #2: #icebucketchallenge

In the Ice Bucket Challenge, millions of people dumped buckets of ice water onto themselves for Facebook videos to raise awareness and money for Lou Gehrig's Disease. According to an article in The New Yorker, the challenge raised two hundred twenty million dollars for the A.L.S. foundation as well as bringing increased awareness. I love what The New Yorker had to say about what this campaign can teach us. "That, really, was the true accomplishment of the challenge: it took tools - the selfie, the hashtag, the like button - that have typically been used for private amusement or corporate profit and turned them to the public good." How might our students use these tools someday if we show them the way?

Campaign #3: "We Remember"
In this campaign, holocaust survivors and their families came together to ask people around the world to take a photo of themselves holding up a sign saying "We Remember" and more than 200,000 people (including me) did it. Though they may not have reached their goal of having six million people participate - one for every innocent person who died during the Holocaust - it was enough participation to make a splash across the internet and inspire conversations about anti-semitism today.

Campaign #4: #StudentsBreaktheBoundaries

Wouldn't it be great for your students to be part of a positive social media campaign of their own? In this era of growing division, I'd love to see students make their own movement toward understanding each other better. I've designed a handout you can use to help students create a social media post about themselves, about some important part of their identity. They have room to lay out an image and work on the caption. This exercise can be strictly on paper, or you can invite students to post the images to a class social media account or to their own social media feeds. Your students just might start the movement #StudentsBreaktheBoundaries. Imagine students from around the country and the world learning about each other's values, beliefs, dreams and passions through this simple hashtag.You can download the free resource and help start the movement here.

Looking for more places to talk about how to creatively approach what matters to our students?  Jump into my free Facebook group, Creative High School English!


Creative Final Exam Options for ELA

As the end of the year approaches, everyone is thinking about what to do for final exams. If you're like me, you feel a strong distaste for matching, multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank (though wouldn't it be SO MUCH EASIER to grade?!).

In this post I'm going to share five ways to abandon the three hours of silent pencil scratching in favor of a creative closing event. Give your students something memorable that helps them take what they've learned from your class forwards in their lives!

#1 The Graduation Speech
I did this with my sophomores and loved it. I had them look back at our texts and write a speech featuring evidence from our texts and other books they had read if they wanted. They had to address three of the following four ideas:

  • How literature helps people understand their own lives.
  • How literature helps people understand the lives of others and empathize with other people.
  • How literature makes it easier to understand history.
  • How literature illuminates issues of morality.
Have the students write the speeches at home and then present them during the exam period. Meet outside somewhere beautiful on campus, or reserve a beautiful formal room if you have that option. Then either have all the students read their speeches or divide into groups and have them read to their small groups. I like to give them a listening handout for this day, in which they nominate the best speeches and defend their nominations. 

#2 The Springboard Movie
One year I showed "Stranger than Fiction" as the end of the year approached. Here's the trailer in case you've never seen it. 

In this film, an author is writing a book and through some strange twist of fate, her main character is actually a living person and can hear her narrating his life. Obviously, her decisions about his life matter very much indeed to him! For this option you can show this film and then ask your students to write a paper, record a podcast, or create a video on the theme of why literature matters. For Harold Crick, literature is life or death. What is it for the rest of us? Why do we read? Lay out clear parameters as to how many of the year's texts the final product should reference. On the day of the final exam, let students present their work in rotating partners. Have everyone find a partner and share what they have come up with. Whenever they are done they can drift on to the next partner. Circulate with them and let it go on for as long as it is interesting and useful. Then collect the work and wish them well. 

#3 Curate the Year
Jennifer Gonzalez recently did a podcast I really enjoyed on Curation Assignments. Though I've long been familiar with the idea of doing a museum exhibition on a subject, I like the new directions she took curation. There are so many ways you could have students curate the year - students could design a website featuring the best works from the curriculum around a theme of their choosing with related images, sound, video, etc.,  design a virtual art show of works related to the texts you have studied, record a podcast including critical quotations and related research surrounding an important thread from the year, etc. The museum exhibit is always an option! This type of final assessment can then be showcased during the final exam period.

#4  The Video Game
Gaming seems to be taking over the world. One walk through a boys' dorm at my boarding school can attest to this. Give students the opportunity to turn your course into a video game for their final exam. Perhaps each text is a level they create. Perhaps the major conflicts from the works you have studied become the challenges faced by the hero. Perhaps each game world is about emulating the narrative style of each work studied. Give students a lot of examples and then give them a lot of freedom. Just be sure to set out specific guidelines for connecting their games to their studies, so they know they must use their games to show their thorough knowledge of the work you have done together. I would definitely create the rubric in advance so they have it as they work.

#5 The Netflix Series
Netflix impressively brought history to life with "The Crown" this year. Why not move on to a literature series next? Have students create a pitch for a Netflix series that would feature the stories you have studied in your course. The pitch must center around a theme or two that could capture the hearts of the world and then show how each text could be brought to dramatic life to highlight that theme. Students can imagine the settings, main characters, directors, etc. to the extent that you think is interesting and helpful. Some will love including details like these, others may wish to focus solely on the textual explication. Give them some room to maneuver, as long as they prove their understanding of the coursework.

Whenever I have the option, I abandon traditional final exams in favor of a creative option. I've never regretted it yet!

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Poetry Slam Videos + Writing Prompts for Each

If you're like me, you want a hook for your poetry unit. Something students can grab ahold of when poetry feels too disconnected from their lives. I'm here to offer you that very hook. It's called poetry slam. I have a feeling you've heard of it, but have you tried it yet? And if not, WHY NOT?
Last month I wrote a post all about how to do it, so today I'm going to focus on ten amazing video clips you can use as part of your slam unit. If you're not ready to dive fully into slam, you could also easily use them to complement a traditional poetry unit.

In my slam units I sprinkle video clips throughout the week so that students can practice judging poems. I play the video, then ask everyone to silently give it a score 1-10 and prepare to defend that score. Then I start calling on people. It's always so. much. fun. One student may rate a poem with a one that five other students thought was the best ten they'd ever seen. The debate that follows is exactly the kind of engagement I love.

Bottom line, in poetry slam, there are no rules. The audience loves what they love.

I find that sharing videos of eloquent slammers inspires my students to move in new directions with their poetry. The quality of poems they slam every year astounds me. We do several writing workshops in class but because they are so engaged with the slam format and want to perform something excellent, they spend many hours working on their poems outside of class too.

In this post I'm going to share some of the most outstanding slam videos I've seen in my ten years of searching. And for each, I'm going to offer you a brief prompt you could share with your students in a writing workshop after watching and scoring the video. I wouldn't recommend doing them all, but if you choose several that you believe your students will connect to, I think you'll find this a very productive way to inspire writing.

This video is from the documentary film SlamNation. Many clips from this film are available on youtube and lots of them are wonderful. "Love" by Alexandra Oliver is one of my favorites. Students have hugely varied reactions to her purposely awkward delivery style and hilarious overarching comparison. Let them feel uncomfortable at first and then start to realize it's supposed to be funny.

Prompt: Alexandra Oliver compares love to stale twinkles. Talk about a striking, unusual choice. Write a poem around one big simile that will surprise people. Stick with the theme of love, or branch out. Just choose something surprising for your simile. For example, "slam poems are like omelettes..."

In this clip, Smokey Robinson comes on Def Poetry Jam to share a poem about the different language used to describe being black through history, and what that language does or does not mean. 

Prompt: Smokey Robinson uses his poem to talk about an aspect of his identity. What's a part of your identity that you could write about? It could be anything - your heritage, your beliefs, your dreams, your friendships, your passions. Try to explore this part of yourself through many different types of small stories, examples, and lenses the way Robinson does. 

Heads up, this poem, "Sign Language" by Rives, has several swear words but they are not particularly offensive. I find this poem very striking, and I think your students will too. It's about his experience doing poetry slam at the high school for deaf students where he works. 

Prompt: Rives explores a topic most of his audience know nothing about. What's something you know all about through experience that no one else here does? I bet there's something. Write a poem about it. Use specific anecdotes and descriptive details to bring it alive, because you're the only one who can do that for us. 

Blythe Baird's "When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny" comes from a good series called Button Poetry. It's about disordered eating. 

Prompt: Baird explores a very personal theme, using many small details from her own experience. Write about something personal to you, and include at least ten specific details from your own experience as you explore the topic. You don't every have to show this poem to anyone if you don't want to. 

Taylor Mali is one of the most famous slam poets, and he really gets into his piece "Like Totally Whatever," featured in SlamNation. Some students love it, some think he goes too far. You might also enjoy checking out "What Teachers Make" and "I Could be a Poet," also by Taylor Mali.  

Prompt: Taylor Mali has a pet peeve. Do you? Write a poem in which you dig deeply into your pet peeve. What exactly is it that drives you so nuts about it? Why does it matter? Be specific. Use original language. Don't be afraid to be funny.

Jack McCarthy blends humor and sincerity in his slam piece "Boys Don't Cry." This one gets a range of student responses, and that's just one of the reasons I think it's well worth sharing.

Prompt: Jack McCarthy breaks apart a common statement with his poem "Boys Don't Cry." What's something you hear people say that you think is absurd? Write a poem to disprove a commonly held belief or trite saying. Sprinkle in striking description and details from your own experience. 

I hope you find the time to incorporate some slam into your unit, or go full steam ahead into poetry slam. I've done it every year of my teaching career and LOVED it every time. If you're diving in for the first time and could use some support, I'd be glad to have you join my Facebook group Creative High School English. It's a great place to get help and ideas when you're trying something new and wonderful, and I'm in there just about every day to help everyone connect and share ideas.


Easy Differentiation for Busy Teachers

Differentiation can make such a big difference in the academic lives of our students. I remember when I first learned about it, browsing the Education shelves at my local bookstore. I pulled out a thick, dull-looking tome with a long dull-looking title. But as I scanned it, it was clear that if I could cut through the hundreds of pages of research, there was a lot that I could apply right straight into pretty much every aspect of my curriculum. So I bought it. 

Though I believe it is in my storage unit somewhere full of highlighting and bookmarks, the basic gist is all I really remember. Students work differently. Students learn differently. There is no reason every student has to do everything the same way.

What a freeing concept! From the moment I grasped what differentiation was, I began to build it into my teaching. Today I want to show you three easy ways to build it into yours. 

Take the Stress out of your Teacher Observation

Do you worry about how your administration is judging you? Wonder how they can possibly understand all the work you are putting into your classroom by swinging through for thirty minutes once in a blue moon?

Can't say I blame you. It's pretty hard to show all the amazing things you're doing in one random half an hour. 

That's why I don't think you should wait for your observation to start knocking their socks off with your pure teacherly awesomeness. Stay with me on this. 

In my first year of teaching I worked with the best department chair I've ever had. She invited me to lunch every month or two and asked how she could support me. HOW SHE COULD SUPPORT ME! It was amazing. It was awesome. We ate granola and yogurt together and talked about my favorite things going on in my classroom. She tried to find budget for all my ideas. She gave me suggestions for advancing my career. A decade later, I still smile at the thought of her administrative perfection.

Woe is me, I have had three department chairs since that presented far more challenges.

However, after working with them all in three different jobs, I've learned some important things about how to work effectively with your administration. In particular, how to show them your strengths and be proactive about impressing them instead of waiting for nerve-wracking observations to try to make a good impression.

#1 The Preemptive Strike
Why wait until your first teacher observation to show your administration what's going in your classroom? When my students are inviting guests to a classroom event, I often suggest an administrator or two for the list. Or if we're about to do something I've worked really hard on, I send an invitation of my own. I've had my academic dean and department chair attend poetry jams and project showcases, and I always felt good knowing I was putting my best foot forward.

#2 Get Published
There are so many ways to get your feet wet in the world of teacher publication. I started with my local school association newsletter, and moved on to publish with Classroom Notes Plus, Read Write ThinkEnglish Journal, Reading Today and Independent School Magazine. I just submitted an article to We Are Teachers today. When you receive recognition from an outside source, it helps your credibility on the inside. You can send along a link to your department chair or dean to let them know what you've been up to, or if you think they read the publication you published with, you can just wait for the fun surprise of having them find it.

#3 Present at a Conference
Even if you are relatively new to teaching, chances are you've come up with something that is working great in your classroom. Whether it's a reading program, series of grammar lessons, interactive notebook or something else, apply to present it at your state's annual Conference for Teachers of English. Or go nuts and apply to present it at the National Council of Teachers of English annual conference. It's ALWAYS great to attend conferences, and if you present while you're there, you earn respect from your administration, improve your C.V. , and get the benefits of attendance as well.

#4 Create a Professional Development Group
After attending the Exeter Humanities Institute one summer to learn all about the Harkness method of discussion, I wanted to share what I had learned with other faculty at my school. I started a "Harkness Breakfast Club." Once a month interested teachers would get together to eat and ask me questions about how to incorporate Harkness into their classrooms. I liked sharing a strategy I loved, and it didn't hurt my public profile at the school either. It was only my second year of teaching, but many experienced teachers and administrators came to talk. It was great for everyone. Think about your own interests and strengths. Is there something you could share with a larger group of teachers? If you have a special interest in using video (or podcasting, or bell ringers, or independent projects, etc.) in the classroom, could you create a group that chats regularly about this theme?

#5 Classy Decor
When administrators drop by your classroom, what will they see? Awesome displays of student work, an inviting outside reading library, fun posters, engaging bulletin boards? Or cracked paint and a few plants struggling to survive? I'm a pretty visual person, and having a classroom with great ambiance REALLY matters to me. But I also think it matters to your reputation at your school. Display the wonderful things you and your students have been doing. When your department chair looks up during a meeting with you or an observation of you, they should see examples of all the fabulous work you have been doing to engage students. You don't have to create a themed Pinterest classroom, just make it reflect your originality and hard work.

#6 Get Students Out and About
This strategy is great for your students and for helping your administration notice you. Consider how to move your class around the school. Doing a play performance? Maybe you could do it in the theater or the cafeteria while its empty. Working on speeches? Take your students outside and have them orate to the trees. Choosing books for your outside reading program? Head down the hall to the library (preschedule with the librarian, of course!). There are a million ways to get out of your classroom and add an element of freshness for your students. And if you're out there doing something cool, your administration is likely to notice.

#7 When Observation Day Comes, Be Creative
Everyone struggles with what to do on observation day. So you're teaching the fifth in a sequence of grammar lessons, discussing chapter nine of a novel, reviewing before standardized testing... there's always a way to spice it up and show off your creative side. To try to help, I've put together a packet of ten creative lessons you can apply to many different novels and units. You can download it in one minute by using the form just below.

So remember, don't wait for an observation to show your administration just how awesome you are. Take your career to the next level by trying one or all of these seven strategies.

And when the big day does come, if you're looking for a fun creative project to inspire your students in their critical thinking, why not try one pagers? Get your free set of four templates with complete directions when you sign up below!

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