One of many things I love when on break is the chance to simply reconnect with amazing people, and when said amazing people are fellow educators, you can bet that it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to how to make the educational experience better for all kids.
After dinner, I was left thinking about how often we get so caught up in all that we need to do that so many of those grand ideas, the ideals we dreamt up this summer or whenever we have room to be inspired seem to be forgotten as the year starts and the pressure resumes. That while we implement many things, tweak many others, there are many notions and ideas that simply don’t happen. And who can blame us? There are so many days that I am just keeping my head afloat trying to stay a few steps ahead of the students in order to create and sustain relevant educational experiences.
Last night, the conversation turned to joy and play. How little there seems to be purposefully implemented throughout especially older students’ daily routines in school. How the minute they come to us in the upper years there are few opportunities for infusing joy and allowing more creative approaches to learning. And while both of those concepts are foundations of learning I hold dear, I also look back at my own curricular choices for the year and see how easily those two tenets of learning get siphoned away as I feel the need to do more, dig deeper, and make sure that the learning is “serious.” However, the siphoning itself relies on a untruth – joy and creative choice does not equate easier learning and is serious business, in fact, often purposefully creating moments for joy and creative choice requires a broader commitment and self-reliance within the learning happening. So with this in mind, I have done some restructuring of a few upcoming units and also rededicated efforts in other places, so what might that look like coming up in room 203?
The main questions I focused on in my reflection is: how might this spark joy and engagement and how do students have creative choice?
Re-committing to picture books. I usually read a lot of picture books aloud to my 7th graders and also use them in a variety of ways throughout our curriculum and yet, this year, I feel like with the busyness of it all, picture books have been less of a central tenet to us. It’s time to change that. In a little more than a week we kick off our Mock Caldecott unit for the year, a two week investigation into twelve incredible picture books for the year that will lead into a persuasive speech in which students will try to sway others to their choice of winner of the Caldecott. Reading picture books together is something that we already see as joyful and doing it in small groups will hopefully bolster that. Creative choice comes in how students want to persuade their peers – how will they deliver a message that is persuasive in nature and which tools will they use?
Bringing back our immersion project. Two years ago, I did an extended genius hour project in which students got to pick something to learn for themselves in order to teach others about it through a mini-lesson. This consisted of identifying an area to immerse themselves in and then spending time figuring out how to create an enticing lesson for others to learn from them. The topics were broad: How to do a card trick properly, what integration methods are necessary to integrate any function and how are they used, how do you play guitar and so on? These were all catered to student interests and were very broad on purpose. We then infused note-taking skills, how to find sources to teach them how to do the skills, and how to engage an audience in order to help them understand a concept, as well as created a speech rubric in order to practice public speaking. This year, I will finetune it with a few more scaffolds for those who are not sure what they would like to teach, as well as opportunities to tandem-research. This project sparked a lot of joy the first time we did it because students got to self-select their learning, immerse themselves into something they found relevant, as well as show off their knowledge in a fun way. There was a lot of natural choice embedded throughout.
Re-thinking our TED talk unit. Every year, the students get an opportunity to create a TED talk on a chosen topic and then give it to the class, and while the unit itself is solid, I want to spend more time helping students choose topics that they are invested in already. This year many of our students have expressed a deep interest and commitment to social justice work, as well as the overlooked history we have explored. This will, therefore, be my starting point in reminding students of what they already know and which questions they may have to push their thinking further. So often we push students into new learning without realizing how much work it is to research and then synthesize and process all of the information into a brilliant short speech. With the re-introduction of our immersion project, I want to implement more time for students to dive into their identity and what they are already interested in so that their TED talk work can be more focused on filling in knowledge gaps, rather than starting all over with research. This will also be an opportunity to jump into persuasion, how advertisement plays on our biases, and how we are influenced by social media. Choice plays into topic, as well as the angle they want to take in their talk.
Asking for more student input and taking the proper time for it. In the Enriched English class I teach, we have 6 vocabulary lessons consisting of 25 vocabulary words each that we need to somehow process, understand, and implement into our vocabulary. While I have gamified it in the past and also allowed for choice in how students show mastery, I have never really loved what we did. The words seem like a chore no matter how I spin it This year, I plan on showing students the vocabulary and then having them come up with opportunities for how we can learn it together. While there will undoubtedly be traditional methods for students to choose from such as rote memorization with a quiz, I also want to give them the opportunity to come up with other methods for learning that they will be able to choose from as we move into the vocabulary. While I already try to get as much student input as possible, I feel it often gets rushed, so this is a reminder for me to slow down and let it take the time it takes, and this goes for all classes, not just the Enriched English class.
Re-committing to free writing. We have been dabbling with free-writing throughout the year but due to book clubs in December, we changed our process. While students continued to write on their own, the community piece was lacking and so as we enter into January, I want to bring back the prompts and self-selected choice and the time to then share the creations we have. I also want to bring back the notion of playing with writing that so often gets lost as we write. Students so often fear that they have to write great pieces every single time which is an incredibly damaging notion for anyone trying to work through the emotions of writing and so I want to model my own not-so-great writing that tends to happen when we do a free-write. Students don’t need perfect role models, they need real ones.
Skyping with authors. Talking with actual authors is magical at any age and the advent of World Read Aloud Day reminded me to sign up to bring authors into our classrooms more. This is something I used to do a lot but once again seem to have gotten away from. I cannot wait for students to hear from Kevin Sylvester, Juana Martinez-Neal and Ishta Mercurio as they discuss their writing process.
Participating in Global School Play Day again. I love this initiative created by Scott and Tim Bedley with the idea to infuse more play into schools again. I have done this day before with 7th graders and while I am not able to do it the day it is scheduled for this year, I will do it instead on February 7th where students will get all of English to simply play with each other. You should sign up as well.
While this is not an exhaustive list, I am glad to be bringing this lens back to our work together this year to hopefully create experiences where it is not just students learning from me, but more from each other. Where there is more cooperative problem solving, more relevance, and more choice. Where maybe, just maybe, students can think of English class as a class that is meaningful to them beyond developing a love of reading and writing and helping them find themselves. Who knows, but I will keep trying.
I posted the following question on Twitter last night and the responses are definitely worth checking out – so many great ideas for infusing more play and creativity into our work.
And now I ask you as well; how will you restructure or continue to reinforce the notion of play and creative choice in your class these upcoming months?
If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.