Turning the Olympic Creed into Poetry: Hacking the Olympic Creed, part 2

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If you haven’t had a chance to see my post describing the cut-up experiment we did, click here and check it out. This post highlights some of the great poems that PreK-fourth graders did.

William Burroughs once said, “Cut up Rimbaud, and you are in Rimbaud’s place.” We embarked on this poetry experiment to put us more in the place of the Olympics broadly, and the Olympic Creed specifically. In the process of cutting up the creed and playing around with it word for word, with the goal of making a poem out of those words, really powerful learning happened. Students PreK through fourth grade were  carefully studying words, exploring the different meanings of words, discovering different ways to use words, creating sophisticated poems where the meaning was below the surface, and using the shape of the piece to create that meaning. 

This poem, Norway, is from a kindergarten class. They wrote the poem together. The teacher teacher started the process in true Tristan Tzara style by putting all of the cut up words in a paper bag. The students picked a word our of the bag, laid the word down on a big board on the floor, and then passed the bag to the next students who did the same. The students used the dimensions of the board to determine line-length. Then, once all of the words had been picked, the teacher made a brilliant move by creating a set of constraints for the next phase of the experiment: the students could either move a word, remove a word, or leave the poem the way it was. The game continued with each student scooting out of the circle and deciding what her next move was. They would read the poem aloud to get it in their head before the move and then would read it again when the move had been made. Gasps, oohs and ahs, and laughs filled the room. Some students would express their disagreement with a move. Other moves were met with universal approval. They were all being close readers, thinking creatively and strategically about the next move that they wanted to make. This process went around the circle three times. And is it progressed, more and more words were removed. I was reminded of Niedecker’s “no break from this condensery.” The students paired the poem down to its essentials. What made it even more interesting and funny was the addition of the title, Norway. One could read the poem as a commentary on the country as well as the Olympics. Once the process went around the circle three times, the poem was complete, the group read it aloud again to hear the music in it, and then decided to hang it on their classroom door.

norway The other kindergarten class did it slightly differently, more of a prose approach, keeping all of the words in and shuffling them around on the magnetic white board. After a while, they were stumped, they had a few words that just didn’t seem to work with the poem that they were creating.

cut-up kindergarten

They tried and tried, but adding the words just didn’t sound right. Should they just leave them out? The group worked to answer that question and in the process came up with the idea of using those words as the title for the piece. Hence, the title of the piece:  To Take In The Olympic Games. Below, you’ll see one of the kindergarten students pointing to the words as the group as a whole reads it aloud.

Other students took a narrative approach as well, some to greater affect than others. The trick with the narrative turn is that it encourages the reader to read it like any narrative, and the choppy, broken, style of the text can be a bit off-putting. At other times, this move can be used to create some rather interesting pieces.


cut up third grade 1It’s important to remember that this writing game is a mix of deep literacy learning and artistic creation. Sometimes the works of art turn out more artful than others, but at all times, this experiment plunges the students into language at the word, phrase, and sentence level, encouraging them to think about how they make meaning on the page.

Here is an example of a version that I think works pretty well. It was created by a group of three second graders who truly embodied the spirit of making a poem out of the cut-up words.

cut-up second grade (2)


Not only is it interesting to look at since the young poets chose to roughly use three word lines, but if you read it aloud, you can really hear the possibility in the piece. The rhythms come out in the wonderful use of the repetitions. When read aloud, it sounds as if the speaker is thinking out loud, trying to articulate something profound about life. At times, it captures the cadence of real life. The ending in particular feels a bit like an idiom.




Key Teaching Moves to Make in Differentiating an English Classroom

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Firstly, all classes need to be differentiated. To think that 25 to 30 students in a room are all going to learn the same way, or be in the same place in terms of understanding, doing your bidding, feels kind of Russia 1919 or Germany 1939. Think of differentiation as tapping into the skills and conceptual knowledge that students do have and building from there, not in an effort to get everyone to the same place, but to challenge students to evolve as readers, writers, and thinkers. And remember, we get better at what we do through consistent, mindful practice.

It all starts with relationships

  • Get to know your students – find them interesting and compelling people

  • Let them get to know you as the interesting and compelling person that you are

  • Design ways for the students to get to know each other as people, NOT just as students

  • Have them get together in groups just to get to know each other, not to do school work

  • Idea: Start the year with a questionnaire that gives you a glimpse into their lives. Ask questions that can be ways into interesting work that you can do together. Share back with the students what you learned from the questionnaire. Ask them questions to get to know them even better. Design work around what you learn about them.

  • Great book to read on this: The Social Animal: Hidden Sources Of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks

What about reading with students with various levels of skill?

  • Give students choice! – Not all students need to read the same book

  • Idea: Scale the reading so that you can get to where you want to go

    • Start with students bringing in their own books to read – have them connect the books to a big idea you are exploring in a unit

    • Move to small (self-selected?) reading groups around a selection of books

    • Move to one book read by the whole class

  • The “level” of book does not necessarily determine how sophisticated you can get with it

  • Great book to read on this: Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading And What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher.

How can I write with students with various levels of skill?

  • Choose models that are accessible on multiple levels

  • Idea: Start the year with flash fiction or poetry

  • Establish authentic writing opportunities

  • Design project-based work where the outcome can be achieved in multiple ways

  • Idea: Write with your students

  • Let the writing tell you what skills need to be developed – find the pattern and push students back into the writing to work on it

  • The more we write, the better we get at it

  • Have students write reflectively, creatively, and analytically

  • Coach practice

  • Great books to read on this: Inside Out: Strategies For Teaching Reading by Dan Kirby, Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow

 How do we think in a differentiated classroom?

  • Create scaffolds to support students figuring out how to take on a challenge

  • Idea: Develop strategies for approaching the work – have them prominently displayed in the classroom

  • Let the answers to these questions guide the work:

    • When do we know that we have done something well?

    • What is the first step in taking on a challenge?

    • Who can you go to to get feedback/help?

    • What will make this project interesting for you?

    • How do you know when you are learning?

    • How do you know when you are working hard?

    • Why would we want to work hard?

  • Let students flounder….for a bit

  • Look for patterns that guide you in terms of when to step in

  • See if they are able to work their way out of it

  • If not, establish scaffolds through talking with them. Push them to figure out for themselves what they need to do to be successful

  • Idea: Build in a reflective writing component to each project where the students articulate what the strengths are in the project and where the areas for growth exist. Have them discuss how they are going to get stronger in the areas for growth

  • Idea: The Reading Specialists and Special Education Teachers are your friends, your allies, your partners – work with them. Tap their knowledge. Have them come into your class. Plan with them.

  • Great books to read on this: Mindset by Carol Dweck, Brain Rules by John Medina, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyne, Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins

 What about grading/evaluation?

  • Have high expectations and make sure to coach practice

  • Have an evaluation system that enables you to see growth over time

  • Grading of products should be based on quality of the work, not on tasks accomplished

  • Grading of process should be on how well students took advantage of the project

  • Not everyone needs to earn an A to be validated. Be honest in terms of where they are and where they need to go

  • Allow them to make mistakes

  • Evaluate process and product

  • Great book to read on this: Authentic Assessments for the English Classroom by Joann Dolgin

 Overall, what does work look like?

  • Create authentic challenges that enable students to enter where they are – authenticity enables students to use the real-world skill and intelligence that they have and bring it to bear in the classroom to build the academic skills you want

  • Determine the edge of competency for your students and hold them there

  • Model work and learning yourself

  • Diversify groups – homogeneity kills idea generation and doesn’t encourage people to work at the top of their intelligences

  • Make sure that there is a metacognitive approach to the work

  • Design conversations and reflective work around the how and why of what you are doing

  • Idea: incorporate some form of an audit into the learning. See here for an example. 

  • Great books to read on this: I won’t Learn From You: And Other thoughts On Maladjustment by Herbert Kohl, Improv Wisdom by Patricia Madson, Impro by Keith Johnstone, Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks

We take small steps in developing skill and conceptual knowledge. It happens over time.

Hack the Olympic Creed with your Students: The Art of the Cut-Up

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If you are like me, you’re always looking for a way to bring the here and now into your class in as creative and interesting a way as possible. So what to do with the Olympics? Here’s a great writing (and reading) experiment that will have your students looking at the Olympics and the meaning behind the Olympics in a whole new way.

Take the Olympic Creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.

Paste it into a document and blow the creed up to 24 or so point so that you can really see it. Something like this:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.

Make enough copies of the creed so that a group of four or so in your class can use it: e.g. 24 in a class, make six copies. Cut out each word so that it is independent. Put the individually cut up words for one creed into each envelop.

The next day, get your students into the requisite number of groups, and hand out the envelope to each group. Tell them that the challenge is to use these words, and only these words, to create a poem. The only other constraint is that they must use all of the words. The way that they construct the poem is completely up to them. They may add punctuation.

IMPORTANT: when describing the challenge, do not show them the original Olympic Creed! If you do that, it will suck all of the creativity out of this experiment. Another important point: the goal is not for the groups to try to recreate the creed in the exact original wording. Instead, the students are using the words like material, like paint, to create a whole new work of art, a la Gertrude Stein.Gertrude Stein-996e11046cc60620a5e89c3a4491d5222249be35-s6-c30

Depending on the age of your students, give them 15, maybe twenty minutes, to mess around with the words and to create the poem. When I tried this, I took a good half an hour, so this could be a good use of an entire period. The amount of time that you dedicate to it will determine the kinds of poems that are produced. Less time: probably more abstract. More time: probably more narrative in form. Any time spent is well worth it. This experiment encourages your students to think and act strategically, carefully reading the words and critically thinking about the meaning that they want to create by connecting the words to each other. They will also come to appreciate how many different ways they can use the same word, particularly prepositions, articles, and conjunctions. Not only that, they are also honing their skills of interpretation and persuasiveness by working as a group to make their poem happen. While your students are creating their poems out of the found material, sit back and enjoy listening to and watching the divergent and convergent thinking that goes on.

Once the students feel that they have their poems constructed, have them write them down on pieces of paper, exactly the way that they look on the tables. While they are doing that, you might want to go around and take pictures of each poem in its cut-up form. There is something aesthetically interesting in the way in which the cut out words look pieced together on the table. Give them a chance to read it one more time out loud to their group so that they have it in their head.

Then, reveal the original creed on your smart board or written on the blackboard or handed out on a different sheet of paper to each group. Tell them that this is the original Olympic Creed. You can even use the moment to share the story with them about how the Olympic Creed came to be:

coubertinPierre de Coubertin got the idea for the phrase adopted as the Olympic Creed from a speech given by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot at a service for Olympic champions during the 1908 Olympic Games.

Not much of a story, but it is always good to know where something comes from.

The comparing of the original Olympic Creed and the cut-up versions that the students do should create a very interesting conversation. What is the difference between the original and the new versions? What do we notice about the way the original creed is written? What new meanings are created in the new versions? What do we see differently in the original creed because of our cut-ups? Which do we like better? You get the idea.

For the coup de grace, Have the students type up their cut-up versions with a title and the names of all who contributed to it, and then create a gallery in your room or in the hallway outside of your room where you display the original Olympic Creed and then all of your students’ versions to invite folks to see the Olympics in a new and refreshing way.

This writing and reading experiment is beautifully simple and wonderfully deep in terms of the literacy skill development and learning that happens. As noted above, through this writing game, similar to Burrough’s cut-ups or Tristan Tzara’s Tzara’s Hat, your students will scrutinize individual words, interpret word pairings for below surface meanings, read what they put together many many times, work to convince others that their construction is the best, surprise themselves with what happens when seemingly disparate words are connected, and be ruthless in their editing. When they see the original creed, they will then be encouraged to do some pretty sophisticated comparing and contrasting. They will revisit their own piece and evaluate it for its effectiveness, its uniqueness. They will also come to appreciate how words and phrases can have multiple meanings, depending on how you use them.burroughs&Typewriter(1)

If you give this a shot with your students, please leave a comment and let me know how it goes. Better yet, leave me a comment and share one of the poems created. I’d love to see it. Here is a version I came up with:

But well-conquered Olympic struggle?

Not important

But is the most essential triumph fought to win?

Not important

Take the life games

as not just to have

the most in the thing

But have

the thing in part is

the is

Episode #3, Segment 1 – Louis Herbst on how he stumbled into teaching, the key to a good interview, why it is so great when a student says “why do we need to learn this?”, and the joys of teaching a student from 4 to 13 years old

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Here at The Craft, I’m interested in the stories behind teaching, learning, and schools. What attracts someone to teaching? What keeps them in the game? How do we design truly meaningful learning environments? Where is schooling going? How can we be a part of helping to guide the evolution? In the first three episodes, I have focused on collecting the stories of teachers, very different teachers, to learn a bit about how they got into teaching in the first place and what keeps them in the craft. In each episode, I also ask the teachers what they want to talk about in terms of teaching, learning, and schools. So far, we’ve hung out with David Sokoloff, a Philly public school history teacher, and talked about the relationship between space and learning. We met with Amy Lafty, an Archdioscese English teacher, and learned about the challenges of being a mom-teacher, her push for project-based learning, and the phenomenon of prom. Now, hot off the USB microphone, we have Louis Herbst, a Swiss Army knife of a teacher, having taught everything from 6th grade social studies to PreK through 8th grade PE as well as serving as the athletic director, the afterschool enrichment coordinator, and summer camp director at United Friends School. We caught Louis just days before he jumped in his car with his wife and young son to head out to Scattergood Friends where he now is the Academic Dean at Scattergood Friends.Louis Herbst portrait

The truly dynamic teachers tend to be the ones who do not go into teaching through the traditional routes. I’m not talking about getting certified through Teach for America instead of the State. I’m talking about life trajectory. In this episode, you’ll hear a bit about Louis’ turbulent middle and high school experience and how that nudged him into teaching. You’ll also hear a bit about a really interesting non-profit he started in his undergraduate work that further pushed him towards teaching. Dynamic teachers also tend to not perpetuate the status quo. Louis’ rather unorthodox approach to the interview that landed him the job at United Friends is proof of that.

One of the wonderful things about Louis’ job at United Friends was that he had the chance to teach the same kids from 4 years old to 13, so he got to watch them learn how to tie their shoes and learn how to navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of adolescents. Louis shares a bit about how this experience has shaped him.

Because the conversation with Louis was so rich, I am going to divide up the episode into 3 bite-sized segments, each of around 20 minutes or so. Perfect accompaniment to a jog or a drive to work! In the first segment, we get to hear about Louis’ rather turbulent middle and high school experience that pushed him into teaching, his unorthodox interview tactic that involved robots and Henry Box Brown that helped him land his job at United Friends, what it is like to be able to teach a child from 4 to 13 years old, and why it is so great when a student asks “why do we need to learn this?” Enjoy!


Writing Fairy Tales with Third Graders

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Fairy Tales. What a cool form to explore with third graders. Magic. Good vs. Evil. A terrible problem that works out in the end. Right up the alley of 8 and 9 year olds who are more than willing to live in secondary worlds. I recently had the chance to open up the idea of writing fairy tales with a third grade class. The class was in the midst of writing various forms of short stories involving a classroom character that they had developed by the name of Kaitlyn Rose Anderson. The teacher wanted to challenge the students to write their own fairy tales involving Kaitlyn Rose, thus transferring what they know about the character into a completely new context – lots of potential for convergent and divergent thinking and writing to happen.

We started our exploration by doing a quick writing warm up: Make a list of names you’d like to be called. Here’s mine:


The Stitler


Das Leifster


Nutty Nut



Stinky the Nudge

Partical Man




Nimble Thimble

Of course, some students made a list of a names they don’t want to be called. Always good to break the rules in meaningful ways! Here are a few that made me pause:



If that isn’t a window into where the third graders are right now, I don’t know what is!

After we wiggled our elbows for a good three or so minutes, I asked the students to pick their top three names off the list and to share those names with the person next to them. Laughter ensued along with many students saying how much they liked a name that was offered. We were definitely headed in the right direction. Our minds and hands were warmed up, and we had a good laugh. Once students shared their top three names, I mentioned how writers will often make lists of potential names for characters in their stories. I hinted that they may want to use some of these names in the story that we were going to write.

From there, we moved into exploring fairy tales specifically. I asked them what a fairy tale was, and with very little hesitation, hands raised. Through this conversation, we came up with a pretty sophisticated list of fairy tale characteristics.Characteristics of a Fairy Tale

I then asked them to come on over to the rug so that I could read them a fairy tale. They all scrambled over and we strategized together how to sit so that everyone could see – a classic challenge for young kids. Once folks were settled, I asked them to listen closely to the story to see if our list of characteristics stood up and to see if we needed to add anything to the list. I picked up Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zelinsky, showed the front cover, read the acknowledgement, and began the story. The students loved it. I got the sense that several of them had never heard Rumpelstiltskin before. They pleaded with their classmates to not give up what happened next. They identified the king as a bad man but then wondered if the beautiful daughter would be able to change him over time. The room was mixed in terms of whether the daughter should marry the king. The students thought Rumpelstiltskin was pretty scary.

RumpelstiltskinWith a turn of the final page and a show of the back of the book, I then asked them if there was anything that we wanted to add to our list of fairy tale characteristics. The students identified two: The challenge or problem grows, and there is repetition. One student pointed out, “And the repetition can be things that characters say or do.” Good point. I added those two important qualities to the list.

I could tell that the students were itching to get started. Before we could jump to writing our own fairy tales, though, we needed to spend just a few minutes talking about this great classroom character that they had created. I wanted to make sure that she was in the front of their minds as they took on the challenge of writing their own fairy tale. We put the classroom character up on the smartboard, and I asked them to tell me a bit about Kaitlyn Rose Anderson. The students shared particular character traits that stuck out. They talked a bit about the stories that they had already written. I asked them to tell me the names of some of the other characters in those stories. The students mentioned Kaitlyn’s sister. I suggested that they may want to include these characters in the fairy tale. I also suggested that they may want to take a fairy tale that they know and write Kaitlyn into it. I posed the question: What would happen if Kaitlyn was in Rumpelstiltskin? There was a buzz. One student asked, “Can I write the next chapter of Rumpelstiltskin?” I nodded. Another student clapped her hands together, “Can I mash a bunch of fairy tales together and see what happens?” The class loved that idea. And with that, I sent them back to their writing tables.Kaitlyn Rose Anderson

Just before we got started, the teacher piped up, “What other fairy tales do we know?” The group came up with a long list. Fairy tales were definitely in their minds. They were ready to write.

I posed the challenge to them: write a fairy tale that involves Kaitlyn Rose Anderson as a main character in the story. Before I sent them off to their writing spaces, I mentioned that one of the great things about fairy tales is that they kind of supply the opening line for us, so we don’t need to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to start. I encouraged them to literally take the first line out of Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, or Kate and the Beanstalk, and see where the writing takes them.

Once there was a poor X who had a beautiful X.

Long ago, a girl named X lived with her mother in a X.

In a time not too long ago and in a land much like our own, there lived a X and a X.

Students were already scribbling away, so I stepped aside, got out my own pad of paper, and let them write.

At first there was a bit of chatter. Students were looking at each other’s writing, pointing out how to spell a word, asking a question, flipping through the pages of Rumpelstiltskin for inspiration or just to figure out how to spell the name. After a bit, I coached, “Let’s put all of that talking energy down on the paper. Work to answer your questions through the writing. See if you can fill a page.” The room quieted down, and you could practically feel the focus in the room.

About ten minutes in, I broke the silence, and suggested some ways to keep going: “If you are finding yourself thinking a lot instead of writing, take a look over here at our list of fairy tale characteristics.” I pointed to the list.  “They might give you some ideas on where to go next. For example, is your problem growing? Where is the repetition? Do you have a bad character? Another thing to do is to read what you have written. Just by doing that, you will probably find what needs to be written next.” I looked out over the group, “I also like how some of you are going back to your first story and reminding yourself of what you wrote. I can see how that might trigger an idea or two as well.” I clapped my hands, “Alright, back to it. Let’s see if we can write for another five minutes or so.” The students put their heads back down and went back to writing.

Writing Fairy TalesBefore we knew it, the time was up. I needed to leave, and the kids needed to go to lunch. On the way out, I touched base with the teacher, and the plan is to give them a chance to read what they had written so that they can immediately hear the possibility in the writing. Looking beyond that, the students will get a chance to choose one of three drafts of different stories involving Kaitlyn Rose Anderson that they will get the chance to revise, edit, and publish. Not a bad use of an hour of class time if you ask me!

Twenty Signs of a Real World Classroom or How to Avoid Schoolification

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One thing I love about teaching – good teaching – is that it is inherently subversive. Good teaching challenges the status quo because deep learning is subversive as well. Developing enduring understandings never happens by the book. It happens in times of real world engagement, when what we think we know is challenged, and we need to adapt and modify in order to make something significant happen in that real world. Too often we lose sight of this in schools. Instead, we spend all of our mental and physical energy designing teaching and learning to be the exact opposite of subversive. We work, against our better judgement, to sanitize the learning, to make it predictable and safe. And we have many forces at work encouraging us, even supporting us, to do this: scripted curricula, overuse of standardized tests to measure learning, large class sizes, etc. In this kind of environment, it is easy to schoolify learning. Schoolification is when we take a real-world practice (e.g. writing, geometry, physics), and we remove any of the real-worldness out of it to manage it as a subject instead of treating it as a way of being in the world. Ironically, what we need to be doing in schools is designing learning to not look, sound, or feel anything like what students and teachers commonly define school as and instead create learning opportunities that more closely reflect how we develop understandings and make things happen in the world. We need to do this not only because it is the way we truly learn but also because schoolification has a tendency to encourage several nasty habits: a fixed-mindset and co-dependent behavior when it comes to learning, and lack of resiliency when it comes to challenges. So, in an effort to support learning environments that foster creative, risk-taking, and persistent teachers and students, here is a list of  20 signs that you are designing a real world classroom.

  1. The culmination of schoolwork is designed to be put back out in the world in a meaningful way through performance, publication, community engagement, etc.

  2. Textbooks are viewed as one of many resources students can use to develop purposeful understandings

  3. Teachers use the word “uncover” when talking about teaching and learning

  4. The majority of the work is appropriative, meaning students are being “specialists” in the field – scientists, mathematicians, writers, historians, artists, linguists – rather than students of subjects

  5. Teachers are positioned as these specialists too, living the life of a scientist, for example

  6. Lessons and/or units are contiguous. They are connected and build on one another. Students are expected to be able to bridge skills and concepts from one unit to another

  7. Students want to keep their work from past units because it is useful in the present

  8. Teachers and students find multiple uses for work

  9. The teacher finds him or herself grading different pieces of work from all of his or her students in a given unit, making it a learning opportunity for the teacher

  10. Difficulty, challenge, and obstacles are purposefully constructed and celebrated because teachers and students know that life is a series of difficulties, challenges, and obstacles

  11. These difficulties, challenges, and obstacles are solved collaboratively

  12. Teachers and students work together. The teacher is doing the same work as the students because the project is genuinely interesting to him/her as well

  13. The teacher is a learner and the students are teachers

  14. The teacher is often heard saying things like “I’m not sure. What do you think?” or “How could we figure that out?” or “What kind of work could you do that would help you figure out how to answer that?”

  15. Questions are celebrated and answered by the group

  16. Teacher provides scaffolding for projects, coaching students along the way, creating avenues for students to share progress, ask questions, discuss models, and collaboratively solve problems

  17. Evaluation is constructive and focuses on quality criteria – what does strong work look like in this vein?

  18. Teachers and students see real world performances as a source for evaluative feedback and create opportunities for purposeful reflection on these events

  19. Teachers and students are constantly looking at models of the kind of work that they want to do

  20. The germ for the idea for a unit comes from a challenge or a project that the class wants to take on. It is borne out of the heads of the teacher and/or students

HigherEdCamp Philly at Arcadia University on November 2 – What could be better?

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HigherEdCamp Philly couldn’t happen at a better time this year. Just as the sun dims at about 4:30. Just as the semester rolls into its 10th week. Just as that seductive urge for complacency hits, we get to spend a day digging into how to design meaningful learning and come out the other side of it charged up for what we can do in our classes the next day, next week, next semester, fueled by bagels, coffee, pizza, and soda.

This HigherEdCamp is going to be slightly different from others since it will focus more broadly on designing meaningful learning, meaning that while there will certainly be technological undertones and overtones to the day, the work that we do won’t be limited to how technology can influence our pedagogy. Instead, we’ll be exploring together all of the myriad ways that we already are and can design learning that is rigorous, meaningful, “real world,” interesting, and fun. That’s right. I said it. Fun!

How exactly are we going to do that? This video from an edcamp in Toronto is a nice intro to what the day can look, sound, and feel like.

HigherEdCamp is dedicated to addressing those thorny and challenging issues that may be holding us back from doing what we really want to be doing in our classes, in our programs, in our units, and in our colleges. But we aren’t going to just address them, we are going to design ways to overcome them and enable each other to implement ideas that we have always had but have had difficulty moving from the idea stage to implementation. Here are some examples:

  • How can I flip my comp/chem/anthro/ed class, to name just a few?
  • How can brain-based learning influence the way my class looks, sounds, and feels?
  • How can I make my class project-based?
  • How can we take better advantage of summer at my college?
  • How can I move away from quizzes and tests as the primary mode of students showing what they know?
  • Come to think of it, how can students show what they know in my class?
  • Philly is so close by. How can I take better advantage of this big city?
  • There’s no shared planning time with my colleagues. I want to figure out how to change that.
  • Ipads sound great, but I can’t figure out how to implement them in my classroom. Help!
  • It feels like I am grading all of the time. How can I reduce the amount of grading I do?
  • The technology at my college is lacking, how can I overcome that in my class?
  • I’ve always wanted to collaborate with other professors in other colleges. How can I make that happen?
  • The graduate application process is cumbersome at my college. How can I help make it more efficient and meaningful?

Imagine these 13 questions up on a big white board. Which one would you want to attend? Chances are there are ten or so other folks who are ignited by the same question you are. The next thing you know, you are circled up in a room, Ipads, laptops, and smart phones out and open, working together to pursue that question and to leave that session with a plan in mind and on paper. Your device is chock full of resources to help you put that plan into action, and your Professional Learning Network has grown exponentially.

In order for this to be able to happen, we need representation! The goal is to get 200 folks from all the Greater Philadelphia area colleges and universities to attend. A tall order to be sure, but doable! Here’s how we can meet this goal:

  1. Register yourself for a FREE ticket here: https://higheredphilly2013.eventbrite.com
  2. Send that link to any and all of your colleagues
  3. Check out our website: http://www.higheredphilly.com/ for more information
  4. Send the website to your friends and colleagues too!
  5. Respond to our poll!  http://www.polleverywhere.com/free_text_polls/L3E67GoxjZrYq4I We want to get a sense of the ideas/challenges/projects that you want to explore on the day
  6. Show up! We are at Arcadia University – Brubaker Hall – breakfast starts at 8





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The Tenets of a Writing-Based Curriculum

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Alright, so we’ve got the new school year off to a good start. We’re setting the tone, getting to know our students, establishing rituals and routines for meaningful learning. It’s a perfect time to spend a few minutes and remind ourselves of what is at the heart of a meaningful ELA learning environment. Here is a quick guide to what makes a writing-based curriculum tick.

Artifact studyWhat fuels a Writing-Based Curriculum?

  • Identifying a goal/product/performance/culmination that you want to achieve with your students that is connected to the world outside the classroom
  • Figuring out all of the ways that you and your students can be writers to accomplish that end (writing reflectively, analytically, and creatively)
  • Modeling the writing life through the design of the unit and the way you think, talk, and act with your students.

What does the writing life look like in the classroom?

  • Catching thoughts, ideas, questions, solutions, passing fancies down on paper/screen to create a reservoir of potential writing material
  • Reading models to help you think and do your own writing
  • Discussing models to figure out the moves that make the writing work
  • Engaging in idea generating conversations to figure out what you might want to write
  • Writing….a lot!
  • Returning to a piece of writing to elaborate and craft it based on the understanding you’re developing around the moves that make writing strong
  • Sharing works in progress for feedback
  • Putting the writing out into the world for impact
  • Keeping all writing work to be able to access and use at a later date because the writing that happens in class should have multiple lives and serve multiple purposes

What are the kinds of writing that should be happening in a unit?Tzaras Hat

  • Reflective writing: thinking in writing about life and work; post product analysis; question posing; answer seeking
  • Analytic writing: writing about reading; reports; essays; criticism; speeches; technical; informational
  • Creative writing: stories, poems, plays, memoir, blogs, hybrid-texts

What are potential culminations?

  • Performances: plays, public readings, debates, websites, shows, live museums, installations, works of art
  • Publications: books, anthologies, individual pieces, newspaper editorials, letters to officials, websites, blogs
  • Actions: meetings with significant people (physically/virtually), rallies, service

The goal is to design writing environments that don’t look, sound, or feel like school in school. That is the irony. Any way that the writing environment can be connected to the lived practice of writing out in the world beyond the classroom means that there is a greater chance that enduring understandings will be developed and life-long reading, writing, and thinking skills will be enhanced.

The Role of Grading and Feedback in a Writing-Based Classroom

Canon EOS Digital CameraWhen we tune our classrooms to the habits of mind and body of writers, we need to interrogate traditional notions of grading. It quickly becomes obvious that we need to  increase the ways in which students get meaningful feedback on their work. Put simply, our job as teachers is not to use our mental and creative energy grading papers. Our job is to create ways for students to see the impact of their work at multiple stages in its development and to design ways to articulate to students the kind of quality work that is expected. This means being a sleuth of sorts, constantly looking at our students’ writing and finding examples of quality that we can show back to the class. These models of quality work provide a platform for developing a shared sense of what quality writing looks and sounds like. And, of course, this modeling of quality goes beyond writing. Students should understand what a quality discussion sounds like. We need to provide models of what a quality reflection looks like, for example. Basically, any form of work that is going to be expected needs to have models of quality so that students have a sense of the moves they need to make to produce something good. This doesn’t mean that the teacher needs to have these models ahead of time. Sometimes that is a good thing, but it can be just as powerful to pose the challenge of a particular kind of writing, let students take on the challenge, and then look for models of quality writing in the way they approached the challenge. A sense of quality writing is developed over time. It evolves as students practice. The notion that showing students “perfect” writing or other forms of work in the beginning of the process of learning something and expecting students’ understanding of what quality is to come from that initial example is a fallacy. An enduring sense of quality develops by continually looking at models of quality, developing a quality language around them, experimenting in the form of work, and comparing one’s own work to the model of quality. The process is cyclical, mindful, intentional, and ongoing. Focusing on the grading of work takes away from the time to explore what great work looks, sounds, and feels like with our students.

In a writing-based classroom, there are a few carefully chosen times when work is graded in the form of a summative assessment. Limiting grading to a few select products is important because it not only more closely mirrors the way we are evaluated in the “real” world, it is also a proactive way of addressing the ridiculous student loads that teachers have, particularly in middle and high school. In my work, I see a correlation between student load and a teacher resorting to pedagogical choices that are not in the best interest of the students or the teacher, not surprising since it feels easier to do what has been done before. But these uni-directional, static forms of evaluation are not faster or easier, really. And they define a teacher’s work in a narrow and limited way. The narrowness can be stultifying and ultimately contribute to burnout. Instead, a feedback stance, with intentional moments of grading that are both process and product oriented, expands a teacher’s role and perhaps more importantly expands who should be providing feedback on the work (teacher, students, self). This means that the burden of providing the feedback, and maybe even the grading, does not only rest on the shoulders of the teacher. It rests on the class as a whole. This orientation better prepares students for being able to interpret and apply feedback and more honestly assess their own work. It helps to avoid a fixed mindset and learned helplessness which are often the partner of excessive grading environments. In terms of the teacher, a feedback approach, opens up time to live the work alongside the students, making for a more collaborative, responsive, and spontaneous work relationship.

Education is very good at making things unnecessarily complicated. When it comes to designing writing environments with our students, we can keep it really simple. Answer this question: what does it look, sound, and feel like to be a writer out in the world? The answer to that question should guide everything that we do.

Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning, Part 4 – Trust Your Impulse

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LeapIn the mainstream teaching world, even in this moment of seismic change and technological advancement, there is a fairly narrow conception of what a teacher is and what a teacher can be. To step out of these limiting parameters takes courage and support. We know that students develop enduring understandings in learning environments where teachers subvert institutional norms. This is perhaps the paradox of schooling. No one ever learns when we do it by the book.

Unfortunately we are conditionalizing teachers (and students) to do it exactly by the book. And we are at a point in schooling where teachers (and students) are afraid to do anything but the book. I was just with a high school teacher the other day who explained to me how her curriculum was “pretty lock step” which left her little room to innovate or “be creative.” A vice principal told me a story of a student teacher with whom she was working recently. Something had happened in the classroom, and the vice principal wanted the student teacher to reflect on that event. The vice principal asked, “How did that make you feel?” To which, the student teacher responded in the form of a stale, saccharine, five paragraph essay thesis statement. The influences of NCLB are deep and crippling.

Approaching teaching from the stance of an improviser provides tools for us to combat the numbing effects of scripted curriculum, market-based assessments, resource impoverishment, and burn-out. I spent the last three posts in my series Improvisation, Teaching, and Learning exploring the ins and outs of the first rule: Say “Yes…and.” We looked at what it means to accept an offer from someone else and how to build on that offer to deepen relationships, solve problems, and improve outcomes. For this post, we’ll unpack Rule #2: Trust your impulse. How do we push aside the inner critic, the self-consciousness, the anxiety and tap into the core of who we are to be the teachers we need and want to be? Read on to learn a warm-up game that helps to develop this skill; to explore why this rule can be difficult to adopt, and to learn the benefits of putting this rule into action as a student and a teacher.

I am; I Feel

It’s Monday. First period. Eighth grade. The students are filing into class. Since it’s February, they know just what to do. They circle up in the middle of the room. It’s tight. There are 26 of them, but there is enough room to form a circle without touching shoulders. To make this space, the molded metal desks are pushed to the periphery. Mr. Laswell, the students’ History teacher meets them in the circle. There’s banter. Students are laughing, finishing up conversations started at the lockers, poking fun. Mr. Laswell looks out at the group and welcomes everyone back. “How was the weekend?” Some students shrug. Others say “Good.” He continues, “Any good stories?” One student tells a quick story of losing her Iphone and then finding it in the washing machine just before her father hit the start button. There are audible sighs of relief. Mr. Laswell runs the back of his hand across his forehead and lets out a dramatic “Phew!” which elicits laughs from a few. He then claps his hands and says, “Alright. Let’s get started with I am; I feel. Sophia, start us off.”

There is a slight pause, eyes turn to Sophia, and then she steps into the center of the circle, making eye contact with other students. She says, “I am Sophia, and I feel…” and with that, she kind of leans in a bit, wriggles her body, shoots her hands straight up in the air and lets out a full-voiced “Whoooopalala!” Sophia then steps back into the circle. Without missing a beat, the rest of the group takes a step in and imitates exactly what Sophia just did, minus the “I am Sophia, and I feel.” The group takes a step back and the person to Sophia’s right steps in, and the game continues. “I am Levi, and I feel” and then a sound and action until everyone around the circle has a chance to announce themselves to the class and share how they feel at that particular moment in time. The game takes less than 5 minutes. By the time it ends, the class is warmed up, loose, and ready to focus on the challenge ahead.

Several years ago, I initiated this ritual  at the start of  every class. I found that it pushed my students to listen to themselves and others, trust their impulses, and empathize with their fellow classmates. I knew it was working in part because if there was a rare day when we did not start class with I am; I feel, the students would be upset, some even angry, and the class would be just a bit off, a bit on edge. I wanted to share this game for this particular post because I do think it illustrates nicely what it looks, sounds, and feels like to trust an impulse as well as being a fantastic warm-up for any class.

One of the goals of the game is to be true to the way you feel the moment after you announce yourself to the group. The students and I work hard over many weeks to coach ourselves out of preplanning the sound and action we are going to make when it is our turn. Predetermining isn’t trusting your impulse. Instead, I tell them to lean into that moment and allow to come out whatever needs to. This is harder for some students than others, but over time, they all are able to tune into that particular moment and trust the way they feel. Another particularly powerful aspect of the game is that the rest of the group imitates the sound and action of the person. The group as a whole takes in that sound and action and gives it back to the person – a wonderful act of empathy and acceptance. This important part of the game provides further support to trust an impulse because the person witnesses the group as a whole accepting and honoring it through embodying the sound and action.

Impulse Trumps Instinct

I have to admit that this rule of improvisation has always been a tough one for me. I worry that the impulse I have is not necessarily the best move to make in a given situation. I also don’t necessarily trust the impulses of my students. Quite a damning statement, to say the least! Why don’t I trust my students’ impulses? Because I equate my students’ impulses with all of the baggage that they bring with them into class, all of the assumptions and biases that supposedly cloud their perceptions of what school is and could be. My assumption here is not fair, probably an obvious statement to any caring person. First of all, impulses exist under the layers of assumption and bias. In fact, trusting one’s impulse is a way of moving out of assumptions and biases. Who am I to decide whether a person’s impulse is good or bad, right or wrong? It’s an impulse, supposedly coming from someone’s core or from someone’s true self. If that is indeed the case, then that is where we need to start from when it comes to learning, right?

One of the obstacles that has kept me from embracing the idea of trusting an impulse is that I equate impulse with instinct when in fact there is an important difference between the two. Instinct is a hard-wired reaction to something. We can’t get out of it. It is in our genetic make-up. An impulse can be a renegade reaction, something outside of habit. It should surprise us. An impulse gives us permission to do something out of the ordinary. The dictionary definition of impulse is the “sudden strong urge or desire to act.” On the other hand, instinct is “An innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior.” Impulse is based on guts and spontaneity. Instincts are predetermined responses to stimuli.  Instincts can get in the way of meaningful teaching and learning. Take the flight or fight instinct, for example. I have a hard time counting the number of times my amygdala has kicked in, telling me to run away from a particularly challenging moment in school (confrontational parent, frustrated student, ornery colleague) when what I really needed to do is trust my impulse and work through the moment rather than run away from it.

The Connection Between  “Yes..and” And Trusting An Impulse

When doing improv as well as when being a teacher who is informed by improv,  you are not flinging an impulse out into the ether, hoping that someone will grab on to it or recognize it. In improv, someone must accept that impulse and build on it in order for the scene, relationship, or learning to grow. It means that the responsibility of supporting an impulse is shared. It mingles with other impulses and becomes something new. Maybe even something better. Impulses are inherently unstable, risky, and potentially dangerous. Impulses aren’t supposed to be unchaperoned as it were. Impulses need other people saying “Yes…and”  to massage them and sculpt them into more lasting ideas (See the “Yes…and” game in part 3 of this series for more information).

Our impulses are often times masked by what we think others think we should be doing in our classrooms. The official line keeps us from doing what we want to do or what we know would be best. We spend valuable mental and physical energy silencing an impulse because of the normative power of the status quo. When you allow your impulse out, it can surprise you and in that surprise, your mind is open to learning from the experience. When we are constantly covering or doing something that we think others are expecting of us, then our mind is occupied by the next cover-up or the next expectation. In other words, we are spending all of our time imagining a future rather than living in the present.

Think about this in relation to students as well. What would happen for them if they trusted their impulses instead of doing what they think is always expected of them? The more a student is able to trust an impulse, the better he/she get at it.  What comes with that trust is an ability to more quickly respond to situations. Instead of thinking them to death, or arguing oneself out of a good idea, the student can respond immediately because she/he is in tune with the inner-self and more comfortable with allowing that inner-self out.

Most importantly for both teachers and students, trusting your impulse has a lot to do with doing what you really want to do with your students. In other words, if we trust our impulses, we are more likely to design curriculum that we want to participate in rather than do curriculum that is handed to us. Impulses live in the world of possibilities not in the given circumstances. So you are given 10th grade World Literature for the first time. You have never taught it before. Your instincts tell you to say no or to protect yourself by doing whatever was done before. That’s your amygdala talking, the deepest, most primitive part of your brain. The fear center. Your impulse is something different entirely. Your impulse is that tiny voice inside of you that says, “Go for it!” The center for possibility.

Unlike instinct, impulses can be trained or coached. See what happens if you implement I am; I feel in your classroom. Instincts on the other hand come from millenia of genetic layering. Instincts are biological, and impulses are sociological. An impulse can overcome an instinct and that can be very good news for a teacher, a student, a classroom, and a school.

What does it mean to be a writer? Ask a fourth grader

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What does it look like, sound like, and feel like to be a writer, reader, and thinker in the world? This is the overarching question that fuels teachers who design writing-based curriculum. They are constantly scheming and planning how they can design learning environments where students and teachers become many different kinds of writers over the course of the year. One of the rituals of the writing-based classroom is  to think critically about the writing work that has been done over the year as a way to process the work, deepen the learning, and set future writing goals. The questions that teachers ask their students are pretty simple:

What have you learned about being a writer?

What is your favorite piece and why?

What do you like about writing?

Bonus question: What do you want to get better at as a writer?

The way in which students reflect on these questions depends on their developmental level. Pre-K students talk about the questions as a group with the teacher writing down what she hears. 4th graders write down their own answers to the questions. Teachers collect the responses and use them to reflect themselves on the year and to plan for next.

As this school year quickly comes to a close, teachers and students are in the throes of this ritual, and I wanted to share a particular class of fourth grader’s responses to the questions. For me it shows what can happen when we design learning environments where students and teachers are living a writing life together, where they are writing reflectively, creatively, and analytically out in the real world. Specifically, what I love about these responses is both the sophisticated writerly-sense that the 4th graders have developed over the year and the sense of play that they connect to the act of writing. The responses are also a guide for how we should be designing writing environments if we want students to truly be engaged and to feel that writing is a part of who they are.

1. What do you like about writing?

  • exciting stories from my imagination
  • making up fun awesome stories and characters
  • I like the part where you are kind of just thinking what you’re going to do.
  • I like when I try to put my own self in the story
  • I like when I’m about ready to go to the next chapter but before that I may leave a little “Cliffhanger!”
  • I like to have a sharp pencil.
  • I like when the teacher gives us topics.
  • I like to write stories about fairies.
  • My favorite part of writing is the editing because I get to go back and reread my stories and make sure everything is the way I want it.
  • A fun activity you can do pretty much everywhere.
  • Writing gives you the chance to write down what you’re thinking or about what happened today.
  • Sometimes I like to think about a book that I want to read but hasn’t been written yet, and then write it myself.
  • I love writing fiction stories.
  • What I like about writing is that I can just be free. I can just express how I feel while I am writing.
  • I love that you can pick your characters and their personalities.
  • You can use your imagination to create someone else’s reality.
  • Writing is a new way to let out your emotions on paper

2. What have you learned about being a writer?

  • have fun
  • use your imagination
  • get creative and write about  what YOU want to write about
  • you need correct punctuation and uppercase letter
  • write about what you think you will like
  • all stories don’t have to be true – it can have talking bugs or whatever
  • you can always add people in it if you don’t have the people you want
  • Plan your story before you start writing
  • Don’t ever pick something you don’t like.  Don’t pick it just because your friend is doing it.
  • Write a story that fits your personality.
  • An author should remember the Steps of Writing: Peer conferencing, editing, revision
  • Don’t get frustrated if writing a story takes a long time.  Writing takes a long time.
  • Start with a good beginning.
  • Your book has to make at least a little sense.
  • Choose to write about something that you know a good amount about.
  • Be proud of what your wrote even if someone else does not like it.

3. What is your favorite piece and why?

  • Persuasive letter to Channel 10 – I had fun writing about it and used my imagination from my Robotics team
  • Friendship story – I worked hard on it and at the end it has this thing where it’s like a fable.  Some parts were funny and some were sad.
  • My Dress story because this is the first time I actually wanted to keep writing all day long.
  • I liked my Time Travel and Special Place stories. I like them because they are very different than any other story I wrote.
  • I like my story about my dad because I feel like I got all the details from when he was 10 to when he is 50.
  • My favorite was my time travel story because I put a lot of detail in it and big adventures. I felt that I had a really good connection with the story and the characters.
  • My animal story because it’s different than anything else I’ve written. This story did not have a happy ending which is different for me.
  • I am proud of Chloe’s Dress Visit because when I wrote this I felt like I was a professional author.