Our Little Secret

Last week my supervisor asked me whether or not my students know about The Story Project, or even about this blog yet. The answer continues to be, no, they do not know. It’s all still just a secret between me, and all of you.

I’m a planner. My calendar for my seniors is filled out, to the day, all the way up to June 2nd, the day of their prom. In thinking about why I haven’t told them yet, part of it is related to that calendar. When I conceived of this idea, the “big announcement” was slated for week 4. It feels like a turning point – they’ll be finishing up Wide Sargasso Sea, they’ll have listened to a couple of episodes of Serial, and they’ll be pretty well versed in the relationship between form and function in storytelling. So although I am pretty committed to my calendar, the calendar didn’t arise from nothing. It’s at that point that I feel like they’ll be ready to tackle the big questions that The Story Project asks them to grapple with.

Another thing that I’m thinking about a lot lately, particularly because of Harper Lee’s death and the subsequent discussions of her books, is that I want them to fully understand the power of narrative. The Harper Lee conversation has been rankling me since July when Watchman came out, and now that I have a platform, I can finally tell people about it! So here it is: to suggest that Atticus of Watchman is the same man as the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird is foolish. Watchman‘s Atticus is an early draft of a man who has different life experiences from Atticus in Mockingbird. So, while I vehemently disagree with the alarmists who are concerned about having named their children Atticus, I think it raises an important point: Watchman established a new narrative, and it may not have even been Harper Lee’s choice. The fact that a beloved American character, Atticus Finch, has been called into question in such a large, public way, only speaks more directly to the idea that stories are terribly powerful things.

Of course, the way things are going in class is a mixed bag. There’s a ton of enthusiasm for Serial – a student emailed me saying that the podcast and discussion boards are the most interesting thing he’s doing in school right now – but there’s considerably less enthusiasm surrounding Wide Sargasso Sea. While they’re interested in the issues presented by the text, the heady nature of the book makes it less accessible, and therefore, less exciting. Beyoncé went over great, but making that connection back to the text left them looking a little crestfallen.

My point is this: in constructing my narrative of this experience, I don’t want to pretend that everything is a huge success. Not everything, even the best planned lessons, goes well all the time, and those margins are widened when you’re talking about high school seniors in their second semester. For now, I’m going to relish the good moments – one of my students has stayed after class a couple of times to continue our conversations – she told me that Wide Sargasso Sea and our class discussions have really connected to her personally, and that it’s helped her to better understand her own experiences. Students made connections between the publicity surrounding Serial and the OJ Simpson trial, postulating that public exposure leads to more pressure, which can influence juries and the decisions they make. A couple of students have told me that they’ve binged Serial and are way ahead of the rest of the class – they just couldn’t stop listening. I’ll hold onto those moments, and weave them into the narrative as well.

So, no, the kids don’t know about The Story Project yet – but they are getting ready to find out.

Until next time,

Mrs. K




Inspiration and “Other” Things

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is a lovely book with so many lovely moments in it. The loveliest of all, however, is when Santiago, our hero, tells Fatima, the woman he loves, that he loves her because “the entire universe conspired” to help him find her. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how I sometimes feel about teaching.

AlchemistSometimes I really think that the universe has a hand in pulling things together for me in the classroom. My line of thought is not unprecedented, by the way. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, has spoken at length about the conversations she has with her own creativity. Here, she discusses talking the work of waiting for inspiration. In this TED talk she discusses not only her battles with creativity, but the battle waged by others as well. Where Gilbert really gets it right, I think, is in talking about creativity, or genius, or whatever you want to call it, as something external from the self. Because that’s how I feel this week: like the universe (or the muses, or whatever) has gifted me with some great teaching moments.

Here’s what we’re up to:

  1. The kids still don’t know about the forthcoming project – right now, I’m just setting the stage.
  2. We’re discussing part 1 of Wide Sargasso Sea  – and here’s where things really start to get good. We paired the first 25 pages or so, where we get to meet Antoinette (later, Bertha), with an excerpt from Jane Eyre. They read the part with Jane and Rochester’s first attempt at a wedding, Mr. Mason’s objection, and then the meeting with Bertha, who bites Rochester, and behaves, generally speaking, like an animal. The wonderful thing, the thing I was really hoping for, was that they totally got the racism that is endemic to Jane Eyre‘s description of Bertha; the idea that she is described as an animal simply because she is Creole was not lost on them. They now understand that Wide Sargasso Sea is more than a prequel – it’s part of a conversation with a classic text.
  3. We watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” – and they loved it. They understood, as I dreamed they would, not only the connection between the issues of race and stereotyping that she brings up, but also the issue of power that is associated with having a voice and being able to tell your story. Students made connections on a micro level, talking about how it’s important to always get to mom or dad before a sibling does when something breaks in the house, but also on a macro level, pointing out that the story of a war is always told by the victors. These are the connections that will provide context for the moment when they begin to tell their own stories.
  4. Here’s where the universe really stepped in to help me out – the Adichie talk is designed to set the stage for the introduction of Serial as part of our study. I frame it as the type of reclaiming that she advocates, and as a way of mitigating the danger of hearing only one side. As we speak (well, as I type), Adnan Syed is wrapping up his 5-day post-conviction hearing. The kids are deeply intrigued by Syed’s story – at the time of his arrest, he was their age; that in and of itself is compelling to them. That Serial has, in many ways, proven my point about the value of telling your own story, has only helped to rope them in more. I’m hoping that seeing the power of Koenig’s podcast will give them a sense of agency as we move forward.
  5. Finally, Beyoncé. Last weekend, just before the Superbowl, Beyoncé released her (controversial) video for her (controversial) new song, “Formation.” Dr. Yaba Blay, a scholar who researches color politics, has written a fascinating article addressing Beyoncé’s use of (and identification as) “Creole” within the song. In the context of Wide Sargasso Sea, being Creole is troubling and problematic. In Beyoncé’s song, it is proudly proclaimed. In Dr. Blay’s estimation, to claim herself as Creole, Beyoncé must deny, to some degree, her Blackness. Here’s the incredible thing: in the mid-19th century, Charlotte Brontë describes a Creole woman as an animal, and it’s accepted. By the mid-2oth century, Jean Rhys takes up the reins and deals with that same Creole woman’s internalized self-hate because of her society’s racism. In 2016, Beyoncé claims a Creole heritage, and the power of her voice (both literally and figuratively), changes the course of the conversation completely. In a unit that seeks to study not only race in history and literature, but the power of being the one to tell your own story, Beyoncé and Dr. Blay have handed me a wonderful discussion opportunity.

So I guess this is what Coelho and Gilbert are talking about – when the universe conspires in your favor, or the muses stop by for a visit, wonderful things can happen. I can’t wait to see the kids’ reaction when I start class on Wednesday (after a long Presidents’ weekend) by talking about Beyoncé.

Until next time,

Mrs. K

My First PBL: The Good, The Bad, The Data

I’ve been promising an explanation of my first PBL all over the place – in the About section of this blog, in my first post, and in my second post. More accurately, I have promised an explanation of my first PBL in literally every single entry I’ve posted. It seems like it’s time to end the suspense – and we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

After the PBL workshop I attended in September, I decided that my first PBL would be based on an assignment I’ve used in the past, with a modified assessment that added both authenticity, and audience. (This, by the way, is a strategy I seriously recommend – it’s much easier to modify an existing assignment the first time out than it would be to start from scratch. More on recommendations later!)

In addition to teaching seniors, I also teach honors-level sophomores, who study American literature. In an attempt to add diversity to a very white, male dominated curriculum, I offer an independent reading assignment that allows students to choose one of three texts: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Two years ago I added an additional element to the independent reading experience; because students in my school can take AP Language and Composition in their junior year, I infuse the study of rhetoric into our conversation about their chosen novels. Up until this year, the culminating assignment has asked students to write a letter to me in which they either recommend the novel for next year’s curriculum, or suggest that it not be included, as determined by criteria I provide. Afterwards, they were required to analyze the strength of their own arguments, using their knowledge and understanding of the rhetorical devices we studied.

While the letter worked well enough, I knew that applying the PBL model would make things even better. So, I enlisted help (a definite do when thinking about planning your first PBL!). I got administrators and fellow English teachers on board, and shifted the final assessment from a letter to a panel discussion hosted by students and then we invited all the stakeholders: teachers, administrators – pretty much anyone in the building who was interested in coming was invited.

We worked with three essential questions:

  1. What constitutes appropriateness in curricular choices?
  2. What are the unifying themes of American Literature, and therefore, this class?
  3. How can good rhetoric be used to persuade an audience?

We did loads of interesting stuff – we brought in administrators and teachers and students got to ask them any question they wanted about how curriculum is designed and who designs it. We used the Common Core Standards to create a rubric together. Students met in book groups to have discussions about their texts, as well as to plan their projects. When the day of the panel finally arrived, they were ready and, equally importantly, they were psyched.

Students who read The Bluest Eye advocated on its behalf, claiming it was an essential text in the quest to promote social justice. Another group, who also read The Bluest Eye, suggested that it was overly graphic, and could easily be replaced by The Help. Asian-American students who read The Joy Luck Club talked about how it felt to read an American text featuring people like them, representing a culture with which they were familiar. Young men who read The Bean Trees talked about how important it was to read a female author and female narrator, both of whom opened their eyes to struggles they didn’t previously understand.

Given that it was my first venture into learning that was so student-led, it was important to me to collect data that would help me to understand how well the experience went for them. SurveyMonkey is a great tool for data collection – students can be surveyed anonymously, you can ask all sorts of different questions, and the data will be aggregated and analyzed for you (for free!). Here’s what I learned:

Students actually read!who read

Any English teacher who has assigned independent reading to high school students will tell you that the big fear is that the kids are phoning it in – that they’re reading SparkNotes (or something like it) and skipping the real work of reading. Of 50 students, 47 responded and 36 reported having read the entire text. Only 1 student reported not reading at all, and while I’m not thrilled by that, I can live with it.

enjoymentStudents enjoyed their reading!

This graphic was the one that MOST made me wish I’d been surveying the kids all year long. I can’t say with any degree of certainty that students liked these books more than others, because I don’t have earlier data, but I do think that the opportunity to choose what they were reading (out of three options) at least helped them to go into the experience with an open mind.


Students LEARNED well!

From the second the first response came in, I’ve been kicking myself about the phrasing of their options. I associated “difficulty” with an inability to learn well, and it undoubtedly skewed my results. High school students struggle with having to struggle – it’s uncomfortable, and they don’t like it. That doesn’t mean, however, that meaningful learning isn’t taking place. That said, the vast majority of students reported learning just as well in this model as in a more traditional model, and very few reported learning less.

measure of learning

The takeaway…

Lots of things went well – kids were engaged, they were excited, they read, and they learned. Of course, however, there are always improvements to be made. I’ll frame this for myself the same way that I frame reflection for my students; we break things down into two categories: “what I did well” and “what I need to work on”

What I did well:

  1. Getting the right people involved early – I got support from administrators and colleagues from day one. I built the authentic audience that my students were going to need to really feel that they had agency. At the end of the day, they were able to make real curricular changes because people were listening.
  2. Staying organized – Oh my goodness, there is nothing more important than organization when you’re working with approximately one million moving parts. I had fifty students reading three different texts, in addition to all of our whole-class non fiction readings, plus the study of rhetoric. WOAH! Keeping a journal of the process was immensely helpful. I made calendars, set due dates, reflected daily and next year, it’s going to be a breeze because of it.
  3. Soliciting feedback from everyone all the time – I must have asked the kids every single day how this experience was going for them. I got people in my room all the time to watch what was happening. I took surveys and analyzed data. I now know the exact tweaks I need to make next year to make sure students are learning even better.

What I need to work on:

  1. Rubric building – I struggle with making rubrics on my own because I always feel like I’m leaving something out and then, I grade the first paper, and I realized right away what it was. Making a rubric collaboratively with students is TOUGH. The process is tricky, there’s loads of required background knowledge, and collaborating in large groups (one of my classes has twenty one kids in it) is messy. This is definitely an area where I need to improve.
  2. Being flexibleI got a lot of feedback, but sometimes I just didn’t know what to do with it. I wish now that I had encouraged some of the larger groups of students to break up when I saw that their dynamic wasn’t working. But, because I was a little too married to the product, it just seemed too difficult at the time.
  3. Avoiding burnout – This project was exhausting. The day of our panel discussions, I was in bed by 8 PM. In those final few days, I was so ready to move forward that I just couldn’t enjoy it the way I did at the beginning. I tend to work in fits and starts, but this was a six week marathon that I went into with the energy of a sprinter. If I’m going to shift more of our study in this direction, I’m going to have to build some endurance.

So there it is! The big, long story of my first PBL. This is all of the “stuff” that has informed the formation of The Story Project, and I’m hoping that, in writing it down, I hold myself accountable for truly working on making it an even better experience.

I’d love to get some feedback and advice from those of you out there who are also engaged in this type of teaching. What are YOUR tips and tricks?

Until next time,

Mrs. K

PBL: What and Why?

As a teacher, I’m always trying to connect the “WHAT” of a lesson or unit to the “WHY” – I want those connections to be really explicit for my students, and therefore I have to be sure to make those connections really explicit for myself. I’ve used the principles of backwards design for my whole career (which has only been about 5 years so far, to be fair) not only because it’s what I learned as a graduate student, but because it seems to me to be the most logical way to plan units and lessons.

Backward Design GraphicBecause I’m always designing with an end goal in mind (the WHY), PBL works really well in my classroom (I mean, the one time I tried it went well). In thinking about the result first, I’m able to design projects that meet those needs (the WHAT), while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that teachers naturally dread with big projects.

As a student, I actually hated projects of any kind – I’m not especially artistic (though I draw great stick figures), and I feel like I spent a lot of time making posters for school as a kid. I also didn’t love working in groups because I always felt like I was doing all of the work (I’ve apparently been pretty type-A since elementary school). For those reasons, among others, I was always really hesitant to assign projects to my students. I worried about whether or not they were rigorous enough as assessments, whether group work would stress students out, and whether or not they were truly achieving the educational goals that I set.

My mindset shifted when I attended a PBL workshop this September, because I realized that a good PBL reflects the backward design process perfectly – it forces you to start with the real world questions that your students will be answering, and the real world skills they’ll acquire in the process. The project is no longer the focus, it’s the vehicle. The additional layer that PBLs build in is one of genuine audience and authentic purpose – The Story Project achieves that in having you (tell your friends!) as a reader.

The process of blogging this experience before the kids “get here” (so to speak) is a sort of PBL for myself – I’m looking to build an authentic audience to with whom to discuss education, best practices, and exciting classroom innovations. I’m also looking to give my students a starting point from which to build their own audience – it’s Internet age modeling!

So there’s my WHAT and WHY in a nutshell: I’m using PBL (more on my first attempt next time) because it helps kids develop the real world skills they’ll need when they leave my classroom. And I’m hoping that, in the process, they find something they’re passionate about, and that they find their voices.

Until next time,

Mrs. K

Here we go…

Welcome to The Story Project! Ultimately, this site will be taken over by students who will be telling their own stories, but for now, I’ll be documenting our journey as my students get ready to take the lead.

The project that I’ve developed is detailed over on the About page (please go check it out!) and is deeply embedded in the values of Project Based Learning.

gold standard PBL

The goal is to hit all seven of the qualities of a “Gold Standard PBL” through this project, and in so doing, develop not only knowledge, understanding and success skills, but also engender real engagement, and excitement about learning. As a teacher, I’m pretty new to the world of PBLs – it’s only my second attempt (more on that first attempt later), and so I’m hoping that this blog will serve dual purposes: to showcase student work in an authentic, public way, and also, to serve as a way of encouraging other teachers to try this type of teaching and learning.

I’ll share more resources over the next few weeks, but the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) is a great place to start your research!

The basics of what the students will be doing are this: they’re reading and learning about postmodern and post-colonial literature. In our discussion of “the other” and repressed voices, we’ll be reading Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre, from the vantage point of Bertha, the mad wife in the attic), and Wicked by Gregory Maguire (The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West).  We also incorporate non-fiction into our study with Sarah Koenig’s podcast, Serial. Since our study spans multiple media (novels, podcasts, and eventually blogs and videos as well), we are also going to be assessing the relationship between form and function. Ultimately, students will find their own story to tell – an “other” to which they feel personally attached – and find the best medium through which to tell that story.

Right now, the students know nothing about this – they’ve just begun learning about the necessary background they’ll need to fully contextualize Wide Sargasso Sea. But within two weeks’ time, they’ll become a key part of what I’m doing here, and so will you! My dream is that one of the stories they choose to tell (or maybe even more than one) will “go viral” – until then, I’ll share a preview of what that project looks like: the story project.

Wish us luck!