I kind of can’t believe we’re finally here, but today the students have officially launched their first installments of #TheStoryProject! YAY!

I know, I know – I’ve been MIA for awhile. (Mental note: add “update blog more regularly” to my “What I need to work on” list.) We had Spring Break, and then when we returned there was PARCC testing, and we’ve been reading Wicked, and talking about Serial, and then, all of a sudden, it was LAUNCH DAY! This time of year goes so fast.

Next week I turn the blog over to our storytellers, and they’re more than ready to take on the challenge; I truly cannot wait for you to meet these wonderful young people.

So let’s build a little suspense, shall we? Here’s a preview of who you’ll be hearing from next Wednesday and Friday:

Susie & HyeYoon – on Instagram as @a_sunz_story:

sunzThis is the most lovable pair of best friends ever. Susie & HyeYoon will be telling the story of their friendship and how they found one another, while at the same time challenging stereotypes about Koreans, Korean-Americans, and Asians more broadly.Friendship AND advocacy? It’s a beautiful thing!

Their 4-part series has a really lovely visual theme to it, too – see if you can guess at what it is, starting with this photo!


Mike, Evan & Phillip – on YouTube @ Lizard Wizard Racing Championship

I’m going to be completely forthcoming about this one and say this: I’m not entirely sure what these guys are planning. Here’s what I know: there are lizards (one named Cricket), they will be racing, and their tails may or may not fall off. Another thing I know is that Mike, Evan & Phillip are going to have a fascinating story because they’re fascinating guys. (Note: no lizards were harmed in the making of these videos. Also, they’re being loved and cared for.)

Lauren, Dania & Hayden – on Twitter AND Instagram @PShelterStories

shelter storiesHere’s another one that’s really close to my heart – Lauren, Dania & Hayden are working to bring attention to animals in local shelters in the hopes of increasing pet adoptions. No group so far has worked harder at making contacts for their story. Surprisingly, it’s been pretty tough for them to get access to shelters and rescues to photograph animals to feature – perhaps it’s because they’re kids and no one is taking them seriously enough, or maybe it’s just indicative of the larger animal homeless problem that we have (my bleeding heart is showing through, I think). In either case, I so admire their tenacity; they’ve been on the phone, scouring the Internet, and I think they’re poised for a breakthrough. Maybe by sharing their work here, we’ll find some people willing to help them, and the animals, out.

Well, there they are! They’ve been doing their part to get the ball rolling, and in writing this I’m hoping to do my part in building their online profiles, so please, PLEASE check them out. They’ve impressed me tremendously, and I know they’re going to impress you as well.

Until next time,

Mrs. K



#StudentSpotlight – Round 1

Now that we’re well on our way and the countdown has begun for the student takeover (April 29th – put it in your calendars!), I wanted to start teasing some of the material these amazing students of mine are working on. I figured I’d do that through a series of student spotlights, so that you can be introduced to who they are and what they’re up to. Each spotlight will feature two groups, and I’ve chosen two really spectacular groups to share with you today.

Students of Cresskill – Jason, Jeremy, Sarah & Shakira

blog screencapWhat are they up to? You know what really sold me on this group? When we were tossing ideas around, Shakira said to me, “People always think that high school kids’ problems are small, and they aren’t.” And it occurred to me: she’s right. We can’t tell kids their problems are small without telling them that they’re small. The whole idea of this project was to let them know just how not small they are, and this just seems like a great way of doing it. So the Students of Cresskill team has a simple goal: interview their peers to get candid thoughts and reflections as to what it’s like to be a high school student in 2016.

How are they going to do it? They’ve decided that images are important to the story they’re trying to tell – to put real faces to real problems. So they’ll be using Instagram to publish and publicize their ideas. Follow them on Instagram at @StudentsofCresskill – they’ll be introducing themselves in the coming days, and I know you’re going to love them the way I do.

Perceptions of Beauty – Alvin, Jared, Kristen, Minji

perception blog screencapWhat are they up to? These guys are my social crusaders – out to challenge cultural beliefs and change lives. These four are planning to explore beauty standards, and how they’re defined, and by whom. I was won over by the idea immediately (there are few things I find more endearing than young activists), but it’s their fearlessness that really drew me in. When I asked them how they were going to explore this idea, they pitched a plan for “man on the street” interviews. I wanted to know what kinds of questions they’d ask, and Kristen told me she planned on asking total strangers, “Do you think I’m pretty?” WOAH. Bold. We discussed the possibility of the Internet not always being a nice place, but Kristen is unflappable – she’s in because she thinks it’s an important conversation. She, like the others, is a ridiculously cool kid.

How are they going to do it? This team will be using video as their main platform. Jared is a truly talented video editor, and so his YouTube channel will host their videos. They’re also using Twitter to promote, so please follow them at @StandardsofB so that you’re kept in the loop about all the cool stuff they’re up to. Keep an eye on their hashtag, #PerceptionofBeauty, so that you can be involved in the conversation!

So…What do you think?

I mean, are you as excited as I am?  And this is just the beginning, ladies & gentlemen, because we have a whole bunch of additional teams to meet! Check these guys out on social media – they’ve got amazing stories to tell.

Until next time,

Mrs. K

One Week In

I am very happy to report that our pitch meeting was an unmitigated success! WOO! (Literally, I was so excited about how well they were doing that I did, in fact, shout “WOO” more than once in 90 minutes.)

Not only were students prepared for their pitches, but their classmates gave them meaningful evaluations and honest feedback. They asked compelling questions, ones that I never would have thought to ask (“How will you differentiate your stuff from other content on Buzzfeed?”, “There are thousands of posts a minute about this topic – why would anyone listen to you?”), proving my theory that the digital world belongs to these students.

Even more than that, their self-promotion abilities are EXPLOSIVE – one group created an Instagram account that had over 150 followers by the end of the day. Other groups are following suit. They’re cross-promoting each other’s work. It’s ALL HAPPENING!

What’s even more exciting for me is the fact that no two groups pitched the same idea – each group has something completely different to say, different ways of wanting to say it, and different ways of promoting their ideas. They were professional, and prepared, and I am so excited for what’s going to happen next.

Each class had two pitch meeting “winners” – one group with the highest overall score (next year I am definitely doing this in Google Forms so that Sheets can analyze the data for me – this English teacher spent a LOT of time checking and re-checking her math on Friday), and another group with the highest Idea score. Each group will get to choose a project privilege; I’ve floated some ideas (veto power for the rubric, getting to choose their dates for taking over this blog), but I’m also leaving it to them. By Friday they’ll have decided, and I’ll share with you! This element of student voice and choice definitely comes from my reflections on my last PBL – I’ve found that loosening the reins is less exhausting for me, and also more empowering for them.

I’m so glad that you’ve all tuned in so far, and I’m so excited for you to see what’s coming. As the students build their online identities, I’ll keep sharing them with you. Follow us on Instagram (link on the right!) to be connected with their accounts so you can see what they’re up to. Starting next week I’ll be highlighting different groups so you can get a look at them before they really take the stage.

Keep an eye out – they’re savvy, and they’re coming for all of you!

Until Next Time,

Mrs. K

Pitch Meeting Prep

We are officially on our way! This coming Friday, we’re hosting a “pitch meeting” where all the groups will come together and pitch their ideas to one another, and today was our day for brainstorming.

We’ve decided to treat our groups like little start-up companies – teams are pitching ideas to each other, but they’re also looking to recruit other team members by selling themselves as a package. For the  meeting, the students have three options for how to enter:

pitch groups

Most groups have entered themselves in the “complete” category, but I do have a couple of “incompletes” floating around out there – they’re planning to steal team members away by offering a more exciting idea or medium.

In addition to the 30-second pitch, they’ll also be evaluating each other. Each type of group has its own questions to answer, but there’s also a presentation element:

eval sheet

Each category is worth 10 points, and the highest overall score will earn a project privilege for that group (an idea I’m borrowing from gamification). We’ve floated some ideas, like deciding on the date of their blog takeover, or a veto power in rubric development. We are, as yet, undecided.

What I’m most excited about is the conversations I heard students having today – I eavesdropped before conferencing, and their ideas are really exciting ones. They run the gamut from advocacy issues (one pair of girls is interested in telling a story about the life of a shelter dog), societal issues (the trouble with beauty standards, and a very interesting angle on an environmental story – I don’t want to spoil anything, but guys – this is going to be a GOOD one!), and some really fun stuff (get ready for prom-posals and memes!). You can check out the pitch meeting sheet and a sample evaluation sheet as well – I’d love some feedback! 

They’re finding their voices! They’re finding their stories! They’re finding their mediums!

Internet, I hope you’re ready!

Until next time,

Mrs. K

They’re here!

Well, it’s official – the launch is complete! On Friday, students were introduced to The Story Project and now they’re just as in the know as you are.

We had a bit of an inauspicious start. Friday morning was snowy, and when my first period seniors strolled in the door, my excitement was hampered a little by the question, “So, if people don’t come to class, can we just do nothing?”

Oof. That’ll take the wind right out of your sails.

No need to worry, though – the children did, in fact, show up, and we didn’t “do nothing.”

I wanted to make sure that when I introduced The Story Project that the kids would have the same context for the project that I did – I saw a problem with voice, and I wanted to correct it. So, to get them to that place, I asked them to write down the title of every novel that they read as an assigned text in high school. After a couple of minutes of struggling and questions like, “Wait, what was that one with the mouse?” (Flowers for Algernon; the one with the mouse is Flowers for Algernon), students had fairly comprehensive lists. Then, we went through that list and put down the authors of each of those texts. Shakespeare made things easy for them by showing up so many times, and they remembered some other big names (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, and even Homer!) on their own. Finally, we tried to remember who the main characters of all of those texts were. Again, they swept the Shakespeare categories, and characters like Scout and Jem Finch came right back to them.

That’s when we started to recognize the problem – the authors on our lists were overwhelmingly white (with the exception of Jean Rhys, who they read this year) and male. Also, almost every single person on the list was dead. The same was true for the characters – it was the students, even before myself, who recognized that any character of color was used in his/her text as a tool for discussing racism.

So I asked them another question – tell me three things you’re passionate about. I asked them what excites them, what keeps them up at night, what worries them. This list was actually the most difficult for them to create (undoubtedly that was the most distressing part of this experience), and many of them came up with things like “friends” or “family” – fair things for them to spend their time thinking about, but not necessarily what I was looking for.

So I took a different angle – if white men have the market cornered on print media, what can they do about it? We talked about viral videos, and Instagram posts, and Facebook pages. They realized, pretty quickly, that digital media belongs to them. They realized, too, that not only do they have things they wan tot say, but that they also have ways of saying them.

That’s when I handed out the assignment, and that’s when I showed them this blog (hey guys!) and my Twitter page. In my second class of seniors, I actually got a spontaneous round of applause to honor my achievement of having 128 (!!) followers. While the applause was thrilling, the best part of the day was three hours later, when one of my students tracked me down in the hallway to tell me how excited she was, and how she planned to do her project about…well, I’ll let her tell you. Because they’re here now, and the countdown is on for the student takeover of this blog!

I, for one, can’t wait!

Until next time,

Mrs. K

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