#StudentSpotlight: Sharing What’s Important

Today I’ve got two great groups of storytellers to share with you, and each group has taken on a topic that’s important to them. I’ll let them do the talking…

HS Promposals – Nina & Andy

Prom night is one of those nights that high schoolers cannot wait for and a night that many people never forget. The new fascination attached to prom is called ”promposals,” which basically is equivalent to a proposal, but using cheesy phrases on posters about going to prom. This is a very big, important thing to the people in our generation. We wanted to show and share these “promposals” because they are sometimes cute, sometimes unbearably cheesy, and sometimes, sadly, end without a “yes.” Since we were a boy and a girl working together, we got the amazing idea of sharing both perspectives of these “promposals.” That is what we have done for the past few weeks. It is so fascinating seeing how much work goes behind the promposals from the boys’ perspectives, but it is also nice to see how surprised and awed the girl is by it.

We chose to form of tumblr because tumblr is a good forum for writing stories and sharing pictures. We could have used another medium, such as Instagram, but we agreed that it would take away from the feeling of the actual story. We also feel that people rarely read the long paragraphs under Instagram photos, therefore, tumblr was the best solution. We knew it would be harder to have people find us since not many people use tumblr, but Twitter was the exact way to spread the word of these stories. It actually worked, too! The other day we got a message from a boy named Ivan who wanted his story written by us. Keep in mind that neither of us knew this kid, but we were ecstatic that we did “the thing” that Ms. Krapels wanted us to achieve.

This project was important to us for many reasons; the main reason was that we both had a promposal in our lives and were happy that we were part of the new fad. It is also nice learning everyone else’s stories and seeing how happy they are too. We made the mistake of not promoting earlier, because we could have gotten a lot more people following us if we promoted it more efficiently prior to our installments. Other than that, it has been a good experience to get to know people and see their stories. At the moment, the stories do not have ends since prom season has just begun. We also think that this fad of “promposals” will just get wilder and more extravagant as the years go on.

Perception of Beauty – Alvin, Kristen, Jared & Minji

Hi everyone, our group members are Jared, Alvin, Kristen and Minji.  We are seniors at Cresskill High School.  

We chose beauty as our story topic because we wanted to explore how gender, age, ethnicity, and culture affect views on different standards and perceptions of beauty.  The value that society places on beauty and appearance is increasingly growing both negatively and positively.  Perfect, photoshopped images of celebrities and models have always set unrealistic standards for common people like us.  However, our culture has recently learned to criticize unnatural portrayals and many companies are now reverting back to natural, non-photoshopped pictures of models.  Movements against body shaming have gained mobility and our society attempting to shift its focus to more realistic expectations.  On the other hand, the rates of plastic surgery are growing rapidly in many countries across the world, and even teenagers in middle and high school are participating in these procedures.  It’s evident that society has learned to accept and even encourage these superficial alterations of the body.

We chose to use video as our format simply because beauty is expressed through visuals. Think about it: the first thing you see when you meet a person is their physical appearance, so YouTube was basically a “cake on the sidewalk”. In addition, Jared is a talented editor, and so he can ensure that each episode is of top quality editing and visual effects.

Social media is becoming a “need” more than a “want” in our society, and especially in the lives of individuals of our age. More than ever before throughout history, the world is completely interconnected through the Internet and spreading people’s’ ideas and voices around has become a very simple task, taking only a few seconds to type up and post on a social media site. Of course, social media is categorized under the area of communication, and communication is the tool that is used for one individual to convey thoughts, feelings, ideas, and etc. to another individual. In our project, social media is the form of communication that we use to convey our thoughts about the “Perception of Beauty” in our current society; allowing our voices to be heard and our thoughts recognized by others who may or may not agree with us, sparking controversy further attracting and acknowledging even more people and their thoughts on this topic.

We are all really glad that Mrs. Krapels gave us the opportunity to experience the struggle of trying to “go viral”. All of us underestimated the difficulty of putting ourselves “out there”, and the difficulty of creating good content that is enjoyable to all types of viewers.  Expanding from our little group of 4 people and taking in new perspectives after interviewing our peers really gave us a broader outlook on what people believe to be attractive physical features on males and females.

In our final episode, we will be wrapping up the topics discussed in the previous episodes including peer interviews, insecurities, and plastic surgery.  We’ll be drawing conclusions about what our peers’ opinions of our appearances mean to us.  

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 6.07.07 PM
These Miss Korea candidates represent the negative effects of plastic surgery – every woman looks like the other, and they lose their unique identities.

Aren’t they wonderful? I mean, I am genuinely filled with wonder when I consider the work that these two groups have produced. Nina and Andy “did the thing” (as I recently reported) and I couldn’t be prouder, and the team working on Perception of Beauty is doing work that is good for the world. They’re asking such important questions and putting themselves out there in a way that is incredibly brave. I feel so lucky to be a part of their journey.

They’re modest, but I’m totally willing to brag on their behalf – if you have ten free minutes today, spend them watching this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaGjS6q2w10 – I guarantee you’ll be as impressed as I am.

Our fourth and final installments are due tomorrow, and our final blog posts will be up one week from today! I’m so torn about this – while I’m excited that you’ll finally know all of these storytellers as I do, it will also mean that our project is coming to an end. But for now, we look forward, and…

Until next time,

Mrs. K


Checking In

I can’t believe it’s been over a week since students pitched their ideas! In that time we’ve had some days off (yay for snow day give-backs!), talked about Serial, and continued to read Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.

Not only are the kids killing it with their projects, they’re also doing awesome work with the novel. They’re surprised by the grittiness of Maguire’s Oz, and through an assignment I call “cultural connections,” they’ve made really interesting real-world connections between Oz and their lives. They’ve talked about how the racism and sexism faced by Elphaba mirrors what women face everyday, and talked about how the political unrest of this fictional world can be seen in America’s current election cycle. Their connections are thoughtful, meaningful, and deeply revealing (to me at least) about what their world looks like.

Last week I had a terrific opportunity to co-teach with the photography teacher in my building. He and I put together a lesson using Brandon Stanton (the photographer behind Humans of New York) as a model for visual storytelling. The photo teacher was able to discuss technique with the students, while I helped them to find the narrative in his series of photographs. It was a great cross-curricular opportunity with great results!

On Friday we’ll be working on project “stuff” again – this week their assignment is to develop a social media presence, and then to begin interviewing their subjects. After that we’ll start storyboarding, and then we’re moving right into the storytelling phase! Teachers out there, anyone have favorite apps or websites to help students storyboard?

Starting next week I’ll be featuring a couple of student groups & talking to them about their work – after all, they are my project.

Thanks for sticking with us so far; now the fun can really start!

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

Resource Roundup

The week is finally here! In three short days, students will be initiated to The Story Project and will, for the first time, see this blog (hi guys!). As I get ready to really launch my second ever PBL, I want to share with you some of the resources that have helped me along the way. While my colleagues and in-building support have been (and continue to be) excellent sources of information and feedback, I’ve found that in order to really prepare something wonderful for the students, I’ve gone outside my building as well.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Buck Institute for Education – these guys are the resource to go to when it comes to all things PBL. They’ve got a great blog, which is currently undergoing major expansions, and some excellent planning tools.
    • The Project Planner is a great way to dive in – it’ll force you to think about all aspects of your project and it’ll help facilitate the deep thinking that leads to solid planning.
    • There’s also a curated selection of projects organized by subject area and level – it’s an awesome way to either get inspired, or to find a way of dipping your toe in the PBL waters.
    • Once you’re done planning, you can check your work against BIE’s Project Design Rubric to make sure that you’ve hit all the marks of a Gold Standard PBL.
  • Edutopia, per usual, has an exhaustive compendium of information and links to blogs, a discussion board, and videos.
    • This post in particular feels especially relevant and fresh, particularly for those of us in middle and high school settings, because it emphasizes student choice and authenticity in secondary classrooms
  • This post from Teach Thought, while a little older (from 2013) has also been helpful in directing me to all the different places that I need to go in order to get my questions answered whether it’s about resources or strategies.

So, there you have it – while this list is by no means exhaustive, it’s definitely a great place to get started, whether you’re just thinking about getting started with a PBL, or you’re an experienced creator. What are some of your favorite educational resources?

Next time I check in, it’ll be to let you know how the launch went!

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



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