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


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

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



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