The Gratitude Project–Part 2 (2017)

raok-2A few days before Thanksgiving, I asked my high school students to take an inventory of what they were thankful for this year.  They knew ahead of time that I would be sharing their lists, and, as promised, I emailed the class projects to my students’ parents and guardians on Thanksgiving morning.  (You can view the finished products HERE.)

Part 2 of the assignment was to commit a Random Act of Kindness over Thanksgiving break. On their first day back, the students reflected on their experiences. Take a look at some of the fabulous, very-adult realizations the students made. (I shared the list below with my students’ parents in my December newsletter.) I’m teaching some pretty kindhearted, magnanimous souls!

  • Over the break, I helped my mom put up all of the Christmas Decorations in our house, which actually took about 2 hours because we have WAY too many, and [which] I even had to wake up early to do…I knew that my mom had a lot of work to do…so it was helpful to her. This action helped me feel good about myself because I usually do not help with decorations, but this year I decided to.


  • My random act of kindness…was volunteering to help set the table at Thanksgiving. My mom was certainly appreciative of my offering, but more so shocked…I could tell it took stress off of her…I saw her face instantly relax once the table was set, and her visually exhale out of relief. I felt good after setting the table, about myself and about my contribution. Helping my mom, when she so often helps me, was a really nice feeling.


  • Although I only got a small “thank you,” I still felt better about my day, and I was glad that I got to help someone out that seemed like they needed it.


  • At work, I helped out a woman with a broken arm…It felt nice to help her out and it felt very empowering. She needed help and there was no one else who was going to help her so I did. When I think back on it I wonder, what if I was in her situation?


  • The effect of the random act on me was that I did more that day than sitting doing other things while my mom worked. I know that she enjoyed my help because she wasn’t as tired as she would’ve been if I had not helped doing small but big tasks around the house.


  • My random act of kindness was bringing the dirty dishes to the sink. I was about to run upstairs to my room after eating, but both of my parents were still sitting down. I stopped and turned around. They just finished their food, so I offered to take their plates. They said “thank you” and continued to watch their show. It felt good to do this small act for my parents. After all, that is the least I could do considering my mom cooked all the food for us while I watched Netflix.

For the December holidays, my students will be encouraged to complete another Random Act of Kindness, and I’ll be sharing  this list of fabulous ideas from fellow-educator Brad Aronson (@bradaronson).

The Gratitude Project–Part I (2017)

5d383e48b07fb7c8ccd1b46d37e460adI’m sort of done with the news. Except for the whole I-don’t-want-to-be-ignorant part. With each shooting, political scandal, and social media war, it’s hard not to head into the holidays with a heavy heart.

And our students feel it, too.

Maybe more than we do.

After all, behind all of the eye rolls, looks-that-kill, and saltiness they might display at home, they expect us adults to keep it together since their brains can’t developmentally do that just yet.

So, in addition to wanting my students to have a positive digital footprint (hence our Passion Blog Project and our use of Goodreads–among other 21st century learning opportunities), I want the world–and especially parents–to see the fabulousness their students show me on a regular basis.

Enter: The Gratitude Project.

With Thanksgiving a few days away, my students and I discussed how much we need to take a day (weekend? month? season?) to focus on all that is Good, to be Thankful for all  that we have. I shared my own musings–in the midst of aging parents–both of whom have battled cancer and defeated the ICU in the last year alone. We also discussed the many benefits of being thankful and gave ourselves a pick-me-up with wisdom from internet sensation Kid President!

The students were then each assigned a slide in a class-wide Google slide deck and told to share what they’re thankful for this holiday season.

The next step is for them to share their gratitude with others, since “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it” (William Arthur Ward).

In the meantime, take a look at what they said. It’s all sorts of fabulous.



The Dangers of Landscaping

13-500x500Teachers don’t have favorites. Sure, and Mom didn’t like me best because I was the baby. However, there are definitely those students whose growth leaves us beaming with pride, whose writing leaves a lasting impression, whose authenticity leaves us questioning how we can help fix a systemic problem. I’ll come back to this.

For the written portion of my Final Exam, students reflect on their journeys as readers, writers, and thinkers. In examining how their culture has shaped them (e.g., home, family, friends, school), their narratives are poignant and heartbreaking and authentic and beautiful–which makes it my favorite writing assignment of the year. Their narratives are positive, as they recall reading with their parents and grandparents, zipping to the library with their elementary classes, tearing through the I Survived series, and choosing books over television and gaming because, “duh, reading was awesome!”

But these final compositions are also quite raw, as students relive the forced visits to the resource room for extra reading instruction or their ongoing struggle with dyslexia or not having anyone to read to them or to take them to the library or hating reading because of reading logs or being scolded for reading ahead or spending way too many months discussing a single book or closely reading one page in a grade-wide text for two weeks.

The essay that stopped me in my tracks this year (and there’s always one) included the excerpt below.

School Quotes About Creativity (MP).png

For context, the narrative, as a whole, was positive. And the author is an excellent student who earns stellar grades in her classes, is creative, and has a great sense of humor. I would take a class of 25 of her any day of the week.

But she’s also a truth-teller, which made it devastating to read.

We teachers work our tails off to compete with a Grey’s Anatomy Netflix binge or a seven-hour COD (Call of Duty) gaming marathonWe get up at 4 AM to prepare for the day. We hurry home, after we’ve dropped off the last friend in the after-school carpool, to begin leaving feedback on essay drafts. We answer emails until we go to bed. When the final drafts come in, we devote another15-20 minutes assessing each one of those–multiplied by 100+ students, several times a quarter.  (To save you from doing the math, that’s 25 hours. Assessing one set of essays. Written to a common assessment prompt that we most likely did not design.) We have our own, shortchanged children snapping how they “never want to be a teacher” or how they hate how we’re “always on the computer.” We sacrifice our family time and our planning time and our lunch time and our catch-our-breath time to sit with students in need.

But we can also be dangerous landscapers.

When we get into autopilot mode or continue doing what we’ve always done or teach the way we were taught or work so long creating something that we can’t possibly abandon it or focus more on data than reading the room or assume learning is happening because we are teaching, we cut back our students’ excitement “like the sides of a perfectly healthy but unwanted shrub”–often without even knowing it.

Don’t get me wrong. I work feverishly to avoid this dangerous landscaping. I try to make my classes engaging, to bring relevancy to the content I am asked to teach, to foster a love of reading in my students, to help my students write with voice and style and sophistication (rather than craft a formulaic, 5-paragraph essay that does not exist outside of a high school classroom).

But no matter what I do and say and assign, my students (or at least the ones who feel comfortable enough to tell me) confess that–in the system as a whole–X must equal 3, that they will lose points if they create their own thesis statement instead of using the teacher-provided one, that this–and only this–is what color represents in The Great Gatsby.

We are trimming away our students’ love of learning–unwittingly inviting them to go on their phones during class–when our actions say, “I’m going to take what you said and shape it back into what I want you to think.”

Every year, we are entrusted with 100+ healthy shrubs, and despite our greatest efforts, our feelings of #nailedit lessons, our satisfaction in a year well done, we are unintentionally cutting back otherwise healthy shrubs.

Ironically, we want our students to be free thinkers.

We want our students to be passionate about learning.

We want our students to think outside the box.

We want our students to be curious about our subject matter.

We want our students to be creative.

We want our students to be problem solvers. (Employers do, too.)

And our students can be and do all of these things–just as long as they use this starter sentence. Chop. Or read that book. Chop. Or fill out this worksheet. Chop. Or color inside the lines. Chop, chop.


When Numbahs Don’t Lie (2016-7)

Students can’t be reduced to a number. They can’t be defined by their results on a common assessment, reduced to where they fall on a state test, nor limited by their SAT/ACT scores.

However, sometimes numbers don’t lie.

With a towering goal of helping students fall back (or, for a select few, remain) in love with reading–while building their stamina to endure the 600-pages-per-week of reading they’ll be asked to do in college, I need numbers. They help validate what I do in the classroom (e.g., allow students to choose the majority of their texts, begin every class with 10 minutes of reading, use Goodreads for goal-setting, tracking, and review-publishing, maintain a classroom library).

So, at the end of every year, I ask students to tally how many books they read–cover-to-cover during our time together and compare it to what they read the year before.

The. Results. Are. Glorious.

In a world of SparkNotes, Fake Reading, and Beating the System, check out the growth of these amazing, authentic (and hopefully lifelong) readers! It’ll warm your soul.

Screenshot 2017-09-06 at 8.54.15 PM

C Block's Growth

Last Year’s Total: 55 Books; This Year’s Total: 189 Books!

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Last Year’s Total: 87 Books; This Year’s Total: 244 Books!
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Last Year’s Total: 40 Books; This Year’s Total: 137 Books!




Explainer Videos 101

Screenshot 2017-05-24 at 4.42.52 PMIn a world of Common-Assessment-This and District-Determined-Measures-That, it’s more important than ever to allow our students to show their learning in  non-standardized ways as well.

Enter: the Explainer Video.

An Explainer Video is a real-world digital tool that can be found on virtually every website. Between the fast-forward button on our DVRs and the ad blockers on our devices, commercials are growing increasingly extinct.  As a result, companies now squeeze what they want us to know into these tiny, bite-size videos.

And my students just did the same thing.

As a way to wrap up our unit, students were asked to answer our Essential Question in the form of a script (so that I could trace the development of their writing, which is our district’s goal). Once the writing process was complete, they integrated their scripts with a student-created video that demonstrated their learning. (We first viewed some examples of Explainer Videos and then created a list of ingredients–which I used to create a rubric for the assessment.)

Students were allowed to frolic in the Digital Sandbox to find a platform that worked for them. They played with iMovie and YouTube‘s built-in editor, as well as some new-to-them tools, such as Adobe Spark, Powtoon, My Simple Show, and the Chrome extension Screencastify (which, when used in tandem with Google Slides or Prezi, is the easiest platform)

They were given class time to work on their Explainer Videos, which always turned into students providing built-in tech support for each other. Seeing this impromptu, 21st-century collaboration warms the soul!

So that the finished products could be viewed by all students–regardless of their devices, students published their finished products to YouTube and shared these links in our Google Classroom. (The more camera-shy students made their YouTube videos UNLISTED, which makes them virtually invisible online without the direct link.) We viewed the finished products for homework, voted for our favorites using a Google Form, and then watched the winning videos in class.

And it. Was. Awesome.

Here are some of the amazing, finished products!

Carter’s Explainer Video

Harini’s Explainer Video

Rachel’s Explainer Video

Eric’s Explainer Video

Jocelyn’s Explainer Video

PostSecret: Where Language, Art, and Vulnerability Collide

Sometimes the best ideas begin with a dream. And the PostSecret project is no exception.

This ongoing community art project was born in 2005 to proud parent Frank Warren. After visiting Paris–where he experienced a lucid dream, he returned to the states and began disseminating postcards with specific directions: Recipients must write down their innermost secrets, use the postcard itself as their canvas, and mail it–anonymously–to the address provided.

Twelve years later, the project continues to thrive. It has resulted in six books (I purchased two for our class library), has won several blogging awards (the top PostSecret entries are still published weekly), was featured in the All-American Rejects’ “Dirty Little Secrets” video, and is currently on display at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum through September 2017.  And because of how much pain Warren has seen in some of the responses, he has teamed up with the National Crisis Hotline Network for suicide prevention and speaks at various colleges and communities throughout the country.

My English classes participated in our own version of this project, focusing on our greatest fear (rather than secret), since we had explored that motif in a recent unit of study. The students anonymously published their greatest fear to a Padlet (they were encouraged to go deeper than just writing, say, “snakes”) and then selected the fear of an anonymous classmate’s to represent visually in our collaborative Google slideshow. (The names on the slides are the artists who brought to life the fear of their unnamed classmate.) We used Google Forms to vote for the best one, and awards will be distributed next week.

Check out the finished products of our community art project! The sophomores’ project is first, followed by the juniors’. (Use the pause button to linger on any given slide.)

Enjoy! 🙂

“We STILL Hear America Singing”: A Collaborative Poem

Our American Lit students are examining the role that individualism plays in American society. After studying Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” (and Langston Hughes’ response, “I, Too“), my juniors, as a class, created their own 21st century anthems below. They were too fabulous NOT to share!