Category Archives: education

The Courtly Love of Books


When I walked into class this morning I flipped out over one of my students reading Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of my favorite reads ever. Lost in my enthusiasm for the book, I grabbed the book from her desk, clutched it to my chest, and rocked back and forth, performing my twitterpation for the book in front of the class. Unknown to me, this student, Tiffany, had purchased the book for a friend and she sat silently in horror, terrified at my handling of the book. When I noticed the nervous juxtaposition of her broad smile and arched brow, she said to me, “Mr. Ziebarth, I’m a courtly lover.”

Talk about juxtapositions. I had no idea what she was talking about.

“You’re a what?”

“A courtly lover of books. Just like the essay we read over the summer,” Tiffany said.

Well shame on me for not recognizing what should be a common allusion. She was referring to the essay “Never Do That to a Book,” by Anne Fadiman. As she reminded me of the essay, another student, Tabatha, blurted out, “Me too!” as she quickly produced from her backpack a copy of the next novel we’re reading, The Catcher in the Rye, lovingly embraced by a padded manilla envelope. A small group of students burst into chatter about how hard it is to write in their books, while others proclaimed how much they enjoy putting pen and pencil to page, marking their books and making them their own.

Fadiman calls this drive to draw and annotate in books a “carnal love.” She explains, “to us, a book’s words [are] holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them [are] a mere vessel, and it [is] no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.”

I don’t care how my students treat books, just that they love them.

Me? I’m a book lover of the latter sort, as you can tell by the photo of the Murakami novel above. See the little dog-eared corner of the first page? I did that. Much to Tiffany’s courtly-lover’s chagrin.


Show Your Work : : A Networked Reading 2

Reading @Braddo Reading @AustinKleon continues as Show Your Work: A Networked Reading

The old writing adage holds true with student work: Show, don’t tell!

I love John Green’s question: “is there a way that we can use this technology to build places for engagement, instead of just places for distraction? ” As Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out, yes the youth of today are digital natives, but they’re thoroughly worked over by social media. It’s not just the digital natives by the way. We all need to act more and not let ourselves be acted up, in other words: Program, Or Be Programmed.


Reading @braddo Reading @austinkleon 1

I’ve been stealing ideas from Austin Kleon for my classroom for about five years now and I’m thrilled to have other teachers join in the looting. Brad Ovenell-Carter started blogging his reading of Kleon’s new book Show Your Work over a month ago and since then I’ve been itching to join in the fray and blog my reading of his reading.

I’m starting 76 pages into Ovenell-Carter’s reading and that doesn’t bother me. It also doesn’t bother me that I’ll be working backwards and forwards as he continues. We’re getting all McLuhan on Kleon’s little book, ya hear!

I’m floored by flow of ideas and insight that this process encourages and I can’t wait to see how all these things will blossom, wilt, flower. Feel free to join in the conversation.

A note on the process: While I’m jealous of Ovenell-Carter’s hand-drawn work (and I dig his handwritting—those loops!),  I decided to differentiate our ideas by diving into a digital toolbox, namely Skitch for Evernote.

Show Your Learning

Screen shot 2014-03-12 at 10.08.27 AMTeaching is a science—that’s how it feels when I’m collecting and combing through student data looking for how to proceed next. Teaching is an art—that’s how it feels when I’m in front of the class trying to hook them in with an introduction to metaplasmus, zeugma and other rhetorical tropes, schemes. Wait, that sounds like science. That’s because teaching is both an art and science—especially when I’m deep in a stack of essays working to understand the thoughts and  arguments of students while at the same time helping them craft their way to clarity with cadence and rhythm.

Either way, teaching is a creative and rewarding effort. And ever since I stumbled upon 20% projects and the work of writer and doodler Austin Kleon it’s only become more creative and more rewarding as I’ve worked with students to do what Kleon calls for in his new book Show Your Work!

David Theriault, a colleague/cohort, and I have been obsessed with this idea of showing our work: making our classrooms transparent, our work and that of our students laid bare for the world to see.  Not to show off what we do in our class, but to try it out in public, share it, and hope in comes back new and improved. Thus our activity on Twitter and in the edublogosphere (wow, that’s an ugly word). We’ve brainstormed hashtags, schemed up entire books on the subject. We’ve read the books. We’ve encouraged other teachers in our district to do the same. We follow people with similar obsessions.

But nothing really gets to the heart of the matter like Kleon’s book, which just arrived in the mail yesterday! And it’s much more rewarding to take a breather from the pummeling of pedagogical jargon, kick back with this bright, rakish tome and dream up ways to twist and tweak Kleon’s principles for my curriculum, my class, my students.

Screen shot 2014-03-12 at 10.04.40 AM

I’m not the only educator stealing from Kleon.

Show Your Work! is subtitled 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered, but a better way from my students and I to think about it would be: Show Your Learning! 10 Ways to Share Your Learning and Discover: Your Thoughts, Your World, Yourself.

Consider this one example from Zara who realized that she writes the same way she plays volleyball: timidly. But as she writes you can see her writing grow more assertive. I can’t wait to see her on the court next year.

Do you want to see the rest of my students learning? Stay tuned here, here, or here.

The Great Common Core Swindle: Denying students an audience

SwindleZYou may be tempted to take the title of this post the wrong way.

No, I’m not going to argue against the Common Core standards. I’d be happy to discuss their drawbacks elsewhere. In fact, if you care to dive deep enough down into my Twitter stream you’ll discover I’ve done just that on several occasions with colleagues and acquaintances.

Here and now I’d like to address what I see as one of the key strengths of the Common Core. A focus that’s been missing, from the California State Content Standards at least.


It’s there, listed at the end of the writing standards at every grade beginning with third: “Write…for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.” The old California State Content Standards also covered audience, but never specifically addressed a range of audiences, a key difference.

In a 21st-century, networked world, an audience of one, the teacher, or even the thirty or so students in a classroom is no longer a sufficient audience. And frankly, it hasn’t been for some time. As my colleague David Theriault likes to say, referring to teachers, “You are not your students’ best audience.”

Students who write for their teacher write for a grade. Students who write for an audience write to connect, to argue, to entertain, to inform. And when they have other purposes for their writing other than a grade, they begin to care about the craft, choose carefully their words, shape thoughtfully their sentences. Isn’t this the goal of writing standards?

So the question is: Does your school provide or cheat your students out of an audience?

Or, to cut to the chase: Does your school actively support a newspaper or broadcast program?

If it doesn’t, please stop going on about how you’re meeting the Common Core standards. Because in spirit you’re not.

I can’t think of a better way to prepare students for a larger, even world-wide audience or provide them with a better writing laboratory than a campus newspaper or broadcast program.

Besides offering students an audience and being shaped by two of the main modes of writing called for by the Common Core, informational and argumentative, a robust student journalism programs offers many other benefits.


Students journalists choose what they want to write about. Sports, movies, books, games, and news. Well, students don’t necessarily choose to write news per se, but with a bit of training, mentoring, and modeling, they’ll learn to spot it, gather it, and report it.

What are they reporting? The goings-on at your school, on the field, in the classroom, after school. And hopefully there’s a lot happening. Who better to tell those stories than your students? No one.

Want your students to be writing across the curriculum? Then reporting on the learning taking place in science, history, math, and business classes will do the trick.

Then imagine the range of audience your student journalists will reach: the student body, faculty, staff, families, community, world.

Photo ©2007 Flickr user Jessica_Hopper CC-BY-2.0


This is where students like to begin: expressing their opinion. But before they can argue a point, they need to gather the facts—a good habit for any writer, thinker, or citizen. If they jump the gun, they may end up on the bench where CBS reporter Lara Logan found herself recently.

So once they’ve gathered the facts they’re ready to form an opinion which in journalism will take the shape of an editorial or opinion column. Inevitably, students expressing opinions, especially in public, make adults squirm. But guess what folks? The adults don’t have to like it.

And that’s OK. Remember, we teach students who are in the same stages of adolescent development year after year, decade after decade. We encounter the same impulses and opinions every four years at least: the dress code is stupid, supervision bugs us, we don’t like the new bell schedule, why do we have to sit through assemblies, the campaigns for student leadership positions are just popularity contests. The list goes on. And on. Can you really blame them? If so, you’ve forgotten what it’s like to spend thirteen years of your life micromanaged by bells, adults, rules, procedures and the last five or six years befuddled by hormones and growing pains.


Adults won’t be the only ones who can’t quite stomach the editorials, opinions, or story angles. Many students won’t like them either. Fantastic! Guess what they can do? Write a letter to the editor, submit their own opinion piece, join the newspaper staff, start their own newspaper or blog. It’s called civil discourse; it’s the exact thing we’re training our students to engage in. At least we think that’s what we’re doing, but without a healthy journalism program we’re denying our students a safe place to try out and feel their way around civil discourse. Instead they turn to all sorts of social media, much of it hidden and anonymous, to hash out their opinions. Maybe, just maybe, if students had an authentic audience to air their grievances to, and training to gather all the facts first (which often puts out the flames of frustration), maybe there’d be less rantings and more discussions.


Newspapers and broadcast programs also provide a variety of tasks and audiences, requiring them to be precise in their work. Gathering news encourages students to see a story from multiple perspectives, not just one or two. They’ll quickly learn to see the world around them is much more complex than the either/or mentality so many suffer from. Writing headlines and photo captions also require an exactness and one you can assess by analyzing online traffic data should your newspaper also be online, which it should.

Broadcast news programs really hone students’ precision. Writing for TV is a different, more exact beast entirely. Plus the visual elements brought to bear on a story add a complexity and grammar all their own.

Both print and broadcast train students in visual literacy, a skill that grows more critical day by day as they’re bombarded continually by images.


So what’s stopping you from starting up a journalism program, or jump-starting one that’s lagging?

Perhaps your stomach and/or laws that protect student expression. Currently only eight states have laws that protect student journalists, enhancing their First Amendment rights. Even with those protections, student journalists and their advisers too often have to battle school and district officials for those rights. That’s good practice too though. Even professional journalists continue to vye for rights and access.

The California Student Free Expression Law offers students a pretty large field to learn on. Unless a story contains obscenities or libelous statements, or incites “the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school” (CA Ed Code 48907), students can write it, print it, and distribute it. Remember, they’re learning, and even the New York Times makes mistakes.

Only eight states. Two others include student speech rights in their education codes. I know someone who couldn’t even count up these states on both his hands (sorry, inside joke. Shake my hand when you meet me and you’ll get it). Until the forty other states offer these important protections, which also protect schools and their administrators, this country will continue to suffer from a lack of student journalism programs, programs which give students the opportunity to write for and interact with an authentic audience and prepare them to participate effectively in a democratic society, a society which depends on a free and functioning press.

So while states continue their transition to the Common Core standards, here’s hoping they don’t just talk the talk. Stop the swindle, walk the walk.

Zero Drafting: Falling in love again with a simple pleasure, timed writing.

Zero Drafting. I stole the term from a young adult author. I’ll have to go track her down after I’m finished writing. See that’s the point with zero drafting, the first rule: don’t stop writing. One of my college writing teachers, Darrell Spencer, taught me the method. We had to write three pages a day for his class and zero drafting was the most effective way to hit that mark. I can still hear Darrell say, in his small, hesitant voice: “kill the editor.”

That’s the second rule in zero drafting. Kill the editor. Don’t get in the way of yourself. Don’t erase, don’t cross out, don’t fix spelling, don’t stop pushing your pen forward. Zero drafting is pure writing. Revisions and edits can wait. Right now, just write.

Before the practice got branded, Natalie Goldberg referred to it simply as a timed exercise. Peter Elbow calls it freewriting and that was in vogue for a while until it was co-opted by quick writes, loaded with required topics and questions aligned with curriculum.

You hear a refrain sung by many writing teachers, in high school especially, that goes like this: our students don’t write enough. Our students need to write more than we can grade. And then guess what we do? Not write. We fret about assessing student writing or giving feedback on student writing and we ask colleagues for advice, go to workshops and conferences looking for advice. Nothing but a bunch of not writing. No one has ever learned to write by not writing.

I’ll be honest. I’ve been hot and cold with zero drafting. I once went an entire year without using it in class. My students still wrote, but we could’ve and should’ve written more. Never again, as long as I’m a writing teacher, will I deprive my students of this simple exercise.

Here’s how I do it…

…and what my students think about it (I’ll detail the benefits and outcomes later in this post):

Use a spiral or composition notebook. The cheaper the better. If it’s too fancy they’ll want to be careful what they write. Zero drafting doesn’t do careful.

Same goes for the writing instrument. I prefer the trusty Bic blue

Photo ©2008 Wikimedia Commons user Trounce. Licensed under CC-BY-SA

Use a prompt. You can get these from anywhere. I love I’m amazed at the prompts he cranks out. I try to put a week’s worth of prompts together in one sitting, but I’m always open to last minute inspiration. Prompts are great because no one can just sit there wondering what to write about.

The prompt is optional. That’s right. Don’t force them to use the prompt. It’s only there to get students started. But plenty of students don’t need prompting; they have lots of things they want to write about. I tell my students they can write journal entries, letters to friends, short stories, poems, novels, rants, reviews, wish lists, bucket lists, to-do lists. And if they run out of things to write I tell them to write their name over and over again until they think of something to write, or write about the last meal they ate. This is rarely necessary because a good prompt usually does the trick.

The prompt is mandatory (I love exceptions to rules). Sometimes. Make it mandatory sparingly. You’ll assign a prompt at the beginning of a unit, or at the beginning of a debate perhaps.

I really wish we had more than 8 minutes to write, though. sometimes I want to continue that zero draft the next day or something, but by that time I’m not able to remember what I wanted to write anymore. —Karen

Time the prompt. I usually go for eight minutes. But it’s good to throw in longer sessions occasionally. I wouldn’t do it for less than five minutes though. You’re barely getting to the good stuff at that point. Once the timer goes off I’m usually still finishing my last thought or two. Let students do the same.

You heard that right. I write with my students. Write with your students. No excuses. Just do it.

Picture 8
“Blindfold,” © 2006 Dr Case, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.

Don’t read their zero drafts. Not ever. Never. No! As soon as another set of eyes are on it, it’s no longer zero drafting. Students have to feel free to write whatever they please without anyone reading their work. It’s not ready yet. And please, whatever you do, don’t try to assign zero drafting some kind of grade. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little at the thought of this impulse.

The best part about zero drafting is that no one else will read it. I don’t have to worry about what others think or if what I’m writing makes sense, I can just write whatever I think. —Katherine


On your marks, get set, go! I think humans are natural procrastinators. To delay is probably the marquee problem for writers. Beginners especially. Writers are among the most skilled procrastinators. One of the biggest obstacles to writing is getting started. The blank page haunts us. But as soon as we throw down some ink on that page, the hard part is over, and it’s hard to stop.

Inspire more writing, collect more fodder. After my first zero drafting session this year I heard a student say, “I have so much more to write,” and another said, “I could go on and on.” I’m thrilled they walk out of my class feeling like they want to keep writing. And when a longer piece is assigned they’ll have a lot of writing and ideas to mine. Zero drafting kills writer’s block dead.

I don’t like that some of them are only 8 minutes! Sometimes I have so much more that I want to say and talk about! — Ashley

Force students away from the screen. Ray Bradbury imagined our addiction to and dependence on screens decades ago. It goes without saying, computers are essential tools. But they’re also great distractors. Hundreds of apps, sites, programs, tweets, and texts draw our attention elsewhere, but zero drafting cuts through the noise and keeps our nose to the page. Sure, you could probably type faster than you can write, but the physical act of gripping a pen and running it over paper has a power all its own. Sometimes the best tech is low tech.

Give students choice and voice. My summer reading really hammered home the importance of allowing students ownership of their learning. Thomas and Brown assert that “students learn best when they are able to follow their passion.” Yong Zhao says that giving students choice rather than prescribing their learning “helps preserve creativity, another quality of entrepreneurs.” Zero drafting is an easy, risk-free gateway strategy for teachers who are hesitant to turn the learning over to their students.

It’s amazing to have a non intimidating school activity where we have so much power to choose what we want to do. —Katherine, again

Practice filling the blank page. An underrated skill. If you can demolish that blank page in front of you when faced with an essay test, research paper, business report, client pitch, or letter to your local member of congress the heavy lifting seems bearable.

I’m just too tired at the end of my day to do so this activity allows me to write for a little on a daily basis. —Tiffany

Discovery. Even though the quotation comes from one of his fictional characters and not E.M. Forester himself, this line still rings true: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It’s not in any standardized standard, but learning about yourself is as worthy an outcome as I’ve ever encountered.

I also think zero drafting helps you realize things you haven’t realized before, like how much you might love a sandwich. —Calvin

It’s really making me realize all of the ideas I have about certain issues before my brain gets the chance to dismiss them for being too ‘silly’ or not well-phrased enough. I think it’s an excellent technique to help us see where our actual priorities and interests lie. —Alexis

It adds up. Students average about one page every eight minutes. They start wrapping their brains around how long writing takes and they realize it doesn’t take much. A student who decides to double their zero drafting time at home could crank out one hundred pages in little over a month. That’s a first draft of a novel.

Zero drafting allows my thoughts to consistently flow without pauses. I think that’s a lot of writing for only 8 minutes; if you think about it, you can accomplish about 10 pages of writing in 80 minutes. —Nam

Writers write. Obvious? Yes. But one of the key outcomes of part zero drafting is that students start to think of themselves as writers.

I don’t really like writing but zero drafting makes me feel free and that i can write whatever i want to without restrictions. —Christina

10 Revisions to 20 Percent Time

If you’re unfamiliar with 20% time projects in education, you may want to read this brief overview before continuing with this post.

CC image by flickr user Norehearsal

1) Beware of scheduling obstacles
Before you launch a 20% time project for your students, double check your calendars and consider the havoc certain activities can wreak on the projects. With my English classes last semester we ran headlong into AP testing. Obviously, I knew they were lurking in the future; we’d been preparing for them! But during those two weeks, everything comes to a screeching halt. Projects included. Understandably, many of the projects suffered as they took a back seat to AP testing and studying.

If I had a nickel for every time a student said, “But then AP testing hit and I couldn’t work on my project” during the final presentations I’d, well, I’d have a lot of nickels. It was painful. I don’t like excuses. They’re like armpits… Not a complaint, a lesson learned. So beginning next year, I’ll be launching the projects during the first semester.

2) Make it memorable, make it matter
As we brainstorm for the next round of projects, my battle cry will be MIMM! Make it memorable/matter. Either create a project that has that certain je ne sais quoi like a Beatles-themed garden and blog, or a jog/bike-a-thon called Going the Extra Mile One Penny at a Time, or create something that matters like a book-length collection of essays about life in high school, or overhaul the swim and dive team room. Better yet, do both like a choir concert called Songs for Sisters to raise money for ankylosing spondilitis.

These were the memorable projects, probably because they mattered to more than just the students themselves. But there were a few that mattered less. I won’t name names or pinpoint projects, but let me just say this, the project can mean a lot to a student, but if means a lot to more people, or if there’s a community built around the type of project a student decides on, the project seems to take on a life of its own and the student will be more inspired to work hard on their project.

For great insight on this topic, read “The Golden Ticket” by my friend and colleague David Theriault.

3) Don’t focus on failure
One of the biggest benefits of a 20% time project is giving students the space to learn from their failures. Too often students are taught and shown that failure is bad, but such attitudes and environments stunt their learning. The option to fail is critical. However, based on student feedback it seems my reiteration of failure as an option backfired.

One student reported, “I understand that not everyone will succeed on their projects, but constantly reiterating that failure is an option may discourage students from working hard.” Another said,”Mr. Z gets us to think more thoroughly but he’s openly said he’s ok with our DIY projects being failures, which can’t be good for morale.”

I will continue to allow for failure, but I will focus my expectations on the attempts and the exhausting of possible solutions to problems.

4) Revise Project Pitches
For our pitches, students introduced their projects in TED style presentations. They were great. Parents showed up, people from the district showed up, other teachers showed up. The pitches really encouraged students to think through their ideas and the scope of their projects, shaping them into concrete creations.

The problem with the pitches? It was hard to squeeze them all into one class period and once we had finished with our final presentations, I realized the pitches and finals were too similar. A couple of solutions I’m considering include pitching projects to small peer groups and focus on giving and receiving helpful feedback and a poster session (as Kate Petty, a 20% Time guru, does). I would love to have the poster session coincide w/ another school activity: possibly Back-to-School night?

CC image by flikr user marmset451

5) Rethink blogging requirements
In a project evaluation survey I conducted, 45% of students reported that the required weekly blog posts on the process and progress of their 20% time projects were not important in helping them formulate, reflect on, and complete their projects. That’s an ugly number. And frankly, I don’t know if I can trust that number. My gut feeling is that students just don’t like the blogging portion of the project. It’s more work. But I think the blogging component is the best way to hold students accountable to their projects. An E.M. Forester quotation is apropos here:

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

If, like Forester says, he learns from his speaking or writing, students will learn from their blog posts. And it’s the best way I can keep track of what the students are learning and experiencing throughout the duration of their projects. Not only does their blogging hold them accountable to me, it helps students connect to an audience that’s bigger than me. And ultimately, this is a writing class, so we’re gonna write!

So how do I improve student perception of blogging? Here are the ideas I’m considering: back off weekly requirements. Maybe cut the blogging assignments in half, to twice a month. Or perhaps I can ease back on other assignments or blend the blogging requirements into other writing assignments by using specific prompts for students to address. Another thing I want to do is to tie the project grade to student blogs and perhaps have two grading periods during the project to encourage students to keep up on their blogging. Because getting behind on their blogs is a sure-fire way to kill student enthusiasm for their projects.

6) Just say no to subs
In a year-end student evaluation of our 20% Time projects only 26% of my students said that I kept them excited about their projects, 53% kind of agreed I kept them excited about their projects, and 21% disagreed. I don’t like those numbers.

I know exactly what I did wrong—I missed too many project days. A big reason for my absences was beyond my control: my family had quite a health adventure a month into the projects. But I also found myself planning or attending meetings on our project day just because it was the easiest day to plan for a sub.

Don’t give in to that temptation. Your students need you there for your encouragement, guidance, inspiration, coaching, support. They’ll hit roadblocks and you need to be there to help clear the rubble. One common roadblock is up next:

7) More scaffolding needed
While some students thrive on managing their own time, other students flounder hard. This is to be expected. For far too long students have been trained to act, think, and do only after their teachers have given instructions. When offered the opportunity to direct their own work and learning some students feel adrift at sea.

Consider the variety of student responses regarding our project days:

I felt like our class was an ordered chaos; it was chaotic at times, but we got things done. // For the DIY project, class time may be wasted by some, but utilized efficiently by others. It ultimately depends on the project. // DIY days are the least productive days out of the week. DIY projects usually take place outside the classroom! // I like how even when we have free time people are still being productive.

The students who felt our project days were the least productive days of the week, probably just didn’t know how to be productive. Kate Petty uses an implementation guide to help students schedule out their projects, but some students will need more scaffolding than this guide provides. I’ll be designing a 20% time menu, a guide to help students choose from a variety of activities they can do to help them push their project forward in ways they may not have considered. As Petty says we have to train students to constantly ask themselves what next?

Some of the menu items can include: check out library books on your subject, or ones similar, as reference guides (students automatically use and the web as reference, but these often just scratch the surface of complex projects or topics), search Twitter and blogs in order to build and connect with an online learning community of people involved in similar projects, research and practice photo and design skills to help students create more professional looking blogs, promote your blog/project through social media.

As you can see, use of the internet is often required for these activities, so I’m especially interested in coming up with offline activities. Please leave your ideas in the comments!

8) Get everyone online
Stop! Drop! and Roll. Stop writing this post, drop whatever else I’m doing, and roll out a Donors Choose campaign to finance a classroom set of Chromebooks. If each student had consistent access to the web during our project days the quality of the learning environment and student projects would improve exponentially.

9) Spend 15 minutes prepping for 20% time the day before
If you want students to be prepared for their project days, don’t wait until the day of to inspire and prepare them for their 20% time. I often found myself taking too much of their time to share ideas, examples, models, and stories of success. Next year I’ll plan out a good 15 minutes at the end of the period the day before to get everyone ready. That way on project days I won’t need to even begin the class: when the bell rings students will know exactly what they’re doing.

My goal is to begin a majority of class periods this way on regular days. EVERY project day should begin automatically.

10) Passion may be too strong a word
One of the many benefits of genius hours or 20% time projects is the deeper, sustained learning students experience as they explore something they’re passionate about. But there’s one minor drawback for some students: they don’t know what their passions are. Some students even report that they don’t have passions. Instead of brainstorming possible projects some students sat around fretting that they didn’t have a passion.

So when I introduce my 20% time project next time I’ll temper passion with other words like interest, inspires and curious. After projects are completed, students will have had the space to explore their possible passions, getting close to what they’re truly passionate about by process of elimination. Maybe they thought they were passionate about photography, but after five months of practicing composition, lighting, Photoshop, etc. they’ll realize, nope, they just like to Instagram.

Bonus Read: Since you’ve made it all the way through this post, go ahead and have a peak at my students’ responses to the project evaluation survey.

Re:Framed Re:Mixed: Solutions to Student Blogging Issues

[cc image by flikr user: web4camguy ]

I’ve been blogging in one form or another since 2001. I started my first blog as a place to publish playlists for my weekly radio show on KUCI. A few years later I started a music blog called with a few college buddies. We were one of the first music blogs and for a while we were regularly reaching 80K readers a month.

So once I started teaching, it was only natural for me to use this technology in the classroom. Two years ago, before I had read or researched anything about 20% Time Projects, my senior English classes were using blogs as a way to demonstrate their learning in their classroom, and their DIY or Do It Yourself learning. (I gave them time to study and learn whatever they wanted; they just had to track it on their blogs.) This is the blog I used to communicate with my students during this project.

Then my former 5th grade classmate, master teacher, mentor and education rival, David Theriault, started a really great blogging project called Re:Framed with his Sophomore Honors classes this last semester. This week he updated his post on student blogging with student feedback and a reflection. Based on the success of his project and the fact that I will inherit many of his students next year in my AP English Language classes, I’m going to continue the Re:Framed project. Of course I’m going to change the name. While I like the name Re:Framed, the idea is too neat and linear for me, like everything needs to be confined by four walls or barriers. I want to promote a more fluid or marbling concept to my project, so I’m going with Re:Mixed. (Speaking of remixing, have you heard the Beastles yet?)

So while Theriault and I collaborate and scheme together a lot, I thought I’d make this brainstorm more public. I want to respond to his reflection and hopefully offer a helpful perspective to some of the issues he faced with student blogging this year:

 [borrowed and modified from]

PROBLEM: Writing deadline/schedule

You’ve pretty much nailed the solution here. Stick with a solid deadline. I also teach print and broadcast journalism at our school and deadlines are not only crucial to each class, they’re an integral college, career, and life skill to practice and learn.

PROBLEM: Pinterest was the WORST way to spend your time promoting your site.

I learned many important marketing concepts while working for a small record label before I began my teaching career, and one big one is this: go to where your audience is. I just read today at Spin Sucks how this is still the case. Moms and brides-to-be are the ones using Pinterest the most. Don’t waste your time there. I’d argue Twitter isn’t a very useful platform for high school students either, not yet at least. Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram is the Holy Trinity of virtual high school hangouts. Promote your blogs there.

PROBLEM: I need to do a better job teaching students how to develop and explore an idea.

Mr. Theriault, you already model this very well. Have your students study your blog posts where you literally use a book, film, or album to frame your thoughts. Another thing to do is  study and practice the rhetorical modes and encourage students to use 3 to 5 different modes in each post. Knowledge of the rhetorical modes will help students consider and explore their ideas in different ways.

PROBLEM: I need to make sure that every group member has the power and ability to use WordPress well.

It sounds as if your students watched as you walked them through the steps of starting up their WordPress blogs on the overhead. They need to be watching and doing at the same time. Schedule a couple days in the computer lab to launch their blogs. I’d also suggest using a checklist of things to do on their blog (ie: find a picture, post a picture, make it a feature picture, etc) and let them work at their own pace. When your blog-savvy students finish their checklist, they could back you up and help train their peers.

PROBLEM: Failing to teach a big idea

I definitely suggest training them to find their own big idea. Reflecting on this year, I need to  teach students how to read subtext, an idea an author is exploring without talking about that idea directly. It’s all about inference. You could also suggest students follow other big idea blogger types like our faves: Austin Kleon or Brain Pickings. Or if you wanted students to share a big idea, what about starting the week of with a common reading or writing prompt, like those from Luke Neff?

[cc image by Telstar Logistics]

PROBLEM: I need a regular blogging workshop time.

My father who teaches 5th grade gave me some great teaching advice early on in my teaching career, advice I’ll never forget and that I always turn to: the more you (the teacher) do, the less they (the students) learn. My suggestion here? Assign different WordPress, blogging, or other social media tools and techniques to each group and have them train the rest of the class.

CONCEPT TO THINK ABOUT: Some students said that I should require all students to follow each others’ blogs.

I remember you telling me that you’d rather follow more people than be followed by them on Twitter. I think the same applies to student blogs. Just because they follow each other doesn’t mean they have to agree with or even read each others blogs. I imagine these blogs to be an extension of the classroom. Don’t we expect students to respectfully listen to each other during discussions? Following each others’ blogs is a respectful form of listening. Whether or  not they reply is up to them.

Speaking of replying, did you offer an award to the best conversationalist? The student who made the most helpful or insightful comments on other blogs? I think this is key.

CONCEPT TO THINK ABOUT: I really like the idea of a YouTube channel and an iTunes U channel for the blogs.

How very 21st century of you! I whole-heartedly agree. These are the skills our students need, but it takes A LOT of time to train them to use audio and video effectively. Trust me. I spend an entire week before school begins training my incoming video production students and it takes them a good semester of daily practice before those skills begin to sink in. Imagine how much more we could accomplish if we weren’t worried about standardized testing!

Parting thoughts: I’ve been thinking about using blogging in the classroom a lot while reading Thomas and Brown’s A New Culture of LearningBlogging is a big part of this new culture and a perfect way for English classes to participate in this way of learning. I think the way you incorporated a sense of competition and sport in the classroom is a key to your blogging’s effectiveness and something I’d like to explore further.

Editors, Deadlines and Networking: Why Student Newspapers Matter

Talk about a blast from the past.  Audrey Smilley, a band whose music I reviewed early in my college career, contacted me out of the blue last week about an upcoming reunion show. They just completed a modest Kickstarter campaign to fund the digitization and remastering of their original recordings. Hoping to get a bit of press about their reunion show, the band contacted the paper I used to write for, Student Review, who in turn contacted me for my perspective some 22 years later.

Reviewing my review, my perspective is this: I’ve come a long way as a writer. That’s to be expected. Writing for the Student Review was the first time I’d ever written for a real audience. Or at least a wider audience. Teachers, friends, girlfriends had all read my essays, letters and notes, but the Student Review published me first. (They’ve published many better writers. Trust me, I’m nothing special.)

It’s much easier to have your work widely read and viewed these days through blogging and social media, but having your work combed over by an editor ups your game exponentially. Sure people may read your work on a blog, but they’ll consume it quickly and may not even read the whole piece. Very few of those readers will comment on the quality of your work, offer suggestions for improvement, push you to write better, more effectively.

That is why if a student wants to write, or just wants to improve their writing, they should join up with their campus newspaper pronto, post haste. Working with editors and deadlines are crucial components to a writing education.

Writing for a school newspaper also provides ample opportunities for networking. You’ll meet and work with a wide variety of people on campus and in the community. My career in the radio, then record business, correlated directly to my experience with the Student Review.

It should be obvious why and how much I love my job: teaching writing and journalism to high school students. I didn’t get involved with my school paper until college, so I missed out on a few key years of writing instruction and a chance to rub shoulders with people I probably should have rubbed shoulders with.

A couple side notes:

The first tip I’d give to my younger self: use stronger verbs. It’s not until paragraphs two and three that I use verbs like yield and surface, which aren’t even all that strong. And the title is begging for a verb that would actually draw people into the review. “Audrey Smilley Reviewed”? Yeah, so what?

The first tip I’d give the band: don’t send half your members to another state to promote your music. Stuff everyone in a van and hit the road.

Yes, I reviewed a cassette tape. This was 1991 folks.