Monthly Archives: April 2010

One Thing

One Thing 2010

I recently showed my 8th graders a photography project by Susan Mullally entitled, “What I Keep”.  This photo essay collection sparked a discussion about what we value most.  I asked them all to bring in one thing that they would keep if they could only keep one thing.  It could be symbolic, real, or a photo.  I brought in a jar of sea glass that my gram and I had collected throughout my childhood.  Inside is a card that reads:

Dear Megan,

This shell and sea glass collection is now yours.  I treasure the memory of the happy days we spent together collecting them on the shore of Ship Ahoy beach.

Happy Birthday

Love Gram

We talked about the fact that it is not about the object, but the memories that were created around the object.  Today they brought in their objects and I photographed them by the beloved “Winnie the Pooh” tree on our campus.  I loved seeing what they brought in and hearing the stories that came with it.  I also loved showing my students how one thing and one picture can tell a story without one word.

So, what makes a difference?

madlogoFINAL2010

When I ask my 8th graders about making a difference in the world, I get very different answers between September and April.  We require our 8th graders to delve into an intensive year-long project that focuses on a person or organization that has made a positive difference in the world.  This gives the students flexibility and the ability to choose something that they are passionate about.  At my school, my 8th graders make a difference in a variety of ways:

The topics this year included:  Unicef, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP),  PGA Foundation, HOPE International, Ronald McDonald House, Pearl S. Buck Foundation and Welcome House, World Wildlife Federation, Tiger Woods Foundation, Holocaust Education, American Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Surfaid International and Malaria Awareness, Jackie Robinson, Hoops of Hope and Aids Awareness, World Fair Trade Organization, Amnesty International, United Way, St. Jude’s, Dupont, Covenant House, Big Brother & Big Sister Organization, Save Darfur, World Vision International, Livestrong, Animal Rescue, and Greenpeace.

The project starts off with a persuasive essay.  The purpose is to pursuade the teacher of the merits of the organization, materials available, and connection for the student.

Once students are assigned a topic, they write a formal business letter requesting information.  I’ve gotten about a 60% return rate on those.

Then, the research begins using noodletools.  Students are required to have a minimum of 2 books, 4 Internet, 2 print, and 2 multimedia sources in order to create 50 facts about their person or organization.

Around November, students decide what extension area hours they would be participating in.  For this project, students are required to do 8 extension area hours with a mentor (teacher supervisor) in their choice of:  community service, art, music, creative writing, or technology.  This allows the students to gravitate towards an area of interest or passion that provides a more meaningful layer of the project.  This year, some of the extension areas were done in the following ways:

  • Creative writing ~ published children’s books, poetry books, journals
  • Art ~ tape sculptures, wire sculptures, clay cast tablets, framed charcoal pictures
  • Music ~ original recorded guitar music along with lyrics and poems
  • Technology ~ powerpoint, video game, original video, website setup for fundraising
  • Community Serivce ~ free throw night, lemonade stands with local business participation, craft fair participation, collections for wish list items and delivery, family room activity with patients, working with a local fair trade business, creating an ice skating fundraising event, helping with the set up of a BB BS community event, creating and implementing a “horseless” horse show, getting pledges, donating items, and working with a local animal rescue

These extension area hours are probably the most meaningful to the students.  It allows them to be independent and connect with their project in a way that was important to them.

I dedicate a minimum of one class per week from September to April in order to teach the writing skills necessary for this project, and to give them time to complete the written portions within the school day.  In March, students learn how to take all of their research from noodletools, synthesize what they learned, and take that information to write a traditional MLA style research paper.  The focus of the paper is not the history of the person or organization, but how they make a positive difference in the world, which is evident in their thesis statements.

Students are then required to make a visual that includes 20 photos and original typed captions.  Some students choose to do this with a standard trifold board, when others take this as an opportunity to be more creative.  The visual allows students a conversation piece for the final day and evening.

Perhaps one of the most meaningful parts of the project is the creation of the toolbox.  Students are asked to create a toolbox that has 3 items in it that represent how their person or organization has made a positive difference in the world along with a detailed written description of each.  For example, the student that did Hoops of Hope, an organization that combines basketball with AIDS prevention and awareness, cut a basketball in half for her actual toolbox.  Inside, she had a dollar to represent fundraising, a heart to represent caring, and a camera to tell a story about the founder of the organization traveling to Africa and taking pictures of the children in order for them to “see” themselves for the first time.  This toolbox not only gets students to think in a more symbolic way, but it allows them another point of reference during their final day interviews.

Reflection is a vital part of this project.  Students are asked the week before the final make a difference day to write a personal reflective paper about their project.  They think about why they chose their topic, what interesting things they learned, what they would do differently, what they enjoyed the most, and how doing this project has made a difference to them.  To me, other than the interviews, this piece shows growth, maturity, and true understanding of themselves and their topic.

On the make a difference day, students come dressed to represent their project in some way and bring “artifacts” to decorate their tables.  They set up first thing in the morning with their binders that include all of the written work, visual, toolbox, and artifacts.  This year, they walked into the exhibit area with a sense of excitement and pride that you could just feel in the air.  During the day, they are interviewed by a panel of teachers that use a rubric designed for evaluating this final process.  These interviews allow the students to be experts in their topic as well as allow the teachers and administrators to see a side of them that is passionate, proud, and dedicated.  The day time also allows students from grades 4-7 to walk through the exhibit to learn from the 8th grade experts.  Students were required to have a way to engage younger learners and to teach them about their person or organization.  The younger students actively listen, participate in activities, and ask questions.  Educating the community during this day is just as important as completing the projects for my students.

After a long day of teaching and interviewing, students return in the evening with their parents and other family members.  This is a chance for the students to truly shine.  Parents are amazed every one of the students was able to look them in the eye while speaking intelligently and passionately about their topic.  They saw glimpses of future volunteers, advocates, and people who will make a difference in the world.

So, what makes a difference?

  • Giving students opportunities to study things that they are passionate about.
  • Celebrating differences in learning styles by including art, music, technology, and creative writing.
  • Connecting students to their work through service learning.
  • Allowing students to shine by becoming experts, teachers, and leaders.
  • Having a community that promotes student experiences that go beyond the walls of the classroom.
  • Faculty who are willing to be supervisors and interviewers because they focus on one thing:  kids.
  • Administration that spends hours facilitating the logistics of the project, allows for flexibility in the curriculum, and are willing to push students and teachers to go above and beyond to make sense of the world that we live in as well as see the good in it.
  • Students who are willing to put themselves “out there” with their learning, their passion, and their view of the world.
  • Parents that now see their children as young adults that can do anything they set their minds to.

The make a difference project is in its second year of implementation.  I had no idea how much this project would change my life and the lives of the students that I teach.  I have learned that when combining passion and learning, there is no end to the possibilities for the students and the teachers.  I am blessed that I teach at a school that creates opportunities for students to be successful and to learn that they, too, can make a difference in this world.

For more information about the project, you can visit the student blog here.

Natalie Merchant Sings Old Poems to Life

Natalie Merchant has been a favorite singer/songwriter of mine since the days of Ten Thousand Maniacs.  These Are The Days continues to be one of those “go to” songs for me.  When I watched this video today, I was awe-struck.  She has literally breathed life into poetry that was flat and lifeless on a dusty old page for hundreds of years.  She has created something new and innovative with something embedded in time.  Natalie spent six years researching the poets and poetry that she painstakingly chose to bring to life in her new album Leave Your Sleep, which debuts on April 13th.  Her Ted Talk highlights some of the songs from the album along with her amazing storytelling skills.  Just watch Natalie make people fall in love with 19th Century poetry with her  uniquely haunting voice.  I’ll be sharing this with my students and have already pre-ordered the album.  What a spectacular comeback for Natalie!

“Leave Your Sleep is the most elaborate project I have ever completed or even imagined.  Nearly seven years ago I set out to create a piece of work I hoped could capture the universal experience of childhood through poetry and music.” ~ Natalie Merchant 2010

Poetry March Madness!

cover2010jpg

Since April is National Poetry Month and March is (unofficial) Basketball Month, I decided to have a little fun with poetry!  The original idea was from an article on the National Council of English Teachers website.  I used How to Eat a Poem from the American Poetry and Literacy Project to gather the 64 poems that I needed:

how to eat a poem

The book is separated into 4 themes:  Magic Words ~ Poems about Poetry, Books, Words, and Imagination, My Heart Leaps Up ~ Poems About the Beauty of the Natural World, I Think Over Again My Small Adventures ~ Poems about Travel, Adventure, Sports, and Play, and Hope is the Thing of Feathers ~ Poems About Love, Friendship, Sadness, Hope, and Other Emotions.  This made it really easy to put the poems into four different sections, so that each class was only analyzing 18 poems.  Students read the poems with a partner and had a discussion about the following:

  • meaning
  • voice and speaker
  • language
  • structure and form
  • tone
  • personal reflections

I structured the poems in pairs that would be voted on after each poem was read and discussed.  Here are the “lineups” that each class received:

Lineup #1

Lineup #2

Lineup#3

Lineup #4

Each student also had a blank bracket, but I had a live google docs bracket that had all of the class information on it that we would add to each class.  I have to say that I’ve never seen kids so excited to read poetry!  We certainly had some lively discussions, voiced opinions, and had a really great dose of healthy competition!  The final four came down to Six Words, Swift Things Are Beautiful, Sick, and How Many, How Much. The final votes came down to How Many, How Much, by Shel Silverstein.  The poem is perfectly fit for middle schoolers…it is short, sweet, and about the most important thing in their lives:  friends.

How Many, How Much
By Shel Silverstein
How many slams in an old screen door?
Depends how loud you shut it.
How many slices in a bread?
Depends how thin you cut it.
How much good inside a day?
Depends how good you live ‘em.
How much love inside a friend?
Depends how much you give ‘emHow Many, How Much How Many, How Much

How Many, How Much

Shel Silverstein

How many slams in an old screen door?
Depends how loud you shut it.
How many slices in a bread?
Depends how thin you cut it.
How much good inside a day?
Depends how good you live ‘em.
How much love inside a friend?
Depends how much you give ‘em.

Congratulations to Duke and Shel!  I absolutely plan on doing this again next year, but I’m going to have the students research to collect their own top picks and seeds!


Depends how much you give ‘em. Shel Silverstein
How many slams in an old screen door?
Depends how loud you shut it.
How many slices in a bread?
Depends how thin you cut it.
How much good inside a day?
Depends how good you live ‘em.
How much love inside a friend?
Depends how much you give ‘em.

Can you see me? Transparency in Teaching and Learning

transparentteacher

I’ve been teaching for 15 years…I’ve been learning my whole life.  My passion is the process of teaching and learning together.  I love learning from others, sharing ideas, and collaborating.  It is a part of me…an extension that is so natural, that I don’t even think about it.  Recently, I was sharing and collaborating with a group of teachers on twitter about a google maps lesson when a fellow teacher, Zoe Branigan-Pipe,  wrote this on her blog about me:

Well – I feel pretty engaged. Today, I thank @mrspal, a colleague in Philly that I met through twitter and blogging. Just read her blog: http://middleschool101.edublogs.org and you will see that she has a passion for education that is viral. She is transparent in her teaching and makes it a priority to share and support others.
After reading her post “take a walk down memory lane”, an interactive, inquiry based activity using Google Streets View, she inspired me to try it out on my own students. Within the hour, she emailed me her lesson plan/student instruction sheet and seemed as excited as I was. Now that is open source, open content, free, creative commons, license free at its GREATEST.

This absolutely blew my mind.  Zoe was able to see me as a person and a teacher within moments of our initial contact.  I wondered if others could see me as well without ever meeting me in person…I really thought about how she was able to do that.  When mulling this over in my head, I realized that everything I do online is an extension of my authentic self.  My digital footprint truly represents the person I am in “real” life.  So, what are the implications of this lightbulb moment?

  1. We need to be transparent in our web 2.0 lives in order for authentic learning and collaboration to occur.
  2. We need to make sure that our digital footprints are reflective of ourselves.
  3. We need to teach our students that it is vital to preserve their own digital footprints by being authentic and transparent.
  4. We need to be transparent in the classroom on a daily basis by being open, fair, accountable, and flexible.
  5. We need to be transparent in our learning.  Our classrooms are not limited to the four walls that hold it up any longer.  By collaborating and sharing, we are modeling transparency in learning for our students.

Sometimes it isn’t easy to step outside yourself  to see what others see.  I no longer see a divide between “real life” and “online life”.  I am the same person…I am transparent.  Thank you, Zoe, for reminding me of the importance of that.

Adora Svitak: What adults can learn from kids

I am inspired by kids every day; it is why I’ve been a middle school teacher for the past 15 years. I learn from kids about new technologies, interesting books, and daily life as a millennial tween.  I am reminded on a daily basis to laugh, be in the moment, and not take life too seriously all the time.  I witness moments of learning, sparks of imagination, and creative wheels spinning before my very eyes. I laugh, I cry, I get frustrated, I learn, I teach, I care, and I am passionate about what I do.  I clearly remember being a student teacher and having to write my educational philosophy.  Sixteen years later, the last line still rings true for me, “I intend to learn as much from my students as they learn from me.”  Thank you, Adora Svitak for reminding me that I am so incredibly lucky to do what I do every day!