So, what makes a difference?

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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!

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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

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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!

A Walk Down Memory Lane With Google Street View

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I came across a post by @dougpete entitled “My Childhood Community”.  He used Google Street View to take a virtual walk down memory lane.  My head started spinning because I saw a student assignment in this.  After just finishing an immigration unit as well as a project called “What’s Your Story”, I was thinking that this was the perfect opportunity to tap into some 21st Century skills while connecting with adults.  I imagined my students sitting in front of a laptop with a parent or grandparent and asking them about where they grew up.  The child would then show them using Google Street View the places they were speaking of.  As the conversation developed, the tool would be used as a virtual treasure hunt where the two generations would be exploring, sparking memories, and learning from each other.  They will be able to talk about changes in childhood, buildings, and technology. What a recipe for a meaningful conversation!

I have not started this with my students yet, but have created directions for the project here. Even if  I don’t have time to fit this in for this current year, I have learned how to use Google in a way that I’ve never thought of before. Digital storytelling has become an integral part of my language arts curriculum, and this is just another extension to it.

This past week, I sat with my mom as we talked about my childhood. I showed her what I was doing on Google Street View and she was amazed at the technology!  We spent about an hour reminiscing and exploring our little town and the surrounding areas.  It truly was a great conversation and walk down memory lane.  I see her every day, but don’t always have the opportunity to connect in the way we did this week. Here we are just before my first birthday…I was just beginning to walk…

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Below are the examples that I made from that discussion with my mom:

Thanks to @dougpete for sharing your experience, and a special thanks to my mom that walked with me through my childhood, and continues to walk with me every day.

girls

The Quest for Muchness

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This past week, I took my kids to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.  I was blown away by the beauty of the film along with its ability to make me (an audience member) believe that I was in Wonderland…or Underland that is.  Beyond the drama, costumes, and special effects, a quote that was derived from Carroll’s original text, Through the Looking Glass, resonated most with me: You used to be much more…muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.

I immediately came home and tweeted the quote along with a question: Can we teach muchness? I had two amazing conversations about this with @averyteach and @jeffwolfsberg. If you saw the movie, you know that Alice found her muchness and was able to slay the Jabberwocky with the Vorpal Sword.  But, what was that muchness that Alice found? Was it her passion? Was it the strength to discover who she really is?

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After thinking about these questions, I knew why this quote had become an earworm in my head: Isn’t it our job as teachers to help students find their muchness? Shouldn’t we be giving them the skills and tools to help discover their strengths and passions?

I’m reminded of a TED talk that Temple Grandin gave recently about helping spectrum kids find their passion using mentors.  As a mom to an aspie kiddo, I know the importance of using that child’s passion to help them relate to the world and learn about academic areas through that passion…that muchness.  But this shouldn’t be a special needs thing…this should be just good teaching and learning for all students. Every student should learn about their muchness…about their passions…and if they don’t know what it is, we should help them to discover it.  We need to look beyond our four walls to connect students to mentors in their area of interest…we are no longer the gatekeepers to learning in our rooms, and it is time to explore and embrace that fact.

Yes, this is another *thing* that we need to add to our already packed days.  It is not easy. It takes a lot of work, time, and dedication to help each child develop their muchness. Do we want to create good little test takers or do we want to create a community of learners that is engaged, innovative & creative, connected, and has the ability to communicate and collaborate? Aren’t these the 21st century skills that we have been hearing about? Is muchness the key to teaching and learning in the 21st century? I believe if you ask any employer today, they would say unanimously, “YES!”  So let’s prepare them by tapping into their passions, breaking down the barriers of our four walls, and encouraging teachers to tap into their own muchness.

But…that’s another story…that I’ll answer with a question: What happens when teachers have lost their muchness? Can’t my original earworm quote apply to teachers as well? You used to be much more…muchier. You’ve lost your muchness. Let’s continue the quest for muchness for our students as well as for ourselves.

Replace One, Guide One

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While watching the ASCD conference streamed live last week, I was eagerly anticipating Heidi Hayes Jacobs talk about Curriculum 21.  I had just finished the innovative book recently and have been telling every edu-type that I know to read it.  During the talk, there were some amazing nuggets of advice, awesome quotes like, “Lamination is the mummification of curriculum”, and a challenge to have every teacher replace one dated assignment or assessment with one that is current and highlights 21st century skills.

This past week, Heidi started a new ning for Curriculum 21.  Her first post was this:

Upgrading:  One Assessment at a Time

Each teacher in a school can make a commitment to REPLACE a dated assessment type with a modern one. For example, instead of doing an “oral report” with notecards, students can create a video podcast. IDEAS?

This immediately caught my interest, so I responded with a story of replacement that happened recently:

Hi Heidi.
I just wanted to share a wonderful experience with a middle school math colleague of mine with “replacement” practices. She came to me and wanted to figure out a way that she could make her mathematician reports that she has done for years more “current”. She wanted the basics of the assignment to be the same, but wanted to use 21st century skills in a meaningful, purposeful way.

I teach the same students that she does, so I know they are highly skilled in using technology, but I didn’t want to overwhelm her. So I taught her how to create a wiki and how to set the parameters for the students. She went and worked on her wiki diligently, and returned for some follow up one or two times.

Within 2 weeks, she had learned to use a wiki, created a wiki, was comfortable enough to use it with students, and had the students successfully complete the project!

Not only did she replace a dated assessment, but she also changed how she grading it by using a rubric. We had another session where I taught her how to use rubistar to create a rubric and roobrix to calculate the grade. In the end, she changed two things about the project, but the content met her original goal from years ago!

Here is the final wiki created by the students. She is so thrilled with the final results that she came to me two days ago to help her plan the next “replacement” assessment! She loved that the students were engaged, interested, and learning in a way that she hasn’t seen before. She also loved that she did this paperlessly!

Hopefully, this “replacement” practice will start to spread with this little seed. Thank you Heidi, for continuing to have the vision.
🙂 Megan
@mrspal

I would like to continue to support Heidi’s challenge to “replace one“, but I’d also like to add “guide one” to those of us that have the skills and resources to help those who would like to “replace one” but don’t even know where to begin.  If we begin to internalize this practice of replacing and guiding, we are creating a community of learners amongst ourselves that will continue to grow exponentially as each “seed” is planted.


So, what do you believe?

On January 25th, I began the process of teaching 8th graders how to write a “This I Believe” essay in 350-500 words.  It seemed like a simple task until I realized the magnitude of what I was asking them to discover about themselves, in addition to being able to share that information with me.  Although I can’t share the essays with you, I have created a video with true belief statements extracted from the original pieces. I hope this will inspire you to ask yourself what you believe in…go ahead…ask your students, too!

These are the original slides that we created the video from:

Teaching the Holocaust using 21st Century Skills

Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to be trained in Holocaust Education through Facing History and Ourselves.  At the time, I had no idea how that program would change so much of my program.  If you ever get a chance to be involved with the organization, it is an amazing experience!

Since then, I’ve created a year-long 8th grade research project, make.a.difference, in which students choose a person or organization that has made a positive difference in the world.  Facing History uses the Holocaust as a catalyst for teaching tolerance as well as choosing to participate in order to make the world a better place.

In 7th grade, I’ve created a rich Holocaust Education experience involving film, literature, short stories, poems, and graphic novels.  I challenged my 7th graders to research a survivor or upstander from the Holocaust to remember.  They used imovie and photostory to create a digital story about their person.  The end result was powerful, meaningful, and moving.  Click here to view all of their amazing creations!

My diigo list of Holocaust resources.