As anyones who grew up in the 90’s knows, ‘zines (handmade mini-magazines) are the epitome of cool. And thanks to Boston Public Schools teacher Christine Beggan, an incredibly cool group of Gardner Pilot Academy nerds is digging the ‘zine genre.
I first caught wind of the 5th grade ‘zine project when checking my teacher mailbox. Along with the usual school mailings I routinely receive, there was something very unusual and surprising – photocopied fluorescent booklets with hand-written and hand-drawn pages. Even more thrilling, the books were about a sub-culture very near and dear to my heart – NERDS!
While the three ‘zines I received all focusthe subject of nerds, the three youngsters that created them took different approaches.
In Cool Nerds in History, Caricaturist Eva M. profiles six different nerds
with a portrait of each as well of an explanation of why each subject qualifies as a nerd.
Expert portrait artist Alex A. zeroes in on two Steves – Urkel and Jobs – in his brief work Cool Nerds. Alex informs the reader that Urkel is categorized as a “funny” nerd.
And finally, researcher and historian Dorlie wrote Nerd Wars in History in chapters. She provides a detailed etymology of the word “nerd” as well as the transition of the “nerd” from an outcast figure to one who commands respect. Consider the following tidbits:
Excerpt from Chapter 1: The word “nerd” first appeared in 1950 in a Dr. Seuss book called “If I Ran the Zoo”. It was about a creature named Nertile “Nerd”.
From Chapter 2: People usually think about how some kids “become” nerds. Was it the way they were born or was it their development in society?
From Chapter 4: The percentages of approval on nerds were low until the early and mid 2000s. Now approval has reached 100% for the first time in nerd history.
The woman behind the nerd ‘zines, Ms. Beggan, could very well be considered a “nerd” herself due to her accomplishments in vinyl record collecting, filmmaking, and German language scholarship. When her 5th grade class chose”nerds” as their homeroom theme for School Spirit Week, Ms. Beggan dreamed up the nerd ‘zine project as a way for students to research and write about the nerd world, a topic not accessed often enough by children in urban schools.
“I wanted every student to realize that it’s cool to be obsessed with learning. That’s why it’s so important for the students to learn about the achievements of nerds – it’s another way to connect them with school,” explains Ms. Beggan, “My students love science, and they were able to learn more about computer geeks, inventors, and the power of problem solving. A ‘zine was non-intimidating, quick, and immediately accessible to all of my students.”
If you want to take on ‘zine-making for yourself or your classroom, here is a helpful article from one of my favorite online creativity magazines (written by and for teenagers of any age): Rookie!
Top left: Cool Teacher Nerd Ms. Beggan with nerd colleague Ms. Mustonen; Bottom left: A handful of cool nerds; Right: Alex A. and Eva M.
Over April Vacation, I taught English Language Arts to 7th grade students for four days at the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury as part of the Acceleration Academy program. The Acceleration Academy is an additional week of academic instruction and enrichment activities provided for students at selected schools
While I have taught in the Acceleration Academies for several years, in both Boston and Lawrence, this year was quite different in terms of curriculum. In the past, the Academies have focused on preparation for the MCAS exams, and each teacher planned his or her own sequence of instruction. This year, however, a group of teachers (including myself) participated in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) training provided by Goalbook and created a set curriculum for the academies based on pre-selected texts .
This UDL-based curriculum proved wildly successful for my 7th grader scholars. Every scholar, within the span of the four day program, completed a final project that expressed understanding of Life Under a Dictatorship. They garnered their knowledge of this topic from selections from Julia Alvarez’s YA novel Before We Were Free and non-fiction articles on the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. I particularly enjoyed teaching with the curriculum because it allowed for inclusive classes in which all students, including students who are in substantially separate special education and SEI classes, could complete a cognitively demanding independent project without any teacher hand-holding. The students’ pride in their work was evident as we did a gallery walk-final circle in which each student presented his or her project to the group. One student announced over and over,”This class is LIT!”, which he explained to me meant that it was an exciting experience.
My ELD level 1 & 2 students took the Achievement Network “Assessment 3”(a benchmark test to collect data on their progress in specific math standards) on March 23. Though each grade level (I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders) showed significant growth from “Assessment 2,” and in many cases outperformed the group of schools to which our school is compared, there was still something nagging at me when I looked at the data. More than half were leaving the constructed response problems blank. ABSOLUTELY BLANK. Even with all of the modeling close reading and teaching how to write sentence starters based on questions, there were so many blanks. Scoring them was incredibly frustrating: 0, 0, 0, 0. A realization came over me: we just aren’t doing enough writing. Having students write answers in complete sentences with their reasoning just isn’t enough. So, I started implementing daily writing in my classroom on Monday, March 28, 2016.
Day 1: Do Now: Write a letter to your little brother/sister/cousin explaining what mean is. What is it? How do you find it? Draw an example to help further explain your thinking.
10 hands shoot up in the air. “Missy, this is too hard!” “Y si yo no tengo hermanito o hermanita o prima?” “Ven aquí, missy, ayudame por favor.” “I don’t get it.” “What is the question?” “How do I answer?”
Day 2: Students are handed back yesterday’s writing with my written feedback. Sentence frames to support students who have trouble starting are written on the board to help support their language development. Do Now: When is the mean a precise indicator of a typical value in a data set? Create an example to explain your thinking further.
10 hands shoot up in the air.“Que significa indicator?” “I don’t get it!!” “Como empiezo?” “Es que yo no entiendo, missy.” “I don’t want to write, can I just tell you?” Individual conferences occur during the 12 minutes of independent writing time.
Day 4: Write Now: What does it mean when we say a number has a specific deviation from the mean?
5 hand shoot up in the air, and some students just call out (gotta keep working on that), “Close together!!” “Spread out!!!”
Day 7: Task:Write a letter to Mr. Garcia about what we have been learning so far about statistics. Make sure you are using precise language, vocabulary and definitions, and you are telling him the purpose of what we are learning. Consider examples and models to support your explanations. Questions to consider include: Why do we use data? How can we use data to describe tendencies in our world? What is mean? What are the different ways we can find it? How do we describe data distributions? What is Mean Absolute Deviation?
“YOU WANT ME TO FILL ALL THESE LINES??!!”Silence. Writing.
Day 10: Task: Complex multi-step constructed response ANET task that synthesizes content understanding.
Silence. Writing. Productive Struggle.
Evidence I have collected on the impact of this writing includes: increased vocabulary retention, enhanced student capacity to speak academically, deeper summary discussions, and it has also given some students who struggle with computation a chance to shine. By day 10, all students were able to access and compete the constructed response task that two weeks ago would have been left blank. Since we began, we have built up our independent writing stamina from 3 minutes before someone interrupts with either a question or chatting, to more than 15 minutes of engaged math writers.
By reading their writing I am able to tease out the differences between students conceptual, procedural, or application understanding of the standard we are working on. But while my conferencing is more targeted and my feedback is more concrete, there have definitely been days where I have failed at implementation: either I don’t have time to give enough or even any feedback, or my question isn’t quite as rich as it could be, or I get frustrated with students for talking during writing time and instead of redirecting them in a calm, collected, supporting manner I was just not the best teacher I could have been.
So this is all pretty great! Right? Well, I have a confession: This past week before break I haven’t been implementing the “Write Now” as much because of excuses: artifact deadlines, practice PARCC exams, the week before break. So, I decided to write this blog. To hold myself accountable. To make what I’m doing public. To make sure I keep up with what works even when it’s hard. To ask for help so that I can think of a way to make giving feedback sustainable because when I get home giving feedback to a stack of 47 Write Nows is pretty much the last thing I want to do. The truth is that implementing daily writing has made my students better statisticians, and it has made me a better teacher of statistics. Because I am the first math teacher my students have when they come to their new, scary, foreign home, it is imperative that I not only teach my students grade-level content, but also help mold them as better writers because I truly believe that being a better writer ultimately makes them better readers, speakers, thinkers, doers, and problem solvers.
We are two middle school ELA teachers who teach in different neighborhoods in the Boston Public Schools. Through our WritingIsThinking collaboration, we created an Independent Reading Pen Pals Program for our students. Beginning in October, students from each class write and address letters to students in the other class across the city several times throughout the year. At the end of the year, the two classes will come together and meet one another. The following is the first in a series of posts about our process of collaboration, the blooming relationships between PenPal writers between our classrooms, and our learnings.
Post 1: The Preparation
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our conversation yesterday when we talked about creating an Independent Reading Pen Pals program between our classrooms. I’m imagining a new kind of authentic engagement from our students with their independent reading books. Plus, an authentic Pen Pal letter definitely beats a typical reading response that I’ve been using in my classroom the last few years. As we make this idea into reality, we should keep the goals we talked about at the center of our work.
The first goal we set was building a community of readers across our city. We can have our students suggest books to one another, and maybe they’ll read the same book at the same time and compare their opinions. The pen pal relationship could be so crucial to the way that students approach finding their books. Maybe we can even set the expectation that they’ll meet in person before the year is out. We also talked about authentic accountability for independent reading. Because students will be “real” with one another, we will have insights as to how our students are thinking about text and that they will select challenging texts to impress their pals. They won’t only be doing the work to please us as their teachers, but to be able to have a conversation with a peer. Finally, we spoke about the individualized nature of letter writing, and how we want kids to value the letter because it is something that another person put time into that was created just for them. This will augment engagement and make for long, fluent letters by the end of the school year.
I can’t wait to kick this off! Talk soon.
I hope these lines find you well. I am ecstatic for my students to write to yours this week! I have been talking about our upcoming partnership with my students for the last four weeks, and now the time is finally here! To help us match pen pals, I thought it would be easiest to create an excel spreadsheet in Google drive. I have inputted all of my students and some information about them that would help us match pen pals. For each student I included some of their interests based on their “Meet the Author” pieces, the types of independent reading books they have been reading thus far this year, if they have an ELD or SPED code, and some other details about what they would bring to a pen pal relationship or what I would ideally like for them to get out of one.
I have been thinking a lot about the potential these partnerships have to lift many of my students, both in regards of engagement in reading, and friendship. Here are a few of the students I am most excited for:
Mitchell: A sweetie-pie. He is a big kid who loves the Celtics and spends all of lunch making free throws. He is a little lonely (social pragmatics challenges) and all of his realistic fiction stories this year center around kindness and accepting everyone. He works really hard and will be a very diligent writer. I think matching him with someone who can really affirm him will be powerful!
Daniela: Her disability and language needs are compounded which makes her writing very challenging to read. She does produce a lot of writing in volume though. She loves animals and wants to be a vet. I will provide her with appropriate scaffolding and read her letters with her before she sends them. I would pair her with someone who is either at a similar level or has some empathy. 🙂 She loves and is currently reading the graphic novel Drama.
Sergio: Loves football, has a very low self esteem with regard to writing, but is a strong writer. Pairing him with someone who will ask questions and push his writing would be awesome!!!
I have also been thinking about a few of my students who have been struggling to get into independent reading this year and whom I believe this partnership could engage. I think we should be prepared that the first few letters may not be book related at all, but may just get kids writing! They may just want to talk about social topics, but I think that’s ok, as building a sense of community is one of our objectives. I think we can teach into writing about reading comprehension once the engagement is there. One of my students is constantly on my mind when I think about a need for community, and for engagement in text:
Armondo: Our toughest Tier 3 kid this year. He needs a lot of love and someone to listen to him. Mom just had a baby. He has been reading the Simpsons comic books this year. He hates doing assigned tasks, but I think will respond well to someone who is focused on just him. 🙂 Would benefit from having a pen pal who models what letter writing should look like. He loves football and basketball.
Since our schedules are so packed and we aren’t able to meet face-to-face before I launch the letter writing in my classroom this week, I propose we use google docs to match pen pals. Why don’t you use your class roster to try and match students based on your knowledge of your students and what I have included in the google doc. If you need any clarification on any of the students, let me know!
That google doc was the perfect idea. I matched my students in column D of the spreadsheet and, if I thought there were things that you should know about that particular student, I noted them in column E (IEP needs, language information, etc). I’ve also been talking about this relationship for the last four weeks, so kids are itching to hear from your students.
When do students with special needs who have been supported in all aspects of their educational experiences become active participants, instead of passive bystanders? When do they transition into being self-advocates, instead of being the reason for teacher advocacy? How does this transition happen, and how can writing help? These questions were on the forefront of my mind as I launched an investigative journalism unit in our 8th grade writing class while also recalling the mantra of our special education team- “No decision about me without me.” How do I teach both advocacy and grade level writing standards without forcing a connection or having students merely regurgitate my ideas?
In an effort to address barriers with engagement for the writing unit, students were encouraged to investigate an issue that mattered to the community but also to them as individuals. Many students chose the Boston Public Schools high school selection process wherein an algorithm determines a child’s future. Boston Public Schools holds an annual lottery wherein families rank their high school options and a computer generated program determines their high school assignment based on location, ranking, sibling school placement, ESL codes and Special Needs codes. There are also schools that require an application process and/or an exam score for the opportunity to attend. The high school process in Boston is similar to applying to college in terms of selecting from various options and having different requirements for admission. In the case of students with IEP’s who receive educational support either in an inclusion setting or in a sub-separate classroom (80% of their school day), these students have less school options that go into the algorithm.
At the outset of the unit, I conferenced with students who were struggling to identify a relevant issue, and when meeting with one of my inclusion students, Andy, I mentioned the high school process and asked how he was feeling about it. I explained that he would get fewer options and asked which options he hoped he had. At the time, Boston Public Schools was not able to provide the inclusion seat options to students and families so the discussion was based solely on what we hoped we would see on his list of school choices even though non special education students were aware of all of their options.
This fact that he had less options and something different from his peers was life changing for Andy. As a student with language based learning disabilities who uses English in school and Vietnamese at home to communicate, one could argue he spends a great deal of his day working on using his language skills for self-advocacy, especially since his expressive and receptive language skills are low in both his L1 and L2. Language does not come easily to him. He is often quiet and frequently relies on his peers for expressive language and his teachers for receptive language.
When he learned of the inequity happening to him in regard to high school, he found his voice. I was nervous to name the issue because I worried about his self-perception and wanted to protect him from the harshness of a system that, for the fourteen years of my teaching career, has continued to disappoint me when it comes to supporting transitions for students from 8th grade to 9th grade. Was this more about my feelings than Andy’s? I had to name for myself that I was only giving him facts, and it was Andy who generated the real feelings that mattered the most.
Andy surveyed his classmates to gauge their reactions to learning students with IEPs get a reduced number of high school options. He interviewed his assistant principal in person and also interviewed the head of the Boston Public Schools Guidance Department via e-mail. Andy then participated in high school research—studying websites and visiting schools. With teacher support, he created a multi-paragraph news article highlighting the inequity that exists within Boston Public Schools for students with specific special needs. The fact that he produced multiple paragraphs that reflect grade level standards of including claim, evidence, and reasoning in his writing exceeded his IEP goals and highlighted his potential that had previously been unseen.
However, perhaps the biggest transformation that occurred is that for the first time in Andy’s life, he exercised his power through language and independently completed the application to his most desired high school. He had to complete a paper application that included family input, to request his transcripts and to generate an essay explaining the characteristics of a good school and a good student as well as detailing why he wanted to attend this specific school. It was the first time Andy was independent with a task involving multiple steps. He found his voice, and it was one of power.
I didn’t have to speak for him. He was able to speak for himself. Through discussing, thinking and writing, he was able to exercise his independence for the first time. I realize I don’t need to be advocating for him, I need to be advocating with him. How do I increase student voice and advocacy from those who need it most? This is the question I will continue to ask my students so that together we can be agents of change for a transition process in Boston Public Schools that is in desperate need of updates.
Andy reads his news article draft out loud with pride so he can receive feedback from his grandfather at the GPA Writing Celebration on December 16, 2015.
It’s eight in the morning, and every student is singing.
Across the classroom and in the hallways, groups of students are dancing, arguing, laughing. Over the last twenty-four hours, they have practiced at school, at each other’s houses, even over video chat. Soon, they will perform original songs for the class.
What topic inspired such fervor? An unlikely suspect: the Ganges River.
I often bring music into my fifth and sixth grade social studies classes, and I’ve even written a few songs for students. But I rarely asked students to write songs themselves. It’s too unpredictable, I’d thought. Too unstructured and challenging for most kids. But here we were on a Friday morning, just a few hours away from the students’ performances about a river in India.
How did it go? You can see for yourself:
Something about writing songs resonated with the students in a way that essays and study guides can’t match. For this reason, I believe songwriting in the classroom is worth exploring, particularly for honoring the strengths and needs of English language learners and students with disabilities.
Writing SAM Songs
The method I have developed and used for teaching songwriting is called “SAM Songs.” The graphic organizer for students is below:
The project will take at least three class periods: two for writing and one for performances.
To introduce the project, ask your students to share their favorite songs. After hearing from your students, tell them, believe it or not, they have the chance to sing these songs in class. Explain that you are trying something new: students will be writing songs to learn, and they will perform these songs for one another. Help students envision the project with an example. For instance, you might show students the “No Taxation Without Representation” clip from the above video (3:44 to 6:03) or “Dump It Off” below:
Introduce the guiding question for the project. This is what students will answer with their songs. The question, like an essay prompt, should require research and critical thinking. For example:
What were the causes and effects of the Boston Tea Party?
When should a person use estimation?
What are the major sources of renewable energy, and how do they work?
How does daily exercise affect the body?
In what ways can an author establish mood in a text?
Tell your students to include relevant vocabulary (“Say”), take perspectives (“Act”), and use motions to reinforce vocabulary (“Move”) in their songs. If you plan to grade the songs, introduce the rubric.
Allow students to form groups of three to four and begin researching. From my experience, letting students choose their groups keeps students invested in the project and happy with their teammates.
During the songwriting process, students will be loud. They will move around. Some groups will follow the process faithfully, while others will excitedly start picking a song to parody. My advice: embrace the energy, and have faith in your students. The creative process will look different for everyone, and I’m always impressed by what my students accomplish. Students will sometimes ask for help when they are searching for just the right words or trying to explain a concept clearly. With some exceptions, I tell them, “That sounds challenging. I know you can figure it out.” Sure enough, most students do.
Students continue writing and rehearsing. During this time, look over students’ lyrics, ask students to show you motions for particular words, and challenge students to incorporate relevant vocabulary into their songs. If students finish, they can practice and give other groups feedback. Before class ends, encourage groups to make plans for practicing outside of school.
Class Three – The Performances:
While students rehearse for five minutes, make a stage area and prepare any music tracks on your computer or phone. Assign one student to start music tracks and another to film performances. After each performance, take a few audience shout-outs before moving on to the next performance. Later, you can show videos of the performances. Students love watching these, and it’s a great way to wrap up the project.
Benefits for ELLs and SWDs
From my experience, songwriting has three clear benefits for English language learners and students with disabilities:
Combines speaking, listening, reading, writing, and moving
When songwriting, students speak, listen, read, write and move, and in a way that comes naturally to the activity. If I’m writing a song about the Himalayas, I’m writing the word Himalayas, saying it, reading it, hearing students around me say it, and doing a motion that relates to the word. I also repeat the word many times because I am practicing for my performance. For an ELL or SWD, what could be more immersive than this?
Makes misconceptions visible
When students use motions in their songs, you can see students’ understanding, or lack thereof. For instance, for the Ganges River project, one group was singing about Indians praying in the river. As they sang, the students made a cross with their fingers, despite having learned that most Indians are Hindu, not Christian. It signaled to me that something was misunderstood: Hinduism, praying, or the meaning of the cross symbol. This misconception was unlikely to appear in ordinary writing.
Perhaps the most important benefit of songwriting for ELLs and SWDs is how engaging it can be for these students. Students who have trouble sitting still are out of their seats, singing and dancing. English language learners are explaining ideas and using vocabulary without fixating on grammar and syntax. And songwriting is challenging for all students. When ELLs and SWDs see that they aren’t alone in the struggle, they feel up to the challenge.
I was at the copy machine one afternoon, the day before students performed their songs. One of my students, a former ELL, ran up to me in the hallway.
“Yes?” I asked, surprised.
The student, out of breath, replied, “What’s the place where Hindus pray?”
Earlier that afternoon, I asked my students how songwriting made them feel. One student who has a disability gave this answer:
“Like I woke up. Like I’m covered with lava!”
(I checked with the student later, who assured me that this is a good thing.)
These are the kinds of moments we all hope for as teachers. Through songwriting, we have the potential to engage all of our students – ELLs, SWDs, and their general education peers. Imagine what is possible when all our students “wake up.”
Ben Leddy teaches fifth and sixth grade Social Studies in Boston. Ben presented at 2015 Boston EdTalks, where he introduced the SAM songwriting method for using songs in the classroom. For more information or inquiries, visit www.benleddy.com, or email Ben at email@example.com.
Once students have completed the planning stage of the writing process, it is important for teachers to conduct an informal assessment to ensure that their young writers are well-planned and bursting with ideas.
Writers who have effectively completed planning should be able to respond to the following questions:
Why are you going to write this piece?
What genre will your piece be?
Who is your audience?
What do you know about your topic?
What are the most important ideas that you will share in your writing?
An oral assessment in which peers ask and answer questions while the teacher circulates can serve as a great checkpoint before beginning to facilitate organizing. My students have also enjoyed recording their brief interviews with one another via the super-simple online recording tool vocaroo and submitting them via e-mail. If students do not pass this checkpoint, they require more support and the planning stage should be revisited. After all, how can ideas be organized when there are none?
In order to internalize ways to organize writing, students need to know how to create their own outlines and graphic organizers. However, meeting this goal takes effective teacher modeling as well as practice and repetition. Teacher-created graphic organizers can serve as initial models, but these should be phased out during the year as students draw them and memorize them. Although it doesn’t make sense for students to memorize a unique organizer for every genre encountered, students should develop the following general repertoire:
a narrative or fiction summary consisting of characters, setting, and major beginning, middle, and end plot points
a non-fiction summary with main idea and at least 3 supporting details
At the beginning of the year, I often spend a class period or two using transparencies or chart paper to model using an organizer. For example, when my intermediate ESL class studied World Mythology, students read various myths of Heracles. The students then had to select three episodes from the life of Heracles to write as diary entries. In order to do this, the students needed to create a narrative summary organizer with a detailed list of the important plot points. I used the story of infant Heracles killing the snakes who invaded his nursery to model the organization task on a transparency, showing the students how I continually returned to the text to identify the characters, setting, and plot points. Because the students had read the story prior to this modeling, they were also able to engage in the conversation and orally assist with the completion of the model organizer.
After this demonstration, students had a solid model of how to complete their own organizers for their diary entries. As another checkpoint, I highly recommend collecting and assessing organizers, to ensure that the students now have substance acquired from the planning phase and the structure acquired from the organization phase to finally move on to writing.
Honestly, the writing phase of the writing process is such a joyful moment for me as the facilitator. Before the pleasure of our first “writing” session of the year, I review my norms and expectations with the class.
On our writing days, students must:
come prepared with their planning and organizing documents
Of course, this does not happen perfectly the first time. The first time that we embark upon this journey, I time the class in order to gauge their writing stamina. I also make a rule that students may not get up from their seats for any reason for the first fifteen minutes.
The secret is that, usually, after fifteen minutes have passed, the students have become absorbed in their work, and I get to sit back and watch the fruits of my labor – young writers putting words on paper for an extended period of time. To encourage the children, when fifteen minutes have passed, I walk around quietly and put a small candy next to each child, but I am careful not to interrupt their writing.
When students know why they are writing and have ideas to write about, they are more successful in the writing stage. Students are able to fill a page or two (or even more) with their ideas.
This article is the second in a three part series on the topic of “Internalizing the Writing Process”.