Nerds Rule! Creating 8 Page ‘Zines with 5th Grade Students

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!

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While the three ‘zines I received all focusthe subject of nerds, the three youngsters that created them took different approaches.

In Cool Nerds in HistoryCaricaturist Eva M. profiles six different nerds
with a portrait of each as well of an explanation of why each subject qualifies as a nerd.

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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.

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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.

Life Under a Dictatorship – UDL in Action

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.

Curriculum Planning Resources

Gr. 7 Before We Were Free Curriculum Resource Document

Gr. 7 Before We Were Free Final Project Lesson Plan

Final Project Gallery

Life Under a Dictatorship Podcast

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Using Writing to Teach Self-Advocacy

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?

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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's Article

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.

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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. 

 

What Teachers Really Need: More Collaborative Planning Time

While participating in the Literacy Design Collaborative jurying process at the Southern Regional Education Board Conference this past July, I was blown away by all of the thoughtful, creative, standards-based Science & Social Studies learning modules created by fellow teachers from all over the country. These modules were both content-rich and heavily focused on critical literacy. For example, an 11th grade Chemistry module titled “Nuclear Sustainability” asks students students research the chemistry of nuclear power, evaluate its sustainability,  and write either an editorial or public service announcement persuading their audience of their views.  I was elated to read through the overarching goal and daily tasks because it was exactly the sort of student work production the Writing is Thinking team is advocating for.  

After being awe-stricken by the rigor and quality of the modules, I immediately began trying to estimate how much time the modules would take to plan. It was clear that they took hours upon hours upon hours. I know that when I create a unit plan or lesson plans that are intended to be shared with others, it takes me FAR longer than when I simply plan in isolation for just me and my students.  As a teacher, I view planning time as my most precious commodity – and the bottom line is that there is not enough time for me to plan during my work day. I must take time in the early morning, during the evenings, and on weekends to plan. This is unsustainable, and often leads me feeling burned out by around November of the school year. Also, I’m always planning alone. Work products are always better when more than one brain is thinking about it. In order for our public education system to improve, teachers need adequate time embedded in our work day to be able to collaborate and create top-tier, standards-based lesson plans that can be shared with educators all over the country.

It’s been my experience that a school system’s response to meeting the needs for planning is creating central-office positions around curricular design. What I’ve seen come out of these positions is a massive scope & sequence that provides a checklist of the content that must be “covered” throughout the year. I haven’t found these to be very helpful because at its core, teaching is a creative profession. Creating plans and adjusting them based on student needs is the crux of our work. What we need is time. Time to be thoughtful about how to modify and make curriculum accessible for ELLs and Students with Special Needs. Time to work with our colleagues to make our  plans better. Time during our work day to write, edit, and revise our plans collaboratively. Time to ensure that we are incorporating writing across the curriculum (even in math and elective class!). Time to collectively analyze student work and develop hypotheses around why students may or may not have been successful. Time to adjust our practice when student work tells a particular story. We need more time together as adults to create a strong professional learning community.

It turns out there is a wealth of resources to support teacher meetings so that they are fruitful and productive. I had the pleasure of learning about these great tools this summer during a week-long seminar with education consultant Gene Thompson-Grove and the School Reform Initiative, where we were given the tools of protocols to help structure meetings so that they ensure real work gets done. Whether it’s getting feedback on curriculum, analyzing student work, or digging deeper into a dilemma a teacher is facing, there are protocols designed to structure these important conversations.  From this, I learned that authentic teacher-driven professional learning communities are a means for us to really improve adult learning and thus directly improve student learning.

Some people may be asking, but wait – don’t teachers get planning time? As a member of the Boston Teacher’s Union, I am currently allotted 48 minutes per day for planning. I feel lucky to even have it, as I know that many teachers across the nation do not. The reality is, I do not usually spend this time planning. On any given day, you will find me calling parents, making photocopies, catching up on emails, rearranging desks for student groupings for my next class, or attending IEP and other mandated meetings. This amount of time during the day is not enough to be the practitioners our students, families, and communities need us to be. We need more of it, and we need to collaborate during it.

This upcoming year, one of my professional goals is to create a community of adult learners amongst my teaching team. I want us  to spend time during the day, even if just 48 minutes, to have structured planning time so that we may co-create high-quality curriculum, reflect on our practice, and become better teachers together. Hopefully we will be able to collect enough evidence to prove that this time is valuable. I’m hoping to enlist  their help in creating some LDC modules targeted toward our ELL level 1 and 2 students.  I’ll be sure to keep blogging my progress…stay tuned!

Writing Is Thinking Book Review: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One serves as a guidebook for sentence writing as well as a model of analytical thinking for sentence reading. Full of appreciation for the English language and the craft of master authors who employ its nuances effectively, this short volume presents examples, analysis, and instruction in sentence writing using mentor sentences collected from English writers in the past half-millennium, including George Eliot, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, George Orwell, and Anthony Powell.

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Fish begins with the thesis that emerging writers who are learn the craft of sentence creation should begin with syntactic forms without regard to content, similar to the way that beginning pianists practice scales, arpeggios, and finger exercises. For the beginning sentence craftsperson, content can be a distraction; students first need to understand the tools of the trade.

Fish goes on to describe the three types of sentences, provide models from regarded writers, and give step by step instructions on how to write them. The two more formal structures are the subordinating sentence, which lends itself to ranking, ordering, and sequencing, and the additive sentence, which gives an impression of flow and flexibility. A third category is the less-formal, satiric sentence, which writers employ as a means of slyly critiquing individuals, groups, and social structures.

I really enjoyed the exercises suggested by Fish, and I found myself in a moment of flow and creative space as I worked within Fish’s expert guidelines to develop my sentence craft. The photo below shows my work with following Fish’s directives based on a model sentence by Ford Madox Ford to craft a non-contextualized sentence in the additive style, which resulted in the following sentence:

The bright dresses, patterned with tropical flowers, flowing and gliding from place to place on the parquet tiles, the conversation from each table vibrant and lithe, the children watching from the courtyard windows angling to hear the voices of their mothers, so ordinating in the daytime, punctuating the night with words, not about their children, but about their other non-mothering lives.

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In later chapters, Fish gives examples and analysis of effective first and last sentences, such as the succinct yet haunting ending of Orwell’s 1984: He loved Big Brother. He concludes by offering a simple equation that argues for the value of crafting sentences as a means to support reading comprehension and a love of language:

sentence craft = sentence comprehension = sentence appreciation

As I worked through this book, with my pen and notebook close at hand, I felt a sense of tremendous exploratory and creative freedom to write with content pushed aside. I felt like a true and authentic writer, allowed to polish my technique and encouraged by a masterful and analytical reader. This book would be a wonderful choice to explore during teacher professional development as it models how teachers, as readers and writers, must be able to talk about language with their students – with careful attention to its craft and structure, with passion and exuberance, with a wide knowledge of writers and writing.

As a middle school writing teacher, I can envision the writing classroom as a type of makerspace for sentence construction. Empowered with the tools of and process for sentence construction, the students become crafters of language. Having experienced deep analysis and discussion of effective sentences, middle schoolers will have the capacity and space to invent their own syntactic constructions.

Sentences are an essential link between vocabulary and discourse in reading and writing, and How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One amplifies the importance of understanding sentence craft and structure in order to fully understand the aesthetics and craft of the English language.

Harper Collins Web Sampler: How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Using Songwriting in the Classroom

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:

SAM Songs Student Organizer

The project will take at least three class periods: two for writing and one for performances.

Class One:

  1. 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:
  1. 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?
  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Class Two:

Students create motions to reinforce the meanings of words.
Students create motions to reinforce the meanings of words.

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.

Supports engagement

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 benjamin.leddy@gmail.com.

Creative Commons License
“Using Songwriting In the Classroom” by Ben Leddy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.