Putting Students at the Center of Learning: Student Blogs

“If students do not develop a valuable relationship to the things they study in school,
their relationship with their teacher will not have accomplished its full purpose.
This challenges (teachers) to resist the desire to be the center of the story….”
Doug Lemov in Teach Like a Champion 3.0 (Jossey-Bass, 2021, pp. 103-104)

How do you measure student success as a learner? The AASL Standards for Learners echo Doug Lemov’s comments: “Put the learner at the center, focus on growth…and enable learner voice, choice, and agency” (AASL, National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries. ALA, 2018, p. 124). Educators provide a variety of learning experiences that offer opportunities for student inquiry, exploration, and growth as a communicator; however, student blogs have the potential to engage students with personal choice, critical and creative thinking, and decision-making skills through the creation and sharing of digital content for an authentic audience. In addition, student blogs offer librarians exciting ways to guide students in developing skills as ethical communicators and digital citizens.

Video Bloggers Characters Flat Set. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 2 Nov 2020.
quest.eb.com/search/186_3417278/1/186_3417278/cite. Accessed 28 Jul 2022.

Several years ago I challenged sixth graders to create their own mock-up of a blog. In this article I will share some details from that early exploration with student blogs, and then I will share additional ideas on how to expand the project, inspired by a summer conference presentation by educator Allyson Spires, Principia Middle School.

The Martha Payne Story and Digital Citizenship
Sixth graders were introduced to blogs through the story of nine-year-old blogger, Martha Payne, and her blog Never Seconds. This news show video and Guardian article provided the background story of Martha Payne’s blog. Students viewed the global response to Martha’s blog on this blog page, which shows photos of school lunches shared by students in Japan, Israel, Brazil, Spain, and Chicago. As students viewed the video and read the article, they were asked to think about the following:

  • How Martha identified her passion (Love for journalism and interest in writing about
    school lunches. She planned to post photos of her daily lunches and rate them.)
  • How Martha’s father helped her to ethically set up the blog (Discussed idea with the
    school for their permission before setting up the blog.)
  • How Martha safely set up the blog (Father set up the blog and she used the name VEG to protect her identity.)
  • How Martha reacted to public response (Excited response from community, even globally, as other students emailed Martha photos of their school lunches. Later, Martha’s school demanded that she shut down her blog because of critical reaction to the quality of the school lunches. After a strong reaction from the community in Martha’s defense, the school backed down and allowed Martha to continue her blog.)
  • How Martha used her “brand”–the popularity of her blog (Over 10 million “hits” to her blog website. Martha set up a “JustGiving” page for Mary’s Meals–a kitchen to serve free breakfast to students in Malawi. Donations raised £131,666.79.)

After reflecting on the success of Martha Payne’s blog and the charitable donations to provide nutritious meals to children, students also viewed the STEM Kids Rock website. These teen articles describe how members promote science discovery and outreach to the community. The mission of STEM Kids Rock: “We’re inspiring the next generation of STEM leaders through our Free Mobile Science Centre that is powered by kids.”

Creating Your Own Brand
Both Martha Payne and the teens of STEM Kids Rock created a memorable brand for themselves by following their passions and expanding outward in efforts to benefit others. For the blog project, students were asked to consider the following: What could be your brand? What passion could you share to engage the interest of an audience? Using Google Slides, students were challenged to create their own mock-up of a blog. (See slides for a template and a sample “Book Ends” blog–note that links are not active in this sample template mock-up.) The resulting student blogs reflected an array of interests: food recipes, sports highlights, car models, pet tips, superhero movie reviews (including an article “Most Anticipated Sequels that Never Came Out”), and art blogs (featuring an article “There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Art!”). These sixth grade students commented that creating a blog was one of their favorite projects. Because of a short time-frame (four class periods) for the project, a community outreach aspect of the blogs was not explored.

Re-Imagining Student Blogs: Choice and Voice
This summer I attended the STLinSTL summer conference, and a presentation by Allyson Spires, “Choice and Voice,” reawakened my interest in student blogs. Allyson Spires, a language arts teacher at Principia Middle School, developed a blog unit over a five-week period. She began the unit by challenging students to think about their knowledge and passion: What are your interests outside of the classroom? How would you share those with others? Students used Wix templates (wix.com) to create their blogs, and every aspect of the site was password protected (sites were shared through a link with the teacher and students could also choose to share the link with family and friends). Allyson Spires also used this Blog Evaluation so that peers could appraise the blogs and offer helpful comments for the bloggers. Students also considered how a blog could be a vehicle to spur positive action. View the Teen Activist resource list compiled by Allyson Spires (note that some titles are appropriate for high school readers).

Student Blogs: Next Steps
This Fall I plan to revive the student blog project with a seventh grade Creative Writing class. If possible, students will use Google Sites to create a private website for their blog and share the link with the teacher as well as family (if they wish). Students will have their choice of creating a blog that features an Indelible Moment or a blog that explores a Personal Passion. This criteria will be used to evaluate student blogs.  Beyond the creation of these blogs, students might choose to share their Indelible Moment or Passion article with the school community during their Language Arts class or during our weekly assemblies (each seventh and eighth grade student develops a personal essay that is shared during the assembly).

Final Thoughts on Blogs: Four Pitfalls to Avoid 

  1. Whose Blog is This? Student agency should drive the blog (not teacher-driven).
  2. Just Another Wiki? The blog should not be an info dump; instead, the blog reflects critical thinking and careful curation; the discussion of ideas shows new connections. 
  3. It’s All About Me? Blogs should illustrate (with a touch of humility) what has surprised the writer in the learning process AND what still needs to be explored or learned (new questions that arise). How has this experience or passion affected your life, your attitudes, and how have you grown as a learner? 
  4. You Said What? The blogger should be open to a lively exchange of ideas and allow the conversation to clarify ideas and enlarge perspectives. Remember that some commenters may criticize, but be thoughtful in your own responses. Dialog with ideas, don’t attack the person.

The goal of this re-envisioned blog project is to immerse students in a thoughtful use of digital tools to communicate to a wider audience. Empowering student choice and voice builds skills that will help students to become critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, engaging writers, and respectful, ethical communicators. And who knows, for some bloggers this experience may be the beginning of positive action in the community.

For further reading and viewing:
Melly, Christina. “Can We Blog about This? Amplifying Student Voice in Secondary
Language Arts.” English Journal, vol. 107, no. 3, 2018. Accessed 25 July 2022.

“Oversharing and Your Digital Footprint.” Common Sense Education,
commonsense.org/education/videos/teen-voices-oversharing-and-your-digital-footprint.
Accessed 25 July 2022.

“Profiles of Generation M2.” YouTube, uploaded by Kaiser Family Foundation,
youtu.be/rUOOAbTu07A. Accessed 25 July 2022.

“What’s in Your Digital Footprint.” YouTube, uploaded by Common Sense Education,
youtu.be/4P_gj3oRn8s. Accessed 25 July 2022.

Visually Thinking with Sketchnotes

Leonardo da Vinci is noted for many accomplishments in the fields of art, science, and invention, but he was also a master in the art of sketching. His notebooks filled with drawings and observations about the world around him reveal a mind that was insatiably curious and adept at making connections. This image from one of his notebooks exemplifies how his mind leapt from one observation to another. The flowing drapery of the pictured old man is mirrored in similar energetic linework on the facing page that depicts swirling water.

Leonardo. Whirlpool and Old Man. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/109_225206/1/109_225206/cite. Accessed 20 Jun 2022.

Though visually thinking with sketches is nothing new, educators and businesses have been exploring the merits of Sketchnotes as a way to communicate ideas in a graphical format. Sketchnotes can take a variety of forms, from simple infographics, to stick figures, to complex representations of processes (such as cell division).  A book by Tanny McGregor, Ink and Ideas: Sketchnotes for Engagement, Comprehension and Thinking (Heinemann, 2019) provides several examples of introducing Sketchnotes in the classroom and using this technique to spark student thinking. I took a dive into Sketchnotes after reading Ink and Ideas, and the following examples and reflections show how Sketchnotes can be used to enhance discussions of books. 

Book: The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas

Reflection:
The first two chapters of The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas are a master class in writing: introducing compelling characters, setting up conflict, and suggesting a trajectory (quest) that will set these characters on a future collision course. 

Specific details from the chapters were first annotated in a journal and certain words circled that would be emphasized in the Sketchnote (such as “Fated to Clash”). As I sketched in pencil the preparatory drawing, I decided to group textual quotes by the two characters, shown separated in the sketch by the Great Wall of China (denoting the location of the story). The textual quotes highlighted in the sketch show the fierce martial arts skill of each adversary while also suggesting their mutual attraction to each other (Mulan faces her opponent with both trepidation and thrill while Yuan Kai muses that if circumstances had been different, they might have met as friends). Transferring my journal annotations into this graphical format helped me to compare these two characters while also hinting at future conflicts (Mulan’s father bent on pursuing this feud and the looming threat of the Rouran Invaders).

Book: Jennifer Chan is Not Alone by Tae Keller

Reflection:
I read Tae Keller’s book as an ebook, so my journaling notes were added in the notes section of the ebook. I discovered that these reflection notes were not as detailed as when I read a print copy and took pen and paper notes.

For my Sketchnotes design, I chose a basic template so that I could plot story events  highlighting major moments in the book. I represented events around a quote by the main character, Jennifer Chan: “We pull each other close, we push each other away.” The pictured events show this tension, some frames denoting hurtful actions and some frames denoting moments of healing.

Though plotting story events is a helpful exercise, this type of Sketchnote would need to be supported by questioning to reveal the richness of the message of this story and the dynamics of the the characters’ grappling with the worries, pain, and hopes. Question prompts might include Which character would you befriend? or, Which characters’ actions were hurtful and how would you respond to that character? 

Creating these Sketchnotes was a fun exercise in making visual the ideas that surfaced as I read these books. The process of reflecting on the sketches helped to clarify connections and prompt questioning for book discussions. Though these Sketchnote examples are not Leonardo masterpieces, this process was a fun and thought-provoking experience. I invite you to take pen and paper and try your hand at Sketchnotes.

Earth Day and Art Advocacy

“If you pitch your rubbish into a rosebush,

the roses will notice it.”                

(Naomi Shihab Nye, Cast Away: Poems for Our Times)

Earth Day was first established in 1970 as a way to develop awareness and promote action to protect our environment. This Earth Day, April 22, enhance student investigations into environmental issues by combining poetry and art. The following resources, though not a comprehensive list, may inspire ideas to develop with your students.

Poetry
Cast Away: Poems for Our Times by Naomi Shihab Nye
These poems can spark interesting class discussions about things (and people) that we thoughtlessly cast away. 
Suggestion: In these poetic musings on discarded trash, how does trash suggest something about the person who threw it away? How do these poems suggest ways to change attitudes about what we cast away? Challenge students to collect several items of trash in a neighborhood walk and use these discarded items to create their own trash poems.

Call Us What We Carry by Amanda Gorman
Amanda Gorman uses a variety of poetic forms in this evocative collection of poems. Several of the poems are inspired by a scrap collection of news articles, diaries, and letters; she transforms these texts into found poetry.
Suggestion: Challenge students to use a scrap of written text from a newspaper article, diary, or letter to create their own black-out poem.

Poetry.org has assembled a list of Earth Day Poems.
Suggestion: In the poem by Gary Soto, “Earth Day on the Bay,” how does Soto use descriptive details to suggest the history of the shoe found on the beach? How does Soto suggest a more serious reflection on the cyclical nature of this problem of litter?

Fiction
The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall
When a thoughtless act by a troubled 13-year-old boy earns him community service time with a “junk man,” the boy learns a valuable lesson that helps him to deal with the death of his father.  Just like art that is made from discarded objects, the old junk collector shows the young boy that anything can be redeemed and made to shine. 
Suggestion: The folk artist James Hampton is featured in this book. View a Smithsonian video about James Hampton and his art assemblage, “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly.” Encourage students to create their own art piece from reclaimed materials and foil. 

Nonfiction
Washed Ashore: Making Art from Ocean Plastic by Kelly Crull
Artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi creates sculptures from plastic refuse found on beaches. Her marine sea creature sculptures highlighted in this book are a stunning wake-up call about the environmental problem for our oceans and marine life.
Suggestion: Challenge students to a scavenger hunt as they look closely at the marine sculptures to identify the reclaimed plastic items.

Rock by Rock: The Fantastical Garden of Nek Chand by Jennifer Bradbury
Folk artist Nek Chand used discarded glass, broken plates, and rocks to create a secret rock garden in a forest in India to ease his loss of homeland during the Partition of India into the Dominions of India and Pakistan. 
Suggestion: Discuss with students how creating art can transform suffering (like displacement from your home) into an experience of beauty that can bring comfort to other people who view the artwork.

One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul
This inspirational picture book describes the efforts of Isatou Ceesay to create something beautiful and useful from the discarded plastic bags in her village in Gambia. Isatou Ceesay and a group of women began a business by crocheting beautiful bags from the discarded plastic. 
Suggestion: Challenge students to use a plastic bottle and transform it into a new object that could be useful.

Smithsonian Learning Lab
Aleah Myer’s Smithsonian Learning Lab Module, Environmental Advocacy through Art, curates environmental artwork and pairs it with Visible Thinking routines to examine the artwork. Also featured are several videos of art commentaries by museum curators. The following art curator discussions may be of particular interest:

Erosion 
In this Smithsonian video, Deborah Stokes, Curator of Education at the National Museum of African Art, discusses this environmental sculpture by artist El Anatsui.

Port Henry Iron Mine
Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey discusses artist Homer Dodge Martin’s landscape painting, Port Henry Iron Mine, an iron mine used during the Civil War. The curator interprets the artist’s intention to illustrate how the earth was “scarred” by the war and to create an emotionally-charged metaphor for how lives were impacted by the Civil War.

Videos 
Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea

Pass it On: Turning Scraps into Soccer Balls for Village Children

Documentaries
Landfill Harmonic: A Symphony of the Human Spirit
This documentary highlights the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura. These musicians make beautiful music from instruments constructed from discarded landfill refuse.

Waste Land
This documentary will appeal to high school students, though parts of the documentary could be shown to a middle school audience. Artist Vic Muniz returns to his Brazilian homeland to enlist the help of garbage pickers to create monumental art pieces that celebrate the lives of these individuals. The murals are assemblages from trash.

Taking a Perspective with Poetry

Helping students to connect in meaningful ways to history is an important goal of literacy programs. One approach to making connections is by taking on the perspectives of people in history. In collaborations between the library, language arts, and history departments, students’ history research was enriched by creating perspective poems. Here are a few examples.

Colonial Williamsburg Perspective Poems
In preparation for a seventh grade field trip to Colonial Williamsburg, students used videos of historic interpreters to look closely and add details and observations on a note taking template. These details were then incorporated in a perspective poem. During a writing workshop, poet and author Deborah DEEP Mouton challenged students to take on an unusual point of view for their poem. One student wrote about an enslaved person working in a print shop and pondering if words like “freedom” professed in these colonial broadsides would ever change the plight of enslaved Blacks. Another student took on the perspective of a tailor’s pattern and mused, “even if the fabric is the same, the story of the customer will be cut different ways.”

National Monuments and Perspective Poems
Poet Deborah DEEP Mouton also worked with eighth graders to develop a perspective poem reflecting emotions and points of view of a national monument. Students will be traveling to Washington, D.C., and the events surrounding monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Arlington Cemetery provide rich historical and personal connections. Mouton used several approaches to engage students in the act of writing. Some groups were asked to distill the most important words and ideas from their poem into a six word story (such as Hemingway’s famous six word story: baby shoes for sale, never worn). See if you can guess the National Monuments for these Six Word Stories written by eighth graders:

In another writing workshop strategy, students paired up, brainstormed main ideas on an important image for their national monument, and then separated to write individually. Then, the student partners came back together to pull their best lines into a combined poem that was performed aloud for classmates. Students enjoyed the opportunity for collaboration and were surprised and pleased with their collaborative poems.

Stepping in to empathize with the perspectives of people and stepping back to evaluate the events are important steps in engaging students with history. These approaches to creating perspective poems enriched students’ understanding and provided them a creative way to communicate their insights.

*Note to readers. The original blog posting included an example from a Holocaust topic. Given the brevity of this article format, this serious topic was not presented with sufficient discussion to accurately represent the student’s work or classroom discussions surrounding the research. This article has been revised in respect for this historical event and those who suffered.

A Window into Visible Thinking

As part of a professional development course through Harvard University, five teachers at my school collaborated to engage students in Visible Thinking. This Thinglink compiles some examples of this collaboration and highlights observations about student thinking and learning.
I hope you enjoy exploring this window into the minds of our students that showcases their thinking and deep learning experiences.

Making Connections with Virtual Museums

Museums are fascinating places. The curation and design of a museum display has the potential to captivate viewers and engage them in looking closely, thinking critically, expanding perspectives, and building empathy. For me, an epiphany moment occurred at the Frist Art Museum in the hands-on Martin ArtQuest room. One activity contained a blank map of Gallery Rooms, a collection of art reproductions on magnets, and the invitation to “Be a Curator!” This became an intriguing exploration of ways to organize the artwork in the empty gallery rooms. Should one curate by time period, art movements, thematically, or even as a comparison/contrast of artists? How would Van Gogh’s expressionistic field of iris dialogue with the abstracted desert landscapes by Georgia O’Keefe or the thrilling iceberg and volcano landscapes romanticized by Frederic Edwin Church? A 2019 visit to the National Museum of the American Indian provoked a different type of response as I viewed an expansive wall of merchandise, posters, commercials, and movies that throughout history had “branded” indigenous peoples to sell an American product and a perspective about these people. Part of the power of this display was the opportunity for viewers to linger with the images that they felt compelling and invite them to make their own meaning.

Curation is an art in itself, calling upon skills of discerning relevancy and critical thinking, and AASL recognizes this in the Curate Standard, part of which states that “Learners add value to a collection of resources by organizing and annotating them.” This school year provided an opportunity to immerse students in curation. As part of a Civil War investigation, 7th graders are being challenged to use their research notes to create a digital presentation (a virtual museum) of primary source images, historic documents, and analysis paragraphs. Though this type of multimodal exploration could be done in GoogleSlides by linking content to slides within the slide deck, these 7th graders will use ThingLink. With Thinglink, interactive tag markers can be placed on locations in an image to allow viewers to link to additional text boxes, images, or media (audio, video). Here is one example of a ThingLink by the Smithsonian Institution:
Fort Sumter Telegram. The organization of this ThingLink invites close analysis of a single primary source document.

Virtual Museums

For our students, the goal is to simulate the experience of a museum so that viewers can explore the students’ own thinking about the Civil War. Making Thinking Visible, a book describing Harvard Project Zero’s research, offered several helpful routines to deepen students’ thinking. One thinking routine, Generate–Sort–Connect–Elaborate, delineated the type of thinking students would use in this curation of a virtual museum.

Generate
In the note-taking phase of student research, students generated several ideas as they researched questions about the Civil War.

Sort
Students used the NoodleTools note card feature and titled note cards with brief descriptions. These note cards were used in the sorting process. Students sorted main ideas and supporting ideas; or gathered notes in groups for a comparison/contrast or cause and effect organization. This diagram shows an example of sorting into main and supporting ideas for a discussion of Civil War Technology:

Connect
The next step is to connect ideas and explain connections. Here is an example of how the sorted ideas would be connected in Thinglink. Note that links are not active on the following screenshots.

Example of ThingLink Link 7 that expands to a discussion of strategy. (See next screenshot.)
Strategy: Civil War Band Music
Discussion of how military band music was used by General Grant as a strategy to conceal the sounds of troop movements. Note that an additional link on the slide accesses an audio clip of the band music (links not active on screenshot, but you can click this link to hear the music).

Elaborate
A final text box (indicated by Star tag) links to a paragraph that elaborates on connected ideas and shares insights (see following examples). The more information tag on the ThingLink (indicated by an i tag) links to a bibliography of sources.

Example of elaborating on connections with own insights.

This is just the beginning phase as our students curate their research. It will be exciting to watch their thinking evolve as they generate, sort, connect, and elaborate their ideas in ThingLink and share with an audience their insights about the Civil War.

Celebrating Beloved Illustrators

This past year marked the passing of several beloved children’s book illustrators:
Eric Carle  (June 25, 1929 – May 23, 2021) 
Lois Ehlert (November 9, 1934 – May 25, 2021)
Floyd Cooper (January 8, 1956 – July 16, 2021)

In celebration of beloved illustrators, the following Illustrator Cards provide an overview of accomplishments as well as personal reflections on the contributions to children’s literature by these illustrators. A brief listing of resources also suggest further paths of exploration. You might even engage students in art activities inspired by Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert, and Floyd Cooper. What a wonderful way for students to pay tribute to remarkable visual storytellers.

Eric Carle Resources 

Lois Ehlert Resources

Floyd Cooper Resources

Gamify Media Literacy

Imagine this…

  • A set of biodegradable building bricks for sustainable building designs.
  • An ecology doll with its own binoculars, kayak, nature journal, and packet of native plant seeds.
  • A board game in which you advance ahead not by acquiring the most money or property, but instead by performing actions that help the environment.

Are these the latest educational toys in your local store? No, at least, not yet.
These are just some of the imaginative toys and games envisioned by sixth graders during a media literacy project. As a culminating activity in a Literacy Skills class, students used design techniques to create their own marketing ad for a proposed educational game or toy.

Students began the project by looking closely at Media Messages to evaluate how media uses a special language (special techniques) to persuade an audience.
Iconic ads such as
Wolverine “Got Milk” and
McDonald’s “You So Want One”
provided discussions of camera angles,
text placement,  slogans, color choices,
as well as use of celebrities.

Subliminal messages (underlying messages) were examined in the video commercials for Door Dash “The Neighborhood” and Sodastream. Door Dash’s message suggested that they keep neighborhood businesses thriving while Sodastream’s message projected that their customers would save the Earth’s environment.

Students also examined Barbie and Lego marketing campaigns; in a webquest they compared and contrasted how each company was targeting a particular audience. Barbie ads sought to empower young girls to explore careers with the “You Can Be Anything” campaign, and their “Fashionistas” line of dolls widened their appeal to diverse individuals as well as different body types. Lego marketing ads promoted imagination and creativity and suggested that building with Legos encouraged problem solving and resiliency, preparing youth for careers in engineering and science. After viewing these examples of marketing ads and evaluating how these ads target audiences, students were challenged to create their own marketing ad to be pitched to a professional client.

The G.R.A.S.P.S. Performance Task Assessment tool was used to set up the Marketing Ad design challenge. (G.R.A.S.P.S. was recommended in a Jay McTighe workshop that I had previously attended–McTighe is known for collaboration with Grant Wiggins on “Backward Design.”)

G–Goal: Create a persuasive marketing ad to promote an educational toy or game

R–Role: Marketing Ad Designer

A–Target Audience:
Choice A: Individuals interested in ecology or caring for the environment
Choice B: Individuals interested in Creative Writing

S–Situation:
Choice A:
In a marketing ad presentation (through Zoom) you need to convince an Ecologist that your toy/game will promote a career in ecology or heighten interest in caring for the environment. (I arranged for Ecologist Suzanne Simpson, Director of the Bayou Land Conservancy in Houston to Zoom with students to be our expert Ecologist client.)

Choice B:
In a marketing ad presentation (through Zoom) you need to convince a published poet your toy/game will promote a career in writing or heighten an interest in poetry. (I arranged for poet Allan Wolf to Zoom with students to be our expert Poet client.)

P–Performance and purpose:
Use media language techniques to create a marketing ad to persuade an expert that your educational toy/game will promote career interest or heighten interest in the topic of the toy/game.

S–Standards and Criteria for success:
Marketing ad effectively uses images, color design, layout design, slogan, and additional text, celebrity, or media to make a persuasive ad. The design should feature a front box design with image and slogan and the design should also show a back of the box design that discusses the educational goal of the game or toy.

Oral presentation through Zoom to a professional expert. The presentation should clearly present the merits of your envisioned toy/game and its educational goal.

Creating a prototype of the toy/game is an option (but not required). The marketing ad and the oral presentation should clearly present the vision of the product.

The Market Ad designs showed a wide range of creative ideas.
Here is a comparison of two doll ad designs, one for an ecology client and one for a poet client:

Feedback from Clients
Ecologist Suzanne Simpson gave the following observation as she viewed students’ ecology games and toys:

“I never wanted to play with dolls when I was young. I was interested in nature. I wish I had these ecology-themed games and toys when I was growing up to encourage me in the career of being an ecologist.”

Poet Allan Wolf was impressed by the choice of Amanda Gorman as a featured doll and the theme of “dreaming big” to achieve her goal to be a poet. These students envisioned a line of Dream Dolls that were “imperfectly perfect.” He also enjoyed other students’ ideas for a creative writing poetry kit and a poetry trivia game–students even stumped poet Allan Wolf on one of the poetry trivia questions.

Not all student groups were able to present to the professional clients; however, all groups presented their marketing ads to their fellow classmates. The follow-up questions and suggestions from their peers provided thoughtful discussions on how the prototype ideas could be improved. This project was a fascinating opportunity for students to use their media literacy skills to design a persuasive Marketing Ad. The presentations to a targeted audience honed their communication skills and encouraged students to be receptive to feedback on their designs. Looking closely and evaluating media messages is a valuable 21st century skill, and this Marketing Ad project provided a challenging way to explore these goals.

Image Bibliography:
Amanda Gorman photo from
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Washington D.C, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Making the Case for Conversations in the Research Process

Years from now, when educational researchers evaluate how the restrictions of Covid changed classroom teaching, will experts discover that some of the most essential things about effective teaching remained constant and possibly blossomed in new ways?  Simultaneous in-class and distance-learning instruction poses a communication challenge for teachers and teacher librarians, but a recent Inventors project with 5th graders showed that making time for small conversations sparked the inquiry process and deepened understanding. Here are a few examples of how conversations led to “Eureka” moments for students as they researched inventors.

Launching Conversations with Short Videos
The Inventors research project provided wonderful opportunities for students to explore the Design Process. The below diagram was used as a touchstone as we began each class with a 10-minute exploration of how an inventor used the Design Process. The class discussion was launched by considering how the design of the spoon has changed over the years (from wood/bone to metal to plastic spoons), and students identified the plastic spoon’s merits (disposable/cheap) as well as adverse factors (non-degradable/environment hazard). Then students watched a video about an edible spoon created by Narayana Peesapathy, an inventor from India who created edible cutlery to lessen the problem of plastic waste in India landfills.

As students watched the video, they identified Empathy (problem of plastic waste), Ideas (several flavors; nutritious ingredients of millet and rice); Problems to solve (funding); and Testing (women workers provided samples of spoons to people in the streets of India). In class, students even received samples of edible spoons to taste.This initial inventor example promoted excited conversations and memorable connections to the Design Process.

Inventor
Design Process

Other Inventor discussion starters included:
* Wind-powered Lego Car (video showed funding through a Twitter campaign)
*Thomas Edison’s Lab (video showed research lab is manned by experts in various fields)
*Lewis Latimer (video showed how inventors build on the ideas of others)

Modeling What Good Readers Do
Excerpt paragraphs from the Lemelson MIT website were used to model aloud what good readers do: clarify unfamiliar vocabulary and make connections to the text. The Visible Thinking Routine of Sentence, Phrase, Word was used by students to discuss important keywords to add to their notes. Using an article about Josephine Cochrane, inventor of the dishwasher, students discussed how Cochrane’s family and her education sparked her curiosity as an inventor, and they discovered how technology of the time (inadequate home water heaters and inferior soap) made Cochrane’s invention a success in hotels but not in households. It was not until 1950s when access to better water heaters and improvements in soap (as well as changing attitudes of women) made the dishwasher a success in the home. This was an important lesson that inventions and their importance can change over time. Science teacher Jan Fertitta was invaluable as she engaged students in classroom conversations to think more deeply about their inventors.

Connecting with Images and Primary Sources
Students expanded beyond text sources and located images using Britannica Image Quest and Advanced Google Searching (limiting search to site:.gov). Rather than just a portrait of the inventor, several students located patent designs or images that revealed more of the story of invention. One student discussed with me why she chose a particular painting image of Louis Pasteur. She explained that she chose the image because it showed one of his famous experiments to refute the theory of spontaneous generation. I thought that was an interesting comment, especially since the image caption did not provide that information. Later, while working with another student who was also researching Louis Pasteur, we located an article describing Pasteur’s experiment, and the experiment was indeed detailed accurately in the painting image: Pasteur is depicted with two flasks, one a closed-off swan neck flask that retained the sterile solution and the other an open flask with a cloudy solution, proving that bacteria in the air had contaminated the solution.

Louis Pasteur. Fine Art. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.
quest.eb.com/search/107_3348341/1/107_3348341/cite. Accessed 8 Feb 2021.

Promoting Peer Conversations
Our current cohort classrooms have made facilitating peer conversations a challenge. To facilitate collaboration,the Language Arts teacher, Caroline Ferguson, has used Zoom breakout rooms as a helpful means for students to meet across cohorts (and with distance learners) for peer critiques and conversations during the research project. Students used CoSpaces to develop interactive digital scenes to present important aspects of the inventor/invention process. Students shared their developing CoSpace scenes with each other through Zoom breakout rooms, which promoted engaging and helpful conversations about good design, clear communication, and incorporating specific details from their research notes. One student was developing a digital scene about Jacques Cousteau and a thought bubble had simply stated: “I know, I will create the Aqualung.” After a small conversation and encouragement to use details from her notes, she edited the thought bubble to add specific details about the problem (see below). Students enjoyed the digital storytelling of CoSpace scenes.

Defining the Problem

Making Connections Among Inventors
Students used Graphic Organizers to develop 5 scenes for their Inventor CoSpace, and students made interesting connections as they added ideas to their graphic organizers. One student noted that her inventor, Milton Hershey, had his “Eureka” moment while attending the 1893 Chicago Exposition (World’s Fair), and that another student’s inventor, Josephine Cochrane, won an award for her dishwasher at this same Chicago Exposition. We both marveled that this must have been an exciting opportunity for inventors to share their new inventions and get new ideas. Students who researched Black Inventors (such as Garrett Morgan, Madam C.J. Walker, Charles Richard Drew, and Patricia Bath) discovered that in addition to their inventions, these inventors had a lasting impact by working for social change that would help the Black community.

All of these opportunities for conversations, whether in full class settings, teacher-student conferences, or peer communications via Zoom, promoted an insightful exploration of inventors. The Art of Communication to guide and deepen inquiry is a valuable tool in the research process.

Enhance Your Library with an Author Study

This school year transformed our middle school library in several ways as we adapted to safety precautions in response to Covid-19. One room in our library is set aside for quarantining books before librarians safely recirculate items to new readers, but, most noticeably, students no longer browse bookshelves or gather in groups to read in our comfortable seating areas. In a time of physical distancing, how can books continue to keep us connected? This blog discusses how students in grades 6 and 7 tackled this dilemma through an Author Study project, which challenged students to enhance library resources and build personal connections to books.

The Author Study project was divided into 3 steps: 
1. Curate 3 book titles
2. Research 3 authors (through author websites and interviews)
3. Create a book review or a video book trailer to be linked in our Destiny online catalog

*View Author Study project for sample videos and activities for the author research.

Curating a Personal Book Shelf

The library online catalog has taken on a new importance as students select books for themselves and as they recommend books for each other. Students used our Destiny Discover online catalog to create a graphical curation of favorite books for future reading. In addition to selecting one book they had already read and loved, students chose a book featured in one of our genre collections and searched for a third book that was an award-winning book title.  These 3 books became the basis of the next step, researching the author.

Researching the Author

Students used a bond phrase search to locate author websites and examined the “About” or “FAQ” section of the websites to gather details about the author’s craft of writing. Fascinating insights emerged, such as authors’ advice on the writing process or examples of how real life situations and people inspire storylines and characters.  One student discovered on Kelly Barnhill’s website that the author’s experience as a park ranger taught her the merits of “taking the worst part of the trail and making it the best” (a life lesson that she uses when the author approaches revisions in her own writing). 

Another student discovered on Rachel Vail’s website that Vail and J.K. Rowling both identified this as an essential writing tool:  “eavesdropping” on other people’s conversations.  In addition to the author websites, students used Teachingbooks.net to locate author interviews. An interview with author John David Anderson revealed that he writes for middle school students because he feels there is so much drama in what middle schoolers experience, and he identifies strongly with those students who are “outsiders.” Anderson stated that “language has the power we give it: it can break and mend, include and exclude, uplift and beat down. We get to decide”  (interview from All the Wonders blog).

Creating Personal Connections (Book Reviews and Video Book Trailers)

Students were challenged to enhance our library catalog by adding rich content (book reviews or video book trailers), which would entice readers to check out recommended books. This Creating a Book Review video explains the steps of adding a review to our Destiny Discover catalog. Rather than just relating a book summary, students were required to share a personal connection to the book.  Here are two sample book reviews by 6th graders:

The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas has a remarkable story plot throughout the book. The Magnolia Sword is a romance/historical fiction book. I have never been a great fan of adventure books, but this made me change my mind. Sherry Thomas did an amazing job of showing the main character, Hua Mulan. Mulan is on an adventure to find out secret plots, and she discovers romance. I really connected with the main character when she was struggling with her personality. She isn’t the typical gentle, soft-spoken daughter;  she is a courageous free-spirited girl. I admired her courage and strength throughout the book. I don’t just see her as a fictional character, but I see her as a person to look up to. (Review by Grace P.)

The book Rebound by Kwame Alexander was a very motivational book. The part that made this motivational and sad was the dad dying. I related to this book well because I have empathy for those who lose something or someone special. Also, I love sports and sports are my life. This book really helped me discover what kind of books I like, other than graphic novels. So now, I read poem books instead of reading a comic book. I recommend this book to people who love sports and who can relate to a story with tragedy. (Review by Luke L.)

Our 7th graders are currently working on book trailers, using Wevideo.  In this project, students evaluate their use of images and audio to respect Copyright and explore options of Creative Commons licensing and Fair Use. As a flipped classroom activity, I created videos about the use of Britannica Image Quest, Fair Use, and Creative Commons to aid this discussion of respecting copyright and adding value and repurposing creative content. Students are looking forward to a screening of their book trailers, and they will help to vote on those book trailers that meet a criteria of excellence, book trailers that will be linked to book titles in our online catalog.

There is a power in storytelling; it connects us and builds empathy.  Now, more than ever, libraries and books are vital ways to ward off feelings of isolation. Encouraging students to become advocates of books and reading enhances our school libraries, but more importantly, strengthens our school communities so that we can navigate today’s stormy waters.