Thursday, November 10, 2016

Two Hours to Make: A Reflection on the Past Two Months at Renaissance West and Looking forward School Opening

We are in our second year of Renaissance West Community Makes.  We are really starting to build some trust in the community.

We learned last year that makes with few directions were the ones where kids really embraced the tenants of make as we see them - tinkering, iteration, creation.  With that in mind, our first Community Make Events were thematic.

September was based on George Ella Lyon's poem "Where I'm From."  The children wrote their own "Where I'm From" poems and created fabric flags representing "Where I'm From."  We collected all of this amazing work into a LuLu book that can be found here.  This book is in the community library and several copies will be in the school library when it opens in August 2017.  It was a raging success in our opinion with about 30 kids attending, a lot of fun and some truly inspired writing and art.

October was based on the election.  Again, raging success. Around 30+ kids creating poignant writing, art and film. Tons of fun. We participated in the NWP's Letters 2 the Next President Site. Students had the choice of simply writing a letter letting the next president of the United States know what issues where on their minds, making a short movie, or creating a piece of political art.  But we only had two hours and that did not leave time for real discussion of what we were doing and planning.  What we ended up with was a collection of beautiful pieces  in support of  Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, but very little about actual issues.

This could be seen as a fail, but I choose to see it as an opportunity and a learning experience.  First, the opportunity.  We spliced everything together into the short film below and sent it to the Clinton campaign.  The children's voices were indeed heard on a national level, which was a out main point. Kids have things to say and deserve to me heard.  The children used their powers of literacy and created things to act on the world.  They learned about political art and the learned how to operate the computer program to make the movies.

This is all pretty exciting, but what are learning is even more exhilarating.  In these makes where we want to dive into the complexities of literacy and really act on the world around us, we need more time.  A two hour 1 and done activity is fun and engaging, and learning happens, but I want more.  I want to really get into the culture of iteration, literacy, tinkering, reflection and social justice.  We need more time.

So - Two new ideas. . .

1) Community Events that cover two months where kids can start things in Part 1 and then revise in Part II.

2)  Summer Camp.  We have big plans for that this summer.  A grant is being written.  I'll leave it at that

3) Out-of-School Time once the school opens.  We will have TIME then.  Everyday kind of time for big iterated projects.  Oh I just can't WAIT.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tinkering and Traditional Learning

At this moment, I am working on a new book about make in the middle school classroom while my personal middle schooler sits beside me working on science.

One of the things I'm writing about is the idea of tinkering in the formal learning space of school and hacking the idea of traditional school.

The boy's assignment is about as traditional as you can get.  He is to read the section in his Science text book and answer the questions at the end.  Sigh.

However,  he and I have been talking as he reads about what he's reading.  The section is about diffraction, refraction and reflection of waves.  Waving our hands around and drawing pictures, we've been playing with the ideas and trying them out.  Tinkering.  Trying, failing, making a mess with our drawings, and trying again.  Someone walking into our workspace would see traditional school, but if that person were to observe for a moment, they would see authentic learning through trying out and trying on.

The key, I'm thinking, is the reflection on what we were doing.  How learning was happening (and make no mistake, I was learning too as I am no expert on waves).  How tinkering is learning and how that is a natural process that learners use.  

Reading and answering questions is not authentic learning for sure, but tinkering with the information to figure it out and figure out the answers to the questions - the process that happens underneath that very traditional assignment is.  So my question and what I want to keep thinking about - how do we value that tinkering?  How do we pull it out into the light and make it THE thing that we are pointing to accessing rather than the answers to the questions?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Out-of-School Time at Renaissance West - Relationship Building and Trust

Out-of-School time offers and interesting conundrum that I had not expected.  I should have expected it, but I didn't.

With school, people are compelled to send their children by law.  However, out-of-school time is an option and requires intense relationship building and trust building to make it successful.

For the past year, the UNCC Writing Project and Discovery Place Inc. have been offering monthly out-of-school time community events at Renaissance West.  I've talked about that some here.

However, the trick has been getting parents and children to actually attend the events.  This is a brand new community and the residents don't know each other.  They don't know us.  And it's hard to separate us from all the people watching over them from the Charlotte Housing Authority.  The first step is to build a relationship of trust.  It is to let folks know that we are there to learn as much as we are to teach and the last thing we are there to do is to tell them how to be in the world.

Writing all of this has made me wonder what we ARE there to do.  We have definite views about literacy and learning and the intersections between science and literacy.  We are offering informal learning spaces.  But we are also really working hard to keep what the residents of the community already know if front of us and use that to connect up the world of school with their lives.  And that's the really hard part because we have to first earn trust before we can learn about these things.

In May, after 8 months of coming to the community, this little girl came flying through the door with her grandmother and said "I'm SO happy to see you here."

YES!  A step in the right direction.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


One of the biggest questions in Urban Schools and student work there is the one of engagement.  These students are often depicted as lethargic and uninterested in their education, in what's happening in the classroom, and the work they are assigned.

There are loads of reasons for this seeming disengagement, but as a teacher, I've always felt that the problem was with what I was offering, not with the students.  If they were disengaged, it was because I wasn't bringing my A game to the classroom.

Today,  I am sitting in the back of a classroom at Renaissance West where I am "leading" a camp based in oral histories.  I put that in quotes because today, for the last two hours, I have been working away on my own writing while the students work on a documentary using the footage the obtained by interviewing the seniors in the neighborhood.  At the one hour mark, I called for a break.  They ignored me and kept working.  They are still working.  Talking together, googling to trouble-shoot, crafting their narrative, working in the music.  They are learning about writing, composition, Movie Maker, computers and technology in general, and about the world.  They are involved in social justice work and making sure their voices are heard.

These are not "special" students.  These are not even "A" students.  These are the same students who in the face of "getting ready for the test" appear lethargic and disinterested.  Because this "work" is real and it matters.   And THAT is what makes the difference.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Renaissance West Community Events

For the past school year, our Writing Project site has been partnering with Discovery Place Inc, a local science museum, to offer out-of-school-time community events at a new Purpose Built Community in Charlotte, NC, the Renaissance West Community Initiative.

Man - that was a lot of links.

I'm the ethnographic researcher for this project.  A k-8 public school is being built in the neighborhood and is scheduled to open in August 2017.  The idea is to hold monthly community events around literacy and make in order to foster a community of learning before the school even opens.  I have a lot to say and a ton of data to work through this summer, but I wanted to start with this video where the children of the community show us what learning is all about.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Decomposing Revision

I compost.
            Deep pleasure in trash
            In eggshells and vegetable remains
                        Turning into black gold.
Rich soil from our waste
            Feeding my garden
            And my soul.

I revise.
            Deep pleasure in refuse words
            In messy lines and phrases
                        Turning into golden lines.
Rich language from the wreckage
            Nourishing my audience
            And my soul.

I relish decomposition
            The process of breaking down
            The process of fermentation

            The process of turning garbage into glory.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Twitter as a Tool for Reflective Teaching?

I was doing a session on playing with author blurbs as a way to study genre for our Writing Project Summer Institute.  It was the 3rd time I'd done the workshop this summer and I was struggling to bring the enthusiasm.  This is why I always had my classes reading different novels when I taught high school.  Doing something the second time helps me work out the kinks, but by the third time I'm bored.

As I launched into my mini-lesson about genre as a site of action rather than a form to be filled out, the room was quiet.  I continued on with my metaphor  about writing into a genre being like going to a party - you have to know who the party is for and who is going to be there.  The room was deadly quiet.  People were typing on computers and scribbling notes, but few were making eye contact.  Crap.  I was boring the heck out of them.  I finished up the mini-lesson and moved on to the activity.  I picked up my phone to set a timer and found it exploding with tweets.  Things like:

"Learning how to be recognized in the discourse and push the discourse with @birdawg"

"you can push the envelope as long as you know how to act at the party" birdawg on genre at this rockin' awesome SI session"

Well how about that!  They were engaged in back-channeling about the session.   And I'd hit the nail on the head.  Not only that, but they were re-framing my words into their own, pointing to the things that were important to them in what I'd said.

I started thinking (again) about the use of Twitter in the classroom.  What if students had the access to this during mini-lessons in school?  What if they could point back to and re-frame what teachers were saying.  It would certainly engage their active minds by having an outlet to communicate with others about what they were learning, but it would also show the teacher what is getting through and perhaps even what is causing confusion.

Thinking back on all of this now, I think this type of tweeting would need to be taught.  When I've seen Twitter used in classrooms in the past it's been more about reporting out the agenda for the day . . .  "we learned about worms today"  These posts go a little beyond that, pointing to salient points in the lesson and lending them a sort of "A-men sister" to what I was saying.  It's a little bit of ego stroking for me, for sure and I wouldn't want to turn it into a process of making me feel good about what I was doing in the classroom, but it sure was helpful when I had a break to see that what I had wanted to communicate had made it through and that I could build further on those concepts rather than re-teaching them.

If nothing else, I'm wanting to think more about this.   I'm hoping I get a chance to play with this some during the school year.