Y'all, it's time for some pictures.
This past summer, I got the chance to be a part of my state's "Summer of eLearning" extravaganza of conferences. I signed up for one that was for "leaders" and wondered if I really belonged.
(I'm not a principal. I'm not an instructional coach. I don't have my masters. I'm just a lowly tech coordinator, working as a middleman between administration and teachers. Sure I've been smacking educational concepts in the face here and there, roughing them up a little, but does that really make me a leader?)
The conference I signed up for took place at a local high school that had just redesigned a majority of their spaces. When I saw that in the description, I messaged my teacher friend who is my instructional coach go-to, as well as the media specialist, to see if she would join me.
The first afternoon of the 2-day conference was a tour around the new facilities. Although we don't have the kajillion dollar budget to scrap what our building is doing and go into renovation hyper-drive, the spaces at the local high school were a place to jump start a new frame of thinking.
I was also inspired while walking downtown Louisville, KY on my way to an Alton Brown Live! show. The office had whiteboard walls, movable seating, couches, tables, coffee tables, movable whiteboards...OMG, I can't even!
That office space is lucky I didn't break in, create a teleportation device and turn it into my classroom. It'll give a whole new meaning to telecommuting.
"Students, we'll be leaving Indiana for 90 minutes and tele-commuting to Mr. Williams' classroom in Louisville, Kentucky. Step up on the teleportation panel, one at a time, and keep your hands next to your sides, otherwise, typing will become very difficult."
Eventually, I'll be posting pictures of my classroom set up, but check out what some of the big-wigs have come up with:
After a few weeks of no desks and simply stools, something was beginning to take shape in my classroom.
It started to become a trash heap.
It was really offensive.
I shook my fist. I created a slideshow of the ways they defiled my classroom and said "No!"
I pleaded. I begged.
This new concept of an open space was foreign to the kids, and for some reason, it gave them more leverage to leave trash on the floor and not get up and throw it away.
Part of that is my fault, I realized. When it comes to a room that is different then others, you need to reteach some routines and place in some structures. And be consistent. Unlike what they're used to, there are no desks to push chairs under. Instead, there are stools and coffee tables everywhere.
Wouldn't it be nice if those got moved out of the way so the evening custodian, who is also a friend, can be more efficient in doing his work?
One would think.
But the minute the bell rings, kids shoot up like scared cats, and bolt out of the room. I see kid-shaped clouds for one second before they dissipate.
With a mere 5 minutes to walk a few miles across a desert to their next class, my students aren't concerned about the journalism space anymore. They're on to their next endeavors, and they don't want to be tardy.
The first thing I've done this year is to try and create a place for the stools and chairs to go when not in use. Chairs sit under the computers. Six of the stools have a place to go next to a counter and an additional table. The other six stools are to be pushed toward the wall of the room. Little black coffee tables are also to be pushed to the walls.
Instead, the two plastic spinning chairs on wheels are on the other side of the room where theyd on't belong, because let's face it, chairs with wheels are fun.
I scoot around in them just as crazy as the next person.
But they have a specific place to go to, as well...and are they ever there?
Of course not.
Dystopian novels wouldn't have ever been written if chairs were actually put back to where they belonged.
If you didn't realize, the true inspiration to books like "1984," "The Handmade's Tale," and "The Hunger Games," all came about because people didn't push in their chairs.
It was all chaos.
It was all out of control.
Although students have creative control when it comes to where they sit or what they sit on, it still needs a home base at the end of the day. I have given them that, and my sixth graders know this, especially, because they are my final class.
What I don't do is give them ample time to stop, take a breath, and move any piece of furniture where it belongs. To take a moment and pick up any scattered papers.
I hear the bell, or look at my watch, throw my hands up like a crazy person, and yell, "It's time to go, put all the furniture back!"
What they hear is: "It's time to go! Destroy the room and never return!"
I realized this today when my room looked like it survived a tsunami. I'm not giving my students the chance to put the room back in order. How can I be mad when I'm part of the problem?
At home, they're parents probably nag them relentlessly about not pushing chairs and stools back under counters and tables. They do it all the time at home, it's just, when I've got 30+ of them in my room, it's 30 times worse.
Imagine if they all lived in the same house together.
Stools, chairs and tables would become blockades.
I'm not good about room procedures like that. I get frustrated every year, and never try to change it. The students are mine for 9 or 10 weeks, and then I lose them. With yearbooks, newspapers, online stories, and video announcements to create, I don't make time to remind the kids to pick up.
But I think it's time to start, as well as give them ample time to set my room up straight.
Years ago, when I sat down to partake in something called "teacher research," I would like to say that right away I knew exactly what I wanted to research.
The idea of a teachers researching, at the time, was new to me. As a journalism teacher, I didn't know where to begin. What kind of research was out there for journalism teachers? Especially one that catered to the middle school crowd.
Instead, I decided that I could redesign my classroom. It needed a fresh start. It needed different spaces for the students, and it needed to feel more like a news room and less like school.
Where to begin?
That was all back in 2008. It took seven years for my "teacher research" to begin: a year of observations under the RISE model that pointed out some of my teacher weaknesses (that's another story for another day), gathering new tools in my toolbox to become a way better teacher, some confidence building, and a room change.
With the room change came 8 coffee tables and 18 stools from IKEA, as well as 10 cushions from my grandparents' old patio furniture. I had no vision. I just opened my doors and allowed for my students to have at it.
And have at it they did.
I needed to just be in the room with no plan for all the furniture. This is one of the hardest things for a teacher to do. To spend a year without a plan and just be. Teachers always feel like they have to have some form of control over their classroom. Some sleight of hand that gives them the upper deck. Any ounce of chaos will often throw a teacher into overdrive and cause them to crawl under their desk in tears.
Luckily, I thrive in said chaos. I stand on top of my desk and reign over it.
But my sleight of hand was always a traditional room set-up where the desks were placed into groups, or "tables." It was comfortable. It didn't allow for running, moving, dancing, fencing. Students had restrictions by the sheer amount of desks and chairs. Counters with computers also ate away at the available square footage in the room.
Then I moved rooms and said, "No chairs! No desks!"
Cut-to my latest room: Without the comfort of traditional school room furnishings, not only did my room look like it was filled to the brim with insanity -- it really was.
And I needed to live in that. It was uncomfortable. It was loud. It was never perfect. Some days, I would look at the room and grin, knowing that the experiment was successful. Other times, the room looked like the Tasmanian Devil came for a tea party.
But a year without rules helped lead me to uncover the best ways to use nontraditional learning spaces. For tonight, let's just start with one:
Students must design the learning spaces
Over the summer, at a conference, the idea came up that students needed to have a major voice (or the entire voice) when it came to organizing the classroom. It didn't matter what the teacher wanted, it's all about the students. Which is true, yes? It is all about the students. Give kids ownership of the room and let them design the space.
There's a caveat for me, however. I wanted to jump in 100% and be all pompoms and confetti canons about this process, but I rotate through 130+ students each nine weeks. That's about 520+ kids a year I could potentially see in one year. That's a plethora of opinions on how the room should be set up, which would take much time to plan, vote, etc.
I'm a journalism teacher, people. I've got deadlines to meet. As Utopian as it sounds, I can't have students design the entire room four times a year.
Then, the discussion went one-step further: Get rid of the teacher desk! I mean, it's their room, not yours! You don't even belong there, right? Go back and live in the garage where the mower is kept.
It's like the student took control and said, "I'm the captain now."
The whole idea of giving up the teacher's space was a bit extreme. I mean, I only spend 45 minutes a day with my sixth graders. For one quarter. I spend 90 minutes every-other-day with my seventh and eighth graders, because of block schedule.
I'm spending about 7 to 8 or more hours a day in that space.
It's my home away from home.
I feel like I should get to have some say in how the room is set up.
Through the summer, after allowing that conference to sink in a bit, I took a step back from the ledge and realized all the above was philosophy. Pedagogy. I didn't have to agree with all of it, and for one of the first times in my teaching career, as a trend came hurtling toward me, I didn't dodge it. I stood and let it try to hit me straight on, and it fell off the tracks.
Now, I do respect the philosophy behind "not having a teacher desk." I'm just going to go ahead and ignore it.
I also agree that students should have some say in the classroom layout and design. There is nothing wrong with that. I'm just not letting them draw up blueprints, nor am I getting rid of a space to call my own.
What I will do is include movable aspects of my room. This will allow students to create different areas within the room during collaboration or individual work time. If they need a conference table, they can create it. If they want a footstool for their legs, they can claim two stools. If they would like to create a little quiet space to write, think, or design, I've got movable walls on casters that can create temporary spaces.
I may not allow the students to completely design my room, but I will give them the freedom to move pieces of furniture around to create new spaces within the room. They are designing the learning spaces. Their own learning spaces. Compared to other classrooms in the building, my room is like being thrown into a pool of cold water.
You can see it in their faces when they walk into the room for the first time. They are so used to the "traditional" way of classroom set up that missing desks and chairs is foreign. Uncomfortable. You can really see it on their parents' faces during open house night.
So, I'm not getting rid of my teacher desk.
Where am I going to put my coffee?
“Where do we sit?” asks the student who walks into my journalism lab and sees two lines of computers, but over there, where desks and chairs should be, there is nothing.
A gaping hole of learning that is usually fraught with assigned seats.
Another kid walks over and sits on the floor with his back up against the wall.
Students who have had me before, their eyes go blank. Like, “What is this madness?”
“I miss your old room,” is said more than once.
On the right side of my room, there are 17 computers in two rows. On the left side -- nothing.
Well, not nothing nothing. It’s not a dark void.
“Timmy, don’t step over there! You’ll be lost forever!”
Because 30 or more desk and chairs was inconceivable in my classroom due to lack of space, I asked the custodian if he could take them out. He found this odd, but complied. Many people who view education as desks and chairs will find my room odd.
He wasn’t used to it. My students weren’t used to it. I wasn’t used to it.
And so began the Great Room Design Experience of 2015-2016.
I went into my new room last year knowing I was going to have some kind of furniture. It just wasn’t going to be typical. Not really sure what my budget would be, I started looking at all the different school furniture sites to see what was out there. Like, how much is school furniture anyway?
Your left arm.
Your first born.
Apparently, only million-dollar renovation or building budgets get to go shopping at the likes of School Furniture Liquidators.
For lil’ ol’ me, I needed to be more resourceful, so I visited the IKEA website.
After clicking “items that ship,” I found exactly what I needed. Stools and coffee tables that were easily moveable and didn’t break the bank. Orange-red stools that cost $4.99 each? Black coffee tables that cost $7.99 each?
Sold to the lowest bidder!
Eight tables and 18 stool-assemblies later (using my prep to assemble furniture was a first), my room now had the modular components I wanted. I could take the square black tables and create a long conference table and place the stools around it. Here, we’d have meetings, just like a newsroom, with me at the helm, leading us all to educational wonderlands.
Students could move the tables out to the hallway to work, to create a “news desk” for our video announcements, or hide under them if they so desired, while laying on the floor. The stools were the perfect size to sit by a bookshelf that moonlighted as a counter for workspace. The stools were also perfect for partner-work at the computer. Since the computers are close together, there’s not enough room for two chairs. There is room for a chair and a stool, however.
Once all that furniture was assembled, along with two rugs I also purchased, the room was ready. I never really set up the room, except for the conference table, so students were able to come in and go where they chose.
I also had ten cushions left over from my grandparents’ old outdoor furniture. They were nice cushions, faux leather on one side, fabric on the other, but they were straight out of “The Golden Girls” Florida. These were the prized possessions, the one things students clamored for, because, have you ever sat down on the floor of a classroom?
“Let’s just roll this carpet over some cement slabs and call it a day. It’s not like they’re going to sit on the floor. Look at all that fancy million-dollar desks and chairs!”
Then someone like me comes along and says, “You know what. I’m kind of tired of doing it the same-old, same-old.”
And I go and throw same-old out the window. It died a nasty death.
All of that furniture, 18 stools, 8 coffee tables and 2 rugs, not including shipping, cost less than $150. My principal was amazed at the cost. I felt frugally accomplished.
I mean, my hands and knees hurt from assembling all of it, but I felt accomplished.
Like, my blisters popped from all the assembling.
Sadly, my happy furniture story didn’t last.
And you know why?
Middle school kids. Those things are hard on furniture. Now, I don’t just have the same 150+ students coming into my room all year where I train them at the beginning of the year to do my bidding.
I have 150+ different students rotating through my schedule four times a year. That is upwards to about 600 different faces I see a year.
There are 1,300 students in my school.
You do the math.
Once they’ve learned how to occupy the classroom respectfully, there’s only two days left of the quarter.
By the time we concluded the year, only two out of the 18 stools were still functional (and with the start of a new year, even those won’t last) and two of my tables are missing one leg each. Also, pen ink has made its way onto the rugs. With the help of 21st Century glue, those tables will be repaired. The rugs will continue to be inked. The stools will be replaced with sturdier stools.
What won’t change is my resolve that a nontraditional room is something these students need. Walking into a space that isn’t set up like any other room in the building is making their neurons fire, making them reconsider what the classroom is even for.
Hopefully, this makes them reconsider what learning is.
For three weeks one summer, about eight years ago, I was a part of the National Writing Project (in central Indiana we call our small corner of it the Hoosier Writing Project). Teachers get together, discuss lessons and the importance of writing, as well as take hours upon hours to write for ourselves. It was when I started seeing innovation before innovation was a hashtag on Twitter and George Couros wrote about it being a “mindset.”
One of the goals for this group of teachers, all spellbound by improving our craft, needed to create and work on a “teacher research project.”
Since I wasn’t taking the class for credit, it sounded awful.
I threw up in my mouth.
What could I even research? What did I want to improve? It’s not that I didn’t need improvement, that wasn’t the case -- I’m not a diva. I know I can always improve. The question was...how does a middle school journalism teacher that teaches a full journalism curriculum (and no language arts, like most) even find research about his craft? There are not many teachers out there like me.
Typically, middle school language arts teachers take over aspects of a journalism class at their schools. The yearbook is the biggest, and there’s sometimes a newspaper, but typically they’re club activities and not actual classes.
And I’m not a high school journalism teacher -- there’s a TON of research out there, and articles, and lawsuits. Middle school journalists are not ready for such dramatics within the field of journalism. Yet. My goal for them are basics. They need the ground level before they advance -- and since our feeder high school has a tremendous journalism program, they can take the basics they learn from me and stretch their wings there.
Ugh, so what could I even research? I wanted it to be beneficial. Who does research for the sake of research?
Nevermind. I know those people are out there.
But I started thinking: How amazing would it be if I could have areas in my classroom that could be for specific purposes? When students came into my room, they would have to utilize different areas for different tasks.
And then it hit me -- if I’m a journalism teacher, how can my classroom look more like a newsroom?
I started to think about classroom design before it was trendy. Except, since it wasn’t trendy -- there wasn’t anything out there for research, and I wasn’t snazzy enough to put the studies of Piaget, Bloom and Gardner to the test and write my own papers about classroom design.
I was at a loss. My teacher research went nowhere, but it set the stage for my journey -- eight or nine years later.
At the time, my classroom held 17 computers, 30 desks and 30 chairs. A teacher desk. Three windows. A door to the media center. Counter tops. It felt like a smallish room, and there wasn’t much I could really do to move furniture around. Getting fancy with classroom design wasn’t abandoned completely, but I felt stuck.
Then, years later, I transferred rooms. I moved across my building to a larger room -- a change I didn’t like at first, because, really, who likes packing a bunch of yearbooks?
Then, on the last day of the 2014-2015 school year, my assistant principal showed me my ‘new’ room, and I had complete say in where my computers would go. I also asked what I could do with the room.
His response: Anything I wanted.
Insert: Confetti Cannon.
The support of administrators is a glorious thing. I didn’t always have it. At one point in my career, I was afraid of my administration. Going to my principal’s office made me feel like I needed to go to the bathroom -- you know the feeling.
Sure, the principal left you alone if you did good things, but also called you out when you did bad things. So, you weren’t sure if you were doing good things, but you knew quite well that you did bad things.
After a change in command, and gaining the absolute trust with my latest principal, I’ve become one of the biggest risk takers in my building.
I’ve become the teacher that tightrope walks without a net.
So, looking at the blank canvas that was my new room, I looked at my assistant principal and said, “I don’t want any desks or chairs.”
It was one of the best, but also most challenging, decisions as a teacher I have made, yet.
When I found out that New York Times was sending subscribers a Google Cardboard headset, my ears perked. A news organization entering into the world of affordable virtual reality?
Sign. Me. Up.
Google Cardboard is Google's answer to virtual reality using a smartphone. Just turn your phone sideways, place it into the viewer and the screen splits in two. When the headset is held up to the eyes, each eye looks through a lense and it's just like Mattel's View Master -- images and video become three dimensional.
So, when the NY Times decided to start telling stories using virtual reality, the teacher in me said, "I WANT MY STUDENTS TO TELL STORIES USING VIRTUAL REALITY, TOO!"
To do so, I need 16 GoPro Hero4 cameras, a plastic circular device for them to all sit in, the ability to edit all the videos into one spectacular story and probably $4,000 to do it all.
That, and on GoPro's website because I need to sign up to see if I'm even eligible for such a thing.
Here's what I'm thinking -- why not, right? Why wouldn't GoPro and their Odyssey contraption want a middle school journalism program to start using its magnificence? How amazing would it look to see mini-teenagers creating virtual reality content?
"And the best middle school journalism teacher award goes to..."
"You like me! You really, really like me!"
Wait. I just looked up the real price. I was way off by $11,000.
Does anyone have $15,000 they'd let me borrow? Well, not borrow. I'm not going to pay you back.
What if I write Trump to send me a $15,000 check to promote education? In my letter, I'll write: You will have my vote if you adopt my journalism program and help me get my students to tell virtual reality stories.
Stop breathing into that paper bag, I'm kidding.
Maybe Google will fund me.
"Um, Google? Do you want to fund a middle school journalism program's use of the Odyssey rig so we can create virtual reality news stories? You can use our content for free as a marketing ploy!"
Granted, we won't take our viewers to Syria or up in space or down underwater, but we will take you into the world that is far scarier.
The wilds of middle school.
Live and see what it's like to be in the orchestra. Immerse yourself in mixed media. Understand the concepts of floor hockey. There are so many stories we could tell that would capture fellow middle school students' eyes, and then every kid would want to take my class and my journalism program would become unstoppable!
For now, it will be a dream, but I'm not totally shelving it just yet. Since this consumable virtual reality is still fairly new, the cost is going to be high. But like anything, I may get to see that cost go down, and the story about what it's like to be a principal told in 360 degree virtual reality just may be around the corner.
Where some people follow and obsess over Apple, I follow and obsess over Google.
I realize Google can be seen as evil, and there's conspiracies that it's the right-hand of the government, spying on us, but it also allows me to run my website for free, and my school uses a bucket full of the tools it offers for education.
And, Maps is also nice for traveling.
But, when it comes to the wiles of computer technology, though, I can't understand the language of coding, nor can I sit down and write and create an app that you can download to your phone.
I wish I could because that's (supposedly) where the money is today.
Instead, I just get to be very interested in what Google is mixing up in its cauldron. I may not be able to create it, but at least I get to use it.
Every summer, I follow their I/O developer conference online, attending from my recliner. I don't watch many of the videos, but I do read the articles on tech blogs and magazines about the new technology Google introduces.
About two years ago, I read a blog post about how all the attendees received a cardboard cut-out that turned into a weird set of goggles.
And the collected reaction was like, "What the H?"
Then, the attendees placed their phones into the headset, after downloading an app, and they were thrust into a low-cost world of virtual reality.
I know virtual reality isn't new, but it's something that was never at our fingertips. Not like this.
I mean, I remember going to Blockbuster's Block Party when I was in high school...
...wait...do you even remember Block Party? The adult arcade? It had a giant playplace, games, food, other things like those chairs you sat in that moved around while the movie screen moved around and it was like you were on a rollercoaster...you know...moving around.
But what made Block Party state-of-the-art was its virtual reality stations. There were two of them, and you could place the hefty black goggles on your face and play some kind of virtual reality game...for, like, $10.
The line was always long and my adolescent brain could not handle the wait. Nor, did I want to pay $10 for a few minutes of my time.
Jump ahead 20 years, and now we just place our phones sideways into a set of cardboard goggles and, walah! Instant immersion.
When I first read about Google Cardboard, I thought it was cool, but it wasn't available to the consumer. I could've made my own viewer, but I didn't have the patience or the engineering know-how to put it all together -- even if there was a template and I would just be cutting up cardboard, even though there were instructions, it looked more difficult than IKEA furniture.
So, I just said, "cool" and went on with my day.
Over a year later, this past November, I read how the New York Times mailed out viewers to their subscribers. It was their way of telling the world, "Hey, we're going to start using virtual reality, too."
That's when I finally got on board. Now, the viewers are easy to purchase (we don't have to make our own!), are inexpensive, and come in a variety of materials, colors, and designs.
I bought a multi-colored foam one that seemed more sturdy than the basic cardboard.
When my Google Cardboard viewer came in the mail, I put it together, placed my phone in it and started to giggle.
That is the initial response. It's simple amazement. It's 3D. You're sitting on the floor in your living room. It cost you no more than $12, and it's not "Avatar."
Because I knew there was major educational value in this little contraption, I took my Cardboard headset to school and showed it off. My fellow staff members were excited to see that a smartphone turned sideways could become a virtual reality conduit.
And everyone that put it on giggled and gasped.
I'm sure the biggest, toughest, manliest man would put on the goggles and giggle.
Their catch phrase should be: Google Cardboard gives you the Google Giggles.
With some research, it was discovered by our media specialist that Google was using this virtual reality experience by incorporating it into education. Something called Google Expeditions was making its way around the country, and we found out that they were going to come to Indiana.
So, we signed up.
And they came.
On January 27, a representative from Google came with 60 headsets and some tablets. The headsets all had smartphones in them, and with the help of the tablet, the teacher picked an expedition (traveling to space, going to the Taj Mahal, walking the Great Wall of China, looking behind the scenes at what a photographer does for the American Museum of Natural History, and more) and led the students through a field trip without leaving the room.
The nanoseconds those Google Cardboard viewers touched the students' faces, they all emitted a sleugh of Google Giggles.
The students turned around, looked up and looked down, and wherever they were, they could see the sky, the ground, and all the details. Although Google Expeditions doesn't use video, it's still amazing because it's like the students were standing inside a photograph. You could visit the same Expedition twice and see new things.
It's absolutely crazy.
And now I'm hoping to bring it to my classroom. I'm not quite sure how, but since the New York Times is creating content, there's definitely a way to incorporate that into the journalism classroom.
Maybe eventually, my students could start creating their own virtual reality content.
We have this weird 90-minute block of time every other day called Core+ during the school day. Students are able to get help with classwork, finish homework, read, and more with some of that time.
This time is a huge benefit for my class because it allows for students to have extra time to get interviews. You see, in my journalism classes, students have to pull their sources out of class to interview them. Normally, this isn't a problem because my students have to schedule an appointment using the tried-and-true Appointment Pass I created years ago.
The Appointment Pass is a simple carbon copy: the reporter writes the student name, teacher name, date, time, etc. on the pass and the teacher signs it. I get the top part, and the reporter gets the bottom part.
This pass lets me know the students checked in with the teacher to make sure it's OK for an interview. It also lets me know where they are in case of an emergency.
The faculty I work with are pretty fabulous and supportive, and they will often allow students to get interviewed during class, as long as they are respectful and professional little journalists.
To cut down on those interruptions, I like Core+ because the entire school has it at the same time.
So, when a student is struggling with getting an interview during class, I just tell them to get a pass and do the interview during Core+.
Then they say this: "But I have homework to do."
Is getting interviews not homework? Is this not a real class?
I'm a mere Muggle in their Hogwarts world.
This annoys me. They hold their science, social studies, math and language arts classes above mine. Those are real classes that matter, apparently. This thing, this yearbook they're working on is pointless.
When students tell me they have homework they need to get done during Core+, I ask them: "Are the interviews you have to get done not homework?"
They fall quiet. Sure it's homework, they think, but it's not as important. I have learned the truth at this point. They don't see my class as a real class, because let's face it, the communication skills they're working on won't help them in high school or the real world...
...said no one ever.
Then, I remind them that they have a real audience. That hundreds of people follow our Twitter account and see our updates and links to stories on our website. I remind them that over 1,000 kids are actually paying for their homework when they purchase a yearbook.
"How many people pay for your language arts paper?"
I usually get silence in return, which means I have won.
I don't mean to belittle the other classes, but I feel like I have to use fighting words in order for students to realize that my class is a class, too. That it's not just this thing they do for 90 minutes every other day.
Sure, it's not a typical class, but I truly believe they are getting something out of my class, even if they don't realize it.
When we talk about photo composition and design terms, they're actually learning about art, and sometimes, those skills get reapplied in their art classes.
When we discuss good question writing and interviewing, we're working on research skills. They do a ton of research in their science, social studies and language arts classes.
When students submit a Tweet to me so we can update our Twitter feed with the news of the school, they're taking the information that they've gathered, summarize it and create their own main ideas in the form of a Tweet. I also publish those to our growing list of Twitter followers. Those Tweets they write have an authentic audience, and they are often liked and retweeted. It's also one of the few ways we can report "breaking" news.
When we work on stories, they're writing. Writing benefits all areas of every class, ever. We do daily editing exercises, which can benefit them in language arts.
So, when a student thinks my class isn't a real class, they are sorely mistaken.
When Whitney Houston sings, "I'm every woman," on "The Bodyguard" soundtrack -- that's me she's singing about.
My class is every class.
No, they won't be tested on a standardized test over what they've learned, but the concepts and skills they work on in my classroom can help in other areas. There are times when I try to tell my students that journalism can be seen as a bridge to their other classes.
What they're working on in those classes, well, they're working on all that in my class, too.
Then, I drop my mic and leave the room.
I'm sure working with adults is no picnic sometimes, but I've got a feeling it's not like working with kids.
The adult's brain, for the most part, is a fully developed machine. And sure, adults can be super-difficult, especially when set in their ways, but are the adults you work with little hot messes running around with cell phones thinking every life decision is going to make or break them?
And don't even get me started with Snapchat.
About four years ago, as technology became a bigger part in education, with amazing tools, websites, applications, and such at our fingertips, my district rolled out something called "bring your own device."
Working in a socioeconomic landscape that is fairly well-off, students were able to bring in their own laptops, their phones, iPads, tablets, Xerox copy machines -- you name it. With those devices, it expanded the computer availability in my room.
I'm lucky to have a working lab of 17 computers that I don't have to share with anyone, but when 30+ students walk into the room ready to type a story (and I don't do handwritten, sorry), this becomes a bit of a problem since the tech-to-student ratio is low.
I can't be an old-school journalism teacher and have them handwrite their stories so they can just type them up later. If I'm going to matter as a class, I need to make sure I'm having my students do the things that their high school and professional counterparts are doing.
This involves everything digital.
Laying out a newspaper/magazine (also called "pagination") doesn't happen with paper and glue -- it's done on the computer, where we don't have to waste paper anymore. Designing the yearbook uses a full-blown online program supplied by Herff Jones that allows us to custom-create a stunning hardback book that encapsulates the school year. Although we'll print out a few pages, the only time we really print anything is when we publish the actual product.
And this year, I'm no longer just teaching writing, photography and graphic design. I've thrown in the basics of video filming, editing and shooting.
All these things require technology, so it's nice when a student can write a story on their phone and use their phone/iPad to film/edit video, which frees up the computers for the programs that can't be used on phones.
Until the phones take over.
And believe me...they've taken over.
I wish I had a device that shot some kind of electro-pulse through the air that would disrupt my students' phones.
Because, seriously, people, I am really tired of my students making ugly faces at their phones and staring at their laps. I understand they're incapable of seeing the big picture, but those little screens sometimes makes it impossible to see any picture at all.
The plus-side to this extra technology was mentioned above.
The down-side? Let me count the ways.
Do you know how fast a student can whip out their phone and log onto a game the minute they're finished with a task? And do you even realize how many ugly selfies they take of themselves so they can send them with some benign and unintelligent comment using Snapchat?
And if you want them to have a certain app, good luck, because their phone is out of space. The storage is taken up with all their pictures that they won't delete -- you know the same picture they took with their friends 100 times.
As long as they're getting their work done, putting forth the effort to be a good journalist, and being a mini-contributor to society, I don't mind if they check their Instagram, reply to a quick text or the like. We, as adults, do it.
I can't be a hypocrite.
But when the phones have taken over and they think their social lives are more important, this is when I want to send out the electro-pulse. Something to cripple their ability to be really annoying with their devices.
That way they can pay attention to the task at hand.
Which is real-world skills we're working on. We're actually publishing things to a real, living, human audience.
Then again, remember when students were passing notes and not paying attention before phones were even a thing?
This battle I'm fighting is the same battle all teachers have been fighting, it's just using a different set of artillery.
Driving home today, I had a quirky thought about what to do with my next notebook.
This came about because I got a compliment today on my Extra Large Moleskine calendar notebook that I'm not really using as a calendar, but instead, as an expensive composition notebook.
I forget what my co-worker said, but she complimented the look of my black notebook with the elastic strap holding it shut.
Did she say it was sophisticated?
I can't remember.
I'm definitely not someone you would consider 'sophisticated.'
I had the idea to transform my next notebook, which will probably be an inexpensive composition notebook, into something a bit more functional, something that mimics the Moleskine-style notebook.
I'll staple a strip of elastic to the back cover so I can keep the notebook shut, and I'll tape card stock on the back cover to create a pocket to keep important papers.
But that's not why I'm writing. At this point, I assume you'll think I'm obsessed with the idea of the teacher notebook.
You're not far off.
Once I finish one notebook, I'm quickly off to the next one. It feels like I've accomplished something when I write on the last page of any notebook. Then, I stack it on top of my other notebooks in my cabinet and move on to the next.
If this is what you do, too, we need to stop this.
As an elective teacher, I switch classes every nine to ten weeks. I teach four different quarters. This is nice because it gives me a chance to refresh with each quarter. If I didn't like how I'm running the show, I get to hit the reset button.
Because of this, I get to teach similar concepts multiple times a year. What I realize is, I don't usually teach a concept the same way twice. I'm always mixing it up.
Sometimes I mix it up so much, I forget that I've done some amazing things in the past.
I mix it up so much, that it almost feels like I'm reinventing the wheel. Constantly.
This can be exhausting, and this quarter I finally looked at myself and said, "Stop doing this!"
It was time to reach for my past notebooks. I needed to look through all my archives to see what I had done in the past that I really liked, or take what didn't work quite well, and revamp it.
Our reflections, lessons, notes in those notebooks are much like the stories/novels a writer creates. The best advice a writer will give after they finish a story or novel is to put it away for the time being.
Then, after a certain length of time, the writer will look over the work again, with fresh eyes, and begin to edit it.
I needed to look through my old notebooks with fresh eyes.
Some of the those good ideas might not have been executed very well the first time, or some of those good ideas were great ideas, and then we forgot about them...and didn't do them the next year...
Let's not do this again.
This quarter, I sat down with my stack of notebooks, and although I didn't go through them with a fine-toothed comb, I flipped through them and waited to see if something caught my eye.
Something did: The Writing Marathon. And I used it this week.
My goal this quarter is to work smarter, not harder, with my planning. One of the best tools I have is myself. I've been through countless PD seddions. We all have. Some of the ideas handed out during those meetings are actually quite beneficial...but then we forget about them, don't have time to implement them at that moment, put them away for a rainy day. It's the same when it comes to ideas discovered on Twitter during edchats and the like.
Although I'll always continue to change things up when it comes to teaching journalism, there are some tried-and-true pages in those notebooks that I have that I need to make sure I revisit.
I may even rewrite some of those ideas into my latest notebook.
Those notebooks are a treasure chest of great ideas, and also, memories of reflection: that worked great, that was terrible, remember when I did that because it was such a trend in education?
I hope to go back through them again before the quarter is over and find another juicy tidbit of teaching excellence that I can dust off and reuse.
Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy, but sometimes...we can be our own best resource.
Who is The Vade Mecum
Evan Williams is a middle school journalism teacher in Indiana. He advises the student publications: yearbook, magazine, video announcements, broadcast and online news. To find success in the classroom, he uses blended learning with the help of Canvas and Google Apps for Education.