Unexpected Lessons. When my class turned into a ‘newsroom.’

Today, no sooner I got to school, I saw an email to staff about a coffee truck stopping by. A fundraiser for the school’s Cheer team. Not your common or garden food truck (a converted horse trailer) Exchange Coffee is a company with an interesting origin story.

So as my students came to class — my Writing and Publishing class –I nixed the day’s assignment on my lesson plan and asked them if they like to work as an impromptu news team. Grab a camera and some mics I told them. Someone needed to prep for the story, to look up some background information of the owners of Exchange Coffee. Another began to write down possible questions on a small white board while two others tested the audio, and if the clip-on mic units were charged. Clip-on mics aren’t the best for impromptu stories, so one student, adapted our ‘dummy’ mic to the Hotec clip-on, so that it communicated back to the camera. We rushed downstairs. I asked the owners (who also make and serve the coffee) if it was OK to do a story about them.

Once that was cleared, I got the students to shoot some B-roll. A school bus rolling in. A weird half moon was rising as the sun came over the Queen Creek horizon. An engine roared –possibly a train or a noisy aircraft from the nearby Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport. Sound engineer? Check. Camera person? Check. Reporter? Check.

As we began to roll, Don Meyer, an English teacher unexpectedly wheeled into frame, in full biking gear. Perfect! (I’ve featured Mr. Meyer on a podcast and blog post so I was confident this ‘customer’ would agree to being in the story.) The story was suddenly growing more legs. The ‘reporter’ began describing the scene, and got a interview with the owner/barista.

The audio quality turned out better than we expected. More than that, our reporter sounded like a reporter, despte just having 5 minutes of planning the story. The camera person got her right shots. Fifteen minutes to the bell, we switched off the tech and headed back to class to review the work.

NOW COMES THE LEARNING PART. I will play back the recording, and over the next few days and have the students critique their work. Could they have done anything different? What about lighting? What about camera angles? What if this was an ‘incident’? How would they handle it? Could they have interviewed customers? Could they have got a different camera angle – say from inside the truck?

Publishing in a digital world is tricky business. It’s never static. Stories, like lesson plans are always in flux. The best lessons are learned on the job. We are often poised at the top of the Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid, ‘creating original work,’ investigating, revising, reconstructing knowledge in the moment. Sometimes a coffee truck hijacks the lesson plan. You adapt and run with it.

Tomorrow I have invited an author, Jessica McCann, talk to the class about the writing craft, about fiction, and picking out details for a story. Does a video story or podcast have something in common with a novel? We’ll ask!

NEXT WEEK, my students will be working on podcasts. Who knows where this –and what unplanned events – will take my class. Stay tuned. Didn’t I mention – my class starts at 6:30 am? I might need more coffee!

Writing and publishing 100 Books in 5 weeks. How did they do that?

When students sign up for a computer class, I tell them it’s a trick — they really signed up for a communications class that happen to have computers.

Inside pages of ‘Ciphers’ published in December 2021. More here.

In the last week of Fall semester my seventh grade students wrote and produced more than a hundred eBooks. A week before finals, many of them were burning the midnight oil proofing their chapters and fixing the ‘widows’ and orphans’ rather than cramming. They uploaded their final product as a PDF to Flipsnack, hit the ‘publish’ button and saw what five weeks of their creative writing project looked like.

Let me throw in some context about this assignment. Each semester my students take on a capstone project for which they have to prove that they understand document formatting. And by that I mean layout, design, fonts, margins, line spacing and all those nitty gritty features found on the ribbon of the most common applications they use — Google docs, Microsoft Word, Google Slides and PowerPoint.

I give them a few guidelines, and a 24-page template for the eBook created in Google Slides. Yes, Google Slides! An odd choice indeed for page layout. Having experimented with Microsoft Word and Google Docs several semesters ago, I discovered that PowerPoint or Slides are more flexible when it comes to formatting. Text boxes, drop-caps and margin control for instance work well.

There is considerable writing to be done, but the goal is to combine creative skills and mechanical tasks: To let students become storytellers, while making the text appeal to the eye. All this while doing the heavy lifting of research, copy editing, and design. They are shown how to design their book’s front and back cover in Canva, and import the PNG files. As for that back cover, I get them to create their own logo, insert a real barcode, and solicit two or more book reviews from their peers — reviews they place on the back cover. They must also write a blurb for the book (something a publisher or PR firm would do) and a short bio of themselves. The back-cover itself is one week’s worth of work! Authors may only use royalty-free images from sites that are in the Creative Commons. That means no Google Images.

They came up with their own book titles. And they were free to choose any genre, any subject. Many opted for fiction, but you’ll be surprised at the variety of non-fiction this year. I’ll get to the titles in a bit.

I’m sure you’re thinking — this is asking a lot of a 7th grader! And for anyone wondering why publish an eBook in a computer class, let me put it this way. Yes, my students are required to learn touch-typing and improve their speed and accuracy. We do this each week. But toward the end of the semester I tell them (half in jest) that they were tricked into believing they signed up for a computer class — when in fact they walked into a Communications class that happened to have computers. Not the other way around. The rationale, I tell them, is that the only purpose of ‘learning’ computers is to help them communicate better. Whether it is learning to code, making stunning presentations, designing a book cover, manipulating images in Photoshop, designing a website, or writing term papers or professional reports, the goal is always communication. The only reason you produce work for an audience — your teacher, a customer, an organization — is to communicate an idea. An eBook pulls together several of these core skills.

At the outset, when I tell students the book involves five chapters I hear a few groans. But very soon, I begin to see their story growing, the sentences inch-worming across a paragraph. The question I am always asked is if it’s OK to add a chapter or an extra page or two. Funny how they want that bar raised!

Apart from the usual Zombie InvasionHorror, and a few about dragons and cute animals, I noticed an explosion in creativity this year. (Something I wrote about in an article on Medium, titled, Start a Little Library, Side Effects Will Vary.”) I put it down to COVID, unleashing a fresh batch of creative juices. Consider these, handpicked to give you a sense of the diversity.

  • One book is set in an Escape Room with some creative plot twists.
  • Another trippy alien mystery, The Last Drop is scary. (it’s not about blood)
  • Like something intriguing? There’s a book titled, Ciphers with a techy, creative bent.
  • One on Beautiful Artwork is a truly aesthetic layout.
  • Interstellar is about space, but is not about that movie. It deals with the thermosphere and Braneworld Theory. (I had to look that term up!)
  • I was surprised to see a story on the ‘Witch Trials’ — with surprise angle. The author recounts the story of one of her ancestors caught up in the trials in Salem! How often do you get historical fiction with a personal angle to it?
  • A delightful book set in London is based on the urban legend of one ‘Spring-heeled Jack.

As I have found out with each class, a writing project like this has surprise endings. Many students who never considered writing tell me they have become passionate about it.

Check out the podcast about this story, below.

What my students asked a Googler.

Yesterday I brought back our Technology Speaker series for the new semester.

What better way than to start off with a Googler, Patrick Krecker. It was timely as I had just completed teaching units on the roots in the Net. How none of what we access on the Web (or Google) would be possible if not for a man named Tim Berners-Lee.

Patrick Krecker, Google

Web history aside, Mr. Krecker responded students questions. Pointed questions that let him take on some hot-button issues that come up for discussion in my class. Such as What does Google do with our data? Why is there so much hacking these days? What’s ransomware?

Patrick talked about security holes, and the ongoing pursuit hackers and the role of ‘white hats.’ I was glad he personalized what coding in his job involves (He says has written about 200,000 lines of code) given that coding is making its way into many schools now, to get students better prepared for what lies ahead.

As for me, I learned new terms and concepts, too. Things like ‘double spend,’ ‘deprecated software‘ and something known as ‘cross-site scripting‘ which refers to the injection of malicious scripts or code into ‘trusted’ websites.

Patrick has a gift for explaining complex ideas with metaphors. If you like to listen in to his conversation with my students, here’s a link to the video, which is also on my class website.

Listen to the ‘Radio 201’ podcast of this event:

___________________________

Patrick and I used to work at Decision Theater, at ASU about 11 years ago. It’s wonderful to see how far he’s moved along into a field he was always passionate about. Thank you Patrick for this wonderful experience in my class this week.

Now on Spotify, my education podcasts

Recording a podcast is the easy part. Editing it however, takes a lot of time. Especially when you record segments separately. Or when the Wifi goes down for a few minutes, as it did for a recording of this episode of The Mayflower Files. My guest was on Google Meet. We had to recap the lost moment and move on.

It also took some back-end fiddling around to get these podcasts on a few networks. So it was gratifying to see this confirmed a few weeks back. RadioLab 201 is now on Spotify, and Apple Podcasts as well.

As Jake Carlson, one of the guest speakers (who’s been podcasting since 2014) told my class, “Everything is Figureoutable.” He was candid the speed bumps he ran into when he got started, and what it took to get comfortable in front of a mic. When I record the podcasts, I have to content with several factors – people walking into the Lab, sound over the school PA system for instance.

I have mentioned this before. I used to have a podcast in 2009, while at Arizona State University. I hit a long pause, and now, partly because of the class I teach, podcasting is back.

In that briefing room where it happened.

She worked in the belly of the beast as a reporter— in Washington DC — covering the Trump White House; a short internship that made Theresa Smith, now a teacher, a fly on the wall watching the frenetic competition for stories in the James Brady briefing room.

In this interview, and podcast I asked her what she learned from such an experience — what lessons could I pass on to my students in writing and publishing?  What’s a ‘Lede’? How do you get readers to pay attention? Some amazing insights from someone who’s been there, reported that.

The full story here!

Listen to the podcast:

Start a ‘little’ Library, side effects may vary.

You never know what the unintended consequences might be when you begin a ‘Little Free Library.’ A library in school is not as frequented as, say, the gym or football field. Even a vending machine gets more traffic than a bookshelf. That’s reality.

But hold on – there is a surprise outcome to this story.

After we installed our first Little Free Library unit in 2019 I sensed a slight uptick in reading. Though my classroom is a computer lab, we discuss literature; reading is a given. Books have not been replaced by technology. My shelves are stacked with copies of WIRED, and The New Yorker. (One book on my shelf, Eats, Shoots and Leaves helps start a discussion on good grammar and punctuation. Then there’s no escaping Orwell’s ‘1984‘ when discussing privacy or surveillance. But I digress.)

Today, we launched the outdoor ‘Little Free Library’ with two of my former students who kicked off the project, invited to install the name plate of the library’s Charter number – It’s 111423. Meaning ours is now on the library network map – as you will see here.

The Writer’s Club was on hand. This new club will act as its custodians. It’s another example of the explosion of interest in reading and writing, despite an annus horribilis we went through, which made school so complicated. They kicked off the club in January and they’re already writing and sharing fiction. These kids are now reading like crazy!

I teach a Writing and Publishing elective as well so it’s really gratifying. Sorry to burst your despondent bubble, ‘Death of Reading’ Op-Ed writers. If you walk into my school where cellphones are banned, you may see young people bowing their heads –to a page, not a screen.

As I said, with books, side effects may vary!

When a green screen pops up in class

Sometimes a lesson plan needs to be revised on the fly. This happened today when one of my students brought in a green screen, so they could do trial runs of their TV news scripts in a Writing & Publishing class. I had planned to use a camera on a tripod and have them simulate a studio setting. I happen to have a 60-inch screen on the opposite wall, so with a bit of tweaking, it could be made to look like a backdrop of a scene for a ‘reporter’ to deliver his/her lines.

And then this happened.

Computer lab at Benjamin Franklin High School

As quickly as it was set up, we dismantled it. But I think it gave students a real world context of what they are actually working on – a story, that is not just an academic exercise but with an audience in mind.

I have to say this is a learning experience for me. [What’s that saying, “He who teaches, learns twice?”] I grew up using what we called a ‘blue screen’ as a chroma-key technique. I practiced this during a training stint in Coventry. My fellow student and I sent up this huge camera that weighed about as much as a microwave, at Coventry cathedral – the bombed out remains from the 1940 German air raids. We then took the ‘film’ to the studio and produced a news show. Now, some 33 years later all it takes is a pop-up screen, and a $300 camera slightly larger than a computer mouse.

This week I’m teaching myself to edit the footage on DaVinci Resolve. It’s not part of the lesson plan, for sure! But who knows. These things are not writ in stone. My elective class that I teach at 6:30 am each week day could evolve. I tell my students this is what a computer and tech lab should be – a place to experiment, to take things apart, and be ready for new ideas that pop-up. It’s one year since COVID made us discover new ways of teaching. It’s a lot of work, but it’s invigorating! Notice how everyone’s wearing a mask. No one’s complaining.

In this COVID economy, my students’ eBooks shine a light

This year too I am so inspired by the work that students in my computer class have produced. Their capstone project is a 24-page eBook, and this year I relaxed the guidelines and let them choose any topic. I wanted to see how they use this moment in time to come up with ideas, rather with no boundaries.

I wanted to see what has been brewing in the minds of young people. I was in for a shock! This semester, I noticed more fiction emerging than all the semesters before, combined. Even the non-fiction was telling. Topics include, “The most tragic events in history,” the solar system, and one on somewhat gruesome events of World War II. But the outpouring of fiction made me have to allow them to go beyond the 24-page requirement.

Here are some of the topics:

The Mind Traveler,” “The Girl Astronaut,” “A Vacation in the Woods,” “The Mystery Letters.” Two books on Softball as a backdrop to drama, two on dance techniques, a romance, one on the harmful technologies affecting young people, and one two on mental illness. There’s more….

My students design the front and back covers using only copyright-free images, they control margins, and on my insistence, ad nauseam, use plenty of white space. Take a look at these, and let me know if what we are seeing an explosion of creativity in 12 and 13 year olds. Perhaps this year with so many ups and downs has rekindled the urge to read, imagine and tell stories. I hope I am right.

It makes being a teacher so rewarding!

Click on the images and they link to actual eBooks.

Cheeseburgers and Socrates – How we engage students during COVID

One of my colleagues at Benjamin Franklin High School, is a pro at the Socratic seminar. The onus, he says, is on us teachers to make sure we aren’t just encouraging idle passengers on their educational journey. There needs to be a ‘method’ to help them interact with the material we teachers present.

That method, says Jason Klicker is the Socratic seminar. Here’s his fascinating example, Klicker-style:

Image, courtesy Jordan Nix, Unsplash.com

“A student wants to know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich. Instead of telling them how to make (or even worse, just making it for them), I ask them if a grilled cheese sandwich is like other sandwiches they know how to make. When they say yes, I ask them what is similar and what is different. Over the course of the discussion, the students learns for themselves how a grilled cheese sandwich is different from a BLT, and knows how to make one. After they think they are ready, I watch them do it, giving them pointers along the way. The sandwich might not taste delicious the first few times they try, but their knowledge allows them to have confidence to try in the future.

“While we don’t discuss grilled cheese in my class, we do ask questions like “what is justice?” or “how do you secure your freedom that you have been given?”. Both are important questions for important times. It’s frustrating for the student at first, as it should be. I’m not giving them the answer, they have to find it for themselves. In the end, They have a deeper understanding of justice or freedom than they could ever get if I just simply lectured at them.”

Most importantly, says Mr. Klicker, “They have taken charge of their own education because they were in the driver’s seat instead of being an idle passenger. They are also much better people for it.”

Despite the disruptions we have had since March this year –indeed because of the having to adapt to COVID — all teachers have had to turn up the creativity thermostat in how we engage young people. Many of my students in the computer lab are remote, or have moved between in-class and online. Using higher order thinking and engagement techniques are di rigueur. Nothing like a 2,500 year old technique to motivate the mind.