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Toys R Us We Are Watching

2013 October 26
by Jabiz

I had a great day today. When I got home around four pm, I was feeling tired, in a way only the sun can bring about fatigue. I was calm and feeling content and peaceful. Getting out of the car, my kids were sweaty, hair wind-swept and their feet were dirty. They carried with them flowers they had found on the ground to give to mommy, who was at home recovering from a cold. In short, I was basking in the glory of a day well spent at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Bollywood Veggies. See for yourself:

As my children prepared for bedtime, someone in my network posted this article with a link to the following Toy R Us commercial.

I was immediately stewing in indignation. I tweeted a few angry tweets and shared the video clip on Facebook, but was left unsatisfied. I knew I would not be able to leave this alone until I wrote about it and explored why I was so upset.

I am lucky. I do not live in the US where my kids are constantly bombarded with TV ads. But I do still feel the effects of corporate bullying on our family’s collective psyche. And ads like this are more than just a cute way to get kids to buy toys. Ads like this are weapons used by consumer culture advocates to create a new generation of kids who are becoming more and more disconnected from nature, and more and more obsessed with consuming corporate culture.As parents and teachers, we have a responsibility to say something, do something when we see flagrant disregard for our own values in the face of this consumer attack.

It’s hard being a parent. I get it. I love the movies. I even love the toys. I occasionally shop at Toys R Us. I have two kids, how can I not? But at the end of the day, how far I allow my kids to be manipulated by this kind of garbage is up to me.

I sat Kaia down and showed her the commercial and asked her what she thought. She is seven. She mentioned that a trip to Toys R Us to get whatever she wanted sounded pretty cool. (She actually used the word amazing!) My rage was palpable.  But what about today, I asked. Didn’t you have fun? Would you rather spend time in the toy store or sitting under that fig tree we saw. (This tree was amazing by the way)

No, the farm was really cool. She said. It was fun seeing all the fruit trees and watching the Skinks in the mangroves. Ah, there it was satisfaction! The fact that kids love nature is no mystery. I can remember countless hours spent exploring western Marin county and Samuel P. Taylor Park. But like most things in their lives kids need our help to gain exposure to nature. I am beginning to wonder if addressing Nature Deficit Disorder is not a bigger problem than showing kids how to use iPads. Take a look:

Why are we not having regional conferences on how we can bolster our schools outdoor programs?  This problem with urbanization and distance from nature, seems to be a global problem. The thing that makes me so mad about the Toys R Us ad, is that it is hard enough getting kids to engage with nature without the not so covert corporate interference. But their tactics are nothing new:

So what now? Who cares? What do we do?

1. First step, should always be to talk to our kids! Our own children as well as the ones we teach. Show them the ads, talk to them about the messages, show them alternatives. Expose them not only to nature, but show them the contrast to the corporate culture that thrives on their disconnections from nature. I plan on showing this post and the videos to my Be The Change class first thing Monday. I suggest you do the same.

2. Take the kids outdoors. Embolden your outdoor ed programs. Take your kids outside and let them play and explore and get dirty. Teach them the names of plants and animals. Arrange field trips. Spend your weekends as a family in nature.

3. Speak up. Tweet, share, write about these companies and tell your friends to do the same. In this day and age of connectivity, it is audacious for  a company like Toys R Us to make an ad like this and not expect massive blow back. Show them that we are here and not happy about what they are teaching our children.

4. Boycott? Not sure on this one. I am not against toys. I remember the thrill of going to Toys R Us as a kid, and I see the value of toys (even corporate ones) I want my kids to be aware not shielded. I want them to notice and see the grotesque commercialism of some products and ideas versus other more Eco-friendly ones.  I want my kids to be able to enjoy a great day at the Nature Reserve and come home and play with  dolls they love. I know corporations only listen to the dollars and cents, but I would like to think that a powerful campaign could do more than not buying my kids toys. However, I will limit my shopping at stores like Toys R Us and try to find alternative stores that offer better toys.

5. Let’s make some posters and videos and projects to get kids excited about nature and share them amongst our schools. Student generated ones would be even best. I will ask some groups in my Be The Change course to take up this cause. I will share what they create.

I feel better! I had to get that off my chest. I wish you could have seen the look on my kids faces as they ran between cocoa and coffee trees barefoot today. As they saw a “real” scarecrow. Felt the humid heat and enjoyed the rain drops. Felt the mud between their feet and saw where bananas come from.

Sorry Toys R Us! I have never seen them look like that leaving one of your stores. It was a magical day. One that was much more exciting and memorable than wandering your florescently lit aisles looking at toys that try to show my kids how to be girls.

Would love to hear your thoughts! What are you doing as a parent or a teacher to get your kids exposure to nature? What project ideas do you have? How can we show Toys R Us that this type of message is unacceptable?


From Mine to Ours

2013 October 20
by Jabiz

take me
use me
share me
i’m licensed
to be

those ideas
these words
the painted
scrawling blathering
moves us from
mine to ours.

i can feel it in you
just as you’re feeling
it in me:
nothing original
nothing new
nothing owned
everything free.

dancing derivatives
denizens of a developing
unattached and untethered
blurred and modified
copied and copied and copied.

a commons
in which we give and take
remix and build and create
and share and evolve.

and not for profit
call me an idealist
and I will call you one too.

take me
use me
share me
i’m licensed
and ready to be
made into you,
as i take you into me
and carve a we.

no monsanto
no pfizer
no property

this is buddha
this is marx
this is freedom
this is sharing
this is free

give credit where credit is due
then take the thing and add to it

this new thing,
the one that belongs to neither you or me
give it away and let a third voice sing it free.

i am creative commons licensed
everything i think
i feel and create
is there for you:
use it,
adapt it
share it.
give it away once you’re done with it,
tell people where you found it
don’t try to make money from it.

Last week, I got my favorite Creative Commons License (Attribution, Non-Commercial, ShareAlike) tattooed on my arm. I didn’t tattoo the symbols on my arm, because I think it is cute to cite photos I use for presentations. I tattooed the license on my arm because I see it as a badge of honor! Despite some of the criticism I have recently read,  I see the vision of Creative Commons:

Our vision is nothing less than realizing the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture — to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity.

as something bigger than just teaching kids how to use images they find on the Internet. I see The Commons cause as bigger than piracy and media use. I see Creative Commons as the building block of a new culture. A culture in which cooperation trumps competition. Where we understand the derivative nature of human intellectual and artistic growth and try to build new laws to deal with a world where Everything is a Remix.

I see Creative Commons as an alternative to the very concept of copyright, and not only in the field of digital media. I hope to inspire kids to see their ideas are extensions of generations of thinking. I hope to challenge the idea of intellectual property as something that can be owned. I want kids to see that they are a link in an infinite chain of ideas. I want kids to see that while companies can copyright genetic codes in food production or own powerful medicines, that perhaps they can create a world that would be better served with a culture that chooses to share and build upon ideas, rather than owning them. Perhaps we can create a culture beyond commercialism and profits, one were we strive for sustainability and evolution.

I know these ideas may seem romantic, idealistic and perhaps a bit naive. I was raised on Imagine and Blowing in the Wind. Did you expect anything less? So while like the UN, the actual power of CC may be limited,  I chose to tattoo the label on my arm because I value and love the idea of a shared commons. A place where the cultural and natural resources are accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.

What are your thoughts on Creative Commons?



Teachable Moment

2013 September 24
by Jabiz

Today, as my grade 7 students were working in small groups, I heard someone say,”Stop being such a homo. That is so lame and gay.”

I walked over very calmly, sat down and said:

Can we have a very quick but serious conversation? I heard you just say, “Stopping being such a homo. That is so lame and gay.” I just wanted you to know that I would  prefer that we didn’t use that kind of language in our classroom. I don’t think it is very kind to use words like Homo or Gay or even Retard in a derogatory way, do you know what derogatory means? It means to use it in a negative way. To use those words in a way to be put someone down. I don’t think it is okay to use words like Homo or Gay or Retard to put people down. There are most likely people in our class who might be homosexual or know people who are homosexual and if we use it as a put down, then they feel badly about themselves and that doesn’t seem fair. I know from experience because many of my friends who are homosexual have told me that language is powerful and the words we choose affect people in ways we cannot always see. Does that make sense? So please do not use the word Homo or Gay or Retard as a put down in our class again. OK? Thanks.



These Days

2013 September 17

I’ve been meaning to write. It has been a while. I know. Did you miss me? I missed you. Missed you terribly. Missed the idea of you sitting there nodding or shaking your head, connected to my thoughts. Each one spilling from my fingers onto your screen into your psyche and daily thoughts. Or maybe, you just skim the words on a phone on a train in the night, soon forgotten. Who am I to know where you and I will meet? What will stick and what will float away. All I can do is write. I’ve been meaning to. It has been a while. I know. I missed you.

The problem is and always has been for most writers, I suppose, that I couldn’t make the time to get it right. A batch of half baked ideas taking up space does not always invite publication or sharing. So we swim with our premature ideas, hoping they will keep us a float long enough to make it a shore of completion.

The problem is that if there are enough of these incomplete thoughts, we may feel we can float forever and never need to actually give our ideas shape or voice or form.  I see clearly now, that enough is enough–  it is nearly October and I have yet to write the year’s first blog post. Here are my random thoughts looking for form:

I am cynical and distrustful of technology these days. It all feels trite and superfluous and outdated and stale. I tried to look for what I still value, really value in the Ed-Tech mold and there is not much. I do howver keep coming back to these ideas from Connected Learning.

Connected Learning
Connected Learning


I guess my goal this year is to define the aspects of this graphic that matter to me and really look at where and when technology is helping me accomplish these things in my classroom. I am planning a two-day workshop on the topic, so I best have my thoughts really clear.

But even in my personal life, the technology and even my network feels stale. Perhaps it is because I haven’t blogged in a while and have lost touch with the core of my audience. Perhaps I am in the midst of a necessary reflective period. Maybe I just need a break, or a detox. Not sure, but all I know is that I am not seeing technology like I have in the past. I am hyper-critical, aware and observant about the role of tech in my life.

So what is working? My classroom for sure! I am loving the lessons I learned from #TCRWP. I have fully embraced the workshop model. Complete with writer’s notebooks and mini-lessons. There really needs to be a post about this transition soon, but this post is not it. Let me just say that I love the idea of writers teaching writers how to write, instead of teachers teaching students how to write. I am very enthusiastic and I hope inspirational to the young writers in my room. I have removed the publication (blog) aspect from our writing work up to this point, and I couldn’t be happier. I am approaching blogging, writing and publication with a different outlook.

I have always advocated the openest form of online sharing and writing, but I am reconsidering my philosophy this year, and focusing on helping kids understand the stages of writing: Collecting, Drafting, Revising, Editing and Publishing. We are as a class discussing what it means to move through this process. Discussing along the way what it means to be a writer and the role of audience. It has been nice to write in private notebooks and work on skills and confidence before we share. We are getting ready to introduce blogs soon, but I am working on a new approach and will share our parent letter and explanation as soon as we go public.

What else is there to say? It has been a great opening to the year. We have been working on a new formative assessment procedure and a new reading program. All in all it has been a year of change and growth, but also one of nailing things down and building upwards. I just needed this post to get the wheels greased again.

So please do not forget about me here in your corner of the Internet. I am here and muttering and scribbling and changing and growing. Who know some of these half baked ideas might just be useful to you. Let me know if they are, because who are we kidding, I still need to know you need and want me.



2013 July 24
tags: ,
by Jabiz

I was not a huge reader in school. I liked books and I read what was required, but I was not a bury-your-nose-in-a-book-at-all-times kind of worm. Not like some kids I see in my classes today. That is until my last year in high school, when our student teacher Mr. Schmitt walked into class with a bag full books he had bought with his own money and asked us not to tell anybody what we were about to read.

“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…”

That was all it took. That opening sentence. I was hooked on books. I’m still not sure what made him feel that reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a group of seventeen year old was a good idea, but thank goodness he did. Because after that I started to devour books.  I started by reading everything Thompson ever wrote. Following names and ideas from his pages, I read The Beats, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. I developed an insatiable appetite for books and ideas that I have barely begun to satiate twenty years later. In short, I love books. I have been reading one book after another since I was nineteen. I do not understand people who “do not read.” What does that even mean?

My point? Patience, I am getting there. During my lifelong stint with reading I have only not ever finished two books. (That I admit to, there are a few others Pale Fire and Dante’s Inferno should be on the list too)  Not finishing those two books haunts me to this day, because I was three quarters of the way through both before some freak incident made me stop. I was 900+ pages in War and Peace when a move to Angola forced me to abort the book, and I just couldn’t pick up steam again.  If I had to read one more fifty page description of a battle or a ball, I would have killed myself. The second book?  Again 900+ pages into Don Quixote before a tsunami literary washed it away.

I hated both of those books, but I was determined to finish them. And the fact that they lay half baked in my reading repertoire bothers me to no end. I will, someday, go back and start from the beginning and finish them both. Because I want to be able to say honestly and wholeheartedly that I have never not finished a book. Making this declaration is important to me.

Why you may ask? Who cares? Life is too short, you may say. Why waste time on reading what you don’t like? I hear you ask. Well dear reader, reading what you don’t like and never putting a book down, no matter how boring or difficult is the point of this post.

At the start of summer I began to read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. After nearly two hundred pages I was still not sold. His scattered verbose meta-narrative style just wasn’t doing it for me. I complained on facebook and was told by many friends to stop wasting my time and just move onto something I would like. At that moment, the seed for this post was sown. A few days later I saw the film Liberal Arts in which the two main characters have this great conversation about reading books for fun.

Before I get started let me state that I know there is no one way to read. I am fully aware that my OCD with text is abnormal, and yes I know I too sound a bit like a snob. I can handle that. Here’s the thing– books for me are not entertainment. I have Master Chef and lame Hollywood super hero movies for brain numbing junk food. Books are my sustenance, my protein. They are my exercise. I am a bit nervous about pushing this exercise metaphor as I do not actually exercise, but conceptually I understand the concept– you push your body beyond physical comfort to force your muscles to exert extra energy, which in turn helps them stay fit and grow. This is the same reason I read. Books are dumbbells and elliptical machines for my brain, my heart, and my ideas.

I read books to help keep my intellect and imagination fit. I read books to help me write. I read critically, intensely and with passion. I seldom, if ever, will pick up a random book cause it looks fun or easy. I do research. I choose books that I hope will stimulate me. I choose books that I think will be a good work-out. So when I make a commitment to read a thousand pages of Rushdie over the summer I am not just going to stop because I don’t like it. Liking it has nothing to do with why I chose it. At this point in regime, I am forcing my brain to articulate why I don’t like it. What about it do I like? What is working in terms of craft and style. I read as a writer, not for pleasure. I return page after page, rep after rep like exercise in order to be a better thinker.

My point–  as a teacher what do you tell your students who want to give up on books. As I mentioned earlier, I know that an unyielding commitment to books is my style and may not the best way to read for everyone. There are many ways to read. I get that. There are also many kinds of readers, and forcing a struggling reader to finish a book he hates may do more damage than good. I get that.But at what point to we ask our students to get on the bench and pump the weight.

In closing, by no means am I making a judgment on people who stop books or choose to read for fun. I guess I am looking for some well argued reasons why people read for pleasure or feel that it is okay to abandon books when they do not meet our expectations. I want to hear from you about what kind of reader you are and how you talk to your students about books. If you are a student, I would love to hear about your reading routines.

What kind of reader are you? How do you mentor the readers in your class? Am I crazy? Where do you agree? Disagree with what I have said?

For the record, I am now almost half way through the Midnight’s Children and things have changed! There is a bizarre magic realism plot forming (weirdly like the X-Men) and I am finally finding my groove. I am actually enjoying it. Glad I did not give up. Sometimes the best things are the ones that are the hardest to get to.


I Wanna Rock

2013 May 29

So I am pretty stoked. Excited. Ecstatic really. A few weeks ago, I tweeted something along the the lines that someday I hope to be able to teach a class on, “The History of Rock and Roll. Film or Digital Storytelling.”

But because I teach middle school and at the moment our school does not offer any of those electives, I felt my dream would be just that– a far fetched fantasy forced to flounder somewhere in the future or worse disappear as yet another ephemeral tweet. That is until, I became creative and active in making my dreams come true.

We have quite a robust after school activity program at UWCSEA. This year I facilitated four terms of Middle School Master Chef. And don’t get me wrong, I loved it. It was so much fun to watch kids take risks and learn new skills in the kitchen, but for next year, I was on the hunt for something new. I almost committed to a High School Mountain Biking club, when it hit me! Why not offer my dream class as an activity? It is not the same as a class, as we only meet for an hour a week, but for the time being it is better than nothing.

Below is the email exchange between the me and the activities director:

Hi Hugh,

I have an idea for an activity that I have had for a while and if you think it is worthwhile and possible I would like to offer it next year.

So my idea is this: The History of Rock and Roll. Open to HS students, it is a chance to get together and study, explore and listen to the most important bands, songs, and albums of rock music from the 1950′-the 2000s. We will explore the historical and social context of the music, while looking at lyrics, musical structure as well as lasting impact on the world and rock music.

I have alway wanted to teach this as a class, so if you think it will work, I can write up a more formal blurb and come up with a pretty comprehensive plan.

Let me know what you think.

Hi Jabiz –

To be honest I’m not sure. History of R&R sounds interesting but as you say, it is a class – not sure that it has the content to be included in the Activity programme. We really need activities to be active learning and interactive, so learning about something doesn’t really hit that does it?
Hi Hugh,

I totally get what you are saying about this being more of a “class” as for the active learning or interactivity of it I have some ideas:

  • Perhaps we learn to play a song from each decade and perform at the end of a few weeks.
  • Perhaps we create a digital story (exploring tech, film, and media) at the end of each decade.
  • Perhaps we can share our work and learning on a blog and/or youtube channel
  • Perhaps we create an iBook documenting the learning.

Or maybe we blend all three:

We discuss and learn about music from every decade, learn to play a few songs throughout the term, which we perform and document the learning through film, media and digital storytelling. Finally we consolidate all of it in an iBook helping us learn (interactivity ) how to use iBook author software etc…

As you can see I am really passionate and excited by this possibility. If you tell me what some of the guidelines are I am sure I can make it work and I know there are kids who would be interested. Perhaps, we can chat in person so I can explain further.
Hi Jabiz,
Sounds great Jabiz – love the ideas!

Will include it – please check when I send it round.


image by zentrad

And just like that I am teaching my dream class. The basic idea is as descried above, but I am a swirl in a brain storm at the moment. I am open to any suggestions or ideas. It will be for High School stuents, which will be a great way for me to get to know them better and a great way for me to stay in touch with my grade eights moving on next year.

I cannot think of a better way of getting to know and bonding with people than talking about and playing music. I will plan out a rough outline this summer, but in the meantime any ideas, or bands or songs or films or anything you can share would be great.

Just think- This could be me


No Budget

2013 May 12
by Jabiz

Hello friends and strangers and readers of all sorts. it has been a while, so I feel a more gentle start is in order. It’s Sunday night and the sky just went from cotton candy, to dolphin belly,  to slate. I am feeling….how about a full stop. I am feeling. Weeks have passed since I allowed myself the luxury of tussling with words, and so tonight, feeling at best a tinge of flirtation, but really a more lingering weariness and fatigue, I have decided to take a break and carve a chunk of time from the ongoing present and future to speak to (with) you.

I had a strange morning. One of those days when the randomness of sharing and the thrill of living open and honest online collide, leaving tasty treats in their wake. Fun nuggets of camaraderie and inspiration- reassurance that when we share our thoughts and lives and passions with the world, the world will often talk back, returning our ideas and work back in a myriad of songs and echoes.

It started with this email:

Hi Jabiz,

My name is Adriana and I’m an artist.  I long time ago I found in one of your blogs this picture I loved.
and it spired me to make a series of paintings in my Pop Surrealism Style. here’s a link to my website so you can see the pictures I have of it.
The other paintings aren’t up yet.. too much work to do still but I wanted to share it with you and if you want I could link it to the page where the picture is.

That’s it for the moment and thank you for sharing all those beautiful pic!

Does this exchange mean anything? Is it important? I don’t know. Who am I to say, but it does feel right. Something about looking to the world to find inspiration, to make those human artistic connections resonates with me. More importantly, giving of my life in a way that might connect to other passions matters to me.

So many people are terrified of posting and sharing and over doing it, but time after time- for me at least- cool things happen. You can check out Adriana’s website here and the picture from above here. I am looking forward to exploring more of her work and hopefully getting to know her a bit more online. I have already asked if I can buy that print.

The second story, which also happened this morning, which is not usual is as follows:


I just came across your image of the Azadi Freedom stencil on FB and would like permission to use it in a book I am finishing up on street art.

My name is KET and I am an author and graffiti writer. I have been writing books on graffiti, street art, and tattoos and publishing magazines for over 15 years. My books include: Graffiti Planet, Rocking It Suckers, Street Art, Graffiti Tattoo, New York City Blackbook Masters and many more (link here)

I appreciate what you did and would like to include the image and a quote in the book.

Please let me know if you are interested. There is no budget just my desire to share the image to the world thru the book.

There is no budget, just my desire to share. I love it. You can read more about that photo here. It is great to see that project move onto its next incarnation and live in a book. After years of living online and sharing my life with the Internet, I am more often than not pleasantly surprised by what comes back to me. There were but just two examples from this morning.

What do you think? Do things like this happened to you? Am I too naive? Too trusting? Or is this the karmic state of global art we should be striving for?


Formula for Engagement

2013 April 17

I am sitting on the floor next to a grade eight student discussing the elasticity between fiction and truth. She wants to know how far she can test “the facts” while writing a feature article about child-soldiers in The Sudan. She is thirteen years old, looking at me in the eye asking if she will lose creditability if she fictionalizes too much of her story. We discuss the gray area between fiction and non-fiction, the possibility of understanding truth, and how text is meant to entertain and inform. The worlds we create as writers, in a sense are all fictional, but our ability to trace our “truths” back to credible corroborated sources is a way to maintain our integrity. Does that make sense I say, doubtfully. “Yes,”  She nods her head. “Yes,” she says and with a furrowed brow returns to the sofa and begins to type frantically.

Like a dutiful bee, I move to the next student, this one in a bean bag and we discuss how to maintain an ongoing, moving, linear back story to anchor the raw data and information he wants to convey to his reader. He decides he will begin his article at the beginning of a cattle raid. After his lead, he will share the information he found after weeks of research on the value of cattle for Dinka culture. He tells me that he will return to the cattle raid now in progress- back to more information about the economy of cattle, and end with the aftermath of the raid. This is one of my learning support students who struggles to remain engaged. That sounds great, I say and leave him to wrestle with the words. The room is silent as the entire class stares at their laptops, fingers gingerly dancing on the keys.

You can either think of yourself as thirteen year olds writing for a teacher in English class, or you can think of yourselves as writers who demand to tell a story. There is a difference.

A few of them look up and smile awkwardly to acknowledge what I have just said, but most continue to write. I am not worried about distractions or Skype or Facebook or kids gaming. These guys are busy and engaged. They have assumed the identity of citizen journalists.

Being labeled a tech savvy teacher I sometimes feel pressure to always use technology. I don’t even know what that means any more. I sometimes feel guilty when I notice how “traditional” our curriculum has become. On days like today, however, none of it matters. Technology shouldn’t be a gimmicky lure we use to “engage” kids.  We use it when we can, when we must, when it makes sense. Otherwise we talk about writing. We write. We explore. Engagement is about passion and love for what we do. It is about getting on the floor and talking to kids about their ideas and giving them immediate feedback. 1-1 means that we try to spend time with each student discussing their work, not speaking at a class about what they all should be doing. No amount of technology will motivate kids, if the pedagogy and the content and the teachers love for the material is not there.

Our activity this week has little to do with technology. Sure we are using Google Docs to draft our work, giving me access to their on-going work, and yes we used Diigo to annotate and tag all our research, and yes we hope to publish these articles on a blog called Stories from The  Sudan and maybe even publish a selected few in an iBook of the same name, but really we have been focused on text and conversations about text and fiction and truth and justice and genocide and stories and voice and empathy and understanding.

I have been incredibly proud of our students. For the last several weeks they have read What is the What by Dave Eggers, a dense 500+page novel about the Sudanese Lost Boys. They have researched a variety of topics for their feature articles. Ranging from The Sudanese diaspora, to gender equality, to child-soldiers, to slavery, to cattle culture, to the socio-political causes of the regional conflict. As their summative assessment  they are writing a 1500 word feature article which attempts to entertain and inform, assessed by a rubric they wrote as a class.

Sometimes I cannot believe they are only thirteen years old. So often we underestimate what student are capable of, or worse we set the bar too high, but do not invest enough of our own passion to carry them through. The formula for engagement is simple- Students need high expectations and challenges, but they also need every ounce of energy we have to maintain enthusiasm and love for what we teach. We need to prove to them that we value what we ask them to do. We need to give them enough choice and autonomy to take ownership of what they do, then we need to support their choices with fluid and constant feedback.

How do you maintain engagement? What are your tips or formulas?


Blogs from the Mouths of Babes

2013 February 21
by Jabiz

As we continue to explore the rich world of authentic student blogging, it is important to stop and listen to feedback and criticism from time to time. It is important to understand the apprehension that some stakeholders may have when it comes to open online publishing.

You can read more about how we have been blogging with our middle school students by reading some of these post, but let me give a very brief synopsis of what our program looks like up to know. (Before I start, let me clarify that when I say we, I am referring to myself and Paula Guinto who is my teaching partner in grade 7 & 8. We both teach English; I blog here with my students and Paula writes at Meta.)

The basic manifesto as it stands, looks something like this:

I want my students to feel confident about who they are through critical and artistic exploration of their identity. I want them to learn how to clearly articulate this voice in a variety of media in order to find a network of like-minded people in order to create a community of learners that will help them learn during and beyond school.

We hope that blogging will help our students achieve this goal. The system we have set up is pretty simple: We coached every student in our class to set up a blog through blogger, explained basic etiquette and gave them freedom to own the space. We are not formally assessing anything that goes on the blog, and there is no obligation to blog at all. We are hoping to see what kids write when they are given a space and freedom to write.

Like any process at a school, there have been mixed feelings from students, teachers and parents. There have been some accurate criticism and others based on misunderstandings. As a community, we are in the process of figuring out what blogging looks like for us. We are looking to make sure that there is a clear understanding of the what and the why and the how by all the stakeholders involved.

As part of this process, I asked my students to write a short paragraph agreeing or disagreeing with this statement:

Blogging is an important part of an English classroom.

I was floored by the results. You can read all of the answers here, but let me give you some highlights:

The freedom to express ourselves is important; providing a medium and nurturing the usage of that medium improves our skills as writers and removes some of our inhibitions of writing.

Blogging is a fun way to write. It can be used for educational purposes and it also helps the student to think when they are writing “who is my audience.” Sometimes having students writing on a blog will increase a students motivation to write.

Blogging is useful. No scratch that out, Blogging is necessary. With teenagers [us] being young minds full of innovative ideas, thoughts and views, our generation needs to share them to audience and blogging enables us to do that.

It wasn’t all positive, many students had valid concerns:

Some people don’t like having their personal thoughts online because it is a public space.

The notion of writing online to a worldwide audience was not quite thrilling.

Expecting a bunch of insecure teenagers who aren’t quite sure who they can trust in the constantly moving sands of social media to write about whatever comes to their mind is asking for a lot.

Sometimes people are not able to get the time to read the blog posts with all the homework we are currently getting.

I hope you get a chance to read all of the response and maybe add some thoughts in the comments on our class page. But what does this all mean? What did I learn?

The fact that we have chosen not to force students to blog has been invaluable, however, there is still a pressure to share and this is making some kids uncomfortable. There is a lot involved in this process:  from self-esteem, to trust, to community. The notion of sharing publicly is still a major hurdle for many students and their parents. What is the point? What are the benefits?  What are the problems and the issues? I am not sure if this post is designed to answer questions. I was hoping to ask some and have you, dear reader, answer a them. What are the benefits of public sharing for students? Why go global?

I also noticed that many of the students might be blogging more if there was more structure. The total freedom, seems to have frozen some kids into inaction. They simply don’t know what to write, when they are told they can write about anything. This has me thinking of designing lessons or activities that guide students to come up with ideas. Which is interesting, because one of the questions that comes up repeatedly during reading conferences is, “How does the writer come up with ideas for his/her stories.” It is clear that middle school kids need a pool of ideas and/or prompts to get them started. Sites like this and this are great, but perhaps kids need more of a push toward them. How do you help students find things to write about? How can we foster creativity and imagination?

Ironically, many of the students who are not blogging, said they are not writing because it is not graded or part of school, so they don’t have time to waste on it. Which makes me wonder if they would write more if I forced them and graded it, which leads us back to square one that school writing is not always authentic. Or is it? How do we find this balance of what is expected and graded and what is free of choice? Still struggling with that one. How much of this is explicitly for school and how much is bigger than school? Hoping to have a good conversation about this idea of academic relevance in the comments. It is a major talking point at our school at the moment? How do we assess this stuff? Should we?

It was great to see so many students make the connections between Voice, Trust, Writing and Community, because these themes are at the heart of what we do. This is the culture we are trying to create; one where students feel comfortable and safe enough with their peers to be able to share their ideas regardless of their writing “level.” 

We have a long way to go, but I feel pretty good about where we are after only six months. Cultures take time to build, and we  need to be cognizant of the people they affect. We have to stop and ask stakeholders what they are thinking, how they are feeling.

Next step for us, is to ask parents to articulate what they know about blogging. Ask them what they value and what they fear. It is an intimidating conversation to have, but an important one. Perhaps, showing them what their kids are saying would be a good first  step.


Tell Me The Story of My Life

2013 January 1

Fancy yourself a storyteller, a writer, a creator, a tinkerer, an artist, a child at heart? You like to play and sculpt and shape and remix and mashup? You like photos and stories and music and art and never ending searches for meaning and beauty and things that give you pause and gratitude and feelings bordering authentic? You feel connected, disconnected, isolated, surrounded, loved, ignored or necessary?

Wanna make some art?

For the last year, I have been taking photographs. For each day of the 365 I have chosen one photo to be the photo of that day. The photos can be found here. Or I suppose if you want, you could flip through them here:

But I want you to do more than just view dear reader. I want you to absorb and internalize, synthesize and make your own–the emotions and ideas that consume you when you find a photo or photos that speak to you. Look for themes or colors or people and — Write a poem. Scribe a song. Create a short film. Write a short story.  A newspaper article. Blend the media and tell the story digitally.

Whatever you do, please link back to this post with a URL of where your creation lives online. Please also add the link to the Flickr photo itself. Perhaps you can also scribble some lines in the comments of the photo, where someone else can take the lines and move them forward or backward to wherever they needs to go.

You can also share this set with your students, your peers, your administrators, your grandmas and grandpas. But, if, however you do not feel artistically up to the challenge, then send me some ideas and I will do it for you. Fill out this form to give me some direction:

If you have any other ideas, please share. I am curious to see where these photos will go, who they will come. I am giddy to see my life told back to me by you, with you through you. Last time we did something like this, we ended up in some interesting places.

So come on…the least you can do is write the first thing that comes to mind on a photo that grabs your attention. Your random dribble thoughts, could ignite a fire some place else.