Make Me Something–Anything: My Maker’s Space Debut


Today marked the debut of my maker’s space and the results were nothing short of stunning.  

Random, varied collection of art supplies

I had been gathering miscellaneous art supplies with no particular goal in mind other than to increase the number of options available for students.  I have duct tape, construction paper, post-it notes, paint, pens, crayons, glue and yarn.

Give them materials and set them loose

Today I wanted to just introduce them to the maker’s space and for them to get their hands dirty so to speak.  So, I didn’t want to put any parameters on the assignment requirements.  I would never have given this assignment years ago, I was too much of a control freak then.  But today, I turned them loose.  

Students Rose to the Occasion

I told them:  Make me something–anything–and then connect it somehow with something that we have read this year.  The kids really surprised me.  I made the following observations throughout the day:

  • 100% of the students were engaged from the first minute.  My usual slow starters were quick to jump in.
  • Student projects varied considerably–wide parameters spurred creativity.
  • Students were taking their time–no one was doing it just to do it.
  • Many students had ideas that involved time and resources out of class:  Stop motion animation, minecraft, video skits etc.
  • Students were accessing online resources to help with their projects.

Confirmed Truths

Overall this assignment was a tremendous success and it confirmed a lot of things I have learned this year:  Student choice is a powerful tool of engagement, Reluctant students can thrive with the right assignment and wide parameters is a creative spark.

More Time For Those Who Need It



In an effort to be more student centered, I decided to see how long I could go without speaking to the whole class at once.  Instead, I posted all instructions and spent my time coming alongside individuals and interacting with groups of students.    So far the results have been incredibly positive and there have been many revelations along the way.  


So far I have found that…

I have more time for students who need it.


One of the benefits of creating a student-centered classroom with student choice in assignment and reading methods was a high level of student engagement.  Nevertheless, when I went to calculate grades I was shocked to find a handful of student in each class who had hardly turned anything in. You have got to be kidding me!  They come in every day, appear to be engaged, they do not disrupt or appear off task and yet–nothing.  There were a few students that had actually never even logged in to Google Classroom.


No More Blaming The Student

In the past I would have left these students behind and would have blamed them for not doing anything.


This year, because I am not going any whole class direct instruction, I decided to create 1 group per class of student who needed a little extra help.  So, today I called a few students over to an empty table and got them all started.  I sat with each one and made sure each one was successful.  Some students were just afraid to ask for help others just found in comfortable not doing anything.  

Creating a Greater Sense of Urgency

I have been fairly lax with deadlines–giving two weeks to complete any assignment for full credit.  The problem with this, however, is that some students don’t feel the need to complete it that day, therefore, they don’t work very efficiently.  So, I broke the assignments down into bite sized chunks and told the class that they needed to finish part 1 because we will be doing part 2 next time.  Now, the majority of the class is working with a greater sense of purpose.  And, while everyone doesn’t quite finish in the allotted time, the bulk of the class is working with a greater sense of urgency.


Hopefully, the students that fell behind are now jump started into action.  I was a little surprised by the level of capability in some of the students.  Some just needed a little push, others needed to know what a verb was and how to find that out on their own.  Some just needed to be guided through some elements of our daily routine that we have spent six weeks establishing.  
Next year, I plan on taking this sort of remedial action sometime before week three rather than after week six.  

The Power of Adding Narrative





“I love this assignment!”  I heard those exact words today.  Although, I had been giving students choice in every assignment and had been allowing them freedom to move around and such, I had not heard those words until today.  What was the difference with today’s assignment.  I simple added a role-playing narrative.


Add a Simple Narrative


Today’s lesson  involved reading “The Cask of Amontillado,” and normally I would have pointed out the literary technique Poe used here called “The Unreliable Narrator,” in which the storyteller is someone who may be crazy or lying or otherwise less than reliable.  Then I would have had the students look for evidence as to whether or not the narrator is reliable.  It’s a so-so lesson, I had used it before to some degree of success.  There were worksheet style questions that guided students through some basic comprehension points.  


However, I scrapped it all.  Instead I created a simple narrative guiding student interaction with the text:


Situation:  You are a police detective and have just been handed a DVD with a taped confession to a murder. The District Attorney says before the suspect can be tried with a crime it must be determined that he is sane and that his story is reliable.  Also, because he is quite elderly, we must be sure that he isn’t suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia.  Therefore, you must carefully examine his words and supposed deeds to determine if he is telling the truth or is in some way delusional.  Try to read between the lines.  What is the confessor telling us and NOT telling us.  If he is crazy or lying, what is the truth behind all of this?


Now students have a particular focus to their reading because they will then need to create a report and advocate for a course of action regarding this confession.  This simple narrative really peaked student interest.  


Removing “Guiding Questions” Spurred Creativity


In addition, removing the worksheet style questions allowed student to reach authentic conclusions and be more creative in reconstructing events and speculating on the mental state of the confessor.


“Mr. Keeler, can I read the story again?”


Wow, I have never heard that phrase, but I heard it today.  I simply gave the students a better reason to read the text driven by a narrative they seemed to enjoy.  

Students Really Can Teach Themselves

wpid-20150916_101450.jpgIn an effort to be more student-centered, I decided to see how long I could go without speaking to the whole class at once.  Instead, I posted all instructions and spent my time coming alongside individuals and interacting with groups of students.    So far the results have been incredibly positive and there have been many revelations along the way.  


So far I have found that…


Students Really Can Teach Themselves


Today I gave a staple assignment covering all the parts of speech, various sentence types and many other basics of English grammar.  In the past I usually took two days to “go over” everything on the assignment and we would do it together (i.e. I would write my answers up on the board and the students would copy it down.  


However, since I have made the commitment not to address the class, any type of whole class direct instruction was out of the question.  So, I simply instructed the class to do the assignment.  I provided a resource and instructed the students to ask each other or Google the answer.  I have to admit, I was quite unsure about how the class would respond.  I made my usual rounds and gave instruction here and there and soon the students started bringing me their assignments for me to check.  I was actually surprised to see a fair amount of students giving perfect examples of compound and complex sentences, appropriate semicolon use and grammatically correct lines of dialogue.


The students were getting it right, on their own, largely without my help or direct instruction.  Plus, my time was better spent giving each student on the spot, individualized feedback.  There are many things that students can simply teach themselves and each other if given the opportunity.

Easy Sub Lesson Plans


We all know the old teacher truism: It’s more work to have a sub…and it WAS–for me anyway–until this year.  This year I have stopped addressing the whole class in an effort to be more student-centered.  This has forced me to write out and post all of my instuction daily.  I had to wean them off of teacher dependence.  But, once this happened students come in and immediately get started on the daily agenda.  If they need clarification, they ask a neighbor–or me (I’m circulating throughout the period).  This makes for a more effecient use of time.  Plus, I never miss a day of productivity when I need a sub.  In fact, sub plans are no different that normal lesson plans.  Furthermore, If I am no longer the sole distributer of information I don’t harm my students with my absence.  It’s now truly pleasant to have a sub.

The Power of Stories


Everyone Likes Stories.


I truly believe that–everyone.  Not everyone likes to read, not everyone likes theater, film or other media but I believe that everyone likes stories.  When there is a good story–it turns head–it gets people to stop and pay attention.  

This year, I have been experimenting with student choice during reading time.  I know some students like to be read to.  Some like to read on their own and other like to read in a group.  So I have allowed each student to choose what they would like to do during this designated time.

If You Read It, They Will Come

When reading time comes I simply go over to the corner and start reading as if I were reading a children’s book. I actually started the school year by reading a children’s book to all of my students in the corner of the room while everyone sat on rugs.  This idea came directly from Catlin Tucker who actually modeled this in one of the conferences I had the privilege of attending.  She made the point that everyone starts out enjoying stories (we all loved story time in kindergarten).  But, something happens to many of us by the time we reach high school to make us NOT enjoy reading.  I think it has everything to do with choice and nothing to do with narrative because everyone love stories.  

Get Out of the Story’s Way 

In the past I would have given a long preface to each book or story about how great a story is or a long exposition of the historical background or why it’s an important and influential piece etc.  As I endeavored this year to be as student centered as possible by not speaking to the class–I decided that I would forgo any such statements and just start reading.  I won’t tell them why the book is good or what to read for.  I just wanted them to read–experience the story.  I didn’t even tell them to quiet down because I was reading.  


On the first few short stories the narrative just took over.  It captured the audience.  For those students who wanted to listen to me, it worked well.

Good Stories are Timeless

Today, I started Jane Eyre–a longer novel with more archaic language.  But, one containing a great story.  Now the test–could the narrative shine through the text or would it fall on deaf ears and eyes.


Prior to reading time I did something unexpected but described in the agenda–I played a film clip from the movie version (I chose the 2011 version with Michael Fassbender) because it was available on netlix streaming).  I have no explanation, no introduction, no prefatory remarks to set the context.  Some students didn’t pay attention at first but after a few minutes most of the class was watching.  By the time young Jane was placed in the Red Room, all eyes were on the screen.  It was then that I stopped the video and transitioned into reading time.
I began reading in the corner and those near me engaged and attentive.  They had a visual context for the book we were to begin and, I believe, the narrative worked it’s magic.  I’m hoping the students are now invested into novel (or at least have a point of access), but time will tell.  Today, it was affirmed to me that everyone loves stories and If i can get myself out of the way of a good story–a good story will do it’s work.  

Failure, Trials and Growth



Today my lessons failed.  Students didn’t following directions (students didn’t read the directions), some were off task, others were distracted by their phone–people were more concerned about tonight’s football game than anything going on in my class.  In addition to this we had a new student and numerous quirky tech issues that required my attention.

I Didn’t Revert–I Didn’t Want To

I fought the urge to just say, “Everyone, shut up!” “Put that away!”  “Ok, since no one knows how to follow instructions, I guess I need to treat you like kindergarteners!”  But, the urge really wasn’t that strong.  If it was, I would have reverted to my old behavior–which is what I tend to do under stress.  But, I didn’t revert.  I didn’t make sarcastic remarks or engage in passive-aggressive behavior.  More importantly, I didn’t jettison the notion of a student-centered classroom.  This is when you know change has really occurred–when you are tested.  And today I was tested.  The system was tested, my classroom was tested.

I Found My Wins

I was calm and tried to address each need as it came up and now that I realize it, I had several wins in the process.  I engaged with an off-task student who had dug himself quite a hole–I don’t think he had done anything all year.  So, I told him I would give him credit for the first three assignments if he wrote up a proposal for a club he wants to start.  He said he would rather do a Google Slides presentation.  Perfect!


I got to sit down and talk with my new student.  Normally, with everything that was going on, she might have fallen through the cracks.


I helped several individuals do something tech-related that they had never done before.  And, some students were able to complete some assignments.


My biggest failure was instructing the students to engage in silent reading for the new novel I had assigned.  That…didn’t happen.  So we will need to modify that–probably go back to a student choice situation.


Slow down, practice


We will need to simplify the directions (there are probably too many), practice our routines and transitions a bit more (I have been introducing 1 new thing per day–that is way too much).


But, that’s ok.  I weathered the storm.  I believe in what I’m doing.  I’m not going to hide my failures.  I will share them and learn from them.  


The Love of Reading and the Power of Choice


The Joy of Reading


I remember when I was in high school I NEVER finished a single book assigned by my English teacher–and I was a “good” student.  BUT, I was always reading–mostly Stephen King.  I devoured all of his novels growing up.  In fact, every summer I read a King novel to try to re-capture that pure love of reading I experienced as a youth.

The Agony of School Reading

In high school, I really liked reading but I didn’t like to be told what to read and when.  I actually attempted to read all of the assigned novels but the outside of class reading was extensive and I fell behind and could never seem to catch up.  I can remember one time trying to plow through “Arrowsmith” By Sinclair Lewis thinking This will be the novel I finish, but it wasn’t.  I fell behind like always.  Nevertheless, I did my work and took my “B” at the end of the day.  

The Power of Choice

Choice is a powerful incentive.  When I taught history my theory was that EVERYONE likes history.  Now not everyone likes history class or certain eras in history but EVERYONE can find something they like about history.  The same holds true for books.  I believe everyone likes stories we like telling stories and hearing stories.  What is a novel but a long story.  However, not everyone can easily access the story in the same way.  So I have decided to incorporate a greater amount of choice this year.


I am still choosing the novels.  But, now students have a choice of what reading format works best for them.  They can listen to me read in the corner, Or they can read in a group, Or they can read by themselves.  I even let them read outside under a tree.  Everyone is able to access the text in such a way that works for the.


I am also giving them choice in the type of assignments they do to show me that they have accessed the text. They can either do copywork:  Actually copy out of the text itself.  This is a basic level assignment and allows the student who would normally never read, have some engagement with the next.  The mid-level assignment involves taking a basic quiz over the content and the higher level assignment involves keeping a reading journal and interacting with the text through writing in such a way that shows they have process the text.


Let Students Catch Up

I tell the students if they fall behind that they can catch up by reading Sparknotes or Shmoop.  These are highly detailed summaries that will catch anyone up to speed so that they can go back to doing challenging work even if they fall behind.    Many students, even the best students, will give up if they get to far behind.

Now, I know that some students will not read and then go back and read Sparknotes–then do the mid level assignment.  That’s fine–they are reading at a certain level on their own time and are fulfilling the same requirements.  They will not earn an A doing this.  But, this may encourage them to jump back into reading the text–at least they will always have this option.


Furthermore, I tell them that if they love to read (as I did–and still do) and read outside of class that I will give them class credit–even if it’s Stephen King. I do want them to read certain things in my class but I want to make room for choice.  


Book Wall: If You Build It, They Will READ



IF You Build it They Will READ

I used to think that students didn’t like to read.  I was wrong.  I became aware of this fact when I built my book wall.  Now, I have to admit–the motivations for building my book wall were a bit selfish.  I needed an easy and fun way to decorate my classroom, but I needed more space to store my books.  I frequent thrift shops, used bookstores and library book sales and simply do not have room at home to store everything I want to buy and I had maxed out all the shelf space in my classroom.


Push Pins and Binder Clips

My wife told me about a teacher at CART in Clovis, CA, who used push pins and binder clips to hang books–simple and easy.  I just happen to have tons of binder clips so put up as many as possible–with no organization, rhyme or reason.  Then, something magical happened. Students started to ask me if they could borrow them.  What!?!  This wasn’t a part of any assignment I had given.  They didn’t need them for Silent Reading (our school got rid of that years ago).  They just wanted to read them.  


Plus, my students never asked me about my books when they were on the shelf!  Some teachers believe that books are not as attractive when only their spine is showing.  I think there is something to this.  We all know the old adage:  You can’t judge a book by its cover.  But, maybe an attractive cover can make the difference between being noticed and not–at least in a classroom. 

Choice is Powerful

Now, I make more of an effort to buy books students will be interested in–which has only increased the number of check outs.  Choice is a powerful thing.



So now If a student wants to check one out I have them fill out a 3×5 card with their name and book title.  Now, I will eventually incorporate this into my class formally-by giving them some sort of class credit for reading.  But for now, it’s really refreshing to see this.  

Good things happen when you don’t tell HOW


I Took A Big Risk 

Today, I took a big risk (for me) in creating an assignment for my students.  I told them to do something that I didn’t know how to do.  The students had to take a picture of an assignment from another class and upload it to Google Classroom.  The results were amazing.  I had students asking each other how to do it and there was an expert at every table.  I had one student show me how to do it and I learned something.  Last year I would not have even given this assignment.  


I used to think that I needed to be an expert in everything I was asking my students to do.  I assumed that they knew nothing and therefore, I, the disseminator of all knowledge and information (in my old TEACHER driven classroom) must learn and master the content so that I could show my students how.  

It’s NOT About Me


Even when I started to move to a STUDENT centered model I still felt the need to explain everything by giving step-by-step instructions that were two pages long.  This resulted in students not reading the instructions and asking one another or myself how to do something.  But, more importantly, it PREVENTED me from trying anything that I was not an expert in because I “Don’t have time to learn it.”


I ALSO have found that students are more creative when you loosen the parameters.  They find a way to do things, they use creative thinking skills, they do things you do not expect.  And, if given choice, they tend to go above and beyond your expectations.  They want to use color or add pictures or do a little bit extra because they chose the assignment and they feel like they have the freedom to do it their way.  


I used to HATE vague language.  I used to want clear, concise directions and expectations.  Now I like a bit of vagueness that spurs creativity.  I just tell them what I want–but NOT how to do it.  The results have been amazing.