During the past few months, everything about our lives has been on hold due to coronavirus - unfortunate but necessary for public safety. I've been overwhelmed with a deep sense of cabin fever, as I'm sure many others have been as well. Unwilling to compromise the health of our vulnerable community members, so many events and rites of passage for our students have been cancelled. I really expected most of the professional development workshops that I had scheduled to facilitate would be postponed as well - and most were. However, learning that Desert Sands Unified wanted to go ahead with digital storytelling training they had planned was a welcome surprise! My sense of relief and happiness at realizing I would still get to help teachers build their storytelling skills was quickly followed by no small amount of panic concerning the change in venue for the training: Zoom.
Digital Storytelling is a dynamic topic for professional development. The PD opportunities I have developed and extended through DIGICOM Learning are highly engaging, interactive, and collaborative. They depend heavily on participants being able to work in small groups, provide peer feedback, engage in community building, and film off-site at a variety of locations. In other words: Digital Storytelling PD is not meant to be conducted remotely! However, in a changing world with a "new normal," I knew that I wanted to take on the challenge of facilitating a weeklong workshop through video conferencing. I thrive on professional challenges, and this was an opportunity that could help me grow. Here are some of the lessons I learned this week:
Though I lost sleep Sunday night as I worried about how this workshop experience would play out for participating teachers, everything worked out in the end. The feedback I received from teachers was overwhelmingly positive and I appreciate their kind comments and particular attention to the planning that went into the week's blended format. In the end of course survey, most teachers indicated that the format worked well for them. Out of 21 participants, 19 of them rated the distance learning format highly. On this Likert scale, a rating of 5 represented "I loved it!"
Best of all, the work teachers created this week was truly exceptional. I am so proud of their adaptability, energy, drive, and focus. Using WeVideo can be intimidating for adults, because we are often intimidated by technology in a way that our students are not. This group of teachers impressed me because they were fearless and creative! Here are a few of the culminating products that really stood out...
I feel so grateful to have been able to learn alongside the teachers who participated in the workshop this week. Their feedback about what worked and what didn't has made me a stronger educator and I know that I will change some aspects of my remote teaching when school resumes with distance learning in the fall. Thanks to everyone in DSUSD for their enthusiasm and dedication to digital storytelling!
No matter how technology savvy educators are, there is still a learning curve when implementing distance learning.
Some of the challenges are obvious - How do we offer high quality, engaging instruction remotely? How will we post and collect student work? How will we structure the week between synchronous and asynchronous tasks? How will students be graded?
Other questions are more complex and difficult to answer - How will we help students connect for social emotional health? How will we teach students to advocate for themselves when they need help? How will we give students opportunities to be creative and own their learning when we are limited to only 30 minutes of instruction per content area per day at the middle school level?
Many of the students in my district and at my school are part of vulnerable populations, which has increased the amount of pressure myself and many of my colleagues have felt. Nationally, we have a whole lot riding on remote learning, and the resulting learning loss for students who can not or will not participate is huge. The "hold harmless" grading policy adopted by many districts in California was well-intentioned and founded on the principle of equity. However, the net effect of the policy meant that some students and families chose not to participate in any educational opportunities after schools closed here on March 13th. Across my classes, I had about a 50% participation rate and projections indicated that attrition would occur over time. I knew I had to do something in order to hook my students and get them to want to show up each week to continue their learning.
Digital storytelling and the use of WeVideo were key to the ongoing involvement and participation of my students. For more than a decade, I have believed in the transformative power of digital storytelling and advocated for more opportunities for students to bring their stories to life. This was a "when the rubber meets the road" type of moment in my teaching practice. Even though my classroom had become 100% virtual, I knew I wanted there to be room for storytelling.
The Project: Quarantine Voices
Some of the ongoing themes I heard from many of my students throughout distance learning were feelings of isolation, anxiety, and boredom. This was surprising given that middle schoolers are typically so plugged in to social media that they can sometimes sit in a room filled with people and not look anyone in the eye. However, it turns out when that is your only form of interaction, it gets old. So, I wanted to give my students the chance to connect with one another and hear that they weren't alone. I wanted to allow them to see familiar faces, share their perspectives, and channel creative energy. I wanted to encourage them document this strange time in history by creating a time capsule of sorts. This led to the idea of the Quarantine Acrostic Project.
My students have worked on numerous movie projects throughout the year, so they are well versed in storytelling. They know the process, the tools, and have developed visual literacy skills. I began by pushing this slide deck out via Google Classroom. The slide deck structures the writing process and prompts students to develop a shot list. Though this process would normally be more involved and full of peer review points, secondary teachers were limited with regard to how much work they could assign per week (with good reason). So, I pared the storytelling process down to its most essential components. Parameters make students feel safe and able to get started, which is why I planned this project as an acrostic. Reluctant writers would have just enough structure to get engaged, which is important when we're talking about scaffolding EL students and students with disabilities.
Kids were asked to create in WeVideo once they completed the slide deck. My district has a paid subscription to WeVideo, which gives us access to their fabulous library of media materials. As you can see from the student products I shared, some kiddos leveraged the media library to fill in the gaps of what they couldn't leave their homes to film. Other kiddos opted for mostly original footage, finding ways to tailor their scripts to compensate for their static location.
All in all, they created some pretty amazing movies! I'm so proud of how brave they were in sharing their quarantine stories. It takes a lot for middle schoolers to be willing to be vulnerable, but that's really the value of purposefully creating the type of classroom culture that honors storytelling, honesty, and truth. This foundational climate carried over into the remote learning space, and I am so very grateful.
Click on the image below to watch the Quarantine Voices playlist on YouTube:
For years, every October my school has set aside 10 hours over the course of two days for parent conferences. If I'm being candid, it's usually been a frustrating experience for parents. No appointments are made; the experience is first come, first served. Often, parents show up to classrooms and wait outside for an opportunity to talk with teachers. If each conference takes somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes, some parents can end up waiting for upwards of 40 minutes.
This year, my team partner and I decided to try student-led conferences as a way to alleviate the congestion, empower our kiddos to take ownership over their academics, and promote personal reflection. This type of conferencing has never been part of our school culture, and we're sort of swimming against the grain by changing up our procedures. However, after experiencing student-led conferences today, I am confident that we made the right decision!
To prepare for student-led conferences, students reflected on their performance in the four core subject areas. The reflection document was pushed out to students via Google Classroom and included questions about grades, positive behaviors, areas that might need work, and goals for the rest of the trimester.
We realized that students would need to be explicitly taught how to conduct a conference with their parents. I created a Google Slide with procedures in English and Spanish, and for the two days preceding conferences, we went over the sharing sequence. Students identified work samples they were proud to share with their parents. I was thrilled that many students chose to include the digital stories they made about hunter-gatherers.
Because student-led conferences are new to parents, I recorded a short video to play on a loop right outside the classroom door. My team partner made a sign in sheet so we could follow up with parents who attended, and some signage completed the set up.
Now, as we sit here at the end of Day 1 of conferences, I am so happy to have been brave enough to try something new. I had some really incredible conversations with parents, but this time they didn't revolve around grades. Today, our conversations focused on celebrating growth, positive changes parents saw in some of their kiddos, and updates on former students. One of the families I visited with proudly showed me a copy of their oldest daughter's progress report. She is in high school now, but I had her as a student for three years in middle school. Her progress report showed that she is academically ranked #3 out of 491 students in her grade level! Mom was so proud and teared up a little when she showed me the paper. I'm so glad to have this former student's little sister in my class this year; I love that this family and I can continue to grow our connection.
One of the most interesting effects of student-led conferences is that some families didn't even need to speak with me, because their student did such a great job covering the bases. Beyond a greeting and a "thank you" as they left, many parents and kids were happy to have had dedicated time to talk together about how things are going at school. The kids were shining because I told them to remember to brag about themselves and the awesome job they're doing.
For the students who are struggling, I was able to have productive conversations with their families about how we could work together to support the students who need it most.
The biggest change was that that I never felt overwhelmed. My team partner and I are used to fluttering around, busily leap-frogging from one table to another in order to talk to as many families as possible, while fielding irritated sighs at the wait time. Today our experience was entirely different, and I find that I am looking forward to tomorrow.
Have you ever held student-led conferences? How was your experience? What resources did you find helpful?
A new venture is on the horizon! I have long been a podcast fan, given that I have a 25 minute commute to and from work. Audiobooks and podcasts are the stuff of long drives, so when the opportunity to record a podcast presented itself - of course I signed on!
Georgia Terlaje, who will henceforth be known as my partner in crime, has been a teacher for 31 years. We not only work together in Palm Springs Unified, but we also are fellow teacher consultants at the nonprofit organization, DIGICOM Learning. We've been promoting and supporting digital storytelling in the classroom for years, and now we get to do it together on air! Georgia is one of the most entertaining people I know. She's also multi-talented, as evidenced by her ability to author and record our podcast theme song. We recorded our first episode yesterday, and I'm so happy to share it here.
Our podcast is called "Digital Storytelling Saves the World" and we've got a whole slew of incredible guests lined up for future episodes. In this first episode, we simply introduce ourselves to listeners, as well as talk about our digital storytelling journeys and where we hope to go with the show.
As teachers, we can be islands unto ourselves and I think it's so important to connect with one another. The support piece of digital storytelling often isn't available to teachers outside of our DIGICOM community, so we are hoping to provide that for teachers everywhere. I hope you enjoy our first episode!
Together, we all say, "Digital Storytelling is important for our kids, so it's important to us."For the past 13 years, I've been providing professional development to teachers in the area of digital storytelling. The non-profit for which I am a teacher consultant is called DIGICOM Learning. They focus on promoting and supporting the integration of digital storytelling in classrooms and schools. I feel fortunate to be associated with them, continuing to work toward new opportunities for students.
Every summer, I love teaching weeklong classes to teachers in Palm Springs Unified School District and Desert Sands Unified School District. It's always fun to watch classroom teachers from a wide range of grade levels and subject areas come together as a community.
Together, we all say, "Digital Storytelling is important for our kids, so it's important to us."
Having such a unified understanding of how essential media literacy is to our kiddos is unique. For myself, digital storytelling has been a pillar of my instructional practice for the last 14 years. Why has this strategy stuck, when others have fallen by the wayside? I think it's because digital storytelling is student-centered. It doesn't depend on me to deliver; rather, I merely structure learning so that the door is open, and kids are the ones who walk right on through to tell their stories.
Tonight, many of my students were honored at the 2019 DIGICOM Film Festival, a regional festival designed to celebrate the work of students across the Coachella Valley. Sponsored by DIGICOM Learning, this festival has become somewhat of a right of passage for my students. Having entered it's 12th year, my kiddos walk into my classroom with the idea that they will have opportunities to tell their stories, and part of that opportunity is the film festival. I think it's important that my student don't necessarily create with the festival in mind, however. Rather, they see it as a platform from which they can share their reality.
This year, I am particularly proud of a few of my kiddos for talking about tough issues. The topics include open borders, bisexuality, and miscarriage. I'm proud of how much my students have grown and how healing it has been for them to create. If anyone ever doubts whether it's worth it to take time for digital storytelling, I hope they spend some time on my YouTube channel, listening carefully to the years of students who have authored compelling work for everyone to see. Middle school students have important things to say. I hope we're all listening.
There are so many fantastic educators who give up their time to grow themselves as professionals. Sometimes, I wonder if the general public is aware of how much dedication and passion that classroom teachers demonstrate every time they give up a Saturday. I am constantly in awe of our professional and feel so grateful to be a part of such an incredible community. This year, I'm honored to present a 3 hour workshop at Fall CUE in Napa Valley. I know it will be a valuable opportunity to connect with others, particular those interested in digital storytelling. Giving kids the opportunity to tell their stories is essential, especially in today's world which is full of potential platforms students could use to amplify their voices - YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat. What a world today's kids live in. Let's prepare them to use their powers for good, for change, for the distribution of their hopeful stories for the future.
See you at Fall CUE 19!
Last May, at the CUE BOLD Symposium, I was fortunate to meet Shannon and Brenda, who record the My Tech Toolbelt Podcast. They attended one of my hands-on lessons in the WeVideo lab, and graciously asked me to be a guest on their podcast. Of course, I was excited to say "yes!"
I love talking about student movie-making and I also love talking about how much WeVideo has helped me transform my classroom. Before Chromebooks and browser-based editing software, getting equipment could sometimes be challenging. As any teacher will tell you, there is a necessary critical mass for any type of technology project, and movie-making is no exception. I used to crowd fund iPads for my classroom, and apply for any possible grant that came my way. DIGICOM Learning was especially supportive of my equipment needs, but it's true to say that I am able to integrate movie-making so much more effectively now that every single kiddo has access to editing software.
So, here's the episode I had so much fun participating in, and hopefully by the end, you'll be a WeVideo fan, too.
Digital storytelling is one of my passions, and WeVideo has given me an incredible opportunity to be a teacher facilitator in their lesson lab at CUE BOLD this year. One of the lessons I'll be sharing (and having participants create an abbreviated version of) is called the "I Am Poem." Since the dawn of time, teachers have used BioPoems and I Am Poems to get to know students at the beginning of the year, during the first few weeks when building culture and climate is so important. I've taken the I Am Poem format and made it content-based for Language Arts and Social Studies.
In their book, The Eduprotocol Field Guide, Jon Corippo and Marlene Hebern talk about providing multiple opportunities for students to tackle tasks; as in, giving "reps" (repeated attempts at learning) when it comes to certain assignment types. The content varies, but the general task remains the same. That's been the guiding philosophy behind my I Am Poem lesson. At the close of a novel or unit, I ask students to select a character, a historical figure, or a people group. Then, they write the I Am Poem from that point of view. (Feel free to use my template.) Students self-assess using a rubric as they create, and we conference 1:1 to determine the final grade, which is a combination of my feedback and their own reflection. Throughout the year, we'll repeat the task, and students get faster and more creative with each iteration.
Here are a few sample student-created I Am Poems to get you started on your own project:
Well, it's official. The first trimester of the academic year is over, and I'm going to count my foray into Minecraft: Education Edition as a success. It's remarkable to me how much work it was to design a fully gamified classroom experience. Not that the work didn't pay off - it absolutely did! Perhaps the greatest indicator of success is the fact that my students covered even more content than usual for this time of year, and achieved more in terms of their Social Studies grades. I believe in maintaining consistently high expectations for my students, for my kids in Honors and for my students in grade level or strategic classes. So imagine my surprise when I realized that most of my students earned A's for the trimester - seriously. Eight of my seventy-five students received anything less than an A, and all students passed the course.
Every. Single. One.
Was this massive boost in achievement due to my transition to quest-based learning in Social Studies? Was it due to the motivation they experienced in response to the gamified elements of the 3D Game Lab MLS I switched to for content delivery, or the epic meaning of the narrative adventure I wrote? Or, was it the introduction of Minecraft: Education Edition that made them so excited to come to class each day?
I don't know.
But, I am awfully happy to see my students so happy. At some point in public education, the system tends to kill the joy of learning. At a time when sixth graders generally start settling into the middle school shuffle, deciding to be a little too cool and to hide their smarts, my kiddos are still joyfully bounding into the room in the morning, twenty or thirty minutes before the bell, just so they can finish their Minecraft build, or knock out one more quest. I think that says a lot about student morale, and I can't tell you how much my heart has responded to their positive attitudes.
By far, the most labor intensive task I had this trimester was the intentional planning and structuring of Minecraft quests. Because I believe in the power of sharing, and because there might be another 6th or 7th grade Social Studies teacher out there wanting to dive in, but afraid of the waters... here is my entire Trimester 1 Unit Plan for Ancient Civilizations. If you use it, let me know. Maybe we can compare notes and strengthen any weaknesses. I'd love to collaborate!
Author: Jessica Pack
California Teacher of the Year. CUE Outstanding Educator 2015. DIGICOM Learning Teacher Consultant. 6th Grade Teacher. Passionate about gamification, Minecraft, digital story-telling, and fostering student voices.