debrief: Project Citizen & infographics

As my classroom moves into a new project, there are quite a number of proud moments that are worth sharing.  First, I’ve got to give credit to the kids who put together some great research binders.  Many were really engaged during my workshops on how to make relevant graphs in Word, and it certainly showed in some of their final products.  Having the mayor, our principal, school librarian and even parental involvement was motivating for them.  They really stepped courageously up to the plate to show that they’d like to see some school and community problems eased, if not erased.  They demonstrated great composure, too, when tackling some hot-button issues like teen pregnancy, Link Card (welfare) abuse and poor school budgeting.  They told stories, but stories that we knew on which they spent time on empathizing.

I will definitely be pursuing face-to-face interviews more in the future in order to encourage field research on topics.  I found it a great community outreach opportunity.  I designed a scaffolding activity that asked students to engage in a mock phone call to set up interviews; it really helped to ease some of (to be expected) worries about sending young students into the community to do research.  During that activity / oral communication quiz, students really got a kick out of being able to call my desk phone using their cell phones, too.

It’s worth noting, too, that I did get an opportunity to teach a couple students how to make infographics using Illustrator, as per one of my original goals for this project.  The infographic was part of the Advanced column on our project rubrics, with other advanced graphs an option as well.  (If students did a demographic study within a particular survey question… say, breaking down results from males vs. females… then they, too, could earn Advanced credit without the extra tech skills.)  I’m pleased to present one of the infographics that I have uploaded with the student’s permission.  Their group surveyed students on teen self-image, collected open-ended responses as well as data from closed responses.  The student I worked with on this infographic more or less taught (him/her)self after I walked through a step-by-step tutorial from Vector Tuts Plus with (him/her).  Check out the student work sample below.

being like-minded in education (translation: why I’ve become a New Tech fanboy)

Today, I was asked by an Illinois State Board of Education member about my pre-teaching experiences and about how relationships can be better built between future teachers and their cooperating teachers in the field.  (And that was the first question I got during a working lunch where a panel of teachers answered questions for ISBE members, the State Superintendent and other distinguished state leaders.  I guess for a moment I thought I was supposed to be the one in the room setting up rigorous experiences and questions…)  While a daunting question to tackle right after three periods of teaching, I certainly had some thoughts to share, but many of them were calculated over the course of a few years’ experience now in education.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the educators I am surrounded by nowadays.  After the success of the My Bloody Life project and debriefing a great day’s events with a wisened agent of educational change, New Tech Network‘s Theresa Shafer (@TheresaShafer), I have been turning over in my head her great synopsis of why I had such a great vibe from the day.  At one point, she simply asked, “Isn’t it great to be surrounded by people who are like-minded?”  Never was this feeling more true than when I read some follow-up student reflections that read:

I think New Tech is a great idea for all schools to have. With New Tech we are able to go beyond with research and resources. New Tech helps you to be more professional and also you get more business skills. We recently were able to Skype Alex Kotlowitz. This helped tremendously with my essay on gangs. New Tech helps get you known and have more experiences …I think that being able to do stuff like Skype and have presentations in front of other members in the community is amazing. Most average school do not have this connection so therefore it makes us different.


This was a lifetime experience to talk to a producer about a movie he made. This movie has so many points of view about gangs and gang activity. This is only possible in New Tech because the technology and resources makes this a good environment for professional work. Our project and his experience is related to the real world, to gangs, and how gang activity affects the people of the community and members of the gangs.


I [would] like to thank New Tech for letting us get the opportunity to talk to Mr.K, and I think we should start doing stuff like that more often.

Sure, so maybe I’ve become a bit of a “New Tech fanboy”, but couldn’t I say some of my students are, too?  There’s something rich and deep about feeling like you’ve subscribed to an ideal greater than just a sense of doing work.  And to see that your students have as well is the best icing on the cake you could ever taste.

When I rolled the the ISBE member’s question over in my head, I knew what a lot of people in that room knew.  What so many young educators or soon-to-be educators suffer from is a lack of experience in a learning setting divergent from of our own, past educational careers.  (Of course, I did.)  As future teachers entering into an undergraduate teacher training program, we knew we liked our high school experience, and then we expected that our days of being a good student could be replicated for our future pupils.  What we didn’t know about others’ educational experiences became what we needed to learn — our training became a journey of investigation/problem-solving that demanded us to explore on our own as we craft ourselves into the traditional teacher that many higher educational institutions prepare us to be.  Such an experience makes future teachers feel isolated because they must develop their own theories of education, outlooks on diversity, or, most basically, a vision for how they would want to build their own micro-communities.

When I began my answer to our distinguished guests, I was thinking of the lack of unity when I first arrived on my student teaching site.  I was walking into rooms where norms were already established; where relationships were already generated; where there was an expectation of  how much teaching emphasis should be on standardized testing; and where there was an expectation of what to teach, how fast, etc..  Yet each of these established factors were different down the hall between each room, department…things could vary greatly between buildings that are supposedly unified under the same district’s banner.  Does that happen?  Well, ask someone who works in a larger building.  All of these flashbacks certainly stalled me, because I’ve come a long way over the course of a few years.

But what came to mind as the feeling or experience that truly was a formative experience for me as an educator was NTAC, the New Tech Annual Conference that I attended before starting this year at a New Tech school.  That conference/training week became a marker for when I started to see that there were other educators who I could work with who believed in the power of collaboration; who embody the process of having inquiry-based conversations with students that lead to better decisions, norms or solutions; who generate better authenticity in order to to raise the stakes/rigor in learning; who imagine our future shaped by the tools that we empower our students to use, driven toward a shared purpose; and who glimpse at the future when they see  how students carry themselves in our schools.  All of which is in the power of the mind.

So, when I finally got around to tracing my cookie-crumbs back into the room (and not just searching all the depths of my professional head), my answer to the original question simply rested in the fact that we need to create closer-knit communities of teachers who are like-minded.  For me, that meant NTAC, where I learned to be a PBL instructor and learned to train students to take control of their educational destinies.  I think the greatest feather in the cap of our New Tech school is in the preservation of our common mindset on how to create new learning experiences, expand education beyond the classroom, or tackle student needs.  My “house” / New Tech school is comprised of about fourteen members, each of whom share a common mindset.  If we can replicate this in other schools, there’s no guessing as to what can be accomplished.

watching humble sophomores interview an acclaimed author/producer = my #eduwin

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Gangs and Violence Awareness project

Last week, I helped to facilitate (note: not “teach”) a great #eduwin that was celebrated more by my students than by me as an educator.  After now weeks of working on our gangs awareness / My Bloody Life project, arrangements were finalized to Skype with Alex Kotlowitz, producer of The Interrupters (which airs on PBS tomorrow/Tuesday night).

My students listen attentively as Alex Kotlowitz, producer of The Interrupters, speaks to them via Skype.

The morning began as unique as the day unfolded.  My five “moderators” were standing outside, in charge from the beginning.  Two of them handed out note sheets, while the others picked 15 students to have question cue cards.  Once the bell rang, we re-arranged some of the seats so that everyone could be seen, etc by Mr. Kotlowitz.  The Skype call rang in.  I introduced our guests, my moderators, etc, before handing the conversation over to my students.  (Many of the “adults”  stayed in toward the back of the room, actually, putting the kids at the forefront.  Supportive figures included my building principal, assistant principal and many of my colleagues who had planning periods… thanks again for stopping by!   Theresa Shafer (@TheresaShafer), New Tech Network’s Online Community Manager, stayed close to the moderators to tweet all of the great Q&A).

Our students started with some polite banter / icebreakers.  My students asked Mr. Kotlowitz about his impressions of the Superbowl ads and who he was cheering for.  My kids got a kick out of the fact that he is human and roots for the Giants, yet they were impressed when he took a stance against the idea of commercials in general.

Once the questions started rolling, the great answers began reinforcing some of the themes of not just our project but also of our school culture/vision.  Here’s a bit of a breakdown question-by-question:

-Without having seen The Interrupters  yet, one of the first questions to Kotlowitz was about the documentary’s impact on the filmmakers and on the CeaseFire workers themselves.  I saw some students “awakened” when Mr. Kotlowitz said this film was his first time collaborating.  As a writer/journalist, he rarely produced work with others before producing the film.  Being my students’ first year in a New Tech school, many of my students were nodding in agreement with how beneficial collaboration was to them, too.  This expert was giving a nod to what we preach every day: collaboration is the way of the workplace and of the world now that we are an interconnected (technologically, socially, culturally, etc) global community.  As for the subjects in the documentary, Kotlowitz has said that some of them found the film therapeutic, because they were able to tell their story, process some of the things they had done (all of the Interrupters have done time), and show how dedicated they are to making better, less violent communities.

-Kotlowitz spoke on how violence is now initiated over more “petty” circumstances.  Here, I saw eyes darting back and forth.  Sophomores have some growing up to do, and we hear that word used all the time in our classes, actually.  Here, whispers and heads shook in disappointment when Kotlowitz said murder/homicide rates have halved over the years, but they are over much more petty disagreements.  Violence used to be so tied to the drug trade, but reports now show most violence starts over looks at girls/guys, unwelcome guests at parties, stepping on someone’s shoe, etc

– Kotlowitz mentioned he had done a screening of the film at the Danville prison.  I know caught the interest of some who live close to that area of the city or who go by there.   While so far away, we were still making connections to each other’s communities.

My moderators stepped more and more up to the plate as the interview progressed.  When we had mic issues, they politely asked for a moment from Mr. Kotlowitz and set a norm of coming up to the center of the room.  (I was actually surprised at how timid some were in front of him.  Many of my biggest voices asked their assigned questions with as little as a peep… there was definitely a sense of importance in the room.)

Final papers were due yesterday (which I expect will use the interview as a source), but there are already signs that this Skype interview had impact.  When I created a Google Doc to collect thank-you notes and reflections, I found that many of my students were starting to “get” New Tech.  (More on that later.)

Thanks to the power of social media (which set up this interview in the first place!), various great reads  have popped up.  I’ve collected many of them in my Diigo bookmarks with “interrupters” as the tag.  I have to thank Alex Kotlowitz, the Interrupters social media team (@TheInterrupters), Kartemquin Films (@Kartemquin), and New Tech Network’s Theresa Shafter (@newtechnetwork & @TheresaShafer) for much of this great experience, among others whom I’ve mentioned before.

DvNT sophomores’ first steps to student empowerment: bringing The Interrupters to town

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Gangs and Violence Awareness project

This was no regular meeting with the principal.  I had a yellow legal pad and was trying to keep up with the sparks of fresh ideas or next steps.  Proposals, artifacts and research passed across the big desk.  Impacts on the community were discussed.  Monetary costs were considered.  At first, the legal pad might suggest an evaluation meeting.  Proposals, artifacts and research might indicate that I was steering a curriculum committee.  And the mention of money?  Well, maybe I’m planning a field trip.

And all would be normal except for a few small twists.  First, I was standing in the corner taking notes – not in a chair.  So, go ahead and erase all of the “I” statements in that first paragraph.  Then, insert the names [withheld here] of my students.  The proposals, artifacts and research being passed back and forth were not coming from my hands – they were coming from my students’.  Budget drafts and event proposals were the products of their own brainstorming and research.  Yet, the discussion still centered around curriculum, but in this meeting, my students were taking the helm.

See, after watching the trailer for the recently-acclaimed documentary, The Interrupters, students who are ahead on the projects in my classroom are the ones trying to set up a community event to view and discuss the documentary.

The My Bloody Life project

Just after Christmas, I was Tweeting back and forth with some other educators about a gang awareness project that was planned for our sophomore class.  Originally, this project was born out a request by the mayor of our town.  A couple years ago, the mayor wrote a letter to the first New Tech class requesting a PSA that could be broadcast on the public access channel.  For the past two years, students read My Bloody Life by Reymundo Sanchez (a pseudonym for a former Chicago Latin King); spoke with Sanchez via Skype; and then put together their proposed PSA campaigns.

Coming to this already great project, I had decided to do some research of my own on different types of research students could use to model their products around.  I loved the types of products students would produce and the text with which they would anchor their learning and perspective.  I just wanted more access to a 21st century experience — I wanted to find different types of media.  It was then that I first ran across The Interrupters.

So, how did we get to a point where students are meeting with our school principal in order to organize a school-wide or community viewing of The Interrupters?  When we came back from winter break, my students started our project, driven by the question:

How do we, as students of Danville High School and young citizens, design a public awareness campaign to inform Danville leaders and the general public about the causes and effects of gang activity in our communities?

We hit the ground running with this project by developing norms for discussing such a controversial issue as gangs.  We discussed the intended or unintended consequences of different ways of discussing gangs and their members’ actions (particularly because we never know what people are involved in after school).  Students then took a few days to research gang activity in major cities around the world in order to create a gallery of empathy maps around the events they read about in the news.

The Interrupters tweet back to us after New Tech Network facilitates introductions.

Following those preview activities, students started reading My Bloody Life and kept a reading journal built around that driving

question.  My Bloody Life gives a first-hand look at the gangbanger lifestyle.  Some students found the book a quick, easy read, which threw me off for a bit.  (Finished the book early?  Yes!  …Just one of the benefits of using contemporary texts with narrators about the same age as the readers!)  What could I have them do?  Well, then social media knocked on my door.

The same day that I was scratching my head in the middle of class, shocked that some students read the book in under a week, our New Tech director (my assistant principal) came in to ask me if I had been on Twitter yet today.  No, but I started unlocking my iPhone.  I found that thanks to some tweets picked up by @NewTechNetwork, The Interrupters web team was ready to get introduced to my classroom.  No sooner than I had played the trailer, I had those finished with the book volunteering to use their extra time to help coordinate an event to host a viewing of the documentary with the community and/or even interview some of the Interrupters themselves!

The taskmasters/managers

In the first couple of our advanced group’s meetings, we had to establish group roles.  There was a lot to brainstorm and a lot to get moving if this was to be pulled off in time to be useful for the project.  After some discussion and heated debate, I delegated responsibilities under three roles for three different students: Researcher, Event Planner and Curriculum Specialist.  Each role was meant to be unique in its influence in the final decision, but other roles would also have to help support the other.   (So, our Event Planner had to decide who would be invited before the Researcher could get a list of addresses together for invitations.  Also, our Researcher had to watch trailers and read reviews of the movie to help the Curriculum Specialist design our purpose statement.  They both had to dig through our Echo project briefcase and semester curriculum, too.)  Some tasks that needed to be done before presenting the idea to the principal, so a couple of those students worked together on one item over the weekend.

During the meeting, students took turns to propose the different ideas to our principal and also demonstrated that they already had clear knowledge of the destructive nature of thuggish gang-banging.  What they wanted to know was how to see the real solutions to this problem.  One student went into some psychology of why teens are lured to the lifestyle when he said “[Gangs] don’t provide the things they need in their lives… but The Interrupters are trying to make change.”

Our principal responded quite well to the overall idea.  (He later told me that he was impressed by the three young individuals who were in the hot seats.)  He gave them a few next steps (directly connecting it to the sophomore curriculum) and talked to them about the importance of giving a clear purpose to the event itself (so the community and any press knew what we’re doing this for).  They were clear next steps, but ones that deserve a lot of consideration and attention to detail.  The concerns behind them are certainly real.

With the next steps, students were forced to make considerations for the complex, manipulative world outside of our walls — one that has somehow glorified a tremendously destructive lifestyle — one that would love juicy, heedless press spin about schools talking about gangs — one that takes soundbites and tells a whole story.  Basically, they had to face the intimidating task of covering bases that are moving faster than we can learn about them in just one class.  Speaking of rigor…

Where that leaves us

We are going beyond just looking at the causes and effects of teens getting involved in gangs.  This is a project… a work in progress.  One that is brought to us thanks to social networking, a 21st century tool unimaginable decades ago.  We are driven by what we want to know and where we can find solutions to the problems our world faces.  Without a doubt, this may be the most exciting learning that I am facilitating so far in my career.  And I think the most important part about this learning is that it is memorable to my learners and allows them to make an impression on our school and community.