The Power of Authentic Writing

Some incredible things happened in my 8th grade English classroom today.

Photo Credit: Brad Neathery

I’ve been slowly making my way through Sparks in the Dark on my Kindle this year, and every time I return to this book I’m inspired to facilitate more authentic writing in my middle school classroom.

I mean, my students write every day. But how much of that writing is meaningful, passionate, or authentic? How much of it do they personally care about? I know I need to create more space for this kind of expression.

Last week, I asked my students to respond to lyrics from any song that held personal meaning or significance for them. Our learning target was “I can think critically, creatively, and reflectively to explore ideas within, between, and beyond texts.” Today, I asked for volunteers to share their pieces with the class.

Two boys accepted the challenge.

Boys. In 8th grade. In a gradeless classroom, with zero extrinsic motivation.

Sometimes we need to rethink our beliefs around middle school boys. But that’s a thought for another post. I digress.

One of the boys read a reflection about Natural, by Imagine Dragons. The other read a reflection on a song called Reluctant Heroesby Hiroyuki Sawano.

These boys spoke passionately about the human experience: the hardships we face, the expectations we bear, our families and the relationships that matter most.

And get this. As he read a closing paragraph about his family, one reader broke down into tears. If that wasn’t enough, both boys quietly sang all or most of their selected songs.

Their unfiltered emotions were on full display. They were powerfully vulnerable. Their classmates gave each of them standing ovations. I could have cried myself.

I mourn all the moments like these that I’ve missed in my 17 years of teaching, but today’s experience only deepens my resolve to do more authentic writing in the years ahead.

Because this was awesome.

“When you teach someone how to read or how to express themselves using the written word, you change a life. You introduce them to magical worlds, teach them how to access the voice within, and empower them to affect that same change in the lives of others.” – from Sparks in the Dark: Lessons, Ideas, and Strategies to Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in All of Us by Travis Crowder (@TeacherManTrav) & Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd)


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Episode 60: AJ Bianco

60 - AJ Bianco

Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device HERE: iTunes | Google Podcasts | Anchor | Spotify | YouTube

AJ BIANCO is a husband, father of two boys, aspiring leader, and middle school teacher at Harrington Park School in Bergen County, NJ. A fan of the flipped classroom and blended learning, AJ is also a co-host of another great education podcast called Podcast PD.

Follow AJ online here:

Episode Summary

AJ is currently a 7th-8th grade Social Studies teacher at Harrington Park School in Bergen County, New Jersey. His classroom is student-centered, flipped, blended, personalized, and he enjoys making the learning experiences as authentic as possible.

In general, AJ says that the lowest moments in his professional journey boil down to rejection. One example of this comes from his first five years of teaching, when his district repeatedly moved him due to budget cuts. After being split between two different high schools in year five, he was almost ready to quit the profession completely. One of the things that he credits for restoring his hope and faith in the education career was the PLN that he found on Twitter. Once he started connecting with other passionate educators, he was inspired to reimagine his practice and redefine his trajectory.

AJ recalls the beginnings of #PodcastPD, the podcast he co-hosts with Stacey Lindes and Chris Nesi. Stacey had been using the hashtag on Twitter for some time when Chris Nesi suggested they use the name as a title for a podcast show. The three co-hosts are all about “Anytime, anywhere professional development.” The show keeps it real, and the hosts include a good mix of humor, pop culture, and real life in the show content.

When he looks around at education today, AJ gets excited about the ways that educators are sharing their voices, ideas, and experiences authentically with others. Teachers aren’t afraid anymore — instead, they’re taking more risks and their practice is more inspired. Today’s classroom has come so far from the passive compliance of the classrooms we grew up in.

When asked about a current professional goal, AJ talks about his commitment to learning more about what leadership looks like in education. He’s reading, watching, and listening to whatever he can on the subject.

AJ’s primary passion outside of the classroom is his boys. He currently has two with a third on the way, and it’s a thrill to be involved in their development and play a part in their learning. Second to his boys, AJ is also a big sports fan and superhero aficionado.

AJ’s productivity stems from his competitive nature. Wherever he applies himself, he wants his work to be the best.

He’s got two Twitter recommendations, and they’re both amazing educators hailing from the New Jersey area. The first is @RichHayzler and the second is @Kevin_Carroll_.

Two edtech tools that AJ recommends trying out are Adobe Spark Video and Adobe Spark Post. Follow these apps on Twitter @AdobeSpark and @AdobePost.

AJ’s book recommendation is The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy by Jon Gordon. Follow the author at @JonGordon11.

If you’re looking to add another great education podcast to your commute, check out The Leader of Learning Podcast by @DKreiness.

On YouTube, AJ suggests subscribing to How it Should Have Ended, a fun channel that reimagines the endings to popular movies.

When he’s got no energy left for anything else productive, AJ’s watching Daredevil on Netflix.

We sign off on our conversation, and AJ tells us the best places to find him and follow his content online. Find AJ on Twitter @AJBianco and on Instagram @AJBianco.

For more from AJ Bianco, follow him online here:

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify

On social media, follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!

Episode 59: Dr. Sam Fecich

59 - Dr. Sam Fecich

Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device HERE: iTunes | Google Podcasts | Anchor | Spotify | YouTube

DR. SAMANTHA FECICH is a former special education teacher and now a professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. She’s also a mom, edtech innovator, and most recently, the author of EduMagic: A Guide for Pre-Service Teachers.

Follow Dr. Sam online here:

Episode Summary

Dr. Sam Fecich is a professor of education at Grove City College in Grove City PA, just north of Pittsburgh. A former special education teacher herself, she teaches about educational technology integration and special education.

Sam recalls the crushing disappointment of applying to a PhD program in special education, only to have her application rejected. After cycling through discouragement, self-doubt, questioning her future, etc., she called her parents and spent some time reconsidering her passions in education.  She eventually applied for a PhD program in Learning Design and Technology, and she was accepted. Something we can all take away from Sam’s story: when one door is closed, keep trying more doors! The one that opens may just be the best fit.

EduMagic challenges the thought that your teaching career starts when you receive your teaching diploma. In it, Dr. Sam argues that the journey actually begins in your freshman year of college, and she shares authentic stories of innovation in education that will inspire educators today. EduMagic is also an acronym that forms the structure of her book:

  • E = Educate and Engage. Learning to take something from every learning experience.
  • D = Digital Presence. Start building a positive professional presence through digital portfolios of work, on LinkedIn, and other platforms.
  • U = Unite your PLN. Reaching out and building a professional network provides mutual benefits.
  • M = Megapixels. These are the bits of magic, flavor, and excitement into learning.
  • A = Always Be. Always advocate, be grateful, be mindful, and contribute to the learning of others.
  • G = Get Out. Get out of the classroom, go to edcamps, go to workshops, volunteer to present your learning to others.
  • I = Inconceivable. Use education technology to create original learning experiences.
  • C = Cooperative Teaching Gone Virtual. Use technology to build real-time partnerships between preservice teachers and teachers in the field in different locations.

Dr. Sam is passionate about the ways that Twitter and other social media platforms can connect educators and allow them to share innovative teaching practices around the world. It’s about showing process, progress, and product — in our professional learning and in the learning of our students. She’s seen first-hand the power and ability of Twitter to build a professional resume, and she shares a story of how Twitter helped earn one preservice teacher multiple job offers by the time she graduated.

Her professional goal for this year is to do a better job of meeting students where they are. In order to embrace this goal, she plans to master and utilize Snapchat better.

In terms of other learning and personal passions outside of the classroom, Sam enjoys spending time with her daughter, Summer, and watching her grow, learn, and try new things.

She tries to live by a simple rule: “Wherever you are, be there.” Among other things, she tries to leave her work at work as much as she can.

Her recommendation on Twitter is @NanKr1120, someone who does fantastic and imaginative work and gives Sam goosebumps every time she speaks.

Sam’s pick for edtech tools is Microsoft Teams. She touts the power of Teams to improve collaboration and accessibility for all learners and stakeholders. Follow Teams on Twitter @MicrosoftTeams.

One of the books she recommends most often to her preservice teachers is Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate. Follow the author on Twitter @BurgessDave.

Dr. Sam’s educational podcast pick is House of EdTech, hosted by Chris Nesi. Follow the podcast on Twitter @HouseofEdTech.

When she’s got no time left for anything productive, Dr. Sam is enjoying House of Cards on Netflix or Manifest on Hulu.

For more from Dr. Sam Fecich, follow her online here:

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify

Follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!

Episode 58: Michael Drezek

58 - Michael Drezek

Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device HERE: iTunes | Google Podcasts | Anchor | Spotify | YouTube

MICHAEL DREZEK is a Technology Integration Specialist for the Lake Shore Central School District in upstate New York. Michael is in his 15th year as an educator and is the host of the Quest 4 Edlightenment podcast. He is a former teacher of the year and has earned too many accolades to list here! Find out more about Michael’s innovative work with technology in education at https://michaeldrezek.com/.

Follow Michael online here:

In our conversation, Michael recalls the mistake he once made of putting content above relationships with students, and he talks about how he would do things differently today. He defines his professional goal for this school year, explains why he is so passionate about the state of education today, and shares what makes him productive in so many different domains of service. Michael gives us some great recommendations on Twitter, books, edtech, and more!

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 1:21 – Michael is the District Technology Integrator for the Lakeshore Central School District in Angola, New York, just outside of Buffalo. This is his fifth year at this position. Previously, he taught middle school math for ten years before completing his Masters in Education Technology, which led him to his current post.
  • 2:06 – In terms of a low point in his career, Michael recalls the mistake of putting content over relationships with students. Looking back, one practical area he wishes he had focused on more was student voice — offering more ways for students to express themselves through podcasts, video reflections, and other means of creative expression.
  • 4:47 – Michael enjoys the reach of influence for positive change and innovation that comes with his position. As a classroom teacher, he could influence the learning of his own students. But as a technology integrator who works with 250 teachers, he’s able to advance learning for so many more. The question he likes to ask is “How can we use technology to empower students and get them creating and sharing — not just with classmates but with classrooms around the world?”
  • 8:58 – His professional goal is to find a way to meet with every single teacher in the school district. He wants to make sure every teacher feels included and connected and doesn’t want to let any teacher slip through the cracks. Not only that, he looks at those meetings as valuable learning opportunities for him to better understand teacher needs.
  • 11:07 – Something Michael’s been thinking a lot about is the area of digital wellness, particularly as it relates to his own children. How can we teach our kids not only to manage technology well but to use it for good?
  • 13:20 – For Michael, it just comes down to work ethic — something he picked up from his days in college sports. Teachers, he says, give so much on a daily basis. The least he can do is match their effort and investment.
  • 14:28 – On Twitter, Michael recommends following @Dwight_Carter.
  • 15:19 – An edtech tool that Michael’s seeing a lot of value in is Buncee, a creation and communication tool that empowers student voice and choice. Find out more about Buncee by following them on Twitter @Buncee.
  • 17:22 – Michael’s book recommendation is Social LEADia: Moving Students from Digital Citizenship to Digital Leadership by Jennifer Casa-Todd. Follow the author on Twitter @JCasaTodd.
  • 18:29 – His podcast recommendation is the great Matt Miller’s Ditch That Textbook podcast. Michael enjoys the episodes because they’re short, they usually give him something he can apply immediately, and Matt always leaves him with something to think about. Follow @DitchThatTxtbk on Twitter to find out more about what Matt is all about.
  • 19:54 – On YouTube, Michael finds the most value at TED Talks. Follow @TEDTalks on Twitter at @TEDTalks.
  • 20:48 – When he’s got no energy left in his day for anything productive, Michael’s watching The Walking Dead on Netflix.
  • 21:35 – We sign off on the conversation, and Michael shares the best ways to follow him online. See above for details!

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify

Follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!

Episode 57 – Ari Flewelling

57 - Ari Flewelling

Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device HERE: iTunes | Google Podcasts | Anchor | Spotify | YouTube

ARI FLEWELLING is a staff development specialist at Riverside Unified School District in Riverside, California. A former high school English teacher, Ari holds a Master’s degree in Education Technology and is a Google Certified Trainer and Innovator. She can often be found sharing her knowledge at EdTechTeam events.

Ari’s Twitter profile says “Cool on the internet. Even cooler IRL,” which should tell you that Ari is a person who enjoys engagement and is just a fun person to be around!

Follow Ari online here:

In our conversation, Ari describes the time in her career when she found herself in a work environment that was “less than collaborative.” It was during this time that she really started to build her professional learning network on Twitter and elsewhere, using these platforms to reconnect with former colleagues and building relationships with new ones. To educators looking to integrate more technology in their classrooms, Ari offers this sage word of caution: always consider context and content. How does this piece of technology help move my students toward the learning objective? Ari also shares her professional goal for this year, explains what ignites her passion about education today, lets us in on some of her passions outside of education, and offers some great picks on Twitter, YouTube, and more.

Find the highlights from our conversation at the timestamps below:

  • 1:10 – Ari’s work as a technology integration specialist allows her to focus on empowering student creation and creativity. Coding, writing, video production, collaboration, and sharing: these are the rich kinds of learning experiences that technology can provide students. She currently supports 42 school sites ranging from preschool through Adult Education. She enjoys the challenge of finding the perfect solution for the right need or the right learner.
  • 2:01 – Early in her career, Ari found herself in a difficult work environment with colleagues who were “less than collaborative.” It was during this time that she really started to build her professional learning network on Twitter and other platforms, reconnecting with former colleagues and building relationships with new ones. Where she missed professional connections and collaboration physically, she was able to fill in those gaps digitally.
  • 3:35 – To educators looking to integrate more technology in their classrooms, Ari offers this sage word of caution: always consider context and content. How does this piece of technology help move my students toward the learning objective?
  • 5:06 – Students excite Ari so much! Seeing students create apps, websites, YouTube series, creative memes, and contributing to their communities in real and authentic ways is amazing and fuels Ari’s passion for education.
  • 6:37 – In terms of a professional goal for this school year, Air wants to take stock of all the things she’s doing, figuring out where she’s getting the most value, where she’s being the most successful, and deciding where she’s not going to invest as much anymore. As educators and creatives, we often take on more than is really sustainable. Sometimes we need to simplify our focus in order to make sure the work we’re invested in offers the most value, and we’re taking care of ourselves well.
  • 9:02 – Ari enjoys playing games of any kind, particularly board and video games that involve strategic decision making and well-crafted narratives. She’s looking forward to designing a character in Red Dead Redemption 2, a game with stunning graphics that is both a prequel and a sequel.
  • 12:05 – For Ari, working out is an unplugged activity, so she has no access to the internet. Exercise is a great opportunity to take time away from her work and listen to her body’s needs.
  • 12:53 – On Twitter, Ari recommends following @AnnKozma723. She credits Ann for helping her through a difficult time and describes her as a constant source of inspiration.
  • 13:48 – When it comes to her favorite edtech tools, Ari comes back to the basic power of GSuite – Google’s suite of cloud-based apps. Follow @GSuite on Twitter!
  • 16:56 – Ari’s currently reading American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures by America Ferrera, and she’s pretty sure this book will stand as one of her all-time faves. Follow the author on Twitter @AmericaFerrera.
  • 18:56 – Ari throws us two great podcast recommendations. The first is It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders and the second is By the Book. Follow these podcasts on Twitter @ByTheBookPC and @NPRItsBeenAMin.
  • 20:45 – Over on YouTube, Ari has a few favorite channels: TED-Ed, Pear Deck, EdTech Team, and a fun one – Good Mythical Morning.
  • 22:46 – When she doesn’t have any energy left for workshop creation, book writing, or gaming, Ari’s watching The Great British Bake Off, Hilda, and Patriot Act.
  • 23:46 – We sign off on the interview, and Ari tells us the best places to find her online. Search for EdTech Ari on any platform, and chances are you’ll find her! See above for more details and links.

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify

Follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!