Episode 128 – Julia Fliss

This podcast episode was first published on February 22, 2020.

Meet Julia Fliss

JULIA FLISS is a sixth grade ELA teacher, activist, world changer, Sustainable Development Goals Ambassador, lifelong learner, creative, and yogi who lives in Evergreen, Colorado.

No More 12-Hour Workdays

When asked to recall a low moment in her professional journey, Julia makes a quick distinction: with the right perspective, low moments can better be viewed as growth moments. Every bit of adversity presents an opportunity to learn.

One of the more impactful growth moments for Julia was her move from Denver West High School, an inner city Title 1 school, to a school in the mountains of Colorado. As challenging as the shift was, Julia was thankful for the ways in which her mindset was strengthened: it helped to give her a broader understanding of her value as an educator.

Before the move from Denver West, Julia’s formula for work was 12 hours a day – an unsustainable pace that made her a prime candidate for burnout. After a period of reflection, she realized that she was modeling unhealthy behavior for her students, so with the change in teaching contexts came a change in her professional philosophy and personal boundaries.

She decided that it was okay to define healthy boundaries, create personal prosperity, and live a life that allowed her to be the best version of herself … and by doing so, be able to serve her students better.

“For me, it’s not about going without or giving up in order to serve – it’s about living into each moment and creating a reality where everyone has everything they need in every moment.”

UN Sustainable Development Goals

Julia dreams of some day visiting the United Nations centers in New York City or Washington to speak about the Sustainable Development Goals in person. She is committed to the SDGs because she is committed to her students and their future.

“They deserve a classroom without walls – a global learning community that prioritizes collaboration, collective wellbeing, and taking action for the good of people and the planet,” she explains. The SDGs provide the platform and the launch point to help students engage with these important efforts and connect with other like-minded agents of change around the world. They give access to kid-driven inquiry and design that is exciting, invigorating, and now at our fingertips thanks to technology.

As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” and the UN sustainable development goals provide the common language to go about that work at any grade level.

Julia’s favorite goals are 4 and 16 – a fusion between Quality Education and Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. “Quality education requires a coming together, a looking in the mirror, a grassroots connection that helps us create access for every child to get what they need in order to learn. We are not going anywhere as a planet or as a species until we reach out our hand to every single person on the planet in a way that creates systemic change.”

Why Should Educators Build a PLN?

Julia is a committed networker and community builder, and she believes it’s our responsibility as educators to model the kinds of people that we’re encouraging our students to be. If we want our kids to be global citizens, we need to demonstrate what that looks like. Looking outside of our classrooms and our buildings gives us greater perspective on our own behaviors and a reference point for our professional practice and learning.

With all the benefits of global connections, the question becomes … why not? Why not connect and learn more? As Jen Williams says, being a lifelong learner means investing in our own growth and evolution as an educator.

Julia’s first years of teaching at Denver West High School taught her to develop professionally without waiting to be professionally developed. As a result, her career has been marked by digging in, asking, connecting, and sharing professional learning.

Important first connections included George Couros and his book, The Innovator’s Mindset, which prompted her to get on Twitter. From there, Julia found Jennifer Gonzalez who then led her to Marisa Thompson, someone Julia calls a huge mentor from the moment they connected. From Marisa, she connected with the whole #TQE family.

Simply by watching and listening on Twitter and in other spaces, Julia was inspired to find her tribe: other educators who shared her professional values and ideals for education. “I feel like our opportunity as educators to be the best we can be is truly by building on each other,” Julia explains.

“#BetterTogether could not be more true. It’s just gold. Any teacher who is hesitating to connect should just try it. Get out there, jump in, take a risk, and try it.”

Seeing Other Classrooms at Work

When I asked Julia for an example of something in eduTwitter that is setting her on fire today, Julia pointed to the opportunities to see inside other teacher classrooms. “When someone is willing to share what kids are doing, what they’re trying out with students, what they’re revealing about what didn’t work well, when there’s an authentic moment of learning that truly provides a window into their world, that lights me up. I will always find those posts to dig in, learn more, and celebrate.” 

What Else is Setting Julia on 🔥 in Education

Zooming out on education, Julia is energized by the movement of change within education today. So many educators are coalescing and combining their efforts to support student-driven learning, global collaboration, the rewriting of curriculum, and rethinking traditional practices. The power of the PLN is about more than just professional learning: it’s about working together to reshape our education systems and change the planet for the better.

A Professional Goal: More Collaboration

In her current context, Julia serves on a sixth grade language arts team, and from a practical standpoint she would love to find more time to collaborate with her teammates. The times that they do find to share passions and identify opportunities for interdisciplinary learning lights her up and makes their teaching practice richer.

“It’s about strengthening our community of teacher-learners so that we can impact our community of student-learners,” she says. This year, she’s been using the UN sustainable development goals to build a framework for meaningful teaching and learning on her team and for their sixth grade students. When kids feel that team approach to learning, it helps everyone to grow, get excited, and get on board with meaningful work that leads to global change.

Passions That Bring Her Alive

Julia has always had a passion for spiritual growth. For her, this starts with being a solutionary, and it helps that she lives in a cabin in the wilderness – something that allows her to connect with nature every single day. She also draws inspiration and guidance from meditation, and she’s passionate about art and travel.

“I’m a life liver,” she says. “I believe that we truly learn from our experience of the world around us, and I believe that we create our reality.” For that reason, she’s learned to be thoughtful and strategic about the moments, experiences, people, places, and opportunities that she surrounds herself with. The human experience is a gift to be fully and intentionally realized.

Personal Productivity Practices

Her mindfulness practice is the key to helping her stay centered and do all that she does, Julia says. She gets up daily at 4:00 a.m. to get on an elliptical, explaining that she needs quiet time and unplugged time to get away from all notifications and interruptions. The right morning practices set her on fire for the rest of the day and give her the energy to be her best self for her learners and colleagues.

Resources That Ignite Julia’s Practice

Over on Twitter, Julia recommends following the Human Restoration Project (@HumResPro on Twitter), an organization of educators that makes it their mission to bring back the humanity to education. “They’re amazing,” she says. Julia also shouts out her beloved wolfpack – fellow educators who have the bug, push the envelope constantly, and challenge each other to be the very best they can be. These educators include Abigail French, Kellie Bahri, and Donna Guerin

The edtech tool that has really gets Julia excited right now is Zoom. “I love the ability to connect with people, kids, and classes from around the world in a way that transforms the screen from passive to active. It’s a learning opportunity to have a window inside another classroom, to talk with an expert, or to see something that is happening in the world in ways that wouldn’t be possible without it.”

Julia’s book pick is The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries by Zoe Weil. Zoe is passionate about raising a generation of students who are committed to being the change, and she is the co-founder of the Institute for Humane Education.

After saying some very kind things about the Teachers on Fire podcast, Julia shouts out The Human Restoration Project as another podcast that she gains a lot of inspiration from. Follow them on Twitter @HumResPro

When it comes to best value on YouTube, Julia points to TED-Ed. “I can’t speak highly enough of TED-Ed,” Julia says. “My kids crave it.” Not only is the content from these talks helpful, but Julia points to the many applications of claim-evidence-analysis that can follow.

We sign off on this great conversation, and Julia gives us the best ways to reach out and connect with her learning. See below for details!

Follow Julia

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Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast

Song Track Credits

  • Bluntedsesh4 (by Tha Silent Partner, courtesy of FreeMusicArchive.org)
  • Sunrise Drive by South London Hifi*
  • Anthem by The Grand Affair*

*courtesy of the YouTube Audio Library

Listen to Teachers on Fire on YouTube

*This page contains Amazon affiliate links.

Episode 122 – Marisa Thompson

Meet Marisa Thompson

MARISA THOMPSON is a mom, wife, HS English teacher, professional development facilitator, instructor at the University of San Diego, traveler, and a liver of life. When people ask her what she does, she sums up her multiplicity of roles by simply saying “I’m in education,” and she wouldn’t have it any other way, she says. 

Disillusioned by Education

When asked about a low moment, Marisa recalls her earliest visions of the kind of teacher she wanted to be. “So much of it came from Hollywood,” she says. But a few years in, she realized that she was not the teacher that she thought she wanted to be. By her seventh year, her disillusionment had grown to the point that she decided to leave the classroom entirely.

After a period of reflection and time away from the profession, she came across the idea of flexible seating on Pinterest. She pitched the concept to a principal, and his reaction took her by surprise.

“Great,” he said. “Go do it!” This yes was such an encouragement because it proved that her voice mattered and that her ideas could lead to transformative work. What followed was seven years of further growth and exploration.

Restoring the Joy of Reading with TQE

On July 10, 2018, Marisa published a blog post titled We’re Killing the Love of Reading, but Here’s an Easy Fix. In the post, she unpacks a method of student engagement with texts called the TQE Method: thoughts, questions and epiphanies.

When you first start trying the TQE Method in your classroom, there will be growing pains for you and the students at first, she warns. But they will go away. The more you use it, the more the practices will start to become comfortable, organic, and powerful. Your students will start to engage in the kind of rich discussions that we all remember having in university or grad school.

It’s about giving students the time, space, language, and culture to safely engage in the sharing of ideas like never before. The TQE Method is now appearing in classrooms at all levels and all subjects, and Marisa couldn’t be happier. 

When it comes to feedback for students using the TQE Method, Marisa looks for quantity simply because participation is essential. But her assessment is based primarily on two things: reading comprehension and author’s purpose. Can students analyze a choice that an author made and describe how it helps an author accomplish their objective in a text? Students who can demonstrate these skills with consistency are demonstrating mastery.

On Fire for TED Talks

Something else that is setting Marisa on fire for education is her students’ recent TED Talks. They focused on communicating effectively with audiences, exploring concepts of happiness and success, and sharing authentically. Marisa watched as her students actually put aside rehearsed notes to speak from the heart, and the results were powerful. It was a first-class example of the link between vulnerability and compelling communication. 

Projects and Pursuits

One of the things that Marisa is trying to do in her current classroom is to get away from class novels. Literary freedom works, and it’s good for kids, she says. On the other hand, shared conversations and connected experiences with texts are everything, so she’s looking at ways to combine both goals.

In her teacher support role, Marisa is focused on creating a series of 2-minute tutorials to help get teachers started with new initiatives, and at the Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education at the University of San Diego she is busy designing new courses based on real-world experiences, like Disney World

A Personal Passion Outside of Education: Travel

Marisa’s ultimate passion away from education is travel. Although she didn’t grow up in a wealthy home, she’s been traveling for as long as she can remember and has now visited at least 20 countries. She’s taken students to a number of those countries and always finds it a valuable learning experience to see other cultures and other places.

Voices and Resources That Inspire Marisa’s Practice

If you’re looking to follow someone new on Twitter, Marisa recommends @JuliaFliss. “The work that she does is soulful,” Marisa says. It’s big picture, everything-is-possible, and it’s filled with positivity and optimism. She is all about working with people and changing the world.

No edtech tool has been more helpful to Marisa this year than Pro Keys, a Google Chrome extension that allows you to build and customize your own feedback shortcuts. Marisa has used this tool to go from 160 hours to 4 hours of writing assessment completed at home this year thanks in large part to this tool.

It’s not easy for an English teacher to pick favorite books, but Marisa points to two classics in particular: East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Follow Marisa

Connect with the Teachers on Fire podcast on social media

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast

Song Track Credits

  • Bluntedsesh4 (by Tha Silent Partner, courtesy of FreeMusicArchive.org)
  • Sunrise Drive by South London Hifi*
  • Anthem by The Grand Affair*

*courtesy of the YouTube Audio Library

Listen to Teachers on Fire on YouTube

*This page contains Amazon affiliate links.

Episode 96 – Jeffery Frieden

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Meet Jeffery Frieden

JEFFERY FRIEDEN is a teacher, blogger, presenter, and podcaster. He enjoys connecting teachers and building professional relationships in order to intensify impact on learning. He is also the author of Make Them Process It: Uncovering New Value in the Writer’s Notebook, published in 2017.

Jeff teaches at Hillcrest High School in Riverside, CA, home of Aaron Blackwelder. The school community mirrors that of this area of California, with a mix of socioeconomic statuses and cultures represented.

From Called Out to Cultural Understanding

Jeffery recalls a time when he was a teaching assistant at a school with students coming from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and varying stages of emotional development. One day, he poked his head into another classroom to tell the students inside to quiet down and stop the racket, missing the fact that the students inside were celebrating the achievement of a class goal and behaving in culturally normative ways.

Later, the teacher of that classroom told him quite bluntly that his actions had made all kinds of cultural assumptions and that he needed to educate himself on other cultural backgrounds and expectations. Although this correction floored him at first, he eventually settled his thoughts and determined to do more reading about cultures outside of his realm of experience. It’s been a rewarding journey ever since.

Dear Teacher, Don’t Give Up

Dear Teacher, Don’t Give Up is a podcast born out of professional development that sets near-perfect bars without showing the struggles and failures that accompany the journeys of growth required to get there.

Leaders in professional development often appear so well-polished that a sense of anxiety can creep in regarding the deficits that such presentations expose in our own professional practice. It can be demoralizing and can create burnout as educators work feverishly to close the gap between their current practice and the ideals – the Grecian Urns that they’re presented with. Just like Instagram culture, education communities tend to shout the victories and good stuff but downplay the difficult moments.

To speak to this, Doris Santoro wrote Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can StayThis word (demoralized) summarizes the condition that educators experience when they start to lose their moral center, the moral purpose that once formed the core purpose (or WHY) of their work in the classroom.

We hear the term ‘burnout‘ a lot, but it’s not enough — it doesn’t capture many of the difficulties and tensions that drive some educators to leave the profession. We need to speak in the broader terms of demoralization, this idea of losing morale or the moral center of our work due to a wide variety of issues.

On his podcast, Dear Teacher Don’t Give Up, Jeffery is interested in taking guests to points in their career where they’ve seriously considered quitting the profession. What was that like, and what lessons did they learn that they can share with other educators experiencing tough times? These are the questions that Jeffery enjoys asking on his show.

We all love transformation stories, as shows like The Biggest Loser illustrate. Let’s try to bring more of that into education by telling the stories of educators who quit – or almost quit – and then come back to the profession with more hope and passion than ever. 

Am I Sharing Too Much With Colleagues?

In episode 7 of the Dear Teacher, Don’t Give Up podcast, Jeffery tackles the question of “How much is too much to share with colleagues?” For teachers who are filled with passion, brimming with optimism, and bursting with exciting new ideas, it’s important to come to terms with the fact that not all colleagues will share that enthusiasm.

One solution to this problem, as Jeffery recounts, is to find your tribe by building your professional learning network on social media platforms. As Jeffery started to build his own presence on Twitter, he connected with people like Starr Sackstein, Aaron Blackwelder, Arthur Chiaravalli, Marisa Thompson, Deanna Hess, Jennifer Gonzales, and others, and he started to realize his true moral center as an educator because he could connect with like-minded professionals beyond the walls of his own building.

As these external connections brought him closer to self-actualization, he actually became a better colleague and person because he was able to realize his true moral center. Today, when it comes to sharing with his own colleagues, Jeffery lives by the rule of answering questions that people are actually asking. People generally aren’t interested in answers to questions they aren’t asking.

What’s Setting Jeffery on 🔥 in Education Today

What sets Jeffery on fire in education today is the idea of removing points from his classroom. That’s right – his class is now pointless! Although he doesn’t use the terms ‘pointless’ or ‘gradeless’ with his students, he frames his assessment as ‘an alternative path to grades.’

His students receive final assessment from him based on purposeful effort, revision, reflection, feedback, and conferences. At conferences, grades are negotiated in the course of conversations. Although he occasionally needs to impose his own professional judgment, he gives the student’s perspective great weight and tries to express disagreement in the form of thoughtful questions.

Looking back, Jeff realizes now that the massive spreadsheet of assignments and points that he used to assess his students for so many years told too much of the narrative about the learning of his students. To some extent, it was dehumanizing his learners and taking away the power of their personal story. Now, as he puts more emphasis on conferences, feedback, and negotiation, he hears his students’ stories and understands their journeys more holistically.

A Professional Goal

In addition to continued blogging and podcasting, Jeffery plans to make progress on his next book, Make Them Interact – about how to help students have authentic, academically centered interactions in the classroom that also builds social skills and community. Jeffery is also starting to offer professional development opportunities and workshops, so please contact him if you’d like to bring his expertise to your school or district.

Personal Passions Away From Education

Outside of education, Jeffery’s chief passion centers on learning how to better parent four kids who are ten, eight, five, and eight months old. This summer, they’ve spent a lot of time playing together and visiting the pool, and everyone’s been safe. He’s also enjoyed the challenge of learning the ropes of sound engineering at his local church.

His Most Important Productivity Hack

“You can be selfish at five in the morning,” says Jon Acuff. Accordingly, Jeffery tries to go to bed early and then wakes up around four o’clock, accompanied by strong doses of coffee. This is really his window to do the creative work that he enjoys.

Voices & Influences That Shape His Thinking & Inspire His Practice

Over on Twitter, Jeffery recommends following @DMQualls, who organized a game-changing fundraising drive at his school. He also points to @DauseClause and @CathleenBeachbd, who are about to release a book about problem-based learning titled 10 Keys to Student Empowerment: Unlocking the Hero in Each Child.

In terms of educational technology, Jeffery still prefers two classic low-tech tools: whiteboards and post-it notes. These tools continue to support visible thinking and collaborative creativity in the classroom.

Demoralized by Doris SantoroJeffery’s educational book pick is Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay by Doris A. Santoro. Follow the author on Twitter @DorisASantoro. He also recommends a good business book called From Poop to Gold: The Marketing Magic of Harmon Brothers by Chris Jones.

A fun podcast to subscribe to is Dropping the Gloves by John Scott, a former professional hockey player with a wealth of amusing stories to share about the game.

If you’re looking for an interesting YouTube channel to subscribe to, check out The Bible Project. The creators craft beautiful animations and share profound insights about the characters, context, and messages found in the Bible. Even if you’re not a Christian or religious, you’ll find their content interesting. Follow the producers on Twitter @TheBibleProject.

On Netflix, Jeff’s family has been watching some of Sophia the First, but he’s more interested in playing a classic video game from his childhood: The Legend of Zelda

We sign off on this great conversation, and Jeffery gives us the best ways to get in touch with him online. See below for details!

Connect with Jeffery:

Sponsoring This Episode: Classtime

This episode is brought to you by Classtime.com, an assessment platform that delivers learning insights, giving you more time to teach.

Classtime.com helps you gain immediate visibility of your students’ learning progress, build engaging lessons, share with other teachers, and create your own tech-enabled questions to complement your lesson plans. Classtime.com also helps you engage all students with collaborative challenges & puzzles that make fun an integral part of the learning experience.

See what Classtime can do for your learners, and start your free trial at Classtime.com today!

Song Track Credits

Listen on YouTube and subscribe to the Teachers on Fire channel.

Episode 95 – Justin Belt

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Meet Justin Belt

JUSTIN BELT is a husband, father of five, and teacher of thousands! He’s an aspiring leader, innovator, musician, and part of our great writing team over at the Teachers on Fire Magazine on Medium. Last but not least, Justin is the host and producer of The WHYcast, a podcast about finding and clarifying your WHY.

This summer, Justin moved his family from Joplin, Missouri to Frisco, Texas after teaching in Joplin for thirteen years. He’s set to teach English courses at a high school in the town of Carrolton, TX and excited to connect with his new community.

When Relationships Don’t Come Easily

Justin calls his last school year the hardest of his career. He admits quite candidly that it was a challenge to connect with some of his students. As always, he had some students who had positive attitudes and were good at playing the game of school. But others seemed apathetic and unmotivated, and it proved very difficult to reach them.

After serious professional conversations and extended self-reflection, he learned to treat this class and these students in unique ways. He worked hard to put aside all expectations and assumptions and worked tirelessly to better understand and connect with these learners. He experienced some measure of success, and by year’s end, he was genuinely saddened to part ways with these students.

One of the keys to building relationships well, Justin has found, comes from postponing lesson plans when needed and simply talking with the students about whatever is pressing at the moment. When anxieties and other emotions reign supreme and unheard in the context of the classroom, trust isn’t built, relationships can’t form, and learning doesn’t happen.

The WHY Behind The WhyCast

Justin is tireless in his efforts to coax students into expressing their student voice with confidence, so he figured he needed to lead the way by sharing his message first.

“At my heart, I’m an encourager of people,” Justin says. “I like to find the best parts in people, speak to that, and encourage them to bring that out and share it with the world … My purpose is to encourage, to inspire, to motivate others. I want people to find their why, that burning thing within them that won’t let them rest, that pushes them to do great things in their communities.”

When we can access our inner WHY, then everything that we do in the school building takes on greater significance. This podcast has been great for him personally, says Justin, because as he listens to the inner purpose of others it helps to affirm and clarify his own why. 

Thinking About Podcasting? Just DO It.

Justin’s advice to other educators looking to begin podcasting? Just do it. “Don’t worry about the quality of the equipment that you have, don’t worry about having the most polished or put-together script — just do it,” Justin urges.

He talks about his humble beginnings on The WhyCast and his commitment to just podcast with whatever resources he has available. To anyone who is out there thinking about doing a podcast, you’ve got a story inside of you that the world needs to hear, he says. It’s embedded inside of you, so even if you’re recording from your phone, just do it and get it out there.

As you podcast more and more, your resources and expertise will inevitably grow. But they’ll never have a chance to improve if you don’t start.

What’s Setting Justin on 🔥 in Education Today

What sets Justin on fire in education today is the absolute dedication of teachers and administrators to building relationships — not just teacher-student relationships but administrator-teacher relationships as well. Aside from the SEL and PBL and Genius Hour and all the other exciting movements in education today, he is thrilled when he sees the lengths that education leaders are going to invest in their communities.

Learning standards are important but remain secondary, because kids won’t strive to learn when they don’t believe that we believe in them. Giving student choice and voice are important moves precisely because they signal to students that we value them.

A Professional Goal for 2019-2020

Besides building relationships, Justin wants to understand the curriculum sufficiently to tailor it to his students’ goals and interests. Taking prescribed standards and reconstructing them in ways that resonate for him and his learners is critical, and that will be his primary goal going into this school year.

Personal Passions Outside of the Classroom

Personal passions that bring Justin alive outside of education include connecting with his family, music, writing, and cooking. He was classically trained in music and earned a degree in vocal performance. He’s even performed as an opera singer overseas, and music remains a huge part of who he is.

Writing is another joy, and although this summer has knocked him temporarily out of his groove, he looks forward to getting back to it. He’s also a huge foodie, and relies on cooking as a method of decompression at the end of the school day.

Voices & Resources That Inspire His Thinking & Practice

Over on Twitter, Justin is gaining inspiration from @TheWrightLeader and @EricThomasBTC. Both are worth a follow, and Vernon Wright has agreed to appear on Teachers on Fire in a future episode.

When asked to recommend an edtech tool, Justin doesn’t hesitate to give the nod to FlipGrid. There are just SO many learning standards that this platform helps learners hit, from comprehension to analysis to oral communication. Flipgrid may be the very best tool for empowering student voice and choice, and it’s the tool most recommended by guests of this show. Follow Flipgrid on Twitter @FlipGrid

Hacking School DisciplineA book that has left a deep impression on Justin’s thinking this year is Hacking School Discipline: 9 Ways to Create a Culture of Empathy and Responsibility Using Restorative Justice, by Nathan Maynard and Brad Weinstein. Follow these authors on Twitter @NMaynardEDU and @WeinsteinEDU.

After Teachers on Fire and The WhyCast, Justin has his podcast app tuned into DisruptEd TV Presents Dismissed with Jeremy Williams by @JWilliamsEDU. He’s also listening to Faculty Room by @Maire_from_NJ

On YouTube, Justin recommends subscribing to the prolific education thinker and animator, John Spencer. Check his channel at John Spencer and follow him on Twitter @SpencerIdeas

The Netflix series that has offered the right mix of entertainment and nostalgia for Justin this summer has been Stranger Things 3.

We wrap up this great conversation, and Justin gives us the best ways to connect with him online. See below for details.

Connect with Justin:

Sponsoring This Episode: Classtime

This episode is brought to you by Classtime.com, an assessment platform that delivers learning insights, giving you more time to teach.

Classtime.com helps you gain immediate visibility of your students’ learning progress, build engaging lessons, share with other teachers, and create your own tech-enabled questions to complement your lesson plans. Classtime.com also helps you engage all students with collaborative challenges & puzzles that make fun an integral part of the learning experience.

See what Classtime can do for your learners, and start your free trial at Classtime.com today!

Song Track Credits

Listen on YouTube and subscribe to the Teachers on Fire channel.

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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