Saturday, March 17, 2012

Adolscent Connections with Nature

Asking my students to write reflections about their connections with nature made me consider my own connections. A portion of the Literacy in Bloom course I am currently taking through West Chester University and Longwood Gardens has exposed me to the writing of Richard Louv who is a proponent of encouraging children to be outside, to play in nature.

When my students wrote about how their connections with nature have changed dramatically over recent years, even though they are only thirteen, I was really touched by their sincerity. So often, they believe that they do not have enough time for nature.

I thought of my own experiences as an adolescent and found that my relationship with nature as an adolescent was anchored in several truths:

a. grass meant athletics—dry, patched with clover, pocked with dandelion—the only time we came together was through baseball or football—which my mother had to pay for from the combined salaries of two jobs.

b. the air carried mostly disagreeable smells—my neighbor made homemade wine in his basement; the acerbic, pungent smell broke through the thin walls of our row home—on a twelve year-old nose that can be harsh—I remember the stale scents of pollution; the sour rot from sewers; and the chalky vinegary inhales of exhaust—I don’t recall flowers or dew.

c. we drove great distances to the beach--in stalled traffic, the excitement swirling all around the interior of a simple, economy car—we were so happy going to the beach together in that car in that traffic—I remember anticipating the smell of the salt air—as we neared the beach my mother would ask me after she inhaled, “Can you smell it, can you smell the sea?” I smiled with my face turned out through the window.

d. snow creates barriers in the city—it walls-in parked cars in and makes walking treacherous and sloppy—and the graying slush and the thickening skins of lumpy ice clinging to concrete for days and days always overshadowed the universal beauty of snow in a city. Snow in a city is a breathless invasion—everyone pauses, even a moment, when tired eyes first lay on the snow shook through the sooty sky.

e. My cousin, then a grandmotherly 80 years old from Reggio Calabria, Italy, loved a burgeoning fig tree in her claustrophobic concrete back yard—I climbed its branches--its canopy filled the yard and bore hundreds of brown fuzzy figs with blood red centers—reclining on a sturdy limb I plucked them and ate them right from the branch. She smuggled it with her on a ship at sea for twenty days and then through Ellis Island. They fled a typhoon and an earthquake that leveled the towns of Messina and Reggio Calabria 1908. Her family hid in caves high in the mountains—those who remained below perished. Not much withstood nature’s fury—all I knew was the fig tree survived and church records did not... anything I wondered about between those extremes she refused to speak of. In America, she still swam in the ocean but knew friends and relatives who would never place a foot in it—for the ocean was forever evil to them.

Even though I rarely set foot on grass and had to ride patient distances to feel the sand in my toes, I could climb and eat from a fig tree any day that I wanted. A fig tree that withstood a typhoon and an earthquake, an immigrant’s journey, and a replanting in an American landscape safe from typhoon, but severe with concrete, brick, and sun.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Upending the Twitter Apple Cart

Almost a week has passed and I haven't heard from the Twitter support team about suspending my classroom account.

On a previous post I noted that my classes didn't do anything inappropriate--we were using one Twitter account for five classes. Somehow the amount of searching, tweeting, using hashtags to becomes"the voice" for something or someone who could use a voice (nature, people, causes) upset the apple cart.

The way around this would be opening a new account on another email--but I'll hold off another week to see if a resolution and solution comes from Twitter.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Clash! Twitter vs. my classes

My 8th grade classroom account has been suspended by Twitter after only two days.  While my kids laughed and cheered--"We took down Twitter!"  We're taking it to the streets!"  "This is the way they did it in the '60s!" was very frustrating for me, but as teachers often have to do...I adjusted on the fly.

My guess is that my students used the #hashtag and search features too much in a short period of time.  It locked up yesterday at the end of the third consecutive period posting tweets with articles linked to them.

We have all been working on the same nature-related #hashtags and there is an indication that in order to stop spammers Twitter monitors and limits how much one account sends information to any one #hashtag.

I put an email into their support desk yesterday around 10:30.  I will post an update once one comes--hopefully my lesson with help another teacher about to create a classroom Twitter account.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

YA Nonfiction Review: Flesh & Blood So Cheap

Digging through the "maybe" pile sometimes brings an unknown gem.  In my case, that gem is Albert Marrin's Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy.

My bookpile, larger than usual, has expanded due to the fact that we need to pick some new literature for the upcoming changes in curriculum.  So, I have been forcing myself to read any recommendations, award winners, and well-reviewed fiction, non-fiction, and verse in the hopes of getting it right.

The rough draft of what the new literature may be contains a variety of male and female authors along with books of varying cultures and life experiences.  However, one of my objective was to try and include some literature that directly related to the curriculum in other subject areas--we have a great opportunity to do this especially when we consider the professional and financial support of literature circles. 

I liked that Marrin's writing style will be accessible to 8th grade students--while the print is large and photos appear on most pages, the subject matter is detailed, direct, and meaningful.  The photos are terrific, by the way.  Tasteful, they certainly do contribute to a very gritty patina to an already grisly story.  As it is, we cover the Triangle Fire in our social studies curriculum, but I like that this book takes the reader deeper inside the lives and histories of the immigrants who struggled to put bread on the table while working in the garment district of New York.

As a matter of fact, the reader does not reach anything about the fire itself until page 104 out of a 163 page book.  For a thirteen year-old, the book is thorough and will support good classroom discussion and cause for writing.

Consider the final chapter where Marrin lays out in detail how the mistakes of the Triangle Fire are still being repeated around the world...and in New York City again.  For example, Marrin raises to light the ghastly conditions children suffer as workers in Bangladesh and Thailand, and then turns around and adds, if it weren't for the existence of these sweatshops the only other option might be being sold by their family as slave beggars--where children are maimed or blinded to attract the coins of tourists.  Suddenly, a sweat shop may not seem like such a bad option.

Packed with good starter history of the progressive movement, suffragists, unions, government and corruption, immigration, America as the land of opportunity, organized crime, fire safety codes, and current world affairs, I am strongly considering this book for my creative writing class literature circles.  Strongly.  It is certainly out of the maybe people.  I'm hard pressed to think of a reason why it should not be on the final "yes" list.

On a personal note, I also learned about Ruth Sergel in the book.  In 2004, Ruth began a history project of honoring the memories of the 146 workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, New York's most infamous disaster before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  On every March 25th since 2004, Ruth organizes a group of volunteers to inscribe the names and ages of the victims on the sidewalks of New York City--more specifically on the sidewalks in front of what was once their homes.  I'm moved to go and take part in the event--March 25th falls on a Sunday this year.

Classroom Twitter Hiccups

On our second day of using Twitter to be the voice of something in nature we stumbled upon two flies in the ointment.

Hiccup #1:
Twitter limits how many searches come out of your account.  It seems to be done on an hourly basis.  Since I teach the first three consecutive periods of the day, my third period class hit a wall with the iPads searching on the network.  My students were exploring various hashtags related to the environment and the natural world.  We will be supplying a voice for various animals, insects, plants, and natural resources on social media--but, first, we need to see what is out there, what are people writing about, and then make our choices.

Curiously, the students using Twitter on the desktop did not face this limit and Twitter worked just fine from those stations all day.  We only used nine active stations serving groups of three or four: six iPads and three desktops.  The issue cropped during the early stages of third period, around 9:40am after having used it on and off starting at 7:50.

Troubleshooting the situation afterward, we came across this statement at Twitter:

In order to control abuse, Twitter limits how often you can search from a single network address. At corporations, events, and conferences, it is common for many people to share the same network address. In some of these cases, our rate limiting may be too strict.

If you see the following error message when using Twitter search, please help us improve our service by clicking 'let us know' and filling out the pop-up form.

It does appear that Twitter will provide a solution for us, but in the meantime I will need to limit or restructure how my students use Twitter.  I will update the blog with any adjustments or suggestions offered by Twitter.
Hiccup #2
Even after an introduction on the first day, complete with visual projection of the iPad screen, Twitter, and using hashtags and a whole class walk-through on the second day with the same visuals and same hashtag exploration, I found a small percentage of students (10%) who said, "I don't understand what we're doing."

The hurdle, as I pressed for clarification, is how they currently see social media.  It's social.  A few faced brain-lock on the concept of using social-media as a way to research, learn, and connect for more than chuckles and good times.

Many of the students adapted--one even offered "This is fun!" as she typed her (approved) tweet on the plight of some creature.  I still walked away dwelling on the 10% who struggled with the concept of what we were doing.  This is definitely something I will continue to press with my students to make sure they understand the power they hold in their hands by being able to access information and access connections to real-world issues in real-time.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Twitter in the Classroom

Tomorrow I take a leap with my 8th grade students in an attempt to teach them that digital tools are tools and not toys.  We started on Friday with a brief conversation about Twitter--many students smiled, most do not use Twitter, but they know of it.  Those who do use it, do so to keep up with friends or celebrities and athletes.

The lesson coincides with the deployment of a small set of iPads in my classroom.  Acquired through a modest grant that I wrote in September, the lesson is also the first use of the iPad as a tool in my classroom.

I set up a classroom Twitter account @8grwriters last week.  So far, the account is following 40 writers or writing publications.  We also have a modest five followers as of today.

The account is locked into the Twitter app on the iPads.  The students will not receive the password from me--they can only access the account from school, with me, and the in-class iPads. 

When they Tweet they will only place their initials at the end of the tweet to help protect their anonymity, but to also help me manage who asked or said what.  They may also only reply to any incoming tweets or messages only after I see them--I have an administrative iPads and monitor everything going on with the account live as it happens in class, so it is unlikely that something would slip by me.

I knew we would follow writers and try to use Twitter as a way to bring mentors into the classroom, but I was struck with inspiration while at a writing course this weekend.  I am taking Literacy in Bloom which is a 3 credit graduate course offered in conjunction through the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project and Longwood Gardens.

The impulse came from a reading and discussion of an excerpt from David Sobel's Childhood and Nature in which he quotes Brenda Petersen:
In our environmental wars, the emphasis has been on saving species, not becoming them.
Sobel, speaking mainly of elementary school children adds:
If we aspire to developmentally appropriate science education, then the first task is to become animals, to understand them from the inside out, before asking children to study them or save them.
 That gave me pause--we just finished a research paper in my class, but I had been thinking that I want them to continue using research principles in their writing.   The tools and lessons of research are recursive, not isolated lessons--and the ideas flooded into me at once.

Use the Twitter classroom to explore the nature world--to begin to help my students transition from a purely emotional connection to animals to one of a great human responsibility and awareness--see and read what is going on with animals, insects, plants, and natural resources.   And then go back to square one--strive to understand the animal, insect, plant, or natural resource.  Read it, see it live if we can, write about it, and write from its perspective--become the voice of the honeybee or the bluebird or the white-tailed deer.

Add to the conversation online and in our community.

Starting tomorrow I will teach them about the basics of Twitter and the difference between our following writers and our using hashtags to explore our objective of becoming an ally for something in the natural world.

I have generated a list of hashtags for the students to browse and to see what topics catch their interest.  Some examples are #animals,  #animalwelfare,  #deforestation,  #endangered, #environment, #greentweets, #ocean, #organic, #pesticides, #solar, #trees, #wildlife. 

We will explore these hashtags, read the articles, find more information in our library or online, and write journal entries, informative and persuasive drafts, poetry, and then strive to publish our work whether it is through a thoughtful tweet, a blog, the local paper, or other avenues of publication for teens.

The use of a classroom Twitter account provides young people authentic audiences for their words, invites connected learning, and moves the students, their voices, and their writing outside of our four walls and into the boundless classroom of the natural world. My 8th graders are transitioning from an emotional and cognitive connection with the natural world to an ethical and ecological responsibility by the time they graduate from high school.  I am hoping to provide a part of the early steps of that maturity and awareness while developing their writing skills, feeding their need to inquire, and showing them how digital tools are just that, tools, and not primarily tools.

While it may interest an individual teenager to know how Cee Lo Green may be doing today, the world will be a better place if I can also get them interested in how the planet is doing.  It will be really interesting to read their questions and their subsequent essays, but it will be equally as interesting to see what kinds of connections they make, who treats their question seriously and responds, and who follows the work they are about to engage.