• Linda Ulleseit, author

  • NaNoWriMo!

Creative Expression

creativeI have always had the need to express myself creatively. I drew and colored and wrote stories, and later tried every art or craft I could. It was more than fun. My very soul demanded creative expression. I even remember making up stories in middle school and passing them off as truth–like how my mother wanted to buy me a horse but I refused because she wanted to deck it out in an absurdly fancy stable. I even  wore a friendship ring for awhile that purportedly came from a boyfriend living in Canada. Creative expression.

Writing stories began in third or fourth grade. The earliest story that I still have is about pigs. It’s done on that cheap lined newsprint they used to give elementary school students. Every letter is carefully written in a different color crayon. Not only the story (which is pretty bad) was creative that day! Today my drive to write is still strong, and my finished novels give me a parental thrill.

Leatherwork is another outlet for my creativity. I draw the designs, then carve and stamp them into the leather. The finished panels are sewn into purses, portfolios, or tote bags. I enjoy going to art fairs where people exclaim over the beauty of my work.

Gardening is another way to create. The color of flowers and texture of foliage decorate my yard. I week and clip and plant and feed all year. In the summer, I sit in my yard and watch butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy my garden.

Cooking, although not always successful, is another form of creativity I enjoy. I’m mostly a recipe follower, but I love trying new things. I cook dinner six nights a week even while I’m working, and I live for large family gatherings like winter holidays and summer barbecues.

Cleaning house, now, is not creative. I hate cleaning more than anything else, and I avoid it desperately. Someday I hope to earn enough money from my creative endeavors to pay a housekeeper!

As a teacher, I strive every day to motivate students. When I find students with no creative drive, it still stuns me. I understand not being artistic–I’m not musical at all, and I can’t draw well–but no desire to communicate creatively at all? It’s as foreign to me as a PhD trying to teach kindergarten. We all have energy inside us. My energy wants me to create something to express it. When I do, it makes me happy.

Most people can learn to be creative. In my classroom, I show this with writing. When they enter my classroom, students usually groan when asked to write anything. In my class we write a LOT. Students participate in NaNoWriMo, writing short novels, and they write arguments and essays. As with sports or music, practice improves performance. By the time they leave my classroom, students’ confidence and pleasure in their writing has increased dramatically. Does that mean I’ve turned them into creative people? Maybe not all. But for those that do continue writing, I know their lives will be much more creative!

 

 

 

Daily Arguments

pencil2When teaching students to write persuasively (which Common Core now calls Argument), it’s important for them to realize that they encounter the art of persuasion every day. After all, persuasion is nothing more than influencing someone else. In ancient Greece, Aristotle wrote abut how to persuade others. Three hundred years later, in Rome, Cicero wrote several books about persuasion. Today, daily persuasion can take many forms. Studies show that we receive up to 3000 persuasive messages each day.

Persuasion in any form can be both negative and positive. Television commercials tout foods that are not healthy and target children with ads for toys they supposedly can’t live without. Drug dealers and gang members persuade others to follow their lifestyle. Salesmen push expensive cars on people who can’t easily afford them. On the flip side, persuasion can also be used to encourage recycling or stopping smoking. On TV, a recent series of commercials from Pass It On encourages positive values.

Advertising is an obvious form of persuasion that we encounter every day. The television, radio, Internet, newspaper, magazine, email, direct mail, and billboards all try to convince us we need something. So many choices! Human beings are natural joiners. We want to do what others are doing, to have what they have, so we are very receptive to being persuaded. Advertising agencies, marketing firms, and public relations companies are all full-time persuaders.

While we are being persuaded daily, we also do our own persuading. Parents persuade children to wear certain clothes, eat certain foods, or be nice to a visiting grandparent. Teachers persuade students to learn. Children persuade parents to buy them a new toy, to increase their allowance, or to get a pet. Applicants for a job try to persuade the company that they are the best candidate, and bosses persuade workers to do their jobs well. Friends persuade each other to see a certain movie, read a certain book, follow a certain band. Personally, I try to persuade my husband to take me out to dinner every Friday night.

With persuasion such an important part of our lives, it is important to learn to do it effectively! Can I persuade you to comment on this post? How have you encountered persuasion in YOUR life today?

What is a 21st Century Learner?

imagesWhat is a 21st century learner? Equally important, what does a 21st century classroom look like? It’s important that students learn the same content they always have. They will need reading and writing, math, science, and social studies. They will also need interpersonal skills like teamwork and collaboration, as well as skills learned on the playground like sharing, being polite, and dealing with bullies. So far, not much change from the 20th century classrooms that taught me.

So what is different today? Teachers must prepare students for a very different future than my teachers prepared me for. I learned from my teacher in the classroom. The teacher talked to us, and we listened. Then we completed worksheets and were graded on points correct out of points possible. A lot of that is still valid.

The world, however, is changing at a much faster pace now, and every bit of it is broadcast to devices in our students’ backpacks. Students must be taught to navigate social media, create digital content, and locate effective information. Learning has exploded from teacher-directed, in-the-classroom, fact-based answers, becoming much more student-directed. Students learn any time of day, by actively researching, blogging, or discussing online. They collaborate in teams to create authentic products that have value outside the classroom.

So back to the question in paragraph one. What does a 21st century classroom look like? Step into my sixth grade classroom. The walls are lined with books, and team-created student posters illustrate the latest math concepts. Each student has a Chromebook on their desk. They begin a typical day by editing sentences, interacting with a Smartboard and writing in their binders. Reading is still done with real books, although after a lesson the students open their lids and log on to Google Classroom. All their assigned work is there, as well as grades for what they submitted yesterday. Students may choose to use Google Docs to write a Reading analysis letter or essay, or take an online quiz in Social Studies. They may access a fact practice website for Math, Reading, or Writing. They may work on their eportfolio, especially in Science.

After recess, they log on to their online Math books and use virtual Base Ten Blocks to work in their teams, changing between fractions, decimals, and percents. During Science, they complete a Lab on the Food Chain, or discuss the solar ovens they built at home. Phones are pulled out to take pictures and video that is then uploaded to their portfolio. On Friday, they have Genius Hour, where they work on a project of their choice and blog about it.

After lunch, they work on their Social Studies packets, choosing between activities to learn about Mesopotamia. They research online and visit websites with virtual tours of ancient sites, or activities like writing their name in cuneiform.

Assignments are not given to be completed by the next day (except for Math). Students have several days, a week, or even a month to work with each other and the teacher to create work, in class and at home, that truly reflects what they are learning. They love the Chromebooks, and when they are publishing work to the world they are very careful to put forth their very best work. They are completely engaged in learning content by using technology skills to discover and share it.

In my 21st century classroom, students learn the same content they always have: reading and writing, math, science, and social studies. They collaborate in teams and learn to be good citizens in person and online. They have many more opportunities to learn than I did, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

 

Creative Nonfiction

writingOne of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is personal narrative. A narrative is a story, or fiction, but a personal narrative is based on a real event. The struggle is getting students to write good stories about an event in their lives.

Now personal essay, or memoir, is supposedly a different genre. It is defined as an actual memory or experience that is enhanced by imagination. Sounds the same to me.

When we remember something from our past, we tend to remember the important part, the climax, the culmination. For example, we remember opening a present and getting something we wanted, or falling off our bike, or swimming in Hawaii. In order to make that a good piece of writing, you need to add details. Who else was there? What was the weather? What happened before that led up to it? What happened afterward? What did you feel before and how did this event change it? What did people say? These details, however, are what is usually forgotten. You are left with a story like this: I went swimming in Hawaii. It was cool. Bad story.

To enhance the memory of the experience, you need to add details. If you don’t remember what the weather was like, it’s safe to assume it was warm and sunny since Hawaii is usually warm and sunny (and you’d remember swimming in the rain). If you were on vacation with your family, you can safely assume they were there with you, even if you have to make up dialogue on what they most likely said.

So where is the line between fiction (personal narrative) and nonfiction (personal essay or memoir)? Nonfiction stories serve up just the facts, like a newspaper article. And many novelists  do a lot of research into facts to help make a novel believable. Remember, too, that memories are colored by our age at the time, and they fuzz a bit over time. When I compare childhood memories with my brother, we are often amazed we are talking about the same event. Our brain already adds creativity.

You may ask, why is it important to know if the story is nonfiction or fiction if it’s a good story? One of an author’s duties is to give the reader what they expect. If a book is billed as memoir, the reader expects that everything in it actually happened. If it’s sold as fiction, the reader assumes it’s all made up. Some people are using the title ‘creative nonfiction’ to bridge this gap. In creative nonfiction, a reader can assume that historical facts are checked and still accept that some of the characters or events are made up. My own book, Under the Almond Trees, I call historical fiction because most of it is fictionalized based on very little information. What about you? Do you like your nonfiction to be factual, or are you a fan of creative nonfiction?

 

Behavior Management

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Managing the classroom behavior is something every teacher struggles with. Some classes are harder to deal with than others, but they all require some system of reward and consequence to keep the peace and allow lessons to occur without disruption. In the twenty years I’ve taught, behavior management has included some combination of earning Behavior Bucks for a monthly auction, changing seat assignments, being benched for recess or referred to the principal, and emails sent home to parents. I’ve never had a serious problem with behavior until this year.

Without going into the specifics of the behaviors (that would be too long a post!), I wanted to share my solution. At the CUE conference in Palm Springs this year, I learned about CLASSCRAFT.COM and could hardly wait to get home to try it.

Classcraft is a free web-based behavior management video game designed for sixth grade through high school. The interface is colorful and fanciful–it truly looks like a video game. Students log on and choose an avatar. They are put in teams where they classcraft_bg1choose the team name and logo. They also must designate team members as warrior, mage, or healer.  Students earn XP (experience points) for behaving well in class. They lose HP (health points) for breaking a rule. AP (action points) are spent healing each other–this is important because if a teammate falls in battle the rest of the team loses 10 HP and may fall, too.

One of the coolest features is the parent piece. Parents set up an account that links with their child’s. They can see what their child receives each day for rewards or consequences. They can award their child GP (gold points) for doing chores, having a positive attitude, and finishing homework. GP doesn’t affect my part of the game because those points can only be used to buy accessories for the avatar like armor and pets.

The game comes with a set of rules, rewards, and punishments (like becoming ogrefied and having to sit alone at lunch for a day) but is completely customizable by the teacher, from rules to rewards to Random Events of the Day and punishments for those fallen in battle (who lose all their XP). Every morning I log on to the game and dole out rewards and punishments for the day before and conduct a Random Event. The entire thing takes ten to fifteen minutes.

Most importantly, it works. My class has been rather notorious around campus this year. I added a big reward for receiving a compliment from an adult on campus. Within the first week, the principal, a teacher, and a yard duty all gave them unsolicited compliments. I was very impressed. The students were very proud of themselves. They follow the game without reminders. One day a noon duty told me she asked one of my students why they were sitting alone. “I’ve been ogrefied,” the student said in a perfectly normal tone. I laughed, but the noon duty was very puzzled.

We’ve been playing the game now for two months. They are just as excited now as the day we started. Their behavior hasn’t been perfect, but what fun is the game if someone doesn’t occasionally fall in battle and become ogrefied?

 

 

Improving Public Education

pencil2You can blame large class sizes, teacher experience or salary, or parent involvement in the home, to name a few, but there is no simple answer to the problems of public education. The responsibility must be shared.

In Finland, recently touted as a model for public education, students are given no homework. The younger students have school only three hours a day. Teachers there finish teaching, finish planning, and go home before my school day is done. Kids are encouraged to play and explore. The culture of the country truly supports work/home balance instead of giving it lip service like America does. The children are happier, and they are learning. While I’m sure even in Finland they have problem behaviors or students who don’t learn well, it’s a positive environment influences the children.

In the United States, students attend school for six hours a day. They are pressured to do well so they can get into a good college. In some families, grades are the most important thing about their child’s education. Parents work long hours, and their children come home to grandparents or day care. How can parents who see their children scant hours a day influence them to play and explore? If this country instituted an educational system that gave students more time to explore, the majority of kids would play video games, attend a Saturday school in language or culture, and participate on a regionally competitive sports team.

My students participate in Genius Hour once a week. They come up with an inquiry question about something they wonder about, research it, and  build it. The problem is that they don’t wonder about anything. If they have a question, they Google it. Getting them to design inquiries has taken all year. They all want to do Powerpoint presentations for their projects–to show what they’ve researched. Genius Hour is more than that, though. They need to have hands-on exploration. In the past, students have built a life-sized unicorn, made a scale model of a condor out of recycled parts, sewed a skirt, and designed their own website using html. Today’s students

In order for them to thrive in a model like Finland’s, American students need more than a redesigned program at school and a teacher’s lead. They need affordable after school programs that encourage critical thinking, parent time that is more than meals or homework battles, and time away from the screens in their lives.

While much creative energy can be stimulated on a computer, students need to explore the world around them. I teach in an area with a lot of undeveloped land close by. Mountain lions, deer, turkeys, rabbits, foxes, and elk can be seen often. A deep creek runs under the road, and none of my students have stood on the bridge and marveled at the foliage-covered twenty-foot drop. None of them have heard the ground squirrels bark a warning as they walk past a field dotted with oak trees. Non-screen experiences like these are the sort of thing that sparks curiosity. Finnish students are being given the opportunity to be curious. American students are not.

 

Influencing Youth

 

influenceAs a teacher, I know I influence students every day. I strive to be a good role model and show them passion for learning, excitement about reading and reading, pride in their math skills. Young people are greatly shaped by their environment. If they are around positive energy, they may absorb it. I find students leave my class excited about reading and writing because that’s what I am excited about.

If they are exposed to the negative, however, they internalize that even faster.

The best students, with straight A’s and good behavior, are quiet in class. Those that constantly draw the teacher’s attention are the students who are breaking rules, slacking off, or disturbing classmates. Even if it’s negative, they are getting attention from the teacher, being held up as an example in front of others. Young people crave attention, even negative attention, so the middle kids, neither straight A’s nor problems, more often follow the negative leaders than the positive. Society has taught them that. Books, television, and celebrities all show that the naughty ones get all the attention. Therefore, a young person struts with pleasure to be called a badass and lashes out with ugly words or physical violence when called a nerd.

I can influence the young people who come into my classroom, but only if their poorly behaved classmates allow me. That is the sad truth. I can stand in front of the class every day and talk about being kind to one another, about not bullying, about being a good example. They all see themselves as victims–quick to recognize bullying in others, but not in themselves. When I tell them the most powerful tool they have in middle school is the ability to turn their back and walk away, they look at me like I have three heads.

I hope that someday my current sixth graders will realize the reward of achieving something positive, be it grades, getting into a good college, or doing something kind for another. I hope that something I’ve said this year will stick down deep and be remembered in a few years when life is harder. And I hope that at least one of them returns to tell me I made a difference, that my effort was noticed if not immediately appreciated.

 

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