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Why kids are unhappier today than ever before–and what we can do about it.

10 Jul

My TEDx talk has now been uploaded to YouTube for easier viewing!

How did kids from a low-scoring school end up published authors reading their stories to an audience of 600 people?

8 Jul

ImageCheck out this great article about what happens when teachers and communities expect great things from every kid:

http://savannahnow.com/accent/2013-07-04/looking-pearls-mysteries-deep#.Udq_PiinbD1

LOOKING FOR PEARLS: MYSTERIES OF THE DEEP

BY BEN GOGGINS

School’s out for the summer, but rising seventh-grader Imani Blackshear is not on a break from reading or writing. Not her or a lot of the other DEEP Kids from East Broad Street Elementary.

She was at the school last week when I visited language arts teacher Salacthia Coast. She won the Education Partner of the Year award at the “DEEP Speaks” show June 3 at the Savannah Theater.

That night, 42 middle school students from across the county took the stage and read their original works of fact, fiction, poetry and prose — hot off the presses and hot out of their notebooks from spring semester — but cool under the spotlight.

Coast took the stage, too, with a lot of help. In pain with a serious knee injury, the principal and another teacher helped her climb the steps to the stage and then safely return to the audience. I wanted to meet this trooper who toughed it out that night and who embraced the program so enthusiastically.

Coast said this past year was the first for East Broad to participate in DEEP. It is a voluntary, after-school creative writing program with limited spaces. She said her students didn’t want to miss any sessions. Word of how much fun it was spread after the fall semester.

“It’s like the art of writing, that has been lost, is now being found,” Coast said.

Blackshear was happy to tell me how the sessions went. Two DEEP volunteers/writing fellows would lead a discussion about a topic or theme. The kids would then hand-write a poem or story or essay. They would read them to the group and get feedback and suggestions about their ideas. Then they might re-write or revise.

“We got help from each other on how to express our ideas and help on writing better. You learned to really think it through,” Blackshear said.

And write they did.

At the DEEP Speaks event, the imagination and sincerity of the students made me proud, and I’m not a parent to any of them.

DEEP published five books, grouped by schools, with the best works of the 150 young authors who participated in the spring program. The artwork and photographs of the kids are excellent.

The students themselves chose what to read the evening of DEEP Speaks, but the books have lots of their other work.

Coast sang the praises of the East Broad girls in the program.

I remember how confidently Blackshear read her work on self-esteem, “She is Everything.” And how tenderly soft-voiced and well-mannered D’erea Johnson told the story of her grandmother. Another of her stories in the book, “The Moldy Wig,” shows great sensitivity.

I can tell that Zahra Pleasant Murphy is an avid reader. And her quiet and thought-provoking “Awake” resonated with the night owls in the audience. And bubbly Sha’keriah Wilson made you do mental double-takes with her lighthearted “I Am a Squirrel.”

Petrice Crawford sounds like another precocious reader. Her story of the eccentric lady who steals the queen’s identity with some sour punch cracked me up. Lakeasha Quarterman sounded like she blossomed with her writing, and her “I Like to Be a Lion” would make any lioness proud.

Blackshear said writing fellows Sarah Wagner, Kolby Harrell, Austin Christmon and Dustin Michael helped them find their voices better every week.

She’s keeping a journal with ideas she’s thinking about for next fall’s DEEP. A story of self-discovery called “Lost and Then Found” sounds like it will really sing.

Since I live on Tybee, a story she’s thinking about called “Lonnie, the Lonely Lawn Chair” caught my attention. It’s about an old folding chaise lounge with tattered webbing that gets uncovered by a storm on the beach.

The wind exposes a little more of it every day. How did it get buried? Who sat in it before? Blackshear says there will be a surprise at what they find under it.

Coming from a long line of beachcombers, all I can say is, “I can’t wait.”

 

The one book EVERY kid will read (and it’s not Harry Potter)

24 Jun

BooksWhen I was in sixth grade, there was a book that every kid in the grade read, discussed, dissected, and analyzed with the academic attention of a Shakespeare scholar. There was only one copy of this book available, and by the end of a day, it was ripped to shreds by eager hands fighting over who would get to read it next. It was an all-out sensation.

You might be wondering: was it Harry Potter? Lord of the Rings? Ender’s Game?

Nope. Not even close.

It was fellow 6th grader Mike Palmer’s journal. (Which I am now certain Mike left lying about with the specific intention that it be “discovered” and shared among all the twittery, crush-happy girls of the grade. At any rate, he seemed very pleased with the attention.)

The fact is, kids don’t always care that much about what adults think of the world, but they always care about what their friends and peers think. If you are having a hard time getting kids excited about reading, all you have to do is let them read something written by their friends. At Deep, we help kids write books that are both artistically valuable and also exciting for their peers to read, and the results have been exciting. More than half of our students say that being in Deep and reading their peers’ work has inspired them to read more in their free time.

Do you remember reading notes and stories by your friends when you were younger? Do you think it’s a good idea to spend more time letting kids read each other’s work in class? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

Take student writing from zero to awesome in four minutes

19 Jun

Check out this short video on how to teach kids to use engaging, telling details in their writing. This tactic has worked every time for me, and the results are fantastic!

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rFkTgU4itg

Kids are unhappier today than ever before–and the reason isn’t what you think.

9 Jun

Check out my TEDx talk on kids and happiness! My talk starts at minute 59 of this Livestream:

http://new.livestream.com/tedxcc/tedxcc2013/videos/20844028

Why are so many kids failing standardized writing tests?

21 May

I got an editorial published in the Savannah Morning News about local writing scores! http://savannahnow.com/column/2013-05-15/commentary-how-teach-write-stuff#

HOW TO TEACH THE WRITE STUFF BY CATHERINE KILLINGSWORTH

People are asking a lot of questions about Chatham County’s low eighth-grade writing scores. There is much speculation about curricula, test fairness and time spent writing in the classroom.

Yet no one is asking the question that will really make a difference:

Do kids care about becoming skilled writers?

If not, how can we change their minds?

Every parent knows that kids can learn how to do pretty much anything they really care about and get satisfaction from. Kids master impossible video games. They practice free throws for hours to perfect their shot. They text faster than the human eye can follow.

If kids are not learning how to write essays in standard academic English, it is most often because they do not believe it is important.

Either that, or they think it is impossible and thus not worth the effort.

Imagine a kid — a smart, talented kid — who doesn’t speak standard English at home. He uses body language to make a point.

None of the people he admires have gone to college. He, like every kid, wants to grow up to be like the people he loves.

While we educators may believe that teaching him to write a timed essay on a topic he knows nothing about is important (indeed, learning how to do this will give him access to the cultures of commerce and academia, thus providing him with more choices in the future), to this kid it seems pointless and demeaning.

He is forced to translate his thoughts into a language no one has taught him. Perhaps he wants to pass the test so that he can go on to the next grade, but odds are he doesn’t think that writing itself will be useful in his future. He is not going to go home and scribble persuasive essays into his journal for fun.

In my work at Deep, a nonprofit that provides free after-school writing programs at local public schools, we have achieved tremendous results with improving students’ writing skills, and we are successful because we believe that motivating kids is as important as teaching them.

We use the Georgia State Writing Test rubric to score writing samples from our students, and on average our kids improve their scores by 20 percent after just 10 Deep classes. Our students — many of whom come from the schools that are facing criticism, including DeRenne and East Broad — are winning state, regional and national prizes for their writing.

Our kids write well because we give them a compelling, rewarding reason to: we publish their work in a professional anthology and invite them to read it to hundreds of community members at a book release event. We give them an opportunity to share what is important to them with a large audience.

We are not in this game to “fix” our students (a surefire way to destroy anyone’s desire to learn). We are simply here to help students through a difficult but rewarding writing project.

If we want children to succeed, we must approach the project not from the test down but from the kid up. We must ask: how are we making the project of writing meaningful, relevant and rewarding? How are we making it worth their time?

If we can answer that, then our kids will rise to any challenge.

3 Things You Think Are “Cool” That Actually Make Middle School Kids Hate You

24 Apr
Cool emoticon

Cool emoticon (Photo credit: wstera2)

We all want to be cool. Often, even when we are the most experienced, knowledgeable, and confident person in the room (as we often are–though not always–in middle school classrooms) we still want our kids to like us. This is why we often do three very stupid things in the hopes of making ourselves more appealing to our kids:

1. Being sarcastic. We all have vague memories of a high school teacher who was sort of bitter and sarcastic, and we remember thinking he was entertaining.  He reminded us of that cool teacher from TV, right? So if we’re sarcastic in class, that makes us cool, right?

Wrong–especially with kids under the age of 14. If think back further, we remember that,while it was sometimes  funny when teachers made fun of historical figures, we never liked listening to jokes we didn’t understand, and we REALLY didn’t like feeling stupid or dismissed in class. Kids 14 years old and younger largely don’t understand sarcasm yet, particularly students from families that don’t care for that kind of humor (which are common, especially in inner city areas). Being sarcastic around kids who don’t understand sarcasm, or who feel attacked by it, can undermine trust and make you seem out of touch with their sense of humor.

2. Telling personal stories in class. Again, we all remember that high school teacher who shared personal stories about their crazy college days or  their first marriage. We remember, vaguely, wanting to stick around in that teacher’s classroom at lunchtime. It made us feel cool. So if we tell stories about ourselves it makes us cool and easy to relate to, right?

Again: wrong. While telling high school students the occasional tidbit about your life may get them to like you (though it is equally likely to make you look pathetic or needy), it DOES NOT WORK WITH MIDDLE SCHOOL KIDS. Young adolescents are so consumed with themselves (remember how important that zit seemed at the time?) that they generally are not interested in the lives and feelings of adults. Talking too much about yourself is more likely to make you seem irrelevant than it is to make you look cool. The only exception to this case is if your story about your life directly relates to your students’ lives. (For example, sharing your acceptance or rejection letters from literary agents with your writing class could actually be very cool and informative.)

3. Giving easy assignments. New teachers often think that the easier an assignment is, the more likely it is that kids will be excited to do it. Not only is this wrong, it’s dangerous, and it can lead to lowered expectations and poor performance from your students. Think about it: would you want to play a game where you were absolutely guaranteed to win every single time? No! It would be boring. Likewise, your kids don’t want easy assignments all the time—they want you to give them a challenge.

Have you ever tried to seem cool for your kids and had it backfire (or work)? I’d love to hear your story!

4 Questions That Get Kids to Read Like Writers

20 Mar

At Deep, we are all about the craft of writing. This means that, while most reading teachers ask their kids to read like guests of a book (asking questions like, “How are you, Book? What are you about?”), we writing teachers want them to read like thieves holding the book at gunpoint (asking questions like, “What have you got, Book? What can I steal from you?”)

This approach has a ton of advantages. It gets kids excited about reading, it gives them a clear and fun purpose as readers, and it improves their writing skills. In my workshops, I run the exact same discussion every time we read a new text. It goes like this:

  1. What is the writing skill that we just learned? (Usually, I’ll have just taught a mini-lesson on  figurative language, telling details, or something similar.)
  2. Where does that skill show up in this text? Get your kids to circle it wherever it appears! Have them offer a few examples to make sure they’re identifying the right things.
  3. What effect does it have? Usually, I offer a non-example and ask them about how this author’s work has a different effect. (For example: “This author describes his friend as ‘so tall that he constantly stooped forward as if afraid of the ceiling.’ How is that different from if he had just said, ‘my friend was tall’?”)
  4. What are you going to steal from this author in your next piece of writing?

It’s a simple, fun discussion structure, and it leads to great results every time! I would love to hear your ideas, too–how do you get your kids to read like writers?

Why Kids Write Boring Essays (it’s not the reason you think)

14 Mar

English: A bored person

Have you ever sat down and said to yourself, “You know what I’d like to do right now? Sit down with a nice, thick stack of five-paragraph essays written by local sixth graders. What a fabulous way to spend an afternoon that would be!”

If you’re like most people, then the answer to that question is an emphatic no. Five-paragraph essays, particularly ones by kids, are notoriously dull and poorly written, right? Don’t kids hate writing? Shouldn’t we be proud to squeeze five reasonably organized paragraphs out of them?

Not at all! I love reading my kids’ essays and, in fact, have been known to spend a cozy afternoon or two re-reading them.

The real reason that kids write boring essays is so simple it hurts: kids write boring essays because they think that essays are supposed to be boring. They are shown boring examples and given boring topics. Kids are asked to choose theses, but never to pick a topic that makes them angry, or to write about an opinion that all their friends disagree with. No one tells them that it is okay to make jokes in an essay, or to use interesting extended metaphors.

If my kids are writing something boring, I make them stop and start over again until they have a thesis that gets them excited. I’ve had a lot of success teaching essay-writing via satire; I’ve had kids write essays with titles like “Why Boys Should Wear as Much Makeup as Girls” and “Why You Should Wear a Helmet in the Hood”–and they are a fabulous read. For the lesson plan and example essays, you can order a copy of the Deep curriculum here.

How do you get your kids to write interesting essays? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Top 4 Reasons Kids Get Totally Confused in Class (and handy tricks for avoiding it)

26 Feb

English: Question marks with transparent backg...

 

We’ve all had that moment before: we think we’ve explained something brilliantly. The kids are nodding and smiling. Our examples were charming and relevant. We know that our kids absolutely understand the concept.

 

And then we ask them to get to work and…it turns out they have no idea what they are supposed to do!

 

Here are a few of the most common reasons this happens:

 

1. You aren’t clearly outlining your goals and agenda. I never go to the movies without watching a preview first, I never order a new dish without reading the description on the menu, and I never book a plane ticket without researching the city I want to visit. Why on earth should I expect my kids to dive into a lesson before they have any idea what it’s about, or where it will take them? The easiest, quickest, most effective way to get  kids on board and invested in your lesson is to spend a little time at the beginning explaining what you are going to do that day and why.

 

2. You are using think-y verbs, rather than action verbs. The most confusing thing you can possibly do is tell your kids to “think about” or “imagine” or “explore” or “look into” or “consider” something. It all sounds very inspiring and academic, but kids have no idea what these verbs really mean (and honestly, neither do I). Ask them to do things that you can physically see them achieve: write, act out, discuss, measure, underline.

 

3. You aren’t scaffolding. Often, tasks that seem obvious to us are actually really complicated to people who are new at them. For example: “take notes” seems easy to adults, but what we’re really asking kids to do is “listen to what I am saying while simultaneously sifting through the information for the most salient points (which you need a lot of context and expertise to determine) while also writing down these salient points in an organized and meaningful fashion using standard outline format.” Take every task–even seemingly simple ones–and break it down into a list of its component parts.  If you aren’t sure that your kids know how to do each and every step, take the time to teach it to them!

 

4. You are using words they don’t know. You wouldn’t believe how often this happens; it’s easy to forget that some kids haven’t been exposed to words like “compare” before. Luckily, this kind of confusion can be avoided by simply asking kids to repeat your explanations back to them in their own words. If they can’t do it, then go back to find the culprit word and add it to your word wall.

 

Have you ever accidentally confused your kids? What happened and how did you fix it? I’d love to hear your ideas.

 

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