Better the second time around: Whippersnappers

We’re jumping into year two of this 7th-grade PBL project

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Photo: Jigar Gamit on Pxhere

We’re doing it again! My seventh-graders will again this upcoming school year be writing the content for a newsletter for kids called Whippersnappers. It’s an activity my students produce in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a regional organization based in Forsyth, Mo.

Last year, the idea for a unique PBL project resulted at the end of the summer when I placed a call to the WRVHS’s director, Leslie Wyman. I simply asked if the society had any writing or research-related needs that my seventh-graders could help with. She replied that, yes, as a matter of fact, their children’s newsletter could use some revamping and some “new blood.”

And just like that, this unique project was born.

My students were so excited when they learned about the project last fall. Many of them jumped right into our brainstorming sessions where we came up with article ideas. They also enjoyed and listened carefully when Wyman visited one day to get the ball rolling. They especially loved taking field trips to the society’s two local museums.

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My students listen to WRVHS Director Leslie Wyman explain how to research for their Whippersnapper stories.

The best moment of all? When Wyman hand-delivered the first issue. They loved seeing their names or their classmates’ names in print. It was a good feeling. We produced a total of four issues and I plan to continue the program this fall with my new seventh-graders. They know all about the project (since most are subscribers) and most seem interested in picking up the baton and running with the second year.

I was just at school yesterday morning unpacking boxes that held the items I requisitioned last spring. Inside one package was a clear plexiglass brochure holder that I’ll mount near the door to my room. Here is where I’ll post extra copies of the newsletter. The cardboard sign that our graphic design students created last year looks a little tired; my new holder should work perfectly.

As I begin to plan for fall, I have a few things to do to get ready for Whippersnappers year 2:

  • I’ll have to dig out the “story starter” page that I created with my students last year to help them begin to assemble ideas and notes for their stories.
  • I’ll also have to remember to schedule a day to show them how to access historical articles on the WRVHS’s website. These were our main sources of information for our stories last year, and I’m not entirely happy with that. I would prefer there be a wider mix of sources–other online articles and databases, in-person interviews, books–for students to use.
  • Fine-tune more research methods. Privacy and safety concerns are my main concerns when determining other research sources. In order to learn more about that, I may need to meet with Wyman before school starts to see what alternative ways we can develop for kids to safely and privately find information.
  • One idea: Private Facebook group where students anonymously interact with researchers at the WRVHS? That’s one idea Wyman and I have bantered about, but haven’t acted upon yet. This fall may be the time to pursue that idea.
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The first issue of Whippersnappers, Oct. 2017

Another goal for this upcoming school year: boosting the circulation of the Whippersnappers.

  • Could it be promoted to other area schools?
  • Could it be promoted to area readers through libraries?
  • Could we secure corporate support? The WRVHS utilizes grant money to print and mail the Whippersnappers right now. Is there a local company who would like to work with us? So many questions!

Regardless, I’m excited to start another year of Whippersnappers. I think it’s so important for students to write for a real-world publication. When I was a seventh-grader, I would have loved to see my name in print like my students do.

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The second issue of Whippersnappers, Dec. 2017

It’s my sincere hope that my students will see that they have the ability to be real-world writers, especially since they already are… thanks to the Whippersnappers and the WRVHS.


Thanks for reading! Follow my blog to hear how the second year of the Whippersnappers goes. I’ll be posting about it this fall. If you have any unique PBL projects, I’d love to hear about them. Feel free to leave a comment!

Dear Teachers: Share your work with the world.

Let others know what you’re doing in your classroom.

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A card I received back from the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC. 

A colleague of mine, Dr. Keri Franklin, founding director of the Ozarks Writing Project, a site of the National Writing Project, and also director of assessment at Missouri State University, recommended that I send some issues of my seventh-graders’ Whippersnappers newsletter,  to the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington, DC. My students create this newsletter in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a local research organization. It might be a good idea, Franklin suggested, to let the Smithsonian know about the history-based writing that my students are involved in.

So, the week after school ended (Does school ever really end???), I wrote a letter, enclosed it with some newsletter copies, and sent the package off to the center mentioned above.

Yesterday, I received a nice, handwritten note from the director, Dr. Michael Atwood Mason, thanking me for letting him know about my class’ activities.

I plan to display the card from the Smithsonian in my classroom in the fall. My students will be impressed that their words are reaching out even further than they ever expected with this project.

That short note got me thinking about how I’m thankful that my colleague gave me this suggestion to reach out. I think that often as teachers we become so involved in the cocoon of our classes that we forget that people out in “the real world” want and need to know what we’re doing inside the schools. It’s easy to become isolated in our work… with our main contacts on a daily basis being our students, administrators, other teachers, and parents.

This experience has reminded me to make the effort to branch out a little and communicate with those beyond the walls of my classroom. Not only does it give me a boost in the everyday routine when I hear back from a contact I’ve made, but it also reminds me to be open to the possibilities and future opportunities that may occur as a result of my sharing.


Thanks for reading! Have you shared any of your classroom activities with those outside of academia? Share your experiences in the comments below and follow my blog for more writing about my “brave and true” ELA classroom experiences.

Gold stars for everyone!

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Time to reflect on the first year of my 7th-grade PBL project

Year one is down! During the 2017-18 academic school year, my seventh-grade language arts classes started a project in partnership with the White River Valley Historical Society, a local organization in Forsyth, Mo., that preserves, promotes, and protects the cultural heritage of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. Read other posts about this project here.

The project was to rejuvenate a children’s newsletter called Whippersnappers that the society had published previously for a few years, but later abandoned when its primary contributor, a volunteer student, grew older. Over the course of a few conversations last summer with the society’s director, it was decided that my seventh-grade students could contribute the content. Here’s the front page of our second issue:

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Somehow I got home for summer without the latest issue! I’ll add it to this post later.

To produce each issue, my classes thought up story ideas for the newsletter, wrote their stories, and shared in the writing process as they researched and revised their work for publication by the WRVHS. In October, our first issue was distributed. Just before Christmas break, our December/January issue was released. In March, the February/March issue came out, and the final issue of the year was released the day before school let out for the summer.

It was a whirlwind year, full of experimentation and unpredictability. I’ve listed below, in no particular order, some positives from the experience, but will probably think of more as the summer progresses. As I think of other positives, I’ll edit them into this post, so follow this blog to be aware of updates.

  1. Students were able to choose their own story topics; they had agency over the content. For the first couple of issues, we brainstormed ideas on the whiteboard. More than enough ideas were gained from these brainstorms that those first two brainstorming sessions created a topic list from which students could choose for the remaining two issues.
  2. Students had to consider their audience. The readers of the Whippersnappers newsletter are kids ages five to fourteen, which is quite a span. Writers had to decide exactly who, within that age range, their particular story appealed to, and keep those readers in mind with regard to word choice.
  3. Students were required to consider the criteria of the publisher. Stories had to contain a local or regional history angle. If that focus was missing from a story, students needed to figure out how to include them before their stories could be submitted to the publisher.
  4. It was satisfying for the students to see their name in print. (Due to privacy, students’ first names and last initial were used for their bylines.) In addition, seeing where in the issue their article was placed was important to them. They liked being on page one; however, when their story was placed last in the issue, we discussed the reasons publishers might have for doing this, such as space limitations.
  5. Students knew they had an authentic audience that would be reading their work; I was not the final audience. They knew that people in the community would be receiving these in their mail and that made their work more accountable.
  6. Field trips were fun! We took two, one to the WRVHS main office in Forsyth, Mo. and their newer museum in downtown Branson. This allowed them to see up close the work of the WRVHS and to hold some historical artifacts, as well as see the society’s archives and files.
  7. They learned by trial-and-error that sentence variety takes on new meaning with a publication. After our second issue was published, we held a “wrap-up” discussion and noticed that about half started with the question, “Did you know that…?” Seeing the over-reliance on this common introductory technique showed them the need to work harder at varying their leads. It also showed the importance of previewing the issue as a whole.

I’m glad there are only a few negatives to reflect upon. I would like to tackle these for the next 2018-19 school year:

  1. Research was limited. Students used an online database of the society’s quarterly magazine almost exclusively. This database, however, only had searchable issues through 1997, due to a grant partnership with a local library system. Students would reference information found in these magazines with standard attribution and speaker tags. The benefits of this was that students could safely and easily research their topic. However, using this one form of research was limiting. It would have been great to vary our research with interviews or in-person contact with researchers at the WRVHS, for example. Next year, I would like to address this issue. Another hurdle is that my students do not have email addresses, so that limits how they can contact sources. The WRVHS director suggested a private Facebook group where the students could post questions to anonymous research volunteers at the WRVHS. This might be an alternative.
  2. Classroom management was challenging. During those first few days of researching and writing, as students were grappling with their topics and how to begin, classroom management was difficult. Some students could work independently, which was a great help. Most students needed my help from time to time and if I was busy working with another student, they would just stop working and wait on me. Eventually, they would begin to distract others. And then a few students need constant help and/or redirection. It’s was very hard to find the balance needed to make progress. There were a few days when I thought, “Why did I ever think this would work?” Those were the days I wanted to break out our textbooks and do a simple read-and-response assignment.
  3. I need more defined deadlines. Kids need to see results. Quickly. Stories for our first issue were sent out and about a week later, the issue was published and delivered. The other issues did not follow such a tight schedule, and I wished they had. When kids don’t know when the issue will print, they lose interest and excitement ebbs. So for next year, I’d like to set up a schedule to see if we can have solid dates for 1) delivering the stories to the publisher’s offices, and 2) receiving published newsletters back at school. If the students know that on Friday, Sept. 2, for example, we are sending out finished stories with no exceptions for last-minute edits or revisions, perhaps we will later see more predictable publishing dates.

All in all, I think this first year was a success and I want to try it again next year. The students seemed to value the experience and see importance in it.

What curriculum did I have to alter or remove in order to fit Whippersnappers into my year-long plans? I moved a novel unit to spring and just planned more tightly so everything could get accomplished. Seventh-graders still entered all the contests they normally do and they still completed their Writers Workshop project list. They became accustomed to having several projects in-process simultaneously. After all, I told them, that’s how real writers work.


Thank you for reading! Feel free to comment away to share your own PBL ideas for your ELA middle schoolers! One more thing: I am totally open to suggestions for how to address any of my “negatives” above. If you’ve done anything like this before, please share your secrets for classroom management, student research, etc. Let’s learn from each other!

Seventh-graders publish first issue of Whippersnappers newsletter

It’s a Project-Based Learning partnership with White River Valley Historical Society

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Seventh-grade students tour the White River Valley Historical Society offices in  Forsyth in October to acquaint themselves with the museum’s resources. Photo Credit: WRVHS

The October-November 2017 issue of WRVHS Whippersnappers was published a few weeks ago! My seventh-grade students wrote all the content for the issue using online archived articles from the  White River Valley History Society Quarterly magazine as their research. They designed the content around Halloween and the fall season.

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Page 1 of the first issue

About half of the students wrote for the first issue; the rest are writing for the second issue that prints in December. After the Christmas break, students will return and begin designing and writing content for the February and April issues.

I appreciate the help and support of Leslie Wyman, managing director, and Dusty Ingenthron, webmaster, at the WRVHS.  Their enthusiasm and cooperation have allowed me to bring this Project-Based Learning idea to fruition for my seventh-graders!

Click here for a previous post about how this idea got started.

 

 

I’m Imagining the Possibilities of Project-Based Learning

 

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The Spring 2017 issue of the WRVHS magazine

 

Yesterday I met for about an hour with Leslie Wyman, the managing director of the White River Valley Historical Society based in Forsyth, Missouri. I had contacted her last week by email to inquire whether there were any projects for which my students could provide basic research and/or writing.

I really didn’t know what I would find out, or even if there would be any opportunities for my students. In her reply email, however,  she told me that several ideas came to mind! Wow, I thought, this is exciting!

So we met and talked about one idea in particular, which sounds very promising. I’m pondering the idea a bit further and hope to meet with her again next week to ask her a few more questions so we can, together, design a “real world” project for my seventh-graders.