Thursday, May 26, 2011

(Re)Vamping the Curriculum: Unconference Dracula!

So started today's 'unconference' of Dracula - my B Period's fantastic third round of this format in our English classroom. Working off of the successes and failures of Day #1 and Day #2, we used an hour and a half block to run a compelling student-driven conference about Dracula's implications and connections within the text and to today's world.

What students walked in with:
- most if not all of the novel Dracula read
- 15-20 pages of notes (compiled as they read and in class)
- a title / notes to lead a session
- two previous days of scaffolded 'unconference' style class

What I walked in with: 
- a box o' Joe & munchkins
- printer labels for nametags
- nervous anticipation

What we did:

Made the schedule:
Students used my computer, the classroom computer, and Greg Kulowiec's computer to real-time sign up for their sessions. I kept the schedule projected through the period so everyone could preview where they wanted to go to. One student wanted to know if they could propose two sessions! A couple of more found they had common sessions so decided to combine them. See below for the full schedule. I relished the role of organizing the desks and eavesdropping on my students craft session titles and plan which they were going to attend - the momentum had definitely already shifted to a student-run conference!

I introduced the purpose of the day, encouraged everyone to help themselves to coffee and donuts, and outlined how the sessions would work. Mr. Kulowiec explained what the 'Smackdown' looks like in an Ed Camp conference, giving something exciting to look forward to at the end of the period. Greg's excitement was an integral part of the day, especially as the kids started to see this was bigger than just my vision for them (the live tweeting and public google doc definitely opened some eyes).

And they were off! Everyone chose a session and organized desks in corresponding area of the room. The level of vibrant conversation, provoking connections, and brilliant analysis was so authentic, I couldn't believe so much was happening with so little 'done' on my part. Students wrote furiously, considering each other's point of view, challenging each other, and referring back to the text. Only once or twice was I asked to be the 'expert,' showing a greater comfort in each other as resources and the teacher as facilitator instead of source of knowledge.

Visitors (or, icing on the cake):
Other teachers and administrators came in and out, joined conversations, asked questions, all at various familiarity with the text. These extra faces added a completely different level of engagement as students talked to us as peers instead of authority figures. Mr. Kulowiec and Mr. Stanton, both history teachers, offered connections and insights across time periods and to Osama bin Laden (our other case study of demonization). Even the principal walked through, later asking "what was going on in there, the kids were so involved." A fellow English teacher, Erik Walker, made it in time for the Smackdown, where he saw the threads of his unit-opening fin de siecle lecture woven through the students' responses and insights.

I pulled everyone together, we fixed the desks, and the Smackdown began! Scroll down to read the ideas, questions, comments, and theories from the queued students, each reflecting the best from the day's sessions. I couldn't believe that students would be so willing to 'public speak' - the beast they actively avoid the rest of the year - some even going up two or three times! Students kept writing down more ideas, even though it was the last four minutes of an hour and a half long class, and kids were awe-struck to see the google doc 'is viewing' guests increase as we live-streamed the smackdown ideas. What an invigorating way to 'flip' the traditional report-out / take away / ticket-to-leave...

In conclusion: 
The 'unconference' format was highly successful for many reasons, but primarily due to the class scaffolding and requirements, individual student preparation, and participant enthusiasm. Without any of those, it wouldn't have been nearly as successful (though I'm sure the caffeine and donuts didn't hurt). Next year, I want to plan 'unconferences' at the middle and/or end of units, and hope to make them events that students look forward to (one student wore his Dracula t-shirt for today, and many didn't take their nametags off all day!). One of my students said it best when he commented that "this was one of the best classes of the entire year." I completely agree, and so I'll spend the summer searching for an alternative name to 'unschool' to welcome my students with next fall.

B Period Students
Mr. Kulowiec
Mr. Stanton
Mr. Walker
Ms. Whittle
Mrs. Fry

Please leave a comment or question below for me or my students!


  1. This is inspirational. Congratulations and thanks for sharing the details.

  2. This is great. I love the authentic questions and the wide variety of links to other curriculum; the west, OBL, Christ imagery, Harry Potter. This is what intellectuals do when they get together and unleash their minds. I hope your lesson inspires others to give their students the same chance. I am thinking about making an Unconference model day for my sstudy skills class. :)

  3. Congratulations Period B and Ms Kennett! Thank you for sharing, my brain is now doing cartwheels thinking of ways I can use this lesson style in my history classroom in Weymouth.