Archive for May, 2017

So, I’ve been thinking about the final writing assignment in my YA literature elective. Last year, there was a lot of moaning and groaning about the length. I wrote about it then.

Briefly, the students read an article from Slate by Ruth Graham (“Against YA“), several responses to Ms. Graham, and then entered the debate by writing their own article, either supporting or opposing Ms. Graham’s original. Last year, after all that complaining, the students’ articles were pretty solid. However, I thought they could have done a better job of dissecting the original article and either countering or agreeing with specific points. They had the same problem with the response articles–too general, not enough of the nitty gritty. This lead to some arguments that were too simplistic. As they did last year, again, students could take either side but needed to make solid and well-defended arguments, reference the first article, at least two others, and at least two books that we read during the semester.

For several students, this was the most successful writing of the semester in terms of their clarity and level of detail. I’ve been thinking about why that might be.

This year, I made sure that we analyzed the first article and several other examples in more detail. We I used the webtool hypothes.is to annotate collaboratively. For each response article, we looked more closely at the particular points of the original article the author chose to address, the tone of the response, and students’ responses to that tone. Some students liked an equally snarky response; others preferred a more neutral tone combined with evidence of experience or expertise. We spent more time talking about format options, and several students took good risks in that department. A few wrote as if they were YA bloggers, and one attempted the ‘take the argument to the extreme to prove its ridiculousness’ option.

Another important characteristic of this assignment, in terms of having more success for more students, was the fact that this writing did not need to have quite as serious an analytical tone. Although the assignment required significant thought and synthesis, it was not “an analytical essay” in their minds. There was some option for creativity of format and less formality in language. It is this language business that often trips them up. The clear writers are clear writers. The problem comes for the students who equate serious analysis with overly complex sentences and overly formal word choice, both of which lead to awkward writing that gets in the way of itself and any point to be made.

So, the better teaching of the arguments in the article is on me. Although, now I wonder if I went too far in terms of digesting so many of the articles together in class.  The part that I am really thinking about is the significant improvement in clarity of writing in this assignment (for some students).

  • Did they just relax with the less formal style and therefore write better?
  • Did they say to themselves, “hey it’s my last English paper, I’ll ease up on the fancy language I’ve been trying to use.”
  • Did they feel pressured in other assignments to write in a voice that is unnaturally serious and therefore awkward?

I tend to think that the understanding that this piece of writing could be less formal was the key for those students who were more successful than they had been earlier in the semester. Interesting to note though, the final articles were not all that casual. No one took it too far. Good thinking, synthesis of ideas, and integration of quations were all obvious.

What if it was all just the perception that they could write as themselves?

I have a lot to think about on this one.

So, I’ve been thinking about what I plan to read over the summer. There are a few more weeks before students and teachers are off, and I have a few books I would like to finish before then. I just finished I’m Looking Through You by Jennifer Finey Boylan, and currently, I am reading The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro and Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino.

 

As I have mentioned before, I have a tendency to plan big, too big. I am teaching a new-to-me course next year, again, and have all of those books to read or reread as well, but somehow those don’t count. Plus, I have some teaching books I want to read. And, I’m sure I’ll read some YA and graphic novels in addition. I mean, there’s a new graphic novel about the Dalai Lama out!! (Man of Peace: The Illustrated Life Story of the Dalai Lama of Tibet by Robert Thurman and others. Fun facts: Professor Thurman taught a class I took in college, and my undergrad thesis was about Tibetan Buddhist women.)

Here’s my list to date.

The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. I gave this to my dad for Christmas and now get to read it myself.

The Amber Spy Glass by Philip Pullman. I have not read the final book in the His Dark Materials series. I am not letting myself start this one yet. I have things I need to do.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I have been eyeing this since it came out. My school library does not have it or I would have read it already.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter. This is a potential read for my English class next year. (I may stick with the circus theme and reread The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern as another option.)

Swing Time by Zadie Smith is sitting on my kitchen table, waiting.

 

I sometimes like to read a few books that somehow relate or go together. Other times, I just read all over the place. I’m a big fan of women pioneer stories (non-fiction) and don’t have any of that on my list so far. It gets harder and harder to find ones I have not read at bookstores on the East Coast.

What else would you recommend?

 

So I’ve been thinking about the book All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

The book was part of my senior elective “Young Adult Fiction’.” We read it after Monster by Walter Dean Myers and Hush by Jacqueline Woodson. The three books together made a thought-provoking group, in my opinion. And, ending with All American Boys really brought the discussion right into the classroom because by then everyone in my class had a character like them in play. The issues weren’t just for my group or your group of people. Everyone saw someone like themselves, somewhere in these three works. When I looked at the course evaluation I just did (which I wrote about the other day), this book got the most 5’s (~42%). It also got the most 2’s (~33%). Half the class rated it a 4 or 5. We had some good conversations about the book. The students were really interested in one character in particular, Paul, and wanted to know more about him; they almost needed to know more about him.

Then a few days ago, a student who is taking an interdisciplinary course called “Race and Ethnicity” interviewed me about the book. He read it as part of a project at the end of the semester. His teacher knew I had read the book with my class and suggested me as an interview subject. The student had good questions about my students’ responses to the book, my thoughts about the quality of the writing, the story, etc. He wanted some feedback on a lesson plan idea that he was proposing. All interesting.

However, the most interesting part was our brief discussion after the official interview. I asked him what he thought of the book and the two person point of view format, which had been one of his questions.

He said something along the lines of “I’ve been thinking about race all year in this class. But this book, ever since I read it, I’ve been thinking about it. It keeps popping up. I do something or something happens, and I think about the book again.” Ok, that seems like a pretty solid argument for reading the book.

Finally, I saw this on Twitter a few days later.

As I told the student who interviewed me, there are a lot of different reasons we (teachers) choose a particular book for an English class. The ability to start a conversation is one of them.

So now, putting these events together, I am thinking about my class and wondering more about how or if All American Boys stayed with them, allowed them to start a conversation, or made them uncomfortable. I wish I had asked them more about this particular book. Were some of the low ratings about discomfort? I’m totally ok with a book causing some discomfort and am wondering how much those 2’s are a reflection of that. Or, were they feeling ready for more of a change of subject matter? And, if so, what part of that is about wanting to look away from a difficult topic? I am debating whether it is worth emailing a few questions to my students, who are now finished and off doing senior projects for a few weeks before graduation. It would make me sad to get no responses.

In any case, am more convinced than ever that this is a book to read with students and discuss in community.

CCO public domain image.

So I’ve been thinking about student feedback and feedback about class climate in particular.

I give course surveys at the end of the course or semester in my English classes in the high school. I used to ask students in my 5th grade class about language arts class too. Then, I mostly asked about the books. What to “definitely keep” what to “definitely change”. I got feedback about class climate and the like in other ways; since we were together all the time, class climate was not related just to language arts.

Now, I don’t spend all day, every day with my English students. I asked my students about the books we read, the homework load, the assignment variety, grading etc. However, the question I am always most concerned about is this one:

Class climate. My goal is always to develop a climate in which all students feel valued, supported, and challenged. I want to hear from each student. Was I successful in creating that climate? Please explain what I might improve in this area.

This is the most important question, because it is where everything begins, IMO. A teacher can’t nail the class climate on day 1, because how could you really? It takes time to develop and foster. You can tell students you are this or that way all you want, but until you demonstrate the truth of those statements, they are just hypotheticals. But, you can’t forget about class climate either; it’s always there, in the background, either supporting or undermining everything you are trying to accomplish.

I read through all the responses about this and that, but what I am always anxious about is that class climate question. It’s the one that is closest to my heart and that I just don’t want to get wrong. I pick books that flop all the time. Not on purpose, of course. I think I do a decent job getting a mix of texts in there, but inevitably something really doesn’t fly. This school year it was KonTiki (for summer reading). There were other books that had their detractors, but none was as widely disliked as that, across two courses. Point taken.

Here are some examples what my students said in response to my class climate question:

  • I felt all of these things on the days that I did what I was supposed to.
    • Comment from me: Hmm. This was interesting to me. I would like to know more about this. How much is this about my response to students and how much is this about the fact that if you have not done the reading, it is hard to participate and feel included.
  • Yeah, I think everyone fit in the class and brought something valuable to the discussion.
    • Comment from me: I am reassured to think that students felt that everyone brought something to class, not just that I valued everyone, but they did too.
  • I felt welcome to voice my opinions in this class and I think everyone felt that way.
    • Comment from me: yay!
  • I felt comfortable expressing my thoughts and opinions in class, unlike some other classes I am taking.
    • Comment from me: yay, but why doesn’t this person feel that way elsewhere?
  • I felt valued, supported and challenged in class. You did this perfectly! I felt that every student felt encouraged and helped to bring up their thoughts in class.
    • Comment from me: Victory dance happening now.
  • I believe the class climate was exactly that. You were constantly asking everyone’s ideas because you truly wanted to know what all of us thought. To know that your ideas and opinions are valued means a lot. I don’t think there is anything that needs to be improved in this area.
    • Comment from me: More victory dancing, maybe some chocolate too.
  • The class climate was very even I feel, even the kids who were not very engaged in class were on the same level as the kids who consistently take notes and I like that level of equality as opposed to the opposite where the teacher picks favorites.
    • Comment from me: great. I don’t want anyone to think I have favorites. For kids to recognize that students are differently engaged and that there is still equity for all, is a win.

I feel pretty good about these results. The survey was anonymous, which I told people in advance. There are other areas that I can improve on, which I know. (Ahem, getting feedback to students in a timely manner!)

I have a few things I want to think about, but I’m feeling pretty good about this one.

 

So I’ve been thinking about terminology. It doesn’t sound very exciting, but a lot of times we hear words and terms that we think we all understand in the same way, and we don’t. Two different experiences have made me think about this idea.

First, I have been leading a task force investigating interdisciplinary teaching and learning at my school. I don’t think anyone came to the group with no thoughts about what interdisciplinary work was, yet we did not come close to having a shared understanding of the term. This became our first task.

The summer before beginning our work we all read Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ Interdisciplinary Curriculum: Design and Implementation. Even though we all read the same book, we still didn’t all have the same idea. In interpreting literature it may be okay to have slightly different readings of the text; however, when we are trying to focus on a particular pedagogy and don’t all have the same understanding of what that is, those differences are not okay.

After spending the school year talking, reading, and visiting schools, we are clearly not the only ones who have not nailed down what we mean by the words we used to describe our program. This was a year of slow learning and slow looking, terms I learned at a Project Zero conference in the fall, as we worked our way towards an understanding and then a definition of what we will call interdisciplinary learning at our school. We did not want to reinvent the wheel. There are lots of wheels out there; lots of them work just fine. What we needed to do was tweak an existing wheel that would work for our cart.

This process ultimately led us to work on several documents. Using our Jacobs-based definition, we applied it to an Understanding by Design lesson plan template (it’s licensed for reuse and alteration) and adjusted it to stress qualities and ideas that we wanted to highlight. More importantly, we wrote a document that describes where we are and what we believe about interdisciplinary work at our school. Again there’s already a lot written about what interdisciplinary work is, and we have leaned heavily on all of that earlier work.

Finally, we integrated that with our own terminology about teaching methods, mission language, and strategic plan ideas so that the language itself connects to our own native language. As the majority writer of this document, I feel confident in saying it is not going to win any awards. However, I think when we as a group sat down to look at a draft, we realized how far we had come. We could not have written such a document when we started; we may have been saying the same words, but we did not mean the same things. However in April after working together for most of a school year, we were ready to speak a common language. I am really proud of this.

My second recent experience that has made me aware of terminology is an online course I am finishing (Educating Global Citizens through Harvard Graduate School of Education). This time the terminology in question is connected to global competencies and global education. The individual words (global, competency, education) are more common than interdisciplinary, and in some ways so common that it’s hard to imagine that putting two of them together would not create a universally understood term. It turns out that is not the case.

The course began as one might expect with readings and lectures explaining both what how to define global competencies and the importance of a global education. It then quickly moved to the participants practicing describing this to others. There was an assignment to talk to another stakeholder in the school community and in a few minutes make a case for global education. I found this assignment to be surprisingly challenging. Why? Terminology.

I chose to talk to a non-educator. I did this intentionally. What I found was that I started in the middle, when what I needed to do was start with the terminology before I could say why it was important. I also found that the person I was talking to, of course, had other ideas about what these words mean beyond a school setting, which gave me another way to explain the importance of this kind of work.

One of the final assignments for this class is to record an elevator pitch. I’m still working on it, but I do have a plan. Rather than focusing on convincing the Listener of the importance of whatever I’m talking about, I’m thinking about spending most of my allotted minute on clarifying what global competencies are. Suggesting that a global education, whatever that means, is important in 2017 does not seem like a very hard sell; fewer words are necessary. What seems more in doubt is ensuring that my listener has the same understanding of what I mean by global competencies. 

Terminology. Not necessarily exciting, but you can’t go anywhere without it.