Archive for May, 2018

CCO Creative commons image

So, I’ve been thinking about assessments. I worked really hard this year to develop assessments that addressed our essential questions, combined analytical and creative work, and pushed students to think.

I’ve already written about a brief research project where I used VoiceThread for the final, virtual presentations and the following installation art proposal project (more on that soon). But, here I want to describe two writing assignments that I think combined all the parts I mentioned above.

First up, my first-semester class (Fantasy literature with a focus on fantastic creatures, interdisciplinary approach). This paper was an early part of a larger project. We read most of The Odyssey and looked at images by a wide range of artists who interpreted Odysseus’ adventures, including Cy Twombly’s 50 Days at Ilium, a graphic novel interpretation by Seymour Chwast, and many works by Romare Bearden. Here’s what I asked students to do:

Think and Write:

  • How will you remember Odysseus in your personal, mental library? (look at the collection of epithets on the topics page) What characteristic stands out to you?
  • Which fantastic creature stands out and is particularly memorable to you? Why?
  • Who are your people* and how do your Odysseus and your fantastic creature speak to them?

No more than 800 words, a few, short quotes are a must. Share link to final draft in this chart. Read what your classmates wrote! (100 points) (Rubric)

(*This is based on the following from author Neil Gaiman “Mythologies tell us about being human. They are glorious; they are timeless. They need to be retold. . . When you’re retelling stories, you’re retelling them for your people.”)

I initially thought of this as something different to do with a text that was very familiar to them (many read a middle-grade version in 5th grade and almost all were familiar with many of the individual episodes). Since Odysseus is one of those characters who people tend to remember in some shorthand way, I thought it would be interesting for students to take a conscious look at something that we do unconsciously. And, considering how that choice of how to remember this character might be related to their own personalities seemed like an excellent option for seniors in the midst of writing college essays.

It was interesting to me that students found it difficult to make the personal connection between their choice of how to identify and remember Odysseus (the wily Odysseus, the old warrior etc) and themselves. It was hard for them to see that their choice perhaps said something about who they are or what they appreciate. Since I knew the students quite well, it was pretty easy for me to connect the dots. The dots appeared like lighted runway arrows to me. Most of the group ultimately found some connections, and they were amused to find that many of the connections were not that tricky to identify, although a few just totally could not or would not go to any personal reflection. I think that combining the analytical and the personal was a novel experience, and they were uncertain about leaping in.

In the second semester the course, still English with an interdisciplinary approach, focussed on fantastic places in literature. One of our texts was Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It is the story of Marco Polo telling Kublai Khan about the cities in his empire. However, each city may actually be based on Venice or Marco Polo’s imagination. Each city is described in a few paragraphs or a few pages and is grouped into one of nine categories. The students had never read anything like it.

My assignment description was the following:

Post Invisible Cities writing project

This is NOT a research paper. Do NOT search for or use any other sources (criticism, reviews, wikipedia, etc). This is your own deep investigation of a piece of this text.

Part 1: Analysis of a collection of city passages (choose whichever topic you wish)

  • Formulate an original idea about these passages.
  • Analyze the passages, explain your notion of their identity, use quotations, etc
  • ~1100-1200 words (no more than 1250)
  • Assessed as a typical analytical paper (see English department general rubric on bulletin board)
  • Worth 50% of total points

Part 2: Creative descriptions of the place you chose

  • Write 2 short descriptions of your location in the style of the theme you analyzed
  • You do not need to imitate Calvino, but do use his writing as a model
  • Each one should be 250-350 words
  • Worth 25% of total points

Part 3: Connecting the dots Commentary

  • A commentary or reflection on your own writing and analysis
  • How have these two parts (analytical and creative) informed each other
  • 400-500 words
  • Worth 25 % of total points

Total points=200

All parts should be in one document. A simple row of asterisks can be used to indicate a move to the next section. No need to label the parts.

Although this description of word count and points makes it seem like this assignment was very rigid, there was A LOT of room to move within these boundaries. The book itself is hard to get a grip on so having so very set specifics for the writing was a good anchor. And, to spread out the work, we had worked on the descriptions of place a bit in advance.

The final products here were very successful, in my opinion, in that they pieces each contributed to the whole. I can’t imagine understanding any of the student’s thinking without all the pieces. In some ways, the commentary was the most valuable. By that point in the assignment, the student had done the thinking, analyzing, writing, and editing. For many, it was the place where everything came together the most succinctly. It also gave me some insights into the student’s process and intentions with the creative writing, in case they could not quite carry off what they intended. We talked about this quite a bit in class, and I wrote the creative pieces as well. I shared that my pieces were certainly more heavy-handed than Calvino’s in terms of the themes I wanted to get across. But I also reminded the group that Calvino is a pro; it’s ok for him to be better at this and it’s ok for us to try to copy some of his writer moves (as long as we say that is what we are doing). In giving them that permission, I got back all kinds of careful observation notes and comments about the writer moves each of them was trying. Plus, with the different parts of the assignment, there was something for everyone.

So, what I learned is that combining the analytical and the more creative or personal leads to good thinking, solid writing, and quality engagement from the students. Plus, the final products were interesting to read. Victory!

So, I’ve been working on some more images for my taxonomy sets.

starting image of a house

This set begins with the same image, which I created from a photograph that I put through the Adobe Capture app using the shapes tool. I adjusted it some and took out some stray marks. With other images, I have used the lasercutter to make a woodblock and then printed from there (description of that process). With these, I printed from a regular document printer onto a variety of paper, mostly heavier art paper, but one image is one plain old copy paper. Then, I cut out the window spaces (they were very dark and distracting) and thought about what might replace the darkness.

The idea of not knowing what is behind windows and inside houses that we see from the street was interesting to me. What if the outside were inside? What if it was unexpected? What if some things (birds) were both inside and out? If I remember correctly, I was also thinking about the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Our House.” I think the “two cats in the yard’ line got me thinking about what is behind the fence, but in the yard, and what if the things that are in the yard were inside instead…

Once I cut out the windows, I went my trusty miniature copy of Audubon’s Birds of America and started cutting. It is truly the book that keeps on giving. I thought we, the viewers, should also see that the birds’ habitat was behind the walls, so I put bits and pieces of the background scenery in the windows too. Finally, everything needs a little bit of sewing. I definitely need a sewing machine that allows for more free movement; I think I can get a plate to adjust my machine, but that is for another day.

So, here are the images. As is becoming a habit, the idea shifted a bit during the process. The first two were as described above. The sewing traces some of the lines of the siding and is in a color similar to the paper. The next two have larger images of nature behind the windows and the plants are kind of taking over the house. To me, they seem wilder, especially the fourth one with the sewing of the plant shape on top. I completed four of the five in more of a group and then set the group down for a bit. I was trying out different color paper and ran through the colors in my pack.

First. The Blue Grebe House. Subtle sky in the windows.

 

Next. I like the grasses in the windows and the magenta stitching.

 

Third. I return to the music score as background and nature starts to take over.

 

Ran out of my good paper, but added some free-form plant shapes in the sewing.

I then came back to the group and thought about fabric. Also, I was tired of cutting all those tiny windows and just got rid of the middle horizontal piece in each window. Rather than plants in the house, I used the music score as a background and painted it so that there was more difference between it and the house. Again, I added the birds, inside and out, and then noticed this deep purple velvet fabric. I like that it almost reads as a curtain, especially with the vertical zig-zag stitch. I also returned to the stitching at the fence line.

Final piece. The house as a barrier or dividing line is back.

It’s interesting to me that the final image has the house back in charge in some ways. Things aren’t busting out, nature isn’t all over, inside and outside may be unexpected, but they are distinct.

If I decide to continue with this idea, I have the image printed on vellum ready to go. The vellum would allow even more of an inside look at what’s behind the wall.

CCO Creative commons image

So I have been thinking about class discussion. I have been having discussions about books with students for decades. (I am not exaggerating; I can honestly make that statement.)

Talking with students about what we have read is one of my favorite things to do. Do other people not feel this way? I find it hard to believe that a great conversation about what we noticed and thought about in a book/text/image/whatever and how it might connect to other art or ideas or anything would not be thrilling. This may be why I am still a teacher. Anyway, my enthusiasm is not enough. Good teaching that translates into significant learning does not happen automatically or automagically. It takes intentional planning, ongoing work, and regular reflection. Years of teaching do not get me (or anyone) a pass on careful preparation.

My standards are high for class discussions; I am not satisfied with walking through the chapters and reviewing what happened with a few thoughtful comments thrown in, unless it is a very challenging text; I don’t think that is enough. I aim for a discussion that includes both specific attention to the text’s words, structure, literary elements, “writer moves” and one that makes connections to the big picture. As a fan of the big picture, I love it when our conversations get there. However, I also know that unless we are all talking about those big ideas with real grounding in the text and basing our comments on that deep, specific understanding, it is easy for those big idea discussion to become too much BS. It has been my experience that smart students who are very good on their feet and comfortable talking about big, sweeping ideas, get carried away with generalities without being too bothered by those pesky details. Finally, I want students to be talking to each other and the group not just answering me and then waiting for the next question. That’s not a discussion; that’s a set of reading questions that we answer orally.

I want a lot.

This year, I’ve worried that not enough of our class discussions have hit that sweet spot. I took a look at various parts of the discussion equation.

First, the content of the discussions.

  • Fine reviewing/summarizing
  • Fine talking about big ideas.
  • Not fine putting it all together.

Since my English class this year is also interdisciplinary, there is even more reason to really push the big idea. However, I can’t in good conscience ignore the need for careful reading and examination of the text. So, I went to visit a colleague who loves to do detailed passage analysis with her students. I will admit that I do not necessarily love detailed passage analysis by itself. I need it to be done in service of a bigger idea or investigation. Sometimes this is hard at the beginning of a book when we need to be doing all that close reading, but we haven’t read enough of the text for some of the bigger ideas to be visible. After visiting my colleague, I decided that I could be more insistent that we stick with some particular passages longer in order to get at more and deeper analysis, but I also have some texts in my curriculum that do not necessarily call for the kind of analysis this colleague does with Faulkner, for example.

Conclusion: I need to be more intentional in the passages that we investigate closely and be more patient in waiting and prodding for that continued analysis. But, I’m not far off here. And, there is no reason we can’t come back to passages later. It may be easy to stick to discussing the passages from the particular assignment, but that should not dictate my planning.

Second, the format of our discussions.

  • I was too dominant a voice in class.
  • Too much talk was simply a single response to a question from me.
  • Not enough adding on to others’ ideas or responding to a classmate.

While I will admit that I can get carried away and want to participate a lot in a good discussion (in a very ‘ooh this is so exciting’ way), I am definitely not intimidating. I like to take notes on the board (preferably in multiple colors in a web with circles and lines connecting ideas) as we talk. This keeps me close to the board and at the front. The tables are usually arranged in a U-shape or a closed rectangle. However, most students sit at the sides and far edge of the shape. I try to move to the side and sit down, but then I am back up again. When we have what I call graded discussions (where I do not talk at all and give students a topic to prepare in advance), they do a better job of responding to each other as there is no other option. However, even in this format, I found too much serial opinion giving this year rather than collaborative discussion.

Conclusion: I have forgotten to remind students of some of my goals and expectations for our work together. In other years, I have been more intentional about this and, surprise, the outcomes were better in this area. I was reminded of some of this after I read “Bringing All Students into Discussion” on Edutopia the other day. It’s impossible to keep everything I want to be doing at the front of my brain, and the ideas in this article are not new to me; I just did not put them front and center. As I focused on some particular interdisciplinary goals and more rigorous and synthetic assessment design, I forgot to spend time in some other areas.

Classroom climate, which I see this as an outgrowth of, is one of the most important things to me. And while I know from my course surveys that students did not feel discouraged from participating or that there was a culture of exclusion, I want to get back to my previous levels of success here. When I talked with small groups of students, we had great interchanges–wrestling with ideas for projects or writing, working and reworking ideas. This leads me to believe that it is the whole class situation that needs attention. All of us, teacher and students, should feel responsible for encouraging and ensuring that all voices are heard. We should aim to be requesting feedback from others on our ideas. I suspect a lot of this change can be affected by me being more transparent and specific about my goals and then explicitly modeling and sharing strategies that we can all use. 

I’m already planning for September!

 

So I’ve been thinking about the final project for my senior English class. I have known that this would be the assignment in some shape or other since the summer. It was one of the very first things that I determined about the class, and I’ve been excited about it ever since.

A little background.

This is a one semester, interdisciplinary English class focusing on fantasy literature and in particular fantastic places. For this final unit, we have learned about installation art (I wrote about my students’ voicethread projects on installation artist the other day), and we have just read The Night Circus by Ellen Morgenstern. In the book, two magicians make various displays and tens within a magical circus (think more fair than circus in that there are many displays and parts of the place rather than a single big top). The circus, open only at night, travels from city to city and serves as a venue for a competition between the two magicians, who have each been trained by a different teacher. Some of the tents that they create have the feel of installation art. I told the students the rough outline of this assignment about halfway through our reading. I would have told him sooner but It would not have made sense. Here is what I shared with them at that point:

Immersive Environment Proposal

Simply put, you will create a proposal and explanation for an immersive environment. This environment should have one specific, intended audience member (from one of our course texts) and allow for others to participate. It should also address a big idea that we have investigated over the course of the semester.

Things to consider or questions you need to answer:

  • What big, conceptual ideas will your work/space examine?
  • Who is this space for? You need to have a specific audience member (presumably a character from the semester, but if you have other ideas, please ask) in mind and design for that person (and others)
  • How does this space speak to both you and your audience member?
  • How do you imagine the audience moving or not around the space and why?
  • How does the audience interact with the environment? Can they change it or engage with it in a way that alters the experience?
  • What materials would you use and why?
  • How have you been inspired by any of the artists you or your classmates studied? Be specific about your inspiration.
  • Consider technological and fantastic options. Just because you don’t know HOW you would make it work, doesn’t mean you can’t suggest or plan as if you did.

More details about words and images to come, but this is enough to let you get started thinking.

 

We really started talking about it a little more in earnest as they finished the last section of the book. I asked for feedback from a few colleagues. I talked with the class about product and group or individual project.  We actually came to the idea of a poster session as a group. After all that, I added what I think are clarifications to the description of the assignment.

Please look at the TED Talk video on The Night Circus topic page (on LMS) I think it gives a good example of how an artist might think about big ideas yet represent them in maybe unexpected ways.

Due Date: Friday, May 4th.

Format: poster (and shadow box or model–optional) with images and text.

  • Artist statement
  • Detailed description of the piece. This does not all have to be words. You can and should have some visual elements here (diagram, colors, picture of materials, etc). How will visitors experience the work? What do you hope they notice? etc
  • Process commentary. This will walk us through the ideas you drew upon, reference images or artists you borrowed from, discuss the process of coming to your final idea. (So, take notes along the way of where your ideas have come from and how they have changed).

We will have a gallery walk through the proposals. There is a special schedule on Friday. 4th is after 1st. I am worried about completing all proposals in a single period. We may need to meet on Monday for part of the time as well.

I have been updating a Pinterest board with images of installation art and linked that to our class page as well. The groups are formed. The topics are chosen. The students are working. On Monday I had expected that we would have time to work in class after finishing a discussion. However, the discussion was going so well that we didn’t get to it. So, students have had time in class but only the past couple of days. I would have liked to have given them shorter bits of time over more days, but that is not how things turned out.

One of the things that I needed to clarify and find a way to explain more was the idea of this being an art piece, not a stage set or an illustration of some piece of the book. Most of the very first ideas they were batting around in their groups were very literal. I was concerned. After another conversation with my art colleague who had helped out during the introduction to installation art, I returned with the following words: our goal is Art, not illustration. While this seems succinct and to the point, I was not sure that the students would know what to do with it. I added more to the assignment description. (Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)

NOTES:

  • Our goal here is ART, not illustration. That doesn’t mean you might not start with some more literal representations of your ideas, but then consider how to move a bit away from that. Your audience should be able to bring their own experiences and ideas to the work. You don’t want to dictate exactly what they are supposed to think or see.
  • It is fine to be inspired by or have someone else’s work spark an idea for you as long as you then do something different with it. It’s hard to explain why seeing x makes you think of y. Giving credit to that initial spark does not make you unoriginal. It makes you a respectful member of a community of creators.
  • Keep generating ideas. Don’t necessarily settle for the first idea that comes to you. Be willing to engage in significant revision to the point that the initial plan is not even visible.

Oh, me of little faith.

On Wednesday, students came in with lots of ideas. They must have been doing some thinking about the project, and I was impressed by where many of their ideas had gone. While there is still a lot of literal underpinning for what they’re planning, they are pushing themselves to be more abstract as well.

Victory!

A couple of the groups had some heated discussion about where and how they would bring their ideas to life. One group has been laughing up a storm as they try to imagine making their ideas visible–blood and wolves are involved. This group is particularly amusing to me because two of the three students are from my 5th grade class, and as I watch them laughing about  the absurdity of some of their ideas, I can see them as those 5th graders in my room who laughed about the craziness of the Greek myths and ran around the playground at recess. Usually, I walk around and talk with each group, which I did some of, but there was so much good conversation happening in each group that I really didn’t want to interrupt the flow. I did more walking and listening. And, at some point, I just sat down. They really did not need me to do anything else.

I am so excited to see the final results.