Posts Tagged ‘12th grade’

So, I’ve been thinking about the power of the pile, that stuff that accumulates and starts to matter. I first was thinking about student reflection adding up. Another thing that I think about piling up in this way is the sexual violence in the novels we have students read in English class. I am a regular broken record on the topic.

I’m against any kind of violence in real life. And, I understand that books include violence in many forms and for many reasons. But, as I said in my first power of the pile post‘, one is just one, two makes a line and any more than that and we have a pattern forming. But what pattern do we have? What I worry about is the pattern about relationships that we normalize when so many of the relationships we read about revolve around sexual violence against women. We’re not spreading the violence around. Would that even be better? It’s pretty well concentrated and aimed at women by men. I know we as teachers can say that this is unhealthy, that this is not what we should tolerate in our own lives. And we do that. And then, kids go on and hear or don’t hear that message and go on a read or don’t read the book.

The pile grows.

What other piles need to be ready to provide another point of view? No one book in the curriculum is an issue; it’s the pile. Do we have enough works that have other stories, other relationship patterns? As I spoke with a few colleagues about this the other day, it was this idea that we could all agree on–the idea that we can’t put a single story out there, over and over, so that it piles up and makes the only pile. Having these conversations with my colleagues, when the bell isn’t about to ring, is such a gift. The discussion helped me think a little differently, with more complexity, about the issues, let me practice making my point and refining it, and allowed me to gain perspective. Just another time that reaffirmed for me the awesomeness of the people with whom I work.

Back to the topic.

I also wonder: Does the pile start to say this is what real literature is about or this is what you need to be a grown up book or this is what contemporary works are or that these are the kind of relationships that are exciting to read about? Ultimately, does this become not only normal but to be expected?

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 10.15.09 PMPart of what makes me worry about this is an experience I had last year in my YA literature class with seniors. We read Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. This is an award-winning YA novel that centers around characters and their relationships most of which fall into the gender and sexual diversity category. There is nothing graphic about the situations or relationships that are described. There is kissing. There is a wandering hand or two. There is a lot of hand holding. There are bodies close together. Everyone keeps their clothes on, all the time. And yet, more than one student used the word graphic to describe the book. However, these same students think the rape of a female character in another book was graphic. That was a ‘relationship’ they were familiar with in literature.

I have passed this book around to get some other reactions to it. Maybe I am missing something. Nope. I’m not. It was recommended to me in good faith and was awarded prizes for good reason.

So, this coming year in my YA class, I’m adding this book to the ‘everyone reads it’ book group, rather than a choice book. I will of course help students think about their reactions to the book, its characters, and relationships. Time to add to a different pile.

Advertisements
CCO public domain image from pixabay.com

CCO public domain image from pixabay.com

So, I’ve been thinking about my new-to-me senior elective for the fall (Good Reads). I know it is barely summer, and I haven’t even finished thinking and reflecting on my classes from the year, but although I picked the books, I have never taught any of them and I had a hard time picking a group that had some connection. I am a little anxious that the connections won’t hold up or work.

I sat down the other day to plan out my assessment overview. I had already loosely planned out the timing of the books because I had to be sure that I could fit them into a single semester. So, I have some assessment ideas, but as I thought about it later, I realized that they were assessment activities, things to put on a calendar, more than anything else. My plan evenly distributed big and small assignments, balanced them in the proportions I need, and included a range of assignment formats and types. All good. What my assessment plan did not do was reference the essential questions and ideas of the course. Partly that’s because I have not planned the actual prompts for some of the assessments yet. However, in comparing that to the assessments I had planned for my courses last year (Truth and Fiction and YA Literature), I was not impressed with myself. Last year, I had big, ambitious goals for final synthetic pieces that would tie all sorts of things together. Mostly these ideas were a little too big, no surprise there, but having them in mind meant that I also had in mind something to build to with other work, and this is what I realized I was missing.

Then, for some reason I woke up in the morning thinking about charts and infographics. Now, I love a good infographic; I used to have my 5th graders make webs of things all the time. Yes, it is possible to express those same ideas and connections in writing, but probably not if you are 10 years old, and honestly maybe not even if you are 17 or 18 years old. One of the things that a well done web, chart, infographic allows the creator to do is show lots of related information visually without having to pick an order in which to tell the viewer about this in words. It can show connections that the chart maker might not quite be able to verbalize in a way that relates to everything else, and connections that might be tangential such that they would not warrant a mention if they had to relate to a paper, but are there. (Even in this short post, there are numerous side branches that I have pruned in writing that I would have left in a chart or infographic.) Plus, the visual thinkers are often great at them. I still think about a 5th grader in my first class who was a great field athlete (lacrosse in particular) who made several amazing webs of Greek myths that demonstrated how deeply he saw the connections between and among the characters and events of the story. I have since referred to is as “seeing the field” in his honor and because I think that is what he was able to do. There were other “stronger” readers who made very straight forward flow charts of the events in the story, but his chart showed much more about the complicated web that is Greek myth. (That little 10 year old is now a young man and probably just finished his junior year in college.) Sorry for that digression.

Back to the topic here. SO, I have always been a fan of making thinking visible, both the idea (before it was also a book) and the book. So, I’m thinking about charts and the title of the class, and a blog post by @dogtrax about connections. I often have a lot of somewhat unrelated ideas swirling around in my head that ultimately come together into something that makes sense to me anyway. Once it’s come together, the initial, disparate ideas are more just blips along the thinking path, but I like to remember and trace my connecting process. Plus, I usually feel very satisfied once I’ve wrangled those ideas into something sensical, and it is just interesting to me to ponder individual creative process. I honestly believe one can practice and create the conditions for inspiration. In this case, I thought in particular about the charts in magazines that take events in a city and rate them according to some amusing and unusual factor.

This lead me to think about the characteristics of a good read. I have put a couple of potential characteristics that one might consider in my summer reading questions. But I wanted more than a single quality. How many qualities could I get on one chart? What if I moved to 3 dimensions? How might I incorporate this sort of thinking throughout the course so that students become familiar with the process without it taking over? Last fall, I wanted students to think about the interconnected ways that the individual pieces of narrative in SlaughterhouseFive connected. And after seeing an exhibit of student art work at PAFA, I shared a student work with them. Then we went about creating something inspired by it that connected ideas in particular passages. I wrote about it at the time. I was too much at once, but had I structured it differently, it could have been more successful. An idea worth keeping in mind.

And just like that, an idea came together. It’s not even clear in my head yet, but I know it just needs some massaging, that the pieces are there. I don’t know why I know this, and there is no guarantee that it will work, but I know that I don’t need new pieces; I can stop collecting. Here are the basics:

  • Begin by looking at some of the potential qualities of a good read that I proposed in relation to our summer reading book (Kontiki by Thor Heyerdahl).
  • Break those qualities down into some smaller parts
  • Make some sort of graph or chart of how students see the book across those qualities
  • Add qualities as the semester progresses
  • Chart those for each book, reflecting back on earlier reads as well (good for keeping them in mind).
  • Some sort of synthesized final chart–maybe students choose 3-4 of the qualities that they think are the most important for their idea of a good read and figure out a way to make 1 chart that combines this.

I guess this post is really about two things. One, my reflection of the incompleteness of my assessment planning and the need for more attention to the essential questions of the course. And two, the way ideas spring into my head, but are really the result of collecting, curating (this is such a trendy word, I hate to use it, but anyway…), and ultimately mashing things together in a way that the pieces click into place as if they were meant to be together. I know that for meI have to do something with the things I notice (to use @Dogtrax’s term) in order for them to become part of the collection of random flotsam and jetsam that floats around in my head. Once those noticings have make it into the more permanent collection, I have them at my disposal–I can call them up to admire them again, I can try them out in some new combinations, and ultimately I can remix them with other ideas so that they become mine.

Is that how other people work?

Public domain image from Pixabay.com

Public domain image from Pixabay.com

So, I’ve been thinking about YA literature all year. My second semester senior elective focused on YA literature. Part of the goal of the coarse was to read enough to think about YA literature and how it is similar to and also different from a lot of the literature they normally read in class.

The final assignment asked them to read “Against YA: Read What you want, but you should be Embarrassed to read what was written for Children” by Ruth Graham which appeared in Slate in June of 2014. I also collected several responses which we looked at as examples of various ways to engage in a debate of ideas. Students then had to weigh in on their own. (see my description below.)

You have now read a number of YA novels and heard about even more. In addition you have read the Ruth Graham article and several responses. It is now your turn to enter into the YA debate. You should write your own response to Graham’s article.

Your response will:

  • Be 1200+ words
  • Have an opinion as to the value or lack thereof of YA literature.
  • Define what “having value” or whatever criteria you use to evaluate YA literature means.
  • Defend that opinion in a way that allows the reader to understand your thought process.
  • Reference and cite specific points by Graham and at least one other article.
  • Reference with specifics at least two book that you read in the course to support your idea.
  • Be engaging

Process:

  • First, read and digest the articles. Determine what criteria Graham has used to reject YA literature and the criteria others have used to support it.
  • Decide where your opinion falls in the debate.
  • Determine what criteria you think are most important and how you will define them.
  • Determine which points are most important for you to refute or confirm. Find evidence for this.
  • Choose several books from the course that you will reference in your response.
  • Draft several paragraphs (there is nothing magical about 5) by Tuesday, May 3rd
  • Share this beginning with peers in class on Tuesday.
  • Complete a draft by Thursday, May 5th. Required. (could be completed earlier)
  • Review feedback.
  • Complete final draft by Wednesday, May 11th. Required. (could be extended to Friday 13th)

There was a lot of complaining about the 1200+ words. To hear some of them, you would have thought I had asked them to climb to the moon. Since I was not going to budge on it, so we did not discuss. What I said in class was that yes it would be possible to toss off a quick 300-400 word superficial answer, but that one of our critiques of Ms. Graham’s article included its generalities and lack of specifics. I stressed over and over that carefully analyzing her particular points was important. She may state her big point in the title of the article, but she has particular points that are much more specific. I’m not sure I was convincing.

Anyway, I thought I should maybe write my own article to see if my word count was in fact way off. Um, no. It was not. I sat down and just scratched the surface of what I wanted to say with 700 words. I know, I’m not a high school student (just had a big reunion to prove it), but I’m confident that the task does in fact warrant some words.

The next day students came in more ready to work. I arranged the room so that everyone was looking away from each other as much as possible and so that I could see screens. A number of students came in and went back to the Graham article, which is what they needed to do. So, I’m feeling decent about that. Also, midway through class an impromptu discussion broke out about some of the points she makes in the article. About half the group joined in for a bit. I am feeling somewhat optimistic about this.

Update: I made sure to set the rough draft due date before prom weekend, but I did not get all drafts. Ugh! The ones I got were solid, so there’s that.

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking about literature circles in my senior English elective. This is a YA literature elective and we are reading a lot of books in not a lot of time. About half the time we are reading a book as a class and the other half students have some choice and read in groups. (I’ve written about my set up and addition of a new job already.)

Our second unit is well underway. The whole class read was The Phantom Tollbooth. I have to say I was curious to see how this book fared with 17 and 18 year olds in 2016. A few students had read the book when they were younger and had generally positive memories of the book. Well, I have to say it was a success, IMO. I do not have a lot of experience teaching second semester seniors, so let me tell you what I have determined to be a success (note I am saying this before grading the test):

  • People read the book.
  • People participated in discussions. We did have a few very squirrel-y days in there, but we regrouped.
  • Several students made a point to tell me how much they liked the book and our discussions. (And, no, I was not giving extra points for this)

Now we are back to literature circles for Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente. (I wrote about some of the idea in this book a while ago.) Day 1 of literature circle discussions dawned with high absenteeism. Of the three book groups, two were missing discussion leaders. Not promising. Thank goodness I had checked attendance before class and could regroup. The two Haroun groups could meet together with the remaining discussion leader. The other group I thought I would tackle.

Class began. I had students record some information for their jobs on their summary sheets before the discussion started. As it turned out, the Fairyland group did not need me in the slightest (except to do a little interpreting of other possible meanings for “there will be blood.”). They were discussing who would take on leading before we even got going, were starting to talk about the book before everyone even arrived (promptness also not a big thing for this group). They made connections to The Phantom Tollbooth, Peter Pan, other movies and stories. One of the things they also did, which represented real progress, was to discuss both the big ideas and specifics. I heard them referring to specific passages in the book, or details at least, to defend their ideas. Now, this may not sound very impressive. I would expect all of this in a discussion of any sort. What was exciting was that the group was doing this independently. I sat with them some, but was in no way a leader. Since it was clear they were not in need of my help, I went on to the patched together group reading Haroun. They did need some support.

After class, I asked myself why the Fairyland group was so successful?

  • Group make up played a part for sure.
  • Everyone coming prepared was key.
  • I like to think that last week’s added direction and instruction about the parts of discussion and how to build and foster all those pieces played a part.
  • Practice, practice, practice.

One of the things about reading these YA works is that we can read and discuss them in reasonable depth in a length of time that allows for a lot of titles. A lot of titles means a lot of repeated practice of the skills I want to foster, but with new material. For each literature circle book there are three or four literature circle meetings. Students keep the same job for all the meeting around a book. So, the students are getting a lot of practice, some reasonable feedback, and a chance to see others do various jobs.

For seniors, I think this independent practice is very valuable. These students are about to head to college and beyond. Practicing not just doing a project with a group at the end of the learning, but actually doing the learning with the group is time well spent. Alternating between whole class books with discussions lead and carefully planned out by me and student led literature circles is providing a good variety for class too. Just as we may be getting tired of one format, it’s time to change to a different one.

I hope the Fairyland group continues to set such a good example for the class. (I emailed them to say what a good job they did. I know they think they are grown, but they’re kids who like you to notice when they do something well.)

 

So, I’ve been thinking about how to adjust my teaching so that my students get better at having independent discussions in their literature circles.

It turns out that my students need more guidance in order to increase the level of discussion in their literature circles. Reasonable enough. So, I adjusted my instruction. We started our current unit with a whole class book directed by me. I tried to do some of my best, most careful planning for these discussions. And, because I am teaching seniors, some of whom are probably counting the remaining days, I also made a light up sign using Chibitronics lights and copper tape.

The first class discussion went fairly well. I used my light up sign to signal when I was sharing something that might fall squarely to a particular literature circle role. Yes, it’s like being back in 5th grade, but I’m good at that and as I wrote before, the seniors are not totally unlike 5th graders. And, based on my review of the previous discussion feedback, I added another job to our literature circle job list. Character Captain is a standard job, which I had thought might be too basic or would be gobbled up by Discussion Leader or Literary Luminary. I was wrong. It needs its own job. So, I’ve got my sign, I’m moving through my plan, there’s some decent discussion. But, will it change what the students do in their next literature circles when we move to other books? Probably not unless I make some more of my process clear to them.

I realized that I needed to give them more of a peek behind the teacher curtain. Therefore, at the start of the second class period’s discussion, I began by reviewing my outline from our discussion the day before. I went so far as to put a bullet pointed list on the board of the order of things from the day before and related each back to the big question I wanted to discuss and the corresponding literature circle job (and light up sign flash). I will not lie to you and say that this was genius or that everyone was moved to tears. However, since then I have had a question about what teachers do to think of all of this. Do we have secret teacher files of all this symbolism and references and what to say about books? And, I have continued to mention the planning and adjusting process over the course of our discussions. I mentioned that with me doing all of the jobs, I can make it all fit together, and I can adjust and move off script if my plan bombs. They might not even realize I am doing that. Experience matters.

The question is, will some of this transfer as the students begin another round of literature circle discussions. Fingers crossed.

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching seniors, the pedagogy behind literature circles, and how I can know if my instruction is effective. (Yes, I do know about tests.)

I have been begging, harassing, talking about reflection and digital portfolios to anyone who will listen, or stand still, for years at this point. I will even walk with someone and talk about this if given half a chance. And, I know it’s hard to fit it in to an already packed curriculum. For me, if I don’t make a new strategy part of my regular teaching routine, it falls by the wayside as soon as a bird flies by the window or there’s something exciting for lunch.

Yet, once again I am reminded that asking the students to summarize their learning and reflect on it is valuable to me and my teaching practice, which through trickle down education theory (have you heard of that?) means it’s going to help the students.

Here’s what happened this time.

So, I have a small class (14) and even with that number, I don’t get a chance to hear from everyone or know what sort of impact my strategy du jour is making on individuals. Those who are more vocal, who give away more with their body language, who seek feedback or affirmation are easier to figure out. And I end up turning towards them in the sense that I get affirmation from them that what I am doing is working for them, so I do that more. Or, I get the idea that what I am doing is not good for them and I do whatever it is less. All good, hearts, unicorns, rainbows for those students and for me. However, what about those students who keep their cards close to the vest? I am responsible for and to them as well. My strategies must meet the needs of all my students. Not everyone is going to love the activity every day, but no students should come to class knowing that my teaching style or mode never works for them.

In my YA Elective, we have finished a two book, literature circle focused unit. Most class periods involved student lead discussion groups. I moved around and joined each group for some minutes each period, but a lot of the work was student driven, which means that some of it wasn’t up to the standards I might have set. After each round of 3 discussions (per book), I asked students to turn in a set of discussion summaries and reflections. (I wrote about how this convinced me to stay the course with literature circles a few weeks ago.) Yes, some of these are minimal. However, I am consistently enlightened by them. I learned that I had reached some folks; I learned that there are ideas in these books (which are not “hard” in the typical sense) which really grab students; I learned how unaware some of the students are about racial justice issues; I learned how thoughtful some students are about what it means to learn hard lessons.

This is a good example of another little known education theory: the if you ask it, they will answer theory (with apologies to Field of Dreams). I am never sorry when I ask students to tell me about their learning. I do have to take a deep breath sometimes, because as my if you ask it theory suggests, they will answer, but not necessarily with opinions about how wonderful I am. However, I give students feedback all the time that is about a what to fix or do differently; I surely need to be able to hear similar feedback myself. I have made some adjustments to my instruction already in our current unit based on this feedback.

What sort of reflection do you ask of your students and what do you do with what you get back?

Public domain image from Pixabay

Public domain image from Pixabay

So, I’ve been thinking about graded discussions all school year. It’s been a success overall.

When I surveyed my first semester group about it, some of them did not like it, but for the most part they were positive. Plus, I think it’s more reasonable to say “today I’m grading your participation” rather than have it be a vague overall sense of participation for the semester.  This way, it’s about your participation in this event, which is legitimately hard for some students, but also legitimately assessable. It doesn’t become a grade that supposedly reflects your performance all week/month/semester, when I as the teacher have not been taking notes on that and am going to give an impressionistic grade that is not necessarily very objective.

So, back to the new semester. I have started my YA Literature class. This section is still small, but we are now at 14 students, 3 of whom were in my Truth and Fiction class last semester. We had our first graded discussion a week or so ago. As usual, I gave out the topic to be discussed in advance (although I do wonder about who is looking at the online assignment sheet), set up the room to be one big table, got my note page ready, and we started.

This group moved at a statelier pace, which allowed for a bigger variety of voices to be included right away. There weren’t really students who dominated. Two of the quieter students from last semester joined in more this time. I am wondering about this. Was the pace better for them? Did they like feeling like they knew the ropes? What should I learn from this?

In this discussion, there were three students who had not participated after 20 minutes or so. I was sitting next to one of them and had already nudged him a time or two with no luck. Once the conversation seemed to have pretty much played itself out, I asked if anyone who had not spoken up had anything to say. The other two quiet students added a brief something; my neighbor did not.

Some students want/need/expect that teacher response to their comments, and I got the sense that there were a few sitting around the table who were not sure what to make of this exercise. Therefore, at the end of the discussion, I gave some overall thoughts and reiterated my reasons for not participating. I reminded them that I wanted this to be a discussion that was not dominated by me and was not about responding to me. I also stressed that it was not that I was not interested, rather there were many times I would have loved to join in, but bit my tongue on purpose. I got the feeling that some students needed to hear this again. I saw several nods after I explained.

Again, I would say that for most students this was a successful experience. One of my returning students guided the discussion back to our stated topic when it wandered too far. I don’t think he would have done this had he not been familiar to the format. I appreciated it. I think it speaks to the fact that he internalized some of what I was pushing the students to do last semester. And, it was a great model for others of taking ownership of the level of discussion. Those who did not participate were not as ready as some of my previous quiet people in terms of having notes ready etc. I think with this group I will have to continue to remind them to look at the assignment sheet for the topic and to come prepared with some things to share.

Many of the topics for these discussions have been fairly big picture. One of my goals for this semester is to have these discussions be on more specific topics so that we can get to more detailed references to the text.

Onward and upward!