Posts Tagged ‘English 12’

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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!

 

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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.

Nick Cave exhibit at MassMoca, summer 2017. (photo by me)

So I’ve been thinking about tech tools lately. When I work with teachers to support their technology use in the classroom, I always insist that we start with the learning goals or really anything but the technology. However, I have an upcoming technology event and so particular tech tools are on my mind.

A tool that I had forgotten about but have come back to is VoiceThread. I have helped foreign language teachers use it in the past, so perhaps I just got stuck in putting it in that bucket. I don’t know.

Anyway, my students and I were doing research on installation artists. After a brief introduction to the movement from an art colleague, they were off and investigating individual artists. As it turned out, I did not have time in the schedule for students to present their findings, nor was presenting really a goal of this mini-unit. Side note: What to do with research findings so that there is some audience or use for it beyond the researcher is often a conundrum. If I do the presentation thing, it ALWAYS takes WAY longer than planned. Plus, often it turns into a different person lecturing. Is that really what I want? If I give student groups an entire class period and make it clear they need to engage and teach the class versus just dump information, they can do that. But with the ~10-minute time frame, by the time you add class participation, each little report out is taking over class again. Ok, back to the main point here.

I had several goals for this little mini-unit:

  • First of all, I wanted students to learn about installation art as a movement.
  • I also wanted students to become more familiar with how to talk about this kind of work, so I had them incorporate information from reviews in their research.
  • I wanted students to learn about at least one artist in more detail, but also to hear about a few more artists.
  • Finally, I wanted the presentation itself to invite interaction, connecting it to installation art in a way.

Hello, Voicethread.

I teach seniors so I didn’t figure I had to do too much explaining. I sent them the link to make an account; I did a little bit of explanation in class; I directed them to where the how-to videos were online. Some students found the drawing tools and really used VoiceThread to a fuller extent than others. And, a few students had minor technical issues. Overall, the learning curve for using VoiceThread was a non-issue.

When I look at the whole thing, it worked really well for the goals I had. Students could easily share their final work with their small group and with me. Not only did it allow for written or audio comments by the student-researcher but really lent itself to interaction, which was the most challenging goal to achieve without using extensive class time. Having students interact with the final presentations is a baby step towards one component of their culminating assignment for this unit, and being able to practice the interactive piece and think about ways to engage your audience will be helpful moving forward.  

(I would embed one or two, but all the comments are identified with the student first and last names. You’ll have to trust me on the quality.)

Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

 

So, I’ve been thinking about hyperdocs. @TeacherDebra, my amazing colleague, first introduced me to Hyperdocs and the Hypderdocs ladies last year. I loved the idea but wanted to make sure it translated to my older (12th grade) students. (Why do I even think this thought anymore? I have yet to come across an idea that can’t translate up or down the grades. Yes, it sometimes changes more in translation than other times, but really I have been at this too long to let myself fall into that thinking trap.)

When I first looked at some examples, I was uncertain. Some of my hesitation was about the potential to be making a pretty worksheet. A pretty worksheet is still a worksheet; it’s not significantly better as a learning activity than an unattractive worksheet. But, that is my job–to create quality learning experiences that don’t turn into the equivalent of a worksheet no matter what fun tool I use. So, I gave it a try.

My first hyperdoc was for a unit in my Good Reads class last fall (12th grade English elective). It served more as a long-winded explanation of one, extended activity. I got to have a few additional bits of information in there, but it was in many ways a pretty activity description. It didn’t connect enough to the bigger picture of the unit or what the purpose of the activity was in the larger assessment plan. I knew this activity was supposed to set the students up for a writing assignment. So, I should have centered my entire hyperdoc around that bigger idea.

 

 

This year (another 12th grade English elective) I have been using them to better effect, but I can still do better. First, I created one to outline just a few days of class work in conjunction with our summer reading. We had already talked about the book itself. This work extended our discussion. I wanted to model the pattern of looking at a bigger question, doing some research, thinking, thinking some more, and coming to some conclusions. 

 

I did a little better job here with connecting to the goals of the work and connecting that to our unit goals, but there’s still room for improvement.

I followed a similar pattern with my next hyperdoc. Again, this covered our extension of the unit once we had done our basic reading and looking at art. (I posted the same information on our LMS but in straight text; students mostly preferred the hyperdoc version.)

 

Looking at these now, with some distance, I see that even these improved hyperdocs don’t do enough to make the learning goals clear enough. It made so much sense to me, the unit planner, but for everyone else, it still leaves a lot to be desired. I appreciate that these two recent hyperdocs do clearly highlight the thinking patterns I was aiming to reinforce, which was a big part of what I wanted to accomplish in these mini units.

I have one unit left in my current English class. I should take advantage of what I have learned in reviewing my work and try again.

What advice would you give me?

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So, I’ve been thinking about student choice and format of work. I have been trying to remember and put into action what Marc Prensky said at an ADVIS event several years ago, “assign the verb not the noun.” This means assign what I want students to do, not exactly the tool or format it must take. (I wrote about something else from the event at the time; isn’t it interesting what you think is going to really stick with you and then what does stick with you?)

To date, I have been able to put this idea into action on more creative assignments. This year I have assigned things like “research and share your findings” or “demonstrate interdisciplinary thought” (that one really made folks crazy) but not “powerpoint presentation” or “podcast”. As it turns out, most students ended up choosing a similar format for these exercises, but I made a real point to talk about the actions and the important thinking work rather than numbers of slides or minutes of audio.

The current assignment my English 12 students are working on is the first time I have assigned “write” and not added “a paper” or “a story” after it. The assignment is, for the most part, an analytical paper that is meant to get students thinking about two works of fantasy and some other big ideas of the course. It is an assignment that lends itself to a typical English paper, but it is not an assignment that REQUIRES a typical English paper. It turns out that for the vast majority of my students, a regular, old English paper is just fine right about now. However, for one student a screenplay was the format of choice. He is SO excited about this prospect. Now, I did not just say, “great. Go for it. See you later.” We chatted about some of his plot options, and I definitely pushed for one particular idea over the others (which I thought was manageable and better answered the requirements of the assignment). It still may not be great. However, the student has been working hard on it, and, given that. I think there is a better chance that the finished product will be a better representation of this student’s best work.

Whenever I assess work, I want to learn something about the student’s progress with a particular skill or mastery of a particular concept. If I know that the student didn’t put forth much effort or that the format in which I collected this data was particularly difficult for the student, then the results on the assessment are less meaningful for me. Of course, there are some assessment formats that may be important skills as well. In that case, I just need to be aware of what I am actually measuring when I evaluate the particular assessment.

Back to my student. I have read the first draft and have made a number of significant suggestions. So far, the student continues to be willing to engage in the discussion; therefore, I am still positive about the experience for the student and the amount of thinking the student has had to do about the ideas and content. Since I always want my students to be successful, I hope that there is a lot of revising between now and the final draft. The screenplay has a lot of potential. But, even if it doesn’t get a lot better, I will know that I am looking at the result of significant time and engagement.

So I’ve been thinking about homework. Anyone who has taught for any length of time has thought about homework. I have assigned a lot of homework in my time, and I don’t say that as a badge of honor or to brag.

My ideas about homework have changed over the years. Some of that has to do with my experience assigning, correcting, and reflecting on the homework that I give my students. And, some of that change has to do with my experience as the parent of students who have to do the homework that others assign. Full disclosure–I know there are those on the no homework at all bandwagon; I just can’t get there for reading and writing. 

When I first started teaching I was just trying to make it through the day, follow the directions, and not mess up too dramatically. My school had rules and expectations about homework, although we did not necessarily have the resources in terms of books to follow through on those rules, and I tried to do what I was supposed to do. However, in the end, I really could not give much homework.

When I came to 5th grade at my current school, there were a lot of resources and therefore a lot of potential for homework– spelling, vocabulary, reading, writing, and math, sometimes social studies, projects etc. I won’t pretend that I have never assigned less than worthwhile homework, but I can honestly say that over the years I worked hard to strip away anything that I didn’t think was really worth the time. Teaching in a self-contained classroom, I gave the vast majority of the homework. So, I could balance things. If I wanted students to do any social studies, I cut way back on language arts. Language arts represented the bulk of 5th grade homework, and there were not many other items. Over the course of two nights, I generally assigned some reading and a blog comment. It definitely took students some time to do the work, and I honestly felt I saw the positive results. The comfort with writing that my students developed and the level of thoughtfulness and critical thinking about the reading that they acquired over the course of the year would not, I think, have been possible without this very regular practice that happened at home and was then discussed and expanded on in class.

Looking back on it now though, and comparing it to the homework load that I see in high school and in my own kids in middle and high school, one of the key characteristics of that fifth-grade homework was that there was generally one key item. There might be some vocabulary that from this distance might qualify as skippable (is that a word? Maybe we shouldn’t skip the vocab), there was some math practice, not a lot, and then the main item–usually language arts. Students always had two days to work on a reading and writing combination. The work was structured in such a way that there was, if students did not put it off, time to read, think, and write. What I heard from families was that students did spread the work out, as intended. 

What I worry about with the homework that I assign now (to seniors) is that it doesn’t get translated into a chance to spend some time thinking and working at a personal pace on ideas that we are talking about in class. When I started teaching in Upper School, I was told assigning work in two-night chunks was not going to work. I was told this repeatedly, by many people. Students would just put it off and then not complete the work. As the newbie, I believed it and made my assignment sheets accordingly. I’m starting to wonder if I should rethink this.

Time to ask the people actually doing the homework. Duh. When I asked the 5th graders, they were overwhelmingly in favor of the two-night plan for reading and writing. Why aren’t I asking these almost-adults?

I start the flipgrid conversation, with fun yellow glasses.

So I’ve been thinking about formative assessment. Originally I began this post “I’ve been thinking about how much/often to check in on student progress.” However, “checking in on student progress” is really the same thing as formative assessment, so I’m going to say that I’ve been thinking about formative assessment; it makes me feel better. Formative assessment is something I am trying to work on.

A little background. Students in my class are engaged in a medium-term project (see hyperdoc, some links deactivated) The project was structured so that the initial work was some thinking and writing about book we recently read followed by some independent research that went a little farther afield and then to is followed by group work on a question to be determined by the group that is presumably going to be informed by the independent research. There are a couple of potentially contradictory characteristics about the students in the class. They are seniors in an honors-level course and therefore should be able to keep up with independent research, stay on track, and do all the things. And, they are seniors in honors-level class and therefore are smart people who sometimes put things off and can BS their way through. Since I come from a lower school background, I tend to include lots of checking in points. Older students are may be less a fan of that. I want to balance expecting and respecting their independence with assessing how their research is going early on before it goes too far off track.

I made a grand plan for this little mini unit. (Those of you who are familiar with my planning will not be surprised that it was perhaps a grander plan than was necessary or was advisable given that this is a new-to-me class, but there you have it.) And, I Incorporated some check-ins, which I’m now calling formative assessment, along the way. As I wrote last year, I am a fan of the audio response, and I thought this was another good opportunity for audio. The other thing that I wanted to happen with these little formative-assessment-check-ins was the ability for classmates to listen in on one each other. There are two reasons for this. First, I want us to feel like a group working on connected work, and it’s hard to feel very connected to other people’s work if you don’t know what it is. And second, the students need to form groups based on research that they think goes together, not just people they like to sit with in class. Therefore, I chose to use flipgrid, which I have recommended to people before and seen others use, but have not actually used myself. It was a great opportunity to try something new for me as well.

When it came time for the students, according to my grand plan, to have done a little flipgrid checking in, I was worried that they would forget. We were heading into a long weekend; there was a lot going on; there a lot of moving parts to this project overall. I really wanted to email the group on Friday and remind them. However, I resisted. know better. Come the end of the long weekend, there were not too many flipgrid videos. I was the first one to add a video; I thought I would model the assignment. Flipgrid lets the recorder add goofy hats or whatnot to the still image, which I could not resist. The student comments started coming in. I think every person who has commented has had some little drawing, do-dad, or design on their picture, and it is so funny to me that these mostly full-grown people are also still those 10-year-olds who loved to fancify their mindmaps in 5th grade. I love that.

As I listened to the student flip grade comments, I was really struck by a couple of things. First, of course, students could have done a little bit more research. But one of the other things I noticed was that a lot of what they shared was information I thought they already knew. Now, some of this could be students telling me things they already know, as opposed to things they researched, but I don’t think that’s true for all of. I’m fairly certain that I misjudged just how much background many students had. I learned something I needed to know. Isn’t this the point of formative assessment? These little check-ins were super helpful for me in terms of getting my head around what to expect and how to help support students in coming up with their next research questions.

Another thing I noticed was that several of the students were doing a good job of seeing patterns and generalizing. For example one of the things students needed to do was look at a wide range of images in the art database Art Store. Again, there is a wide range of experience in the class. We have practiced looking at art, we haven’t gotten very far, but we’ve done some good “slow looking.” A lot of students were able to see trends and patterns in the images they reviewed. More good information for me from this formative assessment.

This little formative assessment moment had a great return on investment. From two brief (2 minutes max) flipgrids from each student, I was able to have a more specific conversation with that student, assess some new skills (looking at art), and adjust my instruction along the way. Bonanza!