Posts Tagged ‘English 12’

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?

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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!

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 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.

CCO public domain image by Karolina Grabowska

So I’ve been thinking about my graded discussions for a long time. I have written about assigning jobs, about giving people partners to look out for, about smaller groups. All of this has really been about finding ways for students to engage meaningfully in discussion.

I have told students over and over, in as many ways as I can think to tell them, about the value of participating in discussions. First, it is a way to try out ideas. It is a chance to articulate an idea that you might want to use later and get some feedback on it before you commit it to paper. In addition, engaging in discussion is a chance to listen, to know classmates as thinkers who may think differently than you do. Finally, truly engaging in discussion is a chance to change. It is a chance to let the ideas of others change our ideas, to come into a conversation with one idea and leave with a different one. It is a chance to evolve and adapt.

Is this final potential of conversation to change us that is the most elusive in the classroom, in my opinion. Who is routinely aware of each idea she has at the beginning of class and who takes the time to carefully compare these beginning ideas to the ones she has as she heads out the door? Not me most days. However every once in awhile the stars and planets align just right and we have an aha moment on the most unlikely of days.

This happened in my class on April 13th. It was a Thursday (with Friday off); it was a beautiful day, and we were meeting last period. These things do not generally come together to create wonderful class periods. In preparation for our discussion, I had given the students the question for discussion in advance, and they were to think about that for homework. The topic was, of course, related to things we had been discussing over the course of reading of the novel (Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan).

As I mentioned, it was a beautiful day, so we went outside. We sat in the grass and students started talking. At one point a student asked, “do you think there is any storyline that was unnecessary for the book?” (The book has a number of storylines, and at times the students were annoyed by having to keep track of them.) This topic appealed to the other students, and many volunteered a storyline they would cut. However, for each storyline that was put on the chopping block, there was another voice arguing it was critical and needed to be saved.  This pattern continued as each storyline was proposed for removal and then rejected. At some point, a student said “Wait, I want to change my answer. I don’t think any of the stories can go. I think the book needs them all.”

And the earth split open, and there was beautiful music, and unicorns appeared.

I have to say this was one of the most exciting moments of these discussions for me. To have the students talk themselves through an idea, debate both sides of several options, and then have someone actually bring all the particulars together and clearly state I’m going to change my ideas based on what I’ve heard everyone say;  I think differently now?! This was exactly when I knew people were listening to each other and truly engaging in the kind of discussion that I want to have.

I tried not to jump up and down and do cartwheels right there. Since I was wearing a skirt, cartwheels were definitely out of the question. I did pause the conversation briefly to celebrate and to point out that this is why we have these focussed conversations. This is why we delve deeply into a particular idea over an extended period of time. We want to be sure that we have really exhausted our understanding and are confident with where we have landed.

The student who initially voiced her change of opinion is an excellent synthesizer in discussion. She was able not just to hear her classmates defend each story, but to understand that putting it all together meant something bigger. Not only do we have this very public moment of recognizing that we changed our minds based on discussion, based on engaging with other people and ideas, but most of the students also came away with a deeper appreciation for the book and its intentional structure. 

And then, the bell rang, and it was the weekend.

So, I’ve been thinking about the plans my students presented before spring break. The project was a YA book plan, either historical fiction or fantasy, depending on the genre the students in the group had been reading.

Last year, the entire class was reading various fantasy books and everyone, either in a group or alone, created a plan for a fantasy book. (I wrote about it last year, including the project description.) It was very successful in that students did good work, did not hate the project, were creative and collaborative, and I got new information about their interests and abilities.

This year, I have a lot of students who like historical fiction and/or don’t particularly like fantasy. So, I quickly created a historical fiction unit as an option to the fantasy unit. Historical fiction worked for a similar book concept final project which meant I could keep my successful project by making a few simple tweaks. (Fantasy project description. Historical fiction project description.)

Students knew about the project from the beginning of the unit. Having fantasy and historical fiction units going on simultaneously does not seem like an obvious pairing. As they read and talked about various books, I frequently connected at least part of our discussion to their goal of a new book project. Not only did that remind students of the upcoming tasks, but provided a unifying element in what might otherwise be a pretty random situation. For example, after each group’s first reading assignment, we looked at beginnings. I did a little talking about options writers have for beginnings, then groups examined the way their writer and text started, talked about the benefits and potential drawbacks, and finally, students wrote individually on a forum about what they were thinking about in terms of a beginning strategy for the book they would plan.

Once we got to the project, again the students really came through. This is work they are doing the week before spring break, not a time known for high-level work. Students had a short amount of time. Although they were to come in with some basic ideas on Monday, they basically started work on that Monday, had class Monday and Tuesday (long block of 65 minutes), homework time, and presented on either Wednesday or Thursday (the Thursday groups each had someone missing on Monday or Tuesday). With only four groups (3 historical fiction, 1 fantasy) I could spend quality time with each group asking questions, pushing them to consider options etc. On Monday, I was worried. They had ideas but were pretty far from solidifying anything. On Tuesday, they were significantly farther along. With a long class period that day, I was also able to get around to each group twice. It was interesting to see how various ideas changed and what had either fallen by the wayside or moved to the front.

It was clear from the final presentations that the groups had thought a lot about the structures of the books we have read over the course of the semester, beyond this unit. (Narrative structure has been an ongoing topic of discussion.) All groups made very particular choices about format and structure that they explained in terms of their responses to other works they read earlier in the semester. Students did solid research for the historical fiction stories. They thought about how they would incorporate enough of the necessary history into the story without sounding like a textbook. The fantasy group had animal characters and made interesting choices about character traits and lessons learned. In addition, each group had a presentation that included images to help us imagine the setting or characters. A few of them were very creative visually.

I was thrilled.

And, I was worried that maybe I was just being the proud teacher and excited over mediocre work done by students I love. It’s sometimes easy for me to spread affection over work like jelly, allowing it to cover burnt toast. I know this about myself. However, I invited another teacher to the presentations (The year before I was worried students wouldn’t take the assignment seriously and had another teacher there for the serious factor. This group did not need that, but whenever there is a performance/presentation, I think it’s a great idea to have outside eyes and ears for celebratory or seriousness reasons.) Then, I showed the final products to a real, live YA author. While neither of these ladies thought my students should give up their day jobs of being high school students, they both agreed that my students’ work was indeed quality stuff.

Whew.

What a great way to head off to spring break.

Here are a few slides from the presentations:

This book plan combines Ann Frank’s diary with a boy in a detention center. The boy has to read about Ann Frank and write in response to her entries. His initials are also AF, which I thought was a great little twist. This is an example of some sample text that might be in their book.

 

This book concept focusses on 9-11. There are four main characters who do not all connect to each other. At the end, they are all at the 9-11 memorial at exactly the same time. This is what each a shared chapter/passage.

 

More sample text. This concept has the story set in WWII, but in North Africa. There are two main characters, one older, one younger. The plan is for the younger medic to tell the story, but have the older soldier as a friend/mentor and information/history source.

 

Finally, the fantasy story. This story is about a naked mole rat who wants to see “above” and light and colors. The background on the slide is a maze of tunnels.