Posts Tagged ‘English 12’

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.

Advertisements

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.

So, I’ve been thinking about class activities recently. In particular, I’ve been thinking about activities that are not class discussions about the reading.

I try to mix it up in my English class. We might have several days of general discussion, some passage analysis, but I also try to have actual activities. Recently, we have worked on several webbing activities. I wrote about this the other day. For complicated information, I think showing the interconnections of characters, ideas, themes, really has to be done in a visual way. Plus, it’s the kind of thing that is hard to take notes on when it is just discussed and not created in the course of the discussion. Therefore, the web or chart or diagram serves the additional purpose of being a note-taking model as well.

Another thing I am trying to do is give more responsibility to the students in terms of leading class. (Student responsibility and independence was the topic of #NCTEChat on Sunday 3/19. Great chat. Check the archive for details.) So, earlier in this semester, pairs of students led class. Although they had options, all chose to lead discussions. These discussions went well, mostly. However, I wanted the students to branch out and think about other class activities that would be valuable, that would help the group think more deeply about the writing, the time period, the characters, etc. Having students think about what type of activity would best support deepening their learning about particular ideas seems to be an important step in taking responsibility and ownership of their learning. To move this process along, I decided to put some more parameters on what ‘leading class’ could look like for round two. This time, students had to plan an activity for their group (small groups) that was anything except a straightforward discussion.

In advance, we brainstormed a list of some possibilities. I didn’t just throw them out there with no support. Many of the options were things I had done with the students at some point during the semester. The plan was for each individual to be in charge of one 15 minute activity for his or her group. We were on a tight schedule, but had enough days for all activities. Then, we had a snow day, which messed up our schedule a bit, but was oh so lovely.

One of the students planned for the group to make a web with the four main characters. She had her small group at the board. Two of them wrote and all (mostly) participated. They made a web and had some time to consider what it looked like. I came around to the group a few times. Within about 12-15 minutes they had this.

Web created by students reading Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

 

At that point, I joined the conversation and asked some questions to push their thinking beyond creation of the web to analysis of the web. We noticed that the character who, at that point, was trying to distance himself the most, seemed in some ways the center, or at least to have the most linkages. This was interesting to consider.

In another group, a student planned for them to make a Venn diagram of two presidents/characters. These two are part of the story, but not the main protagonists. Making the diagram was an interesting way to compare two seemingly very different people who had the same position and were faced with similar decisions. Here’s what they did.

Student venn diagram for Presidents Johnson and Nixon in relation to Vietnam War in  Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin.

Although there’s not a lot of detail there, what I do notice is that they have really gotten to some key big ideas that I would say are the point. These students are big idea people and history guys. And, while I think if I had asked them about the similarities and differences, they could have gotten there, I am glad that they found a way to get there on their own and thought that this was worth investigating.

What I see in both of these examples is not so much the web itself, but the thinking that the web enabled. There is nothing super impressive about the individual bits of information in either diagram. What is there is the potential to see a bigger picture and a roadmap to get there.

CCO public domain image by Unsplash

So, I’ve been thinking about and trying to encourage other teachers to think about audio response as an option for student work. I find it useful and instructive to listen to students talk out an answer to a prompt.

For some students having an option other than text as a format for response makes a huge difference in terms of the apparent complexity of their argument. Text is just not everyone’s best medium. If the goal of the assignment is for me to assess understanding of a particular concept or understanding, then there is no reason students must demonstrate that in writing. As an English teacher, I know that I must frequently assess student writing. However, I think I have a responsibility to require and assess other forms of communication as well. rather than write it. Of course, there are students who plan out their answer, write it down, and then read it. Even for those students, I find this format interesting. As we have now had three assignments in this form, I hear in the planners’ responses more improvising and more willingness to go off script a bit. Then there are the non-planners. For this group, I really hear the ideas coming together, or not. There are pauses, think time, pages flipping as they find the passage they want to quote. But it’s all interesting data for me to collect. There is also a big in-between group. They plan some ideas, have some passages ready and then start talking. They are often the most natural. With no grammar issues to distract me from their ideas, I can just listen and evaluate sophistication of ideas.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to get others on this bandwagon, not because it’s a big tech idea, but because I think it’s a good teaching idea that happens to use some low-level technology that students have easy access to. And, with a learning management system that allows for file submission, which is really any learning management system, it’s easy to put a prompt out there and have students upload a file to one location. The teacher goes to the location, listens to the files, grades or not, gives feedback, done. In my effort to gain accomplices, I have described this in brief in my section of the divisional update that comes out every weekend. I have set aside time for meeting to discuss and learn. I have done all of that for several weeks running.

Crickets

Then, the other day at lunch I mention it, again, in conversation when some teachers are talking about particular student work. All of a sudden, a few people are interested. They think this is a really interesting idea they’ve never thought of before. New information, no indication this sounds familiar. (I was not under any illusions that my part of the weekly update was considered a must-read, however, these were folks who I thought might actually read all the way to my part of the update. Sigh. Maybe they just forgot.)

Still, lunch for the win. Another reason I stay at that teacher table as long as anyone is chatting with me or even near me, pretty much no matter what the topic. I will be getting in touch with the particular teachers next week in case they want any support or help.

Then, a few days later, I’m standing around with another teacher passively supervising some students who don’t really need supervising. We get to chatting. Audio recordings as an option for student responses comes up. Again, no acknowledgment of the fact that I have suggested this before, but interest. Standing around for the win.

My big takeaway here: the actual conversation with colleagues is what matters, which means I am staying at lunch as long as folks are talking to me.