Posts Tagged ‘English’

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.

 

So, I’ve been thinking about Project Based Learning (PBL). As my school thinks about expanding our interdisciplinary course work, PBL has, of course, entered the discussion. I’m a fan of PBL, and I know it’s not easy. However, I think I might have forgotten just how much work it is to do well.

CCO Public domain image by sandid

To review, there are projects that teachers plan at the end of a unit, as summative work. In that case, the learning happens and then the project is the assessment of the learning. Then there is project-based learning (PBL) where the learning happens in and around the project. In an effort to see more true PBL in action, I’ve been visiting other schools that are PBL based and going to a lot of conference sessions on the topic. All of this looking and listening has been super interesting. I’ve seen examples of units and projects that look great: clear learning goals, interesting and engaging (to the kids) questions, integrated learning, and rigorous (I know that is a bit of a dirty word right now) work.

I’ve also seen examples that don’t hold up, where the unit is focussed on engaging products without enough learning, integrated or not. Some of what I have seen that is not working, in my opinion, is being described as project based learning, but the students are jumping right to the project (as if it was a project at the end of learning) and skipping over the learning.

Even so, I don’t think anyone I have observed in the classroom or heard from at conferences is not trying very hard to do right by kids. Where I think part of the downfall has happened is in one of two places: either too much focus on the engaging kids part or too much focus on the charming product part. Both of these flaws mean that the deep learning and effective evaluating of the learning is getting short changed. I have certainly been guilty of both mistakes, maybe even in the same unit.

I have not made any revelations here. Anyone who teaches knows that teaching is always a lot of work and some drudgery. Good teaching is a lot of smart, thoughtful work and some drudgery. Effective and rigorous PBL shifts a lot of the teacher workload to the beginning of the unit. Then, during the unit there is lots of on the fly instruction, formative assessment to determine what content needs some direct instruction, conferencing with groups or individuals etc. There are a million moving parts. This is not work for the faint of heart.

I can see that as I have been spending more time thinking about interdisciplinary work and PBL, I have brought a wider range of ideas and approaches to my own teaching this year. As I think about teaching an interdisciplinary course next year, I guess my point is that I am excited to think more about this sort of work and mindful of the very real challenges it brings.

So, I’ve been thinking about making connections to ideas inside and outside of the books we read. I have always been a fan of a good mindmap or web, even before I knew about Making Thinking Visible. I don’t think there is ever a bad time for color coded charts and diagrams. And, yes, I did teach in lower school grades.

However, I think maps and charts and colored lines here and there are helpful even for students in high school. Earlier in the semester, I asked my seniors to work on a visible representation of the connections between the text, outside information that we had discussed, and thematic ideas.

My class was reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers. We were most of the way through the book. During class discussions, we had talked about the narrative structure of the book and how Myers uses the journal entries and the screenplay to do different jobs. Towards the beginning, I brought in information about NY State laws about the age at which young people are tried as adults, statistics about numbers of minors in adult prisons in NY, racial breakdowns of inmates, and brain research about the age at which young brains are able to consistently consider cause and effect. Of course, we were also discussing the theme of identity, in addition to the reliability of Steve (the protagonist) as a narrator. It’s a lot to have swirling around in our heads. And, I really wanted the students to think about how Myers was weaving this all together as an author, since one of the goals of the unit was to identify and consider the writer’s use of first person and other “writer moves” in a story that in some way deals with what happens when black boys come in contact with the criminal justice system. (Our other books were Hush by Jacqueline Woodson and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely).

Here’s what I did.

I brought in copies of a dozen or so passages from one night’s reading that I thought were particularly important. I also brought copies of the various supporting information that we had looked at earlier, big paper, scissors, tape, and markers. I asked students to connect the text to our newly acquired background knowledge and to thematic ideas and if possible the literary techniques Myers was using. Since I love this kind of stuff, I had a handy reference image from last year. This time, I also created a chart with the same information on the white board.

In my good, 5th grade fashion, I created this.

It was super interesting to look at what the students created. Some groups were all about boxes and neat groups of text. This strategy worked for the first go round of attaching our background info to passages or to connect themes to passages. However, once they needed to add the second category, it was not going to not be as easy to keep everything in the neat boxes.

The second group also started with some boxes, but was then trying to add another category level.

Only one group was really not thinking ‘boxes’ first. They may have made the least progress in some ways. However, I think they did a lot of looking and considering. It was a quiet group without a forceful organizer, which is another interesting variable. The other two groups each had a vocal organizer who forged ahead with a structure.

What I really like about this activity, besides the obvious thinking about the information and all the ways students can successfully do the work, is that the groups got to look at each other’s products and ‘see’ how their classmates think.

I am sure I will do something similar again. I might spread it out over two days, even if we did not use all of either day. I think this is the kind of work that would really benefit from time away and then time to review. Plus, I might carefully engineer the groups in terms of learning style or introvert/extrovert.

Plus, who doesn’t love a crazy, mixed-up mind map?

So, I’m still thinking about this idea of the commonplace book reinterpreted. This idea fits nicely with the ideas of slow learning that were highlighted at the Project Zero conference I attended in October. We, as observers, notice things all the time, but how much of it goes in one ear/eye and out the other? Honestly, a lot of it can just keep on going since I know I see and hear an awful lot of crap. However, systems to keep the good stuff and the “it might not be so good but it is really interesting to me” stuff are key.

One of my booksnaps for "How it Went Down" by Kekla Magoon

One of my booksnaps for “How it Went Down” by Kekla Magoon

With my second semester class, I plan to keep the noticing and collecting going, but want to adjust the format a little. This course has a lot of shorter books, rather than a few longer ones. And, comparing and looking and the works in groups is a key component to the work we will do. So, I wanted a more group oriented, public system where we could put a lot of raw data. @TeacherDebra introduced me to booksnaps some time ago. Time to put them to use. I was not a snapchatter myself, but I set up a Snapchat and a Tumblr. We are gong to use Snaphat as a photo editor; I am not going to be sending snaps to the students directly. Students take pictures of passages of text that stand out to them, annotate them in some way with the Snapchat tools, save the image, submit it to our Tumblr page. (Full disclosure, I got the tumblr idea from the amazing Ann Hamilton’s habitus project and the collection of quotations about clothing she solicited through her tumblr: cloth a commonplace. Seriously, I love Ann Hamilton.)

Since we started the semester with several independent reads, it was a great way to share our books. Then, we moved on to a unit of three books we all read together. The students and I took turns leading class for these books. Part of the job of leading class was to share, before or after, a few booksnaps to support the ideas of the discussion. For the independent reading, it was a good option that helped us talk about common characteristics that we were seeing. As we moved on, I didn’t incorporate the booksnaps into class as well. Therefore, the students had a hard time remembering them too. No surprise that when I dropped the ball, they dropped it too.

We are just finishing this unit, and I am going to return to the booksnaps as we move into our next group of texts, perhaps with a little bit of focus.

Anyway, there are several things I like about our Tumblr booksnaps so far. It’s a pretty quick and easy way to collect passages, and the students are so used to the tool that they add comments and notes in no time. Therefore, I get more information about their thoughts about the books. Victory! I really just want my students to think and share that thinking with me. So, if I can find a way that accomplishes both of those goals, I’m happy.

So, I’ve been thinking about the looking, seeing, and interpreting skills of my students. I’ve been talking with a few colleagues about a potential broad interdisciplinary, humanities course.

After a long, involved chain of events, I found myself in possession of both a new copy of  Ways of Seeing by Jon Berger and Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry. I purchased them both at the same very small bookstore on a lovely afternoon of wandering about with my husband. Ah, winter break. Picking them both up at the same store was a happy coincidence that made me think about them together.

Anyway, I read Ways of Seeing decades ago and was reminded of it again last school year by a colleague. When I tried to find my copy at home, I couldn’t. So, it’s been on my mind recently as I’ve continued looking for it. Another colleague has been suggesting Syllabus, but her copy is also missing (as in she lent it to someone who keeps forgetting to return it). The two titles were already linked in their lostness, but I did not notice.

Well, now I have put them together as a new twisted pair. (Old twisted pair blogging challenge description)

I am part way through Syllabus and have begun rereading Ways of Seeing. They are certainly VERY different reading experiences; in fact, I really cannot overstate how different. Syllabus‘ pages are combinations of drawings, doodles, and handwritten text. The pages are colorful and lively. There is a lot of space to think and a lot of need to think about what is not being said. Ways of Seeing has images as well, but there is no shortage of words. As a reader, there is a lot of information coming at you in the words, rather than in the spaces.

However, I am also struck by their similarities. Although they are approaching the task from wildly different angles, both Barry and Berger are thinking about the interplay between words and images, seeing and drawing.

As I continue reading and rereading this twisted pair of books, I am getting so many ideas for ways to incorporate these ideas and habits into my English class. . .

Back to reading.

 

So, I’ve been thinking about excellence. The book my class is reading has meant that we have been talking a lot about greatness–what it is, what it isn’t, what we want it to be, what we don’t want it to be, what it’s like to have it or to witness it. As we were talking about it the other day, I was reminded of Ron Berger’s book The Ethic of Excellence that I read many years ago. The sentence (idea really) that I took away from the book is this: excellence is transformative. At 5th grade back to school night, I told my students’ parents and guardians that I wanted that experience of excellence being transformative for each of their students–that I could not hand it out for free, but that I wanted each child to see that potential in him or herself. Then there was dramatic music.I decided this was one of my goals for the year.

I mentioned Ron Berger’s idea that recognizing the potential for excellence in oneself is transformative to my group of seniors this year as we discussed characters struggling with their potential or lack of potential for greatness. They were less than wowed. There was no dramatic music. We moved on.

CCO public domain image by Keliblack on Pixabay.com

CCO public domain image by Keliblack on Pixabay.com

Then, I corrected tests and decided to read some good answers aloud to the class when I returned the tests. I gave some general comments and mentioned how one of the common challenges was not getting to that big idea, not moving beyond retelling, when answering the more complex questions. I read a few short answers from one student who did in fact get to a big idea every time and a passage analysis by another student who also got to the thematic issues. The class could tell that these were good answers– that they went somewhere and had something to say. The two students puffed up. They were smiling big on the inside, even if they were playing it cool; they weren’t so cool that I was fooled. They felt that power of being recognized by others as excellent. I have to say that I was reminded again that these big, almost-grown people sitting in front of me are not so different from my old 5th graders (in fact sometimes they are those exact 5th graders).

When we broke up into small groups later that period, one of the students whose work I read took a much more active role in the group that usual, leading discussion, engaging with the group. Of course I know that there is no proof of causation here. And, I know both those students left feeling like this is a class where they can be excellent. Same student a few days later mentioned paying extra close attention to a particular grammatical error that I have pointed out too many times. And a few days after that the other student that I had recognized also made a point to break, at least for one quiz, another problematic habit that I have mentioned over and over.

Win.

Win.

Win.

All of this has me thinking about my responsibilities. I am responsible for this experience for as many students as possible, not just these two. Why don’t I read more good work aloud? I have some reasons (they are not necessarily acceptable excuses, just reasons):

  • The 48 minute class period. Where does the time go?!
  • In high school there is just less little stuff that gets turned in.
    • When I taught 5th grade, I had students doing short writing on our blog all the time. And, I could share (or the students could see without me) little examples of good work frequently. Plus, I had control over so much of the day in 5th grade. “My classes” with the students amounted to almost all of the “big stuff”. Now I’m just one of the classes, and I don’t get to say what is most important. (What? This continues to be difficult for me to come to grips with.)
  • How hard am I looking for opportunities to do this? (Probably not hard enough.)
  • I have not valued this enough, and therefore I have not given it time.

So, here’s my plan going forward. As I think about it, there are a bunch of times when I have said things like, “lots of people did a really nice job” or this particular part of the assignment” was really successful for a lot of people.” Why not just read some examples? It’s much more specific feedback and gives those who were not as successful information as well. Between writing the first draft of this post and publishing, I had some old examples all set to read in class. What happened? Well, I was going to do the sharing at the end of class. Then, we ran out of time. Sigh.

There’s not too much time left before exams. However, if I come in with something to share each day (maybe two things), and I manage to get to the sharing half the time, I can make some in roads.