Posts Tagged ‘English’

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?

 

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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?

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?

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.

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.

CCO public domain image by Pixabay user

So, I’ve been thinking about classroom observations. I have been observing colleagues informally at my school this spring. What that means is I look at my schedule for the week, find some time when I don’t have a meeting/class/whatnot, look at the master schedule, find out who is teaching what, and drop by for 10-20 minutes.

I decided to pick a department and stick with it until I had observed each teacher. I did this partly because it made it economical to go between classes in terms of time. It has turned out to be a great choice for a first go round. I started with Math.

It’s been a long time since I was in a high school math class. I found that there were classes where all or most of the content came back, and I could listen along with the students. Then, there were classes where content didn’t really come back; words sounded familiar, but I really did not know what was going on mathematically. And, there were classes somewhere in between. However, since I was not necessarily there to learn math that really did not matter.

One of the things I noticed, particularly in classes where I was not necessarily familiar anymore with the specifics of how to do or solve the problems, was that I did have access to the patterns and the big picture. For example, in one class I observed a teacher put a few things on the board in a chart. She asked students to look and share what they noticed. A couple of students had big picture comment to make. Most students saw the trees and really didn’t or couldn’t step back and wonder if there was a place in the forest where the trees were short, or place in the forest where all the trees had no leaves. I, on the other hand, was not burdened by the details, and so for me, the patterns and the interesting similarities between data points were relatively easy to see.

I spoke to the teacher afterward and I said that I had thought that the point she was trying to make with the chart was interesting and told here that I had found it actually the part that was easiest for me to do, yet surprisingly hard for the students to do. We talked about how it happens that students get lost in the specifics of the content.

I have to say this idea of the details and the big picture and what students find easier and more challenging to do is really fascinating to me. Always has been. I see it in my English classes all the time; it just looks a little different. There are often students who love the big picture, love the big themes and grand ideas of the book. When it gets down to the specific details of solving the problem and actually defending those big ideas, explaining how the author very specifically builds those ideas, they either lose interest or don’t quite know where to go. And, I have students who would love to collect details, see all those little trees, and never or rarely get to what kind of forest that makes. 

So interesting.

I am sure teachers in math classes find that there are students who love those patterns but do not really want to do the work of solving the problem or be particular. And, then are there other students who are happy to follow the directions, complete the steps in the right order, but don’t ever really step back and see what it all means. 

What conversations should we be having across disciplines to compare notes? Are the same students big picture thinkers in all disciplines? What strategies and vocabulary are we using that are working?

I can’t wait to think about another department in a new way.

 

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.