Posts Tagged ‘English’

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 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.


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.


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.