Posts Tagged ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 1.57.46 PMSo, I’ve been thinking about authentic audience for student work for a while. Sometimes I do more than think about it; I talk about it. Often, this doesn’t go well. My audience in those conversation may be authentic, but is not enthusiastic. Given the reaction to the last time I brought this up with a group, I haven’t discussed it in certain circles for a while. However, the winds may be shifting. It’s like el niño. You don’t always know when the shift is coming, but it feels really different when it does.

Ok, I so desperately want my students to create for their peers. It kind of makes me crazy. And yet since moving to high school, I have not been able to get this going in a way that is acceptable to me. But now that el niño is in town, I am trying again.

Here’s my plan.

Students choose a sentence from our book (so far Slaughterhouse-Five and Life of Pi), a sentence that has grabbed them in some way. Then, they write a short piece of fiction or non-fiction (400-600 words) that includes that sentence. The “expert sentence” could appear at the beginning, middle, or end of the student’s work. Finally, once the piece is complete and edited, students record it as a podcast that also includes a very short conversation with a classmate about why they chose the given sentences.

I had an old podbean site that was sitting around from years ago. So, I repurposed it and we are up and ready. When I shared this idea with the class, a few of them were worried that people might be mean. As we got working and writing, I heard things like “I don’t like my story,” or “this isn’t going anywhere.” I responded with some variation of “this is your work going out into the world with your name on it. Don’t put something out there that you don’t think is good.” I did not reply with anything about the deadline or due date.

I am not going to sit here and claim that all the students have written amazing pieces or took the entire enterprise with total seriousness. However, a number of them were interested in the chance to write creatively; something that they mentioned they haven’t done in a while. Plus, we will do a piece for each book we read, so they’ll get to write and read more of their work.

Feel free to listen to the stories that are ready so far. Truth and Fiction on podbean. I found a few other teachers who said they would have students listen and give feedback, but I know everyone has her own class as well. We need to build a wider audience to get some responses. I have put a link to a google form for feedback.

The students would love to hear from anyone.






So, I’ve been thinking about differentiating recently. Partly, it’s something that as a school we have talked about. Partly, it’s an area in which I could improve my teaching practice. Partly, the awesome @LisaCinPa posted this on FB the other day (I asked her if I could post this screenshot.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 9.09.44 PM

To backtrack a little in time, I learned to teach, for real, in the Chicago Public School system on the Westside. There were rules in my school. One of them was: language arts happens in reading groups, always. End of story. That meant that for 30 minutes I sat at a table with 1/2 the class (usually more than a dozen students) and the other 1/2 had to have something to do that was independent. Then we swapped. I got good at groups. I got good at determining what was independent work and insisting that kids figured some things out for themselves. Otherwise, I would have been answering questions during my entire reading group. I got good at mixing and remixing the groups of readers. I didn’t talk about it with the term differentiation, but sometimes that was what I was doing.

Then I moved to my current, suburban, independent school, and we had smaller classes and more whole class reading discussion. We had books that kids took home and read! How great is that?! Not all actual reading had to happen at school. My 5th graders read for homework, and we talked or did skill based lessons based on the reading the next day. Group work happened on projects, which I did spend a lot of time thinking about and carefully planning. Instruction did not have to be tied to groups. My entire class was only a little bigger than the size of my “small group” from before. Then I moved to Upper School and there was even less group time that was instructional time. I have to admit I got out of the habit. It’s not that I never had students in groups or that I never grouped based on skill or need etc, but I don’t think I did it enough. I’m trying to change that.

Let me tell you what I did the other day.

First, we had some whole class discussion about a few things. Then, I grouped students based on what they chose to discuss in a an online forum post the previous night. We are reading Slaughterhouse-Five and the prompt for the online discussion for chapter 8 was this:

Free choice today. Pick something that you noticed in the chapter–a big idea, an interesting detail, a pattern–and share your thinking on the topic. What issues did this raise for you, what other parts of the book did it make you recall?

Students brought up all different topics, but they also fell into groups. So, after our big group (of 12!, sometimes I still pinch myself) discussion, I met with students based on their interest from the forum. Other students were working on creative writing (which I will write later, because it is a going well). I got a chance to extend the conversation that each group had started. No group was larger than 4, a few were individuals.

It was great to sit right across from a person or three or four and have what seemed like a very personalized conversation. I made a few notes before coming to class–what did each person mention, what did that bring to mind for me, details they should connect to the chosen topic etc. Some conversations were more basic, calling attention to important information that might have been missed, but others extended the conversation well beyond the basics. But because it was on a topic the student chose, I knew I would have more interest, attention, buy in, etc. For a few students who are not big talkers and are easily distracted in class, this represented prolonged interaction.

I’m a glass 3/4 full type of person, mostly, but I swear every student appreciated the personal attention. Plus, I connected with each person around ideas and academic work. Seriously, who doesn’t want to think that he or she is the one having the important conversation and adding that key idea?

So, I’ve been thinking about participation and how to teach and evaluate it. This has been a topic of discussion among the English teachers in Upper School as well. We all agree we want students to participate. Some of us agree on the desire to give some points/grades for this. Fewer of us agree on how to asses or determine the points or grades.

I am of the opinion that if I am going to grade something I need to have taught it and made it clear what the expectations are for good work in that area. I knocked around a couple of ideas, even got documents ready with rationale etc. and then went another direction. Here’s what I did.

Set up:

  • students were given the following homework assignment:
    • Read p110-136 (Slaughterhouse-Five)
    • Reply to a classmate’s comment on Ch 4 forum (on our online class page on Moodle)
    • Be prepared to be an active participant in a discussion where the question is: We learn in the first part of ch 5 that Billy voluntarily entered the hospital to try to recover from the war. “They had both (Rosewater and Billy) found life meaningless, partly because of what they had seen in the war…So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe.” Given the evidence, how successful has Billy been in this task? Come with details ready to support your thoughts.
      • Using this rubric, you will evaluate your participation in the discussion, as will I. It will count for a quiz grade.
  • When class started I had us all sitting around a number of big tables and made a diagram of who was sitting where. 
  • I told the students I was not there to answer questions or to say yes or no to statements. My only job was to record or maybe ask more questions. I shared that I would record comments (I) and references to the text (T). My goal was 20 minutes. (Note: I based this format on my recollection of the Junior Great Books discussion format that I used many, many years ago.)

Discussion starts:

  • A student reread the prompt and someone began.
  • I recorded comments as described above (and added a Y symbol for times students indicated agreement, but not much else and C for connection to another text!)
  • Initially conversation was stilted and the kids called on each other to “take turns”. That stopped after some encouragement from me, and conversation became more free-flowing. I did not enter the discussion at all until probably 15-20 minutes in, maybe more. I then did as I said I would and asked some more questions that would push some ideas that others had begun. Conversation continued in full force for 26 minutes, at which point I decided we had talked this idea out.
  • I recorded the conversation, but don’t know how well that went and have not listened yet.

Student Self-Reflection:

  • Post conversation, students filled out this rubric on their participation and turned it in. We then did a few other quick things.
    • Note–one student commented he felt prepared and hopes we do this again. Another was very honest about her lack of comments and explained her reasoning. A third believed he should be rewarded for not wavering at all from the stated topic.
  • I had the next period free and responded on the bottom of each self-evaluation with a few sentences and a grade out of 20 points. For those who did not participate enough or barely enough, I asked if there was anything I could do to encourage/support more commenting. I returned the rubrics with my comments the next day in class.

Here is the picture of my discussion notes.

Conversation notes

Conversation notes


This discussion took place 6th period on Thursday of our first full week of school, after back to school night. The students clearly came in ready, for the most part, and did a great job, again for the most part. Good energy and momentum in class. 

Now I am thinking about our next discussion. I think I will set some individual goals with students. For some, the goal will simply be to contribute more. For others, I would like them to focus on connecting ideas, doing what I often do in other discussion. A few others I plan to ask to think about being influenced by others, letting themselves hear new ideas and be altered by them. These couple of students have clear ideas, but tend to come in feeling strongly, share their ideas strongly, repeat their ideas again, and then leave thinking the same thing. While there are times that it is ok to hold firmly to ideas, I believe a few of my students need a little encouragement in allowing themselves to bend. (This will be a bit tricky to say tactfully.)

What else should I consider? What recommendations do you have for me?



So, I’ve been thinking about Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I am teaching a senior English elective called Truth and Fiction, and Slaughterhouse-Five is our first book.

When I was talking with the class, preparing them to read the first chapter, I of course mentioned that this is not a linear story. Some students spoke up right away to say that they found this type of narrative hard to follow. It is handy that Mr. Vonnegut put in ” *  *  *” between sections; however, I wanted the students to be able to see the big ideas being carried through these non-linear vignettes. Also, I am a fan of diagrams, charts, color coding, and other Making Thinking Visible ideas. Finally, I thought about a piece of art that I saw at the Student Exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in June.


I shared this image with the class because I think it is an interesting visual, but also because I think it is so neatly organized and effectively shows complexity, connections, and organization all in one. My thought was that we would create something similar from the first chapter.

The first chapter is 28 pages and has 22 little sections ranging in length from a brief paragraph to several pages. I copied all the text and cut and taped it into sections. Each section went on a 11×17 piece of paper and students annotated the sections, highlighted key text, and thought about themes. Then, we spread out the sheets in order, took string and used it to show when particular themes appeared. Here’s what we came up with.

S5 ch1 copy

It could be neater.

I think what I wanted to show was that even in this choppy, nonlinear narrative, there were themes and big ideas emerging.

This task could definitely use some improvement. I did something similar on a smaller scale when my 5th graders read Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit. It that case, we had only 3 story lines we were following and for each chapter we either put the string that represented the story line on top of our little card or behind it. Ultimately we had a row of 25 slips of paper/chapters with the 3 strings going in and out, in front and behind, to show which story line was “in the spot light” in that chapter. For those 5th graders, it was important to represent visually that the other story line(s) had not disappeared; they were simply not our focus. For seniors discussing themes, the task was more complex, as it should be. A couple of things were not necessarily perfect about this iteration of the task. First, there were a lot of little pieces to deal with all at once and yet, we have only read the first chapter. Second, while I wanted us to start with this task for some legitimate reasons, it might also be something that would be better if started midway through the book. In this version, we used all the text. However, what if we started midway through, after having a sense of what ideas we really want to follow, and were more selective in terms of the pieces of text that we pulled out? I suspect we would be better able to see connections between and among sections as well as themes.

Ooooh, what if when we get to the end and students are writing an analytical paper, they make a visual representation of their thoughts before they begin to write? Is this too abstract for the non-visual learner? Thoughts?