Posts Tagged ‘Truth and Fiction’

So, I’ve been thinking about graded class discussions and written multiple times about how I have been working this concept during the semester. My most recent twist was to have two smaller conversations to provide a space for the quieter students, which was a success. However, the ultimate goal is to have all the students participate in a single discussion. (The class is very small so there is time for all to participate.)

Since we are doing a little secret snowflake gift exchange at the moment, I thought about incorporating that into our discussion. In the past I gave each student an individual goal/job which was about what the individual student should do for him or herself to be successful. This time I gave students jobs that were for their classmates’ success. The idea was that as students did their jobs, they were giving gift to their classmates. Each student received a note with one of the following written on it:

  • Please invite _________ to participate in the discussion.
  • Please encourage __________ to give specific examples.
  • Please challenge ___________. (I gave this only to 1 student and chose the challenger very carefully.)
  • Please encourage ____________ to connect his or her ideas to those of other students.

Once again, the students stepped up. They asked others to participate. With a few absences, I didn’t hear anyone ask for examples, but I did hear students asking for their classmates to engage. These are things I usually do, but it’s so much better if the students ask take this responsibility. Also, the quiet people had a task to do to get them started talking. Great.

Of course, for some it was obvious who their “secret snowflake” was right away. However, I don’t think that the student who was “challenged” realized what was happening. It came off as very natural and created some actual back and forth where there was not agreement. This does happen at other times, but with different folks, and it is sometimes less graceful. And, because of who I assigned to be the challenger, the challenged could hear it, and the rest of the group took the lead from challenger and engaged in more of a debate. I just took notes and giggled to myself.



So, I have been thinking about how to help students write effective analytical essays for what seems like forever. Shouldn’t I be better at this by now? The goals are certainly different at different ages; what I expected in 5th grade was different from what I expected in 9th and what I look for in 12th. However, I still see the same old divide between those papers that are about the book (effective summaries) and papers that are about an idea that is discussed by way of the book. Really what it comes down to is how do I move the book report writers into the analytical writers’ camp. Is there a magic wand, pen, saying? Would bribing them with s’mores do the trick? Seriously, I would do whatever it takes.

I’ve been talking with colleagues about this, going to summer workshops, thinking of new and not new ideas. The more I think about it, the more I think that I need to go back to what I know worked in 5th grade. I don’t say this in a mean way or to be insulting. But, for the students who have not found their way to the analytical camp on their own, how can I check in earlier, before they head off down that long, boring summary road.

So what do I know?

In 5th grade I never let students start writing without an approved plan of some sort. As the year progressed, I knew who was ok without a detailed plan and who was not. So there might be students whom I let start writing with what was a very brief plan; however, they were students who had proven themselves to be on the analytical path, which in 5th grade is more like the “having an opinion” path.

In 5th grade I had students do physical things to identify different sentences in a paper. So, I might read aloud a paragraph. One side of the room would stand when the sentence was a retelling or summary sentence. One side would stand if it was the writer’s opinion (which is what analysis starts as in lower school). This turned out to be one of the most effective tactics in helping students even understand what I meant by summary or opinion sentence.

In 5th grade we sometimes wrote papers a paragraph at a time and “discovered” that this might actually be an essay with a bit of introduction and conclusion added to the paragraphs. Sneaking up on the essay was not a bad strategy. Everybody could write a paragraph on Karana’s friendship with Rontu (Island of the Blue Dolphins is still a winner), a paragraph on her friendship with the birds. Oh, look it seems like we are writing about her friendships. Hmmm. What could we say about the community she has or has created? Seems like that would be an interesting conclusion. While we’re adding things, let’s just introduce the book at the beginning. Tada, essay!

In 5th grade I learned that writing gets better writing. It’s like babies and sleep–good naps lead to good betimes, overly tired kids fight sleep. I learned, and was reminded of this fact at my summer workshop this past summer, that I did not need to edit everything, give extensive comments, and have students write many drafts of every assignment. We need to do some of that. We also just need to write. A lot. That is how my class’ blog was born, oh so many years ago

Now, how to take these lessons to some 12th graders.

Plans are totally doable. Shame on me for not making students be more intentional here. Some do a quick list of big point and sub-points and I can tell they are all set. No need to force the issue. However, for those who have proved that they are summarizers, I need to be more forceful. They may be 12th graders, but if I see they need the scaffolding, I should be providing more of it, even students don’t like it.

Standing up and sitting down in class to identify parts of the essay, probably not going to work with high schoolers. However, for those who are not getting to the analysis, insisting that their rough draft have analytical sentences highlighted, totally doable. Again, it is about me insisting.

Sneaky papers. This one I think I might be able to do next semester. I had forgotten about it, but I think it has potential. Again, there are going to be those who do not need this support, and I will need to think about whether everyone does it anyway or some folks do something else. I have time on this one since my current class ends mid-January and I won’t have time to do everything between now and then, but I’m definitely going to move this to a front burner item.

Just writing. I’ve been really trying to do this. My summer workshop reminded me of and reaffirmed my belief in this strategy in addition to convincing me that it would work in high school. My class has been doing a lot of short writing in online forums, in class, wherever. On the recent reflections that the students wrote, many commented on the amount of writing, not always in a complementary way, but many of those same students also said they felt more confident in their writing.

Now if I could just go back to not having to give letter grades, that would be great.

So, I’ve been thinking about my graded student discussions. After our first discussion and reflection, I planned a second discussion and tweaked the format a bit.

If you will recall, in the first discussion I gave the topic to be discussed the night before, set up the big table, made a chart to take notes, and did not engage in the conversation.

This time, I thought about each student and what he or she needed to work on for a next step. I created 5 roles for this second time around.

  • Major participant: please come ready to be a major voice in the discussion. This does not mean that you have to have “the right answers.” It means you have some ideas to throw out there, some passages or examples to share, even some questions you think should be explored. Come ready to say a lot.
  • Restate and Extend: your job in the discussion will be to build off of the ideas of others. Anytime you speak you must first restate (briefly) what another person has said and extend that idea. In addition, your goal is to have a slightly different opinion at the end of the discussion than you had at the beginning.
  • Connector: your job is to listen and hear the ideas that either go together or are opposing viewpoints. When you notice this, you should share this connection and ask if your connection is something the group can agree on or if the difference you have noticed is significant, etc. You are looking for the big ideas and the building blocks to get there.
  • Inviter: your job is to listen for what is not being left out. Is there a part of the book that is being overlooked? Is all the conversation around one idea? If so, please invite the group to change course, or look in a new direction. Please come with some ideas that are a bit out of the box that you can throw out there when necessary.

I assigned ‘major participant’ to students who did not join in enough last time, pretty obvious. The restate and extend folks were people who had a lot to say, but tended to say their idea and leave the discussion. The goal for these students was to force them to say what others said, thus forcing them to engage in more of a discussion rather than serial monologues. The connectors were ready to see the bigger picture and needed the challenge. In some ways they were leader voice in that when I lead the conversation, I point out the similarities and intersections between and among ideas. The inviter was a wildcard. There was only one person assigned to this job. This student made some really interesting connections last time, so I thought I would give this part of the traditional teacher role to this student.

The students did a good job nodding to their particular roles, some more so than others. Again, it was a great discussion. I wrapped it up with a few summary statements after about 25 or so minutes when it seemed the topic was pretty well played out. This time I kept track of participation and “job completion”. Here’s what my notes look like.


Conversation 2 notes

Again, I asked the students to reflect on their performance. Here are some of my favorite comments:

  • Talked a lot more this time and went off on other points.
    • My take :good improvement a student who contributed single, independent ideas last time.
  • I wasn’t as stubborn this time and I think I added more even thought I spoke a little less.
    • My take: VICTORY!
  • It was harder to be a connector, but I did my best.
    • My take: yes, connecting different and potentially divergent ideas is harder, and this student is ready to do that. I appreciate the struggle and recognition of the work it takes.
  • I think I was able to invite new ideas and move the conversation along well.
    • My take: Very true. This student did a great job brining up related ideas that needed a champion.
  • Brought ideas to the discussion, just had trouble with all the other participants trying to speak at the same time.
    • My take: yup, it’s hard for those who are quiet. I noted that this student came ready with notes and pages for reference.
  • I think that I did a lot better this time…and I respected peoples’ opinions.
    • My take: this is a big deal for this student to respect the opinions of others.

Once again, a big success. These are lively discussions that let us talk about big ideas, but at the same time use textual support. Because I do not participate, there is no looking to me to approve comments; students must take on that role. And, because I am not trying to keep conversation going, connect ideas, write on the board, etc, etc, I love just getting to sit back and listen and take notes, but I also get to watch body language, attention, group dynamic. Not only to I learn a lot by watching, but it takes me down off whatever stage I may or may not be on. (I’m really not a fan of being sage on the stage anyway, but sometimes just by being the one standing up, that’s what happens.)

I think they are proud of themselves. They should be.

We have another conversation planned for next week on Logicomix.

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?

So, I’ve been thinking about Twitter again recently. During the school year, I felt pulled in too many directions to be doing much tweeting. However with summer schedule in effect, I’m back. (My position is 12 month, so I’m at school, but the pace is much more livable, and I have time to noodle around and actually find new things.)

One of the things I’m working on is a new English elective called “Truth and Fiction.” I have the book list pretty much set, but am looking for some podcasts. I read about the Mortified series and started listening. I’m hooked. And, now that I’m back to tweeting and have my summer learning hashtag to support, I tweeted this.

Next thing I know, I’m having a conversation with @Mortified.

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How great is that?