Saturday, March 17, 2018

Mini-Lessons Drive Writing Conferences

Students discuss how transitions work by inferring the order of paragraphs in a mentor text.

There is a Japanese saying: Fall down 7 times, get up 8. With writing conferences, I wrote about my last two "get ups" here and here. Hopefully this is the 8th and last and I'm now up for good. The 2 keys for me are mini-lessons and frequency. 

But first, a question: Is conferring with writers that important? Yes! Because it provides formative assessment, offers an opportunity to differentiate, and cultivates a community that talks about writing. It builds writers. Conferring with writers can be hard for me because it exhausts my introvert self to even think about being responsible for that many individual conversations within a class period. But I’ve been working at this over the past few weeks, and I’ve found these 2 keys that not only make it easier, but also motivate me to do it more.

Conferring with writers is easier when I (1) target one writing objective in a mini-lesson at the beginning of every writing period and (2) confer frequently. Habitually. Every single writing period. Having a mini-lesson gives the topic of the conference—both I and the writers are prepared ahead of time. Conferring frequently makes it familiar, takes away awkwardness on both sides, and lets students know they will be getting a chance to ask questions that they have.

What is a mini-lesson? It’s a brief (approximately 10-minute) lesson on a skill that students will then be expected to apply in the rest of the period. Writing mini-lessons can be on any part of the writing process (how to brainstorm, plan, draft, revise, or edit) or component of writing (ideas/content, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions). Some examples of writing mini-lessons I’ve done recently are being aware of occasion, audience, and purpose; making a speech’s thesis memorable with a story or analogy; establishing a logical progression to the order of your points; using paragraph transitions to communicate that logic; varying sentence beginnings; and varying sentence lengths. 

What does a mini-lesson look like? I’ve increasingly come to believe that having a mentor text is an important part of a mini-lesson. Whether that mentor text is a student text from past years, a teacher-written text, or a published text depends on my purpose and on what I have available. We look at how that author handled a writing issue, we practice in on our own pieces, and then I tell students, “I’ll come around and ask you to show me how you’ve done it, and we can address any other questions or puzzles you might have.”

Results? Having a particular purpose (talking about how the mini-lesson has been applied) makes the opening for the writing conference easy. There’s a type of accountability where everybody knows they need to have something to talk about. And if they don’t, then that becomes the conversation, and I’ll help them find a way to apply the mini-lesson. If there are no further questions, I move on. Short and sweet, which also makes them less threatening both to me and to students. Students become more open to talking, more ready to talk about writing, and even disappointed when I don’t get to them in a period. When I didn’t get around to conferring with one student during a particular period, he left questions for me on the Google Doc of the draft he was working on. That’s what real writers do: know when we need help and know where to get it.

A result of using mentor texts is that students begin to learn the way adults learn. As an adult, I notice people doing well things that I want do better—like teaching a lesson or writing a blog. This week a 10th grader commented on the interesting transition between two chapters of the novel we are reading. When I need to do a new thing (like write a proposal or give a eulogy) I look up examples—mentor texts. An 11th grader walked out of class Friday, where we introduced speech writing, watched a speech, and thought about how to address occasion, audience, and purpose, commented to a friend, “I think I’m going to be watching a couple of TED talks this weekend!”

How do you use mentor texts and conferences in your writing classes?

Friday, March 9, 2018

Fostering Word Consciousness

Recent vocabulary questions from chapters 21 and 22 of The Scarlet Letter
How many words does a student have to know? Well, according to Michael Graves, in printed school English, there are about 180,000 words. The average 12th grader knows about 50,000 (The Vocabulary Book). And we all want our students to be above average--even the ones who start out with the majority of their words being in a language other than English.

Yes, schools need to teach vocabulary, but at the maximum students could effectively absorb, say, 2 per day (can you imagine learning 2 new words a day 5 days a week 34 weeks out of the year for 13 years straight?), that’s still not enough. Yes, reading bolsters vocabulary learning. And awareness of new, cool, and related words as we read can put rocket boosters on that!

How do we create a learning inclination that pays attention to words? This unit (on The Scarlet Letter) in AP English 11, one of the daily assignments is to bring in at least 2 words from the reading (with the page number you found it on) that you didn’t know or (if you knew them all—which doesn’t happen often in The Scarlet Letter) that is descriptive and interesting and you want to remember to use more in your writing.

At the beginning of the period we spend 10 minutes talking about those words. (I actually set a timer minutes or we could spend half the period on this). First I go around the class and take a word (and its page number) from each student. Then we look at the words. Some are simply archaic, obsolete, or literary—but we use those descriptors. They’re part of our working vocabulary now. And we understand what those archaic, obsolete, or archaic words mean for the text we’re reading, if it’s frequent and important (betimes = early, as in “I got up betimes this morning to monitor the long bus into Naha” or wont [no, it’s not a typo for want, though you’re on the right track if you read it that way, but it’s not pronounced like won’t]). And morion—it’s in that section about the martial parade, right? so it’s got something to do with soldiers and armor, but given everything else, I think that’s all we need to know. 

But sometimes I find out words students didn’t know that I never would have picked for a vocabulary word—like flit or precipice. And I’m so glad they are willing to ask the question! Then there are the other words that I may or may not have picked—venerable, vehemently, zenith—but when students pick them, I say—GREAT word! 

We talk about etymologyWhen they first asked about somnolence, I asked them what you call it when you can’t sleep. They all knew insomnia. So a few days later when they asked about somnambulant I asked again about the words for not sleeping. Is the other part related to ambulance? Actually, yes. Ambulance comes from the French term hospital ambulant—or mobile [horse-drawn, and I assume they mostly walked, as galloping would jar the patients] field hospital.

After we’ve talked about enough etymologies, students begin making connections that had never even occurred to me—and sometimes they’re right! 
  • Is sentinel related to sentient? (Sentient being a vocabulary word we’d had earlier in the year. The question had never occurred to me, but when a student asked and I did the research, I found out is probably is!)
  • Is propagate related to propaganda? (Similar to above.)
Sometimes they realize they did know a word, though they had never made the connection before. 
  • Oh! Plebeian! Yes—I do know that because it’s how online reviewers I read dis something.
  • That’s what my contacts are: ochre!
  • Melee—I know that from video games!
And once their vocabulary antennae are up, they come back and report other places they encounter the words: We read despotic in history class! It was talking about US government actions during the Red Scare, and I knew that it meant tyrannical!

Yes, I take all these words and pick approximately 20 every 2 to 3 weeks for a vocabulary quiz. I put them on my word wall, on Quizlet for practice, and we practiced in groups slapping the card when the definition was read and telling stories using the dealt cards. But the most delightful thing has been just the fostering of a community of learners that notice and talk about words. My peer coach observed my AP class this week, and one of her comments was, "Students were so responsive when talking about vocabulary!"

What do you do in your class to foster word consciousness? 
Piece of our word wall in the background there...

Friday, March 2, 2018

Nurturing Young Adult Readers

Imagine you are a chef devoted to vegetarianism—you are convinced this is good for people and good for the planet, as well as morally accountable and delicious. But there are many people you know and love who aren’t so convinced. Would you try to convince them by serving them nothing but plain, fresh tofu (even though that is delicious and nothing like the freeze dried, good-for-6-months variety mostly found in American supermarkets)? Or the rarest truffles sprinkled with gold dust? (I’ve seen that on YouTube!) Or would you try whatever you could to tickle their fancy with recipes that would meet them where they are and woo them into your world? I’m thinking probably the second. So why do we do it the other way round for books? Why do we try to transform reluctant readers into avid readers with Shakespeare and Hawthorne?

The day I finished reading Scythe by Neal Shusterman and put it out on my display shelf, a student walked into my room and froze in front of the bookshelf. “Neal Shusterman! Can I read it?” he burst out. We talked about it several times as he read, and when he finished, he asked if I had Thunderhead, the next in the series. “No, but if I got it, would you read it?” You should have seen his eyes light up. 

That got me thinking about a couple of other inquiries I’d gotten from students recently, whether I had the second book in a series, which I didn’t. When you ask a student looking for a book to read, “What are the last three books you’ve really enjoyed?” and all they can think of is the first book in a series that they read a year ago, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s time to order some second books. So I ordered them. Last week I read Thunderhead, and it’s already been loaned on. This weekend I’m reading Tokyo Kill. Next weekend it will be The Infinite Sea. 

YA dystopian fiction, crime/suspense novels, and alien invasions are not my usual genres. Ten years ago I would not have believed you if you’d told me I’d be reading these 3 books. Then I read Penny Kittle’s Book Love, and one of the things I realized was that The Scarlet Letter and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are not going to transform non-readers into readers. They will capture and build the imagination of those who are already avid readers. Taught well (and I do still teach them, see here and here), they will even help students who don’t read much to recognize and appreciate the artistry and moral imagination present in the works of a great writer, and to join in the ongoing discussion, across time and cultures, of the big questions of what makes us human. But it still doesn’t mean they will ever pick up another book after they finish their last literature class. 

So I want to nurture both an understanding of great literature and a love of reading. Reading of any sort. Because reading correlates with all kinds of benefits we want for our students (vocabulary, writing, IQ, empathy, background knowledge, college success...), because it only takes one “home run” book to convert a reluctant reader into an avid reader, and because a person who reads, say, Captain Underpants, will be more likely to eventually pick up, say, Americanah, than a person who doesn’t read at all.

So read what you love, and also read what those you love may love. Besides, you may be surprised. Scythe sets up a fascinating world with intriguing problems (like the elimination of all human threats, including death) that raise big questions like what is a good life and why? The author of the Jim Brodie books has live in Japan for over 20 years, so he does a really good job of writing for Americans about the country I’ve lived in for over 30. As for The 5th Wave, it was the best alien invasion book I’ve ever read. Okay, it’s the only alien invasion book I’ve ever read. But it, too, raises those big questions like how do we choose our loyalties, at what cost, and is giving up ever an option?

Where can you find these books? Ask a librarian. Ask a kid. Follow a blog like The Nerdy Book Club. Read Book Love and follow Penny Kittle on Twitter. Check out Pinterest or Goodreads. Try something. There are few thrills like seeing a young person fall in love with a book you’ve recommended and discussing with him or her the big questions it raises.

What do you do to nurture your own reading life and that of the community around you?  

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Scaffold Students to Rise to the Challenge of Difficult Reading

Student sharing with the class her group's poster of a chapter of The Scarlet Letter

History was pretty horrible. I’m glad I live now.
This was actually easier reading than A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year.

Third time’s the charm, they say, and my third time teaching The Scarlet Letter is off to a charmed start. Last year’s start was disastrous (see my blog here), so this year I started with the reading strategies and poster idea that salvaged last year. There’s one other thing I did differently this year, too. Instead of starting with a nearly full period of introductory lecture on background, biography, history, themes, styles, influences, romance, transcendentalism, symbolism, things to look for, etc…. I decided to just jump in. 

I have a personal theory that in any well-structured work of literature the first page, couple of pages, or chapter (depending on length and work) will contain in embryonic form most of the themes, motifs, symbols, and other significant signposts of the rest of the work. At this point in 11th grade, I can remind students of where we particularly looked at this in 10th grade: Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, and Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. So all the introduction I gave them was that this is a novel written in 1850 as historical fiction set in 1625, and that Nathaniel Hawthorne was so mortified about his great-great-grandfather Hathorne who persecuted Quakers and his great-grandfather Hathorne who convicted over 100 witches, that he separated himself from them by adding the “w” to his name. 

Students already know that this novel is a part of our quarter 3 study of the relationship of the individual and the community. We’ve already read a number of short pieces. Now it’s time for our marathon piece—to keep up our reading stamina. It’s also the last long work we’ll read before the AP test in early May, so it’s the hardest. This is a challenge, I tell them—the hardest, longest piece you’ll read this year. And in addition to the quarter-long question about the relationship of the individual to community, we’re also addressing the essential questions of how to interpret difficult text and “What do old, dead white guys have to say to me?” 

With that, I handed out the guiding bookmark for the novel study (see below), the novel, and a one-page copy of the first chapter. I said, “Instead of lecturing you about the background and what to look for, I’m going to read you this first chapter, and stop and model my thoughts to you about where I see everything you need to look for in the rest of the novel embedded in these first 2 pages. And I want you to annotate as we go, taking notes about what you’ll need to look for in the rest of the novel." (Yes, I start with the 2 pages of chapter 1. I skip the 49-page introductory sketch about the custom house. I tell the students what I’m doing, and that if they ever re-read the novel as an English major, they will appreciate the introductory sketch much more than they would now. Purists out there may gnash their teeth at me, but I’m okay with that.) 

I’m thinking that maybe I’m doing a better job of cultivating curiosity and the value of asking questions, because while I was passing the books out, I heard a student mention “romance” and ask how this book was going to be that. It must be on the cover some place? So I got in a mini-lecture on what Hawthorne meant by romance.

After reading/reflecting through the first 2-page chapter (if you love and teach the book, try it sometime! or ask me about it in a message), I sent students off to read the next 2 chapters—about 20 pages—at home. I said, “Copy down in your journals a central image for each chapter, along with a quote you think is important, and any other questions you have. Remember, this is hard, and get what you can.”

The next day, students came in actually excited. One student way showing me her journal even before class began: “Look at my image: It’s Hester shivering, because CHILLingworth gives her CHILLS!” When the bell rang, I asked if they had any questions. The unanimous answer was that the questions were all about vocabulary. So we talked through some of the vocabulary, and then I gave each of the groups of 3 or 4 a paper and markers and the assignment to produce a poster with the following: (1) the chapter number and title, (2) a central image, (3) a 1-sentence summary, (4) a significant quote, (5) a connection to some theme or topic on the bookmark, and (6) a question. They had about 10 minutes to do this, and then 1 minute for each group to present. Here are the posters from chapters 4 and 5:

How do you scaffold students to rise to the challenge of difficult tasks in your field?

Friday, February 16, 2018

Service Learning Needs Special Opportunities and Daily Opportunities

I'm thankful for bus drivers willing to guide big vehicles full of children down busy Japanese roads!

February is GREAT!
Not only is it a special month for recognizing Black history (I’ve learned about some amazing people on social media, like 
Eugene Jacques Bullard), it also has a special day for expressing appreciation to our loved ones (yeay, Valentines!), and at my school, a special week for service.

This past week, 6th-11th grade students worked together to serve our community in all kinds of ways, including cleaning up local beaches, doing projects at nearby churches, visiting with residents of elderly care homes, making and serving dinner at a homeless shelter, putting together athletic programs for older elementary students and Bible school programs for younger, and using music, art, and dance to entertain audiences. Generally, the groups spent Monday preparing for their project, Tuesday through Thursday carrying out their project, and Friday debriefing their project, putting together a presentation for their peers, and then celebrating with everyone’s presentations in the afternoon.

It was a great week, and I’m glad we show our value for service by providing the time and resources for this focused week. I also hope it isn't the only opportunity for service students see themselves as having. Any more than Valentine’s Day should be the only time we say, “I love you,” to our nearest and dearest, or February should be the only month we mention Black history. 

How do we infuse service into the daily routine? Notice it, name it, and teach the skills to do it better. Daily service opportunities in my high school English classes include the following:
  • Answering group members’ questions in small group discussions. 
  • Providing group input that propels the discussion forward and deepens everyone’s learning.
  • Listening to each other to understand, not to formulate a reply.
  • Inviting the participation of quieter peers.
  • Giving each other helpful feedback in reading classmates’ writing drafts. 
  • Sharing good books.
  • Thinking about our audience—what they need to hear, and how I can help them best hear it—when creating, practicing, and delivering presentations. (Instead of thinking about myself and what people are thinking of me.)

What other daily service opportunities do students see themselves encountering in your classes?

This is how we prepare students for service-oriented lives: some special opportunities, coupled with a lens through which to see all of life as a series of daily opportunities for service.

By the way, you may wonder what service project I led students on during Service Week. I didn’t. I had my own personal service project—being the bus monitor on our longest route (3 hours round trip, morning and afternoon) so the other monitor was free to focus on his organizing role in Service Week, so the bus driver could focus on driving safely rather than on the behavior of nearly 50 students, and so the students could get safely to school and back so they could participate in Service Week. Yeah, that's what the picture at the top is about. Here’s some more of what it looked like for me:

Me and my bus from the outside

Me and my bus (empty and quiet) from the inside

Starting to fill up!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Giving Skills and Content a Purpose

Why did she do that?
When was this article written? I feel like it’s talking about millennials and not us.
Which values did you choose? Let me see your paper!

One of my favorite moments in teaching: when kids walk into class already talking about the topic before the bell has even rung. That’s when I know I’ve hit the sweet spot where purpose meets learning, and motivation and classroom management take care of themselves. That happened a lot over the last 2 weeks in 10th grade, so I want to examine what works so well with this unit which centers on A Doll’s House, a late 19th century modern prose drama by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (full text available from Project Gutenberg). 

We know purpose is hugely motivating, so I never title my English units with genre, time period, or name of work. The unit on poetry is “Paying Attention” because we can and we must when we have so few words to work with; the unit on A Doll’s House is “Finding Myself” because that is the protagonist’s epiphany at the end, and our response is to begin the work of finding ourselves now, before we find ourselves in Nora’s dilemma. 

The essential question for the literature portion of the unit is “Why would a reasonable, rational, normal human being do that?” If you were an actor trying out for a part, even a minor one, you would have to figure out that character’s motivation and backstory just from what she says and does, and what other characters say about her—and whatever they think, you have to be able to read her lines with empathy and believability. It’s a lot like life: There is no omniscient narrator telling you why people are doing what they’re doing, or what they’re thinking while they’re doing it. No one acts “crazy”—given how they’ve experienced and perceive the world. Inference is a life skill: “Why would a reasonable, rational, normal human being do that?” Actually, I got a lot of those ideas from the excellent human resources book Crucial Confrontations, and I said to myself—hey! That’s what we have to do when we read drama! 

While pursuing this essential question, we practice reading strategies. First I read and model them. Then groups read and do them on their own. Then students can do them on their own. (See below for the reading journal that guides us through the reading looking at quotations from the text and what we infer about character and motivation from them, as well as requiring the use of several other reading strategies, paying attention to how the playwright guides our responses and to the role of minor characters.) We wrap up with a whole group discussion (see questions at the end of the reading journal) that segues into the writing/response portion of the “Finding Myself” unit.

The essential question for the writing/response portion of the unit is “Who am I?” We subdivide it into 3 parts: Who am I culturally, temperamentally, and spiritually? For nonfiction reading practice as well as for content on which to practice the skill of synthesis, we address each of those parts with content and discussion: for culture, we read “The Values Americans Live By,” mark which end of the continuum we fall on for each of the 13 cultural values, and select the 3 that are strongest for us; for temperament, we take one or more Myers-Briggs inventory and research and discuss what that meant (see Google Classroom announcement below); for spirituality, we work in groups on this Google Doc that gives students various Bible passages to research, explain, and connect, related to 2 principles about individual identity. 

That’s where we are now. When we come back to class after service week, we’ll begin on the final paper pulling it all together. Students saw the basic prompt at the beginning of the unit on the unit guide, we’ve been referring to it through our research, and when we come back, they’ll get this expanded prompt, couching it as an application essay for a summer academic or work program. It will also guide them through examining a model essay and beginning to brainstorm the order of their points, the logic for that order, and the support they will use (see here).

How do you give students purpose for learning skills and content?

Life isn’t something that is waiting for our students 3 or 7 or 17 years down the road when they finish school: it’s already happening to them in our classrooms and cafeterias, on the soccer field, at their jobs, in their homes, and everywhere in between. If we aren’t preparing them for that part of life—as well as the part that will happen next year, on the SAT, and in college—then we’re missing out on an amazing opportunity to tap into all the motivational power that purpose makes accessible.

Friday, February 2, 2018

What Does Thinking Look Like?

Over the years, I’ve stumbled upon exercises that really help students get traction on thinking—not playing “Guess what’s in the teacher’s head,” but grappling with ideas, articulate them, and coming to new understandings because of it. This week in AP English 11 we did 2 of my favorites. One is literally cutting up a piece of writing into its components—a paragraph into sentences, a short piece into paragraphs, or a longer piece into designated divisions—and having students work in groups to reconstruct the order. As they work, they have amazing discussions about transitions, structure, and argument—so much better than when they just look at an intact piece and respond to the question, “What do you notice about transitions?” In the photo above students are working with the 6 divisions of an article from the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell called “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” Later in the week, they worked on group annotations of poems. (See photo below.)

It’s nice to have a bag of exercises that are really effective, but because they’re so distinctive, they can also become gimmicky if we do them more than, say, once a quarter. So I need to answer the following 2 questions: Why do these exercises work so well? And how can I even more effectively call students’ attention to the thinking they are doing, so they can transfer that thinking even more effectively to other classroom settings and to life?

I found some answers this week in a book discussion with 7 other colleagues. In Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners, Ron Ritchhart and his colleagues say, “[W]e need to draw on our understanding of what thinking is and the types of thinking we seek to foster so that we can name, notice, and highlight thinking when it occurs in class” (29). Name, notice, and highlight the types of thinking we seek to foster when they occur in class

What are the types of thinking I’m looking for? I have a bulletin board listing them in the back of my classroom—I made it after reading this book for the first time this summer. But the bulletin board, alas, has not served as the memory trigger I’d hoped it would. That’s why I need this second time through the book with colleagues—taking it slowly, reviewing, and building in accountability. I was especially aware this week both as I read the first 3 chapters in preparation for the discussion Thursday afternoon, and as I set my application goal to name, notice, and highlight thinking when it occurs in class, especially the 6 moves listed on page 11: 
  1. Observing closely and describing what’s there.
  2. Building explanations and interpretations.
  3. Reasoning with evidence.
  4. Making connections.
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives.
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions.

And it’s actually working. I’m using those words—especially 1, 3, and 4. I ask students to observe closely and describe what’s there because that’s the basis for clear, careful thinking. It’s the basis of both of the exercises pictured above. Then they use those observations as the evidence for reasoning: What makes you think that section comes after this one? What makes you think the tone of the poem is angry? What is the character’s motivation, and what makes you think that? Making connections is probably the one that I use most naturally and frequently—What other work or character or theme or author was similar to this or different from this? Modeling my thinking by commenting on a news story or a TED Talk or a personal experience that connects, and asking students to come up with their own. 

Now for next week, I want to continue to name, notice, and highlight when students (or myself) observe closely and describe what’s there, reason with evidence, and make connections. I also want to work on naming, noticing, and highlighting the other 3: building explanations and interpretations, considering different viewpoints and perspectives, and capturing the heart and forming conclusions. 

What thinking do you name, notice, and highlight in your classroom?