Saturday, June 16, 2018

Priming the Pump for Summer Reading

Adding "the question" to my door of "Mrs. Essenburg is reading..." posters was one way I tried this year...

Summer reading doesn’t happen by fiat. Or if it does, it’s an anemic cousin of the robust thing we want to happen…or even counter-productive, teaching kids that reading is an unpleasant chore to be accomplished under duress. That’s not to say having a summer reading requirement is bad—it just needs to be scaffolded, like anything else. So this year, in addition to handing out the required book, the choice list, and the authentic assignment with each, I did a few other things, like book-talking some of the books on the list, leaving copies lying around the classroom, and posting "the question" on my classroom door, amid the posters of all the books I'd read this year (see photo above). I did one other thing, sort of by accident—because I had a smallish chunk of time left at the end of the last exam period in one of my classes—and I’m definitely going to plan it into all my classes at some point next year. 

What do you do when you have 15 minutes of English class before summer vacation at the end of the exam activity? Something engaging enough to make students forget their yearbooks to be signed, and something that will set them up for a summer not entirely devoid of reading? Of the several ideas rolling around in my brain last Monday at 11:35 a.m., I plunked for reflecting on books we loved in the past, hoping it would ignite an animated discussion and result in, not a “to-read” list grudgingly constructed because it was required, but a good feeling about reading that students would be motivated to find ways to keep alive over the summer. 

So here’s what I did. I wrote 4 categories on the board and asked students to think about books that were significant for them in each category: picture books, chapter books (upper elementary), middle school, and high school. I gave a few examples for myself. My mom trying (unsuccessfully) to divert me from checking out Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book—yet again. Reading through my neighbor’s entire set of Nancy Drew books in one summer. Call It Courage, one of the few books I re-read after moving beyond picture books. 

We had a great discussion—students building off other students’ memories—from Miss Nelson Is Missing  to A Series of Unfortunate Events and beyond. Here are a few of the highlights:
  • Green Eggs and Ham—“It was the first book I read by myself, and I was so proud. It was really long!”
  • Junie B. Jones—“I consciously modeled my sense of humor on hers, and have just been adding to it ever since!”
  • Danny the Champion of the World—“My dad read it to me, and it was a real bonding experience.”
  • The Miracle Worker—“When I went to see the play in 4th grade, I didn’t know that Hellen Keller wasn’t born blind and deaf. When I realized that I could get sick and lose my sight and hearing, it really impressed me with how fragile life is.”

We didn’t even get to high school favorites! And no one sneaked a peek at their yearbook, we had a deeply engaged discussion about books, and I’m not sure how it affected anyone else’s summer reading plans, but I know that I, at least, added Danny the Champion of the World to my “to-read” list! I think I might try this 15-minute discussion at the beginning of the school year. 

What do you do to prime students for summer reading?

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Joy of Reading and Thinking Together



Spoiler alert if you’re in my 11th grade AP English class and reading this: Wait until after the exam period Monday, unless you want to know how the play ends. 

Since the AP class has no exam, having already faced down “the Big One” in early May, we spend the last few days of the school year—exam prep days and the exam period itself—enjoying something we don’t get to anywhere else in the year: drama. The last 2 years I’ve done A Raisin in the Sun—a nice alternative “American dream” with which to follow up The Great Gatsby. But most of this year’s class had already studied that play in a theater elective last year. So I remembered Our Town

We’ve covered some big topics this year: “To what extent does school serve the goal of a true education?”, “What is the relationship of the individual to the community?”, and “What does citizenship mean to me, and how will I use my voice as an educated citizen of my country and of the world?” Then The Great Gatsby warns us, among other things, to be very careful what we give our hearts and dreams to. Our Town can, I hope, be a story that will live within us, reminding us that in the midst of our big desires to get on with life and impact the world, not to miss the moments of life as we live them, the gifts that surround us all the time.

Come to think of it, maybe we actually are having a final exam: Can you thoughtfully read a work of literature for the pure joy of doing it, and not because there’s a grade at the end? So far, everyone’s acing it.

How could we work out and visualize the action as we read? (I have a limited number of copies, so we have to share, and can’t freely move around the room to stage it.) I hit on the idea of moving character cards around a table/stage (see photo above). It’s worked really well through acts 1 and 2. Monday we’ll read the final act, and I know I’m going to cry. I have the room stocked with 2 boxes of tissues, and a note to myself NOT to take any major reading parts. Here’s the part that gets me every time: 

Emily, a young mother who has died in childbirth, has been given a chance to relive a day in her life, and she picks her 12th birthday. But the way everyone rushes unheedingly through the moments of what she now knows is such a beautiful, fleeting life, devastates her:

Emily: I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. (She breaks down sobbing….) I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.

Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, You’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

(She looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly, through her tears:) Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No. (Pause.) The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

Since I first read those words as a young adult myself, I’ve tried, with more success sometimes than others, to realize life while I live it—every, every minute. To really look at the people around me. To notice the cup of hot coffee, the morning glories…the pattern of the clouds shadows on the corrugated surface of the East China Sea…sleeping and waking up. Summer is a good time to try again. 

And if you havent read Our Town...or at least not recently...you might consider putting it on your summer reading list.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Cultivating Curiosity through Final Exams



I’m looking forward to exams. (No, I haven't lost my mind.) I realized a while ago that our world doesn’t necessarily need people who can identify all the characters in a given Shakespeare play and which significant quotes they said. It does need people who are curious, work on finding answers, and share their findings with others. (This is not a new idea for my students. I try to cultivate their questions throughout the year: see last week's blog.) So my English exam is: “Given what we learned in class this semester, what ELSE to you want to know, and how will you share that?” It’s sort of like “Genius Hour,” but it’s “Genius Week.”

We spent a class period reviewing all the reading we’ve done (fiction and nonfiction), all the writing we’ve done (passed back portfolios), and the themes we’d discussed, and then brainstorming in writing what had caught our attention, that we’d like to explore further. Now students have 5 class periods for research and 1 for practice before the exam presentation.

Here are some of the things students are working on:
  • One student wants to look further into personality and values formation to resolve what she sees as inconsistencies in the “Who Am I?” paper she wrote in response to our study of the modern drama A Doll’s House.
  • One student wants to find out how and why decisions about movie scoring happen because he was intrigued by the use of music in the 1999 movie of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which we watched after studying the play,
  • One student wants to find out more about the author Haruki Murakami and his relationship to the Japanese writing community because we studied his novel After Dark.
  • One student wants to research further the meaning of a Franz Kafka short story we read in class and determine how it fits into his worldview.
  • One student wants to follow up on the theme of human dignity, which we introduced first semester in our study of the Holocaust memoir Night, and trace it through works we studied second semester, connecting it ultimately to current events.

Exams are the week after next. I’m looking forward to reviewing lessons about presentation skills by watching clips of TED talks, and to conferring with students about what they're learning from their research. And then, I’m looking forward to exams!

And then, I'm looking forward to summer. (See, I told you I haven't lost my mind!)

Friday, May 25, 2018

Who's Asking the Questions?


11th graders discussing Gatsby

Among the many new things I learned this week was this: All my life I’ve been reading tortuous as torturous. I had the right idea—I just figured that a long and twisty mountain road or argument could feel pretty painful to someone driving or reading it. But because a student asked about tortuous, and because I wanted a concise definition, I checked my desktop dictionary. First I typed in torturous and found nothing about roads or logic. And scrolling down to the bottom, I read to my horror, “Tortuous and torturous have different core meanings….” So now I know that tortuous derives from the same Latin root as torque and means twisty (literally or figuratively), while torturous deals with excruciating pain, comes from Anglo-Norman French, and should not be used lightly: “It is not a fancy word for ‘painful’ or ‘discomforting,’ as in I found the concert torturous because of the music's volume.” Chastened by the dictionary.

Three take-aways here: When the students are asking the questions instead of the teacher, (1) the students actually want to know the answers, (2) the students are equipped for lifelong learning as they identify what they want to know rather than just finding answers to what someone else wants to know, and (3) even the teacher can learn something and can model that lifelong learning.

Three ways this week that I structured for students to be the ones asking the questions:
  • 11th graders each bringing in 2 unknown or interesting words found in the homework reading.
  • 11th graders working in groups to compile character descriptions supported by text.
  • 10th graders conducting a Socratic discussion to synthesize A Midsummer Night’s Dream (play and 1999 movie) and all the related nonfiction articles (on literary interpretation as well as on infatuation, love, and marriage) to prepare for the final synthesis essay on the difference between infatuation and love.

11th graders reading Gatsby

Some questions students asked this week:
  • What color did you guys find coming up the most in this chapter? (Love it when they start asking each other my questions for me.)
  • Is there another San Francisco beside the one in California? Because that doesn’t seem right that Gatsby says he’s from the Middle West and then says San Francisco. (That’s what question asking is for—way to stay suspicious!)
  • What did you think of how Helena and Hermia were portrayed in the film? (Some didn’t think there was a big enough contrast in their coloring, but in the give and take of the ensuing discussion, they arrived at the conclusion that the limited contrast reinforced the theme of romantic love finding difference in sameness. I was pretty impressed.)

10th graders writing A Midsummer Night's Dream responses

Four days of class, three of exam prep, and the exam. We're allstudents and teachersgetting tired and ready for the end. Some things are falling off the mental workbench—like mentor sentence analysis. But we’re still reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening. One part of that is fostering a classroom culture where students ask the questions.

How do you keep students learning in the final days of the school year? How do you encourage them to ask the questions? 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Summer Reading List: Professional Development



Signs of May: My 11th graders' AP test is done, my 10th graders are preparing presentations on A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I'm getting my summer professional reading list together! This blog actually started as a result of some summer professional reading--6 years ago. The book was Adolescents and Digital Literacies, and I was just going to capture and process my learning in my journal, when my husband challenged me to post it online--since that would be practicing digital literacy while thinking about it. (You can read that first post here.)

So I've spent the last week thinking about my list for this summer, and here's what I've come up with: 
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark (Little, Brown). This is one of those classics in the field of teaching writing which I’ve seen referred to every so often in other writing teachers’ books and blogs. I’ve had this one on my shelf for several years: definitely going to get to it this summer.

In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom by Kelly Gallagher (Stenhouse). This author is one of my reading/writing classroom gurus—along with Penny Kittle, Jeff Anderson, and Cris Tovani. Gallagher AND Kittle co-authored a book this year, but I have to read this one first.

Seeing the Standard for Project Based Learning by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, and Suzie Boss (ASCD). This was recommended by a colleague two summers when I asked about the best book to catch me up on the subject. A number of teachers at our school (where I’m curriculum coordinator as well as a 10th/11th grade English teacher) have expressed an interest in learning more about project based learning, so I definitely need to get to this one this year. I’m thinking of having a faculty book discussion on it sometime next year for anyone who is interested.

Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom by Rick Wormeli (Stenhouse). This one’s new to my list this year: I was talking with the elementary principal about teachers’ expressed interest in learning about assessment (variety, validity, effectiveness) and she suggested this one. So we’re both going to read it this summer. 

Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments, by Heibi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Hubley Alcock (ASCD). This was recommended last summer by a friend who is a school head at another school, but I was already committed to Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform our Schools, which was on a similar topic (and I highly recommend it!). I’m looking forward to reading Bold Moves this summer and talking with my friend about it. 

Coaching Classroom Instruction by Robert Marzano and Julia Sims, (Marzano Research Laboratory). This one I just decided on this week as the title to fulfill my goal of learning about instructional coaching—something I think I should probably know more about in my role as curriculum coordinator.

Creativity--teaching and assessing it--was one more topic I had on my list to explore this summer. Our school’s 5 expected student outcomes (what students will learn in every class at every level) are the ability to understand, think, communicate, collaborate, and create. I realized when I was at the EARCOS Leadership Conference this past October, that for those first 4, I can talk about  research, recommend several books, and give examples of ways I teach and assess it, but for create, I mostly just know the buzzwords about 21st century learners and maker spaces, along with my conviction that humans made in the image of a creative God must be creative. So I scribbled down a list of 6 books that one of the presenters gave, and my husband helped me narrow it down to 3:

Then my husband suggested I get all 3. Well, I was hoping to clear out my backlog of professional reading this summer, but who am I to say no to buying books? So, time to order my last 4 professional books! Then to start working on my other summer reading list... 

What do you want to learn about this summer? What can you read to find out about it? 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Self-Care for Teachers: Reflect on Good Things That Happened This Week (Part 2)



It’s the time of year for teachers when trying to accomplish all those things on your to-do list can feel like an endless loop. Like that Facebook video of the toddler sticking tennis balls in a can tucked under his arm, but every time he bends over to pick up a new ball, the one he just put in rolls out. (If you haven’t seen it, you really should. Laughing at frustration is a healthy outlet.) Okay, let’s face it: in teaching, it can feel like that just about every week. 

That’s why there are so many resources for teacher self care (just try Googling it!). One of the refrains I keep coming across—along with eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep—is the importance of cultivating positivity. Hang out with positive people. Make a habit of recounting good things that happened in a day or a week. 

So thats what I do on this blog every year about this time (heres last years), and that’s what I’m going to do todayreflect on some good things that happened in my teaching week:

Student connections and book choices: A student picked Good News about Injustice off my classroom library shelf and said, “This sounds like that article we read at the beginning of the year when we talked about human dignity.” (Yea, she remembered something we read back in November!) Me: “Actually, it’s by the same author! Gary Haugen, the head of International Justice Mission, that works to combat human trafficking.” She grinned and pocketed the book.

Student questions, overheard as I circulated around the room, observing 10th graders discussing an op-ed piece from the New York Times titled “Three Views of Marriage” in order to help them formulate modern relevance of some themes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Are these statistics about America, or did they get them from other countries, too?” (excellent question!) and “How did they even decide that the best marriages are better and the worst are worse? Did they use a rubric?” (Absolutely delighted a student assumes rubrics are this important!)

Student ownership of essential questions: Student to group mates as she practiced reading some of Oberon's lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in preparation for the presentation they are doing next week: “What am I thinking as I’m saying this?” (I’m doing better at working my essential question “How is acting different from reading?”!)

Student writing: Line from an 11th grade essay on citizenship (see last week’s blog for student reflections): "…[S]ometimes it’s necessary to disagree. Jesus himself overturned tables and shouted when the intended purpose of the Temple was being perverted. When the intended purpose of community is being perverted then we, as Christians, must overturn tables of our own. God created community for us so we may live in peace, and being good Christian citizens means doing what is necessary to keep said peace…. As we try to maintain peace, go about doing so using civil disobedience, seeking education and simply lending a helping hand to the people around you."

Book recommendations becoming a two-way street: A student stopped me in the hall and said, “Oh, Mrs. Essenburg—since you’ve been interested in New Zealand literature, my mum says we have a whole stack at home and you’re welcome to read it.” I said, “You and your mum pick the top two and I’d love to read them.”

Teacher learning and informative assessment: I actually followed through on my intention of the last several years to sprinkle our study of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with several close readings and annotations, leading up to a final assessment of a close reading annotation. Things to love: I did it—all 4 practice ones, going over them in class, and the final one. Also, everyone did a thorough job of paraphrasing, and one student absolutely nailed it for poetry, questions, and significance as well. Which lets me know what standard I can hold students to, and what rubric I should construct and teach to for next year!

These are the moments that make all the rest worth it. It’s important to collect and savor them. What were a few of those moments for you this week? Reflect on them yourself, and then share them with a teaching friend. It helps. I promise.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Combat May-itis with Real-Life Skills and Reflection




May-itis is what can happen in May in educational systems where the school year ends in June. It is a lassitude or paralysis that results from the confluence of the realization of a limited time in which to accomplish all remaining goals and the wish that a goal in sight means a goal accomplished. Two ways to combat May-itis: (1) give students real-life resources that adults use and (2) reflect on learning.   

I may have a minor case of May-itis myself. This week my 11th grade AP Language and Composition students were wrapping up their last processed papers for the year. When it came to the final editing mini-lesson, I drew a complete blank. I just felt like I had nothing new left to teach them about grammar, conventions, and even style. If they would just use all of the knowledge and strategies we’ve explored in class over the last two years.… Suddenly I remembered a professional writers’ blog I’d seen earlier this year about “10 Ways to Become a Better Proofreader,” so I searched the blog, and when I found it—eureka!—it was perfect. I love giving students real-world resources (like Toastmasters for public speaking tips) because it demonstrates that these aren’t just fake school teacher targets, and it empowers students to find their own resources in the future. Also, this particular list reiterates many things this teacher has told them and/or required writers to do…but have students internalized those things, and will they continue to use them their senior year, in college, and in life? 
List of frequent errors? Start here...

So for the mini-lesson, I told students this was the last editing day we’d have, and I hoped they’d take everything we’d learned about writing process and about editing, use it today, and take it with them. I asked them to read the article, write down 3 of the 10 things they would commit to using today and in the future, and then spend the rest of the period doing it. Meanwhile I’d come around to check their list of 3 and answer any questions they might have about my editing marks on their papers (my practice is to mark the first 10 errors or questions I come across) or about anything else.

The next day, when final drafts were due, we did our usual self-assessment and reflection (something I have become committed this year to always allowing time for) with an additional question: How have you grown as a writer this year? (I distributed their writing portfolios so they could do some research.) Sometimes I’ve saved this whole-year reflection until the very end of the year, but you can also miss the peak. This is the first time I’ve done it this early, and because of the timing with the AP test, it was something I definitely want to repeat. 

Here are some of the things students said they learned while working on this paper (Prompt: Letter to yourself in 10 years: Given what you’ve experienced in your life up to this point, what you have read this unit about citizenship, and what you have learned this year about reading, writing, listening, thinking, and speaking, how do you hope you will be using your voice as a national and global citizen?):
  • Once I grow up, I’ll have a choice of what kind of citizen I want to be, which I really hadn’t thought too deeply about before. So I’m glad I’ve gotten to really get into it. I also learned to read my sentences backwards and aloud to catch errors and make some good changes. 
  • Making cuts where they need to be made, knowing when not to include something, even if it’s well written, for the purpose of my overall narrative.
  • I decided to step away from using vocabulary and diction that I’m not comfortable with, and focused on the philosophical/pathos aspect of the essay. I’ve learned that it’s important to know your audience when writing since it made some decisions in writing (allusion, diction, and sources) easier.

Here are some of the ways students said they had grown as writers: 
  • Over the course of the year I have…become more adept at presenting my ideas in a much clearer way…. I have also gained better insight into developing an idea over the course of an entire essay, using structure to my advantage. I think my quality of work still fluctuates somewhat, but writing has started to come much more naturally to me, and I now know what to focus on to improve my writing further.
  • I definitely feel as though I have a better understanding of what rhetoric is and how to use it, which was really hard for me at the beginning of the year. I also think that I’ve become better at making sentences stand out, whether it be by varying sentence structure or building up to something, which I think makes my work more impactful. I also think I’ve become better at making “bigger” words actually sound meaningful and sell used and not just having them there for the sake of having a big word there.
  • …One of my favorites was the education essay. I felt so strongly about this particular subject, specifically when we read about how today’s technology impacts our education…. I’ve learned so much about the world around me.
  • I’ve grown to put a lot of my own character into my writing. I’ve grown out of the habit of just using the all too familiar intro, three points, and conclusion style, and stretched my ability to write more types of essays.
  • I think I’ve become more aware of multiple perspectives, which is important when writing.

That was a great antidote for my May-itis! Now on to the very focused AP test prep next week!

How do you combat May-itis in yourself and in your students?