Friday, October 26, 2012

Editing Exhilaration

An oxymoronic title? I might have agreed before today, but I just spent the most delightful class period wandering through the room listening to 10th graders fully engaged with the task, buzzing with comments like this:

  • “Oh, I know that one--you have to italicize the book title!”
  • “Does anybody know what’s wrong with this citation?”
  • “So the first time you refer to the author in a literary essay you use his whole name, and after that do I say ‘Alan’ or ‘Paton’?”

What are they working on? An activity called “Find Someone Who....” My students had the revised draft of an essay due, and the class period was set aside for editing. They each received a 4 x 4 grid. Each of the squares had an example of a common mistake in it--especially ones we were focusing on this unit: introducing a quotation, using in-text citation, being concise. 

“Find someone who can explain the problem with this example and correct it,” read the directions across the top of the page. I volunteered to be the model and first source for all of them, giving them the answer to the third block in the first row: 
  • Example: Shalom is broken by sin.
  • Problem: Passive voice; use active when possible.
  • Correction: Sin breaks shalom.
  • Source: Mrs. E

Then students were to get an additional block filled in from each of their 3 group mates. After that, they could move around the room to fill in the remaining 12 blocks.

I was truly stunned and almost giddy at the energy with which 26 fifteen-year-olds rose to the challenge. What a difference from me standing at the front of the class going over the top 10 errors and their corrections while most of the students’ eyes glaze over!

Near the end of the activity one student moaned, “Now I’ve learned all this stuff and I have to hand in this paper full of mistakes!”

Mwa-ha-ha-ha! That’s when you know you have them where you want them.

Recalling everyone to their seats, I told them they now had the last 10 minutes of the period to apply what they’d learned to their papers, making editing corrections before handing them in.

Students excited to have a chance to edit their papers--now that’s a sight to banish English-teacher blahs.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Power of a Target

Reading strategies, presentation skills, and slideware best practice--I wanted to reinforce all of these in 4

 periods with 10th graders who had just finished reading Cry, the Beloved Country. Oh, yes, and the second of the periods was a 25-minute sliver of a crazy half-day filled with school bazaar doings. Was it possible? I decided to see what would happen if I focused on a limited target, communicated it clearly, and provided an environment conducive to making it happen.


  1. Explore information that would be helpful background or interesting extension for the reading of Cry, the Beloved Country.
  2. Practice basic verbal and non-verbal presentation skills.
  3. Create 1 slide that is error-free, easy to read, and memorably reinforces your presentation.

Format: A 1-minute presentation with 1 slide.

Question: How will you use the 25 minutes of today’s bizarre schedule to help yourself and your neighbor be ready to present on Tuesday?

Actual interactions:

Student: “So can I use 4 slides?”
Me: “What do the directions say? You wouldn’t want to show more than a slide a minute anyway! Words are what you’re already giving they from your mouth. How can 1 slide illuminate and make memorable your words?”
Student: “Can I use a picture?”

“Is it enough of a presentation if I just teach them how to say some Zulu words?”

“I just searched ‘crime in Johannesburg’ and there have been 2 news stories in the last hour, 12 in the last 24!”

Student: “Is this good information?”
Me: “Your classmates will be hearing this and 25 other presentations in the course of 1 period. Will they remember this when they walk out of the room?”

“Is Desmond Tutu still alive? My friend met him.”

Student: “So if I picked ‘mines in South Africa’ do you want me to do like back in the time of the novel, or now?”
Me: “As long as you can connect it to the book--historical would explain the setting of the novel, and current would show to what extent Paton’s hopes and fears have come true. That’s what ‘background’ and ‘extension’ mean.”
Student: “Ooooooohhh!”

An assessment does not always need to involve huge amounts of time and effort to provoke learning and target achievement--that's what I'm learning. What is needed: know the target, communicate the target, and provide the environment for students to focus on the target. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Focus on Writing

“The baby that doesn’t cry dies on its mother’s back.” My daughter just reminded me of this frequent saying of her high school math teacher from Zimbabwe. I was expressing excitement about all the students I’d been able to give writing feed back to this week--face-to-face or via email--but also fretting about the students not asking for attention who I hadn’t been able to attend to. I appreciate the sentiment as plugging the life-skill of self-advocacy, but I can’t have any dead babies in this writing class. So Monday I start with the students I haven’t talked to yet. Ill have to come into class with a list, or Ill get sidetracked.

Nevertheless, it has been a good week of writing. Remembering Kelly Gallagher’s dictum “I go, then they go,” I modeled a mind map in each of my 2 classes one day--then students went--and the following day I modeled a thesis with an implicit, logical preview of points based on the previous mind map. (The first period map and thesis were much better than the third period ones--which was the period the headmaster wandered in. Ah, well, whats good for the goose....) The conversations I’ve had have been very exciting--their ideas are original and significant. And in those conversations I’m trying to remember that I shouldn’t be working harder than the students are (Thanks, Gini Rojas). 

Experience helps me not work so hard. I’m delighted (while mildly surprised) every time I have just the right tool to pull out when a student needs it--from a tip about writing introductions, to a list of verbs for introducing quotations, to characteristics of a good thesis. And when the input magically clicks, the student’s face lights up with epiphany, that’s one of the highs of teaching.

 In fact, I’m beginning to feel I could organize some of those tools into stations where I could say to a class for a given mini-lesson, “Go to which ever station you feel you need most practice on--beginnings and endings, introducing quotations, writing a thesis, using transition...” Hmm...have to think a little more on that one, but I’d never even thought it possible before. One of those idealistic differentiation strategies that might work for elementary, but never for me. 

I love a new idea. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

All Questions Are Not Equal

In the crevices of time while supervising a 10th grade field trip for 4 days this past week, I’ve been reading journals on Cry, the Beloved Country. The column for the chapter summary demonstrates, as usual, variable thoroughness and grasp of what is important, and the the column for a question/quotation/response/connection regarding each chapter demonstrates, as usual, variable insight and depth of probing. Here are 2 sample responses involving questions:
  • “How does sorrow enrich?” => Once sorrow comes, we can’t redo things, but we can amend again; but fear is eternal suffering. “For fear impoverishes always, while sorrow may enrich” (140).
  • “Why did he talk with him?” 
In the never-ending search to define what makes a great answer great, and how the thinking that produced that answer can be broken down and taught, I think I’m onto something about the questions. Asking questions is a reading strategy, but kids catch on pretty quickly to the form of what we reward with smiles or good grades--the problem is how to teach them the actual thinking behind the form. 

Good, probing, insightful questions and assignment completers--what makes my gut categorize a response as one category or the other? I've been mulling that over as I've been reading these journals, and here's what I've come up with so far: 
  • Articulation of the terms of the question. (Who is “he” and “him” in the second question above?)
  • An attempt at an answer. (A prediction, a guess, an inference, or at least a gathering of the relevant information--"Who is Sibeko?" should be followed by “Kumalo’s friend asks Kumalo to look for his daughter because Sibeko is afraid to since he is not of their church. Is Sibeko white or black? Is he related to Kumalo? Is he of a different church or of no church? Is he going to be important later?”) 
  • The location of the material questioned (quote and/or page number--otherwise I can’t answer the question, and I doubt discussion partners could, or at least, it doesn’t sound like the asker was that interested in an answer).
  • A record of the answer gotten in small group or whole group discussion. (If there is no answer recorded, all I can assume is that the student didn’t follow up. What I know is the answer, if received, will be of no help in any interaction with the text later--paper or presentation.The answer after the question at the beginning of this article is either a brilliant hypothesis or else an paraphrase of my in-class answer to this question rephrased in a way that demonstrates understanding. My answer was much longer.)
Looks like I’m well on my way to a better rubric for next year’s journal than I had for this year’s. And maybe helping students think and read better--if they know exactly what it looks like.