Saturday, November 24, 2012

Of Text Sets, Diversity, Challenge, and Learning Communities

So many things I didn’t do this model coming up with an idea for the next essay. Sigh. But one thing I did was make a discovery about text sets. Text sets are something I’ve contemplated since reading Cris Tovani’s I Read It but I Don’t Get It a number of years ago. It sounded like a good thing to do in the author’s situation--but maybe mine was different--maybe my students aren’t as diverse. 

I like the way we can spur each other on with insights into the same reading. I like the way that students have epiphanies connecting past years’ readings with this year’s: “The people in Night becoming more and more inhuman--that’s just like the slippery slope into evil that we talked about last year in Lord of the Flies!” And I like the way that seniors reflect back over their reading experience in their project “The Story So Far,” showing which of the books in our school curriculum (among others) have made a lasting impression on various lives. But as our population of non-native speakers increases, and I’ve dropped the unit on Dante’s Inferno from my English 10 course to allow more time for sinking deeply into the reading and writing that remains, I’m increasingly thinking that text sets are in our future to some extent. 

This week I had an experience to confirm that that is not necessarily a bad thing.

It started as a jigsaw exercise to provide students with “current events” content for the response essay to Night analyzing the tendency of people to disregard human dignity. At first I was worried about keeping the four articles updated. Eventually I compiled so many articles and sources that I couldn’t reduce the significant number down to four. Modern slavery, gendercide, prejudice, the biological basis of morality, to current situations being monitored as heading toward genocide--I had a lot of good sources I kept in the file and didn’t use because they seemed too difficult or too easy. 

This year I abandoned strict jigsawing, put out 10 articles and web pages, and said, “Pick whatever interests you. Tomorrow you’ll get a chance to discuss it first with other people who read the same article you did in order to share points of interest, clarify questions, and be sure you got the main point and supporting evidence. Then we’ll mix it up so you can hear about some of the other articles--maybe you’ll discover something you want to use in your paper along with your original article or instead of your original article.” 

As I gave a brief synopsis of each, I introduced one article as “long and difficult.” I grimaced inwardly, suspecting that comment would be the kiss of death. But 13 out of 47 students selected it! I was amazed: Students will select difficult material if they are interested. (Though judging from ensuing group discussions, students focused mostly on the side bars featuring moral dilemmas--would you kill a crying baby to save the lives of all the other hiding people? There was less evidence they read the body of the article. Next year I’ll have a response guide.) Still, they were discussing the reading heatedly. 

As were others. I stopped by two other students discussing the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They said, “This is so depressing! Over 50 years ago everyone agreed these were universal human rights, and today there are still so many places where they don’t exist!” In another group, which had read an editorial about the author's experience of discrimination as an American Muslim post-9/11, one girl shared her experience of being at a multi-school tournament and overhearing a slur against Christians: “Why do you want to go over by CAJ [Christian Academy in Japan]--Christians are all fanatics that you can’t trust.” In yet another group, that had read about the IAT (Implicit Assumptions Test), one student was explaining how she had gone online and taken the test. In the mixed discussion, a student who had taken the IAT and come out racist asked me to get the laptop cart so everyone else could take the test and quit looking at him like an oddball.

Did some students select material because it looked short and easy? I’m sure. Did everyone read it thoroughly? Probably not. Did some people do more than required? Yes. (Some students asked politely if they could take more than one article. I also emailed out links to all the sources that had online versions. Several students asked which group they should go to if they had read more than one.) Were students engaged in learning? Definitely.

I still want students to have many common reading experiences. I also know that there is much more information (and excellent writing!) out there than we could all possibly read, and that one thing a learning community does is share good stuff they’ve read and learned with others who may want to read and learn it, too. 

May my class be more and more that kind of learning community.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Curiouser and Curiouser

I’m not sure at what point today I slipped down the rabbit hole, but by half-way through third period, I definitely recognized the place. 

You must understand that I do not consider myself to be a teacher whose challenges lie in the area of classroom discipline. But this is a group whose energy I have difficulty channeling in academic directions. (Today they were still talking about PE when I was trying to start class--even though I had a fascinating video interview with Elie Wiesel, whose Holocaust memoir Night we had just finished reading, prepared to start up on the screen.) 

You must also understand that all my reading and experience until today leads me to believe that small group discussions are better than whole group discussions. There is higher engagement and more individual processing time. Except that this class perfunctorily finishes  the required motions so they can talk about lunch. 

As an end-of-the-book change of pace, today I had students pull their 19 desks into a circle and turned the class over to them: Discuss today’s final assignment or the book as a whole. I opened my laptop to take notes.

They immediately jumped in: “Who’s going to facilitate?” One student stepped up, “Who has a question?” Immediately another responded, “What kept Eliezer going after his dad died?” Several students chimed in with answers. And they were off and running. 

A couple of times the discussion got off on a tangent--but it didn’t take long for a chorus of voices to recall the group to the book. Whether the questions stayed close to the reading--“When Eliezer was in the infirmary, why didn’t he and his father stay in the camp?”--or became personally challenging--“Would you be able to care for someone like Eliezer did for his dad?”--students were genuinely seeking and offering feedback.

One student responded to the notion that somethings it is better to forget: “I have an objection--you have to remember the past in order to live future.”       

They realized that we cannot predict how we will respond: “The prisoners were tested to the extreme and never knew when they would give up their most important values--like Eliezer’s feeling to get rid of father. Things that seemed of such great worth, the next day become trash.”

And they recognized that the line between good and evil does not run between people, but within the heart of every individual. Witness this conversation:
     “Each one of us is capable of doing something horrible to another person. What can we do to keep from falling into that? It’s so easy to become inhumane.” 
     “It happened again in Rwanda 1994--we think nobody is capable, but in reality, anybody could.”

At one point someone said, “Let’s hear from the people who haven’t said anything yet.”

I promise: I posted no questions for response, I laid no ground rules for the discussion (except the active listening behaviors I’ve been despairing of them practicing in their small groups), and I gave no grades. I did prime the pump by giving out 1/4-sheets of paper and asking them to jot down 2-3 questions or observations. I said, “If you love talking in groups, just jot notes for yourself to remember what you want to say. If you’d rather die than talk, write it out more thoroughly so I can read it.”

So what was the difference today? It wasn’t just being self-directed--the small group discussions have just as much self-direction. It felt like these students were more willing to take responsibility for their own and others’ learning in a bigger group than in a smaller group. As if among the 18 other students out there, they were surer of getting back-up than from the three others in their small group. I must confess, I’m mystified.

I don’t know quiet when or where we slipped into that rabbit hole, but I’m not done searching for the answer: We’re going back again this year, as frequently as we can.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Coolness of Words

One of this week’s experiments: students compiling a class vocabulary list. I’ve already made the first list for the unit, but students are reading the text with one eye open for additional unknown words that we discuss each day. We learn so much more than just vocabulary--I learn what holes some students have, we all get intrigued by the connections between words, and the overall level of awareness of the coolness of language goes up.

Me: Let’s look at that word abattoir in context. Any guesses as to what it could mean?
Student A: Like a slaughterhouse?
Me (extremely impressed because that was the exact dictionary definition I had had to look up): Exactly!...Any other words?
Student A: What is butt-chur?
Me: Butcher?
Student A: I suppose so... (still looking blank and expectant, registering no recognition)
Me: You know slaughter but not butcher? Well, then that’s a good thing to ask...

When one student asked about arsenal, others asked whether arson and arsenic were related to it. I had to tell them I didn’t know--and then I went home and researched. Did you know that there is no connection between the words? They have three completely different etymologies. And Monday we’ll have a mini-lesson on etymology

A student asked about surveillance, and another student burst out with a connection: “Like surveillance camera!”

I even began getting questions the other way around: “What’s a word for ‘showing too much optimism’? Optimizing?” After an explanation of what optimizing does mean, the student was still waiting for a good word, so I promised to think about it. The best I’ve come up with so far is naivety or deluded, but that’s not quite it. 

So if you think of a better word for “showing too much optimism,” let me know. I have a student to report back to on Monday.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

46 Mysteries

I am newly in awe of the 46 mysteries that sit in my classroom for a period a day, every day of the school year. Parent-teacher conferences do that to me every year.

Actually, parent-teacher-student conferences. We just finished 3 days of them. I had meetings scheduled for 40 of my 46 students. In 4 cases, the student did not come, only the parents. But when the student was there, I opened by asking him or her, “What’s something you enjoy about English class this year, and what’s something you find challenging?” Here are some of their answers:

Something you enjoy about English this year:
  • The vocabulary--it’s like real SAT words! 
  • The writing--I really like thinking about things until they make sense.
  • The groups--It really helps to get other people’s perspectives.
  • The reading--It’s really deep and has so many meanings. I read it over and over for about an hour!
  • When you just marked our grammar mistakes but didn't tell us what was wrong, it make me realize I have to be responsible for my writing

Something you find challenging about English this year:
  • The vocabulary--I think I know the words, and then I get them mixed up.
  • The writing--it’s so hard, and we have to come up with our own topic.
  • The groups--people separate into friend groups, get off topic.  
  • The reading was really hard for me to get into.
  • When you just marked our grammar mistakes but didn’t tell us what was wrong, sometimes I didn’t know!

Some of the conversations told me I’m making progress on implementing my goals and learning this year. Raising the vocabulary focus was one goal, and that students have noticed is reinforcing! An editing exercise with classmates’ actual errors was an idea from an October workshop that registered positively with at least two students. Another learning from that workshop was about how students learn second languages, and as a result, I formulated a new question to ask students when they are using Korean or Japanese: “Are you helping yourself and your neighbor learn and practice English?” When I asked one EAL student if that question was effective, she relaxed and began grinning about half-way through my recitation of the question. I’m thinking that means at least she recognized and understood the question. I’m taking that as a “yes.”

Some of the conversations told me that students really do want to learn. I sent follow-up emails with links to a website about public speaking and a TED Talk about introverts. I recommended books to read and writing strategies. 

And every conversation told me that each of these mysteries is loved and worried over by his or her parents as much as if he or she were the only mystery in the world. From the parents who are just delighted their child is happy, to the ones in deep perplexity, to the ones asking what’s up with this 98% on this one assignment. 

And I tremble to think that I am entrusted with all 46 of these beloved mysteries. God help me.