Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Technology Anecdote

A student sets up a computer for a slideware presentation, fiddles a bit, then looks at me in confusion--the display projected on the screen is different from what he sees on his screen. I sigh and head to the front, trying to quell the rising frustration that the students don’t know how to handle the technology (thinly veiling defensiveness about my own lack of competence) and worry about what this delay is doing to my carefully planned presentation schedule. 

Stop! Rewind! That is NOT what happened this time! This time, with the heady feeling of impersonating a tech-savvy person, I stepped to the front of the room and modeled for the entire class what to do. 

It was a road getting to this point. For years, I’ve just hoped there was someone more knowledgeable than me in the room when it happened. Usually there was. But he clicked through the process so fast I could never really follow what he was doing. Recently, though, I was at least picking up on the phrase “mirror images.” A month or so ago, I was clearing out of a room where another teacher was setting up and having this problem. I poked around on her computer a little bit, then said, “You’ll have to find a tech person and tell him you need to do that mirroring thing.” 

In preparation for this round of student presentations, my kids were practicing in front of small groups, scattered around the school in classrooms that were empty that period. As I circulated from room to room, I came across one student who was having this same problem--what the projector was showing was not what was on his computer display. I said, “That’s why we do these practice presentations! Now let’s figure this out...I know it has something to do with mirroring images. Where would that be...?” He said, “Oh! I think it’s in systems preferences.” From there we decided it must be “display.” We got stuck there for a while, but finally found the tab with the mirroring option. Eureka! A team effort. 

And now I’ve got it. The next time a student had the problem, I knew what to do. Except one time when I got to the display window, there were only 2 tabs, not 3. Aargh. I hate when I figure out the technology just in time for it to evolve beyond me. I’ll have to grab an IT guy when I get back to school after break and ask about that. 

But this little incident reminded that I have learned a number of things about technology in 2013:
  1. Modeling learning and use of technology for the students. I’ve taken to calling attention to my use of technology (“Let’s look that word up right here in my desktop dictionary”), talking through my decisions and steps (“I’m just going to hit the ‘AV mute’ button right here rather than turning the projector off, so it won’t take 2 minutes to turn back on”), showing students on the projector (no longer viewing these presentation glitches as interruptions but as learning and teaching opportunities).
  2. Learning takes practice. How many times had I seen someone do that? Heard it explained? But finally I had to figure it out myself. Another tech thing I’m relearning this vacation is uploading videos to YouTube--something I first did last June (see my blog on that), but had to really go back almost to square one to figure out again. 
  3. I can learn to master digital technologies!
  4. Just do it. I have gained a little more confidence that in poking around, I can figure things out, and that most of the students really don’t know so much more than me--at least about academic and professional use of technology.

So to all you other digital immigrants out there--embrace the challenge! Growth does come. After all, it’s what we ask of our students every day. Learn, model, teach. All the time.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Playing Around in English

The focus and excitement was palpable with every student in the classroom fully engaged with a vocabulary game. Some were asking me or peers what words meant. (“Mrs. Essenburg, what does “covette” mean?” Puzzled, I went over to look. “Oh! Covet! Like the commandment, ‘You shall not covet.” “Oh! Covet!”) Some were practicing etymology. (“What does ‘lackluster’ mean?...Oh, ‘dull,’ like ‘lacking luster’!”). I felt a little giddy. 

On Thursday one of the students scheduled to give a presentation was absent, leaving us with a stretch of time at the end of the period to fill constructively. Sometimes in such a situation I’ll have students share with a partner or in small groups a book they’ve read this year. This time, since the last presentation had ended with the suggestion to do a little bit of good in the world by giving extra change to the little donation boxes left by NGOs at convenience store counters, I was reminded of the Web site I told students to get out their computers and I’d show them another way they could do a little bit of good in the world and help themselves improve their vocabulary at the same time. 

Students played a multiple choice vocabulary-building game where for each correct answer, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which administers the game, provides 10 grains of rice which are paid for by site advertisers. Yes, this is legitimate--if BBC can be trusted. (I also gave my students a mini-lesson on fact-checking.) This article from September 8, 2010 says a computer programmer created the game for his sons and then donated in to the WFP.

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with some students the previous Wednesday night on the train on the way home from debate. A 10th grader promised me he was going to go home and study his vocabulary words for the quiz the next day. An 11th grader lit up at the memory: “Oh! Quizlet! I loved that! I was determined to have the highest score on the Space Race game, so I kept playing it until I did. And it just happened that I also learned the words!” (I make 2 Quizlet lists for each vocabulary list of 20 words--one with definitions, and one with the context sentence of origin in the literature we’re reading.)

I’ve commented in past posts on an article forwarded to me by a fellow department chair--“Five Research-Driven Education Trends at Work in Classrooms.” This week I was given cause to reflect on one of those trends I havent yet addressed: game-based learning

Of course there are many parts of the process of education that just take hard work (in fact, “Power of Perseverance” is another of the 5 research-driven trends that I have commented on), but who wouldn’t choose a little fun and games every so often--especially when it gets kids this engaged?

What else in the secondary English classroom have you found game-based learning can be used for?

Friday, December 6, 2013

That's Debatable...

Never, ever, as a high school student, would I have volunteered to stand up in front of strangers from another school and half-improvise an eight-minute rebuttal and argument. Never, ever, ever. It would have been the stuff of nightmares. But last Wednesday I coached 13 high school students who did just that, and I have to say, I am so proud of each and every one of them. 

The experience was a first for all of us--though not for all our opponents! After two weeks of preparation--time in which we not only had to learn the rules of Queensland style debate and the skills of constructing a case and offering and answering rebuttals and points of information, but also research the topic: Poetry is beautiful, but science is what matters. It was a pretty steep learning curve, and as students headed down the hallways of an unfamiliar school to find their rooms, the adrenaline was pumping. 

As I rotated through the rooms where my students were engaged, I saw them speaking confidently, presenting the arguments they’d crafted, and doing some quick critical thinking. (“Of course Robert Frost would say poetry is important--he was a poet!”). And afterwards, they were all still standing--and even better--discussing where their opponents had equivocated and avoided addressing issues, dissecting their own performances, and noting what others had done that was worth emulating. 

The topic of “ethical appeal,” which the 11th graders learned in their English class, came up: convincing your audience that you are an authority, as well as likeable and worthy of respect--someone they want to listen to. There’s the opponent who is knowledgeable and articulate, but just comes across as, well, not someone you’d search out for an opinion. As a judge remarked on one student’s sheet, “Be confident, not aggressive.”

I reminded them of what I’d taught them about public speaking in 10th grade--the importance of being much more clear and overt about organization in speaking than in writing because if a listener misses something, she can’t go back and check it.

And then there’s my favorite aspect of debate--that students have to prepare both a negative and an affirmative case. What if we all tried to figure out what made our opponents tick to the point that we could argue their case if we had to? It’s a kind of intellectual empathy--in all to short supply in most daily life debates I hear, whether online, on TV, or in person. 

So here’s looking at you, kids--the next generation of all of our democracies. See you Monday and Tuesday for preparation, and then Wednesday when we’ll hammer out “It is irresponsible of Japan to host the Olympics with Fukushima so precarious.”

Friday, November 29, 2013


Since its the season where the American-dominated English-speaking internet seems to be tending toward enumerating blessings, and since I have to write a blog on this vacation weekend or else break my streak, here are some English teacher-y things I am thankful for:

Balance--One period, when I came to the epiphanic moment of my lecture, a student clapped her hand over her mouth and gasped. The next period, at the same moment, a student burst into giggles.

Absorption--A student who doesn’t fit the bookworm profile seen after the end-of-class bell packing his backpack one-handed while reading the book in his other hand, strolling out the door still reading.

Colleagues--A group I’m meeting with monthly this fall about collaborative professional assessment and growth. I told them my goal was to compile a professional portfolio comprised of this weekly blog and getting my English 10 class Moodle unit descriptions all complete. That’s added motivation for keeping up with the blogging--which is nice--but even more for the unit descriptions, which was a goal I failed at last year. 
A principal who’s such a learner she can truly participate as a teacher in the department meetings I run. An elementary teacher who invited input on what gaps or misunderstandings students are coming into middle school with. All my department colleagues who are willing to share their successes and failures so we can encourage, celebrate, and learn from each other. A curriculum coordinator several years ago who in my first year as a department chair got all the department chairs reading Understanding by Design--which has changed me, my department, and the school.

Learning (mine)--Some of it scary--like debate--scary, stretching, exciting, and did I say scary? Some just plain fun (not very many jobs out there where you can claim reading the latest Nobel Prize for literature winner--or just the latest YA sensation--is professional development!). Some of it social and motivating--see above, but also, one of my favorite learning tools is book discussions with colleagues--next week we’ll be finishing one I’m participating in on Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior, and I’m beginning to make plans to facilitate one on  The Vocabulary Book: Learning & Instruction in January.

Learning (students')--Questions during a recent unit that targeted the reading strategy of making inferences: “Are we supposed to be able to infer whose tear it was?” “How can you infer that?”
Overheard at student peer writing conferences: “You have really good points.” “Your thesis doesn’t quite address the prompt.” (Also: “You didn’t write anything on my paper!” “It was perfect.” “That doesn’t help me any.”)
Connections made: “Is it okay if I refer to shalom [a core concept from the previous unit] in the human dignity paper? Because it seems like they connect.”
Connections sometimes at the level of moments of epiphany--such as this one while a class was discussing disregard of human dignity that is milder than genocide, but not evidencing respect and love for the image of God within...
  • Student 1: “Gossip.” 
  • Me: “Spreading or listening to gossip.” 
  • Student 1: “Spreading.” 
  • Me: “Is listening to gossip disregarding human dignity?” 
  • Student 1: “No.” 
  • (Almost simultaneously) Student 2: “YES! That’s being a bystander! [concept from previous unit] That’s supporting the perpetrator and ignoring the victim!” [reference to Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech which we read this unit after reading Night].

Humor--intentional and otherwise, such as this interchange at the conclusion of a recent book talk with a student about outside reading...
  • Me: “So what was a theme of the book you finished?” 
  • Student: “It might seem kind of trite, but I think it was ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’” 
  • Me: “Why did you choose this book to read next?” 
  • Student: “I liked the cover.”
Thankfulness--My entire teaching career has been at an international Christian school established for missionary kids in Japan, so maybe this is unique to Asia, but every day 15-year-old students leave my classroom with a chorus of thank-yous.” A cultural formality? Could be. But every day ends just a little brighter than it would otherwise, and thats something to be thankful for. 

Happy Thanksgiving weekend. May it find you thankful for many, many things.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Power of an Object Lesson

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is an action worth?

On the second day of the school year, I publicly defaced a picture of my husband. I started English class by telling my 10th graders a little about my husband, showing them a 3 x 5 photo of him and me, then ripping off my husband’s half, shredding it, dropping it on the floor, and stepping on it. 

One of the classes froze and went dead silent. In the 2 other classes, students gasped or giggled uncomfortably.  Why the electric response? I asked them. That piece of paper with ink on it was not my husband--my husband is much bigger and thicker. He also moves and has legs, unlike the photo. What’s the big deal? 

Still...the idea of an “image” has meaning. We feel it in our bones. So what does it mean that people bear God’s image?

Thus I introduced a principle introduced in Genesis 1:26 and running throughout the Bible, a principle which has many implications, several of which underpin the entire first semester of English 10. Being made in God’s image has significance for how we act...
  1. Toward other people who are all images of God (with honor and respect)
  2. Ourselves as images (original goodness; fallen; being renewed in the image of the Creator, being conformed to the image of Christ; someday being perfectly like him for "we shall see him as he is")
  3. Within the creation as stewards developing its potential with care and respect. Literature is people acting as image bearers to take the physical reality, thinking minds, and potential of language (all created by God) and develop further the "raw materials," developing culture.

I knew it was a good lesson when I taught it; I didn’t know how good until yesterday. Students were working on the biblical perspective part of their response paper to the Holocaust memoir Night, analyzing some aspect of people’s tendency to disregard human dignity. The prompt asks them to refer to the concepts of people being made in the image of God and of the second greatest commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

In my explanation I suddenly thought to say, “Remember way back at the beginning of the school year, when I ripped up the photo of my husband?” I’ve gotten blank stares when referring to a lesson I taught yesterday, let alone 3 months ago. I was hoping with my reminder of the visual aid to raise a few flickers of recognition. The widespread, immediate, and visceral response I got absolutely floored me. 

Any other good object lessons out there?

Friday, November 15, 2013

It Isn't Just the Writing

  • “Well, I wish I could have talked with the teacher more about my idea to have a clear goal in mind. I just wrote and came to a conclusion.”
  • “It’s good to ask questions, figure out what you could do better, then do it. Don’t be passive.”
Reading student reflections on their writing process for a particular piece of writing (see last week’s blog “Owning the Process” for the whole reflection guide) has been eye-opening--to student as well as teacher understandings and misunderstandings. Again I’m being nudged toward greater differentiation when I see the disparity of levels--from students who think writing is all about proper grammar, punctuation, and capitalization to those who have nuanced insight into and control over their own writing process. 

But the thought that sticks most deeply is the gap between the two student responses above. When I read the first one, I felt bad that I had missed out on giving input to a student who wanted it. Then I felt frustrated that the student hadn’t asked. The following day, I read the second response. My bad feeling and frustration resolved as I thought, “Yes! This is why that student is a good writer. And this is a lesson that will serve that student well in so much more of life than simply writing.” 

What springs to mind is so much reading I’ve been doing lately: 

So how does that come back to my classroom? I’m going to make sure I get a chance to conference with student #1 during the writing of our next paper. I’m going to work harder to touch base with all the quiet students. And I’m going to think about how I can target teaching not just the writing process and skills, but the life attitude of asking questions, figuring out what you could do better, then doing it. Not being passive.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Owning the Process

Good writers value the writing process. They use it on papers outside of English class, later on in college where drafts are not required, and still later on in life when they need to communicate a purpose to an audience. They do this because they are good writers, and they are good writers because they do this. Which comes first? I dont know, but it is a virtuous cycle. How can I help more students to value, own, and capitalize on the process? 

Recently, I tried reflection. First, when students turned in the final draft, they also turned in everything that I had required them to do as a part of the process--starting with the journal they kept while reading the novel the paper was based on, right on through all brainstorming, organizing, drafting, revising, and editing, with the final draft on top. That represents a lot of work--I had assigned it all because I thought it was all important in contributing to the final draft. I wanted them to see it all together--the sheer volume of hidden work that goes into good writing--and to understand that good writing starts way back with good reading. 

Additionally, since professional writers use the process in idiosyncratic--not lock-step--ways, I wanted students to identify which parts had been the most helpful to them in their own writing process. So I came up with the following reflection sheet for students to fill out and turn in with their final packet of papers:


Prewriting (reading journal, small group/class discussions, quick write for a thesis, planning with a mind map or an outline, re-reading the shalom article like a writer)
  • What worked best for you, to prepare you to write? Why?
  • What didn’t work for you, to prepare you to write? Why?
  • What did you learn about prewriting while working on this essay?
Drafting (2 days in class, homework)
  • I used my class time for writing--working on my own, getting help from classmates and teacher when necessary, and returning quickly to work (circle one):
a. very effectively b. pretty well       c. not so well       d. not well at all

  • I did the best I could on writing my rough draft (circle one): 
a. definitely b. pretty much       c. sort of sloppy       d. just something to hand in

  • What did you learn about writing a rough draft while working on this essay?
Revising (teacher feedback, beginnings and endings, 1 day in class, homework): Circle 1
5: all suggestions carefully considered and many--plus additional improvements--thoroughly and creatively integrated
4: all suggestions considered and most integrated with understanding; a few other changes made
3: all suggestions followed, sometimes woodenly, word for word, making the paper uneven
2: some suggestions followed, some ignored
1: few or no changes made

  • What did you learn about revising while working on this essay?

Editing (1 day in class, “Find Someone Who,” 10 teacher editing mark corrections)
5: all changes understood and made throughout paper with evidence of further self-editing
4: all changes understood and made throughout paper
3: most changes understood, made effectively in the part marked, made haphazardly in the rest of the paper
2: most changes made in the part marked, but not followed through in the rest of the paper
1: few or no changes made

  • What did you learn about editing while working on this essay?

  • What did you learn about the topic/content while working on this essay?

  • What is 1 question you want Mrs. Essenburg to answer about your writing?

As I was creating this reflection protocol, I realized that it was also an opportunity to reinforce definitions of adept application of the process. Students who are unskilled in writing may not realize what excellent process skills look like. For instance, they might not realize (no matter how many times I’ve said it) that simply making the editing corrections that the teacher has marked without understanding why they were marked, and without combing the paper for similar mistakes and well as for additional mistakes, is not excellent editing. On this reflection they had to own their own level of skill at a given step of the process. 

Heres my process as I’m working my way through this stack of student work: When I pull out a student’s file, I first read her reflection on her process. I check through the file for the presence and thoroughness of each component. I make a brief comment on the process. I peruse her reading journal, making a comment or two. Then I read the paper, mark the rubric, and respond to the student’s final question on the reflection paper.

Benefits so far? As the class starts on the next novel study, I’ve observed to them that many students comments about prewriting said they had not been consciously thinking about the essay prompt while journalling and discussing in small groups, and they wished they had. So be thinking now as you journal and discuss about the next essay topic. I’ve also told them that while asking a question is a good way to engage with text and fulfills the requirement of the journal, students who wrote the best papers engaged with the text in many additional ways, such as responding to a quotation, making a connection, or making a prediction. 

I’ve also uncovered individual misunderstandings. One student said what he wants to remember in prewriting next time is to fix all the little mistakes. Another student said that none of the prewriting was helpful, only having a whole class period to work (which was actually drafting), but his final question was “How can I make better use of teacher feedback?” I was able to address these misunderstandings individually.

When we begin planning the next essay, I’ll use the data to teach that there are a variety of personalized ways to use the process. For instance, one student said she’d spent too much time creating an outline that was too detailed, which she ended up changing. Another said next time, she needs to spend more time planning.

Will repeating this exercise with every final draft this year increase students understanding and personal appropriation of the writing process, and will that result in better writing? I certainly hope so--I need to justify to to our tech coordinator the amount of printing students did. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Spice of Life

  • “I like to read nonfiction--it’s what I read all through middle school--inspirational stories about real people. Not fantasy like Harry Potter.”
  • “I really like adventure and fantasy--like Harry Potter.”

These are two actual responses from actual students in back-to-back student-parent-teacher conferences this week. 

My daughter was just wondering whether she could finagle a student-teaching position that would include her ESL minor as well as her English major because she’s been so inspired recently by her teacher-aiding experience in ESL. “Teaching ESL in American schools is so different from, say, teaching English to college students in China,” she enthused. Meanwhile, another friend with a TESOL masters dreams of teaching conversational English at the university level abroad.

And when I sent out a parent letter informing of my intent and reasons to show parts of the movie Hotel Rwanda in class next week in preparation for reading the Holocaust memoir Night, I got responses ranging from enthusiastic support to grave reservations.

Human beings. We are such a varied bunch: students, teachers, parents. It takes all of us to make this seething, living, interdependent thing we call community and can’t live without. How dull it would be if we were all the same; what a challenge it is to love and live with and help each other grow. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Reading as a Writer: Beginnings and Endings

Writing is an enormously imaginative exercise--even writing nonfiction! It’s not about me putting my thoughts down on paper, however articulately. It’s about me imagining what it’s like to be you reading those thoughts, and figuring out how to translate my thoughts into words on a page that you will then translate into thoughts in your head, that will be as like as possible to the thoughts now in my head.

Reading like a writer is a lesson I’m just beginning to get my head around as far as targeting teaching it to my students--planning for it, providing scaffolding and plenty of practice. But last week I used one of my earliest lessons--one I’ve been using for years--and it was as practical, fun, and varied as ever. The lesson was on beginnings and endings, and the occasion was the day I returned an initial draft with revision comments. (Having told them on the first draft not to get hung up on a good beginning--just start.)

This year’s students clearly know that a question is often a good hook, but many of them hadnt exercised the imagination to put themselves into my shoes and wonder how many papers would begin “What is shalom?” I ask how many of them continue reading a blog or a magazine article if the first line doesn’t grab them. I reassure them that I’m paid to keep reading their papers, but in any real life writing, if they don’t grab their reader in the first sentence, they’ve lost her.

I read a couple of brief excerpts from the chapter on beginnings and endings in William Zinnser’s On Writing Well and tell students to take notes. They particularly like the list of possible qualities in an opener: “freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question” (56). They take furious notes and ask me to repeat. 

Next I pass out a stack of old Time magazines, one per student, that I can borrow from our school library for the morning. I instruct students to look at articles that are at least three paragraphs long--not ads, not captions, not news-in-brief or obituaries. Read first lines until one grabs them. Then look back at their notes and see if they can find the principle that made that line interesting so they can apply that principle to a similar hook, possibly in the piece of writing I just handed back.

Finally, look at last lines and find one with a satisfying sense of conclusion. Endings are more difficult than beginnings for all of us, and especially for students--how to sum up without being mind-numbingly redundant; how to be interesting without introducing inappropriately new material. (My favorite example was an article about scientifically engineered food that started with a quote from Winston Churchill about being close to the day when we could do away with the absurdity of raising a whole chicken just for the use of its breast and concluded with the suggestion of calling such an engineered dish a McChurchill.)

Collateral benefit from the exercise is introducing digital natives to an intriguing medium: print magazines. In one period a student asked whether he couldn’t just look up an article on While part of me was so elated he was aware of articles on that I nearly acquiesced, I steeled my heart and refused. 

There is an art of deciding when the targeted learning should momentarily give way to the unintended learning, and I don't always make the right calls, but I think I made a few right ones in this lesson last week. One student called me over and asked incredulously about a graph of world religions showing Christianity to be the most prevalent. I stifled my urge to remind him of the ban on captions, and instead briefly discussed why that graph surprised him and where the data might have come from. 

Another student raised his hand and asked, “What if the title in interesting but the first line is not?” He showed me the first line he found dull: “Neil Gaiman remembers being punished.” When I told him Neil Gaiman is a popular author, that I've read a couple of his books, and that the line made me wonder whether this is a long ago childhood memory that inspires his writing, and made me relate by thinking of punishments that I remember, his eyes lit up, and he got a bit more background information on the world. 

Something else I noticed: There were surprisingly few articles that did not follow Zinnser’s advice of closing with a quotation. I, however, will not. I’m imaginatively wondering how that will strike you--and with that, I have followed the other bit of Zinsser’s advice, “to bring the story full circle--to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning” (67). And now I’ve done the other thing, too.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Coolness of Being Educated: Where Geometry and English Collide

What does math class and English class have in common? This is a trick question, right? It’s apples and oranges, as the saying goes. Or maybe not.

Two math teachers share my free period in the staff lounge, and we’ve had some interesting conversations on the topic this week. In geometry, which some of my 10th graders take, they are emphasizing that an idea in math requires the same proof that an idea in science or English does. I’d just taught my English students about the rhetorical fallacy of a hasty generalization (made by a character in the novel we were reading), and in writing our current paper, I told them that when gathering support for a point, three is sort of a magic number: 
  • One is only one. (Not only is it a hasty generalization, but also you can twist one quote to mean just about anything. I once had a student who claimed that God was afraid of people learning things. He used a Bible passage to support it--Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”) 
  • Two a coincidence. 
  • Three starts to look like a pattern, like proof.

Just yesterday these two math colleagues were talking about teaching students the logic term “antecedent.” I perked up. “That’s a grammar term, too!” I interjected. We had a discussion of the similarities of use in logic and in grammar.

Here’s my Mac’s desktop dictionary’s many definitions:
a thing or event that existed before or logically precedes another: some antecedents to the African novel might exist in Africa's oral traditions.
• (antecedents) a person's ancestors or family and social background: her early life and antecedents have been traced.
Grammar a word, phrase, clause, or sentence to which another word (esp. a following relative pronoun) refers.
Logic the statement contained in the “if” clause of a conditional proposition.
Mathematics the first term in a ratio.

I feel a short lesson on the prefix “ante-” and the root “cede” coming on. Especially since we start on a new vocabulary list next week. And since we’ll be revising a paper next week and editing it the following week, I’ll also design a few exercises on pronouns and antecedents:
  • not using “it” with no clear antecedent (“In the book it says...” Just be concise and write, “The book says...”) 
  • the problem of English not having a 3rd person singular non-gendered pronoun (“When a student doesn’t understand this, he makes many mistakes” implies this never happens to girls, but “When a student doesn’t understand this, they make many mistakes” shows lack of awareness of the need for pronoun/antecedent agreement.)

At the end of our discussion yesterday, one of the teachers expressed concern about possible confusion where the logic of math and humanities diverges: In math, one counter-example is all it takes to disprove an assertion, but in other disciplines, an exception proves the rule. Interesting thought. I have never had a student make that much connection between math and English. But if one ever does, I will throw a small party, and then think about how to answer.

One of the delights of teaching is introducing students to the coolness of being educated, as Nanci Smith told our staff a couple of years ago--the place where you find knowledge in one field enriching knowledge in another. 

Another delight is conspiring to help students learn. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

School without Walls

It’s the kind of rolling, grassy, manicured expanse that compels the 47 high school sophomores on our school trip to race barefoot up the hills whooping and hollering and barrel-roll down them shrieking. 

The weather has conspired with the landscape--a warm autumn post-typhoon day with Mt. Fuji behind us outlined against a “blue, true dream of sky,” and, yes, there are also “leaping greenly spirits of trees” dancing in the breeze all around me. (I can’t help but think of e.e.cummings on days like this.) But mostly I’m enjoying watching the students enjoying themselves. 

This is our last stop on a 4-day activity we call SWOW or “School WithOut Walls.” In a few minutes we’ll board the bus for the 2-1/2 hour ride back to Tokyo. While it’s structured for student learning, I’ve also learned much, including the following:
  • One student has eclectic taste in music--from Ray Charles to classical Japanese to K-pop. 
  • One student is so concerned about germs that instead of holding hands around the supper table to pray, we had to fold hands and touch elbows. (We had a good laugh when one girl described her as “germaholic” rather than “germophobic,” and people began imagining what a “germaholic” would do, like licking the hand rings on a train.)
  • Several had very little experience riding bikes--but were up for the challenge of biking around a lake.
  • Prayer is a a vital part of this enterprise we call education. It was something to do with all my “What if” anxiety before the trip, a focus for my learning about students, and an outlet for gratitude when good things happened.

What have students learned? They’ve learned about the beauty and fragility of the natural environment through a biology activity, a guided hike, a visit to an aquarium about the freshwater ecology of the lakes around Mt. Fuji, and a bike ride around the largest of those lakes, Lake Yamanaka. They have learned about group dynamics and servant leadership through a Bible study of Philippians, group initiative games, cabin devotions, and figuring out how to live, cook, and clean-up a cabin together. The big question we’ve been asking is “How can I make a difference?” whether in the physical or in the social environment where God has placed me. 

The 8 girls in my cabin group grappled with what our world, our school, their class, would look like if everyone actually loved their enemies, did everything without complaining, served others as if serving Christ, refrained from judging, practiced humility. And with what it would look like for each of them to pick one of those servant-leadership traits and really try to live it. When I asked if they were serious enough about the learnings they wanted to apply and the changes they wanted to see to be interested in having lunch together in a couple of weeks to discuss how it was going, they agreed enthusiastically.  

I’m thankful for the opportunity this week to see my students in a different setting, to get to know my them on a different level, and to connect classroom lessons with life experience. I’m looking forward to the opportunity in the coming weeks to the opportunity to connect this week’s experiences back into the classroom, and to see how all these learnings will transfer into the real life of our school community. 

One final minor learning: I at last got to play Mafia (after years of being confused by my childrens description). I learned that the part of my mind that retains bare facts (who the murderer, the victim, the doctor, the detective are) and the part that spins vivid stories cannot function at the same time. Yet one more talent I can admire in my students: the ability to be great Mafia narrators.   

Friday, October 4, 2013

Keeping On Keeping On

It’s exciting to learn a new idea, activity, or trick--especially if it gets immediate results. It’s the lure of those ads on my FaceBook page: “Find out why dermatologists hate this woman!” “One silly little tip for losing all your belly fat!” But most of teaching and of life is just figuring out how to do more and better what you already know you should be doing. That’s the kind of week it was in English 10--a writing week for teaching content and skills, for scaffolding intake and practice, for doing formative assessment toward a summative assessment. I had enough successes to convince me I’m on the right track, and enough failures to challenge me to do even better next time.

The goal for the week (in addition to a vocabulary quiz) was for students to begin drafting a paper in response to the following prompt: Analyze how Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country demonstrates some aspect of the Biblical concept of shalom, and show how that aspect applies to a current event or personal situation (750-1000 words).

First, for the vocabulary quiz, I spent more time working with the words in class than I did for the first 2 quizzes, and scores were much better. Yes, another BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious), but there you have it. How much time to spend on vocabulary vs. other learning needs is an ongoing dilemma. (By the way, “dilemma” was one of those words--I’m practicing being aware of them and using them when possible.)

Looking at what students needed to be able to do in order to accomplish the writing goal, I scheduled a day for each step of drafting: 
  • Monday: Prewriting to come up with a working thesis and preview of points
  • Tuesday: Planning (using linear outline or graphic form in Inspiration)
  • Wednesday: Choosing a current event or personal situation
  • Thursday: Formulating and supporting a Biblical perspective
  • Friday: Introducing quotations

I found teaching content is important--from characteristics of a strong topic sentence, to a list of ways to introduce quotations, to the availability and power of the Index to Subjects and Index to Notes in the back of the school-provided NIV Study Bible

Without boring you with complete lesson plans, I hoped to teach some content, provide modeling and scaffolded practice, and leave time for writing and conferencing with me each day

I also found that teaching content is looses effectiveness if students don’t also experience doing it. In the one class period where I had time for students to carry out an exercise using those two indexes in their Bibles, I observed a student using an index on his own during work time the following day. In the two class periods where I only covered the content--these indexes exist and you would do well to use them--I didn’t observe any independent use of them.

The problem of time also creates a dilemma between modeling and coaching. I could model the free-writing exercise the first day, typing on my computer and projecting on the board what I was doing while students were also doing it. This was powerful. I could also model the second day how to begin the move from thesis and preview of points to a mind map, but when I gave the students time to work, I was circulating and conferencing on the thesis statements. Ditto the rest of the week. And the conferencing was powerful. Outside of class I have marking and planning--I have not so far last year or this year been able to find the time to write the entire essay. Maybe if I weren’t writing this blog.... Maybe that’s a summer goal. 

But it’s also true that the model doesn’t have to my writing. I am more aware this year of something I just started explicitly doing last year--teaching students to read like writers. Thursday I had them re-read the article on shalom they’d read for information at the beginning of the unit, before reading the novel, this time reading for the craft of the writer--use of topic sentences, transition, and integration of quotations. They read on their own, making notes on the copy, and then discussed it in their small groups; finally, each group contributed one significant observation to the whole class. 

The biggest indicator of the week’s success? So far I have had no complaints from students as in past years: “This is so hard!” “I don’t know what to do.” “No one’s ever asked us to think like this before!” (And I learned not to take that last comment as a comment on previous teachers after students used it once on me when I had moved up with them from 11th grade to 12th grade.)

Enough success to keep looking for time to implement these good practices even more consistently on the next paper.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Student Feedback: Just Ask

Do you want to know how helpful your students perceive the learning activities you plan for them? Here’s a secret: Ask them.

On Friday, I asked students to respond to 2 questions: 
  • Of everything we did in class this week, what was most helpful to your learning? 
  • What was least helpful to your learning?

The biggest surprise? The 6 activities mentioned more than once had votes on both the most helpful and the least helpful side. Small group discussion, which we did frequently, had overwhelmingly positive feedback (26-7). However, everything else had nearly equal votes (in order of total number of mentions, positive and negative): small group discussion, reading comprehension quizzes, whole group discussion, 30-second impromptu presentation with responses, vocabulary quiz, reading response journal. 

This shows me a couple of things. First, it confirms that I have pretty good variety of and priority in classroom activities for a diversity of learning styles. One student found both small group and whole group discussions unhelpful, and benefitted most from the vocabulary quiz. I bet I can name that Myers-Briggs personality profile within one letter! Another could articulate that she found the small group discussions most helpful and the whole group discussion least helpful because she prefers smaller groups. My next step needs to be differentiation by offering choice.  

It also confirmed that students are primed for a mini-lesson on contributing to positive group dynamics. The ones who identified reasons for finding the small group discussions helpful gave all the reasons I emphasize this mode of learning. One student wrote, “I really felt comfortable asking questions, and it was easier for me to share my thoughts.”

The reasons given for small group discussions being least helpful were common dysfunctions of small groups: “Depends on the group--I often get sidetracked.” “It seemed redundant.” “No one really talked.”

Some of the best ideas for the mini-lesson could well come from 3 students’ positive responses to one day’s variation on the small group discussion: a 30-second impromptu presentation of a significant thought from your reading response journal, followed by 15-second responses to the 30-second presentation by each of the other 3 group members. Here are their responses:
  • This helped me extract essential detail from what I thought.
  • Being in a group that responded and all had ideas, who weren’t joking around. 
  • It...also gave opportunity to listen to others’ insights much more efficiently than what was done previously.
Just a note: Each of the above 3 students also listed something about the regular small group discussions as least helpful.

Probably most importantly, I learned that students can be trusted to respond to the question asked (most/least helpful) without turning it into a popularity contest. I thought they’d all hate the reading comprehension quizzes, but those, too, were split. One student wrote, “It made me think more.”

Yes, asking students what they find most/least helpful is a bit of a blinding flash of the obvious. (My husband calls it a BFO.) But I’d read McTighe and Wiggins’s suggestion for soliciting student feed back and thought it a good idea my first 2 times through Understanding by Design, so my third time through, this week, with my English and social studies department colleagues, I told them to ask me at our next meeting whether I’d done it. 

So colleagues--thanks for the accountability. I did it. And I’ll do it next Friday, too.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Of Debate, Geese, and the Gander

Those who know me well have my full permission to guffaw at the idea of me coaching debate. I'm doing a little guffawing myself. Harmony-loving, confrontation-adverse, zero-experience me? 

When I coached volleyball, I brought to it years of experience with the sport and with being coached. When I started teaching, I brought to it years of experience with learning and with being taught. When I volunteered to coach debate at the beginning of this school year, I brought only the conviction that if there are students so interested in spending their free time practicing research and civil discourse (two things that seem sadly lacking in current American political life and in online interactions) that they are asking me to please coach them--why would I refuse them the opportunity? (An opportunity unavailable to them for the last several years.) 

(Also, as the English-teacher chair of my school’s joint English/social studies department, I’ve been aware that my lack of knowledge about this form of public speaking which I’m requiring my social studies colleagues to teach and assess in their classes is not an asset to my leadership. Here’s a way to corner myself into mastering something that will improve my professional credibility.)

At the initial meeting of debate coaches in our league, not only was I the only woman present in a group of nine, but also I found myself, when I dared open my mouth, asking such very basic questions as, “How many people are on a debate team?” (Answer: three.) Did I feel self-conscious and out of my depth? A little.

So I spent most of the meeting finding the Queensland Debating Union Handbook online. (That was after I’d asked what style of debate we used.)

How could I not be excited about that handbook’s statement of the aim of debating?
  • The ability to communicate with clarity, confidence, and fluency.
  • The enjoyment of teamwork and friendly competition.
  • Informed understanding of issues.
  • Tolerance which admits the validity of other points of view.

How could I not be excited that 12 students expressed interest? (And here I was wondering if we were going to have the three necessary to field one debate team!)

How could I not experience mild terror when I can’t even answer their questions about when, where, how, and how often we’re going to meet to practice?

But reading the 85 pages of that handbook (and plenty of other information the very supportive chair of the debate coaches’ meeting emailed out), I thrill all over again at the life skills I’ll get to help students practice. And at the fact that there are 12 students at school who want to practice them. (And at the helpfulness of the handbook in spelling out exactly how to structure team preparation and teach those skills.)

So I’ll be doing a lot of reading up on debate between now and December when the debate season starts. But, hey, I’m an English teacher--I should be good at research and reading. Forget the “Unlearn and Relearn” parts of my blog name--this is just plain learning. A little scary to think the students to whom I teach what I learn will then be judged in public competition. 

But a little challenge and real-life accountability is good for the soul. At least, that’s what I tell my students. I’ll report back some time in the winter and let you know if it’s true.