Saturday, February 23, 2013


I love matchmaking. Nothing to do with romance: what I love is matching up--or even seeing someone else match up--a person with a book he or she loves. This week was full of it.
  • Friday morning before 1st period started, a knot of students was breathlessly discussing the extra credit novel--After Dark by Haruki Murakami. “I don’t even know what genre this is!” “It’s sort of like horror because there’s this man without a face.” “There’s a man without a face!?!” “Well, maybe he has something over his face....”
  • A table-group of 5 students in 1st period Friday were noisily discussing The Hunger Games when they were supposed to be doing a peer-revision exercise on their rough drafts. I asked sternly how this was related to giving feedback on their peers’ papers. They said, “Oh, sorry. Frank wanted to know how to write better, so we said he should read more for fun. We were trying to convince him to read The Hunger Games.”
  • I matched a 10th grade student up with Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I’d talked with the student and his parents back in the fall at parent-teacher conferences about how to participate in a small group discussion as an introvert--and emailed them the link to Cain’s TED Talk. I wrote a note on the student’s test, which I handed back Friday, that I’d just finished the book, thought he might like it, and he should see me if he was interested. He saw me before the end of the period.
  • I matched up another teacher with a new novel for her course. She was looking for a middle school level book with a Latin American connection. I gave her Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, and she said she cried reading it on the train.
I love my job. Sometimes becoming a better teacher is about trying new things, pushing outside of your comfort zone--and sometimes it is just about doing what gives you deep joy. Like for English teachers, talking about books you love and watching others fall in love with them, too. After all, reading is important for so many reasons--which I learned to articulate better from Kelly Gallagher’s Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School--a book I recommended to a friend just last week....

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Don't Curse the Dark...

...And is it ever dark in February. Yes, the hours of light have been getting longer for nearly 8 weeks now, but there is another kind of darkness. If you have escaped cold, flu, general malaise, and gut-twisting stress, count yourself blessed--you are in the minority. Even if you haven’t, there are still 12 more days left in February! 

So do yourself a favor and listen to your inner mother--whether it’s yours talking to you, or you talking to your kids. Just take care of yourself: eat well, exercise, go to the doctor if you’re sick, spend time with a good friend not talking about school, and find a learning community of your own.

One kind of learning community I profit from is an open-invitation discussion of a book on education. I pick one that I have read and really liked, but I suspect I’ll never actually act upon unless I go through it again, slowly, with plenty of processing time and some sort of low-bar accountability. 

It started several years ago with Cris Tovani’s books on teaching reading, I Read It, But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers and Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?, first with other English department members, and then with teachers from other disciplines. Next was Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding, by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Sandi Everlove. I went through that one with 2 different groups, too--including science, math, Bible, and ESL teachers. Then Quentin Schultze’s An Essential Guide to Public Speaking: Serving Your Audience with Faith, Skill, and Virtue

Each of these books, and the process of working through them with colleagues, has fundamentally changed the way I teach. Now I’ve just started a discussion of Teaching Matters Most: A School Leader’s Guide to Improving Instruction by Thomas McCann, Alan Jones, and Gail Aronoff. 

What’s worked well for me is choosing a book that has cross-discipline appeal, can be divided into 6-7 chunks, and has immediate, practical application. I talk it up until I get a group of 4-8 (including myself). We meet at my house (a 2-minute walk from school) once a week for an hour after school. Each time we read a chunk and come prepared to discuss (1) what we did or thought about or talked about in the last week because of what we’ve read so far, (2) impressions and questions from the current chunk, (3) possible action steps in the next week.

I not only get to process the information more and more deeply, making action step plans and reporting on them, but I build a community of colleagues excited about the same strategies. We report back to each other even after the discussion has ended about failures, triumphs, goals, strategies. 

Last week, because of our discussion of chapter 1, “What are common practices in schools?”, I decided it was now or never as far as holding myself to my goal as English/social studies department chair of doing walkthroughs of the grade 6-12 classrooms in my department. What I observed in 3-5 minutes in each room was delightful: teachers using engaging methods of instruction to get children to process content and practice critical thinking:
  • 6th grade: Students were taking notes using various guided strategies for organizing information in their notebooks (in their notebooks I observed a t-graph, a Venn diagram, lists, and answers to questions); then they were asked to answer a moral  dilemma (moving to yes/no corners of the classroom) first as self, then as a historical character they had studied.
  • 7th grade: The teacher was prompting students to examine the school’s secondary debate rubric: What does the first line say? What does this word mean? How are the first and second lines similar and different? Students learned about supporting arguments and counter arguments. All in preparation for debate on the following day.
  • 8th grade: Students were brainstorming and categorizing lists of character traits in preparation for writing a character sketch. The strategy bore a striking resemblance to one shared by Gini Rojas in a professional development workshop earlier this year.
  • 11th grade: Students were using the Moodle blog function to create a timeline of World War II from an American perspective. (We’d discussed in an earlier department meeting how to more fully use the technology we already have access to rather than rushing to learn new things. We use Moodle to varying degrees, but this is the first foray I know of into the blog function.)
  • 12th grade: The teacher introduced and students began group work on a GRASPS-type authentic assessment (a la our schoolwide, department-based study of Understanding by Design) on Frankenstein.

That’s something that can light a spark even in the middle of February: Teachers learning and helping students learn! And I would have missed it if I hadn’t been involved in a learning community of my own.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Let Them See You

I wish I had let them see me fail.

I’d set a goal this year, after reading Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts by Kelly Gallagher, of writing with my students. Actually, writing before them--modeling: I go, then they go. Then I got busy. (Partly with some of my other goals--like keeping up with this blog!) 

In the current poetry unit we are writing 4 model poem drafts. I wrote the first one, but it came out so badly I was embarrassed to share it. The next one, it just never came. Then my principal checked in on how I was doing on my annual goals. That was a giant kickstart. I’ve written the last 2 model poem drafts, and I’m glad I did: I enjoyed it, and the students did, too. My drafts provided good models, food for thought, and opportunities for talking about writing choices. 

Still, I fell short of my goal, even with those 2 drafts. I showed students my product, but I didn’t show them my process. I didn’t carve out the 5 minutes for me to write first. I wish they’d seen me produce that bad vegetable poem. Struggle with not being able to come up with a musical instrument I cared about enough to not write canned drivel. The triumph of my last 2 would have meant more--not just what they already knew--that I’m an English teacher so of course my writing is much better than theirs.

Here’s how it unfolded. 

Model #1, based on Margaret Atwood’s poem “Mushrooms,” asked us to do the following:
Pick a vegetable that you have some connection with--some special feeling, memory, or meaning. Explore that using images both literal and figurative. Write a 5-line poem on the following pattern:
Line 1: Literal sensory description
Line 2: Literal sensory description
Line 3: Simile or metaphor sensory description
Line 4: Simile or metaphor sensory description
Line 5: Come down to the meaning of the vegetable to you

Here’s what I came up with:


How does the deep, glossy purple of the firm globe
Turn into such slimy gray mush with just a little heat?
It looks like royalty, like summer,
But it feels like baby food in my mouth.
Eggplant is the fool’s gold of the vegetable world: a feast for the eyes only.

Oh, dear. I made a half-hearted effort to find last year’s potato poem, which was much better, but I knew that wasn’t really the point. 

Model #2, based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The Guitar,” asked us to do the following:
Pick an instrument. What feeling does listening to it evoke in you? Try to evoke the same feeling in the reader of your poem:
Use assonance, consonance, alliteration, repetition.
Use at least 1 metaphor
Use at least 1 simile
Use at least 1 personification
End with a metaphor addressing the instrument.

I completely failed at coming up with anything for this one.

But the next one, based on a poem by Rosellen Brown that our textbook calls “What Are Friends For” (though it appears to be just a small piece of a book-length narrative poem) asked us to do the following:
“(Cynical question),” (person) asks.
(general negative idea about the topic), (general negative idea about the topic)
(specific example of a negative idea about the topic)
(Evaluation of the motivation of the person asking the question)

(Candid answer to the cynical question--perhaps even paradoxical)
Metaphor 1
Metaphor 2
That’s what _____ is/are for.

Here’s what I came up with: 

 What Are Students For?

“What are students for,” a teacher asks.
Complaining about homework. Worried about grades rather than learning.
Asking a friend “What’s for lunch” when I’m talking about what’s for life.
Someone has pushed his buttons once too often.

Challenges. Students are to challenge me to challenge them,
for all of us together

to sink roots deep and spread branches high
and become the best oak or geranium or bean plant we can 
to feed the fruit and kill the pests 
all around us and within
to become the people of 
competence, curiosity, 
compassion, courage, 
discipline, grace, and integrity
that the world needs like it needs sunshine, clean air, and pure water.

That’s what students are for.

Not bad for a first draft. Well, I did do a little tweaking. A couple of times. And the kids all gasped at the line about asking what’s for lunch--“We DO that!”--giving me the perfect opportunity to remind them of the power of the specific--not just in poetry, but in academic papers as well.

Finally, model #4, based on “Some Like Poetry” by Wislawa Szymborska, asked us to do the following:
Come up with a 3 word sentence. This will be the title, and each word in the title will be the first line of each of its 3 stanzas. The poem should contain at least one metaphor or simile. You may write more than 3 lines in each stanza, but not less.
1) Stanza 1:
line 1: First word
line 2: Examine that word
line 3: Examine that word
2) Stanza 2:
line 1: Second word
line 2: Examine that word
line 3: Examine that word
3) Stanza 3:
line 1: Third word
line 2: Examine that word
line 3: Examine that word

Here’s what I came up with:

Books Light Fires

Nursery rhymes and holocaust memoirs
How-to’s and who-dunnits

Not heavy, not dark
But striking a spark

Give heat and light and cook my supper
on a night in the woods;
Flicker to life in the imagination
And change everything.

I asked my 3rd period class, “I didn’t realize that spark and dark rhyme until I read it out loud to you--is it cool sounding or stupid sounding?” They voted for cool. That’s bittersweet because there was so much more process they could have seen.

I’ll tell them the next time we have class--I’ll show them my stupid eggplant poem and admit I couldn’t come up with an instrument poem. But it’s not the same as seeing it. 

Still, kids learn. I overheard this in one group as students were looking over their 4 model drafts to choose 1 to bring to a final draft: “I think the practice really helped me get better. My last 2 drafts are much better than my first 2.”

Lessons from this week:
  1. Decrease coverage in favor of processing, experience, skills. I cut out some poetry to cover and actually had time for the students to write all 4 models for the first time this year.
  2. Make goals, share them with someone, and if someone has shared goals with you, please do them the favor of asking her how she’s doing on them. It was my principal checking back on my beginning of the year goals that got me back on the wagon to write the last 2 poems.
  3. Something is better than nothing. As I've written in another blog. I wish I’d shown my students my process for all 4 model poems. But failing that, I am glad I showed them my product for the last 2 rather than writing nothing!
  4. Get back on the bike. This week I’m going to model a thesis statement and a mindmap for the poetry paper--before the students do theirs. 

So I’m off to select the lyrics to a favorite song--like the students had to do--so I can model analyzing the poetry of it for them next week. Wish me luck--or at least the courage to let them watch me fail!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Study Concepts, Practice Skills

Studying a skill only takes you so far. My husband calls it a BFO: Blinding Flash of the Obvious. 

When I played basketball back in high school and college, and my team performed poorly on some aspect of a game--say, freethrows--my coach didn’t wait until the day before the next game, give us a 45-minute lecture on freethrows, and then expect us to do better in the next game. No, she had us doing freethrows every practice between then and the next game.

So why do we English teachers complain about students’, say, thesis statements, wait until the day before the next paper will be written to give a big lecture about thesis statements, and then exhibit disappointment when performance doesn’t improve dramatically?

A year and a half ago I read a book very much to this point--Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker. Last summer, I bought it for any of my department members who wanted it. Last week, I finally got around to implementing part of it. 

Partway into our poetry unit, it occurred to me to start asking 10th graders to practice writing the thesis statement they’ll have to write for their poetry analysis paper at the end of the unit. For the end-of-the-unit paper, they’ll have to transfer their learning, identifying the theme in a song lyric of their choice and analyzing what tools of language the singer/songwriter uses to communicate that theme. So yesterday I asked them to take 3 minutes to choose one of the 8 poems we’d read so far and write a thesis statement answering the prompt, being sure to include the poem title, the poet’s name, the theme being communicated, and several tools of language used to communicate it. I then collected the thesis statements as exit tickets. 

Call me a teacher-geek, but reading those exit tickets over was a certain kind of thrilling. It took less than a minute per student, and long before we start writing the paper, while we’re still doing guided practice of poetry reading skills, I know exactly what all the misunderstandings and growth areas are. I know...
  • Who’s taking 3 sentences to finally get it all out. 
  • Who’s got the theme, but is forgetting the tools of language, or vice verse. 
  • Who thinks a topic is a theme: “love” (Yes, but is the writer saying love stinks or love makes life worth living?) or “the poet’s ideas about love” (And what might those ideas be?).
  • Who thinks similes, metaphors, and figurative language are 3 different things. (You could make those 3 different points, but you’d have to have a really clear understanding of them and reasons for the distinction.) 
  • Who thinks that musical effects can communicate rather than highlight or reinforce a theme. (Alliteration, assonance, and consonance can't carry the whole weight of communication.)
  • Even for the students who have a pretty good basic thesis--why did you put meter, structure, and imagery in that order? Can you make that logic explicit in your thesis? 
And it’s still 2 weeks until we start on the paper! 

We’ll definitely run this drill a couple more times before the game.