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.

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