Saturday, March 30, 2013

Unwrapping the Gift of the Introvert

One of my sweaty-palmed fears: The moment at a dinner party when I open my mouth to say something, and suddenly all conversation stops, all eyes turn to me, my mind goes blank, and the silence stretches awkwardly. I’m a better writer than speaker because when writing, I have all the time in the world to gather my thoughts, pick just the right word, hit on an illuminating example. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re not an introvert.

Introverts and extroverts interact with the world in very different ways--and both are valuable. Recently I’ve been wondering what it would look like to design my class so that introvert and extrovert students could learn and contribute to group learning in ways that utilize their strengths.

I just did this in one small way, and the results were rather stunning.

For last week’s pre-spring-break wrap-up discussion of A Doll’s House, I gave the students the option of contributing online if they did not want to in class. Last weekend I raved about how well the in-class discussion had gone. Today I’m going to rave about the online discussion. Two of the posts in particular were so well thought out that I am forever a convert to this form of differentiation.

One student started out bucking the consensus arrived at in class: “Most people agreed that Nora was irresponsible for leaving the children. I think that it wasn't good, but I felt like she had no choice.” He had two reasons and four supporting quotations. Then he closed, “I still agree to most of you that it was not good to leave the children, and that Nora was somehow selfish to just care for herself. But I just wanted to try seeing things in different ways.” 

The other student focused on the complexity of the situation: “Nora, actually, did have choices that had to be considered. It was just that both of them are somehow complicated.” She ended up spending 466 words trying to tease out the complications, also quoting and referring to the text for support. She, too, showed the ability to consider different points of view: “[Nora’s] decision might have been too hasty and selfish...But seeing it from a different perspective, I'd asked questions such as...‘How can Nora change how she treats her children (as dolls) even if her husband would obviously have a very hard time to change and stop patronizing or treating his wife like a doll?’”

Perspective: the ability to see ourselves from the outside and others from the inside, to walk around in someone else’s skin--that’s one of the great gifts nuanced reading gives. It’s a place the quick thinking, fast talking extroverts can begin to drive a discussion, but the learning community also needs the thoughts that only come out of the introverts’ quiet consideration. Supplementing in-class discussion with an online forum is one way to develop and capitalize on all the gifts of the body.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Hands off the Wheel

Once or twice a semester I abdicate control of the class to my students. It’s a little scary, and I’m never sure what’s going to happen, but Thursday magic happened, and I dismissed students to spring break knowing they’d gotten everything I’d hoped they would out of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Here are some of the things students said to the rest of the class, drawn around the room in a big circle:
  1. I suspected from the beginning that there was something wrong with Nora. When people act goofy, it isn’t because they are, but because they are hiding from themselves. Like the main character’s wife in Fahrenheit 451.
  2. Nora’s forgotten that a marriage is two parts--it's true Torvald didn’t do anything to help, but she’s forgotten she has a voice.
  3. Ibsen included Anne-Marie and Kristine because they are strong women characters. Nora was society’s ideal wife, but the others were better women.
  4. The society forces people into characters. We need to define who we are, or else the society will.
This abdication does not come naturally to me, as I spent the early years of teaching being very bad at orchestrating whole-group discussions. Neither is it something I’ve learned from reading, but from my high school English colleagues. They call it “open forum,” so I do, too. I’ve come to it slowly, and with ambiguous results at first, but I’m becoming a fan. Thursday was one of the best I’ve ever had--the students moved their discussion forward, reacting to and building on each other’s comments without violent disagreement, and ending with all the observations I’d have made (and a few that hadn’t yet occurred to me!)--without me having to make them. That, I think, is when learning is powerful.

Here are the ingredients that helped make this open forum a success:
  1. A student who is willing and able to facilitate the discussion skillfully.
  2. A limited number questions--well-constructed but open-ended--that the students have been gathering input on throughout the reading.
  3. Me (the teacher) completely removing myself from the discussion (I transcribe the discussion on computer, projecting my work as I go, for reference and for correction, if necessary).
  4. A requirement for students to participate, but the option for those who prefer to contribute online later, where I post the questions and transcription.
The questions I asked were...
  1. Did Nora make the right choice? (What did she choose? Why? Given what you know of Nora’s and Torvald’s personality and motivations, what else could she have done?)
  2. How is Kristine Linde a foil for Nora? (What does she want out of life? Refer back to act 1, p. 858 “How free you must feel--” “No--only unspeakably empty. Nothing to live for now,” as well as to later developments.)
  3. How do you think Ibsen would define a good marriage? (Use evidence from the play, including Nora’s comments on p. 900 about being happy vs. being light-hearted and about loving someone vs. thinking it fun to be in love.) How does this compare to your definition of a good marriage?
  4. Why is the question “Who am I?” an important one to ask and to answer? Support your answer from A Doll’s House, and apply to yourself: why was it important for Nora and why might it be important for you?

After watching the last 15 minutes of the movie version, I told students to arrange their desks in one big circle, turn their journals to the last page where they’d find the 4 discussion questions (they are also free to pursue any other questions they might have), then I took myself and my computer out of the circle and waited to see how they would organize themselves and what they had learned. 

Because while I delight in the cleverness and artistry of the happiest couple and the saddest couple switching places from the opening lines to the closing lines of the play, or the use of an oil lamp as a symbol for the light of enlightenment, or the double meaning of Nora’s lines at the end “Yes, I’ve changed....No, it’s not too late,” every student might not find that equally scintillating, or remember it past the test. 

But if they’ve learned to look past irrational-seeming behavior to the perception that’s motivating it, that a real marriage takes respect and honesty, that loving service is more fulfilling than safeguarding appearances, and that they need to know and define themselves now, before they acquire commitments that will make it more difficult, then it was worth the risk of abdication.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reading Like Writers, Continued (Which I Almost Forgot)

“Read like a writer.” I think I should tattoo that across my forehead. Better yet, across my students’ foreheads. On mine I’d only see it twice a day--brushing my teeth in the morning and at night. On my students’ foreheads I couldn’t escape it. 

After my great experience last week, with myself and my students copying down one cool sentence per day from the short stories we were reading, then at the end, making one original sentence using, in some way, the sentences we’d copied (see last week’s blog for the full story), I nearly forgot to follow up this week as we polished final drafts of poetry analysis papers.

Serendipity--that’s one word for the sudden thought I had when students were preparing to hand in final drafts. I’d asked them to do the usual: highlight thesis and preview of points, number the points within the preview, highlight topic sentence, and number them with the number of the corresponding point from the preview. Then in the space above the title, write one thing they’d learned while writing the paper, and one question for Mrs. Essenburg about something specific in your paper. 

But I’d forgotten something--something good from their paper for them to share with their groupmates. Ah-ha! A cool sentence! A chance to remind them they should have been polishing up their sentences, paying attention, maybe trying out some of the structures or words they’d liked in the previous week’s exercise. (Yes, I should have reminded them earlier--when they were actually working on the paper--but something is better than nothing when building new habits--for myself as well as for my students!) 

Students chose and shared sentences. I heard ooohs and aaahs of admiration. Some of the students--though I hadn’t asked them to--marked on their paper the sentence they’d chosen--so I got to see not just good sentences, but sentences they’d thought were good. Whether it was because I reminded them or not, some students referred to crafting good sentences in what they’d learned or their question for me, and I remembered to recommend readings as answers to some of the questions they asked.

One student marked this sentence as one she was proud of, and I definitely concur: “The ultimate goal of Christianity is also transformation: from unrighteous to righteous, from takers to givers, from self-centered to Christ-centered, from independent to interdependent, and from inevitable death to everlasting life.” 

Another student asked, “I’ve been specifically working hard on the creativity of my sentences, making it sound descriptive and beautiful. How well did I do?” I could mark sentences that especially delighted me and assure her that her efforts had paid off and her sentences were creative and beautiful. 

Finally, when one student wrote, “What are some pointers for writing an interesting and funny essay? I really want to learn how to make my essay funny,” I knew immediately that what I needed to do was direct her to funny essays she could read like a writer. The next day I told her that, and she said, “I love to read essays!” I handed her a copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamotte. She gasped, “I can read this for guided outside reading? Oh, thank you!” And I got to do one of my favorite things--book matchmaking!

To think that but for the impulse of a moment, I’d have risked missing out on all those opportunities to help students learn to read like writers, and to have a window on their process as they do.

I definitely need to look into tattoos....

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Helping Students Read Like Writers

“The sky finally lowered her silver shield and revealed the sun, cloaked in mist, looking large and red as blood. Its appearance fell on sterile hearts.” 

Isnt that a brilliant sentence? One of my 10th graders wrote it. Actually, its an original remixing of metaphors from Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, Franz Kafka’s “The Bucket Rider,” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” And it was the result of my informal experiment of the last two weeks in helping students read like writers.

Heres how the experiment went: For 5 minutes at the beginning of the period, students took out the same sheet of paper and copied one cool sentence from yesterday’s reading. Then in their groups of 4-5, they shared the sentence they picked and why. At the end of the two weeks, they were to write at the bottom of that paper a sentence of their own using the sentences they’d copied. I did the exercise with them, showing them what I was doing on my computer hooked up to the data projector.

I can say the following:
  • The students seemed to enjoy it.
  • I overheard wonderful conversations articulating why they chose a particular sentence--from word choice to punctuation to tone.
  • A student came into class one morning asking, “Why does Kafka use so many semicolons?” 
  • I saw some daring sentence attempts, like the one above.
Several experiences coalesced to result in this exercise. I’d read about focused practice and the suggestion that writers start every day copying another writer whose style they admire. That made me wonder how much my writing had benefited from years of journaling that included copying out bits I liked--whether from the Bible, other devotional reading, or novels or poems I was enjoying. 

In my Japanese class I had to write a sentence on the model of a very long one which used most of the grammatical structures we’d learned in the unit. Wow, was it hard. And I thought, If I had to do this even once a day, I’d learn to use more sophisticated sentence structures. Then it hit me--so would my non-native speakers! 

Finally, I’d read about a writing class where the professor told students NOT to write anything original but to recombine words and phrases from other places. 

I love having an idea that works! 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Making the Most of Standardized Test Prep

Would you like to hear your students animatedly arguing a point with classmates about a work of literature and supporting it with evidence from the work?

Here are some conversations I heard in my class on Friday about Leo Tolstoy's short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?":
  • “Here on page 281 it says, ‘As far as the men were concerned, drinking kumiss and tea, eating mutton, and playing on their pipes was all they cared about.’ So Tolstoy says the Bashkirs are not thinking about the land at all, not even about selling it.” 
  • “Wait...Is the whole story really about the Devil? I mean, he’s there, but is the point how bad he is, or is the point the dangers within Pahom’s own self?”

Guess what--they were taking a forced-choice reading comprehension quiz.

Practice for standardized reading tests can a bother to be complained about--or it can be an opportunity for heated discussion, students challenging each other to model their critical thinking process and support their claims; an opportunity to teach critical thinking as well as test-taking strategies, and a bit of learning to think from the perspective of the tester as well. 
  1. Most of the time, students take the quizzes in their table groups of 3-5. They fill it out on their own first, then have an opportunity to share answers and ask each other to support answers that differ. They do not need to end up with the same answers--after discussion, they can agree to disagree. And they can always use the book--this is not an assessment of memory but of reading and analysis. (At the end of each unit they have to take a reading comprehension quiz on their own, so students know the discussions are preparing them for that.)
  2. I nearly always add one last question, after all the multiple choice: Name one reading strategy you used while reading this selection, and give a specific example.
  3. After the quizzes are graded, students have the opportunity to pick up one additional point by correcting one question they got wrong. This is how they do it: They must write an explanation next to each of the 4 multiple choice options--for the three wrong ones, explaining how the test writer thought it might trick an unwary reader, and for the right one, why it is right. 

I read a blog this week that denigrated standardized reading tests as evaluating critical thinking rather than reading. Well, even if the two can be separated, which I doubt, do we really want to abdicate teaching critical thinking? And, while specialized SAT test prep might not be necessary for students coming from English speaking homes filled with books, why would I decline to help my second language students, or students from homes where reading was not such a priority, take a few thousand dollars off their college bill with a little higher score?

The questions students ask while taking the quizzes also give me and them insights beyond the quiz, into the deeper deficits of language and vocabulary. When 10% of my 10th grade students ask me what “shriek” means, I know there’s a vocabulary deficit that’s not going to be made up with a quiz on 10 new words a week. And when an A-student asks about the poetry lines, “The splendor falls on castle walls / and snowy summits old in story” whether “splendor” is an adjective modifying the noun “falls,” as in “waterfalls,” both she and I know it’s going to take a lot of reading to raise the level of language awareness. 

And there we are--back to the question of time. We need time for reading, so we can’t spend it all in preparing for standardized testing. Who'd want to? Minimize it, by all means. But there’s nothing like a little bit of preparation, done in the right way, to raise motivation, investment, and engagement.