Friday, April 19, 2013

Celebrating Growth toward God

Fresh green leaves unfurling in the spring sun: this blog celebrates growth of all kinds--my own and my students--knowledge, skills, and understanding--even seeing failure--both my own and my students--as the discovery of one way NOT to do it. 

Today, I’m celebrating growth of faith. I can’t teach love of God any more than I can teach love of reading or love of writing. But I can create an environment which is favorable to the alchemy of any of the above happening: providing the knowledge, skills, understandings, modeling and challenges that I can, then stepping back to see what happens. 

Here’s what I saw this week:
  • One student had written at the beginning of the school year, "I am atheist and don't want people to make me become Christian." Now he writes, "Sometimes I feel like God is telling me that I belong to him….When unbelievable things happen, things that I was sure it wouldn't happen, I feel like God is telling me that He exists."
  • Another student wrote at the beginning of the school year, "I am still not ready to accept God completely. As I go to CAJ, I think it would be a great opportunity for me to get closer to God and become a faithful Christian. But I will try to get to know about God." This student now writes, "Although it has only been few weeks accepting Jesus Christ in my life, I still feel that I am in his protection."
  • A third student writes, "Although CAJ taught Bible, I belittled them in my heart saying that they are losers who want to justify their weakness….However...I realized that my perspective was quite biased. I thought only my perspective was true and others are 100% wrong….I decided to learn about them. Then I was able to logically explain God's existence. Now knowing that there is God, 'I call on you, my God, for you will answer me' (Psalm 17.6)."

How did we get here in English class? Reading the play A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen gives us the essential question “Who Am I?” When main character realizes that she has always conformed to a patronizing society’s expectations, and has no idea herself who she really is or what she thinks, she feels her only option is to leave her family to find out. Sophomores don’t want to end up in that situation, so what better time to begin to explore the question? They learn about Myers-Briggs temperament types, read and discuss the article “The Values Americans Live By” by L. Robert Kohls, and study the supporting passages for a couple of biblical principles about human worth and purpose. Then they set out to answer the following question: “Who am I spiritually, temperamentally, and culturally, and why is this an important question to ask and to answer?”

My revising comments are all on the papers, ready to be handed back Monday for further work with organization, transition, support, work choice, integration of quotations, and all that important stuff.

And my prayers have also been revised with new knowledge of who my students are, who they want to become, and an intensified longing for the presence of God with them on their way to becoming it.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Little Modeling Goes a Long Way

Mrs. Essenburg, I was just going to ask you why you had given me the low grade of a B on my last essay, and then you gave us this model essay, and I realized I should just be thankful I got a B.

As an INFP for whom conflict feels toxic, this comment alone--actually made in my classroom this week Wednesday--is reason enough to make me a devotee of using model papers. And what’s more, now that I’m reading the rough drafts students wrote after analyzing the model paper--an essay from a previous year by a real 10th grader in response to the same prompt--I’m finding they are the best set I’ve ever had. 

The principle is if you want to help students write better nonfiction, have them read some nonfiction. The closer you can make the reading-writing connection, the better. Professional models are good: Here’s a personal narrative; now you write a personal narrative. Excellent responses of past students to the same prompt current students will be writing on are also good. 

And a protocol for analyzing the writing is even better. With the personal narrative sample, have students look for examples of specific actions, vivid sensory descriptions, and dialogue or internal monologue. Last year I handed out the model student essay--and students oohed and aahed, and then wrote essays very similar to previous years. This year I had them read it using the following protocol:

Read the model paper. 
  1. Identify parts of the intro: the hook (to what extent does it hook you? why/why not?), thesis with preview of points (Number the points. Is there an inherent logic of development?), analogy.
  2. Highlight topic sentences. Number with corresponding point. To what extent does the topic sentence (a) connect to the thesis, (b) summarize the paragraph, (c) transition logically and smoothly from the previous paragraph. What organizing principle did the author use for putting the aspects of identity in this order? Does it work?
  3. Balance of sources and commentary: Draw a box around quotations/cited ideas. How many different ways are they integrated? Underline commentary/explanation/personal examples. To what extent does this person stand out as an individual, or could the paper apply to anyone with the same personality type?
  4. Conclusion: To what extent does the conclusion leave you with a satisfying sense of closure? How does it do that? (How much summary? Any new information? If so, is it distracting, or does it help to tie up what you’ve already read?)
  5. Sentence fluency: Draw a star next to one cool sentence.
  6. Diction: Circle one great example of word choice (individual word or a phrase)
  7. Overall: To what extent did this piece accomplish the goal of clarifying the author’s identity for himself and, in the process, communicating the importance of anyone doing the same? What aids or hinders the accomplishment of this goal? Any suggestions?  
It just makes sense. If you want to be a good tennis player, in addition to endless hours of practice, you also watch good tennis, looking for tips to pick up. If you want to be a good pianist, in addition to endless hours of practice, you also watch and listen to good pianists, looking for tips to pick up. Watching lacrosse in order to become a better wrestler makes about as much sense as reading Huck Finn in order to write better research papers. Unless, of course, it’s a research paper on Samuel Clemens. Sure, there’s some crossover--especially for the gifted--but for those of us who are just slogging it out, looking for a little help, some really obvious signposts help.

The 3 benefits I've found to using model papers are (1) raising awareness of what the bar of good writing is, (2) better student writing as a result, and just possibly (3) lifelong habits of reading like a writer.

Friday a colleague also used model student essays with a protocol for analysis. She sounded pretty excited afterward. I'm not sure why it took me this long, but I think we might be on to something here.

P.S. If you want to know more about using model papers of all sorts--professional sources, your own, as well as your students’, read Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing through Modeling and Mentor Texts.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Who's Working, Who's Watching, and Why It Matters

School should not be a place where young people go to watch old people work.

I’m not sure where I first read that idea, but it has stuck with me--long before the flipped class was the thing to do. And you’d wonder how my class has anything to do with “flipping” if you think that has to include lectures on YouTube. But I’ve known for a while that the best lessons are the ones where the students are working and I am the coach, consultant, and observer. 

Here are some comments I heard or overheard while observing this week:
  • “What does ‘divine benediction’ mean?”
  • “I think all three of these paragraphs are about different parts of one point.”
  • “Did you do this on purpose, Mrs. Essenburg, because of what we studied about pronouns?”
  • “I got 18 out of 20. I don’t know why. She didn’t write anything on it.”
  • “Just Google it--it’s easier.”

Student feedback on my teaching--that's what the above is--some of it positive, some of it not; some of it directed toward me, some of it overheard. None of it solicited as feedback, but all of it useful. 

Warning: sometimes preparing to not work during the class time takes an awful lot of preparation BEFORE class time. Preparing, uploading, copying, and renaming a Google Doc to share with each of 10 groups of 4-5 students. Designing, revising, and printing journal pages to guide reading and discussion. (Designing a good rubric or scoring guide to go with the journal!) Constructing a prompt that calls for responses that are original enough that one offered as a model will not be open to direct copying, selecting a paper to keep, and creating a protocol to lead students through a careful examination of what makes that paper good. 

“What does ‘divine benediction’ mean?” was a question I received from a student in each period. They’d supposedly read Genesis 1: 26-27 with all of its notes before (and this was a question on one of the study notes), but as students contributed to a Google Doc on 11 passages relating to the source of individual identity, some students felt a need to understand what they hadn’t before.

“Who wrote I Corinthians?” I overheard another student working on the Google Doc ask.  A classmate told him to read the book introduction in the school-provided NIV Study Bible. But the first student was already half-way to his answer, replying, “Googling is easier.” Sigh. Well, I know which students gravitate toward book text and which to online. And maybe I need to think through a lesson on the benefits of each.

Last time we edited a paper, we did an exercise on pronoun antecedent, and things to consider when choosing third person singular pronouns in current English. The biblical principles that the 11 passages on the Google Doc matched were as follows:
  • Every individual has worth (Gen. 1:27, Psa. 139, Matt. 10.31, Luke 12.7, Rom. 12.3-9).
  • Secure in her worth in God’s eyes, the Christian follows Jesus' example of service, humility, submission (I Cor. 10.24, 12.12-26; Mark 10.42-45; Phil. 2.1-11; Eph. 5.21).

A student pointed to the “her” in the second principle and said, “Did you do this on purpose, Mrs. Essenburg, because of what we studied about pronouns?” He remembered and noticed! Score one for me.

Today (Saturday) I was reading chapter 11 of Understanding by Design in preparation for leading a discussion of it in a department chair meeting Monday after school. I was convicted that I do need to intentionally solicit more peer and student feedback, but structuring lessons so I can observe student processing and have time for students to ask questions and make comments as I circulate and observe is also a great way to uncover what they are understanding, and what they are misunderstanding.

What I’ve learned: I’ve designed a good journal for A Doll’s House over the years, and now I need to develop a good scoring guide. I’m on the right track with designing biblical perspective lessons where students have scaffolding to use the resources they have (NIV Study Bible) to explore and deepen their understanding of how to read the Bible, and there are some students who don’t yet understand the value of the resource, when to use it, what habits they are developing, and what they are communicating about themselves as learners in the world. I’m also on the right track with using model writing. I’ve incorporated more processing than last year, and I’ve gotten good results. 

Now to stay the course and keep adjusting.