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.