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.

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