Friday, November 29, 2013


Since its the season where the American-dominated English-speaking internet seems to be tending toward enumerating blessings, and since I have to write a blog on this vacation weekend or else break my streak, here are some English teacher-y things I am thankful for:

Balance--One period, when I came to the epiphanic moment of my lecture, a student clapped her hand over her mouth and gasped. The next period, at the same moment, a student burst into giggles.

Absorption--A student who doesn’t fit the bookworm profile seen after the end-of-class bell packing his backpack one-handed while reading the book in his other hand, strolling out the door still reading.

Colleagues--A group I’m meeting with monthly this fall about collaborative professional assessment and growth. I told them my goal was to compile a professional portfolio comprised of this weekly blog and getting my English 10 class Moodle unit descriptions all complete. That’s added motivation for keeping up with the blogging--which is nice--but even more for the unit descriptions, which was a goal I failed at last year. 
A principal who’s such a learner she can truly participate as a teacher in the department meetings I run. An elementary teacher who invited input on what gaps or misunderstandings students are coming into middle school with. All my department colleagues who are willing to share their successes and failures so we can encourage, celebrate, and learn from each other. A curriculum coordinator several years ago who in my first year as a department chair got all the department chairs reading Understanding by Design--which has changed me, my department, and the school.

Learning (mine)--Some of it scary--like debate--scary, stretching, exciting, and did I say scary? Some just plain fun (not very many jobs out there where you can claim reading the latest Nobel Prize for literature winner--or just the latest YA sensation--is professional development!). Some of it social and motivating--see above, but also, one of my favorite learning tools is book discussions with colleagues--next week we’ll be finishing one I’m participating in on Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior, and I’m beginning to make plans to facilitate one on  The Vocabulary Book: Learning & Instruction in January.

Learning (students')--Questions during a recent unit that targeted the reading strategy of making inferences: “Are we supposed to be able to infer whose tear it was?” “How can you infer that?”
Overheard at student peer writing conferences: “You have really good points.” “Your thesis doesn’t quite address the prompt.” (Also: “You didn’t write anything on my paper!” “It was perfect.” “That doesn’t help me any.”)
Connections made: “Is it okay if I refer to shalom [a core concept from the previous unit] in the human dignity paper? Because it seems like they connect.”
Connections sometimes at the level of moments of epiphany--such as this one while a class was discussing disregard of human dignity that is milder than genocide, but not evidencing respect and love for the image of God within...
  • Student 1: “Gossip.” 
  • Me: “Spreading or listening to gossip.” 
  • Student 1: “Spreading.” 
  • Me: “Is listening to gossip disregarding human dignity?” 
  • Student 1: “No.” 
  • (Almost simultaneously) Student 2: “YES! That’s being a bystander! [concept from previous unit] That’s supporting the perpetrator and ignoring the victim!” [reference to Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech which we read this unit after reading Night].

Humor--intentional and otherwise, such as this interchange at the conclusion of a recent book talk with a student about outside reading...
  • Me: “So what was a theme of the book you finished?” 
  • Student: “It might seem kind of trite, but I think it was ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’” 
  • Me: “Why did you choose this book to read next?” 
  • Student: “I liked the cover.”
Thankfulness--My entire teaching career has been at an international Christian school established for missionary kids in Japan, so maybe this is unique to Asia, but every day 15-year-old students leave my classroom with a chorus of thank-yous.” A cultural formality? Could be. But every day ends just a little brighter than it would otherwise, and thats something to be thankful for. 

Happy Thanksgiving weekend. May it find you thankful for many, many things.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Power of an Object Lesson

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is an action worth?

On the second day of the school year, I publicly defaced a picture of my husband. I started English class by telling my 10th graders a little about my husband, showing them a 3 x 5 photo of him and me, then ripping off my husband’s half, shredding it, dropping it on the floor, and stepping on it. 

One of the classes froze and went dead silent. In the 2 other classes, students gasped or giggled uncomfortably.  Why the electric response? I asked them. That piece of paper with ink on it was not my husband--my husband is much bigger and thicker. He also moves and has legs, unlike the photo. What’s the big deal? 

Still...the idea of an “image” has meaning. We feel it in our bones. So what does it mean that people bear God’s image?

Thus I introduced a principle introduced in Genesis 1:26 and running throughout the Bible, a principle which has many implications, several of which underpin the entire first semester of English 10. Being made in God’s image has significance for how we act...
  1. Toward other people who are all images of God (with honor and respect)
  2. Ourselves as images (original goodness; fallen; being renewed in the image of the Creator, being conformed to the image of Christ; someday being perfectly like him for "we shall see him as he is")
  3. Within the creation as stewards developing its potential with care and respect. Literature is people acting as image bearers to take the physical reality, thinking minds, and potential of language (all created by God) and develop further the "raw materials," developing culture.

I knew it was a good lesson when I taught it; I didn’t know how good until yesterday. Students were working on the biblical perspective part of their response paper to the Holocaust memoir Night, analyzing some aspect of people’s tendency to disregard human dignity. The prompt asks them to refer to the concepts of people being made in the image of God and of the second greatest commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

In my explanation I suddenly thought to say, “Remember way back at the beginning of the school year, when I ripped up the photo of my husband?” I’ve gotten blank stares when referring to a lesson I taught yesterday, let alone 3 months ago. I was hoping with my reminder of the visual aid to raise a few flickers of recognition. The widespread, immediate, and visceral response I got absolutely floored me. 

Any other good object lessons out there?

Friday, November 15, 2013

It Isn't Just the Writing

  • “Well, I wish I could have talked with the teacher more about my idea to have a clear goal in mind. I just wrote and came to a conclusion.”
  • “It’s good to ask questions, figure out what you could do better, then do it. Don’t be passive.”
Reading student reflections on their writing process for a particular piece of writing (see last week’s blog “Owning the Process” for the whole reflection guide) has been eye-opening--to student as well as teacher understandings and misunderstandings. Again I’m being nudged toward greater differentiation when I see the disparity of levels--from students who think writing is all about proper grammar, punctuation, and capitalization to those who have nuanced insight into and control over their own writing process. 

But the thought that sticks most deeply is the gap between the two student responses above. When I read the first one, I felt bad that I had missed out on giving input to a student who wanted it. Then I felt frustrated that the student hadn’t asked. The following day, I read the second response. My bad feeling and frustration resolved as I thought, “Yes! This is why that student is a good writer. And this is a lesson that will serve that student well in so much more of life than simply writing.” 

What springs to mind is so much reading I’ve been doing lately: 

So how does that come back to my classroom? I’m going to make sure I get a chance to conference with student #1 during the writing of our next paper. I’m going to work harder to touch base with all the quiet students. And I’m going to think about how I can target teaching not just the writing process and skills, but the life attitude of asking questions, figuring out what you could do better, then doing it. Not being passive.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Owning the Process

Good writers value the writing process. They use it on papers outside of English class, later on in college where drafts are not required, and still later on in life when they need to communicate a purpose to an audience. They do this because they are good writers, and they are good writers because they do this. Which comes first? I dont know, but it is a virtuous cycle. How can I help more students to value, own, and capitalize on the process? 

Recently, I tried reflection. First, when students turned in the final draft, they also turned in everything that I had required them to do as a part of the process--starting with the journal they kept while reading the novel the paper was based on, right on through all brainstorming, organizing, drafting, revising, and editing, with the final draft on top. That represents a lot of work--I had assigned it all because I thought it was all important in contributing to the final draft. I wanted them to see it all together--the sheer volume of hidden work that goes into good writing--and to understand that good writing starts way back with good reading. 

Additionally, since professional writers use the process in idiosyncratic--not lock-step--ways, I wanted students to identify which parts had been the most helpful to them in their own writing process. So I came up with the following reflection sheet for students to fill out and turn in with their final packet of papers:


Prewriting (reading journal, small group/class discussions, quick write for a thesis, planning with a mind map or an outline, re-reading the shalom article like a writer)
  • What worked best for you, to prepare you to write? Why?
  • What didn’t work for you, to prepare you to write? Why?
  • What did you learn about prewriting while working on this essay?
Drafting (2 days in class, homework)
  • I used my class time for writing--working on my own, getting help from classmates and teacher when necessary, and returning quickly to work (circle one):
a. very effectively b. pretty well       c. not so well       d. not well at all

  • I did the best I could on writing my rough draft (circle one): 
a. definitely b. pretty much       c. sort of sloppy       d. just something to hand in

  • What did you learn about writing a rough draft while working on this essay?
Revising (teacher feedback, beginnings and endings, 1 day in class, homework): Circle 1
5: all suggestions carefully considered and many--plus additional improvements--thoroughly and creatively integrated
4: all suggestions considered and most integrated with understanding; a few other changes made
3: all suggestions followed, sometimes woodenly, word for word, making the paper uneven
2: some suggestions followed, some ignored
1: few or no changes made

  • What did you learn about revising while working on this essay?

Editing (1 day in class, “Find Someone Who,” 10 teacher editing mark corrections)
5: all changes understood and made throughout paper with evidence of further self-editing
4: all changes understood and made throughout paper
3: most changes understood, made effectively in the part marked, made haphazardly in the rest of the paper
2: most changes made in the part marked, but not followed through in the rest of the paper
1: few or no changes made

  • What did you learn about editing while working on this essay?

  • What did you learn about the topic/content while working on this essay?

  • What is 1 question you want Mrs. Essenburg to answer about your writing?

As I was creating this reflection protocol, I realized that it was also an opportunity to reinforce definitions of adept application of the process. Students who are unskilled in writing may not realize what excellent process skills look like. For instance, they might not realize (no matter how many times I’ve said it) that simply making the editing corrections that the teacher has marked without understanding why they were marked, and without combing the paper for similar mistakes and well as for additional mistakes, is not excellent editing. On this reflection they had to own their own level of skill at a given step of the process. 

Heres my process as I’m working my way through this stack of student work: When I pull out a student’s file, I first read her reflection on her process. I check through the file for the presence and thoroughness of each component. I make a brief comment on the process. I peruse her reading journal, making a comment or two. Then I read the paper, mark the rubric, and respond to the student’s final question on the reflection paper.

Benefits so far? As the class starts on the next novel study, I’ve observed to them that many students comments about prewriting said they had not been consciously thinking about the essay prompt while journalling and discussing in small groups, and they wished they had. So be thinking now as you journal and discuss about the next essay topic. I’ve also told them that while asking a question is a good way to engage with text and fulfills the requirement of the journal, students who wrote the best papers engaged with the text in many additional ways, such as responding to a quotation, making a connection, or making a prediction. 

I’ve also uncovered individual misunderstandings. One student said what he wants to remember in prewriting next time is to fix all the little mistakes. Another student said that none of the prewriting was helpful, only having a whole class period to work (which was actually drafting), but his final question was “How can I make better use of teacher feedback?” I was able to address these misunderstandings individually.

When we begin planning the next essay, I’ll use the data to teach that there are a variety of personalized ways to use the process. For instance, one student said she’d spent too much time creating an outline that was too detailed, which she ended up changing. Another said next time, she needs to spend more time planning.

Will repeating this exercise with every final draft this year increase students understanding and personal appropriation of the writing process, and will that result in better writing? I certainly hope so--I need to justify to to our tech coordinator the amount of printing students did. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Spice of Life

  • “I like to read nonfiction--it’s what I read all through middle school--inspirational stories about real people. Not fantasy like Harry Potter.”
  • “I really like adventure and fantasy--like Harry Potter.”

These are two actual responses from actual students in back-to-back student-parent-teacher conferences this week. 

My daughter was just wondering whether she could finagle a student-teaching position that would include her ESL minor as well as her English major because she’s been so inspired recently by her teacher-aiding experience in ESL. “Teaching ESL in American schools is so different from, say, teaching English to college students in China,” she enthused. Meanwhile, another friend with a TESOL masters dreams of teaching conversational English at the university level abroad.

And when I sent out a parent letter informing of my intent and reasons to show parts of the movie Hotel Rwanda in class next week in preparation for reading the Holocaust memoir Night, I got responses ranging from enthusiastic support to grave reservations.

Human beings. We are such a varied bunch: students, teachers, parents. It takes all of us to make this seething, living, interdependent thing we call community and can’t live without. How dull it would be if we were all the same; what a challenge it is to love and live with and help each other grow. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

Reading as a Writer: Beginnings and Endings

Writing is an enormously imaginative exercise--even writing nonfiction! It’s not about me putting my thoughts down on paper, however articulately. It’s about me imagining what it’s like to be you reading those thoughts, and figuring out how to translate my thoughts into words on a page that you will then translate into thoughts in your head, that will be as like as possible to the thoughts now in my head.

Reading like a writer is a lesson I’m just beginning to get my head around as far as targeting teaching it to my students--planning for it, providing scaffolding and plenty of practice. But last week I used one of my earliest lessons--one I’ve been using for years--and it was as practical, fun, and varied as ever. The lesson was on beginnings and endings, and the occasion was the day I returned an initial draft with revision comments. (Having told them on the first draft not to get hung up on a good beginning--just start.)

This year’s students clearly know that a question is often a good hook, but many of them hadnt exercised the imagination to put themselves into my shoes and wonder how many papers would begin “What is shalom?” I ask how many of them continue reading a blog or a magazine article if the first line doesn’t grab them. I reassure them that I’m paid to keep reading their papers, but in any real life writing, if they don’t grab their reader in the first sentence, they’ve lost her.

I read a couple of brief excerpts from the chapter on beginnings and endings in William Zinnser’s On Writing Well and tell students to take notes. They particularly like the list of possible qualities in an opener: “freshness, or novelty, or paradox, or humor, or surprise, unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question” (56). They take furious notes and ask me to repeat. 

Next I pass out a stack of old Time magazines, one per student, that I can borrow from our school library for the morning. I instruct students to look at articles that are at least three paragraphs long--not ads, not captions, not news-in-brief or obituaries. Read first lines until one grabs them. Then look back at their notes and see if they can find the principle that made that line interesting so they can apply that principle to a similar hook, possibly in the piece of writing I just handed back.

Finally, look at last lines and find one with a satisfying sense of conclusion. Endings are more difficult than beginnings for all of us, and especially for students--how to sum up without being mind-numbingly redundant; how to be interesting without introducing inappropriately new material. (My favorite example was an article about scientifically engineered food that started with a quote from Winston Churchill about being close to the day when we could do away with the absurdity of raising a whole chicken just for the use of its breast and concluded with the suggestion of calling such an engineered dish a McChurchill.)

Collateral benefit from the exercise is introducing digital natives to an intriguing medium: print magazines. In one period a student asked whether he couldn’t just look up an article on While part of me was so elated he was aware of articles on that I nearly acquiesced, I steeled my heart and refused. 

There is an art of deciding when the targeted learning should momentarily give way to the unintended learning, and I don't always make the right calls, but I think I made a few right ones in this lesson last week. One student called me over and asked incredulously about a graph of world religions showing Christianity to be the most prevalent. I stifled my urge to remind him of the ban on captions, and instead briefly discussed why that graph surprised him and where the data might have come from. 

Another student raised his hand and asked, “What if the title in interesting but the first line is not?” He showed me the first line he found dull: “Neil Gaiman remembers being punished.” When I told him Neil Gaiman is a popular author, that I've read a couple of his books, and that the line made me wonder whether this is a long ago childhood memory that inspires his writing, and made me relate by thinking of punishments that I remember, his eyes lit up, and he got a bit more background information on the world. 

Something else I noticed: There were surprisingly few articles that did not follow Zinnser’s advice of closing with a quotation. I, however, will not. I’m imaginatively wondering how that will strike you--and with that, I have followed the other bit of Zinsser’s advice, “to bring the story full circle--to strike at the end an echo of a note that was sounded at the beginning” (67). And now I’ve done the other thing, too.