Saturday, December 27, 2014

Leaving a Reading Community

  • “I LOVED this book!” (10th grade girl approaching me across the library holding a copy of The Secrets of Mariko: A Year in the Life of a Japanese Woman and Her Family by Elizabeth Bumiller. Why did she love it? Because she’s half Japanese, and it sounded so much like so many of the people she knows.)
  • “Yeah, I’ve heard of him. I was thinking about reading that next.” (10th grade boy in response to my suggestion of branching out of his usual fantasy genre and trying Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game—since he had just told me how much he liked The Amulet of Samarkand because even though it was fantasy, the characters and their motivations were so much like real life.)
  • “I thought this was just going to be a regular plot, but it was really deep.” (10th grade girl about The Memory Keeper’s Daughter)
  • “I wrote down my questions about each chapter.” (10th grade boy when I asked him about all the post-it notes sticking out of his copy of Crime and Punishment. I told him about my effort to understand and appreciate One Hundred Years of Solitude.)

I love having these conversations with students about books and reading. After 9-1/2 years of having them with 10th graders at our school, I can now almost always think of something to recommend. (One recent failure: At the beginning of this year one student wrote that he had enjoyed reading The Westing Game in middle school, and he’d like to read another book like that. I had to read The Westing Game first. I’m still trying to think of another book like it.)

And now, I’m leaving. I’ve had my last set of book talks with these students. The first student—I want to talk to her about the book I just read, Japan at War: An Oral History by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore. (The librarian recommended it to me, saying this student had just read it. It’s the book I’ve been seeking for a Japanese perspective on World War II, and it was fascinating!) I also want to recommend to her Lady Gracia by Ayako Miura and Bushido: The Soul of Japan, by Inazo Nitobe. 

The boy who did his final presentation and project on what happened to the Kony 2012 movement—I want to see if A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah or In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa by Daniel Bergner might interest him. 

And who will recommend Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal to the 3 or 4 Philippino students we have per class? (With no other country have I found such a unanimous response when I ask citizens from blue collar workers to doctors to name a well-known author. So I got the school library to order it, and I recommend it. If they’re not quite ready for it in 10th grade, I tell them to keep it in mind for 11th or 12th.) 

Will someone else pick up the graphic novels that I’ve been introduced to and started introducing others to in the last year—Boxers & Saints, Maus I & II, Persepolisabout life in 1900 China, Holocaust Europe, and Iran during the Islamic revolution.

There is the senior who in 10th grade loved gorgeous writing—she talked to me about The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, reading marked sentences. I want to recommend All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr to her.

But it’s time for me to move on. I won’t be returning to my school of 27-1/2 years at the end of the Christmas holidays.

And while I’m already nostalgic for what I’m leaving, I want to think about what’s brought me to this point of enjoying student book talks so much, so I can keep doing it in my new home. 

  1. Reading widely to cultivating my own love of reading while searching for what will cultivate my students’ love of reading. You can’t teach what you don’t practice. I try to read some YA fiction as well as pushing the bounds of my literary knowledge, reading each year’s Nobel Prize for Literature and Man-Booker Prize winner, receiving GoodReads newsletters, browsing World Literature Today and Booklist, as well as whatever is recommended in professional reading (like NCTE conversations: The Other Wes Moore is on my to-read list) and by students in book talks. (If I want them to take my recommendations seriously, I need to take theirs seriously. The Amulet of Samarkand is also on my to-read list.)
  2. Being familiar with what is in the school library. When I compared recommended titles from Book Love with our catalogue, I was surprised at how many we already had that I wasn’t aware of and hadn’t read myself. I cured that last summer. (Maus I—it stops 1/2 way through! Has no one every asked about Maus II? I did. Now we have it, and at least one other faculty member and one student has read it.) 
  3. Talking with the school librarian about books. See…so many of the things above. Talk to your librarian. You are on the same side: You both love books and want others—colleagues and students—to love them too. There might be budget constraints. But work closely. Understand each other. Recommend books to each other. Trust each other’s recommendations to kids—refer them to each other. Ask for things. Appreciate what you get. I asked for Boxers & Saints. She said, “Why? No one is reading American-Born Chinese. And it’s expensive.” I said, “I’m recommending it to students and faculty. The 5th grade teacher and middle school principal want to read American-Born Chinese. The world history teacher wants to read Boxers & Saints. Here’s what they’re about. Here’s the awards won.” And she ordered it. And all the above people read them. As well as several students.)
  4. Building a class library. I’ve been building mine for a couple of years, but this year is the first time students have really made use of it. Maybe because I really modeled using it. And gave them time in class to use it. When I packed it up to move, I didn’t yet know what grade level I was preparing to teach, and many of the books were still out, being read. I know I’ll miss some. Like The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL by Eric Greitens, which I saw in a bookstore 1-1/2 years ago and bought with 2 particular students in mind. I passed it on to them when I got back to school in the fall, even though by that time they were out of my class. I’ve talked to them both about it since them, and they loved it, and it has not returned to my library, so I trust someone somewhere is enjoying it. It was well worth the investment, and once I get to know my new community, I’ll begin rebuilding my classroom library from the bones I shipped.
  5. Talking with students about books: the ones they read, the ones I read. In my school up to this point, students have been required to read a certain number of pages outside of classroom reading per semester and to talk to the teacher about the books read. I need to find out about my new school’s current outside reading policies. Having read Book Love, I more effectively talk to students about the books I read.

It’s been a great 27-1/2 years—and greater every year. I will miss it, and every student, parent, and colleague who contributed to it. And it will be intriguing to see how what I have learned will play out in a new situation. Cheers to 2014; bring it on, 2015!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Significance and Choice: What Does It Look Like in Your Class?

Lessons for the week: the importance of significance and choice. I offered several new essay prompts, and even the drafts are so much better than in previous years. (And there’s an added bonus for the teacher—How would you like to hear your students pleading for the necessity of future classes to experience the unit they just did?)

In addition to one very open-ended essay question at the end of the Human Dignity unit built around the short Holocaust memoir Night, by Elie Wiesel, this year I offered 3 more specific questions, but still with the opportunity for students to articulate what they found significant about the unit. 

Here are the prompts:
  1. Why is it important for young people today to read Night? (Hypothetical situation: The English department is considering dropping this book because “nobody cares about the Holocaust anymore.” This essay is to convince them to keep the book in the 10th grade curriculum.)
  2. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the oppressed.” This is what Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Do you agree? 
  3. Is the world on a trajectory of increasing regard for human dignity or increasing disregard for human dignity? What is your role?
  4. What is the most significant thing you have learned about human dignity this unit?

Two disclaimers here. First, significance is ridiculously easy in literature. After all, that is WHY people write literature—to find, explore, protest, discover, struggle with, and communicate what they see as significant. Other fields might have to dig a little deeper. But surely there is a reason you love your field, a reason THIS unit is important and irreplaceable. What is it? Help the kids see it, own it. Second, significance starts with unit and lesson design—from the beginning of the unit I have to have a significance in mind that I am targeting helping students discover. Any assessment of student learning is first an assessment of teacher instruction. That’s a little scary, but it’s also empowering. If students are not getting what I want them to, I can change the instruction.

I read good answers to questions 2 - 4. And part of their beauty is that students who don’t particularly feel that future students MUST read this same book don’t have to fake it. So that the students who DO pick it must have at least some commitment to the book itself. For now, then, I’m going to focus on answers to question 1. 

It is absolutely invigorating to read students whose forte is not even English class argue for the necessity of the English unit and/or work just studied:
  • 10th graders have only a shallow understanding of the history that has built this world today. Reading a book like Night and connecting it to an article like “Being Muslim in a Mad, Sad World” and a movie like Hotel Rwanda is important for 10th graders for these reasons: learning about the event, the leader, and the lesson of human dignity.
  • This book also I should not look down on other people and not be prideful. I feel like there is a lot more that I could understand if I think about it more. 
Have you ever tried asking students to protest the removal of a given unit from the curriculum? What would that look like in your discipline, class, and age group?

For me, there’s a week of class and then exams before Christmas break, AND I’m in the middle of moving. I’m stressed in some ways, but I’m so energized when I read my students’ papers! 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Cultivating Thankfulness in the Teaching Life

Cultivating thankfulness (The Message, Colossians 3:15) is on my mind this week as Facebook feeds blossom with various gratitude challenges. Since I asked my department members in our Wednesday meeting to share recent moments from their classes that they were thankful for, I set out to share some of mine here. Then my list got way too long, so I had to cut it off after 3.

This week, I'm thankful that...

  1. Uncovering student misunderstanding reminds me not to assume mastery without evidence. Like “inference.” I got lazy this year and skipped over a lesson on inference, just referring to it as if students understood. Because it seemed like they did. Then I got this response to quiz question asking students to identify one of 3 reading strategies they’d used on a certain passage (inferring, asking questions, envisioning images) and give a specific example: “I interfered sometimes for a disagreement. I also sometimes couldn’t help myself from saying an opinion because I might forget without interfering.”
  2. Engaging lessons can be very low tech. One day this week, half the students were out on a Japanese field trip. The remaining students were to do a Biblical perspective lesson to prepare for the essay on the human dignity unit structured around the Holocaust memoir Night. In the past, I’ve used a highly structured online group worksheet…but students seemed to miss the main points—they just filled in the blanks. This year, I simplified: I divided the students that remained into groups of 4 or 5, gave them a piece of poster paper and a handful of markers, and told them to represent on the poster what they could learn about the Biblical concept “love your neighbor as yourself” by reading the NIV Study Bible study note on Lev. 19:18, each of the 7 verses mentioned in it, and each of those verses’s study notes. On a day when half their classmates were out of class, I was expecting to have a difficult time getting the remainder to focus on learning. But they were all engaged, on task, and asking good questions. I got to answer one girl’s question on the meaning of a sentence in the study note, and then watch her go back to her group to explain. One group proudly showed me that they’d come up with an additional related passage—Jesus on the cross praying for God to forgive his killers. And one group asked me, “If we have to love our neighbors, and we have to love our enemies, then do we have to love Satan?” Now, at first I thought that was a silly question, but then I tried to answer it…. Seriously. Try it. I sat and discussed it afterward with 3 other teachers for about 10 minutes. 
  3. Technology offers additional ways for students to engage with material and with each other. For the Night/human dignity current application follow-up, I offered students a choice of 5 articles to read, and assigned them to write one online Moodle forum post responding to their article and how they could use it in their essay, then one response each to a person who had read their same article and to a person who had read a different article (see “Making It Real” post for structuring a literature unit around a life question). They shared excitement, made connections, and asked each other great questions. Here are some of the things they said:
  • It's really sad how we sometimes make decisions based on other people's decisions and opinions. We often go with the crowd, and hurt the people getting hurt by our friends. It's all under our control, but we still choose to do things that hurt others.
  • This article had lots of interesting information that even now I do not understand all of it. I am glad to have read this article.
  • I agree that people turn away from others and try to protect themselves. Do you think that this is a defense mechanism or is it our morality that causes this? 
  • I feel that people are scared of the consequences that come from being the one to blame so instead we blame others. Plus it is easier for us to blame others rather than accepting that we have done something wrong.
  • Everyone has the ability to do bad things if anger or any other feeling consumed them. This also brought me to think about Hotel Rwanda. The author of An Ordinary Man  [autobiography of the protagonist of Hotel Rwanda] states how he saw his friend who was known to be "cool" become a killer. I could use this in my essay to state that inhumane behavior can cause people to act that way, but others, like Juliek [a character in Night], could still remain human and stand for his rights.
  • I too believe that we have a certain sense of wrong and right. But from reading the previous articles, I saw the morality being broken down. Do you think that the people lost their morality because they weren't Christians? Do you think that it is possible that the people who have faith in God will lose their morality?
  • We have the capacity to determine what is right or wrong, a gift from God. It is also very hard to live a pure life and an innocent life, because sin entered into this world.
  • I also found it sad when the author quoted a small boy saying he would rather hurt a Chinese delivery guy instead of an old lady. We choose to have specific people who we want to sympathize with, and people who we choose to dehumanize and alienate from ourselves.

Sometimes—in the middle of stacks of marking—it’s a discipline to cultivate thankfulness in the teaching life. But like other disciplines, it becomes second nature with practice. I’m so thankful for my students, for their enthusiasm for learning, and for the opportunity I have to channel it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Quest to Separate Timeliness and Competence

We took the plunge. This year my school eliminated a grade penalty for late work. The high school faculty had been reading about the role of homework and grades, and discussing this step for a year or two. We maybe took the plunge without thoroughly thinking through all the implications of what structures would support the change, and it has been a headache of galactic proportions for those in charge of taking attendance at the after-school study hall mandatory for all students with missing assignments, and for those in charge of chasing down those who choose not to attend. Kudos to them—their pain has supported better learning in my class. 

The good effects in my 10th grade English class include holding students accountable and motivating them to be proactive about getting late work in. They also include holding me accountable to more actively monitor students with late work (my colleagues will know I have 20 students with late work…what kind of a teacher will they think I am?), and has motivated me to rethink why timely work is important, and how to teach them about and assess them on not timeliness, but how excellent preparation drives their own and others’ learning by creating vital academic conversation. 

Here’s what those effects have looked like in my class.

One student had to go to the after-school study hall one time during the first week of school. He seemed a little startled that he actually had to go, but I met him there and made sure he understood the journal entry he was supposed to have completed. Fifteen minutes later the entry was done, he was free to leave, and he hasn’t had a late assignment since. And only one other student has had to attend.

Two different students initiated conversations with me about an assignment that wasn’t done, with an alternate proposal from the student about how she could complete it without having to attend the after-school study hall. I figured that kind of taking of responsibility was the goal of the policy.

One student fell behind on the first draft of an essay and stayed behind through the entire process, having to attend the study hall every day for several weeks. I met her there a couple of times to talk through questions, I touched base with her occasionally about her essay when I saw her in class, and as we begin the next essay, I will be very aware of her progress in order to identify whether this was a one-time slip-up or an indicator of an underlying pattern that needs to be dealt with.

Finally, I’ve had to reconsider some of my grading practices. Without the “power” of taking off points for undone reading-response journals, I realized I had to assess the assignment in the context of the reason students were doing it: the following day’s small-group discussion. In an earlier blog I wrote about developing a rubric for these discussions collaboratively with the students. 

I continue to look for more effective and valid ways to use that rubric to assess the discussions, but the results in what the students are learning in collaborative skills and in content from focusing on vibrant academic discussions seems far more important than how I’m grading. I mean, simply that I’m assessing is significant—it focuses both the students and me on defining, observing, and practicing the skills, on actually experiencing the learning that comes from a productive academic discussion, and on setting goals about how to do it even better.

When I returned the student rubrics on the first novel study’s discussions, I asked students to respond to 3 questions:

  1. What is something you saw someone in your group do that really helped the discussion go better?
  2. What is something you want to continue to do or do better in your next small group to help the discussion go well?
  3. If there is a line on the rubric that you think you should have scored higher on, which one is it and what did you do well that I didn’t see?

It was a delight to see students name other students in their groups and specific things they had done well. Often it was the same students that I observed as good discussion drivers. Sometimes it was a student that I had missed, but when I started paying attention, I noticed his comments weren’t verbose, but when made, were concise and insightful. 

Another student made an appeal about how curious she had been about the book and how she had related parts of the book “with the current society.” I gave her the higher mark because (1) maybe she had been and I had just missed it, and because (2) if she could articulate positive inquiry that clearly, then at least she knew what it looks like and would be more likely to do it next time. 

Now it’s next time, and whether she is more talkative because she articulated it, or I am more aware because she told me, I’m noticing that her group of 4 is having good discussions—always on task, making good connections, asking good questions of each other.

On the other hand, I was also able to correct misconceptions for a couple of students who thought that excellent listening was only nonverbal behaviors and asking their own questions—not the verbal active listening skills of paraphrasing others’ input, asking clarifying questions related to others’ input, and offering and requesting feedback. 

Finally, there was the window into a developing servant-leader: every member in his group mentioned him by name, and he was the only student who mentioned not one other person in his group, but each one, and something each had done well in the discussion.

So, many thanks to all of my high school colleagues for passing this new policy, and especially to those who have taken on the responsibility for making it work. It is working in my class.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Integrating Learning and a Faith-Full Life

Here’s a hypothesis: the challenge of Christian teaching is not integrating faith and learning; it’s integrating faith and life (the challenge of every Christian), and then integrating learning and life (the challenge of every teacher). Shorter yet: Integrating learning and a faith-full life. 

In English class, opportunities abound. If great literature deals with the significance of human life and action, and if faith permeates all of life, then faith cannot be separated from any significant issue with which literature deals.

I’m celebrating how my 10th grade students have been able to articulate this as I’m reading their final essays on the novel Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. The book is set in South Africa in 1946, just before apartheid became the officially consolidated law of the land. Though race relations feature prominently, the underlying questions of the book have to do with how humans can live with each other, with themselves, with the land, and with God in the flourishing peace and justice that the Bible calls shalom.

Students have written about how the novel deals with some aspect of this biblical theme, and they were required to include an application they have seen in the world today or in their own lives. I’ve read good thesis statements, good literary support, and application—from recovery efforts in the tsunami-stricken area of Japan to relationships with parents to the community found at our school after experiencing bullying elsewhere.

Here are some of the thesis statements:

  • Cry, the Beloved Country demonstrates, through pastor Kumalo’s relationships, that reconciliation and healing are possible despite brokenness if people face their own fears, choose to love, and strengthen their faith in God.
  • Out of the many characters in Cry, the Beloved Country, Stephen Kumalo is Alan Paton’s hero, showing how a flawed human can still maintain shalom with individuals, society, and God.
  • Alan Paton’s book Cry, the Beloved Country demonstrates how the people were able to restore and keep shalom through honest prayers, humble repentance, and faithful allies.

Some of the literary analysis:

  • When Kumalo encountered hardship, God did not speak directly to him. No revelation, no burning bush, no army of angels. But through the boldness of Msimangu’s words, through the hospitality of Mrs. Lithebe, the mercy and kindness from the father of the victim his son had murdered, Kumalo felt God’s love.

A beautiful conclusion:
  • Like a sculptor chipping at a block of marble to create something, through our actions we can be assured that God can heal the world, but an act at a time, no matter how long it takes.

And a powerful insight:
  • How can we overcome our fears like Kumalo did?…Trying is the most important part because we can always gain something from it, even if we don’t get what we expected. Many parents and teachers in Japan tell children that they should not do things to others that they don’t want them to do to them. I remember hearing this from adults ever since I can remember. Recently, I found a Bible verse that sounds similar to it: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). At first I thought that these two statements mean the same thing, but soon I realized that they don’t. The former one that tells you not to treat people how you don’t want to be treated is much easier than the latter one in the Bible since we don’t have to do anything in order to accomplish it. It is all about avoiding conflicts…. We have to do good things to people like the verse says. We need to take action in order to make a difference. 

Teaching English is a great job—choosing good literature, setting a significant purpose, training students in some reading and writing strategies, then cheering from the sidelines as they learn, think, read, write, grow.

Friday, October 31, 2014

In Praise of Non-Virtual Networking

The irony of denigrating virtual networking in a blog would not be lost on me, so I’m not going to do that. But in all of the virtual networking opportunities available, don’t forget the ones you pass in the hallway, at the coffee pot, or waiting to use the copy machine every day.

I’ve taught in someone else’s room for the last 10 years that I’ve been teaching 10th grade English. Five different someones. In some ways, not ideal. And yet the networking that has happened as I’ve learned from other people’s classroom arrangements, libraries, bulletin boards, and as those other people have caught parts of my classes, grading papers at the back of the room while I taught, as well as all the conversations that those encounters have sparked, have been significant.  

The first year I taught one class in a math room where the teacher had the desks in pods of 4. It was too much of a hassle to move them into rows and back for only 1 period, so I left them. And the engagement that happens when students discuss with a small group rather than a whole class—well, I’ve been using small groups as the backbone of my class ever since.

A year or two later I struck up a conversation with the 9th grade English/social studies teacher as I was clearing out of her room. I said, “You know how writing is now broken down into 6 traits, so that when students want to know how to become better writers, we can say more than, ‘Practice writing’? Shouldn’t there be a similar thing with reading—the 6 traits of reading? So that when students or their parents ask how they can become better readers, we can say more than, ‘Practice reading’?” She recalled a book by Cris Tovani that someone had talked to her about. Teaching reading hasn’t been the same in our school since.

For the last several years, I’ve been teaching in the 11th grade English/humanities room. That 11th grade teacher and I have developed a pretty high awareness of how our classes build. 

One of the highlights of my week was when that 11th grade English teacher reported having reminded a couple of students in search of an independent reading book that they had made a list at the end of 10th grade of 5 books they might be interested in reading over the summer. (Here's my blog about that activity.) He was even able to pull up the list for the student who’d forgotten all about it. The student then said, “Oh, yes, I wanted to read Divergent!” (This was a student who at the beginning of 10th grade had declared, “I don’t like to read, and I can’t remember any books.”)

I’m glad I read The Book Whisperer last spring and thought to have students make those lists. I’m glad I had the relationship with a colleague to share the lists. I’m glad the colleague remembered those lists and was able to pull them up for students. I’m glad the cumulative effect is students becoming more engaged readers.

The best idea in the world, all by itself, is just a good idea. Shared and reinforced in a community, it becomes growth. Who are you sharing your good ideas with? Whose good ideas are you sharing? 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Talking about Words

Introducing vocabulary lists can be one of the deadliest activities to invade a classroom, but it doesn’t have to be. This week I pulled out a simple activity I remembered a workshop facilitator using several years ago: 

  • I handed out the list of 20 words and definitions taken from the novel.
  • Students looked it over and came up with the number of words they were already familiar with, from 0 to 20.  
  • Students lined up in order of the number of words they already knew.
  • We folded the line, so in the class with 24 students, for example, #1 matched up with #24, #2 with #23, #3 with #22, etc.
  • Students asked their partner questions about the words they were not familiar with. 

Five minutes of engaged conversations ensued, and questions that couldn’t be definitively answered by the partner were referred to me:

  • Is “bondage” a good word or a bad word? (There’s always a good number of students who understand that it’s the noun form of “bond,” and team bonding is a good thing….)
  • What’s the difference between “dispirited” and “listless”? (It might look the same on the outside, but “listless” could have any number of causes—physical, mental, or emotional—but “dispirited” is always emotional.)
  • Some giggles over the difficulty of saying “listless” 3 times fast. (It’s okay—we don’t really pronounce the middle “t” when we say it.)
  • When I heard students pronouncing con-TRACT (“decrease in size, number, or range”) as if it were “a signed agreement” (CON-tract), we had a little discussion about English words that change pronunciation when they change part of speech. 

Just a little no-prep activity to get kids engaged with words. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Engagement and Questions

Two things I’ve been thinking about this week are (1) what students experience in school and (2) how great it is when they ask questions about what we know they need to know and about what they actually want to know.

(1) What students experience in school: When I read this blog by an instructional coach who spent 2 days shadowing 2 high school students, I thought, how glad I am I am not a student, having to sit and study 6 to 8 things a day in rapid succession, that someone else has determined is good for me. The author discovered how deadening it is to sit and be a sponge class after class, and listed several takeaways he would immediately integrate into his classes. 

When I reposted the blog, my daughter, in her final year of preparation to be an English teacher, thought it was rather obvious. Hmm. Maybe they’re doing better preparation for English teachers now than 30 years ago. (One would hope!) Maybe it’s because she’s still a student, on the experiencing rather than the inflicting end (the explanation she offered). 

At any rate, it is good for teachers, even teachers who work hard at making their classes active and engaging, to remember how stir-crazy we go after a single day of sitting through 6 hours of a professional development seminar. 

So thinking on this this week, when I handed out a project/presentation prompt that included a review of slide ware do’s and don’t’s, I didn’t assume students would read it on their own and ask questions, and I didn’t lecture through it. I gave them 2 minutes to read through the handout, and 2 minutes to talk to a partner about (1) the most obvious do/don’t and (2) the one they see most frequently broken. Then I took remaining questions.

(2) How good it is when there is both the structure and safety in the classroom that students will ask questions. Two examples this week:

"What is a topic sentence?" If a 10th grader doesn’t know, this is an important question  for him or her to be asking. A student asked me this week because when students turn in an essay rough draft, I ask them (among other things) to underline topic sentences and number them with the corresponding point from their preview. I was able to pull out a sample essay we’d read and point out the topic sentences which (1) preview the paragraph topic, (2) transition from the previous paragraph, and (3) connect to the thesis.

"Is there more than one Johannesburg?" In preparing a slide for a presentation on background information for the novel Cry, the Beloved Country, a student had searched Google Images for “Johannesberg” and gotten a lot of verdant pictures. She knew that didn’t fit well with her own mental images from reading. When I pointed out the spelling glitch, and she changed -berg to -burg, suddenly the images were full of high-rises, highways, and city lights. She let out a sigh of relief—she WAS right. I’m so happy she was puzzled enough and free enough to ask. 

On the other hand, there was a student with an incomplete assignment who I talked to this week. After I took the initiative in talking to her and offering her some pointers, she said, “You mean, I could just email you any time with random questions?” I assured her she could, adding, “That’s one of the reasons we have writing time in class, while I am available for questions.” 

I’m glad some students are asking questions. I’m always looking for ways to invite more, by structure and by safety.

Would I want to be a student in my class, and how can I structure and invite more questions? Food for thought.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

School WithOut Walls (SWOW)

Beautiful live guitar music while the other 11 sophomore girls and I sit around the cabin living room working on the day’s Bible study in leadership lessons (and only one of the girls had even known before that the musician played guitar!). The one student who is quietly the first in the kitchen to start cooking and the last in the kitchen cleaning up. A tiny kitchen bursting at the seams with everyone trying to pitch in. Impromptu song and dance performances from the cup song to High School Musical numbers to every Silly Song with Larry ever produced. Sides of my students I dont see in class! Im sure that I learn as much as the10th graders do during our annual School WithOut Walls (SWOW) week in October. (See here for what I learned on last years SWOW.)

The planned curriculum involves hands-on learning about teamwork and servant leadership, as well as about different parts of God’s world, for each of the 4 high school years. The faculty has worked to design the 4 separate SWOW experiences so that a scope and sequence of learnings will result in graduates who know when and how to effectively lead and follow with a heart of loving service for God and for people. 

Sometimes the good results we’re seeing from this leadership curriculum point to ways our design works that we hadn’t even realized. In my final debriefing at lunch Friday, I asked the girls from my cabin to think about what they learned in 9th grade SWOW and what they learned this year, and how they’ve grown in teamwork and leadership skills since last year.

I learned something from their answers. A recurring theme was that having 2 different groups this year—a cabin group of all girls and a color group of a class cross-section—helped them grow as leaders. (The cabin group cooked, cleaned up, had devotions, built a fire, and negotiated 12 girls and one shower together. The color groups hiked, biked, did teamwork games, enacted a simulation, and went to an aquarium.) One said that last year she just thought about herself as a leader; this year she had to think about the group she was leading, knowing the individuals and figuring out how to help them. Several others said that last year they’d just stood in the background and done what others told them to, but this year the safety of the high functioning cabin group of girls had given them confidence to speak up more in the mixed groups. 

I’d never heard it expressed that way before. I asked them whether something could be changed in 9th grade SWOW to help this happen earlier, or whether it was just the necessary progression and developmentfrom one group to twoalong with natural maturing, and they all thought it was the latter.

I wonder how that bit of knowledge can help me be even more intentional in designing not only SWOW groups and experiences, but the groups back in English class?

I told you back at the beginning that I think I learn as much as the kids from these experiences!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Learning Vocabulary

Minds at work—one of my favorite things. I love seeing them humming away. I love seeing them hit an obstacle, identify it, and adjust. I love seeing the “a-ha!” of epiphany. 

One small but very effective window on minds at work is vocabulary quiz correction slips. I first thought I’d offer the chance to get half-credit because I do want students to learn the words. I keep doing it because not only do students learn the words, but also I discover a few important things: 
  1. How hard some minds are working when they give a wrong answer—just working on a slightly wrong tack 
  2. The misunderstandings behind the mistakes, so I can counter them earlier next year
  3. A graceful way to acknowledge my mistakes and give full credit when a student can persuade me I actually have written a prompt that works equally well with another word
The catch is that it takes a bit more work on the part of both student and teacher than just writing a different matching letter. Students have to explain the misunderstanding as well as why another answer actually fits better. But I really do enjoy seeing when the process works. Here are some of the answers that delighted my English teacher soul this week:

One student had matched hooligan rather than accomplice to the sentence One robber was caught, but his ___ escaped. As she explained her answer, I realized she had understood that both words were people who did bad things—she just hadn’t gotten all the nuances.

Another student had matched vacillate to the same prompt. He explained, “I thought it fit because there was a person besides the robber who alternated in and out to escape.” (Hmm…He actually had studied the definition to get the bit about alternating in and out.) Why did accomplice fit better? “This word fits better because the robber was having a partner, and accomplice means a person who joins with another in carrying out some plan (in this case, robbing).” I think he knows the word now.

Every once in a while, the explanation will be so appropriate that I end up giving full credit, like this one: “I thought indifferent fit He responded to all my questions with a(n) ___ grunt because if someone responded to you with a grunt it sounds like they don’t really care, or they are indifferent to what you are saying.” That actually does work just as well as inarticulate

Sometimes there’s even a glint of humor: “I thought perplexed fit She ___ his petitions with Amens.” Why? “I forgot what perplexed meant. I was perplexed by the meaning of perplexed.” That student has also learned a new word. (In case you were wondering, the answer was punctuated.)

As students realize what kinds of misunderstandings they fall into, they begin to ask good questions before the test, like, “Mrs. Essenburg, what is the difference between inevitable and evade?” I’d never thought of the relationship between those two words before, but upon further discussion we clarified that though people often try to evade the inevitable, or wish they could, it is not possible.

And as we talk about vocabulary, more questions, even ones unrelated to quizzes come up. My favorite this week was “Which is it proper to say, ‘You should be ashamed,’ or ‘You should be shameful’?” You should NOT be shameful, but if you have done something shameful, you should be ashamed. 

Aren’t words wonderful? How do we even learn them all? Aren’t questioning minds wonderful? Isn’t a classroom full of curious, hardworking minds a wonderful place to be?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Celebrating 100

After 100 blogs you’d think an English teacher would have a pretty good handle on audience and purpose. Well, this is my 100th blog post, and I’m still not certain.

I started in July two years ago and have been publishing once a week (with a miss here and there) ever since—except for the summer of 2013 when my oldest daughter got married. Missed those three months entirely. Still, that’s a fair bit of consistency, and I’ve learned a few things.

When I started, it was simply as a way to capture and process my summer professional reading, and since the first book I’d read that summer was about 21st century literacies, I decided I might as well practice one of those literacies while I captured and processed my other reading. Plus it made it easy to share what I’d read with department members. 

At the end of the summer, I decided blogging was a good discipline—both the reflecting and the writing—so I would continue it into the school year. The focus would shift slightly from the reading and musings about how I could apply it, to a forum for reflecting on the applications I’d tried. Thus it would also serve as a form of accountability for trying those ideas I’d said I was going to. Sometimes, indeed, I’ve come to Friday morning in a panic: “I haven’t tried anything new this week, and I’ll have to write about it tomorrow, so I have to do something today!” 

Then, of course, there is the writing itself: Every single week, whether I feel like it or not, whether I have a great inspiration or not, having to sit down and produce something. It’s rather like the spot I put students…and it’s also what I hear most frequently from professional writers about the most difficult part of writing—the daily discipline of just showing up and doing it. 

I’ve had to struggle with all the things I teach my students: Coming up with ideas worth writing about. Intriguing beginnings and satisfying conclusions. Transitions, logic, and support. What a thesis looks like in real writing—does it need to make a personal appearance in a given piece, and if so, with how much fanfare, and where? How does audience and purpose shape my writing—the tension between my need to capture something in print (writing to learn) vs. any reader’s need to be captured and held (writing to communicate).

So what have 100 blogs done for me?
  1. They’ve made me a better teacher—both by holding me accountable to practice and reflect on my practice weekly, and by making me a practitioner of the skills I teach. 
  2. They’ve connected me with colleagues—the ones who I interact with daily, with whom my interaction is deepened either because they read my blog, or because I’m just more articulate when we talk for having already figured out how to express my attempts, struggles, and discoveries in writing.
  3. They’ve given me experience with 21st century literacies. 
Which brings me back to audience and purpose. Mostly it’s for me, because, realistically speaking, I don’t have much of an audience. My counter just clicked over 4,000 in this week. That averages out to about 40 per post. But it sure is fun to think of those 40 people I connect with each week—whether it’s my mom, a faithful core of Facebook friends, or the 50 page views from Russia I got one week this summer…and the 21 from Romania I just saw when I checked my stats before writing this blog!

So here I am, sounding my 100th barbaric yawp over the schoolrooms of the world (to borrow a phrase from American poet Walt Whitman). And maybe my audience is both myself and other teachers out there who love their subject and their students, and maybe my purpose is to say, this is what it feels like for me when I’m working at my subject of reading and writing, working at my profession of teaching, working at my life of keeping up with the possibilities of technology. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, almost always rewarding. If it feels like that for you, too, join me—it’s difficult but not impossible—let’s figure it out together. Because it’s so, so worth it when it works.

Like just nowwhen I finally figured out my audience and purpose!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Better Discussions

Aaaaaaa! Ive been cursed!

It’s the curse of the expert--knowing so much about something that one can’t figure out how to explain it simply. That’s where I was at the beginning of this week with designing a rubric for teaching and assessing small-group discussion. Even with what I’d boiled down into a blog of my biggest take-aways from my summer reading of Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings, I still could get no traction on coming up with a manageable, student-friendly format. 

So I decided to ask the kids. 
  • What happens in a really good small group discussion?
  • What can you do to make that happen?
They discussed it in their assigned groups of 4 or 5 while I walked around eavesdropping and jotted ideas I heard up on the whiteboard. Then I asked each group to contribute one more thing they’d talked about. They had some really good ideas:
  • Good argument
  • On the same page, literally and metaphorically
  • It’s a democracy, with everyone equal
  • Everyone shares opinions
  • Everyone contributes on 1 topic
  • Preparation--do the homework
  • Come with something in mind you want to say
  • Be sure everyone understands
  • That thing where you repeat what someone said
  • Work to address main ideas
  • Ask better questions
Then I turned them to the task of discussing the previous night’s reading of Cry, the Beloved Country. Wow--were the discussions better!

After class, I took the whiteboard notes back to my office and combined them with a couple of old collaboration rubrics and what I’d learned from my reading this summer. Here’s what I came up with for criteria and a description of what “exceptional” (5) looks like for each:
  1. Comes prepared: Reading done and thinking held (journal, post-it notes, annotation, etc.)
  2. Provides useful ideas: Specific, significant, relevant ideas for which student offers/requests explanation, support, examples. 
  3. Listens to others: Nonverbal (eye contact, open posture, stops other activities) and verbal (paraphrases, asks clarifying questions, offers and requests feedback)
  4. Builds positive group dynamics: Checks for understanding, encourages, invites participation, stays on task, and keeps group accountable
  5. Deepens own and group’s understanding: Persistently seeks answers, builds on others’ comments, negotiates meaning, makes connections, always curious
I brought this rubric draft to class, and asked groups to discuss it: Anything you don’t understand? Redundancies? Omissions? Will this help you know in what ways you are contributing to excellent group discussion that deepens your own and others’ learning, and in what ways you can improve? 

Then I again turned them to the task of discussing the previous night’s reading of Cry, the Beloved Country. And the discussions were even better!

I’ll still have to see how the actual use of the rubric for assessment goes next week. (I’ve designed rubrics before that looked great in theory but were nearly impossible to use in practice.) And together the students and I will have to figure out the difference between exceptional, effective, satisfactory, unsatisfactory, and poor (our 5-point rubric) exemplifying of those skills and behaviors. But already the process of collaboratively developing the rubric is increasing learning--which is the whole point of assessment, anyway.

Ta-da! Curse turned into blessing!