Friday, January 24, 2014

Reflecting. Again.

If it’s a good idea once, it’s probably a good idea again. Especially if it is an instructional strategy. Especially if it fosters self-awareness, knowledge of skills, reflection on what practices worked best, and student-generated questions about how to do it better. 

Last time 10th graders handed in an essay I asked them to self-assess the final draft and to reflect on their writing process (see this blog about the first time). I was mildly shocked at the disparity between most students’ assessment of their writing and my assessment of it, and also at many students’ lack of metacognitive awareness of their writing process. And I barely remembered, the day before they were going to hand in their next essay, that it would be a good idea to follow-up with another self-assessment and reflection. 

I’m really glad I did remember, because I saw marked improvement in both categories--and I can target with greater accuracy those few students who really either don’t know or don’t care. Here are some of the things students said they learned about the various stages of the writing process.

  • I don’t have to worry about format or required things in the beginning. I have to just get my thoughts down, then fix it later.
  • I learned that prewriting is the stage where you kind of brainstorm, to see if you’re on the right track.
  • Bullet form notes are helpful.
  • Outlining really does help.
  • I need to have the prompt written out in front of me.
  • I learned that even when it’s hard to get thoughts out onto the page, it’s important to do so because later I can go back and have something to work on.
  • If you try to be perfect on the draft, nothing will happen.
  • If you slack off on your rough draft, it is very hard to write a good essay. 
  • The more I do in the rough draft, the easier it is later on and I get more help.
  • You can make mistakes; write what you want to say! Take care of it later during revising!
  • Write freely. Keep on point. Be simple.
  • It seems like what you want to write at the time, but you look back on it and see that is was such a “rough” draft.
  • Before fixing grammar mistakes, it is better to fix ideas and content first.
  • That other people’s feedback can really make a difference on the paper, if you read and consider them.
  • I have to revise more than just what is written.
  • You have to change other parts in order to fit one part smoothly.
  • Changing a sentence to make it active is more interesting.
  • It makes a big difference in how you feel about the essay. After a few changes were made I felt a little more confident.
  • To understand the mistakes of what I have done is more important than just rewriting what the teacher said.
  • I have to edit everything carefully. I can’t just do the easy ones to fix and skip the hard ones.
  • That there’s almost always something to fix, and it helps you learn for next time.
  • I learned to read the whole essay over again.
  • When I edit the paper, I should focus more on it because many of the things were done in the previous essay as well.
  • Making things concise is the key in writing a good essay (making it simple).
And here are some of the questions they asked:
  • How can I make my writing have good logical order? I always have trouble ordering things in a logical way even in math class.
  • What should be done to the conclusion to get readers more involved in this issue?
  • Looking over my essay, I noticed for the first time that I use vague phrasings such as “It is...” and so on. Does that stand out in my writing?
  • How can I make a simple sentence to stronger sentence not just using strong, rich vocabulary?
  • It usually takes a lot of time for me to write the 1st sentence of an essay. What are the best ways to “start” writing?
  • How can I connect the quotes before and after the sentence?
  • How can I improve my thesis to make it more compact and smooth?
  • I write like I talk. How can I fix this?

They are getting better at articulating what the writing process is, how it works for them, and what they want to know. I know that doesn’t necessarily mean they believe it and do it. But they certainly have a better chance of believing and doing it if they can articulate it than if they cant. After all, reflection is the key to transfer, and it’s not just my papers I’m wanting them to use the writing process on, but everything they will ever write in the rest of their lives. 

It’s what writers do.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Weight of a Word

Did you ever completely misinterpret a situation, just from the misunderstanding of one word?

Background knowledge deeply affects reading comprehension, a fact I received a humorous reminder of this week. 

My students are required to do 300 pages of reading outside of class per semester. When they finish, they make an appointment with me for a “book talk”--a 10-minute discussion about the book. This week I started one discussion with the usual “Why did you pick this book?” The student replied that she likes fantasy, and from the cover illustration, the blurb on the back, and the librarian’s brief ad for the book in class, she had thought the book was a fantasy, but she was disappointed when she discovered it wasn’t. Meanwhile I was thinking, “I heard the librarian’s ad, and I was perfectly clear that this was a work of historical fiction set in Europe in the early Renaissance. How could she have thought the book was a fantasy?” 

As we continued, I asked her about the protagonist--was he a dynamic character who changed over the course of the book, or was he a static character who pretty much stayed the same? In her answer, she began to tell me about the difficulties he faced and overcame related to his being a dwarf. As she said the word “dwarf,” she hesitated, her voice rose in query, and her forehead furrowed. 

Suddenly, epiphany. I asked, “Did you know that ‘dwarfism’ is a medical condition that makes people abnormally short?” Poor child: she’d read “dwarf” on the back of the book, thought Middle Earth and Narnia, and spent the first half of the novel, until she finally gave up, waiting for the elves and the magic to show up! 

How can I help my students with the background knowledge they need for better reading comprehension? Here are a few ways:

  1. Create safety where students can share questions when they are confused.
  2. Model admitting when I don’t know things and looking them up.
  3. Be aware that English words can have many different meanings or connotations, depending on context, and explicitly teach them whenever the realization strikes.
  4. Share background knowledge when I anticipate misunderstandings (unfortunately, this mostly comes from experience).
  5. Remember (and remind students!) that while reading depends on background knowledge, it also grows background knowledge. 

Most of all, I read, encourage my students to read, and talk with my colleagues about good books--sharing the joy, fueling the virtuous circle.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Four Minutes

What can you do in four minutes? In four minutes at the beginning of each school day we can orient ourselves as a classroom community to God--to receive all the day’s learning opportunities and challenges with thanksgiving, in his strength, for his glory. The perennial question is how to keep the opening prayer from devolving into a rote “Thank-you-for-this-day-please-help-us-glorify-you-in-it” before jumping into the “real” business of the day.

I’ve found it effective to center our brief daily class devotions on something related to the themes, content, or skills we are working on in class. That not only gives both focus and variety (no more opening the Bible to pick a verse blindly, or wondering if I haven’t already read this verse this year), but also keeps the Biblical perspective permeating the unit rather than restricted to the initial lecture. In this way it models the reintegration of the divide we’ve created between God’s Word and world. 

Theme-related: This is easiest in a literature unit. Any theme that is such a universal human concern that great literature has been written to grapple with it, certainly God has something to say about that theme. And certainly seeing the world as a God-created, sin-shattered, God-redeemed place and our roles in it as his worshipers, his stewards, and his hands and feet in the broken places has some affect on how we grapple with that theme. Here are some of the ways I’ve come up with theme related devotions in World Literature (English 10):
  • Bible stories/passages related to the theme: The parable of the Good Samaritan for “Who is my neighbor?” or 1 Corinthians 13 for “What is love?”
  • Collected pieces related to the theme: Just this week I used a YouTube video a friend had posted on FaceBook to illustrate the power for good that creativity with words can have. I also use sources like the end of “The Weight of Glory” by C.S. Lewis for implications of people being made in the image of God on how we treat our neighbor; anecdotes from John Ortberg books about having a mission or making a difference; a news story that illustrates people’s inhumanity to each other or the possibility of grace when a person risks stepping out of the bystander role to love a neighbor.
  • Devotional by the author we are reading. The most serendipitous discovery of my life along these lines was the devotional Instrument of Thy Peace by Alan Paton, whose novel Cry, the Beloved Country we study. I edit and excerpt as I read, but in the devotions, Paton expounds on many of the themes we talk about as we read the novel, and it becomes clear that the teacher is not making applications that had never crossed the author’s mind!
  • My own creation: Really just an expansion of the first one--finding a number of Bible stories and passages and drawing out the themes. Yes, this is the most work, but also the most fun. For my introductory unit, I actually wrote up a model biblical perspective essay expanding the unit’s enduring understanding “Because people are made in the image of God, we are creative, communicative truth-seekers.” I give students copies, and then read and discuss a paragraph per day. Less intensive, right now I have notes I’m talking through for our grammar unit devotions about a creation/fall/redemption/restoration perspective of language. They include the juxtaposition of the story of Babel and the story of Pentecost and the creative range God gave Adam in naming the animals.

Content-related: Reading Psalms during poetry (Did you know that 40% of the Old Testament is poetry? And understanding general poetic devices as well as specific traits of Hebrew poetry can deepen our reading of that poetry?); retelling the story Esther when studying the functions of irony.

Skill-related: One of my favorites here is reading the first chapter of Quentin Schultze’s An Essential Guide to Public Speaking: Serving Your Audience with Faith, Skill, and Virtue, a couple of paragraphs per day, during a unit on speech.

I used to shy away from this, thinking it wasn’t fair if my first period class got more biblical perspective than my other periods. Then I realized that was crazy--why starve one cat because I can't feed them all? Of course I work as much biblical perspective as possible into my other periods. But why not connect it all up even better for first period?

If you are a first period teacher in a Christian school, and you have a couple of extra minutes added to first period in which to open with devotions, how do you or could you use that time to connect kids’ faith with what they are about to learn?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

20,000 Pages & 70 Books

Thats how much I read last year.

Keeping a log of my reading was the New Year’s resolution I kept in 2013. At minimum, I recorded the date finished, title, author, number of pages, and why I read it. Actually, I didn’t even succeed at all that. A number of dates have a question mark for the day because I didn’t get around to typing it up until several days later...or when I finished my next one as well. 

One entry has question marks for the entire date--I just know that I finished The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto sometime between 1/27 when I finished The Blood of the Lamb and 2/8 when I finished Between Shades of Gray. Sometimes I forgot an author or number of pages--but I can always go back and get those off of (as I had to do for a couple of books before I could complete my tally earlier this week). 

Just now, looking at The Lake, I realized I’d forgotten to record why I read it--because years ago a colleague Kaye Aoki recommended this author to me more than once when I’d complain about not being able to get into Japanese literature, and when the author came up as a high school Sakura book (20 or so books published within the last 2 years, selected each year by international school librarians in Japan, for students to vote on their favorite each spring) it seemed like a message that I should read it. 

Many of the books I read were Sakura books. My 10th grade English students are required to read 300 pages per semester outside of class, and to schedule a 10-minute talk about their reading. Sakura books are a popular choice for them--so I read some so I can recommend them, and some because students have given them such rave reviews. 

A recommendation from someone I know is the most common reason I picked up a book. And my most frequent recommender in 2013 was my daughter who is studying for a degree in English education--some of her recommendations coming from a YA lit class, some from other lit classes, a sprinkling from a variety of other classes, and a rash from authors from her college’s biennial Festival of Faith and Writing which she helped run in 2012. 

Some of the books I read were new books by favorite authors (Ann Lamott, Barbara Kingsolver, Khaled Hosseini, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), classics or popular books people talk about but I’d never actually read (Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Outliers), or books recommended on English teacher blogs (Atonement and Into Thin Air). 

As a world lit teacher, I’m always wanting more familiarity with internationally known prize winners and with writers from non US/British countries. This year I bagged 2 Nobels (Mo Yan, Sigrid Undset), 2 Pulitzers (Olive Kitteridge, The Orphan Master’s Son), and 2 Man Bookers (Bringing up the Bodies and The Finkler Question--the one book in all this list that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone for any reason). Three were authors from a new country: Pakistan. A certain stretch were middle school level books by Latin American authors in order to recommend a new 7th grade class novel. 

I read a wide variety of genres--not only novels, but also nonfiction (Quiet, King Leopold’s Ghost, The Ghost Map), professional (Readicide, How Children Succeed, Crucial Conversations), short stories (Flannery O’Connor and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), and poetry (Lovely, Raspberry). 

And I experienced an entirely new genre--the graphic novel. January 1 I read Flight which I’d received from my daughter and her fiance for Christmas. During the summer I read Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, which my other daughter recommended from a college YA lit course she took. (And which I’ve since recommended to several students and faculty.) So when I saw Yang had another book coming out (Saints & Boxers--the first volume about the Boxer rebellion from the perspective of a Christian convert and the second from the perspective of a Boxer), I requested the library to get it. I hope it’s there when we get back from vacation! 

Sometimes I didn’t write up any more than those bare bones. Sometimes I wrote up to a page of responses and quotes (The Mirage wins the prize for the longest response). Sometimes the response either started or ended as an email to a friend. Several I sent to students when I heard they were interested in or had read the book (The Fault in Our Stars).

What have I learned? The importance of a learning community talking about books--I read most of my books due to recommendations, and I often pass the recommendation on. I’d like to have students reflect on how they choose books. It was fun to do this little analysis. I’m pleased with my variety--and want to make sure I’m intentional about choosing a poet this year (barely squeaked in with one last year). 

And it’s really cool to be able to say that I read 20,000 pages and 70 books last year!