Friday, February 21, 2014

The Difference Between a Real Model and a Fake One

Last week I was really happy with how writing poem drafts modeled on poems we read in class was going with 10th graders. Having collected and posted the one out of the 4 they chose to take to a final draft, I’m even happier. Every single poem showed some level of conscious word choice, and most wielded effectively the poetic devices they were supposed to. 

Feedback on the last question of the poetry test (Something else significant that you learned) frequently referred to writing poetry, how it helped students overcame fear, dislike, or ignorance, and realize the power of words. I thought my next assignment was also good, giving students an audience and purpose for transferring their poetry analysis skills to the poetry all around them. 

Here’s what I gave them: 
As a teen who is much more aware than the average of the power and beauty of language all around us, you have a challenge: it involves kids who think poetry is irrelevant and miss half of the artistry of the lyrics they listen to, and adults who think modern songs are mental fluff and no one’s written good poetry in the last 100 years. Your goal is to convince kids (and adults) that poetry is not dead, lyrics can be powerful poetry, and being able to analyze them as such will deepen their understanding and appreciation of the songs they listen to every day, of truth, and of the power of language. 

Your task is to write an article for a Christian teen magazine analyzing the poetry and truth of the lyrics of a song of your choice. Your article needs to analyze one specific song lyric in such a way that convinces the reader that understanding the poetry of that lyric powerfully enhances a significant theme, and therefore, that analyzing other songs in this way could lead to similar insights. Include the lyrics (single spaced with every 5th line numbered, placed at the end of the article, before the works cited) and writer background that will enrich understanding, writer’s meaning (integrated into the article as appropriate, possibly the introduction). Your works cited page will include the lyrics as a primary source (you may cite either song writer or singer, whichever is most significant in to your use of the lyrics) and at least one secondary source.

Prompt: Song lyric critique (lyric choice due 2/7; rough draft due 2/21): Using the poetry analysis skills we practiced, critique the lyrics of a favorite song: what the lyrics say, how they say it, and what part(s) of the Biblical metanarrative the poet is seeing. (500 - 750 words)
    1. Introduction: Explain the writer’s meaning (both story—if there is one—and theme).
    2. Thesis and preview of points: Identify literary/poetic devices the writer uses to communicate the meaning. 
    3. Body: Demonstrate how the literary/poetic devices communicate the meaning. Be sure to quote the lyrics at least 5 times.
    4. Explain what part of the Biblical metanarrative the poet is seeing (even if you are not a Christian, you can persuade Christians that even within their own worldview, they could benefit from engaging these lyrics).

I thought I’d been very clear, but as students prepared to write the essay, I realized from their questions that something was wrong.

One student was puzzling over the terminology. “So, this isn’t an essay?” “Well, it should have an introduction starting with a hook and ending with a thesis. It should have a body supporting the thesis. And it should wrap up with a conclusion.” “Yes, I know. But it’s not an essay?” As I reached for ways to get across what I thought I’d already put so clearly, I reiterated the importance of remembering the audience. He brightened, “So I can write what would communicate to other teenagers?” “Yes!” (What was obscure about that before?) “So it’s not an essay.” And suddenly it dawned on me. This was just another version of the old “Is this a 5-paragraph essay?” “It’s not an academic essay,” I told him, “but there are many, many kinds of essays in the world.”

When another student asked me similar questions, I thought I had the answer ready. “Remember you’re writing for the audience of a Christian teen magazine.” He still stared at me blankly. “Have you ever read a Christian teen magazine?” “No.” “A blog?” “No. I don’t read magazines.” Hmmm. Back to the drawing board on models.

Part of the success of the poetry writing was having professional models. Just telling students their audience is no help at all if they have never written for that audience or read anything written for that audience. If I’m going to make this assignment as effective as the poetry writing assignment, I’ll have to start reading CCM and find some models. Introduce students not just to “classic” reading and writing, but to the reading and writing they will really do in their lives.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Catching On

“First I had cooked, but then I changed it to sauteed because it is more descriptive.” I smile to overhear this comment as I circulate among groups of students sharing the poem draft they wrote last night and one thing they learned about poetry or writing while doing it.

I’m excited because students are writing, are sharing their writing, and are talking about words and word choices. Earlier this week, as I discussed with several other faculty members Michael F. Graves’ The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction, I realized the chapter we were discussing--“Providing Rich and Varied Language Experiences”--was one of the things I was doing with my students in their current poetry unit. Then I wanted to capture exactly what it was that was working so well so I can do it again. I think this is it:
  1. Require (and give time for) students to pay attention to words. I’m helping my students focus better on word choice by asking them every so often to look back over the last several poems we read and record their favorite word, phrase, or image, along with a brief explanation of why they picked it. Initially, it was in class. Later, I sometimes asked them to do it at home.
  2. Design assignments where students use professional writers as models. In the anecdote in the first paragraph, we had read and discussed the poem “Mushrooms” by Margaret Atwood. Then I asked the students to pick a vegetable that they have some connection with--some special feeling, memory, or meaning--and explore that connection by writing a poem similar to Atwood’s that uses at least 2 literal, sensory images, at least 2 figurative images, and ending with what it is that the vegetable symbolizes to them. 
  3. Give repeated, low-stakes opportunities to write and talk about writing. Students do a similar model draft poem 4 times throughout the poetry unit. The first time some were reluctant to share. By the third time a pattern had been established. No one complained or tried to wriggle out of reading their poem. In fact, students were anticipating sharing their poems and gave each other very positive reinforcement. All I did for marking was circulate while they shared, check that each had a draft, and give a completion grade.
  4. Model my own writing process. When I shared my vegetable poem draft, which contrasts canned and fresh asparagus, I told them one of my favorite words in it was slipped. I had first written “tasting like the can it came from,” and then switched it to “the can it slipped from” because while can and came had alliteration, came was really colorless as a verb, but slipped both sounded like and connoted the sliminess I was trying to communicate. Moments later I heard the student explaining why she’d changed cooked to sauteed. A connection? 

I used to talk about paying attention to words, reading as a writer, and practicing writing, but seldom actually require and give time for students to do those things. I used to tell students that I wrote, but seldom showed them my process and choices. Of course it works better to do it than to talk about it. Athletic coaches and musical directors know it. The rest of us are slowly catching on. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Raising Word Awareness

I remember discovering as a high school English teacher that “black humor” did not mean humor peculiar to the African-American community, but making light of serious or morbid subject matter. I was preparing to teach William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying to an 11th grade US Lit class.

Kids aren’t the only ones who need many experiences with words to develop a large vocabulary with deep understanding of the words. It’s easy to quail in the face of the amount of time needed to teach words, but the reality is, anything we do just to raise students’ awareness of words--their power, beauty, fun, depth--can help. 

Here’s one 5-minute, no-prep activity I did this week--with really interesting results! The words the literature book had chosen from the 4 poetry selections we’d just finished were ember, wrath, and betrayal. I wondered whether these were really vocabulary words for 10th graders. So with a bit of trepidation and a low bar, I opened class with the activity: In your table groups (4 students each), come up with one synonym, one antonym, and one original sentence for those 3 words. 

The spirited conversation that immediately broke out in each of my 3 classes allayed all my misgivings. First, there were people confirming definitions of synonym and antonym. I heard one student ask, “Are embers like ashes?” I saw many students spreading out their hands to indicate a bed of coals. I made connections for them to an earlier class outing where we’d roasted marshmallows, and referred them to next year when as juniors they’d be going on a class backpacking trip. 

One student was gesticulating strangely, holding out her fist and then moving it toward her abdomen. I asked what she was doing, and she said, “We were talking about the difference between ember and embryo.” Not a connection I had ever made before. But they’re talking about words!

In each period, some students asked whether they could use 2 words for a synonym--because coal could sound like a black mineral, while glowing coal was a good description of ember. That prompted a conversation about what a great word ember was, since it could only be replaced by 2 words.

One group had settled on coal for a synonym for ember, and was puzzling over an antonym until one member offered diamond. When the others looked perplexed, he said, “It’s what coal becomes after long periods of time under great pressure.” The other group members were impressed with learning science in English, and I got to have a quick conversation with them about how very creative steps from A to B, and from B to C, could end up not making sense when looking at the leap between A and C. I offered flame or ash, depending upon which direction one wanted to go.

We had many other interesting discussions when they could quickly come up with the correct answer to each of the following, but had to work at coming up with an answer to why?

  • Which sounds more natural: “the wrath of the king” or “the wrath of the baby”? (We talked about how wrath is powerful, so if one did speak of the wrath of a baby, it would point out the humorous juxtaposition of how very upset the baby was with how little power he had to do anything about it but scream.)
  • Who is more likely to betray you, a stranger or a friend? (“Because betrayal implies trust,” said one student.)

And for groups that finished a little ahead of the others, I could always challenge them to come up with a sentence that used all 3 words. They looked stumped, and then impressed with my off-the-cuff offerings:
  • The wrath of God reduced Sodom to embers after their betrayal of his expectations.
  • My wrath at my friend’s betrayal made me want to reduce him to embers.

True confessions: I came up with this activity on the spur of the moment. It was Thursday morning. Wednesday night I’d read chapter 2 of The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction by Michael F. Graves in preparation for a discussion of it Thursday after school with 8 other staff members. Since I was leading, and had told everyone the week before, after the discussion of chapter 1, that we’d start with reporting on how we’d used something we’d discussed during the intervening week, I was feeling a bit of pressure. 

Two morals to this story: teachers need accountability and students need to work with words. So join (or start) a book discussion and have your students talk about words. Even if it’s only for 5 minutes. You’ll be amazed at how energizing both activities are.

And who doesn’t need a little energy in February?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Importance of Purpose

What is the practical, everyday use of learning things like the past and present English subjunctive? This is the question Midori, a Japanese university student, asks in Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood. Since she’s never gotten an answer that satisfied her, she’s ignored abstract knowledge--like chemical symbols, differential calculus, and the subjunctive case--as being totally useless. Finally she gets an answer that makes sense to her from the novel’s protagonist, another university student, and she’s convinced her entire life might have turned out differently if she had just gotten that answer sooner. The answer? “It may not serve any concrete purpose, but it does give you some kind of training to help you grasp things in general more systematically.”

We all work more effectively when we feel there is a purpose to what we are doing--and that includes students learning. (Not to mention me teaching!)

I try to make sure my students understand the importance of what we are studying--content or skill. They probably need to hear more than one reason, more than one time, with opportunity to make the connection for themselves.

First, I have to make sure I’m convinced of several reasons why the current study is important--not just that I love it. Then I have to be able to articulate those reasons. One way I’m doing that this year is by posting a unit summary on the class Moodle. 

“Weightlifting with Language” is the title of our recently completed 10th grade grammar unit because, like weightlifting, grammar is something a very few people do for the joy of the thing itself, and a lot of people do because it helps them do something else better. The unit summary appears below:

How does knowing grammar help me serve God and others by...
  1. Talking about what makes good writing?
  2. Learning other languages
  3. Appreciating the order and diversity of creation?
This unit will have been successful if as you learn about parts of speech, parts of a sentence, phrases, and clauses, you also come to understand some things about the following:
  1. Knowing grammar helps me improve my own and others' writing because it gives me the vocabulary to identify characteristics of good writing and patterns of appropriate conventions.
  2. Knowing grammar helps us learn other languages, giving me opportunities to restore shalom by increasing understanding of, collaboration with, and responsibility for the neighbors I am to love, regarding both salvation and justice.
  3. God created humans with the ability to develop and learn languages--all of which can be described by grammar, both in the ways languages are similar and in the ways they are different.

I started class with mini-lessons addressing one of the 3 unit questions. For question #1, the vocabulary of grammar is like the vocabulary of basketball that enables a coach, in a 60-second timeout, to tell her team how to break the full-court. Similarly, it’s much easier for us to talk about active voice verbs, pronoun-antecedent agreement, or grammatical parallelism in a series of phrases if we share that language. Question #2 is relevant being at an international school in Japan, many of my students are bi- and trilingual, all but those who’ve grown up ambilingual have struggled with a new language, and when I ask how many expect to learn at least one more language in their lives, over half raise their hands. Question #3 is an extra--they don’t have to find it fascinating, but I’m sure going to try to hook them. 

Students ended each class period writing a reflection on 4 questions, including “What is an answer to one of the 3 unit questions you thought about today?” 

At the end of the unit they wrote a reflection on the following prompt: What did you learn about grammar? What did you learn about helping yourself and/or others learn? Which of the 3 unit questions did you find most interesting and why?

I believe in my reasons for teaching a dedicated grammar unit even though the practice has fallen out of favor these days. I do want to learn more about the research--maybe this summer. But reading over my students’ reflections, I think most of them believe my reasons, too. 

Now to keep that belief from withering. The trick is to keep following up on the learning and connections that have happened. As part of our introduction to poetry this week, we read an interview with American poet Donald Hall. He specifically references grammar as he revises: “I work on a variety of sentence structures, using all types. Probably I prefer the compound sentence, but I want to mix it up with the the complex and the simple. With compound sentences, often I begin with the dependent clause, in order to end with the force of a verb. But you don’t want to do it twice in a row. Or anything twice in a row.”