Friday, March 28, 2014

All That Drama

It’s a good time of year. Hovering around the edges of student groups reading the drama A Doll’s House by the 19th century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, I’m usually paying attention to the discussion, not the reading. 

We read the first act together in class, introducing the characters, the situation, how to infer character and motivation from words and actions, how to help the audience understand by expression. I do a lot of modeling of expressive reading and the thinking leading me to that interpretation. 

The second act students read together in their table groups. They stop at designated spots to summarize, question, predict, connect. Listening in on these conversations is bittersweet--they’re asking the right questions, helping each other find answers, having their own they don’t even need me any more. 

But this time I found myself having my own questions and epiphanies. And it wasnt from listening in on the conversation about the reading, but from listening in on the reading itself. 

There are, of course, the students whose expression while reading shows a nuanced understanding of the character and situation. Some are expected, and some are surprises. One is a student whose writing seems to betray a significant struggle with English; now he’s shining! Another is student who is usually engages at a minimum. She’s not the concrete thinker I’d presumed--how can I call out that understanding in other ways? 

There is the student who engages vigorously in discussion, and reads 2 or 3 lines of dialogue beautifully, but when the speech gets longer, he stumbles, slows down, looses expression and his place. Is reading always this difficult for him? Another student has high reading comprehension and expressive writing, but will not read with more than a monotone. What’s going on there? 

One reader stumbles over the word “veto.” When I intervene, no one in the group knows what it means. They listen with interest, ask a few questions, learn a new word, and understand better what’s going on in the story (as well as in tomorrow’s news). How can I get students to identify and figure out the words they don’t know?

These questions and epiphanies would be a lot more useful earlier. There’s something about reading out loud the natural English, in short, conversational snatches, but embedded in the larger meaning of the story that is such a window into students’ comprehension and thinking processes. Thematically, A Doll’s House really fits well at this point in the year, but I wonder if there’s a short drama that would fit in a 1st semester unit. 

What work would fit? What would I drop? And are these insights about reading skills worth it? Something to ponder this summer...

Friday, March 14, 2014

Growing My Vocabulary Angel

“Do you know what it means to splice something?”

I was circulating among the 10th graders as they edited their papers, answering questions and checking what online punctuation or grammar exercise they had chosen to do to help them target a frequent error (I blogged about this plan last week). 

Comma splices, one student had written down. The little vocabulary angel in the back of my brain--who has grown much bigger and stronger throughout the 7 weeks of meeting with 8 colleagues to discuss The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction by Michael F. Graves--gave me a nudge. So I asked the question.

The student made a chopping motion with her hand. Oh, dear. Not slice but splice. I collected the attention of the entire class for a brief vocabulary-cum-grammar lesson. The curious thing is, I re-enacted this identical scene in each of my 3 class periods. I suppose since all film went digital, you’d have to read a book about sailors or escaping prisoners to come across that word. But who’d have thought 10th graders didn’t know splice?

I was grateful for that nudge from my vocabulary angel, and grateful for the opportunity to have read and discussed The Vocabulary Book with colleagues. This sort of book discussion is the most powerful form of professional development I have experienced. The weekly discussion over a period of almost two months, planning at the end of each meeting how we might apply something in the coming week, and reporting at the beginning of each meeting how we applied something in the past week, provides the scaffolding of external accountability I need while I’m growing a new skill or habit. 

For the first couple of meetings, I had to quick, on the day of the discussion, be sure I did something in class that I could talk about. By the last several meetings, I had so many things I could have talked about that I had to choose which ones to use so I didn’t monopolize the entire time. 

I’d encourage anyone to start a similar discussion. Find a good professional development book. (I’ve done this with Cris Tovani’s books on teaching reading strategies, I Read It, but I Don’t Get It and Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?, Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding by Nancy Frey, et al, An Essential Guide to Public Speaking: Serving your Audience with Faith, Skill, and Virtue, by Quentin Schultze, and Teaching Matters Most: A School Leader’s Guide to Improving Classroom Instruction by McCann, et al.) Talk it up with some colleagues. Order the books. Set a time and place. Have food. Then read and talk and try things and have fun learning and growing together.

My biggest takeaway from this discussion, which ended this week?A robust vocabulary program is so much more than just a weekly list of words to learn. A robust vocabulary program has 4 parts:

  1. Rich and varied language experiences (reading, writing, listening, discussing)
  2. Individual word learning (of course)
  3. Word-learning strategies (using context clues, word parts, and reference tools; developing a strategy for dealing with unknown words; and adopting a personal approach to building vocabulary)
  4. Fostering word consciousness

Most noticeably right now, my own word consciousness has been fostered, making me able to foster my students’ more effectively. For instance, as I read the edited papers I collected on Wednesday, I came across these 2 lines from students who are quite fluent, but whose first language is not English:

  • seen in this song evidently. It had never occurred to me that while evident means clear, evidently does not mean clearly. Adding the -ly makes it almost ironic.
  • People’s tendency to commit such felonies spoils the initially perfect world God had madeWhile sin, crime, and felony are synonyms of a sort, the progression moves from broad to specific, and while crime could go either way (Shoplifting is a crime, and so is what they charge for things these days), felony cannot. 

What a huge word-learning task our students have! I need every available tool for helping them. Never forgetting that one of those tools is humor.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Learning about Teaching about Writing

(With apologies for having just finished The Luminaries, in which each chapter starts with one of those old fashioned summaries, and for the last several chapters, the summary is nearly as long as the chapter. Anyway, after 832 pages of that, it was just sort of coming out my pores.)
In which I use a model paper for revising, and end up with good news. 

Before I handed back first drafts on Tuesday, I wanted to prepare students to receive and act on the feedback I had written on their papers. In particular, I wanted to show students a strong thesis statement and body paragraphs that build on each other in a logical progression as opposed to being a collection of points that could be shuffled into any order without seriously affecting the paper. 

So I pulled out a copy of an exemplary student essay on a similar prompt from a  number of years previous. After I’d made copies, I read the model essay over again and was disconcerted to realize it was not quite as good as I’d thought several years ago. 

To salvage this lesson, I asked the students read the essay, locate the thesis and topic sentences, and then identify in their small groups 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses of the essay. Their discussions were articulate and insightful--praising the word choice, use of support, and the punchy closing quotation, and wondering about the hook, placement of the thesis, and the effectiveness of starting a paragraph with a quotation. 

My happiest epiphany, though, was that while fewer of our students might have the natural advantages of native English speakers, I am doing a better job of teaching writing than I was 7 years ago.

In which I take one more step on the treasure hunt for ways to hold students accountable for learning grammar and conventions to use in their writing rather than just making the corrections indicated by my red (actually green) pen. All this without creating a monster of work and record keeping for myself, and preserving a sense of humor. 

Before handing in the revised draft Friday, I had students pull out and review their editing corrections from past papers. That was the new piece. Then we went on to things we’ve done before--giving them time to practice the proofreading skill of placing a straightedge on their paper to focus their line-by-line reading. 

I had good conversations with students while they were doing this--wondering whether an opening sentence was too general, looking for ways to reduce occurrences of an overused word. And as I edited those papers Friday and Saturday, I was pleased with the quality of proofreading they’d done. 

I think I’ll add one more step on Monday when I return my edits (just the first 10 errors I find). The usual assignment is for students to explain why each of the 10 edits were marked, and to illustrate the explanation with the before and after version of the sentence from their paper. New step: Students will indicate which of the corrections they feel they need more practice on, and find, record, and complete an online exercise, quiz, or game to help them.

And--so exciting--I get to wear my editing t-shirt Monday:
     Let’s eat Grandma.
     Let’s eat, Grandma.
     Commas save lives.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Community with the Inanimate

Had some rocks in for coffee or babysat a brood of snowflakes recently?

Yesterday morning our headmaster opened our professional development day reading an excerpt from Parker Palmer’s book To Know As We Are Known. He mentioned education bringing scholars into community--with the teacher, with each other, and also with the subject matter--not just literature and history, but even the inanimate universe like rocks and math equations. Suddenly I thought of a poem I’d written more than two decades ago for one of my daughters on her second birthday:

A rock is a rock is a rock
Is heavy, hard, and old.
It can hold your foot to cross a rill,
Or skip on the pool below the mill, 
Or patiently bear an ancient hill,
For from the time the stars were born
Until they all burn out
All the rocks will sing
In their rocky way
Their heavy, hard, and rocky hymn.

Water is water is water
Is fluid, formless, wet.
It can gather deep in a summer pool,
Or fill your cup, all fresh and cool,
Or glint on a spider web like a jewel,
For from the time the stars were born
Until they all burn out
All water will sing
In its watery way
Its fluid, formless, watery hymn.

A flower is a flower is a flower
Is living, leafy, bright.
It can cheer the world with a vivid hue,
Or scent the day on the rising dew,
Or make a fairy crown for you,
For from the time the stars were born
Until they all burn out
All flowers will sing
In their flowery way
Their living, leafy, flowery hymn.

Caitlin is Caitlin is Caitlin
Is active, young, and strong.
You can pick up your toys (or make a start),
Or share your cake (at least a part),
Or mind your mom with a happy heart,
For from the time the stars were born
Until they all burn out
You were made to sing 
In your Caitliny way
Your active, young, Caitliny hymn.

Doing my bit for community, I dug up the poem, sent it to the headmaster, and then read it to my social studies and English department colleagues in the closing meeting of the day. And now I share it with you.

May we all find the pleasure of doing what we were created to do, and feeling the pleasure of the Creator as we do it, in community with all the rest of creation.