Friday, May 30, 2014

Making It Real

Are you in your relationship because you love him or you like the fact that he is your “boyfriend” and that being in love is comforting and gives you a feeling of security and safety?...By reading [A Doll’s House] I realized it’s really important that your future husband likes you for who you are and doesn’t try to change you. Even though it’s tempting to try to change for being in love, DON’T DO IT! (10th grade student)
I just finished reading my favorite set of papers. (That’s the paper to have as the last one of the year!) They are full of idiosyncratic voice, deep insight into literature, sophisticated synthesis, practical application, and relevant biblical integration. I hope the students all keep them and re-read them in 5 - 10 years--which is actually the target audience. And nobody asked, “Why do we have to do this? The secret is having a good prompt, and then teaching to it. 

The prompt: “Write a letter from your current ‘reasonable’ self to your future ‘in love’ self, about the differences between infatutation or ‘being in love’ and love. Be sure to refer to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the excerpt from The Female Brain, A Doll’s House, and biblical principles. Also be sure to give yourself some specific ideas about how to make a good decision, since that won’t be your strong point in such a state.” 

Here are excerpts from student responses:

  • Watch him, my dear, and see how he acts around his family and around his friends. Infatuation will only take someone so far because they don’t truly understand the other person, just like Nora and Helmer (A Doll’s House)....Is it just oxytocin running around everywhere causing mayhem like Robin (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or is it true love like the words spoken in the Song of Solomon?
  • You are not thinking of how you can share your true feelings with her more effectively, but furtively looking for opportunities to move your relationship with her to the next level, treating the relationship something like an online game you used to play when you were in high school. You do not love her, but it is the feeling itself that you love.
  • God intended for us to have love, but we see later on how it was abused. Samson thought that he loved Delilah, and he told her about his strength that ultimately ended his life because she was just using him. He didn’t see if she would wait around, but he fell into the trap of love and gave in. Jesus talks about marriage and he has some great advice He talks about how you should take care of the other person as you would take care of yourself for you are one flesh. God gave us this beautiful thing of love, and you should use it instead of abuse it.
  • Take a step back and look at everything from the perspective of someone who is not in love with him. Is he a good person? Does he have strong faith? Do you bring out the best in each other? Would he be a good father? If the answers to these questions are yes, then that is great and you are in the right direction. If the answers had some no’s and you rationalized them, then you are in dangerous territory. Rationalizing his mistakes can be a slippery slope because then you can start rationalizing him heating or hitting you and neither are acceptable. If he does it once, he will do it again.
  • A Doll’s House showed a marriage with pretty much the exact opposite [from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7] going on. Helmer (the man) didn’t always trust Nora (his wife)....Helmer boasted and sang about his fair bird or some animal (who was Nora)....Helmer was clearly finding self-satisfaction in his wife Nora. He was happy with how the relationship was going, but not because of Nora but because he was in love with Nora. When he found out that he was in debt to Krogstad, he was definitely not the most patient person. He immediately went on to beat his wife and shout at her. He went on to criticize her father and say what a bad person she was. During hard times, couples must be able to support each other. To persevere through the trials that they come across. 
When something works this well, I want to figure out what it is so I can recreate it. Here’s what I think:
  1. I start with a significant theme: Finding love.
  2. I create an essential question that will guide our reading: What is the difference between infatuation and love?
  3. I find nonfiction that grounds the theme in the modern world. In this case, the excerpt from The Female Brain about the chemical component of infatuation. (It takes Robin’s love flower out of the realm of magic and makes it into a symbol of a scientifically documented brain state.)
  4. This gives us the background for our purpose for reading one or more pieces of fiction. (In this case, A Doll’s House and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)
  5. While we are reading, we are continually thinking how what we are reading is helping us answer the question. 
  6. Because I believe that in a world that is made and sustained by God, nothing happens that God does not care about, there are always biblical principles that touch anything that goes on in that world. In this case, love. The two biblical principles I taught this unit were as follows: 
    1. Romantic love is a good gift from God when used according to directions (Gen. 2.18-25, Song of Solomon, John 2.1-2, Eph. 5.25-32) but devastating when used otherwise (Shechem and Dinah, Gen. 34; Samson & wife, Judges 12; Samson & Delilah, Judges 16; Amnon & Tamar, 2 Sam. 13). 
    2. The love God intends for a man and woman is a lifetime determination of the will to seek the good of the other person (Gen. 2.20-25, Matt. 19.3-12 [esp. The Message], Mal. 2.13-16, Eph. 5.22-33, I Cor. 13). Are you becoming the type of person capable of this type of determination?
In these closing weeks of the year, I chose to do the assessment as a timed, in-class essay for a couple of reasons. I wanted to see what students could do after 9 months of practice, just on their own in a single draft. And I knew that neither I nor the kids had the stamina left for a thoroughly processed paper. So I gave it a fun twist by telling the students they could prepare content before hand (they knew the basic idea of the question), but they couldn’t write the paper ahead of time because there would be a specialized audience and purpose given at the time of writing. I also limited my grading time by limiting the number of traits and criteria from our middle/high school common writing rubric which I assessed. (Only 3 of the 6 traits: Ideas/content, voice, and conventions; and only 1 of the criteria for ideas/content--addressing the prompt.)

In addition to reading wonderful analysis, voice, synthesis, application, I uncovered a couple of misunderstandings about conventions that I’ll want to address earlier next year. One of the most troubling was the handful of students who as soon as they are released from the “essay” form also abandon the paragraph. For pages. Both fluent and less fluent writers did this. There is also a small number of students who can’t NOT write an essay. Then there’s the pronoun mindfulness this context highlights: both the student who uses “they” when he is clearly talking about an unknown woman in his future, and the student who carefully inserts “he/she” when she is clearly talking about an unknown man in her future.

Celebrating what’s been learned this year, and already thinking about how to do it better next year.

Friday, May 23, 2014

For the Love of Math and Science

I love it that my colleagues from all disciplines offer our students an environment that values reading. We talk about good books we’ve read, they take my recommendations, and they recommend books to me and to their students. Earlier this year I read David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell on the recommendation of a math colleague and The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany by Martin Goldsmith on the recommendation of a music teacher. This week I talked to a 10th grader who enjoyed The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios which had been recommended to him by his science teacher. 

It’s been many years since I’ve heard a non-English teacher become defensive about his or her own writing, or isolating those particularly gifted in clear written communication with comments like “grammar Nazi.” This is a blessing for our students: Our community values words; they are what all learners--adults as well as children--do. We honor people who do them well. If you don’t do them well yet, it’s okay, hang in there, keep working at it, it’ll be worth it. 

What if the rest of us provided as rich and supportive a learning environment for the types of thinking our math and science colleagues are trying to help students develop? Yes, math anxiety exists. No, not all of us had the stomach to revel in dissecting. Our self-deprecatory comments are intended as humor to break the ice and set ourselves and others at ease. 

But are we helping our students forward when we model our fear and discomfort rather than our curiosity and problem-solving skills? When our recognition for the accomplishments of those particularly gifted in that field doesn’t stop with the pure “wow” a musician or an athlete would elicit, but trickles off into a “takes-all-kinds” shrug and eye-roll? 

Dear math and science colleagues: I admire your patience. I admire your intelligence. I admire the tenacity with which you share your gifts and your joy in the ways in which you see God’s world. May our students grow into confident thinkers, learners, and communicators as we all provide, together, the models and encouragement for them to do so.

P.S. Many kinds of math and science humor are still allowed. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Summer Reading: Like Ground Hog Day, but Better!

I did not always love teaching. I think the turning point came when I realized that it wasn’t about me having taught something, but about the kids having learned it. And if they weren’t learning, I had no control over anything but over how I was teaching. But I had an awful lot of control over that. And there were a multitude of resources to help. 

Summer is my time to access those resources, and I’ve already got my summer reading ordered and stacked in a corner of my office. Last week I wrote about some of the books on reading (“Fueling Readers”--I already sneak-read one of them). Today I’ll share the rest of the topics I want to explore.

1. Teaching reading across the disciplines in secondary:
2. Writing to learn and learning to write both in English class and across the disciplines:
  • Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing (2008) by Penny Kittle. Her book on reading is also on my list. I’ve read a bit of Gallagher, have found writing with the kids meaningful for both of us, and what’s not to love about that subtitle?
  • Writing to Learn Across the Curriculum (2010) by Elizabeth Shellard. This and the next book are the background reading. Unlike with reading strategies or with writing in English class, I haven’t done any previous professional reading in writing across the curriculum. It just makes a kind of gut-level sense that people in all professions write, writing is a way of learning as well as demonstrating learning, and every subject should have the opportunity and responsibility of inducting students into its uses of writing. 
  • Writing Across the Curriculum to Increase Student Learning in Middle and High School (2004) by Educational Research Service
  • Teaching Grammar in Context (1996) by Constance Weaver. I’m wanting to do some research on teaching grammar, and Weaver seems to be the mother of teaching it in context, which is about the only thing anyone talks/writes about in the US any more. So I think this is one place to start. Though I tend to think this has something do to with Americans not really taking additional language learning seriously, so I think there’s also a place for teaching grammar as grammar--just not years and years of it for its own sake.
  • Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer's Workshop (2005), Everyday Editing (2007), and 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know (2011), all by Jeff Anderson. I’ve been experimenting this year with ways to make editing a significant learning exercise that actually sticks and is cumulative. With mixed success. I’ve seen this author recommended and thought I’d get a fresh voice.
3. Teaching thinking:
4. And just plain teaching--with understanding of the learner and of the purpose of learning:
  • Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids (2006) by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe. I’ve mentioned a growing realization of the need to read something on differentiated instruction (I keep running up against necessity). I have had this on my bookshelf for a while, and these are big names in the field, so I think this is the summer to do it.
  • Reading, Writing, and Rising Up: Teaching About Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word (2000) by Linda Christiansen. I’ve read her Teaching for Joy and Justice from the language arts field and her husband’s equivalent Rethinking Globalization from the social studies field, and while they are not Christian, per se, I’m really energized sometimes by seeing that teaching reading and writing for a purpose other than college success is not weird, seeing how other people frame and do it, and discovering jargon-free language in which to couch perspectival education.
One of the amazing opportunities in teaching as a career is to do the same thing over again next year--but better! Having learned from all your success and less-than-successes. With a whole summer of research and re-tooling in between. 

What are you wanting to find out more about this summer to make next year even better? Feel free to choose a book off my list if it sounds interesting!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Fueling Readers

I was an under-the-covers, flashlight reader. I think I read through the entire Nancy Drew series the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade. I read big, boring books without pictures just because it felt so much cooler than reading little kid picture books. I escaped into the worlds of horses and native Americans. I read Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry over and over, longing for that breakthrough of competence and confidence with all my 4th grade heart. Later in middle school it was all the Anne of Green Gables books. 

How can we help more kids into that kind of reading, since we know it correlates with all kinds of success in school and in life? That was one of my research questions for this summer. One of the books on my reading list was The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child by Donalyn Miller. When one colleague told me she owned it, and another that she wanted to read it after me (because yet another colleague had recommended it to her), I decided this one could not wait until summer. And it is a quick, easy, fun, and inspiring read. 

I’m not sure if we can (or even want to) replicate Miller’s 6th grade classroom in high school. (I’m also reading an NCTE thread about college readiness where a professor complained that students aren’t prepared because they think they can read a college textbook like they read Harry Potter.) And yet...we can do more.

I’ve done some things already:
  • Help teachers remember their own inner reader. Our students won’t be what we aren’t. So I took time at the English/social studies department meeting this past week for everyone to answer the question “What’s a good book you’ve read recently?” We had a great discussion, and a number of us wrote down titles to read. (Some of the recommendations: Girls Like UsLord of the Rings re-read, Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of NepalThe Good Lord BirdWarriors Don’t Cry)
  • Help students set reading goals and find books. I’ve told students that by the end of school in June, they’re going to compile a list of at least 5 books they want to read over the summer. Two days this week there were odd chunks of time leftover when student presentations ended before the period did. One of the days I did a book pass, and one of them I introduced students to the Web site Goodreads for book recommendations. It was delightful to hear students gasp, “Oh, I want to read this!” and share recommendations. One student asked me yesterday, “The 5 books we have to read this summer--is there a certain number of pages?” I had to smile as I told him (1) there was no specified length and (2) I really hoped he would read 5 or even more books, but technically, he didn’t “have” to--I have no way to hold him accountable. But when I see him in the hall next fall, I will ask him whether he read them....
  • Model and encourage stealing spare moments for reading. First, I’ve returned to a higher consistency of remembering to put a book in my bag when I leave the house--so I can steal spare moments to read instead of wasting them. Second, I can do a better job of training my students to steal those moments. Mostly that’s something to plan for next year, but with my reading moments awareness on high alert, something is always possible. Yesterday a student was in my 1st period classroom 20 minutes early...looking at FaceBook. I just asked, “Are you finished with your outside reading?” The answer being negative, the next question was, “Maybe that would be a better use of your time right now?” The student looked like that was an epiphany and immediately shut his laptop and pulled out of his of the books from the book pass we’d done the day before! 
Isn’t it great when a little snowball starts rolling? 

Other books I plan to read this summer on the topic of free voluntary reading are Free Voluntary Reading by Stephen Krashen and Book LoveDeveloping Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers by Penny Kittle. I’ll be blogging on my reading of them as the summer progresses. As well as on a stack of other books Im hoarding in the corner of my office--books on reading, writing, grammar, social justice, academic conversations, and historical thinking--as well as several dozen novels. No, I won’t get through them all. But I’ll have fun trying, and I’ll read more than if I had no goals!

What is a good book you’ve read recently? What do you plan to read this summer? And how are you inviting your students into the joy of reading?

Friday, May 2, 2014

My One Good Idea This Year

Two important bits of wisdom from my 49 years:
  • Pick up just one good teaching idea per year--just think how much you’ll have improved in 10 years. This is from my mother-in-law. Or as Stephen Covey said, most people over-estimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years.
  • Students generally learn what they are taught. This is from hard-won experience. They might not learn what I say in class, or ask them to read, or test them on once. But what I show I value by spending time on, articulating the reasons for, modeling, requiring reflection and transfer--this, they will learn. 
My best idea for this year was having students reflect on their writing process every time they handed in a paper. I started this practice because I realized that students were just doing the assignment I gave them--they couldn’t name the steps of the writing process, couldn’t define prewriting, and couldn’t distinguish between revising and editing. I wanted them to understand, value, and internalize the writing process. (See my Nov. 8 blog "Owning the Process" for the first time I did this.)

As students handed in their final big paper of the year, I asked them to reflect not just on their process for this paper, but on what they’d learned over the course of the year about the writing process. I think most of them learned what I wanted them to. Here’s a sample of what they wrote:

  • It really helps to just organize your thoughts on a sheet of paper.
  • I want to remember the entire idea of organization because especially for this essay I found myself skipping to the writing part without planning, which I ended up going back and starting all over because I was all over the place. I need to make a diagram or some sort of visual to put organization into my mind.
  • Prewriting does not have to be writing about the same topic of the end writing. It could be anything (in moderate connection) that will get your mind running.
  • To make an outline as prewriting is very effective for me. Choosing the quotes that I wanted to focus on was also important for me to have an organized essay.
  • I learned that listening to Beethoven really helps me focus....I also realized I cannot be next to people when I write because I lose concentration.
  • It’s best first to just put down my ideas, and then go back later to think of better ways to phrase things.
  • I learned that this drafting is very important because you have to write everything that you want to say even though it doesn’t make any sense. I will remember to focus on the contents instead of the grammar.
  • When writing a draft, don’t think about writing it perfectly at first. You can still change things.
  • Take time. It’s not about turning it in just to get a participation grade, but it’s rather a chance to make my essay better the more I revise.
  • I just need to sit down and write for all of class and at home and get all my ideas. If I wait for it to come to me it never works.
  • I learned that my first draft does not always have to be perfect. Rather than sitting for 30 minutes to write a sentence, I need to keep writing for efficiency.
  • I learned to ask good questions to the teacher or peers if I’m not sure of something.
  • Have a new set of eyes look at the paper, such as a parent, friend, or teacher.
  • It is important to focus on the idea more than the grammar and word usage.
  • I’ve learned to go beyond what is marked on the paper.
  • It’s okay to rewrite or discard your ideas if they don’t go with what you’re trying to say.
  • I learned to print it out and mark it up. Looking at it with ink and paper helps the most. Also to work 20 minutes on it and then come back the next day with fresh eyes. I need someone else to read it, and I need to read it out loud.
  • The thing that hinders me the most if FaceBook. Next year, I just want to try and not get distracted so easily.
  • Not just correcting the 10 words, but I want to read the paper out loud and look for more mistakes on my own.
  • Teacher or peer input benefits me greatly. I want to remember to ask questions when needed.
  • Read the paper over, and don’t procrastinate!
  • Many of the grammatical errors were already made in previous essays. I want to remember to look over the essay many times, and look at grammatical errors made in the past.
  • I really need to read it aloud to hear how it sounds because sometimes I read over errors because I know how it is supposed to sound.
  • Spellcheck is not reliable enough: use the teacher and friends.
These student reflections I’m going to pass on to the 11th grade teacher, so when students come to their first paper next year, he can pass these reflections back to them, and hopefully the transfer will continue.

One more reflection I asked the students to do was advice to the upcoming 9th graders to prepare them for English 10. Here were a few of their responses:
  • Prewriting is important.
  • Essay is not just pages of paper, they’re essays. It determines your overall grade, of course, but how much time you put in on each essay helps you become a better writer.
  • Make it a choice to make English class fun. It will allow you to be engaged with the class.
  • They will learn a lot about editing/revising.
  • Take note of the corrections that you made on your previous essays because chances are that you will make a similar mistake on your next one.
  • No procrastination. Make outline.
  • Work hard and smart in class and at home.
  • It can be hard and stressful, so ask for help! She’s there to help you, and you won’t regret taking the time she’s willing to give in order for you to succeed.
  • Tell them to write all their ideas first, then go from there.
  • Work hard. Simple as that.
And my favorite:

  • Don’t write for the sake of writing. Write because you want to say something, because there is something burring up in you and you don’t want it to burn out in your mouth. Write because that thing you want to say deserves to remain somewhere forever.