Saturday, July 26, 2014

Learning to Discuss and Discussing to Learn

Some teachers I know are artists at orchestrating whole-class discussions, but I find that what happens when I try that is the following: I have a discussion with 2 or 3 students, 2 or 3 more listen in, and all the rest fall asleep or start thinking about what’s for lunch. But if students carry on a discussion in groups of 4, all are engaged. And engaged students learn more than passive listeners, and way more than sleepers and lunch-dreamers.

I learned to get even more mileage from those small group discussions (and also why it is they work so well) a couple of years ago when I read Productive Group Work. But there’s always the class period or the particular group that just doesn’t function as well as the others. And I’m always looking for ways to help kids learn better. This week’s read, Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford, did just that.

My biggest take-aways were the following:
  1. Make having a good academic conversation the objective. Tell the kids. Sometimes they think it’s about getting the answer. Or everyone in the group sharing the answer they got. But if I’ve come up with a decent prompt, the real goal is having a conversation that brings you and your partners to an understanding you hadn’t had before. 
  2. Give students tools for keeping/getting conversations back on track. 
  3. Give students the equivalent of 1-on-1 teaching: Wouldn’t it be great if students could always have a 1-on-1 conversation with the teacher?  What if it were possible to train students to have that kind of conversation with each other? 
  4. Pass on the insights. I wonder if there are parts that would be particularly helpful for our middle school social studies department, which has targeted discussion (as a precursor to debate in high school) as a department assessment.
A little more about each of the above....

Five core skills for a good academic conversation are defined and explained in chapter 2. I appreciated the list (see end of paragraph), the emphasis on specificity (name the bit you found interesting or unclear or agreed with or disagreed with), and the observation that each skill is actually 2--the skill of doing is, and the skill of prompting a partner to do it.
  1. Elaborate and clarify
  2. Support ideas with examples
  3. Build on and/or challenge a partner’s idea
  4. Paraphrase
  5. Synthesize conversation points
When conversations wander, it almost always takes a word from me--or sometimes just my presence approaching the guilty group. Wouldn’t it be great if students could monitor and recall themselves? Next year I’ll try teaching them a few ways to cope:
  • Paraphrase: “So far, we agree that... we disagree that... you argue that...” (89).
  • Ask questions: “What are we trying to do?” “What is our goal?” (77).
  • Refocus group: “Remember, our central question is...” (77).
Training students in “teacher-like conversation skills” might sound unrealistic, but the breakdown given in chapter 5 looks like a list of life skills for advanced education, citizenship, employment...and even something I really appreciate in my friends! Zwiers and Crawford maintain that we can train students to...
  1. Perceive when their listeners don’t understand.
  2. Ask useful questions.
  3. Negotiate meaning. (This occurs when 2 speakers start with different understandings of a topic, and in the course of hearing a new perspective, both shift their understanding somewhat.) 
  4. Encourage and compliment.
  5. Maintain logical flow, connections, and depth of thought.
  6. Recognize that an abstract idea needs support, elaboration, and/or examples.
  7. Be leaders and team players.
  8. Think and talk like experts.
There’s plenty more here to come back to--for instance, the specialized chapters on academic conversations in the subject areas of language arts, social studies, and science (7-9) and chapter 10 on academic conversation assessment, both formative and summative, with sample rubrics and transcribed conversations. But I think I’ve got enough captured here to chew on for next year’s academic discussions: Make learning from the conversation the articulated goal, and give students tools for keeping the conversations on track and driving them deeper.

Friday, July 18, 2014

What Happens When the English Teacher Doesn't Get It?

What is it like to struggle with a piece of literature? To be bored by something “smart people” find deep, funny, beautiful, meaningful? As teachers, we’ve mostly figured out how to do only what we’re good at, while asking many of our students every day to challenge themselves with things they are not good at yet.

I’ve been doing a lot of professional reading about reading, and it was time to run an experiment on myself. What does it take to read something difficult? Not what are good strategies to teach struggling students, but what are strategies I actually use? And can they help me appreciate something I’d previously been unable to appreciate?

My challenge: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’d started it several times and finished it once, but not with any sense of its stature as the great book many tout it to be. Yet I had a nagging feeling that as a teacher of world literature, I should be able to appreciate what has so famously been called “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race” (by critic William Kennedy in the New York Times Book Review). 

First question: Why didn’t I like it? I spent the whole time confused. Not by the magical realism--I was prepared for that--but first, because everyone has the same name. Seriously, through seven generations, the important men come and go with the same two names. Second, I suspect I was confused because I was reading for a plot.

So, I thought, how do I read this book with the eyes of someone who appreciates it? Here’s what I did:

  1. Got some background knowledge. A friend from South America told me research on Colombian history helped him. Guess what I learned? 
    1. Controversy between the Conservatives and Liberals has racked the country from before independence right down to the present day. That opened up a lot for me. 
    2. The banana company is based on an historical event. 
    3. A bit of research on the novel itself turned up cycles as a motif. Ah! So the confusion of repeated names was due to intention on the author’s part rather than inadequacy on my part.
  2. Wrote things down. If it was people’s names I found confusing, I’d have to firmly tie each to his own place in the story. I decided to write a summary of each chapter in my journal. I ended up quitting after the first 5 chapters, but doing this exercise for the early parts helped me get a firm grasp of the people and events to which later chapters keep getting referring.
  3. Focused on language and ideas. If it wasn’t about plot, I needed to find out what it was about. I think the reading strategy is “determining what is important.” This is where I really struck gold. The language is thick and gorgeous, alive and ironic. (Though I thought 3-page paragraphs had gone out with Dostoevsky.) Here are some examples from just two pages (339-340)
    • “It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days.” So much better than “about five years”!
    • “The sky crumbled into a set of destructive storms....” I, for one, would never have thought of using the verb “crumble” for a storm.
    • “The air was so damp that fish could have come in through the doors and swum out the windows.” Feels a lot like that right now in rainy season in Tokyo.  
    • One character has “the face of a beatific tortoise” (who would put that adjective and noun together?) and as his bulk diminishes in the deluge, he “becomes less pachydermic.”  (I knew a pachyderm was an elephant, but I had to check my desktop dictionary to be sure there was really an adjective form. There is. In fact, there are three, including pachydermal and pachydermatous.)
  4. Made connections. Random, perhaps. But a thought floated into my head while I was having my devotions one morning last week, so I put pen to journal to follow it, and here’s what I came up with: 
  • “It’s kind of funny, but reading One Hundred Years of Solitude at the same time as reading about Gomer--well, before, I could only imagine Hosea going after Gomer because God told him to, and God persuing Israel (and me) because he’d promised to. A sort of righteous duty of will. But so many people in One Hundred Years are smitten with this desire/love that goes on and on through all sorts of complications. In the book, it’s not necessarily good or bad, it just is. No one is least for long. Mostly this sort of love is hopeless and agonizing. Maybe because of the basic solitude of everyone. But still...I can sort of picture God (and Hosea) as one of the Buendia men in Macondo. Of course, God being almighty and all wise, he’s not a pitiful picture, like some of them. And God being Love in the business of redeeming and restoring the solitude humanity has created by breaking relationship, there is hope, and the bisis for it is solid and lasting. Solitude doesn’t get the final work--time ends with the wedding feast of the Lamb. Reality isn’t solitude punctuated by brief moments of connection; it’s connection, love, covenant (in the Garden of Eden and in the New Jerusalem) punctuated by relatively brief memonts of solitude through which Love pursues me.”

I know that I appreciate One Hundred Years of Solitude more than I did before. I might even read it again some time. I also appreciate the hard work students have to put in to getting traction on a work with an unfamiliar setting, style, or theme. And finally, I have renewed faith in my skill as a reader, the toolbox of reading strategies I use myself and teach my students, and the possibility of any reader to grow into and grow from a challenging piece of writing.

Go ahead--challenge yourself--what do you do to appreciate a challenging piece of writing?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Scary Book Love

Scary. Thats what writing can be. Because you think, and when you think, you might end up in a different place than you were before. And different can be be scary. 

I think that in the course of writing this blog, I might have convinced myself that I need to make some really big shifts in my teaching. And just when I was getting comfortable....

First, I really like Book Love author Penny Kittle’s objectives in teaching books to high schoolers:
  • Students develop their own reading life. Just think of all the good school things avid reading correlates with--vocabulary, writing, reading, general knowledge, and preparation for college--as well as empathy, enjoyment, and lifelong learning.
  • Students develop a sense of efficacy in knowing where their skills are, where they want to go next, and how to get there. 
  • Students think, speak, write critically about what they read.
Second, she has great ideas for how to accomplish the above, with many specific examples of how to implement them. Last week I reflected on the first 5 chapters. The final 4 chapters (6 - 9) are about conferencing with students about their reading, engendering good responses to reading, 
  • Chapter 6: “Conferences.” These are 3-4 minute meetings with individuals while the class is reading. She has great lists of questions to ask as well as examples of conferences she’s done.  
  • Chapter 7: “Responding to Reading.” Kittle has excellent ideas for reading notebook prompts, and examples of how she models responding to the prompt from her own reading. 
  • Chapter 9: “Nurturing Independent Readers in a Classroom Community.” I loved all of these ideas:
    • Big idea books: In the classroom, she keeps a stack of notebooks, each labelled with a different big topic in literature (death, love, growing up, identity, etc.). Students select one that their current book fits, and write a reflect on the connection. This can be kept from year to year, creating a community of readers through time as well as within one class, and serving as a source of recommendations for other students. 
    • Creating a literature web of relationships across time/space/genre using independently read books as well as works studied in class. How does the Divergent series fit with other dystopian literature, current and classic? How does it fit with other coming-of-age books, current and classic? Other romances? 
    • Quarterly reflections that include assessing their own reading in terms of difficulty and rate, writing minireviews that can spur other students’ reading selection, setting new goals, and writing a reflection essay. 
  • Chapter 9: “Creating a School Community of Readers.” What would it look like if the whole school supported this kind of reading?
    • 4th quarter cumulative reading reflections would be passed on to the next year’s teachers, who would have time to read them. 
    • Principals, departments, professional development would target helping teachers teach and assess reading even it better; 
    • Schoolwide reading break: Kittle’s high school takes 20 minutes 4 times per week for everyone, everywhere to read.
I can see many ways to adapt what she does to what I do in... 
  • Class novel studies: tweaking the journals students keep, being sure to model my own responses, working in conferences with students while they are having time for assigned reading, doing more of what I’ve just started with having students reflect on the craft of mentor texts.
  • Independent reading students are required to do and meet with me about each quarter: doing more book talks, having students set reading goals and reflect on them, using some of Kittle’s questions and model conferences, connecting independent reading to class reading more, doing virtual “big idea notebooks” on the class Moodle site. 

But really this is just tweaking if students don’t do a lot more independent reading. Which means a lot less whole-class assigned reading.

If I could accomplish her objectives, I would gain more students with an independent reading life, and more students with a sense of efficacy for their own reading improvement. I could maintain the same level of critical thinking. They would do more reading. We could do more shared short pieces as model texts (poems, short stories, essays, excerpts). This would be good.

But, we would lose big shared literature experiences. What would I cut in English 10? Probably Cry, the Beloved Country. I absolutely love it. My students find it difficult. Some like it okay by the end. Some cite it as important to their reading life in their senior project. And we spend 3 weeks reading it. Is it worth that time? What if students were to read twice as many books of their own choosing during that time? And I (and the 11th and 12th grade teachers) could still nudge students toward reading it when they were ready? 

That’s only 1 loss versus many gains. And I’ve been saying for several years now that I think we’ll eventually have to move to text sets for differentiation for some of our class novels in high school. So maybe it’s not even a loss. 

Well, I won’t jump into anything rashly without talking to my department colleagues and my principal--so for this next year, we’ll still read Cry, the Beloved Country. But I will do the following:
  • The tweaks mentioned above.
  • Discuss this with my department colleagues--a book discussion in the fall, or department meeting time?
  • Continue to be sure my reading life includes plenty of YA lit that I can share with my students.

Who knew summer reading could be such hard work and so scary?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Love Book Love

My favorite thing about teaching is either when the lights go on for an individual student, or else when a group of students are deeply engaged in figuring out something together. My third favorite thing is when I’m in a group of teachers deeply engaged in figuring out together how to help one of the first two things happen better. So far this summer the third favorite is happening with Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers by Penny Kittle. 

I’ve recommended this book to every member of the high school English department. I know 3 of the 5 have ordered it. One colleague emailed me back and said, “Wow, looking at the synopsis and reviews, Book Love looks like a compelling read! I think I'll go ahead and order it, though I might need to shelve it until I finish with my summer courses.” Five days later, this email arrived: “Book Love came in the mail this morning and, well, I couldn't put it down all day. I just finished it and feel like implementing all her suggestions immediately. Yes, part of that may be the high after reading her passionate call to arms, but I'm excited to see where we can go from here!...(So much for starting my next course this week. Meh, that can wait.)” 

I am so energized being part of that kind of learning and excitement! (My husband accuses me of being energized by distracting people from homework, but thats not it at all.) 

What grabbed me about Book Love
  1. The real-life stories about struggle and success with individual students. 
  2. The practical nuts-and-bolts plan for things I’d wondered about regarding the practicality of free voluntary reading in high school--like how to set realistic and challenging short- and long-term goals (chapter 3 “Building Stamina and Fluency”). 
Right now I’m thinking about how much of her approach I can and should adopt next year. I know I have a different population than she does--at one place she says she wanted to offer her students learning similar to the class preparing for the AP Language and Composition test. A good number of my 10th graders will be preparing for the AP Language and Composition test in 11th grade and the AP Literature and Composition test in 12th grade. For the most part, they come from homes that value books and education, where one or both parents have a college degree and often more. 

And yet, I do have struggling readers, I do have a high number of English language learners, and I know I need to work on differentiated instruction of some sort. Every year during high school, one or two students admit this is the first time they’ve done the whole-class and/or independent reading required. Kittle claims she’s never failed to turn every student into a reader by the end of the year. 

It has confirmed things I felt I was doing right and want to do even more of: 
  1. More freedom for students to select their own independent reading (less tied to a list). 
  2. Reading goals. The summer reading goal list that worked so well at the end of the school year will be with next year’s 10th graders right away in the fall as a “to-read-next” list. 
  3. Wide reading in YA lit--I currently do this a little--there’s so much else I want to read--but how can I recommend what I don’t know? 
  4. More scaffolding for choosing books for independent reading. 
  5. Mentor texts: More of this later in the summer when I get to my books about writing. 
The biggest things to work on for next school year are related to 3 and 4 above: 
  1. Wide reading YA lit: I compiled a list of Kittle’s recommendations from chapter 4 (“Opening Doors into Reading”), and I’ll raid the school library for all the ones that are still in before I go on vacation later this month--It’ll be my beach reading. I’ve already finished the 3 books of the Divergent series that were part of my summer reading goal list. 
  2. Preparing introductory book talks on the YA lit I read: Kittle recommends 4 - 5 per day during the first week of school (see chapter 5 “The Power of the Book Talk”). Incorporate a 1-minute summary, connect to other books (topic, genre, author, style...), and read a short passage to demonstrate something appealing about the action, style, voice, or other aspect.
Actually, that’s only my reflections on chapters 1 - 5; tune in next week for chapters 6 - 9. But that’s one of the great things about a teacher’s summer--relaxed deadlines. Just needed to reflect on what I found most compelling, make a few plans for implementation, and hold my thinking until I can meet with my colleagues after they’ve read the book. 

I can’t wait!