Friday, August 29, 2014

Choosing One's Words

Is that person a stranger or a friend I don’t know yet? Is that situation a problem or a challenge and an opportunity?

Our words reflect our attitudes, yes, and our words can also shape our attitudes. My husband insisted our children say, “I haven’t learned to like mushrooms yet,” rather than “I don’t like mushrooms,” and “No, thank you,” rather than “Stop it!” (Though that didn’t always prevent  the words “no, thank you” from being whined or screamed....) 

So on my first day of school reading inventory, I chose my words carefully when I asked 10th graders to identify what kind of readers they are--on a scale from “avid” to “I haven’t yet found a book I like.”  

I found that students tend to adopt the vocabulary and the phraseology modeled in the question:
  1. Many students used the word “avid” in their answers--from “Avid and I would like to read more than I have time for” to “I am not an avid reader though I enjoy reading occasionally.” Use specific high level vocabulary in context, and kids will pick them up and use them. I wonder where else I can use that approach?
  2. Many students used the sentence “I haven’t yet found a book I like.” Maybe if we can keep using that phraseology, they’ll start to believe it, and start to think there just might be a book out there that they will like, and start to be on the lookout for it.
Some went beyond just repeating my sentence and continued the conversation on those terms: 

  • I haven’t found a book in English that I like yet, but I often read books in Japanese.
  • I haven’t found a book that I really like. But I am starting to find books that are interesting to me in either English or Japanese.

Yes, there were 3 or 4 who weren’t enticed into the conversation: 

  • I don’t like reading and I never choose to read. 
  • I am not a good reader because I get bored reading books. 

And I’m going to choose to see that situation as a challenge and an opportunity rather than a problem, and those students as unengaged readers rather than as reluctant readers. The challenge is to engage them. The opportunity is to shift a self-perception and to create life-long readers.

Friday, August 22, 2014

No Ordinary Students

Awe. When I stand in front of my classes Tuesday morning for the first time this school year, that is the feeling that I want to permeate my consciousness. Each student bears the very image of God. What does this mean? “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal....[Y]our neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses,” is how C.S. Lewis expresses it in his sermon “The Weight of Glory.” 

To drive home to myself just what this means as I deal with my students this year, I copied over most of the final paragraph of the sermon, making a few wording changes:

The load, or weight, or burden of my students’ glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to teach in a classroom of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting student I teach may one day be a creature which, if I saw it now, I would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as I now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. 

All day long I am, in some degree, helping my students to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that I should conduct all my dealings with students, all teaching, all discipline, all hallway conversations, all consultations with other teachers. 

There are no ordinary students. I have never taught a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom I teach, give assignments to, assess, cheer for from the bleachers--immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. 

This does not mean that I am to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously--no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. 

And my charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which I love the sinner--no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. My students are the holiest objects presented to my senses. If she is a Christian student, it is a holiness not only of the image of God, but also of the indwelling presence of Christ. 

I’m not sure how to properly cite that. I altered a few words and phrases to make it specific to teaching. I Americanized spelling and added a few paragraphs for modern style. And I omitted the bit where my theology of the sacrament diverges. Other than that, it’s Lewis’s thoughts and words. You can read them here--it’s the final 3/4 of the final paragraph.

May we take each other seriously. The first day of school, and throughout the year.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Teacher Response That Changes Everything

Do my responses to student responses throw a wet blanket or fuel on the fire of student thinking? What if there were one thing I could change to nudge the answer a little closer to the second option? I came across that one thing in my reading this week, and as soon as I did, it seemed like such a no-brainer. My husband calls it a BFO--blinding flash of the obvious. 

Here it is: When a student gives an answer I agree with, turn to another student and ask, “What do you think about that?”

That is so not what I do. When a student makes an insightful comment, I’m so excited I want to reinforce that thinking! I jump in and say, “Exactly--just like over here on page 47 where the main character said....” I think I’m modeling how students should interact, but I’ve just removed from their universe the possibility of having that interaction themselves. 

There are times that I turn to another student for his or her response. When? When the first student’s comment has been not what I was looking for--wrong, illogical, or off-base. By this practice I have signaled 2 things: (1) Follow-up questions mean the teacher disagrees and students need to be looking for a different answer, and (2) answers the teacher agrees with don’t really need support. 

What if every time a student gave a response, right or wrong, I asked for support, reasons, or another student’s reaction? What if I equipped students to always ask each other for explanation, support, reasons, and responses? To build their own case and decide with each other, for themselves, when answers were more or less helpful?

I can’t believe I’ve missed this all these years. I’m also wondering if I can really override that initial, knee-jerk reaction to respond ebulliently to student observations that are congruent to mine, and with reserve to student observations that aren’t. I suspect it may be more difficult than it seems. But this simple questioning technique--if I can make it mine--might be the single most significant shift in my teaching I can make this year. 

How can I help myself make it? Maybe the most effective way is to be completely open with students. 
  1. Make an explicit goal for students to carry out effective academic conversations that clarify, support, explain, and deepen understandings.
  2. Tell them that to accomplish this goal, they will need to become more proficient at the skills of both eliciting and contributing that sort of thinking. 
  3. Explain that I will help them with these skills by modeling the types of questions that elicit such thinking. 
  4. Make a commitment to them that I will begin by trying to respond neutrally to all observations by asking another student’s input. 
  5. Confess that this is not my natural response, that I will probably slip-up many times, but that’s what happens when we change habits and learn a new skill. 
  6. Enlist their help for me as I will help them develop these skills together.

I don’t have the book that inspired this blog with me as I write--I’m on the shinkansen on the way back to Tokyo from my vacation--but if you’re interested, it’s Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. It’s short: 110 pages comprising 7 chapters. The first half of the book is about why and how to create good, unit-structuring, student-motivating, understanding-deepening questions, and the second half is about how to create and sustain a culture of inquiry in your classroom and school that will make the most of those questions. 

One of those chapters had a couple of lists of questions to use as a teacher and to teach students to use. I’ll have to dig the book out of my luggage when I get home and make a copy of those lists. Then I’ll have to dig out Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford, which I blogged on 3 weeks ago (“Learning to Discuss and Discussing to Learn”). I’ll compare skills and questions and come up with a short list of tools I can give students to start the year. But here is the most important tool--it’s mine to use, and it’s not complicated:

When a student gives an answer I agree with, turn to another student and ask, “What do you think about that?”

If I can remember to use it and learn to use it well, there’s hope for the students to learn new tools, too. If I can’t....Well, let’s not go there. The year hasn’t even started yet.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Grammar for More Powerful Writing? Absolutely!

I learned something new! Something that makes interesting writing, that I didn’t know the grammatical term for before, and that now that I can identify it, will enable me to help students find the pattern, practice it themselves, and intentionally integrate it into their own writing. Probably 2 out of 50 do it naturally, without thinking or knowing what it is they are doing. Now I can help those 2 do it more frequently and intentionally, and the rest of them begin to make their writing more lively and descriptive.

Yes, I have learned a lot from reading Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined, a book about teaching grammar and mechanics in the context of reading and writing. I’m excited about using writer’s notebooks and mentor texts more, and about trying wall-charts for rules and examples. And I’m really excited that I learned what an absolute phrase is and how it directs the reader’s attention, like a zoom lens, to important details that enliven the base sentence. 

Okay, forget the term absolute phrase if it freaks you out. (I completely understand--it freaked me out before this week.) Remember zoom lens.

Here’s the exercise Jeff Anderson does with his middle school students (80). Showing them a picture of a person on a bicycle, he writes the sentence, “The bicyclist raced.” Then he asks students to zoom into other nouns in the picture. They give him a list: legs, pedals, wheels, street, sweat, face, hands. Then he asks them to add an -ing verb (or verb phrase) after each one: wheels turning, street making a ribbon into the horizon, sweat dripping, face grimacing, hands gripping the handlebars. Finally he asks them to choose a couple of those phrases to add on to the base sentence--and they try adding them different places (I’ve bolded the added phrases): 
  • Legs pumping, sweat dripping, the bicyclist raced down the road.
  • The bicyclist raced down the road, legs pumping, sweat dripping.

Easy, huh?

Anderson uses a mentor text from Avi’s Crispin (p. 172): “‘And on my honor,’ Bear said, his voice booming, his arms spread wide.” 

So I went hunting for some examples in the fiction I’ve been reading this week:
  • “After working out, I knit, stitch by stitch, music on my headphones, rocking back and forth.” (Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson, p. 183)
  • “My mouth and tongue and belly have begun to plot against me. I doze off in my room and bam! I’m standing in front of the refrigerator, door open, hand reaching for the cream cheese.” (Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson, p. 183)
  • “They stepped into my tiny white room, / Grandpa looking terrified, / Grandma simmering with tears.” (Shark Girl, Kelly Bingham, p. 27)
  • “I wave back, and I watch that van / take Justin away, / the deck of cards, warm, still stacked in my palm.” (Shark Girl, Kelly Bingham, p. 76)
  • “For it is as if she were here with me for a moment, her calming hand resting lightly upon my shoulder.” (March, Geraldine Brooks, p. 4)
  • “His right hand was on my throat, his fingers--callused tradesman’s fingers--depressing the soft, small bones around my windpipe.” (March, Geraldine Brooks, p. 7)

I sort of get it with the zoom-lens idea, but for those of us grammar nerds who really want a more precise definition, Anderson says, “An absolute is a free modifier that is grammatically independent of the sentence and is set off by a comma(s). In the simplest terms, an absolute is a noun + an -ing verb” (79). Hah! “Grammatically independent of the sentence.” So there are some things that don’t fit neatly into a diagram but are still formal English! 

But there must be more complexity lurking in the undergrowth. That phrase “in the simplest terms” means it really isn’t this simple. If you were paying close attention to my examples above, you were already objecting that I was wandering from the pattern. Anderson gives the whole list for those who want to know (79):
  • Noun + an -ing, -ed, or -en verb (lip quivering, fist knotted, heart broken)
  • Noun + an adverb (head down, hat off)
  • Noun + an adjective (head sweaty, shirt white and crisp)
  • Noun + a preposition (pen in hand)
  • Preposition (usually with or like) + noun + any of the above variations (with hair standing up on the back of her neck)
  • Possessive pronoun + noun + any of the above variations (his knees drawn to his chest)

Finally, I tried making a few of my own:
  • Summer vacation mornings I soak in the quiet, gazing out the big front windows of the cabin, warm cup of coffee in hand, the sound of waves crashing on the beach below and cicadas singing in the trees around.
  • Brow furrowed, eyes squinted, I search the page for absolute phrases.
  • Suddenly, with thunder crashing and rain sheeting down, the storm is upon us.

Go ahead, look for a few zoom-in phrases in the book you’re reading. Call them “absolute phrases” if you dare. Then try your hand at a few. It’s not that I’ve never written one before, but now, when writing is seeming flat, I’ll have a trick up my sleeve for myself or for my students. And if you want even more writer’s tricks (aka grammar), read Jeff Anderson’s Mechanically Inclined

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Glorious Impossibility of Teaching English

Twenty-seven years ago, surveying the stack of books I’d been presented with for teaching my first 6th grade English class, the sinking feeling in my stomach hinted at the glory and impossibility of being a secondary English language arts teacher. What could be more significant than teaching communication--reading, writing, listening, speaking--and the thinking processes that link each mode to the next, helps us learn and make sense of what we take in, decide what it means, put our contribution or question into the pool of human understanding, and see what we pull out next? Yet what could be more impossible than teaching spelling, vocabulary, literature, composition, research, speech, and grammar, all in five 49-minute (or shorter) periods per week?

I’ve hit the wall with the same question in my professional reading this week. Everybody has great ideas. And I can’t do them all. It seems that the best I can do is look for patterns. Then decide which is the composite pattern that I can keep up, and pursue better mastery of. 

One master pattern is presented in Rigorous Reading: 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Texts by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher, which I just read this week. The 5 access points are
  1. Purpose and modeling
  2. Close and scaffolded reading instruction
  3. Collaborative conversations
  4. An independent reading staircase
  5. Understanding and assessing performance
Purpose and modeling is where I started my current incarnation of professional development about 9 years ago with the discovery of Cris Tovani’s books on teaching reading strategies in secondary classes. Coming full circle this fall as our secondary division will be studying one of them together.

Close and scaffolded reading instruction is what I first started paying attention to 3 years ago when I read Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker. Last year I used it more--I find close reading especially helpful for helping students understand how much can be found in a given passage (and to practice uncovering, inferring, and getting at it), though we don’t take the time to read the entire work that closely.  Next year I can use some of the specific instruction from this chapter on how to mark a page.

Collaborative conversations I also began getting a better handle on 3 years ago in Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding. The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction, which I read 2 years ago and re-read in a discussion group this past year, highlighted the importance of discussion to vocabulary acquisition, which led me to this summer’s reading of Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings (see last week’s blog for my key take-aways). 

An independent reading staircase has strong links to the free voluntary reading books I’ve been reading this summer, including, most famously, Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers (see earlier blogs “Love Book Love” and “Scary Book Love” for my key take-aways). And, of course, wide and frequent reading also builds knowledge, vocabulary, writing skills, and many other academic and life skills.

Understanding and assessing performance connects to Book Love, to another book I just read this week--Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe--and possibly one I just started--Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop by Jeff Anderson--because I haven’t even touched yet on writing, except in response to reading. 

That strikes me as a pretty good master pattern--except for fitting in writing. Well, I’m in the midst of complexity right now, hoping for simplicity to emerge as I begin actual planning for next year in the next couple of weeks. 

Two interesting thoughts that emerged from different readings this week were about differentiation and about writing.

Differentiation: This has felt like a threatening thundercloud hanging over my head since we had a special professional development workshop on it 2 years ago. But Integrating Differentiated Instruction and Understanding by Design gave a list of “10 teaching patterns that cut across ‘categories’ of students and benefit academic success for many learners” (20). When I read them, I realized that 7 of them I do well, 2 I could do better*, and the 1 that I hardly do at all is the one I can target doing a little more of this year** (pp. 20-22):
  1. Find ways to get to know students more intentionally and regularly.
  2. Incorporate small-group teaching into daily or weekly teaching routines.**
  3. Learn to teach to the high end.
  4. Offer more ways to explore and express learning.*
  5. Regularly use informal assessments to monitor student understanding.
  6. Teach in multiple ways.
  7. Use basic reading strategies throughout the curriculum.
  8. Allow working alone or with peers.
  9. Use clear rubrics that coach for quality.*
  10. Cultivate a taste for diversity
Writing to learn across the curriculum: A publication I read this week gave a list of characteristics of effective (vs. struggling) writers (ERS Focus On: Writing to Learn Across the Curriculum, Educational Research Service, 2005). Of course there are characteristics most directly taught in English class (“Understand and apply fundamental rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling”), but there are several that are just good, fundamental characteristics of effective learners in any class and in life:
  1. Willing to take risks 
  2. Have a well-developed vocabulary
  3. Self-monitor and reflect upon product and processes

At the end of that awful first year of teaching, when I was wondering what in the world I’d gotten myself into, and how I could possibly stick with this impossible career, I attended a 2-week course on using a workshop approach. That gave me new hope. So here I find myself back again: figuring out how to make a little less impossible the glory of teaching English.