Friday, September 26, 2014

Celebrating 100

After 100 blogs you’d think an English teacher would have a pretty good handle on audience and purpose. Well, this is my 100th blog post, and I’m still not certain.

I started in July two years ago and have been publishing once a week (with a miss here and there) ever since—except for the summer of 2013 when my oldest daughter got married. Missed those three months entirely. Still, that’s a fair bit of consistency, and I’ve learned a few things.

When I started, it was simply as a way to capture and process my summer professional reading, and since the first book I’d read that summer was about 21st century literacies, I decided I might as well practice one of those literacies while I captured and processed my other reading. Plus it made it easy to share what I’d read with department members. 

At the end of the summer, I decided blogging was a good discipline—both the reflecting and the writing—so I would continue it into the school year. The focus would shift slightly from the reading and musings about how I could apply it, to a forum for reflecting on the applications I’d tried. Thus it would also serve as a form of accountability for trying those ideas I’d said I was going to. Sometimes, indeed, I’ve come to Friday morning in a panic: “I haven’t tried anything new this week, and I’ll have to write about it tomorrow, so I have to do something today!” 

Then, of course, there is the writing itself: Every single week, whether I feel like it or not, whether I have a great inspiration or not, having to sit down and produce something. It’s rather like the spot I put students…and it’s also what I hear most frequently from professional writers about the most difficult part of writing—the daily discipline of just showing up and doing it. 

I’ve had to struggle with all the things I teach my students: Coming up with ideas worth writing about. Intriguing beginnings and satisfying conclusions. Transitions, logic, and support. What a thesis looks like in real writing—does it need to make a personal appearance in a given piece, and if so, with how much fanfare, and where? How does audience and purpose shape my writing—the tension between my need to capture something in print (writing to learn) vs. any reader’s need to be captured and held (writing to communicate).

So what have 100 blogs done for me?
  1. They’ve made me a better teacher—both by holding me accountable to practice and reflect on my practice weekly, and by making me a practitioner of the skills I teach. 
  2. They’ve connected me with colleagues—the ones who I interact with daily, with whom my interaction is deepened either because they read my blog, or because I’m just more articulate when we talk for having already figured out how to express my attempts, struggles, and discoveries in writing.
  3. They’ve given me experience with 21st century literacies. 
Which brings me back to audience and purpose. Mostly it’s for me, because, realistically speaking, I don’t have much of an audience. My counter just clicked over 4,000 in this week. That averages out to about 40 per post. But it sure is fun to think of those 40 people I connect with each week—whether it’s my mom, a faithful core of Facebook friends, or the 50 page views from Russia I got one week this summer…and the 21 from Romania I just saw when I checked my stats before writing this blog!

So here I am, sounding my 100th barbaric yawp over the schoolrooms of the world (to borrow a phrase from American poet Walt Whitman). And maybe my audience is both myself and other teachers out there who love their subject and their students, and maybe my purpose is to say, this is what it feels like for me when I’m working at my subject of reading and writing, working at my profession of teaching, working at my life of keeping up with the possibilities of technology. Sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, almost always rewarding. If it feels like that for you, too, join me—it’s difficult but not impossible—let’s figure it out together. Because it’s so, so worth it when it works.

Like just nowwhen I finally figured out my audience and purpose!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Better Discussions

Aaaaaaa! Ive been cursed!

It’s the curse of the expert--knowing so much about something that one can’t figure out how to explain it simply. That’s where I was at the beginning of this week with designing a rubric for teaching and assessing small-group discussion. Even with what I’d boiled down into a blog of my biggest take-aways from my summer reading of Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings, I still could get no traction on coming up with a manageable, student-friendly format. 

So I decided to ask the kids. 
  • What happens in a really good small group discussion?
  • What can you do to make that happen?
They discussed it in their assigned groups of 4 or 5 while I walked around eavesdropping and jotted ideas I heard up on the whiteboard. Then I asked each group to contribute one more thing they’d talked about. They had some really good ideas:
  • Good argument
  • On the same page, literally and metaphorically
  • It’s a democracy, with everyone equal
  • Everyone shares opinions
  • Everyone contributes on 1 topic
  • Preparation--do the homework
  • Come with something in mind you want to say
  • Be sure everyone understands
  • That thing where you repeat what someone said
  • Work to address main ideas
  • Ask better questions
Then I turned them to the task of discussing the previous night’s reading of Cry, the Beloved Country. Wow--were the discussions better!

After class, I took the whiteboard notes back to my office and combined them with a couple of old collaboration rubrics and what I’d learned from my reading this summer. Here’s what I came up with for criteria and a description of what “exceptional” (5) looks like for each:
  1. Comes prepared: Reading done and thinking held (journal, post-it notes, annotation, etc.)
  2. Provides useful ideas: Specific, significant, relevant ideas for which student offers/requests explanation, support, examples. 
  3. Listens to others: Nonverbal (eye contact, open posture, stops other activities) and verbal (paraphrases, asks clarifying questions, offers and requests feedback)
  4. Builds positive group dynamics: Checks for understanding, encourages, invites participation, stays on task, and keeps group accountable
  5. Deepens own and group’s understanding: Persistently seeks answers, builds on others’ comments, negotiates meaning, makes connections, always curious
I brought this rubric draft to class, and asked groups to discuss it: Anything you don’t understand? Redundancies? Omissions? Will this help you know in what ways you are contributing to excellent group discussion that deepens your own and others’ learning, and in what ways you can improve? 

Then I again turned them to the task of discussing the previous night’s reading of Cry, the Beloved Country. And the discussions were even better!

I’ll still have to see how the actual use of the rubric for assessment goes next week. (I’ve designed rubrics before that looked great in theory but were nearly impossible to use in practice.) And together the students and I will have to figure out the difference between exceptional, effective, satisfactory, unsatisfactory, and poor (our 5-point rubric) exemplifying of those skills and behaviors. But already the process of collaboratively developing the rubric is increasing learning--which is the whole point of assessment, anyway.

Ta-da! Curse turned into blessing!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Baby Steps: Nurturing Book Love

I’m excited. More students in English 10 this year are reading and talking to me about their reading than ever before. The data--hard and anecdotal--from the first 3 weeks of school:
  • 3 students have already finished a book and made an appointment to talk to me about it. This is unprecedented in my experience. I’ll sometimes have one early bird, but never 3.
  • Every student had a book in hand that he or she was reading by the middle of the 10th class period of the year,  I’ve often had students scrambling for a book to read over Christmas vacation to get the first semester requirement of outside reading done. And I always have 1 or 2 who simply don’t do it.
  • I’m seeing more students than ever before hauling library books around and reading them in the bits of free time throughout a school day: when released early from PE because of a thunderstorm, sitting in my classroom through the morning break before class, when finished early with a vocabulary quiz.
  • A student came to me to ask for advice on the book he was reading because there were so many words he didn’t know. We had a good conversation about reading level, motivation, challenge, word strategies, and monitoring oneself so one doesn’t get too get bogged down. I’ll have to check back and see what decision he made.
What have I done differently this year? Given just a little time, traction, and accountability. I’m thoroughly embarrassed to own that while I have always told students how important reading is, I’ve normally squeezed just a little more instructional time into the year by breezing over the outside reading assignment in 20 seconds or less--“...and you know the requirement--page 1 of your syllabus--300 pages per semester--make an appointment for a book talk when you’re done.”

What got me to change? Reading Penny Kittle’s Book Love: Developing Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent Readers this summer (see my blogs on the first half of the book and the second half of the book).

What have I actually done?
  • Surveyed student reading habits (see first week of school blog)
  • Responded to those surveys with recommendations
  • Given book ads in class--maybe 10 or so
  • Required a list of 5 titles each student might be interested in reading
  • Dedicated 1/2 of 1 period (about 20 minutes) for students to read
Did everyone bring a book to the reading period? No. Some were scrambling through the classroom library before class, or even during the first 10 minutes of class. A couple went to the library. But by the end of the 20 minutes, every student had a book to read, and I got such a nerdy teacher high from looking around at a classroom full of adolescents absorbed in books.

One of those students discovered during that time that the book she had chosen to start was the second in a trilogy. She came to me after class and asked about the graphic novels I’d recommended, so I reeled off a few titles which she copied down. The next day she came before class to tell me she hadn’t been able to locate the titles in the library. I went with her, and she finally got matched up with Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang.

Only time will tell if the small changes I’ve made will nurture life-long readers--maybe its just a class of bookworms already...and I know that the teachers in earlier grades are also improving their instruction every year...and Im sure 1 or 2 students may still abandon the books they've started--but the results are encouraging so far!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Faith, Perspective, and English Class

41 students from 12 countries. I’ve met my 10th grade English class now. I know their names and have been politely instructed in the Russian pronunciation of “Michael.” (“My name is pronounced Me-Ha-el.  Me as in myself, then ha as Ha! I caught you! and el as in just the letter L.”) I’ve canvassed them on their reading habits in order to recommend books to them. (One said he would read just about anything but Harry Potter, and another said she was planning to finish the Harry Potter series.) And Ive collected a narrative essay related to something they are good at or enjoy (from soccer to scuba diving to online gaming to digital art).

The students relationship to Christianity is as varied as their reading habits and hobbies, and I figured that after a couple of days of telling my Christian perspective, which would shape how I taught all year, it behooved me to inquire about my audience’s faith perspective. So I asked them to respond to the following journal question:

We all have a perspective that is shaped by many things including (but not limited to) gender, age, ethnicity/nationality, socio-economic status, education, experiences, and faith. Because perspective always shapes communication, we will communicate most effectively if we can make our biases explicit. With this in mind, identify and articulate your faith perspective and what effect that has on your participation in the learning community that is CAJ's English 10 class.
1. How would you identify your faith--by religion, by level of knowledge, by level of commitment, by level of how that affects your life?
2. If you did not identify as Christian, what is your perspective of Christianity?
3. How do you see this shaping your involvement in English 10 this year?

The candidness with which most students responded leaves me in a sort of awe at my opportunity to walk with them through English class this year. While most are Christian, some are not, and some are uncertain. And even within those categories, there are as many shades as there are students.

There are students who are...
  • from Christian and from nonChristian families.
  • well-versed in Bible knowledge, and have no Bible knowledge.
  • thoughtful and articulate about their world view, whatever it is, or have little to say.
Of students who are Christian, there are those who are...
  • passionate about their faith and looking to grow.
  • lukewarm in their faith and dissatisfied with this.
  • Christian in name and admit it has little effect on their lives.
  • struggling to live their faith in Japanese society.
Of students who are not Christian, there are those who...
  • are thoughtful, articulate atheists and agnostics.
  • are respectful of Christianity and interested in understanding other views.
  • admire the dedication and service of Christians.
  • are wary of conflicts escalated by religion.
Of students in the gray area, there are those...
  • from Christian families who are rethinking the faith they’ve inherited.
  • from nonChristian families who accept many tenets of Christian faith, but don’t yet see themselves as ready to name themselves Christian.
I love teaching English for the opportunity it gives us to grapple with world view questions, and I hope the class’s discussions and writing will continue to be as honest, searching, and respectful. And I hope that at the end of the year all students will have a clearer understanding of a Christian world view and of their own world view, should that differ. 

Why do I have these hopes for English class? I believe that

  • Because people are made in the image of God, we are creative, communicative truth-seekers. Literature is how authors creatively communicate the truth they have sought. As we read, think, write, discuss, and present, we also exercise our imageness in similar ways.
  • As we read literature, we can see how authors have celebrated the beauty and struggled with the brokenness of God’s creation--whether they articulate it that way or not--and we respond by ourselves actively engaging in the celebration and the struggle.
  • As we understand our fellow human beings’ perspectives--authors, characters, classmates--we are better able to love our neighbors who also bear the image of the God we love, who are loved by him, and who he commands us to love.