Friday, October 31, 2014

In Praise of Non-Virtual Networking

The irony of denigrating virtual networking in a blog would not be lost on me, so I’m not going to do that. But in all of the virtual networking opportunities available, don’t forget the ones you pass in the hallway, at the coffee pot, or waiting to use the copy machine every day.

I’ve taught in someone else’s room for the last 10 years that I’ve been teaching 10th grade English. Five different someones. In some ways, not ideal. And yet the networking that has happened as I’ve learned from other people’s classroom arrangements, libraries, bulletin boards, and as those other people have caught parts of my classes, grading papers at the back of the room while I taught, as well as all the conversations that those encounters have sparked, have been significant.  

The first year I taught one class in a math room where the teacher had the desks in pods of 4. It was too much of a hassle to move them into rows and back for only 1 period, so I left them. And the engagement that happens when students discuss with a small group rather than a whole class—well, I’ve been using small groups as the backbone of my class ever since.

A year or two later I struck up a conversation with the 9th grade English/social studies teacher as I was clearing out of her room. I said, “You know how writing is now broken down into 6 traits, so that when students want to know how to become better writers, we can say more than, ‘Practice writing’? Shouldn’t there be a similar thing with reading—the 6 traits of reading? So that when students or their parents ask how they can become better readers, we can say more than, ‘Practice reading’?” She recalled a book by Cris Tovani that someone had talked to her about. Teaching reading hasn’t been the same in our school since.

For the last several years, I’ve been teaching in the 11th grade English/humanities room. That 11th grade teacher and I have developed a pretty high awareness of how our classes build. 

One of the highlights of my week was when that 11th grade English teacher reported having reminded a couple of students in search of an independent reading book that they had made a list at the end of 10th grade of 5 books they might be interested in reading over the summer. (Here's my blog about that activity.) He was even able to pull up the list for the student who’d forgotten all about it. The student then said, “Oh, yes, I wanted to read Divergent!” (This was a student who at the beginning of 10th grade had declared, “I don’t like to read, and I can’t remember any books.”)

I’m glad I read The Book Whisperer last spring and thought to have students make those lists. I’m glad I had the relationship with a colleague to share the lists. I’m glad the colleague remembered those lists and was able to pull them up for students. I’m glad the cumulative effect is students becoming more engaged readers.

The best idea in the world, all by itself, is just a good idea. Shared and reinforced in a community, it becomes growth. Who are you sharing your good ideas with? Whose good ideas are you sharing? 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Talking about Words

Introducing vocabulary lists can be one of the deadliest activities to invade a classroom, but it doesn’t have to be. This week I pulled out a simple activity I remembered a workshop facilitator using several years ago: 

  • I handed out the list of 20 words and definitions taken from the novel.
  • Students looked it over and came up with the number of words they were already familiar with, from 0 to 20.  
  • Students lined up in order of the number of words they already knew.
  • We folded the line, so in the class with 24 students, for example, #1 matched up with #24, #2 with #23, #3 with #22, etc.
  • Students asked their partner questions about the words they were not familiar with. 

Five minutes of engaged conversations ensued, and questions that couldn’t be definitively answered by the partner were referred to me:

  • Is “bondage” a good word or a bad word? (There’s always a good number of students who understand that it’s the noun form of “bond,” and team bonding is a good thing….)
  • What’s the difference between “dispirited” and “listless”? (It might look the same on the outside, but “listless” could have any number of causes—physical, mental, or emotional—but “dispirited” is always emotional.)
  • Some giggles over the difficulty of saying “listless” 3 times fast. (It’s okay—we don’t really pronounce the middle “t” when we say it.)
  • When I heard students pronouncing con-TRACT (“decrease in size, number, or range”) as if it were “a signed agreement” (CON-tract), we had a little discussion about English words that change pronunciation when they change part of speech. 

Just a little no-prep activity to get kids engaged with words. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Engagement and Questions

Two things I’ve been thinking about this week are (1) what students experience in school and (2) how great it is when they ask questions about what we know they need to know and about what they actually want to know.

(1) What students experience in school: When I read this blog by an instructional coach who spent 2 days shadowing 2 high school students, I thought, how glad I am I am not a student, having to sit and study 6 to 8 things a day in rapid succession, that someone else has determined is good for me. The author discovered how deadening it is to sit and be a sponge class after class, and listed several takeaways he would immediately integrate into his classes. 

When I reposted the blog, my daughter, in her final year of preparation to be an English teacher, thought it was rather obvious. Hmm. Maybe they’re doing better preparation for English teachers now than 30 years ago. (One would hope!) Maybe it’s because she’s still a student, on the experiencing rather than the inflicting end (the explanation she offered). 

At any rate, it is good for teachers, even teachers who work hard at making their classes active and engaging, to remember how stir-crazy we go after a single day of sitting through 6 hours of a professional development seminar. 

So thinking on this this week, when I handed out a project/presentation prompt that included a review of slide ware do’s and don’t’s, I didn’t assume students would read it on their own and ask questions, and I didn’t lecture through it. I gave them 2 minutes to read through the handout, and 2 minutes to talk to a partner about (1) the most obvious do/don’t and (2) the one they see most frequently broken. Then I took remaining questions.

(2) How good it is when there is both the structure and safety in the classroom that students will ask questions. Two examples this week:

"What is a topic sentence?" If a 10th grader doesn’t know, this is an important question  for him or her to be asking. A student asked me this week because when students turn in an essay rough draft, I ask them (among other things) to underline topic sentences and number them with the corresponding point from their preview. I was able to pull out a sample essay we’d read and point out the topic sentences which (1) preview the paragraph topic, (2) transition from the previous paragraph, and (3) connect to the thesis.

"Is there more than one Johannesburg?" In preparing a slide for a presentation on background information for the novel Cry, the Beloved Country, a student had searched Google Images for “Johannesberg” and gotten a lot of verdant pictures. She knew that didn’t fit well with her own mental images from reading. When I pointed out the spelling glitch, and she changed -berg to -burg, suddenly the images were full of high-rises, highways, and city lights. She let out a sigh of relief—she WAS right. I’m so happy she was puzzled enough and free enough to ask. 

On the other hand, there was a student with an incomplete assignment who I talked to this week. After I took the initiative in talking to her and offering her some pointers, she said, “You mean, I could just email you any time with random questions?” I assured her she could, adding, “That’s one of the reasons we have writing time in class, while I am available for questions.” 

I’m glad some students are asking questions. I’m always looking for ways to invite more, by structure and by safety.

Would I want to be a student in my class, and how can I structure and invite more questions? Food for thought.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

School WithOut Walls (SWOW)

Beautiful live guitar music while the other 11 sophomore girls and I sit around the cabin living room working on the day’s Bible study in leadership lessons (and only one of the girls had even known before that the musician played guitar!). The one student who is quietly the first in the kitchen to start cooking and the last in the kitchen cleaning up. A tiny kitchen bursting at the seams with everyone trying to pitch in. Impromptu song and dance performances from the cup song to High School Musical numbers to every Silly Song with Larry ever produced. Sides of my students I dont see in class! Im sure that I learn as much as the10th graders do during our annual School WithOut Walls (SWOW) week in October. (See here for what I learned on last years SWOW.)

The planned curriculum involves hands-on learning about teamwork and servant leadership, as well as about different parts of God’s world, for each of the 4 high school years. The faculty has worked to design the 4 separate SWOW experiences so that a scope and sequence of learnings will result in graduates who know when and how to effectively lead and follow with a heart of loving service for God and for people. 

Sometimes the good results we’re seeing from this leadership curriculum point to ways our design works that we hadn’t even realized. In my final debriefing at lunch Friday, I asked the girls from my cabin to think about what they learned in 9th grade SWOW and what they learned this year, and how they’ve grown in teamwork and leadership skills since last year.

I learned something from their answers. A recurring theme was that having 2 different groups this year—a cabin group of all girls and a color group of a class cross-section—helped them grow as leaders. (The cabin group cooked, cleaned up, had devotions, built a fire, and negotiated 12 girls and one shower together. The color groups hiked, biked, did teamwork games, enacted a simulation, and went to an aquarium.) One said that last year she just thought about herself as a leader; this year she had to think about the group she was leading, knowing the individuals and figuring out how to help them. Several others said that last year they’d just stood in the background and done what others told them to, but this year the safety of the high functioning cabin group of girls had given them confidence to speak up more in the mixed groups. 

I’d never heard it expressed that way before. I asked them whether something could be changed in 9th grade SWOW to help this happen earlier, or whether it was just the necessary progression and developmentfrom one group to twoalong with natural maturing, and they all thought it was the latter.

I wonder how that bit of knowledge can help me be even more intentional in designing not only SWOW groups and experiences, but the groups back in English class?

I told you back at the beginning that I think I learn as much as the kids from these experiences!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Learning Vocabulary

Minds at work—one of my favorite things. I love seeing them humming away. I love seeing them hit an obstacle, identify it, and adjust. I love seeing the “a-ha!” of epiphany. 

One small but very effective window on minds at work is vocabulary quiz correction slips. I first thought I’d offer the chance to get half-credit because I do want students to learn the words. I keep doing it because not only do students learn the words, but also I discover a few important things: 
  1. How hard some minds are working when they give a wrong answer—just working on a slightly wrong tack 
  2. The misunderstandings behind the mistakes, so I can counter them earlier next year
  3. A graceful way to acknowledge my mistakes and give full credit when a student can persuade me I actually have written a prompt that works equally well with another word
The catch is that it takes a bit more work on the part of both student and teacher than just writing a different matching letter. Students have to explain the misunderstanding as well as why another answer actually fits better. But I really do enjoy seeing when the process works. Here are some of the answers that delighted my English teacher soul this week:

One student had matched hooligan rather than accomplice to the sentence One robber was caught, but his ___ escaped. As she explained her answer, I realized she had understood that both words were people who did bad things—she just hadn’t gotten all the nuances.

Another student had matched vacillate to the same prompt. He explained, “I thought it fit because there was a person besides the robber who alternated in and out to escape.” (Hmm…He actually had studied the definition to get the bit about alternating in and out.) Why did accomplice fit better? “This word fits better because the robber was having a partner, and accomplice means a person who joins with another in carrying out some plan (in this case, robbing).” I think he knows the word now.

Every once in a while, the explanation will be so appropriate that I end up giving full credit, like this one: “I thought indifferent fit He responded to all my questions with a(n) ___ grunt because if someone responded to you with a grunt it sounds like they don’t really care, or they are indifferent to what you are saying.” That actually does work just as well as inarticulate

Sometimes there’s even a glint of humor: “I thought perplexed fit She ___ his petitions with Amens.” Why? “I forgot what perplexed meant. I was perplexed by the meaning of perplexed.” That student has also learned a new word. (In case you were wondering, the answer was punctuated.)

As students realize what kinds of misunderstandings they fall into, they begin to ask good questions before the test, like, “Mrs. Essenburg, what is the difference between inevitable and evade?” I’d never thought of the relationship between those two words before, but upon further discussion we clarified that though people often try to evade the inevitable, or wish they could, it is not possible.

And as we talk about vocabulary, more questions, even ones unrelated to quizzes come up. My favorite this week was “Which is it proper to say, ‘You should be ashamed,’ or ‘You should be shameful’?” You should NOT be shameful, but if you have done something shameful, you should be ashamed. 

Aren’t words wonderful? How do we even learn them all? Aren’t questioning minds wonderful? Isn’t a classroom full of curious, hardworking minds a wonderful place to be?