Sunday, December 27, 2015

School Mission Statement: More Than a Logo

When I burned the sweet rolls, I impacted my world: excited eaters were disappointed by the aftertaste of carbon, and my husband spent a long time scrubbing the pan. “Impacting the world” is a lofty sounding current catch phrase, but really there isn’t one of us who can avoid doing it every day.

The bits of world we impact may be big or small; we may do it in a positive or a negative way, effectively or haphazardly. So when my school put “impact the world” in the middle of its mission statement, it said that the point of education is to equip students with the knowledge, skills, and understandings so they can determine which parts of the world are within their circle of impact, what kinds of impact they need, and how to most effectively do it—whether that is troubleshooting an engine knock, planning healthy family menus on a budget, or negotiating a Middle East peace process.

In 10th and 11th grade English class, the skills are mostly about communication—how we take meaning from language by reading and listening, think about it critically, and then add our voices to the conversation by speaking and writing. The content on which we practice is various works of literature, along with the bones of language: vocabulary, grammar, rhetoric. Some of the understandings have to do with language itself: as a gift that can be used for joy, love, and justice or abused for self-aggrandizement, manipulation, and deceit. Other understandings have to do with the truths that each author wrestles with—about human dignity, the purpose of life, individual identity, and how we relate to each other.

So every day, everything that students learn about language is helping them grow in their ability to skillfully use reading, listening, thinking, speaking, and writing to impact their immediate and ever-farther-reaching worlds. 

But the entire mission statement says, ”Equipping students to walk with God and impact the world for Him.” Everyone impacts the world, but what does the “walk with God” and “for Him” mean in a Christian school where the majority of students do not come from Christian homes? 

First, what does it mean for me to embed my own impacting of the world between “walking with God” and doing it “for Him”? For me, it is absolutely essential. “Walking with God” is the source of motivation, the ground where my roots draw purpose and strength for why I care about impacting the world when it seems hard, risky, impossible, or just not as much fun as other options. And doing it “for Him” is what keeps me grounded in appropriate humility and hope. Otherwise, it is so easy to take my failures or successes too much to heart, becoming discouraged or arrogant. 

That is what I tell my students and what I hope I model for them. Whether or not it means anything to them at the moment, what I hope my students learn is…
  • the content, skills, and understandings to critically and effectively impact their worlds.
  • that all people manage their impacts based on their values: understanding those values will affect the impact made.
  • that Christian faith is not at odds with critical thinking and intellectual achievement.
  • that Christians live the grace they preach.
  • something that will stay with them until they come to that point in their own lives, whether it is while they are at school or many years down the line, when they are at the end of their own hope, love, strength…and they remember they had teachers who lived how God becomes a far more durable hope, love, and strength for anyone who asks.
The end of a calendar year, beginning of a new semester, is a good time to pause and refocus on the really big picture. What is it that you hope your students leave your class and your school with? What are you doing in your classroom every day to make it as probable as possible that they will?

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Power of Regular, Focused Instruction, Practice, and Feedback

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at
Did you know that more Americans fear public speaking than death? But we have to do it all the time--whether to a job interviewer, a team, a class, a client, or an auditorium full of people. I hope as a teacher to bless kids with less fear and more eagerness to lovingly serve their neighbor-audiences with their presentation skills.
I have this regularly recurring epiphany: Students learn what I focus them on with a purpose, an assessment, and instruction with regular practice and feedback toward the assessment.

The “regular practice and feedback” I almost forgot with the presentation for my Honors English 10 semester 1 exam. It was 3 weeks before the exam when I remembered that they were not skilled presenters (a lesson learned first quarter with their initial presentation), and that they needed some immediate and effective training—more than I had planned for with 2 more weeks needed to finish the research paper and then only 1 week for transforming it into a polished presentation.

What they needed was a lot of practice and feedback. Then I realized this does not mean a huge block of time—just regular time for an extended period. So for the last 3 weeks of the year, I initiated the 1-sentence impromptu speech. (Now, I realize I am lucky enough to have very an embarrassingly small class of only 8 this year, but even with a large class, I could get through the entire class every 3 days.) 

What did this look like? Either at the beginning or the end of the period, each student stood up and answered a question of the day. It could be reporting to the class (What is your research question?) or process analysis (What is one problem you’ve encountered in your research?). It could be goal-setting (What are you going to accomplish today?) or an exit ticket (What is something you’ve learned about writing a research paper?). Or sometimes just community building in the holiday spirit (What’s a favorite Christmas memory?).

We started with a 1-minute mini-lesson reviewing non-verbal and verbal presentation skills from the rubric, especially the first week or so: 

Non-verbal--posture (stand on 2 feet, don’t hide or lean), gestures (avoid nervous gestures like hair-flipping, cuff-fiddling, or pocket-jingling; do choose one big, significant gesture), eye contact (3-5 seconds per person, or about the length of one sentence). 

Verbal--volume (If your audience can’t hear you, the best presentation in the world will have no effect), speed (neither too fast nor too slow, but just right), expression (use pauses, vary pitch and speed, and avoid filler words such as um and like).

As students sat down, I could give a quick bit of feedback—only positive at first (“Great—I could hear you” or “Nice gesture toward yourself and then the audience”). The first couple of days they were clearly nervous and awkward, but by day 3 most were relaxing and I could say, “Good posture. Remember to not tug on your hair.” Or ask, “Who had really eye contact?” The day they recounted a Christmas memory, we discussed how when telling a story that had an emotional connection, expression naturally came alive.

When we finished the research paper and got to the 1-week I had scheduled for the presentation preparation, we spent a little longer on the difference between a paper and a presentation, watching bits of TED talks as examples. And I gave extra credit points for students who would video-record and assess themselves on the rubric I’d given them.

When it came to the final exam, the presentations were vastly better than the last time. In fact, I think the students even enjoyed watching each other’s presentations. They complimented each other on an engaging demonstration or story or slide, for involving the audience and for referencing a previous presentation. They asked for feedback on how something they tried had worked. 

Makes me wonder—what is the skill that confounds both me and students that I’m going to really focus instruction, practice, and feedback on next semester? Maybe sentence variety—a couple mentioned that in the reflections on their research papers. Well, I have some time over Christmas vacation to plan!

Is there a skill you and your students feel stuck on? Where you say, “I taught it, but they just didn't get it!? Are you giving students regular, focused instruction, practice, and feedback? What’s worked for you or what do you want to try next year?

Friday, December 11, 2015

Word Walls in Secondary: Part of a Language-Rich Environment

The new word wall in Honors English 10!
  • I knew an acute angle was a small one, so I figured an acute case of depression must be a small one.
  • What’s the difference between paradox and parody again? (It had never occurred to me to think of those two words as potentially confusable, but when the question was asked, I could see it!)
  • I knew discrimination is bad, so I figured indiscriminate must be good. 
These are conversations I’ve had with students this past week. Isn’t English strange? But I’m really happy that our classroom environment has fostered the kind of word awareness and conversations where these misunderstandings can be uncovered and addressed. Anything we do to foster this kind of awareness raises the level of vocabulary learning not just for that word, but all the time.

A word wall is not a panacea for all vocabulary woes, but it is one more way to provide a language rich environment and foster word awareness. This week I took the plunge and put and put one up in my English 10 classroom. One of the final motivations was exams coming up next week, and a vocabulary exam is part of mine. (I had three other factors that finally got me implementing, but I’ll get to them later.)

We have had 6 lists of 20 words each, so in the last 5 days of classes, we reviewed one list each day. (The most recent one they'll have to review on their own, but it should be pretty fresh in their memories.) This is good because we know from recent learning studies that frequent review and quizzing helps things stick. It’s also good as an energizer at the beginning of class.

Here’s what I did: When kids came in, there were word cards spread around on the desks. Sometimes they chatted about the words around them, or looked up the one on their own desk. Especially by the end of the week when they began to anticipate what was to come.

When the bell rang I introduced the game, which varied from day to day. Here were some:
  • Look up your word on the review list. Be sure you know the definition and can use it in a sentence. Find a partner, and teach each other your word. Exchange cards, find another partner, and teach each other your word. Repeat as many times as you have time for.
  • Find a word you don’t know. Find someone who can help you with that word; find someone you can help.
  • Students spread out throughout the room. I call out a definition. First person to slap the correct card gets it. 
The last one was the favorite. (It also bent my “sullen” card.) One strategy was planting yourself near a word you were sure of and just waiting for the definition. Students also soon realized that if you saw the card across the room, but no one else knew it, you needed to meander slowly toward it rather than making a beeline and attracting attention. At the end, one student said, “Can we do that again?”

Okay, true confession: I haven’t actually yet used the word wall itself—I’ve just created it by putting up each day’s review cards after the game. But students have reviewed vocabulary, and the wall is up so we can all be reminded of the words second semester, and I can be reminded to use it.

And the other three final pieces of motivation? (1) I saw another teacher put one up. (2) I found out where to get card stock from another teacher. (3) On Monday, I’m going to present to secondary faculty on vocabulary teaching and learning ideas, one of which is using a word wall. I can’t very well present on something I don’t do!

If it takes that much cumulative input, support, and motivation to get me to make a change in my teaching, let’s keep giving students plenty of input, support, and motivation to make changes in their learning!

What do you do in your class to build in 4 parts of a comprehensive vocabulary program?
  1. Providing rich and varied language experiences
  2. Teaching individual words
  3. Teaching word-learning strategies
  4. Fostering word consciousness

Friday, December 4, 2015

3 Questions to Help Student Learning Stick beyond the Assessment

Hard at work editing!

Remember the relief of turning in a test so you forget the information? Or handing in a paper in so you could be done with it? How can teachers counteract that tendency to learn and forget? One way I’ve found is by never letting students “just” turn in an assessment: they must reflect on it.

Every time students turn in a final draft essay or paper, they must do 3 things:
  1. Self-assess it using the 6-traits rubric I always use (ideas/content, organization, voice, sentence fluency, diction, conventions).
  2. Write something they learned in each step of the writing process (prewriting, drafting, revising, editing).
  3. Ask me one specific question about their writing.
This accomplishes several things:
  1. They actually have to read over the rubric and put some thought into what the lines mean and to what extent their writing meets the criteria. If their own ratings differ too greatly from mine, that’s a misunderstanding uncovered we can now address.
  2. They review the writing process, and hopefully deepen their understanding of it and their commitment to using it in the ways that help them most on into college and life when no one is setting due dates for each step any more.
  3. I can be sure my feedback addresses something they want to know about. (They probably won’t skip reading comments even on a graded paper that are a direct answer to a question they wrote.)
Here are some of yesterday's reflections from 11th grade AP Language students when they handed in the final draft of their synthesis paper on education yesterday. (See last week’s blog for the assignment and first draft reflections.)

What did you learn in each step of the writing process?

  • Gathering all my thoughts together and organizing them was key.
  • I learned how to gather and pick information I want to use to support my thesis.
  • I learned the importance of actually looking through the text and getting an idea of which sources to use. 
  • Due to all the notes that I had already written down, drafting became much easier than I expected. I was able to find evidence and sources that clearly matched my ideas. Also, I enjoyed writing about this topic, so it was easier to write.
  • I researched effective ways to use a quote to support my idea.
  • During the drafting stage, I learned that the thesis should be the overall guideline for your points in the body paragraphs, and it is important to make your points clear and concise through the thesis so the readers can get a good feel for what the essay is about.
  • I learned that the flow and impression of the essay change by the order of the paragraphs.
  • It was nice having time to revise in class, for I had the opportunity to ask questions.
  • Print out the paper during revision, since seeing it on paper can help me catch things I normally wouldn’t have seen on the screen. It is also important to make sure the paper flows as a whole.
  • After the revising, editing was quite simple, but I learned the importance of using a page break in order to keep my Works Cited page under the MLA format guidelines.
  • I learned to pay attention to small mistakes in the paper, such as extra space between the date and title, editorial format on Works Cited page, and space between parentheses and periods.
  • During the editing stage, I learned that you have to list out the authors within a Works Cited entry if there are 3 of them, but any more than that and you can use “et al.” to denote additional authors.
  • Tenses must be focused on.
What is one specific question you have for Mrs. Essenburg about your writing?
  • How to improve word choice without misusing the word.
  • What are other effective ways to grab the audience’s attention?
  • How much support should I provide for evidence that I find from one of the sources in a synthesis essay?
  • Did my writing improve in regards to fixing my passive voice?
I can get motivated to give feedback on questions students are asking! I feel good that they are taking ownership of the writing process. I noticed that several students asked about word choice. That would be a good focus in our next unit. I also noticed that comments on editing frequently centered on MLA format. Is that a good thing—they feel comfortable with their ability with other conventions, and MLA format is the new big challenge? Or is it a bad thing—they’re becoming obsessed with MLA format over clear and sophisticated communication? Maybe that’s a discussion we need to have.

Now I’ve reflected on their reflections! The learning never ends because in life, few assessments are ever purely summative. Help students become lifelong learners by giving them opportunities to reflect on their learning.

How do you help student learning stick beyond the assessment? 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Metacognition: When Students Read and Write about Education

Enjoying my Thanksgiving dinner, and being thankful for students' reading, thinking, and writing about education.

"To what extent does school serve the goal of a true education?" That has been one of the essential questions for our current AP Language unit on education. We read and discussed the rhetoric and argument of thinkers from the classic transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson to the civil rights activist James Baldwin to the modern young adult author Sherman Alexie (see last week’s blog for the full list of readings). 

Over this Thanksgiving vacation, I’ve read the rough drafts of the synthesis papers my AP Language students wrote in response to the unit. Among the many things I’m thankful for is what I saw in these papers: students’ thinking, and the ways they are invested in their own education in school and beyond. Here are some of their rough draft thoughts:

  • Education takes place anywhere if one desires to learn to feed their mind, and school should be the one place to guide students to the world of knowledge, and to undock their hidden skills, interests, and enthusiasm. 
  • My definition of education is the teaching of basic concepts of learning (such as study habits, time-management, and organization) and applying them to help people thrive during adulthood.
  • Although getting satisfying grades is a splendid achievement, there is much more to education than being best in class or receiving that ideal 4.0 GPA. To receive a proper education, one must have a true desire to learn. Education is here to form one’s foundation—to help one have the knowledge to look at the world from their own perspective and have the ability to identify something as simple as right from wrong, or even something a little more complex such as who they should vote for in a presidential election….
  • True education allows a person to develop their worldview, sharpen and shape their natural talent, and enables them to distinguish fact from fiction. It is a lifelong process that never ends, only changes with age.
  • Education should be an institution to set a foundation in hopes of giving the opportunity for people to think for themselves, rather than spitting back out information they received, and to actually process and formulate their own thoughts.

I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to work with such thoughtful young people. Next week we will further craft and polish the arguments and rhetoric, but for now, I hope they are making wise choices to learn gratitude by enjoying the many gifts of a holiday weekend. That’s what I’m about to do, anyway, and I hope you are, too.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Don't Forget Joy

A spot that helps me remember joy

Don’t forget joy.

I was reminded of that this past week when one of my students remarked on a line out of an essay we read: “Part of our calling as delighted creatures of God is to be playful.” The student’s overwhelming impression from a limited time at a Christian school is that what Christians talk about as God’s calling on our lives and our duty to God is always difficult, grit-your-teeth kinds of things.

Sometimes. But don’t forget joy.

Bad things happen in the world at large and in our own individual worlds. In the midst of this, we struggle. We struggle to be our best selves, to know what is right and wise and kind, to follow God. To cooperate in the healing of the brokenness in ourselves, in those around us, and in the systems within which we live. The brokenness of ignorance, fear, hatred, apathy, injustice, pride, and so much more.

In the midst of the struggle, don’t forget joy. 

While we may wonder about the God who sees every sufferer and allows the suffering to continue, don’t forget that the same God sees every sunrise on every deserted island beach and every baby mountain goat taking its first step. That was the one thing I remember from a large book I read a number of years ago—The Pleasures of God by John Piper. That idea, and the title of the chapter it was in: “The Complex Emotional Life of God.”

Jesus was not only a man of sorrows, but also a man who could talk to his friends—and be taken seriously—about giving them his joy so their joy could be complete (John 15:11).

How did we come to read this essay? I included it as the Biblical perspective piece in our current AP English Language unit, “Does School Educate?” We have read pieces in the textbook such as “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read,” an article by Francine Prose in Harper’s Magazine; an excerpt from the American classic Education by Ralph Waldo Emerson; “A Talk to Teachers” by James Baldwin at the height of the American civil rights movement; “Superman and Me” by Sherman Alexie, a current young adult author who also happens to be Native American; “School” by Kyoko Mori, comparing the author’s experience in US and Japanese educational systems; and “This Is Water,” a commencement address by David Foster Wallace. 

They were wonderful, varied pieces: varied in time, perspective, style, and argument. We had good discussions. (Especially the fishbowl discussion!) And I’m glad I remembered back in the planning stages of the unit to include a Christian perspective piece. And I’m glad it was this one.

Now students are synthesizing what they have read, analyzed, and discussed into a paper articulating their own view of education. 

I hope they remember that part of it is for joy. I hope I remember. I hope I can continue, by content and by example, to teach joy as well as struggle.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Walk a Mile...

Hypothesis: Biggest distinction between Minoan and Myceneaean cultures is time and place
Oh, no…We have to dress out for PE…Did I shave my legs this week?
Please, please, please don’t let me fall on my rear doing this roll-your-foot over-the-ball drill!
Ugh…pulling school clothes back on after 6th period PE…

These are not comments overheard from high school students—they are mine. Not from high school, but from this week. Thoughts from my brain the day that I shadowed a high school student. I wanted to see for myself what an average day felt like for one of my students in this new school. (Inspiration for the experience in this Washington Post article.)

I think I learned more about myself than about the classes I was in or the adolescents I was with, though it was also a good exercise in empathy and already prompted at least one change in my class. In addition, the students and teachers were great, acknowledging and then ignoring me in just the right combination to dissipate any awkwardness that could have been.

The experience reaffirmed for me a number of things that I hereby recommit myself to:
  1. Helping students transition into my class with focus and energy. Five minutes ago they were eye-deep in solving quadratic formulas. Now they must suddenly be passionately involved in the English class novel. 
  2. Giving meaning—not just the first day of the unit, but every day. Reminding them why this unit is important, and how today’s class will help them with that content, skill, or understanding.
  3. Explicitly teaching skills and strategies—for making connections, for reading disciplinary texts, for managing time within the class.
  4. Minimizing homework—if I must give it, being sure students understand how it is important to important learning goals.
What I learned about myself was my need to be engaged, and what goes on in my brain as I work to engage myself. The first thing I did was start taking notes. Why? Nobody’s going to grade my notebook, and I won’t be here for the test. Shoot, I even started on the math assignment! Because disengagement bores me. So if we have time to work on our timelines, I might as well try to find descriptions and pictures in the history text that will help me distinguish the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. 

I also engage because I must admit I am sort of a nerd. I’d forgotten how fun phrases like endoplasmic reticulum are to say. How cool it is when a math equation suddenly makes sense and all the sharp-edged confusion suddenly resolves into gorgeous order. 
This is only half of my math notes...

Sometimes the meaning-making is a multi-step process. When I was told to put “Draco” in the first box of a chart tracing steps to Athenian democracy, my brain protested: “J.K. Rowling would NOT have named Malfoy after a good guy!” But then I found out that he wasn’t a good guy—Draco precipitated Greek democracy by his harsh repression of lower class unrest over wealth disparity in ancient Athens. Ah—Draco Malfoy, the aristocrat we love to hate. Then I grabbed a dictionary and checked the etymology of draconian. Sure enough—from the Greek dictator. And here I’d always figured it had something to do with dragons!
Where's Draco?

How do we model, scaffold, invite, and require these inquiry skills and strategies?

When I intentionally pulled back from engagement because I didn’t want to interfere with the process of a group project already underway, I was bored. So the question is, what comes first engagement or interest? Because once that virtuous cycle kicks in, all the teacher has to do is get out of the way. The more important question: Which comes first—disengagement or boredom? And how can we interrupt that vicious cycle and turn it into the virtuous one?

Even I, the student predisposed to engage and learn, found it sort of jarring to be transported at the sound of a bell every 45 minutes from English to science to social studies to math, and to be suddenly expected to put the brakes on my English brain, exchange textbooks, and go zero-to-sixty in ten seconds in my science brain. 

As teachers, we switch classes, but not quite so radically—and without some of them being ones we feel less comfortable with or invested in. And while I may feel repetitive doing a little review every single day of the unit objectives, their significance, and an orientation to the place of what we’re doing today in that larger picture—the students have had 6 other sets of objectives and significances in between. 

And, of course, homework. The first class it seemed reasonable. The second class I took it in stride. The third class I started to be glad I wouldn’t actually have to do it. And the fourth class I felt like another rock had been piled on my head. Even though I didn’t actually have to do it. Yes, we teachers take home papers to grade. But it’s our work—self-assigned, so to speak. I know what I hear teachers say when they get extra work assigned by other people for which they see no real purpose….

Real change? The next class I taught was an editing day for the paper we’d been working on. I was determined to set the stage and give meaning. I tried to remind them of the analogy I’d used on a previous editing day: Editing is hygiene for your writing, getting them to come up with the word hygiene. Blank. (They did remember the t-shirt I’d worn: "Let’s eat Grandma. // Let’s eat, Grandma. // Commas save lives.") I suddenly remembered a blog I’d pinned the night before about energizers for the beginning of class, and I drew a hang man game on the board.

You should have seen those 10th graders suddenly sit up straighter in their seats, draw a collective deep breath, and generate energy as they began guessing letters. Yup, that's a keeper.

Love a student today—walk a mile in her shoes (literally or imaginatively)—and make one modification in your next class. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Finding Joy

What gives you joy?

Putting my feet in the East China Sea after a day of work gives me joy.

The color of a dragon fruit smoothie gives me joy.

Learning and growth give me joy.

Learning and growth give me such joy—whether it’s experiencing it myself, sharing it with someone else, or seeing it happen in someone else—that’s something I just re-realized about myself. Which is why I am thankful for a job that challenges me to always learn and grow and gives me opportunities for relationships with colleagues where we can share our learning and growth so we can help students learn and grow. I had many little and big moments of all of the above this week, and I could probably write a whole blog on each of them, but for today, I’m just going to list and celebrate them.


I experimented with photojournalism. (See photos above.) That sounds pretty bombastic. It’s just that I’m mostly about words, though I understand images are powerful for many people and play a particularly big part in internet communication. So for a variety of reasons, for the last week I’ve been taking a few pictures each day on a certain theme or slice of my day and posting them on Facebook. What’s most interesting to me is how looking at my life through that lens shapes even my own attitude toward my own life—looking for a unity, an angle, or a storyline creates one. That’s an insight I’m bringing back to English class!

I wrote with students. That’s a goal I always have, but only infrequently accomplish. Tuesday I wrote a timed AP-type essay with my AP Language class. Funny, but it’s sort of intimidating. What if, after all my posturing as an expert on writing, when I actually have to write what they write, it comes out awful? That thought itself could be an important thing to share with kids. It didn’t come out awful—though I almost hope it does sometime in the future, so they can see that timed essays are terrifying for everyone, everyone has bad writing days, they are survivable, and first drafts are never fantastic, which is why for most writing situations, multiple drafts are essential. I also learned some empathy and earned a slightly different place in the debriefing discussion afterward.

I started to read a new professional book. Moving into a new school and new position, I’ve been spending my time rehashing what I already know, figuring out how to apply it to this institution, to this class. I didn’t realize until I started reading So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning by Cris Tovani, and getting excited about some fresh input and ideas, how much I missed that.

With colleagues:

I had many conversations about teaching, short and long, virtual and in person. A response to my 3-minute walk-through follow-up email, a Facebook interchange about Medea, an office drop-by to express appreciation for a chapel talk, or a 45-minute sit-down discussion about writing assessment and instruction—all of these give me joy.

I prepared to facilitate 2 professional development opportunities. In spite of what I said above about fresh input, I also get excited all over again about sharing the ideas and discussing with colleagues what implementing them in our classes could look like. The opportunities are 30 minutes in a Monday secondary meeting about reading in the disciplines and a book discussion of Understanding by Design starting Tuesday.  

For students:

I read and responded to student journals on the book Night. This showed me great thinking that’s happening and allowed me give pinpoint feedback for encouragement and instruction. I’ll give you one example. Student: “The process of the father’s death was so painfully slow that it made the 2 sentences inferring his official death so much more painful.” Me: “You do a great job noticing style—how diction, imagery, syntax subtly reinforce an emotion or a message. Note that imply is what the book/speaker/writer does in communicating; infer is what the listener/reader does in interpreting.”

I recognized a remark in class discussion as an opportunity to ride authentic student inquiry into a significant course topic. It started with a student observing that an author referred to America as she. Another noted how ships are also she. In fact, a lot of things are she. A guy can refer fondly to his truck or his guitar as she. Speculation on that led us into other gender language issues, then racial language issues (black? African-American?), and who decides what is appropriate. When I said, “A word is just a sound—a community is what pours meaning into that sound,” one student clutched his head dramatically as if it were about to explode with the paradigm shift. And at the end of the class period I could say, “And that discussion was not a digression because you may have a question on the AP test about word meanings and connotations and how they come about.” Thank you, summer AP seminar!

What opportunities do you have to learn and grow on your own, with colleagues, and to pass it on to students? I hope yours make you as happy as mine make me. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

3 Small Steps to Building Learning Community in English Class Free photo stock images

Check, check, and check.

Last week I said I had begun to implement 2 resolutions from the beginning of the year, and I was committing to a third. (See blog here.) This week I kept up the 2 (collecting student-selected vocabulary words and discussing a model sentence at the beginning of class) and added the third: class time for independent reading. 

It’s one of those blinding flashes of the obvious, but students tend to pay more attention to the things that teachers give class time and attention to. So here are some ways in AP English Language we are growing in our attention to vocabulary, to sentences, and to reading:

(1) Collecting student-selected vocabulary:
Pronunciation is an important part of vocabulary learning—particularly for those of us who know a lot of words from our reading that we seldom hear people say. I was reminded of this when I asked on Monday what vocabulary the students had collected from their reading. None. Really? Because I collected a couple I thought they might not know. How about facade? Quizzical looks. Where is that word? I gave them the page number and sentence. Oh! Is that how you say that word? Got the same response to paradigm. (At least now they won’t embarrass themselves by saying “fuh-KAYD” or “para-DIG-em” in a college interview…..)

Once the ice was broken, a few students did have words. Eschew was one, from the following sentence: “[M]ost gamers eschew reading manuals or walk-throughs altogether, preferring to feel their way through the game space….” (Steven Johnson, excerpted from an article in Discover, July 2005, qtd. in The Language of Composition 172). The first thing that popped into my head was “Eschew obfuscation.” I blurted it out, but then obfuscation seemed like an even more obscure word and not worth the trouble of the explanation, so I sort of trailed off and went on to other things. Imagine my surprise that night at home when I read in a popular young adult novel, “It was dishonest to act like Margo hadn’t participated in her own obfuscation” (John Green, Paper Towns). (Who says YA lit isn’t challenging?)

Note to self: Taking time to talk about student-selected vocabulary is also important for building a culture where it is safe to reveal your ignorance. Because if we can’t admit what we don’t know, how will we ever learn it?

(2) Discussing model sentences:
Students are beginning to bring up sentences in discussion—like this one: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (Nicholas Carr, excerpted from an article in the Atlantic, summer 2008, qtd. in The Language of Composition 171). The student who brought it up didn’t like the metaphorical ending to a factual argument. However, another student objected that those analogies were what stuck in her mind and suddenly clarified the entire argument for her. (See original blog about using model sentences here.)

(3) Using class time for independent reading:
Here’s what 20 minutes of class time returned. Everybody has a book chosen: we are readers. Everybody knows what the others are reading: we are a community of readers. I’ve touched base with everyone on what they are reading—making sure, for instance, they know that Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller are writing satires, similar in style to The Screwtape Letters we read last quarter—so pay attention to what their message is and how they use satire to communicate it. We are connecting our independent reading to our learning. 

I also discovered they didn’t know catch-22 has become an actual English word. I’ll have to add that to next week’s vocabulary list!