Friday, February 27, 2015

Life Is Research

Have you done any research lately? I have. Because events in my life raised questions and made the answers significant:
  • When do hummingbird babies leave the nest?
  • How much currently does it cost to send a domestic letter in the U.S., and what are the Forever stamps worth?
  • What do I need to do to design an AP English and Composition course?
What events raised the questions?
  • A hummingbird pair built a nest right outside the front door. Then one day, there were 2 tiny head poking out of it! How long would they be there?
  • My dad, sorting through one of Mom’s desk drawers, found an archeological dig of stamps. Which ones could be used in what combination to send a letter? 
  • My boss asked me to teach a new course next year. How could I succeed in my assignment and help students become more effective critical readers, writers, thinkers, speakers, and listeners?
What did I learn?
  • Hummingbird nests can expand with the babies as they grow because one of the construction materials is spiderwebs! Some hummingbirds migrate non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico! And many more tidbits much more amazing than the average 21 days it takes youngsters to fledge. 
  • Current U.S. domestic postage is 49 cents, and the Forever stamps are forever. Buy them now and use them 10 years from now when postage is $2.00. 
  • Way more about the AP course than I could share in a paragraph. (See my previous post for part of it.)
How did I learn it?
  • Observation and searching multiple online sources. I also learned real-life reasons for having multiple sources: websites are idiosyncratic in what information they include (one had no information on fledging—it was very scientific about evolution and torpor; another was all about the kinds of behaviors the ordinary person would observe), and because the information itself can differ (the scientific site said the male is not involved in childcare; the other site said though much information says the male is not involved, some people have observed males feeding the young). If it were significant enough to me, I would search several more sites to get a handle on why the difference exists and which seems more authoritative. My family’s observation seemed to support male involvement.
  • My dad’s go-to strategy was personal and time-consuming—watch for the mail carrier and ask him. Mine was technological, efficient, and impersonal—Google it. The first result was from an article in the LA Times—I remembered to check the date, and it was only a few weeks old. I also checked the U.S. Postal Service—the more definitive source—but not nearly as clear! (And Dad’s way was also research.)
  • I set up an instructor’s account on the College Board site, studied information there, joined an online community, contacted other AP English teachers I knew, perused possible textbooks, and read reviews of the books.
What did I do with what I learned?
  • Became better at small talk for the next 2 weeks.
  • Mailed a letter.
  • Created a good course I will really teach next year.
Why do students groan when they hear the word “research?” Could it be because we teachers have set it up as a task they do for us so they are prepared for the research paper task the teacher next year will set for them?

But life IS research—we do it all the time! Because we’re curious, because we have a problem to solve, because we have a mission to achieve. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to do this better—not as an end in itself, but as a way of getting better, quicker answers to real-life, significant questions?

What if we could pass THAT on to students? A good framework for training K-12 students in real-life research skills is the Big 6 Skills.

Help students ask significant questions—big and small, short term and long term, easy and hard to answer—that they really want to know, guide them in how to find reliable answers, and give them real audiences with whom to share their answers or real projects to complete as a result. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How Do I Choose What to Teach?

I’m a slow learner.

It’s taken me 9 years of teaching an English 10 course inherited from generations of teachers before me—tweaking year by year—to make it mine, incorporating most of what I’ve been learning about content, assessment, and instruction. Now I get to design an AP English 11 course from the ground up. 

It’s a little terrifying, a little exhilarating. After a some deep breathing, I realized it was just a chance to put into practice everything I’ve learned over the last 9 years:

  1. Start with the target: 10 AP English Language and Composition curricular requirements broken down into 16 scoring components. 
  2. Establish significance: Is there a reason to master the target other than the test? Oh, yes. Just look around the internet today at the really significant issues  under discussion (from the relationship of US law enforcement to communities of color to instability in the Middle East), and the extent to which the discussion is polarizing and unproductive. Students (we all, actually) need to become even more critical thinkers, readers, writers, speakers, and listeners in order to more effectively enter the conversations all around in written, spoken, and visual formats. This ability helps us to avoid becoming victims ourselves, to develop our God-given gifts of thought and communication, and with those gifts to exercise responsible stewardship of the potential of creation, and to love our neighbors by serving them as effective citizens of our local, national, and global communities.
  3. Articulate content: what students need to know (facts, procedures), understand (why does it matter? how does it work? when do I use it?), and be able to do (skills). Students in AP English 11 need to know a lot about rhetoric, logic, and style; about analysis, argument, research, synthesis; about writing and speaking—what makes it trustworthy (or manipulative) and persuasive (or dull, or offensive). They need practice in understanding what people are saying and how they are saying it, taking many perspectives into account while developing their own. They need to practice, then, how they will write and speak their perspective into the conversation.
  4. Determine how students will demonstrate that they have mastered the targets: Any tests or quizzes I give will assess only the first step toward mastery—do students know the vocabulary? understand the reading? If the ultimate goal is participating in the conversation in productive ways, the most authentic assessments will be their writing (informally in journals and creatively in other genres as well as formally in essays) and speaking (informally in discussion and debate as well as formally in speeches). 
  5. Make an instructional plan: Students need some input (from the teacher or the text), some modeling (by the teacher and the text), a lot of processing and practice with classmates and on their own, focused feedback (from the teacher and classmates) to incorporate into their practice, and reflection (on how they are growing, need to grow, will grow). They need to read widely and deeply and write and speak frequently. They need to engage with relevant topics and with many different people who have engaged with those topics in the past and in the present, from a wide variety of perspectives and genres. 
  6. Identify resources: I kept wanting to start here—choose a textbook and design my course around it. And I kept remembering that the best practice is to first identify the targets, the big ideas, and the content/skills—that’s what I’m teaching, not the textbook. The textbook is just a resource. But looking over a number of textbooks recommended by other teachers on a thread on National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) website, by the College Board, and by a real-life connection, I began to see patterns, what seemed like core content—common ideas, common sources, borrowings from each other. I gained confidence about what I wanted to teach. I made a list of criteria for textbooks. I chose a text. And switched. Twice.

The process is definitely recursive. Maybe for someone with a lot more organization or a lot more experience designing new courses it wouldn’t be. But for me, it is. 

Models help. I started out looking at 6 finished syllabi, from the College Board and from friends who teach the same course. The syllabi were wildly different—developed historically or by issue, assessed by an intricate grading system including tests and quizzes or by just a writing portfolio at the end to encourage risk-taking. In confusion, I looked at the AP curricular requirements, and I began to see the ways the syllabi were the same. Then back to the models with specific questions, like what is the range of possibilities for the extended research project?

Sometimes the recursiveness feels like spinning my wheels. I panic at “wasted” time. But that’s how learning happens, how final drafts are made, how life is lived: Seldom in a straight line. And that’s okay.

Lessons for teachers, lessons for students: So often the same.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Words and Images
As a lover of words, I’ve consciously and subconsciously resisted the pull of the image. I let other people take the pictures—I want to live the memories. And do you know that the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” is NOT an old Chinese proverb but has its English origins in the early 20th century. (See Wikipedia for the rest of THAT story.) Still, from cave paintings, through the Old Testament tabernacle, through medieval cathedrals, and right into the modern internet age, images are significant. 

And here, in the image, 2 of my current learnings meet:  
  1. Messing around in technology to improve my blog and explore Pinterest
  2. Researching and designing a new course for AP Language and Composition
First, a couple of months ago, when I posted my blog to Facebook, it quit showing my cover photo and showed some weird “something’s broken” icon. I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t pay much attention—but it was kind of ugly. I remembered a few months before that when I’d put an image into my blog, Facebook showed that image instead of my blog cover photo. But it was too much trouble to find an image or take a photo for every blog. The important thing was the words, right? 

Then it occurred to me that there are a large percentage of Facebook denizens who scroll for images (I’m married to one of them). They’ll never read my blog without an image. They might stop and take a look with one. 

So two blogs ago, I was sure to insert an image. It was prettier, anyway. Last week, I actually had the brainstorm to take my own picture, puzzling between a Kindle and a stack of books. Guess which got more comments? Couldn’t think of a photo for today, but I at least spent some time looking for images. (I did post a photo with my most recent Facebook update this morning—sure enough—more likes and comments than my usual merely verbal post. One can decry our surrender to the power of images, or one can say, “I want to stay in touch with my friends; image is their love language; I can do images.”)

It’s one of those situations where as soon as I learn something new, I start seeing it everywhere. One of the AP Language and Composition curricular requirements reads as follows: “The course teaches students to analyze how graphics and visual images both relate to written texts and serve as alternative forms of text themselves.” As the College Board itself recognizes, since images are a ubiquitous part of the communication we receive and transmit every day, we might as well understand how they are being used on us and how we can use them.

So as I work on my AP syllabus, I’ve been reading Everything’s an Argument, noting especially what it says about graphics and visual images. I’ve been scanning the daily paper with an eye out for political cartoons and comic strips to clip and use for next year’s class. 

Suddenly I realized, that’s exactly what I’ve been learning with images on my blog and Facebook—mine don’t “serve as alternative forms of text themselves,” but they do “relate to written texts,” not even illustrating a thousand words, but just grabbing an audience that might not otherwise stop.

Then there’s Pinterest, which I just started messing around on. There, the image is the message. You can tag on a little further explanation, but without an image, you can’t even pin. In a strange twist of genres, I’m collecting books—the books that have influenced my teaching. Then I created another to further classify resources for Biblical perspective teaching. I might later start boards of inspirational posters about reading, social justice, and the power of introverts.

I only draw one line: I will never Pin a recipe. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Relearning to Read

I’m relearning to read—on an electronic device.

I’ve resisted e-readers. I’m one of those English-teacher-y types who get intoxicated on the feel and smell of books. I tried an Alice Munro collection of short stories once on my husband’s Kindle and felt my reading comprehension shrivel. Something about not having visual access to a full 2-page spread or the tactile sense that I flip back about this many pages to check on the last time that character appeared.  

But the current circumstances of my life have “rekindled” my interest. I’ve just divested myself of most of my beloved books for a move from our house of 20 years in Tokyo to a furnished apartment in Okinawa. And for these 6 months between the 2 homes in Japan, I’m living a nomadic life in the US. So a Kindle seemed like the perfect way to fit a library into my suitcase. Thus I ended up getting a Kindle for Christmas. 

Cold turkey seemed the best way. Acclimatization has to happen, and if you don’t force it, it won’t happen. (Like the great US non-switch to metric.) So I got a couple of books that had been at the top of my to-read list (the newest Murakami and the Man Booker Prize winner) and the NIV Study Bible (I use it for my own devotions and carry it to church). 

Here are 8 things I’ve learned—in addition to the terrifying ease with which it is now possible to spend a small fortune on ebooks:

  1. No decisions about which books to bring. Hard decisions in moving, in bringing a few professional books to the US, in leaving some in Michigan while we travelled to California; now I’m wishing I had some I shipped to Okinawa.
  2. Instantaneous access. Reviewing sample AP syllabi, I came across The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. It intrigued me. I ordered it. I had it. Boom. (Even better when I’m back in Japan and an English bookstore is not just down at the mall. On the other hand, I cannot put the book in my class library now that I’ve finished it.)
  3. All the classics free on Amazon. If it’s Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter you want, there are 400 pages of free classics in the Kindle store. (That’s no exaggeration—I just did the search.)
  4. Free previews from Amazon. I’d heard a lot about The Other Wes Moore on English teacher threads. I downloaded the free preview (about the first 10 pages), got hooked, and then bought the hard copy so I could also put it in a classroom library. (Know the tool for the occasion!)
  5. Definitions at a touch. When reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I didn’t know what an Akubra was. Not finding it in the dictionary, the machine automatically switched me to Wikipedia where I got a full description of “an Australian brand of bush hat,” right down to a list of Prime Ministers who were known for wearing them. In fact, I was so taken with this feature that when I finally, with great joy, sat down to read a hard copy book (The Other Wes Moore), and came across “Jheri curl,” I nearly touched the word on the paper page, then felt a letdown that I couldn’t. Considered getting out of bed and turning on my computer to look it up. Then opted to fall back on my old context skills of determining it was some particular sort of black hair style which I could not form a mental image of.
  6. Highlighting—both my own and others’. I think this is probably a really great feature. I’m still learning to use it. Can I see all my own highlights from a given book together in one place?
  7. More features. The NIV Study Bible Kindle version IS in many ways a pain to navigate. But I’m learning. It’s really quick to go to a referenced verse—just touch it! And there are pictures not included in the text version.
  8. Can’t finger-read on a touch screen. Not that I usually do, but when reading aloud in public—whether from a novel in class or from the Bible in a church setting—I like to be extra sure of not losing my place. Backfired this week while reading a verse aloud in Sunday school and suddenly the page flipped back….

I’m sure there’s more to learn—more benefits and more pitfalls. But I’ll continue to learn them, and when an ebook and when a bookbook is the best tool—because as a tool, the Kindle is here to stay.

I still have to deal with that low-level, underlying fear of a device failure leaving me stuck on an airplane for 12 hours with nothing to read.