Friday, August 28, 2015

Reading Like Writers, Writing Like Readers

A basketball player watches a professional athlete double pump and totally fake out the defense for a clear shot and a swish—then determines to try it himself the next time he’s on the court. That’s how I want my students to read as writers. It’s a phrase I’ve used for a long time, and I’m only slowly, slowly learning how to get traction on it, really show kids how to do it, and get them do it themselves.

This week we got off to a good start, reading Amy Tan’s short narrative essay “Fish Cheeks” and writing our own personal narrative about a time we learned a lesson. I asked students to read it once for enjoyment and once as a writer, looking for powerful verbs, specific details, dialogue, and anything else they found particularly effective. We shared what we’d noticed and why: 
  • Verbs like murmur, belch, grimace, stun, muster. (A word doesn’t have to be 5 syllables long to be effective!) 
  • Specific details like, “Robert grunted hello, and I pretended he was not worthy of existence.” (So much better than “I was so embarrassed”—you can actually feel the embarrassment yourself of these two fourteen-year-olds painfully negotiating the social pitfalls of adolescence.) 
  • Dialogue like the following: ”’It's a polite Chinese custom to show you are satisfied,’ explained my father to our astonished guests.”
After drafting and before peer revising, we went back to “Fish Cheeks” and reviewed the verbs, details, and dialogue we’d found effective. Then students read each other’s narratives looking for good examples of verbs, details, and dialogue, and suggesting places to incorporate even more.

At the end of that day, I asked them to share their Google Doc with me for my revising feedback before one more day of classwork for editing. I asked them to highlight one example each of where they’d tried to use a powerful verb, a specific detail, and dialogue.

It was delightful to see the result—how diligently students had worked to incorporate strategies, and how it really perked up a story when they did.

The final day for editing I used models, too:
  • A student sample with too many adverbs—demonstrating how to use stronger verbs, or if the verb is already strong, let it stand on its own.
  • “Fish Cheeks” once more to notice how professionals manage the conventions for using dashes and for punctuating dialogue.
I circulated to be available for questions as students did their final editing. And the questions I fielded were real writerly questions. Not “Do I need a comma here?” but “I really love this word aesthetic—did I use it correctly?” and “Do I have too many specific details in this series?” (Answer to the second question: That is an unusually long series, but you are writing from inside the head of a little girl going ga-ga over a Disney princess dress. It’s perfect.)

Confession: I’d hoped to write my own narrative along side the students, and I did not get that done. Still, I made progress on my goal of more intentionally using writing models. Better yet, as a result, the students made progress on reading like writers and writing like readers. 

Goal: Do it again; do it better. Foster a community of learners who read like writers and write like readers.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Welcoming Back the Students

Having had a semester’s sabbatical—having time to read, study, take a seminar, plan—having presented to teachers on how to design curriculum and engaging lessons—this week I met my students. 

I am completely beguiled. 

When I ask them to read, they read, and engage, and apply. When I ask them to write, they share what they love, what they fear, what they hope for. When I ask them to discuss, they research, connect, and find complexity. 

This week we built "to-read" lists, read the poem "The Creation" by James Weldon Johnson, studied Genesis 1:26-28, and discussed the summer reading of Things Fall Apart (10th grade) and David and Goliath (11th grade).

Some shine more in the writing, some more in the research, some more in the discussion. How can I let each know how amazing he or she is? And how can I challenge each to build on her strengths, to minimize his weaknesses, and to rise to the calling of using language to understand the beauty and brokenness of this amazing world, and to work for a place where all can flourish? 

I come fully armed with grammar, connotation, close reading exercises; with novel studies, journal questions, and essay prompts…and I hope and pray that as I interact with each of you, you will know that I find you amazing—the very image of God. And that since God offered Adam the partnership of creating the words to name the animals God had created, this adventure of language is part and parcel of how we exercise the stewardship of creation we’ve been entrusted with. 

We all impact the world. I can help you to it more wisely and effectively with the gift of words.

I also hope you will understand how I have found that walking with God is what gives the perspective, the motive, and the strength to use His gift of language as it was intended—furthering delight and truth and compassion and justice.  

What a trust. What an honor. What fun. 

Thanks for coming with me. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Back to School: Who and Why

Are my bulletin boards beautiful? Does my unit give enough time and enough challenge? Does my first day plan have enough love, enough structure, and enough learning all packaged into the short 30-minute period? Is my syllabus right? Is my Web page ready? Are my lesson plans engaging? Do I have all my handouts? Army textbooks all numbered? What have I forgotten?



Remember: The first thing I am teaching is not the content, it’s the students. There will be as many different expectations, fears, needs, and levels of readiness as there will be faces in my classroom on Tuesday. 

I will love them by…
  • Letting them know they matter: getting to know them, and letting them get to know me.
  • Creating an environment that is safe and orderly enough they are free to take the risk of trying.
  • Providing units, lessons, and activities that have purpose clearly articulated to increase their motivation to learn. 
  • Giving instruction that is engaging to increase the likelihood they will learn.
Why and what should these students I love learn?

Language is a gift of God--powerful in it's possibilities of use for truth, beauty, love, and justice, but also for deceit, manipulation, selfishness, and hatred. Rhetoric is ways of rendering language even more powerful, and understanding it will help students more effectively enter the conversations all around them in written, spoken, and visual text as critical thinkers, readers, writers, speakers, listeners. This ability will help them avoid becoming victims themselves, develop their God-given gifts of communication, and love their neighbors by serving them with those gifts as effective citizens of local, national, and global communities. 

This is how learning in English class equips students to walk with God and impact the world for Him.

So much more motivating than getting a 5 on the AP English Language and Composition test in May, thought we'll shoot for that, too, as a byproduct.

Getting excited about getting started.

Friday, August 7, 2015

When Learning Isn't Fun

Very inspirational, Tom. 

But you didn’t have students showing up in your classroom a week from Tuesday. Life has deadlines; the lightbulb didn’t. 

“Fail forward.” Nice phrase—one I’ve used with students. Sometimes You Win—Sometimes You Learn. Nice title—one my husband has on his shelf. “How can we make our classrooms safe places for kids to fail?” Nice question—one I’ve discussed with colleagues. 

But it’s another thing entirely when I’ve chewed up hours learning to set up a Web page (“establish a Web presence” was the school requirement), and it’s still only half-done. 

“Google.Sites is easy,” they said. Ha! First, it set itself up in Japanese, and when I translated it into English, I had no idea what some of the directions were saying. (“Moonspeak,” the IT guy called it.) Finally had to get help for that. 

Next, the directions had nothing to do with what actually showed up on the page. I even used the help buttons. The help for editing my sidebar told me to click the “edit” button at the bottom of the sidebar. Spent a long time looking for what was really obvious in the help screen shots. Finally went back to the IT guy. 

“Oh, yeah. That’s weird,” he said. Apparently there is no such button. You go to the little cog at the top of the page and select “Edit site layout.” THEN the sidebar becomes editable. 

The photo of myself I loaded was gigantic—my students could all meet my husband’s right shoulder. I tried about four different things, and suddenly, it fit. No idea what I did.

So I learned that learning a new skill is not quick, and it's not beautiful. It can feel a lot like a waste of time. And I'm still not done. I have to add course descriptions and unit folders. Figure out where my announcement page went. Learn how to have a separate calendar for each class, rather than all classes on the same calendar. 

But I know how to do the first. I know who to ask about the second and third. Then I’ll mess around a bit with modifying some links. 

Guess what else. I’m a 50-year-old digital immigrant, and I’ve nearly designed my own Web page! I’m beginning to feel a tiny bit pleased with myself. 

I’d love to be able to promise my students that learning will always be fun, but I discovered this week that that’s simply not true—not even for grown-ups, not even for teachers. Maybe the best thing I can do is be forced out of my comfort zone every so often to learn things I’m not good at. (I love to say I’m always learning, but mostly I’m learning more about the types of things I’m already good at.)

Maybe, somehow, it will seem a little more authentic next time I talk to a student about failing forward. Maybe, somehow, my classroom will be a little safer place to find the ways that don't work on the way to finding the ones that do.

Maybe I’ll even have a decent looking Web page up by the beginning of school.