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!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Recycle Resolutions
I don’t always keep all of my own resolutions. Even ones I commit to on this blog. But students aren’t the only ones who get to set new goals in a new quarter! So here are 2 I started this past week, and one I hope to implement between now and Christmas.
  1. Using mentor sentences to teach diction, detail, imagery, syntax, and tone. Back in July I blogged about this great resource I found and how I was going to use it (Finally: Voice Lessons for Readers and Writers). All first quarter the book has sat on my desktop. Friday I finally got around to using the first example to start class: “Art is the antidote that can call us back from the edge of numbness, restoring the ability to feel for another” (Barbara Kingsolver, “Jabberwocky,” High Tide in Tuscon). The students did eventually arrive at an articulation of how antidote made the sentence much more vivid and urgent, and the lack of empathy much more sinister than if Kingsolver had chosen the word gift. But the amount of discussion it took for them to come to that conclusion stiffened my resolve to make this exercise a frequent class starter.
  2. Having students self-select vocabulary words. In my defense, the first quarter of AP Language has enough vocabulary just with the rhetoric and argument-specific terms. Students did frequently ask about unknown words they came across in readings, and we’d discuss them, but I didn’t collect them in any way. This week I did start collecting them—in a Google Doc as we go, and then creating 2 Quizlet sets—one for the definitions and one for the context sentences. So far we’ve collected umbrage (they didn’t know the Harry Potter character name was a real word), deferment, miscreant, altruism, cynical, and precarious. I’m toying with the idea of a Word Wall.
  3. Giving class time for independent reading. I was getting better at this (Baby Steps: Nurturing Book Love), and then I changed schools, and in the adjustment, it got completely lost. I’m going to work on that this quarter. 

Is there a resolution or plan you made at the beginning of the school year that’s lying there on the floor off the edge of your mental workbench, making you feel guilty every time you remember it? Make a list and tackle the top one next week. Don’t throw it away—recycle!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Celebrate Random Acts of Learning

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We have little control over many circumstances in life as well as in the classroom—the technology suddenly goes on the fritz, a fire drill eats class time, students are grumpy. 

Then there are the times when the one thing I do have control over—myself—messes up. When I wrote my volleyball players’ numbers in the wrong order on the line-up sheet that I gave to the referee, and the team had to play the game in that confusion. It was a short game. We lost. My fault. When I asked 10th graders to preview the vocabulary list and write down the three least familiar words on a post-it note. The first time I saw sulle written down, I smiled at a student forgetting to write the last letter in sullen. But when that strange word sulle showed up on every list, I realized with chagrin the error was mine.  

Yes, we teachers mess up. We have bad days. But we are the single biggest influence in our own heads as well as in our classrooms. So for my own sake, as well as for my students’ sakes, I try to make a habit of looking for the good, celebrating it, remembering it. Usually in this space I reflect on what I planned and its learning outcomes. But it’s also important to collect and commemorate the serendipitous moments:
  • “I just finished the best book last night!” a student walked into the room before first period and gushed.  I made a conscious decision that this conversation was more important than being perfectly organized when the bell rang, so I turned away from my computer and we had a conversation about Tuesdays with Morrie. Afterward, the student sighed with a smile, “I still have that feeling of contentment that comes after reading a really good book.”
  • Concerned about the slow reactions of the volleyball players during a game, I had a sudden idea. At the next timeout, I said, “When the ball is on the other side of the net, you aren’t taking a break—you are always thinking, ‘Because of what’s happening now, where is the ball likely to go next?’ It’s like reading—you’re always making predictions.” At that, an 8th grader let out an audible gasp of epiphany. And became miraculously quicker when the game resumed.
  • Walking through the elementary hallway, I saw a boy twirling a stuffed shark by the fin. A girl challenged him, “What are you doing with a doll?” “It’s not a doll—it’s a plushy,” he retorted. It seemed to end the discussion. I told the story when I got to class to illustrate the power of vocabulary knowledge in controlling connotation. 
One of those moments can keep me smiling all week. So keep planning, keep using best practice, keep learning, collecting resources, and networking with colleagues…but also collect and commemorate the random acts of learning that come your way. That, too, will help yourself and your classroom stay positive.

What random acts of learning were you party to this week?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Be a Mentor; Find a Mentor--Please

Here's depressing: Search "free images teacher" and see how many pages of fake, smiley people you have to go through to get to the other part of reality--especially in the first year! (Loved this one.)

First year teaching is awful. You wonder what in the world kind of career you got yourself into. You have this nightmare like incredulity—I just spent 4 years and a lot of money, and I have to do this the rest of my life?! I’m not even sure I can do it tomorrow! 

Whether it’s the planning, or the grading, or the classroom management, or all three, that give rise to these thoughts, nearly every teacher I talk to—including my mother, now loved, feared, and retired principal of a small Christian school—had these thoughts their first year. (Every teacher except for my husband, and he is unique in many ways, including never having had a first-day-of-school nightmare.) 

Why? That is another blog, perhaps. Many people are addressing it. If we care about our kids and the future of our societies, we must retain good teachers. We must keep them past their first 3 years. I’ve read The New Teacher Book and Supporting Beginning English Teachers. I’ve discussed good induction programs and practices. 

And until now, what I’ve actually done is ask new teachers, “How are you doing?” OF COURSE they say, “Fine! How are you?” How else can they maintain a scrap of dignity? It’s the social protocol!

What changed? This year my daughter is a first year teacher. She’s on a different continent, but by Skype and Facebook chat she details her struggles. I wish she had a proactive, positive mentor in her life. I encourage her, in the absence of such a person, to be the proactive one—searching out positive role models, asking them questions, as she finds what a wonderful recent ASCD article calls her teacher legs. And I pray for such a mentor to come to her.

Then I wonder, “What first-year teacher in my school—or his or her mother or father—is praying the same prayer? And how can I refuse to be the answer?” 

So the next day, when I ran into a first-year English teacher in the coffee/tea corner, after the usual exchange of niceties and everybody being “fine,” I reiterated, “No, really, how are you doing? I know how overwhelming first year teaching can be—I’ve been there, my mom has been there, and my daughter is there right now. I’ve walked though your room. You don’t seem to have any problems with classroom management, but if you ever have any questions or anything you’d like to talk about, please feel free.”

She then said, “Well, actually, I’ve been thinking about my future units, and I was wondering…,” which launched us into a lovely collegial conversation that wandered from thematic teaching, to Christian perspective, to PSAT preparation, to teaching thesis statements, to professional development. I think she is truly doing “fine.” And I think that, as we continue to follow up with similar professional conversations, if she ever is not doing fine, she will let me know.

If you are an experienced teacher who has found your “teacher legs,” please, look around you and find someone who is a first, second, or third-year teacher. It might be my daughter. It will certainly be somebody’s daughter or son. It could well have been you any number of years ago. Be the mentor and colleague who made a difference for you—or who you wish had been there to make a difference for you. That new teacher might also be the inspiration your child or grandchild will never have if you are not there to show that new teacher the benefits and beauties and possibilities of hanging in there in this most challenging and most rewarding of professions.

If you are an inexperienced teacher: You are so needed. If you are well-mentored, I am glad. If you are not, I am deeply sorry that we, your colleagues, are not flocking to your side, telling you daily it is possible, and we will help you, until you are able to find your legs, to see the joy, and to help others. Please, take the initiative, though you shouldn’t have to, to find a teacher in your building who is positive and effective, and ask him or her a question or two. 

Until most of our societies and institutions figure out this education thing—including how to induct, keep, reward, and value teachers—we must reach out to each other—for the good of ourselves, our profession, our kids, our world.

Hang in there. Find a connection. Be a connection. Find joy.