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.