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?