Friday, January 29, 2016

Learning by Example: Argument

I started erasing this after class before I realized I wanted to capture it for my blog because it was such an effective lesson!

I know that looking at professional models and practicing the moves we see is as good an idea for aspiring writers as it is for basketball players. (If you haven’t seen this kid copying Stephen Curry’s moves, you really should!) And last week I wrote about getting student writers to do this with poetry. But I don’t have a good track record of getting myself or my students as excited about looking at the craft of the essay as at the ideas in the writing. 

Yesterday, however, I scored. 

The reading was “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” by Malcolm Gladwell, part of my AP Language unit on the individual and community. It’s a longer argumentative essay, originally published in The New Yorker, consisting of 6 multi-paragraph sections. 

I divided the whiteboard into 6 columns, and assigned each student one of the sections of the essay. (If I had more than 6 students—yes, I know how lucky I am—I would probably assign groups to a section, like jigsawing, and give each group a piece of butcher paper.) I asked them, in their column, to briefly summarize the section—the sub-thesis, type(s) of support, and transition from/to preceding/following sections. Then we could look at the whole thing and see how Gladwell build his argument. 

What we noticed: 
  • Sections 1, 3, and 5 are structured around the narrative of the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in that started Feb. 1, 1960. 
  • Thesis statements come mostly at the end, once in the middle, and only once at the beginning.
  • Several sections are about counterargument and rebuttal. These have a lot of small examples and appeal to experts, pro and con.
  • Along with the Greensboro lunch-counter sit-in narrative, definition is central: definition of strong ties and weak ties and the pros and cons of each.
  • Voice given by (sarcastic) allusion, including “tweets from a Birmingham jail” and the essay-ending “Viva la revolucion.” (Search the phrase in quotation marks. The first result is a relevant definition from Urban Dictionary. The second is a bunch of images of Che.)

But the lesson most on my mind was this: Transition from section to section is almost always implicit in the first or second sentence of the new section. Only at the end of the first section of this article is a new idea introduced for transition to the next section. After several paragraphs of narrative and commentary about the Feb. 1960 events in Greensboro, and the civil rights movement that spread from it, the final paragraph ends, “These events in the early sixties became a civil-rights war that engulfed the South for the rest of the decade—and it happened without e-mail, texting, Facebook, or Twitter.” And section 2 addresses the new social activism that happens in social media. 

With this exercise yesterday, my 11th graders realized a lot of things about structure, support, counterargument and refutation, and transition. And it has taken a whole semester of reading nonfiction to come to the point where we can appreciate the bearing that “how it’s said” has on “what is said.” 

Can I get to this point sooner? Can I get there with 10th grade? I need to do more nonfiction with them, I need to try this exercise, and maybe even more importantly, I need to really believe and work and intrigue kids with an essential question about “How is WHAT I say impacted by HOW I say it?” Hmmm…good idea…I’ll definitely fiddle with that some and implement it in both courses next year.

A real, live, driving question, and models. In writing, like in basketball, where the real, live, driving question is, “How can I be like Stephen Curry?” How can I provide that for my aspiring writers in high school English class?

How do you provide it for your students—the question and the models—in your class?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Learning by Doing: Poetry

Imagine a PE class where students where students watched videos of great athletes, learned rules, and memorized terms, but never actually played the game. Imagine a music class where students attended concerts, studied music theory and music history, but never actually sang or played a note. Imagine an English class where students read great poets; learned literary terms like paradox, assonance, and metaphor; and never actually wrote a poem. 

Oh, wait…that was my class for much of my teaching career.

But turning students loose to write whatever they wanted didn’t exactly promote learning—the poetry was either Dr. Seuss-ish rhythm-and-rhyme or else emotive rambling. No one was learning anything. I did try it, but I quit.

Then I realized that as a volleyball coach, I don’t just set up the court and say, “Have fun.” (Neither do PE or music teachers.) I teach terms, strategies, rules, plays. We watch each other, other teams, and ideally, professionals. And we try it ourselves. That’s the goal. Some of us learn that we’re have a gift for this, and doing it well is satisfying and fun.  Some of us simply learn that it’s a lot harder than it looks. All of us grow in our appreciation for seeing it done well. 

This is exactly what I want for my students out of a study of poetry! 

So here’s what I do: After we’ve done a close reading and annotation of a poem, I give the students a generalized template of what the poet did, and ask them just to try a rough draft. (See below for samples.) They share it with their table group of 4, and at the end of the reading part of the unit, I ask students to choose one rough draft poem to publish as a final draft. (See below for samples.) I also ask them for a paragraph on why they chose that poem to publish.

Here’s what students said about the poem they chose to publish (and one even broke into poetry to say it!):

I chose this poem because even though the word number was small, it had a strong meaning to it….Also, I liked how the original poem used similes as well as paradox. While I was writing this poem, I learned how to…use imagery, and I think I did well on the 2nd and 3rd line. I enjoyed doing this because I was able to compare happiness with some other thing (sunflowers). Even though I don’t like writing poems, I had fun and it was easier for me to write it because of the template we got.

…. I liked the way the author used such small words to convey an idea so big….Whenever I attempt to write poetry, I always try too hard to make it really deep and philosophical, but when writing these poems I realized that all you have to do is convert your feelings into words and add a little zest to it with poetic elements. I’m really looking forward to continuing this unit!

As I thought and wrote, tried and hoped,
I learned ideas are hard to come by.
So if there’s one you really like, don’t give up.
Put pencil or pen onto paper,
Continue continue to tamper.

.... I have been so used to writing with a certain rhyme scheme or meter. This one has neither devices, but I am proud that it still sounds like a poem when read. To make it poetic, I used other devices such as alliteration in line 12, parallelism in line 13, assonance in line 3, consonance in 16, and attempted to incorporate a paradox in line 16. I enjoyed voicing out my opinion because the things in this poem are true, but to express it in a poem is much more fun than just plainly stating what I prefer.

I liked how this enabled me to say a lot with a few tiny words. I learned that if you phrase things correctly you can give it a powerful meaning. My poem summed up where I want to travel very briefly, but also with a lot of explanation.

…Through writing this poem I was able to learn how to use the different poetic devices since just reading a poem and trying to understand it is difficult. However, by actually writing one made me understand how to use alliteration, internal rhyme, and figurative image better.

These are some students who understand and appreciate poetry! But can they do it?

Here are some of their poems: 

My #1 Wish

I have a huge bundle of wanderlust
A big bag whose satin-smooth borders contain
My traveling aspirations

I open the bag so my adventures can finally begin
I open the bag to set my wildest dreams free

Like how a willow tree can't beautify the earth if the seed isn't planted
Its smooth, gracefully elongated wood with gently weeping leaves are held in the seed
And will only emerge when planted


Childhood Memory 

Heated by fever 
Seems I’ve seized disease

Today I bear company 
Of my brother 
Who pushes boredom at bay 
With a simple puppet show
A Panda 
A bear
And a few others

A week later 
We switched places 

Kindness doesn't always get a trophy 


A Simple Statement

I prefer solid colors. 
I prefer phone calls. 
I prefer homes with no paintings and vases. 
I prefer water
To orange juice or tea
I prefer the smell of fresh laundry to perfume. 
I prefer winter. 
I prefer silk. 
I prefer rice and plain foods alike. 
I prefer brutal honesty
To lies that spare my feelings. 
I prefer people with the same personality 
In school, at work or at home. 
I prefer matte. 
I prefer pencil. 
I prefer simplicity to ease the complexity of my mind. 


One Model Poem Final

Out of  hundred students

Those who care for their grades

Those who don’t
--nearly all the rest,

Those who work hard for their planned future

Those who work hard,
because they’re pressured into it

--nearly ninety-nine

Has a future
--A hundred out of a hundred
Unchanged, probably as long as the world exists

I’m always in awe at the end of the study at how much students learn by doing. And yet every year, as I proceed through the unit anew and get crunched for time, I come so close to dropping writing to models so we can read a few more poems. Every time I don’t give in to this pressure, I’m so thankful. 

How do you set up a context where your students learn by doing?


Additional information: 

Here are the professionals we observed: “For the New Year, 1981” by Denise Levertov; “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden; “Possibilities” and “A Contribution to Statistics” by Wislawa Szymborska.

Here are the templates we followed: 

Here are other templates I’ve used in the past:

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Annotation as Summative Assessment: What Can They Really Do?

Working on annotation

What is it I really want 10th graders to know, understand, and be able to do with poetry? What I realized this year is that I don’t really care if they remember individual poet’s names and can match them to a poem each has written, or if they can define literary terms. 

I want them to understand what is amazing about language: we take a thought or emotion that exists in one person’s head or heart, translate it into words, pass those words to another person, and expect the words to unfold inside the other person’s head into the same thought or emotion that the original person had. 

Poetry, especially lyric poetry, simply concentrates that process, focuses in on a single thought or emotion or instant in time, and a limited number of lines to do the job. So every word, phrase, clause, sound, image, carries great weight. You have to pay attention. I wanted them to become a little more proficient in paying that kind of attention, and to appreciate a little bit more the power of language to do that kind of translation of thought and emotion. 

But how does one assess that?

I tried something new these last 2 weeks in my poetry unit—using annotation as formative and summative assessment. Last week I wrote about the formative assessment; yesterday I gave the summative assessment.

And, boy, am I smiling as I look over those assessments. I see students...
  • Exercising choice among the 4 poems I offered--from different cultures, with different themes, in different styles, with different levels of difficulty. And all 4 poems were chosen by students. (I’d love to have a discussion or a journal entry about why they chose the one they did.) 
  • Writing many more annotations than at the beginning of the unit. (Note to self: Next year keep a copy of students’ first annotation to compare with the last one.)
  • Using all six of the poetry reading strategies we practiced (read according to punctuation, not line breaks; identify speaker and audience; paraphrase; listen to musical devices; envision images [literal and figurative]; respond).
  • Using many of the literary terms we applied as we studied poems in class.

Here’s what some of the assessments look like:

I was happy that students were able to correctly identify musical devices like alliteration, assonance, consonance, and internal and imperfect rhyme, as well as sensory and figurative language, and parallelism and paradox. And they could articulate what effect those tools achieve. Not to mention ask questions that they can sometimes answer and sometimes not, but they’re engaging with the text. And then the responses...
  • “The metaphor creates an image of how the guitar sounds.” 
  • “Does the author want to emphasize something about the guitar? (2nd time being used.)”
  • “Great last line! Haunting image. Almost paradox because poppies have an image of nice beauty and picnics in the park but McCrae gives it an ominous/evil twist.”
  • “Paradox: Not really talking about food but war.”
  • “Never ending?” [arrow from indefatigable]
  • “Just like the women who cook rice with love, faithfulness, and cheerfulness, we need to do everything with love. Love is something that society needs.”

Trying new things is scary and exhilarating. Scary because things could go terribly wrong; exhilarating because they could go marvelously right. I think this time, when I re-examined what I actually wanted students to know, understand, and be able to do, and designed an assessment that would show it, and taught to that assessment with formative assessments along the way….I think this is one of the times it went marvelously right.

What do you really want students to know, understand, and be able to do? How will they show it? How will you prepare them to be able to show it? 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Using Annotation as Assessment, Formative and Summative

My annotations of "Knock Knock" by Daniel Beatty

Education is not about what I’ve taught; it’s about what students have learned. 

How can I find out what they’ve learned? Not on the day of the big test, but now. I need to find out so I can know what I need to teach, and students need to find out so they can know what they need to learntoday and tomorrow and each day before the big test. So that when we all come to that big test, there are no surprises for any of us. 

This is formative assessment—relatively informal, low-stakes, and frequent. (For more information, this is a great Edutopia blog including a downloadable infographic listing 53 examples of formative assessments.)

Annotating a text (marking it up, putting on paper what your brain is doing as you read) is something I have students do frequently. I use it to get them to engage with the text, to get them to hold their thinking for discussion, and to hold them accountable for doing the reading, thinking, and discussion preparation. So I give them credit for completion and I eavesdrop on their discussions. 

But I rarely read and give feedback on the annotations themselves, so while it’s a good instructional strategy, it’s not formative assessment. Cris Tovani in So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning, which I read over Christmas break, would say my students and I are missing out.

So this week I’ve started an experiment. One of my assessments for the poetry unit will require students to annotate a poem they haven’t read before. The first day of the unit, they annotated a copy of the poem “Knock Knock” by Daniel Beatty. (They got a little help by watching his performance on YouTube.) I collected and read them, looking for some text highlighted or underlined and some comments made about the marked text. I jotted a few comments and assigned points out of 5. Those who did not get the full points had either highlighted text without articulating why, or written comments without connecting them to specific words or phrases, and I encouraged them to add whatever they were missing and turn it in again for full points. 

I showed them my annotations (see photo) and told them that by the end of the unit, I expected theirs to look more like mine as far as the amount of ink on the page showing thinking, and to use the literary terms we would be discussing (assonance, consonance, alliteration, metaphor, simile, personification, symbol, etc.). 

In class the next day, I could also acknowledge insightful comments they’d made (“J. noted that it’s not until the very end that the usual ‘punch line’ is given, and by then the question has been transformed from an innocent childhood game or a simple joke to a very serious matter”), and even comments that had deepened my insight (“When S. wrote by stanza 2, ‘Prison?’, I realized that Beatty composed this poem to put the reader in the little boy’s shoes—we have a clue, but we are also feeling as confused as he is”). 

The next poem we read, students annotated on their own, then passed around their 4-person group to have annotations added. (The additional benefit was having students re-read the poem every time they got a new copy, reinforcing my claim that understanding poetry take multiple readings.) 

Next Friday will be the summative assessment for poetry annotation. I’ll be interested to see how this all works. Though it will also be formative in that the next step, after getting all the meaning they can out of a poem, will be organizing that meaning into an essay when they write a poetic analysis of an individually selected song lyric….

Every day is an adventure when figuring out what these students, today, in this class, know; what they need to learn; and how I can help them. 

How do you find out what students know, what they need to learn, and how you can help them? 

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Brain-Bending Nature of Learning to Read Literature

Half a page of reading taught me half a lifetime about literature  this Christmas break. The half-page, mind you, was in Japanese, a language in which I can conversationally squeak by, though reading is another matter. And reading literature, as I discovered, is another universe.

The inspiration was a Japanese colleague who was reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise for the English style. I said to myself, “If a math teacher can do that, an English teacher certainly can!” The book I picked was Haruki Murakami’s novel After Dark, which I figured might be doable (as well as interesting) since I’m pretty familiar with the English translation, having taught it several times. It might also give me some insights for when I teach it again later in the spring.

It did. In addition to a lot of vocabulary and kanji symbols, I’ve learned something about literature, something about stories, something about sentences, and a whole lot more respect for the struggle English language learners face in my classroom every day.

Literature. We literature junkies love language for the surprising and metaphorical ways it can be used, right? So in the first 2 paragraphs of this novel, I have run into the words organism, arteries, blood cell, circulate, and basal metabolism. You’d almost think it was a biology text. Except that it’s describing a city. And some of the other words are contradictions and basso continuo. If I were reading a math text or a science text, I’d have to learn math and science vocabulary. Reading a literary text, I have to be ready for anything! That’s hard.

Stories. When discussing this novel with students, I’ve always skipped straight over this weird initial 2-page overview of the city, straight to the part where we actually meet the characters. If I’ve ever addressed this part, it was only as it connects to a couple of other passages that break the 4th wall in a weird sort of post-modern way, the author identifying with the reader in opposition to the characters by articulating what is “our” viewpoint on the scene. But reading only one sentence every night has given me a lot of time to think about this introduction. All this body metaphor imposed on the city—of course when meet the characters they’re going to turn out to be interconnected! (The supreme irony is when I teach short stories I make a point of going back to the first paragraph(s) and finding the whole story, in retrospect, foreshadowed there.)

Sentences. Or maybe translation. The point is, the second paragraph (the first paragraph being one very short sentence) is 9 sentences in Japanese and 5 in English. I wouldn’t find that so very strange if I had not been coming, over the years, to a more and more explicit way of teaching to read as a writer, exploring how a writer uses a particular grammatical construction, out of the many options available, to say exactly what she wants to. So if I use an English sentence from the translation as a mentor text for students to study and emulate, how does that differ from what a Japanese student would learn, studying a differently divided sentence as a mentor text? For example, while the work in both languages fluctuates between longer and shorter sentences, the original Japanese separates into 4 sentences one particular sentence that the English translator combined into one with a short main clause followed by a series of 4 participial phrases: “Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old.”

I am amazed by language. I am amazed by literature. I am amazed by my students reading literature in a language that is not their mother tongue. 

Though I am somewhat reluctant to see this lovely leisure time pass into a memory, I am increasingly eager to get back to the classroom to share with my students all the things I’ve read and learned this vacation.

Hope you are, too!