Saturday, March 26, 2016

Stories from the Reading Village

Reading Orbiting Jupiter, Gary Schmidt's latest, at a coffee shop. Spent a good bit of energy trying not to cry in public.

It’s not just about the students.

It takes a know the rest. Probably to cliche and beyond. Well, it takes a village of readers to raise a reading child. So here are some of the books I’ve had conversations about during the last two weeks with adult members of the reading community that surrounds my students outside the walls of their English classroom.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt—When the superintendent’s secretary returned it to me, she said, “Now I need to read Jane Eyre.” “And then you can read The Eyre Affair,” I reminded her. (It was one of the fun books I recommended to her after she accused me of recommending all excellent quality but emotionally devastating books.) The book never even made it back to my classroom library before I’d passed it off to the art teacher.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio—I passed it on to a 6th grade teacher when I saw the posters his students put up around the middle school about bullying. (I had only gotten around to ordering and reading it a few weeks previously on the recommendation of a 3rd grade teacher, who didn’t currently have her copy because she’d loaned it to a 7th grade teacher.)

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd—A community parent borrowed it from the bookshelf in my classroom and returned it before school one morning this week with a breathless, “This is the best book I’ve ever read!” Which is saying something, as she reads approximately a book a day. I’d given it 4 stars out of 5 on Goodreads, so I was curious about her extreme enthusiasm. A big factor was that last year she had read a history book about the Seneca Falls Convention—good, if a bit dry—and then suddenly in this novel she found herself living and breathing the lives of the Grimke sisters who figured in that first women’s rights convention in the US. It drove her back to the history book to re-read the parts about the Grimke sisters.

What I Talk about when I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami—Because I carried it into another meeting and pulled out the Post-it note marking my place in order to jot a note, I had a brief conversation with a math teacher—one Murakami fan to another—about re-reading this memoir just after teaching After Dark. 

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich—I ordered and read this book last fall when the author received the Nobel Prize for Literature, then passed it on to a Russian colleague. She recently assured me she was still working on it—the second time through being less traumatic and more interesting than the first.

Everyday Editing: Inviting Students to Develop Skill and Craft in Writers’ Workshop by Jeff Anderson—Not forgetting professional books, I passed this one on to the middle school literacy coach this week in response to a query about using mentor sentences. A high school English teacher was standing next to her at the time, and put in a request to be next in line for the book.

So ultimately, I guess, it does come back to the students. What are you doing to contribute to the reading community of adults that surrounds your students? 

Now please excuse me….I really have to find a box of tissues and hole away somewhere private to finish the last 10 pages of Orbiting Jupiter….So after I recover I can decide which one of my reading friends and colleagues needs to be the first to get it on Monday. Or whether my students get first dibs.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Assess Like...a British Reality TV Show?

I’ve recently been obsessed with The Great British Bake-Off. First, I’m a tiny bit of an anglophile—an English major with several years experience of teaching 12th grade Brit lit. Which led to taking our small children (ages 8 and 10) on a family trip to England, spending time in London (here they mostly played with cousins while we did the sight-seeing), a in the Lake District (Wordsworth for me, Beatrix Potter for them), near Hadrian’s Wall (several Rosemary Sutcliffe novels), in the Dales (James Herriot country). Returning from that trip, we instituted Sunday afternoon tea, a tradition which my daughters, now married, continue in their own families.

The differences between a British reality TV show where the contestants are eliminated week by week and an American one are…well, a study in comparative culture we find amusing.

But that’s not why I’m writing about it here in my teaching blog. It’s because one of the big things my inner teacher-nerd keeps noticing is what I can learn from the show’s assessment methods: several assessments (a scrapbook, not a snapshot), valid tasks, and articulated criteria. (It’s almost like Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have read Understanding by Design….) 
  1. Several assessments: No one gets cut because of one bad bake. Each round consists of 3 different challenges. First there is a signature bake where bakers get the brief ahead of time so they can prepare, and they are expected to demonstrate creativity. Then there’s a technical bake where bakers don’t get to prepare—they’re given a sketchy recipe and need to demonstrate knowledge and skills like making a sponge or rising dough. These are judged blind. Finally, there’s the show-stopper: another one they can prepare for, and it has to be amazing, a party centerpiece. 
  2. Valid tasks: They’re looking for Britain’s best home baker, so they aren’t asked to take multiple choice tests or to submit recipes, but to actually bake. Stuff happens along the way—a heat wave on chocolate day, a jelly that doesn’t set—and they have to deal with it as best they can. That’s life.
  3. Articulated criteria: Mary and Paul don’t have a 5-point rubric they fill out, but as experienced bakers, they can articulate ahead of time things like, “What we’ll be looking for here is a really good bake, original flavors, and a professional finish.” 

Now I’m not saying that I want to vote a student out of the baking tent every week, but what if I thought of assessing every unit this way:
  1. What are at least 3 different ways students could show their mastery of content, skills, and understandings?
  2. To what extent can I design those assessments to be tasks and products that are valid, life-like, demonstrating transferability?
  3. To what extent do I clearly articulate criteria, so students know exactly what they have to do, and can even judge their own product?
How are your assessments like The Great British Bake-Off?

Friday, March 11, 2016

Reading Like Writers Means Paying Attention to Syntax

I did it. Not perfectly, but I think my class hit the tipping point. Partly because a 10th grader held me accountable: On her reflection on our last essay, she asked, “How can I get better at sentence fluency?” And I promised her we’d work on it in our next unit.  

How did we work on it?
  • I made it one of our essential questions: “What makes a powerful sentence?”
  • I posted it on the board with our other 2 essential questions. (Every unit I try to make 1 thematic/philosophical question, 1 literary question, and 1 skill-based reading/writing/speaking question.)
  • I committed to providing students information, mentors, and/or practice time (almost) every day.
What did that commitment look like?
  • Close read/annotation of a copy of the first 2 pages of Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, the novel we were studying. (Introduction to the book, its style, and its themes. Just a set-up, really.)
  • This great 3-paragraph sequence from Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing that simultaneously articulates and demonstrates the effects a variety of sentence lengths can create—because sentences don’t generally stand on their own. Go back to the first 2 pages we’d annotated: find the shortest and the longest sentences. Then we all tried writing 3 sentences—short, medium, long (in any order), describing our classroom using Murakami’s “we are pure point of view” tactic.
  • Pick 1 paragraph from our initial 2-page annotation and circle all the first words (clearly showing sentence length as well as variety of sentence starts), underline initial grammatical construct (the word could vary but the structure be repetitive), label subjects and verbs of clauses to see where in the sentences—and how close together—they occur.
  • Find and copy a sentence you like from last night’s reading: explain to a partner why you picked it.
  • Point out examples of sentences using a colon to separate 2 main clauses. Ask students to find more in tonight’s reading. The next day we share what we found and write our own.
  • Analyze a mentor sentence from the text for how syntax reinforces meaning: “The higher we climb, the smaller grows our image of Eri Asai, until it is just a single point, and then it is gone” (141). 
  • Analyze a mentor sentence from the text for how diction reinforces meaning: “Ninteen years old, she is protected by a roof and walls, protected, too, by fenced green lawns, burglar alarms, newly waxed station wagons, and big, smart dogs that stroll the neighborhood” (243). Write a sentence for yourself: “Fifteen/sixteen years old, I am protected by…” and pick 3 concrete details that represent the concept of your security.
Five minutes a day IS an investment. And some investments are worth it. What were some of the returns on this investment?
  • A student began a small group discussion, “I want to talk about the syntax of this sentence….” (I have never before had a student, unprompted, correctly USE the word syntax, let alone want to talk about it with peers!
  • A student asked me, “Do Murakami’s other books have the same kind of interesting syntax?” (I said, “Yes,” with my fingers crossed because I suspect that the world is full of amazing syntax, it’s just that neither I nor my students have been looking for it before now!)
  • One of the final responses students were required to do was to the following prompt: “Write a journal entry or letter in the voice of one of the characters. This should demonstrate understanding of the character, the book, and ability to put yourself inside the character’s head.” One I shared with a colleague who has also read After Dark. She thought it was a quote from the novel!
And that’s the kind of happy we all need at this damp, dark, cold, and tired tail-end of 3rd quarter.

Target. Give time. Find mentors. Practice. Pay attention. It’s how learning happens. Even about syntax.

What’s something recently that you’ve had success targeting and having students learn?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Character Cards Prompt Student Thinking

Evidence of student thinking: Post-it notes and reading journal

Student 1 (entering 1st period a few minutes early): This book is really fun…. No… (quizzical pause)…interesting?
Me: Intriguing?
Student 1: Yeah! Intriguing!
Student 2 (entering the room): This book is really intriguing!

We have a consensus!

Honors English 10 is having so much fun with Haruki Murakami’s novel After Dark that it’s hard to believe what we’re doing is school. On the other hand, when students are independently bringing up sentence syntax and forming text-based hypotheses in small group discussion, education is clearly happening—even with the fun!

Evidence of student thinking: reading journal and personal vocabulary

Part of the fun is an experiment with character cards. (The syntax discussion is worth a whole post itself, so more about that later.) The germ of this idea came from You Gotta BE the Book by Jeffery Wilhelm. At the beginning of the unit, each table group (4 students) got a stack of 12 blank pieces of 2" x 3" cards stock. Every time we encountered a new character, they were to draw a picture on the front of the card and list information on the back. 

Evidence of student thinking: character cards array

Weve done various activities with the cards. The first day, students summarized the initial reading manipulating the cards like puppets—one event per person, then rotate puppeteers.  

Another day students arranged the cards in a spacial layout reflecting the characters’ relationships. One group expressed frustration that however they laid out the cards, they could not show all the relationships. So I suggested that maybe sometime we could put the character cards on the whiteboard with magnets and draw in the connections with markers. This captured their imagination, and they keep referring to it, so I’m going to have to make good on that reflection exercise. 

Yesterday they used the character cards to create a continuum from most emotionally connected to other characters to least emotionally connected. One of the groups started by positing 2 characters as foils at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Then they began pairing up other characters, and finally one of them said, “I wonder if all the characters in the book have a foil.” And they set off to explore the hypothesis.

Evidence of student thinking: 2 students search the novel for evidence to support their conflicting claims about the character card array

What really intrigues me about using the character cards is that while Wilhelm in his book was trying to find a way to help unskilled readers connect with books, even within my class of skilled readers, there are some whose thinking processes are clearly fueled by these concrete manipulatives—as they talk, they are touching and moving the cards even when they aren’t required to.

I just love watching kids’ minds as work, and I love experimenting with new ways to give them traction for that work. 

What experiments in learning have you tried recently?