Friday, April 29, 2016

The Power of Doing, Then Reflecting

Student reflections on what they tried and what they learned in writing their short stories

Are you nervous about non test/quiz/essay assessments (like projects or creative writing) because you’re concerned you can’t accurately determine what students have learned?

Why not ask them? Whenever students finish a project, paper, or unit, ask what they learned—about content, skills, application, and/or process, whatever applies. Doing the subject (in addition to being tested on it) is important. And requiring students to reflect on their learning both removes from the teacher the dubious responsibility to infer the learning, and places squarely on the learner’s shoulders the lifelong learning skill of reflection.

Plus it’s really exciting to hear students articulating what they learned by struggling to do the subject!

I was especially struck with this when I took the risk of assessing my 10th grade short story unit not by testing over the short stories we had studied, but by asking students to write a short story of their own, using some of the literary ideas and/or content we had studied. I wrote a bit about this 2 weeks ago (here), sharing one student’s story and reflection,  and now that I’ve gotten permission from the rest of my students, I want to share some more of their reflections and writing.

Here are some of their reflections on what they were attempting to do and what they learned from it:
  • As I tried to develop dialogue in the story, I was trying to use different voices for each character. I also wanted to try to end with an unexpected ending.
  • I tried to use lots of semicolons like Kafka did. I originally wanted to use magical realism…but didn’t when I changed my story.
  • It was the first time I ever read anything like “The Bucket Rider,” and it really impacted me. In my short story I tried to use Kafkaesque [style] as well as iambic pentameter. (We didn’t study this but it took a long time to write.) I also tried to put irony in my story as well like “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” I love short stories like these, and I’ve never read them like this so I really enjoyed it.
  • I attempted to use good vocabulary and vivid description in the story….I learned that it’s very easy to come up with an idea for the story, but very difficult to finish it. 
  • For the ending I was trying to go for a closing last sentence like the one from “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” The last part where it said all he needed was 6 ft. of land was memorable. It like brought everything in and made a clear point. I couldn’t get that far, but I was trying to make a point using the three characters from the three stories.
  • I tried to do magical realism in my short story, just like the story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” I don’t think I did a great job on it, but I enjoyed doing something I never tried…. From this assessment I learned how short story/fiction authors are very talented.
  • I liked the idea of a little surrealism to break reality a bit, and unexpected endings. So I tried to incorporate those into my story. I tried to do the sentence variation technique that Murakami did in After Dark [the previous unit], but I found that I really like being detailed in my writing, and that it was really difficult for me to find a shorter way to express the same feelings. Speaking of feelings, I tried to center my story around the significance of feeling. I was recently thinking about how we wouldn’t know good unless we’ve experienced bad, so that was the inspiration for my weird “story.”*

*(If you want to read this whole “weird ‘story,’” I’ve copied it in below. It’s truly delightful, in addition to being one of the few completed stories, since we had limited time and I told them this was just a 2-day project to experiment with some ideas, and there was no requirement for completion.)

Reflection is powerful—after all, it’s why I’ve been doing this blog for nearly 4 years. The commitment to reflect holds me accountable to try something in my teaching worthy of reflecting on, and the act of articulating what I learned solidifies the learning.

How do you have your students do your discipline and then reflect on what they learn?


*The places I’ve been; a new place every second. Adventure is my life, quite literally. I’ve been through all the tremendous cities of America as well as the dull country sides. You dream of breathing the sparkling air of Paris, I am a part of Paris. All those vacation islands in the Caribbean? I’ve been there (and it does not live up to the hype, in my honest opinion). To walk amongst the rare beasts of Tanzania is a death trap for you, but they’re always so welcoming when I stop by for a visit. Having a perfect candle-lit dinner with your celebrity crush is your ultimate fairytale, and I’ve done that an innumerable amount of times. I’ve even done things that are physically impossible for you: explore the deepest trenches of the Pacific Ocean, share a burrow with a squirrel, aid your heart beat without a single incision on your skin. 
Are you jealous yet? Well, don’t be. I’ve experienced all these things and more, but there are still some things I have never done. I’ve never felt exhilaration, the rush of adrenaline pumping through my veins. I’ve never felt proud. I’ve never felt the sharp sting of a scraped knee. I’ve never felt a whirlwind of butterflies in my stomach upon looking into love’s eyes. I’ve never even tasted the richness of the average chocolate cake. Even with all the adventures I’ve been on and the infinite amount I have ahead of me, I will never feel the things you do everyday. What’s the point of living if you have no thoughts or feelings, no one to love or no one who loves you? 
       My point is: cherish the life that you’ve been blessed with. Be grateful for the stark-black, frost-bitten winter midnight, so that you will appreciate the song of cicadas and the magnanimous sun rays of July. Do not avoid heart-break, but accept it because it means you have felt true love. Don’t disparage your school teachers for educating you, but take advantage of that time to constantly soak up new intelligence and use it for not just your own benefit, but to change the whole world. That’s something to truly envy. If I could only feel something, just one time, I would be the most grateful bunch of particles to ever roam this planet. But sadly I can’t, for I am only a molecule of water. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Build Subject Area Bridges

Word-nerd English teacher that I am, it took me a while to realize that not all my students love literature the way I do. Eventually I learned to look for ways to build bridges from what students need to learn in English to what they want to learn in or out of school, in other content areas or on their own time. Sometimes those connections are planned into my curriculum, and sometimes they are more serendipitous. But even the serendipitous ones can be made more likely by staying on the alert for what students are interested in and how that might connect with class.

Two stories from this week:

“Are we going to read Shakespeare this year? I don’t like Shakespeare,” one student told me early on in the year. Monday I introduced A Midsummer Night’s Dream, passing out an article on the brain chemistry of falling in love, I asked them to think about how the magic flower in the play might be a metaphor for the science Shakespeare didn’t know, but could see the effects of. The eyes of the student who didn’t like Shakespeare lit up: “This is science?!” (See here and here for more on this unit.)

Later that day another class was trying to wrap their heads around Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” We’d come to the paragraph that reads, “He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men appears to them useless and selfish; but he who gives himself partially to them is pronounced a benefactor and philanthropist.” After some puzzling, one student burst out, “That’s like Hamilton [in the song] ‘Wait for It’!” 

(I discovered this student’s passion for Hamilton earlier this year about the same time I was starting to see articles about the wildly popular musical that just won a Pulitzer Prize. I can’t remember whether I cued into the student’s first mention of Hamilton because I’d recently seen an article on it, or cued into an article because I’d recently heard it mentioned. But we’ve had a number of conversations about it since, so it was a natural connection to make in class.)

Why are connections so important? They not only pique interest and deepen understanding, but also they are what are necessary for solving real life problems which don't come labelled math, social studies, science, or English.

What are your students interested in outside of your class, whether in other classes or on their own time? How do you connect with those interests? How could you?

P.S. If you haven’t heard of Hamilton and you are interested in theater, music, American history, or American young people, you might want to check it out. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Creatively Teaching and Assessing Creativity: Some Baby Steps

What does creativity and doing our discipline look like in a high school class that’s also supposed to be learning literary content? This year I decided to try an experiment in my 10th grade short story unit. Rather than assess students’ mastery of the genre and the examples we’d studied by giving them a test on characters, settings, styles, themes, etc., I asked them to write a short story. 

I told them that we’d been watching professionals play and analyzing their game—now we were going to try it ourselves. Just a pick-up game. Nothing huge. No pressure. Just messing around, trying it out, having fun. A 45-minute period to plan, a 90-minute period to write (you don't even have to finish the story), and a 30-minute period to share what we’d tried, and then reflect in writing on what we had learned. 

Was the assessment rigorous enough? Would it really show content learning? I was a little worried. But reading over the products, there was no need. In their fiction—wildly varying—as well as in their reflections, students gave ample evidence of having absorbed the stories, techniques, themes, and styles that we’d read, remixed them with their own ideas, interests, and experiences, and even had fun doing it.

The “professional players” we’d observed were Leo Tolstoy in “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, Franz Kafka in “The Bucket Rider,” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” 

One student wrote about a girl who gets sucked into a book. Not into the story, but into the actual book, where the physical labor of reading by jogging the lines of print and pulling over the huge pages makes the story she was formerly bored with come alive in her mind.

Here’s the student author’s reflection on what she tried and what she learned (see below for her whole story if you’re interested): In my short story, I tried to use magical realism and motifs. The girl being sucked into the book was my attempt at magical realism, while the constant mentioning of technology (machine, robot, computer, typewriter) was my motif. I learned that when writing with a style of magical realism, it is important to include realistic ideas to avoid turning it into a fantasy.

Other students were equally as creative, writing stories like the following:
  • A post-apocalyptic fantasy featuring Justin and Thyme, their pink house on wheels, and their friends Life, Death, Nostalgia, and Memory.
  • Pahom, the bucket rider, and the angel meet in front of heaven’s gates.
  • A sort of riddle where the narrator describes many wonderful adventures, then what those experiences lack without the capacity to respond emotionally. It wraps up with an exhortation to cherish the life you’ve been given: “If I could only feel something, just one time, I would be the most grateful bunch of particles to ever roam this planet. But sadly I can’t, for I am only a molecule of water.”
  • The bucket rider is rescued from the ice mountains and opens his own coal business, determining always to be compassionate. But what will happen when the coal dealer’s wife who turned him away shows up at his door in need?
  • A Yemeni girl gets married off against her will. 
  • A less cynical re-write of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” where the angel meets a shining example of humanity rather than it’s every foible. What would this look like? Is it possible to make it into an interesting story?
As you can see, some students used characters directly from the stories. Many tried magical realism. One wanted to try to write a final sentence like Tolstoy’s that answered the title question, wrapped up the story, and implied the moral: “Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.” Another just tried to use a lot of semicolons like Kafka. 

I want to share a lot more of students’ writing and reflections—after we get back from spring break on Monday and I can ask their permission. For now, I’d just like to share the story of the girl who was sucked into a book.


“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” —Joseph Addison

     Flip. She turns to the next page without much interest. In fact, her mind is off elsewhere while her eyes scan the words on the page like a robot or a machine. Flip. Her back is sore from sitting in the same position for hours on her stiff wooden chair that has no armrests. Flip. The book would yell for her attention if it could speak, but it remains restrained and neglected. Flip. She is close to the last page. Flip. Skipping a few lines will do no harm, right?
     The book comes to an end, but the story was left untold. Yet, she takes a moment with her hands rested on the back cover to feel accomplished. She takes a deep breath and sets the book down on the round coffee table beside her. Eyes slowly closing, she leans back onto the hard backrest and sighs in heavy languor. The strong wind rocks her into a sound sleep. Meanwhile, the pages of the book flip quickly, racing with the wind. 
     Page 92, 91, 90… The book wants to wake her up; it wants her to try again. 
     Page 55, 54, 53… It sees its chance. 
     Page 21, 20, 19… Read!
     Page 3, 2, 1...

     Chapter One. Now wide awake, she looks around and sees words lying across the paper--sentences after sentences. There are no pictures in the book. Around her, the pungent smell of an old library is thick like a blanket. She walks along the spaces between each line, reading the words one by one, like a small child attempting to type a sentence for the first time on a computer keyboard. Growing weary and bored from reading so slow, she breaks into a jog, the sentences coming to her more fluently. When she reaches the end of the line, she looks across the page and jogs to the beginning of the next line like a typewriter. This time, she runs, excited to read the next word, the next sentence. She runs faster and faster until she finds herself sprinting. Unable to keep her balance, she gives up on staying in the spaces between the lines. By the time she is done reading the page, her sweat is dripping onto the paper, turning it a damp, brown color. She pulls the corner of the page and flips the page ever so heavily, shaking her head at how cumbersome flipping a single page could be. Finally succeeding, she wipes her forehead with the back of the hand and resumes her reading. If only she had read the book this properly the first time! Ten minutes has passed and she is still on page two: time does not wait for her. She reads with the same sprinting speed, only stopping to turn the pages. Though there are no pictures printed on the old, brown pages, images begin to dance around in her mind--bright and colorful. The book does not speak its dialogues, but she can hear it. Life seems to grow like tree branches, sprouting from the very words printed onto the pages. She reads and reads, until her legs give in. She crawls on her hands and knees, struggling to get to the next sentence. When her hands and knees give up, she drags her body with her elbows, struggling to get to the next word. A trail of sweat leaves the book wrinkled and damp. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Set Learning Goals That Matter; Assess Them in Ways That Matter

Feeling the need to bring some new spring life into your classroom?

Spring can be a tough time for any of us—students or teachers—to be trapped in the classroom. So many exciting things—things that haven’t happened for months—are happening outside. Things like warm sunshine, new leaves, riotous blossoms, twittering birds, and the satisfying thwack of baseballs into gloves. While inside the classroom, it’s the same old same old that we’ve been doing since August.

Still, I went into Easter weekend super-charged because I’d just read a set of 10th grade student assessments. Sounds crazy, I know, but they were assessments where students demonstrated creatively and insightfully significant learning goals: not only understanding of the novel, but mastery of character voice, empathy, and application. 

In this particular unit—a literature unit centered on the novel After Dark by Haruki Murakami—I had targeted the theme of empathy and the skill of noticing writing style. I wrote about some of our process here and here. So for the final assessment, I asked 2 questions, for which I suggested a 1-2 paragraph answer. They had the questions ahead of time for consideration. Here is the final assessment:
  • To what extent have you learned to get inside a character’s head, vicariously experiencing his/her life? To what extent have you reflected on what that means for your life? Respond to the following 2 prompts (15 minutes each; 1-2 good, solid paragraphs) to give evidence of the above learning:
    • Imaginative empathy: 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.
    • Practical empathy: What did you learn from the novel about imaginatively “seeing” people so you can love them, and how does that connect to your life?
The responses were amazing. The responses to the first question chose a wide variety of characters and situations, and not only demonstrated understanding of the book and the character, but also sounded exactly like that character’s voice—precise, or dreamy, or blundering. The responses to the second question made personal, appropriate, and specific applications.
Forgetting student motivation for the moment, this is about the time of year I need to motivate myself! And I’m the teacher—I get to set the learning goals and design the assessments that will happen in my classroom. So I can make sure they are meaningful—for the students to do and for me to read! 

So open up the windows and let a breath of fresh spring air invigorate you and your students: What is one meaningful learning goal and assessment you can use in your classroom in the remainder of this year?