Saturday, May 28, 2016

Celebrating Students’ Critical Thinking

At the end of the year who doesn't just want to be done—teachers as well as students? (Yes, I had to take myself out to a coffee shop Thursday afternoon for the motivation and isolation necessary to tackle marking my last set of papers.) 

But let’s not just rush to be done: Let’s take the time to notice and celebrate the growth that has happened this year. One of the places that happened for me this week was in an 11th grade class discussion, post-AP  Language test, on reading chapter 8 of The Great Gatsby

This was a mind-blowing conversation for me, based on the last line of the penultimate chapter: “It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete.” 

Student 1: “What does ‘holocaust’ actually mean?”
Me (looking it up on my desktop dictionary): “Destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire or nuclear war.”
Student 2: But since this was written in 1925, the German genocide of Jews hadn’t happened yet, so that connotation wouldn’t be there.

Wow…that hadn’t actually occurred to me in so many words.

In the same class, students developed a theory that hadn’t occurred to me:

Way back at the beginning of the book, some of them noticed Myrtle’s claim that her husband had deceived her about his social status by getting married in a borrowed suit that she had thought was his own. Maybe because I’ve been encouraging them to look for the motif of deceit and illusion.

One student came into class Wednesday protesting the unfairness of the mistake that had, at the end of World War 1, sent Gatsby to Oxford rather than home, where Daisy was waiting for him, got discouraged, and married Tom instead. “If only that mistake hadn’t happened, everything would have been okay!” 

Really? I asked. Gatsby knew during his original month with Daisy that she was operating under a false assumption: “…he had deliberately given Daisy a sense of security; he let her believe that he was a person from much the same stratum as herself—that he was fully able to take care of her” (149). If he’d been able to return immediately after the war, would this deception have been uncovered before the wedding? 

Immediately two students began bouncing this idea back and forth and came up with the theory that Fitzgerald shows how doomed the dream is before it even starts by presenting Wilson and Myrtle as the option to what actually happened. If Gatsby had come back and married Daisy immediately after the war, before making his fortune, there might have been a bride expecting more; a long, plodding struggle to  provide what she expected; and ultimately disillusionment.

Wow…that hadn’t occurred to me, either. But it works. 

It’s a good feeling at the end of the year: when my students are coming up with questions and theories that I hadn’t thought of, my work is done. They are critical thinkers, ready for the next level.

What are your signs of success--even small ones? Encourage yourself: train yourself to notice students doing well.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Follow-up Probes: How I Grew This Year

10th graders discuss A Midsummer Night's Dream

As a kid I promised myself I would never be a teacher. It seemed so dull to do the same thing over and over every year. Little did I understand that enormous adventure of teaching is that even if the content and skills are the same, the students are different, and I am always challenging myself to get better. It's looking at every student and saying, "How can I help this child grow this year?" Every year I get a chance to say...
  • That worked well. How can I do more of it?
  • That didn’t work so well. What can I change?
  • What can I learn that I don’t know now?

My 10th graders just wrapped up their unit “Finding Love” based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a unit I love and have been teaching and tweaking for many years. The presentation did not go as well as it usually does—I’ll have to think about what went awry and how to fix it next year. Other than that, the unit went well—the readers’ theaters, journals (see below), nonfiction background readings, discussions, movie watching, and final essay (letter from their current “rational” self to their future “in love” self using sources from this unit to guide wise decision making regarding the relationship). It is so fun to be the coach who gives students the tools and opportunity for interpreting challenging text to find the artistry and truth, and then to stand back and watch them gaining confidence and competence and insight.

A 10th grade journal on A Midsummer Night's Dream

It is also fun to see myself getting more consistent with a good teaching practice: follow-up probes. After committing to this to some colleagues with whom I was reading Understanding by Design, I made a copy of these follow-up probes (p. 249) and carried them around in a plastic sleeve on top of my pile of books. I read them over between classes. And I actually found myself, when getting excited about a student insight, remembering to contain my comments and instead use follow-up probes to elicit more student thinking.

Follow-up probes:
  • Why?
  • How do you know?
  • Explain.
  • Do you agree?
  • What do you mean by ___?
  • Could you give an example?
  • Tell me more.
  • Give your reasons.
  • But what about ___?
  • Can you find that in the text?
  • What data supports your position?

You see, what happens when I respond to a student insight with my excited follow-up comments is that I shut down student thinking. How? I tell myself that I’m modeling a good response, but imagine the opposite. The student comment is vague or off-track. Then I pause and respond with follow-up probes. Generally in my class prior to this, a follow-up probe signaled the wrong answer. Then more thinking had to happen. But a good answer—even a shot in the dark—was rewarded with the teacher giving all the thinking background. 

I got better this unit. Next year, I’m going to carry that list with me everywhere. Maybe put it on an anchor chart for students to use with each other, too. Hey, there’s a good idea! I love the feeling of growing!

What’s something you got better at this year?

Friday, May 13, 2016

Student Reflection Consolidates Learning, Encourages Teachers, and Drives Professional Development

Want to consolidate student learning, encourage yourself, and drive your professional development?

Ask your students to reflect on their learning. This reflection can take a variety of forms, from a well thought out Google survey to a quick-and-dirty brief class discussion or 1-minute essay on the back of their final essay or project.

For the Google survey, here is a great plug, example, and step-by-step video that I’ve pinned for future reference. I’m not going to get around to it this year—but it’s a great idea.

However, I did write up on the whiteboard the goal for my 11th grade AP Language and Composition class as stated on the syllabus: Students will become critical thinkers, readers, discussers, and writers who have the communication and research skills necessary for successful engagement with academic and real life problems. It was fun for me to see the students walk in, read the board, and say, “We DID do that this year!” (Next time I need to ask for specific examples.)

The next day, when they handed in their final paper, I asked them to answer the usual two reflection questions, and a year-end third question:
  1. What did you work hard on in this essay?
  2. What is one question you want to ask the teacher about your writing in this essay?
  3. What are three things you learned this year about writing?
Here are some of their answers to those questions:

What did you work hard on in this essay?
  • I think I did well with varying my sources and examples. I wanted to make sure my sources were credible and woven into the paper instead of just placed there.
  • This essay had good usage of sentence length, with a decent introduction and conclusion.
  • For this essay I feel like I was able to put in my own personal touch as it connected with my main points. I feel like I had a good balance of my own thoughts and other credible sources. I’m proud of how I was able to let this flow in my essay
What is one question you want to ask the teacher about your writing in this essay?
  • I was wondering how to use my personal experiences in an argument essay.… I’m trying to balance the use of facts with the use of stories. [Great opportunity to refer back to our ongoing discussion of audience and purpose. Anecdotes serve ethos (you can believe me because I’ve got skin in the game) and pathos (making it real with emotional connection). Ideally, these work in tandem with logos, or data and logic.]
  • How can I organize a personal essay so it does not sound like a narrative but more scholarly? [I’m making a mental file of essayists to recommend as models. Barbara Kingsolver on the personal end, Annie Dillard in the middle, and Nicholas Kristoff on the scholarly end?]
  • Was the main point of the paper clear in general? The transitions seemed difficult to follow through the paper. [Taking a risk on a different type of organization—I thought it worked very well.]
What did you learn about writing this year?
  • Every author has a different writing style and you must be able to analyze all, even your own.
  • No matter what the prompt is, be sure you stay true to your own style and organization.
  • Reducing redundancy is important in having a clear and concise essay.
  • Knowing when to use passive voice, or even just identifying passive voice, is important.
  • Something that I’ve learned and know that I’ll use forever is ethos, pathos, and logos. I use this in almost every essay that I’ve written this year.
  • I’ve learned how to use sources in my paper and connect them with my ideas. In the past I would summarize my sources, but now I’ve gotten better at adding them in my papers smoothly.
  • Writing is not always about the 5-paragraph format. Sentence lengths should be varied. Good writing can come from nonconformity.
That was the day before the AP test. I think it helped us all feel ready.

How will you help your students reflect on their learning and your teaching this year?

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Structure for Synthesis: Use Text Sets

When something shows up both in the Bible and in Shakespeare, no one is going to deny that is an important comment on human nature.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a student getting excited about Shakespeare when I connected the love flower of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the brain chemistry of falling in love. 

We are still having fun with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the essential question “How are ‘falling in love’ and ‘love’ related?” Wednesday we finished act 5 and began working on our group motif presentations. In the meantime, we also talked about God’s good intent for romantic love. 

I mean, what else is Song of Songs doing in the Bible? And the students were shocked to discover that after several iterations of “and it was good,” the first divine “not good” comes not after, but before the Fall: “It is not good for the man to be alone…” (New International Version, Genesis 2:18). So after the “oversight” of creating Adam alone, God embarks on the ill-fated experiment of trying to find an animal to fill up the “not good.” 

Wait, that can’t be right. 

Then if it wasn’t God’s oversight and subsequent ill-fated experiment, what was it? I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that just maybe God knew Adam needed to find out for himself that it was pretty lonely on his own, and that his dog or his horse (or his truck or his gun, or whatever your cultural counterpart is) wasn’t going to fill the void.

Anyway…moving on to the dangers of a powerful gift for good misused. I shared several Bible stories that read like a modern novel—I want…, I love…, she’s the one for me…—the stories of Shechem and Dinah (Genesis 34), Samson’s Philistine wife (Judges 12), and Tamar and Amnon (2 Samuel 13). In the last story, when Amnon’s friend detects his love-sickness and asks, “Why do you, the king’s son, look so haggard morning after morning? Won’t you tell me?” (v. W4) one student gasped, “That’s just like what Romeo’s friend says to him!” 

I’d planned a lot of connections into this unit, and I hadn’t planned that particular connection. If I hadn’t planned all those other connections, that student might still have made that connection. But if I model synthesis and structure student reflection on it, students will be more likely to acquire the habit. 

Three ways I structure for synthesis are by planning units thematically around an essential question, pointing the unit toward an assessment that has students answering that question, and building text sets that will equip students to answer that question. 

In addition to the play itself, my text set for this unit includes the following:
  • An excerpt from the book The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D.
  • A Life on Stage,” an essay from Time magazine (28 April 2008) by Yasmin Albhai-Brown
  • The introduction to Song of Songs from the NIV Study Bible
  • A literary essay on the play at the back of our play text
  • Three Views of Marriage,” an op-ed column from the New York Times (David Brooks, 23 Feb 2016) that cites Timothy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage for “the moral view” of marriage.
That last one is new this year. Can’t wait to see what connections students make on the final essay!

How do you structure your class to support students making connections and synthesizing thinking? What kind of text sets do you use?