Thursday, September 29, 2016

Processing Death through Reading and Writing

Me, my mom, and my two daughters enjoying a multigenerational girls' day out several years ago

Last Thursday morning I got the news that the hospital had put a “Do Not Resuscitate” order on my mom.

Then I composed myself and headed to school for a day of teaching. 

This is a brief tour, on a particularly stressful day, of the populous brain of a Christian bibliophile and literature teacher—the conversations continually taking place there among the thinkers, writers, and people of faith of the last 4,000 years.

That day in my 11th grade AP Language and Composition class, students were discussing the final three chapters of C.S. Lewis’s satire The Screwtape Letters. It is a purported series of letters from a senior tempter with a desk job (Screwtape) to his rookie nephew in the field (London during World War 2) advising Wormwood how to best keep his “patient” from the influence of the Enemy (i.e. God). In the final letter, Screwtape is furious that a bomb has killed the patient at the height of his faith, but some of the students are puzzling over the phrase “you die and die and then you are beyond death.” After a few minutes I intervene, back up a few sentences, and read the entire passage under discussion, intensely aware that this is the exact experience my mother is going through at this very moment:
Did you mark how naturally—as if he’d been born for it—the earth-born vermin entered the new life: How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous? I know what the creature was saying to itself! “Yes. Of course. It always was like this. All horrors have followed the same course, getting worse and worse and forcing you into a kind of bottle-neck till, at the very moment when you thought you must be crushed, behold! you were out of the narrows and all was suddenly well. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke. You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?” (172-173) 
Over my lunch time in Japan, I call my sister in California where it is 8:00 p.m. The nurse doesn’t think mom will make it through the night. Throughout the afternoon, it is a phrase of the poet Dylan Thomas that echoes through my mind: “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I’ve always thought in a theoretical way, and now in a very practical way, that for an atheist, he captured the tension of a Christian view of death in a powerful way. As James Ward sings the Apostle Paul’s thoughts, “Death is ended; it is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). And yet, death is still an enemy; it is not the way it is supposed to be. Jesus wept at his friend Lazarus’s funeral. And then he didn’t tell the other mourners Lazarus was happier where he was now; he reversed death and restored Lazarus to his friends and family (John 11:17-44). 

When the phone call came about 4:00 p.m. that Mom had passed, I thought, what a blessing. What a blessing I had her in the world for 51 years. What a blessing those hour-long Skype calls every Sunday morning--about kids, books, teaching, following Jesus.... What a blessing my first grandchild was born three weeks early so that I could see Mom seeing her first great grandchild on a 3-way Skype call a week before she was taken sick. What a blessing she suffered for less than four weeks. And how lonely and strange this world seems without her in it.

And how else do we bibliophiles process those powerfully conflicting emotions other than by listening to those conversations in our heads and writing them out? Thanks for listening.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Doing What I Teach: Rhetoric

I love it that students are noticing and asking about unfamiliar words. Yesterday I ran out of class time to address their vocabulary questions, so two students handed me their post-it notes. Now we'll work on noticing rhetorical strategies!

This week I’m just going to celebrate the nerdy joy of loving, doing, teaching language. Not so much reading and writing as such--which is usually the topic when I talk about being the living curriculum, a doer of what I teach (29 posts with this label!). But one thing I've especially enjoyed doing this week is noticing rhetorical terms and strategies in what I read and even in what I say! (I warned you it was going to be nerdy!) It's the lovely feeling of being on my second year of teaching AP Language and Composition, where instead of straining to keep one step ahead of the students, I've absorbed the content and skills of rhetoric and argument a little more into my bloodstream, so I'm actually doing it. Gives me a nerdy little thrill. Also gives me examples I can bring back into class to demonstrate that this is not so esoteric--people frequently use both the terms and what they mean. Here are some of the things I noticed this week (bolded words were already on our word wall):
  • “‘Flesh’ is a synechdoche, a part of speech in which a part of a thing is used to represent the whole (as in our phrase ‘counting noses’)” (255). Timothy Keller in The Meaning of Marriage, which I've been working on for a while and finally finished this week.
  • “They had the look of men who held their breath /  and now their tongues” (6-7). Marv Bell in “Veterans of the Seventies”  which I came across cleaning out my email—this was the poem for the day 11/11/2015. (No, you would not believe how much email I had collected.) I could identify the reason this line made me catch my breath—it’s a zeugma—using one word, “hold,” in two slightly different ways.
  • “The poignancy of its appeal is heightened by its juxtaposition to Ps 77…and Ps 78….” NIV Study Bible study note on Psalm 79. This was in my devotional reading last night. 
  • "I had planned to have dinner at home tonight because of the forecast typhoon, but since it hasn't materialized yet, I wouldn’t be adverse to going out." Me to my husband Friday morning. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized that I had just used one of the types of understatement I’d gone over in class Thursday. (In fact, I’d told the students not to worry about the names of the different types because that was so specialized even I didn’t know them. But now that I caught myself using it, I’ve gone and looked it up again, and I won’t forget it. Maybe I’ll even tell the class next week. We’ll probably end up using the word just because it’s so fun to say—litotes [LIGHT-uh-tease], litotes, litotes….)
I hope you love what you teach as much as I love what I teach. Don't be afraid to turn your heart and brain inside out and show your students what it looks like and how interesting and fun it is to see the world through the eyes of a doer of your subject. If you don't show them, who will?

Where do you see and use what you teach all around you? How do you share that with your students?

Friday, September 9, 2016

Talk Doesn't Stick

Two lame teacher questions, and I cringe every time I hear myself ask them, but they still slip out too often: “Does that make sense?” and “Does everyone understand?” I mean, face it: the only student who might venture a negative response would be one who is intellectually self-aware enough to know she’s unclear, academically engaged enough to care, and socially secure (or oblivious) enough to say so. I think I might have had two of those in my nearly 30 years of teaching.

So what do we do instead?

I used to give a lot of quizzes and tests. Then I scaled way back as I became convinced that what I really want students to learn in my English class is not that Hamlet said, “To be or not to be,” or that “to be” is an infinitive. What I really want them to learn is the transfer skills of reading, writing, thinking, listening, and speaking, and the mastery of those skills is most validly and authentically assessed in performance—not with multiple choice tests.

Then this summer I read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which convinced me I’ve been skipping a crucial rung on the skill-mastery ladder. (See here for my blog on the book.) Medical students and pilots in training are learning transferrable skills that will be applied in innumerable different situations, but first there are tests and simulations so that the necessary information becomes instantly retrievable and the necessary skills second nature. 

What does this look like in English class? I teach (or re-teach) a skill, like punctuating dialogue. Students practice, then do a formative assessment to see where their understanding is, get more teaching and practice if necessary, then apply their skill in their writing. 

Or that’s what it should look like. I forgot again. 

Here’s what really happened: I taught a mini-lesson on punctuating dialogue. It was marvelously embedded in our reading: we inferred the rules from the short Amy Tan narrative “Fish Cheeks that wed read. (Plus this should be review from, like, elementary school, right?) 

When I asked (cringe), “Does that make sense?” the students all nodded their heads. Then they wrote an essay draft in which there were many errors in dialogue punctuation. I reviewed the rules, and the students again nodded their heads that it made sense. They edited their drafts and turned in final narratives that…still had errors in dialogue punctuation. I went over the concepts a third time, promising a quiz. They all nodded their heads that they got it. And quiz results demonstrated otherwise.

This was less a failure of students to learn than of me, the teacher, to use the good pedagogy that I knew. How will I redeem myself for now and help my students learn? Go back where I should have started—treat the quiz as a formative assessment, offer reteaching, practice, and a re-take for those who need it. And once that missed step has been retraced, I will definitely expect to see the skill transferred to their next piece of writing, because I’ll know I’ve taught it and they’ve learned it.

What did I learn? Talk doesn’t stick. Asking “Does that make sense?” gives students no traction for identifying their own misunderstandings. Rehearsal and quizzing aren’t the goal of education, but they are essential building blocks for constructing the goal of transferrable knowledge and skills. 

Don’t forget to give students chances to actually do the goal, to be writers and scientists and artists and mathematicians and historians—they shouldn’t be enduring 17 years of drill and testing solely for the promise of what they’ll be able to do “in real life,” some day. And dont forget to help them understand how the individual skills and pieces of knowledge support that goal. (See here for my big understanding of editing skills: Editing is hygiene for your writing.) 

But neither should we neglect the practice and quizzing that will identify misunderstandings and make the skills they need reflexive and the knowledge they need available for immediate recall. Then they will be free to creatively use the skills and knowledge to respond to new situations. After all, thats how surgeons get to the point where they can develop new techniques and pilots save lives under the emergency of mechanical malfunctions.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Google Classroom: Just Do It

Warning: The following rant will give me away as being over 30. 

Encouragement: The confession that follows it will encourage you if you are over 30, too.

Upshot: If you have the opportunity to use Google Classroom with your students, take Nike’s advice (and mine) and Just Do It.

After feeling bewildered and bereft when my school shifted from Word and its associated programs, I dug in and got pretty good with Pages, et al. I also—eventually, gradually—built up a pretty good proficiency with the online classroom platform my school was using (Moodle). 

Then I changed schools.

This one used not Word, not Pages, but Google Drive. And not Moodle, but Google Classroom. I felt like letting out a great, big, Charlie-Brown AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH! 

So last year I spent shifting everything over to Google Drive. I set up a Google Classroom, but I had no energy left over to figure out how to use it.

Silly me.

This week, I tried it out. I’m a convert. It’s simple to use and so organized! I post an assignment, students get the notification via email, complete the assignment, and hit “submit.” Then it’s in the folder for that assignment. Labelled with that student’s name. No more nagging students to share it with me. No more hunting it down in my Google Drive.

I started out with a rough draft assignment. It took minutes to set up. Submitting the assignment was easy for the students. I could respond as they were submitted, both with comments on the document and with a private message when I “returned” it. (And students can actually read them, as opposed to my handwriting….) Ditto for the revised draft assignment, which I marked for the first 10 proofreading errors, choosing a commonly made error for a mini-lesson, and making notes of individual students to check with for understanding of a particular problem.

The students asked me to set up a separate assignment by the time we got to the final draft. That’s how simple and organized a Google Classroom assignment is. Now I’m motivated to explore more of what we can do in Google Classroom. 

If you are in a Google school, I highly recommend exploring your Google options. Yes, it can seem like the straw that may break the camel’s back when piled on top of the subject area content and skills you’re supposed to teach. But it will actually make that teaching more efficient and effective, saving you time in the long run.

Find a mentor—online, real life, or a combination—and just do it. For me, a colleague took 15 minutes to walk me through setting up my first class and assignment. Then it was just a matter of trying it out, letting students know that I was learning as much as they were, that it was a little scary and a little exciting, that there would be grace for errors on both sides, and that the point is not the technology, but how the technology can facilitate learning. 

For more help on the possibilities of Google Drive (Did you know that Google Docs has a template for MLA style?) and Google Classroom, see the embedded blog links. I plan to explore them further. If you have some other good online resources, please share! 

If you are already an expert yourself, offer to spend 15 minutes with a colleague, showing him or her the ropes. If we work together and help each other out, this technology stuff can make our lives (and not to mention our teaching) better, not harder. Even for those of us over 30. Or 40. Or 50….