Saturday, October 29, 2016

Closer, More Active Reading!

10th graders look for the clues the author left to lead the reader from one paragraph to the next.

  •  I think this paragraph is the conclusion because it comes back to the same idea as the very beginning, and applies it to everyone.
  • This is a story illustrating the general idea in this paragraph, so it must come after it. 
  • These three paragraph are all about words. They must go together.
  • This paragraph has the word failure in every sentence, and this one has failure in just the first sentence, so that must be the transition word.
  • This paragraph’s first sentence says, “What had caused this to happen?” We have to find the this that it’s talking about.

I used to hope for observations like this when I asked students to especially note transitions as they did a close reading and annotated a passage, but the conversations were never this good. They were more like this: “This author uses good transitions.” 

This week, I actually heard these conversations. Among my students!

What’s the difference? They had to do something. And not just highlight and discuss. They had to engage. Inquire. Solve a problem. Physically manipulate things. Feedback from others helped. They could hypothesize, try it out, look at it, modify it, and try it again. And then there was a real-life check at the end. A right answer to the puzzle. Had they figured it out? How a real-life, published author led his readers from one paragraph to the next. (Hint: It isn't always the same. There are many ways, and they all work.)

What did they have to do? Work with their table group of 4 to physically arrange the last 11 paragraphs of the assigned reading in order. I had made a copy of those paragraphs for each group, cut the paragraphs apart, scrambled them, and piled them in the middle of the table. 

It wasn’t a totally blind exercise. They had read and annotated the “Introduction” to An Ordinary Man, the memoir of the protagonist of the movie Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, who hid 1,268 people inside his hotel when the 1994 genocide broke out in his country. 

There were 3 purposes for reading: (1) What the author says: background information for the genocide and to render less confusing some clips from the movie we would watch the next day, (2) How the author says it: notice especially organization (thesis, introduction, topic sentences, transitions, and conclusion), and (3) So what: How does this connect to the questions “What is human dignity and why does it matter?” and “Genocide—why does it keep happening even after the world says, ‘Never again’?” that we will be addressing in our reading of the Holocaust memoir Night

I had modeled my thinking by reading the first section aloud and voicing my reflections on those 3 purposes as I read. Then they read and annotated the last 2 sections, noting 3 “so what” observations in their journals.

The next day in class, we compiled a list of facts and background information as a whole class. Then I let them discuss anything they’d noted in the second section. And then, instead of asking them to discuss their observations about organization, I told them to put away their readings, and I gave each group a pile of 11 paragraphs, cut apart and scrambled. Every single student was engaged in trying to figure out which paragraph went where.

Before I finally allowed them to get out the original and check, I told them they might have a few paragraphs out of order, but the really important thing was the conversations they’d had and the thinking they’d done about what connects one paragraph to the next. 

I wonder what are more ways I can get students actively engaged in developing real understanding of the content and skills I teach?

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Not Rocket Science: Teaching the Skills by Which We Assess

Are you teaching your students a skill? A life skill? A skill that adults want to hone in order to be successful in real life? A skill like learning, thinking critically, collaborating, communicating, creating, or problem solving? Then do 2 things: 
  1. Actually teach it. Don't just assign and assess it. Don’t know how? Introduce students to the resources adults use. (Motto: “Just Google It.”)
  2. Scaffold practice. Show students the value of practice by giving time to do it—and I don’t just mean homework time. 
Let's use presentation for an example. This week, my students gave a presentation on background information to the South African novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Now we all know in our gut that presentation is an important skill. We all spend portions of our lives presenting—whether it is to one person, five, ten, or thousands—whether it is a job interview, a sales pitch, a halftime pep-talk, a Sunday school class, or a state of the nation address. Shoot, as teachers, we spend our entire working lives trying to sell kids on the importance of learning what we have on offer. 

The problem is, no one ever taught us how to do it—the selling, the speaking, the presentation, that is. Except for, possibly, a one-credit elective in high school or college that mostly reinforced our fears. So most of us know we aren’t great presenters; the minority who are, aren’t really sure how it is they do what they do.

It’s okay. It isn’t rocket science. (Even rocket science today isn’t rocket science: all you have to do is Google it. [See the P.S. for a fun tangent on that one!])

I spent a lot of my teaching career assessing student knowledge via skills I hadn’t taught. We’d read fiction, and they'd write an expository essay about the fiction we'd read. Or make a presentation. Or, if I was really creative, make a poster. But did we ever study an expository model? Learn what makes an effective presentation? Or analyze the essentials of layout and design? Of course not! This was World Literature class, after all! I was supposed to teach Gilgamesh, Antigone, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez!

Sorry—but no one ever lost their job because they didn’t know what magical realism was. They might if they can’t nail the presentation. 

We know communication is a 21st century skill. So if up-to-date teachers, we have students do science projects, speeches, debates, and presentations. We even evaluate them. Sometimes pretty rigorously. But do we teach students how to speak, and do we coach them on the skill?

So this week I spent one class period on teaching presentation. I sent my students to > Resources > Public Speaking Tips. That is a real resource that real adults use because they have a real-life reason to improve in public speaking. Whether or not it is helpful now, maybe sometime in the future they will have an important presentation coming up and will gratefully Google this resource.

I told them to read three articles: “Preparing a Speech,” “Successful Speeches,” and “Gestures and Body Language.” Each article is only one screen long. And out of the three articles, I asked them choose a total of three goals that they wanted to work on for this presentation, and to record those goals on the back of their presentation rubric.

Then I asked them to pair up, deliver their presentation to a partner, and give feedback. 

And I waved under their noses the piece of cream cheese pound cake that was waiting for them when they were done. (A great general knows that an army marches on its stomach!)

And if you don’t know how to make cream cheese pound cake, you can also Google that.

P.S. Major tangent: I Googled “rocket science” and was intrigued by the option “rocket science ice cream.” Apparently, there is an Amish owned ice cream shop in Nappanee, Indiana, where your order is mixed and frozen before your eyes using liquid nitrogen! Gotta love Google!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Of Good Questions and Swiss Army Knives

Thinking about how audience and purpose shape argument calls for some intense concentration.

How is a really good question like a Swiss Army knife? 

It can serve many learning purposes! This week I discovered a set of good questions that focused student writing, conferencing, and reflection.

Reading the first draft of 11th grade researched argument essays, I realized that the most effective one had a sense of audience and purpose. The rest had much less focus. Were they thinking of an audience of peers? of adults? An audience who were vehemently opposed to their claim? or undecided? Did they want to move their audience to consider another point of view? to commit? to act?

So on our revising day, I posed these three questions:
  • Who is my audience?
  • What is my purpose?
  • How does knowing my audience and purpose shape my argument?
I told students we were going to use those questions in 3 ways:
  • To focus the revision of their papers (along with the comments I’d written on the drafts).
  • To structure mini-conferences with me while they were revising. 
  • To reflect on their final draft when they hand it in. 
Results: Students got traction on their revision, I got traction on the day’s conferences, and I’m committed to reflection when they hand the final drafts in next week. (Sometimes when pressed for time I’m tempted to skip that step, and I’m always so impressed with the learning when I don’t.)

A little more about the conferencing: I have to confess that as an introvert, I have a certain dread of conferencing. What if I can’t provoke a good conversation? What if it falls flat, is a waste of time, and now the student is off task because I disrupted his concentration? Some of that will come with experience. And one thing I’m learning is that I need to go in with a good question or two. “How are you doing?” is not one. It generally elicits, “Fine.” Back to my turn. But this was a great conferencing start: “Tell me about your audience, purpose, and how determining that is helping you shape your argument.” (And sure enough: The paper I’d identified as having the best sense of audience and purpose? The writer said she and her friends frequently discuss the merits of veganism.)  

One final plug: I doubt I’d have come up with those questions if I were not participating in a weekly discussion with nine colleagues of Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggans. Each week we not only discuss one chapter, we also set a goal about implementing something we learned and report on it the following week. I knew I wasn’t using my documented essential questions well in 11th grade, so my goal was to be sure the 11th graders knew the essential question, or to write a new one. I absolutely love this type of professional development, and highly recommend it. 

What’s a Swiss Army knife of a question you’ve asked students recently?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Audience and Purpose in Real-Life Writing: My Mom's Eulogy

My talented niece Meredith who delivered the eulogy (front row, first from the left) with my mom and dad and most of their grandchildren three years ago at their 50th anniversary celebration. (My oldest daughter was on her honeymoon.) 
Sometimes we choose what to write, and sometimes we have no choice, but we always write with audience and purpose in mind. It’s what I tell my students, so I’d better practice it myself. And the more articulately, metacognitively transparent I can be with students about how, when, and why I write in the real world, the more effective a teacher of writing I can be. So, here’s a bit of a reflection on some real-world writing I did recently: a eulogy for my mom’s memorial service.

I volunteered for this job with an outer eagerness but a bit of inner trepidation. I did it because my sister had been with my parents, doing the hard work and making the hard decisions, through most of the weeks of my mom’s final illness. My brother had flown in once for a week, and with his medical expertise, was in contact with the doctors on the case. And here I was, flying in two days before the memorial service. The least I could do was offer my purported expertise as a teacher of writing and a weekly blogger.   

I started rehearsing on the trans-Pacific airplane flight, writing most of last week’s post, which was more of a personal reflection, to process my own thoughts. But now I’d have to write something that would speak for all of our family, to several communities of people from four different churches and two Christian schools who had known my mom for 35 years. To celebrate her life in a way that would acknowledge our grief, but not feed or manipulate it.

I knew I’d never be able to actually stand up and deliver the speech. Thankfully, my niece, Meredith Harbman, volunteered for that job. So I’d have to write in her voice. That was a first for me—ghostwriting. 

And I’d have to find out what the family wanted to share. So the night before the memorial service, when most of us were gathered around my parents’ dining room table for supper, I posed the question: “What do you remember about Grandma?”

That night I put together what I’d heard (talking to a young cousin or two who had not spoken up at the dinner table), and the next day I sent it off to Meredith, who added her own memories.

The memorial service was truly wonderful. Mom would have loved being there as a packed sanctuary belted out hymns in four-part harmony—the best congregational singing I’ve heard in years. Representatives from three different churches delivered eulogies. And for the family, Meredith did an admirable job of rallying all of her years of speech competition to put on her actress face and deliver our eulogy with a verve honoring to Mom’s life that I never would have been able to muster. So here’s to family, to Mom, to doing one’s part in the community that rallies. And, if you care to read on, here’s the eulogy I pulled together, with my family’s memories and Meredith’s additions:

Grandma played many roles throughout her life: teacher, pastor’s wife, pianist, Sunday school teacher, hostess whose table always had room for more, mom, grandma, confidant, and advisor. In all of them, her joy, common sense, and love for people and for God were always evident.

I’d like to begin with a bit of family lore—a story from before Grandma and Grandpa had any children, but which seems to have set the tone for their joint ministry for all the years to come. One afternoon a family with several children came to visit. As afternoon became evening and nobody made any sign to leave, Grandma decided she’d better offer the family dinner. As it turned out, Grandpa had already issued the invitation but forgotten to tell Grandma. 

It was the beginning of a long tradition of always being prepared to feed anyone who happened along. Sunday lunch could be just the five Warrens, or it could include any number of visitors and others who had no particular plans. If there was concern about the amount of food available, word got whispered along: “Family hold-back meal!” That meant the family should go easy on the roast and mashed potatoes until it became apparent there would be enough to go around. (They could always have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich later.)

Uncle Michael’s first memory of Grandma is from the summer of 1984 when he was dating Aunt Kim and flew from Tennessee to California to visit her. Grandma asked him, “Would you like to set the table?” and Uncle Michael answered the literal question honestly: “No, I wouldn’t like to.” Grandma, always the teacher, told him the proper response was, “Yes, I’d love to.”

Aunt Kim will always treasure the hour Skype dates she has had for years every Saturday afternoon with her mom—all the way from Japan. They talked about everything from books to teaching to following Jesus.

My dad remembers the night he visited to request permission to ask my mom to marry him. Grandpa quizzed him at length on his commitment to the Reformed faith and on why he wanted to marry Mom. Grandpa was still wrapping up a few questions, but when Grandma came in with the Martinelli’s, he knew he was in. He tells people he was adopted twice: once into the family of God and once into the Warren family, because he never felt like an in-law, but always a son.

The grandkids remember Grandma in the kitchen—making lemonade, Josh’s favorite breakfast casserole, Christmas cookies. Josh remembers Grandma getting him to help her clean closets when Grandma and Grandpa lived with us for a year while Dad was on active duty. She had one job for him after another, and when he finally got away, he told Mom breathlessly, “Grandma works REALLY HARD!” 

She did. But she also took the time to play. Time at Grandma’s was characterized by tide pool field trips, miniature golf outings, and Disneyland visits. Games like Bananagrams, Clue, and Boggle were also favorites, along with the jigsaw puzzle that was always in process. Trevor notes, “She always kept up with what I was doing—asked about my basketball game or whatever I was doing.” Aubrey remembers that she always seemed to know just what a grandchild needed at any given time—like after our first unaccompanied air plane flight at ages 6, 8, and 11, when Grandma and Grandpa somehow managed to meet my siblings and me at the gate in Phoenix with stuffed animals in arm.

Mom remembers Grandma playing with me at the park once when I was very small, and I kept asking her the same question over and over, and Grandma kept patiently answering it, over and over. Finally my mom apologized to Grandma and said, “You don’t have to keep answering her.” “Oh, yes, I do,” replied Grandma without a trace of frustration. “If you don’t listen to them when they’re little, they won’t talk to you when they’re big.”

I remember one mealtime with the fuzzy memory of early childhood, when I was told to set the table and dropped a plate in my eagerness. I was crushed, but Grandma scooped up the pieces and told me “It’s just a thing, Meredith. It doesn’t matter.” I remember a lot of things about Grandma, but mostly I remember always wanting to call her whenever something newsworthy happened in my life. I called her the first time a guy asked me out and after I finished a half-marathon. I said “I love you, Grandma” at the end of every phone call, and I will never forget the tenderness in her voice with her faithful response, “I love you too, Meredith.” 

We’ve all learned a lot from Grandma. We’ve felt loved and listened to. We’ve been fed, comforted, and encouraged. For some of us, she’s done the Chiquita Banana dance to make us smile for the camera. She’s taught us by her words and by her example. And, as Aunt Michelle noted, we’ve all been fervently and faithfully prayed for.

Just a few weeks ago, when Grandma was in the hospital, my mom was reading the Bible to her. She was reading from 1 John, and she came to chapter 2 verse 17 and read, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Grandma stopped my mom and said, “Don’t let anyone say I’m passing away. The world and its desires are passing away. But I’m going to live forever!”