Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Tale of 3 Discussions

Here’s what happened in a class discussion last week:

Question: What would the product of the ideal education Emerson describes be like? (Long, awkward silence.)
  • Student 1: Um…like…the ideal man? Smart?
  • Student 2: But not just academically smart—also imaginatively smart.
  • Student 3: It sounds like…what do you call it when people used to work for someone in order to learn how to do their job? 
  • Student 4: An apprenticeship?
  • Student 3: Yeah! An apprenticeship! Not just memorizing stuff for a test, but a relationship where the student learns to think and learn like the teacher.

At this point I was so excited about what I thought I had just seen happen that I stopped the students and said, “Let me ask some questions about what just happened here. It seems to me like the first person thought her answer was not very good, but since she hadn’t spoken much in the previous round, she figured she needed to jump in and say something.” That speaker grinned sheepishly and confirmed my inference. 

I continued, addressing the second student: “When did you formulate your idea—did you have it at the beginning, or did you come up with it while the first speaker was talking?” “While the first speaker was talking.” 

Then I turned to the third student: “And when did you formulate your idea? Did you have it at the beginning, or did you formulate it while the second student was talking?” “While the second student was talking.” 

The light was beginning to dawn on all of them, and I summed it up: “So you don’t have to have the most brilliant observation in order to speak up—it might just be that your ‘obvious’ answer is just what is needed to spark the next thought, which is just what is needed to spark brilliance. And it never would have happened if someone hadn’t started the chain reaction.” They all grinned with the epiphany.

Our next discussion, though, on the introductory matter to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, was less than inspiring—for a variety of reasons. Each person offered up her own response in sequence, but they were all disconnected. No one built on or responded to another. 

As it happened, that very afternoon I had a book discussion with nine colleagues on Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding. In the course of our discussion, I acknowledged my old bugaboos of being too “nice”—too quick to reward right answers and only probing wrong answers—and I realized I needed to go back to the beginning with my 11th graders and review the purpose of our reading and discussion. 

The following day I had posted on the board our reasons for reading, which are…
  1. What is the author saying? (Questions about vocabulary? Background information? Clarification?)
  2. How is the author saying it? (Notice rhetorical choices—diction, syntax, style—and the effect they have.)
  3. Why is the author saying it? (So what? How does it connect to other texts, to my experience, or to anything else I know about the world? How does it help me shape my answer to the question “What role does schooling play in a true education?”)

And I handed out the discussion rubric they’d seen before (see below). I asked them just to review it and, in light of the less-than-inspiring discussion of the previous day, set a goal for themselves to make today’s discussion better, to pursue the goal of deepening their own understanding and that of their classmates. 

“Are we supposed to evaluate yesterday’s discussion?” one student asked.

“Oh, no,” I recoiled in horror. “We’re cutting our losses on that one, learning from them, and focusing on doing it better today.” They seemed relieved about that.

Then I turned them loose. What a difference! There were questions on background information. There was a wrong statement made, which began devolving into a back-and-forth “yes-she-did”/“no-she-didn’t” war of attrition, which nearly made me give the answer, but I remembered at the last minute to say instead, “Cite your proof.” At which everyone began flipping through their books. The first student to find it began triumphantly reading, then suddenly stopped with an “oh” as she read the words that supported her opponent. Later another student revealed a misunderstanding, and a classmate immediately flipped to a passage that clarified the question. 

In our debrief on that discussion I told them I was proud of them for speaking up even with questions and misunderstandings--because how in the world are you going to get it right if you don't find out you're wrong? I hope our classroom is a safe place to do that. And I told them I was proud of them for going to the source for evidence, and for helping each other out and building off each other's answers. 

Sometimes we all—teachers and students—just need a little reminder about our goals and purpose and the best ways of getting there. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Getting Traction on Critical Thinking

AP English 11 students work to put Emerson's paragraphs in order, using critical thinking, inference, and their notes.

Nobody is against teaching critical thinking. We’re just always looking for ways to get traction on something we can’t actually see. It’s like the wind: we can see what it does, but we can’t see IT.

That’s why I’m always excited when I feel like I catch a glimpse of IT. Like 2 weeks ago, when I posted about an exercise in ordering paragraphs of an assigned reading with my 10th grade class. 

This week I did a similar exercise with my 11th grade AP students. And, as appropriate for the step from 10th grade to 11th grade, it was a little more complex. Mostly the reading itself was more complex: rather than being a modern author, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson. I was hesitant to try the exercise: as I looked at the Emerson reading, I thought, “The paragraphs are so much longer than in modern writing, most containing what would now be several paragraphs, and the transitions are by no means obvious.” And then I thought, “But if students can articulate those 2 thoughts themselves as a result of this exercise, it will be a score for critical thinking. And there ARE relationships between the paragraphs—but they are by concept, by logical argument development, and not by obvious transition words.”

And understanding each of 10 paragraphs from an excerpt of “Education” WAS the assignment, summarizing each in one line.

So I copied the 10 paragraphs, cut them apart, and for the beginning-of-class exercise, asked pairs of students to arrange the paragraphs in the order they thought best—from their understanding of the development of Emerson’s argument—without looking at their notes or at their texts. 

Then, when they had the best order they could come up with, they could get out their notes—their one-line summary of each paragraph—compare between partners, and compare to the ordering of their paragraphs, making changes if necessary. (I overheard remarks like, “Are we talking about the same paragraph?” Hmmm. But that will spur them to look more closely later!)

Finally, they could get out their text to check. Then they were to create a diagram somehow representing the development of Emerson’s argument. (I modeled the first 4 paragraphs on the board: Claim => Counterclaim + rebuttal => 2 points of education [genius & drill] with balance of paragraph spent defining “genius” => 1 long anecdotal example of genius.)

I’m excited because I saw students really discussing Emerson’s ideas—what he meant in a paragraph, and how that relates to the ideas in the other paragraphs. Here are some of the things students said in exit tickets that they learned:
  • I learned about the ideal education as well as some good places to put examples.
  • I learned that if I enjoy what I do I’ll continue to get better. I not only need my experiences, but others’ as well.
  • I realized, after we put [the paragraphs] in correct order, that Emerson has an argument that builds up throughout the essay.
I’m also excited because students will be grappling with multiple perspectives. Before this old, dead white man’s ideas about education, they’d read a modern, upper-middle-class white woman’s perspective (Francine Prose, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read”). Next they will read the perspectives of a Native American man (Sherman Alexie, “Superman and Me”), an African-American man (James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers”), a Japanese-American woman (Kyoko Mori, “Education”), and a specifically Christian perspective (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., “Educating for Shalom: The Calling of a Christian College”). Finally, they’ll read Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of a Slave. 

Then they will  write an essay on the essential question we’ve been considering all along: What is the relationship of schooling and a true education? They will have to have read critically and empathetically a wide variety of perspectives—varied by time, race, gender, class, religion—and synthesize those voices with their own thoughts as related to what they spend 6+ hours of every weekday doing. Breakdown questions include the following: What is a "true education"? What part does "schooling" play? What is my responsibility--to my own education/schooling and to others'?

I think that specific paragraph-arranging exercise helped—helped the thinking, helped the writing. And I look forward to reading the answers students will eventually come up with. As current politics rage and swirl around us, this is what I continue to do every day: look for ways to help students listen empathetically to multiple voices in a conversation, think critically about them, articulate compellingly their own considered synthesis, and contribute respectfully their voice back into the conversation.

May we all, whatever our purview, continue to do what God has always expected of His people: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).  

More puzzling over paragraph order in Emerson's "Education"

Friday, November 4, 2016

Target Reading Adults: Share, Celebrate, Cultivate Reading

Every classroom needs a library: here's a part of mine.
What did you do the last time you finished reading a book you’d picked up just because you’re a reader? I’ll bet you didn’t take a test or spend hours creating an elaborate project! You may have talked to a friend—whether to gush, complain, recommend, or just process. You may have posted a review online—on Amazon, Goodreads, your own blog, or just a quick tweet or Facebook note.

I want my students to become reading adults. Since they are already 10th and 11th graders, if they’re not going to major in English (and statistics say that’s highly unlikely), school has only a very short time left to help them toward this goal. One thing we can do is replicate as closely as possible what it’s like to be a reading adult, and in such a way that there’s a high probability students will experience the enjoyment, community, stimulation, and growth that keeps us adult readers coming back to the books.

At the end of first quarter, in an attempt to simulate the way adults would respond to a book, I gave my students three options for reporting on their independent reading: (1) post a review on Goodreads (200+ words), (2) make an individual appointment with me for a 10-minute book talk before school, after school, or at lunch, or (3) share in a whole-class round-table discussion during the final period of the quarter. 

Results? Individual book talk appointments with me were a distant last place. (And that is what I did exclusively 2 years ago…at great commitment of my time!) Some students really got into posting reviews (a new option this year), and a slight majority opted to share with the whole class. (This was especially well-received by the juniors with whom I’d initiated this option previously. Some of them lit up when they said, “Oh! We get to do that circle thing like we did last year!”) A few students expressed interest in sharing more than one way! Some specifics:
  • One student who had already had an individual book talk with me about Challenger Deep by Neal Schuster was able to also share in some extra time at the end of our round-table discussion. He told me later that sharing with whole class was more fun.
  • One student who had posted review on Brave New World brought the book to the round-table, and when we ran out of time for her to share again, she asked, “Can we continue this on Monday?”
  • One student shared with the class her excitement about A Thousand Splendid Suns, and how she enjoys novels about women in Middle Eastern countries. (Last year she’d enjoyed The Pearl that Broke Its Shell.) As she was walking out of class, I handed her the nonfiction book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women World Wide. That was Monday. By Friday she was 3/4 done and sharing with a friend how great it was.
But are they taking it out of the classroom? That Thursday and Friday we had High School Camp. Thursday night, just before lights out, I lay in my bunk, staring at my Kindle, trying hard not to let on how much English-teacher-geek joy I was getting out of overhearing this unprompted conversation, as the girls in my cabin discussed what’s so great about John Green and the relative merits of various fantasy series (Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Harry Potter, and Divergent). One girl wasn’t talking; she was reading.

Friday afternoon, after we’d gotten back to school and while students were waiting for their rides, I had a discussion with one student about themes that all great science fiction shares. I passed Ready Player One on to him, and he promised to get me Dune. Later that evening, a friend of his had also marked Ready Player One as “to-read” on Goodreads.

I can always do more and better, and I’m always looking to up my game and help more kids connect with their inner reader. But right now, I’m just going to take the rest of the weekend to celebrate the successes I’ve seen.

How do you respond to a book when you’ve finished? How do you help students experience the joy of an adult reading life? What successes have you seen? Celebrate them! Let’s learn from each other and try again next week.