Thursday, December 22, 2016

Give an Exam to Celebrate

You know the old story about the guy who was asked why he was banging his head against the wall, and he answered, “Because it feels so good when I stop”? Does it sometimes seem that semester exams right before Christmas holidays are a little like that? There should be a way of both assessing and stimulating student growth in a way that celebrates the journey of the first semester and sets the stage for the second. 

This year, for a portion of my exam, I simply asked students to respond to the following prompt: Write an assessment with support of how you have grown as a reader, writer, thinker, discusser/speaker this semester. So I sat on the airplane to my holiday destination reading, not a stack of essays, but testimonies to the learning that had happened during the semester, sprinkled with hints of where we can head next. One of the best Christmas presents ever. Merry Christmas to me!

Here are some of the things my students said:

How I grew as a reader…

I used to only read dystopian…books, but now these aren’t the only things that interest me. I’ve read historical fiction and non-fiction, which is something I actually never thought would happen….The books I’ve read this year have actually been catalysts of conviction for me. I’ve been thinking more about the meaning of the books.

Keeping a “to-read” list is important because it reminds you that once you finish a book, you’re still not done. Reading is important, and it expands knowledge.

In this class you pushed me to read outside of my comfort zone, most noticeably by giving me Sophie’s World. At first I was quite bored with that book, Mrs. Essenburg, but then I began to become more interested in the content. Because of my love of books, I have always had a philosophical outlook on life, I just haven’t really used that outlook in recent years. This book reawakened that dreamy-thinly part of my brain.

How I grew as a writer…

I’m writing more about things I care about, which makes all the difference in the world. My conclusions when it comes to essays have gotten a lot better. I used to just restate my facts and condense the main points down into one paragraph. Now I find a way to engage the reader and relate them to the paper so they can feel connected.

I have begun trying to improve my writing, and now think a lot more about what I’m saying…I do still, however, find myself struggling to form my own voice when writing, as I think a lot of it is either inconsistent, suspiciously reminiscent of other writers, or just poorly done. I hope to work on all of this next semester.

How I grew as a thinker…

Topics like genocide and human dignity really made me think differently. For example, the book Night put me in Elie Wiesel’s shoes (or feet, I guess). It’s different from textbooks or documentaries, as reading allows you to paint your own picture and experience similar feelings.

I think more, and more often. Before I would think without purpose when I read something. However this class has forced me to put my thoughts on paper and this made me think harder and deeper into things that I would usually never care about. I learned how to compose my thoughts…and create things that are comprehensible to others. I would ask more questions …that would stimulate me and my brain much more powerfully. Before I would…think a thought then let it drift away. Now my thoughts and facts remain with me, and I can say what I always meant to say.

In “Justice in an Unjust World,” the author talks about how God cares and suffers with us. How he never grows numb to the world as most do…. Paul [Rusesabagina—the movie Hotel Rwanda and his autobiography An Ordinary Man] was like that. He never grew numb to others’ suffering and saw it all in black and white, clear as crystal, that when so many people are being hurt, or when anyone is being hurt for that matter, that as a human being, possessing human dignity, it is your duty to help. People like him have also changed my way of thinking because I was beginning to grow numb to the suffering myself. Like when that shooting happened at the night club in Florida. I walked into the living room the next morning, saw it on the news, and said, “Really? Again?” Not in a concerned way, just a kind of, oh, the cat missed the litter box AGAIN kind of way. Now, I don’t think that would be my reaction. I was getting so used to hearing bad things that I didn’t really care any more. Is that how people felt about the reports of the Rwandan genocide? Now, because of reading all of these accounts, I am on permanent wake-up call. As a thinker I have become more aware of other people, their needs, and the world around me in general.

How I grew as a discusser/speaker…

I was very nervous because I never discuss things with other people, especially not books and plots and themes of them. However, with these daily discussions I can articulate my thoughts into words and say them with confidence and, yes, in moments I will stay silent, but when I must speak I would speak loud and proud my thoughts and ideas. These are the things in which I believe. I will listen to others and bounce off of them and understand what they mean, to learn and to quote them. To be able to comprehend what others say so that I may learn from them and they may learn from me.

With support from the journals and a different way of thinking, I learned to start and keep a discussion going on with a lot of questions and confidence to speak.

I really just always thought I would be bad at discussing. I was wrong. I got comfortable with my classmates and became more open with anyone. I realized that everyone’s ideas matter and that discussing really helps you think and assess what you’re talking about.

I have learned to come out of my comfort zone and express my thoughts.

I feel that discussion is a big part of your class because it helps us to think, understand, and learn from each other rather than having the teacher feed us their own ideas and thoughts. I think that your class helps us grow individually and teaches us to make our own ideas. I think this is especially good because we won’t always have someone to tell us everything. I’ve also learned to give other people chances, as well as bring people into discussion. As a loud individual…I [formerly] would make everyone else’s ideas change to mine by telling them the answer and not giving them room. I think your class has given me a larger value in listening and applying the ideas of others.

It is so energizing to hear from your students that they are getting the big ideas you’re trying to teach. Bring on the eggnog, and let the holidays begin! May all teachers everywhere get such lovely Christmas presents! 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Student Reflection Is Good for Learning and for Teaching

I might have gotten a little carried away with that response...but who could blame an English teacher for a little excitement when a student actually ASKS, "What is a past participle again?"

In my previous blog, I reflected on what I thought my students had learned in their last essay. I also want to put it out there that as great as it is for teachers to be reflective, it is equally as important for students to be reflective. An assessment—even a summative one—should never be the end—for either teacher or student. And unless it’s the last class of the year, we can help students form the habit and experience the benefit of reflection…as well as benefit from their reflection ourselves as teachers. Note to self: Never, if you can help it, let students turn in an assessment without some form of reflection—what did you learn? what did you struggle with? what progress did you make? what question do you have? what do you want to remember next time?

When my students turn in an assessment I try, at minimum, to ask them to self-assess on the rubric, and to answer 2 questions on the back: (1) What did you learn while working on this assessment? (2) What’s 1 specific question you have for Mrs. E about your performance on this assessment?

The self-assessment on the rubric does not influence their final mark, but it is a way to insure that students are familiar with the rubric, and to teach them that it is not a sign of competence to hand something in and say, “I have no idea whether that is an A or an F, but at least I’m done!” It is a sign of competence to know your strengths and weaknesses. And if there is a big discrepancy between a student’s self-assessment and my assessment, that’s the sign of a misconception somewhere that needs to be addressed!

Here are some of the answers to question #1: What did you learn about writing from working on this essay?
  • I think I improved on using sources in my writing. I’m still not too great at it, but it’s definitely better.
  • In this essay I learned that writing in such a broad topic I need to have a concrete conclusion. Also punctuation for sandwiching quotes.
  • I tried to work on mixing in the quotes to add to my writing.
  • As I was writing this essay, I learned of a new way to organize an essay.
  • I felt like connecting my ideas together got better, and my transitions improved, too.

Here are some of the answers to question #2: What is 1 specific question you have for Mrs. E about your writing in this essay?
  • I still have a lot of trouble with citations—there’s always something wrong with the formatting—but I think that’s something I need to familiarize myself with and practice on my own.
  • I had a lot of different metaphors that went in many different directions. Was it confusing? Was it too everywhere?
  • How to integrate a quote into an essay so that it becomes a part of your writing and not out of place.
  • When you helped me with the “striven” part of my essay, I was wondering, what is a past participle again?
  • How can I write like this on the actual AP exam?

When students are able not only to identify but also to take responsibility for their writing strengths and weaknesses. When they are the ones asking questions about their use of metaphors, integration of quotations, and what is a past participle again? When they are asking how they can do their best work under pressure….teaching is easy. It is, as a number of them quoted from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Education,” “mutual delight.” 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

How Am I Doing? Every Student Assessment Is Also a Teacher Assessment

Did you ever play this game? If so, this voice sometimes haunts your dreams: "Do it again...but BETTER!"

This year I have been targeting helping students actively engage in reading like writers. I’ve done some activities that seem to give traction, like this one on transitions. As I teach rhetorical strategies in AP Language and Composition, and as we identify those strategies in the writers we read, try them on for size on our own notebooks, and get feedback on essay drafts, I hope students are making the transfer to their own writing. 

But are they? Are the rhetorical moves we are studying actually showing up in student writing? I just collected a processed piece of writing, and this is what I saw…
  • We must learn to think so that we can think to learn. (What I taught: Antimetabole! Like Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Or Aristotle’s “Eat to live; don’t live to eat.” I didn’t see this move in this student’s writing last year!)
  • All three of these people did just that. They changed not just their lives, but also inspired those around them! We can do the same; I want to do the same. (What I taught: In your conclusion go global and noble. Do something more than restate your thesis and preview of points: inspire!)
  • I am a seventeen-year-old just who gets tired of school sometimes. Hauling around a ten-to-fifteen-pound backpack and struggling to understand Algebra II easily wears on me. And occasionally, all the work makes me with I could go ahead a graduate. However, there is a reason for caressing aching shoulders and whiting out wrong answers: schooling matters. It’s better to deal with backaches due to textbooks than to bending over a factory conveyor belt. And even though many view school’s sole purpose as studying, the reality is that much more than book knowledge is learned. True education is not limited to the rigid rules of chemistry and Japanese; it encompasses subjects, social rules, and self. School exposes you to all of those elements, and in doing so, rewards you with a rich, real education that prepares you for the real world. (What I taught: Well…here is a student who takes every single word down in her notebook and then works to use it—personal example as appeal to ethos, details to show not tell, specifics to stand for generalizations, parallelism, power use of colon and semicolon, alliteration…. She was good last year, and this is a whole new level.)
I saw a lot of sophisticated transition, too. That’s just harder to capture in a sentence or four. When I returned students’ first drafts with my revision suggestions, I shared these excellent examples—and a few more—with the whole class, so the students, too, could see that as a class, their reading was informing their writing style. So they could appreciate each other’s triumphs. And so they could have one more example of where and how to use rhetorical strategies to aim at communication to an audience with a purpose. 

I can do even better. I think I might have had students write a model sentence in their notebooks three times this semester. But I’m encouraged that I can see that the steps I’ve taken are producing results, and that motivates me to, as my children’s Bop It game used to tell them, “Do it again, but BETTER!”  

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Will the Next Generation Be Discerning Consumers of Internet Information? It's in Our Court Now

Where do your students get their news? What do they know about bias and credibility of sources? Is it important that they understand these concepts? Do THEY know that it is important for them to understand these concepts?

In a world where last week a front-page BBC article is titled “Facebook, fake news and the meaning of truth,” we need to seriously consider these questions—and not just hope that some past or future teacher has covered or will cover it, since no teacher ever taught US, so we’re not really sure how to go about teaching anyone else. 

Here’s what happened to me and in my class in the last two weeks—at first surprising and a little frightening as a work check-point turned into formative assessment, then a little nerve-wracking as I tried something new, and finally very exciting as students took ownership of the necessity of understanding bias and credibility in news and other online sources.

I gave 10th graders a Google Classroom assignment to hold them accountable for their research during the period before Thanksgiving break since I was missing class for an educators’ conference. The assignment was basically a 2-item annotated bibliography on the research question they had each brainstormed the day before. They were to find 2 sources and for each one, record the publication information in MLA Works-Cited page format and write one sentence explaining why it is a credible source and one explaining why it is relevant to their question.

As I read their answers, on my laptop in my hotel room, to why the source is credible, I realized they clearly knew a little, and they clearly needed to know more. Here were some of their answers:
  • Because it has contact information.
  • Because it has links.
  • Because it’s dedicated to my topic.
  • Because it’s a news source.
Each sentence is one piece of an over-all picture of credibility, but none are stand-alone assurances.

So the first 2 days back to school, we put research on hold, and our objective became to learn about bias and credibility in online sources. This was our learning plan for day 1:
  • Why is this website credible? Students spent 5 minutes freaking out over the amazing Pacific Northwest tree octopus. One student asked to go to the bathroom and then forgot about it (that’s real engagement!). Another student said, “This almost sounds like a hoax web site, but I know it’s not.” Then they finally began catching on. Sasquatch? Hey, wait a minute.
  • Read this article to discuss what is fake news, what is bias, and why it matters. When students read that 40%-60% of Americans use Facebook as their primary news source, many said, “Not me—mine is Instagram.” So I asked if they could name original sources that people on their feed posted. Segue to the next topic…
  • Where do you get your news? Can you list the names of newspapers, periodicals, web sites? What are their bias? We briefly discussed left/center/right, liberal/conservative. One of the students had actually used Breitbart and Slate as the 2 sources—I pointed out what a fascinating comparison could be made if one were aware that the 2 sources had diametrically opposed political biases! And we used this web page to classify a few of the sources we’d listed.
  • Home learning: Read and take notes on this list of ways to determine online source credibility (anything you didn’t already know about credibility of sources--well enough to use on the tree octopus site!).

Day 2 we started out with a discussion of what they’d learned in last night’s reading. Then I projected a white supremacist web site. We discussed what factors reduced its credibility even though it had some of the factors they’d cited at first as credible: contact information, links, dedicated to one topic.

Next, I played devil’s advocate, gave them this link to “Frequently Asked Questions about the Armenian Genocide,” and asked, “Is it credible?”

“Can we use that list we read last night?” Music to a teacher’s ears!

Oh, the discussions that ensued! Discussions about primary and secondary sources, about grammar and capitalization, about corroborating information googled, about whether having a stated bias made a source not credible or was just something to be aware of….

Once I sent them off to continue their research and find 2 more credible, relevant sources, they paid much more attention to credibility. One student, researching what had happened to the rest of Elie Wiesel’s family, told me he found such non-credible sites, so now he was using the Jerusalem Post. I asked, “What is its bias?” He said, “When I looked it up, it was really confusing….” And we had a good discussion of how even the sites labeling bias are biased! (But he’d actually looked it up!!!)

Yup, that was an exciting week. Which brings me back to where I started: Where do your students get their news? What do they know about bias and credibility of sources? Is it important that they understand these concepts? Do THEY know that it is important for them to understand these concepts?

If you haven’t asked them, please do. If they’re not masters, teach them something. If you don’t know what to teach them, here are a few resources I’ve collected over the last 2 weeks: