Friday, November 17, 2017

Three Keys to a Good Jigsaw Activity

Not that kind of jigsaw...

Jigsaw puzzles are great fun for some of us:
my younger daughter and I love it. But my husband and my older daughter would rather eat a spoonful of dirt. However, a jigsaw learning activity is engaging for everyone when well set up.  

Here’s one I just did with my 10th grade English class this week, and I have never seen students more engaged for such a length of time with the material and with each other. In my experience, there are 3 keys:
  1. A topic that students have a stake in.
  2. Jigsawed materials that are relevant to the topic but varied in content, style, and challenge, within which students have choice.
  3. An end-product for which students have a felt need to understand both their material and everyone else’s. 

Our topic is human dignity—what is it, and why is it important? Our central piece of literature is the Holocaust memoir Night. Before reading it, though, we did some background reading on the Rwanda genocide and watched clips from the movie Hotel Rwanda to bring the issue closer to the present and highlight that “us/them” divisiveness is not just white vs. black (as in our previous novel Cry, the Beloved Country)—it’s also Hutus vs. Tutsis and Germans vs. Jews and many other things in other times and places. As we read the book, we note instances, causes, and effects of disregard for human dignity, as well as the few examples of people fighting the flow to stay human and treat others as such. We also note how the author uses the tools of literature to make those images powerful.

After reading, I wanted students to get even more background information on a variety of topics related to human dignity that they could pull into their final synthesis paper. So I offered 3 very different but very relevant pieces:
  • The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a legal document, so difficult reading level, but shortest of the documents; written in response to the Holocaust and referred to in current political commentary.
  • “What Makes Us Moral?”—a Time magazine article citing psychological and sociological studies and experiments in an attempt to explain how humanity continues to produce both Mother Theresa’s and Adolph Hitler’s.
  • An excerpt of the introduction to Half the Sky—a work by Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn on, as the subtitle says, Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. This has both statistics and stories of individuals.

Students chose the piece they were most interested in reading. They read and annotated it on their own, then gathered with others who had read the same piece. In these groups, they asked clarifying questions to make sure they understood it themselves, then decided how best to summarize it for their classmates who had read other pieces, and which elements might be most relevant to and useful for the synthesis papers.




Then students remixed into groups that had one or two representatives who had read each of the pieces. During the process I heard 10th graders animatedly discussing whether the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is actually attainable, and if not, what its purpose is; explaining the negative impact of gender-discerning ultrasounds in the 1990s on the current availability of marriageable women in parts of China; and asking (and formulating answers to) questions like, “Does your author think humans are perfectible?” 


The activity took longer than I had planned because students were that engaged in both of the discussions—working with each other to figure out what the piece said, what classmates needed to know, and how that helped further their understanding of human dignity and its importance.

I really need to figure out how to do this more often.


Do you have a jigsaw activity that has worked well in your class? If so, would you share it? If not, I invite you to give it a try.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Not an Oxymoron: Visual Learning in ELA


Last month my husband and I were at a conference for international school leaders in East Asia (EARCOS). 

“Use a visual whenever you can!” 

A presenter at a seminar strove to impress on a roomful of educators “Brutal Facts about Learning.” She covered 13 truths about learning that cognitive science, neuroscience, and neuropsychology have established in the last 30 years—which schools still don’t consistently implement. One of those truths is that a visual always strengthens learning.

Fast forward two weeks, and I’m back in my high school English classroom. Half of me is wondering how, in a discipline that is all about words, I’m supposed to use visuals. The other half of me is noticing how every time I use a visual—whether it’s a graphic organizer or a Google image of a (to 15- or 16-year-olds) arcane allusion in our reading—understanding blossoms.

In 11th grade AP English, we’re reading a variety of essays, historical and contemporary, on education, in order to analyze their style and argument, and eventually to synthesize them and form our own opinions, expressed in our own style. After reading the first two essays—a contemporary one from Harper’s called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” and a classic Ralph Waldo Emerson excerpt from "Education"—I asked students to create a Venn diagram comparing the two pieces: the rhetorical context, the message, the style, and the effect of the style on the message. They did this individually, then in table groups of three or four, and then as a class. (I just asked them to draw a diagram in their notebooks, and I collected input from all the groups in one I made on the whiteboard. I didn’t take a photo of the whiteboard, so I recreated the form, at least, on paper.) Given how very different the two articles initially seemed, I think we were all startled that we came up with some intriguing similarities--and saw very clearly what made the styles so different.

See this blog for a description of this activity.
After the 11th graders had read two more essays—James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” from 1963 and Kyoko Mori’s 1999 comparison of Japanese and American education—we had a synthesizing discussion, for which I gave students a graphic organizer. It was a great discussion, in which students commented that while all the writers had very different styles, they seemed to hold a similar purpose for education—giving children the tools to succeed in society. They just differed in their definition of success, of the tools needed, and of the process for giving children those tools. The “wonder” many students left with is how other cultures define success, the necessary tools, and the process for giving them to children. 

Visuals in 10th grade this week looked a little different. We’re reading the Holocaust memoir Night, so there are a lot of unfamiliar terms—from “Hasidic” to “yellow star.” In these days of Google Images and Chrome Cast (or whatever projector technology your school uses), it is so simple to skip the thousand words and show the picture. (I did that in 11th grade, too, when James Baldwin refers to Gary Cooper: “That’s how the country was settled. Not by Gary Cooper. Yet we have a whole race of people, a whole republic, who believe the myths to the point where even today they select political representatives, as far as I can tell, by how closely they resemble Gary Cooper.” For all the shortfalls of the internet, here’s a big thank you to Wikipedia and Google Image. For a blog I wrote for NCTE on the subject, see here.)

Here’s the real clincher: It’s not just how kids learn. It’s how adults learn, too. This week, at the sixth (and second-to-last) meeting of 11 teaching colleagues to discuss the book How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, I created a visual of the mental construct the book has been using, but only describing in words. I, too, had described it with words and air gestures. I’d drawn a diagram at another seminar at that conference two weeks ago. It was firm in my mind. But when I recreated in with Post-it notes in the grid of the linoleum squares of my living room floor, at least two adults present said, "Oh! I see!"
The yellow Post-it notes are the ones I used at the book discussion, but when I put them on the floor for a photo, they were too tiny to read. So I recreated the grid on a paper. You can see the top three Post-its on the floor in the photo below.


So here’s my commitment to my students (and teachers): I am on safari for any and all graphic organizers or visual representations that will support learning. 


What visuals do you use to help students learn? What additional visuals can you use? How can you visually represent one thing that you have, until now, only verbally described?

Friday, November 3, 2017

Not "What Am I Teaching?" but "What Are They Learning?"

I love this collaborative activity for helping students carefully observe how a professional writer uses transitions.

What are my students really learning? What do my students think they are learning? Does it match what I think I’m teaching them? Yes, the first quarter is done, the grades have been sent home, and the parents have been conferenced with, but every so often it’s good to check on the extent to which students’ perception of what they’re learning matches my perception of what I’m teaching. Do they understand that it’s about more than vocabulary words, stories, comma splices, and thesis statements? 

To find out, I asked my 10th and 11th graders how they had grown this quarter in English class in the 5 big areas our Christian school targets for all students:
  • Understand God, His world, and my place in it.
  • Think critically and Biblically.
  • Collaborate with others, respecting them as God’s image bearers.
  • Communicate truthfully and effectively.
  • Create ideas, products, and solutions.
What I discovered about my teaching and their learning, is that there are a lot of places where they are getting it, and one place in particular that I need to do a better job of communicating.  

That one place was relative to the first objective: Understand God, His world, and my place in it. Maybe because it starts with “God,” most students seemed to start (and end) there—whether they are Christians (in which case they wrote about things they had learned about God) or whether they are not (in which case they wrote that they hadn't learned anything). I have to do a better job of communicating that everything they learn is about the world—if they believe in God, their knowledge of the Artist and the artifact inform each other, and if they don’t, they still understand things about the world—and if what they understand about the world has any significance, it also helps them understand how to relate to the world. 

There were a couple of exceptions, and I definitely need to build on these responses:
  • Rhetoric is a large part of the English language, and I’m happy that we took the time to learn about it.
  • Use things I’ve learned to argue for righteousness. If I ever see something I don’t agree with, I can try to argue for my beliefs.
  • We learned about the space landing, and this really helped me to understand His world. It’s amazing how we designed and invented technology to even be able to fly into space safely.
  • We read Things Fall Apart and Cry, the Beloved Country. We learned more about African cultures and more about the history of our world.
  • Just being in class. Hearing and watching everyone teaches me about His creation and works. By sharing opinions about books and articles, I can understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, which God has created.

Starting with the second objective, think critically and Biblically, the responses were more uniformly what I would have expected. Most of them realized that thinking Biblically is an additional critical lens that Christians apply: 
  • I now see language in a completely new way, and find myself analyzing almost everything I hear and see for elements of rhetoric, from news broadcasting to just regular conversations.
  • When I was writing my death penalty essay, I thought very critically and Biblically because I had to choose a side, and it was pretty hard in this case. I used the Bible to really influence what side I chose to argue for.
  • When we were writing [our own] Screwtape letters, I had to reflect on myself and my own mistakes. The whole unit was super convicting, and being able to write about it made it more intriguing.
  • By forming opinions, making connections, and analyzing the course texts.
  • I wrote the paper on Cry, the Beloved Country. It incorporated the book with real world problems and the Bible.

The responses to the last three objectives just made me happy: students are learning what I am teaching.

Collaborate with others, respecting them as God’s image bearers:
  • Every day when tables have discussions, I think we all give ideas and respect what each other say. It’s a very good environment to just say what we think. Even playing competitive vocabulary card games pushes us to collaborate and encourage each other.
  • We did a lot more work together when editing this year, and I think that I have really seen the value in having a fresh perspective and set of eyes for my work.
  • “Having each other’s backs.” When we were revising or reading over other’s writings, it helped me learn more about them and their writing, something we will need to know in order to respect/understand them as image bearers.
  • There are group discussions, we are all engaged. We incorporate good ideas and respond respectfully to everyone’s input.
  • Any and all group discussions by asking for people to elaborate on any topic/idea discussed and listening intently to opinions.

Communicate truthfully and effectively:
  • I have a better understanding of what speech is used for convincing vs. conveying. I better understand fallacies as well, and what kinds of argument are flawed. I am also much more conscious of listening to understand and listening to respond.
  • We edited and revised each other’s essays. We truly helped each other out and gave helpful advice that we actually used. Peer revising helped my essay to become MUCH better.
  • Researching for our argument essays was one way I learned how to find accurate facts.
  • Through my short Cry, the Beloved Country presentation, I feel like I was able to get my main point (which was how unfair society was against non-whites at the time) through effectively.
  • Sharing in front of the class my ideas on a book I just read and my review of it as well.
  • Writing thoughts and opinions in my paper. Sometimes it’s hard to talk truthfully and effectively out loud to your classmates. But on paper (for me), it’s easier…, so I can share and communicate with everyone through my writing.

Create ideas, products, and solutions:
  • I learned a lot about writing, and it seems like with every essay I write, the more I realize how much I need to improve, but I think I’m getting better, especially my argument essay.
  • I think The Screwtape Letters really pushed me to develop new ideas about things I never even thought about. The topic was totally new for me, and I felt like it opened my eyes to new concepts (thoughts of the devil and God).
  • Researching for data on my [argument] paper on nuclear energy. To impact the world, I’d need to learn how to do so, and research is part of it.
  • Writing a paper on Cry, the Beloved Country. I hope it will encourage change by encouraging good stewardship of the earth.
  • When we were preparing for our presentations. Making good slides was a challenge, but it was fun, and researching was fun, too. I learned so many things from just creating slides.
One thing I'm really pleased with is that students have understood that what we do in group work--whether it is about a peer's essay or about the novel we're reading--is helping each other. Service learning is not something saved for special outings, but something we do every day.

Go ahead--ask your students what they've learned relative to your course's big ideas. You'll get some encouragement, and some ideas for how you can focus them even better on what really matters.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Three Tips for Better Argument Teaching


I have new hope for the next generation’s ability to negotiate civic conversations! I just collected the best argument essays I’ve ever gotten from my AP Language students. Why were they so good? I'm not exactly sure, but in my 3rd year of teaching the class, here are 3 little things I did differently this year than last year: (1) required at least 1 source on the other side of the argument, (2) had students compile their own mentor argument sentence stems, and (3) taught a mini-lesson on fact-checking.

First, early in the research process, students had to find at least 1 source on the other side of their argument. This made students aware at a whole new level of the straw man fallacies we frequently use within our homogeneous groups. Halfway through the writing, some students were modifying their claims. In their reflections on their final drafts, several students voiced observations similar to these students: 
  • You have to consider and understand the counterargument. It gives you a more well-rounded argument and broadens your perspective.
  • When people would mention argument, I think about fighting. When I read in the textbook, it said it’s not necessarily fighting, but more of a type of conversation.

Next, as we read and analyzed other arguments, I used the inductive method of asking students to compile 1 sentence stem from each that they found useful in argument development. These we posted on the classroom wall (see photo above). (This in contrast to past years deductive method of telling students a list of sentence stems to use for introducing different parts of the argument.) After reading their first drafts, I told the class I was amazed at how sophisticated and smooth their arguments were. One student said, “I think I used every sentence stem on that poster—I kept checking it while I was writing.” I said, “I could tell.”

Finally, I taught 1 mini lesson on fact-checking sites. I really think that information awareness strategies are something we need to just keep teaching, drip method, a little every course, every year. (See this blog for last year’s 10th grade lesson.) After all, I’m continuing to learn how to be more savvy about sifting the deluge of online information. This week we discussed what we do when we come across information online that catches our attention in any way. Then I asked them to read the Edutopia article “Turning your students into web detectives: Five vetted resources students can use to separate truth from fiction online.” Finally, I asked for a 2-sentence exit ticket on students’ fact-checking strategies. Here are some of the answers I got:
  • I do tend to fact check on a daily basis about pop culture topics. I used to check the URL of the website and see if it was a .org, .edu, .gov, etc., because I remember learning that it's a way to check if a site is credible. I didn't even know that these fact check websites existed, so from now, I think I will use them also.
  • Honestly, my biggest thing was seeing if it was published by a company or organization, and also check the credibility of the author. Now I will use some of the websites provided to figure out whether my sources are credible or not.
  • I generally don't trust other fact checking websites, so first I check for facts when I feel suspicious about the presented "facts" and evaluate the validity of the site itself for the url, publisher, company, etc. If the website is within my criteria of credibility, I look for other websites that meet the same criteria and compare the two (or three/more depending on how skeptical I am) and look for bias and misalignment between the facts/information between the sources.
  • I usually only look for sources that back up my argument, not so much my counterargument. So the sources I use are going to have a bias, SO it's better to have an open mind and get things checked. I should definitely start checking if something is correct, not just that it favors my claim.
  • I used to just read through a site and look at the url and figure out by myself if it's credible, but now I realize that I need a better way to fact-check because anyone can make a website and write false things. I will use the websites listed to fact-check. They are very helpful.

Here are a few additional things students wrote in their reflections on their final drafts:
  • I learned how to make and argue a point that I believe in. I know how to find sufficient evidence for argument. I need to be able to address both points.
  • I had to make sure that I was using a credible source and not falling for “appeal to false authority.”
  • When people would mention argument, I think about fighting. When I read in the textbook, it said it’s not necessarily fighting, but more of a type of conversation.
  • You have to use familiar examples/interesting methods to make very obscure things interesting for an audience uninterested/unfamiliar with it. (This for an argument on whether copyright law supports artists or big business.)
  • Some forms of rhetoric are so ingrained in us that when presenting an argument, we may use it without noticing, and we must be careful to avoid fallacies.


What could be more important in today's world than learning to identify important issues, think through all sides of an argument, discern truth and bias, dismantle rhetorical fallacies, and respectfully enter the conversation? How have you had success helping students do this?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Baby Steps in Differentiation

Colleagues discuss differentiation.

Trying new things can be hard--even (or especially) when you're over 50.
I have 2 mantras that get me through: "baby steps" and "something is better than nothing." Having a few good friends helps, too.

This week, the new thing I tried was some differentiation. I had to, because I’m currently in a faculty book discussion of How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, and because I had to set an implementation goal at our last meeting and report on it this week, and because the goal I’d come up with was differentiating assignments in response to editing papers in 10th grade English.

So as I went through each revised draft, circling the first 10 editing errors, I came up with a few important types of grammar/convention/style weaknesses for each student. I noted the 4 most common types and just did a Google search for the topic: passive voice verbs, commas in compound sentences, semicolons, and commas in restrictive/nonrestrictive phrases. Boom—4 worksheets (with answer sheets) in 10 minutes. 

During the editing period, I assigned students to groups based on the topic they were working on, gave them 10 minutes to practice the topic based on the worksheet, and then the rest of the period to edit their paper, correcting their 10 marked errors (and anything else they could find). I conferred with students about questions they had on why things were marked. 

I’m not feeling like this was an amazing breakthrough—except I’m rather please with myself for actually trying it! Finding the exercises was surprisingly simple. Probably the most complex thing will be tracking which students have done which exercises, so they don’t repeat the same ones. Or, I guess, if they have a repeat, that would be an important thing for both the student and me to note—that they need more than just an exercise. Students began personalized editing watch lists to check when they edit. I was pleased to see them using the language of the exercises—speaking of comma splices and active voice verbs. 

I was also pleased that the following day, when students submitted final drafts and wrote reflections on their writing process, what they had learned, and what they wanted to learn next, the whole worksheet experience hadn’t trumped the rest of the process, and there was still plenty of reflection about other things: 
  • I would like to improve in making connection between the text and real-life examples.
  • I learned that I work best when I take the writing process in little chunks. It gives me time to review a few times before submitting my essay—revising and making my paper better each time.
  • I learned that when first writing a paper, the rough draft is just to get ideas down and it is nowhere near perfect/finished.
  • How can I write short, clear, and concise paragraphs?
  • I want to be able to write a big, strong, persuasive introduction….I don’t know how to end the introduction.

So—baby steps, baby steps. I’ll keep working on differentiation. Glad I have my book discussion group to keep me accountable and to share stories with!

What is it that you need to try? Gather a few good friends, and take some baby steps.

Students reflect on their final drafts.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Teacher Self Care: Count Your Classroom Blessings (the Unsung Best Practice)


What gave you joy this week? How many moments of joy did you have? 

It’s time for a break from blogs focussed on goals and pedagogy. While I believe teaching well is hugely about planning—the meaningful goals of knowledge, skill, and understanding; the assessments that will demonstrate students have attained the goals; and the engaging, differentiated instruction that will equip students to do well on the assessments—and also about modeling my own growth mindset by continually getting better in my own pedagogy…sometimes life gets harried and breathless, and I just need to breathe and open my eyes and notice the little moments of growth, connection, curiosity, epiphany, joy that are blossoming around me and in me. 

As the PSAT and the end of the quarter and school accreditation responsibilities loom in rapid succession, these are the moments that brought me delight this week, the moments that keep me teaching…
  • A student I had last year stops by to borrow Half the Sky to use in her senior Bible presentation. 
  • The AP Language textbook has the U.S. Declaration of Independence as an illustration of argument, and I ask if the class has ever read it. They all explode, “We just read that in history!” So in English we can build on that base, just breezing through first lines of paragraphs to illustrate inductive and deductive reasoning. (Love cross-curricular connections! See also next item....)
  • Students walk into class after their first reading on logical fallacies and say, “This is like what we just did in Bible class for our debate!” 
  • I introduce the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (or correlation is not causation), and a student remembers, “You taught us this last year when you subbed in biology!” (This may be the first time ever a student has remembered something I taught that I had forgotten!)
  • I mention that post hoc ergo propter hoc always reminds me of the US political TV drama The West Wing because there is an episode with that title, and none of the US students in the room have heard of the series—only a student from New Zealand. (Irony of situation. Gotta love it when it shows up in real life.)
  • A student walks into AP Language with a comment about the Nobel Prize in Physics announcement—because he did a presentation on the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for me last year when I subbed. Later he asks for the link to that periodic table I used that has a video for every element. (Maybe that subbing stint was worth it after all.)
  • Listening in on student conversations and answering their questions when they see my display of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature announcement. (Real life book discussions!)
  • In the practice PSAT selection on writing that I give my students, the first question refers to the line “lose a yearly sum of $63.2 billion annually.” One student thinks it sounds right, but another student confidently asserts, “It’s redundant, and I know that because in my essay I said something was ‘inevitable; it couldn’t be avoided,’ and Mrs. Essenburg told me it was redundant.” (They do pay attention to my comments!)
  • I bring in a Facebook meme, and most of the students immediately identify it as both satire and faulty analogy. I mention a breaking news headline that is an example of hasty generalization, and several come in the next day talking about it. (Real life applications and connections!)
  • I try something new—asking students to write down and share one argument stem (a sentence structure or beginning phrase) from each piece we read that they find interesting or effective and might want to try using sometime. We’re compiling them on a poster. It remains to be seen how effective this will be, but we’re experimenting—What will help us pay attention, read as writers? (This is a little scary, but also energizing. See photo above.)
  • I went back to my blog from this summer on the book Making Thinking Visible to copy the list of thinking activities for a school blog on critical thinking. I revisited the list of protocols I said I wanted to use during the year, and—ah!—"Claim, Support, Question" is just what we’re doing right now with argument! Have to remember to use that next week. (That’s why I captured my thinking this summer!)

Making connections—to what was learned last year, what happened in another class—and transferring that learning to new situations: It’s what I love to do; it’s what I love to see students doing. It’s growth. It’s what keeps me teaching.

Are you feeling rushed and overwhelmed? Stop and make a list of the moments this week that gave you joy. If you’re a teacher, make a list of the moments that gave you joy in the classroom. 

Maybe this discipline isn't a break from best practice. Maybe it is a best practice. One that gives us the energy to do it all again tomorrow, next week, next year. 


Friday, September 29, 2017

What Makes a Great Assessment?

Every writer should have the opportunity to experience an audience this engaged with her writing.

I enjoyed being negative and satirical for once (in a piece of writing). I think it was the most enjoyable piece I’ve ever written. It was so fun and interesting to write and think about. —11th grader

I just read what may be the best assessment I’ve ever designed. (It's been three years in the evolution.) As the culminating project for The Screwtape Letters, 11th grade AP Language and Composition students write their own satires—a new letter from Screwtape, a senior devil with a desk job, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter in the field. Except this time Wormwood’s “patient” is a student at our school.

I love it because the students enjoy writing and sharing it, I enjoy reading it, and it demonstrates thorough mastery of our objectives: understanding the book’s content, using the tools of satire, and applying an insight into human nature (one of Lewis’s or a similar personal insight) to a modern situation. In addition, plagiarism is impossible and everyone scores well. What’s more, with my added emphasis this year on model sentences (see last week’s blog), I saw students implementing those patterns of varying sentence lengths and building sentences with introductory appositives. Finally, I didn’t forget to allow students to reflect on their writing.  

The assessment practically graded itself when I asked the students to highlight one place where they had demonstrated understanding of the book, one place where they had used satire, and one place where they had applied an insight into human nature—and explain how each passage did that.

I also asked them to highlight and explain one thing they had done well, taken a risk on, or worked hard on, and to respond to the question, “What’s one thing you learned about writing or life in the process of producing this piece?” Here are some of their answers:
  • I learned that humans are easy to complain about because we are so far from perfect. Our lives are pretty hilarious, filled with tons of follies. I liked reflecting on life.
  • It is a lot easier to write in the style of another author than to work on your own, almost like you have a fallback when you don’t know what to say next.
  • Writing satire is extremely difficult because I feel like it was easy to get carried away and just speak pessimistically.
  • I didn’t feel  comfortable writing about human deficiencies with a satirical effect. Doesn’t really work with my style of writing.
  • I learned that my understanding of satire was rockier than I had previously thought. I’ve been told the definition many times, yet I still struggle to identify it.
  • I honestly really enjoyed trying to make my writing sound like Screwtape’s while reading the book and thought of a low, deep British accent and it really helped me when writing to imitate C.S. Lewis’s style.

I’m looking forward to following up on some of these comments with a discussion of the role of imitating masters’ style as an apprentice learns the craft and develops her own style, and a discussion of discovering misunderstandings and strengths.

In their letters, students displayed creative, satirical insight into the issues that beset them as modern adolescents: 
  • Gossip grows the lack of compassion in a human….Keep her thinking she must have the details of everyone else’s life in order to know how much better she’s doing. 
  • You could give him what he wants, then yank it away from him, leaving him even more desperate, perpetuating the cycle. Alternatively you may go the route of dropping the weighty realization that what he now has has not made him any more popular, nor any happier, hence driving into his head the idea that he is simply too broken to ever be fixed.
  • I see that you’ve shone through her eyes the most beautiful of women with the most unnatural bodies, which delightfully increases the everlasting jealousy gnawing on her insides.
  • Have your patient…dive into this [internet] world of information to the point where he drowns in it. Have him go to CNN, Facebook, Buzzfeed, and keep him sandwiched between all of those websites that keep him on the internet.

Students also applied the practice with mentor sentences. Here are a couple examples of students using introductory appositive phrases (with anaphora and parallelism!):
  • The quick judgement of everyone they see, the quick self-assessment that soon follows, the quick impulse to speak one’s mind—all of which are great for us.
  • Her embarrassment about her appearance, her jealousy of what others have or look like, her low self-esteem, her degradation of herself—all of which you should take into consideration in how to bring her home to us.

Finally, I learned that I might want to more clearly target allusion as one of Lewis’s tools of satire because two students caught my attention with how effectively they did it:
  • Do not take this, my lovely and shortsighted nephew, as a direction to bankrupt the poor patient…for we who have studied here long enough are well aware of the Enemy’s adage about rich men and camels. 
  • …[About hurting people:] It all falls under the category of vandalizing the Enemy’s image. Believe it or not, the enemy considers each individual a temple. A temple! How ridiculous can He be?…Our researchers have tried, and tried, and tried again to find out the relationship between such buildings and humans, but to no avail. It’s simply fictional and makes no sense.

The best assessments are ones that are challenging yet enjoyable, allow choice, and require students demonstrate learning, as well as drive learning in the process. Oh, and ones that teachers can learn from, too!


What’s one of your favorite assessments?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Use Mentor Sentences to Help Students Write Like Readers


This week we dug into writing with mentor sentences in order to become more intentional about reading like writers and writing like readers.  

The context: AP English 11 is in the middle of reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis in order to thoroughly understand the art, tools, and purposes of satire. Each day we come in with a journal recording 3 quotations from the assigned reading and why we found each interesting or effective. The assessment piece will be a new original letter from Screwtape to Wormwood, but the “patient” is a student at our international school in Okinawa, Japan, in 2017 rather than an adult in England in World War 2. 

Three days this week we also spent some time working with mentor sentences from the text. 

Wednesday the topic was using a variety of sentence lengths (especially the power of an occasional very short sentence).
  • Mentor sentences: When I speak of preserving this assumption in his mind, therefore, the last thing I mean you to do is to furnish him with arguments in its defense. There aren’t any. Your task is purely negative. Don’t let his thoughts come anywhere near it. Wrap a darkness about it, and in the center of the darkness let his sense of ownership-in-Time lie silent, uninspected, and operative. (113)
  • Discussion: We turned to pages 112-113 and explored the relative sentence lengths. A couple of them are 5-6 lines long in the book. Most are about 3. The shortest are the 2 adjacent in the section above—2 and 5 words. What’s the effect? What’s lost if those 2 short sentences are instead combined into the previous and following sentences? 
  • Try it: We’d started the class with a 5-minute quick-write exploring the topic on which we were thinking of doing our original letter. Now went back to our quick write and revised it to make one of the sentences really short.
  • Share it with your table group.

Thursday the topic was starting with appositive phrases.

  • Mentor sentences: The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives, and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it--all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition. (153)
  • Discussion: We noticed that the main sentence—rather short—is at the end. Four times as long as the main sentence is the preceding accumulation of 5 parallel phrases that expand on “all this.” Lewis could have reversed the order: Many things provide admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition—the routine of adversity…. What is gained by putting the long list first? Well, for one thing, the reader feels worn out herself by the time she gets through the long, depressing list. Form reinforces meaning.
  • Try it: I started out asking students to find a sentence in yesterday’s quick write that they could revise to start with a series of appositive phrases. That proved too difficult. So I provided a sentence stem we could all relate to: “x, y, and z—all this was wearing on me by the end of last week.”
  • Share it with your table group.

Friday the topic was ending with appositive phrases.

  • Mentor sentences: Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful--horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; hatred has its pleasures. (160)
  • This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world--a world in which moral issues really come to the point. (160)
  • Discussion: How is the effect different from starting with the appositive(s) like we did yesterday?
  • Try it: The human foible I want to address in my satire is ___--the x, the y, the z OR The human foible I want to address in my satire is—how people….
  • Share it with your table group.
The best thing was hearing the students interacting, becoming a community of writers, when they shared their sentences in their table groups—“Wow, that was really good,”  “I need to try that!”, “That gave it punch.” We’ll be working on the original letters on Monday, and I think the students are looking forward to it. One asked yesterday, “Can we read everyone else’s letters when we’re done?” Of course. That’s what communities of writers do.


Note: I’m grateful to my peer coach from last year who challenged me to move from the “discussion” to the “try it” part, which I was seldom getting to. I’m grateful to this year’s peer coach who just by her presence on Wednesday and the success of that lesson challenged me to keep it up.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Vocabulary Preview the Quick and Easy Way

11th graders discuss The Screwtape Letters--themes, satire, and vocabulary.

Yesterday in English 10, I saw students in animated discussion of words, asking each other, “What is hamper if it isn’t a dirty clothes hamper?”, analyzing prefixes and roots, admitting, “I don’t know what subsidize means,” and offering, “When I hear the word clutch, I think of a clutch play,” while others made grabbing motions with their fingers. (I threw in “There’s also the type of purse and the part of a manual transmission. How do you think they’re related?”)  

Last week I wrote about the best 15-minute investment I’ve made in teaching my students writing. Today I’ll share the best 10-minute investment in teaching vocabulary. 

I collect vocabulary words from the reading we’ll be doing in a given unit and include the list in the unit outline the students receive when we start. As a preview, I ask students to look over the list and mark each word with a plus, circle, or minus. The plus means you know that word. The minus means you have no idea what it means. The circle can mean anything in between—something like you feel you’d know it in context, though you couldn’t give a definition cold, and it's definitely not in your productive vocabulary. 

When they’ve done that, they ask their table groups about their unknown words to see if any of the other three students can help them. At the end, I ask if there are any words that no one had known. Yesterday ineluctable was the only and unanimous vote. So we talked about that one word briefly as a class—its definition and the context sentence we would find it in. Then we moved on to the reading. 

But with that 10-minute exercise, students not only previewed the vocabulary list, they also became a little more familiar with the words they talked about, and now they are primed to notice those words when we come across them in the reading. And I didn’t even have to create a pre-test! 

What’s an efficient vocabulary learning strategy you’ve used with your students?



Friday, September 8, 2017

Don't Just Hand that Paper In--Reflect on It!


Do you ever remember staying up late to finish a paper, then arriving at class just to hand it in and jump into a new topic? Kind of anti-climactic. Then waiting a week or two, until you’d practically forgotten what you’d written, to get any kind of feedback. 

A finished piece of writing should be celebrated and reflected on, if only to consolidate student learning immediately. But more than that, it gives me information about where the students think they are, and it fosters student ownership of their writing growth.

Having students reflect on their writing when finished with a piece, before getting teacher feedback, is one of the best returns on writing class time. All it takes is 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of the period when a final draft is due. Because when the students can articulate what they have learned while working on a piece, when they can identify what they did well and what they want to work on, and when they can ask me one specific question about their writing in the finished piece at hand—then I know they are primed to learn, and helping them move from where they are to where they want to go makes teaching the best job in the world.

What kinds of things do students say? Here are some things that my 10th graders wrote this week about their personal narratives describing an epiphany they had:

One thing I learned while working on this piece:
  1. Through this assignment I learned how good writing doesn’t always need to contain complex, difficult phrases. Sometimes I try to use complex words to make it seem like a great writing, when in reality it probably just made it confusing. I also learned that there’s no such thing as looking over your writing too much, because I found a few mistakes every time I looked over it.
  2. One thing I learned about writing was that if you already know what you are going to write about, it is easier to think about ideas while you are writing. If you don’t plan ahead, then you are going to run into problems.
  3. While writing this piece, I learned to put the reader in your situation instead of just saying what I did or what I felt.
  4. I learned that writing a good story or narrative first is more important than making sure your grammar is perfect.
One thing I did well, and one thing I want to grow in:
  1. I think I did well in description and word choice, and I’d like to grow in being able to have a strong voice in my writing; I felt that my writing lacked that a lot.
  2. One thing I felt I had done well was my ideas. I felt they were strong and complex, but written simply. One thing I want to grow into is writing in complex language, i.e. strong words and phrases that convey my point in few words, simple and concise.
  3. One thing I did well was varied sentence lengths, although I’m not sure if their structure was effective. I’d like to get better in writing good conclusions. I didn’t really like the one I came up with.
One specific question I have for Mrs. Essenburg about my writing in this piece:
  1. I felt that my narrative was a bit rushed, but I wasn’t sure what to do since I didn’t want to ramble on in my writing. Are there any tips in writing a satisfying writing while keeping it short, concise, and to the point?
  2. One question I have is whether or not my last paragraph made sense. I was told it didn’t and then I tried to change it.
  3. Am I too redundant? Is the sequence of events confusing, do you know what’s going on? I feel a little like some of the descriptions I used were a little cheesy.
  4. What are some tips for using figurative language better?
So, now I know what they want to know, I have my next few writing lessons outlined! (Plus, students have written another 50-100 words. Words that I don’t have to grade, but that are still impelling all of our learning forward.)


How do you engage students in metacognitive reflection about their writing? 

P.S. Full disclosure: The photo at the top is 11th graders doing a different reflection on a different piece of writing. The 10th grade photos just didn't come out well, and I haven't gotten to reading their reflections yet. Yep, it's been that kind of week.