Friday, August 25, 2017

Remembering Why I Teach

I always feel a wee bit of internal foot-dragging as the beginning of a new school year approaches. This year perhaps even more than others, as I’d spent a lot of time with my accreditation coordinator hat on preparing for the self-study. 

But at the end of the first day, I was rejuvenatedthis, these kids, their curiosity, their learning, is the reason for all that other work. 
What are some of the things that energized me in these first few days? 
  • Hearing an Honors English 10 student in a roundtable discussion of their summer reading of Things Fall Apart ask another student, who suggested that the main character was selfish, “Could you give some examples of that?”
  • Hearing AP English 11 students in a roundtable discussion of their summer reading of David and Goliath asking their own questions and working with the group to answer them. Like when one student asked, “What was the point of the story about the French town that wouldn’t give up their Jews?” and the group spent the next 10 minutes dealing with it.
  • Passing on books I love. Like Japan at War: An Oral History, which I loaned to a student who sat straight up with attention when I mentioned the book as an example of why I love teaching world literature—for the new perspectives it opens.
  • Watching students with their annotated copy of the poem “The Creation” and a Bible open in front of them discussing similarities and differences in the source material and the adaptation. One student summed it up: “The poem is like a movie of the Bible passage—a good movie.” (See this blog for more of that lesson.)
  • Seeing students and teachers all over the middle and high school deeply engaged with books during our newly implemented weekly Drop Everything And Read (DEAR) time Thursday afternoon (see photos throughout).

I might have gone a little crazy with asking students to annotate texts (even their syllabus!) to spur and show active reading. Friday when I handed out AP/honors class permission forms that need to be signed by Monday, one student asked, “Do we need to annotate them?”

You know what? I’m happy to be back from summer vacation and into the real work of teaching.

Now I just have to reorganize my classroom library which got ransacked to supply reading material for DEAR. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Silver Buckshot: Trying New Things

There are no silver bullets—only silver buckshot. I don’t remember where I first read that, but it’s a good antidote for the feeling that if I could find the one key program and follow it, I could suddenly become Superteacher! It’s more a lifelong process of getting a little better at a couple of things every year. 

As the first day of a new school year approaches, there are at least 3 bits of “silver buckshot” I’m ready to implement:
  1. Critical thinking: I’ve created the bulletin board I planned a couple of weeks ago after finishing Making Thinking Visible—filling in the critical thinking descriptors that stand between receiving communication (reading/listening) and producing communication (speaking/writing). Now to hold myself accountable to using it!
  2. Classroom culture: In talking to other teachers during orientation, I found myself using the language from several books I read about fostering a classroom “culture of error” where it is not just safe but encouraged to make mistakes, ask questions, and reveal misunderstandings so we can find out what we need to know to develop powerful understandings.
  3. Reading to share with students: I’ve put up a display of some of the fiction and non-fiction books I read this summer. Every summer I try to explore a variety of books—something to interest a variety of students. I’m looking forward to sharing these, as well as old favorites, with my students.  

What 2-3 small, new steps are you going to incorporate into your teaching this year?

Friday, August 4, 2017

Naming the "Arts" in "English Language Arts"

Content is important. It's important as the stuff about which and with which we exercise the skills of thinking, reading, writing, listening, and speaking that we want students to hone. But the real heart of the matter is those skills. If they graduate without knowing who said, "To be or not to be, that is the question," that's okay, as long as they have developed the skills that, when they run across the quotation, they'll understand it, critique it, and enrich the conversation about it. 

I didn't always think that.

Many years ago when I was a middle school English teacher, I said to a high school colleague, "I enjoy teaching middle school where it's more about the skills, rather than high school where it's more about the content." She looked at me a little quizzically, and let it go.

I wondered about that for a long time. Then I moved to high school. I taught a lot of content, like Hamlet and Macbeth. I tried to teach writing skills using writing process. Then along came 6 Traits of Writing--that gave all of us English teachers and students a common vocabulary for talking and working on good writing.

Then I started wondering about reading--shouldn't there be a similar kind of "6 traits for reading"? There was: 7 strategies

We did a lot of our reading strategy processing by discussing in small groups, and as students went off to college, they came back complaining that their groups at college didn't function nearly as well as their groups in high school. I was glad their groups in high school had functioned well, but thought we could do better by giving them the metacognition and vocabulary to identify what was or wasn't going well, to hold people accountable, and to make it better. Thus I discovered Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding.

I would tell students what we do in English class is take in other people's thoughts through reading and listening, think critically about them, and contribute our own thoughts back to the discussion by speaking and writing. The one piece I didn't really have words for, couldn't identify for a struggling student or class, or for someone who asked how she could do it better, was thinking. 

Two weeks ago I read Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for all Learners (see here for my blog), and suddenly it all came together--all that I've been learning for the last 10 years about the skills we want students to hone in English language arts. I came up with this master diagram that will be going up on my classroom wall next week. 

For more information about any of the concepts listed in the diagram, I've listed my sources below. 

Reading strategies: