Friday, February 9, 2018

Giving Skills and Content a Purpose

Why did she do that?
When was this article written? I feel like it’s talking about millennials and not us.
Which values did you choose? Let me see your paper!

One of my favorite moments in teaching: when kids walk into class already talking about the topic before the bell has even rung. That’s when I know I’ve hit the sweet spot where purpose meets learning, and motivation and classroom management take care of themselves. That happened a lot over the last 2 weeks in 10th grade, so I want to examine what works so well with this unit which centers on A Doll’s House, a late 19th century modern prose drama by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (full text available from Project Gutenberg). 

We know purpose is hugely motivating, so I never title my English units with genre, time period, or name of work. The unit on poetry is “Paying Attention” because we can and we must when we have so few words to work with; the unit on A Doll’s House is “Finding Myself” because that is the protagonist’s epiphany at the end, and our response is to begin the work of finding ourselves now, before we find ourselves in Nora’s dilemma. 

The essential question for the literature portion of the unit is “Why would a reasonable, rational, normal human being do that?” If you were an actor trying out for a part, even a minor one, you would have to figure out that character’s motivation and backstory just from what she says and does, and what other characters say about her—and whatever they think, you have to be able to read her lines with empathy and believability. It’s a lot like life: There is no omniscient narrator telling you why people are doing what they’re doing, or what they’re thinking while they’re doing it. No one acts “crazy”—given how they’ve experienced and perceive the world. Inference is a life skill: “Why would a reasonable, rational, normal human being do that?” Actually, I got a lot of those ideas from the excellent human resources book Crucial Confrontations, and I said to myself—hey! That’s what we have to do when we read drama! 

While pursuing this essential question, we practice reading strategies. First I read and model them. Then groups read and do them on their own. Then students can do them on their own. (See below for the reading journal that guides us through the reading looking at quotations from the text and what we infer about character and motivation from them, as well as requiring the use of several other reading strategies, paying attention to how the playwright guides our responses and to the role of minor characters.) We wrap up with a whole group discussion (see questions at the end of the reading journal) that segues into the writing/response portion of the “Finding Myself” unit.

The essential question for the writing/response portion of the unit is “Who am I?” We subdivide it into 3 parts: Who am I culturally, temperamentally, and spiritually? For nonfiction reading practice as well as for content on which to practice the skill of synthesis, we address each of those parts with content and discussion: for culture, we read “The Values Americans Live By,” mark which end of the continuum we fall on for each of the 13 cultural values, and select the 3 that are strongest for us; for temperament, we take one or more Myers-Briggs inventory and research and discuss what that meant (see Google Classroom announcement below); for spirituality, we work in groups on this Google Doc that gives students various Bible passages to research, explain, and connect, related to 2 principles about individual identity. 

That’s where we are now. When we come back to class after service week, we’ll begin on the final paper pulling it all together. Students saw the basic prompt at the beginning of the unit on the unit guide, we’ve been referring to it through our research, and when we come back, they’ll get this expanded prompt, couching it as an application essay for a summer academic or work program. It will also guide them through examining a model essay and beginning to brainstorm the order of their points, the logic for that order, and the support they will use (see here).

How do you give students purpose for learning skills and content?

Life isn’t something that is waiting for our students 3 or 7 or 17 years down the road when they finish school: it’s already happening to them in our classrooms and cafeterias, on the soccer field, at their jobs, in their homes, and everywhere in between. If we aren’t preparing them for that part of life—as well as the part that will happen next year, on the SAT, and in college—then we’re missing out on an amazing opportunity to tap into all the motivational power that purpose makes accessible.

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