Saturday, March 31, 2018

Relevance, Authenticity, and Mentor Texts Unleash Learning

Students give and receive feedback on speeches
I don’t know why it took me 30 years to figure out this out. But if I give students a relevant topic, an authentic (even hypothetically authentic will do) assessment, and mentor texts to see how the pros do it--the engagement, learning, and quality of product is stunning.

An increasingly relevant topic for second semester juniors is the prospect of leaving everything familiar and starting over again. While groups and friends and relationships are important to all of us, and to adolescents in a special way, second semester juniors are particularly poised to look at what is and isn’t working for them in their current communities; what they can do in the next year-and-some to capitalize on this this knowledge; and how they can use what they’ve learned in their first 18 years to go out to find and form the communities in which they will flourish in their next stage of life. 

Here’s what exploring that topic in reading, writing, and speaking looked like in AP English 11 (Language and Composition) this week:

Relevant topic: What is the relationship of the individual and the community? This has been our essential question all 3rd quarter, whether our text was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Norman Rockwell’s painting Freedom from Want, Patricia Grace’s Maori short story “And So I Go,” or the second chapter from Christian author John Ortberg’s book Everybody’s Normal until You Get to Know Them (“The Wonder of Oneness”), or a variety of other poems, cartoons, essays, and book excerpts. 

Authentic assessment:  “The author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote, ‘What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.’ Write a speech that you would deliver to a group of your peers (identify which group) that uses Vonnegut’s idea as your main point and recommends ways to ‘create stable communities’” (The Language of Composition 392, #9). Students picked their own occasion and audience—from a chapel address to current high school students, to classmates at graduation, to a support group for mental health issues, to other military children facing parents’ reassignment. We’ve worked on drafting, revising, editing, and practicing this speech for the last 2 weeks.

Mentor texts: Last year was the first time I used this prompt, and what kids were putting together in their writing was so good it needed to be shared. So I suddenly sprung it on students—when you hand these essays in tomorrow, you’ll also read them aloud to the class. But when I handed out the usual writing rubric for self-assessment and reflection, the students all looked at me in shock: “A speech is supposed to have a thesis?!” I realized I hadn’t clearly taught similarities and differences between a speech and an essay. This year I addressed that head on, listening to a commencement speech (David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water”) and TED talk (Susan Cain’s “The Power of Introverts”). We noticed different ways speakers hook, focus, and guide audiences. 

Here are a few excerpts from their speeches:
  • As much as the advent of internet has brought us together, it has, in many ways, driven us apart. Using the internet, we forgo real friendships and community in favor of restricting all our interactions to people who agree with us, talk like us, look like us.
  • The effects of loneliness are overwhelming, and it’s quite the list: anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, depression, suicide, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and acute and chronic illnesses.
  • It took a long time, but it was when I started to fall back into my community that I was able to improve.
  • When we are civil and patient, and we see the best in others and treat each other with the respect they deserve, we can nourish community and make it thrive. Through our actions, we can make a difference.

Here are some of the things they said they learned:
  • Audience is very important! My tone and ideas all depend on who I’m addressing.
  • I learned that speaking to new people isn’t my strength, but I really want to change that because if I stay quiet, then I’ll be alone.

How do you harness the power of relevance, authentic assessment, and mentor texts to unleash student learning in your class?

Friday, March 23, 2018

Reading Develops Empathy Even Better When It Is Targeted, Taught, and Assessed

Groups of 10th graders create character cards for After Dark--telling quotes on one side, visual image on the other.

“But I’m just not an empathetic person.”

Several students stared at me blankly when I asked them, halfway through our recently completed unit, to do a quick-write in their journals representing a letter or journal entry by one of the characters with whom they have the least in common. “This is to practice literary empathy,” I told them, “the ability to put yourself in the shoes of a character. This is something that all fiction reading helps us do, and something that has practical application to real life.” That’s when several students, in all seriousness, said, “But I’m just not an empathetic person.” After a moment of speechlessness, I calmly responded, “Then this is an opportunity for you to practice becoming just a little bit more of one.”

Studies indicate that there is a correlation between reading and all kinds of good student outcomes from vocabulary to reading to empathy. Is there a way to put rocket boosters on that engine, make it more likely to happen more frequently and more effectively for more students? Or do we just cross our fingers and hope for the transfer? I find that the better I get at naming, targeting, teaching to, and assessing any objective, the more wide-spread, frequent, and deep student mastery is—whether the objective is reading like writers or developing empathy.

Understanding and developing empathy was one of my goals in the unit my Honors English 10 class just wrapped up this week. The unit is called “Seeing My Neighbor” and centers on the contemporary Japanese novel After Dark by Haruki Murakami. One of the things the book is about is the ways people connect…or fail to connect. 

Two years ago, when I first started teaching this novel, I developed what I think is a pretty creative and interesting 2-question assessment (actual prompt to follow…cue suspenseful background music). And students had some interesting responses. But I felt vaguely guilty for abdicating preparation for the assessment to the book, crossing my fingers and hoping the transfer happened, rather than really scaffolding students toward it. 

Last year I added the mid-unit journal entry mentioned above to practice the type of thinking and writing required by one of the assessment questions. This year I added another assignment right before the assessment. Reading the assessments yesterday, I was so excited about student responses, and I feel no guilt about lack of scaffolding, like I really did something to help them be able to formulate those responses, more than just requiring to read a good novel.

The day before the assessment, for the last 15 minutes of the period, I gave them a sheet of paper with the following questions (adapted from Making Thinking Visible’s Step Inside routine):

Transferring empathy skills from novel characters to real life: Choose a person in your life whom you don’t easily connect with. This can be a classmate, a sibling, a parent, a teacher, or someone else in your life. If you don’t want to give both the name and the connection due to privacy, that’s fine, but please do have a particular, real person in mind.
  • I don’t easily connect with him/her because... 
  • List 3 topics that person might think about.
  • Put yourself into that person’s shoes and write his/her response to the following questions. 
    • What are you thinking about those 3 topics above, and why are you thinking that?
    • What is a question, concern, or worry you have?

Only one of my students let me read that paper—the rest handed them in the next day folded in half, which I had assured them they could do, and I would just cross my eyes and assure myself there was writing on the page. But the point was to help them (1) make the transfer and (2) come up with a well-informed generalization for the second question in the assessment—both of which I gave them before they left class, so they could mull over their answers.

Here is the assessment prompt, and following are 1 example of a student answer to each of the 2 parts of the prompt.

To what extent have you learned to get inside a character’s head, vicariously experiencing his/her life? To what extent have you reflected on what that means for your life? Respond to the following 2 prompts (15 minutes each; 1-2 good, solid paragraphs) to give evidence of the above learning:
  1. Imaginative empathy: Write a journal entry or letter in the voice of one of the characters. This should demonstrate understanding of the character, the book, and ability to put yourself inside the character’s head.
  2. Practical empathy: What did you learn from the novel about imaginatively “seeing” people so you can love them, and how does that connect to your life?

Sample student answer to #1 (almost made me cry—if you’ve read the novel, there are so many hidden allusions AND it’s so beautifully in character AND insightful…)

I’m on the plane to Beijing. My mom and dad followed me to the airport for a farewell, but Eri stayed home—not because she wanted to, but because she was still asleep. Eri and I always had our roles picked, and it never crossed our minds to switch roles. I was the little genius, and Eri was Snow White. Ever since I was little, since the thought that I was the lesser sibling came to me, I dreamed of this moment. Here, I will always be the less sociable, the average looking, boring one. The one that found company in books, the one that suddenly disappeared from the classroom to never come back. I always dreamed of a fresh start, where I had no label, and no sister strangers can compare me to.

When I close my eyes, I can still see Eri’s peaceful face as she sleeps. She doesn’t even know I left. Even though I dreamed of this ever since I was younger, I never pursued studying abroad or starting fresh, and now I know why.

I’m scared; I miss Eri. To be honest, I’m scared of not being able to see her. I’m scared of starting new because she won’t be there when the elevator stops, and I’ll be all alone.

When I come back, I hope she’ll be awake again.

Sample student answer to #2:

From this novel, I learned that what’s showing in a person doesn’t reflect the problems that they are going through. This means that in order to understand why a person would act in a way that seems abnormal to you, you need to understand that there is probably a reason to it. Knowing this, I can put it to practical use by trying to realize that everybody has their own reasons, justified or not, behind their actions, then acting in response only after I fully understand (or as much as I can understand) that the person in question isn’t doing what they are without rhyme or reason.

I’ll tell you right now—every single student got an A on that assessment: They engaged with it in a meaningful way and demonstrated growth. Even the students who told me, “I’m just not an empathetic person.” 

How do you target, teach, and assess empathy in your class? 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Mini-Lessons Drive Writing Conferences

Students discuss how transitions work by inferring the order of paragraphs in a mentor text.

There is a Japanese saying: Fall down 7 times, get up 8. With writing conferences, I wrote about my last two "get ups" here and here. Hopefully this is the 8th and last and I'm now up for good. The 2 keys for me are mini-lessons and frequency. 

But first, a question: Is conferring with writers that important? Yes! Because it provides formative assessment, offers an opportunity to differentiate, and cultivates a community that talks about writing. It builds writers. Conferring with writers can be hard for me because it exhausts my introvert self to even think about being responsible for that many individual conversations within a class period. But I’ve been working at this over the past few weeks, and I’ve found these 2 keys that not only make it easier, but also motivate me to do it more.

Conferring with writers is easier when I (1) target one writing objective in a mini-lesson at the beginning of every writing period and (2) confer frequently. Habitually. Every single writing period. Having a mini-lesson gives the topic of the conference—both I and the writers are prepared ahead of time. Conferring frequently makes it familiar, takes away awkwardness on both sides, and lets students know they will be getting a chance to ask questions that they have.

What is a mini-lesson? It’s a brief (approximately 10-minute) lesson on a skill that students will then be expected to apply in the rest of the period. Writing mini-lessons can be on any part of the writing process (how to brainstorm, plan, draft, revise, or edit) or component of writing (ideas/content, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, conventions). Some examples of writing mini-lessons I’ve done recently are being aware of occasion, audience, and purpose; making a speech’s thesis memorable with a story or analogy; establishing a logical progression to the order of your points; using paragraph transitions to communicate that logic; varying sentence beginnings; and varying sentence lengths. 

What does a mini-lesson look like? I’ve increasingly come to believe that having a mentor text is an important part of a mini-lesson. Whether that mentor text is a student text from past years, a teacher-written text, or a published text depends on my purpose and on what I have available. We look at how that author handled a writing issue, we practice in on our own pieces, and then I tell students, “I’ll come around and ask you to show me how you’ve done it, and we can address any other questions or puzzles you might have.”

Results? Having a particular purpose (talking about how the mini-lesson has been applied) makes the opening for the writing conference easy. There’s a type of accountability where everybody knows they need to have something to talk about. And if they don’t, then that becomes the conversation, and I’ll help them find a way to apply the mini-lesson. If there are no further questions, I move on. Short and sweet, which also makes them less threatening both to me and to students. Students become more open to talking, more ready to talk about writing, and even disappointed when I don’t get to them in a period. When I didn’t get around to conferring with one student during a particular period, he left questions for me on the Google Doc of the draft he was working on. That’s what real writers do: know when we need help and know where to get it.

A result of using mentor texts is that students begin to learn the way adults learn. As an adult, I notice people doing well things that I want do better—like teaching a lesson or writing a blog. This week a 10th grader commented on the interesting transition between two chapters of the novel we are reading. When I need to do a new thing (like write a proposal or give a eulogy) I look up examples—mentor texts. An 11th grader walked out of class Friday, where we introduced speech writing, watched a speech, and thought about how to address occasion, audience, and purpose, commented to a friend, “I think I’m going to be watching a couple of TED talks this weekend!”

How do you use mentor texts and conferences in your writing classes?

Friday, March 9, 2018

Fostering Word Consciousness

Recent vocabulary questions from chapters 21 and 22 of The Scarlet Letter
How many words does a student have to know? Well, according to Michael Graves, in printed school English, there are about 180,000 words. The average 12th grader knows about 50,000 (The Vocabulary Book). And we all want our students to be above average--even the ones who start out with the majority of their words being in a language other than English.

Yes, schools need to teach vocabulary, but at the maximum students could effectively absorb, say, 2 per day (can you imagine learning 2 new words a day 5 days a week 34 weeks out of the year for 13 years straight?), that’s still not enough. Yes, reading bolsters vocabulary learning. And awareness of new, cool, and related words as we read can put rocket boosters on that!

How do we create a learning inclination that pays attention to words? This unit (on The Scarlet Letter) in AP English 11, one of the daily assignments is to bring in at least 2 words from the reading (with the page number you found it on) that you didn’t know or (if you knew them all—which doesn’t happen often in The Scarlet Letter) that is descriptive and interesting and you want to remember to use more in your writing.

At the beginning of the period we spend 10 minutes talking about those words. (I actually set a timer minutes or we could spend half the period on this). First I go around the class and take a word (and its page number) from each student. Then we look at the words. Some are simply archaic, obsolete, or literary—but we use those descriptors. They’re part of our working vocabulary now. And we understand what those archaic, obsolete, or archaic words mean for the text we’re reading, if it’s frequent and important (betimes = early, as in “I got up betimes this morning to monitor the long bus into Naha” or wont [no, it’s not a typo for want, though you’re on the right track if you read it that way, but it’s not pronounced like won’t]). And morion—it’s in that section about the martial parade, right? so it’s got something to do with soldiers and armor, but given everything else, I think that’s all we need to know. 

But sometimes I find out words students didn’t know that I never would have picked for a vocabulary word—like flit or precipice. And I’m so glad they are willing to ask the question! Then there are the other words that I may or may not have picked—venerable, vehemently, zenith—but when students pick them, I say—GREAT word! 

We talk about etymologyWhen they first asked about somnolence, I asked them what you call it when you can’t sleep. They all knew insomnia. So a few days later when they asked about somnambulant I asked again about the words for not sleeping. Is the other part related to ambulance? Actually, yes. Ambulance comes from the French term hospital ambulant—or mobile [horse-drawn, and I assume they mostly walked, as galloping would jar the patients] field hospital.

After we’ve talked about enough etymologies, students begin making connections that had never even occurred to me—and sometimes they’re right! 
  • Is sentinel related to sentient? (Sentient being a vocabulary word we’d had earlier in the year. The question had never occurred to me, but when a student asked and I did the research, I found out is probably is!)
  • Is propagate related to propaganda? (Similar to above.)
Sometimes they realize they did know a word, though they had never made the connection before. 
  • Oh! Plebeian! Yes—I do know that because it’s how online reviewers I read dis something.
  • That’s what my contacts are: ochre!
  • Melee—I know that from video games!
And once their vocabulary antennae are up, they come back and report other places they encounter the words: We read despotic in history class! It was talking about US government actions during the Red Scare, and I knew that it meant tyrannical!

Yes, I take all these words and pick approximately 20 every 2 to 3 weeks for a vocabulary quiz. I put them on my word wall, on Quizlet for practice, and we practiced in groups slapping the card when the definition was read and telling stories using the dealt cards. But the most delightful thing has been just the fostering of a community of learners that notice and talk about words. My peer coach observed my AP class this week, and one of her comments was, "Students were so responsive when talking about vocabulary!"

What do you do in your class to foster word consciousness? 
Piece of our word wall in the background there...

Friday, March 2, 2018

Nurturing Young Adult Readers

Imagine you are a chef devoted to vegetarianism—you are convinced this is good for people and good for the planet, as well as morally accountable and delicious. But there are many people you know and love who aren’t so convinced. Would you try to convince them by serving them nothing but plain, fresh tofu (even though that is delicious and nothing like the freeze dried, good-for-6-months variety mostly found in American supermarkets)? Or the rarest truffles sprinkled with gold dust? (I’ve seen that on YouTube!) Or would you try whatever you could to tickle their fancy with recipes that would meet them where they are and woo them into your world? I’m thinking probably the second. So why do we do it the other way round for books? Why do we try to transform reluctant readers into avid readers with Shakespeare and Hawthorne?

The day I finished reading Scythe by Neal Shusterman and put it out on my display shelf, a student walked into my room and froze in front of the bookshelf. “Neal Shusterman! Can I read it?” he burst out. We talked about it several times as he read, and when he finished, he asked if I had Thunderhead, the next in the series. “No, but if I got it, would you read it?” You should have seen his eyes light up. 

That got me thinking about a couple of other inquiries I’d gotten from students recently, whether I had the second book in a series, which I didn’t. When you ask a student looking for a book to read, “What are the last three books you’ve really enjoyed?” and all they can think of is the first book in a series that they read a year ago, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s time to order some second books. So I ordered them. Last week I read Thunderhead, and it’s already been loaned on. This weekend I’m reading Tokyo Kill. Next weekend it will be The Infinite Sea. 

YA dystopian fiction, crime/suspense novels, and alien invasions are not my usual genres. Ten years ago I would not have believed you if you’d told me I’d be reading these 3 books. Then I read Penny Kittle’s Book Love, and one of the things I realized was that The Scarlet Letter and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are not going to transform non-readers into readers. They will capture and build the imagination of those who are already avid readers. Taught well (and I do still teach them, see here and here), they will even help students who don’t read much to recognize and appreciate the artistry and moral imagination present in the works of a great writer, and to join in the ongoing discussion, across time and cultures, of the big questions of what makes us human. But it still doesn’t mean they will ever pick up another book after they finish their last literature class. 

So I want to nurture both an understanding of great literature and a love of reading. Reading of any sort. Because reading correlates with all kinds of benefits we want for our students (vocabulary, writing, IQ, empathy, background knowledge, college success...), because it only takes one “home run” book to convert a reluctant reader into an avid reader, and because a person who reads, say, Captain Underpants, will be more likely to eventually pick up, say, Americanah, than a person who doesn’t read at all.

So read what you love, and also read what those you love may love. Besides, you may be surprised. Scythe sets up a fascinating world with intriguing problems (like the elimination of all human threats, including death) that raise big questions like what is a good life and why? The author of the Jim Brodie books has live in Japan for over 20 years, so he does a really good job of writing for Americans about the country I’ve lived in for over 30. As for The 5th Wave, it was the best alien invasion book I’ve ever read. Okay, it’s the only alien invasion book I’ve ever read. But it, too, raises those big questions like how do we choose our loyalties, at what cost, and is giving up ever an option?

Where can you find these books? Ask a librarian. Ask a kid. Follow a blog like The Nerdy Book Club. Read Book Love and follow Penny Kittle on Twitter. Check out Pinterest or Goodreads. Try something. There are few thrills like seeing a young person fall in love with a book you’ve recommended and discussing with him or her the big questions it raises.

What do you do to nurture your own reading life and that of the community around you?