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?

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