Friday, April 27, 2018

Letting My Inner Nerd Show

If you see me around school in the next several weeks, I’ll probably be sporting a Shakespeare t-shirt, plus my bust-of-the-Bard earrings (which are frequently mistaken for skulls at a distance—I've learned to clarify that early on). Tenth grade Honors English has started A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it's time to really put my inner nerd on display. “Where did you get all those t-shirts?” the kids asked when I told them I had a pile I'd be wearing throughout the unit. Each one has its story (sometimes several layers of stories), and I’ve promised the story of each as I wear it. 

The Globe Theater t-shirt is my oldest. I got for myself on my family's visit to England when my daughters were 7 and 9. (I can also tell the story of seeing Hamlet as a groundling at the Globe, as well as other stories from that epic trip!) The white shirt shows scenes from The Tempest outlined with text from act 1, scene 1—a gift later in life from my older daughter, commemorating the first Shakespeare play I ever took her to, when she was in 5th grade. It was the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Tokyo Globe Theater, and I took her because she had done her massive 5th grade research project on Shakespeare. (The earrings are also from her—picked up at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on her honeymoon.) The one with Robin’s most famous line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a gift a colleague brought back from her own pilgrimage to The Globe. Finally, the Bard’s head, constructed from the titles of the 37 plays he wrote, was a gift from my younger daughter, acquired on a recent visit to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Some may say my whole family suffers from nerdiness, but they're wrong--it doesn't hurt at all.

My Shakespeare unit is also my chance to show another facet of my inner nerd: my love for word play. My excuse? Shakespeare uses a lot of word play, and if you have no appreciation for it in contemporary English, you’ll never get it in Shakespeare’s. So every class period during the unit, when students come into the room, there are 3 puns or neologisms or malapropisms projected on the board, and when class starts, students know they’ll be asked to vote on their favorite. It takes a little cajoling to get everyone to vote the first couple of days, but now they’re discussing words in their table groups and asking questions even before the bell rings. (“Is ‘flatulence’ farting?” when one of the neologisms is “flatulence: the emergency vehicle that picks you up when you’ve been run over by a steam roller.”) There’s even a feedback loop into the Shakespeare. Thursday a student referred to Demetrius’s line “wood within this wood because I cannot meet my Hermia,” and said, “I feel like there is some word play here that I’m not getting.” 

Finally, I wear my book-loving nerd all over my classroom door. (I’m printing these posters for every secondary teacher at my school as part of the weekly sustained silent reading program we instituted this year.) I’ve filled my door and the window next to my door and half of the window above my door—but I think I have enough space left for the last 6 weeks of the school year!   

Do I expect everyone—even all my students—to love Shakespeare, word play, and books the way I do? No. But I invite them to give it a try and see if they do! Because if you love something, why not let it show? My students get to know me, my family, my excitement about what I teach, that it is possible to be excited about those things, and that it’s okay to be excited about what you love—whatever that may be.

How do you let your inner nerd show?

Saturday, April 21, 2018

It Doesn't Always Have to Be a Test or Essay

A Midsummer Night's Dream, act 1 scene 1, by 3 people in 1 minute

Best ever “do you remember what we read yesterday” review: Give groups 5 minutes to plan and produce a 1-minute, fast-forward, no-sound version. So much more fun that a verbal or paper quiz, students jump to the task with excitement, and they ask and answer questions, checking the text to clarify understanding. 

This is just one of many ways that students can develop and demonstrate understanding in English class without writing an essay. I was confronted with that question last fall in a book discussion about differentiation. At first I felt a bit defensive: If one of the major goals of my class is to teach writing, then how can I differentiate? The answer, of course, is several fold. First: There are several other skills in English, as well as their component parts, as well as important enduring understandings about those skills as well as about themes and content. Second: There are formative assessments as well as summative. Third: There is differentiation of process and content as well as product. Then this spring I participated in a book discussion of Making Thinking Visible, which helped even more in identifying the component skills and processes that help form them.

So, in addition to 1-minute, fast-forward, no-sound reviews, here are some other non-test, non-essay ways I've found for students in high school English class to learn and to demonstrate their learning about reading, listening, thinking, speaking, as well as about content understanding: 

  • Reading response journals including drawings, diagrams, lists (see right) 
  • Group mini-posters including images, quotes, and questions 
  • Close reading annotations by individuals  
  • Close reading annotations in groups 
  • SOAP posters in groups (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Purpose) 
  • Posting independent reading titles
  • Groups map connections among sources
    read to prepare for synthesis essay 
  • Groups map relationship among information researched to organize for presentation 
  • Groups do gallery walk posters to record analysis of a work's theme in different ways 
  • Preparation notes for a synthesis discussion
  • Discussion notes
  • Goal setting for discussions
  • Students collecting argument stems (Oct. 18, 2017)
  • Students ordering paragraphs (Oct. 24, 2016) (Oct. 31, 2017)
  • Reflection on writing (Oct. 16, 2016)
Yes, students will still have to write some essays because that is one of the skills they need to learn, practice, and demonstrate. And there are so many additional skills and understands we value, and so many ways to break them down and help students learn and demonstrate their learning. 

In addition to essays, what ways do you use to help students learn and demonstrate their learning?

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Short Stories: Assessing by Doing and Reflecting

Focused on peer feedback--Google Docs style

For this story I wanted to try some magical realism/surrealism because they use a lot of symbolism. I used to shy away from using big symbolism in stories because it was a bit daunting for me, but I took this as an opportunity to try. I learned how important it is to experiment in writing. Instead of trying one style that I’m comfortable with, experimenting with another style out of curiosity is important. This unit I wasn’t very conscious of my grade and just wanted to experiment and write something I will be satisfied with, and I learned how exciting writing can be. In the future I hope to incorporate more of what I read into what I write. --10th grader reflecting on short story draft

Why should students study short stories, and how should they demonstrate their mastery of the stories and of the genre’s elements studied in class? Here’s a novel idea: Not by taking a test but by writing their own short story. We didn’t even take it to a final draft—after all, this particular unit doesn’t target conventions, but watching the pros, analyzing what they do, then taking a risk and trying it ourselves just to see what happens and what we learn. If students get really wrapped up in their story and it gets too long to complete in a week’s time—no problem—a fragment is fine. Quick and dirty is the key. What’s important at the end is a written reflection about (1) what your inspiration and goal was, (2) the challenges and success you experienced in trying to accomplish that goal, and (3) what you learned in the process. If students set a goal connected to the short stories read, engage fully in the writing process, and write a reflection demonstrating that as well as significant learning, they will have accomplished all the learning targets and would receive full credit. That’s what I told them at the beginning of the week.

This is only my second or third time trying this, and I’m still nervous at the beginning. What if someone says, “This isn’t real writing! Get my child ready for college!” or “I hate writing stories!” But by the second day, when I conferred with students about their inspiration, goals, and plan, both they and I were hooked. And if you read their reflections (day 4–see below), I think you might be, too. 

For an investment of 1 week of class (4 days for us, on a modified block schedule, 3 periods of 45 min., one of 75 min., and one day off), there were many gains. Students...
  • Practiced reading like writers and writing like readers (since fiction is mostly what they read in English class).
  • Created, and learned that creation almost always stands on the backs of others.
  • Who enjoy creative writing got to pursue their passion IN SCHOOL! And those who are more comfortable with typical academic writing got to practice a little empathy.
  • Took a risk, tried something new.
  • Grew in their understanding of the literary devices short story writers use to convey theme, and in their understanding of what it takes to do that, and how a community helps.

In the previous week we had read 3 short stories—from a variety of countries, times, and world views, using a variety of styles: Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” Franz Kafka’s “The Bucket Rider,” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” 

The next week, we wrote. We spent Monday planning; Wednesday drafting; Thursday (the long period, in which the mini-lesson was basically my blog from last week) giving, receiving, and implementing peer feedback; and Friday reflecting.

Students might have looked passive in the lead photo, but here's an example of the interactions that were taking place online!

Here are some of the things students had to say on Friday--some of the goals they set and things they learned. I think you’ll agree, they all learned, and they all get full credit:

  • It was awesome to see the looks on [the readers’] faces when the last paragraph came about. It was awesome. I learned that not everyone has the same sense of humor. The first person I showed it to (this was outside of class) got so mad about the ending. It was awesome to see my brother start laughing at it.
  • My goal for this short story was to use a lot of dialogue. Whenever I tried to write a story, it always ended up being at least 90% narration, which made them quite honestly boring. I wanted to use this assignment as an opportunity to try and tell a story using mostly dialogue, while also not forgetting to build a setting. My inspiration for this story…was Murakami and the way he writes. While reading After Dark, I thought to myself multiple times that his ability to build a world through subtle details and thoughts that are sewn into the backgrounds of conversations to be genius, so I wanted to try and (crudely) implement this in my own story.
  •  As I was writing my short story, I couldn’t find places to insert foreshadows and irony. I ended up putting the former near the beginning and the latter at the end because I could squeeze it in without making it awkward. On the other hand, I felt I was able to use the weather image to show the character’s feeling/emotion. For some reason the story make it easy to put weather conditions in, so I tried it, and I think it worked out OK.
  • My goal was to make a short story that makes you question its meaning and theorize what it is all about. I wanted to make my story as simple as possible, but also have a deeper meaning behind all of the strange things that happen in it. I also tried to add a bit of foreshadowing here and there.
  • I was initially inspired by an interview in a Skelos article, an author who wrote something called a weird western. A confrontation with a metaphorical representation of death was an easy idea to follow as well, but I liked the setting of a rainy city rather than a desert. I wanted the short story to convey that you can’t live in fear of death, you must live in spite of it.
  • To have an ironic, surprise/unexpected ending, like a story I read when I was little.
  • When [my 2 table group partners] and I were peer editing/commenting, all three of us had different story lengths and style, and I felt that I really liked short stories because you might be able to feel, learn, or teach something in just a page!
  • …I came up with some formats that I wanted to follow, for example, the semicolons and setting of the stage in the first paragraph like Kafka, and also to use many quotes as he did. I wanted to use foreshadowing the way Leo Tolstoy did, and from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the bizarreness of his story and subtleties of his lesson to be learned. To top all this off, I wanted to write about an important relationship in a father’s life, the one he has with his daughter, in a heartwarming way.
  • I liked how “The Bucket Rider” gave different impressions to different people, which I really wanted to try…. My revisers were kind of confused with the theme, which I purposely left vague. So overall, I’m kind of satisfied.
  • I wanted to be able to convey my message as simply as I could, and I wanted to connect it to the story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” because I found that story very interesting. The story was also my inspiration because when I pictured the old man’s wings, I pictured the vulture’s wings, and since a girl got turned into a spider, I thought maybe an animal could be turned into a person. I also found that my story turned out to be a fable, and I enjoyed writing it very much.
Maybe next week I’ll share some of the great stuff they wrote in their stories!

What do you think students should learn from studying short stories, and how do you assess them?

Friday, April 6, 2018

Writing Takes a Village, or The Part of the Book I Never Used to Read

Do you ever read the acknowledgments at the end of a book? I’ve been a print addict ever since I can remember. My mom had to remove the cereal boxes from the breakfast table if she wanted conversation. How much more compelling were books! Much of my childhood was spent figuring out how to evade life responsibilities like lima beans and bedtime—in the bathroom, under the covers with a flashlight—in order to read. And yet, there is one part of the book I never read until recently: what comes after the end—the acknowledgements. 

Here’s what’s been dawning on me more blazingly than ever before: student writers don’t need feedback because they’re students; they need feedback because they’re writers. Writers of fiction and nonfiction in their acknowledgments thank all those who had a hand in shaping the final work—from the mentor who first encouraged them to publish their journal, to the specialists who gave them essential information on astronomy or 14th century France, to the friends who found all the plot holes and suggested solutions, to the agents and editors who shaped the work all along the way. 

I've been reading a good bit this week since it's spring break. I finished 3 books I’d been working on (Death with Interruptions by Nobel Prize laureate Jose Saramago, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, and The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz), read Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, and started Black Boy by Richard Wright. Now, it does seem that older writers used to hide all the work they did—made it seem more like magic. Wright told the tale of his life, but not of the book. Saramago didn’t, either—but his translator did! Van Reken wrote a posthumous tribute to her collaborator, and Green and Gidwitz wrote acknowledgments that are lengthy (and witty!) enough to be essays in their own right. (Maybe the acknowledgment is developing into its own genre!)

Why did this come home to me so clearly just now? As 11th graders were working on speech writing in the weeks before spring break, I was delighted to see that the last 1-3/4 years of workshopping pieces together has fostered a writing community where students have a growing understanding of writing for an audience, of having things they really want to find out and to communicate, and of needing feedback in order to grow those ideas and craft that expression in order to reach that audience effectively. 

I saw this especially as the class brainstormed their own list of topics on which they wanted feedback from peers (see photo below), and then shared their documents with more than the one required peer. As I was reading the electronic drafts to leave my own feedback, I saw peer feedback that was specific, both positive and constructive, and helpful. I saw writers doing major revisions in response to feedback—one cut from over 5 pages down to 3! And they asked if they could please make more revisions when they were reading their supposed final drafts to partners—and were excited when I said, “Certainly!” 

11th graders brainstormed topics on which they wanted feedback from peers on their writing.

Gidwitz sums it up as he introduces his acknowledgments, beginning with a quote from one of his own characters: “‘When you think about it, each book is a lot of lives. Dozens and dozens of them.’ William is right, of course. Any book takes a whole battalion of supporters and sources, editors and interlocutors, to complete.” If a fictional character in a middle grade book knows that, and his author knows that, then surely we and our students should know that anything we write—newsletter, speech, editorial, essay—should take, if not a battalion of supporters, then at least a handful.

And if you don’t believe me, read the acknowledgements at the end of the next book you pick up. I might even have students write their own acknowledgment for their next piece...hmmm....