Saturday, June 30, 2018

Re-Reading...Just for Fun

Note to self: In the thrill of the spacious expanse of June and the way it invites me to fill the summer with all that can be done to get ready for next year—professional reading and well as exploring more YA books that might hook students, organizing files, doing research for the science textbook adoption coming up, finding more resources, cleaning out my email in-box, clearing my computer desk top—don’t forget to nurture my own reading life. 

This week I did something I hardly ever do: re-read a book that I wasn’t (1) teaching or (2) reading aloud to an audience. In this summer vacation time, with my usual community scattering to the winds while my travel plans suddenly shifted, my eyes wandered my bookshelf, paused on a title, and I thought: I need to sink into that community again, with that character, and eavesdrop on the thoughts of the ineligible bachelor barber of Port William, KY, in Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow.

It was a good thought. Like the first time, reading the novel got off to a slow start. And then I discovered that I had used a pencil to mark my favorite parts many years ago. Mostly, they were the same. Plus a few more. Note to self: Mark up books when I read them. My future self will enjoy the community with its past self.  I’ll just share a couple of the lines I marked, and these aren’t even the most significant, but they are representative, in a way, of the narrator's gentle humor, insight, and avoidance of banality. 

Reflecting on a woman who was constantly finding fault with the town and everyone in it, and most especially himself, Jayber says the following:
To mind being disliked by a woman you don’t desire and are not married to is yet another failure of common sense. So be it. I have always counted being unmarried to Cecelia Overhold as a privilege; it surely is better to be disliked distantly than intimately. It surely is far better to be disliked by somebody you don’t love than by somebody you do. Even so, I mind. Even so, failing to love somebody is a failure. (208)

And as he tries to correct that failure by imagining himself into her perspective, he realizes that critique is a double-edged sword:
Theoretically, there is always a better place for a person to live, better work to do, a better spouse to wed, better friends to have. But then this person must meet herself coming back: Theoretically, there always is a better inhabitant of this place, a better member of this community, a better worker, spouse, and friend than she is. This surely describes one of the circles of Hell, and who hasn’t travelled around it a time or two? (210)

Speaking of the circles of Hell, the parallels to Dante's Divine Comedy didn't even dawn on my until I'd finished my second read! On top of all the allusions, the book is in 3 parts, and there's even a Virgil and a Beatrice figure. Next time through, I'll be on the lookout for the 3 beasts. I'm sure they're there!  

I’m so glad I took a mini-vacation from all the new books you “should” read and treated myself to a re-read of one I’ve loved. What’s a book you’ve loved and might like to re-visit?

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Coaching Classroom Instruction

One full week of summer vacation down, one professional development book read (see this blog for the whole list).

One benefit of committing to read a book with a colleague is that in the collaborative selection process, sometimes something gets picked that wouldn’t have been my first choice, but for that very reason, it ends up being a way of thinking I needed to be exposed to, a tool my kit was missing. I knew I needed to know more about instructional coaching in my part-time role as curriculum coordinator at my small, private international school because of 2 reasons: (1) Two years ago I set up a peer coaching program in secondary which was very well-received, but this year, some participants were less satisfied and looking for more input. And (2) sometimes teachers ask me for feedback where I know something can be better, but I can’t think of specific strategies. Either because it’s an area that isn’t my strength either, or else because it is my strength, and with my expert blind spot, I can’t even articulate exactly how I do it—I just do. 

Coaching Classroom Instruction exactly hit that sweet spot. It has 330 strategies, matched with 41 different elements of effective teaching, associated with 9 design questions, divided among 3 categories of lesson segments. There is a self-audit rubric for the 41 elements using the ratings 4 (innovating), 3 (applying), 2 (developing), 1 (beginning), and 0 (not using). For each of the 330 strategies, chapters 3, 4, and 5 give suggestions for what that strategy at a given level might look like. The levels are "not using" (0) to "beginning" (1) in chapter 3, "beginning" (1) to "developing" (2) and "developing" (2) to "applying" (3) in chapter 4, and "applying" (3) to "innovating" (4) in chapter 5. 

The 3 categories of lesson segments and their design questions are (1) routine events (What will I do to establish and communicate learning goals, track student progress, and celebrate success? What will I do to establish and maintain classroom rules and procedures?), (2) content (What will I do to help students effectively interact with new knowledge? What will I do to help students practice and deepen their understanding of new knowledge? and What will I do to help students generate and test hypotheses about new knowledge?), and (3) enacted on the spot (What will I do to engage students? What will I do to recognize and acknowledge adherence or lack of adherence to rules and procedures? What will I do to establish and maintain effective relationships with students? and What will I do to communicate high expectations for all students?). 

For example, if I were to coach myself, one thing I’m interested in improving is student discussion. I would choose the lesson segment “addressing content,” the design question “What will I do to help students effectively interact with new knowledge?”, element 7 “organizing students to interact with new knowledge,” and out of the 7 strategies listed there, I’d pick “fishbowl demonstration.” I’ve used this strategy before, and I know I can get more mileage out of it. I want to move from a 3 (applying) to a 4 (innovating). Marzano gives 2 ways to make this move with any strategy: integrating several strategies into a “macrostrategy,” or adapting a strategy for unique student needs or situations (i.e. advanced or struggling learners). I’m intrigued by the suggestion for extension: “Ask students to track how often students in the fishbowl demonstration shared their perspectives, asked or answered questions, and paraphrased what others said; ask students to make generalizations about the relative importance of each aspect based on their observations” (166).

If I were to coach a new teacher who asked me about classroom management, I could use this book to give more directed help than just sending a couple of links. (Yes, I had issues with classroom management 30 years ago when I started teaching, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seriously struggled in this area. This is neither a gift nor arrogance—just experience and growth. If we don’t gain some mastery in 30 years of experience, we should all just quit now.) 

For a teacher to move from not using (0) to beginning (1), he/she needs to “understand the research and theory for the growth goal element, learn about classroom strategies related to the element, select a strategy to work on, and try the strategy in the classroom” (37). Is the issue about making the rules/procedures or enforcing them? I could work with the teacher to choose the lesson segment “routine events” and the design question “What will I do to establish and maintain classroom rules and procedures?” or the lesson segment  “What will I do to recognize and acknowledge adherence or lack of adherence to rules and procedures?”  Let’s say we chose the latter, and then element 33 “demonstrating withitness” (53). The book summarizes the research supporting the importance of a teacher “being aware of what is going on in the classroom at all times” (53), and lists 4 strategies: being proactive, occupying the whole room physically and visually, noticing potential problems, and implementing a series of graduated actions (53). 

What do those strategies mean? Check out another Marzano book, The New Art and Science of Teaching, which explicates this whole paradigm of 3 lesson segments, 9 design questions, 41 elements, and 330 strategies, just without the coaching advice. (Good news for me: I’m already planning an optional book study of this book for faculty next year, and teachers displayed high interest in a survey!)

So all this to say that while my preferred mode of operation is painting the big vision, getting people excited, and turning them loose to pursue it on their own while providing any specific resources requested along the way, sometimes we all need specific, actionable guidance to get traction on that big vision—whether it’s advancing from “not using” to “beginning” or from “applying” to “innovating.” This book is an important tool to have in the teacher support kit—along with Creating Cultures of Thinking and Teaching Matters Most—and I’m glad I’ve read it. I think I may need to also get Becoming a Reflective Teacher (how to apply The New Art and Science on your own, I think) and Unstuck: How Curiosity, Peer Coaching, and Teaming Can Change Your School (to see if I can revitalize the peer coaching part of our program while offering more official instructional coaching as well). But even if I don't get around to those, I have one new tool in my kit! (And I really am going to try that fishbowl analysis next year!)

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Priming the Pump for Summer Reading

Adding "the question" to my door of "Mrs. Essenburg is reading..." posters was one way I tried this year...

Summer reading doesn’t happen by fiat. Or if it does, it’s an anemic cousin of the robust thing we want to happen…or even counter-productive, teaching kids that reading is an unpleasant chore to be accomplished under duress. That’s not to say having a summer reading requirement is bad—it just needs to be scaffolded, like anything else. So this year, in addition to handing out the required book, the choice list, and the authentic assignment with each, I did a few other things, like book-talking some of the books on the list, leaving copies lying around the classroom, and posting "the question" on my classroom door, amid the posters of all the books I'd read this year (see photo above). I did one other thing, sort of by accident—because I had a smallish chunk of time left at the end of the last exam period in one of my classes—and I’m definitely going to plan it into all my classes at some point next year. 

What do you do when you have 15 minutes of English class before summer vacation at the end of the exam activity? Something engaging enough to make students forget their yearbooks to be signed, and something that will set them up for a summer not entirely devoid of reading? Of the several ideas rolling around in my brain last Monday at 11:35 a.m., I plunked for reflecting on books we loved in the past, hoping it would ignite an animated discussion and result in, not a “to-read” list grudgingly constructed because it was required, but a good feeling about reading that students would be motivated to find ways to keep alive over the summer. 

So here’s what I did. I wrote 4 categories on the board and asked students to think about books that were significant for them in each category: picture books, chapter books (upper elementary), middle school, and high school. I gave a few examples for myself. My mom trying (unsuccessfully) to divert me from checking out Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book—yet again. Reading through my neighbor’s entire set of Nancy Drew books in one summer. Call It Courage, one of the few books I re-read after moving beyond picture books. 

We had a great discussion—students building off other students’ memories—from Miss Nelson Is Missing  to A Series of Unfortunate Events and beyond. Here are a few of the highlights:
  • Green Eggs and Ham—“It was the first book I read by myself, and I was so proud. It was really long!”
  • Junie B. Jones—“I consciously modeled my sense of humor on hers, and have just been adding to it ever since!”
  • Danny the Champion of the World—“My dad read it to me, and it was a real bonding experience.”
  • The Miracle Worker—“When I went to see the play in 4th grade, I didn’t know that Hellen Keller wasn’t born blind and deaf. When I realized that I could get sick and lose my sight and hearing, it really impressed me with how fragile life is.”

We didn’t even get to high school favorites! And no one sneaked a peek at their yearbook, we had a deeply engaged discussion about books, and I’m not sure how it affected anyone else’s summer reading plans, but I know that I, at least, added Danny the Champion of the World to my “to-read” list! I think I might try this 15-minute discussion at the beginning of the school year. 

What do you do to prime students for summer reading?

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Joy of Reading and Thinking Together

Spoiler alert if you’re in my 11th grade AP English class and reading this: Wait until after the exam period Monday, unless you want to know how the play ends. 

Since the AP class has no exam, having already faced down “the Big One” in early May, we spend the last few days of the school year—exam prep days and the exam period itself—enjoying something we don’t get to anywhere else in the year: drama. The last 2 years I’ve done A Raisin in the Sun—a nice alternative “American dream” with which to follow up The Great Gatsby. But most of this year’s class had already studied that play in a theater elective last year. So I remembered Our Town

We’ve covered some big topics this year: “To what extent does school serve the goal of a true education?”, “What is the relationship of the individual to the community?”, and “What does citizenship mean to me, and how will I use my voice as an educated citizen of my country and of the world?” Then The Great Gatsby warns us, among other things, to be very careful what we give our hearts and dreams to. Our Town can, I hope, be a story that will live within us, reminding us that in the midst of our big desires to get on with life and impact the world, not to miss the moments of life as we live them, the gifts that surround us all the time.

Come to think of it, maybe we actually are having a final exam: Can you thoughtfully read a work of literature for the pure joy of doing it, and not because there’s a grade at the end? So far, everyone’s acing it.

How could we work out and visualize the action as we read? (I have a limited number of copies, so we have to share, and can’t freely move around the room to stage it.) I hit on the idea of moving character cards around a table/stage (see photo above). It’s worked really well through acts 1 and 2. Monday we’ll read the final act, and I know I’m going to cry. I have the room stocked with 2 boxes of tissues, and a note to myself NOT to take any major reading parts. Here’s the part that gets me every time: 

Emily, a young mother who has died in childbirth, has been given a chance to relive a day in her life, and she picks her 12th birthday. But the way everyone rushes unheedingly through the moments of what she now knows is such a beautiful, fleeting life, devastates her:

Emily: I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. (She breaks down sobbing….) I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.

Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, You’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

(She looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly, through her tears:) Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No. (Pause.) The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

Since I first read those words as a young adult myself, I’ve tried, with more success sometimes than others, to realize life while I live it—every, every minute. To really look at the people around me. To notice the cup of hot coffee, the morning glories…the pattern of the clouds shadows on the corrugated surface of the East China Sea…sleeping and waking up. Summer is a good time to try again. 

And if you havent read Our Town...or at least not might consider putting it on your summer reading list.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Cultivating Curiosity through Final Exams

I’m looking forward to exams. (No, I haven't lost my mind.) I realized a while ago that our world doesn’t necessarily need people who can identify all the characters in a given Shakespeare play and which significant quotes they said. It does need people who are curious, work on finding answers, and share their findings with others. (This is not a new idea for my students. I try to cultivate their questions throughout the year: see last week's blog.) So my English exam is: “Given what we learned in class this semester, what ELSE to you want to know, and how will you share that?” It’s sort of like “Genius Hour,” but it’s “Genius Week.”

We spent a class period reviewing all the reading we’ve done (fiction and nonfiction), all the writing we’ve done (passed back portfolios), and the themes we’d discussed, and then brainstorming in writing what had caught our attention, that we’d like to explore further. Now students have 5 class periods for research and 1 for practice before the exam presentation.

Here are some of the things students are working on:
  • One student wants to look further into personality and values formation to resolve what she sees as inconsistencies in the “Who Am I?” paper she wrote in response to our study of the modern drama A Doll’s House.
  • One student wants to find out how and why decisions about movie scoring happen because he was intrigued by the use of music in the 1999 movie of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which we watched after studying the play,
  • One student wants to find out more about the author Haruki Murakami and his relationship to the Japanese writing community because we studied his novel After Dark.
  • One student wants to research further the meaning of a Franz Kafka short story we read in class and determine how it fits into his worldview.
  • One student wants to follow up on the theme of human dignity, which we introduced first semester in our study of the Holocaust memoir Night, and trace it through works we studied second semester, connecting it ultimately to current events.

Exams are the week after next. I’m looking forward to reviewing lessons about presentation skills by watching clips of TED talks, and to conferring with students about what they're learning from their research. And then, I’m looking forward to exams!

And then, I'm looking forward to summer. (See, I told you I haven't lost my mind!)