Friday, August 31, 2018

Being the Writing Captain of My Classroom

Student: I like how you added that detail about the setting. I can see you there in the kitchen.
Me: Should I start with the phone call?
Student: No, the way you started with the setting all calm and then the phone call breaks in—makes me feel the contrast.

If you think I mixed up speakers in the above interchange, I didn’t. This is the power of writing to the same prompt along with all the rest of the learners in my classroom. I don’t always do it, and last year I really got out of the habit, but I did it for the first writing assignment this year, and the results were just so fun, I'm motivated to keep doing it. 

I mustered all my discipline to just write the initial journal quick write—and surprised myself by discovering I had a story I wanted to tell so much that I stretched the 15-minute investment to 20 because I was that committed to capturing my thoughts. The next day in class, when students were turning their prewrite into a rough draft, I typed up that journal—revising just a bit, but I had to get it done in the period. Twenty minutes, tops? 

The next day I projected my typed draft—mostly the opening paragraph, though I attached the whole document to the Google Classroom assignment as a model, in case students wanted to take the time to see the whole thing. I said, “This is really rough. I’ve got a few places I just dropped in phrases to remind me what I want to add but didn’t have enough time to flesh out. I know this sentence here never gets to a main verb, so it’s just a big fragment. But I’m not worried about that right now. Right now I want to ask your opinion about my opening.” And we had a conversation that included the dialogue at the top. 

Here are some of the great things that happened, both then and in the next couple of days:
  • I got truly helpful feedback from the students.
  • I modeled applying the writing strategies we’d examined when reading two mentor texts.
  • I modeled the writing process--how rough a rough draft can be, and what it looks like to revise rather than edit.
  • I modeled how to have a peer-revising conversation.  
  • When the students moved into peer revision time, and I
    circulated among them having mini-conferences, more often than not, when I made a suggestion, the writer said, “That’s what my partner already suggested.” (My take-away: Ask first what suggestions a writer has already gotten. I knew that, but was trying to save time.)
  • Finally, when I quickly glanced over revised drafts the next day, I saw some of the most thoroughly revised drafts I’ve ever seen from 10th graders.

If you’ve never tried writing assignments with your students, I highly recommend it. Set yourself a timer. Teach them the tricks you have to learn yourself in order to not sit and stare at a blank page for three hours. Model bad first drafts, big revisions, and writerly questions, moves, risks, failures, and successes. If you’ve tried before and run out of steam, like I did, I encourage you to try again. See what you learn, and what your students learn. We don’t have to do it all the time, but there are things that happen in my own understanding, in my students’ understanding, and in the classroom we share, that don’t happen as quickly and as deeply any other way.

After all, the team captain doesnt lead from the bench.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

A New Year: Growing, Adding, and Keeping

“Do it again—BUT BETTER!” 

Remember the electronic game Bop-It? Its refrain at game end is one of the great things about teaching—each year is a chance to “do it again—BUT BETTER!” And with the first week (um, 4 days) of the new school year under my belt, already I have examples of practices I’m gradually improving, adding, and an old favorite I’m definitely keeping. 

Over 25 years of teaching and still growing. I’m so happy to have heard things come out of my mouth like…
  • Could you elaborate on that?
  • What in the text makes you say that?
  • So what are you going to do tonight? (After giving the assignment, instead of saying, “Got it?” and receiving blank stares in response.)

I also tried something new that resulted in 10th graders walked into class on the 3rd day and erupting into discussion about the previous night’s reading: 
  • First student: “The two pieces were so much the same, I couldn’t find any differences!” 
  • Second student: “No way! They were so different, I couldn’t find any similarities!” 

The assignment had been to read a poem and its source material, and create a Venn diagram showing at least 3 items in each of the 3 areas. The texts were “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson and Genesis 1. We had vigorous discussion as groups compiled their individual diagrams into one and then the whole class speculated about why the author had chosen to do some things differently. (Hooray for standards that required me to add this learning target! I’ve used the poem for many years—see the next paragraph—and we’ve had a brief comparison discussion—dominated by students with background knowledge and by the teacher—but nothing with this level of student engagement!)

Then we segued into one of my highlights of every 10th grade year. I commented on one of my favorite images in the poem, right at the end—the tender image of God creating the first human: 

This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen.      Amen.

I commented on the connotations of the word choice: mammy, kneel, toil. Next, in what seems to be a non sequitur, I pulled out a picture of my family and introduced them all. Then I ripped out the part where my husband is, crumpled it, and dropped it to the ground. 

Utter silence. (Quietest class moment of the year.) Every eye was fixed on me. A few jaws dropped. A few nervous titters frayed the edges of the strained silence. I asked, “What’s the problem?” 

They said, “That’s your husband!” 

I replied, “No, it isn’t. It’s just a piece of paper with some ink on it. My husband is much bigger. He’s three-dimensional. He has feet.” 

They responded, “But a picture has meaning!” 

Bingo. A picture has meaning. Like an image. Then they read some study notes for Genesis 1:26-28 to determine what meaning people being divine image bearers has for life, language, and literature. What the implications are for how we view ourselves, our neighbors, the creation, and the culture people develop from the raw materials of creation.

New wrinkle this year: A few students spoke up, “Oh, that’s what was with that picture on the bulletin board in here last year!” You see, freshman health class met in my classroom last year, and when I was done with this object lesson, I had put the ripped and restored picture up on the board for a reminder. A primed pump can be one of the many benefits of sharing a classroom.

What are you doing this year that is, similar to the old wedding rhyme with a difference, something old, something new, and something gradually growing?

Friday, August 17, 2018

Seizing the Moment for Teaching Rhetoric

A teaching book that quotes Ender’s Game in nearly every chapter—along with Aristotle. What’s not to love? Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response by Jennifer Fletcher is an excellent book for any secondary English teacher looking to further develop her own and her students’ understanding as readers and as writers of the significance of occasion, audience, purpose, and language strategies—each on its own as well as their interplay. 

With this all percolating in my mind, today I woke up and with coffee in hand, began scrolling through my Facebook feed—sprinkled with tributes to Aretha Franklin (day 2). A number of friends had posted their own brief tributes, along with a link to this article in The Atlantic. As I read, I was moved, and at the same time, my teacher brain woke up and started nudging me: “What a mentor text for occasion, audience, purpose, and language strategies!” (I got so excited I wanted to write that comment on my friends' posts, but luckily I know enough about occasion, audience, and purpose to stop myself and come up with the idea to save it for my blog.)

Yes, I realize many of my 16-year-olds may never have heard of Aretha Franklin. That will hopefully create insight about audiencetheir age bracket is not the article's target. But there is an important occasion and purpose here, one which the power of the language may imbue them with an inkling of.  

Look at the words—defied, enraptured, transformed, jubilation, alchemy, strenuous. And that’s just the first paragraph! Look at the sentences—their rhythm, varied length, and figures of speech recreate the music of which they speak. Here are the first 4 sentences of the second paragraph: “To hear Aretha Franklin sing was to bear witness as she constructed a one-woman orchestra from the discords of her own agony. Her musical career spanned the greater part of six decades, but every moment vibrated with a distinct urgency. Franklin’s voice hypnotized. It transmuted.” Look at the first and last sentence, the use of examples, and even the mini-narrative of Franklin’s performance of “Natural Woman” at Carole King’s award ceremony. 

I think I’m getting excited about school starting! 

But back to the book I started out talking about. Just as one example, Fletcher shares how she introduces students to critical reading of argument by playing 2 different games: the “believing game” on the first reading, and the “doubting game” on the second reading. The “believing game” is what I think of as reading with intellectual empathy, or what Steven Covey called seeking first to understand. Suspend disbelief and read it “on the author’s side.” Read to see what she’s saying, why she’s saying it, how she’s supporting it, what’s working well. Next, the “doubting game” involves prodding and testing for any holes, weaknesses, inconsistencies, jarring notes, insufficiency of support, rhetorical fallacies. The book includes questions, examples, and graphic organizers for every idea (and a 25-item appendix!).  

Are you ready for school to start?” That’s the big question around here. My answer is “No. But I will be by Tuesday!”

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Reading for, Writing with, and Talking about Writing Tools

This may be an historical summer for me: the first ever that I have come close to completing my professional reading list!
A book about writing well has got to be well written if it’s going to exist at all. Especially when it has as prosaic a title as Writing Tools. It’s the ultimate embodiment of message in medium. And this one definitely succeeds. The writing itself is delightful, exemplifying all 50 tools as Roy Peter Clark quotes writers on writing as well as samples of everything from Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot to newspaper articles and James Bond books. If you are a writer and/or a teacher of writing, read this book. The chapters are short (about 4 pages each) and end with workshop suggestions for the reader to apply the topic in her reading and her writing. This first time through I wanted a quick overview, so I set myself a goal of five tools/chapters per day. Next time through I will follow the author’s suggestion: “We need lots of writing tools…. Here are fifty of them, one for every week of the year. You get two weeks for vacation. Learn and enjoy” (8).

The writing is winsome and insightful. Motivational, with wonderful similes. And demonstrating what it urges. Here are several examples:

  • "All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a lake but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond. The good news is that the acts of searching and gathering always expand the number of usable words. The writer sees and hears and records. The seeing leads to language." (70)
  • “Good writers move up and down a ladder of language, At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are words that reach for a higher meaning, words like freedom and literacy. Beware of the middle, the rungs of the ladder where bureaucracy and technocracy lurk…. The easiest way to make sense of this tool is to begin with its name: the ladder of abstraction. That name contains two nouns. The first is ladder, a specific tool you can see, hold with your hands, and climb. It involves the senses. You can do things with it. Put it against a tree to rescue your cat Voodoo. The bottom of the ladder rests on concrete language. Concrete is hard, which is why when you fall off the ladder from a high place, you might break your foot. Your right foot. The one with the spider tattoo.” (107)
  • “The good writer uses telling details, not only to inform, but to persuade. In 1963 Gene Patterson wrote a column mourning the murders of four girls in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama: ‘A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her’ (from the Atlanta Constitution). Patterson will not permit white southerners to escape responsibility for the murder of those children. He fixes their eyes and ears, forcing them to hear the weeping of the grieving mother, and to see the one small shoe. The writer makes us empathize and mourn and understand. He makes us see.” (74)
  • “Repetition works in writing, but only if you intend it. Repeating key words, phrases, and story elements creates a rhythm, a pace, a structure, a wavelength that reinforces the central theme of the work. Such repetition works in music, in literature, in advertising, in humor, in political speech and rhetoric, in teaching, I'm homilies, in parental lectures—even in this sentence, where the word ‘in’ is repeated ten times.” (159)

In the most famous quote in this book, which I've seen make several circuits of the Internet, Clark cites Gary Provost's book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, to both urge and model the orchestration of sentence length to create music:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create must. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium  length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important.” (91). 

This morning I sat in a coffee shop reading my end-of-summer, just-for-fun splurge: The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny, #5 in the Inspector Ganache murder mystery series). The following sentences leaped out at me:
  • “These days it was a triumph if she walked across a room and didn’t step on something that squeaked. [Paragraph break.] This place was certainly a triumph. But was it a home?” (36) An agent on Gamache's team goes to interview a witness. Approaching the home, she’s startled by the starkly spare, modern architecture that out of the Canadian wilderness. Reflecting on why she feels threatened by it, she falls into a reverie about her pre- and post-children housekeeping standards. This quote ends the reverie with the first sentence and shifts back to the external moment as the agent approaches the house with the second sentence, the transition accomplished, and perhaps something significant highlighted (or is it a red herring?) by the repetition of the word “triumph.” It’s also a bit of word play—the first triumph is self-deprecating, the second, self-conscious. 
  • “'Havoc!' his mother cried, letting the dogs slip out as she called into the woods.” (37) Did Penny really just do that? Allude to Shakespeare’s line in Julius Caesar, “Cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war”? We’ve already had several comments on the oddness of the name Havoc, son of Roar. But as they are Czech immigrants, might the names not be as odd as they seem in English? One of Clark’s tools is the importance of names, and another is playing with language, even and especially when the subject is serious.
My last 3 years of teaching AP Language and Literature have helped me grow in my ability to articulate, model, and teach something I had paid lip service to for a while, but found a slippery fish in practice: reading like a writer and writing like a reader. This book was one important milestone along the way. Two others, in case you are interested, have been Voice Lessons and Mechanically Inclined (or anything else by Jeff Andersen).

Next week is all-staff orientation, and the next week classes start. I plan to finish Writing Tools and at least get a good start of Teaching Arguments. That will make this a record summer: the first I have ever gotten close to finishing all the professional development reading I had on my list. It really feels like time to get back to applying all this reading. May you, wherever you are, also feel the eagerness.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Learning with "Main Course" Projects

Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning: A Proven Approach to Rigorous Classroom Instruction, by John Larmer, John Mergendoller, Suzie Boss

Why, how, and what have I learned recently? (1) I'm always looking for ways to teach more effectively, so all summer long I've been reading books and reflecting on my learning in blogs and now beginning to work those ideas into my unit plans for the coming school year--from using podcasts and TED talks as mentor texts for speaking/listening skills to having students brainstorm their own questions in response to a unit's essential question. (2) When our doctor advised us to monitor our blood pressure by diet, I read the information he gave us, did some research online, and experimented with new recipes. (3) Because I have to lead a science curriculum review next year, this English-teacher-turned-curriculum-coordinator has been reading up on science standards, networking to collect textbook recommendations, and preparing a Google Doc to share. I would dare to say that as adults, we are all learning a lot almost all the time. And it's because we have a problem to solve or a project to accomplish. Could we make school more that way for students? 

When I first started hearing about project based learning, I thought, “I do that because my students do projects.” But those projects were what the authors of Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning call “dessert projects”—students do all the learning, and then as a reward or an assessment, get to do a project. Project based learning turns the whole process on its head—prompted by the project or the task, students learn what then need in order to accomplish it. For example, instead of doing pages of practice on finding the area of various 2-dimensional shapes first, and then as “dessert” having students determine how much paint is needed for a given project, you start out presenting students with the design problem and then teach them what they need to know to do it. (Check out this article for more about dessert vs. main course projects.) This is more engaging for the students because they know why they are learning, it’s more satisfying for the teacher because students are more motivated, it’s preparation for life where we are continually encountering problems that we have to learn and collaborate in order to solve. And if that’s not enough, students also do better on high-stakes tests because they’ve been motivated learners and have deeply understood the content and skills.

I read this book this summer less in my role as an English teacher and more in my role as a curriculum coordinator because a number of teachers in my school have expressed interest in learning more about project based learning. Next spring I’d like to offer a discussion of this book for those who are interested. But for now, here are a few of the points I found challenging, helpful, or interesting:

Collaboration: Often cited as an important 21st Century skill, it’s a big no-no for standards based grading (my 2nd read of the summer) but an essential element of project based learning. There are no easy answers, but that’s one of the challenges that keeps teaching interesting!

Resources: Possibly the best thing about this book is all the web-based resources scattered throughout the text. I put little stars in the margins next to many of them—next time through the book, I’ll have to check out more of them. There are "real life" resources for business problem-solving and brainstorming (like here and here), and sites with sample projects and most importantly, the Buck Institute for Learning where you can find everything PBL. 

Other educational initiatives: Project based learning incorporates many of the tenets of other educational initiatives I’ve been working on already, like differentiation, Understanding by Design, and the workshop model. Tenets like starting with the goal in mind, giving students voice and choice, teacher as coach to help students reach their goals, and authentic assessments that are as like real world tasks as possible. 

What will I do? Continue to hone the clarity with which I focus students on the end product from the beginning and help them see what we learn along the way as essential to the end. Implement the step of having students brainstorm additional questions after I’ve introduced the big unit question and goal. Possibly frame one 10th grade unit more as a straight-up project based unit. And offer a book discussion on this book next spring where I can get some colleagues to think through it all with me.