Friday, November 30, 2018

Timing to Focus and Finish Peer Conversations

My written feedback doesn’t always meet student writers where they are. Sometimes they don’t understand my advice, so either they ignore it, or else they incorporate it so completely that I know they have just copied my words without understanding their import. The most infamous example of this is once when I crossed out “dreams,” writing “redundant” above it, and the next draft read “hopes and redundant.” 

One of the reasons peer feedback is important is students get immediate responses to their writing and answers to their questions at the level they are ready for. I can figure this out in conferences, but I can't always get to every student every period. So I love to see students engaged deeply with each other in trying to figure out together what is working and what isn’t. 

While peer feedback has many benefits, it has to be set up well to make it worth the time. (I, too, have seen those student papers where the peer feedback has been either irrelevant or actually counterproductive.)

This week I tried something new—using a timer to structure peer feedback conversations on writing. What prompted the idea was a very extroverted class. They are great for discussions, but I'm still working on being really explicit and structured about when it is time for the discussion to end and the individual work—like writing
—to begin. 

Here's what it looked like. I asked students to find a partner and share their rough draft Google Doc. They were to spend the next 20 minutes as follows:

  • 5 minutes (split 2 ways, 2.5 minutes for each partner): Share your goals for your piece, what you were trying to do, and what specifically you want feedback on.
  • 5 minutes: Read each other’s papers.
  • 5 minutes: Student A responds to student B. (Be sure to have a balance of affirmative and constructive feedback.)
  • 5 minutes: Student B responds to student A. (Be sure to have a balance of affirmative and constructive feedback.)
Option: If they were responding to each other’s papers digitally via online comments, they could use all of the middle 10 minutes for reading/responding. Then the last 5 minutes are used to read the partner’s comments and ask any clarifying questions needed.

The first 5 minutes are crucial: the writer starts in control. Feedback is less threatening when you have the chance to invite it, saying, “This is what I was trying to do. Did I succeed where I think I did? And please give me help where I know I need it.

What kind of help might they ask for? We’ve done enough mini-lessons, conferring, and use of rubrics that students know some of the questions they can ask:

  • Does my introduction hook you?
  • Is my thesis clear, specific, and debatable?
  • Does the order of my points make sense?
  • Is my support sufficient, relevant, varied, and well-integrated?
  • Are the transitions between paragraphs smooth and thoughtful?
In fact, next time I do this, I should probably have a possible list of questions like that, but in spite of my incomplete preparation, students were amazingly focused and interactive. They were asking questions and giving advice. Just look at the pictures!

The timer with its urgency and limitation seemed to be just the catalyst to get both classes (an extroverted one and an introverted one) to focus, have productive conversations, and be prepared to move to the next step of using the conversation in their writing.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Writing Myself into Gratitude

Even though my Thanksgiving dinner was KFC sans mashed potatoes and gravy, today I'm thankful for this stunning view of Hiroshima out of my hotel window, for seeing fall colors we miss in Okinawa, for a fantastic lunch pastry, for other family my kids can celebrate with, for grandchild #3 arriving in June, and for the measure of peace currently on earth. 

“Mom! Come quick! It’s a miracle!” 

I responded to my 4-year-old’s urgent summons to find her face to radiant face with a dogwood blossom right outside our front door. At first it seemed anti-climactic. Then I wondered what it would take to keep me as awake to delight as a 4-year-old child. One thing that has evolved out of that wondering is a writing discipline that daily reorients me to thanksgiving—my own peculiar form of gratitude journal. First I’ll tell you what I write, then how it evolved, and finally what effect it’s had.

What I write:

Overflowing with gratitude: (1) Coffee by Michael…. (8) Jesus died for me. (9) The Holy Spirit lives in me. (10) The Father deeply loves me and completely accepts me.

The intervening 6 items can be as specific as a gorgeous birdsong heard on my morning walk, a picture of a grandchild recently posted on Instagram, the smell of sun-dried sheets, a meaningful conversation in the hallway, a student’s epiphany in class, or a great line in the book I’m reading. (For the last 6 years a frequent weekend item is “blog posted”—sometimes with a sigh of relief at a task accomplished and sometimes with one of satisfaction at a vague idea wrestled into sentences and paragraphs.) The items can also be as general as sleep, health, peace, plenty, a roof over my head, the love of family and friends, rule of law, and meaningful work to do. Some days are just like that—when the specifics that dominate my mind are ones that spring from worry and stress, to still confess that my life is blessed in many ways is vital.

It started back when my children were small with a suggestion from my mom to write down 3 things a day I was grateful for. I can’t pinpoint when I added the introduction, though I seem to recall a conversation with a friend about a Bible study in Colossians where that phrase was significant. For me it has become a part of the ritual of reorienting myself to thanksgiving—however I feel at this moment, I do have many reasons in my life to be overflowing with thanksgiving, and I’m about to enumerate some of them. Neither can I remember the exact order in which the list grew from 3 to 5 to 10 as I added the anchoring 4 daily reminders of my husband’s first daily act of care, and of the Trinitarian resources of my spiritual life.

I do remember that the final 3 started as 1. I’d heard a PE teacher share how she combats girls’ poor self-concept by teaching them to look in the mirror and say, “I deeply love you and completely accept you.” I thought, “That sounds great, but what about the days when I just cannot do that? When I know I’ve thought, said, or done unlovely, unacceptable things?” Then it occurred to me that that is exactly where my Christian faith addresses the deepest needs of my heart—that even when I can’t love or accept myself, God has already done it, and I could confess that daily until it sank from my head into my heart. 

Eventually I realized I needed a daily reminder of the divine price of that truth—that Jesus had died for me. Then one day it dawned on me that it was less my spiritual tradition than my own practices that were obscuring my awareness of the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s when I added #9, frequently tagging on phrases about what the Holy Spirit was doing in my life: “The Holy Spirit lives in me to comfort me…to remind me…to guide me…to produce fruit…to unite me with others…” 

It’s been well over 20 years since that 4-year-old called me to witness the miracle of a dogwood blossom, and well over 15 years that I’ve been keeping some form of my gratitude journal. I’ve done it in the morning, I’ve done it in the evening, and I’ve done it in combination with a variety of other journaling forms—or without any. I still frequently fail to receive life as a daily series of miracles, and yet this small writing discipline has formed me, and for that, I am thankful.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Keys to a Good Jigsaw Activity: 3 + 1

  • So what would you do? Would you choose to save the one person you know or the 5 people you don’t?
  • How do you say ‘human rights’ in Japanese?
  • Really? You have this book? Can I read it? 

Yesterday we had great discussions in Honors English 10—with the added twist of some visitors. It’s an activity I love—jigsawing—plus a group of students from a nearby Japanese high school was doing a half-day exchange visit, and 3 of them along with their English teacher came to our class.  

I love a good jigsaw activity. The one we did yesterday I wrote about last year hereThis year was even better with the added challenge of explaining to the visitors what was going on. A couple of students usually on the quieter side rose to the challenge of working to translate the sophisticated legal, psychological, and ethical terms and ideas. I realized the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been translated into over 500 languages—so I could just print a couple of Japanese copies! The 2 visitors in that group perked up considerably, and some of my students wanted to see what it looked like in Japanese. (They may be fluent in daily conversation, but that level of formality was opaque to them.)
Our topic is human dignity—what is it, and why is it important? Our central piece of literature is the Holocaust memoir Night. Before reading it, though, we did some background reading on the Rwanda genocide and watched clips from the movie Hotel Rwanda to bring the issue closer to the present and highlight that “us/them” divisiveness is not just white vs. black (as in our previous novel Cry, the Beloved Country)—it’s also Hutus vs. Tutsis and Germans vs. Jews and many other things in other times and places. As we read the book, we noted instances, causes, and effects of disregard for human dignity, as well as the few examples of people fighting the flow to stay human and treat others as such. We also note how the author uses the tools of literature to make those images powerful.

After reading, I wanted students to get even more background information on a variety of topics related to human dignity that they could pull into their final synthesis paper. So I offered 3 very different but very relevant pieces:

  • The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a legal document, so difficult reading level, but shortest of the documents; written in response to the Holocaust and referred to in current political commentary. 
  • What Makes Us Moral?”—a Time magazine article citing psychological and sociological studies and experiments in an attempt to explain how humanity continues to produce both Mother Theresas and Adolph Hitlers. 
  • An excerpt of the introduction to Half the Sky—a work by Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn on, as the subtitle says, Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. This has both statistics and stories of individuals. See Sheryl’s TED Talk, “Our Century’s Greatest Injustice,” for a taste. 
Students chose the piece they were most interested in reading Thursday night. They read and annotated it on their own, coming to class ready to discuss it. On Friday, first they  gathered with others who had read the same piece. In these groups, they asked clarifying questions to make sure they understood it themselves, then decided how best to summarize it for their classmates who had read other pieces, and which elements might be most relevant to and useful for the synthesis papers.

In my experience, there are 3 keys to a good jigsaw activity:

  1. A topic that students have a stake in.
  2. Jigsawed materials that are relevant to the topic but varied in content, style, and challenge, within which students have choice.
  3. An end-product for which students have a felt need to understand both their material and everyone else’s.

The "plus one" key, which I can't always count on, is a real audience. It happened serendipitously yesterday, and it wasn't a disruption--it actually heightened the learning.

For the next class, when students will be brainstorming, planning, and doing any needed additional research for their synthesis papers on human dignity, I’ve posted additional optional sources (see page 2 of this Google Doc). 

Do you have a jigsaw activity that has worked well in your class? If so, please share it in the comments below! If not, consider trying it. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Laughing and Learning

I am definitely not a stand-up comedian type. More the introverted bookworm type. The walking-into-the-cafeteria-and-having-to-decide-where-to-sit-gives-me-hives type. So one day this week, when above the general hilarity a 10th grader called out, “I have never laughed this hard in English class!” I filed that little gem away to think about later.

We were talking about the word literal—how it means a word’s most basic sense without metaphor, but in conversation we frequently use it as an intensifier: “I literally died when that embarrassing thing happened.” (Really? Who brought you back to life?) “I literally lost my mind.” (Really? Have you found it since, or are you still looking?) It followed us into the next day’s vocabulary with annihilate: destroy completely, reduce to nothing. As in the sentence in book Night that we are reading: “Hitler has made it clear he will annihilate all Jews.” Or as in what you might say before a game: “We are going to literally annihilate the other team.” On the other hand, maybe not. The comment about laughter in English class also became my segue into the rest of the class, discussing the Holocaust memoir Night: “And laughter is a good thing to balance out the tragedy of where we’re going next…”

Other opportunities we’ve had for laughter this week:

  • Sharing my story of struggling with how hard to try to fit into Japanese society when, as foreigners, we’re never going to totally blend in: Playing on a local women’s club volleyball team, buying Japanese athletic gear, while realizing that sock style was not going to entirely distract from the fact that I stood head and shoulders above many of my teammates. 
  • Illustrating the vocabulary word apathy with a joke: Person A says, “In your opinion, is the biggest problem among young people today ignorance or apathy?” Person B replies, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
I use humor other times as well, for example...
  • Whenever a class is editing writing, I wear my t-shirt that says: “Let’s eat Grandma. Let’s eat, Grandma. Commas save lives.”
  • In my Shakespeare unit I particularly focus on word play, sharing one current example at the beginning of every period. Because if you don’t get them in modern English, there’s no hope of getting them in Elizabethan poetry.
  • Vocabulary bloopers, oddities, and misunderstandings: English is a wild and crazy language. I love its history, its uses, and its misuses. There is so much potential here. I love, for example, reading through the essay “How I Met My Wife” with advanced juniors, and seeing how many of the oddities they catch—words or phrases we use in English, but never without the negating prefix that the author drops here.   
Robert Marzano names humor as a teaching strategy in The New Art and Science of Teaching which I have just finished reading and discussing with some colleagues. Humor is one of the 8 strategies he lists under the element “demonstrating intensity and enthusiasm,” which is one of the 10 elements under “using engagement strategies,” which is one of his 10 design areas. Marzano says of humor, “Depending on a teacher’s personality and instructional style, he or she might show a funny political cartoon or video, direct jokes at him- or herself, use silly quotes or voices, or point out absurdities in a textbook, film, or article to demonstrate enthusiasm for a topic” (70). 

Like I said, no one would say a main quality of either my personality or instructional style is humor. But, as Marzano notes, “If the teacher demonstrates intensity and enthusiasm about the content, students are more likely to perceive the content as intriguing and interesting” (69-70). And humor is one way of demonstrating intensity and enthusiasm. (Plus, it's fun!) 

What helps me unleash my inner comic? 
  • Knowing that humor actually is a valid instructional tool—it’s more than okay to tell jokes and funny stories and have fun together, as long as the time it takes is proportional to the instructional value reaped.
  • Cultivating my own sense of humor: being on the lookout for what tickles my funny bone within my subject area. This is a virtuous circle because the more I share humor, the more people share back to me.
  • Curating discoveries. One great thing about piling up birthdays is that with 30 years of teaching experience, I’ve come across a lot of puns, student bloopers, funny stories, cute quotes. But I also have to write it down, file it, Pin it, blog it, do something so I can find it when I need it. It’s so frustrating to come across that comic, pun, or funny story that I was looking for the week after I needed it.
  • Losing my self-consciousness. Another great thing about piling up birthdays is realizing what a waste of energy it is to care whether students share my sense of humor. And what I find is that if they can see how much fun I’m having, they’ll probably want in on it.
How do you unleash your inner comic?

Friday, November 2, 2018

Moving from Connections within Units to Connections among Units

Like rabbits swept by the shadow of a hawk, the students suddenly still, striving to become invisible, only eyeballs roving to see if anyone has an answer for the question the teacher has posed.

Moments earlier the class bubbled with discussion, pulling together the introductory nonfiction pieces of our human dignity unit before plunging into our central work, the Holocaust memoir Night by Elie Wiesel. Students commented on the power of the line in the movie Hotel Rwanda about people watching the atrocities on the news, then saying, “How awful,” and going back to their dinners—recognizing that we have all done exactly that. They debated the extent to which the question of suffering is answered by the claim of Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission (IJM), “The question is not where is God but where are his people.” 

Then I ask, “This concept of regard for human dignity—do you see any connections with our first unit, about people being made in the image of God?” The silence is deafening. Baffled, I explain one connection: the Christian belief that people are made in the image of God is the very basis for human dignity and human rights. 

Next question, “This concept of regard for human dignity—do you see any connections with the unit we just finished on shalom?” More silence. Then a tentative, “No?” I am astonished. “Any connection to God’s call to join him in his work of restoring the relationships he originally intended people to have with himself, with others, with creation?” Some giggle sheepishly. The speaker protests, “I meant, when shalom was broken in Cry, the Beloved Country, there wasn’t any regard for human dignity.” 

I posed these questions because of a recent Blinding Flash of the Obvious, I just didn’t expect my hypothesis to be so resoundingly confirmed. Occasionally a student has ventured while working on a unit final paper to ask whether it’s okay to refer to a central theme of a previous unit: “Is it okay if I talk about people being made in the image of God when I’m writing my shalom paper?” “Is it okay if I talk about shalom when I’m writing my human dignity paper?” The connections seem so clear to me, and it’s such an epiphany to them that they’re not sure it’s valid. It wasn’t until last week that I realized: oh, my—I don’t actually teach them to make connections between units. I systematically target, teach, and assess making connections within a unit, but not among units.

This realization hit when discussing The New Art and Science of Teaching by Robert Marzano with a couple of colleagues. I read about the strategy of cumulative review: “The teacher not only reviews content from the current unit but helps students relate it to content from previous units…. Periodically, students list their generalizations from previous units or sets of lessons and create one or more all-encompassing generalizations
 (57). I wrote, “10th grade!” in the margin by those words.

I didn’t mean to make my students feel like hunted rabbits. I thought that just prompting them to look for connections among units of study would trigger the finding of connections. Clearly this is a thinking strategy I need to teach more specifically. After all, life is not a series of unrelated units, and learning is more effective when it is more connective, synthesizing new learning with what has gone before.

Are there connections among your units of study? Do your students know them? Ask—see what happens.