Saturday, December 22, 2018

Best and Worst of My 2018 Blogs

One of my goals for this year has been changing by class library display more frequently

This past year for Lent I fasted from checking my blog stats.
It was  a telling discipline: how I craved that dopamine charge when readership spiked,
 and how freeing it was to just not know and therefore care. So I wasn’t sure I wanted to venture into the realm of analyzing what got read and what didn’t during 2018, but since my hero Nicholas Kristof did it, I figured I should, too. The only difference is Kristof being a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter working for the New York Times, he has the ego cushion to list only his 10 least read; I’ve listed my 10 most-read first, and then my 10 least-read.

Kristof learned that people read most avidly anything related to President Trump and showed little interest in international issues without a Trump angle, like the power of education, the famine in Yemen, and women’s rights. However, I’m not sure I discerned any patterns at all—except that most of my friends must have gotten really busy in October and November:

  • A blog on the same topic—self-care—appeared once in the top 10 (#6) and once in the bottom 10 (#2). I don’t think readership fell off due to the repetition: I tend to do this twice a year, each fall and spring, and it always has a relatively high readership. Except this fall.
  • In fact, though the main goal of this blog is professional, the personal reflections tend to spike readership as they interest non-teaching Facebook friends as well. But this fall a personal blog on gratitude journaling made the bottom 10. Although it also elicited an unusually high number of comments.
Even if I didn’t find any significant patterns, reviewing all the blogs I’ve written this year was a worthwhile exercise. It got me excited for the year to come and all the great units coming up—like the unit on empathy while reading the Japanese novel After Dark (#4 in top 10). It also reminded me how much writing I’ve done (53 blogs!)—and what I’ve learned about writing while doing it that I can pass on to my students. And that makes it totally worth the effort even if for the bottom 10.

In case you missed one that you’d like to catch up on over winter break, see below for my 10 most-read and 10 least-read blogs of 2018.

Top 10 blogs (most read at the top):

  1. What Does Thinking Look Like?: One specific activity from my AP English 11 classroom  plus reflections on how to further use ideas from the book Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart.
  2. What and Why I Read: How I grew from just an avid reader to an eclectic reader and reading advocate, plus my favorite 2017 read from each of about 14 genres.
  3. Who’s Asking the Questions?: When students are looking for answers to their own questions rather than the teacher’s: benefits and examples from my 10th and 11th grade classes. 
  4. Reading Develops Empathy Even Better when It Is Targeted, Taught, and Assessed: Empathy seems like a slippery skill to teach, but when I really targeted it, being explicit with students, using formative and summative assessments in the 10th graders’ reading of the Japanese novel After Dark, it was exciting to see student responses at the end. 
  5. Creating a Culture of Reading: Sharing Reading: The 3rd in a series on creating a culture of reading by modeling, encouraging, and sharing reading. 
  6. Self-Care for Teachers: Reflect on Good Things that Happened this Week (Part 2): One important part of teacher self-care is staying positive: hanging out with positive people and telling the positive teaching stories of our lives. Here are a few of mine from a given week in the spring.
  7. Service Learning Needs Special Opportunities and Daily Opportunities: Our school's service week is a great opportunity, and students also need to experience daily opportunities to serve their classmates with their learning. Discussion, peer revising, and presentations are all forms of this. 
  8. Summer Reading List: Professional Development: In which I introduce the 9 professional books I planned to read over the summer. (I'm currently finishing the 9th.)  
  9. Just Getting on with a Bad First Draft: An important lesson for myself and for my students in breaking the mental log jam for writing.
  10. What and Why I Blog: In which I reflect on my whole educational blogging enterprise, and list my top 10 blogs from 2017.
Bottom 10 blogs (least read at the top):   
  1. Keys to a Good Jigsaw Activity: 3 + 1: An example of an effective jigsaw activity in 10th grade Honors English using 3 different short texts to follow up on the theme of human dignity in the Holocaust memoir Night.
  2. Self-Care for Teachers: Telling Our Happy Stories: One important part of teacher self-care is staying positive: hanging out with positive people and telling the positive teaching stories of our lives. Here are a few of mine from a given week in the fall.
  3. Timing to Focus and Finish Peer Conversations: This was actually about peer revision conferences, but I was so excited about how my idea to use a timer proved really productive that I may have given it a title that left people totally in the dark.
  4. Moving from Connections within Units to Connections among Units: Connections among units is one of those things that has always been so clear to me I’ve probably failed to actually articulate it to students. But I’m targeting it this year, and it’s so easy to improve with just a little attention here and there.
  5. Laughing and Learning: Humor raises engagement and therefore learning. I get kind of a kick out of realizing that after 30 years, I’ve actually gained a little skill at using it. Here are some examples.
  6. Writing Myself into Gratitude: As the living curriculum in my reading/writing classroom, I used Thanksgiving to reflect on how I have developed and been shaped by the discipline of a gratitude journal. 
  7. Quick and Easy Vocabulary Discussions: Using complex vocabulary in academic discussion is an important part of students’ developing a rich and powerful vocabulary. Here’s an activity I came up with on the spur of the moment, and it worked so well, it will now be a permanent part of my vocabulary repertoire.
  8. Why I Make Time for Project Reflection: Reflecting on a finished project or paper is a vital cementing of the learning process, and one I often slighted for time pressures. No more. Here’s why: a compilation of student questions, insights, and goals from a reflection this fall.
  9. What Does Learning Feel Like?: Celebrating what felt like a breakthrough in my own use of student conferences and connecting it to growth mindset: noticing and sharing with students when I grow from novice discomfort to fluent ease in a new skill in order to encourage them in their various areas of growth.
  10. The Joy of Reading and Thinking Together: After 2 years of teaching the same students, just enjoying being grown-up reading peers, sharing the drama Our Town with AP students during the exams they didn’t have to take last June.

Friday, December 14, 2018

News Literacy and Time "Person of the Year"

It's Christmas vacation, but I'm determined to get my blog posted before the flight leaves!

This week I received an early Christmas present: the Time announcement of “Person of the Year”
not as an individual but a group—journalists around the world
 who face public mistrust some places and outright suppression others. Why was this so cool? Because headliners include people involved in 3 of the 4 issues my 10th graders had just researched in our mini unit on news literacy and current events. As students entered the classroom Thursday for their exam, I had the cover photo montage from the announcing article projecting on the board: "The Guardians and the War on Truth.” One student already knew about the announcement and had recognized the name of Jamal Khashoggi. I briefly informed students why I was projecting that image, passed out the exam, and posted the article in our online classroom. At the end of the period, I noticed a couple of the students who had finished the exam early reading the article. 

I used to resist teaching news bias and accuracy—after all, my syllabus is full. But having now seen students engage with this really current issue at the heart of some very practical English skills of reading and writing, let alone life skills of citizenship and ethics, I wouldn't give it up if you paid me. The keys for me have been to (1) embed it in a unit that has the purpose pre-primed and ready to be plugged into so that I can (2) make it short.  

The unit I embedded it in is my human dignity unit with the Holocaust memoir Night as its central text. (I’ve written here about the purpose, text sets, and a jigsaw activity I use for that unit.) After we’ve gotten righteously indignant about how people in the past could allow atrocities like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide to occur, the harder next step is to find out if anything is happening today that future generations will look back on and say, ‘How could they just let that happen?’”

This year we had only 2 days for the mini unit—not ideal, but how it worked out with 5 school days cancelled due to typhoons. But the good news is, it did work! Day 1 we learned about news bias and accuracy, and day 2 we applied it by researching a chosen issue and reporting back to the class on it.

For learning about assessing news accuracy and bias, there were 2 steps:

  1. Study this chart graphing news sources on a liberal/conservative x-axis vs. factuality y-axis. Find 2 news sources you are familiar with. Name them, and describe their rating.  
  2. Read this page on the Media/Bias Fact Check website about their methodology for rating bias and reliability. List their 4 categories for scoring bias. List 3 additional terms from the page related to bias that you think are important to pay attention to. (We had an open-note quiz on these 7 items the following day—just to ensure they were processed at least twice—once in note-taking and once in writing them down again. For those who skipped the note-taking step, there was a re-quiz.) 
For applying the learning in researching a current event, there were also 2 steps:
  1. Select 1 topic out of the following list of 4 involving possible disregard of human dignity: civil war in Yemen, killing of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, civil war in South Sudan, or treatment of Rohingya. Read 1 news article on it, and complete the news accuracy/bias assessment form on it. (See below for the form.)
  2. Form a group with the others who picked the same topic. Share what you’ve already learned, what types of sources you learned it from, and what further questions you have. Make a plan for which members of your group will further research which questions. Spend the next 20 minutes doing that research and taking notes.
The final assessment was a 30-second-per-person group presentation to the class on what they need to know about this important topic where human dignity is possibly being currently disregarded. Because of the shortened time available this year, I told them this presentation would just be a participation grade—no time to refine and practice it—but still important as a de-sensitizing exercise for those with public speaking fear and a service to their audience who needs to know something about these issues. Everyone worked hard and gave it their best effort. Students were waving their hands to ask questions of the presenters, but I told them they’d have to ask after class because we didn’t have time. (Isn’t that one of the greatest things anyway—when a class conversation is so compelling that students take it out of the classroom?)

That was last week Thursday—last day of regular class before exam preparation started. Then this week Wednesday came the Time “Person of the Year” announcement. If I was worried about the news unit being shortened out of memory, that was the universe conspiring to rescue it. I get so excited when I can tell my students, like I could when they came into their exam this Thursday, “Look—what we did in class is something that real people in the real world are talking about!” I think they get excited, too.  

One student wrote the following in part of his exam: "Books such as Night and An Ordinary Man [the introduction] helped me dive deeper into different wars and problems of the past and today. Learning about the past has been particularly exciting. I think I’ve spent multiple hours reading on different articles on the internet on World War 2, and it’s not just about the Holocaust and the wars in Europe. I’ve also read a lot on the wars in Asia and the Pacific. Not only have I researched on the past, but now that I think about it, I’ve spent a lot more time reading the news (something I don’t usually do)."

Do you teach news literacy and current events? If so, what works for you?

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Quick and Easy Vocabulary Discussions

I don’t believe I’ve ever had a student this eager to know what a vocabulary word means:

Me: “From which would you be more likely to avert your eyes—a kissing scene or a bloody scene?”
Student: “Wait! Wait! What did she ask? What does that word mean?”

In the moments before class started one day this week, inspiration struck. I try to introduce or review a couple of vocabulary words at the beginning of each period, and quizzes in both 10th and 11th were coming up, so we were in review mode, but I was feeling blah about all of our usual review activities. Suddenly I had a memory of last year doing bus monitoring, and how the elementary kids loved to play “Would you rather…?”  I glanced over the word list, and I saw many possibilities for my own variation.

It works for content vocabulary that comes from our reading:

  • Which do you find more abhorrent—spiders or snakes?
  • Who is more obdurate—you or your younger sibling?
It works for literary terms that help us talk about our reading:
  • Which genre is more likely to have a dynamic character—mystery or romance?
  • Whose memoir would you rather read—a person from history or a contemporary?

I pose the question, give students 5 seconds to consider it, then ask for a show of fingers—option 1 or option 2?
After that, they have a minute to defend their
 choice to their table groups. If students don’t know what the word means, they suddenly have a felt need to know—not because they’ll get a bad grade on the quiz if they don’t, but because they’ll get left out of an exciting discussion if they don’t. One key: it works best if there’s not one right answer, as long as they can defend their answer. This hits so many targets for students, in addition to vocabulary review—it’s an engaging bell-ringer activity, engenders discussion, requires support for an answer, and builds community as we learn interesting things about each other.

And bringing us full circle to connect vocabulary to the bigger picture of writing, a student asked in a final draft reflection this week, “How can I use a small amount of words to describe something that I want to say?” One of my suggestions was, “Keep growing your vocabulary—as you have more precise words, you can use fewer.”