Thursday, May 16, 2019

Authentic Assessment Motivates


“I’m so excited about our presentation today!”

I’ve never had a 10th grader say that to me…before today. What made today different? A real audience. My English 10 class was giving group presentations on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the other half of the 10th grade which has a different English teacher, meets the same period, and is studying a different Shakespeare play (many thanks to my colleague for providing us the stage!). The stars just aligned to make that happen, including me participating in a book discussion about project-based learning this spring, so it occurred me to stretch my thinking about my usual in-class presentation.

I love to answer student questions, rather than trying to get them to answer mine.  The whole time we’ve been reading the play, students have known they need to understand it well enough and act skillfully enough to convey meaning and enjoyment to peers. The last several days of working on their presentation have driven them to question the text and their interpretation more attentively: “Mrs. Essenburg, how do I read this?” “Mrs. Essenburg, what am I saying here?”

The presentation incorporates one excerpt from the play (80-120 lines) as one piece of support (along with an additional quote from each of the 4 or 5 group members). The goal is for students to demonstrate the literary understanding of how a motif plays into a theme, to use support from the text, to grapple with difficult text, and to interpret the understanding of the text to an audience with all the tools available to an actor and presenter. And to be intrinsically motivated to do it.

There are many advantages to incorporating theater into  language arts class. One is the opportunity for using the strengths of our kinesthetic learners. Another is natural formative assessment of reading comprehension--when a speaker is facing the wrong person, for instance, I can intervene with some text-based questions. Or misunderstanding punctuation (no, it's not "Stay sweet, Helena," it's "Stay, sweet Helena"). Or mispronouncing the myriad English vowel sounds ("jowl" rhymes with "owl"--it's not the vowel sound in "mow"). Finally, theater is made for authentic assessment--for an audience. 

That’s short and sweet for this week, but just a note to self: authentic assessments drive student engagement with challenging content and skills. Even Shakespeare.

Evolution of a scene: Discussing stage directions in class
The performance today

Friday, May 10, 2019

When I Work Less and Students Learn More


After the bell rang, a student was still sifting through old drafts of past essays. “Can I take these home? I want to finish looking through all my revised drafts for proofreading marks.” Me: “Are you finding any patterns?” Student: “Yes! I keep making the same mistakes!”

This conversation earlier this week highlighted one failure and one success for this year. The failure: I really need to find a way for students to track their proofreading errors. I always start the year with great plans, and they always end up getting crowded out. The success: directing students to real life resources. That's what made this student suddenly decide all on her own, at this point in the year, to start tracking her common writing errors. 

On the day we were editing our last essay, I gave students a real-life writing resource: the Publication Coach blog “10 Ways to Become a Better Proofreader.” I asked students to read it and commit to using 3 of the 10 strategies, and during the time for working/conferring, I went around and asked each student which 3 they’d picked. The student staying after had picked number 9: Make a list of your own common spelling or grammar errors. 

I was impressed again with the beauty of the teaching hack of directing students to real-life resources. 


  1. It saves me having to create things. 
  2. It connects class to life. 
  3. Advice seems so much more authoritative coming from a real-life person (as opposed to your teacher). 
  4. Students gain access to tools they can continue to use long after they’ve lost all Mrs. Essenburg’s handouts. 

Oh, yes, and also that “pick 3” thing—picking is a powerful motivation. So much better than if I say, “Here are the 3 most important ones that I want you to do.”

Some other times I use real-life resources are for public speaking (like Toastmasters; see this blog for more on my lesson) and source bias checking (like Media Bias/Fact Check; see this blog and this one for more on my lesson). In fact, in a recent class we were comparing magazine covers on the same topic from 2 different magazines and one student asked, “What’s the bias of the New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly?” Delighted that they’d remembered our earlier lesson, I reinforced it by pulling up on my computer and projecting the Media Bias/Fact Check ratings of the 2 magazines. 
  
Teachers Pay Teachers is a wonderful resource for the busy teacher, but even better is when I can direct students to real life resources. That is, resources created for and used by adults as they go about doing real life well. 


What real-life resources do you direct students to?

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Shakespeare: The Perfect Platform for Kinesthetic Learning in ELA


“Papaya papaya papaya!” 10th graders whispered, marveled, hissed, threatened, and pleaded as they stalked, darted, and slunk around our classroom, staring and gesticulating. If you’d walked by earlier this week, you’d have been excused for wondering what was going on.

We are having way too much fun with Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be precise. Nothing quite like dissecting the follies of infatuation with 16-year-olds in May.

Because drama was meant to be seen and not read, and because our final project is a presentation for another 10th grade class, we do a lot of acting and a lot of working on acting. I have a few standard exercises, like reviewing the previous scene with a 1-minute fast-forward, no sound summary; discussing the different stories implied by emphasizing each different word in a sentence like “I love you” or “I didn’t say you lied”; doing staged whole-group readings or reading in table groups. 

This year I added a new exercise. I call it the minion exercise. I came up with it to get students to strain their imagination to utilize all the means of interpretation at their disposal in addition to vocal expression—including facial expression, gestures, body language, and movement on stage. I gave them 2 lines: “She sees not Hermia. Hermia, sleep thou there, and never mayst thou come Lysander near.” Then I asked them to do the following:
  1. Paraphrase in modern English, like “[to Helena’s retreating back] She doesn’t see Hermia. [to Hermia’s sleeping figure] Hermia, stay sleeping there, and I hope you never come near me again.” 
  2. Now stage it, speaking the paraphrase. Now you understand what exactly the language means and what you would naturally do while saying it. But what you say in Shakespeare’s language will be gobbledegook to your audience, so they will depend almost entirely on your vocal and physical interpretation to decipher it. 
  3. So now, act those lines again, but the only words you may say are “papaya.” All your meaning must come from your vocal and physical interpretation. 
The result was hysterical. There was too much action happening to capture it on my camera, but the staged scenes the following day were much more active than previously. And today, after the love polygons have transformed several times, as students staged the reading of act 4 scene 1 with a cat fight between the girls and a bragging battle between the guys, the students in their seats were so involved they were shouting from their seats “Oh, burn!” before I even explained the insults. 

Much of the time it is a challenge to figure out how to incorporate kinesthetic learning into English class. Shakespeare—or any drama—is the natural opportunity to get moving and have fun.

How do you use kinesthetic learning in ELA? Or, how do you transform the groan at announcing a Shakespeare unit to energy, fun, and learning?

P.S. For more on my "Finding Love" unit focusing on A Midsummer Night's Dream, see this blog on questions, this on assessments, this on letting my inner nerd show, and this on connecting the play to life.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Differentiating Process Helps Students Assimilate New Concepts


I process by writing. My husband processes by talking. I have a friend who processes by doodling. Often when my husband and I need to process something together, I have learned to say, “Can we have this discussion tomorrow? I need to journal about it first.” In between the intake of a new concept by reading or hearing and the implementation of it, what does it take for you to process and assimilate a new idea?

Thinking about this helped me become clearer about how process can be differentiated in English class. I used to struggle with this. After all, the skills we are working on are reading, writing, speaking, and listening. And in order to improve, one has to practice—reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I can differentiate content easily with different articles or books on a similar topic or theme, or in the same style. I can differentiate product with a selection of prompts. But how can I differentiate process? When I realize that process isn’t the targeted skill of reading, listening, speaking, or writing, but it’s the thinking in between the intake (reading/listening) and output (speaking/writing), then I can understand how I can plan for it to happen in a variety of ways, so that students are better prepared to speak and write about the concept.  

Here’s how it happened in AP English 11 this week. A big objective for this week was to synthesize the pieces that we’ve already read and discussed to form and articulate our own opinion. The topic is citizenship and politics and how we should use our rights, responsibilities, and opportunities as citizens. (This can be even more complex in an international community.) The pieces we’ve analyzed (10 in all) include “The Gettysburg Address,” several modern articles or book excerpts (“The Destruction of Culture” by Chris Hedges, “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” by Sarah Vowell, “The Apology: Letters from a Terrorist” by Laura Blumenfeld, and “Why I’m Moving Home” by J.D. Vance), a poem (“Immigrant Picnic” by Gregory Djanikian), a chapter from the graphic novel Persepolis, Picasso’s painting Guernica, and 2 magazine cover adaptations of it. After students did a 1/2-page journal quick-write on a personal story that has impacted their thinking on citizenship, I asked them to pick one of 3 options for exploring the topic further in a 1/2 page of their journal—an interview, a creative piece, or some research: 

  • Interview: Interview at least one family member about his/her views of what it means to be a citizen of your country.
  • Creative piece: Poem or visual. 
  • Expository/research: Some aspect of citizenship/politics in your country that you want to know more about.

One thing I found intriguing was the unusual proportion of students who ventured into the more creative options. I’ve done this in the past, and usually it’s just one or two. It’s just a journal entry—no need to make it beautiful. We share the thinking in small groups and use it to prepare for our coming essay. This week over 1/2 choose the creative prompt—50% chose the visual, 10% the poem. 

Some did what I intended—a rough pencil sketch on half a notebook page. Others got out sketchbooks and colors! And such variety of styles even within the category of visual representation: charts/graphs, a graphic novel type layout, a representative collage, a symbolic graphic, and a comparison graphic. When students choose their mode of processing, they are more likely to pour their passion into it.

Not only that, but when I got so excited to see all the visual artifacts that I asked if I could collect them and show the class on the document camera, all but one agreed. And though I assured them they didn’t need to present, I just wanted everyone to see their work and the variety of ways of thinking they represented, each student, as I projected their work, said, “Can I just give a little explanation?” So we got public speaking practice out of it, too! 

So by differentiating process as students began to attempt to synthesize all we’d studied and formulate their own thinking, I saw (1) more creativity, (2) more passion, and (3) more engagement with language. Sounds like a win-win to me! 

How do you process a new concept? How do your students process new concepts? How do you differentiate process for your students so even more of them can even more effectively process new concepts in your class?

Thursday, April 18, 2019

My Best Ever Professional Development: Discuss a Book


“Can’t we just keep getting together?” Did you ever hear a teacher request more meetings? But someone actually posed this question yesterday as 6 colleagues and I wrapped up our final discussion of the book Setting the Standard for Project Based Learning. Seriously, when I want to grow as a teacher, I have found the most effective approach is a book discussion. All it takes is a good professional book, a couple of colleagues who are interested in exploring the topic, and about 7 weekly 1-hour meetings. The time commitment may seem daunting, but I find the conversations energizing professionally and socially, and the learning sticks, which means my teaching improves, students are more engaged, and I find my job more rewarding. What's to lose?  

It all started about 10 years ago when a colleague recommended 
Cris Tovani’s book I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. (I had just complained, “I wish there were a reading equivalent to the 6 traits of writing, because it has revolutionized my teaching of writing to be able to break it down into constituent parts. But when a student wants to get better at reading, all I can say is ‘practice.’”) I ordered the book and read it in about 3 big gulps, thinking the whole time, “Oh, I could do this…and this…and this….” And by the time I’d finished it, I realized I’d just read about 73 fantastic ideas, and I couldn’t remember a single one with enough clarity to actually use it. I should probably go back and read it more slowly, taking notes…but I suspected I wouldn’t summon the solitary discipline for that. I was talking about the book to my English department buddies, and one said, “Why don’t we all read it together?” So we met over the course of as many weeks as there were chapters, each week discussing one of the chapters. It was such a great experience, I’ve repeated it about twice a year since then. 

These are some of the reasons I find a professional book discussion so helpful:

  • The schedule slows me down so I don’t finish the book in a week but spread it out over time so I can work on applying it bit by bit. 
  • The discussion helps me process the ideas and really incorporate them into my thinking.
  • The accountability is motivating: we set a personal implementation goal at the end of each session which we report on at the beginning of the next one.
  • The collegiality is energizing. I can read a book or attend a conference on my own and work to implement what I’ve learned. But when I’m daily meeting colleagues at the coffee pot or the copy machine who are saying, “Hey, how’s that thing going you were going to do in class?” it exponentially increases the ideas and energy circulating around a topic.

All this requires is a good book, a handful of interested colleagues, and the time commitment. I’ll give you a couple of tips about format I’ve found helpful, and then a list of the books I’ve read in this way. Then if you’re feeling the urge to explore a new area of pedagogy, grow in some area of your practice, or foster collegiality, I’d encourage you to try a professional book discussion.

What kind of schedule? What works for me is 7 one-hour meetings once a week after school. We start with 15 minutes to report in on our last goal, take 30 minutes to discuss the chapter, and wrap up with setting new goals. This time I got smart and made a Google Doc where I could scribe the answers (see below). Then to email reminders of the next meeting, all I had to do was email collaborators. Also, anyone could check their goal any time. See below for a template that could be used for any book discussion.




We minimized facilitator preparation time by using a discussion protocol from a previous book, Making Thinking Visible, called Connect-Extend-Challenge (see below). Depending on the size of the group, we did turn-and-talk with a partner, or just whole grouped it.

Connect-Extend-ChallengeConsider what you have just read, seen, or heard, then ask yourself...  
 How are the ideas and information presented connected to what you already knew?  
 What new ideas did you get that extended or broadened your thinking in new directions?  
 What challenges or puzzles have come up in your mind from the ideas and information presented?

I find the best books for a discussion like this tend to be cross-disciplinary, cross-grade level. Though I’ve done some that are more specialized. It’s so enriching to hear the ideas of teachers of kindergarten, middle school social studies, and high school math all at the same table. Usually it’s a book from my summer reading that I want to digest more thoroughly. Here are some of the books I’ve had discussions of, starting with the most recent: 

  1. The New Art and Science of Teaching
  2. Making Thinking Visible (blog link here)
  3. How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms (blog link here)
  4. Better Learning through Structured Teaching  (blog link here, here, and here)
  5. Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding
  6. Understanding by Design
  7. Crucial Accountability
  8. Crucial Conversations
  9. Teaching Matters Most
  10. The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction
  11. Productive Group Work
  12. Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?

We know that students need to process their learning—talk about it, elaborate on it, apply it—for it to really stick. Guess what? Teachers do, too. Learn, process, connect with colleagues, and grow as a teacher: try a teacher book discussion.

Friday, March 29, 2019

SEL: My Gut Said "Yes," and Now My Brain Does, Too

IFSEL Institute

When we wrapped up our unit on the novel After Dark, for which the essential question had been “What is empathy and why does it matter?” students wrote beautiful reflections about how the unit had taught them to withhold judgement and be curious about other people’s stories. Then I introduced the next unit on the drama A Doll’s House, complete with a bridge from the previous unit by showing Brene Brown’s 3-minute video on empathy vs. sympathy and the essential question “Why would a reasonable, rational, normal human being do that?” That very helpful question I had picked up several years ago from a conflict management book, Crucial Conversations (chapter 8), realizing that while it is an essential life-skill tool, it is also a perfect drama-interpretation tool. In a drama, like in real life (and unlike in most novels), there is no narrative voice to give editorial commentary (“Edith had always been a solitary child…”) or dive inside a character’s head (“Edith hated it when he said that…”). All you have to go on is what the character says and does, or what others say about him/her. And if you’re an actor, you have to construct a believable character with a backstory and realistic motivations from that. 

Day 2 they were aghast at Nora. We dived into act 1, reading aloud and stopping to compile inferences about the 2 main characters’ personality and motivations and the textual evidence. “She’s a gold digger!” they cried with one voice. I tried to bring them back to the essential question: “Okay, you think she’s a gold digger, and you have some textual evidence for that, but what’s her motivation? Why would a reasonable, rational, normal human being be a gold digger?” 

The chorus came back, “She’s greedy!” “She’s dumb!” “She’s lazy!” I was nonplussed: “What happened to all those lovely things you wrote last Friday, about reserving judgment and not knowing people’s true stories from their appearance?” Stunned and embarrassed silence. “Oh…yeah….”

Clearly our world has an empathy issue, and even for my wonderful students, it takes more than one high school literature unit to embed the skill and foster transfer to life. That is just one of the things that has piqued my interest in what I’ve been hearing about SEL—social and emotional learning. It’s quite the buzz in education these days—in fact, “The Promise of Social-Emotional Learning” was the topic of the October publication of the ASCD journal Educational Leadership. If you need a working definition, CASEL, one of the leading organizations in the field, gives this: “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Since I’ve started hearing about SEL, I’ve had a feeling that it could provide the research base and some well-tested tools for implementing the philosophy Christian education has been propounding for all my 30+ years in the field—that children are many faceted image bearers of God, full of many kinds of potential, all of which we need to develop so we can all live as God intended—embracing our gifts, in community, caring for creation. In addition, I suspected it might embrace many of the skills and themes I address in language arts classes. Thus when the opportunity came to attend a 4-day IFSEL (Institute for Social and Emotional Learning) institute last weekend, I jumped at it. 

It was an excellent experience—one that I’ll be unpacking for many blogs to come. So what I want to capture for now is that my instincts were right. There is research to show that SEL isn’t another “extra,” but it is based in neuroscience, it supports academic learning, it does “stick” and transfer, and every $1 invested to support SEL development provides $11 in long-term social and economic benefit to society.

There are also well-developed “tool boxes” for students (such as Check-In for empathy and compassion, Win-Win Solutions for group problem solving, Put-Ups for encouragement, and the De-Escalator for checking assumptions and instigating forgiveness) and for teachers (such as questions for personal and social insight, group design and collaboration, and appreciation and acknowledgment). There are also many strategies and activities for teaching and applying each tool.

Finally, I was affirmed in that, as in the story at the beginning of this blog, any time we literature teachers help students grapple with the big questions of literature about who am I, who is my neighbor, what’s wrong with the world, and so what? we are addressing the core SEL competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (CASEL.org). Similarly, whenever we teach the thinking and communication skills inherent in our classes—active listening and curious questioning for discussing; and imagining occasion, audience, and purpose for effective writing and speaking—we are addressing those same core SEL competencies. 

I’m really excited about what I’ve learned about SEL—how I am affirmed in what I already do, equipped to do it even more effectively. I’m building my summer reading list with recommendations from the IFSEL institute. I’m imagining students coming to me in 10 years’ time with that much more SEL teaching already under their belts—how excellent their intrapersonal, interpersonal, and problem solving skills will be. And my students…well, they’re working on their “Who Am I?” papers. For many years that’s been our response to A Doll’s House: Nora ended up in a tough place because she was never asked to answer that question for herself. So I’m asking my 10th graders to begin to answer it now so they won’t end up in Nora’s position. 

What have you learned about social and emotional learning that excites you about the potential for yourself, your community, or our young people’s potential?



Friday, March 22, 2019

Making Writing as Real as Possible



“We should make a speech to kindergarteners because they have such short attention spans, we could make a really short speech—just get up and say, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ and then sit down!” This was the idea some of my 11th graders floated when I told them they could make up their own occasion, audience, and purpose for a speech on the topic of community.

I said, “Sure, you could make your audience kindergarteners. And if your purpose was to get them to actually be more loving, how effective would it be to repeat a memory verse they’ve probably heard before? You’re right that they have shorter attention spans. The challenge is to catch a kindergartener’s attention, touch his world, convince and motivate him, all within a very short amount of time. For example, you might start with a story of when you were in kindergarten—ethos. Give them a couple of specific examples of ways they can love their neighbors. What does that look like in kindergarten?” 

“Oh…that would be hard,
I see her actually envision herself standing in front of a group of 5-year-olds. I don’t think I’ll do kindergarteners.”

When the writing audience and occasion are as real as possible (even though it’s totally hypothetical), writing questions, learning, and understanding become correspondingly real. It also helps when writers have as much choice as possible, when I provide targeted instruction and models in mini-lessons, and when I confer with students to help them apply that instruction and modeling. As AP language students wrap up the quarter’s unit on The Individual and Community, the assignment is to write a speech about why and how to create stable communities—specific occasion, audience, and purpose to be chosen by the student. Some have chosen to address 8th graders in transition to high school, others their class at graduation in a year and some. One student is addressing colleagues about workplace community.

Some of the mini-lessons have included the following: 
  • Reviewing pieces read for rhetorical modes and organization. (Student observations overheard as they made comparisons: “Aria” told one story and brought out various argument points where applicable; “Walking the Path between Worlds” started and ended with a song; many of the pieces were about going from a small community to a larger one, and used home community words—Navaho or Spanish, for example—so we could use Japanese like that.)
  • Where and why to place a thesis, depending on how interested or hostile an audience is.
  • Using stories and analogies for ethos, pathos, organization, and making it memorable.
  • How to connect with an audience and acknowledge an occasion in the opening lines.
  • For models I’ve used past student samples as well as the 3 TED Talks “The Danger of a Single Story,” “The Power of Introverts,” and “How to Start a Movement.” 
Conferring with writers used to be really intimidating to me. But it got a lot easier when I realized that all I had to do was tell them at the end of the mini-lesson that I was going to come around and ask them how they were applying it. Here are some of the writing conversations I've had with 11th graders as I’ve conferred with them about the following 2 questions: What is your subject, occasion, audience, and purpose? Tell me about your thesis—what is it, where is it, and why? (And, of course, "What other questions or concerns do you have?")
  • Student: I don’t really have a specific audience. This is general information that is relevant to anyone. Me: But if it is relevant to anyone, it is also personal to no one. Picking an occasion, audience, and purpose help you personalize. The topic of community may be applicable to kindergarteners, middle schoolers, young moms, business executives…but how do you get a kindergartener’s attention vs. a business executive?
  • Student: It’s getting so long—there’s so much to say on this topic! Me: If we shift the focus from what you want to say to what your audience needs to hear, understand, and/or do, then it’s easier to think about what length and content will most help them do that, and what will become counterproductive with attention span, lunch next, etc.
  • Student: I changed my whole context from running for US president to talking to colleagues at my work about community. Me: That is currently a hot topic! I bet you could look up some really good resources. I know it’s a big thing in education—community in schools. I read a lot of blogs and articles about it. Student: Really? They HAVE that? Next day, me: Did you find any good resources? Student: Oh, yes! This one is really good—it gives steps to creating positive workplace community. And I have a couple of TED Talks I want to watch. Note to self: Best thing learned here is that internet research can be done for real issues in real life, not just school assignments. (Feedback from peer: This is REAL so anything you say will be brilliant, but since you actually have worked, you could give personal experiences.)
  • Student: Do we have to do citations? Me: How will that serve your ethos with your audience?
  • Student: If I have my thesis at the end, do I have to have 3 points? Me: Remember “The Danger of a Single Story”? One point with many illustrations. Remember the student sample analogy with 2 points? Three is just a general guideline. If you have a reason, you can always vary.
On the day students brought their rough drafts for peer feedback, we started by brainstorming the questions they might want to ask their reviewer. The best student-proposed question was “If you were the target audience at the given occasion, what would you walk away from this speech not just knowing but motivated to do?”

It’s the Mary Poppins moment when I feel my work is complete: These guys know they have each other for their writing community, and they know the questions to ask to get the answers they need to make their writing even better.