Friday, February 22, 2019

Drawing Pictures in High School English Class

Tenth grade discussion of After Dark still as energetic as last week (see this link for more). Here are 2 students who read ahead and finished. They pleaded, "Can we please talk together?" Later one volunteered, "Every time we talk, we find we noticed different things, and we combine those things and come up with new insights!" I'm so delighted to see these kids feeling they have the authority to do that with a text set in modern Japan. 

I gravitate to a disagreement in one corner of the room. 
  • Student: What kind of needle was Hester Prynne using? Knitting?
  • Me: No, sewing. Embroidery. Hari. (I supply the Japanese word and mime using it.)
  • Students: OOOOOOOHHHH!!!
  • A few minutes later, from the same group: Mrs. Essenburg, when were thimbles invented?
  • Japanese student: What’s a fimble? 
  • Me: Not an “f”… “th”—thimble. But if you say it in Japanese, it’s going to sound like the metal percussion instruments: shimbaru. 
  • A split second of puzzlement over the original question as I venture: My guess is shortly after the first needles, but I’d have to look that up. Then my eye falls on the group poster of the chapter from The Scarlet Letter, “Hester at Her Needle,” that they are working on, which now features not a knitting needle but a sewing needle, soon to be further enhanced with a thimble. And I realize someone must have had the insight to check: we know needles were invented in 1625 because it was mentioned in the book, but there is no mention of thimbles—we’re adding that in ourselves.
  • Me (pulling up Google): Excellent question. 
As it turns out, the earliest known thimble was found in a Han Dynasty tomb. So, yes, Hester probably used one. The things we learn when drawing pictures in AP English. 

This is not child’s play, though, when the text we are grappling with and trying to visualize is the difficulty of Nathaniel Hawthorn's old and intentionally antiqued (and sometimes tortured) prose. I learned this 2 years ago, in my second year of teaching it, when students came back after the first reading utterly confused and discouraged (see this link). Now the nightly assignment—the tools for grappling with the difficult text—is to come each day with a sketch of a central image from each chapter read (usually 2). Include 1 significant quote and 1 question. In class we have a brief discussion of both chapters, first in table groups, then each group bringing one question, epiphany, or connection to the whole group. Then each group of 3 or 4 is assigned a chapter for which they select or combine their individual images, quotes, and questions into one poster. We have a 30-second presentation of each poster at the end of the class, and then put the posters up on the wall. 

I have saved the last 2 years’ classes posters and put them into clear files. Some of the students love checking what image, quote, and question previous classes chose. But not, of course, until AFTER this year’s posters are drawn. It is fascinating to see the similarities and differences. It’s also fascinating to see the real brainwork that goes into figuring out exactly what picture the words paint—and sometimes students come up with a very literal image, and sometimes it’s figurative (like an actual pearl wrapped in a baby blanket); sometimes it’s a single thing, like the needle, and sometimes it’s a whole scene; sometimes it’s from one perspective, and sometimes from another (like Hester throwing the letter away—one group put Hester in the foreground and another put the letter in the foreground). (See below for some of these visuals!)

The questions are also great, but maybe that’s a blog for next week.

Such a simple assignment, and such a powerful propulsion to stop and visualize difficult text. Entirely by coincidence, 10th graders are simultaneously in a unit where they draw—character cards with characters on one side and descriptions on the other (see this link). In the previous unit, they drew comic strips of the short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’m thoroughly enjoying seeing in both classes how students visualize text and hearing the questions they ask each other about visualizing text.

How do you challenge students to visualize text, or find out what they are visualizing?
The past 2 classes renditions of The Scarlet Letter...

2 different groups from this year on chapter 18
The past 2 classes' chapter 5

10th graders working on character cards for After Dark

10th grade 3-frame rendition of "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"

Thursday, February 14, 2019

When Students See Themselves in Literature

The discussions are so animated it was hard to find a good photo without blur...

Every day this week, 10th graders have walked into 4th period English eagerly discussing our current class novel even before the bell rings:
  • Mrs. Essenburg, I am EXACTY like this character!
  • That was so weird! What is happening?
  • I listened to “Five Spot After Dark” while I was doing my homework last night. It’s pretty good. [The jazz piece was formative in a character’s life, so I had played it during one of the classes.]
  • We’re all going to start turning back to look in the mirror after we walk away, see if we can catch our reflection doing something else! [Referring to a bit of the magical realism element.]
Note to self: Fight the February blahs by planning your most engaging unit that month. I didn’t do it on purpose; it just happened to fit here this year because of the way second semester time got chunked between marking periods, vacations, and special activities. And on top of that, it is just the gift of class dynamics: This is my 4th year teaching this unit, and while students generally find it interesting, I have been blasted out of the water this year by the energy they come into the room exuding. Last year, for instance, though the learning outcomes were good—I’ve always loved the theme of empathy that is the core of this unit—it was a little harder sell getting there. (See blog.) 

Here’s what I do know: after valiantly grappling with a number of works of world literature that broaden their understanding of different times and places (Things Fall Apart; Cry, the Beloved Country; Night), we finally get to relax into one that is about our time and our place: the 21st century Japan of Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. There’s a lot of educational talk about kids needing to see themselves in books. I can vouch for that. 

As students were looking over the novels the first day I handed them out, one student burst out, “You mean he wrote this first in Japanese, and then it was translated into English?” I pulled my Japanese copy off the bookshelf and dropped in on his desk. I told him he was welcome to take it with him, and he answered, “No, thanks. I think I’m going to get it on my phone so I can make sure I can read all the kanji.” The next day, everyone in his table group had read ahead of the assigned reading, and he asked for permission to use his phone to check the Japanese version. He was supporting the group hypothesis about a character’s different responses to different people based on the politeness level of the language—something much more evident in Japanese. Now that student is not only seeing himself in the book—he’s also become an expert with insight that even the teacher doesn’t have access to. (I’ve struggled through the first chapter in Japanese, but it’s really slow going for me.) 

Now students have the special insider knowledge of not only language, but also history and culture. In our past books we’ve learned to see the world through different eyes (Nigeria in the process of colonization, South Africa on the cusp of Apartheid, and Europe in World War 2)—and that’s important!—now students can detect important hints in a complex work of literature all on their own. For instance, one student noted the oddness of even having a hotel room numbered 404 in a country that superstitiously avoids the number 4 because it is pronounced the same as “death.” 

Additionally, the students themselves were able to detect and ask why there are so many allusions to Western culture--music (mostly jazz), literature (from George Orwell to Snow White), and movies (Alfred Hitchcock)--which led us into a discussion of Murakami as a current writer who is quite popular, but suspect by the keepers of the gates of Japanese literature as not being “Japanese” enough. A student volunteered, “You mean that normal people can get into it.” Exactly. 

The normal teenagers in my class have certainly gotten into it. Not only do they walk into the room discussing it, and carry out, without prompting, textbook discussions in small groups, it also carries over into whole group discussions (my Nemesis). After the first reading assignment, when it was time for each small group to share one observation or question with the whole group—the time where after one group shares and I say, “Does anyone else want to build on or respond to that?” and it is mostly met by silence—the groups were calling out, “Oh, we talked about that, too!” and added what they had talked about. 

In addition, they asked EACH OTHER traditional “teacher questions”—because they really wanted to know. After the second reading assignment, one student who had read ahead, turned to the rest of the class and demanded, “So what do you guys think is going to happen next?”   

On the way out of class on Thursday, the student who is reading the novel in Japanese on his phone as well as in English in the book pleaded, “I have so many more questions! Can I come talk to you at lunch?” What red-blooded English teacher could turn down a request like that? OF COURSE I have time to talk about a book at lunch. “I read a lot of Japanese books,” he said, “but nothing this complex.” 

It is important to scaffold students into reading books that are windows into other cultures and times. It is also important to have students read books that are mirrors where they see their own culture and time. Especially in February.

What books do your students read where they see themselves?

P.S. I'm happy to share my unit guide and assessment prompts with anyone who is interested--message me your email.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Connecting Class with Life and Faith

Materials for our roundtable discussion last week, and the next step

A piece of Wednesday's socratic discussion, entirely run by students, in 11th grade AP English:

  • For a community to be tight-knit, does it have to have a high degree of exclusion? For insiders to feel really in, do there have to be definite outsiders?
  • Churches are highly inclusive without excluding anyone.
  • That’s not always true.
  • I know 2 kinds of Christians: the ones who say, “If you’re a Christian, I love you, and if you’re not, I don’t like you,” and the ones who say, “I love you because of who you are.”
After several students affirmed this and offered experiences on one side or the other, the facilitator summed up the thoughts: 
  • So can we can agree that while Christians are humans and act in good and bad ways in community, that from here on when we talk about Christian community, the meaning in the ideal of community where anyone who comes can feel included? 

Though my school is a Christian school, the majority of students do not come from Christian homes, and this conversation was bipartisan, so to speak. I was pleased to see that this was the perspective of the students, that they could articulate it, and that they saw it as an important part of the conversation about the relationship of the individual to the community. 

“What is the relationship of the individual to the community” is the essential question for this quarter’s study. At the end of it students know they will respond to this prompt: “The author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wrote, ‘What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.’ Write a speech that you would deliver to a group of your peers (identify which group) that uses Vonnegut’s idea as your main point and recommends ways to ‘create stable communities.’” (The Language of Composition 392, #9). (I love this textbook, by the way!)

So far we have read and discussed 9 short pieces related to the topic (see below if you’re interested in the list), and we needed to pause to reflect on and synthesize what we’d learned so far, and capture that thinking for later use before we launch into the major work for this unit: The Scarlet Letter. (We’ll continue thinking about the topic while reading the novel, and compose the speech when we are done.) To prepare for the discussion, I gave students a chart with the speech prompt at the top, a chart listing all 9 pieces we’ve read, and spaces to record a top take-away and response to that take-away from each piece. 

Before beginning the discussion, I reviewed with students the purpose, and it’s a good thing I remembered to do this because we weren’t all on the same page! I asked why we have these discussions, and the first answer was “So we can have this conversation in our own head on the test?” Actually, that’s why we do table group discussions of answers to multiple choice questions on critical reading selections. The next answer nailed it. It’s because we’re smarter together than we are alone. We have deeper insights when we offer them to the group for further response, refinement, connection, building, and modification. It’s not about what great insights you can share, but how we can listen to our peers, understand their perspectives, and build a little further. Offer what you have because it may be just the piece that joggles a great insight in someone else. I remind them that I am available for input if they want to direct a question to me, but other than that, I work really hard to keep quiet and let the students direct the discussion. We have a rubric for what good discussion looks like that we review use to self-assess and set goals periodically, so they know what to do.

Then I sat down. One student took the lead as facilitator, posing a question. Others responded. They were prepared, curious, engaged, actively listening, requesting and offering feedback, and building on each others’ answers. The discussion was great, also including such topics as the ways students have felt included or excluded based on language (we’re an English speaking school in Japan) and how to create an inclusive community. 

I’m excited that students are growing in their discussion and thinking skills. I’m interested to see how this particular discussion will shape our discussions of The Scarlet Letter. And I love that as second semester 11th graders, they begin to feel the approaching reality in a little over a year of leaving the community they’re part of and needing to find or create new ones. 

How do students connect your course content and skills to life and to faith?

Appendix: Reading list for Individual and Community (from The Language of Composition, unless otherwise noted)
  1. Biblical perspective: John Ortberg, “The Wonder of Oneness” (ch. 2), Everybody’s Normal till You Get to Know Them (pp. 27-43)
  2. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (280)
  3. Richard Rodriguez, “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood” (303)
  4. Lori Arviso Alvord, “Walking the Path between Worlds” (316)
  5. Robert D. Putnam, “Health and Happiness” (323)
  6. Scott Brown, “Facebook Friendonomics” (342)
  7. Malcolm Gladwell, “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” (344)
  8. Aurora Levins Morales, “Child of the Americas” (poetry, 354)
  9. Extended reading: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Read Alouds for High Schoolers, Too!

One from the archives: Each of these little ones now have their own little ones they are reading aloud to!

I have a great time reading aloud to my grandkids (see "Grandmothering a Reader" part 1 and part 2). Just like I had a great time reading aloud to my 2 daughters (that's my husband reading to them above). I can hardly go online without stumbling over a study or blog or testimony about how important reading aloud is to children as young as babies in the womb. And when I Googled "read aloud" just now (to find out whether or not to hyphenate it), all the top hits focused on preschool and elementary, with a few venturing into middle school. Can I have just as much fun (to just as much purpose) reading aloud to my high school students? Yes. 

This week Thursday I read aloud to my 10th graders “Like the Sun” by R.K. Narayan. As we laughed and gasped together, we reviewed literary devices, built community, and prepared for the next challenge of reading. I read the story out loud just like I read to my kids and my grandkids: with expression, stopping to ask questions (what does this word mean? why did he say that? what do you think is going to happen next?), or sometimes just a meaningful pause to hear their response—a gasp or a guffaw or a comment. This is natural formative assessment. Their response says they got the foreshadowing, they’ve made a prediction, they’ve seen the dramatic irony. With 10th graders, I may stop and name those terms (not so much with 2-year-olds).  

It’s not a story I’ve used the last several years. I usually start with “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” by Leo Tolstoy. It’s simple. It’s memorable. It comes from the same Christian world view that my school does. It has an important message about the insidious workings of “how much is enough?” on our needy souls. And it’s really, really long. I’d just given up a couple of extra days to the previous writing time, as I’d had to make a call about learning over deadlines. 

So I chose this back-up piece. It’s simple. That’s how I want to start because the next 2 are going to be doozies: Franz Kafka’s surrealism and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism. It doesn’t originate in a Christian world view, but it does address human relationships in the cauldron of truth vs. love. It uses the same folk-tale pattern of 3 and foreshadowing with dramatic irony while surfacing an important question: Is the essence of human relationships really tempering truth? What is truth, and what role does it play in relationships? Finally, the author is an important Indian author, the class is world literature, and I have an Indian student this year. (When I came to words I couldn't pronounce, I pointed at him, and he spoke the name of the king or the musical style.)

My first goal the first day was to introduce short stories as not just novels that didn’t grow up, but what we do as humans—we tell stories that resonate with our experience of the world. We may greet our friends with stories that confirm our view of the world as a terrible place or a wonderful place, but we often greet them with stories—either about how we overslept, missed breakfast, and were late to school, or else about how well we slept, how we’re looking forward to lunch, and how excited we are about the lab coming up. 

My next goal was to model how an actual short story does that—tells a particular story in a particular way for a particular purpose. Afterwards we had a discussion of what truth in relationships is. Set phrases (like “How are you doing?”) don’t always mean what they say (you aren’t supposed to answer that with a detailed description of your hangnail—it’s just a friendly acknowledgement of your existence). Even specific conversations have context and subtext: “How do you like my hair?” could be “I’m really insecure right now and I need you to reassure me” or it could be a request for critical feedback. And then there’s the context of positive and negative truths. At least as Americans, we think of “speaking the truth in love” as requiring us to articulate negative truths—you really did hurt me, play a bad game, or do something stupid. But do we always tell all the positive truths that frame our relationships? I look forward to coming to school each day because your smile makes me feel alive. I value your insights. I can always depend on you. So that when we have a negative truth to tell, our friend knows we truly have his best interest at heart?

For homework, students had to move on and apply the reading strategies and knowledge of literary devices to a tougher piece: Franz Kafka’s short story “The Bucket Rider.” We had an equally interesting time Friday wrestling with our understandings and questions regarding that story, but that’s another blog for another time. I guess my take aways right now are when I know my goals, (1) I can be flexible (giving more time for writing at the end of the previous unit, and substituting a shorter short story at the beginning of the next unit), and (2) I can sometimes just have fun (while accomplishing learning goals), thinking not “what do we have to get through in class today?” but “what do we get to do in class today?” Reading aloud can be an effective use of time—even with high schoolers!

How do you have funwhile accomplishing goalswith your students?