Friday, May 31, 2019

Inquiry and Vocabulary

10th graders getting the most out of peer conferencing in the final days of school while 11th reads The Great Gatsby

“My word is so sad!” mourns one 11th grader settling herself in her seat.

“What is it?” I ask.


Indeed. According to my computers desktop dictionary it means  apparently attractive but having in reality no value or integrity: meretricious souvenirs for the tourist trade. I immediately know the phrase from The Great Gatsby where she had found her word: ...the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty (98).

I know I’ve hit on a winner when the students walk into the room talking about words—and there isn’t even a vocabulary quiz that day.

“Mrs. Essenburg!” Another student is waving her hand at me from her seat before the bell rings to begin. “I have a question about my vocabulary word! I looked it up in the dictionary, but that meaning doesn’t make sense with the sentence!”

The word: septic. She knows it has something to do with an infection, but the sentence is “…I’d enjoyed these same people only two weeks before. But what had amused me then turned septic on the air now” (106). 

The word septic is vivid to me because I’m currently burning through a British mystery series where the protagonist is a battlefield nurse in World War 1. (It
s Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford mysteries.) I tell the student how the characters in my book are always talking about a wound going septic—or, blessedly, not. If it did, amputation was a certainty and death a strong probability. 

So the student was exactly right—it doesn’t make sense in the sentence if you think literally—but if you think of it as one word turning the whole description into a metaphor, it not only describes something turning negative, but also carries connotations of disease, death, and decay. I got to have that whole conversation with a student, initiated by her, which she then passed on to the class when I asked her to share her word. As she walked up to the front of the class, she said, without even looking at her book or notes, “It’s on page 106 on the top left side.” She must have been studying that sentence! 

Last week I took a small risk to try a different approach to vocabulary—students choosing one word for themselves from each night’s reading of The Great Gatsby for which they will do whatever they need to do to learn it well enough to teach to their 2-3 group mates the next day before discussing the reading (see this link for more). This takes not more than 5 minutes at the beginning of the period. Then I also added random selection of 2-3 students per day to present a word to the whole class. I wondered if the enthusiasm would wane, and I’m following through this week to report that it hasn’t. 

At this point at the end of 11th grad AP English, I'm hoping to see students developing their own word awareness and vocabulary building skills. It was a little over 5 years ago when I first read The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction by Michael F. Graves and began working to build all 4 parts of Graves' robust vocabulary program into my class:

 Rich and varied language experiences (reading, writing, listening, discussing)
 Individual word learning (of course)
 Word-learning strategies (using context clues, word parts, and reference tools; developing a strategy for dealing with unknown words; and adopting a personal approach to building vocabulary)
 Fostering word consciousness

You can see my first blogs reflecting on how to apply my learning in my classes here, here, here, and here. (In fact, writing this blog I discovered that there is a new edition of the book which I should probably get.) Im amazed at how much I've learned about words, roots, etymology, multiple meanings, and likely misunderstandings in the last 5 years of paying attention to words and talking about them with students.

One more tool in my word learning toolbox. I dont think Id use it all the time. (Who wants to do anything all the time?) Also it reduces the number of words we can assimilate, assessment is more difficult, and we need the word learning experiences built during the year to make it most effective. Im sure this is working well because of a year of fostering word consciousness and word-learning strategies. Also because of choice (one of the 4 engines of student motivation). And finally, because theres a purpose: weve built an understanding that using powerful words as writers comes from being aware of them as readers. Within a year, no one will ever MAKE them learn vocabulary again. So they need to develop their own strategies for continuing to grow their facility with words: not just impossibly long words, but vivid words which they may have in their receptive vocabulary, but not their productive vocabulary.  

How do you foster word consciousness--in yourself and in your class?

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Need Energy? Take a Risk. Even a Tiny One.

The last weeks and days of school feel like anything but the time to take a risk. Hunker down, keep on keeping on, do what I know works—or at least doesn’t explode in my face. The siren song of familiarity and safety is oh so strong. I just want to survive the last few days or weeks, to make it to summer. 

Wrong choice—because 2 big energy surges have come from risks I’ve taken this week. They’re not huge risks—I know that. But they felt like it at the moment of committing myself. And on a Friday afternoon this close to the end of the year, thinking about them makes me smile:
  • Students selecting 1 word per day from the class reading (The Great Gatsby) to learn and teach to classmates.
  • Teachers writing appreciation notes to each other.

Here's why those activities gave me a surge of energy and made me smile:

(1) Students selecting 1 word per day from the class reading to learn and teach to classmates: It’s 11th grade AP students. The AP test is done. We’re reading the novel for a piece of literary fun. The usual drill is we have a 20-word list selected from the reading every several weeks—selected either by me or collaboratively from words students bring in and I compile. I post on Quizlet 1 list with definitions and 1 list with source sentences. We talk a little about the words we come to each day, and in the end, I give them a matching quiz with 5 definitions straight from the list, 5 origin sentences straight from the other list, and 10 transfer sentences. 

But last week I told them that while on the reflection on their last processed essay, many of them had set themselves goals of using more sophisticated vocabulary in their writing next year, they were soon coming to a point in their lives where no one was going to be giving them lists to learn. They’d need to develop their own methods for paying attention to powerful words and incorporating them into their own vocabulary. So for this novel, I was going to ask them to pick 1 word per day to learn (in whatever way works best for them) well enough to teach to their table group the next day. 

I pass around a paper each day for each student to list his or her word for the day next to their name. I’ll decide how to do the final assessment when we get there. Maybe copy the list, slice in into strips by student, and tell them to write original sentences? Anyway, we start class with reciprocal group teaching of their words to their table groups of 3 or 4. Today I heard such interesting conversations that without forewarning, I called on random students to come to the front and teach the entire class. (Everyone will have a turn before the end of the year.) 

We had one student teach us “knickerbockers.” She had even brought a photo she had printed from online. And she ended with the sports trivia tidbit that that’s the origin of the team name of the New York Knicks. Next we had “incredulous,” with an etymology lesson tying it to “credible” and “credit.” Finally, we learned supercilious, and we decided that it has nothing to do with “super silly,” but more to do with Tom Buchanan, the Great Gatsby character who is its embodiment. 

(2) Teachers writing appreciation notes to each other: I was leading my final after-school divisional meeting of the year (minus middle school teachers who were debriefing testing data), and trying to think of a good community-building opener. Merging and adapting several ideas I’ve seen recently, I put a quarter piece of paper on each desk, asked each teacher to put his or her name on the top, and then, leaving their paper behind, rotate to the next desk and write on the paper you find there one thing you appreciate about the person whose name is at the top. We used a timer and took 20 seconds per person. People threw themselves into the exercise with good will, and were refreshed, at 3:30 on a Monday afternoon, by the time-tested practice of giving and receiving appreciation. 

I wonder what tiny risk or two I can take next week to generate that extra little charge of energy to get me though the last full week of regular classes?

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.