Category: Resources for Educators

Drawing Complex Text Comprehension by Hand

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One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836)

 

Ah, summer… a great time to be a Transcendentalist! If you are anything like me, you’ve spent as much time as possible during the warm months seeking solace in places of natural beauty. Soon, though, if you’re also an English teacher, you’ll be more likely to be teaching a Transcendentalist text than actually going out into the woods to live deliberately. And even if you don’t teach any texts by Emerson or Thoreau, you certainly teach something old, dense, and difficult. Some classical text that you love, and that students perpetually just don’t get. Something with gorgeous imagery and profound insight that today’s adolescents find puzzlingly void of meaning.

Want a strategy for that? It’s doodle time.

I am a passionate believer in the power of visual representation–particularly in the form of art created by hand–when it comes to learning. Even when the goal is improving students’ ability to process difficult text, images can come to the rescue when blended with other comprehension strategies.

Throughout the year, I like to remind my students about some key steps to follow when they encounter text that’s difficult (or “impossible”) to understand. Here they are, in order of procedure:

  1. Read the text, not worrying about understanding anything, just to get acquainted with it. Accept that you may have no idea what it means, and that it’s ok.
  2. Read the text again, noting words that you don’t understand. Circle them. Look them up. Write down the definitions. (If there are LOTS that you don’t know, just look up the ones that are repeated or seem most important.)
  3. Break the text up into sections. This may be easy when looking at punctuation or paragraphing, or you may have to make a guess. Visually separate the sections by drawing lines, drawing brackets, or numbering.
  4. Section by section, slowly re-read and process the text. Summarize each section to the best of your ability in plain English, or via doodle notes.
  5. Re-examine your summaries in order to gain a fuller understanding of the whole text.

These steps are tried and true. They work with Shakespeare, with Hawthorne, and here–in the example I’ll share–with Emerson. One great thing about this strategy is that it’s easy to model and scaffold for students whenever they need extra support. Especially if a text is particularly challenging or if I want to move things along a bit quicker, I may choose to do some of the earlier steps along with my students so that they can focus on the processing step. That’s where the meaning-making magic happens.

Here’s the excerpt from Emerson’s “Nature” that I used with my students last year, in our introduction to the famous Transcendentalist. We started our first encounter with the text together, reading aloud. We paused to identify and define tougher words, which you’ll see provided here in the text. I separated the sections ahead of time, indicated by numbers 1-9, and explained at each transition why I noticed a shift in topic or tone. (In a longer lesson, students could do these steps on their own in small groups.) Check it out: “Nature” steps 1-3

Now, on to the fun part! You’ll notice the numbered boxes on the last page–this is where I ask my students to doodle their summary of each section. Do understand, they are not always super thrilled about doing this. They whine, “I can’t draw!” Or: “I still have no idea what this says. Is this even English? I’m so lost–how can I draw something I don’t even get?!”  Just push through the whining. They can do it. This is where I tell them, “Don’t worry! I am not grading you on the quality of your art. Stick figures are fine. Do the best you can. Break it down sentence by sentence, and figure it out.” If they’re especially nervous, I let them pair up to share ideas about what to draw.

It’s so exciting to watch this part. I walk around the classroom and check out their drawing ideas, encouraging them to go with the good ones, and helping them refine “almost there” interpretations. The process of doodling helps them for several reasons. For one, they start focusing on the quality of their drawing more than the difficulty of the text. For another, they pick up on textual images much more keenly, and find unique ways to represent abstract thoughts in ink and lead. Finally, the text becomes much better embedded in their long-term memory. (“Remember Emerson?”  “Who?”  “The guy who wrote the essay that we read when you drew that picture of a man turning into a carrot?”  “OH YEAH!” )

Before you know it, you’ll be looking at artwork that pushes the stick figure into areas of insight you never thought possible. And your students will be processing–really processing–some of the toughest (and greatest) texts of all time. 🙂 Here’s a sample from last year’s group, for your enjoyment. Click any image to enlarge.

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Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child.

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I become a transparent eye­ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

 

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The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.

Where the Teaching Life and Political Life Meet–What Does the Law Say?

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I’m excited to share an article of mine that was published in this month’s issue of  Wisconsin Lawyer  magazine, entitled “Speaking Up: The First Amendment and Wisconsin’s Public Educators.” The article is the result of a special graduate project that I completed as part of my ongoing master’s coursework at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Special thanks are due to Dr. Pritchard from the Journalism and Media Studies program at UWM, for his mentorship and feedback during my research and writing process!

The article explores both historical and current law surrounding the intersection between public educators’ jobs and their political actions, with a focus on Wisconsin cases. I set out to answer the question, “How much protection does the First Amendment extend to the speech of public school teachers?” In other words, what can teachers legally say and do to participate robustly in political life… without getting in trouble for it? What does the law really say, and why?

To find out, check out the article by clicking here.

Thanks for reading!

Real Writers Speak through Wisconsin Writes!

In our most recent set of digital department minutes, my department head included a link with the accompanying text, “This is cool!” The link took me to something called Wisconsin Writes. It didn’t take me very long to figure out that she was right: it is cool.

Wisconsin Writes is a web video series featuring interviews and process videos from successful writers throughout the state of Wisconsin. The writers come from a variety of genres and backgrounds. Some of those featured so far include Wisconsin Poet Laureate Kimberly Blaeser, young adult literature author Silvia Acevedo, and New York Times Bestseller author Patrick Rothfuss. I was gleeful to see a video from Rothfuss in particular, having been spellbound by his novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things last year. Did I want to hear more about his writing process? Absolutely! So I watched the Rothfuss videos. Then, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole and watched all the other videos available on Wisconsin Writes. They all have moments of brilliance that are really useful when thinking about the widely varying inspirations, processes, and ways of thinking that accompany writing. Knowing that the featured writers are Wisconsin natives whom I might pass in my own grocery store sometime made the videos even more keenly interesting. Wisconsin Writes is a great resource for ELA teachers in who want to gain insight about writing as they prepare to teach.

Here’s the trailer for the series, which releases a new video every other week or so. It’s exciting, relevant, and linked to our own communities–a very cool resource indeed. Check it out at http://dpi.wi.gov/wisconsin-writes .

I think that Wisconsin Writes has strong potential as a classroom resource, too, but with a little bit of preparation time applied. At a typical length of over four minutes (and some well over that), the videos are a bit long-winded to capture the enthralled attention of your average high school class. That being said, I think certain segments of the longer videos would be absolutely perfect to use as an intro to a mini-lesson or brief process lecture. That’s where TubeChop comes in! TubeChop is a ridiculously easy-to-use tool that allows you to select a clip from an existing YouTube video, and create a shareable video of the clip in isolation. I used it to segment a piece of the Patrick Rothfuss process video that I intend to use in my upcoming writing process unit with my juniors, to spur conversation about the individuality of one’s ideal writing environment and how it can influence the product. Take a look below!

My TubeChop highlighting Rothfuss’ writing environment and its link to process:

I’m very much looking forward to the next videos in the series. I can’t wait to see how it grows, and how it impacts teachers of writing in our state! DPI recommends continuing the conversation about Wisconsin Writes content via Twitter at #WiWrites or on the Wisconsin DPI English Language Arts Google+ community.

Teachable Insight: Helping Students get to the Big Ideas in AP Literature & Composition

I recently attended an AP Workshop in Milwaukee, where I had some space to reflect on the goals of my teaching in my AP Literature and Composition classes. I was happy to hear from the expert leader of my session that, when it comes to the written responses on the AP exam, meaning is everything. It doesn’t matter if AP Lit students can identify a gigantic laundry list of terms in a literary work. No matter how specialized their technical knowledge may be, students will generate worthless writing if they do not display the ability to practice insight. To score well on the writing portion of the exam, students need to be able to get seriously in touch with meaning. They need to answer: how does this text shift the world, comment upon humanity, and make new realizations move within us?

Students need to do more than summarize, more than dissect. They need to unveil the heart of a work. They need to be profound.

Once realizing this, the AP teacher can feel a bit in over her head.  How on earth do you teach a teenager to be profound? Most kids are not wise beyond their years, and are not well-equipped to tackle the questions of the ages without some sort of guidance. When I do a sample interpretation, students often say, “How the heck did you get THAT out of THIS?” Earlier in my career, I’d actually say, “I don’t know,” because I couldn’t verbalize it effectively. But after five years of teaching AP and wondering about where insight comes from, I think I’m starting to put it together. I’m now convinced that insight is somewhat teachable! In this post, I’m going to share a few methods that I’ve found helpful in this pursuit.

RECOGNIZING BIG IDEAS

Some people call these “themes,” but I call them big ideas–abstract thematic concepts which are socially, universally important in some way. You know, things like “love,” “wartime ethics,” or “fragility.” I like starting the year by having my students make a giant list of these ideas, so that we can be on the lookout for them as they pop up in the literature. Here’s a list that one of my AP groups generated:

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Students are good at this once they gain some momentum. Big ideas are a simple way of categorizing literature with the stem “This story is about…” Recognizing the presence of big ideas is the first step to becoming an insightful analyzer of text, and it bears constant revisiting throughout the year.

MAKING A MASTERFUL THESIS

Students often start writing before they know what they’re talking about. While I am normally a big fan of writing as a method of exploration and brainstorming, the timed scenario of the AP essay is not the arena in which to apply this strategy. AP analysis writing must be focused, purposeful, and show the promise of insight. While the master writer can do this instinctively, beginning writers are overwhelmed by these lofty expectations. I lead my students through this by assuring them that a strong thesis will support a strong paper. I also supply them with a formula that I derived from analyzing skillful literary analysis writing. The formula is helpful, because it guarantees that the core argument of the paper will transcend summary. Here it is. (Click on the image to enlarge it!)

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This formula works for the open response as well as the prose and poetry questions. I’ll expand a little here on each element.

AUTHOR and TITLE should be included, for context. Of course, if these are mentioned earlier in the introduction, they may be left off.

The FOCUS ELEMENT is perhaps the most variable element of the thesis. In the open response essay, it is a broad “something” that is notable in the chosen novel. It might be a character, a motif, a plot device, a stylistic choice, or many other things. In the prose or poetry essays, the focus elements will be specifically qualified literary devices/moves–maybe “elevated diction,” “natural imagery,” or “a haunted tone.” The focus element narrows and specializes the essay, allowing for a unique interpretation that avoids the obvious and overbroad.

AUTHOR ACTION VERBS describe precisely what the author is doing with the FOCUS ELEMENT. Examples: questions, criticizes, demonstrates, alludes to…

The THEMATIC STATEMENT is a statement that the author makes about one of those BIG IDEAS through the story, and specifically through the use of the FOCUS ELEMENT.

As students become more proficient, they can riff on this formula. In the examples you can see on the chalkboard above, students can already see that the order of the elements is not strict, but they should all be present. This method has been successful for me in helping my students have something to say. Selecting the big idea first is the way in. (Often, the big idea or focus element is already provided by the prompt, and students can build from there.) I work with them on making sure that the focus element and thematic statement work together in a logical way.

THE 3×3: ANOTHER WAY OF APPROACHING BIG IDEAS

At my recent workshop, the presenter shared another big idea strategy that I can’t wait to use. He called it a “3×3.” This strategy asks students, after reading a piece, to generate three sentences of three words each that sum up the meaning of the work. Rules: No repetition, no character names, each sentence should contain subject + verb + object, and the sentences should feature big ideas as the subject or object as often as possible. It’s a simple activity that pushes big thinking.

Example for Oedipus Rex:

SUBJECT VERB OBJECT
Healing requires action.
Truth destroys security.
Sacrifice accompanies fate.

It’s nifty how any of those could turn into the thematic statement element for a thesis statement!

The more strategies we can equip our students with when it comes to working with the great ideas of the world, the better and more confident writers they will become. Do you have another idea to recommend? Please mention it in the comments!

Committing to Equity in Our Diverse Classrooms

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Summer gives educators important mental space. Few people understand the word “chaos” quite like a teacher who’s elbow-deep in the joyful mire of managing her classroom during the school year. When we’re simultaneously focusing on feedback, meetings, lesson planning, events, data, e-mail, conferences, and instruction, there’s not always time to ponder the larger issues that surround our profession. As I’ve been enjoying this summer space to delve into educational theory and continue my graduate work, the chaos has quieted enough for me to hear the echo of an important assertion that I need to recommit to as I start my seventh year of teaching this fall. Here it is:

There’s no such thing as a classroom where diversity doesn’t matter, and teaching with an intentional goal of equity needs to be a priority for all teachers.

As our nation’s famed achievement gaps fluctuate slightly from year to year, their staying power reveals the social crevasses deeper than the Marianas Trench that run through our school hallways. Simply put, our education system still unfairly marginalizes students of color and students in living in poverty. Disparities in achievement don’t end there, either—gender, sexual orientation, home language, and physical ability can also be weighty deciding factors in a student’s level of access to success. These disparities impact future career and earning potential, mental and physical health, as well as likeliness of incarceration. It’s an overwhelmingly massive problem, with historical roots in institutionalized discrimination that many, many hardworking policymakers, academics, administrators, educators, and parents continue to fight. And it’s not just in urban areas. It’s system-wide. No district is immune. We’re all symptomatic to some degree.

We do want justice for all. We want to see all kids get a fair chance to succeed. But when data set after data set shows American schools still failing to close achievement gaps, it’s hard. As teachers, sometimes we cope by blocking out worries about inequity in our schools. We relinquish ownership of the issue. We say things like, “Well, the fact that this student won’t turn in his work has nothing to do with me” or “I’m just here to teach English. I teach things and it’s up to students to learn them, that’s it. I didn’t create the problems in education.” Here’s my message to you—don’t give in to that. Responding to diversity matters. It matters in cities, in suburbs, and rural communities. It matters because we have the agency to create a salve of parity in the small environments where we can still claim power as individual educators. It’s our job to care about, grapple with, question, and claim the ways in which diversity is addressed within our own schools.

I’d like to share with you a short list of research-supported methods that I hope to use in the coming year to work toward this goal of creating a more equitable classroom. (Read more about the research in the resources linked to each name: Banks 1999; Steele 2010; Milner 2010; Schippers, Scheepers, and Peterson 2015.)

Recognizing my own privilege and resisting colorblindness means understanding that differences—in race, gender, culture, etc.—between my students and me are important and not to be ignored. Because of my race, language, social status, and other aspects of my identity, I’ve been afforded certain social privileges free of charge which position me in a place of power. I cannot be blind to this fact, nor can I pretend that all of my students have been handed an equal backpack of privilege. By seeing and acknowledging the different identities and experiences that my students bring to the classroom, I allow myself to respond to them as individuals with needs that may be different from what I assume them to be. By making my classroom a safe space to discuss variances in identity, I prevent myself from robbing my students of agency when their perceptions vary from my own.

Understanding stereotype threat requires me to recognize that the way in which I frame an assessment can alter my students’ performance. In situations where students are conscious of an aspect of themselves (ex. being female) that is negatively stereotyped in certain subject areas (ex. mathematics), they consistently underperform. This effect can be counteracted by helping students focus on different aspects of their identities (ex. membership in an academic community) before an assessment, where the identity is associated with positive performance.

Honoring multiple perspectives in curriculum is a requirement for transformative multicultural education. In preparing students of all colors—yes, even white–and backgrounds for our increasingly diverse society, it is crucial that the stories we tell in education reflect a spectrum of cultural perspectives. This means teaching texts that include female authors and authors of color in addition to the European, white, Christian male authors that dominate the canon. It means teaching history as it was experienced by the conquerors as well as the voiceless. It means fostering critical thinking and discussion rather than seeking predetermined, one-dimensional responses.

Narrative interventions have powerful potential to increase achievement in students who are in danger of failure. This means I need to commit to helping my students express their academic goals in writing, asking them to envision the steps that they will take to achieve their goals and how the end result will impact their personal lives in a positive way. Students need the chance to think about and express what they truly want to accomplish academically and why. And I need to be involved in those goals as well–be aware of them and do what I can to support them.

Building community connections and positive relationships with students that I don’t initially have things in common with is something that takes work, and sometimes even a little bit of strategy. But I need to remember that the quickest way to boost a student’s achievement is to get him or her to invest in my classroom. That means investing in me as a person, and can only happen if the student feels that I genuinely connect with him or her. Whether it’s taking a moment to talk about some favorite music, showing up for a basketball game, calling home to check in with mom, or attending community events, the time teachers spend relating to students personally builds us a bridge across the staggering depth of the trench. When a relationship is created, the cultural tension of difference can fade.

Don’t look down. Look forward. Let’s do the work we need to do to create more opportunities for all of our students.

Sacred Stories: Transcendental Personal Narratives Using Cowbird

Eleventh graders can be more insightful than you might think. When I asked my second semester classes to list what makes a fulfilling life as a kickoff activity to our Transcendentalism unit, this is what they said:

I love ending the year in  Communications III with Transcendentalism for several reasons. For one, the bitter Wisconsin tundra starts to warm and bloom and the concept of nature being revelatory becomes a little easier of an idea to buy into. For another, it’s an ideal time in my students’ lives for them to try developing a little personal philosophy. They’re on the cusp of senior year, and about to start feeling the pressure to make huge decisions: Which career to head toward? Which relationships to prioritize? Which college to attend? Which beliefs to live by? Which kind of adult to be? For these students, huge questions suddenly need answers, as they always have. What a great time to kick it way back to the mid-1800’s.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the rest of their Transcendental Club sought to define their beliefs as different from the mainstream philosophies surrounding them. Their devotion to ideals of self-reliance, confidence, free thought, and non-conformity resonate with young people readily, even through the thick vocabulary of “Nature” and Walden. My students seek to define themselves as well, and for that reason my colleagues and I balance this unit with a mixture of historic Transcendental information/texts and more modern examples of personal philosophy, such as the YouTube video “How To Be Alone” and Charles Harper Webb’s poem “How To Live.”  Toward the end of the unit, we explore specifically the link between nature and the abstract ideals of these varied sources. Where does nature come in to our understanding of ourselves as people, according to Emerson? Thoreau? What about according to us?

As a culminating project for the unit this year, I was very interested in doing something that would allow students to identify how Transcendentalist ideas have functioned in their own lives through a narrative composition. As luck would have it, right around the time I was thinking about this assignment, I was introduced to the digital story-collecting site Cowbird. It turned out to be the perfect tool: students could use a mixture of image and audio to create a multimedia narrative.

We started by browsing the stories already on the site that were tagged under the topic “Nature.” Using our own reactions, we discussed the features of an engaging narrative, which gave me the chance to insert some additional instruction about narrative composition as well. We then took our stories through a writing workshop. I modeled the process for them, walking them through the website and audio recording app, sharing my own idea-generating web as I brainstormed, showing my drafts-in-progress as they changed each day, and finally posting my final product. I’m a big believer in demonstrating the writing process, as replete with frustration and reward as it can be.

What I loved about watching my students move through this process was how invested and honest they were as they worked. The new technology skills I asked of them were challenging enough to be interesting but not so difficult as to inhibit success. They worked hard on their written drafts and recordings, persevering through many takes in order to get it right. The final compositions were entertaining, moving, and some of the most real writing I saw from my students all year long. Experiencing the stories through an audio format really honored the life experiences and voices, quite literally, of each student author. I found myself smiling, chuckling,and holding my breath as I listened. These students processed the ideas of Transcendentalism to the point of owning them, and that was really cool to witness. Sometimes students don’t understand how powerful their own voices and stories can be. I hope that, after this project, that’s changing for some of them.

Want to try this project, or a version of it, in your own classroom? See my assignment sheet, rubric, and example story below: 

Sacred Spaces: A Transcendentalist Storytelling Experience

Simple Rubric – Cowbird Project

Helping Students Answer the Question “What is the author doing?”

One of the most difficult things for my AP Literature students to do is to write specifically about author language use and how it contributes to meaning. Sure, they can identify terms with the best of ’em, recount the happenings of a story in detail, and offer insightful connections to the themes of the reading… but they have a very hard time getting out of their own heads and into the author’s head. This poses a problem when students are required to write an analysis of merit, since term-dropping and opinion-posing will only get them so far. This year, I took notice of the same comments popping up yet again in my feedback to students: “Yes, but what is the author doing here?” “Why might the author have made this choice that you refer to?” “What message does the author reinforce here?”

I started noticing that when I pushed these questions into my students’ hands in conferences or discussions, I’d be met mainly with quizzical expressions, even from very bright kids. They’d scramble weakly with questioning voices: “Uh… giving details? Imagery! Um… definitely foreshadowing, you know… like we know maybe something bad might happen later?” I’d then try to push a little bit to get them to think in a more nuanced way, but this process always ends the same way–with me finally giving up and saying something like, “Ok, well, this is what I see here” and explaining the passage away, examining all these little language nuances I’m picking up on and watching the students scribble down exactly what I’ve said in their notebooks.

This is not awesome teaching. I know this. But what can you do when your students can’t find the answer independently? Especially with my AP students, it is absolutely imperative that they learn to speak and write in a sophisticated way  about language use without my hand-holding. By May at the very latest, they need to work independently of my guidance. So I started pondering, and I kept coming back to those same (bad) answers I always get to my “What’s the author doing?” question: Foreshadowing! Building suspense! Painting a picture in the reader’s head! Setting the scene! The more I thought about it, the more clearly I realized that these phrases probably all showed up in a middle school language arts workbook word bank at some point, and my students were still hanging on to them because their writer’s craft vocabulary had never evolved past that point. I thought to myself,You know what? They just don’t have the vocabulary. They don’t know what the author is doing because they literally don’t know what to call it. They don’t have the tools to build what I’m asking them to build.”

Then I thought: Internet to the rescue! I need a list of things that authors “do” in literature… moves that authors make which add up to meaning! It was my vision to use this list to help train my students with new, more writerly vocabulary so they could analyze with a much more informed dexterity. Alas, Google did not provide, so GUESS WHAT? I made my own. And I’m sharing it with you that you might find a use for it, or adaptation of it, with your own students.

WHAT IS THE AUTHOR DOING? Here are some ways to answer that question…

  • Drawing comparisons
  • Establishing or developing character
  • Revealing the nature of a relationship
  • Creating atmosphere
  • Providing social commentary
  • Being metaphorical
  • Using irony
  • Working with a symbol
  • Complicating the plot situation
  • Building emotional tension or conflict
  • Genre-blurring
  • Exploring the workings of the mind
  • Writing in dream time/sense
  • Playing on nostalgia
  • Philosophizing
  • Making an allusion
  • Moralizing
  • Presenting a paradox
  • Romanticizing
  • Breaking the fourth wall
  • Shifting perspective
  • Presenting a cosmic view of man/universe
  • Reflecting religious or spiritual beliefs
  • Echoing a previously established motif or theme
  • Employing humor for effect
  • Satirizing
  • Highlighting injustice
  • Using an unreliable narrator
  • Paying homage to someone or something
  • Downplaying/Understating
  • Making a political statement
  • Building on archetypes and mythology
  • Shifting perspectives
  • Incorporating dialect or other cultural elements
  • Using evocative/visceral description
  • Questioning cultural norms
  • Witholding detail/using opaque narration
  • Creating contrast
  • Justifying
  • Using and/or breaking conventions intentionally
  • Utilizing structure to reinforce meaning
  • Overemphasizing/Hyperbolizing

 

Here’s the link to my first assignment using the list: WhatisDickensDoing. We’ll see how it goes! I’m excited to observe how using the list helps my students grow in their literary analysis skills. Every day, I ask them to traverse new intellectual territory. It makes sense to give them a phrasebook as they start with translation and move toward fluency.

Secrets of Chrome: Cool Google Tips, Apps, and Extensions for Back to School Prep!

As we prepare for back to school, I’m facilitating a small workshop at my district that gives some helpful pointers about using Chrome and Google Docs in schools. It also highlights many great Chrome apps and extensions to use (for free!) in the classroom. This will be our second year as a district with a 1:1 online device ratio–each of our students is provided with a Chromebook. This presentation is shared in the hope that whether you’re a Google novice, or just an app fiend, you find some helpful tips! Some of the information is specific to my district, but you’ll also find many universal tidbits. 🙂

Also, gigantic thanks to Google Certified Teacher and Trainer Stacy Behmer–most of the app and extension recommendations from this presentation are taken directly from her fantastic presentation “60 Chrome Apps and Extensions in 60 Minutes”, presented at the 2014 Google Mini Summit in Wisconsin Dells.

Dear Kid, (The Magic of Summer Email in AP Literature and Composition)

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Like most other AP (Advanced Placement) instructors, I require my incoming AP Literature and Composition students to complete a summer assignment. The idea behind summer coursework is to keep students’ skills limber over the summer, to give them a realistic look at the level of work they’ll be expected to complete during the year, and to provide me with a preview of where each student shines and struggles as a starting AP scholar.  Last year, I was feeling a little out of sync around this time as I transitioned to a new school, since my new AP students were working with a summer assignment that was designed by their previous AP teacher, and hence unfamiliar to me.  I really felt hampered by flying blind–not being able to depend on the summer assignment that I had so lovingly designed during my previous two years teaching the course.

This year, though, as I am fully installed in the Port Washington High School English Department–with a new classroom and everything!–my original AP summer assignment is BACK. And, at risk of sounding like the tagline for a Godzilla movie, it’s bigger and badder than ever.

I’ll be the first to admit that my summer assignment is, in fact, a little bit beastly. If you’d like to see the monster in full for reference in the development of your own AP course, or just out of curiosity, CLICK HERE! For everyone else, here’s the breakdown. My new students are required to (1) Read and annotate How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster. (2) Read a book off of my provided list of literary classics. (3) Write an analytical essay about said choice book, and also (4) Write me two letters via email during the summer, to which I will respond. I’ve got my reasons for including each of these elements, but I’d like to address this last requirement in this particular post, because I think it makes a huge difference: the summer email back-and-forth with my future students.

That fourth component may seem a little bit unnecessary. I mean, I’m already asking them to read two books and write a paper… why must I force my students and myself to deal with even more responsibilities during the summer? I was definitely asking myself that a few days ago when I sat down to the task of responding thoughtfully to over forty emailed letters. But, I’m telling you: SO worth it. I got a lot out of it, and I gave a lot to it. These interpersonal transactions add up to an invaluable starting rapport with a group that I’m going to be asking a lot of from September to June. Here’s a little look at why this process is so awesome.

What I Ask My Kids to Do

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What I Get From The Process

During the process of reading these letters, I get a flavor for who these kids really are, especially as it relates to the subject matter that I teach. Since this communication happens before I am formally evaluating, there’s no pretense, no “I am performing for you” filter. They are honest about how they feel about past English classes, the idea of reading in general, their own writing skills… and they usually have a pretty good handle on assessing their own personalities. This helps monumentally. It jumpstarts my understanding of the interpersonal originalities each student brings to the table–it serves as kind of a cheat code, to use video game jargon, into the level of interaction that allows me to be a successful mentor.

The best part, especially of the first letter, is that I also get a built-in dose of self advocacy as each student tells me of their hopes and fears related to the class. It serves as a window in to where I’m going to have to supply extra support, where I’ll have to be extra sensitive, and where I can challenge and push. Without these letters, it would probably take me weeks to figure out this kind of information for each student. In the special space of summer letters, where the hectic rhythm of the school year is removed, I get a more realistic, candid beat on student skill levels and personalities.

What I Give To The Process

I respond to each and every student letter with an original response, which helps me put my best foot forward as an instructor. I make sure to read to their letters very carefully, making sure to highlight specific things that they mentioned which caught my eye. In my response, I might do any or all of the following:

*Encourage a declaration of academic ambition. (Ex. I am blown away by your goal to read every book ever written by Toni Morrison! That is SO cool! )

*Relate to a similarity that I share in writing style, reading preferences, or personality tendencies. (Ex. You mentioned having a hard time speaking up in class discussions. Guess what? I was the same exact way in high school. Even now, it can be hard for me to navigate unfamiliar social situations unless I work at it. I get that.)

*Offer advice related to areas of struggle. (Ex. I hear what you’re saying about distractions making it tough to focus on reading. I’ve found that finding a specific time of day where I step away from all electronics can be helpful–sometimes making it a habit can help train your brain to know that it’s “reading time.”)

*Be frank. (Ex. You spent a pretty big portion of your letter addressing how you dislike assigned reading. Just so we’re clear, there will be a TON of assigned reading in AP Literature & Composition. I’m guessing you’re ready to take on the challenge, but if you find that this isn’t the course for you, please let me know, ok?)

*Appreciate humor. (Ex. P.s. I loved the picture of a donut-eating shark that you included at the end of your letter–hahaha!)

*Encourage and remind. (Ex. I am so excited to have you in my class this year! I’m looking forward to reading your second letter about your choice book and essay ideas!)

As I write back to my students in way that is focused zero percent on evaluation and one hundred percent on relating to them as learners, I get the chance to establish myself first and foremost as someone whose job it is to support them in their academic journeys. When I see my students for the first time in September, we’re already all going to know each other a little bit. And that is priceless.

I would be really interested to find out how a process like this might work for elementary classes or other secondary level classes outside of AP… has anyone else tried this kind of summer communication with future students? It’s a pretty powerful practice. It does take an extra donation of time… but for me, it’s worth it. What do you think? Leave a response in the comments below!

Book Celebration and Review – Teaching With Heart

I got very excited a couple days ago when I saw this brand new book arrive in my mailbox. It’s called Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach (S.M. Intrator and M. Scribner, editors. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).

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I had known it would be coming for quite a while–about a year and a half ago, I submitted a contribution to the editors because I was inspired by the mission of the book, which is to pair poetry with real teacher anecdotes, reflecting important ideas about the life and work of teachers. I was lucky enough to become a contributor. (In fact, my anecdote is the one that closes the collection–you’ll have to turn to page 198 to find it!)

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As I paged through Teaching with Heart, I was touched by the power of the voices gathered here. There are contributors with big names that many teachers will recognize–Parker J. Palmer, Taylor Mali, and Sarah Brown Wessling. But there are also stories from nearly a hundred different teachers from across the country woven into this collection, which is as rich with a variety of emotions and perspectives as is the act of teaching itself. Paired with poetry that has stood the test of time, the reflections of these educators remind me of the sheer volume of good people–strong people–that share this profession. In an era where teachers are sometimes devalued by society, it is important to let these strong voices anchor us, to help us refuse to be swept away by a current of negativity. This book does that. It’s an anchor, and a beautiful one at that.

The best way, I think, to read a book like this is in small doses, here and there, when inspiration is needed; and then reading a little, a lot, chronological, or not. I’m going to share my copy of Teaching with Heart with my department colleagues. The book will live in our office, to be opened and contemplated whenever it’s needed. I’ll start you off here, with a small selection from my own anecdote about the poem “The Real Work” by Wendell Berry. May it inspire you to head over to Amazon and check out the other voices in this fiery, courageous compilation.

 “The Real Work” brings with it a simple, ringing truth that echoes my experience: hardship inspires innovation, honesty, and a desire to persevere enough to fight through. It is when we reach a dead end that multitudes of previously unseen paths open up to meet us. Thinking back on my own teaching paths, I realize that I am my career’s cartographer, drafting a map rich with color and experience.

The poem also makes me think of my students, many who shoulder unthinkable burdens, yet still manage to employ their minds and spirit in the journey of learning. Students show bravery every time they put their own voice to a page, despite the uncertainty that can come from all directions without and within.

So much of teaching is doing the work of standing back up—knowing with profound certainty that our “baffled minds” are meant to do this “real work” of journeying together, to teach our students and ourselves that the struggles we overcome help strengthen the voice of our song.

 Consider picking up a copy for your favorite teacher friend, mentor, or mentee. Royalties from Teaching with Heart support the Center for Courage & Renewal, a resource network dedicated to renewing and sustaining those in the career areas of education, health care, ministry, and other positions that positively impact communities.