Category: Resources for Educators

Working on the Right Things: A Day with Penny Kittle

Here’s my department, grinning with joy on a full day of professional development in June. Why are we beaming with megawatt happiness, you ask? Well, it has everything to do with the tall, brilliant blond educator in the middle: the one and only Penny Kittle.

We’ve waited patiently for two years since first scheduling Penny to come do a literacy workshop with our district and surrounding area teachers. On Wednesday, June 21st, in the early morning, I got to pick her up from her hotel and–by way of Fiddleheads Coffee shop–escort her to the presentation site. Engaged and brimming with positive teacher energy from the moment she began, Penny delivered a beautifully curated tour through daily reading, writing, revising, and modeling with students. While there’s no substitute for hearing Penny speak in person, I’d like to share some of the most pressing, inventive, and inspired moments from the workshop, in hopes that some of you might also gain from this sunbeam of professionalism and passion.

A Dose of Truth:

I found myself nodding deeply at this opening statement about teachers: “We’re working hard, but sometimes I think we’re working on the wrong things.” Penny started the day by reminding us of some sobering statistics, which represent behavior that many of us see in our classrooms every day. Plainly said, American students are not sustaining the increase in reading volume and skills that they initially obtain in late elementary school–in fact, many finish high school without truly finishing a single book. Meanwhile, an average of 5,000 pages per year of reading are expected in the first year of college. No wonder so many who are admitted to universities simply drop out.  Students are not prepared for college, and it’s our problem to solve.

Today’s educational landscape is different–very different–than it was 50 years ago. Many well-meaning educators who are following a traditional model find frustration when they ask classes to tackle daunting schedules of lengthy whole-class texts throughout the year. Many students fake their way through a schedule like this and simply don’t read, relying on Sparknotes and YouTube summaries instead to skate by, get “right answers” on quizzes and achieve a conversational knowledge of the plot without actually experiencing the book. This kind of classroom practice can’t keep stumbling blindly forward. There’s no use in trying to cover oodles of high-level curricular content when kids can’t read longer material over sustained periods of time. Teachers will check off items in their syllabi, but not all students will learn. As Penny put it, “People get focused on teaching stuff, not kids.”

The first step to a better way is understanding the difference between what is essential, what is important, and what is nice to know. For example, while being familiar with Jane Austen’s work in particular may be nice to know, what’s truly essential is helping students learn to read more, read better, and (eventually) read deeper.

Classroom Practices:

So how do we build up our students and help them become readers? Penny quoted Richard Allington’s research, which provides a starting equation: engagement in reading + volume of reading = complexity in student thinking. Allington’s work makes clear that “older struggling readers will never become fluent and proficient readers unless volume is increased.”

Penny’s model of incorporating high volumes of independent reading into her classroom work helps build a foundational practice of reading, prioritizing choice as an initial motivator which leads to students building their own reading lists that grow in depth and sophistication through close conferencing with the teacher. Penny is adamant that there are no non-readers, simply dormant readers, and that any kid can find their own reading home, where books start to push them outside of their own environments and perspectives in life-changing ways. (You can read more about this in Penny’s Book Love.)

Penny’s message is that consistent, one-on-one conferencing with students about their reading is the ideal way to push reading skills and volume forward–constantly engaging with, checking in on, and making suggestions for students. I’ve seen this in my own practice… one particular student I worked with this year called himself “not much of a reader” in September and logged a measly 30 pages (if that) per week. After a whole year of dogging him with suggestions and asking about his reading progress every day, he ended up being the kid with quiet tears streaming down his face in the back of my classroom during silent reading, turning the final page of a 500+ page book. That’s Penny Kittle magic right there.

In addition to reading, there are a lot of other things Penny’s students are working on each day. Her daily classroom practices provide time for at least a little bit of each of these actions every day:

READ

WRITE

STUDY

CREATE

SHARE

It’s a simple list of five words, but if you do them in the classroom every day, it adds up to serious literacy power.

Coolest resources:

In the section of the workshop that focused on student writing, so many useful and game-changing resources were mentioned. While this isn’t all of them, I’d recommend these in particular as truly cool resources for the writing classroom. Check them out!

Best American Infographics : this volume, published annually, is great for modeling argument in non-fiction writing, craft lessons, and a starting point for informational writing.

Flipgrid: video sharing in a bite-size, super easy format. Penny’s students make short videos to tell her what to focus on when giving feedback on their writing.

Penny Kittle’s website: resources to make all of this stuff I’m talking about happen!

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle: a place to start when thinking about how to teach conversation skills and academic discussion.

Moving Writers web community: home of a massive, categorized mentor text dropbox–a content area teacher’s dream.

Bottom line:

One of the most important ideas that Penny shared was that a school’s social capital lies in the connections between educators and the extent to which they share that knowledge. It’s a reminder that none of us is out here alone–we need to connect, share, and build knowledge whenever possible if we want to construct a powerful school community. Those of us in this profession need to stand fast and commit to practices that will move our students forward–into the world, into a life of reading, writing, and learning. It’s not always easy, but we can do it, because we know why we’re here. To quote Penny one last time, “Teaching well is an act of rebellion that is based on an act of love.”

We’re still glowing too, Mrs. Kittle.  Thanks for everything.

Holden’s Brain and Thoreau’s Campaign: Perspective-Taking in the Literature Classroom

Back when I was a newly-minted teacher, I wrote about the versatile, fail-safe nature of the character letter as an assessment strategy. It’s priceless to come upon a type of assignment that is easily adaptable to different teaching contexts and always engaging for students–a “perfect assignment” if you will. I remembered that post recently, and I realized that I’ve got two more additions to the perfect assignment list! I’ve used both of these assignments in my junior level communications class, but they could be used with many different texts, whether long or short, fictional or non-fictional. Both assignments approach the important task of perspective-taking: an essential thinking skill that is a prerequisite for rigorous writing tasks like analysis and synthesis. Please feel free to use and adapt these activities in your own classroom!

Assignment #1. Narrator’s Brain

What it is: This is an assignment that I typically use with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It’s an especially good exercise to use with the character of Holden Caulfield because he’s so unreliable; understanding this kid takes some serious inferring and knowledge of human behavior. Since Holden’s not always forthcoming about what’s really on his mind, I ask students to draw it. They are provided with a blank picture of a brain, and I ask them to fill it in with Holden’s thought territories. I ask them to use size, color, and placement within the brain to indicate the weight and awareness that accompanies each section.

What to pair it with: Psychoanalytic literary criticism focuses in part on identifying the psychological defenses and core issues that manifest within a text. Discussing a text through this lens helps students be on the lookout for the “real story” behind what’s mentioned in the narration. Example- For Holden, his obsession with wondering where the Central Park ducks go in winter mirrors his own fears of abandonment and adulthood. Students need to get to that level of insight before an assignment like this can be meaningful.

Mentor texts: Here are a couple great images to start from.

^Scientifically informed  illustration for Time Magazine by Leigh Wells

^Emotionally informed illustration by graphic artist The City Limit 

 

My assignment sheet: <<click here for download

Student examples: (Click on any image to enlarge)

 

Assignment #2. Author as Politician

What it is: While teaching difficult texts in AP Literature, a problem that I’ve noticed again and again is students’ difficulty to grasp the authorial intention that drives the narrative in fiction texts, or even the messages in non-fiction texts. In other words, students can tell me what happened in a chapter of A Tale of Two Cities, but they struggle to identify Dickens’ scathing social criticism and allegiances that are evident in his voice. One day (honestly, out of desperation), I made up an assignment on the fly that asked students to design a political campaign for Dickens. It worked well to get them focusing on using the text as evidence for what the author was thinking, and I had a big breakthrough. This year, I duplicated the idea with my juniors’ study of a segment from Emerson’s “Civil Disobedience”–we read the text, and then I asked students to decide what they thought Emerson stood for, politically, including designing a political sign for him.

What to pair it with: It was important to me that my students had an understanding that we’re not talking about today’s national politics in this assignment. I made sure that my students had an idea of the political context in Thoreau’s day, and that neither Republicans nor Democrats existed at that time, at least not as we know them today. We talked about how individual political beliefs can’t always be distilled along party lines, and set up our analysis of Thoreau as a build-your-own kind of political ideology. (All this to say: it was clear that I wasn’t asking students to classify Thoreau as a liberal or a conservative. In fact, he had elements of both and neither.) To get here, it is essential to meaningfully annotate the text. Whether students can do it with guidance or independently depends on the class and the content.

Mentor texts: Political ads and advertising slogans are everywhere. When one of my students was confused about the purpose for political catchphrase, I used the motto of an easily recognized national business chain as an example. She then understood: “Oh, so the main idea that the audience should think of when they think of this person?” Yep!

My assignment sheet<<click here for download

Student examples: (Click on any image to enlarge)

 

I hope these two assignments might find a use in your classroom… but it’s almost summer, so put them in your folder for 2017-2018. Happy Summer Break, all!

Into the Woods! A Transcendentalist Day at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center

Sometimes the world is just so big that we forget it’s even there.

Teaching our junior unit on transcendentalism is always a highlight of the end of the year. Beyond just teaching about the American philosophical giants of the mid-1800s, we work on understanding the legacy of the transcendentals and their lasting ideals of self-reliance, solitude, and free thought. We try to transform our classroom walls into windows that turn within, as student consider their own personal philosophies. Last year while reflecting on this unit–so much about thinking and writing born of the natural world’s inspiration–it seemed to us that we shouldn’t just be turning walls into windows. We should be opening those windows, and streaming out into the place where Emerson found his spirit, and Thoreau found his soul–the woods. What good is reading about the connection between man and nature, if you can’t feel it?

Yep, you know what that means! Field. Trip. Time. With this goal in mind, we spent several months planning a day of workshops, inside and outside, where students could read, write, hike, observe plants and animals, and maybe even lose themselves (safely) in a place of solitude and reflection. We found a perfect partnership in Milwaukee’s Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, which prioritizes experiential, environmental education in its mission statement and boasts six miles of trails over 185 acres of beautiful natural ecosystems along Lake Michigan.

It’s hard to know what to expect when you announce to over one hundred teenagers that you’re taking them to the forest. They seemed excited, in an uncertain kind of way, about spending a day outside. For most of them, this would be an unfamiliar kind of experience. We primed them all week leading up to the trip by introducing them to transcendentalism, reading about the science behind effects that nature has on the brain, and practicing field notes in the classroom. Here’s my example from the classroom practice, written in the same little red field notebook that we provided to each of our students on field trip day:

Our full plan for the day was developed by our team of five teachers and three staff members at the center. We rotated five groups of around 20 students between five mini-workshops including geocaching (staffed by the nature center), and hands-on lessons in transcendentalist ideas, nature writing, reflective writing, and field notes, all written by our teaching team. (If you’d like access to our curriculum to adapt for your own nature field trip, find it here, shared with the permission of my colleagues.)

We took 107 high school juniors out to navigate, tread through mud, hop on rocks, watch sun-baked turtles, listen to birdsong, to write and read and eat bag lunches and laugh. It was curriculum brought to life. The students were really kids on this trip, laughing, shrieking, stretching, and having actual dynamic conversations.  They were excited and adventuresome. They dug in to what we were doing. They walked all day. This is teaching at its best and most pure–creating an experience, guiding pupils on how to explore it, and watching them feel a spark of curiosity drive a search for knowledge. 

“Wait, I want to write a little more!”

“I’m muddy, but I don’t even care.”

“Why don’t we do this all the time?”

“Do we really have to leave?”

“It’s so beautiful.”

“Thank you so much for putting this together.”

“Thank you for planning this.”

“Thank you for taking us here.”

 

I was so happy that my heart was breaking a little bit. I was thinking about all the time that the average high school student spends in a desk filling out bubbles, when he or she could be making or doing something that connects to his or her learning instead. I’m so grateful that we were able to have this golden day in nature to help new learning catch fire. We need so much more of this. The first step is cultivating partnerships between schools and outside organizations like the SANC–it’s fantastic when we can support one another’s missions and open the world to kids in the meantime.

I also got to hold a snake! (So did the students, at least those who had good feelings about snakes!) Touch is such an important sense–we touch to connect, to understand. Learning about the natural world is only so much trivia until you get to feel the squirm of a snake’s muscles contracting as he sneaks gently around your arm. It’s a different kind of bond, a deeper kind of understanding that takes you from interested to caring. Immersive education is crucial to natural preservation efforts… because in order to act, you have to care. Thanks to this experience, we got to reach out and touch our big, big world.

Pretty darn awesome. Thanks again to the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center for helping us make our transcendentalist teaching dreams come true!

 

Old Stories, New Voices: an Opening Writing Activity Inspired by History

In this post, I’ll share materials and ideas from my opening writing activity session for the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project Conference on the Teaching of Writing, presented on February 25th 2017. 

Picture credit: UW-Milwaukee Writing Project

When I work with student writers, I place priority on viewing writing as a process rather than a product. Writing morphs through multiple phases that don’t always have a set order, and the joy of it all is watching the piece emerge like a sculpture emerges from the clay beneath a sculptor’s hands. But before I get too poetic for my own good, I’d like to start this post with a question–not about the sculpting process at all, but about the clay that we begin with.

Where does that clay come from? Writing needs a starting point. Where do we find ideas and inspiration in the first place?

This is the question that I chose to explore when I was invited to present an opening writing activity at the 2017 UW-Milwaukee Writing Project Conference on the Teaching of Writing. I was excited to attend this year’s conference and be surrounded once again by the collegial, buzzing atmosphere of Milwaukee area teachers all jazzed up about the teaching of writing: a consistent feeling at all UWM Writing Project events. I knew I needed to come up with something that would honor the plentiful energy and creativity my audience would bring to the table. While brainstorming one afternoon, I hit “play” on one of my go-to motivational tracks: “Nonstop”, from Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit musical Hamilton.

“How do you write like you’re running out of time? Write, day and night, like you’re running out of time? How do you write like you need it to survive–every second you’re alive, every second you’re alive?”

Those words from Hamilton cut to the very core of my instinct to create–whenever I feel the dangerous creep of malaise, I can tap into a surge of motivation when I think about how frantically, ridiculously prolific Alexander Hamilton was during his short life. As someone who never enjoyed the study of history via cold, hard facts, I find it almost laughable that I can be inspired by thinking about the first United States Secretary of the Treasury… But thanks to the literary and musical genius of Miranda, I’m able to hear a new voice that reinvigorates that stolid figure on the 10 dollar bill. That’s the power of writing; it’s not just in which stories we’re telling, but in the style we’re using to tell them. As I thought about all that, I realized that I had brain-wandered my way straight into the very idea that I wanted to talk (and write!) about.

The result is my presentation “Old Stories, New Voices,” which explores how historical source material can work as inspiration for new writing, using language as a transformative agent. Here, I provide some examples from Hamilton, as well as a fantastic book of vintage classified ads called Strange Red Cow by Sara Bader. Also, of course, there’s an opportunity to write! Enjoy this historically inspired mayhem, and feel free to adapt it to your own classroom writing adventures.

Session Handout linked here <Click for handout.

Accompanying presentation:

 

Many thanks to the UWMWP for inviting me back, and for the sensational work you do alongside Milwaukee-area 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.

 

Emersonhilight4

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