Category Archives: Pedagogy

Unit Garage Sale: How I Used the “Toss, Keep, Sell” Method to Revamp Curriculum

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

 

I’ve been teaching a unit with my juniors for several years now that I call The Writer’s Sandbox. This summer, I realized that the unit was in need of a revamp. Because of slow changes in our curriculum, the unit now included too much overlap with other classes in the types of writing it prioritized, and my own desire to help students try many kinds of things slowly created kind of a sprawling unwieldy beast that even my typical embrace of chaos was beginning to lose hold of. Still, the heart of this unit was so, so good. It just needed a makeover.

So, I did a mental organization, as one does when cleaning the basement out for a garage sale. I had to sort things into toss, keep, and sell.

TOSS

I needed to drop time spent teaching and practicing genres that students already had seen multiple times in their previous classes. I also decided to cut some of the excess breadth of the unit–I wanted it to have a greater sense of purpose, a more streamlined sense of momentum instead of “Try ALL the writing things!” 

KEEP

I absolutely needed to keep the inner philosophy of this unit–the fact that what we write at first is often exploratory and rarely usable as a final draft, but that the process of writing and writing again points us in the right direction. I am notorious among the students for saying, “Just get something on the page! It might be garbage! That’s ok!” (Anne Lamott’s chapter “School Lunches” from Bird by Bird is a critical introductory text.)

Another key idea of the unit is the examination of mentor texts in depth to understand the moves that writers make and the conventions that they adhere to, which we use as scaffolding for our own writing attempts.

In addition to that, the idea of task, purpose, and audience drives how we write. Not all good writing looks the same–we change our tone, structure, word choice, and form based on the needs of our rhetorical situation. It’s important for students to be versatile and purposeful in the way they approach writing tasks.

SELL

What did I need to sell? I needed to sell to my students the truth that words are power. The use of words in the right way at the right time can unlock opportunities and create doors of access that didn’t exist before. This crucial idea was something necessary to the unit’s rigor and authenticity that I felt had gotten lost in previous years. I wanted my students to see the immediacy and potential of these skills in their real lives, pertaining to what they truly care about. 

*

Here’s the link to the revamped presentation I used to introduce Writer’s Sandbox 2.0, focusing on the best of the old ideas and the best of the new ones. It will give you an idea of the overall shape of the new unit.

I decided to urge the students to think about how any piece of writing fits into different contexts:

We then moved through the unit with small writing experiments that built up to a personal piece (flash memoir or flash fiction), a professional piece (an application essay for an educational or career opportunity), and an advocacy piece (a piece where form is determined by the needs of the project, advocating for a public resource).

Adding the advocacy piece was the key to unlocking this unit’s potential. While the personal writing helped them look within, and the professional writing helped them look to the future, the public piece helped students look to their communities–local, national, or in some cases global. I urged them to think about how voices move hands. Writing is a huge part how we can shape the future right now.

Just as many of us do when we complete the hard work of cleaning out a cluttered basement, I felt a sense of relief and order. I tossed, kept, and sold all the right things, and started the year with a strong foundation that I’m continuing to see the benefits from. 🙂

Look for my next post soon, where I’ll go into depth about the advocacy piece and how I helped my students find their public voices!

Teaching Narrative Threads in Nonlinear Texts: An AP Literature Mini-Project

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is one of my favorite texts to teach in my AP English Literature and Composition class, but it’s also one of the more difficult ones. Like many other masterful contemporary texts that make their way into the literature classroom, like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, this text is not told in a straightforward chronological order. Rather, it’s a complex weaving of many different times in the characters’ lives, stories within stories, and even native legends that all work together to create the sense of the story. Especially for students who are very linear thinkers, this kind of structure can throw them off, so I try to help them along by teaching them terms like nonlinear narrative and narrative thread. 

For the purposes of my class, I define a narrative thread as a storyline that orients the reader through a certain recurring character set, setting, and place in time. I tell them that, unlike linear stories, where the plot gradually unfolds and we get a sense of meaning from what happens and how, a nonlinear narrative enforces thematic ideas across these different narrative threads. Even if we don’t grasp the exact order of events as threads are switching around, what’s more important in this kind of reading is recognizing how certain ideas are emphasized, repeated, and mirrored across the threads. That’s how we make sense of it all. It’s a different kind of story, where you feel your way through in a layering process almost like painting.

They don’t always “get it” right away, though, which is why I have them wrestle with it a bit. When we’re about three quarters through the novel, I have them complete a small group project where I ask them to select a thematic idea and then create a visual product that demonstrates how different narrative threads work together to explore the idea. This year, I got some really stellar ones, and thought I’d share them in case anyone else would like to try this project! Also, please know that the students made these things up entirely on their own. I take no credit for their amazing approaches to the task!

Digital Thread Map

This approach was digital, linking drops of rain to five different narrative threads where the idea of rain and drought correlate with the characters’ feelings of guilt and longing for restoration. Like raindrops pattering down on the earth, the threads don’t need a set pattern to be felt and seen.

Pop-up/Slide-out Symbol Poster

This one was way bigger and more complicated than just this photo shows, packed with important symbols from the novel. Each symbol slides out to show an explanation and moment in the text where the idea of healing is present in different threads, and then back in to create the effect of the overall symbol-spotted poster.

Icon Illustration

This gorgeous illustration took a snake symbol–which correlates with a specific moment in the text–and used it to explore moments that talk about the human relationship with the earth, including accompanying important imagery from the novel. The two snakes represent Tayo (you can even see the little scar from his scalp ceremony) and the Mother Earth Spirit.

Fortune Teller Origami

This one completely blew my mind–such a perfect idea to illustrate the oneness of theme across many enfolded elements of a novel. This group chose the thematic idea of belonging, and identified four prominent narrative threads that featured the idea. Once choosing the thread, there are two examples, each one correlating to an important quote from the book. Amazing!

Writing and Talking on the Board… A Low-Tech Discussion Engagement Strategy

Sometimes I feel like the most absurdly simple teaching strategies are the ones that work the best. Today, I have one to share with all of you. It’s called writing on the board… with a twist!

At the beginning of this year, I had one section of students in particular that was filled with very, very bright students who did not want to contribute to class discussion. It’s often the story with young introverts with a rich inner world–they suffer the paradoxical situation of having rich insights to share but feeling unable to verbalize them on the spot. This group in particular tended that way, which was frustrating as a teacher trying to foster productive class discussion. They understood what they were reading. I knew this because I could see it in their writing. But ask for them to share their thoughts out loud? Deer in headlights.

Luckily for these young introverts, I am an older introvert who is savvy to their ways. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished dearly that I could just write down a response in a conversation rather than blurt out some words that hopefully come out fully formed. Sadly for us, life is not thus. Even with some community building and time to adjust to one another, these students were just not budging, other than a couple brave souls who would try to carry the whole class with eyes that pled with me to help them out. So I did! I got them to talk. This is how. 

Everybody likes writing on the board in a classroom. It’s just a fact. It’s fun! There are markers! Come on teachers, you know you love writing on the board. And students do , too. This is something not to be underestimated. It’s a way to make introvert dreams come true–let them write their ideas down, but publicly. Then, the discussion part can happen much more fluidly. Here’s what I do:

1. Make sure you have plenty of nice, fresh dry-erase markers in multiple colors. Or SMARTBoard markers, or chalk if you’re truly old-school (I’m envious!)

2. Give discussion prompt. Since we’re currently starting to read Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, I gave them a set of questions relating to that word–what is a ceremony? What does it need to go well? Why is it important? How does culture determine its workings? 

3. Have students discuss their ideas with a partner to get a bit of practice verbalizing. Encourage them to write down their best thoughts.

4. [Small class version] Invite every student to write a short phrase on the board that represents their most prominent/surprising/unique insight.

[Large class version] Have partners (or small groups if the class is HUGE) determine one group member who had the best insightful moment and send that representative up to the board to write a phrase that represents it. Remind them to write large and neat enough that their words will be legible.

5. Once the collection is complete, use it to guide discussion. It’s helpful as the instructor to have a laser pointer here, to guide the students to certain parts of this visual discussion. As the teacher navigates, each student gets a turn telling the class about why they wrote what they did, elaborating on it and potentially making connections to others’ thoughts in the process. 

Of course, this is not a substitute for a fully organic whole-class discussion, but it’s a way to work up to it. We did this exercise often at the beginning of the year in this class, and our traditional discussions have definitely expanded as a result. What I love most about this is that every student gets a voice, and there’s no hiding from the fact that they have ideas to add. After all, it’s all right there on the board, in their own handwriting.

Thanks for reading!

Helping Students Know That Their Stories Do Matter

I’ve recently been working with my high school juniors on how to write a personal statement for educational or career-related opportunities. In the next year or so, they will all have to choose a path. That might entail college and scholarship applications. It might involve cover letters for career opportunities. It might mean joining another kind of program or apprenticeship. Regardless of a student’s aspirations, being able to write about one’s self is an important skill to open all kinds of doors. The stories that reveal the qualifications and experience that they bring into potential opportunities are stories they need to be able to tell. So we begin to practice now. And I start seeing a pattern that I often see whenever personal writing pops up in the classroom.

The confident students forge straight ahead, eager to envision their futures and tell the story of their potential. Many others approach with reticence, but slowly work their way through with the help of mentor texts, modeling, and one-on-one instruction. I’m not worried about those kids–they will all be fine. I worry about the ones who freeze–the ones who look at this assignment and refuse to put words to the page. These are the students who say things like, “I can’t do this. I can’t write.” Or “Nothing about my life is interesting.” Or the worst one (which I still get every year): “I really don’t have any positive traits. There’s nothing good about me.”

Moments like this touch something that a standardized test can never measure–the inextricable link between personal writing and self-concept. These are the students who, somewhere along the way, started believing that their stories don’t matter. Maybe it’s because of some aspect of who they are. Maybe it’s because of something they are struggling with. Maybe it’s because they don’t believe that anyone will listen to what they have to say. These students are often evasive or belligerent. But they are so important.

We cannot allow kids like this to give up. We need to show them that someone is listening. Every student’s story matters, and helping them learn to tell it, if you ask me, is possibly the most important aspect of my job as a teacher of writing.

So how do we do this? It’s a problem I’m still working on, one that I certainly haven’t completely solved. However, I’ve got a start, and as I’ve been applying this method this past week, I thought it might be helpful to share. Here are some things that I rely on to lift these students up and show them that their stories matter!

1. Double-check your teaching for culturally responsive practices. Culturally responsive pedagogy is too complex for me to explain in depth here, but it is something that every teacher should be familiar with. At the most basic level, remind yourself that the reason a student may be struggling may have something to do with a lack of inclusion or understanding related to their home culture, language, or socio-economic status. For teaching something like the personal statement, think about the various versions of success that can be presented in the written examples that you provide to them. Are all students presented with an example that they can relate to? Or does a homogenous definition of success end up excluding students of certain backgrounds, sending the message that this kind of writing doesn’t include people who look, speak, or live like they do?

2. Find something in common, and model from there. Talk to your students who won’t write. Divert the conversation away from the writing task and toward what they care about. What do they do with their spare time? Where have they lived? Where do they work? What are they most proud of? Who do they love? I talk with my students about these things, sometimes writing down brief notes on our conversations to hand back to them. Often, that organically provides a starting point–maybe a student suddenly realizes that she emulates her mother’s determination, or that she can really talk to lots of different types of people with ease… those are wonderful, marketable traits that are great to write about. Point that out! Help them see the good that you see. So much the better if you as the teacher can find something similar in your own life and say, “Hey, that’s kind of like me! So here’s how I would set this piece of writing up if I were doing it…” Show them how to put it down, and it quickly becomes less scary.

3. Minimize pressure — Just talk, then just write… Do everything you can in your classroom culture to emphasize that writing is messy, experimental play that can be twisted and flipped and cut and expanded at will. Even something as high stakes as a personal statement starts as a draft. Spend less time saying things that send the message of “You will fail in the future if you don’t do this well.” Spend more time saying, “Write a half of a notebook page about what’s most important in your life. Don’t think about making it good. It’s ok if it’s terrible. It just needs to be on the page.” Initial writing should be able to just blurt out onto a highly destructible piece of paper. Once there’s a draft, that polished essay is within sight. Then it’s time to teach revision!

…But that’s for another post. 🙂  Happy teaching!

P.s. An extra tip from my colleague Mrs. F.  For students who still get stuck on that first line, try giving them a sentence starter to get the pen moving. (Ex. “I feel good when I’m skateboarding because _____.” Sometimes that’s all they need.)

Tackling the Classics: Helping Students Adapt to Reading Literature with a Capital L

I love it when students share what they read with me. I encourage them to interact with each other (and me!) through Goodreads, where we can share recommendations, reactions, and reviews from our reading lives. Many times, students help me learn about cool new titles that I should add to my classroom library. On the other hand, sometimes they make me shake my head in a very special brand of English teacher sorrow. All I really need to share here is this pair of student Goodreads ratings from last year:

Fifty Shades Darker, 5 out of 5 stars.

Hamlet, 3 out of 5 stars.

Help.

Now, please understand–I am 100% in support of student choice in reading. Our school’s independent reading program, which emphasizes volume and choice has done wonders for the reading culture and ability of our students. And if reading a little bit of what I would generously rate as garbage helps a student become a stronger reader who’s ready for more challenging things than they would be otherwise, I’m all for it!

But… I also have a deep love and respect for classical literature–I am an AP Literature and Composition teacher, after all! When I do teach a full-class text that comes from a more challenging place, I want to give students the best chance to adore it like I do. It’s not easy. Many canonical texts are extremely challenging. They use unfamiliar language structures and words, and abide by different standards for craft. There are old references, and types of humor that aren’t even common anymore. Is reading something like that as enjoyable as reading a fast-paced, on-trend piece of contemporary young adult lit? Maybe not. Or maybe it is just as enjoyable, just in a profoundly different way. Students often don’t understand why we ask them to wade through Shakespeare’s works. It’s our job to help them see that something like Hamlet will not provide the same automatically visceral thrill as something written at their own independent ability level from their own time. But the mental challenge that it presents is absolutely sumptuous–if one knows to be looking for it.

I started this year with a discussion that I think will be really helpful for my literature students in learning to love Literature with a capital L. It’s about reading for different purposes and the different types of enjoyment we can get out of different texts. I’d like to share the notes from our discussion–maybe they’ll help you clarify reading for different purposes with your own students.

Reading for fun and entertainment

*Purpose: evaluating quality and enjoying emotionally

*Focus on plot, always asking “What happens next?”

*We look for thrill, suspense, and surprise, personal connections to characters, and happy or otherwise satisfying endings

*Texts are typically fairly modern and fairly easy to read

*We want to know… was it good? Did you like it? How did it make you feel?

Reading for analysis

*Purpose: exploring and uncovering mentally

*Focus on message, asking “What moves does the author make and why?”

*We look for craft and language choices made by the author, connections to social realities and philosophical questions

*Texts are typically older and fairly difficult to read

*We want to know… what statement does this text make about life’s big questions? What did this text make you think about?

I find it helpful, too, to talk about literature also in terms of fashion–styles that seemed normal in one era seem dated to us now… but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t cutting-edge and boundary-breaking in their own time. The literary fashion of today’s storytelling tells us that predicability is the killer of a good story. Well, tell that to Oedipus Rex. I’ve found that when students learn to judge literary texts with different tools of measurement, the ability to appreciate (and, yes, enjoy!) comes a little more easily.

Happy teaching!

P.s. Here’s a handy-dandy little graphic about the functions of literary reading to help seal the deal.

What to Do After the AP Literature Exam? The Make-Your-Own Writing Project!

Being an AP Literature and Composition teacher is awesome. It means that I get to challenge students at a very rigorous academic level, using sophisticated texts and thought-provoking classroom discussions. I get to teach The Greats–keeping the love of classical literature alive for the next generation. I get to interact with students on an intensive, one-on-one level as they work to master analytical academic writing. It’s a demanding course that attracts remarkable learners thirsty for a challenge. But the experience of an AP class does have its drawbacks when it comes to… well… freedom. All year long, we adhere to a laser-focused schedule, which is designed to prepare them for the AP exam in May. It’s a working system, but one without much wiggle room when it comes to individual interests and true experimentation. That’s why I love those three or four weeks at the end of the year so much.

After the exam, all bets are off! Many teachers come up with truly genius ideas for how to fill this time. (For instance, check out this amazing project from the AP English Facebook Page.) My approach is one that embraces the individual talents of my student writers, and grants them a daunting and magical amount of freedom to create. I call it the Make-Your-Own Writing Project, and it serves as the final exam for the second semester.

The Make-Your-Own Writing Project asks students a simple question: What have you always wanted to write? Then, it enables them, with an instructor’s guidance and resources, to make it happen. Every year, it’s different for every single student. With focused mini-lessons on writing craft, technology, conventions, copyright, and even the publishing industry, I really try to push my students to adopt a true writer identity. For the first time all year, I’m stepping all the way to the background, watering the garden of their talents and watching it bloom. I conference with individuals, but they steer the process. Some students create websites. Some do academic research. Some make graphic novels. There are poetry collections, speeches, vlogs, blogs, novel chapters, short fiction pieces, journals, artist portfolios, and screenplays. It’s a festival of creativity and commitment, all with a 100% personalized spin.

The best part of all of this is that it creates a spotlight for any student to step into, to create something that they sincerely enjoy, all the while keeping up the momentum and challenge of the year until the very end. I’m always inspired by what they create and present.

Want to try it this year? I’ll post my guidesheets here to get you started.

The Make-Your-Own Writing Project assignment description

Customizable Process-Based Rubric for assessment

Please feel free to use or modify my materials for your own teaching use, and tell me how it went in the comments. 🙂

Thanks, AP Lit kids of 2016-2017, for making this year another great one!

**All recognizable student images used with formal consent of students’ guardians  and/or student self-consent if eighteen.

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!

 

The Catwalk! A Closer Look at Everyday Modeling in the Writing Classroom

At my school, we’re a big fan of modeling. No… not that kind of modeling. There are no chic poses or fine fabrics involved. I’m talking about the catwalk that writing teachers walk when they demonstrate the process of writing in front of their students. This is a strategy that seems so simple, yet takes a lot of practice and guts to do. When we teach manual skills, like changing a tire or swinging a bat, it feels so natural to demonstrate what the skill looks like. But a more intellectual skill, like writing, for some reason doesn’t always invoke that same instinct. We explain and explain, telling our students to do something, all the while overlooking the possibility that showing them how to do it might be better! In my experience, student feedback confirms that it is better–they often mention how helpful it is to see writing modeled.

Earlier this year, my department was fortunate enough to be part of a workshop with Kelly Gallagher at the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English Convention. Here’s a great snap of us with Kelly, so happy to meet one of our teaching idols once again:

At the workshop, we were reminded keenly of the power of modeling when it comes to the reading, writing, and thinking skills we hope to see from students–Gallagher phrases it as “I go, you go.” First, the teacher demonstrates the writing skill, then the students try it out on their own. Ideally, this should be happening constantly in the writing classroom. But embracing modeling can mean getting a little bit vulnerable as a teacher… when you’re writing in front of students without having your words prepared beforehand, you’ll have lapses in ideas, moments of confusion, and probably some typos. Here’s the secret: that’s the best part about it all! When students see us struggle a little bit in the production of writing, it brings us down to earth for them. It helps them to understand that writing doesn’t just emerge fully formed from anyone’s hand, no matter how much experience is behind it. They start to see writing less as a mysterious, built-in talent and more as a problem solving process. If the quality of the writing doesn’t turn out too well on the first try, it just creates an ideal opportunity to model some on-the-spot revision!

When I do modeling in my classroom, I bring up a blank notebook page on my document camera and just start writing away. If you don’t have a document camera, you can use Google Docs or the good old-fashioned chalkboard. I instruct my students to also take out their own notebooks to write along with me as I model. (Yep, they create their own example by writing exactly what I write, word for word. This might sound odd, but I’ve actually read in many writing guides that copying down the work of better writers somehow helps us internalize new skills in phrasing and style. Author Hunter S. Thompson reportedly once copied the entirety of The Great Gatsby by hand.) In the teacher-writer role, I verbally get as meta-cognitive as possible, narrating not only what I’m writing, but why I’m making language choices along the way. Sometimes I’ll also define words or pose questions. Let me show you how it works!

In our current synthesis writing unit, our Communications III team is using This American Life as a way to introduce the concept of synthesis–like a synthesis essay, the show revolves around a central idea, presents the viewpoint of the author (host), and uses disparate sources to create a conversation about the central idea. To kick off our unit, we showed them an episode entitled “Reality Check.” After each segment, I paused the video to discuss and relate it back to synthesis. Since I’ll be asking my students to write a synthesis piece later in the unit, I’m modeling writing skills whenever I can, in order to get them trained up. In this case, I wanted them to get comfortable with the ideas of “giving context” and “connecting to the big idea” when introducing a source. In a complicated task like synthesis, building little skills like these are valuable tools to refer back to when we get into the real deal. It’s nothing fancy, but it doesn’t have to be. View and click below to see the examples I created with my students and listen to my think-aloud to get an idea for what modeling looks like on the average day in Room 310.

What I said (please pardon the pauses as I stop to write):

What we wrote:

For the third portion of the episode, students write their own context + connection to the big idea, so I can get an idea of how well they understood this skill. I don’t worry at this point if their words turn out being “mysteriously similar” to those in my models–we’re in the training wheels stage, and they may not be ready to experiment with words independently just yet in this context. They will get there when they feel strong! The idea is to give them exposure to as many writing skills as possible so they’re ready to apply them when drafting begins. On Monday, we’re working on commas, colons, and semicolons in complex sentences. One thing at a time. 🙂

I wouldn’t say I’m a supermodel like Kelly Gallagher quite yet. But I’m walking the walk as best I can. I hope you will consider doing the same, and see some great things result from your students’ work. Be the model you were born to be!