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Monthly Archives: June 2009

I am a huge believer in learning and assessing through projects rather than traditional quizzes and tests. Why? Because it’s fun. Because it’s meaningful. Because it’s WAY more interesting. And, best of all, because it works.

In his article “Why Teach With Project Learning?: Providing Students With a Well-Rounded Classroom Experience”, Mark Nichol writes:

Students develop confidence and self-direction as they move through both team-based and independent work. In the process of completing their projects, students also hone their organizational and research skills, develop better communication with their peers and adults, and often work within their community while seeing the positive effect of their work. Because students are evaluated on the basis of their projects, rather than on the comparitively narrow rubrics defined by exams, essays, and written reports, assessment of project-based work is often more meaningful to them. They quickly see how academic work can connect to real-life issues.

Think about it–once people are out in the professional world, how often do they have to prove their competency through a multiple choice test? (*Hint: Not that often*) Then: how often do they show their skills through something they create, organize, write, or design? (*Hint: all the time!*)  Thankfully, professional development training and teacher education programs are really starting to promote this view. And I’m happy about it.

There’s just one catch–it can be REALLY DIFFICULT to come up with a creative project idea that students will get into and that the teacher knows will accurately assess what’s been taught. I’m currently creating curriculum for a five week project-based summer session for English 7-9, and I’m suddenly, harshly remembering the brain-exhausting realities of coming up with “something good.”  While I work on that, here’s a sampling of major projects that worked very well for me this past semester…

1. Food Research (Grade 12)

Looking for an interesting twist on the overdone but required task of teaching research writing, I organized a research project around food. This is a subject that everyone can get into. Each student picked a feature food to research and was expected to find answers to all kinds of things about this food. [Like: How is it prepared? Where and when did it originate? What culture, religion, or history is it tied to? What influence does the harvest of this food have on the job market and economy? Are there traditional or emotional connotations to this food? And so on…] I used this, along with samples of actual culinary writing from cookbooks, reviews, newspapers, and magazines to ground the unit. At the end, we had a “Food Symposium,” where each researcher had a booth with an actual sample of his or her food and an information board about what they learned, as well as a standard MLA research paper. It was great, and we all learned way more than we expected from such a seemingly simple topic. Plus, we got to build community over our shared foods–it was like Thanksgiving in March.

2. Song Interpretation (Grade 9)

We were studying how music and lyrics of Bob Marley reflected and celebrated Jamaican culture. This was kind of a blend of culture study and poetic interpretation, which involved students looking and listening in depth to many reggae titles. Students selected a song by Marley to focus on and then, armed with their knowledge of the themes within the song, selected a contemporary song that they felt was similar in message. Students reported and gave audio examples of the similarities between two songs that, though different in era and regional origin, told similar stories. It was cool to see them get into the meaning behind music that was important to them, to look at it in a literary way.

3. Media Presentation (Grade 12)

After studying media forms and the harmful or helpful effects of media messages, my students were given the task of creating a meaningful message with a positive purpose–creating awareness about a social issue that was important to them individually. (These ran the gamut from human trafficking to poverty to nicotine use to endangered species.) The real great part about this project was its versatility. It had two segments. Part A, which every student did, was a powerpoint slideshow about their issue that displayed knowledge of the visual/textual balance of media presentation. Part B was a choice project on the same issue, which students got to select from a wide range of options. [Public service announcement, magazine advertisement, poster, poem, rap, webquest, comic, soundtrack, etc.] I had a rubric for each option, which was a lot of work on my part; but it was awesome to see what the students came up with. It is so inspiring to see students use their own best gifts to create something that makes the world a better place.

Today was my final day of student teaching–my transition day from an intern teacher to a licensed professional. I feel very “floaty”…   Reality hasn’t sunk in yet.  But it’s there, somewhere in the back of my consciousness: I’m done. Walking out of the doors of the school where I learned how to really step up and teach felt so strange. It’s amazing to me how a place that seems so large and generic upon first visit turns into a home. I keep thinking of my (now empty) classroom, where so many frustrations, questions, and breakthroughs occurred.

In the spirit of celebration, here are my favorite final moments with each of my classes.

Ninth Graders

For my final unit with my freshman, I had them create a literary magazine. They worked through a series of five writing projects (character sketch, poetry, comic, flash fiction, and editorial), and then did extensive revisions based on my comments, their own ideas, and the feedback of their peers. They then selected one or more of their projects to publish in a class literary magazine, which I put together with their artwork, biographies, and introduction. On the last day of class, each contributor got a bound copy. We then squeezed our 32 desks into a circle and each writer who wanted to could read from their piece. They wanted to stand in the middle of the circle, so I said, “why not?” It was so charming to see these precocious, vibrant, sassy kids get their moment with all eyes on them, reading their own writing with flashing eyes and lilting voices.  They were so proud, and it did my heart good to see these kids stand in the spotlight, seeing their original words on the page, important and real.

Twelfth Graders

My senior class, which really became a family this last nine-week session, has been an absolute joy to teach, so I was very sad to see them go a week earlier than my other students for graduation. Their final exam was on a Friday, and I spent the weekend glumly denying the fact that I would miss them terribly. But on Monday, they came back! Nearly my entire class came back–bearing food and cake and gifts as a surprise party for me. It was so much fun to let down serious teacher mode for that final, extra day and just enjoy the company of my students for one more 90-minute class. I was proud to announce that every last student passed English 12, and many of them with flying colors! I was so honored and touched by the awesome party that they threw for me. As we sat, celebrated, and shared our plans for the future, I could do nothing but smile. I’ll end this post with the letter that they wrote for me–no doubt I will never forget my very first group of seniors!

Dear Miss “H”,

From the gracious and humble bottoms of each and every one of your senior students’ hearts, we all thank you for being a well-crafted teacher who understood us as youthful and changing teenagers that needed a little bit of guidance and direction, because, let’s be honest, we are all approaching adulthood at a steady pace and we are very much scared out of our minds at how the future is going to be. We have all had a good time in this class. Even when we all doubted that we were going to like Hamlet, you showed us otherwise. After reading Hamlet, I kind of have a little more willingness to live, to be, to not die, to not sleep, to not dream perchance, but to be awakened and take action. And I will do just that, but after summer vacation of course! We congratulate you on your award for teaching and once again we thank you for being the best student teacher ever!

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I recently completed my final unit with my senior class–Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While I was told that Shakespeare would be nearly impossible for my students to relate to or enjoy, I was determined to teach this play. My reasoning behind this was manifold. First and foremost, being aware of the reputation of Shakespeare as difficult and sophisticated, I wanted to give my students–students from an urban school identified as “in need of improvement” by the state–the chance to tackle a task that most degree-holding adults shy away from. I knew they were bright and I knew they could handle it, and I wanted everyone to know it. Second, I liked the idea of a unit where I could teach some acting skills as a form of understanding and expression. I am a huge proponent of instruction that allows students to move and play–it tricks them into loving what they’re learning and is immensely entertaining to watch! Third, I have a deep respect and love for the tragedy of Hamlet–it approaches so many important and universal questions. Is life worth living? Why are we here? Where’s the borderline between sanity and insanity? What is honor? What costs go along with revenge? What sacrifice is love worth? How do our choices create our ultimate destiny?

Throughout the unit, I gave my students a wide variety of support in addition to the original text which, yes, they did read in entirety. However, every day I gave them a different way of interacting with the play’s plot, characters, and themes: Modern language interpretations, pop culture references, video clips from both modern and traditional performances in film and on stage, non-verbal expression, fine art, graphic novels, music, non-verbal expression, character roleplay, creative writing, debate, and (of course) acting.

While initially intimidated by the antiquated language, my students soon embraced Hamlet. They connected readily to the ideas at the core of the play–the truth that we all have people who we love, we all have pain, and we all have tough choices to make. Hamlet is merely one man’s journey through the challenging life that we all must take part in. As we got further and further into the text, my students became adept at interpreting Shakespeare’s language and reinterpreting it in discussion. By the time we were reading the final scene, they were so into it that when a student stumbled over the words for a moment, the class couldn’t handle the suspense, yelling “JUST LEAVE IT! KEEP GOING! READ!!”

For their final projects, my students staged full scenes from Hamlet in the original Shakespearean wording, using what they learned about verbal and non-verbal expression to convey character emotions, motivations, and thoughts. They did not let me down. Each performance was heartfelt and spot-on–the Elizabethan English rolled off their tongues in a fresh, genuine fashion, like a mixture of rap and lullaby. It was an English teacher’s paradise. And they were very proud of tackling and succeeding at such a formidable literary challenge. I can’t tell you how much glee it brought me to have conversations like this with other staff members walking past our door:

“Uh… What are you all doing in there?”

“We’re rehearsing scenes from Hamlet.”

“What?”

“You know, Shakespeare’s famous play.”

“Really?   …   Oh.”

With their devoted, standout performances, my students obliterated the normal expectations of their school. I was in awe of them.

Moral of the story? Shakespeare’s still alive. And while it is a stretch for today’s students to connect with his words at first, it is possible. And really teaching it well is fufilling, meaningful, and very, very fun.

I thought I’d share a quick little strategy that I stole from one of my college professors: the index card attendance method.

Each student gets an index card with his or her last name printed nice and big on the front. Before each class, the cards are spread out on a table or desk. As a student enters the room, he or she is responsible for finding the card and placing it on the teacher’s desk (or projector or other location of your choice). Once all the students have arrived and moved their cards to the desk, the teacher can simply grab the pile that’s left and click off attendance in a matter of seconds.

I like this method for several reasons.

1. It makes taking attendance quick and painless. (Just a quick spot check is needed in case of fraudulent card relocations.)

2. It gives each student an action that says–everyday–“This is me, and I am here, ready to learn.” The students, though a little resistant at first, really learn to love this routine. Trust me, if you forget to put them out, you’ll have kids genuinely upset, saying, “Where’s my card?!” Even high school seniors.

3. The cards can also be used to assign groups at random (pick three cards–there’s your group), assign seats for a test (just leave the cards on the desk where the student should sit), or record participation points (have them handy during class discussion and keep tally marks).

Attendance cards. It’s a good thing.

Today, I got the official notification that I have been selected as the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English Outstanding Student Teacher for 2008-2009! I will be recognized for this honor at the WCTE convention in Milwaukee this coming October. I am extraordinarily proud of this accomplishment. What an honor!

I’m excited to represent UWM and the amazing community of educators that have taught me and helped me grow so much over the past year!

Assuming my proposal is accepted, I’m also planning to present at the convention on the topic of teaching grammar in context through visual arts. This is a happy day indeed.