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!

Composition and Revision are Remixing: Creativity as a Growth Mindset

Does the phrase “growth mindset” ring a bell? It’s a term from the book MindSet: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck–a title that is quickly making the rounds among educators at all levels. Dweck’s argument is powerful; essentially, her research shows that people who approach their capacity to learn and achieve as built-in, or “fixed,” are eventually limited in their capacity to find success. In contrast, those who adopt a growth mindset see their learning capacity as an infinite pool, where effort applied equates to possible gain, and failure creates opportunity to evolve. People who adopt a growth mindset are more likely to find fulfillment and success. 

Like many of my colleagues, I’ve set a personal goal to incorporate the idea of the growth mindset into my teaching. One of the areas where I think this works especially well is in the learning of creativity. Often, I hear a student who is attempting a free form writing assignment say, “I don’t know what to do. I’m not creative.” That is a fixed mindset if I ever heard one! And it’s a particularly dangerous one. When students abandon the idea that they are capable of creating something new, something unique, or something innovative on their own, they are in essence asking to be told what to do. They’re saying I’m not good enough to stand on my own. Just give me a formula.  Let me be a robot.  I forsake my power as a thinker, writer, and person. If we want the next generation to be able to create their own success, this can’t happen.

That being said, creative work is hard. It’s really intimidating. Suddenly, instead of languishing in the comfort of meeting standardized requirements, students have to think about whether or not their work is “good.” They need a vision. And so many times that prospect can be paralyzing for those that never learned about the failure-ridden, growth-rich process of creativity. 

How does one help students adopt a growth mindset about creativity? I’m still figuring this out, but I have a start for you. And it involves Calvin and Hobbes.

Last year I wrote a post on the new Writer’s Sandbox unit that I teach in my junior Communications class. This year is Year Two of this versatile, dynamic writing unit that was designed to build confidence, creativity, and breadth in our students’ writing. To kick off the unit this year, I wanted to teach about the creativity-as-process early and up front. I started by drawing this on the board:

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[Click to enlarge the image]

I told my students that it’s crucial to see creativity as a process, not just something someone is magically endowed with. Instead, it’s about practicing doing the work of transforming raw material by adding, subtracting, rearranging, or changing it. The creative product is the result of that work. “We have to start with something,” I told them. “That’s the first step. Sometimes we generate that something; sometimes we find it. Today, I found it for you. We’ll start there.”

The raw material I provided my students were cut-apart photocopies of pages from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comics. Anyone who has read them can recognize the creative masterwork that Watterson created, which means his raw material–the drawings and words–are pretty solid too. I put hundreds of panels in a pile, all mixed up: raw material, ready to go.

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“Follow the process,” I told my class. I had provided them with raw material. Now, they were expected to add, subtract, rearrange, or change that material. I asked for a “remix” of the strip–students could edit words, draw additional content, and re-contextualize each panel to fit their new vision. 

The fact that this was a crafty, cut-and-paste activity that let students play with comics really lessened the pressure of risk that many students put on themselves during creative tasks. It turned out to be the perfect entry point into the subsequent writing unit. For instance, when we moved on to writing flash memoir pieces, students understood that making memory lists was our way of generating raw material. It didn’t matter whether the original material was “good.” It was just material to be re-envisioned. Once we started drafting, students were also more willing to revise in significant ways, trusting that rearranging, adding, and cutting were again parts of the creative process.

There’s a huge value in designing small activities that a teacher can use as a case study for a new process or skill. I find myself reminding my class about the comic remix activity every time we approach a creative task. It works as an analogy to the larger process, and reminds me that sometimes our lessons need to be designed to help students learn more than just content. Sometimes our lessons need to help them learn a new way to think.

Just as Calvin sees so much more than just a stuffed tiger toy when he looks at Hobbes, our students have a whole world of creative possibility inside their brains. It’s our job to help them know how to find it!

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[Click to enlarge the image]

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.

Listening Down the Hallway: Teaching Through Doubt

Teaching is unpredictable on many different levels. Sometimes it seems like our very existence in the classroom is governed by uncertainty. This uncertainty can pop up in many small ways. What will my students be like today? What will they do? What will they need? What unforeseen events or circumstances will I need to adapt to? Did I say the right things today? Did my students learn from me? 

Uncertainty can surge up in the form of much larger questions, too. Am I really making a difference? What will my future as an educator look like? Do people find any value in what I do? Am I even in the right careerEspecially in times of high stress or low staff morale, the sandpit of doubt manifests surreptitiously beneath our feet. And getting out of it can be… a special challenge.

Having one such day recently, I walked down the long Communications Department hallway to make some copies during my prep hour. I was treading carefully (because of the metaphorical quicksand and all), so I’ll admit that I was walking a bit more slowly than usual. As it turned out, slowing down physically also quieted my mind. The worried questions that had been scrolling in my head dropped off one by one, and by the time I was halfway down the hall, my head was clear. In that mind-quiet, I become suddenly aware of what I was hearing: a whole hallway worth of my colleagues teaching, a chorus of voices simultaneously audible through their respective classroom doors. Mr. B’s hip introspection. Mrs. L’s patient guidance. Mrs. G’s honest laughter. Mrs. H’s enthusiastic explanation. Mrs. F’s wry wit. And Mrs. U’s unbelievably clear and carrying Teacher Voice with a capital T. You have to understand, these people are really good teachers.

I stopped for a minute, and leaned against a locker.

I listened.

I let the sounds weave a poem in the air and my sense of uncertainty floated away like a tetherless buoy. These are good days, I thought. These are good days with good people. I was literally hearing learning happen. Over a hundred students just behind each door in the hallway were all learning at once in the same space. And beyond that, more hallways with more students were learning even more things all at once! As can happen when one deeply ponders otherwise obvious facts, it staggered me to think about it. Such a massive force for good was happening, and I was there, standing right in the middle of it.

I don’t have a catch all answer to doubt. But I know that there’s one thing I won’t ever doubt. I will never doubt that teachers everywhere are working really hard to be there for their students. And when I think about all the fantastic teaching that’s happening in my hallway (and the hallways beyond mine in all the school, all the city, all the state, and all the country!) all at once, the magnitude of sheer, recklessly dedicated courage that teachers bring to work with them each day comes into focus. To teach is to have the confidence to say, “I know some things about the world. I want to share them with you. I want to teach you how to walk in this way, to write and speak and read.” To teach requires a boldness that slices through doubt. On the days when I feel like I’m not the one who has it, all I need to do is listen down the hallway to be reminded that I’m in the most capable of company. My colleagues are my steady ground–a plank across the sand.

If you feel your steps start to sink, take a moment in the hallway to listen and admire the fellow teachers around you. There’s a lot of intellectual firepower there, and a lot of love.

These are good days with good people.

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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!

New Year Classroom Resolutions

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It’s a new year in Room 310. And since I just got married a couple weeks ago, it also means a new name for me! One of my first challenges of the school year will be adjusting to my new moniker. It’s not going to be easy. In a profession where people have constantly addressed me by my last name for the past six years, it’s going to take some concentration to introduce myself correctly as Mrs. Casey. Some of my former students will be confused for a while, but it’s a happy confusion that I’ll enjoy celebrating with them. So, on to Year Seven! I have many goals in mind for the new year, but I’ll share my biggest 2015 classroom resolution here.

THE GOAL

This year, I’d like to grow my classroom borrowing library into a more impressive and useful one. Here’s my September 2015 “Before” shot, which shows the full extent of my current collection. It’s laughably small:

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BEFORE

THE REASON BEHIND THE GOAL

Last year, my department started making a major move to establish a reading culture at our school. And it worked. Students are, for the most part, increasingly willing–sometimes even eager!–to make independent reading a part of their weekly academic experience. One of the important aspects of encouraging students to read is making sure that books are visible and readily available. A fantastic way to do this is to host a classroom library. Several of my colleagues have already been taking this philosophy to heart for years, and have expansive, exciting, meticulously catalogued collections of books surrounding the full perimeter of their classrooms. It’s humbling and awesome. As you can see above, my library is downright paltry in comparison. If I really want to commit to helping my students grow as readers, this is something that I can do to get there.

THE METHODOLOGY

I’m going to work on obtaining books primarily through free or almost-free means. I plan to get the word out to my own social networks, asking for hand-me-downs that people have enjoyed but no longer wish to hang on to. Many people are avid readers who enjoy passing on titles that they’ve finished. I’ll also encourage my students and their families to donate gently-loved books for a little bit of extra credit. I’m also going to spend a bit of my own money (but not a dollar more than the $250.00 that educators can deduct on their taxes for classroom expenses) at places like Goodwill or Half Price Books to get some high interest titles. If grants or other donations are available, I can pursue those as well.

For managing this collection, I’ve downloaded a simple app for my phone called “Lend it!”. It’s an easy-to-use resource for keeping track of texts that have been lent out to students. By putting in their school e-mail addresses when they borrow a book from me, students will get an automatic reminder when their agreed upon “due date” is coming up. I’ll get reminders, too, and access to an evolving, current list of which kid has what. I’ve also labeled each of my books with a neon sticker that has a “C” on it (for Casey!), so that my books are easily distinguishable from those that come from other classroom collections.

I’m looking forward to taking my classroom library from flab… to fab! Watch for the “After” photo next June!

 

Back to School 2015: Have a Karaoke Year!

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One of my favorite teaching memories actually has nothing to do with curriculum. It was the very end of the school year three years ago, during the last period of the seniors’ last day of school. As it worked out, that final hour was a flexible resource period, usually used for remediation or enrichment in learning. But since it was the last day, I did something a little more unconventional–I offered a karaoke session (surprisingly easy to organize with the power of YouTube) for any of my seniors who were brave enough to sign up. It’s a memory that still makes me smile unfailingly. Just me and a bunch of students who I had worked with over the course of three years, taking turns belting out ballads in the spotlight and laughing with delight at the utter seriousness with which each performer approached the task, regardless of skill level. We brought it home with a team-sing of “Hey, There, Delilah” by the Plain White T’s, sitting in a circle of school desks, watching the words pop up on the projector screen, and feeling summer right around the corner. Magic.

As I stand veritably peaking around the stage curtains of the new school year, I am intensely reminded of that moment. And I think that the concept of karaoke might have something important to do with how teachers can approach this new year. Maybe it’s because I’m still a little nostalgic for that special class of 2012. Maybe it’s because I watched the MTV Video Music Awards last night and Kanye West said, “Listen to the kids.” I’m not sure. But this metaphor of karaoke is working for me right now. Hear me out.

Karaoke is like good teaching.

You know the song. It’s familiar. You’ve been listening to it for years. The words are right there to look at. You’re ready. You have a plan. You walk up to the front of the room and grab the mic.

The plan doesn’t always work, though. Maybe the track is in a different key than you expected. Maybe you accidentally stumbled over the different lyrics of the radio edit. Maybe someone decides to join you on stage and it was not intentional.

But you muddle through. You sing your heart out. You recover and you rock it. Because you Love. This. Song.

And after you’ve had your brief moment in the spotlight, time moves forward and people mill around, resettle. Some of them might have been distracted by their own thoughts and completely missed it. But most of them clap, because if nothing else, they know that you’ve given them this raw, sometimes hilarious, always unique gift of your experience with this song. And every once in a while, that girl sitting way in the back, she got something really meaningful out of that performance. Most of the time, she quietly leaves without even saying “hi.” But it meant something awesome to her.

One woman show. Five days a week.

This is what we do. 

Bring ’em on! Happy new school year to all.

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

Mac-Backwards: A Film-First Approach to Shakespeare and Synthesis

KidStatements

Ah, Macbeth. It’s one of the darkest, evilest, most disturbing stories in classical literature. Not even the beauty of Shakespeare’s language can brighten the “deep and black desires” of the Scottish Play. It’s also a standard inclusion in our current Communications III curriculum. And it represents a bit of a Waterloo for me–it’s a Shakespearean text that I really struggle with teaching.

Normally, my approach to Shakespeare is as gung-ho as it gets. I love the language. I love the stories. I love everything about the experience of reading Shakespeare. This passion usually translates into teaching success. But last year, as I began Macbeth with my junior students, I found myself fighting to keep my students engaged in the text. By the end, only a few stragglers came away with something intelligent to say about the play, and many even lacked a basic comprehension of the story, despite the fact that we read almost all of it together in class. So what the heck went wrong?

Here’s the thing. Macbeth is really, really hard to teach to high school students. For one, almost every character is a male in the military, and many of their names sound the same. This sets us up for trouble understanding right from the get-go. But it’s more than that. The most effective way of teaching Shakespeare to young people in my experience is helping the students to make connections between their own lives and the realities of the characters. In other plays by the Bard like Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, those connections are easily accessible–have you ever been in love? Been jealous? Been grieving? Been convinced that you needed to change your identity? Been out past curfew to meet someone you weren’t supposed to meet? All these adolescent realities are reflected in many of Shakespeare’s works. But who on Earth can connect with Macbeth? At first, sure–the lure of a prize, of leadership, and respect–those are things that students understand. But they can’t accept the depth to with Macbeth is willing to step into blood as the play escalates into increasing violence. The moment MacB arranges to off his own friend Banquo and Banquo’s young son, the kids tune out. Struggling through the language isn’t worth it for a jerk like Macbeth. They don’t understand his  endless military lust, and they don’t really care what happens to him. When you really think about it, can you blame them?

This year, I knew that having students see Shakespeare in themselves wasn’t going to work with Macbeth. But I still had to teach it. So why not alter the purpose for reading the text? Rather than using it to understand human experience, why not use it as a pathway for analyzing ideas? Why not use it as a tool rather than a tale? This was the concept that guided the new approach, which was to create a synthesis writing unit where Macbeth was a key, shared text. My teaching team and I saw a greater amount of success with this new approach, which reminded me that the purposes for reading classical texts do not always have to be classicist in nature. Key components of the revamped unit are detailed below.

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USING SHAKESPEARE AS A SPRINGBOARD TO SYNTHESIS

1. Let students know the intended purpose and methodology for reading the text up front. At the beginning of the unit, I explained the difference between the Shakespeare reading experience of Romeo and Juliet, which our students read during freshman year, and this Macbeth unit. I explained that we were looking for the big ideas and themes within the work, rather than reading to decode the nuances of Shakespearean language. (These are two good, but very different purposes.)

2. Read it backwards–film  first. It’s okay to provide the story ahead of time, when students are being expected to work with Shakespeare in a concept-based way. I provided my students with basic information and character profiles, the Sparknotes video summary and my own narration of the story. We then viewed the 2010 (Patrick Stewart) film version of Macbeth, with subtitles. I also provided a film guide  that broke each scene down into modern, accessible language. [Here’s my day three, for your reference.] In a sense, they read the whole thing in the process of experiencing the performance, as the work was originally intended by its author.

3. Define and introduce the big ideas. While viewing the film, students were encouraged to note and discuss times when five key ideas appeared in the play: Honor, Masculinity, Control, Fate, and Ambition. These ideas were consistently returned to and reinforced, whenever possible via brief discussions about current events where these concepts are in play.

4. Help students revisit the “not to be missed!” segments of the original text, and skip the rest. I know. It feels like cheating, but hear me out. In this scenario, the purpose for reading the text is not to decode Shakespeare’s every word. The purpose is to examine what statements the story makes about big ideas. So, we focused on reading just a selection of key scenes: the witches’ prophecies, “The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step on which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,” Lady Macbeth’s coercion of her husband, the dagger scene, “Full of scorpions is my mind,” the banquet scene, “Out, damned spot!”, and “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” During this process, I provided reading strategies for difficult, unfamiliar text, a skill that certainly translates beyond Shakespeare. This way, they got to experience the authentic language in a limited way that still left time for the rest of our unit!

5. Encourage personal discussion/reactions to the big ideas of the text. I came up with a set of starter questions to help students with this–questions like “Do the ends justify the means?” We had discussions about these questions and then compared our own perspectives with the perspective that Shakespeare presents via Macbeth. This is the perfect set-up to working with synthesis.

*Question List     *Perspective Comparison Chart

6. Demonstrate the creation of a thematic statement surrounding one of the five big ideas. I coached my students to use the question list as  a starting point to generate an idea-based statement which they could choose to defend, attack, or qualify. They claimed their statements and stances via postcards that we displayed on the wall. (Pictured at the top of this post. Click to make it big!)

7. Students start researching and moving on to other sources, including but no longer limited to this single text. This moves into the planning and composition of a synthesis essay. Here’s where we went from there…

*Source Gathering Chart      *Synthesis Assignment Sheet

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My biggest takeaway after a second, much more successful try at teaching Macbeth this year is this: any kid can read any text and talk about it intelligently. They just need the proper support. Supporting students so that they can understand and think about a difficult text isn’t “cheating.” It’s teaching. As long as the challenge is coming from somewhere, it’s all good. This isn’t to say that there’s no value to struggling through a full Shakespearean play. In fact, that’s one of my FAVORITE things to do with students… but it’s not the only way, and perhaps it’s best to leave the classical, all-in, every-word method of studying Shakespeare to plays where the main character isn’t utterly, consistently despicable.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll just be sitting here awaiting the inevitable retribution for writing this post from the Macbeth curse. Wish me luck! 🙂