Monday, October 27, 2008

Why do things seem so different?

"While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find, nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another, ready to be accessed by laptops, cellphones, and iPods. Classrooms built to re-enforce the top-down authoritative knowledge of the teacher are now enveloped by a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where knowledge is made, not found, and authority is continuously negotiated through discussion and participation. In short, they tell us that our walls no longer mark the boundaries of our classrooms."

Read the whole article by Dr. Wesch here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Poetry Out Loud

Our Upper School participated in this program for the first time last year, and we thought it was a roaring success. My colleague Jennifer just signed us up again for this year, so I have been thinking about ways to make sure it is as successful this year as last -- the newness is gone, so how do we keep the energy up? Have any of you done this competition? Any insight into what works very well for you? Any insight into what the state and national judges are really looking for?

Here is what I think worked best for us:
1. All Upper School English teachers memorized a poem, and we all recited at the all-school meeting where we introduced the contest. I found I could then really talk with my students about the challenges yet benefits of poetry memorization and recitation.
2. All Upper School students were required in their English classes to prepare and recite a poem. This got everyone involved.
3. The whole Upper School was the audience for our class winners competing to be the school winner. Since everyone had memorized a poem, they all understood what those on stage were up against.

Literary Terms Quiz

After we study our class literary terms handbook, my students have fun testing themselves with this quiz -- it even requires correct spelling (something that kills some of them ...).

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My Students' Turn to Have a Voice

My students and I have just finished our first theme: utopias and dystopias. Because of my new essential questions, as we headed towards the final assessments, my mind was spinning looking for ways to make these assessments real world and challenging. I ended up tossing both the test and writing assignment I had used for the past few years and coming up with new ones.

1. The Test:

A. The first part of the test was student-written multiple choice questions on a passage from Brave New World. Since this is an AP class, MC questions loom over us, but I do not do this just for the AP exam. Instead, my department is looking to inject a LITTLE more practice on this kind of assessment just to fully prepare our college-bound students for what they will encounter. Our school as a whole rarely gives MC tests, so a little practice now and then means we are offering our students a fair shot at future MC tests. But more importantly, the act of breaking down a passage and formatting complex analysis questions (with both right and plausible-yet-wrong answers) calls for high-level thinking. Just because the format is MC does not mean they are easy to write.

B. The essay was my favorite part: Test Essay. My students soared. They obviously spent time preparing, and in the end they showed me they understood the literature we had discussed, its implications for our own world, and how they could read an argument, understand it, and decide whether they agreed or not with it based on their own wealth of knowledge.

2. The Writing Assignment: I purposely scaffolded the test essay to link to this writing assignment. After the students had fully understood and digested Greenberg's editorial, they got to write their own. They had to think about both their content and style, and they were striving to become published authors. I just finished grading their editorials, and I think the journalism teacher is going to have a hard time narrowing it down to only four to submit. In the end, my students thought about their own worlds with the founding knowledge of centuries of others thinking about their worlds. They joined the conversation.

P.S. Once my winner is selected, I will be sure to publish the link to their editorial!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Exploring Books Together

Today my students and I had "Book Celebration Day." This is one of my favorite days each quarter because we spend the whole period talking about the books we read for our regular choice reading and whether others should read them. I have added a few things that have made this an even better day.

1. LibraryThing: My students and I are part of a class group, and we each post a review of our books before class. Then, as each of us is talking about our books, I project up the reviews. We can see how many stars the reader gives the book plus the overall average star rating of all LibraryThing users. When students are choosing their next novels, they can go back on and reread any reviews of novels that peaked their interests. It is a great way to collaborate even more with what we are reading.

2. Creative Technology: I also updated my suggestions for the creative responses to their novels. I added voice and video options as well as keeping more traditional models and creative writing ideas. I really want the students to explore with this assignment -- we do enough literary analysis as it is for all of our other assignments. Today I got a recording of a speech putting Napoleon from Animal Farm on trial, a musical and image collage about Paradise Lost, a Google Earth exploration of the airports from Fight Club plus a beautiful painting of a clock inspired by Clockwork Orange and a model of The Road.

My students and I now have a load of new books our classmates have told us we must read.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Truth to Remember

"It doesn't take a lot of time to change … to reinvent … or to redesign. No, it doesn't take time; it takes will. The will to change. The will to take a risk. The will to become incompetent – at least for a while" (Seth Godin from Fast Company).

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Essential Questions and Connecting to the World

It has been an interesting exercise for my teaching brain to focus my course on essential questions this year. I knew it would be great for the class itself because I had worked with smaller unit questions last year to really good results. What I realized very quickly though was I had to integrate the essential questions into my daily lessons or my students (and probably me too) would forget they even existed. My students are now finishing their first theme (Utopias and Dystopias), and I think the questions are second nature to them. I am curious to see in the next unit if I can be less overt about the questions and if my students will then take over connecting them. I suppose this all goes back to good teaching in general -- a teacher works hard at the start of the year to create the classroom climate that underpins the whole year. Using essential questions turned out to be no different.

As we were bringing together our utopia study this week, I was trying to drive home even more directly our question about how reading world literature would make us world citizens who think. So, I told my class that they had seen me bring in real-world connections to our studies through magazine, newspaper, and web articles I had come across. I wanted to let them know that THEY could be the ones doing this. Well, what do you know -- I had two students bring in connections the very next day. We had a great time looking at them -- one is the picture at the opening of this post (she promises she was not moving when she snapped the photo of the car in front of her!) and one was this article.

In the end, all of my students' interesting essential question work and the real-life connections they are making just proves to me again that students will achieve at the level you expect them to. They will do amazing things when they believe you believe they can.