Friday, February 27, 2009

Why Literature Matters

"It is difficult to get the news from poems,
yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."
William Carlos Williams

Williams reminds me again about why I believe there is power in literature, even texts from centuries ago. Some authors have their fingers squarely on the pulse of humanity. Williams would probably be sorely confused to hear he was commenting on the preponderance of Internet skimming, but his wisdom gives us much to think about in this world of Web 2.0 overload. As much as I know skimming is a skill we all need (I went to college pre-web-2.0 days and still had to rely on skimming for those 1000 poli sci pages I was to read every week!), slowing down to ponder and connect is what feeds our minds and souls. I hope, by the end of my time with my students, that they have found something in their lives they enjoy reading enough to slow down and live by and through and with ...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Joining the Conversation

I have reworked my students' final research project on Othello to link more closely with what they will be expected to do in college and in any proposal or paper they have to write for their careers. I want them to see that anything they write is joining a conversation already happening, and that their goal is to listen to the conversation and offer a new voice. Having worked through the play using our ning, I wanted the paper to be a natural continuance of this conversation. In this way, research is done with the goal of responding back to it, whether through agreement and further examination or disagreement and formulation of new ideas. Here is what I have for the assignment sheet. My students start this in a few days, so I am looking forward to seeing what they do with the work. They have an amazing way of always doing even more than I hope.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How Is It Going?

I had my class reflect on their work in our Othello ning today. For homework last night, they had no set work to do in the ning; instead they were to explore what has been going on and comment where they were moved to do so. To start class today, I had them send me an email that began, "I noticed ..." They could finish with things they learned about the play, their classmates, the ning, whatever had struck them.

Here is what one student wrote: "I noticed...that I LOVE the Ning! It’s been really helpful because I’ve been able to see other’s thoughts. I liked that I was able to compare the different paraphrasing people did of Iago’s speech, it helped me get a strong understanding of what he was saying by looking at all points of view. Also, in my character discussion group of Desdemona, I find the Ning very helpful. I really like that we can just throw an idea on there and then let others add on to it or find evidence to support it. It’s a great way for us all to be able to work together without getting confusing."

Wow. I want to hug her. I want to jump up and down. I want to hope that my other students are feeling at least a part of what she feels.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What Really Works

Last night, I participated in my third Elluminate PLP session with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson. Sheryl and Will were working with us to explore the truism that it is not the tools or the content that matters for good teaching -- it is how we teach. The pedagogy. Hearing that was music to my ears because so often we teachers, in our day-to-day busy-ness, lose sight of this most important thing. So we do not talk about pedagogy enough -- and maybe we can never talk about it enough because there is always something new to learn.

And that is what Sheryl then helped us do. She asked us to think of the teaching strategies we use that are most effective at helping our students learn, and we shared them in the chat. While we only had time to explore a few, it got me thinking that this would be a very powerful activity for every teacher to do every now and then. So here is my list:
  • Higher-order questioning: Using follow-up questions (even those as simple as, "Why?") to push my students to explain and dig deeper into their answers
  • Student-to-student discussions: These can be done in a variety of ways (jigsaw, fishbowling, etc), but the one that has worked the best for me recently has been the online discussion board.
  • Reflection: Asking at the end of a lesson, when a student gets an assignment back, at the end of a novel, whenever there is an end moment -- What did you learn? What might you still need to learn? Wha goals do you have?
  • Portfolios: This is usually labeled as an assessment method, but I think it is equally a teaching strategy (and linked to "reflection" above). The process of looking over the year, pulling out moments to remember, and reflecting on those is a lifelong lesson.
  • Writing with my students: They know you value something when you are willing to do it too, and you see so clearly what they are experiencing.

What are your best teaching strategies?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Life of a Writer

One of my goals for this year was to bring an author to speak to our Upper School. We had an ambassador and public health official speak last year, and the impact of hearing how people ended up in their careers was powerful. I knew I wanted to add a writer to that.

However, having a goal does not mean I can achieve it, particularly in these financial times. Our department budget has been restricted, and finding an author to come with little to offer was not high on my list. Enter technology! Ah, Will Richardson, you will love this story of the wonders of the web ...

I got an email from a Virginia author, Maggie Stiefvater, who had found my name listed as the department coordinator on my school's website. She sent me her information, including links to reviews about her new book and to her blog. I liked what I saw. Many of our students devour fantasy outside of the classroom, and it seemed that people were devouring Maggie's book already. Turns out because we are so close to her, she will come for much less money because she wants to encourage students to pursue lives as writers.

So, Maggie is coming Monday to present to our students. The connections the web have allowed between published authors and us as readers are astounding. In this singular instance, I would never have found Maggie before the web allowed us to find each other. But in a bigger sense, students can meet and learn from authors without them coming to our school. My students this past fall found Paulo Coelho's website and ended up friending him on Facebook and following some of his blog. I was so interested in seeing their reactions to this discovery because Coelho became a different kind of writer to them. They commented that he was even more connected through technology than they were, and this gave him a relevance that was subtle but definitely there. I plan to have my students next year delve even more into the ways we can connect with Coelho, but really, this spontaneous connection was better than any lesson plan I will develop.

So thank you to Maggie and Paulo and any other authors who have made themselves available to the world. My students may just become writers because of you.