Monday, March 30, 2009

Finding the Gold

Today my blog is a celebration is teaching, learning, and students.

I am reading my seniors last formal research papers of the year. As I read, I am making a list to show my classes of the "gold nuggets" of writing I have found in their papers. I am so proud of their writing. I can see their work on literary analysis coming through with their use of our literary vocabulary. I can see their confidence as thinkers from our collaborative work and essential questions coming through in their unique and exploratory tones and ideas. I can see their understanding that they really do need evidence for their ideas, and more than that, their ease with finding and interacting with such evidence. These seniors have had great teachers before me who brought them to a place where I could just put on some polish, and I just want to share here some examples to show how well they are prepared to be enthusiastic thinkers, valuable contributors, thoughtful speakers, and powerful writers as they move from us to their larger worlds:
  • "Emilia may not be the smartest, the most noble, or the best leader, but she makes tremendous growth and ends the play with a staggering act of bravery."
  • "All of that aside, we see that Iago is coming up with various plausible motives for his actions but that the actual actions show no real connection to any individual motive."
  • "In the middle of the play our reader senses are prickled by Emilia’s seemingly motivated actions to please her husband."
  • "Through Desdemona’s kind and generous pillar of friendship, Emilia, used to asking and receiving so little from both mistress and master alike, has grown into a strong, angry woman, more aligned with the truth than with any husband."
  • "Othello fends off invaders from allies, Desdemona fends off her father’s disapproval of her union with the general; Othello wears armor to protect himself physically, Desdemona wears an ability to speak her mind to protect herself from being walked on; Othello has the full attention of his followers (minus one unusually cunning Iago), Desdemona commands the attention of the Duke’s court."
  • "Emilia's flowing syntax, full of thought, quickly deteriorates into curt statements as she seemingly arbitrarily turns to Iago in her judgment. This shift reflects the haste with which her decision is made."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seminars Without Me

I have always had my AP Lit students tackle our final novel, Things Fall Apart, in seminar groups. My purpose is to show them as well as I can that they are truly ready to do this kind of thing on their own -- that they can read and read well and that they have great ideas and can create interpretations without a "teacher answer key." They do lit circles, independent readings, and class presentations of new works throughout high school, so this is the last of many times they have been handed the reins -- and I hope to make it a great final one to remember.

Some years though have gone better than others. It is a hard time to get seniors to put in 100%, and some students just have chosen to not engage. So each year, I tweak and revise the unit based on the feedback I gathered from my prior class and my own observations. This year, my goal is to include this kind of reflection DURING the two weeks of their seminar meetings. This ties to my goal below of working in more time for reflection -- and I'd like to see how regular reflection of their own habits affect my students' work and engagement.

I plan to begin with a suggestion by Carol Jago in With Rigor for All: letting them know I will be silently observing each group, noting things to share at the end of class but that I won't talk until then. I will use these final class comments to reinforce positive behaviors I saw in the groups -- encouraging quieter members to talk, supporting an idea with a great textual reference, etc. But in the middle, I will flip it. Rather than ending with my reflection, I will have them email me how they feel they themselves did in that seminar. I hope my final reflections will help them see how to then reflect on themselves thoroughly.

In the end, if my seniors leave me as even slightier adept at self-reflection, then my class will have served their lives well.

Monday, March 16, 2009

What Do Students Think about Nings?

I am wrapping up my first use of a ning with my classes, and from my perspective, it was a great success.
  • All of the students participated not only with what they had to do for their own work but also with commenting on other students' posts.
  • The ning became a part of our in-class work as well as out-of-class collaboration because the students and I referenced it in our discussions, I projected parts of it to get class started, and I set up in-class cooperative learning activities on it.
  • The group of college students training to be teachers who joined the ning pushed my students out of their comfort zones, thus making them think even more.

I wanted my students' perspective to add to mine, and I wanted them to have a chance to reflect on the whole experience (see my reflective struggles below!) So I asked them three questions:

  • What did you like about using the ning? What could be improved?
  • Do you like the idea of using a ning for one text or would it you like to use it for all year (instead of TurnIt In for discussions, the website for docs, individual notes …)?
  • How do you feel about expressing yourself to others on the web (our NJ collaborators, doing things like this overall that are open to strangers)?

Their responses were overwhelming positive. All of them enjoyed the ning, and the most often cited reason was seeing others' ideas and being able to ponder ideas more slowly because they were written down and could be returned to. They truly "got" that sharing ideas makes their own ideas that much stronger. One wrote, "I really liked the fact that just because of what the ning is and how it works we were sort of forced to see other people's thoughts on things. By that I mean, for example, through the character groups I got to really see the opinions of others, and their support for them, of such a complex character as Iago. I think it really helped me to develop my own opinions much stronger."

Half of the class wants to use the ning for the whole year, while the other half recognizes that even the most exciting things can be overused. They made an excellent point though that by using the ning earlier in the year, they will be fully versed in all it can do and then get more out of the work on Othello. One wrote, "The only improvement I would recommend is to use it more so we are used to it before we get into a major book discussion because then it is hard to think that there is a source there for you." So I plan to start the ning at the opening of the year and use it for the online discussions I used for and some other work. I am going to focus on not overusing it before I get to Othello in January, so I will ask my students to reflect throughout the first semester about the ning. Maybe I will find them asking me to use it even more.

Finally, I wanted to know their thoughts about interacting with people on the web, but not in their accustomed social way. Nancy Devine got me thinking about this when she polled her students and discovered an overwhelming fear of being "out there" on the Internet. Our society has focused so much on Internet safety that it seems to be hurting our students' views of what learning and growing they can do with Web 2.0 tools. I teach at a laptop school, so I thought my students answers would be a great counterpoint to Nancy's students because mine have had technology underpinning their whole high school career. Here is what mine say: all but two are confident and comfortable sharing their ideas on the web. What seems to be at the root of this is they feel they have something worthwhile to say and they seem to understand that this type of academic conversation is different than giving your email to a stranger. So what is the difference and how can we bring more students to a place of comfort with such sharing? Maybe you read that question and think, "I don't think they have to share on the web," but I have seen such growth in my students and more importantly in myself through my own collaborations that I have to disagree. The web is a way to help our students learn even more and even more deeply. We need to make sure this door is open to every student.

Here are some ideas I have:

  • regular use of technology is the first step and of course the step that creates our "digital divide" -- by using the technology regularly for more than just social networking (what students do on their own), it becomes a more natural and less fearful place of learning
  • the next step is slowly opening the Web 2.0 door for them -- my students knew that the people in our ning had been invited there by me -- they knew there were none of the much-discussed-child-stalkers in there -- the more we can offer of these experiences, the more students will learn of their value and seek them on their own

In the end, my students' work in and thoughts on our class ning have proven to me that technology used thoughtfully, purposefully, and creatively makes for better learning.

Monday, March 9, 2009


"Although reflection is often the first thing to go when teachers run out of time on a project or a unit, activities that prompt students to look back at what they've learned and accomplished isn't just busywork or an unnecessary step, educational experts say. In fact, encouraging students to pause and think about what they're learning and why it's relevant to their lives is a critical piece, according to Katie Charner-Laird, a principal at Lincoln-Eliot School, in Newton, Massachusetts" (Suzi Boss, High Tech Reflection Strategies Make Learning Stick).

Oh, how many class periods have I taught when my plans for a five-minute final reflection disappeared because a discussion is still going or an activity taking longer ... It is such a hard balance to maintain. I do not want to cut off students when they are engaged in the learning, but I also do really believe that the reflection is what cements the learning. I have larger reflective work set into my curriculum -- personal reflection on the semester exam, reflective letters in final portfolios. I hereby reaffirm my commitment to making the small moments of reflection a priority!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Another View of Writing

A colleague of mine shared this blog post from the Writing Teacher with me. It is all about how history can be taught through the eyes and skills of creative writing. Here is a blurb in case you don't have time to read the whole post:

My first year I taught English, history, science, and two periods of physical education. I was completely unqualified to teach science and physical education, but I did have a minor in history. What I had to do then was figure out how to make history interesting.

All my life I had read historical novels. Every Christmas and birthday my parents bought me books, mostly historical fiction about young girls who lived in times past. I loved these stories. History was stories—stories with real people, not just key figures. History was stories with real time periods, not just dates. History was stories with exciting action, not just names of events. How could I make these stories happen in my classroom? By involving the students in reading and writing activities that put them in those times, those places. By telling them that the study of history should be the study of well-told stories, and of reading and writing well-told stories.

And that’s what I did. I taught history as if it were a literature class. The textbook became a launching pad for research into what really happened, who was really there, and who the participants were. I wanted more for my students than sound bites.

So we researched and we wrote. We wrote letters from one historical character to another, even across time zones. We wrote editorials and obituaries. We wrote speeches to be given at award ceremonies and thank-you speeches for the awards. We drew storyboards for the movies we wanted to make and then wrote about them. We wrote poetry.

And my students said: “When we become the characters and write as if we were those people, we learn so much more than if we were just reading about them.”

I, as an English teacher and fellow literature lover, would LOVE a class like this. But I would like to get the opinion of someone who teaches history and was not an English major. Does this type of approach -- and more specifically this type of writing -- have a place in a history class? Can it meet writing goals you have? Or can it be blended with other writing? In the end, as a history teacher, what goals do you have for your students as writers and for what you hope they gain by writing? I am in the midst of a great discussion with my history colleagues about writing across the disciplines, so I really look forward to your responses to add to our conversations.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Creating Great Writers

If your students are writing as much as you can grade, they're not writing enough to learn. If your students are writing enough to learn, you can't possibly grade it --
a paraphrase of Lief Fearn, Interactions

I have been thinking a lot about teaching writing, assessing writing, encouraging writing, stifling writing, and being buried under piles of the very same writing. In the end, what is it that makes our students strong writers but more importantly excited writers? It just might be a precarious balance of ...
  • assigning frequent writing that is at times on required topics and in required genres to push students out of comfort zones but is just as frequently, if not more so, on topics of students' choice in genres they feel fit the purpose the best

  • giving feedback that focuses on style and voice not grammar and mechanics while also expecting your students to write grammatically (and teaching them how to do so)

  • assigning regular writing and being sure that writing receives feedback (whether it is your feedback or peer feedback or the writer's self-reflection) within the week

  • focusing on specific writing skills through short, directed assignments (great introduction writing practice can mean just writing an introduction) yet expecting your students to write developed pieces the most -- specific skill development is necessary to write, but skill development in isolation does not equal strong and thoughtful writing

  • writing with your students even while you are also balancing the commenting and grading of your other class's papers that came in last week

I think there should be a national requirement that English teachers teach one less class than a typical load and use that "free" period for writing conferences, draft feedback, and grading. Yes, this will mean needing more teachers because each teacher will have a smaller student load (do not make the class sizes even bigger to "remedy" this -- that is subterfuge). Otherwise, teachers have to go into survival mode, knowing they cannot possibly work with the frequent writing of 150 students, and have their classes do less and less writing. The teacher does not like this choice, but what more can they do? And in the end, the students end up writing, and therefore growing and learning, less.