Sunday, October 25, 2009

Annotating and Victorian England: Unlikely Bedfellows

My freshmen and I have started The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. My main goal for our study is to work with students on thoughtful annotations. So many students underline everything or nothing as they read, and I remember feeling as a student that I was never sure I was marking the "right" things. So, the students' "test" on this play will be a master copy of the play itself -- one with all of their annotations. Here is the assignment sheet:

Your Master Copy of The Importance of Being Earnest

Annotating a text is one of the most important skills to have to study literature. Authors do it to their own writing to make notes for themselves, directors do it when they are preparing a play for their actors, and scholars do it when they are studying a text for their dissertations. So, now you will take on the role of author, director, and scholar and create your own master copy of The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Assignment: Fully annotate your copy of the play to show the depth of your understanding of the text itself as well as of the historical context of the text.

The Method: You will use the technical annotation skills available on your laptop. Let’s review how to do each of these: colored fonts, highlighting, hyperlinks within the document as well as to the Internet, and comments. The most important thing to remember is that for every highlighted passage, you must have an explanatory comment.

The Guidelines: To help me read your annotations, please use the corresponding colors to highlight the text to indicate which item you are doing.

1. At least 5 explanations* of how your knowledge of the historical background of Victorian England explains an aspect in the text

* 3 of these examples must be hyperlinked to corresponding websites as well as commented on.

2. At least 3 explanations of Wilde’s jokes about society

3. At least 5 explanations of aspects of the play discussed in class (not including the next question)

4. An explanation of the meaning of the title to the play as a whole

5. An explanation of your favorite part of the play (that is, explain what is happening and why you like this part so much)

Total: at least 15 annotated passages throughout the play

My school is in the midst of a year-long professional development focus on Understanding By Design. My personal goal is to review my assessments with an eye for truly asking students to DO what I hope they have learned. This assignment is one of my efforts at that. It seems to be working so far -- on our first day of reading, the students were making historical connections because they got the humor (here is a great site for research on Victorian England -- we used this before beginning the play). Tomorrow's homework will be for them to complete their first official annotation. Here is an example:

LADY BRACKNELL. [Pencil and note-book in hand.] I feel bound to tell you that you are not down on my list of
eligible young men, although I have the same list as the dear Duchess of Bolton has.
We work together, in fact.
However, I am quite ready to enter your name, should your answers be what a really affectionate mother requires.

Do you smoke? SLN1

The mothers kept a list of all the eligible men that can marry there daughters. They ask question
s to find out what the men are like.

For the next step, students will go live with their annotations using Diigo. Wish them luck!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Power (and Challenge) of Reflection

Last winter, I set myself the goal of having my students do more regular reflection. I cannot say I achieved this last year, but I think I have made some pretty good steps this year. I have pushed both my freshmen and my seniors to do more reflection, and what I see in their comfort level with the process is telling.

First, here are some of the reflective activities we have done:
  • When my freshmen received their short story texts back, we focused specifically on the test essay. I made sure to write a comment on each essay as I was grading that told them something they did well. They reviewed my comments then went to their blogs and wrote about what they feel they do well on test essays. Their homework was then to read their classmates' blogs to learn more about good test essay writing. They sent me an email telling me what they learned from their classmates.
  • My freshmen have also begun a document called "My Writing." In here, they record their strengths and areas for improvement. We will use this chart all year to keep doing what we do well and to keep improving. For their end-of-year portfolio, this chart will be a great way for them to track their writing trends for the year.
  • My seniors completed a Google survey where they told me what they enjoyed most about our first thematic unit and what they learned the most from. Great feedback for me and for them.
  • My seniors began the second quarter by pulling out two of their essays from first quarter. They reread my comments then set two goals for their writing for this quarter. They are in the midst of writing an essay right now, so these goals will have both an immediate application and a future one.
What I learned watching two groups who are four years apart is that reflection is a practiced skill. Many of my freshmen struggled with thinking about how to do what they did on this test essay on future essays -- the idea of transferring learning intentionally did not come naturally for many. My seniors on the other hand jumped right into their reflective work and really pushed themselves to think both backwards and forwards. I think some of this is because we (including me) do not ask students to reflect enough, so freshmen have less experience. I also think reflection is a skill requiring abstract thought, something some freshmen are cognitively still approaching.

This renews my goal of reflection in my class. If I can help students become more reflective thinkers, I have helped them gain a skill that goes far beyond my classroom. The power to reflect is the power to change your own life.