Friday, February 16, 2018

Service Learning Needs Special Opportunities and Daily Opportunities

I'm thankful for bus drivers willing to guide big vehicles full of children down busy Japanese roads!

February is GREAT!
Not only is it a special month for recognizing Black history (I’ve learned about some amazing people on social media, like 
Eugene Jacques Bullard), it also has a special day for expressing appreciation to our loved ones (yeay, Valentines!), and at my school, a special week for service.

This past week, 6th-11th grade students worked together to serve our community in all kinds of ways, including cleaning up local beaches, doing projects at nearby churches, visiting with residents of elderly care homes, making and serving dinner at a homeless shelter, putting together athletic programs for older elementary students and Bible school programs for younger, and using music, art, and dance to entertain audiences. Generally, the groups spent Monday preparing for their project, Tuesday through Thursday carrying out their project, and Friday debriefing their project, putting together a presentation for their peers, and then celebrating with everyone’s presentations in the afternoon.

It was a great week, and I’m glad we show our value for service by providing the time and resources for this focused week. I also hope it isn't the only opportunity for service students see themselves as having. Any more than Valentine’s Day should be the only time we say, “I love you,” to our nearest and dearest, or February should be the only month we mention Black history. 

How do we infuse service into the daily routine? Notice it, name it, and teach the skills to do it better. Daily service opportunities in my high school English classes include the following:
  • Answering group members’ questions in small group discussions. 
  • Providing group input that propels the discussion forward and deepens everyone’s learning.
  • Listening to each other to understand, not to formulate a reply.
  • Inviting the participation of quieter peers.
  • Giving each other helpful feedback in reading classmates’ writing drafts. 
  • Sharing good books.
  • Thinking about our audience—what they need to hear, and how I can help them best hear it—when creating, practicing, and delivering presentations. (Instead of thinking about myself and what people are thinking of me.)

What other daily service opportunities do students see themselves encountering in your classes?

This is how we prepare students for service-oriented lives: some special opportunities, coupled with a lens through which to see all of life as a series of daily opportunities for service.

By the way, you may wonder what service project I led students on during Service Week. I didn’t. I had my own personal service project—being the bus monitor on our longest route (3 hours round trip, morning and afternoon) so the other monitor was free to focus on his organizing role in Service Week, so the bus driver could focus on driving safely rather than on the behavior of nearly 50 students, and so the students could get safely to school and back so they could participate in Service Week. Yeah, that's what the picture at the top is about. Here’s some more of what it looked like for me:

Me and my bus from the outside

Me and my bus (empty and quiet) from the inside

Starting to fill up!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Giving Skills and Content a Purpose


Why did she do that?
When was this article written? I feel like it’s talking about millennials and not us.
Which values did you choose? Let me see your paper!

One of my favorite moments in teaching: when kids walk into class already talking about the topic before the bell has even rung. That’s when I know I’ve hit the sweet spot where purpose meets learning, and motivation and classroom management take care of themselves. That happened a lot over the last 2 weeks in 10th grade, so I want to examine what works so well with this unit which centers on A Doll’s House, a late 19th century modern prose drama by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (full text available from Project Gutenberg). 

We know purpose is hugely motivating, so I never title my English units with genre, time period, or name of work. The unit on poetry is “Paying Attention” because we can and we must when we have so few words to work with; the unit on A Doll’s House is “Finding Myself” because that is the protagonist’s epiphany at the end, and our response is to begin the work of finding ourselves now, before we find ourselves in Nora’s dilemma. 

The essential question for the literature portion of the unit is “Why would a reasonable, rational, normal human being do that?” If you were an actor trying out for a part, even a minor one, you would have to figure out that character’s motivation and backstory just from what she says and does, and what other characters say about her—and whatever they think, you have to be able to read her lines with empathy and believability. It’s a lot like life: There is no omniscient narrator telling you why people are doing what they’re doing, or what they’re thinking while they’re doing it. No one acts “crazy”—given how they’ve experienced and perceive the world. Inference is a life skill: “Why would a reasonable, rational, normal human being do that?” Actually, I got a lot of those ideas from the excellent human resources book Crucial Confrontations, and I said to myself—hey! That’s what we have to do when we read drama! 

While pursuing this essential question, we practice reading strategies. First I read and model them. Then groups read and do them on their own. Then students can do them on their own. (See below for the reading journal that guides us through the reading looking at quotations from the text and what we infer about character and motivation from them, as well as requiring the use of several other reading strategies, paying attention to how the playwright guides our responses and to the role of minor characters.) We wrap up with a whole group discussion (see questions at the end of the reading journal) that segues into the writing/response portion of the “Finding Myself” unit.

The essential question for the writing/response portion of the unit is “Who am I?” We subdivide it into 3 parts: Who am I culturally, temperamentally, and spiritually? For nonfiction reading practice as well as for content on which to practice the skill of synthesis, we address each of those parts with content and discussion: for culture, we read “The Values Americans Live By,” mark which end of the continuum we fall on for each of the 13 cultural values, and select the 3 that are strongest for us; for temperament, we take one or more Myers-Briggs inventory and research and discuss what that meant (see Google Classroom announcement below); for spirituality, we work in groups on this Google Doc that gives students various Bible passages to research, explain, and connect, related to 2 principles about individual identity. 


That’s where we are now. When we come back to class after service week, we’ll begin on the final paper pulling it all together. Students saw the basic prompt at the beginning of the unit on the unit guide, we’ve been referring to it through our research, and when we come back, they’ll get this expanded prompt, couching it as an application essay for a summer academic or work program. It will also guide them through examining a model essay and beginning to brainstorm the order of their points, the logic for that order, and the support they will use (see here).

How do you give students purpose for learning skills and content?


Life isn’t something that is waiting for our students 3 or 7 or 17 years down the road when they finish school: it’s already happening to them in our classrooms and cafeterias, on the soccer field, at their jobs, in their homes, and everywhere in between. If we aren’t preparing them for that part of life—as well as the part that will happen next year, on the SAT, and in college—then we’re missing out on an amazing opportunity to tap into all the motivational power that purpose makes accessible.

Friday, February 2, 2018

What Does Thinking Look Like?


Over the years, I’ve stumbled upon exercises that really help students get traction on thinking—not playing “Guess what’s in the teacher’s head,” but grappling with ideas, articulate them, and coming to new understandings because of it. This week in AP English 11 we did 2 of my favorites. One is literally cutting up a piece of writing into its components—a paragraph into sentences, a short piece into paragraphs, or a longer piece into designated divisions—and having students work in groups to reconstruct the order. As they work, they have amazing discussions about transitions, structure, and argument—so much better than when they just look at an intact piece and respond to the question, “What do you notice about transitions?” In the photo above students are working with the 6 divisions of an article from the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell called “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” Later in the week, they worked on group annotations of poems. (See photo below.)

It’s nice to have a bag of exercises that are really effective, but because they’re so distinctive, they can also become gimmicky if we do them more than, say, once a quarter. So I need to answer the following 2 questions: Why do these exercises work so well? And how can I even more effectively call students’ attention to the thinking they are doing, so they can transfer that thinking even more effectively to other classroom settings and to life?

I found some answers this week in a book discussion with 7 other colleagues. In Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners, Ron Ritchhart and his colleagues say, “[W]e need to draw on our understanding of what thinking is and the types of thinking we seek to foster so that we can name, notice, and highlight thinking when it occurs in class” (29). Name, notice, and highlight the types of thinking we seek to foster when they occur in class

What are the types of thinking I’m looking for? I have a bulletin board listing them in the back of my classroom—I made it after reading this book for the first time this summer. But the bulletin board, alas, has not served as the memory trigger I’d hoped it would. That’s why I need this second time through the book with colleagues—taking it slowly, reviewing, and building in accountability. I was especially aware this week both as I read the first 3 chapters in preparation for the discussion Thursday afternoon, and as I set my application goal to name, notice, and highlight thinking when it occurs in class, especially the 6 moves listed on page 11: 
  1. Observing closely and describing what’s there.
  2. Building explanations and interpretations.
  3. Reasoning with evidence.
  4. Making connections.
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives.
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions.

And it’s actually working. I’m using those words—especially 1, 3, and 4. I ask students to observe closely and describe what’s there because that’s the basis for clear, careful thinking. It’s the basis of both of the exercises pictured above. Then they use those observations as the evidence for reasoning: What makes you think that section comes after this one? What makes you think the tone of the poem is angry? What is the character’s motivation, and what makes you think that? Making connections is probably the one that I use most naturally and frequently—What other work or character or theme or author was similar to this or different from this? Modeling my thinking by commenting on a news story or a TED Talk or a personal experience that connects, and asking students to come up with their own. 

Now for next week, I want to continue to name, notice, and highlight when students (or myself) observe closely and describe what’s there, reason with evidence, and make connections. I also want to work on naming, noticing, and highlighting the other 3: building explanations and interpretations, considering different viewpoints and perspectives, and capturing the heart and forming conclusions. 

What thinking do you name, notice, and highlight in your classroom? 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Conferring with Writers

To disturb or not to disturb (with the offer to confer)--that is the question.

I have a perennial issue with myself: I keep making excuses for not conferring with students as they write.
The excuses range from “They look so focused, I really shouldn’t interrupt them” to “What if there’s nothing to talk about?” Ten months ago I blogged about the excitement of overcoming those excuses in “An Introvert Learns to Love Writing Conferences,” and I thought I had—learned to love writing conferences. But this year again I’ve been finding excuses to avoid them. 

Last week I bit the bullet and tried again, and again, wonderful opportunities for addressing individual concerns blossomed. All I did was come alongside students as they were drafting a poetry analysis of self-selected song lyrics and ask, “How’s it going? Any questions or difficulties?” Here are some of the responses I got:
  • I’m having trouble finding a secondary source. Is an interview with Paul McCartney a secondary source? (This lead to a discussion of what a secondary source is and how it can change—if you were writing a biography of McCartney, an interview with him would be a primary source; but since you’re analyzing the poetry of one of his songs, the lyrics themselves are the primary source, and anything he says about them is a secondary source.  So yes, that interview is a great secondary source!)
  • Could I get another copy of that mentor piece to check how to do poetry citation? (This one didn’t call for a conversation, just a resource—but it told me where that writer was focused, and that he could identify his next step and knew where to get help.)
  • I’m just writing down all the thoughts I had. (This lead to a discussion of writing process—how some people are planners who spend a lot of time in outlines, and some are gushers who spend a lot of time reworking what they’ve said into coherence—and the necessity of understanding the pros and cons of each and monitoring what works best for you. After all, as I wrote two weeks ago, for many of us, bad first drafts are our allies against our internal editors.)
  • I’m having trouble with the Biblical metanarrative part. (Funny story here: I thought she was asking for a different type of help than she was. I should have followed up with a question: “What do you have so far? What is your trouble?” Instead, I jumped in with suggestions of what I saw in my brief scanning of the lyrics. She countered with, “I kind of saw it differently.” And then explained her take. I said, “If you can support and explain it, go for it.”)
Only one student responded that she was doing fine and had no questions. Lamely (this is the part I’d been dreading) I countered, “Are you sure?” She nodded firmly. So I quietly withdrew and drifted awkwardly to the next student. I’m actually amazed that this only happened once. And maybe that’s okay—students need to be able to tell me they are in the zone and interruption won’t help. 

But in addition, it was entirely my fault. Ten months ago, in that blog I wrote, I told myself exactly how to prepare for those times a student didn't have a question burning a hole in his pocketprepare a fall-back list of my own questions. Have I done that? No. But I did just go back and read that blog, and I can at least start with the list I already had for myself there, but had forgotten about:
  • How’s the writing going?
  • Question about a specific skill/strategy taught, like “What’s your audience and occasion?” or “Tell me about a specific example/anecdote you used.”
  • What’s your thesis? 
  • What has come easily?
  • What are you struggling with?

Then I'd also advised myself to look up more questions in some of my writing workshop books. Some more advice I still need to take.

What questions do you ask students in writing conferences?

Friday, January 19, 2018

Learning to Do, Doing to Learn


(Note: This is a revised version of a blog I did 2 years ago, updated with student samples from this year. I was going to write a new explanation, but when I looked this one up, it said so exactly what I wanted to say, I could only think of wordier and less interesting ways to say it.)

Imagine a PE class where students where students watched videos of great athletes, learned rules, and memorized terms, but never actually played the game. Imagine a music class where students attended concerts, studied music theory and music history, but never actually sang or played a note. Imagine an English class where students read great poets; learned literary terms like paradox, assonance, and metaphor; and never actually wrote a poem. 

Oh, wait…that was my class for much of my teaching career.

But turning students lose to write whatever they wanted didn’t exactly promote learning—the poetry was either Dr. Seuss-ish rhythm-and-rhyme or else emotive rambling. No one was learning anything. I did try it, but I quit.

Then I realized that as a volleyball coach, I didn’t just set up the court and say, “Have fun.” (Neither do PE or music teachers.) I taught terms, strategies, rules, plays. We watched each other, other teams, and ideally, professionals. And we tried it ourselves. That was the goal. Some of us learned that we have a gift for this, and doing it well is satisfying and fun.  Some of us simply learned that it’s a lot harder than it looks. All of us grew in our appreciation for seeing it done well. 

This is exactly what I want for my students out of a study of poetry! 

So here’s what I do: After we’ve done a close reading and annotation of a poem, I give the students a generalized template of what the poet did, and ask them just to try a rough draft. (Scroll to the bottom of this blog for samples.) They share their rough draft with their table group of three or four, and at the end of the reading part of the unit, I ask students to choose one rough draft poem to publish as a final draft. I also ask them for a paragraph reflection on why they chose that poem to publish and what they learned in the process of writing it.

Here’s one student’s poem, modeled on the style of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem “The Guitar”:

It sings, the Piano sings.
The strings are the singers, the hammers are the conductors.
Hammers flinging, strings singing, ears hearing.

It sings, the Piano sings.
All 230 strings singing in symphony, 
Singing as strong as a father, as soft as a mother.

It sings, the Piano sings.
Feet pumping motion, fingers breathing emotion, 
Music resurrecting from sheets of gladness.

The Piano is a language,
Heard by all, known by all, spoken by all.
It is untenable, it is irreplaceable.
It is an infinite language.

Here are some of the things students said they learned writing these poems this way:

This poem was actually fun to write, which is surprising because I dislike poems. I felt like I was able to show my thoughts in extremely short simple statements (which also fit with the theme of the poem; each line is short in a way that reminded me of text messages). When writing this poem, I found myself just listing down all of the first world problem type things that I wanted to write about, and that was the comfortable part of writing this poem. The hard part of writing this poem was putting everything in an order that makes sense. I had a ton of things that I wanted to write about, but not all of them really connected to the next.

I chose to do this style of poetry because it looked pretty simple. However, during the writing process it became harder and harder to make lines that sounded how I wanted them to sound.

While writing this poem my biggest obstacle was figuring out what the poem would be about and how to make the audience feel what I’m feeling about it. Surprisingly, coming up with the words and lines to fit and make sense wasn’t as hard as I thought. Out of the three we wrote for me this one was the most fun, but not the easiest. I noticed that as I wrote my lines the words I used ended up being rhymes and you can see that it happened many times. I enjoyed writing this poem and my interest in poetry has definitely been shifted to a more positive perspective.

I love classical music and out of all the instruments, the piano creates the base, or the platform of the piece which is very important. Without the piano the whole piece would sound like a child talking with a missing tooth. I wrote this poem thinking of the smooth movements of the fingers and every single bit of sound that comes out of the instrument. I described it as the keys “dancing” because I truly feel like it does. How the keys move up and down from right to left seems like they’re dancing! And I concluded it as the piano, being a feeling in our hearts because I felt like the waves and sounds of the piano can be hidden inside of us..and it might be something we never refer to, but also might be a simple, clean way of describing ourselves.


One thing I love about that last reflection is that the student transferred to her prose writing her practice of observing and using similes, metaphors, and symbols in poetry!

How do you negotiate the learning-doing connection in your classes?

Friday, January 12, 2018

Just Getting on with a Bad First Draft


This year I got one of my favorite ever Christmas cards from a student. I love it because it showed me the student had gotten a truth about writing that I try to help students wrap their heads around: the importance of the bad first draft. 

We all have a little editor that sits on our shoulder (or on top of our head, as the case may be) criticizing every idea that tries to make its way onto paper. For some of us that editor is bigger and more vociferous than for others. Some of us can sit and stare at a computer screen for an entire 45-minute class period, typing and erasing the same sentence. That is a full-blown case of writing constipation. It not only wastes a lot of time and stress, but also if you don’t get any words on the paper, you don’t have anything to work with. You can’t make it better. And you don't know what amazing idea might have popped out if you could just have gotten going. The trick is to tell the little editor to sit down and be quiet and you’ll call him when you’re ready.

I experienced that myself this week. My AP Language class wrote an in-class essay Wednesday. After my blog last week about the importance of writing teachers writing, I felt a little pressure from myself to write along with the students. So I did. But as I sat listening to the class's pencils scratching away industriously, contemplating all the ideas rolling around in my head and how to wrangle them into some sort of order—the minutes were ticking by, and my page was still blank. I seriously considered that I WAS the teacher, and there was absolutely nothing stopping me from just quitting. Pretending I had never planned to write the essay. 

Then I got a hold of myself and followed my own advice: I told my little editor to sit down and be quiet, and I just started writing. (Except that’s not the usual advice for a timed AP essay—that advice is to spend 10 minutes reading and planning, and then follow the plan. But I hadn’t been able to come up with a plan! Just a lot of random ideas.) I had a pretty good analogy for a hook. Then out popped a really interesting sentence that I hadn’t planned on. But it might even work for a thesis—if I could follow it with a preview of points. Which I still couldn’t come up with. So I left a line blank and started in on the first body paragraph. Then the next one. Then the next. They were actually pretty good in themselves. Still not a lot of coherence from one to the next. Suddenly there were only 10 of the 40 minutes left, and I had at least 3 more really good ideas I hadn’t gotten to, still no preview of points, and no inspiration for a conclusion. I just charged ahead and wrote as fast as I could. The ending was pretty lame. I collected student papers with promises to read them over for a debriefing discussion the following day. 

When I got home and pulled out the stack of papers, my eyes fell on mine. I immediately spied a silly error in the first line, which I automatically corrected with the green marking pen in my hand. Being a bit of a print addict, I sort of couldn’t help myself from reading on. “Not as bad as I thought!” though I automatically made a few additions or deletions as I went. I winced when I got to the end—but immediately had an idea—which I quickly jotted in my green pen. 

As I read over the rest of the “bad first drafts,” compiling comments for our debriefing discussion, I thought, “It isn’t really fair that I got to add to my draft and the students didn’t.” So first thing the next day, I handed the papers back and gave everyone else 5 additional minutes. 

I’m so glad I wrote that in-class, timed, bad first draft with my students. I’m glad because it reminded me in my gut of the importance of just getting on with the writing. Adding on that 5 minutes for revising after putting the draft to rest reminded students that timed essays really are just training for churning out bad first drafts. It also gave me a lot of other observations to use in our debriefing discussion. (Including ones I’ve never seen in an AP test prep book, but, well, sometimes you have to just ride the writing wave. It's preferable to drowning, anyway.) I never did get back to the preview of points--but maybe the open thesis is sufficient here. At least sufficient for a bad first draft.


What happens when you write with your students? What do you learn? What do your students learn? How do you get your own and your students’ little resident editors to sit down and be quiet until their time comes? 

Friday, January 5, 2018

What and Why I Blog

My most popular blog of the 2017 was about reading to my 11-month-old grandson. Now he's 16 months, and we're still reading! (Read on for the connection...)

My thrill of the week: my blog’s number of all-time pageviews passed 30,000. As bloggers go, that’s very small-time—but to me it was a thrill. That represents 243 posts over 5-1/2 years since my first one on July 4, 2012. Scrolling back to find that first post, I realized during my first year of blogging, many posts had pageviews in single digits, and none broke into triple digits. (To be honest, I was afraid to post them on Facebook, and I didn't yet do Twitter. I just occasionally forwarded a link to friends or colleagues.) Now I feel a little sad when one doesn’t get into triple digits! But that said, funny as it sounds, I don’t really blog for my readers. Okay, actually I do, but they (you) rank 3rd in reasons I blog. What are the first two reasons I blog? (1) Myself and (2) my students. 

I blog for myself because when I reflect, I grow, and when I’m growing, I’m happy. Additionally, when I know I’m going to have to have something reflection-worthy at the end of the week, it shifts how I go through my days. Finally, as an introvert, once I’ve put my thoughts together in writing, I’m much more fluent sharing them with colleagues in conversation. So blogging has changed me into a more reflective, growing, happy, articulate teacher.

I blog for my students because every writing student deserves a writing teacher who is a practitioner of writing. I admire teachers who write with their students, and I don’t always manage that. But I do write. And I know what it’s like to sit down to an assignment (self-imposed though it is) feeling idea-less, fearing putting something out there that an audience will wonder why I bothered. And usually feeling really good once I’ve pulled something together. I know experientially that beginnings and endings are the hardest part, and often I have to force myself to just start putting words on screen. Sometimes, like last week, I end up deleting the first two paragraphs because I finally have come to what I wanted to say—but I never would have gotten there if I hadn’t started. I know what it’s like to consider audience and purpose. Sometimes I read my first draft and hate the tone—I don’t want to sound like I’m telling people what to do. I just want to share what I did and learned. So I change any “you should” language to “I did” language. After all, you might already be doing it, and I just figured it out! Or maybe your situation is completely different.

And that brings me to my audience—you. My third priority is to create a positive community—a community of “hey, I tried this and it was really great” or “it had possibilities with a little tweaking” or “I had this problem and I tried this thing.” A community that believes teaching is hard, but so worth working at, so let's share the ways we're working toward the joy of seeing students learn and grow, and encourage each other with our stories of growth--our own and our students'. It is way too easy to form negative communities—sharing problems with institutions, supervisors, colleagues, students. If you find any of my experiences encouraging—that’s all joy to me and icing on my cake.

With all that said, what 2017 blogs did my audience find most compelling, judging my the number of pageviews? Here’s the list of the top 10, starting with the most popular at nearly 300 pageviews: 
  1. “Grandmothering a Reader” Usually I write about inducting adolescents into the world of reading. This was about doing it with my 11-month-old grandson when I got to visit him last summer. Clearly, if I were after increasing my readership, I’d write more about family/babies and less about teaching/adolescents.
  2. “Baby Steps in Differentiation”  My action step--an editing lesson--in response to a faculty book discussion.
  3. “Teacher Self-Care: Count Your Classroom Blessings (the Unsung Best Practice)” Noticing moments of teaching joy in the week.
  4. “What Makes a Great Assessment” I wish all my assessments could be this authentic: students write a new Screwtape letter to demonstrate mastery of novel, satire, writing skill, and life application of theme.
  5. “Three Keys to a Good Jigsaw Activity” Jigsaw activities are great—at their best they combine choice, reciprocal teaching, and interdependence for intrinsic motivation to understand content and use good collaboration skills.
  6. “One Easy Trick for Better Group Work #2” Another action step in response to a faculty book discussion: a protocol with graphic organizer for scaffolding better discussion.
  7. “Three Tips for Better Argument Teaching”  First time I ever required students to collect their own model sentence stems for argument or find at least one source from the opposition. (I forgot what the last tip was.)
  8. “Vocabulary Preview the Quick and Easy Way” Just hand out the list before reading the selection from which it is takes and have students mark familiarity +/o/- and see if they can help each other with -’s. 
  9. “Inviting My Walls into My Classroom Conversation” The walls don’t have to be beautiful—just useful. I'm learning to curate learning with anchor charts, word walls, work that captures student thinking. Then be sure I actually refer to them.
  10. “Creating Cultures of Thinking” Review of a great professional book I read last summer. Author Ron Ritchhart explores how we can change school culture from one of right answers to one of thinking using 8 forces: expectations, language, time, modeling, opportunities, routines, interactions, and environments.