Friday, December 1, 2017

Inviting My Walls into My Classroom Conversation


All those years that I worked so hard to make attractive bulletin boards, and then they just sat there on my walls, fading all year long--sigh! If only I'd realized sooner that even in secondary classroom walls are so much more than just a challenge to decorate every fall. What I've discovered in the last 2 years is that they can be a real partner in classroom learning if I use them to curate thinking--both mine and my students'--and then refer to that thinking.

In the last two days I've had several conversations with students where the student pulled the walls into the conversation:
  • In class discussion about a piece we were analyzing on education, an 11th grader referred to critical thinking--"like on the bulletin board."
  • As the 10th grade prepared for a synthesis essay on the topic of disregard for human dignity in response to our study of the Holocaust memoir Night and other related pieces, I asked, "What is synthesis?" A student immediately pointed to the reading strategies anchor chart where synthesis is one of the 7 strategies of effective readers.
  • On the way out of class, a student stopped to comment on Between the World and Me, which I had displayed with other books related to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: "I read that last year, and I didn't really get it." After a brief conversation, the student said, "Oh! That really helps me understand the author's perspective. I like it better now."

There are 2 ways I've begun to use my walls more effectively over the last 2 years.

First, I use my classroom walls to curate thinking--mine as well as my students'. This means teacher-created content like anchor charts and bulletin boards (the types of things I want to refer to frequently and have students reference as well). It also means captured student thinking from gallery walks, chalk talks, or any other evidence of student thinking. It doesn't have to be beautiful--the point is, it's their thinking made visual that they can refer back to.





Then, I model inviting the walls into the classroom conversation. If I never refer to a bulletin board after the first day of school, is it any wonder my students don't? Now I walk around and point to things as they come up--whether it's a book pulled off the shelf of my classroom library, a country on the world map, a word from my word wall, the 6 traits of writing chart, or the list of argument moves students compiled from their reading.


The stuff on the bulletin boards and walls still fades, but at least it has accomplished some good in the world--prompting conversations, furthering thinking.

How do you make your walls part of the learning conversation in your classroom?

Friday, November 24, 2017

Finding Nudges and Mentors in the Pages of Books


  • Why have I never read this book before?
  • I’m going to cry while I talk about this—I know it.

I’m not sure why my 11th grade AP students have so passionately connected with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass this year—right from the very first day when all they had read were a modern introduction and the preface and letter from two white abolitionists published with the original narrative to give it credence. But I do know that their responses sent me back to a reflection I jotted on one of the keynote speakers at the conference I went to last month.

Peter Dalglish is an amazing and powerful speaker and human being. Do some research to find out about how organizing an airlift of food and medical supplies from Canada to famine-hit Ethiopia in the 1980’s led him to give up a promising career in law for a life of working with some of the world’s most desperate children—both with the UN and with his own organization, Street Kids International.

Dalglish challenged this collection of educational leaders from international schools in East Asia to give our students the tools and motivation not just to make money, but to change the world. He spoke of the nudges and mentoring that set his life path, and challenged us to provide that for our students. 

The principle holds for my school in Yomitan, Okinawa, Japan, even though we don't have as many students on the power-and-wealth path as some of the big ones in major Asian cities. And while we may not be able to frequently provide speakers like Dalglish, in person, for our students, the nudges and mentoring that set life paths can include such simple things as the articles, biographies, nonfiction, and fiction that students read in English class. This I believe and have seen in action.

That’s why my 10th and 11th grade courses include works like the following: Cry, the Beloved Country, the classic novel of South Africa by Alan Paton; the introduction to An Ordinary Man, the memoir of Paul Rusesabagina who hid 1,268 Tutsis in his hotel during the Rwandan genocide; the Holocaust memoir Night by Elie Wiesel; the introduction to Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn; “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.; “Why I’m Moving Home” by J.D. Vance; and, yes, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

There are other books available in my classroom library that I suggest whenever a student might be interested—like I Am Malala, Mountains beyond MountainsA Just Mercy, and March.

What books and other pieces of writing have you found to be nudges and mentors to inspire students not simply to get a job and make money, but to change the world? 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Three Keys to a Good Jigsaw Activity

Not that kind of jigsaw...

Jigsaw puzzles are great fun for some of us:
my younger daughter and I love it. But my husband and my older daughter would rather eat a spoonful of dirt. However, a jigsaw learning activity is engaging for everyone when well set up.  

Here’s one I just did with my 10th grade English class this week, and I have never seen students more engaged for such a length of time with the material and with each other. In my experience, there are 3 keys:
  1. A topic that students have a stake in.
  2. Jigsawed materials that are relevant to the topic but varied in content, style, and challenge, within which students have choice.
  3. An end-product for which students have a felt need to understand both their material and everyone else’s. 

Our topic is human dignity—what is it, and why is it important? Our central piece of literature is the Holocaust memoir Night. Before reading it, though, we did some background reading on the Rwanda genocide and watched clips from the movie Hotel Rwanda to bring the issue closer to the present and highlight that “us/them” divisiveness is not just white vs. black (as in our previous novel Cry, the Beloved Country)—it’s also Hutus vs. Tutsis and Germans vs. Jews and many other things in other times and places. As we read the book, we note instances, causes, and effects of disregard for human dignity, as well as the few examples of people fighting the flow to stay human and treat others as such. We also note how the author uses the tools of literature to make those images powerful.

After reading, I wanted students to get even more background information on a variety of topics related to human dignity that they could pull into their final synthesis paper. So I offered 3 very different but very relevant pieces:
  • The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights—a legal document, so difficult reading level, but shortest of the documents; written in response to the Holocaust and referred to in current political commentary.
  • “What Makes Us Moral?”—a Time magazine article citing psychological and sociological studies and experiments in an attempt to explain how humanity continues to produce both Mother Theresa’s and Adolph Hitler’s.
  • An excerpt of the introduction to Half the Sky—a work by Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn on, as the subtitle says, Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. This has both statistics and stories of individuals.

Students chose the piece they were most interested in reading. They read and annotated it on their own, then gathered with others who had read the same piece. In these groups, they asked clarifying questions to make sure they understood it themselves, then decided how best to summarize it for their classmates who had read other pieces, and which elements might be most relevant to and useful for the synthesis papers.




Then students remixed into groups that had one or two representatives who had read each of the pieces. During the process I heard 10th graders animatedly discussing whether the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is actually attainable, and if not, what its purpose is; explaining the negative impact of gender-discerning ultrasounds in the 1990s on the current availability of marriageable women in parts of China; and asking (and formulating answers to) questions like, “Does your author think humans are perfectible?” 


The activity took longer than I had planned because students were that engaged in both of the discussions—working with each other to figure out what the piece said, what classmates needed to know, and how that helped further their understanding of human dignity and its importance.

I really need to figure out how to do this more often.


Do you have a jigsaw activity that has worked well in your class? If so, would you share it? If not, I invite you to give it a try.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Not an Oxymoron: Visual Learning in ELA


Last month my husband and I were at a conference for international school leaders in East Asia (EARCOS). 

“Use a visual whenever you can!” 

A presenter at a seminar strove to impress on a roomful of educators “Brutal Facts about Learning.” She covered 13 truths about learning that cognitive science, neuroscience, and neuropsychology have established in the last 30 years—which schools still don’t consistently implement. One of those truths is that a visual always strengthens learning.

Fast forward two weeks, and I’m back in my high school English classroom. Half of me is wondering how, in a discipline that is all about words, I’m supposed to use visuals. The other half of me is noticing how every time I use a visual—whether it’s a graphic organizer or a Google image of a (to 15- or 16-year-olds) arcane allusion in our reading—understanding blossoms.

In 11th grade AP English, we’re reading a variety of essays, historical and contemporary, on education, in order to analyze their style and argument, and eventually to synthesize them and form our own opinions, expressed in our own style. After reading the first two essays—a contemporary one from Harper’s called “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” and a classic Ralph Waldo Emerson excerpt from "Education"—I asked students to create a Venn diagram comparing the two pieces: the rhetorical context, the message, the style, and the effect of the style on the message. They did this individually, then in table groups of three or four, and then as a class. (I just asked them to draw a diagram in their notebooks, and I collected input from all the groups in one I made on the whiteboard. I didn’t take a photo of the whiteboard, so I recreated the form, at least, on paper.) Given how very different the two articles initially seemed, I think we were all startled that we came up with some intriguing similarities--and saw very clearly what made the styles so different.

See this blog for a description of this activity.
After the 11th graders had read two more essays—James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” from 1963 and Kyoko Mori’s 1999 comparison of Japanese and American education—we had a synthesizing discussion, for which I gave students a graphic organizer. It was a great discussion, in which students commented that while all the writers had very different styles, they seemed to hold a similar purpose for education—giving children the tools to succeed in society. They just differed in their definition of success, of the tools needed, and of the process for giving children those tools. The “wonder” many students left with is how other cultures define success, the necessary tools, and the process for giving them to children. 

Visuals in 10th grade this week looked a little different. We’re reading the Holocaust memoir Night, so there are a lot of unfamiliar terms—from “Hasidic” to “yellow star.” In these days of Google Images and Chrome Cast (or whatever projector technology your school uses), it is so simple to skip the thousand words and show the picture. (I did that in 11th grade, too, when James Baldwin refers to Gary Cooper: “That’s how the country was settled. Not by Gary Cooper. Yet we have a whole race of people, a whole republic, who believe the myths to the point where even today they select political representatives, as far as I can tell, by how closely they resemble Gary Cooper.” For all the shortfalls of the internet, here’s a big thank you to Wikipedia and Google Image. For a blog I wrote for NCTE on the subject, see here.)

Here’s the real clincher: It’s not just how kids learn. It’s how adults learn, too. This week, at the sixth (and second-to-last) meeting of 11 teaching colleagues to discuss the book How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, I created a visual of the mental construct the book has been using, but only describing in words. I, too, had described it with words and air gestures. I’d drawn a diagram at another seminar at that conference two weeks ago. It was firm in my mind. But when I recreated in with Post-it notes in the grid of the linoleum squares of my living room floor, at least two adults present said, "Oh! I see!"
The yellow Post-it notes are the ones I used at the book discussion, but when I put them on the floor for a photo, they were too tiny to read. So I recreated the grid on a paper. You can see the top three Post-its on the floor in the photo below.


So here’s my commitment to my students (and teachers): I am on safari for any and all graphic organizers or visual representations that will support learning. 


What visuals do you use to help students learn? What additional visuals can you use? How can you visually represent one thing that you have, until now, only verbally described?

Friday, November 3, 2017

Not "What Am I Teaching?" but "What Are They Learning?"

I love this collaborative activity for helping students carefully observe how a professional writer uses transitions.

What are my students really learning? What do my students think they are learning? Does it match what I think I’m teaching them? Yes, the first quarter is done, the grades have been sent home, and the parents have been conferenced with, but every so often it’s good to check on the extent to which students’ perception of what they’re learning matches my perception of what I’m teaching. Do they understand that it’s about more than vocabulary words, stories, comma splices, and thesis statements? 

To find out, I asked my 10th and 11th graders how they had grown this quarter in English class in the 5 big areas our Christian school targets for all students:
  • Understand God, His world, and my place in it.
  • Think critically and Biblically.
  • Collaborate with others, respecting them as God’s image bearers.
  • Communicate truthfully and effectively.
  • Create ideas, products, and solutions.
What I discovered about my teaching and their learning, is that there are a lot of places where they are getting it, and one place in particular that I need to do a better job of communicating.  

That one place was relative to the first objective: Understand God, His world, and my place in it. Maybe because it starts with “God,” most students seemed to start (and end) there—whether they are Christians (in which case they wrote about things they had learned about God) or whether they are not (in which case they wrote that they hadn't learned anything). I have to do a better job of communicating that everything they learn is about the world—if they believe in God, their knowledge of the Artist and the artifact inform each other, and if they don’t, they still understand things about the world—and if what they understand about the world has any significance, it also helps them understand how to relate to the world. 

There were a couple of exceptions, and I definitely need to build on these responses:
  • Rhetoric is a large part of the English language, and I’m happy that we took the time to learn about it.
  • Use things I’ve learned to argue for righteousness. If I ever see something I don’t agree with, I can try to argue for my beliefs.
  • We learned about the space landing, and this really helped me to understand His world. It’s amazing how we designed and invented technology to even be able to fly into space safely.
  • We read Things Fall Apart and Cry, the Beloved Country. We learned more about African cultures and more about the history of our world.
  • Just being in class. Hearing and watching everyone teaches me about His creation and works. By sharing opinions about books and articles, I can understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, which God has created.

Starting with the second objective, think critically and Biblically, the responses were more uniformly what I would have expected. Most of them realized that thinking Biblically is an additional critical lens that Christians apply: 
  • I now see language in a completely new way, and find myself analyzing almost everything I hear and see for elements of rhetoric, from news broadcasting to just regular conversations.
  • When I was writing my death penalty essay, I thought very critically and Biblically because I had to choose a side, and it was pretty hard in this case. I used the Bible to really influence what side I chose to argue for.
  • When we were writing [our own] Screwtape letters, I had to reflect on myself and my own mistakes. The whole unit was super convicting, and being able to write about it made it more intriguing.
  • By forming opinions, making connections, and analyzing the course texts.
  • I wrote the paper on Cry, the Beloved Country. It incorporated the book with real world problems and the Bible.

The responses to the last three objectives just made me happy: students are learning what I am teaching.

Collaborate with others, respecting them as God’s image bearers:
  • Every day when tables have discussions, I think we all give ideas and respect what each other say. It’s a very good environment to just say what we think. Even playing competitive vocabulary card games pushes us to collaborate and encourage each other.
  • We did a lot more work together when editing this year, and I think that I have really seen the value in having a fresh perspective and set of eyes for my work.
  • “Having each other’s backs.” When we were revising or reading over other’s writings, it helped me learn more about them and their writing, something we will need to know in order to respect/understand them as image bearers.
  • There are group discussions, we are all engaged. We incorporate good ideas and respond respectfully to everyone’s input.
  • Any and all group discussions by asking for people to elaborate on any topic/idea discussed and listening intently to opinions.

Communicate truthfully and effectively:
  • I have a better understanding of what speech is used for convincing vs. conveying. I better understand fallacies as well, and what kinds of argument are flawed. I am also much more conscious of listening to understand and listening to respond.
  • We edited and revised each other’s essays. We truly helped each other out and gave helpful advice that we actually used. Peer revising helped my essay to become MUCH better.
  • Researching for our argument essays was one way I learned how to find accurate facts.
  • Through my short Cry, the Beloved Country presentation, I feel like I was able to get my main point (which was how unfair society was against non-whites at the time) through effectively.
  • Sharing in front of the class my ideas on a book I just read and my review of it as well.
  • Writing thoughts and opinions in my paper. Sometimes it’s hard to talk truthfully and effectively out loud to your classmates. But on paper (for me), it’s easier…, so I can share and communicate with everyone through my writing.

Create ideas, products, and solutions:
  • I learned a lot about writing, and it seems like with every essay I write, the more I realize how much I need to improve, but I think I’m getting better, especially my argument essay.
  • I think The Screwtape Letters really pushed me to develop new ideas about things I never even thought about. The topic was totally new for me, and I felt like it opened my eyes to new concepts (thoughts of the devil and God).
  • Researching for data on my [argument] paper on nuclear energy. To impact the world, I’d need to learn how to do so, and research is part of it.
  • Writing a paper on Cry, the Beloved Country. I hope it will encourage change by encouraging good stewardship of the earth.
  • When we were preparing for our presentations. Making good slides was a challenge, but it was fun, and researching was fun, too. I learned so many things from just creating slides.
One thing I'm really pleased with is that students have understood that what we do in group work--whether it is about a peer's essay or about the novel we're reading--is helping each other. Service learning is not something saved for special outings, but something we do every day.

Go ahead--ask your students what they've learned relative to your course's big ideas. You'll get some encouragement, and some ideas for how you can focus them even better on what really matters.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Three Tips for Better Argument Teaching


I have new hope for the next generation’s ability to negotiate civic conversations! I just collected the best argument essays I’ve ever gotten from my AP Language students. Why were they so good? I'm not exactly sure, but in my 3rd year of teaching the class, here are 3 little things I did differently this year than last year: (1) required at least 1 source on the other side of the argument, (2) had students compile their own mentor argument sentence stems, and (3) taught a mini-lesson on fact-checking.

First, early in the research process, students had to find at least 1 source on the other side of their argument. This made students aware at a whole new level of the straw man fallacies we frequently use within our homogeneous groups. Halfway through the writing, some students were modifying their claims. In their reflections on their final drafts, several students voiced observations similar to these students: 
  • You have to consider and understand the counterargument. It gives you a more well-rounded argument and broadens your perspective.
  • When people would mention argument, I think about fighting. When I read in the textbook, it said it’s not necessarily fighting, but more of a type of conversation.

Next, as we read and analyzed other arguments, I used the inductive method of asking students to compile 1 sentence stem from each that they found useful in argument development. These we posted on the classroom wall (see photo above). (This in contrast to past years deductive method of telling students a list of sentence stems to use for introducing different parts of the argument.) After reading their first drafts, I told the class I was amazed at how sophisticated and smooth their arguments were. One student said, “I think I used every sentence stem on that poster—I kept checking it while I was writing.” I said, “I could tell.”

Finally, I taught 1 mini lesson on fact-checking sites. I really think that information awareness strategies are something we need to just keep teaching, drip method, a little every course, every year. (See this blog for last year’s 10th grade lesson.) After all, I’m continuing to learn how to be more savvy about sifting the deluge of online information. This week we discussed what we do when we come across information online that catches our attention in any way. Then I asked them to read the Edutopia article “Turning your students into web detectives: Five vetted resources students can use to separate truth from fiction online.” Finally, I asked for a 2-sentence exit ticket on students’ fact-checking strategies. Here are some of the answers I got:
  • I do tend to fact check on a daily basis about pop culture topics. I used to check the URL of the website and see if it was a .org, .edu, .gov, etc., because I remember learning that it's a way to check if a site is credible. I didn't even know that these fact check websites existed, so from now, I think I will use them also.
  • Honestly, my biggest thing was seeing if it was published by a company or organization, and also check the credibility of the author. Now I will use some of the websites provided to figure out whether my sources are credible or not.
  • I generally don't trust other fact checking websites, so first I check for facts when I feel suspicious about the presented "facts" and evaluate the validity of the site itself for the url, publisher, company, etc. If the website is within my criteria of credibility, I look for other websites that meet the same criteria and compare the two (or three/more depending on how skeptical I am) and look for bias and misalignment between the facts/information between the sources.
  • I usually only look for sources that back up my argument, not so much my counterargument. So the sources I use are going to have a bias, SO it's better to have an open mind and get things checked. I should definitely start checking if something is correct, not just that it favors my claim.
  • I used to just read through a site and look at the url and figure out by myself if it's credible, but now I realize that I need a better way to fact-check because anyone can make a website and write false things. I will use the websites listed to fact-check. They are very helpful.

Here are a few additional things students wrote in their reflections on their final drafts:
  • I learned how to make and argue a point that I believe in. I know how to find sufficient evidence for argument. I need to be able to address both points.
  • I had to make sure that I was using a credible source and not falling for “appeal to false authority.”
  • When people would mention argument, I think about fighting. When I read in the textbook, it said it’s not necessarily fighting, but more of a type of conversation.
  • You have to use familiar examples/interesting methods to make very obscure things interesting for an audience uninterested/unfamiliar with it. (This for an argument on whether copyright law supports artists or big business.)
  • Some forms of rhetoric are so ingrained in us that when presenting an argument, we may use it without noticing, and we must be careful to avoid fallacies.


What could be more important in today's world than learning to identify important issues, think through all sides of an argument, discern truth and bias, dismantle rhetorical fallacies, and respectfully enter the conversation? How have you had success helping students do this?

Friday, October 13, 2017

Baby Steps in Differentiation

Colleagues discuss differentiation.

Trying new things can be hard--even (or especially) when you're over 50.
I have 2 mantras that get me through: "baby steps" and "something is better than nothing." Having a few good friends helps, too.

This week, the new thing I tried was some differentiation. I had to, because I’m currently in a faculty book discussion of How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms, and because I had to set an implementation goal at our last meeting and report on it this week, and because the goal I’d come up with was differentiating assignments in response to editing papers in 10th grade English.

So as I went through each revised draft, circling the first 10 editing errors, I came up with a few important types of grammar/convention/style weaknesses for each student. I noted the 4 most common types and just did a Google search for the topic: passive voice verbs, commas in compound sentences, semicolons, and commas in restrictive/nonrestrictive phrases. Boom—4 worksheets (with answer sheets) in 10 minutes. 

During the editing period, I assigned students to groups based on the topic they were working on, gave them 10 minutes to practice the topic based on the worksheet, and then the rest of the period to edit their paper, correcting their 10 marked errors (and anything else they could find). I conferred with students about questions they had on why things were marked. 

I’m not feeling like this was an amazing breakthrough—except I’m rather please with myself for actually trying it! Finding the exercises was surprisingly simple. Probably the most complex thing will be tracking which students have done which exercises, so they don’t repeat the same ones. Or, I guess, if they have a repeat, that would be an important thing for both the student and me to note—that they need more than just an exercise. Students began personalized editing watch lists to check when they edit. I was pleased to see them using the language of the exercises—speaking of comma splices and active voice verbs. 

I was also pleased that the following day, when students submitted final drafts and wrote reflections on their writing process, what they had learned, and what they wanted to learn next, the whole worksheet experience hadn’t trumped the rest of the process, and there was still plenty of reflection about other things: 
  • I would like to improve in making connection between the text and real-life examples.
  • I learned that I work best when I take the writing process in little chunks. It gives me time to review a few times before submitting my essay—revising and making my paper better each time.
  • I learned that when first writing a paper, the rough draft is just to get ideas down and it is nowhere near perfect/finished.
  • How can I write short, clear, and concise paragraphs?
  • I want to be able to write a big, strong, persuasive introduction….I don’t know how to end the introduction.

So—baby steps, baby steps. I’ll keep working on differentiation. Glad I have my book discussion group to keep me accountable and to share stories with!

What is it that you need to try? Gather a few good friends, and take some baby steps.

Students reflect on their final drafts.