09
Jul
16

connect & inspire

Ten reasons why it’s still important to teach and to write today:

1. My students read books because they love to laugh, to cry, to feel deeply, and to imagine themselves solving problems and relating to others.
2. My students get wrapped up in thinking about their YA (young adult) protagonists and worlds.
3. My adolescent girl readers criticize boy characters who are too bossy or dismissive of intelligent and strong females.
4. My immigrant students help classmates imagine what it is like to come to America for hope and opportunity.
5. Teens learn to love and understand themselves and others through the power of good stories (and songs), not so much through philosophy, abstract arguments, reasoning, or history.
6. Students like reading and writing about meaningful (and silly) things, and finding an audience or an author who knows them.
7. Classes and lessons of all kinds offer space to meet others and share common interests. We show up to work and learn, but may discover something larger: connection. 
8. Book clubs and writers’ groups give people a place to find language to describe what an author’s words do inside us. Members find voice and community.
9. Novels, comics, and true stories are tangible and real; they involve us in discussions about philosophical ideas like fairness, friendship, meaning, faith, strength, and choices. 
10. Teachers and writers stretch imaginations, open space for dialog, evoke connections, and inspire hopeful and critical thinking. 

23
Jun
16

from “how do you know?” to “let’s find out.”

I became an English teacher because of Kaye Clohset.

It was 1977. We were reading Jane Eyre in my tenth grade accelerated class, and Miss Clohset made the claim that the lightning-struck tree was a symbol for the love between Rochester and Jane.

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“How do you know?”, I asked with a raised hand.

Ever since that day I have been seeking the best answer to my own question.

My quest involves numerous strands, such as the art of interpretation, analytic reading, historical-biographical criticism, the canon, student-led inquiry, authority in the classroom, and literary period. It also wonders, along with my 15-year-old self, how much an author “hides” things in a text to be discovered, and when analyzing a book moves from an appealing activity that enhances enjoyment to a monotonous speculation that detracts from the pleasure of reading.

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This week, as I read Claire Harman’s compelling biography of Charlotte Bronte, “A Fiery Heart”, I am transported to the Brussels and England we visited last summer, and back in time to my introduction to Bronte that sophomore year. However Miss Clohset answered my question that day, I determined as a teacher that I would try to equip students to address such questions openly, whether they openly resist a particular reading of a classic passage, or hope to demystify the reading process of an experienced reader.

I can trace my interest not only in reading instruction, but also in composition theory and the teaching of writing to those early high school days, when we might have been asked to demonstrate in an essay test that a recurring theme or symbol had value, though we students didn’t actually do the work of digging through an assortment of selected passages, drawing our own conclusions about them, and forming an original controlling question or thesis.

I have stepped further and further away from making pronouncements about literature in my teacher role, and closer to encouraging exploration and discovery in student reading and writing.

I also experiment with how best to answer student questions, like my own how do you know? Here is a range of potential comebacks

“Does anyone see it differently?”

“Great question. Who else is wondering the same thing?”

“Hmm. Let me turn to the page and see what Bronte writes…”

“I haven’t been honest with you. I read ahead last night and in a later chapter she says …”

There is any number of teacher moves that might occur here, from modeling my own thinking through a “think aloud”, to inviting a student to moderate a discussion/debate on the topic, where students could pair off and prepare interpretations of the tree, backing them up with textual evidence. At some point a determination must be made about whether this question is worth pursuing for its own sake, or whether we need more students to generate more questions and begin a classwide investigation. Conversely, I may offer extra credit (or excuse a future assignment) for looking up some critical commentary, either online or in a resource I have in the room.

These split second decisions make teaching a thrilling adventure for me, especially as the direction the class takes after such a moment can influence careers, with students seeing themselves as confident and resistant readers and writers in an interpretive community. image

I fast forward to today. I have been reading Robert Cormier’s Tunes for Bears To Dance to. It would make a great pairing with The Diary of Anne Frank as an 8th grade book, raising questions as it does about anti-semitism, hate crime, individual conscience, and what makes people feel powerful when they can get weaker people to carry out their hostile actions. The teacher’s gift and art is the ability to extend an invitation to students themselves to raise their questions, as well as to recognize an author’s questions and decide which ones are worth investigating through discussion, writing, research, and further reading. Whether dealing with a classic book or contemporary work; middle grade, YA, or general readership, good writing triggers a questioning and teaching urge–I can’t avoid imagining how I would use it in the classroom.

The counter-narrative here is my high school English teacher’s own strong role in pushing me toward this career long inquiry. Without her firm convictions about that tree, I would not have resisted her reading and become suspicious of critical interpretation. On one hand I desire to let young readers explore multiple points of view, yet on the other I need to offer clear well-argued solutions to literary problems that have already been worked out. It is a bit like playing chess in the summer: I set up the board with a chess problem from a 20th century game in my handbook, Logical Chess, and play along with the historical combatants in the hope of acquiring a more strategic mind myself. I hope students will practice new strategies in order to grow and advance.

Thanks to those teacher we have had who prompted us, in their own particular ways, to pursue our own questions, careers, and passions. Wherever you are, Kaye, I want you to know that your class made a difference in my life.

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Images: top to bottom – http://pin.it/N7iL4sL posted by Megan Murphy

cover art for Charlotte Bronte biography by Claire Harman, 2016 Borzoi Books.

NYT review: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/books/review/charlotte-bronte-a-fiery-heart-by-claire-harman.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share

Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek TV series, Paramount.

 

07
Jun
16

Mastery vs. Understanding: Honoring my students

The whole school year there has been a push for recording and analyzing data, with the parties involved (let me rephrase: with teachers, administrators, and superintendant) using the trigger term mastery. I believe some colleagues were able to engage students in collecting and seeing their own data about standards they had been assessed on, and that as a class they were able to see at a glance how well they had performed on a specific task with respect to its related standard; then were successful at helping the students set goals to improve or re-learn.

I admire teachers who invite students to set and achieve goals; and I dutifully posted and projected daily standards phrased as statements of “I can:” or

We are learning how to:

In retrospect, though, I believe I had greater student buy-in the previous year, using Judith Langer’s concept of envisionment, in which my students agreed upon one or two classroom standards or cognitive procedures chosen from a preselected set–“Ask relevant questions” or “Apply lessons from literature to our own lives”.

 

 I am left wondering if justice is done to the rich processes, lasting meanings, and deep understandings my students practiced and constructed all year.

 

In either case, deep student learning was connected to benchmark standards, for which various assessments were employed to sample student preparedness, ability, and degrees of mastery. Setting aside for now the class time needed to re-teach for mastery, and the question of involving the already-proficient students in new studies based on new goals or deeper knowledge and thought, I am left wondering if justice is done to the rich processes, lasting meanings, and deep understandings my students practiced and constructed all year.

I wish, when it came to the big, statewide, district-mandated tests, that my students had been afforded the opportunity to show outside the walls of our school the big things they carried away with them this year, the meanings they constructed in our classroom communities. They did have such opportunities through debate, music competitions, and Schools to Watch involvement; I might have done much more myself to promote visibility and engage the wider community.

Here are a few things my students might have written, spoken, sung, discussed, or asked good questions about:

 

What multiple perspectives about justice compete for attention in this narrative?

How the details of any Edward Hopper painting contribute to its mood.

How an English Language Learner can distinguish between English words that sound or look the same but mean different things.

The way an author uses historic detail from a civil war battle to dramatize the story of a young teen in search of a father figure.

How students’ writing pathways and mindsets lead to a sense of control over their own writing purposes.

Why their books, music and video games are important to their lives.

Where new vocabulary terms and concepts intersect with their own lives.

When, how, and why to use literal, inferential, and critical reading skills.

How can dramatizing a poem help understand what it means?

What process did they use to compare the way two different genres tell the life of a President, and what did they learn about the genres, themselves, and others? Who will tell the stories of their lives, and in what media?

How to listen to all other people, and to address them with dignity and respect.

How to ask the group for help when they do or say something harmful to another person.

How to write a proposal and follow through on an individual plan for learning during genius hour.

How to work with others to establish the criteria by which their work will be assessed.

When making a decision, can they listen to an argument, recognize when someone is using ethos, pathos, or logos in an attempt to persuade me, tell if her or his argument is flawed?

What writing tools and tricks to apply depending on the job they want done or the idea they want to explore.

How to run a class meeting.

How do they conduct research and evaluate, document and cite reliable sources?

How and when to participate in written and spoken dialogue (including comic strips and opinion/editorials) with texts, people and ideas.

If an argument can be constructed and a viewpoint expressed using combinations of expository prose, poetry, narrative, fiction, allegory, and figurative language, then what combination will they use in their writing to express a new idea?


My students did amazing work all year, and I am left at the end of it all imagining that the lasting record of their learning is quantified as “30% growth demonstrated by 45% of students in grades x and y.”

My classes were full of individual human beings, each with her own learning styles, interests, and background experiences to be activated as she constructs meaning for herself. Because a single letter grade, reading level, isolated test score, or even year in school do not do justice to the complex thoughtfulness of each person over a whole year, I resist placing much value in them. I wrestle with the increasing amount of attention they are given and the time they demand.

Today I celebrate the accomplishments of my students, the middle grade classes of 2015-2016! My students showed care for others, worked together on hard things to achieve great results, read a ton of good books, and engaged in conversations all year about texts, learning, and life. They took risks, were willing to fail in order to learn, and stretched outside their comfort zone with many learning activities. They forged deep connections between ideas, experiences and friends.

My students went deeper, with extended and strategic learning (Webb’s Depth of Knowledge). What a privilege it has been to see all this at first hand! Today I honor my students for all the work they did to construct learning that will not show up on a report card, in a statistic, or in a comparison with Finland. I salute the students who ran home last weekend to try their hand at baking cream puffs after reading Wednesday Wars, or who sought me out to have a one-on-one discussion about a question they brought after reading The Giver. Today I commit to remembering the faces of learning this summer, not its frustrations!

Please let me know, via Twitter, WordPress, or your own blogs and FB pages, what you commit to remember and celebrate from this year. Have a great summer!

 

 

 

27
Feb
16

Supporting Independent Readers and Independent Reading by Jennifer Serravallo

This entry goes hand in hand with her sometime writer partner Gravity Goldberg’s book MINDSET and MOVES. These are some of the best and easily implemented reading and conferencing strategies out there, including instruction immediately prior to reading and conferring time.

Nerdy Book Club

Remember when independent reading was called DEAR? Or SSR? Or SQUIRT? (Or maybe I am the only one with that last one? It stands for Sustained Quiet Uninterrupted Reading Time). Acronyms aside, it looked like this: Kids chose whatever they wanted, teachers sat their desks to get through the paperwork that was piling up, or, maybe, to read at their own desk while students read at theirs. Those days, independent meant really independent.

At some point, there seemed to be many who said, “Wait a minute. Can we really trust that this independent reading time is worth it? What if they aren’t really reading? What if they aren’t really understanding?” Some got rid of independent reading. Others adopted quizzes and computer-based solutions to try to address this “problem.”

Please, please, please. Enough with the multiple choice quizzes. There are other ways to check in with readers in ways…

View original post 801 more words

25
Oct
15

Will this be on the test? 

I was momentarily stunned last week when a student voiced the desire for me to teach only what was necessary to pass the end-of-year (standardized? common assessment?) test. Because of Obama’s recent discovery that children are being over-tested, I am choosing to concentrate for a moment on this student’s request. What does it mean? 

1. Students have been brainwashed to think of learning as acquisition of facts or skills to serve as an arsenal against the day of judgment, arrows in their quiver for the last days of the year. The purpose of learning is to pass a test the teacher has neither designed nor seen. In the rare instance where I know the specific content of an end-of-year exam, I am ethically bound not to teach to that specific prompt and its text. 

2. Students have not changed since I was in college. I still recall my British History professor, Dr. Arthur Mejia, at San Francisco State, responding mid-lecture to a student’s question, “Will this be on the test?” with a well-considered look of dismay. “It’s all ONE HISTORY.” How I hope I too can shape a response with the same power. “It’s all one literature”? “It’s all one story.”? 

3. Education has reverted to the Gradgrind School of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. I am Sissy Jupe (see photo) and my students are the schoolmasters driving imagination out of the classroom. Evidently the rewards have been great enough for responding with the rote answer that a horse is a quadruped (denotative meaning) that they have bypassed any love for bread, circuses, and horses as beautiful creatures with a host of connotative resonances. [Me sneaking a photo in Dickens’s kitchen at Doughty Street] 

 Just when I thought the US-UK push for creativity, innovation, imagination, flexible mindset, individualized learning, curiosity, and inquiry must necessarily have produced a generation of young learners unique in the annals of education, I am forced to rethink my task. 

I need to acknowledge the voices filled with hope that I can prepare them for tests. But I want fill them with hope beyond tests, beyond this year, and into a distant future where they see themselves as dreamers, makers, community members, readers, writers and thinkers. 

I need to remind them that English Language Arts is a humanities class; we read and write about human beings, because people are inherently valuable. Reading, writing, and thinking about people both real and imagined offers us contact with and contemplation of lives that matter. We become more valuable, interesting, and effective persons by coming into contact with them: we are changed. 

I need to continue this conversation with colleagues at the NCTE convention in Minneapolis, including the CEL workshop. When I speak at roundtables and sessions on writing hope, establishing empathy, and close reading for “wonder and awe”, I await suggestions from participants that redeem our students from a culture of pragmatism and restore a sense of awe at beautiful language, strong characters, and words that evoke lasting imaginative impressions, whether “Fourscore and seven” or “Call me Ishmael.”

23
Jul
15

certainly, boys, what else? the piper pays him

IMG_2902 They say that a well-designed test allows students to learn; it is also a maxim of teachers that we learn from our students. In my case, not only did my students learn through their final projects; my students taught me. In an AP English class, each writer not only shared her concluding written work of the semester, but also responded aloud to two or three other students who shared. Time and again I was stymied by the perceptive and encouraging remarks students summoned within themselves in response to peers’ writing. They noticed things that I had completely overlooked because of my myopic view: I was so focused on completing my own suggested sentence stems in order to provide “useful” and immediate feedback, I ignored the artistry and voice of each writer.  IMG_2919 I learn that isolated teacher comments are such limited, fluttering birds, they ought not survive long outside the nest of writer’s conference; but with words young writers say about their own work and problem-solving, and with the addition of multiple responders, a teacher comment may contribute usefully to a healthy flock of writers in flight.   In other classes, a research paper took students into unfamiliar territory as they explored writing in a genre they were curious about. Not only did reflective letters report enjoyment and learning, but I also found in the student journals, original writing and letters implicit critiques of existing genre limitations. “This genre had no color”. “This genre had no images.” “This genre had no visuals–I am a visual learner, so I created charts and diagrams to go with my subject.” I learn that the teachers I know communicate predominantly with words. What would it look like if even my instructions to myself – lesson plans, notes, to-do lists – began to take the form of “back-of-the-napkin”, Creativity Core, and aphasia communication book tools? Would my own thinking change? Thanks to my students, as I plunge into summer learning and pedagogical refreshers, I am particularly attentive to simplifying the way I communicate my ideas. Can I express this idea in a color, shape, or sound? How about a texture, object, or fragrance?  

This means a new relationship between audience and purpose: even when I intend mainly highly verbal people like myself as readers or users of a list, article, journal entry, or letter, how does my own thinking change shape, take form and emerge as an expression of myself if I let go of genre conventions I feel most in control of?

My students yet again remind me to yield up control. Just as T.S. Eliot needed to find a new language for poetry that would speak to his culture, they seek rich and meaningful expressions that modify existing genres and invent new ones for this era. Instead of feeling like “I’m done” at the end of this school year, I am singing “We’ve Only Just Begun”.

I have even begun to record notes for a summer school class I am taking in colored pencil. Here are the results:

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What are you doing in your content area or personal writing to implicitly or explicitly invite your students to contribute their voices and to become resistant to static forms? [Images: Communication Board, “Activities To Share” at Activitiestoshare.co.uk; student cover by TM; Unfamiliar genre page by MC.]

30
May
15

What Finland is Trying to Tell the World by Reforming to Phenomenon-Based Learning.

Not only is voice featured here, but I admire the paradox of school Autonomy and the provocation for teachers to move Outside their Comfort Zones. The result can be a rich interdisciplinary learning experience. Once again I am left believing that building “bridges” between learners, content, skills, and meaning is a pillar of education.

What Finland is Trying to Tell the World by Reforming to Phenomenon-Based Learning..




Gordon’s Tweets

RSS Good Questions

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