Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Experience with Assigned Reading in High School

Although I had developed a revolutionary idea about how to teach literature, I still only had the confidence of a second year teacher. Just like last year, when faced with the challenge of forming my own curriculum, I fell back on that which is commonly accepted. When I asked myself, "What does one learn in a high school English class?" the answer came, "Literature." I knew I disliked this truism just by remembering my own high school experience. I remember thinking to myself, "Why are we reading so much in English class? If I wanted to read, I would have taken a literature class! I want to be learning grammar!" (I was a strange child...)

And yet, it is what it is. That's what's expected. I'm to give each student a classic novel, assign pages to read each night, and give quizzes in the morning. In the classroom I inherited, there are shelves full of book sets for me to do just that. That's what parents, administration, and my fellow teachers expect. It's not that I can't stray from this model, it's just that if I do, I'd better be prepared to explain my pedagogical philosophy immediately. And we all know I'm working on building the confidence to do that.

Plus, well.. how can I know for sure that I don't want to teach literature in this way if I don't even try? There's no reason that I can't assign a book and still do Lit. Research at the same time. We'll just try it this way first, I resigned.

So I sorted through what I had available, gave questionnaires to determine what my classes had previously read, considered what I read when I was in high school, and eventually came up with my assigned reading:

* Romeo and Juliet for freshmen because I had heard somewhere that freshmen all over the country are assigned Romeo and Juliet.

* To Kill a Mockingbird for sophomores because I had heard the same thing about it, but the sophomores hadn't read it last year as freshmen.

* A Midsummer Night's Dream for juniors because I arbitrarily felt like they needed some more Shakespeare and I didn't have Hamlet or Macbeth (which was weird). A Midsummer Night's Dream was always my favorite Shakespearean play, anyway, so no hard feelings.

* And Fahrenheit 451 as the dystopian novel for seniors because I think one of the big three (451, Brave New World, and 1984) are typically assigned junior or senior year. And I adore dystopian novels.

With no evidence on which to base my hypothesis, I think most traditional high schools give students a Shakespearean play each year. (When I was in high school, I was assigned Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Macbeth, though most of my friends were given Hamlet in place of MSND.) This plan didn't give my students Shakespeare each year, but.. well, I worked with what I had. (More on Shakespeare to come... much more. I've developed some passionate feelings on this topic.)

Well, it seemed like a good place to start! Definitely a plan a good little teacher would come up with. I passed out books and took down the numbers written on the inside cover on a sheet of paper next to their names, like a good little teacher. I assigned the first few pages to read as homework, like a good little teacher.

But that's about where my commendable organization ended.

My first mistake was relying too heavily on having each class do something similar each day. I wanted writing assignments for each class on the same day, to stay at about the same point in each book, and finish up at around the same time. This is an obvious mistake. Not only are the classes at different reading and comprehension levels, but they're reading different materials. Of course it's not going to take as long to read 451 as it is to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Yep. A little more planning would have settled this out, and it's not insurmountable in the future, just a little messy the first time through.

Mostly this was difficult having two classes reading Shakespeare and two not. This meant that I definitely couldn't do comprehension and discussion the same way. The constant gear switching was irksome, but eventually there was some semblance of organization. After a little trial and error, it wound up like this:

* A passage by passage analysis of Shakespeare with class notes. Mostly this boiled down to asking what happened in the section we read, prompting if any important details were forgotten in the response, and writing on the board for students to copy. I tried to only write student wording, but occasionally I had to ask for clarity if I could tell not everyone understood. I feel like this was an acceptable way to go about Shakespeare, though surely not the best. Students were responsible for reading and translating the original text, but I could point out any passage that needed further exploration. I assisted in the creation of notes to assure everyone's comprehension, but it was still in their words.

* Discussion circle of 451. 451 lends itself nicely to discussion, and I enjoyed the conversations it brought up, though I could tell the seniors didn't really get into it. Towards the end, they got lazy in their reading and I had to start giving quizzes to ensure they actually made it through the text. That still wasn't quite motivating enough for about half of them, though. They had made up their minds that they greatly disliked this book.

* Daily quizzes and discussion of the responses for To Kill a Mockingbird. My sophomore class is my most trying and challenging group of students, and this was my attempt at being stern with them.  Many saw their grades decline drastically during this time. But still, I think maybe I'm okay with it, as it was an authentic and direct consequence for the action of not reading the assigned reading. Their grades clearly showed which students read and which didn't. I had a few students fail this semester, and though I'm not sure I'm okay with that, those students were the ones that didn't do the work. (Bah, THAT'S definitely a concept I need to revisit at some point. Just typing it gives me an unpleasant feeling.) But regardless, after the quizzes, the responses were discussed, so that even the students that didn't read knew what had happened in the selected chapters. And I DID try to give straightforward questions on the quizzes. I tried my best to avoid any sort of thing that could be seen as a trick question.

Also there was the fact that the last time I read these books (with the exception of 451) was when I was in high school. So I suddenly found myself with four books to read and lessons and quizzes to plan immediately and concurrently. It was a tough month. I got through it, but it definitely could have gone better with planning.

My biggest problem, though, was that the students all hated the books. I had a couple freshmen liked Romeo and Juliet once they got past the language barrier, and one sophomore really enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird. The rest read begrudgingly, if at all. And that's no way to read. I hate seeing reading as such a chore.

One issue there was with my lack of planning again. I think I took too long getting through the books, and by the end, everyone was tired. But they had hated the books long before that, so it was more of an additional problem than a main one.

Perhaps it could have been a lack of autonomy. I told them what to read. I've spent a small amount of time since then perusing articles about English classes run solely on choice literature. As I've said before, my school does AR, so I'm not as concerned that my students get choice reading, because it's already happening.

But perhaps I could get them to do more response work to their AR books, like book reports or writing that copies the style of the text or reflects deeply on the concepts presented.

Or perhaps I could do small reading groups for self-selected classics from the shelf. That seems doable, but what would I do the first time a student came to me three pages into A Scarlet Letter and said they hated it? Could I allow them to put it back, or would I make them lie in the bed they had made?

Regardless, I think a bigger issue is at hand that I'm ignoring.

One thought that crossed my mind at some point during a comprehension-checking discussion was that some of these students just... really didn't get it. Maybe they weren't ready for it... but no, that's ridiculous. These are high school students we're talking about. They are practically adults, and if they aren't capable now, they never will be. Besides, what about high expectations for my students? Readiness isn't an issue.

But at the same time, I was certainly understanding the assigned reading at a different level on this, my adult read-through, than I did at their age. Was I asking too much for full comprehension from someone with as little life experience as they had? But maybe that's just it. Maybe it's more about providing new experiences. But, if that's the case, couldn't there be a better way? Videos or something? My students seemed so disconnected from the books I placed in their hands.

I certainly think it's asking a lot for a deep connection to a text from an entire class, despite how few students are in my classes, in particular. The more students, the less connection to the lesson, it seems.

Woah, that's quite a statement. The more students involved, the less individual connection to the lesson.

Okay, okay. That may be profound (or maybe it isn't at all), but it's not the issue we're here to discuss today. Focus, Holly. The point of that statement was that reading is a personal thing. I can understand small group, because small groups can dissect and analyze in a way that one person alone can't, but if you add more students that aren't invested, it detracts from the commitment of the others. It removes them from their magical connection with the text. Or, put another way, using another concept I also haven't written about, it takes them out of their flow.

So we've discovered two things: if I'm assigning reading, it must be self-selected, and it must either be solo work or small group work.

And still I'm ignoring it. I keep avoiding a point my mind keeps trying to bring up, and it's this: why are we reading these books in the first place? If my students are disconnected with the text while trying to get through a whole book, why force them? We know students don't learn well when they're being forced. I'm giving them the Lit. Research project to make them aware of the collective consciousness Americans have of literature. My goal is to supplement each material we discuss with an abridged selection of the original text so that they get exposure to different styles of writing, I just haven't collected them all yet. I'm also encouraging reading the full texts on their own. As of yet, only the freshmen have taken me up on that offer, but the offer still remains for everyone.

And as for the experience thing. If my job is to provide experiences and various perspectives to consider, I must find various was to do it, not just from "classic" texts. They just don't hold the same weight for students today as they once did.

The real question is this--is it worth my time to do it again? Honestly, at this point, I have to answer, no. It's not. I really don't think I'm giving my students any positive experiences that they couldn't get on their own, and the negative ones I'm giving weigh much more heavily.

And what of making students do things they don't like to build character? Well, I could argue that in college and the adult world, there will be plenty of things they have to do that they hate, and there's something to be said for developing the skill of persisting in that way, but... well, why does it have to be reading? Yeah, I know that in college and the adult world there will be a ton of dry, boring material to get through. But, on the other other hand, I'm doing that with the articles of the week. So! There's my answer for that, and I'll completely dismiss the entire argument because it makes me uncomfortable. I don't like forcing students to read books that they don't enjoy, because books should be entertaining. Articles and other nonfiction materials are sometimes dry but necessary. If a book is boring, stop reading it.

The other argument I anticipate is, "Reading classics in English class is tradition," and it's hard for me not to just dismiss that, as well. I'm not here for tradition. I'm here for results. Tradition wasn't working for us. It's a new age, and we have new techniques to try. We have new and exciting work ahead of us. (Honestly, is that not a tag line of my entire blog yet? I'm setting it as that right now.)

Well, is that it, then? Do I have my pedagogical philosophy prepared? Am I ready to explain myself to colleagues, parents, and administration? If not quite yet, I should be soon enough.

The only thing left is to decide what I am going to do with our time together, if not this. Eh, there's still five days left before winter vacation is over.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Notes from a Week of Exploring Teaching the Core

Ooooh my goodness, my brain is so full of all of the things. Dave of Teaching the Core is a wonderful writer, but his blog posts are so chock full of all of the great information I want to learn and links to other pages that are also full of information. He's pretty prolific, too, so there are already so many posts he's published I want to read through. But I don't just want to read them, I want to devour them. I want to scour them for every morsel of useful information, analyze them, and decide how I want to use them.

I feel as though I'm at a big feast, and every time I finish a course, Dave just brings out another plate full of deliciousness and sets it in front of me expectantly.

I have all of the tabs open in my browser. Tabs from Teaching the Core, tabs for other Teaching the Core posts the original ones linked back to, tabs from awesome resources that those blog posts linked to, tabs from interesting articles that those links linked to... *groan* So let's try to get a little more organized, shall we?

Article of the Week and Making Annotations
It didn't take me long after finding myself in this click-hole to realize that I wanted/needed to implement this in my class. I'd been trying to find some way to incorporate more nonfiction reading but was hesitant to try something like this because I didn't want to start printing off a lot of pages. 1) because I'm a hippie and don't like "wasting paper" 2) because it seemed like a slippery slope to worksheets, and 3) because we live in a digital age and why print off something that could just be viewed and manipulated online? But all of these reasons were immediately out the window when I started reading Dave's blog. Hush, now. It's worth it.

Next semester, we may be getting Chrome books (one for each student), but until then, if we don't have print off articles, how could we make annotations? (I'd considered allowing them to write lightly in pencil in their books, but I hadn't gotten that desperate yet.) Annotations? Oh yeah, that's that "close reading" I'd been hearing so much about in CCSS articles. I learned about it for the first time at the summer conference I attended and didn't quite understand what all the hype was about. Alright, we're teaching kids to make annotations while they read. I do that when I read, so it made sense to me. It seemed like there was something more to it that I was missing.

Turns out, "close reading" is a super conflated buzzword that people are looking too much into. Dave recommends just sticking with teaching how to annotate and leaving it at that. Sweet, that's probably what I was going to do, anyway.

Links about annotation:
TtC - Purposeful Annotation - What annotations are and how to use them
Harvard Library Reasearch Guides - Six Habits for Thinking-Intensive Reading - some useful guides on how to annotate to share with students
TtC - Close Reading - Dave's original post on the matter, which he says is outdated but still has some interesting things, such as a modeling video

Articles of the Week
The Article of the Week is a child of Kelly Gallagher, one of Dave's heroes. We take a nonfiction article from an authentic source, read and annotate it, and then write a paper responding to it. Sometimes we can share our thoughts in a Socratic circle or debate. Awesome. I can't wait to get started.

Links about AoW:
TtC - There and Back Again - What AoW is, how to get started, and how Dave adapted Gallagher's work to fit his own needs
TtC - Articles of the Week - Backlog and current articles to get'cha started
Kelly Gallagher - AoW Archive - Gallagher's AoW backlog
TtC - Getting Started with AoW - more information

Teaching students to make a claim and support it with evidence. 

Links about argument:
TtC - They Say / I Say Two Paragraph Essay - a basic way to introduce argument writing
Amazon - They Say / I Say by Graff and Birkenstein - the book Dave referenced above
TtC - Argument and Debate - what and how to (including video!)
TtC - Popup Debates - a debate starter kit Dave sells


Links to other stuff!:
B10LovesBooks - Erica Beaton, Dave's coworker who also runs a sweet blog I need to explore further
B10 - Whole Class Novels vs. Choice Reading - This is part 3. There's so much to consider...
Jim Burke - Verbs to Live By - a phenomenal chart that defines and explains frequently used academic verbs in easy-to-understand language
Baka desu yo - 6 Things the Most Organized People Do Every Day - Just a reminder on how to stay focused and in control. Not sure if it's something to show to students or if it's just for me.

And there we have it! Not the most productive post, but at least it helped clear my head and leave some bread crumbs to come back to later.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Literature Research Project

I haven't been teaching my high school English classes with textbooks this year. That was a conscious decision I made going in, and thankfully, I had the authority to make it. But then, of course, came the questions of, "Well, if not textbooks, what then?"

The first concept that I explored (and still am) is the novel.

I should preface this with the fact that my school does, and has for years done, Accelerated Reader. So I know that my students are reading (and if they're not, then that's a separate issue to be dealt with on its own). I know that they're reading choice books, and I know that they're reading at least 30 minutes every weekday. With that in mind, reading isn't the same problem as it is in other schools. I'm not tasked with the goal of making sure students read for the sake of reading. I know that they're already doing it.

I questioned myself, Why do English classes read what they traditionally do? You know what I'm talking about--the standard curriculum. Romeo and Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird in Freshman year, Gatsby in Sophomore, etc. Why?

Is it just for the sake of tradition? I was made to read this when I was your age. I disliked this idea and played with it in my mind for a while before I was able to put it into better terms.

I like to think that it's to create a shared American experience. More of a, kids all over the country your age are reading this, so you need to, as well. Something to create a liberal education and collective consciousness of society.

A liberal education is easy to explain: it's a good idea to take a look at a wide variety of topics and voices in order to widen your perspective and understand more about the world. Everything is interconnected, and something you encounter in one discipline (or in one book) might provide insight or help solve a problem in another area of your life. There are some good lessons in the books that have already been chosen for us. (That being said, they shouldn't be left unquestioned. If something seems outdated, it requires further scrutiny and replacements should be considered.)

But "collective consciousness" is a little more difficult. To understand it, I found myself asking the question that every student asks, "When will I need to know this?" It's a question of authenticity, a valid question indeed, so I answered:

When will these novels and literature themes come up again, hypothetical student? Well, first of all, you might need to know them in college when your English 101 and 102 professors expect you to be familiar with them.

Pfft. Alright, sure, but that's still an artificial reason. What else you got?

Okay, let's consider. Because these are books that the rest of America knows, everyone makes references to them, and, likewise, everyone understands those references. You will probably encounter these references your entire life--a conversation with a coworker, a news report, a song you hear on the radio, a movie you're going to see. 

Ah. So that's what is meant by collective consciousness. Central themes that we know as a society. Common stories that we all know and can discuss together.

So what's really important here? The ability to know the books in America's collective consciousness and understand references to them.

But as our society grows, so does our collective consciousness. Every year, there are more and more books added to our pool of material from which references are made. At this point in time, I doubt there are very many Americans, if there are even any at all, who have actually read all of these books that are considered important enough to make references to.

Now, what I'm about to say next is considerably controversial, but that's why we're here at Non-traditional Teaching, right? So bear with me.

What if English class didn't mandate that students read a limited, select few books cover to cover, but instead guided them to conduct research on a wide number of books so that they understood a larger amount of material present in America's collective consciousness?

Thus, my Literature Research project was born. This concept was intriguing enough to dive head first into. It was exciting!

My first step was to discover what all was encompassed in the literature realm of America's "hive mind," if you will. The first thing that came to mind was a silly quiz I'd seen on Facebook titled something like, "Which of these 100 classic books have you read?" I couldn't find the precise one, but in my search for it, I discovered countless other lists. I had hoped to find a good, comprehensive one, but that didn't happen. They all came up short somehow, and none of them included everything I expected it to.

I finally settled on a list of Assigned Reading in High School on Goodreads (this one? I can't recall). It was quite extensive, and there was no way that we would have the time to cover everything, so I had to pare it down.

I decided that my seniors, being the closest to departure into "the real world" should have the most to research. One book per week would be 31 books. (I needed just a few weeks to get settled in. Next year it could be more if we begin right away.) Juniors would work on the project every other week and have 16 books under their belt, and Freshmen and Sophomores could do it just once a month and have 8.

But then as for the actual book selections... That was a difficult decision, and it finally came down to my own discretion. I scoured the list and picked out the 31 books that I, personally, had heard the most references to in my adult life. Who am I to make those sorts of claims and decide what is in the collective consciousness? I know, but someone had to make a decision. I hated doing it, but it was my project, so it might as well be me. And besides, doesn't every English teacher do that each year by determining which material to share with her class? Not that that makes me feel any better about it, but it is what it is. I organized my 31 books into a weekly schedule. Step One finished. Books decided upon. Here's the finalized list for Seniors. Underclassmen have some of the same books, just not as many. (Click to enlarge.)

Now for Step Two. How to guide my students to knowledge of these pieces of literature? Well, as an adult, how do I learn something I want to know about? Google, of course! Wikipedia is a great place to start because it usually summarizes everything up nicely in one paragraph at the top, and if I want to go deeper, I can just keep reading. There's also Sparknotes, if I want to go chapter by chapter, and blogs and articles that analyze different aspects that are interesting.

But, of course, it may be a book that has been on a student's To Read list for a while, and he wants to just read the whole thing on his own. Awesome. The scheduled date is listed for their convenience.

Finally, we'll come together and discuss our findings as a class.

By these three methods (or four, as my students mentioned watching movie adaptations, as well), the student should have enough information and be prepared to contribute to a larger, societal conversation about the piece of literature.

Here is the handout I prepared for Seniors. I did make it sound more about the "being prepared for college" reason than the "being prepared for contribution to America's collective consciousness" than I stated here. I was still trying to figure things out.

Yes, the bottom refers to a couple of books read in class. More on that later.

Well, it's been six weeks, and though the Freshmen and Sophomores have only done it once, the Juniors have had a little more experience with it, and the Seniors have gotten into a good flow. There are two dates for each book listed on the schedule, a Thursday and a Friday. I give the Thursdays for researching (on laptops borrowed from the computer lab), and on Fridays, we discuss what they found and they each write up a one-paragraph summary.

The research itself was a little tricky to get into, as the students weren't quite sure what they were looking for. We worked up this list together:

The summaries have been rather difficult to get perfect. I'm not sure if it's because it's something they're still not quite used to yet or if I'm grading them too hard.

I did have one full credit paper turned in, and I was so excited, I took a picture that we've used as a model since:

I've also been urging in the direction of a specific format, even though that's something that typically bugs me about teaching writing. (Students should be able to write with their own voice! etc., etc. That's another topic entirely. I digress.) It should start out with the title of the book, the author, and the publication date, then go into just a couple of sentences of plot, and finish up with some historical context. It's not necessary to follow this format, but some of the students found it helpful.

When I grade the summaries, I make some comments about what information could be included or excluded, and they keep everything together in their notes. We haven't had any tests over it yet, but there will be a few little ones where students will need to remember enough key information to write a summary from scratch, and then a comprehensive one at the end of the year.

I'm not sure if I'm going about this in the best way yet, but we'll see how this goes. I'll report back with more information when I have it!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

First Quarter High School Examination and Some Musings on the Concept of Failure

In the summer, my husband and mother-in-law asked me what I was preparing for my first year teaching high school. I gave them a couple of concepts I had been playing around with, but they were put off by my lack of fully formed plans. In an attempt to be helpful, they began listing ideas they wanted me to use. I listened earnestly for a couple of minutes, then my brain shut everything out. It's difficult to relay without sounding bitter. I know they want me to succeed, so when they saw that I "wasn't prepared," they tried to pitch in. Because they love me, they couldn't bear the thought of seeing me fail.

But I need to fail. I, and everyone else who will eventually master a skill, need to fail in order to truly learn.

(I looked for a previous article to link that last statement to, but I guess I haven't written one up yet. I know I have enough material floating around in my mind for it. Add that to my ever-growing list of concepts that require further exploration through narrative reflection.)

Yes, they were just trying to give me ideas, but I took offense to it. I took it as an attempt to run my classroom. I reminded myself that they were just being helpful and tried to make enough uni-syllabic sounds of noncommittal agreement to drop the subject, but I suppose in my endeavor not to offend back, I did so too passively. Eventually the conversation ended in angry tears--mine.

As it turns out, I've been lucky enough to land myself a second job with administration lenient enough to give me my space and trust me to teach without requiring lesson plans or even curriculum mapping. Of course I've taken full advantage of the situation, playing with new ideas as I see fit.

But I'm also still hesitant enough to cling to what I view as traditional activities. And for the same reason as last year, too--in hopes of providing the outward appearance of a teacher who is in control of her classroom and knows what she is doing. I seem to be displaying the semblance of doing as such because, in truth, I probably am. I just don't have the confidence to know it yet. I just have a natural tendency to want to fly under the radar and not get "caught" doing something out of the normal because I fear I couldn't justify it accurately enough to get the permission to continue. Some day I will.

But also, I'm still discovering what my best practices are and, knowing this, would rather keep it to myself until I'm finished. If administration knew, I fear they would want to "be helpful," and I'd have a repeat occurrence of what happened this summer on my hands. And that's what I'm really trying to avoid.

I still need to play with ideas that don't work in order to know that they don't work.

I need to be free to fail in order to know what not to do.

I need to fail in order to grow as a teacher.

So, briefly, here's a short list of activities (some traditional, some not. Some that work, some that don't) that have been going on in my classroom for the past two months:
-Writing from prompts, but not every day
-No textbooks
-Reading books as a class (that is, an entire class reading the same book. Not aloud, but with reading assignments for homework)
-Reading Shakespeare
-Watching movies versions of books after finishing the reading
-Playing independently-produced board games with the theme of books read together or discussed
-Poorly performed Socratic seminars
-Group discussions
-Essay questions answered in iterations
-Daily quizzes with simple Bloom's Knowledge questions to give points for completing assigned reading (for modern books)
-Taking notes together on the board (for Shakespeare)
-Freely used magnetic poetry
-A role-playing-game-themed digital behavior management tool
-Stream of consciousness writing
-Desks that are in rows by default but easily rearranged to create small groups and partners, circles, semi-circles, and circles within circles
-Standing at the front of the room to teach whole-class
-Sitting with students in the circle to guide conversations
-Standing back to let student-led discussions flow
-Internet research and summary writing on books (definitely an entire post on this to ensue)
-Pillow usage for lounging on the floor during work periods
-Creating a found word word wall (freshman class only--I have them twice a day)
-Sentence diagramming with Shurley Method (freshman class only)
-Preparations to write our own school newspaper (freshman class only)

I'd like to elaborate on many things listed, but I find that difficult to do at this time. I feel like they are all experiments in progress, and when I write, I like to be able to speak declaratively about my subject. I like to be able to make conclusions and decisions of finality that can stand true at least for the time being, and I can't really do that with something I'm still in the middle of. (That's also one of the reasons I don't write often, because I feel like I'm always in the middle of something and not close enough to the end of it to make any real decisions about it.) So, elaborations and statements of temporary finality still to come.

Here are some things I am desperate to implement but have not yet because I'm still trying to figure out how to best incorporate them:
-Reflection writing
-Social emotional learning
-Nonfiction article of the week
-Annotation writing (close writing)
-Argument and logic
-Better Socratic circles
-Teaching styles of writing through exemplars
-Technical writing

Honestly, that's not so much. It's not as big of a list as I was expecting it to be. I just need to get my stuff together and work on incorporating them already!

Recently I've been feeling stressed about work and down about my job performance, so it's nice to take a step back and think about what we've actually already been doing. It's nice to see that big list of things we've been working on. I'm happy to be where I am, carrying out the experiments I am and implementing the the work I am. Though the day to day is tedious and full of challenging learning for everyone, I'll be able to look back with a heart full with accomplishment soon enough. And with that thought, I am contented.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Coloring Outside the Lines

I was immediately drawn to this book by Roger Schank upon reading its cover text: "If you want to raise kids with a passion for learning... don't confuse intelligence with straight A's. / don't let your kid become a homework machine. / keep your child away from tyrannical coaches. / don't assume the teacher is always right." This statement seemed right up my alley--a chaotic good approach to the educational system, which I always enjoy.

Well, it was fine, I suppose, just not quite up to the high standards I was expecting.

To begin with, the audience Schank had written for was definitively parents. Well, that's fair. A second look at that same cover text should have tipped me off. No big deal. I'll be a parent soon enough, anyway, and I can always use another resource to point parents in the direction of.

What's more, however, was what seemed to be a lack of content to spark my interest. To be fair, perhaps perhaps it was more groundbreaking when it was published in 2000. Fourteen years is not really that long ago, considering that last year I read The First Days of School, which was 23 years old, but still. And it's not that the age of the book was very apparent while reading (except for the chapter about computer-based learning and some comments bad-mouthing video games), just that most of the ideas he presented were things that I'd already considered or discussed, either here or in college.

But again, more resources to give to parents is always a good thing, so I kept reading.

Schank's main point throughout was to convey six character traits that "smart kids" need to develop while growing up: verbal proficiency, creativity, analytical skill, gumption, ambition, and inquisitiveness. He gives examples of how to bring each of these traits out. (He relies heavily on playing sports as an easy solution, though briefly mentioning how play and non-organized games do this better.)

He also makes a firm stance that parents of "smart kids" should not strongly enforce getting good grades at school, rather to find interests outside of school and pursue them in order to find an area of expertise and niche that will eventually become a unique career.

Here are a few highlights I made while reading:

If you want to know where your child's talents and interests lie, pay attention to his questions. The more questions he asks in a given area, the more likely that's where his passion is and where his career should be. -- p. 16

If you want to raise a smarter, more original-thinking kid, tell them the truth: School is a stupid game, but a good college won't accept you unless you take and do reasonably well on all these math tests even though you know you want to be a criminal lawyer when you grow up. So buckle down and get good grades. B's are fine. But don't think for a moment that your grades have much to do with how smart you are or how successful you'll be in a career. -- p. 19-20

The worst thing you can do to a child with an idea to express is to tell him to sit down and be quiet. -- p. 23

History is ... about putting kids in situations where they have to reason out complex issues and solve problems faced by people throughout history. Role playing and gamelike situations would be a much better way to teach the subject. -- p. 30

...I defined creativity as a willingness to come up with and pursue one hundred ideas knowing that ninety-nine of them are stupid. -- p. 33

Motivation is crucial to developing analytical abilities ... People learn from their mistakes in logic only when it's important for them to get it right. Only then does the analytical process they learn stay with them. -- p. 34

Communicate to your child that you only care about one grade. Tell her something to this effect: "I'm not particularly concerned if you bring home B's in most of your subjects or even if you receive C's in one or two of them. What I do care about is that you bring home one A per semester in the subject you really like." -- p. 39-40

My kids went to bed earlier than any of their friends until just before adolescence. ... This rule in our house ensured that they'd wake up early ... when my wife and I were still sleeping. They were not allowed to wake us up, but they were encouraged to do anything they wanted (except watch television). This gave them a few hours to themselves each day, and during this time they were tremendously inventive. Unable to call friends or play in a group, my children were left to their own devices. My son, who became an urban planner, drew cities. My daughter, who has worked as a professional writer, read books. Though they sometimes played together and acted out wildly imaginative scenarios, they often played on their own. -- p. 45

Learning takes place when people fail at something they're interested in, ask questions about it, fail again, ask more questions, and persist in doing it until they get it right. -- p. 51

Most children (and most people in general) don't ask questions to receive answers. They ask them because they're intrigued, puzzled, and provoked. They want the chance to bounce ideas off an expert, to get some guidance so they can find the answers themselves. -- p. 54

When they're faced with a problem or a challenge, they think, "I know what to do here; I've had this experience before." This cognition isn't always conscious; it's sometimes described as intuition or instinct. ... the more diverse your child's memories, the more likely she is to be reminded of the right memory at the right time. -- p. 64-65

...telling a story forces us to think more clearly. ... Verbalizing stories facilitates the mind's labeling and retrieval process. If we don't articulate our stories, they float unlabeled in the nether regions of our brain and are difficult to retrieve at appropriate times. If we do articulate them, we can readily retrieve an old story that's relevant to a new situation. ... what all children do when they tell these stories is make sense of their experiences. By talking about what took place in their lives--even when they embellish their stories or substitute what they wish would have happened for what really did happen--they acquire usable memories. -- p. 66-69

Older siblings often take the words right out of their younger siblings' mouths. They make it easy for them to talk, and this is one reason that the youngest child in a family is usually the slowest to talk. To counter this effect, spend more time alone with each child. This doesn't mean prohibiting them from playing together. But make sure you carve out time where you have conversations with each child independent of his siblings. -- p. 94

...our minds reflexively erase details when we don't talk about them. When we tell stories about our experiences, however, we embed them in our memories. In effect, we're talking to ourselves as much as to another person. -- p. 95

The philosopher Wittgenstein said, "All creative thought takes place in three B's: bed, bus, and bath." In other words, it takes place when our minds are not focused on an activity, when they're not consciously driving towards a particular goal. ... give small children something "mindless" they can do that will give them the chance to let their minds wander. ... give her a simple task, such as playing with blocks or cutting pieces of paper, that requires almost no thought. -- p. 118-119

Successful entrepreneurs, pioneering scientists, and other high-achieving professionals break the rules not because they're anarchists but because they feel the old rules don't work as well as the new ones they've created. They first evaluate the rules, decide which ones are viable and which ones are not, and invent new ones to replace the latter.  This is the process you need to teach your children... how to break rules intelligently. -- p. 141

...obsessive behavior may not make sense to parents or may seem a big investment in a trivial subject, but it's how kids develop expertise. The well-diversified child simply knows a little bit about a lot of things; the single-minded child becomes an expert. ... Expertise bequeaths self-confidence to kids. When they know a subject intimately, they're much more willing to take risks within that subject area, to speak their minds and stand up for themselves. -- p. 142-143

...it's important to teach a child to aim high, but not too high. A perfectionist mentality doesn't allow for failure, and failure...is a key component of learning. ...model imperfect behavior. -- p. 156-157

One of the biggest complaints of graduate students is expressed this way:" The problem with this field is that all of the answers are known." In fact, there is plenty left to learn in most fields; they simply need to ask the questions from a different perspective. -- p. 173

Responding to an inquiry by telling him to come back later ... devalues a child's curiosity. -- p. 174 (emphasis my own)

Children should see life as a buffet and be encouraged to try anything that interests them. This philosophy helps children find their niche in the world and become an expert at their chosen profession. -- p. 177

What a young person chooses to read often provides insights into a future field of study or a career. -- p. 216

It's always interesting to look back and see what stood out most to me while reading. I really enjoy revisiting my highlights and notes, as it serves as a small window into what I, personally, found most striking about an article or book. (Hmm. This is a thought I've had many times before and might also be something I want to explore more thoroughly later on.)

One overarching concept that I kept pausing to consider throughout the Coloring Outside the Lines but not expressly shown in the highlights is that of expectation failure, the learning that occurs when something fails to meet our expectations. Schank illustrates this best with an anecdote of a small child filled with questions when he meets someone remarkably tall for the first time. This is a particularly enlightening story because the archetypal situation of being embarrassed by a child asking many non-politically-correct questions is so pervasive in our culture. Schank encourages a look into that child's mind. That man doesn't meet the standards of what I've come to expect. I need to ask questions in order to create a new set of standards which incorporates him. 

Also, because I'll be teaching high school English very soon, one passage was insightful to me:

...there's the argument that reading great works of literature elevates children's minds and helps them develop an aesthetic sense. That's true only if the books are germane to a child's life. It's difficult for a fourteen-year-old to appreciate the beauty of a Shakespearean sonnet if he views it as an artifact of Elizabethan England and can't see its relevance to the issues he's facing in his relationships. You can force children to read books, compel them to talk about the issues the books raise and write the proper words about these books on essay tests. But none of this is internalized, and it is forgotten as quickly as it is "learned." ...

Schools should allow each kid in a class to read a different book--a book that that specific child is excited about. The assignment would be for each child to excite his classmates about his particular choice. They would engage in one-on-one discussions with each other, write their feelings about the book for others to read, and so on. The literary qualitites of the book as well as the issues it raised would stick in a child's mind far better than a book chosen because it's a classic... -- p. 26-26
In fact, it ties in nicely with an idea I've been throwing around all summer about how I will teach literature next year. The ideas didn't match exactly, but it was helpful to play around with and encouraged me to make some definitive decisions. More on this soon!

And, finally, I was struck by some interesting concept ideas for schools. I'm very fond of dreaming up ideas like these, so I was impressed when I read Schank's:

The best models for schools are Ph.D. programs at universities. This is one-on-one education at its best, where professors guide graduate students, helping them pursue research on topics that the students have chosen and find fascinating. Rather than lecturing and forcing them to take multiple choice tests, these professors ask provocative questions, suggest different directions, provide feedback, and serve as sounding boards for the students' ideas. -- p. 41

If schools wanted to encourage natural ambition, they would allow children to set goals they really cared about. One student would spend the semester reading every James Bond book. Another would work at mastering a difficult Mozart piece on the violin. A third would spend months in the science lab attempting to produce a complex chemical reaction. A fourth would listen to every Beastie Boys CD and memorize all the lyrics. These goals all flow from a child's interest, and they would be self determined and largely self-achieved (with a teacher acting as a guide and mentor). -- p. 161-162

Ideally the school day would be equally divided into three segments. After working at the computer, the kids would meet and discuss what happened during their simulations. This discussion is important, not simply because it conforms to our learning model (telling stories about one's experiences) but because it can help kids develop new interests or take their own interests in new directions. The one-on-one exchanges between peers--with the teacher acting as a facilitator rather than the font of all knowledge--capitalizes on children's innate desire to talk about what excites them. The final third of the day would be devoted to a real world activity that parallels the subject of the student's computer simulation. If someone did a simulation related to building things, the activity might involve spending some time as an intern in an architect's office. -- p. 227-228
What neat ideas!

In conclusion, Coloring Outside the Lines did provide me with a bit of insight, though it wasn't as full of it as I had hoped. Mostly, it will be a resource to provide to parents. Schank has a number of other projects that might be interesting to look through, including Engines for Education, "story-centered curricula" (computer simulations) for high schools; Socratic Arts, computer simulations for businesses, government, and post-secondary schools; and Alternative Learning, what appears to be a PBL curriculum for elementary schools. More stuff to explore!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Educational Magazines and the Case Against Textbooks

Last year was my first year teaching, and I was pretty lost most of the time. One thing I regret doing was automatically accepting and teaching from the provided textbooks (mostly MacMillan/McGraw Hill stuff). Sure, I improvised when and where I could, bringing in additional material where necessary, but we still did the textbook thing. I promised my principal that we would get all the way through the textbooks, and that we did. I pushed us through.

I'm not sure that the third graders got much from last year and our mutual trudge through Textbook Land. But that's okay, because I certainly did.

Want to know what lesson I learned? It will definitely come as a shock to you. It's this:

Children. Hate. Textbooks.

There, I said it. Surprised, aren't you? 

I know, whatever, Holly, this is a fact that everyone knows. But somewhere along the way, I got caught up in "doing my job" and forgot. So just to make sure that we're all on the same page, I thought it worthy of repeating.

Children find textbooks boring.

Somewhere within the first couple of months of school, the word mundane came up in someone's silent reading book, and we talked about it as a class. Having this word in their vocabulary, my students used this adjective to describe everything we did in the textbooks from then on.

What can we do with this information? We can first recognize that children that are bored or that are forced to do something they don't enjoy aren't learning as much as they could be. I would even argue that they're learning not much at all, or perhaps they're learning entirely the opposite lesson that you wish to convey, such as, "Science is boring and stupid, and I hate it."

Of course, I could use this opportunity to argue that any tool is only as useful as the one who uses it. Perhaps in the hands of a truly skillful teacher, a textbook wouldn't be so bad. But alas, I am not quite yet one of those, and I have the tendency to think that the teachers who use textbooks successfully are in the minority. I could be using this time to research how to properly engage students while also using a textbook, but that seems difficult and... well, kind of traditional and boring. So instead, I'll do what I do best and question the whole system.

Before I left the school, my principal asked for a recommendation on what to do about textbooks and curriculum for next year. Well! That was certainly one document I didn't mind typing up! I'm sure he was actually looking for something along the lines of, "This book is fine, but this other doesn't match Common Core standards. Here's a different one that I found that is CCSS aligned," but that's not what he got from me.

Instead, I recommended purging all textbooks in favor of subscriptions to educational magazines for all students.

There are a number of benefits. We'll start with what will make your administration happy--They are directly aligned with Common Core standards. (They have to be, in order to sell, these days, so that's an easy one.) CCSS urges an increasing amount of nonfiction in the classroom, and magazines provide age-appropriate nonfiction articles on a regular basis. 

On top of that, the articles typically relate in some way to current events, providing a good basis for authentic learning and discussions.

Got digital readers in your classroom? Perfect. A lot of magazine subscriptions can be delivered digitally. No digital readers? No worries, they also come in paper version.

But I think the most important point is that these magazines are specifically designed to attract students' attentions. Most have full color photographs with eye-catching headlines. They use authentic language that doesn't scare students away and also doesn't come off as trying too hard. (I know that in many instances, I tend to shy away from something designed specifically for children, but this isn't one of those instances. These magazines don't come off as patronizing or trying too hard to be cool, at least the good ones. They were designed properly.) As a para, I worked in a few classrooms that used educational magazines, and the students devoured them, cover to cover. Effective, indeed.

Alright, so what magazines am I talking about? Give us some examples. Here are the ones I found, though this may not be a comprehensive list:
  • Time for Kids. This may currently be the most widely used educational subscription magazine, at least in my experience. I even remember getting these when I was in elementary school. Full color photographs. Different issues for different grades: K-1, 2, 3-4, and 5-6. Available in print or digital copy. Weekly issues. The content in these magazines is mostly current events, which are usually science or social studies, along with a little bit of fluff. Cost is $4.00 to $4.50, depending on how many copies you buy.
  • Scholastic Classroom and News Magazines. (See all available.) A range of magazines for PreK through grade 12. Cross-curricular for younger students. Older students' issues are available for current events, language arts, science, math, fine arts, life skills, Spanish, French, and German. Issues are weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Prices range from $5 to $10 per issue. 
  • Studies Weekly. Separate issues for Science, Social Studies, Health, Character Education, Heritage, and Math, and for each grade level, K through 6 (math only available for grades K through 2), though some grade level issues overlap. Color comic-style illustrations with the occasional photograph. Available in print or digital copy. Weekly issues (hence the name). Some are magazine style, others (specifically the older grades) are newspaper style. A specific selling point for this one is how it directly aligns with CCSS. I get the feeling that this one is all pre-written, no current events, and stays the same (or with minor adjustments) each year. So, a textbook with comic book illustrations, in a newspaper format. Huh. Some issues cost $1.75 each while others come in sets, $10.78 for 1-9 copies, $5.39 for more than 10 copies.
The other thing I recommended to my principal was using literature circles to teach language arts. I had an entire cabinet full of sets of books that I never touched, regretfully. 

Literature circles to teach language arts. Current educational magazines the introduce topics in science, social studies, and current events. Student-centered project-based-learning assignments that cover everything else (including math and writing). 

And we're still using textbooks, why?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

An Initial Look into Exploring Emotional Intelligence with Teenagers

A teacher friend posted a link to this PBS Frontline clip about the teenage brain earlier this week, and I can't stop thinking about it. The most important point, in my opinion, was how, when shown images of adult faces expressing emotion, teenagers saw anger and shock where the adults saw fear. Further exploration of the interview with researcher Deborah Yurgelun-Todd finds that about half of the teenagers studied, slightly more boys than girls, incorrectly identified emotions that a full 100 percent of adults were able to identify.

What does this mean? I kept asking myself all morning. Is this usable information?

I definitely feel like I'd been presented with this information before, perhaps in college in my teacher training courses, or perhaps in my own high school psychology classes when I was a teenager. Whenever it was, the information must not have been pertinent to me at the time, and so I didn't retain it (a point I'm finding more and more interesting as time goes along--personal pertinence in regards to information retention). But here it is again, and, faced with teaching teenagers for the first time, it is pertinent to me now. So what can I do with it?

My natural response is to say, "These students need more emotional intelligence practice," and then, almost as a reflex, I reply, "But is that even a possibility? Can I teach emotional intelligence to teenagers without coming across as condescending or patronizing? Even if I attempt to do so respectfully, what if they misinterpret my intentions? Oh, the irony!"

And then I remember that I went to a SECD (social, emotional, and character development) presentation specifically geared towards secondary English teachers during the recent professional development workshops I attended. So yes, not only is it possible, but it's certainly recommended.

(Come on, now. Obviously I have enough faith in my students and their comprehension skills, regardless of human development and psychology. Sure, there will always be hiccups in teaching, but my philosophy is to respect my students enough to teach them items of importance and to trust that if they will retain it if they truly benefit from it--and if I introduce it properly! Must remember. Don't get confused again.)

I didn't type up my notes from the presentation, so I'll just relay some of them now.

The first point I made in regards to SECD is stressing the importance of creating a safe environment where one feels free to share their honest opinions. This is a given, but it's important enough to have a reminder. How does one create such an environment, though? I had this question during the seminar and here's what I came up with: start slow. Use the same style of discussion (Socratic circle, debate, etc.) that you will use throughout the year, but start with easier topics that students are already aware they have opposing opinions on, such as "Do cats or dogs make better pets?" or "Is ice cream or cake a better dessert?" Develop the skills of the discussion style first, and talk to the students about how to respectfully handle speaking with someone that has a different opinion than you. And when someone forgets and makes a disrespectful comment? First let them know that what they said was disrespectful, since they might not know or they might have fallen into an old habit of speaking that way. Help them find a better way to say what they meant, and do so gently. Getting indignant or shaming them would be counter-productive here, as it would model inappropriate behavior. After an initial testing period of getting comfortable sharing their opinions, it should encourage students to share deeper, more honest feelings. (This is definitely an area I want to explore at greater length soon.)

I also noted the importance of role playing, which is another activity I imagine I'll have to ease my students into. One way to do so is with a writing activity called R.A.F.T., which stands for Role, Audience, Format, and Topic. The topics, and/or any of the other criteria, may be chosen by the teacher, but it's an easy way to start students off thinking from another person's point of view. For instance, in the seminar, I was in a group given the assignment, supposing we were in a unit on To Kill a Mockingbird, of writing a newspaper editorial about the trial from Boo Radley's point of view. Once students are in the mindset of thinking from a literary character's point of view, it may be easier to see things from a peer's point of view.

Interestingly, non-assessed standards for SECD already exist. Like most standards, they are very dry and somewhat wordy. I had thought to post the high school specific standards here, but I lost the motivation to do so when I opened the pdf. Last year, I tried to share standards with the third graders by having them pick through pdfs. It was not our most successful lesson. Maybe high school students would be more capable of doing it? It certainly wouldn't be a fun lesson, considering how exhausted I got just by opening the file, but maybe we could use it for some sort of technical reading activity. I'll have to gauge my students when I meet them to see if I would actually want to attempt that. Maybe only the seniors? We'll see.

At any rate, I think I've been able to skim the surface on this topic. At least I know that this is something I want to play with further and that it's worth my time. Is there anything on my Pledge about SECD? If not, I need to put it on soon.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Lessons Learned from a Summer Workshop

Last week I attended a three day summer professional development workshop series hosted by the state. The theme was supposed to be Common Core State Standards, but I don't think I actually learned much new information about CCSS. In fact, I don't think I learned much that I didn't already know, but a big part of learning, I've always felt, is reinforcement of known concepts, and there was certainly plenty of that. I even reinforced some ideas that I probably wasn't supposed to be getting. But arguably the most important part of the series for me was that it helped to transition by brain from third grade mode to high school English mode, which needed to happen sooner or later.

First, when separated into content and age groups (so I was with more high school English teachers), I was pleasantly surprised to find myself among like-minded people, and that doesn't happen often. One of the first tasks we were given was to separate into three subgroups and rank a handful of classroom activities by how many Speaking and Listening standards they met. The slips of paper were passed out, and I was given small-group discussion (yay!), Socratic circles (eee!), and popcorn reading (oh...). Immediately I ordered them, 1 - Socratic circles, 2 - small group discussion, 3 - popcorn reading. Then I remembered that I actually had a task, and it was to order based on standards, not preconceived biases. Fine. But when I matched the standards to the activities, I found that they actually remained in this order. And when I combined my given activities with the others from my subgroup, they agreed with my judgement, keeping popcorn reading at the bottom. And when compared with the other subgroups, I found that they had all placed popcorn reading at the bottom, as well! Woah. No one had thought that popcorn reading was a useful or effective classroom activity. I was prepared to keep quiet  my dissenting opinion, shying away from hostility, unable to convince anyone because their minds were made up and unwilling to change because that's how it typically goes. I don't want to fight, and the majority of people will not listen to any reasoning that doesn't agree with their own opinions. But I didn't have to convince anyone. In fact, they all agreed unanimously with me before I even had a chance to defend my position!

And in fact, it was a common theme throughout the three days that students should be taught to listen respectfully to arguments contrary to their own beliefs for the sake of argument, finding flaws in their own reasoning or someone else's, calmly realizing when their reasoning isn't sound, justifying their ideas, and peacefully convincing others.

And did I mention the Socratic circles? Nary a presentation went by without Socratic something-or-other being mentioned. We even held a practice Socratic circle in one of the classes, just so that the presenter could be sure that we had experienced it and knew how beneficial an activity it was to students. Because she wanted us to know that the learning students do together in this manner is much more authentic than anything one could teach while standing in front of the classroom.


Maybe I've finally found where I'm meant to be. Aaah, the feelings of satisfaction and gratification, they wash over me.

(For what it's worth, I felt this way when I began to get into Montessori, but it all drained out of me the moment I stepped into the training center. This experience has been the opposite--I went with trepidation, assuming that these teachers were just the same as all the other public school teachers I'd met, but was then surprised to find the opposite.)

Why? What could have caused this? Is this how English teachers have been all along? I wouldn't know, since my education was primarily Elementary, and elementary teachers certainly didn't behave this way, giving students so much credit and acknowledgement. Or is it because of Common Core? Is this the way of thinking that one automatically adopts when forced to study these new standards? In adopting CCSS, did we actually convince teachers to teach students how to learn rather than memorize facts?

If this is the fault of CCSS, I've just decided that I love it even more than I did previously.

If this is how English teachers have always been... well, I'm glad I'm finally home.

Moving right along.

Another common theme that was frequently discussed during the seminar was something called Essential Question, a relatively new concept for me. There's a book that nearly all the presenters had and kept referencing. I may read it and explore it further, but briefly, from what I gathered last week, units of study, thematic units, are now based on a broad question that can be connected to many areas of life and are able to be deeply contemplated. Such questions could be, "What is a hero?" or "Who is responsible for public health?" Things that keep students thinking throughout the unit, changing their minds when presented with new information, and possibly ending up with an entirely different answer at the end than they began with. Essential questions can be designed to be used with one class or a whole school, though either way would be interesting to experience. If multiple teachers were on board, they could all bring something new to the discussion, making it that much more broad and deep, but that's not to say that a single teacher wouldn't be able to do a lot with it, too. More research is needed here. I put the book on my library list.

I have a lot of new references and notes, things to explore and look up, but it's all very messy at this point. There's not much I can make of it with the state that these notes are in currently, short of making another silly notes post, but those aren't actually very helpful to me, I've found. So I'll leave it as it is now, sift through slowly, explore as necessary, and report back with anything that require a full length article.

But I'll leave this particular post with the aforementioned reinforcement of a concept I wasn't supposed to be receiving.

For a little bit of context, this seminar series was held in a large, suburban high school. For the first two days, attendees were organized into small groups of 10 to 20 adults, and we moved between classrooms as a group, watching and participating in different presentations, each about an hour long. There was to be a schedule of what group went where at what time, but there wasn't proper communication, and everyone was rather confused, like a pack of new freshmen. We ate breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria and had whole group assemblies in the assembly hall. It was all so very high school.

On top of that, many teachers from my previous school were there, and I... well, though I'm almost embarrassed to admit, but I avoided them. As much as I got along with the other high school English teachers, I didn't sit with them in the cafeteria or assembly hall, either. They had their own schools to sit with, and that was fine by me. No one else from my school was in attendance, and even if they were, I wouldn't have known them well enough to sit with them, probably. So I spent these times sitting by myself, avoiding eye contact with others, choking down the sub par food that was provided, flipping through notes I had taken, reading a book I had brought along--much the way that I spent my own high school (and even college) years.

The third day was to be a work day in which attendees could work with their school and create units or lessons based on what they had learned on the previous days. I was placed in a new group with other solos.

It was fine, really, I'm not bitter about anything, but for whatever reason, I just wasn't feeling it. It happens. We all have off days, and this was one of them for me. I'm not sure if I brought it on myself by having preconceived notions of not getting much out of this particular day or by deciding that I didn't like the way this particular activity was being carried out. I may have, or it may have been a coincidence. Whatever the reason, I wasn't much help to my group, nor did I have much to add in conversations. And I feel like that's not usually who I am. I would typically have had much to add to professional development conversations. One of the rules I tend to live by is, you get out of anything as much as you want to get out of it. I spent much of my school years trying to determine how the information I was presented with applied to my life directly, trying to pry everything I could from teachers and professors, taking ample notes, deciding what information was most pertinent to me, diving deep into concepts, exploring until the topic was exhausted but revisiting when I could apply the information in a new way. I took learning into my own hands and was regarded as a good student. But it doesn't matter what type of student I am or was, because everyone has off days, days where what's happening in the classroom just isn't beneficial to them. And this was that day for me.

I spent the morning quietly, trying to get by saying as little as possible without seeming completely awkward. We separated into subgroups, and mine had an alpha. Usually I feel comfortable in a leadership role, but today, since an alpha was already present, I felt more comfortable sitting back and letting her take over. I did as little work as possible, writing notes to myself as to seem busy.

At lunch, I ate quickly, then headed outside through a side door, not feeling brave enough to avoid eye contact with teachers from my old school any longer. I found a tree to sit down in the shade of and rested there for a long while, enjoying the solitude. Eventually I lay in the grass, using my book as a pillow. Sunlight flickered through the leaves, shining a kaleidoscopic pattern across my face, the summer breeze blew soft music through the blades of grass by my head, and all was peaceful. Time to resume was drawing near, but I couldn't find the motivation to go back inside. This is what my students feel like, my brain told me. I nibbled a patch of sweet grass, feeling young. Time came and passed, and I remained, my skin breathing in the warm air. I examined the empty windows of the school, writing poems idly in my mind, matching words and listening to them flow attractively. It is getting a little hot, I mused to myself. If I go back inside now, I wouldn't have to go straight back to class right away. I could just wander about the school a little until I felt ready. I hesitated, realizing. That's probably exactly what my students tell themselves, too.

I did go back in then, exploring the empty halls until I satisfied. I found my classroom an hour past time, my "classmates" still working away on the project they had been at before we left, though I was still unable to concentrate on what I was "supposed to" be working on. My brain had a new concept to play with, or rather an old concept to revisit.

Hadn't I decided long ago that if someone chooses not to participate, that's alright? There's no way to force him to learn, and forcing him to do an assignment just makes him frustrated. It's not the end of the world, and it's much more respectful to leave him to sit quietly, as long as he's not disturbing others. A cursory glance through the articles I've written tells me that I never actually wrote about it, though maybe I overlooked it. I remember the exact moment I first had this thought, watching a teacher fight in vein with a child, back when I was a para. Somehow in my first year of teaching, this memory must have left me. I was in survival mode the whole year, after all. Nowhere to go but up. Surely I can learn from my mistakes, and I vow now to give my students space when they need it, recognizing when they're having trouble connecting to an assignment and allowing them time to decompress when necessary.

So, ultimately, it was a beneficial third day, though the lesson I learned wasn't quite the expected one.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Work Period and the Menu System

My greatest accomplishment during my year teaching third grade was a system I developed and used for one quarter, a little over three months. Initially, it started as a contemplation of how I would run the ideal classroom if given the chance. Months after writing that linked article, those thoughts were still swimming around my head, begging for a chance to be let out. Well, no better time than the present, I decided. I worked at a private school, where it was more feasible to try something potentially radical than at a public school, so why not?

I started brainstorming how to make it possible. I rearranged our schedule, providing a two-hour work period in the morning, an hour shy of a traditional Montessori work period, but that's what I could give. (Click images to view the full screen.)

Then I wrote up new rules specifically for this work period:

1. You must work quietly enough not to disturb others.
2. If you are being disturbed, let that person know politely. If someone tells you that you are disturbing them, simply apologize and change the distracting behavior.
3. If you need help, ask someone around you.
4. You may work together with any number of peers, as long as you are on task.
5. Log everything in your Daily Schedule Keeping Notebook.
6. When you are finished with a workbook page, check your answers with your peers. If the answers don't match, find out why. Defend and justify your answer if you think it is correct, but listen politely to the other person. See if you can find a flaw in their reasoning.
7. Workbook pages must have 5 signatures of peers that agree with your reasoning.

And in January, we began.

The system itself is broken up into three main parts: the weekly menus of assignments, daily schedule keeping, and conferencing.

I started out with default menus--everything that we had been doing together in class. It looked a little something like this:

Math lessons, a story and fluency practice from our silly basal reader, grammar and spelling book pages, science (switched out with social studies every other week), daily reflection, and silent reading--everything that the students were used to doing, nothing new. We had spent five months doing these same sorts of assignments, the only difference was that now they had the option of when to do the assignments, in what order, and whom with. I passed out the menus every Monday, and it was expected that all assignments would be completed by Friday. I had some students that completed everything in class and others that needed to take some things home for homework. I let them know that either was acceptable, as long as everything got accomplished.

Meanwhile, I held small lessons (a schedule of which was posted on the board on Mondays), and the students were free to attend if they so wished. They could also skip it and just read the textbook.

My intention was to get the students used to the menu for a couple of weeks, then work with them during conferencing to tailor an individual menu for the following week based on their needs. This part never got off the ground, unfortunately, for a number of reasons. It was such a new idea for the students that they, having never experienced it before, didn't quite know what to do with it. When asked what individual projects they'd like to work on, they were at a loss. I came up with a few ideas, age-appropriate anatomy books to study for those who said their parents wanted them to become doctors, animal encyclopedias to flip through for those interested in animals, and art projects for those interested in art, all of which were accepted and at least attempted, but they rarely came up with ideas of their own accord. This being my first time with the system, too, I didn't have as many resources as I found I needed. On top of that, it was time consuming, and I was frequently strapped for time and stressed. So, for the most part, we just stuck with the default menus the whole quarter long.

The second part of the system is the daily schedule keeping. I had the students start a new spiral notebook, in which they were to record everything done during work period. Two examples:

Along with the date (which should either be at the top of the page, for those that started a new page each day, or beside the first assignment of the day, for those that filled up a page with multiple days), assignment (which should include page numbers or other identifying remarks), and time spent, I also asked students to record who they worked with and a short comment about the difficulty, mostly as a small, frequent exercise in reflective thinking.

Finally, the last component, daily and weekly conferencing.

At first, I tried to gamify it. My husband, a computer programmer and even bigger gamer than I am, had been trying to get me to add gamification features to my class since before I even signed the contract, and hearing about my system, took it upon himself to design a program, which we called Class Quest, to go with it. Unfortunately, he got busy with work and the program never got completed, but basically, it rewarded students for the work they did during the day (taking into consideration both effort and completion, of course). His designs differed in some ways to what I wanted, but here are a couple of concept designs I created for it:

Students' names in columns, their individual "experience points" below. When clicked privately on the teacher's computer, a pop-up would appear allowing for points and comments to be entered. Beside each student's name, a big "Contribute!" button that they could go to the front of the classroom and press on the SmartBoard, adding their exp to the class total and filling a large progress bar at the top of the screen. Under the progress bar, Current Total Experience and Points Needed to Next Level, clearly visible.

And when the progress bar filled completely, Level Up! A notice would appear signifying what achievement, or reward, was unlocked.

But since the program wasn't finished by January, I made the interface manually, black marker on poster board. I added the individual exp on sticky notes next to each student's name, wrote the class total exp, and marked it out with correction fluid to fill in the updated total on Fridays. I tried to give a rough estimation of filling in the progress bar accurately, but it soon became too much work and remained ignored, for the most part. Unfortunately, I never got a picture of the whole thing.

Daily conferencing went something like this: during the final hour of the day, I called students to my desk individually, and they would bring their Daily Schedule Keeping notebook and anything they had worked on, such as workbooks or journals. They told me about their work, and experience points were awarded for each item. I wanted desperately for the points to seem as automatic as possible, not at all arbitrary or up to my discretion, but that's a difficult impression to create, especially not having a finished-looking product like what Class Quest to support me. Each assignment, entry, or homework was worth 10 exp. Well, that was the idea, anyway. I had a difficult time, personally, allowing points to be distributed freely, as I was still trying to determine what my role was.

Reading and fluency practice were easy enough assignments, and I felt like I could trust that students had done them appropriately. When those were written down, they automatically counted for points. Science and social studies journals, reflection journals, and story analyses were all graded at the end of the week, so I took the stance that effort on those counted for experience points while accuracy counted for grades. They counted for automatic points, as well.

Workbooks, on the other hand, were a different matter. Where the science and social studies textbooks could be read for the information needed to answer the questions at the end of the lesson, our math and grammar curricula weren't designed that way. They were meant to be completed only after having been through the lesson with an instructor who was following the teacher's manual. The grammar workbook had a small blurb of minimal instructions to be followed on each page, but not really enough information for a third grader to understand the point that was trying to be made with the given practice. The math workbook had no explanation whatsoever to aid in solution of the problems. They were not meant for my Menu system.

I could have made math and grammar lessons mandatory. I could have video recorded them for individuals or small groups to watch at their leisure, a la the flipped classroom. But I didn't. My desire for the system to inherently work made me blind to this flaw, and I maintained that students who wanted to do assignments properly would eventually learn to come to the lesson. I had failed to consider the human nature, the inclination towards easy mode. My students did the best they could on their assignments with the knowledge that they had and could easily gather, though that often meant guessing. But they were intelligent guessers. They considered problems they had encountered previously and attempted to solve new problems likewise. Unfortunately, math (and grammar, too, to some extent, considering that the majority of my class was bilingual, if not ESOL) is a broad subject involving many skills that third graders just haven't had exposure to. And how were they to get that exposure if not from coming to lessons, since no textbook of information was available to read? I had tried to plan for the option of using other students' knowledge as a resource by requiring signatures of agreement on workbook pages, but even that wasn't enough. Their requests for signatures rarely crossed gender boundaries, and strong-willed students were often able to convince weaker-willed or unsure students of incorrect answers. Proper resources just weren't made available.

Thus, I felt the need to check workbooks for accuracy. I deducted experience points for missed question, scolding that if the child is confused, it should be taken as evidence that they need to come to the lessons. I knew subconsciously at the time that I was going about it in the wrong way, and it's especially difficult in retrospect. Guilt is definitely not an emotion a teacher should inspire in her children.

Daily conferencing was the most stressful time of the day, but refusing to acknowledge the aforementioned was only partially to blame. That hour always felt like a race against the clock. I never felt like I had enough time to spend with each student, even though there were only 14. Four-ish minutes to devote to an individual, allow them to express honest feelings about the material they're learning, assess how they're doing, and giving points that may or may not be arbitrarily distributed? We often ran late for dismissal. But what was I to do? My husband recommended splitting the class in half, only conferencing with each student every other day. I suppose it was worth a chance, but I was skeptical and never got around to trying it.

Weekly conferencing wasn't much better. Because I didn't have the program to rely on, we had to find another work-around--I turned on the SmartBoard on Fridays and opened a calculator, allowing the students to see the numbers as they were added. I stayed silent during this process, but there were always a couple of students standing behind me watching. Therefore, when someone sitting at their desk inquired whose points were currently being added, there was readily someone to supply the answer. I had mixed feelings about the connotations implied in knowing how many experience points each classmate had earned, but it would have been apparent on my version of Class Quest, too. Somehow I must have overlooked that. My indecision was my decision, and I never asked those students to sit down.

Not to mention how doing all the work with the calculator myself removed the feeling of contribution from the whole ordeal. That's not how it was intended. If they got the feeling that they were contributing to some sort of cause, I'm sure it must have been latent.

But it was always very exciting when we earned enough experience points to level up. After a moment of cheering came the question of what achievement had been unlocked. Again, because the program wasn't completed, that left me to verbally announce the reward. Class Quest would have declared the achievement automatically, in a seemingly unambiguous manner. In truth, I would have set the awards and exp needed for the next level personally, so it wouldn't have been any different, but just the fact that I had to announce them myself probably seemed at least a little suspicious to some. Weekly conferencing days were frustrating ones.

In true game fashion, I had planned for the initial levels to be easily attainable and give small rewards, but become more difficult to achieve, giving better payout as time went on. Apparently I didn't convey this sufficiently, because there were constant complaints that the levels took too long to reach and that the achievements weren't desirable. I don't recall all of the rewards they unlocked, though the first was Extra Recess Time. I thought that surely this would be a nice reward, but apparently not everyone felt the same. Towards the end of February, when a riot nearly broke out at the concept of unlocking a Healthy Food Party, I decided to suspend the Level system. For the remainder of the quarter, we continued daily conferencing as before, though no experience points were awarded. (For the record, everyone enjoyed the Healthy Food Party, as they had enjoyed the other unlockables. It was as though they dismissed the concepts outright, assuming that they weren't good enough before even considering them as viable options.)

There was an easy fix for this problem, to be fair. My husband's concept of Class Quest was much more in depth than what I designed. It was incredibly detailed, based off of Star Trek Online, a game he was playing frequently at the time, and it ran more on currencies than experience points and leveling up. (I guess my personal gaming history of mostly RPGs made conceptualizing game design limited to RPG qualities, when perhaps the model of a strategy game like STO is more suited to the classroom.) There were currency points for class work, as in my design, but also points for behavior, attitude, attendance, and so forth, and it offered multiple unlockables simultaneously, each requiring a different amount of the various currencies. The idea was for the class to work together to decide which reward to attempt to unlock, though each student would still be able to contribute their points as they saw fit. Juggling all of the different currencies would definitely have been too much for me to handle in my first play through of this class game, considering how much I struggled with only one point system, but having the rewards known before they were unlocked would have benefit my students. If there's only one take away to be had from this experience in gamification, it's this: students do not appreciate hidden or surprise achievements. (Though honestly, I guess I knew that, having attended a couple of gamification panels at PAX that I guess I didn't think enough of to write about or even remember when it mattered. Now that I'm thinking about it, they also told me that requirements for unlocking achievements need to be known, as well. Must remember for future reference!) However, my husband just recently discovered a website similar to his design of Class Quest that takes his ideas even farther and even incorporates some aspects of table top role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, turning the instructor into a Dungeon Master. How neat! I'll definitely have to explore it more and see if it's something I can use next year with my high schoolers. It's name is even similar to what we had thought up--Class Craft. Anyway...

Now for the most difficult part to relay.

At the end of March, third quarter report cards were released, and many of my students' grades had fallen. It was to be expected. This was a brand new experience for these students. They had never been exposed to anything but a traditional classroom setting with a traditional teacher who held their hands and all but spoon-fed them answers. Alright, that may be a bit of a biased exaggeration, but honestly, it was a new, experimental system, and I was asking the students to learn in a way they weren't accustomed to. It's understandable that they should take some time to adapt. It didn't mean that they weren't learning. What's more, I assumed that they were learning more valuable lessons than that which basic curricula could teach, like taking responsibility for one's own learning, prioritizing, self-pacing, pride in doing one's work, and contributing to a community. However, I must not have articulated this well enough, either.

One parent, whose daughter had been a straight A student, was so upset, she came in to speak with the principal, wanting removing the menu system altogether. And when I sat down with them, I somehow could convince neither of them of the benefits of the system. I failed as an effective communicator. I was required to teach whole class for the remainder of the year.

The worst part, I think, is that the project was ended abruptly, exactly in the middle, which the worst possible time. My students had just begun to see the results of their actions. They were just beginning to see that their actions had direct consequences. I had intended to teach my students that if they want to learn, they are able to take it upon themselves to do so. I intended to teach them perseverance over time and the value of learning new skills, including thinking in new, unfamiliar ways. Instead, I fear that the only thing they've learned is that if something proves difficult, if you complain to the right people, they can get you out of it. That's definitely not the skill I wanted to get across, and I'm incredibly saddened by it. I guess it's just another way that the world works, and I have no doubt that they will grow up to use that information to their advantage as adults. This could be even worse to consider, but what can you do? It's the world doing what the world does, and it's just unfortunate that I got caught up in it and wasn't persuasive enough to change it. Maybe the lessons that I, myself, learned in the process will make a difference to another batch of students.

So I bit my tongue and did as I was told, because it was the only thing I could do. Most of the remainder of the school year was taken up with standardized testing, anyway. And if it's any consolation, when I had to tell parents during parent-teacher conferences that the program had to be canceled, a number of them were genuinely saddened. They saw the benefit in an innovative system, and it was frustrating to them that there was nothing they could do either.