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.