I Need a Rewrite: Week in Reflection, 1/26-1/30

Teaching composition is difficult.  I think I had to teach it for several years before I felt comfortable.  One strategy I frequently use is peer editing.  Interestingly enough, students are often more able to help each other edit and revise than they can edit and revise on their own.  I’m not precisely sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the idea that we know what we meant to say, and we don’t always realized we haven’t communicated what we meant to say.  It can be difficult to be objective about one’s own work.

I don’t have students peer edit every time they write, and I frequently don’t tell them in advance that they will have the opportunity to peer edit because I worry, perhaps falsely, that knowing they may not have a chance to edit will entice them to work harder on their drafts.

My students recently wrote short essays comparing and contrasting two versions of Act 2, Scene 2 (the Balcony Scene) in Romeo and Juliet.  Prior to viewing the scenes, we created a graphic organizer to take notes as we viewed.  We shared our notes.  Students noticed very interesting things about the scenes that I in fact had never noticed before.  For instance, did you know that Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is spelling out Romeo’s name on the wall with her finger when Romeo first spies her?  I never picked up on that small action before, but I found it to be an interesting choice on the part of the actress.  I sent them home to write their compositions, and I felt very good about everything they had learned.

Students turned in their essays after the weekend, and I noticed something interesting.  They had not shared all the interesting details in their writing that they had shared in class.  It may have been that my directions were not explicit, or it may have been a disconnect on the part of the students, but I knew that they could make their reader “see” the two films better with a revision and some more direction.  So I wrote my own paragraph, modeling for the students the types of details they had shared in class but not in writing and asked them to do a rewrite for me.  They did, and what improvement!  Interesting how with writing a little modeling goes farther than almost any other instructional strategy I’ve tried.  The students don’t know it yet, but they will revise one more time to correct some mechanical issues.  We learned all about commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, and I want to be sure students can use them correctly in composition.

Lesson learned: Model or scaffold at the start. I could have walked students through the process of moving their notes to a composition, but I incorrectly assumed the discussion would be sufficient for them to make the connections.  It was for some, but not for all.  I should have generated some questions and asked students how they planned to proceed.

I know time is hard to come by, and many of us have a lot of students.  Teaching composition effectively in those conditions can be difficult, particularly if your students have difficulty with writing.  It’s essential work, however.  In fact, I have often thought that teaching writing is at the heart of teaching English — is the most important thing we do as English teachers.  Students have to learn the writing process, that drafting is critical, that there is a lot of work before a piece of writing is “finished” (or that it never is?).

I may be blessed with smaller classes in my private school setting, which enables me to grade students’ drafts more quickly and provide more quality feedback than I think I could if I had classes of 30 students.  The best thing we could do to help our students become better writers is limit English classes to 15 students.  Still, if we are willing to sacrifice some of our sacred cows in the name of helping our students to be good communicators, it might be possible for students even in larger clases to obtain more individualized writing instruction, including modeling, drafting, revising, editing, and quality feedback.  How could we do it?  What should a writing classroom look like?  What is your dream writing classroom?  Money is no object, and you can create whatever you wish.

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Proof Folger Methods Work: Week in Reflection, 1/20-1/23

Here in America Monday was a school holiday: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I believe some of my students engaged in a service activity.  One was organized by the school.  I did not, and I feel bad about it.  Even if I had just gone around the few blocks around my house and picked up trash, it would have been something.  I will try to be better next year, although to be fair, I have done volunteer work at other times when it hasn’t been a national event, and I try to help others.  Still feel guilty.

So teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream is quickly becoming the best part of my day.  And maybe I’m not too crazy to think perhaps my students are enjoying it, too.  Here are some comments gleaned from the classroom blog (by the way, the requirement seems to be helping, and I think the students are actually engaging with the blog more):

Mrs. Huff I just wanted to say that I am really enjoying what we are doing in class right now. It was a very unique and different style than i am used to. (Adam E.)

Preparing for the performance that we will get to act out in front of the class on Monday has been a lot of fun. Choosing who gets what part, deciphering whether or not it is apt for a character to cry, laugh, or even move in a certain way at specific points in time, and creating the prop that will be incorporated in the performance have made this project very enjoyable (not to mention that it also helps elucidate scenes and setting contexts that might otherwise be confusing or unclear) . To be honest, before we began MND, I had never thought that studying and analyzing Shakespeare’s works could be this entertaining. Because we have separated into different groups, it will be interesting to see how each group has personalized the scene in their own, unique ways. (Jake S.)

i really liked our pantomime/charades activity in class yesterday. it was fun yet educational and a lot of us participated more. We should do more activities like that in our class! (Mor L.)

I found that by analyzing the text in more detail and actually using the text to act out what was going on really helped me finally understand what we were reading. (Sophie S.)

I thought doing subtext in groups was a lot of fun because it was more hands on then we usually do in Brit Lit. I loved that we weren’t just reading for 45 minutes, but instead actually learning (Sophie S.)

OK, mea culpa if Sophie hasn’t traditionally seen reading as learning, but I think she did mean that the close reading they did to determine subtext was more valuable than reading alone.  It is true, however, that students who are not as, shall we say enthusiastic about my class as I’d like, are starting to show signs of enjoying what they’re learning.  Jake is referring to a presentation these students will do on Monday.  Let me explain what he means.  Mike LoMonico shared this idea with us at the Folger Teaching Shakespeare Institute last summer.  In the TSI, we were given copies of the scene when the plebeian mob kills Cinna the Poet in Julius Caesar along with a checklist of items to include in our presentation of the screen.  The checklist includes the following items:

  • the assigned text from Julius Caesar
  • a contemporary prop
  • a tableau at the beginning of the presentation
  • a tableau at the end of the presentation
  • at least one moment of direct address to the audience
  • at least one unexpected entrance or exit
  • at least one line of unison speaking
  • at least one moment of unison movement
  • at least 10 seconds of silence
  • someone must laugh and someone must cry

Because this class has 15 students (it’s my largest class; don’t throw things—I also have four preps and might have five next year), I recut the scene for three players so I would have even groups.  You may want to figure out how big you want your groups to be and cut accordingly.  You can download my scene for three players or create your own.  The essential idea is to pick a scene from the play you are studying that will work well for this type of exercise.  Some suggestions:

  • Tybalt kills Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet
  • Anything with the three Weird Sisters in Macbeth
  • Cinna the Poet is murdered in Julius Caesar
  • Bottom is transformed into an ass in Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Petruchio forces Katherine to skip their wedding banquet in Taming of the Shrew
  • The guards see the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet

Obviously, these are just suggestions.  If you have ideas for scenes that might work for this activity, feel free to share in the comments.

My students have actually been doing a great job.  I have circulated and viewed their practicing, and wow, how wonderful to hear the walls ringing with Shakespeare instead of the usual.  And as Jake said, it will be interesting to see how each group personalizes this scene.  The feedback I am getting all the way around is that acting like this really helps them think about and understand what they’re reading, and they seem more enthusiastic.  Not only that, but their quiz grades are improving.  We started acting with the second act of the play, and the quiz grades improved dramatically.  In fact, the class average on quizzes from Act 1 to Act 2 increased by 16 percentage points from a respectable B- to an astounding A+.  I should add these are not objective quizzes but short answer quizzes.  Therefore, my conclusion is that Folger teaching methods work.  My students learned more and had more fun while learning.  What I need to do is plan for more experiences like this in all my classes.

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I Noticed: Week in Reflection, January 12-16

The title of my post comes from a check-in activity I learned at the Folger Teaching Institute in which I participated last June.  At some point of closure — the end of the day or right before lunch — we gathered in a circle and made a statement about something we had just done beginning with “I noticed…”  I introduced the idea to one of my junior British literature classes.  They are currently studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  We had a really good class in which everyone was on their feet acting at some point.  We reviewed subtext and tried some exercises before getting in groups and using subtext and movement to interpret lines from the play.  It was such a good class!  They are usually somewhat reluctant to participate, and I don’t know what was different.  Actually, I have a theory, but I can’t prove it.  My theory is that one or two students who are usually quiet and don’t often participate decided for some reason unknown to me to get into it that day, and the rest of the class just followed their lead.  I can’t explain it.  It was actually kind of strange!  At any rate, it seemed like the perfect time to close up with an “I noticed…”  I hadn’t planned to to do it, but it felt right.  I started with “I noticed how much fun it was when everyone participated and got involved today.”  (Or words to that effect.)  My entire insides screamed YES! when one student said, “I noticed how reading the text and trying different subtexts and acting made it easier to understand the play.”  I liked that one student noticed that his classmates were better actors than he anticipated they would be (he’s a fine actor himself — much acclaim for his work in the play last year).  I felt sad that some students used “I noticed…” to be down about some aspect of themselves.  I can’t remember that anyone used “I noticed…” to to be down on the class, which is good because “I noticed…” carries that risk, I suppose.  It was the best five minutes of my teaching all week.  I need to do it more often.  In case you are curious, my students have read up to the part when Bottom is “translated” and Titania has fallen in love with him.

I worked a bit on next year’s teaching assignments, but whether or not they will actually be used, I have no idea.  It depends on the schedule and enrollment and in terms of students, who signs up for what classes.  Working on Romeo and Juliet is a lot of fun for me, but this time around, I am noticing I am not as much into it as I have been in the past.  After all, this is my tenth year teaching the play, and in some cases, I taught it to several classes.  I am really familiar with it, and I think at this point, I can very nearly teach it in my sleep.  That sounds really boastful, and I don’t mean it that way at all.  I love the kids’ excitement over the play.  It’s hard not to feel enthusiasm when they so clearly enjoy what they’re learning.  But this year, and maybe it’s because I’m teaching MND and Taming of the Shrew, neither of which I’m nearly as familiar with, I am not enjoying it quite as much as I have in the past.  That means one of two things: 1) maybe it would be a good idea for me to get out the ninth grade, or 2) maybe I need to try some new approaches.  The problem with the latter is that I have a really good plan, and it works.  The former seems like a better idea to me given that Romeo and Juliet is the only part of the curriculum in ninth grade that really excites me, and if even my excitement for that play is starting to diminish, perhaps it’s time.  So whether it will happen or not, I can’t say, but my suggested schedule doesn’t include any ninth grade classes.  And perhaps taking some time off teaching it will be good if I wind up in ninth grade again.  If I do teach ninth grade next year, I need to figure out a way to get excited about it.

Taming of the Shrew is going well, too.  We tried physicalizing some lines, something I also learned at Folger.  Folger has a video of Caleen Jennings, who led some of our classes, demonstrating how to physicalize lines, and I shared it with the students.  Their reaction was not what I expected.  They thought it was funny and were excited to try it.  I expected they might be “too cool” for it and think it was weird.  One of my students still has the two lines we tried memorized, and she said it was interesting to see how physicalizing the lines helped.  I tried to talk her into trying it to help her learn her lines for our school play, but she didn’t think she would.  Here’s the video:

So all in all, a really good week with some fun on-your-feet learning and reading.  Is there anything more fun than teaching Shakespeare?  Not in my book, anyway. (Sorry about the pun.  No, I’m not.)

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Week in Reflection, January 5-9, 2009

I’m going to try to bring back my weekly reflections, though after second semester of grad school starts back up, who knows.  Still, I think reflection is a powerful part of being a good teacher, and writing, in my mind, is better than just thinking about it, too.

First, my own teaching.  I started Shakespeare plays in three classes.  My ninth grade class is reading Romeo and Juliet (coincidentally, so is my ninth grade daughter).  This play never gets old for me, and this is my ninth year teaching it.  At this point, I have to admit I do very little tweaking with my unit plans and basically just pull from my memory.  As always, the Folger Shakespeare Library has been and continues to be an excellent resource.

One of my eleventh grade British Literature and Composition classes began The Taming of the Shrew, and I really wish Folger had more stuff for this play.  As it is, I found an excellent unit written by Sydney King of the Oakland Unified School District.  This district has a great site with lots of resources for teachers, and I am glad they appear to have so proactively encouraged their teachers to share.  I discussed this unit in a previous post.  So far, we have finished Act I, and the students are having some trouble with the humor.  I explain, and they look at me like “That’s not funny.”  I am hoping that as we move through the play, they will find it more humorous and enjoy it more.  To be sure, the beginning, with all the strange Italian names and people in disguise, must be somewhat confusing.  I asked them to make a character map and will make copies for the whole class of the best one (plus reward that student).

I began A Midsummer Night’s Dream in my other British Literature and Composition class.  This class does not like to participate.  At all.  Ever.  And if you’re reading this, guys, you know it’s true.  It’s frustrating to call on students to read when my other classes argue over who gets to read, and that’s all I will say about that.  We are doing some engaging work that I perhaps fool myself into thinking that even this class is enjoying a little bit.  I even bravely posted a YouTube video of my group from last summer’s Folger Mini-Teaching Institute acting out scene 1.2 (Bottom and the mechanicals planning Pyramus and Thisbe).  Crickets.

A ranty digression: Even with a new requirement that students must leave one comment per week on the classroom blog, I cannot seem to get my students to use it.  Honestly, when I was in school, if my teacher had a blog for us, I have to say I would have been interested enough to keep up with it.  I just don’t understand the near total lack of interest.  Of course, I know I’m an English teacher and therefore more inherently interested in English than my students, but the fact remains that this is something different that only one other teacher at our school does (that I know of).  It’s a helpful tool.  It’s frustrating to see how little students actually use it.  I just don’t think asking them to use it is asking much, so I increased it to a requirement, and here it is Saturday, and only one student has commented on the blog.  I really, really don’t understand it.

So back to MND.  I haven’t taught this play since my third year of teaching, I think.  I taught it my first year in a poor rural school and my third year in a suburban school.  I actually took my students to see it in Macon, and ran into my former students from the other school!  That was really interesting because they had been sophomores when I taught them, and their senior English teacher had brought them.  The junior class (which I had taught as freshmen) was also there, but I had taught them Romeo and Juliet.  I asked the sophomores if they remembered studying the play, and they did (I think one girl still had Titania’s “Set Your Heart at Rest” speech memorized).  My suburban students were clearly intrigued by these former students of mine, and it was good to see them again.  I remember that months later, after we had switched teachers (at this suburban school, we switched at semesters, and I might get some of the same students back, but most of the time, I got a brand new crop).  One of my students showed me next time I saw her that she still had a copy of the speech in her notebook several months after we had studied the play, and she was very proud of having learned it.  I am hoping that my current students will feel the same way at some point.  At any rate, Friday, we practiced and picked apart those 12 lines, so I hope the students got something out of it.  It’s harder to work with students who are not enthusiastic no matter what I do.

I also have a new Writing Seminar class.  I didn’t used to like teaching Writing Seminar at my school, but after I had done it for a couple of years, it became one of my favorite classes to teach — I lean more now towards running the class like a writing workshop.  My students are currently engaged in the big deal tenth grade research paper, which I teach old-school style with note cards.  At some point down the road, I would like to engage Google Notebooks or Zotero, but at this point I am not able to do that, and that’s all I’ll say about that.  At any rate, it’s something I am very comfortable teaching, and it’s a very important skill.  We have engaged in a unit on understanding plagiarism this week (taken from a recent issue of English Journal, and NCTE’s Web site is taking an absurd amount of time to load, so I’ll have to share the bibliographic details later, as that issue is on my desk at school right now).

I think it has been a good week for the first week back after a vacation.  We had the National Honor Society induction Thursday night.  I have been the NHS adviser at school for a while now, but frankly, it was too much for me this year with department chair and graduate school, and I am not sure I should be doing it anymore.  At any rate, our community service activities and club meetings will be the focus for the rest of the year, and that suits me.  The selection and induction process is more time consuming.

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Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the ShrewI found a wonderful unit plan for William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which I begin teaching one of my British Literature and Composition Classes tomorrow.  I adapted it, adding in some ideas from the Folger Shakespeare Library (whose lesson plan section on this play is kind of skimpy) and some ideas from the Penguin-Putnam Teacher’s Guide (pdf) for the play.

You can view my UbD plan uniting these ideas and comprising NCTE and Georgia Standards addressed in the unit plan at the UbD wiki.

I wasn’t too sure about this play at first.  It’s been a while since I had taught it, and I was not sure if I really wanted to teach it, and I certainly didn’t want to sit down and plan it.  Now I’m really excited about it, and I can’t wait to work with this class.  I kept visualizing them completing the activities as I read over the lesson ideas and began incorporating them into the UbD framework.

Teaching Shakespeare can be daunting, but it can be so much fun.  Kudos and thanks to everyone who so willingly shares his or her ideas online for the rest of us.  What I wouldn’t have given for the large community of English teachers on the Internet now when I was a new teacher!  Now I’m off to share this resource with even more teachers who otherwise might not read my blog or see it at the English Companion Ning.  If you’re not already there, consider yourself invited.

Photo Credits: North Carolina Shakespeare Festival production of Taming of the Shrew
Photographer: NyghtFalcon
Actor(s):Monica Bell and Dan Murray

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Year in Reflection

reverseThis was a fairly big year for me.  I went back to school and now have one semester of graduate school under my belt, and I also took on chairmanship of my department, which has brought challenges both expected and unexpected.  I also had the opportunity to go to the NCTE convention for the first time in ten years, and I presented at the GISA convention.

Every year, I make the same resolution, and I keep it for about the same length of time most people keep theirs: to cook more meals.  It’s hard to find the time.  I am not very good at the planning part.  I do well for a while, but then I leave off planning for a while, and resort to picking up junk on the way home.  Plus, I have been getting home later this year with more work to do, and it has caused problems for me as far as cooking meals.  Any tips?  I downloaded a meal spinner app from iTunes for my iPhone.  Maybe it will help; maybe not.  What I need to do is come up with some kind of way to plan meals.  Anyone know of a good program or tip for doing that?

Another thing I want to do is try to grade things faster.  I tend to get backlogged, and then I have to spend a day just plowing through grading.  I would like to get things back to students faster, but I admit that’s really hard for me to do with writing.  I spend a lot of time on it.  I am at least glad that I finished grading before the holidays because it is very hard for me to grade at home — my children see to that.  So, for that matter, does my husband.  Instead, I was able to relax and enjoy the holidays as time off.  Too many of my colleagues are grading papers if Twitter and Facebook are any indication.

I want to spend more time reading.  I am hoping that now that I have an iPhone, I can work through some books using Stanza.  I read 23 books this year, not counting re-reads (I re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Twilight).  That’s not too bad, but if I set aside a little bit more time, I could probably double it.  It’s not a race or anything, but I would like to read more than I do.

I think I did fairly well with my British Literature classes in light of a very short October (filled with days off for Jewish holidays).  I cannot assign homework over Jewish holidays, nor can I assign major assignments to be due the day after a Jewish holiday, and while I understand and respect the reasons for these requests, it does make it hard to move through any material that month.  Next year, they will mostly be on the weekends, so it should be better.  In spite of that, my students still read excerpts from Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales and all of Macbeth.  Next semester I start with A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe Taming of the Shrew in one class and in another.  I do not feel as good about the number of books I was able to teach in my Hero with a Thousand Faces elective, which was seriously curtailed by the holidays.  Still, the students did learn a lot about Joseph Campbell, and I think I accomplished my mail goal of helping them see the movies they watch and the books they read in a different light.  My ninth grade class is going fine — I taught phrases, punctuation (commas, quotation marks, italics/underlining, semicolons, colons, and apostrophes), and two novels — The Bean Trees and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  All in all, I think I was able to move through a good amount of material in a quality way that helped my students learn it.  I seem to be getting better at that rhythm the longer I teach at my school.  I am hoping some changes we are discussing will help me even more next year.

So that’s it.  My reflection for this year.

Creative Commons License photo credit: maria flying

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