Multicultural Teaching Institute

I spent three days this week at the Multicultural Teaching Institute at Meadowbrook School courtesy of my Director of Diversity, who invited me to go when we had an unexpected opening to send a teacher to the conference.

If you have a chance to go to this conference, I would strongly encourage you to do so. The speakers pushed my thinking, but even more than that, the conference was organized with plenty of time to think, reflect, write, and work. Not many conferences offer this opportunity, and I appreciated it. We were each given a binder with activities, notes, handouts, and the schedule, but we are also each given a paper Moleskine journal in which to write our reflections. I really think it would be a great practice for all conference organizers to adopt: hand each participant a nice journal. We were also assigned to “home groups” to have discussions and process learning with a smaller group of people, and we were in division groups. I was with other high school teachers for a good portion of our time so that we could work together with others to design a lesson that deliberately included multicultural elements using a framework from Rosetta Lee, one of our speakers.

Rosetta said something that really resonated with me. I like to think of myself as a good person and an ally, but I am often quiet for a variety of reasons. I come from a background with a conservative family. I don’t like to offend. I don’t like confrontations. However, Rosetta said that when people are silent around issues that arise around topics of diversity and multiculturalism, she cannot tell whether the silent person is an ally and is quiet because of fear or not having enough knowledge or some other reason OR whether the silent person is an adversary who quietly agrees with the perpetrator of whatever the issue might be.

So not being silent is hard for me because it is my natural home. It is where I live. There are a lot of reasons for my silence that are lodged deep in my personal history. There are many ways I have been silenced and many reasons why I retreated to silence as a place of solace so that I didn’t have to confront something painful. But one big takeaway from this Institute for me is that if I continue to be silent about important issues, then no one can tell what I am thinking. So I decided I can’t be silent anymore, even if it makes people uncomfortable with me or even if it ends relationships. I am not going to be perfect, and I have a lot of years of learned behavior to work on, but I’m going to try.

I appreciated the real, tangible tools I received at this conference that I can use in my classroom and in conversations with others. I think one of the most helpful aspects was time to work together with other educators to plan a lesson. I really can’t overstate how valuable time to journal and time to work was for me in this conference. Most conferences are a series of presentations or speakers, and you sort of have to opt yourself out of attending a session in order to have this kind of time. I feel like I made some good connections with other educators, and I really don’t think it would have happened if I had done nothing but listen to speakers. The speakers were great, though.

I still have a lot to think about, including the ways in which I have, either through silence or even unintended actions, contributed to hurting someone, but the important part (for me) is not to flog myself, but to move on and do things differently. I tend to beat myself up quite a lot, and that’s a whole different post, but it doesn’t really accomplish anything (except for making me feel bad).

Onward.

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Shakespeare: To Teach or Not to Teach

shakespeare photo I have seen an op-ed published in The Washington Post come across my Facebook feed two or three times now, so even though I knew I wouldn’t agree with it, I decided to read it. You can read the original article here: “Why I don’t want to assign Shakespeare anymore (even though he’s in the Common Core)” and a pretty good rebuttal here: “Why it is ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare in school.”

A few thoughts occurred to me as I read the articles. First, Shakespeare may indeed be guilty of being a dead white male, but his writing does include a profound understanding of humanity that I would argue has not changed as much as we might think. Shakespeare deals with matters of family, race, religion, politics, and love. If he were not Shakespeare, truthfully, many of his plays would be challenged (if not banned) in classrooms because of the themes they explore. Othello was taught when it was not legal for people of different races to marry in some parts of this country. It’s a little scary how often the plot of Macbeth seems to be borrowed by those who wield power. What about the fact that inmates studying Hamlet saw themselves in its characters? Jack Hitt, who covered Prison Performing Arts’ work in “Act V,” an episode of This American Life, quoted inmate Derek “Big Hutch” Hutchinson,

Once Hutch got on this riff he kept going. “Denmark’s a prison,” Hamlet tells Rosencrantz in Act Two. And Hutch says you could do a version of the play that takes this central metaphor literally. All the characters in the play are types he sees in the yard every day. The Claudiuses, who’ll do anything for the emblems of power—money, drugs, high-end tennis shoes, Poloniuses who kiss up to the powerful, Rosencrantz and Guildensterns—rats, he called them—spies who run to the administration with information.

James Word, cast as Laertes in the production that Hitt profiles, says, “I am Laertes. I am. I am.” He found himself in the performance of Laertes, and he concluded,

[I]t was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt. It was like the day my daughter was born. And it made me want to be better. Not just in acting. I mean, it just opened up a whole world for me. Like man, if I apply myself, I can pretty much do whatever I want.

I have seen students connect just as powerfully to Shakespeare as Derek Hutchinson and James Word did. They see themselves in the characters. We all do.

My hunch is that Dana Dusbiber, author of the original article, hasn’t discovered performance-based teaching methods yet, and I would love it if the Folger reached out to her and invited her to participate in a Teaching Shakespeare Institute. I know I sound a bit like an evangelist for the Folger, but honestly, their TSI is some of the best and most transformative PD I have ever experienced, and I hear that from everyone else who has done it, too. The best way to get students to understand and even to like Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, with his language coming out of their mouths. They will figure out what is happening and what words mean when they need to perform. Students want to read Shakespeare. It might seem counterintuitive to make that argument, given the challenges that Shakespeare presents, but my experience has been that students enjoy the challenge, and when they meet it, they feel the accomplishment.

Another argument Dusbiber makes reduces teaching Shakespeare to an either/or proposition—we do not have to chuck Shakespeare in order to be inclusive of diverse authors. He does not speak only to those who lived in his own time or else he would not have endured. Ben Jonson couldn’t have known how prescient he would be when he wrote that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time.”

When speaking about the language Shakespeare used in Hamlet, Chris Harris, who was profiled in the episode of “Act V” I mentioned before, said,

The sea-gown scarf’d about me is the fog. I’m out at night. And it’s the flow of the words. Up from my cabin, sea-gown scarf’d about me, groped I in the dark to find out them. Shakespeare really put some work in this. And this is the only play I’ve really studied from him. But he really is good.

I just don’t believe the argument that Shakespeare doesn’t speak to us today. I have seen too much evidence to the contrary. I have seen teenagers connect to Shakespeare when they connected to nothing else. This school year, in fact, I had a student who absolutely loved reading Macbeth, and he was more engaged in the study of that play than in anything else we did all year.

Another argument in the article, made more by Valerie Strauss than by Dusbiber, is that English majors don’t study Shakespeare as much in college these days. I really don’t understand why that argument is made. Is “you will see it in college” the only reason to study anything? We are preparing students for life, and I think Shakespeare is excellent preparation for many of the issues we will confront in life. At some point, we may feel like King Lear, at the mercy of loved ones who disregard us. Many of us have felt like Romeo and Juliet, desperate to cling to a first love. That is life, and that is the business of Shakespeare—to portray us as we are. The argument about college is trotted out quite a lot, from assessment methods to using lecture in instruction. College is four years. Students need to learn to read, write, and think for life. I have seen the argument of what is or is not done in college given too much weight, particularly from people who don’t really seem to know exactly what is done in college now—just what they remember was done when they went to college.

But of course, that argument is beside the point because the article Strauss linked doesn’t even say that English majors are not studying Shakespeare (despite the deceptive headline). What the article does say is that entire courses on just the Bard are not often required. Big difference. I happened to have taken a Shakespeare course in college, and it was lousy (unfortunately). It is possible to teach Shakespeare in a way that turns people off, and I suspect that may be what happened in the case of Dusbiber.

One argument Dusbiber makes is true: no, we should not keep doing something because it has “always been done that way.” That is why I think performance-based teaching of Shakespeare is so crucial. It is not teaching Shakespeare the same old way. I am guilty of being one of the white teachers Dusbiber decries who will “ALWAYS teach Shakespeare.” The author of the rebuttal, Matthew Truesdale, introduces an interesting metaphor of literature as both a mirror and a window. I love it. I have often made the argument that we read to understand who we are as people, and that literature is a mirror that reflects who we are, but Truesdale is right. It’s a window, too, and an excellent way to learn about what we are not and what we could be in addition to what we are.

Should we include diverse voices in the classroom? Absolutely. Should students be choosing more of their reading? Yes. I don’t think that doing either of these things means that Shakespeare must go, however. It’s long past time for us to think about our approach to teaching Shakespeare, though.

If nothing else, these op-eds have inspired me to get going on planning my King Lear unit for my AP course. And I just got out of school for the summer.

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Covering Isn’t Teaching… Or Learning

surface photo

Right about this time of year, teachers everywhere (particularly secondary school teachers) are looking at the calendar and freaking out about what they haven’t covered.

I, like many teachers, have fallen into the trap of thinking that certain content has to be covered, even at the expense of engaging in deeper learning, because of time constraints. I should have known better. Because my family moved around quite a bit, I went to three different high schools. I had what I perceived as “gaps” in my education. I didn’t read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t learn much about history after World War II. I could think of other examples of things everyone is supposed to learn in high school, but you get the general idea. I’m not sure if I realized I had gaps when I was in school. I did have a sense that I missed things because the school I left hadn’t covered them yet, and the school I moved to had already covered them.

At some point I started to worry I wasn’t ready for college and asked my English teacher for a reading list. Just to cover my bases, I found a library book that had a list of books every student should read before they went to college. I’m not sure, but I think the list was about 100 years old. It was a great, long list alphabetized by title. I stalled out in the middle of Agamemnon. I managed to make it through college without reading Agamemnon, and given I graduated magna cum laude, I suppose I did okay. In fact, I managed to make it all the way to last summer before finally reading Agamemnon, and though I enjoyed it just fine, I think I could have lived my whole life without reading Agamemnon and nothing dire would have happened.

The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that the most important thing we do is help students learn how to learn. If you can learn how to learn, you can teach yourself anything, and if you need help, you can generally figure out who can help you learn it.

I have loved reading since before I could read by myself. I taught myself all about dinosaurs when I was little. I found all sorts of books about dinosaurs. As I grew older, I turned to books to learn about ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, and making soap. Books are a great way to teach yourself.

If we English teachers can cultivate a love of reading and help students learn to think and learn, the content we use can take a variety of forms. Students don’t have to read Agamemnon in particular in order to be prepared for college or the world. But they do have to learn to read critically, identify themes, analyze ideas. The particular content we use doesn’t matter as much as what we do with it. Just because I covered material doesn’t mean students learned it. I have learned over time that if I really want students to learn content, then I need to let them wrestle with it. That takes time. If I rush it, students will not learn it. Oh, they might know it long enough to do some assessment, but they don’t really learn it. Are they going to be able to apply the information? Who decides what information is critical and what isn’t? And why?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was my crutch, and I covered it. It’s liberating not to have a textbook. It forced me to think about broad themes and ideas and create units of study based on those big ideas. Unless I completely misread my students, I think it’s more engaging, too.

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe urge teachers to ask, “What should [the students] walk out the door able to understand, regardless of what activities or texts we use?” and “What is evidence of such ability?” (17). Only after those questions are answered should teachers ask, “What texts, activities, and methods will best enable such a result?” (17). Much of the time, the texts come first. After first reading Understanding by Design, I realized my problem as a teacher was that I relied on covering material, and then I was upset when students didn’t learn. As Wiggins and McTighe state, “When our teaching merely covers content without subjecting it to inquiry, we may well be perpetrating the very misunderstanding and amnesia we decry” (132).

We don’t have all the time in the world to teach everything worth knowing. There isn’t enough time in a lifetime, or even in several lifetimes, to do that job. As teachers, we do have the ability to ignite curiosity. We should be figuring out how to create curious learners instead of worrying about covering material.

I came across these resources that might be of interest:

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Evolution

gardening photoI have been writing this blog post in my head for months now, and I’m not sure I will really capture what I’m thinking.

I have changed a lot as a teacher over the years. I no longer agree with many of the ideas I expressed earlier in this blog. Perhaps some of the ways I have changed can best be expressed by exploring some of those opinions, why I held them then, and why I no longer hold them.

I used to be strict about late work. As in, I didn’t want to take it. Sometimes, I still would, despite saying, here on this blog, that I didn’t do it. I struggled with the issue of keeping track. It was easier for me, organizationally, if I asked students to turn in work on time. And that has not changed. It is still easier on me if they turn their work in on time. However, despite the fact that my school has a policy about late work, I take work late, and I don’t really penalize for it unless it becomes a chronic issue with a student who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have come to believe that perhaps students do not always meet a standard at the same time. Sometimes, some students need to take a little longer. Sometimes, things happen, and maybe it’s not even that catastrophic. Maybe they forgot. I forget stuff, too. That’s why, when I asked a student about a late project today, and she sheepishly said, “I’m still working on it,” I replied, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar.” It does cause a bit of an organizational issue for me, but one way I manage it is to have students do work electronically (which, by the way, was a suggestion from a commenter on the blog post I linked above). Keeping track of Google Docs and online quizzes works better for me than having bits of paper everywhere, and I find I can manage the work more easily.

Students also ask me if they can revise their work, and I always let them. Why? Because I think it helps them become better writers when they do. And I care more about that progress than I care about keeping a grade at a certain level. Some folks disagree with that stance and call it grade inflation. I used to have some real issues with grading myself, but partly those issues were based on expectations of an administrator who thought I was too easy on the kids. I was actually threatened with my job, so I decided I needed to be harder, and I tried to justify it to myself philosophically as part of being a rigorous teacher with high expectations. I just don’t think my students would say I don’t have high expectations today, even if I allow late work and revision. If I didn’t have to give grades, I don’t think I would. I have come to see them as a false construct. They have the value that we give them, and we can’t really even agree on what that value is. Some folks bestow A’s on students unwillingly and always sparingly, but the grade inflation battle was lost a long time ago. We can keep trying to defend that hill if we want to, I suppose, but I don’t want to die on it myself. So, I have a lot of high grades, and I didn’t used to have as many. I don’t think they came easy. I am quite concerned that students and parents focus too much on grades and not enough on the learning, and the funny thing that happens when you allow students to revise and to turn in late is that it doesn’t really become about the grade. It does seem to help students understand that the issue at hand is the learning, and they will work harder for me and do more than they did when I felt like I had to keep grades lower to please my administrator. At the time, however, I was very concerned that too many A’s said something negative about my expectations and the level of challenge in my class. Now, I think they tend to say students are learning the material successfully.

I used to talk too much in my classes, and some days, I probably still do. But I have really worked on it over the years. I can remember writing lectures that were basically scripts, if you can believe that, when I first started teaching. I had to have complete control and go bell to bell. My second day in my own classroom was a complete disaster. I had just received my 33rd student in the class, and I was trying to get him sorted. I only had 28 desks, I think, and the kids were being too talkative, and I wasn’t starting class on time because I was dealing with this new student, and I said to the kids that they should be working quietly while I handled the situation, adding that “It should be so quiet I could hear a pin drop.” Geez, does that make me cringe. Guess what happened? Every kid in the class dropped his or her pen. I was furious, but then we “started” class, and I pushed through. That first year is not something I like to think about at all. I made so many mistakes. Part of the issue, though I didn’t understand it at the time, is that it was all about me and my control and not about the students. Today, one of my classes had a Socratic seminar. They are actually one of my favorite things to do with students, and I should do them more than I do. Students do all of the work in a seminar. I look down at my notes and do not say anything. Students run the discussion themselves. One of the girls in the class today remarked that it was the best Socratic seminar she’d had in school. The students really need to be taken seriously as leaders of their own learning, and they need to be given the control. Giving students control doesn’t mean we have lost control. Letting them take control of the class, the direction of the discussion, tells me much more about what students have learned than standing in front of a room talking at kids did.

I actually sent this article to my students, my students, today. I honestly believe that ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have shared it with them because I wouldn’t have wanted them to get ideas. A few years ago, I heard a student ask one of my colleagues, “Why do we have to learn this?” and the guy actually responded, “Because I said so.” I cringed. But that the same time, I used to think certain content was dreadfully important to learn. I used to give regular tests. I can’t remember the last time I gave a test (aside from a final, which I was required to give or which I agreed to give because the department wanted to). What I want students to learn has changed completely compared to my early years as a teacher.

  • I want students to learn to work together collaboratively.
  • I want them to learn that writing takes work, and you need to revise. The writing process helps.
  • I want them to learn to communicate their ideas to others with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • I want them to learn to think critically: to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. I want them to learn to ask questions.
  • I want them to learn to create. All kinds of things: videos, podcasts, poems, essays, stories.
  • I want them to learn metaphors. We think in metaphors. When we learn new information, we compare it to what we know and classify it through metaphor.
  • I want them to learn to comprehend, use, and enjoy what they read.
  • I want them to learn the value of critique: how to do it helpfully and how to use it to improve their own work.

These are all important skills and habits of mind that can be taught in a variety of ways. None of it really requires certain content, which is what the article I linked is getting at. Working with content is a means toward teaching these more important skills, but the content is not the end itself. When I began teaching and relied on lecture, content was all I taught. I don’t think students learned a lot of the more important skills in my bullet list. And the truth is, they didn’t really learn the content either.

One of the messy aspects of having a blog is that some of that evolution of thought has taken place in public. As a result, I have had to field emails or comments from people who quibble with some stance or other that I took seven years ago because my thinking on the issue is still published here. I actually had to close comments on older posts because 1) after a year, everyone else has moved on, and the only person who will see the comment is me, so it’s not really a conversation anymore, and 2) most of the time, if it’s a comment on a post that old, the commenter really isn’t invested in a conversation anyway, and they can be downright trolls on occasion. The occasional negative or even rude comment is part of blogging, I suppose, but we all want folks to judge us on what we’ve learned and the progress we’ve made. We don’t want to be held to ideas and opinions we no longer think are important. Maybe we have learned some things that have changed our minds about something we used to believe. We grow, we change, we evolve. Maybe we should let the learning be a little messy and give students that same time to evolve.

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F is for Failure

A light bulb but no (good) ideas... (17/365)No one expects a batter to hit a home run on the first try. In fact, even experienced hitters rarely accomplish this feat. Batters strike out more often than they hit, especially at the professional level. We expect it, and we don’t consider it failure because at that level, hitting the ball is difficult.

How often do we give students one chance to learn, though? Lately, I’ve heard educators beginning to say we need to reassess failure. Some even say it should stand for “first attempt in learning.” One of the things I have come to value as a student myself, both in my master’s program and in online courses I’ve taken through Coursera, is the opportunity to retake quizzes and revise work. Whether or not you want to allow revisions largely depends on your purpose for assessment. If you just want to gauge whether or not students did a reading assignment, perhaps not, but if you want to see what students have learned, then why wouldn’t you?

One of our math teachers allows students to revise their tests. Students grade their own tests and know how they have done before he does. He explains the process in this presentation:

Instead of crumpling their tests and shoving them into the deepest recesses of their backpacks, or worse—throwing them away—students are actually learning from tests. What a concept! Using assessments to learn instead of playing gotcha!

In an English class, this sort of revision can be fairly common—the writing process is designed to teach students that one-and-done drafts don’t really exist. However, grading all these drafts takes time, so not all teachers truly teach the process. I found some success in placing the emphasis on the process through writing workshop this year, and what I found is that students revised even after work had been graded, sometimes continuing to revise for weeks or months (no, not every student). Student writing also improved.

We have created a school culture in which students must do well on their first attempt or risk bad grades, but we complain that students only care about grades and not about their learning. The only way to help students care more about their learning is to allow them to fail. If their first attempt in learning isn’t successful, they need to try again. Otherwise, they receive the message that only the first try counts, and they absolutely must not fail on the first attempt.

I struggle with this idea myself. It’s not easy to make the kind of time we need to make in order to help students truly learn. But if that is the goal, then we need to design lessons that will help students learn, and we need to allow students to struggle a bit with the learning. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that right about the time when grades start really mattering, students seem to lose their curiosity. They are not interested in exploring; they want to know the answer. The stakes are too high. There isn’t time to try and try again.

Perhaps there isn’t time on every single assignment, but teachers need to give students opportunities to revise, to try again… to learn. Otherwise, I’m not sure what we’re all doing in school.

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E is for English Language Learners

Yare

For most of my career, I have taught in independent schools. At my previous school, being an independent school teacher meant that I didn’t have English language learners in my classroom. In the eight years I taught at my previous school, I had one student who was learning English when she entered my classroom. Unfortunately for her, we were in the midst of studying Romeo and Juliet. She spent hours and and hours every day learning English and used an electronic translator in class (I didn’t mind). By the time she graduated, she spoke and wrote well and was inducted in the National Honor Society. We are still in touch.

I know learning English was hard for her, but she was dedicated, and she had been admitted to the school with the condition that the school not be responsible for helping her learn English—she needed to gain proficiency and perform at the level of the other students. It was harsh. I didn’t agree with it, and I was inclined to help her along as much as I could as well as evaluate her writing with the thought in mind that she was still learning the language. And let’s face it—English is a tough language to learn.

My current school has many international boarding students from all over the world. We have English classes for English language learners. These classes help students learn conversational and written English and include high-interest/low-level reading that is accessible and engaging. These students typically do well and move into regular English classes within a year or two.

I have noticed several things about teaching international students: 1) they typically work very hard to achieve the same results as their native-speaking peers; 2) they are often quiet in class discussion, leading to the familiar refrain on progress reports—”Student X needs to participate more in class discussion”; 3) they have difficulty with verbs, agreement, and prepositions; 4) they sometimes struggle with directions.

I am not sure there is anything you can do about the first issue. There is no way around the fact that learning in a second (or third, and so on) language is more difficult. However, there are some things you can do that will make it easier.

One tip I learned from the ELL teachers at my school is to give an ELL student a question I want them to answer in class the next day at the end of a class period. It gives them time to process and think so that they can participate. Often, these students have much to say, but they are translating and thinking, and by the time they want to contribute, we have moved on to the next topic. Another way to give ELL students time to think is to engage the whole class in a Socratic seminar and give all students the questions in advance. The international students still have trouble jumping into these discussions at times, but they are prepared with written comments and often do better in these kinds of discussions than in typical class discussions, when they don’t know the questions in advance. Another great way to engage these students in discussion is to leverage technology. If your school has a learning management system or online course with discussion forums, you can ask them questions online, and allow them to respond online, which gives them time to process and think about a response to the question.

Language issues in writing are often best dealt with on and individual basis. You can point students in the direction of resources. If a learning management system allows you to individually assign practice assignments, you can try that as well, but one of the best tools for working on writing issues of any stripe is writing workshop. The more students are exposed to models of writing and work through drafts, they better they will write.

Struggling with directions is a problem certainly not limited to English language learners, but I have noticed they sometimes are not sure what they are being asked to do. You can help by making directions as explicit as possible (clear, no ambiguous language, direct vocabulary). It also helps to hear directions aloud and see them in print. It helps to allow students to ask questions. English language learners sometimes hesitate to ask questions either because of cultural reasons or because they don’t want to look like they don’t understand. Some cultures believe it is insulting to ask teachers questions because it insinuates the teacher didn’t explain well enough. Students from these cultures should be encouraged not to look at asking questions in this way, but it can still be difficult for them to overcome. They sometimes feel more comfortable asking questions in private, so making time to meet with students (office hours, help sessions, email) can go a long way toward helping students feel more comfortable asking questions.

I don’t have all the answers, especially given my limited experience with English language learners in my classroom. What tips would you add? What issues do you see arise?

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C is for Collaboration

Working TogetherI recently had an exchange with the parent of one of my advisees. He shared a paper his older daughter wrote in college with me. I don’t have permission to reprint any of it here, but she made some interesting comments about collaboration in schools. She made the comment that academics collaborate all the time on lab reports and journal articles, but collaboration among undergraduates and K-12 students is more rare. In some extreme cases, we might call it cheating.

I recently tried out a new way of teaching writing which involves collaboration. You can read my posts about here:

I have had an opportunity to present how it works both to my own colleagues and at a local conference (here’s hoping NCTE is interested as well; we find out next month). One of the things I pointed out both times is that if we write professionally, we expect to have an editor. No one says we don’t really know how to write on our own if someone edits our work. No one says we’re cheating. Yet, with students, I have heard teachers argue that students need to write in isolation. As I mentioned in the post, I have seen students revise much more often now that we are doing writing workshop, but one of the other byproducts of writing workshop has been a classroom community that I didn’t anticipate. I have noticed it even if we’re not writing. Students are friendly and collegial with one another. They have learned to value each other’s voices and opinions. They work together readily.

We were recently working on multigenre writing projects in the classroom, and as I came in the room and prepared to start class, I noticed two students who had both chosen to write about Edgar Allan Poe sitting together. They do not normally sit right next to each other. They had their heads together sharing their work with each other and talking about the different types of writing they were doing for the project. Would another teacher have wanted to keep them apart because they were working on similar projects? Possibly. Why? They shared great ideas with each other, and their projects will be stronger for the sharing and feedback. I think we are afraid sometimes that it is not original work if students collaborate, but truthfully, we often benefit from models. Models can show us how to do something and give us ideas we might otherwise not have had. A recent study by Thomas N. Wisdom, Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone from University of Indiana explores the ways in which social learning can improve problem solving. The implications of the study suggest that sharing ideas and encouraging individuals to work as a team will result in better learning:

The results of both experiments show that imitation can be productive for groups as well as individuals, because it enables the preservation of good tentative solutions in “group memory” and their further improvement through cumulative exploration. These results also showed that the pursuit of larger amounts of exploration can result in diminishing returns for both individuals and groups. (Wisdom, Song, and Goldstone 1419)

One of the things I have noticed about writing workshop is that students often open their laptops and revise their own writing when we are collectively editing a peer’s paper. They notice something they want to change or that they want to try, or they have an idea based on something their peer has said. As such, my students’ writing has strengthened a great deal over the course of the year.

Students might not necessarily go on to be professional writers, but often, the situations in which professional writers work mimic the writer’s workshop more than writing in isolation does. Journalists always collaborate. It’s understood that an editor and copyeditor will work on a journalist’s writing. The writing room for just about every television show you can name involves collaborative writing. Students can apply these skills to the other work that they do.

Students have commented on first trimester course evaluations that the class is “like a family” and that they are “always collaborating.” Second trimester, one student said they “are asked to work together and by ourselves. We do a lot of group work.” The same student added that I make “sure we understand things before we move on.” Another student remarked that the class is “an opportunity to meet challenges.” I share these comments because I think they are a window into how establishing a classroom community and offering opportunities for collaboration helps students learn better and enjoy their learning more. We are reading article after article about the skills employers are looking for in college graduates, and over and over, we read that the ability to work as a team and to collaborate and to communicate well are important. However, we are strangely selective about the opportunities we give students to collaborate. We rarely allow students to write together, and having seen the ways in which collaborating in this way have not only contributed to my students’ ability to write but has also built a strong classroom community, I’m convinced that collaborative learning like writer’s workshop is the way to prepare students for the real work of the world.

Work Cited:

Wisdom, Thomas N., Xianfeng Song, and Robert L. Goldstone. “Social Learning Strategies in a Networked Group.” Cognitive Science 37 (2013): 1383-1425. Print.

Image by Lolly Man

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B is for Books

443545349_fee917a0ca1As teachers of English, one of our goals is that students will become lifelong readers. We hope they will understand that reading is a great tool for understanding the world around us. In the words of Mark Twain, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” We read articles like this one at The Washington Post, and we’re frightened about the future, which is starting to look more and more like this:

Photo by Will Lion

Photo by Will Lion

We are concerned about the state of reading in the world, and we long to foster a lifelong love of reading in our students. But how to do it?

I am afraid that so much of what we do in our English language arts classes kills the desire to read that most students seem to have when they first learn to read in elementary school. I don’t have all the solutions, and I am sure I’ve been a part of the problem at times (for various reasons), but here are some issues I often see:

  • Students don’t read for pleasure. They read what is required (if they read that).
  • Students have no choices about what they read. The most common form of reading seems to be the whole-class literature study (more on that in a minute).
  • Everything students read is assessed. They are accountable for every page.
  • Schools and teachers cram the curriculum with as many texts as possible rather than go deep with fewer texts.
  • The whole-class literature study often focuses on literature that students do not like and have difficulty relating to.
  • Some teachers have trouble helping students find the literature selections relevant to themselves and their world.
  • We don’t allow students to express their opinions about the books (and they should be taught to back those opinions up with textual evidence), so they learn to feel weird if they don’t like the characters or stories.
  • If it’s fun, and they would choose to read it on their own, it tends not to be something we’d consider for classroom reading, and we wind up teaching students that reading is something that is supposed to be hard work instead of hard (or not hard) fun.
  • We tell them what to read over the summer and don’t allow them choices about how to spend their reading “free” time, either.

I don’t know what you remember about elementary school reading, but I remember we were allowed to pick a lot of the books we read. We had a lot of choices. I used to pick audio books about dinosaurs. I listened to them all the time. I liked the audio books because they taught me how to pronounce the dinosaurs’ difficult names correctly. I do remember sometimes sitting in a circle with the teacher and reading stories out of a basal reader, but I don’t remember hating it. Other students for whom learning to read was difficult might have a different memory, however. I chose books all the time, and teachers read books to us, and I really liked that, too.

Partly, we need to do a good job educating parents. They need to read to their children, and they need to model enjoyment of reading for their children. We need to continue to allow students to make choices about their reading as they go through middle and high school. Are they going to choose to read YA fiction? Yes, some of them will. We need to stop thinking of that as some kind of crime. One of the things I detest in some adults is book snobbery. Some adults I know actually look down their noses at readers who like to read genre fiction or comic books. I mean, we all know real readers read Lit-ra-chure (you have to read that word in your poshest, snobbiest accent). I have never met a K-12 student who is a book snob.

I give reading quizzes all the time, but I stopped giving tests some years ago. I don’t find testing students on the details of their reading comprehension after we’ve done a unit to be all that helpful. I use quizzes mainly to make sure students do read, but the questions tend to be open-ended questions about the connections they make and their opinions. I don’t hold them accountable for every page. Do students sometimes not do their reading for my class? Probably. As a result, they don’t have the opportunity to engage in the discussion, and they missed out on a good book. Too bad for them. A student’s education belongs to that student, and they have to be responsible to themselves for choosing not to engage.

Alternative assessments are also fun. One of my favorites is a Cartoon “Did You Read” Quiz (you might need to join the Making Curriculum Pop Ning to see it, but it’s worth it—great Ning). Or why not use quizzes as a chance to engage with the text and characters: “What did you think about the way Okonwo treated Nwoye?” or “Which character do you like best so far and why?” Give students more opportunities to wrestle with the text through Socratic seminar discussions. I just did a Socratic seminar over the first seven chapters of Things Fall Apart this week, and it was amazing. You should have heard the kids speak. Did they read it? Most of them did, and they were quite articulate about what they read. A couple of students missed out. I feel bad for them. It was a really interesting discussion, and they were left out.

Cramming as many texts into a curriculum as we can is meant, I think, to look like rigor, but what winds up happening is that we cover a book more superficially rather than having deep and engaging discussions and writing reflectively about the reading. I don’t agree that we are doing students a favor by “exposing” them to a large number of texts when they can’t delve deeply. If they engage deeply with a fewer number of texts, they will develop a fondness for reading that will lead them to more reading. It would be interesting to do a study some time, but it’s hard because you’d need to have a control group. I’m not volunteering my students, and I can’t think of teachers who would (at least, not intentionally). And so what if they never read Nineteen-Eighty-Four? I haven’t. And I’m still alive. (I do plan to read it at some point, though.)

I admit I love the whole-class literature study, and I do it a lot, but why not try to integrate more choice? Why not literature circles? Why not allow students to pick three Poe stories to read instead of assigning the same ones to each student? Why not allow them to find poems to bring to class to discuss? I think students do benefit from discussing a book with a whole class, but we should think about which selections we teach. The intended audience for many of the novels we teach tends to skew older than our students. I happen to love The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome, but I can see why a tenth grade boy might not. On the other hand, I think some teachers can teach these novels, even to teenagers, and make them relevant and interesting. We need to help students make connections to the characters in the literature they read and to understand the ways in which literature mirrors our society.

Students need opportunities to choose what they read so that they will learn what they like to read. If we choose every single text they read, even their summer reading, when do they have an opportunity to figure that out? And if they don’t like what they read in class, isn’t it logical for them to assume they don’t like reading and choose not to do it after they graduate? I think often we discourage thoughtful criticism of books students read, too. I think students should feel free not to like a book and to express those feelings. We need to teach them to articulate their reasons. “Because it sucks” doesn’t fly, but students should feel safe in expressing their opinions. I struggle with this idea sometimes, too, and my students don’t always love the books I wish they loved. It makes me sad when they don’t love those books. There are a lot of books I don’t love, however, that other people really love. I think we have to let go. In the same way we should stop dictating every reading selection, we should also stop dictating how students should feel about the reading selections. And yes, I do think how one feels about a book is important. We become lifelong readers because of how books make us feel.

I don’t have all the answers, but we should be having conversations about this issues.

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A Poll: What Would You Like to Read?

I have been trying out quite a few new things, and I don’t know where to start in terms of talking about them here. Take a look at this list and let me know in the comments which topic piques your curiosity, and I’ll do my next blog post on the topic that generates the most interest.

  • Using Google Docs to create rubrics
  • iMovie book trailers
  • (Almost) Paperless Classroom with Google Docs and Schoology
  • Carving out a hybrid position (or how I’m teaching two English classes and working as a Technology Integration Specialist at the same time)
  • Writing Workshop: going beyond peer editing with partners
  • Teaching The Catcher in the Rye

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Why Are Public School Websites so Bad?

While Randall Munroe’s XKCD cartoon above is mocking university websites for deficiencies in design, the same could be said of many public school websites. A few years ago, my kids’ school website only worked in Internet Explorer. It was the most terrible design you can imagine, done in Front Page I think, with all the most important information buried or even out of date. The reason for that was that the media specialist, who had a full time job running the library, teaching classes that visited the library, and working with teachers, was also tasked with running the school website, and she didn’t have the time or the expertise to do so. The school now has a technology specialist who runs the website, and it is much better than it was. However, it’s still not close to being a slick-looking as some of the private school websites I’ve visited. I think several factors may influence a school’s website design, and the deck is stacked against public schools:

  • Private schools have to market themselves. They’re competing against every other private school in their area, and they have to allocate funds to attracting students. Part of their marketing is a good website. The first step in exploring a school is most often taking a look at their website, and if it’s bad, the family might never even move forward with an application. Information needs to be easy to find, and the site itself must be easy to navigate. It should look professional and give visitors a sense of what they might see in the school.
  • Private schools often hire outside web designers. Public schools tend to assign the task to employees or students, with mixed results. Sometimes you get someone really good who knows what they’re doing, but designing and running a website is a big job, and employees are often stretched too thin to do a good job. A variety of designers cater to private schools. Contrary to popular belief, private schools are not necessarily swimming in money, but they do need to spend money on good websites because of marketing.
  • Public schools seem to communicate more via email, telephone, signage, paper, and snail mail. They probably don’t have a real reason to duplicate all of that information on a website, although I would argue that they should if they want someone outside the community to find the site useful. For instance, we’re moving to Massachusetts this summer, and my husband complained that the public schools’ website in the area we’re moving to was quite difficult to navigate. I tried it out, and he’s right. The district website attaches a frame around the website for the one school I looked at, and navigation was impossible. I never could find a faculty directory.
  • Sometimes the appropriate staff (a technology director, specialist, etc.) floats among several schools or even a whole district. Because private schools are independent, they have to hire faculty and staff to cover these areas (or outsource some of it). Otherwise, they won’t have it. If they don’t have technology faculty, they run the risk of being behind the times and therefore losing potential students to schools that spend more on up-to-date technology.

Asking technology faculty to float is a horrible idea. Each school should have a dedicated member of the faculty who works with teachers to integrate technology. I don’t say that because it’s my job, and I need job security. I say it because I think it’s true. Otherwise, you’re going to have more difficulty getting faculty to integrate technology. You will always have the dedicated teachers who spend their own time learning how to use technology on their own, but if you are trying to make a real school-wide shift, it’s not going to happen if your faculty doesn’t have someone to help them. It’s no wonder public schools can’t dedicate more time to making their websites attractive and user-friendly. They don’t have the personnel, and the personnel they do have don’t have the time.  However, websites are an important communication tool, and in the year 2012, it is not asking too much to have a website that visitors can enjoy using to learn more about a school. Many free and cheap CMS’s exist to help schools (which doesn’t solve the time issue). A good website should be something to which schools dedicate time.

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