Category Archives: Teaching Writing

Digital Stories: Feedback from Students

feedback photo
Photo by Skley

After we viewed the digital stories my students had created this year, I asked students to evaluate themselves using the rubric I had given them. Next year, I will definitely make time to create the rubric with the students in advance. The rubric I have is good, but the students could make it better. On the back of the rubric, I asked students to give me feedback about the project. I wanted to collect some of their feedback here for those who might be thinking about this project and are feeling on the fence. This feedback represents what the students actually said (warts and all).

Don’t change this from being the final exam because it’s an absolutely great way to end the year and it’s really fun. I don’t think anything needs to be tweaked, the timing is perfect, the spacing for due dates is good and the help given is great.

I loved the project and how we could all pick whatever we wanted and got to watch everyones. Don’t have to change anything, it was great.

In all honesty, I think this project is a lot of fun to put together and all the criteria make sense, even when you don’t think you have a story to tell. It fits for everyone, especially with all you can choose from.

I think the idea of this project is awesome. I had a lot of fun with it and finally learned how to use iMovie. I didn’t find anything wrong with the project.

I liked this project. It was very fun and I enjoyed watching the videos at the end. I liked being able to pick your own idea instead of being told what to do. I wouldn’t take anything out. I liked where you checked our script too. It really helped me at least with knowing it was ok.

The project is great! I enjoyed every part and was excited to do it every step of the way. The one part I had difficulties with was the sound aspect. The sites are great [sites I provided for finding public domain and Creative Commons media] with so many options, but I’m not good at picking things like that. Thank you for helping me find the “perfect” one (better than I could have done).

I don’t know how you could improve it. I thought it was well explained and fun. I would keep everything the same.

I don’t think there should be many changes to the project at all. It’s a really good and fun project. I enjoyed making my video and going back to find everything.

You should keep this project next year. I really enjoy doing the digital story.

The project was very clear and I really like how our final was a project. The project helped me become more creative and engaging. Personally, I really like it and nothing should be changed. Also, I learned a lot in this class, and thank you for a great year, Mrs. Huff!

This project was very fun. I enjoyed our own choice of theme. It was even fun looking back at old pictures and reliving my little league life. One thing that did frustrate me was learning to use different applications on my computer. If I was taught throughout the year to use these different sources this project would have been much more enjoyable. Overall a great project.

I have to point out that last feedback came from a student who struggled with the technology to the point of wanting to give up and take a zero. He persevered, and he did a fabulous job in the end. He was very proud of his work. His feedback about using the software earlier and more often is legitimate. Many students tell me this project is the first time they have opened the iMovie and GarageBand applications on their school-issued computers.

I had a lot of fun doing the project, I enjoyed showing where I’m from and I hope my video would inspire someone to visit one day.

I like the project and we have enough time to do it.

A few trends emerge for me from this feedback:

  1. Students seem to love this project, and even those who struggled said it was a great project and should be kept in the curriculum.
  2. Students seemed to feel they had enough time to complete it. I was worried about that because I gave them more time last year.
  3. Students appreciated the agency they had as they created the project: picking the topic and telling the story they wanted to tell was an important reason why they enjoyed the project.
  4. Student felt proud of their work. They didn’t exactly say so in so many words of feedback to me, but it shone through in the feedback they gave themselves. Here are some snippets:

I am very happy with my music choice and the amount of pictures I chose.

I had a lot of good pictures.

I liked how I had the music start after I said the title.

I liked the pictures.

I thought I had the perfect music and well placed pictures.

I did not have many pictures, but I was able to think of ways to get around lacking pictures.

I paid lots of effort on it and I really enjoy this project.

I did well with the pictures as well as the story.

This project was very challenging for me from the start. After figuring it out things began to come together. Once my voiceover came in I started to enjoy the project.

I think my video has pretty good background music and photos that go along with the voice.

All these comments tell me that the students feel good about what they were able to do. They offered fair criticisms as well. Most of them didn’t feel 100% confident their voiceovers were as good as they could be, but that could also be they are not used to hearing their voices and worry about how they sound (most of us feel that way when we hear ourselves on a recording).

This project makes for a great culminating narrative. They worked on narrative writing, and putting their personal narratives together with image and music to tell a story using video was a great way to see what they had learned about telling a story. And as it turns out, they learned a lot. I’m really proud of them.

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Digital Stories 2016

Last year, I shared my students’ digital stories. While I did have some good work, I knew the end results could be improved. I did some reflecting and retooling, and I made a few changes to the project for this year. First, I introduced more checkpoints that counted for a grade. For example, bringing an idea (or several) to writing workshop, which was part of the project last year, became a small quiz grade. Just like last year, I asked students to write a draft of their script, and I conferred with each student about the draft.

I added in checkpoints as well. Students needed to show me a collection of images so that I could help them if it looked like they might not have enough material to work with. Collecting images was a problem last year, but I didn’t realize until too late that many of my students were struggling with this issue, and they didn’t realize it was a problem until they tried to assemble their movies and didn’t feel they had enough images. I also wanted to see the draft of the movie, which was graded, so I could give them feedback on potential issues such as a runaway Ken Burns effect (common if you are using iMovie and don’t know how to correct it) or music overpowering the voiceover audio.

Another change I made that actually worried me: I gave students less time to do the project than I did last year. It was an accident. I looked at the calendar, and I realized we hadn’t started the project yet. I freaked out a little, and then I sat down with a calendar to figure it out. It would be tight, I thought, but we could still do it. I gave a copy of the calendar to the students so they would know exactly what was due and when.

I think that reducing the amount of time I gave my students actually resulted in better work from them. I am not sure why this is unless the pressure of completing it in a shorter period of time meant students actually attended to it in a more timely fashion than they would have if they had more time and were tempted to put it off until the last minute. I think procrastination may have been a much larger issue last year because students felt like they had more time. I suppose it is true that we use all of the time we have to complete a project, and if the deadline is tighter, perhaps we put our shoulders to the wheel.

I am really happy with the results this year. Students were thoughtful and reflective. Their stories sound like them and reflect who they are. What a great group of writers!

As always, there were some hiccups. Students do not know how to use this software. The biggest mistake educators make is assuming kids are digital natives and can figure this stuff out. No, you need to teach them how to use it, and you need to be prepared to be a guide on the side for the entire movie project if you are asking students to make films. If there is one thing I could ask educators to stop doing, it is assigning technology-based projects without helping guide the students through the use of the tools. I hear it over and over again from educators that students just know how to use the software.

Another issue: students at my school have MacBooks, but they don’t keep them updated. Several had to get the latest version of iMovie because older versions didn’t work well on their computers. I asked them to check on updates before the project, but of course, not all of them did. We had a few setbacks as students struggled with lack of RAM (they really need to stop opening every program on their computer at once). One student’s computer apparently imploded right after he uploaded his video to his Google Drive account. I am so relieved it waited until after the project (so was he!). Students really ran into problems as a result of the way in which they use the computers: not updating, keeping too many programs open, not restarting regularly.

Because I gave the students a calendar, absences were not a problem (for the most part). Students definitely need support for this project. I think the results are worthwhile, however, and with this excellent crop of digital stories this year, I can’t wait to see what next year’s students create.

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On Storytelling

writing photo
Photo by Damian Gadal

I am reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s been on my to-read list for a very long time, and I picked it up on a whim last night. These passages out of “Spin” caught my attention this afternoon:

You take your material where you can find it, which is your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That’s the real obsession. All those stories. 34-35

Later in the same chapter/story, O’Brien writes:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story. (38)

These passages really resonated with me because I consider myself a bit of an ambassador for storytelling. I am the family historian. I captured some of the stories of my grandparents and their own grandparents as told to them. I’ve tried to capture a few of my own stories, too. I don’t have anything like serving in the Vietnam War in my background, like Tim O’Brien does, but I do have stories. All of us do, and even though O’Brien is writing stories about the war, I have the sense he’d agree with me.

I find accepting the idea that all of us have stories is one of the biggest hurdles to writing. Many students—and for that matter, many adults—think they don’t have anything interesting worth sharing.  I think we have a skewed idea of what constitutes interesting. In many cases, if we’ve lived it, we can’t see the potential it might have to intrigue someone else. And then we might be daunted by what we perceive as our inability to tell the story.

Tell it anyway. That is what revision is for. The important thing is to get it down, record it, get it out there. And then share it. The important thing is just to tell your stories. There are lots of ways to do it. If you are more of a writer, write them down. If you’re more of an oral storyteller, record yourself. Video editing software, podcasting software, and services like StoryCorps with their storytelling apps make it easy to capture your stories or those of others. Lest anyone ever in a million years think they don’t have a story, they should listen to the beautiful and wonderful story of Danny and Annie, one of the most popular stories of all time on StoryCorps:

Since I’m thinking of Tim O’Brien, now seems like a good time to share this video I created when I interviewed my grandfather about his war experiences.

Go tell your stories.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #24: Idea Slam!

idea photo
Photo by Celestine Chua

February is a rough month for teaching. It’s cold and bleak outside (in many places, anyway). Everyone seems to be a bit lethargic and tired. Many schools have started having breaks in February. My children’s school system, for instance, has a week-long winter break in February. Dylan was so excited to go back to school Monday that he woke up at 3:00 A. M. I realize he’s different that way, though.

I decided it was time to have a really fun department meeting that (I hoped) everyone would look forward to, so we are having an idea slam. The goal is for each of us to bring one (or more) ideas/tips/tricks/etc. we use in the classroom to share with the others. I think we will not only learn a lot from each other but also have fun.

I’m still trying to decide which ideas I will bring to the group. I have several in mind. There is absolutely no reason we can’t have another idea slam, though, and we have a dedicated shared folder in Google Drive that we will use to share electronic copies of anything we have. I can also scan anything that is only available in hard copy and put it in the folder later.

Some ideas I’m considering sharing*:

  • Literary 3×3. This is an idea I learned about when I was looking online for ideas to teach Mrs. Dalloway.
  • The Cartoon “Did You Read?” Quiz from the Making Curriculum Pop Ning.
  • Literary analysis bookmarks (an idea stolen from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy). (Page 1, Page 2—example is from Song of Solomon, but could be adapted for any book)
  • One of the literary analysis tools from AP Literature training this summer (besides TPCASTT, as my department knows that one pretty well).
  • Thesis statement Mad Libs (another idea from AP Literature training).

If you have a really stellar idea, I invite you to share in the comments. We can make this post our very own idea slam if you all want to play.

*If I know where the idea came from, I attempted to give credit. In many cases, I don’t know where the idea came from, so I have shared where I learned about it at least.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Teaching with This American Life

This American Life
Image via WVTF

For the past two years that I have been teaching American Literature, I have integrated This American Life into my students’ learning. I have previously used episodes, particularly “Act V,” which tells the story of Prison Performing Arts and Shakespeare in prison. It remains my favorite episode of This American Life to this day.

The essential questions I use in this course are as follows:

  • What is an American?
  • What is the American dream and how has it influenced America?
  • How does American literature reflect America and Americans? What makes it uniquely “American”?
  • What makes an effective writer?

There is a storytelling component as well; the culminating assignment is a digital story. Perhaps not everyone would immediately think of This American Life as American literature, but it is. It is one of the finest collections of stories by and about Americans.

I ask my students to select an episode, any episode, and listen to it.  We do this assignment once a month. This American Life is an hour long, and many of my students are English language learners; I am aware that asking them to listen to more than one episode a month would be difficult for many of my students, both in terms of time and in terms of challenge. After they listen, they can select one of the following prompts and write:

  • Why do you think the producers of This American Life have chosen to follow a particular theme at the point in time when the episode aired? What might have been happening contextually (at the time the show was produced) that gave rise to the selection of that particular topic? Furthermore, were such subjects relevant in the past? If so, how?
  • How has the particular production value (tone, music, interview editing, etc.) contributed to the success or failure of the show? Specifically, what aspects of the sound design affected the way a listener might respond?
  • Connect the episode to something we have learned about and/or discussed in class. Thoroughly explain the connection. In what ways is the episode similar to what we’ve learned? What made you think of topic? Did you seek the episode because you thought there might be a connection to class?

If students want to write on something else, they need to clear it with me first. The first prompt asks students to consider what is going on in the country and world around them. The second asks students to think about these aspects of production, which will help them when it comes time to create their digital stories. The third asks them to connect the episode to what we are learning in class.

I always enjoy reading the students’ writing about This American Life. At first, many students are not sure they will like this assignment, but at the end of last year, several students reported liking it very much. One student remarked in his writing that he thought all his classmates should listen to an episode he had chosen, even if they didn’t do it for credit. That particular student was not the most engaged or hardest working student, either, so I think he genuinely meant it. A comment like that is how I knew I was doing the right thing. Often last year, students would come into class the day a This American Life assignment was due talking animatedly about the episode they had listened to.

I think my students derive many benefits from listening to the stories. On one level, they get a feel for pacing of stories and how ordinary stories can grab us (as well as a sense that all of us have stories). On another level, I think they make many connections and enhance their understanding of America and America’s stories in a way that would be hard to do otherwise. It’s also another mode of reading, and listening is a valuable skill for students to practice.

 

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Slice of Life #21: Plotting

writing notebook photo
Photo by Unsplash

I have been using one of the writing ideas I learned at Kenyon last summer with my juniors. Watching my students write last week prompted me to tweet this comment:

For some reason, the exercise generated a different feeling in the room, and it was a happy moment for me, sitting and looking around the room at the pens moving over writing notebooks. I don’t think my Kenyon instructors would mind if I shared the exercise, especially in the name of spreading the good writing vibes.

First, I asked students to write down a list of places they lived for a substantial period of time, and they could define that, but they should think of places they spent more than a night. Next, I asked them to circle up to three places and draw maps of each place. They should draw where the trees were, where the streets were, where the rooms and important items were, etc. I gave them plenty of time for this because there are often many stories in a single room, a tree… even a single item. I remember when I did this exercise at Kenyon last summer, the place where I found the most inspiration was my grandmother’s sewing room. Every detail in that room is etched in my memory. I can see where everything is, and if there is a single room in any house I’ve ever lived, anywhere, it would be the one room I’d want to preserve, always. When I was at NCTE in November, I did a writing exercise in one of my sessions in which I returned to the room again, and when I shared my writing with a partner nearby, she asked me, “At what point did you realize this was a room that didn’t exist in most houses?” It was a great question, and I don’t know when it was that I really understood how unique that room was, but I’ve been returning to that room over and over again in my writing ever since July.

After students drew the maps, I had them pick one map, one place, and make a list of things they could writing about that were connected to that place: people, events, things. Then I asked students to pick one thing and freewrite. I wrote along with them. Near the end of class, each of us shared one detail or sentence we had written that we really liked.

When we returned to class, we read a chapter from Haven Kimmel’s memoir She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana entitled “Brother.” It’s a beautiful and evocative description of Kimmel’s relationship with a much older brother who left and distanced himself from the family. It is partly a story of the place in which the family lived, but the relationship is at the very center of the piece, and there are some beautiful moments in the description—the time her brother swooped out of the darkness in a Dracula cape on Halloween and scared Kimmel, a description of her brother singing in his room at night. She prefaces her memories of her brother with the sentence “These are things I remember, and they are mine.” I absolutely love the ownership in that declaration. Later, Kimmel shares her mother and sister’s memories of her brother, prefacing these recollections with the sentence, “Here are memories I stole.” And again, I love the idea of hearing stories so many times that you own those memories, too, but also that somehow, because they are not your own memories, they are stolen from others.

We discussed this essay, picking out details we particularly liked and noticing what the author does. The students noticed, for instance, that Kimmel describes some images in detail, but not all, so it’s like zooming in and zooming out with a camera. In fact, Kimmel describes photographs of her brother and what the “eye of the camera” sees that all her family members missed. It truly is a great mentor text for students to use.

After we had discussed this piece of writing, I asked students to make two columns in their notebooks. Then I asked them to head the first column with the sentence “These are things I remember, and they are mine” and to head the other column with the sentence “Here are memories I stole.” After that, I asked students to use their freewrite as inspiration and make a list of things they remember about the person/event/place they wrote about and then make a list of things they don’t remember—others’ memories, things that happened before they were born or went there, or historical events.

They turned these lists into a second freewrite on the topic. Today, students began drafting an essay based on their freewriting. All of this took three class periods. Time well spent. Everyone seemed like they were really in the flow of writing. No one seemed to lack inspiration. The Kimmel text proved to be great source for ideas. Students are currently writing a solid first draft they would be ready to share with peers in writing workshop on Thursday (when class meets again).

I mentioned that I had used this lesson, and Emily Moore, my instructor at Kenyon, commented, “I started the term with that activity and adored it. There’s a part of me that feels like we could do it every day for the entire term and it would never stop being magic.” I couldn’t say it better. Think of all the stories this simple exercise might generate. I love the inductive nature of the idea generation. One of my students commented that the frustrating thing, sometimes, about writing narratives was that though he agreed we all have stories, figuring out which ones would be good to tell, to write, can be really hard. This writing exercise leads students to selecting that story and also gives them a place to return to for inspiration. Marsha McGregor, the instructor who shared this exercise with us, reminded us that plot is a piece of ground, a place, and it’s also a story.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #13: Workshopping

Slice of LifeMy American literature students had writing workshop today. We read an excerpt from Michel-Guillaume Jean Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, which I like to read with students because it is the genesis of two tenacious ideas Americans have about themselves: 1) that our country is a great “melting pot,” and 2) that we are somehow a new people (the concept of the “new Adam”) and unique in the world (precursors to American exceptionalism). Crèvecoeur defines an American in the selection we read, and I asked students to write a compare/contrast essay in which they define what they think an American is and see how it aligns or doesn’t with Crèvecoeur’s definition. Students brought drafts to class today to be workshopped.

I have one class that is a bit smaller, and I would characterize the students as lacking in confidence. They can be reluctant to speak up in class discussion sometimes because they second-guess themselves or are afraid of being “wrong.” I have been working on building their confidence, and one of the most surprising methods I’ve tried has been writing workshop. One might think it would be dangerous to try writing workshop in such a class because students who are usually reluctant to participate in class discussions would be doubly reluctant when their own writing is on display. In fact, I have found the opposite to be the case.

We had a student’s paper on the screen today in class. The student said he wanted help with organization, sentence structure, and his introduction. We did some work on the introduction, and by the end of it, it was working well. It also offered an opportunity to clarify some language and to talk a bit about integrating quotes. We took some time to notice and discuss what was working well in the piece. We worked on the sentence structure. One of the students in this class has emerged as a really strong editor. She had some great ideas for alternate word choices and ways to revise sentences to include some more variety. She is particularly astute at holding what the writer has asked for help with in her mind as she makes suggestions. I have noticed many students tend to make comments about whatever they notice, but this girl is a particularly focused editor. I commended her in front of her peers today, and she smiled shyly and said, “I like doing this [editing and revising].” Students who are generally quiet during regular class discussion are more animated in writing workshop.

Another thing I noticed about the student writer was that he had a hunch about some of the issues in his essay. One example he shared went something like “I don’t like that sentence.” I asked him why. He said “I feel like there is something wrong with ‘this.'” Another student said, “Yeah, ‘this’ can be a lot of things.” I said they had zeroed in on a common problem in writing called an unclear pronoun reference, and we spent some time tweaking the sentence until the student decided to add the word “thought”—”this thought”—to clarify what he meant. I bet he and his peers will remember the unclear pronoun reference and look out for it in their writing. I think teachers sometimes think that students don’t believe there are issues with their writing, but it was clear to me today that the student recognized an issue but wasn’t sure how to resolve it, which is where his peers came in.

I think writing workshop is going to be crucial in helping these students develop confidence in English class. I find it interesting that in contrast, my other American literature class, which is usually much more active in class discussion, was a bit quiet and reticent in writing workshop today. While they may have some confidence in discussing ideas in literature, perhaps they are not quite there when it comes to writing.

The smaller class has already asked for a second day of writing workshop. I will offer it to my larger class, and I’ll be interested to see what they want to do. I would like to push them a bit harder with workshop, but I also recognize that they are not comfortable with it yet. I am feeling the tension between helping them build confidence and pushing them into that zone of proximal development.

My favorite quote from a student in that larger class today: “Man, you know a lot about citations. And stuff.”

My goal for the end of the year is for them to say that about themselves.

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The AP Audit

audit photo
Photo by LendingMemo

Today, I uploaded my AP audit syllabus. What a lot of work. I have been working on this syllabus since about July. I was extremely lucky to have my colleague Cindy Sabik’s AP syllabus from several years ago, which helped me quite a bit, but ultimately, I had to make the audit syllabus my own. I organized it by thematic units, and I have to admit I found Literature & Composition: Reading – Writing – Thinking edited by Carol Jago et. al. extremely helpful in my planning because it, too, is organized by theme, and was invaluable in helping me think about directions in which I might take my class.

I created essential questions for each unit, and I organized a list of authors for shorter works and poetry as well as assessments. I really am crossing my fingers. The materials for the AP audit are lengthy, and though I checked everything against the checklist and think I’ve built a solid syllabus (which actually goes beyond my AP training instructor’s syllabus, which was approved), I will breathe much easier when I find out whether or not the College Board has accepted it.

My AP class has been on my mind. I only meet with my classes three days per week—two 75-minute periods and one 65-minute period. A couple of weeks ago, we had a holiday on Monday and a testing/community service/college visit day on Wednesday—which are the days my 75-minute AP classes meet. We only had one 65-minute class that week, which was devoted to writing workshop of some rumination essays my students had written. I looked at the calendar and realized we needed to get an out-of-class essay in before progress reports. The rumination essay is an assignment I learned about at Kenyon this summer. My instructor, Emily Moore, assigns it to her students and shared the instructions with us. It is a combination of a literary analysis and personal narrative in which students select a quote, analyze it and put it in context, and then connect it to a personal experience. Because I didn’t come up with this assignment, I’ll link you to Stuyvesant High School’s resources for the paper (Emily teaches at Stuyvesant).

My students are currently reading King Lear and A Thousand Acres. I was really impressed with the ways in which students connected to the text in their essays, and because of the nature of the assignment, we didn’t have to have finished reading the play in order to write something substantial. I must admit, I was particularly proud of one of my students, who was also in my regular American literature class last year. He was a most reflective writer, and he quickly emerged as a strong student in that class. I recommended that he try AP this year, and of course, I was thrilled to see him on my roster. He told me recently that he is really enjoying the class. His rumination essay was simply outstanding.

However, in spite of some successes, I have still been worried about the pacing of the course. I fretted about whether I was going too slowly. I was concerned that giving students a play and a novel (and an hard play, to be honest) at the same time as they are completing college applications might be a lot, so I set the pace for reading at an act a week (in class, in small groups), while students read the novel outside of class. I grew concerned that some of my students were not being challenged. I discussed my concerns with two colleagues who also teach AP, and one gave me the obvious and insightful suggestion to simply ask the kids how the pacing was working. Of course. So I did, and they assured me the pace felt “just right” to them.

Whew.

In the same class, we discussed revising and editing their rumination essays and also doing quiz corrections for an AP-style multiple choice quiz I gave them. I suggested if they scored 7/10 or lower, they might do corrections to earn back points. One student asked if that were not unfair to students who earned 8 or 9. I said that I didn’t think two points would make a lot of difference in an overall grade, which was where I came up with my idea about 7/10, but I said he had a point, too. If students want to make corrections and think it will be a valuable use of their time to earn back two points, why not? After all, it’s their learning.

I have to say I’m learning a lot teaching this course, and I am really enjoying it. We have a really democratic classroom, and the students are a lot of fun. I am really enjoying watching and helping them learn. I am so glad I took the time to check in with my students about the class this week. I need to make time to do it on a regular basis. I invited their feedback and shared partly I need their help because I’m new to this, and partly, I really value their comments about the learning. After all, aren’t students are the best kind of AP auditors?

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Slice of Life #11: The Year of Lear

Slice of LifeI haven’t taught King Lear in a few years, but my AP students are reading it alongside Jane Smiley’s modern adaptation, A Thousand Acres. I so enjoyed returning to this play, which is one of my favorites. As students read, they are creating character maps with the twinned characters in each work, detailing which characters are allied with Lear (or at least have his best interests at heart), and which ones are his enemies. At the end of the play, students will create a literary reduction.

A quick Google search of the term “literary reduction” doesn’t yield fruitful results. I learned about reductions from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, who has used them in her own English classes. Essentially, students create graphic representations of what they have learned. Using a standard 8½ x 11-inch sheet of paper, students  distill the essence of the work by organizing quotes, ideas, images, and connections from a work of literature. My students are working in groups focusing on four different themes in the play. They will create reductions based on these themes, so as they read, they are looking for quotes that connect to their themes.

Look what I received in the mail today:

The Year of Lear

I’m so excited for this book. I absolutely loved James Shapiro’s other books A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, and given that I am currently teaching Lear and have often taught Macbeth, I expect I will learn a great deal from this book. Actually, I’ve just read the first chapter, and the first thing I wanted to do was go back in time and do Monday’s class over again. Ah well, I can still share what I’ve learned with my students tomorrow. Shakespeare is a deep well, and even when I think I know just about everything, I plumb a little deeper and uncover something new. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 looks like a great addition to my learning library.

Later this week, I will be presenting on writing workshop in my classes at OESIS (Online Education Symposia for Independent Schools) in Boston. Here is my presentation (for the curious). I want to share one interesting finding. My students use Google Docs to write, and I selected an assignment from the end of last year at random from which to draw some data. I selected an assignment from the end of the year because at that stage, students were acclimated to the workshop process. Students wrote an analysis of Macbeth. I examined how many edits they made to their essays. Keeping in mind that not every single edit is a substantial change, each edit does represent a different time that students opened the document and made some changes. Google Docs saves work every few seconds, but that does not mean a new version is created every few seconds. If you do want to see these more detailed revisions, you can click the button that says “Show more detailed revisions.” Students must stop working and return to the document after some time has passed for it to count as a new version. With that caveat in mind, here are some figures:

  • Students made an average of 8.79 edits on this one assignment.
  • One student made only two edits, but I suspect he wrote his essay in Word and pasted it later.
  • One student made 19 edits.
  • All of the students who made 12 or more edits are currently taking AP-level classes. They were not in an Honors class last year.

Even if each edit was not substantial, I admit I was blown away by these numbers.  It’s entirely possible students were making the same number of edits before I introduced writing workshop / in-depth critique to my classes (but I doubt it). It’s also possible that when students use Word, they make just as many changes, but I can’t see them because there is no revision history available for me to see. This kind of data is just one more reason, in my mind, to use Google Docs.

Just as an experiment, I decided to take a closer look at the student who made 19 edits. His last edit was insertion of a citation and a few word choice tweaks. The previous edit included removing a block quote and adding the evidence to a different part of the essay (and integrating it more tightly), deleting a sentence, lots of word choice tweaks, and reworking his conclusion. The edit previous to this one included the addition of three sentences and the deletion of two others. The previous edit included quite a lot of revision of the first page of the essay—lots of additions and deletions. The previous edit was minor, including only a sentence and a few punctuation marks. Over time, it’s interesting to see the way the essay took final shape.

In our last department meeting, we were discussing writing and the ways in which our school has embraced writing workshop, and one department member shared that he feels that students seem to understand how to revise and edit better than they had in the past. In addition, bringing writing in to the peer editing club has carried a bit of a stigma in the past, but now, he added, it’s just something that you do to improve your work. I couldn’t be happier that the work we are doing is bearing such fruit. When you treat students like writers, including emphasizing the process and teaching them to edit, they become better writers.

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Dickinson and Diction

Emily Dickinson House

Last weekend, I presented at a digital storytelling conference in the Northampton/Amherst area, so I took the opportunity to visit Emily Dickinson’s house, now a museum.

Photographs are not allowed inside the house, so I can’t give you a tour, but I would really encourage you to visit if you find yourself in western Massachusetts. I took a docent-led tour of Dickinson’s house, but you can also take a longer tour that includes her brother’s home next door as well. My favorite part of the tour was upstairs. On the stairs’ landing is a replica of Emily Dickinson’s dress. The light shines through the window just right, and it looks almost ethereal. In Dickinson’s bedroom, the docent told us that the room had recently been renovated to include several items that were not previously there and new wallpaper that is a reproduction of the actual paper Dickinson had in the room. Her own sleigh bed is there. I was fascinated to learn Dickinson had pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning hanging in her room. Whether those pictures currently hanging in the room are the same ones or not, I don’t know, but Dickinson’s niece attested to the fact that she had pictures of these two women writers hanging in her room.

Across from Dickinson’s bedroom is an empty room with two poetry installations. One examines many ways in which Dickinson’s poetry stands apart from other poetry—slant rhyme, ballad meter, and diction. The other examines a poem with alternative word choices. The poem is Fr 1469 “A Chilly Peace infests the Grass.” (Fr is the R. W. Franklin number for the poem, and along with Johnson’s edition, is considered a restored, authoritative edition.) In the installation, there are sliders installed so that you can examine the alternative word choices Dickinson was thinking of for some of the words. For “Chilly,” she also considered “lonesome—” and “warning—.” I kind of like the effect of “warning—” myself. There is no final copy of this poem, and it wasn’t published (as many were not), so we don’t know what Dickinson ultimately decided for the poem. Of course, it gave me a great idea for a lesson. I was extremely sad not to be able to take pictures in the museum at that moment, but in speaking with the docent, and taking notes, I did walk away with a good lesson plan, and I was later able to find enough information online to create a good lesson plan.

Caveat: The Franklin edition poems are copyrighted, as are the Johnson editions, so I can’t post what I created, but the limited preview edition of the three-volume Variorum Edition edited by Franklin does include this poem. Be mindful of the copyright. It is probably fair use to use it in your classroom, but it wouldn’t be fair use to distribute the poem online, I don’t think.

Anyway, I re-created the diction variations for this poem using Smart Notebook software so students can interact with the different word choices like I could when I visited the museum. Later, I found this lesson by Cynthia Storrs on the museum website that is extremely similar to my own idea (only much more fleshed out in that Storrs considers other poems as well). After reading Storrs’s lesson, I added the poem Fr 124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—,” which Dickinson appears to have edited extensively. It’s been suggested that she was never really quite happy with it. You can read two substantially different versions on Poets.org’s site. Incidentally, this poem is one of the few published in Dickinson’s lifetime, and she still continued to edit it after publication, so even publication cannot be considered the final word on word choice. I also added Fr 598 “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” as an introductory piece in the lesson, as it had only two alternative word choices. I had forgotten how much I loved that poem. I hadn’t read it in many years.

I don’t believe I’ll execute my lesson in exactly the same way as Storrs has written it. I plan to begin by asking students to journal about the question “How much does word choice really matter?” I did rather like Storrs’s essential questions, so I will borrow those. After a review of what “diction” is, I plan to display Fr 598 and allow students to examine the effect of the two alternate word choices. What is the effect? Which do they like better and why? Next will be the interactive version of Fr 1469. Students will be able to manipulate the word choices. I emailed our math chair to help me with the math, and he walked me through the reasoning (it’s been a long time since I did this). Considering all the word choices Emily Dickinson considered for this poem, there are potentially 120 different versions of that poem. Finally, I will have students examine Fr 124 in some detail, and perhaps with a partner or small group, much as Storrs describes in her lesson.

Prior to this lesson, I will ask students to write poetry of their own (this part is not fully formed in my head yet). They will think about alternative word choices in their own poems and workshop the poems with these alternate word choices.

I wish I’d been able to be in Amherst this weekend, as it was a Poetry Festival. I was definitely inspired by my visit. I’m lucky to live in what is essentially the cradle of American literature, and visiting Dickinson’s house made me realize there are probably similar lesson ideas an opportunities waiting out there for every other New England writer I could think of. I have some work to do. I ran right out and bought the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson and White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple.

A few more pictures before I go.

"Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus)

This gorgeous flower was in Dickinson’s garden. The label says, “Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus). I immediately thought of Shug saying that it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple and don’t notice it.

Emily Dickinson's Grave

Emily Dickinson’s grave is only a short walk from her house, so of course, I had to stop by and pay my respects. I placed one of those stones there. I had to wonder how often the caretakers remove these items.

Dickinson Graves

The Dickinson family plot is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. This plaque is on the gate. There is a tree growing in the plot. I am no botanist for sure, but I suspect it’s a yew tree. Can anyone confirm?

Dickinson family plot

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