Week in Reflection: February 23-27

This week I am caught up on grading.  I’ve seen lots of talk out there among the English Edublogosphere and Twitter about feedback on student writing.  Something I do about once a semester is type comments as I read a student’s writing.  I usually wind up with about a page when I’m done.  It’s like a written conference.  I wish I had more time for writing conferences in my schedule.  I tried recording my feedback, and it felt like an awkward additional step.  Because I have smaller classes, I am able to give substantial feedback on writing and still ask my students to do plenty of writing.  That’s not to say it’s not a challenge to grade, but it’s such a reward when I can compare students’ progress.  It’s really evident when I compare ninth graders’ writing to eleventh graders’ writing.  It’s not that eleventh graders necessarily are inherently better writers, but I can see the growth that has taken place because I know they were writing like the ninth graders two years ago.  Another thing I have done is allow students to revise for a higher grade.  I gave my students a handout with Seven Deadly Sins — seven common grammatical issues I see in their writing — and a point value to be subtracted for each instance of the “sin” in their paper.  They can erase their sins by figuring out what they did, correcting it, and attaching an explanation of their errors and corrections to the second draft.  All is forgiven.

Right now my juniors are writing poetry explications.  I don’t think I was asked to write an explication until I was in college.  My freshmen are busily writing argumentative essays.  My sophomores are in the midst of a research paper.  Lots of writing going on!

I have really been enjoying the conversations with my department this week.  Teaching can be so isolating, and it is good to connect and discuss with those who share the same burdens and joys that we do as a result of working in the same place.  I feel sad when I hear stories of departments that aren’t close and refuse to collaborate.

My juniors read poetry (John Donne to John Milton) this last couple of weeks, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of positive comments regarding the readings that they were making on the classroom blog.  My students are generally, I believe, fairly honest about their likes and dislikes.  When I was first exposed to these writers, I admit I didn’t care much for them.  In fact, until college, I didn’t much care for writing before about 1800 or so.  All that changed, and I actually find I like the older literature more now (go figure), but I have to admit that my teachers in high school did very little to engage me in that literature.  I had one excellent English teacher in high school, and the rest of my English classes are a blur.  I remember a lot of what I did with her because it was engaging and interesting.  I hope I am not flattering myself too much to think I have actually engaged my juniors in Late Renaissance/Restoration poetry, but it feels good to read such positive comments.

What this post lacks in coherence chalk up to the fact that what I share is more or less stream of consciousness.  Grad school is starting to get challenging.  I’m learning, and I am enjoying my classes, but I can’t pretend it’s not difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zotero

I am often the last person to hear about the cool tools, but I don’t think I’ve seen Zotero mentioned in any other education blogs.

Zotero is a Firefox extension that helps “you collect, manage, and cite your research sources” within your browser.  Screencast tutorials at the Zotero site help you visualize what that means for your research.  I think students could potentially save a lot of time with Zotero.  It would be great for research papers.  I don’t know if I will need to write any scholarly papers for my ITMA program, but if so, I can see this extension can potentially save me a lot of time.

Zotero Screenshot

Zotero Screenshot

Zotero works for Firefox 2.0 or 3.0, Netscape Navigator 9.0, or Flock 0.9.1 for Windows, Mac, or Linux.  It is free and open source, and lots of good plugins can extend its capabilities with other software, such as Open Office, Microsoft Office, and WordPress.

My worry in using it with my own students is that it would be a learning curve for them.  As I have stated before elsewhere, it has not been my experience that students today are as tech savvy as we give them credit for, and many of them are not patient with tech tools either.

Everything I learned about technology, I learned because I sat down and played with it until I figured out how it worked, but my students do not always approach learning how to use new tools the same way.  I do have a few students I might recommend it to.

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Write Beside Them: The Opportunities in a Writer’s Workshop

Write Beside ThemIn chapter 6 of Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, the reader gets a glimpse into how a writers’ workshop might run.  The first thing I wished was that I had a writing class all year next year on a block schedule.  I really want to go out and try everything!  Based on the schedule Kittle outlines, she has 90-classes, and she also mentions A and B schedules, so my hunch is that she’s on an alternating block schedule.  Her writing course is a one-semester course.  My own school schedule is so complicated that I’m wondering how and when I can implement some of her ideas that I really liked.  For example, I would really like to try Sustained Silent Reading.  When I was a student teacher, the high school where I did my student teaching assignment had school-wide SSR two days a week.  Everyone in the school — teachers, students, administrators, janitors, everyone — was expected to read for that twenty minutes.  Magazines were OK.

Here’s what my schedule looks like:

  • Mondays: Block 3: 7:55-8:35; Morning Program: 8:38-9:21; Block 4: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 5: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 6: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 7: 2:12-2:57; Block 8: 3:00-3:45.
  • Tuesdays: Block 5: 7:55-8:35; Prayers: 8:38-9:21; Block 6: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 7: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 8: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 1: 2:12-2:57; Block 2: 3:00-3:45.
  • Wednesdays: Faculty Meeting: 7:45-8:30; Block 1: 8:35-9:21; Block 2: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 3: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 4: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 5: 2:12-2:57; Block 6: 3:00-3:45.
  • Thursdays: Block 7: 7:55-8:35; Prayers: 8:38-9:21; Block 8: 9:24-10:09; Double-Block 1: 10:12-11:45; Lunch: 11:45-12:27; Double-Block 2: 12:30-2:03; Break: 2:03-2:12; Block 3: 2:12-2:57; Block 4: 3:00-3:45.
  • Fridays: Block 1: 7:55-8:35; Morning Program: 8:38-9:19; Block 2: 9:21-9:59; Block 3: 10:02-10:42; Block 4: 10:45-11:25; Lunch: 11:25-11:53; Block 5: 11:56-12:36; Block 6: 12:39-1:19; Block 7: 1:21-1:59; Block 8:  2:02-2:45.

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it did take me a whole year to learn it.  We rotate the schedule so that each class has one double-block per week along with three regular blocks and one day off.  On Fridays, we finish up at 2:45 to allow students who travel from far away to get home in time to prepare for Shabbat in the winter.

So given that I don’t meet with my students on a schedule that’s regular, my first thought was that Fridays would be a good day for SSR, but how long can I realistically devote to it then?  I could make the day when the class has double-block another day, but again, how long?  Is 10 minutes OK?

Another thing I took away from this chapter is that I need to work on writing conferences.  I do not allow students to do enough of the talking, and they are walking away trying to fix their writing to please me so I will reward them with a good grade instead of really learning to write well.  The good news is that I can fix it, and happily, Kittle provides models on the DVD.  I wrote Listen more!  Talk less! in the margin of my book.

Finally, it occurred to me that two of the suggestions Kittle mentions — publishing writing students wish to share on a shared drive on the school’s network and creating posters for units of study — could also be done and perhaps even more effectively on a wiki, even if it was a closed wiki that only the students could use.  The added advantage would be that students could keep adding to the information and writing pieces gathered, even after they were no longer students if they wished, and they could also access the wiki at home.  Wikis would also have the advantage of being hyperlinked, so if students wanted to link to an online editorial they found interesting for further reading, they could easily do so.  Kittle has mentioned the multi-genre research paper, but so far only in passing.  I hope we get a good picture of what it looks like because based on what I’ve read, it also looks like a prime candidate for a wiki.

I’m guessing I should be getting my Teacher’s Daybook any time now.  I need to start planning, and I mean really planning.

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New Handouts

I began the process of adding more handouts and other content to this site. I removed some handouts I didn’t really think would be useful.

It made me wonder about content in general. What would be helpful? If I have it, I can put it up. I have some great research paper stuff that I need to scan, but I could put it up, too. Also, I have other handouts at school. Right now, most of my handouts are either writing or American literature, but I did add one handout for British literature. More should come as I gain more experience with the subject. I taught one section of it last year for a semester, but will teach two sections all year this coming year.

I’m not taking requests, mind. If I don’t already have it or don’t have a use for it myself, I don’t see the point in creating it, especially not for free. However, if I have it made up, and it’s just a matter of uploading it or even if I don’t have it but think I can use it myself, I can upload it.

Here’s a Power Point on the twenty most common writing errors:

Update: I know that the 20th slide isn’t rendering properly, but I can’t fix it because it’s SlideShare’s problem. If you download the file, it should be correct because the transcript is correct; however, if it’s not, you can easily change it.

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The Teacher’s Daybook, 2008-2009

The Teacher's Daybook, 2008-2009I just pre-ordered my copy of Jim Burke’s handy planner, The Teacher’s Daybook, updated for 2008-2009. The planner will not actually be released until July 10. Usually, it is released much earlier, and I wonder if some of the changes made didn’t cause a delay in publication. The planners usually run from July to June of the year specified, so I can’t help but think there was a problem this time.

I actually mocked up syllabi for this fall yesterday. Why do I want to go back to school so bad when I just started my summer? The Folger Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute! I am really excited to teach three Shakespeare plays this year — Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth, all of which, interestingly enough, are included in volume one of the Folger Library’s Shakespeare Set Free series. As a participant of the institute, I will be receiving a copy of this volume. I already have one, so I plan to donate the older copy to a colleague and keep the new one. I am not sure what the difference between the one I already have and the new one is (aside from the cover). Does anyone else know?

If you can only get one volume of the series, this volume is the one I recommend because it contains two of the most frequently taught plays — Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth — both of which are frequently anthologized in 9th grade texts and British literature texts respectively. It is my hope that if Folger produces another volume in the series, they will consider creating a unit for Julius Caesar, as when I have had to teach that play (twice), I have had difficulty in coming up with creative ideas, although it looks like there are some good ideas on the Folger’s Web site. There is a great idea for the scene when Cinna the Poet is attacked by the plebeian mob that we did at the Mini-Institute, but I don’t see an identical one on the Web site (here is a similar one).

Well, I need to tell myself to enjoy this break from teaching. I am twenty pages from the end of Wuthering Heights, which I am actually reading in its entirety for the first time (sorry Mrs. Keener — it wasn’t personal — I just couldn’t keep up with the reading schedule!) and Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them was set aside while I finished up with end-of-year business (and I mean “busy-ness,” too), and I feel I have not been a good participant at the wiki. And I need to read the summer reading books assigned to my students (or at least the ones I haven’t read yet) so that I can make assessments for the books.

Techy Addendum: I have been getting a 500 Server Error when I post to this blog that says there is a misconfiguration on the server.  No problems posting at all, so it must be related to something that happens after I post.  No problems when I edit posts.  I am not sure what is causing it, and trying to figure it out over the last couple of hours hasn’t been fruitful.  Please let me know if you are having problems commenting.  Comments are held in moderation, so your comment might not appear right away, and that is not a bug.  However, if you get a strange error message (such as a 500 Server Error message), please let me know.

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Write Beside Them: This I Believe

The main message I took away from the second chapter of Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them is that writing teachers will not be effective unless they are also writers.  She says, “We don’t learn many things well just by following directions” (7-8).  However, it was this remark that struck a chord with me: “[T]he instruction has to come during the process of creating a piece, not in polishing the product, or nothing changes.  That’s a crucial error I was making for years” (8).  I think perhaps focusing on the product and not the process of creation may be why students flip to the last page to look at their grade.

Kittle compares learning to write to teaching her son to drive.  Parents wouldn’t send their sons and daughters out on road without being in the car with them, modeling first by “talking [them] through [our] decisions” (7).  The important thing to do is model writing: “If we don’t model smart thinking in writing, our students will write like kids who’ve read the driver’s manual but still hit the curve too fast and just about send us to the hospital” (8).

It’s interesting — I recall modeling writing poetry for my students years ago.  I slapped a poem in progress on the overhead and walked through developing it.  I remembered that it worked really well, too, and it’s a wonder I didn’t try other types of writing, too.

What Kittle learned are three important truths about teaching writing:

  1. Teachers needn’t be writers — “just someone trying to write” (9).  The process of modeling and thinking through a piece was the important part.  I would argue that Kittle was mistaken in not thinking of herself as a writer.  Our students don’t, either, and that’s why they think they’re no good at it.  One of the questions I often ask on a writing inventory I give my students is “Are you a writer?”  Almost none of them think of themselves as writers.  We make these arbitrary definitions of words like “writer”: writers are published and other people (important people who should know) consider them to be good.  Writers are people who use writing to communicate.  Period.  We can all consider ourselves writers.
  2. The books we read are great models of the product of writing, but it is the teacher’s job to model the process of writing.  We don’t see the effort that went into selecting the words and stringing them together.  We don’t see the painstaking process of editing.  All we see is a great piece of polished writing.  No wonder it looks daunting.
  3. We can learn how to teach writing by doing the writing ourselves.  Think how much easier it will be to plan for writing assignment instruction if we’ve already struggled through the assignment ourselves.

A few years back in order to better teach my students how to write a research paper, I wrote one myself.  It was probably the most effective thing I had ever done in terms of teaching the process; however, it might have been even more effective if the students could have seen me do it.  If they had seen me locating resources, taking notes, putting my notes in effective order, and outlining my ideas, it might have been even easier for them to figure out how to do it.  Well, there is always next year, and with my next class, I will write research paper beside them.

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Reflecting on Backward Design

The end of the year is drawing closer, and today I was thinking about backward design.  This year was the first year I implemented backward design planning.  I have been really impressed with how much students have learned.  My 9th grade students in particular really seemed to connect to this type of learning; furthermore, unless I’m a horrible judge, they have seemed more engaged than I can remember any other class being.  Today they started working on the performance assessment for the unit I created for Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye.  Students were researching and writing about the impact of media and society on how people feel about their bodies.  At the same time as they were analyzing a novel’s theme, they were also writing persuasive essays about body image, using research to support writing, and learning about ways in which literature truly can be a lens through which we examine our society.  In times past, I don’t think I would have designed an assessment nearly as good as this one, and students were clearly interested in what they were learning through their research.  They frequently called me over to read facts and statistics they found.  They wanted me to read what they had written.  One student began her essay with an anecdote that integrated information she learned from a YouTube video I showed the class.  And it was a brilliant introduction.

I know I sound like an evangelist when I talk about UbD, but I can’t help it.  Backward design revolutionized the way I teach.  I feel rejuvenated and invigorated by working with my students.  And I am learning so much, too!  Every day, I just can’t wait to work with students on the units I’ve created.  I truly enjoy planning and creating units now that I have a clear process that helps me focus and think about why I do what I do.  I am really proud of all my students have learned and are learning, and much credit for those learning experiences belongs to UbD.

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Week in Reflection, April 28-May 2

Our Spring Break was last week, so I didn’t post a reflection.  As this was the week of our return to school, and we have also entered that final stretch of the year, I’m not sure either I or the students were as plugged in as usual.

My seniors basically have two weeks left because our school allows them to finish early.  Next week and the week after, they will be working on a final paper for me.  This week, we finished watching A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was struck again by Brando’s performance.  You probably know this bit of trivia, but Brando was the sole member of the core cast not to receive an Academy Award, though he was nominated.  Vivian Leigh won Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche; Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stella; and Karl Malden won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mitch.  The Best Actor award that year, however, went to Humphrey Bogart for his performance in The African Queen.

My ninth grade students are working through grammar.  One class finished up phrases and started on clauses.  The other class learned about active and passive voice and began discussion of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.

The tenth grade writing class I teach presented Power Point presentations.  So often our kids add animations, busy backgrounds, and too much text, then read the text rather than use it as a guide for the audience.  Despite my instructing students on the perils of Death by Power Point, a few of their presentations included some of the problems I’ve mentioned, and I am frustrated that I somehow was not able to communicate how to avoid these issues to my students.  Also, I am frustrated by the fact that in order to be successful, they had to unlearn bad Power Point habits, which may explain why all of them weren’t successful.  We need to teach kids how to use Power Point correctly from the start.  I think too many teachers are a little too impressed by all the bells and whistles and actually reward students for making cluttered, busy, and ultimately unreadable presentations because they themselves don’t know how to do some of the things the students do, thus the teachers assume it’s hard and took a lot of time and effort.  Let’s face it, our students have become accustomed to being rewarded for style over substance.

The last two days of the week, my writing class began a unit on SAT preparation and practice.  I have evaluated SAT essays in the past, and as I haven’t done so for quite some time, I suppose it’s safe to disclose this fact.  Students generally find this unit to be very helpful.  I have been using Sadlier-Oxford’s helpful Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests as a guide; I highly recommend this book, as it focuses on the SAT’s writing section (error correction, sentence and paragraph correction, and essay).

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Write Beside Them: Summer Professional Development Project

Write Beside ThemBecause I purchase The Teacher’s Daybook each year for my lesson planning, Heinemann sends me catalogs and fliers about publications quite often. In my mailbox today, I received a promotional flier for Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. I was intrigued enough to check out the book’s page at Heinemann’s site. I watched the sample videos, poked around for a bit, and decided to make this book my summer professional reading project.

I started to order the book from Heinemann’s website and was pleased to discover that I would receive a small discount, but I was rather shocked at the high shipping price. With tax and shipping, the book was fairly pricey at over $38. I checked out the book at Amazon and discovered that while I didn’t receive as large an initial discount as I would have if I had ordered directly from Heinemann, the book was eligible for free shipping, which brought the price down to a more reasonable (for me) $30.80.

So… who’s in? Who wants to read this one with me this summer? We can have our own online professional development book club.

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