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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.


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 #12: The N-Word

Slice of LifeI started The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my juniors today, and I always like to begin study of this novel with a frank discussion of the repeated use of the n-word. In a book that uses the word over 200 times, students will be confronted with it often. I wrote the word on the board followed by some quickwrite questions, and as the students settled in their seats and looked up, there were quite a few exclamations and audible gasps. They confessed they thought I’d lost my mind for a minute.

I learned some really interesting things from my students today. The first is that one student has heard the n-word used as a verb that means something like “played a dirty trick,” as in “He really n-d that guy.” I have never heard that use before. Other students shared (and I admit students share this idea often when I teach the book) that the connotation seems different to them when the word is spelled out “n-er” versus “n-a.” I try to wrap my head around that idea, but I admit I don’t have a lot of luck.

We read an essay by Gloria Naylor about a time when a little boy called her the n-word when she was in third grade, and we read Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” which seems simple on the surface, but packs a punch. We also watched part of a segment from the program 60 Minutes on the NewSouth books publication that expurgated the n-word from the novel and substituted it with “slave.” The discussion is a powerful and important one to have prior to reading this novel, I think, but I have two observations:

  1. My students don’t know enough about what is going on in the news and the #blacklivesmatter movement. At all. We are going to talk about it, and if I need to, I’ll bring in the news articles. But I admit to wondering why they don’t know what is happening.
  2. The controversy surrounding this book, 130 years from its publication, which has been a part of the book’s history for the entirety of its existence, still manages to provoke thought and debate. It might be one of the most consistently relevant books written.

I close with a great quote from the preface of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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Integrating Technology: The Cart and the Horse

My Students, Learning
My Students, Learning

Some weeks back, I was looking at my site statistics. It’s not something I do a lot, but every once in a while, I like to see what people are searching for that led them to this site. It’s curiosity more than anything else. I noticed that someone Googled terms that were something like “technology to use with ________.” I’m being a little vague on purpose in the hopes that I don’t inadvertently embarrass anyone, especially because what I really want to do is help. Looking for “technology to use” with anything is putting the cart before the horse, but I think I understand why people do it.

Whenever you design a lesson or unit, it’s best to start with this question: What do I want students to know or be able to do at the end of this? Backward design really will resolve a host of planning problems because everything you plan will lead to the answer to that question. Backward design will help you figure out what to do during individual lessons. Backward design will help you figure out which texts to teach or what kinds of writing assignments students should do. Backward design will help you figure out which technology to use. Individual lessons, texts and writing, and technology are not the ends themselves—they are the means to the end. They are the materials you use to reach the learning goal you’ve set. As such, asking what kinds of technology you might use to teach X is putting the focus on the technology instead of on the learning, and it probably won’t take your students where you want them to go. The best analogy I can think of is the apple unit described in Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design. If you’ve read the book, you’ll remember the description of this unit—lots of fun activities about apples, but not much understanding or deeper learning taking place.

When you design a unit for students, you want to think about what activities you might use or create that will help students reach learning goals. If, for instance, one of your goals is that students will understand Shakespeare’s language, you might design a series of lessons that engage students in study of his language—lessons in denotation, connotation, stress, and inflection that lead to an understanding of subtext; lessons in Foley art and sound effects in creating a podcast or radio play that communicates the tone and mood of a scene; lessons in diction that teach close reading. Might you use technology for these lessons? Perhaps you might create an engaging lesson using technology to teach Foley art and sound effects because the technology will add relevance to that lesson. Without technology, in fact, students might not understand the point of the lesson at all. However, it might be wholly unnecessary to use technology for teaching subtext or diction. In fact, plain old books, pencils, and paper might be the best tools to use.

When should you use technology? When it will make learning easier for students or when it will make learning possible for students. Technology is meant to save us time. If it’s not saving us time, or if it’s actually impeding the learning, we should think about why we’re using it. On the other hand, technology enables us to do many wonderful things we couldn’t do without it. If we can extend learning in ways that we couldn’t without using technology, then of course we should use it. If using technology is going to help engage students, we should use it. I’m thinking here of my colleague Lisa, whose 8th grade students blog. If they just wrote for their teacher and their classmates, they wouldn’t have the larger, more authentic audience that blogging offers. I’m also thinking of my colleague Pete, whose math students used robots to learn integers. Could Lisa’s students have learned writing without blogging? Sure. But blogging provides an audience and adds engagement. Could Pete’s students have learned integers without robots? Again, sure, but the robots add engagement and help students visualize the number line in a new way.

Why search for technology to add to our lessons instead of thinking about the lessons first and whether or not technology will enhance the learning? My hunch is that the person who was looking for technology to use with X was probably told he or she was not using enough technology. Perhaps an evaluation indicated as much. It’s impossible to know for sure. The best way that administrators can support the use of technology is to provide opportunities for faculty to learn about it and give them the tools they need. I don’t think it’s wrong for faculty members to ask for help using technology. Too many schools want teachers to use technology without really giving them proper tools to do so. In both cases, what often happens, is the teachers are labeled “reluctant.” In some attempt to appease, they might just resort to Googling “technology to use with X.” They won’t find the answers they are looking for that way. They might find a one-off activity, but without some real thought about lesson and unit design, it’s not likely that any sort of technology will help teachers reach their goals.

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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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Slice of Life #10: What I Like Best

Slice of LifeI have an American lit class that meets after a half hour period we’ve designated for collaborative learning and talking and working with peers and teachers. Many of my students came to class quite early today. Some of the students were discussing a quiz in history, sharing strategies they’d used to study and lamenting faulty memory when reading their history textbooks. I shared with them that my 8th grade math teacher had taught us the SQ3R method for reading textbooks, and since they hadn’t heard of it, I explained it to them. I mentioned I found it helpful for reading history textbooks in particular, but that I thought it also worked well for science. Maybe not so much for English, and I never used it in math. One student mentioned it was kind of strange that a math teacher taught it to us as it might not have been directly helpful in studying math. I said she was the kind of teacher who shared general success tips, such as study hints and note-taking methods, with us, even if it wasn’t necessarily going to help us in her class. She also taught us how to take cluster or web notes. I have never found that technique useful myself, but I’ve taught it to students who have found it quite helpful. My teacher—I still remember her name, Mrs. Sands—cared about our success and not just in her class. I knew she cared about us.

What I like best about teaching is not necessarily teaching the subject, but helping kids learn, whatever it is. I love sharing ideas and hearing from students. The conversation I described was a five-minute conversation before class, but it was a lot of fun for me, and I felt like we shared a bond over the study tips. Will they give SQ3R a try? I don’t know. But it only took a few minutes to show, and it didn’t take a lot of effort either, that I cared about my students’ success, and not just in my class.

I was in a colleague’s classroom either late last week or early this week (I forget which), and he had a small stack of writing taken up from his seniors. I noticed the names of former students, so I peeked (my colleague didn’t mind). I pulled the second paper out of the stack and started reading. It was good. I felt so proud of the student who wrote it. He had spent two years in my English classes, and he didn’t have a lot of confidence when he came in, but he worked very hard. He came in to work with me. He revised. He volunteered to have his writing workshopped. He is reaping the rewards of the effort he put into improving his writing. Of course, writing is an integral part of the English classroom, and we should be teaching students to write for a variety of audiences and purposes. It’s such an important skill to take forward, and I loved helping this student learn how to improve his writing. But make no mistake: he did the work that resulted in that improvement. He’s carrying that success forward in his English classes this year, and I don’t doubt he’ll carry it forward to future writing he does.

It doesn’t take a lot of work, I don’t think, for us to show our students that we are interested in their lives and struggles beyond our classroom walls. They will remember how we cared for them many years after they no longer remember content. Relationships are important. I remember most of my favorite teachers because of a combination of how interesting their classes were and now much we connected as people beyond the subject. I can clearly remember having teachers who made me feel invisible in the classroom, and I knew they didn’t really care about any of their students, or at least I didn’t feel it. In fact, I have had teachers who really seemed to dislike their students. I am not sure why they were teaching. Students are what I like best about teaching. More importantly, students are why I teach. And perhaps most importantly of all, I really like my students.

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Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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