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.
I 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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
I 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.
I’ve been back in the classroom for about a week. I’ve learned my students’ names, which thrills me because it’s always hard at the beginning of the year when I want to have discussions and don’t know their names. I know most teachers can relate. I am trying as much as possible to call them by name in class discussion as well.
I’m thrilled to be off to a good start to AP Literature this year. We have so far discussed the AP rubric and tried our hand at evaluating some writing, practiced with thesis statements, and chosen Socratic seminar discussions for our Socratic seminar on Rebecca. We will have the seminar and do a timed writing this week. I have a great, hardworking group of students, and I’m impressed with them.
My American Lit students have read and discussed Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” in a Socratic seminar as well. I have one class that is somewhat quiet, and I am working on ways to draw them out. I have some ideas, but if you know of some tried and true methods for working with students who might lack confidence and are somewhat quiet, feel free to fire away. I had a class a few years ago that was very quiet. Sometimes it’s just the mix of students, but I also am keeping in mind that it’s the beginning of the year, and some classes need time to feel comfortable. I know several of them are English language learners, which is also a factor. I have noticed they are a bit reluctant to work with partners or in groups, so I have a hunch they don’t really know each other outside of my class, or at least not well. I’m using my wait time, that’s for sure.
Another potential factor is the fact that we are in the midst of a heat wave, and my building doesn’t have central air. The fan helps, actually, but it’s just really hot, and the students are having trouble concentrating. We should be out of the woods by Thursday, and I’m hoping that’s an end of the hot weather until next summer. I detest the heat. I really hated summers in Georgia. I was always miserable. I get headaches and other aches and pains when it’s too hot. I would so much rather be cold. Typically, I live in a pretty good place for the kind of weather I like. This summer hasn’t been too bad until just the end of it. I must be really weird or something, but I have never liked summer very much. Oh, I liked it okay when it was temperate, and I could play outside with friends when I was a child, but as an adult, I have always disliked it. Perhaps it is because of the heat. I enjoy time to decompress, but it’s never been a favorite season with me. I have never been a big beach person (at least, not really), nor am I outdoorsy in general.
I knew once school started, I would be busy, but it’s been a hectic week. I have not had as much time to plan as I’d have liked, which makes me grateful I have the first three weeks planned for all my classes. I hope I’ll be more caught up. I was really smart to do my lessons in Evernote last year because it’s really easy for me to look up last year’s lessons, tweak them, and bring them into this year. I am trying to be more mindful of attaching all handouts and documents to my lessons in Evernote as well so that I have everything I need in my Evernote notebook. I was really good early last year about writing reflections after lessons. Reading those reflections has been helpful for tweaking. I have just taken a few minutes to write short reflections about today’s lessons in my notes. So far, so good, but I’d like to make it a more consistent habit this year.
I forgot to post yesterday for Slice of Life Tuesday. I was tired when I returned home from school and wound up taking a nap. While Monday was our first day of school, it was mostly taken up with orientation activities, so Tuesday was the first day we met with our students. We had shortened classes.
This year I am teaching American Studies in Literature and AP English Literature and Composition. American Lit is familiar territory. I have been teaching it for most of my career—and this will be my eighteenth year. It doesn’t seem that long in a lot of ways. AP Lit, on the other hand, is new for me, so I have been doing a lot of work to prepare for that course.
I began the year in my AP class with a chalk talk: “What are your goals for AP Lit this year?” on one poster, and “What challenges do you foresee in this class?” on the other. Students wrote responses silently for ten minutes, stepped back to read what others wrote, and added comments or agreed with peers’ comments by starring, checking or adding some other mark. They liked it, and they discovered they really have similar hopes and fears. I am going to like this class very much. They put me on the spot right away and asked me what my goals are for the class. And as it turns out, we have pretty much the same goals: 1) I want students who are taking the AP exam to go into the test feeling like they are well prepared, 2) I want students to feel well prepared for their college English classes, and 3) I want to have fun while we learn. Today in AP, we examined the rubric. I was proud of them for pointing out its vagueness (I think it could be clearer in the top end as well), and we tried our hand at reading a student’s AP timed writing and determining 1) what prompt the student was attempting to answer, 2) writing the prompt in our own words, 3) evaluating the essay (two students nailed the exact grade the student received, and the rest lowballed the student, which gives me hope that if anything, they will be harsher graders (which is potentially better than grading too high), and 4) talking about thesis statements. They are great, engaged class.
My American Lit students began the year with some discussion of essential questions:
- What is the American Dream?
- Is the American Dream accessible to all? Why/why not?
- What makes a person American?
- How is America different from/similar to other countries?
- Why do people come to America to live?
I asked students to take sticky notes and pick at least two questions to reflect on and write answers to. Then they put one of the sticky notes on chart paper and made connections between notes: two ideas were similar, two ideas were opposites, two ideas were connected in some other way. Then I asked them to take another sticky note and put it on the appropriate chart and connect a negative with a positive or make a connection between a note and something they heard in the news. It won’t really surprise most folks (and didn’t surprise me) to learn they didn’t follow the news much, though one student commented he’d heard candidates talking about “anchor babies.” We talked about what that was. I told the students we would put the charts away and take them out at the end of the year and look at them again. We would reflect on what we had learned. Are our answers the same? Are they nuanced in some way? What do we know now that we didn’t know in the beginning?
I think these classes will be interesting in particular because I have many international students. I have students from China, Vietnam, Russia, Sweden, Thailand, Nigeria, and South Korea, as well as students from Massachusetts and the rest of New England. It looks like a really diverse group, and I think they will bring some very interesting perspectives to our discussions about American literature. Of course, they are likely to need support as non-native speakers of English. I always think my international students are brave for traveling so far away to study in a second (or perhaps third or fourth) language. I wouldn’t have been able to do that when I was in high school.
We are plunging into the deep end of the pool without water wings tomorrow as we have a Socratic seminar on Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus.” I like to frame the year with this poem because I like students to ask questions about why this poem is on the Statue of Liberty and whether we believe the idea expressed in the poem (or, indeed, if we ever have believed it). I was proud that one of my former students who is in my class again approached me to check because he remembers our 70-minute Socratic seminars from last year, and he was concerned we weren’t ready as a class to do that yet. He’s right, so I was able to reassure him by letting him know they will have time to prepare for their seminar in class (half the class, in fact), and the seminar would likely be more like 30 minutes. The reason I was glad he approached me is that he 1) advocated for himself, but really 2) advocated for his peers and showed concern for them.
I have written in the past about how I reworked my curriculum so it’s thematic, and it worked well last year. I did the same opening activity last year, and you should have seen my students’ faces when I pulled out their chart paper from the beginning of the year, and they could actually see how their understanding and thinking about the questions had evolved, even if they still basically agreed with the sentiments expressed—they had evidence to back up those sentiments by the end of the year. I am hoping this year’s class walks away feeling the same way: proud of how much they had learned.
My advisory students are now seniors, and I have been with some of them all four years of high school. They are a great group—very conscientious and hardworking. I am looking forward to seeing them through their last year as they work through the college application process and prepare senior projects. I really look forward to seeing them walk across the stage at graduation at the end of the year. I am so excited to see what they will do.
I had a great start to the year. Last year was my best teaching year yet, and I’m hoping to top that one, even. I am really in a happy place right now.
Last week, I mentioned how inspiring it was to discover that I had some colleagues at my school with whom I could collaborate as part of a Critical Friends Group®. I think collaborating with teachers outside our individual disciplines or subjects can be really helpful. Secondary teachers can be awfully focused on their subjects and forget what we share in common with all teachers; as a result, they lose out on some pretty helpful collaboration and perhaps, even more important, some supportive friends.
Still, it does help to connect with colleagues in your subject matter. I am glad that my friend Glenda Funk, who lives in Idaho, and I have started collaborating on AP Literature. Both of us are new to the subject this year. We connected via Google Hangout and talked a bit about our respective course outlines and our experiences in AP training this summer. We pooled our resources in a shared Google Drive folder. One of the things Glenda is really good at (and I’m not sure if she realizes this about herself or not) is lighting a fire under others. The Hangout was her idea, and we already have some other ideas cooking (all hers). She is also really good about reminding me to do my Slice when I haven’t. She’s not just a great collaborator but also a great friend. Knowing that she is out there and we can connect easily means I have someone I can run to with the quick question about something I might want to try. We also bounced some other ideas off each other. I told Glenda how I had planned to start off with a chalk talk in my classes and what I thought might be some good questions to ask, and she said that gave her an idea for a lesson tweak she might try on the first day as well. Even better, Glenda mentioned our collaboration on Facebook, and as a result, we’ve invited a couple more friends to join in.
I’ve been working my way through King Lear and A Thousand Acres. I plan to start the year with an introduction to AP—some analysis tools, some practices with both writing and multiple choice, learning how to read, use, and apply the rubric—and my unit on Home and Family with Lear and A Thousand Acres at the center will follow. I am really excited about teaching these pair texts. It has been a while since I read either of them, and they are so rich and powerful. I have been working a bit on a unit, but I realized I needed to finish reading both books completely before I could make progress (and I need my Folger books, which are at school, and I haven’t had a chance to go get them recently).
I think talking with Glenda has energized me, and I don’t think I’d be spending as much time on a unit that is probably about a month away if not for the fire she lights under me. It’s funny how subtle she is about it, too. I often don’t realize she’s prompted me to do something until I’m in the middle of doing it. We all need to have friends like that in our lives. Thanks Glenda!