I Don’t Do That Anymore

history photo
Photo by Phil Roeder

One result of keeping a blog for over ten years is that I have a record of a lot of the things I’ve tried in my classroom over the last ten years, including some of my earliest forays into using backward design in curriculum planning and assessing understanding with Socratic seminars (first ever mention was in my first year blogging; also see this older entry). I still plan using backward design, though I’ve learned that for me, the most important parts of the process are creating the essential questions using the UbD filter. On the other hand, I also have a long record of things I’ve abandoned. Not all of them are bad ideas or didn’t work, but for one reason and another, I no longer found them as useful or as big a priority. In some cases, people find these old posts, typically not regular readers of this blog, and occasionally I’m asked questions about how one thing or another is working out for me.

Case in point? Interactive notebooks. I was really excited about them when I first heard about them. I think they are great in theory, but the problem I had was time to assess what students were doing in the notebooks coupled with frustration that students weren’t really using them to learn as I had hoped. So I gave up on them. As much as I like the idea of them, I found them a bit too unwieldy to manage in practice and my students weren’t deriving enough benefit out of them to make them worth the work for me. Perhaps it was a failing of implementation. If you are using them, and they are working for you, I’d love to hear how you’re making them work.

Another experiment I couldn’t make work for me was Collins Writing. While I get that students work on certain issues as they go and eventually will cover a lot of ground, I never found it feasible to give feedback only a few things. I wonder if Collins Writing is something that might work better for teachers at the elementary and middle school levels than it worked for me.

I don’t really use wikis with my students very much anymore, nor do I keep a classroom site or blog anymore. The biggest reason for this is that the school where I’ve worked the last four years has had a learning management system that will allow for online discussions and posting of assignments. In the past I have tried wikis, blogs, and Nings. The one thing I do need to figure out is publication. Students should share their work. Students in the eighth grade at Worcester Academy each have their own blogs, and I think it’s fabulous. It seems somewhat pointless, however, to duplicate information or assignments from the learning management system to some outside site, especially when my students’ other teachers are all using our learning management system. I would just be making things more difficult for the students. In any case, learning management systems, though they are often closed to outsiders, do allow for easy online extensions of learning.

I’m always surprised at the traction some of my older posts still get. In some cases, I stand by what I wrote way back when, but in others, I have changed my mind about things. It wouldn’t be honest to take those posts down because they do reflect my thoughts and feelings at a different time. If things I wrote years ago are still useful, I’m glad. Today, for instance, here’s a snapshot of the statistics for the most frequently accessed posts on my blog:

Statistics 1/23/2016

Some of these posts are old. Taking the home page or archives out of the equation, the most accessed page today was written in 2008. I still think it’s useful because it should give students an idea of how to understand money in Jane Austen’s books. The next most frequently accessed post was written in 2007. In fact, the most recent post in this list is the one entitled “American Literature: How I Threw Out the Chronology and Embraced the Themes,” which was written last March. The post “What Makes a Good Technology Integration Specialist” is often tweeted or otherwise passed around, but I’m not even a technology integration specialist anymore (I still stand by what I said, though). I wrote it in April 2012 when I was seeking a job in that field, and I considered it something of a manifesto as well as, I hoped, something that would attract a potential employer.

It’s occasionally interesting for me to look over old posts and see how well they hold up (or cringe). I suppose one caveat we should all keep in mind when using anything we find on the web, my posts included, is the freshness date. Some classics never go out of style, but I guess as to the rest, I have to shrug and say, “I don’t do that anymore.”

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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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Diigo Links (weekly)

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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 #20: I Have Anxiety

anxiety photoI have anxiety. It makes me sad for my family, and it makes me sad for me because it has prevented us from doing things. Fun things like taking day trips. It has made doing these kinds of fun things hard for me. The reason anxiety causes me so much trouble is that in my particular case, it’s my car that makes me anxious.

My car is getting rather long in the tooth, and it’s had some hard to diagnose issues over the years. The first time we had trouble with it was in the middle of nowhere on a road trip from Georgia to Massachusetts—a vacation. We broke down in the middle of Pennsylvania. We had been stuck in traffic, and though I was driving, I hadn’t noticed the engine running hot until the alarm started to go off. Right after that, steam poured out from under the hood. I pulled over as best I could, and we called AAA. We were waylaid for about five hours with two children on the autism spectrum and nothing to do, really, until the car was fixed and we could continue on to Salem. I was terrified that the mechanic would just about rob us. You really are putting your trust in people when you’re in a situation like that.

I had had plenty of car issues in the past. Once, I was pregnant and had two children with me, and I didn’t have a way to call anyone, so I was walking up the interstate toward a gas station. Some nice guy took pity on me (I was rather pitiful, hugely pregnant and pulling two small children along) and drove me there. Once when my oldest was a baby, I got out of the car to take her in to daycare. I was running late. And green liquid started pouring out of the car. My point is that this anxiety issue grew over time, but it didn’t become debilitating until this car, mainly because we can’t really seem to figure out why it has problems sometimes and doesn’t have problems other times. So I have this feeling of distrust where the car is concerned.

Rationally, the very worst thing that could happen is that it would break down and need a tow. I could still get home. It would be okay. It has been okay before. I also know that right now, if something like that happened, we could afford the repair. No one would be harmed. It would be an inconvenience. That’s all.

I can actually go long stretches when the car has been fine for a while and not be too anxious. I even drove it the other day. Dylan needed a Star Wars tee-shirt for school, and because of his communication issues, we didn’t realize what he wanted until about 10:30 at night, so I got in the car, went to Walmart, and bought him one. I was gripping the steering wheel the whole time.

The issue that we have, and it’s intermittent, seems to be that when the car is fully warmed up, it tends to, and excuse my precise mechanical description here—FREAK OUT—when it’s at a stop. It used to start to overheat. It doesn’t do that anymore, but the oil light flashes. I think I know what the issue is because I have Googled it, and it’s not a terribly bad one. We have had it in the shop, and it works okay for a while, but the frustrating thing is we can’t seem to figure out why it does it so we can fix it once and for all. And it doesn’t even do it very often or even kind of often. It’s an extremely rare issue.

The car was acting up a bit last Friday when Steve came to get me after school. I tried to be calm, but I started shaking and my heart was pounding. I was starting to have an anxiety attack. Ever since Friday, I’ve been a bit of a wreck in the car. Let me tell you what I have done to avoid driving. I walked to the grocery store in the rain today. It was okay. It was actually nice. But I got wet, and the store is about seven tenths of a mile away. It’s not a bad walk. It doesn’t take very long. But it takes maybe five minutes to drive, and I don’t have to carry bags home. But walking doesn’t make me anxious.

Tonight, Dylan’s school was able to get us tickets to an autism-friendly production of A Christmas Carol. Dylan was excited. I was nervous to be in the car because I knew that it would be some stop-and-go traffic, and we might have to wait at lights. When it looked like it might take us a while to get into the parking garage at the theater, I could feel a full-on attack coming. I was already twisting my wallet in my hands. I was shaking. I felt tears coming on. So I apologized and asked if I could get out and wait while they parked. My husband is very understanding. Way more than he should be, given how little sense it makes. Because my rational mind knows that everything is really okay, I wasn’t worried about the family in the car. I was worried about being in the car myself and making everyone else worried and miserable. On the way back, we weren’t able to go out to eat because I was too anxious in the car. And it was completely fine. Nothing even happened.

I have avoided gatherings with friends because of transportation issues. I have walked when it wasn’t easy or convenient rather than drive. Last summer, when I was going to AP training in a town that is literally maybe a half hour away, I arranged to stay in the dorms and even to stay an extra night so I could travel by bus. I could easily have commuted each day and spent evenings with my family if not for my anxiety. The machinations I have to go through to go anywhere require a great deal of time and planning.

We are saving for a new car, and we should be able to get one soon. One thing I’m very thankful for this Christmas season is that my husband has been blessed with two big freelance writing gigs that will allow us to be able to buy a new car at last. I think the anxiety about the car will improve after I have a car that is reliable, dependable—new. I don’t expect it will vanish, but on the occasions when I’ve rented cars (yes, I’ve rented cars when traveling in-state because I’ve been afraid to drive my car any substantial distances), I haven’t been anxious.

The thing with anxiety is that I’ll probably find something else to fixate on. I actually do get anxious about other things (though the car is the only thing that drives me into full-on anxiety attack mode). I’m not sure what I’ll transfer the anxiety to. But I am hoping that being able to remove this one major source of anxiety from my life soon will offer me some freedom. Maybe I can go exploring. Maybe I don’t have to turn down invitations. Maybe I don’t have to feel bad about asking to carpool.

Given that an anxiety attack was the low point of my day, and also that I feel very embarrassed and sad about it (especially for my family), I was a bit scared to write about it. On the other hand, it’s not just the low point of my day today. It’s the low point of too many of my days. It’s a frustration that I know others share and can identify with. And since it does embarrass me so much, I don’t talk about it. It’s a pretty big slice of my life today, though.

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 #19: “The Best Book I Ever Read”

Previous visitors might remember that I am implementing independent reading. Students have shared their reading progress for their first full week of independent reading. Almost all of them met their reading goals. A few observations:

  • Most of the students are enjoying their books. One boy declared in class today that Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover is the “best book [he’s] ever read.” He’s been recommending it to others. Another said of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, “This is a really intense and fun book to read, the pictures in the book combine [with] the writing really well and make it even more interesting.”
  • One student said he wasn’t enjoying his book, and I emailed him to let him know it’s okay to abandon it and move on. I think he just needed to know it was okay.
  • One girl finished a project we’ve been working on and read for the entire 75-minute period today. And she told me at the beginning of the year that she didn’t like reading and didn’t read for fun.
  • Some of them need to recalibrate their goals. I had them use Penny Kittle’s method of counting how many pages they can read in ten minutes, then multiplying that figure by six and then doubling it to determine how much they can read in two hours. Some of them didn’t factor in needing to look up words (I have many English language learners in my classes) in their time.
  • One student emailed me to let me know her page count was proving unrealistic, so she recalibrated on her own. I like the fact that my students are doing this kind of thinking: adjusting their own goals and taking ownership over their reading.
  • One student finished John Lewis’s graphic memoir March: Book One. He picked up March: Book II and checked out Winger for over the break.

My student who is reading The Crossover is an interesting student. He’s one of those real charmers, a leader in the classroom. The other students tend to look to him. He’s easily the most outgoing student in the class, so when he says a book is the best book he’s ever read, the others are going to add it to their list. He said he is close to finishing his book and will need another “to read over the break.” And I said, “Yes, of course, because I want you all to keep reading over the break.” He joked that he would cuddle up with the book and a nice cup of tea. I told him he was describing my idea of a party.

So far, the independent reading is quite a success. I am pleased to see the students reading so much. I’ve had a good time reading along with them (I haven’t done any reading conferences yet because at this time, I haven’t identified a need).

The students are already establishing the routine of reading at the beginning of class. I forgot to set the timer and remind them to read today in one class, and they started without me!

As I’ve promised before, I’ll keep posting updates about how independent reading is working. It’s off to a strong start.

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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Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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