Macbeth Unit Plan

I have not been happy with my Macbeth unit for some time. I sat down with my department chair today and brainstormed, and I have come up with a new plan that includes some serious tweaking and a performance task that I’m in love with (I only hope the students will be, too). I have left my old unit plan up for comparison.

I spent most of the evening reading through Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, and I have decided that most of the unit will consist of lesson plans from this text. Even if you decide not to use all the lessons in this book, it’s an invaluable resource and perhaps one of the single most important additions to your professional library if you teach Shakespeare. Almost all of my learning plan consists of lessons from this book, and because of copyright restrictions, I have provided only the page numbers for your reference.

I used Wordle to create the Macbeth Wordle/word cloud I reference in the learning plan. You can easily create one, too. I would advise taking out words like “exit, exeunt, Macbeth, and lady” as well as other character names as they will skew the word counts in favor of character names instead of common words, such as “blood, night, sleep, and hands.”

The lesson I called “If it were done” comes from Joe Scotese and can be found at his site A Way to Teach. You will need to register and earn at least five points before you can download this lesson. Joe has a great site, and I highly encourage you to join up, particularly if you teach British literature or Shakespeare in any capacity. Essentially, the lesson involves a close reading of Macbeth’s soliloquy alongside a version from Shakespeare Made Easy; students learn that Shakespeare says a great deal on many levels with his word choices (this activity will really blow their minds; it blew mine!), and that modern translations cannot adequately substitute for the original.

Finally, you can download a PDF of my performance task. It is customized for my class. If you would like, you may keep the PDF I created for my class, but you won’t be able to make changes to it.

Addendum: I can no longer customize these handouts. Please feel free to use the one I shared here.

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Grendel’s Ima

I have been doing some tweaking with my Beowulf unit. In the past, my performance task has been to compile an annotated résumé for Beowulf. It’s good practice for their own résumés; my students have to compile résumés for college applications toward the end of their junior year, the year in which they study Beowulf at my school. It’s also a close-reading exercise, as each item on the résumé must be supported with an annotation. What has bothered me about it is that I want it to include more writing. Sure, it’s a specific kind of writing that I think is important. Suffice it to say something about it was bugging me, so I tweaked it this year. Instead, I will ask my students to write a letter of recommendation for Beowulf. The purpose is still the same: to analyze Beowulf as an epic hero. The assignment just looks different in the end. If you’d like to download this new essay assignment, here it is: Beowulf Letter of Recommendation. You might try this PDF converter if you want to make changes.

When I read Beowulf in high school, I didn’t like it much. Well, I hated it, if the truth be told. I took a sophomore level class in college on British literature up to 1700, and we read Beowulf again. I have no idea why, but this time, I loved it: perhaps a really good teacher, a different time of life, whatever. I have loved it ever since. It’s one of my favorite works to teach, and I enjoy being able to start the year with it. I am completing a unit on Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons this coming week. My students, for the most part, seem engaged. I won’t fool myself into thinking all of them love it as I do, but certainly they seem interested and are participating. One of the classes I teach began referring to Grendel’s mother as Grendel’s ima. This term makes sense if you know a bit of Hebrew, for it is the Hebrew word for mother. I work at a Jewish high school, and I loved it that my students made this fun connection, so I started using the term, too.

I just collected my students’ interactive notebooks for the first time, too. It was really interesting. The two British literature classes did a good job on the notebooks. I saw real reflection and thinking. I am hoping the notebooks will become a more natural reflecting tool as the year wears on. I really liked a peek at their thinking. The connections they make and the ideas they are putting down in their notebooks are insights into what they see as important. I suppose that’s why I liked the Hebrew connection to a piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

My department chair has talked me into using the Interactive Notebooks as my professional development exploration/goal this year. It’s new, and it can be something that I can pilot and perhaps present to my colleagues after I’ve tried them this year. My goal is to help students improve critical thinking and make connections. So far, at least based on what I’ve seen in my British literature courses, it’s working. On the other hand, I have some work to do in the other courses I teach. First of all, I don’t think all of my students have buy-in. They’re used to my old notebook checks, and they’re balking at change. Second, it’s new to me, and perhaps because it’s new to me, I haven’t found that balance of support and freedom that my students need. At any rate, I’ll talk about notebooks next week, and now I have some good models to share for students who might need them.

I’d like to be able to tie all this back to my title again, but everything I keep thinking of sounds cutesy and forced, so I’ll cop to it: I really just wanted to title this post “Grendel’s Ima.” L’Shanah Tova.

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Designing Writing Assignments: Designing Writing Assignments

Designing Writing Assignments Book CoverThe title of this post is not a typo or hiccup. The third chapter of Traci Garder’s book Designing Writing Assignments is titled “Designing Writing Assignments,” too.

In this chapter, Garder addresses the reason why students might fail to meet our expectations: we didn’t communicate what we thought we did. I am guilty, as Gardner says, of simply trying to provide an assignment sheet, but we need to do more. First of all, when I define tasks, I’m not sure I have thought of “suggest[ing] steps in the process that students can complete” and “indicat[ing] different ways that students can work,” though I do usually “schedule multiple opportunities for students to write as they complete the assignment,” particularly if it’s a lower level or lower grade—9th graders versus 11th graders, for example (36). I think I should give all of my students more opportunitys to write in class than I currently do. It’s all about the balance of time, isn’t it?

In helping students comprehend our expectations, Gardner suggests we

  • unpack the meaning of the assignment, as described by Jim Burke, by explaining the assignment to create a shared understanding of the activity
  • provide model responses and demonstrate how to read and compose example texts
  • share rubrics, checklists, and other resources that highlight the requirements and goals for the assignment (36)

I do share rubrics, but I need to be more consistent, particularly as I use rubrics to grade. Checklists, my students also have. Models are an area in which I feel I’m weak. I do some modeling, but usually after the first draft. When I asked students to write a poetry explication, they asked me for models, and though I pointed them to one I found on the web, it didn’t appear to be enough. Over and over students told me they weren’t sure what to do. Jay McTighe describes a teacher who had a target on her bulletin board. A-papers were in the middle of the target, and B- and C-papers were farther out. Students could see exactly what they needed to do to earn the grade they wanted. On the other hand, does that encourage too much imitation and not enough creativity? It’s something I wrestle with when I use models.

Next, Gardner describes the importance of support and resources. When I have designed UbD units, my performance assessments have typically been really good in terms of support and resources, but I haven’t done it for all of the essays. And why not? I have a blog and a wiki! I can gather all kinds of resources for students to use with Web 2.0 tools.

Gardner models the process for creating three types of writing assignments, ending each vignette with an assessment of how well the assignment meets the criteria set forth in the General Writing Assignment Design section (defining task, expectations, and support and resources). In the vignette on expressive writing, Gardner mentions blogs. It sounds like she has used LiveJournal (she describes being able to add emoticons and what music the writer’s listening to, both LJ features) with students, but Ning would be great. It can be closed or open, and students can all be blogging in the same space. I can’t decide if I’m going to do some blogging with all my classes. I am already launching interactive notebooks, and I just don’t know. I don’t want to do too much that’s different or I’ll go crazy, but Gardner makes a good point about the audience for expressive writing being narrow if it’s just the student and me who read it. I really like commenting, too. Now if my students all had the same note-taking tools (like Curio, perhaps), we could probably make the interactive notebooks more of a shared item. I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.

As I read Garder’s process for reflecting on how she has met the criteria for designing assignments in each of the vignettes, I’m reminded again of the UbD process for designing any assignment—the filter in particular. If you want to see one of my filters, I created one for Beowulf when I wrote my UbD unit plan. As a side note, what’s great about the essential questions for that plan is that when I discovered Joe Scotese had some good close reading assignments for Beowulf, I was able to use them to explore the same questions even deeper. I need to revise my unit to include Joe’s ideas. I actually had an idea as I read Gardner’s description of her persuasive writing assignment. I have asked students to write Beowulf’s résumé in the past; I think a persuasive essay in which they are trying to convince someone to hire him on as a hero, perhaps even written from the viewpoint of King Hrothgar? Something’s always niggled at me about that résumé in the past. I worried that though it’s an authentic task, it wasn’t all that challenging, which is why I added annotations. A persuasive essay would definitely make me feel better about the performance task and make it more of a writing exercise. What do you think? If I remember right, Jim Burke even has a great graphic organizer for constructing an argument that would work well.

Let’s see, this kind of assignment would include an authentic audience—someone in need of a hero who has asked Hrothgar for a recommendation. Students are experts: they’ve read Beowulf and seen him in action (of course, he dies, so I could ask students to complete the assignment before we get to that part or they’ll bring it up for sure). Then again, I might be able to get around that snag by having Hrothgar write to the Geats to explain why Beowulf should be made king. It will set the letter more firmly at a certain place in the story. What do you think? They’ll need to interact with the text to provide examples of Beowulf’s heroism. How about choice? Well, they need to decide which acts are heroic enough to include and leave out things they don’t find heroic. Models. I don’t have any models on this particular assignment. I could provide them, but given the narrow scope, could I get away with sharing recommendation letters? I can include suggested steps in the process on the assignment sheet, and I can create peer review sheets that help the students with structure and audience/purpose. Graphic organizers and a cheat sheet for the grammar handbook students use might be helpful support as well.

I think I have just begun planning a writing assignment.

P. S. If you are a regular visitor or even a vistor whose been here before, you may notice a few differences in this site’s functionality. I was going to tack the description of some changes I’ve made to this post, but I decided they really merit a separate post, which is forthcoming.

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Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the ShrewI found a wonderful unit plan for William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which I begin teaching one of my British Literature and Composition Classes tomorrow.  I adapted it, adding in some ideas from the Folger Shakespeare Library (whose lesson plan section on this play is kind of skimpy) and some ideas from the Penguin-Putnam Teacher’s Guide (pdf) for the play.

You can view my UbD plan uniting these ideas and comprising NCTE and Georgia Standards addressed in the unit plan at the UbD wiki.

I wasn’t too sure about this play at first.  It’s been a while since I had taught it, and I was not sure if I really wanted to teach it, and I certainly didn’t want to sit down and plan it.  Now I’m really excited about it, and I can’t wait to work with this class.  I kept visualizing them completing the activities as I read over the lesson ideas and began incorporating them into the UbD framework.

Teaching Shakespeare can be daunting, but it can be so much fun.  Kudos and thanks to everyone who so willingly shares his or her ideas online for the rest of us.  What I wouldn’t have given for the large community of English teachers on the Internet now when I was a new teacher!  Now I’m off to share this resource with even more teachers who otherwise might not read my blog or see it at the English Companion Ning.  If you’re not already there, consider yourself invited.

Photo Credits: North Carolina Shakespeare Festival production of Taming of the Shrew
Photographer: NyghtFalcon
Actor(s):Monica Bell and Dan Murray

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I Like Projects

A conversation*:

“Mrs. Huff, are we going to do another project soon?”

“Fairly soon.  I want to finish The Iliad.”

“I really like projects.  I think they’re better than quizzes or tests because you really think about it and analyze it more.”

“I agree.”

“Plus I know when I study tests, I might do fine, but I forget it like a month later.”

“I know.”

“But with projects, I think about it from more angles and I enjoy it more.”

“We’ll do some more projects, but we have to do papers, too because composition is important.”

“Papers are cool, too.  But I really like projects.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

*Paraphrased because I recount it here about 5 or 6 hours after it occurred.

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Back to School

I’ve said this every year, but I’ll say it again: you sure can tell when school starts again around this blog.  Anyway, our students come back on Wednesday, and my own children went back today, so I feel like we’re all back in the saddle.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a few new visitors coming by looking for UbD information, and I thought I’d make it easier for you.  First, these are my “reading journals” for Understanding by Design in which I reflected on what I was reading and posted here:

Of course, I invite and encourage any interested teachers to join us at the UbD Educators wiki to share and obtain feedback on unit plans (or perhaps borrow those shared by others).

Meanwhile, once I get back in the swing of my schedule, I should have more time to write, although I start grad school on the 25th, which I imagine will make me busy again.

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Grammar Girl

Grammar GirlLast night I met up with Megan to see Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, at the Decatur Library in an event sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book.  Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, there were no more books left, so I was unable to get a signed copy of her new book, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.  The auditorium was packed, which prompted the question (several times) “Who knew grammar was so popular?”

If you are an English teacher and haven’t discovered Grammar Girl, you need to go check out her site and listen to some of her podcasts.  She responds to questions submitted by her listeners, and she discusses one grammatical issue per episode.  You can easily incorporate the podcast into your class — it’s usually only about five minutes long.  Fogarty announced that she will now be doing the podcast twice a week rather than once, so you can even make it a part of your class as an opening activity for two days a week.

One thing I thought was interesting was that during the Q&A, a language arts teacher started to ask a question, but someone behind her in the audience exclaimed when she made a grammatical error in her speech — using a reflexive pronoun in the subjective case.  She didn’t realize her error at first, and when she did, she was noticeably embarrassed and, I think, justifiably angry.  We all make grammatical errors when we speak.  If we had to stop and think as hard about correctness when we speak as much as we do when we write, we would never talk.  I think pointing out people’s grammar errors when they speak is just plain rude.  The woman didn’t ask her question, and there was this wave of discomfort that passed through the room.  That kind of thing is why people don’t like English teachers, for I can almost guarantee it was an English teacher who did it.  I am not saying we shouldn’t teach students to write using correct grammar, but if we make them feel scared to even open their mouths in our classrooms, how much are they going to learn from us?

Anyway, I really enjoyed Grammar Girl’s talk, but I really wish the Georgia Center for the Book had anticipated the crowd.  It really stank that they ran out of books.  For the curious — Megan let me thumb through her book, and it is basically transcripts of her podcasts.  By the way, I disagree with Grammar Girl regarding the possessive of a singular noun ending in s.  Grammar Girl likes the AP Style Guide’s recommendation that singular nouns ending s simply have an apostrophe: Kansas’ statute.  I don’t understand why the s changes the rule, and I agree with Strunk and White that it should be Kansas’s statute.  A fun activity for your students to explore regarding this issue can be found among my unit plans at the UbD Educators wiki: write a letter to Rep. Harrelson of Arkansas, who lobbied to have the official possessive of the state of Arkansas rendered Arkansas’s and tell him whether or not you think he was correct (giving him evidence based on consulting several grammar texts).

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The Death of the Salesmen: A Flat World Lens for Arthur Miller’s Play

Regular readers of my blog know I am really invested in backward design (Understanding by Design or UbD).  I have several UbD units posted over at the UbD Educators wiki, but I decided maybe I should explain them a little bit more just in case you are interested in using them.

After I wrote my UbD unit for Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, I was really excited to explore it with my students.  At the time, I had either just finished or was in the midst of reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.  Friedman actually mentions Willy Loman in the book, and it occurred to me the play could appeal to my students if we looked at it through a modern lens — outsourcing, or what Friedman refers to as “the Death of the Salesmen.”  I tied one of the themes of the play — that the world has passed Willy by and gradually made him obsolete as he failed to keep up — with a very real phenomenon in our society.  Outsourcing is a huge concern in America, and over the last few decades in particular, we have also seen some jobs eliminated by technology.

My essential questions for the unit are as follows:

  • What is the American Dream? Why do some achieve it while others are cut out?
  • What is the importance of being “well liked” and popular?
  • How do we form our identities?
  • How do capitalism and modernization affect American workers?

Through exploring these question, I hoped my students would come to the following understandings:

  • The American dream is an undercurrent of American society, but is not attainable by all in our society.
  • Popularity and being well-liked do not necessarily equal success.
  • Our identities are formed in a variety of ways, including our family of origin, our career choice(s), and our hopes and dreams.
  • Capitalism and modernization are forces that have great impact on American society.

By the end of the unit, I hoped my students would be able to do the following:

  • Analyze the impact of globalization and modernization on society and compare it to the “outsourcing” of Willy Loman.
  • Synthesize information about globalization and modernization from various sources.
  • Determine what skills 21st century workers will need in order to be successful in a global economy.
  • Evaluate how globalization and modernization will impact the concept of the American Dream, how we form our identities, and how we define success or become successful.
  • Relate Death of a Salesman‘s themes and message to American life in the 21st century.

First, we read the play, all the while having discussings about how Willy could be a modern character.  The 1940′s, when the play was written, seem very far away from our students today, but I think this play is very modern in many ways, which I addressed in my essential questions.

After we read the play, we watched Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod’s video “Did You Know?” and discussed the ideas it presents:

Please enable Javascript and Flash to view this Flash video.

We watched an episode of The Simpsons about outsourcing called “Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore”:

Please enable Javascript and Flash to view this Flash video.

Finally, we viewed a Discovery Times special featuring Thomas Friedman called “The Other Side of Outsourcing”:

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I have discussion questions for each of these videos, and it occurs to me I probably should have put them on my flash drive so I could upload them here.  I will update this post in the future and attach the proper documents to the bottom of the post.

We also read excerpts of The World is Flat; specifically, we read “Death of the Salesmen” (256-259) from chapter four “The Great Sorting Out” and chapter six “The Untouchables” (278-307).  Page number refer to the edition of the book I linked.  Again, there are guided study questions.

Finally we synthesized all we had seen and read in a discussion that centered around the following questions:

  1. How can outsourcing possibly produce more Willy Lomans?
  2. What do Americans need to do in the 21st century to avoid the fate of Willy Loman?
  3. What sort of shift do you think will happen in the concept of the American Dream?

Then I gave my students their job, which was to explore these questions in a handbook created for either high school graduates or college graduates (I assigned them randomly on the suggestion of our Learning Specialist) that would be a helpful guide for young people navigating our increasingly flattening world.  I asked the students to consider the following in their handbooks:

  1. What will the graduates need to do to ensure they always have a job?
  2. What will they need to do to compete in a global economy? What skills will they need?
  3. What do you recommend they do to stand out, to become “untouchable”?
  4. How is Death of a Salesman a cautionary tale in a flat world? — Draw a parallel betweeen the fate of Willy Loman and the possible fate of many other American workers today. What can readers of your handbook do to avoid his fate?

I am not going to lie and say the assignment was a blazing success.  I will say the reason it wasn’t was most likely due to the particular makeup of students I had and the fact that they were seniors who were checked out.  I do believe it would be engaging for different students.  It wasn’t a total failure either.  I do think the students enjoyed examining these questions and thinking about them.  Only about half of them really wanted to do the assignment, though.  That half did a really nice job.  Given the time of year and particular makeup of the class, I consider the unit as a whole a success, and I would definitely do it again.  What I like about the assignment is that it enables students to examine literature through a modern lens, and I think they enjoyed it more than they otherwise would have.

Here is a link to the UbD unit over at the wiki, and here is a printer-friendly link.

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Write Beside Them: Reading Schedule

Write Beside ThemI created a tentative reading schedule for parties interested in reading Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them at the Learners4Life wiki.  It’s not too late to join us if you are interested in participating.

I received my copy of the book today, and it looks really good.  I am feeling kind of tired, so I don’t think I’ll get started on it until tomorrow or Friday, but I’m really excited to get going.  It looks like this summer might be as good as last summer for professional development.  Speaking of last summer’s professional development, I would still love to have more folks, particularly active folks (no offense to lurkers, but it’s been kind of quiet over there) at the UbD Educators wiki.

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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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