Death of a Salesman

I have been struggling with writing a UbD plan for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. I think have have one sketched out, though I still need to create guiding questions for various pieces of the unit, including YouTube videos and a selection from Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat.

In looking at the plot and themes of the play, and perhaps because it is so much in my thoughts lately because of my professional development courses, I made a connection between the play and the modernization/globalization or flattening of the world that our students will need to contend with in their work lives. One chapter of The World is Flat in particular came to mind — “The Untouchables” — as I began thinking about connections. I opened my book only to see Friedman himself referred to Willy Loman in that chapter. It must have been there in my subconscious because I had recently read it, but I was grateful to have my connection thus solidified.

I struggled to come up with a performance task that is relevant and addresses my essential questions, but would also be engaging. I think I have one. I am fairly happy with the unit as it stands because I think it is a unit that connects a past Miller was familiar with to a present and future he probably could not have imagined, and I think it will have interest and relevance for my students. You can check out the unit at the UbD Educators wiki.

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UbD Wiki: Summaries

Miguel Guhlin has joined the UbD Educators wiki and wants your help.  He is posting UbD chapter summaries and wants input from other wiki members.

I want to ask wiki members a question: Miguel suggested that we unlock those summary pages to allow nonmembers to participate.  What do you think?  My idea was that allowing editing by wiki members only would prevent vandalism, but it also closes participation — I have not denied membership to anyone, nor do I plan to (unless they join then vandalize the wiki, which seems unlikely), so perhaps the point is moot.

Check out the summaries and add your thoughts.  I’m really excited about Miguel’s work and plan to begin adding my own ideas this weekend.

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UbD Educators: Suggestions?

I have mentioned before that the UbD Educators wiki has grown quiet.  I think there may be two reasons for this:

  • We’re all busy educators who have difficulty finding the time to create, post, and/or comment on others’ posted UbD units.
  • We’re not getting what we need out of the wiki.

It’s not in my power to alleviate the first problem, and believe me, I hear you there.  However, the second problem is much easier to address.  The wiki is only as good as we make it.  If you need a feature that the wiki doesn’t have, add it.  If you have trouble keeping up with new pages and discussions, try subscribing to the site’s various RSS feeds (you can keep up with all changes or just changes to one page).  If you want to make a change, but you aren’t sure, ask the wiki members about it on the Suggestions page.  the majority of the wiki’s members have not yet contributed either unit plans or discussions.  I want to hear your voice!  I don’t mind lurkers, but we have the potential to make this wiki a huge repository of ideas and discussion about UbD, and we can only do that through teacher contributions.

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Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet

I just finished writing UbD units for Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet at the UbD Educators wiki.  As I finished writing the unit for Hamlet and saved the page, I lost half the work I had done, and I am still not sure how it happened, so I had to re-do it.  Word to the wise — when working with anything you’re doing online, save and save often.  When, oh when will I learn to do that?

Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Hamlet and Henry IV, Part 1In order to successfully steal the Hamlet unit, you’ll need to purchase a copy of Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Hamlet and Henry IV, Part 1.  I have the edition published in 1994, and I haven’t seen the latest edition, so if you know the difference between the two editions and would care to share in the comments for interested parties, I would appreciate it.  I think the Shakespeare Set Free series is a great resource for educators, but I don’t do all of the performance activities.

While we’re discussing good resources for teaching Shakespeare, don’t forget the Folger Shakespeare Library’s website, which has a large repository of lesson plans contributed by teachers.  If you can get them for your classroom, the Folger Shakespeare editions of the plays have pretty good explanatory notes and glossaries, too.  A Way to Teach has a great selection of Macbeth lesson plans and Tempest lesson plans.

If you are looking for Shakespeare video, you might check out Shakespeare and More over at YouTube.  They have a large selection of Shakespearean video.   Speaking of video, if you were looking at older posts about teaching Romeo and Juliet, you will have noticed the videos don’t work.  I’m sorry about that.  I’ll need to go back and revise the posts so that the video isn’t necessary, as the videos are no longer available at YouTube.

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The Faculty Room

Meg Fitzpatrick, editor of of the UbD e-journal Big Ideas, invited me to contribute to both the e-journal and a new blog they are announcing today: The Faculty Room. Please come on over and join in our conversations (my first post on the blog should appear some time tomorrow). You will find other “familiar faces” over there. Also, now seems as good a time as any to remind you that the UbD Educators wiki is a good resource for you to post, share, “borrow,” and obtain or leave feedback on UbD lesson plans.

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What I’m Reading

If you haven’t happened upon Nick Senger’s blog Teen Literacy Tips, you need to check it out. Nick provides valuable content in every post. I am subscribed to his RSS feed through Bloglines, and I invariably bookmark his new posts so I can return to them when I have time (what’s that?).

I recently finished Making Classroom Assessment Work by Anne Davies (read the first edition rather than the updated second, which I linked). I read it as part of Blackboard Online class I took through a local public school system. Frankly, not much new here to anyone who has read Understanding by Design. If I can be allowed to vent for a minute, the reason I took the course in the first place is that I need six more SDU’s (PLU’s or whatever you call them where you live). I submitted my transcripts and all the necessary information to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, but they would not accept anything I had done since about 2004. I suppose I can understand why they might not want to accept professional learning I have participated in at my own school, even if I thought it was a valuable experience; however, I do not understand why they wouldn’t accept Mel Levine’s Schools Attuned. I worked extremely hard to earn the 4.5 PLU’s I earned for that course. I didn’t work a tenth as hard to earn the 2 PLU’s I just earned for reading Anne Davies’ book. If I had known Georgia was not going to accept the credits, I wouldn’t have worked so hard to finish the course online last year. Lesson learned. I will simply take a two-credit course online each year to meet my recertification requirements. At least I should then be assured that my courses will count for something. I have a non-renewable certificate that is good until the end of June, by which time I will have earned those six credits.

My husband sent me an article about a Wisconsin teacher arrested for praising the Columbine shooters on a blog. First of all, I’m not sure what the teacher said constitutes a threat, but to be fair, we’ve punished students for the same type of behavior. Second, once more we have a reminder that sarcasm does not travel well on the Internet, and it would probably be best to avoid it in any situation when it can be interpreted with any ambiguity. Third, and most important, teachers who post anonymously are not really anonymous; you can and might be found, and when that happens, you might be in trouble for what you say. In my opinion, the smarter and safer route seems to be to post openly and don’t say anything that you wouldn’t print on a billboard on the local interstate highway. Aren’t we also trying to teach our students that lesson? Finally, does this incident violate freedom of speech? I contend it does. If the remark was intended to be sarcastic, it missed the mark. If it wasn’t, it was incredibly ignorant, mean-spirited, and disrespectful. But I thought we had a right to be ignorant, mean-spirited, and disrespectful out loud in America. The teacher has learned a valuable lesson: Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui. He won’t be charged with a crime, but the district where he has taught since 1994 has not yet decided what to do about his job.

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Tests: Authentic Assessment?

Should we revisit testing as a means of assessment?

No doubt, students will need to be prepared for college (or, if you teach middle school high school; if you teach elementary school, middle school), and most colleges still using testing as a primary means of assessing students.  After all, when you have a lecture class with 300 students, it is not feasible to use alternative methods of assessment.  Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of keeping tests is to prepare students for the college environment.

I looked over my unit plans, lessons, and assessments this semester, and I realized something interesting.  I have given very few tests.  Most of the tests I have given have been summer reading assessments.  I have relied primarily on the following means of assessment: quizzes, essays, and “authentic assessments.”

My quizzes are typically five-question, short answer quizzes over reading assignments so I can be sure students are doing the reading I have asked them to do.  Students typically do either well or poorly on them based on how well they have read.

Essays are a staple of the English curriculum, but perhaps even more so at my school, with its competitive college preparatory environment and focus on developing writing skills.  My goal has been to assign at least four essays for each class this semester.  I have mostly realized this goal, largely through better planning using UbD to construct units.  I also allowed most of my classes to choose an essay they wrote this semester to revise for a higher grade, as I believe revision and reflection help students see writing as a process.

My “authentic assessments” have come straight from UbD and include crafting a résumé for Beowulf, writing our own Odyssey in order to demonstrate understanding of Homer’s, writing a letter to Arkansas Representative Steve Harrelson regarding his state’s apostrophe dilemma, and creating a comma usage manual for Rogers Communications (that $2 million comma error had to hurt!).

As I indicated in a previous post, I simply ran out of time this semester in order to truly do what I wanted to do with each unit.  I do have fewer minutes per week with my students than I would like — I average 45 minutes per day with each class, which is substantially less than other schools where I’ve worked.  However, what I have learned about the authentic assessments is that they were not only much closer to the kinds of tasks students will be asked to do when they begin their careers than tests.  How many tests have I taken as part of my job?  I can’t think of any.  I did have to take a test to get my certificate.  I had to take another to exempt from a computer skills course required in my state.  No principal has ever asked me to take a test for any reason.  If you take a look at the kinds of tasks I asked students to do to prove to me they internalized the essential questions we were exploring as part of our units this semester, I think you might discover that the tasks were more engaging than the standard test.  The tasks also asked students to think, internalize, apply, analyze, and synthesize information and present it in a unique fashion.  In short, I think they were taxed to think critically on a much higher level in Bloom’s Taxonomy than a standard test would require.

Are tests going anywhere?  I doubt it.  And I do believe that students should know how to take a test and how to study in order to do well in college, but I also think it behooves us as educators to offer them opportunities to demonstrate their learning with authentic assessments that enable students to truly show us what they know and practice working on the kinds of tasks they will be asked to do as part of their careers one day.  At any rate, it’s something to think about.  Though I have had fewer tests in my class this semester, I don’t think my students have learned less or been less challenged.  If anything, they have been more challenged (particularly with regards to writing).  However, I do still plan to give them a final examination.  Still, I think it would be an interesting challenge for all of us to examine what we are accomplishing through tests and ask ourselves if we are really preparing students for life beyond school.

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Time

I never have enough time to teach everything I want to teach — at least not the way I want to teach it.  I have found myself frustrated this year after writing some very good UbD units, only to find I have to cut out parts in order to finish the work in the amount of time I have available.  I have also had to contend with Jewish holidays, our peculiar school schedule, and shorter class periods.  When I taught public school, each class period was at least 50 minutes long.  My classes work out to be 45 minutes long each day (one day is a double period of 90 minutes, but we have class only four days of week, so the average is 45 minutes).  Five minutes doesn’t seem like a lot, but over the course of a week, that’s an average of nearly a half hour.  I just don’t feel as though I really do justice to some of the topics I teach as a result.

How do you cope with the time crunch?

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The Odyssey

I am once again teaching The Odyssey.  I have posted my UbD plan for this unit over at the UbD Educators wiki.  The unit plan is not different from what I’ve done with The Odyssey in the past, but I don’t think I’ve ever framed it with essential questions.  Incidentally, inspired by Tom from Bionic Teaching, I have decided to integrate Google Earth into the project for the first time.  I need to do some more playing with Google Earth so I can figure out how it works, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I think it will be a good tool for us.

The performance assessment is a project detailed in English Journal, “Bringing Homer’s Odyssey Up to Date: An Alternative Assessment,” Vol. 86 No. 1, pp. 65-68, Jan 1997.  I was a student teacher when I first used it (the 1996-1997 year was my student teaching year), and I have always had great success with it.  If you teach The Odyssey, I highly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of that article.  I am going to have the students chart their own Odysseus’ journey using Google Earth.  I am contemplating publication online through a blog or wiki or some other type of website, but we’ll see.

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UbD Educators Wiki

Some months down the road after its creation, the UbD Educators wiki has fallen silent. I logged in today to find that neither changes nor discussions had taken place in the last 30 days. Yikes!

I take part of the blame upon myself. Having five preps leaves me, ironically, with not much time to plan, particularly now as National Honor Society business has take up much of my time.

Update, 4:45: I have a draft of the lesson for my Canterbury Tales unit up now.

Well, at any rate, I invite new folks to join in, quiet members to speak up, and previously active members (such as myself) to become active again. I think this kind of professional development, sadly, is much more valuable and important than much of what teachers normally get. I’m only sad I can’t get you PLU credits for it.

I’m going to start with a unit on The Canterbury Tales. Wish me luck, but give me time to finish it before you comment.

See you over there.

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