Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve

This pile of 12 student stories is one-tenth of the student work from my 2013 NaNoWriMo adventure that started with lessons and brainstorming in October, then student writing from November through early December, and now my grading procrastination. My own story, intended as a writing model, especially for the early lessons about plot development and other literary elements, only reached around 3000 words and involved a knitter in coastal Maine.

The top and bottom of this pile are two outliers, stories printed on home computers, color coded and annotated to indicate the required literary elements, and tucked into plastic folders. The top folder includes a neatly handwritten note: "Can you please not write on this? Thanks!"

My teaching year has been very, very full! Happy new year to you all!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

New year, new job

My new job - high school English teacher - is going well! Enjoyable, challenging, purposeful. After ten years of teaching middle school, every day is an adventure in the high school (same district) where there are more familiar student faces than unfamiliar colleagues. I have about 110 students in the English 10 course and 60 in the AIS course (remedial/support, mix of all four grade levels within every section), so "information overload" is my middle name right now. The school day schedule is earlier, 5:30 am is my wake-up, 10:00 pm is bedtime, and "tired" hits me AFTER I arrive home and eat a hearty snack, which can be remedied by a nap.

Big kids! No doubt, big kids, big kid problems. Thankfully, we have literature, we have language, we have words, and we'll get to work.

Photos from my visit at the Chautauqua Institution with friends to see Paul Simon and Billy Collins in the amphitheater, where they talked about writing, read poetry, and played music. The second photo shows our attempt to stalk them after the event. We left Chautauqua with no close-up encounters with the stars but many, many words.

May your days be full of literature, language, and words.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What does Daniel Pink know about motivating students?

That's not a sarcastic or rhetorical question. I read his book Drive about a year ago and just borrowed a library copy of his new book To Sell is Human. I scribbled quite a few margin notes when reading Drive, and listed some thoughts here:

Pink states 3 elements of motivation - autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Generally, I understand this line of thinking, except there are problems applying them to education:

The autonomy element is super hard in a public school setting - give students (and teachers) choice of task (possible), time (can't imagine this can be a true choice!), technique (possible, but perhaps not for teachers given scripted lessons), team (usually not a choice).

The mastery element is easier for students who accept challenges (and "pain" and effort) as a natural part of learning (and achieving success), and very hard for students who give up easily. That's taught at home, before they show up at school

The element of purpose - Very hard for middle (and high?) schoolers to see the purpose for achieving mastery when they will get promoted to the next grade without achieving mastery. So.... That's both developmental (because they are too young to realize they're growing bad habits now, to make choices based on long-term goals) and institutional (social promotion).

Pink states that intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity, and controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity (p. 30) - he lists the 7 deadly flaws of "carrots and sticks" on page 59. I take exception to his reading prize example on p. 58 - if students are given a prize for reading 3 books, many won't pick up a fourth, let alone embark on a lifetime of reading. This glib critique ignores the long-term process and nature of reading, which depends on taking many small steps toward mastery. Not that I'm taking this PERSONALLY or anything, but the teacher in me says, you don't know much about teaching in a public middle school, do you?

One case in point, in the next section, he gives one situation when carrots and sticks DO work - when the task is ROUTINE (p. 62). TA-DA! The skills of reading and writing start with formulas (examples: writing conventions, literature circle roles and tasks), I.e. ROUTINE. These routine tasks develop into habits, and with proper instruction, guidance, and support, and THEN artful and creative reading and writing evolve. (Side note - don't we all know writers who just "naturally" and "creatively" wrote and published a first novel, and readers like us say, hmmm, you could've used some of my "6 traits of writing" lessons.) So how do we motivate students through the formulaic (Pink's word is algorithmic) stages of reading and writing? Pink's own analysis answers: extrinsic motivators.

I can't resist one more: he gives this tip to parents - give your kids allowance and some chores, but don't combine them (p. 177). My reaction: does he have kids? He explains: this sends kids a clear (and clearly wrongheaded) message: in the absence of a payment, no self-respecting child would willingly set the table, empty the garbage, etc. But those tasks are clearly ROUTINE tasks, so based on his analysis, carrots and sticks would be okay.

I've been reading much more this summer than past summers, not sure why, such as the terrific novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette on the plane ride home from our California vacation. The public library has been my reading hero - "just browsing" yielded happy surprises, such as TWO follow-up novels to The Adoration of Jenna Fox (I really didn't know!) and Jim Trelease's The Read Aloud Handbook, 7th edition (2013). I cannot believe I didn't know about Trelease's work before yesterday!

Happy summer reading, everyone!

PS - I can't resist sharing a photo of our California trip that included short visits to Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, and Lake Tahoe. This is the Lyell Fork that feeds into (from?) the Tuolumne River at Yosemite.

PPS - can't resist sharing a few other summer pics! Yummy haul from our CSA farm share....

And the first sweater I've managed to finish knitting! I have a knitting attention deficit problem, can't seem to finish big projects. (Cowl scarves, hats, mittens, etc. are my specialty.) This raglan cardigan pattern was a simple, one-piece construction.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Brand new day

I will follow this rule of literature - no one cares to read happy stories all the time - and explain that I wrestled with the monster of standardized testing for six months, during which time it stun-gunned my sunny outlook on life, and I karate-chopped my way out of cruel and unusual mazes. After many zig-zag twists and turns and one blind-faith leap into a new dimension called High School English, I'm back in the blog while resting in a meadow filled with daisies, sunflowers, dragonflies, and bunnies, just for a short time.

Here in the meadow, I'm reading The Fault of Our Stars by John Green. The contrasts of grief and humor, life and death, profound and profane, all feel just right.

Speaking of places far from (my) daily battles in public education, the first picture below is Kiawah Island, South Carolina last April, and the second features my mother in Moscow, Russia a few days ago.

Enjoy your meadow days!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Chuckles and thrills

To demonstrate the authentic value of chuckles and thrills that I mentioned in the last post, I present here a few "oh man, you just had to be there" moments in the informational text carousel:

Every class has a funny guy, right? The student who loves attention and amuses his or her peers endlessly. This was the exact person who chose the penguin book with a chapter title "Jackass Penguin" boldly emblazoned across the page to share when I asked for volunteers to show "interesting visual text" from their books.

Every class has students who love cats and students who love dogs, but one class has a cat lover who shared extremely adorable cat and kitten photos from the book he chose. I promptly oohed and ahhed over every one in total agreement even though I don't love cats (or dogs), but a dog lover in the class insisted that every single cat in that book and in the universe was UGLY. This same dog lover then found a photo of a hairless cat in another book to emphasize her point, SEE? End of story.

Well, all that doesn't sound very funny when I tell it here, but like I said, you had to be there!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

How wide and how deep is your love of public education?

In the informational book carousel, everyone finds at least a few interesting books even though most of my students don't like to read, don't want to read, and/or don't think reading is cool. A variety of books is critical to holding student interest in the lesson itself, which is usually a reading and/or writing skill practice. It also exposes students to the Big Wide World of Life that's typically more than they see in their own life and in the social media they choose to ingest. Additional benefits: physical activity for students, quiet classroom for teacher sanity.

Two main carousel complications:

1. Set-up of materials takes time and effort, but the payoff of solid planning is excellent. Invest in authentic reading material, and keep the paper/writing materials simple. I usually write my own questions, based on the goals for student learning and student needs. If I don't have stellar school library resources, I would borrow public library books since I can monitor student use closely.

2. Managing the flow of students through stations requires constant vigilance. I try to vary the the questions based on learning goals/needs, but there will always be some students who work quickly and some slowly.

Say what we will about the ills of high-stakes standardized tests, but the vast majority of students who score below grade-level proficiency and have to take my class are not strong readers, meaning (to me) they don't read deeply or widely. A small minority may enjoy reading a narrow range of genres or topics ("Do you have any more Wimpy Kid books? The Hunger Games? Football or hockey?), and they tend to read for chuckles and thrills. Both are authentic reader experiences, but neither wide nor deep reading.

How wide or deep should students be reading? I'm not sure that's the right question, considering generally low to mediocre expectations of academic character in American society. Let's focus on excellent academic character, emphasize the value of struggling through challenges with hard work and determination to realize long-term goals. Sometimes working harder is smarter - apply Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour "outliers" rule.

As for the use of standardized tests to scapegoat educators and bankrupt public education, I bet the enterprising folks pocketing insane millions of tax dollars (Pearson, I'm talking about you and your buddies) are happy with their 10,000 hour investment in the study and practice of making money. How wide and how deep is your love of money compared to your love of public education?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Close reading workshop (?!)

Last week I started a short unit on close reading of informational books (borrowed on a cart from the school library). The first lessons involved writing summary paragraphs of books they chose from the cart based on personal interests. The lesson-within-the-lesson was how to generalize from specific details. For example, in a book about pugs, don't include details about taking care of the pet in the book summary, just include the sentence, "This book explains how to take care of pugs."

The next lesson was using the index to find information. I chose books from various nonfiction genres (natural science, technology, history, cooking, sports, arts and crafts), one book per station per student, and wrote a question that required students to use the index to answer. My largest classes have 13 students, smallest 6.) Students worked independently at each station for about three to four minutes, then moved to next station. Managing the flow of the stations "carousel" was tricky, since no matter now hard I try to equalize the question difficulty, students work at different paces, so I need to encourage the fast ones to do a thorough job (and practice patience) and the slow ones to move along (with nudges toward the right path of discovery as needed).

The third major lesson will be using maps and charts in informational books (by this time, I have traded in a fresh set from the library). I'm writing multiple choice questions to prompt students to read visual information and related texts carefully. I'll use the stations/carousel format for this.

Based on the terrific selection of books available, thanks to a fantastic Library Media Specialist, I've been challenged to study internal combustion engine diagrams, solar-powered turbine towers, how to draw manga faces and poses, graph charts of how many professional baseball games are completed by starting pitchers over the past hundred years, just to name a few. This unit is an interesting blend of reading workshop and close reading practice. I think we are enjoying it!