Thursday, December 10, 2009

Shakespeare and Student Engagement

For the last four classes, my class has been working their way into Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Funny how much I love the play, and how challenging I find teaching it. This time through, I'm trying to apply two brain-based strategies that have been serendipitously orbiting around my professional circles:

1. Using pre-assessment of knowledge to determine an appropriate point of entry into the content and skills, and as a way to activate students' long-term memory.

2. Per an international and longitudinal study of math classrooms, employing not a specific set of pedagogical strategies, but strategies that I know get students engaged in my class.

So I started the first day with a "quiz," which never really has any consequence in my class:
What do you know about Shakespeare's life?
Where and when did he live and write? And what do you know about these times?
Name as many of his plays as you can.
Make a list of the Shakespeare plays you've read. Then, for each:

* Summarize the plot
* Describe the main characters
* Make a comparison to another story, film, or experience

Can you make any observations about Shakespeare's language?
Is it more important to follow a parent's wish than follow your heart?
What do you know about love?
Is it okay to be with somebody because they have things you want?
What do you know about marriage?
Is it okay to be deceptive if it gets you what you deserve and maybe helps somebody else out too?
Are intentions more or less important than results?

I hoped to prove to students that they already have a lot of, let's say cultural, experience with Shakespeare, and they carry a lot of assumptions based on their prior experience with his works. I also wanted to get them thinking about the assumptions they have about some of the themes in MOV. Great discussion ensued.

Next, I decided to do all the "reading" (it's a play) of the text in collaborative groups. And I gave the groups a protocol that involved keeping a rather complex web of characters, plot, and language, and self-checking for understanding. With their assumptions recalled in the quiz, this collaborative reading has been a great success.

Interspersed with the collaborative reading sessions have been days working in self-selected character study groups. All the while students are helping each other build their MOV webs of understanding. And I've put the focus on engaging with the language, reading for language.

On the fourth day, every student used their webs to generate divergent questions about the plot, language, and characters. We put all the questions on the wall and used them to do a one-page character exploration.

Next move: active experiencing.

I'm left wondering what I've given up in handing so much over to the students. Intuitively, I can feel the heightened level of engagement. Have I lost something?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Examining the "Work" Day

Since my last post, a description of a two-part free-choice reading final paper and project, my class has had two structured work days and one day of presentations (no homework over the holiday weekend)! My office partner and I were jokingly talking about the nature of project work days, how students often say, when asked about what they did in class, "oh nothing, we had a work day." Yet, these are the days that can actually be the most productive, in terms of individualized learning and formative assessment. I get to see where each student is in the process, how each student is chunking his/her work, where he/she is getting stuck and unstuck, etc. So I have a new attentive to these kinds of class sessions, and I invited my office partner, and fellow "Curriculum Resource Teacher" to visit on a work day (coincidentally).

He's visited my class one other time, that's how much context he has, in addition to our discussions of each others' classes. Here are some of the things that he noted and we debriefed:

1. Work days are based on a carefully scaffolded element of choice.

2. There has to be something that holds everybody together. In the case of my class: an exploration of textual themes using questioning and critical thinking.

3. There are more opportunities for significant interactions and observations, by students and teachers, during work days.

4. The high achievers are being individually challenged as appropriately as all other students in the class.

5. I highlighted some good project ideas. We wondered how these students felt about having their work highlighted. This kind of move demands the right kind of environment.

6. I had one-on-one face time with every student, a chance to discuss their projects.

7. Finally, we started pondering the number and nature of decisions made by teachers during one hour of class.

Mahalo Dan!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

From SAT Prompt to Book Project

Following a class of strategizing and writing SAT essays, I began Monday's class with a warm-up that asked students to identify the most effective and most challenging elements of executing a timed writing. Many professed new-found love for brainstorming and planning before writing. We also discussed what you lose in this kind of writing situation: revisions, time to write conclusions.

From there, I tried to make a somewhat tenuous transition from SAT to final free choice book projects. The link was that students would be using the spirit of SAT prompts to compose an ethical question to be used in exploration of their book. I spent a few minutes drawing a web diagram that went from universal theme/essential question to individual stories to specific characters and events.

The last fifteen minutes of class, students worked to frame these questions. They also worked on project proposals, for which I gave them several standard guidelines. Some interesting proposal so far:
-Make a telescreen message to the class for 1984.
-Build a kite for Kite Runner
-Create an eHarmony profile page for a book I can't recall.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Same, Same, SAT

I have mixed feelings about Friday's class, mostly because it's a lesson on SAT essay writing that I really haven't changed much over the years. The 55 minutes are pretty simple. The students arrived with outlines prepared for each of the prompts. I gave them the option to write about one of the prompts for which they had prepared or write about a prompt they hadn't seen; they could decide how much challenge they wanted. The next 25 minutes is writing. As a guideline, I post this time management strategy on the board:

5 minutes - Analyze question, identify themes/ ethical dilemma, brainstorm applicable examples.

10 minutes - Prewrite: web/outline.

10 minutes - Write.

By the way, everybody who writes for 25 minutes gets full points.

After time expires, I arranged the students back into the same groups. They went to the collegeboard website and read two scored and annotated example essay and identified characteristics of more successful essays, at the same time, discussing what they had just written.

Homework was to revise their essay accordingly.

I'm clear with the students about my goals for them: be able to move through the writing process strategically; be able to see what's happening in the essays, successful and unsuccessful.

Friday, November 13, 2009

SAT Prep With Meaning and Meta-Cognition

Yesterday's class was about bringing together the critical thinking skills we've been rehearsing, more or less, in isolation. I asked the students to consider the CT wheel similar to the color wheel, combine primary elements for infinite possible angles from which to think. Specifically, today was about recognizing patterns in the different books they're reading, naming those patterns, and making connections to other things they've read, learned in other classes, or experienced in life. The next move is to be able to then apply these patterns (concepts/themes/etc.) to new problems, in this case the ethical questions posing as SAT writing prompts.

As homework from the previous class meeting, students came to class prepared with maps or some other kind of visual representing and organizing a structural aspect of their book: timeline, narrative structure, character development, etc. (this was the move between the activity described in my last post and what's being described here). I assigned groups of 3 and 4 (I'll save a discussion of groupings I had in a small group with Michael Thompson for another post), and students spent the first five minutes of class sharing and articulating the ideas in their visuals. For the next ten minutes, each group had to come up with a list of common themes/elements derived from their individual maps/visuals. Step three was to spend five more minutes adding to each theme with examples from other readings and experiences that also illustrated the themes. Very good group discussions, practicing questioning for depth and breadth is paying off.

Once groups had these thematic lists prepared, I congratulated them on performing the cognitive process necessary for preparing to address a question at hand or, in this case, write an SAT essay. For five minutes or so we returned to a diagram of input-working memory-long term memory from Willingham's Why Students Don't Like School? I argued that an SAT prompt presents them with a pattern/theme, they need to identify it, then retrieve relevant examples from their long-term memory. Finally, they put together a set of coherent ideas making connections between their own reading and experience and the imposed theme. As a final exercise, each group had ten minutes to outline each of three current SAT practice essay prompts, a little bit of a race.

Today, we rehearse writing essays and examine the components that score well. I'm actually not all that interested in teaching SAT writing, but I like shaping into a cognitive rehearsal, meta-cognitive exercise, and fun little competition. And really, I was surprised by pretty decent prompts, easily comparable to real life dilemmas.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reading as Writers

My sophomore English class is in the middle of a free-choice book project. The question for me is: what happens during class time? How is this project not simply an independent project? So, for the first week, we're reading as writers for universal elements (there's been a lot of build-up to this all quarter).

We stared with first sentences. In groups, students did what I call: sentence-level work. Basically, we ask: what can we learn from the first sentence? In what order are the ideas presented? What's the point of view? What do we learn about time? And what questions does the first sentence beg us to ask?

Every cycle, students submit a one-pager of their choice. In conference, I point out two things that they've done well, and give them one thing to work on for the next one-pager. This cycle, the twist was to start with the first sentence (as opposed to an idea or question). They had to write a first sentence based on the first sentence of their books. Then their group members did the same sentence-level work with each student's sentence. The writing task became figuring out how to write the rest of the one-pager with the awareness of audience, from which they already had comments and expectations, and questions.

The next move was to identify, in the same group, three passages that were especially interesting for some reason, in each book. Together, the group had to discuss what the author did to create the effect, then give the writerly move a creative name. Of course, they had to incorporate three of the moves into their own writing.

Here are some of my fav first sentences:

"I'd be lying if I said I knew what I was doing."
"Stars will explode."
"We see what we imagine."
"Back when hairdos were higher and clothes were brighter and dancing required skill, Scanty Sanctuary was where juveniles would be after the sun set."

Yes, the sentences are fun. But what I learned was that to scaffold some writerly risk-taking paid off with a lot of purposeful student writing.

Friday, September 4, 2009

On The Fifth Day...

I've been reading (slowly) this book, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, about how people make decisions. And I've been struck by how many ideas from the book are applicable in my classroom. So today, on the fifth day of class, I'm going to try something, not revolutionary, but different than I've done before.

Throughout the first week of school, I haven't touched the course syllabus (we call it the Expectations). Instead, I've been telling my class each day that I'm "showing" them what the course is all about with the kinds of activities we're doing. Today, I want to present the students with a set of bullet points summarizing the points I was trying to make, and I want to use that to lead into a discussion of grading policy and expectations.

In his book, Ariely has a chapter specifically about expectations, and the power they have over the way we go on to react to something. He runs several experiments where he "primes" peoples' expectations, which affects the way they make further decisions. For example, he asks people to recall the Ten Commandments before giving them an opportunity to cheat without getting caught. Those in the control group, not asked to recall the 10 C's, do cheat. Those that think about the 10 C's don't cheat. Mind my oversimplification. So that's what I'm going to try in my class.

To begin with, I'm going to give a short quiz, questions ranging from what does it mean to learn to what should homework assignments be to how should classmates help each other. Then, I'm going to to talk about my expectations, the Expectations. I have no idea whether anything will change.

My plan is to do something similar for each of the more important moments, projects, and assignments throughout the semester. It's not really something I didn't do before. I've always had the "anticipatory set," but it's a shift in rationale and focus. It's a move towards ownership and relevance.

Monday, August 31, 2009

I'm in a new group this year called the Curriculum Resource Teachers (formerly Technology Resource Teacher), and our role is to support professional development and best practices. We have a new physical space for all kinds of work and collaboration. Although we're figuring it out as we go, it's clear that we want to re-define how a group of teachers works together. A colleague and I were given the job of assigning some homework for the group that in some way gets us working and thinking differently. He suggested this new talk by Dan Pink. So we're pretending that every time Dan says "business" what he really means is "school." And we're asking our fellow CRTs to think about what his case has to do with schools? What does it have to do with how we think about professional development and supporting teachers and students?

If there's time to watch the 18:00 talk, here is an article for juxtaposition on the power of free-choice reading programs.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Starting Fresh Again

I haven't posted to this blog for a long time for good reasons: the birth of my first child and a master's program and project. But the master's is done, and we have a babysitter during the school day. So here I am.

If you've ever seen this blog before, you might have noticed that all the sidebar items are gone, the links, the bookmarks, the pictures, and whatever other clutter I had there. I no longer have a twitter account; I came keystrokes away from deleting my facebook account; and I don't look at my google reader feeds anymore.

Instead, I'm holding myself accountable to a clear vision and focused minimalism. I'll be writing about my classroom and the work of creating a professional learning community at my school.

So today is the first day of school, and I used the same simplified approach to planning my sophomore English curriculum as to reviving this blog. With every move and activity I planned, I demanded to know whether it was necessary in accomplishing my goal for the class. Everything else had to go. There are some basic moves that good readers, writers, thinkers, and speakers make. These moves can be practiced in infinite combination. That's what I want to do.

My goal for today's English class is simple: students start thinking about the responsibilities of being a learner and start practicing one of the habits of mind of a good learner, asking questions. To warm-up, I'm asking students to define "learner" in their own words. What are they bringing to the table? What are their assumptions? Then, for both fun and substance, I'm showing this clip, followed by discussion of the concept of process, practice, and finding meaning.
And to introduce questioning, I'm using an activity called "7 Minute Interviews." It's simple. One student asks questions to keep the other student talking for 7 minutes, then switch roles. After the 14 minutes, students write together about the process. Where did they start? Where did they end up? What observations can they make about the questions and answers and process? Their homework is to carry around a sheet of paper to write down all the questions they think about for the next four days (until our next class).

Monday, January 12, 2009

Links 1-12-09

A Whole New Mind Project - I'm trying to adapt this project to The Poisonwood Bible.

Learner vs. Curriculum-Centered
- A question I ask myself daily.

21st Century Handouts
- I think that's an oxymoron, but it's useful.

Online Reading - Glad to see somebody else struggles with online reading the same way I do.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Links 1-8-08

Here are some links that I've found useful. They all came to me via Twitter. Thanks.

The Digital Narrative - A nice one-stop for resources and ideas for creating diginarratives. I wish I would've found this link before my students started final project.

The Online Disinhibition Effect
- My Plan B is steering me towards the social culture of technology at my school. This is a pretty interesting skim.

Blog Design 2009
- In '08 cybersprawl got me down. I like minimalism and try to keep my online activity managed through a single-point of entry. This post has me inspired to reorganize.

Brainy Flix - A cool idea/contest for vocabulary or any other concept.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

(Re)Creating Culture: Cell-Phone Novels

Last year, our freshman English sub department decided to stop teaching The Odyssey. This year is being spent reevaluating the kinds of literature that make sense for our technology-enhanced students. I don't teach the course this year, so I'm not sure what they're finding out. I was the leader of the group throughout the process, and sometimes I feel a pull, a guilt, for abandoning a classic, especially one that has meant so much to me at different times in my life. But I spent a chunk of time today reading an article that Bruce forwarded to me. It's from the New Yorker and takes a fascinating look at Japanese cell-phone novels and how they've shaped culture and modern publishing. All that, of course, interesting. But what got me thinking, or what aligned with what I think about a lot, is down near the end of the article, a comparison of cell-phone novels to The Tale of Genji. Here's an excerpt:

“The Tale of Genji,” considered by many to be the world’s first novel, was written a thousand years ago, in the Heian period, by a retainer of Empress Akiko at the Imperial Palace, in present-day Kyoto. The Heian was a time of literary productivity that also saw the composition of “The Pillow Book,” Sei Shonagon’s exquisitely detailed and refined record of court life, and a wealth of tanka poems. We know “Genji” ’s author by the name Murasaki Shikibu—Murasaki, or Purple, being the name she gave her story’s heroine, and Shikibu the name of the department (Bureau of Ceremonial) where her father at one time worked. Told episodically, and written mostly in hiragana, as women at the time were not supposed to learn kanji, it is the story of Genji, the beautiful son of the Emperor by a courtesan, who serially charms, seduces, and jilts women, from his rival’s daughter to his stepmother and her young niece Murasaki. “Genji” is the epitome of official high culture—it is to the Japanese what the Odyssey is to the Greeks—but some have noticed certain parallels with Japan’s new literary boom. “You have the intimate world of the court, and within that you have unwanted pregnancies, people picking on each other, jealousy,” the managing director of a large publisher said. “If you simply translate the court for the school, you have the same jealousies and dramas. The structure of ‘The Tale of Genji’ is essentially the same as a cell-phone novel.”

Yesterday, I was working on the "technology's effect on school culture" section of my Plan B literature review, and it got me thinking about how we might start to build unpredictability and cultural change into curriculum. For example, the guiding questions for our freshman English course are: Who Am I? How does my use of language shape me? What if they started to sound more like: Who Am I in person? Who Am I online? How does my creation of digital media and text shape?
Our sophomore questions are: What kind of world is this? How should we live in it? What about: What kind of world is this? How does technology shape and change our world? I don't know, something to that effect.
Point is: I get excited about the idea of taking classic sensibilities (literary structures, as discussed in the NYer article) and holding them up to modern uses of language. I moved a little in this direction this past semester by asking my students to analyze facebook correspondence as a way to improve the way they give feedback to each others' writing and ideas on blogs.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New Year, New Ideas From Literature Review

Winter break was nice. A trip to the mainland always makes me appreciate returning to the islands and to my work. While in the Bay Area, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a friend and colleague who's working in an education policy doctoral program. He's certainly busier than me, but we could commiserate over our respective grad school experiences thus far. We both agreed that's it's really hard as teachers to understand the sterile nature of education research. For some reason, we know that it "just doesn't work that way in a real classroom." So what's the purpose of the research. I find myself, 30 pages or so deep into writing my literature review, asking the question:

What can my school do with the research I'm reading and writing about?

How do I reconcile my own mistrust of numbers and standards based research findings?

How can I, once reconciled, translate the findings into a relevant recommendation?

My plan B project began having something to do with testing the viability of Tablet PCs in our evolving one-to-one laptop program. Four months later, the project has become an observation of our program's current reality and a set of next steps that I'm hoping will be useful in shaping the vision and implementation of 1700 laptop strong program.

An hour a night, I'm building a set of contentions about how a school might start thinking about a program of the sort we've committed to. And here's an attempt at sorting out and presenting some of the emerging themes:

-Technology is changing our culture in predictable and unpredictable ways. Introducing and "integrating" technology into schools will change school culture. There is a capability for transparency and meta-cognition unattainable up to this point in schools. Content is not scarce. Teachers can be bypassed in acquiring information. Teaching becomes more about learning how to learn, and learning how to make sense and meaning of information.

-Most of what schools have done with technology up to this point has been digitizing what they've always done. Social networking, collaboration, and communication are the real transformative technologies. While teaching and learning has been a traditionally isolated activity.

-The barrier between school and the outside world has been broken down. See cell phone videos of school hallways on YouTube; read real-time Facebook updates, for example.

-High expectations and standards can easily start to mean taking on more tasks, since technology continues to automate and cut down the time it takes to accomplish tasks.

-Committing a school to technology is committing to the unpredictable. That's hard to quantify.

-Ostensibly technology in schools was supposed to improve achievement. It's not having that effect, in general. But it is having an effect. What is it? What can/should we do with it?

-The biggest factor in a technology (delete the word "technology" because it's really about teaching and learning) program's success is in a school's ability to provide meaningful professional development and teachers' willingness to embrace school cultural change.

These are not my opinions necessary. They are themes that have emerged across the educational research. Now I have a set of look-fors to carry around with me on my campus. We've said that our one-to-one program will make learning more flexible, collaborative, and individualized. But what does that mean? And how does it intersect with what the research is reporting? How can we contribute what we're learning? The school culture will change? What change are we anticipating and or steering our school towards?