Friday, January 25, 2008

Reflections On The First Days Of A New Semester With A New Group Of Students

Well, I'm feeling some pressure from Lindsea, and she channeled in some pressure from Clay to get my act together and start posting again. I was planning to. So I'll start with a somewhat counterintuitive observation from the first day of my new class.

I always begin with a new group by having them fill out some basic information on index cards. These cards serve several purposes: they help me get to know the students faster; they can be shuffled and arranged to help create small groups easily; and they can be shuffled for random, equitable questioning. So on the cards I have students write their names, AIMs, something interesting about themselves, a perceived strength in English, and something in English class that's most challenging that they'd like to work on this semester. Overwhelmingly (all but one or two students) wrote that they want to work on grammar. Here, we call it "architecture of a sentence."

I've taken their feedback to heart and am trying a new design in my second semester freshman English course. I'm adapting an idea that came from a colleague's question of what would happen is we set up our courses based around competencies, starting with words, then sentences, then dialogue, then paragraphs, and so on. As a class, I'm arranging each unit in the aforementioned sequence; and individually the idea is that students don't move on to the next competency level until they are proficient in the previous level.

In hopes that this approach will slow students down and help them pay more attention to the precision of language, here's what my class looked like this week: We started by listening to several selections of music, chosen for the singer's unique voice. Students created lists of words that describe the voices they hear ("what is my voice?" is an essential question of the course, and, I think, directly related to word choice and usage). From there, they used Visual Thesaurus to a)learn how to use the resource, and b)see the possibilities of words. They left with an assignment to write a narrative about themselves starting with the first line from The Catcher In The Rye (they don't yet know where the line comes from): "If you really want to hear about, the first thing you'll probably want to know is..."

The next class, I asked them to share their narrative in small groups and to keep a list of the most powerful words they hear in other people's narratives. Then the small groups had to chose five words from all their lists that they feel represent them the best. I collected these words in a document, and we framed them as descriptors and examples of our voice as a class.

The next question (today) is what is our school's voice? To explore this question, I had small groups navigate through the websites of several other independent schools from around the world, creating two new word lists: one list of words that describe the overall impression of the school' site, the second list of words that the school uses to describe itself. Over the weekend, I've asked them to complete the same activity with our class website. On Monday, the plan is to record everybody in the class reading all of our words and to use the recording as a soundtrack to a collaborative slideshow of pictures that represent our voices as individuals, a class, and school. I'm trying to accomplish a lot with this first collaborative mini-project. But my questions are: will this design allow for direct teaching of the architecture of a sentence in context with concrete steps, skills, and scaffolding? And, will the students think mindfully enough about their words, since there's no other consideration, like writing a paragraph, that they accurately describe our voices? We'll see; more to come.

I also have a ton of drafts ranging from cyber sprawl to my visit with Apple and Stanford two days ago. I'm still blogging.

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