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.