Monday, November 20, 2017

Supporting Evidence: an Idea for Explicit Thinking and Connecting

Disclosure: this is my current practice attempting to get student to both include supporting details AND to explicitly connect or explain those details' relationship to their thesis or potential answer to their question.

My CP students in 9th grade classes are doing this as of the week of Nov 13th. We'll be starting it in my 9th grade classes the week of Nov 20th. 

This is a huge intellectual leap for many 9th grade students at all levels of instruction. I believe this is true for a number of reasons:

  1. As writers, they believe that if they give an example, especially in the forms of a paraphrase or a quotation, then they have made their case. 
  2. The thinking that goes with their paraphrase or quotation seems so obvious to them that 9th grade student-writers feel like they are being repetitive or using "filler."
  3. The explicit, deliberate, overt connection of their thinking about the quotation to their thesis or question seems so obvious to 9th grade student-writers that they, again, believe that they are stating the obvious and adding "filler."
  4. Students do not understand what they are writing if we assign the topic and we do the thinking to collect the evidence. This can even happen when we guide small groups or whole classes in the collection of evidence. 
  5. Sadly, we see and hear fewer academic arguments where opposite views are expressed, with supporting evidence, comparing like to like. This dearth of models of civil discourse impacts, I believe, our students ideas about what constitutes argument, analysis, and decisions. 
  • I ask students to underline their thinking so that it is quickly visible to them and to me.
  • I ask students to italicize the CTT (connection to thesis) or CTQ (connection to question) so that it is also easily visible to them and to me. 
  • I use the analogy of an autopsy: in the same way that Ducky, the coroner on NCIS opens up the deceased, and weighs, measures, draws blood samples, examines contents, all in the service of investigating cause of death, we do so with our writing.
  • We'll use a modified version of our BAHS DRAFT school-wide writing rubric to autopsy our own writing, and each others', just to be sure that all the paragraph "organs" are there.
This link at the bottom will take you to:
  • page 1: our BAHS DRAFT Informative / Argumentative writing rubric
  • page 2: a single point version of our BAHS DRAFT Informative / Argumentative writing rubric. I've been experimenting with single point rubrics for a couple of years. The idea is to give students the target--the criteria for MEETS. The blank column on the left can be for the evaluator to jot notes when something EXCEEDS. The blank column to the right can be for the evaluator to jot notes when something DOES NOT MEET or is EMERGENT or DEVELOPING. My students like the clarity and visual simplicity of the single point rubric. I've also changed the language to "I" and "my" so that students are reading in the 1st person about their writing and its goals. 
  • pages 3 and 4: Single point rubric adapted for autopsy. The students must actually go through their writing and find, and write, specific instances of their inclusions of the required writing techniques or components. Fair warning: my students do NOT like this one! They have to read their writing, they have to fill out specific examples of how their writing meets the criteria, ergo, they must think. It is WORK, but should avoid handing in drafts as polished products. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Power Outlining

Power Outlining is a simplified form of outlining. 

I teach it so that every "power 1" is a new paragraph. 

The rules are: vertical alignment of "powers" is a must and the higher the "power," the smaller or more specific the detail. 

My observations of student use so far: 
  1. vertical alignment is VERY hard for some kids--but a visual organizing/thinking tool, so very important.
  2. they are still sorting out the idea of how to place a smaller piece of information with its larger component, so their 3s and 4s are sometimes out of place. This could be indicative of a flaw in my teaching, (who knew?!), some confused student thinking/organizing, or simply still an emergent grasp of the idea of outlining.
  3. So far, fingers-crossed, this is really helping many students settle into writing paragraphs with supporting details.

Power Outline for Movies

1. Comedy
     2. Uncle Buck                       So you can see here that all the 2s are movies,
          3. John Candy                 all the 3s are something or someone about the
               4. Canadian               movie, and in this particular sample, all the 4s 
     2. Caddy Shack                    are me helpfully pointing out Canadian actors. 
          3. Bill Murray                          :-)
               4. Canadian
     2. Airplane
          3. Leslie Neilsen
               4. Canadian

1. Classic Black and White
     2. Casablanca
     2. It's a Wonderful Life
          3. Jimmy Stewart
          3. Donna Reed
          3. Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu)
               4. still alive!
     2. All About Eve
          3. Bette Davis
               4. Academy Award 1935 Dangerous
               4. Academy Award 1938 Jezebel
                    5. Nominee Margaret Sullavan
                    5. Nominee Norma Shearer
                    5. Nominee Wendy Hiller
                    5. Nominee Fay Bainter

1. Romantic Comedy
     2. Sleepless in Seattle
     2. You've Got Mail                So by now, we've got 3 nice little paragraphs 
          3. Tom Hanks                 all outlined and ready to go. 
          3. Meg Ryan
     2. When Harry Met Sally
          3. Meg Ryan
          3. Billy Crystal

Here's an Academic Version...
Our Question: Why does Steinbeck design George the way he does?
I'm trying to emphasize that EVERYTHING the kids write is to answer the question...focus focus focus...

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Student Webs: Taut or Flaccid?!

Does your students' thinking suffer from loose connections? Are they unable to see how the smaller details fit together to make a coherent, larger picture? Does the word "flaccid" come to mind?! Fear no more! Periods 3 and 4 English 9 students can help your students take their thinking from flaccid to taut in record quick time! 

Yes folks, that's right, from a tentative spider-ish web of dangling and loose threads to an exemplary web of lines you could bounce a quarter off of, clear connections are the key to a good web. 

Montgomery Periods 3 & 4 Russian Revolution Web. Please click to enlarge.
 We used color coding: blue for terms, orange for people, and yellow for events. Then we voted about setting this up as columns or concentric circles. The vast majority of students liked the concentric circles. Pretty much buried in the center area is the subject matter, "Russian Revolution." 

In preparation for reading George Orwell's Animal Farm, a basic understanding of the Russian Revolution is helpful. You can see that student absences resulted in some missing events, people and terms, but overall, you get the effect of a web. 

The day we created the web, and the day we made the connections were a bit, ah, let's say "busy," but I like the overall visual impact of the work. For my students this was an opportunity to make learning 1) visible 2) tactile and, 3) kinesthetic. 

Webbing is a great organizational tool for NON linear thinkers. As terms, people, and events pop into their heads, there's a spot to plunk it, and then all the lines criss-crossing the space emphasize just how many connections can be made.

Webbing is a bit messy and chaotic for my linear thinkers, but they were flexible and tried to ride out the craziness. We've talked about how seemingly unrelated events and people, given the right circumstances, can change the course of history. 

Now, as we make our way through Animal Farm, we keep referring to this visual representation of the web of people, ideas, and events as they are allegorized in the novel. 

Writing Complexity: The Insight Garden Essay

When I first started teaching, I did not know how to teach writing. Well, actually, I did not know how to teach much of anything! I knew how to ASSIGN reading and writing. I knew how to ASSIGN literary terms and examples of those terms with my students. I knew how to put together what I thought were intellectually stimulating units based around a theme in famous novels. 

But I did not know how to actually teach my students who were not already accomplished readers and writers. Poor students!

Then a colleague introduced me to the 5 Paragraph Essay, and I thought, "WOW! I've just been thrown the biggest life preserver in the history of drowning teachers and students." I clung to that life preserver for years, despite the fact that I quickly saw that it became formulaic and boring. It was all I had. My more experienced colleagues recommended it. Students seemed to like the "plug in" formula. So I kept using it. The results, however, tended to be less than inspiring. 

So what happens when a struggling reader is given the task to write? This essay, entitled, "It's Cool to Be Kind" is written by the reader discussed in the previous post, "Reading Complexity." It's inspired by "The Insight Garden Essay" from Gretchen Bernabei's Reviving the Essay. This book is filled with ideas for teaching students structure without turning writing into a formula. 

Insight Garden Essay by BAHS 9th grade student 2016. Please click to enlarge. 
After reading Chill, we brainstormed some ideas for life-lessons, or powerful ideas that readers might take away from the novel. 

This poster version of Bernabei's "Insight Garden Essay" shows a student making genuine connections between a novel, a movie, and her own life. She writes candidly about it being "cool to be kind" and uses specific examples from each "text" to support her thesis. The font color of each paragraph was her choice. She explained that she wanted the poster to look nice, and she wanted to be a responsible author by making it as easy as possible for her readers to understand that this essay had 3 different texts supporting a single thesis. 

We decided to cut out her concluding paragraph and run it as a strip across the bottom of all the body paragraphs to emphasize how it was tying together all of her thinking and examples on kindness. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Reading Complexity

Many high school students have developed strategies to cover up their reading struggles. I've taught students who would misbehave so that they would get kicked out of class rather than read. I've had students feign headaches, lost glasses, and sore throats to avoid reading. 

Imagine the impact on students' daily educational experiences when students are reading 4 grade levels below the reading material of classes. Then add in the complications of specialized vocabulary for different content areas, perhaps a lack of personal experiences with a larger world, and feelings of inadequacy. It's a recipe for disaster. 

Here's a paragraph from Chill, a young adult novel with a LEXILE LEVEL OF 820. A Lexile Reading Level of 820, (820L), equates to 4th-5th grade level. In the CCSS adjusted "Stretch Lexile Levels", it equates to upper 3rd grade through early 5th grade. The "Stretch Lexile Levels" refers to the idea that at every level of reading, every reader has a range or band of comprehension. My lexile level for poetry is high (English major), while my lexile level for physics is lower (again, English major!) Every reader has subjects, background knowledge, and motivations which impacts our reading comprehension.

Back to our student in the 9th grade. Her struggles with saying and understanding words in a book designed to be high interest but lower reading level, indicate that she is a struggling reader. Even using the highest grade level calculation of 5th grade, AT BEST, the student is reading FOUR grades below grade level. 

The blue words are words one of our BAHS students stumbled over:

I heard Mr. Sfinkter's boisterous laugh. When I peeked in, I could see the teachers surrounding him, listening intently as he told a story about the whole ugly incident. They were obviously supportive, nodding sympathetically. Some offered comments: "...a terrible thing to happen...," "horrible...and to such a nice man," " should sue the station" (75).

So...Sfinkter. "Who wouldn't stumble over this one?" you might ask. Interestingly enough, our reader who has some letter-sound awareness (sound it out), stumbles every single time. Our reader who uses guessing and memorization, gets it right every single time! Why? I think our "sound it out" reader gets hung up on the odd beginning "Sf," and then gets thrown by the long "i." The name is an aptronym (it reveals something about the character). We had quite a discussion about sphincters, and why the character would insist that his name be pronounced with a long "i" instead of a short one. I love English class! :-)

Boisterous. It's a long word. The "oi" combination is somewhat unusual. I know, there's "moist," "hoist," "foist," and "joist." But really, "joist" and "hoist" are specialized to carpentry and engineering and sailing. "Foist," well as pithy a word as it is, it's falling rapidly out of use. That leaves us with "moist." How about "damp?" Isn't that easier? "Clammy" and "wet" are often used to mean the same as "moist." 

Where was I?

Oh yes! "Boisterous." Now that I've tried to convince you that "oi" is a relatively unusual vowel combination, you can see why our student stumbled on this polysyllabic wonder of a word. Yes?

Were you expecting "listening" to be on the list of mispronounced words? I was not. 

"Intently." I think I'm seeing the pattern of difficulty--letter combinations. The more letters combined to make a sound, the more likely this reader is to stumble. Sometimes the difficulty is in the initial sound, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes at the end. 

Our student also did not know the meaning of "intently," so even after I helped her with the pronunciation, she did not recognize the word. We talked about "intently" and what it means to listen intently. 

To keep this relatively short, I'll skip over the other words, trusting that you are seeing the difficulties for reading and understanding when a text is above grade level. I'll just mention my theory on the struggles with "sue." I think the student was thrown by the name "Sue." Why wasn't it capitalized? Isn't it a name? What does it mean to "sue the station" if you only recognize it as a name?

Excluding "Sfinkter" because it's a name, there are NINE words in one paragraph that were stumbling blocks. NINE WORDS. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

If THEY Build It, Will THEY Learn It?

by Megan Oliver

One of the many the aspects I struggle with in my field of English Language Arts  is vocabulary. As students read less and less, their vocabulary acquisition is noticeably decreasing. My struggle with this issue is compounded by professional, parental, and even student beliefs that memorizing and regurgitating random vocabulary words is somehow meaningful and will help plug the hole that has appeared as a result of their decreased reading and vocabulary acquisition. In the past, I used to prescribe to this way of thinking, but as I evolve as an educator, I began to question my own methods.

A little backstory.

The first time I really broke away from the traditional vocabulary instructional model was not exactly by choice. At the beginning of a new school year, I discovered that over ⅓ of my college prep class had studied from the same level of vocabulary textbook in 9th grade that I was supposed to use with them in 10th grade. While this has happened in the past, it had never been such a significant percentage, and I felt that I could not, in good faith, move these students though material that they had already covered. So, I threw out the book and started having them select words from the works we read throughout the year. This worked fairly well, the words weren’t random, we were learning about them in the context of the texts we were reading but when I tried to transfer this method to a class at a different level, everything fell apart.

Flash forward to this year.

I continue to teach vocabulary with my college prep classes the same way as last year, but I still struggle with how to transfer this type of learning to students in my less academically motivated class, my more intermediate level class.  A few weeks ago, one of my students pointed out that we hadn’t done anything with vocabulary in weeks, and he asked if we were going to go back to it, he missed the “easy” grade. I couldn’t help but smile to myself, and yet also felt a little sick. I had moved us away from vocabulary because we were spending SO much time focusing on their writing skills, and the idea of taking any focus away from that learning for random vocabulary word study just didn’t make sense. I was also struck by his claim that vocabulary was an easy grade. I mulled this over for a few days; for this particular student, vocabulary was easy. This was due to two factors, he found short term memorization fairly easy, and he had studied these words the year before. So I asked myself, how do I start to challenge them with vocabulary in a more meaningful way? Last year when I tried to get students at this level to generate their own word lists from reading it was a disaster. But could I do it differently this year as I was now another year older, and another year wiser? When we started reading excerpts from the Iliad I saw my opportunity.

We are reading it out loud in class. For students who are quick readers, this means that they often tune out. For students who struggle to read, this means it is slightly more challenging to hold on to basic plot details. I decided that to combat these two problems they were going to learn to really take notes; and I don’t mean notes from a Google Presentation that I have organized and prepared for them ahead of time. They were going to learn to take notes about the things they found confusing as we read, things we would pause to discuss and clarify, or that I felt needed extra attention and focus to further their understanding. I also made each and
everyone take out a sheet of lined paper and write down, as we read, the words that they did not know, weren’t sure about, or thought they knew but could not define. At the end of each class, we reported out on their words and I recorded them on a list on the board. I also kept my own list of words that I thought they would struggle with as we read, and boy were my eyes opened.

On the left are the words I thought students might struggle with or identify. On the right are the words my students reported in class.

If you had asked me if I thought the average 10th grade student would struggle with words such as quarrel, inferior, or yearning, I would have said no, until this past week. Sitting in my room looking at that list of words, I could no longer ignore my students’ deficits (that being said, not ALL students in my class struggle with these relatively basic words). The next step for me was to figure out what the heck to do with these words.

All year long we have been working with vocabulary words in sets of ten. We had closer to 15 on the class list. I didn’t want to make the executive decision as to which words they needed to learn because I felt that I no longer really had a grasp of what words they knew or didn’t know. So, I decided to hash it out as a class.

I began with one last check to see if there were other words that students had recorded on their notes but had not shared with the class. A few more words were added to the list. I then explained that we were going to narrow down the list to ten words, and that those ten words would then become the vocabulary words we would study. I asked students if there were any words on the list that they felt we should keep, cut altogether, or save for a future list, and this led to a surprisingly heated process of advocacy and discussion.

Our first agreement was to keep the longest word on the list - ignominious - a word that I was not familiar with and could not have defined if asked - which I confessed to the class. Then we all agreed to take out one of the two words that rhymed, so it “wouldn’t be confusing.” And then the flame caught - some advocated to same them for later, others argued to throw out certain words altogether (though it was clear to me that those students had a much higher working vocabulary than most of the others). At times we had to vote; sometimes we would be split three ways, at others, there was a very clear majority. What I found fascinating was that we were having a heated, almost competitive discussion about words! WORDS! My students felt strongly about which words they wanted to study; words that they had picked out as they read! It was every English teacher’s dream.

The student list recorded each day, POST class discussion & selection process. Circled words are the 10 we will use for our vocabulary list. Words written in green will be saved for future word lists. Crossed out words have been cut entirely. Numbers indicate alphabetical order.

After we settled on our ten words (five were saved for future use, and one was cut as it had been listed twice) we moved on to the next phase. Instead of using vocabulary textbooks with this class, I present words (from the grade level textbook)  to them via a Google Presentation and have them fill out word maps as we go; what I have found with this method is that we generally have more discussion and fun with the words than if we were using the books. It also removed the cheating on the book exercies issue that I had run into for years.

Here is the final list of words, the student who will be responsible for that word, and the number of the slide each word is associated with.

I made a template of the presentation ahead of time and assigned it to the class in Google Classroom, that way every student would be able to easily access and edit the same document. Each student either picked or was assigned one of the ten words (a few students were out that day, so the numbers were perfect - I don’t quite know what I would have done if there were more than ten, we’ll see in the future). Their job was to fill out their word’s slide with the part of speech, definition, a sample sentence, and at least two synonyms and antonyms. They could use any resources they wanted to find this information, and they went at it. While this didn’t take a large amount of time, in the end, we had all ten words defined, and I went around individually to check on the sample sentences, resulting in conversations about how if the word was used as a verb, did this sentence make sense, etc. Later that day, during a “free” moment, I went through and cleaned up formatting, I don’t know how they can make such a mess of formatting, but they always do.

We will use this list to complete our vocabulary word maps, study, and eventually take a quiz. We will repeat this process with our next reading from the Iliad, and hopefully future readings as well.

Maybe this will be a bizarre blip for this class, but maybe, just maybe, I can encourage them to examine what they read more closely, ask themselves if they understand what they are reading, and inspire them to look something up once in awhile. At the very least, I am giving them ownership over their education, which is not too bad for a Tuesday.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Accountability & Standards

One of the ways I'm trying to remediate students' work not meeting standards is by having students write letters to their parents. Although this feels punitive to the students, what I am attempting to offer them is a reflective and educational experience.

Honestly, I'm not shooting for perfection in myself or my students. I would, however, like to see some motivation, some academic growth, and some sense of responsibility or accountability in my students. 

I shared my letter with guidelines to the students, school-wide, today (March 23), so that my students in your studylabs could be reminded that they can be working on it.

I'm just wrapping up attempt #1, and the results to date, are observational and interesting:

  1. My students are not pleased about missing the movie of Romeo and Juliet, while their peers who did meet performance indicators are enjoying it.
  2. My detailed directions force, I mean GUIDE, guide students into writing a reflective letter that requires they look at the work, the performance indicators, and their responsibilities in not meeting those performance indicators. 
  3. Students must revisit all the documents I shared with them in Gclassroom to find the information they did not pay attention to the first time. They really DO need to read and follow directions. 
  4. My colleagues are extremely supportive of students and colleagues! Some have emailed me, or sent students to me, so that our mutual students can work in studylabs on the mandatory letter. 
  5. Some of the questions my students have asked me as they work on their letters are disheartening for me: they clearly missed important information. A few of them missed the whole point to SSR...the insertion of the reader to make meaning by questioning, connecting, and observing. Some students still do not care. 
  6. Through my students' letters, I can see some of the weaknesses in my planning, and have made notes about different ways to organize for next time.
  7. Parents are drawn into the work of their students' letters, and receive an explanation FROM THE STUDENT for a failing grade.  
No parent feedback yet...