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.