Category Archives: AP English

Keep Talking! Discussion with a Twist, a Tweet, and a Terrifically Fast Pace

While we’re on the topic of talk (please see Jessica’s fantastic insights on discussion techniques that build confidence and community), I humbly piggyback off of yesterday’s post to bring you a few more talk ideas.

Some fresh.
Some fun.
Some follow-up.

Rotating Symbol Discussion:

On Wednesday, I made reference to helping prepare my AP students for their test, by keeping our discussions focused on the real world. So…test prep as a natural byproduct to authentic discussion.

We were wrapping up our unit on Community, and I borrowed a discussion technique from my bestie Erin, that I have now fallen in love with. It was fast paced, kept kids engaged (as they not only participated in the moment, but had to be ready to get called into the conversation at any time), and really honed skills of building dialogue, as opposed to just reporting an idea around a circle.

Here’s how it goes:

Students enter the room and randomly receive a card with a symbol on it. I explained that the symbol would determine their small groups (4-5 people). Throughout the course talk3of the class period, we used our essential question (What is the individual’s responsibility to the community?) to guide a discussion. I used PowerPoint slides to project a symbol and that group went to the front of the room to start talking. Other groups made notes on where they would take the conversation when they were called into the discussion.

On the next PowerPoint slide, I might add a group or switch out groups completely. Students spoke for 5-6 minutes at a time for single groups and 7-8 minutes if I had two groups up there.

Students reported that they liked hearing the ideas of the entire class. Often we do graded small group discussion one group at a time; this however, involved everyone.

From this discussion I heard some beautifully insightful comments:

  • As the discussion expanded from one group, who was discussing the binding forces of similarity in communities, to include a new group of thinkers, Priyanka said, “Maybe a community shouldn’t only be about similarities. Similarities cause us to be more isolated than differences do.
  • Later, along that same theme of isolation, Dani shared that “social media makes it easy to isolate ourselves” as we discussed the communities we partake it through our phones. The group decided that social media lets users hide in a way that is detrimental to civil discourse.
  • Alexis, in response to the idea that communities can be strengthened by tragedy, said that community is vital as it allows us to “come together for a common idea that can heal us.” 
  • Directly relating to the essential question, JJ suggested that when “all individuals put effort in, community succeeds.”
  • Francesca was quiet until she raised her hand at the very end to say: “This unit was hard. In other units [education and gender] you could easily point the finger at other people. The problem is there’s. The problem is because of them. With community you had to speak to yourself. You had to realize that any problem within communities you belong to requires that you turn the finger around and point at yourself.

Twitter Talk

Conversations can go online, as well. I asked my sophomores to extend our Transcendental Experience speeches (take two weeks and embrace a Transcendental tenant in their lives, then tell us about what they learned/liked/loathed by live tweeting after each speech and then responding to some of the insightful ideas from the speeches of their peers. Students reported that they loved seeing their ideas quoted and/or reframed as inspirational by their classmates. It gave me time to write down comments, which was helpful. We then had a phones down policy during the actual speeches.

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My AP students will start their #langbreak experiences today as well. Their excitement to see each other’s tweets was palpable yesterday and one student even said, “Can I post something each day?”

Wait. Can you actively engage with experiences that promote self actualization and growth more than once over a break from school? Amen, Lisa says from her knees.

Amen.

Speed Dating (again and again and again)

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The last day before spring break, I had my students speed date the new books in the room. As Jessica mentioned yesterday, I LOVE conversations and the enthusiasm that occur with speed dating.

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Alexis responds to JJ’s speed date selection, imploring him to read the book in his hands, I’m Thinking of Ending Things 

Students get to judge books by their covers or pick up titles they have heard about but never had in their hands.

They get to spend just a few minutes “getting to know” the book and then share their insights with their tablemates.

We then share out by having students raise up the books they are intrigued by. We chat around what hooked them and students write furiously on their “I Want to Read” lists.

The only danger of speed dating? Hook-ups. Students meet and fall in love with books they
want to take with them right away. It makes it hard to keep the pool of fresh titles, well, fresh. I LOVE having this problem.

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JJ challenges back, that if he is going to read her selection, she must read Small Great Things by Jody Picoult 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her favorite student talk is the variety that keeps students talking long after the bell rings. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum and follow her students’ AP Spring Break adventures on Twitter #langbreak. 

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5 Ways to Avoid the Trap of Test Prep

The AP Language test is a month away. Only 14 school days (Spring Break, y’all. Woot!), which means 7 class periods with each of my AP classes between now and the big day.

This imparts in me equal parts excitement, dread, and crippling panic. I’m not sure what my problem is. I’m not the one taking the test, but my test anxiety runs high.

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Now, Amy has written beautifully in the past about the test scores and how little they really mean. How AP and workshop can be beautiful partners.  I applaud her conviction. I need to learn from her resolve. Because all year, I can workshop and weave in test prep (in other words, my priorities are straight – I’m building readers and writers, not test takers), but when the test draws near, I start thinking in numbers. Always dangerous.

When this happens, I feel my brows furrow. I’m suddenly focused on the wrong thing.

I can FEEL it.

Experimenting with workshop during semester two of the 2014-2015 school, I very purposefully placed reading and writing experience above test prep. My scores went up. Last year, I was all in. Lots of student choice. More focus on why and how, instead of what. My scores went up.

Do students need practice with the multiple choice format? Yes.

Should they write several AP practice essays over the course of the year with self scoring, student sample analysis, peer and teacher feedback? Certainly.

Will students be prepared for the test if test prep is secondary to building authentic readers and writers all year. Unequivocally, yes.

Just a few days ago, Donalyn Miller beautifully stated that the best way to improve test scores naturally is to “provide access to books, encourage free choice, give children time to read, and actively support their reading development at school and home.” Her piece for the Nerdy Book Club furthered my determination to remain focused on my students as readers, not as test takers. This is what workshop does. Focuses on readers, writers, and the humans who are so much more than test scores.

Here are a few suggestions to keep focused on what really matters (in my humble opinion), even as AP tests draw nigh, and frankly, in the face of any “big” test.

1. Focus on Experience

I tell my students every year, that living life and being aware of humanity in general is the best argument preparation there is. So, when I saw Elizabeth Matheny‘s spring break Twitter challenge, I immediately asked if I could adopt the idea. Matheny provides her students with a hashtag to document their adventures and several suggestions of ways to really live it up over break as a way to not only build community, but provide inspiration for narratives her students will write in the coming weeks.

I’ve got some ideas brewing to have my students write their own author bios (like the quippy book jacket variety) after break to celebrate themselves as writers. Documenting new experiences may be just the thing to provide focused attention to new passions  and open eyes to the wider world.

My students will start Friday using #langbreak. Follow our adventures and feel free to add your own if you’ve been waiting all this time for break like we have!

2. Write from the Heart First

I used to have students write endless practice essays. Knowing the format seemed important to scoring well, so I had students write in class, take prompts home over the weekend for homework, and churn out essay after essay of (no offense former students) formulaic crap that I dreaded grading.

These days, I’ve embraced a new philosophy. My students need to write more, but practice essays aren’t the thing. Quick writes in class are the thing. Weekly one pagers building their fluency and skills of expression about quotes that stick with them from readings are the thing. Poems about community are the thing. Book reviews on texts that make them feel smart are the thing.

The thing is, students build their writing skills in writing what they care about. They can then apply that to the essay at hand, regardless of the essay type. I spend a small amount of time going through the specifics of the argument and analysis essays, and then we look at countless mentors, we read as writers, and we learn how to effectively break the “rules.” The College Board suggests that effective essays are built from developing a “personal style.” No mention of five paragraph essays to be found.

3. Talk

  • Speed date prompts for the sake of brainstorming (not more and more writing – do that elsewhere)
  • Discuss current events
  • Share insights on readings (assigned and independent) through the lens of analysis (or argument, or synthesis)
  • Reflect on multiple choice passages without the questions
  • Solicit feedback on writing and make connections to specific skills to move that writing forward

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4. Review Your Reading Lives

At least one class period each year, right before the test, is reserved for a trip down memory lane. Students get into small groups and list common themes they have seen in argument prompts we’ve discussed over the course of the year (good vs. evil, power struggles, individuality, etc.). They then make lists of everything they’ve read, studied, reflected on that might be good evidence for arguments related to those ideas.

We fill posters upon posters of ideas to put around the room and remind ourselves how incredibly smart we all are. No one need fear “not knowing what to write.” Students have been preparing for this test since they learned to read, just by reading and living. Little review required.

5. Make Class Time Count

This is a “to each their own” example. Many classes do very little after the AP test. Students relate that they “worked really hard to get to the test” and the class periods up until the end of the year are free time as a reward.

I reward my students after the AP exam too. We have another book club (students are choosing this year from this extensive list of nonfiction titles, to which I just added the Pulitzer Prize winner Evicted) and they complete a multigenre project on an area of study we’ve not explicitly studied together (sports, politics, language, pop culture, etc.).

My class is about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and investigating life. That doesn’t stop because students took a three hour test.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her spring break will include finishing Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night, spending time tiptoeing through the tulips with her daughter Ellie, and taking her own advice to live a little and try something new (curling, anyone?).  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum and follow her students’ AP Spring Break adventures on Twitter #langbreak. 

10 Things Worth Sharing Right Now

I love the little ripple of a thrill that runs through to my fingertips when I find something that I want to share with my students. That borderline codependent excitement that comes with wanting to share a book, an article, a statistic…immediately.

“They NEED to see this,” I think, fumbling around on my phone to figure out how and where to save it.

“They NEED to read this,” I say to my husband, as I make him pause his own life to listen to yet another passage of my latest read.

“They NEED to know about this,” I mutter, linking wildly to our syllabus (just another in a long line of moments where I’m grateful that life happens and we share it in class).

So today, I’m taking a page from one of my newest obsessions, the newsletter put together weekly by the brilliant, inspiring, and wildly creative, Austin Kleon. Each week, delivered to your inbox, arrives a list of “10 things [he thinks are] worth sharing.” Simple. Intriguing. Very, very useful in the classroom.

I’m honestly not sure how I stumbled on this one, but in the month since subscribing, I’ve used three of his images to inspire quick writes, and book talked (loosely) the newsletter itself, suggesting to students that they should subscribe in order to broaden their horizons to current happenings, inspiring visuals, and commentary on books, shows, and cultural phenomenon. In other words, link up to something that delivers items to keep you reading texts other than social media updates (“Made a sandwich guys…bet you’re all jelly. Get it? Jealous, but jelly instead.? God, I am such a genius”).

  1. Austin Kleon’s Weekly Newsletter
    Kleon reflects on a central image each week, along with linking to intriguing articles, a poem of the week, ear candy audio, eye candy visuals, and other noteworthy insights from across the vast expanse of the internet. If someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, did you see…?” chances are Kleon will have it linked on his list for the week.
  2. The Power of Exemplars
    A few weeks back, I was bemoaning to my fellow Three Teachers Ladies, how disappointed I was in a recent project my sophomores had completed. My vision for a poster that brilliantly illustrated their insights on their latest reading, was met with large sheets of paper with haphazard cutouts of text, crudely taped across the page, accompanied by printed book covers in black and white, and the occasional hurried pencil addition to the project (last minute insight for forgotten components). Needless to say, I was frustrated AND without any way to hold students accountable for the quality of the visual they submitted (not the central point, for sure, but a consideration certainly). Take pride in your product, and all that, had fallen short. In my irritation, I searched in vain for something in the Common Core that might suggest students consider carefully how they convey their ideas.

    Then, I took a deep breath. I realized I had what I needed, I just hadn’t used it. See below the power of exemplars. My AP students were completing their community visuals (which I wrote about last year in a reflection on the use of essential questions), and I had no rubric for this work either. However, the power of suggestion, in showing them some of the brilliant work from the year before, was more than enough. They knew the expectation, saw what I thought was praiseworthy when it comes to presenting their insights, and we enjoyed some brilliant symbolism in the presentation of these visuals. Amen.
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  3. Musical Genius
    One of my groups took a creative leap for their community unit visual and put together a musical. Franklin’s production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opened this past weekend. Several members of the cast in my first period class asked if they could complete the project in a slightly different way. Their project would still include analysis, present their ideas to the class, and involve audience feedback after the presentation, but…there would be singing.

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    Francesca, Joe, and Parker

    Since I always joke with my kids about presenting their ideas through interpretative dance, this musical idea intrigued me. Their mini musical included several skits that detailed life within the community of a musical cast/crew. Watching students sing their way through a summative, I was reminded that my vision for a project is rarely as broad and brilliant as what students can come up with on their own. My exemplar pool had just expanded in verse.
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  4. Bag o’ Books
    Remember to beg for books. Want to build that classroom library? Get down on your knees and remind your students of how good it feels to give back…to you.Maija recommend the book Dangerous Minds a few weeks back. When a fellow student was at the bookshelf looking for it the other day, I asked Maija if she’d be willing to bring it so, AJ could borrow it. I even turned on a sweet smile and said, “If you don’t need it anymore, I’d be happy to take it off your hands.”

    The book was outside my door the next day, in a bag with a sweet note and several other books. Score.

  5. Amy Poehler on Writing
    I’m training for a half marathon. Without audiobooks, I might not make it. Seriously. I need to get lost in a story to pound out the miles. So, when I started 10 miles on Sunday and realized my Overdrive audiobook had expired, I had to quick download something new. Ugh.Enter, Amy Poehler’s Yes, PleaseI smiled for nine miles (it takes awhile to download when you’re actively running down the street). Poehler’s voice is sincere, relatable, and funny as all get out. Easy to book talk.

    Here’s the golden ticket: The Preface. I heard it and knew I needed to play it for my students. Poehler writes with undeniable voice about writing. She says of her text and the writing process that she “had no business agreeing to write this book” and wrote it “ugly and in pieces,” because “everyone lies about writing…they lie about how easy it is or how hard it was.” She says, and students really related to the idea, that “writing is hard and boring and occasionally great, but usually not.” In reflection afterward, students also noted her use of stream of consciousness, aside, and self deprecating banter to tell her story, not just inform her audience about what the book would be about. Classes agreed that they could really get behind her idea that, “Great people do things before they are ready.” Amen, Ms. Poehler. Let’s all put pen to paper.

  6. langchat#17
    I recently started following the brilliant Elizabeth Matheny on Twitter. Her AP insights and resources have helped fuel my work recently and her AP Language slow chat last week was a great opportunity to have my kids practicing analysis with students across the country. I’m thinking of several things to extend this activity:
    – Have students organize a slow chat for peers
    – Get students to live tweet peer feedback during speeches or discussion
    – See #7 below
  7. Tweeting Authors
    I tweeted Angie Thomas to tell her that her book The Hate You Give is stunning and I’d be getting into the hands of as many students as possible.She liked my tweet.Fangirl moment.img_1024
    Have your students reach out to authors. They often reach back.
  8. Creativity Visual
    I love what this suggests to students about the power they possess.
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  9. Get it to the Big (or small) Screen
    My students often buy into the idea that great books are made into (sometimes great) movies. The Underground Railroad is being made into a series with the director from Moonlight. Having just finished this intriguing read myself, I book talked the text this week and shared the movie plans.
  10. Quick Write – Psychopath
    This came across my Facebook feed the other day, and I tossed it on my PowerPoint. As is the way in educator, my students surprised in noticing it, and we ended up doing a quick, quick write about changing social norms. AP Language test prep comes in many , many forms.
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    What would make your list of 10 things we need to see and share this week? Add your ideas in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English educating gods and goddesses at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She loves lists, especially lists with links to beautiful thoughts and ideas. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

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Goodbye Days: a Craft Study and a Gorgeous Grand Slam

I love language. I love sharing my love of language with students.

When I read a book, I often dog-ear the pages, thinking of how I might use a passage to help my writers. Sometimes a book just does me in — so many beautiful words I cannot keep up. It’s a bonus if the story does me in.

Like Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. 30649795

If you haven’t read this book, oh, you’ll want to. Zenter’s first book, The Serpent King, kissed my soul. Goodbye Days took a hammer to it.

In a good way.

I started marking passages at page 36. I think because I forgot to think about it. Just read the first line of this YA novel:  “Depending on who — sorry, whom — you ask, I may have killed my three best friends.”

Mini-lesson opportunity one (whom), two (parenthetical with the dash), three (participial phrase), and four (voice)– all in one sentence.

The first time I really thought about using language from YA novels to teach my writers was in a class at UNH Literacy Institute taught by Penny Kittle. She showed us mentors of sentences and passages, pulled from the books she introduced to her students. She talked about how these craft studies also could serve as quickwrite prompts and book talks. A triple play.

Since then, Shana (who sat with me in Penny’s class) and I upped the ante:  some of our favorite mentors are hard-hitting home runs. But the following passage from Goodbye Days –It’s a gorgeous Grand Slam.


Excerpt from Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner (p36)

     I feel like I’m watching something heavy and fragile slide slowly off a high shelf. My mind swirls with mysteries. The eternities. Life. Death. I can’t stop it. It’s like staring in the mirror for too long or saying your name too many times and becoming disconnected from any sense of yourself. I begin to wonder if I’m even still alive; if I exist. Maybe I was in the car too.

     The room dims.

     I’m tingling.

     I’ve fallen through ice into frigid black water.

     I can’t breathe.

     My heart screams.

     This is not right. I’m not fine.

     My vision narrows, as if I’m standing deep in a cave, looking out. Spots form in front of my eyes. The walls are crushing me.

     I’m gasping. I need air. My heart.

     Gray, desolate dread descends on me — a cloud of ash blocking the sun. A complete absence of light or warmth. A tangible, mold-scented obscurity. A revelation:  I will never again experience happiness.

     Air. I need air. I need air. I need air. I need.

     I try to stand. The room pitches and tosses, heaving. I’m walking on a sheet of Jell-O. I try again to stand. I lose my balance and fall backward, over my chair, thudding on the hardwood floor.

     It’s one of those nightmares where you can’t run or scream. And it’s happening to me this moment in the dying light of this day of dying. AND I AM DYING TOO.


What writing mini-lessons could you teach with this passage?

Will You Share Your AP Scores? Here We Go Again

I am not mean very often, but last week I was mean. Okay, not mean exactly, but certainly snarky.

I friend asked me about my AP scores. Innocent question. Struck a nerve.

I’ve written about AP English and AP test scores in the past, and I imagine as long as I teach AP English Language and Composition, I will continue to do so. I really do not mean to be snarky, but the more I talk with kids about their reading lives, the more I keep hoping more and more teachers Aim Higher — not just in AP classes, but in all English classes.

In the signature line of my school email, I include this quote by Emerson:  “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

I like that it helps me focus on what matters in my practice:  Teaching beyond a test. Always teaching beyond a test.

So what does this look like in my practice? Mostly, it looks like helping readers find their way back to a love of reading. After all, the best readers are usually the best writers, and the best readers and writers are usually the best test takers.

When Jessica asked me about my test scores last week, I know she was just working on building a case for choice books on her campus, a case for a workshop pedagogy. And while my scores did improve 50% the first year I moved to readers-writers workshop, no testing data captures the learning that happens in my classroom. No data shows an accurate picture of my students’ growth as readers and writers.

See for yourself:

For our midterm last week, my students wrote self-evaluations of their reading lives. Their words are much more valuable than mine when it comes to adding weight to the debate for time to read and choice of books in all English classes.

Leslie is a talker. She speaks with a beautiful Spanish accent and loves to use the new

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Giselle and Leslie, Nicola Yoon fans, dying for the movie!

vocabulary words she’s studying. I often have to hush her table because these girls like to talk about what they are reading during reading time. The fuss over Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon is on-going. They LOVE that book! Leslie writes:

“My reading goal for next nine weeks is seven books, I want to reach my reading goal and I will make it happen by reading more and do it because I enjoy it not just because I have to do it. I can gladly say that I love reading now, back then I used to be allergic to books and never touch them to read the beautiful stories that they have inside their covers.  After I become the perfect reader I intend to become the perfect writer.”

Giselle’s list of books she’s read so far this year reads like a spine poem. When she writes about whole class novels, she means our book club titles. I use book clubs to push many students into reading more complex books.

Lissbeth has been in the U.S. for three years. She titled her post “No Excuses for Not Reading.” My favorite line: “One of the things that I have learn thanks to my English teachers, is that reading is not just something you do for entertainment, it can also become a lifestyle.” Of course!

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Audrey’s Currently Reading list

Already a reader when she entered my class, Audrey explains her reading experience since last August:

I have learned some about myself as a reader. I’ve learned that I like to stay in my reading comfort zone, but with a little nudge I’m able to read other genres and enjoy it. I’ve learned that I’m always growing as a reader. My reading rate can always improve. My vocabulary can always improve. As a reader I know that with due time, and with a lot of reading and determination, I can read ANYTHING!” [Note: If you read Audrey’s full post, when she mentions me giving the class a list, she’s referring to our book club choices. I do not have a list of all the books in my classroom library.]

 

Some students are in my block class, so I’ve only had them since mid January.

Cheyenne, who has read 14 books since the beginning of the semester, feels pretty strongly

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Cheyenne’s book stack

about the whole class novel. She writes: “I definitely have a deep dislike for class novels. This has more to do with the fact that I hate being forced to read certain books by certain deadlines, for me, it defeats the thrill, if you will, of reading the book in the first place.”

This year was the first time since middle school that I have been excited to read in class, and that was because we weren’t assigned a class book to read and we got to choose a book we wanted to read,” Rachel writes.

If you don’t believe some students lose a love of reading because of school, ask them. Ask them questions about what happened. Every kid I know was once an excited reader. Few are when they get to me in 11th grade.

Reghan confirms this in her post. She writes:

From elementary school through middle school, I read every kind of book, big or small. From nonfiction books about the unsinkable, sunken ship: the Titanic, to fantasy books about alternate universes and dystopian societies, I was a reader.

“Until my freshman year of high school.

“Ninth grade wasn’t easy for me. A lot went on that year with my family and personal life, causing me to be unfocused on school, my grades, and reading…and my transcript made that very obvious. I don’t think I read even one book in that entire year, summer included. This carried into my sophomore year, as well as part of my Junior year too. Zero books read, many to go.

“Being in AP English this semester and having to work hard to stay afloat has helped me tremendously and it wouldn’t be possible without my teachers . . . I’ve read four books this nine weeks including: Paper Towns by John Green, Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foerand Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and I’m on my fifth: Columbine by Dave Cullen. That’s more than I’ve read in the last three years, combined. I’ve been introduced to books that I’ve never heard of and books that I never would’ve picked on my own. In fact, thanks to our assigned book clubs, I now have a new favorite book which is the aforementioned, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

” I credit Mrs. Rasmussen with my progress because of her belief that we as students are more likely to read if we’re choosing books that we want, not that our chosen for us. In my experience, any book that has been chosen for me by a teacher, has been uninteresting and/or hard to finish. Being able to choose has only helped me and there’s proof in the numbers. Not only has this freedom improved my desire to read, but it has showed me who I am and what I like as a reader.”

And then there’s Ciara, who wrote “The Oprah Winfrey (with a little twist) Show.” Here’s a reader I am still working on, but oh, her writing voice. And her taste in TV shows! (We’ve bonded lately over quite a few.)


So in a post with AP test scores in the title, I give you a post about what students have to say about their reading lives.

That’s gonna be my answer every single time.

I happen to be assigned to teach AP English Language and Comp, but what I teach is how to love reading to students who miss it. Most of them miss it.

What are you doing about it?

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She also facilitates professional development for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Window, Mirrors, and Gigantic Doors: Inviting Sound into Uneasy Silences

For weeks I’ve worked on a list of books to use for book clubs in our junior English classes. I believe that students must have options that challenge, yet engage, and allow them to see themselves and/or others within the pages. It’s that whole windows and mirrors and doors analogy. Jillian Heise describes it well in this post. I’ll just quote a part that struck me:

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop originated the idea that many now reference. She talks about windows as “offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.” And about mirrors, “…we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” But she also talks about sliding glass doors which “readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.” The thing is, it’s the third part of it, the sliding glass door that seems to often be left out, but is perhaps the most important part – it’s the part that, in my interpretation, allows us to step into those other worlds and become part of them for the time we are in that book – and isn’t that the power of reading? Being able to develop empathy, understanding, new perspectives by living in someone else’s shoes for a short time. Especially for books as powerful as the ones being written about these real issues that are affecting kids in their lives today, this mirror, window, sliding door access becomes even more important for them to see they have a place in our society, no matter what perspective they may bring.”

I’d like to offer an addition, not just sliding glass doors that  “allow us to step into those 8124672460_6b6f1ef826_zother worlds and become part of them for the time we are in that book,” although that interpretation is certainly vital to developing readers who love books and to gaining empathy.

What about other doors — like the kinds we have to push or pull to get through — the doors that make us work: cathedral doors, fortress doors, iron doors, or doors with scary knockers? These doors require effort. These doors may make us uncomfortable. And sometimes they require courage.

Some books can change us if we view them this way. They can change our students. And I’m not just talking about lexile levels, or complexity of ideas. I am talking about content. The content that exposes our flaws and weaknesses, the content that pushes our thinking, moves us out of our comfort zones, and makes us face, as Dr. Kim Parker puts it, “the lived experience of so many folks of color in this country.”

I am a white woman who teaches students of color. I grew up in a middle class family with conservative ideals. I go to church regularly, and I practice my religion. I had parents who were married for 55 years and taught me the value of hard work, education, and persistence. I am different from most of the students in my classroom. I enjoy a privilege in this country most of them have never experienced.

So what does this have to do with doors?

I choose the big ones.

Awhile ago I conducted a PD session with a group of teachers, mostly white women who like me teach mostly students of color. I showed some of the spoken word videos I use with my students:  “Spelling Father” by Marshall Davis-Jones and “Knock Knock” by Daniel Beatty. I shared articles about undocumented immigrants and Syrian refugees. I read an except from Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi where a character’s wife is kidnapped and he desperately tries to find her, showing her picture around the streets, and finally being accosted by a policeman after he accidentally brushes into a white woman. The policeman rips up the man’s only picture of his 8-months-pregnant wife. The year:  pre-Civil War.

We viewed and read texts. We wrote quickwrites and analytical responses. We discussed author’s craft and studied the moves the writers make to create meaning. Everyone read. Everyone wrote. Everyone engaged in the learning.

Later, the conversation turned to engagement, and I asked the questions:  “What are you doing to make the learning matter to your students? How are you discussing the issues that echo in their lives?”

I gave them time to talk, and I wandered the room, listening in to table discussions. I heard some valuable exchanges, but I also heard: “Oh, I don’t even go there. I’d lose control.”

Hmm.

How will we ever change as a society if we don’t ever go there? How will our students, no matter their color, ever learn to talk about tender and sizzling issues, ever learn to deal or challenge or change them, if their teachers never go there?

We cannot make excuses. We have to invite the hard topics into our classrooms. We have to provide books that are windows, mirrors, sliding doors, and gigantic wooden ones. Not only for the sake of the students we teach but for our profession.

How will we ever have more teachers of color if our students of color do not have better experiences in their English classes?

At NCTE last November, I met Dr. Kim Parker in person for the first time. She read her credo and she sealed a place in my heart with her sincere desire to do right by the students in her care. I share her credo here because it so closely echoes my own. I don’t think she’ll mind:

Ze’Voun tells me that he never knew that reading books could matter so much, could be so enjoyable. He is a young man who is Black, brilliant, and bored. He is a writer and a reader for whom schools seem to be increasingly less designed. When he disappears from my class without any explanation, I learn, a few weeks later, that he has been assigned to an out of school placement program, joining other boys who are–likely–as Black, brilliant, and bored as he.

I believe in rage, and I believe in action. I believe in a world where staying woke matters.  

My most essential work is making classrooms spaces where kids like Ze’Voun can read and write in ways that matter to them–from diss tracks; to letters to the local police department reminding them that Black Lives Matter, too, and that wearing their hoodies is not a crime; to Tweets to favorite authors thanking them for books that are just for him; to books that affirm, reflect, and extend his existence as a brilliant Black boy. Opening up spaces inside classrooms where they can speak a variety of Englishes as they explore the origins of Ebonics, where they can engage and delight with canonical and multicultural texts and write about their understandings, and where they are creators of texts that validate and stretch their identities is some of “the work my soul must have.”

Though Ze’Voun never returned, I continue to hold space in my classroom for other young people who have similar needs and desires, who are hungry for the diverse texts that reach them. I continue to hold on to a belief, and a dream, that the work I do must be as diverse as the students I teach. As escapist, as validating, as powerful as the texts they read. As whole, as free, as happy as we all wish, hope, and need to be.

This what I’ve dubbed Right Now Literacy. We have to give every student the commitment, resources, and opportunities they need to learn the reading and writing skills they need right now, to live and thrive in the world we are in right now.

Dear reader, I ask you the same questions I asked those teachers at that PD:  What are you doing to make the learning matter to your students? How are you discussing the issues that echo in their lives? 

Please answer in the comments. Let’s share our best practices and best resources for pushing ourselves and our students through the doors that can change us at the core. (And next week I’ll try to remember to share my new book club lists.)

FTC guideline

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Stop the Slaughter: Lifeless Literary Analysis

Teaching is a reflective practice. If you’re doing it right, that is.

We question, we research, we dig deep to update, invigorate, and refresh our work on a daily basis. And while this can be utterly exhausting (I think we need to investigate the ingenious cultural practice of siestas), it’s also exciting. As we push ourselves to grow and change as teachers, we impart that commitment to be better to our students.

I remember when I was student teaching several (cough, cough) years ago. The English and Social Studies departments shared an enormous office, and I was lucky enough to be afforded some space in that room to work. The fresh-faced 21 year old with boundless energy and enthusiasm for making a difference and connecting with “kids” (I was teaching 18 year olds. I’m pretty sure I was in elementary school with one of my students).

Then, I met *Mr. Pumblechook. (Names have been changed to protect the identities of very nice, well meaning people whose educational practices make me shutter.)

Pumblechook was a social studies teacher with perhaps six or seven years under his belt. He had a bright smile, hearty laugh, great expectations for his students (I had to. Thanks Dickens) and a file cabinet.

But this, ladies and gentlemen of the jury ( got serious quick, didn’t I?)this was no ordinary file cabinet. For in this file cabinet was a collection of folders. And in those folders were lesson plans.

One folder for each day of the year containing (because I pretended to be impressed with his organization and asked to see): a lesson plan, several worksheets to make copies of (even leftover handouts from the year before), and overhead slides of prewritten notes.

Was I student teaching in 1962? No.
Was I student teaching under a dictatorial regime? No.

This was 2002, people. Suburban Milwaukee.

And every time I tell this story to fellow educators, they nod, and I hear similar stories of educators from days gone by. Worksheet after worksheet, recorded lessons from first hour played to subsequent hours, teachers knitting in the back of the room, and countless acts of readicide across the land. Is seems Mr. Pumblechook had good historical precedent for imparting knowledge to children by opening up their brains and pouring in the same ideas year after year without regard to their role in that programming or real world applications of classroom material.

Enter: My classroom last week.

My AP students are armpit deep (my quip to convey complexity over the waist, but less perilous than the nose) in literary analysis. I wrote last week about our journey with diction analysis, as we got down and dirty with how an author conveys meaning with words.

Along my merry way I skipped, confident in this unit that I’ve taught several times, the tweaks I’d made in planning it for this year (updated mentors, current event references, jokes that students last year hadn’t heard yet – he he), and last year’s solid AP test scores. Not quite a folder for each day, but not too terribly far off either.

Then, I read Rebekah O’Dell’s post from Moving Writer’s, “Three Reasons Literary Analysis Must be Authentic.”

Gulp. Authentic.

I (shamefully) hadn’t really thought of that. I was preparing my students for the AP Language test. Wasn’t that authentic enough?

Of course, the skills of analysis are invaluable. Critical thinking across the curriculum is bolstered by the development of analysis skills which help students recognize patterns, decode information, compare and contrast concepts, classify elements under examination, and utilize inferences to support ideas. As one of the elements utilized by the College Board to determine students’ readiness for college level curriculum in English, rhetorical analysis is obviously important. The traditional essay format is required to pass this test and the analytical skills necessary to do so are a benefit to students far beyond the classroom.

But here’s the rub…

Even AP readers are looking for students to write outside the box. Yes, the skills of analysis must be present. But top scoring papers are those that challenge convention, take risks, and (I’m hanging my head in shame here) speak to a more authentic and far-reaching audience.

O’Dell’s post, like literary providence, reminded me that I needed to climb out of my car with tinted windows (I’m in here doing my thing. Nothing to see here) and pick up a mirror to reflect why I was doing what I was doing.

Her 3 key reflections on teaching literary analysis hit me right between the pencils. She reminds us that:

  1. Our job isn’t to produce English teachers.
  2. Writers need models in order to write.
  3. The traditional academic, literary analysis essay hurts student writing.

So,  am I hurting my students with what I’ve been doing? Absolutely not.
Could it be better? Absolutely, Mr. Pumblechook, because they might be better at formulaic writing with what I’ve been working on, but we’ve taken some steps back in their growth as authentic writers.

To address each of O’Dell’s points, which I felt compelled to do immediately (I had the mirror up and didn’t like what I was seeing), I changed some plans for this week and next.

  1. Our job isn’t to produce English teachers: I have to tell myself this more and more. O’Dell reminds us that 2% of college students major in English, and of those 2%, only 1% will enter professional academics.

    It did occur to me though, that our students will need to engage with the world around them and likely need to synthesize ideas in order to share them. As such, I had my kids choose editorials on current events and topics of interest to present 1-2 minute speeches on. They needed to make claims about how the author achieved his/her purpose through DIDLS.The fluency of their writing for these speeches has blown me away. We’d been “writing analysis” last week, but none had the same voice, passion, or deep analysis that these had. Speaking the analysis had the power to remove the formula. Students concentrated on engaging their audience in a way that a practice AP prompt could not replicate.

    When my students sat down to write a full AP analysis practice today, I reminded them of how they had to work to capture the audience of their peers through their speeches, and that the nameless/faceless AP writers still wanted that same engagement. They want students to be successful on the test. This exercise seemed to solidify that and afford my kids the opportunity to reignite that natural voice we have been working with all year.

    img_0180

    Katie presents her editorial analysis speech this morning

    speech-form

    A quick Google form that I fill out as students are speaking provides immediate feedback via email 

    speech-feedback

    A sample of the detailed feedback on both content (helps with literary analysis prep) and public speaking (a real life skill for all)

    img_0179

    Students give peer feedback on the rhetorical analysis they heard, as well as the speech overall. 

  2. Writers need models in order to write: I’ve been using student samples from AP to accompany the prompts we’ve been analyzing for years. That’s honestly helpful. I have students score them and discuss with peers what constitutes a high, middle, and unacceptable essay according to AP so they can apply or avoid the same ideas.

    However, those high scoring essays were always met by my students with comments that suggested that top scoring essays held some undefinable magical quality.

    What is it? Style.

    Those essays, as I said earlier, not only develop complex ideas, but they do so in a way that keeps the reader engaged.To work with this, I’m going to share with my students some of the literary analysis that O’Dell’s post links to as well. The Atlantic‘s “By Heart” where authors share their insights on their own favorite passages in literature, is a website that makes literary analysis real, full of voice, and peppered with references to texts/authors my students know.
    My post a few weeks back on Arts and Letters Daily is another place we’re going to explore. How do writers write about texts without using a five paragraph essay? How can we, as Penny Kittle says, stand on their shoulders as writers and work to write as they do?

    al-daily

  3. The traditional academic, literary analysis essay hurts student writing: We want our students to be able to master the structure and form, but yet we want them them to break free of it too.I’ve often told my kids over the years that you have to know the rules in order to effectively break them.

    Maybe it’s true. Maybe, I just don’t have them break them soon enough and get to that authentic voice for an authentic audience.Because there, in the place where they have something to say with confidence, passion, precision, and critical thoughts developed by honed skills, will they bridge the gap between possessing the skills we want them to master and making their writing shine with the creative use of those same skills.

And now…it’s Wednesday morning and the lovely Tricia Ebarvia just ran a post about authentic audience through blogging. I’m headed there next.

I should just carry a mirror. I need it. Always.

How do you help move students move beyond the traditional literary analysis? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below! 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English superheros at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. A joke her students haven’t heard yet, but soon will, is:  Why did the librarian miss the conference? She was overbooked. Her students are sure to chuckle, if not pumblechook (used as a verb with creative credit to Dickens), at that one. 

 

 

 

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