Category Archives: Strategies to Add Some Zip

Using design challenges to bring rhetoric to life

In Gumption Nick Offerman [aka Ron Swanson] includes an anecdote about author George Saunders seeking to impress his community college guitar teacher with a song he had learned. Unimpressed, the teacher told him, “If you don’t change your life, you’re going to be a very unhappy young man.” Offerman follows it up with this description: “What he then explained to George was that, sure, he had mechanically nailed going through the motions of the song, but without paying any attention to how it sounded.” Essentially, it had no heart.

One of the challenges of teaching something like rhetoric is that it can get reduced to terms and concepts that become mechanical. I can teach students to identify pathos or label the audience of a piece, but it somehow feels separate from the real work of analysis or writing that is covered so well here. It can become academic. One of my goals this year was to commit to finding more authentic applications that would allow us to think about rhetoric in less academic ways. As our school district worked with Allison Zmuda to immerse ourselves in personalized learning (more on this here), one of the models we spent time with was the Stanford Design School approach to design thinking, and it opened up some good ideas about how to explore rhetoric through design challenges. This visual captures the heart of the design thinking process:

Design thinking process from the Stanford Design School

What it is

A design challenge essentially lays out a problem for a team solve–they must design a solution using a process–followed by a presentation of their design where it is compared with other teams’ designs. We began to use this process by doing a series of rhetoric challenges throughout the semester. Each asked a team (5-7 students) to focus on a specific, practical rhetorical situation and to design something that forced them to make rhetorical choices based on the audience and purpose. I saw these as formative tasks that allowed students to explore some new argumentation techniques that would get immediate feedback from other teams (we do this kind of game-show/reality TV style) when presented. 

The questions I kept asking myself: what could they build that would show their understanding of rhetoric? What would challenge them to see the value and importance of their rhetorical choices for specific audiences?

What we tried

In Unit 2 (Friday Night Lights: the culture of high school sports), students had considered a range of issues from concussions and CTE to payment of college athletes and competition’s consequences on mental health. For the design challenge (see the full doc here) students had to create a 10-second ad (designed for phones) that repaired the ethos of the NFL or NCAA by pairing the organization with a cause and a spokesperson. They had to wrestle with the rhetorical situation and rhetorical appeals in really interesting ways to make this happen. Other examples of tasks we tried:

  • Unit 3: on solving school shootings (problem-solution structure): “As a team, design a solution to limit or end school shootings in America between 2020-2050 and persuade a specific audience to implement the policy.”
  • Unit 4 perfectionism clip sharing (types of evidence): “Make a problem/solution argument using a variety of types of evidence to capture what it’s like to battle perfectionism and how one can find balance.”
  • Unit 4 t-shirt design: “Design a T-shirt that encourages MHS students to flip the narrative when it comes to their inner critic and negative self-talk.”

Each team would present and go through a round of on-the-spot feedback. I cold-call people from other teams (think Shark Tank)  and ask questions about the content and the presentation method:

  • What was the strength of how that group presented?
  • Did their choice of spokesperson really help the ethos?
  • Between the last two groups, which did a better job of reaching the specified audience?
  • Was their solution stronger than your group’s?
  • If you could change one thing about yours after seeing theirs, what would it be?
  • Which group did the best job of engaging the audience about their ideas? How did they do it?
Bell 4 students give feedback on t-shirt designs in a gallery walk.

What I liked

By the end of each design challenge we had spent rich time in collaboration, had meaningful discussions about the functions of our rhetorical choices, and delved more deeply into our content in authentic ways. A few other positives I saw:

  • Making thinking visible through the products/presentations
  • Getting on-the-spot feedback about the value of your rhetorical choices and the social construction of our understanding of rhetoric 
  • Using the design thinking model to talk about the parallels to the writing process

The end goal is to understand the heart of rhetoric better and at a more practical level, and to then make some of the same moves in our writing that we make in the design challenges. To notice more about how it sounds and not just play the right notes. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He tweets about English-y stuff when he can remember to from @MHSCoates.  

“It’s Beautiful” – A Simple Reminder

Happy Holidays!

I’ll keep this post short and sweet.

I hope you are finding your holiday break restful and rejuvenating, filled with warmth and time with family. I know I am enjoying spending time with both mine and my husband’s extended families. Both of our families are large and loud and full of children under the age of ten. It’s chaotic and joyful and, honestly, one of my favorite gatherings of the year – on both sides.

While sitting in church on Christmas Sunday, my three year old niece brought me a coloring page and began to use my lap as a table. The last one to grab crayons, she was stuck with a really drab brown. She enthusiastically scribbled and scrabbled and scratched her ugly brown crayon all over that coloring page with – seemingly – no rhyme or reason. Breathing heavily, she gave it her all for five frantic minutes.

Then she stopped, held up her art, and sighed. “It’s beautiful.”

My heart melted. Of course it was. She saw beauty where I only saw a mess.

It reminded me of conferencing with my students. There’s always something worth praising, something beautiful in their writing. I don’t know about you but my first instinct is to start with what we can fix, where I can teach by showing what the student can do better. When I start conferencing after the break, I want to remember my niece and ask my students: What do you LIKE about this piece? What’s beautiful?

I think that reframing will make for a good moment in our conferences.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently reading and loving Mo Willems’s picture books. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

Author’s Chair

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Every educator has the ‘moment.’ I wish I had a cute name for the ‘moment’ that would make it sound both adorable and relatable – but I don’t. I’ve never named it beyond just the description of it to loved ones and close teaching friends and confidants – but I’m betting you know the moment. That moment where you find yourself googling what other careers you can pursue with a degree in English or Education that isn’t teaching. 

You still love the kids. 

You still love the work. 

But, man, has the work felt like work recently. 

And that’s the moment. When you’re drained and empty and tired and the best way forward is a little bit of fantasy: I could just start an Etsy business and live off of that – sure, I don’t really make anything people are interested in buying, but I could. I  could just take a year off and write the great American novel – sure, I don’t have any ideas for that novel, just some opening pages and some really, really vague outlines (in the vein of stuff happens to people and it’s awesome), but I could. I could just find a job doing data entry somewhere – sure the nine to five would be sooo boring and I hate numbers and data and I’m not sure I could fake even a little bit of joy for that process, but I could… maybe…

I found myself here in 2014, and a teacher friend suggested I apply for Summer Institute with my local Writing Project. This experience was and still is a literal life-changing event for me. Finding a group of like-minded teachers who wanted to deeply invest in a research based development of their practice through yearly inquiry projects was transformative. Finding opportunities to both learn from other teachers who were still in the classroom as well as opportunities to teach other teachers was and is encouraging and growth-inspiring. Five years later I’m still active with MTWP and still continuing to grow and learn from that community. 

Currently on maternity leave, I’ve found myself thinking about my practice a lot. I thought I would spend a portion of this time at home -in between feedings and diaper changes – worried about my students or the interim or how the class room was going without me. And, sure, those thoughts have crossed my mind a time or two, but mostly when I’ve thought about school at all I’ve found myself thinking about my practice in a macro-sense from the beginning of my career until now: what are my “greatest hits” if you will.

When I taught sophomores several years ago, I incorporated a game-changing strategy I learned at MTWP: author’s chair. Every two or three weeks, students would share their writing with the entire class. The process was simple.

Students would sign up to share their writing with the class at least once a nine weeks. Usually we would share every second or third Friday, and the sharing would take the entire 45 minutes. The sharing student would move to the front of the room and sit in my chair, stand behind the podium – whatever made them comfortable – and then share a piece of writing. They could share whatever they liked – a polished piece, something from their notebooks, something they wrote just for this occasion. The point wasn’t WHAT they shared but THAT they shared. After they read their piece, the class would simply, in unison, say, “Thank you for sharing.” And the next student would move to the front of the room to share. I would share as well – often sharing bits and pieces of my unfinished great American novel (eye-roll emoji here). It was powerful for me to remember how anxiety inducing it can be to share your writing with other people. Often I think teachers forget this part because we aren’t sharing our writing and don’t have to feel the nerves and/or we forget the painful part of this practice because we’re so focused on the gains that sharing can have for a student. 

This simple practice increased our classroom community: we were all in the writing process together – writing, revising, sharing, receiving and giving feedback. Students were motivated to write more and in addition to what I was asking them to write in class – they brought in songs, poetry, narratives, a choose your own adventure, comics, satires, op-eds. Together, we enjoyed a wonderful season of writing for the sake of writing and sharing, for the most part, because we were proud of what we had written. 

When I moved to teaching only AP Lang, I moved away from author’s chair, mostly for timing reasons. There seemed to be so much to cover in AP and I was still getting my feet wet with the curriculum that I felt like I needed the time. In this moment of reflection for me, I’m realizing -again- that ultimately students just need to write, to write and to share -even when it doesn’t feel like there’s enough time.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently binging The Mandalorian with her three week old daughter – we’re both equally enthused. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

 

 

 

Integrating Sketchnotes into Annotations

When any unit is designed, I intentionally consider what important academic skills I can either teach students or reinforce to support critical thinking in preparation for academic endeavors after high school.  While the majority of my juniors and seniors are familiar with annotating, we still practice making our internal thinking and interactions with the text visible on paper no matter what we are reading.

An idea presented at NCTE last year was sketchnoting, which is the practice of creating visual annotations to develop meaning.  Students are encouraged to draw pictures and symbols or icons instead of writing their thinking in the margins, like a visual poem write around or visual 1 Pager.  While I am certainly no artist, just stick figures over here, sketching annotations adds a different dimension to meaning-making.

I love that sketchnotes provide an opportunity for more creative interactions with a text and provide an opportunity to use the right side of the brain.  Sketchnoting simply offers another mode for students to create meaning and retain information (You can watch a great overview from Verbal to Visual and utilize the free resources, too).

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As we dig into our first full class novel, students are assigned pages to annotate or sketchnote as we read, these pages then prompt our TQE (thoughts, questions, epiphanies) discussions.  I started out with a think aloud model for students with the first (rather dry) pages of The Great Gatsby.

While most students begin with traditional annotations, highlighting and marginalia, because that is what they’re more comfortable with, many slowly branch out into adding pictures or visual notations with more practice and after seeing their peer’s examples.  

Aside from having students intentionally interact with a text and build their annotation skills, the annotations and sketchnotes provide scaffolding for the final project, a visual 1 Pager or a “graffiti wall” that encourages students to display their learning visually.  I did this project two years ago with juniors who read –I may challenge this year’s crew to use fewer words.

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Visual notetaking can be a more compelling way to lure students into making meaning with a text or other content.  I am hoping more sketchnotes start popping up on the pages of students’ notebooks and other assignments, in my classroom or others.

 

Maggie Lopez is awaiting the snow and start of ski season in Salt Lake City, but wishing she was attending NCTE 2019 this month.  She is currently reading Into the Water. Follow her @meg_lopez0.

Book Snapchats

While I’m a little bummed I’m not attending NCTE in Baltimore this year, NCTE 2018 in Houston was awesome–I’m still going through my notes nearly a year later!  Not only did I get to meet a handful of Three Teachers Talk contributors in person, snag new books, fangirl favorite authors, and catch up with former colleagues from Lousiville and Houston, I headed home challenged by new ideas and armed with new activities to implement in my workshop.  NCTE is truly a magical event for educators–enjoy if you’re heading to Baltimore next month!

Like many of us, I am always seeking different, engaging ways students can interact with and analyze a text.  One such activity from Charles Youngs (@Charles_Youngs), an educator and instructional coach in Pennsylvania, was Book Snaps.  Students are tasked with finding a significant page in a text, then creating an analytical “snap” via Snapchat.  While we work on annotating and sketchnotes throughout the year, Snapchat opens the arsenal of analysis tools students can access to create meaning.  There are stickers, filters, animated gifs, color tools, stamps, and other features I don’t even know about which students can use to digitally annotate.  Last year, I used the activity to study the minor characters and themes in The Bluest Eye in small groups.  This past week, my students created a snap about their independent reading book as the quarter comes to a close.

As students spent time finding the page that would “sell” their book, the discussion surrounding gifs and stickers turned analytical.  Students asked one another for advice on the features and, in the process, discussed the characters, conflicts, and themes with one another.  I didn’t expect to hear such thoughtful commentary while students were creating.

If students did not have Snapchat, I offered the opportunity to take a picture of the page then edit it on Google Slides.   Once students completed and downloaded their Snap, we compiled them on one Google Slide deck.  Don’t worry if you’re not Snapchat savvy–your students definitely are!

Maggie Lopez only sends snaps of her dog Bounder to her husband and is currently reading The Spy and the Traitor by Ben MacIntyre.  You can find her on Twitter @meglopez0.

A Reverse Approach to Multiple Choice

I know–yuck.  Multiple choice?  On a blog about workshop?  This post may seem like the odd man out or the one that doesn’t belong here, but please keep reading!

While a multiple-choice assessment is certainly not a form I want to use in class, it is inevitable my students practice the format for the AP exams.  The challenge for us teachers is to make the practice meaningful without taking practice tests over and over again (No thank you, “Drill and Kill”). This year, instead of making these exercises something we do, I want students to see these as something we workshop.

First, my language has shifted from “Let’s complete this multiple-choice practice” or “Let’s working on our timing” to “Let’s dig into this passage and create meaning together.”  I am hoping students begin to see the passages as a challenge to unlock and discover as they inquire about meaning rather than a 15-minute task.

I am also shifting how we work through the passages, igniting the workshop mindset of reading, questioning, re-reading, and making connections.  Sometimes we will read the passage together out loud, look up unfamiliar terms, paraphrase, and annotate, creating meaning together before examining the questions.  Othertimes this close reading is done in pairs and students work the questions together. Another strategy, done in peer groups, is what I call “Reverse Multiple Choice.”

Although the process takes a bit of planning and sometimes typing on our end, I think it is worth it (there is a sample linked at the end to get you started, too!).  In summary, students are grouped and given each part of a multiple-choice selection–the passage, the question stems, and the answer sets–one at a time, then asked to answer the questions after a lot of process thinking.  

Students have enjoyed working together to break the monotony of practice selections as this becomes about thinking and talking with one another while still developing the thought-patterns necessary for working through passages on the exam.  Starting this practice early in the year, I notice students immediately learn to share any thinking or ideas surrounding the “gray areas” of a text and to not shy away because they aren’t sure of the correct answer (that is exactly where they should be in the fall!).

Here are the steps as you would implement them in your classroom (please note the time required will be determined by your students or your expectations of how quickly they are to work, the times provided are just suggestions and will differ with the text):

  1. Group students into clusters of 2-4 with their desks circled.
  2. Distribute a multiple-choice passage and ask students to independently read and annotate as they would on the exam (7-9 minutes).
  3. Once completed, ask students to chat about the gist of the passage in their groups, allowing time for questions and clarifications (2 minutes).
  4. Pass out the passage’s Question Stems, without answers, in random order.  Invite students to work through the questions as a group, referring back to the reading and writing what they believe the answer is as if they were open-ended questions.  Some questions may require students to think in reverse (i.e., students may list what elements are present if the question stem asks “Which is NOT present…” or a similar variation), but all questions will get students talking about their thinking (10-15 minutes).
  5. Once completed, pass out the Answer Selections, again in jumbled order, and ask students to pair the appropriate Question Stem and Answer Set together.  I like to use numbers for the Question Stems (step 4) and letters for the Answer Sets (step 5), so students know to pair a letter to a number (3-5 minutes). 
  6. If you’d like, you may check that student groups paired the Question Stems and Answer Sets correctly before distributing the full question set for the passage.  Students then, using all of their thinking and notes, work together to answer the multiple-choice questions (8-10 minutes).
  7. In whatever manner you’d like, reveal the correct answers.  I have found students want to understand questions they missed and other student groups can often explain the thinking that led their group to the correct answer.

I am hoping these varied, workshop-esqe approaches build student’s ability to process challenging texts through the processing of each component separately and build their confidence for making sense of the gray areas in challenging texts through the peer to peer talk.  This approach can be adapted for any test-prep we may be required to work in for state exams or standardized tests, too.

Here is a sample of the process using the 50 Essays Multiple Choice for  “Letters from a Birmingham Jail”

 

Maggie Lopez is:

A) Enjoying being back into the swing of the school year.

B) Currently reading How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer.

C) On Twitter @meglopez0.

D) All of the above.

#Disrupting Texts in our Senior English Classes

mirror-mirror

Stories that mirror the lives of our students are an important part of our reading lives.

Last year, due to a colleague’s illness, I ended up teaching a section of English 10 part way through the year. It had been years since I had taught English 10 and years since I had taught the main novel that our Grade 10 students study – To Kill A Mockingbird. While I hadn’t taught To Kill A Mockingbird in some time, it had been the subject of much of my professional development reading lately as there is a shift happening towards questioning some of the traditional texts we teach in North American and whether they are the best texts to explore issues of race and other complex issues. In particular, I had been exploring the concept of disrupting the texts we traditionally study in high school as outlined in this excellent series by Kate Stolzfus in ASCD’s Education Update. When we look at disrupting the classic, largely Eurocentric texts traditionally taught in schools across the country, we start to explore how the classic cannon does not necessarily reflect the experiences of the students in our class. Children’s literature scholar Dr. Rudine Simmons first explored the idea that children need mirrors, windows, and sliding doors in the stories they encounter. While windows and sliding doors allow children to look into or enter into the world of people different than themselves, mirrors in literature – where children can see themselves reflected in what they read are equally as important. While Rudine Simmons was talking about children’s literature, this is just as important in the literature we study with our young adults in our high school classes. When we look to disrupt the texts we teach in class, we look for opportunities to provide “mirrors” for all of the students represented in our class, as well as “windows and sliding doors” into the lives of others.

Because I was starting the class midyear, I was not in a position where I could change the books for the course, so I would have to teach To Kill A Mockingbird, but I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with teaching it in some of the more traditional ways I have seen it handled. Like any teacher faced with a new class with only a short time to prepare, I headed to the internet to see what inspiration I could find. What I found has become a valuable resource not just for my Grade 10 English class, but also for my other classes – #Disrupttexts. The #Disrupttexts movement is a grassroots movement started by teachers to disrupt the traditional cannon and to provide resources to do so. The movement was initially a Twitter movement and if you search #Disrupttexts on Twitter, you will find many valuable resources. As well, there is a website where you will find suggestions, lessons and unit plans that suggest alternate titles to the traditional cannon, or texts to teach in conjunction with them in order to bring in other perspectives.

While it may not always be possible or necessary to replace the traditional canon in our English classrooms, by shifting the way we looking at these texts and by “disrupting” our thoughts on the literature we share with our students, we help our students access the powerful experience of seeing themselves reflected in the literature they read.

 

Pam McMartin in English Department Head, Senior English Teacher, and Middle Years and Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, BC, Canada. When she is not disrupting texts in her classes and her school library, she is spending her time reading reviews and building her to-be-read list from all of the exciting new books from diverse authors coming out. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin. 

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