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Category Archives: Talk

An Idea: Author Bios and Some Focus, Wit, & Polish

I stole this idea from Lisa. She said it was okay that I write about it first. Bless her.

I finally feel like I’m getting a little of my writing mojo back. If you’ve been following my posts lately, you know I’ve had a hard time. I loved my student teacher, but I missed my students and how they inspire me to want to write and share.

It hasn’t been easy taking back my classroom. I am much more intense than Mr. G, and this translates to mean for some of my students. It’s true I grade hard, expect a lot, teach bell to bell. It’s not that he didn’t — maybe it’s just that I’m 50+, and he’s close to half my age. Whatever the reason, reinvigorating relationships hasn’t been easy.

Kind of casually one day, Lisa suggested she wanted to write author bios with her students next year. She said she’d read a few she wanted to use as mentor texts, thinking this little writing task would be a way to help her students develop their identities as writers. What a fantastic idea!

So last week for our writer’s notebook time, we wrote author bios, short, little, quippy, quirky writing that states who we are and why we write. (We still need work on the why we write part.)

booksforauthorbiosI prepared first by reading the inside back covers of some of my hardback YA literature. I chose four bios with similar elements:  Andrew Smith, Winger; Julie Murphy, Dumplin‘; Heather Demetrios, I’ll Meet You There; and Jason Reynolds, All American Boys. {Bonus: four book talks, along with the author intros. Boom.]

I explained the task:  We’re going to read four short author bios and then write our own. Listen to each one carefully, so we can pull out the similarities within each one.

We charted the elements of the bios on the board and then drafted our own.

authorbio

We spent five minutes on the writing, two minutes on revision, and six minutes sharing with our peers. We laughed. We wondered if the authors wrote their own book cover bios. We discussed our writing process.

“It would have been easier writing about someone else,” one student said.

“I need more time to think of how to say things,” said another.

“This would be fun to do at the beginning of the year,”

“I don’t do anything!”

“I’ve never won anything!”

“I cannot write that I am interesting when I am not interesting.”

“Can we write about what we want to do in the future instead?”

Oh, yeah, we stirred the pot, and ideas bubbled out. Throughout their questioning, my response remained:  Be creative.

One of the best books I’ve read on writing is How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark. I marked it up with lesson ideas:  “the whole chapter would make a great lead in rhetorical analysis” and “on annotating: read before starting 1st book club” and “use b/f narrative –teaches analysis with song lyrics” and “parallel structure & compound sentences!”

This paragraph from the introduction is a great reminder for all types of writing — and writing instruction:

How to Write Short

Focus, wit, and polish. My students and I talked about our identities as writers. We talked about the time it takes to develop our voice, our craft, our meaning.

As they read their author bios to one another, the cough of community clamored just a bit, and in a few minutes the whole classroom caught it.

MariaLauthorbio

MariaCSkyauthorbioMicaelaauthorbioTreyauthorbioI reminded students as they write over the next few days — finishing their multi-genre projects, their last major grade — to write with intention, to write in a way that shows the answer to the last question I’ll write on the board this year:  How have you grown as a reader and a writer?

In the fall, I will do this exercise again. We will write our author bios at the beginning of the year, on day one, maybe. We will spent a good deal more time on them, and we’ll return to them again and again as we practice the moves all writers make to produce effective, convincing, creative writing. We will publish our writing with our bios. Hopefully, this will help us keep our sights on Focus, Wit, and Polish in all aspects of our writing.

How might you use this author bio writing activity? What tasks do your writers do that help them take on the identities of writers? Please leave your ideas in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 at Lewisville High School. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy delights her. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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Where Dioramas Go to Die

I picked up my first pedagogy book of the year this week and I can’t put it down. Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst is living up to its name. It’s 1950’s Louise Rosenblatt Reader Response Theory meets a desperate modern need to educate kids to be responsible consumers of information in order to compassionately embrace the viewpoints of others.

The first few chapters have felt like the perfect “Now what?” for someone that has recently made the move to workshop.

My kids are choosing what they read. Now what? 

I’m devoting class time for students to build this habit. Now what? 

My students are reading more and more. Now what? 

The “now what” is to really think about the how and why we read. The text details insights on building responsive, responsible, and compassionate readers who will interact with a text, rather than just extract from it, question the text, and open themselves up to the text in order to see other points of view.

Cue the angelic choir and parting clouds. I’m ready.

But, I am also guilty of not always facilitating this type of reader response. Not on purpose, of course, but just out of difficulty in dealing with the daily grind.

We read. We talk. We mini lesson. We write. We rearrange the order. We repeat.

However, somewhere in there, we also lose a lot of readers. The once enthusiastic elementary kids, with their literal cartwheels about books, often come to us as vacant vessels of readicide. How does this happen? Beers and Probst suggest that “we have made reading a painful exercise for kids. High-stakes tests, Lexile levels, searches for evidence, dialogic notes, and sticky notes galore – we have demanded of readers many things we would never do ourselves while reading. We have sticky-noted reading to death” (46).

Now, ironically, I’ve written quite a few sticky notes around the insights in this book…postitI like to organize my thoughts this way. And, in no way am I suggesting that pulling ideas from a text is malpractice. At the end of the day, of course we need students to think deeply about their reading and demonstrate that thought through talk, written reflection, and/or analysis of some kind.

But what is appropriate? What is too much? What kills a desire to read as opposed to igniting it?

In search of some renewed inspiration, Disrupting Thinking had me laughing out loud as it got me thinking about why and how I interact with texts:

Seriously, as you finished the book you most recently enjoyed, did you pause, hold the book gently in your hands and say to yourself, ‘This time, this time, I think I’ll make a diorama’?…Do you write summaries of what you read, make new book jackets, rewrite the ending, take tests over every text? Any text? Do you want your reading level put on a bulletin board for all to see. Do you even know your damn reading level? (Beers & Probst 46)

So, how do we balance professional responsibility, a love of content, a desire to build up students as readers and writers, and the knowledge that a lot of what we’ve done (or still do) in our classrooms actually exhausts, irritates, and/or alienates our students from reading?

Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers. This is a reflective process in action.

What I do know, is that Disrupting Thinking has me…thinking about it. A lot. It also has me vowing to put a few things into practice and promote a few others in my classroom:

  1. Promote Responsive Readers through more and more opportunities to talk about choice books. I’m guilty of still trying to “make sure kids are reading,” when in fact, most often, they are cutting corners in that reading if we are trying to “catch” them. Book clubs, conferring, and talk through reflective notebook writing promote low stakes opportunities to share insights on texts.  With mentor texts to support skill instruction, the thinking can be applied to choice reading, but doesn’t necessarily mean that I should be looking to choice reading as a summative data point.
  2. Promote Responsible Readers by working to find a balance between supporting/celebrating reading and “holding students accountable.” This is an imperfect science to be sure. I find that the more I talk with students one on one, the more they have to say, and the more I can directly intervene to move them forward to more challenging books, deepen their understanding of why I want them to keep reading in the first place, and celebrate their successes as independent readers. Save the evaluation for skills based cold reads when the curriculum demands the assessment we as teachers need, while keeping in mind that many students don’t see those assessments as their responsibility to reading, and I would argue, nor should they.
  3. Promote Compassionate Readers, again, through talk. When I read something that is changing my perspective on the world, myself, or life in general, I want to share that with someone. I want to share that with many someones. I also know, that to grow in my reading life, I need to read a wide variety of books…books that challenge my long held beliefs and understandings (or misunderstandings) of the world. Again, this is where helping students to diversify their reading lives is so very important.
  4. Talk, Talk, Talk! I’ve been asking my students two questions this week to drive their book club discussions: How is this changing me? How is this changing my view of the world? These two questions invite personal connection and reflection. I can’t wait to hear my AP students’ book club discussions!

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her thinking has been disrupted and she’s loving it. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

A Question/Response to Whole Class Novels: This time for ESL

Recently, I found this in my inbox:

Hi Amy –

We exchanged messages a couple of years ago when I was at a different school, discussing largely AP students, if I recall.

Last summer, my husband and I moved, and I am in a new district with new “clientele,” so to speak. We are finishing Neverwhere, which went over better than I thought it would with this extremely reluctant bunch of readers. I won grant money and purchased a class set of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Home, largely because I remembered that you recommended it.

Here is what I’m up against: I have regular seniors, most of whom are ESL. Most of my little darlings are low level and struggle with reading. Because I only have one class set for three classes of kids, we do some independent reading in class, and then we take turns reading it out loud. I pause them A LOT because I have to “interpret” what we read – especially when we read Othello, and even with Neverwhere. They have reading projects and journal prompts, we have class discussions.

But I feel like I’m failing them somehow. That I’m not doing enough.

If you have any resources for Billy Lynn that you can share, I would appreciate it. I’m questioning whether this is the right book to read with them, but since I have a good number who want to go into the military upon graduation, I think maybe I can grab those kids and then others will follow.

Thank you so much for any guidance you can provide.


A while ago, I wrote about Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk in two different posts. Once about how I added it to my book club list and loved the author’s craft and the other an excerpt for a craft study. I have never read this book with students as a whole class novel. I’ve never even been very successful in getting a lot of students to read it for their book clubs.

Just because I love a book, bless it, use a passage out of it, doesn’t mean my students will want to read it, too. That is the beauty of choice. It is also sometimes the struggle.

Am I surprised more students do not choose this book? Yes. Dallas Cowboys after all. But I get why they don’t — many of my students do not want to read books that are set so close to come — they cannot wait to get out of here. But that’s a post for another day.

This is my response to my teacher-friend’s email:

Hello,

Thanks for reaching out. I hope your move has proved a positive one. I know it is hard to change districts and schools.

Regarding Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk:  While I loved the book when I read it and found several passages I could use to study author’s craft with my students, I have never taught it as a whole class novel. So — I do not have any resources that go along with this book. I do have a few ideas that may help liven up your students experience with it though.

Teaching second language learners can be hard, especially seniors who want to check out of the learning so early. Pulling from my ESL training and my own experiences with students similar to those you describe, I’d probably do a few things, which you may already be doing.

1. Small discussion groups. Just like I do book clubs, I’d divide my students up into small groups. I’d give each group a short list of open-ended questions that relate to my skills-focus for choosing this book (theme, plot, characterization, etc), and I’d model how a discussion about literature might go — similar to how my friends and I talk about books in our book club. We would talk a lot. You mentioned that you already do journal prompts. I’d be sure that students write their thinking in response to these prompts before these discussions. Activate the thinking power.

2. Quickwrites. Besides journal prompts, I’d ask students to think about and write in

dallas_cowboys_stadium_05_by_jonzicow

jonzicow.deviantart.com

response to topics thematically related to the book. I might show a photo of Dallas Cowboys Stadium and ask students to think about attending a game there. What does it look like on the inside, what does it smell like during a big game, how many people work there? I may find data about how much the stadium cost, how many seats it has, something about the huge jumbotron. I might find a sports interview clip filmed within the stadium and ask students to watch it and respond to some component of the interview. Maybe I’d find a video of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders (try outs, community service — not just game shots) and ask students to respond somehow. All these things will helps students understand and visualize the setting.

iraq-war

contempissues.wikispaces.com

3. Other Visuals. ESL students needs lots of them. And if we want students to understand more complex texts, we must give them the background knowledge needed to stick the new learning to. (I often forget this.) So — I’d use photos of young soldiers in war zones, as buddies, delivering first aid. I’d be sure my students know where Iraq is on a world map. I’d help them understand the idea of a “reality TV show” so they could visualize what this company of soldiers is dealing with at the stadium that day. This ties in to the multiple conflicts the book addresses:  Billy’s individual conflict — “Should I stay or should I go” and the conflict with the TV show and the “rich” businessmen-type attitudes.

4. Movie clips. I am not always a fan of using movies in class, but this might be a great opportunity to compare scenes in the book with scenes in the film. What is similar? What is different? Why do the makers of the movie make the choices they do? Do they keep the integrity of the book?

5. Craft studies. I’d pull significant passages from the book to study for specific reading and writing skills — again trying back to why I chose this book for a whole class read in the first place. If my focus is theme, I’d find passages we can read and determine themes that relate to the over-all theme. If I’m using the novel to become better writers, I’d pull passages where the author does something interesting with language. We’d study the passage. Maybe write our own passage, mirroring what the author did.

Finally, I’d be okay with not reading the whole of the book. When I plan lessons, I focus on the skills [needed to get to the endgame whatever that may be for the unit.] Once I’m sure I’ve covered the learning targets, and students have learned what they needed to by reading this book, I’d be okay giving students the option to read the rest of the novel on their own.

When we focus on teaching a book instead of teaching the reader/writer, we can often get bogged down. I am in no way saying this is you, but it is a whole lot of teachers on my own campus and in schools where I conduct PD. We must focus on the learner and not the book. The best way I know how to do that is with a focus on skills:  modeling, mini-lessons, reading, writing, talking. A lot.

I hope you find these ideas helpful. I would love to know how your experience with Billy Lynn plays out.

Best blessings,

Amy

What ideas would you add to help a class of primarily English Language Learning students read and comprehend a whole class text? Please add your comments.

Amy Rasmussen teaches AP English Lang & Comp at Lewisville HS in North TX. She’s enjoyed the semester watching her student teacher face Teenage Angst, but he is good, very, very good, and will be a great teacher. Her next adventure is helping Mr. G build his classroom library. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass or @3TeachersTalk

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.

twitter

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)

whatnext

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.

talk1

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. 

3 Types of Talk to Boost Confidence and Community

the hate u give

My first day of teaching was going to be great, because I WAS PREPARED.

I wrote a speech, long hand, about 5 pages.  It was going to communicate what students could expect from the class and what they should know about me.  It was going to INSPIRE them.  They would hang on my every word.

Forget all of the appalling things I just mentioned–you haven’t even heard the best part.

After I gave my approximate 35 minute speech, and students were drooling as a result of my awesomeness, we would have A DISCUSSION.

Drop the mic.  Best teacher ever.  My students will have a voice!

Needless to say, having never been in the classroom before, my first day was a shock.  Most students did not want to hear a single word I had to say, much less ABOUT MYSELF.  My voice was gone by the end of the day and I was in tears because I had no idea how to go back and do it for another round of classes the next day.

I had no idea discussions needed planning and structuring.  I thought they just HAPPENED.

Oh–sweet, naive, extremely troubled Baby Mrs. Paxson.

Almost two years later, we never have a discussion without some sort of structure.  The structure can be minor, or it can be massive.  It can simply be planning on my part, planning on the students’ parts, or it can be structure that I pull out of my back pocket to maximize of a discussion that materializes out of thin air.  It can mean a different configuration of desks, or a script to which students can refer if they get stuck.

When we teach literacy, we can’t just command students to “talk.” We have to give them tools and materials and practices so that they are building their houses of reading, writing, speaking, and listening on a solid foundation, rather than a shaky one (insert your chosen Three Little Pigs invocation here).

Here are a few of my favorite ways to structure talk in the classroom, that can really work for ANYTHING from talking about books, to talking about real world issues, to reviewing pieces of writing, to students encouraging each other in passions and endeavors.

AVID Strategy, 30 Second Expert:

I learned this strategy through AVID, and it is so stinking versatile, it kills me.  I’ve adapted it many times to fit what we need, but the underlying concept is in the script.  I used this last during our Life at 40 Unit in which students were exploring desired careers and imagining/researching a possible life path.  In order to get students thinking and talking about career paths, after we did a little bit of preliminary research and decision-making, I posted two sentence stems on the board.

I’m an expert about (desired career) because I found out that __________________________.

I will be an expert at (desired career) because I am (character trait), (character trait), and (character trait).

Now, after they fill out these sentence stems, here is where the magic happens.  Students are required to pair up and repeat this script to a partner.  Their partner must actively listen and repeat what this student said in their own words.

Here are some conversations I got to hear that day:

  • “I will be an expert at physical therapy because I look on the bright side of things and I don’t give up on people.”
  • “I will be an expert at cardiology because I have discovered that I can learn anything, and will work harder than anyone sitting next to me.” (Positive self talk, anyone?)
  • (Repeating back to their partner) “I think you will be a great teacher because every time I talk to you in class, I feel heard and understood.  You stated you were a good listener, and I have experienced that from you.”

This is just a small glimpse into the conversations that can happen with 30 second expert.  Students feel silly at first, and they joke A LOT with these scripts, but even so, if you change your thoughts you can change your world.  Sometimes changing thoughts means changing the way you talk about yourself to others.  This allows students to phrase things they’ve just learned or mastered in a way that helps them realize they have added to their learner toolbox.

Speed-Dating:  

We are major speed daters over here at 3TT.  We speed date books ALL THE TIME.  I’ve also found that the speed dating format is golden for a lot of things such as when students bring in their own news articles for an assignment, giving post-it blessings, reviewing and revising writing, trying different mentor sentences and sharing, or really any situation in which you would like to allow students to have face-to-face time with many different ideas and possibilities.  You could also do 30 second expert in a speed-dating format!Structured Talk

 

Socratic Seminar:

I am by no means an expert on Socratic Seminar, but many different educators have different ways to get students talking about higher level questioning in a group setting.  B’s Book Love has some of my favorites.  In 822, we’ve tried fishbowl, whole class circle, passing stickies, and inner/outer circle with a live Twitter Chat.  They’re all great.  When my kids hear Socratic Seminar, they know I mean serious business, so this usually elicits slightly more academic talk.

Ultimately, structured talk promotes confidence and community in the classroom because it not only communicates high expectations, but it gives students the building blocks to reach those expectations and with skills they will carry into the real world!

How do you structure talk in your classroom?  Have you learned any tricks along the way?  Share them with us below!

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She usually takes on major life events all at once rather than bit by bit, such as starting graduate school, buying a house, going to Europe, and preparing for two new classes next year.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

 

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.

test 3

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

discussion

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. 

Ask Your Students: What is Engagement?

Between the World and Me

A few weeks ago I ran into a brick wall with a project in my classroom.  I promised an update, but what I have for you is so much more.

I took Shana’s advice and asked my students, WHAT WILL ENGAGE YOU?!  However, as I thought about asking them that question, I found myself wondering if they would know what I meant.

All teachers aim for engagement, administrators search for engagement and attempt to quantify it, but how many students have been explicitly taught what it is we truly desire from them?

I set out to do just that last week.  I knew we would be working with three different concepts that I think are frequently muddled in the classroom.

Fun.  Compliance.  Engagement.

I also knew we needed a purpose/audience for the discussion, so I explained to the students that they would be assisting me in writing this blog post.

I never knew it would be necessary to define these words, but as I doled out a different word to each table group, I walked around to notice a lot of the same conversations happening at each table.

What would a fun classroom feel like?

It would feel like everyone doing what they want, being productive, and everyone would be happy.

What would a compliant classroom feel like?

A compliant classroom would feel how school is supposed to feel; come in, get your work done, leave. 

What would an engaged classroom feel like?

It would feel like students being able to choose their paths.  It would feel like happiness because the students would know the teacher and classmates cared about them.

These students have been taught to be compliant their entire educational career.  Sure, it is necessary to be compliant in terms of respect, but if you are ONLY EVER compliant, you’re being robbed of the best part of learning: Recognizing you can push your mind further than you ever imagined.

I want an engaged classroom.  You want an engaged classroom. Oprah wants an engaged classroom.  EVERYBODY WANTS AN ENGAGED CLASSROOM.

So if compliant and engaged classrooms both get work done, what’s the difference?

Engage: (v.) pledge or enter into a contract to do something; establish a meaningful connection with.

Did you catch that?

To engage means to commit and connect.  That doesn’t just change classrooms, it changes lives.

So why is it so hard? Commitment and connection don’t come through passivity or apathy, they require effort and exertion.  They require pushing past the point of comfort (for both students and teachers), and sitting in the pain–not because you want to, but because you committed to it.

As we discussed why a classroom should not be all fun, Andy had an enlightening thought.  He said, “I think the problem is, any time you take part in something, you’re sacrificing something else.  I think a lot of students are afraid to sacrifice their own comfort to make a connection with someone.  There’s always the risk, too, that you won’t connect, and then it’s like you lost twice.”

Sometimes I forget the amount of fear that exists in the classroom on a daily basis.  Commitment asks us to sacrifice the easy path.  Connection asks us to say goodbye to selfishness.  All of this has to take place before engaged learning can happen!

It takes a straight up ninja to pull that out of every student in every class period!

We ended this mini-unit with a Socratic Seminar.  I love me some good structured talk.

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2nd Period Preparing for Socratic Seminar/Live Tweeting

What is the purpose and direction of our learning?  How can we make our classroom a space of authentic dialogue and engagement? (Question credit goes to my emergency lesson-saver, Shana.)

Zoe said she never liked English until she had choice.  She also said she wanted to do more talking about books in a way that connected with her classmates and what they were reading.

Dee said she enjoys higher level thinking.  What might happen if _____ happened to someone you know?  Would you handle things the way this character did?  What would you change? (Her suggested questions.)

4th period agreed they would like to deal with real world issues, and have choice in how they present their findings (poetry, video, podcast, etc.).

2nd period explained it should be about the learning, not about the grades, but it’s been that way for so long that they don’t know how else to operate.

Grady said, “School gives you a chance to do something great with your life, but you have to DO SOMETHING to be great.”

Shahin said, “Compliance is a downfall because you just follow orders and don’t think for yourself.  It makes it to where you will always need a boss, or you won’t know how to operate.”

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PTT2PTT6

Listening most often leads to learning, and I sure learned a LOT last week! Thanks for the ideas, #PaxThinkTank!!

Is your classroom one of compliance, engagement, fun, or a mixture?  How do you communicate with your students what you expect from them each day?

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX.  She frequently feels as though someone made a mistake in allowing her to hold the futures of over 100 teenagers in her jittery, over-caffeinated hands for the past two years.  If you enjoy watching her make a fool of herself by being unbearably vulnerable, you can catch more of that over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

 

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