Category Archives: Sarah Morris

Where Do We Go From Here?: Rethinking Next Year

Today is my last day with my AP English Language students. They test tomorrow and then a variety of pre-senior activities keep them from my class for the rest of the week. For them, summer is right around the corner. One more day of class, a test, a few orientations and then freedom.

So, tomorrow, we will make the most of our time: reviewing any last minute questions, calming any overly stressed nerves, reminding them they’re prepared and ready, saying our goodbyes. In short, wrapping up this year. All in all, it’s been a good year, and I’m sad to see them go.

However, I’m almost a little happy to see them go as well. It would be weird if I wasn’t. Wednesday morning when they step into the gym to test, I’m going to step into my room and give myself three hours to just think about next year. Guys. I’m so excited to let loose all of my pent-up “this is how to make next year better than ever before” brainstorming energy.

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I’ve been feeding that desire bit by bit with my PLC (like a valve letting off steam to keep from exploding writers notebook ideas everywhere). We’ve been slowly working our way through Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s 180 Days, and it has already started to influence some ground-level changes in our curriculums for next year – namely, a big step away from whole-class novels and more fully embracing student choice not just in their writing but in their reading as well.

Honestly, I think even without the push from 180 Days, we would have landed in this direction eventually. We’re all a little burnt out on the whole class novel. Too often the works are shared only from one perspective, the students aren’t really invested in the readings beyond receiving a grade, and the literature we teach doesn’t line up with the goals of our course. And, by my count, I’ve read Gatsby at least once a year for the last decade. This may be blasphemous, but that’s too much Gatsby.

We’ve been hesitant to move away from whole class novels entirely. After all, can a student make it in the “real world” without having read The Scarlet Letter? Those thoughts about how ‘we’ve always taught this book, so, we should just keep teaching it’ have dogged our conversations for years. However, we recognize that some of those novels aren’t that representative of our students or their interests.

So, we’re going to make a change, take the leap, see what happens.

First, we decided we wanted our units to revolve around books of choice; so, instead of trudging through a whole class novel, students would be asked to choose from a list of genres throughout the year. Right now, we know we want them to choose a modern work of fiction, something nonfiction, and a podcast. We’ll flesh out the rest of the requirements over the summer. We also decided that we don’t really care when the student reads their work of fiction or listens to their podcast. I think this part of their choice is important too. It recognizes and validates that sometimes students are ready for some texts at different times or that their schedules can accommodate different texts at different times. At every point throughout this process we want our actions and our assignments and our practices to validate our students’ voices and choices.

Then, we decided to let essential questions drive our units instead of the novel. In the past, we would just pencil in Gatsby and something vague about economy, gender, the American Dream (that ‘the’ has always been problematic to me, but that’s another conversation for a different day), and then move on. Now, we have a list of fourteen possible questions we could feasibly spend time answering throughout the year. Student choice in reading is nothing new. Our twist has been to ask our rising juniors what they want to talk about for next year.

We collated the fourteen questions into a Google form; then, we gave the form to the rising juniors and watched the results roll in. Here’s what we found:

Essential Question Average ranked score Ranking My random thoughts
Education: to what extent do our schools serve the goals of a true education? 3.36 5th I can’t WAIT to have this conversation with my magnet school nerd herd.
Community: what is the relationship of the individual to the community? 2.89 12th
Economy: what is the role of the economy in our everyday lives? 2.79 13th So surprised this wasn’t dead last.
Gender: what is the impact of the gender roles that society creates and enforces? 3.19 9th
Sports: How do the values of sports affect the way we see ourselves? 2.57 14th Thank goodness! I was NOT looking forward to discussing my intense dislike of LeBron 😉
Language: how does the language we use reveal who we are? 3.82 2nd Really surprised this was second – I have so many amazing essays in mind for this topic already.
Popular culture: to what extent does pop culture reflect our society’s values? 3.92 1st If we don’t use Childish Gambino’s “This is America” here, I will just be flabbergasted
Environment: what is our responsibility to the natural environment? 2.95 10th
Politics: what is the relationship between the citizen and the state? 2.92 11th
Work: how does our work shape or influence our lives? 3.31 6th
Science and Technology: how are advances in science and technology affecting the way we define our humanity? 3.5 3rd Yep, should have seen this ranking coming from a math and science magnet school
Government, Politics, and Social Justice: How do we decide what is fair? 3.6 4th Hmmm….are there any current YA novels or any current events that we could talk about with this question?? Gosh… YESSS!!!
Race and Culture: To what extent do these fulfill or limit us? 3.3 7th Surprised this one hit the middle of the pack
Arts and Literature: Are these still important? 3.2 8th This one too….

More and more, we want our class to reflect how much we value our students’ voices and choices. This is their space as much as it ours, maybe more so.Using this information, we can begin to plan our year, confident that students aren’t only reading books of high interest and value to them, but that those books are being read in service to answering questions that are important to them.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She has been bingewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the title of this post comes from the musical episode “Once More With Feeling.” It’s a great episode ina great season (don’t @ me) and you can listen to the song here. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

 

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Champions Finish Strong

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About this time, every year, I begin to feel that itch, that urge to chuck everything I’m working on right now and start planning for next year. Maybe it’s the feeling of spring in the air, but I always find myself frustrated with how I spent my time this year and wanting to start fresh and clean for next year. So, as I move into test review mode, I begin my wish list for this year and vow to do better in August. It goes something like this:

     I wish that I had conferenced more…next year I’ll conference and here’s how…

     I wish that I had done a better job with writer’s notebooks…next year those notebooks are going to be cute and organized and here’s how…

     I wish that I had frontloaded this idea more in August….next year I’m going to frontload so hard and here’s how…

     I wish that I had taught this title instead or offered more choice here…next year I’m going to revamp every lesson plan and here’s how…

I think it’s pretty easy to recognize the “I wish” road as a treacherous one to travel down. But, honestly, for me, that urge to start planning for next year in the middle of this year is the real danger.

See, all of the end of the year countdown clocks act as siren songs, pulling me into the excitement of planning for a new school year: new pens (because they help me plan better), PD books (I’m starting with 180 Days), Google Folders (because I’m nerd, this will never not make me happy). I’m getting antsy just thinking about it.

And so I find myself eased into bright, happy, shiny thoughts about how perfect next year will be. I look forward to the excitement of a brand new group of students, of a summer spent immersing myself in practice, of all of the hope a new year of school brings.

And I know these are dangerous waters. I also coach volleyball, and, in that context, I would immediately recognize this behavior as problematic. Whenever my team thinks about Tuesday night’s game before Monday night’s game, we have a rough night. We can’t think about the district tournament in October until we’ve handled August. I would put a clamp on that kind of thinking right away on the court. And so, I’m realizing I also have to lock down my mid-April urges to plan for next year.

Why?

Because, in a nutshell, champions finish the way they start.

I think we have to approach the end of the year the same way we started it – fired up, focused on the tasks at hand, bringing that same excitement and hope and enthusiasm to each LONG day of testing and test prep. Don’t our students sitting in our classrooms right now deserve that? Don’t they deserve to know that we’re happy to see them each day they enter our classrooms, not counting down the days until they leave? Don’t they deserve more than filler? Don’t we deserve to be present in the moment, enjoying where we are right now in our journeys together?

But what is there to be excited for during testing season?

Great question. I teach in TN – testing has been… rough… this week.

However,  I’m particularly excited about three activities between here and our AP Lang and Comp test. These are pretty common activities among AP Language teachers, so I’m not presenting anything new here or even my own ideas (good teaching is good stealing according to Harry Wong), but sharing some ideas that have worked for me. They are tried and true ways to keep students involved, interested and invested on this downhill dash to the test:

1. Rhetorical analysis – Role playing. We’re currently role playing as Abigail Adams writing a letter to her son John Quincy. Students pair up (one is Abby, the other is a dear friend there to offer advice) and craft a letter to her son, encouraging him to take advantages of all of his opportunities. Then we read and analyze her actual letter to him. This is a pretty common AP lesson, but it’s new to this class. The simple act of role playing really deepened our discussion of rhetorical analysis and provided lots of AHA moments along the lines of “You’re right! She DIDN’T sit down and think ‘I need four rhetorical questions and one use of asyndeton. She thought about her large and small goals and worked from there!’” Students left with a better understanding of what to notice in a RA and how to organize their essay around ideas instead of devices. Surprisingly, these letters also showcased an almost aggressive level of voice. It was productive and fun – the perfect way to spend a test prep day.

Here are some examples culled from today’s writings.

 

  1. Synthesis – Pinwheel discussion. Again, more role playing. Students jigsaw a few short texts related to a topic and then come to a center table to discuss a single question in front of the whole class. They are encouraged to identify the attitude of the author and then converse with that attitude as that author. Unsurprisingly, they really get into it. The activity has them intentionally synthesizing  multiple perspectives on the fly and on their own in front of an authentic audience, reinforcing the idea of synthesis as conversation and elaboration.

3. Argument  – Speed dating. Five to six thought-provoking prompts are posted on the board one at a time. Students have four or five minutes to brainstorm claims, evidence, organizational structures and a theses. We whip around the room, sharing insights and approaches, curating a list of universal nouns or excellent pieces of evidence, creating ideas that students can tuck away in their back pockets before the test. I love this activity. There’s such great community in the sharing of ideas while also mimicking the time crunch of the written portion of the test.

Hopefully, none of the ideas feel like test prep. Hopefully, it’s just more learning. Hopefully, we find ourselves excited to be in English, fully present in the moment, enjoying our productive time together. The thoughts and ideas for next year can percolate until the end of May.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She plans on watching two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Friday’s Film as Lit lesson. She realizes how very lucky she is that this falls under the category of  “Something She Gets To Do At Her Job For Money!!!!” She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

Coffee spoons and Google forms – Measuring a Year

Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.

Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear.

five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.

How do you measure,

Measure a year?”

Ah.. the opening lines of “Season of Love.” Go on, take a minute, and listen to it here. (Hi, young, pre-Frozen Idina Menzel! You’re amazing!) These lines -especially the “spoons of coffee”- have become so cliche, so tired, so parodied. Yet, even knowing all of that, those opening chords still tug at my heart. And I still find a little (ok, a lottle) truth and joy in the question the song poses: how do we measure a year?

For a teacher, of course, the question of why we measure anything is obvious: we need to know where we are so we know how far we need to go, where we need to go. So, the why is easy – we want our students to leave our classrooms as better readers, writers and thinkers, comfortable “playing” with ideas and using their own voices. However, the question of how we measure a year is a powerful one and, maybe, a more difficult one. How do we measure our successes? How do we measure our students’ growth as learners? How do we know that we’re making progress? How do we know what steps to take next?

Feedback is a big, recurring topic on 3TT. Here are some of ways feedback has been tackled on this site before: from Amy Estersohn, from Amy Rasmussen, from Lisa Dennis.

For me, the answer came in combining some National Writing Project best practices ideas with my love of Google Forms/Sheets. The result? Each week students are asked to use Google Forms to answer three questions based on a modified version of the writing project model of bless, press, address (BPA).

Now, BPA was  originally meant to guide students in asking for and giving advice when reading their peers’ writing. So, directions for BPA would like this in class:

Do you want your piece BLESSED, ADDRESSED, or PRESSED?

        o Bless: If you want your piece blessed, you’re not ready to hear criticism yet (however constructive it might be). You want only to hear about what’s working so far.

         o Address: If you have chosen the address option, what one problem or concern do you want your readers/audience to address? Be as specific as possible.

         o Press: You’re ready to hear constructive criticism and give the readers/audience the freedom to respond in any fashion. This, of course, can include “Bless” and “Address.”

However, I thought the questions would work well as a weekly thermometer of where my classes are, So I modified them to look like this:

  1. What are your positives from this week? (Bless)
  2. What concerns do you have about the ideas/skills we covered this week? (Address)
  3. Is there anything else I need to know? (Press)

Here’s what this looks like in my class. Every Friday I ask students to fill out the form (see what it looks like here). Google Forms automatically collates the data into a spreadsheet, and then a code I created allows me to email all 116 students about their responses individually from the spreadsheet. Easy, peasy, right?

The way this simple give and take has changed my classroom has been astonishing.

For example, here’s a response from a shy student:

Positive Concern Anything Else? My Response
I greatly enjoyed discussing a modest proposal in class and learning and discussing satires. I don’t think there is anything specific I need help with. I really enjoy satires, considering I am very sarcastic in all aspects of my life. Awesome. Keep up the good work. I appreciate you volunteering multiple times in class; I know that’s been a struggle this year.

This feedback allowed me to compliment a student who wouldn’t contribute to class discussions at the beginning of the year for contributing multiple times this week. Our entire conversation about her participation nerves and my suggestions happened via email. And, honestly, that reinforcement might never have happened in our day to day interactions in class. We would have wasted time frustrated with each other: I would have been frustrated that she wasn’t participating, she would have been frustrated because she wanted to participate but didn’t know how, and neither of us would have grown or moved forward.

The form also helps me adapt lesson plans to students’ needs more thoroughly. For example, here’s some feedback from last week’s in class timed practice:

      I need more practice connecting my sources in a timed synthesis writing because my essay felt very choppy when moving between sources.

      Not necessarily with this. I just need to work on doing everything quickly. I’m always running out of time.

      I don’t think I need help with that, I just need to pay attention to the clock more.

      Even though we talked about framing our evidence with our own voice, I struggled including warrant to frame the evidence in the synthesis due to the time limit. I know the warrant and “so what” of a claim are typically the most important parts and I know how to include them but I just never have the time so I tend to just skim a topic and move on so I can address all my points. What other part of my paper would be the best to shorten to leave time for warrant?

This feedback tells me that I need to spend a little time next week emphasizing the value of brainstorming before a timed write.

And what do the students think of the process? Here are a few thoughts:

      It’s nice to have an easy way to regularly discuss the issues as well as the positives with a teacher. Not often to teachers inquire about the good things the class is doing for you and your successes. I also enjoy hearing back from a teacher and feeling like my opinions and concerns are heard 🙂

      Also, I think especially in an environment like Central, students (myself included) are nervous to say they don’t understand things in class because they don’t want to look stupid, but weekly feedback makes it easier to get help.

       Some weeks, it doesn’t seem all that helpful, but others it helps me keep track of all that we have done in that week and keep track of what I need to focus on. It isn’t hard.

        It’s an interesting system. I’m running for governor for this upcoming YIG conference, and we’ve discussed about implementing a system that is quite similar statewide to streamline teacher-student feedback in attempt to improve K-12 education so each individual teacher can cater to his/her classes’ specific needs. I think it works pretty good and there’s not really much of a negative from the student standpoint.

So, how do I measure a year? In emails, and google forms, and excel spreadsheets. My version isn’t quite as catchy as the RENT version, to be honest. But this weekly format works for me; it’s how I measure my year. I value the conversations it starts, the way it allows my classroom to extend beyond the school hours, the relationships it deepens, and how it informs my practice. What works for you?

 

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. Born with a reading list of books she’ll never finish, she tries to read new texts but often finds herself revisiting old favorites: Name of the Wind, The Stand, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

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