Tag Archives: critical thinking

The Power of Authentic Literacy

Let me tell you about my fall, y’all. It’s been a doozy. 

Depending on which list of the top life stressors you look at, I’ve managed to hit two, maybe three, right on the head. And mine is spinning.

I moved last week. If you’ve ever packed and moved during the school year, you know how stupid I planned the timing. The Rockstars and Tylenol PM have kept me functioning. Some.

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes life gets away from us.

new books in honor of my father

My English department surprised me with this gift of books in honor of my father — one of the sweetest things colleagues have ever done for me. My classroom library is growing!

My father passed away the first part of September. And while he was old, and his health had been fading for a while, his death hit me hard. I used to call him when I drove long distances alone to present workshops. I miss our talks. My dad was a quintessential optimist:  wise, encouraging, smart — and he believed in me.

We all need people who believe in us. 

Everyday I try to show my students I believe in them. They’ve been so great with all my spinning. Compassionate, kind, studious. Mostly.

I started at a new school this year, and I’ve remembered how much I love working with young people. I also remember how much I detest the distractions: the drills, the mandatory To-Do’s, the paperwork. But that’s a post for another day.

Most days I fake my way — I’ve yet to find a rhythm.

But that’s okay. I believe in the power of authentic literacy instruction. I know those who read and write and communicate well have a better chance at navigating life than those who don’t. 

So everyday we read. Everyday we write. Everyday we talk about our reading and writing. Every Friday we discuss important issues. I believe these things trump any other use of instructional time. The routines work. But for many students it is hard.

A few students fake their way — they’ve yet to find their reason.

That’s not okay. I will keep trying. Trying to get books in hands that spark joy in reading, trying to develop writers who believe in the power of words and the beauty of language, trying to get the quiet ones to share their thinking with their peers. They often have the greatest insights.

My evaluator visited my class last week. We were analyzing essays, discussing the writer’s craft –noticing the moves and their effect on meaning– and preparing to write our own Op-Eds. As the administrator left the room he whispered, “It’s hard to get them thinking.” 

Yesterday in our writing workshop, right after a little skills-based lesson on making intentional moves as writers, a young man said, “You mean everything I write has to mean something?”

What do you do with that?

I think we have a hard row to hoe, my friends. Gardener, or not, helping our students understand the role of critical thinking in their lives is what may save them. It may save us. It’s saved me for the past few months.

In a Forbes’ article published a year ago, titled “What Great Problem-solvers Do Differently,” we learn five skills that enable people to be great problem solvers:  deep technical expertise and experience; the ability to challenge, change, innovate, and push boundaries; a broad strategic focus rather than a narrow focus; drive/push; and excellent interpersonal skills.

I can’t help wondering how I can help students develop more of these skills while in my English class. I know it’s possible. Possibilities mentor hope.

This week a small group of my students — seniors who are eager yet terrified (their words not mine) to face the world after high school — and I chatted a bit about the responsibilities of adulting. I’m afraid I didn’t quell their fears. I might have quickened them. 

The stress that comes with independence sometimes sends us spinning. 

My students are my witnesses, and while I’d wish it otherwise, perhaps this fall is the most authentic I’ve ever been as a teacher.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large suburban high school in North Texas. She tries to write beside her students and wrote this piece as a practice for their Op-Eds. She’s currently trying to unpack and get used to her new commute. Dallas traffic can be a doozy.

 

Guest Post: A Different Take on News That Is Fake (It’s Not…It’s Manufactured Via a Profit-Making Monopoly)

A few days ago, my husband posted the following on his Facebook page. His message ties to my post yesterday, and it sparked even more of my thinking about the importance of critical thinking. You may find it does so, too.


“You can see the skies. They look like they’re upset about what mankind has been doing, and they’re threatening the Earth with storms. The clock says it’s daytime, but dark night is strangling the sun.”  No Fear Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 2, scene 4.

All this fuss and vicious finger pointing about fake news. Sheesh. Let me suggest, my friends, without being too obnoxious, it isn’t fake at all, rather, it is manufactured.

Well, yes, manufactured.

It starts with a “mined” or “harvested” raw resource (supposedly the facts or the “truth” [air quotes]), then it goes through various refinement processes until finally there’s a “bombshell of the day” or “breaking news” or “blockbuster movie or TV series” product at the end of the value chain designed to get and hold our attention across multiple channels and media. But, when the news and/or entertainment finally hits the airwaves (the shelves of our eyes and ears) there are two things to try to keep in mind:

  1. The owners of the bulk of news and entertainment makers and distributors devolve into a VERY small group of companies–a monopoly of sorts–that are controlled by 20 to 30 so Billionaires, that make ALL the decisions on what/who gets reported and not reported, filmed and not filmed, bullied and not bullied, even elected and not elected, etc. (Please see the list of companies below.)

  2. The content of news and movie/TV entertainment is extremely curated and molded. Why? Because the goal no longer is to keep news and entertainment separated. It is unnecessary since there is no external moral code to dictate what is right and wrong, good and bad, virtuous or vice. Today, those considerations are dictated by who is in charge of controlling the minute by minute, hour by hour, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly newsfeed, entertainment and educational narrative in order to make . . . MONEY!

Manufactured news must be carefully designed to inform and entertain in order to fuel the “attention to profit” revenue engine.

Buying this?

If so, may I suggest to never forget the money trail IS the only thing that matters at the end of the month/quarter. It seems, today, that there are NO altruistic incentives in news or entertainment. Either the media outlet makes a profit or they’re gone. And, the political, moral views of those who control the content are intricately tied into the “profitable” audience that pays for a certain point of view or worldview to win or triumph.

And the battle lines are drawn very profitably by these news and entertainment media manufacturing monopolists.

The funny thing is that unless we are willing to see behind the curtains (there are multiple layers of curtains) there is a assembly line or “value chain” that narrows down ideas, slants perspectives, and cherry-picks management teams to promote, or hold to, a certain bias, then we are most unwittingly duped no matter what political or moral side we’re on. We’ll argue until we’re toxically bloated that we’re right, but there’s ALWAYS another story behind the story behind the story that may undo our “I’m right and you’re wrong” arguments.

Consider this:  All those thousands of TV channels we thought represented diversity and fairness, uh, no. . .

What I’m going to share is quite eye-opening (at least I think so). All we hear about is how horrible Rupert Murdoch and Fox News are, but let’s look at the top companies (unranked) that own 90% of the media (including News Corporation aka Rupert). It seems fair to me that any and all could read through this and be able to conclude that there’s more to the “facts” than we’re being told when it comes to who/what controls what we see, hear, and read every day in news and entertainment. And, all of which, today, in my opinion, are manufactured one and the same:

  1. Comcast ($55 billion…ish) owns or has it’s hands in . . .ready?

NBCUniversal; twenty-four television stations and the NBC television network; Telemundo; USA Network; SyFy; CNBC; MSNBC; Bravo; Oxygen; Chiller; CNBC World; E!; the Golf Channel; Sleuth; mun2; Universal HD; VERSUS; Style; G4; Comcast SportsNet (Philadelphia), Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic (Baltimore/Washington, D.C.), Cable Sports Southeast, Comcast SportsNet Chicago, MountainWest Sports Network, Comcast SportsNet California (Sacramento), Comcast SportsNet New England (Boston), Comcast SportsNet Northwest (Portland, Ore.), Comcast Sports Southwest (Houston), Comcast SportsNet Bay Area (San Francisco), New England Cable News (Boston), Comcast Network Philadelphia, Comcast Network Mid-Atlantic (Baltimore/Washington, D.C.); the Weather Channel (25 percent stake); A&E (16 percent stake); the History Channel (16 percent stake); the Biography Channel (16 percent stake); Lifetime (16 percent stake); the Crime and Investigation Channel (16 percent stake); Pittsburgh Cable News Channel (30 percent stake); FEARnet (31 percent stake); PBS KIDS Sprout (40 percent stake); TV One (34 percent stake); Houston Regional Sports Network (23 percent stake); SportsNet New York (8 percent stake).

They also own: Comcast Interactive Media; Plaxo; Universal Studios Hollywood; Wet ‘n Wild theme park; Universal Studios Florida; Universal Islands of Adventure; Philadelphia 76ers; Philadelphia Flyers; Wells Fargo Center; iN DEMAND; Music Choice (12 percent stake); SpectrumCo (64 percent stake)

(Note: Some of these companies/titles have or will change hands, but no new hands have shown up during the past 20 years. It is still the same group of Billionaires and companies incestuously fleshing it out for profit.)

  1. Time Warner ($29 billion…ish)

One of the largest media holding company with the Warner Brothers Television Group; Warner Brothers Television; Warner Horizon Television; CW Network (50 percent stake); TBS; TNT; Cartoon Network; truTV; Turner Classic Movies; Boomerang; CNN; HLN; CNN International; HBO; Cinemax; Space; Infinito; I-Sat; Fashion TV; HTV; Much Music; Pogo; Mondo TV; Tabi; CNN Español the Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Turner Classic Movies, CNN and Headline News and CW.

TW also owns: Warner Brothers (which owns DC Comics); Warner Brothers Pictures; New Line Cinema; Castle Rock; WB Studio Enterprises, Inc.; Telepictures Productions, Inc.; Warner Brothers Animation, Inc.; Warner Home Video; Warner Premiere; Warner Specialty Films, Inc.; Warner Brothers International Cinemas

  1. News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch) the largest market cap at $40 billion…ish

Owns Fox Broadcasting Company; television and cable networks such as Fox, Fox Business Channel, National Geographic and FX; print publications including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and TV Guide; the magazines Barron’s and SmartMoney; book publisher HarperCollins; film production companies 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Blue Sky Studios; numerous websites including MarketWatch.com; and non-media holdings including the National Rugby League. FX; SPEED; FUEL TV; Fox College Sports; Fox Movie Channel; Fox Soccer Channel; Fox Soccer Plus; Fox Pan American Sports; Fox Deportes; Big Ten Network; National Geographic U.S.; Nat Geo Adventure; Nat Geo Music; Nat Geo Wild; Fox International Channels; Utilisima; Fox Crime; NEXT; FOX History & Entertainment; the Voyage Channel; STAR World; STAR Movies; NGC Network International; NGC Network Latin America; LAPTV; Movie City; City Mix; City Family; City Stars; City Vibe; the Film Zone; Cinecanal; Elite Sports Limited; BabyTV; STAR India; STAR Taiwan; ESPN STAR Sports; Shine Limited. Hulu.com (32 percent minority share). HarperCollins Publishers; the New York Post; the Daily News; News International (the Times; the Sunday Times; the Sun); News Limited (146 newspapers in Australia); Dow Jones (Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, SmartMoney, Factiva, Dow Jones Newswires, Dow Jones Local Media, Dow Jones VentureSource). Fox Filmed Entertainment; Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment; Twentieth Century Fox Television; Twentieth Television; Fox Television Studios

  1. General Electric media holdings keep changing, but it sorta includes television networks NBC, MSNBC, NBC Sports, Telemundo, 27 television stations in the United States and many cable TV networks, including the History Channel, and Sci Fi Channel. It also owns the popular web-based TV website Hulu. (Sorta means they co-own a lot of things with other media behemoths)
  2. Disney ($55 Billion)

Owns the ABC television network; cable networks including ESPN, the Disney Channel, SOAPnet, A&E and Lifetime; 277 radio stations, music- and book-publishing companies; film-production companies Touchstone, Miramax and Walt Disney Pictures; Pixar Animation Studios; the cellular service Disney Mobile; and theme parks around the world. And, don’t forget they own Marvel Studios now!

They also own dozens of cable networks, and with the Disney channel they control millions of kids’ eyeballs — and moms’ pocket books.

  1. Viacom owns 160 cable channels including MTV, VH1, CMT, Logo, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, TV Land, Spike TV, Tr3s, BET and CENTRIC

They also own numerous studio brands including Paramount Pictures, Insurge Pictures, MTV Films and Nickelodeon Movies.

  1. Bertelsmann ($20 billion…ish)

Owns Random House (with over 200 imprints in 15 countries, including the Ballantine Publishing Group, the Bantam Dell Publishing Group, Broadway, the Crown Publishing Group, the Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, Pantheon, Random House U.K., Transworld, Sudamericana, C. Bertelsmann, Karl Blessing Verlag, Goldmann, Siedler Verlag, Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag, Plaza & Janes (50 percent), Grijalbo Mondadori (50 percent), the Knopf Publishing Group, the RH Adult Trade Publishing Group, RH Audio, RH Children’s Books, RH Direct, Inc., the RH Information Group, RH International, RH Large Print, RH Value Publishing, and Waterbrook Press; Gruner + Jahr (285 print titles in 20 countries)

  1. We mustn’t forget Social Media:  Facebook with over 1.5 billion people who primarily get their news and entertainment from the Facebook feed they unwittingly created for themselves, warmly cocoons them within a pleasant “me, me, me” echo chamber.

(Source: Freepress)

Getting the picture (pun intended)?

I’m a Cinephile, lover of movies, and I’m going to share some stats on movie gross earnings vs product costs that provide some perspective on how what we see/hear is manufactured to keep our attention in order to make a profit.

This daily, highly-touted, data-set got underway in the mid ’70’s when the first summer Blockbuster hit the big screen. It went like this:

Da…dum

Daaaaa…dum

Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum (faster and faster)

It was Spielberg’s, Jaws, and it grossed $470 million on a production budget of $7 million; 67 times the initial investment.

Another more recent example:

Beauty and the Beast, the 2017 metaphor of love, sacrifice and atonement, grossed $900 million, but cost $300 million to make; a 300% return.

It used to be that we’d only hear about the “box office” earnings at certain times of the year, but now we hear about how big, or bad, the “weekend box office” will be, or was, year around. (WARNING: They’re just marketing to us, but now it’s designed to cocoon us in a world of news and entertainment that gets us hooked.)

Don’t believe me? Well, here is a stat to chew on:

Only 2 to 3% of us go to movies in theaters, but 90% of us watch them or TV series (we’ve heard about) in our own homes on DVD, network TV, or streamed TV.

Ready for some more hype that hooks us into the “manufactured media” consumption loop?

Manchester By The Sea grossed $72.6 million, but cost $8.5 million. (BTW, what in the heck was that Oscar-winning movie supposed to achieve???)

La La Land, an absolutely delightful look at the quest for fame and love, grossed $442 million worldwide on a production budget of $30 million.

Historical Hype? (no ranking order)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (and who didn’t like this laugh fest?) is the highest gross earnings to cost movie: $369 million against $6 million.

Star Wars grossed $775 million against a $40 million budget.

Mrs. Doubtfire grossed $441 million against a $38 million budget.

Slumdog Millionaire grossed $378 million against a budget of $15 million.

There’s Something About Mary grossed $370 million against a $31 million budget

The Hangover grossed $467 million against a budget $36 million.

The Passion of Christ grossed $612 million against a budget of $35 million

The reality is that these movies, based on these numbers, are portrayed as making a profit at the Box Office.

They didn’t.

Movies, in MOST cases, only become profitable after they hit DVD and TV.

NOW, go back to that list of news and entertainment companies and note how many of them own the advertising networks, the movie studios, the news stations, and the TV networks and subscriber channels. And remember that without the TV outlets 2/3’s of their profits disappear.

See the cross-channel, total-immersion system?

Manufactured — end to end — news and entertainment designed to monopolize our eyes, ears, minds, hearts–and pocket books.

And the vast majority of it has NOTHING to do with facts or truth. Well, okay, the weather and sports seem to be based in truth most of the time (unless you think there’s a conspiracy in the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS, etc. haha)

And on that sports analogy…from the Witches in Macbeth:

“Fair is foul and foul is fair.”

Sources: SLATE, Hollywood’s Profits Demystified; Freepress, Who Owns the Media?; CNBC, Entertainment, Most Profitable Movies of All Time

Curtis Rasmussen is a lover of great movies, great marketing, and people who don’t fit in. He practices reaching across the aisle to befriend people of the opposite persuasion, politics, or affiliations. Curtis is a marketing strategist and writer who lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Amy, his dog Jag, and his youngest child of seven, Zach. 

Thinking Differently to Do More Thinking

I think most teachers would agree, no matter our content, our number one goal is to help students develop as critical thinkers. And in a world where technology rules much of their lives, impatience governs their actions, and emotions overcrowd the adolescent brain, this can be daunting.

We must keep trying.

Every day we see see headlines spouting fake news, and more and more we see headlines shouting “This news is fake.” We see sites on how to spot fake news, and analyze fake news. We have access to lessons on fake news — Google “lessons on fake news, and you’ll find 5,250,000 resources. We even see the hashtag #fakenews (a fabulous lesson on paradox btw).

A few months ago I read this article at Forbes. Then clicked through and read this one at BuzzFeed. I shared them with my students. We had an interesting discussion, but one comment left me thinking:  “So, basically, everyone’s making stuff up. How are we supposed to believe anything?”

If we are not helping our students find answers to this question, we are doing a disservice to our students — and by extension a disservice to ourselves. What kind of world will we grow old in if we do not help the students in our classrooms today, determine fact from fiction, identify bias, value diversity of thought, be open to new ideas, support their opinions, and seek to understand before passing judgment?

First, we have to be willing to step outside our comfort zones and seek to understand other perspectives. (If you haven’t seen Outside Your Bubble, it’s an interesting starting place.)

Plato

Next, we must school ourselves on rhetoric. And then, we must weave it more overtly into all aspects of our instruction.

As English teachers, we have a prime opportunity:  let go of the nine weeks novel study where we focus on characters, conflict, plot, and theme. Bring in speeches and essays and news articles that invite discussion about the use of language. At the very least balance the study of both.

A few weeks ago a group of teachers from a neighboring district visited my classroom. They observed as my students and I read two blog posts about the Fearless Girl and the Raging Bull statues: Seriously, the guy has a point, and an opposing view, No, the Wall St. Bull Sculptor Doesn’t Have a Point. The discussion was rich. The thinking was richer.

At the end of the class, I chatted with these teachers. We talked about the routines in my workshop classroom, the book talks I conducted, the way I transitioned from one thing to the next. Then, the conversation turned to novels. One teacher asked how long I spend on novels. I don’t. I responded. My students read novels in book clubs where they facilitate the discussion. They talk of plot and themes and author’s craft. They bring meaning to the text, based on their experiences reading the books. (I am not opposed to novels. I am opposed to spending too much time on them.)

I hesitate to challenge anyone on what they do in their classrooms. I do not know their students. I do not know their routines or their motivations, the goals they hope to accomplish as they instruct their students, or the limitations put on them by mandated curriculum.

I do challenge the idea that studying a novel for “a long time” like this teacher told me, is a valuable use of the limited time we have with our students. Our students’ need to navigate the language of their world is too great to spend week after week with a book “they really like” that “I read to them.” We must put the focus on the needs of the reader and not the book.

What our students need right now — what our country needs right now — is critical thinking around a wide variety of texts. We need a focus on how language works to persuade and to manipulate and to cause outrage. Really, that’s our best, and maybe, our only hope.

As we go into summer (I’ve got three days left), I hope we will think about how we might shift our thinking about the needs of our learners. As we read by the pool, vacation with family, attend conferences and trainings, work our part-time jobs, I hope we will think about language and how it can either make or break the communication that is so vital to a society, a society that will thrive on diversity, respect individuality, and foster empathy and productivity.

Teacher friends, that is our job. And I think it’s our duty.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. Facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy keeps her focused on her own learning. 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.

Mini-lesson Monday: Deeper Reading

 

I posted this on the TTT Facebook page on Saturday, but I think it also makes for a good mini-lesson, so here goes:

I went to a session by Kelly Gallagher at #IRC2016. He shared ideas from his book Deeper Reading, combining ideas he’s using with his students now. I was reminded of his thinking around thinking from a text: What does the text say? and What does the text not say?

Gallagher shared a few images from the news, a fact statement, an ad for a truck, and he modeled how he asks his students these two questions as ways to get them thinking about their reading.

I’d heard these same ideas before, but they resonated with me again. Critical thinking matters. We cannot get thoughtful writing, if we are not helping our students to think thoughtfully through texts.

Objective: Read a visual text, make observations and inferences that push critical thinking about a text. Draw conclusions and write your thinking.

Lesson:  Tell students that critical readers don’t just pay attention to what a text says, we also must pay attention to what a text does not say. This ties into the idea that everything is an argument — sometimes overt, sometimes covert. Bias also comes into play. So to get into some critical thinking today, we’re going to watch a short video about the refugee crisis.

Draw a T-chart. Label one column with “What does it say? and the other column “What does it not say?” As you watch the video make lists that answer these two questions.

Watch the video “Your phone is now a refugee’s phone.”

After students have time to do their own thinking and writing their lists (and maybe watch the video again), have them talk in pairs or small groups about the things they noted.

Hold a short whole class discussion about what it does for our thinking when we consider what the author, or in this case, the video creator, intentionally leaves out of a text.

Follow up:  Ask students to find their own text and apply this same thinking. Tell them they can find an advertisement, a chart or graph, an info graphic, another video — any text that they can answer the following questions:

What does the text say?
What does it not say?
Why does it matter?

Continue to ask students to consider these questions with a variety of texts throughout the year. This may also serve as a good exercise to help students find writing topics. Bonus!

 

Do you have any videos, ads, or short text suggestions that you use in similar ways to get students thinking critically? Please share them in the comments.

 

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#FridayReads — Picture Books in AP English

Sometimes speakers make you want to write. Last week when I listened to Lester Laminack was one of those times.

The North TX Council of Teachers of English Language Arts one-day conference was one week ago today. As president I had the honor of calling the meeting to order, and looking out at the audience of almost 600 ELA teachers, grades K-12, I could not help but think how fortunate the children in Texas are to have such dedicated teachers, teachers who want to help kids write, teachers who practice writing themselves.

Listening to Lester’s keynote as he talked about his writing process made my memories swirl, and my fingers get itchy.

I was not the only one.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 3.29.59 PM

I left wondering:  What if more teachers stirred that kind of memory moment in the students we want to move as writers?

Picture books have that power. Elementary teachers know this. They read books aloud to little writers. They talk about meaning around moments their students can relate to.

Sometimes I think we secondary teachers forget the power in stories. We forget that seemingly simple things can spark big thinking. I want to remember.

Here’s a list of 15 of the books I will read with my not-so-little writers in the coming year: Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 4.45.37 PM

Saturdays and Teacakes by Lester Laminack

All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis

Is There Really a Human Race? by Jamie Lee Curtis

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine

The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg

I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen

It’s a Book by Lane Smith

The Dark by Lemony Snicket

The Secret Olivia Told Me by N. Joy

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzburg

And I’ll probably use several of these:  wordless picture books

Please share your suggested titles for picture books you use in your secondary classroom.

 

Doing More with Essential Questions: Where and How Do I Belong?

As I read through Cyndi Faircloth’s post a few weeks back on Applying Essential Questions in Workshop, it got me thinking about the role of essential questions in my own classroom. As Cyndi said, I needed to do more. Using the essential question to choose mentor texts, guide quick writes, and frame discussion, we had done. I also encourage students to see the essential question as something answered by each and every text we encounter.

But this was about doing more. This was about students answering the question for
themselves; students lending their unique voices as “texts.” I was going to need to look at this from another angle.

My AP Language and Composition students recently finished a unit on community. Theyimageworked in and around the essential question, “What is the relationship of the individual to the community?” Through the study of a variety of essays, including everything from Henry David Thoreau’s “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” to Scott Brown’s “Facebook Friendonomics,”  to student selected current event articles, I watched my scholars analyze text to connect author’s purpose with rhetorical strategies. However, beyond that, I was blessed to be able to witness a conceptual development in these classes too. 

Students seemed genuinely surprised when they considered just how many communities they are a part of: geographical, family, faith, school, sports, friend, experiential. But when they started to consider their roles within those communities and words like responsibility, conformity, and balance began to dominate class discussion, I knew they were really on to something.

Students spoke of the dangers of conformity alongside the necessity for it. They explored the freedom found in chosen communities and the often unwelcome responsibilities to those communities we fall into by default. I saw them wrestle with the concept that communities rise and fall based on the actions and inactions of their members, and then saw evidence in more than one journal entry of the very real concern students have for their own part in that equation.

image_2As these kids get ready to head off to a world beyond the insulated suburban existence most of them have known all their lives, they know many of their foundational communities will be changing. For some, this change can’t come soon enough. For others, I think it will be a rude awakening. And still others, a chance to move toward the authentic selves that they so desperately need to discover.

To bring this unit to a close, I wanted to harness all the unique inquiry that we had experienced. To do so, I borrowed from my American Literature class. Throughout this year, my sophomores have started each unit by doing a bit of research on literary movements in American Literature (somewhat of a snoozefest to many). I wanted them to have some contextual understanding of the mentor pieces we would study, and so they gathered information on historical events responsible for the movement, major themes of works at the time, elements of style popular during the period, connections to music and art, and famous authors working within that movement.

Students gathered and compared their research findings in small groups and then were charged with symbolically representing their research on poster sized paper. For the imaginative qualities of Romanticism, we saw Sponge Bob. The Transcendentalist faces of Emerson and Thoreau became flowers in a pot, watered by Walt Whitman. Mark Twain held up a mirror to a map of the American South. In image_1short, students captured the movements and we hung up the evidence to remind us of the context of what we were exploring.

And so, for my AP Language students, I chose to end their unit on community by bringing
them together in small groups as well, to choose a specific community and illustrate an answer to the unit essential question. I figured if they answered the question without a specific community in mind, we’d get a lot of generic posters with people holding hands around the world – thank you, Google.

Instead, they had to choose specific communities to show their understanding of the complexity of the essential question and then supply textual evidence from the mentor texts we explored in order to support those symbolic meanings.

imageStudents shared some phenomenal work and I was impressed not only with the depth of their thinking, but the synthesis of texts this activity produced. And, because my own artistic development was apparently arrested in the second grade, it was such fun to see some of my visually gifted kids shine through the use of a new medium.

Zoey and Alyssa, who created the Statue of Liberty visual said the exercise allowed them to express their “artistic qualities – which is many times put on the back burner in AP courses.”

Creative expression of understanding put on the back burner? Shame on us.

And I know for a fact that AP classes aren’t the only place to suffer a similar fate. If we are going to do more with essential questions, we need to not only have students to be directly involved in answering them, but also give our kids more voice in the demonstration of their learning.

Ultimately, it was an assessment that combined creativity, common core standards, direct connection to the unit essential question, analysis, entertainment, synthesis, and genuine student enthusiasm. Not bad for mid-February in the frozen North.

How do you use essential questions to effectively deepen critical thinking? Please share your comments.

TTT welcomes Lisa Dennis, inspiring teacher and innovative leader at Franklin H.S. in Franklin, WI, as a visiting contributor on this blog.
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