Tag Archives: English

Students Writing for Authentic Audiences

21 Sep

audienceUgh. Just ugh. I am human, I suppose. Lately, I have not been making the time to write. I know I should just be kind to myself about this, acknowledge the craziness that is starting a new school, and put my butt in a seat and my fingers on the keyboard. I try to carve out at least ten minutes every day for my own writing, but I have fallen out of this habit. Well…back to it, then. My apologies, dear readers.

In the core of this teacher’s heart, I know this to be true. Students’ writing is better when it matters to them, and the most important step to getting students to care about their writing is helping them…guiding them…forcing them…begging them…bribing them…to write for someone other than their balding English teacher. I begin every school year dedicated to making each essay assignment one that matters, one that is written for an authentic audience. In reality, I am happy when my students produce one such piece every three months or so.

I suppose, like most things I attempt in the classroom, the “hybrid” approach works best. I use more traditional essay prompts (students responding to literature or a question I create . . . writing something that stays within the walls of our classroom) to gain a sense of how I might help individual students improve. These “practice essays,” then, lay the groundwork for the more meaningful moments where I ask the students to create their own writing for an audience they find.

For instance, in the grade 11 Rhetoric classes I taught last year, we began the term with a THIS I BELIEVE essay, followed that with a personal narrative, and ended the trimester with a student-generated descriptive essay. For this third major essay I did not create a prompt. I simply told the students they must demonstrate their skills with descriptive language by writing a piece to someone other than me.

We brainstormed possible topics and audiences over a few days (while completing other lessons) and, as homework, students read previous students’ work. We discussed what worked in the model essays, and students quickly conferred with me about their own ideas.

This set-up is fairly predictable and simple. The results, however, are anything but. Reading these self-guided pieces is never a chore. Instead, I am energized by the students’ work and excited to see them taking ownership of language and audience.

Here’s a list of the authentic audiences my students find. I begin with the audiences I find most successful, but any of these are better than something written just to me. Please share your ideas in the comments section. I am ALWAYS looking for more ideas about how we can help our students find authentic audiences:

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Year 16 Recap: Every Single Day

8 Jun

I have jumped out of an airplane only once in my life, and what I remember most vividly is the sound. Upon first jumping from the plane the ripping wind and my own primal screams mixed into a roaring mayhem that I can’t really recall, but once the chute deployed, a clean silence instantly replaced the chaos.

The end of every school year feels similar. The wild stir of things-to-do is quickly replaced with sudden (and delicious) emptiness. I always try to savor this shift and give myself at least one day of nothingness.

My last day with students was yesterday. As I end my 16th year in the classroom, I can’t honestly write that I have reached this beautiful absence of work. I am moving to Germany at the end of this month, so I still have a crazy amount of things to do.

Therefore, since I am not yet free of the howling wind of the school year, I’ll make this post brief . . . but hopefully useful. I keep my class calendars through Google Docs and Google Sites and thought it might be interesting to share with you what my students and I did this school year. Here you go. Each day of my school year is here. Dip in. Ignore it completely. Stalk us through every single day. I hope you find something useful.

Public Speaking: TEDx Classroom

American Literature 10th Grade

Rhetoric 11th Grade

An Alternative to Traditional Summer Reading

5 Jun

Our Head of School hates summer reading. He has banned it.

Before you think ill of him, he’s a former English teacher who cares deeply about engendering a love of reading in all students. His position? Assigned summer reading does more harm than good.

Our students, then, are required to read the equivalent to at least three novels over the summer. They decide what they read. They can even read magazines, blogs, or other genres as long as this reading approximates the length of three books.

We want our students to read habitually, and we want them use summer reading time to explore their passions. When they return from summer break, we spend some time talking about their summer reading (and I have them write about it). We do not, however, quiz them or assign major projects. The program is largely run on an honor system.

Now, I KNOW some students fail to complete any summer reading. Yet, far fewer students slack off than one would think. The majority of the students choose appropriate, engaging work, and as a result, many more students enjoy summer reading.

It’s important to note, too, that the majority of the students I teach do NOT consider themselves natural readers or writers. Many of my students have language-based learning issues that require some form of accommodation. A choice-based system, especially for this population of reluctant readers, makes even more sense.

Over the three years we have used this summer reading policy, I consistently receive feedback from struggling readers about how it has helped them. I have also found that all students are more likely to continue to have a positive attitude toward our choice reading throughout the school year because they have been given the chance to develop their own reading habits.

Betty writes: “At the end of every school year, there’s only one thing I actually dread that’s upcoming in the summer, and that’s summer reading. Some of the books that I’ve had to read in middle school were absolutely dire, probably the most uninteresting stories I’ve ever had to sit through. The fact that I’m not an avid reader and that I don’t enjoy it in general makes it all the worse. The Beaver summer reading policy helped me as a reader in many ways, mostly by letting me be engaged in the texts that I got to choose on my own.”

Jackson writes, “In most cases when I read an assigned book over the summer, I only read it because I have to. I tend not to be very engaged and just read to finish the book. In addition, I usually take the lazy way out while reading an assigned book. I might end up skipping parts of the book, which does not happen if I am reading a book that interests me. When I read a good book, tt usually makes me want to read more books and expand my knowledge. I think this goes for a lot of kids out there that are in the same boat as me.”

Carl writes, “I have never liked to read very much, but the summer reading policy allowed me to be interested and actually like what I was reading. Beyond that, it also made me want to read…I read the book American Fencer, and I was very interested in this book because he was going through a process of international and Olympic fencing, which I would like to do someday.  I think that I am the only one in the class that would be interested in the book, so it would not get assigned by any teacher.  Because I was able to read a book that I was interested in, there were times during the summer that I wanted to pick up a book and read instead of doing something like play video games.  If we were assigned books I would have tried to procrastinate and avoid reading as much as possible.”

These three students (changed their names, of course) grew so much this year, and they are representative of the type of student I love to teach…an interesting, independent student who just doesn’t really “get” English class without some help. While each of them is still not likely to consider himself or herself a “reader,” each approaches reading with far less dread than one year ago. I know that my work in the classroom has helped shaped their improved attitude toward reading, and I’m happy that our summer reading policy nurtures this enthusiasm instead of squashing it.

It really is impossible to choose the perfect summer reading book to assign every student, so I think we should stop trying. Instead, set a total book (or page) goal, and let the students choose their own texts. We can tackle the dense stuff during the school year. Such an approach will do more to engender a love of reading that lasts well beyond our time with each individual student.

Alternative Classroom Discussion Formats

25 May

I’m closing in on my sixteenth year in an English classroom, and as any veteran teacher will admit, falling into ruts can be fairly easy. I will freely acknowledge that I can sometimes slip into default mode, especially when it comes to class discussions. I know how to foster a well-paced, inclusive discussion that avoids the Select Few dominating the discourse. I don’t, then, feel particularly impelled to change the format. But, boy, I’m glad that I still do.

My colleague in sophomore English is a gregarious, inventive, and reflective teacher just finishing his second year. He has some really good ideas on how to flip modes of discussion to play to various students’ strengths. In this post, I’m just going to rip off his ideas (and some ideas from others), giving full credit, of course.

The Experts Panel:

My colleague came up with this idea. At my school, students taking English for honors credit and those receiving standard credit are in the same section. We have to differentiate in some creative ways. One thing honors students must do is read an extra book and participate in extra discussions outside of class. This term students read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.

As the students read the book, we constructed a series of Fishbowl Discussions to monitor their understanding of the text. (More on the Fishbowl technique below.) For the final discussion, however, we devised an alternative format using Google Hangouts. Unfortunately, we hit a snag. Users under 18 years of age cannot record Google Hangouts. Scrambling for an alternative, my colleague came up with the Experts Panel format.

We determined general categories of discussion topics beforehand and asked each student to prepare a few discussion questions from each category, emphasizing that the quality of their questions would help us gauge their understanding of the novel.

On the day of the discussion, we randomly chose three to four students to sit at the front as our expert panel. Then, using wheeldecide.com to make a spinner, we randomly chose the topic. In addition to the categories listed in the assignment description, we added Teacher’s Choice and random prizes.

Once the category was chosen, the audience asked questions and the panelists provided answers. When a topic was exhausted, we rotated panelists, with every student getting a chance to be an expert. Of course, the teachers asked questions and sat on a panel, but we were largely observers.

The rapid fire Q&A format led to one of the best literary discussions of my teaching career. Students on the experts panel really worked to provide erudite and original answers, while a healthy competition arose in the audience to ask the most intelligent question.

This Experts Panel format would work for any subject area. Of course, if used too often any format becomes tedious, but the students truly responded to this approach.

Fishbowl Discussion:


This video at Edutopia does a better job than I could explaining the format. As my honors students read Swamplandia! we scheduled a few fishbowl discussions so I could monitor their understanding and guide their analysis. Students also took notes on a shared Google Doc as they discussed so they could reference these notes later on. Due to numbers, I was the only one on the outside of the fishbowl, but I’ve used this format often. Giving students the chance to observe discussion can greatly improve their contributions when they are active participants.

Structured Academic Conversation as Debate Alternative

 

Tweet the Debate

 

Alternative Discussion Formats: Dr. Cavanaugh

 

50 Alternatives to Lecture

I Would Wear that Pink Suit: an English teacher reviews “The Great Gatsby”

18 May

The Great GatsbyThe book is always better than the movie. What would you expect an English teacher to write? Yet, some adaptations can become something wonderful in their own right: The Lord of the Rings, The Wonder Boys, Out of Sight, The Princess Bride, Shawshank Redemption….I better stop because those last three disprove my rule. I prefer the movies to the books.

This past week a colleague and I watched Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby with about thirty students (and one Bruins player I would never-ever recognize but who sent the kids into a minor flutter). I did not expect to see the novel perfectly transposed on the screen,  so I was not surprised to find that I like Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby and his green light.

First, let’s celebrate the fact that the glittering, bass-bumping film puts teenagers in the seats (without the promise of extra credit). The critics panning the film have probably never worked with teenagers. I have taught this novel 20+ times and am excited to teach it again with this film as a resource. It will certainly help me hook more of my students on one of the greatest American novels.

Baz Luhrmann’s style works well with many of Fitzgerald’s major themes. The director’s kinetic cuts, thumping scores, and lush-and-purposefully-cartoonish color palettes perfectly articulate the grandeur and absurdity of Gatsby’s vision. I spend considerable time in the classroom helping students see the over-the-top nature of Gatsby’s choices. The kids, however, end up imagining party scenes where stiffs in suits sip martinis and swoon stylishly over droll, blue-blooded humor.

A few seconds of the movie’s pool party, however, smashes this misconception and replaces it with a visceral portrayal of the excess Fitzgerald splashes throughout the novel. Inflatable zebras might not have existed in the Roaring Twenties (or maybe they did?), but we should overlook such anachronisms and bathe in the hypnotic extravagance. Very few teenagers would want to be invited to the parties described in the book. (Their loss, of course, as Fitzgerald knew what a good time looks like.) But, almost every person under the age of 35–and plenty of us over that benchmark–would jump at the chance to rage at one of Luhrmann’s blowouts.

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The Great Gatsby Resources

4 May

gatsby bannerThe very first website I ever visited was for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. I instantly fell in love with the movie and the power of the Internet. Needless to say, I am hoping for similar magic from his adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Of course, I’ve seen Australia, so I’m not getting too hopeful.

My colleague and I will take an eager group of students to see the film, so I thought I would share a quick post on some of my favorite Gatsby resources:

 

The Roaring Twenties On-line Game from McCord Museum (a great way to introduce some cultural context before reading the novel)

 

Daisy’s Lullaby (my favorite Gatsby YouTube video)

A Series of Links I use to generate discussions on wealth distribution in the U.S. Today:

How Is Wealth Divided in the U.S.?
Graphic Information on America’s Distribution of Wealth
How the Rich Get Richer
How the Poor Get Poorer
NYT Interactive Class Calculator

Was Gatsby Great? Asks John Green at Crash Course Literature:

Go Gatsbify Yourself

GreatGatsbyAvatar-960x640

Writing Rubric Reboot: 6plus1

30 Apr

red penIn my second year of teaching, I made a grievous, but memorable, error. I was always the type of student who was motivated by tough love. My favorite teachers were the ones with the highest expectations, and a scribbled, gruff marginal note like, “You’re a better writer than this. Try again” was often enough to send me under the hood of the text. Of course, I am not every student. Wanting to motivate a student I knew could do much better, I returned her essay with this brief message scrawled across the top, “This is the worst essay I have ever read. Try again.”

Looking back, I don’t recognize the young teacher who would be so callous with a not-much-younger student. Of course, my comment only did harm. It gave my student no hope, no information about what to do next. The only saving grace about this regrettable action? I was allowing her to revise. That, and I learned to never do something like this again.

Thankfully, this student and I worked past this incident. I apologized; she forgave. A year later, she moved to another school, but during a return visit, she visited me and shared the 6plus1 Writing Traits rubric her new English teacher was using. Not surprisingly, it was helping her, and I instantly adopted the practice in my own classes.

Over the years, for whatever reason, I have drifted away from the 6plus1 terminology, but this trimester I decided to bring it back. The shift only required slight alterations to the scoring guides I already used:

Timed Essay Scoring Guide w/ 6+1

The Six Plus One traits have existed since the mid-80s, and these descriptors of good writing are an attempt to quantify what makes writing work. Using them—especially when they are used across grade levels and disciplines—can demystify writing feedback for students and help them recognize what they do well and target what they need to improve.

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Wikis as Textbooks

7 Apr
Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.

Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.

Let’s be honest. Wikis are ugly. At least the wikis I make are not sleek and arresting in a visual sense. Yet, I use wikis in a variety of ways that I find elegant and interesting. Think of them as a ten-year-old Toyota Corolla. They usually won’t turn heads, but they run beautifully and always do what they should.

Wikis as Textbooks

This past fall, I taught a brand spankin’ new public speaking course based on TED talks. I had never taught public speaking, so in preparation, I searched for the perfect textbook. I have never used a textbook in any class, but my own insecurities where sending me looking for some solid backup. Well, I didn’t find the perfect textbook (because they don’t exist). Instead, I decided to have the students create their own textbook using a class wiki:

Public Speaking Class Textbook

The experience reinforced my belief in constructivism. While far from perfect, our self-constructed textbook served our purposes perfectly. After giving their first speeches, I asked the students, “O.K. Now that you’ve given one speech, what do you think you need to learn?” Their answers became our chapters.

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Interactive Video (Part Two): Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker

16 Mar

Mozilla Popcorn MakerTo my shock and horror, my students claimed to have never seen a PopUp Video. They were vaguely aware of VH1 and suspected that some old people still watch it? If it even exists?

We were brainstorming uses of Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker, and I was sharing that a colleague had a great idea of using the free online tool to make a PopUp video of a presidential debate. As candidates make their claims, viewers could fact-check or point out rhetorical techniques, completely changing the viewer’s experience. A quick search and fifteen seconds of the Ghostbusters’ Theme Popup had them back on track. (They actually knew what I was talking about after all.)

Recently, I have been exploring how to make online videos more interactive for the viewer. In Interactive Video (Part One), I reviewed TED-ed’s Flipped Video Interface. In this post I will examine Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker, an easy way to take most anything that exists on the Internet and “lay it” over a video or audio track.

For my first experiment, I took the same video I flipped at TED-ed and used it to explore Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker. I have about two hours invested in this current version, and after a colleague gave me some time saving tips, I found the interface to be simple and intuitive. I suggested the tool to some students, as well, and they picked it up without any instruction on my part. In addition, some of my colleagues and I brainstormed uses for Popcorn Maker during a recent  in-house professional development session. Feel free to add your own ideas to this list! As I collect examples of the various ways we use the tool, I will share them.

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Interactive Video (Part One): Flipping at TED-Ed

9 Mar

TEDedYou, like me, have spent a fair amount of time watching on-line videos. Who can blame us? When we need a break from grading, routines, or vacuuming, lovely owls, talking dogs, or five people playing one guitar are irresistible draws. Of course, video can be a powerful teaching tool, too. You surely are amazed by my obvious commentary. No? Well, let me try to impress you, then.

Two free online tools—Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker and TED-ed’s Flipped Interface–can make online videos more interactive. I am still in the early stages of experimentation with both, and my students are using the tools, so my opinions are still very much developing. Yet, at this nascent stage, I am intrigued (and harbor some reservations). In this post I will focus on the TED-ed channel’s “flip” interface.

You have probably already been to TED-ed. If not, stop reading this. Go there now. I’ll see you in a few hours.

TED-ed is a valuable resource for classroom teachers, a nicely edited platform with many visually arresting videos on a variety of topics. The “flipped” videos already have comprehension questions and supplemental resources built in.

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