Things I Know 138 of 365: English 101 ain’t got nothing on us

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?

– Langston Hughes

The ENG 101 syllabus of one of my former students states the following:

Students who pass the course will be able to do the following:

  • Use appropriate rhetorical development (such as analysis, comparison/contrast, interpretation and argument) to respond to the central ideas of an assigned text
  • Paraphrase sentences and short passages from reading texts
  • Analyze a written assignment
  • Develop essays of varying length and complexity that incorporate ideas from texts
  • Use a variety of sentence patterns, indicating a generally mature style
  • Evaluate effectiveness of their own writing via feedback from professor, peers and self to produce a rigorous revision
  • Use vocabulary that conveys meaning accurately and appropriately for a college student

Fantastic.

Awesome.

Super-sweet.

The thing is, I send my students out of my classroom with those skills. I send them out of the classroom with more than those skills.

As we fast-approach the end of the school year, my senior students are practicing their ability to analyze texts at their linguistic, semantic, structural and cultural levels and then apply various schools of literary criticism to find deeper meaning.

To their future professors, I say, challenge them.

We have been. It’s fun; trust me.

I’ve read plenty of articles denouncing the abhorrent linguistic skills with which college freshmen enter their university experiences.

Get over it.

Perhaps the problem lies not in the skills of the students but in the work they are being asked to complete.

On this same syllabus, the workload of the course is outlined:

In this class, you will write and revise 5 full-length essays plus write an in-class essay for a final exam. These will range in length from 3 pages (early essays) and gradually lengthen to 5 pages (last take-home essay).

My favorite implication in the above is the idea that an essay of 5 pages in length is somehow superior in content than an essay of 3 pages in length. I love the COSTCO approach to writing in bulk. It’s an excellent lesson to teach our students that more writing equals better writing.

Of particular note is the fact that the learning described in this syllabus will bore students to tears. Many high school teachers have gotten the memo that technology and 21st-century learning open up the ability for our students to learn and produce artifacts of their learning in varied and complex ways. And, we’re doing it while sticking to the content of yesterday as well. My G11 students will have written 12 analytical essays by the end of the year. Each of those papers will have centered around a thesis statement that is unique, inciteful and debatable – not to mention self-created.

Professors should also know they’re working and revising on google docs with peer feedback, building a portfolio of work on which they reflect at the end of each quarter. Their writing process is transparent, collaborative and authentic.

When the syllabus states, “Essays must be submitted to me in paper form (not email)…” I want to email the professor asking, “Why?” I reconsider, remembering this professor’s aversion to such correspondence.

My argument is simply this, whomever is designing the curriculum and pedagogy for the nation’s ENG 101 courses, know that we’ve been bringing our A-game for the last four years, and we’re sending you students who will be expecting the same from you.

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Things I Know 103 of 365: Students should teach one another

The secret is to gang up on the problem, rather than each other.

– Thomas Stallkamp

Matt and I looked at each other halfway through the class period and asked each other why we hadn’t tried this until the end of the third quarter.

In the last class of the last day before Spring Break, our students were working together, collaborating and mentoring one another all the way to the end of the period.

My original plan had been for my G11 students to visit Matt’s G9 class and share the vignettes they’d crafted and then discuss their writing process. I saw it as a chance for the upperclassmen to mentor the freshmen in reading and writing.

Surely, the younger students would be enamored of stories from their elder peers’ lives as readers. Well, probably not, now that I type that. The point is, we’ll never know.

As in the best learning experiences, very little went as planned.

Matt’s class had been disrupted earlier in the week by a field trip that had only taken a portion of the kids our of the room. Some students were working on making up the day, others were revising their own memoir projects and still more were working on a smothering of other smaller assignments.

As shocking as it was, I came to terms with the fact that these kids weren’t clamoring to hear vignettes detailing my students’ lives as readers.

Instead, we did something much less contrived. We had the older students pair up and work with the younger students.

They sat around Matt’s room. They occupied tables in the hall. They migrated to my room for more space.

The conversations were real and earnest.

“Mr. Chase,” one student said, “I don’t know who needs help.”

“Walk around and introduce yourself. Then, ask how you can help,” I told him.

He did.

I looked to one side of Matt’s room and saw one of my students who is most frequently off-task completely focused on helping one of Matt’s students improve his writing.

I would be lying if I told you I hadn’t been struggling daily to find ways to motivate this student to engage in class. Turns out she wasn’t waiting for my help, she was waiting to help.

After I’d heard a student advise, “You’ve got the outline of a paper here; now you need to fill it with what you want to say,” another one of my students approached me asking what he should do now that he’d helped two students with their papers.

“Go back to the one you helped first,” I said, “And see if she’s made any progress. It’s something I do as a teacher all the time to help students focus.”

He looked at me as though I’d just given him secret teacher knowledge.

In reality, the whole process was a reminder of my general lack of teacher knowledge.

While I’m keen to point out teaching’s general lack of willingness to utilize the wisdom of the elders of the profession, I should also be looking to the wisdom of our older students.

My students have walked this way before. They’ve known what it is to stare confoundedly at a laptop screen trying to piece an argument together. They’ve also felt alone in the effort to be better writers.

Every one of my students, no matter their level of proficiency, was an expert today to someone who benefited from that expertise.

I can and should attempt this type of cross-pollination more frequently. Failing to do so ignores the resources of the school and reinforces the artificial boundaries adolescence creates in the presence of a difference of two years.

Things I Know 56 of 365: My job is to look closely

You can observe a lot just by watching.

– Yogi Berra

In his discussion of the use of Critical Friends Group protocols with student work, Sam Chaltain explains the process as a chance to look more closely at what students have created. Rather than looking for what the teacher was hoping would come from an assignment, CFG protocols take a step back to ask what the student was doing, creating and attempting in the completion of an assignment.

It turns out you don’t need a protocol to be reminded we need to look more closely.

SLA welcomed visitors today.

Touring classrooms, they happened upon one of my senior storytelling classes.

After a few minutes, one of the visitors approached me.

“I walked in and saw kids cutting pictures out of magazines and thought, ‘This isn’t good.'”

Admittedly, as my students played with form and function as they diagrammed their six-word stories and then created art pieces to display those diagrams, it did look like an Adirondacks summer camp exploded in my room.

“But then I looked closer,” my guest continued. “There’s some deep work going on here.”

That’s the key.

“I want to take this class,” another visitor commented after spending five minutes listening to a student explain how he was attempting to understand what he was asking words to do in his story.

Admittedly, the room didn’t look like the standard English classroom today. Still, I was able to stop and have a real conversation about modifiers and direct objects with a kid who traditionally turns in 1 in 10 homework assignments. He wanted to make something that showed how his story did what it did. To accomplish this task of helping others understand his creation, he was willing to discuss prepositional phrases, understood subjects and adverbs.

“They’re doing some difficult work,” my first visitor explained.

“I know,” I said, “Don’t tell them.”

It’s not that I’m attempting to fool my students into learning. Monday, we’ll start looking more closely and talking more clinically about what they’re learning.

I didn’t want word to get out how difficult the task ahead was because they were creating. The drive to create had overcome the drive to exclaim the difficulty of creation. I didn’t want to stand in the way of that.

I didn’t want to stand in the way, but I still needed to look closely.

As my students were using yarn, construction paper, magazines, markers and colored pencils to create stories, I was looking closely at their abilities to understand language, build complex thoughts, dissect narrative and understand the relative relationships of words.

Shhhhh.

I’ll be using the CFG protocols to get my peers’ feedback on student work soon. For now, my goal is to look closely as that work is completed and understand what’s working and what isn’t.

Rather than have them pause and take a test, my goal is to have them continue to create so I can continue to learn about their learning.

Things I Know 54 of 365: I teach kids English

Victor Hugo

I teach kids.

First and foremost, I teach kids.

It’s always in the front of my brain.

The stupendously great thing is I get to teach kids something I love.

In the important rhetoric around the idea that I teach kids, I want to make it clear that I teach kids a subject or a discipline or a an art.

Sometimes, it’s all three.

My only real run-in with diagramming sentences was in Dr. Jerry Balls’s Traditional and Non-Traditional Grammar course in college.

For most of the other students in the room, diagramming sentences was the hellacious experience I remember it being portrayed as in some episode of The Wonder Years.

For me, though, something else was there. In diagrams, I saw something beautiful. The way Mr. Curry had seen beauty as we worked through problems in calculus or Mr. Schutzenhoffer saw beauty in the molecular models of chemistry, I was seeing tangibly represented in the subject I identified most closely.

I wanted to talk about what I saw, the way what language was doing was being played out in what we were seeing.

Dr. Balls and my classmates wanted to finish the lesson.

He was teaching a subject.

The seniors in my storytelling class started today at SixWordStories.net.

“Read until you’re moved to create,” I said, “Then let me know when you need a marker.”

They started reading.

Around the room, I heard students reading key stories aloud.

Not surprisingly, the sexy stories were a pretty big hit.

Gradually, hands went up.

I took them markers.

“What do I do?”

“Write some six-word stories.”

And they started to write stories on their desktops – all over their desktops.

Missy covered her entire table and had to move to another to keep writing.

At some point, when the tables of the room were awash with stories – beautiful, heartbreaking, hilarious stories – we watched a simple video I found as I was digging around the TALONS English wiki.

The video ended. “For the next step, you’ll be diagramming your stories. I can tell by the somewhat terrified looks on many of your faces that you haven’t the foggiest idea how to diagram a sentence. That’s ok. The Interwebs has millions of pages to help you out.”

A beat.

They began looking up the information they needed.

A few minutes later, they were taking their works of literary art and deconstructing them. We started to talk about how where the words were related to what the words were and how the story did or didn’t change when all the same words were in a space together but being asked to show how they were doing what they were doing.

Tomorrow, we’ll head to the final phase.

We’ll move our diagrammed stories (and I say our because I’m writing one as well) off of the tables and onto tangible objects and representations to be displayed around school. The subject of storytelling, the discipline of diagramming and the art of creation will be knotted together.

When students ask me why I chose English, I explain I love words. I love their power, their beauty, their arbitrary natures, their shifting meanings.

I know few, if any, of my students will major in English as they further their studies. I’m perfectly happy with that, so long as they can see English.

As much as I would not be doing my job if I didn’t work every moment to see my students, I would also be failing if I didn’t work to help them to see the transcendent beauty of my subject – to try on a new perspective.

Putting a Great American (novel) to the Test

The Gist:

  • My G11 students will start reading The Great Gatsby soon.
  • I’m not the biggest fan.
  • I’m thinking about putting the book on trial for slander / libel against other books.
  • I’m looking for suggestions.

The Whole Story:

One of the things I noted at the end of my last post was the importance of nailing my approach when I have my students reading a common text again. That will get underway come March. One of the anchor texts in our G11 English curriculum is The Great Gatsby. The theme for the G11 year is Change, so Gatsby certainly works. The thing is, I’m not a huge fan. Truly.

In all honesty, I made it through high school without encountering what many people (English teachers especially) count as the pinnacle of American letters. Not until my first unit whilst student teaching did I come into contact with Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. In subsequent readings, I’ve found value in the book, but it doesn’t make me feel weak in the knees.

I see overlap and relevance in the text, but I’m hesitant to be another English teacher unpacking this book and making my students understand the symbolism of all those damned shirts.

Here’s the thinking:

  • Every student in the class reads Gatsby.
  • In small groups, the majority of the students (minus a Gatsby group), read one other text per group.
  • Each of the other groups build a case for how their text is equal to or better than Gatsby, thereby proving claims of Gatsby’s place as the ultimate American novel as slanderous and libelous.
  • The Gatsby group is given a heads up by the other groups as they read on what passages of the other books will be important in making the case against Gatsby and the Gatsby group reads those passages.

This all culminates with a trial or debate which I’m envisioning as something similar to a class action suit.

Here are my trepidations / questions:

  • Is a trial / debate played out?
  • Should the other texts have a common theme such as “the American dream?”
  • Do I select other texts from across all time periods?
  • Does this pass the authentic learning muster?

I’ve been mulling this one over for quite some time. I’m writing about it here, before the fact, because I’m looking to cast a wider brainstorming net.

Thoughts?

And they protested Harry Potter?

The Gist:

Twilight Saga =

Cycle of Abuse

The Whole Deal:

I bought my younger sister Kirstie her copy of Breaking Dawn for her birthday. She was 15. It’s a hard life having an older brother as an English teacher – you’re pretty much guaranteed books as gifts for the rest of your life. She didn’t seem to mind. I would have bought my elder younger sister her copy too, but she was 18 when it came out and went with her friend to the midnight book release.

Today, I feel guilty.

I just got back from New Moon.

No other film in recent memory has reassured me of the necessity of my job teaching students to read texts critically.

I’ve stayed away from reading the Twilight series beyond the first chapter of the first book. It didn’t engage me (read – it was poorly written), and so I opted out.

I don’t remember seeing the first film. I remember leaving and thinking it was bad. I chalked it up to Melissa Rosenberg‘s writing or Catherine Hardwicke‘s directing.

Having seen New Moon, I realize I might have been wrong.

This series is dangerous.

If you’re in the dark, here’s the deal.

Girl falls for guy she can’t have. He can’t resist her. If he gets her, he’ll kill her. They decide to make a go of it. Things go badly, she sits in her room staring catatonically out the window for what the audience is told is three months. Somewhere after the three months, her father steps in and suggests that this behavior is possibly unhealthy. She takes his advice and decides to engage in risky behavior. Whilst beginning to engage in said behavior, she strikes up a relationship with a new guy. He promises to be different than Guy 1,  “I know what he did to you but Bella, I want you to know I will never hurt you.” Turns out she can’t have that guy either. Guy one breaks his promise:

I swore I wasn’t going to get mad, no matter what you said to me. But… I just got so upset that I was going to lose you… that you couldn’t deal with what I am…

Jacob Black, New Moon, Chapter 13, p.312

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Now, I don’t deny Twilight its right to exist. What I wish I could deny are early studio reports that New Moon has the third largest opening in Hollywood history.

Judging only by audience reactions as the movie unfolded, we’ve got cause for worry. Few, if any, of my fellow theatergoers were experiencing the same churning stomachs as I.

Twilight to Girls: By being who you are, you make it hard for boys to resist what they want to do to you.

Girls to Twilight: Awwwwww.

Twilight to Boys: Girls will tempt you to lose control just by being themselves. Make sure you let them know they are leading you to lose control and that losing control will result in them losing their beauty, their souls and / or their lives.

Boys to Twilight: Cool…vampires.

We need to be teaching this book – or at least teaching our students to read this book with questions in their minds.

As I understand it, Girl becomes a vampire at the end of it all. She gets married, of course. So, once she’s lost herself, she loses her soul.

According to author Stephenie Meyer:

Breaking Dawn‘s cover [a queen chess piece] is a metaphor for Bella’s progression throughout the entire saga. She began as the weakest (at least physically, when compared to vampires and werewolves) player on the board: the pawn. She ended as the strongest: the queen. In the end, it’s Bella that brings about the win for the Cullens.

And all it costs her is her soul, her life and individuality.

“You’re overestimating my self-control.” I know the feeling.