Category Archives: Big Picture

Letting people in the door.

I recently discovered Peg with Pen, and in particular her post “A Quick Guide for Resisting from Within for Educators.” I appreciate this list for a variety of reasons–especially her exhortation to take the high road, when educators have good reason to go for low blows–but it was the second item on her list that caught me:

Open the door.

In the context of the post, opening the door is about letting the greater community see the goodness and light in your classroom, instead of seeking to protect it from the potential harm that could be brought by outside forces.

In my head, however, this statement was also about opening the door as an individual teacher, to yourself and your practice.

I’m fortunate to work at a school where we (literally) keep our doors open all the time — and I work with colleagues who I trust to wander in, jump into class discussions and activities, and give me useful feedback whenever they feel like it.

But in the last year or so, I’ve also opened my door to other parties. I’ve scaled up the Student Assistant Teachers in my classroom so that I typically have one in every section that I teach. I said yes to a university researcher, who took transcripts in my class for two years, blew my mind with her doctoral thesis, suggested that I write an article (published) and apply to a national conference (accepted), and eventually inspired me to overhaul my entire approach to the 10th grade curriculum (more on that later). I had no idea that partnership was going to be so fruitful for me. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that it could turn into a partnership.

This year, I also finally took on a student teacher from the same program I completed six years ago. I got a freshly-minted colleague from September until April, and my students got an addition to their “teaching team,” which usually means three people. I cannot emphasize how awesome this is.

Despite the ongoing threat that my school district will crumble into dust, It’s been a really good year, thanks to the folks around me that were willing to step into my classroom and professional life.

So, who can help you? You should really open the door for them.

(Admittedly, the second half this year was not such a good one for this blog… considering a more regular schedule for 2014.)

#Engchat and Teacher Action Group for Social Justice.

I am beyond thrilled to be co-hosting the next #engchat! This Monday, October 14th, Teacher Action Group will be hosting this week’s discussion around the theme of social justice education.

What’s more, this chat will not just be on Twitter — it will also be a live meet-up at Fado, located at 1500 Locust Street. Come join us starting at 6:30 for some in person discussion before the session begins at 7pm!

Here’s the official write-up:

Students learn to read and write in English class. They practice their methods of observation, analysis, and response. But does school give them a chance to apply those skills to the real world and its problems?

This week’s #engchat will focus on how teachers can facilitate social justice education in their classrooms. Now more than ever, students are living in a world where their lives are marked by inequality–in income, resources, and opportunity. No matter their situation in life, students can benefit from turning the critical lenses learned in English class towards their “real life.” The chat will be a space to discuss both the big picture theory behind social justice as well as tips and tricks on how to facilitate meaningful lessons and activities in school.

First time participant in #Engchat? Great! Bring your laptop, tablet, or smartphone and we can help you get set up to participate. (Don’t have a Twitter account? We can help you with that too.)

Not an English teacher? The topics discussed in this week’s chat will be for all teachers — so join us!

Outside of Philadelphia? Follow the hashtag #engchat on Twitter, starting Monday at 7PM.

Speaking out is not that hard.

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Almost two months ago now, I set up the Faces of The Layoffs website.

It was a really simple impulse — I wanted to do something for a friend and former colleague who had gotten a layoff notice in the mail that day. What if I could post her story on Facebook, with a photo to put a face on it? I thought. Wait. What if we could get everybody to do that?

Thanks to Teacher Action Group, bringing this idea into reality was easy. We brainstormed some catchy titles, spent $18 on a unique domain name via WordPress.com, and launched the site on a Sunday afternoon, about two hours after I thought of the idea and two hours of actual “work.”

The most rewarding part of this project was interacting with people who sent in submissions for the site. The vast majority of entries were sent in not by the people who got the layoff notices, but by their colleagues and family members who took the time to honor the skill and dedication of those close to them. Many of them wrote and said, “thank you for giving me something to do about this.” Many of them also wrote, “what can I do now?” The basic organizing principles worked beautifully: take your anger, find some hope, and make a plan.

On the flip side, the most difficult part of the project was wondering about all of the schools from which we received no entries. Were they shy about sharing the fact of their unemployment, often a private matter? Nervous about retribution from their administrations or the district? Or just in the dark about the project? (At one point, after we had been on the cover of the Metro and interviewed on Action News,  we even cold-called the offices of some schools in an attempt to broaden our reach.)

As you may know, the school district budget is still a mess. I don’t think for a second that the Faces project will solve that. But we managed to influence public opinion for the better — and it was not that hard (see paragraph 3.) I had a good idea, and a few great communities to support me.

If you’re in Philadelphia and you haven’t spoken up yet, collect your anger and come join us now.

Protests and Storytelling.

Poster by Alaina.

Poster by Alaina.

A number of our students have chosen to get early dismissal from their families and attend a rally organized by the Philadelphia Student Union.

As a result, a number of us were also left in school — which made Keystone Exam prep not the wisest option for the day.

So, what did we do instead?

We crafted our own responses to the projected school district budget shortfall.

Richard wrote a letter describing his concerns about losing the Engineering program at SLA.

Reggie is seeking individual stories from students about the cuts, to compile into a document.

Allen is worried that basketball will be cut next year — and he also doesn’t think that his voice will be heard on this.

Lloyd described his love of computers, and how SLA has helped his skills grow.

Alaina created a digital poster and also wrote about her experience with Computer Science at SLA.

The ultimate message — you are free to decide how you need to respond to these budget cuts, but the most effective stories are the specific ones. It may be counterintuitive, but these details have the most universal reach.

How to Enrich Publich Education.

I’m happy to be the co-signer of an opinion piece that ran in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Here’s a key section — as the representative for Teacher Action Group, I can say that we were particularly keen on expressing this sentiment:

When it comes to learning readiness, it’s important to acknowledge the violence of poverty and its impact on children. Children from families that are proximate to poverty have diminished learning readiness. The solution is to provide safe neighborhoods, sustainable employment, and access to health care. Poverty, however, is outside the direct purview of teachers. It is a societal responsibility. The challenges we face in school are a result of an anti-intellectual, anti-democratic economy that maintains the violence of poverty and vilifies teachers in the process.

I fear that too many people assume that teachers don’t deserve to be a part of the larger discussion about quality education — or that we’re too busy making lesson plans to even think about these matters. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Thanks to Gamal Sherif and Teachers Lead Philly for inviting TAG to co-sign the letter.

How can we best teach context for quotes?

Beautiful, or beastly?

Beautiful, or beastly? Click on the image to go see the flow chart so far.

One aspect of composition that consistently troubles my students (and vexes me) is introducing outside sources in a paper.

For a literary essay, the rules are relatively simple: make sure you include the text title and author somewhere, give us a little plot background so we can understand what’s going on, etc. But for non-fiction analytical writing, the variety of sources available makes identifying proper and adequate context for a quote much more difficult. How exactly should one quote a comment on a YouTube video? Do I need to include the author’s name here? Should this detail be quoted directly or just summarized?

Here are a few common issues I see with my students when they write 2Fer Essays:

  • They present human sources (who are not household names) without any context as to why that person is a credible source (“According to Joe Sixpack…”)
  • After the first reference, they refer to this person by their first name only.
  • On the other extreme, they will over-narrate their own quotation. (“According to an article published in The Examiner Online, it is quoted as saying that…”)
  • They include context for the information after it is presented, not before.

At first, it seemed like an advanced algorithm that you learned over time — eventually your intuition would tell you that you needed to write “New York Times Columnist David Brooks” and not just “David.” But “just wait ’til your older” is hardly an instructional method.

The best idea I have right now? A flow chart. Me and a few of my SAT’s are currently hashing out as many iterations of citing sources we can think of, and then we will try to create an easy-to-follow chart as best we can.

Is this going to work? I really don’t know. It could turn out to be an awesome tool, or it could be messy and incomprehensible.

But go ahead and check out our draft so far. Leave comments here if you have any ideas or edits.

(And if there’s something else out there like this, please let me know!)

Project Based Learning, Session 4

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Most of this session was centered around Brad Latimer, Math teacher at SLA. He shared a downloadable collection of lesson plans and materials with us, which included project descriptions and rubrics for both Algebra 2 and Calculus projects. And then we peppered him with questions for an hour and a half.

What makes group work happen?

  • Classroom set-up matters. In Brad’s class, students are always in pods of 4 or 5 except when quizzing. At the start of a regular class, they work on their warm-up in groups, and are also assigned to occasionally present the warm-up in those groups. They are used to doing structured class work and presentations all year, so getting into group projects is less of a challenge. By the time they get into projects, they know who they do and don’t work well with.
  • You have the flexibility to both have students pick their own groups and pick for them.

How do you deal with the group work “disasters?”

  • At the first day of a project, he asks students: Have you ever done a group project? Have you ever worked in a group where someone hasn’t carried their weight? Students then talk about what makes a good partner.

Do your projects have clear roles for each group member?

  • The short answer: Sometimes. Most of the time he lets people figure out their own roles, so they figure out how to best work together.
  • You can be surprised about what tasks might “wake up” a student, so that can be an advantage to not assigning roles.
  • It can be great to have a project that relies on individual work that is then combined into a group final product / presentation. There’s more interdependence.
  • But there’s also a struggle between giving students independent autonomy and also getting them to deeply collaborate with each other. Too much freedom can encourage students to just create in separate bubbles and slap it together at the end, without integrating and proofing their work.
  • For one project, Brad had an 80/20 point value split for group/individual points in a project — so students were individually motivated, but the majority of the grade still relies on the group project.
  • From Jaimie: One way to help track progress is to have students self-assess on a chart each day: what do they think the goal was, and how well did they meet it during that class? The teacher can then do a quick check-plus check-minus on the day. This also becomes a part of their process grade for the project, so they are motivated to hold on to it.

How do you scaffold students who are new to group work?

  • Very, very carefully and with repetition!
  • For freshmen, big projects usually have a clear deadline after each class of work. Sometimes the master plan for the project isn’t even revealed until halfway through the work (or even later) to prevent students from the “sticker shock” of a big project that they think is insurmountable.

What would you do differently? What are project based traps?

  • Try to give out the rubric quickly with the project description. THey need to see exactly how it’s going to be scored and what the point breakdown is.
  • Break the project down into intermediate deadlines.
  • There is a lot to be said about showing examples from previous years. There are different ways to do this — share it briefly, let them peruse for a set period of time, or longer, but let them know you know it well.
  • Do the project yourself!
  • Be flexible with changing projects mid-stream. Or seeing a glimmer of good work for the next round of pojrects. Or tossing one when it really didn’t work for students.
  • Let students pick three students they’re interested in working with, and the option of a “no go” list for people that would be bad matches. This gives them freedom while also giving you the ability to control for productive groups.

Next week, we will be sharing and peer reviewing our draft lesson plans.

Related posts: Project Based Learning, Sesson 1 / Session 2 / Session 3

Building a Collective Understanding of Prisons.

Last summer, I devoted much of my month abroad to writing an article about an SLA unit on prisons and imprisonment, originally developed by Humanities Teacher Josh Block. I’m happy to announce its publication in English Journal this month.

Here’s a little preview:

As a teacher who values critical thinking and getting students to see the bigger picture, I look forward to pushing their thinking on this topic. Sometimes it feels like I’ve got a big box of figurative dynamite hidden beneath my desk—if students have a hard-and-fast notion about the way the world works, I am there to blow it up. (It can be as simple as one question, like, “Why don’t men wear skirts?”)
Getting students to a new understanding, though, can be tricky. I want students to be more aware of the systems and structures around them, but I don’t want to push them toward a particular worldview or, worse yet, make them feel like they are under attack and have them shut down. This feels especially true for this unit. Prisons may be under-discussed in schools, but that doesn’t mean that students don’t have preconceived, and sometimes deeply personal, ideas about what’s going on with our justice and penal systems

Check out the whole article here. Many thanks to Heather Hurst for researching my classroom, taking transcripts, and then encouraging me to write this piece when she saw the call for submissions.

Project Based Learning, Session 3

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Going into this session, participants had begun to draft their Understanding By Design Unit Plan. For some folks, that meant a complete document — for others, a sense of their essential questions and big understandings, but with the details yet to be filled in.

I intended this session mostly as a talk-and-work period, so the big resource provided was SLA’s Google Site of Public UbD Lesson Plans. This is a resource that our staff quickly put together earlier this year, after many (many) requests to share some of our complete unit plans.

We also had a brief visit from Meenoo Rami, who talked about integrating skill acquisition into project-based units. She emphasized that explicit skill instruction and doing smaller, partial versions of the culminating project are key to a successful unit, and that this can all be very explicit to students — you don’t have to keep the final work a secret from them. Buy in can actually be higher if they know why they’re doing x or y activity.

Tonight we had four distinct groups working through their ideas — elementary school science, middle school social studies, high school math, and high school English. One of the most complete plans at this point came from two teachers at the Philadelphia School for the Deaf in Germantown. They plan to turn their unit on the Underground Railroad “on its head” by having students do multiple field visits to the Germantown Historical Society, develop a line of inquiry around different artifacts, and then create a video-based tour guide for the site (right now, all of their tour materials are audio-based.)

Wow.

So, we’re doing some great stuff on Wednesday evenings. Next week we’re getting a crash course in project design and rubrics.

What new units are you planning before the end of the year?

Related posts: Project Based Learning, Sesson 1 / Session 2

What keeps our kids going?

During 11th grade English today, students were presenting their “Problem in Philadelphia” research mini-projects, our principal happens to walk in during the group working on “Teen Motivation after High School.” (I know, I know. You can’t make this stuff up. Lehmann walking in is actually a non-event, and if the kids had some reaction to his presence, they didn’t show it.)

The group included the following graph in their presentation, which they later cited as being from The Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

college-going-rates-school-type

Their snapshot assessment of why these numbers are the way they are?

Students at neighborhood schools don’t have the support structures that are offered at SLA.

Now, they’re not experts about what goes on in schools across Philadelphia — and neither am I. But this idea of community and support continued to be echoed through the class. During Q&A, Lehmann followed up on this idea, asking them: what keeps you guys from dropping out? What keeps you motivated? Everything they listed was both structural and human — our ILP internships around the city, the Math Lab and Lit Lab that offer tutoring and study space during lunch, our Student Assistant Teacher Program (which they were shocked to learn doesn’t exist at any other school in Philadelphia.) That the teachers care. Our four-year advisory system.

Not one student said “we’re smarter” or “we’re just more motivated.”

In fact, it only occurred to me now, upon reflection, that they could have said that. Because that’s the argument leveled against the special admit schools sometimes — that those kids are going to succeed anywhere, so pulling them into their own environment just skews the numbers.

I agree that the numbers are skewed. But my students offered a very different, big-picture viewpoint about why. And they’re the ones who know it personally.