Category Archives: Curriculum

Truth and Storytelling: The essentials from “Sweetheart.”

I had big plans to post some back to school activities on this blog. Now it’s October.

But! Here’s an activity that we did as a part of our Truth and Storytelling Unit via “The Things They Carried.”

After reading the chapter “Sweetheart of The Song Tra Bong,” students had figure out the main plot points of the story, but by making it “universal” — no mention of the characters or setting, just some generic titles. We used “Person A” and “Person B” for Mark Fossie and Maryanne.

We then compared notes and made an outline for the class. One of them looked like this:

sweetheart storytelling

Is this a war story? No. This is a break-up story.

After we play with that a little bit (movie version: “I’ve grown, you’ve stayed the same” and “It’s not you, it’s me”) it’s time for the next step:

Based on our “universal story” version of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” discussed in class, it is your task to write a remix of that story. The basic conflicts, events, and resolution must stay the same, but the topical situation (names, places, dates, details) must change.

Start by coming up with a new setting for the story, and decide who or what the characters will be. (Hint: some of the most creative versions will have non-human characters.) Then tell the story of the break-up!

We got a crazy range this year, as always — students being transferred to different schools, a hamburger and ketchup being separated when the meat needs to go in the fridge, and a Nike sneaker upset when it sees its partner with a necklace of shoelaces dangling from its neck. (Love that reference.)

O’Brien’s focus on storytelling makes this activity especially illuminating, but you could do it with any text. Boil it down and then start again from there.

We’re all telling the same story, so how are you going to make yours good?

 

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.

Writing Without Teachers, College Essay Edition.

I took a page from my earlier reading of Writing Without Teachers for this one. I mean that literally — I dug out the photocopies I made in the fall, when we were doing messy personal narrative essays responding to “The Things They Carried,” — only this time it was in preparation for college application essays.

I’ve got some great slideshows and prompts for getting their brains started on writing a good college essay, but I wanted to shift gears a little bit with the final product. I will read mediocre essays, but I certainly don’t want admissions committees reading the stuff that students turn into me when they haven’t done their best work. This needed to be an all-or-nothing deal, one where students got down and dirty with the writing process until something really great came forth.

In the spirit of that process, my instructions to them are messier but also simpler than usual:

On Monday, 5/6 you need to bring a complete draft of your college essay to class.

That draft may be messy, and disorganized, and too long — but it needs to feel complete. An incomplete paper will make class on Monday very difficult for you.

Once you have conferenced in class, I will then set you up with an appointment with an outside expert editor. This might be in person or via e-mail.

Once you send your draft to your editor, you are on their schedule — so the final deadline for this assignment is several weeks away, and you will have to maintain communication with them and then revise on your own.

Here’s the checklist for what you will be turning in as your final product:

  • Complete draft on Monday 5/6
  • Copy of the draft edited by your expert editor (don’t delete the comments!)
  • Revised essay which reflect editor’s comments to the fullest
  • Separate written reflection describing how your writing changed — what were you trying to say at the beginning, and how has the message changed? How has your writing changed?

This assignment will also be graded differently from typical high school writing assignments — there is no such thing as “not good enough” or “just-so-so-because-I-slacked” for your college application essay. There’s either excellent, or not ready to be turned in yet.

This assignment is worth 25 points total — and will be marked either “credit” or “missing” in the grade book.

When you have accomplished all of the items on the list (to a level that satisfies Ms. Pahomov when she looks it over) then it will be marked credit.

If you do not achieve all the items on the list by Monday, 5/20, it will be marked “missing” (0/25) until you successfully turn it all in, at which point it will be marked “credit.”

I feel like this is a classic “try to make the grade book as though it’s not there” move. I hope it works.

Oh, and those outside expert editors? All people from my PWN — professional writerly network.

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 5

During this session, SLA Science Teacher Tim Best shared six different project descriptions that he gives to students. A few are from senior-level elective courses, and a couple are from 10th grade Bio-Chemistry. In my humble opinion, these project ideas and write-ups are masterful. Here they are accompanied by my hastily-cribbed notes.

Food Project — students ultimately create an “SLA Cookbook” where the research different kinds of foods, and have to make their own recipe. The project is inspired by Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food.” It is a combination of health, environmental, social, and other factors. They also had to come up with a “Food Rule” and turned it into a graphic, inspired by the NYTimes.

Evolution Book Club — Tim described this as an “English project with science on top.” He has a collection of 10-12 different titles that deal with different aspects of evolution and its societal impacts. Seniors split into groups and set their own schedules. THey have different roles during the book club, and at the end they have to produce a half-hour lesson to teach the rest of the class.

Evolution Over Time — This project was co-developed with SLA Science teacher Stephanie Dunda. From the introduction: “The overall goal of your Q4 benchmark is to trace the evolution of a species over time, in response to a change in its environment.  You will select an organism that already exists on earth, research its evolutionary history, and then imagine how it might evolve if its environment slowly changes to something totally different.”

Anatomy “Specimen” Project — a project that teachers about the skeletal, digestive, and nervous systems. It asks students to follow their “specimen” — from infancy to ten years old — and then make a scrap book of its development, including its manufactured medical issues. An early part of the project involves picking unique anatomical issues out of a hat — something that sounds doom and gloom, but the students love.

Genetics — This one also co-created with Stephanie Dunda. From the write-up:  “You will collaborate with your team to research and present a genetic condition. Your work should demonstrate that you understand how traits are inherited, and how changes to our genes can affect the body. After researching a genetic condition, you will then teach the class what you have learned using a case study as an example.”

Here are some of the questions and comments from our discussion:

When you have a portfolio-style project, do you accept incomplete work?

Sometimes. If the work is clearly incomplete, students can take extra time to put in the last pieces — but then there’s always the risk that students forget to return things. The other option is to just accept everything and not do quality control in the moment the work is being submitted. You then run the risk of “discovering” incomplete when there’s no time for students to improve it.

Melissa shared the issue of having intermediate steps with papers — and what happens if students don’t do the outline first? And how do you balance the fact that some students don’t need that support, while others falter?

Tim said he does frequent check-ins for small point amounts during class — so students have some direct feedback about whether they are falling behind.

How do students know what your essential questions are?

Tim noted that he often doesn’t post his essential questions on his projects — in contrast to Matt Kay, who shares them constantly with his students. However, the group felt that this project still reflected a clear goal.

How do you maintain thorough scientific knowledge and research?

This came up while discussing the food research project. Tim described how he requires research of the ingredients in the recipe that the students pick. He guides them to useful sources, and ultimately they do a write-up.

How do you encourage working together?

Tim said that, this year, he is really encouraging students to do each piece of a project together — all sitting down and working on A-B-C-D instead of assigning each piece to a separate student (the danger being that they never look at each other’s work)

Tim also described a practice that Stephanie Dunda uses — each class period, a group has 120 points, and at the end of a class period they divide them amongst themselves as they see fit. This could serve as a good wake-up call to students who are slacking early on, as opposed to getting shut out or left off of the final project. It also requires the teacher to be more organized in keeping track of the points day to day.

How do you get kids to read the directions, especially on big projects?

For some projects, it takes students a couple of days to even really understand what they are doing. During a project like the “specimen” project, he has to remind students to write scenarios for their child that involve a clear reference to one of the anatomical systems they are studying.

How do you bring project based learning into science? How do you find the balance between knowledge acquisition and projects?

At SLA we would rather have students learn the underlying theory behind things rather than memorizing tables and sketches of the human body.

Some Summary: A good project has…

  • Student choice, where they decide what the focus of their research is. The choice can even be somewhat contrived.
  • Chunking the project into manageable steps.
  • Clear directions!
  • Multiple learning styles: something to write, read, draw, present, etc.
  • Collaboration / peer interaction.

Project Based Learning, Session 4

Screen shot 2013-03-12 at 3.22.21 PM

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

Screen shot 2013-02-28 at 7.27.22 AM

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.

Helping students identify their school wounds.

Last year I had the good fortune to read Kirsten Olson’s book Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing up to Old School Culture. So many of the ideas raWounded-by-School-9780807749555ng true, I immediately began brainstorming ways to share them with my students.

The activity I developed was for my senior advisees at the time, with the notion that, now that their secondary schooling was drawing to a close, unpacking it would be a useful task in preparation for getting through college.

Of course, why not do it earlier, and then reap the benefits yourself? My wake-up call about what students think of learning in my classroom has me itching to do this activity with my freshmen advisees. And possibly with all of this year’s freshmen.

Phase One: Identification

In this first phase, I read them a few passages from the book — the fact that she had been at EduCon that year didn’t hurt with the buy-in — and then students were presented with a series of statements pulled from the chapter “Kinds of Wounds.” The statements for each category were clustered on a table, and students had to tour the room and eventually pick a the group of statements that best reflected them. (The “categories” of wound were not included — I’m just putting those here for clarity’s sake.)

Wounds of Numbness

  • I feel detached from learning and zone out a lot in school.
  • I have lost interest in learning experiences I once enjoyed.

Wounds of Creativity

  • I feel like my original ideas lack value or are too strange.
  • I feel like everything I have do to has to “add up to something.”
  • I often I feel like I won’t be good at new things.

Wounds of Compliance

  • I worry that something will go wrong if I don’t follow the instructions or the rules.
  • I try not to stick out.
  • I do things because they will look good for college or my resume, not because I actualy want to.

Wounds of Underestimation

  • People don’t really know who I am in school — they just make assumptions.
  • People assume I am capable of less than I actually am

 

Wounds of the Average

  • I can only achieve so much in school.
  • I don’t feel like I get much attention in school, or that my work is valued.
  • Maybe I could do better, but people just expect me to be average.

Once they picked a group, students had time to casually share out: why did they identify with those statements? What were the typical or stand-out experiences that made it clear that’s how they felt? Had they always felt this way? If not, when did that wound form?

A lot of students picked “numbness” — senioritis was in full swing — and some self-identified overachievers gravitated towards “compliance.” “Underestimation” and “average” got some takers as well. Those last two groups were initially more reticent to share why they felt the way that they did — but once they got going, they had a lot to say. Perspectives I have never heard before.

The conversations were deep enough that this took the majority of an advisory period. I think we asked students to share out their history and current gripes with their wound, and this worked because our advisory family had four years of trust built-in by this point.

Part 2 of the activity — complete with drawing! — coming tomorrow.