Category Archives: Unit Plan

Independent Reading: Personal History Project

If you visited my classroom on the Friday of EduCon, you saw students working on the final version of this project — aka peer editing their Prezis.

That was the tail end of a two-phase project, where students first had to write detailed annotations of their current independent reading book, as well as a few scenes of their “reading history.” Then, we used Prezi, a dynamic presentation program, to style the material.

The goal was to link together some of the close reading they were already doing in their weekly reading trackers, as well as tap into their own triumphs and struggles with reading over time.

Posted below is the (lengthy) project instructions. Students were not responsible for every prompt — the idea was to give them many springboards for their own thinking. I will post some final projects and reflections on the process in my next post.

Personal Reading HIstory

Reading is something we do all the time — so much so, that we rarely really think about how and why we read.

Your task with this benchmark is to take a close look at your reading — the personal history behind your readership, and also your skills as reader today.

Notice what you read and why those were the choices you made.

Here are the pieces to the benchmark:

1. Three Scenes from your Personal Reading History

First, it is your job to go into the past and share three scenes from your development as a reader. These stories can be stories of triumph or struggle–and should probably be some combination of both. Here are some prompts to help you identify important scenes from your life:

– When do you first remember reading? How did it feel?
– What’s the first book you read? Why was that important to you?
– How is reading treated in your house? Does your approach to reading “match” what your family does?
– How is reading treated by your friends? Does your approach to reading “match” what they do?
– How do you feel about reading in school? Is there a teacher who was made reading amazing, or awful? How did they do that?
– How do you feel about choosing a book vs. assigned reading? How have these options influenced your reading in school vs. in your free time?
– How do you feel compared to other readers? (As a teacher, I don’t want you to compare yourself to anybody, but I know this happens.)
– Have you ever been labeled a “struggling” reader? How about an “advanced” reader? What did this do to your reading?
– What’s the last book that you read that you enjoyed? What’s been going on with your reading since then?
– What do you read in secret? Why has that been a secret (until now)?
– Any other key moments where you saw a development or shift in your mindset about reading.

2. Eight Annotations for your Independent Reading Book

Next, it is your job to illustrate your current skills as a reader by describing what your brain does while you read. Pick a few pages from a book you’ve read during the Independent Reading Unit, and create written annotations in eight different ways. Annotations could be as short as a couple of sentences, or as long as a couple of paragraphs, or even a drawing or visual annotation — it depends on what you’re writing about. It just needs to be thorough, and that means explaining WHY this annotation is relevant to understanding the book.

Here’s a PARTIAL list of what you could annotate:

o   Identify and apply the meaning of new vocabulary.
What does that new word mean, how did you figure it out? Why is this word relevant to the book?

o   Identify and apply word recognition skills
What unusual word did you already know, and how did you know it? Why is this  word relevant to the book?

o   Make inferences and conclusions about what’s happening in the text
Refer to the text on the page, previous parts of the book, and your own knowledge. How do you know what you know?

o   Identify and explain main ideas and relevant details
What’s going on in the book? Why does it matter?

o   Identify, describe, and analyze genre of text
What qualifies this book as historical fiction, fantasy, mystery, politics, how-to, etc.? Has to be more than just the title!

o   Interpret, compare, describe, analyze, and evaluate components of fiction and literary nonfiction For example: Character, Setting, Plot, Theme, Tone, Symbol, Mood, Symbolism. More types available on the literary devices website.

o   Make connections between texts.

What books, movies, TV shows, other texts relate to this book? How does that enrich your understanding?

o   Identify, interpret, describe, and analyze figurative language and literary structures in fiction and nonfiction: For Example: Personification, Simile, Metaphor, Hyperbole, Satire, Imagery, Foreshadow, Flashback, Irony.  More types available on the literary devices website.

o   Identify, interpret, describe, and analyze the point of view and effectiveness of the point of view used in the text.

First, second, or third person? Maybe a combination of both? How do you know, and how does it influence the reader?

o   Interpret, describe, and analyze the characteristics and uses of facts and opinions in the text.

If it’s fictional, you can analyze the feelings and opinions of the characters. If it’s non-fiction, focus on the text itself and what it’s presenting.

o   Identify, compare, explain, interpret, describe, and analyze how text organization influences the text.

Look at the structure of the chapters, each section, different categories, or other organizational methods. How do they help the reader understand what’s going on?

3. Concluding Reflection

Lastly, you will need some closing reflection on everything you have done. By doing this project, what deep understandings have you gained about your attitude and approach towards reading? What did you learn that you didn’t know before? And what skills do you need to work on in the future? Where do you think our reading history is going?

Looking at both sides of language and power.

I wrote about reading James Baldwin and unpacking language and power with my 10th Graders earlier this month, and now I’d like to share a few of their final projects in that unit.

Here’s a snippet of the instructions:

Your language autobiography will investigate some of the themes from our language unit and relate them to your life. The expectation for this paper is a polished piece of writing that combines personal experience with larger analysis and reflection.

This is NOT a traditional “thesis paper” — you will share a deep understanding about yourself, but you want to lead your reader to that instead of sharing it in your intro paragraph.

Your paper must contain at least one descriptive scene from your own life — and this will probably include dialogue — along with deeper analysis. You must also incorporate a quote or idea from the language essays we are reading together.

If you’re familiar with the diverse makeup of our student body, you can imagine many of the relevant subjects that many of our students explore. Code switching, slang, foreign languages at home, neighborhood accents, are all topics that students often gravitate towards.

Every year, though, there are also students who hesitate when the assignment is given. They don’t see anything noteworthy or unusual about their language; they have never experienced it as a place of conflict. They might be white, or middle class, or sound like news broadcasters, or something else entirely — it all depends.

This unsureness can turn into a situation where the majority or dominant culture feels under-celebrated, like they have no unique experience. (This is, I think, where the motivation for things like “White Studies” comes from.) The privilege and power might be something to be defended, or ashamed of, instead of examined.

I am blown away every year when kids actively resist this path, and take the time to explore their individual stories. Whether they’re coming from a place of struggle or a place of comfort, each can be examined in the larger context of society. Students do a great job getting past cliche and to real meaning.

And with that, I give you two Digital Story versions of this project. Both take on this project through the lens of school — and present the opposite, but equally relevant sides of the same coin.

“You Have Nothing To Hide From”

“Listen to Our Words”

Thanks to Josh Block for handing me both the original assignment and the Digital Story remix.

Unit Plan: Independent Reading

Reading slide

After spending a month or so on Shakespeare, it’s time to set 11th Graders free with their reading. This unit is self-explanatory in its title, but the focus changes a bit each time.

Here are the essential questions for the unit:

  • What are my reading preferences, and what influenced these preferences?
  • How do I change as a reader when I read different books?
  • How can reading make me happy?

The unit also seeks to answer one of the three grade-wide essential questions, around the theme of change:

What causes systematic and individual change?

This unit really seeks to acknowledge that students are in very different places with both their attitudes and skills. The goal is to help them figure out where they’re at, meet them there, and help them improve.

When they arrive on the first day, students are met with the journal prompt displayed at the top of this page: What’s the last book you truly enjoyed reading? Why?

This leads into my slideshow of the Reluctant Readers Bill of Rights — which I believe is a must-share for any independent reading unit — and some discussion of my own current reading habits. Extra credit points in my heart go to any student who notices that one of those books is not in English.

 

Lastly, I introduce them to the idea of their “Reading Happy Place.” Is it a place? A time of day? A noise level? A state of mind? Sometimes we draw visualizations of what that place looks or feels like.

Students don’t always buy what I’m selling, at least not right away. Especially that part where the bill of rights says you have the right not to read. “What’s the catch?” They ask. “When are you going to make us do something?”

The beauty is that there is no catch. As long as they are reading and loving it, they’re doing the right thing. And if they’re not loving it, then it’s on them to find the time and place and book that inspires them.

Check out the complete unit here. I will also be writing up some activities and assessments from this unit in the coming weeks.

One Book, one Philadelphia, and many curriculums.

bookcover_buddha_atticI’m happy to announce that my curriculum for the 2013 One Book, One Philadelphia selection has been published online by the Free Library.

(For those of you not familiar with the program–One Book creates unique city-wide programming around one title for two months each year, as well as providing thousands of free copies for Philadelphia schools.)

I’ve had the pleasure of writing the curriculum for the past few years. When I started, I felt a little bit lost. Classrooms around Philadelphia are so different, so unique — what could I provide that would be useful without being rigid, all-or-nothing plans? Teachers who opt into the One Book program are already going above and beyond what their schools ask of them. They’re not the kind of folks who want scripted material (not that I would give them that. Sheesh.)

After looking at lists of previous participants, and sending out some trusty Google surveys, I came up with the following components, which can be used separately or in any combination:

I also wrote a similar curriculum for the middle school companion title, Journey To Topaz. That book as been around for longer, so I also pointed towards the wealth of quality lesson plans which are already available around the web.

Lastly, if you haven’t gotten to it yet, I highly recommend The Buddha in the Attic. It’s not often that a book can be called “poetic” and “accessible” in the same breath. If you’re in the area, Julie Otsuka will also be speaking at the One Book Kickoff Jan 17th.

Truth and Storytelling: Two Final Essays

My example of a journal brainstorm: "Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world."

My example of a journal brainstorm: “Draw the relationship between the self and the changing world.”

I started this series two months ago, but here’s the final project that goes with the Things They Carried: Truth and Storytelling Unit.

Your benchmark task is to answer the essential question:

What is the relationship between the self and the changing world?

(Sub questions: How does the self react to and deal with change? How does the world in turn react when a person changes? How does this cycle work? What is notable about it?)

You will do this by writing an essay that is both analytical and narrative.

The analytical portion of you essay will identify a major lesson O’Brien gives us about the self in the changing world. You must analyze how he conveys this message in his book. Once this formal analysis is complete, you must then apply your understanding from the book it to your own beliefs and experiences, and then write a personal essay around that theme. (This section can resemble one of the stories in the book.)

The analytical section really just reinforces the writing skills we’ve been working on all quarter with the 2Fers — and students see this. The narrative assignment, though, really blows things wide open. I emphasize that, while you can focus on death or trauma (and many students do), there are so many lessons embedded in the book about the self in the face of x y or z change. I also rely on lessons from Peter Elbow to get these ideas really flowing from students — not always easy after a few months of mostly analytical composition.

Students write about the acute anxiety of transferring schools, or refusing to watch a loved one die in the hospital; to be intensely attached to every item in a care package sent to summer camp, or to have an anger that they bank down inside them, only to have it seep out at unexpected moments.

I love this project, and it’s a fitting end to a unit where we have explored the purpose of storytelling in their lives. (At this point they usually get over the fact that Tim O’Brien was “lying” with his book of fiction.)

Truth and Storytelling: Connecting Vietnam and Iraq

The first time I showed this photo in my classroom, it was four years ago, right after it had been published in The New Yorker.

I presented it without comment, and asked students to look at all the clues and figure out what the situation was.

There’s a lot here to process — the age of the woman, the items sitting in the grass, the heritage of that name, the code-like descriptors below.

I am always surprised at how many kids recognize where that gravestone must be, and how few of them can identify what the crescent and star stand for.

That year, I also talked about Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama, and how he cited this very photograph as an example of his frustration with people who “accused” Obama of being a Muslim — as though that was a bad thing.

The makeup of America continues to change, and individuals respond to that change — in both good and bad ways. (This links to our essential question for the unit — what is the relationship between the self and the changing world?)

Four years later, I brought it up again. “Do you remember during the last election,” I asked them, “when lots of people said that Obama was a Muslim?”

So many hands went up. I shared Powell’s commentary. In one instance, I put one of our Muslim students on the spot, asking for her personal reaction, and she graciously shared how she was watching some of her own Muslim friends go into the armed forces, and the complex feelings she had about it.

When students are lost in the storytelling and meta-narrative tricks of “The Things They Carried,” this photo is a nice grounding moment. In this image, both the characters and their feelings are painfully real.

This post is a specific activity belonging to the Truth and Storytelling: Things they Carried Unit.

Truth and Storytelling: The Things They Carried

In an attempt to follow Diana Laufenberg’s lead, I’m going to share my first full unit plan here.

At SLA we all plan using Understanding By Design, and in English that means thematic units. So when I first planned around “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, the obvious ideas that came up were around truth and storytelling.

Here are the essential questions for the unit:

•    How are we the stories we tell? What makes a story universal?
•    What is the difference between “truth” and “fiction”?
•    How can war change a person?

The unit also seeks to answer one of the three grade-wide essential questions, around the theme of change:

•    What is the relationship between the self and the changing world?

The book is a great one to start the year–it’s easy to read, but hard to understand, which makes for easy buy-in and killer class discussions. On day one, look at a photo of Tim O’Brien:

We then read the book’s dedication:

This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.

and front matter quote:

This book is essentially different from any other that has been published concerning the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.

– John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary

Who are the two groups who will read this book, and what is the difference in how they understand it? That’s the set up that we return to several times throughout the unit. Sometimes with delightful student frustration.

Check out the unit plan here. I will also feature some activities with descriptions on the blog this week.