Category Archives: Unit Plan

Fitting together the puzzle of thesis and support.

passingI just finished reading a batch of Self-Reflective 2Fer Essays from my 11th graders, and a common weak spot they talked about was when your support in your body paragraphs doesn’t (quite) match your thesis.

I have been tinkering with this trouble in my mind for a few weeks. As teachers of writing, we often encourage students to pick a topic and “zoom in” early, and workshop their thesis statement too — but sometimes the statement is the cart that comes before the horse. They’ve fine-tuned it before they’ve really exhausted their line of inquiry. Then the thesis becomes a jigsaw piece too carefully cut for the puzzle that is their essay.

When we wrapped up reading “Passing” in the 10th grade, I decided to try the opposite approach, and asked a simple question:

“What are you still wondering?”

From that question, we made a list on the board. The questions often looked something like this (spoiler alert!)

  • Were Brian and Clare really involved?
  • Did Irene push Clare?
  • Would Jack have accepted his daughter now that he knew the truth?

Of course, we can’t see into the fictional future and find out what happened. (“Can’t we ask Nella Larsen?” “Nope, she’s dead.”) But we can re-write these questions so that the point towards the text, instead of past the ending:

  • What evidence does the book present that Brian and Clare are having an affair?
  • What motivations did Irene have to push Clare? What was her attitude towards Clare?
  • Which impulse was stronger: Jack’s love for his family, or his racism?

Students then received a sticky note to write down their question. They could grab one off the board, or brainstorm their own. That sticky note then became a bookmark as they hunted down a page that helped answer their question. Once they found some worthy evidence, they were handed a chart with the following questions:

  • Context – what’s going on in this scene? Give the basics in a sentence or two.
  • Patterns – what words or phrases stand out to you on this page? Write them down here.
  • Analysis  — what conclusions do you draw looking CLOSELY at those words and phrases? How does this page give some clues to your deep question?

The final prompt in the chart:

  • Answering your question – So, based on all of your close reading, how can you answer your original question? Your answer will probably take a couple of sentences.

It was not until the next day that I revealed: That closing prompt? It’s the core of your thesis, and your intro paragraph. A few students rolled their eyes: they’d been tricked! But a few of them smiled with surprise. That was a complete outline they had just done! And though the write-up was rough, with plenty of first person and opinionated statements, the inquiry was real. In most cases, the puzzle fit together.

Advertisements

Independent Reading: The Rubric.

There was a lot of interest at EduCon about our grading rubrics at SLA, so I’m putting out the one I wrote for the Personal Reading History.

The Friday before the project was due, students completed a peer editing routine similar to the one that they do for 2Fer Essays. (This was also EduCon Friday, so if you visited on that day, chances are good this is what you saw.) The peer editing sheet had the following questions, with room for written comments as well. I often use this blend of on-screen and on-paper notes, especially when there is no natural way to leave comments in Prezi.

PEER EDIT CHECKLIST          Peer Editor: ___________  Creator: _____________

Does the Prezi include the student’s name in the title or first slide?    Y   /   N

How many items for their Reading History do they have?  _____________ Are they numbered?  Y   /  N

Does the Reading History do more than just share details? Does it share why these scenes are important for understanding the student’s approach towards reading?

Do they have a basic description / intro for their book?   Y  /   N

Does the Prezi include the book’s title AND author?    Y   /   N

How many items for their Annotations do they have? _______________   Are they numbered?   Y  /   N

Is there a good variety of annotations? Does it share why these annotations are KEY to understanding the book, and the larger themes and ideas behind it?

Do they have two clear items of reflection at the end?   Y   /   N

Does this reflection explain both what they gained from doing the annotations AND examining their personal reading history? Does it connect the two in some way?

Presentation – is the project free of spelling, punctuation, sentence structure issues? Note SPECIFIC problems here, because you can’t mark Prezi with a red pen:

Design- Does the Prezi have a unified theme? Does it flow nicely? Does the path make sense? Note specific moments (by number) that have problems, and explain:


The rubric was published on the back of this peer editing sheet — and we discussed it once the rounds of peer editing and finished, and before revision work began.

The final product was then presented in class on Monday — students did a gallery-style presentation, where they loaded their Prezis on their own computers, and then rotated around the room in 10-minute cycles. They left comments for each other in the rubric section, which was on the back of their peer editing sheet. I left my comments after the student comments, and sometimes in dialogue with what was already written: I agree! Or, I disagree! Each category is out of twenty points, which I scribble as small as possible in the corner of each section.

Design – The flow of the Prezi is both logical and engaging, and incorporates both text and visuals. There is a unified feel to the project. Student comments:

 

Pahomov:
Knowledge

The project reflects a deep understanding of the student’s personal reading history as well as the many ways a book can be annotated and analyzed. The content of the project does much more than just scratch the surface of these topics.

 

Student comments:

 

 

 

 

 

Pahomov:
Application

Different forms of annotation are applied to the book, and the annotations include commentary about why these details are significant. Closing reflection ties the commentary about the book together.

Student comments:

 

 

 

Pahomov
Presentation

Project is well-edited and is free of errors in spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Images or other media included are of high quality.

Student comments:

 

 

 

Pahomov:
Process

All points of the project were completed on time and beyond the basic requirements.

Pahomov only:

Reading History:       / 5          Annotations:         / 5

Final Product:        / 10

 

Link to Reading History Peer Editing form and Rubric 

 

 

 

Independent Reading: Process and Product

A snippet from the assignment write-up:

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.

We spent about one week just on the building blocks of this project — the scenes from their history, and the annotations for their current book. Once those were complete, it was time to insert those into Prezi.

When we started the work, I did a snapshot poll of the class — and it turned out that, like me, the majority of them had not used the program before. This presented us with a classic situation in project-based learning — integrating content and skills.

At SLA, we try out many different mediums for visualization of projects, and it always takes some time to learn the ropes of a new program. If you look at your classroom strictly as a conveyer of content, this process gums up the works: students have to tinker, and discover, and teach each other, and focus on something other than the book at hand.

Luckily, we don’t believe that at SLA. Presentation is one of our five core values — so turning the raw materials into a final product that was both easy to follow and pleasing to the eye, with a mix of visuals and text.

To better aid the students, I built partial models of the project. I say “models,” because the first one just had me dragging and dropping without much of a plan. Once I had learned a few things, I developed a second one — and then showed both in class, and summarized my findings in the last slide of the “improved” Prezi:

We then spent several full class periods in “benchmark work mode,” which would include mini-lessons as needed for particular tips and tricks (“does everybody know how to rotate a frame?”) I was also available to scan pages of books students wanted to include, while others used their in-screen cameras.

The best projects were ones where students were already confident in their content, and students could develop a unified vision of how annotations grow out of the text on a page. Here are a few examples.

Roberto Abazoski – “Every Day” by David Levithan

Jalisa Smith – “Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James Loewen

Roger Bracy – “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell

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.