Category Archives: Writing

The freedom to write about #Ferguson.

Late last year, I tweeted out the following photograph. The brainstorm was student-produced a few days after the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown shooting.

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What was great about this brainstorm — apart from the conversation itself — was that it didn’t involve a “break” from our regularly scheduled programming. Juniors already write 2Fer Essays where they analyze a topic of their choice, and we typically pick a topic to play with as a group. Lots of students were keyed up about this topic, and went with one of the questions we generated. But lots of them chose not to as well.

Here are a few of the thesis statements that evolved out of that day:

If citizens and law enforcers are on the same page, fewer crimes will take place and more people will be safe.”

Because they are held to such an unrealistically high standard, cops are unreasonably criticized when they make mistakes.”

“The conversations on the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases tend to drift away from the core of the problem, police brutality against black men, and instead use these instances as a platform for discussion on black on black crime and respectability politics. This is because media outlets, which influence much of the public debate, find it easier to comfort in addressing black responsibilities as opposed to addressing a systemic issue.”

“Since because people follow what they are taught… policemen are not at fault, it is the institutions fault because they are corrupt in the way they teach individual officers.”

Again, I emphasize: I didn’t do anything “special” for this assignment — the vehicle for individual research and composition was already built into our curriculum. That’s a benefit of authentic inquiry. Students know they have a safe venue to ask the hard questions and attempt an answer as best they can.

Join the Book Club!

If you’re an ASCD member, you’ve already received your copy of Authentic Learning in the Digital Age. Perhaps you have gotten into the first chapter or two. I am thrilled that you are getting to know the school environment that I enjoy being a part of every day.

I am even more thrilled to announce that you have a chance to communicate directly with that environment.

Starting tomorrow, myself and ten other SLA educators will be participating in online discussion Screen shot 2014-11-09 at 6.20.13 PMand sharing of resources via ASCD EDge, their discussion and sharing platform.

Have a question about a particular activity? Curious to see the full lesson plan behind an anecdote from the book? Want some advice on how to apply a piece of the framework to your environment?

Over the next five weeks, Marcie Hull, Matthew Kay, Tim Best, Pearl Jonas, Stephanie Dunda, and others will all be available to expand on the book and help you get the most out of the text.

And the best part is, you don’t have to be a member to sign up for the discussion — just create a profile for ASCD and you’re in!

Why are these educators willing to help out? Apart from the fact that they want authentic learning for all students? Apart from the fact that I asked them to, and they are nice to me?

Well, you should know that 100% of the profits from the sale of the book go directly to SLA, so we also have a tiny bit of self-interest in seeing copies sell. So if you haven’t ordered yours already, you can do so directly via ASCD or on Amazon.

Making Thesis Statements from Commonly Held Beliefs.

I’ve presented templates for thesis statements on this blog before, and recently in class we did a quick brainstorm activity that was in the same style.

When students can’t find a topic to write about, I often encourage them to explore a commonly held belief — not simply to refute it, but to analyze.

We started with blank sheets of paper and a simple prompt:

Many people believe that…

Students passed clockwise, and then had to build on somebody else’s prompt like so:

They believe this because…

Pass again. Third student continues with this starter:

However, they are ignoring that…

For the final prompt, the last student had to pick make a choice: either analyze why people continue hold this belief o explain how the belief is faulty.

Their belief is misguided because / The reality of the situation is…

At the end, students had a brief but somewhat coherent intro paragraph: set up the belief, poke a hole in it, and explain why. Successful versions of this read to the class included explanations about the ascendancy of LeBron James (even though some people believe that he’ll never surpass Michael Jordan in his career) and the commonly held belief that Marijuana is a dangerous substance (due to the wealth of popular media that portrays it as such).

These brainstorms weren’t necessarily airtight, but they encouraged specificity — important when students are tempted to embrace more generic thesis statements like “x is the greatest basketball player ever” or “y substance should be legal.”

(This is one of several times this year that I’ve used writing templates either taken from or inspired by the book They Say / I Say. Check out their blog here.)

What do you need to know about the SLA model?

Today is the first day of EduCon. The school is full of visitors, getting tours from students, poking their heads into classrooms, observing the teaching and learning that goes on, finding inspiration.

It seems as good a time as any to announce that, if all goes at as planned, there will be a book published about the SLA model by this time next year!

 (ASCD approached SLA about the project last summer, and they’ve been fabulous to work with. Our goal is to have it published in time for EduCon 2015.)

The overall goal of the book is to provide a how-to for both individual teachers and schools/districts to transition to this kind of learning model, especially when they are taking the leap of going 1:1.

I feel incredibly humbled by this task. At SLA, we already have a culture of transparency and sharing, but the project has given me a good reason to do some extensive exploration the practice of my colleagues. Technically, I’m the “author” of this book, but I feel more like a compiler of the collective knowledge and practices of the school.

Of course, the book isn’t for us — it’s for all of you!  To those ends, I would love your answers to this question:

What would help you understand and implement the SLA model in your own school?

Folks often walk away from EduCon feeling inspired, and this book is intended to give people the advice an guidance needed to kindle that inspiration back in their own buildings.

I feel a little bit funny publicizing a manuscript so far in advance — but any thoughts from potential readers would be appreciated. Leave your comments here, or track me down on Twitter or in person at EduCon this weekend.

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.)

Building thesis statements out of family comparisons.

For the past few years, my 11th grade students have been completing a media literacy project where they are invited to compare and contrast William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” with a modern romantic comedy of their choice. (Read about the whole unit here.)

One of the bigger challenges to this project is getting students to look beyond simple “they are similar in x way” or “they are different in y way” statements, and think about the larger trends that can be identified by drawing a line from the older text to the modern one.

To get students thinking about this, I started class with the following journal prompt:

In what ways are you similar to your parents? In what ways are you different?

Students brainstormed for ten minutes — many of them created t-charts, love those t-charts — and then we shared out. I went first, and picked one item from each category that related to each other. We then tossed a bunch of examples into a chart on the board (names blanked out, because who wants their family business on the internet?)

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We then spun these into statements, where students had to either emphasize the similarity or the difference based on the order of the statements.

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We discussed the difference that the order makes, and what it means to differentiate a new generation from the previous one. (Do you feel like you’re breaking free from your parents, or are you destined to be the same as them?)

We then applied that nuance to comparing “Taming of the Shrew” and our selected movies. First off, students had to decide: in what ways did the romantic comedy they watched differ from the play? And did those differences outweigh the similarities? Could they observe a change in attitudes about love and marriage comparing these two texts? Or are we, the viewers, enjoying the exact same beliefs and ideas that we did 400 years ago?

I then shared my sample intro paragraph and thesis (comparing the play to “My Best Friend’s Wedding”)

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Am I saying that the two texts are more similar or different? What do I think the implications of that statement are?

The work they are asked to do ramps up quite a bit here. But I think the family statements activity could apply to any number of analytical projects, especially anything that asks students to look at change over time. Students spend so much time in the compare/contrast dichotomy, and are rarely asked to describe how things got from one extreme to the other — or alternately, how they only seemed to change.

(And it can be launched from the angst of trying to break free of parental influence.)

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?

 

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 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!)