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Sometimes I Forget That Kids are not Grownups April 23, 2012

Filed under: Education,reading,Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 2:44 am

It’s dumb, I know. But sometimes I forget. And it’s my number one frustration as a teacher. I make the repeatedly stupid mistake of expecting thirteen year olds to act like rational, mature, logical human beings. And they’re not.

And especially not at this time of year. It’s been getting harder to keep their attention and to focus them throughout an entire lesson. The “I don’t care”s and “I don’t wanna”s have become louder and more frequent as the weather has become warmer and the end of the year within sight.

So what to do?

I just started teaching a unit on The Giver, that middle school favorite. And it’s the first unit that I had responsibility for putting together, which is exciting. The students had a lot of reluctance to start the new book (what else is new), but we have been working on active reading skills (mainly annotating the text on post-it notes which are checked daily instead of reading quizzes), and although they are still vocal about their distaste for annotating, they are getting into the story. Part of that is due to the fact that The Giver is a kick-ass book. But the other part is definitely due to the fact that they are understanding it better because they are paying better attention because they have been spending so much time on the post-its.

This week (three weeks into the unit), I introduced the final assessment of the unit, which is a group project in which they create their own utopia and create an advertisement to convince others to move there. The assignment gets them to work on persuasion and well as compromising skills, in addition to critical thinking skills as they try to figure out what they need to live and the problems that might arise with “perfection.” I made a work schedule that is built into the lesson plans so that they would have plenty of time to meet with their group members and develop their ideas over time, rather than them trying to do it all at once at the end of the unit. The conversations they have about trying to create a perfect society will be as important as the final project that they turn in. I wanted their final project to be the result and reflection of several weeks worth of developed and evolving thinking, rather than a frantic evening’s worth.

Thursday was the first day that they had time to meet with their groups, and I was surprised by how well it went (after they stopped whining about their assigned groups, that is). Each student has a “brainstorming” packet that has questions such as “Where does your society get food?” and “What do they use for money?” Each session for working on the project has particular questions for them to address as a group to get them thinking about how they want their society to function.

One group I listened to was designing a society that would live under water protected by a large dome. Before I stepped in to question the logistics of this, I let is play out with the other members of the group. One asked, “What happened that people have to live under a dome?” and a second wanted to know how they would get sunlight to grow food with. While all the group members were committed to the underwater paradise idea, they were challenging the practicality of one another’s ideas and cooperatively helping to develop them.

Although they have only spent about 20 minutes working on the project so far, they are already very excited about the plans they have, especially since I told them we would have a competition. Because part of the assignment asks the students to employ persuasion skills, after the groups complete their advertisements, each will present them to the class, and the class will vote on which society they would most like to move to (they can’t vote for their own). This has added new incentive to really make the final product impressive. Their excitement has me excited, and it’s the first time they really focused on something in a while.

So I have to remember that kids are kids, and they aren’t adults. That they can be silly and dramatic and immature, and sometimes it makes me want to kill them. But they are also creative and funny and surprising. It’s also what makes working with kids more fun than working with adults.

 

Abraham Lincoln – President, Rail-Splitter, and Grammar Teacher March 13, 2012

Filed under: Abraham Lincoln,Education,reading,teaching writing,Uncategorized — bvanetten @ 7:52 pm

I needed to teach a grammar lesson with two instructional constraints. Students needed a refresher in using commas in order to write thesis statements for a research paper, but the lesson also had to be contextualized in the Civil War content that they had been researching for several weeks. We began by discussing the functions of commas when speaking and writing. Students immediately noted a difference in the functions that commas serve in writing and spoken word. They emphasized that when reading a comma aloud, one should “pause” and “take a breath.” The noted that this gives the listener (as opposed to reader) time to process information and an indication of what information the speaker finds important. They were less sure about when a writer should use a comma, but agreed that it is an indicator to the reader of pauses.  I then introduced to them the idea of using commas to create a list in writing; using commas to separate individual items on the list.

To test our idea of reading commas, I gave every student a copy of “The Gettysburg Address” with all the commas removed. I then proceeded to read the speech to them without using any of the comma punctuation. This was actually extremely difficult to do, as punctuated pauses come naturally to us after so many years of exposure to speech patterns. When I asked students what they thought about my speech they told me I “did it wrong” because it sounded “weird” and “rushed.” After some discussion we were able to come to the conclusion that there were no commas in the speech and that they were the cause of the rushed feeling of the speech. I then told students that I was would read them a copy of the speech in which there were commas, and their task was to follow along on their copy, inserting commas where they heard them. I tried not to exaggerate the pauses, and I think that on the most part, I was successful. Most students were able to get most or all of the commas that were on the original copy.

What was interesting, however, is that many students added more commas than I had written on my paper. When we talked about the discrepancies, they argued that I had paused or taken a breath in certain places, and that the commas “counted.” To expand on this idea of ‘correct’ vs. ‘incorrect’ pauses, I told the students that the copy of the speech I had was not the “real” speech Lincoln gave, as there is not “real” speech. Being one of hundreds of Presidential speeches he gave, Lincoln had no idea that this particular address would become so famous. It was less than three minutes, and he wasn’t even the keynote speaker at the memorial dedication at Gettysburg. He wrote the Gettysburg Address on a scrap of paper, which he threw away after reading. The “real” copy of the speech we recognize today was recorded by journalists present at the dedication who heard the speech and reproduced it for the newspapers. There are several competing versions of the speech recorded that day with slightly differing punctuation.  The one I gave students is the most commonly reproduced because it was later signed by Lincoln as a souvenir for a friend (known as the “Bliss Copy”). Students were fascinated by the idea that although the words were Lincoln’s, the punctuation was added by the journalists listening to his pauses and breaths. They enjoyed comparing their listening experience to that of the journalists at Gettysburg.

We talked about which lines had increased emphasis when the commas were inserted. One of the most important and obvious is the final line of the speech, in which Lincoln notes that, although the cost of the War had been great, it was essential “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Not only is this the most powerful line in the speech and the commas provide great emphasis to his words, they also denote a list of qualities that describe the government he argues is worth fighting to protect. This transitioned into talking about the ways in which a thesis statement is a list. Either a list of things the paper will address, or a list of qualities or examples that prove or describe a point. I projected some sample thesis statements for students to look at. They then pulled out their outline graphic organizers that we had been working on in order to identify they major ideas that should be listed in the thesis.

Students really enjoyed working with a primary document that related to the independent researching they had been doing in class. Not only exposure to the speech bring the content alive for them a little more, it was a new way of thinking about punctuation for many of them. Not only did it help them form thesis statements, but it inspired them toward more powerful voices in their own writing they were working on for their research topics. It was an inspiring lesson for me to teach because even though I taught it three times in one day, the conversations about the grammar in a two minute speech still varied in each class. It was nice to teach a grammar lesson that had a conversational element to it.

If you’re curious, below here you will find a copy of the Gettysburg Address with no commas, followed by the Bliss Copy. Read it aloud and see if you can guess where the punctuation goes.

 

 

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


President Abraham Lincoln

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

November 19, 1863

 

Connecting With Kids About Reading January 24, 2012

Filed under: Education,reading — bvanetten @ 5:27 am
 

Developing A Reader Identity January 7, 2012

Filed under: Education,Literacy,reading — bvanetten @ 8:55 pm
Tags: , ,

After reading about “Literacy Communities” last semester, I was very inspired. I was a kid who always liked to read on my own, and I come from a family of people who enjoy reading. But I was also a normal kid who didn’t think school was all that much fun and who would rather watch TV than read for school (back when Carson Daly was the king of after school programming). But somehow, I was able to develop a “reader identity,” that coincided with my 11-year-old understanding that school was created by adults to torture children. I don’t know how this happened, but as an adult it always makes me sad to meet other adults who say they “don’t read” (sometimes it’s even said with pride, and that’s really depressing). And, fair or unfair, it automatically gives me preconceived notions about that person’s intellect. I assume that smart people read. This declaration usually seems to have to possible sources. The first is that the individual’s youthful disinterest in reading followed them into adulthood, robbing them of many enriching reading experiences – OR that they do in fact read, they just have a very narrow understanding of what reading means.

Whichever reason people have for not being “readers,” I think that the English classroom is a place where students and teachers can create a literacy community where they create and develop Reader Identities, and expand their own notions of what literacy means. I agree with Randy Bomer’s “educational values” that say “To work on academic literacy is not just a matter of teaching the genres that will be valued in future years of schooling. Academic literacy includes those practices, habits, and knowledges that mark one as an educated person.” That is to say, as teachers, our goal should not simply be to teach students to be just literate enough to keep going to school. I also believe that “It’s an academic literacy to know your friends as readers and writers, to be comfortable talking with them about what they are writing about and their responses to the texts they are reading” (Bomer: 2011, 49). I think that one of the reasons young people today are so averse to reading is that their lives are increasingly social, communal and public, and reading is one of the few activities that is still relatively private and individual.

But while the act of reading is very individual (for the most part – don’t jump on me about poetry readings right now), participation in a literacy community is a way of making it social. And literacy communities are not simply university theory; they are real and people create their own all the time. LCs form everywhere people are reading – from more formalized ones like book clubs or websites dedicated to sharing books, to the simplicity of a family that has all read the same book and talking about it over dinner. My point is that I think students will be more interested in reading if they can see it having a more social context that exists outside the constructed universe of the classroom.

Some goals I have for literacy for my students are to:

  • Develop tools for analysis for all literary mediums and genres
  • See connections between different texts and mediums (intertextuality)
  • develop code recognition – understanding how reading and writing are affected by genre conventions, audience, etc.
  • expand our definitions of what a “text” is, and thereby the definition of “literacy”
  • See connections between media and their own lives

You might note that these are things that you can keep learning and developing as long as you are growing and developing as a reader (which it forever). This is good because if we are going to build a literacy community in the classroom, I need to be a part of it, not the boss of it, and that means I need room for learning too. Just as importantly, the students need to be aware of the fact that I am still developing as a reader.

So, the goals for the literacy community are to support students:

  • Develop their own tastes in reading
  • Identify preferences for reading conditions and practices
  • Developing skills for non-pleasure (academic) reading
  • Sharing and talking about what they do (and do not) like to read
  • Identifying themselves and one another as respected readers
  • Understanding that one can enjoy reading without enjoying all books

When thinking about both the readings and these goals and how to achieve them, there are two questions that keep coming to my mind: What is the line between encouraging students to explore new things and forcing things on them (related question – are there some people who really just don’t enjoy reading, and I need to leave them alone already?) And secondly (thinking about the importance of student choice in this whole process) how do we know when a student has given something new a fair chance and their evaluation is thoughtful, and when they haven’t? I don’t have answers to these questions but I will keep them in mind as I continue thinking about this.

I want to work on building literacy community in my classroom because I think reading for pleasure is an important and enriching lifelong habit that rarely finds room or encouragement in education. I have the good fortune of working at a school that has made the commitment to valuing and encouraging reading by dedicating one day out of every week of the Language Arts curriculum to independent reading. As it stands, however, we don’t do much with it. The students take Reading Counts tests and complaining about how boring it is. They spend most of their time worrying about how many “points” a book is worth, rather than thinking about what they like to read. I think this time can be much better used to help students develop all the skills and habits I have discussed above.

Rock it Saturday Style,

Bonnie