Category Archives: Motivation

Teaching Analysis and Interpretation

Analysis

Teaching students to analyze and interpret texts has been a painful thorn in my side, a constant reminder of my need for improvement.  In special education, explicit instruction and specific models are important for learners, but the more I tried to help the students, the worse their personal connections and interactions with the texts became overwhelmingly obvious.

Here are some great examples from throughout the years:

This quote proves my position.  Even thought the HOW is missing, sometimes this was the best I could get.

In this section you should provide analysis of the issue. One year, a student always wrote this in for his analysis! Of course I smiled every single time I read it.

This impacts the character.  I think by now you are getting the gist of my frustration.

What tools did I use for teaching analysis and interpretation?

I tried everything.  Modeling, sentence starters, revisions, news events. . .Last year I came-up with the magical: 3-part analysis:

3-Part Analysis

My goal was to get students to look at character or issue, writer’s craft, and real world connections.  This worked well for some students and the tool enabled them to provide a more focused, thoughtful analysis of the text.  For other students, it became a source of frustration because if they couldn’t see into the text, then it was more challenging to use the tool; however, almost all students were able to at least provide analysis on the level closest to the text: the character.  I’m not ready to scrap this model, but this year I want students to have more tools and choices so that they can utilize what makes the most sense with the text.

ESP: My Go-to Analysis for this Year

ESP

Over the summer I was lucky enough to participate in an NEH institute where I was introduced to the engaging work of Yohuru Williams.  He has written an amazing book that can be implemented in the English and Social studies classroom called Teaching U.S. History Beyond the Textbook: Six Investigative Strategies. The six strategies immediately make the students active participants in the classroom and furthermore, each strategy inherently engages critical thinking.

The simplest of the strategies is proving to be the most useful for my students. ESP stands for Economic, Social and Political and you can add the c which stands for cultural.  The strategy looks at the ESP of any text.  In class, we started by analyzing the ESP from photos from my Vietnam trip.

ESP Vietnam Photos

On the second day of class-students were engaged in analyzing texts.  The next day, we applied the same strategy to the video “Living in the City” by Stevie Wonder.

The video provides many amazing images that the students were able to immediately respond to using the ESP strategy.  The next day, students looked at the lyrics and applied the strategy with text.

 

Next, we transitioned to a brilliant poem by Allison Joseph, “The Truth about Public Transportation,” which nicely translates into an ESP. Obviously, we did “Hymn” by Sherman Alexie which provided students with a platform to discuss their fears.  Finally, this week I want to challenge the students with a poem that hides the ESP in its subtleties.  Students will read “Divorced Fathers and Pizza Crusts” by Mark Halliday.  While this will be more difficult, I feel the students are ready for the task. Ultimately, my goal is to have students apply this strategy to Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice a little later in the semester.

What strategies have helped your students with analysis and interpretation?

 

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Reflection: Student Created Syllabi

Student Created Syllabus

On the first day of school, students asked for the class syllabus because they received them in their other classes.

“Did you read it?” I asked.

Most kids said no; while a few read PARTS of it.

“What parts did you read?” I asked.

Grades, rules, homework, and some students said they read the required supplies.  One student said, “I hate when the syllabus requires you to have a glue stick and then you never use it. ALL year.”

One student said the teacher READ the entire syllabus to the class.

On the second day of class, students wrote a class syllabus.

I have never given an assignment where I learned so much about the students.  Most notably, almost EVERY student had Homework and a Homework policy.  What does every kid complain about? Homework!!!

Read this very serious homework policy!
“Does there have to be homework? I asked the next day.

Yes! Most students responded.

“Why?” I asked.
  • So we know more
  • We won’t remember what we did in class
  • You at least have to read and fill something out
  • You just have to

Our Educational Practices Have Brainwashed Students!!!!

Students could not provide a reasonable justification for spending hours each night on homework and yet they included it in their syllabi. It almost seems like students have given up on the true joy of learning once they get to high school.  As an example, one student didn’t fill out anything except for one class rule:

Sad Rule

Class rules: This Section is Important to Students

Class Rules Matter

First, it’s important to note that almost every student wrote about respect in their class rules.  Second, all students included some type of rule about the bathroom.  Believe it or not, I’ve had many students tell me about teachers who won’t let them go to the bathroom ; (  Third, most students want to be free to eat or drink in class. Finally, most students want to listen to music when they work independently and they also do not think using the cell phone in the classroom once in a while is a Major Crime.

A Funny Example

The Insult!!!

Conclusion

Can we as teachers give the students the same respect we expect? Is there a way to go to the bathroom, listen to music, eat a snack and maybe look at your cell phone during class in a respectful manner? What rules can I loosen up? The outcome will be happier students who learn how to function appropriately in class AND I might have extra time to notice something more positive about certain students.

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#FirstDay

Pupil Free Chaos

Every summer, a week prior to the start of school, I receive a Pupil-Free Agenda that typically follows this format:

  • All Staff Meeting
  • Opening Bulletin
  • Opening remarks from Executive Director
  • All Staff panorama photo (this takes too long)
  • Dept. Meetings
  • Room Prep

This year was no different. . .until it was.  The agenda came and I threw it on the floor for the cats to play with and rip into shreds.  However, when I arrived, there had been a change.

This guy. . .and I still don’t know his name. . .ran the meeting.

Top Boss Chef

We were placed in groups, given ingredients and told to make a dish that would be consumed by all.  There were no instructions. . .and it was a contest that would be judged. Here is one picture of the results:

The Feast

I have since forgotten every Pupil-Free day previously, but do you think I will forget this event? School starts tomorrow for the students and I’m so excited! There is only one shot at a #FirstDay and this year I will be sure not to waste it.  Many of us have probably been following the twitter hashtag #FirstDay where amazing teachers have been sharing their ideas.  While I previously stated that you can only have one first day, how can you add a little spice into EVERY day and have students excited to come to class? The following are a few things I’m changing this school year:

Digital Instructions

No more repeating instructions, answering the same question over while other students groan and wait to get started.

The slides are linked here so that you can see the videos if they won’t play on this format.

A ton of time is wasted in (my) class by explaining assignments and answering student questions that they should be trying to answer for themselves.  What you see above is not complete because for each assignment there is a link to Google Classroom that provides some clarification or additional comments.  However, part of preparing students to be successful in the future is to enable them to be self starters who can interpret an assignment and then create a product that is to be shared publicly. While students navigate the digital directions, I am then free to walk around the room and assist students who really do need more support without holding back students who are inventive and have their own ideas about how to proceed.

Students start class with 10 minutes independent reading and then they can transition to the project/activity for the day and move at their own pace.  The videos are all around 25-30 seconds long because students won’t want to watch more than that at one time.  The reason I’m posting the example of my videos is not to show how GREAT they are–but to prove the exact opposite.  The videos are not that fantastic–and yet I feel it will really help the students to connect with the learning task and me at the same time.  It’s extremely hard not to be critical of yourself on video and wan it to redo it, and yet we ask students to put themselves out on a limb, in public, all of the time!

Infographic Syllabus
Infographic Syllabus

This year, after seeing many examples on the internet (even from Chemistry professors who teach at the university level), I’ve decided to create an infographic syllabus.  While I’m waiting on approval from administration to use this as the parents’ version also, this is what I will present to the students and also use with the parents on Back to School Night.  Actually, this year I’m not going to ‘present’ the syllabus in class.  Instead, I will have the students form groups that are each assigned a small portion of the syllabus and they will in turn create skits to perform for the class.  I’m not doing this until the second day and I have no idea what to expect!  I will most likely create a few scenarios or characters on index cards for students who struggle with creating the skit.

Ditch that Homework #DitchHW

Ditch That Homework is an amazing book that just came out by Matt Miller and Alice Keeler.  Above, I shared one of my favorite sections from the book that delineates many questions to ask before assigning homework.  It looks like they put the most important question first, “Does it increase the student’s love of learning?” (XVI). Naturally, the answer is probably not.  The natural follow-up question is: Does grading the homework increase your love of teaching?

Standards Based Grading

Finally, the last HUGE change I’m making for this school year is shifting TOWARDS standards based grading.  I’ve read tons of literature that talks about the Why, but nothing that talks about the How.  My goal is to do a 50-50 split between participation and standards based grading.  In this way, students will be rewarded for participating in class and for improving their skills.

As you go through the year, there are obvious peaks and valleys of enthusiasm for both students and teachers.  When you find yourself in a deep valley, revisit this tweet by John Stevens  to lift you up:

 

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NEH Fellowship: The First Week

Researching @ the Schomburg

After only one week of my first NEH experience-I am completely blown away!  The title of my summer institute: From Harlem to Hi-Hop: African American History Through Literature and Song, is horrifically terrifying due to the fact that my experiences with Hip-Hop are limited to: 1980s ghetto blasters, music videos, radio play, an unfortunate but memorable experience with Wyclef Jean, Eminem (I love MANY of his narratives), The Beastie Boys, and what I call Hard-Rap/Rock-Rap like Rage Against the Machine, or the much later Prophets of Rage.  The institute is a collaboration of Dr. Laura Nash and Andrew Virdin, who openly retell stories about how their first proposal for the fellowship was rejected by the NEH. Luckily, this agenda passed through all of the readers because in one week I’ve been connected to inspiring, intellectual voices in the vast field of African American studies.

Dr. Yohuru Williams

I think you can tell from the smile in the picture, Dr. Williams is an engaging speaker  who is not only knowledgeable, he introduces and models critical strategies that can immediately be used in the classroom to engage and challenge students.  At the same time, he is a prolific writer and I’ve included some links that you should NOT IGNORE!  In a later post I will share some lessons I am working on inspired by Dr. Williams.

The Nation, Huff Post, Books, The Progressive, The History Channel 

Dr.  Arnold Rampersad

We’ve enjoyed three Skype sessions with Dr. Rampersad who has been a Stanford faculty member since 1974 and also written books about W. E. B Dubois, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and others.  The generosity of Dr. Rampersad cannot go unmentioned as he volunteered to Skype with any of the teachers present individually or in a smaller group to aid in research.

Dr. Tricia Rose

While Dr. Tricia Rose is most notably known for her books The Hip-Hop Wars and Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, her expertise and scholarship on 20th Century African American studies on politics, gender, social thought and popular culture allow her to reveal hidden layers in society that even well-read people have missed, or simply grown accustomed to over time.  Her lecture mainly dealt with the practice of Redlining and how that still impacts African Americans, as well as other underserved minority communities to this day.  While Dr. Rose is currently working on a new book, it will probably take me that long to unpack everything she shared at our institute.  An interesting website to look at is Mapping Inequality.

Sylviane A. Diouf
Sylviana A. Diouf

Our visit to the Schomburg exploded into a unique talk given by the curator and director of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library! Though soft-spoken, I could feel through her words a woman of achievement and a certain amount of power who still has to fight to bring education to the public.  The two exhibits Sylviana A. Diouf worked tirelessly to present are Power in Print and Black Power! She let us know the irony of her speaking to us, for she had herself proposed an NEH institute for the summer, but she was denied because the readers felt it was propaganda.  While there have been various exhibits about The Black Panthers, Diouf explains this is the FIRST exhibit strictly about Black Power.

Digital images of the two exhibits: Black Power! & Ready for the Revolution

 

Research at the Schomburg
Langston Hughes burial

Before arriving at the institute, I booked an appointment with the Schomburg research library in the Archives and Special Collections department and I was able to spend hours underground, reading letters written by Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Dubois, Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and many, many others! While entrenched in a tapestry of letter-language, the Harlem rain poured outside.  At some point, I will write extensively about my specific research.

 

DJ Ivory Snow
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The Hate U Give: A Great Companion to Citizen: An American Lyric

The Hate U GiveThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Navigating two worlds and a young life full of tragedy, Starr Carter drops into your view in that headline moment, at a party that is broken up due to a gun shot. While the obvious binary conflict of Power vs Oppression occurs in the moments after the party, when Starr and Khalil flee the party in his car, the less-than-visible conflict of Appearance vs Reality brings Starr’s different lives together. Will Starr have the strength to become one whole person?

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, but I must confess that at one point I felt like Thomas gave Starr too many problems to overcome and this somewhat slowed down the pacing of the novel. After completion, I changed my mind and I realized that the issues in the book, and in our country, are so complex that no one can fully realize the ramifications of one interaction. Obviously, if you are unwilling to have an open conversation of the black/white divide that continues to create conflict, then this book is not for you. Likewise, if reading about drugs, alcohol, and language that typical teenagers use, then don’t read this book. However, if you want to read a well-written book that depicts real problems and real feelings, then READ IT NOW! One of the most enjoyable aspects of Thomas’ writing is her realistic dialogue that allows you to feel like you are actually sitting in the car. For example, when Starr is in the park playing basketball with her brother, she ends up speaking for the first time to one of the neighborhood gang members with whom one of her friends acts ridiculous over, Starr says, “Yeah, I’ve heard about you. And you may wanna get some chapstick if your lips that dry, since you’re licking them so much” (147). This illustration reveals that if Starr can speak her mind to a known gang member, she may have the strength to be honest with herself and everyone else in her life.

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Is Grading a Student-Centered Practice? Part Two

The Art of Grading

“The professor never explained that was how she wanted the assignment done; therefore, we all got low grades.  I wish she’d just tell us what she wants.”

I’ve heard collegues voice this complaint too many times to count.  These are adult, graduate students attending universities from Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount University, California State University, Northridge, amongst others.  The gap between what the professor expects in her mind, and what she receives from graduate-level, or shall we say professional learners, is reflected in the grades.  Does the grade reflect my colleagues’ understandings and capabilities? Of course not.  Should they be afforded the chance to redo the assignment to meet the unexplained criteria of the professor? Should they have to redo the work?

My answer to that question is with my own question: Do you allow your high school students the chance to redo assignments and assessments in your classes?

High school students experience the same frustrations after receiving a low grade for their work, and they are still developing the critical thinking skills required to articulate statements beyond, “The teacher sucks. . .the class is stupid anyway. . .or, next time I just won’t do the assignment.”  Without the support of an involved parent, students often defend themselves by becoming angry at the class or the teacher and eventually completely shut down and stop attempting to do the classwork.  The problem with the typical grading systems have long been discussed by teachers, and I wrote a lengthy blog post about the issue in Part One.

Feedback vs. Grading

As most assignments are practice for what will eventually be on a summative assessment, then it follows that most assignments are at least partially, formative assessments.  The purpose of formative assessments is to guide the teacher in planning which lessons the students still need in order to achieve the learning outcomes on the final assessment.  Obviously, nobody practices perfectly.  Teacher feedback should then be followed by student reflection.  In this moment, the teacher helps students build their critical thinking skills in analyzing the space between what they turned in and what skills they still need to learn to gain mastery of a learning objective.  Equally, this is a moment for the student to voice why s/he completed an assignment in a particular format and also point to places where s/he disagrees with teacher feedback.

Student Input on Grades

While I’ve heard amazing educators speak about how their schools are gradeless, I think many of us work in schools or districts where this would not be possible (at least not in the foreseeable future).  Therefore, I’m attempting to find ways to work within the grading system so that I may better serve students who struggle to achieve learning – without them becoming frustrated by the grading parameters.  What if part of the reflective process incorporated students assigning their own grade on larger projects and essays and then providing justification for the grade? Whenever there is a huge discrepancy in the student’s self-grade and what the teacher believes the grade should be, this would require a personal conversation where the student and teacher get to explain their thought process and ask each other questions.

Confession

I am guilty of every possible grading mistake a teacher can possibly make in their career! During last semester, I particularly focused on how day-to-day assignments are graded and what specific impact that has on the student. In the upcoming school year, I will experiment with incorporating student input into the grades and teaching the critical skills necessary to be self-reflective learners.

I am super curious to hear how other teachers struggle with the grading system and how they are addressing the issues in their classrooms.

 

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5 Questions About Mindfulness in the Classroom with Lisa Harrison

Mindfullness with Lisa Harrison

I’ve worked with Lisa Harrison in the Special Education department for over five years.  As an RSP teacher (Resource Service Provider), she is passionate about helping students with autism overcome social obstacles to be able to communicate feelings and develop the skills necessary for friendship.  This year, Lisa has utilized a mindfulness practice in her 6th period resource class. But let me take a moment to describe the class:  Imagine a room full of wiggly high schoolers, during a 6th period class who are supposed to be completing homework, and then imagine asking them to pause for ten minutes and breathe.

On the last day of school this year, I had the opportunity to interview Lisa and ask her 5 questions about mindfulness in the classroom.

* I recorded the interview on my iPhone, while excited students finished with finals celebrated outside the classroom. You can listen here, or read below!

What inspired you to bring mindfulness into the classroom?

At the start of the interview, Lisa referenced a PD we had before the school year  a couple of years ago where representatives from Goldie Hawn’s Mind-Up program came in and talked to teachers.  She was interested in how the program

“helps  develop student’s potential brain [thinking process] and the ability to calm themselves.”

What were your biggest fears about trying to introduce this practice to students?

“The biggest fear was whether or not I could get the students’ buy-in. Once I started it with one of my classes, I went gung-ho and realized that not everyone’s comfortable sitting there with their eyes closed, so I kind of had to adjust.”

What did you do to adapt? 

“I looked at different programs to see what they were doing. Some of the programs require more teaching. Some of them are with all of the senses and that was tough to do in a resource class so I had to adapt and just go to the breathing techniques.”

How has the practice impacted you as a teacher, or how do you think it has impacted the students?

“It’s helped me quite a bit to get grounded and ready for the chaos that can be sixth period. I think it’s helped the kids too, because the kids come in, after doing it all year, some of the kids come in looking forward to it.”

What advice would you give other teachers that might be interested in sharing mindfulness with their students?

“I would say research the different programs and do what you’re comfortable with. Rushing into it, telling people ‘sit down! Be quiet! Don’t move! isn’t conducive to relaxation. There’s so many different ways to come at it, you can do the breathing which is more like a  meditation. You can do the senses and have them listen to something and focus on something. You can do body scans. There are just so many different options.”

As a special education teacher, I can attest to the numerous distractions and extreme issues that students can walk into the classroom with-and this is not always visible to people around the student.  While some students exhibit behaviors that tell the teacher something isn’t right in life, other students can shut down completely, or put on the “I’m fine” face.  I truly appreciate teachers like Lisa who are brave enough to take valuable class time and teach students skills and tools that let them feel in control of how to react and get through challenges in life. 

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All Teachers Who Love Frankenstein: Read Charlotte Gordon’s Amazing Duo Biography

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary ShelleyRomantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two women who never truly met, whose lives intertwine and mirror each other in surprising and alarming experiences, create a masterfully told story of a past that is constantly being rewritten. No matter how much you know about Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, this book reveals the passions and struggles faced by all women in the time periods and every reader will gain historical insights that help bring literature to life.

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