Beginning Anew

A new school year has started and first quarter is a few days from being complete. A lot of things have been added to the plate, some welcomed, and of course, some not. However, I was excited to delve into a newly updated curriculum will new novels

My freshman classes are finishing our first novel this week, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, where we embarked upon Literature Circles. This is the first time I incorporated this into my teaching. It took a lot of preparation, creating the role sheets and making them fit into my teaching, creating a unit-long schedule (and sticking to it!), and encouraging students to keep discussions going for longer than 15 minutes.

What worked well with the literature circles:

  • The level of interest in reading increased from previous years
  • The level of engagement in discussions increased significantly from previous years
  • Conversations were driven by student inquiry
  • Helped students build relationships with each other

By doing the Membership Grid activity from Mini-Lessons for Literature Circles helped students get to know each other and break the ice before getting down to discussing the reading selection.

What I would do differently:

  • Choose a shorter novel– the students seemed to have become burned out from the long schedule
  • Add a “Researcher” role to the list of possible roles
  • Require that Discussion Director come up with more than five questions– and push them to come up with specific, yet thought-provoking questions
  • Not hesitate as long as I did to pull students from their groups who were refusing to participate
  • Institute reading quizzes from the very beginning. Students can very well complete the role sheets without doing the entire reading. (On Reading Days, students would read while in class, but if they didn’t finish the assigned section, they would not finish it on their own making them ill-prepared for discussions, which isn’t fair to group members.)

Two books I found incredibly helpful:

lit circles

Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student-Centered Classroom by Harvey Daniels

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Mini-Lessons for Literature Circles by Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke

I am currently considering my next moves in teaching The Book Thief, and am wondering if Literature Circles would be a good fit or if it would be overkill and decrease student motivation. Any thoughts on this? If you’ve done literature circles in your own class, I would be most appreciative for your insight and input!

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I am a writer.

As I was sitting struggling to write, I was writing about phantom fire ants for God’s sake, Cienna approaches.

“Sorry to bother you, but are you sketching this sculpture?”

Immediately self conscious, I reply, “No.” Have I violated some copyright law? Am I being disrespectful to the artist? I question.

“I’m just writing,” I remember to say. Shoot, I should have said, “I am a writer.”

Did they send her? Are they checking up on me to see if I will identify myself as a writer? Is she a spy?

“You look like someone who enjoys volleyball.”

I do, with a pitcher of beer waiting at my table. I mentally reply.

Thus began a ten minute conversation about water volleyball, church, God, my son, her mom, her life, my life. I resist the urge to give her my standard response I give to the people who want to braid my eyebrows, flat iron my hair, or sell me lotion from the Dead Sea, but I resist the urge. She seems nice, I think. I wasn’t writing anything particularly earth shattering anyway.

Cienna moved to Lincoln from Denver to help Campus Ministry build its following. She asks me about volleyball and if I would be interested, because I am wearing spandex running pants (even though I don’t run) and running shoes (again, even though I don’t run).

Aside from the small talk and her sales pitch for water volleyball with other members of Campus Ministry, I was most amazed at young Cienna’s boldness for interrupting a stranger swatting away phantom fire ants that turned out to be dead grass, attempting to write, to talk to me about her passion in life. This was a rare opportunity of humanity, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

**** I wrote this piece sitting under a tree in the courtyard just outside the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, NE. I wrote this during my first writer’s marathon. I welcome any feedback you feel compelled to give. Thank you!

NeWP: Stay Tuned!

It is June, and officially summer vacation for teachers. But, if you’re a teacher, or know a teacher, you know that we teachers work through the summer, too. Summer is a time for reading, refiguring, and reflecting, something that has become a habit for me. As I pack up my classroom and my iPad cart for the summer, it seems now appropriate to take stock of the school year and look ahead. Disclaimer: this post does not intend to take stock, only to make the plan to do this soon.

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As part of my Ed.D. program at UNL, I am readying myself for the Nebraska Writing Project’s Summer Institute that lasts for four weeks, five days a week, eight hours a day. It is an intense writing program that aims to help teachers become better writers through writing themselves. Writing is usually accompanied by trepidation for me, oddly enough, but I am excited at the opportunity to write, share my writing, improve my writing, and ultimately improve my writing instruction. Some topics I would like to explore further this summer include questions such as: Is dictating writing? Is listening to an audiobook reading? How can gamification play a role in classrooms? These questions have arisen from my Digital Literacies course at UNL, but I have yet to have the time to explore them further.  I suppose I will just say, “Stay tuned!” for more on these questions.

Expanding the Classroom Walls: Google Hangouts

All school year I have been wanting to set up a Google Hangout with any one of my classes, and with the encouragement and slight nudge from an amazing colleague (ahem Ann Feldmann), I was finally able to get one set up. Even though it was the second to last week in the school year, it was still a valuable and incredible experience for my students and myself. Through the extraordinary work of Ann Feldmann and the Google Hangouts for Education Google + Community, I was able to meet Nicole Shema and her wonderful students from the Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne, NJ.

Over the course of a few weeks, Nicole and I were able to converse over email to settle on a topic to discuss and logistics of how this thing will work. (Side note: because NJ is one hour ahead, her students actually stayed after school!) Both of us being newbies, we weren’t really sure what to expect. After speaking with our respective classes about what we wanted to accomplish with the hangout, we settled on a simple get-to-know-you format where we lobbed questions back and forth. Previously, each class used Google Docs to generate questions for the other classroom. My students used the remaining iPads (the ones not being used by my iPad Academy students) and did some research on Mrs. Shema’s school and community. Based on the information they gathered, they asked a series of questions, most of them mainly about the lives of the students (interests, classes, level of stress at school, etc.) and a few included their conceptualizations of the American Dream. Based on what we discussed, both classes had mentioned fame as being an American Dream, but not their own, which Nicole and I thought was interesting.

After all was said and done, my students really liked meeting with a class outside of their community. They were surprised at how similar the other students were to us, and that they didn’t have discernable accents. Nicole and I plan on doing this more regularly throughout the next school year. I am looking forward to many more class meetings in the future! I would encourage anyone who is looking to expand their classroom walls to check out Google Hangouts for Education.

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Robbie the Robo-Grader says, “It’s okay, I don’t bite.”

This is the last required blog post for ENGL 973 and looking back on my posts for the semester, a theme keeps resurfacing: my struggle in understanding the bigger picture of Imagetechnology and its role in the classroom. Despite welcoming technology into my teaching, I continue to view it with a critical eye. I rather prefer this perspective, which baffles some because if I incorporate some technology into my classroom, this means I think all technology is great and wonderful and full of rainbows and unicorns. I especially like this perspective when I read articles that challenge my viewpoints. This week is no different. I think I even remember saying something earlier in this class about “robots grading student papers” and clearly I was opposed-to-the-core to this idea. I am still uneasy about machine-grading/scoring of student writing, but at least now I have more information to consider.

On the menu this week:

Wyatt, “What Computers Can and Could Do…”

Reid, “Machines are Readers, too”

Mayfield, “Six Ways the edX Announcement Gets Automated Grading Wrong”

Winterhalter, “Computer Grading will Destroy Our Schools”

Whithaus, “Always Already”

Hack Education

Anson, “Climate Change” (need access to CCCC subscription for this one)

It seems with these pieces, and with other central themes and issues addressed in this course, that what matters in the use of technology is what we do with “it”. In this case, the “it” is the result of machine grading. I have been critical of this notion in the past because the only context I have encountered it being used and discussed is with state testing, a high stakes context. While it would be a nice thing if machines could learn to read writing and appropriately score it, I am still nervous about our states relying on the results when there are such high stakes involved—federal dollars and governmental involvement in schools and districts.

Wyatt, in “What Computers Can and Could Do…” states, “robo-grading scares teachers. You can find a lot of articles and essays on this technology. Someday, the technology will work — at least well enough for a first-pass. The reality is, bad writing probably can be detected by software. A human should always verify the results of computer-based grading tools, yet the tools can save time.” I like this statement. It acknowledges the affordances of the tool, but does not eliminate the human component, which is what I imagine, scares many teachers, myself included. It is this very human action of “reading” that Reid addresses in “Machines are Readers, too” when he states, “machines are perfectly good readers. That’s not where the problem is. The problem is that we don’t understand reading.” The author also addresses the idea of purpose (something I return to repeatedly: What is the purpose of this technology of that technology?). He states, “We need to ask what it is that we are trying to determine when we are grading these exams. Do we want to know if students can produce texts that have certain definable features in a testing situation? Do we want to know if students will get good grades on writing assignments in college? Or do we want to know, more nebulously, if students are ‘good writers’? I think we have proceeded as if these are the same questions. That is, good writers get good grades in college because they can produce texts with certain definable features. But that’s not how it works at all, and I think we know that.”

Ideally, I see machine grading/scoring as a tool to use in the formative process of writing, which is what Mayfield offers in “Six Ways the edX Announcement Gets Automated Essay Grading Wrong” when he states, “We shouldn’t be thinking about this technology as replacing teachers. Instead, we should be thinking of all the places where students can use this information before it gets to the point of a final grade.” From what I have read and know about the importance of specific and meaningful formative feedback on writing, this area interests me and may be a rich area for educational research. I am always seeking ways to support students in the formative process of writing, instead of at the end.

To end, I am no longer worried that essay-grading robots are going to take over my career, just as long as we ethically and critically view and use the results.

Born-Digital Fiction and Non-Fiction

Having read little of born-digital fiction and non-fiction, I am very excited to explore this topic further and contemplate how this could be incorporated in my classroom to expand students’ literacy experiences beyond born-print literacy. On this week’s agenda:

The Silent History

Fish: A Tap Essay

Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek

The Silent History is an intricately organized (and intricately developed) multimodal literacy experience. I am fascinated by the development of this piece. How did the creators and contributors come up with this idea and design it with so many people contributing to a shared vision? Initially, after reading the testimonials, what I found interesting is that my own lack of patience drove me to read the narratives first, then go back and figure out what this text was, or what I thought it was. This is when I discovered the field reports component that I unfortunately did not have access to, but I still think it is an incredible piece of this text. I haven’t yet decided if this impacted my understanding or perception of the text, however. It wasn’t until just now when I thought about how I was going to even write about this text, to go back and do more investigation. I found it interesting that in order to learn about this experience, I had to select the gear icon. Typically, the gear icon is available to change settings, so I was just a little thrown off by it’s purpose in Imagethis app, but that opened up a whole window into understanding what this text is and what it is trying to accomplish. When I have more time (not sure when that will be, stay tuned…), I plan to go back and purchase the subsequent historical timelines.

Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek was definitely interesting to read. I also love that there is a large collection of discussions out there to comment on, critique and extend this text. Again, I plan on exploring these texts at a later time (even another text: The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse). I am definitely thinking about this for my own students. Texts like these can expand my students’ literacy practices and aid in the teaching of digital literacies that the Common Core and NCTE promote and expect of teachers.

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Finally, Fish: A Tap Essay is an attempt to define what it means to really love something on the internet when “liking” something is being used in exponentially increasing ways. What does it mean to love something? In this essay, Fish discusses how some applications, digital tools and platforms are now implementing the “love” button. I appreciated Fish’s definition of what it means to love something: it is something we return to. According to this definition, then, is Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters. I read it once every summer and have done so for the past 17 years, or Romeo and Juliet, which I read at least four times a year with all of my freshman students, and each time I discover something else, some new revelation or literary epiphany. I am curious: if more sites and technologies are implementing the “love” option, will that make its meaning less significant or change its meaning? And we will have to come up with a new term to mean more than love? Just curious.

Close Reading in a High School English Classroom

Out of all of the pieces this week, I most enjoyed Hayles’s “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine”. Hayles states that hyper reading has become necessary in a digital environment, which does not surprise me, nor does it worry me. Hayles offeres James Sosnoski’s definition of hyperreading as, “reader-directed, screen-based, computer-assisted reading” and includes “search queries, filtering by keywords, skimming, hyperlinking, ‘pecking’, and fragmenting” (p. 66). I realize that in order to make it in this digital world, I rely heavily on hyperreading to sift through an inordinate amount of information and text to arrive at what I’m actually looking for. But then when I find what I’m looking for, I switch to close reading.

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This is an example of a SIFT a student created at the beginning of a school year.

I am intrigued by Hayles’s description of the close reading technique of “symptomatic reading”. Hayles states that literary scholars do not find “symptomatic reading” productive because it typically results in formulaic reading and interpretation. I can see how this could be, but it is something I teach my own students. I use the College Board’s AP Vertical Alignment text as a guide for teaching my students “close reading.” I haven’t really thought of this as a strategy yielding formulaic results. I think it’s important what we do with the artifacts of our “symptomatic reading” that matters most. For instance, I use the strategy SIFT (symbolism, imagery, figurative language, tone, and theme) to help students “sift through the parts in order to understand the whole” (AP College Board). However, I don’t just stop there. We hold Socratic seminars over the piece of literature and the SIFTs to delve deeper into the literature. I also use other strategies such as SOAPSTone for rhetorical analysis and LEAD for analysis of diction.
I use these strategies that Hayles would call “symptomatic reading” as a developmentally appropriate introduction to literary and rhetorical analysis to make close reading more accessible for high school freshmen and sophomores to understand and master. I wonder if this is enough for students to form a foundation for reading literature from a critical and interpretive perspective or if if this is producing students who come up formulaic responses to literature well into college? I am curious what others think about this.

I also appreciated Hayles’ critique of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Mark Buerelin’s The Dumbest Generation. It is helpful for someone like me, who does not know much about the studies which these authors cite; I am specifically thinking about the fMRI study Carr mentions in his book. I wonder if there has been a study on hyperlinks where researchers have studied people who regularly read texts with hyperlinks and interact with them (and not just on novice users)? I wonder if the results (levels of comprehension) would be different? Have there been studies on “Choose Your Own Adventure” books in this same way?

On a larger note, I am really fascinated by the articles about analyzing writing with a quantitative methodology. I understand that it can be troubling when data is reduced to conclusions that may be superficial or insufficient explanations, but I still find it an interesting piece of a puzzle when it comes to understanding writing. I found it comforting when Ramsey states that we can look at literature in quantifiable ways without giving away the humanistic qualities. I haven’t really looked at quantitative analyses of writing much, or at least I haven’t been drawn to them (or required to read about them), therefore, I am not sure I can offer much discussion in this area, but I can at least say it’s interesting.