Writers in Intermediate Composition, on writing

My first day activity in Intermediate Composition is to have the students complete a letter of introduction as a writer. They answer a series of 9 questions on a piece of loose-leaf so I can take them home and read them. The activity gets them writing on the first day of class, shows I am serious about working hard while in class, and allows them to reflect on their abilities and feelings about writing, important as they begin a writing course. There is often a series of repeated phrases, so this time I created a wordle to diagram the repeated words in the students’ responses.

Here are the 9 questions, not to be answered in numbered form but in a cohesive response:

  1. How do you feel about writing? Include important information about yourself as a writer.
  2. Why do people write?
  3. Why do you write?
  4. What is the best thing you have ever written? Why?
  5. What is the worst thing you have ever written? What was difficult about it?
  6. How often do you write?
  7. What do you think a person needs to be a writer?
  8. What do you expect from me as a teacher?
  9. What are your writing goals?

Beach reads?

I always thought of a beach read as a novel that a person could just pick up with no background on the author, title, plot, etc. and enjoy quickly without much critical thinking. Some of the books on this list, as voted by NPR listeners and others who happened upon the poll, have outstanding literary merit and therefore, I believe, fall above “beach read” status. What do you think?

First day in AP Lit & Comp

This year I am embarking on a new journey. I will be teaching AP Literature and Composition to seniors for two trimesters at Clinton High School. I am super excited and blessed to have this opportunity. It has made for a busy summer trying to prepare.

A useful experience was attending an AP Vertical Teaming workshop at CHS. Besides other useful information, the presenter introduced an idea called “Getting Started Reflection” that is presented in the College Board Professional Development book “Pre-AP: Setting the Cornerstones for AP Vertical Teams.” The premise is to choose a photo that best represents your understanding of something. In the case of the workshop, it was to choose a photo that “best reflects your understanding of how teams ideally impact students’ education.” The photos were presented to us in the book (black and white) and on the projector so we could see them in color. After choosing a photo, participants were to write what aspects of a team the image evokes.

I’m modifying this great ice-breaker for the first day of class in my AP Literature and Composition course. I would like to know right away how my students perform on impromptu writing assignments. I also want to stress the importance of images in the classroom and making connections to things we read/view to other people and our lives. I put together a PowerPoint slide show of images that I chose and linked to from the web. Each image I chose for a reason. I wanted to provide a variety of thought-provoking images and I thought carefully about what my students might be feeling on the first day of their senior year and an AP English course.

Students will begin by viewing the slide show in its entirety once. Then, on the second viewing, I would like them to choose the image that best reflects how they feel on their first day. Once the image has been chosen, students will write for five to ten minutes on why they chose that image. What does it represent for them?

After students have completed the writing prompt, I will have them pair up with somebody and share their writing piece aloud to their partner. This will emphasize quickly working with peers and the importance of reading writing aloud to hear imperfections (or greatness). Once both partners have shared, I will gather back the whole class. Each group should share their reaction to their partner’s image to the entire group. Why did their partner choose it (briefly) and how does it relate to their chosen image? In other words, I’d like them to do a brief introduction of their partner based on their conversation and writing piece. This quick, whole class conversation will stress the importance of public speaking and connections between peers. A lot of students will be in the same boat (or realize they are in a very similar one) and this should unearth a sense of togetherness in the class.

As always, I will do this writing piece as well. If there is a partner-less student, they can work with me. Any feedback on this activity? I like it for a number of reasons and will see how it goes in a few weeks (first day is Thursday, August 20). Feel free to check out the PowerPoint and provide feedback on that as well!


Getting into the reading zone

Reader Pictures, Images and Photos
You know what the reading zone is – it is the magical place where you are so entranced by what you are reading that distractions are swatted like flies, connections and reactions pop up effortlessly, and engagement is visible by the continuous flipping of pages and an infectious desire to talk about what you have read.

The reading zone, a phrase coined by students of Nancie Atwell in reading workshop, is discussed in her book titled the same. I recently reread Nancie’s book and marveled at the dichotomy we face in English classrooms. What she talks about – how to help kids become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers – is my philosophy on teaching language arts. Her blend of reader and writer workshop, poetry study, mini-lessons, and booktalk discussions is exactly how I would want my ideal classroom to be structured. On the other hand, she talks about the teaching of comprehension strategies, which became big in the 90s and continue to infiltrate the field, as “interfering with the reading zone” (54).

As a new, impressionable teacher I see the benefit of teaching kids how to comprehend, with seven clear cut strategies of proficient readers. The truth is, though, they will only comprehend what makes sense to them. To widen what makes sense to them, we need to give plenty of time for reading books of their choosing. Atwell aptly states, “One of the many virtues of frequent, voluminous reading is how it fills up the file drawers of long-term memory, increases our vicarious experience, and improves our comprehension of the world and the word” (60). The more they read, the more they will know, the more they can understand.

So Nancie’s call to English teachers is this: What kinds of readers do you want to leave your room? What kinds of writers do you want to leave your room? When considering curriculum and planning, how can you establish a community of readers and writers that will leave your room more passionate, habitual, critical and literary?

Image courtesy of Photobucket.

Creating marketable learners

Job SkillsIn an article with the DesMoines Register, author Tony Wagner says, “Mastering more content doesn’t equate to more competency.”

Tony Wagner is co-director of the Change in Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His new book, which I haven’t read yet, is titled, “The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach The New Survival Skills Our Children Need – And What We Can Do About It.”

This quote I chose to lead with is very straightforward, yet it opens up a complex range of conversations. How do we test for competency? Content is easy to test – isn’t that why we teach it?

Maybe many of our schools and educators are focused on getting through the content. Covering more content in a class, however, doesn’t mean the students will be more competent when they get into the world on their own, as Wagner states.

Wagner goes on to say in the question-answer article, “Once we understand there is a core set of competencies – such as the ability to comprehend complex material, write well, the ability to ask questions – then you have to design tests to measure those competencies.”

I believe most educators are becoming aware of the core 21st Century skills that students need to enter the workforce or secondary education, but the problem lies in how to test those skills. My question is, could we ever really know if they have mastered them by a test? He suggests two tests that measure these skills. See the article for more on that.

Besides the testing question, about how we assess the mastery of these skills, my question to you is: do you foster the development of 21st Century skills in your classroom? In more specific terms, is your room or course structured in a way that students leave prepared to collaborate across networks, critically analyze and locate information, be flexible and adaptable, take the reins and start something new, communicate effectively (both written and oral), and most importantly: use their imagination and curiosity?

I hope that when my students leave my room, they have more marketable skills than regurgitating content, or in the case of the cartoon above, acting like a log.

Famous authors

I’ve been at the International Reading Association northern convention this week. I’m learning a ton, which I will blog about shortly, but with a few minutes to spare right now, I thought I’d indulge my favorite part of the conference – meeting famous authors.

On Monday, I met Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, the first novel I taught while student teaching. It was a great first novel to teach because students really were hooked into the complicated story and could identify with the tragic incidents the protagonist went through. I bought her two latest books, Chains, and Wintergirls. The link will allow you to check out Laurie’s Amazon reader video about her process with this amazing young adult text. By the way, my copy of Chains is signed by Anderson, with the message, “Books will set you free.”

In addition to Laurie, I met Jaime Adoff, author of Names Will Never Hurt Me and The Death of Jayson Porter. He is a very down to earth guy who travels and talks to students around the nation. He really gets what students need to read about and why they like to read. In a session in which I heard him speak, he said something to the likes of, “Writing can heal, and so therefore reading can heal.” He mentioned that although his writing may seem dark and impossible, there is always hope, and that is what kids need to know. Jaime writes poetic novels. I recently had a student tear through The Death of Jayson Porter in a few days. She was very moved by it; she was so engaged that she is choosing to write her final research paper on a topic stemming from her personal life and Adoff’s novel.

A classroom without walls

With the news of schools closing due to the pandemic threat, I’ve been prompted to think about how long my class could continue if we weren’t meeting at school.

Although not all of my students have computers at home equipped with the internet, most of them do. Those that do could visit our class wiki to download videos, PowerPoints, handouts and rubrics. The students could complete assignments and post them to the wiki. Students could have conversations about texts on there as well.

We wouldn’t be meeting face to face, but it would be a temporary classroom without walls. Those of us equipped with the right technology could meet for a while and keep the conversation and learning going without a traditional classroom to do it in (provided none of us got sick). Now let’s hope for the best.