Are we really teaching? Are they really learning?

I was inspired to ask these questions during a recent afternoon of English department conversations with Angela Maiers, who is employed by our district (and others around the Midwest) to inspire the teaching of 21st Century learners.

As a learner myself, perusing blogs on literacy, technology & learning, I came across the question “Why change?” on Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s blog. She wrote an eloquent response to this question (asked of her by frustrated teachers who see no end to the rigorous, changing expectations of teachers) detailing who we are as pedagogians. Her response to the question reminded me why I am a teacher and also why I feel both fired up and exhausted after these teaching practice conversations.

The “Why change?” question was a big roadblock I was noticing in our conversations with Angela at CHS about how teachers could make a few shifts in their teaching practices to better prepare the modern student for a modern world. I think the questions to ask instead of why should we change are: “Are we really teaching?” and “Are they really learning?” The answers to those questions might be “Not really,” for some of us, and if that is the case, then the “Why change?” has its answer – we’re not preparing our students to be independent learners and thinkers in a 21st Century society. We need to give them the skills to tackle anything that gets thrown their way in the real world, plus the content to support their understanding of that same real world.

It seems that Kaplan University is starting to get the idea of adapting to the learners and world we face today. We have to change the way we teach to change the way they learn. It is a shift for all of us, but one that reaps tremendous rewards. I noticed Scott McLeod, also an Iowa resident, posted the two new Kaplan University advertisments that demonstrate their shift in approaching post-secondary education on his blog, Dangerous Irrelevant. If you haven’t seen the advertisements yet, going to Kaplan’s website or the blog post linked to above will allow you to view them.

Now my mind is thinking – how can we apply the ideas of this university to a high school education? The first step is shifting our teaching practices, and there’s plenty of support out there to do it.

Renaissance poetry

PP that outlines our gradual release lesson: Renaissance Poetry Lesson 

uncovering author’s meaning on SmartBoard:poetrymeaning 

background PP: Renaissance 

Although the Renaissance is marked as a time of renewed interest in learning, where humanists began to question humanity & society, my students don’t ever seem to share the same excitement of the time period. 

We began with background on the historical period. We began with my PowerPoint, developed from the HRW Elements of Literature textbook, 6th course, which is linked to above. The students presented the background I didn’t cover in groups.

With some schema of the time period developed, it was time to tackle some of the famous poets – Sir Thomas Wyatt and Edmund Spenser. I decided to begin our study of poetry with a gradual release lesson. The PP that outlines this lesson is linked to above.

I first showed students how I uncover the poet’s meaning by putting the language in my own words. I used ee cummings’ poem “since feeling is first.” See the link poetrymeaning link above. Then we tried “Whoso List to Hunt” together. I thought through my process and thoughts aloud and students who volunteered contributed their thoughts and meaning. The next step was to have students collaborate on uncovering meaning, and we used “Sonnet 30” by Edmund Spenser. We charted our steps to uncovering meaning with a visual and our own words on the SmartBoard. Finally, students were asked to try “Sonnet 75” individually, writing the meaning for me in their notebooks and then contributing to the collective idea on the SmartBoard.

The use of gradual release when teaching the skill of uncovering meaning in poetry worked very well. Students were able to realize that not everybody is going to come up with the same interpretation, but if we are using the same process and can support our interpretation with poetry terms, then we are doing just fine. I hope my students feel more comfortable with reading poetry since we have done this together. Next week we tackle a few Shakespearean sonnets, and I will do a gradual release lesson on tone in poetry.



Colbert on poetry

Alexander on Colbert

Colbert interviews inauguration poet Elizabeth Alexander.


Medieval discussion

Medieval Discussion

My classroom became a place of fired up learners when my students were presented with the opportunity to work collaboratively on critical thinking questions and earn and steal points from other teams during third hour today.

Today in English literature, we held our wrap-up discussion of the medieval period, prompted by essential questions I created for the unit on Malory’s Le Morte de Arthur, excerpts of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, and the film First Knight.

The last time I set up this activity, I had to be out of the classroom for something, so there was a guest teacher in my place. I set the acivity up so that it could run without me, so if you download the document, you’ll notice some of those quirks. Anyway, the way the plan is written helps both me and the students stay on track.

After finally getting to witness what I think is a great acivity to get kids reflecting on a unit, I made a few changes. I decided that next time I would have the groups work on their focus question first, and then work on the others (this is reflected in the attached lesson). On the fly during the activity today, I also added a challenge component to the discussion. Groups could steal points away from a focus question answer if they had a better comment to make (these stolen points were judged by myself and some student groans/cheers).

Regardless, I’m trying to be a better blogger and reflect more on my teaching practices. Since this activity was successful for engaging learners, I thought I would share.

Memorable Language

Grading Rubric

Fall Walk essay

Picture Books memorable details

I’ve been meaning to share a lesson I use to invite writers to discover and begin using memorable language. First we define memorable language – we talk about sensory details, figurative language such as similes and metaphors, and words that paint picures in our minds.

Students are then put into groups and each group is given a children’s book to read that is written with memorable language. The books I have used previously include: “Owl Moon” by Jane Yolen; “Secret Place” by Eve Bunting; “Home Place” by Jerry Pinkey; “In November” by Cynthia Rylant; “Winter Waits” by Lynn Plourde; “Letting Swift River Go” by Jane Yolen. Students are responsible for recording sensory details on a graphic organizer I’ve given them, and they also make note of any other memorable language they encounter. Once they’ve finished reading, they add the words and phrases they’ve found to be detailed to the Smart Board for the entire class to see.

Once the lesson is over, the entire class has been exposed to a lot of memorable language. We discuss why it is important to include this language in our writing, and then we talk about ways to do it. Our first writing challenge to incorporate these words is to write about our favorite season. Since seasons can be described easily, and they are really only four to choose from, students can work together on ideas for incorporating memorable details into their favorite season writing piece.

I’ve attached my brainstorming and essay plan that I demonstrate for the kids on the projector. I talk through my thought process for writing this way, and share excitement with the students when we come up with a great, detailed line. I have also shared my rubric for assessing these essays. The students usually end up surprising themselves with their ability to use such descriptive, memorable language in an expository essay format. I’ll be doing this lesson next week, and hopefully I’ll find students willing to share their samples on here!