on “doing” plays

Old school five-paragraph essays and literary analysis stifle creativity. Sitting around a classroom answering thought-provoking questions is a little better.
The gold-standard in learning is experiences: learning-by-doing.

Teaching-by-telling is particularly bad if you’re trying to “teach” a play. A play is meant to be experienced. The labor involved in creating and staging a play is un-thinkable without the experience of it.
My 10th graders are finishing up a unit using Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun to examine playwriting. There are three moderately large projects involved in the unit, and zero days spent in group discussion (small or large) zero reading quizzes, and zero minutes watching the movie.
I’ve challenged my students to experience this play. They read it at home, and worked in class (some people call this a flipped classroom… I call it smart teaching) on three projects:

1) Student as set designer: create a diorama of the set as Hansberry describes in her stage direction at rise Act 1, Sc 1.
2) In a group of three, write a paper that defines and describes one of the themes in the play.
3) In a group of eight, write and present a scene that occurs six months after the last scene; matching Hansberry’s tone and style and thinks creatively about how the lingering questions of the Younger family’s fortunes.

The outcomes are astounding from the last 14 class days and the reason is simple. The kids DID stuff:
They navigated group dynamics, broke pieces of their sets, wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote dialogue that sounded “awkward.” They practiced close reading of pieces of dialogue to capture character’s voices without us saying anything about close reading. They spoke to the back of the stage, then re-did their lines facing the audience. They wrote and re-wrote topic sentences till they were focused and concise statements that described paragraphs that advanced their thesis. They explained grammar to each other. They even used cloud-based collaboration tools without being required to!

I had a student who was home sick log-in to google docs to work on a script with her group yesterday.

I should acknowledge the argument that staging the play would be the “best” way to “do” it. My rebuttal is only that the kids need to write and think and not just interpret and act. I need to meet them where they are andĀ individualizeĀ to their interests and level as much as possible. These assignments allowed for that sort of customization. It was also more time effective for me to do it this way.

another case for self-directed learning-by-doing

I had a student hanging out in my room during his study hall, my free period. He’s one of those kids… you know… the one who can’t stay focused, believes he’s “not good at school” but is genuinely really cool, smart and will work for you if you connect with him.

We have great conversations about all sorts of things, and he makes keen observations about the world around him. He’s generally inquisitive and gets easily excited, and these things make him a lot of fun to be around.

Today, he came in eating a bag of pita chips. The bag had a large “33% More!!” on the top of it (to indicate the space in which the additional 33% resides, I guess).
He asks, first, how many chips do I think are in the bag. I point him toward the nutritional information which tells us that there are 4 servings of 6-7 chips. 24-28 chips, he tells me.
Nutritional wisdom now imparted, I attempt to go back to grading when he asks… so how many more is 33% more?

We now need algebra! And I tell him, hey – you know how you all always ask “when am I going to use this?” This is why you need algebra!!

So, I’m not proud to say that it took us a good 10mins to figure out the correct equation to figure it out. But we did: current size/1.33 makes 21ish was the original size of the bag.
We had conversation about how not to divide by .33. and how to check to see if the answer is correct and makes sense. 21 x .33 = 7. 21+7 = 28.

That kid may not be “good at school” but I bet when that question shows up on the SAT, he’ll get it right. And, more importantly, he now has a better idea of why percentages are interesting and important.

Since he had eaten most of the bag when we started this adventure, he also vowed to bring in another so we could count the chips. I plan on also trying to figure out price per chip.

Don’t you love “free” periods?

what my toddler has taught me about teaching… (so far)

I have found that aside from vocabulary size; there are few differences between my toddler and my students. They are bright, energetic and I really love to spend time with them. Any day I can bring my kid to school is, like, the best. day. ever.

I’m pretty sure that, had I attended a pre-service teacher program I would have received lots of information regarding classroom management. Since I never had that, I just rely on instinct (and about 10years experience as a workshop facilitator, but that’s another post). I realize I’m lucky in my situation that this has worked for me… and now that I’m a mom I’m benefitting even more from that instinct. I thought I’d share a list of carry-over rules between school and home. Not just behavior management, also ways to build good kids.

1) You have to at least try it. Once.
Broccoli, chicken, disagreeing with a friend, speaking up for yourself, Indian food, reading a biography, running a mile…. the list is endless.

2) Only one balloon at a time.
We are a society that believes a few dangerous things, not the least of which are “more is better” and “now is better than later.” I do actually have balloons in my desk at school, but this rule also applies to ideas, words and actions. Teaching them to present one well reasoned idea in an economy of language is hard but worth working on. Helping kids learn to manage expectations and obligations fits here too – you don’t need to play more than one sport a season or be an officer in four organizations at a time.

3) No throwing/biting/hitting/kicking.
You’d be surprised how apropos this continues to be into late adolescence and early adulthood. Or maybe you wouldn’t.

4) Use your words.
Express yourself. Oh, and these words don’t count: “um”, “like” (unless you are employing an honest-to-God simile).

5) Look at someone when they are talking to you.
This is a huge pet peeve in the classroom. When someone is talking – whether it’s me or anyone else – you should be paying attention to them. I talk with my classes at least once, or more if we need it, about how we know someone is listening to us. Eye contact, open body language, an appreciative nod or two. And I emphasize the same with my kid: look and listen when someone is talking.

authentic choices in the classroom?

As I fortify myself for the post-spring break return to my classroom… I’m thinking about Women’s History Month. I wonder with what sort of whimper we will fein to acknowledge this important moment in our year and in our lifetime.
Domestic terrorism threatens the female body and mind. I am not the first or only woman to write of my fear in our current political climate. Instead of focusing on getting us back to work, economic growth and prosperity, it seems like the GOP is hell-bent on legislating my vagina.

In full disclosure – I might want to identify myself here with libertarian leanings. Anyone who is a Facebook friend of mine sees my “like” of Ayn Rand, so this might not be a huge surprise. I believe that government intervention is the likely cause of most things sucking (health care is the most notable exception, though I believe medicare/medicade to be no small player in our current problems.) But at the core, the problem may not be “government”, but that “government” is made up of people. People like Rick Santorum – the scariest thing about whom is not his rhetoric, but the fact that I think he really means it.

Most of us think we’re right in our beliefs. Most of us have ideas about how we’d like to spend our time and money. Most of us like to believe that because we live in the United States we’ve been afforded a significant system and range of options for the spending of our time and money. But, unfortunately, we haven’t really. The GOP’s repeated attacks of women (a Virginia bill mandating trans-vaginal ultrasounds? referenda concerning the “personhood” of a fetus? cuts in funding to WIC, Headstart? even a bill introduced in Georgia that would redefine rape victims as “accusers” and leave other crime victims with their traditional title) are all about removing choice from our lives.

As women, our choices are limited by a society that is set up to support men as workers outside the home and women as property, or at best wards of the men of the society. We weren’t supposed to vote. We weren’t supposed to work outside the home. When we do work, we’re not supposed to make as much money as men. We aren’t supposed to be too loud or opinionated or smart.

And so, my challenge as a woman is to educate a new generation about the absence of authentic choice in women’s lives. Options available to us are in a constant cost/benefit analysis: which choice holds more social capital? which choice will be right for my family? which choices are really available to me given my 34 years of unasked for indoctrination into what it is to be a girl, and then a woman?

I believe the highest calling of a teacher is not only to provide a student multiple perspectives through which to view her world but to help her build a critical lens through which to view those perspectives.

When we start back to class on Wednesday, we’ll be starting Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Our guiding question: is the American Dream even possible? My choice: do I risk exploring the true answers with my students? or will I be further hamstrung in the classroom by what it is “appropriate” for me to teach?

VDay edition.

NPR has lots of cool stuff about this and had a Valentine’s edition yesterday.
Got me thinkin’ of my own:

Unexpected arrival made departure unimaginable.

I also got to thinking about what Eve Ensler might be up to these days. Instead of walking, well, running so far over the line with my 15/16 year old students that I put my job in danger by reading The Vagina Monologues in class… I started wondering about what would happen if the Vaginas in Ensler’s piece had to write their stories in six words.

I really wish I could teach this text and use this exercise. Really. A lot. But instead I’m going to go with the spirit of Ensler’s work – trying to highlight the absence of women’s voices and drawing attention to the tragedy of violence against women.

Specifics to follow.

return of Facebook

I did an assignment with my kids last year that used a Facebook template created in .ppt and imported into Google Presentations. I’m using it again this year, and noticing even more gains from the collaborative project.

Some of us take it for granted that TV didn’t exist and movies were just starting in 1922 when narrator Nick Caraway is telling his story. But for these 15/16 year olds don’t even have a concept of the world without internet so it’s hard for them to grasp. While last year (detailed here, and here ) I extolled the virtues of this as a differentiated assignment that spoke to multiple intelligences and multiple levels, this year I’m seeing more concrete learning.

After one or two: “what movies were in 1922?” and the answer “you have google right in front of you!!” kids are off on their own, mostly self-directed, web search for information and anecdotes about the 1920s.

I’m not a fan of memorizing names or dates or those sorts of things, but when you encounter them because you are looking out of sheer interest they’re more likely to stick. I love that they get to encounter almost-forgotten cultural icons like Bessie Smith and to anchor their understanding of less-forgotten ones like Duke Ellington and Charlie Chaplin. It doesn’t matter if they can list Chaplin’s whole resume, but knowing he did a lot of work in the 20s and what sorts of topics were interesting helps students come up with their own conception of a larger picture of the American film industry. And maybe they can make a witty comment at an Oscar party next week…

And it’s all, really, in service of one of my over-arching goals as an educator: get them to see another perspective.

heteronormalcy strikes again

I’d like to say this is the reason I refuse to take kids on some potentially fabulous tour of great American literature sites. But more likely I’m too lazy to try to keep track of more than just my own 2 year old.

But, I am incensed (as usual) by the continued practice of pairing same sex high school students together in accommodation pairs. A student approached me today with the same frustration about a trip he is taking to France with school and it has me fuming.

Let me be clear that I am in favor of same-sex education. I will continue to wrestle with the implications of perpetuating that gender binary, but as our society still maintains the otherness of women I will have to maintain my commitment to fulfilling the uniqueness of their educaitonal needs.

Heteronormative rooming practices ignore potential romantic feelings between same-sex partners, further marginalizing those feelings. The practice basically ignores same-sex attraction thus sending one more message that such attraction is not “normal.”

The trip is supposed to be about French culture and providing a limited immersion experience. Instead, it has this student focused on messages about sex and gender. This isn’t bad thing, since he’s clearly thinking critically about it… but what of the students and parents and tour guides that don’t know or want to think critically?

research using google docs

I’ve been working with my kids to navigate the process of writing a research paper.

Apart from being required to keep a research binder in which they keep copies of source material, notes, class handouts etc… we’ve also been making extensive use of google documents.

Our first big mile stone is the annotated bibliography. Basically, for each source they plan to use, the kids need to turn in a write up that includes an MLA style citation and 150-250 word discussion of the source’s content, relevance to their research question, and scholarly credibility.

The assignment is broken into two halves: five sources due today, and 5 on Monday.

Students are allowed to turn in the work in paper form, in email (discouraged, but allowed) or by “Sharing” the document on google docs.
I, personally, prefer the shared docs. I can leave comments for the students that they can address in the document by “resolving” my comment.
This application of my just-in-time feedback allows for student’s to fix any errors and hopefully not repeat them as they add the final five sources to the annotated bibliography, due Monday.

This just-in-time feedback allows students to see and correct their own errors. But it is the nature of my feedback that allows them to actually learn from those corrections. Instead of just pointing out that there is an error – or correcting the error – I’ll point them to a resource they can use to see and correct the error. This shows up for the student as a comment to the side of their work and doesn’t interfere with their text.

Other benefits: it’s neater than my handwriting, I don’t have to carry around (and potentially loose or spill coffee on) a large stack of paper and it’s available to me and the student on any internet-connected computer (no loosing USB’s or emailed wrong versions.)

As we move into the other milestone assignments: introductions, outlines and the development of each movement of the paper I plan to use google docs in it’s most collaborative form to encourage peer feedback and real-time editing of their work during writing workshops.

Still unpacking our invisible knapsack

If you choose to talk about racism today, in addition to or instead of “just” the life or impact of Dr. King, Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is one that has been used by diversity and social justice educators for years.

This is one of the first written by a white person to talk about privilege; with gender privilege as a “soft” opening to the discussion. It is an easy ready and has been used at all levels; from high school students to professionals. (The reading level may be above that of lower-school kids, even though the subject matter is not.)

I will use it today as a conversation starter, with the explicit intention to address my students of color separately, privately about their experience. I intend to honor all perspectives, as long as they are respectful by forcing a largely silent reflection on the piece. I have chosen to use a version that explains a little more than the original, and hope that in reading the whole thing, conversation extends beyond the classroom. My reflection model for today is “head, heart, hands: what do you think? how do you feel? and what do you want to do?”

One thing to be particularly careful of – while this can be powerfully eye opening, it can also induce guilt.

It’s ok to let students sit with that feeling, while reminding them that the essence of privledge is that it is unasked for and unearned. The things McIntosh observes do not position any one person as a “racist” but rather draw attention to the group or societal level of these issues.

If nothing else, I encourage that you read it as a reminder to us all of how much work there still is to do.

is authentic learning important?

The most authentic assessment is the most basic: did you survive?

Collins, Brown and Dugid’s work in situated cognition inform my thoughts on authentic learning. In short, that tasks must be situated in the most authentic context possible in order for them to be truly learned and able to be applied in a future context.

As a K-12 educator (well, a 10th grade educator) I have a few barriers to creating this type of environment:

1) I’m in a school building. There are only so many types of experiences I can create for my students within the four walls of my classroom. I have some resources, the greatest of which are the learners themselves, but I can’t really situate them in a true environment. I teach English, so the best I can do is have them read, write and think. I’m hoping those are things they will do in lots of contexts. And although I know from other research that those skills need to be specifically and deliberately pointed out for the student to make the analogy, I won’t be there to do it for them. I just have to hope.

2) Curriculum is content driven, not experience driven. How many of us have thought: “hurry up and learn this so we can do something interesting”, forgetting for a moment that it’s actually the learning itself that is pretty interesting. We operate on an entrenched belief that you must know x before you can do y. What about: we can do y to learn x?

3) Curriculum is content driven, not skills driven. We are kidding ourselves if we think that the most important thing we teach is math or English. The most important thing I teach my kids is how to talk with each other, how to function in a shared-work environment, how to manage a full schedule… how to fake it when you haven’t really prepared as well as you should. (It may be controversial to say, but this last one is a hugely important life skill.)

I’m struck, however, that this may not really be as much of an issue as I’m making it. My school is a self-defined traditional college prepatory school. The authentic environment we are supposed to be creating is that of a college. Whether or not these challenges exist in college and exacerbate the problem of an underprepared workforce may not really be my problem.
If the college changes, then I guess it will be my job to match that new environment. In the meantime, maybe we should be increasing class sizes and decreasing personal attention… spending more money on marketing and sports programs than supporting differentiated instruction… since that is what appears to be important in college.