An Alternative Assignment and What I Learned

Before I began my critical reading unit on The Tragedy of Macbeth, I designed a literary analysis final product that would serve as guidance for the unit as a whole. We would read the play through a critical lens in an effort to collect evidence for our essays. In short, reading with the final product in mind would allow students to be deliberate about their reading choices while paying close attention to specific literary devices that are used throughout the text.

The issue with the notion of a backward planned unit with a summative writing assessment like this is that the product itself is not differentiated. I differentiated the reading process for many students, and the content of the unit was made approachable to each learner with tiered companion texts. However, in terms of creating multiple avenues for a successful product, the assignment was lacking.

One of my students fancies himself to be a hip hop artist and a rapper. Normally a difficult student to motivate, I sat down with him and discussed the possibility of creating a final product after reading Macbeth that would motivate him to engage in the reading process while also appealing to his interests.

This student has released several mixtapes and has demonstrated a legitimate skill in songwriting and producing. We agreed that, rather than writing the summative literary analysis that his peers were assigned, this student would write and produce a song about Macbeth, his tragic flaw, and details from the play. This mirrored the content of the literary analysis paper while providing the student with the room for agency and creativity that he craves. Continue reading

Whiteboard Duels: Collaborative Drafting

Collaborative Drafting

In my time outside of school, I often freelance as a speechwriter. My students know this, and when one of my students came to me with the speechwriting scenario of the century, I decided that a whiteboard duel would be perfect for the task.

This particular student is traveling throughout UN member nations researching and speaking about the Sustainable Development Goals. Her task is daunting and the complexity of her mission deserves its own post. However, the speaking portion of her mission requires that she speaks to various groups about her personal connection to these goals and her unique viewpoint as one who has spanned the globe to see these goals in action. In short, she has become a pseudo-expert for the UN, and she has an intriguing need to express her expertise effectively.

In helping this student prepare her remarks, I used a collaborative drafting method called a Whiteboard Duel.

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We began our drafting by answering 3 metacognitive questions: What are you doing? Why does it matter? and Why should other people care?

The Materials

The biggest whiteboard you can find, two or more different colored markers, two erasers, and a timer.

The idea of the Whiteboard Duel is that two or more writers collaborate on a project in real time. In my scenario, my student and I decided to work on a specific portion of the speech, and we set a ten-minute timer. We then set about crafting a speech.

The Process

  1. Set a purpose
  2. Set a timer
  3. Draft

The Rules

  1. For the duration of the timer, talking is not allowed.
  2. Anything can be erased, but it must be replaced with new writing.
  3. Now is not the time for grammar and punctuation edits.

The beauty of this drafting exercise is that it provides two (or more) writers with the explicit authority to revise a collaborative text. While, in the end, this speech will be delivered by my student, and I will have little to no responsibility to it, the in-the-moment drafting gives both writers real ownership.

My words became her words and her words became mine.

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Metacognition: 3 Questions That Matter

In my recent graduate work as well as in my classroom, I read, write, and think about metacognition constantly. I’ve read, heard, and said that “metacognition is thinking about thinking.” That concise statement is handy enough to elicit a few nods and grins, and it is the graduate school equivalent of using the word “hegemony” in an undergraduate Literary Analysis course. It makes you sound smart, and we all want to sound smart.

But I’m ready for more.

So what? What does this have to do with my teaching? How do I actually allow my students to do this? How does one metacognate?

Out of this desire for more came the development of the three most important questions I can ask as a teacher. These questions push my students to reflect upon their learning and they actually lead to thinking about thinking. Even better, the three metacognitive questions are conducive to writing and writing instruction.

What did we do today?

How did we do it?

How did it change your thinking?

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Academic Gifting: Offering Authenticity and Collaboration

Creating Authenticity

One of the most frequently asked questions in my writing class concerns itself with the intended audience of a text. When we analyze informational articles, we determine to whom the author is writing. When we analyze biographies, we analyze who might appreciate the organization of the text the most. And when we craft our own argumentative or analytical texts, we decide for ourselves who our readers are and what they want from us.

This last question, especially, hinges upon the idea of authenticity. My students crave real writing and real writing opportunities. It’s what makes a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) writing assignment so intriguing. They like to occasionally take on new personas and voices, and they certainly like knowing that their writing is real and that it matters.

With the notion of “realness” in mind, I recently turned to Academic Gifting as a way to create both authentic writing opportunities as well as an opportunity for collaborative learning.

Academic Gifting

The Materials: Envelopes, Note Cards, and a Classroom Timer

I began the Academic Gifting exercise with the guiding quote of our unit:

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls while others build windmills.”

Students were tasked with responding to this quote on the front of the envelope. For six

windmill-1927-650x300

Image via jamestownhistoricalsociety.org

minutes straight (building that writing endurance), pens and pencils could not leave the envelope. Students made “I wonder…” statements, asked questions, and connected the quote to the four major texts of our unit. Importantly, they did not write their names on the envelopes. Instead, while they were writing, I walked around with a sharpie and numbered each envelope according to my seating chart. This allowed me to shuffle the envelopes throughout the room but to still be able to identify the author of the envelope at the end of the lesson. Continue reading

Titan Talk: Pen Pal Letters and Social Health

While sitting in a professional development workshop this summer, Chelsey Avery, a stellar special education and language arts teacher, and I were working on an issue that had been haunting us for days:

“How can we bridge the social gap between our highest academic achievers and students with unique educational needs?”

Our answer to this question has been implemented over the first month of school in the form of pen pal letters. These letters, which we call Titan Talk, are anonymous letters sent between my honors students and Chelsey’s special education students. While they serve vastly different purposes in our writing curricula, they have already shrunken the gap between these two groups of students.

Logistics

  1. Honors English 10 students and 9 special education students will write anonymous letters to one another.
  2. Students will use code names to communicate.
  3. 2 honors students will be responsible for writing to 1 special education student.
  4. Teachers will review each letter before it is sent to the recipient.
  5. Direct and indirect writing instruction will be provided throughout the process.
  6. At the end of the process, students will meet at a reveal party.

Code Names

In an effort to keep the letters anonymous until the big reveal at the end of the school year, students have been assigned code names. For instance, Simba and Nala are writing letters to Batman, while Simon and Garfunkel write to Princess Leia. By asking students to take on pseudonyms, we can encourage them to take more risks in their writing (a natural result of anonymity) while maintaining the authenticity these letters provide.titan-talk-2

Purposes

  • Authentic writing and reading opportunities – students are writing with actual students in their own school. This is not writing a pen pal they will never meet nor is it a contrived assignment in which students write to an absent other.
  • Writing to provide advice and to solve problems – the beautiful aspect of these letters is that the sophomore honors students just finished the experiences that the freshmen have just started. Thus, the expertise of the sophomores will motivate the freshmen. Furthermore, the sophomores will be motivated to provide sound and relevant advice when they know exactly what the freshmen are experiencing.

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That one time I was wrong: and how I was wrong again immediately afterward

I’m not at all bashful about the fact that modern psychology informs every pedagogical decision I make. In fact, I’m quite proud of the psychology classes I took in high school, college, and graduate school. And I’m not talking about the Skinner-Freud debate or how classical and operant conditioning differ.

Instead, I live for the newest developments in what we know about our brains. It’s the small amount of science that I get to bring into my classroom, but it is also the content that earns me the most engagement and motivation out of my students. Students want to know how their brains work. They may cringe the first time I talk about metacognition, but you can bet that, by the end of the year, I’m grinning when a student realizes that she wrote a quality rhetorical analysis of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” because she read it as if she were having a conversation with the author himself. She was thinking about her own thinking.

When I was first wrong about my students’ brains, I was focused solely on their neurons. I explained to my sophomores that neurons were these small bundles of cells that sent electrical impulses throughout their brains. We practiced mindfulness by trying to be aware of the electricity in our own bodies as we studied tactile imagery.

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I Haven’t Forgotten About You: Honors Students and the Summer Reading Essay Anxiety

Amid the torrent of myths about gifted and talented students – they don’t need special attention, they can get the content on their own, they cannot function in a heterogeneous society – lays the accurate claim that, from a socioemotional perspective they can be strong-willed and often aim for perfection. This is a well-researched and well-supported claim, but the writing teachers of gifted and honors students only need to assign a writing exercise to see this in action.

These are the students who revise three, four, and five times. They revise until they are beyond positive that they are handing us their best work. They sit outside our classrooms in the morning because they aren’t thrilled with their conclusion and they wonder if they can come in during lunch to work on their counter argument.

Of course, we do a mental dance (alright, sometimes we just dance right in front of everyone) and we shout, “Yes! Yes, come in during lunch. Come in after school. I’ll cancel my dentist appointment so we can work on the transition between your first and second paragraphs. These cavities can wait!”

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Mapping: Analyzing a Weird Text

I decided to end my school year with a gamble. I was going to hit students with a contemporary text that, get this, required no reading at all. I wanted to give students something that was unlike anything they had ever studied in school. Something weird, sporadic, complex, and sometimes grotesque.

I have been a fan of Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey

Night Vale

Image via welcometonightvale.com

Cranor, about the fictional desert town of Night Vale, since its inception in 2012. My students call it NPR with pterodactyls. Among the many oddities listeners encounter in the twenty-five minute episodes are five-headed dragons, invisible clock towers, angels that change light bulbs, and secret police helicopters that only sometimes steal your children. These details keep listeners engaged and wondering what outlandish details they will hear next.

We listened to two episodes per day, answered plot-based guided-listening questions, ended each day with analytical discussions about connections between our world and the world of Night Vale, and even did some truly odd creative writing (each episode includes a four-minute song that serves as a great natural timer for writing prompts). Students were laughing, writing, and learning. But I couldn’t help but to ask, “So what? What is the greater goal behind all of this?”

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Make Your Own Burger: Creating what is Missing

My classroom runs on an unwritten rule: use and celebrate metaphors as much as possible. I’ve used the “driving instructor” metaphor in which I lead the instruction until such a time when I can hand the keys to the students. Oftentimes, a student will confidently ask for the keys (seriously… “Mr. G., I’m ready to drive the car now.”).

During a recent literary analysis essay, the students were the baby birds and I was kicking them out of the nest. It was time to see if they could fly (analyze) without me.

Metaphors demonstrate abstract thinking. They allow for creativity and fun. After a Star Wars marathon over the weekend, one student came into class furious because he can’t not see foreshadowing when he revisits his favorite films. He said, “Mr. G., you used to be like this bird on my shoulder that pointed out foreshadowing. But now, even when the bird isn’t there, I can still hear you. Get out of my head!” We stopped everything to celebrate that image right away. Continue reading

Drop Everything and Play: Creating Opportunities for Creativity

When Students Fear a New Text

In fourth grade, right before we were about to step onstage for the yearly choir concert, my teacher told the class to picture the audience as giant pickles. She explained that giant pickles are funny and that if we could laugh before the concert, we wouldn’t be nervous. Of course, we had all heard about picturing the audience in its underwear, but that line had become worn out. The success of the pickle picturing plan was its novelty in addition to its effectiveness. We weren’t scared of performing because we were performing for giant pickles. It was new, and it worked.

Today, as my students work to see themselves as writers, I draw on my fourth grade teacher’s advice. How can I make the oftentimes daunting task of writing new and exciting? What can I do to demonstrate to my students that new texts are not tedious and should never be sources of fear?

On the first day of analyzing a new text, my students are hard at work charting the text. As a group, we have broken it into digestible chunks, and now, we are completing a triple-entry journal that will act as the pre-writing for our argumentative analysis essays. Our goal is to dive into the brain of the author to figure out how he is trying to persuade us. As effective as this is, it has also been done before. It is the equivalent of an audience in its underwear.

Drop Everything and Play

Dropping everything and playing is the pickle in the audience. The goal is to transform the fear of a new text into an opportunity for pure creativity.

More specifically, when students drop everything and play with a text, they are given complete creative license to do anything they want with their copies of the text.

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