Google it: 3 Ways to Turn Students into Vocabulary Explorers

So, I’m about to make an argument that we should take a cue from Google when it comes to vocabulary instruction, but before you roll your eyes and click ahead to the next post, hear me out for a second:

A few years ago, if I were to use Google as a metaphor for vocabulary instruction, we’d probably be talking about the lowest level of learning when you analyze it with Bloom’s Taxonomy. We’d be talking about running into a word you don’t know, googling it to find a definition, then moving on. Not ideal when we equate that to our vocabulary instruction.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that in the past few years, Google has become much more than an answer-finding machine. Sure, we can still google a quick answer. But we also use it to compose emails, host virtual meeting spaces, and collaboratively design presentations. Google’s very mode of existing has extended beyond the lowest level of understanding upward through the levels of understanding to help us create.

Vocab SnipEarlier this year, as I was typing away in a Google Doc, I noticed that even their approach to vocabulary is moving upward in its depth of knowledge. Try it: Right click on a word that you’d like to look up. You get two options: define or explore.  

As teachers, we need to take this cue from Google and teach vocabulary with a similar approach. Sure, there are times when we should teach our students to find a definition, but we must also shift our instruction to really explore vocabulary in our classrooms.

How do we teach our kids to be vocabulary explorers?

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On Teaching Poetry

As I traditionally do in April, National Poetry Month, I’m  dedicating my space here at Moving Writers to talking about poetry for the next few weeks.

A couple of years ago, I made a decision to become a better teacher of poetry. I felt I was a good poetry teacher, but I had a handful of plans, tricks and tools that my poetry unit relied upon. I feel like I’ve stepped up my poetry game considerably, and I’d like to share some of that journey with you.

An important first step is deciding what your goals as a poetry teacher are. This is actually a big part of the challenge, because there’s a lot of aspects to teaching poetry. Do you want to teach analysis? Is appreciation of the craft your goal? Do you want them writing poetry? Do you want them performing poetry? Are you focusing on canonical poetry, or is it spoken word? I’ll be honest, I’m at various stages with all of these things, but it all comes to a single guiding principle for me, I want them to see how powerfully language can be used in the pursuit of poetry. As well, I want them to play with words, and experiment with poetic expression. Continue reading

InstaPoetry: a Unit of Writing Study with Resources

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Recently, I was wandering around a Target while my daughter was at Girl Scouts, and I was amazed to find six (six!) collections of poetry in the book section! Poetry! At Target! I was so moved that I took a picture and Tweeted,

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I suppose what moves me is that I don’t think it’s coincidental that we are at an unprecedented moment of social and political unrest and uprising (and renewal?) in this country and suddenly Rupi Kaur is a New York Times bestselling poet and collections of poetry are for sale to the masses at Target.

It seems poetry has gone mainstream, at least in part, because we constantly swim in a current of excess language. There seems to be some kind of universal agreement that it’s time to pare down. To distill talk until it’s just truth.

Poetry has been a bit out of vogue in education over the last few years. At least in Virginia, poetry is not longer found on state tests. So unless students take an AP or IB literature course, reading poetry has been largely erased from most classrooms. After all, why invest valuable instructional time on a cognitively challenging genre on which students won’t be tested?

Of course, we all know better. Of course, we must do better.

Rupi Kaur , r.h.sin, Amanda Lovelace, and the other poets whose collections can be purchased at airport newspaper stands write in sound bytes and Instagram posts. Their poems can often feel more like an inspirational coffee mug than classic verse. And while I don’t think that Cyrus Parker should replace Seamus Heaney, Instagram poets can open the gate for our students into a bigger world of reading and writing poetry.

So, why not create a unit of study around Instapoets — reading them, analyzing their writing, contemplating what makes them so popular, and then creating our own (hopefully viral) Instapoems.

A Unit Map:

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Success Through Structure

In January, during Moving Writers’ series on testing, I wrote about structuring a class when there’s that external test to consider. I really like having a structure. It’s nice to have touchstones and routines to ground things so you can go and explore the things that come up as you go.

I’m currently teaching a creative writing course. We’re almost done, as I’m only teaching them for a term, but the structure has been key to the successes we’ve had. I tweeted a piece earlier this week, and it got a lot of likes and retweets. Rebekah suggested it become a post, so here we are.

At the outset of the course, I had, of course, a plan in my notebook for the structure. However, knowing that there were students who had chosen the course to grow as writers, I made sure that we had an open discussion about goals. I asked what forms we wanted to work on, and how much freedom we wanted. In a great moment of serendipity, their input aligned quite closely with what I had on paper. Continue reading

Memoir Remix: Writing

The remix of our Memoir Study focused initially on  the reading of memoir. Writing needed a touchup too. Last April, long after we were finished the semester we taught our Grade 12s, the students who studied memoir, in, my colleague Ashley and I were driving to the city to see Penny Kittle. An hour in a car with another English teacher is always productive.

We got talking about the writing of memoir. I have traditionally had students write a wide variety of smaller pieces, responding to various prompts. The intention was always that they compile the pieces they liked best into a single memoir piece, but for some reason, I was never able to make that happen. Ashley told me about a strategy she had played with from a workshop where students wrote on note cards, writing various aspects of a memoir piece, which they then arranged to create a draft from which they’d write their memoir piece.

You know that cool thing that happens when you get two solid collaborators together, and elements of what each suggested become defining aspects of a cool new thing? It happened that day. We loved the idea of writing a lot of different things. We loved the idea of writing on note cards, giving students a manageable space in which to capture thoughts that could be expanded upon later. Memoir Cards became the new thing.

In September, when we got our new Grade 12s in our classrooms, we began. Ashley and I began sharing the prompts that we used with our students. Some prompts were the ones we already had, typical memoir writing things around names, places, memories and such things. The practice of writing only on note cards seemed to revive these prompts. In quickwrite mode, the note cards gave me what I like best – this was a writing task that looked easily manageable for a reluctant writer, and a limit of sorts to challenge, and focus, those who find writing easier. Continue reading

Memoir Remix: The Empathy Map

Today, I’ll get back to a series of posts I started in December, sharing how we revisited and remixed the study of memoir in our Grade 12 courses.

When we sat and discussed what we felt we wanted to “get” out of studying a memoir, my awesome teaching homie Rachelle was emphatic that we wanted to see our students empathizing with the memoirist. This was pretty obvious, and we all know, when we’re working with our students, the moments we cherish most are when we they communicate to us their empathy for someone they’re reading about. However, how does one encourage that empathy, and how exactly do we get it into something that students can share, and ultimately, we assess?

There was a time when, as English teachers, we had a model for this. We all read the same book, and there were chapter questions, and in those questions, we would specifically ask students how the things that happened to the character made them feel. In the essay that was invariably assigned post-reading, we might encourage a section that explored this empathy piece.

Obviously, the chapter question model doesn’t really work when 25 students are reading 18 different memoirs. (Actually, I don’t really believe in that model in any way anymore.) The essay piece was still available, but since that was the task we were working to replace, it didn’t really make sense either.

As we discussed this, we realized that what we wanted to encourage was a regular practice of reflection, of looking for moments of empathy throughout their reading. We talked through the idea of a notetaking process, filling notebook pages with a bunch of “When they… I felt…” statements. I wasn’t sure what made me recall these, but I thought about those big body biography projects that were all the rage a decade ago, where students made a big poster of the character, and put all kinds of notes all over them, highlighting feelings, actions and whatnot. It didn’t seem feasible to have 25 big posters on the go, but could we replicate this in our notebooks.

We could. My initial whiteboard sketch, which came to my notebook is pretty much what we encouraged students to create. A two page spread in their notebooks, on one side, they draw the character in profile, leaving room to add notes. On the other side, themselves in profile, again, with room for notes. As they read, they added the things that happened to the person, their thoughts and actions. Each thing they added to that page generated a corresponding response from them on their page. Somewhere along the line, the phrase “empathy map” was put into my brain, and that’s what we called these.

Since I believe in transparency in teaching, I’ll openly admit that the first swing at this idea, specifically in the memoir study didn’t work very well. And it’s on me. I had a wonderful group of Grade 12 students, totally open to trying new things, and good with the empathy stuff as it was. However, simply giving them a sheet with a brief explanation, and talking it through with them didn’t pan out. I mean, their pieces were okay, but a lot of them wound up being things that were constructed at the end of reading, and not accumulated while reading. It was like a prettier version of the paragraph from the after reading essay.

I loved the idea though, and held onto it. As my 12s were wrapping up their memoir studies, my Grade 9s were starting our study of The Outsiders. I decided I’d give the empathy map another try, and do it better.

Empathy Map exampleTo do this, I began by actively modelling what I wanted. A big whiteboard sketch went up, and there was Ponyboy and I. We talked about it, and chose a couple of moments that resonated with us. I added those things, and then, I modelled my responses. I asked them to add a couple more things from the chapter.

Photo 1 (4)And each time we read, our task was to add the things that resonated to our empathy maps. They really seemed to enjoy the task, knowing that it was an easy one in many ways. They simply needed to respond to what happened with how it made them feel. It’s funny how easy they felt this was, considering how we felt it was such a difficult thing for us to create as teachers. Many of their pieces extended beyond the boundaries of the pages in their notebooks, with layers of sticky notes, and extra fold out pages taped in. This was what I wanted, beautiful notebook pages full of messy ideas they were working through. The option remained to polish and present these, but I like the chaos of thought captured in the notebook.

Photo 2 (4)The beauty was, I had modeled, and received what I had hoped to see from my Grade 12s. The importance of how we teach something became apparent, again. As well, assuming that I do something similar with texts over the next few years, when these 9s roll into the memoir study in Grade 12, how awesome are their empathy maps going to be then?

As well, because the TeacherBrain never shuts off, how versatile is this strategy? This empathy map could be a notetaking strategy for an essay later. There’s a certain level of character analysis that is embedded in this we could mine. I could dust off that old body biography project, and have students collaborate, discussing, and sharing where their empathy overlapped, or diverged. I saw this happening with the creation of the empathy maps in their notebooks, and there was some pretty rich discussion. Though the intention wasn’t to create that avenue to discuss, it happened, and that’s awesome.

What have you revisited and revamped lately? What do you want to remix and refresh? How do you encourage students to empathize with characters they’re reading? How do you have them express that empathy?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

The SAT Essay: Preparing Students for the Test & Tips for Sealing the Deal

 

National Leave the Office Early Day!As a part of their graduation requirements, every student in Michigan must take the complete SAT, including the essay. This is relatively new for us in the mitten state; previously, our required test was the ACT. As with just about any major change in education, when this first became law, I went through the stages of grief. But now, I’ve moved beyond acceptance and have learned to embrace the newly revised SAT*.

*Ok, “newly revised” requires a bit of perspective. It’s been in place for a couple of years now, but if you haven’t thought much about the SAT since you taught it, it’s changed – a lot.

Now, I’m never going to go bonkers in support of lots of mandatory, standardized testing. But, let’s face it: it’s not going away, so if a test can supply me with reliable data to help inform my instruction, I can deal.

Plus, the SAT is hard, which is one thing that frustrates a lot of people about the shift to this test, but I’d argue that because of its particular type of “hard,” the SAT – especially the essay – is making me improve my teaching.

See, when I say that the SAT is “hard,” part of what I mean is that you can’t really prep for it like you might for other writing tests. That’s because the SAT essay doesn’t just grade kids on how well they can perform with a particular kind of writing. There’s still the kind of icky, unnatural pressure of timed writing, but there’s more to it than that.

A quick look at the rubric will tell you that you’re not dealing with a formulaic response, here. A third of it is devoted to students’ comprehension of the argument they read and another third is devoted to their analysis – their thinking – about the text. That means that a full two thirds of this rubric measures skills that can’t be taught with any kind of formula. And the third that deals with writing? Take a look at the language. It values effectiveness, precision, and variety above structure – all skills for which there simply is no formula.

When we first made the switch to the new SAT essay, my colleagues and I sat down with the rubric and the sample student responses that had been released. We wanted to wrap our heads around this beast to figure out what kids need in order to do well. The discussion was long and at times fraught with emotion, but we were eventually able to agree on a couple of non-negotiables that students would need to be able to succeed on this test. And the really good news is that, to meet these needs, we don’t need to teach to the test or do test-prep; we need to double down on really good instruction. Continue reading

Planning a Course With a Looming Writing Test

As this post goes live, my Grade 12 students will be finishing their final assessment in their course, a Provincial Assessment. They will have written a process exam for the past four days. Based around a single theme, which they learn on the first day, they were expected to read, respond and write.  The first day, they answered a series of Responding to Text questions dealing with texts that are provided. This is a three hour block. The remaining three days, an hour per day, they worked on a piece of writing that shares their thoughts about the theme. They also have three other questions to answer: about connections to the theme, a reflection on their writing, and explain the connections between their writing variables.

It’s a big test to teach to. I actually quite like many things about our provincial assessment. It does a decent job of giving students a chance to show their ability to meet a number of the outcomes of our curriculum, and doesn’t ask much more of them than I might. (Full disclosure, there are some logistics of the assessment that make me incredibly frustrated, but that’s not what we’re here for.) We echo the format in our other English courses at our school, and knowing that it’s the final assessment for many of our students in English, it has an impact throughout our course planning.

We are firm believers in finding ways to embed “teaching to the test” into our regular teaching. This is important, because an assessment should ask students to do things that they do in the normal course of their class. Most aspects of our assessment are relatively fixed. We know what kind of responses will be asked of students, and we know the structure within which they’ll be writing. These things are considered when we plan.

One of our biggest considerations is teaching thematically. Each of our courses has an overarching theme. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the provincial assessment. What better preparation for writing about a theme over four days than writing about a theme over four months, four years in a row? We practice making connections within the theme, exploring and explaining our ideas about that theme, learning different genres, forms and strategies as we go. Continue reading

3 Moves Toward Better Teaching Tone and Voice

If I was lucky enough to see you at our #NCTE17 session this year, you know that tone and voice are both something that have been on my mind as a teacher a lot lately. I think most of us can agree that the standard of “maintaining a formal style and objective tone” falls a little short on this nuanced topic. Our voice is in many ways how we convey who we are in our writing, and our tone is immeasurably influenced by it, so it seems to do a disservice to our writers to always expect “formal” and “objective” if we want our students’ writing to be meaningful and effective. In order to dive into a deeper exploration of these concepts, I’ve made three major teaching moves that have helped tremendously:

1. Right a wrong: Move the tone lessons up front where they belong

Okay, so maybe this isn’t a mistake you’ve been making, but it sure has been for me. For the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve been teaching tone and voice by tacking a lesson on to the end of the writing process – in the revision stages. Once students’ pieces were all but finished, we’d do some quick checks to make sure the tone was appropriate for the audience. Every once in a while, we might catch a phrase or two that seemed a little off, but otherwise, the lesson almost always fell flat as a waste of time.

And then I had one of those lightbulb moments. Our tone is something that we develop before the words ever leave our mouths – not something that we revise once the words are already out there. It’s shaped by our attitude toward our subject and our audience, and in this way, it’s inextricable from our writing purpose. If our voice in writing is made up of a combination of our personality, our experiences, and our culture, we must let it inform our tone as we approach a subject. Continue reading

Memoir Study Remix: Lessons Learned

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, my team and I decided we needed to revisit and remix our memoir study. In that post, I talked about what we did in regards to the lowest moment experienced by the subject of the memoir. This week, I’ll share what we did with the lessons learned from these memoirs.

One of the main reasons that I like having students study memoir is that there is teaching inherent in this pursuit. The sharing of a life is full full of the lessons that were learned in that life. Sometimes, as we’re all aware, the lessons are overt, while other times, there are lessons in there that must be uncovered. Most powerful of all, I think, are the lessons that a reader finds based upon their own experiences, and what they bring to the “conversation.” When we’ve studied memoir together, this is often what our conversation is based upon.

However, my Grade 12s aren’t necessarily reading the same memoirs. My goal is to have us all reading memoir (and biography) and looking for the common elements. There are often pockets of readers working with the same text, but it’s not something I can guarantee, as I work very hard to flood them with memoir choices.

As they read, I asked them to keep notes, specifically noting things they felt were lessons that could be learned from the memoir. We have a conversation about what these lessons could be – the things that are obvious, the things the author intends for us to learn as well as the things that we discover ourselves. I’ll be honest, the size of my school, and some of the decisions we make regarding class composition helps in these conversations. Most of my students have been in my class before, and we’ve done similar activities in previous courses. Continue reading