Thursday, August 26, 2010

Resources for teaching English

by Tara Seale
An earlier NCTE Secondary Section blog post titled "On your mark...," by Dan Bruno discusses books and resources to use throughout the school year. Definitely a great blog post to start out the school year, and I completely agree with the titles Dan suggests. Check out the link to read the post.

Building on Dan's awesome idea, I have decided to share my favorite resource books below:

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
This is a great book for teaching students how to close read a passage. Not only does Prose delve into great classics and even some lesser known works, she discusses how to slowly appreciate each word and line written by the author. Prose provides reasons to slow down and really understand an author's craft instead of rushing through to get to the next required read.

They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein
This book teaches students how to embed quotes by building on the ideas of others to enhance their writing. I use this book to provide my 9th graders with templates for their own writing. My students begin 9th grade by reading Edith Hamilton's Mythology. They Say, I Say helped me create a handout for my 9th grade students: Embedding Quotes handout.

Readings for Writers by Jo Ray McCuen-Metherell and Anthony Winkler
We all have our favorite anthologies, and this is mine. I would love it if you left comments about your favorite anthologies in the comments. I have found this one to be a great collection of writings with thought provoking questions.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Volger
If you focus on archetypes, the heroic journey, or Joseph Campbell's monomyth ideas in your class, then you need this book. The explanations are easy to understand and relate to pop culture, so students really appreciate and connect to the ideas presented in this book.

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher
I can't imagine a resource list for English teachers that could be complete without a Kelly Gallagher book. Everything Kelly Gallagher writes is applicable to all English teachers. Readicide explains how to elevate the reading experiences of all students. I particularly like chapter 4: "Finding the 'Sweet Spot' of Instruction."

My favorite way to share books that I enjoy reading or using as a teaching resource is through Google Books. To look through the online Google Book library I have created, click here: Tara Seale's Google Books Library. If you have a Google Book library, please consider sharing the link in the comments of this post.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rhetoric, Logic, and Argumentation

As a teacher of AP English Language and Junior-Level English, composition is a huge part of my curriculum. Last year, I began experimenting with using information from the AP English Language Curriculum (information on types of arguments and rhetoric) with my Junior-level classes. At this year's AP Conference, I was looking for a resource that would help my AP students get into rhetoric quicker and help my Juniors develop a sense of what rhetoric is and how writers use it. I found that resource (link in the title): Rhetoric, Logic, and Argumentation: A Guide for Student Writers.

This guide, published by Prestwick House, is very useful for any level of composition. It is a slim volume, running no more than 107 pages. It is well-designed, featuring blocks of text that introduce new terms and a summary definition of those terms between the first block of text and the next one. The text seems to be designed around the 10-2 rule of teaching: for every ten minutes of teacher talk, there needs to be at least two minutes of student summary. Once the student is done, there is also a handy glossary at the back defining all of the terms found in the text.

The book has a lot going for it, but it still has its flaws. The text does not get very deep into rhetoric, nor does it discuss the various types of arguments; however, that is why school districts hire us. This resource proves valuable for introducing the topics of rhetoric and argument.

The real gem in this text is the exercise set-up. For each unit in the guide, there are four final exercises. These exercises should just be labeled "climbing Bloom's ladder." In each sequence, the first exercise is called "Identification." These exercises ask the students to identify information that they have just learned. Next, they are asked to provide "Explanation" for something they have just learned. The third exercise calls on students to "Imitate" sound arguments, etc. Lastly, student's are asked to "Evaluate" certain examples based on their learning. Like I said, climbing the ladder.

The imitation piece will be the best part of the text for my students. As a composition teacher, getting my students to try new compositional techniques is difficult. The more chances I provide for them to imitate advanced composition techniques, the more likely they should be to try them out when it comes to essay/paper time.

All in all, I am pretty excited to try and integrate this resource into my classroom repertoire. I found this resource fairly helpful and I couldn't help sharing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On your mark...

It is almost here (and for some it is here). The school year is getting ready to begin.

When I first started doing this blog, I thought that it would be cool if there were an entry at the beginning of the school year where people posted either titles or links to some of the resources they use the most during the year. That is exactly what I am going to post here.


The English Teacher's Companion by Jim Burke:
A great resource for any level of experience. Chock full of great ideas and great tools for thinking and teaching.

Reading Reminders and Writing Reminders by Jim Burke
Two books that are very similar to The English Teacher's Companion, but broken down into between classes, at the copier, or after school chunks. Learning on the go.

Cohesive Writing by Carol Jago
I used to think good teaching of writing was hard. This book showed me just how easy it can be if you approach it systematically and in smaller steps.

Deeper Reading by Kelly Gallagher
If your students have trouble scratching the surface and looking beyond the text, this book has the strategies to get them into that deeper meaning. Very readable and instantly usable.

Voice Lessons and Discovering Voice by Nancy Dean
Goodbye pesky fears about helping students identify what makes an author's voice. Each exercise focuses on a specific facet of voice, has students answer questions about the effect of the specific facet, and then asks them to imitate the example. Instantly usable.


The People's Education website has a lot of materials for AP and non-AP classes. It can be found here.

The Applied Practice company has many supplemental materials to prepare students for just about any external assessment from the SAT to the AP exam. It can be found here.

There are a bunch of other good places to find resources. These are a few of the ones I've used extensively in the past. What resources do you run to when you are planning or are just plain stuck?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Argument and Teaching for a Democratic Society

In the latest installment of the Indiana Jones series, our unflappable archeologist tangles with a couple of South American grave guards, saving the life of his sidekick, Mutt Williams. Mutt, a rebellious youth, turns and looks at Jones in surprise as he surprises and kills one of the attackers. In his shock and awe, Mutt stammers, “You’re a teacher?!” “Part time,” Indy nonchalantly replies. We cannot all be globe-trotting archeologists who must constantly save the day, but we all must be just as tenacious in our pursuit of scholarly purpose as we are in the instruction of our students. After all, if I am simply a person who teaches the mechanics of writing, I am neither worthy of a pilgrimage nor ecstatic about my life. Our purpose may not be the stuff of cinematic epic, but that does not mean it isn’t important.

Too often, we are not active critics of ourselves as a community of scholars. This spring, I heard President of the University of Virginia John Casteen deliver the commencement address during the ceremony on the lawn at UVA. What President Casteen said was the lesson of two decades at the University of Virginia was that knowledge cannot exist without action. In the case of American education, our greatest action is the shaping of our democratic culture. When we are not careful, we destroy our democracy rather than improve access.

American education can be said to have the furthering of social justice and democratic equity at its core. In order to improve and defend democracy, we must understand what we mean when we refer to it. “Democracy,” as a term, is often the victim of warping and deliberate tampering. Democracy is about one undervalued thing: knowledge. Knowledge is power in the United States because our entire way of life is built upon the idea that power comes from language, specifically, the language of the American Constitution. Like a cruel joke, our founding fathers set us up with a system of government based on contention, competition, and constant adversarial conflict. Thomas Jefferson, one of the earliest proponents of public education said it best:

“The basis of our government being opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

This oft-quoted idea is the key to the convergence of the teacher as monk and minister. We must seek to reach our students from the perspective of the expert of knowledge; like a monk in medieval monastery, we must dedicate ourselves to constant scholarship. We must also interact with students, guiding them to an understanding of how this content can help them direct and shape their lives. The result of this approach to teaching is the capability that Jefferson refers to above. We teach students so that they can become models of democratic citizens, citizens whose need and love for equity encompasses not just who they know, but what they know. The strength in our way of life is the strength of our schools, a universal and well-rounded educational program that equally engages all the interests and needs of a person.

John Dewey said that “Education…is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” In a democratic society, that living is based on its deepest and most strongly held convictions. There can be no understanding of these values if the student lacks a wide base of cultural knowledge. Math, science, English, and Social Studies are all essential, but they are not enough. Small Engine Repair, Graphic Imaging, Choir, and Visual Art are also essential, and necessary to draw complete pictures of ourselves. John Dewey realized that “education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race”; thus, an education cannot take place where the individual has not been given the ability to access the social consciousness of the society at large. If the individual has no means by which to engage the corps of society, then that corps remains sacrosanct, untouchable, unimpeachable.

The single largest unifying element of American culture is our unique Constitution; however, as well-known author and scholar Neil Postman said, “the American Constitution is not a catechism, but a hypothesis.” Consider the recent economic collapse. Newspapers, magazines, and books have addressed the murky economic moves that led us to this mess because we, as a democratic society, have a social duty to understand the problem and repair the damage. I don’t know the differences between economics and accounting, but I do understand how to read. In reading about the economic collapse, I have learned what went wrong, where, when, why, who was involved, and how it grew from the first moment to the inevitable fall. Am I an expert? No, but I have let them inform me and I have made my own opinions. Most importantly, I can structure a persuasive argument to convince others of the correctness of my position.

Democratic society exists to pursue the common interests of those who live within it; that pursuit suggests argumentation because we must come to some consensus of what those common interests are. These societies only work when these ideals are considered more worthy than the people who argue about them. If Ad hominem is more enticing than the reduction of poverty in our cities, then we have lost sight of the spirit that makes US society so unique. If we spend time bickering about the virtues of this politician over that, as though we were preparing for a fantasy legislation league, then we have belittled the aspirations of those audacious statesmen who entrusted us with an experiment in cohabitation that has not yet been equaled in human history. If we allow our emotional response to cloud our rational humanism, then our society of law ceases to keep us safe and sets us up to become the victims of the shadows in our cognitive processes.

So, we must seek to teach the critical nature of every subject we teach. The history teacher must teach historical inquiry, not the recitation of facts. The math teacher must teach mathematical reasoning, not just how to get an answer. The science teacher must teach unrestrained curiosity, not just what is already known. The English teacher must teach the pursuit of knowledge, not just how to read a novel or write an essay, and the best ways to express that which we believe to be true. We must ask ourselves if the ways we teach serve the critical development of the student, and, if not, how we must change. Democracy is about placing the ideal above the individual while respecting as many individuals as we can; people cannot learn to respect something larger than themselves if no one ever teaches them that these things matter, or how to tell the difference. If we are to teach to serve our democratic society, we must teach as both monks and ministers, guiding our students on the path to being proficient learners and rhetors.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Toulmin and Howard Zinn

This most recent issue of English Journal is chock full of Toulmin. Many of the articles use Toulmin, others reference his name, but it seems like he is somewhere on every page. With a theme like logic and critical thinking, Toulmin is a natural choice for discussing how we can get our students to approach logical thought. Last year, my colleague and I came up with a great lesson featuring Toulmin and their summer reading, A People's History of the United States by the late Howard Zinn.

There is a bit of deep background on how we came up with the lesson. The year before this past year, a parent in the community raised an objection to the use of Howard Zinn's text as assigned summer reading. This person cited Zinn's wearing-my-Marxism-on-my-sleeve approach to history as offensive. My colleague stated that this attitude is essential for students because it is so very contrary to what they have been taught in the past; or, as Vygotsky would say, the students were being placed in a zone of proximal development. They came back from the summer, primed and looking for an intellectual fight.

The trouble was...what would they fight about? Were they focused on the point-of-view Zinn was putting forward, or were they simply miffed about some of the things Zinn said? More often than not, especially considering our proximity to Washington, D.C. and Quantico, the students just saw Zinn as an "unpatriotic jerk." What about his service to his country? What about his years in the classroom, educating American students? The questions start flowing back at us. the inevitable question is: "Well, who's right?"

That was when we decided to do a lesson called, with apologies to Capital One, "What's in Your Wallet?" Students are broken out into groups of about 4-5. They are given a sheet of paper with details on it, such as:

Brown Leather
Pictures of a woman and two children
Pictures of a Porsche
Pictures of a beach house
Three $100 Bills
Two $50 Bills
Ten $20 Bills
Business Card for Accounting Firm
Three Credit Cards from different companies

They are then asked to interpret the contents of the "wallet" and tell the class about the person who owned it. This is where Toulmin comes in. Students usually want to say something like this guy is a stuck-up business man who cares more about his possessions than his family, or something very similar. We ask them to provide the data that support this claim. Then we ask them to provide the warrant that links the data to the claim. When they do this, they suddenly realize how pre-programmed they are to jump to conclusions rather than look for what they can actually see. Looking at the process of stating a claim, examining the data, and analyzing the warrant helps students to go back to the Zinn book with a critical eye.

We build on the concept after that, but this gets the students thinking in terms of what can be proven to be true with the data, but also what else can be proven true. They begin to view history as the interpretation of a set of data that can be interpreted in radically different ways. This realization increases both their willingness to read history and their ability to read critically.

How do you encourage critical thinking in your classrooms? What connections do you try to emphasize when you teach logic? I look forward to the conversation.