Thursday, May 27, 2010

Teaching tone in poetry

by Tara Seale

Before my 9th grade students tackled Shakespearean sonnets, we started with a simple poem from a popular teen movie released in 1999. Although the movie was dated by their standards, they all knew the lead male actor, Heath Ledger, which provided some connection and interest.

You may be familiar with the movie, 10 Things I Hate About You. It is a modern day remake of Taming of the Shrew, so that was helpful in making the jump to Shakespeare later. In the movie, the heroine, Kat, is the shrew. She writes a sonnet to her love interest, played by Ledger, and reads it aloud in English class.

Actually, I did not provide this background information before we read the poem. Instead, I passed out the poem and asked my students to work with a partner to label the tone of the speaker in the beginning of the poem, draw a line at the tone shift, and label the tone of the speaker at the end of the poem.

See the poem below:

I hate the way you talk to me
And the way you cut your hair
I hate the way you drive my car
I hate it when you stare

I hate your big dumb combat boots
And the way you read my mind
I hate you so much that it makes me sick
It even makes me rhyme

I hate the way you're always right
I hate it when you lie
I hate it when you make me laugh
Even worse when you make me cry

I hate the way you're not around
And the fact that you didn't call
But mostly I hate the way I don't hate you
Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.

I walked around as students argued with their partners over tone words. When everyone agreed that they understood the poem and could explain the tone and the shift, we shared our thoughts.

Students discovered that when they picked different tone words from another group of students, they also had different ideas about the overall intent and meaning of the poem. Students began to realize that if they didn't catch the tone of the speaker, then they would not be able to fully comprehend the meaning either.

We discussed how it is more difficult to understand written tone versus spoken. Some students shared stories involving misunderstandings because friends misread the tone of a text message, which we decided could easily happen due to the brevity of that type of communication.

Fortunately, the video clip of this poem is on YouTube and can be downloaded or embedded to show to a class.

Students watched the clip from the movie, and then they re-evaluated and relabeled the tone of the poem.

After discussing the poem, students were curious and asked about the movie. It was a perfect opening for introducing Shakespeare and his sonnets.

Tech Tip for Downloading from YouTube:

If your school blocks YouTube and you want to use this clip, you can download it using Zamzar.
Step 1, click on the words URL. Next go to the URL, web address, and copy and paste the URL into the box in Step 1.
Step 2, select the format. Scroll down and select wmv for Windows Media Player and mp4 or mov for a mac or Quicktime.
Step 3, provide your email address.
Click Convert, and then Zamzar will email you the converted file.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tattoo Essay

Last year at the 2009 NCTE Convention in Philadelphia, I was lucky enough to attend a session titled You Gotta See it to Believe it: Visual Literacy and Reading Between the Lines. Shelbie Witte from Florida State University chaired the session and Robyn Seglem from Illinois State and Matt Skillen from Elizabethtown College presented.

During the presentation, Shelbie Witte presented the idea to have students create tattoos for characters in Romeo and Juliet as a modern day family crest. I expanded this idea to include an essay to explain each element of the tattoo. I created and wrote my own tattoo essay so that I would have a model; I used Rosaline because I did not want to take one of the main characters away from one of my students: Rosaline Model Example.

To create the tattoo, my students used the new addition to Google Docs: Google Drawings. You can see from my crude drawing that I am not concerned with students’ artistic abilities, but instead, students’ critical thinking skills. The rubric indicates that I expected students to put thought, intent, and effort into their drawings, and the majority of the student’s grade focused on the explanation of their design: Rubric for the Tattoo Essay.

As part of the assignment, students also discussed tattoos and the reasons why people get tattoos. Additionally, students read an article that discussed the dangers related to tattoos and the procedure to remove tattoos. After providing background information, I gave students the directions for the assignment: Romeo and Juliet Tattoo Assignment Directions.

Overall, I was pleased with the results of the assignment. You can view some of the student tattoos below.

Juliet Tatttoo

Friar Lawrence Tattoo

Lady Capulet
Mercutio Tattoo

This student created a Shakespeare Tattoo

Monday, May 10, 2010

Using models with students

by Tara Seale

Recently, my 7th grade son wrote a news article related to the book he was reading in his English class. Unfortunately, he was not sure where to begin. With most students, the first sentence seems to be the hardest. I told him he should be sure to include when, where, what, why, and how, and he looked at me like I was crazy if I thought that was going to help him.
After further questioning, he told me he was writing about a chapter in which a sinkhole destroyed a building. He wrote down the facts, but his vocabulary and sentence structure were awkward and did not meet the "sound professional" requirement of the assignment.
We scanned our newspaper for articles about storms and other disasters in our state. He read like a writer and noticed how the authors began articles. He examined the difference in his sentence structure and the vocabulary used by the newspaper reporters. He revised what he had written to mimic the same sentence structure, tone, and vocabulary in the article we picked as a model. Once he had a guide, he rewrote his article. He used the same sentence format, but adjusted the sentences to reflect what he was writing about. My husband said that his sentences sounded like someone in college wrote them, and of course they did because the model he used was not written by a 7th grader. The words he pulled out of the articles were also not 7th grade words.
His simple, awkward article was at once transformed. He searched on the internet for pictures to include in his article and even added subtitles to explain the pictures. He formatted the beginning of the article to have a byline, much like the article in the newspaper. His end result was an article that he could not have achieved without the help of using a professional example. Writers trying to break into the profession of writing study the sentence structure and vocabulary of professional writers in order to develop into better writers, so I question why I do not do more of this in my own classroom.
My students use model sentences as guides, but probably not as extensively as they could.
For example, until I worked through this assignment with my son, it had never occurred to me to use a news article as a model for my students. I was so pleased with the differences in the drafts from the first, second, third, and finally his last attempt, that I plan to incorporate this assignment into my classroom. I started bookmarking online news articles, specifically disaster related articles. My students could craft news articles that relate the details and exploits of Odysseus or the snow and fire chapter in To Kill a Mockingbird.
It isn't an easy process though. After all of his re-writes, he hoped he would never have me as a teacher, but he was also impressed with himself at the same time.
You can read his article on his blog page:

Monday, May 3, 2010

Assuming Too Much or Too Little?

Oftentimes, I hear my colleagues talk about how little students seem to know. They complain about how little students are able to retain. The bottom line: They are complaining about how little content knowledge students have and retain. Is content knowledge important? Does it have anything to do with making students college- and career-ready?

The answer to both questions is yes. According to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., content knowledge is essential to understanding a text. Since the 1980s, Hirsch has been advocating the necessity of having content knowledge. In Cultural Literacy, Hirsch and his colleagues provide a very detailed list of basic cultural knowledge students must possess to be proficient readers of Literature, etc. More recently, in The Knowledge Deficit, Hirsch outlines the loss that students suffer from not gaining content knowledge. According to an international study of productivity in schools, US schools are one of the least productive in the world; our students decline 38 normalized points in reading achievement (Hirsch, 2006, p. 82).

By comparison, Hirsch's schools-Core Knowledge Schools-offer an alternative curriculum to the traditional American public schools. In Core Knowledge Schools, teachers follow a set K-8 cultural literacy curriculum. Despite the many critics (more on this in a second), these schools show a remarkable, steady rate of achievement from Grade 4 to Grade 6; meanwhile, the traditional schools show a higher starting point, but a stagnant trend over time. Perhaps teachers aren't too far off when they feel that students seem to have the same knowledge gaps year-to-year. Core Knowledge Schools seem to know how to be efficient; students start at around a 640 on the Stanford 9 in the sixth grade and they end somewhere around a 710 (Hirsch, 2006, p. 90).

So, who would oppose such success? Educators who identify themselves as "naturalists" or "formalists" or just those who think learning "just facts" is a waste of time. Naturalists believe that learning is a natural process. This theory is just not true. People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers (Willingham, 2010). Cognitive scientists have shown that engaging interest is easy, but promoting thought is hard. Formalists believe that once students know the forms of learning, they can learn anything if presented in the preferred form. What will students learn? Without the purpose and direction of a learning goal in mind, thinking critically can be very difficult. (Some writers, like the late David Foster Wallace, could literally critically think about anything. I don't think everyone is quite so talented.)

We need information because our brains are built of schema. These schema are built of information. The more schema, the more quickly we can read and assimilate a new text (Hirsch, 1988). Teaching students information is not useless; teaching students information is an efficient and constructive use of time.

This idea leads me to the next consideration in preparing a college- and career-ready students. How can teachers present a series of regimented information pieces without giving up their autonomy in the classroom? My home county has been trying to develop a new evaluation protocol intended to bring administrators into the classroom. Instead, we've been getting a narrow interpretation of The Skillful Teacher masquerading as an evaluation system. I believe that we are being placed in the position of teaching with the "pedagogy of direct command and absolute control" (Kozol, 2005, p. 64). In Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol recounts the efforts of a program called "Success for All." This system seeks to create "the establishment of 'faultless communication' between the 'the teacher, who is the stimulus,' and 'the students, who respond'" (Hirsch, 2005, p. 64).

This monotonous give-and-take is what all good teachers fear will be implemented in their classrooms at any moment. Regimentation and a lack of flexibility do nothing to help students gain the knowledge and understanding they need for college; however, learning is not something that can be held up as though it were some type of new Apple gadget you must have in order to be tragically hip and cool-you Justin Long.

What needs to be done is for us to remember that content knowledge is not just mere facts. Teachers should have deep content knowledge of their subject area in order to be the most effective. They cannot be in charge of the dynamic energy of a classroom if they must grasp for straws whenever they are asked an insightful question.

Teachers also need to be given the flexibility to achieve results on all levels. Massie Risch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs and Outreach at the US DOE, said it best on Advocacy Day: "We are looking to tighten up on the goals and increase flexibility in how you get there." Students need the hard and fast learning goals that show them and us that they are learning; however, the strict order described in Kozol's book only helps to deaden a student's approach to the content. The monotony of teacher give, student take only makes education look like mechanical schooling. If teachers are no more than purveyors of information that students are to assimilate, then teachers need not be in the classroom and TVs and computers can take their places. But, if students are more than empty vessels, they need living, knowledgeable, and dynamic people who can and will challenge them to be the best people they can be, regardless of how they reach that goal.