Monday, October 21, 2013

Welcome Back, Welcome Back, Welcome Back!

I hope everyone is having a rewarding beginning of the year season. As a piece of interesting trivia this month, I thought I would explain how I, your humble blogger, am like Gabe Kaplan. Yes, I said it. Gabe. Kaplan. Or Kot-tair, if you prefer. And while you may think that I too launched John Travolta to super-stardom, I would have to say that the guess was flattering, but incorrect. No, Gabe Kaplan, who played the fictional teacher Mr. Kotter, and I are connected because I taught the first two years of my career in the very school I attended.

The beginning of anything generally makes me think of beginnings. The openings of favorite novels, plays, poems. The openings of holes in my Redskins' offensive and defensive lines. The opening years of my career as a teacher. This is year 9 for me. Next year rounds out the decade. I can honestly say that without the experience of teaching at my old school, I would not still be teaching today.

One of the most challenging things I had to learn in my first years was not picking my battles, but figuring out how to fight them. As a six foot, six inch tall former rugby player, I knew how to fight. As a maturing adult, I had no real clue how to bring those skills to the conference room. If I had had a teacher like Tara Seale, I might have figured it out.
Over the course of a handful of days, Tara brings her AP Language students to the satirical table, has them sample the feast, and then turns them loose to create their own dishes.

Tara's August Engage Now! Lesson focuses on helping students design the most difficult of arguments: the satirical ones. Over the course of a handful of days, Tara brings her AP Language students to the satirical table, has them sample the feast, and then turns them loose to create their own dishes. One of Tara's strong suits as a teacher is the way she has students do the learning instead of receive the learning. From having them create their own working definitions of the terms to the ways she creates physical and virtual environments within which they collaborate, Tara maximizes the time to provide students with the tools to construct their own understanding. Then, she asks them to use it. If you are familiar with the study Writing Next, then you may notice that the effect size for this lesson is significant. Definitely a lesson worth accessing and adapting to your classroom.

Argumentation is really the core of all English curriculum. As Andrea Lunsford would put it, everything is an argument. Whenever I introduce this idea to my AP Language class, I get a chorus of disbelief. No Way! These dumb English essays aren't arguments, they are punishments. And so on. The trick is that once students understand that even the literary analysis essays we ask them to write are arguments, pointing out ways to strengthen writing become more universal. After all, what is it about summary that makes it an ineffective substitute for true, deep analysis? It makes no claims. It builds no bridge between the data  gleaned from the text and the construction of meaning (authorial or otherwise). Once they begin to understand that even literary analysis essays are arguments, they can see that counterarguments are a great way to check their work. Asking "what would another reader say?" or "how might someone disagree with your analysis?" sets students up to consider where their analyses are weak and need shoring up.
Fortunately, Kim Parker's Engage Now! submission for September helps teachers show students that counterargument detection is an everyday skill.

Unfortunately, teaching counterargument is tough. Fortunately, Kim Parker's Engage Now! submission for September helps teachers show students that counterargument detection is an everyday skill.
In Kim's lesson, students begin building this everyday skill by reviewing what the students already know about argument, opening a space in the schema to help the information stay put. Then, keeping to the keep it simple maxim, Kim introduces a short paragraph on a high interest topic. As our students' teachers, we know with what types of ideas students in our classes may wish to engage. Kim offers up the resource ProCon.org, a great resource with nearly 50 controversial topics to discuss. The students begin to build thesis statements that will become brief presentations the following day. The catch? The students do not know whether they will be presenting the argument for the topic or the one against, so they must devise a position on both sides. The presentation format and the extensions Kim offer provide a solid base from which to build. To see these activities, head over to the NCTE Connected Community, or click the link above, and download Kim's plans.

One thing that has changed since that first year is the perspective of what English teachers should teach--and how. One of the most shocking things from my first year of teaching was the pronouncement that came down from our state office. Poetry, they discovered through test scores, was hard for students to comprehend. This earth-shattering, boom-lowering revelation led to the removal of poetry from the Standards of Learning test. Besides, they reasoned, who needs to be able to read poetry. I was not as willing to part with it.

Students can be remarkably capable if you give them a reason; so, to teach poetry, I gave them Dante. Not the whole Commedia, just the Inferno. I thought to myself: What teenager does not love to hear about someone else getting in trouble? I was right. Four weeks and a whole bunch of photocopies later, my standards sophomore class was reading nearly a grade level higher than before our study of poetry. The test data was not a shocking revelation to me because I tried to meet them where they felt comfortable. Before we began reading the poetry, I always showed them the Gustav DorĂ© engraving that accompanied that specific Canto. If there is one thing our students are adept at, it is looking at pictures. DorĂ©'s pictures are beautiful and frightening, the type of engravings that engross and gross out. I recognized that  my students were better visual analysts than textual ones. Once I proved to them that they could do the analysis thing, we went to the poetry to pick it apart. We even sometimes mixed in artistic analytical terminology with our literary analysis; that is until the time was right to introduce the correct term.
 Larry's lesson helps show students that Rockwell's deceptively simple depictions of American life have complex and challenging undertones.

Visual literacy can be a powerful resource. Lawrence Butti's October Engage Now! helps build students' familiarity with and comprehension of visual texts in a very hands-on way; a way necessary to encourage students to make visual text analysis an everyday practice. The first portion of the lesson offers up a fairly recognizable artist to American audiences, Norman Rockwell. Larry's lesson helps show students that Rockwell's deceptively simple depictions of American life have complex and challenging undertones. By focusing first on excerpts then moving to the big picture, students begin to see how important the small details are in constructing meaning. Not only does the lesson ask them to make comments, it also asks them to ask good questions about the visual text under examination. The second part offers a great, concise outline of a pre-field trip lesson built on the principles introduced in the first lesson. I am inclined to agree with Larry's assessment that field trips matter, and taking students to an art museum is a great way to get them out of the textbooks and into the field. To access the entirety of this lesson and all of the materials, including some awesome exemplars, that go with it, head over to the NCTE Connected Community or click the link above.
As we begin settling into this school year, I challenge you to think about where you have been and where you are going. Some of the successes I had in the beginning have evolved into coherent plans and activities, but there are still plenty of places where I continue seeking out helpful colleagues and resources. In exactly a month, NCTE's annual convention will be in full swing up in the great city of Boston (GO SOX!!!). If it is possible, I encourage you to go there. Why? Simple. Five years ago, a somewhat discouraged fourth year teacher wandered into the Philadelphia convention center not certain about whether he was going to stay a teacher. The first three years had been rough and he wasn't sure if teaching high school English was the path for him. Then he attended some sessions, met some boisterous secondary teachers, signed up to write a blog, and is sending you this message now. As I get ready for my fifth convention, I realize that the days shared with colleagues from around the country rejuvenate and refresh me because we get to talk about what matters: the students we teach.
No matter what challenges may come in this profession, make the time to smile, support one another, and each fine morning rise to meet the daily challenges of teaching children to read and respond to texts of all types.

So, best wishes to you as we settle into this new year. Undoubtedly, it will bring its challenges and its triumphs. My second year nearly killed me. My mentor teacher, a woman who had taught me high school English as a junior at the school, died in an auto accident in the early spring. I sometimes try to picture her perched atop her mo-ped, leaning into the stinging wind, breathing deeply of the fresh air, luxuriating in the sunlight. She always told me that no matter what, an English teacher had to have a sense of humor; without, we would be crushed by the pressures of the job. I imagine that she was smiling broadly that day. And weeks later, attending the memorial, I looked around at all the quietly pensive faces streaming into the auditorium, digging deep to find the smile but coming up empty. These same faces after the reception began to slowly thaw. A former student told a story of the time she jumped up on his desk to emphasize a point. Someone else remembers the tough love tempered by wicked humor. And like the bright daffodils she loved so well, the room began to glow with the light of life.

No matter what challenges may come in this profession, make the time to smile, support one another, and each fine morning rise to meet the daily challenges of teaching children to read and respond to texts of all types. English teachers have the privilege of teaching students about being human; I for one intend to do so with a smile on my face.

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