We spend hours of our academic lives attempting to analyze and interpret the literary works of others. We strive define what an author’s text says, then determine what the writing means. While critical thinkers recognize the benefits of these literary discussions and classroom activities, occasionally we have to ask, “What does this matter?” Why dedicate so much time studying the words of authors whom will never share the truth? If we could simply ask Shakespeare if he intended to communicate what was recently Shmooped…
The process is frustrating at times. It assigns students the role of the confused reader and authors as the untouchable expert. Learners in my high school English courses should consider themselves writers as well as readers. The most effective strategy I’ve used is to study our own work as literature. Here’s how. Continue reading
Over the last fifteen years, reading Oedipus the King in-class essays has made me want to gouge out my eyes with a red pen. Students traditionally analyze the play’s themes, symbolism, irony, or character flaws. This year, while maintaining the integrity of the original prompts, I added a twist–I changed the purpose and audience. After reading the play, my juniors sent Oedipus to court to determine if he is guilty and deserving of his outcome, or not guilty–a victim of fate’s injustice. They came to court prepared to write from the perspective of the defense or prosecution. But in typical fashion of Greek drama, fate determined which side of the case they would present…after entering the courtroom. Continue reading
As a student, I would work for days to complete a writing assignment, hand it in, and predict the grade before I got it back two weeks later…and sure enough: B+. The comment at the end said, “Nice work.”
Thanks, I think.
So, the cycle continued–regardless of effort, my scores would float between B- and A-. Any red pen marks simply highlighted common writing errors. Fortunately, I cared enough to stop repeating the same mistakes. But what else would it take to earn the coveted A? I never knew. From a sophomore boy’s perspective: I was good, but not good enough.
And then I became the teacher–English, of all subjects.
I made a commitment to communicate not only grades, but paths for improvement. Through thousands of papers, many a red pen has sacrificed its life for the good of students for two decades. My classes used to stop for a moment of silence when another pen passed away–a worthy tribute. Now, thanks to Google Docs, there is not as much red pen, but the feedback continues.
My writers deserve to know the expectations up front. I am responsible for guiding their success. If I do not provide timely, specific suggestions and clear paths for improvement, I deserve to suffer through the large pile of disgusting final drafts. The greatest suggestion I can provide teachers who face similar piles is to front load. It took some time to figure out a better system, but now that I realize the greatest learning takes place during the writing process–not at the end. The Google Apps make this strategy much easier, as I have the students share the Doc as soon as they name it or I create and share through Classroom. Even with a handwritten copy, it is important to collect and return throughout the process. Either way, I monitor progress and add comments (to reinforce what works and what needs revision). The key is to not simply make the comment; there has to be a rationale. That is the lesson and where the most learning takes place. That is also what gets reiterated through peer feedback–a true validation of my teaching.
You do not have to take my word for it (but it would be cool if you did). Catlin Tucker, an expert in blended learning and one of my eduheroes in the Twittersphere, refers to a similar practice in An Epiphany. She came to the same realization about the importance of teacher feedback during the writing process (her blog is full of useful resources on all-things education).
If students understand the standards being assessed, the levels of proficiency and the descriptors of criteria on target-specific rubrics, all I have to do is guide the tour. Point out the highlights, share what deserves more attention, and suggest alternative routes for success.
Day 14: @TeachThought #reflectiveteacher 30 Day Blog Challenge
Perfection may be a lofty goal in a chaotic school day, but on our quest for mastery, I expect students to:
- “Determine the central ideas of a text”
- “Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content”
- “Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research”
- “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole”
- “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience”
I am not superhuman—I am a teacher of high school English and the communication arts.
Whether we use the formal language of the Common Core or make the standards more student friendly, these are daily expectations in most language arts, literature, and composition classes. The purpose of English language arts courses is to develop critical thinking, reading, and writing skills so students become insightful, creative, empathetic citizens—a worthy cause. Best wishes and keep up the good work, English Language Arts department.
Of course these concepts are addressed in language arts classes; however, according to the Common Core State Standards, the aforementioned list is now the shared responsibility of teachers in all content areas. In fact, these examples are quoted from the science and social studies Common Core Standards—not from language arts. Naturally, the expectations have been received with mixed reactions, primarily due to the insecurity of teachers uncomfortable with their ability to “teach” writing.
To alleviate the anxiety, I recommend “Two Perfect Sentences,” a versatile approach to assessing students’ understanding of content, while holding them accountable for the craft of writing. The strategy is as simple as—and may be used as—an exit or entrance slip.
Each student receives a slip of paper with one sentence on it (I prepare enough so no more than three students have the same sentence). Typically, the statement is an academic thought about a selected chapter, article, or excerpt of assigned reading. For example:
Juliet unknowingly foreshadows her impending doom.
Siddhartha recognizes the downfall of humans competing in the material world.
The directions state:
- Find evidence from _____(the text)______ to support the statement.
- Practice integrating the “directly quoted evidence with fluency, while adding the appropriate in text citation” (author’s last name page#). Pay attention to punctuation.
- Then, add one more sentence of analysis to clarify or highlight the significance of the information. This is your chance to make a connection and show critical thinking.
- Two perfect sentences will be assessed on the following criteria: ___________________________
Teachers have the freedom to adjust the focus on specific areas of emphasis, which should be communicated with students in advance. I always check for content understanding, making sure the evidence is logical and the argument is coherent. Quote integration and fluency is also simple for any reader to assess. Do the sentences flow smoothly or is the writing mechanical?
At this point, I hold students accountable for proper formatting of in-text citations. While language arts teachers prefer MLA format, they applaud any efforts to see appropriate use of content area citations. All teachers have written research papers throughout their education; therefore, they should feel comfortable requiring students to credit a source.
Having limited the task to two sentences, there are nonnegotiable expectations of writing conventions, such as punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and usage (I add tense and point of view here). If students receive a consistent message from all teachers, the quality of writing will improve.
Variations, Results, and Teachable Moments
A simple variation is to supply the quote and have students provide a main point before the evidence. This forces students to draw conclusions from the text. The activity may be done in small groups (competitively), with a partner, or individually (especially to check for learning).
Students are undaunted by the challenge of composing two sentences. The word “perfect” simply narrows their focus on detail and craft. They do not have to worry about organization or content development—although many ask if they may write more.
Teachers do not have to stress about increasing their workload by collecting long writing assessments. Missing work is not an issue; this is easily made up after students return from an absence.
Two Perfect Sentences is an ideal formative assessment. Teachers may survey student understanding with efficiency and provide immediate, specific feedback. I often walk around and check for perfection before I accept a submission, especially at the outset of class. I do not provide answers, but I will comment on the criteria not yet proficient. Students revise in front of me or ask their peers for advice—simple, effective peer editing practice.
When used as an exit slip, this strategy guides planning for the following day by organizing differentiated instruction. The learning process is easy to track using the Two Perfect Sentences approach.
We acknowledge the art of writing is never perfect, while the teaching of writing is certainly an imperfect art. In a world of increasing expectations and accountability, let’s work toward mastery two sentences at a time.
The question resonates across the battlefield (Room A15) and echos throughout the high school hallways: Will the Greeks win honor, or will the Trojans rewrite history? Forget about Friday night’s upcoming game or what so-and-so said about whomever on social media. There is glory to be won in World Literature this week…
Upon completion of reading The Iliad, juniors in my English classes know a war is about to be waged, with reputations and lasting fame on the line. Here is the prompt to The Epic Paper, an engaging, versatile writing strategy that could be adapted to any content area:
The Epic Paper
“How does Homer portray the concept of HONOR in The Iliad?”
You, the epic hero, have received the call to adventure. After years of training for this moment, your mission is simple–accept the call and prepare for battle. With national pride and individual honor at stake, you must win everlasting glory and fame; your name will be remembered amongst the gods and your words immortalized upon Mount Olympus.
Enter battle armed with a formal essay loaded with critical thought about the concept of HONOR in The Iliad. Simply refer to your concept map to guide your writing, and, if necessary, seek inspiration from the Muse.
[Your basic thesis would look something like: “Homer portrays honor through ___________, __________ , and ___________.” You fill in the blanks and develop paragraphs supporting each aspect of honor.]
Anonymously type [double space, size 12, Times New Roman, 1 inch margins] your paper and hand it to Grade-Slaying Durst by __________. Do not allow hubris, foolish pride, or cowardice to blind you—this ignorance will lead to your demise, and ultimately be the cause of your team’s downfall.
This is war! May the strong survive!
Here are the major stages in the process once all of the papers are collected and randomly coded with a number and color so I will be able to identify the paper and its writer–but fate determines the teams. Anonymity provides a level of comfort for everyone, particularly the insecure writers. Let it also be noted that a Greek paper will remain on the Greek side but never cross paths with its writer.
Phase 1: Preparation for Battle
*Papers have been collected and divided into armies
3 Greek Armies = Blue, Green, and Purple
3 Trojan Armies = Orange, Yellow, and Red
*Each army must select the top two papers in their camp (defend your selections based on the writing rubric standards)
*Write comments on each paper
*Then have discussions to determine the top 2 papers
1) Complete a rubric for papers not advancing–these will enter 1 on 1 combat
2) In pairs, become the experts on the paper you want to take into battle!
Phase 2: 1 vs 1 Combat–Each pair of students per camp take the leftover papers (those which did not place in to top two) into direct combat around the classroom, Greek vs. Trojan. In these battles, even the weakest papers get defended for their positive qualities.
*Determine a winner of each WRITING STANDARD on our rubric
1) Content & Critical Thinking
4) Language, Voice, & Tone
#/5 = WINNER!
Phase 3: Championship Rounds of Battle–The top six papers from both sides of the classroom now enter a round-robin tournament in which each Greek paper battles each Trojan paper. Every battle is organized according to the criteria of different writing standards.
BATTLE #1: INTRODUCTION AND THESIS
Which paper has a more engaging introduction ending with a highly developed thesis?
BATTLE #2: CONCLUSION
Which conclusion leaves the reader with a greater sense of resolution and closure?
BATTLE #3: LANGUAGE AND WORD CHOICE
What paper uses exceptionally rich, lively, and precise language to enhance meaning?
BATTLE #4: CONVENTIONS AND USAGE
1) complete sentences 2) 3rd person point of view 3) present tense 4) pronoun agreement 5) punctuation and capitalization
DAY 3–BATTLE #5: FLUENCY
1) Seamless and purposeful quote integration
2) Sentence variety
3) Creative, varied, and smooth transitions within and between sentences
BATTLE #6: CONTENT AND CRITICAL THINKING
1) Excellent understanding of subject matter
2) Appropriate evidence and examples to support the thesis
3) Answers the question expertly
And there you have it…the 4th hour Trojans rewrote history, while the 5th hour Greeks did not even need a wooden horse to defeat the Trojans this year.
Phase 4: Written Reflection–In addition to the formative feedback I receive while walking around the battlefield, at the end of the epic paper war I have students write a reflection to verbalize their learning and provide me with more valuable feedback.
1) How did this activity challenge your critical thinking skills?
2) What did you learn about the craft of writing as a result of this activity?
Their responses recognize the benefits of our epic approach to a typical English class writing assignment. A majority of responses mention the intensity of competition and the challenge of defending someone else’s writing. What they are really saying is that because everyone is engaged in a class activity, they must be on their game–preparation, quick thinking, and strategy are necessary to defend a logical argument referencing specific examples (sounds Common Core friendly). Other comments highlight thinking deeper about the content of The Iliad and finding a new level of respect for some of their classmates’ talents.
The immediate impact on their writing includes such responses as learning new strategies for analyzing literary themes, effective (yet simple) changes to make throughout the writing (and thought) process, the significance of vocabulary on the delivery of content, and the importance of supporting a solid thesis with credible evidence. I read several thoughts about spending more time on analysis, less on summary (thank you!). One student concluded, “I have to write as if I am the reader. I have to make the reader enthusiastic about reading my essay, and understand my thoughts better.” One boy called the craft of writing, “…a powerful tool,” while another articulated, “The craft of writing is like art–everyone has different styles and some people are stronger than others, but in different areas.” Wow. Whose students are these?
As proud as those responses make me, I am most impressed with my students’ new respect for the efforts of their teachers. Many reflections mentioned the time-consuming challenge and “strenuous process” of assessing writing. Yes, minions…yes. Because readers were forced to evaluate standards separately, they gained a greater understanding of our writing rubric–that multiple factors must be considered in assessing the quality of a work. This should provide a clearer appreciation of my standards-based approach to grading, as I attempt to guide their learning toward a growth mindset (material for a future post!).
Organizing such an activity takes plenty of time and effort on the front end, but celebrating our writing in a competitive game–especially early in the school year–transforms attitudes and builds confidence for future assessments. My juniors are epic heroes–battle-tested and eager for the next quest.
“I now understand how papers are graded and I can make future papers better in multiple ways. I feel that my own writing will benefit because of this activity.”
That is honorable.
Students Beware: Veteran Educator Feels Like a First Year Teacher
Every year we hear more accounts of teacher burnout, and at times, I’ve considered trying it, but the negative thoughts pass as I continue my exciting journey
lifetime sentence through the high school hallways. I traditionally teach 4-5 different English courses from semester to semester, with a maximum of one repeated class per day. So, realistically, I don’t have time to get bored. This also means I have had the pleasure of teaching all brands of high school students in seventeen years. I could not enjoy a year without Visions in Literature and Composition–a class of bright-eyed 9th graders, who possess a zest for learning and untapped potential, but can’t avoid being freshmen. I love guiding juniors through the most important year in their educational journey and respect the content of Perspectives in World Literature and Composition. I am fully invested in Foundations of College Writing, my paperless senior writing course, in which I have become an edtech pioneer (self-proclaimed) by navigating a district 21st Century initiative, utilizing the power of Google Apps in our writing lab. My favorite class to teach has always been Communications, a public speaking course for upperclassmen. Despite my constructivist philosophy, no other class is as student-centered, simply due to the nature of its content.
Just as I was getting comfortable with the adjustments I have made to improve each course, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. At the end of last school year I was approached with the possibility of teaching Creative Writing, a course made popular by its previous teacher, my colleague and friend, who was moving on to another district. I always warned her students I was going to join the class as a student and write with them. And now I am, but the students are mine. Although I feel the uncertain thrill of a first-year teacher, there is renewed energy in my school day, and my passion for writing is awake after years of neglect.
Where Do I Begin?
The emphasis of my professional development over the summer focused on writing, as I outlined a plan for teaching the extensive genres of Creative Writing. I sought the advice of two of my favorite experts–Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle–who reminded me to model more writing for students in each of my classes, not solely for Creative Writing. For teachers who have never read the works of Gallagher and Kittle, please find the time. They speak directly from the classroom with authentic voices and practical approaches for improved writing (and reading) instruction.
Despite the knowledge I gained through research, I struggled up to the final days of summer vacation, before finally sketching my plans for the course on the syllabus presented at the top of this post. Yes, that’s the syllabus I handed to students as they entered the classroom on opening day. I am not an artist, but I felt I had to be the first one in the class to take a chance. I was obligated to show–rather than tell–what to expect from the course they signed up for last year (actually, I felt obligated to warn them about what they were in for with me as their instructor). Although I was unsure of their initial reaction, I have since been rewarded with positive feedback from enthusiastic writers. Students respected my honesty, vulnerability, and energy, and as a result, now trust the guidance of a first-time Creative Writing instructor.
Where Do I Go From Here?
After gaining the support of students, I had to build a community of writers who encourage each other and feel secure sharing their work. The class is composed of twenty-two upperclassmen with varying interests, social circles, and writing backgrounds, so I anticipated a challenge. Our early activities (highlighted in my previous post), discussions, and sharing sessions broke down many barriers through laughter and storytelling. But I do not take much credit for the positive learning environment that has evolved; I work with great students–genuine, compassionate, young adults.
One early influential mission was to create six word memoirs as a means of getting to know each other. After a day spent introducing the assignment and brainstorming possibilities, I once again stepped out of my comfort zone and was first to share several final options. I projected three sentences on the smart board, mentioned what I intended to express, explained my conflicts, and asked for guidance.
Students provided constructive feedback in an intelligent conversation about the writer’s craft. Without teacher direction (I simply asked questions, clarified responses, and thanked contributors for their thoughts), students engaged in an unforced discussion of good writing, audience, purpose, effective punctuation, word choice, and the power of one sentence. Confident writers (several AP students who have been exposed to complex literary analysis) first expressed specific details about quality writing, but surprisingly, some tentative writers shared observations; other students listened and processed in silence. Their commentary was inspiring. The result… my life in six words:
Walking far beyond the pedestrian path.
The twenty minute dialogue not only impacted the rest of the semester for our sixth hour team, it provided another highlight in my teaching career. Two days later, we sat in a circle and all twenty-three shared a six word memoir. Each author left the audience craving the rest of the story (which is a logical transition to our next mission: the autobiographical narrative). After admiring everyone’s contribution, I presented one final challenge to the class. We needed to publish our words–allow the world to hear our voices. Several visionary artists took a lead role, and within a week–after having us choose between five songs to accompany our words–produced a class video. The video might not signify much to a general YouTube audience, but it forever unifies our class. It also gave me something more impressive than my artistic syllabus (which I handed out…) to showcase during Back-to-School Night. As the parents of my writers watched intently, waiting for the words of their son or daughter to flash across the screen, they were overcome with emotion (several to tears). The power of the written word, combined with the potential of our children’s minds, made a bold statement about the quality of our educational system. I am proud to share our video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkymNjSz_OI with you. Enjoy.