Thursday, March 20, 2014

Poetry gets a bad rap but could be a rap

Poetry. Even some adults who might know better make a face when people want to talk about poetry. I guess too many associate poetry with feelings, maudlin and romantic. Maybe they remember their own adolescent-poetry-writing days and cringe because of the recollection of the kind of stuff they wrote. Or maybe it's because far too often they are asked to dissect poetry to the very last scansion and examine closely, far too closely, every possible hidden meaning in a poem. Or maybe it's because they only poetry to which they've been exposed is difficult stuff written in a different century and because their teacher believed they "ought" to know that work. Bosh and balderdash.

Joshua Block, a regular contributor for Edutopia (@edutopia)offers some very good strategies in his article "(Re)Creating Poets: How to Teach Poetry in the Classroom."

One of my favorite poets is William Carlos Williams and I've always loved introducing students to "The Red Wheelbarrow." It's short. Kids like that. But then they read it and think about the figurative language and then that first phrase "so much depends upon." And then there's an entire story that begins to unfold. What's the right story? Who know? Who cares? But there are plenty of people who will force students to trudge through a great deal of criticism and analysis. There is a place for trudging through criticism and analysis, but it can kill any budding interest in poetry.

Two of the giants of 18th century were Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who gave us magnificent story poems including "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." For many a high school student, however, they are known for Lyrical Ballads (1798).

Wordsworth wrote
It is the honourable characteristic of Poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind. The evidence of this fact is to be sought, not in the writings of Critics, but in those of Poets themselves.
The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title. It is desirable that such readers, for their own sakes, should not suffer the solitary word Poetry, a word of very disputed meaning, to stand in the way of their gratification; but that, while they are perusing this book, they should ask themselves if it contains a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents; and if the answer be favourable to the author's wishes, that they should consent to be pleased in spite of that most dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of decision.
Readers of superior judgment may disapprove of the style in which many of these pieces are executed it must be expected that many lines and phrases will not exactly suit their taste. It will perhaps appear to them, that wishing to avoid the prevalent fault of the day, the author has sometimes descended too low, and that many of his expressions are too familiar, and not of sufficient dignity. It is apprehended, that the more conversant the reader is with our elder writers, and with those in modern times who have been the most successful in painting manners and passions, the fewer complaints of this kind will he have to make.
I will resist the temptation toward pontification and leave you to take what you will from the text. Consider, however, the time in which it was written and that it is entirely possible that Mr. Wordsworth was being polite, acutely aware of his patrons, and yet taking advantage of the opportunity to take a few jabs at those who held Poetry in High Esteem.

In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth addresses the response to the first volume of the poetry. One of my favorite observations in this text is:
The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. 
If you're interested in poets have to say about poetry, poets, critics, and life in general, you might enjoy this Paris Review interview with Robert Frost.

One of the best known quotes of William Wordsworth is, "All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." The latter part has not always been true for many poets, but the former is often the case, even if those feelings are expressed more cerebrally than viscerally.

Sure, rap can be tough to listen to because of the language, but it's intended, I think, to capture those powerful feelings that come from where those rappers come from, who they think they are, and who they think they are becoming. Or, you can just groove along with Pharrell Williams's Happy, though I think for Pharrell, so much depends on that hat.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Presenting the dialogue

We call it the Socratic method though we often go to Plato, a student of Socrates, to see how it's done. Dialogue. Conversation. Give and take. The expression of ideas about a specific topic. In Plato's dialogues, several characters express points of view on the topic at hand, but the reader is often left to draw his or her own conclusions.

With the introduction of Common Core, a lot of educators started talking about the Socratic method and Socratic circles, variation on a theme. There are videos on Teaching Channel showing how to do a Socratic circle. I'm a fan of that way of teaching. Students are invited to be part of the conversation, they are expected to be part of the conversation and they are accorded appropriate respect.

Whenever we create a PowerPoint or Prezi, we often do so with the intention of making it "interactive." By that we mean that there will be slides that will require the students or participants to do something, often based on what has just been presented. That's a "hands-on" presentation. One of the rationales behind that form of presentation is making sure they have opportunity to hear it and to do it thereby reinforcing the learning. Makes sense.

But what if we really want a conversation? What if the "presentation" isn't about how smart we are, how knowledgeable we are, how gifted we are in front of a group? What if the "presentation" really is about engaging the individuals in the room? Ms. Duarte reminds us of the importance of the thinking about conversation rather than presentation for certain audiences and certain occasions.

We've all experienced the students or participants who are frantically trying to write down everything on every slide. If the bullet points are too cryptic and they haven't had time to hear what you say, then the bullet points won't have much meaning for them later. Saying we're going to make the slides available after the meeting or class is small comfort for the individual who wants or needs to bullets for note-taking.

Ms. Duarte writes
Asking everyone to decode your cryptic bullets or plow through a lot of verbiage before you meet is setting yourself up for disappointment. Nobody has the time, and your ideas could get lost in translation. So give people a document that’s meant to be read, not presented. One they’ll grasp quickly and easily on their own.
So often there isn't time to do the interactive part of the class or presentation because so much time has been spent presenting. The idea of making sure people can grasp ideas quickly and on their own is a little alarming. If they can grasp the ideas easily and on their own, why do they need me?

Let's go back to Socrates and Plato. Much of what they did was through dialogue, through conversation. The teacher guides the conversation by asking questions to get students or participants to examine their points of view from a different angle and helping students build on each others' ideas. Students and participants learn. And likely so much more than the intended outcomes bulleted on one of those first few slides.

Friday, March 14, 2014

I'm not sure I can take another "trend"

The title of the article reads "Study Links Responsive Teaching to Academic Gains."

Without even reading the article, my response was "You think?"

And so I thought back to some of my teachers from way back in the dark ages. I thought of my favorite teachers and the ones for whom I worked the hardest even if I didn't really like them as much as others. And I thought about why I worked hard for them.

Because they cared. Because they cared about me and my fellow students as individuals. Because they expected, even demanded, our best and would not let us settle for less than our bests. Because when we turned in work they knew was not our best, they didn't scold or fuss or demean us, but they checked to make sure nothing was wrong.

A key detail on what is called the Responsive Classroom program is that it "provides teachers with practices for teaching their students social and emotional skills such as cooperation, assertiveness, and empathy—traits that lend themselves to higher-level learning—in conjunction with their academic lessons."

This alarms me a bit. Teachers have to be provided with practices so kids can learn how to be cooperative and empathetic? Oh. My.

When I was in first grade, I got in trouble on the playground. There was a mandate that kids weren't supposed to fight on the playground. I walked by some boys who were fighting and said something about them getting into trouble if they didn't stop. Apparently that was deemed participating in the fight and no one listened to my side. I was ticked, and I hated my first grade teacher for 1) not listening to me and 2) for punishing me.

In second grade, I met my first twin. My teacher was a twin, and one day her sister came to school. They talked about being twins and I remember, all these years later, what a fun and delightful day that was. I also remember that teacher for being kind and encouraging, but also a task master.

My academic career is marked by those teachers who were empathetic and encouraging, yet held to high expectations. I'm guessing my grades were better in any class with that kind of teacher.

I'm not sure why student achievement in classrooms with more engaged and responsive teachers is such a surprise.

We know that teacher stress is a very real thing, and there are many contributing factors to teacher stress. Including tying teacher evaluations to student test performance.

Rather than trying to integrate yet another program, which simply addresses the effects rather than cause, let's spend a bit more time with the cause so teachers can actually do what they are trained and want to do.

Because I'd be willing to bet that most of our teachers want to be encouraging and empathetic teachers and they want to be responsive in a positive way to all of their kids, but the realities of teaching just challenge them to a point of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion.

To read the aforementioned article, go here.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Reading + Writing + Speaking + Listening = Connections. . .for students, too

We know that a lot of kids are very good at posting the most extraordinary details of their lives through social media. We also know they rarely engage in actual connections through social media (No, clicking the "Like" button is not building a connection.)

We know that reading skills contribute to writing skills, and vice versa. One of my favorite activities for my freshmen English students was a voices activity. Note it was my favorite; I'm not sure they were too crazy about it, but they did learn something from it.

They picked an event or experience, any event or experience. They had to be very focused about what they wanted to say about that event or experience so no long-winded exposition. Short, to the point. Yep, the activity was already hard.

Once they had that event or experience draft as complete as I needed it to be for this activity, they got to rewrite it. They rewrote that same event or experience for three different audiences: younger sibling, grandparent, best friend, brand new friend, church elder, boss, best friend's parent, international pen pal. It didn't matter to me who the audiences were as long as the three were different.

As they rewrote for each of those audiences, they realized (nope, I didn't tell them) they had to make choices about words, sentence structure, and even details. They realized how neutral that first version was as they really considered me to be their audience--and then they discovered how bland and dry their writing could be. Bonus for me, and for them.

After they rewrote, they shared their original texts with their colleagues and read at least one of their audience-specific texts aloud. They didn't say anything about the audience before they started reading their texts so their colleagues had to listen carefully and try to discern the probable audience based on word choice, sentence structure, etc. And their colleagues had to be able to explain why they thought the text was written for a particular audience. Texts for younger children were fairly easy to figure out as were texts were best friends, but the listeners still had to identify how the knew anything about the characteristics of the audience.

The Anchor Standards for Writing for K-5 and 6-12 are the same. You'll note there are sections to group like standards. What is different for K-5 and 6-12 is the text in the italics to the right of the standards themselves: range and content.

The Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening are also the same for K-5 and for 6-12. Again, the difference is the range and content in the italicized text to the right of the standards.

What do the range and content represent? Learning progressions. As students get more competent with and confident in their skills, they should be able to progress to more complex tasks.

Remember that last component of text complexity? Reader and task? And that the complexity is generated by the task assigned.

Not too long ago I was asked if I thought teachers should be at grade level only or if they should meet vertically. I said "yes." Yes, teachers need to meet at grade level. Not so they are doing the exact same thing at the same time in the classroom--they have different teaching styles and their kids have different learning styles--but so they can discuss strategies they've tried, what worked and what didn't and have some collaborative, connected conversation about possible changes to implement, among other things. I could spend more time on grade level meetings and PLCs, but that's off-topic.

The value of what's known as "vertical articulation" is also significant. How great it would be if teachers could meet periodically at least with the teachers who teach the grade above and below them. That would give teachers the opportunity to collaborate, and connect, at least about learning progressions, expectations, and more. The objective is to celebrate the kids who are doing well at grade level and perhaps even working above grade level as well as brainstorm about the kids who are struggling. I could spent more time on those meetings as well, but, again, off-topic.

The overall point is this: any time a teacher gives a reading assignment, that teacher should consider the possibilities for students to exercise, explore, develop, hone, or just plain old practice their writing, speaking, and listening skills. The more students experience the interconnectivity of those communications skills, the more students understand the value of intellectual connection and exchange, the more likely they are to learn how to make connections, personal and otherwise.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Closer Look at the Instructional Shifts. . .and Text Complexity

Here we go. Balance of texts has caused all kinds of gnashing of teeth. In early Common Core documentation is a chart that stipulates percentages of fiction and non-fiction to be read a specific grade levels, and that by high school students should be reading mostly non-fiction.

English teachers despaired of teaching their favorite novels and somehow people got the idea that kids were going to be reading only technical manuals. As an aside I should say that even most of the Common Core developers have disavowed some of the content in Appendix B and Appendix C of the Common Core State Standards. Any time anyone offers a list of exemplars, there is someone else standing on the sideline ready to lambaste the choices. The texts in Appendix B are offered as guidelines; there is nothing mandated. However, just as there are those anxiously awaiting the opportunity to take potshots at someone else's list, there are those who are equally anxious if there is no such list to guide them. It's a wonder anyone offers any kind of suggestions or recommendations any more.

Anyway, the balance of texts is throughout the school day. Students need to be exposed to a range of texts through the school year: fiction and non-fiction and different genres within each. They also need to be given access to texts at and above their comfort reading levels. Inviting them to read something that may seem harder gives them the opportunity to learn how to stretch, how to read harder texts, and how not to be afraid to try something harder.

Text complexity is one of the ways to talk about texts that are "harder." Text complexity reminds us there are many factors that make a book hard for a reader. Contemporary students always struggle with older books, and by older I mean stuff written in or before the 19th century. The language conventions are weird, the sentences and paragraphs are often longer, etc. Not only that, authors are writing about a world with which today's readers are unfamiliar. We can't blame students for wanting to know why they need to understand the world in which a 17th century writer lived and wrote. That's the qualitative.

The quantitative is the readability of the book. Publishers and others go through all kinds of exercises to let teachers and parents know the readability level of a book. Whole industries have been built around beginning readers and subsequent levels. Once upon a time kids read what there was. While there is some dispute over the first children's book ever, it did take a while for books to be written specifically and exclusively for children. In the 19th century we saw the rise of books that "appealed" to younger readers, among them The Swiss Family Robinson, Oliver Twist, Kidnapped, Alice in Wonderland, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Note the word "appeal." That hasn't really changed in that kids read for pleasure that which appeals to them, captures their imaginations, gives them something to Tweet or Vine. They read less because it was the right reading level but because they liked the story or the writing or the characters or all of the above; or their friends were reading it.

As for books students read in school and for school, the challenge is often that the reading level (quantitative) is not the same as the appeal level (qualitative). But if students are exposed to a range of texts and the range refers not only to quantitative and qualitative, then kids are likely to be stretched not only at the reading level but at the appeal level. But far too many kids don't know what else appeals to them because they've never had the opportunity to read something outside of that particular comfort zone.

Text-dependent questions, evidence-based answers, and academic vocabulary have some strong connections. Presenting text-dependent questions should be a lot easier than it seems to be for most educators. This section could actually warrant its own blog post and/or SlideShare presentation. I'll have to think about that. Anyway, many educators use Bloom's Taxonomy as a resource for figuring out how to ask questions at higher levels of critical thinking. That is, how to ask "good" text-dependent questions. There are a few dozen resources for question stems based on Bloom's Taxonomy one of which can be found here and another is here. The keys to text-dependent questions are: 1) they are not "yes" or "no" questions and 2) they require students to refer to the text which means they will have to a) read closely; b) be able to make inferences; and c) find textual evidence to support their claims. You might recognize that as part of the first Anchor Standard for Reading.

So when students are asked text-dependent questions, they should be able to give evidence-based answers. Now the evidence-based answers shift isn't just about kids being able to pull from a single text, but to learn--over time--how to build evidence from multiple texts. And that means they will have to learn how to analyze and synthesize texts. They will need to know how to paraphrase; they will need to know how to test the validity of their sources.

To do some of that work, students will need to be comfortable with academic vocabulary and that means that they know what a summary is as well as how to summarize. Academic vocabulary represents vocabulary that is not necessarily common but that students are likely to encounter with some regularity in a school setting.

Common Core tells us there are three tiers of vocabulary and academic vocabulary is Tier 2. Practically speaking, some vocabulary might be both Tier 2 and Tier 3. The point is that educators cannot assume that students know and understand some of the terminology we use regularly. By the same token, we have to keep in mind that some vocabulary has different connotations in different content areas. But that really is a different post and/or SlideShare.

I believe that content area literacy is an overarching essential concept for the instructional shifts. If a student is to understand science, the student must be familiar with the content- or domain-specific vocabulary in that area of science, must be able to discern any differences in the use of that term in a particular science class with the use of that term anywhere else, should that situation arise. The student must learn that writers in science have a different style and tone than other content areas (qualitative) and that the more complex the scientific ideas, the more complex the concrete and the abstract elements of the text (quantitative). Students can be exposed to content area literacy through a range of non-fiction texts, not just their textbooks, and might even have opportunity to learn from fiction.

And now I can approach that third element of text complexity: reader and task. My favorite part of that description is "complexity generated by the task." What this says to me is that I might be able to use a Magic Schoolhouse, National Geographic, DK Publishing or other resource to enable and empower kids to explore something in science, and that opportunity to work with a picture book or some other kind of text might spur students' imaginations and desire to learn. Those texts might be bridges to connections students might not otherwise see or make, and they might yield an excitement about learning. I have often said and have often been affirmed in my thinking that we cannot underestimate the power of a picture book. Sure, you're not going to use a picture book all of the time, but keep in mind who writes those picture books and why they write those books. In terms of text complexity, that picture book or non-fiction supplemental might seem "easier" because of its reading level. But it's not the text, but the task. If I'm asking good text-dependent questions and expecting strong evidence-based answers, and if I'm inviting my students to use a range of resources to find their evidence-based answers and find additional support for their evidence-based answers, then the task is more complex and students learn better how to use a range of resources.

A supplemental activity is step away periodically and ask students to assess the resources they're using and have them tell you which texts they think are complex, and why. I suspect you will be surprised.