Thursday, November 16, 2017

Check out our other site...

Hi, I'm not really posting here right now because I've enrolled in a PhD program and am writing on our Collab Lab team's site.  Check us out here:

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Reflections on #NCTE16

OK, here's my biggest takeaway from #NCTE16 moving forward: honor small victories.

Writing in detail about this insight would probably be too honest at this point, but here's the message I want to share from seeing presentations and talking to people this the form of a top 10 list because my brain is so full right now, that's all I have.

1) Set an intention each day.  Know why you're doing what you're doing.
2) Talk to people.  Share stories.  Get to know each other.  Find common ground.  Work through differences.
3) Find more books.  Kids need books.  (Adults need books.)  Lots of books.  When you're done, get even more books.
4) We're doing a better job than we may think.
5) We can always do better.  Question what you're doing.  Ask the students for advice.  Ask your peers what they're doing.  Ask Twitter what they're doing.
6) Go see people present.  Go present.  Everyone has something to share for someone.  Seeming "throwaway" comments by others meant a lot to me and "throwaway" comments by me meant a lot to others.
7) Realize everything is in context.  I talked to people about a lot of situations in their schools, districts, and states that are similar to and different from Illinois and the surrounding suburbs.  We aren't a one-size-fits-all profession, and we need to be aware of that.
8) That being said, we need to all move forward with the best interests of all of our students in mind.
9) Ask kids how they're doing.  Let them be in charge of their own stories.  Give them avenues to take control and share who they are, what they live, and what they want to do (etc.)
10) When you go to another city, get out and see the sites and eat the food and listen to the music.  Thanks, Atlanta!  You've been great!

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Myth of the Apolitical Teacher

This is going to be an interesting year--to say the least.  This is my first time teaching during such a heavily contested presidential election, and I'm wondering how things will go in two classes that are so focused on rhetoric and non-fiction.  This has got me thinking, as I mentioned in my last post:

While many teachers don't feel comfortable discussing "controversial" topics in the classroom, I wonder if we realize that our choice to not talk about these issues is a political statement.  We hear it every year: "I thought teachers weren't allowed to talk about politics!"  And I tell them, "I'm not telling you who to vote for!  I'm trying to make you better critical readers, thinkers, and writers!"  The same goes for our humanities classes that read religious texts--we tell the students, we aren't telling you what religion to believe.  We are reading texts from multiple religions to understand common backgrounds for literature and history and how they have influenced the world today.

This "apolitical" decision goes for the texts we teach in class as well, as we know.  Who do we include and not include in our classrooms?  Those are political decisions.  As are our styles of teaching.  What message do we send to our students when we choose what we choose for our classrooms?  Everything we do is a part of broader decisions based on our own backgrounds, preferences, and beliefs!

Yet this "apolitical" mindset maintains.  It's not easy to discuss difficult topics.  And I don't speak as anything beyond someone who is trying to do a better job of this today and moving forward; I've certainly unintentionally made mistakes in these areas, and I'm trying to educate myself better.  But it begs the question (for me, specifically) of what is the function of English classes.  If I want my students to ultimately be critical readers, thinkers, and writers, then the best way to do that is to engage them in topics that are relevant to their lives--even if those topics go against things they believe.  In fact in my rhetoric classes, that's the strongest way I've found to teach them these ideas: can you pull apart another person's argument?  Can you see if they are making valid claims?  Can you challenge their perspectives effectively?

So I think my mantra this year--in my head and out loud to the students--is going to be "the danger of the single story" and the importance of layering our knowledge and perspectives with others that we read about, hear about, and live.  We can hear other people's perspectives, understand their reasoning, and then layer more knowledge and perspectives on top of it to round out our pictures when we express ourselves.  And, at times, this means the conflict of discussing very difficult topics and honestly hearing perspectives beyond those we believe.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

#1st5days in a Presidential Election Year

As we prep for the new school year, I noticed the upswing of people talking about their .  I guess that means summer is really winding down.  I thought back to my post last year about a different way to First Day

I teach AP Language, a rhetoric class.  And while I'm happy with how last year's first day went because we were able to reference the concepts all year (not to mention my amusement at the looks on students' faces about being read a children's story on the first day of school), it seems a less-than-relevant way to start a year of presidential elections. 

On days 2-4, Matt S. and I do an essay "The Best _____ is ______" (or The Worst ____ is _____).  This allows students a comfortable way to argue something they are familiar with in order to provide us with a foundation to build and revise.  Usually they argue things like "X is the best sport" or "Y is the best TV show," and we are able to discuss evidence, audience, etc.

And while I want to keep that as day 2, I'm wondering if there's a way to introduce the concept of rhetoric through our current presidential candidates in general without talking about them specifically.  On the first day we won't have built up the types of trustworthy relationships yet that would allow us to have any sorts of heavy conversations that we can have later.  How do I find an in-between?  How do we start a conversation about what rhetoric is without digging in too deep into who is doing our rhetoric and what they're saying?  I want to start off with something the students are seeing in their daily lives to make that sort of immediate connection.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

(Another) Hiatus

I have about 4 posts started, and I can't quite get around to finishing any of them.  So for now, please continue to check us out at the Collab Blog!  More later!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Personal Connections to Books Pt. 1

I'm a week late in writing this--check out the Collab Blog to see what we've been up to!

Today in our Socratic Seminar focusing on The Great Gatsby my students got into an interesting tangential conversation about whether or not Daisy and Gatsby really loved each other.  This topic in itself is a common one for the novel, but the first thing I found so wonderful was that it started with a question about violence.  The students read How to Read Literature like a Professor over the summer, and I use the appropriate chapters of each book to frame a few of their questions in each Socratic Seminar.  The rest of the questions ask the students to make connections to other texts we have read or to current events based on our quarter's essential theme.

This specific question asked them to consider the How to Read Lit chapter on violence: what actions of violence occurred in the book, who committed the violence, who were the victims, and what could Fitzgerald mean by all of this?  They discussed how Daisy killed Myrtle but also how Daisy was ultimately also responsible for the death of Gatsby, which led to whether or not she truly loved Gatsby.  Some students were very upset with her not attending his funeral.

After a moment a student paused, turned, and exclaimed--quite passionately--"I need Daisy to have loved Gatsby!" as if she were involved in the relationship.

And I thought, that's because that student is involved in the relationship.

It was a really, really cool moment...I should probably let her know.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Assessing Critical Thinking Skills

A few weeks ago I met with Alison Dover, an assistant professor at Northeastern Illinois University, to discuss social justice and education.  One of the questions she asked me was how I determine or would determine the success of my instruction (specifically in areas of social justice, which I'm starting to become more aware of).  The immediate answer is success rate on the AP exam and ACT scores, and I do, of course, believe this.  However, I also know that success and skill improvement go far beyond the numbers--especially when you have students from a broad range of backgrounds and ability levels in one classroom.

One of my goals in AP Language specifically is to increase students' critical thinking skills.  Can they critically read, analyze, and communicate about a text?  And the answer to that is that regardless of a student's success on an individual exam at the end of the year, a student may have grown in numerous intangible ways over the course of the year.

For example:
  • When students share that they were listening to a presidential candidate's speech (which in itself is awesome) and then say they were discussing with their family or friends some of the points of argument or means of rhetorical analysis.
  • When students are able to honestly consider alternate perspectives and how they relate to their own perspective on an issue.
  • When a student leaves the class at the end of the year being able to express their views and support their arguments on complex texts stronger than when they entered (a goal of every class, obviously).
  • When students are able to successfully read, analyze, and write about a text even after revisions and not in a timed setting--especially when many students are second language learners who are frequently translating as they read and write.
And, again, I recognize these are not goals explicit to AP English Language; however, as they are directly assessed by an exam at the end of the year, they are my primary goal.

So how do we measure growth in critical analysis?  Is there a rubric for it?  And furthermore are there ways to directly instruct it?  Or do we get there via other skills indirectly?

I believe these critical thinking skills are currently reflected on the analysis scale of our writing rubric, but that varies for each text and each assessment. This could, of course, also be oral communications, but it can't be expressed in simple parroting of facts and stances without a student's own personal ability to explain why, how, struggle with the unknown, and make additional connections.