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WIHWT: Taking Sides

Gustave Dore hercules

I wish I had written this: Taking Sides: Revolution or Oppression.

Our children’s fears indict us all.

Teaching critical thinking skills is not an option. It never was, but seemed to be kept for the elite or college-bound.

One cannot teach a skill in isolation. It cannot be a stand-alone, one-off concept. Skills must always ALWAYS be connected to a bigger understanding and knowledge building. Silo teaching “may help teachers, but does nothing to help students.” It’s imperative to make the distinction between the skill, its assessment, mastery and its application.

About three years ago many teachers collaborated to create a unit on water. Coincidentally, in Ainissa Ramirez’s article “Smashing Silos, water is also used as a cross-content topic: 

One question you might have is: “How do you apply these new ways of teaching to the standards?” There are many topics that can be taught by showing the interrelation and complexity of issues while still teaching the fundamentals and linking to the standards. A key topic in the 21st century is water. This is a challenge that our children will certainly have to face. The topic of water does not fall under just history, science, math, political science or economics — it falls under all of them. As recently as 2012, The Economist2 wrote a special report entirely on water. Why not prepare students now for problems with complexity?

But I cannot explain my abstract pedagogy to others sometimes. That I have the expertise, the volume of work — units, lessons, ideas, texts, etc. I don’t speak the same language, and it gets lost in translation.

But allow me to strive for clarity: skills are critical to teach. The direct instruction of teaching even the deceptively simple task of finding a central idea cannot be separated from content. But it is our job as ELA teachers to teach and assess the skill, and then by grace, goodwill, or sheer determination the other content area teachers will understand it’s not optional. 

Someone asked me a fantastic question today, and asked specifically what and how I teach ‘central idea.’ I have many lessons for this, but I couldn’t answer, because my instruction evolves with new information and learning all the time. It’s like trying to pinpoint the moment where a snake decided to become a skink.

http://morgana249.blogspot.com/2014/09/5-modern-reptiles-that-give-birth-to.html
oh hai der

After careful study and reading, my interpretation: 

Main Idea: topic.

Central Idea: topic and author’s purpose – thesis

Theme: complex, universal truth and exploration

Some suggest central idea is intended for informational text, while them is intended for literary works. Some even use these terms interchangeably, which makes teaching it difficult. 

via GIPHY

TOPIC IS NOT THEME.

TOPIC IS NOT THEME.

TOPIC IS NOT THEME.

Okay. I’m home now.

My apologies: the gravitas that this post demands slipped past me. It’s still summer, after all. I have one more week, kind of, sort of, but not really.

Here’s where I landed:

The work of a PLC is to focus, with laser intensity, a few things and teach them exceptionally well. Preferences and bias for instruction matter only in the instance of what do they do when they ‘get it’ and when they don’t. And it all matters. My life as a reader and writer serves my students well. It provides authenticity. Someone else’s choice of text is just that: their choice.

I cannot teach without the support and collaboration from other content areas. I cannot teach in isolation. The compelling urgency to make connections and allow for talk lightens the shadows and the burden.

A mentor said to me years ago that their grades can’t be more important to me than they are to them. I finally really understand that now. It’s not about ‘accountability’ or ‘responsibility’ –two words that are used as code for ‘lazy’ and ‘poverty problems.’

It is my job to make the learning important to one and all because it is their life.

Their life.

That’s the only side.

 

PS “Kick these instructional strategies to the curb.”

 

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Pathos, logos, and ethos take a holiday.

Pathos, Logos, and Ethos
Pathos, Logos, and Ethos

In addition to short films, commercials can be another valuable asset. Many commercials live on multiple places on Bloom’s Taxonomy, and certainly any argumentative reading and writing unit worth its salt contains at least one or two commercials to support a conversation about pathos, ethos, and logos.

I just found this site this morning. This first ad can bring up so many relatable conversation points. To quote John Spencer,

“What’s so odd is that people have been creating art, writing letters, and talking about their food for years. Museums are filled with foodies and selfie shots. We just call them “still lifes” and “self-portraits.” The whole, “don’t miss the moment” mindset fails to recognize that it’s a deeply human need to capture and create precisely because we don’t want to forget it.”

So perhaps a contrast discussion — show a selfie and a self portrait, and ask students to discuss the possible purposes of the artist, or artistic intent. A conversation about pace, too — the speed of creation and its perceived value (in the moment and over time). I can honestly say that my photo albums are my life. One project this summer is to scan everything and save it to multiple places. (But I still have time…right?!)

 

This is one of my all-time favorites:

And this:

And this is PG-13, but amazing:

And speaking to our hearts, to differences, and most of all our humanity, you may want to share these:

 

A word of caution: advertisements intended for European markets do not have the same ratings codes as in the States. Seriously — watch everything first if you think it looks like something you want to use in the classroom. 

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Talk Tuesday

The intent of “Talk Tuesdays” was twofold: to use the readings/texts in a purposeful way, and invite students to think about discussion, and practice.

Well, that is the intent, and we all know about roads paved, etc. But I think I became too distracted or mired in the concept of ‘accountable talk.’ I’m not sure if you know my connotative negative bias toward the word ‘accountable’ when it comes to students. Accountable talk is a buzzkill idea. There. I said it. However, sometimes students think it’s going to be a free-for-all talk fest, and, well, sometimes it is. And that’s okay. I would rather have things turn more raucous than censored.

But somehow, and I’m speaking purely for myself, putting the descriptor ‘accountable’ on anything makes it taste like educational cardboard. If we start thinking about what are real purpose is, what we want students to be engaged, and even enchanted by, is sharing ideas in a passionate, “oh oh oh!!” way–and it’s okay if not everyone is excited about every topic. I know I’m not, and that honesty with students helps them know that sometimes they are not as emotionally invested in a topic as others.

What Great Listeners Do by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman in the Harvard Business Review provides clear expectations that could be easily modeled and role-played in class. The TL:DR version is great listeners help build the spark of an idea. It’s not a ‘you have a problem and I’ll fix it’ but more like an engaging gear, making an idea move forward. (Spouses take note.) This article is going directly into my teaching strategies with writing workshop, too.

Key ingredients exist in any interesting conversation:

  • An emotional stake (personal connection and empathy)
  • Ambiguous, essential questions that have kaleidoscope viewpoints
  • Allowances to shift or pivot with new information (see my substantive form)
  • Metacognition: understanding one self in order to monitor and assess how important the topic or theme is to one personally; extrapolate to a larger scale

There are multiple pathways for discussion, too:

  • Socratic Seminars
  • Town Hall meetings
  • Turn and Talk
  • Writing Workshop (next post)
  • Think, Pair, Share
  • About a thousand others (dang my hyperbole!)

The trick is to make sure students are listening, and having a chance with their say. It can come in the form of real talk, or on a class discussion board, etc. Two strategies I use are what I call the “ambassador of the table” idea. Whether or not I choose or they choose, there is an ambassador from each group who shares out what the group has said. Also, if it’s a small partner group of 2 to 3, each person has to share what the other said, and it’s always paraphrased. The person who is not speaking can then agree or repudiate what their partner interpreted.

And please– don’t force introverts to talk in class. Find another way.

How to Listen Better

Five Ways to Listen Better

Here are a few resources I’ve created or collected along the way:

Town Hall Meeting Guidelines – provided by Doug Selwyn

Speaking and Listening CCSS 8th Grade with annotations

Substantive Student Talk Graphic Organizer — I created this to help guide discussions

 

What do you have to say about this?

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Match up: texts, teachers, and students

The back of the cereal box of our times?
The back of the cereal box of our times?

This morning I promised myself not to touch either hand-held device, my cell phone or i-Pad, for at least five hours today. So far, so good. Lately I’ve acquired the odd habit of setting up arbitrary goals for myself, little mind games where only I know the rules. For example, in June, I told myself ‘no beer for a year.’ I really like beer, and though not trying to punish myself, just wanted to see if I could do it. Last night it got a little tricky because all I wanted to do was go out for a beer and nachos with my hubby, and instead we went through Dairy Queen drive-through and I traded a beer for a Peanut Buster Parfait. I have about one to two of those a year, so I guess I met my quota. Dang, it’s only July, too.

The other goal I set for myself was to try to do Camp NaNoWrMo. It’s July 7, and that means 6 days of only blog writing, which “doesn’t count.” All that’s happened is I am acutely aware that I haven’t written any drafts of fictional substance for months, and I’m overthinking everything. Too distracted, too grumpy, too much caffeine and not enough water. Focus, woman! Focus!

via GIPHY

This post is born of the fantastic Facebook pages/groups I’m honored to be in, specifically Notice & Note. Subscribers/members tend to post two types of questions: ‘What are some good text suggestions for X age group/Y skill or literary device,’ and ‘Does anyone have any suggestions on how to track student growth?’ I’ve already explored my plans for The Book Whisperer’s ideas, and am very excited about the how/why.

Now for the ‘what.’

I can’t read anymore. If a real, paper and bone book is in my hands, I have misplaced my reading glasses, or the light’s too far away, or I can’t get comfortable. If the text is on my Kindle, no problem, except something is kind of broken right now in my reader brain. Perhaps the paradox of choice is hitting me. I have too many unread books. Or perhaps it’s related to the ideas in this article, Why Can’t We Read Anymore by Hugh McGuire . And now I realize when I was gaming too much or flitting between devices, my brain seduced my actions with dopamine:

So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine. And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine. Further, these patterns of behaviour start creating neural pathways, so that they become unconscious habits: Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh,dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work. Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains.

How can books compete?

Well, this blunt and honest conversation will take place at the beginning of my school year with students, that is what digitalization has done to their brains. All of our brains. Last year, my students who were readers were the ones who tended not to have a lot of television or screen time (remember those hippie parents, back in the day? Who didn’t have TVs? I gasped in bewildered horror anytime I came across a situation like that.)

Is the same thing happening to (other) teachers? Are teachers just not reading as much as they used to, grabbing a few YA novels or short stories, and curating them for themselves? Or it is just a means to share tried and true texts with one another? Probably the latter. But there may be some instances where it’s the former, or perhaps I’m projecting my own failings.

novels

I have my list of books/stories to share. I have an extensive classroom library, both hard copy and digital. There are apps and sites galore to help teachers find texts. There are news outlets, story sites, like This American Life, Storycorp, The Moth, Radiolab, etc. to explore, to name a few. It would take a lifetime to read or listen to all the infinite stories. Sites like Artifact App and CommonLit help educators ask the essential questions to guide reading, too. And there are still libraries, with real librarians, who love nothing more than to talk and share ideas about texts. But that involves getting out of my bathrobe and the house. Hmmm. Tough call. (Oh, like you’ve never hung out in your robe until 1PM on summer break!)

 

Artifact App
Artifact App

 

So what are we teachers looking for when we ask others about text suggestions? We’re looking the same things as when we recommend books to other adults. We want something relevant, that may speak to us, that we can find some universal truth, or help us connect. And this is where the digital dopamine can’t help us: texts, be they on the screen or paper, give us a much more powerful sensation than digital ones. Helping students understand these important brain functions will help them understand when a person hurts them on line, it feels real because our brains don’t know the difference. We want to share stories, and that drive gives me hope, for my students, and for myself.

McGuire writes:

I am reading books now more than I have in years. I have more energy, and more focus than I’ve had for ages. I have not fully conquered my digital dopamine addiction, though, but it’s getting there. I think reading books is helping me retrain my mind for focus.

While on the hunt for great texts, I plan on using my powers of digital organization and keep track, make a list, and add notes. But for the moment, I’m just going to make a sandwich.

 

 

 

 

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Email Extremism

image
Pulled in many directions…

Fascinating report from WBUR that links to two separate articles about emails in the workplace. Inspired by Principal Gerry Brooks, I wrote my own take on the content of emails not too long ago, and this ties in with the productivity, or lack thereof, with emails.

From the outset, I’ll say that though I don’t feel any grand accomplishment in compiling emails by name and then hitting the delete key en masse, I do sometimes need this mindless activity. Every minute of our waking hours shouldn’t be constructed as ‘productive.’ To me that is such a Puritan-Western-worker-bee mindset. However, these studies offer important ideas around the time thievery of email, and caution us all in terms of what is productive and counter-productive. Communication and its value is subjective, however: what we send in those emails is just as important as how much time they take. Would banning emails in a school for a time period help with both teacher and student productivity, and more importantly: would it help with creativity and communication? Is it even feasible to consider this?

From the article, ‘Some Companies Are Banning Email and Getting More Done’ by David Burkus

https://hbr.org/2016/06/some-companies-are-banning-email-and-getting-more-done

They continued the “no-email” condition for five days, continued to observe the participants, track their computer usage, and measure their heart rates. Participants began to communicate face-to-face and over the telephone more frequently. Most participants also spent significantly more time in each computer program that they used, suggesting that they were much less distracted. Judging by heart rates, participants also experienced significantly less stress when blocked from email. The participants even noticed this effect themselves. They consistently reported feeling more relaxed and focused, as well as more productive, with their email shut off than under normal working conditions.

I’ve been using Moodle, and now Canvas, for years. Canvas is superior to Moodle, and it is my wish we continue to use this platform. One of its advantages (and there is another side to this sword) is students can upload just about any assignment during a time frame, allowing teachers to monitor progress in real time. When it’s done, it’s done. It provides a message to them and there are no papers to lose or blame to be thrown. However, the disadvantage is if I close an assignment and give it a hard deadline, inevitably there will be students who can’t or didn’t turn it in, see the grade in the grading system, panic, and then email it to me. So now I have another digital record. I try to be patient about this. If I need to ‘open’ the assignment again, I will, but then I have stragglers who turn things in and have to explain I’ll do another grade sweep when it’s convenient for me. I try my best to keep within a two-week turn around. So, I am managed by the online management systems.

Next year I am considering a ban from students in emails, and banning or limiting myself in how often I check emails. But this cultural professional shift can’t reside from me, it must come from administration. We need our emails to be accessible at all times in a school environment for safety reasons. But there are some personal rules I can create to help my own definition of success or productivity.

Perhaps the right course of action is to consider the article’s advice, ‘Stop Doing Low-Value Work’ by Priscella Claman. 

Some of my personal rules may be:

*The emails I generate are short. If it’s longer than a paragraph, then I will just email the stakeholders when they’re available to talk in person.

*Make sure subject lines are informative and direct

*Check before school, after school, during planning. Period.

The tasks where I want to be more productive include student feedback. If emails and other ‘low-value tasks’ are taking away energy then I’m doing it wrong. Student feedback is key, and that’s the first order of business.

Any thoughts on this process or information? I’d love to hear them!

 

 

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