Friday, July 22, 2016

Teaching Theme? The last lesson you'll need

Every English teacher has said it, "So, what do we think the theme might be in this piece?" This question is almost always followed by ten excruciatingly frustrating minutes of students trying to guess what the teacher is thinking, while the teacher does his or her best to project the "right" answer directly into to student brains through advanced forms of mental telepathy developed through years of trail and error, mostly error. It never works and it is a waste of valuable class time.

The problem is, you can't teach theme one text at a time, so each time you teach a text you have to reteach what theme is because students have forgotten about theme since the last time you played this guessing game. It takes many repeated exposures to the concept of theme for students to understand the idea and get beyond guessing at single words and cliches.

To give my students the repeated and memorable exposure to the concept of theme that they needed, I tried looking at the process another way. Instead of giving students a text and asking for the theme, I gave them themes and asked them to list books and movies that fit the theme. I called this "Your Last Lesson on Theme" and told my students they would understand it so well after this that I would never give them another lesson on theme ever again. It was a lot of fun and it worked.

My students sit in groups of six anyway, so for this activity I grouped them heterogeneously. (Get the Group Creator Spreadsheet if you don't have it yet.) I used the slides below. You can get your own copy of them in your Google Drive by clicking HERE.

As I displayed each theme groups wrote down as many titles as they could that fit the theme. Then I asked each group for a title. They had to rotate their presenter on each round and tell me why the title they named fit that theme. They could not use a title mentioned by another group in that round. They could reuse a title for another theme later in the game though. I started with a different group each time, so that no one group was always first or last.

Students noticed that the same theme often easily fit multiple stories that they knew. They also noticed that a single book or movie often fit with multiple themes. They came to understand that a theme is not one word. It's not a cliche. It's not a moral. It is a universal truth or statement about the world. They didn't forget that. And the next time I asked my students to suggest a theme for a text they had ideas. They wanted to talk about them. They knew there could be more than one possible theme and multiple interpretations. Instead of fishing for one quick "right" answer or trying to read my mind they were thinking for themselves.



Slide 16 is meant to be funny and clearly references one particular movie franchise. For even more fun, it is possible to go back and show students that every theme in this slide deck also refers to the same trilogy.

The following day my students completed a graphic organizer about the theme of the book they were reading with their book group. You can get your own copy of the organizer my students used for their work by clicking HERE.

If you use these I'd love to know how they work for you and your students. Leave me a comment or send me a tweet. (@JenRoberts1)

Sunday, June 5, 2016

"How do you help students develop critical thinking skills?"


I've been contributing responses to a San Diego Union Tribune project called Education Matters. One of the recent questions was "How do you help students develop critical thinking skills?" I didn't want to write a textbook answer. I wanted to tell a story about working with students. I wanted to show how challenging, messy and time consuming that process can be. This was my answer.

“Ahh, Ms. Roberts. This is making my brain hurt.” Music to my ears. My 9th grade students are working through a very short, three paragraph article about the increase in cheating in American high schools. All they have to do is figure out what the author is saying and doing in each paragraph. The saying part should be fairly simple for them; it’s just a short summary of what the paragraph says, but it’s harder than it should be because the group I’m working with insists on guessing.

“The author is saying that kids at private schools steal from stores.” (This is not accurate.)

“What words make you think it says that?” I ask. I know why the student guessed this. Private schools and shoplifting were both mentioned in the paragraph, but my student isn't grasping how the two relate. The group needs a way to get the who and what of the paragraph into a single sentence. I’ll start with the who.

“Who is this paragraph about?” One student suggests private school students, another says public school students, another says boys and girls. “How can we bring all that together?”

“Oh, this paragraph is about lots of kinds of students!” Ed is really proud he figured this out. I’m checking the clock to see if we really have enough time to finish working with this paragraph.

“Okay, so what are all these students doing?” Again the answers fly at me one word at a time, stealing, lying, cheating, being honor students. This last one is out of context. The paragraph mentions honor students as a sub-group and she is guessing again. I try to slow them down. “Can someone give me a sentence that sums up what these students are doing?”

“Students are stealing, lying, and cheating.”

“Can we group stealing, lying, and cheating into a larger category? Those are all forms of…?” I’m fishing and I know it. I want them to tell me these are all forms of dishonest behavior. I want them to do a bit more synthesis.

The girl who mentioned the honor students gets it first, “Lots of kinds of students are doing bad stuff.”

She’s got the synthesis, now we are going to take on some academic vocabulary. In the growth mindset learning community we have built for ourselves, the term for making something sound more academic is “big smart.”

“Yes, Janie, you go it, ‘lots of kinds of students are doing bad stuff’ now how do we make that sound more big smart?” She’s not offended. She knows she started with some simple vocabulary and we are going to make it better.

Ed wants this one. It takes him a few tries, but eventually he gets, “Various types of students are all behaving dishonestly.”

I’m worried that the easy part of this was not that easy. Now they need to understand what the author is doing in the paragraph. This is harder because it is action divorced from specific content and students need to use some rhetorical verbs like claims, explains, specifies, promotes or a whole host of other possibilities. And they can’t fake this. If they tell me the author is comparing when he is really predicting I will know they are confused. Also, their knowledge of rhetorical vocabulary is still limited. We need to find a word they know that also fits with what the author is doing.

Meg picks a word off the chart on the wall and tries it on, “He is proposing that students are lying and cheating?” She even says it with a question in her voice. She knows that proposing is not the verb she needs here. The trial and error method works for them this time as they work through some possible verbs looking for the best one.

“He is stating dishonest things kids do.” This is better, but Ed comes in again with a vocabulary tweak. “The author is stating that students do a variety of dishonest things and he is showing that this happens both public and private schools.” His peers literally applaud.

The team adds it to their graphic organizers. The bell is about to ring and I just spent ten minutes with one team, working through one paragraph of a short article. And I’m not confident that they can do this independently next time. We have more work to do.

Looking behind a text to its functionality is just one strategy for helping to develop my students critical literacy and critical thinking skills. It has to start with comprehension, tricky in a time when my students would rather skim for key words and then play multiple guess, as though I have a scantron printed on my forehead. When I get it right, the outcome is students who can read, comprehend, and investigate an author’s purpose. Then we can take that further into a discussion of the issues and articles we have read. I know it’s working when my students complain that they are now analyzing and questioning everything they read. More music to my ears.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Amazon Education Building Open Educational Resources Platform

I'm really excited about the work the talented folks at Amazon Education are doing to launch a new open educational resource platform. I've been participating in their private beta since late March and I am really impressed by the scale and functionality of what they are building for teachers.

Imagine an online space where you can search for the resources you need by standard, key word, or grade level and find free materials shared by other educators. Of course with the engineering resources of Amazon behind it the user interface is beautiful and functional.

I've already tried uploading a variety of resource types and found that it was very quick to upload, describe, and publish my content. The site supports a variety of file types and also allows me to add resources directly from my Google Drive. I particularly love that I can link to online resources like a website, tool, or blog post that helps me in my teaching as well.

The private beta group is fairly small, but soon Amazon Education will launch a more public beta. There is a waiting list to join the site and you can sign up here.

I believe that the future of education is going to rely heavily on digital resources shared freely among educators on a global scale. Amazon Education is building a site we desperately need to make that vision a reality.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Education Matters: A year-long conversation about education with the leading teachers in San Diego

Today the San Diego Union Tribune launches a new section called Education Matters. Over forty top educators from all over San Diego county have been invited to contribute answers to pressing questions in education. The conversation starts today.
Visit Education Matters to learn more.

The first topic is: The top three things that would help teachers most
This was my answer.

I believe the most common answer we will get for this question about the top three things teachers need, is time. I need more time to plan, more time to assess student work, more time with my students who are struggling with skills and content material, more time to collaborate with my colleagues, more time to attend school events, more time to reflect, and more time to take care of myself after doing all of the above.
Time, though is the one thing we can’t make more of. I’m a high school English teacher. I see over a hundred students a day. I assess 800-1000 examples of student work each year, and much of that is student writing pieces. I plan and implement 180 distinct days of instruction. I meet with my team of colleagues over seventy times during the year to look at student work, collaborate on our unit goals and materials, create assessments, and discuss what our students need most. I won’t even list all of the parent meetings, staff meetings, district meetings, surveys, phone calls, emails, and other paperwork that add up so quickly.
The solution to my workload though, isn’t more time, it’s better data. I need to know which of my students have learned a given skill and which need more support. I need to know which of my instructional strategies is most effective and which is not worth the time it takes to plan and implement. I need to know if students are acting on my feedback or not. I need to know who needs intervention most. I need to know how my students feel about their learning process and when they need a break. And I need all of this information sorted and packaged in a way that makes it easy for me to take action.
I won’t be greedy. I don’t need three things. I’ll take one very smart virtual assistant that can digest my students’ data, tell me what is and isn’t working in our classroom, point out which of my 100+ students need me the most, and give me time for creative lesson design, collaboration with my colleagues, small group instruction, and personal connections.
Knowing about our students strengths and needs is the art of teaching. But to make more time for the things that only a teacher can do best, we should leverage the talents of our digital tools. Some people will be appalled if I suggest that a machine can take over any of the work that thoughtful teachers do. But managing data is what computers do best, better than humans most of the time. If I had a really well designed classroom assessment system that also helped me evaluate the data, and made actionable suggestions, then I could be a better teacher. This is not the computer beating the chess champion. This is the computer playing alongside the chess champion and making suggestions. In the case of chess, a computer assist can make average players into amazing players. What could that do for teaching and learning?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Comparative Analysis: Including Art in the Learning Process

I've spent the past few weeks in my classroom teaching my students about comparative analysis. When I first asked them what compare meant, they wanted to give me pretty simplistic answers. "Compare means look at the pros and cons." "When you compare things you say how they are the same and different." This was a good starting place. They know what compare means, but their answers told me they had never done any serious comparative work. So, I introduced the topic of colleges. 

"When you start looking at colleges and deciding which ones to apply to what kinds of things will you look at? What will matter to you about the schools you consider?"

It only took a few minutes to generate a list that included: location, entrance requirements, cost, size, athletics, available majors, reputation, campus facilities, food, etc. My students agreed that selecting a college is a complicated process that will involve multiple factors, some of which will become more important than others. I used this to show them that comparative analysis is more than just pros and cons and more than just similar and different. Comparative analysis is about looking at a range of criteria to make an evaluation or draw a conclusion. 

I knew at the end of this unit of study we would be doing an in depth comparative analysis of a Poe story and a film noir movie from the 1950s. To warm them up for that we began with an easier short story and I was about to work them into some comparative analysis there when a much better opportunity presented itself. (I did a bit of comparative analysis myself and decided to change lanes.)

The art teacher invited me to bring my classes down to the school gallery to see the work of some of his advanced art students. This was meant mostly as a casual invitation to come view the art, but when I went to set up our visit, he began telling me about the process his students use for critical feedback. I realized that with a few adjustments that same process could become an exercise in comparative analysis for my students and reinforce some of the literary elements we were working on. 
See link below to download a copy.

I designed a quick graphic organizer and got ready to take my students to the gallery. I was amazed at how well my students dove into this process. They used their gallery time to silently observe two pieces of art that they chose. They (mostly) took careful notes about what they saw in the artwork. They even asked if they could take some pics of the art to refer to later. This became a great teachable moment for saying, "Yes, you can take a pic for your personal reference, but you can't post it anywhere online because that art belongs to the artist." Lessons in copyright and digital citizenship became authentic and meaningful. 

From their organizers and (an outline I suggested) my students wrote essays comparing the artwork they chose. Specifically, they looked at and wrote about, a description, symbolism, mood, possible messages in the art (aka theme), and their judgement about which piece did a better job communicating that message. Their essays were fun to read because each student chose different works to compare and interpreted them differently. I made a copy of the essays and gave them to the art teacher so he could share the writing with the student artists. (They are finding my students interpretations fascinating.)

I got a very good sense about what my students do and do not know about comparative writing and I'll apply that insight to our tasks and groupings for the rest of this unit. 

If you'd like a copy of the graphic organizer you can download one HERE. If you usually read this blog for technology enriched teaching it is worth noting that this was a very low tech experience. My students took notes on paper and some even wrote their essays by hand. If you don't have your own student art gallery handy you can use the back up option I gave to my absent students through the Google Cultural Institute, but that will require internet access. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Using Google Voice With Student Writing Projects

My computer is chiming again as I write this. I have an incoming call on my Google Voice number, but I'm not answering it. I want it to go straight to voice mail. My students are calling in their memoirs.
Yep, that's my GV number. Call me if you want to.
I probably won't call you back. I do answer
questions on twitter though. @JenRoberts1

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know I'm not the most traditional of English teachers. I try things, and I look for ways tech can help me solve issues in our classroom, even low tech ways. My latest low tech tool, phones. Okay, sometimes smart phones, but any phone will work, even (gasp) a land line. I have my students call me and read their writing to my voicemail.

How does this work?
I have a Google Voice number. This is a free phone number you can get from Google if you already have a Gmail or Google Account. Calls to my Google Voice number ring on my computer (if it is on, and not muted) and on my cell phone, if I want them too.

So, on the day a writing assignment is due (in Google Docs of course) I require my students to call by 9:00 PM that night and leave a message of them reading that same assignment. (I make the cut off 9:00 PM because I don't want them to stay up late polishing their writing. If you can't call by 9:00 then you might as well try again tomorrow.)

I will grade the call and the writing separately. I give them full credit for calling on the due date and a few points lower each day after, until we reach a 70% threshold. I'll always give them the 70% even if they finally make the call weeks later.

When I listen to the calls, I add a note to each message with the student's name and period. This means that later I can search their name on my Google Voice page and find that message again. I continue listening while I record their points in my gradebook. Then I usually move on to the next message. I have over 100 students. Google Voice will let each caller leave up to a three minute message. At three full minutes each, that would be five hours of listening. I sadly don't have that much time, so I listen to most for just long enough to add the name to the note and record the grade.

But this is not about me or my listening. It's about my students getting a chance to read their work and all the benefits they get from that experience. Though most already read a draft of their writing to their writing group, they now get to read the final draft one more time. This is one more chance for them to actually proofread their text. I want to know when I read their docs they they really had every possible opportunity to see their own errors before I start commenting on their papers.

Other Benefits
  • For me it is also a chance to hear them reading without having to call on them in class. And there are always a few I end up listening to longer, just to assess their reading or hear more of their voice. 
  • I get to hear them pronounce their own names. At the beginning of the year this is really helpful. 
  • Plus, they are reading their own writing, so they are more comfortable with the text. 
  • It is fluency practice that many really need. 
  • It is a chance to learn how to dial a phone number, which a surprising number of my students struggle with. 
  • It is an opportunity to learn about leaving a clear voice message. 
  • It is also a great incentive for many to finish their assignments on time. They have to finish that essay to be able to read it for full credit on the first day they can call it in. 
When I go to meetings about a student and mention that I have a recording of them reading, their parents, case managers, and speech therapists get pretty excited. With the parent's permission I have even been able to email the voice message directly to the speech therapist.

My real cell phone has a pretty limited pool of minutes, but Google Voice is not connected to my cell plan and does not touch those minutes. (It will use your data if you are not on wifi.) I never answer Google Voice calls on my cell phone anyway. In fact, after I set it up I went in and de-selected my cell phone as a number to ring. If you want to get very fancy you can even arrange different outgoing messages for different groups of callers. (I'm not that fancy.)

Other Ways to Use This
  • Even though phone lines flatten out many nuances of speech, I have heard from World Language teachers who have students call in and read in the target language just for practice. 
  • Elementary teachers can have students call in and read from their writing or a favorite book. 
  • Groups of students working together can call in and report on their progress or have a few minutes of their discussion recorded. 
  • Google Voice is also great for text messaging. I've written about that use before HERE, but my favorite part is that when a student sends me a text I get an email. I can reply to that email and they get a text. 
  • You can embed Google Voicemails, so you can call your own number, record yourself giving some directions and then link your students to that recording. 
Google Voice is probably the most unknown, but tremendously useful of Google Tools.