Tuesday, September 29, 2009
In 1989, I did all my writing with a favorite pen, on a favorite legal pad of paper, while draped over a favorite chair. I knew with absolute certainty I could never write on a computer. I loved the feel the pen biting into the paper; I loved creating the shapes and textures of words.
Of course, I loathed the revision process: trying to read my little "notes to self" crammed in the margins . . . figuring out where to add all the starred sentences . . . knowing that the typing, cutting, and pasting process was yet to come.
My students can't believe that I actually used to type my papers (on a typewriter!); cut apart the sentences; lay them out on the floor; rearrange, add, and omit as needed; and then paste them back together during my final revision process. (They think that "cut" and "paste" have always been computer commands!)
Two decades later, I can't imagine composing anything by hand. I write with my favorite MacBook Pro while lounging comfortably on my favorite couch. I still dislike the revision process, but it's not nearly as cumbersome. No more transcribing messy handwriting. No more scissors and glue. Still plenty of rearranging, adding, and omitting.
I feel like I've experienced -- and continue to experience -- the best of both worlds. I've been "old school" so I truly appreciate the benefits of being "new school."
I can't say the same about my students. They have access to tools that should make them the best writers -- by which I mean drafters, revisionists, and editors -- the world has ever seen. But they continue to hastily write and publish first drafts as if they're "good enough." When I describe the time and thought I put into writing and revising essays when I was in high school, my students don't just look at me like I'm an alien, they tell me I was downright retarded to have wasted so much perfectly good time. While technically they're "new school," I feel like something's gotten lost along the way -- something I can't quite put my finger on, but it's something important, vitally important. (Work ethic? Patience? Thinking skills? Attention span? I'm open to suggestions!?!)
I'm excited about buying a Kindle some time this year. I grew up sleeping with dozens of books hidden under my covers. I spent thousands of hours cradling hardbound books, drinking in the scent of freshly-printed pages along with the stories they contained. As I read with my Kindle, four decades of real-life-book experiences will be evoked.
I can't say the same about my students. And while I, too, will be thrilled that they're reading -- reading anything -- I can't help but feel like something will be missing as they scroll thru the eBook. Something I can't quite put my finger on, but something important, at least to a bibliophile like me.
How about you? What do you think is missing? What are your thoughts and experiences with "Old School" and "New School" ways of reading, writing, and learning?
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
My English IV classes are starting Hamlet soon, and I wanted to use an "Article of the Week" approach to get them into some of the issues we'll be grappling with.
I assigned a close reading of Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009: The Brother Who Mattered Most and asked them to come to class with three open-ended questions for Socratic Circles. They specifically voted that they wanted to (a) go more deeply into issues and ideas than in past dialogues and (b) to engage in thoughtful disagreement.
I'm now mulling over three observations:
1) When given the article and ample time to read & annotate, most students went ashen. I thought I'd done sufficient teaching and modeling, but clearly not! They'd beckon me over and whisper, "Is this what you want me to do?" pointing to some highlighting or arrow or question mark.
It struck me that these kids are so used to "thinking" only about one question: "What's she likely to put on a quiz over this article?" that when I ask them to simply read and record their thinking, they don't know where to start. I'm afraid some of them don't even know where or how to start thinking, let alone recording their thinking!
2) During the Socratic dialogue (I experimented with one large circle with 25 minutes of dialogue rather than two circles of 10 minutes) I noticed a tendency for the kids to start to dive deeply into an issue and then suddenly make a joke out of it and pop back up to surface topics.
They were discussing the difference between necessity and luxury, asking each other what they would or wouldn't be willing to sacrifice if they had to choose between having a job that made them money or a job that made them happy (questions which stemmed from universal health care which stemmed from Ted Kennedy's championing of health-related causes.) One student brought up the news story from a year or two ago about a man who killed himself and his family because he'd lost his job and could no longer support them at the level of "comfort" they'd come to expect. I expected them to really wrestle with this practical example, but one kid made a snide remark about how he should have just killed the wife and kids, someone else made a comment about marriage and parenthood being burdens, and "poof"! -- the moment was gone.
I realize that I do this all the time, myself -- I use "humor" (usually sarcastic!) to get myself out of uncomfortable or serious situations. And as I reflect on yesterday's dialogues as well as others, I believe this is a trend, especially for one class -- it's made up of bright bored boys. I'd like for them to discover this habit for themselves, rather than have me point it out to them . . . maybe via video?
3) I thoroughly enjoyed listening in on their dialogues. They brought up significant concepts that we'll be developing over the upcoming weeks:
* Parental “meddling” in a child’s life
* Parent getting what (s)he wants/needs at the expense of the child
* Reluctance to lead/take action
* Personal tragedy/loss: Enabling & empowering? or Paralyzing & immobilizing?
* Pain / Suffering creating a “cause” -- a life focus
* Focusing one’s life on “carrying the torch” for one who died
* Ideal qualities in a leader / Standards we set for a leader
* Weakness / Failure / Corruption in a leader -- Humanity? vs. Criminality?
* Impact on the women and children in the lives of public male leaders
* Motivations for leadership
* What’s the cost? Is it worth it?
* What will we forgive / not forgive in a leader? Personal failures? vs. Political failures?
* If _____ had / hadn’t happened, how would things be different?
* The impact of one bad choice
* Truth vs. Lies
* Privacy vs. Publicity / Secrecy vs. Discovery
* Living an inauthentic identity
* What are you willing to give up / sacrifice in order to achieve your goal?
* Power / Quest for power / What is “real power”?
Aside from being elated that for 25 minutes, everyone was not only awake but engaged, I'm thrilled with how much they pulled from the article.
But many of my students felt like the group "got off topic" or "talked about nothing." So either (a) I'm too easily impressed or (b) I'm seeing things that they don't see but I think should be obvious to them.
I look at this list and see not just great ideas and questions that we'll wrestle with via literature this year, but that they'll wrestle with their whole lives.
But I feel like they're still at a "so what" stage, secretly (and some not-so-secretly!) believing they got away with wasting yesterday's class period. How do I move them to a place where they see the connections and take action on them?
How about you? What are your thoughts on student thinking? How do you teach/guide/model "a close reading of the text"? How do you encourage questioning, especially high-level thinking? How do you help students "connect" without connecting the dots for them?
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Last summer, I read Socratic Circles by Matt Copeland. The idea of focused dialogue between students naturally appeals to me -- I love just "being there" when kids put their learning into words!
After a painfully difficult last school year, I was determined to try something new early in the first quarter of this new year.
I waffled like crazy for a few days -- kept moving it to "tomorrow" -- and almost backed out when the final "tomorrow" came! What if the kids wouldn't talk? What if having the inner circle sit on the floor and the outer circle sit in desks around them didn't work? What if they went for cut-throat debate instead of dialogue?
"At first i had no idea how this circle was going to work, because all i saw was desks around blankets on the floor. But once it started going it was quite interesting to see what people had to say." --AG
AG has no clue how uncertain I was. I, too, "had no idea how this circle was going to work!" But it did, as evidenced by the reflective blogging they did afterward:
"During discussion, so many ideas were brought up that i [hadn't thought of] before." --JP
". . . someone asked if you saw someone being picked on, would you step in and defend that person, or would you be to cool or to worried about what others would think about you to help? . . . I started thinking deeper about it, and it occurred to me that the answers that the group was giving were standard answers. "Yes, I help," "Without a doubt." But how many of us would TRULY have the ability to step into a situation like that and do something about it. It really makes you stop and think about how easy it is to say one thing and do something completely different." --JC
Students were thinking about things they hadn't thought of before . . . thinking more deeply . . . stopping and thinking . . .
I think it worked!
One vital thing I learned from just trying something new -- in this case, Socratic Circles, is that although the first time may be far from perfect, it's opened us all up to whole new possibilities for learning. As I'm reading my students' reflective journals about the Socratic Circle experience, I'm pulling -- literally cutting and pasting their very words into a PowerPoint presentation! -- great comments about what worked, what didn't work, what they can do differently next time. They won't need me to tell them what to; they've already spelled it out themselves.
I won't be telling -- I'll be modeling, monitoring, and setting up more authentic opportunities for practice and reflection. Which means I'd better quit blogging; I need to find a current news article that deals with issues of truth/lies and honor/dishonor. We're starting Hamlet later this week, and I'm thinking that dialoguing about these core issues will be a great place to start!
How about you? What's something new you've tried or will be trying? What's your rationale? What are your expectations and hopes? How are you feeling about trying something new?