Thursday, January 4, 2018

Yes, Workshop Really Works in AP English

I’m going to break blogging protocol and begin with the admission that you probably aren’t about to read something you haven’t read before. So why will this post continue on with approximately 1,000 more words? It’s simple: the divide between English teachers who embrace workshop practices and those who don’t continues, and I want to add to the throng of voices who assure even the most adamantly opposed to workshop that it can, and does, work wonders.

First, let me share a brief overview of my teaching experience. I taught pre-AP (Honors) English 4 for one year. That was a dream! With no standardized test to prepare for, I had the freedom to construct a curriculum that focused on creative and real-world writing. We read. We wrote. We reflected. We repeated. We became better readers, writers, and thinkers. Note two things here:
1.     I say “we” because I instinctively felt that I should write along with my students. Teachers of writing should write.
2.     Ultimately, thinking has always been my goal. Not just English. Certainly not how to bubble a Scantron. Thinking.
The next year, I began teaching AP English 4 – literature and composition. The previous teacher of that course remained right across the hall, and she frequently visited my room to check up on my progress. She had traditional beliefs about how an AP class should be taught. “Students have to read Pride and Prejudice and Heart of Darkness,” she insisted, and test prep should be the focus of the course. After all, AP courses are all about passing the exam, right? (Yes, and thinking, I thought.)

But my pesky instincts and strong will intervened. That year might have been a train wreck, as I tried to follow as much of her advice as I could stomach (though I gave my students a choice about which Jane Austen novel to read), but I also incorporated choice for two of the novels that students read that year. I even tried something wacky – holding a Socratic seminar that explored theme and author’s craft even though we had all read different books – and it worked! I knew my class seemed more legitimately engaged than others I had seen in the past, but I needed help. I needed to know that I wasn’t crazy. I needed the pedagogical research behind what I was trying to do. I needed examples for how this could work – especially in an AP classroom. I needed support.

At that point, my friend and mentor, Amy Rasmussen (see her amazing blog here) invited me to participate in the North Star of Texas WritingProject summer institute. Hallelujah! The month of reading, writing, workshop, and inquiry provided the tools I needed to implement workshop. Yes, even in an AP classroom. And here is where I cannot take credit for what I will share. So many trailblazers have come before me. Many quality books on workshop await those who are curious, and Amy’s blog listed above is a valuable resource as well. However, AP teachers seem especially resistant to the ideas of choice and workshop. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter after incorporating choice for the past 6 years in the AP classroom:

·      Rigor in an AP classroom has nothing to do with what students read. Rigor, in an AP classroom, has nothing to do with what students read.
o   Let me break that down further by focusing on the word “read.” Teachers who think that their students are actually reading those canonical works just because they’re assigned are woefully ignorant. Seriously – Google the statistics if your students haven’t been honest with you about it. Dedicated students will typically Sparknote or Schmoop it. Less dedicated students will rely on classroom discussion or other means to fake it, and multiple-choice tests make that easier to get away with. Sometimes, I hear teachers explaining the entire text right before a test! I have to wonder what rigorous work the students are doing in this scenario.
o   What makes any learning activity rigorous depends on how much we’re taxing our brains to make meaning and synthesize new ideas. If we create assignments that ask students to show their thinking about a text, rather than giving a test on, say, Beowulf, we put the responsibility on students to show us their learning in creative ways. Differentiation is automatically built-in with quality assignments, and “faking it” becomes almost impossible – especially when accompanied by…
·      Reading and writing conferences – these are key to determining what your students are reading, what they should be reading, how they are progressing, where their individual obstacles exist so they can develop a plan to overcome them, and helping them grow as writers. Teachers should be asking questions most of the time – not merely providing answers.
·      Providing students with choice doesn’t mean that students will all choose YA books that don’t provide an adequate challenge, and the individual discussions help with this. My course is divided into thematic units, and my syllabus lists several choices between award-winning novels “of literary merit” in each unit that range in genre, cultural heritage, and date of publication, so students are choosing, but between good stuff. If a student wants to read something not on the list, they simply talk to me about it. They often surprise me.
o   Two of my students chose to take on Charles Dickens in December, and another asked if she could read Franz Kafka’s The Trial! That’s not in my syllabus. I don’t have a multiple-choice test ready for it to “assess” her learning. Instead, she completed a creative project over her novel, novel notes to help her review the book before the AP exam, she wrote about it, and more importantly – we talked about it. I know she read it, and I know what she thought about while she read it. Magical.
o   When students have some choice about what they read, the percentage of students who actually read drastically increases, as does their understanding of the text. This actually improves their chances of successfully writing about the book on the AP exam!
·      Finally, how does this prepare students for the AP exam? For college? That takes me back to my initial focus on thinking. If we provide students with choice, ask them to take personal responsibility for their learning, and coach them through the reading, writing, and thinking processes – which are all intertwined – they will be prepared for an exam designed to assess their reading, writing, and analytical skills.

I don’t know if I can satisfactorily answer the question further because I don’t really understand it. How could workshop fail to prepare students for an exam? Students read more. They write more. They think more rigorously. 

Workshop seems like a no-brainer for those who implement it, so why the divide? In my experience working with resistant teachers, these are the common categories of concern:
1.     Insecurity – it takes a lot of courage to write and think in front of students. We must show our vulnerabilities. We must admit that we are not perfect. We don’t write perfectly the first time we attempt it. Maybe we fumble over the right word, or we misspell something in front of the class. Good! What a real, valuable learning opportunity for students to see that all humans must work and think through writing! But we must have courage and the confidence to know that we have so much to offer our students.
2.     Perceived loss of control – I say “perceived” because traditional teachers often feel that they have control while they lecture, prescribe multiple-choice tests, and dictate reading choices. Students actually gain quite a bit of control in these classes. They control whether or not they tune out that lecture, whether or not they actually learn anything along the way, and whether or not they actually read the assigned text. Again, it’s really hard to fake these things in a workshop classroom. My classroom often looks chaotic, but I walk around, listening to what my students think, and instantly adapt my instruction to address the areas that they need addressed.
3.     Fear – administrators look at our test scores. They shouldn’t, really, but that’s another blog post. Many teachers fear that anything but a traditional test-prep approach won’t adequately prepare students for the test. Students should be acquainted with the test format and have strategies going in, but ultimately, the skills being tested are developed through workshop. Again, reading comprehension, the ability to analyze a writer’s craft, and the ability to write one’s own analysis develop as students authentically take part in these activities. So far, my students have outscored their peers in test-prep-focused courses.
4.     More work for the teacher – yes and no. It’s just…different. It’s easier to pull out that copy of a copy of a copy of an old multiple-choice test and grade a Scantron than it is to grade authentic writing, discussions, or projects that show students’ learning. It’s easier to give the same lecture for the gazillionth time than it is to listen, adapt, and address student inquiry on the spot. However, it’s also easier in a way to place some of the burden for a student’s education on that student. When students are responsible for showing their learning, explaining their writing process, and coming up with their own questions, they direct and take ownership in their own learning. This is what it means to be a teacher and not just a lecturer.

For teachers still on the fence about taking the workshop plunge, I recommend observing a teacher who implements the practice, attending a National Writing Project workshop, and reading blogs and books on the topic. The information and support is out there, and students everywhere deserve the rigor that only workshop provides.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Tikkun Olum: Repair the World

As a newcomer to the 2017 NWP and NCTE conferences, I walked around in a perpetual state of astonishment and sensory overload. The one refrain that reverberated through my mind, other than “free books,” was the concept of Tikkun Olum, roughly translated as “repair the world.” First conveyed during the NWP plenary and repeated by several presenters throughout the NCTE conference, I had heard this phrase previously through my Holocaust studies coursework at UT Dallas and through training with the Holocaust Educator Network. The phrase represents a belief which I hold dear, but hearing it again from a variety of presenters at the conferences underscored just how important it is for each of us to repair the parts of the world in which we live.
Teachers have the unique opportunity to encourage young people to do the same, as most of us see over one hundred children daily throughout the school-year and spend more time with them, on average, than the other adults in their lives do. What if we could bolster students’ empathy through reading and discussion and then – more importantly – empower them to go forth and “repair the world”? As teachers of English and language arts, we understand the importance between the texts we read and their real-world implications. We understand patterns in society and how literature warns us not to repeat mistakes of the past in a much more human way than history does. We understand the power of language to change the world.
How do we get our kids to see these things? We must take the time to have our students make connections between the texts they read and themselves, their friends, family, community, country, world, and humanity as a whole. We must provide context for what they read and connect fiction with non-fiction – in both fiction and non-fiction based courses. Bring news articles into AP Literature and bring some poetry into a class built around non-fiction, for example. We must empower our students to see themselves as readers, writers, thinkers, and feelers by not simply providing them with opportunities to write authentic pieces for real audiences, but expecting them to do so. We must encourage risk-taking as they find their voices and resist the urge to beat them down with formulaic writing and artificial writing scenarios. Why not have high school English students practice writing letters to senators, or have students submit their poetry to national publications? Students could create public service announcement films and publish them on YouTube. The possibilities are endless, but imagine the engagement and ownership students will experience with these examples versus writing to another STAAR prompt. We can still help them hone their craft along the way, but students would learn that there is power in their writing.
While empowering students to make change with the written word, we must also help them develop as oral communicators. This nation is in crisis. The adults no longer know how to engage in civil discourse. So what hope do our kids have, who spend most of their time avoiding “awkward” social interactions while they stare instead at phone screens? We must make conversation a centerpiece of our classrooms. Learning to engage each other respectfully – especially when we disagree – is perhaps the most powerful way that we can prepare our students to repair the world.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Save Me a Seat - Writing about Pet Peeves

Writing can be extremely cathartic. How cool would it be if we captured an experience (positive or negative) each day through poetry? I had fun venting about one of my pet peeves in this poem I jotted in my journal in-between awkward encounters during which I had to tell people who wanted to sit by me that the empty seat was being saved. I grew increasingly tired of feeling awkward as I watched their expressions change to disappointment as they walked away.

All of us do this from time to time. I have asked it of friends twice in the past week, but beware of expecting your friends to do this regularly. Who knows? You could end up the subject of such a poem:

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Man Called Ove: A Review with Minor Spoilers

A Man Called Ove reminds me of the protagonist in Disney Pixar’s Up, if only that cantankerous old man had been trying to kill himself throughout the story. Ove, pronounced ooh-vuh, cannot let injustices – like choosing a BMW over a Saab – go unchallenged. He lashes out at those who lack what, in his mind, amounts to common sense and decency. 

Much to Ove’s dismay, every time he methodically plans to do himself in, he is interrupted by oblivious neighbors. As we journey with Ove through his life via a sequence of flashbacks, we are reminded that no one becomes so sullen without facing adversity and experiencing loss.

Through Ove’s recollections of his wife, we learn that Ove’s capacity for love is boundless. Descriptions of how she curled her fingers into his palm made me wonder what little habits I have that my husband notices, and I became more mindful of the special mannerisms he has.

I would only recommend this book to mature readers. Though the novel contains no licentious material, it requires a level of emotional maturity and some real life experience to fully understand Ove and the people around him. Because I felt so frustrated with Ove, I didn’t decide that I liked the book until more than halfway through. Ultimately, Ove reminded me that everyone plays important roles in the lives of others – the question is whether or not we will have a positive or a negative impact in the lives we touch.

To read the New York Times review of this book that offers some backstory on the author, click here
Image result for a man called ove cover

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Teaching in the Year of Trump

Last year, I blogged about the importance of teaching students “how to think – not what to think” in a post titled “Teaching in a Heated Political Climate.” I still firmly believe that students should be taught to analyze rhetoric, obtain news from multiple and varied sources, and most importantly to know why they think what they think. I want them to understand media and political biases and also to understand their own. I want them to realize when they are being manipulated. Knowledge and literacy = power.
I still perceive my role as one of facilitator, as mediator, and quite often as devil’s advocate as a means for evoking thoughtful dialogue, debate, and mutual understanding. In my previous post, I posed these questions:

  • How can I satisfy any of those roles if I am working toward a specific political agenda? 
  • How many parents want their kids’ teachers telling them which candidate they should vote for?
And then the election rhetoric went wild. This isn’t the first election through which I have taught high school seniors at or approaching voting age. I truly believed that I held the secrets for facilitating discussions that fostered a level of mutual respect and the ability to listen to different views that most adults would envy. But as many voters noted, this election was especially divisive. I imagine it was especially difficult for certain teachers to remain impartial when the subject came up as a matter of course, such as in government, economic, and history classes. As a matter of fact, several students confided in me that some adults had told them outright who to vote for. The students were not amused.
However, this year seemed especially difficult to navigate as a teacher of rhetoric. In an AP Language course that necessitates the study of rhetoric, speeches, and the historical and cultural context and impact of language, it became immensely difficult to examine the speeches of now-President Donald Trump without pointing out logical fallacies, simple diction containing vocabulary like “very, very bad,” “amazing,” and “big loser” that is on an elementary level, and the overall negative tone of most addresses.
Let me share my first disclaimer here: these are not political views, nor are they arguable. This merely reflects the patterns of Trump’s speech – something that we train students to examine. I refuse to assign value to his ideas at all. Call me Ms. Switzerland.
My plan going in was to present all current, relevant articles in a balanced way. For instance, for every negative piece on a candidate, I would share a positive one or one from a contrasting point of view. I pulled pieces for both major candidates equally. However, the stark contrast between the writing register (how fancy they write, for non-English majors), tone, and level of logical fallacies or contradictions provided an unbalanced view on its own, without me pointing those things out. Students began asking questions about why Trump doesn’t use more specific words to communicate, asking questions about hate-speech, and noting contradictions. Addressing those questions without bias is nearly impossible. You simply cannot argue that our President employs a dynamic vocabulary, even if he’s your best friend.
I responded by asking my students questions (instead of supplying my own answers) about what audience that speech style would appeal to, and I pulled an article about how many Americans thought that Al Gore sounded “boring” and “too intellectual.” Then one girl asked: “But don’t we want our president to be an intellectual?” It seemed that no matter how carefully I worked to navigate through this year’s election cycle, the fact that I had encouraged my students to question everything came back to bite me.
In the end, I began to pull current articles that had nothing to do with the election, and we studied speeches of the past. To quote our president, this was “sad.” I have never had students so interested in an election and so willing to learn about what the candidates stood for. If we shy away from deep exploration in school, where will they experience a more respectfully facilitated deep discussion of timely, relevant issues? Students just don’t care as much when the speechwriter has been dead for a hundred years or more, even if they write as beautifully as Frederick Douglas.
Again, unintentional bias seems unavoidable in a class that discusses the beauty and craftsmanship of Douglas’ words, and then the students themselves note the stark contrast between his eloquence and the lack thereof of some of our current leaders – on both sides of the aisle. My response to this? An article on anti-intellectualism in America.

  • To read an article on the calculated grade-level of our politicians’ speeches and why they’re changing, click here.
  • To read my original post “Teaching in a Heated Political Climate,” click here.