Sunday, June 26, 2011

Nature Spots

Starting in mid-spring, I asked the students in one of my sophomore classes to choose a spot in nature where they could go to on a fairly regular basis. The first week, the assignment was to take a picture, and ensure that their spot had few if any human structures. The general requirements were that we had to stay at least 10 minutes, and we couldn't use any forms of technology (cell phones or ipods) during that time.

So started a new routine for Monday mornings. This first Monday we shared why we chose our spots, and then made personal goals for how long we wanted to sit there without technology (they ranged from 10 minutes to 3 hours). Then, we taped our pictures along a row on a blank classroom wall. As spring progressed, the columns started to grow.

Our next week? To write while we were at our nature spots (we cut paper into quarter sheets, or they could write on any paper they liked). Ally drew while she was at hers as well, and her lovely sketches were put up with everyone's writing at the beginning of the next week.

Pretty soon April vacation came, and our goal was to visit our nature spots twice, 12 hours apart (preferably on the same day) so we could see how it changed. As creatures of habit, most of us went at the same time and on the same day, so this was an interesting way to mix it up. We saw different animals, heard different sounds, saw a different sky, and sometimes (at least in Sydney's case) got a completely different dose of weather.

Warning: make sure you go at comfortable times, Merry scared herself silly walking down the path at night, and Sydney ran into dubious police at dusk! Though, if I remember correctly, Dom enjoyed exploring the woods in the middle of the night.

Next, six-word memoirs while at our nature spots. These were inspired by a writing lesson on six-word memoirs we had done that week, and I was delighted with what everyone had to share. It was an authentic extension of a writing activity - I wish I could remember Robbie's (Robbie, if you read this, add it as a comment).

And thankfully, by this time, things were starting to grow! What beautiful flowers started appearing on our classroom wall (This classroom doesn't have any windows, so it was doubly nice to have fresh, colorful pictures appearing each week).

Wrapping up each Monday, students suggested what we do for the next week. Sometimes I would ask them to write or to draw, but sometimes their suggestions were much more fun than mine. Note: if you do nature spots in your class, some of us liked having a task each week while others liked the freedom to bring in what they wanted.

A definite favorite was the week we chose 'interaction with animals in nature' - thanks Serena! The rules were that you couldn't touch native animals, and that you couldn't disturb nature in general.

For all the joy in living and springtime, we did have one quite morbid week. When we were merging Macbeth and poetry back in January, I had brought in an anthology of Japanese Death Poems - haikus written by Zen monks and haiku poets on the verge of death. We had written haikus from Lady Macbeth's point of view, and someone suggested we write death poems as if we were dying at our nature spots. Someone else suggested bringing in an object to memorialize their nature spots, and I said that was fine as long as it was not alive or previously alive (unless it was a leaf). The next Monday we dimmed the lights and stood in a circle and read our death poetry...

Honestly, it was one of the best ongoing units I have ever had the pleasure to teach. Not every student had something each week, but they owned up to it, or just shared their story (Tim was scratched by some vicious thorns one week, Kelsey convinced her brothers to hang out with her (or at least sit still while she took a picture) during 'bring a friend to your nature spot' week), and it was simply a nice way to begin second period every Monday.

If I had to justify it in teacher language, I would say it built writing, poetry, photography, and social skills, connected thematically to Fahrenheit 451, and provided a low-risk weekly public speaking opportunity.

If I were to recommend it in real language, I would say it was one of the most fun and authentic ways my students connected to me, each other, language, and nature, all in 15 minutes a week. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

How v. Why: A Question of Audience

In my classroom, the most motivating factor for students to gain information has been, hands down, audience. If students are working towards a project that will be presented for an audience they care about, it gives them a purpose beyond performing a task for my eyes alone. In addition, the traditional audience of one does not reflect our digital 21st century. Our students can and should publish to a wider audience. This can be done through individual and class blogs, collaborations via google docs, you tube videos, skype calls with other classrooms, voicethread essays, podcasts, letters to the editor, comments on news articles, book review sites, publishing a class book, online contests - the list is endless.

To be honest though, I find that I can think of many ways to answer ‘how can students apply information?’, but always return to ‘why should they?’ If the purpose is merely to ‘gain information’ then students could just as easily read summaries of our books instead of the books themselves - in this case, information becomes a commodity to ingest and produce, no matter the audience. A paper summary is a Twitter summary is a blog summary. However, if the teacher’s purpose is to prioritize critical thinking, facilitate connections across texts and ideas, and solve problems through collaboration, then teachers need to construct the form of their curriculum to be a catalyst for these goals. The audience then becomes a meaningful context for information, where ‘how can’ is enabled by the teacher, but ‘why’ is motivated by the student.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Reading 'Workout'

I consider myself a struggling exerciser. It’s hard to get myself going, I want to see immediate results, I feel better after but not enough to maintain a routine, and sometimes I simply don’t know what I’m doing wrong. It’s not even that I don’t like to exercise, I just have so many excuses for why I don’t. In these ways, I feel the passive frustration of my ‘non’-readers. How can I as a teacher, knowing the multitude of benefits for reading, also cultivate the more sophisticated pleasure that comes from discipline that will help my students become lifelong readers?

By the time many of my students reach 10th and 12th grade, they have established non-reading patterns that I have to work to re-negotiate. Especially with my struggling students, the attitude ‘I don’t like to read’ becomes ‘I’ll just go on Sparknotes’ or simply ‘I don’t read.’ My goal becomes to embed motivation in what they do with the reading, with the intention that ultimately my “instruction builds the skill and desire to read increasingly complex materials” (Ivey & Fisher, 2006). For me, the ELA classroom provides a theoretical space for lifelong literacy but needs attentive construction to effectively build a culture of reading within and beyond its walls.

In the classroom, I have the opportunity to construct reading routines, especially ones focusing on the persistence, self-reflection, and pleasure in reading necessary for independently motivated readers. This year, my ‘aha!’ moment came when reading Kelly Gallagher's text ‘Deeper Reading’ as he contrasts how much scaffolding and in-class support middle and high school ELA teachers devote to writing instruction, with the homework ‘to read.’ Gallagher presents different ways to chart understanding, self-monitor comprehension, and then ‘second draft’ read to not only understand but to revel in thinking more deeply. This approach assembles a multi-layered reading process (paralleling the writing process - it seems so obvious now!), and I’m better able to work with my students to engage, encourage, and maintain their reading and critical thinking habits. And, if all goes well, everything culminates in the satisfaction we’ve all felt after a good reading workout.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Persuasive Metacognitive Letter

Use the document below as a model for your process letter. Pay close attention to suggestions for the content of each paragraph, and double check all of your formatting. Remember, your goal is to use as much specific evidence as possible to argue for your grade - good luck and have fun!

Other requirements: fits on one page, 1" margins, single spaced, Times New Roman size 12 font

Friday, June 3, 2011

Plot: The Shape of Stories

Consider how you think of a usual plot: beginning - middle - end.

Watch Kurt Vonnegut explain three common 'shapes' of stories.

What does the shape of your story look like?