Every year as August starts to roll around and I get antsy about the upcoming school year, I read and in some reread various teaching texts to help me begin to think through my next school year. This year it’s in overdrive because I changed districts, schools, and courseload. All but one of my class this coming year will be brand new to me, and there’s a new pacing chart and new statewide curriculum to work through.
Learning in the Fast Lane – Suzy Pepper Rollins 4/5 stars
This is not a super exciting book to read or implement. That’s not the say it’s not full of valuable information, because I think it is. It’s just more general than I tend to like, because I like content specific things, as you’ll see. In addition the tone is all business. The idea here is to provide eight key steps to improve learning and reduce gaps in learning.
- Step one involves how to create Accelerated Classes (meaning closing gaps quickly), and while I agree in general that the gaps in kids’ education need this kind of structure, I am not in charge of those decisions, this didn’t impact me much as a teacher.
- Step two involves using standards walls instead of just simply posting the state standards on the wall. The difference is that posting the standards is a CYA/Best Practices nonsense step that replaces actual good work. Student need to know what they’re expected to learn, but the standards are kind of opaque and are a list, not actual instruction. Most standards are written to tell the parents and teachers what’s expected and cannot really be used to inform student, even as objectives. The standards wall instead provides a visual model for kids to know what will be learned and how that learning will be demonstrated. Again, I like the idea, but I will be floating this year, so I can’t make a wall as such. That doesn’t mean I can’t be on top of how best to present the learning goals to students.
- Step three involves “success starters.” Chances are when you were in school you had an introductory task on the board as you walked in. Different divisions call them different things “Snapshots” “Bellwork” “Bell ringers” etc. The goal is usually to help establish routine and get kids working on something while the beginning of class chaos settles down before the warm up activity. This author argues instead that kids need to working directly on the lesson material and doing thoughtful and interactive work at the beginning. This means not review work, busywork or homework type stuff. Her argument is NOT that every minute counts and all that. That’s kind of true, but “bell to bell teaching” is more used as a cudgel than as a realistic tool. Instead, her argument is that this is the best time to have kids begin to engage with material because the opening minutes are when they are most open to learning. They’ve just had a slight break/disruption. Their attention is the highest. I like this approach because it starts class off on the right foot, focusing on say a thematic or creative idea, getting kids motivated and moving, and time goes by way faster (which usually means it’s functioning and kids are not getting tired or off-track).
- Step four feels more like a reminder than a prescription. This is where the book is useful for new teachers or teachers who are trying to reinvigorate themselves. Formative assessment and feedback. For you non-teacher folks, formative assessments are spot checks that teachers do to see if individual students or most of the class is “getting it”. These are myriad: short discussions, questions and answers, hand raises, Kahoot, etc. The idea here is to monitor progress all along the way and stop or slow down as necessary and add in more supports.
- Step five is strategic vocabulary plans. This is a step that I found useful reading this text. Vocab is an incredibly frustrating and important part of high school English. In one way, kids need to learn new words and especially content words. They also need to learn how to use those words, how to master them, and then translate general skills into successful reading in my area and others.
- Step six is student work sessions. Think about this as the class time devoted to students “doing work” whether those are practice sets, reading skills,writing skills. This section serves as a reminder to make meaningful work available to students: relevant, earnest, achievable, and purposeful.
- Step seven is similar to six, motivation. Basically students need to know what you want them to do, how to do it, why they’re doing it, and why it’s meaningful. If you can communicate these to student through good explanation, good planning, and modeling (showing them how to do it) and provide them a space to take risks, they will be have greater success.
- Lastly scaffolding. Scaffolding are the structural supports put into place by teachers to help student take initial steps, and as they master them, these get taken away.
Over all, this is a strong book, but not very much new stuff for me. I will probably reread the vocabulary section before school starts how I can come up with a more thoughtful way for students to learn new words.
A Rulebook for Arguments – Anthony Weston 3/5 Stars
This small book acts as a guide on how to make good arguments in writing. It’s about 30 years old and over all is a pretty good checklist of considerations, but it is limited, and some of the examples are kind of unusable for me, if I want to create a safe learning environment for my students. The checklist itself is quite solid. He goes through several different considerations to consider as you begin to think through creating argumentative papers. From starting with premises, testing them, considering multiple perspectives, different types of evidence, and logic.
The real failure of this book is that for some reason he makes a few distracting sexual examples and means that if I were to bring this relatively neutral but non-essential book into my Dual Enrollment class (let along an 11th grade class) run the risk of accidentally creating a disruptive space. It’s weird to have a decidedly unneutral example. Also, and this is much worse, he keeps bringing in religious examples, so the issue is the same. While I agree that using the “God Wrote the Bible so it must be true” example as a particularly articulate example of a tautology, why would I want to bring that up and maybe alienate students or create a need for discussion that I wasn’t trying to have when all I wanted to do was talk about logical fallacies. It’s loaded.
So instead, I will likely borrow or paraphrase sections of this text rather than assign it. Shame, really.
Whole Novels for the Whole Class – Ariel Sacks 5/5 Stars
This was a really good pick up for me. Teaching novels is really hard. You have to have copies of them to give to students, or try to have them buy or borrow their own. You have to communicate reading expectations, have structured assignments to encourage students to read and also hold them accountable, without punishing them or discouraging is the reading is difficult for them. Then you have to plan activities in class that also create opportunities for learning. The hardest thing about teaching novels is how fragile the enterprise feels when you put it in the students’ hands. For one, what if they don’t do it? Then what do you do? You have to have a plan for that.
So what this book provides is a focus on the idea of Whole Novels. As opposed to chunking novels out into small sections or reading excerpts or even just cutting the novel up into chunks and only talking about small sections at a time. Sacks compares this to stopping movies every fifteen minutes or so to check in on student viewing. PS – Showing movies to students is also a miserable experience…I honestly don’t know why so many teachers want to do it.
Whole novels then. They read the whole thing (though they are encouraged to follow a pre-selected numbers of pages per night) and as they read they keep track of their thoughts, ideas, confusions, and questions as they go on notecards or post-it notes. These journals are broken down into categories. During the unit as students are reading, the teacher does a lot of check-in activities, provide time for in-class reading, and works on other material, and then when the due date has arrived, students have about two weeks of discussion on the novel.
I am not sure what this sounds like to someone who hasn’t taught novels before, but even in AP lit classes, it’s near impossible to get everyone to read the assigned reading. So this provides a lot of structures to encourage reading and be accountable for reading. I will be revisiting this one a few more times as school approaches.
Fresh Takes on Teaching: Literary Elements – Michael W Smith and Jeffrey D Wilhelm 5/5 Stars
This is another book I will reading and reading a few more times throughout the summer and school year. This provides a much more focused and improved focus on four key elements of literature: Character, Setting, Perspective/Point of View, and Theme. These four elements then get even more focused attention in their various chapters. This book reminded of a few key factors that I sometimes forget about as I plan for teaching. One, that basics are key. Two, that learning any single skill well will open up possibilities for lots of other skills. So, for example, if students can get really good at working through issues related to character, that kind of analysis is easily transferable to other kinds of analysis in literature or even in other fields. Same goes for setting and point of view and theme. The goal is to look at how specific elements contribute together to create the whole of the piece, and how interlocked they all are.
So I was thinking about some of the possible activities this could elicit. For one, in use with the above book on Whole Novels, this kind of wonky literary analysis could really provide an entry point to literature in my class before we get to whole novels. And even though the elements discussed in the book seem at first to be linked specifically to fiction, I know for certain I can make them accessible for other genres.
For example: think about a song where the narrator is a persona and not the actual musician. Lots of songs do this, almost all Decemberists songs, a bunch of Bob Dylan, Eminem, Nina Simone, Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and lots and lots of other musicians. Pop songs don’t lend themselves perfectly, but I can almost guarantee you could think of examples where even radio hits would work.
As soon as you have a persona, you have a character and a perspective (or point of view, I use these inter-changeably). Chances are you have narrative of some sort, whether directly told or implied by the circumstances of the song (no reason to talk about plot much, because good literature is based in the language and perspective more so than the plot–for me the plot provides opportunities for humanity to be on display). If you have narrative, you have a setting (time and/or place). So all that’s left is to think about how these three ideas function together to create themes.
Take the song “Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen.
Who are the characters in this story? What are they like? What do they do?
What is the conflict?
What do they feel about their situation? (This is a tone question)
Now that information together provides a sense of Theme.
Theme is a text’s comment on a given subject. The above song doesn’t say anything about, say War, right? But it does have a comment on Corruption. On Love. On Stability and Society. And they ways that I can figure out what it’s saying to think about these other factors.
Anyway, this was a good book to get me back into the mindset a little and to stave off a little of my summer madness.