Social and Emotional Learning: A Critical Need in the 2020-2021 School Year

Today’s bike monologue video is my second attempt to create the video today. The first time around, I went down a rabbit hole about not intending to assault feminism and defend the literary canon of dead white males. Feel free to contact me if you would like to hear more about that.

Our nation’s body politic has endured a lot of damage recently. It lays upon the ground, bloody and bruised, gasping for air while the angry and disenchanted lean in on it. Bystanders stand by with their smartphones with 512 GB of storage, video recording the scene as they scream at those perpetrating assault upon an innocent. As the videos are posted to Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube, people express their rage at the perpetrators and everything they represent.

Meanwhile, the body politic is dying.

We Need the Madness to Stop

This is not going to stop right away. What is this? I can only sum it up as a lack of empathy, an inability to communicate effectively, a lack of confidence that translates to lashing out, and selfishness overcoming any sense of our interdependence. This aggregate attitude toward everything and everyone has to go disappear, dissipate like a chemical fog that has been hovering within our line of vision for way too long.

Just like the Portland Dads brought their leaf blowers to the protest to protect the Moms who risked themselves to protect the protesters in that city, teachers can provide students the “leaf blowers” that dissipate that chemical fog in our brains that clouds our ability to see what is happening around us clearly. Social and emotional learning strategies and curricula can help.

Students need support from teachers, parents, and the community to approach our nation’s issues more productively. Teachers cannot make much progress with students who go home to parents and community members who dismiss what they are learning. We cannot work on restorative practices, for example, only to have that student try something they’ve learned while they are home and face opposition instead of cooperation. If we are going to implement social and emotional learning, it needs to have the full support of everyone concerned or it might not work.

Some concepts that SEL supports include:

  • Empathy
  • Empowerment
  • Self-Awareness, Self-Confidence, Self-Discipline, Self-Control, Self-Defense, Self-Respect (Thank you, Hoover Karate Academy, for teaching me these; I will not forget them, nor you.)
  • Respect
  • Relationship Building
  • Decision Making
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Respectful Dialogue
  • Restorative Practices
  • Social Justice
  • Civil Rights
  • Citizenship
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Anti-Racism
  • Anti-Bullying

That is not an all-inclusive list. What we focus on depends on what our students need. This article is a good primer.

We May Need to Sacrifice Content to Support Our Students’ SEL Needs

Teachers don’t want to hear that they need to put aside their beloved content. We English teachers have to do this all the time, so we are used to it. Instead of teaching a novella, teach the college essay. Instead of working with students on a literature research paper, teach them how to write about their chosen career. Instead of fostering a love of poetry, proctor their senior projects. Here comes one more thing, but this time it’s critically important.

Just like COVID-19 is a life-or-death situation, so it is that the lack of social and emotional skills among many in this population is creating life-or-death situations on an almost daily basis. Which is more important? Every teacher knows the answer to that question.

Please Watch My Monologue

I don’t normally ask this, but today I am going to. I would love it if you would watch the monologue I created today. It’s not perfect; I will get better. But today my passion comes through. I got a little emotional, and it is hard to convey that passion through text.

Thank you for reading.

The Featured Image of this post is an example of the great work of Gabriella Clare Marino, who posted this photo on Unsplash.com.

Keep Students Working in the Virtual Classroom

Since it is raining, there will be no bike monologue today. Instead, I offer you this typical post.

One complaint about school last quarter was that the asynchronous method of teaching and learning did not work well. There were several reasons for this.

  • Students were not accustomed to the way content was delivered, and they were not able to get assistance from their teacher in real time so they could ask clarifying questions.
  • Students did not find delivery methods to be consistent among teachers. While this is certainly true in normal times, as we all have different teaching styles, combine that with the first point and it caused confusion.
  • Students and parents were confused as to how the learning management system (LMS) worked.
  • Students may have been confused as to expectations, including deadlines, depending on how the content and expectations were presented.

Why did many of us resort to asynchronous methods? The answer is simple and complex at the same time.

  1. When we flipped the switch, there was a lot of chaos. Many of us did not know it was going to happen until the end of our last day. We were told to go home for spring break and prepare for virtual learning. We were also facing the real possibility that the school year had ended on that very day.
  2. Some districts tried to use web conferencing services that were hacked by disgusting individuals who posted pornography and racist comments, which forced many off those platforms and into another mode of teaching altogether.
  3. Some students at the secondary level were called into work as they were considered “essential workers.” For example, those who worked after school at grocery stores were needed. Schools decided to accommodate these workers by offering more flexible options. Those students often found their parents out of work, too, so they had to contribute to the household since they still had a job.
  4. Some older students had to care for younger siblings because their parents had to work. This situation also called for flexibility. While the older students helped the younger ones, they were not able to attend to their own schoolwork until later in the day.
  5. Teachers with school-age children needed to teach those children. It was part of the vicious cycle of this crisis: those who taught their children didn’t have as much flexibility because they had to teach their children because those who taught their children… and so forth.
  6. Families were not faring well in some cases. Parents were unemployed. Food insecurity was common. Children were at home all day going out of their minds. There were so many unknowns. The Internet was intermittent or non-existent. There wasn’t enough technology to go around. Sitting in front of a computer all day was exhausting and frustrating. Family members argued with each other to vent their frustration.

There are more reasons, I am sure. Teachers and administrators worried constantly about the well-being of the children and checked in on students via telephone or email. Districts provided free meals to families. Counselors became involved in domestic situations. Many of us were so involved in the mental health aspects of this crisis that learning took a back seat. To be flexible, attendance during class conferences was optional, but also triggered phone calls and emails home to make sure that the child was all right.

In other words, for many of us the normal way of doing things simply could not work.

Fast Forward to the Upcoming School Year

Many of the same problems remain for a number of students, but there have been developments that could help them. Districts received funds from the CARES act to acquire technology for the students, for example, which could result in everyone receiving a device and an Internet hotspot if needed. Students may now know their way around the LMS. Teachers have new ideas on delivery of instruction. Districts are trying to figure out how to deliver synchronous instruction in a way that makes those who choose to stay home feel more a part of the class in real time. The number of free webinars available to teachers to learn how virtual teaching and learning works grows exponentially (it’s actually overwhelming). Teachers are wracking their brains to figure out how to retool their curriculum for this new reality.

Few of us think that anything will ever go back to the way it was. We hope it will, but I think we know that for the near future our routines have changed drastically.

We can make this situation better by ensuring that virtual classroom time is active time. We need to keep the students working while they are with us. We can take the flipped classroom pedagogy and employ it in our classroom in a number of ways.

  1. Preparation for class can include watching a short lecture, reading the material to be discussed, or watching a recording of a process and trying a few practice questions before class. There are other preparation activities as well; these are just a few.
  2. Students come to class. They listen to a very short introduction of the activity, then watch the teacher model the activity for them, and then go to work. The teacher can field questions or put students into breakout rooms to discuss the activity, generate questions, or help each other.
  3. Work is “collected.” For example, students can take a photo of their work on paper and upload it to the LMS. I have recommended in previous posts that students work on paper as much as possible because of the eye strain that results from staring at a computer screen. While the teacher randomly scans the submissions, students are engaged in a self-evaluation.
  4. The end of class is a debrief session during which the teacher addresses the remaining misconceptions, reiterates that no question is a bad question, and tells them what they need to do for the next class to prepare.

It might look like this in my ELA class.

Homework: Read and annotate the poem “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. Review the definitions of metaphor, free verse, stanza, and tone.

Classwork

  1. Introduction to the day’s activity: Structure and Tone in Poetry. Introduce the essential knowledge components of the activity and the essential questions. (< 5 minutes)
  2. We all listen to Collins read the poem. Discuss how listening to the poem has possibly altered our interpretation. For example, do we find it funnier now or sadder? How does our experience with poetry affect how we react to the poem? (Personally, I think the poem is hilarious and sad at the same time, but I am a teacher who loves poetry and a student who is terrified of it.) Also discuss how the structure belies or supports the speaker’s wish to have students take risks with poetry, to appreciate poetry for more than what it says and rather what it means. (5 — 10 minutes)
  3. Writing component: Students write a thought piece about the poem’s structure and tone. How does the free verse structure affect the poem’s meaning? How is the tone (the speaker’s attitude toward the subject of the poem) conveyed? What words or patterns lead you to your conclusion? How has your attitude toward poetry changed as a result of reading the speaker’s lamentation? Has the speaker created a different mood? (10 minutes)
  4. Upload thought pieces. (2 minutes)
  5. Breakout rooms to talk about thought pieces. Meanwhile, I scan the results of a handful of students. (5 minutes)
  6. Debrief, Exit Slip, and Homework.

This example is for a lesson at the beginning of the year. As the year progresses, part of the preparation would be to review the essential knowledge and essential questions, listen to the poem, and analyze it using a method such as TP-CASST (Title, Paraphrase, Connotation, Attitude/Tone, Shifts, Title). The class can take more time for discussion via chat or verbally or more time for a thought piece as a result.

The point is that students are working most of the time. It will make the virtual learning experience easier and even more enjoyable. Students will also be engaged in active learning. Teachers will also be able to address misconceptions much faster, before they have a chance to take root.

Thank you for reading!

Alternative Assignments and Assessments during the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond…

Bike Monologue 2 – July 22, 2020

The first four miles of today’s bike ride was devoted to discussing alternative assignments and assessments; helping students learn how to question themselves, each other, and the world around them; and some flowery comments about how we can protect our nation’s precious First Amendment.

If you don’t want to watch the video, see the following paragraphs for the highlights.

We Need Alternative Assignments and Assessments Now and in the Future

I said before that if necessity is the mother of invention, then it is going to reinvent the nature of assignments and the notion of assessment during this crisis because we need, desperately, to redefine what good assignments are and what good assessment is. I mentioned in the video that cheating is already a big problem, but with virtual learning it can become more common (if that is possible). Therefore, we need to eliminate the opportunities to cheat as much as possible.

Yesterday’s post delineated the suggestions I am posing. They included portfolios, projects, essays, design-your-own products, research papers, seminar development, and quiz design. I discussed them briefly in today’s monologue, but veered off onto another topic: the importance of questions.

Help Students Learn How to Ask Good and Great Questions

Think back to high school. Did you learn more about how to find “the answers” or did you learn more about how to ask the right questions of the text in front of you? It was a mix for me, but I learned more about questioning from rigorous electives like “Contemporary World Conflicts,” in which we wrote our hands off every day, than I did in U.S. History II, in which we took Scantron test after Scantron test. In English class, we spent most of our time finding answers in the text or copying the answer down that our teacher gave us. Research papers afforded us the opportunity to expand our thinking, but they were assigned once a year. In the late ‘80s, education looked dramatically different from what it does now.

In the core courses, there were few discussions, no Socratic seminars, little differentiation, no personalized learning… You get the picture, I’m sure. Today, these teaching techniques are used regularly to help students deconstruct what they knew, integrate new knowledge, and build a new knowledge base. Constructivist principles are more prevalent today, for which I am thankful.

We need to spend more time helping students learn how to ask good questions, and the techniques mentioned above DO help. Yes, it takes longer to “grade” the work product that results, or the “grade” might be more subjective than the results of a multiple choice and short answer test, but that forces me to question what the purpose of education is. Is it data collection or student development? Data collection is important, but student development is more important.

Help Students Have Difficult, Yet Constructive, Conversations

When students are able to create good questions, they can engage in conversations with others that might become difficult but can remain constructive. We need to be able to do this today, in this polarized, politicized, environment, or we will continue to see videos of Karens who have lost their grip on reality. We will continue to see protests devolve into something decidedly NOT peaceful. We will see more Federal officers descend on cities to “maintain law and order.”

We will see this happen because people cannot control themselves.

They cannot control themselves because they do not have the confidence and the tools to support their position.

They cannot engage in nondestructive confrontations because they do not have the confidence and tools to be restorative.

When people have the tools: questioning expertise, restorative practices principles, deescalation techniques, and confidence girded by deep thought about their values, then we will no longer need “officials” to manage our behavior. We can manage it ourselves. We can protect our First Amendment rights.

Teachers can help students learn how to protect their First Amendment rights and the First Amendment itself. Teach them how to ask good questions and have constructive conversations. Teach them to check their impulses to lash out at those who disagree with them and instead engage in peaceful dialogue. Teachers can partner with other adults in this effort too: parents and other older family members, clergy, community leaders, and behavioral health professionals.

Necessity is the mother of invention. We NEED help.

Curriculum and Instruction During the COVID-19 Crisis

Bike Monologue 1

Today, I used 5 miles of my 20-mile bike ride to record a video of my thoughts about curriculum and instruction at this time. I’m calling it the first “bike monologue.” It’s an experiment, which is an aspect of learning to teach and teaching to learn I wholeheartedly embrace.

If you don’t want to watch the video, here are the highlights.

We Don’t Need to Do What We Did March – June

…and We Shouldn’t.

Instead of doing what we did before, which was akin to flipping the light switch on a bunch of gremlins, we teachers and students should take the lessons we have learned and apply them to virtual teaching and learning this upcoming quarter. For example, when we are in “class” – either virtual or brick-and-mortar – we should be doing something as often as possible.

  • Flip the classroom so they come to school prepared to work in class and we are prepared to help them.
  • Engage the students right away with activity.
  • Avoid passive learning as much as possible.
  • Encourage active learning as much as possible.

The COVID-19 Slide Exacerbated the Summer Slide

Since it is true that students may have regressed during the last quarter of 19-20, it is also true that it was a mistake to cancel summer reading and other enrichment activities this year. All we can do now is try to help students rediscover the love of learning we are all born with. Now is not the time for drills that kill that love of learning. Now is the time to help students explore their world and interests and develop their confidence as self-directed learners.

Alternative Assignments and Assessments

Now is also the time to consider alternatives to traditional assignments and assessments. We could even consider letting students design their own assessments. How will they demonstrate mastery of key skills they need? With our help, they can learn how to design their own assessments (and assignments) that will prove they understand the material, have mastered the skills, and are ready to take on the next challenge. Here are just a few alternative assignments and assessments.

  • Portfolios
  • Projects
  • Essays
  • Research Papers
  • Quiz Design
  • Seminar Design and Delivery
  • Presentations
  • Infographics / Posters
  • Videos (Documentaries!)
  • Design Your Own Assignments and Assessments

I want to thank you for reading this. Being able to write out my thoughts has helped me put words to my perspective and my fears. It is my hope that my words help others as well.

The 2020-2021 School Year Will Be One for the Books

School districts across the country are scrambling to define what school is going to look like this year. Meanwhile, teachers seem to be exhausted, confused, and – in some cases – angry. All the stakeholders in education are on edge: students, parents, faculty, staff, administrators, and school boards. Powder kegs, also known as school board meetings, are blowing up, lit by the tension in the virtual meeting. Everyone has an opinion. In any other year, under any other circumstances, that would be fine.

This year and under these circumstances, however, we need to be more united than ever in our approach. This is truly a life or death conundrum, not a philosophical debate. People have genuine concerns that need to be addressed.

Health and Safety

The concern that draws that most comment is that masks are not mandatory in schools. If a student or parent of a student says that the child cannot wear a mask for health reasons, that student is exempt and we cannot ask for documentation as to the student’s condition. While I appreciate the regulation, as it protects a person’s privacy, it puts everyone at risk, including that student.

There are students who cannot wear masks for legitimate reasons. Those are not the students of whom I am speaking.

In addition to masks, we have questions about sanitation/disinfection procedures. For example: What are they? (That was not meant to get a chuckle.) Who does what? Will we have enough time to clean surfaces between bells?

Social distancing issues are also a high priority. How are we going to maintain social distancing? There simply isn’t enough room in most school hallways, for example, to maintain social distancing and get students to their classes in a timely manner. The solutions include uni-directional hallways, prohibitions against locker use, extra lunch periods, staggered start and stop times, keeping students in “cohorts,” and teachers traveling from room to room instead of students, among others. Because it seems like it could quickly get “messy,” many school districts are providing an online-only option because there isn’t enough room and because people are genuinely terrified.

The Online-Only Option

Schools had to pivot to virtual (remote/online… just please don’t say distance or e-learning) teaching and learning, starting in March. We learned many lessons during that time about how to teach and learn entirely online. It makes sense to make those lessons learned work for us in the future to keep our students safe.

Asynchronous learning created a feeling of isolation amongst many students. It’s difficult to keep oneself engaged, interested, and resilient if you don’t feel like anyone cares or if you cannot navigate the content and activities well. That has led numerous school districts to embrace synchronous learning.

As an online learner for many years, I immediately thought of us all on the same platform, but not in the same place. In this case, many students would be in the classroom with the teacher and others would watch a broadcast to feel more included in what is happening at school while they are working from home.

That sounds like fun at first. However, there are privacy concerns.

Privacy Concerns

Because necessity is the mother of invention, schools are reinventing public education in real-time. Some schools feel they are competing with the cyber schools and need to provide similar options to their student population to retain those students in their district. Solutions such as robotic cameras have been proposed; online students could then have a view into the classroom, thereby mitigating some of the social isolation that is part of online learning. (I have three degrees from online programs and can say that the feeling of social isolation is difficult. I understand.)

Parents and teachers immediately asked about privacy concerns related to the robotic cameras. Both groups say that they don’t want the kids on video, broadcast into someone’s home. This is a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed. Having this technology in the classroom also creates cyberbullying opportunities. We all have cameras that can capture broadcasts well, and editing software on those phones that can, potentially, ruin someone’s life. Now, take a look at the picture I added to the top of this post. Suppose I were to make a face like that in the classroom? That’s an instant meme. It still could be, but I contributed the picture and it’s not that bad, so I am inclined to shrug off that possibility.

One thing I noticed during crisis teaching is that my students did not want to be on video. Teens are often keen on taking selfies and creating videos, but on their terms. I would say most humans are. We don’t notice the cameras in stores anymore, but I’m old enough to remember being uncomfortable around them when I was younger. For those who say that the kids will get used to it and no one likes change, I agree, but need to ask: Do the kids really need yet one more thing to adapt to at this time?

In the next post, I will address curriculum and instruction concerns. This post addressed what is most important at this time – the health and safety of all stakeholders in education.

Why Reexamine What Education Is Right Now? Why Not?

During this crisis, we need to remind ourselves of the true purpose of education.

Some aspects of this post might be unpopular. I apologize in advance.

Why Do Schools Close for So Long?

Please, teachers everywhere, do not wince. It’s a good question. According to PBS, there is a really good answer as to why schools close for so long: It’s hot during the summer. There are still MANY school buildings that do not have airconditioning. (It is 2020, right?) That begs the quesiton: Why isn’t it a priority to make sure that school buildings are modernized? Why is it that 36,000 schools have air system problems, according to the GAO? Since this is the case, why is our President tweeting this?

Mr. President, screaming at us will not help.

Should we not fix the problems, make the buildings safe, and then return the students, faculty, and staff to them? It’s possible that just makes too much sense.

Oh, lest I forget: Betsy DeVos, I have a special message for you. Feel free to find me on Twitter.

Why Did We Close in June?

Well, Heather, you just answered that question in the last section, you are thinking. Keep reading, though.

Before discussing summer teaching in a virtual learning environment, it is important to note that educational equity and fair technology access is a serious problem. For example, in Prince George County in Maryland, virtual learning was impossible and so teachers sent home copies of learning packets. It’s 2020 and we still can’t get tech in the hands of students. That is heartbreaking. Furthermore, it’s a situation that can be fixed if districts can get the funds needed to purchase the technology that all stakeholders in education truly need.

There are other districts that have implemented a one-to-one initiative whereby every student receives either a tablet or a laptop to use during the school year. Some districts were able to get tech to their students during the crisis. Some were able to offer WiFi hotspots to their students at no cost to them. Internet companies worked hard to bring access to those who did not have it before. For those who were able to offer such technology, my suggestion below could have worked. For those who were not, more packets could have worked.

If we had continued “virtual learning” (further developing the skills we learned through “crisis teaching”) through the summer, would we still be having this national meltdown about re-opening in the fall? Perhaps we could have helped students stop their learning regression and restart their progress if we had just “soldiered on” for a little while longer. There was an opportunity to support educational experiences, and we did not take advantage of it. These hypothetical “experiences” would not need to look like “traditional learning.” Kids would not need to sit in front of their computer for hours a day. We could have crafted highly-engaging activities using project-based learning principles and portfolios that could have helped students rediscover what education is: The process of acquiring freedom.

Instead, many districts did not even assign summer reading this year. We were and are burned out, for sure, but that was a mistake. What better time to climb a tree and read? (For those who are not that adventurous, perhaps curling up on the couch or somewhere outside is preferable. Wear sunscreen! Take your mask with you!)

Everyone needed a break; that’s obvious. However, it is important to wonder if all of us would have benefited from some more time with the technology and the chance to develop the online community and its norms we are certainly going to need this year. Perhaps we will reopen in August and September, but trends suggest that we will be virtual again by Thanksgiving. Some colleges are already preparing for that, for example, and sending their students home at Thanksgiving break to complete the semester.

It’s all about money, which is – again – heartbreaking. I know that local entities are supposed to be in charge of education and that leads to a disparity in opportunities because of property-tax revenues. Still, it is not fair. Every child should have the same chance to receive a quality education, regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic status.

None of this is fair. None of it.

What Is the Purpose of Education?

After listening to several arguments about reopening schools, my first thought was an angry one. Why are we being asked to sacrifice ourselves and the children so that the economy can reopen? What role do they think teachers and staff play in a child’s life? If we are opening schools ONLY because people need to go back to work, then we are not valuing the needs of the children over the economy. We are definitely not thinking things through to their logical conclusion, that’s for sure. When did we become such a crass country?

What happens if someone gets sick? Oh, the chances of that are rare, we are told. The likelihood of children regressing socially is higher than the chances they get sick. The number of behavioral health issues has increased since schools were closed too. Considering the number of videos online in which parents beg teachers to take their kids back, I believe that. While these videos make us chuckle a bit, they also make us realize just how important school is for monitoring and mitigating behavioral issues. Still, is there not another way to socialize?

What about the teachers? The likelihood that teachers will get sick IS high, considering that many of us are older.

It is time for us to remind ourselves of the true purpose of education. I’m not talking about the factory model of education, the one that is supposed to “produce” excellent citizens who can make a contribution to our society. I’m talking Socrates here. Education should be about freedom; through our acquisition of knowledge and our development of critical thinking skills, we realize we are free. By storing and using learning techniques, we can function as independent people within a society of interdependence. We know what we are capable of and no one can take that away from us. We can reveal truth to ourselves and others, citing evidence along the way that is concrete and verifiable. We prove that we are not sheep; we are the shepherd.

As we become more educated, we also realize that we are in charge of our education, we are self-directed learners, and will always be self-redirected learners. Teachers gradually release responsibility to their learners as they master the skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Teachers guide on the side, always ready to have the difficult conversation with a student. Get this: We are all students, too. We might have the title of “teacher,” but it is the wise teacher who realizes that we learn from everyone we encounter. Not that I am that wise (yet), but if I didn’t realize that truth, I would not have been as moved by receiving this quote from a student of mine.

“We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about `and’. ” – Arthur Eddington

C.F.

Just take a moment to consider that quote and how it is such a powerful use of language. In martial-arts terms, it’s the cross followed by the hook. Boom! It knocked me out. It came from a student who has realized he is a self-directed learner. If he wants to achieve his dreams, he has to make them happen. He’s a voracious reader, adept thinker, and avid “tinkerer” with all things technological. We need to help more students achieve this level of development, and we can. If we have to do it online, so be it. If we can get back into the classroom safely, that is preferable. The key word is SAFELY.

Anyone who has studied Maslow knows that if physical and safety needs are not met, then there is little motivation to move onto the other aspects of the hierarchy. That just makes sense. Question: How much real learning is going to happen if everyone in the classroom is worried about whether today is the day he or she gets sick?

Until we are convinced that the “experts” know what they are doing, we need to consider all the options for reopening school, in my opinion.

Thank you for reading.

The Thought Piece

The Thought Piece (TP) can be used with any work of literature. It is an informal writing assignment that asks students to reflect on the work they read and annotated, and then write about those thoughts coupled with the text itself. It is through this informal writing process that students can learn about what they read and how their minds are processing what they read. TPs should be formative assessments, grouped together for later reflection on metacognitive strategies and processes along with content learning. They should not be used for a grade, although perhaps a rubric could be used to evaluate the assignment. I first heard about this type of assignment as I was combing through materials for the AP® Literature course. For more information, look at the College Board site: https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/. I have expanded this assignment to include some rules that help students with their writing-to-learn skills.

The Rules

  • Read the text.
  • Use Cornell Notes or another method to annotate the text. The text should be referenced by paragraph, stanza, page number, or Act/Scene/Line. Quotations, in full or in part, are recommended highly. Then, you should indicate whether that part of the text generated a question, commentary, or other type of reaction.
  • Look at your notes. Do you see thoughts that have things in common? Do you see thoughts that build on one another? Do you see any trends? What are they? Use the summary area of your notes pages to point out those trends to yourself.
  • Get ready to write! Using your notes, just start writing out your thoughts about the work you read.
  • When you write your piece, use complete sentences and try to use expanded sentences as much as possible. Try starting out a sentence, then add because, but, or so. Although this is informal, you should not create fragments or run-ons. One point of this assignment is to learn how to create complete thoughts.
  • You do not need a thesis statement for this informal writing assignment, but you might want to celebrate if you write into one.
  • Read your piece after you have finished writing it and then edit it for grammar and style.

Six Facets of Understanding (UbD) and AP® Lit Big Ideas and Essential Knowledge

According to Wiggins and McTighe, the six facets of understanding include “the capacity to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self-assess” (UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf, 2012). These can be aligned to Bloom and DoK, but I like UbD because it seems simpler to me. Frankly, I guess I’m getting a little tired of this being so complicated, but that is something I will get over. That said, let’s look at how this assignment could be applied to the Big Ideas and Essential Knowledge of AP® Literature and the six facets of understanding, which will require a bit of alignment. The spreadsheet below is a work-in-progress.

One reason curriculum development and alignment is so important is that during the process the teacher realizes adjustments should be made to suit one’s teaching style and one’s students.

For example, while reviewing the Big Ideas/Essential Knowledge, I noticed there isn’t much there to apply the higher levels of understanding to (empathize and self-assess). If the purpose of studying literature is to better understand the human condition and to understand our role within the human community (that’s my idea, anyway), then shouldn’t we provide more opportunities within the course to do just that? Some of the line items to which I applied “empathize” are actually a stretch and I would need to expand on the statement to actually make that classification work. That is something I will need to work on while I continue to tweak my syllabus.

Speaking of syllabi, I would love it if someone would be willing to look at the massive mess I have right now. One reason I am doing this post is because this will be part of an example assignment I need to include in the syllabus that I submit to the College Board.

Reference

UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf. (2012). ASCD. https://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/siteASCD/publications/UbD_WhitePaper0312.pdf

Should I Teach To Kill a Mockingbird?

As I write this, I am struggling with the notion that next year I have to teach the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time. Therefore, I am using my blog to create a question paper, to write to learn about why I feel so hesitant.

Why am I struggling to accept that I must teach To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) this upcoming school year? Is it the fact that the N-word is present in the text and I have many problems with that word? Is it that a white woman wrote it and the story includes the arrest and trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman? Is it that I am not sure how 15-year-old students are supposed to grasp the nuances in the novel, just as I did not when I first read it?

Or is it that I fear students might be suffering from racism-fatigue? I don’t even know if that is a word, but it sounds reasonable, and are my students suffering from it? What do I do about students who are tired of talking about race, especially in our current cultural climate? How do I make this relevant to them? And what about the African American and Latin-x students I have in the room? How are they going to feel about this story? How are they going to feel about a white teacher presenting this story and trying to have honest conversations about it when she truly doesn’t understand? Haven’t they been through enough trauma?

Isn’t there a text by an African American or Latin-x writer that I could use instead? Or would that be like avoiding an honest-to-goodness discussion of race, white privilege, bias, perspective, and our nation’s history? Would it make more sense to let an alternative text lead the discussion, or would it be wiser to confront this one head on? What about the students’ families? How are they going to react to this text? Apparently, it’s been in the curriculum for years, but how will they react to it this year, a year in which yet another black man was killed for nothing? And why hasn’t it been challenged before now, and why should I challenge it now?

I think I know why I am so hesitant. I’m afraid. I’m afraid I am going to blow an opportunity to have an impact. I don’t teach merely to teach. I teach literature to help all of us understand the human condition and how to choose our place, our role, within the human community.

Thanks for reading.

This Is Why I Teach Literature

Image Credit: Posted by Michelle Argo Parker, an AP® Literature teacher in Minneapolis

One of Mrs. Parker’s students created this peaceful protest message using apropos quotes from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. This is why I, and thousands of my colleagues, teach literature. As Mrs. Parker noted in her post: “He gets it.” We study literature to understand the human condition. It’s not all about the key concepts we are supposed to teach so that students understand literature better; it’s about the understanding. For more information on the six facets of understanding, as proposed by Wiggins and McTighe, check out this article.

Words Matter.

If you want to know how one lunatic managed to take over an entire country with his words, which were eventually backed up with military might, in the 1930s, take a look at tweets and hours upon hours of video showing history repeating itself. In recent months, Mr. Trump has been tweeting things like “Liberate Minnesota!” He’s also called for liberating other states which just happen to have Democratic governors. He held rallies where he riled up his followers, calling the press the “enemy of the people” and “human scum.” He called the protestors “thugs.” He hasn’t denounced the police officers who murdered George Floyd. He hasn’t called for their arrest either. Top law-enforcement officer? I think not.

Yesterday, he topped all this off by sending in a huge law enforcement presence, complete with tear gas and rubber bullets, to disperse peaceful protesters from a park, so he could walk through it to do a photo-op at a church while holding a Bible. A picture is worth 1,000 words, they say. Here’s one that I think tells the tale well. Granted, it’s the words in the picture that also matter, but it’s still a picture.

Here’s another one of a very unfortunate headline from The New York Times. Do better, NYT; you totally missed the point.

Then, this morning, I read that Representative Matt Gaetz posted a tweet that Twitter found to be glorifying violence.

New York Times

On the same day, Trump gave a speech in the Rose Garden in which he said:

I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting to end the destruction and arson and to protect the rights of law abiding Americans, including your second amendment rights.

From rev.com; emphasis is mine.

Coincidence? Hunt down people with our second-amendment-guaranteed weapons? Again, I think not. That, dear reader, was a ‘dog whistle’ if ever I heard one. Someone is going to get killed and it will all be traced back to these messages coming from these people. Hopefully, that will be today and not twenty years from now.

Words Matter.

During World War II, John Steinbeck wrote a propaganda piece called The Moon Is Down at the behest of the U.S. Government. It was meant to support those under Nazi occupation. It was so important to people that it was copied and distributed in Norway to bolster the morale of the Norwegian people in World War II. Steinbeck was awarded the King Haakon IV Freedom Cross for his work. The book was also distributed in numerous other territories occupied by the Nazis. Churchill was quite enthusiastic about the book as well. I highly recommend it. It isn’t the greatest piece of literature, but one of the more important.

Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.

From https://Steinbeck.org/his-work/the-moon-is-down

Take that and choke on it, those who think that we should just take their word for it.

Words Matter.

We literature teachers look for the messages writers send in their works. Sometimes, we’re right and sometimes we are imposing our own reality on theirs, but that doesn’t mean we are necessarily wrong. When Charlotte Bronte wrote about many of the students in Jane Eyre’s school dying of typhus, was she not recalling her childhood and making a comment about the poor treatment of indigent children? When Toni Morrison wrote about Pilate’s complete capitulation to the police while in the station trying to retrieve her property, what message was she sending about the lengths that African Americans have to go to get any cooperation at all? What about Charles Dickens? Surely he was sending many messages about social disparity. And what was Alice Walker trying to say when Celie let loose on Mr. ___ and his son? That was a classic scene of a woman standing up for herself. My final example refers you to the first picture I posted. It will be the first novel we read in AP® Lit this year. Those are a few examples that come to my mind as I write this.

Somewhere, there is a writer crafting the first COVID-19 novel that touches poignantly on all the problems we have today: systemic racism, high unemployment, cuts to essential services to bolster “industry,” class disparity – and the list that goes on and on while one’s heart breaks. I can’t wait to read it.