The Jens

The Jens
jen b & Jen P

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Rhetorical précis

The rhetorical précis is a great assignment for both content-area teachers and English-Language Arts teachers and can be used with any informational text. The template is explained in Reading Rhetorically, by John Bean, Virginia Chappell, and Alice Gillam, and is credited to Margaret K.Woodworth.

The rhetorical précis is a succinct way to summarize and analyze any informational text. Students can use it as a way to sum up their reading, and as preparation for the next step using the reading (preparations for an essay or a study guide for a test, for example). If students create a rhetorical précis after reading a text, not only will they have a summary of the text, but also a reminder of the author’s purpose, method, and intended audience. Also, each sentence from the template could be developed into an essay, making this a good outlining tool.

Here are the basics (from page 63 of Reading Rhetorically, Brief Edition by Bean, Chappell, Gillam):
Sentence One: Name of the author, genre, and title of work, date in parentheses; a rhetorically active verb (such as claims, argues, asserts, suggests); and a THAT clause containing the major assertion or thesis in the text.
Sentence Two: An explanation of how the author develops and supports the thesis.
Sentence Three: A statement of the author’s apparent purpose, followed by an “in order to” phrase.
Sentence Four: A description of the intended audience and/or the relationship the author establishes with the audience.

Preparing students to write the rhetorical précis first requires the students to read actively -- intellectually engaging with the text and reading with a pen or pencil in hand in order to annotate the text.  Students should underline/circle important passages, mark words to look up, ask questions in the margins, note the structure of the text, the writer’s use of certain conventions, etc. Students should pay attention to the title (and the subtitle) – it can tell the readerwhat the text is about, or even state the central claim explicitly; it can make reference to other writings, subjects, or events; and, it can express the writer’s attitude about the subject. Topic sentences are a helpful marker of structure and development throughout a text. They should look for major textual or visual structures (headings, whitespace, etc.), and look for signal words, especially transitional words (“next,” “finally,” “however,” “at first glance,” “for example,” etc.) that signal structure within the text.


Rhetorical précis


Sunday, March 3, 2013


I’ve been reading a lot on flipped class instruction and trying to figure out how this might look in my class. There’s got to be more to it than watch the video and home and do the homework in class, so I am following smart people on twitter and looking at how they are doing this in their English and social studies classes.

With only ten (!!) weeks left of instruction, I don’t think I’ll make any major changes this late in the game, but I am trying to make some screencasts to support students outside of class and trying little changes before going all in next year.

If I do what I am thinking of doing, I will have a full summer of prep ahead…daunting!

What I am thinking about is creating LOTS of screencasts – to teach specific skills and concepts and to review important passages in full class texts. It helps that I know most of the kids I’ll have next year; otherwise, I think it would be a little weird to create videos to help them without knowing what kinds of students they are and what kinds of issues they normally have.

 So ideally, I will create videos on how to write a rhetorical précis and why you’d want to use it, how to and why they should use the templates in They Say, I Say, what a narrative/informative/argumentative essay looks like, how to integrate quotes, etc. Then they will watch the videos on their own, freeing up class time for reading, writing, and conferring. Still trying to wrap my head around what that self-paced learning looks like, day to day, in the classroom, but I’m hoping to get ideas from others who are already doing this.

The other part of this is how to keep track of it all in the gradebook. At this point, I’m leaning towards two gradebooks: one that shows completed tasks (watching the videos, rough drafts, participation in online and in-class discussions, comprehension checks, etc.) and a second that shows progress towards mastery on the standards. The first gradebook would be simply pass/no pass – either the task was completed or not (still thinking about deadlines and late work – and would provide parents with the answer to “is my kid doing the work,” help me manage where kids are, and enable students to self-monitor. The second gradebook would be for the semester and final grade and would somehow reflect their progress towards mastery on the standards. Not sure how one letter grade would represent progress on all the standards, but hoping to have some more concrete ideas by next August.

Still not sure how this would work in reality, but in theory, I like where I am headed.



Sunday, February 24, 2013

Two Post Scripts

So two short follow-ups to previous posts:

Digital storytelling

Overall, I had fun reading the end products and students had fun creating them. The only feedback from students was that they needed to know upfront who their audience would be -- specifically, were they writing for children, peers, the world in general? So next year I will build in time to discuss writing for an audience and together we will determine for whom they are writing. 

I gave them very little in terms of constraints -- I said their story needed to include both text and non-text elements, and the text needed to include both narrative and informative writing -- they seemed to like the complete freedom, but some had trouble starting and wanted me to give them a genre or topic. Also, next year I will spend more time in class discussing certain aspects that some seemed to struggle with (point of view/narration, audience, incorporating dialog, building tension).

I found these additional resources that I plan to look at more closely and possibly integrate next time:
Storybook Creation Tools and Playfic, a site that allows people to create interactive stories together.

Here is an example of one of the stories my students created (shared with permission by the authors)

Scripts in Google

I am loving using autoCrat to start students' assignments in Google Drive! Besides having the assignments in the correct folders, named the way I want them to be named, and following the assignment template that I want them to use, the other nifty aspect of using this script to generate assignments is that I can change rights after I grade so that students who want to revise have to notify me to change them back to editor. Last semester, students submitted work well after deadlines and didn't tell me so there wasn't an easy way to know who revised or submitted late work other than to open each class folder and then each student folder to see the last edited date. AutoCrat has made it much easier for me to manage student work in Drive.

My new goal is to learn how to send out feedback using a script. Alice Keeler shared another super helpful video on using valmerge to send out feedback based on a rubric. Love learning these time-saving tips!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Going paperless

I haven’t made the complete switch to the paperless classroom, but I’m trying. At the beginning of this year, I made the move to google docs for our writing bootcamp. During the first seven weeks, all writing was completed in google drive – I didn’t have any hard copies of what ended up being 15 pieces of writing from each student.  Each student set up their drive with three folders (or collections) – one for each of our classes. These folders were then shared with the corresponding teacher, so I ended up with over sixty shared folders for English work and close to forty for shared College and Career Readiness work. As folders were shared with me, I set up class folders to house each of the student folders to try to organize drive. Keep in mind that I was learning google drive with my students and in many cases, students were far more proficient than I in how google docs worked.

This worked well in terms of cutting down paper, but did not help with organization. I had to open the class folder, then open each student’s folder, then hope they named the document correctly before I could comment, grade, and enter it into the gradebook. Many documents were named incorrectly, which slowed down the process while I figured out which prompt they were answering, but the bigger problem was that often students forgot to share the document with me.

Autocrat to the rescue! I had heard of autocrat and scripts, but I really didn’t understand how it could be used or why you’d want to use it. But this weekend at the East Bay CUE conference it all became clear. I attended two sessions on forms and scripts and started to understand how this would change my life and make me love having all student work in my google drive. After several rounds of trial and error, I used autocrat to create two assignments today and it worked beautifully. The assignments went right to the folder for that particular assignment (instead of to the class folder) and all student work was there, in alphabetical order, ready for me to quickly check who had completed the assignment. No more untitled documents, no more papers without headers, no more “I thought I shared it with you.”

I can’t explain how to do it as well as these pros, so here are the links to the two sessions I attended that give the step by step how-to.

Alice Keeler has great instructions HERE . She and David Malone were super helpful.

Will Kimbley gave an overview of autocrat and fluberoo HERE (I have not yet tried fluberoo). His presentation was fast and I accidentally deleted all my notes, but he had tons of great ideas on how to use forms.

I also found these helpful blog posts (sometimes it takes me several different explanations to “get it.”)
THIS one from EdTechCoaching
THIS one from Ed Tech 4 Theater

So how am I using this? Well, yesterday I posted our weekly informational text assignment (based on Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week). Today I had them log on to our class ning page where they found the link to a google form. Once they completed the form, they logged into their email where they found a google doc I had started for them (with the correct header and title) with sentence frames from They Say, I Say to use as a starting point for their responses.

The second assignment was to write a rhetorical précis based on a primary source document that they are also using in U.S. History. Again, they logged into ning to get the link to the form, then to their email to get the doc I started with the template for writing the rhetorical précis.

Student response was overwhelmingly positive. They liked that they didn't have to worry about where the doc was on their drive and whether or not it was shared (though I encouraged them to move it into the correct class folder) and they liked that it was started for them (they really liked how their names were already in the header - magic!)

I think we’ll also use this next week when we have an information meeting. Instead of having parents and students sign in on paper and then later have to type up their contact info into excel (and hope we can read their handwriting), we’ll have them fill out a form, which will then automatically send the “thanks for attending our meeting” email AND create the spreadsheet with their contact information. Nice.

I’m pretty pleased with it all.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

An experiment

Over the winter break I read “Snow Fall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” At first, I didn’t pay attention to how long the article was, nor did I check out all of the interactive features – I just read the story, focusing on the parts that interested me and skimming the parts I found less interesting. Later, as I was thinking about how I wanted to start the semester, I came back to the article and re-read it, this time thinking about how students might react to it and how I could use it as a mentor text in class. On the second read, I clicked on every link, watched every video. Personally, I found many of the enhancements distracting – there were only a few that helped my understanding of the story and several that added interest, but some just seemed extraneous to me. I also found two additional articles describing the creation of the piece and read both of those ("How We Made Snow Fall" and "Q & A: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek".

I assigned the reading over three nights, two sections per night. As I assigned the reading, I explained that many were calling this the "future of web storytelling" and a new kind of digital journalism, and asked them to read with this in mind. On the second day we spent a significant amount of the period discussing the two sections they read. We talked about the multimedia features and how those affected our reading, and we talked about how narrative and informative text were woven together to tell a complete story. I also asked them to talk about their background knowledge – how many skied or snowboarded, how many had been “out-of-boundaries” when doing so, if they had even been caught in a wave (an analogy used in the first section to describe the feeling of being swept up in the avalanche). A handful of students had never seen snow; about a third of the class skis/snowboards regularly. The response to the first two parts was fairly positive.

We didn’t discuss the second two sections in class; instead, I had them write about what they had read. Again, feedback on the reading was mostly positive. Then, after completing the final two sections, we had another discussion, evaluating the helpfulness of each non-textual element. The students also worked in small groups to descriptively outline a section of the story, chunking the writing and indicating its purpose in the larger section (narrative vs. informative, for example). We spent time talking about how the text is structured – how narrative is interwoven with explanatory writing and graphics, and how that affected our reading.

I explained that the goal ultimately is for them to produce their own multimedia piece that combines narrative, informative, and non-text elements. I left the project pretty wide open – they can choose topic and final format, but all elements must work together to tell story and convey information.

I wanted them to have some practice before turning them loose, so we spent three periods trying to turn Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” into something more than a story on a page. One period was devoted to reading the story and brainstorming possible enhancements. The second period was spent in the lab, hyperlinking photos, videos, and audio clips (surprising how many kids did not know how to embed links in a Word or Google doc), and inserting comments to explain what they would like to do, but didn’t have skills to do. Some of their multimedia enhancement ideas were quite interesting! The last day we were back in the lab, evaluating each other’s versions of the same story – which additions helped their understanding of the story, which were unnecessary or distracting, which were really creative ideas of how to enhance the story.

As they started planning their stories, I shared other examples I found by searching for interactive storytelling and multimedia fiction. Here are some of those stories:
Nightingale's Playground
Inanimate Alice
Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro
BlackHawk Down
For Amusement Only: The Life and Death of the American Arcade
The Long, Strange Trip of Dock Ellis
Cyborg America: Inside the strange new world of basement body hackers

We also looked at children's books to get a better idea of how pictures can be used to tell a story, as well as this photo essay which prompted a great discussion.

We will revisit "Snow Fall" this week, looking closely at how the author introduces new topics and characters, how he includes dialog, how he builds tension – getting into the nitty gritty of the writing with the hopes that they will be able to emulate that in their own stories.

I have no idea what kind of final product many will share with me, but the buzz in the lab on Friday was good. I can't wait to be amazed by their creativity!

Saturday, December 29, 2012


I spent Christmas Day looking at directions. After my boys opened their presents, I helped one assemble his new Lego set.  We worked steadily for an hour or so and put together his new heavy-duty helicopter with minimal fuss, even though the set is rated for older children. Then I tried to help my husband assemble the gas BBQ he gave me. What a difference! My husband is quite handy and loves to fix, modify, and assemble everything from wooden puzzles to cars to computers. So it was with some surprise we found ourselves re-reading instructions and the assembly taking close to three hours, rather than the 45 minutes indicated on the box.

What was so different about the experiences? The Lego instructions were far superior. First, there are the pictures on the box and the front of the directions that show the completed project. Then, the parts are separated into several bags and each bag has its own detailed section in the instruction guide showing how to assemble. There is a picture of the complete section before the detailed step-by-step instructions. Each step adds just a small part to the section of the complete project and it is clear to see where each piece goes and how each section adds to the previous. Contrast that to the BBQ instructions where one exploded diagram includes many steps. We had to talk through the diagram and compare that to the pieces scattered on the ground, trying to figure out which parts to connect to each other first. Holes weren't aligned exactly (particularly infuriating to a machinist used to working within very tiny tolerances) and pieces didn't fit together easily. 

So that made me think about how I ask students to write essays, or rather, how I should help students write essays. Show them a model, point out the parts, go through the step-by-step writing moves that make the essay work. I do show a model essay at the beginning of explaining what an argument essay looks like, for example, but I could slow down on the step by step instructions and just do one small piece at a time, such as how to integrate quotes or what kind of transitions to use. Just because they are seniors, it doesn't mean they know what they are doing...


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My letter to seniors on Monday

Other educators have responded far more eloquently to the shootings at Sandy Hook, but here's what I gave to each student after they finished writing their final essay for me this semester:

Dear Seniors,

Though the greeting is impersonal, please be assured the sentiments today are not.

Last Friday, as I was getting ready to leave work, I checked the traffic and saw that there had been an accident on 280, just north of Farm Hill and occurring just after we let out for class. I worried that some of you might be involved and hoped it was nothing serious. As I got in my car a bit later, I heard that it was a fatal accident -- my heart sank, and I anxiously scanned news stations to find out more. I tried to remember which students lived where, who might be driving home that way, and prayed fervently that it was none of you. My heart was already heavy from the horrible news of the school shooting in Connecticut and the drive home was long and somber. Though I feel so sorry for the family and friends of those who were killed in the accident, it was with some relief that I recognized none of the names on the evening news that night.

The news of the school shooting in Newtown has continued to weigh heavily on my heart and mind. How can something that terrible happen? How can we explain the unexplainable? I had to stop reading the news and listening to reports and instead, I let my thoughts focus on each one of you. As we finish a book where individuality was non-existent and conformity the norm, I appreciate each of you for what you add to my life. Some of you tell me about good books I should read, some share jokes or funny stories, some add insightful comments to our class discussions while others make those comments in the office, some just give a warm smile in class. You add laughter and joy to our class every day. Many times you also add thoughtful remarks, sometimes even on the topic we’re discussing! J

Seriously, though, as we step away from school for a bit and enjoy the holiday season, take the time to appreciate your family and friends, and know that I appreciate you, too. You may think it’s corny, but you matter to me, more than you’ll ever realize.

Read a good book or two and share it with me when we get back – and have a happy, safe, and fun break! Read! Experience something wonderful! Share your specialness with those around you! Bring joy to others!

But most of all, come back ready to make our last semester together amazing. Congratulations to our early grads and happy holidays to all--

Several students responded via email, a couple left notes on my desk this morning, and a handful talked to me at various points in the day -- all said thank you and that it was nice to know that someone noticed them, cared about them. But all of the kids who responded are kids who interact with me outside of class -- it's the ones who try to fade into the background that I worry about. I hope they read my note and realize that try as they may to fly under my radar, I do notice them, they do matter to me.