The Jens

The Jens
jen b & Jen P

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.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My Voice, Their Essays

Just about the time I was finishing up a month-long Transcendentalists unit with my juniors, Jen P shared Jim Burke's video (see Jen P's post) on voice recorded essay grading. The minute I watched, I was ready to try it. To be fair, had he promoted the idea that grading essays while standing on my head would make the process easier, I'd probably try that, too. I hate grading essays. I don't know anyone who loves it. How did we all become English teachers???
Aaaannnyways, back to the point: Here's how I rolled it out:

1. I told students we'd be trying something new...that we'd see how it went, but to be ready to revise after draft one.
2. When the essay was due, I had them print a hard copy for me, save an electronic copy for themselves, and upload to since they had worked on it outside of class.
3. I began reading. Using the voice-record feature on my iPhone, I narrated my comments for students--exactly as Jim Burke describes in his video.
4. I highlighted/circled some words/areas of concern as I was reading, but made no comments, though I did mark on a grading sheet a tentative score.
5. I returned all hard copies to students and emailed each student my comments for him/her.
6. Three days later, students had due: their original hard copy, but now marked-up with annotations based upon my comments for them (to show my they had listened to my comments) and a revised electronic copy, emailed to me. I asked them to specifically highlight in the electronic final draft only the parts of their essay they had changed based upon my comments.
7. Those who followed the process and made significant changes received a bump in the score I had jotted while voice-recording; those who made few changes/didn't follow directions/didn't turn-in a final draft received the initial essay grade.

So, after that process, if I were reading this I'd be wondering, How did it go? Did it save time? Was it less painful than reading/marking up? Will you do it again?
I think for the true-test question, Will you do it again?, my answer is Yes. However, I don't think--at least initially--that it saved me time. The shortest recordings were around four minutes; the longest one was about fourteen (AND he didn't even turn in a revised draft!!!). Most were around five-six minutes. But keep in mind, that's just the recording part. In between recording I was reading/considering, so the recording part only represents when I had collected my thoughts on a particular issue and was ready to speak.
The best part of this process is that the feedback for students is ultimately much, much better through my voice than through my pen because I would never be willing to write as much as I was willing to say. I also really like that it forces them to reread their own writing in a very critical way, having to mark-up and annotate it (instead of me!). That, to me, makes it worth the process. Students seemed to be very positive about the amount of feedback they received and I think with practice I may be able to streamline the whole thing a bit, too. Regardless, I'll definitely be doing it again.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Brave New World in a Brave New Way

I’m in the midst of a dystopian unit I’ve taught before and I’m realizing how much my lessons are changing in order to meet the CCSS. I’ve taught Brave New World a handful of times now, and in the past I’ve focused more on the ideas in the book and connections we can make to present-day life. I haven’t focused as much on the text itself, especially the writing, because honestly, I don’t care for the writing – it’s the ideas that draw me in. I don’t think this novel is particularly well-written and I don’t find the style to be what drives my interest in the book; there are parts of the book I wish Huxley had written differently and there are plenty of places in the story where I think Huxley is focusing more on getting his ideas out than telling a good story. But as I prepared to introduce my students to this classic, I realized that if I am to address the Common Core reading standards for literature, I need to change what I do with this text.

I think I do a pretty good job of having students find evidence in the text (standard 1). That they don’t always integrate this evidence into their essays is another issue, but when I ask them to find, for example, a quote that highlights something the society in BNW values, they can provide a quote about community or stability. We’re about halfway through the book at this point, and I’ve asked them to find quotes that support assertions or reveal something about the themes that I’ve provided them. As we get closer to finishing the text, they’ll have to make the assertions and find the quotes, but initially, I did to make sure they were on the right track.

As we finish and review the text this week, we’ll spend time looking at how themes are developed (standard 2), and new for me this time around, the author’s choices in how to develop and relate elements of a story (standard 3). I usually gloss over how BNW is written, but now I’ll slow down the conversation and let the students focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the writing. We’ll have to spend time looking at how the text is structured and how that contributes to its overall meaning (standard 5). And we’ll look at why Huxley wrote the novel, which I think gets at standard 6 (point of view).

One aspect of teaching this unit that I am not changing is all the additional reading I bring in to support our study of the ideas presented in BNW. Some of these readings include Huxley’s own essays in Brave New World Revisited, but I have some additional current events-type articles to also spark discussion and deeper thought. These address the CCSS standards for reading informational texts. As with the novel itself, I’ve used some of these readings in the past to generate in-class discussions, but now, with the standards for informational reading in hand, we’ll spend more time analyzing the text and not just the ideas.

I know it isn’t necessary to hit every standard in every unit, that the standards are end-of-year grade-level expectations, but I do need to make sure that I am addressing these throughout the year and not just focusing on the easy-for-me or preferably-to-me standards. And looking at how this novel is written is just as important as what was written, so that’s the task this week.
How are you adapting your lessons to meet the new standards, Jen B?