Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?  

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific paper for students to read and dissect and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition,  qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us—for me, this kind of coaching—where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Writing Like a Scientist

The first year, we just put a toe in the water: We addressed the use of the passive voice.

The next year, we took on pronouns.

This year, my colleague and I dove in head first: We tackled passive voice, pronoun usage, scientific description, conciseness, the particular vocabulary of science, and (of course) citations and internal documentation. The goal: improved Science Fair projects–and ones that read like science writing.

An instructional coach for secondary teachers, I was thrilled three years ago when Mrs. Amanda Cox approached me about her goal for the year: incorporating the Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy into her Honors biology classes. Mrs. Cox took the standards to heart.  “I want my students to write like scientists,” she told me, “but they don’t know how–and I’m not sure I know how to teach them. I’m not an English teacher.”

She’s not alone. The literacy standards–which apply across the curriculum–challenge many content area teachers.  Writing instruction begins in grade school, but the skills that are emphasized are the ones in the English teacher’s toolbox: introductions that capture the reader’s attention, strong action verbs, colorful vocabulary choices, rhetorical questions, apt quotations.

English teachers don’t focus on the language of science. We want variety in sentence length and structure to sustain interest in the content, and we aim for metaphor, simile, and other figures of speech for the same reason. The passive voice gives us the heebie-jeebies.

If you’re a content area teacher, it is easy enough to require writing, but requiring something means teaching it–or knowing for sure that it has been taught–and then grading it. Where is the professional development in reading and writing for content area teachers?  It came, delightfully and productively for my colleague and me, in the form of co-teaching.

We began with the passive voice, one of the most distinctive features of science writing–and a requirement for the Science Fair project.  In science, it’s the discovery that is important; the role of the specific scientist is downplayed. So, in a  traditional write-up of a scientific investigation, the scientist is missing from his or her report. Instead of saying “I discovered X,” a researcher would write, “X was discovered.” Mrs. Cox’s 9th grade students had never even heard of passive voice.

A grammar lesson was necessary, and I was happy to prepare and deliver it. An English teacher by training, I was in my element. Even more fun, I was in front of students again. I had a chance to refresh my classroom skills.

With practice, Mrs. Cox’s students learned to write sentences in the passive voice. Their lab reports began to sound a little more scientific. But a quantitative payoff wasn’t there. The average grade on the Science Fair projects that year was the same as the year before: 76%.

So the next year we tackled pronoun usage. Again, in science writing, pronouns are scarce. When one is used, its antecedent is unmistakable.  So another grammar lesson was in order: What’s a pronoun? What’s an antecedent? Why do they have to agree? And what’s agreement anyway?

Every English teacher in the country knows how pesky pronouns can be and how tough it is for kids to master them. Drill and kill doesn’t much work as a strategy for learning. A teacher can spray red ink on a paper like Roundup on weeds and still the pronoun errors sprout again in the next paper.

Mrs. Cox and I decided on an old-fashioned revision method: We projected sentences onto the whiteboard that we had drawn from the students’ own lab reports and, working together as a class, corrected them. That process worked well.  In correcting the pronoun errors, of course, we uncovered other problems and eliminated those, too: problems of conciseness and specificity, problems of vocabulary and redundancy.

For example:

  • New information is important because it can change the way you view other information.

became  New information changes the way other information is viewed.

  • We couldn’t figure it out but as we received new information and hints, we got closer and eventually we got it.

became Understanding developed gradually.

  • New information and scientific processes are important because they help further our understanding and develop our research.

became Scientific inquiry yields new understandings that, in turn, inform further research.

By the end of that second year, students were more sensitive to language and could quickly spot a sentence written in the active voice and change it into the passive.  But still, the overall scores on the Science Fair projects didn’t budge.  Seventy-six percent remained the average.

By the third year, we decided that we needed to take a much more robust co-teaching approach. Mrs. Cox selected a scientific abstract for students to read and dissect, and I prepared a lesson that engaged the students in teasing out the fundamental differences between writing for English class and writing like a scientist. Those differences included using the passive voice, avoiding pronouns, and redefining description to mean facts and processes, not “colorful” language.  In English class, students reach for strong verbs, vivid adjectives, figurative language, and even auditory devices like assonance and onomatopoeia. None of that obtains in a journal article for science.

In addition, I taught the students how to document their sources using MLA format, 8th edition. (Yes, they could have used APA, but our teachers have made the decision to use MLA from middle school through early high school in order to be consistent.  Once students have the documentation process down, transferring to APA or any other system will be easy.)

I was in Mrs. Cox’s classroom often enough this year that I learned the students’ names. By October, I felt like a teacher, not a coach. I even helped with drafts and with grading the final projects—that surely made me feel like a teacher!

And the results: This year the average score jumped to 80.5%.  The students garnered top scores at the regional science fair. One young man, who won gold at the regional competition, qualified for the state science fair and won the Stockholm Award–an honor that brings with it the chance to win a trip to Sweden and participate in a competition there.

Co-teaching the Science Fair project has been fulfilling for both of us. This kind of coaching, where the emphasis is on student learning, in this case through co-teaching, provided sound and appropriate professional development for me, the instructional coach, and for my colleague, the 9th grade Honors Biology teacher.

We both learned new skills.

Mrs. Cox can teach these English lessons now herself (although we do have one more tweak we want to make next year), but the co-teaching idea has spread. Next year I’ll be working with an 8th grade science teacher and a 12th grade Anatomy and Physiology teacher with the very same goal in mind: improving the quality of science writing and thereby augmenting student learning.

And this time, those teachers and I will dive into the deep end right from the start.

Wicked Cool: Science in English Class

file_000-2“It was wicked cool.”

That’s how one 10th grade student at McCutcheon High School summed up the collaborative learning experience orchestrated by English teacher Jennie Ruiz and science teacher Chris Pfledderer.

Ms. Ruiz’ students had read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the non-fiction account by Rebecca Skloot of the journey of the cancer cells taken by researchers at Johns Hopkins in 1951 from a living patient, Henrietta Lacks. These cells produced a medical breakthrough: For the first time, human cells grew successfully under laboratory conditions. The cells continued to grow in the lab, and samples were shared throughout the world, enabling scientists to conduct experiments they’d not been able to before. The cells still grow today, though Mr. Pfledderer explained that they’re no longer pure because of all the work that has been done with them. In fact, he said, other cells are more often used today—bacteria and insect cells—to conduct research, but the HeLa cells, as they are called (for Henrietta Lacks), were the first.

file_004-1-copyThe lab took two days to complete. On the first day, Mr. Pfledderer demonstrated the procedure for staining the HeLa cells so that they could be viewed under the microscope. He supervised as students dropped a suspension of cells onto a slide from a height of several feet, hoping that the force of the fall would break open the cell membrane and nucleus so the chromosomes would be available to stain. Then the students waited for the slides to dry. file_005-3

This may have been the hardest part of the experiment. Waiting, blowing gently on the slide, and resisting the urge to hurry the process taxed their patience. “We need a hairdryer!” I heard one boy say. (Never mind that the force of air would have spoiled the slide; the printed directions clearly stated that heat should not be used to hurry the process.)

When the slides were finally dry, Mr. Pfledderer explained, the students would dip the slides three times into Stain #1, wipe the bottom of the slide, and then dip it three times into Stain #2. Finally, the slide would be immersed in distilled water. Students would leave the slides on a counter in Mrs. Ruiz’ classroom to dry overnight.

file_007-2The next day, Mr. Pfledderer rolled a cart of microscopes into her classroom.  He reviewed the process of focusing the three lenses and reminded the students to move the slide—slowly—on the stage. “A tiny movement by you will be a giant move through the lens,” he explained.

Pairs of students grabbed microscopes and searched for outlets around the room. The English room rapidly became an informal lab as students placed their slides and searched for chromosomes.

“You won’t all get one,” Mr. Pfledderer had cautioned them the day before. “We hope some of you will.”

Hands waved, voices called out for the science teacher to look at the purple blobs the students discovered on their slides.

file_000-3“That’s a floating piece of cell membrane,” he told one pair.

“Just a blob,” he told another.

“Yep! That’s a chromosome!” he congratulated one duo. With that, other students flocked to see the chromosome on their slide. iPhones emerged from back pockets and purses as students took pictures by pressing the aperture of the phone to the eyepiece of the microscope. file_002-2

Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black woman, and her cells were grown and distributed without her consent or her living family’s knowledge. That fact has spawned controversy, for not only are the cells famous, but biotech companies have profited from using them. Until Ms. Skloot wrote her book, the Lacks family had received none of the profit.

The case poses important ethical questions for science: What obligation do researchers have to obtain consent for tissue preservation and use? Who should benefit monetarily from discovery and invention? In other words, who should profit from scientific progress?

Laws, in fact, were different in the 1950s, so Johns Hopkins—which has since established a scholarship in Henrietta Lacks’ name—did nothing illegal. The cells from a living cancer biopsy had grown unexpectedly, miraculously even. The goal was scientific research, and the windfall cell reproduction eventuated in discoveries related first to the polio epidemic that was sweeping the country at the time and later benefitted research into leukemia, AIDS, chemotherapy and gene mapping, to name a few. In short, many modern advances in science and medicine are indebted to HeLa cells and thus, in the point of view of some, to Henrietta Lacks.

The question is a knotty one with no easy or practical solution. Rebecca Skloot, the author, has established a foundation to support education and other needs for Henrietta Lacks’ descendants.

When the lab was over, Mrs. Ruiz asked the students to reflect on the experience. One student wrote, “To be honest, when I was looking at the cells, I didn’t think about the person behind them. I was just looking and feel like that is what the scientists were doing. They were just doing their jobs, like they did to all of the other cells in the lab.”

The student continued: “Yes, I believe that they [Henrietta Lacks’ family] should have gotten money because they were poor.” But, he asked rhetorically, “If they were rich, would you have the same feeling toward them not getting money?”

Another student wrote, “Doing this kind of made me feel bad because these cells once belonged to a woman who didn’t even know that people like 10th grade English students would be looking at her cells. Even though I felt bad about that, I still had a lot of fun and I think it was a very good learning experience. I also enjoyed how it connected English to science.”

And this entry: “I didn’t really understand what HeLa cells would look like until now. Would they look like normal cells? Would they look immortal? Monster like? Now that I have seen and witnessed HeLa cells, I know that they are just the same as yours and mine would be.”

Watching the lesson unfold, I could see that Mrs. Ruiz and Mr. Pfledderer had brought non-fiction reading to life and may even have sparked an interest in science that wasn’t there before. Students thought seriously and deeply about what they had read and experienced, and that is the goal of education. 

Wicked cool.

file_006-2

 

Revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird

img_1959

A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a book talk to a women’s group in my  town about To Kill a Mockingbird and Harper Lee’s second book, Go Set a Watchman. My only credentials for that talk are these: I’ve read Mockingbird at least 35 times and I taught the novel to 9th graders for 31 years.  Several of those 35 reads occurred before I became a teacher. In fact, my mother gave Mockingbird to me for my birthday just before my senior year in high school—the year that the book was published.  I read it start to finish in one big gulp and then read it again, under the covers with a flashlight.  Lee’s story captured me right from the start.

For all those 31 years of teaching, I began each class’s study of Mockingbird by reading aloud just a bit about Atticus and the small town of Maycomb:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began to summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist-fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said that we were both right.

And with that, Atticus is established as the authority, the hero, and even a god.  “Our father.”

And then this, the description of the small town of Maycomb:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the street turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes of sweat and sweet talcum.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had just been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

I love this passage. In two short paragraphs reside lessons in dating the setting via allusion, the art of alliteration and metaphor, the inclusion of exquisite detail that brings a scene and the mood so indelibly into focus.  And the black dog: a tiny, tiny bit of foreshadowing.

Nelle Harper Lee grew up in Monroeville, Alabama.  Her father was a successful and respected lawyer and for a time was one of the publishers of the local newspaper.  Her mother, Frances Finch Lee, was a strange woman—possibly she suffered from bipolar disorder—and she and Nelle did not have a close relationship. Truman Capote lived next door in the summertime (His parents were divorced and he spent summers in Monroeville with relatives), and Nelle and Truman were fast friends.  Legend has it that they spent hours writing stories together on an old Underwood typewriter.  Nelle went to college and even did a year of what we’d call today, pre-law.  But she wanted to be a writer, so at age 23 she went to New York City to live and work.  Working days, first in a bookstore and later for Eastern Airlines and later still for BOAC, and writing at night, she produced a draft of a book.  Her agent first made suggestions for revision—which Nelle dutifully made—and then an editor at HarperCollins, Tay Hahoff (who died in 1974) spotted the real story in what seemed like a string of short stories.  Hahoff saw promise in the prose, too, and encouraged Nelle to revise the manuscript. Friends gave Nelle a Christmas present of enough money to live on for a year so she could write full-time.  What resulted, two and a half years later, was To Kill a Mockingbird.

 Mockingbird was published on July 12, 1960—right in the middle of a decade that began in 1954 with the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court—ordering the desegregation of the public schools—and ended with the passage in 1964 of the Civil Rights Act and in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.  That’s important because the Civil Rights Movement, as it came to be called, dominated the news.  To Kill a Mockingbird was—and still is—a stab at the conscience of America.

The setting of Mockingbird is Maycomb (read, Monroeville) in the 1930s. The trial of the Scottsboro Boys is often cited as the inspiration for the Tom Robinson story, but it wasn’t. A local and far less sensational rape case was the true model.  A.C. Lee, Harper Lee’s father, was, however, the inspiration for Atticus Finch.

Mockingbird—sometimes lauded for being a charming coming-of-age story (which it is)–follows two main plot threads. One is the trial of Tom Robinson, a humble black man who has been accused by a white man, Bob Ewell (the “mad dog” of the book), of raping his daughter, Mayella. She is a lonely young woman who has been sexually abused by her shiftless, alcoholic father.  She accosts Tom, and her father sees it.  Tom runs, though he’s done nothing wrong, and Ewell accuses him simply because he can. He thinks the town will thank him for it. Atticus Finch takes the case on principle: He couldn’t look his children in the eye—couldn’t make them mind him, he said—if he himself doesn’t do what is right.  But he knows he is fighting a losing battle: There is no precedent for acquittal in such a case, even when the defendant is plainly not guilty.  Speaking to the jury, Atticus memorably characterizes the case as being “as simple as black and white.”

The other thread in Mockingbird is that of Boo Radley, a strange and reclusive man who lives in a house down the street. Boo befriends the children—though they remain “spooked” by him–and ultimately saves their lives when Ewell attempts to kill them on a dark Halloween night. The two stories are thus brought together and Scout articulates the meaning of the title when she assures her father that prosecuting Boo Radley would be like shooting a mockingbird; that is, persecuting innocent and helpless individuals—like Tom Robinson and Boo Radley—who “don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.”  Thus, a string of short stories is woven together by the symbolism of mad dogs and mockingbirds.

Atticus is the quintessential epic hero.  A little aside here: I also taught The Odyssey and directed my students’ attention to the epic tradition.  The students drew the comparison easily—because it is there. Harper Lee won a Pulitzer Prize and the book was translated into 10 languages within a year of publication—ultimately, into 40—and has never been put of print.  In the 1962 film version, Gregory Peck portrayed Atticus. The book is still the most widely taught novel in schools across the country (a few attempts at banning it notwithstanding—in fact, those attempts only increased its readership!).  Atticus Finch was elevated to the status of a god—one who looks just like Gregory Peck.

Then came Watchman in 2015.  The publishers provided a trigger warning—and many people declined to read the book.  (Me included, even though I’d preordered from Amazon.) Atticus, we were told, turns into a racist.  It was a year before I read Watchman because each review was worse than the last.  Like a lot of other people, I didn’t want to be disillusioned.  Eventually, I gave in.  I’d written extensively about teaching Mockingbird on my blog. It seemed like chickening out not to read Watchman.  Now I’ve read it twice. That will probably be enough.

People usually mark the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement with the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. On the heels of that decision came two momentous events: the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 and the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and initiated when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the end of a long, hard day. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled again, ordering the desegregation of the Montgomery buses.

Emmett Till’s funeral was portrayed in a photographic spread in Life magazine. The bus boycott ended after a year with another Supreme Court ruling, this one ordering the desegregation of the Montgomery, AL buses.  Those two events are the backdrop for Go Set a Watchman.

The book opens with Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, returning to Maycomb from New York City for a visit. It appears at first to be a love story involving a boy who had lived across the street when Jean Louise was young, a boy whom Atticus has mentored and taken into his law firm.  In the book, Jem has died and Dill has gone missing. Two characters of major importance in Mockingbird aren’t in Watchman: the “ghost” Boo Radley and Mrs. Dubose, the harridan who lives down the street and menaces the children but turns out to be a dying woman trying to get out from under a morphine addiction. Uncle Jack plays a much more important role in Watchman; Aunt Alexandra is still a foil for Atticus. Calpurnia, the black woman who raised Scout and Jem, makes an appearance, but it’s a cold one.  And Atticus—well, Atticus at 72 is the same man in many ways, but there’s this disturbing thing about his stance on civil rights.

Indeed, in Watchman, Atticus is portrayed as a man with deep reservations about the events of the 1950s. In the book, he has joined the White Citizen’s Council in Maycomb—organizations like this had sprung up all over the South in response to those Supreme Court rulings.  In conversations with Jean Louise, Atticus espouses the policy of gradualism.  His remarks reveal not only a paternalistic attitude toward African-Americans, but downright racist ones.

I was prepared for Atticus.  It was Scout who appalled me.  Her outrage over her father’s attendance at the White Citizen’s Council meeting culminates in a scene full of excess, a confrontation with so much invective and vitriol that I was shocked.  Yes, Jean Louise is shocked by what she has learned about her father, but she screams at him, calls him names, and carries on beyond my ability to believe.  She’s also brutal in her attacks on her aunt—rude, profane, and frankly, unforgivable.  She knows better.

I told him in detail about our trip to church with Calpurnia. Atticus seemed to enjoy it, but Aunt Alexandra, who was sitting in a corner quietly sewing, put down her embroidery and stared at us.

“You all were coming back from Calpurnia’s church that Sunday?”

Jem said, “Yessum, she took us.”

I remembered something. “Yessum, and she promised that I could come out to her house some afternoon. Atticus, I’ll go next Sunday if it’s all right, can I? Cal said she’d come get me if you were off in the car.”

“You may not.”

Aunt Alexandra said it. I wheeled around, startled, then turned back to Atticus in time to catch his swift glance at her, but it was too late. I said, “I didn’t ask you!”

For a big man, Atticus could get up and down from a chair faster than anyone I ever knew. He was on his feet. “Apologize to your aunt,” he said.

“I didn’t ask her, I asked you—“

Atticus turned his head and pinned me to the wall with his good eye. His voice was deadly. “First, apologize to your aunt.”

“I’m sorry, Aunty, I muttered.

“Now then, he said. “Let’s get this clear: you do as Calpurnia tells you, you do as I tell , and as long as your aunt’s in this house, you will do as she tells you. Understand?”

I understood, pondered a while, and concluded that the only way I could retire with a shred of dignity was to go to the bathroom, where I stayed long enough to make them think I had to go.

That scene, a lesson in courtesy that couldn’t have failed to stick, is from Chapter 14 of Mockingbird, shortly after Aunt Alexander, the children’s nemesis, arrives to supervise Jem and Scout during the long, hot summer of Tom Robinson’s trial.

Watchman, to my mind, is more autobiographical than Mockingbird—in this way: It is far more revealing of Harper Lee’s state of mind in the 1950s.  The years of Watchman are the years that she was living in New York. She’d come back to Monroeville on the train for a visit—and undoubtedly she’d hear the rhetoric of the white families in her hometown.  At one point, early in the story, Atticus even asks her what the New York papers make of what’s “going on down here.”  It seems likely to me that in Watchman, Harper Lee was working through her own emotional responses to the events of the day and her reactions to the reactions of her family and community to these same events.

When I finally approached the book, I was already braced for Atticus. I expected to read amateurish writing—I did—but I also hoped I’d see a text that would make the power of revision clear to young writers, to my students.  With Mockingbird, I’d taught them more than how to read a novel, more than how to discover theme.  I’d opened their eyes to the elements of style.  So I hoped for early indications of that style in Watchman.  I found them.  Words, expressions, a proclivity for allusion, humor—though not much irony.  But the story seems thin to me—and disjointed.  There are some treats: a flashback to Scout, Jem, and Dill playing—not Boo Radley, but “Evangelist.” A long chapter featuring the loquacious Uncle Jack, as usual, circumventing a topic and making allusions to British history. A nice picture or two of various neighbors from Scout’s childhood days. It’s just that the richness, the fullness of Mockingbird isn’t there. Too much talk and not enough weaving of story line.  It’s as if the book had been stripped of its best parts—and it probably was. For Mockingbird.

Few critics like Watchman.

Some make a mistake that’s easy to make: It’s the same mistake I made by thinking Scout should know better than to be so rude to her father and her aunt.  The chronology of the two stories can be confused with the order in which they were written.  Watchman came first.  Atticus is 72 years old and the backdrop is 1956.  Mockingbird was written second—presumably as a revision of Watchman—and the backdrop is the 1930s.  In their responses to the publication, some people called Watchman the sequel—as if the two were intended one to follow the other.  Looked at that way, Atticus is indeed a disappointment.

Others knew something of the revision work Harper Lee had done and took the statement from the publisher at face value: Watchman was a draft and Mockingbird was the fruit of revision.  These reviewers looked at the “new” text for the seeds of Mockingbird and noticed that the story of Atticus and the rape trial is presented in just a paragraph and as a flashback. They noticed the shortcomings of a novice writer and expressed the opinion that Watchman should never have been published. The second publication tarnishes the first.

Many questioned the motives of Lee’s lawyer in providing the book to HarperCollins and HarperCollins for publishing it. They speculated that Lee, hard of hearing and poor of eyesight, ill and in a nursing home, had been manipulated into publishing the book.  There’s been so much confusion that we still don’t know the provenance of the book for sure.

Some said, and I agree, that in terms of producing literature, Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hahoff, was brilliant: Here’s your story—the rape case—now run with it—and somehow, make all these short stories into a coherent piece.  Which Harper Lee did, producing, to the benefit of readers everywhere and especially to the benefit of English teachers who know the book is a cornucopia of lessons in narrative arc, character development, symbolism, irony, and style, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Long, languid sentences and hilarious scenes of children at play evoke the best of a time and place gone by.  Short, direct, blunt utterances, a scene when Atticus shoots a rabid dog, and carefully crafted court scenes carry the message that prejudice is a disease and reveal the hard truth that the justice system is imperfect. The climax—when Scout meets Boo Radley at last and discovers his humanity is a touching depiction of the moral imperative to treat everyone with dignity and compassion.

For a while after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Harper Lee herself spoke of trying to write a second book.  It was going to be about race. Presumably, the setting would be Maycomb, or at least Alabama.  Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, ventured this idea: Did Lee return to the original Watchman years after Mockingbird was published?  Did she revisit her first draft when she was older and struggling under the pressure of success to write a second book?  Is Watchman actually a post-1960 revision of the original first draft?  Gopnik points out that Watchman is confusing without a prequel, without Mockingbird. He points out that the shock of Watchman is only felt if the reader already knows Mockingbird.  If not, he posits, who would care about Atticus’s “fall from grace?”

But we are not going to know the whole story. It remains a literary mystery.  Or at least it will until another manuscript is “discovered.”  The best we can do now is enjoy Watchman, if we did, for what it is: the incomplete work of a novice writer.  Or, if we hold with Gopnik, the unfinished work of an extraordinary writer faced with an impossible task: producing another book that could hold a candle to her first.

And, this of course: We can continue to relish Lee’s enduring masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Unsung Heroes Project

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So many young people today are without real heroes. Their knowledge of individuals who have made a difference in the world usually extends only as far as celebrities and sports stars, perhaps to someone in politics. Worthy as some of these people may be, students are generally unaware of the range of actions that can be considered heroic and, even more importantly, of the people in their own community who have made a difference by standing up for, rescuing, or serving another person, cause, idea, or the community itself.

The last three years that I was in the classroom, my 9th grade Honors English students and I undertook a project that expanded their understanding of what it means to be a hero.  This was the Unsung Hero Project, inspired and supported by the Lowell Milken Center in Fort Scott, Kansas. I’ve blogged about this project before (Great Expectations: The Unsung Hero Project and Unsung Heroes, Reprise), but I’ve never outlined exactly what my students did. Recently I was asked to do that, so I’m sharing my description here along with some pictures of students at work on the project.

This classroom undertaking is an example of project-based learning. Through their work on this project, students developed skills in research, collaboration, writing, and the use of technology.  And, as important (if not more so) than anything else they learned, they were inspired by real live heroes in our own community.

Semester One

Students received intensive writing instruction the first semester, especially regarding formal writing conventions and organization of ideas. I spent time on sentence combining techniques (compound, complex, compound-complex sentences, introductory modifiers, appositives) before as well as during the time the students wrote their essays (February and March), and I hit topics such as pronoun antecedents pretty hard. Other grammatical topics I covered on an “as needed” basis. I also “unpacked” the skills required for a research paper, teaching basic bibliography skills, outlining, and internet search techniques in the first semester in preparation for the more complex research the students conducted during the second.

Collaboration is a vital component of this project, so I employed a variety of strategies for developing collaborative skills from the very beginning of the year. My goal was for students to be comfortable working together so that when they began the Unsung Heroes project in the second semester, they could work together efficiently, productively, and equitably.

The first step in the project itself was to define, through class discussion, what exactly we meant by the word “hero.”  Here’s what the students came up with one year: A hero is a person who, with no expectation or recognition or reward, has made a difference by standing up for, rescuing, or serving another person, cause, idea, or the community itself.  Definition Lessons 035

We had a few models, too: Atticus Finch served as the fictional model for a community hero (we read To Kill a Mockingbird in the fall) and the non-fiction model was Irena Sendler. The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler is available on DVD from Hallmark; the book Life in a Jar is available through Amazon. Other models were individuals profiled in the Christian Science Monitor’s series “People Making a Difference” (available online at the Monitor website). We read a number of these essays and practiced defining a hero by breaking down the stories and aligning them with the students’ definition.

Semester Two

Students formed groups of three, self-selecting their partners, and established an account on google.docs, an online tool for writing collaboratively, simultaneously, in real time (a new technology tool eight years ago when I first began this work!).

Then students selected a hero/heroine from a list I provided for them of people in our community who had been in some way heroic. Some of the individuals came to my/our attention because they had received a very small local award for their efforts. Some were suggested by friends in the community, the faculty at my school, and (by the second and third year) various individuals who had read the first volumes of the book. Once the students selected a cause/person, I contacted that individual, soliciting their involvement. No one ever turned us down, by the way, and I would have been surprised if they had.

The next step was the research paper, probably the most complex instructional piece. The students worked collaboratively to research the cause their hero had championed. Thus, when they met the hero and interviewed him/her, they were already “experts” on the topic. The hero didn’t have to start from scratch to educate the students. The research paper included an outline, an annotated bibliography, internal documentation, and a Works Cited page in MLA format.

Most students established email contact with their hero right away and were able to ask him/her for advice and recommendations for resources as they researched the topic. The heroes were usually glad to steer the students to appropriate resources and helped them narrow their topic appropriately.

Unsung Heroes II 024Once the research paper was underway, the students set up an interview with their hero. We tried to conduct all the interviews on the same day in the school library, but of course, not everyone was available on the day we selected, and in some cases, it was inconvenient for the hero to come to school at all. I sometimes drove groups of students to on-site locations and arranged for their parents to pick them up. To be honest, when the hero was associated with a facility—such as the Boys and Girls Club and a second-hand store for impoverished families—it is helpful for the students to see the facility.

Students set up the interview by phone or by email. Although I coached them in the art of interviewing, I stayed out of the interviews myself (aside from taking photographs). Afterward, the students typed up their notes in narrative form or in Question/Answer format—and then they started in on the essay. Their essays went through several revisions. Early versions were read by their peers and by me, and these revisions dealt with structure, the balance between narration and  quoted material, and the weaving of information from their research with what they had learned from their hero. Line editing came last, and both the students and I did this at various times.

P1010472One of my concerns as a teacher of writing was that “voice” would be lost in a collaborative project, and to a certain extent, it was. However, what usually happened is that one of the students emerged as the primary writer, so meshing styles and voices wasn’t as severe a problem as I had originally anticipated. They also each wrote a reflection. I was light-handed with these—I didn’t want to extinguish their individual voices—and by this time, the students were expert at line editing. People who have read the book who are not from this community and don’t know the heroes have told me that the reflections are the most interesting part of each book. That doesn’t surprise me—there students wrote from their hearts.

Students submitted their work to me as a Word document, and I did take over as the master technician on setting up the pages. Eventually, the document turned into a pdf file. The students selected the font and the layout, and they designed the front and back covers as well.

The books could have been published using an online company, but the submission deadlines for these companies did not work with the school calendar very well, so I elected to work with a local printing service. Frankly, I am glad I did. We were able to receive a galley, make final corrections, and still meet our publication deadline. Besides, the printer I worked with had a lot of good advice for us and accommodated our schedule well. He even attended our celebration at the end because he had had a hand in this production, too.

Unsung Heroes in Our Community was developed with the support of the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes (LMC) in Fort Scott, Kansas, whose mission is to “galvanize a movement to teach respect and understanding among all people regardless of race, religion or creed.” The spirit of the Center is embodied in the Hebrew expression, tikkun olam, which means “to repair the world.” The LMC accomplishes its mission of teaching respect and understanding by supporting education projects that feature Unsung Heroes—people who, like Irena Sendler, have acted to repair the world. The project was funded by grants from the Kiwanis Foundation and the Public Schools Foundation of Tippecanoe County.

Unsung Heroes in Our Community was an extensive project, and one that made me—still makes me—very proud. At the end of each year, we held a celebration to which all the heroes were invited as well as the principal and the school district administrators, the students’ parents, the press, and our donors. DSC_0002

At the celebration, the students introduced their heroes, a few students spoke to the audience about the process and what they had learned, and often the heroes made little speeches themselves. All this was followed by a mass book signing. The heroes were even more enthusiastic than the students about collecting signatures! DSC_0113

The book is now in our local public libraries, our local historical society, and in the collection at the Indiana State Historical Society in Indianapolis. Last year, two students were cited in the newspaper by our local historian for information they discovered about the Underground Railroad in our town. Volume I of Unsung Heroes in Our Community was enthusiastically reviewed on the radio last summer  and the book was also featured on local television. Some of our heroes, in fact, later became subjects for a local TV program, “Heroes Among Us.” DSC_0140

This project is well worth the time, energy, and effort it takes to orchestrate. Project-based learning is meaningful to students because it is “real” (as one of the students told me). At the same time, a project like this directly addresses state academic standards and district curriculum expectations. For the teacher, bringing a project such as this to fruition necessitates a thorough understanding of the standards and curriculum, of course, but beyond that, it is a matter of organization and planning and, above all, faith in the students. Their gain in research and composition skills, in comfort with technology, and in the ability to work collaboratively is extraordinary.

DSC_0010The book made an impact on the students beyond the skills they gained and the recognition they garnered. Their definition of a hero expanded from the vision of a super-powered individual in a cape and Spandex to someone who serves others. My students were inspired by the person whose life and work they researched. Someday, when they themselves confront an injustice, meet with a challenge, or perceive a community need (as they undoubtedly will), I am confident that they will recall the courage, selflessness, and determination of these local heroes to “repair the world.” I believe that from these individuals’ examples, my students will draw the strength to act heroically themselves.

Ithaka

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Seniors leave a final mark on their high school.

It’s only days now until graduation. The excitement in the halls of the two high schools I serve is palpable. Final exams feel like an afterthought because culminating projects, AP exams, and work/study evaluations are complete. Seniors are focused on the traditions that mark their status: Senior Breakfast, Senior Cookout, Senior Day. In the school where I taught, each senior paints a cinder block in a corridor somewhere in the building–an epitaph of sorts. Their final message to the rest of us.

My last class graduated a year ago. I miss them still. Their graduation was particularly poignant because it was the last time I knew the graduates crossing the stage, could feel I’d had a direct hand in their accomplishment. I wrote to them, just a day before the last day of school. A final message of my own, one I send out now, again to them if they are reading this, and to graduates everywhere.

Dear Graduates,

I know, I know…just one more day to go. The last few weeks went by quickly, didn’t they? That’s always the way. It seems like you’ll never reach the shore and then, suddenly, there it is in front of you, a surprise that came too fast.

That’s the way I feel, too, about your graduation. You are my very last class, and I am already bereft. I will miss you terribly–even if all we have done in glimpse each other in the halls these past few years as you have moved on from my 9th grade English class and I have stepped out of my own classroom and into the classrooms of my colleagues. But I have always known you were there. Your presence grounded me. But soon now, you will have crossed the stage and left these halls we’ve walked together.

But it is time for that. Time for you to set out on your journey. Time for you to embrace your destiny.

To that end, I am sending you a poem, a love letter really about your future wherever you sail. You will, of course, recognize Ithaka and all the allusions the poem contains. We didn’t read the Odyssey together for nothing! The last lines may be puzzling to you now, but however you interpret them, the remarkable journey, rich in adventures along the way, is what I wish for you. I am impossibly proud of you, like the proverbial button-busting parent, and I hope you will stay in touch. (You can “friend” me now, BTW.)

With best wishes, pride, joy, and love,

Mrs. P

Some of them wrote back to me, articulating the message of the poem:

-I view Ithaca not only as a place, but as a home or set of goals and opportunities…

-I have very big goals for myself…college, medical school, residency…Every day I think about them and hope that I will achieve them. This poem encourages me to believe that I can.

-I gleaned that the journey itself may be better than the intended destination…

-It may be cliche, but for me, this whole poem screamed “Life’s a journey, not a destination,” and I’ll try to remember that as I move on in life.

-When I read the “love letter,” I replaced “Ithaca” with “happiness.” It all made sense after that.

-I think that the last lines of the poem mean that if we enjoyed our journey, our destination will not be a letdown. We’ll have gained so much experience that we understand our goal, our “Ithaka,” is really a point of reference to guide us through our journey. We eventually want to arrive home, but if we constantly think about home, we’ll miss out on the lessons we can learn during the trip there. I suppose graduation is a mini-Ithaka!

-One student wrote a poem of her own, thanking me for showing her that “the path to Ithaca has not ended, but has only just begun.” She was a student in my American classroom. Now she is a citizen of the world. As are they all. May their journeys be long, full of adventure and learning, and may they reach their Ithakas, enriched and grateful for the journey.

That is how I feel about them: enriched and grateful for their presence in my life.

n.b.: If you, the reader, run your cursor over the poem, you’ll see “hot spots.” Click on those circles and see how I might have guided students through the poem had I shared it with them in class.

On Track to the End

You could tell it was the end of the 3rd quarter just from the daily announcements:

Tickets for the spring musical, awards from the art show, final competitions for dance team and Super Bowl.  Athletic awards banquets, FFA Dinners, state championships for speech and robotics and then the biggest finale of all: the March Madness of Indiana basketball.

And then we were released for Spring Break.  A week to go somewhere far away from school or to sleep in, catch up, and get ready for the last push: 4th quarter, the culmination of the academic year.

But more often than we like to admit, when we get back from Spring Break, a lot of us will come face-to-face with the equivalent in teaching of running out of money before you run out of month.

There’s way too much left to “cover” before the last bell rings in May.

If you find yourself in this predicament, here are five simple steps to solve the problem of too much curriculum and too few days.  And some advice for how to prevent this from happening next year.

1.  Make a list of the curriculum topics you have yet to cover.

2.  Decide which ones are “Imperative” and which ones merely “Important.” Use the chart below for your list.  Then ask yourself the questions in Step 3. They  will help you sort the Imperatives from the Importants.

Start with a list of the topics.

Topic Imperative Important

3.  Ask yourself some questions about those topics to help you sort them into one of the two columns to the right.

  • Is the topic a skill you need to teach?

Skills trump content most of the time. Skills, the students have to have; chunks of content are often dispensable. For example, in American Literature, the textbooks contain selections from a pantheon of great writers. Will the students survive if they don’t read something by Willa Cather? By John Steinbeck? By Truman Capote?  Those authors are favorites of mine, and of course they’re Important, but in the big scheme of things, students won’t be scarred for life if they miss reading “A Wagner Matinee” or Of Mice and Men or “Miriam.”  Capote isn’t an Imperative.

But research skills? Those are important for academic success in any class, and it’s the English teacher’s job to teach them.  So don’t cut out the research project.  Look instead for ways to streamline it.

Think about the skills in your discipline that the students have to have, that the teacher next year is depending upon their having learned.  Put your time and effort into those topics.

  • Is it a piece of sequential learning that you can’t skip?

In math and world languages and other linear-sequential subjects, you simply can’t skip some things. There are processes and constructions kids have to know in order to progress to the next level.  These are Imperatives.  What can you do to compact the instruction so that you’re spending less time on each topic before moving on to the next?

Can you do the homework in class so that you see the mistakes the students are making as they make them—and offer correctives right then and there?

Can you put kids in cooperative groups and have them help each other?

Can you cut down the number of examples or possibly stop elaborating so much?

  • Is it an activity, rather than a topic, that you could dispense with or truncate?

 An easy one to rethink is a film.  Do you have to show it?  Eliminating a movie can save a couple of days at least.  Can’t cut it out entirely? What about showing excerpts only? What about an after-school showing with popcorn and soft drinks?

Is it a culminating project that involves teaching a process as much as the content?  For example, a debate on an issue the students have been studying.  Without some instruction in process, a full-on debate can deteriorate into a shouting match.  What about conducting a Socratic Seminar or a Pinwheel discussion—something easier to model that doesn’t take up so much time—but still gets various points of view out there.

95An independent research activity can be a huge time suck.  What about putting the kids in groups and conducting the inquiry as a team?  They can jigsaw their discoveries and divide up the presentation work as well.  By working together, they get the advantage of collaborative learning—often more productive anyway than learning alone—and you can likely save a day or so of time online and/or in the library.

Teamwork saves time generally and it allows you to capitalize on the students’ natural disposition to chatter. Set up your expectations so that they stay on task.  Consider using a rubric for daily effort to reinforce your expectation that the students stay focused.  They can fill it out themselves—most kids are honest—and you’ve got override privileges if they misjudge themselves.

  • How can you use a process you have to teach as a vehicle for teaching content? In other words, can you create a twofer?

I remember one year when I was teaching Animal Farm, as I did every year in 9th grade. I was short on time that year and needed to take students through the research process and give them enough background in Russian history that they would be able to see the novel as allegory.  I ended up dividing 300 years of Russian history into six time periods and/or areas of interest.  Students worked independently on a research question of their own, but they were organized in groups, each group addressing one of the six interest areas/time periods.  As they researched their own sub-topics, they had a cohort of friends who were working on sub-topics from the same time period.  The students worked collaboratively even though each one submitted his or her own paper.  In the end, each group made a 5-6 minute presentation to the class on their period in Russian history.  In this way, the class took a whirlwind tour of Russia—from Peter the Great to the launch of Sputnik. The students helped each other understand their period in Russian history, but also work through the processes at play in research and reporting.  As I said, a twofer.

4. Open up a blank calendar (or dig out a 2016 calendar you stashed in a drawer somewhere) and literally block out the days. Don’t forget that Finals Week is lost for teaching new material, and be sure to save a couple of days for review.  Pare each topic or unit down to its essentials and fill in the days.  You may find you have only a few days to teach something that usually requires two weeks.  When that happens, you’ll whittle the content down to the necessities by necessity.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly what is really imperative will surface—and the rest, the important but not the imperative—will just fall away.

5. Stick to your game plan. Don’t allow yourself to deviate from it or you’ll have to go through this process again.  Day by day, one day at a time, you’ll get to the end of the year.  You’ll find actually that it’s a sprint—after Spring Break, everything goes fast—but if you follow your plan, you’ll stay on the track to the end.

This falling behind has happened to all of us, even veterans who’ve been at teaching for a long time.  In fact, it commonly happens to veterans because the longer we teach, the more in-depth we go about our favorite topics and pretty soon, we’re way off track.  For a new teacher, the problem more likely arises because it just takes longer to teach things than you had supposed it would.  Plus, there were more interruptions than you had expected or planned for.  Either way, for both the veteran and the novice, the problem is one of pacing.

So add this to your resolutions for next year: Map out the year (easier to do when you’ve been through it once) and stick to your objectives.

And take this tip seriously: When planning units for next year, add an extra day to each unit you map out.  Then you have a day for re-teaching or for interruptions or for something unexpected or just because you’ve fallen behind.  We never have enough days, so if you do end up with a day left over, you can just add it to the next unit!  You’ll be glad you can.

Under Discussion: Reciprocal Teaching

Here’s a problem that teachers have to deal with all too often: Kids come to class not having read the assigned text, or chapter, or article.  What to do to move forward?

The solution for some has been to do an end run around such assignments by having the students read the piece in class instead. That takes a lot of instructional time and leads to strategies like Round Robin Reading (RRR) and its cousins, Popcorn Reading and Combat Reading.

RRR is not a comprehension strategy; it’s a management tool.  Kids keep quiet and listen because they might be called on next.  Worrying that they might get called on next means they’re not paying attention to what is currently being read. If the teacher is obvious about who’ll read next, the students know when their turns are coming and are rehearsing while someone else is laboring away at her chunk of the text.

RRR is not a valid fluency strategy, either: With no chance to rehearse what they’re reading, poor oral readers won’t do well—and on top of that, they’re modeling poor reading for others.  And, there’s the embarrassment factor. I can remember from my own schools days that some kids hated reading aloud because they anticipated stumbling, and the good readers hated it when the poor ones read for just that reason.

But after all these years, teachers still use RRR.  It’s primarily a management strategy.  Kids are quiet, occupied, and the assignment gets read.

So okay.  You still have to lick the didn’t-read-the-assignment-before-class problem.  What could you do instead?

How about trying this strategy: Reciprocal Teaching.

Like literature circles, Reciprocal Teaching (RT) depends on students assuming specific roles: Summarizer, Clarifier, Questioner, and Predictor. In their groups of four, students read the text—or chunk of text—in class and then discuss what they’ve read with each other.  Each student has a reading purpose. The Summarizer knows he’ll have to recap what happened in the story or outline the main points if the piece is non-fiction.  The Clarifier will keep an eye out for words or phrases that might be confusing. The Questioner asks like a teacher, probing the text not just with recall questions (especially if the students are secondary level) but with “What ifs?” and “I wonders…” and other idea extenders.  The Predictors make an educated guess about what comes next—they’re like “the weatherman” one student told me.

Naturally, the teacher needs to be sure the students understand the demands of the four roles.  With older students, that may only require a simple explanation.  At any age, it may require modeling or even a dry run or two.  As with any new skill, the students have to be trained or their conversations won’t be productive.

Reciprocal Teaching can be used with fiction, but it was originally designed for use with non-fiction: a chapter in a textbook, a newspaper article, an argumentative essay, a short informative piece. As they take turns leading the discussion, students practice summary skills, learn to think beyond the text, help each other discern meaning from context, and importantly, grapple with text structure.  This last is a significant challenge. Kids know the story arc well by the time they reach middle school.  Being the weatherman for a fictional piece isn’t hard because middle school students know how foreshadowing works, and they’ve had enough experience with stories to imagine plot turns and story endings that aren’t pat.  But they’ve had less experience with the structures of non-fiction.  Reciprocal Teaching gives them practice at discerning how a non-fiction piece is laid out—to learn about order of importance, problem/solution, cause/effect, comparison/contrast, chronological order, and other methods of organization–to predict what comes next in an informative or argumentative piece.

Website sources such as those listed at the end of this article spell out the details of structuring a Reciprocal Teaching lesson.  Bookmarks with question stems and note-taking sheets are provided on many websites.

Recently I’ve seen Reciprocal Teaching in action.  In fact, I modeled the strategy in a 6th grade classroom, which is where the “weatherman” quip originated.  The students were quick to catch on and excited to implement the strategy.  All the groups were reading the same book: Julie of the Wolves. The students loved talking through that day’s chapter with each other. Days later, after several rounds using the Reciprocal Teaching process as it has traditionally been practiced, the 6th graders suggested a new spin. Let the summarizers all talk together and choose the best summary, the clarifiers work through a variety of confusions to share with the class, the questioners ask questions of each other and then pose the best to the class, and the predictors to consider a variety of options and present their consensus to the class.  Another variation you might try is having each group of four make up a quiz over the assigned section and exchange quizzes with another group. You, the teacher, are the final judge of the quality of the questions: Students get all the points you’ll assign if their questions are thoughtful and carefully written.

Reciprocal Teaching 1Or, each group can read a different piece.  I also recently presented Reciprocal Teaching as a comprehension strategy and an alternative to RRR to a group of high school teachers.  After the workshop, one 10th grade teacher selected articles from internet and newspaper sources that all related to the concept of ambition. Each piece explored the topic from a different perspective. His students read the articles in small groups and then reported the gist of each to the rest of the class. All this was in preparation for a unit on ambition with Macbeth as the anchor text. His students staked out corners in the classroom, spots in the hallway, and tables in the cafeteria to hold their discussions.  I listened in and was reminded not of wooden Q-A sessions where the teacher decides what ideas to privilege and what details are important, but of adult book club conversations.

Another colleague, a high school health teacher, had been using RRR for years.  Once he learned about the advantages of Reciprocal Teaching, he deliberately reorganized his classroom, moving the desks from conventional rows into clusters of fours. His students—who definitely hadn’t been reading their assignments—had taken to the strategy immediately.  They’d developed independence as readers rather quickly.  The teacher found that he was able to circulate among the clusters and keep an ear on their discussions—a much better management strategy, he found, than casting an eye on the students from the front.

One of my colleagues, a high school music teacher and band director, used Reciprocal Teaching as a strategy for students to review for the final exam.  The students enjoyed the process and the conversations about the musical language he wanted them to understand and use on the final went beyond simply recalling definitions.  Watch this video to see what Dan Peo did.  Be warned: the process was noisy.  https://drive.google.com/a/tsc.k12.in.us/file/d/0B1xPdu7aOTwqVlFHWmo1bHcyZTA/view?usp=sharing

Reciprocal Teaching is, at its heart, far more than a strategy to manage the classroom, but if that’s the starting place, that’s okay.  Once teachers see how well Reciprocal Teaching works and how much students like the process of learning from each other, they choose RT.  It’s an effective way to build comprehension skills and teach text structures.  Instructional time is put to good use—and the assignments all get read.

 

http://eclass.uoa.gr/modules/document/file.php/PHS122/%CE%91%CF%81%CE%B8%CF%81%CE%B1/Reciprocal%20teaching.pdf

This is the original research reported by Annemarie Palinscar and Ann L. Brown (1984) in Cognition and Instruction. The authors developed the strategy, Reciprocal Teaching, and in this paper describe its effectiveness in improving comprehension skills among seventh graders.

http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/reciprocal_teaching

This explanation for elementary school teachers has clear directions and a video of a teacher modeling the process for a group of students. Downloadable bookmarks and a worksheet are provided.

http://www.readingquest.org/strat/rt.html

Another clear set of directions from a web site for social studies teachers. This site explains that the order in which the group members “present” is not fixed.  The teacher should prescribe the order that makes sense.

Harper Lee’s Enormous Gift

For thirty-one years, my school year began with the opening sentence from Harper Lee’s matchless story of courage, compassion, and coming-of-age, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was nothing short of privilege to introduce 9th graders to Jem and Scout, their father Atticus, and their playmate Dill; to rural Alabama in the 1930s; to racism and injustice in the days of Jim Crow; and to the idea that in coming face-to-face with an unvarnished and painful reality, one comes of age.

Sometimes that moment of truth is called a “confrontation experience.”

When the trial is over and Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is confused and upset. He cries first, then broods, questioning Atticus intently as he puzzles through the injustice of the verdict. Miss Maudie, the children’s insightful neighbor from across the street, bakes a cake the next morning, but alters her custom of preparing three small cakes—one each for Jem and Scout and Dill—and makes only two. Jem’s portion is to come from the big cake. In this way, she signals her understanding that Jem has grown up: He has emerged from the experience of the trial, changed. Many students—as Jem himself does—miss the significance of that culinary symbolism.

So just after my students have read Chapter 22, the chapter with the cake paragraph that begins “It was Jem’s turn to cry,” I introduce this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I project it on the ENO board and read it aloud once, all the way through.

One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This

One wants a teller in a time like this

One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.

One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:

Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch a cold
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School
Be patient, time brings all good things–(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)

Behold,
Love’s true, and triumphs; and God’s actual.

Occasionally, a student will “get” the poem immediately, but the majority of my 9th graders are mystified. Why am I introducing this poem? What does it have to do with the story? Focused on the verdict itself—which they are eager to talk about even though they had predicted it—they don’t think of the impact of the decision on the children.

“Who in the story do you think this poem could be about?” I ask.

“Atticus,” someone always guesses. “He lost the trial.”

So. They got the gist of the poem. It’s about someone who is depressed.

“But Atticus knew he would lose—and he thinks they’ve taken a step forward because the jury deliberated for two hours,” someone else corrects.

“Tom? He lost and now he’s going to prison.”

“Boo.” Another guess.

“Miss Maudie.” A wilder guess.

Funny—if they’d examine their own reactions—shock, outrage, grief—when the verdict is announced, they’d see immediately that the poem points to Jem.

But Jem is not the “hero” of the story—or even an important protagonist like Tom Robinson or Boo. We’ve talked as a class about the symbolism of the mad dog and related rabies to the mental disease of prejudice. We’ve focused on character development and identified Atticus as the hero. We’ve examined Atticus’ definition of courage in the Mrs. Dubose chapter. But, besides noting that the children are catalysts for action and establishing that Jean Louise (the adult Scout) is a reflective narrator, we haven’t talked much yet about Jem and Scout. So far, they haven’t been a thematic focus.

I suggest that we take the poem apart, line by line. From this moment on, I am largely silent. I simply cover the poem and proceed to expose one line at a time. With its lovely “reveal” function, the ENO board helps me with this technique, but I used to do the same thing with an overhead projector. Baring even that, I could write the poem on the board, one line at a time. The strategy captures my students. They are good detectives, and they eagerly put their skills of observation to work.

First, the title: enigmatic, evocative, puzzling. Why the capitalized ‘One’? And then, it turns out, the title is the first line. The first line stands alone, the students notice. Why?

Then the phrase, “One’s not a man, not a woman grown.”

“So it’s not about Atticus.”

“But what is ‘this enormous business’?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Whoever he is, he’s walking a crooked path.”

“He’s lost.”

“Unsure.”

“Confused.”

“He—or she—can’t find his home, maybe doesn’t have one.”

“Is this about a homeless person?”

“No, I think it’s about safety. Home is safety.”

“It’s about certainty. This person is uncertain.”

“Something terrible has happened.”

“Look at those words–‘if or when or how.’ Those are question words. This person’s questions are unanswered.”

“But why is ‘Teller’ capitalized in the next line?”

“He wants someone to answer his questions. To tell him the answers. A Teller.”

By this time, several students realize it is Jem’s reaction to the verdict that I am focusing on. I can barely contain them from blurting out their epiphany, and epiphany it is: They squirm in their seats; their arms pump up and down; their faces convey urgency. Others catch on. The class knows.

But what is this last stanza? Look: The font changes. And how are all those things connected?

“‘Rubbers’ are boots,” someone says. “What do they have to do with Sunday School?”

“’Heaven and hell’.” That’s Sunday School.”

“They’re opposites. Like black and white, or right and wrong.”

“Oh I get it! The new font is the Teller talking!”

“Yes! The Teller is telling the person what to do.”

“What to think.”

“How to behave.”

“That’s what he wants. A Teller.”

“Yes. A Teller makes things simple.”

But then the font changes back.

“What’s ‘balm’?”

“Like lip balm. A salve.”

“Oh! It’s ‘One’ again—questioning the Teller. It’s ‘One’ not finding an answer.”

“Not accepting an answer.”

“And the Teller speaks again, telling him everything is okay.”

“Except he doesn’t believe it. Whatever has happened is so bad, he even questions God.”

“Wow.”

And then, silence.

When we resume talking, students are quick to say—and confident now in saying—that “One” is anyone, so the poem can apply universally. “This enormous business” is unspecified for the same reason—and that means the poem can apply to many situations.

Too many of my students have already experienced tragedy, grief, and despair in their own lives. They make the jump to divorce, separation, untimely death, to betrayal by a friend, to abandonment by an adult—to myriad experiences that could force a person to confront an unpleasant truth—and come of age.

And then they know how Jem felt.

Silence again.

Quite often, someone in the class offers a final idea.

“You know, this may be about growing up, but even adults feel this way sometimes. My mom did when my dad left.”

How right that observation is. There is no time limit on innocence, no age limit on hope.

“So it could be about Atticus. He could have felt that way and then resolved his feeling by thinking the two-hour delay in the verdict was a step forward.”

It could be, indeed. Enormous business can level us all, even a hero.

I love teaching this lesson and the technique of “unveiling” a poem. As students pick out the clues, they build meaning and expand their understanding beyond the text. They see the relevance to the story we are reading, but they can apply the meaning of the poem to their own lives as well. They think deeply about an idea—in this case, the transformative effect of a confrontation experience.

What else is wonderful is that they figure the poem out for themselves.

I don’t tell them anything.

Back to Basics–or, Why We Still Teach the Five Paragraph Theme

P1010159When I was still in elementary school, my mother signed me up for piano lessons. My teacher introduced me to the piano by pointing out middle C and then demonstrating scales—as piano students for generations have been introduced to the keyboard. I didn’t have a natural talent for music or a particular desire to play the piano, and I mostly remember epic battles with my mother about practicing. I didn’t want to.  She insisted. I resisted.  She won.

I learned the basics and played The Happy Farmer at my first recital. The struggle over practicing continued, but eventually, I learned enough to play Für Elise at another recital. My mother clapped for me, but I think the piano lessons stopped not long after that performance.

I was a fledgling piano student no different than the majority of students in my classes have been fledgling writers. They began telling stories and formulating their ideas as long ago as kindergarten where they learned that all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Having been taught in the early grades to write one paragraph, they next learned to write three: an introductory paragraph, a body paragraph, and a concluding paragraph. By middle school, that 3-paragraph theme expanded analogously to the 5-paragraph theme.

Yes, you can have more than 5 paragraphs, we more than occasionally have to tell high school students. And you can have fewer. Eventually, sometime during high school (depending upon their readiness or level of achievement), students come to see that no matter how many body paragraphs there are (Look at a high school research paper—there might be as many as 30!), there’s always a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The 5-paragraph theme, thus, is a scaffold to help kids recognize the basic structure of a composition. And that’s the very reason why, over the years, some people have denigrated the 5-paragraph theme and its conventions: It’s a formula, akin to paint-by-number.

(Similarly, it isn’t until late in high school that students learn that the thesis statement isn’t always the last sentence in the first paragraph—it might be the first, or buried in the middle of the introduction, or not expressed until the very end of the piece, or even not expressed at all, just implied.)

I agree that the 5-paragraph theme is a formula—one that’s often too rigidly demanded.  But, most kids need something formulaic when they first begin to write. Think of any skill we teach.  We start with the time-honored way of doing whatever it is—swinging a golf club, pitching a ball, drawing a figure, or playing the piano: Time-honored because for most of the population, that method works. It works with writing, too. Most kids leave school able to write satisfactory—at least, serviceable—prose.

When we get the basics right, we can move on and branch out and take risks and, for some few, demonstrate artistry.  But no matter what, there’s still and always a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Actually, my mother’s applause at that recital was probably born of relief. I lost my way in the middle of Für Elise. I simply blanked on what came next.  But no way was I going to quit in front of all those people. I improvised (unaware that nearly everyone else in the room had played Für Elise at some point in their lives and knew immediately what I was doing). Finally, by running the measures I did remember up the scale (and adding a few little flourishes of my own along the way), I restarted my memory and played the piece out to a satisfactory end.

Like most of our students, who never become authors, I never became a pianist—but I do still understand how the piano is played.