Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Multiple Readings with Multiple Purposes

Part 1
For the last two years, I have worked with my students on identifying the subtle differences between speeches and other types of writing.  ReadWriteThink (http://www.readwritethink.org/classroom-resources/lesson-plans/battling-liberty-tecumseh-patrick-72.html) introduced me to a lesson using Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" and Tecumseh's "Sell a Country? Why Not Sell the Air?"  I used these speeches with my first group or two of students but focused almost exclusively on Patrick Henry's speech.  

What is so neat about the way the lesson is structured is that students look at the speech multiple times and read for different purposes each time.  This model can (and has in my classroom) been used with a variety of texts.  We first listened to an audio recording of an actor (too bad there's no way to get a recording of Patrick Henry’s original) and noted words, phrases, people, and places that were unfamiliar.  We took the time to look them up.  Then we discussed rhetorical devices and how they fit into speech making.  The students identified and highlighted in different colors similes and metaphors, alliteration, repetition, and allusions.  They also kept a color-coded key with the definitions for these various devices in their folders.  His speech is especially full of allusions, which makes it a great piece of literature to use for this activity so that I can explain allusions using a variety of examples.    Finally, we listened to the speaker one more time and noted tone, volume, and mood.  We compared the tone and volume at different points in the speech, and particularly when Patrick Henry used different rhetorical devices.  All of this on each student’s single copy of the speech.

Each student marked his or her copy of the speech with these annotations as we worked through the speech multiple times.  The margins were full.  There were three and four different colors marking phrases and words.  Words were underlined.  I think some students actually submitted their copies of this speech as writing-to-learn entries for their writing folders because they had so much of their own writing on them.  And their post-reading entries stated what research said would happen:  they gained a profound insight into the meaning of the speech after listening and reading it multiple times.  I decided to change the speech that future classes read but did not change the activities because I believed in the power that multiple readings would have in my classroom.

Fast forward to other groups and this other speech:  Maya Angelou’s words at Coretta Scott King’s funeral.  Because it was much more current (2006), and because my students would be familiar with the Civil Rights Movement that she spoke of, I was excited to substitute this for Patrick Henry’s speech and work with the same lesson model.  And it doesn’t hurt to enjoy the speaker when the listening count rises over forty with preparation for class and the actual activities.  It has been a great experience to listen to these speeches with fresh ears each time with a new class.  That alone should tell me that something is right about rereading texts in the classroom. 

Read Part 2 for more on the story.

Classroom Chaos versus the Computer Lab Structure

Part 2
The lesson should have been a slam dunk.  I had taught almost the same lesson several times before because of teaching a rotating enrichment type of class.  This is my fifth group of students in two years, so it seemed that any kinks there might have been would be worked out by now.  Welcome to technology.  As cool as it is (and I am a huge proponent of using any and every digital tool that is available), there are times a simple highlighter can do so much more than the mouse on the computer.  In Part 1, I described the series of lessons that I’ve used multiple times in my classroom.  In this part, I would like to explain how sometimes the best classroom lessons may need to stay in the classroom and stay out of the computer lab.
We worked through multiple layers as we read and reread the speech:  unfamiliar terms, rhetorical devices (highlighting with different colors), noting mood, tone, and volume.  Students appeared to do all of these things.  I circulated and watched this happen.  When the last day arrived, I asked students to submit their annotated texts online.  I really couldn’t wait to see how well this worked in the digital classroom.  I shouldn’t have been so excited.  There were really very few submissions that were “models” of what I was expecting to see.  Some had comments, but some skipped whole segments of the activities (did not note volume or tone, for example).  Many identified the rhetorical devices in some way but perhaps only one or two instead of every instance of all devices. 
It did not take long to figure out what had happened.  During previous “non-digitized” classroom lessons, students pushed chairs together and worked in groups of at least three to four.  In the computer lab, working with the person in the next seat may be acceptable but too much movement invites chaos.  Though students had the computers at their fingertips and could readily search for definitions and examples, they seemed stifled by the screen in front of them.  They may have been more distracted in an environment that offered easy access to online radio.  After the disappointing annotations, I thought I would trade in that easy access for the chaos of my classroom any day.  In that chaos there is talk.  In that chaos, my students are learning from each other.  And in that chaos, there is Maya Angelou’s speech on paper that has writing all over the margins and different colored highlights. 
Don’t misunderstand.  I have enjoyed showing my students the digital tools I use for writing, that I use when I collaborate with other people who live nowhere close to me.  We do our students a disservice when we either try to shield them from the digital world or we don’t explore what is out there ourselves.  In this case, however, I missed a key step in the computer lab lesson.  I did not open up the lesson to true online sharing and show my students how we could bring our collaborative classroom environment into a different setting.  Google Docs, Wikispaces, and so much that I am fumbling to learn.  And now Google Drive is entering the scene.  So as I’m learning what I should have done in that computer lab lesson (that was good but could have been great), I’ll hope that I’ve at least ignited the spark for independent learning and inquiry.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Close Observations, Picture Books, and the Challenging Class

What happens when what works for all other classes just doesn't work for that one?  I change the seats, they yell across the room.  I teach differently in this one class than I do in all the others.  How does that odd combination of students make such a difference?  The trimester format doesn't help the situation because not being bonded with students from day one keeps those stronger relationships from forming.  I'm not even sure that is the reason we struggle together, but struggle we do.  I don't have the answer for that because I'm probably not asking the right questions.  But more on that in a moment.

This week I took Ralph Fletcher's advice (A Writer's Notebook) and helped my students make close observations. He wrote about an old vw bug, overturned and rusted in a nearby field that he had never noticed until his son's babysitter commented on it.  I want my students to observe closely. As Fletcher says, I want them to do three things: 1. Pay attention, 2. Write down what you notice before you forget, 3. Later, go back and reread your entry.  See if you might want to write more about it.  They even wrote these three steps in their writer's notebooks (or because it's nearing the end of the year, scraps of paper found in the bottom of their backpacks or paper grabbed from my stack).

With these three steps in our notes, and Fletcher's story fresh in our minds, I took my students on an observation walk, which was quite an experience in itself.  They noticed things they might not have noticed before.  I don't think I ever noticed the wind chimes  hanging between the front doors of the school.  Still yet, some classes see differently than others and definitely act differently.  In my most rambunctious class two students found a dead frog and found a teacher to pester, which certainly added unexpected excitement to our walk. As the day stretched on, I laid out different rules before the walk around the school building began. I always allowed students to keep out their digital devices though. Some students recorded, took notes, or snapped pictures of what they observed. On a side note, as one teacher watched us exit the building, he asked why my students had their phones out.  Why indeed?  Why not?  Is it not okay to capture experiences with cameras and digital notes?  Although I am concerned about possible YouTube videos documenting our mini adventure, I let the practice continue.  So far I haven't been called to the office, so we might be okay.

We captured pictures and notes, and yes, even the dead frog with our digital devices and notebooks. We returned to our observations in the following days while also making new ones.  I encouraged this same level of observation as we read Coretta Scott by Shange. The students did not dissappoint as they pointed out subtleties in the pictures that I hadn't previously noticed. Picture books that use powerful images and poetry are like that...so rich that they beg for multiple readings and multiple viewpoints. In Shange's book, an image of the crescent moon appears at the beginning of the book, which contrasts with the harvest moon at the end. I wonder if this means newness and the harvest of hope and possibilities--a student said this, not I. And with silhouettes, as with the image on one page  of people marching, one cannot distinguish white from black. These kids get that. They make these observations. I don't have to point out the deeper meanings if I ask the higher questions.

I asked those questions to the challenging class. They observed. They wrote. One student wanted to share his written observation. He said, "The first moon, the crescent, could symbolize the few freedoms that the black people had. The moon is at its smallest and the black people had very few rights. The harvest moon at the end is full like the freedoms that these people achieved." Aha.  Yes.  Very interesting.  And another student pointed out that there were only the images of faces (Coretta Scott and her two siblings) and only a solid yellow, dusty-colored background on the page that said "the face of danger."  This is a tough crowd, but they know how to think. 

Picture books.  The interplay between words and pictures, sounds and symbolism, meaning and the interpretation of meaning.  Don't put away the picture books when the kids grow up.  Let the words and pictures ask the questions that you didn't think to ask.  And let the students answer...they may have a better answer than you do.