Year One, Term One: Reflection

After ten years at Explorer West, in Seattle, I transitioned my teaching career in one of the most drastic ways possible. I left a secure teaching position – one where I knew the ins and outs of each day – one where I knew the faculty and the community exceptionally well – and I took a position at a growing school in Casablanca Morocco.

My teaching was tested. I was tasked with setting up a new program in a school that was still finding its way in secondary education. A growing middle school program was my first charge; teaching new content and new lessons my second. Three content classes at three different levels made for six different preps and plans. Plus I had an additional course in advisory and community service. The program was growing. I was the only teacher dedicated to the secondary program. We lacked a math/science teacher. The position was filled by the Head of School while a search was under way.

It took an entire term to find the replacement. The first term we were metaphorically treading water. We were making the best choices we could to keep the program going. We wanted to create a community that was student driven – empowering students in a community that fostered intrinsic learning. But the challenges of building a secondary program from the ground up  was tremendous.

The work changed when a math/science teacher was hired and collaboration could truly begin.

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How To: Writing Workshop for Performing Arts

Can a writing workshop work for any subject? Yes. Although, this assumes the liberal definition of a text, where anything with meaning, including but not limited to written words, can be composed or written. The “text” in question could be a traditional essay, a painting, or even a performance that eludes a fixed form.

The writer’s workshop allows for students work in relationship to a text by asking a strong question. For example, is Shylock, in Merchant of Venice, a hero or a villain? Students can build buy in by forming their own opinion about that question; they way they perform the text with the acting and character choices that they make will form a unique opinion that is expressed through a performance. The same is true for music. Students may be asked a question about the interpretation of a musical composition, or even be asked to compose an original score in response to an existing piece of music or in response to another piece of art. The performative interpretation becomes the student’s response.

A writing workshop depends on students setting their own goals. With a performance this is simple. The student must select artistic elements and skills that apply to the project. Individual work time is also a critical and simple step. With the given project of creating a performance in response to the question students can work on developing the selected artistic elements in their performance (such as character physicality or musical accent) by performing for each other and reflecting on the performances.

Through focused mini-lessons, derived from teacher observations, the teacher can direct the rehearsal process with a differentiated approach to the content. Further, guiding the meta-learning for the class, the teacher can introduce and model the learning target for the day as it relates to the project of answering the question. As students work, the teacher can provide one-on-one conferences with students by watching their work and asking guiding questions.

While this may not be a traditional writing workshop, it is certainly an effective adaptation for the performing arts. Likely, it would also work for Physical Education or any other skill based content that relies on a demonstration of skill rather than the presentation of knowledge in written form. I have seen it work in my class and can easily see it work in others.

You Should Champion the English Language and not Rant about Change

Every generation has cried out about the writing degradation of the next generation. Test scores are lower than ever, a critic may cry. But tests are biased ad are discriminatory to different populations depending on the content that the test asks about (Daniels, Steineke, and Zemelman, 2007).

The critic may try to expose the monumental outbreak that is assassinating the English language. “OMG” “LOL” and “BRB” are tearing apart our language. But, are they really? Language evolves with the people that use it.

What about “OK?” Historians cannot agree on the origination of the word. However, one dominant origination is from the phrase “orl korrekt” an alternate spelling of “all correct,” that was used in the U.S. during the 1830’s (for more explanation see http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/words/what-is-the-origin-of-the-word-ok).

From the birthplace of the English language, one of the greatest geniuses of all time, Shakespeare, made up more than 1700 words used in the common English of today (Mabillard, 2000). These words include, “exposure,” “birthplace,” “rant,” “dishearten,” “critic,” “monumental,” “outbreak,” “assassination,” and “champion.” There would not be a champion for the English language to rant about the disheartened critics, without Shakespeare.

The English language has been changing with every generation because of the way that people communicate. Perhaps today, the change is even more rapid. A teacher may say that their students hate to write; in reality the student may simply hate to write what the teacher wants (Daniels, Steineke, and Zemelman, 2007). However, students are not writing well for academic purposes (Daniels, Steineke, and Zemelman, 2007). This impacts the path of the student throughout life as they may struggle to learn advanced content in any given subject matter, as they work to meet state standards, as they seek out advanced education and take high-stakes testing such as the SAT and ACT, and as they seek out employment.

How should a teacher go about teaching writing? One strategy is Writing to Learn so that the teacher is not simply teaching “how to write;” the teacher should teach students how to learn through writing. Therefore, teachers should use writing in the following formats so that writing becomes part of the learning process: short, spontaneous, exploratory, informal, personal, one draft, unedited, and ungraded. These writing styles exist in every subject. From the quick notes that a science student makes about an experiment to the brainstorm “word cloud” that goes into writing an essay in English. The idea of ungraded work may be a novel approach in a school. But, a comprehensive correction of student writing does not and never has worked to teach writing (Daniels, Steineke, and Zemelman, 2007). Writing can be used instead to start discussions, feed small-group work, and review key ideas. From this point, the teacher can help the student act upon their writing impulses and guide the students to an academic voice in their writing.

Writing will always evolve and inform culture; if writing is also informed with an academic voice, it will change society in a way that is powerful and lasting (just as Shakespeare has done). As Gandhi said, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Teachers take note and champion the change in the English Language because change will happen with or without your influence.

References:

Daniels, H., Steineke, N., & Zemelman, S. (2007). Content-area writing: Every teacher’s guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mabillard, Amanda. Words Shakespeare Invented. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/wordsinvented.html .

Content Area Reading Strategy: Academic Lanugage Focus

Secondary students struggle with content area reading because they do not understand the words on the page. What should a teacher do about this? One strategy is to focus on academic vocabulary. Students need to make personal connections to what they read and cannot do this if they are stuck on phonetic decoding. By breaking out the vocabulary acquisition into three tiers (Daniels and Zemelman, 2014) both teachers and students can strategically approach the instruction. Tier One includes vocabulary that the student already knows; teaching these words will help the student activate their prior knowledge. Tier Two words are important over many years in many disciplines both your own and others; examples include parallel, theme, and base; teaching these words will help students make connections to ideas outside of the content and reinforce the meaning in the content. Tier Three words are technical with narrow definition; these words should be taught for the lesson and looked up for further clarity; a student will engage the text at an analytical level. Teaching with vocabulary in mind will help with pre-reading, accessing previous knowledge, connecting to personal experiences, and reading for deeper meaning in the text; these are all proven reading strategies.

Reference:

Daniels, H., & Zemelman, S. (2014). Subjects matter: Exceeding standards through powerful content-area reading (Second ed.).

What’s the problem with American textbooks and how can this problem be overcome?

THE PROBLEM: The problem with American Textbooks is that they are often bland and outdated. The textbook replaces the standards that the teacher should use to derive original and refreshing lessons that are relevant to the student population. A textbook is a homogenous text that is made for universal appeal. With a mandated textbook, teachers are left to either follow the textbook in full (which is hardly teaching) or assemble their lessons around the required components. A textbook, when used as a primary or exclusive teaching device, is equivalent to letting another teacher (the author of the textbook) into the classroom and puts the primary teacher into a position of student management monitor.

THE SOLUTION FROM THEATRE AND ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS: Fortunately, both of these subjects have a broader range of choices than the average science or math class. These highly structured fields contain a set sequence of information that the student must master from one year to the next (Daniels and Zemelman, 2014). However, with English Language and Theatre Arts, the instruction has a spiral structure (Daniels and Zemelman, 2014). Students are required to build on past (and similar) learning experiences with the same structure and processes from one year to the next. In English Language Arts, students read texts (ideally in a wide array of genre) and respond to those texts through writing and other interactive activities (such as group discussions). In Theatre Arts, students study a new play each time they go through the process of performance; the text is always changing and the skills build upon the past experience of the student. Both of the subjects are focused on the personalized application and interpretation of the content.

THE QUESTION FOR EDUCATORS: Where does the information for your field live? Suggestion, take a cue from the humanities. Knowledge lives in the student; by capturing the student experience as they interact with the primary source of information, knowledge is formed. A textbook in science can be a reference tool for an educator because it contains the “required information” for the grade level. However, a textbook in Theatre Arts does not exist and a textbook for English Language Arts is seldom used. Further, students will learn and retain more information when the teaching is not exclusive to information processing (a.k.a. regurgitation). Information is retained through a personalization of the information – that is how it turns into knowledge. Lastly, this is how literacy can be build, across the subjects. Literacy must include the ability for one to personally translate, utilize, and generate information within the content. That cannot happen if the information is merely being read, memorized, tested, and forgotten.

Reference:

Daniels, H., & Zemelman, S. (2014). Subjects matter: Exceeding standards through powerful content-area reading (Second ed.).