T Sale's Blog

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Reading, However

After wading my way through a number of blog entries (e.g., I read 90 comments from my AP Lit class, about King Henry IV, Part 1, every week), I began to wonder just how much reading our students do online, aside from what they have to read for school assignments. When I was a student teacher in California in 1975, I asked my sophomore students how many of them would have read a book in the last year if they hadn’t been assigned one for class. Only a couple raised their hands. Ever since then I’ve assumed that (1) unless they’re required to, high school students (on the average) don’t read very much, and (2) with all the added distractions in the last 30 years, students probably read even less now than those kids I talked to in 1975. (And I guess I’m also assuming that, as those 1975 sophomores are now about 45 years old, adult reading has declined, too.) But it occurred to me that kids might read more now than ever before, even if they’re not reading books. With the advent of email, text messaging, and blogs, I wouldn’t be surprised if teenagers actually read more text every day than their parents or grandparents did. I’m not sure how one would check this (though the text messaging section of my own kids’ Verizon bill would certainly support the idea). I’m thinking about discussing this up with my students.

I was thinking about this along with the English department’s current discussion about how to spend our curriculum money. (Those who have visited Maura’s blog will have seen some of the discussion. In one department meeting Kristin and I jokingly dubbed the debate “Books versus Laptops: The Final Battle.”) Like Kristin, I don’t think this is necessarily an either-or debate. I do think that buying books gives us more bang for the buck (if the money would provide for no more than one classroom set of laptops), but my bigger concern is that we maintain a focus on reading literature, whether it’s on the printed page or online. And here’s why…

(But first a digression that will further complicate the book buying issue: I became curious how much literature was actually available online, and in 20 minutes I found literally a hundred sites that offered FREE literature downloads, and not just fan fiction written by some disaffected loner sitting in his/her basement. Check out Bartleby.com, where I found the complete text of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. What if we bought a bunch of laptops and never had to buy print books again, because students could read them online? Of course, that would require reading everything on a computer screen, at least until the invention of SmartPaper, and that would drive me to retirement in a remote location.)

The reason I think that teaching literature is more important than ever is that, if indeed kids are reading more than ever online, what they’re reading is probably short and fragmented. (I was about to add “shallow,” but that’s my inner fuddy-duddy speaking {and I’d like to note that Spell Check actually recognized the word “fuddy-duddy,” for what that’s worth}.) I believe the world would be a better place if people spent more time in quiet, slow contemplation and thought, like they do when they really sit down to read a novel. Ok, Ok, the history of the world before the Internet, before TV, when people still read three-volume novels, was full of war and conflict. But when I read The World is Flat (slowly), the message seemed to be that the modern world is all about commerce and efficiency (e.g., turbo meetings) and making money and beating other nations in the realm of science. I didn’t see much about enriching your soul with beautiful language and the wonder of an original insight about human nature.

Well, this Take 5 has gotten out of control. Sandi Boldman will probably feel a chill run up her spine when I post this, and I’m not even considering the “to be” verbs. But I don’t think I’ll go back and edit this much, because I’ve been writing from the right side of my brain, Lary, and here I’ve gone and done it, I’ve created the kind of rambling blog entry that I accuse the blogosphere of fostering.

Anyway. I wonder, with the availability of the Internet, are today’s students post-literate, or ultra-literate?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

451: The Temperature at Which Minds Burn...?

I had a hard time deciding what to write about for my Take 5 this week. It didn’t help that I read Karl’s eloquent post titled “What If?” (complete with attached PowerPoint and Media Player files) and realized that I didn’t have anything nearly as thoughtful to offer. I toyed with writing about the PowerPoint we received in an email today, the one we’re going to see at the inservice this Friday (apparently we’re going to have Turbo meetings, which will not only determine our GAN but also help us reach our SIP, while teaching us how to hold efficient PLC meetings), but I decided to reserve judgment until Friday. Finally I thought about the book circles I’m starting in my English 10 Basic Skills class.

For you non-language arts teachers, a book circle is basically just what it sounds like – a student version of a grown up book club, where you get to choose the book you read and decide what you want to talk about as you read it. Very constructivist, no? To an English teacher book clubs are a little scary, because there are so many symbols and motifs in these books that we want our students to recognize and appreciate, and what if they just want to talk about what jerks the protagonist’s parents are? Nevertheless, with a little guidance, book clubs can be a great way to get students to take ownership of a book.

But in my basic skills class it isn’t the book circles themselves that I’m wondering about; it’s one of the selections I’ve decided to offer. Originally I lined up Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, both by John Steinbeck, and both pretty accessible for struggling readers, along with The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, a little tougher read, but a beautiful book and one I’ve used successfully in my skills class before. And then, one student mentioned that a friend of his (who happens to be in my “regular” English 10 class) was reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and that it sounded interesting. Now, in my experience, Fahrenheit 451 can be a challenging read for even “regular” 10th grade students (though the payoff is great once they wade through it). The vocabulary, the metaphorical language, and the tendency towards long, explanatory speeches by some of the characters can be daunting. I’ve never even considered trying Fahrenheit 451 with my skills class before. After all, “research says…” that if students try to read texts that are more than two grade levels above their reading level, they’ll only get frustrated and become more negative about reading.


When we previewed the books this week, several students choose Fahrenheit 451 as the book they wanted to read. I did warn them that it was the most difficult of the four selections, but let’s face it, a book about firemen who burn books sounds much more intriguing than the story of two men trying to make their way during the depression (“Mr. Sale, was this the sequel to Brokeback Mountain?”) or the trials of a poor Mexican pearl diver. We’ll see how it goes.

This has made me think, in more general terms, about this question: Where do we draw the line between student choice (which might just lead in a direction of greater interest, and therefore greater involvement), and giving students “what’s good for them?” Am I being irresponsible by letting students try to read a book that’s probably going to frustrate them? And if they are successful reading the book, is it OK if they miss all the deep symbolism, as long as they keep reading and find something to discuss?

And what if they don’t have time to voice all their thoughts in a 20 minute Turbo meeting?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Thinking About Thinking

Last year, when I was a member of Tony Winger’s grading project, I decided to realign my grading categories to more closely reflect what my students were actually doing in class. One of the decisions I made was to have a “Thinking Skills” category, because I believe that pushing students to develop higher level thinking should be a part of every class. This is the description of that category on my class guidelines for my English 10 class:

Thinking Skills (18%)
1. Apply higher level thinking skills to reading, writing, speaking, and listening:
• synthesize and evaluate information
• make inferences and draw thoughtful conclusions
• use accurate, relevant details from text to support generalizations
• analyze for themes in literature
• judge quality based on a set of criteria

(The wording for all these goals is taken directly from the LPS district language arts curriculum.)

And ever since I established that category, it’s been driving me crazy. Do I record two grades for every assignment, a completion grade and a thinking grade? Do I design tasks that I will grade purely on thinking skills, without worrying about things like mechanics? Am I better off assuming that every assignment has a higher level thinking component, and that to get an “A” on any given assignment the student has to display higher level thinking?

I tried to prepare my students by introducing Bloom’s Taxonomy, asking them higher level questions about “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” (How are the bears in the story different from bears in the zoo? [analysis]; How would the story be different if it were “Goldilocks and the Three Fish? [synthesis]; Was Goldilocks a victim of circumstance, or a vicious little homewrecker? [evaluation]). On a couple of assignments I gave the students a completion grade, plus feedback on the level of thinking their questions represented. I showed the class examples of their classmates’ good thinking on the classroom projector. But I still wasn’t sure how I was going to record all this fine thinking they were going to be doing.

Finally, as we began our Fahrenheit 451 unit, I took another look at my grading criteria, and an idea occurred to me. Why not keep a separate running record of the thinking the students displayed for any activity or assignment we did while reading the book. Whether it was discussion, a reading journal, a sticky note, or a blog entry, when a student showed higher level thinking, I would make note of it, and give them the feedback that they had “hit the mark.” I wouldn’t necessarily record a grade for every student every time, but only for those who showed good inferential thinking, suggested creative alternatives to story lines, or reached profound conclusions. Suppose I were to use a nine point scale to rate good thinking – a 4 or 5 for some pretty good analysis, a 6 or 7 for posing and then answering a probing “what if?” question, an 8 or 9 for a knock-your-socks-off, original insight. When we finish the unit, I could look back over my notes and determine an overall thinking grade. Maybe Student A consistently logged 6s and 7s, showing good thinking on virtually every task; meanwhile, Student B only spoke up in discussion three times, but every time was a mind-boggling 9; perhaps Student C never said anything in discussion, but then went home, thought about it, and wrote several killer blog entries – all three might be deserving of a good thinking grade for the unit. Of course, it will be my job to provide the students plenty of opportunities to display their thinking skills, and to encourage those who aren’t thinking deeply to stretch themselves.

I introduced this idea to the students this week, so we’ll see how it goes. And this post is getting pretty long, so I’m going to sign off and grade some essays now. Your suggestions are appreciated.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Blog First, Ask Questions Later

This week I realized that I’ve been guilty of something I always warn my students against. I always tell my science fiction students that they must guard against treating an elective class as so low a priority that they never get around to it. Likewise, I tell my sophomores that they need to treat a reading assignment with importance equal to their other assignments, that it isn’t something they do only if they “get around to it.” As the beginning of the semester has transmuted into the usual stacks of essays and other day-to-day assignments to grade, into planning the next unit and requesting Xerox copies, into answering (or deleting) emails and recording attendance and grades, I find myself saving my blogging activities until I “get around to it,” and I've gotten around to it less and less with each week that has passed. It occurred to me that I was still thinking of blogging as something extra, rather than an integral part of my teaching. Yet my sophomore students have a weekly blog assignment that replaces the numerous shredded and mangled papers on which they used to do freewriting and reading responses, and my AP students are set up to do their reading journals on the class blog. It’s not so much that I can’t see the keyboard in the dusk anymore without the overhead light glaring, not that I never learned to touch type (there’s a 20th century throwback) and so have to hunt-and-peck my way through every one of my blog entries, not even that I much prefer sitting in the Laz-E-Boy with a stack of papers to sitting hunched in front of the computer. I like blogging, like the way it puts ideas out there for all to see, like getting comments on my posts, like the way it empowers students to publish just as if they were college professors. It’s just that…there’s so much to do. And due to that (unalterable) reality, my blogging has lagged.

But no more.

Tonight I’m writing this before I pick up the stack of 29 AP essays. I just won’t get as many done tonight. The comments those students have posted on line are just as important. Tonight, I sing the body electric.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Blog Potpourri for the Future

For this week’s Five for the Future, a collection of thoughts:

1. My students and I have been frustrated by how often Blogger decides that their blogs are spam and locks them (one of mine suffered the same fate). Most of the students got their blogs unlocked when they sent the request, but some are still locked out after 3 or 4 days. I’ve been wondering what we need to do to prevent the blogs from being locked – more posts at the start? A certain kind of content or key words in the first couple of posts? As I’m typing this, I realize I should send this query to Blogger, so maybe I’ll do that when I’m done here.

2. Speaking of the students’ individual blogs, I have realized how ineffectively I handled these last year. I had students post things like reading logs, freewritings, and learning reflections on their personal blogs, and then I’d go comment and give them feedback. But the individual student and I were the only ones looking at their blogs. This year I want to have the students in my English 10 classes visit one another’s individual blogs and add their comments. My next step is to put the links to the individual blogs on the class blog. Pretty simple concept, but it took be a year to realize what I really needed to do. Guess paradigm shift can be a slow process.

3. Cheryl’s, Lary’s and my AP Lit students will soon be blogging their fingers off as we read Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part 1. They’ll be doing a reading blog on the class blogs and commenting on one another’s ideas. At some point they’ll be cross-blogging with the other classes. When I explained the assignment, some of them seemed a little daunted, but as many seemed interested and excited. We’ll see how it goes.