Sunday, November 17, 2013

Gettysburg Address lessons – for students and elected officials

USA by J.Ghouse
November 19, 2013, is the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address. Learn the Address and Getty Ready are two quality educational resources that have been created to help all of us appreciate that 272-word speech. Like a lot of teachers, my students and I will analyze the text of the speech and even get to attend a webinar with Ken Burns on November 18. But as I look over the Address in preparation of the anniversary this week, I can't help but contrast the disingenuous rhetoric of current elected officials to Lincoln's dignified language.

As an English teacher I marvel at the Address every time I read it. There's the elegance of the sentences – the antithesis and epiphora – and the subtlety of the asyndeton. And there's the diction – the repetition of "dedicate"; the optimistic tone of the Address due to words like noble, endure, live, struggled, consecrated, brave, resolve. Finally there's Lincoln's deft craftmanship, the movement through time and place as the speech unfolds. The paragraphs progress from the past "four score and seven years ago" to the "now," and finally to the future, to the vital "unfinished work" of the "great task remaining before us." The speech physically takes the reader from the continent to the battlefield as a whole and ultimately to "this ground" where the people were gathered for the Address. (This all is summarized in the presentation that I share at the bottom of this post.)

That's how I think of the document as an English teacher....

But as a citizen I can't help celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address without wondering what Abraham Lincoln would think of the people who now lead us. I think he'd be disappointed in our many politicians who choose self-interest over problem-solving, politics over people. Addressing the many issues now facing America will take the kind of courage and self-sacrifice for the common good that Lincoln and his audience knew all too well; in contrast, our current leaders fret over alienating voters with the reality of what it will take to actually dedicate ourselves as a people to the great tasks before us.

On November 19, 2013 there will be no shortage of officials who will use the occasion of the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address to stage splashy press conferences. But in my mind the real legacy of the Address is the optimism President Lincoln conveyed to a people during one of the most trying times in American history, an optimism that was based on a realistic assessment of the situation and the recognition of the self-sacrifice in the struggle for the common good. Today we don't need attractive leaders who can recite some phrases from the Gettysburg Address; we need people who understand that our nation is being tested much like it was 150 years ago. We need leaders more like my students – people who know that when you're being tested, it helps to have some answers.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Generating authenticity

Goodbye Summer by Gabriela Zabka
I've written before about my ongoing concern to get my students to appreciate the value of what's taught in school, based on the work of the late Jere Brophy. Part of my solution is to meet the students where they are by using authentic writing situations that call for the use of authentic rhetorical devices. For example, on the first day of school a couple of weeks ago, I asked my students to write what was on their mind, and the most frequent response was "college." So some of the work we're doing now in my senior English classes capitalizes on their preoccupation with their post-high school plans – an authentic writing situation.

First, a word about authentic rhetorical devices: To begin this year I had success with the idea of generative rhetoric. I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop at the annual meeting of the National Writing Project with Richard Graves and Sherry Swain a while back where they introduced the idea of generative rhetoric, based on Francis Christensen's 1967 work, A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence. In essence the workshop facilitators led us through an exercise where we crafted and appreciated the elegance of participial phrases and cumulative sentences like the following:

Now that I can have her only in memory, I see my grandmother in the several postures that were peculiar to her: standing at the wood stove on a winter morning and turning meat in a great iron skillet; sitting at the south window, bent above her beadwork, and afterwards, when her vision failed, looking down for a long time into the fold of her hands; going out upon a cane, very slowly as she did when the weight of age came upon her; praying. – from This Way to Rainy Mountain, by N. Scott Momaday

This lesson is described in detail in the article, "The Final Free Modifier – Once More" by Graves, Swain, and Morse. For me, what ultimately works about this activity is that it asks students to think of someone special, doing something. It's an assignment that's very real and significant to them. The activity is wonderful by itself, but it can also be a springboard (or be the opening or closing sentence) to the type of college or scholarship essay where students describe an important person in their life. So now I'm thinking about how the underlying structure of things like the compound sentence or a device like anaphora might help convey the significant thoughts of my seniors. More on that later....

Now, back to authentic occasions and meeting the students where they are now: College essay and scholarship applications are difficult for my students to write because they're taught to be humble and self-effacing. To alleviate this issue, I'm doing a sequence of assignments that asks the students to generate information from the significant people in their lives.

Activity 1: Before they start drafting their application and scholarship essays, I have them gather information about themselves. This first activity is based on "How to Play to Your Strengths," an article from the Harvard Business Review. I have my students interview three people who know them well – friends, family members, mentors, coaches, etc. – about the students' strengths (i.e. their best self). Then the students complete an assignment called the Reflected Best Self.

Activity 2: Have students write letters to three generations (their peers, their parents, and their grandparents) for advice about the high school and post-high school transition. We talk about formatting personal letters (see graphic at bottom of this post), and how to address an envelope. I suggest they do the following in their revisions:
  • Tell the addressee about where you are in your high school life now and what your tentative post-high school plans are,
  • Ask them about their own high school and post-high school experience,
  • Ask them for advice about how to go about finishing high school and about college, 
  • Finally, ask them for advice about how to live a fulfilling life.
Activity 3: Now they're ready to compile a story inventory for college essay prompts. And finally, once they choose the most compelling story, they can begin drafting their admissions and scholarship essays.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Appreciating the language of "I Have a Dream"

Photo by Madelina James
In honor of this Wednesday's 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the famous words delivered that day, I put together a resource to help students appreciate the language of the "I Have a Dream" speech. Of course the moment in history is significant for many reasons, but I think it's also worthwhile to appreciate the elegance of the words themselves.

It's one thing to say that the speech is powerful, but it's another to identify reasons that account for that power. That's what this lesson is meant to do (link to the PDF).

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Copyright rights ... and Fair Use for educators

copyright confusion by me
Are you an educator grappling with copyright issues? Still not quite sure about terms like Creative Commons, Fair Use, and Public Domain? As I was putting together a presentation on copyright and Fair Use for educators (at bottom), I thought I'd share what I've learned.

Although I admire Larry Lessig's work and the good people at Creative Commons, it's important to realize that CC is another licensing scheme. I've found that even if educators understand CC, they still can be unclear about how copyright is really a balance between the rights of owners and users like educators. So let's say you want to use a copyrighted work in your teaching. Can you?

The short answer is you CAN use copyrighted material in your teaching because of the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Act of 1976. The Code of Best Practices does a nice job of explaining the ethical, legal, and pedagogical questioning that all teachers and learners should engage in as we consider the use of copyrighted materials.

In her book Copyright Clarity: How Fair Use Supports Digital Learning, Renee Hobbs uses an example from one of my students. After the book came out, we interviewed Renee on Teachers Teaching Teachers, #184.

Since we're all pressed for time, here's a condensed version the original TTT podcast. The first seven minutes are Renee laying out her thinking on the culture of sharing in education. For the next six minutes Renee leads me through applying the Code to my own students use of copyrighted images, and why it's an example of Fair Use. That's followed up by two student examples – one from Paul Allison and an example from another student of mine.

My big takeaway: In recent years, legal scholars have found that courts return again and again to two questions in deciding if a particular use of a copyrighted work is a fair use:
  • did the unlicensed use "transform" the material taken from the copyrighted work by using it for a different purpose than that of the original, or did it just repeat the work for the same intent and value as the original?
  • was the material taken appropriate in kind and amount, considering the nature of the copyrighted work and of the use?
What I like most about the Fair Use Doctrine is that it's really up to educators to model the ethical behavior that was the intent of copyright law all along.

Monday, June 03, 2013


Here's a bit on spelling rules I shared with my students recently. Feel free to use it.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Teaching the "Letter to an Elected Official"

Capitol by Abby_B
One way for students to learn how to become productive citizens is to craft a piece of argumentative writing for an authentic audience – a letter to their elected officials. The challenge is how to make sense of all the information on controversial issue. To make this proces manageable for my students, I've been using the gun control resources on the KQED Lowdown and the KQED DoNow websites, which have provided a good springboard for more sustained research writing and discussion. Here's how last week looked in my classroom.

Day One: As of March 2013, KQED has seven resources under the gun control topic.
  1. Randomly assign students to read one of the seven articles in the collection of articles from the KQED. 
  2. Individual students list the most important points of the article they were assigned; they write a brief summary of that article and cite the source using MLA format. Remind students that the most significant information might not only be in the story’s text (like facts or expert opinions) but might also be found in an image or graphic. Note: Although citing sources isn’t a typical part of a letter, in this case it is important for at least three reasons: 1) they are representing themselves as serious students to their elected officials and should demonstrate their academic skills, 2) citing the source might help educate the reader of the letter, and 3) the citation provides concrete support for their opinions.
  3. Divide students into seven groups and have them share their summaries with others who read the same article. 
  4. Once students read their individual summaries, the group agrees on the most important five points from the article and creates a collaborative one-paragraph summary that best represents the ideas of the group. Here’s an example summary from my class
  5. Groups present facts and summaries to the whole class while the other students organize the information into facts and opinions that could be used to support more gun control and those arguments that could be used to oppose more gun control (see page 1 of the resource packet “Pro/Con information sheet.”) Although gun control is the issue I'm focusing for this lesson, the handouts in the lesson are more open-ended and can be used for any controversial issue

Day Two: Using the information found in their reading and note taking from Day One, students will complete a draft of a letter to an elected official in today’s class. In doing so, students must synthesize information from at least two sources

  1. Individual students review their notes from Day One where they categorized the facts and opinions into two columns – one column for the information that could be used to support the argument for more gun control, and another column that includes all the information that could be used to oppose the argument for more gun control. 
  2. Students rank (in order of importance) the top ideas or facts in each column. This is also a good time to discuss how some facts can be used to support both sides of the argument (example: “Gun manufacturing in the U.S. increased from 3.7 million in 2007 to 6.1 million in 2011” could be combined with other information from this graphic to support either side of the argument). 
  3. Research your local elected officials stance on the topic by reading information on their government website as well as information gleaned from news stories. Based on the official’s views, choose one to write the letter to. If the students aren’t sure who their elected officials are, look them up on the Common Cause website
  4. Write a draft of the letter using the activities found on page 2, “Writing the Draft.” Tell the students not to worry too much about formatting issues right now, the important thing is to try to get the gist of their thoughts based on their reading and note taking so far.  
  5. Revise the letter using the activities found on page 3, “Revision Guide.”
If you want more details, here's a link to the actual lesson plan.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Teaching curation in the classroom

Cowboy by me
My media students have been using some KQED Lowdown resources lately to try to understand the gun control debate. As my students and I have studied this issue for the past few weeks, a couple of things have occurred to me. My first observation is how complex many issues are today. It can be difficult for students to write a simple thing like a piece of argumentative writing, or participate in a classroom debate, when there's so much information on the topic. Trying to get a handle on an multifaceted issue can be overwhelming for all of us. This leads me to my second observation – researching wicked problems like gun violence in America might be better undertaken in collaborative groups not only in classrooms but also in larger connected learning environments.

Here's how it went in my class.

Currently KQED has seven resources under the gun violence topic. I started off by dividing students into seven groups and had them examine one of the resources. Individual students first wrote a summary of their article's main points. Next they shared their summaries with their group members. In the end the group was responsible for one summary that best represents the ideas of the group and then presented to the rest of the class. Here's an example summary from one of the groups in my class.

To make doing these activities more manageable, I've always appreciated objective educational resources that have been assembled by experts, for example EBSCO Host Connection gun control resources and ProCon's concealed gun fact sheet. These are packaged to make researching more efficient for students and teachers, but I've also begun to realize that the act of searching for articles and discussing the merits of sources is an integral part of learning how to thrive in a knowledge economy. That's why I'm doing more collaborative research projects in my classes now on sites like Diigo, Delicious, and Gooru. One project that gets at what I'm moving toward is this shared Gooru collection that has been added to by Paul Allison's students in New York City and my students in Utah.

I've found that the most effective groups consist of informed individuals. Once we go through the process of collaboration and curation, we're much better able to articulate a stance on complex issues.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Annotation and reading comprehension

It might not mean much, but as I was recording some scores in my gradebook today, I noticed the difference between my students who annotated versus those who didn't annotate a sample AP English Language multiple choice passage. Out of the 65 students who took the test, 33 of them annotated but 32 didn't. The people who annotated the passage scored on average 9% higher than the students who didn't. I always encourage the students to read with a pencil in hand, but it's not a requirement; now I'm rethinking that. The image on the right is of a student of mine who had a perfect score, and I couldn't help but notice the rich annotation on the passage (arrows, summary, brackets, quoted materials). I haven't had the time yet to do more than a cursory view of the research on the effect of annotation on reading comprehension, so this could just be a coincidence.

And even if it isn't an isolated phenomenon, we all know that correlation isn't causation. Maybe annotation makes more effective readers, or maybe more effective readers annotate. Still, it does make me wonder....

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Writing connected research

Adventure by Ben Harvey
In my last post I wrote about the connected research and social scholarship that's happening in my classroom. The most significant way those things manifest themselves is through the discussions that my students post on Youth Voices. The students search for information about their inquiry as they learn to navigate different resources and then post the most interesting things they discovered on their Youth Voices blogs. After all the blogging and discussing at the end of the unit, they distill the most compelling information into the traditional research paper format.

Is their writing that's done for the screen better than their writing for paper, or vice-versa? I don't know. But what I do know is that I need to prepare my students for both types of composition, at least for the immediate future. And I also know that students now need to understand how to access and assess information from a lot of different sources. For example, some of these databases and resources I use are open; others are locked behind paywalls or only accessible through library subscriptions (more on that later).

If you're interested in doing this yourself, here is some information about the resources and databases the students use as they blog and discuss their findings:

Friday, January 18, 2013

Connected research and social scholarship

As my seniors work through a research writing unit in my English class, the ideas of connected research and social scholarship become more apparent.

Ball o' fire by Reid Bell
For me connected research refers to the many interactions my students have, not only with each other through shared docs and such, but also to their direct communication with "experts." Even in my pre-digital classroom, I'd have students interview experts, so that much isn't really new. But seems different now is the rate of response the students are getting from knowledgeable people via a variety of channels. Increasingly, my students are finding that their chosen experts connect primarily through one channel: Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.  And when my students finally track down the expert and their preferred method of contact, the response rate has been greater than in the past.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with a retiring biochemical researcher who'd received countless competitive grants in his career. He said that when he first began as a researcher, the important thing in obtaining funds was the ready access to state-of-the-art labs and a cohesive research team. But now what he's seeing is that the big research grants are going to those people who collaborate by sharing the resources of labs located around the world while assembling a team of people with diverse perspectives. The idea was reinforced when I started coming across articles like "Science 2.0" and more recently in books like Dan Tapscott's Macrowikinomics.

In Social Scholarship: Applying Social Networking Technologies to Research Practices, the Computer Research Association states that "fewer individuals will be able to carry out their work without connecting with their peers, experts, and mentors via electronic networks."

A similar sentiment is echoed in the Horizon Report's 2012 Higher Education wiki on New Scholarship: "Increasingly, scholars are beginning to employ methods unavailable to their counterparts of several years ago, including prepublication releases of their work, distribution through non-traditional channels, dynamic visualization of data and results, and new ways to conduct peer reviews using online collaboration. New forms of scholarship, including creative models of publication and non-traditional scholarly products, are evolving along with the changing process. Some of these forms are very common — blogs and video clips, for instance — but academia has been slow to recognize and accept them. Proponents of these new forms argue that they serve a different purpose than traditional writing and research — a purpose that improves, rather than runs counter to, other kinds of scholarly work." 

I suppose this is all just a subset of what's meant by connected learning. And maybe I'm just more aware of it now, but I'm seeing more connected methodologies manifest themselves in the digital and traditional writing my students compose now.