Sunday, March 30, 2014

Best Teaching Tool Ever? The Pause.

One of the most undervalued teaching strategies of all time?


The pause.

I was reminded of this tool the other day when my student (let's call him Sam, even though it's not even close to his real name) launched into reasons that he couldn't possibly do any homework for the next week.  Sam has the challenging mix of some anxiety, a need to process verbally, and a tendency to speak in extremes.  So, too often I find myself in a verbal tangle with him.
 He gets me (nearly) every time.

To avoid the tangle with Sam, it's as simple as remembering to pause.  If I don't get pulled into his faulty line of logic and anxiety-ridden thoughts, I can diffuse his anxiety (and mine). The pause not only gives me a chance to remind myself to not get snared by his story, but it also allows me to listen fully.  In turn, my full attention helps him calm down.

Other places for the pause in the classroom:

1. Post-Question Pause: Obviously, pause after you ask a question.  That's teacher training 101.  But wait longer than you think you need to, and see what happens.  I think we are often so in a hurry to get to the (our) point in the discussion, or we're uncomfortable with silence, that we rush the post-question pause.  Just wait, glance at your shoes--like you could wait all day if you needed to.  Sometimes students just need a little processing time. Or, they think you'll just answer the question without them.

Also, by pausing, you're reminding them that it's not all about your thoughts.  Invite their thoughts--by not giving them yours so frequently.  If you really want deeper thinking, and not just obligatory answers, try responding with: "I hadn't thought of that.  What do others think?"  Or, "I'm intrigued, tell me more about that."

See this blog for a helpful discussion of the importance of higher order questioning, including a question bank

2. Pause of Patience: when you want your students to really hear you, pause.  Perhaps for dramatic effect, or if you're in the middle of a sentence, and you realize that some students have drifted off, or heaven forbid, turned to talk to someone more interesting than you, just pause.  Not in an evil-eye, shaming way, but just a little moment of breath, as if to say, come back.  I'm waiting patiently.

3. Pause before a decision. Teachers make hundreds of decisions a day.  At times, I'm sure I make them without thinking.  A student may ask me for an alternative assignment, an extension, or to leave the room, for instance.  A pause gives me the chance to collect my thoughts, ask myself what my goal is with the assignment, and stay firm--or be flexible.

4. Pause before pouncing: after a student says something offensive to your sensibilities, take a breath. That could be a difficult one.  A racist or sexist remark, usually said in ignorant innocence, can derail a class. In the past, I think I jumped too quickly--not down their throats, but perhaps close.  Now I take a breath, and think about how to respond.  Then I'm ready to grab onto a possible teaching moment.

5, Finally, pause to praise: those moments of genuine specific praise (I like how you've been listening to each other or "thank you for focusing for these last few minutes") can go a long way.

So, I invite you to try out the pause more often in your classroom--and in your life, for that matter.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

My Top Five Texts to Teach

I love lists.  The clean lines, the simplicity, the order.
When I'm overwhelmed by work, a to-do list is my best strategy.
When students don't know how to start a writing assignment, I suggest a list.
I create daily or weekly lists of to-do's, but I also hold happy lists: places to go, things that make me happy, and things/people to feel grateful for.

So, time for a list.

I've been teaching literature and humanities courses for about twenty years.  In all of that time, I've taught many texts--novels, stories, films, cartoons, ads, and maybe even cereal boxes (though I could be making that last one up).

But here are the ones that have consistently triggered substantial reactions and discussions from high school-aged students, and I never seem to get tired of exploring these with students.

Never-fail-me texts:
1. Macbeth  (Lady Macbeth--cool badass or evil? What's/who's to blame for Macbeth's fall from grace? Why do good people do bad things?)
2. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Gilman  (students are both puzzled and fascinated by what's going on--and they have to look closer)
3. Thelma and Louise  (ok, women w/ guns and booze--maybe not a great one for HS, but for discussing defiance, gender roles, and power, it's great)
4.  Mushrooms, poem by Sylvia Plath  (so simple and accessible.  Use it to introduce metaphor and/or literary theory.  Read it first without the title; ask them, what's being described? So many interpretations.)
5. The Zebra Storyteller, by Holst (so surprising and so short.  Good one for reluctant and as well as strong readers. The question it raises--what is the purpose of stories, is a rich one.)

Teachers--I would love to hear about your no-fail texts . . .

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Sounding like a Beginner

I took up the cello a few weeks ago.  All I can do so far (even though I spent years playing the violin) is to pull the bow slowly across the strings, one at a time.  I've put a few fingers down, but the sound automatically changes to something less round and deep once I do. I have to stop, return to the open G or D string until I remember just the right amount of pressure the bow needs from my arm, while remembering to keep my arm straight as I move toward the tip. I sound like a beginner, and I hate it.

I'm pretty sure that these lessons are helping me as an English teacher. That feeling of being a beginner reminds me that I often ask my students to feel like that. I teach high school, so I'm not teaching new readers or writers, but when these skills don't come easily to a student, I'm asking them--when I say, now try a poem, now try lines written in iambic pentameter--to put themselves in a vulnerable spot.

Want to be a better teacher? Learn something completely new. Try to practice in front of someone else--whether it's belly dance, or basketball, or baking a souffle.  Stick with it until you feel frustrated and want to quit.

Then imagine that student who doesn't write a journal entry when everyone else is scribbling away, or think of the one who keeps forgetting the formulas you've gone over a zillion times. Think of the student who doesn't want to share her drawing or who struggles with spelling.

I think it's easy to get impatient with our students, especially if they are timid about subjects and skills we love and can do readily. We're in our element in the classroom, but our students aren't necessarily.   It may not be enough to say, I know this is hard for you. Go out on a limb yourself, take up something that is really hard for you, maybe something you're scared of learning.

Even better, ask a student who struggles in your class to help you learn something that she's good at--like play a song on the guitar, say some phrases in another language, or ride a skateboard. Sharing your vulnerability may allow your student the courage to make mistakes in your class. Then learning is more likely.

 I think we may sometimes forget, it's not always laziness or a lack of motivation that keeps a student from working, it might just be the fear of looking or sounding like a beginner.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Once I flushed my wallet down the toilet: Creativity within a Framework

As a teacher, we have lots of options when we ask students to write. We know we want them to write, but what’s the best way to improve this crucial skill? How much structure do student-writers need? Is the five-paragraph format the way to go, or does this format only make them into little robot-writers? How do we make sure that they have a structure that we as readers can follow, and yet also an individual voice--that creative, personalized edge that makes for engaging writing (that we don’t mind sitting down to grade)?   I used to be more in the camp of anti-five paragraph, and even anti-format of any sort because I hated to read the crap that came from those structures. But I’ve learned that there’s compromises to be made, and that giving students a roadmap is crucial. 

Structure is important

I have found that some students really benefit from some structure as they write, like I might need bumpers when go I bowling.  It doesn’t mean I won’t learn to bowl well without them, it just means that I’ll feel more inclined to keep bowling if I have some success; some students will write next to nothing unless you give them a first sentence, a topic sentence for each paragraph, or some other roadmap.

My advice is to balance those structured assignments with plenty of opportunities for students to explore what they believe, to talk about those beliefs with others, and to enrich their writing with those thoughts.  Those five-paragraph essays are boring when students merely write what they think they should be saying, not what they’ve actually thought about (perhaps the SAT writing scorers discovered this, and that drove College Board to make the essay optional). In other words, structure can stymie genuine thought and fresh ideas.

Write outside the box:

Also, make sure to give plenty of opportunities for students to write outside the box.  Ask them to write poems, five- word memoirs, and scripts. Give them the common sentence, “the dog barked” and tell them to write a story with that sentence in it somewhere. Tell them to write the longest sentence they can.  Give them a list of the funniest words in English to use in a story.  Go wild.
Balance structure with chances to be creative:

Finally, structure can mate with creativity--and perhaps that's the ideal.  Like Madlibs.  This is a fill-in-the-blank writing exercise, yet I’m amazed when I challenge kids to come up with words beyond the pedestrian they come up with a very creative, often hilarious little story (something involving a butt).

I've also come to realize that there's structure everywhere, and that this doesn't mean it's not creative. Look at a snowflake, for goodness sake, or a flower garden.  And all stories hold a very similar structure.

Yesterday in my 11/12th grade film-making class, I wanted to suggest that a story is a simple matter, and that for their screenplays, all they need is: a character who wants something and can’t get it.  Until he or she does.  My purpose was to slice through the fear I felt in the room—fear of writing 5-8 pages of stage direction and dialogue.  To make my point (and to trigger ideas), I gave them this framework, insisting that all stories are basically this format:

Once. . .
Then one day. . . .
But suddenly. . .
And next, unfortunately. . . .
Then it was discovered that. . . .
Luckily, in the end. . .

Now, I said, fill in the blanks, and you’ve got your story concept and plot.  I know, it could result in crap, but I tried it anyway as an experiment.  One of my students came up with this:  

“Once, I flushed my wallet down the toilet. Then one day, I found it in my garden. But suddenly, I realized that it was actually my neighbor's! And next, unfortunately, I maxed out all his credit cards. And got pulled over with his license. And got into an argument with the cop, who set me up with a court date. And I liked her, so we went out a few times, at least until I realized that she was a Satanist. Thankfully, I had given her my neighbor's name, so just as things were getting to serious, I was able to
fake my own death by vanishing into the labyrinth of the sewers! And wouldn't you know it, but I found my wallet down there! And I all lived happily ever after.  The end.”

And there you have it, creativity within a framework.  And a chuckle to boot.

(Note: I think I stole the prompts, but I have no idea from whom.  Sorry I haven’t given credit where credit is due)


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Learning and Teaching--best done away from desks

At my desk--but not for long.

I need to explain the title of this blog.  First of all, I wanted several other titles that were already taken, including, "Begin Anywhere" which is one of my favorite quotes (from John Cage), and I use it all the time with students when they're stuck with writing.  I settled on "Teacher Away From Her Desk" because it gets at the kind of teacher I am.  No, I'm not often on vacation.  But I can often be found sitting on the tables in my room, eliciting responses to Catcher in the Rye or Othello.  I might be in the big multi-purpose room of our school, checking in with a student who could focus better outside the classroom.  I might be acting in a student's film, hiking up Mount Monadnock, or painting a mural in a homeless shelter.  I can be found in the bathroom rolling a student's hair into victory rolls for our 1940's Living Museum.  And my favorite teaching moment of all--running toward the warm blue ocean of Cabarete with my 11th grade advisees.  It was a moment of joy and discovery that I'll remember forever, and no lesson planning was involved (though lots of fund-raising was).  I'm lucky enough to teach in a small school where we emphasize learning in a variety of settings and I'm expected to include projects that take me out of the classroom.  But I think even in a traditional, larger school, I'd find myself teaching in the hallways, or side by side students in a circle, and yes, in front of the classroom. I like my desk, and I do spend a fair amount of time there, but that's not where I do my best teaching.

Teaching away from my desk means I'm not talking at the students (though I do that occasionally), but rather I'm asking them to write something, to collaborate with one another, to solve real problems, to create art, and to connect with me and their peers.  The core for me is this--learning is most powerful when students and teachers are doing meaningful work together; that might be writing and producing ten minute plays or planning an event to demonstrate their learning.  It could be reading and discussing a novel together.  Perhaps best of all, it might be traveling to a new place together.

Also, yesterday, as I watched my 9th and 10th grade students tackle some primary and secondary sources relating to WW I, I noticed that they too prefer to learn away from their desks, even when it's something one would think is desk work.  After I handed out the assignment with the packet of readings, a couple students wanted to go out and sit on the stage that is set up for the upcoming play (we don't have an auditorium, so we have hand-built stage that gets folded up when the play it over). They wanted to go over the reading together, discussing the questions as they go, collaborating on answers. These students are bright and inquisitive, and were not just looking to get the answers from one another.  One student wanted to sit by himself on the floor outside the classroom, and another needed to talk through the questions with me.  The entire class worked.  It was a productive hour or so.  Really, I was a bit surprised. They had each selected the place and modality that helped them read and think. And it worked.

So I encourage teachers to keep this in mind--if allowed to, students figure out how they work best, and sometimes it's away from their desks.

And teachers, step away from that desk--run toward the sea with your students.
students who self-selected to work together on reading

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Snow Globes and Writing

Triggering Creative Writing

Sometimes, inspiring a student to write involves a simple object—like this silly little penguin snow globe.  Let me explain . . .

I co-teach a film-making elective for 11/12th graders.  In this six week course, students boldly venture through each stage of the film-making process, including the creation of an original live action short film of about 6-10 minutes. The first task is to write a short screenplay that can be produced in the final weeks of the class.  I have struggling writers as well as “natural” writers in the group, and it’s often a challenge to get them all to write a complete 5-10 page script, which they then pitch  to the class. In the class of anywhere between 10-17, they decide on about four scripts to produce.  We’re also challenged by time; ideally, the class would be at least eight weeks, and there would be time to draft the scripts before production weeks.

So, with a couple weeks and a diverse group of writers, I’ve tried many things to inspire the screenplays.

I’ve tried music.  I play various songs (everything from jazz to Vivaldi or rap), and ask students to close their eyes until they start to see a scene or a person.  I then ask them to open their eyes and describe what they see, embellishing if they want.  We go through 4-6 songs, followed by a brief writing time.  Those scenes sometimes result in at least a character, if not a story concept or location idea.

I’ve also tried pictures, and I’ve tried shoes, which I tell them I found along the side of roads.  I ask, who lost this shoe and how?  Today, I brought in a bag of random objects from my house, including an old cowboy boot, a dusty 1950’s camera, a bracelet from the Dominican Republic, a box of cheerios, and a penguin snow globe that is part of my daughter’s old collection.  I spread them out on the tables in front of the students, and told them to see which object calls to them.  My instructions: Examine it and then decide who it belongs to.  Imagine this person, in as much detail as you can, and then describe that person.  Once they’ve got their character, I ask them to look at the list of prompts on the board to help them think more deeply about him or her.  They use these prompts to further learn about/create their character, and possibly even think of a conflict for a story.

Prompts to develop character:

A person who . . .
likes. . .  (i.e.: cheerios, Beethoven, belly dancing, or her 5th grade teacher, etc.)
hates. . . (i.e: beets, his mother, people who lie etc.)
spends every afternoon . . . (i.e: knitting, riding a bike along the beach, filing, etc)
wants . . . (i.e: a girlfriend, attention, to be able to fly, etc.)
forgets . . . (i.e: most things, his students’ names,  his keys, etc.)
eats . . . (i.e: rye toast and cheese; popcorn without butter, etc.)
needs (i.e: a new robe, a job, a ride home, etc.)

Today in class, one of my students was intrigued by the snow globe, and quickly came away with an idea not only for a character who owned that object, but also for a whole story line.  After class, she chattered excitedly to me in the lunch line about her story about a young girl who loses her favorite object, even thanking me for doing that activity.

It was one of those gratifying teaching moments.  And all it took was a few objects from my closets.

I look forward to reading the scripts that students will write in the next week.