Saturday, April 22, 2017

Writing Without Fear

For some students writing assignments represent their worst nightmare. Any hint of having to put a pen to paper can instantly transfer fear into the mindset of at least half my students. How did writing become such a skulduggery exercise of futility? Did it take place when one of their earlier teachers in elementary attacked their papers with big red pen? As of late I've noticed a small segment of student population refusing to answer even the simplest of questions? And another segment who respond with 2-3 words which to them constitutes a sentence of thought. While I recognize that writing requires much more processing of language in order to produce a message, there needs to be some degree of effort put forth. This lack of cooperation is a matter which I need to deal with in the near future, as it causes me great concern. I know better than to interpret their fear of engagement as defiance of me as a person, noting that this is rather a frustration for not being able to complete the task at hand. It's a mind-block that requires my ongoing attention.

Meanwhile, for those who are willing to work at improving their skills, I identify lessons when I can provide opportunities and encouragement for finding ways to inject new vocabulary in personal reflections. I assure students that their grade will not be based on spelling, punctuation, or capitalization of words; rather recognizing the content of their ideas. From that point forward in each writing exercise I carefully monitor student writing to assess strengths and weaknesses, making attempts to teach specific skills and strategies that might enhance their abilities in future writings. I'm careful in my feedback, looking for ways to reinforce their newly-learned skills in addition to correcting recurring problems.

My greatest challenge is finding time to review everyone's work so they have time to digest my comments while the assignment is fresh in their minds. I intentionally keep my response short, wary of overwhelming them with too much feedback. Over the past few years I've followed the advice of renown author and educator Kelly Gallagher: "Focus less on grading and more on improvement. Expect more out of remedial students; expect more out of average students; expect more out of honors students. 'Everyone improves' becomes the mission of an effective writing classroom."

Students, of course, like to talk with each other, but merely asking students to get together and talk with each other about their writing usually is not enough. Students need guidance in responding to each other’s writing. Teachers model good responses (and sometimes bad ones), they offer mini-lessons on response, and they lead students to define what truly helps them, so that response sessions are effective. Teachers are also encouraged to use forms and provide checklists that can serve as guides.

Most recently I tried a new approach by dividing the class into groups of four, then asking them to collaborate together in wordsmith a response to a question involving the ongoing leadership shuffle in Pakistan between military dictatorships and elected democratic leaders. I provided an incentive for the group that could best craft their insight with a Milky Way double-bar to split among their group. The result surpassed my expectations with some exceptional writing. Somewhat as Gallagher noted, my focus was less on grading and more on insightful content. Together they achieved more by focusing on a common goal, using their individual strengths to assemble their best effort, and it's a concept I intend to explore further with next year's classes.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Personal Connections Abound

I was introduced to National History Day (NHD) in the spring of 2010 when Tom Reich, Reference Librarian at UW-Stevens Point, asked me to serve as a judge for the North Central Regional Event. I loved the concept which allowed high school students to use a designated theme associated with history and then choose a subject of choice to which they could make a connection. After three years of volunteering my time evaluating projects, I promised myself that my future classroom would include NHD as a unit of study. When the opportunity presented itself to teach in Beaver Dam, our staff embraced it with open arms and every freshman student from there on forward has experienced it first-hand.

Now in our fifth year of existence at BDHS, NHD continues to be a work in progress. I am often fascinated by the various topics that are chosen by students every semester, and I'm quickly finding it to be one of the true strengths of the program. Just recently one freshman selected Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist who contributed much to the understanding of molecular DNA. Last year this same student lost an older sister to a rare form of cancer that scientists are just now identifying ways to combat using Ms. Franklin's exhaustive work. Another student selected Eliza Schuyler (a/k/a Mrs. Alexander Hamilton) after discovering that she was a direct descendant, while also uncovering a story behind Schuyler's founding of the first private orphanage in New York City. Finally, when one young man was informed that his great-grandfather was killed during Japan's deliberate attack on Pearl Harbor, he immediately decided this would be his topic of choice.

Not every student will possess these personal connections to a historical event, but in their own distinctive way they have reasons for their choice. Their focus is on the man, woman, group, or subject connecting to "Taking a Stand in History" and it's an awesome experience to watch unfold both in and out of the classroom over the course of 5-6 weeks. At the end of the semester I ask freshmen for input on ranking their favorite units of study, and the History Day Project traditionally ends up at the top of their list. It requires plenty of extra time and effort on the part of a teacher, but the outcome makes it all so worthwhile. It many ways it's truly history in the making!