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Posts from the ‘From the Classroom’ Category

From the Classroom: Fearless Reading (and Analysis)

By Tricia Ebarvia

Ever since the NCTE Convention in November, I’ve been thinking a lot about the theme of advocacy. How can we advocate for our students—and the teaching practices that we know will best serve them? How can we help students advocate for themselves—on their own behalf and perhaps more importantly, on behalf of others? How can we help students advocate for issues that can help make their world and our society a better place?

As educators, we know the power of empathy. Just yesterday, as we finished up our unit on Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, my students and I discussed how important that novel is to our understanding of others around us who may be feel vulnerable or disempowered. Literature has the unique power to allow us to walk around in another character’s point-of-view, to broaden and deepen our own experiences so that we can become, ultimately, more understanding fellow human beings.

But lately I’ve been thinking that literature, by itself, may not be enough. If we read books, no matter how rich and wonderful and engaging they are, but we fail to expose students to study today’s relevant social issues, we miss an opportunity to help students to read the world. And in this era of #fakenews, reading the world may be more important than ever. Read more

Embracing New Ideas

I guess you might say I continue to compile a book pile of ideas which I dip in and out of each week according to the needs of my students. In some ways, my professional book pile feels alive and responsive to where this group of students is today.

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Approaches to Argument in an Era of Alternative Facts

by Tricia Ebarvia

Given the state of today’s political discourse and the complex challenges presented by social media sharing (and over sharing), it’s more important now than ever for teachers to take an active role in helping students navigating the information and misinformation they encounter every day. At this point, many of us might be already familiar with the Stanford study published a few months ago that found that many students cannot discern the difference between stories that are real and those that are not. As the Washington Post reported, “Some 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website.”

And it isn’t just students either. Even well-educated adults fall for fake news stories. Just this morning, on my Facebook feed, a friend posted a news story that turned out to be false (someone in the comments had done a fact check). Unfortunately, too often fake news sites have become adept at posing as legitimate sources. Now, when I see a news story from an unfamiliar source, the first thing I do is try to determine where it’s coming from. As literacy teachers, we can no longer just teach our students the traditional Rs of reading and writing. We need to also teach our students about third R—Rhetoric.

Rhetoric is the study of persuasion, and today, there are plenty of individuals, friends, family, interest groups, politicians, corporations, and any number of organizations trying to persuade our students—to buy this, believe that, do this, don’t do that. Information that seems purely objective can be interpreted (or manipulated) in the service of persuasion. Even the youngest students can (and should) be taught to analyze text to look for biases. Just a few weeks ago, my six-year-old came home and told me about how his class was learning the difference between fact and opinion. Of course, teachers have always done this work, but the times seem to call for more. So how? How can we teach our students be critical thinkers, especially of information that might feed into our own biases?  Read more

The Struggle Can Be Wonderful

Here is our truth. Students need our help. We need help. We need each another--everyone in the classroom and everyone in our buildings. And we need the humility to know that our best teaching years may never be realized because of the hundreds and thousands of unreported moments that matter to the young people we mentor.

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From the Classroom: On Prewriting Using Modes

By Tricia Ebarvia

My AP Lang students are currently working on their “On” essays—writing on anything they choose.

There’s a long tradition of “On” essays in the world… and by an “On” essay, I mean any essay whose title starts with the word “On…” (although, really, isn’t anything an “On” essay if it’s on a topic? The distinction for my purposes in teaching is really just technical). We read essays like “On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion and “On Dumpster Diving” by Lars Eighner, which explore process. We read a contemporary essay like “On Compassion” by Barbara Ascher and a 19th century essay like “On Running After One’s Hat” by G. K. Chesterton, which delve into the philosophical as well as social commentary. We read “On Being a Cripple” by Nancy Mairs and “On Being Black and Middle Class” by Shelby Steele,” which focus on identity. We read essays by Lewis Thomas, whose essays,“On Warts” and “On Probability and Possibility,” are some of the best examples of elegant science writing—and writing in general—I’ve encountered. And still we read other essays whose titles don’t begin with the word “On” but embody the ethos of writing on what it means, ultimately, to be in the world—essays like “The Jacket” by Gary Soto and “Me Talk Pretty” by David Sedaris and “Salvation” by Langston Hughes.

We study and celebrate these writers and their craft. We ask ourselves questions that help us read like writers: What can I take away from this? What can I learn? What can I steal? Because my AP Lang students read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist for summer reading, we remind ourselves to embrace being artistic thieves. We look at the ways in which these essays explain, define, and describe; how they use anecdotes and allusions; how they feature both insight and curiosity; how they zoom in and zoom out.  Read more

Acts of Doing

A roundtable discussion evolved into how teachers offer differentiation and choice while still managing to work through the standards inspired a change in my classroom. An elementary school teacher planted a seed when she shared an overview of how she designs various stations (built on individual standards) throughout the classroom. Kids literally have to move around the space–station to station–to complete each task.

For example, this fourth grade teacher used the PA Common Core Standard (CC.1.1.4.E Read with accuracy and fluency to support comprehension) as her example. A small group of students gather up the iPads, take them to a comfortable chair and record their reading of a grade-level passage and an above grade level passage on a similar subject. Then, students are asked to record a brief summary (and eventually analysis) of the similarities and differences between the texts.

After completing this station–which might take more than one class (and that is ok!)–students would move onto another station in the order that they choose.

In one elementary classroom, there might be anywhere from 4-6 stations all built on the standards. The standards become the actions and expectations of our students. It becomes messy and noisy and kids are playing with words and ideas. The teacher emerges free to mentor students through what they do. And she mentioned that students will even opt to take their independent reading time on different days–”because that is just what they want and need.”

I wish I remembered this teacher’s name. Even though she is in Pennsylvania, someplace, I met her in Minneapolis at NCTE. I thought her method and attitude were brilliant. Everything we discussed crystallized the standards for me into acts of doing. Not what I do, what the students do. Since last November, I have been chewing on what this model might start to look like in my classroom and then I saw an image shared by Penny Kittle on Twitter.

Now, I am not certain how Penny facilitates her goals for her students, but her image looked an awful lot like the stations the elementary school teacher described–and what I imagined for my classroom.

Inspired by conversation and sharing, I created the first “Writer’s Studio” this week (a work still very much in progress).

Standards lay the foundations for each the individual tasks in this studio approach. For example, in the Punctuation Station (sounds alliteration, eh?) I used two PA Common Core Standards (E08.D.1.2.1 Use punctuation (comma, ellipsis, dash) to indicate a pause or break; E.08.D.1.2.4 Use punctuation (commas, parentheses, dashes) to set off nonrestrictive/parenthetical elements) to build a task.

The order of the tasks at each station (Punctuation, Elements of Nonfiction & Literature, Grammar, Elements of Poetry) is to read something, discuss it, reflect on it in writing, and then try the skill or element in an original piece of writing. Four tasks over two weeks–and this still allows for one independent reading day each week.

The benefits outweigh any initial resistance to change or doubt in my mind:

  • We generate evidence of each student accomplishing each standard.
  • Students write with choice throughout each station.
  • Every day, students collaborate, talk, write, and follow their curiosity.
  • Students move at their own pace.
  • I get one-on-one time or small group conferring time every day.
  • Students revise writing naturally as they move station to station as some choose to work on the same piece of writing at each station.
  • Students have the opportunity to develop multiple drafts on different subjects and in different genres as they move station to station. I encourage students to choose to write whatever they want at each station: poetry, essay, recipes, obituary, fiction, travel blog, et al. Anything at all.

A few takeaways have emerged over the past two days. First, students absolutely thrive under the conditions of collaboration. Yes, some students need my guidance to remain on-task, and students often need help understanding specific concepts, but they willingly work together to learn together. For example, in the Elements of Poetry station, students are reading Oranges by Gary Soto, discussing the presence of imagery, simile, and metaphor, reflecting on it in their notebook, and then writing their own poem using Oranges as a scaffold.

While some are writing a collaborative poem, others are writing individual poems and using writing partners to help them get “unstuck.”

I go table to table and teach students in small groups or individually. I have worked with many on finding the metaphor in Oranges (an early struggle). I have shared mini-lessons on verb moods and the difference between direct and indirect characterization. I have had to show some students what an ellipsis looked like. And there are others who had a working knowledge of most of these concepts and have steamrolled ahead, deep into a piece of writing.

As students write, I notice them writing together–individual poems, but they assist one another with their ideas and word choice. Their writing is social and as the insight of James Britton was channeled in recent PAWLP blog post “floats on a sea of talk.”

Part of me feels like I am late to the game (in designing a classroom this way)–and part of me wonders if am I on to something that others might benefit from. Regardless, change is happening. And change was born through professional conversation and sharing.

And so I ask, does anyone do anything similar in their classroom at the middle school or high school level? What tips can you offer if you do?