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Book Review: A Symphony of Possibilities: A Handbook for Arts Integration in Secondary English Language Arts Edited by Katherine J. Macro and Michelle Zoss

A Symphony of Possibilities is an apt title – this new book from NCTE offers a harmonious mix of ideas, from a variety of contributors, to infuse the arts into the secondary language arts classroom. As co-editors Katherine J. Macro and Michelle Zoss explain in the Introduction: “Our goal with this book was to create a resource specifically for secondary English teachers to support them as they integrate the arts into their curricula. Teachers need meaningful examples of how to do the work of incorporating creative writing, drama, music and visual arts into their classrooms so they can challenge their students, expand the horizon for student growth, and, we hope, express their own passions for the arts while offering potential learning touchstones for students.” (xii). Read more

September Snapshot – Kiwi Analysis

by Richard Short

On the first proper day of the year, when the photos and screenings and class meetings are over, and we’ve finally returned to our regular bell schedule, I show my American Literature classes a film about a little bird. 

The primary reading skill we work on in this Honors-level course is analysis. It’s a tricky one, as readers of this blog likely already know, and an intimidating word for some of my fresh-faced sophomores. We practice analytical thinking all year. In this first class period, my goals are to roll out some terminology in an unthreatening way and begin building comfort with the process. I’ll refer back to this simple lesson many times in the coming months as we transition into larger, denser texts, reminding students that this is just like what we did with the kiwi. 

Kiwi! is an artfully moving short film – with no dialogue – that clocks in at less than three minutes. In it we watch as a little bird labors to nail a tree to the side of a cliff. It peers over the edge, and we see that this is the last of many, many such efforts. Donning an old aviator’s hat and goggles, the kiwi then leaps off the precipice.  

The camera slowly tilts to reveal the kiwi’s perspective: by falling through this simulated forest, it is experiencing flight. Tiny, adorable stubs extend, beating furiously, and a single tear rolls from his eye before the bird is lost in the mists below. Then comes the thud – that always gets a reaction. 

I strongly recommend watching it before continuing. I’m linking it here with the creator’s permission:

Level One: The Literal 

Following their initial viewing, I talk about what we mean when we ask someone, “what was it about?” There are a few different ways to take that question. I ask that they begin with the literal. What’s literally happening? If your friend were absent, found out that we discussed a video and asked you, “what was it about?” what would you say? Just the plot. Just what they’d see and hear. 

We brainstorm a list together on the board. There are some key details that need to be acknowledged before we move on, and I nudge them if necessary. It’s interesting how some students will jump ahead, start putting things together and doing interpretation, but I remind them that we want to be strictly objective here. 

Level Two: The Interpretive 

We watch the film a second time. The class is then divided into groups, and given time to discuss another way to answer, “what was it about?” If someone who already knew the plot asked that same question, what would they mean? Groups are told that they need to think a little more deeply, make inferences, and connect the literal together in some coherent way. Why did the bird jump? They talk and I eavesdrop. 

Here they begin to think thematically. They make claims about sacrifice, about naivete. As we start to get their Level Two thinking on the board in a new column, I encourage speakers to connect what they’re saying here to the contents of our previous list. The relationship between detail and assertion is important.  

Typically, there is some disagreement on how aware the bird is when it jumps. Does it realize what will happen? I’ll start two lists, and we’ll see how much evidence can be drawn in support of one or the other. What’s the deal with the tear? Is this a moment of bitter realization, or the achievement of a profound joy?  

Slowly, the “aware” column begins to edge out its rival. We can point to the dozens (hundreds?) of trees already hung, the use of rope and climbing necessary throughout, as support for the kiwi understanding the power of gravity. We can note the happy foot clap following completion of its task. A student this year argued that the ready-to-hand (beak?) costume and lack of hesitation demonstrated that the bird had already given all of this considerable thought. 

The bird’s identity as a kiwi and how that separates it from other birds adds additional support. The music, too, does a lot of work cueing mood. A bouncy, almost silly march gives way to a tinkling melody that is not flatly sad, but bittersweet. There’s a complex mixture of feeling there at the exact moment it closes its eyes (another detail!) and sheds the tear. 

Conclusion (and Level Three) 

And this, I explain, is the game we will play all year. It’s the same moves, the same rules, despite the texts themselves being longer. It starts with the literal. We need to watch (and read) carefully. Little details can affect how we process the whole; for example, if someone didn’t hear that final thud, they might not realize what the bird truly exchanged for its experience and the emotional weight that adds.  

Sometimes the literal stuff is pretty easy, as with an animated short, but sometimes it requires effort in its own right. A work like The Scarlet Letter demands a slow and careful reading, mediated by potentially unfamiliar vocabulary and style, just to understand who’s who and what’s what. Background knowledge matters too. Knowing what a kiwi is, or taking the time to investigate the title, is a major clue in the right direction. 

Interpretation, our second level, is only possible once there is a good command of the literal, especially when we need to defend the plausibility of a given perspective. Without details to corroborate, persuading someone else to see it our way becomes difficult, and we’re left on the flimsy terrain of opinion. The inevitable snarky kid will suggest something outlandish, but when pressed to connect that to evidence the point makes itself, and I will take pains to distinguish between possible and plausible. 

I end by asking that they briefly discuss how we could take this further, further than a fictional bird in a fictional film. In the third level, the applied, students are asked what larger message or wisdom could be extracted from this text. Theme lives here, and moral, and thesis, and all the other meta-narrative goodness that make art worthwhile. Some students wrote about how the film illustrates the dangers of obsession. Others that the greatest dreams require the greatest sacrifice. One even read this as a commentary on ableism.  

Sometimes they ask me what I think. And I tell them unironically that this little bird lives in my heart. No matter how many times I watch it, it gets me every time. The music. Those little wings. Somebody just made it up, and yet it matters to me, and that’s not nothing. In fact, that’s our course. 


September Snapshot – First-Day Bingo

“Who knows the seven dwarfs?”

“Who adopted a pet this summer?”IMG_1558.jpg

“Who plays in the band?”

The room is humming as 20 sophomores buzz about, yelling questions to the whole class, gathering initials to complete their Bingo sheet.  Some travel alone, some buddy up, and some wait in the corner until I gently nudge them.

“Who has a size seven shoe?”

“Who went on a missions trip this summer?”

What seems to be chaos is actually a fun, first-day activity that brings the class together.  They have to stand up, move around, and start talking with each other. And I play along, too–prepared with the seven dwarfs answer so they all have to come to me. 🙂  No syllabus or books this first day; this day is about getting to know each other. Students figure out which students play drums, which ones were born in March, and which ones love to take art.  They frantically help each other and point them in the right direction to record as many initials as possible.  

“BINGO!”  Sam did it!  

We gather back in our seats and all share our interests, our summer adventures, and our family stories.  And we build a community where we will read, write, talk, think. . .and hopefully laugh a lot . . . for the next 180 days.

What are some ways that you build community during the first days?  Would love to read your ideas in the comments below!

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September Snapshot – Classroom Scavenger Hunt

Happy September and welcome back to school! In an effort to tap into the wealth of knowledge our PAWLP team has to offer, we are running a regular feature focused on sharing ideas about how we start the school year. Please check in daily to enjoy our September snapshots. If you are interested in contributing one yourself, please contact us!

The Classroom Scavenger Hunt

For years I, like many teachers, spent time early in the school year telling students about the various resources available to them around the classroom. I wanted them to feel comfortable and orientated right from the first week. However, for years, I had students asking where to find the bathroom hall pass in October, or how to sign a book out of the classroom library in November, or where they could sharpen their pencils in December.

So, a few years back I designed a classroom scavenger hunt. As you can see from the image, the hunt invites students to study a map of the classroom, move around the space themselves, and discover through investigation where and what resources are available to them.

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I gamified this activity by borrowing an idea Read more

Why teach argument writing?!

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This afternoon I lead my department in a brief 30 minute introduction to NWP’s College, Career, & Community Writers Program. I started by posting the above explanation of C3WP and asking why we should teach our students argument writing. When we discussed, words and phrases like “read critically,” “multiple points of view,” and “respectful” came up repeatedly. We innately know as teachers that it is important for our students to be able to master these skills.

We also discussed the importance of the word finally. Most often we as arguerers take a stand first, then spend the remainder of our efforts reading and researching to support that opinion. However, C3WP’s approach encourages writers to get informed first, challenge their thinking, discuss and revise their opinions, and then finally take a stand. And it provides a wealth of resources to help us guide our students towards mastering this process multiple times throughout the school year.

Read more

Teacher to Teacher: Fostering Social-Emotional Learning

by Lynne R. Dorfman

As young people’s bodies and brains are changing rapidly, they’re also trying to wrestle with who they are and who they want to be. Today’s students have a tougher time than ever, in part – thanks to technology. They’re growing up on Instagram and Snapchat—braces and voice changes and acne breakouts and bad haircuts and fashion pressures and  first crushes for all to see –-and face-to-face communication is almost nonexistent because everyone (sometimes, parents as well) are glued to their phones and various devices.

In today’s classrooms, social-emotional learning practices have found a prominent place. Everywhere, we find educators and our communities talking about raising self-awareness and focusing on kindness, empathy, and the interpersonal skills that help us navigate through school, work, and relationships with family and friends.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) can be defined as the process through which children and adults alike understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. It stands to reason that if you help children develop strong social-emotional skills, then they will be able to cope with everyday challenges.  SEL provides a foundation for positive, long-term effects on kids, adults, and communities.

SEL practices help build a foundation that supports students’ success academically. When kids are equipped with social-emotional skills, they can learn and contribute to a positive school climate. There are many simple things we can do in the beginning of the year to promote social-emotional learning.

With elementary school students, start a card file to record the things you are learning about them. Josh has a new baby brother named Jonathan. Aliyah went to the shelter with her mom, and they rescued an older dog named Cooper. Jamal will be on a traveling ice hockey team this school year, and Cado (Carlos Eduardo) just moved here from Portugal. These notes come in handy during writing workshop when students are trying to think of a topic to write about. They also are great ways to welcome students to class. “Aliyah, how is Cooper adjusting to his new home?”

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