Archives For 10th Grade

Books read in Grade 10- World Literature

15 years ago the World Trade Center Twin Towers in NYC were struck by terrorists. When they collapsed, many students at Brookfield High School in Connecticut watched them fall -75 miles away-on television screens set up along the walls of the school’s library media center.

Those students did not attend classes. Instead, they had the opportunity to be witnesses to history. They were given this opportunity to stand as witness to the tragic events that happened because of a decision made by the school’s library media specialist (LMS), Sydnye Cohen.

The role of the school librarian had radically changed beginning in the 1980s and Sydnye was a library media specialist who had trained to be at the forefront of that change. I was an English Language Arts teacher at Brookfield in September of 2001, and I had developed a great respect for her. She had encouraged me and other members of my department the previous year to incorporate technology in our lessons. She had guided us to embrace a broad range of digital tools and instructional materials.

Sydnye was confident. She was knowledgable. She was fierce in her convictions.

I remember that on that morning of September 11th, the students who had heard about the attack gathered in the school library where Sydnye had decided, with support from the school administration, no doubt, to set up the school televisions.

She had set up several different televisions along the outside walls broadcasting news; the center of the library was open space. The students sat quietly on the floor in the center of the library surrounded by the images of smoke and flames. They watched small screens that sat up high on metal stands.

That morning, Sydnye did not waver in her role to provide critical information to the high school students. I remember that she did not appear to be concerned about the impact her decision to stream the live footage into the school might have. I believe I may have said something about what parents might think; I believe she shrugged off my remark.

The students watched minute by minute, even as the Twin Towers burned and then crumbled into rubble on the NYC streets.

Her conviction to have students witness this event was based on her desire not to shield students from this man-made disaster, but to give them first-hand information.

Fifteen years later, I have noted a number of posts and news articles that ask the question:

SHOULD STUDENTS SEE THE GRAPHIC IMAGERY OF 9/11?

Several of these articles mention concerns raised by secondary school teachers today. Many high school students in 2016 could be seeing the raw footage from 9/11 for the first time. Our current 24-hour news cycle was just beginning, and Fox News and MSNBC were only five years old. Their coverage of the event streamed into the school live….unedited. Years later, the recordings are difficult to watch.

When today’s teachers tackle the topic of 9/11 in the classroom, they may feel a personal responsibility to educate students about the event, but they may also feel concerns about the impact of these videos.

cnnThe students at Brookfield High School had their LMS take on that responsibility that morning. Sydnye Cohen had every confidence that giving students the opportunity to see the events of 9/11 was historically important.  She was fierce in her conviction that witnessing this event would be important for them to become critical thinkers.

The students who sat in the library media center in Brookfield High School will clearly remember 9/11, because their library media specialist gave them that opportunity.

I recently underwent a hip replacement surgery for my left hip. This has meant that during the past several weeks of recuperation, I have had to relearn how to use my left leg and unlearn any movements that required me to bend more than 90 degrees in order to reach down and pick up something on the ground.

This period of recuperation has made me think about relearning and unlearning. Both should be used by teachers, especially middle and high school teachers, to teach writing in ELA, or any other content area, during the school year.

Relearning: What do the students already know

Students who had been out of the classroom for several weeks due to summer break will begin the year doing a lot of relearning.

The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneer in the study of memory and learning which led to his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect. In 1883, he determined that

“Relearning is supposedly the most efficient way of remembering information.”

I can attest. While I had to relearn to use my left leg to step up the stairs or to put on a pair of pants, my relearning was not very difficult. I was already proficient at these tasks before the hip surgery. According to Ebbinghaus, relearning is faster when the information is already stored, and the brain needs only to revive these memories and refresh them for use.

The level of relearning for each student will differ depending on the level of proficiency a student was originally able to attain on a task. That means the amount of time/attempts that a student took to meet a specified level of proficiency can be compared proportionally to the time/attempts he or she later needs to attain the same level.

Once school begins, teachers should take advantage of relearning by finding out first what students already know. While this may seem a statement of the obvious, a student does not come to class as a “blank slate.” They may already be familiar with information; what they may need is an opportunity to relearn.

There is ongoing relearning in English Language Arts classes at most grades because the literacy anchor standards for writing are almost the same for all grades. The difference in the relearning is directly related to the increase in sophistication required for reading (ex: character, plot, setting) and for writing (ex: noun, question mark, phrase).

Students have already been introduced to the rules for writing, those standard rules of English, at the earliest grade levels. They may need only “to revive these memories and refresh them for use.” That ability for a teacher to differentiate between students who need to relearn versus those who need to be retaught from the beginning can guide the framework for effective instruction for the school year.

Unlearning: Letting go 

Unlearning is harder. During this recuperation from hip surgery, I would repeatedly have to stop myself from reaching down to the ground to pickup whatever I dropped (and I dropped many items!) I had to “unlearn” the reflex action of bending.

“Unlearning is about moving away from something—letting go—rather than acquiring.”

In the same way, students may need to unlearn or “let go” before they can learn new information or try their own strategies in order to develop new skills.

Unlearning or letting go plays an important process  in learning how to write for grades 6-12. By the time students have reached the middle and high school levels, they will have been taught a number of writing formulas, mnemonic training wheels, designed to help them learn how to respond to a writing prompt. Some examples include:

RACE: Restate the question. Answer the question. Cite evidence. Expand/Explain.
TREE: Topic sentence. Note Reasons. Examine reasons. Note Ending
DIDLS: Diction. Images. Details. Language. Sentence Structure.

While many of these mnemonic devices are generally helpful to students, they are designed to be training steps or preliminary checklists. These formulas are meant to stir, not replace, the kind of good thinking that leads to good writing. As noted writer an editor William Zissner said in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction,

“Writing is thinking on paper.”  Screenshot 2016-08-14 12.47.32

That is the goal teachers want their students to meet…to put their thinking on paper.

To turn their thinking into writing, students should be encouraged to “unlearn” and move away from the checklists and formulas.

Good writing does not follow a prescribed outline where student fill in the blanks, often without generating the important thinking they need to do for comprehension. Even more dangerous is the impression the outlines give to students that writing is neat and easily organized. Good writing is neither neat or easily organized, instead:

Writing is messy.
Writing takes time.

Unlearning the fill-in-the-blank outline can give students new opportunities to develop their own strategies in order to deepen their own understanding. And while students are unlearning the writing formulas they were taught in elementary school, they could also unlearn some of the myths or general misinformation that still circulate in high schools about the writing process:

  • myth: essays have 5 paragraphs;
  • myth: a paragraph has at least three sentences;
  • myth: “I” should never be used in a response.

The end result of misinformation and formula writing has generated years of sameness in student responses. While these same kinds of responses may be easier for teachers to compare and to grade,  the sameness in responses will never truly reflect an individual student’s writing ability.

Encouraging writers: Relearning & Unlearning

For students to become better writers, they may need to relearn some of the general rules for writing and unlearn many of the prescribed ways that writing has been taught to them in the earlier grades. Students will need to be encouraged to drop those outlines that were put in place to guide them -like training wheels- towards the goal of being good writers.

Two areas of focus for the ELA classroom this new school year can be relearning the standard rules for writing, and unlearning the formulas, the checklists, or misinformation that stop student thinking.

Students will need those teachers who are willing to support them as they experiment in the more sophisticated, but very messy, art of writing.

Relearning to remember and unlearning to let go; important goals for the school year in the grades 6-12 classrooms… and for post-hip surgery recuperation!

Baseball is America’s sport, but I do not have a baseball “favorite team”.
My favorite team is whoever is playing the New York Yankees.
I hope that team wins…and wins big.

I hate the New York Yankees.

That said, I do have an appreciation for the cultural contributions of individual Yankee team members.
For example, I liked Babe Ruth…but the Yankees got rid of him.
I liked the architecture of the “House that Ruth built”…but the Yankees got rid of that, too.

I liked Lou Gehrig…and I especially liked how gracious he was when he retired from baseball after he was diagnosed with ALS amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.Before the diagnosis, Lou Gehrig was known as the “iron horse” of baseball, and according to the official Lou Gehrig website,   

….Gehrig’s consecutive game streak of 2,130 games (a record that stood until Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it in 1995) did not come easily. He played well every day despite a broken thumb, a broken toe and back spasms.

Other statistics on the website highlight his remarkable career:

  • Gehrig’s 184 RBIs in 1931 remains the highest single season total in American League history.
  • He batted .361 in 34 World Series games with 10 homers, eight doubles and 35 RBIs.
  • He also holds the record for career grand slams at 23.
  • He hit 73 three-run homers and 166 two-run shots, giving him the highest average of RBI per homer of any player with more than 300 home runs. 

When Gehrig’s illness forced him to retire, the sportswriter Paul Gallico suggested to the New York Yankees management that there should be a  “Recognition Day” to honor Gehrig.

On July 4, 1939, 62,000 fans watched in Yankee Stadium as Gehrig delivered a short speech during which he described himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

When Gehrig spoke that day, there were multiple microphones, but only a small section of the speech was recorded.

The text and audio from the speech are on the American Rhetoric website.

During the speech, Gehrig listed the relationships he had with others repeatedly as “a blessing”.

First, he thanked the fans:

“I have been to ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”

He thanked his fellow teammates:

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I’m lucky.”

He thanked the NY Yankee’s management team, and he thanked the members of the rival team, the NY Giants:

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something.”

He thanked the grounds keepers:

“When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in the white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something.”

He thanked his parents:

“When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it’s a blessing.” 

And, he thanked his wife:

“When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know.”

In the brief text of only 286 words, Gehrig demonstrated both incredible grace and excellent speech-craft.

On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig succumbed to ALS.

The speech he left is a great literary text to share with students in middle or high school. The readibility of this speech is about a grade 7, and there are several rhetorical devices worth noting. For example, Gehrig’s rhetorical strategies in the speech included the anaphora, which is the repetition of a first word or phrase in successive phrases (“when”) and epistrophe,  a stylistic device in which a word or a phrase is repeated at the end of successive clauses (“it’s a blessing…”).

Giving students speeches to analyze is one way for teachers in all subject areas to increase background knowledge about history and American culture. Teaching this farewell address meets the Common Core Literacy Standards English Language Arts and for History, Social Studies, Science and the Technical Subject Areas, that require students to determine word meanings, appreciate the nuances of words, and steadily expand their range of words and phrases.

On July 4th, we celebrate all things American. What could be more American than baseball…even if it is a farewell to baseball address? Lou Gehrig’s speech is one of the great American inspirational speeches…even if he was a NY Yankee.

Oh, and one more thing I can say that I like about the Yankees?

I like my husband.. he grew up as a Yankee fan.

That letter “O” morphing on your search engine for Mother’s Day?
That spinning Globe for Earth Day?
Those jigging leprechauns for St. Patrick’s Day?
These are all the Google Doodles from 2015 to celebrate holidays.

There are also Google doodle tributes to individuals. Emmy Noether (physicist), Laura Ingalls Wilder (author), and Anna Atkins (botonist), have been featured in doodles this year (2015) as individuals whose work was celebrated as having made an impact in our lives today. Each of the doodles represents the individual artistically using elements that best represent their work.

Some of the Google doodles are interactive. The Google doodle for Martha Graham is a 15 second celebration of dance. The Google doodle for Robert Moog provides a miniature electronic analog Moog Synthesizer (keyboard) that the viewer can play. The tribute to journalist Nellie Bly features a Youtube video scored with an original song (Music: “Nellie” by Karen O).

There are also international tributes not seen here in the United States with Google doodles for surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (Latin America/Australia); the oldest primary grade student at 84 years old, Kimani Maruge (Kenya); and womens’ rights activist, Henrietta Edwards (Canada).

The first Google Doodle celebrating a vacation at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google doodle celebrated a vacation by Google founders Larry and Sergey at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google Doodle (right) was a comical message that the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were out of the office attending the Burning Man Festival. The Google Doodle Archive houses the entire collection (1998-present). A scroll through the graphics shows how Google’s primary colored logo is changed in a way that is often surprising or magical. Clicking on the Google doodle takes the reader to a page with information about the event or person, and information about the graphic design and artist for the page.

There are hundreds of doodles, and information on the archive states:

Creating doodles is now the responsibility of a team of talented illlustrators (we call them doodlers) and engineers. For them, creating doodles has become a group effort to enliven the Google homepage and bring smiles to the faces of Google users around the world.

Now, consider that a key shift of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction. The explanation on the CCSS website is:

Students must be immersed in information about the world around them if they are to develop the strong general knowledge and vocabulary they need to become successful readers and be prepared for college, career, and life. Informational texts play an important part in building students’ content knowledge. Further, it is vital for students to have extensive opportunities to build knowledge through texts so they can learn independently.

Students at all grade levels can independently develop an interpretation of the Google doodle graphic. After studying the logo created by Google illustrators (doodlers), teachers can determine if the link that takes students information on the holiday, the anniversary, or the biography is appropriate for age or grade level reading. Each link contains general information that aligns to the CCSS shift to “build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.” There is information on these links that might lead students to investigate the person or topic on the doodle even further.

Should a student have an idea for a Google doodle, “The doodle team is always excited to hear ideas from users – they can email proposals@google.com with ideas for the next Google doodle.” There are hundreds of suggestions daily, but the information of the website assures students that, “…rest assured that we’re reading them :)”

Another opportunity for students to submit ideas for a Google doodle (Doodle 4 Google) will be available in September 2015. The details for the 8th annual US competition will be announced then, and examples of student entry winners in 2014 are available for viewing on the website as well.

A quick click on the Google doodle can be an engaging mini-lesson for students in building background knowledge….especially when the information is offered in a logo that is dancing, leaping, morphing, twisting, falling, jumping, running, exploding, singing, growing….

 

This April 1865 photo provided by the Library of Congress shows President Abraham Lincoln\'s box at Ford\'s Theater, the site of his assassination. Under the headline "Great National Calamity!" the AP reported Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

This April 1865 photo provided by the Library of Congress shows President Abraham Lincoln\’s box at Ford\’s Theater, the site of his assassination. Under the headline “Great National Calamity!” the AP reported Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

News stories are generally written in what is commonly known as the inverted pyramid style, in which the opening paragraph features the “5 Ws” of journalism: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The reason for this style is so that the reader gets the most important information up front. Given the amount of time readers have today to read the amount of news generated in a 24 hour news cycle, the inverted pyramid makes sense.

In contrast, 150 years ago a dispatch by the Associated Press took a storytelling approach  when President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth was relayed by AP correspondent Lawrence Gobright. Under the headline”Great National Calamity!” he chose to deliver gently the monumental news of Lincoln’s death in paragraph 9:

The surgeons exhausted every effort of medical skill, but all hope was gone.

The Common Core State Standards in Literacy promotes primary source documents, such as this news release, in English Language Arts and Social Studies. Documents like this provide students an opportunity to consider the voice or point-of-view of a writer within a historical context.

In this 19th Century AP news release, an editor’s note attached described in vivid detail Gobright’s efforts to gain first-hand information in compiling the story of Lincoln’s assassination. In the tumult that followed the assassination, Gobright became more than a witness as he:

scrambled to report from the White House, the streets of the stricken capital, and even from the blood-stained box at Ford’s Theatre, where, in his memoir he reports he was handed the assassin’s gun and turned it over to authorities.

This circa 1865-1880 photograph provided by the Library of Congress' Brady-Handy Collection shows Lawrence A. Gobright, the Associated Press' first Washington correspondent. A native of Hanover, Pa., Gobright covered both inaugurations of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination during a career spanning more than a third of a century in Washington. Under the headline "Great National Calamity!" the AP reported President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

This circa 1865-1880 photograph provided by the Library of Congress’ Brady-Handy Collection shows Lawrence A. Gobright, the Associated Press’ first Washington correspondent.. Under the headline “Great National Calamity!” the AP reported President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

Gobright’s opening line for the news story identified the setting as Ford’s Theatre; he then added information of considerable interest to the Union Army, that:

It was announced in the papers that Gen. Grant would also be present, but that gentleman took the late train of cars for New Jersey.

After setting up who was or was not in attendance,  Gobright detailed the sequence of events in paragraph 3:

During the third act and while there was a temporary pause for one of the actors to enter, a sharp report of a pistol was heard, which merely attracted attention, but suggested nothing serious until a man rushed to the front of the President’s box, waving a long dagger in his right hand, exclaiming, ‘Sic semper tyrannis,’

Describing the assailant’s escape on horseback, Gobright concluded the reaction of the crowd in the audience in paragraph 4 in an understatement, “The excitement was of the wildest possible description…”

His AP’s edited version online states that the report does not contain details on the second assassination report on Secretary of State William Seward. There is his reference to the other members of Lincoln’s cabinet who, after hearing about the attack on Lincoln, travelled to the deathbed:

They then proceeded to the house where the President was lying, exhibiting, of course, intense anxiety and solicitude.

As part of a 150 year memorial tribute, the AP offers two websites with Gobright’s report, the first with an edited version of the report and the second, an interactive site with graphics. The readabilty score on Gobright’s release is a grade 10.3, but with some frontloading of vocabulary (solicitude, syncope) this story can be read by students in middle school. There are passages that place the student in the moment such as:

  • There was a rush towards the President’s box, when cries were heard — ‘Stand back and give him air!’ ‘Has anyone stimulants?’
  • On an examination of the private box, blood was discovered on the back of the cushioned rocking chair on which the President had been sitting; also on the partition and on the floor.

The NYTimes reporting of the assassination, having the advantage of several hours start, did not bury the lede, or begin with details of secondary importance, offering the critical information through a series of headlines beginning with the kicker “An Awful Event”:

An Awful Event
The Deed Done at Ford’s Theatre Last Night.
THE ACT OF A DESPERATE REBEL
The President Still Alive at Last Accounts.
No Hopes Entertained of His Recovery.
Attempted Assassination of Secretary Seward.
DETAILS OF THE DREADFUL TRAGEDY.

Their six column spread allowed space for the six drop heads, or smaller secondary headlines, above that were stacked to provide an outline of the events. The article that follows begins with then Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s message to Major General Dix, April 15, 1865 at 1:30 AM:

This evening about 9:30 PM, at Ford’s Theatre, the President while sitting in his private box, with Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Harris, and Major Rathburn, was shot by an assassin who suddenly entered the box and approached behind the President.

Stanton’s 324 word report has a readability grade 7.2, and includes also details about the other assassination attempt on Seward’s life:

About the same hour an assassin, whether the same or not, entered Mr. SEWARD’s apartments, and under the pretence of having a prescription, was shown to the Secretary’s sick chamber. The assassin immediately rushed to the bed, and inflicted two or three stabs on the throat and two on the face.

A second dispatch features Gobright’s reporting and appears below Stanton’s message in the second column. Following these accounts, a third dispatch  by an unnamed reporter is dated Friday, April 14, 11:15 P.M. and like Gobright’s account begins with a storybook-type lead:

A stroke from Heaven laying the whole of the city in instant ruins could not have startled us as did the word that broke from Ford’s Theatre a half hour ago that the President had been shot. It flew everywhere in five minutes, and set five thousand people in swift and excited motion on the instant.

These first-person accounts of Gobright, Stanton, and others covering Lincoln’s assassination will allow students to contrast what they recognize as the reporting styles of today with an example of the storytelling reporting style 150 years ago. Students can analyze both styles for conveying information, and then comment on impact each style may have on an audience.

More important is the opportunity to ditch the dry facts from a textbook, as these newspaper releases allow students to discover that at the heart of stories about Lincoln’s assassination, the reporters were really storytellers, and their hearts were breaking.

Most overused verb used by students in school: Bored.
Least favorite word teachers want to hear: Bored.

In order to bring teachers and students together to explore what could happen when people are bored, look at the the hypothesis of Dr. Sandi Mann. She has been seeking to prove that boredom leads to creativity. Her research with other psychologists at the University of Central Lancashire was explained in an article on the Psychology Blog. In an experiment, she asked one set of participants to copy numbers out of a telephone book for 15 minutes; the other set of participants were immediately engaged in a standard creative task-inventing as many different uses as they could for a polystyrene cup. (Mann & Cadman, 2013).

The group that had been bored for 15 minutes of copying came up with the most uses.

“Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity.

In order to put Mann’s hypothesis to a less scientific test, the writers at the Blog New Tech City posted an article demonstrating a variation on Mann’s experiment using “Post-It notes, sponges, plastic forks (and maybe a little bit of wine).”  The results are seen on the video posted on YouTubeVideo: What Happened When We got 130 People Really, Really Bored:

In New Tech City’s re-staging, one group copied the phone book; one group read the phone book; one group went to the bar. These tasks are not dissimilar from “traditional” classroom activities.  Copying can be tedious, such as copying words from a dictionary, especially if students do not see the purpose in the activity. Reading should never be boring, but there are some textbooks that should carry a prescriptive warning: “May cause drowsiness.” What about the bar? Well, consider the lunchroom. The grouping in New Tech City’s experiment is easily transferred to a school setting.

Teachers could first analyze the procedure from Mann’s or New Tech City’s experiments to get some ideas on how to generate creative thinking or problem solving from the “boredom” of sitting in class. Since both experiments were “low-tech”, the process could be replicated easily. Here is the analysis:

  1. Mann posed a problem that had not one but multiple solutions;
  2. In both experiments, there were cheap, ordinary, familiar objects to use (post-its, forks, sponges, styrofoam cups);
  3. Once placed in a group, participants could sit where they chose;
  4. Ideas between people were shared because talking was permitted;
  5. Results (by group) were visual using post-it notes;
  6. Peer feedback was given.

This example of moving from a state of to boredom to a state of creativity could be reconfigured as a class activity by providing students a challenge to offer a solution to a prompt using similarly innocuous items. Their creations could demonstrate their understanding or interpretation in a creative way. Teachers could use the collaboration and cooperation in the classroom to stimulate ideas and support peer to peer feedback as well as formatively assess what students know, or more important, what students are capable of doing.

There could be some interesting combinations:

  • Paper plates and coffee stirrers illustrating …..Shakespeare’s scenes?
  • post-it notes and yarn ……elements in the periodic table?
  • popsicle sticks and napkins …..for highlights in American history?

Or teachers could just let students create and then reflect on their inventions.

Dr. Mann’s experiments show that boredom is a fertile ground for creative expression. Teachers could use this research in lessons that could benefit their students.

Someday, “I’m bored” might even be the best thing a teacher might hear.

snow giff 2The blizzard raging outside recalls the looping GIF of drifting snow that opens the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times feature story, Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

As a model text, this example of digital writing is the kind of writing that we should be preparing our students to do.

This story of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and their fatal decision to ski outside the Stevens Pass ski area in the Washington Cascades was written by journalist John Branch and published digitally on Dec. 20, 2012. His recount of the group’s excursion into the “unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” is complemented with embedded video, photos, and other graphics, the result of his extensive research and first person interviews. The print version was published in a 14-page special section on 12/ 23/12, and according to the Times editors, generated more than 1,100 comments online.

Branch’s prose is gripping from the start:

The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

12 journalistically short paragraphs into the feature is the first video clip, an interview with professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, Her interview is juxtaposed next to the text that describes how the avalanche “vomited” her into position:

Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.

A graphic map of Cowboy Mountain and the Tunnel Creek area splits the text that follows her interview. Below that graphic are two photos of another avalanche in 1910, that was responsible for the death of 96 people. Each of the six sections of Snowfall is laid out with similar interactive features, the result of a collaboration between Branch and a team of graphic editors and researchers (see end of post)*

The popularity of this kind of digital story is borne out by the Times editor’s testimony:

“Snow Fall” online accounted for more than a million unique visits; a significant percentage of the people who found the story online were first-time visitors to nytimes.com; huge numbers of those readers came to the story through social media; the average time of reader engagement was off the charts.

Snowfall‘s arrival on digital platforms will no doubt give rise to a wave of stories with similar features. As authentic practice, students should have the chance to experiment with their own narratives, fiction or non-fiction, using digital platforms (Google, wikis, blogs, etc.) that allow for embedding video, audio, graphics, and other interactive features. Several of my classes have annotated passages from texts they read in class (ex: The Annotated Prologue: Romeo & Juliet ) with digital links as part of close reading exercises. The text “Snowfall” is the next step, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose.

The blend of genre is seamless in Branch’s narrative; each of the 16 personal stories is fleshed out in detail, along with those other lives who were so effected by the tragedy. There is the expository information devoted to Tunnel Creek’s tragic history interwoven with the informational sections that capture the science of an avalanche. Finally, there is the persuasive argument of how easily “how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.” Snowfall is proof that good writing is not compartmentalized into separate genres, as the Common Core outline would lead teachers to believe.

Here is evidence that students should move between genres, adding rich expository or informational media to a piece in order to engage readers. Here also, is evidence that good writers should follow their own inquiry, as Branch did as he:

….interviewed every survivor of the avalanche, and the families of its three victims; he researched the world of backcountry skiing, the fastest-growing corner of a handsome, but dangerous sport; he traveled to Alaska to speak with snow scientists and to enlist their help in recreating in words and graphics the physics of the avalanche on Cowboy Mountain; he hiked the terrain, clawed through the avalanche’s path, and established a precise chronology of the disaster; he read formal accident reports, pieced together ski patrol and police photographs, reviewed dozens of 911 calls, and unearthed the formal avalanche warnings that all but predicted trouble the night before the accident.

While our students may not have the opportunity to complete this exhaustive marathon of research that Branch did in order to write Snowfall, they should recognize in this model the link between a writer’s own curiosity, painstaking research, and good prose. They should see that compelling storytelling, engaging literary non-fiction, is generated through participatory experience. They should move away from the desk in order to experiment and to find the answers to their questions.

Branch’s Snowfall contribution to journalism has already been awarded by the Pulitzer Prize Committee who rightfully saw it as an historic achievement; Snowfall’s contribution to student learning as a mentor text is only beginning. Continue Reading…

The Hollywood Academy released the 2015 nominations this past week, and their choices for best picture, best actor, and best director lit a firestorm on social media about the lack of diversity in their choices.Oscar

Some of the heated discussions called into question the make-up of the Academy, which according to a  2014 Los Angeles Times article is:

  • 93 percent white
  • 76 percent male
  • Average age of 63

The percentages that make up the homogenized Academy bear a striking resemblance to the make-up in the canon of literature traditionally taught in high school English classrooms, a list of works dominated by white male writers. There are numerous reasons as to why the literature is singular in gender and race: politics, economics, culture, and textbooks play a part. The most probable explanation on why the traditional canon endures, however, may be as simple as teachers teaching the books they were taught.

Even the average age of the dead white male writers in the canon is the same as those in the Academy. A sampling of traditionally assigned authors at the time of their deaths (offered in no particular order) is the average age as the members in the Academy=63 years: John Milton (72), Percy Bysshe Shelley (30), F. Scott Fitzgerald (44), Dylan Thomas (39), Arthur Miller (90), William Shakespeare (52), John Keats (27) Ernest Hemingway (62), William Faulkner (65), John Steinbeck (66) William Blake (70), George Orwell (47), and TS Eliot (77).

My observation that older white male literature dominates the curriculum is nothing new, and while there are there are glimmers of diversity, authorship bears little resemblance to readership. Occasionally, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and August Wilson pop up to address racial diversity, while the inclusion of Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters are worthwhile contributions to gender equity.

At the same time, there is a growing body of popular young adult literature from authors representing diversity such as Jacquelyn Woodson, Sharon Draper, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Gary Soto, and Sherman Alexie.  In a manner akin to film audiences, students have been voting for these book choices with their pocketbooks or checking out library books. They are selecting materials (novels, graphic novels, animé, pop culture, biography) that they want to read.

As readers, students look for characters like themselves, who have problems like themselves, even if the settings of the stories are in the ancient past or distant future. If a student never builds empathy with a character because all the assigned reading comes from the canon, then the canon is disconnected from personal experience and useless for that student. If creating life long readers is the goal, curriculum developers must pay attention to student interests and the trends in the popular reading lists. Continuing the disconnect between the traditional canon in school and what students choose does little to build credibility.

That same kind of disconnect is seen in the nominations submitted by the Academy. Their choices show a wide gulf of opinion between critics and audiences, between the selected films and popular films at the box office. National Public Radio (NPR) film critic Bob Mondello noted the low audience numbers for many of the 2015 nominated films:

MONDELLO:  If you total up all of the grosses for all of the best picture nominees this year, you come up to about 200 million, which is roughly what a picture like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” makes all by itself so that you’re talking about very few eyeballs were on those pictures.

Mondello’s noting the difference in box office is striking in comparison to the the top three box office films to three of the nominated films for best picture:

TOP GROSSING:
1 Guardians of the Galaxy – $333,145,154
2 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 $330,643,639
3 Captain America: The Winter Soldier – $259,766,572

NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE:
94 Birdman  $26,725,993
95 The Theory of Everything $26,317,946
100. Boyhood  $24,357,447

Mondello further suggests that Academy has not supported its own self interest in making nominations:

And the idea here is that you’re not going to watch the Oscar telecast unless you have a horse in the race….And I think what they’re hoping is that the next six weeks up until the show, these movies will be seen by a lot more people. If they aren’t – and they only have 38 days to do this – then you’re going to have the lowest rated Oscars telecast in the history of the Oscars.

Encouraging people to attend the films nominated by the Academy will be a challenge, and the success of the Oscars this year will be determined by audience choice. The deaf ear of the Academy this year may make them more open to diversity in future years. In contrast, a deaf ear from curriculum developers who continue to assign literature from the canon because “it has always been taught” may result in student audiences disconnected and less interested in reading anything at all.

Hoping to bridge this disconnect are organizations such as the Children’s Book Council (CBC )Diversity Committee whose mission statement is:

We endeavor to encourage diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by kid lit. We strive for a more diverse range of employees working within the industry, of authors and illustrators creating inspiring content, and of characters depicted in children’s and young adult books.

The organization We Need Diverse Books is also committed to expanding diversity in literature and in the video below, the popular YA writer Jon Green (The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) makes a compelling case for including other, newer voices into the literary canon that is taught in classrooms.

Unlike the choices made by this year’s Academy, the choices in English classroom should represent diversity in authorship, in genre, in character, and in topics because the readership is diverse. NPR’s Bob Mondello’s metaphor about engaging an audience for the Oscar show this year could be a metaphor for creating life long readers. Unless students “have a horse in the race” in what they read, they will not value the choices made for them.

“So….what problems do your students have in writing?” I ask middle school teachers.
“The thesis statement.”

“So….what problems do your students have writing?” I ask high school teachers.
“The thesis statement.”

One might conclude that students in grades 7-12 have a thesis statement problem…or maybe not.

Maybe the problem of writing a thesis statement is that so many teachers in middle and high school expect that students must have a well-written thesis statement before they can write an essay.

Maybe the emphasis on a well-developed thesis as the start to the essay is misplaced.

After all, according to Webster’s Online Dictionary, an essay (noun) has another meaning beyond “a short piece of writing that tells a person’s thoughts or opinions about a subject”. The word essay also means a “trial, test; an effort, attempt.” An essay is literally “an initial tentative effort; the result or product of an attempt” and a thesis statement is a student’s position in such an effort or attempt….a “test drive” of sorts.

Instead of expecting well-developed thesis statements, teachers could have student test drive a thesis statement by using one of several online tools known as “thesis generators.” These online tools are free and allow students the opportunity to practice with different ideas as they prepare to write an essay.

My favorite, and easiest to use, is the Tom March Thesis Builder 

Screenshot 2014-09-23 21.12.56This site asks students to respond to a series of questions:

  • What’s the topic you want to write about?
  • What’s your main opinion on this topic?
  • What’s the strongest argument supporting your opinion?
  • What’s a second good argument that supports your opinion?
  • What’s the main argument against your opinion?

As they use this thesis generator, students are instructed to:

  1. Answer questions in short phrases (not full sentences).
  2. Do not use periods / full stops (.) at the end or capital letters at the beginning of the phrases you write.
  3. Click the “Build a Thesis” button when you’re finished.
  4. A window will pop open with your Built Thesis.
  5. Go back and adjust your answers to smooth out the thesis until it makes sense and expresses your beliefs. Clicking on the “Build a Thesis” button again will update your thesis to show your changes.
  6. Once you’ve got a thesis statement, use the Make an Online Outline button to generate the framework for your essay.

Once students use a generator, such as the Tom March thesis generator,  they may recognize a sentence “pattern” used in creating a thesis that acknowledges a counter argument. These sentence patterns might start with a qualifier such as “even though”, “because”, “despite”.

Acknowledging the counter arguments is specifically addressed in the thesis builder on John Garvey’s Thesis Builder site. The generator on this site asks students:

  • Is what you say always true always?
  • Are there exceptions?
  • Are there good reasons why your position may have a down side?
  • How can you make your position have a reality check?
  • What general reasons why your position may have problems can you admit up front? To make absolute statements usually causes your essay’s thesis to seem foolishly simplistic.  Get real!.
  • Here’s a trick: begin your qualification with a word like “although” or “It is true that. . .” Don’t worry if it’s not a complete sentence.

Finally, the thesis builder on the Ashford University website  provides different levels of complexity as a student creates a thesis. Once a student enters information into this generator, a series of different thesis statement models on the same idea is offered for students to choose:
Model #1: Thesis Statement
Model #2: Thesis with Concession
Model #3: Thesis with Reasons
Model #4: Thesis with Concession and Reasons

There is also an outline generated on this site that can be used by students in writing the essay.

If teachers and students use these thesis generators, the emphasis on the thesis statement as a starting point might be shifted to another, often overlooked, important part of the essay…the conclusion. The conclusion is where the student’s “test drive” ends, and where the student ends up should matter even more than where the student started.