Archives For 8th Grade

Books read in Grade 8; generally young adult literature

All students should be familiar with our nation’s founding documents, but the 18th-century writing style of these primary sources can be a difficult read for many students. Take for example The Declaration of Independence. While Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece is only 1337 words, the content specific vocabulary (tyranny, usurpation) can be unfamiliar. One way to prepare students before or during reading is to use a free digital program called Word Sift which was designed to  “help teachers manage the demands of vocabulary and academic language in their text materials.”

The entire text of the Declaration of Independence can be pasted onto a page on WordSift.org in order to quickly identify selected words that are repeated in the text. These words can appear alphabetically or as a word cloud:

A WordSift.org word cloud of the Declaration of Independence (see above) visualizes how frequently Thomas Jefferson repeated words to emphasize or clarify an idea. While he used the word “people” ten times, the Word Sift program contextualized “people” as “person”, which clearly amplifies the focus on individual rights   The next most frequent words highlighted words, “right” (ten times), “law” (nine times) and “power” (eight times), are part of the legal claim for the American colonies to separate from England.  Teachers can prepare students for reading the Declaration of Independence by reviewing the vocabulary in advance and by showing the connection between a message and repeated language.

While word cloud programs are common on the Internet, theWordSift.org program offers a feature to identify and sort different lists of words according to academic discipline (math, science, ELA, and social studies). In addition, the words from any document can be sorted for English learners according to the New General Service List (NGSL). The words on the NGSL are most important high-frequency words of the English language, and knowing the 2800 words on the NGSL list will give more than 90% coverage for learners trying to read general texts of English.

A word sift of the Declaration of Independence identifies 57 words from the 2800 words of the NGSL (ex: injury, declare, purpose, circumstance). These words are highlighted in blue in the illustration below:

 

For all learners, anotherWordSift.org feature is an embedded Visual Thesaurus® with a limited image-search feature. TheWordSift.org site explains that the “most frequent word in the text is displayed under the Visual Thesaurus word web.” For example, a screenshot of the Visual Thesaurus illustration of the word “right” is below (NOTE: visualization of selected word is interactive only on the WordSift.org site):

The Visual Thesaurus can quickly show different meanings of the same word. The program also provides relevant examples from the selected text.

Once the students are introduced to the language of the Declaration, they could review the similarities between Jefferson’s structure and the five-paragraph essay. Most students are already familiar with this structure.

The introduction of the Declaration of Independence is 71 words, a paragraph of only one sentence, which addresses the audience (King George, colonists) and presents his purpose in a thesis of separation:

“… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”


The second section or Preamble is 272 words. This first body paragraph details Jefferson’s central claim about equal rights:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The third section indicts King George III in a paragraph that lists the (27) complaints against the monarch. This extended list begins:

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

The fourth section is a one paragraph accusation against the British people who did not respond to petitions for help from their American countrymen:

“Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren.”

The 159-word conclusion, the fifth section, restates the thesis: “…That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States” and details the next steps (answering the “so what?”):

“…and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”

As students review the organization of the Declaration of Independence, they can also consider the complexity of the sentence construction. There are nine colons, eight semicolons, and 98 commas, roughly one for every 13 words, that force the reader to stop and pause, to consider Jefferson’s lists and supporting details.

Using the program WordSift.org to introduce the vocabulary of any primary source document prepares students for reading and exploring the text independently.  The creators of WordSift.org note:

We would be happy if you think of it playfully – as a toy in a linguistic playground that is available to instantly capture and display the vocabulary structure of texts, and to help create an opportunity to talk and explore the richness and wonders of language!

WordSift.org allows teachers to target instruction so that students understand 18th-century documents like the Declaration of Independence. This 21st-century tool helps students to explore “the richness and wonders of language” of our Founding Fathers in the document that made them citizens of the United States of America.

Continue Reading…

My school district recently purchased a class set of the March Trilogy, the graphic novel memoir that recounts the experiences of Congressman John Lewis (5th District, Georgia) in America’s struggle for civil rights including the marches from Selma to Montgomery. The comic book-style illustrations are engaging and some may mistake the memoir as something for children. Lewis’s experiences in the 1950-60s, however, were marked by violence, so the memoir is recommended for more mature audiences (grades 8-12).

The publisher, Top Shelf Productions, prepares audiences about the violence and language in the memoir by stating:

“…in its accurate depiction of racism in the 1950s and 1960s, March contains several instances of racist language and other potentially offensive epithets. As with any text used in schools that may contain sensitivities, Top Shelf urges you to preview the text carefully and, as needed, to alert parents and guardians in advance as to the type of language as well as the authentic learning objectives that it supports.”

The March Trilogy is the collaboration between Congressman Lewis, his Congressional staffer Andrew Aydin, and the comic book artist, Nate Powell. Their collaboration project began in 2008 after Congressman Lewis described the powerful impact a 1957 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story had on people like himself who were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement. The comic book has been reissued by the original publisher, Fellowship of Reconciliation with a new editorIsrael Escamilla.

Cover of the comic book that inspired John Lewis’s “March”

The 1957 comic book is also available as a PDF by clicking on a link available on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans (CRMV) website. The About page on this site has the following purpose statement in bold:

 This website is created by Veterans of the Southern Freedom Movement (1951-1968). It is where we tell it like it was, the way we lived it, the way we saw it, the way we still see it.

Under this explanation is the blunt statement: “We ain’t neutral.”

The decision to publish the Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story as a comic book in the late 1950s is a bit surprising.  At that time the genre of comic books in America had come under scrutiny. A psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, made public his criticisms that comic books promoted deviant behavior. That claim in 1954 led to the creation of a Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency along with the Comics Code Authority (CCA). That Authority drafted the self-censorship Comics Code that year, which required all comic books to go through a process of approval.

In 1958, the Friends of Reconciliation published the 16-page comic book as a challenge to CCA restrictions. An artist from the Al Capp Studios, creators of Li’l Abner, donated time to illustrate the book. Benton Resnick, a blacklisted writer, wrote the text. He concluded with a promotion for the “thousands of members throughout the world [who] attempt to practice the things that Jesus taught about overcoming evil with good.” The Friends of Reconciliation’s religious message passed the scrutiny of Senate Subcommittee.

The comic book also received Dr. King’s approval who called it “an excellent piece of work” that did a “marvelous job of grasping the underlying truth and philosophy of the movement.”

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was distributed through churches, universities, social justice organizations and labor unions during the Civil Rights Movement. Now in reproduction, the comic book has been widely circulated to support international struggles for civil rights, including Egypt’s Tahrir’s Square.

Teachers can use this primary source comic book as a way to explain how nonviolent protests held throughout the South contributed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of the first frames in the book holds a proclamation:

“In Montgomery, Alabama, 50,000 Negroes found a new way to work for freedom, without violence and without hating.”

Several frames later, there are illustrations showing Rosa Parks’s arrest when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. These events are narrated by a fictional character named “Jones”. His role is to introduce the reader to the 29-year-old Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, a preacher from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Dr. King will become the charismatic leader who planned the bus boycotts in Montgomery.

In the comic book, several frames show how protesters rehearsed for confrontations during protests. King wanted protesters to practice the tenets of non-violence the same way that Mahatma Gandhi had used non-violence in liberating India from the British Empire.

The “Montgomery Method” that Dr. King promotes in the strip is based on religion; God is referenced as the motivating force.  An explanation of the different steps to follow the method of non-violence begins with the statement that God “says you are important. He needs you to change things.”

In the concluding pages, the comic book also has suggestions for activists that were used to guide those who worked for civil rights in the 1950s -1960s. Some of these suggestions are remarkably timely, and they could be used in class discussions:

Be sure you know the facts about the situation. Don’t act on the basis of rumors, or half-truths, find out;

Where you can, talk to the people concerned and try to explain how you feel and why you feel as you do. Don’t argue; just tell them your side and listen to others. Sometimes you may be surprised to find friends among those you thought were enemies.

This comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story can be used to prepare students for the graphic novel memoir by Congressman Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. While he is not directly named in the 1957 comic book, he participated in many of the events and his memoir March provides another point of view to major events.

In Lewis’s recounting, March: Book I is set up as a flashback in which he remembers the brutality of the police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March.  The second book, March: Book 2 (2015) highlights the Freedom Bus Rides and Governor George Wallace’s “Segregation Forever” speech.  The final book, March: Book 3 (2016) includes the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; the Freedom Summer murders; the 1964 Democratic National Convention; and the Selma to Montgomery marchesMarch: Book 3 received multiple awards including 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature, the 2017 Printz Award Winner, and the 2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner.

In receiving these awards, Lewis restated his purpose that his memoir was directed toward young people, saying:

“It is for all people, but especially young people, to understand the essence of the civil rights movement, to walk through the pages of history to learn about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, to be inspired to stand up to speak out and to find a way to get in the way when they see something that is not right, not fair, not just.”

He could just as well have been speaking about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. They may belong to the genre of comic books, but they also are serious records of our history.

There are different ways to become familiar with our nation’s founding documents: reading, memorizing, studying, reciting are a few. But in our keyboard- swipe-click-centered world, rewriting by hand is not one that immediately comes to mind.

A story feature in the NYTimes The Constitution, By Hand (6/30/17) written by Morgan O’Hara explained her process for copying the United States Constitution out by hand with a few sharpies. She noted that:

Hand copying a document can produce an intimate connection to the text and its meaning. The handwriter may discover things about this document that they never knew, a passage that challenges or moves them. They may even leave with a deeper connection to the founders and the country, or even a sense of encouragement.

Whatever her original intent for deciding to hand copy the lengthy document, her explanation for discovering things about a text echoes the arguments put forth about close reading that were initiated with the Common Core. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text several times; each time for a different purpose.

The first reading is to understand what the text says. The first reading is for comprehension: Who (character); What (events); Where/When (setting); Why (plot or information) questions asked.

It is the second reading, however, that asks a reader to become familiar with how the text operates:

-What does _____ this word mean in this context?
-How is the text organized? (sequence. cause and effect, compare/contrast, description)?
-What ways does the author use punctuation to control the reading of the text?

Asking students to write out by hand the  United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights is akin to having them perform a second close read. In copying the words and the punctuation and imitating the structure (sequence),  they could, like O’Hara, focus on how the text operates. How this particular text operates is exactly what constitutional scholars, lawyers, and judges debate regularly in courts.

How the Text Operates

For example, if you copy out the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, you will notice that the framers used three commas and two semi-colons in order to to separate clauses:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Recently, the first semicolon after thereof was at the heart of the case (January 2010) Citizens United . The Supreme Court determined that this semicolon links the free exercise of religion and the free exercise of speech and that the framers did not mean that each clause of the First Amendment should be interpreted separately. The decision gave corporations the same free speech rights as people, and that corporations should have the same free religious exercise rights as people as well.  Handwriting the First Amendment and pausing to consider that semicolon can bring attention as to how the author(s) or Founding Fathers used punctuation to control the reading of the text.

Punctuation in the Declaration of Independence is also recently under scrutiny. Danielle Allen, then a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., caused a stir when she located an extra period on an original copy of the document at the National Archives after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (see photo clip)

National Archive copy of the Declaration of Independence (with questionable period)

Allen suggested that this period -which could be an ink blot- might be misinterpreted to mean that that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ink blot or intentional sentence stop, Allen argues that Thomas Jefferson did not intend to separate the phrase using a period, but had intended a continuation with the phrase that follows:

“— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In an article that followed in The Atlantic, Have We Been Reading the Declaration of Independence All Wrong?Allen explains,

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights…You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Legislators and scholars have argued about the intent of Thomas Jefferson since the release of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Students should have the opportunity to add their voices to the impact of different interpretations on their lives as well.

Muscle Memory

Outside of noting the punctuation in primary source documents, there is a fair amount of research that promotes the writing by hand as a great instructional tool in developing muscle memory, which is described on the Logic of English research blog as meaning “the students can write quickly and legibly with little conscious attention.” Writing by hand helps students as a multi-sensory approach to reading and spelling. This understanding contradicts long held beliefs that copying does not improve understanding. There may have been examples of monks who copied Ancient Christian manuscripts who were unable to even read, but in these cases the goal was artistic, not  literacy. Moreover, in the 21st Century, there is an increase in attention being paid to the loss of writing by hand in our tech obsessed culture.

New research shows that a multi-sensory approach that combines the finger movements (kinesthetic) with the sensorimotor part of the brain shows how writing by hand helps us recognize letters. Researcher Anne Mangen (The University of Stavanger-2011) explained the connection between reading and writing and how the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading, saying:

“The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.”

Feedback like this may be helpful to students. Of course copying the primary documents such as the United States Constitution or the Declaration of Independence in their entirety would be a lengthy commitment. Copying entire sections or even phrases, however, can give students that same kind of motor action and brain feedback and help them better appreciate a passage for what it says (meaning) and how it says it (text structure).

At the very least, they will experience the same process of duplicating these documents in the authentic way they were created by our Founding Fathers….by hand.

If you Google the explorer John Cabot, you could get a web page from the website All About Explorers that states:

“In 1484, the explorerJohn Cabot moved back to England with his wife and eleven sons. He developed his own website and became quite famous for his charts and maps depicting a new route to the Far East. At this time he also introduced his half-brother Richard (whom the family always called “Ringo”) to his best friends, John, Paul, and George.”

While some facts in this information that might set off bells and whistles to educators-  or fans of The Beatles- there is recent research to suggest that many students in our middle school, high school, or college would not question the intrusion of technology into the life of this 15th Century explorer. After all, this website looks like a great source!

Stamford History Education Group (SHEG) report

A report released November 2016 tracked the research skills of students in middle, high school or college using a series of prompts. The study was conducted by the Stamford History Education Group (SHEG)  that “prototyped, field tested, and validated a bank of assessments that tap civic online reasoning.” The report, titled Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, details the methods SHEG used in order to test civic reasoning as well as:

“…the [students’] ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers.”

The results of SHEG’s study indicated that many students are not prepared to distinguish accurate from inaccurate accounts or decide when a statement is relevant or irrelevant to a given point. SHEG noted:

“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to fit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The report concluded that students at all grade levels were unable to distinguish well-evidenced accounts from those unsupported by reasons and evidence or to tell good reasons from bad. In short, SHEG pronounced pronounced our nation’s students’ ability to research as “bleak”:

“For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off.”

Educators should be concerned about this growth of fake information and how to keep this misinformation from spreading into student research. Even if the Internet gets better at shutting down fake news or inaccurate information, there will always be some bogus websites that will escape being shutdown.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-9-07-52-pmBut that  AllAboutExplorers website is one bogus website that should not be shut down.

AllAboutExplorers website for Research Practice:

Yes, there is plenty of misinformation on site. For example, on the Christopher Columbus page:

“Columbus knew he had to make this idea of sailing, using a western route, more popular. So, he produced and appeared on infomercials which aired four times daily. Finally, the King and Queen of Spain called his toll-free number and agreed to help Columbus.

Turns out that the misinformation on AllAboutExplorers is INTENTIONAL and all the misinformation on the site was created to serve an important educational purpose. The Aboutpage on the site states:

“AllAboutExplorers was developed by a group of teachers as a means of teaching students about the Internet. Although the Internet can be a tremendous resource for gathering information about a topic, we found that students often did not have the skills to discern useful information from worthless data.”

The educator authors Gerald Aungst,( Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Mathematics in the Cheltenham School District in Elkins Park, PA) and Lauren Zucker,(Library Media Specialist in Centennial School District) created the site in 2006. Their collaboration has proven to be a prescient effort given the SHEG findings this month.

They created AllAboutExplorers, “to develop a series of lessons for elementary age students in which we would demonstrate that just because it is out there for the searching does not mean it is worthwhile.”

These educators wanted to make a point about finding useless information on a site that was designed to look believable. They note that “all of the Explorer biographies here are fictional” and that they purposefully mixied facts withinaccuracies, lies, and even downright absurdities.”

Some of the absurdities that have been mixed with facts on famous explorers include pages for:

  • Lewis & Clark Their dream didn’t become reality right away, however. It wasn’t until 1803, when Thomas Jefferson saw an intriguingly brief posting by Napoleon Bonaparte on Craig’s List for a large tract of land;
  • Sir Francis Drake: here he discovered an uncharted island called Java. The local drink, kofie (which we know as “coffee”) was rich and strong, and Drake soon fell in love with it. The locals also baked a cinnamon cake that was often paired with the drink;
  • Ferdinand Magellan: In 1519, at the age of only 27, he was supported by several wealthy businessmen, including Marco Polo, Bill Gates, and Sam Walton, to finance an expedition to the Spice Islands.

The authors have provided cautions not to use this site as a source of reference for research. There is even an “update” on the site that satirically mentions a lawsuit settlement on a claim that the information unfairly caused failing grades for students who used the information via the website. The authors can be followed on Twitter: @aaexplorersTheir website confirms SHEG report’s that states there “are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not.” There are also lesson plans designed to introduce students to the skills and concepts of good Internet researching:

The SHEG report should set off alarms for all educators who ask students to “look something up” in any discipline. The AllAboutExplorers website provides educators, particularly social studies educators, an opportunity to helping students to learn how to negotiate the Internet in research. Teaching students to explore the web appropriately and accurately can be improved by introducing students to the AllAboutExplorers website.

You probably have encountered the plot mountain diagram:

Exposition. Rising action. Climax. Falling action. Resolution.

plotmountain1

 

 

The plot mountain diagram is taught with short stories in English Language Arts at different grade levels, but I suspect that like most graphic organizers, the plot mountain diagram is over-taught, especially in middle and high school classrooms.

The practice of teaching the plot mountain as a general way to understand that there are patterns to short stories is good in theory, but not so good in practice. Repeated practice of the same plot diagram is worse.

Look at the plot mountain diagram above (courtesy of the Read, Write, Think website).

The falling action of a story is rarely as proportional as the rising action. The climax is not always in the “middle” of the story. This is because, authors do not write their stories according to a plot mountain diagram:
-Authors are unpredictable;
-Plots are unpredictable;
-Most of the short stories taught in middle or high school are selected because they are unpredictable.

Take, for example, Saki’s classic short story The Interlopers. Two men, sworn enemies, are pinned under a tree that crashes in a snowy forest. Trapped together, they come to the conclusion that their longstanding feud is no longer important. Just as they agree to settle their differences, one man sees in the distance how their fate will play out with the single frightening word: “wolves.”

Now, that word (“wolves”) makes up the plot’s “falling action.” There is no real resolution, instead there is imagined horror. Saki designed a story that blew the top off the standard plot mountain diagram.

That same kind of explosion could be said for Guy de Mauppasant’s The Necklace. The character Mathilde spends her youth paying back jewels she was foolish to borrow. The story concludes with the shocking statement:

 “Oh, my poor Mathilde. But mine [jewels]were false. At most they were worth five hundred francs!”

If a student was to create a plot mountain for either of these stories, instead of following the prescribed template above, a student might draw something that looks like this:

screenshot-2016-09-25-14-15-53

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rather than reteaching the same plot mountain model over and over, a teacher should ask students to use their own ideas to diagram a story’s plot. There should not be too much support in the directions.

Take, for example, the instructional suggestion (see screenshot below) to use with Richard Peck’s hilarious short story “Priscilla and the Wimps.”

In this story, Peck sets the tone in describing bullying in a public school setting with his opening lines:

“Listen, there was a time when you couldn’t even go to the rest room in this school without a pass. And I’m not talking about those little pink tickets made out by some teacher. I’m talking about a pass that could cost anywhere up to a buck, sold by Monk Klutter.”

One small student-Melvin-is bullied by a group of students led by Klutter. But Melvin has a protector, Priscilla Roseberry, who is described thusly:

“I’m not talking fat. I’m talking big. Even beautiful, in a bionic way.”

screenshot-2016-10-02-11-51-13

In Peck’s story, the brutish Priscilla efficiently dispatches the school bully, Monk Klutter, into a school locker. The story concludes, “Well, this is where fate, an even bigger force than Priscilla, steps in. It snows all that night, a blizzard. The whole town ices up. And school closes for a week.”

What I most remember about teaching this story with 8th graders is how Peck’s resolution was somewhat unsettling to some readers. More than one student had commented on what could have happened to Klutter if he was stuffed in a school locker during a blizzard.

“Without food and water for a week,” one student pointed out to me, “he’d be dead. Priscilla could be a murderer!”

The directions above do not support such thinking, even if it is slightly misguided. In the directions, although there is some movement away from a “fill-in-the-blank” worksheet by asking students to draw a diagram “like this one” to summarize events, a model is still there for them to follow. The climax (again) is followed by a disproportionately sized resolution.

While directions suggest creating something similar (“like”), many students will simply recreate this diagram, plug in three events, and place Monk’s undoing at the climax.

So what is the purpose for students to use a pre-printed plot mountain diagram?

All they need are the story elements that help them explain a story’s pattern. Teachers could give the terms (perhaps on labels: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) in order to for students to create the unique diagrams that are proportional to the stories they are reading.

When students are free to demonstrate their understanding of these terms, they can move beyond a prescribed application or a fill-in-the-blank drawing on a worksheet. They can do more of the higher taxonomy activities, such as comparing and contrasting the patterns of different stories. What did Saki do differently than Peck? How does de Mauppasant’s ending compare with either?These more sophisticated educational exercises would not be effective if the same plot mountain template is used over and over (and over!)

Students should be able to identify the elements that make up the unique pattern of each story as well as appreciate an author’s craft in configuring those same elements differently in a story.

In this sense, the plot mountains of stories are a lot like geography…no two mountains are alike.

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.

Forgive the boasting, but the survey results for our a silent sustained reading program for 7th and 8th grade students in our school district are in..,and the teachers are feeling very proud.

573 students answered a 12 question survey about their experience this year for SSR, but let’s start with the most important response:

71.4% responded that SSR “made me a better reader this year.”Screenshot 2015-06-18 21.32.12

A better reader! That admission from students ages 11-14 is an achievement that can leave the faculty smiling proudly over the summer. And speaking about summer, the same students answered positively that they believe that they would read over the summer: 69% responded that they plan to read  (28% definitely; 41% sometimes).

Our SSR program was embraced by several teachers and up and running well by November. The classroom libraries were stocked with a combination of traditional and high interest materials. That meant 20 minutes a day of the block schedule (92 minutes) was dedicated to reading independently. By January even more classrooms were on board, and by April, all classrooms were practicing reading for pleasure, teachers included.

Those teachers who hesitated at first were slowly converted, and more than one commented, “I think I am a better reader as well!”

These same 573 students took many standardized tests this year generating scores that determine each student’s reading ability against a standard. But those test scores do not measure a student’s self-assessment of their reading.

Our June 2015 survey does.

Our June survey asked 12 questions about reading, and every response showed growth in attitudes that we recorded from our September 2014  survey. That beginning of the year survey was used as a benchmark to measure student attitudes towards reading.

Compare the responses from September to June when asked student if they thought reading was “fun”:

7th & 8th grade students Usually Sometimes Rarely
September  22% 48% 25%
June 32% 54% 14%

In one school year, 10% of the student population changed their attitudes towards reading…all in a positive direction.

The survey also recorded what students look for in selecting their own reading materials:

length of the book 26.9%
cover of the book 46.2%
the book is part of a series I like 61.8%
a friend recommended the book 48.2%
a teacher recommended the book 31.1%
a parent or another adult recommended the book 22.2%
a movie is connected to this book 24.4%

The survey also asked how many books students were reading a month:

at least 1 32.1%
1-2 books 14.8%
3-4 books 17.1%
4 or more books 12%

Do the math. 184 students (32%) read at least one book a month. That means students who read one book a month for eight months (8) of the school year collectively read 1472 books…and that just the total of books read by 1/3 of the class.

Combine our findings with those of the Scholastic Publishing company in their survey 2014  “Kids and Family Reading Report”

Scholastic is one of the publishers that has a presence in schools through book fair sales, and they released three key findings about reading in school:

#1: One third of children ages 6–17 (33%) say their class has a designated time during the school day to read a book of choice independently, but only 17% do this every or almost every school day.

#2: Half of children ages 6–17 who read independently as a class or school (52%) say it’s one of their favorite parts of the day or wish it would happen more often.

#3: Sixty-one percent of children ages 6–17 who live in the lowest-income households say they read books for fun mostly in school, or the same amount in school and at home, while only 32% of children ages 6–17 who live the highest-income homes say the same.

The most interesting statistics for our teachers  in our survey was that students believe their parents are connected to their independent reading. Along with the information that 22% of students look for suggestions from parents in selecting reading materials, they also indicated how critical the role of parents and family is (over 50%) when they share what they read by checking all that applied:

I share what I read with:

Friends 56.9%
Family (parents, relatives) 53.1%
Teacher 33%
Other 13.4%
 Next year’s plan? Focus on this parent connection, flood the classrooms with more books, and read, read, read.
Beyond the survey, there is one more piece of evidence. These final images display the lists of the favorite books the students read this year from Mr. Robert’s class. He was one of the early embracers of SSR, and his results speak for themselves:

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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….