Homework that Involves Parents is the Best Homework

My views on homework are complicated.

To put it shortly: I think it’s overly assigned, and usually unnecessary.  This is, of course, dependent on the subject, objectives, and level of the class you teach, but in general…I’m not a fan of giving homework for homework’s sake.

That being said, there are always some units or situations in which I will always assign homework for my English/Language Arts students: whenever a unit or text allows them to engage their parents or family in meaningful dialogue.

Simply stated: I love making my students talk to their parents when possible.

What I aim to do with these assignments is to bridge that seemingly impenetrable gap between school and home.  I also hope that students get the opportunity to engage in conversation about school that goes beyond, “hey…can you help me with my homework?”

So how do I do this in my ELA class?

I look for texts,  that revolve around parental perspectives, for example, Carol Anne Duffy’s poem, “Before You Were Mine.”

Here’s the poem (I explain it below if you don’t want to read it):

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Homework that Involves Parents: 

The poem is about a speaker looking at pictures of their mom and wondering about their mom’s identity before they were a parent.  After we do the usual jazz with poetry analysis and discuss the surface, and deeper level of the poem, I give the students one week to complete a homework assignment…

1.  Go home and find a parent
2.  Tell that parent your English teacher is making them do this
3.  Explain the poem in as much detail as you can
4.  Ask your parent for a picture that they feel embodies who they were BEFORE they were a parent; Ask your parent to explain why they chose that picture
5.  Bring the picture to school 

When it’s time to do the “show and tell” of pictures, I start off with sharing a picture of my own mother.  Here was her picture:

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Schoolwork: 

After students have their picture, you can adapt the assignment to any level you see fit…

Students can construct a narrative around the visual, using it as a prompt.  They can practice descriptive writing based on what they see.

You can use the visual as a first step in visual analysis by having students break-down the composition of the picture, and connecting aspects such as color, body language, and facial expressions to the mood, tone, and effect of the visual .

In a more advanced class, you can have students write a compare/contrast essay where they compare the visual to the poem (sample of this is below).  If you teach IB: Literature and Language, this is a great introduction to Paper 1 for HL classes.

Or you can simply have them orally share and discuss the pictures of their parents.

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Another poem I use is “Registers” by Michael Laskey

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After analyzing the poem, which is about a dad dropping his kid off at school on the first day,  I have the students read this prose piece featured on momastery.com which is a parent’s point of view of the same event: watching your kid walk into the world of education and “adult” life.

Homework That Involves the Parents:  

I give the students a script of questions that they should ask their parents.  The questions can be multiple choice or open answer.

For example:

1 .  I had to read a poem and article in class about a kid starting school from a parent’s point of view.  How did you feel on my first day of school?
2.  What fears, expectations, or excitement did you experience? 
3. Did you base those fears on your own experiences in school?  
4.  How did you feel about school growing up?

Schoolwork: 

Once again, you can adapt the writing activities however you see fit…

Have students compare/contrast the interview with their parent/guardian with the poem or article.  This is good for developing their ability to lift or quote text as well.

They can examine the figurative language in the article and poem, and create their own simile or metaphor that depicts their parent’s point of view.

And in more advanced classes, students can write a poem from THEIR own point of view about how it felt to leave their parents behind on the first day of school, or students can write a comparative essay between the similarities and differences of all three texts.

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Depending on your subject and content area, whether it’s a novel study, poetry exploration, or media unit, it’s possible to find ways to get students to talk to their parents or families about what is going on in the classroom.

Reminder: Once again, these assignments completely depend on the culture and climate of your school and student body, and it is to be noted, that all of these assignments can be adjusted for students who do not have a relationship that enables them to complete these assignments as set.

So just give it a try.

Find ways to foster conversations about your class between your students and the people they consider family. You just may end up learning as much about your students as they end up learning about their parents!

It’s a win win. Or, you know, as many things in teaching go… it doesn’t work out at all. Still worth a try.

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Why You Should Let Your Students Write Your Emails

 

One of the struggles many English/Language Arts teachers face is trying to develop relevant and authentic tasks to give our students.  (If you are a non-educator, an authentic or contextual task is something that can be used in the “real world” rather than just as a classroom assessment).

We have them create a variety of texts: some of us have them do book reviews and publish them online.  We have them write persuasive letters to companies or politicians.  We ask them to conduct interviews, give speeches, create advertisements…all in the hopes that they begin to internalize and employ the language skills we so desperately try to teach them.

But many times, despite our best intents, these “authentic” tasks come across as anything but “real” and/or take up a lot of time to set-up and get going.

If you’ve ever struggled to come up with an authentic task that doesn’t require much scaffolding, and that can be used as both formative and summative assessment, please  stop and try this one thing the next time you need to write a staff-wide email: give your kids the context, and let them write the email instead.

Here’s why:

Emails are amazing Formative Assessment (finding out what your kids know): 

Context: During the third week of school this year, after several members of staff could not figure out how to use the new coffee machine in the staff room, I figured it was time to address the issue in a school wide email.

Many people could not figure out how the permanent filters worked, and as a result, the machine would sputter and spew  grainy coffee in all directions when you turned it on.

It was after coffee sprayed all over me for the fourth time that year, that I went into my 11th grade Literature/Language class with a writing warm-up:

Task: Write an email from my point of view to all members of the teaching staff.  They would need to persuade their audience to stop using the machine improperly, or to ask for help.

 The students had 15 minutes to create the body of the email and submit it to me. My promise was that I would send the “best” email to the staff by the end of the week. 

And thus…a formative assessment (pre-assessment) was born:

I chose two or three of the strongest emails and projected them on the board.  If you are in a non-tech school…you can always print and copy the strongest submissions.

Here’s two examples:

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We read the emails together as a class, and we discussed the feelings or emotions the writer seemed to be experiencing in the email.  Thus, I was able to introduce or review the concept of “tone” within writing.

We talked about which words or phrases created these tones within the emails.  And this introduced the concept of “diction” within writing.

You can break down the language they use to whatever level you see fit.

Since this was a higher level English class, we discussed appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos, syntax, and how font choice and structure further conveyed or detracted from the message.

You can focus on one singular aspect of the emails, or discuss the wide array of devices presented within each email. For example, you can discuss the conventions of writing for a specific purpose and audience.  Students can point out language which is particularly effective, and language which detracts from the message or purpose.

Additionally, you can see what weaknesses students exhibit in their writing that you may want to later address in your coursework (organization, spelling, repetitive syntax structures etc.)

No matter how you want to break down the emails, by the end of the class, your students should have a list of devices and conventions they already are naturally using within their writing.  You also know what you need to build on in your class, and, oh yeah, you get your staff email.

International Baccalaureate Hack: It just so happens that one teacher wrote me back and asked me why I sounded sounded “so angry” in myemail. (The staff member did not know that the email was written by a completely un-biased, non outraged student). 

This allowed me to introduce the idea of the context of interpretation vs context of construction and how this misinterpretation could apply to other texts we read and create. 

Emails can then be used as Summative Assessment (finding out what your kids learned): 

Context: At my current school, students get to choose which of their teachers will host and MC their graduation ceremonies.  This year, it was between two teachers: Mr. Van and Mr. Cowles.  Despite his noblest efforts, Mr. Cowles was not chosen.  As a tongue-in-cheek homage to his loss, Mr. Cowles would often bring up his defeat whenever our seniors were in ear shot.

So my graduating seniors were given this task:

Task: Write an email to Mr. Cowles expressing a sympathetic tone for his loss.  You should employ allusions, diction, and rhetorical structures that will motivate him to move forward with his life.  Send your emails to Mr. Cowles with a subject line that fits the purpose of the email. 

Here are two examples:

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After reading through the emails that they CCed to me, I was able to assess their understanding and usage of language and conventions.  I could see how clear of a command they have on the English language, on tone, on the use of organization…and the kids had an authentic context and audience in which to engage with.

And, not going to lie,  it was fun to see the look on my co-worker’s face as concerned emails from our student body flooded his inbox.

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So how are using staff-wide emails as assessments more engaging than having students create other types of writing for formative and summative assessment?

  1.  The context/background is authentic
  2. The audience is authentic
  3. The purpose is authentic
  4. It lets you introduce several literary concepts without having to “teach” students about the format of specific text types
  5. It develops writing skills that ACTUALLY reflect real life writing

And yes: it can be adapted to any classroom of any level

Adaptations:

If your school is not a BYOD or one-to-one school or is lacking in technology…students can handwrite the body’s of the emails.  No issue. 

If your students don’t  have email addresses, let alone background with writing an email, have them write their response as a text/Facebook message. Just make sure the context is authentic, and that you attempt to use their own writing in your staff wide email.  

You can then show them the final email that YOU compose, with their ideas incorporated into it. 

If you have reluctant writers in your classroom, encourage them to produce ANY amount of writing.  Even a single sentence akin to, “hey…stop messing with the coffee machine,” will allow you to delve into a discussion about language. 

Just try it. And whatever you do…just keep it real.

 

 

 

 

 

Using Social Media to Create Projects Kids Might Not Hate Doing

Background:  For the past four years, I’ve worked at a one-to-one iPad school, where technology and media usage in the classroom is both expected and facilitated, so these ideas work best where technology (whether it’s a smartphone or a laptop) are allowed for academic purposes.

These techniques can be adapted to  any technology, or can be scaled down to “old school” pen and paper, but if your rapport with your students allows for it, usage of actual social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat should be encouraged.

Since, I am a Literature teacher,  my primary examples will focus on using these apps for assessments in the English/Language Arts classrooms, but many of these ideas can be adapted for various content areas…even Math.  Because yes, Math can be fun.

If you are a teacher who “doesn’t use social media,” I would strongly encourage you to do what I did a few years ago, and just try to figure these apps out.  It took me far too long to figure out what the heck a Snapchat was (I may have read a few WikiHow articles on it) the knowledge will pay off when you find out that you’re inadvertently in one of your student’s Snap Stories. (That’s never fun).

After several awkward conversations that ended with, “why are you asking me this,” I’ve concluded that the bulk of our students’ social media usage is in one of these four apps: Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

Under each app, I’ve outlined some ideas that I’ve used in my class to make some of my assessments a little less “basic.”

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Snapchat for story telling:

Basic Assignment: The story board.  We’ve all done this: give the students paper and markers and have them create a story board/comic version of a moment in a story, the plot of a text, or a certain scene in a play.  (Le yawn)

Snapchat Assignment: Have students relay their summary of a text, or moment in a story as a Snapchat story.  They can overlay “text” from the books in class to emphasize key dialogue or themes.  There is a sample of this at the bottom of this post.

If you want them to go further than summary, play around with the possibilities: maybe they create a Snapchat story of the events AFTER a novel or story.

Maybe they focus on a secondary character and retell an event through their eyes via a Snap-story.

Or maybe they just stare at you while you explain the assignment, and ask you to repeat yourself, once you ask if you have any questions…it could go either way.

The students can create the stories on the actual Snapchat app.  They can also use Instagram or any other apps which allow them combine text and images/video.

Submission: They can save the stories onto their phones, and email you or Dropbox the files to you.

PS: I still really really don’t understand Snapchat

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Instagram for Poetry Exploration: 

Basic Assignment: The poetry unit.  Many of us have units with pre-selected authors that are set by our departments.  We enable students how to break down the language of a poem, in order to get to its deeper meaning. 

Instagram Assignment: Have students explore modern poets on Instagram.  Here’s a current list of some of the top accounts (please check them out before you suggest them to students).  Either during class (if it’s allowed) or as revision work at home, have students explore the poems/poets.

If a student isn’t on Instagram, these poets’ work usually appear in a Google Image search.

What I like about the poets of Instagram is that they are written for fast consumption.  They’re usually quite succinct, so the language that is used within the poems is ripe with meaning.  Also…a lot of the poems are pretty angsty, so kids tend to not hate them.

What can you do once they’ve found a poet?

Having them go on a language hunt where they look for literary terminology in the poems (such as similes and metaphors) is one of the most approachable ways you can use these texts in your class.

If nothing else, as a teacher, it’s been great to have a constant source of fresh poetry at my fingertips.  So, if this won’t work for your students…it’s a tool you can now use.

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Twitter to Expand Vocabulary: 

Basic Assignment: We have students look up and use synonyms for frequently overused words like “sad,” or “angry, or “bad.” 

Twitter Assignment: Have them re-write Tweets where “weak” or “dead” words are used.  Have them identify the weak uses of language and replace the words with synonyms they look up.  For higher level Language classes, you can have students improve on the syntactical elements of the Tweet as well.

For example, the current US President, Donald Trump, is known for his colloquial and casual approach to Tweeting.  Keeping the audience and purpose of each Tweet in mind, students can alter the diction and syntax of the Tweets in order to alter the tone of the Tweet, while expanding their vocabulary.

Disclaimer: The following examples were found and edited by students at an international campus where political discourse was par for the course in classrooms.  If working in The States, I wouldn’t recommend using the current president as an example, as it could be misconstrued as disrespectful. 

 

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Weak Words:  “best” “haters” “losers”

 

And turn it into something like this:

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Stronger Language (Excuse the poor photoshopping)

You can either do this as a paper assignment where you print out the tweets, or work your way up to your students constructing their own Tweets expressing opinions about current events, which they can then choose to actually put onto Twitter itself.

This is also a good opportunity to talk about representing yourself well on social media (AKA…trying to get them to not become trolls).

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Facebook for help with Life-ing:

I don’t have an assignment for Facebook, but I do have a request: can teachers stop printing out the Facebook Profile templates from 2008 and using them as a characterization activity (where we have the kids create a Facebook profile for a character from the book).

 It’s old, and out-dated, and Facebook doesn’t really look like that anymore.  

What I use it for: Academically, kids and teachers have a lot on their plates.  So social media is great for getting real time feedback on assessments and curriculum which is externally graded, such as Advanced Placement (AP) and my person favorite The International Baccalaureate (IB).

Facebook has groups that are both student and teacher created for various subject areas.  You can search these groups, and join one of the teacher groups for almost instant help with syllabus and resource questions, or you can look in on some of the student groups to see what questions students are asking in the comments sections.

Twitter is really good for this:

If you go to Twitter and type in  #IBproblems, just read what you come up with.  Same with #APproblems.

It’s a collective and unintentional list of things students AND teachers are dealing with, not only in your class, but all around the world.  (If you don’t know how hashtags work…please, like I said, figure out how social media works).

Most of them are tongue-in- cheek comments about the workload, which, while incredibly funny to read, do point at a serious problem that students face: the work to life balance.

Reading these Facebook comments and Tweets can give you authentic glimpses into what our classes students may be too scared to ask about.  Because yes, sometimes we are scary.

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Pretty sure we teachers can relate to this too

 

Sample Snapchat story:

Students were to use the language of the poem “Meeting at Night” to create a Snapchat-style story.  Their captions needed to blend text from the poem, and their hashtags had to connect to the mood/tone of the poem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How We Can Redirect the Language of Victim Blaming in Our Classrooms

During my sixth year as a teacher, I finally got the opportunity to teach the novel, Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.

In case you’ve never read it, it’s a pretty spectacular novel to teach for many reasons:

It allows students to relate to characters and cultures that were otherwise foreign to them,  it allows for exploration of the significance of Western occupations in the Middle East, and it’s all set amidst the backdrop of a universal topic: the quest for redemption.  Oh, and the movie is  awful…so the students never bug you to watch it.

As an English teacher, I totally nerd out when I get to teach it.

However, it was just this year (four years after I started teaching it), that I realized the novel also opens up discussions addressing an unexpected topic… the language of victim blaming.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, the plot is set into motion after one of the characters, Assef, brutally rapes one of the novel’s protagonists, Hassan.

Now, nothing in Kite Runner puts the blame of the assault on Hassan’s shoulders.  Hassan is clearly depicted as the victim and is written about with a great deal of sympathy and compassion throughout the novel.

The victim blaming, weirdly enough, only happened outside the fictional world of the book, when both the students and I would get into discussions about the events of the novel.

It was during one of these discussion that I was reminded of a Ted Talk by Jackson Katz that I watched during the summer:

In the video, Katz explains how even the structure of our language is set up to blame victims.  The video does a great job of explaining this, but to summarize his points, he,in essence, says that we, as a society, tend to frame the discussion about sexual assault and abuse around the victim, rather than the abuser.  And when you make the victim take ownership or agency in their own assault, that…is victim blaming.

Victims don’t act in an assault.  They are acted upon.

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Student work framing the abuse around the victim

So I began noticing this syntactical pattern in the conversations the students were having…someone would refer to “the part where Hassan got raped.”  And another kid would reference an event that happened, “after Hassan was raped.”  And while I was listening to conversation go on, it dawned on me that the way the conversation was framed, around Hassan, sounded so scarily natural.

So, I posed a question:  I asked the students if Hassan, in fact “got raped.”After a quick pause, one kid said, “no…Assef raped him.”

I’m not sure if it resonated with any of the students beyond a superficial level, but for the rest of the unit, anytime Hassan was discussed as the subject of the assault, I would redirect the conversation so the ownership fell on Assef’s shoulders. And from time to time, a student would catch themselves mid-sentence and redirect themselves.

Yay.

Then, a few weeks later, while discussing the play, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with another class, the same re-direction on my end happened anytime a student referred to “Blanche’s rape,” as the climax, rather than “Stanley raping Blanche.” Or anytime a student judged Stella for re-entering an abusive relationship, I asked if it was worse to be the one returning to  abuse, or the one creating it.

 
And when another group of students were discussing the play, An Inspector Calls, and mentioned the time, “Eva Smith got pregnant after she was raped,” well… they were re-directed towards making sure the conversation focused on the character of Eric, since he was the one who raped her.

I’m not going to lie…there didn’t seem to be many light bulb moments during these discussions. No kid put their head in their hands and said to themselves: “My God…how could I not have seen this!”

For the most part, I’m sure I just annoyed them.

And yeah, this doesn’t just apply to Literature teachers.  Many educators, at some point, will be able to re-direct the conversations and discussions that happen in our classes whether they are about the topics we teach, students in the school, or current events.  Heck, most of us, myself included, need to re-direct our own unintentional forms of victim blaming when we talk. This applies to all of us.

But as a Literature teacher, I am shocked by how deeply engrained victim blaming is in our language: If you think about it, through books, plays, and stories…sexual assault and abuse is turned into a collective experience for the reader and audience. And yet even when readers are given the context, intentions, and motivations behind an assault, our language and our students’ mostly still defaults to victim blaming.  It’s awful.

And yeah…I know, I know…most of the times in a lot of schools I’ve worked at, the kids don’t even have the books, and if they do, they don’t read them.  And when they do, they hate them, and don’t want to discuss them at all.  I get it.  We, as teachers, already have a laundry list of “big ticket items” to deal with.  So what am I getting at?

What’s my point?

My point isn’t that we should stop reading the ALARMINGLY high number of texts that pivot on sexual assault in our classes.

My point is that we can start using these texts to address the very real problem of the unintentional use of language that blames victims rather than the assailants who victimize them.

My point isn’t that this type of re-direction in our classes is going to change the prevalence of victim blaming in society.  I’m not that much of an optimist.

My point is that if we re-direct these types of conversations enough in the context of our classes, eventually, maybe, one kid out of the thousands we teach in our careers, will re-direct these types of conversations outside of our classes…in like…the real world.  Where it really matters.