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:

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 3.39.41 PMScreen Shot 2017-04-03 at 3.40.06 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 3.44.57 PM

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 11.21.16 AM

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.

*************

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

IMG_1718

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.