Saturday, February 14, 2015

What's Going on in 205

It's hard to imagine that we are already almost through the third week of third quarter.  That means we are closing in on midterms.

Here is my schedule:

First block - College Comp 2.

Third block - College Comp.

Fourth block - College Comp.

Now, how great is that schedule? I have the best of both worlds: I'm a high school teacher (the best type of students to teach, if you ask me) with all college classes (the best classes to teach, if you ask me).


Here is what we are working on so far

College Comp 2 - First, students turned in their First Day Essays (a 6-8 page paper on a time they failed and how they recovered from it, due on the first day of class).  These were amazing.  I am in awe of how these students opened themselves and really shared some failures/insecurities.  I wouldn't have been able to put myself out there like that when I was a senior in high school.

What amazes me most is that how these kids look up to me, yet if they only knew that they are so far ahead of where I was when I was a senior in high school.  I cannot get over how talented, driven, and engaging these kids are.  I was a junior in college before I could even hold a candle to them!

But that's why I have so much hope for the future.  These kids are amazing, and that's why I show up eager and hopeful to work every day.  Not only do I teach them, but I learn from them, and, best of all, we learn together.

This week we just wrapped up Seth Godin's Linchpin.  Students are writing their final Linchpin paper as I type and then working on putting together their final Linchpin boards.  Past examples can be seen here.

As students were working on these, I couldn't help but tease their next big project: round one of their Sticky-Note book report.

Here is what I do - I give students a note cared and ask students to list three subjects/topics they are interested in.  Then I have them list two subjects/topics they absolutely do not want to read about.

From that list, I choose a book (or two) for them to read.

Over the years (and with the help of Mr. Zutz who has donated plenty of his past reads), I have built up quite the selection for my kids -

Then I give students 10 days to read the book.  As they read, they must annotate the book with their thoughts, connections, questions, and reactions on a minimum of 50 Sticky-Notes.  Once that is done, they will give a 10 minute "book talk" to the class where they summarize the book, focus on an issue or topic that really interested them, and then field questions.

Finally, they turn the book in to me and I read through their Sticky-Notes and grade it.

In round two, which will occur next semester, I will have students do the same thing (hopefully they will be intrigued by the book talks from their peers to read others).  Instead of a book talk, though, students will create a blog and write a hyper-text essay on one subject or topic related to the book.

So far, the most popular titles are below

So far the results have been excellent.  The student who is reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (which I only learned about after our media specialist, Kelly Weets, modeled a book talk for my class), said, "I'm addicted to my book."

Another student, who is reading What You're Really Meant to Do told me that her father wants to read it when she is done with it.

Not every instance works out that well, but I find it rare when a student really dislikes their book.

I won a free copy of Liz Wiseman's Rookie Smarts, so I will be reading that and adding my own Sticky-Notes to it and then model a book talk for my students.  Then I'll add that to my classroom library for next year.


College Comp 1 -

I am overhauling how I approach College Comp this semester.  I am injecting more nonfiction into the curriculum.  

So we started out reading Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, which is about the worst cholera outbreak in London 150 years ago.  It's the story of how two men - Joseph Whitehead (a clergyman) and John Snow (a doctor) work to solve the deaths.  See, at that time London was the largest city on earth, with nearly 3 million people inside a 30 mile radius.  As London sought to sanitize itself - namely through sewers and "water closets," this resulted in sewage being pumped into the Thames, where Londoners also drew their water.

Not good.

Likewise many people drew their water from a few specific pumps.  One of these pumps, The Broad Street pump, became contaminated with cholera and resulted in hundreds of deaths in the span of one week.  But the prominent thinkers at the time thought it wasn't the water that was killing people but the smell.

So Snow works tirelessly to prove this theory that it is the water - not the smell - that is the culprit.  Now, mind you, this is at a time when there is no knowledge of bacteria or microbes.

Snow's work - with the help of Whitehead - is a small ripple that - over time - turns into a huge wave that revolutionizes modern cities.

I am using this not only because it's a college level text but also because I want my students to learn just how different the world used to be.  They tend to think that the world has always been pretty much like it is now, which can't be farther from the truth.  So I want to awaken students to that.

I also like the book because Johnson explore the cholera outbreak through "multiple scales of existence."  He looks at it from Snow's point of view (a doctor and man of science), from Whitehead's pov (that of a member of the clergy), from the miasmatist's view (those who think the smell is killing people), from the views of the humans who work as London's sewer system (the toshers, pure finders, night-soil men, bone pickers, and so on).  I like this because it shows that the world - whether it's now or in 18th century London - looks differently from your particular perspective.  I think that's a lesson that we don't try to teach nearly enough.

Finally, the books illustrates so many key ideas that will impact students in college: the long zoom view (what historians specialize in - basically, looking back at history and connecting the dots.  James Burke's "Knowledge Web" is a great example of this.  It illustrates how you can get from Mozart to the helicopter in about 10 jumps.  Or how the Russian's launching Sputnik resulted in the birth of the internet).  I ask students to consider how possibly their actions now will ripple through the future and impact the lives of others who aren't even born yet.

It illustrates the slow hunch.  This focuses on how innovative breakthroughs don't happen in a mythical epiphany moment.  We like to tell the breakthrough moment like that, but it really isn't like that at all.  Every "ah-ha" moment that seems to happen in an instant really is years and years in the making.  For example, Darwin's notebooks (he was a meticulous journal keeper) reveals that he had everything in place to "discover" the theory of natural selections months prior.  However, he tells it the story how he was reading Malthus's "On Population" when the "ah-ha" moment hit him and the theory popped into his head.  Maybe "On Population" was the stimulus needed for all the dots to align perfectly in his mind, but his notebooks show that the dots were already there in the first place.  He just needed a tipping point (if you will) for the process to happen.

It also shows how there really aren't any lone geniuses working in a lab all by themselves who make a breakthrough.  Most of the great inventions over time have been done in teams or in pairs (as is the case with Snow and Whitehead).  This is important for students to discover.  For the world they will enter will ask them to work in teams and to be key pieces of a vast puzzle, rather than one person called upon to do everything.

We have had great discussions related to these.  Now it is time for the final test.  I asked the students the other day if they had ever taken a test and suddenly realized that there was a section or couple questions that they had never covered in class.  Most agreed.

My theory is that this happens because teachers (and I've been guilty of this more often than not) design the test (or look at the test) last.  

What teachers should do is design their own test first (or look at the test if it is generated by the curriculum / textbook company) and then teach to it.  

See the problem occurs - as it did with me once when I was designing a To Kill a Mockingbird test - the night before I was devising the test and having a great time crafting questions that look at some of the most important themes.

However, when I gave it to my class, they said we never covered one of the themes.  How could this be?  I looked at it.  And, sure enough, they were right!

Because I created the test last (the night before actually), I put in one of the key themes, but I had neglected to teach the theme!  I had gotten so caught up in teaching the novel, that I totally spaced out touching on one of the key themes.

Had I designed the test ahead of time, this would not have happened.

Now, I know teaching to the test is a dirty phrase in education.  However, if it's a test that I design and the test is any good at all, why shouldn't I be teaching to it?

So for The Ghost Map final test, I shared a document with my two sections of College Comp in which I divided the students up into groups of 2 or 3.  Then I assigned each group a chapter from The Ghost Map.  For each chapter, the students had to come up with key figures, important quotes or statements, key ideas and events, and then summarize the entire chapter in a short paragraph.  I also gave all students editing privileges for this review session.

Now that it is all complete and the students have put down the key information from the book, I will use that to construct the test.  I also told them that if they missed something major from each chapter, I will go in and add it.

So they will have no excuse for not knowing something or having covered it because they were the ones that came up with the important information from the book that I used to design the test!

In addition to reading The Ghost Map, we have continued to write our traditional essays, beginning with theme #1 (a descriptive essay) and theme #2 (a narrative).  We will begin theme #3 (a how to) next week as well as start our second nonfiction text: Ken Robinson's The Element.

We have also crafted our own core values for College Comp.

I asked the students to come up with 3-5 core values.  I shared a Google Doc that had not only LHS's own core values but the core values of other businesses as well.

Then I compiled I read over the lists and looked for similar ideas (passion, hard work, respect, failure, and so on) that I wanted us to be hyper-conscious of in the class.

I ended up with a list of about 20 core values.  Then I shared them with the students and had them vote for their favorites.  Here is what they came up with.

1.  Failure is essential and inevitable; the key is to learn from our failures.
2.  Keep it simple, but make it significant.
3.  Be open minded and explore new things: STEP OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE
4.  Respect ideas that aren't your own.
5.  Take something new from class everyday.

The students came up with these.  Now we just have to live up to them.  I look forward to catching my kids doing these in class over the remainder of the semester.

Here is my take on our core values

1.  Failure is essential and inevitable; the key is to learn from our failures.

      * I think we stigmatize our kids from failure.  We, naturally, want to protect them and see them succeed. However, in doing this we are creating a generation of monsters, i.e. kids who don't know how to struggle and adapt.  They have been given so many things without having to work for them.  And we as parents are to blame!  So I want students to realize the see failure as vital.  It's the only way anyone ever learns or grows.  I want us to create a culture where failures (and risks) are encouraged.

2.  Keep it simple, but make it significant.

     *  This intrigued me.  It's something I would have never thought of, but the more I think about it, the more it makes a great deal of sense.  As Einstein once said (and I'm paraphrasing here), the key is to simplify difficult concepts.  I think sometimes teachers (and I was so guilty of this my first couple years of teaching) like to complicate simple ideas.  I sure did when I taught a novel, I wanted to show off my extensive vocabulary and amaze the kids with how I could recognize all of the symbols and themes.  But I wasn't doing them any good.  As a teacher, I have to take a complex subject, simplify it so my students can begin exploring it and learning about it.  It might seem simple but those small baby steps are significant in that they're building up mental muscle for the heavy lifting to come later.

3.  Be open minded and explore new things: STEP OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

     * I hate comfort zones.  I think this core value works well with #1.  Since we embrace failure, that should encourage us to take greater risks.  With greater risks comes the need to step outside of our comfort zones.

4.  Respect ideas that aren't your own.

     *  This is so obviously vital, that it doesn't need a lot of explanation.

5.  Take something new from class everyday.

     *  This came as a result of a student telling me in a candid conversation as I sat at their table that she liked a class where she felt like she left with more than she brought in.  She said she liked just having to show up to a class and engage in conversation and learning without taking 50 minutes of notes.  I like that, so I turned that into this core value.

Now I get to spend the rest of the semester catching and documenting and praising students for doing these core values.  That's not a bad way to spend the next 15 weeks.

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