Tuesday, December 18, 2007

'it's' about time - a fictitional account

There’s this assignment in my head. It’s multi-layered and full of scaffolding. Certainly, it will win an award for Best Project Ever; at the very least, a nomination is guaranteed.

Like all the best assignments, it begins with rich essential questions. Context will be set, schemas will be exposed, and the slow but steady path to learning, knowledge, empathy, and growth will sprout. Banners of the questions will border the classroom, thereby making thinking unavoidable.

What follows is a careful reading of a novel. A clear and delineated reading log is part of the process for the students. They will read independently and in small groups; they will hear read-alouds and they will even get some directed-reading activities to hammer home comprehension, prediction, and analysis. Post-its will be provided, free of charge.

Quizzes will be given intermittently during the reading. Vocabulary, drawn from the novel, will be studied, synonymed and antonymed. And not a Scantron anywhere! Remember, we’re not teaching them to fill in circles.

Primary sources? Most definitely! Students will read documents direct from the time-period in which the novel was written. Letters, written by the author during his service in some glorious military endeavor, will be studied. Students will examine them for clues that indicate the slow development of his now timeless novel. A grandfather will come in on Friday and speak to the class. He won’t show you his scar.

Nobody wins an award for any of that. Standard stuff, right? But this assignment, the one brewing in my head, is just about ready for the stratosphere. Look-ee, look-ee:

So now the students are ‘getting it’. They’re only half-way through the text and they’re talking about the novel. They’re even asking questions of their own creation. They’ve abandoned the Post-Its and have noted-up the margins. There will be no discipline slips for these infractions. The desire to learn is far more important.

And then, I hit ‘em with the zinger! I’m taking this project to the next level. Oh, yeah, it’s going 2.0 (two point oh). If this assignment is going to work, they must do more than communicate, investigate, and appreciate; they need to collaborate. But those markers and packets of construction paper are defunct remnants of an ill-conceived educational past and they won’t work. But blogging will work.

Now, this isn’t just ‘get in the gate’ and go sort of blogging. It’s important that you realize that they’ve been reading blogs all semester. They all have accounts at Bloglines. These are Twenty First Century citizens through and through. Most subscriptions are blocked by the school filter.

The novel comes alive as students post as if they are the characters. Suzie is no longer a tired adolescent; through the power of blogging she’s been transmogrified into the tired protagonist from the novel. She posts and she comments. She inserts a ClustrMap. A Tibetan is reading.

In class, someone’s post is glowing with the power of a Hewlett-Packard projection system behind it. We re-read posts. We discuss the comments. I ask clarifying questions. We even use student posts to work on the conventions of the writing process. Students work independently and in teams. We edit and revise. There’s a mini-lesson on the comma. Bathroom requests increase.

The blogs are working…better than expected. Suddenly, students are posting on their own and comments are soaring. Suzie comes to my class before homeroom. She tells me her post from the other day now has thirteen comments. The Tibetan commends her interpretation.

At one point, we even Skyped another school.

I ask the students for permission to share their blogs with teachers in our building who may not be aware of the work they have done. They are happy to oblige. Tibetans are reading, surely the faculty will appreciate the work.

Email out, hyperlinks included.

Emails in, lesson concluded:
“Too much time.”

“No way you get through the entire curriculum if you do all that.”

“There is such a dearth of writing skills that an assignment like this is more than time-consuming, it’s a reinforcement of all that is wrong with student writing.”

“They could have just as easily written a paper.”

“Tell me how blogging helps with our State Assessments and maybe they’ll be a reason to abandon real teaching.”
One day, when this assignment wins Best Project Ever, I’ll thank a handful of avatars who made me believe that teaching is more than just quantity, more than just testing, and more than just commas. It’s about something you use with care, something you use deliberately, and it’s about something you use with an awareness of student advancement.

It’s about time.


Anne Van Meter said...

My first thought was "I want to hang out in that room." My next thought was to wonder what part of the post was possibly fiction. The part about the lesson? Or the part about the responses? Which would be better? Or maybe, which would be less worse?

Chris Lehmann said...

That sound you hear is Ken hitting his head against the teacher's desk.

Sounds like a great class to me... and besides, give the other teachers a year or two when the chorus from the kids of "Why won't you let us publish our work to the world" only grows louder and louder.

This is going to be a grass-roots initiative in far too many places, where kids will have to advocate for themselves with the support of teachers who can imagine a future.

Kristin Hokanson said...

why are you sharing those links with folks in your building who refuse to embrace your students' learning Why aren't you sharing them here where your network can continue to challenge them and get them to continue to challenge themselves.

Anonymous said...

Oy! Can't think of anything else to say.

Well, just one thing: I hope when my kids get to high school they have a teacher who models their practice on yours.


Ken Rodoff said...

@ farfisa - oh, to say what is real, what is fake, and what is nightmarishly scary is a fine, fine indiscernible line

@ chris lehmann - the ever-growing welt upon my head is, if nothing else, an indicator of time spent in this new position.

@ kristin hokanson - I share with the Sleestacks because while they hiss and moan, they are the ones that we will, at some point, need to convert...or offer them early retirement.

@ darren - thanks for the expression of kindness! For my poor part, I 'hope' that when our kids get to high school, we won't have to hope for such instructional models.

Avill said...


The day I open my "perfect world" school, you are hired!

Ken Rodoff said...

@ ana - if your 'perfect world' school offers full medical, dental, and ocular, I will most definitely apply!

Please open your school in Philadelphia as I'm not quite ready to move.

Avill said...

Sorry Ken, no such luxuries. I may however, be inclined to offer you a special parking spot or something.

Philly's too cold. Yet if you can promise me a school full of innovative teachers... I might consider it!

Graham Wegner said...

I didn't rip your ideaoff - honest.

Well, imitation is the best form of flattery. I hope that you can see some parallels in our works of "fiction".