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Alternative Assignments and Assessments during the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond…

Bike Monologue 2 – July 22, 2020

The first four miles of today’s bike ride was devoted to discussing alternative assignments and assessments; helping students learn how to question themselves, each other, and the world around them; and some flowery comments about how we can protect our nation’s precious First Amendment.

If you don’t want to watch the video, see the following paragraphs for the highlights.

We Need Alternative Assignments and Assessments Now and in the Future

I said before that if necessity is the mother of invention, then it is going to reinvent the nature of assignments and the notion of assessment during this crisis because we need, desperately, to redefine what good assignments are and what good assessment is. I mentioned in the video that cheating is already a big problem, but with virtual learning it can become more common (if that is possible). Therefore, we need to eliminate the opportunities to cheat as much as possible.

Yesterday’s post delineated the suggestions I am posing. They included portfolios, projects, essays, design-your-own products, research papers, seminar development, and quiz design. I discussed them briefly in today’s monologue, but veered off onto another topic: the importance of questions.

Help Students Learn How to Ask Good and Great Questions

Think back to high school. Did you learn more about how to find “the answers” or did you learn more about how to ask the right questions of the text in front of you? It was a mix for me, but I learned more about questioning from rigorous electives like “Contemporary World Conflicts,” in which we wrote our hands off every day, than I did in U.S. History II, in which we took Scantron test after Scantron test. In English class, we spent most of our time finding answers in the text or copying the answer down that our teacher gave us. Research papers afforded us the opportunity to expand our thinking, but they were assigned once a year. In the late ‘80s, education looked dramatically different from what it does now.

In the core courses, there were few discussions, no Socratic seminars, little differentiation, no personalized learning… You get the picture, I’m sure. Today, these teaching techniques are used regularly to help students deconstruct what they knew, integrate new knowledge, and build a new knowledge base. Constructivist principles are more prevalent today, for which I am thankful.

We need to spend more time helping students learn how to ask good questions, and the techniques mentioned above DO help. Yes, it takes longer to “grade” the work product that results, or the “grade” might be more subjective than the results of a multiple choice and short answer test, but that forces me to question what the purpose of education is. Is it data collection or student development? Data collection is important, but student development is more important.

Help Students Have Difficult, Yet Constructive, Conversations

When students are able to create good questions, they can engage in conversations with others that might become difficult but can remain constructive. We need to be able to do this today, in this polarized, politicized, environment, or we will continue to see videos of Karens who have lost their grip on reality. We will continue to see protests devolve into something decidedly NOT peaceful. We will see more Federal officers descend on cities to “maintain law and order.”

We will see this happen because people cannot control themselves.

They cannot control themselves because they do not have the confidence and the tools to support their position.

They cannot engage in nondestructive confrontations because they do not have the confidence and tools to be restorative.

When people have the tools: questioning expertise, restorative practices principles, deescalation techniques, and confidence girded by deep thought about their values, then we will no longer need “officials” to manage our behavior. We can manage it ourselves. We can protect our First Amendment rights.

Teachers can help students learn how to protect their First Amendment rights and the First Amendment itself. Teach them how to ask good questions and have constructive conversations. Teach them to check their impulses to lash out at those who disagree with them and instead engage in peaceful dialogue. Teachers can partner with other adults in this effort too: parents and other older family members, clergy, community leaders, and behavioral health professionals.

Necessity is the mother of invention. We NEED help.

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Education Essays Learning Life Teaching

This Is Why I Teach Literature

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Image Credit: Posted by Michelle Argo Parker, an AP® Literature teacher from Minneapolis

One of Mrs. Parker’s students created this peaceful protest message using apropos quotes from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. This is why I, and thousands of my colleagues, teach literature. As Mrs. Parker noted in her post: “He gets it.” We study literature to understand the human condition. It’s not all about the key concepts we are supposed to teach so that students understand literature better; it’s about the understanding. For more information on the six facets of understanding, as proposed by Wiggins and McTighe, check out this article.

Words Matter.

If you want to know how one lunatic managed to take over an entire country with his words, which were eventually backed up with military might, in the 1930s, take a look at tweets and hours upon hours of video showing history repeating itself. In recent months, Mr. Trump has been tweeting things like “Liberate Minnesota!” He’s also called for liberating other states which just happen to have Democratic governors. He held rallies where he riled up his followers, calling the press the “enemy of the people” and “human scum.” He called the protestors “thugs.” He hasn’t denounced the police officers who murdered George Floyd. He hasn’t called for their arrest either. Top law-enforcement officer? I think not.

Yesterday, he topped all this off by sending in a huge law enforcement presence, complete with tear gas and rubber bullets, to disperse peaceful protesters from a park, so he could walk through it to do a photo-op at a church while holding a Bible. A picture is worth 1,000 words, they say. Here’s one that I think tells the tale well. Granted, it’s the words in the picture that also matter, but it’s still a picture.

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Image Credit: Heather M. Edick

Here’s another one of a very unfortunate headline from The New York Times. Do better, NYT; you totally missed the point.

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From CNN’s Reliable Sources Newsletter

Image Credit: CNN Reliable Sources Newsletter

Then, this morning, I read that Representative Matt Gaetz posted a tweet that Twitter found to be glorifying violence.

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Image Credit: New York Times

On the same day, Trump gave a speech in the Rose Garden in which he said:

I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting to end the destruction and arson and to protect the rights of law abiding Americans, including your second amendment rights.

From rev.com; emphasis is mine.

Coincidence? Hunt down people with our second-amendment-guaranteed weapons? Again, I think not. That, dear reader, was a ‘dog whistle’ if ever I heard one. Someone is going to get killed and it will all be traced back to these messages coming from these people. Hopefully, that will be today and not twenty years from now.

Words Matter.

During World War II, John Steinbeck wrote a propaganda piece called The Moon Is Down at the behest of the U.S. Government. It was meant to support those under Nazi occupation. It was so important to people that it was copied and distributed in Norway to bolster the morale of the Norwegian people in World War II. Steinbeck was awarded the King Haakon IV Freedom Cross for his work. The book was also distributed in numerous other territories occupied by the Nazis. Churchill was quite enthusiastic about the book as well. I highly recommend it. It isn’t the greatest piece of literature, but one of the more important.

Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.

From https://Steinbeck.org/his-work/the-moon-is-down

Take that and choke on it, those who think that we should just take their word for it.

Words Matter.

We literature teachers look for the messages writers send in their works. Sometimes, we’re right and sometimes we are imposing our own reality on theirs, but that doesn’t mean we are necessarily wrong. When Charlotte Bronte wrote about many of the students in Jane Eyre’s school dying of typhus, was she not recalling her childhood and making a comment about the poor treatment of indigent children? When Toni Morrison wrote about Pilate’s complete capitulation to the police while in the station trying to retrieve her property, what message was she sending about the lengths that African Americans have to go to get any cooperation at all? What about Charles Dickens? Surely he was sending many messages about social disparity. And what was Alice Walker trying to say when Celie let loose on Mr. ___ and his son? That was a classic scene of a woman standing up for herself. My final example refers you to the first picture I posted. It will be the first novel we read in AP® Lit this year. Those are a few examples that come to my mind as I write this.

Somewhere, there is a writer crafting the first COVID-19 novel that touches poignantly on all the problems we have today: systemic racism, high unemployment, cuts to essential services to bolster “industry,” class disparity – and the list that goes on and on while one’s heart breaks. I can’t wait to read it.

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Education Learning Life Teaching

3 Ways Crisis Teaching Is Different and Just as (More?) Difficult as “Regular” Teaching (Whatever That Is)

This post could have been entitled “5 ways…” or “10 ways…” or maybe even “100 ways,” but the power of three is strong. It craves concision. It requires streamlined thought. It also makes it more difficult to write, but that’s a different post. Before diving into the big three, I have a message for anyone who reads this blog.

If you think teachers aren’t working, boy are you wrong.

There have been reports in the teaching community that parents and community members have questioned why teachers were getting paid during the shut down period, and they are even questioning why teachers are getting paid now that most of us have returned to the classroom, albeit the virtual one. It’s not just my community questioning it; communities nationwide have heard these questions and school boards nationwide have had to respond to them. It stymies the imagination, really, especially if you have any experience with working from home (more on that in a minute).

The facts are simple: Teachers who found themselves at home and not actively working with students did not take a vacation. Well, perhaps for a day so they could figure out how life was going to work with a full house every day. Shortly after that, however, teachers did what teachers do. They picked up their curriculum and started building an online classroom as they hoped that school would reopen. They called each other to discuss strategies and tools they could use to work with students in an entirely new way. They attended professional development webinars hastily created to help teachers transition. They joined Facebook groups of fellow teachers to share ideas, post “I miss my kids” posts, and get and give encouragement to each other. Personally, my AP Lit syllabus (a 40-plus page bear) is 90% complete now, and my summer reading materials (a 60-plus page bear) is complete. I created enrichment activities and a calendar that I shared with my students. I sent out ideas for keeping their skills sharp. I also wrote one of the most candid letters I have ever written to non-family members and sent that to my students. I would say that I was still working 50-hours a week while schools were shuttered, a *few* hours less than what I was working before. I wasn’t doing the stand-up aspect of teaching and I missed it, but I was still working as a teacher.

On top of that, of course, teachers needed to deal with family logistics, just like everyone else. In our house, we had to figure out which floor everyone was going to be on and we stressed about our Internet connection supporting a programmer, a teacher, and a college student at the same time. My friends have even more troubles, since they have more children to worry about, or they are suffering from job losses — or both. We are blessed, really, and I am thankful and grateful each day, as well as mindful of those who need help from our governments and each other.

So, how is crisis teaching different? Read on.

(1) Working from home is an acquired skill, and many of us have had to acquire it quickly.

After six years of working from home while my son was young, I have mixed emotions about finding myself working from home again. There was freedom one cannot enjoy while working in an office, to be sure, but working from home is also desperately, terribly lonely. By the time I went back to commuting to work (actually, it was to start student teaching), I was craving human-to-human contact beyond my own family. I wanted face-to-face colleagues again. I wanted face-to-face friends again. I was tired of being on video conference and dealing with Internet connectivity issues. Well, here I am again. And yes, I am desperately, terribly lonely. As much as I love technology and love to hate technology, I would go back to my classroom and remove all the tech there if only I could be with my kids and colleagues again.

(2) Crisis teaching is NOT Online Teaching, nor is it Brick-and-Mortar “put” online

Teaching online is COMPLETELY different from brick-and-mortar teaching. To my colleagues who teach in cyber charters and online campuses, I salute you. My distance/online learning experiences started in 2006 and while getting those degrees I can honestly say I worked harder as a learner than ever. My instructors worked hard to master the skills of asynchronous instruction and the “live lecture” that could go FUBAR at any moment. Most of them came from brick-and-mortar campuses and had mixed emotions about the change. I can’t blame them. It’s difficult and paradigm-shifting.

Teaching during a crisis is even more different. My friends talk about time limits on assignments, the focus on social and emotional learning, and the equity issues. Their hearts are broken for their kids, for their families, and for themselves. They can only imagine what is happening in the lives of these young people who are so important to them. Yes, these issues abound in brick-and-mortar teaching too. Being trauma-informed and culturally-responsive are so very important, no matter how you function as a teacher. In my previous teaching experiences, those issues always trumped learning opportunities, so perhaps I am more prepared than others; it was like flipping a switch.

(3) Our “Spidey Senses” are useless when teaching this way.

Observational skills are critical skills for every teacher to hone and develop. In September, you may not know your kids and be able to read their expressions or body language. By October 1, you can predict how most of them will react to something. Take the visual away and it is like September all over again. In essence, we have to develop those “Spidey Senses” required to read the room when the room is in the ether.

To connect with point number two, then, all the extra stuff that goes into explaining a simple assignment without being able to read the room makes the limitations and SEL considerations feel like tourniquets. Everything takes longer. That probably sounds counter-intuitive for some reason. Let me put it this way. Today, I woke up at 7:00 AM and worked until 2:00 PM. It’s Saturday. However, I had to do that to generate the documents I think will help my students to navigate the virtual learning room before our next conference. My classes no longer meet every day, so the students have to have instructions that can help them get started or continue assignments. I had several emails to respond to about assignments coming in late, too (What do I care about due dates? What’s more important now: your health or my due date? Please, if you do not know the answer to that by now, you haven’t been paying attention.) . Then, of course, there are the emails about professional development opportunities, AP® Exam updates (don’t get me started), and the emails from the education associations.

Tomorrow, I will probably work more, but darn it, I’m going for a bike ride. I will go to sleep tonight wondering if I explained something correctly and will have to resist the urge to rush to my computer. Issues that could have been resolved in a 30-second conversation during class now require multiple emails or LMS messages. Every time I get something wrong, I want to kick myself for wasting their time.

So, yeah, it’s different. It’s way different.

I’m going to do something completely out of character now and publish this without too much proofreading. Why? I have run out of time. Thank you for reading and leave a comment if you like.

Be well. Be safe. Be good to you.

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Education Learning Life

Literature and the Human Condition

We study literature to study the human condition. We engage in conversation with a text, with its context, to understand where we were within our reality, or to understand where we may be going within our reality. Readers cannot escape their reality; indeed, they should not. Every time we open a text, we are engaging its now with our now.

We are engaging its now with our now. We are confronting its now with our now. We are embracing its now with our now. We are conjoining its now with our now. We are acknowledging its now with our now. We are debating with its characters. We are struggling with or connecting with its setting. We are processing its plot. We are appreciating its beauty with all its flaws. We are interrogating the narrator, even if the narrator is reliable. We are appreciating the figurative language through our personal “ah ha” moments.

Oh, those amazing “ah ha” moments. They don’t always come on immediately. For example, I had an “ah ha” moment a few years ago with a poem I read over 20 years before. We study literature to have those “ah ha” moments immediately, but also 20 years later. We study literature to pass on the lessons we have learned to others in whatever profession we pursue. I have a friend who teaches psychological wellness through movies and novels. When a client learns about Gaslight or Shirley Valentine, their lives are never the same. The more we read, the more we have to share, for we know more about…

…the human condition.

I really could not help myself there.

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Education Learning Life Teaching

WHY TEXT-DEPENDENT ANALYSIS IS MORE IMPORTANT NOW THAN EVER

The explosion of media and technology…has made it all the more important that students master the core skills of gathering and evaluating evidence. Reading and writing with independence and confidence will remain master arts in the Information Age. (Vicki Phillips in Schmoker, 2011, p.93)

Phillips’ quote resonates today because of the media explosion that occurs on a daily basis (indeed, sometimes multiple times a day).  As teachers, we may decide we are obliged to help students navigate the turbulent river of information that comes through so many channels – our smart phones, the television, the radio, social media, etc.  I submit that we need to help them, and we need to figure out exactly how to help them.  Text-dependent analysis is a skill that can help them – and us – to cut through the clutter and find the gems of truth therein.

Recently, I finished a professional development course offered by the Pennsylvania Department of Education called “Text-Dependent Analysis,” otherwise known as TDA.  This course taught us how to teach close reading and critical thinking about what one reads.  The DOE deployed this course at an opportune time, since many teachers are going to struggle with how to teach students to read with an eye toward deep understanding and toward analyzing for credibility or veracity.  I, for one, was not taught this particular strategy, so I have relied on my training as a history major, not as a teacher.

Close Reading – an important part of TDA – is composed of the following steps.

burkestepsofclosereading

(Beth Burke, n.d.)

Something I think we don’t do enough of in today’s classrooms is multiple readings of a text.  TDA requires multiple readings, for one cannot possibly deeply understand a text after only one reading, and it is probably difficult to understand deeply after two readings as well.

Something I would change about TDA as it is now taught is to gradually replace teacher-generated text-dependent questions (TDQs) with student-generated TDQs.  Teacher-generated questions can often sway a student toward one side or the other, even though these questions are NOT supposed to do that; they are intended to get the students thinking about the text in increasingly complex ways.  Additionally, many of us recognize that the best way to learn something, to master it I should say, is to teach it.  Therefore, if students create their own questions to share with others, they are in essence teaching one another the art of TDA.  That’s my opinion; feel free to disagree with it in the comments.

TDA can help students to filter out the noise that media explosions constantly subject us to these days.  It can help them (and us) to discover truth in the midst of so much nonsense.  It can help all of us to support our democratic republic and to help it progress.  We have made so much progress in our short time as a country, and recently we are seeing citizens regress into publicly displaying worldviews that we as a country felt we had long ago abandoned.  It saddens many of us to see it, but there is something we can do about it!

Try TDA today.

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References

Burke, B. (n.d.). A close look at close reading: Scaffolding students with complex texts. Anne Arundel County, MD: Anne Arundel County Reading Council.
Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.