Week 2: Confusion

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One of the consequences of having a fun-packed weekend after the first week of school was the lack of time to prepare for the next week. I suffered because of it — causing a lot of confusion because of my lack of planning.

MON: The World of the Map / Designing a Memory

The confusion began right away with my first real lecture. I began class with a provocative journal prompt, write a story on the topic “Living the Map” (7th grade) or “Designing a Memory” (8th grade), however, you choose to interpret that phrase. We shared a little of our stories.

I then emphasized that they were NOT to throw away these half-formed stories, but to keep them and store them for later. They would be the fodder for some of our first blog entries, once we got there. I suggested that students reserve a notebook or a section of their folders to keep these ideas and drafts on file — the way rappers and writers always carry around a little spiral-bound notepad.

My seventh grade classes then discussed how stories were like maps and then how stories were like places. We discussed how stories were a kind of visual guide with symbols and conventions. Students mentioned how maps were often used with a specific agenda or purpose in mind. We then talked about how stories were also immersive experiences that had the ability to transport us to another realm.

I then talked briefly about my experiences with Make Philly over the weekend, how the eye only really processes a few focal areas and how the brain mentally fills in the rest of the picture. I talked about how we understand the world in the same way, that we extrapolate a way of seeing the world based on a few indicators, that this is also the trick that stories use to create a mental map and a virtual world for us. You can begin to see how this was beginning to get confusing for the kids. My seventh graders were intrigued, but didn’t quite know how to process all of this information.

I was even more ambitious with my poor eighth graders. In addition to my spiel about eye movements, I talked about the Rashomon effect and how our memories are not purely empirical recollections but cobbled together from our assumptions, beliefs, and expectations — our mental paradigms. Yes, I used the word paradigms and yes that was the term that broke the camel’s back. Students could follow my anecdote of how people perceived a car accident differently depending on how the question about it was framed, but they really had a hard time with the word “paradigm.”

What was the point of all this rambling? Well, I wanted my students to realize that in fully analyzing a text, they should look at three world/paradigms. I described them as the “World at the Beginning”, “World of the Map/Memory,” and “World at the End.” Also very confusing for students. Might have made more sense to frame it as the background of the book, or the world of the author, then the text itself, then the world of the reader.

Now, despite the fact that I muddled up what I was trying to communicate, I think my intentions were noble, and this is a lecture I might have to return to in the future. Literary analysis tends to be a mysterious process for students. They learn to trust their English teachers to guide them and feed them, but they’re not sure if they can do it on their own. It looks like some some sort of intuitive talent that some people have a knack for and others are simply blind to. I want to show students that there can be a kind of method to the madness, that though, yes, there is a kind of sensitivity that you have to develop, we can also methodically tease out certain areas of scrutiny.

I ended class with some comments on the creative project. I said that students need to try to keep these three worlds in mind when considering what they are to do with their creative project. This is where I really screwed up because: confusion + grade anxiety = confusion squared.

Needless to say, I was constantly approached in the hallway by nervous students who didn’t want to fail because they felt the class was already way over their heads. I did a lot of reassuring this week.

TUE: Themes & The Creative Project

My 8th grade class had a drop block. Only seventh grade today.

I began by playing the song “The Water is Wide” and projecting the lyrics onto the smart board. Students then journaled about what they thought the song was about and why Pat Conroy might have wanted to name his book after this song.

By this time, it was becoming fairly obvious that I’m going to have technical trouble with my Block 3 class all year long. I have Blocks 1 and 4 in my classroom, and I typically just plug in my laptop, put on a keynote slideshow and go. I have to appropriate another teacher’s classroom for my Block 3 class and I’m constantly running into technical issues. The projector needs a new lamp. The speakers don’t work. I can’t log in. I need a password to get out of the screensaver. Etc. Etc. Keeps me on my toes, I suppose.

After discussing the journal prompt, I tried to review the material from the day before in another way. I talked about the three worlds again, this time as “Author,” “Text,” and “You”. Under each world, I specified the sort of things you want to look for in each of these realms.

  1. Author: History, Author’s Background, Author’s Interests and intentions
  2. Text:
    A. Things to look for in active reading: Characters, Setting, Plot, Quotes
    B. Further analysis: Genre, Motifs, Literary Techniques
  3. You: Gut Check, Parallels & Contrast between your world and the world of the author/text

I then told the students that the middle realm — the world of the text — was going to be the major focal point of the class. It’s what they would ultimately be assessed on.

The point of all this examination in all these realms is to tease out a theme, or several themes, from the book. Every year I constantly underestimate how difficult a concept theme is for students. This year was no exception. I said the theme should be able to be stated in a single sentence. I said that the theme is not a vague topic but a specific argument. I winced and said the theme was like the “moral” or lesson of the text. We talked about how one of the themes of Forrest Gump is that “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Students nod as if a light bulb has went off in their heads. Of course, I’ll find later that students still want to think of the theme as an enormous vague concept like “friendship.”

And now…more confusion. I threw the students a curve ball and said that another way to reach the theme in this class was through the use of our essential questions. We then did a class exercise where I gave each small group an essential question to answer about The Water is Wide. Five questions yielded five themes.

I then did a quick song and dance about how the essential questions should begin the creative project process. I did a demonstration using The Water is Wide: the essential question leads to a theme; I then consider how the theme is applicable to the three worlds (author, text, you); I then consider my own creative talents and communicate that theme as it applies to one of those worlds.

Confused? Oh yeah. For some reason it made sense to me when I was making it up. In the past, I just gave the students a menu of options when it came to the creative project — write a story, do a poster, etc. This year, I wanted my students to

  1. show me what their creative interests/talents were outside of the classroom
  2. apply the unit’s emphasis and essential questions to their summer reading
  3. demonstrate a substantive understanding of what they’ve read

In hindsight, I should’ve started with the essential questions and left out the whole three realms of analysis until much much later. It was just too much to chew on at once.

Even the essential questions were confusing for the students — many confused the questions with the theme.

Several students asked to come in and see me individually to give them step-by-step advice to approaching their creative project. Not the most efficient way to teach.

WED: It’s Now the 8th Grade’s Turn to Be Confused

I did yesterday’s spiel with my 8th graders. Hysteria ensues. It was an hour block, and I had other things I wanted to do, though, so I just made some quick reassurances and moved on.

I put aside my slideshows and did a little preparatory review for the unit tests I was going to give my students on Monday. It might have been a little late in coming, but I got there.

As a class we went over to the wiki page on The Water is Wideand A Separate Peace. I had set up a table there for each class. Along the X-axis header, I had labeled columns for Plot, Characters, Setting, and Quotes. Along the Y-axis headers, we labeled rows for the 5 different themes we came up with using our 5 essential questions. As a class, then, we began filling in this table, finding various textual support for each of these themes.

Not only did all the students get to see how to use and modify the wiki, this exercise was a taste of the kind of active reading contribution I want students to engage in later with our next books, Of Mice and Men(7th grade) and The Alchemist (8th grade).

It’s also nice that students could use these wiki pages as reference when studying for the tests.

THUR: Notes on The Water is Wide and A Separate Peace

Heavy use of the smart board today. Using the wiki pages we made yesterday, we identified some of the major characters, plot points, and settings that kept creeping up in our textual support. Naturally, these were the elements of the novel that would be heavily emphasized on the tests. I was able to put on the smart board a rough outline of things to study for and then have a general discussion answering questions and going over key points of each novel.

I then exported the smart board slides as jpeg files, uploaded them to flickr, and posted them on the class blog (after class).

FRI: Weekend Wrapup

Block 4 dropped. Hopefully I covered enough Thursday so that they could study for the test independently.

I started class with a screencast on how to sign up for a gmail account. I argued that they needed a Google account for other things that I wanted to do in the class, and having Gmail was an added bonus, since they could control their other email through Gmail. They didn’t put up too much of a fight when I told them to sign up for Gmail and e-mail me their creative project themes over the weekend.

We then reviewed the smartboard notes from the day before and had a general discussion about the literature. In my hour block, I read a good chunk of the last chapter of The Water is Wide and realized that when Conroy asked “the river be good” to his children in the crossing, he’s talking about the rapidly changing world due to the civil rights movement. That gave me a chance to plug the relevance of technology as a way to anticipate the rapidly rising waters of our own world.

I used the last part of class to clear up any residue confusions about the creative project and announce that they had to present their creative projects with the other people who were doing the same book — which they could look up on the class wiki.

My students had to juggle several things over the weekend:

  1. Sign up for a gmail account
  2. Complete their creative project
  3. Study for their unit test on The Water is Wide/A Separate Peace

All in all, I’d say that class moved along this week, even though I felt I made a hot mess of things at times. I made the creative project overly complex, and I’m pretty sure I could have done more preparation for the test. There were certain concepts that got muddled in my byzantine presentations. Given how I felt I scrambled all week, though, things turned out all right.

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