“Today is the day!”

Honestly, this is embarrassing.

I distinctly remember standing before you in August claiming that I would publish the goings-on of the classroom on a weekly basis. What happened?

Already, the end of the year is whispering in my ear, reminding me of my gross shortcomings.  So despite the enormous lapse in time, I take a deep breath and jump in to write this blog post.

After all, some events are worth waiting for…

Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETA) is still waiting for a message from alien lifeforms.

Leap day takes about four years to come around.

Waiting for a blue moon might take 2-3 years.

Depending on the altitude in which they live, black alpine salamanders wait for their young to be born from two to three years.

Additionally, an elephant’s gestational period is close to two years before the opportunity to nuzzle their young is possible.

Since the cartoon the Jetsons, we have patiently been waiting for flying cars, meal pills, antigravity, jumpsuits and teleportation.

It may take a month or more of waiting for your child’s teacher to publish a blog post.

As author Richie Norton states, “No more tomorrows. Today is the day.” Hard to procrastinate if you live by this mantra.

Despite my silence on the blog, your children have not been silent. Here is a summary (albeit lengthy) of what they have been up to since the last post.

IMPACTS UNIT

Students researched a country’s history of natural hazards and the impact these hazards have on the country’s lenses of sustainability (environmental, economic, and society). NGO’s were then researched to determine which would best help their country become disaster prepared to reduce risks. Findings were compiled into a written proposal and a visual presentation prepared to present to the UNISDR panel (group of teachers) in a bid to receive funding to implement disaster preparedness programs. See a sampling of the end results below.

Watching the final presentations filled me with great pride. Students were poised, articulate and well-informed. It was, indeed, a moment to savor.

If you would like to peruse some written grant proposals, take a look at ChinaPhilippines and India.

WORD STUDY

Investigating the morphology and etymology of <mitigation> was a challenge that required students to learn enthusiastically. Once the denotation of <mitigation> was uncovered, students tackled the morphology of the word. The following hypotheses represents their initial thinking…

* <miti + gate + ion>

* <mit + i + gate + ion>

* <mitigate + ion>

* <mit + i + g + ate + ion>

To determine which hypothesis, if any, was accurate, students had to prove the morphemes. Students brainstormed words that used the identified suffix(es) to check their theories. Once satisfied with the accuracy of the word’s affixes, students moved onto determining the base. Here they used Etymology Online to determine the root.

Proving the base element was most challenging as the students were reticent to let go of their theory that <gate> was the base element. Progress was stunted because many were looking for what was familiar, a word they recognized, in <mitigation>. I found it extremely challenging to allow students to make mistakes without giving them hints of how to find the correct answer.

Sounding like a broken record, I continued to ask students to prove their theories and asked about connections between the etymological root of the word and the denotation.

With determination, students found <mit> as one base element coming from Latin mitis meaning “gentle or soft”. With reluctance, students let go of the idea that <gate> was another the base element, however they needed guidance in the end to uncover the second base <ig> coming from the Latin root agere meaning “to do, make or act”. This was an exciting find as they connected this root to the one they uncovered in <proactive>. Meaning, base elements <act>, <ig>, <ag> all come from the Latin root agere.

Eavesdrop on a couple of conversations…

Investigations were recorded on a poster.

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Next, we will be studying words related to dystopian societies.

BLOGGING & PERSONAL NARRATIVES

Once students completed their March Slice of Life Story Challenge, we paused our blogging to work on the craft of writing and produce a piece of more substance. When visiting author, Jack Gantos was here, he claimed, “We are all full of really good stories.”  Taking his advice, students started their narrative with a small moment of their life and then stretched it out using magnified moments, internal monologues, dialogue and show, not tell.

Through several focused rewrites, students revised their beginning, strengthened their word choice, varied sentence beginnings and lengths, added figurative language, applied other literary techniques such as alliteration or repetition, and finally, tightened their ending. Before hitting the publish button, students edited their conventions and formatting. What you see published, is purely student work. They are proud of their accomplishments, as am I.

Writers need an audience, so I need your help. Please take the time to read your child’s narrative as well as two others and  leave a comment sharing what spoke to you about their story. Your time and attention to this matter is much appreciated. You can find the student blogs on the right hand sidebar of my Wonderland blog. As I am writing alongside the students, my personal narrative, Childhood Stupidity, is my latest post.

NOVEL STUDY

Currently, students are engaged in reading a dystopian novel of their choice. The term ‘dystopia’ was coined by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. According to Wikipedia, J. S. Mill first used ‘dystopian’ in a speech before the British House of Commons in 1868 regarding the government’s Irish land policy: “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.” A life of destitution, tyranny and terror is summoned when visualizing a dystopian society.

Dystopian fiction, although set in the future, explores modern issues that have reached drastic proportions producing nightmarish conditions.  Corrupt governments convince their people society is fair and sound, a utopia, not the dystopian community it really is. Dystopias are written as warnings – reminders that humankind must tread carefully to prevent such chaos from becoming a reality.

The protagonists of dystopian fiction are dissidents, standing up against oppression for the greater good; teaching us that it is important to be an upstander and make a difference. Students stand alongside the protagonist, soaking up their empathy for others and courage to stand up for what you believe in. As Neil Gaiman states, “Fairytales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” As students help the protagonist “slay the dragons” of these dystopian worlds, they learn their dragons can also be slain.

Students are taking part in Socratic seminars and threaded discussions to dialogue about the provocative themes that are emerging in their novels through setting, character and plot development. Here is a sneak peek into a threaded discussion on Lois Lowry’s novel, The Giver and another threaded discussion on the second book in her series, Gathering Blue. To view a discussion, click on the COMMENTS button in the top right hand corner of the document and all will be revealed.

That’s it for now. I will try not to let so much time lapse between posts, although my word is a bit suspect based on my actions.

Critical Reading for Critical Thinkers

17th-century copper engraving

Think. It seems a simple task. According to the Oxford dictionary, to think means to use one’s mind actively to form connected ideas; to have a particular mental attitude or approach. As simple as the definition is, teaching ‘thinking’ is a complex undertaking. Despite its complexity, fostering critical thinkers should be a fundamental cornerstone in all classrooms.

Over the past couple of weeks, students were faced with reading challenging articles on the conflict between China and Tibet conflict and synthesizing their understandings in a presentation to be shared with the class. To navigate the complex texts, students engaged in active reading strategies. PQRST is one of the strategies students used to make sense of the articles handed to them. This strategy requires students to annotate their questions, connections, and understandings as they engage in each step of the following process.

When PREVIEWING, students are coached to pay attention to the features of a text – headings, subheadings, captions, diagrams, bold and italicized words. At this stage of reading, students begin wondering about the topic – making predictions about the content of the text.

Following the previewing of the text, students focus on QUESTIONING. During this stage, I encourage students to turn headings and subheadings into questions to provide a focus, followed by a reading of the text, flooding it with questions that pop up as they work their way through the article. I advise students to be patient and embrace confusion at this stage as they attempt to formulate the gist of the text.

The next stage reinforces the idea that multiple readings deepen understandings. Students are asked to READ the article once again, this time chunking the text – summarizing their understandings or noting connections as they go. Additionally, I encourage opportunities to discuss the text with a partner during this stage to further solidify understandings.

SUMMARIZING follows reading. It is at this stage that I encourage students to make sense of their newly formed ideas by organizing them into a mindmap that categorizes and summarizes the information. At this point, students have interacted with the text multiple times helping them to move beyond understanding and form critical opinions about the content. It is at this stage that students may get into heated dialogue about the topic. This is my favorite stage of the process, as students demonstrate they have established a conclusion and can justify it with evidence and interpretations.

When needed, to help prepare for an assessment, students can TEST themselves on their understandings by quizzing one another using the mindmaps.

Although multiple readings, annotations and mindmapping may appear tedious, it is important students are offered ample opportunities to engage in these strategies. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery. I am going to need your help to reinforce these strategies, when applicable, to Humanities homework.

Friday’s presentations on the conflict between China and Tibet provided evidence that the PQRST strategy was effective in developing an understanding of a complicated issue. Students were able to communicate to an audience their perspective of the issues and provide possible solutions based on their research.

Of course the presentations were not without the usual bumps and bruises of awkward pauses, over-reliance on scripts, and factual inaccuracies at times, but overall students should feel proud of their accomplishments. I look forward to future presentations.

An example of a finished product…

Wisdom Begins in Wonder

Jacques-Louis David 1787

Death of Socrates

Wisdom begins in wonder. ~Socrates

In preparation for our first Socratic seminar, students learned of Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, and his belief that genuine knowledge is gained only through questioning and dialogue. We spent time discussing the difference between dialogue and debate. The most significant difference being that dialogue is collaborative in which all members play an important role in constructing a common vision of shared truth and understanding. Whereas debate is oppositional; the goal being to prove the other person wrong.

Once students understood the features of dialogue, we began preparing for our Socratic circle. Presented with a passage from Roland Smith’s novel, Peak, students engaged in a close reading of the text. Individually, students explored several aspects of the passage, looking to annotate the following:

  • Vocabulary: Students might define unfamiliar words and note the author’s word choice – do the words carry positive or negative connotations? They might also research terms involving places or people to gain a more in-depth understanding of the content.
  • Literary Techniques: Students note techniques used by authors to enhance meaning. Such devices include the use of similes, metaphors, personification, repetition, alliteration…
  • Literary Elements: Students note how characters are presented, the setting described and its role in creating mood. They might also identify plot points and/or theme(s).
  • Connections: Students note any connections they make to other texts, world events (historical or current), or self.
  • Questions: Students craft a minimum of two questions to pose to the group. Questions must be provocative – causing others to pause and possibly rethink original viewpoints.

Following their individual annotation of the text, students shared their thoughts with their table group and added to their annotations. For homework that night, students reread the passage one final time and made any further revisions and/or additions.

We followed Matt Copeland’s, author of Socratic Circles, model of Socratic circles. The class was randomly divided in half. Half became the inner circle whose goal was to listen and construct a shared understanding of the passage. The other half became the outer circle whose goal was to observe the inner circle and reflect on their behavior of dialogue and offer suggestions for improvement. Each group was granted 10 minutes in each circle.

Nervous bundles of energy clamored into the room on the day of the seminar. It took me a few minutes to reassure them – that it would seem less nerve-wracking as we they grow accustomed to dialoguing. We rearranged the classroom and students reluctantly settled in their circles. My role was to kick-off the conversation with a question. As the question floated from my lips towards the circle, it was met with resistance. After an awkward silence, one brave soul found their voice and spoke up. We were off.

Despite the awkward silences, nervous giggles and shaking voices, students persevered. It was challenging for me to take a back seat and allow the students to work through their struggles; several times I wanted to swoop in and save them from the deadly pauses with a question or response. With great restraint, I refrained and they rose to the occasion and produced positive results. The inner circles developed a deeper understanding of Peak’s character and the theme of family and the outer circles provided specific, reflective feedback that will help students improve their dialogue skills. Students felt proud of themselves and hopefully, in turn, they realized the value of dialogue.

Lesley Lambright (1995), another author of dialogue in the classroom, states students “are more creative when they are engaged in a group, listening to the thinking of others, watching the play of one idea bouncing off another, while being encouraged to dig below the surface of thought and feeling. Transactions spark the imagination.” Isn’t that what we want – to spark the imagination of students and watch them fly? I know I do.

Sorry for displaying photos rather than video. I did film the Socratic circles; however, the quality of sound was so poor that the students couldn’t be heard.

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Making Sense of Our World

Social Studies: Mapping Our Place in the World

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“Our love affair with maps is as old as civilization itself. Each map tells its own story and hides its own secret. Maps delight, they unsettle, they reveal deep truths, not just about where we come from, but about who we are.”  Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Cartography, an intriguing science of drawing maps that began as early as the 15th century with Ptolemy and accelerated during the age of exploration as explorers bumped and felt their way around the world recording their discoveries in conjunction with their beliefs. Perusals of maps from long ago are not only works of art but a curation of knowledge, political agendas, and philosophical beliefs. Maps of old revealed more than location; they disclosed a story. Of course with advances in technology, conjectures became more exact, and the stories, well, they became more subtle.

In today’s digital age, maps are indeed more accurate, yet not without bias. Bias is simply more hidden than in previous periods of time, which is why it is important to view such cartographic depictions with a critical eye. To avoid falling into the trap of ‘believing what you see’, viewers need to be encouraged to ask questions such as…

  • What type of map is this?
  • What is its purpose?
  • What distortions are evident?
  • Why has the cartographer chosen to distort the map in this way?
  • What information does the map reveal about the world?
  • From whose point-of-view is the map shown, and what do they have to gain from it?

Although these questions have not been made apparent to my students, they are subsumed in our overarching Essential Question, “What is my place in the world?” Students have been investigating the various ways in which geographers make sense of this question by utilizing the imaginary grid system of latitude and longitude to pinpoint and identify the location of places, exploring the five themes of geography to understand the interaction between human and non-human factors, and uncovering the challenges behind showing Earth’s surface.

As we delved into maps, it didn’t take long for students to notice the challenges in representing a spherical planet on a flat map. While plotting the location of capital cities around the world, one student made the statement, “This map is a disgrace to my country.” Already, the map’s intentions had become suspect in the eyes of a young viewer. This led other students to investigate the shape of their home country on the map to see if it too had been ‘disgraced’. Many agreed the map being used was indeed a disgrace to many countries, and that I should find a more accurate map that was more ‘fair’.

Although this is not where I had planned this particular lesson to go on this day, interest in why shapes of countries are distorted on some maps was piqued, making it a central point to revisit in later lessons on the different types of maps and the information they reveal. I’m curiouser and curiouser as to what questions the variety of maps will stir up in these young minds as we move through this unit on the core concepts of geography.

Students aren’t only learning how to navigate their way around maps, they are also learning additional skills such as how to read and take notes from non-fiction texts and synthesize their understandings in a paragraph centered around main ideas. Cornell notes, mind-mapping and other graphic organizers have been introduced and encouraged to help students identify main ideas and organize their thinking in a well-developed paragraph.

Language Arts: Learning How to Navigate through Life via Literature

Poetry

We acquiesced to Halloween by embracing the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe on Thursday. No, it wasn’t “The Raven” or even “The Tell-Tale Heart,” instead we went with his lesser known, but nonetheless, beautiful, “Annabel Lee”.  After identifying the narrative behind the poem, students fell into the rhythm of its verse – lulling the audience with the beauty behind its tragic love story. With only one practice, tables of students performed their assigned stanza. Forgive me for the poor quality of video; filmmaking is certainly not a strength.

Novel Study: The Graveyard Book

In The Graveyard Book novel study group, students have been investigating the elements of literature and the techniques authors use to reveal them to the reader. Since the start of the novel, students have been working to understand the protagonist, Bod and his home of the graveyard. Bod’s world has been turned upside down as he is forced to leave behind his home and family and make the graveyard his new home.

Author Neil Gaiman plays with our biases and generalizations regarding graveyards by creating an environment that symbolizes protection and education rather than death as we might expect. Bod has to make sense of his smaller world and how it fits in to the bigger world outside of the graveyard just as we have to make sense of how our smaller communities fit in with the global community.

Setting, mood, characterization and theme have been explored through symbolism, metaphors, similes and personification. To glimpse a view of what your child has been studying, please see the RESOURCE page of our Graveyard Book website. To get an overview of their studies, delve into the presentations and look over the documents students have been working on in class. Below are  a few photos of students in action discussing and collaborating on their understanding of all The Graveyard Book has to offer.

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With Vorpal Sword in Hand – The Hero’s Quest

“What is my place in this world?”

Such a question begets more questions:

    • Am I to consider my physical place or my social niche, or both? 
    • How big is my world? Do I consider the smaller communities within my world? What are the smaller communities in my world? What are the larger communities? How do they differ? How is each one important? Why might I act differently in these communities?
    • How does the idea of place involve responsibility?

Students are required to explore their interpretations and reflections of this essential question throughout the year. As I believe books offer much more than a story, we began this exploration with a novel study in which the protagonist embarks on a quest that forces students to investigate his/her place in the world.

I want students to engage in conversations with the characters and become part of their world. As mentioned in an earlier blog post, author, Blake Morrison, states characters can, “lift you up, toward a sort of light, instead of dragging you down into darkness. And the excitement…carrie[s] on growing, even after the book.” I want students to linger in these ‘other worlds’, to wear the skin of characters, and rehearse what life has to offer. I believe it is these lingering, vicarious experiences that allow children to explore their place in the world.

The Lessons

The Jabberwock, as illustrated by John Tenniel

Because “Vision trumps all other senses” according to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, to pique interest, students were introduced to the idea of the hero’s journey, and a review of literary elements, by investigating and analyzing a visual narrative of the hero’s quest.

Part I: Analyzing a Visual Narrative 

The idea of a hero’s journey was discussed. Points such as quests being arduous, symbolic, reflective and circular were introduced. Following the discussion, each group of students received a copy of JohnTenniel’s Jabberwock illustration on A3 paper. Students were informed that this visual narrative was a mere moment in a hero’s quest and that they would unfold the story behind it.

Prompted to analyze the visual narrative closely, students brainstormed words and phrases they felt were absolutely necessary to describe the journey. As we have been studying the connotations of words and how they create the emotional atmosphere (mood) of a story, students were reminded to choose their words carefully, considering the five senses. Students annotated the illustration with their findings.

To serve as a guide, the following questions were shared:

  1. Where does the story take place? Describe it.
  2. Who is the hero (protagonist) in this narrative? Consider both the physical appearance and personality? How would you characterize him/her?
  3. Who is the antagonist in this narrative?  Consider both the physical appearance and personality? How would you characterize him/her?
  4. What conflict is the protagonist faced with? Describe it.
  5. How do you think the conflict was resolved? Describe.
  6. Where in the story does this ‘moment’ occur (beginning, middle or end)? If at the beginning, what happened during the middle and end of the story? If in the middle, what happened in the beginning and at the end of the story? If at the end, what happened at the beginning and middle of the story?

Annotations were collected to generate a descriptive word bank.

Part II: Creating  a Written Narrative

To create their narrative poem, students chose words and phrases they felt best revealed the narrative behind the illustration. The poem had to show evidence of the hero’s quest and the elements of a story (setting, character, plot and mood).

Part III: A Comparison

Evidence of the hero’s quest was then further explored in Lewis Carroll‘s “Jabberwocky” poem. Students compared Carroll’s narrative to their own, looking for similarities and differences.

The Result

The  video below showcases a smattering of the results.

The word quest comes from the Latin root quaerere meaning ‘to seek mentally; to seek to learn; make inquiry.’ As students continue on their journey to learn of the Hero’s Quest, it is my hope they learn a little about themselves along the way. As G.K.Chesterton states, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

So with their vorpal sword in hand, students learned of the power that resides in resilience and persistence – to stretch their capabilities and to identify their place in the world. The hero has slain the Jabberwock; so too shall they slay their monsters.

Building Bibliophiles

Bibliophile. A compound word stemming from Greek biblion meaning book + philos meaning loving. Literally meaning, a lover of books. But does that denotation capture all bibliophily has to offer? Does ‘love’ carry strong enough connotations to capture what author, Blake Morrison believes books offer us – “a lifeline, a reason to believe, a way to breathe more freely”? Say bibliophile aloud; it bounces off the lips with enthusiasm, yet manages to melt in your mouth leaving behind a taste to savor.

I share Morrison’s belief that books offer much more than a story. I want my students to ‘feel’ the words as they read them, to savor the story by engaging in conversations with characters and becoming part of their world. In Morrison’s essay, “Twelve Thoughts About Reading,” he states characters can, “lift you up, toward a sort of light, instead of dragging you down into darkness. And the excitement…carrie[s] on growing, even after the book.” I want students to linger in these ‘other worlds’, to wear the skin of characters, and rehearse what life has to offer. As author Carmen Callil points out, “Books are shields against a terror of boredom…What they offer does not change, and if the human race was separated from words and thoughts and stories, it would die.”

Why Read?Reading not only provides a rehearsal of life’s events, it also provides a tool to become a proficient reader, writer, and communicator. Research by Nagy and Herman, 1987, offers statistics to support this statement. A child that reads 20 minutes a day is presented with the opportunity to linger in and savor the equivalent of 1, 800, 000 words per year compared to a child that reads only one minute of day cutting that exposure down to 8,000 words per year. Not surprisingly, immersing oneself in words also ripples out to achievement on standardized tests. Children who are able to become lost in books score in the 90th percentile while comparatively, children who have yet to learn to love books, score in the 10th percentile on standardized tests. Quite powerful statistics.

So how do we begin building bibliophiles? How do we shift the attitudes of those who believe, as author, Mark Haddon states, “that a novel is really just inky shapes on paper”? Simple answer; shared reading.  We read to our children. We share our experience that books change lives. We share, as Haddon further states, “the sense of being inside looking out, of seeing a world that belongs to everyone, but is nevertheless yours alone.” Reading aloud invites both the reader and the listener to become lost in an imaginary world.

To further build our bibliophiles, our children need to see us as readers. Make reading part of your everyday life. Set aside a daily, specified time as a family to reinforce the message that reading is important enough to stop what you’re doing and read. If I haven’t yet convinced you of the power of words, I recommend the book, Stop What You’re Doing and Read This. This compilation of ten essays, written by well known authors who speak of their love of reading and its importance in our lives, will cause you to ponder how reading transforms our lives and that it is imperative that it become a part of our everyday rituals.

As your child’s Humanities teacher, my role in building bibliophiles began with gifting students the opportunity to engage in daily sustained silent reading over the past few weeks. It was my goal that during this time, students find books that immerse them in another world, ‘The house was quiet and the world was calm. / The reader became the book’ (Stevens, 1947). The following photos show promise that this goal was achieved.

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In the upcoming weeks, I will share my plans in launching an independent reading program that continues to foster a love of books and explains the roles we each will play in sending the message that no one should live without reading. Here’s to building bibliophiles together, something to savor…

Ode to the Book

by Pablo Neruda

When I close a book

I open life.

I hear

faltering cries

among harbours.

Copper ignots

slide down sand-pits

to Tocopilla.

Night time.

Among the islands

our ocean

throbs with fish,

touches the feet, the thighs,

the chalk ribs

of my country.

The whole of night

clings to its shores, by dawn

it wakes up singing

as if it had excited a guitar.

The ocean’s surge is calling.

The wind

calls me

and Rodriguez calls,

and Jose Antonio–

I got a telegram

from the “Mine” Union

and the one I love

(whose name I won’t let out)

expects me in Bucalemu.

No book has been able

to wrap me in paper,

to fill me up

with typography,

with heavenly imprints

or was ever able

to bind my eyes,

I come out of books to people orchards

with the hoarse family of my song,

to work the burning metals

or to eat smoked beef

by mountain firesides.

I love adventurous

books,

books of forest or snow,

depth or sky

but hate

the spider book

in which thought

has laid poisonous wires

to trap the juvenile

and circling fly.

Book, let me go.

I won’t go clothed

in volumes,

I don’t come out

of collected works,

my poems

have not eaten poems–

they devour

exciting happenings,

feed on rough weather,

and dig their food

out of earth and men.

I’m on my way

with dust in my shoes

free of mythology:

send books back to their shelves,

I’m going down into the streets.

I learned about life

from life itself,

love I learned in a single kiss

and could teach no one anything

except that I have lived

with something in common among men,

when fighting with them,

when saying all their say in my song.