Generating Questions That Lead to Claims: 24 Hours with a Camera Crew

My students don’t remember an entertainment landscape that didn’t include around-the-clock reality shows.  More than 750 reality shows aired on cable television in 2015, 350 of which were brand new. From talent contests to quirky families to dating hopefuls, reality shows appear to be scripted, but in fact, they aren’t written until all the footage has been shot. During the editing process, the director and editors look for patterns, storylines, opportunities for tension and arcs as they create the narrative.  All scenes that don’t support the narrative end up being cut away, which is one way I often explain writing revision to students.

For the purpose of generating writing ideas, last week I asked students to pretend they had a camera crew following them around for 24 hours. Students recorded everything they did for the previous 24 hour days by jotting down a word, a clause or a phrase.  Instead of writing just “work” or “school” or “homework,” I asked that students write a short description of what they were actually doing as if a camera crew was shooting footage.  What was the scene? Who was in the scene? What were they doing?  

The key to this activity is to ask students to look at their own life as if it were a reality show, looking for questions, patterns, significant moments, and meaning.   Watching as an audience or an outside observer allowed students to create distance and objectivity. I also asked students to use a third person pronoun to refer to themselves instead of using “I” and always write “the subject, ” as in “the subject made a tuna fish sandwich.”  Once students compiled this list, we pretended to be producers looking at 24-hours of footage for a controlling question or a claim that could be proven or challenged by the reality of this footage. 

In the documentary film “Sherman’s March,” filmmaker Ross McElwee’s burning question at the beginning of his quest was:   how did Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s military approach during the final months of the Civil War effect the South today?  But right before McElwee embarked on a road trip to follow Sherman’s footsteps, his girlfriend dumped him, and the march took on a very different pursuit, namely as Vincent Canby’s 1986 New York Times review states:   “Is romantic love possible in an age of supermarkets, fast food, nuclear arms and the sort of lightweight camera and sound equipment that allows anybody to film his own life?”

In Elizabeth Barrett’s 2000 Appalshop documentary “Stranger with a Camera,” she states her controlling questions in a voice over throughout the story of Kentuckian Hobert Ison and filmmaker Hugh O’Connor: How is a camera like a gun? Can filmmakers show poverty without shaming the people they portray? What are the responsibilities of any of us who take images of other people and put them to our own uses? What is the difference between how people see their own place and how others represent it?

After students recorded their 24-hour camera footage, I asked them to look over their scenes and extract a broad controlling question. This question could render a multitude of great starting points for informational and argumentative texts.  Wording their claim or counter claim in the form of a question helps students see the subject from various angles.  A question requires students to assume a pursuant stance in order to answer it. Documentary film makers often call this a controlling question.  It’s the question that clarifies and focuses the shooting, production, and arrangement of the film. Here are some of the questions my students extracted from their 24-hours of “footage.”

How does one’s differing forms of entertainment influence their completion of everyday tasks? Can reading and music have a positive effect on procrastination and completion of school work? Do certain daily activities affect the quality of sleep?
How sleep deprived are high school students? Does high school wear down students? Is there really a life outside school for students?
Can being antisocial be crippling?

 

How does one balance dreams and reality and what is the price of trying? Does engaging with passion breed discontent for other things?
Are teens not reading books anymore? Are teens depressed? Are students riddled with anxiety?
Does a church community benefit a student’s overall day? Does politics have to lack good humor across party lines? Are messy people good at anything?
Why do we sometimes avoid things that make us happy? Can someone be social, yet not? Why is fiction such a great escape?
When does obsessive become too obsessive?

 

Can a person have a relationship with God without being religious? Can someone talk like a prick and walk like a good friend?
Is sloth bad? How does participating in a sport affect a high schooler’s life? Are stereotypes about teenagers accurate?
How can you balance school with everything else you want to do? Can a busy high school student still be content and relaxed? How does one withstand the mind-numbing grind that is high school?
Are teens too attracted to technology and their phones? Are we expecting too much from students? Why do some try to replace human interactions with non-living things?

Notice there’s a disproportionate number of questions dealing with fatigue, expectations, procrastination, technology, introversion, and social anxiety, all topics that weigh heavily on teens today.  I did this activity on the first day back from Winter Break, so we were all dying a little inside which explains the dark undertones of these questions. However, these questions make great starting places for both argumentative and informational texts, writing that is pulled directly from their lives.

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Training TAs: The Art of Empathetic Inquiry

This morning I met with a group of students and two teachers to launch a mobile writing lab at Lafayette High School.  This writing lab pilot is the brainchild of the Lafayette writing committee, chaired by our writing resource teacher, Holly.

We don’t have the physical space for the kind of writing center you might see on a university campus where students make appointments with a tutor to discuss writing assignments. We also don’t have the staff to supervise such a venture.   Also, a before-school or after-school writing center wouldn’t be able to serve students who have no reliable transportation.  

Many of our students need one-on-one or small group assistance with their writing. Our writing committee also wanted to support our large faculty, who assign writing tasks, but need help with the time-intensive process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing necessary for quality writing.

This program allows teachers to “check out” writing teaching assistants (TAs). Similar to reserving a computer lab or a tech cart of laptops, teachers can reserve one or two tutors through an online app. The TAs will email the reserving teacher an intake form which allows teachers to describe the writing aid they need. TAs will then attend the class and provide the requested assistance.

In November, the English department recommended students whose writing, speaking, listening, and leadership abilities positioned them as naturals for this role.  From these recommendations, Holly invited fifteen students to participate in the pilot and attend the training this morning.

After Holly discussed the nuts-and-bolts of reserving a TA (in a future blog, I will hyperlink examples of how we set up our teacher intake form, our teacher feedback form, and our running record of TA work) she asked students to introduce themselves and tell a story about a writing assignment that had been difficult for them.

Sharing writing war stories was a great place to start the conversation about writing tutoring.  One must come to the table with respect for the difficult task of writing, and empathy and understanding are the cornerstones of any good teaching foundation.

After we reviewed our writing TA manual (a Google folder full of brainstorming strategies, graphic organizers, research resources, plus a bell and lunch schedule and a list of our faculty, their rooms, and planning periods) I asked TAs to test their tutoring chops by role playing with one another, using anonymous student samples. One sample was an argumentative essay about the most important word in Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.

“What might you say to this student?” I asked.

“I might ask her if she thought she took a long time to get to her point,” Kris said.

“Okay. Pretend I’m the student who has written this essay. What might your opening question be?”

“Do you think you took too long to get to your point?” Kris said.

“No, I don’t.  I think it’s good,” I said in the role of the student and pushed the essay back across the table toward Kris, who laughed, immediately realizing he had backed himself into a tutoring corner by asking a yes or no question instead of an open-ended question.

“A student will give you a yes-or-no answer if you ask a yes-or-no question, and the conversation comes to a grinding halt, right?” I said.  The group shook their heads, yes.

“I would say to the student, in your introduction you make a lot of good points, but you need to get to the point sooner,”   Kenna said.

“So yes, that’s clearly what needs to happen in this introduction, but what kind of question can you ask this writer that will allow her to arrive at that same conclusion?” I said.

“Let me try,” Leslie said. “I would say, I like how you have a lot of good points, but where is the main point that you want to make? Can you underline your main point?  And what other points come before the main point?”

Leslie had it. She was leading the student to make an independent discovery about the writing instead of fixing it herself. She was using inquiry to move the student writer toward a solution. 

“Think of the adage, give a man a fish, he eats for the day; teach a man to fish and he can feed himself for life. You can fix a peer’s writing today, but that only helps him once.  Or you can show him how to think through his writing independently and become self sufficient. ”

As the training continued, I was so impressed with how empathetic our TAs were and how they were using inquiry to assess student needs. This on-the-spot diagnostic inquiry requires a TA to 1) access the student’s need, while 2) figuring out the best way to help the student meet that need, while 3) forming a question that will lead that student to discover the answer to his own problem.  This kind of formative assessment is a skill many actual teachers struggle with, but it’s the key to meeting students where they are.

So, our TAs have been trained and are ready to be checked out Monday morning. Holly and I are excited about tracking the data and feedback we get from students and teachers on the efficacy of this model.  Stay tuned to hear more about this process!

 

First Week Lesson: Demographic Grouping

During the first week of school, my goal is two-fold:  I want my students to see self-discovery through writing as their main goal, and I want to build a community based on story.  I use activities that encourage students to meet each other through the details of their lives. These stories and details eventually serve as the fodder for personal essays, arguments, and informational texts they will write later in the year. 

Demographic grouping is one activity which asks kids to group themselves by various identities and meet the other people in the room who share that characteristic.  The key to this activity — for both community building and self-discovery– is to ask kids who find themselves in a demographic group to argue for or against their own inclusion based on their life experience, hence stories. When they find themselves in a circle of Capricorns, for example, they need to tell stories and trot out evidence as they share the details of who they are or who they think they are.

For a 90-minute block class, I use three demographics: Myers-Briggs, Western astrological signs, and birth order.  I want students to share stories about what it’s like to be a part of these subsets of the larger population, and I want them to challenge or confirm their placement in these groups.  Do they agree or disagree with their “label?” What stories in their lives support or negate this assessment of who they are? Do the definitions fit?

The first demographic congress we convene is around the 16 personality types founded in Carl Jung’s theories on psychological types as listed on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  Students take a 10-15 minute quiz which will then place them in one of the sixteen possible combination of four paired personality traits: 1) Introversion or Extraversion; 2) Intuition or Sensing; 3) Thinking or Feeling; 4) Judging or Perceiving.  Based on their answers to the personality quiz, students will be given a four-letter personality, such as INFJ.  

Before class starts, I post the 16  individual personality types around the room along with a brief explanation of each type.  Once students have their types, they migrate around the room and find their Myers-Briggs compadres.  For fifteen minutes, I ask them to trade stories that confirm, negate, or qualify the personality type by which they’ve been labeled.  

In addition to being a fun, engaging activity which generates numerous narrative opportunities, I also get to see where my dreamers, my leaders, my risk takers, and my nurturers are. 

After that,  students divide themselves by their zodiac sign.  The Western astrological signs are based on which month of the year you were born. According to astrologists, planetary formations at the time of birth can determine a person’s individual character.  I’m surprised every year by how many students do not know their zodiac sign.  

Before class, I print off a generic description of each of the 12 signs and post these around the room.  Students migrate to the mini-poster that bears the symbol for their sign and join the others in the room who were born under the same sign.  As they did with the Myers-Briggs grouping, students spend about 15-minutes reading the descriptions of their sign (they especially love to read the section about relationship compatibility) and share stories in these groups as to how they are alike or unlike their sign. This is a great activity because it immediately creates kinship among disparate students in the class based on their birth month.

The last grouping I do is birth order.  All the first born, middle, youngest or only children get together in groups. I will have printed off descriptions of the characteristic of that particular birth order, and the groups discuss whether they agree or disagree with the definition of their particular rank.  Birth order is a great nugget of teacher information for me as well.  I know first and only born kids are often my natural leaders, and when I select group leaders for inquiry sessions later in the year, this information will come in handy.

Once we’ve circled through three demographic groups, I ask students to return to their seat and write a reflection of the activity, such as what surprised you about the descriptions? Did you strongly agree or disagree with any of the demographic groupings in which you found yourself? What was the best story you told today? What was the best story you heard today?   

 

Writing Lessons

During the summer of 2015, I was writing what I had hoped might become a collection of short stories. One day  I took a break to write a letter to prospective students of the literary arts program where I teach.  As I wrote the letter,  I was struck by how differently I taught writing then as compared with the first half of my teaching career.

That might make a good book, I thought, and I jotted down about eight rough ideas for chapters.  The next day, I typed it up and did some research on publishing houses.  I contacted an education writer friend of mine for pointers.  Then I wrote out a more formal proposal, a fleshed out table of contents, coupled with a cover letter and shipped it all off.  That was June 30.  

On July 7, my cell phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor with Heinemann Press. They were interested in my book idea.  I was completely floored.  I thought I had just sold my first book.  

Not so.

During the next nine months, I rewrote that proposal six times.  My editor was interested in my idea, but I couldn’t frame the subject in a way that convinced the marketing department. Finally in March, I was offered a contract and started the process of writing.  

During the summer of 2016, I wrote daily,  and by the time  I was ready to go back to school in August, I had a 70,000-word draft finished. I revised that draft twice, and the final manuscript was delivered to Heinemann on January 3, 2017.  

Sometime in September, I will hold the finished book, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, in my hands, this book that happened while I was working on another book. This is the way life works, of course.  

I always thought my first book would be either a memoir or a collection of short stories. A teacher’s resource book just wasn’t sexy enough for my inaugural foray into the world of publishing, but here it is, and I’m so proud of it and stunned by the insights I’ve gained along the way. In no particular order, here are some of those observations:

Every teacher should write a book about her practice.  Like writing, the actual moves of teaching are enormously personal and idiosyncratic. My teaching strategies are mostly of the moment. Until I sat down to try to  articulate my practice, I had no idea what elemental steps figured into my methods. Even though I daily reflect on my teaching practice, it’s often done anecdotally with friends over BBQ nachos, and not as a serious reflective endeavor. Writing this book forced me to seriously look at what I do; some of it was nice, even fun, to look at. Some of it, I realized, didn’t work, but I got the opportunity to figure that out.  

I am a first draft disaster. I have never been a writer who thinks through a logical line or narrative arc,  then commits that to an outline. I just throw a bunch of sentences on a blank page and cry for several days.  I have to write bits and halves and parts before I recognize the whole. Once I’ve discovered that, I have to organize it in such a way that readers won’t want to toss it in the trash in disgust. Organization requires looking at big chunks of writing for patterns and commonalities, then arranging those chunks in a sequential way that helps a reader see the point. So I wish I’d learned how to outline earlier in life.   

Edu-speak makes me lazy.  There were so many times when I was writing this book I unconsciously lapsed into the convenient jargon of our ilk.  When I couldn’t find the right words to describe something real in my classroom, sentences like “Students benefit from innovative competency-based practices in a data-driven environment” were always hanging around like an old boyfriend– comfortable, willing, and only a keystroke away. Ugh.  Think about how much better those awful education classes would have been if the writers had just used regular words to describe learning. Why don’t we demand better writing from the books of our discipline?  

Keeping a source list is crucial.  In college, I hated compiling the works cited and consulted page after I finished a research paper; it just seemed so unnecessary.  I wasn’t vested in the writing I was doing and the stakes were low. (This is how, I imagine, most students feel about writing for teachers.)  But during the writing of this book, I realized the stakes were much higher.  People would be reading this book, I hoped, and I certainly didn’t want to unwittingly plagiarize someone else’s language. The problem I had was 1) I don’t typically write down the sources of cool things I find in books or online, and 2) there are books, essays, and stories I’ve read so many times, they’re ingrained in my mind to the point where I didn’t know where their words ended and my words began. Two weeks before the book was printed, I was horrified to discover I had not attributed a beautiful quote from a friend of mine.  Source list:  it’s a must.

No one really knows what you’re doing.  If I mentioned to friends I was working on a book, “that’s nice” or “how interesting” was the normal response, followed by silence.  The last thing anyone wants to ask is “what’s it about?” because then they’re on the hook to act interested while I nanner on for twenty minutes about some possibly esoteric topic.  So when you write a book, you are laboring completely alone.  You are working and creating and having bad days and good days and stonewalls and breakthroughs, yet no one knows you are doing anything at all. You might as well be lying on the couch watching SVU.  As is the case with all creative endeavors, I suppose.  As is the case with research scientists too. Only after the creation emerges can it be shared with others.

 

American Road Trip

I was invited, along with two colleagues, to join 60 teachers in Denver, Colorado, for a National Writing Project professional retreat last week.  Even though we live in Kentucky, we decided to drive instead of fly. We wanted to see the country and knew we could get a lot of the preliminary work done on our project in the car during the 1200 mile jaunt.

We arrived on Monday evening at a lovely Hilton resort, which was to be our home for the next five days. The first night we met other teachers who had been invited to do similar work:  developing instructional resources, from teaching argument writing in the science classroom to sponsoring school-wide family literacy nights.

As educators, we shared many of the same concerns about our students and the future of the country.  It didn’t matter where the conversations started around the buffet tables, they ended up political.  Jennifer from Mississippi told me about segregation academies, private schools in the South established by white parents in response to desegregation in public schools.  Nicole from California talked about “dog whistle” words, coded messages that are only heard and understood by a particular segment of the population.  Victoria from Oklahoma filled us in on the nearly criminal cuts in their state’s education budget.  

One night after dinner, we watched a seven-minute trailer for a documentary featuring a cross-section of Americans talking about their conception of America’s “creed.”  The trailer was slick and well-done, featuring veterans and authors and teachers, different races, different ages. Words like “freedom” and “diversity” were featured equally. I was crying by the end of it.

I may have been crying because of the relentless nature of the week’s work or because I hadn’t been sleeping well due to Denver’s altitude.  Or it may have been because I desperately want to believe what the film was tilting toward:  that even though Americans are deeply divided, there are basic values we all hold dear–family, safety, education, freedom, equality.  

I want to believe this, but I’m also fairly cynical.  Freedom doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and the equality of one group is a threat to another. I know many people in my home community who would see the film as left-wing brainwashing, an attempt to force political correctness and West Coast liberalism down their throats.

After the viewing, we discussed how we might use it in our classrooms to start a conversation, but even the term “start a conversation” seemed vexing to me for its coded progressive intentions.  The only people who ever want to start a conversation are those who think they know better than you:  teachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pampered Chef consultants.  

Finally, a teacher from Montana remarked on the enduring complexity of humanity, and we nodded sagely and shuffled off to our individual hotel rooms.  

At the end of the week, my Kentucky team struck out for home on I-70. The scenery through Colorado and Kansas was crushingly, achingly beautiful. The deep blue skies, white clouds layered over golden prairies. We passed combine convoys headed toward the summer wheat fields, and we passed fields of soybeans, corn, and pasture land, dotted with white-faced cows.

Somewhere we stopped at a Pilot Travel Center to fuel the car and get a sandwich. The Travel Center was packed with families of every color, class, and age, all of them hungry and tired, cautiously herding their children into the bathrooms, waiting in line for a burger. A Little League baseball team came in.  An elderly couple dressed head to toe in black. A middle aged woman in a pink tank top with a pistol strapped to her waist. SeaHawks, Broncos, and Steelers fans.  

We spent the night in a Holiday Inn Express in Topeka, Kansas, ten miles away from the national historic site of Brown vs. Board of Education.  In the lobby, there was a man in the corner reading a Hebrew Bible. In a circle of chairs, a self-help group gave each other hugs and offered words of encouragement.  In the elevator, we met some little girls who were staying at the hotel because their mom was in a powerlifting competition.  The next morning we had breakfast with bikers, a church choir, and an elderly couple on their way to see a new grandbaby.

I understand public policy is not made at Pilot Travel Centers and midwestern Holiday Inns, but in many ways, we’re all just dads and moms, sons and daughters trying to get home from a long trip. I’m disheartened we are so polarized by politics.  Most of us can agree with each other on a basic human level, but when we approach each other with buzzwords and ideology, the humanity falls away, and the labels become both a target and a launch pad.  We may be unwittingly creating our own segregation academies, dog whistling unconsciously.  Maybe if we could avoid talking about America as a grand ideological subject, and instead talk about ourselves and others in small, specific frames, we might discover a common moment, a shared feeling, a sensible creed.

New Teacher Series/ Question 2: Should I create a website?

Absolutely.  This isn’t the dark ages of 2010, after all.  Creating a positive and professional web presence says to the world:   I’m a 21st century educator, and my teacher game is strong.  However, there are a lot of options out there in the virtual world, and the key, like buying a good pencil skirt, is choosing one that both flatters and fits.

School directory page:  Many school districts host teacher directory pages that are linked from the main page by school, then grade/department, then teacher.  This is a great place to provide basic information:   a brief professional bio with a current (and/or ironic, depending on how you roll) picture, your class schedule, your email address, a supplies or book list, your school phone number and the best times of day to call, and also links to your blog, larger classroom website, Twitter feed, or any other social media tool you might use.  If your district has this page, definitely occupy it even if it’s a simple profile without much appeal. It’s most likely the first place a parent or student will look for you.

Classroom website: Some teachers choose to create websites through popular platforms like  Edmodo  which do not require knowledge of coding or programming to set up.  WordPress and Weebly also offer web templates so easy you can whip up a nice-looking site in less than an hour.   Another website building favorite is Google, which provides teachers with Google Sites, Google Classroom, and other Google Apps for Education (GAFE). A well-maintained and up-to-date website can be a great way to make announcements, post newsletters, and update calendars for parents.  Posting homework assignments, test info, vocab/spelling words, and supplemental instructional web links can also reduce paper copies while providing additional resources to students.

Classroom blog: While you might not have time during your first year of teaching to launch a  teacher blog, allowing your students to create their own blogs is a great collaborative publishing tool.  Blogger, which is Google’s blog option, is free and easy to use and manage. Kidblog and Edublogs, powered by WordPress, both offer a safe space for students to publish their work while offering options for secure teacher management of discussion, comments, and content.

Social media:  Some teachers elect to create a teacher fan page or a classroom page on Facebook or maintain a class page on Twitter.  Social media outlets are great for club sponsors, coaches, and parent-teacher organizations to make announcements, post reminders, and alert students to schedule or location changes for games or meets.  By creating a classroom or teacher fan page, you can also avoid the awkwardness of parents and students friend requesting your personal page.

Online classroom:  Online learning management systems (LMS) which are free and easy-to-use are also an option.  These systems have embedded facilities that can transform your site into an online classroom.  If you’ve just recently graduated from college, you most likely took an online course managed by a popular LMS, like Canvas or Blackboard, which now offers a free K-12 system called CourseSites.  Others like Moodle, Schoology, and Weebly provide a private and secure location for teacher assignment pages, homework submissions, chat rooms with threaded discussions and time stamps, collaborative group pages, and embedded gradebooks.  Even though LMS are great for online instruction, systems can become clunky or impossible if the application does not play well with your school district’s student information system (SIS) or pass your district’s privacy standards.   Shoot an email to your school or district technology director for the 411 on what is kosher within your district.

Whether you decide to create a website, Facebook page, blog, or launch an online class, here are a few digital cautions to observe:

  • Diamonds can get lost or stolen, but the Internet is forever. Never, ever, ever post anything online that you would not want Sam Dick to read on Channel 27 at 6:00.
  • Know your district and your school’s social media policy. Never post a student’s picture, class work, or name unless you have permission or a release form from their parents to do so.
  • Before you invest a lot of time in designing an online classroom, check with your district/school’s technology director to find out which systems work best with your district’s SIS.
  • Understand how to protect the privacy of your students while giving parents access.
  • Avoid private Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter communication with students.
  • Make sure website page titles, headings, and sub-headings are well-organized and logically sequenced.
  • With online content, prefer quality over quantity. Do not make parents endure twenty inspirational cat memes when they just want your classroom calendar. Post information that is relevant and useful for school or classroom business, instruction, intervention, or enrichment.
  • Just as you would with parent letters, hand-outs, homework assignments, or PowerPoints, make sure your online content is free of grammatical and spelling errors, no matter what you teach. Hook up with another webby teacher and proofread each other’s posts/pages before you publish them online.

One last thing:  while all the above information is about professional online use, you should also be judicious about anything you personally post or are tagged in online, regardless of your privacy settings.  Districts use Google to vet potential teachers.  If Insta’ing your drunken beer-pong victory feels vital to your existence, teaching might not be the right place for you at the moment.

Below are three links to help you on your virtual conquest.  Good luck!!

Create an Impressive Class Website in Under an Hour

Ten Excellent Platforms to Create Your Classroom Website

Online Resources for Teachers