A Classroom with a View

Reflections on Teaching High School English


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What I learned about teaching from publishing my first article

I consider myself a teacher-scholar. To me, that means I remain curious, open-minded, and pursue my own intellectual growth in the same way that I want my students to.

And now I finally have the publication credit to back that identity up! Over the past year and a half, my Digital Writing grad class has worked to prepare a scholarly webtext on sonic rhetoric (i.e. composing with sound) for Kairos: A Journal of Technology, Rhetoric, and Pedagogy. This month, that webtext has been published at last as “Navigating the Soundscape, Composing with Audio.”

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A view of the homepage. We hope our webtext will serve as a pedagogical resource for other teachers looking to teach their students about sonic rhetoric.

 

Even though I was a student myself when this project began, I actually learned a lot, especially from my professor, Tanya Rodrigue, about good teaching practice. Here are a few of those lessons:

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Transmedia Storytelling in the Classroom: Applications (Part 2/3)

In my view, transmedia will soon be a powerful presence in the high school English classroom, and deservedly so. These modern retellings of classic texts are fun and imaginative, and students struggling to connect with, say, Victor Frankenstein on the page of Mary Shelley’s novel might better connect with modern-day medical student Victoria Frankenstein in her vlogs.

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Source: itsokaytobesmart.com

That brings me to the first application of transmedia stories: they could serve as partner texts in a text set.

A text set is a carefully curated selection of multiple texts that relate to each other in various ways, e.g. thematically, generically, etc, always centered around one key or core disciplinary text. It might be composed of a novel, a short story, a YouTube video, and a critical essay, for instance.

In Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core (a fantastic resource, by the by), Cynthia Shanahan proposes that the strategy of asking students to read multiple texts is a beneficial one in many ways. Text sets meet the demands of the Common Core for exposure to many kinds of texts; they encourage students to make intertextual connections between texts; they also foster creative thinking, in that students are less likely to understand one interpretation as the “correct” one.

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Text set… sort of. Source: Creative Commons

But perhaps the most important use of a text set in my mind is to increase reading comprehension of complex disciplinary texts, for example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by pairing them with more accessible texts. These supplementary texts might be more accessible because they rely on a lower lexile level or a more engaging mode like video. I can personally vouch for the efficacy of this approach, having incorporated some key frames from No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels: Macbeth in a Macbeth unit with my sophomores this spring.

Here’s where transmedia texts come in. If my students are struggling to get through Frankenstein, a very difficult text that is narrated in epistolary form through multiple frames(!), I might decide to add a transmedia text into the unit to create a text set. In this case I could use PBS Digital Studios’ gender-bent transmedia adaptation, Frankenstein, M.D. Frankenstein, M.D. reimagines Shelley’s classic novel for the modern era, complete with female protagonist/med student Victoria Frankenstein.

 

Not only does the serial vlog format — like a biweekly online TV show — make the plot easier to understand, it also prompts viewers to perhaps ask new questions of the original text, for example, about the function of female characters who so often end up dead.

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A crucial scene from Frankenstein, M.D. Source: jadedskeptic.blogspot.com

As a teacher, I wouldn’t necessarily need to assign the entire transmedia series. I could select certain episodes of key scenes to view in class. I would be willing to bet that plenty of students would be hooked enough to finish it on their own.

Application #2: genre model for multimodal composition

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Source: luna-maries-diary.tumblr.com

And not only would pairing transmedia adaptations of classic works of literature be an effective strategy for fostering reading comprehension and engagement, it would also be, I believe, an amazing framework for a digital composition assignment. Students could read a text like The Odyssey and be asked to individually or collaboratively create a modern transmedia adaptation of the text. This idea isn’t so different from the final senior project at my school, Book to Film, in which students make a tw0-minute movie trailer based on a book.

My friend Anne over at Habits of ELA actually composed a transmedia blog and vlog based on the novel Luna for a Young Adult Lit courseIf you’re curious what such a composition could look like, check out her entire blog here. It’s a great model for potential student work.

 

Asking students to compose transmedia texts based on a core text requires them to build several skills, depending on what forms of media they decide to incorporate. They’ll likely have to perform genre analysis on a handful of digital genres that will probably be new to them using the principles of rhetoric. Then they’ll attempt to incorporate those digital genres in their own writing, experimenting with genre conventions (digital literacy is so darn important). They’ll also need to think critically about issues of adaptation, particularly for older canonical texts.The list goes on.

What other applications can you envision for transmedia texts in the English classroom?

In my next post, I’ll round out this series by sharing with you a long list of some of my favorite transmedia series based on classic literature.


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Giving Feedback on Student Writing

Since I’m currently buried under a pile of student papers (true story), I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about what makes for effective teacher feedback on student writing. This is something I thought a lot about a few weeks ago as I graded my first set of essays. The below list of suggestions has been cobbled together from my own preferences, the

responding to student writers

Buy this book. No, really. You won’t regret it.

insights of my colleagues at NHS, and the fantastic book Responding to Student Writers (2012) by Nancy Sommers, a slim volume chock full of useful ideas.

When possible, write students letters. I know, I know. After just one set of essays, this is already feeling like an impossible dream to me. But I feel that students put a lot of time and energy into their compositions, and they deserve the same from us in response. I always loved when my teachers wrote me letters or notes in response to my writing — it felt so intimate. I’ve kept some of those notes to this day.

Read the entire paper before commenting. This one’s tough, too. It’s very tempting to mark a paper up as you read, but if you do, you run the risk of providing stream-of-consciousness commentary. You may ask for one thing that a student provides later in the paper, for example. This is not only a waste of your time, it’s not terribly helpful for students, either. It’s better to read a composition in its entirety and be able to respond to it more comprehensively.

Don’t use red pen. It sounds crazy, but it’s true: red pen is deeply associated with error correction in students’ minds. If you want to show your students you’re not just correcting their mistakes but rather, responding to their ideas, use something else to annotate, like a

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One of my letters to a student on a recent paper that I wrote in pencil. I pointed out both her individual strengths and what she can improve upon next time.

green pen. On my most recent set of papers, I intentionally used a pencil.

Avoid shorthand that may be mysterious to students. As English teachers, we take for granted certain proofreading symbols, like the ones here. As you provide feedback, it’s important to assess whether those symbols will actually mean anything to your students or whether they’ll be incomprehensible hieroglyphics. Or if you must use them for the sake

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Hieroglyphics to students?

of convenience, be sure to review them with students in advance.

Read an entire class’s papers before giving any grades. This was a gem suggested to me by one of my colleagues in the History department at NHS. Reading all papers across a class before writing up feedback (and especially before grading) can give you a better sense of where your students collectively need to improve.

Be timely in turning work around. Again. I. Know. At this moment I need to be practicing what I preach. But I think that feedback provided too long after the original submission loses some of its impact. If it’s very long after the original submission, students may have a hard time remembering what they wrote and why they wrote it! My current goal for essays and other longer compositions is to turn them around in 1-2 weeks.

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A sample from our class-wide overview of strengths and areas for improvement on a recent paper. I make sure to pull in example work of students who do particular things well to serve as a model.

Review with students overall strengths and areas for improvement. Another gem, this time courtesy of my cooperating teacher Wendy Crofts. I noticed that after each piece of writing students turn in, she compiles a list of strengths and areas for improvement across all sections of the class to share with students. This strategy offers her an efficient way to provide targeted feedback that a majority of students need to hear without writing it 60 times on 60 different papers.

Provide an opportunity for students to revise. I’m a firm believer in writing as a process and process pedagogy (the topic of another blog post in the near future). If, after receiving an initial round of feedback, students want to revise for a better grade, I think that’s wonderful. After all, that’s what we in academia and in the working world do all the time when pursuing publication: revise and resubmit.

How do you handle the process of providing feedback on student writing?


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Teaching Active & Passive Voice Using ZOMBIES!

doodle_102915.pngThe other day in one of my sophomore classes, during a conversation about why writers need editors, one of my students brought up that editors can help identify sentences that are in the passive voice. Not everyone else in class knew what that meant, though. I took a few minutes to briefly explain active versus passive voice and how often, inserting the phrase “by zombies” can help you identify passive voice.

None of them were familiar with this trick, and in favor of moving into our writer’s workshop, I didn’t pursue it for too long. But in reflecting on it after the lesson, I think I’ll take their curiosity on this point as an opportunity to include a grammar mini-lesson in our next class, expanding on the “by zombies” test for passive voice.

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Image source: Grammarly

In case you’ve never heard of this trick either, it was created a few years ago by Rebecca Johnson, a professor at USMC, who realized that this was a quick and fun way to get her students to recognize the passive voice when they saw it. For example:

  • On Christmas Eve, Santa brings children presents [by zombies]. Adding “by zombies” doesn’t work here, so it signals us to recognize the pattern of subject –> verb/action –> direct object, which = active voice.
  • On Christmas Eve, the children are brought presents [by zombies]. Adding “by zombies” DOES work here, signalling us to recognize the pattern of object –> verb/action –> subject (which is absent or implied in this case), which = passive voice.

This trick won’t work 100% of the time — for example, don’t get it mixed up with an adverbial prepositional phrase — but more often than not, it will be a reliable guide!

With that in mind, here are a few elements of the grammar mini-lesson I plan to share with my sophomores later this week:

  • I’ll likely print them copies of Kimberly Joki’s Grammarly article, which explains the distinction between the two voices pretty cogently.
  • I may also show them this short little Kapow animated video that demonstrates how to flip a sentence back and forth between active and passive voice.
  • I plan to have them work in groups to complete this active/passive voice handout using the “by zombies” test.
  • And finally, I created a Kahoot quiz, which my kids LOVE, to reinforce the point one more time and get them engaged individually. Feel free to use it in your own classes if you find it helpful.

Enjoy — and when it comes to distinguishing between the active and passive voice, just remind your students to use their braaaaaaaains!


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Making Shakespeare Fun & Accessible

I’m at the beginning stages of planning a unit for my sophomores on Macbeth. I’ve done some theoretical lesson planning with Shakespearean texts — check out a couple sample lessons on Romeo and Juliet on my professional website here — but this will be my first opportunity to actually read Shakespeare with my students. As part of the planning process, I’ve been reviewing some of my favorite resources for making Shakespeare fun and accessible. I thought I’d share them with you!

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    Image source: Amazon.com

    Choose your own Shakespeare adventure. Full disclosure, I haven’t had the opportunity to read these yet. But I feel SO sure that I’ll love them that I’m adding them to my favorite resources list in advance! Ryan North has concocted what look to be two highly original versions of Shakespearean dramas, To Be or Not to Be:  A Chooseable-Path Adventure (2013) and Romeo and/or Juliet: A Chooseable-Path Adventure, due out this June and available for preorder on Amazon. Both books allow readers to read as one of several playable characters, such as, in Romeo and/or Juliet, Romeo, Juliet, or the Nurse, and each reading results in one of many, many possible story paths. In Romeo and/or Juliet, readers can explore narrative possibilities like: “What if Romeo never met Juliet? What if Juliet got really buff instead of moping around the castle all day? What if they teamed up to take over Verona with robot suits?” (Amazon). I love that these books emphasize the sense of play inherent to a play. What could be more engaging?!

  2. Shakespeare Insult Kit. This is a fun online resource I stumbled upon awhile back. It assembles the components of all of Shakespeare’s insults — adjectives, nouns — and organizes them into three columns. Choose one insult component from each column to build a full Shakespearean insult. I imagine this might be a particularly fun and apt activity when teaching something like Romeo and Juliet with its feuding Montagues and Capulets. So go check it out, thou mewling, onion-eyed baggage!

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    On the shelf at Barnes and Noble. I just narrowly avoided buying the whole set.

  3.  Shakespeare in emojis. Another new discovery (that I purchased from Barnes and Noble without intending to…). I’ve already planned a lesson that asks students to adapt parts of Romeo and Juliet into emojis as a tool for reading comprehension. But with the OMG Shakespeare series, authors Courtney Carbone and Brett Wright have already done the emoji adaptation for us. So far Random House has come out with YOLO Juliet (2015), srsly Hamlet (2015), A Midsummer Night #nofilter (2016), and the one I picked up for my unit, Macbeth #killingit (2016), with, I can only imagine, a few more on the way. I can see how Macbeth #killingit and the other OMG Shakespeare books could be used in a few ways in the classroom — for example, to supplement the full text version of Macbeth as a more accessible companion text, and/or to serve as a model for students as they adapt scenes from the text into their own emoji translations.

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    Excerpt from Act 1, Scenes 5-7 from Macbeth #killingit

  4. No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels. Speaking of companion texts, the No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novel versions of MacbethRomeo and Julietand Hamlet are possibly some of the best ones out there. They render the full text of each play in fully-illustrated graphic novel form, so it looks and reads like a comic book — for students, a more familiar and less intimidating genre. In pairing the original text with visuals, the No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels make Shakespeare’s works more accessible and comprehensible to ELLs, visual learners, or really just about anyone. And combining various versions of the same text, such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Carbone’s Macbeth #killingit, No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels: Macbeth, and a film version like Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), would make for a really interesting discussion about textual adaptation and interpretation (Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks ELA.RL.7.9-12).

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    An excerpt from Act 1, Scene 6 from No Fear Shakespeare Graphic Novels: Macbeth. What a great contrast with the same part of the text from Macbeth #killingit.

  5. single ladies pop sonnetPop Sonnets. And finally, an online resource not geared toward Shakespeare’s dramas (although it could certainly apply to an analysis of the sonnet in R&J), but toward his poetry. Pop Sonnets is a Tumblr devoted to transforming famous pop songs, like Adele’s “Hello” or Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” into sonnet form. A new sonnet is posted on Tumblr weekly, or for those who like paper, a hardback collection of 100 sonnets is now available, too. Hard to say which one’s my favorite since they’re all amazing, but I am fond of their version of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” I could see this coming into play in the classroom during an introduction to the sonnet form; pop sonnets might serve as a model for a writing assignment in which students are asked to write their own sonnets.

    What are your go-to teaching resources for making Shakespeare fun and accessible for your students?