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"Teaching is Learning out Loud"

It's a mantra, and it has quickly become a way of teaching in my English, creative writing and German classes. I have a paperless classroom, where I have taught using Google Docs and wikis since 2010. This blog will be an effort to share some of the lessons I've learned in my class.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Learning German with my first German Novel

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A month ago I finished my first German novel, Morton Rhue's Die Welle. It was only the beginning of a process that would take me deep into my second language--which is also the language that I teach.

I began learning Germany my sophomore year in college (1990-91) and spent the next five years taking formal German classes, capping my studies in 1996 with a month-long Sommerkurs with Goethe Institüt in Schäbisch Gmünd. After 1996 fatherhood and my duties as an English teacher took me away from German studies.

It wasn't until 2008 that I began teaching high school German, twelve years separated from my last German course. It meant that I taught my first year or two of basic, A1 German, feeling like I wasn't far enough ahead of my students. Still, there were no resources in my district for a brush-up course, so I was on my own. I used Deutsche Welle's self-paced guided language program to push my skills into the B2 range of German.

This isn't fluency. Level C1 is fluency, and it's quite a reach, especially for someone without a chance to live in Germany for an extended time. Still it got me to the level where I could read and understand 60-80% of a given text.

I wanted more.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Mr. Dittes gets Passive-Aggressive

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Every year of students I teach has a grammatical fingerprint for me, errors that seem to pop up again and again, whether I'm teaching honors or standard-level ELA.

This year I have found one quality of the Class of 2018 to be quite frustrating: it's capitalization. The errors pop up particularly when it comes to capitalizing proper adjectives, and the one word that I find more frustrating than any other is the word, "American"--or, as an annoying minority of my students would write, "american."

Grading my last batch of essays, I spotted the mistake once again. I had already featured a sentence featuring the word in a previous grammar assignment. At this point of the semester, though, I'm putting their sentences into ACT-style questions to prep them for the April 19 test.

This was one of the questions I placed on the quiz:
The girl thinks she has to be a blonde barbie doll to fit into a american girl. 

I programmed the Google Form to take the incorrect answer using the word, "american," and jump the user to the following image

I'm not just a grammar teacher. I'm defending America here!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Perfect Introduction to Charlotte Perkins Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"

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I have written elsewhere about the initial challenges I faced when I moved into teaching Common Core State Standards.

One of the biggest disruptions I experienced was in the teaching of poetry. For a couple of years, as I incorporated non-fiction text into my teaching, poetry sat on the back burner, unloved. After my essay, "How the Common Core Re-Mapped The Way I Teach Writing," was published last summer in EdWeek magazine, I was contacted by several English teachers who took me to task for dropping the poetic ball.

I'm happy to say that poetry has made a comeback in my classes this year, in perfect compliment to the multiple readings of text that I began during my conversion to a Common Core teacher.

I have begun to use poems to kick off weekly readings. Poems are the perfect opening: theme and imagery are right there in plain sight, and they help get students in the proper frame of mind to encounter longer, more challenging texts.

Preparing to teach "The Yellow Wallpaper" this year, I initially turned towards Emily Dickinson. I had used her poems last semester in a standard-level class prior to a reading of Edgar Allen Poe. I thought that themes of isolation and mental freedom, would compliment Gillman, too. After all, "the brain is wider than the sky" is just the idea that won't fit into the cramped, barred, yellow-wallpapered room in which the character in TYW finds herself.

A last-minute burst of inspiration encouraged me to seek out Sylvia Plath. There were a few reasons for this. First, she is American, and this is an American literature class. Second, she was modern--beating Dickinson by about 100 years or so. Finally, she, too, had struggled with mental illness.

My search led me to Plath's poem, "Tulips."  It proved to be the perfect introduction to TYW, letting students meditate on issues of madness and explore a writer's use of irony to convey a very deep meaning.

Day One

We began by reading for annotation. Building on a suggestion I found last fall (regretfully, I have forgotten the source), I asked students to create their own emojis for the following tools:  Notice, Wonder, and Connect.  You can see my emojis on the upper-right corner of my paper in the picture below.

I also gave students a very basic, guiding question. In this case, it was "Where is the speaker?"

We followed with a whole-class discussion. It was fascinating to see all the ideas that students shared. Some felt that she was in the hospital for a miscarriage, while others felt that it was a mental hospital. We focused in on the husband and child in the photo--like the tulips, they only seem to antagonize the speaker.

I could tell, by the time the discussion ended--especially as I focused on the mental aspects of the speaker's condition--that they were ready to begin TYW the next day. Unprompted, students were looking up details about Sylvia Plath's life, connecting them to the poem and to the discussion.

We closed with a paragraph-write: Why do you think the speaker is in this place?

Day Two

I could have moved on to TYW, but I wanted to take one more look at "Tulips." This time we read for imagery and figures of speech.

The second time through, we were also able to look at irony--yet another set up for our reading of TYW.

As our unit drew to a close, I assigned a cause & effect essay, asking students to evaluate characters we had studied in the unit.  I would say that "Tulips" was one of the most popular, proving the interest it held with my students.

For teachers looking for a nice, relevant introductory lesson before teaching "The Yellow Wallpaper," I just can't recommend "Tulips" highly enough!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

On Teaching the Introductory Paragraph

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This year I'm really honing in on the basics of writing with my 11th-grade honors ELA students.
One challenge I've had in recent years has been getting good introductory paragraphs. This year I decided to introduce a formula that kids could use.

I waited until I had graded first drafts of our first essay of the class--an explanatory essay based on a quote from "King Kamehameha III's Feathered Cape" by Richard Kurin.

I began by praising three writers whose introductions had been exemplary--being careful to point out two key terms, their "hook" sentence that opened the essay, and their thesis statement.

Next, I set up this graphic on the board, pointing out the wide application of the opening sentence, and how the writers used the rest of the paragraph to set up their thesis.

Then, I put a sample thesis statement on the board (related to the essay students, themselves, had written). I created "hooks" for the essay based on five, general ideas, and then I showed how I would use 2-3 sentences to connect the hook to the thesis I had written previously.

(Later, many students admitted they struggled starting with the hook to an essay. I encouraged them to start with the thesis, then, and add a hook later as part of the revision process.)

Putting the Introduction in Practice

Three students had already created exemplary introductions. I put their thesis statements on a Google Slide, then I had other students choose one of the thesis statements and create a proper introduction for it--starting with a hook, then connecting it to the original writer's thesis.

The three exemplary writers then chose a "winner" of the 'guest-introduction contest.' This gave me one more chance to emphasize the hook sentence, and it also reinforced the work of the top writers in the class.

As a final task, I asked students to write a new introduction for their essay, and describe what they had learned today about writing the introduction. I was pleased to read that about 40% of the students reported that they would replace their current introduction with the new one developed in class.


I'm not much of a "formula" writer. In the past, I have left things vague, leaving windows open for student originality and creativity. But in an ELA class, providing students with formulae--like this pyramid and, yes, the five-paragraph essay--can provide writers with a foundation from which they can build their case.

I would clarify and emphasize that while I 'show' students formulas like the Introduction Pyramid (or the Conclusion Pyramid--which I introduced as we revised the next writing activity), but I don't teach them. It's a tool that many students will find useful, but it's not a requirement for great high school writing.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Going Viral: Teacher-style

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I'm really enjoying the Google Teacher Tribe podcast with Matt Miller and Kasey Bell. It's an informative mix of Google news and tech-teaching ideas, and it's sure to enlighten at least one drive home every week.
One idea they discussed last week with guest, Karly Moura, really stuck with me:
"We have the 'go viral' approach at our school," Moura said. "We start going with teachers who are interested, and everybody jumps on board from there."
This is a strategy I've tried to embrace ever since I began teaching. One challenge that I had early in my career was reactions from older teachers. This tended to be about "turf" and not getting "shown up," which was never a concern for me.
Then as now, teaching has been an act of learning, and I think that my long-term colleagues have learned to "let James be James" while keeping an open ear for useful ideas. Occasionally (OK, once for a few crucial years in my career) I team up with a teacher who can match me idea for idea, step for step, and really push me beyond the limits of my own curiosity. (Sadly, that colleague moved away two years ago.)
Administrators can do a lot to help ideas go viral. Here are some suggestions--
  • Put the resources where they will go viral. Sadly, in many schools around America, there are excess computers sitting in classrooms, not being used, while teachers go about teaching the way they've always done. Instead of distributing one computer to five classrooms, administrators can put five computers in one room and let the "viral teacher" develop the kinds of lessons that will increase demand among students--then parents--then all the other teachers.
  • Reward without rewarding. Viral teachers put in hours of personal time learning new apps they can use in the classroom. What do they expect from this? It certainly isn't a fat bonus check. What would really be great is paid time to learn. Districts and schools already have funds available for professional development and travel. Instead of paying those funds to drop-in speakers--or sending a district administrator who hasn't taught a lesson in five years--a better investment would be in identifying the school/district's most "viral" teachers, and sending them.
  • Spend time with the Viral Teachers. My poor administrators have so many boxes to check, but there isn't a box for "innovation" or "virality." For example, I had been experimenting with Google Classroom all year, building up my abilities, and I was thrilled to see a vice-principal come to my room last week (the first in February, 24 weeks into the school year). She observed me teach the class, and I took time to show her some of the workings of Classroom. In the end, though, she had the same boxes to check as for any other teacher she observed. I wasn't able to get feedback on the unique learning that I demonstrated. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Editing Venn Diagrams in Google Docs

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One challenge I've had since I moved to the paperless classroom has been the use of the Venn Diagram.

Now, I'm not a history teacher. I'll won't use a VD more than once or twice a semester, but today, I discovered a remarkable tool that Google has added to Docs/Drawings.

We have been reading the Iroquois origin myth this week--the turtle's back, the muskrat, the right-handed and left-handed twins, etc.   I like to close out the unit by comparing the Iroquois with at least one other myth--usually the Apache.

Why? Because any culture that can incorporate a Tarantula into its origin myth is AWESOME!

Today, as I reviewed an earlier worksheet I had made, I noticed a long list of instructions I had given, showing students how to create their own VDs on Google Drawing. Here it was:
    1. You can insert a Venn Diagram into your Notebook (do it on paper if you can’t figure it out)
      1. Insert Menu→ Drawing
      2. From the Shapes menu (circle/square icon) select two circles and make the diagram. Hint: the interior of the top circle (bucket icon) should be transparent
      3. Create a text box (T-inside-a-square icon) for each of the spaces in the Venn
      4. Fill in the blanks with 2-4 examples for each.

Anyone who knows teaching knows that the likelihood of getting a full class to follow these directions in 1 or 2 tries is low. Today, as I was showing the assignment to students, I noticed something different about the Ven Diagram I had placed in the worksheet two or three years ago.

Do you see it? 

It was the word, "Edit," in the lower, left-hand corner!

This is my first year using Google Classroom. When I had assigned the activity, I had chosen, "Each student will get a copy." Now, on their own worksheets, students could edit and add what they had learned without following complicated directions!

Thanks Google!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Writer Cited: Richard Kurin

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I'm just wrapping up the first full week of a three-week unit on Native Americans, and this seems like a great time to credit a writer whom I use in my class, and whose text came along at a time when I was going through a fundamental change in my teaching--just when I needed it most.

I was about 10 years into my teaching career before I taught 11th-grade English, which in most schools doubles as a survey course on American Literature. Originally, I set up the course in my block schedule as a series of one-week units--Western Week, Whaling Week, Romantic Week, etc.

With this schedule, moving sequentially through the textbook, I often made it to World War II before petering out. It was disappointing, too, because the literature moved so quickly, there wasn't time to get deep into writers, much less to write or research about them.

Common Core came along at a time when my teaching needed a boost, and it was a big help to me. One of the most significant changes it brought was the requirement that English classrooms teach more informational text. There was a lot of angst among teachers that we would be giving up our Scarlett Letters and Grapes of Wrath for...what exactly?

I decided to make my Native American unit a focus for developing Common Core lessons of my own. The unit had long been a benchmark for me in trying to adapt creative, outside ideas into my teaching. For example, in partnership with TPAC Education, I had developed some lessons that incorporated dance into a study of Native American myths way back in 2010. I hoped that informational text would enhance my students engagement with my country's native heritage.

At this time, I found Richard Kurin's book, The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects in my local library. The 101 articles in the book cover the sweep of American history from prehistory to the present day.  I have long been a history buff, and many of his selections--George Washington's uniform, Thomas Edison's light bulb, a baseball signed by Babe Ruth--were obvious selections.
But when I looked for Native American artifacts in the collection, one caught my eye immediately: King Kamehameha III's Feathered Cape. It wasn't the only Native American artifact--there are four pre-Columbian inclusions, as well as Sitting Bull's drawing book and a portrait of Pocohantas. But it fit in with a group project I had developed, encouraging research and analysis through an examination of Native American artifacts.

King Kamehameha III was a native Hawaiian king who ruled in the 1820s, a time of modernization and Americanization in Hawaii. At this time, native Hawaiians still controlled the islands and maintained traditions that had lasted centuries. Kurin's essay describes an astonishingly beautiful yellow cape, made of feathers plucked from living birds and hand woven. Sadly, Kurin also describes how Hawaii was gradually overwhelmed and annexed into the United States, the final link in a chain of Manifest Destiny that had begun with my home state of Tennessee just a decade after the end of the Revolutionary War.

I selected Kurin's essay, "King Kamehameha III's Feathered Cape," and after four years of tinkering, I'm really glad that I did. I'll try to describe the essay and the unit here, focusing on the way I planned the unit and adapted the Common Core standards to do so.

Multiple Reads

I copied Kurin's essay by hand into a Microsoft Word document so I could number the lines and make the essay available to students to annotate. I had to edit the essay down by a mere 60 words or so to fit the front and back of the page. It came out to around 90 lines of text.

This is the first informational text that students read in my English 11 Honors class, and I want to teach them how to annotate for main idea. It will lead to our first essay of the year, too, so I want them to identify and grasp the details through which Kurin describes his artifact and its history.

Day 1

I pass out the essay and give students directions for annotating. These include
  • a star by the sentences in which students observe Kurin's main ideas (standard 1 of Reading Informational Text)
  • circling words that the students find challenging "aesthetically exquisite" always gets a reaction
  • ?  next to ideas they question
  • !  next to ideas they agree with
  • a checkmark next to details that support the starred sentences
At the end of the reading, I ask students to share with a partner where they found Kurin's main ideas. Then we move into an accountable talk discussion.

This year students honed in on Kurin's description of Americans' influence in Hawaii, particularly in this sentence, "To their way of thinking, the Hawaiians were heathens who needed to be converted to Christianity and civilized" (24-25). They are engaged with the text. Many think that Americans were wrong to inject their language, religion and culture into Hawaii--others defend the practices (many of my students have been on mission trips to other countries). One year someone brought up "head hunters."

Using only the text, we look at why King Kamehameha III gave the cape to Captain William Finch (31). What does this symbolize? What did Finch do to gain such a valuable prize? This is such a fun discussion to watch. This is the moment every year that I realize how packed with details Kurin's essay really is. I see the article generating critical thinking in students--they're questioning Manifest Destiny, weighing their own culture in the view of another that is older and unique.

At the end of the discussion, I try to bring out Kurin's underlying point--if students haven't reached it already (about one in four classes to): the feathered cape, given by a Hawaiian king to an American officer, represents how indigenous Hawaiian culture was given up for American culture.

At the end of day 1, I ask students to write a paragraph: "Why do you think this feathered cape is significant?" It's early in the year. I'm teaching students how to mix evidence with analysis. Here are some sample responses.

Kamehameha’s feathered cape is significant because it is a valuable traditional artifact to the natives of Hawaii. To the traditional Hawaiians, a feathered cape or cloak was a sign of royal or chiefly status as well as an extraordinary gesture (37,39). In the culture, this was one of the most exquisite items of all as it symbolically indicated importance.The cape itself was made of tens of thousands of feathers from local birds - birds who are now extinct (81). This only increases its value as it can no longer be created. In conclusion, I believe that this is a significant artifact for the reason that it is a symbol of Hawaii’s ancestry and traditional culture that was lost. --Kayla
The cape is more than just an artifact, it has a deep meaning. Hawaii was once untouched by the hand of Americans, but once influenced, they were forever stuck. “To their way of thinking, the Hawaiians, were heathens who needed to be converted to Christianity and civilized,”(24-25). This simply represents that the Europeans didn’t understand the way of life of the Hawaiians. One thing that American Europeans did have that interested the Hawaiians was education. “Finch met with the teenage King Kamehameha III while witnessing what he called ‘a very high ceremonial occasion’ having to do with the schooling of Hawaiian children,” (32-34). The king then awarded Finch the cape. The meaning of the cape was something Hawaiians expressed as a big deal; only someone of a royal status was seen wearing one (39). It not only shows royalty, but it also represents their culture. His cape is designed with feathers and a unique pattern, something that should never be forgotten. King Kamehameha III’s cape plays a huge role in remembering what their culture once was. --Dixie

These are excerpts from our first writing lesson after I have introduced the need to support thesis statements with quotes from the original text, and connect those quotes to their theses using analysis. I'd say those examples are pretty good!

Day 2
I start off day two with an "ACT-style Vocabulary Assignment" (our first of the year in this regard, too). I have taken challenging words from Kurin's essay and presented them in multiple-choice format, so that students can use (1) context clues, (2) root words, and (3) their own prior knowledge in finding the meaning (Reading Informational Text, Standard 4).

Here's the quiz I use

I'm using Google Forms' new tool that allows students to see their grade instantly, so they can go over what they've missed. I also project the summary of responses so I can model proper ways to break down a sentence or a word to find the meaning.

Next we go back to Kurin's text. I want to focus on organization now (Reading Informational Text, Standards 2 and 5). I show students how Kurin has written a short introduction. I have them draw a bracket from lines 1-3 and write, "Intro."

I note the break before line 4, then I ask, "What does Kurin seem to focus upon now?" It's Hawaiian history. Students catch on quickly. I direct them to re-read the text and mark the place where Kurin moves from Hawaiian history to another topic. I ask them to break the essay down to between 4 and 7 general sections (this is to keep them from just trying to label every paragraph--to think on a broader scale).

When they are done reading and labeling the sections, they compare notes with another student. Erasers are out, edits are made. By working together, students are thinking in ways they wouldn't under my direction. It's this inherent teen need to explain oneself to another--and to fit in. By the time we come together to discuss the text, it has been thoroughly analyzed.

By now, everyone understands (on their own) that Kurin has taken a break from Hawaiian history to describe the feathered cape in lines 37-60. Why did he describe it here? I ask. Some students feel it should be moved to the beginning of the essay. This is good. I want them to see writing as flexible, intentional--not set in stone.

This year I pointed out the transition between lines 36 and 37, when Kurin moves from history to description. "This feathered cape" in line 36 directs the reader from a broad look at Hawaiian history to a specific artifact. He has placed the description of the cape following its transfer from Hawaiians to Americans. At the beginning of the new paragraph, he writes, "That was an extraordinary gesture...." 

A little bit of "this"--a little bit of "that"!

We move on. Students are doing their own research of a Native American artifact. Kurin's essay is a splendid model.

Day 3

It's time for the first essay of the year. I want the essay to be text-based, and I want to ensure that students understand to use examples from Kurin's text in their response. Here's the prompt (Writing Standards 11.2 and 9):

In the final sentence of his essay, “King Kamehameha III’s Feather Cape,” Kurin writes, “This magnificent cape serves as a haunting reminder of what was lost” (90).

This is a beautiful sentence, particularly because of two words Kurin uses--”magnificent” and “haunting.” Choose one of these words. In 300-400 words, discuss whether Kurin sufficiently supports these words in the rest of the essay...or not.

This year was the first year I assigned a specific length in many years, but I'm glad I did. It made grading easier--few were too long or too short. It also gave students one more reason to revise before they submitted their work.

Closing Thoughts

This is a lesson I've been working on for four years now. I'm proud of the learning that's possible, and thankful to Richard Kurin for crafting such a remarkable essay that fit seamlessly into my unit on Native America.

I continue from this text to read "The Earth on Turtle's Back" the next week, developing reading standards in fiction. I close with Oren Lyons' testimony before Congress (1987) that draws connections between Native American culture and the U.S. Constitution, among other things.

I hope this blog demonstrates what a significant change came with Common Core State Standards into my teaching. I seldom taught with informational text before Common Core. My unit on Native Americans was built around the myths--with some cool activities thrown in--nothing more. Now informational text anchors my teaching and--more importantly--drives writing and critical thinking in my classroom.

An Aside

The year after I began teaching "King Kamehameha III's Feathered Cape," I got to visit Washington, DC, not once but twice. (This was after I had read the book and returned it to the library.) The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian had been completed in the years since I had last been to DC, and I visited it each time--partially to sate my fascination with native cultures, and partially because I assumed that Kamehameha's cape could be found there. I never found it. I also visited the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of American History, and the Museum of American Art. There was no sign of the cape.

Last year, I bought Kurin's book to keep in my library, and I looked up the cape. Where could it be? It had been in the Museum of Natural History all along!

Update 3/5/2017

My fascination with Kurin's piece led me to read Stephen Shender's new book, Once there was Fire: A Novel of Old Hawaii. The book, set about 40 years before the regent in Kurin's article, describes the rise of Kamehameha (I) the Great, who used newfound British technology and weaponry to unite the Hawaiian Islands under his rule.  Needless to say, I marked every place I spotted a feathered cape and rued every precious artifact that Shender showed being given away to a visiting European exploiter--er, explorer!
James Dittes teaches English, German and creative writing at Station Camp High School in Gallatin, TN. He is a national fellow with America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers & Principals and a 2014-15 fellow with Teachers for Global Classrooms.