Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Art of Brainstorming Speech Topics

One of the most challenging aspects of an assignment for some students is coming up with an idea. The adage that I subscribe to and teach is to “write what you know.” Currently, my students are working on speeches. Coming up with a topic is challenging because, as one of my students said, “There’s just so much you can do.”

There is a misnomer that a proper brainstorming session involves students shouting out stream of consciousness thoughts, whatever first comes to mind.  This method typically doesn’t produce the best ideas and is challenging to control.

To brainstorm ideas for a speech, I ask students to take a personal inventory of sorts. Individually, each student has to answer a series of questions in a Google Document titled: “What do You Care About?”  After they have answered the questions, students may share their answers with the class. From the answers we generate a Google Document where they can further review possible speech topics. All three sections of 10th Grade English contribute to the document.

After they answer the questions, I use the bull’s eye diagram to further explain why the exercise is important in the brainstorming process. For a typical teenager, the most important and central part of the bull’s eye in the self, next the family, then school, followed by other communities, and lastly “greater society” or the world. I hypothesize to them that their speeches will be easier to write, more authentic and compelling the closer it would fit to the center of the bull’s eye. This hypothesis isn’t absolute. Some student can take any topic, delve into it, and write a good speech. However, when students “write what they know” they may find the elusive “flow” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about. According to Csikszentmihalyi, being in state of flow will help students produce better work and enjoy learning.



Persuasive Speech Topic Brainstorming Session: What do you Care About?

  • What are the three most important things to you about your family?
  • What are three things about your family you wish you could change?
  • What are three things about this school that you really like?
  • What are three things about this school that you wish you could change?
  • What are three things everyone should know how to do?
  • What are three things people take for granted?
  • If you had an unlimited amount of money, to whom/which groups would you donate money?
  • If you had to choose to take one class, all day, every day, what class would it be?
  • Where are three places everyone should visit once in their life?
  • What are three common misunderstandings adults have about teenagers?
  • What are the three biggest problems facing the world today?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Keep them writing creatively

I recently asked my students when the last time was that they wrote a creative writing story in English class. They couldn’t remember.  According to their memories at least, their writing assignments since elementary school have been more academic in nature: summary, research papers, analytical essays, and speeches.


This reminded me of when I completed my teacher certification and every employment application required applicants to submit an educational philosophy. The question loomed large: What is your educational philosophy?  To be honest, when I was 23-years-old I didn’t really have an educational philosophy. Sure, I could write an essay to feature the generic pedagogical buzz words that the Human Resources person might use in a key word search. However, authentically speaking, I didn’t really have a philosophy. I wanted to be a better teacher than many of my high school teachers; I wanted to emulate the few who were excellent;  I wanted to be fair;  I wanted to have high standards, yet be understanding of students’ needs; I wanted to teach students how to learn and how to write;  I wanted my lessons to be clear yet creative; I wanted to teach them the history of people, not just places and events.

I didn’t think that’s what employers wanted to hear and besides, “wants” don’t equal a philosophy.

Fifteen years later, I could write an authentic educational philosophy paper. One of my main points would be about the importance of including creative writing in the curriculum. As my students struggled to write 300-1000 word stories, I realized the problem was that they didn’t really know how to craft a proper story. The reasons are somewhat understandable. In a college-prep school, the pressure to ensure that students are prepared for college and standardized tests is palpable. The standards in which we are encouraged to align our curriculum don’t emphasize creativity.

So what is the purpose of creative writing? Why is it important for high school students to be able to write a story?

Creative writing allows students to formulate completely unique ideas, execute them, and use the writing skills that they’ve developed in a piece that is entirely theirs.  Do we want future generations to be parrots or to be creative thinkers?  Here’s an example: the Ebola case in Dallas. When Thomas Eric Duncan came to Dallas from Liberia, he went to the emergency room for care. Due to the electronic records system, the doctors didn’t see the notes from where the patient had travelled. They didn’t have access to that screen. The nurse fulfilled her responsibility: she wrote down the history. However, a creative thinker would have had alarm bells go off and gotten a doctor right away. Following procedure isn’t always best practice. In Niles, Michigan this summer, a police officer tazered, instead of shot a man who had stabbed several passengers. He made a judgment call to not use his gun. This was also against procedure, however, because of creative thinking he realized that opening fire in a train could endanger the lives of more passengers.  Those are cases that made national news, but the ability of people to act creatively, without a script is decaying.

Take the example of a sushi restaurant. There is a roll I enjoy, but I don’t like avocado. There is an avocado wrapping around the outside of the roll in addition to the typical rice. When I ask for the roll without avocado, it bewilders the staff. They do not know what to do. It’s impossible! This isn’t an issue of ruining the intention of the chef. If it can’t be plugged into the computer, it can’t be done.  This happens all the time. If a bar code isn’t working, the item can’t be rung up. If you asked to be transferred somewhere, the person gives you the number instead to call, so they don’t have to figure out how to use the transfer function on the phone. These are not big issues in terms of the world order, but they are indicative of a larger problem. If there is no automation, if a task requires thinking, the result is a blank stare or a “no, it can’t be done.” This is a symptom of a diseased society that is losing our edge, losing our ability to innovate.

Creativity is on the minds of teenagers. When they are asked to evaluate a Ted Talk during the speech unit, many of them choose “How school kills creativity.” They cheer as Ken Robinson outlines the sad story of their teenaged lives.  That’s why when we rid our schools of art, drama, and music, and creative writing, we are doing a huge disservice to not just our kids, but also to their brains.

So, does every student embrace a creative writing assignment with gusto? No. Absolutely not. There are always students who view any assignment as just another thing to get done as quickly as possible. But when challenged, especially after peer editing and teacher comments, most students do indeed want to create a piece of writing that is unique and enduring. The fact that it will be published is also a motivation.

I encourage high school English teachers to not abandon creative writing. Yes, the students need to know how to write a cohesive essay. Yes, they need to know how to properly cite research. Yes, they should know how to analyze great literature. I know there is not time and there is a lot of pressure! But teenagers also need to exercise their minds so that they grow up and think for themselves, not only follow dictates that colleges and standards’ writers think are important.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

1948 Arab-Israeli War

Teaching about the Middle East is challenging, but teaching about the Middle East in the Middle East can be daunting. Although I taught the course for several years in the United States, I am now fortunate to work with the woman who literally wrote the book on teaching the Middle East in high schools, Mrs. Abigail Chill. She teaches one section of the course and I teach the other one.

There is no one textbook to use on this topic (although Congressional Quarterly has a great one) and almost every resource is controversial. However, I found a good one to teach the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, a film by the BBC called the Birth of Israel. What is important to note is that we teach lessons prior to watching the film to contextualize what happens in 1948 beginning with Ancient Jewish and Arab history, continuing on to the Enlightenment and Colonialism.

While watching this film, I asked students to answer the question, "Who is responsible for the refugee crisis as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War?" Possible answers could be the IDF, Arab States, Palestinians, British, and the United Nations. I also ask them to look for bias. After the film, the students took a position on the question and also noted the bias they observed. They asked questions and several students stayed after class to continue the conversation.

What better assessment of a lesson is there than students missing part of their sacred lunch period to talk about history?

Peer Editing Flash Fiction

Almost nothing receives as much universal skepticism from students, their parents, and other teachers than announcing that an assignment will be peer edited. A particularly contrary student (who I love) asked, "Does that really work?" indicating in his intonation that his own answer was, "No, no it doesn't."

But I, and most other writing teachers, disagree. However, as with any pedagogical endeavor, peer editing has to be well planned and cannot be the only source of critique that students receive on their writing. The teacher still plays a role, just not necessarily the only one.

Also, students must be peer edited by multiple students, so that they receive a variety of perspectives. In addition, they choose who peer edits them. They can select people that they trust and with whom they feel safe.

Students peer editing. 

After the peer editing day, students submit the second draft to me. They turn in the peer editing worksheets, and as I grade their second draft, I will note if they made the necessary changes. When a peer editor suggest a correction in which the writer doesn't agree, the writer can respond and challenge the correction. Therefore when I'm reading their peer editing worksheets, I understand why the writer didn't make the change and can weigh into the conversation.

Peer editing fosters a community of learners and helps students hone their own skills by looking at other examples of student work.

Here is a link to the Flash Fiction Peer Editing Worksheet.

Here is a link to the Flash Fiction Assignment.

Implementing Learning Targets

As mentioned in a previous blog, our school is using Rob Berger's Leaders of their Own Learning to shape our professional development this year. He encourages teachers to use "learning targets" which he defines as "tangible goals that [students] can understand and work toward," (Berger 21).

I'm currently trying out this method with my students. I like how it encourages teachers to change the language of expectations and assessment to be more accessible and clear.

In English 10, we looked at the course's writing targets. First, students read them and were instructed to put question marks next to any that were unclear. We then clarified any language that they didn't understand. Afterwards, they cut up the writing targets and using their semester exam essay, chose five targets that they had mastered, and five targets that still needed to be reached. The ones that they still need to work on were pasted to construction paper. Students will reference them before the next essay.

Here is a link to Writing Targets for 10th Grade English. 

In ELL History, I rewrote the objectives of our study of Ancient Indian Empires into writing targets and posted them in the classroom. After we have covered a target, the students assess in conversations with each other whether they indeed know it. If they don't, I know that I need to review (and so do they!) the material again.

I am looking forward to trying out this method second semester, and if it works, throughout my career.

Berger, Ron, Leah Rugen, Libby Woodfin, Mike Johnston, and David Grant. Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-engaged Assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014. Print.