Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Theme Park Analogy

In my third block class today one of my students, Dennis Vincent Long (he requested I publicize his name this exact way), came up with a good idea to help me explain the term theme to my students. I was going through my cards, asking them what a theme is and he popped out with, “Theme parks.”

I was initially inclined to blow this off and keep going. After a few seconds of thought, however, I realized that he was on to a good idea.

Think of the original Disney World, the park that is now called the Magic Kingdom. In that park there are four themed areas: Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and Adventureland. There is also Main Street, USA, Liberty Square, and Mickey's Toontown Fair.

Each one of these areas has one big, unifying idea behind it. In Fantasyland all the rides, shops, restaurants, etc. are related to the various pure fantasies that Disney puts out. [Digression—Is the It’s a Small World ride in Fantasyland because world peace and harmony is nothing but a dream?] In Tomorrowland everything relates to science fiction and/or the world of tomorrow. In Frontierland everything is related to the rugged frontiers of America’s past. Adventureland is themed to the different adventure shows Disney has created over the years.

As each one of those areas has everything relate to each other, so a theme in a book or a story would be the big, unifying idea that holds that work together. All the other aspects of the book need to relate to that theme.

So, thanks, Dennis! If not for your thought today, I probably would not have come up with that analogy. It makes the idea of theme clearer to me, anyway.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Causal Chain

One of the types of essays to teach is the cause and effect essay. Why is this one to teach? Because it is tested in Alabama. Well, that's sort of a cop-out. It is important to be able to trace causes and effects. To be able to examine a situation analytically to determine how it came about. Right now, with the financial meltdown going on, wouldn't it be instructive to know what caused it, so that we could try to avoid those mistakes in the future? But I digress.

One of the types of cause and effect papers is the causal chain. A causes B which then causes C which then causes D... I like to find cool videos of dominoes for the causal chain visual. I just got this off Cosmic Variance. I like it. When we get to it, I think my students will like it too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Obfuscate Clearly

One of the lessons I really love to do with my kids is to work with them on clarity.

Introducing the concept of clarity is fun in and of itself. I begin by asking what they think clarity means. Of course, while I am asking, I have a webpage up on the board with a quick thumbnail definition.

Then we listen to Abbott and Costello doing their famous Who's on First? routine. I am always amazed by how many of them have not heard of this routine. It is a classic and needs to kept alive. Then we disect why there was a breakdown in communication. It is fun and I can direct them to Youtube for more Abbott and Costello routines.

Then I read from Running from Safety by Richard Bach. On pages 210-211 he describes what it was like to be a technical writer. During his time there, a plane crashed due to a mistaken word in a checklist. I feel it is a good real life example of why clarity is so important.

Then we move to the concept of pretentious/overblown language. I want them to get a feel for it--to see why it is counterproductive when trying for clarity. I follow that talk up by having them complete a worksheet titled "Rules to Live By" from the book Basic Skills/Reading Comprehension 6-8.

As they work on that individually, I wander around and help where I can. I do not answer questions the way they want: I don't tell them what to write. Instead I ask a lot of leading questions and try to lead the Socratically to the correct answer.

After we finish that up, I call on them randomly to translate for me. They are translating from overblown English to regular English. In fact, to ease them into it, this worksheet has the answers below and they just need to match them up.

Then on to the next segment. I pass out a handout with ten Obfuscated Proverbs on it. These are not mine. They have been floating around the Internet for years and years. I just use some of them as an object lesson. I start by taking them step-by-step through how to "translate" an obfuscated proverb. The PowerPoint I use for that is below.

I let them work together in pairs as I wander around again. Again I try to lead them Socratically to the correct answers.

I am told that the exercise is hard. It is too much. It makes their brains hurt.
I am asked why we need to do this in a writing class. And whined at occasionally that I expect too much from them.

I don't. I know the exercise is challenging for them. It is not a word for word translation, but a getting a sense of where a proverb is going and jumping to a guess. They hate to guess for the most part. They want something that they can figure out and prove to be the way it ought to be. But life isn't like that. Sometimes you have to figure things out. Sometimes you won't even have a partner to work with or a mentor/coach to ask for help.

They will finish with this tomorrow. I look forward to more of what I saw today: kids who "get it" lighting up as they realize they figured out something they thought was too hard.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Thanks, Nancy!

One of the writing exercises I like to use to help me get to know my students is to have them write a 15-sentence self portrait, and idea inspired by Wendy Bishop. I shared this exercise with my friends on the English Teacher Talk List (you can join the list years ago.

The best thing about being on a listserv is that when you share, it gets returned to you in unexpected ways. Nancy Steen, a New Hampshire teacher and longtime listfriend, took the idea and added a terrific new twist to it. After having her students write their 15-sentence self portraits, she had them take them to wordle and turn them into artwork.

And that inspired me to dust off one of my 15-sentence portraits (not of myself alone, but a memory of my father) and try the same thing. You can see my results below.

If you are not part of an ongoing professional community, like a listserv or a writing project, I highly recommend finding one and joining. Doing so yeilds terrific results.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Man Who Planted Trees

Note: I wrote this during and after school yesterday, but didn't get the chance to post it.

Today’s journal entry is a question: Can one person change the world? Explain your answer.

I am interested to see what my students think. Do they believe it is possible for one person to affect world change? I know already that I believe it is. And that the fact has been demonstrably proven with both positive and negatives effects.

Take Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as an example of changing the world in a negative way. He was the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US. That one man did change the world. Wars started. Prejudice and hatred increased. Terrorist attacks have risen. Tens of millions of the world’s poorest children starved to death as direct and indirect result of the economic upheavals that occurred.

On a more positive note, as one of my students pointed out, Gandhi was a person who affected a positive change upon the world. I elaborated by pointing out that the non-violent resistance was not only successful in India, but also in South Africa and the United States as well. Gandhi began his nonviolent resistance in South Africa and that legacy lasted. There was a change of government there that did not require civil war and millions upon millions dead. And Martin Luther King, Jr. adapted the lessons of Gandhi to the civil rights protests right here. Imagine the different way our society and the world would have reacted if the marchers in Birmingham had shot back at the police--or if the Freedom Riders came in armed and shooting.

Some students who are adamant that no one person can change the world, that doing that is up to God. Or that it was just plain impossible. It is a more than a little sad that their life experiences to date have trained them to nihilism. Some are very fatalistic. Some are full of anger. Some have already given up and are trying to live life without the benefit of hope.

Then I showed them the movie The Man Who Planted Trees, from the story by Jean Giono. It is an inspirational story of a man who plants trees, just because he felt the need to do so. And over the course of years he planted a forest. And very slowly and quietly, never seeking recognition, the forest grew. Most others thought that this was a miracle of nature.

To see the changes that this one man nurtured, through two world wars, is little short of miraculous. The animation of the film is breathtaking. It is simple yet profound, as befits the story it tells. I always find it to be an uplifting experience to watch this film.

Giono later wrote, after being asked many times, that the story was a work of fiction. But that should not deter us from believing the deeper message: one man can change the world. I point out the many thousands of people inspired by this story to plant trees. Millions of trees around the world have been planted by those who read the story. Or by others who were inspired by these people. One man, in this case Giono, has made a difference.

I love the power of writing.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More than One Way to Skin a Cat

Yesterday I had fun. It was Evil Fun. But, in doing so, I believe I made a point and turned a potential struggle for control in the classroom into a comedy show.

This is my first full, five-day week with my writing students (all of them, that is, except the ones out driving with the drivers' ed teacher). As such I am taking time each day to explain and practice with them writing to each of the different types of journal prompts I use in class.

To digress, at the beginning of class I have a PowerPoint presentation that automatically loops around and around to the five different prompts. The first slide is a quote, the second a picture of some sort, the third a story starter from The Writer's Book of Matches: 1,001 Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction by the staff of fresh boiles peanuts, a lterary journal, the fourth a question from the Book of Questions, and lastly a chance to write on whatever topic interests them that day.

So each day this week I am introducing them to a different kind of prompt, getting them to write to it. Writing to it myself. Yesterday we were writing to the picture prompt. It is an old one of some football player being tackled. I don't even remember where I got it. I told the class, after we talked about what kind of writing could come from the picture, that it was time to start and to get writing.

One young man, who I promised would remain nameless here, wasn't getting started. He was just sitting there. I stage whispered to him, "Nameless--it's time to get writing, man."

He looked up at me with a direct challenge in his eyes and said, "I don't want to write."

I looked at him in mock horror as I could feel the eyes of the rest of the class stealing over to the scene. They wanted to know how I would handle it. Would I yell at him, threaten him, ignore him and let him get a zero? Was this a path they wanted to follow him down?

I said in my best fake choked-up voice, "You don't want to write?"

Then I literally fell to my knees in front of his desk, clasped my hands together in supplication and began to wail in best theatrical voice, "Oh, Nameless, PLEASE write something! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!"

The rest of the class was silent for a moment. Whatever they expected, it sure wasn't this.

"Please, Nameless," I wailed, false sobs ripping from my chest, "Please write something during journal writing time!!!"

At this point he jumped up out of his desk and started backing away from me as the class dissolved into helpless laughter. I followed on my knees still begging him in my best theatrical manner to write.

He returned to his seat and picked up his pencil. The look in his eyes said he wasn't sure if he should be angry at me for the show I was putting on or scared that I really was a crazy man. I began to implore him. "Nameless, all you have to do to make me stop is to write something in your journal. Please writne one little thing in your journal so I can stop doing this!!"

He relented and began to write in the journal. As he finished his first word he looked up at me to see what effect it would have on my weird behavior.

Still on my knees I raised my hands into the air and shouted, "Halleluja! He's writing! Nameless is writing!!!" Still fake sobbing, now in joy, I rose to my feet, dusted off my knees, looked at the rest of the class and asked in my normal voice, "Is there anybody else who desn't want to write in their journal today?"

The room was silent except for the scribbling of pens and pencils on paper.

All in all, it was one of my better performances.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fun How To Video

In an unusual move, I am posting a second time today. If you have not seen any of the videos for the Common Craft Show you are missing a treat. They put together short videos that clearly explain some difficult concepts. What is prompting me to post about it is that on their blog today they have posted a "behind the scenes look" at how one of their videos is made.

I was thinking that as I go into working with the process analysis paper for expostiory writing, this would be a good example to use. I would start by showing the video then directing them to the blog entry, then watching the video again. They would have an excellent example of how to explain something step by step.

And maybe I could get them to watch another of the videos and analyze how it goes step by step in process analysis.

What's your view on this?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

My Basic Assumptions

I have started teaching for the next 14 weeks of the semester. A few years ago I heard a speaker who challenged us (a statewide group of teachers) to examine our basic assumptions about what we teach. I took that seriously and thought about my basic assumptions about writing and the teaching of writing. I came up with these:

  1. Everyone has a need to communicate.
  2. Everyone can write, maybe not as well as they would like, but they can do it.
  3. Writing is a set of skills that can be taught.
  4. Practice makes improvement (nobody's perfect).
  5. Effort is required to improve.

These are the core beliefs I have about writing that I try to work from when I am teaching my students. I have even gone so far as to post them on the class website. In my introduction to the students today I went over these core beliefs with them. I received no major argumants or disagreements from anyone. And I have a feeling that the students I have right now would not be shy about disagreeing with me.

Anyway, I thought I would ask your views on this. What are your core beliefs, your basic assumptions about what you teach? Try to limit your time to a few minutes and go with your gut. I think it would be cool is something showed up on your list that you didn't realize was there.