Author Archives: mdavidow

uses and misuses of Understanding by Design

The concept of backwards planning is thrown around a lot in D.C. Public schools.  A version of Understanding By Design, adapted for D.C. Public schools, was the first book I was given at teacher orientation. The book said that backwards planning isn’t teaching to the test. Instead, it’s teaching to a series of tests–some formative and some summative, but the tests are really good–designed to measure rigorous goals–so it’s ok.

I know in a college course, this is a very different conversation.  Courses are more often structured around lectures and reading lists rather than student learning and experience, and district standards aren’t a factor.

I have to admit, before this week I hadn’t read the actual book by Wiggins and McTighe, but I cringe when I hear their names.  Too many professional development sessions designed to help me “align” my curriculum

I was surprised when I read UBD’s aspects of understanding that included empathy and self-knowledge.   The backwards design focus has teachers prioritize such big goals, (that are carefully worded but still subject to interpretation).  If we create courses for goals that include all of these dimensions, can we really reach them? Is a course supposed to do so much?  And especially in the case of young students, are the same goals appropriate for all students?

My teacher training consisted almost solely of two things: behavior management and backwards-designed long-term plans, units, and lessons. So much attention and priority is placed on what course goals are worthy (D.C. switched this year to the Common Core) and how we will assess those goals, and so little attention to how we actually teach these things.  Lee Fink says that teachers have two chief responsibilities: planning a course and interacting with students.  Because of some districts’ conceptions of backwards design, I think the quality of teacher-student interaction, learning activities, and the classroom experience as a whole has suffered.

Graphic Novels and History

Cohn and Rabkin’s discussion of temporality in graphic novels was interesting. I’m used to being meta-cognitive when it comes to reading straight text or print, but I never thought about how I naturally read from left to right or top to bottom. I was also struck by the comments on the capacity or tendency of a graphic novel to depict the past or present. While Rabkin said portraying variations of past tense is particularly problematic, I thought of my own (limited) experiences reading graphic novels, all of which have been about the past. I’m thinking of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which is mentioned in the readings) and a memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

Nat Turner too is a narrative of the past and like Maus, chronicles human suffering. What’s interesting to me is the seeming contrast between the visual style and the content of each work. A few days ago, a student of mine picked up Nat Turner off my desk and quickly paged through (I’d been reading it with my students while they did their independent reading). He started laughing and held up the image of the baby being fed to a shark to show everyone “what Miss Davidow had been reading.”

I was so immersed in the harrowing story up to that point that I hadn’t considered how the style of Kyle Baker’s work is cartoonish – even carrying traces of whimsy. I wonder if there is something to this. Baker takes Spiegelman’s approach of illustrating human atrocities in a relatively benign style compared to other ways these stories have been told. I think that a graphic novel like this about historical events that may, at this point, be too familiar helps us to bear witness in a new way. Rather than muting the reality of the situation, the unexpected format makes it new again.

Heroes of Might and Magic, boys, and lesson pacing

I’ve only played one computer game: Heroes of Might and Magic.  To build my army and buy the castle I wanted, I needed large amounts of minerals.  I remember most of the game I would hit refresh over and over again so that I could replenish my ore and sulfur mines.  Most of the people I know (including my students) who regularly play video games are men and boys.  I don’t have a hypothesis for why this is the case.

I’m curious though, about how Gee’s work on video games and learning might relate to boys’ academic performance and engagement. There is a lot of talk in education right now about girls surpassing boys (in K-12 at least). I wonder how this fits into the conversation, or could be applied to what’s been deemed by many as a big problem.

My experience with video games is limited, but Gee’s explanation of “active learning” and “critical learning” in semiotic domains gave me a new perspective on what and how I’ve learned as I get older and my scope of experience gets a little wider.

Gee’s descriptions convinced me that some video games could make literary concepts more visible for students.  I can understand how it would be easier to see the conventions of various video game genres than the conventions of a film or a novel.  If you have to participate in a first person shooter game, for example, it’s hard to miss that your character is just part of your arm.  Asking a student to explain the possible effects of first person perspective in a novel is trickier.

Gee’s “Explicit Information On-Demand and Just-in-Time Principle” made me think about how important pacing is in a lesson.  One of the more difficult parts of lesson planning is figuring out when and how to present new information, and how much new material to present at one time.  I liked Gee’s succinct take on this balancing act in his chapter on telling and doing.

Week 6

I’ve read a lot of bad books about teaching English.  Books that are all practice without any explanation of the theory behind them; books that recommend “research-proven” strategies without mentioning any of the research; books about teaching English that carry a tone of disdain toward literature (or at least, the aesthetic experience of it).

Blau’s book is so great, that I hate to write a negative post in response to it.  But with it’s hard not to when there are 32 instructional days until the DC-CAS (big NCLB test).  While reading The Literature Workshop, I felt a little inspired, but mostly discouraged.  I’m sure other teachers had a similar experience.

I could relate to the teacher who created an essay assignment that asked students to show “how their knowledge of a set of literary terms contributed to their understanding of a literary work” (154).  I can imagine exactly how this high school English teacher came up with this assignment.  She looked at the learning standard that said something like: ‘students will analyze how tone and point of view contribute to the theme of a literary text,’ and wrote an assessment to match it.  She then probably planned her unit or text module by breaking the standard up into objectives and creating daily assessments to measure student mastery of those.  That’s how I’m expected to plan.

Blau goes on to say about this assignment that “we need to acknowledge that such papers function largely as essay tests on what students have already learned and are quite limited as opportunities for students to experience genuine authorship” (154).  It’s difficult to give my students this opportunity when my lesson plans aren’t experiences in genuine authorship.

The portfolio assessment poses a similar problem.  My classroom is not a place where it’s acceptable to take risks and make mistakes (at least at this point in the school year). Just like a student who’s inhibited by fear of how they’ll be graded, I’m nervous to try something out when I know I might get a surprise visit from administrators, DCPS Master Educators, the DCPS chancellor (that happened twice!), OSSE, or the charter school organization that has a partnership contract with my school.

Facilitators and Teachers

I had the privilege of participating in a workshop with Sheridan Blau this past summer with the Northern Virginia Writing Project.  We looked at a poem and completed the noticing and interpreting protocol Blau describes in chapter 2.  The workshop went so well that I went ahead and led a similar one with the English department at my school.  Leading the workshop was a particularly affirming experience.  It feels good to facilitate when every single person in the room is engaged and invested in the literary analysis work at hand.

I keep those experiences with me when I work with a room full of people who are not English teachers, and try to give my students room to make meaning while providing a little more structure to help them practice listening to each other.

To make my classroom more like Blau’s, I also try to invest students in the work.  One way I did this last semester is by having classes take a vote on which short story we would read next. Here’s a funny coincidence: after reading short descriptions of several texts, the almost unanimous decision was that we would read “Sonny’s Blues.”  The content of the story: estranged brothers, Harlem, and drug use, sounded exciting to my students.  When we started to read it, they were disappointed.

I think Wilner has it backwards when she says “The students wanted to turn this intimate, emotionally gripping, narratively complex story into an illustration of ‘just say no'” (12).  Like Wilner says, the narrative is complicated, and an oversimplified interpretation often means that students are too confused to glean the necessary evidence from the text to support a claim.  Instead they use information that they already know on the topic (Sonny’s Blues is about drugs, we should just say no to those).  This is a coping strategy, not an indication of a student’s values.

Before I taught “Sonny’s Blues,” I had to ask myself: what does the author do to create meaning? And what must a reader do to get meaning? Wilner clearly knows the answer to the first question.  She describes “the dramatic change in the narrator, a change crucial to the theme of the story and powerfully portrayed through the first-person narrative consciousness. Rich and deep, the story is eloquently told through carefully orchestrated flashbacks” (12).  Wilner was surprised though, when her students said that Sonny was the character who changed the most.  This is a predictable misconception.  The narrator doesn’t have a name.  The title of the story is Sonny’s Blues.  My students and I spent a few classes on the possibilities of first person narration.  We also made a giant timeline of events on the wall because the story’s extended flashbacks are super confusing.

It seems like both Wilner and Blau give their students a lot of space to struggle with a text.  I think this makes sense with some texts but not necessarily with others.  When a text is as complex as Sonny’s Blues, I find myself acting as a capital T Teacher rather than a workshop facilitator.

Teaching Self-Awareness

In high school English we read for theme.  I teach my students that if we can wade through the particulars of a text, we’ll arrive at something universal. Literary analysis writing that my students do asks them to interpret theme, support it with textual evidence, and explain how an author uses literary devices to produce this theme.  But I do like Sherry Linkon’s method of assigning different kinds of literary analysis writing.  Writing that’s exploratory and inquiry-based makes more sense for literature, and looks more like the kind of writing I did in college.   Students produce a reading, but not necessarily an argument.

Of course, I’d like to show my class how to produce a new reading–rather than how to artfully arrange old ideas.  I don’t think anyone wants to read a synopsis of what the teacher said (or what Sparknotes said).

In producing the kind of reading Linkon describes, students have to situate a text and themselves in relation to it.  Most of the readings this week posited that readers need an awareness of their own historical and cultural context as well as the context of the reading, and they need to be aware of the effects if these contexts differ.

Rabinowitz articulates this scenario well: “this difference among readers has always posed a problem for writers, one that has grown with increased literacy and the correspondingly increased heterogeneity of the reading public” (21).  For me, it can be overwhelming to teach literature that’s been chosen for my students but not written for them.

I’m plagued by the question of how to teach my students about their cultural context. I feel ok helping them develop an awareness of the way they process and interpret new information.  But teaching students to recognize their unique life experience and how that experience shapes who they are as readers is not so easy.

My students don’t yet know how to do what Fish’s students can do: ascribe literary significance to a list of names.  I’m not sure how valuable this ability is.  It would be nice though, if they could translate this skill to read the world around them, using context, connections, self-awareness, and healthy self-doubt.

Writers’ Choices

Molly Davidow

What struck me about the readings is the point that students need to know that authors make choices. Sometimes these choices are made to produce a dominant reading (which Rob Pope would like us to recognize and subvert), but also, authors make choices to make their writing more accessible to readers.

In “Engaging Ideas”, they discuss that novice readers have trouble adapting the strategies they use for different tasks. I’d add that the reader’s knowledge of text features: formatting, headings, subheadings, captions, pull-quotes, etc. tell much about the text’s content, but many students are not in the habit of noticing them.  I recently did an exercise with my students in which they had to identify author’s purpose for a variety of articles in a single newspaper.   I was struck by how many of them acted as if the text features–that could have made their assignment worlds easier, weren’t there.  For many of them, a text just exists.  They don’t think about choices made about what goes on a page to make it readable

Like Pope’s “Textual Intervention,” Salvatori and Donahue give students methods of “reading against the grain” in order to interpret an author’s choices in an (ostensibly) easy text.  When teaching a “difficult” text, my ultimate goal is usually to get my students immersed in the material, so that their comprehension isn’t hindered by foreign vocabulary, complex syntax, and which pronoun goes with which antecedent.  With reading against the grain, or interrupting a text we find ways to alienate ourselves from the text, because its “constructedness” is invisible.  This is the kind of thing I also try to balance in my classroom: making the structure visible in an “easy” text and the content accessible in another, more difficult one.

I often hear that we should urge students–especially struggling readers– to be meta-cognitive.  I liked that Salvatori and Donahue’s “The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty” gives more accessible language to engage students in this process.  By writing “difficulty papers” about literary works, the act of learning to read happens at the same time as (what students often see as) the more advanced work of interpreting a literary text. Too often, I think, the approach is to teach reading skills in isolation.