Thursday, July 31, 2014

Yes, Good Grammar Is Important

We make lots of jokes about the importance of good grammar. Some of us are grammar Nazis who lurk on Facebook and other online forums ready to correct the "great unwashed masses" when they forget an apostrophe or misuse to, too, or two. Others are the type telling these seemingly obsessive protectors of the English language to "lighten up" because it's "just the internet after all" and "no one can expect everyone to be perfect all the time."  Whether you fall into one of these groups or somewhere in between, the simple truth is good grammar is important.
If you ask the average person on the street whether or not using good grammar is important, you may be surprised at the variety of responses you will receive. It seems the debate over the significance of prescriptive English grammar is alive, and sometimes slightly aggressive, in the court of public opinion. My personal belief is that the study and mastery of proper English grammar is not only necessary, but also imperative. Our students’ overall success beyond the academic world is dependent upon their ability to write and speak clearly and professionally – an impossible task without at least some degree of working knowledge involving grammar. My ideology regarding English grammar has developed not simply because I am a teacher of English, but also due to the fact that I have spent so much of my life performing a variety of jobs in the private sector including many years spent as a hiring manager for several different businesses.
In this digital age of texts, tweets, instant messages, and emails, some will argue the use of prescriptive grammar has become out-dated or even archaic; however, when it comes to the professional world nothing could be farther from the truth. Kyle Weins, CEO of iFixit and Dozuki, administers grammar tests to every applicant for every position in his companies. Weins’ justification for using this tool across the board is “grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts” (2012). While Weins’ tactics may be slightly more militant than those employed by other companies, the simple fact is more companies today are including grammar and writing tasks in their application processes. These businesses are also turning more potential employees away due to their inability to successfully complete these activities.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter how intelligent, capable, or qualified applicants may be, if they are incapable of presenting themselves competently through their speech and writing. For better or worse, using poor grammar portrays a person as careless, lazy, or at worst ignorant. None of these qualities are highly sought after by any business owner. In this age of electronic applications, contact with potential employers can be limited to written artifacts like cover letters, resumes, and personal websites or social media profiles. Our written words represent our first, and sometimes only, impression. The ability to use proper grammar signifies not only credibility and professionalism, but also commands a degree of immediate respect from those reading and reviewing the materials presented. This in itself is more than enough reason to ensure our students learn and master grammar.

 Now that I've gotten that out of my system, I will leave you with a bit of fun. Weird Al's take on grammar is entertaining and timely - as we ready ourselves to return to school and decide exactly where grammar fits in our classrooms no matter what subjects or grade levels we teach.

Poetry and the Common Core: The Great Non-Debate

Wordle: Poetry and the Common Core
It has been awhile. Teaching, grad school, working on my novel, and submitting my children's book for publication have made for one extremely busy year! I wanted to come back with a topic that is very near and dear to my heart - the teaching of poetry. 
It seems poetry has become somewhat of an endangered species lately due to the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, but the fact is that nothing could be further from the truth. One thing I have learned about standards is this - they are most definitely in the eye of the interpreter.
My Story

The poet, John Ciardi, wrote, “The concern [for poetry] is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience” (2). When I consider all the units I teach each year, poetry is the one experience I look forward to the most. I first work to uncover my less enthusiastic students’ reasons for their apparent aversion to poetry, stressing to them that poetry is not about the destination; it is about the journey. Poetry explains, investigates, observes, and illustrates life with its beautiful economy of language and though a poem may be sparse with its words, it is exponentially substantial in its meaning and message. Poetry is about how it makes you feel, what it allows you to see, and where it allows you to travel. Poetry is the art of language, and as such, its study is crucial in developing a well-rounded education for our students. It is quite unfortunate that this critical component for teaching English Language Arts is in danger of being exiled from our curriculum simply due to a blatant misinterpretation of the Common Core State Standards.
The introduction of National Poetry Month in 1996 provided teachers a sanctioned time and place to celebrate all that poetry has to offer. Each April, ELA classrooms everywhere immersed themselves in the world of poetry – reading it, writing it, examining it, performing it, experiencing it. However, as standardization in public education reaches a new level with the introduction and incorporation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), teachers everywhere are finding themselves embroiled in a curricular conversation regarding the future of poetry in our public school classrooms. The fact that poetry is not specifically mentioned in the Common Core State Standards along with the increased concentration on literary nonfiction and informational texts has led some teachers and administrators to conclude that the study and writing of poetry has an uncertain future in our ELA classrooms. Yet, if we take a closer look at the “new and improved” standards we are working to implement, poetry definitely has a place and a purpose in our classrooms.
The goal of CCSS is to increase the academic rigor of our curricula through increasing our text complexity, focusing on critical thinking and analysis skills, diversifying content through the addition of more literary nonfiction and informational texts, and concentrating on building and refining academic vocabulary and answering text-dependent questions (Common Core State Standards Initiative). The Common Core doesn’t give educators a prescribed reading list, but it does offer exemplar texts by grade level in the ELA Appendix B, along with sample performance tasks related to the exemplars. These lists are meant as a guide to assist educators in choosing complex texts for all students and crafting appropriate performance tasks that meet the standards. Every grade level list contains poetry and performance tasks associated with poetry. With the inclusion of poetry in Appendix B, the discussion on whether or not to include poetry in our classrooms should not be a matter for debate.
Furthermore, if we take the time to look at the Common Core’s ELA Appendix A, a cursory examination of the definitions of the writing standard’s three text types offers this addendum: “The narrative category does not include all of the possible forms of creative writing, such as many types of poetry. The Standards leave the inclusion and evaluation of such forms to teacher discretion” (23). Here is where it seems the crux of the current dispute lies – “teacher discretion.” The Common Core places more emphasis on literary nonfiction and informational text in its literature standards, and the writing standards advocate for more argumentative writing than narrative (particularly at the upper grade-levels). This, coupled with the current trend of using students’ test scores to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness, has created an atmosphere in which some educators are concerned about making curriculum choices they fear may not align with the standards or may fail to prepare their students for testing. Quite frankly, it has many teachers questioning their own judgment when choosing materials for their students; and for those who may not be comfortable or committed to poetry, the lack of definitive support for reading and writing poetry in the Common Core provides an easy route for removing material they find personally problematic. The implementation of poetry in the classroom is simply a matter of aligning student outcomes and performance tasks to meet the current standards.
In Michael Benton’s The Importance of Poetry in Children’s Learning, he asserts, “good poems are places where writers and readers exercise both an intelligence of thinking and an intelligence of feeling” (6). Moreover, poetry is a prime source of stories that leaves readers spellbound, allows them to reexamine the familiar through a fresh perspective, records and transmits culture, and assists in the mastery of language (Benton, 4-5). If one requires further justification for the inclusion of poetry in the classroom, there are wonderful organizations dedicated to reading, writing, and performing poetry that have worked with aligning poetry to the Common Core. Poetry Out Loud, the Poetry Foundation, and offer teachers resources for aligning poetry to the standards, so do a great number of state education boards and universities from around the country. The information is readily available and free for the taking.
While others may continue to debate whether or not we can take the time to teach poetry to our students and just how this unique genre of writing fits in with the standards, it is a non-issue in my eyes. There is no question that I will continue to teach poetry with all the passion and excitement I bring to the table every year and using what I affectionately refer to as the “Billy Collins Approach,” asking “them to take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide” and refusing to “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.” I could continue on for pages and pages explaining the benefits of poetry to our students and reasoning out how working with poetry can align with each anchor standard present in the Common Core, but there are plenty of others out there who have done just that. Instead, I would like to share my own experiences gained while working with poetry and students.
Each time I teach a poetry unit, regardless of whether I am working with freshmen or seniors or the classes in between, we create a capstone project at the end of the unit – an audio/visual poetry interpretation. The project evolves each time I use it, and I am sure it will continue to grow and change as I move forward with my students. I ask my students to choose a poem that speaks to them on a personal level and create a five to ten minute presentation using images and music to explain their personal connection with the verse. Students used either PowerPoint or Prezzi to create their presentations in the beginning but are now also using programs such as Movie Maker or iMovie. The only parameters I enforce are images and lyrics must be school-appropriate, other than that, anything goes. I encourage my students to consider what makes the poem important to them, how do they relate to the imagery, the tone, the message of the poem. I push them to move beyond the simple task of telling me about the poem to embrace the complexity of telling me about their relationship with the poem and sharing it with both their peers and me.
Every time I do this project, I watch my kids attack the challenge full force, and I am consistently impressed with the results of their efforts. Through this project, I have seen some truly extraordinary work. P.J. fashioned an insightful commentary on the human destruction of natural resources using e.e. cummings’ “Humanity I Love You.” R.S. and M.T. utilized Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” as a springboard for discussing the effects of gang activity on their neighborhood. A.N. fostered a conversation about public versus private personae employing Emily Bronte’s “She Dried Her Tears.” T.W. explored gay rights and the lives of LGBTQ teens with her interpretation of Lyla Cicero’s “Love is for Everyone,” complete with interactive activities aimed at increasing the knowledge and understanding of her peers on these issues. Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” is a classroom favorite, inspiring projects addressing topics such as feminine stereotypes, bullying, and our cultural obsession with plastic surgery and perfection. Finally, another seminal student choice, Mary Elizabeth Frye’s moving epitaph “Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep” has inspired students to design poignant tributes and memorials to loved ones lost. A.B. chose to write and compose an original song to honor the memory of a friend lost to drug abuse. B.W. and K.C. celebrated the lives of their fathers and mourned their passing. N.G. paid tribute to a friend lost only months prior to our project in a car accident; her emotions, still open and raw, were readily apparent in her work. The passion, the intelligence, the bravery exhibited by my students in completing these projects is why I love poetry and why I will continue to teach it.

As I stated in the beginning, poetry is not about making it to the end with all the correct answers but rather how we navigate and what we discover along the way. It would be a travesty to deny our students the possibilities afforded them through the study of poetry. They will miss the chance to understand the nuance of language and to explore figurative language at its very best (CCSS Language Anchor 5). They will lose the option of using poetry to discover technical, connotative, and figurative meanings of language, all within the same lines of verse and to determine the effect of word choice on tone and meaning using the most concise application of language possible (CCSS Reading Anchor 4). They will be denied an important technique for creating well-structured narratives filled with carefully considered details (CCSS Writing Anchor 3). Most importantly, they will miss the opportunities poetry offers not only for cultural and personal association, but also for emotional connection and catharsis. I will always teach poetry to my students because they deserve the chance to experience it.

Resources to Help You Meet Common Core Using Poetry

  • Poetry Out Loud - A personal favorite of mine. Poetry Out Loud now offers CCSS alignment complete with a downloadable Teacher's Guide, links to Teacher Resources and Preparation, Lesson Plans and Class Scheduling, and Accessibility. If you haven't checked out this program, I highly recommend you do so - IMMEDIATELY. If you have any doubt, take a look at these students competing in the Poetry Out Loud recitation competition: 

  • Teaching Channel is a great source of inspiration and ideas. The video I chose to link to not only meets CCSS, but also showcases a very innovative way to approach poetry in an unusual pre-reading exercise.
  • presents educators with an interesting plan submitted by Madeline Fuchs-Holzer for grades 9-12 that approaches the study of poetry through its use in film. Crossing media boundaries, these lesson plans address reading, writing, and listening and speaking CCSS. The site also has a plethora of Common Core aligned poetry lessons and workshops that are both engaging and original.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable with the prospect of teaching poetry? Ben Curran at Education Week  offers a great article about aligning poetry to the Common Core that is easy to follow and understand for educators who may be hesitant about how poetry fits into the world of CCSS.
  • In much the same vein, EDSITEment!  uses poetry exemplars, CCSS, lesson plans, and multimedia resources to provide educators with both the means and the way to meet Common Core Standards through poetry with ideas for all grade levels K-12.
  • Looking for exemplars that meet the requirements for Common Core? The Poetry Foundation has assembled all the exemplars from the CCSS for ELA: Appendix B for all grade levels K-12 in one place.
  • Finally, while I am not a huge fan of text books, this offering from Heinneman is pretty useful (and best of all, FREE). Written for teachers in the middle grades, it is a fine resource for breaking down the CCSS and seeing exactly how each one fits into the study of poetry. It also uses a decent selection of poetry to show the literary devices featured in each one, touches on poetry annotation, and provides activities for pre-, during, and post-reading that could easily be applied to any poem at any grade level.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Activity: Using Bloom's to Explore Visual and Traditional News Sources

Recently, I was given the task of creating an activity using Bloom's Taxonomy to guide students through the critical examination of multi-platform news sources. In considering this production, I couldn't help thinking of the old adage from Poor Richard himself:: "Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see." I believe nothing, including the news, should be taken at face value. In my opinion, this is also key to the successful media education of students.

I designed this activity with the idea of cross-curricular integration in mind. While it can be used in the English

classroom, it can also be easily adapted for use with Social Studies/History, Science, FACS, Tech Ed, Media Literacy, Speech, Drama, ETC simply by choosing articles applicable to each particular class.

I thought I would share the results in the hope that other would find this type of activity helpful.

Remember –

1. What was the lead story (or front page story)?


2. What story interested you the most?

Understand –

3. Summarize the details of this story. Be sure to include the five W’s of reporting – who, what, when, where, and why.

4. Explain why this news story interested you. (Be sure to consider the topic, the way the story was presented, any personal connection you had to the story, and past interest in other stories like this one.)

Apply –

5. Review the five W’s summarized above. Are there any questions unanswered or not completely or clearly answered? Why do you think this happened? Are there any questions you think should be explained further? Why? (What difference would a better explanation make to the story? Would it make a difference in your opinion of the story?)

Analyze –

6. Examine the story for source information. Did the story give information about the source? Who supplied the information or where was the information obtained? When were the facts of the story revealed? Why was the story released at this time? Does anyone benefit from this story being told at this time?

7. Find another source for the story (i.e. another station, another newspaper, a reliable online source). Are there major differences between the two reports? Using the five W’s, what differences can you identify between the two sources?

Evaluate –

8. Between the two sources, which story do you find to be more believable? Why? (Remember to consider where the story is coming from, who is telling the story, eyewitness reports, and differences in the presentation of the information.)

9. Using the original source, is there evidence of bias present? (Were you given all sides of the story? Is any part of the story speculation? Does anyone benefit either because this story is being told or because of the way this story is being told? Were different viewpoints used in reporting this story?)

Create –

10. Using the information from the previous questions create an alternate version of the story from a different perspective/point of view.