Saying Goodbye to Old Standards – A Case Study of the Old TEKS

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This is a sort of self-dedicated post because I am planning for an interview where I am expected to give a lesson. This lesson is based on a series of data from an English II exam.

This will be the final time it seems that I will be thinking about the old standards for schools. For high school English, a new set of standards will arrive, ones that intend to fully revamp not just an administration’s understanding of what to evaluate, but of what the ideal of the English subject should be.

For this interview, I’ve been given test results for a large amount of fifteen or sixteen year olds, and I am tasked with forming a lesson.

To start, I’ll need to see the top five things they did well, as well as the top five things they struggled with.

The top categories are:

  1. Media Literacy – Looking at Pictures – 94.23%
  2. Analyzing Theme and Genre – 93.51%
  3. Capitalization – 92%
  4. Spelling – 87%
  5. Writing an Analytical Essay – 85%

The bottom categories are:

  1. Comprehension of Poetry – 62%
  2. Complex Inferences About Text (Fig. 19b) – 66%
  3. Comprehension of Literary Texts – 69%
  4. Comprehension of Sensory Language – 69.32%
  5. Make and Defend Subtle Inferences and Conclusions – 75.34%

For anyone who has taught high school English, this is not surprising knowledge. Especially when it comes to Figure 19b, it is an infamous point that many students are working from concrete operational learning to abstract learning in their high school years (to quote Piaget). Many of the early grammar exercises have ensured that they receive the surface level mechanics for writing, like capitalization and spelling, as well as writing a pretty rudimentary response, one that can pass a grader who has about twenty seconds per essay.

But there are very deeper issues here that warrant scrutiny when it comes to literacy and inquiry found from reading. In particular, the associated skills with poetry and fiction are an issue here. Also in the data, it is the place where many of the wider disparities between students actually close in. Whereas using a variety of sentence types (simple, compound, complex, etc.) is found to have the widest disparity between all students and English Language Learners with an over 70% difference, the comprehension standards close the gap to 16% for some.

This means that smaller grammatical issues can be given a band aid with small group conference work with me in their own writing, whereas as a class, we should be dedicating our time to deeper issues of reading and writing.

Though the students are able to address wide themes and ideas, we need to leverage that skill in order to build a richer language comprehension at the sentence and paragraph level.

In forty-five minutes. The lesson would go as follows:

Poetry Warm Up – 5 to 10 minutes

Each day we start with a poem. In this case, we would need poems that address a particular thematic issue. One of the easiest to work with, regardless of school or culture, is that of identity formation. Middle school students want to fit in, but high school students want to stand out. As they form their own personalities irrespective of their parents (much to their dismay…I’m sure), they rebel, sometimes in small ways, in other ways they rebel hard.

The poem would be “The Summer I Turned Sixteen” by Geraldine Connolly. This poem would cater to a lot of the lost feelings of summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, but also talks about the vulnerability in becoming a young woman navigating life without a guide or reference point.

The benefits to this poem are that it starts our thematic lesson with a young protagonist, but also that the poem has plenty of the sensory language that the data shows these students in particular need.

The downside to choosing this poem is that it comes from Poetry180.org, a highly popular site for teachers to select poems throughout the school year. I would need to consult with other English teachers to see how heavily they rely on the website. Another poem could easily be chosen.

Each day students head to their bin and grab their poetry journal (in coronavirus world, this would be done digitally or from their backpack, to prevent gatherings and touching). I usually ask for volunteers to read the poem, and as this poem has far less tough words than other poems I would use throughout the year, few of the smart students (who typically volunteer) would embarrass themselves.

If there are no volunteers, I do not mind reading the poems. Children need to hear adults read complicated words.

After that, we typically have three categories the students must address in each poem, and we would discuss those who are not sure. These are the “Say, Mean, and Matter” and it is a trick I learned at a TCU APSI training in summer 2016.

The “Say” is the basic components of a poem. Without reading it, one can see the amount of lines, the amount of stanzas, whether the poem rhymes or has a meter/rhythm. This would be an excellent time to practice some of the common poetic language features like assonance, consonance, alliteration, enjambment, and so on.

The “Mean” is the story of the poem itself. Contained in this moment, what is the arc of the poem? Again, volunteers would be called on, though it’s fun to call on students who are talking in the back. I like to walk around the class, and I usually find ways to get rid of my desk for more space (which may have to happen in coronavirus world). Around this time there are talkers, so it’s fun to see if they can dig out of a hole when they are called on the spot.

The “Matter” is the larger theme. Because of the development of the amygdala before the prefrontal cortex in adolescence, we have many embarrassing or traumatic events that occur in that age range. And indeed in memory formation, we seem to have a spike in those years as we discover who we are. “The Summer I Turned Sixteen” is about those events that occurred to you that you wish no one else had to go through, but they most likely made you a better person.

Freewrite – 10 to 15 minutes

The poetry is not supposed to take any longer than five or ten minutes. To dwell on poetry too long bores students. Once the layered exercise is over, I’m not going to lemon squeeze a poem to death.

Once I have outlined the theme, (or if students have found a better theme to identity formation that I could use), we would go into a freewrite. I have found that I need to get the hardest things done first thing in class, and books like Teach Like a Champion agree that writing and other cognitive heavy tasks need to come first. So after this, I would give the students a prompt to “freewrite” about for five minutes. During this time I am freewriting too, modeling the writing style, which should be as fast as reasonably possible. Students should not stop and edit during this time, only write. This builds rich writing muscles, but it also helps prevent writer’s block. Many students couple writing and editing together, and this exercise teaches them to explore them in two separate occasions. For more information, see Peter Elbow’s book Writing Without Teachers.

Usually freewriting is not meant to be shared, and doesn’t have to. But I think for a thematic lesson that is a different story. Students need to hear those different iterations on a theme. So I would ask for some volunteers. This could be a place for an easy check grade, with me seeing that they did it. I tell students early in the year that I have no intention of reading their work during the freewrite for privacy sake, and because sometimes it sounds like gibberish.

Minilesson – Identity Formation Short Story (Student Example) – 15 minutes

With the difficult reading and the difficult writing exercise out of the way, we can continue the theme of learning ourselves the hard way with a student example of a short story (something I would probably have students writing on their own as homework for the week, due Friday). I would use a short story from a student in my past teaching, most likely the 2017 story about a girl who lies to her parents about going to the mall, changing into a pair of heels and going with her friends to a concert as well. The story turns thriller when, towards the end, she is kidnapped in a parking garage. When she tries to call her mother in the back of a van, she realizes that her recent arguments with her mother ended with her mother saying she would keep her phone off and not talk to her, and now she is paying the price.

Whereas the poem at the beginning is a much brighter symbol of youth, with going out into the sun to learn about what it means to be a teenager, this story by a student highlights the danger and fear, especially for young women. It’s a literal darker story, at night in a parking garage rather than outside in summer, but it also gives a moral. Teenagers need to take their parents with them on the journey of self discovery, otherwise the relationship is strained for future discussions and decisions.

The contrast between the poem and the story helps to drive nuance into conflict and thought. What is a girl to do? Not having an easy answer could help students make those conclusions that they need, as well as make inferences for their own life.

Student examples are great for a lot of reasons. 1) for those with writer’s block, it helps to give students ideas for what they can write. 2) grammar mistakes in other people’s writing are much easier to address than the blind spots in our own. 3) the vocabulary density is much smaller, empowering many of the students with a far greater feeling of success in comprehension. 4) peer reviews from students rather than teachers can sometimes do more for a student’s writing ability. 5) sharing work from a student in that school year (with the name removed) does a great deal of benefit to see their work praised by a teacher and by student comments.

After reading the work out loud, there are many different directions I can take. I can jigsaw the piece into different strands. One group may be proofreading, another may be addressing theme, or character, or the plot. By analyzing in separate parts, I could do a “Think, Pair, Share” before we come back to discuss. Basically any method that gets them to process what they want to say before regrouping and saying it…is always a good idea.

Writing Conferences – 5 to 10 minutes

In all my student surveys across the years of teaching, students swear by teacher conferences. The reason why is most likely to do with an adult paying attention to them, making eye contact, and listening to what they want to say. During this time I come around with a clipboard and talk to certain students. I would break up the week into a selection of students I would see every Monday, for example, or every Tuesday. During the week, we would have a writing piece that we would be working on, and the goal with the writing conferences would be to help the writing process. Whether brainstorming, outlining, drafting, editing, or revising, students would need to have something for me to look at, or else a smaller check grade could suffer.

In coronavirus world, Zoom writing conferences with 7 to 8 students at a time for fifteen minutes would be just as well. Students would use Google to sign up for a session with others in their class, and we would have a weekly rotation. I am not a fan of whole class sessions for Zoom, and prefer the smaller group settings as much as possible.

Enrichment Plan/Exit Ticket – Independent Reading – 5 to 10 minutes

I have 1800 books for young adults that I have purchased since my time as a special education teacher. In the past, students would choose a book and read on their own. I would come by with a clipboard and write down page numbers. At the end, students would write something that they learned on a paper for an “exit ticket” and after the five days were up, I would take that up and add that alongside other things for a grade.

In coronavirus world, I would not be able to bring the books, as students could not be trusted to not sneeze directly on books and touch books. I would not have time to sterilize them either. So students would be expected to bring their own books. Other methods like e-readers (or audiobooks on phones) would be up to you, the adminstrators.

Conclusion

This presents a top-down view based on the data of the students provided. It caters to their strengths of a theme, leveraging that knowledge for what downsides they seem to have as a whole, which is comprehension at the sensory, literary, and informational level. These routines would be carried out fairly strictly each day, and although I have thought in the past that students would grow tired of it, they have always seemed to prefer the routine. They also like that I do not lecture all that often, and that I provide autonomy, belonging, and competence, all of which are part of self-determination theory.

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