Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Blogging with Afghanistan

As our English 10 class picked up their Kite Runner books for the first time this semester, I mentioned that we had a “friend in Afghanistan” who was eagerly awaiting their questions and comments. About five hands went up immediately. “Who is it?” “How do you know him?” And of course, “Why does he care about our class?”

I explained that our contact, Rob Dodson, had contacted me last year after reading my class blogs, and that he was a military officer stationed in Afghanistan. I had invited him to become a part of our discussion this year, and he immediately accepted the invitation.

Sending us pictures (I've included one above), responding to question after question, and guiding us with patience, he walked us through our endless inquiries about the mysterious, somewhat veiled country in the background of The Kite Runner—Afghanistan. Before our inner circle had even started discussing the assigned chapters in The Kite Runner, the outer circle was on fire with question after question, many directed to Rob. Here is an example from the very beginning of one of our blogs:

mgardner said...
Rob-Are women allowed to go to school and get an education or is that considered something that only men can do?

ericaw said...
Rob-What are the language boundaries in Afghanistan? Do most people speak the same language or are there local languages?

moe fo show122 said...
Rob-Thank you for answering my question about the realations of the Middle East and other countries. Your explanation really helped me see what was going on in "The Kite Runner".Are the taliban still in control over in Afghanistan?And have you personally seen violence ocure between a Taliban member and a civilian?

KristinW said...
Rob-Who do the men and boys become a part of the Taliban?All-How has the Taliban influenced the people in Kabul? Have the people changed because of fear or because they like living under Taliban rule?

And Rob would take the time to write paragraphs back to each individual student, validating their questions and guiding them (and me) through which stereotypes are unsubstantiated, which ones are true, and how history plays a role in this country's complicated dynamics. Consequently, our class started many days with question after question about Afghanistan. For the first time in my teaching of The Kite Runner, students were genuinely, authentically interested in the cultural background of this book. There were days when I had to tell them to put their hands down because their questions were far beyond my ken, and so they eagerly redirected them to Rob.

Many students eagerly checked the blog as soon as they walked in to see if Rob had responded to any of their questions from the day before, which of course, he always had. Moreover, he answered their questions with interest, patience, knowledge, and eloquence. Here is an example of one his responses:

robd said...
Hi,I will try to answer your questions...I think the discussion was very good by the way...

mgardner - girls are allowed to go to school, but not across the country. In the South, it is discouraged and the Taliban tend to burn down girl's schools. In Kabul, the girls go to one school the boys to another.ericaw- there are two national languages - Pashtu and Dari. Dari is a version of Persian Farsi. In addition, there is Urdu, Uzbek, French, English, German, and Turkish spoken. Most Afghans speak at least two languages, either Pashtu or Dari and then one of the others. Most Pashtuns refuse to learn Dari and the Tajiks and Uzbeks in the North refuse to speak Pashtu. Dari would be understood by most of the people in the country, however, it was discouraged by the Taliban since it is so close to what is spoken in Iran and the Taliban did not get along with the Iranians (the Taliban are Sunni Muslims, Iran is a Shia Muslim country).moe - the Taliban have a great deal of influence over a large part of the country, at least where there are Pashtuns. Yes, I have seen some of violence that is the result of the Taliban. I know a number of Hazaras and know that they are treated very poorly.

KristinW - People join the Taliban for a number of reasons. After 9/11 and during the first part of the conflict most of the Taliban were refugees from Pakistan that wanted to return to Afghanistan. Boys and men join for a number of reasons, some because the pay they are given is more than they can earn in Afghanistan (the Taliban pays $250 a month - an Afghan solider makes $160 a month). Some join because of their religious beliefs (you can erase your sins - something from the movie Kingdom of Heaven), others because there is little else for them to do.erica - there are two courts in Afghanistan, depending upon the crime. One court is similar to our system and they put people in jail. The other, for crimes against religion, the punishment is generally very harsh. Recently an Afghan converted from Islam and was sentenced to death. The Taliban only use Sharia Law for their courts, so punishment is very severe....death, cutting off of hands, etc.travis - in those areas that the Taliban control, most women do not venture out of the house. If they do they must be in the company of a male family member. The age of majority comes into play here, so the son would have to be over 14 (the age of manhood in Afghanistan).

In short, he offered us a close-up view of Afghanistan and The Kite Runner that no essay, article or video could ever give us. The results? Ask any of my 4th hour students how they liked The Kite Runner, and their faces actually light up as they respond with an enthusiastic, “It was amazing.” And it was.

If you would like to look at our other discussions with Rob, here is the link to our class blog:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Empty Chair

“Tell Jason I said hi,” I say casually to his mother when I conference with her on a Thursday night. It is an afterthought; our conference is about Vickie, and Jason, now a college student, has moved out of my orbit.

The next Monday morning at 7 am, my fellow CSAP proctor and I distribute the Writing/Reading booklets alphabetically to the empty seats of my English 10 class. But she frowns as she puts down the last booklet. “This girl won’t be here today,” she says with weight in her voice, pointing to a yellow sticky note with Vickie’s name on it. “She won’t be here this week.” I look up at her quizzically. In response, she tells me sadly, “Her brother died this weekend.”

My thoughts race like slides being fastforwarded, each one with a cut-off thought: Her only brother is Jason--Jason sat on the right side of my English 10 class--Jason sat in the left front of my American Lit class--His backwards white hat always looked dingy—He had a happy, open-mouthed smile when he said “Hi Ms. Kakos” in the hallway--He had a note in the back sleeve of his binder that said “I love you,” presumably from Channing, his girlfriend.

He lounged in a chair-desk in room C-10, and it is impossible that he is dead.

At the funeral one week later, I am anxious to see Vickie. I finally spot her standing near the open casket, and her friends are holding her up. When I get my chance to hug her, she crumples, and it is the first time I notice how small she is. She sobs openly, the way children do, and I feel her pain physically shake its way in and out of her.

A little later, I move through the reception in search of Jason’s mother. I finally find her, and she is tiny. Her eyes are unfocused, and she nods absently as people tell her how wonderful her son was. But she really looks at me, I think, for a second as I try to tell her that I will make sure Vickie is taken care of when she returns to school. This is the best thing I can think to offer her.

I notice as I step outside the huge church that it’s a beautiful spring day. I need to breathe in as much of this air as I can, knowing that when I return to school I will have to face what I’m dreading most—a temporarily empty chair, and resting invisibly behind it, a permanently empty one. And I know that all my students can see these chairs, too.

So the next day, I sit right down in that chair at the beginning of my English 10 class. John, on my left side, is sadly without his iPod. I almost don’t recognize him without those white little earphones draped inside his gray hoodie, but I learn that John’s dad has confiscated this prized possession in response to some recent “poor decisions” on John’s part. Kaleigh, on my right side, is squinting at her laptop while biting the nails on her right hand. John is hurting without his iPod because he’s an industrial rock addict, and Kaleigh, who lost her mother just a year ago, asks me quietly about the funeral, and I know that she’s feeling more than she’s letting on.

Kids are starting to move around for peer editing, and as another boy walks behind us, John pleads to him, “Hey—can I borrow your headphones?” No dice.

John looks almost comically defeated, so I tell him cheerfully, “I’d be happy to sing for you while you work on your Macbeth essay if that helps ease the pain.”

Both he and Kaleigh give me huge grins, and John laughs as he mumbles, “No thanks.”

I’m not really that funny, but these are nice kids, and I think this will be a good spot for Vickie when she returns.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Joy to the Wordle

“This is seriously the weirdest story I’ve ever read,” my students inform me, somewhat accusingly, as they enter the room after reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For the most part, they are confused and somewhat angry about it. It is, after all, a hazy story told by an unreliable narrator whose mind either deteriorates or finds lucidity (depending on how you read it) as disturbing designs start to emerge in the wallpaper of her room.

The one thing I made them promise to me as they read the story was not to turn to any outside resources as they read; I want us, as a class, to puzzle the story together instead of reaching for an easy answer. But they want an answer, and they want it now.

So how do we work through the story in a constructivist way without sacrificing efficient interpretation-seeking?

First, we made a list as a class of all of our questions. They had...a lot.

Then, every student picked one question that intrigued him/her and spend a few minutes brainstorming possible responses and follow-up questions. At the end of this brainstorming, they seemed even angrier and more confused. Some of them were holding their foreheads as if their brains physically hurt.

What happened next? Wordle to the rescue, and this is no exaggeration. If you haven’t tried http://www.wordle.net/, you should exit this blog to try it out right now. And then please come back, because they way that we used it was, in the words of my students, really cool.

What is wordle? It’s a site in which you can paste in a text, and it quickly designs a word collage in which the words on the original text that appear the most frequently show up largest in size in the word collage. It requires no login, no password, nothing, and it’s practically instantaneous. And there are many different collage designs that students can play with, of course.

So, we took “The Yellow Wallpaper,” page by page, and wordled it. And here’s what happened:

On the first page, the words “John” (the narrator’s husband), “physician” (the husband’s occupation) and “one” were the largest, and there many negative smaller words like “haunting” and “anxiety” surrounding them.

As the story continued, “John” got smaller and smaller as the narrator grew independent of him, and the “wallpaper” grew larger. The word “standing” was replaced with word “creeping,” and “daylight” words were replaced with “night.” Words like “one” were replaced with “we,” and many of the words grew more positive. Also, verbs jumped into the present tense and increased in their sense of urgency. By the way--I didn't notice any of these things. My students did.

The best part? It's what happens on the final page. As Austin, sophomore student, wordles the last page on his laptop, he gasps, "Oh my God! On the last page--" "Don't give it away! Don't give it away!" Shannan, another student, snaps back at him. It's last period on Friday, and you'd think that they were watching The Sixth Sense, not examining the diction of a feminist story written in the late 1800s.
If you're wondering what actually happens when you wordle the last page, here it is: The largest words on the very last page were “door” and “key,” replacing the earlier emphasis on “windows” and “walls."

We then came back to the questions we brainstormed at the beginning of class and discussed what story the words tell. Of course, the ambiguity still remains…while the door is a way out for the socially trapped narrator, it’s still closed and locked at the end of the story. But, wordle, aside from the fact that it is really cool (several students claimed that they were going to spend their entire weekends wordling) opened up a door for us. It wasn’t just fun and fluffy; it sparked intense discussion and allowed us a concrete way to analyze abstract, elusive themes. Just as the design of the wallpaper emerged to the narrator, the design of the story revealed itself to us.

They left class, I think, realizing that their confusion was not a reflection of a story poorly told, but a story carefully designed to be nebulous.

And, more importantly, they were happy because wordle really is cool.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Back of the Class

I put my green backpack in the back corner and take a seat between two boys in my English 10 class, watching Randon, my student teacher, put up his PowerPoint during 3rd hour announcements. I feel a bit like an invader-- a giant trying to blend in among midgets. A little self conscious, I open my laptop and attempt to make casual conversation with Shay, the quiet, strawberry blonde soccer player on my left: “So how’s Macbeth going for you?”

Shay does not wish to make direct eye contact with me. “Umm…fine, I guess,” he responds, eyes fixated on his glowing laptop.

Aaron, on my right side, throws me a bone. “So you’re sitting back here with us, Ms. Leclaire?”
“Yep,” I reply, trying to sound enthusiastic as the reality sinks in: I am no longer in charge of this classroom. For the next ten weeks, I am not their teacher. So what happens to my role now that my student teacher has taken over?

First, I should clarify that this is not a blog about Randon. He’s having all the proud accomplishments and grueling struggles that a student teacher should have. If you'd like to read more about him, please visit his blog.

No. This is a blog about me.

So what exactly do I do here, in the back corner of the classroom, sitting amongst the masses? Here is what I’ve tried so far:
1. Typing pages of highly detailed feedback to Randon
2. Grading something easy, like vocabulary quizzes
3. Jumping into discussion every now and then when I can’t hold myself back
4. Giving quiet but dirty looks to disruptive children; even though their backs are to me, I’m hoping they can feel the silent, angry vibes of my fury and will alter their behavior accordingly

Sadly, none of this is doing it for me.

Here’s what I do now: I observe. And I mean really observe—not just Randon, but the individual students and the larger-than-life collective being that they form as a class. And I have to say that I have learned more about this class in the past four weeks of observing than I learned all of last semester.

My English 10 class is the deity of creativity and performs beautifully when engaged in activities based on performance and/or competition. My American Literature class is a slightly more volatile spirit that growls when asked to do anything to menial and cheers when given avenues for its aggressive passion, such as debates, and it is also a highly visual learner.

As for getting to know the individuals, I’ve noticed that the boy in the middle of my American Literature class who always seems to making snide comments is actually making very smart, constructive comments—it turns out that he’s just not that into raising his hand. I’ve been surprised by the fact that most students actually do talk about what they’re supposed to talk about when put into partners and groups. I saw that the quiet girl in the back who got a D last semester actually is annotating her copy of Frederick Douglass and is desperately trying to make sense of it. Actually, now that I think about it, all of the individual surprises have been happy ones. And sad ones, too, because I can’t believe how quickly I wrote these kids off last semester.

It’s a lot harder to write someone off when you sit next to him or her every day.

How do they perceive me, once so tall in the front of the room, now lounging in a chair-desk with the best of them? The only way I can describe it is like this:

At first, they were kind of like fish swimming around toward the bottom of the ocean, and I was a big snorkeler passing over them. They acknowledged me mostly through their peripheral vision, and they silently accepted my foreign presence without openly welcoming it.

But now, they’re letting me in a little, realizing that I’m not suddenly going to turn on them. They can hold a discussion with me just like I’m anyone else, and no, we’re not equals, but I can dive down a little from the surface, they can rise up a bit, and we can get close enough.

Today, I videotaped my English 10 class’s Macbeth performances, and I told Shay that he’d better step it up because I was going to zoom in on him the whole time. He shook his head as he reluctantly made his way to the front of the class.

As Shay was typing his notes, I told him that he needed to spice them up a little—they looked boring. I grabbed his laptop, set his background color to black and his font color to red. "See? Doesn't that look more Macbeth-like?" He rolled his eyes, but I'm pretty sure he agreed with me deep down.

After the bell rang, while Shay was packing up his bag, I said to him, “Set the standard high in your other classes today, Shay. Ask some good questions. Challenge yourself.” He finally abandoned his “no eye contact” rule and looked me squarely in the face. With a smile playing at the edges of his mouth, he asked, “Why are you picking on me?”

To which I responded, “Because I sit next to you.”

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Quantifying a Heart

For the second year in a row, I'm asking all of my students to develop a personal philosophy to guide their own learning this semester. They're using wikispaces to organize their ideas, to make connections to texts and to the rest of the outside world, and most importantly, to complicate their perceptions.

So here's the problem: I have no idea how to grade them. I've tried several different rubrics, and none of them have done justice to this personal project. Part of the issue is that the guidelines are loose; I give my students a basic outline, suggestions, and examples, but the rest is really up to them because I want their wikispaces to be unique, not formulaic. I don't want to "ruin" this project for them by giving them a long checklist of requirements, and I think they appreciate that. But when it comes down to making a rubric and to offering meaningful feedback, I struggle. I've tried making a list of what I'd like them to get out of this project and what they would like to get out of this project, but it always feels artificial to assign a point value to something that comes from their hearts.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Quiet Students

I was speaking with Terry Sale and some of the A.P. Literature teachers about grading practices the other day, and Terry gave me a new idea...

When his students participate in Socratic seminar, the ones who don't speak receive a non-grade instead of a zero. Since I've been doing fishbowl discussion with my sophomores lately, I started thinking about whether a zero or a nongrade more aptly fits a student who simply chooses not to participate. I have many smart students who are terribly shy, and there's a part of me that feels like someone needs to "force" them to participate, however uncomfortable it may for them at first; the idea is that hopefully, they'll grow increasingly confident when it comes to class discussion once they get through the embarrassment of speaking out loud. But there's another part of me that respects the quiet, cerebral student who learns by listening, thinking, and reflecting through writing.

While students usually have the option to write for credit instead of discussion, there are two times in the unit when they must come into the inner circle and discuss. Still, there are always a few students who enter the inner circle on their assigned days with the same enthusiasm with which they might approach a root canal, and they sit mutely (and awkwardly) throughout the entire discussion without offering a word. In the gradebook, this tranlates into a zero out of ten. However, judging by the pained expressions on some of their faces, they probably were trying to participate...maybe. In any case, they weren't detracting from the discussion, which makes me wonder why they should receive a failing grade. They were, instead, a non-factor, which might be better represented by a non-grade.

How should this be handled? What's more important--encouraging students to participate, or creating grades that reflect their roles as accurately as possilbe?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Not-So-Intimidating World of Wiki

One challenge that faces me each year is how to achieve cohesion between in-class activities, homework assignments, class discussions, creative projects, and essays (not to mention cohesion between units and semesters). With the guidance of the brilliant and charming Mike Porter, my students and I have discovered the glory of wikispaces.

In my American Literature classes, my students each formed a personal philosophy statement that will form the focus for the semester, and perhaps even for the year. Many of their philosophy statements explore the root of evil, the impetus for rebellion and/or obedience, the destructive force of fear, the significance of vulnerability, and other concepts that emerge from early American literature.

They then connect their philosophy statements to selected readings for the semester, as well their writings, notes, annotations, and blog comments. Also, they develop their own "creative" project exploring their philosophy, and this project should emerge from one of their strengths. Some students, for example, are writing songs that revolve around their philosophy, and then performing and podcasting them. Other students are using photostory, creative writing, photojournals, and even sportscasting to express their ideas.

I like using wikispaces because the technology doesn't get in the way; a wikispace is essentially a 21st century folder that allows for almost any type of media, emphasizes professionalism, encourages feedback, and lasts as long as you want it to, unlike a notebook that you clear out at the end of each semester. We'll keep coming back to the wikispaces throughout the semester and adding to them, and hopefully by the end of the semester they'll be able to look over their work and their ideas say, "THIS is the little piece of my soul that grew in American Literature," whether they focused on hope, goodness, evil, or any other personal topic that found its way out of a seemingly boring Puritan text.

Their first version isn't due until Monday, but here are a few links to wikispaces that are pretty well under way. Be sure to click on the links they have on the left side of the page ("Personal Philosophy," "In-class Work," and "Creative Connections"), and feel free to leave comments on the "discussion" tabs of their pages!

Hannah's Wiki
Meghan's Wiki
Brian's Wiki
Madison's Wiki