Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Finding Bias in Non-Fiction

Critical reading of any text is an important skill for secondary students, and recognizing bias is a fundamental part of the process. It's easy to teach students how to recognize bias in potential sources for research, but it's not as easy with book-length non-fiction.

When you consider the investment in reading a book-length work, and the artful way the information is often presented, it is not surprising that it is hard to identify bias. Another reason it is difficult is because any work will contain some bias, simply by the necessary choices of what to include, what to leave out, and what point of view to present, among other decisions. I know from my time as journalist that even a just-the-facts story can be presented in a way to promote a particular viewpoint from something as simple as the information presented in the first few sentences.

I teach units on the non-fiction books The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers in my classes. Both of these books present stories that are compelling, descriptive, and read like novels. It is easy to lose yourself in the stories and forget to stop and consider the choices these masterful writers are making to present their stories. During discussions about bias with these two books, students have often bristled or become upset when I raise the possibility of bias. This is a good thing. It means they have engaged deeply with the reading, and if there is bias, it matters to them.

It helps to point out that it's impossible for any writer to present another person's story with complete accuracy, and that they did not set out to manipulate the truth. Both of these books, I argue, come from the authors wanting to tell the truthful stories of their characters, but they also want to promote a particular viewpoint. That necessarily involves crafting a narrative to do so, even while sticking to the facts. (Although in the wake of the hero in Eggers' novel being arrested multiple times for domestic violence after the story ends, many critics wonder if Eggers turned a blind eye to his less-than-saintly qualities.)

Whatever your approach, here are some questions that can open up a good discussion:

What information has the author chosen to focus on?
What information might the author have left out?
How does the point of view affect how the reader feels about the characters and story?
How much of the story is re-created by the author's imagination?
Is the author making an argument?
How does the story promote the author's argument?
Could there be an alternative telling of the story, and how might it be different?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Should Schools Discipline Cyber Bullies?

By some accounts, every day, around 160,000 do not attend school because they are afraid of bullies. Those who are afraid and attend anyway are distracted and can't pay attention. Clearly, school administrators need to do everything possible to quell bullying and provide a safe environment for all students.

More and more, however, the type of bullying these students encounter is through social media or other cyber media rather than physical confrontations, making it impossible for victims to simply avoid the perpetrator via school intervention. School administrators are in a tough position. What if all the activity takes place outside of school hours? Where does school authority end? How can school administrators have the resources to monitor students' social media, and do so without invading privacy? By the time someone reports the abuse, the damage is often already done. It is easy to argue that schools monitoring what students do outside of school hours is an obvious overreach of power.

The only easy answer is that schools can offer educational programs and teach students smart social media use. This is, of course, only part of the equation, and students set on bullying other students often need a deterrent or discipline to quit the behavior.

I don't envy school administrators in sorting out this thorny problem. I suggest this topic for a discussion or debate in the classroom. When I used it with my class recently, the opinions and ideas were eye-opening. There was so much fodder for debate, the students couldn't wait to get writing!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Out with the Comma? Joining Independent Clauses

It's seemingly one of the simple punctuation rules: When you join two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction (aka FANBOYS), you need to separate them with a comma. Here is an example. The independent clauses are in blue. 

English has many grammar and punctuation rules, but there are many exceptions to those rules

This is what I've always taught in my classes, no exceptions. Now, however, I can't ignore the exception to this rule because it's becoming more common in publications, and my students notice. 

If the two independent clauses are short, closely related, and if the comma is omitted, there is no misunderstanding. For example: 

He completed the assignment but it was late.

It's not new; it's in the Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Style Guide, among others, but it's been largely ignored and doesn't come up in most shorter official grammar guides.  

The trend is definitely toward minimal punctuation, so I'm getting on board teaching the exception, but only so my students will understand when they see it in print. I will, however,  require my students to continue to use the comma in their formal writing assignments so I'm sure they understand the rule, and it's not a purposeful omission. I explain that you can't go wrong with the comma. My students know my mantra: Learn the rules (and demonstrate your understanding) before you break them. 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Cootie Catchers to Review Grammar

Let's face it: teaching and reviewing grammar with older students can be boring for the students and the teacher. Worksheets and power points just don't cut it. I'm a big fan of games that involve the whole class (see my blog post here for ideas), but recently I was looking for something that could work for pairs of students. I decided to take a chance on Cootie Catchers for my teen students. I called it "Throwback Thursday" because I was worried they would think it was silly or juvenile, but they instantly had smiles plastered on their faces, and more importantly, they were interested and engaged.

There are many ways to use Cootie Catchers. My favorite is to have a "speed round" where students, in pairs, go as quickly as they can to answer three different questions from a single Cootie Catcher correctly. When the first partner has done so, they switch places and the second partner has to answer three questions correctly from a different Cootie Catcher.  The first pair to finish wins.

Below are instructions for folding and using a Cootie Catcher, and some links to the ones I have made to review grammar. If you want to make your own, click here for a free template.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Should School Days be Shorter?

A second-grade teacher friend is facing a much longer school day this year. She will have her little charges from 8:15 to 4:30 every day. I suspect she's going to want to crawl under her desk at around 2:30. 

The most surprising thing, though, wasn't the change in her hours, but that the school day for her is actually longer. I've seen more arguments recently for a shorter school day.

There are many arguments for a shorter school day such as young people needing more time for extracurricular activities, jobs, family time, and just free play, but the most compelling argument I have seen is that kids aren't getting enough sleep, especially teenagers. Lack of sleep can lead to obesity, depression, and of course, lack of focus in school. 

I think it's a myth that teens stay up late because they want to. My own experience and my teens' experience is that there really is enough homework, music lessons, sports etc... to fill up all the hours after school until late at night. Chronic sleep deprivation is a real problem for some teens who are earnest in their studies and other activities. Teens are also wired for a different circadian rhythm than adults. One study showed that with a later start time for school, teens actually slept an extra hour rather than filling it with other things. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours of sleep for teens and 10 to 11 hours for younger kids, yet most kids do not get this amount.

While I can get behind a later start time for secondary schools for the sleep issue, I'm not in favor of a shortened school day. The average school day for an American student is 6 1/2 hours. This is not too long to cover all the different subjects and allow for breaks. Shortened class periods would mean less actual learning time because science labs, for example, still require set up and clean up, and some topics require review before moving on to the next topic. If class periods remained the same length, then classes such as music and art would likely be cut. This would be a tragedy. 

Shortening the school day would also make for a longer school year. State requirements for the number of hours in class would send many schools deep into summer to fulfill the required class time. This brings up what a shorter class day would be like for teachers. Less pay and/or teaching in July? No thanks. 

The students' education, of course if the number one consideration. The sleep issue is a real problem, but there must be other ways to solve it. Perhaps less homework or a later start with a later release time would be beneficial, but the current daily class time seems like the right balance to me. 

If you are interested in having your students take on this issue in a reading, writing, or debate assignment, I have a packet for grades 5 - 7 here. Kids have surprisingly strong opinions about this topic, and it's not always on the side of a shorter day!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Secondary ELA Seasonal Blog Hop: Composition Classroom Shares Halloween Activities

I like to bring in seasonal reading around Halloween more than any other time of year. Students are bombarded with the myths and traditions of Halloween, so I like to bring in some good non-fiction reading that helps them understand and think critically about some of these things. Where did candy corn come from? Are vampire bats really the scary, blood-sucking creatures portrayed in the movies? Here is my seasonal reading pack with four high-interest non-fiction passages, reading comprehension questions, vocabulary, and creative writing prompts. 
For my older students, I like an Edgar Allan Poe spooky story and an accompanying class discussion. To make it fun, I use a fast-paced activity based on the speed dating concept. You can use it for any short story. All you need are discussion questions and the instructions on my blog post here. Or you can get my questions and the story "The Black Cat" by clicking on the cover below.

What's a holiday without treats? I teach an evening class on Mondays, and this year, we'll be stuck there on Halloween, so I'll be making candied popcorn topped with these tags. Easy and cheap. Click here for a blog post with the recipe here, and click on the cover below to download the tags for free.

Happy, happy Halloween!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Short Story Speed Round Discussion Activity

Discussion questions are a great idea to kick off a short story unit, but the participation of my students has been lackluster with the traditional format. Enter a fast and fun discussion activity based on the speed dating concept. This will be my go-to activity on Halloween with a spooky Edgar Allan Poe story. 

Every student participates, and the stakes are low for exploring the answers to questions because they are working one-on-one with each other for short periods of time. It gets students up and moving, a rare thing when studying literature. Below are the rules of the activity. You'll have to make cards with discussion questions, or if you want to save time and check out mine for Poe's The Black Cat, click here.

1. Arrange students in one of the following ways:

A. Have students form two circles, one inside the other, with an equal number of students in each. Have students face each other.  
B. Have students stand in two equal lines, facing each other.

(If you have an odd number of students, you can participate or rotate one student out each round.)

2. Divide the cards evenly among one line or one circle of students.

3. Start a timer for two minutes. The student with the cards reads the question from the first card, and then the students facing each other discuss the question.

4. When two minutes are up, have the circle or line of students without cards rotate to the left (for a line, have the last person come to the front of a line).  The students with the cards will put the used question at the bottom of their pile.

5. Repeat process for about 10 rounds, or as time permits.

If a student gets asked a duplicate question, the student with the cards skips to a new question.

This activity is perfect for starting a unit, or as a stand-alone activity. I'll be using "The Black Cat" this year on Halloween, as Poe is the master of combining spooky and gruesome. The psychology of the narrator and the symbols throughout leave a lot of room for spirited discussion. Another favorite is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce.