Tuesday, November 26, 2013

BBF and EdCafes

I have been meaning to blog for a while, so I've got a lot I want to share (though I've limited it to two topics). So buckle up and keep your arms and legs inside the ride, because here we go:

 Boston Book Festival

BBF was over a month ago, so you can see how long I've been procrastinating. This year's event was not quite as spectacular as last year's, but still a darn good day. I unfortunately missed out on the first talk I wanted to go to, as it was filled up, so I went and did some reading in Copley Square, noshed a bit, wandered around the booths, and chatted with a stranger running one of said booths about graphic novels. Next up was a talk called "Memoir: Descendants" featuring Eileen Rockefeller, Najila Said (daughter of famous Palestinian writer Edward Said), and Monica Wood. My favorite was Said, as I found her discussion of her confused identity to be fascinating. Her father was Palestinian but Episcopalian, her mother was Lebanese and yet Quaker, and Said grew up in New York surrounded by Jews (and acknowledged that she herself looks like she could be Jewish) and went to a school with lots of WASPs. She struggled to figure out where she fit in, often feeling like an outsider, and also dealt with an eating disorder. Some interesting quotes from her (because yes, I am a dork and bring a small notebook with me to the festival):

·        "We're given categories, and if you don't fit into them, you don't know what to do with yourself."
·        She said to her father, "I want to be Irish!" To which he replied, "You are Irish--you're Palestinian. What you want to be is a WASP."
·        "I felt horrible, and dirty, and other."

Maybe my interest in her is due to the fact that a number of the books I have taught deal with the subject of "otherness." In addition, growing up Jewish in a very non-Jewish area made me aware of my otherness, even if it was something that I did not struggle with nearly as much as Said did.

One thing that Rockefeller said that struck me was, "I'm still becoming myself; I don't know if I'll ever stop becoming." And Wood talked about how she found it easier to write her memoir than her works of fiction, partly because there was something comforting about revisiting her childhood memories. Another interesting idea from her: "Writing always asks the past to justify itself."

Next up was "Best American Sports Writing," at which point a couple of friends joined me for the remainder of the day. I mainly wanted to attend this one because the great Globe columnist Bob Ryan was the moderator. He is quite funny (he told us, "One of my friends is here from the most forlorn city in America: Cleveland"), though he does stumble over his words quite a bit (surprising for someone who's on TV all the time). One point that was discussed was that the book they were promoting was comprised largely of stories that just happened to include sports--sports was more of an entry point to larger stories and ideas, and many of the authors included in the book do not necessarily write about sports for a living. One of the panelists said, "We don't give a damn about sport, it's just an excuse to write about other things." Another one was discussing his book on the epic demise of Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, and how awkward it was to talk to Schilling about it. His summary: "I love the Red Sox; let's talk about all the lives you ruined." He discussed how the problem with this business was that Schilling thought he could basically will it into success. While this may work when you're an athlete, it doesn't cut it for a business owner. Schilling had "rampant and destructive optimism."

The final talk of the day that we attended was "True Crime." Kevin Cullen spoke about his latest work on Whitey Bulger. He had some humor for us, when saying that the two big obsessions in Boston are the Red Sox and Whitey: "The Red Sox are having a better year....Whitey might wanna think about growing a beard." But he also got very serious, and made it clear how much he despises both Bulger and the FBI agents involved with him. He said that some members of the FBI have tried claiming that Bulger only killed other gangsters, and said that, besides this not being true, he also does not want his government deciding who lives and who dies, and that what they were doing at that time. The author of "The Bling Ring" was also there. Another writer, Mirta Ojito, talked about how "words matter"--the things we say in casual conversation, especially around kids, are more influential than we might realize (her book is about teenagers who killed a man).

Didn't get any books signed this year, but we'll see who the event attracts next year!

 Increasing student choice

I've been working lately on finding ways to give my students more choices in the learning process. With my sophomores I've given them some different options on writing assignments (both creative and formal) so that they are still achieving the same learning goals but can do so in a way that is more likely to interest them. With my seniors, I recently tried something new (which I'd like to modify for my sophomores eventually). My friend Ms. K and I love swapping ideas about education, and I have picked up some great things from her over the last few years. One of her big innovations is something called "EdCafes." This is a form of student-led discussion that emphasizes student choice. What I had my students do was sign up on a calendar for a day to lead an EdCafe (between four and six students would go on each day). On the calendar was written which chapters they'd be discussing and where in the room they'd be stationed (the filing cabinet, the podium, the closet I've dubbed "Narnia," etc.). The night before their EdCafe, they had to email me their topic and its title, and if they got it to me by the deadline I'd send them feedback in case it needed to be strengthened.

On each EdCafe day, the student leaders would stand up and inform the class of what they'd be discussing and where. (I would also have this information projected on the board.) Then the rest of the class would choose which EdCafe to attend (I stressed that it was important to choose based on interest rather than friends) and move the desks around. The leaders had to provide their groups with a handout and then stand up and present their thoughts on the topic to their groups for 1-2 minutes. Then they could sit back down (much to their relief) and facilitate a group discussion, which the group members were expected to take notes on (by the end of the four sessions they were required to have at least a couple of pages of notes). I floated around the room listening in on snippets of the discussions/presentations and sometimes nudging the groups along if they got stuck or off-topic. When the discussion time would start winding down, I told the groups to work on coming up with a takeaway from their discussion, which the leaders presented to the class and which I typed up to project onto the board.

I'll admit that a few of the EdCafes were only so-so; it was clear when leaders were not fully prepared. But a lot of them were very interesting and successful. Students were almost always engaged--it's not as though they would start chit-chatting the second my back was turned. The students were truly listening and responding to one another, and having a group leader helped get them to delve deeper into the topics. Some of the discussions were still going strong when I told the groups to write their takeaway, and I felt sad about having to cut them off.

Another interesting observation I made was that successful EdCafes can come in different sizes. Some of the best discussions had five or maybe six students, while others had only the leader and one other person. One such tiny EdCafe was really wonderful to watch, because not only was the dialogue between the two girls flowing superbly, but the non-leader is normally rather quiet in class, and I enjoyed seeing how comfortable she felt to speak freely and express her ideas in this alternative setting. Other students who are similarly quiet on normal days showed great leadership when running their EdCafes, and I loved seeing them step up to the challenge. One girl is quite shy, and looked terrified when I told them they'd need to stand up during their presentations, and yet she presented for probably almost three minutes. I made sure to tell her afterwards how thrilled I was to see her crush it like that.

I enjoyed giving my students this kind of freedom and seeing most of them rise to the challenge. I told them how important it is for them to take ownership of the learning process and to learn to work more independently, as these are skills they will need in college and beyond. They still had some scaffolding in place, because independence is a learning process, but soon enough they'll be better at figuring these things out for themselves. I also had them choose their own topics for their essays, but required them to submit topic proposals and thesis statements so that I could conference with each student and help them craft stronger arguments.

I told my dad about what I'd been up to with my classes, and he said it was so interesting to see how much my charter school education has influenced my teaching practices. Independence and public speaking were two concepts I was VERY familiar with growing up. Every year, even in elementary school, we had to present an "Exhibition of Mastery"--mine were on such topics as Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and female sports journalists (for which I did a phone interview with the great Jackie MacMullan). As I've written about before, the workshop/project classes we took (I did theater for three years) taught us to take charge of the learning process. We often had to find the resources we needed in order to accomplish our goals. In our classes we were encouraged to share our ideas. Independence became second nature for us. And in this day and age when kids are coddled far too often, I've realized how important that independence is. I want to keep on experimenting with these different methods of giving my students more choices and encouraging them to take more ownership of their education so that they will know how to think for themselves rather than just depending on strict guidelines. If I can make them more independent thinkers, I will know that I've accomplished something meaningful.
A few examples of handouts:

For more on EdCafes, go to http://whatisanedcafe.wordpress.com/