The Nuance of Vocabulary Instruction

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Those in the field of education are vitally aware that vocabulary is a strong indicator of academic and reading achievement.  Although we can generally agree that copying definitions from the dictionary will not help students learn new words, teachers still seem to feel at loss with how to best approach vocabulary instruction.  According to the National Reading Panel’s synthesis on vocabulary research, there are 8 major practices that directly impact vocabulary instruction and reading achievement:

  1.  Provide direct instruction of vocabulary words for specific texts.
    • explicitly teaching students words that will help them comprehend a lesson or text better (such as academic, content specific words or even words that are essential to understanding a literary text such as a poem or novel).
  2.  Ensure repetition and multiple exposure to vocabulary items.
    • research shows that average students needs a minimum of 14-17 repeated exposures to words; while struggling students, at-risk students, and ELLs need as many as 40 repeated exposures! (Marzano 2004)
    • an “exposure” should mean exposure to words in context through wide reading, discussion, and frequent intentional use of the word by teachers.
  3. Select words that students will find most useful in a variety of contexts.
    • because vocabulary development does appear to follow a developmental trajectory (Biemiller, 2001), the explicit instruction of high-frequency words is extremely important for those still learning to read.
  4. Explicitly structure vocabulary tasks. 
    • be explicit in your directions for what to do with vocabulary tasks.
  5. Develop an effective use of technology to help engage students.
    • Effective vocabulary instruction combined with effective use of technology can help encourage vocabulary learning especially for English Language Learners (Silverman and Hines 2009).
  6. Encourage wide reading to create incidental learning opportunities.
    • This does not mean that direct instruction should not happen.  Ideally, students need to be doing a LOT of reading in order to develop the ability to process incidental exposure to vocabulary words.  Students will more likely pick up on incidental exposure after direct instruction in vocabulary strategies so that they know what to do when they approach unfamiliar words during reading.
  7. Don’t depend on ONE vocabulary instruction method.
    • Design tasks that expose students to vocabulary terms and meanings through multi-sensory learning.  Students should draw, act, write, read, and discuss vocabulary words in multiple contexts.
  8. Actively engage students beyond definitional knowledge of words.

Number eight is where I’d really like to focus this post, especially when teaching vocabulary to Deaf and Hard of Hearing students.

Too often vocabulary instruction is done at the definitional level.  Students are given a list of words, maybe exposed to some example sentences that use the words.  Quite often, teachers go through the words and give “signed-equivalents” for these vocabulary words based on definitions studied.  The problem with this type of task is that tier 2 words often have multiple meanings and a single sign is hardly appropriate for words in context.  Even if multiple signs are given, student is still learning a signed-equivalent which is not the same as understanding a words meaning and/or how to use the word.

For example:

Consider the word SHREWD.  what does the word mean?  What do vocabulary workbooks and “student-friendly” definitions often state the word means?  How would you sign the word?  Let’s look at some definitions from vocabulary workbooks:

Vocabulary Workshop

  • Shrewd (adj.) showing clever judgment and practical understanding

  • Shrewd: Marked by practical hardheaded intelligence

Building Better Vocabulary

  • Shrewd:  (adj.) smart

Can you determine which sign is often used when giving students the definition?  Would you be considered shrewd if you guessed “SMART”?  Is smart an accurate way to define shrewd?  Often students walk away understanding that “shrewd” is equivalent to “smart”.  This begets sentences such as:

  • I am shrewd because I got an A on my math test!
  • I am not shrewd because I can’t read good.
  • Shrewd people are good at Math.
  • I was shrewd mouth to my mom yesterday.

From these 4 sentences we can tell that the student understands the word to mean “smart” and the student also understands that the word is used as an adjective.  Would you say the student clearly understands the word shrewd?  

What teachers often forget when teaching vocabulary in this way is that all words have “nuance.”  Teaching vocabulary in the context of a single definition or sign (or even a set of definitions and signs) can also restrict you when you start to try and translate texts with students.  Being able to pick up on the nuance of words is extremely valuable to comprehension of complex texts.  We teach students that authors can be very picky in their word choice, which means students should be very picky in their definitions.  So how do we teach students the nuance of words?  We need to actively engage students with words and word meanings.  This means: exposing students to words in a variety of contexts.  Developing working definitions for words that go beyond copying from vocabulary workbooks or dictionaries.  Noting when studied vocabulary words pop-up in everyday contexts (did your parent use the word? Did you see the word on the news? was the word in a textbook or novel you read?).  Providing a variety of visual and textual representations of words.  Showing students examples of correct usage vs. incorrect usage and frequently assessing whether or not they can identify an incorrect usage.  And most importantly: discussing and questioning word and sign usage.

We need to stop and frequently ask ourselves as teachers and (ask those around us): am I choosing signs that accurately convey what I mean?  Do the words I choose for my writing accurately convey what I mean?  Is there a better way to sign or write this?  Why do we sign or write it this way?  In what situation/context could I use this word?  Could I say or sign this differently?  How would I define (and re-define) this word?

I want to share an example of a lesson I did with students when trying to teach the word: APPEAL.


I showed the word on the projector along with 4 example sentences for them to read.  I asked them to read the word and sentences and then let me know what they think the word APPEAL means.  The first thing a few students did was sign—>

I asked them not to show me the sign, but to carefully read the sentences and think about the meaning.

  • Even though he was found guilty, Fred will appeal the decision.
  • Margaret approached her teacher and made an appeal to change her grade.
  • The principal is appealing for any information about the bathroom vandalism.
  • We are studying about emotional, logical, and ethical appeals in English class.

We discussed the context surrounding each sentence and then I stopped to ask if the sign shown above in the gif was accurate?  Many of them realized it wasn’t.  We talked about what other signs could be used (some signs that were suggested were:  “discuss”, “look for”, “disagree with”, “ask”, “argue”, “persuade”)  and after much discussion, students realized that a “single sign” may not be appropriate for all sentences.

My students were now ready to delve into nuance.  The definition of appeal from their dictionaries was “an urgent request”.  I showed students two sentences that were the same although one sentence used the word APPEAL and the other used the word ASK.

  • Margo appealed to Jennifer for a pencil.   /  Margo asked Jennifer for a pencil.
  • Henry appealed to his teacher for an extension. / Henry asked his teacher for an extension.
  • Mrs. Smith appealed to the sales clerk to help her find the cat food. / Mrs. Smith asked the sales clerk to help her find the cat food.

I went ahead and demonstrated what the first pair of sentences would look like.

My “appeal” went like this:  (looking distraught) “Jennifer, I lost my pencil and do not have a back up one.  The teacher refuses to give me one and I really need to pass this test!  You know we lose points if we don’t use pencil.  Do you think I could borrow a pencil from you?  I promise I’ll give it back before the end of class!”

My “ask” looked like this:  “Jennifer, can I borrow a pencil from you?”

I had students volunteer to demonstrate the next two paired sentences.  We discussed the difference between the APPEAL and the ASK.  Students were able to demonstrate the nuance behind the word APPEAL.  We came up with a definition that involved persuading someone.  One student even suggested that an appeal needed to have some kind of “evidence” or “support” to go with it.  This further extended their understanding of rhetorical appeals which we were learning during our persuasive unit.  I was able to frequently use the word appeal when discussing their persuasive speeches without getting blank stares.  Now they are ready to go deeper into the word’s meaning by taking a look at the word “appeal” from the context of:  “The idea of going to Paris for spring break sounds very APPEALING!”

Many of you will note that we spent a lot of time on just ONE WORD.  I did not go through a list of 10 vocabulary words with my students and honestly had I tried to approach a 10-word list in this way, it would have overwhelm students.  I’m personally an advocate of the word-a-day approach but it is not an approach for everyone.  It also does not mean that I do not extend vocabulary through other means (we do vocabulary study using content specific words, or through read-aloud where I stop to annotate and discuss words).

So, how do we give students a plethora of words while at the same time helping them understand, read, and use these words in a variety of contexts?  The key is to be consciously selective of your words.  Make sure the words you select build on one another.  Help students make connections between when and how words are used.  Do away with strict adherence to vocabulary workbooks…or if you use them, stop to take a look at how the chapters are structured.  Why are these particular words selected?  What connection do they have with each other as well as what connection do they have with what students are currently learning in class?  Are these words that students can frequently use NOW in different contexts?  Are these words present with intention in the readings they are or will be doing?  Working on vocabulary workbooks, even if words are taught in context of meaningful sentences, is still isolated vocabulary instruction if it is not connected to everything else you do.  It is not valuable to throw vocabulary at students and hope it sticks.  It is not productive to teach vocabulary so that students can regurgitate it on a test and not use it or see the word again in their reading.  And it is down right frustrating for a student to learn a word based on a teacher’s definition and then attempt to use it (like the sentences above), only to find that they still don’t know how to use the word or what the word really means.



Anderson, R. C., & Freebody, P. Buenger, A., Butler, S., Eisenhart, C., Gonzalez, N., Hunt, M.,  and Kelsi Urrutia, K. (2010).A Review of the Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: National Reading Technical Assistance Center, RMC Research Corporation.


What are you doing for others?

   I haven’t posted in a while.  I keep telling myself to participate in flipclass #flashblogs but nothing jumps out on the page.  I’m stuck.  A lot goes on in the classroom and I’m still making loads of mistakes, but I can’t reflect on them.  My head is too full and my heart is too heavy.  Baltimore happened a few weeks ago (or has a month passed by already?). I hesitate to call it a riot or an uprising but IT happened and the anger that has been sitting deep in the belly of my alter ego has surfaced.  I had an interior uprising that sits under my skin on a daily basis.  I have a lot more “reactions” to white ignorance than I’d care to admit.  My reactions are visible in my tone, in my manner and in my facial expressions.  

I knew I needed to talk to someone about it, so I’m choosing to write.  Just to admit that I’m angry.  I’m angry that #blacklivesmatter is a bellringer prompt, a lunch table conversation, a Socratic discussion, an “opportunity” or “teachable moment”, as if to press pause on the lives of our white students and try to get them to understand what’s going on.  I don’t have an answer for what you should do when students ask about #blacklivesmatter, and I’m not saying the discussions shouldn’t be happening, but I’m angry that so many whites are carrying on the discussion as if they understand, when even I don’t fully understand.  I’m angry that these headlines are just another topic for water cooler gossip.

Baltimore happened, Ferguson happened. So many stories being romanticized as if these young men were martyrs.  How many black lives are sitting in your classrooms, scared, confused, angry?  How do we even begin to discuss the gravity and intensity of a movement clinging to the heels of a hashtag?  

The truth is,#blacklivesmatter is not about police brutality.  It’s a bat signal for empathy and empathy begins with listening.  You don’t have to lead the discussion or create  a mini lesson around something that is probably a part of many of your students’ daily lives.  Consider your circles, your reactions, your interactions and your words.  How much of your investigation into these events involves the simple act of listening to others?  What stories have you gathered that aren’t spun by media plot lines?  What authentic primary source research have you gathered in your desire to help students make sense of these events?  What are you doing for others?  

I’m still angry, but I’m hopeful that others are listening.  There is so much more I want to say, but I’m still gathering, culling, curating but most of all reflecting.  

How You Play the Game

I have a quiet competitiveness. Inside I’m often looking at things as either a “win” or a “loss” , a success or failure. I harbor paralyzingly fears of not being good enough and wondering how I stand up to my colleagues. I worry that I’ll be pushed out of my position or benched. In a profession full of so much stress, it’s not a good way to look at ones tenure.

So the question of the night focused on “what does deeper learning look like in your classroom?” My first reaction was, it doesn’t happen. My students and I are still hung up on grades. We’re still looking for the “win”.

What about the journey? I see my students struggle and I pull out the clipboard and rehash my plays. I talk to them about what’s working and what’s not working. We run a different play, and the wheel keeps on spinning. We’re still behind 20 points with very little possibility of making a comeback. But the key is not to focus on the win, but to look at how we are playing the game. Ultimately deeper thinking is not going to happen without intrinsic desire to learn. I’ve got to cultivate that desire and find the middle ground between rigid standards and life skills, responsibilities and passions, grades and flexible learning.

I get 9 months with my students and I can’t be their coach anymore. I can’t continue to treat them like winners vs. losers. I need to be the conduit and not the catalyst. I can help students get to where they want or even need to go, but they’re going to have to ignite their own passions.

About Time We Learn!


This quote pretty much sums up my feelings about late work, but like every teacher we feel pressured to “teach” our students a lesson in promptness. I completely understand the idea that high school students need to be prepared for the “real world” where tardiness can get you fired, however, this lesson should not be at the expense of learning the concepts. A majority of students, especially high school students know “the game.” This game is: show up, sit down, listen, turn in the homework, go home. They have tuned out on their education and school ends up being just another way to fill time until they are 18 and out of their parents’ houses, so they can make their own choices. They’ve learned how to copy each other’s papers, find answers on Google, type math problems into an app that will answer the questions for them, read the cliff notes (or watch the movie), do anything except invest in their own learning.

For a long time my policy was grade deduction based on number of days late but it became hard for me to keep tabs on late work. So I switched to no late work accepted and pretty soon the strugglers stopped trying at all. Why bother if you knew you weren’t going to get credit for it? Last year I started a no homework policy–if you didn’t finish,it got tabled to the next day. My class work felt like a revolving door. I still couldn’t stay ahead of all the work. This year, class work is done in class, period. If you don’t finish, you sign up for lunch tutoring or see me during advisory period and if you don’t see me then the work earns 50% or less. I have two weekly assignments: reading logs and an article of the week. Students still struggle with this. So many other classes have the NO LATE WORK policy that my work gets put off for the very end, if done at all. This means that students are not reading. It makes me very sad. However, I’m now able to plan class lessons more efficiently as I know I have to leave time for them to actually work. It helps me keep lessons simple to ensure they are learning. Students pay attention in class because they don’t want to waste valuable time.

I want students to feel accomplished when they leave my classroom. What they and how they learn is more important than when they learn it.

Why We Blog too


Blogging has become a popular topic in twitter edu-chats. There is often the debate about whether student blogging is authentic or not. This particular post is not about student blogging, but an effort to take a look at why teachers are beginning to blog.

Those of us who are English teachers know the importance of writing frequently as a means of improving literacy. It stands to reason that teachers who write frequently will have a better understanding of how to teach writing or at least incorporate writing into their lessons. If we want our students to become digital citizens and blog with an authentic audience, then we need to get a sense of what that entails and what it feels like to have an audience of our own.

Teachers are often encouraged to reflect on teaching practices as a way to improve and develop best practices. Blogging can be away to openly reflect and interact with an audience. Blogging helps me delve deeper into a personal discourse with myself about my teaching methods or about educational policy and best practices. At the same time, blogging creates a platform that forces me to consider how my thoughts will be received by others and mandates special attention and revision as I compose posts.

The nature of a blog does not guarantee an audience, your writing does. The better you write and more aware you are of what connections you make with potential readers, the more likely you are to produce work that gets followed. It is a brave endeavor to put yourself out their, but it is the first step to better writing instruction. If you are not able to compose works that you assign to your students, how can you be sure that your instruction will meet with success? Also, writing becomes more enjoyable when someone interacts with you and let’s you know you are on the right track.

I encourage all teachers to start a blog. It doesn’t have to be an educational blog. Find something you want to say or choose a topic you feel knowledgable and share your knowledge with others. At the very least,if you ask your students to blog, you should blog with them. Let them see you plan and revise a post. Discuss with them the type of audience you wish to reach. Share your writing goals and how you plan to accomplish them. Your experience as a writer will frame their experiences and make the writing process authentic for your students.

Re-Framing the Teacher

horrible-mothersI remember becoming pregnant with my daughter and the absolute mix of excitement and trepidation I felt at the very idea of becoming a parent.  When she was born, I promised myself I would learn as much as I could and work my absolute hardest at becoming the best parent I could be.  I read TONS of books, watched all the baby shows and joined several discussion boards.  The information overload often stressed me out to the point that I was constantly worrying about whether or not I was making the best choices for my daughter.  There were the never-ending debates on breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, cloth vs disposable, cry it out or co-sleep, to vaccinate or not. Then there was the incessant comparison of so and so’s son/daughter already potty trained at 12 months while another mother’s kid was still in pull-ups at 4; one kid walking at 9 months while another kid didn’t start walking until nearly 2; worrying because someone’s kid got a rash that turned out to be the bubonic plague (ok, I’m exaggerating this one but you know what I mean).  I remember feeling excited to chat with other parents going through similar issues at the same time, I was overwhelmed and more often than not, felt as if I was doing everything wrong.  What do you do as a new parent when another parent tells you that any mother that lets her infant cry it out should be considered a child abuser?  Or that using disposable diapers is “lazy parenting”?  At one point, I just stopped reading, stopped checking the mommy boards, and I looked at my daughter.  She smiled at me, hugged me, and said, “Mommy, you’re my best friend.”  That’s my feedback, she’s the only one I need to listen to as far as what I do as a parent.  Every child is different, and I couldn’t mimic another parent’s results with 100% success even if I tried.  I now know that my husband and I will always do what’s best for our children.  Why? Because we love and care about them.  We wish to see them grow into spectacular adults.  We will make mistakes along the way, but constant criticism paralyzes.  It does nothing to move the dialogue forward.

So, how does this apply to teaching?  I read a wonderful post by David Theriault.  He has been encouraging his students to blog using topics that students “re-frame” to match their own understanding.  I love this idea, and decided to try it on my own.

So, here I am, re-framing teachers.  We all know that teaching is like parenting, but the constant criticism we receive as teachers –not just from politicians, media and the like–but from each other parallels the criticism parents receive.  It is tough to hear comments like “Any teacher who hands out worksheets is damaging student learning!”  or “Teachers who aren’t constantly asking students what they want to learn should not be teaching!” or “Stressed out teachers are pathetic!”  It takes a lot not to let the criticism paralyze you.

I conjecture that most of us are trying to do what is best for our students.  I pose that we all make mistakes and that no one method is the magic elixir that will suddenly make students LOVE school.  We all have DIFFERENT students with very different needs.  For myself, I need to stop thinking that everyone else knows what is best for my students.  I see them every day, I work with them every day.  I care about each one of them and no one feels it more than I do when they fail (except maybe the parents).  No one on those message boards carries that guilt heavier that maybe something I did made the student fall through the cracks.  However, I also know it is my job to continue to learn.

Unlike parents, we aren’t stuck in our roles.  We are teachers by choice.  Some great teachers are leaving the field because of the “out with the old, in with the new” mentality that has been infecting our dialogue.  Suddenly things these teacher won accolades for have become cliché and inappropriate for the “21st century learner”.  There has to be a way to connect with teachers who have over 30 years of experience, find out how to take their knowledge and skills, and apply it to the new demands of our ever-changing student body.  Experienced teachers also have to be open-minded about innovative practices and allow the new teachers to share knowledge.  In the end, teachers must meet the needs of their individual students.  As all teachers know, what works one year may not work the next.  We ALL make mistakes.  No one is an exemplary human being all of the time.  You have to trust the decisions you make and hope that your young ones will turn into phenomenal adults.

I always consider at least two things when I post comments on twitter:

1. Does my comment reflect a desire to build connections?

2. Am I being honest about my own practices as an educator?

I have to be careful not to make Twitter a sound board for my complaints but demonstrate a desire to learn from them.  I also want to make sure that new teachers know, just like new parents, that whether or not you are a good teacher (parent) depends largely on the relationship you share with your students (children).  Don’t let others decide what kind of teacher you will be.

Principals Need Love Too

ImageI’m in a unique position as an educator.  During my 7 years teaching at my current school, I’ve had 5 principals.  It isn’t that the position is cursed, but that our principals go on to do even greater things.  However, going through these frequent changes has turned me into a skeptic and a pessimist.  That is something that needs to change.  I realized that though this year has been UBER tough for me, it must be just as hard (maybe even harder) for my newest principal.  I came across this post on a blog archive for principals and administrators.  It talks about three things that need to be reciprocated in order for the working environment to remain positive.  I was quick to blame administration when reading the first one but by the time I got to the last word, I had to point the finger at me.

The word that hit me the most was: Praise.  I don’t think I’ve ever doled out the gold stars for anything my principal has done.  BUT here’s the thing, I don’t think any other previous principal cared about students as much as my current principal does.  He honestly wants the school to be a GREAT place to learn, grow and belong.  He has so much passion for improving Deaf education.  He puts so much time and effort into establishing practices that will have long-term impact.  He’s excellent at getting other administrators to see his viewpoint and he spends a ridiculous amount of time having important conversations with the heads above to ensure that our department is not forgotten.  He’s often at school before I am and sometimes still there when I leave.  I have even gotten an email or two way into the midnight hours; I’m sure he spends those hours, after his kids go to bed, trying to catch up on e-mails.  He knows what it’s like to be a student in those halls and he knows that he has teachers who are able to rise to the occasion.   But I wonder if he’s ever heard a word of praise from us (and not just on administrator’s day).

Being a principal or administrator is not an easy job.  In fact, I don’t ever want the position.  There are a wide variety of personalities to manage.  There’s the push and pull between what the district administrators want and what teachers are able to do.  There are parents who want what’s best for their individual student, while my principal has to keep the entire student body at heart.  There is an ever changing list of legal mandates that interfere with expanding our vision. There is a community that constantly needs to be taught what it is we do at our school.  The list is endless.  I tip my hat off to our principal who manages to do the unimaginable with grace and humility.

It’s time my principal knew that though we may have developed a quiet tension between us, I honestly do believe we have a mutual respect for each other.   There may be times we don’t agree but standing with my hands on my hips will not sway the mountain.  I think if we can succeed at praise, then trust is not far behind.

Broadening your Perspective

mainTwitter has made it possible for me to communicate with a wide variety of people from all over the globe in a fairly accessible environment.  On Twitter, you get to design yourself the way you’d like to be seen.  It’s great fun and often very liberating; however, it has a way of making reality look a little gloomy.

One thing I have been very open about on Twitter is the fact that I am Deaf.  I use American Sign Language as my primary means of communication, although I consider English to be my first language.  I’m proud of my accomplishments and I rarely consider myself disabled.  It’s only when the veil is lifted off my Twitter world and I attempt a bit of real-world collaboration that I am “disabled,” and it’s not because of my deafness, but rather because those around me find it difficult to shift perspective.

I attended #TCEA13 conference last week and enjoyed most of it very much!  However, a few workshops left me feeling angry and frustrated.  I hate being patronized.  I hate walking into a room flanked by interpreters and garnering eyes.  I hate people coming up to me asking me if I know Braille.  I hate sitting at a table alone because no one wanted to work with the “deaf girl.”  I ended up ditching a workshop smack in the middle of group work (which wasn’t a group unless you counted my interpreters) so that I could find a seat amidst a crowd rather than sit up front where it was clear I was the “deaf girl.”  I came to the conference hoping to be considered an equal, not a zoo exhibit.  Unfortunately, being made into a spectacle was my same experience in high school.  Haven’t we grown up since then?

Seriously, it’s time to grow up.  The world is full of people who aren’t your shape, size, color, or flavor.  This is an opportunity for you to reconfigure your understanding of the world.

As I rant, I think about my students and their experiences in other schools.  Many of them transferred to my school after attending a mainstream program.  They come to my school to feel like an equal and not so “special.”  In my class, students aren’t flanked by interpreters.  They can sit wherever they want.  They participate in groups and may decide they don’t want to work with some other students, but it’s not because those students are deaf.  Students participate in all aspects of school: sports, clubs, after school activities, without having to constantly overcome the hurdle of being the “deaf kid” and having to explain to hearing people what language access means.  They get to be student council president, athlete of the month,  cheerleading captain and/or valedictorian.  However, our school is considered the most restrictive option for deaf students and is often a last resort.

As much as we Deaf try to shirk the label “disabled” it is what the world around us sees.  Mainstream schools need to have a major paradigm shift, and that shift needs to start with its teachers.  Teachers need to start taking a more “universal design” approach to their lessons.  They need to consider how accessible their content is to all types of students.  If you approach learning as providing a set of pathways for students to choose, adding a deaf student or any other “disabled” student to your class should not dramatically change the way you teach.   All students are capable of learning, and they are capable of thriving if the environment is right.  We need to focus on accessibility and design, not on the disability itself. It’s not, “oh, my student is deaf and can’t hear.  How can I give him/her access to sound?” It should be, “hmmm my student requires access to a visual language.  How can I incorporate this into my lessons so that all students expand their visual literacy?”  It’s not “I have a student in a wheelchair, how can I set up space for him to work?” It should be, is my classroom designed for all students to move about freely and access what they need?”

If we as teachers set up a classroom without barriers and in which all students are equals, then perhaps students will begin to see each other as equals as well.

Finding Authentic Readers to Foster Authentic Writers

My seniors just finished up a persuasive unit that included a research paper and a persuasive speech.  Working on this project was quite daunting both for me and my students.  There are so many skills that go into writing a GOOD research paper and then aggregating that information into a GOOD persuasive speech.  Not only do they have to demonstrate competency in these skills, but my students have to do it in two different languages (ASL and English).   Needless to say, they found this project more difficult than reading Beowulf.  I, on the other hand, found it difficult to grade these assignments, especially the persuasive speech.

I  don’t know about other English teachers out there, but I find it so hard to get students to revise their drafts.  Students automatically go from first draft to editing to final draft.  They don’t seem to understand why revision is important, even after a writing conference with me.  To my students, when they write something, it makes sense to them exactly how they wrote it the first time, so why change it.  They have a hard time considering how the sentence or paragraph might read to a different audience.  Likewise, I find it hard for me to separate feedback for revisions from feedback for editing.  I often break out the colored pen and mark student’s grammatical errors simultaneously with margin comments about coherency.  More often than not, the grammatical errors get the most attention and the students ignore my coherency feedback.  I need to revise the way I give feedback.

Then, I think about best practices for teaching reading to students (I’m still not proficient in doing this consistently with students).  We annotate the text, make notes in the margins, jot down questions about portions that confuse us.  We also read together, read aloud, or get together as a group and discuss what we read and compare notes.  I also think about the comments section that I read fervently on some of my favorite blogs.  People have a wide variety of different views/interpretations on what they read.  I’m sure if readers were to give a grade, the grade would range from A-F.  I’m also sure blog writers take this feedback and apply it to future entries (or even to revise current ones).  I’m also sure that writers are a lot more careful at revising each of their blog posts before publishing them.  (I know this particular post has seen several mental and print revisions over the course of a week).  This made me realize that students need more authentic readers/viewers to give feedback on their writing (or signing).  It can’t just be me, and it certainly can’t just be peers within the class.

So what’s wrong with peer revision or teacher feedback?  As a class, we’ve developed a culture surrounding the teacher’s expectations.  Students have come to  learn what I look for in good writing.  They’ve acclimated to my definition of good writing.  Even reading each other’s writing, they all parrot similar responses: “This part is good, it grabs my interest!”  or “I was confused by this, can you clarify?”   or “I think you should consider adding more description.”  These responses all sound like something a teacher would say, not something you’d find within margin annotations or even a blog comment.  Our students are even afraid to fail at giving feedback.

So how can we mimic the type of feedback we get out in the real world?  We can start by not trying so hard to mimic it.  We should make use of publishing (blogging and actually having students invite people to read their blogs, disseminating an online student newspaper or magazine, asking authentic audience members to come in for text review, or to judge student presentations).  I think we’re afraid to give students this authenticity because the backlash can be biting.  We don’t want to damage a student’s self-esteem; however, students eventually need to face reality.  Not everyone is going to like what they wrote, but that doesn’t mean that what they wrote was awful.  We have to let our students know that feedback is feedback, the ultimate control of the final draft is theirs.  I bet our student’s motivation to write would drastically improve if they knew that they actually had an authentic voice (and not just a completed assignment).  Imagine if they knew a local author was going to take a look at their short stories, or that their blogs received a large number of views with relevant comments.   I’m sure there would be initial panic but I’m also sure we’d see better writing from them.  I know I’m more motivated to write on this blog after seeing it re-tweeted and hopefully I’ve become a better blogger through this process.

So, I decided to make the persuasive speeches a bit more authentic.  I wanted to do something like TED without scaring my students to death.  I invited a few “judges” and outsiders to come view my students’ persuasive speeches and it was a wonderful experience for them (and me).  They could see from the comments that the judges each had very different views of their speeches.  The judges all gave very detailed feedback on what they didn’t understand and what they felt the student did well.   It made me realize that something like “persuasion” is a matter of perception and should always be viewed by more than one person.   Their live speeches were also recorded and then posted on Voicethread; the Voicethread was then shared within the school so that students could continue to receive feedback and comments (much like TED).  Students will now be able to take this feedback and make revisions to their speeches.  I’m hoping they will be able to video record their final revisions to make polished speeches that we can broadcast school-wide.  (Let’s hope with all the upcoming testing that we actually have time to do this!)

I’ve done this sort of authentic assessment before.  In fact I do it every year since I started teaching high school. Every spring, I have seniors do a class magazine for their final project.  It is a great way for them to demonstrate their learning.  I consider myself the CEO and have very little role in the content they select for this project.  In fact, my one job is to “hire” editors to run the magazine (they all create resumes and cover letters explaining why they feel most qualified for the role of editor).  The editors are the true bosses that make sure that the magazine runs smoothly.  Every student contributes at least 4 articles to the magazine and they even design the layout as well as all of their own advertisements.  My husband, a professional photographer, is even “hired” to do the photography work for their advertisements (they must first storyboard their ideas and be able to clearly explain them to him on the day of  the shoot; they are also responsible for any props that are needed for the shoot.)  Students absolutely love this project, and I love it as well.  I give VERY little revising or editing feedback; all editors are responsible for making sure that drafts are print ready, and quite frankly, students are more than willing to revise their own work without being told.  Editors do evaluations on their employees and employees do evaluations on their editors.  Final magazines are published through (although this year I plan to switch to Joomag so that students can add ASL videos).  It’s a fun project.  Every year I do this project, and I know that the reason it is successful is because students become authentic writers to an authentic audience.

However, despite knowing this, I still start every year in “teacher” mode, expecting that I have to teach all the skills before they are able to successfully do a project like this on their own.  I often ask myself, why can’t this project be year-around?  Is it possible to do this and still cover the required TEKS?  Likewise, why should I limit this only to my seniors? I teach 9th-12th, but usually reserve this as a “treat” for my seniors.  Shouldn’t this be something in which all students are able to participate?  Also, wouldn’t it be amazing to collaborate with another school on a project like this?  (Especially during years when current events are explosive–presidential elections, worldwide natural disasters, political issues that span the globe, etc.) So what’s stopping me?  I think, just like my students, I need an authentic audience.  I need validation and approval.  I need someone to collaborate with and discuss ideas about what may or may not work.  Are you, dear reader, interested?

Reviving the Dead by Killing the Sage

Reflection is quite a process that starkly resembles standing in front of a full-length mirror under a spotlight. Every wrinkle, blemish, and unsightly hair becomes grossly apparent.  While there are certainly highlights (like the way a single tendril of hair curls in a perfect spiral), the ugly truth always seems a lot more pronounced and hard to ignore.  My most recent blemish feels like an oxymoron.  I’m a Deaf woman who apparently does not like silence.  This is even more astounding if you know me.  I’m the wall flower that hovers in the corners with my arms and legs crossed, the body language of a defensive, private persona.  I even laugh silently.

So, where does this fear of silence come from?  I get stage fright when standing and presenting/speaking in front of a crowd (including  students).  In order to feel comfortable, there has to be an exchange.  I like collaboration because it allows me to bounce my ideas off “quietly”.  In other words, I prefer doubles tennis to randomly smacking a ball against the wall with a racquet.  How on earth I became a teacher who must stand in front of classroom full of mildly disinterested high school students is an enigma.

A big buzzword going around educational circles, and one I wholeheartedly advocate, is Inquiry Based Learning.  I love the idea of students “discovering” learning and finding their own way around things that adults have determined our students “MUST” learn.  Without getting into a debate about overly narrowed standards, I want to focus on the belief that questioning is the most important part of learning.  So, I ask my students questions all the time.  The problem is, often, they don’t answer.  Worse yet, the ultimate paradox, I often attempt to answer my own questions.  When I catch myself doing this, I immediately respond “well, that’s just one idea, you don’t have to use it.”  Well, guess what?  They use it, verbatim, on responses to test questions, in parroted responses when I try to get them to follow with another possible answer, or when turning to talk with a partner.  They regurgitate.  It’s a horrible feeling as a teacher to watch a class full of students upchucking the proverbial hairball, MY hairball.

BUT, I have begun to hit upon why I do this.  I fear silence.  I fear that maybe students don’t understand the material; maybe they need an idea or an example to get them started; maybe they lack experience with the topic; maybe my principal will come in and find students unengaged.   However, I’ve also come to the conclusion that my students don’t answer because they smell my fear.  They know that if they just stay quiet long enough, I’ll help them out with an answer.

So, dear friends, what is a teacher like me to do?  My Answer (see, I can’t help myself!): Shut up.  I don’t have to be the sage on the stage.  I don’t have to have all of the answers, and I need to stop spending so much time asking questions that I can easily answer on my own.  I need to expand critical thinking skills by getting students to explore ideas.  I want to develop an environment where there are no wrong answers, but rather valid or invalid premises.  I’ve begun giving my students questions and letting them know that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions.  Instead, I expect them to support/justify their answer with evidence.  A funny thing happens, students start answering.  At first, their answers are clipped and look more like questions (wanting so badly to be the student that gets the answer right).  Then, you start to see wheels turning and students come up with some pretty neat ideas.

Yet some days it is really hard to sit back and wait for students to discover learning.  The truth is, I’m waiting for them to discover MY way of learning–I have to remind myself that this mentality is one that assumes that what I know and teach is the “right” way to do things.  We don’t want students to blindly accept what teachers tell them or what textbooks state.  So I’m going to try to kill the sage and instead help my students to become sages of their own.