Sunday, December 13, 2015

Week 16: Character Counts and the Spaghetti Marshmallow Building Challenge (Week of 12/11/2015)

This week, we began by finishing what we started. Last week, we wrote a character traits paragraph on one of the characters in "The Outsiders" and created a group character poster that went with it. My students continued working for half of the period on Monday and then presented their paragraphs to the class in a quick and easy presentation. I have students present their writing to the class so everyone not only gets to hear a variety of writing styles and opinions but they also get to speak their paragraph out loud, which helps them figure out if it's in tip top shape. Everyone's paragraph sounded great. What I like most about "The Outsiders" is that every year I learn something new about the book or the characters by how my students view them. This year was no different!

We focussed a bit more into character traits this week and learned about direct versus indirect characterization. Direct characterization is the easy one; the narrator or character tells you exactly what they're like. Indirect characterization is a bit more tricky because it's not directly stated; we, the readers, have to take the information we're given and infer the character trait (what we called our assertion in our paragraphs). Using the STEAL model, students were able to more specifically state their assertions and back them up with fact. The STEAL model is where we look at what the character Says, what they Think, how they Effect others, how they Act, and what they Look like (clothing, facial expressions, body language, etc.)
Lastly, we revisited the "Speed Dating" style of reviewing with chapters one and two of "The Outsiders" and our neighbors. Students faced each other in two lines and answered both comprehension and higher-order-thinking questions based on what we've read in class so far. Students enjoy this fast paced game because they get to talk to many of their classmates while reviewing the story, sharing their answers and thoughts. I like it because it gets everyone talking and moving so it's a rather fun day in class.


Tutorials have been going really great lately in AVID! It's become mostly second-nature and students dive right into their work, helping each other to understand the concepts they're learning in class. In an effort to better support my students reading skills, in turn helping them understand what they're learning in all of their classes more fully, I've begun a unit on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven". The poem is rich in high vocabulary and descriptive words,  figurative language and mystery. What begins as an intense, tough-to-understand poem will become more clear over the coming weeks as we tackle the poem through multiple reads focussed on defining vocabulary, summarizing and rewriting stanzas, identifying rhyme scheme and figurative language (symbolism, alliteration), and learning about how Edgar Allan Poe's life affected his writing so deeply. I haven't been able to teach Poe in my English classes for the past couple of years so I thought pairing it with the WICOR (writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading) model in AVID was a natural fit. Plus, Poe's creepy and mysterious writing grabs the students' attention and they love reading him!

This week's fun Friday challenge was "The Spaghetti Marshmallow Building Challenge". Students got into groups to build the tallest structure using sticks of dry spaghetti and mini marshmallows. Communication was key as one false step could break a spaghetti stick, sending the structure crashing down. I saw massive structures that quickly outgrew stability, sinking into a heap of marshmallows and spaghetti. I also saw smaller, more compact structures that focussed on stability before height, ultimately negating the necessity for multiple rebuilds. In the end, it was team Chubby Bunnies (named for the popular campfire game) that came out on top, beating the other teams with a final height of 21.5 inches! Through these activities, students are not only having fun but they're learning valuable lessons in focus, collaboration, and communication.

Questions for the drive home and dinner table:
-How are you doing on your Independent Book Project?
-What are you learning from your Independent Book Project reading/research?
-What are the struggles the greasers are facing in "The Outsiders"? How are those struggles the same of different than those of the Socs (pronounced so-shiz)?
-If you could be a character in "The Outsiders", who would you be and why?
-How has making goals for your Independent Book Project and checking in with Mr. Laffin helped you this quarter?

Warmest wishes,
Kevin Laffin

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Week 15: Tracing Character Traits and the Ping Pong Challenge (Week of 12/04/2015)

This week started with a bang as Mrs. Anderson and Mrs. Healy, our amazing counselors, joined my class to hand out progress reports and have a quick check-in with all of my students. Mrs. Healy remarked after all progress reports were handed out that she noticed an abundance of incomplete and late assignments. When she questioned students, individually, as to why they were turning in assignments late/incomplete, especially considering the vast majority of my assignments are in-class assignments, they remarked that they "forgot to turn it in" or "didn't read the directions". I've noticed a lot of students flying through their assignments, reading part of the directions, and thusly turning in the assignment incomplete. Please help me in reminding your son/daughter to turn in assignments when they're due and to slow down and read through the directions fully and completely.
Speaking of rushing through assignments, I was sent a wonderful article on patience as it applies to the middle school student. "Relearning the Lost Skill of Patience" by Jessica Lahey is worth a read, especially in today's world where almost everything is available in an instant at our fingertips. The quote that really sticks out to me and supports what I'm doing in my classroom is:
When I hand my students novels and other projects that require close analysis, critical thinking, and patience, I challenge them to rise above the basic skills of word recognition and reading comprehension. I am asking them to wait. To keep reading, keep listening. To be patient and formulate their opinions based on all the evidence, and then comment on what they see and hear armed with more than a sound bite, a title, or a tweet. To spend the time and have the patience to do more than look at the world, but to see it. 

Lastly on "patience", there are times in my class where it feels like we've slowed to a crawl. "We have to go slow to go fast" is a mantra I've adopted this year. I've heard it from students many times, "why are we still talking about [insert topic here]?" My answer to the question is, I know it's frustrating to be spending longer amounts of time on certain topics, topics we may feel we've mastered or we're getting bored of. However, my class is not about grazing over topics and getting a basic understanding of these topics. To the best of my ability, I want my students to dive in and truly understand these different concepts in many different ways, discussing their thoughts both on paper and with their classmates as they gain a better, well-rounded understanding of the different concepts in the English classroom (theme, plot, characterization, symbolism, etc.). On that note, Mr. Colandro commented to me (after an observation of my class) that students are truly understanding the characters of "The Outsiders". He noted that they have a much deeper understanding than my classes last year and that they're not only understanding these characters better, but they're able to communicate their knowledge effectively. Quite a complement to my students! Kudos!!!

So, if it ever feels like we're spending too much time on certain topics, please understand that there's a method to the madness. Please contact me with concerns over the length of time we're spending on certain topics in class. While we're slowing things down to get a better understanding, I'm aware that the lessons/units have the possibility of being stretched past their effectiveness and would love some feedback.

This week in AVID ended with one of my favorite challenges, the Ping Pong Paper Challenge. After a week of Tutorials, Cornell notes, and class discussions on first generation college students, I told my students to get into groups of four or five and issued them a challenge. The challenge was to take twenty pieces of computer paper and two feet of tape and create a ramp/track that would keep the ping pong ball rolling the longest. Everyone had 45 minutes and their strictly limited supplies to do their best before the time trials started.

The four student groups quickly got started on their tracks, folding and shaping the paper to meet their needs. I saw many tests and retests take place, showing the students that their track either worked or didn't work. Some tracks underwent many tweaks while others built upon their original ideas. I saw four groups with four different ideas of how to keep their ball rolling. Communication and teamwork were key for this activity and my students did a great job as they learned (and used the scientific method without even realizing it).


CONGRATULATIONS TO TEAM WATERMELONDREAS for beating the competition with a time of 20 seconds!

Questions for the drive home and dinner table:
-Which character in "The Outsiders" is your favorite so far? What character traits can you connect with?
-With around one month left in the semester, what can you do to make sure you're on top of your Independent Book Project?
-Are there any assignments you're missing that can still be turned in?
-What extra credit is available to you each semester?
-What are the benefits to slowing down and taking time on your assignments?

Warmest wishes,
Kevin Laffin