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Breaking Down and Creating Your Own EngageNY Unit

I’m sure at this point most (if not all) of us have seen the EngageNY materials and marveled at them.  I remember my first experience with an EngageNY lesson.  It was like a choir of English teachers were surrounding me in song and Carol Jago was looking down on me with a reverent smile.  However, […]

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Close Reading Strategies and the CCSS

Anyone else feeling the stress of the Common Core State Standards?  I find the barbed “c” and “s” sound appropriate for the moniker CCSS: devious and calculating.  In reality though, the CCSS isn’t out to get teachers.  Instead, I think it is to refocus how we approach literature with our students and encourage us to […]

Teaching the 2013 Rhetorical Analysis Question

When the 2013 AP English Language and Composition exam prompts were released, I was instantly enamored with the second question, the passage from Richard Louv. The passage is highly accessible while also being highly complex, allowing a variety of interpretations.  As a result, I’ve decided to use it with both my AP English Language students and […]

Analyzing Graduation Speeches

It never fails; I always cry at graduations.  I’m not sure if it is the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the feel of polyester gowns and mortarboard hats, or the foolhardy grins on the faces of seniors when they cross the stage, but I always cry. While I love graduations, I’m usually lukewarm at graduation […]

Breaking Down and Creating Your Own EngageNY Unit

I’m sure at this point most (if not all) of us have seen the EngageNY materials and marveled at them.  I remember my first experience with an EngageNY lesson.  It was like a choir of English teachers were surrounding me in song and Carol Jago was looking down on me with a reverent smile.  However, the more time I have spent studying and using materials from EngageNY, I have come to recognize a certain equation that, once identified, we can all incorporate into our lesson planning “toolbox” and begin applying to texts we are teaching.  In my opinion, the success of EngageNY lessons is predicated on the following criterion: Read more

Close Reading Strategies and the CCSS

Anyone else feeling the stress of the Common Core State Standards?  I find the barbed “c” and “s” sound appropriate for the moniker CCSS: devious and calculating.  In reality though, the CCSS isn’t out to get teachers.  Instead, I think it is to refocus how we approach literature with our students and encourage us to stop relying on content-based assessments and really evaluate close reading, not whether or not a student remembered what he or she read the night before. Read more

Teaching the 2013 Rhetorical Analysis Question

When the 2013 AP English Language and Composition exam prompts were released, I was instantly enamored with the second question, the passage from passedRichard Louv. The passage is highly accessible while also being highly complex, allowing a variety of interpretations.  As a result, I’ve decided to use it with both my AP English Language students and my academic-level 11ths graders.  To develop deep analysis from a variety of ability levels, I have created several activities.  These activities can give students an entry point into the text and then help them develop their analysis to better understand and appreciate rhetoric.

  1. I would begin by having my students read the passage silently, then I would read it to them aloud to help deepen understanding. To help narrow interpretations, I would then give them a variety of topics (nature, advertising, parenting, human interactions, technology) and ask them to determine which is the central argument and how the remaining areas relate to it. This allows them the opportunity to think about the complexity of the argument.
  2. To get students thinking about style, I would also adjust the arrangement of the passage.  I’d switch the first two paragraphs with the last two paragraphs.  When students have a comparison/contrast they are much more adept at evaluating the choices an author makes.  Asking them to analyze which arrangement is more effective will allow them to better understand the rhetorical strategies and how they impact the audience.  Consider asking students if it is better to open with rhetorical questions or close with rhetorical questions and what it reveals about the speaker’s relationship to the audience.
  3. I think it is helpful for the students, especially my academic-level, became acquainted with the text.  While I normally don’t give worksheets, I find that these students often struggle with close reading because they don’t know what they need to identify.  writingI’ve drafted these questions to help student engage with the passage itself.
  4. After closely investigating many portions of the text, it is important to pull the students back into the argument as a whole.  For this particular passage, I would, at this point, consider asking students who the speaker thinks is responsible for our current state.  They would need to defend their answer using knowledge from the text.  I would also ask students what Louv ultimately wants: to coexist with or separate from nature.
  5. This passage also pairs well with a variety of texts.  An excellent companion would be most writing things from the Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.  I would most likely pair it Chapter One from Emerson’s Nature or “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” from Thoreau’s Walden.  I also think that EB White’s “Once More to the Lake” provides an interesting perspective on Louv’s passage because of the suggestion of a generational gap in views of nature. After studying Louv’s passage, I would offer one (or more) of these as an alternate text.  We discuss the ways in which the argument and style are similar or different from Louv’s.

Regardless of whether or not you teach AP English Language, I think that this passage is one that really works for differentiated instruction.

 

Analyzing Graduation Speeches

It never fails; I always cry at graduations.  I’m not sure if it is the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance,” the feel of polyester gowns and mortarboard hats, or the foolhardy grins on the faces of seniors when they cross the stage, but I always cry.18160844_s

While I love graduations, I’m usually lukewarm at graduation speeches.  They are typically trite and overwrought with clichés while trying to impart wisdom that is rarely understood by the burgeoning youth who are only thinking about how many checks they will receive in their graduation cards.

However, there is some benefit to studying the speeches from a variety of standpoints.

They would be a great way to introduce the rhetorical situation and a rhetorical analysis can be done of some the most well-known graduation speeches. Students could be asked to do a variety of things to have a close reading of the speech.  While there are many great graduation speeches available, I have paired specific activities with specific speeches.

Consider asking students to…

  • Identify the top five lessons the speaker seeks to impart and evaluate the effectiveness of communicating those lessons.  The purpose of the graduation speech is to share words of wisdom to the listener.  This might be an activity to first use with a speech to aid comprehension and ensure students understand the message or argument.
  • Analyze the way in which the speech is unified and evaluate the use of a framing device that keeps the speech focused.  It might be content or it might be style, but effective speeches are focused and organized cohesively.  This is clearly seen in Steve Jobs’ speech to Stanford University graduates.
  • Determine which 2-3 devices or strategies are used most effectively and therefore become representative of the speech itself.  A good speech has a clear voice.  Ask students to determine what devices and strategies the speaker uses to maintain a cogent voice.  An excellent graduation speech to analyze for voice is David Foster Wallace’s speech to Kenyon College graduates.
  • Consider how the speech is tailored to a particular audience.  For this, the students might think about the immediate audience by analyzing the college enrollment itself.  Before providing the speech, ask students to provide first impressions of the university itself.  Then, ask students to read the speech, considering how the speech addresses that audience.  Consider using Joe Biden’s speech to the graduates of West Point or Stephen Colbert’s speech at the University of Virginia’s Valediction Exercises, which honors top performing students and professors the day before the official graduation.
  • Then, ask students to think about the broader audience of the speech.  Have students evaluate how the speaker addresses what is occurring socially, historically, or politically during the time of its delivery.   Bono’s graduation speech at the University of Pennsylvania does an excellent job of addressing the cultural climate of the time.

Compare and contrast speeches.  This option steps up the rigor by requiring students to have close knowledge of two speeches.

  • For example, students can analyze two speeches both delivered to Harvard.  I think JK Rowling’s speech pairs nicely with Bill Gates’ address to Harvard graduates.  Both address the nature of failure in interesting ways.  Students can draw inferences about both the speaker and the audience when comparing and contrasting these speeches.
  • Many leaders have addressed graduates multiple times.  Oprah Winfrey has made her rounds as a speaker.  Provide students a copy of her speech to Harvard University (2013) and Howard University (2007).  Students can do an in-depth look at how audience and occasion impact the construction of the speech.  They can also evaluate the consistency of style from one speech to the next.  Are there some trademarks to the speaker’s style that transcends setting?
  • Students also struggle to identify satire, so another option is to have them evaluate the humorous graduation speech.  Both Will Ferrell and Conan O’Brien  have addressed graduates at Harvard University.  Ask students to compare and contrast the techniques used by both and how those strategies enhance the purpose of the speech.
  • Lastly, if working on synthesis, provide students three graduation speeches from the same year and ask them to identify common themes that emerge and begin to consider what these speeches reveal about the time period.

Regardless, keep a box of tissues nearby to curb any tears the speeches bring to mind!

State of the Union Creative Assignment

The State of the Union is always such a rich speech.  It is a text that I think should find its way in every classroom regardless of the class, grade, or ability level.  For most of us, we weave it into our classrooms by analyzing the argument.  We might guide our students in analyzing the shifting argument within the speech, identifying the minor premises supported throughout, evaluating the evidence used for support, recognizing concession, considering the larger significance and implications of the argument, and studying the rebuttal by the opposing political party.  However, I don’t want to end the discussion on the State of the Union; I want to see my students demonstrating their knowledge and understanding.  I want them to reflect on the speech, think like an editor, challenge like a critic, and write like a wordsmith.

So, after studying the rhetoric of the State of the Union, I give students the following writing assignments and ask them to choose one they feel they can achieve the most success, allowing them freedom and choice.  The prompts allow room for creative thinking and creative writing, a task not often seen in a classroom geared toward formal argument analysis.  All of the prompts demonstrate a range of talents, but they don’t feel as tedious to the students as writing an essay.

PROMPTS:

1.)    It is your job to play editor.  What suggestions would you provide President Obama (and his speech writers) to best help him achieve his purpose?  Make sure to identify the purpose and provide concrete, specific suggestions to improve the speech and its persuasiveness.

2.)    Select one statement from the SOTU that strikes you.  State this clearly in your response.  Then, in your response, defend or challenge the statement.  Provide specific concrete proof.

3.)    Evaluate what President Obama (and his speechwriters) considered in composing the SOTU.  What is your evidence of this?  Which considerations appear the most significant given a close reading of the speech?

4.)    The opposing party always issues a response to the President’s SOTU.  While your response will be much shorter (200-350 words), compose a critical response to Obama’s SOTU addressing what you feel are the strongest points of the SOTU.

5.)    It’s catch phrase time!  The purpose of a catch phrase is to make a create a memorable statement that embodies an idea.  They are typically concise, short, and to-the-point but rhetorically powerful.  Pretend you are on Obama’s speech writing staff and working to compose the SOTU.  What catch phrase will you suggest Obama implementing into his SOTU?  Provide this catch phrase.  Then, provide a rationale for your suggested catch phrase.

Resolutions: Close Reading Journals

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So journals it is.  If argument journals aren’t your cup of tea, or you’d like more options employ a close reading journal. One of my favorite resources for this type of journaling is found in Nancy Dean’s Voice Lessons.  Her lessons are invaluable.  She has already selected non-fiction and prose “snippets” and created questions.  As a teacher, all you have to do is choose.  Dean’s questions often ask about the impact of specific syntax and diction.  Each quote is usually followed by two questions.  Choose the ones you like, copy and have students answer the questions as one journal reflection.  Even students who struggle can understand the power of word choice and the way that Nancy Dean constructs her questions reaches a range of students.  A teacher, especially in light of common core expectations couldn’t ask for a better resource.

Since Voice Lessons is such a fabulous resource, I could end the post right there.  However, if you’d like to kick the exercises up a bit examine Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings fame, and her Literary Jukebox.  Each day a quote from a book is posted along with a thematically chosen song.  Some of my favorites include:

Nonfiction

Fiction

Use Popova’s quotes in the same way you would with Voice Lessons except ask your students to identify the words upon which the sentences turn.   Then have them discuss the meaning, power and effect of those words in their journals.  Feel like they need more?  Have them listen to the song Popova has partnered with the quote and ask them to write about why the partnership works for the second part of their response.

Need a quick journal rubric? Here is a Close Reading Rubric that can be adapted for any type of classroom journals.

Resolutions: Opposing P.O.V. Journals

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It’s hard to escape the onslaught of reminders that a new year, #2013, should mean adopting new “habits.”  Better habits for our health, personal lives, professional lives.  Ads arrive at my door reminding me that I can get organized via the Container Store, healthy via the NordicTrack and better sleep via the Healthy Back Store.  Retail outlets are desperate to help me.  However…

Winter break feels too short.  Adopting new “habits” too hard and looking ahead January and February seem endless.  Teachers need help without sacrificing mental health and student instruction post winter break.  Instead of enticing you to spend your holiday gift cards, I’m going to spend the month of January posting small things, little things that make a huge difference.  The hope being that you can adopt them easily in order to simplify your teaching life without having to completely revamp.  Make a New Year’s resolution to yourself.  Find more time in your classroom for meaningful instruction that requires less direct instruction from you.

My first resolution for you?  Create an ongoing journal assignment.  This type of journal will practice Common Core and AP English skills.  It will also give you 10 minutes at the beginning of each class to catch your breath while they find their voice.

Start with having them write a 10-minute journal 2-3 times a week.  The best way to get students in the habit of working in a journal is to keep in the room.  Think composition notebook or a cheap spiral.  However, if you are working on the cheap or you want to implement this immediately, simply create lined paper in a Word document (hit the underscore button for eternity) and copy.  Each sheet of paper represents one journal.  If you feel so inclined you can label each sheet.

Journal Type#1: The Art of Argument

Let’s start with my favorite journal.  Students read a short article.  Then, they write an entry that either qualifies the article’s argument or directly opposes it.  This will be a challenge for them since often they agree with the op-ed’s point of view.   Remind them that it helps extend their “range” as writers if they can identify other perspectives and construct response that include those points of view.  Yes, it is difficult.  But it also challenges them too. This type of journal demands they consider other views.    Below are some great articles to help you begin.  If you are pressed for time consider having students read the article outside of class and come prepared to write their challenge or qualification.

Argument Journals-Articles

Multi-Paragraph Introductions

Like many teachers, I find myself moving away from encouraging a five-paragraph format.  The students, however, are more resistant and like that a five-paragraph format gives them a clear format to follow.  They don’t like having to test the waters because they are afraid of being wrong.  But this is part of the problem.  I don’t want my students to be married to a form; I want them to be married to proving their ideas. Read more

Writing Complex Theses

Let’s be honest, there are many times that I listen to my business friends talk and the casual conversation seems so full of jargon and unknown words that I easily find myself dozing off.  To my friends, this conversation makes complete sense and they actually think they are “dumbing down” the language for me.  However, it doesn’t matter how many times I hear about sub-prime mortgages or adjustable rates or amortization…I won’t get it.

I often think the same is true with my students.  That I use language that I think is clear, but, ultimately, it sounds like Spanish to them.  Specifically, thesis statements.  There are many times in which I use words that are apt, like “complex” and “insightful,” but, to my students, I might as well be saying “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”  The words are synonymous to my students. Read more

Evaluating an Argument-Chevy Volt Commericals

I watch too much television.  I come home from work, plop myself down in front of the television and absorb whatever it is the television gods guide me to see.  However, being the forever teacher, I always find myself analyzing the rhetoric of whatever it is I see.  While lounging on my couch thinking about my students’ struggle to evaluate the argument, lo and behold the television gods sent me a gem of a commercial.  Typically I just fast forward through commercials, but this one is striking and I have found myself watching it over and over again.  There are a variety of Chevy Volt commercials for a campaign titled “Happy Volt Owners.”  Below are two of my favorites. Read more