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 [...]
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 [...]
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. [...]
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 [...]
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.
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.
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:
- Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
- Adam Bede, George Eliot
- Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
- The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams
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.
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.
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
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
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
Okay, I have a guilty confession. I am a very naïve, gullible person. I will fall for anything. So when I was an 18-year-old and was assigned to read “A Modest Proposal,” of course I believed that Jonathon Swift was advocating the eating of children. I mean, he is a writer. He wouldn’t lie. The next day in class I was admonished by my peers and teacher for my stupidity. People couldn’t believe I was naïve enough to take the text at face value. Read more
It is no coincidence that the hardest texts for students to understand are also the ones rich with style. Typically, it is the style that, to the students, prevents comprehension. They get so caught up in the metaphor in the opening paragraph that they aren’t truly paying attention to the details and content of the remaining of the passage. Or maybe the students see a word being repeated and get so fixated on that one word and why it is repeated that they are unable to stand back and take in the passage as a whole.
This is somewhat of a blessing. Students confused by style also indicates that they recognize style and are curious about it. But, as teachers, we need to find ways to tap into these observations and translate them into reading strategies.
As a result, when it comes to teaching students how to read closely, sometimes the best strategy is isolation. Instead of an anticipation guide to introduce a work, isolate some of those stylistic elements for students to study. Literally, pull out the notable elements of style and ask the students to react to them.
One example I have had success with in the past is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” There are several notable (albeit “challenging”) components to this text: the imagery, the word choice, and the repetition. To prepare for class, I begin by identifying major images in the text and locating actual pictures of those images. I have embedded several key images from the text on this webpage to highlight what my students will examine. Then, I type up specific words that have strong connotations with them, words that Jonathan Edwards used to evoke fear in his congregation. I also extract words that are repeated for a dramatic effect. In this piece, “nothing” is repeated three times, so, for the activity, I make sure I type “nothing” three times. Then, I cut out each word and image and sort them.
The students play a type of word association game. The students are shown an image or a word and have to record their gut reaction to it almost instantaneously. They might react by thinking of a synonym to the word/image or recording an emotion associated with it. Sometimes students respond with how they feel when they see the word/image, especially when they have seen “nothing” three times in a row. Then, I ask them to look at the reactions they recorded thinking about linking factors. At this point, without even have read the piece, students are able to make fairly accurate predictions about the content, speaker, audience, purpose, and tone. This activity helps students analyze the text and conduct a close reading of it—without even having the full text in front of them. Then, when I give them the text, they are able to discuss the extent to which their predictions were true or false. They are reading each word carefully to better understand how these words/images are used in the text. This strategy of isolating the challenging stylistic elements encourages the students to think more critically about a piece, while making it easier and more manageable for them to do. They are able to get through the portions that “block” their understanding because they have already overcome that hurdle.
Next time you have a challenging text, bypass an anticipation guide and extract the words and images that complicate the meaning. Taking these aspects in isolation will help your students better know the material, while helping them practice their close reading skills.
Over the past week it was hard to ignore Lance Armstrong. Interviews, articles, threats from the USADA, Armstrong’s “I give” statement. All of it was a constant reminder that heroes are capable of failure or worse that heroes might not even exist. I still felt sad and I never wore a yellow LIVE STRONG bracelet.
Doping isn’t new. An athlete disappointing his fans isn’t new either. But the moral and ethical dilemma of an event like this is a good place, as many of you begin the year, to have your students discuss the role of sports and “heroes” in our culture. It offers students the opportunity to read, critically think, construct essential questions and wrestle with their own opinions.
Use Lance Armstrong to frame the discussion. Ask that they construct their own essential questions about athletes, sports and our cultural relationship to both. Then have them read Linton Weeks’ piece on NPR entitled “When a Hero Lets Us Down.” Ask that they SOAPSTone and then discuss as a class the “complexity” of sports heroes within our culture.
Later this week we’ll talk about how to take this opening discussion and turn it into a writing assignment, classroom debate or AP Language and Composition style exercise. For now, poll your students. Determine if moments like this really still make us feel sad.