# Exam Math

I teach English, not math, but when I was preparing my own students for this week’s semester exam, I explained the grading breakdown like this: “This exam is 20% of your semester grade, with 90 multiple choice questions at one point each and then a ten-point essay at the end. So…how much of your overall semester grade depends just on that essay question?”

Most of them guessed quickly and guessed wrong. Several got the right answer, but only a couple got it right away. (The answer is 2%. Basically, 10% of 20.)

That led me to share a couple of other math-based exam observations I’ve made over the years.

I asked classes what someone should do if they had a combined semester grade of 9% going into the exam. Most of them said to study and work really hard. Many of them were shocked when I said the correct answer would be to sleep in and skip it. “In that situation, you could ace the test twice and still fail the class, so what’s the point? No amount of sweating over the test at that point could save you from months of consistently bad choices, so why bother? It would be a waste of time.”

Some of the less studious among them seemed offended at the very idea, but most of them were receptive, some even seeming to have a “eureka” moment.

Then I told them that there’s another, more positive side to that coin: “What if the exam were worth 10% of the semester grade and you had earned 103% up until that point. What should you do then?”

After a variety of guesses, I again suggested that the best course of action would be sleeping in and taking the day off. Again, many were shocked, but the most studious among them seemed greatly gratified by the observation. For those who were still stymied by the idea, I gave a similar explanation: “In that situation, you could take a goose egg on the exam and still have a 93% for the semester, which looks the same as 103% on your transcript, which is what matters, so what’s the point? No amount of sweating over that test at that point could hurt or improve the bulletproof grade you’d already worked so hard to earn, so why bother? It would be a waste of time.”

I told my classes that I’d seen a lot of students over the years work their hearts out on exams for no real gain, some because their grades were too high, and some because their grades were too low.

Finally, I hastened to make clear that neither of those situations applied to any of them! I just wanted to emphasize the importance of a strong work ethic, situational awareness, and math.

# The Nora Ephron Writing Rant

I’ve created an electronic version of one of my favorite lectures: the revision lesson based on sarcastically destroying a Nora Ephron essay. Former students, get ready for a quality stroll down amnesia lane!

# Reviewed and Recommended: Educated, by Tara Westover

As a teacher, I loved this book. Westover’s memoir of slowly growing into literacy despite coming from an abusive, rural, fundamentalist environment that harshly discouraged it is inspiring in many ways–it makes readers grateful for the lives we’re blessed with, it makes us grateful that Westover’s voice gets to be heard now, it gives us an example of determination and passion to follow–but for me, it mostly reminded me of just how much difference good teachers can make.

It reminded me that teachers have great power to shape minds by opening them and challenging them. That might be a cliché, but the proof is in the prose: consider this passage where Westover remembers early writing sessions with a great teacher. I wish that my students would look back on their writing development and credit me for this much concrete guidance!

Beyond nuts and bolts, the teacher as mentor who helps students find their true selves is also given due time to shine:

# Romanticism PowerPoint

I did up this presentation to start off our current unit in American Lit. I started with this Powerpoint I found online, and gussied it up a bit. Students filled in these notes while we discussed the slides:

Romanticism Notes

As always, my pop culture and arts references are meant to spur further connections in the minds of students–I try to draw these out from them while we talk. Each piece we read and analyze in this unit includes a discussion of which elements of Romanticism are present in the text and where: this leads to some very natural compare/contrast exercises.

# How To Use Turnitin.com and Why

I’m a big fan of the website Turnitin.com, which assists in grading written work and in checking for plagiarism. If you’re a teacher and your school doesn’t subscribe, bug your admin until they get it for you.

It streamlines the writing process, collects all documents and communication electronically, simplifies feedback, and even reveals nearly any kind of cheating a student writer may have done (it was even once used to demonstrate that a professor at UNLV was a serial plagiarist and got him fired!).

It’s thanks to things like this that I don’t carry around boxes of papers to grade any more–all I need is a computer–and it even goes faster, since I don’t have to laboriously scribble my sorry handwriting on each paper. And everything is automatically documented! (More than once, I’ve had a parent insist that their perfect angel turned in an assignment that I’ve marked missing, and where I used to only have my word to go on, I can now take a screen shot of the empty submission page and send it to the parent.)

Last year I put together this quick illustrated user guide for teachers. In case it might be useful for any of you out there in Internet Land, here it is. I also hope you enjoy looking for the little jokes I worked in.

TurnitinGuideHuston

# The Declaration of Independence Rhetoric Unit

One of my favorite units of the year is one I just finished–where I use the Declaration of Independence to teach about rhetoric, along with reading, writing, and speaking skills.

I start with the text, asking why exactly this document was written and for whom. Nobody ever knows. Then we read it looking for answers (attachment 1 below). I point out aspects of persuasion in it, then we go back to the big questions. That’s about half a day, on a block schedule. The other half day I use to go over this rhetorical analysis worksheet that I like with them (attachment 2). I really want them to understand this as an argument–we look for ethos, pathos, and logos in the declaration, for example (use this video if those concepts are new to students).

Putting this color-coded version on the projector to immediately review also reinforces the most salient points.

Another day we look at the handout that compares drafts (attachment 3), and we talk about the writing and revision process–what changes were made and why, and if they’re better or not. We relate this to their own work. I also tell them about the anti-slavery paragraph that the southern colonies made Jefferson take out–none of them have heard that before, so I put it on the projector and read it to them. Fun! That’s just a small part of a day.

I also make sure to point out that it’s the FINAL draft of the declaration that has the treasure map on the back. That always elicits a few giggles from the group.

A third day is to give them the speech outline (attachment 4), so they can see how the four parts work together and practice using these tools for something useful and realistic.

# A Thought About Gospel Teaching and Sacrifice

An idea that came up in our ward’s teacher council: to be effective teachers, we must diligently prepare lessons, but we must also be flexible to the needs of our friends during class and must be willing to let go of all that we prepared as the Spirit directs us. We could spend hours preparing a lesson, and only end up using some of it because it becomes clear that a discussion needs to go in a different direction.

And yet, if we do no preparation, no such inspiration is likely to come. A friend remembered a sacrament meeting where a man started his talk by taking the script he’d written, putting it in his pocket, and saying, “Well, I had one talk prepared, but the Spirit is now leading me to say something else entirely,” and the resulting talk was exactly what people needed to hear. I then remembered a time about 20 years ago, where a speaker decided to improvise the entire talk on the fly in order to illustrate the workings of inspiration; he only stumbled and rambled for a few minutes, confusing himself and the congregation, before closing and sitting down.

It’s almost as if the Spirit says, “I will guide you, but only if you put in the work first.”

And that makes me wonder if good teaching is related to the basic law of sacrifice. If we research and draft and prepare good lessons, we have something that we can then give up as needed, so greater blessings can come. If we do no preparation, we have nothing to sacrifice.

Similarly, like the rich young man in the Savior’s parable, we can create materials and then cling to them in spite of what the obvious needs are around us, like a teacher who checks off every item on their lesson no matter what real world needs come up spontaneously in class, which demand that we give up our plan and serve others, if we really want to help.

The classroom, then, is a microcosm of life, and we are all teachers.

# Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!

# Written English As a Foreign Language to Native Speakers

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of ELL students–English Language Learners (also known as ESL, or English as a Second Language). They have a certain set of needs in writing instruction. In fact, students have slightly differing sets of needs depending on what their first language is: some language backgrounds make learning to use plurals harder; others create a tough time with verb conjugation, for example.

This has nothing to do with anyone’s intelligence–it’s just a matter of learning to think and communicate those thoughts in a new way. What shocks me, though, is just how often I see native English speakers make the same kinds of mistakes in writing that foreign language students make. What accounts for this?

For a young American today, written English is practically a foreign language. Students very likely have little more engagement with written English than they would with any other world language, and it shows in the kinds of errors they make in writing.

# “To Essay”

As I discussed my notes about their first big essay of the year with my college students this week, it became clear to me that nobody had ever explained to them why we write essays. They saw the exercise as a pointless waste of time.

So I got some more mileage out of my trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. I read them parts of the entry for the word “essay.” Specifically, I pointed out the it entered the language as a verb, not a noun.

As seen below, “to essay” really just means “to try, to attempt, to practice, to accomplish.” Example sentence: “The noble knight essayed the glorious task of eating a thousand fish tacos.”

Moral of the story: today, when we write an essay, we are trying, attempting, practicing, accomplishing…what? To prove an assertion, to describe a new idea to others so they can share in our experience, to communicate clearly about something important between writer and reader.

These are–and I say this with no sarcasm–truly crucial skills, demanding the very greatest of all our energies in both teaching and learning. The world needs these skills, and needs them to be developed and implemented widely.

So maybe the “noble knight” example isn’t such a joke after all.

# Throwing Away Essays

Yesterday I read an essay by a college freshman that began with the paragraph below.

“Alright class, pick up your pencils and write me an essay about something that will bore you to death”. Those are the words that my sophomore high school english teacher told us one day when he had nothing planned for our class. The entire class was in shock, but that statement was only the beginning. Each one of us wrote our essays and when that sweet sound of the bell rang, we threw our papers onto his cluttered desk and ran off, escaping the torture of listening to the clock go “tick tock” for fifty-two minutes. Two class periods later, I witnessed something I never thought would happen. I watched my teacher throw a pile of paper into the trash, but it wasn’t just any pile of paper, it was our essays we wrote just two hours ago. It was at that moment when I felt that teachers really didn’t care about our creative minds and our writing talents. It was at that moment when I felt that writing was just a waste of time and that teachers made us write boring essays just to keep their job.

There are at least four big red flags here: the unprepared teacher, the callous nonchalance with which he or she appears to address students, the nonsense assignment itself, and the almost immediate disposal of nearly an hour’s worth of student work.

I get the impression from the student’s lack of surprise that this kind of thing was not uncommon.

I’m completely stunned. This is outrageous. I sent this paragraph to the principal of the school in question, to deal with or not as he or she sees fit. I won’t say what high school this student attended, but I will tell that it is one of the relatively newer, richer schools in the valley.

I’ve mentioned before a department meeting I attended about a decade ago where an older teacher freely admitted that she refused to read student essays. I think that’s a deal breaker, and anyone with such an attitude does not belong in the classroom.

Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating and time consuming, but bottom line, it’s our job.

And using essay writing as time wasting filler and then simply discarding it is nothing less than education’s version of malpractice.

And the student’s “lesson” learned at the end of that paragraph…it’s just absolutely heartbreaking. I teach writing because I love it and I know it’s important. Too important and lovely to be screwed up like that.

I hope I can help this student have a redemptive experience with writing instruction and practice this semester.

# “Secondary Literacy Instruction Non-Negotiables”

I got this handout at a training several years ago, and it’s one of the very few that I’ve ever liked. I keep this with a handful of other useful such things for when I do lesson planning. Everything on here is pretty sound. I recommend it for any middle or high school teacher looking for a firm curricular foundation for big picture planning.

The bit at the beginning about “70% non-fiction to 30% fiction” has always been controversial, but that’s meant to be understood as covering a student’s entire schedule, meaning that the burden does not fall on an English teacher to strike that balance–the readings in history and science classes, for example, will comprise a lot of that 70%.

That part about quarterly research projects is a tad ambitious, too, but I try to have smaller research-based assignments and mini-units throughout the year (source evaluation, internal citation, etc.), with one big project towards the end of the year. Right now, in fact!

Non negotiables

# Two Nice Student Notes

One class recently finished a unit on Romanticism. After a couple of days on Transcendentalism, I sent them out into our quad to take notes on as much “nature” as they could find there, with directions to imitate the style of Thoreau. The last section of the notes focused on drawing life lessons from these observations, like Thoreau did in Walden.

One girl turned in her notes with this awesome little addendum at the end. Clearly, she got the point. I drew the smiley face.

Another girl turned hers in with this attachment:

# Literacy Victories!

One of the best things I get to be part of as a teacher is introducing young people to great books they love. Granted, 99% of what I do in this department falls on deaf ears, but those glorious moments of success–few and far between though they are–really do make it all worth it.

Here are a few recent ones:

Last semester for a book project, one girl chose to read The Handmaid’s Tale from a list of options I gave. She loved it and, when they all had to do presentations on their books, she was overjoyed to learn that it’s being made into a series on Hulu.

Cormac McCarthy is always a safe bet. I often recommend his books to students, and they tend to love him. So many kids read his various books last semester that some classes had spontaneous compare/contrast discussions where they picked up on stylistic and thematic trends across his works. They did this on their own.

Earlier this month I had classes take notes on a documentary about Moby Dick. At the end of class when they turned their notes in, one girl was so excited about it that she had already put the ebook on her phone and said that she’d start reading it that weekend. This wasn’t assigned–she just wanted to read Moby Dick on her own. For fun.