Wednesday, August 1, 2007

That's a Great Idea! ... but can you please write in complete sentences?

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Two different posts caught my attention today because I am in the midst of planning for an entirely new course for this coming year. The first was at D-Ed Reckoning about the lack of basic math skills being taught along with computer applications. The other was from Joanne Jacobs about basic research paper writing skills. Both of these posts address a challenge I face in planning this year. Our school is trying to refocus efforts on basic literacy skills (gee, what a concept), and so a lot of our inservice and faculty meetings last year were to try and gear us up for this. But on my own, I started incorporating a lot of basic literacy skills into my classes last year after discovering the year before that my seniors didn't even know how to write a basic thesis statement, much less a good essay. So now I scaffold a LOT of writing into my sophomore and senior classes.

From my unscientific survey of veteran teachers, it seems that a lot of teachers have gotten away from writing assignments because of two main things: 1) having to prep students for required testing and 2) overcrowded classes make for massive amounts of grading. I don't, thankfully, have the first problem because our state has continued to procrastinate on pushing a Social Studies standardized state test. But I do have the 2nd issue - most of my classes are 30-35 students, sometimes more. It was actually very hard to commit myself to the extra writing assignments knowing there would be that much more extra time having to grade (because we all know teachers have SO much time on their hands because they have such EASY working hours!). But once I did it, I found that it was a good way to keep myself disciplined as well.

Now I'm adding to the challenge with the new AP US Govt class I'm designing. Our school has decided to move more towards college prep and is adding many new AP courses this coming year, and I'm the one in charge of the US Govt class for seniors. So the teacher who teaches the AP US History course for juniors and I decided to collaborate on teaching basic research paper skills to our students. Over the summer we have planned out a 6-wk seminar to be taught along with content in our classes starting the 2nd week of school. We are going to teach one basic skill each class day (we teach in blocks, so we see our students for 85-minute periods every other day - don't get me started on how that screws with core courses!).

Our lessons will be: How to write a thesis, Finding Sources, Works Cited, Quoting-Paraphrasing-Summarizing, the Notecard strategy of research, Outlining, Structure, and along with those the basics of grammar, spelling, etc. I have no idea if it will work, but we're combining these steps with the first research paper assignment, so that the students are actively researching and writing as they learn. We are also going to incorporate different note-taking strategies and require they use their notes as part of their source material for their first paper.

We are also going to focus on vocabulary. This is something that will be across the board in all our classes, not just our AP courses. We're taking a page from Heidi Hayes Jacobs and going to work with a vocab list each unit that includes 3 types of vocab words:

"high-frequency words" - these are words that students should know and be able to understand and use both in academia and life (ie, analyze, cite, develop, elaborate, significance, identify, marginalize, etc).

"specialized words" - these are words specific to our unit content (ie, democracy, federalism, republic, separation of powers, etc.)

"embellishments" - colorful and meaningful adjectives that are valuable for students language and writing (ie, fluid, turbulent, strategic, charismatic, incisive, intriguing, etc.)

Part of their note-taking will include working with the vocab words in various ways. These skills alone could be an entire year long class! The challenge will be integrating them into an advanced course on US government (along with other classes). But I think it will be worth it. I sound like an old fogey when I complain that I couldn't get out of 7th grade without writing a comprehensive essay and had to write research papers throughout my high school year. I don't know why these requirements don't exist now (though my gut wants to blame the creeping decay brought on by standardized testing), but my goal is to do my part to counteract it. I guess we'll see how it works.

Any suggestions are welcome!

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