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The Opening Salvo…

Perhaps the title is a bit too ominous, but tomorrow marks the beginning of my intensive involvement with Breakthrough Fort Worth as a Mentor Teacher. This next week will center around meeting with my teachers, who will be teaching ninth grade English and Social Studies, and getting to discuss and plan the trajectory of the summer with them. Whereas last year I felt that I perhaps constrained the creativity of my teachers by essentially scripting each week down to suggesting particular activities and homework assignments, this year I am emphasizing the major skill sets that I want the teachers to constantly consider as they put together lesson plans to cover the variety of material we’ll address this summer.

One of my other agendas in centering the lesson planning around skill sets is to emphasize to both the teachers, and by extension the students, that the intellectual challenges in English and Social Studies classes overlap extensively and are, in many instances, identical. While discussing the constructed nature of departmental designations and their artificiality seems to not be of the utmost importance, I do think that students need to understand that certain skills and tasks, like writing, for instance, are not the province or domain of one discipline or academic department. Therefore, I hope that I am able to get my English and Social Studies teachers to cooperatively address the skills and intellectual tasks that their students will have in common and by using a common language and reinforcing critical concepts, they’ll be effective in getting the students to adopt these various habits of mind.

Therefore, what follows now is the rather lengthy outline I’ve put together of what I’ve brainstormed as vital skills for students (really of all ages, but especially those about to enter high school) to know and become skilled in. Please let me know what thoughts, philosophical, pragmatic, or otherwise, you have about this list and what strategies you’ve found to effectively convey these things. I’m also hoping (as will be seen in a later post) to get my teachers to engage themselves in the rather vibrant online community of teachers who they can then engage with in the sharing of ideas, culling of pedagogical approaches, and carrying on of professional discussions.

So, here is the behemoth list o’ skills:

Overlapping Objectives and Skill Sets:
1.    Active reading – how to approach a text, discern its argument, analyze its evidence, recognize its structure, etc.
a.    Resources: see Lewis and Clark “Reading Actively” handout (http://www.lclark.edu/~writing/handouts/Reading%20Actively.pdf)
b.    http://www.mindtools.com/rdstratg.html
c.    many others – add them to your Delicious links page, Tweet about them, write about them in your blog, etc.

2.    How to paraphrase a source and How to summarize a source
a.    → important that students understand the difference between these two different intellectual tasks.
b.    Need to understand the role of vocabulary, how using a thesaurus comes into play, etc. E.g., there is a fundamental difference between going through word-by-word and changing words and distilling the essential meaning from a text and putting it into one’s own words.

3.    What are the different types of sources and how does one use them in research and writing? How can one identify what type of source it is by reading it? → link back to active reading.
a.    Primary sources → how does one analyze the point of view or bias of a source? How does understanding the POV/bias of a source change the way in which we look at and use it in our own work? How does one read for tone and nuance? How does one determine how credible or authoritative a source is?
b.    Secondary sources → how does one identify an argument and understand how the author uses evidence in light of that argument?
c.    Tertiary sources → how does one understand the purpose and potential uses for ostensibly “objective” sources? How does one use these types of sources in conjunction with secondary and primary sources?

4.    How does one approach readings from a variety of different periodicals and of different genres?
a.    Expose students to novels, critical essays, opinion pieces, editorials, memoirs, descriptive writing, objective reporting, news analysis, etc.
b.    Know what different types of expectations one should have based on the type of source one is reading. E.g. one looks for different things in a novel than in an op-ed or objective feature news article.

5.    How does one make proper bibliographical and in-text citations (MLA) for a source and how does one know when to cite or not cite a source?

6.    How does one use proper MLA formatting to set up a formally typed essay?

7.    **Argumentative writing** (note: extremely important, perhaps the most)
a.    Proper pre-writing and how to plan a response to the question posed. Students need to learn that the preparations for writing are just as, if not more, important than the essay that will follow. → solid foundation vital for solid essay.
i.    Formal outlining
ii.    Webbing
iii.    Others? → what good online tools can one find for outlining and pre-writing.
b.    Structural thesis sentence → clear argumentative stance and structural component, which outlines the structure for the rest of the essay.
c.    Writing strong, argumentative topic sentences that derive from the structural thesis.
d.    Understanding the difference between concrete detail and explanatory commentary.
i.    Different types of concrete detail (e.g. paraphrased text, direct quotation, summary, close description, etc.)
e.    Understanding the necessity for a balance between concrete detail and commentary. → Facts do not support or speak for themselves; similarly, one cannot simply make assertions without illustrating how or what evidence shows those assertions to be generally true.
f.    How to incorporate concrete detail → fluid textual incorporation. Emphasize the proper way to blend one’s own language with the text of another using multiple examples and having lots of repetitive practice.

8.    How to critically read essay questions and other writing prompts in order to ensure that one responds to the actual question being asked.
a.    Learn how to closely read a question and break it into its component parts.
b.    Learn how breaking down a question can help one in formulating a structure for the essay and serve as a form of pre-writing.
c.    Learn how critically reading a question can help you identify what type of essay the assignment requires.

9.    How to write critical, analytical questions and then respond to them using argumentative topic sentences, applicable concrete detail, and clearly explanatory concrete detail. (preparation for Socratic Seminars)
a.    Students must use “how” or “why” to begin their questions in order to avoid drafting “yes/no” questions.
b.    Students’ questions must address some in-depth element of the text in question and not simply ask for a simple summary of the some part of the text. (Note: this skill is an extraordinarily difficult one to convey and get students to do consistently. Fundamentally, doing this task well requires a depth of thought and critical examination that many students have not forced themselves to [or previously been forced to] engage.)

10.    Students must learn to articulate themselves well in class and begin to participate actively, understanding that their role in the classroom (particularly the small classroom) is a vital one that drives discourse forward.
a.    Teachers need to encourage students to thoroughly flesh out their ideas and comments, not allowing half-baked responses or unsubstantiated claims to stand without some critical examination.
b.    Teachers should encourage students to engage one another’s ideas and ask questions of one another. Modeling the fact that the teacher is a continual learner as well, and not an omniscient font of expertise and esoteric knowledge, will help foster this collaborative dynamic.
c.    Both (a) and (b) can be encouraged through the non-teacher-centric (or is it “teacher a-centric” or “teacher peripheral”) approach of the Socratic Seminar.
d.    Teachers should encourage students to read aloud in order to help them improve their fluency, identify unknown vocabulary, and generally approach a text with careful thought and attention to how the author meant for it to be read. (e.g. emphasizing tone, inflection, pacing, etc. is very important.)

11.    Students should learn good note-taking skills and be able to discern when an important point is being made and how to transfer that information into their notes.
a.    Students should strive to take notes beyond what is merely written on the board.
b.    Students should employ various abbreviations and learn to structure their notes so as to emphasize the points of key importance versus those of subsidiary importance.

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2 thoughts on “The Opening Salvo…

  1. Pingback: Summer planning gets underway and The Twitter Paradox « The History Channel This Is Not…

  2. Pingback: SWBATs Finalized « The History Channel This Is Not…

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