Students should write about their lives right now: Life in the Time of Corona

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I made this writing assignment last weekend. Here’s the link.

The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting our world in so many ways. It’s disrupting normal life routines including school and employment, and social activities such as weddings, prom, and graduations. In fact, the county next to mine just announced a thirty-day shelter-in-place order.

Nearly every aspect of American life has changed. It is truly a historic event.

So when California high school English educator Kelly Gallagher tweeted last week that students “should write daily about this time history,” I thought Yes, of course! What an awesome idea!

So I got busy creating an assignment sheet for students to use to capture this moment in time. (Full disclosure: In the end, actually, I summarized this sheet and made it part of a larger “distance learning packet” that students took home with them at the end of the day on Tuesday, March 17.)

Here’s the link to a Google Doc of my handout. You should be able to edit it to suit your needs and/or students. Get the link here: LIFE IN THE TIME OF CORONA writing assignment.

Again, credit goes to Gallagher for the inspiration for this assignment, which I have named “Life in the Time of Corona,” a play on words mimicking Love in the Time of Cholera, the 1985 novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

My assignment is a journaling and scrapbook project that encourages students to document their experiences, activities, and thoughts about the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

It also asks them to collect some artifacts… news stories, screenshots, a few squares of toilet paper (ha!), a list of cancelled events.

Here’s a snapshot of what the assignment asks students to do:

Over the next week, keep a journal of your activities, thoughts, and experiences in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.  Here are some ideas:

  • Write about what you do know about the virus.
  • Write about what you don’t know.
  • Is it business as usual? (Describe business as usual… your normal routine.)
  • Are you going out? Where?
  • What have you cancelled?
  • How has COVID-19 affected your life so far?
  • Have you tried to shop for supplies in case of a lockdown? How did that go?
  • Do you know what to do if we are restricted?
  • Write about the contradictions or confusion that exists in the media.
  • Reflect on the memes that seem to be multiplying faster than the virus itself.
  • What news stories have you heard, read, or watched?
  • Has anything or anyone inspired you in the midst of the coronavirus?
  • In short, write about whatever you want to write about as it relates to the pandemic.

At the end of our break (or at some other time yet to be determined), turn in:

Five journal entries of at least one paragraph each, typed or handwritten.

–A media report, story, or timeline. Print out a news article or take a screenshot of an article about the virus and its spread.

One artifact of the epidemic…In twenty years, for example, when you’re nearing forty years of age, what item would remind you of today? A photo of empty store shelves? The label from a hand sanitizer bottle? A listing of cancelled events? Some squares of toilet paper?

Audience: Yourself, your future children??? Think of this as a scrapbook of sorts, or an entry in a memory book.

Again, get the link here: Life in the Time of Corona

If you try this assignment, please let me know how it goes. And, by the way, this is NOT road-tested, obviously. This is all new territory, so if I’ve left anything out, please let me know!


Thanks for reading again this week! Also, I will likely post again in a few days as the pandemic situation seems to change daily. If your school has cancelled and you’re busy writing up online instruction, share your thoughts in the comments. Here’s a link to a good book when students have to be inside: “A River Runs Through It: A fresh walk outside for students staying inside”

Watch this TED Talk about coronavirus

Photo by L N on Unsplash

…especially if you’re still in school

Thanks to educator Kelly Gallagher for tweeting a link to this video. Global health specialist Alanna Shaikh speaks candidly about the coronavirus and COVID-19 with honesty and practical insight. I showed it on Friday to one of my high school classes (mostly juniors). They listened intently and left my room calm and collected. It had been a hectic Friday and this TED Talk added some clarity to the situation. Take a look-see during your plan time today if possible.

Thanks for stopping by during this busy time! Chime in with how your school is dealing with the coronavirus and COVID-19. My school is still in session and no adjustments are in the works at the current time. I have been told, however, to begin planning two weeks of lessons that can be supplied to students either online or by mail.

Teaching students to write essays that answer the question: So what?!

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Image by Image by dragonkim29 from Pixabay

Asking “So what?” makes the difference

My juniors finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Instead of taking an objective culminating exam, they will show their learning by writing a literary analysis essay. However, each student will choose the content and the focus of their essays instead of selecting a topic from a list.

With this essay, I wanted to provide an assignment that would be individualized to reflect the lessons and insights they took personally from the novel.

To accomplish this in their essays, I asked students:

  • What do you want for us to see in the text that we might not have seen otherwise?
  • Even better, what does seeing such a thing DO to our reading and understanding of The Old Man and the Sea, or of Hemingway, or the time period, society at the time the books was published, society today, etc?

Based on their first drafts that they turned in a few days ago, I can tell that students have written on a variety of topics. Some have written about the theme of masculinity in the book, some have written about the correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago, some have written about perseverance, and some have focused on the benefits of experience and wisdom.

But here’s another thing I can tell: most students haven’t explained the significance of those discussions. Another way to put it: they still need to explore their claims in the hopes of uncovering the greater significance of those claims.

In short, they need to ask themselves “So what?”

  • For example, it’s great that one student thinks that Hemingway wrote about a man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed,” as one student wrote. But so what? What was Hemingway trying to help readers understand by writing about that man with a fighting spirit and a firm determination to succeed?
  • It’s great to claim that Hemingway uses many examples of masculinity in the novella. But what was Hemingway’s point in doing that? So what? What does that DO to our understanding of the novel?
  • It’s great that you see a correlation between Jesus Christ and Santiago. But what’s the purpose? So what? What does seeing that symbolism do for our lives?

Read this explanation from the blog, Writing Power.net, which I think does a good job of explaining the importance of answering the So What question. For example…

“Three other ways to phrase the So What question are as follows:

  • What is significant about your claim?
  • How does this enrich my understanding?
  • What are the implications of your claim?

In each case, the reader is asking the writer to look beyond his or her own navel and connect the paper’s idea to a larger conversation in which both the writer and the reader are stakeholders…

The most compelling interpretations are the ones in which the reader feels that the writer’s claim is significant, that it matters.”

On my assignment sheet for the culminating essay, I included a rubric of sorts. It contains a list of needed items in the essay: three pages, MLA formatting, two sources, in-text parenthetical citations, two direct quotes, a counter-argument.

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Image by S K from Pixabay 

But really, I also have another purpose — a much greater purpose — to the assignment: I would like to challenge my students to answer the question, So what?

I want them to go further than writing a claim that shows they noticed something in the book. I want them to explain why it’s important to notice that thing in the book. How does noticing that thing affect our lives? What does it teach us? Basically, tell us why it matters. Answer the question, So what?!

And to be truthful, the meaning is more important than the rubric. If a student expounds on their claim, but is short a few paragraphs in length, that’s okay. It’s more important to answer the SO WHAT question than it is to cross off all the boxes.

My juniors will read and revise their first drafts during peer review groups later this week. Hopefully, reading and discussing their essays with their classmates will give them the opportunity to see the importance of  answering the So What? question.


Thanks for reading again this week! Meaning is more important than a rubric. That’s a really hard idea to teach. It’s always easier to focus on mechanics and grammar; it’s harder to help kids think on paper and then communicate their thinking clearly. Have you taught the So What question? If so, please leave a comment with your ideas and experiences.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: A nonfiction contender for 2020-21

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Thinking ahead to new class sets for next year

Nonfiction is definitely my thing. Yes, I love novels and short stories, but nonfiction really captivates me. And I guess it’s because I truly believe that life is stranger than fiction. As a result, I’m starting to consider which nonfiction books I’d like to requisition for 2020-2021.

Here are my top three nonfiction choices (as of today, but let’s be real, this may change over the next month or so): Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Written by Himself, and Manhunt by James Swanson.  In this post, I discuss Outliers.

Pictured above, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, presents an honest look at success and how it is achieved. I’m reading about six pages at a time to my elective composition class as a starter activity. My plan is to read through chapter two, and then assess whether to order for next year.

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PEN American Center [CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D
 

My students, mainly juniors and seniors, are engaged with the ideas in the book. Based on their written responses to some text-based questions, I know they are not only engaged, but are absorbing, considering, and applying the ideas.

Here are a few interesting lines from the 285-page book:

“In Outliers, I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don’t work. People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

Gladwell presents the arresting argument that success has less to do with ambition and intelligence and more to do with culture, family, and one’s upbringing. In the first chapters, by examining the birth dates of Canadian hockey players, Gladwell shows readers proof that there is more to success than hard work and talent.

These concepts caught a few of my students off guard quite honestly, and it goes against many extolled views about success.

The book is divided into two sections:

  • Part One: Opportunity
  • Part Two: Legacy

Within these two parts, Gladwell discusses commonly held beliefs about success and then follows that up with specific stories of outliers… “people whose achievements fall outside normal experience,” according to the back cover copy.

In addition to a reading guide and nine discussion questions in the back of the book, there are several Outliers products on Teachers Pay Teachers that I may or may not utilize. I would like to create some of my own materials for this book, but that will obviously happen after I make my decision to order it or not.

And, of course, the jury’s still out on Outliers; however, I’m thinking I’ll probably give this book the go-ahead next month when we start filling out those precious requisition forms.

Have you ever taught Outliers? Thoughts? Suggestions? Feel free to leave a comment!


Thanks for reading again this week! I’ll be focusing on Douglass and Manhunt in some upcoming posts. And, of course, I also plan to requisition some new fiction. I’ll post soon on those as well. Follow my blog to catch these future posts!

New Year, New Units: Beowulf and The Old Man and the Sea

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The British Lit textbook my school uses alongside Hemingway’s book.

Lots of planning comin’ up!

Now that the new year has started, I thought I would write a short post about the units I’m starting with my juniors and seniors next week.

My junior classes will begin Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea on Wednesday  and my senior classes will start Beowulf on the same day. (In addition, my Composition class will begin brainstorming ideas for their I-Search papers on the same day, while my Novels classes begin their independent reading books.)

 

These lit units are the first ones of the school year for both grades. Last fall, we wrote memoirs, poetry, short story analysis essays, and a variety of pieces for Writer’s Workshop.  We also wrote poetry and entered writing contests, such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Of course, we also read. Between nonfiction articles for Article of the Week assignments and various books we “tasted” on First Chapter Fridays, we did expose ourselves to new reading. Still, in-depth and extended study of selected literature was not on the menu.

Until now.

I’m excited to experience these literature studies with my students. I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea before, but not Beowulf. And to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed that I haven’t read this foundational text before. In fact, I’m not sure how I missed reading it until now.

I’m fairly well prepared to get started with these new units, but at the same time, I know that teaching them will be challenging and probably dominate my planning time.

For me, tackling anything new in teaching requires patience, planning, and an expectation that for these first attempts, I’ll be learning right alongside my students. I’ll be…

  • exploring new vocabulary
  • answering study questions
  • designing writing projects
  • creating summative assessments, and
  • planning cumulative activities.

It’s quite a handful to create daily lessons for two new texts. Compound that with the fact that at my small rural high school, I’m the only English teacher for juniors and seniors.  That has its positives (I have autonomy and choice when planning), but it also has its negatives. For example, while I do have a general curriculum to follow, I do not have unit specific materials beyond the textbooks and novels.

As such, I’ll be creating and designing lessons as I go. Thank goodness for ready-made unit plans, which provide me a basic framework that I can tweak and adjust for the future.

I’ll update you on how these new units progress in some future posts.


Thanks for reading again this week! What are you gearing up for now that the holidays are over? Feel free to leave a comment and follow my blog to catch those follow-up posts.

 

A Christmas Memo: Madeline, Me, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame

This Christmas, for the first time in more than 200 years, Christmas Mass will not be held at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Since last April’s fire, services at the famous cathedral have been held at the Eglise Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois, a church near the Louvre. This week, I’ve decided to reblog a post I wrote last spring; this post originally appeared on my travel site, http://www.marilynyung.wordpress.com.

I wrote the post below the week after the cathedral fire last spring; it pays tribute to the children’s book, Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans. By the way, I still have not located the copy of the book mentioned in the post. Darn.

Thanks for reading! If you’re a Madeline fan, please leave a comment!

Marilyn Yung

The classic children’s book caused me to feel and understand the tragedy of the fire when I wouldn’t have otherwise

Bedtime_story_-_MadelinePhoto: Ldorfman; Ldorfman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D I don’t possess any personal connection to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. I’ve never even been to the City of Light. I don’t have a selfie to post or a brochure or keychain from the grand gothic masterpiece that was nearly destroyed by fire last week.

I do, however, have a copy of Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans, the classic 1939 children’s book, somewhere in our house.

At least, the book supposed to be here. I vaguely remember stowing it away in a box several years back in the attic for safe-keeping with other beloved and well-worn children’s books my daughter and son read with me in recliners and on couches some twenty years ago.

1_BAHbc0E3F_FWOxEYeknDTAPhoto: Unsplash

It was a sweet…

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Four-day weeks are the worst… said no teacher ever

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Photo by Radu Florin on Unsplash

What a four-day school week means to me

Last summer, my husband and I moved to a new city. Since we had learned about our upcoming move way back in January, I began searching for a new position about a month later. The local school district in our new hometown didn’t have any positions available. As a result, I decided to explore the many small rural school districts in the surrounding area.

One of the very first openings I noticed was at a school district about forty minutes away from our new home. I noticed the listing and checked out the school’s website. It looked like a promising possibility, but the forty-minute commute gave me pause. Still, I made a mental note to keep it in mind as I continued my search.

A couple more openings soon showed up in other schools. One was about thirty minutes away. Another was a tempting fifteen minutes away. Of course, a few more with forty-minute commutes similar to that first listing popped up in my search results as well.

I continued to prepare my resumé, samples of student work, and other materials that I knew I’d need when I would eventually start interviewing. And just about everyday, I logged on the job search website provided by my state’s department of education and looked for openings in the area.

One day about two weeks later, the listing at that first school I noticed was flagged as being recently revised. Hmmm… I wonder what’s changed, I thought.

I clicked the listing. A significant change had been made: the district’s school board had, a few days earlier, approved a four-day week for the 2019-2020 school year.

The four-day week is a relatively new concept that more than 500 districts across the country are exploring. Small schools, especially those in rural areas, can reduce operating costs and, in lieu of higher salaries, better attract and retain teachers by offering a shorter work week instead.

Well, that definitely changes things, I thought.

Without looking further on the site, I quickly assembled a resumé and emailed it to the school’s principal. Within a week, I had an interview scheduled. About an hour after my interview, I received an offer, which I accepted the next morning.

That four-day week stopped my search cold. Yes, it would mean school days that run about thirty minutes longer, but it would also mean one fewer day of making that forty-minute drive each way, which was the main drawback for me since I was transferring from another rural district with a comparable salary schedule. And now, with the prospect of a four-day week, saving time and gas were just the beginning.

After all, what teacher doesn’t fantasize about what an entire extra day each week would mean for their life? 

  • That extra day means I can schedule a doctor or dental appointment without taking time off from work (and, by the way, costing the school the wages for a sub).
  • It means I can do my grocery shopping on a quiet Monday morning instead of a hectic Saturday afternoon when everyone else is roaming the aisles, too.
  • It means I can hang around the house and redo that cabinet I’ve been needing to paint, but just haven’t found the three or four solid hour it requires.
  • It means I can burn a pile of leaves if I feel like it.
  • Or bake a loaf of bread.
  • Or read a book.
  • Or write a blog post.
  • Or exercise.
  • Or volunteer.
  • Or yes, even do some grading and lesson planning. (Yeah, it happens.)

And think about what an extra day means to younger teachers with small children. That’s one fewer day of childcare to pay for and one more precious day to spend with their infant or preschooler. As a mother (my kids are grown now), that extra day would have meant the world to me.

And yes, logistically, I understand how difficult it might be to schedule childcare on a four-day calendar. However, after-school clubs and other community programs have been known to revise their hours and services to accommodate the change.

And mind you, I don’t have every Monday off at my new school. Of about forty Mondays in the school year, twenty-two are actual “no school” days where both students and teachers stay home. On the remaining sixteen Mondays, only teachers attend school to plan and take part in professional development (PD) activities, such as first aid workshops, a suicide prevention session, and technology training.

Fortunately, my district doesn’t pack these Mondays with PD sessions; I usually have four to five hours of time to spend in my classroom preparing for the weeks ahead. I accomplish so much on those days completing work that I would normally just take home in a bag anyway.

I love the four-day week my new school district voted to adopt last spring. The district plans to evaluate  the change next semester to learn how it’s working for students, parents, and school personnel. Everyone’s needs must be considered, for sure, but we must remember that educating students must remain the number one priority.

For me, however, the four-day week means my weekends are long, luxurious, and wonderfully rejuvenating. Yes, I could earn more in a larger, better resourced suburban district closer to my home, but my smaller paycheck is more than offset by that one glorious extra day.


Thanks for reading! Have you heard of any districts in your area considering the switch to a four-day week? What are your thoughts? Let me know with a comment. And don’t forget to become a follower for more ELA posts. Here’s a link to a recent post