Saturday, October 18, 2014

Actually Teaching

Hopefully you read my last post about my flash fiction unit and its nice little pre-assessment. To further assess how my lesson plan would work I taught the first day of the unit. I chose to teach the lesson to the 11th grade English class at Eldorado Emerson Private School. This is a small private school in Orange, CA with students from ages 4 to 18. Because I used to teach there know many of the teachers including Mr. Kelley who teaches high school English.

I chose to teach the first lesson because it doesn’t require the students to have any knowledge of flash fiction and instead introduces them to this type of writing. Here is what my learning plan was:

1)      On the board write the following famous short-short story, attributed to Ernest Hemingway: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

2)      When students enter, ask them to copy the story and consider and record whether or not they think it is a story.

3)      Once students have had time to record their ideas, come together as a class to discuss the following:
  • What does a story need in order to be a story?
  • What questions does this story leave you with?
  • What do you think is happening beneath the surface of these six words? 
  • Is the amount of what’s left unsaid unsettling? Interesting? Annoying?
  •  Do you think it’s harder to write a short-short story like this one or a longer work, like a novel? Why?
4)      As a class read “Flashes On The Meridian: Dazzled by Flash Fiction” By Pamela Castro out loud and discuss its ideas after each section.

I followed this plan with a few variations on the day I taught it. Because I knew I wouldn’t be teaching them again I thought I should have them read some actual flash fiction. So I changed step four and added a step 5 and 6 as follows:
4)      As a class read three short sections from “Flashes On The Meridian: Dazzled by Flash Fiction” By Pamela Castro out loud and discuss its ideas after each section.

5)      Hand out packets of three examples of flash fiction. As a class read each story aloud. Have students record their thoughts about the story and what makes is successful or unsuccessful as a story after each reading.

6)      Close by asking students to discuss what they have learned. Prompt with questions when discussion lags.

One important area of this lesson was the assessments taken. The pre-assessment of reading and responding went very well. Students wrote quite a lot and were able to express the ideas I was looking for. One student wrote, “it sounds like a commercial advertisement” when explaining why he thought it was not a story. The ongoing assessment of observing the students and engaging them in discussions went well. I quickly learned by using the ongoing assessment that much of the language and vocabulary of the article and stories was difficult for the several ELL students. Because I observed this I was able to quickly adjust my plan to include more vocabulary explanation. This helped to make the lesson accessible to all students. For example one of the examples of the form that flash fiction can take used the word epistle. I observed that students were puzzled by this word so when the student reader finished I explained what an epistle was.

Although my original learning plan did not include post assessment my edited plan did. The concluding discussion helped me to see what the students had learned, what they still needed me to teach, and importantly what they were interested in about this subject. I was pleased to have gathered this information and it made me wish I could keep teaching my entire unit to them. For example when the students were discussing what they had learned several students asked if they could do this kind of writing themselves. I assured them they could and was glad they couldn’t hear my inner voice which was shouting, “I’ll teach you! … Oh, wait, I can’t! Damn!”

This experience, of teaching my own lesson plan, was so very helpful. One big thing that I learned is that I have no concept of how long things in my plan will take. Things I thought would take 10 minutes took 5 for one task and on another took 15. This reminded me that teachers need to be flexible and willing to adjust their plans to fit each class. I also learned the real importance of assessment. If I had taught this same lesson but had not paid attention to the assessments I would have been wasting my time and the students time. Assessments are a vital part of teaching and despite the intensity and fear that the word brings it can be simple and easy. I will be sure to better plan for informal summative assessment in all my lessons so that I can improve as a teacher form each lesson.

Teaching this lesson showed me that I need to be aware of what students need (like the ELL students who needed vocabulary help). By being aware of student needs I can add it to my lesson and adjust for it on the go. 

My favorite part of teaching this lesson was seeing the students actually learn. By the end I knew that this class understood the basics of flash fiction and they were intrigued. Sharing something I love with others is a big part of why I want to be a teacher and I felt reassured about my choice after teaching this lesson. It wasn’t easy but it was fun and it was worth it. I am one happy future teacher thanks to this assignment and to Mr. Kelley and his class. 

This picture shows how I felt after teaching my lesson (it was just like that giddy feeling you get after braving a scary ride that turns out to be awesome).

How short is too short?

Pre-assessment is a tool for teachers to learn what their students know about a unit before beginning the actual instruction. In my experience pre-assessment is very valuable. It can help a teacher know where to adjust instruction and who in the class might need more help in the coming days. It also gives the students a little peek at what is coming and can help them to prepare for what is next. You might only think of pre-tests (like you had in middle school algebra class) as the only form a pre-assessment can take but in actuality they can take many forms. Discussions, written responses, KWL charts (know, want to know, and learned), graffiti walls (where students artistically show what they know about a given topic) are just a few forms that pre-assessment can take.

In a recent class I designed a two week unit plan for teaching about flash fiction. This is a form of creative prose writing that is only limited by size. The author tries to tell a story that is complete and interesting in a short amount of words. The length depends on the place you might publish or in my students case the whims of their teacher. My unit spends 4 days learning and researching about flash fiction as a genre and reading as much flash fiction as possible. The last 6 days are about practicing what they have learned by creating lots of their own flash fiction and then finally using one finally short-short story to show their skills in writing flash fiction.

The beginning of my unit has a simple and informal pre-assessment. I write am actual piece of flash fiction on the board and as they come into class I ask students to write down their reaction to the story and if it is a story and why. Why don’t you give this pre-assessment a shot yourself? The story, attributed to Hemingway is posted on my “board” below.

Let me know how you do on the pre-assessment in the comments below.

To see how this assessment might work for real students and not just in my head I asked several family members and friends to give it a try for me. Thankfully I have awesome people in my life who didn’t mind giving me some time to test this out.

The reactions were fun to read and I was glad I gave this a shot. All but one “student” thought that the writing on the board was not a story. They identified it as an advertisement. Several “students” pointed out that it was lacking a beginning, middle, and end which a story must have. They all thought it was to short. Only one person thought that it could be a story because it got her to think and imagine. She was interested in knowing more and wished the author had kept writing.

These are the responses I was expecting and also wanting. It was great that they could argue that the story was incomplete and missing essential parts. The idea that this was a story made them just a bit mad and they felt compelled to explain why they were mad. My goal with this assessment it two fold. First I wanted to get my students thinking about length when related to a story, and this was certainly accomplished. Second I wanted to know if any students had experience with very short fiction and I believe my one “student” who was intrigued knew where the lesson was headed. It also doesn’t hurt that this story is so “offensively” short that when students later see a story with just 200 words they are more willing to think of it as a story because it is so much longer than this one.

In the end this pre-assessment did what I wanted it to and will be a good fit for this unit. I also showed some of the “students” my rubric for the end of the unit portfolio. They all understood the things that would be required in the unit and felt that it was fair. I hadn’t ever thought of showing students rubrics this far in advance but I liked doing it this way. The students will know and understand right away what is expected of them and what to focus on in the unit. I will certainly be showing rubrics to my students early more often.