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Be Jack Bauer

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What does being a super cool secret agent preventing terrorists from releasing poison gas and being a candidate for National Board Certification have in common? Both involve tense situations with a little timer running on the screen as you make do or die decisions. Except instead of 24 hours, the amount of time super spy Jack Bauer has to save the world on the hit show shot in real time, “24”, the NBPTS candidate only has four hours at the assessment center to answer six essay questions covering content and pedagogy. Candidates are advised to complete their portfolios before going for the online test, which is what I plan to do. That means it’s nearly a year away. But, during the last meeting of our five-session Fairfax County introductory class, our instructors decided to give us a taste of writing under pressure with timed writing to an in class prompt.

What follows is what I wrote in thirty minutes in response to that practice prompt, with comments in italics that represent some of my thoughts at the time. The prompt itself was generic:
1. Describe a teaching strategy/activity that I do to meet the needs of my students.
2. Why did I choose this strategy?
3. What is the impact of this strategy on student learning?
4. How do I intend to use this strategy in the future?

RESPONSE

A teaching activity that I do to meet the needs of my students involves posting columns on a listserv. Seniors in my AP Lang class are currently writing columns. The course has had a journalistic focus all year: in first quarter we did personal journals (leading to college essays), in second quarter we did profiles, and now in third quarter we are doing weekly columns. God, it’s the first paragraph and I’m already digressing. Listen to all these people pecking away-- it sounds like a rain shower of perfectly scripted pedagogy, and here I am rehashing the year’s syllabus.

After reading some samples and discussing features like voice, being timely, and using rhetorical modes (compare/contrast, anecdotes, examples) to accomplish rhetorical goals (persuade, entertain, enlighten), kids were ready to design their own column. They wrote proposals and five sample column ideas, which I reviewed. Last Sunday at 6 pm, their first post was due. Hey-- I didn’t write an outline, though the instructors suggested we might want to. Did anyone else? We usually tell kids to write one. Is it really the best use of time, or is just writing towards the answer a better approach?

The procedure for posting is that each writer sends a piece to a list, which sends it out to all the other writers. A computer-savvy kid at our school who is a junior network administrator helped me set it up. I was nervous at first but he was very helpful and it didn’t require much technical know-how by me. I can’t believe it-- people are actually getting up and walking over to the snack table during this. They did say that at the testing center not everyone will be on the same schedule. I’m sure I’ll end up next to someone watching TOEFL videos...

I asked all the kids to read the pieces by Monday’s class, which was a little quick for turnaround but we had something planned for Tuesday. Fortunately, the pieces were not only quick reads, but wildly popular with the kids. For Monday’s class, I made a reading quiz by pulling a memorable sentence from each article, and then listing the author’s names. No one who had done the reading missed more than two matches. The subjects and voices really stuck with the readers.

Also on the “quiz,” I asked kids to write two paragraphs. First they had to respond to a piece they strongly agreed or disagreed with. This led to hearty discussion later as we talked about Bode Miller, the use of alternative fuel vehicles, and whether eating Chipotle burritos instead of Taco Bell is food snobbery. I think that’s how you spell Chipotle, even though the computer has underlined it with a red squiggle. They said that assessors are trained to overlook spelling errors that don’t impede meaning. As long as they like carryout, I should be fine...

The second quiz paragraph was to discuss a column that had some aspect of writing they liked or would try to use in their own piece. We didn’t talk through these yet, but I intend to return comments to the original writer. A Greek student who wrote about the decline of the Olympics ideal with the inclusion of curling and halfpipe got the most comments for his provocative opinions. You can use bullets, the instructors said, in “appropriate situations," like prescribing strategies for an ADHD learner. I’ll stick with narrative-- interesting narrative, I hope, including specific examples and a dash of humor. Banking that: a) assessors might be a bit bored and want some flavor, and b) good writing is good writing.

Today, one senior told me that he didn’t like the listserv format because he couldn’t post comments, and because it clogged his email box with 22 emails all of a sudden. He suggested I could do the same thing on Blackboard without sending out all the emails. I don’t plan on changing the system midstream, but I’ve taken his advice in part by setting up a discussion board on Blackboard for the next round of columns. I’ve never used this feature, but I think it will go well based on their written comments on the quiz, and I’m certain the kids will appreciate the chance to give and get feedback quickly. It’s time-- be Jack Bauer! Surgical, emotionless. Get to the heart of the matter.

The overall impact of this on student learning is to fuel their excitement to write timely and interesting columns, and to foster discussion of their writing choices. In class I intend to draw out further how they are using rhetorical strategies and making choices about voice and style in regards to their audience and purpose. This sort of analysis will help them become versatile writers and also relates directly to the upcoming AP exam where they will have to look at these qualities in excerpts of previously published writing.

I like the overall strategy of listserv and Blackboard chat, and intend to use it more in the future to have students share their work. For example, I’ve got a poetry unit coming up with ninth graders. And by the end of it, every kid will be a published poet. I guarantee it.
That actually makes sense! Remember it, along with the other three cardinal rules of testing:
1. Hydrate (water out and in before and during the test).
2. Directions (know how to get there so you’re not late on test day, and know how the test works before you start, in our case by using the online simulation).
3. And the classic, EAGB. (I wonder: What does Jack Bauer eat for breakfast?)

1 Comment

I read your "Certifiable" article about the elelphant as a result of a link in the TeacherMagazine.com Teacher Update. I forwarded it to two teachers on our staff. It was not only interesting, but reflected the sort of teaching we are striving to achieve. I followed the "more" link to this article. Thanks for the ideas. We are trying to edge further into that "21st century" arena of teaching and sometimes (well...often) my teachers need a little nudge to get their teaching styles to transition into use of a new format. I have taken a look at Writeboard and also Campfire as vehicles for student collaboration. Thanks to your article, I'll also give Blackboard a try. BTW, Writeboard and Campfire are free for limited use.

Joan Belknap, Instructional Tech Coordinator at Regina High School in tornado shaken Iowa City, Iowa.

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