Thursday, August 21, 2014

EngageNY 6th Grade Module 1, Unit 1, Lessons 7–8: In Which I Find Some (Inappropriate) Content At Last

Unit 1 Lesson 7 is a mid-unit assessment. If anybody had any doubts about the poverty of the content here, the questions are 1–2 sentence chapter "gists" (Can we just use the word summary, please?), review of the challenges Percy faces and the review of the character stuff from earlier. No explicit instruction in mythology.

Lesson 8 actually gets to an interesting point, although a strange one. After discussing what is a hero, which is a fine discussion — I do that too, we go over a shortened list of Jospeh Campbell's “The Hero's Journey” and the process a person becomes a hero? I have to say that this subject appeals to my nerdy little heart, but I have some reservations about the appropriateness of this for early middle school. Joseph Campbell is pretty heady stuff. It's some of the most interesting analysis out there in terms of myths and their structure.

Here's the rub: what good is it learning the steps of a hero's journey when you don't have the content knowledge? The handout wisely uses some movie and book examples the kids might recognize, but I'm still uneasy at pushing this advanced material. What good is it now? Seeing these steps in The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings is fine, but this is not what sixth-graders need right now.

You want to give them advanced material? Let them read about the Trojan War. There you have the greatest war poem ever telling how difficult and terrible and glorious war really is. Not only will kids learn about Hector, Agamemnon, Paris, Helen, Ajax, and Menelaus, they'll get a sense of war itself. Here's something with deep content that is directly relatable to modern life. I'm not suggesting kids read The Illiad, but they can hear some of the stories. Olivia Coolidge wrote an excellent book on the Trojan War, suitable for this level. Why not that?

And when the kids get this content knowledge, the hero's journey will make sense. The steps will seem familiar and not something tacked onto a story.

Monday, August 18, 2014

EngageNY G6, Module 1, Lessons 4–5: In Which I Debate Myself About A Word

I'm going through an interesting thought process. I'm finding myself being highly critical of this curriculum, then I question myself when it shows nuggets of improvement. Surely it can't be all bad? After all, New York State spent millions of dollars on this. It's professionally developed! You're being too critical!

Let me describe one thing that is making me uneasy. One of the initial vocabulary vocabulary words for this unit is the word gist, as in to get the gist of. We all know what that means, and I always used it in a slightly informal way. In no way is it a word or term that I would incorporate into a lesson except in a casual way. However, this EngageNY curriculum codifies the word gist into the learning process. For example, in Lesson 4 it asks the students to discuss in their triads, “What is the gist of this action of text?" Now this isn't a bad word to know, but my gut tells me it's way too informal a word to use in this context. This is repeated in Lessn 5 too, describing a certain type of non-analytical reading that students are expected to do (which I think is traditionally called "reading"). We have to get the gist of the chapter or section.

What this is doing is dividing the two types of reading too. There's reading for "gist" and there's the analytic reading which the Common Core Curriculum values more.

Lesson 5 addresses making inferences. Inferences are one of these ideas that I see in every standardized test. There are always questions about inferencing. The gist of the lesson (Ha! I make funny!) is to look at a range of pages and discuss what Percy is thinking at a specific moment and then write down what you learn about Percy as a result of it. Okay, this isn't the worst idea, teaching character and inferencing at the same time. The problem is that we did this last lesson. No matter whether you use evidence flags for the text you want to highlight or not, this is very repetitive.

I'm still not seeing any better engagement with story or the mythological underpinnings of The Lightning Thief. Lesson 6 is preoccupied with teaching prefixes, which is a poor fit for a one-day lesson that has to do with a novel. If you're going to teach this subject, and that's a perfectly valid topic for this age (I teach them myself) do it methodically. End a week or so and work through the major prefixes and suffixes, examining how they change the meaning of a word. You can't skim the topic and convince yourself that you've taught it. It's too deep.

We do some reading comprehension in Lesson 6 where the students, still in their triads, get to pick questions for a question basket which I will distribute to each triad. They take turns drawing questions and reading them, then the entire group searches for text to answer the question. I can see this as kind of fun, and this may be a better way to do reading comprehension from time to time.

As a closing, students will stand back-to-back with a neighbor then turn around and share their ideas about three questions:

  1. 1. What is an example of a word that begins with a prefix?

    2. What is an important challenge Percy has faced so far in The Lightning Thief?

    3. What is the most important thing you have learned about Percy so far in this novel? Support your thinking with a specific example from the book. 

Getting back to engaging with the text, do you see how the actual text questions are very general? They don't question a student's understanding very well. So far it seems that there are bigger questions than this at this point in the novel, yet the lesson barely touches them.

Where We Link To Articles About The Common Core

These are worth reading to learn about the genesis and effect of the Common Core:

The second article especially describes where the money for the Common Core comes from.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Bad Way To Do Group Work

In the beginning of the teaching noted for Lesson 3 of The Lightning Thief unit, we get a teacher's note:

  • Ideally, students would routinely sit in their triads at the beginning of class. Many discussion, reading, and writing routines rely on this structure. If the class has another seating chart or routine, preview each lesson to determine the best time for students to transition to triads (typically at the start of Work Time). 

What this means is that the unit should be taught with the expectation that students sit in their same groups of three for the entire unit. I can see the advantages and disadvantages of the, but in the long term it's a problem. First off, let's remember these are sixth graders, not high school or college students. They have a great variety of maturity levels as well as very different motivation. In any class you're bound to have kids who don't work hard academically. I question the wisdom of having such small, inflexible groups for such a long period of time. 

In the opening you are elected to do this:

  • Read the learning targets:
    * “I can make inferences about Percy in order to understand him as the narrator of this story.”
    * “I can cite evidence from the text when answering questions and discussing Percy’s character inThe Lightning Thief.”

    * “I can follow our Triad Talk Expectations when I participate in a discussion.” 

(Pardon that odd line break in the reading targets above. I'm not good enough anymore with HTML code to figure out the formatting.) I'm struck by how none of these standards are content related. In other words, the goal is to be able to find details and relate them to some general ideas (i.e. Understanding Percy as the narrator) but not to knowing or understanding specific things about the story itself.

Lesson 3 has students go over the first four pages of The Lightning Thief twice: the first time for general understanding, the second to parse specific details in order to make inferences about Percy. Again, we have this repetition of text. It makes a certain sense in order to teach inferencing, but holy cow, this will get boring.

I'm still wondering when we're going to be talking about Greek mythology. Seriously. Not on a worksheet which students are analyzing somehow, but a deep and meaningful discussion of meaning.

Space Sounds

Although there's no sound in space, bodies in our solar system emit electromagnetic signals. Some very cooleople at NASA took the signals that were in the audible sound range and turned them into music. The result sounds like, well, space music!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lightning Unit Observations 1

A couple of things I'm noticing with the first lesson or so in the EngageNY unit.

The first lesson lasts two days and it deals in those two days with various comprehension strategies as well as one worksheet composed of six paragraphs of text, plus picture:


A long, long, long time ago, even before Perseus was born, his grandfather, Acrisios, the king of Argos, was given a prophecy that he would someday be killed by his grandson. To protect himself from this fate, the terrified king imprisoned his only daughter, Danae, in an underground dungeon so that she could never marry or have children. Certain that he would never be a grandfather, Acrisios relaxed. But Zeus, the great father of the gods, had other plans.

Zeus had been watching Danae and thought she was stunning—too beautiful to resist. He turned himself into golden rain and poured through the bronze bars in the roof of her elaborate dungeon. As the rain fell upon Danae, its magical powers caused a child to begin growing within her. Nine months later, she gave birth to a son and named him Perseus.

Outraged as well as frightened when he learned of a grandson's birth, Acrisios enclosed mother and son in a chest, which he flung into the sea. After drifting about for a long time, the chest finally washed up on a distant island. A fisherman found it and brought it to his brother, King Polydectes, who took Perseus and his mother into his palace.

When Perseus grew up, Polydectes gave him a series of challenging tasks to complete. Armed with a sword made by the god Hermes, winged sandals, and a shiny bronze shield given to him by the goddess Athena, Perseus slew the dreaded monster Medusa. This hideous creature had writhing snakes for hair, elephant-like tusks for teeth, and blood-red eyes. Whoever looked at her was instantly turned to stone.

As success followed success, Perseus began to think about the stories he had heard about his grandfather, Acrisios. So, after a brief visit to his mother, the young hero set sail for Argos. Before he reached it, however, Acrisios got word that his long-lost grandson was coming and fled the city, for he still feared the prophecy.

While waiting for Acrisios to return, Perseus attended festival games being held in a neighboring town. A skilled athlete, Perseus entered the discus contest. As he prepared to throw it, he lost control and the heavy disk went hurtling into the crowd, striking a man and killing him. Alas, the tragic prophecy had proved true—the dead spectator was Acrisios. Perseus was so troubled about the accident that he chose to leave Argos and build his own city—the legendary Mycenae. 

This is a part of the legend of Perseus. The writing style isn't bad and neither is the content; however, this is the only content students will be dealing with for two days. Most of the time they'll be analyzing this text using reading strategies such as context clues for new vocabulary, summarizing paragraphs, and annotating. This may be appropriate for some levels of readers, but two days on one short selection of text. My strong readers will be ready to claw their eyes out after this. This is incredibly boring and tedious.

This unit also wants students to be working in triads for much of the unit. As a student I found a lot of group work pretty tedious, so I don't know if this strategy will be successful. I don't know if this heavy emphasis on learning strategies and group work, forcing kids to talk about how they are learning will be a successful one. It may be that coming from my own ease with text (I taught myself to read when I was three) I find having to describe how I do something unnecessary, but this may just be me. I'm going to give this a fair shot. Student feedback will be important here. Still, heavier emphasis on the how rather than the content will turn off almost any reader.

The Lightning Thief Unit Assessments

The module for The Lightning Thief is broken into three different units, each with a mid unit and end unit assessment. Here they are:

Mid Unit 1: Inferring about the Main Character in The Lightning Thief

This assessment centers on standards NYSP12 ELA CCLS RL.6.1 and RL.6.3. Students will read an excerpt from Chapter 4 in

The Lightning Thief. Through a graphic organizer and a series of short responses, students will describe how Percy responds to a challenge he faces in this excerpt, and then what they, as readers, can infer about him based on his response. This is a reading assessment and is not intended to formally assess students’ writing. Most students will write their responses, in which case it may also be appropriate to assess W.6.9. However, if necessary, students may dictate their answers to an adult. 

End of Unit 1 Assessment: Drawing Evidence from Text: Written Analysis of How Percy’s Experiences Align with “The Hero’s Journey”

This assessment centers on standards NYS ELA CCLS RL.6.1, RL.6.3, R.I. 6.1, and W.6.9. How do Percy’s experiences in Chapter 8 align with the hero’s journey? After reading Chapter 8 of The Lightning Thief, students will complete a graphic organizer and write a short analytical response that answers the question and supports their position with evidence from the novel and from the informational text “The Hero’s Journey.” 

Mid Unit 2 Assessment: Analytical Mini-Essay about Elements and Theme of the Myth of Prometheus

This assessment centers on NYSP12 ELA CCLS RL.6.1, RL.6.2, RI.6.1, W.6.2, and W.6.9. For this assessment, students will write an analytical “mini-essay” responding to the following prompts: “What are significant elements of mythology in the story of ‘Prometheus’? Explain how elements of mythology contained in the plot make ‘Prometheus’ a classic myth.” “What is an important theme in the myth of ‘Prometheus? What key details from the myth contribute to this theme?”
Students will have read and discussed the myth “Prometheus” in class as well as an informational text about the “Key Elements of Mythology.” They will use recording forms to collect important details. Their “mini-essay” will contain two body paragraphs (one about the elements of myth that they see in “Prometheus” and one a theme of the myth) plus a one- sentence introduction and a brief conclusion to explain how an element of mythology connects to a theme of the myth. The reading standards assessed center around citing textual evidence from both the literary text “Prometheus” and the informational text “Key Elements of Mythology.” Students also are assessed on their ability to determining of a theme of a literary text. The reading standards could be assessed through the graphic organizer alone, or verbally, if necessary. This is both a reading and writing assessment. 

End of Unit 2 Assessment: Literary Analysis—Connecting Themes in Cronus and The Lightning Thief

This assessment addresses RL.6.1, RL.6.2, W.6.2, W.6.5, W.6.9, and L.6.1a, b, c, d. Students will write a literary analysis

responding to the following prompts: “What is a theme that connects the myth of “Cronus” and The Lightning Thief? After reading the myth of “Cronus” and the novel The Lightning Thief, write a literary analysis in which you do the following: Summarize the myth and present a theme that connects the myth and the novel; Describe how the theme is communicated in the myth; Describe how the theme is communicated in The Lightning Thief; Explain why myths still matter and why the author may have chosen to include this myth in the novel. You will have the opportunity to discuss the reading and your thinking with your partner before writing independently.” This is primarily a writing assessment. It is not intended to assess students’ reading of a myth; discussion is intentionally built in as a scaffold toward writing. In Lesson 18 students launch this assessment, writing their best on-demand draft. This draft is not formally assessed. The actual assessment occurs in Lesson 20, after peer feedback. 

Mid Unit 3 Assessment: Crosswalk between My Hero’s Journey Narrative and “The Hero’s Journey” Informational Text

This assessment centers on NYSP12 ELA CCLS W6.2, W.6.3a, and W.6.9. Students will write a paragraph explaining the ways in which their own “My Hero’s Journey” narrative follows the archetypal hero’s journey. The explanation itself addresses students’ ability to write an expository paragraph; students’ plan for their narrative addresses their ability to organize a sequence of events for a narrative. 

End of Unit 3 Assessment: Final Draft of Hero’s Journey Narrative

This assessment centers on NYSP12 ELA CCLS W.6.3, W.6.4, and W.6.11c. Students engage in a series of writer’s craft lessons for narrative writing: They draft, revise, and submit their best independent draft of their “My Hero’s Journey” narrative. 

Okay, a few comments:

I wonder why there seem to be so few assessments, especially reading assessments. In my units, would be making quick assessments two to three times a week. Sometimes these are informal, but once a week there would be some sort of formal one. These are a little time-consuming but are necessary to keep kids on track. My enthusiastic readers will read every day, but there are somewho will not. Does this unit take this into account?

The Unit 2 assessments focus more on the myths themselves. That is a good thing, but with a fair amount of book being read already, it seems like we're missing out here. I don't know though. Maybe I'm wrong. I'll just have to see. I may still be a little biased because I don't think this is a good way of teaching Greek mythology.

Another bigger issue is the teaching of theme itself. That is a really tough thing to teach to younger kids. I spend an entire eighth grade year dealing with theme, and by the end about 1/2–2/3 of them get it. Fewer of them can read a piece and come up with the theme on their own. This is not a comment on my students but on the complexity of the idea and how developmentally ready kids are to understand it. Since there are major issues dealing with this on an eighth-grade level, I have serious reservations about teaching theme to sixth graders. Many will understand a theme if you present it to them, and will even be able to get details from a text that supports the theme, but this requires major scaffolding. Why teach this topic when there are more basic ones to deal with like reading comprehension?

The final assessment gets back to the independent writing that the students were to do in the Performance Task. I have serious reservations about how valuable this is, which I've already discussed. Independent narratives can have a lot of value, but this one seems to neglect the whole aspect of studying mythology itself in favor of a Joseph Campbellesque hero's journey. Not that I don't love that stuff, but we're talking apples and organizes here, or maybe oranges and grapefruits. I feel strongly that the cultural literacy aspect of mythology is of greater importance than this, especially when most students won't have a strong background of Greek mythology. Since a great deal of American culture rests on the back of these myths and Greek civilization, why is this the focus?