Lesson Plans, Literature, and Action!

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One of several thank you cards

At last, a 12-week immersion as a high school English Literature, English Language, and a writing instructor has come to an end. My former school, at which I served as a teacher and assistant principal, used my services during a teacher’s maternity leave. It was great to be back in the classroom. Yet, with also working both days of the weekend on my other pursuits, I’d only had 4 days off prior to Thanksgiving weekend.

Since the absent teacher never attempted to contact me or oversee what I was doing with her charges, I was free to modify the curriculum. However, I requested the administration to provide syllabi previously used. The chance to delve into classics like Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” were treats, as I’d never read them before. However, it was nostalgic to re-visit Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter because I’d had it as the main piece of literature in my own high school junior year.

Working with students for their AP English Language course brought studies in grammar, rhetoric, and a slew of literary devices I’d not previously been acquainted with, but I captured a greater appreciation for the structure and strategies used in oral and written communication. We also explored the classical appeals of Aristotle, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and tactics used by advertisers to influence consumers. Yet, with all these great learning adventures and getting to know and work with my wonderful students, the most exciting result from my teaching term was the chance to make movies!

When we were about halfway through with it, in order to challenge the students with relating the psychosocial dynamics of Hawthorne’s novel, they collaborated via small groups of 5-6 to write modern-day versions of the tale. Upon completion of their stories, they were given the opportunity to vote for continuing the novel along more conventional means of assessment or to cultivate new skills in creating a film. I’d explained that it would entail storyboarding, costumes, props, filming, stage direction, and editing. Of three classes participating in voting through secret ballots, the two honors classes chose to tackle the film project. After starting down this process though, three students requested to not opt for doing the film, so I’d written separate lesson plans for them throughout the 3 weeks that the other students scurried about the school to find settings where they could film. We’d even explored green screen filming, as having school stairwells was often the only place that they could shoot.

I’ll admit that I spent a good portion of their periods popping into monitor their arguments, noting that sometimes they were getting attention because in the boy groups one had to play Hester, and in the girl groups some had to assume the male roles of Rev. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth. There were times when they’d have to suspend their filming in the hallways when troops of elementary kids traversed their path to go to prayer or the library. Favors were requested of teachers for their tolerance of my students’ intrusions to request props they’d spied within classrooms, using the Main Office counter and reception windows to simulate a hotel desk, getting knowledge on how to use an SLR camera for recording, and to request administration to allow some of the girls to wear abayas instead of school uniforms to speed up getting into costume each day. At times, I’d wondered if they’d be able to make the deadline I’d set the day before my final day there, but I saw the overall happiness, true engagement, and ownership the students invested in their projects.

The leadership of some students rose as they directed, social skills evolved as one student who normally showed little responsive affect was transformed through his peers coaching him on how to be a leading man. As part of the movie script, one of the students actually gave another a greatly fashionable haircut, and I saw them beam in brotherly solidarity. Girls who had seemingly opposite personalities at first clashed, but then came together as great actors.

Then one day, an obviously very bright, but undermotivated, student stopped by my desk before leaving and said, “Miss, I just want you to know that now I really like coming to school.” My heart melted, then felt sad that it implied that he normally did not like school, and finally I determined whatever the outcome, this crazy venture was worthwhile.

The students’ films varied in the final analysis from Good to Awesome. On our final day together, I’d asked them to please give me a reflection and feedback on how I could support them better if I were ever to do this again. They confirmed what I knew in that there should have been interim goals and milestones established. Now I know what those should be. We really did not appreciate the value of detailed storyboarding until the shooting began. At times I saw students doing numerous re-shoots of scenes, and I’d tell them to leave it, edit later, and move on to the next scene. If I were to do it again, I’d create a rubric that specifies more about required storyboard elements, the expectations for sound effects, music, a shooting schedule, and a standard for opening and closing segments.

Overall, I’d describe this though as one of the most daring and successful experiences. Prior to the start, I’d taken the time to build trust; know my students; openly admit that I’d not tried this with any class before, but that I would help them learn something new in creating their own film.

In 12 weeks, my intention was to move the bar forward for these students in my charge. Working with commitment, integrity, and diligence, and I am gratified when I see it reciprocated in my students’ efforts. Being a teacher is not easy, but never underestimate the impact you can have, hopefully for good.

Next, I’m scheduled for some foot surgery which will involve some bone cutting…. Wearing a special boot, I’ll be creating 2 education presentations for the MAS-ICNA Convention in Chicago the last week in December. Also, as programming chairperson for the ISNA Education Forums, I will be presenting in Costa Mesa, CA January 18-19 and Chicago April 19-21, God willing.

Meanwhile, as I convalesce, I have my iPad Kindle loaded with books and will be listening to piano adagios. 😉

High Performance Education Systems: Expert Thinking and Complex Communication

2013-02-04_14-50-00_457 Gift from Sr. Wan, Iqra Academy near SLC

A casualty of America’s reliance on high stakes testing has been the cutting of courses other than Math, Science, and Language Arts by budget minded bureaucrats. Yet, while the value of the tested material is recognized, to marginalize the wide array of other subjects somehow diminishes the level of civilization.

Historically, we have seen a pattern from ancient times that in peace there flourished art, literature, and architecture, while in war and times of anarchy it simply was impossible to cultivate. People merely struggled to survive. Are we slipping?

Education expert E. D. Hirsch wrote, “[education] attained by studying a rich curriculum in math, literature, science, history, geography, music and art and higher level skills in context…there is a scientific consensus that academic skill is highly dependent on specific relevant knowledge.”

Incorporating a wide variety of learning opens doors to deeper understanding, creativity, and problem solving capacity. This is exactly what the world needs in the future, and education professionals must provide it now. For while many menial jobs are exported to countries with cheaper labor—thereby raising a larger, global, middle class—and robots increasingly tackle  jobs previously performed by humans, we need to prepare our students using high performance education systems that feature a wide spectrum of valuable cognitive content. These can be summarized as the liberal and fine arts. We are about to take education of humans where computers cannot go. That is, we teach the “gray areas,” those that incorporate values, ethics, and judgment that necessitate heuristics.

For example, take the student whose friend asks for last night’s homework. Being a loyal friend, one would be inclined to share and help a buddy. Yet, would our students judge that acquiescence as ethical or not? Would they pursue a logical analysis to question if their compliance could be construed as sharing guilt? This is the specialized domain of a parochial education, as the public school system is struggling to maintain basic skills and rudimentary performance of the masses. I challenge argument!

Let’s recognize that we cannot afford for our Islamic schools to slide down and ignore the manners, values, and critical analysis of choices and responsibilities of individuals. We must not narrow and dumb down the scope of our curriculum offerings in exchange for elevated standardized test scores removed from relevant application. Insight toward the complexities of thought and excellence in articulation across a variety of modes is the ticket to a true high performing education system.

Elements that keep us employed and economically viable are our abilities to utilize Expert Thinking and Complex Communication. There are two categories of Executive Skills which are recognized as valuable components to success and brain development.

Promoting Expert Thinking incorporates pattern recognition, perceiving relationship, and problem solving. These are cognitive skills.

Complex Communication is performance based. Students can demonstrate ability to confer understanding beyond declarative learning. They incorporate listening, analyzing, evaluating, and conveying information via a multitude of modes. While it is still evident that many of our students need more development in their writing, it is also relevant that they must learn oral articulation skills, graphic representation, technology based skills, and artistic means to effectively broadcast the products of their analysis.

This is where Active Learning, as designed by the instructor answers:

  • Why and how the lesson fits previous learning?
  • How is this relevant and interesting to motivate students?
  • Is movement incorporated for the students during the lesson?
  • Do students verify competence in the learning goals?

As you see, the intelligent design of lessons is imperative to an optimal outcome, but I question if Islamic school teachers will rise to the call? I wonder if many instructors are still in “survival mode” struggling with class climate and management issues. Certainly, involving students in deeper levels of learning can keep misbehavior at bay, but it can only be done when there is a window of order, clarity, and trust in a collaborative classroom. The journey to higher levels of learning must be preceded by focus of minds and cooperation among the class community, and especially weekend schools would benefit from this realization. Much can be done to improve the school environment, but willingness from administration to diligently strategize a campaign with all stakeholders to prioritize school climate is necessary. This is also where seeking professional guidance is worthwhile so that your school can aspire to developing a high performance education system.

Last night, my eldest son gave me some critical analysis of my blog structure and website. When time permits, I want to redesign and make it more functional as a resource for Islamic school professionals and people who work with Muslims in their communities.

Please give content suggestions so I can incorporate them in a new design. Not that I am so tech savvy or have the means to pay a web developer, but I guess it’s finally time to learn more about the backside of web design. It may take awhile…

Last weekend was my first visit to Salt Lake City, as I flew in to do professional development at the Utah Islamic Center where full-time and weekend school teachers from Iqra Academy met along with members of the local Bosnian organization. Iqra Academy is the only accredited Islamic school listed in Utah, and they presently serve up till 5th grade. I truly enjoyed meeting everyone and found the mountains calling me beyond. Such an inspiring setting; I wish to have stayed longer for skiing. Thanks for your hospitality!

The only downside was that I caught glimpses of Superbowl at the first touchdowns by Baltimore, and San Francisco’s after the blackout when changing planes in Phoenix. It was however, an opportunity to read Forbes and ASCD’s Educational Leadership. Now, as freezing rain and bits of snow pelt us, it’s back to preparing for the Common Core presentation. Hope you have a chance to register for the ASCD preconference at the ISNA-CISNA Education Forum in Chicago!