Interrupt the Process

The last two weeks of school have been unusual and hectic. First was homecoming week, in which the days are themed and the students are in costume and there’s a powder puff football game and skit practice, float building, door decorating, and a parade. That week was followed by a Monday holiday and then testing – PSAT and Practice ACT for two days with community service thrown in the mix. Even though class must go on, a realist knows that not much gets done after hours, and students’ attention is not at its best in class.

You can only imagine my students’ frustration when in the middle of that chaotic two weeks, I assigned a timed rhetorical analysis essay in class. Some were resolute and resigned; others were complaining; but none was optimistic. Still, I pushed on, handing out the passage to be analyzed and the ‘practice AP’ paper upon which I make them write.

The room went quiet and then they dug in. Fifteen minutes went by as they read and annotated the passage. Another five passed as they began to formulate ideas and outline how they might tackle their essays. Then suddenly with no warning, I stopped them and assigned them a partner or group with which to meet.

This technique, compliments of my APSI instructor, Valerie Stevenson, is called Interrupt the Process.   Here is what it looked like:



IMG_1467The relief on their faces was obvious, even though they didn’t know where I was going or what the outcome of this assignment would be. They didn’t yet know I wouldn’t take them up for a grade when class was over. All they knew was that in this moment, they got to collaborate with a friend, get another’s perspective, share the burden and the stress of this difficult writing assignment, and not have to face it alone.

This look on their faces was priceless to me, and then even more valuable were the conversations I began hearing once they pulled their desks together and began talking and exchanging ideas. That’s when I grabbed my phone and snapped the pictures. I wasn’t even sure why at the time I was doing it, though I figured I’d feature them on my blog somewhere.

Later that afternoon, as the blog post began to write itself in my mind, I realized the importance of “Interrupt the Process” as a metaphor in my own life. Where would I be without community? When life gets crazy or difficult, I need a friend to ‘interrupt the process’; to speak up and give me a new perspective, or reach out and tell my that the idea I’ve come up with is actually not bad! Both intervention and validation come from the mouth of another. When I’m stuck in something difficult, I need to turn my chair and my face toward a friend and get help.

The value of the technique in my writing class is to give the students practice in timed essay writing, insuring they take the practice seriously, yet not turn every writing assignment into an assessment. It also enables them to learn analysis techniques from their friends and helps them see in new ways and gain multiple perspectives.

I had surgery a few years back and remarked to a friend a day or two after that I was trying not to take the pain medicine that the doctor had prescribed for 10 days post-op. “Why not?” she asked. “They aren’t going to give you badge for not taking it.”   (She has her doctorate in education!) “Doctors prescribe medicine for a specific length of time after surgery because people generally need it for that length of time,” she said.   Why was I treating recovery from surgery like some test on which I would be scored according to my teeth-gritting endurance?

Most days don’t end with a gold star by your name. Most of them are ‘just practicing’. Most of life is not for a grade. By design, it is intended and necessary to “interrupt the process” and get all the help that we can.

It’s Reading Again

It’s Reading Again!

I gave a test recently on a novel we have been reading as a class.  We spent basically the month of January reading this book both inside and outside of class.  The students wrote about what they were reading in short assignments that involved summarizing, making commentary, and asking questions and making predictions about what was to come in the story. We had occassional quizzes to hold ourselves accountable to assigned reading.   We had discussions in class using the Socratic circle method in which students come to class having prepared notes on their reading in answer to an essential question raised by the book.   Some of the ethical delimas raised in the book were hotly debated among the ninth graders.  I was impressed with how well they framed their arguments using evidence from the text and how civil they could be once they understood the rules of Socratic dialogue.

In general, I was pleased with the amount of engagement the students displayed. I often heard comments like, “This book really isn’t that bad,” which is an acceptable way to say one likes a book that he really has been predisposed  to hate since the teacher assigned it and it is required reading.  It is schoolwork, after all.

The overwhelming majority of the students passed the culminating test with a C or higher.  Why then am I frustrated over the non-passing grades?  After all, some of those numbers represent students who just didn’t read the book.  Those are not the ones I worry about since they made that choice, rather it’s the students who did read the book, or who listened to the audio version of it, but they still didn’t perform well on the test.  Why not?  Because the test itself has to be read, understood, comprehended, and analyzed.

The same skills needed to decipher a literary work or any other complex text in a high-school or college class come into play when taking a test.  The students must be able to understand what is being asked, to choose between seemingly similar answers by making a judgement about which is best, to use reasoning skills to possibly eliminate a choice and arrive at the correct answer.  In short, if a student has difficulty reading or is not proficient (grade level or higher), then test taking is going to be difficult.  At least part of the grade for each student on my recent test  is a reflection of a student’s reading ability.  That measurement is an assessment of their entire reading lives, not just the last four weeks of what has been learned in my classroom about this particular piece of literature.

I hate to see them distressed over their grades, while claiming, “ But I read the book.”

My question then becomes, “How well did you read the book and how well  did you read my test?  There is no substitute for the importance of good reading skills in academic life.  There are strategies to becoming a good reader, and most Language Arts teachers continually try to teach and reinforce those strategies.  Reading, like any other skill, however,  gets better with practice.  That part, the student and the parent have to own.

According to  “A recent U.S. Department of Education report noted that 70% of students who took one or more remedial reading courses in college did not attain a college degree or certificate within eight years of enrollment.”  For college-bound students, reading deficiences have to be addressed in middle and high school  or they won’t be in college for long.    So turn off the TV, put down the cell phone, and pick up the printed page – even if it’s a digital page.  Practice. Practice. Practice.