Tag Archives: english

Reinventing the Student Notebook

Three years ago, during my first year at Morgan Park Academy, I had to improvise part of a lesson after I was left without one of the handouts I planned to use.

I tried a slightly different way to get my seventh-grade English students to engage with the classic Robert Frost poem “The Road Less Traveled.”

I had them take out a piece of notebook paper and draw their understanding of the poem. Think about what the poem represents. What do you think it means? What images are most prominent? What colors come into your mind when you read it?

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The students loved this approach. Some of them drew compelling images from their interpretations of the poem. When asked to explain their images and how they connected to the poem, they had clear, analytical answers that showed their understanding and a higher level reading of the poem.

This success got me thinking: How can I do more of this in my classroom?

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Meet Our Teachers: Derek Smith

Derek Smith teaches English and Social Studies classes in the Upper School and is our Director of Service Learning. He is teaching American literature and consumer economics this school year, his sixth at Morgan Park Academy.

Mr. Smith holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s degree from Framingham State University.

Q&A

What do you like best about teaching at Morgan Park Academy?

I enjoy how much autonomy and flexibility we are afforded as educators. I’ve created courses from scratch about Middle Eastern literature and about graphic novels, for example, and we’re reintroducing a speech class next spring. The encouragement to create new classes and to make use of our strengths enables and pushes us to continually grow as educators.

I also love our small community and the connection I have with students, including the opportunity to make connections outside of the classroom. As teachers here, we do not lose touch with our students once they graduate and move on to college and adult life.

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The Development of Critical Reading through the Reading and Writing of Poetry

How does critical thinking advance through the reading of poetry? How do these two seemingly different skills depend on one another? Simply put: the act of reading poetry develops critical thinking and reading skills in all students, no matter their reading competency.

sandiReading poetry is difficult. Students who are fast and competent readers often struggle with reading poetry. Why? What is it about poetry that stumps students? And why should reading poetry matter? Poetry demands attention–a hyper-focus, an understanding of punctuation, an ear for the rhythm of words, and a willingness to take time while reading it. This kind of reading is a challenge for students, and even for adults, today. In an age of fast-changing status updates, instant soundbite news, and SnapChat stories, the way we read is changing rapidly. Students are becoming new ‘readers’, or as scholars at University College London term it, students are committing the act of the ‘power browse’–bouncing down a text, hitting the highlights, or surface skimming the text.

Skimming or even browsing is not a new phenomenon. Experienced readers and scholars skim text every day. Many who teach or those who read large portions of texts daily, either literature, long form journalism, lab reports, research studies, legal briefs, or journal articles, have had to learn fairly quickly how to ‘power browse.’ Success in this type of reading is dependent on a knowledge base which many draw on while reading. They are able to fill in the gaps of this skimming with experience with the vocabulary, the subject, the larger argument, or the writing style/previous work of the author. However, students have not yet developed their own knowledge base–that process is still happening. Therefore, when they try to ‘power browse,’ they lose essential parts of the text, often the deeper meaning.

This loss is apparent when reading poetry. Students will try to skim through a poem, reading quickly and trying to capture the meaning of a poem with barely a look. However, it becomes very clear to students that even in a poem of only two lines such as Ezra Pound’s “In the Station of the Metro”–a condensed packed image of despair and loneliness in a modern world–that trying decipher the meaning of that poem is no easy feat. Even at only two lines, skimming this poem will not work. This poem, just like all poetry, requires the reader to be careful, to think about each individual word, its relationship to the words around it, and the multitude of meanings each word can hold. A poem must be read many times–aloud, to a listener, even inside one’s head; and good poems must be read again and again at various times of the day, or at different stages in one’s life because one’s experiences and understanding of the world around them–again, that knowledge base–often influence perception and meaning. Bad poems, on the other hand, also contain good lessons for young poetry readers. Reading to see how a poem does not work, how the lines and words can fail to craft a visual in the reader’s mind, or how the words can miss the mark in creating a sound for the reader’s ear can also help a young reader and writer craft better poems of their own. Once a reader has read the poem literally, only then can a reader begin to piece together a second and third level reading, digging deep into the figurative meaning of a poem.

Here at Morgan Park Academy, our students read poetry for these very reasons: to build their critical reading and thinking skills. Students in Lower, Middle, and Upper School are exposed to different types of poetry from Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, to the verse of the Bhagavad Gita, to the poetic soliloquies in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to Langston Hughes’ Harlem, to the work of American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe. From these repeated exposures to poetry throughout their education, students begin to develop close reading skills and improve critical thinking.

In the celebration of National Poetry Month in April, students will immerse themselves in reading and analyzing poetry as well as creative and critical writing. Thus, by the end of the month, students will have practiced and improved their skills as critical readers, writers, and thinkers while deepening their knowledge base, allowing them to make critical textual connections, to construct more in-depth analysis, and to increase their own understanding of the texts they read. As this knowledge base continues to grow and the muscles of critical thinking, reading, and writing are flexed, students will be able to apply these skills to longer texts, allowing them to ‘power browse’ with ease and understanding.


By Sandra Burgess

Ms. Burgess teaches Middle School English.

#LearningIsFun–Social Media and The Classroom

The influence and integration of social media in our lives is undeniable. It is reflected in the places we shop, the websites we visit, the items we purchase, and the ways we connect to relatives, friends, and new acquaintances–and our schools. But, the question that many educators are asking is this: how can we effectively integrate or utilize social media in our classrooms and in our academic lives?

sandiAs many of you know, before coming to MPA, I taught college academic writing and history at a variety of colleges and universities. One of my ‘go to,’ and I might add, successful, college writing assignments was the essay prompt: how has social media affected the way people communicate? Students read articles which had already begun investigating how social media affected our everyday lives, and they crafted arguments discussing the ways in which social media has profoundly affected communication between people. The discussions surrounding this assignment were thoughtful, and the essays produced forced me to think about this question in ways I had not done so before. The reason was simple: unlike me at their age, my students were living their lives through social media. They were documenting what was happening to them at that moment: getting engaged, receiving news of a scholarship, going on Spring Break with their friends, getting married, graduating, starting a new job, and even watching their kids grow up. All of these moments were being documented every day by these students as the event itself happened, sharing with family, friends, and strangers.

I became even more aware of the significance and integration of social media into our lives after coming to the Academy and teaching middle school students. Suddenly, I realized that these students, even at such a young age, had woven social media into their daily lives so intricately that they saw social media as a primary way to communicate with each other and with others in their world. This realization forced me to consider something I had never thought of before: how can I use social media in my classroom both as a teaching tool and as a way to communicate with students?

I began to think of ways I could incorporate social media and its constructs into my classroom instruction. My first year I created a Twitter board in my classroom for the 7th Grade Romeo and Juliet unit. Just as I’ve written before, I wanted to make Shakespeare relevant, fun, and exciting for students. I saw using Twitter–the 140 character limit and ‘real time’ posting–as a way for students to ‘translate’ or interpret Shakespeare’s language. As we progressed through the play, they saw that the story filled with tragic love, family pride, and bad decision making was a story that seems to play out again and again, then and now. Although written in the early 1600s, suddenly the story of Romeo and Juliet–@FreshPrinceofVerona and @Jules–were as relevant and understandable as it was during Shakespeare’s time, making the play much more accessible to Middle School age students. It was so successful that I’m recreating the experience this year for 7th Grade English.

However, it is not just in the classroom that we can connect to our students. Integrating social media into our outside classroom experiences can also provide a bridge of communication between the teacher and the student.* Using such sites as Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and even SnapChat to document classroom activities, field trips, and cross curricular connections–the hallmarks of experiential learning–shows students that their teachers are seeing them and feel that this moment is significant and special. Not only does it promote a fun sense of accomplishment, but students can also remember that moment through this special type of documentation and allow them to fondly recall the learning and community experience.

The reality is that social media is not going away. In fact, it is changing every day to reflect the new globalized world around us. Today’s students–true digital natives–are utilizing social media daily, connecting with friends, learning about current events, and exploring new worlds. Constructing a space for social media in the classroom allows teachers to not only ‘speak’ the language of their students, but also promote the learning and experiences happening in their academic lives, making the case that #LearningIsFun.

You can follow me–and our Academy students–on Twitter at @SBurgessMPA and on Instagram at @sburgessmpa.

*I need to give two shout-outs to colleagues: former MPA teacher, Peter DiLalla, who as MC Lala used YouTube as a way to make history fun for his students, and Dan Peters, who uses Twitter and Instagram to communicate to the outside world about MPA and promote the learning and activities of his students.


By Sandra Burgess

Ms. Burgess teaches Middle School English.

So Why is Shakespeare So Important?

Inevitably, when it comes to reading Shakespeare, the question is always this: Ms. Burgess, why are we reading Shakespeare, and why are you making us read it in his language?

sandiMy answer varies, but the prevailing theme in my answer is that it is okay for something to be hard. It is okay that students struggle sometimes. Learning to work through something that is unfamiliar and difficult teaches important skills and reinforces valuable lessons in commitment and perseverance. While the language is unfamiliar and awkward for students, it reinforces the purpose of the play — to perform for an audience without access to the written word. Reading Shakespeare’s words as he intended highlights the craft of the language itself–the new words and phrases that come directly from him into our speech today–and how his words were heard by an actual Elizabethan audience in 1595.

Teaching students to not only read, but to appreciate Shakespeare’s work is not only a challenge for them, but represents a teaching challenge for me as well. If I can get students to remember the plots, characters, and important moments from the plays, but also to be able to analyze and work through the many difficult literary devices and formulas employed by Shakespeare, I know, when faced with other difficult readings or assignments, students will be able to make connections to problem-solving strategies in reading Shakespeare and maybe even to the content itself.

Our goal here at MPA is to make sure students are encountering Shakespeare in the Middle School and Upper School in a variety of ways: from acting out A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 6th grade, to reading Romeo and Juliet and Merchant of Venice in 7th and 8th grades, to writing love sonnets and reading Hamlet and Macbeth in the Upper School. These works are simply examples of the numerous possibilities! With Shakespeare, the connections we can make within our curriculum are endless.

To me, Shakespeare is too important to dilute or to ignore. His work, though written in a hard to imagine world, is as relevant today as it was 400 years ago. The qualities of his characters, their triumphs and sufferings, speak to us even now. We, too, struggle with pride, the pitfalls of love, social expectations, and our own self-awareness just as Hamlet, Portia, Shylock, and Macbeth did. And just as our society today struggles with discrimination and prejudice toward others, so, too, did Venice, Verona, Scotland, and Denmark. Hearing Hamlet struggle to make sense of his place in the world, or Shylock asking why he was treated so differently than everyone else, lets the students experience that same language, the same sounds as an audience in 1598. These experiences help students make connections, to see a reflection of themselves, emphasizing the timelessness of Shakespeare and their own place in our world.

We’ll continue to make Shakespeare important here at MPA, introducing students to new plays and poems which continue to challenge them in new and exciting ways. Studying Shakespeare reminds them that it is okay to take a bit of time to work through something so difficult–even for me, their teacher.

What We’re Doing Right – Reflections from the AMLE Conference by our Director of Global Learners Program

How do you know if your child has received a good education? How do you determine its value?  I wrestle with these thoughts nearly every night. With the pace that the world is changing, the number of unknowns for our children, the interconnectedness of the world today, and the fact that the jobs in biggest demand today did not even exist 15 years ago, I often wonder if schools are doing what is truly best for our children.  Is their education (my new favorite word) life-worthy?

ambergRecently, I attended the AMLE Conference in Columbus, Ohio and had the privilege of hearing from and meeting and speaking with two big names in education: Dr. Yong Zhao and Dr. Nancy Doda. I walked out of the conference inspired to meet new colleagues to discuss the current trends and ideas in middle-level teaching, though apprehensive that my instincts would be confirmed. Sadly, they were and I discovered that the AMLE community as a whole is troubled by what is happening to children in the educational system in our country.

However, I was lucky to be reminded of how fortunate I am to be a member of an independent school. Concerns over standards, the Common Core, No Child Left Behind were all main points of discontent in every session of my conference but thankfully don’t affect me as a teacher or my students as they do in the public schools. In Ohio, I heard from school leaders and teachers whose schools test kids so frequently their kids hate school; schools that have had to take away the arts, advisory, and P.E. so they can focus on the core subjects; schools whose teachers’ jobs are tied to their students’ performances on these tests. I walked away more worried about the public school system and more thankful that I belong to an educational community that does so many things right by our children:

  1. At MPA our small class sizes make it impossible for a student not to be known. This is important at every age. And as Dr. Doda put it, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” Even the best teacher would have difficulty reaching and connecting with every child when you have 35-40 students (or more) in a class!
  2. Our school not only encourages but celebrates creative, divergent thinking. In public school, high stakes testing pushes towards convergent thinking: one right answer when we should be teaching our students (and our teachers) that there is not always one right answer. allows us as teachers to encourage divergent thinking skills and the creative thought necessary to create the jobs of tomorrow.
  3. In many places around our country, “the tyranny of testing” has replaced “the magic of middle school.” Thankfully, at MPA, we are not tied to tests. Zhao said, “There is nothing wrong with standards, but standards lead to standardization, which in turn leads to homogenization.” Think about it; why are schools focusing on sameness when homogenized jobs will be outsourced or done by machines? At MPA we pride ourselves on nourishing the independent thinkers, the question askers, and work tirelessly to help each student find their voice.
  4. As an educational institution, MPA is not a factory system or even a broken factory system model. We aren’t interested in “cranking out sausages”, as Dr. Zhao called the US system, that accidentally, occasionally cranks out a piece of bacon (A.K.A. Steve Jobs)! At MPA, we start with the celebrated belief that each child is different, strive to meet each child where they are, and help them grow from there.
  5. At MPA we focus on global awareness and service. Think of all the other parts of the child that are lost when we focus on only test scores: resilience, passion, empathy, friends, confidence, risk-taking, and so much more. Celebrating our interconnected world and instilling in our students the responsibility to help others not only helps students find other things they might be good at but, more importantly, it also shows them that there are things in life far more valuable, self-fulfilling and life-worthy than test scores.
  6. One of the most insightful notions that came out of my conference was the concern raised by many teachers that with loss of teacher autonomy in the classrooms and the increasing scripting of curriculum, they see democracy dying. They were largely concerned with the fallout from this, how it will impact their students, and, ultimately, our society. Thankfully, democracy is alive and well in the classrooms at MPA. Kids are given choices; we vote on issues; we have processes in place for students to introduce items, clubs, and issues they are passionate about. We provide numerous leadership opportunities for all students and encourage every student to find their voice. Students share their work, run assemblies, and celebrate their culture. If education’s most important job is to promote the welfare of students, then by teaching them the principles of democracy in the classroom shows them how powerful the individual is and how powerful they can be. What greater gift can we give them, ourselves, and society?

While I realize no place is perfect, I have to say that sometimes it takes a walk in my neighbor’s yard to remind me of what a beautiful home I have. Perspective really is everything. I came back from AMLE thinking, “We might not be perfect, but we’ve really got it good”.

By Colleen Amberg

Ms. Amberg teaches Middle School English and Social Studies. She is also the Director of Global Learners Program.

Making Connections and More “Ah-Ha” Moments in the Classroom: Curriculum Integration

Ah-Ha!

Yes! I got it!

Ohhhhhhh!

All of these phrases come from students when they ‘get it’, when the light bulb has been lit, when they’ve finally figured something out. They describe the glimpse of real-time learning teachers strive for every day in their classrooms. These are moments teachers work to see, to witness in their students in every lesson, every activity.sandi

However, these moments are sometimes hard to find, hard to catch, and hard to create in the classroom.  Educators are perpetual students themselves, seeking to better their classrooms for their students and their communities so that more of their students experience these flashes of learning. The question arises at every meeting, every seminar, and every conference: how do we, as teachers, help facilitate more of these moments?

This year, MPA has sought to create a learning environment that will allow students to experience more of these moments in the classroom by integrating our English and History curricula more closely between disciplines. With this in mind, MPA Middle School English and History teachers chose novels, poems, plays, visual media, textbooks, and projects that help bridge the two disciplines, which will link the material they are learning together in a dynamic way.

Our goal is to give students not only content knowledge, but also the space and opportunities to make close connections between the literature they are reading and the history they are learning. Those ‘Ah Ha!’ moments increase in number when students can see that history is the retelling of past lives, and the literature they are reading is a reflection of those lives. Making clear, relevant connections between the two disciplines deepens understanding and builds comprehension and retention.

Currently, students in the 6th grade are reading a young reader’s version of the Epic of Gilgamesh and simultaneously learning about the civilization of Sumer (ancient Mesopotamia) where this great story takes place. Meanwhile, students in 7th Grade English are reading Anna of Byzantium, and concurrently making connections from the medieval Crusades described from the main character’s point of view and the historical events of the Crusades about which they are learning in 7th Grade World History. In addition, while students in 8th Grade English are reading Esperanza Rising, a story of a young Mexican girl forced to immigrate with her newly widowed mother to the United States in the midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, they are learning about Mexican cultural traditions, such as the creation of yarn dolls, and the plight of migrant workers in southern California during this period. Later in the year, 7th and 8th grade English classes will read A Long Walk to Water, which describes the struggles of young children in southern Sudan, and will link together the issues concerning that country and the larger continent of Africa being discussed in 8th Grade World Geography and 7th Grade World History.

Relating people, places, and events in history to the characters, settings, and conflicts in integrated literature will build a network of learning that will carry them into Upper School classes, and later help cement a foundation of knowledge that will endure through college.


By Sandra Burgess

Ms. Burgess teaches Middle School English.