Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lanugage Explosion, Subordination, Intonation

Looking back over this blog, it's hard to believe that just two months ago I was still making lists of new words in Gracese. Now creating any such list would be an enormous and absurd undertaking -- new words show up daily, ranging from "preying mantis" and "mulberry bush" to "namaste" and "forsythia" and Grace is starting to know things I don't know (she taught me the words to "pop goes the weasel" last night, and she can list of the last names of all of her classmates -- most of which I can't interpret or reproduce accurately).

Grammar is still something I can try to track, though. I posted a while ago on subordinate phrases in Grace's language. Grace is beginning to use complementizers on occasion (where/how/for), but for the most part she still prefers the null complementizer (e.g. "I tell mommy Clara has a poopy diaper") and uses null complementizers even in cases where standard English does not allow it ("*I not know this goes").

Of course, with null complementizers, a skeptic might tell me that Grace is not in fact saying "I tell mommy Clara has a poopy diaper." but "I tell mommy. Clara has a poopy diaper."

To disprove the skeptic, I'd need to get out my recording equipment -- I'm quite sure that you can hear the punctuation difference quite clearly, not just in the lack of a pause but in the intonation ("Clara has a poopy diaper" sounds different in a subordinate phrase than it does as a standalone sentence -- said more quickly, with less stress, perhaps lower tone -- I don't really have the technical vocabulary to describe this correctly, but I'm quite sure you know it when you hear it).

All of this has me thinking about how I teach high school students to recognize subordinate phrases, a skill that comes in handy in at least three places: 1. Correctly punctuating the increasingly sophisticated sentences students try to write in high school. 2. Correctly reading complex sentences in writing by folks like Hawthorne, Dickens or Shakespeare 3. Understanding where the subjunctive is used in Spanish (as hinted by the "sub", the subjunctive can only occur in subordinate phrases).

I usually follow the "dependent/independent" clause method for describing subordination -- asking if a clause can stand on its own or not (if not, it's a dependent clause, a subordinate clause, and might have a subjunctive verb in it). Of course, there are cases where this fails, as in Grace's "I tell mommy Clara have a poopy diaper" where either clause could stand on its own. How then to explain to the student that "I tell momy" (Le digo a mamá) is the main clause and "Clara have a poopy diaper" (Clara tiene/tenga un pañal sucio) is the subordinate clause?

It strikes me that teaching them to recognize the intonation difference in the two clauses might be quicker than trying to teach a heuristic for determining which clause is dependent. It also would teach a valuable reading skill -- incorrectly reading a subordinate clause as a main clause is a major error in reading that leads to errors in comprehension. Yet I fear because we lack a clear language for describing it, this is an error that gets corrected much less reliably in teaching reading than less grave errors such as mispronouncing an unfamiliar word (the mispronounced word reveals a single gap in the puzzle; the misread subordinate clause shows the student has missed the very structure of the puzzle they're working on).

On the Spanish side, that leaves me only the exciting task of teaching them the difference between the very normal "Le digo a mamá que Clara tiene un pañal sucio" and the extremely odd "Le digo a mamá que Claro tenga un pañal sucio." which not only asks for a dirty diaper but implies that mom has the power to control Clara's bowl movements...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Thoughts on Lesson Planning

Like many teachers I know, I don't really write lesson plans.

Let me rephrase that, I have historically written plans for one of three reasons:

1. When someone was going to review a lesson with me (i.e. a supervisor would observe or a team would look at one as a model or to critique).
2. When co-planning (i.e. when another teacher was going to be using my plans the next day.
3. When required to (i.e. during my student teaching when I had to hand in all lesson plans).

When teaching on my own, writing individual lesson plans has never risen on my priority list above, say, working on something that students would be given, tweaking a project description, assessing student work, or working on longer-term planning.

That said I've certainly taught classes that would have been better if I'd taken even another 10-15 minutes to plan better. And of course I reinvent the wheel all the time, whereas if I had better plans I could theoretically be revising and revisiting rather than redoing and reinventing.

So the question this raises for me is how can I force myself to do those extra 10-15 minutes of labor to plan better and document what I'm doing for posterity without recreating the lesson plan templates of my student teaching that I find so overwhelming and droll.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that most of teaching I hold in my head. If I walk into class with a poem and three questions in my hand, I'm bringing much more: an idea about which vocabulary words will cause trouble and how I will pre-teach them in a drill, a sense of which lines are most difficult and how I will guide the whole class through an understanding of the difficult lines before setting them up with the (easier) rest of the poem for independent work. I also likely have a template to how my day goes -- we start with a drill, then have a Q/A with the whole class, then do small guided group or individual work followed by prolonged work and a wrap-up. If I take the time to explain it, there's a whole plan in there, but all I actually need are the questions and the poem, maybe with some underlining to indicate words to pre-teach.

Currently, many such templates mostly exist in my head, but I could probably benefit from writing them down. Templates would describe certain kinds of flow that could, over time, be refined, revised, and perfected. I could also come to notice those tasks for which I don't have a clear template and then start to chip away at the question of how best to teach them. For a given level and subject area, there may only be 5 or 6 templates over all: all classes fit those moulds. An individual lesson plan would then consist of basically a set of parameters that would slot into the template.

The list of parameters would likely take up no more than half a page, which is about the length of plans when I make them now (actually, now my usual length is a sticky). The beauty of something so short is that it is more readable and more adaptable for future years. Even when I have full lesson plans now, the very thought of reading a multi-page document is overwhelming. Having an ever-evolving description of a few templates in addition to sticky-length plans that reference those templates seems like something a more-effective version of me could actually do.

What's more, I have a feeling that both of these kinds of documents (templates and parameters) would be more useful to other teachers than full lesson plans. One frustration with trying to use other people's plans off the internet is that inevitably there are too many accidental factors that may or may not fit your class (class length, logistical rituals, etc.). Giving someone just the parameters -- here's the objective, the problem set, etc. -- would let them plug it into their own template for good teaching.

On the other hand, if what you're looking for is good instructional practices, then you want just the reverse -- a template that you can slot your own content into.

So this is my new idea. In programming, this is very common -- essentially I'm talking about separating data from display, or separating the model from the view. So the question that now occurs to me is: who else has had this idea? What names have they given it? Do there already exist books full of templates and parameters?

The other question of course is about the risk of abstraction. I am often guilty of the sin of over-abstraction in programming, and is it possible that templates, in the end, would be too leaky? I'm not sure, but I'm going to try to find out -- my goal for the end of this year is to start writing up templates and parameter sets. We'll see where it gets me.