Today we are continuing our in-depth look at the Declaration of Independence, which students have completed "translating" on a sentence-by-sentence basis for today's class period. We've been looking at foundation texts from the Revolutionary era for a few class periods, so by this point students have become really familiar with the context of the times as well as the type of language and syntax of these documents. At first when we begin looking at these documents, students can be somewhat overwhelmed by the linguistic variance from the Revolutionary time to our present-day language, but the more we explore these texts, the more they become "fluent" with the language. This is one of the reasons that I always present literature from a historical perspective, rather than units on individual concepts. It's almost like students mentally adjust to speaking and reading this language rather than having to fight to "get back into the groove" again after an extended break from it. We will also be looking more at Ben Franklin's contributions, who is well-known to students for many things, but not typically literature.
Another major component for today is the start of differentiated grammar instruction. At this point, I have had the opportunity to assess the writing skills of students on multiple occasions. We also use "benchmark" tests to help identify whole-class and individual weaknesses. With more widespread grammar weaknesses, I use grammar mini-lessons to correct gaps, but oftentimes students still struggle with specific skills. Our online textbook offers differentiated grammar instruction, but it is nearly impossible to use given the "real life" constraints of our jobs. The textbook auto-assigns students worksheets that address their areas of weakness, but they are not able to be digitally completed, and teachers would have to have students print them all out, complete them, then grade dozens of different worksheets. I became pretty obsessive about finding some sort of way to do this digitally, but I was coming up with blanks until recently, when I found No Red Ink, which seems like a genius solution. Basically, it's a free teacher-developed website that offers on-demand student skill practice, as well as teacher-selected assignments and quizzes to track mastery levels of students. Like other digital "classes," teachers set up a class with a code, and students join the class. Student access histories, mastery levels, assignments, and quizzes are all automatically compiled for the teacher, and students get immediate feedback and digital instruction on skills! With all the potential that a tool like this holds, I feel like this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship! The true test will be my students, however, because unless they approve of its value, I will continue my quest to find the perfect instructional medium. I think it's really important to involve students in all instructional decisions, as it builds support for whatever tool or content I am having them try out. Even if the tool is unsuccessful, students gain a deeper understanding of what it looks like to try something, fail, and try again!
Students will arrive to class with their completed Declaration of Independence translations, which we will go over this period. But before we get into that, I would like them to review the text. Instructing them to do this would probably come with hit-or-miss results (afterall, my students are in the 1:1 environment and all have Chromebooks in front of them!), so I will give them a task to complete with a partner at the start of class. Students will work with a partner (sitting next to them) to review their translations and the Declaration of Independence identifying and noting specific examples for some of the rhetorical and argumentative elements we have been looking at for the last few class periods. I will expect pairs to identify examples of the following elements in order to prepare for the upcoming class discussion:
If pairs complete their work before other groups, they may compare their "translations" to check for accuracy and completeness. Once everyone has finished identifying examples of these elements, we will work together as a group to continue reviewing the translations of the Declaration and will identify further the structure of the document. We will also note particularly effective and beautiful language and discuss the importance of this document. I love teaching about this document, because it's a very real example of how important, revolutionary even (I couldn't resist!), writing can be. Imagining how it must have felt to be part of something so huge is a great way into building engagement and interest in the Declaration and all foundational works of the United States. The progression of questioning and student samples of complete translations with strategies used are attached in the resources.
After looking at the Declaration of Independence, which is really an artwork in effective comma use and sentence structure and makes an excellent segue to this section of the lesson, we will use No Red Ink to take a pre-assessment on comma use. Comma use is probably the biggest grammar error I see in my classroom, and it seems like it is also one of those skills that I can teach a million and one times to students without them applying it to their writing consistently. My frustration with commas may conceivably be ended with No Red Ink. To begin using this service, students will follow online directions to set up their accounts and select their interests (which the website uses to create unique content for each student testing the same array of skills). Then, they will enter the code to "join" my class and complete the 25-question comma assignment. This assignment will quiz students on comma use, and any questions they miss will be repeated after the skill is retaught by the program. This will be extremely valuable to me, as my records will indicate which skills individuals struggle with in so that I may reteach widely-missed skills. Students will also be able to use this information to complete more practice on the specific skills they are missing, rather than a broader instruction on commas which may be unneeded in some cases.
Before students embark on setting up these accounts and completing the assignment, I will introduce the assignment as a possibility for future grammar instruction, pending feedback from students. I will also explain my rationale for using this application, which is that I want to give students targeted instruction in the most relevant, entertaining way possible. I sat through enough worksheets about wharves, Ford assembly lines, and every other boring topic under the sun as a child myself, so I truly get the pain of those types of worksheets. I will also tell students to be mindful of their experience while using the website, as we will reflect on it afterwards to gain student insight about moving forward using this tool. Then, students will set up accounts and take the assessment. After they finish, I will instruct students to view their "progress report" details to see what areas they can improve on. They can also explore the rest of the site to see what other areas it covers.
When everyone is finished, I will host an open discussion about the student experience with No Red Ink. I will ask the following questions to get feedback:
Based on the outcome of the "guinea pigs," I will decide whether or not to continue using this website with my classes. If students do not like it or find it useful, they will at the very least have another tool in their arsenal to use in preparation for the ACT (which utilizes many of the skills addressed with this website).
For our final whole-group activity of the day, students will be exposed to aphorisms with Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack. While most students have heard aphorisms and the word "proverb," few students have heard the word "aphorism" itself. We will start this section briefly discussing what an aphorism is and adding that definition to their notes. We will then briefly brainstorm some examples of aphorisms that we have commonly heard and when (and from whom) we typically hear them. This activity is very entertaining, but on a more important level, it gives students a broad array of aphorisms within their contexts so that they can infer the purpose of aphorisms. I always share my father's (seemingly) favorite aphorism, "The early bird gets the worm," and share my own experience with that saying. I have such vivid childhood memories of hearing those words from my father when he woke me up almost every single morning, always flipping on the lights (which seemed like the sun at that hour!) before whistling his way out of my room. I used to lay there with all kinds of my own aphorisms and smart retorts. ("The late worm doesn't get eaten by the bird" was always my favorite whispered comeback.) I will share this story with students in order to connect with them and model what I would like them to do with their own families' aphorisms.
After we share a few aphorisms, I will ask students what they feel the purpose of aphorisms may be. Students may suggest that they give advice, make people feel better, or frame bad situations in a more bearable way. Then, students will look over the aphorisms in Poor Richard's Almanack. Students will choose which aphorisms they like the most, then they will read it aloud, explain the meaning or advice, and offer the modern-day correlation or related aphorism if there is one. I have done this activity several ways in the past, and I have always found that students are much more excited about reading and discussing aphorisms if student interest rather than in a linear progression is used to investigate them. I think there's something about getting to choose what you read that is much more exciting, and since it doesn't effect understanding at all, I let them take this opportunity when it presents itself! Generally each student shares one, but if we are short or time or have extra time, this will be adjusted. This activity will be light-hearted and fun--a nice change of pace from all the seriousness of the other texts we have been reading. It also gives students a chance to see more of the playful side of language, and we get to discuss in an organic way how language changes through time.
To wrap up this activity and to prepare for next class period, I will ask students to complete two final activities, which they can begin in class. The first will be to choose an aphorism from another country through Creative Proverbs, note and cite it in a Google Doc, and explain what it means within the document. They should also include why they picked this aphorism and note any substantial cultural differences illuminated by the aphorism. Students who wish to share these with the class will do so at the start of next class period.
The second assignment is to look at Ben Franklin's daily schedule (in his autobiography), then use the same format to record their own schedule for a full day before I see them again. We will use these to compare and contrast our own levels of industry with Franklin's as we investigate a selection from The Autobiography next class period.
Many students will have questions about how to do the schedule. I will stress that the formatting is entirely up to them. The content is the most important feature of this activity. Between this class period and the next, I will review the class's comma activity results to identify largest areas of need and compare them to our other benchmarking assessments. I will also explore the website more to see how best to integrate it into my practice if the students enjoy the activity today.