HITTING ON ALL CYLINDERS: RELEVANT VOCABULARY STUDY (PART I OF IV)

Dear Teachers,

Let me start out by letting you know that this system was created by Nancy Sharma and me. We combined our knowledge and experience and created a practical and effective approach to teaching vocabulary as it correlates to our novel and drama studies, our grammar and syntax lessons, and, of course, our writing. There's a lot to this, and it's really a 3-hour workshop in the truest sense of the word, because teachers use their Scope and Sequence to create the various components. However, once it is in place, the results are phenomenal.

I'm not going to write the comprehensive program all in one blog; it would be overwhelming. Rather, I will write four blogs over the next four weeks. As you read, please feel free to contact me with questions or requests. I'm here for you. Contact info@janeschaffer.com. I'll receive the message. 

Today's blog and the next three blogs will provide a four-part series titled Hitting on All Cylinders: Relevant Vocabulary Study

  • Part I: Core Literature
  • Part II: Vocabulary Lists that Accompany the Core Literature
  • Part III: Integrating Grammar with the Core Literature and the Vocabulary Lists
  • Part IV: Integrating Writing and Grammar Lessons with the Core Literature and the Vocabulary Lists
PART I: Core Literature
The entire system revolves around the core literature that your students read. So, we begin with development of that reading. And no one can do it better than a department of English teachers, supported by the administration of a school.
    • One to three Vertical Team ("VT") meetings occur prior to the beginning of the next school year (spring is best).  
      • If the department does not have a Vertical Team in place, talk with your department chairperson about creating a VT with the approval of an administrator; 
      • Once a Vertical Team is in place, the Vertical Team Coordinator ("VTC") and/or Department Chair ("DC") will schedule a 90-minute meeting with the Vertical Team members (K-2; 3-6; 6-8; 7-12; 9-12; or K-12);
      • The VTC and/or DC asks someone at each grade level to be the spokesperson of that grade level (this person should be a diplomat and must be willing); and
      • The VTC and/or DC should ask an administrator to attend the meetings.
    • To set a comfortable atmosphere, the VTC and/or DC might consider food and beverages at Vertical Team meetings if the budget allows.
    • Levels are grouped together (all 9th grade teachers together, etc.), and the VTC and/or DC presents the spokesperson of each grade level. Each grade level receives a stack of cool stick-ons to give each other when someone has a good idea.
    • Whoever is in charge will start the meeting(s) by 
      • acknowledging that as English teachers we get much joy out of teaching our favorite novels and dramas, and these meetings are designed to keep that privilege in place while also determining a core group of works that we all agree to teach;
      • agreeing that by the end of these meetings (1-3), a list of core literature will be determined;
      • agreeing that majority rules; and 
      • agreeing that the list will stay in place until this year's freshmen graduate.
    • Note: The department might already have a core lit list, but has everyone agreed to a few specific titles? This decision is key. It's a "minimum" requirement, and it helps with skill-building, scaffolding, analogies, and allusions.
    • Everyone receives a sample core literature handout for discussion purposes (See sample - Note: The sample is a Pre-AP®/AP® core literature list, but this program is designed for OnLevel, Honors, Pre-AP, and AP students and can easily be differentiated for Special Education and English Language Learners (ELL).
    • The group takes note of the variations in authors' genders, authors' ethnicity, and the works' literary periods. Look at page number totals of all the selected works.
    • Determining the minimum requirements might take one or two or three meetings. The time depends on the team. Once the list has been created, obtain approval by an administrator. Once approval has been received, a volunteer creates the matrix and within two days, the core literature list is ready to distribute. 
      • Design ideas: Add color, the mascot, a logo, a motto.
      • Who receives the list? ELA teachers, students, parents ("Meet the Teacher" night handout and posted on the school website), counselors, librarians, all non-ELA teachers, too (especially those who might think about interdisciplinary approaches to teaching -- you know, those cool teachers!).
      • Administrator Request: Does the budget afford the VTC or DC to purchase a set of core books for each ELA teacher? If so, asking teachers to read the books assigned at the grade level before and after theirs is a wonderful way to build collegiality and discuss literature around the lunch table!
    • Things to Remember:
      • The list of texts is the "minimum" number of titles that the students will read for each grade level. 
        • Some teachers will assign more. That's great! Nancy Sharma assigned a book every two weeks for her AP Lit students. 
        • Some teachers will assign the minimum. That's great, too! At one of the schools where I taught, one of the onlevel 10th grade teachers assigned the minimum number: 2 books per semester.
          •  The teachers who assign the minimum might decide to 
            • spend more time on close reading strategies as the students read the minimum; and/or
            • companion the minimum with short stories, poetry, and essays that have similar themes, conflicts, social mores as the fiction. 
          • Don't be judgmental. Teachers must be trusted to know the needs of their students and to do what is best to meet these needs. The key is quality, not quantity. But one thing is for sure: you can count on all of the students to have read the minimum list.
      • Number of pages per semester is always important to students and their parents, but we know that the number of pages can be misleading.   
        • Maybe we would like our students to read 300 pages each semester.
          • However, 300 pages that include 129 pages of Herman Melville's Billy Budd is different from 300 pages that include 112 pages of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.  
          • They might look lke comparable books to students and parents, but they are not. Those 129 pages of Billy Budd are filled with allusions and symbols that take more time to understand.
        • So, you might consider ranking the books' levels of difficulty (just an idea -- fodder for discussion) and creating a point system for the students -- But, don't call them points; call them something that feels like gamification. As the students read, they gain levels of accomplishment through the years. (Peer, Student, Scholar, Professor)
      • Skill-based Learning
        • Because your students read last year's texts, you will be able to allude to characters, conflicts, themes, and symbols from previous years as you scaffold the students' learning.
        • Pique the freshman students' interest by saying, "When you read The Tragedy of Macbeth your senior year, I want you to compare Macbeth's ambition with Pip's in Great Expectations."  

A Word to the Wise. My experience has brought many great successes and many hard lessons. I would be remiss if I didn't share with you some wisdom from one of my trusted sage advisors who was an English teacher and Department Chair at both junior high and high school levels and the ELA secondary coordinator for an entire district:

"promulgated reading lists have, unfortunately, personal and political implications that often engender emotional (and legal) responses from parents and school boards and even students. I wish that the reading lists and decisions related to the content of these lists were within the purview and authority of the teacher; however, this is not, sadly, the case. (1) Reading lists must have appropriate administrative approval prior to any dissemination. (2) Even if an approved reading list already exists, any alterations and/or prioritization of titles/works need appropriate administrative approval. (3) Reading lists must be carefully proofed for content, as well as accuracy of spelling, punctuation, etc."  Jo Ann Patton, Ph.D.

Pay special heed to her advice, and I'll give you two more guiding thoughts: (1) Never assign a literary work that you haven't already read. Do not assume that because a colleague of yours is using it in his/her classroom, or because it was a Pulitzer Prize winner that it is also acceptable in a classroom of teenagers. (2) Regarding texts with sensitive material (e.g., gender, language, race, religion), be sure to have alternate titles available, just in case. For example, a parent is upset about your assigning Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (1978) to the twelfth grade Advanced Placement® English students because of the profanity used by the soldiers. Don't argue and say something like, "Well, a soldier is probably not going to say, 'Good Gravy' when he gets shot in the leg by a sniper." Simply say, "No problem, I have an alternate title. Let's have your son/daughter read Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). It, too, has been listed on Question 3 on the Lit test in the past, and both pieces are set in war eras and have some crossover themes."

Next: Part II -- Vocabulary Lists that Accompany the Core Literature

Keep reading and writing!

Warm regards,

Dr. D'