Friday, October 3, 2014

#Patrick Henry

Let me begin with a confession: the idea of teaching reading terrifies me.

I LOVE teaching speaking skills.
I remember so vividly how it felt to fear public speaking, and I'll never forget how liberating a feeling it was to become not only comfortable with public speaking, but to actually enjoy it.  I have a passion for sharing this with my students.
I love teaching writing a little bit more each year.
I've always loved writing, and in school, I was generally very good at it, though I was incredibly disorganized until my sophomore year of college, when I learned to write a thesis.  The older I get, the more comfortable I find myself with teaching writing skills, particularly related to organization of ideas.
Teaching reading, on the other hand...
I'm a slow reader.  Literature classes provided no shortage of infuriation and frustration for me when I was younger.  I didn't read just for fun for the first time until after high school.  Don't misunderstand me: I love reading.  I've just always felt ill-equipped to teach reading.

This goes doubly when it comes to writings from the 18th or 19th century; texts that are outdated even to native English speakers' ears, and which can be downright baffling to anyone who has learned English as an additional language.  In our current unit, we are studying rhetoric and the topic of the day on Thursday was subtext.
As I wrestled with how on earth I would teach subtext with Revolutionary-Era speeches, I asked myself how I would manage to work through Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech.  I realized that the first step would need to be to break the speech down into manageable chunks.   The second step would need to be identifying the tone or underlying idea of each chunk.  Suddenly, it dawned on me: this is exactly what people do on Twitter!  Subtext can be tricky to identify, except on Twitter, where the subtext is brought to the surface through hashtags.  With that point of reference in mind, I crafted an activity in which the kids would need to view Patrick Henry's speech as though it were a series of tweets, and their task would be to come up with hashtags.

For this activity, I posted the speech on Moodle and had the kids respond with their hashtags using Moodle's discussion function.  To make this more manageable, I limited the online discussion groups to six, so the students would not have to read every classmate's post.  As the students posted their hashtags over the course of roughly half an hour, I compiled them, copying and pasting into the text-box on Tagxedo (an online word-cloud generator).  The students were completely engaged and trying to think of better and sharper hashtags as they read on.  In nearly six years of teaching, I've never heard my students so into a piece of Revolutionary writing!  When all was said and done, here were the word-clouds generated in my 1st period English class and my 3rd-4th period Humanities class, respectively:

For the first time, I now recognize the potential for fun in teaching reading skills.  It's not quite as intimidating, the idea, not quite so distasteful as it was in the past.  I hope I can continue to develop strategies as engaging as this one as the year goes on!

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