17 April 2014

Festival Follow-up

The honorable mention for Spanish II/III’s skit was nice, the first-place trophy for individual poetry recitation (the first trophy ever in our thoughtrophy case) was, well, AWESOME. But what makes me really proud is how absolutely brilliantly every single one of my students behaved, watching each other, supporting each other, and just hanging out and being groovy during down time. They participated and paid attention and generally made our school look good.

What Iseniorsso proud of, however, is how little target language was used throughout the day. Granted, my kiddos worked hard and had certainly earsuggestionstle descanso, but in the future, I’d like to structure more interpersonal engagement and reflection—written or spoken. I had thrown together a handout to encourage listening during skits, conversation between events, and reflection after competition ended, but the implementation (Here, do this!) was a little too haphazard to get results, except from the über eager.

There are three main communication skills I think I could easily weasel in with proper scaffolding: Listening, Interpersonal, and Writing

I'd like to help them actively attend to the skits they watch, and possibly the songs and poems, too. I got a lot of "I have no idea what they were talking about" for the skits other than ours, probably largely because they had no advance scaffolding on what a Julia de Burgos was or what's up with this Chavo kid in the hat. A couple of the other teachers there were friends from grad school or mutual friends, so I wonder if we could collaborate to come up with something, say, the week before the festival to prep our kids for the listening, like with a topic and some key vocabulary.

If I can't arrange any kind of mutual study guide for my kids, I think I might have to rely on never-to-be-published audio recordings for students to refer back to. Otherwise I could simply make a high-frequency word checklist (with numbers, dates, etc.), and they could tally each time they hear a word used (while I keep my own tally to compare). Then they could jot down a few questions they heard, a few statements, and maybe give me the style and tone and some words that clued them in to what they were or supported what the melody suggested.

The colleagues I ran into brought pretty big groups to the festival. I wonder if next time we could arrange a bit of a mingle for my kids and theirs to introduce themselves and each other and generally network in the target language. I think it would be good for them to use some basics, ie name, age, family, hometown, but I think it would be even more exciting for them to be able to talk shop, to compliment each other and share ideas for awesome shows in the future. 

I figure I'd provide a list of positive feedback one could give a singing group and/or actors ("I like your costume!" "Your words are veey clear!") and some suggestions ("Can you speak/sing louder?" "You should pause before/after you say...") as well as some appropriate responses ("Is it better if I...?" "I agree, thank you!") And if we can get full dress rehearsals going with enough time before The Big Day, we could have our own mini mingles to warm up too.

I really want students to use the target language to reflect on the particulars of the experience, too, and writing seems the most logical way (though it could become a spoken report and MORE conversation the next day). I'd like for them to express opinions on songs and skits, comparing winners and elements that contribute to their success. Maybe they could even compose congratulatory emails to new friends from the mingle citing specific strengths that they admire!

I'd also like to see them take things they liked about other performances and begin a plan for what they (or their heirs) should do next year to plan a better show. We ended up doing this in English the next day this year, but maybe just a list of areas for planning (song, topic, dance, costumes, props, etc.) with "more" and "less" after might get their TL juices flowing. 

As an aside, I am BEYOND thrilled with my students' reflections after the trip, including the seniors who want to return during their 13th year next year as coaches to make sure the next group FEELS confident--and wins a trophy!

06 April 2014

How to Write a Mystery

We love surprises, almost as much as we love being right. As I see it, if I couldn't predict the ending on House or Law and Order, the show wasn't set up right. I like a puzzle, but I like one I have a chance of solving. I've got to say that the formulas were probably at least 50% of what kept me coming back (I also needed a regular character drama fix, part of what keeps me coming back to Bones LONG after the proverbial shark jump.)

It's true I don't read a lot of mystery, but I'm a sucker for some televised brain candy. It may be snooty, but that's what I think a lot of "genre" writing is: brain candy. Still, I think writing with a formula, learning to apply conventions, is an excellent exercise for the budding author. My kiddos really like it too.

Start with a Classic Example
A classic mystery calls for a classic detective, like Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, or Philip Marlowe. Fortunately for me, Red Wind by Raymond Chandler is online in its entirety. I plan to just give students a taste, the first two chapters, because mostly I want to focus on the conventions for setting up the mystery. Plus Chandler's got it all: hyperbolic narration, witty repartee, and herrings so red they glow (you might want to do a little cultural scaffolding beforehand to elucidate the meaning of "private dick" for the less mature, though).

Break down Exposition Conventions 
I really like "How to Write a Mystery Whodunit Novel" for breaking down standard plot devices, characterization, and setting. I made a Schoology "quiz" applying several of these elements to the first chapter of Red Wind, wherein students identify characteristics of the protagonist, killer, victim, and witness. Then I have them "rule out" different plot devices designed to conceal the crime that the article lists but which are not possible based on the set up for this particular Chandler story:


  • The least likely suspect
  • The most obvious suspect
  • The perfect alibi
  • Having a mastermind criminal

HOW is it concealed?
  • Playing with time of death
  • A crime that happened in the past resurfaces
  • "No one ever notices a servant..."
  • Using disguise or impersonation
  • True identities are concealed
  • The missing element

Next, students use contextual evidence to...
  1. Describe the crime scene (location, position, condition of the body)
  2. Describe the killer's methods (weapon, preparation level--accidental, spontaneous, premeditated, and escape
  3. Theorize the killer's motivations and relationship to the victim
Finally, I encourage them to get creative with some typical plot devices for revealing. They choose one of the plot devices below and sum up how the story COULD end:
  • The locked room problem
  • The primary clue is hidden in plain sight
  • A chance remark
  • The unreliable character that says true

Break down Rising Action: Clues and Red Herrings
Scott Mortenson's "Fishing and Farming: Red Herrings & Planting Clues" helped me analyze the art of adding evidence and false leads (though it's a little heavy on the--ahem--"DNA" talk to use with kiddos). I like how he starts with the old joke about the bus driver that's set up like a word problem to illustrate how to hide clues and his advice on red herrings: "...bait, leading the detective (and reader) away from the truth. But treat them like any other regular clue for the best effect."

So in another Schoology "quiz" on Chapter 2, I have students put 10 clues in order then explain how different types of evidence Mortenson cites make a character look guilty and how others make her look innocent:

  • alibis
  • murder weapons
  • fingerprints
  • physical details
  • dialogue
  • lies
  • relationships
  • behavior
I also have them take a stab at what might be the main red herring of the chapter.

Plot Your Story
Once students have analyzed the Red Wind excerpts, it's time for them to start their own stories! I think we'll start with creating labeled diagrams of their crime scenes and a timeline of the murderer's actions from the time he/she decides to kill until the time of the murder ("How to Write a Mystery Whodunit Novel" suggests plotting from the murderer's point of view, but writing from the detective's.)

Then they will come up with one clue for each of the nine categories, two of which will be red herrings. They will then arrange the clues on a "story mountain" plotline.

Flesh out Your Protagonist and Begin
We'll look at a chart comparing Sherlock to Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot and add Phillip Marlowe, maybe House or Bones or some of those CSI or NCIS guys (depending on their tastes), ourselves. Then they'll come up with some quirks, physical features, backstory, and professional roles for their "detectives" to make a character sketch.

Then we'll start the story with the protagonist arriving at the scene and making observations. Work in his/her quirks and physical features and professional role, and you're off and running!

28 March 2014

My Daughter IS a Princess

"If I have daughters, I'm going to encourage them to play 'President' and 'Activist,' and not 'Princess." @NicholasFerroni

I tried to get my son to play princess when he was little. His cousins actually got him to wear a dress and a crown once. My heart drooped a little the day he decided he was not a princess, but a king and that he was "hamsome," not pretty. Only girls are pretty,  he said with disdain.

A lot of parents these days--and many When-I-Have-Kids Crusaders --are so obsessed with prepping their daughters and potential daughters for taking the male world by storm that they are missing something at least as important and perpetuating the belief that "girly" equals inferior. What's more, through their insistence on "empowerment," they could well be missing who their daughters want to be, who they really are.

I remember pretending to just pass through the Barbie aisle as a kid, not letting my dad catch me pining for girly toys. Instead I began cultivating my lifelong love affair with Ninja Turtles. I tried to like baseball cards for a season, too, and dabbled in comic books when my little brother started spending his allowance on them. At Christmas, even the slightest question about plants or batteries would get me my own little mini hydroponic greenhouse or electronics set to to tinker with, yet I felt wrong actually requesting a play makeup kit. It's not that making things tweet and light up wasn't intriguing (though I was disappointed when my hydroponic lettuce looked like leaves instead of a nice green sphere). It's that failure to reject stereotypically girly things felt like a full-blown character flaw.

Still, even through the first year of parenthood, I, too, believed I could mold my offspring into the harbingers of a perfectly egalitarian society. To be perfectly honest, I still kind of do--just not in the same overt ways I had once envisioned. I got my first inkling of how little those visions meant when my son started potty training.

It was not until my daughter came along, however, that I began to grasp my role in their preparation for the future.

Paolo, my oldest, was always a pretty mellow baby, though extremely sensitive. At Wee Lambs, he was known as Paolo-Good-Baby. Even in the womb, he didn't make much fuss, just occasionally pushing a foot outward to be massaged. But just turn him to face away from you when he had done something wrong as a toddler, and the world ended.
Lena, on the other hand, was wild before she was born. Paolo liked to rub my belly to make her "rambunctious," but he was also the best at calming her kicking sprees. My youngest has always been a woman of extremes.

And she has always been a girly girl.

As an infant, she'd reach for shiny pendants and rings--not to gum them or hurl them about as her brother had--but to examine and admire them. Granted, when she was a baby, she hated ALL clothes, but at age two there are few things she enjoys more than a pretty dress with matching shoes and jewelry.

I can never get Lena to wrestle and play tigers. She'd much rather cuddle and pamper her many babies. If she doesn't happen to have babies with her, something else becomes a baby: Thor looks especially cute tucked in for nap time.

This is not to say that my daughter does not enjoy playing battle with plastic katanas and nunchakas as much as my son--it's a family affair, after all. And so far Lena has been a blue cyclops and Leonardo for Halloween; she still asks to put her shell on. Also, her favorite show is not CGI fairies or fashion dolls, but Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.

You know who does love Tinkerbell, though, and The Littlest Petshop, where even the cartoon animals wear excessive makeup?

I'll give you a hint: he's very hamsome.

What I don't understand is why anyone would want to beat the whimsy out of a little girl's play. I, too, am delighted by the outpouring of internet support for little boys with nail polish or pony lunchboxes. But why is my daughter not supposed to play princess? Why should any child become a little adult when he or she plays? Why should she engage in traditionally male role playing to the exclusion of the traditional female? Mix up the dress-up toys! Mix the pink Legos in with the other colors! Then boys AND girls can choose for themselves.

My mother was an animal scientist who went into the ministry in her forties. After she spent half her life breaking down barriers for women, her only daughter went into a field that has been dominated by women since before her mother was born. But here's the thing: "women's work" has value too. As a woman and a teacher, it seems to me society's sneering attitude toward teaching is a perfect reflection of our culture's view of women: if it's girly, it's not good. It's inferior. It's unworthy.

It's wrong.

Lena didn't get much choice in her Halloween costumes before she turned 2 (seriously--one of us had to be Leonardo, and Paolo and I had claimed Michaelangelo and Raphael). But would it be so bad if she wanted to be Cinderella for a night this year? The internet would turn itself inside out to defend Paolo's right to be Snow White if he wanted (I might too). So why should Lena have any fewer options? Because she's supposed to a take over the White House--if not the world--before she's three?

I will defend to the death my son's right to enjoy Horseland , hair gel, and all things purple. And if my daughter wants to play princess, she will play princess. Her brother's trains are not superior or his superheroes gender neutral--though he still must share them.

We don't have to read about women warriors for my daughter's sake. My son needs them at least as much as she does, and probably identifies with them better than his sister. Both of my children--all of our children--need to grow up respecting each other's preferences and their differences as much as their similarities.

Equality is not eliminating girliness or even flipping the roles.

Equality means both of my kids can be pretty.
Via @amyrbrown