In this week’s podcast episode I talk about something I believe will help English develop amazing experiences for their students, The Best Lesson Series: Literature. The book contains 15 extraordinary lessons from great teachers. The lessons and practical approaches in the book prove how anyone is capable of engaging students, building skills, and making their classroom a magical place.
About a month into my student teaching I thought I had hit my stride. It was 2004 and my freshman English classes were reading To Kill a Mockingbird. We were a third of the way through the novel and had made some good progress applying literary elements to the text.
Yet, despite my confidence, deep down something did not feel right. My lessons had begun to be repetitive. They followed the traditional format of:
- Start the class with a “Do Now.”
- Introduce an idea, skill, or concept.
- Model the skill or concept.
- Send the students into small groups to apply the skill to the text.
- Bring everyone back together to go over the skill or concept.
- Assign homework.
Laura teaches English language arts, digital design, and media productions, and co-advises the student-produced news station, at Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma, California. She is a Google for Education Certified Innovator, National Board Certified Teacher, Edutopia Facilitator, Bay Area Writing Project Teacher Consultant with an MA in Ed. Tech. In 2015, she was a first place winner of the Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation Teacher Innovator Award. Laura has been teaching since 1988: before state standards, before standardized tests, before scripted, one-size-fits-all curriculum and before threats of Program Improvement and merit pay. In an attempt to push back against the voices that condemn and despair over our public schools, she also blogs and tweets.
Show Notes Coming Soon!
I am spending a lot of time this year working on the difference between simple and complex.
Over the years, my students’ initial responses have been simple. Gatsby longs for Daisy. To Kill a Mockingbird is about race. Shylock is an unmerciful character. Sonnets are about unrequited love.
And when they write, they provide the evidence to support the assertion. One body paragraph on this, another on that, and — poof! — a five-paragraph essay is produced.
Complexity goes beyond the initial, though. It stretches past the simple. It requires layers of meaning. But are our students capable of it?
The Common Core expects it. A quick search of the ELA standards reveals that complex (or complexity) appears 105 times. With a frequency of that magnitude, you quickly realize that students success hinges on their ability to understand complexity in all its beautiful forms — in what they read, what they write, and how they think.
Yet the standards are of little help because they never offer a definition of what complexity is, they only assert that students should be, “reading and understanding increasingly complex texts on their own” and they should understand “how themes interact and build on one another to produce a complex account.”
What is Complexity
complexity — to have complicated or interrelated parts; not simple
Complexity is generally used to characterize something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways. The study of these complex linkages at various scales is the main goal of complex systems theory.
Harvard Business Review:
Complex systems are imbued with features that may operate in patterned ways but whose interactions are continually changing. Three properties determine the complexity of an environment. The first, multiplicity, refers to the number of potentially interacting elements. The second, interdependence, relates to how connected those elements are. The third, diversity, has to do with the degree of their heterogeneity. The greater the multiplicity, interdependence, and diversity, the greater the complexity. An organic growth program, for example, is highly complex—it contains a large number of interactive, interdependent, diverse elements.
While it is easy to see that the Harvard Business Review definition is the most complex, it does not make it the best. It is useful because it displays the layers of meaning necessary to understand complexity, but if we point our students there initially, they will be lost.
The dictionary definition of “not simple” is a perfect starting point for teaching complexity. Only after they understand the nature of a “simple” thought can they advance to understand the multiplicity, interdependence, and diversity of a complex thought.
How to Teach It
1. Start with a simple thought.
Let’s use Gatsby as an example. Perhaps a student has been asked to do a character analysis. A simple thesis statement may read:
In the novel The Great Gatsby the main character Jay Gatsby longs for Daisy.
There is nothing wrong with this statement. It can be justified by the text. It displays some insight. But is just isn’t complex.
2. Ask questions; add layers.
As teachers, we need to tease out complexity. Our students are capable of it, they just have not been conditioned to think past a simple response. Good questioning is the way to achieve it.
Ask your students why Gatsby longs for a woman who is already married with a family of her own? Why would he want to divorce her from a life she has established with Tom Buchanan? What are the interacting elements that make him want to disrupt her life? List them.
- He wants to recreate a past that is no longer attainable.
- He believes that Tom is absorbed by his arrogance and self-righteousness, making him oblivious to Daisy’s needs.
- He is empty without her.
- He is ashamed of his poor past and assumes that wealth is what she needs/values most.
3. Find the thread. Rewrite the thesis.
What is the connecting thread within all these layers? Gatsby does long for Daisy, but it is more than that. He exists in the present but clings to the past, making him a hollow character. Sure, he wishes to rescue Daisy from a reckless marriage, but ultimately he is trying to rescue himself from his own emptiness. A complex thesis statement may now read:
In the novel The Great Gatsby, Jay is a hollow character lost in his past and incapable of living in the present emptiness of his wealth and his failures.
This thesis creates a complex system for understanding the novel. It views the plot through the complex lens of Gatsby’s hollowness, connecting his past with his present. It identifies that neither his wealth nor his attempts to win back Daisy succeed in restoring the sense of purpose and fulfillment his once had.
A complex thesis statement does not necessarily make for a complex essay, but it is a huge step in the right direction. The complex sentence above allows for so many more layers to an essay than the previous statement. All it took was three simple steps.
- Start with a simple idea
- Ask questions; add layers
- Find the thread
While I used high-school level texts, this three-step process can be applied to middle-school or elementary-level texts. I like the three-step process because it takes a simple approach to a complex outcome. How could you apply this technique in your classroom? I encourage you to share your ideas in the comments section below.
For more ways to teach complexity, check out The Best Lesson Series: Literature.
David Bosso, the 2012 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, has been teaching Social Studies at Berlin High School since 1998. He was recently named the 2012-2013 Outstanding Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies, and was recognized by the Connecticut Council of the Social Studies for its Excellence in Social Studies Education award in 2009.
In this episode you will learn:
- How David uses the textbook as a tool, not as a curriculum
- How David makes history as relevant as possible
- How to exist beyond the curriculum
- How to get involved in education leadership
- Why David blogs about his teaching experiences
- Why teachers should stay in the classroom
Read Education in the United States and Finland: What is and what can be by David Bosso
Terry Heick is the creator of Teach Thought. He is a former English teacher turned education dreamer who is interested in how learning is changing in a digital and connected world. This includes, among other changes, the rise of self-directed learning.
He is also interested in the power of questions, the role of play in learning, clarifying digital literacy, the flexibility of project-based learning, marrying mobile learning and place-based education (especially through mentoring), the potential of video games and simulations in learning, what it really means to “understand” something, and how all of this produces wisdom and self-knowledge in students. … Read more…
This is a guest post from Lori Carr, an AP English Literature and Composition teacher at Westside High School in Houston, Texas. This is her sixteenth year in the classroom.
I grew up the daughter of a radio disc jockey in the late 70s and early 80s. We lived in a college town, and my dad taught a couple of broadcasting classes in addition to his duties as program director and afternoon radio host. In the first few weeks of his first class, he decided he would need to establish a few overarching guidelines for his students. He established these expectations and then implemented them in our home, too. Almost daily. … Read more…
“What matters isn’t how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers of his outer life. What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of a war or the descriptions of a sunrise — his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.”
There are many reasons why a person would choose to become a teacher, but for me, being an elementary school teacher is all about hope. Spending my days with children who are still piecing it all together, still shaping their views on the world and how to navigate their way through life, is a privilege I don’t take lightly. In a society where there is so much hate and violence, teaching is an act of hope that the world can and should be better. When you teach from a social justice perspective, you are always looking for ways to help children understand, empathize, recognize when something is unfair and ultimately take action to make changes. The very best way I know how to do this is through reading books aloud and discussing them. … Read more…
I want you to have your best year yet.
I want you to share the amazing things that happen in your classroom. I want you to let others know that teaching is full of grace, accomplishment, and pride. And if we celebrate the things that we do well, we can show the world just how meaningful teaching is for us and for our students.
If we do this — you, me and everyone else willing to submit themselves to a larger community of inspiration — we can be positive models of teacher-leaders. We can overcome the naysayers. We can prove just how strong we are. … Read more…