Martha Dreskin is a middle school teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico and a member of the eighth-grade cadre in our Common Core in Albuquerque project.
Martha shares her experiences in preparing and teaching "The Story of an Hour" lesson plans in the two-part video interview below.
Part I: Preparing the Lesson
I teach seventh and eighth grade in a middle school that's in a very diverse area, culturally and financially. I have the Air Force Base kids, and I have lots of refugees from all over the world. And it's pretty much a lower income, like 99 percent of our kids are free lunch, so it's kind of a poor area. They pretty much do not have a family backing for education, so pretty much education happens at school.
The kids vary in how they behave in the sense that some of them have no training at home, so you don't get really good behavior at school. On the other hand, some kids are fine. So it's a, it's a mixed group of kids. I would say all the kids that I teach are in need of literacy training, some form of, they are all some form of ELL. Either they're foreign language speakers first or they really don't have a good literacy background. So it's a needy population as far as literacy goes.
A dedicated group
My colleagues in this project, I don't know how miraculously the fell together. We're all very different. We actually teach very different classes. Not so much grade level, but what kinds of kids are in our class, what areas of the city we're from. Like, one of my colleagues teaches predominantly university professors' kids, and her population, even her ELLs, are from that strata of the population where mine are, mine are very gang-related and poverty-stricken.
And a couple of us have that, but the teachers that I work with are just, they're so dedicated and they're so enthusiastic and they're just not afraid to talk about anything we need to talk about and figure out an answer to it, and that's always, you know, "Well, we're not leaving here until we have this figured out." And that's the end of that, and that's how it works. So it's very, it's a very enthusiastic group, and it's really cool working with them because they're smart and they're dedicated.
A better handle on the Common Core
What I have learned from this project is academically, I'm getting really good at the CCSS, at the Common Core. I really feel like I have a better handle on it than I did when I started. Our leader here in Albuquerque, Ellen, has given us all kinds of background reading material. She's involved in several different groups, so she reports to us. It has been very difficult learning to work like I used to work when I started teaching, which is from the standard, and not say, "Here's the textbook. You've got to get through it," and do whatever the textbook tells you to do.
Instead, going back and saying, "Oh, I want to teach this standard. This is a great standard. I can't wait to find something that I can teach with this." And then it snowballs into five or six different directions across the curriculum. And I have relearned how to do that because I originally learned how to teach like that a long time ago, and then I wasn't allowed to teach like that anymore and now it's coming back. I hope it's here to stay.
I think, I think the a-ha moment is, at least for me, it was when you can actually start from a standard and then add things to it. I had a really hard time with that. And then all of a sudden, I was able to do it because when you, when you're a veteran teacher, standards have come and gone and come and gone. And pretty much somebody says, "Here's the standard. What's the first lesson that comes to mind?" It's almost like that, and you give me a standard, I'll tell you something you can teach that covers that standard.
You know, it was really hard for me to get out of that. And finally, I was able to do it, and I don't, it happened, it happened after Christmastime, so that means I have been working on it, that means I've been working on it from August to about January before it really was clear. I was going, "Oh, my gosh. I understand what it is they want me to do." And it's been a lot easier on me since then. So that's, that was my a-ha moment.
CCSS in the classroom
Well, I've already started taking back stuff from my, from what I'm learning to my own classroom because it's the right way to teach. And the problem with the right way to teach is once you're doing it the right way, it's really hard to go back to anything less than that. So I find myself in my classroom now adding things that aren't in the book or referring to things that aren't in the lesson plan but are totally related to what we're teaching, and I find that the kids jump on board a lot more quickly when they can do that, too.
And a lot of times, their examples, again because they're middle school kids, a lot of times, their examples are from movies because that's real big for them is seeing movies. If there's any way that what they're telling you could be related to whatever it is you're trying to teach, it's a plus because they're going to remember it. And yeah, I've already started taking stuff back. Once I'm forced to use the CCSS, I'll be so excited.
But until then, I'm kind of sneaking it in, but I don't really realize I'm doing it until it's over and I go, "Oh, I just taught a CCSS thing, and I wasn't supposed to. I was supposed to be following the textbook." So it kind of, it sneaks up on you. One of, one of the guys that's in the group was saying that as he was giving the SBAs, he was feeling guilty because the way the focus, what the focus was on those test was not what we're focusing on in the group. And he, and this, the group focus is what he wanted to be doing. And he was feeling bad that he had to teach to the test, and we all do.
Common Core and ELLs
The Common Core Standards are definitely going to be challenging for any ELL teacher or any ESL teacher mostly because they're written with a regular education level of literacy in mind. There's nothing impossible about it. The ELL kids can learn anything anybody else can learn. It's just a matter of scaffolding it or presenting it in an alternative view. They have the interest, which is really important. If you can get the kids interested, they will tackle whatever the standards are you're trying to teach.
I think it's going to fall to the teachers to make those standards accessible, but I think that they'll, they, the kids will be able to handle it. They will be able to manage it. It's just a matter of presenting it slowly and in an interesting way because they lose interest fast. They're just like the regular Ed kids in that they're a technology-based group of people. They text.
They can't read a clock unless it's digital because they don't do that. They can't do cursive writing because they text and it's all in printing. So those are some of the challenges that you have with just reading in general. But it's just a matter of getting in there and deciding it's going to work, and they'll come along. They'll do it with you.
The story we're using is a second story, actually, in our lesson planning. We originally started in the eighth grade with the story The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry because we thought it was, well, first of all, it was in December, and so we thought it would be a really good lesson plan because it was seasonal. It was authentic text. The writer is well-known. He's excellent. And we had chosen our standard that we really wanted to focus on as being figurative language.
And when we looked at the irony, there was nobody better than O. Henry, so that's actually where we started. Then as we got into the project and we had actually completed that lesson plan, I mean, you know, at 95 percent completed, we had Diane come in and look at our stuff. And somehow, I don't even remember how this happened, but the level of text complexity came up and the issue of Lexiles came up. And when we Lexiled the text, it was too low for eighth grade.
So we spent, I want to say, two to three hours looking through the computer for Lexile, correctly Lexile level stories that were short enough that we can make this work. And we wound up focusing on Kate Chopin's The Story of an Hour.
The hardest part of this particular lesson is that it's hard for the kids to relate to because of their adolescence. It's just not an adolescent story. It's an adult story. If I go into just a short summary of it, it's about a woman who feels like she's oppressed by her husband. She gets a message that he's died, and she goes wild. She's so happy that he's dead because now she can be free.
And then at the end of the story, he walks through the door. They've gotten the story wrong. And she has a heart attack and dies. So it's a good story. It's just the issues of the story are not going to be read easily by those young adolescents. But we've made it work. We've added some extra things, lessons in it that they will relate to. Some modern day song lyrics are used, some jokes are used, some cartoons are used to express the idea of irony. So irony is what our lesson focuses around, and it's well done. I'm very happy with it now.
One of the auxiliary things that we're using is a song. It's Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." And while all of the examples that she used are not perfect English class examples of irony, there are enough of them that if you play music and you give the kids the lyrics, they will get the idea of what the irony is because you explain that irony is something you wouldn't expect to happen. It happens the opposite of what you would expect.
Like a, like a racecar driver drives home and he has an accident on the freeway and dies. You go, "Wow, that's really ironic. I mean, he drives cars for a living." So the examples that are in Ironic by Morissette are a concrete example, and they can listen to it. They love music. Anything that you can give them with music is going to be a hit because they like hearing it even if they don't like it. Even if they don't like the song or they don't like the artist, they still like having music there.
So that's how that, that song is working, and it's very specific examples that she has given of ironic situations. And they go, "Oh, yeah. I get it," so that when they get to the part in the lesson plan that says, "Think of something ironic that's happened to you in your life or somebody around you so that you can bring it back as an example of real life." You know, so irony is really something that happens, and it's not just something in literature. So that's why we chose to use that song, and it's going to, it's a, some of the people have already used it. It's been a big hit.
Trying the lesson with kids
Here's what we really need to do is try it out on kids because no matter what you do as a teacher with a bunch of other teachers, even if they pretend to be kids. And we do that sometimes. We'll say, "Okay. You're the kid. How would you react if I said this?" It's not the same as if you try it out on a class.
So that's the next, I think, the next critical thing after we're finished with the, all the technicalities of putting the lesson together is going into a class and talking about it and see how the kids respond to it. And then we'll know whether it's going to work or not.
It's just an issue that's there, and it's always a thing that comes up with kids, asking the kids, "Do you feel safe?"
And of course, you know, we're talking about learning, whether it's Common Core or anything else, if you don't feel safe, you're not going to learn academic things. You have to feel safe first. So that's certainly a priority at my school is that we try and make adult presence, as many adults present as, and as many as possible at as many times as we can. And then there's the discipline on the other side of it.
But it's definitely, it's an issue, and it's something that I'm aware of all the time. And I have no problem in talking about it, and I think teachers don't have problems talking about it in their classroom with their own kids if they want to ask something. But it's a very secretive kind of a society sort of a thing. So we're not privy to a lot of what's going on unless it's blatant. And usually the kids aren't blatant unless they're really mad or something.
They try and get away with stuff just because they're adolescents, but they get caught pretty quickly. I just feel really sad about it because it's such an impediment. It's such a terrible downer to learning because they're, you know, the priorities aren't, I feel bad they're in the wrong place, but I think a lot of it has to do with belonging. And when you're in a, a ghetto area, belonging is really important.
Last summer, I had some kids from Iraq, and they were so happy at the end of the summer and they were thanking me, I go, "Oh, my gosh. I'm going to cry," for teaching them, that they learned so much in the summer and they, you know, they just like, logarithmically increased in their ability to speak English.
And that was really a cool thing, but I've got to say, every year, there are kids. I'm thinking right now. I'm thinking of Jasmine in my class, and she's just like, head and shoulders above everybody in my class. She's just such a neat kid. And you can see her learning, and she asks questions and she's not bored. And it's really a neat thing, though, when it happens. It's really cool.
Part II: After the Lesson
The lesson that we worked on this week is The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin. And it has – it went really well. They progressed each day a little bit farther and they got a little more into it and they got a little more comfortable with actually reacting to it, talking deeper than the basic questions like you could tell they were thinking about it. So I have been really happy with the progress that they made.
We focused on two specific background points. One was the role of the 19th-century woman in America, which covered the 1894 period that Story of an Hour was written in. And it was amazing to the kids to know that women couldn't vote; they couldn't divorce for any reason, including abuse; and they were not allowed to keep their own salaries if they happened to work. So after they got over that shock and were kind of mad at the time period, we went to a lesson on Kate Chopin herself.
And you could see that in the mini lesson she actually fulfilled the role of the 19th century woman. She married at 20, had 6 children, and then the husband died. I'm surprised she didn't, but, you know, the husband died and she got really depressed and her doctor encouraged her to write. So they were able to see that that was a really good thing that he did, that he had enough foresight or insight to see that writing would help her.
So she winds up doing all the feminist literature that she did at the time. And we talked about that too, that by virtue of her doing that, she probably furthered the cause of women's rights – she probably furthered the cause along a lot quicker than it might have gone had she not been a writer. So it was really good background for them and they realized that times have changed, that they take things for granted that lots of people fought for.
When they got to the part of the story when Mrs. Mallard, who is the protagonist of the story, realizes that she's thinking about being independent and she weighs in her mind the differences between being in love and being married with a man who is repressive, you weigh that with being independent and being free and she says in the story there's no comparison.
And the kids responded to that and it amazed me that they said, "Oh, yeah. If that were the situation I were in, I would definitely choose to be free." And I just figured with 14-year olds, 13-year olds, 14-year olds, they are all about being in love. I never dreamt that they would weigh those two options and vote independence as the winner. So that was really an awakening for me. So I really like that part and they responded really quickly to it too. So that was really nice.
We used several strategies to try and get the kids to be able to access the text more easily. And one of them was using a PowerPoint. I do not use PowerPoints usually in class and I was afraid of it because I thought the kids wouldn't relate to it. They actually did and I think it really did help in seeing it not just in front of them but being able to see what I was working from. So that was one strategy that really helped that I would probably use again if I were doing this kind of thing.
The guiding questions were actually – I consider them a strategy. We asked a question before they read sections of the reading material. And as they were reading, they knew what they were looking for. Then after they read the section of text, the question was repeated. And since they had already heard the question, they were able to find it in the text. I noticed that a lot of the kids were underlining, which is a strategy that I use in my regular classes quite a bit. And they were able to find it, feel successful about finding it, and that made them a lot more willing to speak the English and share their thoughts. So I think it was a really good idea.
I think the last activity we did, which was taking different sections of the story in pairs and paraphrasing it into words that they were more familiar with worked really well because we were working towards a summary of the story and by breaking it down into the different parts and letting them use their own words, when we read it through at the end where we said, "Okay, group one, read your summary. Group two, read your summary," we actually came out with a decent summary of the story in about ten sentences. So it worked really well and I think that that activity of paraphrasing is really an important thing to see if they really understand what they're reading.
Scaffolding is a really important strategy to work with with ELLs and when we started on day one, we had lots of scaffolding assuming that the kids would have a hard time with the story because it's a difficult story. And we went through day one and we found that we could actually drop some of the scaffolding.
We just asked the question and they just went for it. They just talked maybe two or three sentences' worth of an answer instead of just the one word. So we – I knew that I had a little bit more advanced English proficiency than we started with on day one, but we needed to see it and we needed to make sure the students were comfortable with saying things. So I think it was a good idea we did the complete scaffolding the first day, but we certainly did not need it the second and third days and it worked out really well.