Doin'the Standards-Based Hip-Hop Thing

Alan Sitomer has written an instructive and fascinating book, Teaching Teens & Reaping Results, about teaching teenagers through the use of popular culture. Sitomer is a three-time Teacher of the Year in California. In this excerpt  from Chapter 4 of the book, he shares some strategies for organizing material to be meaningful to students.

You can also download the entire Chapter 4 (PDF).

Teaching Teens to Be Tenacious

The best way I've found to get teenagers to become engaged in their own learning, remain focused on the same objective for long stretches of time, build academic skills, think critically, learn to work well with others, and benefit from having made mistakes all while having a whole lotta fun is by having them do things.Yep, I have teens do things. All the time.

Some folks call it project-based learning. I call it simple common sense. My teenagers don't want to be forced to sit in hard, plastic seats in library-style silence for hours on end, slog through thick, flavorless textbooks that weigh almost 5 pounds, or be made to memorize facts, data, stats, or key information that can easily be accessed on the Internet and further illuminated with a dozen links at the drop of a hat. Heck no. They want to get out of their chairs, burn off the energy roaring through their veins (created by the explosive combination of hormones and far too much sugar), and actually make something.Or perform something.

Or build something, take pictures of something, invent something, or lay down a soundtrack of their favorite songs to something.Teenagers want to do things. They want to gross one another out, they want to peek deep within, and they want to be rewarded for their desires to do this instead of being ostracized for wanting to do what seems as natural to them as jumping in the water seems to a landlocked duck.Yep, teens want to be active, get their hands dirty, and explore learning through a multi sensory approach that taps into other modalities of education beyond mere paper, pens, books, and bubble tests. Therefore, in my class, I do things. And how do I do them?

First and foremost, by looking to the content area standards of my curriculum.That's right, before I do anything else, I turn my attention to the standards.See, the standards are like the North Star by which I guide the journey of my class. When things get crazy, when cooperative learning groupings implode, when the information superhighway causes more collisions and confusion than it provides answers and expediency, when I look up into a sea of student chaos and say to myself, "What the heck is supposed to be going on in here again?"the standards are there for me as a compass, a navigation system onto which I gratefully grab hold. They are my unfailing guideposts as I leap off into having my students immerse themselves in projects that push the limits of their abilities as well as my own.

Plus, the higher-ups in my school system get all warm and fuzzy on the inside when they discover I'm incorporating their favorite buzzword, standards-based learning, into my curriculum.Goodness, do they love to hear that. Even when my kids are standing on one foot on the top ledge of a ladder in the hallway during lunch, trying to create a better sense of mise-en scène for their video projects, it's always standards-based learning.

For example, in the language arts content area of the reading comprehension strand for grades 9/10 (the state of California combines the standards for these two grade levels into one strand instead of separate grade-level units), there is a section I am supposed to teach on informational materials and functional documents. The standard reads:

2.0 Reading Comprehension
Structural Features of Informational Materials: 2.1. Analyze the structure and format of functional documents, including the graphics and headers, and explain how authors use the features to achieve their purposes

A bit of a mouthful, isn't it? More on that in a moment. Now, when I first think of teaching the language arts, I think of teaching books and reading. And writing and grammar. And literary analysis and punctuation. And even Shakespeare.

About a bazillion things leap to mind that, at first glance, seem to take precedence over teaching my students something as apparently mundane as functional documents.However, when I reflect more deeply on the matter, I realize that my students have a pretty good chance of getting through life if they don't ever intellectually digest something like how to dissect figurative language or explicate the difference between a simile and a metaphor.

Yet, if they don't know how to properly read a set of directives, distinguish the real meaning behind the message in a household mailer, or comprehend and evaluate critical information that might be embedded inside the text of a set of instructions, they risk the chance of being duped by false advertising,missing out on a fantastic deal that could have saved them a lot of money,or entering into a contractual arrangement in which they agree to things
they have no idea they are agreeing to.

The truth is, before Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sylvia Plath, there are fast-food menus, auto repair coupons, and cellular telephone contracts to be understood, evaluated, tossed away, or clutched like the saviors to our financial lives that some of these types of documents can often be.

Therefore, and with good reason, I make sure to tackle this content area of the standards in my class. But of course, my goal is always to do it with pizzazz, something that will genuinely engage my students.

I begin any new project with a close analysis of the standard I've selected to teach and reread the fine print to make sure I genuinely understand what it is that the state is actually asking me to have my students do. And the irony is not lost on me that at the exact moment I am trying to figure out a means by which I can teach my students how to properly analyze and comprehend information from a functional document, I am being required to literally do so myself.

Personally, I find the content standards dry to read and difficult to understand. Often, I even ask myself after having just read some of the standards, "What the heck did that just say?"And I know that I am not alone when I ask this question. Teachers all over seem to often scratch their heads when it comes to interpreting their state's academic learning objectives. To make things simple on myself, I've developed a system, a sort of Standards Interpretation for Dummies, which I use all the time.

To best break down and interpret the content standards, I begin with underlining the main verbs in the standard. Why the verbs? Because they tell me what I am supposed to have my students specifically do.

2.0 Reading Comprehension
Structural Features of Informational Materials: 2.1. Analyze the structure and format of functional documents, including the graphics and headers, and explain how authors use the features to achieve their purposes.

Okay, we are supposed to do two things. First we are supposed to analyze and second we are supposed to explain. Then I get a few 3-by-5note cards, one for each verb, and I write on them: Analyze and Explain.

Next I go back and ask myself, "Analyze and explain what?" This is where I use the skills of paraphrasing, of putting things into my own words so that I know I clearly understand my directive

ANALYZE
the structure and format
of a funct doc, including
graphics and headers.

EXPLAIN
how the doc's author chose
the feats to accomp
his purp

Okay, now I get it. (Like I said, this is Standards Breakdown for Dummies, but if I am going to have a North Star for my classroom lesson, I had better make sure I fully understand the direction in which my star is pointing.)

Experience tells me, though, that tackling only one standard at a time for my classroom lessons is often not enough. This is because the content area standards quite frequently harmonize well when grouped in twos or
threes, so often I'll scour about and see if something else matches up well with the standard I've chosen to teach.And sure enough, one does.I, of course, reread the standard, underline the main verbs, and go
through the process of yet again making up my North Star note cards

2.0 Reading Comprehension
Expository Critique: 2.7. Critique the logic of functional documents
and examine the sequence of information and procedures in
anticipation of possible reader misunderstandings.

CRITIQUE
the logic of the doc:
Where are poss
misunderstandings?

EXAMINE
the sequence of the doc:
Where are poss
misunderstandings?

And then I lay all four of my cards in front of me so that I can see the forest for the trees

ANALYZE
the structure and format
of a funct doc, including
graphics and headers

EXPLAIN
how the doc's author chose
the feats to accomp
his purp

CRITIQUE
the logic of the doc:
Where are poss
misunderstandings?

EXAMINE
the sequence of the doc:
Where are poss
misunderstandings?.

Looking as I always am for a way to really hook my English classes at the start of anything I do, I decide to reach into my bag of razzle-dazzle tricks and break out the good ol'-fashioned peanut butter and jelly language arts lesson. Though teachers have known about this fun lesson for years, it's still a winner every time I reach for it. But of course, to add a little twist, I make sure to use organic peanut butter, which, when left unrefrigerated and unstirred, becomes this goopy, sludgy mess that never fails to draw even more heightened reactions from teenagers.

Anything I can do to gross my students out is always a winner.Basically, I assign all my students the task of writing down the directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "Be thorough," I tell them. Then, once they've finished writing their instructions as to how to accomplish this task, I break out a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, a loaf of bread, plastic knives, paper plates, and napkins.

Next I have students swap instructions and follow the exact directions for making a sandwich written by their partner. It's a great introductory activity for getting students to see the value of well-written functional documents because it forces students to recognize what happens when they don't use specific details in their writing.

All I need are a few inexpensive supplies, and the smiles are never far behind. By forcing students to follow the directions literally, and I mean word for word, I end up with students having to do things such as stick their fingers inside the jar of peanut butter to spread the goop across the bread because the kid who wrote the instructions forgot to include tiny little details in his directions such as "use a knife."

Kids forget to mention opening the jar of jelly, sandwiches end up having the peanut butter and jam on the exterior side of the bread instead of the interior, and on and on. Fun, smiles, and a lesson well learned by the end of the day that writing functional documents is hard work and requires meticulous attention to detail set the stage for the next phase of my lesson plan.

Usually for homework on the day that precedes this lesson, I'll have my students bring in a bunch of menus the local restaurants are always leaving,much to most people's chagrin, on our front doors.Why? Because we are going to analyze, critique, explain, and examine them. (Notice how my note card writing has given me the clarity to see my teaching objective.)

There is no right or wrong type of menu for this activity, and since I always give credit for all classroom assignments, this is a very easy way for every student in my class to earn points without doing any real intellectually heavy lifting at the start. (Sort of my own little trick to build up students' self-esteem. "This is so easy," they think. "Plus, I just had my fingers in a jar of jelly. This class is cool!")

Chinese food. Italian joints. Pizza parlors and sandwich shops-I see all sorts of menus. Of course I also take a wee bit of environmental satisfaction in knowing that instead of all these worthless menus going in the garbage,they'll get turned into educational tools for my classroom that will eventually be recycled so we can be green as well as well learned.

Next we look at the menus. Then we chat. Why is this menu effective?Why does this one stink? How come this menu makes me hungry and this one is pathetic and actually makes me not want to eat at the restaurant at all? Answers fly, students break off into their own little bubbles of independent conversations, and menus get dissected from a host of interesting yet disparate angles.

After a full classroom dialogue, I pull out my own fast-food menu. . . and car wash coupon, real estate broker's mailer, and ad for breast enhancement surgery. (Trust me, this last one opens the door to fantastic dialogues about self-esteem, how women are objectified in society, the prejudice people hold against both girls with large chests and those with small ones; the chats are electric and weighty in many, many, ways.) All the pieces of paper I pull out, of course, are materials that I have lesson planned top to bottom before class even began so I can go through and teach all of the elements of functional documents I want to make sure my students comprehend.

Ultimately, by the time I am done, we, as a class, have analyzed, critiqued,explained, and examined the structure, format, graphics, headers,author choices, logic, sequence, purpose, and possible misunderstandings of functional documents in a way that engaged my students, related to their lives, was made accessible to all levels of learners in the class (from gifted and talented students to English language learners, they are all tuned in), and, most assuredly, brought some smiles to the faces of my kids.Truthfully, probably very little of it even felt to them like learning.However, the question then becomes, How do I really know if my students have grasped the structure and function of informational documents?

I mean, I think they have. My lesson seemed to go well, yet how can I be sure? Through my own informal mode of assessment, my own observation,and dialogue with my students, I have definitely gained a strong sense that
my kids have comprehended all that I had hoped to teach them.

However, the fact of the matter is that doing is the most effective means by which I can get my students to really grasp the structure and format of functional documents.Doing means I'll have my kids go beyond reading, hearing, seeing, and talking about functional documents and elevate my lesson to where my students can and will create a functional document of their own.

And so we'll create our own hip-hop musical menus of the soundtracks to their lives. Kinda snazzy, huh? I make this functional document project music based because my students love music and music is often an area in life about which teenagers feel unbridled passion.

Of course, I see a ton of hip-hop, but the truth is,this assignment can work just as well with any genre of music. Heck, I could step into a classroom in Nashville, Tennessee, and do the same lesson with country western music that I can do in inner-city Los Angeles with urban fare. Reggae, ska, punk, speed metal, or classical, the genre of music doesn't really matter. Nor does my content knowledge about the musical artists my kids prefer to listen to.

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