Friday, March 15, 2013

The Taste of Human Experience

Taste Test - Click to view photo gallery

Last week, I was inspired professionally while reading the Newbery Medal contender, Liar & Spy, by Rebecca Stead. While it is not unusual for me to be moved by what I read, the adolescent novel actually encouraged me to modify my curriculum. Composition students are currently studying the descriptive genre, and the fictional science teacher in Liar & Spy presented a lesson that I immediately wanted to try. Mr. Landau explains that the tongue map is a myth that has persisted despite contradictory evidence. He teaches his class that there are not specific areas on the tongue that distinguish from bitter, sweet, sour, and salty. The average person has about 10,000 taste buds, and each is capable of discerning them all.  Recently, research has shown that there is an additional taste known as savory or umami. Nacho Cheese Doritos are a great example of umami. After having his students sample the different flavors, Mr. Landau asks them if a human experience can have a taste. Could a memory be sweet? How about sour? What a provocative idea! One that I couldn’t pass up. Armed with lemon juice, cola, coffee, salt, a few plastic cups, and some Q-tips, I decided to put the kids to the test. They dabbed lemon juice on different spots of their tongues and resoundingly agreed that they could taste it everywhere. I had them repeat the same process for the remaining foods, and each time the result was the same. According to the sixth grade composition students, they were able to taste bitter, sweet, sour, and salty all over their tongues, not just in the spots highlighted by the map.

With the experiment fresh in their minds, students listed foods that represented each of the tastes. Using descriptive language, they described to one another the flavors of each one. After the literal definition of taste had been exhausted, students were asked to consider it figuratively. Everyone took out a sheet of paper and brainstormed significant life events. Then I asked them, just as the fictitious Mr. Landau did his students, what is the taste of human experience? Could any of the life experiences they recalled be considered sweet, sour, bitter, or salty? How about umami or even bittersweet? Students had to write for 10 minutes describing one of those important events, all the while comparing it to a specific taste. Never ones to back down from a challenge, they impressed me with their originality and creativity.  I am excited to see how the pieces will turn out after they have gone through the writing process.

Literature students have been teaching their classmates about the gods and goddesses of Greek Mythology.  Individually, they were assigned a specific one that they needed to learn more about.  Using their books as well as Internet resources, they were expected to outline the deity's family tree and research his or her personal symbol and animal.  Once students had gathered the necessary information, they put it into a Prezi that could be used to instruct their peers.  The results were amazing!  The following is a great example of a job well done.

Enjoy your spring break. Relax, read, and create many sweet memories!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Finished, But Not Forgotten

Book Project Presentation - Click for photo gallery
As their final assessment for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, students were asked to stretch their thinking and create an instructional tool that would help demonstrate their understanding of the importance of land, family, respect, and self-respect.  Once finished, they had to use their creation as well as textual evidence to teach their classmates about one of the aforementioned topics.  Finally, students were required to provide written reflections regarding their learning process.  I was impressed with the originality of their projects.  From a remake of OneRepublic's Secrets to mixed media artwork, the kids attacked the assignment with thoughtful enthusiasm.

After they finished presenting their projects this week, I asked students for feedback.  This is an important part of the instructional process, because it informs my teaching practice.  I encouraged them to reflect on what I did well as a teacher and what I could have done better.  It seemed only fair after providing them with my unsolicited, albeit priceless, advice!  In their constructive feedback, students suggested I offer more work days, make memorization of speeches and poems mandatory, adjust the sign-up process, and provide more direct instruction - all great ideas that I can use to refine the assessment for next time.  Positive responses included the ability to make their own choices and exercise their creativity.  Most importantly, the kids told me that what they learned from the project would stick with them.  They indicated that traditional tests generated higher levels of stress and what was memorized was often forgotten shortly thereafter.  It's my hope that they never forget the Logan's!

In composition, students practiced the skill of showing rather than telling.  While an important technique in any genre, creating a visual picture in a reader's mind is particularly valuable when writing descriptively.  In groups and individually, the kids practiced creating similes and metaphors that incorporated sensory language - words that appeal to any of the five senses.  Additionally, small groups took telling sentences and recreated them as descriptive scenes.  Not only did they enjoy putting their creative juices to the test, but they composed writing that a reader could see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.