Monday, February 6, 2012

Understaning Connotation and Denotation with Pocahontas and John Smith

Designing a Class Discussion-Did Pocahontas Save John Smith's Life?

Understanding Connotation and Denotation
The best way to understand connotation and denotation is this:
Denotation is the Dictionary definition of a word.  If you look up a word, you will get the literal definition.
Connotation are the emotional and imaginative associations with the word.  These associations cannot be found by looking in a dictionary. 

View the attached Prezi, and ask yourself these three questions:

Why would an author use the word home instead of pad?
Why would an author use the word slender instead of gaunt?
Why would an author use the word inexpensive instead of cheap?

View the Disney clip: Did Pocahontas Save John Smith's Life?

Now, take it to the next level, and think of John Smith's words in Documents A and B and the words and images in the Disney clip we viewed.  Word choice and images are powerful and purposeful.  Images, just like words are chosen to have an affect on you.  Look at dress, tone, dark/light, imagery, and word choice.  There is always a point to what is being shown/spoken/written.  The author/director wants you to feel something.

What is John Smith doing to you with his words in the two different documents?
What is Disney doing to you with words and images in the short clip we watched of Pocahontas saving John Smith's life?

Document A: "True Relation" (Modified)
Arriving in Werowocomoco, the emperor welcomed me with good words and great platters of food. He promised me his friendship and my freedom within four days. . . .He asked me why we came and why we went further with our boat. . . . He promised to give me what I wanted and to feed us if we made him hatchets and copper. I promised to do this. And so, with all this kindness, he sent me home.
A True Relation of such , published in 1608.
Source: Smith’s own words, from
occurrences and accidents of note as hath happened in Virginia

Document B: "General History" (Modified)
They brought me to Meronocomoco, where I saw Powhatan, their Emperor. Two great stones were brought before Powhatan. Then I was dragged by many hands, and they laid my head on the stones, ready to beat out my brains. Pocahontas, the King’s dearest daughter took my head in her arms and laid down her own upon it to save me from death. Then the Emperor said I should live. Two days later, Powhatan met me and said we were friends. He told me to bring him two guns and a grindstone and he would consider me his son.
Source: From Smith’s later version of the story in
Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles, General History of published in 1624.

For a full Pocahontas lesson plan, and for other fantastic resources, check out the Stanford History Education Group Reading Like a Historian.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Teaching Writing-Starting with Freedom

Teaching students how to write is not something I claim to have "figured out." As a student, I had great English teachers who taught me how to do research, journals, respond to quotes, and self and peer edit. Some teachers focused more on structure, others on creativity. As a teacher, I was given various tools and resources, and have tried bubble clusters, diagrams, mapping, Jane Schaffer format, and more. There are different types of writing, and students should know the how, when, and why of the various elements... audience, purpose, style, etc.

Writing is a process, and as an English teacher for 13 years, I know, does not come naturally, and is not enjoyable for all. I realized, quickly, that because each student approaches writing differently, and that each teacher approaches writing differently, there really is no correct way to do it, for me, or for my students.

What does this mean? It means that I must learn what each student needs. How? By jumping in, and by starting with freedom rather than structure. This year, I tried something different. I gave students the choice of four authors, and they were asked to choose the one that sounded the most interesting, the one that they connected with the most, and that they'd d like to learn more about. Students read the novel, and were asked to blog about their ideas. I did not assign a study guide, I did not give multiple choice quizzes, and I did not require students to present any information that had right and wrong answers. We had beeing working on characterization, perspective, and point of view, so they were given three focus questions, and six blog ideas, and were invited and encouraged to come up with their own. I did not want to dictate what they wrote, but I did want to lay the foundations with enough guidance for those who wanted it. They set up their own blogs, and were asked to blog 8 times, submit two rough drafts at a time, and to publish when we both felt confident with the final product.

Some students embraced this freedom. Others, asked for more structure; they wanted me to give them a prompt, tell them what to write, and how to organize things. Some students wrote five posts, and were trying to force the last three. For some, five was enough. All within the same online course, I had students who set up their posts in completely different ways. Some automatically used a format that was familiar, one they felt confident with. Some students used proper MLA format, citing both author, page number, and placing the period and parenthesis properly in their place. A few students posted quotes first, and then wrote with thoughtfulness to explain them, and to make sense of them. Some students are now blogging on their own, without having to, because they are passionate, and want to share.

If I had started with structure, I would have taught certain aspects of the writing process to students who were ready for more, and I would not have known the creativity and struggles of others. There is so much to cover, yes, but when I ask, "Where do I go from here?" The answer is... I go where each of my students needs me to go...