Friday, December 5, 2008
And, as ever, I thank you for your support.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
I read and reread them trying to figure out why they sucked so much. Basically it came down to all of them being some variation of a report of my notes taken in various sessions. And those notes, in contrast to most of the sessions, were boring. I wanted a blog entry that was something more than a dry report of my sessions. That kind of recap will be done in a different forum.
I thought about writing about my time spent with friends from my writing project. Then I rethought that. We had a lot of intensely personal discussions that are not fodder for a public blog posting. I will say that we need to work on getting everyone to row in the same direction. Also, an end to the circular firing squads would be a positive step as well.
So, what to write about? I decided to go meta. I asked the big question to myself and now will try to work out the answer. The big question(s): Why do I come to these conferences? What do I get out of them?
Being a teacher can be a lonely job. I am surrounded by students all day and rarely get to interact with my peers on a professional level (Let’s face it, most school conversations quickly devolve into bitching sessions.). Being at these conferences lets me interact more professionally. I am seen as a valued, knowledgeable colleague and treated that way. I get to talk about deeper educational issues than I do at home. At this conference in particular, I was able to not just express my personal interest in social justice issues, but share with a tableful of people who all shared that common interest. And to discuss ways of integrating these ideals into a classroom setting.
Every year I get to meet with friends from previous years and friends from a listserv I am a member of. I get to socialize and be a grown-up, no mean trick if you are the father of a rambunctious five year old. I can have some time to try to concentrate for more than a few minutes.
I get a feeling of renewal attending these events. I feel a little more charged up, a little more optimistic, a little more eager to try different ideas and approaches in the classroom.
I also regain a deeper appreciation of my wife and daughter. I love them dearly, but sometimes get so absorbed in my teaching I take them for granted. Being away from them for several days reminds me on a visceral level now much they mean to me and how much their absence hurts.
So I get some professional insights, some site work done, some socializing, and a renewed appreciation of family right before Thanksgiving. Not a bad pay back for my attendance.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
When I was five years old my mother sat me down in front of our tiny little black and white TV. Even though I wanted to out and play, she wouldn’t let me. She told me to sit there and watch what was going on. It was important; it was historic. That’s why I still have memories of seeing Neil Armstrong bouncing around up on the moon. My mother knew history was being made and wanted me to be a witness to it.
In 1990 I was up in the middle of the night aimlessly flipping through the channels when I stopped on CNN. They were reporting live about an unprovoked attack on a country named Kuwait by the dictator Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Even then I had a premonition of doom. This premonition was made reality a few months later as I was again watching CNN and watched the bombing of Baghdad. Listening to the three reporters in that hotel room I again knew that I was watching a history changing event.
It is so rare in our lives that we see something of truly historic importance. It is even more rare when we realize at the time it is occurring that the event is that huge and important. Last night, as I watched the election returns come in and Barack Obama make a steady march from three electoral votes to over 300 electoral votes, I again knew this was a reality changer. Our country had crossed a threshold it could never uncross. We had elected an African American to the highest office of our land.
So today I showed them the video of President-Elect Obama’s victory speech.
I talked about history and the importance of history. And I told my students to write what they thought about this event and how they felt about it. I let them know it was not going to be published. It was more personal than that. I gave them a chance to share in small groups or pairs if they wanted to. Two of my classes were noticeably quiet after that announcement.
After they had finished I gave each student an envelope. I told them to write their names and something about what was inside (Election 08, Obama Wins, etc.) and to put the letter inside the envelope. In each class several wanted to know if they were to lick the envelope. It was up to them. I finished by telling them to take it home and put it somewhere safe. That in 10 or 20 years it would be very meaningful to them. If they ever have kids or grandkids ask them about this historic day, they can pull out what they wrote today.
I thought this digression was well worth it.
Monday, October 27, 2008
I came to be a teacher from a different direction than a most educators I know. Most of my colleagues can point to an influential teacher who was so wonderful, so marvelous, that they were inspired to be like that person. Not me. (Okay, in later years I had many a teacher whose good example I sought to emulate--but this essay is going back to the first cause.)
It was not a particularly good teacher that inspired me to teach, but a particularly bad teacher. At least from my perspective. Mrs. Brown, my fifth grade teacher, seemed to me to be about 90 years older than God. She was petite, barely over five feet tall. And I was completely terrified of her. Her strong Southern accent was a novelty for me. Her hostile attitude was like nothing I had ever encountered before.
I remember one time near the end of the school year in particular. I was the most naive, gullible dupe. Several of the students in the class, who had been picking on me unmercifully for months, had decided on a new strategy to get to me. Throughout the day they fed me the story, over and over, that there was going to be a big racial fight after school. Different people mentioned it to me at different times. Some allowed me to overhear them talking with each other about it.
It was in South Florida in the 70s. It was possible, even in fifth grade I knew that. And I was scared. Scared for myself, especially after one girl, new to the school, told me with absolute sincerity that I was a target for the black kids (she used a racial epithet here). I was more scared for my brother, he was a kindergartner in the same school. By the end of the day, I was a wreck. I sat in my desk, sobbing with anxiety.
She asked me what was wrong and I told her about the fight to come. She laughed and told me that was ridiculous. There was no such thing gonna happen. Then she said, and I remember this clearly, “And now need the whole class to sit here laughin’ at you.” They complied. No empathy. No concern. No offer of any kind of understanding. That is the first time I can remember an adult being intentionally cruel to me.
She had her mind set on the way teaching and learning were supposed to happen and anything--or anyone--differing from that preconceived notion was wrong. I guess that made me wrong. For the first time I was not doing well in school. I was getting more quiet and withdrawn. I was called in to see the counselor, who gave me some tests. Being the good little schnook that I was, I took them without a thought as to why. I was “diagnosed” as being gifted. I say diagnosed because the school system seemed determined to cure me.
I was placed in a pull out program. Twice a week I was removed from Mrs. Brown's class to work with the special education, gifted and talented class. This seemed to infuriate Mrs. Brown. I think she felt highly insulted that she was not deemed to be “good enough” to teach me. As I was not making stellar grades in her class to begin with, she could not understand why I was being put in the special ed class. After all, if I was so “gifted,” shouldn’t I be passing her classes?
She failed me for the work I missed in her class. She would only grudgingly, if at all, help me catch up on the work I missed, after all, I was "gifted," right? I should be able to catch up without her help. She never missed a chance to scorn my work publicly and to hold up the work of other students not in the special ed program as examples of work as markedly superior to whatever I turned in.
The students in the class picked up on her attitude. They began to call me names. Poke me. My school supplies would disappear. I was cut off from their society. It was not enough that I was new to the school. Not enough that I was shy and bookish. The teacher was against me. As the year progressed, it got worse and worse right up to the racial fight hoax.
I do not think she could have failed to notice what was going on, but she never attempted to put a stop to it. I don’t know, maybe she thought she was toughening me up or something equally silly. As a teacher myself, I am appalled by her behavior.
When my parents complained about her to the principal, they were told, in essence, “It's her last year; we don't want to make any trouble for her.” Although not particularly surprised by it, I am even more appalled by this attitude on the part of the administration. Schools do not exist for teachers, but for students. Worrying about trouble for her was not what their focus should have been. Worrying about what she was doing to students should have been what they were most concerned about.
Their idea was to come up with a compromise, they offered to move me to another fifth grade classroom. For some reason, the decision was left by the administration to my parents, and by my parents to me. Remember, I was a fifth grader and they were adults. I have always been too stubborn for my own good. Apparently I was very persuasive when I elected to stay in her class. I was not moved. And after that I lost any recourse of going to the office, as I had rejected their solution. I felt even more isolated and cut off after that.
Why would I stay there, though? Why wouldn’t I get out when I could? For some time I felt it was because I was too stubborn to leave. If she didn't like me the worst thing I could do was stay there in her face. I think the more honest answer was that I had one really good friend in the school, from my perspective at the time one really good friend in the whole world, and Jack was in that class. I had always had trouble making friends. I was afraid that if I left I would never make another friend and that was scarier than anything the teacher could do to me.
Often as I sat there I thought that anyone could be a better teacher than she was, even me. There was my spark. As I progressed in school I had teachers who made a deeper positive impression in me, but it was Mrs. Brown in fifth grade who started me off on my current path. Without her I might have never been inspired to teach.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
It seems my body knows when I am about to get a chance to relax and sees that as an opportunity to break down. Sure enough I woke up Sunday with a raging headache and a feeling of extreme fatigue. This kept up all day. Monday I wasn’t any better. I got worse. At a clinic Monday night I almost passed out before being violently ill. I was given two IV bags of fluids, some meds, and told not to drive myself home.
Tuesday was much the same.
By yesterday I was almost feeling human and was able to eat and keep down some solid food. I did not make the inservice day.
I am not at 100% yet. I am able to show up at work and try to do my job. My students are going to be working on putting together a movie review in here today and tomorrow. Logically, then, it follows that they need to see a movie in order to do so. So we are watching Spider-Man. It is not the best use of class time, but I need to have them doing something that requires a minimal physical functioning from me.
Besides, it is a two day week. Not enough time to start anything heavy. And heck, they deserve a rest now and then, too.
Is this my proudest moment as a teacher? No, not really. Then why blog about this to the whole few people who read this? Because sometimes this is what happens in a classroom. Sometimes the teacher is not at 100%. That is a part of the way it is. And if I only blog about the things I do well, or the things going on that tick me off, I am not being as honest as I think I should be.
So, I hope to be back at a higher level by Monday. Until then…
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Classtools.net is the first site I like. I used it to create these two games.
I also used Pro Profs to create this stack of flash cards to help my students study.
I have felt the need to give my students these kinds of tools in order to get them to study. I am hoping that if I make the studying a bit more fun they will focus more on it.
These are all on my website for the students.
What do you think of these games?
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
I was initially inclined to blow this off and keep going. After a few seconds of thought, however, I realized that he was on to a good idea.
Think of the original Disney World, the park that is now called the Magic Kingdom. In that park there are four themed areas: Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, and Adventureland. There is also Main Street, USA, Liberty Square, and Mickey's Toontown Fair.
Each one of these areas has one big, unifying idea behind it. In Fantasyland all the rides, shops, restaurants, etc. are related to the various pure fantasies that Disney puts out. [Digression—Is the It’s a Small World ride in Fantasyland because world peace and harmony is nothing but a dream?] In Tomorrowland everything relates to science fiction and/or the world of tomorrow. In Frontierland everything is related to the rugged frontiers of America’s past. Adventureland is themed to the different adventure shows Disney has created over the years.
As each one of those areas has everything relate to each other, so a theme in a book or a story would be the big, unifying idea that holds that work together. All the other aspects of the book need to relate to that theme.
So, thanks, Dennis! If not for your thought today, I probably would not have come up with that analogy. It makes the idea of theme clearer to me, anyway.
Monday, September 22, 2008
One of the types of cause and effect papers is the causal chain. A causes B which then causes C which then causes D... I like to find cool videos of dominoes for the causal chain visual. I just got this off Cosmic Variance. I like it. When we get to it, I think my students will like it too.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Introducing the concept of clarity is fun in and of itself. I begin by asking what they think clarity means. Of course, while I am asking, I have a webpage up on the board with a quick thumbnail definition.
Then we listen to Abbott and Costello doing their famous Who's on First? routine. I am always amazed by how many of them have not heard of this routine. It is a classic and needs to kept alive. Then we disect why there was a breakdown in communication. It is fun and I can direct them to Youtube for more Abbott and Costello routines.
Then I read from Running from Safety by Richard Bach. On pages 210-211 he describes what it was like to be a technical writer. During his time there, a plane crashed due to a mistaken word in a checklist. I feel it is a good real life example of why clarity is so important.
Then we move to the concept of pretentious/overblown language. I want them to get a feel for it--to see why it is counterproductive when trying for clarity. I follow that talk up by having them complete a worksheet titled "Rules to Live By" from the book Basic Skills/Reading Comprehension 6-8.
As they work on that individually, I wander around and help where I can. I do not answer questions the way they want: I don't tell them what to write. Instead I ask a lot of leading questions and try to lead the Socratically to the correct answer.
After we finish that up, I call on them randomly to translate for me. They are translating from overblown English to regular English. In fact, to ease them into it, this worksheet has the answers below and they just need to match them up.
Then on to the next segment. I pass out a handout with ten Obfuscated Proverbs on it. These are not mine. They have been floating around the Internet for years and years. I just use some of them as an object lesson. I start by taking them step-by-step through how to "translate" an obfuscated proverb. The PowerPoint I use for that is below.
I let them work together in pairs as I wander around again. Again I try to lead them Socratically to the correct answers.
I am told that the exercise is hard. It is too much. It makes their brains hurt.
I am asked why we need to do this in a writing class. And whined at occasionally that I expect too much from them.
I don't. I know the exercise is challenging for them. It is not a word for word translation, but a getting a sense of where a proverb is going and jumping to a guess. They hate to guess for the most part. They want something that they can figure out and prove to be the way it ought to be. But life isn't like that. Sometimes you have to figure things out. Sometimes you won't even have a partner to work with or a mentor/coach to ask for help.
They will finish with this tomorrow. I look forward to more of what I saw today: kids who "get it" lighting up as they realize they figured out something they thought was too hard.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
The best thing about being on a listserv is that when you share, it gets returned to you in unexpected ways. Nancy Steen, a New Hampshire teacher and longtime listfriend, took the idea and added a terrific new twist to it. After having her students write their 15-sentence self portraits, she had them take them to wordle and turn them into artwork.
And that inspired me to dust off one of my 15-sentence portraits (not of myself alone, but a memory of my father) and try the same thing. You can see my results below.
If you are not part of an ongoing professional community, like a listserv or a writing project, I highly recommend finding one and joining. Doing so yeilds terrific results.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Today’s journal entry is a question: Can one person change the world? Explain your answer.
I am interested to see what my students think. Do they believe it is possible for one person to affect world change? I know already that I believe it is. And that the fact has been demonstrably proven with both positive and negatives effects.
Take Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as an example of changing the world in a negative way. He was the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US. That one man did change the world. Wars started. Prejudice and hatred increased. Terrorist attacks have risen. Tens of millions of the world’s poorest children starved to death as direct and indirect result of the economic upheavals that occurred.
On a more positive note, as one of my students pointed out, Gandhi was a person who affected a positive change upon the world. I elaborated by pointing out that the non-violent resistance was not only successful in India, but also in South Africa and the United States as well. Gandhi began his nonviolent resistance in South Africa and that legacy lasted. There was a change of government there that did not require civil war and millions upon millions dead. And Martin Luther King, Jr. adapted the lessons of Gandhi to the civil rights protests right here. Imagine the different way our society and the world would have reacted if the marchers in Birmingham had shot back at the police--or if the Freedom Riders came in armed and shooting.
Some students who are adamant that no one person can change the world, that doing that is up to God. Or that it was just plain impossible. It is a more than a little sad that their life experiences to date have trained them to nihilism. Some are very fatalistic. Some are full of anger. Some have already given up and are trying to live life without the benefit of hope.
Then I showed them the movie The Man Who Planted Trees, from the story by Jean Giono. It is an inspirational story of a man who plants trees, just because he felt the need to do so. And over the course of years he planted a forest. And very slowly and quietly, never seeking recognition, the forest grew. Most others thought that this was a miracle of nature.
To see the changes that this one man nurtured, through two world wars, is little short of miraculous. The animation of the film is breathtaking. It is simple yet profound, as befits the story it tells. I always find it to be an uplifting experience to watch this film.
Giono later wrote, after being asked many times, that the story was a work of fiction. But that should not deter us from believing the deeper message: one man can change the world. I point out the many thousands of people inspired by this story to plant trees. Millions of trees around the world have been planted by those who read the story. Or by others who were inspired by these people. One man, in this case Giono, has made a difference.
I love the power of writing.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
This is my first full, five-day week with my writing students (all of them, that is, except the ones out driving with the drivers' ed teacher). As such I am taking time each day to explain and practice with them writing to each of the different types of journal prompts I use in class.
To digress, at the beginning of class I have a PowerPoint presentation that automatically loops around and around to the five different prompts. The first slide is a quote, the second a picture of some sort, the third a story starter from The Writer's Book of Matches: 1,001 Prompts to Ignite Your Fiction by the staff of fresh boiles peanuts, a lterary journal, the fourth a question from the Book of Questions, and lastly a chance to write on whatever topic interests them that day.
So each day this week I am introducing them to a different kind of prompt, getting them to write to it. Writing to it myself. Yesterday we were writing to the picture prompt. It is an old one of some football player being tackled. I don't even remember where I got it. I told the class, after we talked about what kind of writing could come from the picture, that it was time to start and to get writing.
One young man, who I promised would remain nameless here, wasn't getting started. He was just sitting there. I stage whispered to him, "Nameless--it's time to get writing, man."
He looked up at me with a direct challenge in his eyes and said, "I don't want to write."
I looked at him in mock horror as I could feel the eyes of the rest of the class stealing over to the scene. They wanted to know how I would handle it. Would I yell at him, threaten him, ignore him and let him get a zero? Was this a path they wanted to follow him down?
I said in my best fake choked-up voice, "You don't want to write?"
Then I literally fell to my knees in front of his desk, clasped my hands together in supplication and began to wail in best theatrical voice, "Oh, Nameless, PLEASE write something! PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!"
The rest of the class was silent for a moment. Whatever they expected, it sure wasn't this.
"Please, Nameless," I wailed, false sobs ripping from my chest, "Please write something during journal writing time!!!"
At this point he jumped up out of his desk and started backing away from me as the class dissolved into helpless laughter. I followed on my knees still begging him in my best theatrical manner to write.
He returned to his seat and picked up his pencil. The look in his eyes said he wasn't sure if he should be angry at me for the show I was putting on or scared that I really was a crazy man. I began to implore him. "Nameless, all you have to do to make me stop is to write something in your journal. Please writne one little thing in your journal so I can stop doing this!!"
He relented and began to write in the journal. As he finished his first word he looked up at me to see what effect it would have on my weird behavior.
Still on my knees I raised my hands into the air and shouted, "Halleluja! He's writing! Nameless is writing!!!" Still fake sobbing, now in joy, I rose to my feet, dusted off my knees, looked at the rest of the class and asked in my normal voice, "Is there anybody else who desn't want to write in their journal today?"
The room was silent except for the scribbling of pens and pencils on paper.
All in all, it was one of my better performances.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
I was thinking that as I go into working with the process analysis paper for expostiory writing, this would be a good example to use. I would start by showing the video then directing them to the blog entry, then watching the video again. They would have an excellent example of how to explain something step by step.
And maybe I could get them to watch another of the videos and analyze how it goes step by step in process analysis.
What's your view on this?
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
- Everyone has a need to communicate.
- Everyone can write, maybe not as well as they would like, but they can do it.
- Writing is a set of skills that can be taught.
- Practice makes improvement (nobody's perfect).
- Effort is required to improve.
These are the core beliefs I have about writing that I try to work from when I am teaching my students. I have even gone so far as to post them on the class website. In my introduction to the students today I went over these core beliefs with them. I received no major argumants or disagreements from anyone. And I have a feeling that the students I have right now would not be shy about disagreeing with me.
Anyway, I thought I would ask your views on this. What are your core beliefs, your basic assumptions about what you teach? Try to limit your time to a few minutes and go with your gut. I think it would be cool is something showed up on your list that you didn't realize was there.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
How many times have I taught a lesson that I thought had gone so well, only to meet that exact reaction from one or more of my students? It scares me. No matter how well prepared I am, no matter how stellar a job I do, there will always be some kids who just don’t get it.
I think that is something that is overlooked in assessing how students learn: the connection with the teacher and the connection with the subject. Both are important, but the teacher/student connection is the most important. More times than I can count I have gotten a student another teacher despaired of that worked just fine for me. And, vice versa. Some students who would not put forth the slightest effort for me moved to another teacher and did exemplary work.
While this is frustrating, it is also a reason not to expect all teachers to teach the same way. The scripted programs that have proliferated since NCLB was passed into law are insultingly called “teacher-proof.” While they may show some short term gains in standardized test scores, that is what they are designed to do—teach students to take standardized tests. And if one student is not doing well with one teacher and moves to another doing the same scripted material, will he or she be any better off?
Teachers need to reclaim our individualism. I don’t teach all children equally well. That happens. I still try. But sometimes it just won’t click. As long as there are other teachers out there, teaching in their own individual ways, there is a chance that student will be able to learn from them.
If we go the cookie-cutter approach, well, kids ain’t cookie dough
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
This summer I read several books on education. Why? Because I enjoy keeping current. At least that’s what I tell my wife when she asks me. And I do enjoy keeping current. I also just enjoy seeing classroom practice through someone else’s eyes. This professional reading for fun is a habit that started for me way back in 1989 when I attended my first summer invitational institute for the Sun Belt Writing Project. So much of what is good about my teaching comes from my almost 20 year association with Sun Belt.
This summer one of the books I read that just blew me away was Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina. At first it might seem an unlikely pick for an English teacher. After all, what do I know about neuroscience? What does the way the brain works have to do with me?
As a teacher, the way the brain works should have a lot to do with the way I teach. After all, as I learn better how the brain works, I can make adjustments to my teaching in order to take full advantage of the knowledge. Here are the 12 rules:
Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.
Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.
Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
Rule #4: We don't pay attention to boring things.
Rule #5: Repeat to remember.
Rule #6: Remember to repeat.
Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
Rule #8: Stressed brains don't learn the same way.
Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.
Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.
Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.
While some of the above rules may seem to be intuitive, each is treated with scientific rigor. He has had the time and the expertise to research these matters and come up with some evidence of their effectiveness. I usually fuzz out on specifics and can only remember that I heard it somewhere. Not the most convincing of arguments. At the same time, Medina does not claim to have all the answers and throughout the book sets up intriguing questions for further research.
Medina has turned Brain Rules into a multimedia experience. He has a website with short videos on the major concepts of the rules and a blog. I have subscribed to the blog and look at the videos and other extra info on the website frequently. I especially like the tutorials on each of the rules. They are entertaining as well as informative.
Whether or not I will make use of all the incredible information in the book is, of course, the question. In order to try I am trying to get a Professional Reading Group going this year. I have already received a preliminary okay on it from the school level. Now we are just waiting to hear from the central office level. The hitch to cover is that I am trying to get this group professional development credit for reading the book and discussing it.
Here’s hoping that the book will do me and, more importantly, my students, some good.
Thursday, August 21, 2008
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
For better or for worse, here is my take on the idea.
I believe that tossing my students into the deep end of an assignment is—sometimes—the best way of getting them to succeed.
When I was four years old, my family moved to South Florida, and my grandparents bought a house with an in-ground pool. I had gotten into it many times, sitting and standing on the steps with my parents or grandparents there to watch over me. I would jump in to them, or pull myself along the wall to them. If I had an inflatable tube around me, I would “swim.” But I wasn’t really swimming and I knew it. I was just pretending. It was fun, yes, but I wanted more.
One day my father and I were out by the pool and I again expressed my desire to learn how to swim—probably for the thousandth time that day. A little exasperated, my father asked me, “Do you really want to learn how to swim?”
In a flash I thought about all the times I had seen him and the other adults in the pool having a good time. I had been in there, imitating them, wanting to do what they were doing. As much fun as they appeared to be having, it still looked a little scary to me, though. At four, the backyard pool was enormous. But I really wanted to, so I answered, “Yes!”
My father said, “Okay,” picked me up, and tossed me in the middle of the deep end of the pool. In seconds I was swimming and dogpaddled my way to the other side.
While that might seem a little harsh, it wasn’t. It was a safe environment; my family was all around. There was support if I needed it; my father was ready to jump in and make sure I wouldn’t drown. I had shown some beginning skill at being in the water, so my father had an idea of what I could do, but knew I had to get over the anxiety of my first try; so, he tossed me in and I got over it like that.
Often in my classes, there are students who are hesitant to start writing. Students who are not sure that they can get off the steps and give up the inflatable tube of worksheets and heavily structured writing assignments. When told to just write, for many of them, it is the equivalent of being thrown in the deep end of the pool.
Sure, it can be a little scary, but we work to create a supportive environment. I am there (as often are other class members) if anyone has real difficulties they need help with—so they don’t wind up drowning in their own thoughts. We start with some more guided assignments first, giving us all an idea of what we are capable of, so I know how to better help them.
And they “swim.” Some produce little “dogpaddles” for days or weeks; others are diving in on their own in no time. And, just as swimmers differ in the way they enter the water, some always content to jump right in others acclimating themselves to the water a bit at a time, students who have found they can write enter assignments differently. Sometime they jump right in, sometimes slowly work themselves into an assignment a bit at a time.
Just as I couldn’t learn how to swim correctly before being exposed to it, before getting a chance to try it out on my own, so my students won’t learn to write any better unless they get to read good examples, talk and write about them, and get a chance to write in a stress-free environment, like a journal.
Eventually I was taught that some of what I was doing in the water wasn’t as effective as it could be. I was shown ways to improve my kicks and taught different strokes. But I spent days and weeks of summer in pools by myself, swimming as I wanted and learning new and better ways on my own as well. Sometimes asking for help, sometimes not.
In the classroom mistakes can be dealt with and the writing can be improved. They learn and practice better usage, different types of writing, different ways of getting from here to there in the ocean of words. More importantly by writing they learn how to help themselves improve. Sometimes they ask for help, sometimes they don’t. They dive more deeply on their own. Swim more freely.
Sometimes they still need to be pushed a little to get them move to a deeper level they are capable of. Sometimes they need to see the strokes performed by one who knows how to do it—by someone who is in there swimming with them. And sometimes they just need to be set free to swim as they please and have a little fun. When they are doing that, they’ve learned the most important lesson I can teach them.
Now I will tag five people with the meme and see what they think:
Whit at both hands
Ted at CyberEnglish
Carla at The English Teacher Blog
Dawn at The Polliwog Journal
Andrew at “the Pierian spring” - ramblings of an English teacher
And, as always, I would be grateful to anyone who chooses to share what they think in the comments section.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Today I was reading a post in blogessor and found that this appealed to me and gave me some insight and hope for the year:
Today, though, I came across an article called "The One Who Is Not Busy." In it, Zen Buddhist Norman Fischer talks about being "prisoners of the list" as we realize (again) that there aren't enough hours in the day to do all that we need or want to do. He says,
"But the point is not how many things we have done or will do in a given amount of time; the point is how we do what we do."
As I read that this morning, I substituted "taught/teach" for "done/do," as in:
"But the point is not how many things we have taught or will teach in a given amount of time; the point is how we teach what we teach."
"Learned/learn" works here. "Wrote/write" and "read/read" do, too.
As I move back into Eddy Hall this year, I know I'll be clobbered again by the temptation to become the prisoner of my lists. I know I'll want to be counting tomatoes rather than how many more projects are left in my stack of grading. I'm writing this entry to remind myself that I can't teach it all, no matter how ambitious my syllabi. In fact, maybe being less ambitious would let all of us learn more in the end.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Now, almost 20 years later, I again am reading a new book by Tom Romano. This time it is a series of memoirs, short vignettes, that trace his development as a reader, a writer, a teacher, and (most importantly) as a person. Zigzag: A Life of Reading and Writing, Teaching and Learning should be required reading for anyone who wants to teach. Especially anyone who wants to teach English or language arts.
Divided into six sections, starting with his childhood and ending with his earning of a doctorate, he is honest and realistic. As most writers know that a piece of writing is a draft that can be revised and edited, Romano has shown by his own experiences that a life can also be revised and edited. He writes with humor and insight. It feels as though he is sitting across a table, telling stories from his past.
I found comfort that this acknowledged master teacher was no more interested in pursuing an education degree when he entered college than I was. He sort of fell into it, as did I. And it worked out for the best for him, even during periods of frustration. He ran into obstacles that all teachers face: uninspired students, outrageous workloads, unsympathetic administrators.
He at all points realistically points outs his weak spots as well as his strong spots. He sends a message that teaching is not some mystical profession that only a chosen few can accomplish. He gives hope to me as a teacher that I can continue on. He reminds me that ours is an important and sometimes misunderstood profession. He inspires me to carry on.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
They had a paper to write on what they had learned and I tried to take it up today. It was due yesterday, but I was absent and could not collect it. Discounting the absent students and those at the ALC, I had about 23 students Friday who received the assignment. I had seven turn in the paper. Two more claimed it was done, but not here due to computer problems. We shall see.
This is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident in the classes I teach. Assignments, whether to be done in class or at home, are viewed by many of my students as optional. Over half the ninth graders did not do a parts of speech project that was required of them (I was told by my department head I had to review the parts of speech with my students). Most took a 150 point zero. Why? It wasn’t that difficult, just involved enough that it would take them some time to do it well. And most opted not to. The grades they earned for it were not, on the whole, very good. They had a chance to revise it and turn it in for a higher grade. One student took me up on that.
It is not just this class. It is not just ninth graders. It is not just my school. My wife has similar problems in a tenth grade physical science class in a high school in Georgia. And her class is required for graduation! As is my ninth grade English class.
I guess the best I can do is not take it personally. It seems that this is not aimed specifically at me, but it is more of a growing problem. I am not a big homework giver, but when I do give it, I expect it to be done. Maybe I am just too unreasonable. I expect them to care about their educations. Maybe I should check up on my Maslow’s Hierarchy again.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
The introduction by Nikki Giovanni let me know that this wasn’t going to be the cute, sweet poems by Merriam, but rather a form of social commentary on some rather obvious societal inequities.
In her own introduction to the 1982 edition (it was originally published in the late 60’s) Merriam recounts the book’s being banned in several places, including colleges. She hints at a thirteen letter word she used in one of her modern nursery rhyme retellings. Apparently that one caused a great deal of trouble.
As with most social satire this is not always a comfortable book to read. There are some poems that made me squirm a bit. But it also fits in with a new awakening in me for more social justice.
The illustrations by David Diaz fit the poetry extremely well. They had a reality that spoke through them, as did the poems.
While I might not recommend it for the classroom, necessarily, I would recommend this book to be read by those who teach in inner city schools and/or by those who are interested in social justice issues.
Monday, April 14, 2008
Thursday, April 10, 2008
I also found a pretty cool website on the subject of interpreting poems.
SOYOUWANNA INTERPRET A POEM?
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
I have a bunch of subscriptions to science blogs. Why? I just do. Seems like I can always find something interesting in one of them. Well, as I was going through some back entries today a couple caught my eye and I thought I'd share them. Feel free to chime in with your comments. I know our schools have some troubles--exaggerated in some cases, underreported in others--but it just always pisses me off to hear the entire US school system constantly trashed.
Here's the first one--feminists beware! Women's Liberation Movement and Public Schools.
And here's one on our national disorganization: Nationalize Public Schools. Sorry. I am not currently in the mood to nationalize very much. At least not until we are under new management. And probably not then, either. Who knows what the next management shift might bring.
If you click on the menu button, you can find the code to embed this in your own blog or website. I would be flattered if you want to use it. If you do, please let me know. I'm interested in how useful this could be.
Monday, April 7, 2008
I was showing a poetry video in class today, as it is National Poetry Month. It is the first video in the Language of Life Series by Bill Moyers. The featured poets are Sekou Sundiata, who recently passed away, and Naomi Shihab Nye. My students were to keep their heads up, their eyes open, and their mouths shut during the video. That was basically the assignment for them at the time: pay attention to the video. One several students were unable to do this to the point where they earned themselves detention notices. One of them had a novel defense: “I wasn’t talkin’, I was sleepin’!” As if that behavior was such an improvement.
The larger example actually comes from another teacher in my school. She was extremely upset last week as her cell phone had been stolen off her desk in the last ten minutes of the day. She knew from talking to the phone company that calls had been made since then, some obviously from inside the school. A couple of her female students knew who took it and stole it back from him to give to her, letting her know who took it. The student who originally took the phone still had it, at school, today. There were pictures in the phone’s memory of him at school. He had erased all the numbers she had in memory and replaced them with numbers he wanted to call. But he failed to erase the log of ingoing and outgoing calls.
Come on. If you are going to steal a teacher’s phone, and you know she is actively looking for it and the person who stole it, why keep bringing it back to school day after day?
I must be getting old, because I just can’t understand the thrill in that.
Monday, March 24, 2008
I found that my access to my class website on wikispaces was blocked. As was access to my blogs. I was bummed. And when I found the connection to gmail, which I use with my students, also blocked when I got here today; it was not a good feeling. I left Thursday a little deflated. And I started today the same.
But then my access to wikispaces was restored. And later, when I checked again, the access to gmail was back. And, wonderful also, my access to my blogs is back! I missed my blogs.
The IT guys in my system rock! And they respond quickly to email and requests. It is so nice to work in a system like this.
Just had to brag on my IT guys.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
I recommend that you grab a copy of the December 2007 issue of Writer's Digest. It was an issue that spotlighted creativity. Several of the articles are available online: "Meeting of the Minds," "Overcoming Too Many Ideas Syndrome," and "Falling Down the Rabbit Hole." There was also an interesting and informative article on mind mapping, complete with references to Gabriele Rico and Writing the Natural Way, which I first read in 1987 during my first Sun Belt Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute. Unfortunately that one isn't online.
I think that as a writing teacher this magazine is an extremely important resource. It helps me to remember to focus on the writing and to remember that it is not as easy as it sometimes seems to be. It takes a lot of work and dedication to create a worthwhile piece of writing. And that is why I am in the job I am: helping the students realize that good writing isn't a matter of luck, but a matter of craft.
The students who participated in writing this book were paid for their time and, for the most part, took the work seriously. Some had legitimate complaints, such as teachers who were teaching out of field and did not know the subject, or strings of inadequate substitutes. Several said that after attempting to learn in that environment they considered it waste of time and stopped going to that particular class.
Other discussions in the book centered on the need for consistency in attitude and discipline procedures from the teachers. The need for respect to be a two way street. The problems I had here was that the students seem to expect the teachers to treat them with the utmost of respect at all times no matter what the students do. While that goal is lofty, sometimes, it just isn’t in the picture. At least for me. There are times when students have just plain lost my respect. And, of course, vice versa.
When I went back to the book with fresh eyes, and a more pleasant rapport with a new semester’s group of students, I found I was not annoyed by their comments, but rather saw those comments as rawly honest. These students want to have good teachers. And that does mean teachers who never give homework or test easily. It means teachers who can and will teach them the subject matter they need to know in an environment where they can learn it. Even if it means the occasion, respectful, kick in the butt.
Overall, I would recommend this book, especially for beginning teachers. It is a good insight into the adolescents you will be teaching. For those who have been in the classroom a while, read it when you aren’t stressed out by the students you’re teaching. It gave me a few new ways to think about my students and what they are going through at this stage of their lives.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Thursday, March 13, 2008
All of this has been hard on my teraching in a couple of ways. First, I have been out a quite a bit in a short period of time. God’s way of telling me my plan to miss no days this semester wasn’t gonna happen. So, I was not here for somme days of direct instruction. And I found out the hard way that at least one day (when I went out of my way to leave work), the sub showed my English class a movie instead. I also have the busy work I left for the students to do to plow through and evaluate somehow. And it has affected my rapport with my classes. The continuity that I wanted to establish has not been established. It is more than a little upsetting.
Then there is the fact that, even when I am here, I am not ALL here. I am not at anywhere near 100%. I feel lucky to be at 50% on some days. And it affcts how I teach, how I interact with my students, my patience, my temper, and all manner of other aspects of classroom life. I have been short tempered at times and slipped into sarcasm before I could control it. I have been better at controlling it this semeseter, and want to get back on track with that.
My brain has been so foggy that I have gotten behind in my grading. Even with the wasted week of testing I have not completely caught up on everything. And that also affects my performance in the classroom. I need to rev it up and get up to speed on this. All the medicines in my system aren’t really helping much either. I feel like I am going through the days like a semi-zombie.
On the bright side, I am healthy enough to work and I can do my job. I just need to get up off my butt a little and get it done better. That is always a worthwhile goal: doing the job better.
Saturday, February 16, 2008
I arrived, a little late as always, to my first block class. This is already stressful to me. I have to drop my daughter at school before work and can’t really get here by the time they want me to. Most of the year it isn’t a problem. I had first block planning last semester and no first block this semester until last week. The driving instructor waits in the class with them until I get there, usually about 5 minutes after class should have started.
I went to turn on the incandescent lights, as I hate the flourescents, and the whole row on the right side went out, and one of the bulbs blew as well. Since this happened before, I knew what to do. I turned on the left side lights and stepped outside my door to the breaker box. I reset the breaker and three out of the four lights came on. I replaced the burned out bulb with one I had in my closet and then was able to kill the flourescents. In a way, I think I actually impressed the group by not panicking and fixing it immediately. It was about as impressive as I was going to get for quite a while.
The room was still warm, even though it was in the twenties outside, very unusual in Alabama. It is an internal room with no outside walls, so the heat from the almost thirty students does a lot to warm it up quickly. The air conditioner stopped working a few days ago, making the room uncomfortable. Especially to many of the students who seem to be unable to remove their coats for some reason.
I had turned the air off yesterday morning in case the condenser had frozen over. Again, not the first time that problem has arisen. Sometime during second block I got the opportunity to try turning it on again and it seemed to work most of the day.
But these were just preludes to the stress I was about to encounter. I went to my computer and attempted to log in. I say again, I attempted to log in. It was an unsuccessful attempt. So were the next several, subsequent attempts. I didn’t think it was the computer, as the other teacher had logged in under his name, but in order to make sure, I restarted the darn thing, muttering darkly to myself the entire time.
I also set up my laptop in order to try to get the journal PowerPoint up. Trouble was, I didn’t have the current version of the PowerPoints on the laptop. I felt like the weight of the top floor had fallen in on me. The students were behaving well, thanks to God for that! But I felt distinctly negligent in my responsibilities to them. Mainly because I was being distinctly negligent in my responsibilities to them.
I tried to log in to the desktop once more and had a thought. I used the official log in I was supposed to have been using for the past year and a half instead of the unofficial one I had been using instead. I logged on. Finally! All my desktop settings were gone, though, as I had set them up under the other log in. Not to worry, I just had to access the school server to get to my teacher files and all would be well.
I couldn’t access the school server and the teacher files. It was still set up to the old filename, as I had never updated this one. I went to the media specialists to get some help and was given the filename to look for and instructions on how to load it in. Also a short lecture on going in under the login I had been using and how that was something I shouldn’t have been doing, etc., etc.
Of course, I couldn’t get it to work in anything like immediacy. More like it took me several tries over a stretch of time to get it done. Which eventually I did. I got to my files and had the journal prompt up for the next class when they came in, but I wasn’t in a lot better shape mentally or emotionally. By this time I was hot and sweaty. I also had a severe headache--even for me.
After second block got busy catching up on any work they were behind on and working on the computers for those who were caught up, I ducked out a minute to the media specialists again to ask about the possibility of getting the info I had in the My Documents folder and desktop of the old login. At this point the other media specialist twigged as to what I had been doing and I got the long version of the lecture on how I shouldn’t have been doing that.
I was in the wrong. I know that. There was no way to argue about it. After she finished she let me know she’d call the IT guys and when they had a chance they could try to get the info for me. I went back to the room and to work. Within fifteen minutes the IT guy showed up and in less than three minutes had my info on the new desktop login for me.
From that point all I had to do was set up the programs and taskbar to the way I had them. Get the background back to a picture of my darling daughter. And try to deal with all the adrenaline that had been pumping into my system for the past couple of hours.
All in all, it was not a pleasant morning.
And here is the really galling part for me. None of this drama with the computer was necessary. If I had not been so lazy and avoided setting things up under the official login as I had been told to do, I never would have noticed anything different. But I took the easy way and it eventually caught up to me. Maybe I’ll learn a lesson from this. Or, maybe I’ll be like Peter Griffin, star of Family Guy. At the end of one episode after doing something stupid and winding up in the hospital his wife said that at least he must have learned a lesson from this. Proudly he looked at her and said, “Nope!”
Friday, February 8, 2008
In part that is because I have been busy doing the teaching thing. I have a new crop of ninth graders for English. I just started this week with my two tenth grade writing classes. And so far it is going well. I have been working on the class website. I have been trying to think of ways to make the grammar I am required to reteach not so deadly boring.
Seriously, how is it that in the ninth grade, the ninth grade, that I have to teach about plural and singular nouns? They have heard it every year since first or second grade. By now they pretty much either get it or they don't. Just for the documentation that we did it, I had them all do a workbook page on it after we had a PowerPoint I found on the web and one of my students asked why we didn't do this stuff all the time. "I'd be making an A in here if we did this all the time." I replied that I was sure he would, and that most of the class would as well, but that it wasn't really making him any smarter.
So, why am I doing it at all? I guess I am still just covering my butt. Forty-five percent of the Alabama High School Graduation Exam is grammar. My own theory on that is because grammar is the easiest aspect of high school English to grade via a multiple guess test. That being the case I have a list from the Alabama State Department of Education of the 19 Language objectives I need to at least review. Some of them make a lot of sense to me. I can see that the students should be able to figure out subject/verb agreement. But I can cover that in their writing. Parts of speech and forms of nouns and verbs are not so easily embedded. At least not by me.
I do manage to keep them busy, though. They are doing SSR daily. They are looking up Greek and Latin root words for their vocabulary. They are writing a weekly Critical Reading Log on their reading. I am, all in all, swamped with work and not minding it a bit. And that last is, actually (and a surprise to me), not hyperbole. I am enjoying my time with these students. I am, so far, keeping a pretty good rapport going with them. And I want that rapport to grow and deepen.
What I really want is for them to become better communicators so that they can more ably pursue any interest they want to in life. I wish I could just be a bell to beller sometimes: come in 5 minutes before the first bell, leave five minutes after tha last bell. But I can't. There is too much I want to accomplish with them. To much I want to enable them to accomplish on their own.