Thursday, August 28, 2008

Now What?

When surfing the web, I come across some sites that are just too interesting not too pass along. One of them is garfield minus garfield. What this site does is to take away all the other characters from the Garfield cartoon strip, except Jon Arbuckle. It makes for some interesting strips. Like this one:

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

Brain Rules

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

I am dictating this...

I am dictating this over my cellphone via This is too cool. listen

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

This I Believe (About Teaching & Learning)

Way back in April, Bill Ferriter of The Tempered Radical tagged me with a meme. Here's the post with his response to the meme. The idea to write a "This I Believe" essay had been rattling around in my head for a long time and this challenge, tying it to my teaching philosophy, gave it the focus it needed to get done. Alas April and May are months that I get so swamped with school work that little else ever gets done. And then came June and vacation time. Then July and the wonderful world of Sun Belt. I finally got it written during an extended workshop with Sun Belt. Then I let some people read it to help me focus it a bit. Then I let it marinate and reread it.

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

Thoughts on Returning to Class

As I prepare to return to the classroom, weeks after school has started, I always feel some trepidation. I know I am not the ideal teacher. I am not Mr. Chips or LouAnne Johnson—heck I am not even as grumpily and grudgingly good as Mr. Holland. I am just me. I come to work and try my best. I try to inspire my students to do their best. And I always end a semester feeling that I have not fulfilled my potential and often have not helped my students to fulfill their potentials, either. Granted, by the end of the semester I am exhausted and more likely to look at everything negatively. I must do better than I think as my students are often likely to stop me in the halls or the stores to say hi. The smiles and cheerful attitudes reassure me that I haven’t scarred them for life.

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.