Friday, February 26, 2010

Metaphor Collages

I am trying to help my students understand the concept of metaphors. As they are tenth graders, I am relatively sure I could ask them to define the word and have more of them able to do it than not. I am also relatively sure that parroting back the age-old definition does almost nothing to help deepen their understanding—or even to see if there is any understanding of it there to begin with. So when I read about an idea called metaphor collages in Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, I decided that might be something to help my students. At the very least, it could be—dum-dum-DUM—fun.

They would work to create collages of visual metaphors for a word of their own choosing. It took a while to remind them of the idea that metaphors are comparisons between two completely different things. To help remind them I showed them Eve Merriam’s “Metaphor” and Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry.” I also showed them Merriam’s “Simile: Willow and Ginkgo” as a refresher on similes.

We talked about what the metaphors meant. With “Introduction to Poetry” we even got to the point where we decided getting complete understanding of every metaphor in the poem was not necessary to understand the poem as a whole. The initial images of fun and unexpected images contrasted with the torture image at the end were obvious enough to make an impression with even a partial understanding.

Then I took us into the idea by Pink. I had each of my students pick a word and then cut out images from magazines that were metaphors for the word they chose. I found out for myself that using an abstract word worked better than using a concrete word. When I tried to make one for coffee, I got stuck after about three images. When I switched to freedom it went much better.

I did mine on a PowerPoint so I could project it on the screen at the front of the room. I pointed out how each picture was a metaphor for freedom. Then I set them loose.

Note to self: never set them loose without written instructions for how to proceed.

Additional note to self: Especially when it is the first time you are trying a lesson to see how well it works.

The students were into cutting pictures out of the magazines. Well, most of them. Some were busily looking in the magazines for words to cut out. Why were they trying to cut out words? I dunno. They must have somehow thought that was the assignment. Some of them were looking through the magazines to find a word to make metaphors from. Why? I dunno. I guess they thought that was the assignment. Some were just into chatting with their neighbors, doing nothing, and reducing their number of daily participation points. I corrected the misperceptions as I went around and checked on their progress.

Walking around the classroom is always an interesting experience. The way the bubble of hushed tones seems to follow me is always a little amusing. Then there are the young ladies who just have no volume control whatsoever. They aren’t trying to be loud; it just sort of happens. Ah, the joys of teaching.

The one large problem I noticed were the number of students who were not looking for metaphors, but rather for examples: the person who chose happy searching out nothing but smiling faces; the person who chose sadness and just cut out pictures of sad-looking people. I had to repeat over and over in each of my three blocks—almost to each individual—that they were not looking for examples, but for comparisons—for things their word could BE.

I kept going back to my own example on the board. I kept trying to point out how the pictures were not examples of freedom, but were instead metaphors for freedom. Sigh.

Last night I when I went home I decided I had to write up an instruction sheet that they could refer back to. I did it on Google Docs, so I could access it anywhere I might need it. You can check it out if you want: Metaphor Collage.

So today I give them a little something of a refresher page on similes and metaphors for a bell ringer. Then I went through my cards and gave out extra credit for answering the questions. Have I explained my card system yet? If not, ask about it and I will.

After that back to the collages. For the students who were here. I had students absent, in ISS, at the ALC, on field trips, playing in the state Final Four basketball tournament, excused from school to go to said tournament, were out driving with their driver’s ed instructor, and just plain skipping. That’s normal though. Except that the proportions were higher today. My third block class had literally half the students out. Fourteen out of twenty-eight. Geesh!

Next week we will be delving into the wonderful world of standardized testing. It is again time for the Graduation Exams. I will post a rant on that next week.

And then this afternoon I ran a Google search for metaphor collages and found this one, that is a much better way to do it than mine. Next time maybe I’ll check first and not reinvent the wheel.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

As I was looking through my friends' posts on Face Book today, I found a link to this: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.

Anyone want to share a rule you have for writing? It does not necessarily need to be about fiction.

With all due respect to Newton, here's mine:

A pencil at rest tends to stay at rest; a pencil in motion tends to stay in motion.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Overload Cycle

Example the First:

Tina is a new teacher. She has just started her first year. The principal or assistant principal comes to her and tells her that the cheerleading sponsor has had to drop that activity for personal reasons; s/he follows up by asking Tina if she would be willing to take that assignment. She’s new and untenured, doesn’t want to be seen as not cooperative, so she says yes. A few days later she is asked to help with the prom. She had fun doing that when she was in high school, so she agrees. After all, that’s way in the middle of the second semester. She should know what she is doing by then. Then she is asked to do a third activity and a fourth. Even though she is getting stretched very thin, she keeps agreeing. To paraphrase Ado Annie from Oklahoma!, she’s just a girl who cain’t say no.

Example the Second:

Joe is an experienced teacher. He has put together a remedial course to help students who have not yet passed the graduation exam. The first year these classes were kept to about twenty students each. That way there was a low enough student/teacher ratio that he could work individually with students. The program was very successful. About 90% of the students he taught in that course showed significant improvement on the exam. The administration is so thrilled with that increase, that they put 25 students in each of his remedial courses the next year. The year after that, 30. And so on...

Sound familiar? This is what I think of as the Overload Cycle. A fancy way of saying that if someone is doing something positive, they keep getting asked to do more and more until success is practically impossible.

This has been endemic in my experience teaching. I hate seeing good teachers with the inability to say no walked all over. I hate it more when, if it ever does happen that the person finally does say no to something, they get extra guilt trips. “Well, then, I guess we will just have to do without a literary magazine this year since you can’t do it.” It is a shame when a successful program is run into the ground, a victim of its own success. But it happens all the time.

Why? Why do so many teachers let themselves get put in this position? Could it be the same impulse to public service that leads so many to becoming teachers in the first place? The vast majority of teachers I have worked with over the past 22 years have been dedicated professionals. For that matter, I am a dedicated professional; yet, I am not willing to say yes to everything I’m asked to do, or to volunteer for everything. Does that mean I am not being the best educator I can be? Maybe. But, if I gave 110% to teaching, what would I have left over for my family? I have a wife and a child that need me and my time.

And who says that being a good teacher means that kind of self sacrifice?

Glenn Holland. Charlie Moore. Gabe Kotter. Okay, they are all imaginary. But, to a degree, so is the portrayal of real life teachers such as LouAnne Johnson, Jaime Escalante, and Erin Gruwell. I admire them all (fictional and nonfictional alike) a great deal, but it is not as easy as it looks in a movie or a TV show. And they (the nonfictional ones) say as much. Unfortunately, that is not something most of the public hears. They just see the selfless and dedicated teacher getting miraculous results, and wonder why the teachers in their children’s school are not like that.

One way to fix the problem is to adequately fund education. Not just in the rich or upper middle class neighborhoods, but all schools in all neighborhoods. Hire enough teachers to keep student/teacher ratios manageable. But that would necessitate building new schools for all these teachers and students. Then add in more principals, more custodians, more utility cost, more school buses, more school bus drivers, more lunchroom personnel, so on and so forth, ad nauseum. Congress can’t even get together the funds necessary to correct infrastructure problems at existing schools.

As long as schools are not funded adequately there will be teachers, inspired by memories of the selflessness of certain teachers before them and the popular cultural myth of single-mindedly dedicated educators who put their one class of students above EVERYTHING else in their lives, who will let themselves get burned out and used up. And that is a real waste of a precious natural resource.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies--Review

Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande

This book is an anomaly: a grammar book this is fast-paced, fun to read, and chock full of information. The humorous tone of the book is at odds with the overly serious and somber tone of most grammar books. Casagrande goes out of her way to make her examples relevant and attention catching.

She tries to put her readers, those who have been abused by Grammar Snobs, at ease. She asserts the best reason to learn these rules is to put those Grammar Snobs in their place when they try to spring those picky little rules on you. And, to turn the tables on them by correcting them when they try to put you down with a rule that really isn’t grammatical.

For English teachers and for students who hate grammar, this is a book to take a look at. I am considering trying to get several copies to put into my classroom.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Whole New Mind--Review

As a teacher, one of the things I wish I had been required to study when I was getting my degrees, was brain science. I think it only makes sense that teachers have some idea how the brain works. After all, that is the organ we are charged with helping to develop. If we don’t know how it works, it makes it that much harder to do our jobs.

I recently finished a book by Daniel H. Pink titled A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. It was a terrific read. He makes the point, cogently, that both halves of the brain are required to get through life. He talks about how for the last hundred and fifty years or so, the left-brain dominant functions of the brain have been the ones to accentuate and develop in order to succeed. The right-brain functions were there and used, but in a subordinate position.

Because of the factors he calls the Three A’s--Abundance, Asia, and Automation--the left-brain dominant skills that have been the keys to success in the recent past will take a back seat to right-brain skills. We will need to focus on creating new things and in combining information in new and innovative ways. These are the keys to success in the near future.

Pink discusses six skill sets that will be essential in the future: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. In the detailed discussion of each, replete with examples and quotes, he lays out the necessity of each one. He shows how the skills are already being used and ways to strengthen each skill set. In fact, I think the end of each section, where he gives ideas how to strengthen your own skills within each set, are of particular value to teachers.

As a right-brainer myself, I especially enjoyed this book. I recommend this book to all educators. It is easy to read and full of interesting and helpful ideas.

Here is a video of Oprah Winfrey discussing the book with Pink. When she gave the commencement speech at Stanford, she bought a copy for each member of the graduating class.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mess of a Desk

After school on Friday, this was my desk.

For over twenty years I have referred to whatever desk I am using as "the landfill." As an inverate piler, I have often driven my wife to distraction with the mess of my home office area. I just seem to work well in this kind of environment.

Also for over twenty years I have had this sign somewhere near my classroom desk:

Dr. Michio Kaku recently posted some pictures of Einstein's desk as it looked shortly after he died.

Seems like I was right. Einstein and I have at least our "landfills" in common.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Order in the Classroom

I have started with my students this week. Tomorrow is day four with them and some classes are a little on the wild child side. Or would be if I let them. I created the following PowerPoint this afternoon to show them tomorrow. I am thinking if I make my procedures very explicit, they might follow them more readily. At the same time, I do not want to come off like some kind of strutting martinet. I hope these don't cross that line.