Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Word Trees

Having loved using Wordle this semester, I am now very intrigued by Word Trees. I learned about the site from the 21st Century Skills Map: English, which has of course lots of really great ideas (including one I shared with my colleague about using The Onion to make satire more current for students and thus make "A Modest Proposal" more accessible).

The difference between Wordle and Word Trees is that "punctuation matters." I am curious if this will lead my students to different understandings as the trees branch out in different ways. Has anyone used Word Trees before?

Monday, November 24, 2008

"No Way!"

That was my students' response to the quote I shared for them from the NCTE presenter about the limits he saw with growing up in America. I already felt my students did not fit this stereotype themselves. As much as I get frustrated that they do not do as much as I know they could do, I am actually really proud of them for all they have learned so far. I have handed them their next challenge to keep them thinking -- their essay for our search for self theme. I am having them write and explore their own essential questions, and I am excited to see where our studies in class and their own minds take them.

In the end, I told them today that if they were to only do one thing as a result of our time together this year, if it were to show that as Americans they WERE engaged with culture and literature, I could not ask for anything more.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Day Two of NCTE

Today was a more directed day for me -- it seemed like all of the very specific sessions I wanted to attend were today versus more overall ones yesterday. The most direct session I attended was on Literary Worlds, what seem like effective and fun virtual worlds tied to literature. The session focused on Things Fall Apart, and I cannot wait to enter my stduents into the world. The main reason is the wealth of visuals and audio. The creator found pictures from a photographer who chronicled colonial Africa in the 1800s, and this is exactly what my students need to truly experience what Achebe hoped -- to identify with the Africans more than the white man. There are also great African songs playing in each of the rooms. By assuming one of 49 characters from the novel, the students navigate the world of Umofia. I will be sure to let you know how it goes when I try it in April. There are many other novels on the site too, so look around and see if one works for you. All you and your students need are computers and a browser. Couldn't be simpler!

I also attended the tail-end of a session on laptop schools, and it was gratifying to feel like the "old-timer" there. Schools who are considering moving in this direction were asking questions, and hearing others' answers and sharing my own reminded me how far we have come in successfully implementing our 1:1 program. Yes, we are still growing and improving everyday, but I cannot imagine teaching without laptops.

I ended my day with a tour of the Alamo -- what a beautiful place. The trees are breathtaking -- they look like the olive trees I saw all over Italy. I picked up cowboy hats for my two kids and an Alamo bandana for my husband -- I am bringing some of my Texan roots home to them.

Tomorrow morning is the Commission on Composition meeting then I head home. A fast and great conference. Next year is Philadelphia, and I think I can get at least one more teacher from my department to be able to come with me because we could maybe stay with my sister (read: free). It will be great to share this with a colleague -- twice the sessions, twice the learning, twice the growth for us as teachers.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Further NCTE Reflections

Now that I am on my own laptop (and not hogging one in the NCTE store), I have time to think more about what I heard and did today.

First, I find it interesting that the fullest session BY FAR that I attended was on AP English. Their focus was how literature still matters and how the AP curriculum is one good way to keep literature at the forefront. The session was absolutely packed -- people sitting in every empty space on the floor when all of the chairs were full. It makes me wonder why. In a conference of so many new ideas, AP gets some of the biggest attention. I enjoyed the session overall, and the presenters were well-prepared and engaging. But I have to say that I did not learn strikingly new things. Instead, I enjoyed it because it confirmed the techniques I use with my AP students and younger. I wonder why others were drawn there and what they took away.

I did attend a session that was not well-prepared, and that is always frustrating. It can take a good 15 minutes to get from one end of the buildings to the other, so once I get there, I'd like to stay and gain something. I was really looking forward to the topic too, but the presenters mostly rambled and quoted a single teacher resource. This surprised me I guess because of my own personality. If I were giving a session at a national conferance, I would hyper-prepare (not a great thing either!), so I guess I expect each session to at least have a focus and forward motion.

I have the first thing that I am going to take right back to my students. This was said in a conversation about the decline of reading habits across the board in our nation. The stats are pretty sobering -- nearly half of all Americans 18-24 do not read for pleasure. The presenter then said this: "Something about growing up in America discourages cultural and literary growth." I plan to share this with my world lit students as a step in our quest to answer the essential question, "Why must we think?" I am curious if they agree with the statement, and if so, why. Or if they do not, I hope to help them come up with ways they can prove it wrong by how they live their own lives.

Finally, that session linked with another in my head about students' reading habits. I think I am fortunate that many of my school's students are active and engaged readers. Our teachers do a great job of offering choice and encouragement with personal reading, thus keeping that flame alive. I also think our students impressively give us the benefit of the doubt and are willing to try an assigned reading and actually like it. Yet, I don't want to be living in a dreamworld, so I would like to dig a little more deeply into our students' reading habits. Do they really read enough for pleasure, or are they in that other half of the statistics? The reason why I wonder this is what was shared in a session about reading stamina. First, they said the thing that prohibits most students from maintianing their reading fluency is maintaining their stamina as texts get harder. I think this might define a struggle we have been seeing from our 7th to 8th grade as we have realized that our 7th grade texts might not challenge the students as much as even the 6th grade texts do. Is their stamina back-sliding? And this leads me to their other finding -- the students in their research study, even in 6th grade, were overwhlemed by homework so they literally had no time to read well and for a duration of time. I think my school might be guilty of this too ...

Tomorrow I am facilitating a session on how high-stakes testing is affecting writing and writing instruction -- should be interesting. Then later in the day, I am really looking forward to finally having the time to stop by "Tech on the Go." I can get there when they are having a general sharing of ideas, so it will be great to hear what others have done and be able to share what I do. Oh, and of course, I am going to visit the Alamo -- I am two days behind Dana Huff as it is!

Day One of NCTE

Here are the highlights:
  • Opening Session with Marc Prensky: "With the old ways of teaching (lecturer/teacher), technology does get in the way. With the 'new' ways of teaching (guide/partner), technology is the tool." (a loose quote from memory)
  • A talk on critical theory and practice with Gerald Graff (president of the MLA): How we read and how we talk about what we read matters more than what we read.
  • A session with AP consultants sponsored by the College Board: My worlds collide when one of the presenters is someone I knew from the AP readings.
  • A session on using American lit texts to teach about prejudice and cultural understanding: I went to this one specifically to bring ideas back for our American Literature teacher Jennifer. I think I have some titles for us to consider for replacing Black Ice.
  • This afternoon is going to be all about teaching reading strategies. One session I am attending is billed as specific reading strategies tied to brain research, and the other is billed as focusing on teaching reading stamina. I am very curious about both of these because I think they can help with discussions our department has been having about challenging our students as readers without losing them.
Oh, and my hotel is literally right across the street from the Alamo. As a native-born Texan, I feel like I am home :)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Coming to the end ...

My students and I have been working for the last few days on bringing together the different texts we have read for our "Search for Self" theme, and it has reminded me about the ebb and flow of a unit. As we were starting on these readings, I had a few bad days in a row, feeling like the students were not focusing how I wanted them to as they read to prepare for class, then feeling like I had to make adjustments for this lack in our classwork. I really thought they were missing things. And they were, but now that we are making connections across the texts and talking about what those connections mean, they are doing amazing things. They clearly know the texts overall, and they are very engaged in seeing how they link together.

So what does this mean? First, it reminds me of the learning proces -- learning starts out slow because those early stages can be hard. As teachers, we have a duty to try to show our students WHY they might enjoy this new learning, but I know I rarely grab every student as I try to do this. And even those who are excited have to step into new ideas and new skills. These new steps are actually better if they are slower because there is more learning going on.

This also reminds me how much we all want what we learn to make sense. My students' excitement as they begin to see for themselves (and not just hear from me) how these texts and the ideas we have been discussing fit together shows human nature. This reminds me to always move a unit to this level as best I can. In the end, I suppose getting to this level answers that old, old question, "Why are we learning this?"

Finally, I am also reminded of what it means to challenge our students to be more than they are, to push them to push themselves. When my students weren't reading well (or at all for some of them) at the opening of this unit, it wasn't just because they weren't necessarily excited. They are also humans with a lot on their plates and making choices. What I hope to impress upon them is that a choice that shortchanges your intellectual growth should not be made lightly. Yes, we all have to cut corners at times, but I hope to help them see that some corners should be more protected than others. On the practical side of this, I work hard to make sure students can't coast by without ever reading -- even if it means stopping a discussion and making them responsible on their own for the material. (I teach seniors this year and can do this much more readily then I could when I taught freshmen who were at different stages in their growth as learners.) But for the larger picture, maybe seeing how it all fits together in the end will help them want the next time to start their hard work earlier so they can get more out of their learning in the end.

And in the end, that is what matters -- that I have not only helped my students learn new things about my subject area and their worlds but also about themselves as learners.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Thinking, Thinking, Thinking!

I just had to share the presentation one of my students just did about the Torah. (See post below for an explanation of these presentations.) Joe structured his whole presentation around questions he had about the Torah, and he did this beautifully. He began with the questions, told us we would return to them, walked us through all of his findings (so great because we knew we was exploring stuff that he, and therefore we, really wanted to know), then at the end he had us return to his questions and discuss in groups what we had learned. So really what he did was what I have tried to do all year -- present our studies based around essential questions, use technology to explore things we are truly intrigued about, and bring it all together to discover what we've learned and what we can do with that knowledge. I am just so proud of him.

Here is what he created: a document for us to use for notes and thinking plus a website to explore. (And if you listen to the audio file, yes, those are two of our Jewish students Joe recorded reciting a Hebrew prayer. He also brought in one of the student's actual Torah.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Do they get it?

I am finally reading Clay Shirky's book, Here Comes Everybody. I know, I should have read it months ago like the rest of the world, but if you haven't read it yet either, it still resonates even in this rapidly changing world. Listen to this:

"When I was a teenager, I remember reading letters to the editor in my local paper, where the grown-ups were arguing about whether to allow students to use calculators. The unspoken worry was that since calculators had appeared so suddenly, they might disappear just as suddenly. What none of the grown-ups in that conversation understood was that there would never again be a day when we needed to divide two seven-digit numbers on paper. What seemed to them like a provisional new capability was actually a deep and permanent shift, one we students recognized immediately" (Shirky 294).

Do all of your students get this today about the web and all of its possibilities? To be honest, I am not sure all of mine do, and that is why this quote makes me think so much. As a teacher, I feel so often on the back-end of the "Web 2.0" movement -- barely hanging on. Yet, for some (many?) of my students, I am pulling them along. I am showing them not only, to keep Shirky's metaphor going, why this calculator is here to stay but also why they should be recognizing this as part of THEIR worlds.

So in the end, am I in front or back?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Writing Reflection

I have been struggling lately with having time to do everything I want to do in a single class period. It is really hard to read good ideas and want to try them all -- I feel like I am doing my students a disservice if I read a great idea and can't use it. On the bright side of this dilemma, not having time to do something this week turned out for the best this time because the activity was much more effective later.

I had planned to email back a set of essays, show an example essay, then have the students set goals for themselves for future essays. On the day I was to do this all, I ended up only having time to give back the essays. Two days later, I ended up with some time, and I had them open their essays again and reread my comments. This was really effective because they already knew their grades so were now reading the comments without that pressure in their minds. We then read together an essay one student in the class had written. Since they had just looked again at their own essay, they ended up talking spontaneously about what they liked in the example essay and how they had not thought about doing that in their own essay. When I told them that I wanted them to now set goals for themselves of things they wanted to try in their writing based on my comments on their essays and/or what they saw this one student essay doing, they got down to work right away. Their goals were really thoughtful, but ultimately just reflecting on how they had written something and how someone else had tackled the same thing was a powerful moment.

I am going to work hard to remember what I learned most from this -- separating writing reflection from the grade is crucial. I try to do this by emailing back the writing with my comments before I give them the rubrics with their grades, but their minds are still on, "What did I get?" Returning to the writing after the grade has been known and passed on in their minds was an even better method that running out of time taught me.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Why do things seem so different?

"While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find, nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another, ready to be accessed by laptops, cellphones, and iPods. Classrooms built to re-enforce the top-down authoritative knowledge of the teacher are now enveloped by a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where knowledge is made, not found, and authority is continuously negotiated through discussion and participation. In short, they tell us that our walls no longer mark the boundaries of our classrooms."

Read the whole article by Dr. Wesch here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Poetry Out Loud

Our Upper School participated in this program for the first time last year, and we thought it was a roaring success. My colleague Jennifer just signed us up again for this year, so I have been thinking about ways to make sure it is as successful this year as last -- the newness is gone, so how do we keep the energy up? Have any of you done this competition? Any insight into what works very well for you? Any insight into what the state and national judges are really looking for?

Here is what I think worked best for us:
1. All Upper School English teachers memorized a poem, and we all recited at the all-school meeting where we introduced the contest. I found I could then really talk with my students about the challenges yet benefits of poetry memorization and recitation.
2. All Upper School students were required in their English classes to prepare and recite a poem. This got everyone involved.
3. The whole Upper School was the audience for our class winners competing to be the school winner. Since everyone had memorized a poem, they all understood what those on stage were up against.

Literary Terms Quiz

After we study our class literary terms handbook, my students have fun testing themselves with this quiz -- it even requires correct spelling (something that kills some of them ...).

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My Students' Turn to Have a Voice

My students and I have just finished our first theme: utopias and dystopias. Because of my new essential questions, as we headed towards the final assessments, my mind was spinning looking for ways to make these assessments real world and challenging. I ended up tossing both the test and writing assignment I had used for the past few years and coming up with new ones.

1. The Test:

A. The first part of the test was student-written multiple choice questions on a passage from Brave New World. Since this is an AP class, MC questions loom over us, but I do not do this just for the AP exam. Instead, my department is looking to inject a LITTLE more practice on this kind of assessment just to fully prepare our college-bound students for what they will encounter. Our school as a whole rarely gives MC tests, so a little practice now and then means we are offering our students a fair shot at future MC tests. But more importantly, the act of breaking down a passage and formatting complex analysis questions (with both right and plausible-yet-wrong answers) calls for high-level thinking. Just because the format is MC does not mean they are easy to write.

B. The essay was my favorite part: Test Essay. My students soared. They obviously spent time preparing, and in the end they showed me they understood the literature we had discussed, its implications for our own world, and how they could read an argument, understand it, and decide whether they agreed or not with it based on their own wealth of knowledge.

2. The Writing Assignment: I purposely scaffolded the test essay to link to this writing assignment. After the students had fully understood and digested Greenberg's editorial, they got to write their own. They had to think about both their content and style, and they were striving to become published authors. I just finished grading their editorials, and I think the journalism teacher is going to have a hard time narrowing it down to only four to submit. In the end, my students thought about their own worlds with the founding knowledge of centuries of others thinking about their worlds. They joined the conversation.

P.S. Once my winner is selected, I will be sure to publish the link to their editorial!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Exploring Books Together

Today my students and I had "Book Celebration Day." This is one of my favorite days each quarter because we spend the whole period talking about the books we read for our regular choice reading and whether others should read them. I have added a few things that have made this an even better day.

1. LibraryThing: My students and I are part of a class group, and we each post a review of our books before class. Then, as each of us is talking about our books, I project up the reviews. We can see how many stars the reader gives the book plus the overall average star rating of all LibraryThing users. When students are choosing their next novels, they can go back on and reread any reviews of novels that peaked their interests. It is a great way to collaborate even more with what we are reading.

2. Creative Technology: I also updated my suggestions for the creative responses to their novels. I added voice and video options as well as keeping more traditional models and creative writing ideas. I really want the students to explore with this assignment -- we do enough literary analysis as it is for all of our other assignments. Today I got a recording of a speech putting Napoleon from Animal Farm on trial, a musical and image collage about Paradise Lost, a Google Earth exploration of the airports from Fight Club plus a beautiful painting of a clock inspired by Clockwork Orange and a model of The Road.

My students and I now have a load of new books our classmates have told us we must read.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Truth to Remember

"It doesn't take a lot of time to change … to reinvent … or to redesign. No, it doesn't take time; it takes will. The will to change. The will to take a risk. The will to become incompetent – at least for a while" (Seth Godin from Fast Company).

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Essential Questions and Connecting to the World

It has been an interesting exercise for my teaching brain to focus my course on essential questions this year. I knew it would be great for the class itself because I had worked with smaller unit questions last year to really good results. What I realized very quickly though was I had to integrate the essential questions into my daily lessons or my students (and probably me too) would forget they even existed. My students are now finishing their first theme (Utopias and Dystopias), and I think the questions are second nature to them. I am curious to see in the next unit if I can be less overt about the questions and if my students will then take over connecting them. I suppose this all goes back to good teaching in general -- a teacher works hard at the start of the year to create the classroom climate that underpins the whole year. Using essential questions turned out to be no different.

As we were bringing together our utopia study this week, I was trying to drive home even more directly our question about how reading world literature would make us world citizens who think. So, I told my class that they had seen me bring in real-world connections to our studies through magazine, newspaper, and web articles I had come across. I wanted to let them know that THEY could be the ones doing this. Well, what do you know -- I had two students bring in connections the very next day. We had a great time looking at them -- one is the picture at the opening of this post (she promises she was not moving when she snapped the photo of the car in front of her!) and one was this article.

In the end, all of my students' interesting essential question work and the real-life connections they are making just proves to me again that students will achieve at the level you expect them to. They will do amazing things when they believe you believe they can.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Google Earth

If you have not used Google Earth with your students, it is worth finding a way to. I had my students download it today, and they were giggly as elementary school kids [these are very serious seniors by the way :)]. I use this to literally map our travels around the world in my world literature class (see Tom Barrett's great collaborative slideshow of Google Earth uses). We had a blast flying from California to mark Steinbeck to France to mark Voltaire to England to mark Huxley. As we were flying around, they asked what all of the markers were -- they discovered the photos and the Wikipedia entries; then I took them to the flames over Darfur. They were truly engaged at seeing the world.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The First Student Presentations

My first two students presented today -- they were tackling Voltaire and his time period. I was very excited to see my revised guidelines in action, and I had a right to be. The first student created a wiki of biographical information. He therefore was able to talk about Voltaire while his classmates just listened -- no frantic note-taking when they knew they had the wiki as a resource. He did not just talk though. He made a small PowerPoint to highlight key things and show images while he talked -- a perfect use for PowerPoint. He then played a YouTube video on Voltaire and Humanism that was a perfect way to bring in the audio component and have it be very useful. He ended with a trivia game about Voltaire, and the students really knew the info [they had closed the wiki :)]. Overall, a really thoughtful and engaging 20 minutes for us.

My second student created a webpage. He did not use FreeWebs like I had hoped -- the site he used has a free trial but then he will have to pay. So I am curious if his site will disappear in 30 days. But his classmates were very intrigued by his site and enjoyed the visuals he chose. He then played a YouTube video of a Beethoven piece. This was the most amazing part -- as the music was playing, he explained to the class how Beethoven's music was often soothing and melodic but that we should hear the tension building in this piece just like it was in this time period. Almost on cue, the music rose and the class almost made an audible, "Ahhh ..."

A 100% success day. We had great uses of technology supporting learning, we had music, we had archival photos, we had art, we had fun, we learned. My first two students have set the bar very high for their classmates.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Reading Strategies

I am still playing in my mind with how to better teach my students how to be great readers. I read a wonderful article in this month's English Journal about teaching reading to high school students that I wish I could link to for you, but let me sum up the author's main point instead. He did research in his own classroom between his preferred open class discussion method and lessons he planned with a specific reading strategy as the day's springboard. Before I say what his results were, let me say that I think as English teachers we all lean towards the open class discussion -- giving our students that sense of freedom to throw out ideas is a wonderful thing to do. But here is what he found: his students participated better in the subsequent discussions after they had completed a reading strategy exercise. Moreso, his students wrote better and performed better on assessments on literature they had used the strategies to tackle.

His findings confirmed for me what I have been playing with in my mind all summer. How do we help our students become good readers who do not get frustrated and quit when they come up against a reading challenge?

I tried his method today with my students and Candide. They read this for summer reading, and in the past I gave them a few questions to consider just to refresh the book in their minds before we begin to discuss it. This year, I had them do a guided rereading activity on the first chaper. Here it is.

Today in class, I began by projecting up the first chapter and asking them what they found in their rereading. We had the best discussion of this book I have ever had with a class. They made connections between the character traits presented and what they knew would happen in the book (Candide is shy and does not think much on his own --> makes sense that he struggles with disagreeing with his beloved tutor's ideas for so long). They saw the satirical barbs already in place (and could see that it took them longer the first time around to see the satire). They had fun realizing just what Pangloss was doing when he was tutoring the chambermaid (!!). And they said again and again, "I had not noticed this the first time I read the book, but ..."

Their essays are on Thursday, so we will see if the success in writing plays out for my students too, but the reading strategy approach is a keeper. (Here is another idea for a reading strategy -- I now know even more about why this lesson works so well!)

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Duh Moment

So, I have been having my students give background presentations on the works we read throughout the year for years now. I really like how it makes each one of my students the expert on one of the texts we study, and I like how I can step away from the front of the classroom and let my students run it.

However, I have not been thrilled with the overall quality of the presentations. Many are great, but many are merely Powerpoints read to the class. What was going wrong? Well, my out-dated assignment for one.

Here is my duh moment: Why was I not using all of my new technology ideas to make this assignment more engaging for my students? Why was I not encouraging my students to push into the world of the 21st century? Well, I am now, and I am very excited to see the results. Here are my revised guidelines. I am particularly excited about the audio and visual components. I can't wait to see my students' thought and creativity on full display.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Discussion Boards

I use the Turn It In discussion board with my students because I really like the way it threads. Our school's website offers a blog option, but it only allows responses to the main topic so students cannot easily show that they are responding to each other and not just my topic. I thought about setting up a class blog, but then the replies get threaded off individual pages. I have heard that threading is passe, but I still really value it for my classes. I have watched the depth of these discussions over the past three years, and I just cannot replicate them in another forum. The students are reading each others' ideas and thoughtfully reflecting and responding on them. This was brought home to me by a student who told me yesterday (just the third day of school) that this discussion board work was really neat and he really liked it.

Here is an excerpt. If you are familiar with my essential question ideas for this world lit course, this post was the way I got them started thinking about it. Their thoughts about thinking in general plus the personal way they apporach each other was more than I could have hoped for.

Topic #1: Why Do You Think? (And Do You?)
starts: August 25, 2008 at 12:01 AM ends: August 30, 2009 at 11:59 PM
Created by Susanne Nobles

"We've learned to speak and think in the epistemology of television, which is essentially filled with thought-terminating clich├ęs ... There is a kind of war against self-reflection, self-criticism, and real introspection" (Whitehead).

I believe literature of all kinds, and specifically world literature, can create a culture of intellect and thought. Yet reading world literature requires “two competing [tasks]: an invitation to identify (‘This text is about you!’) and a warning against overidentifying (‘This text was never about you!’) … Far from being an excuse for passive reading, ‘This was never about you!’ calls students to attend to a material world that is not their own, which means caring enough ‘to learn it’ … Can Westerners’ confrontation of a foreign text result in genuine identification …?” (Eck 579, 582).

When was the last time you really thought about something? Be honest … what does real thought look and feel like? Okay, when was the last time you did that?

Response #6:
I actually am a fairly reflective person and fall into deep thought on a fairly regular basis. I'd say that the last time I fell into deep thought had to be over this past weekend when I was dealing with a difficult decision that I had to make. I also find myself thinking more and more about college and what I want to do where I want to go, and how those decisions will affect me during college and later on in life. I guess I never really stop thinking about that subject because I find my self often drifting off into my own little world of self reflection on the topic. I never really think about the same thing, but often times I get into deep existential and philosophical discussions with my life where I ponder things untill my head begins to swirl, and I begin to lose grasp on the topic that I am trying to understand. I usually get into real thought when I am not distracted by anything else, however I can keep on the same subject for several days "pausing" my thinking until the distractions are over. Usually it involves picking my brain appart, presenting counter points and arguments to points that I am trying to make, and it ends with analyzing why I am thinking and acting in a certain way and what the consequences of behaving like that are. It's actually all pretty exhausting. So yeah I guess I would still have to stand with saying that the last time I did that was this past weekend, because It definitely fit the description of what I just put down.

Reply #6.1 to Response #6:
I know the same feeling, and I know we have talked about some of those issues between ourselves, specifically last year. And I think that the feeling that you are losing yourself in the moment is all the more of a testimony to how deep your thinking. I feel that the harder and longer you ponder something, the more questions begin to form, and the harder you have to think. This might be why so many of us avoid hard reflecting, because we find it is to much work.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Start of School

It has been so long since I have been on my blog that I had to sign in again. Blogger had forgotten me, as I am sure my Twitter network had too, and my Google Reader is about to explode. I have not turned on my laptop at home in over a week -- true statement. I have spent the last week and a half "back at work," which really means at an overnight leadership camp with students, in 4 days worth of meetings misnamed "teacher work week," capped off with a technology-free weekend of my own making when I spent it with my brother's and sister's families at Kings Dominion.

So how am I going to do this? In a blog posting way below, I set out a summer goal of keeping both my blog and Twitter active. That blog post is so far below because I succeeded mightily this summer, and I enjoyed it mightily too. I enjoyed most the reflection I have been able to do on my teaching through this blog, and the things I have learned from my Twitter network have only added to that.

But the irony is not lost on me. Now that I am actually back at work doing those things I reflected on all summer I can't do it all any more. How do you balance your time? What wisdom can we all share to help us be 21st century educators connected with our PLN and also be those people we were before our PLN, people with students and families and lives beyond our laptops? Or can I ask a more specific question -- should I feel so guilty because I am typing this while I am at work?

Friday, August 15, 2008

The First Day

School starts in just over a week, so I am working on my lesson plans. I never can get actual lesson planning done during what is mis-named the "work week" for teachers before school starts. After a few years, this reality finally sank in, and I aim to have all of my inital plans written prior to the work week so that I can stop being so stressed in all of those meetings.

Each time I revisit my initial plans, I find myself rethinking the first day. It is such an important day, one that I always wish I could make more interesting and interactive. I don't want to do something just because it is interactive but how can I get students to interact when they have not yet begun their studies of world lierature? Today though I came across this article, the answer to my hopes (see page 5). I plan to ask my students to discuss in small groups, "What is world literature?" And then to follow it up with, "What are good questions to ask about world literature?" This work plays right into the point I had hoped to make with them -- that world literature is not something new to them but there are still many unexamined areas to be discovered.

The best thing about teaching is finding ideas from other teachers that help you make your own ideas finally click.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Fall Rundown

In the spirit of Dana Huff, here is what is on my plate for the fall. It is great knowing what my fellow bloggers are up to, and here is my list:
  • Teaching 2 sections of AP English Literature and Composition with a focus on world literature
  • Director of College Counseling
  • Student Government advisor, including heading up our new Leadership Camp this weekend. Two days of leadership talk and work -- I am excited to see how our student leaders delve further into what leadership is.
  • English Department Coordinator (main department focus: getting our consensus curriculum maps finalized)
  • Co-chair of our 10-year accreditation visit
  • "Overseer" of our school's first curriculum guide which is at the printer as I type -- I can't wait to see it next week and hand it to the faculty. I am still unsure about what my Head of School has in mind for my role to keep it current and improving ... stay tuned.
  • My 4 1/2 year old daughter will be attending preschool 5 mornings a week -- she is VERY excited. They have requested that we send in a computer headset for her, so she is a techie in making I guess.
  • My 2 1/2 year old son joins his sister in preschool this year -- and according to him it is about time. 2 mornings a week.
  • A member of Will/Cheryl's PLP with 5 other FA teachers as well as teachers from around the world
  • Thursday night yoga classes
  • Running three mornings a week with a new mom -- she is balancing her run with feeding and clothing herself and her son all before 7:00 AM. Amazing.
  • Attending NCTE in November as a member of the Commission on Composition. The theme this year is "Shift Happens" -- perfect.

I go back to work this Sunday with Leadership Camp -- it will be a great year.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Textual Analysis and Wordle

My AP English students and I start our year of close reading with diction analysis. With diction being one of the more concrete techniques authors use, it is a relatively simple way to jumpstart my students' brains into higher level style analysis. Even my concrete readers can underline vivid words and talk about their connotations. My colleague who teaches junior year English also focuses on diction in the second semester, so I can build on her good work. I am therefore able to start the year with a high-level technique that does not make my students feel they are in over their heads -- I have not found many more better starting points for learning.

We use the first page of Brave New World as our initial practice. Before my students actually begin reading the novel, I have them underline all descriptive words on the first page only (a great grammar moment as we discuss how, while adjectives and adverbs are by nature descriptive, nouns and verbs can be too). Then, by projecting the first page (here is the whole novel on-line -- the first page is the first 3 paragraphs) on a Word document, we mark it up and see the descriptive dissonance Huxley creates through his diction. The "fertilizing room" is cold, most sterile, and nearly dead. Through his word choice, Huxley has created a window into the metanarrative of his novel. We don't yet know WHY he does not like the society he is creating, but now my students can start reading as knowledgeable readers and not be lulled into thinking Huxley is presenting his own utopia. Oh the discussions that follow.

Wordle has entered my life now though, and look at what I can do to cap off this lesson:

The word "light" is one of the biggest. How does this fit with the bleak, cold atmosphere we have just discussed Huxley creating? Maybe my students will see through this visual tool how Huxley is layering words to build both sides of his message that life is being created here, life that maybe is still very important despite this society saying otherwise ...

I set as one of my goals last year to use more visuals in my classes. I tend not to be a visual learner, but I know many of my students are. Wordle is a great tool for this. Here is more about how to use Wordle with literary analysis (this NCTE blog has lots of great tech stuff if you have time to scroll through it). I am imagining that later in this novel I will have the students create Wordle maps of their own chosen passages and talk about what they discover about Huxley's message though his chosen words. Stay tuned for lots of Brave New World maps to show up in the Wordle Gallery ...

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Henry Ford and Literature and the World

I have just returned from a tech-free, two-week vacation, so sorry for the length of time between posts. My mind is humming now though after some great reading and rereading of books. I tackled Understanding by Design for the first time (one of my summer goals from below -- I am about done with all of my goals if you can believe that), and I am just about done with rereading East of Eden, one of my AP Lit students' summer reads. Lots of great ideas from UbD of course, but those will have to wait for a later post. As for E of E, I have read this book many times before, yet I learned once again the worth of rereading (I was honestly thinking I could rely on my memory for one more year before tackling this LONG novel again ...).

I discovered Henry Ford has a recurring role in the opening of my world literature class. Odd ...

When my students and I study Brave New World as our first in-class novel, we of course talk about Ford. We use this great short article as a comparison to the novel. If you teach this novel, I highly recommend taking just 15 minutes to have your students read this article after they have read about 4 chapters of BNW and write down connections between the two. There are so many, and the students can see so clearly the impact Ford had on Huxley and his thinking. Students are struck by how this automatization and mass production was truly revolutionary -- enough so that an author predicted a whole future on it and a future that is not so far-fetched in 2008.

Then I read this passage from E of E (from Part One, chapter 13, section 1): "It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking ..." If you have the book, turn to this section and read all of it as there as much more than I will quote here.

This quote gets me thinking a lot about my overall essential question for my course, and I am still figuring out how to bring all of that together. But I do know that when we discuss BNW and the Ford article, I will be reading this passage to them to show how momentous this time in the world was to two authors from two different countries. I think they will be struck by this connection across continents and see how what we are discussing truly is life-changing stuff ... at least I hope they will.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In the End, It's All About People

I just got home from meeting one of my Senior Exhibit mentees. She was really concerned about the progress of her Exhibit, and I know that talking helped her feel better about a roadblock she had hit. I could assure her and watch her to see if my words were making a little difference.

Our conversation turned to college too (I am the college counselor as my "other" job), and I had emailed her earlier today in response to her question about her current GPA. She was honest with me tonight that reading my email with her GPA was hard for her -- she had hoped it would have been higher. We talked about this and the ramifications. These are often the hardest conversations I have with my seniors because I strive to always be honest and realistic about admission requirements while also keeping students' goals strong and positive. It is a balance I worry about all of the time.

In the end what I gained from tonight was a reminder about how my job -- as teacher, as college counselor, as whatever I am at that moment with that student -- is really about the individuals I get the privelege to work with. Sitting down face-to-face with my students whenever I can is something that for me can never be replaced. Technology (email in this case, but blogs, Twitter, Facebook) can and do keep connections alive, but it is talking with my students where I do best. It is how I can know a student is upset about her GPA and I can respond as needed for that situation. I can't always fix it, but the personal moment together matters.

I would not have spent my evening any other way.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Making More of AP

My mind is caught up right now on striking a balance between the "AP" part of my course and the "world literature" part. I feel very fortunate to teach AP Lit because the College Board does not set a prescribed content curriculum. Instead, the curriculum is skill-based, and as long as my students are reading works of "literary merit" as defined by CB, deeply analyzing them, and carefully writing about them, then we read what we want and do what we want. So, my course is listed on students' transcripts as AP Literature and Composition, but it is really a world literature course with college-level skills empahsized. At least, as I see it. But ...

My school is radically changing our daily schedule (from a traditional 7-period, 45-minute class day to a collegiate modular schedule), so we have been told to make our #1 priority in our lesson planning to focus our time with students on meaningful, incisive learning. (Yes, we should be doing this anyway, but the mandate is clear and no more "work on your project" days if I can help it.) So, I have looked over my plans with new eyes this summer, and that is scary and exciting. Scary because it always makes me remember that first year of teaching when I felt like I was recreating a wheel every single day (if you are a first-year teacher reading this, please teach for another year -- it is so radically different and you WILL now have time -- I promise). How nice it is to have old plans that work well to use again. But that leads me to the exciting part -- to be forced to look at these old plans and make them even better. As I have said before on this blog, even the best lesson can be made even better through reflection. Yet, sometimes we don't make time for that reflection, so when my admininistration makes me do it, all the better.

Back to the "But ...": what I saw when I opened up my first unit was that I have focused on establishing only the "AP" part of my course on the first day. We talk about what it means to be AP, look at books used on the exam, think about how prior classes have prepared us for this point ... all good stuff, but none of it about world literature. So as much as I have always said, "I do not teach this course towards the AP exam," I was setting up the course just this way. Ah, what new eyes can show us.

Now I am going to use this first day, this first class that is ripe for setting the tone for our year, to talk about the world and my essential question, "Why must we think?" I have not yet figured out HOW I am going to do this (it is really only July still -- plenty of time to solve this puzzle), but I know it will change my course for the whole year. Maybe not so much for my students -- the first day, as important as it is, is still only the first day and just one part of their whole experience. But for me, this first-day shift of focus has allowed me to see that I really do for the most part teach a world lit course that also prepares students well for college. Now I am going to capitalize on just that.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Reading Instruction in High School -- Really?

"... [A]s students became increasingly aware of the fact that they were actually going to have to 'do' something to make a text comprehensible, their frustrations with reading decreased. Suddenly it wasn't that anything was wrong with them (or with the text) causing them to find a book incomprehensible, but that they simply weren't doing the things good readers do when they read" (50). So writes Carol Jago in With Rigor for All, a book that every high school (and even middle school) teacher should read. It is not very long, but it offers one of the most convincing arguments I have ever read for offering challenging reading.

Students learn how to read in elementary school then just keep on reading in middle and high school, right? As a high school English teacher, I have fallen into believing this trap. My students grow as readers, able to tackle the next challenge, just because they KNOW how to read, right?

This, according to Jago, is why schools are increasingly offering shorter, lighter, and easier books to older students. The students complain that reading is too hard, and we, very honestly, fear that we are turning them off as life-long readers. But instead of regressing, we need to teach reading skills that are appropriate for the level of reading we are asking our students to do. "If lessons include only work that children can accomplish without the help of the teacher, students are being shortchanged. The thoughtful teacher aims instruction just beyond what students are able to perform independently" (Jago 72).

Jago offers great suggestions for making transparent for students what expert readers do as they read. She starts many texts with short read-alouds, stopping to talk about what she has noticed and then what they have noticed. She then rereads the opening to show how readers work to be sure they have a feel for an author's style and flow before getting too far and too lost (she strongly disagrees with reading aloud whole texts -- this is just an introductory activity). She has her students mimic literary devices authors use, such as the epic simile, so they really understand the device and can watch it develop in the text. The list goes on (read this book -- it really is worth it). In the end, she is teaching students how to read, that is how to take the next steps in reading skills so that in the end they are indeed life-long readers. Yes, even in Jago's world, there is a place for light reading, but it should not be the only reading students are able to do.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

What rocks your students' worlds?

I have been thinking about the texts we teach at my school quite a bit as we work to finetune things. I am stuck right now with my AP English Literature class because while I want to add a Faulkner novel, that leads me to a harder decision -- what do I drop to make room? This is my eternal albatross -- I always find great new things to add, but that does not often mean I have something to drop. So what is a teacher to do?

Think about something else of course. Here are the texts I would absolutely NOT drop:

World Literature/AP English Lit:
  • Excerpts from religious texts, but excerpts from the Koran specifically: My students and I study the Koran (here is the document I use with my students) along with the Bible, Torah, and Bhagavad-Gita, and I know their understanding of the Koran is enhanced by building off the other religious works. Yet it is reading the Koran that changes their world views the most, and our field trip to the Islamic Center in Washington, DC, is irreplacable.

  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: This text is a student favorite every single year. I do not do much teaching of the text -- since it comes at the end of the first semester and is an "easy read," I turn most of it over to the students to read and understand themselves. Consequently, it is the novel itself that deserves the credit for inspiring, reassuring, and fascinating my students.

  • Othello by William Shakespeare: The tremendous Folger's Shakespeare Set Free teaching guide brings this play literally to life for my students. Each year, they perform the entire fifth act, and I am always amazed at the depth of understanding they show -- as well as memorizing all of those lines in just a week! They love this -- here are some pics and the U-Stream of this year's performance. It takes quite a bit of time to work up to such a performance, but that time could not be better spent -- even on Faulkner :)

Introduction to Genres (Freshman Year):

  • Night by Elie Wiesel: Wiesel's story is the single text every freshman says should never be removed from the curriculum. Using Wiesel's wise words, students work hard to fight indifference as the worst evil.
  • "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks: If you can find the anthology Poetry Speaks (which is well worth buying even if you don't teach this poem because of the incredible wealth of voices reading wonderful poems) with a recording of Brooks herself reading her poem, you will have the tools for the best discussion of the use of line breaks to create meaning that you can ever have.

British Literature (Sophomore Year):

  • Regeneration by Pat Barker: Maybe it is because this is one of the few texts they read all year that is not written in verse, but this novel fascinates students. I also am awed by the World War I poets, so being able to teach them in conjunction (I got verse in there!) was an extra bonus.

American Literature (Junior Year):

  • A Farwell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway: I think I have a future research project embedded in students' reactions to this novel. I no longer teach American Lit, but I get most of the seniors the next year, and this is by far the class favorite. Why? There is my research project for you because this novel grabs every kind of reader -- male, female, action, love, discerning, just like to turn the pages ... I know our junior year teacher is great, and there is something even greater about this novel.

What are your students' favorites? And why? Is it the text itself separate of all else or is it something you really rock at teaching? I'd love to hear your answers ... that way I will have even more great things to add ...

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Those Crucial First Minutes

I have always wanted my students to know I value every second of our time together. When they understand this, the issue of tardies usually disappears because they know they have to get to my class on time because I am starting and I will mark them tardy for missing something good. While this is certainly a nice benefit, the real reason I want them to know how much I value classtime is because I want THEM to value every minute we have together for learning and sharing. Just as writing alongside my students makes them care more about their own writing, caring about my time with them can make them care more. This is why lesson planning is so important -- I am showing my students that I will work just as hard as I am asking them to work, and we will have fun doing it together.

Yet in spite of this overriding goal, I struggle with how to start class right off without seeming abrupt. I want to say hello and how are you to my students -- I haven't seen many of them since the day before. But transitioning to the lesson can be stilted. I have a new idea for this coming year. Occasionally, I am going to play short YouTube vidoes as they are entering class. They do not have to settle and listen right away, but as the start of class approaches, I hope they start to pay attention. We may or may not discuss the video -- we'll see how it goes. What I hope to achieve is a small moment of music or video or art that connects to that day's lesson -- a moment when things go beyond the books in our hands. I have found so far this video for our first discussion day of East of Eden, this video for our work with Candide, and this video as we are starting Brave New World. The Steinbeck song is catchy enough that I may have to buy the CD!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

How do we challenge readers?

I have been thinking quite a bit about this question ever since the 8th grade English teacher and I started trying to figure out why the texts we had been teaching for quite a bit of time seemed "too hard" for our current 8th graders. Had the students really changed, and if so, how could they have changed so quickly?

I started my thinking by charting the reading and interest levels of all of the texts we teach from 5th grade to 12th. I used Follet's Titlewave site, which gives both their own ratings as well as Accelerated Reader's ratings. I had talked with our librarian, so I knew to take it all with a grain of salt. But she said that if the ratings came close, we could count on them being pretty true to the reading skills and interests of a certain grade.

So what did I find? Our 8th grade problem was actually a 7th grade problem. The 7th grade curriculum has been in flux as we try to pin down what we really want it to be, and what has happened in this is that we unknowingly retained only the "easiest" reads. Our students are jumping from 5th/6th grade reading levels to 8th/upper grade levels -- so I sympathize with our 8th graders now, and I am spending some of my reading time this summer looking for the magic bullet work to add to 7th grade. One that is not too mature for a 7th grader content-wise, but one that does challenge them for reading. I have read some great books -- The Trial by Jen Bryant, The Legend of the Wandering King by Laura Gallego Garcia, and Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. But I have not found the right book just yet ... any ideas to share with me?

Let me end with my own class, AP English Literature. This exercise in studying our progression of texts was great for me personally beyond the good work we did as a department. I am now working to find a way to add William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying to my course to add one work that pushes my students to their reading limits. I know some of my students will work hard and yet stay a bit perplexed by a text of this level, but I know other students will find skills beyond anything they knew they had. I know I will have to work hard to teach this novel because I am no Faulkner expert in any way, and he is a tough nut to crack even for the experts. This novel will be a great challenge, and what a gift I can give my students and myself. Let's see the heights we can reach together.

My next book on my summer reading list is Faulkner's. So, from award-winning YA to Pulitzer-Prize-winning southern literature, I am having a great time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Inspiration of Shel Silverstein

I was cleaning out my son's room the other day and came across a book that had slipped behind others: Caroline Kennedy's A Family of Poems. My daughter, ever the questioner, said, "Mommy, what is that book? We have never read that one before." And thus started what has turned into three days of poetry. We have read the book at home, at the doctor's office, in the backyard ... We moved then into Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, my all-time favorite book of poetry because of the hours I spent with it when I was younger. My kids seem interested, as interested as they are in reading any other book. They tend to love to be read to, so this is just another fun thing for them.

But for me it has been quite a few days. For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read and write poetry. This eventually became a love for teaching poetry too. But along the way of early years of lesson planning followed by years of small babies, I left poetry behind. What a wonder then for me to rediscover it now. When was the last time you sat down and read a poem just to read it? If you can say, "Oh yesterday," then lucky, lucky you. But if it has been even half as long for you as it was for me, then I wish you a moment with your Shel Silverstein, your kid-inspiring poet.

"It's Dark in Here" by Shel Silverstein

I am writing these poems
From inside a lion,
And it's rather dark in here.
So please excuse the handwriting
Which may not be too clear.
But this afternoon by the lion's cage
I'm afraid I got too near.
And I'm writing these lines
From inside a lion,
And it's rather dark in here.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Why must we think?

I think this might become my essential question for my world literature/AP English Literature class. Why is thinking so important, and how does reading literature and studying authors and examining other cultures help us to become world citizens who think? An editorial in my local newspaper this morning brought it on: "'New Atheists': Englightened guides to perdition." It is an intriguing interview that is worth reading, if only for the fact that you might disagree with Chris Hedges's book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Here is a snippet, "We've learned to speak and think in the epistemology of television, which is essentially filled with thought-terminating cliches ... There is a kind of war against self-reflection, self-criticism, and real introspection." I believe literature of all kinds, and specifically the literature and themes my seniors study, can create a culture of intellect and thought. Self-reflecting and collaborating around the world through technology is one of the main ways of showing my students how real this thinking really is. Anyone want to become my class's partner as they study Brave New World, religious texts, Siddhartha, The Alchemist, Othello, Gilgamesh, The Metamorphosis, or Things Fall Apart?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Text Rationales

This blog, as I have discovered, is really a "Part 2" to the essential questions post below. I am working with my school's English department to get on record the reasons we teach each of the works we teach. We do not have lots of questions about our choice of books, but they do crop up. What has been the bigger need for the rationales is to help teachers new to teaching a class know why they are teaching a certain text. And this brings it right back to the essential questions -- every text we teach needs to build to those overriding questions. As I wrote a sample rationale for the department to see, this connection to the essential questions was immediately evident. I felt like I was writing paragraph one of an essay on how I build my class around my essential questions. I know I can be a curriculum geek, but I really love thinking about this stuff!

In case you are curious, here is my rationale for teaching Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I look forward to any and all feedback.

Seniors open their study of world literature in AP English Literature with this British classic, a dystopian view of the world’s future. As the cornerstone of the course’s first theme, “Utopias and Dystopias,” Brave New World offers key understandings the students build upon throughout the thematic unit as well as throughout the year. First, as a work originally written in English, the novel is an excellent opening to in-depth style analysis, a core skill of the AP curriculum. Studying Huxley’s diction and mood leads students directly into understanding the thematic objectives of the work, particularly how Huxley creates a society he ultimately does not agree with. By studying the presented society through its citizens' eyes and the underlying narrative of Huxley’s own view of this society, students learn they must read with critical eyes or miss what an author is actually saying.

The novel poses two potential problems. First, the setting of the novel, future London, requires students to understand another culture. This problem is not too challenging though, as the culture is similar to the students’ own, and this is why the novel is a great entrance to the year. In later works, students are introduced to cultures that seem totally foreign, so they learn key skills for interpreting a culture through this more relatable work. The second potential problem is the sexual mores of the society Huxley creates. This is a mature book, one that is read only by seniors. These seniors must work to understand that Huxley is not promoting the values of his society; instead, he is condemning them. Through the careful reading required by the text, students can understand the mature themes in the context Huxley intends.

By studying Brave New World, our students are beginning their literary world travels by establishing two fundamental skills: careful reading and deciphering new cultures.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Essential Questions

I spent a great few hours on our last faculty workday of the year reflecting on this year and looking towards next as our division head asked us to define essential questions for each of our courses (based on Understanding by Design -- this book has landed in my life in quite a few ways this spring -- see posts below -- I guess I am meant to use it!). The most invigorating part of the afternoon for me was spending time talking about good teaching with my colleagues. That kind of conversation always seems to be the first to go when things get too busy during the school year because it seems less pressing than the upcoming deadlines of comments or grades or interims. But the irony of course is that this is THE MOST pressing part of education. Why give grades for a course that is not as well-designed for the students' learning as it can be? Why give grades for assessments that don't strive for any defined goal? What do those grades mean without the underpinning of good teaching?

I have worked mightily this year to develop my PLN with Web 2.0 tools, and I have found some great resources of teachers all over the world (follow great teachers CoolCatTeacher, Thespian70, or AngelaMaiers on Twitter or read Susan's blog on using tech well, J. Clark Evans's blog on melding teaching and tech, or Cruel Shoes about the big ideas of teaching). But talking face-to-face with the teachers in my own building cannot be replaced. To know that I am teaching with other great educators and that we are all trying to be the best we can be creates an energy that encourages me even more.

So, here are the essential questions our English department drafted for our core courses. These are all still in the working stages, so please help us revise if you have ideas.

Introduction to Genres (9th grade):
  • What do we learn from the “masters” about how to write well?
  • How can you use these tools to make your own writing “masterful”?

British Literature (10th grade):

  • How can the written word change society?
  • What is the "British literary tradition"? (first semester)
  • How do these works challenge the traditions? (second semester)

American Literature (11th grade):

  • Who am I as an American?
  • How does the literature and an understanding of its chronology and themes show how we as a people came to be who we are today?

World Literature (12th grade, including AP English Lit):

  • Who am I as a citizen of the world?
  • How does the literature and an understanding of the geography and culture from which it came expand your world view?

I look forward to hearing your ideas, combining my real-life colleagues with my virtual ones.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Who Are These College Students?

Working in a college-preparatory independent school, one that also has a 1:1 laptop program, I think a lot about what it means to really prepare a student for college in the 21st century. It certainly is not the same as it was when I was being prepared by my teachers for college. My tech coordintaor shared this resource with me, and if you have 15 or 30 minutes of free time (ha! at the end of the year?? okay, just take a break from all of that grading ...), please spend it here. These are videos from the Faculty Academy run each year by the University of Mary Washington. The videos I found most intriguing as an English teacher in a laptop classroom are "Teaching Writing to First Year Students" and "Instructional Technology and First Year Students."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Reflections on Ending the Year

I have my last day with my AP Lit students today -- always bittersweet. I have spent the last week pushing them to reflect and reflect some more -- to process their life in high school as best they can before they head off to college. They have written short letters about their favorite readings so teachers next year can use the letters to spark extra interest in their new students. They have written poems about their memories (modeled on Walt Whitman's "There Was a Child Went Forth") from their whole life, and one of my favorite moments today is when I give them back to them -- printed in color with a pretty layout of course but, more importantly, attached to a poem I wrote about their class this year and each of them. Finally, they have written letters to their future selves that they will find in their mailboxes one day in the coming years ... (truth be told: I always mail last year's packets on the day the current seniors start their packets just so I don't forget, but I don't need to give away all my secrets to them ...).

And I am now heading into my own summer where I hope to achieve at least a part of the reflection I have asked my students to do. Elaine Plybon wrote so truthfully about the reality of a teacher's summer, so I wonder what I will have actually achieved by summer's end. But I have spent this school year really thinking about my teaching, something the luxury of years of old lessons at my fingertips has allowed me not to always do. And reflection is to me the single most important piece of being a good teacher. None of us are perfect, and no lesson is perfect, no matter how well it goes. We ask our students to learn and grow, and we must do the same.

So, here are my goals for my reflection this summer:
  • I will revisit lesson planning by reading Understanding by Design
  • I will figure out how to add The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to my AP class to add some reading level challenge that I think is lacking
  • I will read 2 novels about other cultures (still deciding what these are!)
  • I will research the writing approach, 6 Traits of Writing
  • I will keep my blog current and keep up with everyone on Twitter

Now that I have written them down, I have to do them! What are your reflection goals for the summer?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Collaborating Across Educational Borders


My mind is still spinning from an amazing morning I had yesterday. I met with an education professor from the University of Mary Washington, Dr. Wendy Atwell-Vassey. She specializes in the teaching of high school English, and I had contacted her to see if I could make some connections between my school and college. One aspect of my school's mission is to prepare students for college, yet even though I have taught upper school English at this school for 14 years, I had never talked to a college professor about just what it meant to be prepared for college English and writing.

Why we don't make those connections across this educational divide is a blog for another day. Instead, I just want to encourage every teacher to reach out and ask. That is all I did. I contacted Wendy with an email asking her if she would be willing to meet with me to explore ways I could work with her and/or her students. She was immediately enthusiastic about meeting with me, but not just for me to learn from her. She had ideas for things she could learn from me. I have to admit that I was surprised (and delighted!) by this. Me, a high school teacher? How could I offer something to a college professor?

We talked for an hour and a half. Our conversation ranged from curriculum design to great books to read about teaching to the expectations of college professors in literature and writing to how pre-service teachers could learn from my students to how a small school like mine could be a great place to affect positive change. I am now researching "Understanding By Design," a planning method that seems to take the best of the many ideas I learned in college and my masters program and combine them, and the "Six Traits of Writing," something that might help our writing program find a cohesive focus from K to 12. Wendy is awaiting receving essays my students are writing this week so that she can learn from them to add to her research on composition and education. She is also excited to work with my students next spring with her pre-service teachers.

Wendy and I could have kept teaching effectively and enthusiastically without these ideas we generated. But we have built a bridge together, one that will help high school students be the best prepared for college that they can be and one that will help future teachers become the best teachers they can be.

So, make the call or send the email. I hope you find someone as excited to work with you as I did. If you are on the high school side, I recommend you start with an education professor who specializes in your content area. They are already thinking about teaching and learning, so they will be, as a group, the most receptive. If you are on the college side, just call a teacher. It does not have to be a department chair -- any teacher who is teaching something you are interested in will be happy that you called them because it validates what they do (yes, we as teachers teach because we gain validation in more intangible ways, but it sure is nice when someone "higher up" validates us too!). They may say no to working with you, but you will have given them that validation -- and they will probably recommend someone who will say yes.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Finishing the Year with Google Docs

The best part of the new developments in technology is how they can make okay plans I have done in the past much, much better. I am hoping this is the case with my AP English Lit students' final novel study: Things Fall Apart. I have always had them tackle this novel in seminar groups where they prepared discussion ideas ahead of time then discussed the reading in small groups with me as a resource not their teacher. It has gone fine and even very well -- but the discussions ended in the class. I am hoping Google Docs will expand my classroom outside of the 45 minutes that happen in the four walls of my room.

I started by changing around the discussion prep work (see this here), incoporating sharing and reflecting on the group's Google doc before coming to class. Students have to, for example, add a question they have about the reading to the Google doc for the first seminar. For the second seminar, they have to reflect on the discussion their group had and note on the Google Doc the most important themes and issues they see thus far in the novel. In class, the Google Doc will allow all of the students to be clued in to their books and the discussion rather than typing furiously away taking notes (see seminar guidelines here).

Overall, Web 2.0 tools have given me class time I never had before -- the students' own time at home alone yet still connected with each other in web-based discussions. Individual literature reflections have become full-blown discussions before class even happens (using the Turn It In discussion board). I hope Google Docs can become yet another venue for this independent yet collaborative thinking my students have been doing. It just so happens that I really don't need to be guiding every aspect of their discussions -- they do just fine, if not even better, playing with the ideas on their own.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Pushing Inquiry Further

My students' work with the inquiry frame for Oedipus Rex (see post below) worked well enough that I decided to push it further as we start our final theme for the year: cultural identity and isolation. Doing something twice always means the second time is better, so I knew I had little to lose.

We began exploring this final theme on Friday just by looking into what the individual words "cultural," "identity," and "isolation" meant. This produced great ideas -- particularly the point that you can be be isolated even within the culture that creates much of your identity. We discussed literary examples to explore it more, and it was neat to see them play with familiar characters in a new way. I ended this part of the discussion by having them define what we would need to look at in our upcoming readings to help define this theme. On their own, they said we would need to define first the culture then define how the characters were placed in relation to this culture. From there, we could explore.

They defined my unit plan. On their own. This inquiry stuff works.

I ended class with the following question to introduce Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis: How do our everyday cultures (that is our families, jobs, friends, classes -- those things we experience every day) affect who we are and who we aren't? I told them that we were starting small with this exploration -- with a story that rarely even left a single home. We will the build on this by reading Things Fall Apart, starting as outsiders to the culture that is at the foundation of the novel.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Framing with Inquiry

One of the most worthwhile things I never find enough time to do is read about teaching methods. This takes me back to my undergrad and grad days where I had to write out formal lessons plans and try out new strategies. This forced experimentation always showed me how well things worked in ways I had not anticipated. So, a blurb about an inquiry-based approach to literature in the Council Chronicle has my mind working again as I think about WHY I teach a lesson the way I do. After years of teaching, I can often lose the original idea behind a tried and true lesson.

Today I made the inquiry-based approach the overt guide for our discussion of Oedipus Rex. We had looked at two questions before beginning -- "What if your search for self leads you to something you do not want to know?" and "Do our actions determine our fate?" -- and then moved on to reading the play in class and playing around with the character of Oedipus in nightly on-line discussions. Typical literature discussion stuff.


So I dragged out the questions again as the start to our class today, saying that now it was time to see what Oedipus could teach us about the answers -- my inquiry frame. Our discussions ranged from the strong characters of Sophocles's writing to the ancient Greeks' view of fate to the views of fate we have. This class tends to be quiet, so it was not the liveliest discussion ever -- but it was real. The students talked about how, as much as they want control, they like to think there is some fate in their lives -- that things happen for reasons. This led to their college decisions (which have all come in as of April 1 -- a coincidence or fate that I had this discussion today?!) and whether some of the difficult news they had heard had a role in a larger plan. Not all students saw it this way, and the give and take with this was impressive. They were not trying to convince everyone of their views -- just playing around with ideas. I ended class by having them write down their thoughts on fate and choice and life, and the keys did not stop tapping for a full five minutes. I don't know what they each specifically wrote, but I know they were intrigued and connected.

An old method proves effective again. I am now going to try to be more overt all year with my world literature themes -- phrasing them with the questions that have always lurked under why I grouped the particular set of books together in the first place. Going back to our roots as students of teaching often uncovers great things.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Playing with Literature


Our school is switching to an on-line book service, so we have had to turn in our book lists for next year this week. So I have spent the last few weeks thinking about texts, and it really has been fun. So often I get on auto-pilot as a teacher -- doing what I did last year but just trying to make it a little better. Thinking instead about the what we are reading (not just how I teach what we are reading) has pulled me away from the trees to see the forest. It is actually a daunting task to put my mind around. I have some control over what the students read from 6th through 12th grades, and to think about how my fellow English teachers and I are in charge of the exposure to literature that our students will get is a bit staggering. How can we introduce every genre, every diverse author, every great title? It is these choices that we must make that define our students' experiences as readers, and I hope I can do them justice.

So for now, we are replacing The Once and Future King and Frankenstein, while also considering How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents for incoming ninth graders' summer reading. Do you agree or disagree with these ideas? Other titles to suggest instead?