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!