Monday, November 23, 2009

Next Installment on Diigo

I have been delaying writing this post because I had hoped to be able to work things out and have more to offer. But I haven't, and as a result, I have temporarily suspended my students' Diigo work until I have time to get to the bottom of the issues.

Our work started out well. We read in class a section of Antigone, and that night, they annotated spots where they saw characters developing moral dilemmas (these dilemmas are our entry point into the play -- we will eventually write compare/contrast essays on modern moral dilemmas and what we can learn from ancient dilemmas -- more on that later!). Here is an example of one of their comment threads (with their typos and all!) on this quote from Antigone to Ismene, "Yes, I'll do my duty to my brother -- / and your as well, if you're not prepared to. / I won't be caught betraying him."

  • I believe that this is an example of a moral delima, Antigone is going against what they king has said in order to honor her brother. She also puts her sister Ismene in a moral delima, Ismene doesnt want to tell anyone that her sister plans on diobeying the king, but her sister says that if she doesnt tell the people that she will hate her even more. Ismene is the one that is faced with the true moral delima, whether to protect her sister, or tell the king.

  • Alex on 2009-11-18

  • Indeed, the moral dilema here is paying respects to Antigone's brother and being stoned, or leaving him to be eaten by birds in the desert. If he was not buried then according to Greek customs he would not be able to cross over into the underworld and have to wander Earth for the remainder of time, the greatest dishonor.

This is only one example of many where they read each other's ideas and built their own thoughts on them. I was thrilled. We started class the next day just skimming the play -- I asked them to notice who had a moral dilemma so far just by looking at where the annotations were. They could SEE that every character so far had some kind of dilemma. We were on a roll ...

Then came that day's work. They were to annotate for character development after our in-class reading. I intended to use these character annotations the next day when they got into acting companies to perform the parts we had read so far -- they would have insight into the characters right there on the play itself. But the wheels came off, and I have not figured out how to get them back on. I was getting email after email as the group manager telling me annotations were being put on, but I could not see them. I got to my first class, and I learned none of them could see them either, even their own annotations. Out of 25 students, only four of them had annotations that could be seen. They were anxious because this was their homework -- I was at least able to assure them that I could tell from the email notices they had done what they were to do.

My tech director, Susan Carter Morgan, and I have been trying to get to the bottom of the issue. Here is what we think we know:
  • The Antigone website I chose is a page that loads slowly, so this might be why it is glitchy. Note to self for future: be sure the site we are working on is fast without Diigo since Diigo does add another layer.
  • Diigo itself seems to be having problems. Susan has Twitter friends who have commented on having annotations disappear this past week. Susan and I have both emailed Diigo directly (in fact, I think Susan has emailed them more than once), but we have gotten no response. I am disappointed by this because if there is not strong customer service, we end up with an insolvable problem.
On the bright side, my history colleague did not have these issues last week. She was able to complete a really neat cross-curricular test with the students using Diigo. They had been learning about Greek culture plus studying primary texts. She told them their test would be annotating for Greek culture on a primary source document. When they got to class, they learned that the primary source was the section of Antigone I had read with them the day before. They made very insightful comments, and even better, all of their comments appeared right away. This was the same day my Diigo group had become totally non-functioning, so she was very relieved hers still worked. Here is an example of one of their cultural connections:

Isabel on 2009-11-18

This is an indirect example of the social inequality of Athenian life. Women did not have a large role in Athenian life outside of the home. Ismene does not know of what is going on in the outside world because her place is in the home, away from the news of the city. Because women were not valued no one has a priority to tell women what is going on.

Great thinking! The history teacher had put the play section onto her class's wiki, so she was not working from the same slow-loading page I was. This could be a great answer for how to use text you really want to use (I like the translation of Antigone that is on this slow page the best) but not have to use the slow page.

So, my students and I will finish reading Antigone without annotating, and that is fine. I hope to be able to truly know what all is going wrong by January when we start our next genre: poetry. Collaborative annotating of poetry has such possibilities! So, I am not giving up, and I will keep you posted.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

NCTE 2009

While there is more that I learned at NCTE than I can possibly share in a blog post, here is what is going through my mind as I am back at home and should be in bed. No particular order ...
  • If you have not read Clyde Edgerton, do. Then have your students read his work. Laugh and see the honesty of humanity all in one place. Thank you Yvonne Mason for introducing me to both the man and his writing.
  • Still pondering: Why do boys stop reading? Maybe it is because they have learned to hear the question, "Are you reading?" as "Are you reading fiction?" Maybe they are reading more than we know, but they are reading things we do not "count" as reading?
  • Philadelphia has done a remarkable thing with their convention center -- to see a beautiful and modern convention center fit inside an old train depot was breathtaking. Kudos to this urban wisdom.
  • Great idea from B38: Rediscovering ourselves as readers. Ask students to bring in the last book they truly enjoyed reading (no matter how long ago they read the book). On one day in class, all start rereading these personal favorites. Give the class and you time to finish the rereading out of class then discuss (together, in essays, ...) what each reader learned about themselves as a reader -- how this book marks a moment in their lives as readers. Let them rediscover why they like to read then take that enthusiasm into their reading with you.
  • (I twittered this one, so move along if you follow my tweets ...) Have students pair up throughout a text. For each chunk of reading, they switch roles: one posts quotes they find particularly noteworthy; the other responds to the quotes. Gives variety to reading responses through both alternating roles and immediate collaboration. Great way to use blogs/nings/discussion boards.
  • Everyone deserves an "open destiny." "Even fictional characters deserve to have hope." (Emma Walton Hamilton)
  • Still pondering: Can being more careful with the semantics of how we talk about grammar help us to better define the learning we hope to engender in our students? Think about the progression underlying these three terms: GRAMMAR --> USAGE --> RHETORIC
  • Great presentation on comedy from G38: A paraphrase of Chris Rock ... Comedy deals with things we would be uncomfortable with if we weren't laughing. Still pondering how to craft my dream elective, "Why don't we ever read anything happy?"
  • Did you know Art Spiegelman drew Garbage Pail Kid trading cards??
  • Paused for a long time on this one from Kelly Gallagher (my best memory of a quote): "Kids see reading today as a means to taking a test." Ninth graders have had NCLB in their lives since third grade ... what does that mean they make of their education?
  • Why do some people put the work into sending in a presentation proposal then not prepare a full presentation? Nothing was more of a downer than reading about a presentation and getting excited by what it would have to offer to find that it was over 25 minutes into the session block and I had missed out on the first half of other sessions. Thank you to each presenter who worked hard to craft an engaging and informative session (@tomliamlynch was a perfect example).
  • If you have any doubts (which I have had at times), Twitter is truly a relationship builder. I have attended the past two NCTE conferences without any colleagues, and this year I was able to attend with both an actual school colleague (Jennifer Clark Evans) and my Twitter network of colleagues. To meet in person the written voices I have learned so much from (@readinator, @ydmason, @klbz, @msstewart, @englishcomp, @iMrsF, and almost @nooccar ... I am sure I am missing someone) was something my Web 2.0 work offered that the convention could never have done all on its own.
Off to bed to make it through the next two and a half days before Thanksgiving. This weekend was a perfect pre-Thanksgiving celebration for me.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Starting with Diigo

The time has come ... my freshmen and I are venturing onto Diigo next week. I am excited for the sharing of annotations that Diigo allows. Last year's freshmen English teacher used Diigo to great success with the students' poetry studies. Having just focused on annotating The Importance of Being Earnest, I think my students will see pretty quickly the additional layer Diigo adds to their active reading and thinking.

What I am most curious about is how they decide to involve themselves in the sharing. I plan to have them do guided annotations at first where they find connections between our in-class discussions of moral dilemmas and what we have read of Antigone. What I will tell them is that if they get on to Diigo first, they have wide open choices for what to highlight and comment on. As more and more of them highlight, the options for new connections will diminish, so those who come on later will need to respond thoughtfully to an exisiting comment -- adding something of value to the class's accumulating ideas. I think it will be really neat the next day in class to have a compiled set of connections to jump right into. In prior years, we had to spend class time sharing them and marking others' ideas in our own texts -- how nice to be able to skip this step and start right into what we have made together.

Here are some things that have seemed important as I have gotten ready for all of this:
  • I am working with the freshman science and history teachers to get the students on Diigo. The science teacher a few weeks ago got them all to set up their accounts, and they have been sharing bookmarks. The history teacher then had them join her class group (more on that below) and do an annotation together in class this week. Therefore, when my classes go onto Diigo next week, the students should be able to use it right away. As a laptop school, this is the biggest hurdle we have found we need to negotiate -- the time it takes to get students logged onto and acclimated to a new Web tool. By sharing this over three courses, we have accomplished two things: no one of our classes has to bear the whole brunt of time needed to get familiar with the program and the students see right away that this is a tool they will truly use and not an "add on."
  • We have decided not to use the educator's account but instead to set up private Diigo groups. Knowing we want our students to use Diigo on their own ultimately, we did not want to limit what they do now to an ed account. However, we did not want them open to every Diigo user. So, we each have class groups they join, and they are learning to categorize their comments and bookmarks accordingly.
  • Our remaining issue is what to do with separate sections of our courses. We know that having all the students across different sections share their annotations is a wonderful, collaborative thing. However, we also know this sometimes will produce too many annotations for the students to truly use. They will just tune out as a result. Our history teacher came up with a great solution. She has all of her students still in the same history group, but when she wants the annotations limited, she has them annotate different web versions of the document. For example, they are starting with Aristotle's Poetics, so she found two websites that had similar translations for her two classes to annotate. What is really neat about this is that at any time, she can have the one class visit the other's site and see their annotations and compare them.
I will be back on here to let you know how all of this goes in reality!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Annotating and Victorian England: Unlikely Bedfellows

My freshmen and I have started The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. My main goal for our study is to work with students on thoughtful annotations. So many students underline everything or nothing as they read, and I remember feeling as a student that I was never sure I was marking the "right" things. So, the students' "test" on this play will be a master copy of the play itself -- one with all of their annotations. Here is the assignment sheet:

Your Master Copy of The Importance of Being Earnest

Annotating a text is one of the most important skills to have to study literature. Authors do it to their own writing to make notes for themselves, directors do it when they are preparing a play for their actors, and scholars do it when they are studying a text for their dissertations. So, now you will take on the role of author, director, and scholar and create your own master copy of The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Assignment: Fully annotate your copy of the play to show the depth of your understanding of the text itself as well as of the historical context of the text.

The Method: You will use the technical annotation skills available on your laptop. Let’s review how to do each of these: colored fonts, highlighting, hyperlinks within the document as well as to the Internet, and comments. The most important thing to remember is that for every highlighted passage, you must have an explanatory comment.

The Guidelines: To help me read your annotations, please use the corresponding colors to highlight the text to indicate which item you are doing.

1. At least 5 explanations* of how your knowledge of the historical background of Victorian England explains an aspect in the text

* 3 of these examples must be hyperlinked to corresponding websites as well as commented on.

2. At least 3 explanations of Wilde’s jokes about society

3. At least 5 explanations of aspects of the play discussed in class (not including the next question)

4. An explanation of the meaning of the title to the play as a whole

5. An explanation of your favorite part of the play (that is, explain what is happening and why you like this part so much)

Total: at least 15 annotated passages throughout the play

My school is in the midst of a year-long professional development focus on Understanding By Design. My personal goal is to review my assessments with an eye for truly asking students to DO what I hope they have learned. This assignment is one of my efforts at that. It seems to be working so far -- on our first day of reading, the students were making historical connections because they got the humor (here is a great site for research on Victorian England -- we used this before beginning the play). Tomorrow's homework will be for them to complete their first official annotation. Here is an example:

LADY BRACKNELL. [Pencil and note-book in hand.] I feel bound to tell you that you are not down on my list of
eligible young men, although I have the same list as the dear Duchess of Bolton has.
We work together, in fact.
However, I am quite ready to enter your name, should your answers be what a really affectionate mother requires.

Do you smoke? SLN1

The mothers kept a list of all the eligible men that can marry there daughters. They ask question
s to find out what the men are like.

For the next step, students will go live with their annotations using Diigo. Wish them luck!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Power (and Challenge) of Reflection

Last winter, I set myself the goal of having my students do more regular reflection. I cannot say I achieved this last year, but I think I have made some pretty good steps this year. I have pushed both my freshmen and my seniors to do more reflection, and what I see in their comfort level with the process is telling.

First, here are some of the reflective activities we have done:
  • When my freshmen received their short story texts back, we focused specifically on the test essay. I made sure to write a comment on each essay as I was grading that told them something they did well. They reviewed my comments then went to their blogs and wrote about what they feel they do well on test essays. Their homework was then to read their classmates' blogs to learn more about good test essay writing. They sent me an email telling me what they learned from their classmates.
  • My freshmen have also begun a document called "My Writing." In here, they record their strengths and areas for improvement. We will use this chart all year to keep doing what we do well and to keep improving. For their end-of-year portfolio, this chart will be a great way for them to track their writing trends for the year.
  • My seniors completed a Google survey where they told me what they enjoyed most about our first thematic unit and what they learned the most from. Great feedback for me and for them.
  • My seniors began the second quarter by pulling out two of their essays from first quarter. They reread my comments then set two goals for their writing for this quarter. They are in the midst of writing an essay right now, so these goals will have both an immediate application and a future one.
What I learned watching two groups who are four years apart is that reflection is a practiced skill. Many of my freshmen struggled with thinking about how to do what they did on this test essay on future essays -- the idea of transferring learning intentionally did not come naturally for many. My seniors on the other hand jumped right into their reflective work and really pushed themselves to think both backwards and forwards. I think some of this is because we (including me) do not ask students to reflect enough, so freshmen have less experience. I also think reflection is a skill requiring abstract thought, something some freshmen are cognitively still approaching.

This renews my goal of reflection in my class. If I can help students become more reflective thinkers, I have helped them gain a skill that goes far beyond my classroom. The power to reflect is the power to change your own life.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pushing Through

So the fifth week of school has done me in. I feel flat. I feel like every day should definitely be Friday. My body is saying, "This is for real? Summer is done??"

I can only imagine how my students are feeling if I feel this way about a job I love. Note to self:
  • Be gentle with them. Maybe even be gentle with yourself.
  • Do what you can to make class interactive to wake us all back up.
  • Remember this too shall pass.
Anyone else feeling it? Anyone have wisdom to share?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Real Life Authors

I am really excited (a dorky teacher level of excitement) about the next week with my freshmen and their study of short stories. Our course, Introduction to Genres, focuses on two essential questions:
  • What do we learn from the "masters" about how to write well?
  • How can you use these tools to make your own writing "masterful"?
With each genre, we read "masterful" examples then the students write their own, using the techniques they have seen in action. Our first genre study is the short story. I wanted to put the connections I have developed through Twitter and the English Companion ning to work to push my students' writing even further this year. Enter: two real live authors.

I learned about Australian author Margo Lanagan's thought-provoking story "Singing My Sister Down" when I put out a request on Twitter about stories people taught that their students loved. Come to find out, Margo Lanagan has her own blog ... and my students are blogging ... so two plus two equals four! My students are reading her story this weekend, and we will discuss it tomorrow. Then we will look at her blog together with their homework being to write to her -- to comment on her blog like they hope people comment on theirs. I hope some of them are proud of enough of their own blog posts about her story to share the link with her and invite her to comment. Writers sharing their blogs ... perfect.

Then later in the week, my students will participate in a Skype call with author Clyde Edgerton. This is a contact I made through an EC ning friend Yvonne Mason. Yvonne shared with me that she knew Clyde Edgerton and offered to contact him on my behalf. Clyde graciously accepted my invite to talk to my students about how he crafts short stories. My students will have read one story by him and talked about what they see in his writing style. They will also have completed a first draft of their own stories and be ready for revision tips from him. Writers talking together about how they write ... perfect.

Yes, I am excited to a silly degree ... I hope my students are at least half as excited :)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Thinking (Both Mine and Theirs)

Without my planning this, I focused on thinking with both of my classes today. It turned out to be an interesting pairing of lessons for me -- seeing the emphasis on independent thought I ask of ninth graders and that which I ask of seniors.

My ninth graders are just getting deep into our study of short stories, and I am pushing them to use their blog posts to explore how the authors use short story techniques. (Please read and comment on their blogs here if you have time -- they are enjoying sharing their ideas.) This is a new thing for me -- to make their reading reflections more than just, "What did you think of the story?," and instead, "What do you think this author is doing with his/her writing and why?" To prepare them for their assignment tonight (to study how Alice Walker shifts traditional plot structure in "To Hell With Dying"), we spent much of the period today looking at the climax and resolution of "The Most Dangerous Game." One student read aloud the ending, which was a subtle use of rereading with them, and the others had pen in hand marking the clues that led them to be able to say, "This story has a clear resolution." I am trying hard this year to be more overt about reading strategies with my students (thanks to I Read I But I Don't Get It), and today's small exploration into this area was great for my students and me. I can already see in those blog posts that have been done tonight how they processed the shifting of plot we discussed happening in "Game" and how they are transferring this understanding to a new and very different story.

The very next period, my AP students spent the class pushing themselves to overtly use the rereading strategy and reflect on how much it helps them. At this stage, I am trying to remind them that careful reading is an obligation so that they slow down and really engage like I know they can. We spent much of the period visiting and revisiting this quote (from an NCTE presentation I went to three years ago): "Confusion represents an advanced stage of understanding." They moved from seeing this as a paradox to understanding that if they come to class thinking they have "gotten it all" in a reading, then they have probably not actually engaged with that reading. We talked about the realistic pressures of rereading -- how they cannot read every assignment three times in full. Instead, they can reread sections that strike them multiple times so that then, as a class, we will all be experts in pieces so we can see a much deeper whole.

My freshmen and my seniors ended up doing the same thing today -- slowing themselves down to let their minds truly think. Great day.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

We Need to Have Fun Too

I am someone who can work alone for hours. Part of this is because I tend toward perfectionism and do not always stop when I could stop, and part is simply because I don't get fidgety easily. But a larger part is that I am an introvert -- I find large crowds daunting, and I have to work consciously and with effort to feel capable at general conversation. I do not mean to make myself out as a freak -- I just know I am someone who would more often than not choose to be by myself in my classroom planning or grading than out and about with others.

So, I set myself a goal last year: take my lunch every day to our student commons and eat with the teacher who had commons duty that period. I was successful with actually doing this probably half the time, but I measure a much greater success in what I gained from these casual lunches. I ended up playing my flute in our school's first-ever pit band because of lunch one day with the drama teacher. I discovered a powerful read in Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy because of a lunch with a substitute teacher. I discovered things about my colleagues that I never knew because I let myself be discovered too.

Now comes the opening of this school year. Our school as a whole seems to have set an unstated goal of collegiality. We have had a happy hour, a faculty luncheon, a gathering at the Upper School Head's house, and tomorrow is team building. And I am so energized by all of this. I am looking forward to the school year not just because I love to teach but because I really like my colleagues too. In fact, I am in a small way sad that the students will show up Tuesday because I know this will drive us at least somewhat back into our individual classrooms.

So I have renewed my goal from last year and will bring my lunch to the commons again. I will do all I can to stay in touch with my colleagues. In the end, even we as teachers need to have fun at school -- fun with our students of course, but also fun as professional adults with other professional adults. Now comes remembering to reread this blog when I am mired deep in grading in October!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Literature Circles

I have used literature circles for many years. My students always enjoy them, and I get better each time with setting up the process so they truly engage with their books. I particularly enjoy doing this with my ninth graders when I have them write their own tests as a group. I was given the opportunity in college to write a final for a class rather than take one. I was petitioning to take my final early, and the professor offered me this instead. As I wrote that final, I realized how smart the professor was about assessments. I had to really know my stuff in order to create a final I thought he would deem worthy -- the writing of the test probably took me longer than the hours I would have been in the exam room taking his final. It was a powerful lesson for me, and my ninth graders have benefited from it. They are always amazed when I tell them they will write their own tests. The discussions the groups end up having as they decide which questions to ask are always the best of the whole lit circle process. I know they know their stuff when I see strong tests.

This summer I had another chance to really learn something by doing it. A colleague of mine set up an online literature circle in our school's ning to work through the first five chapters of Understanding by Design, our assigned faculty summer reading. I was glad to have a structure set for me because I knew that meant I would get the reading done, so I signed on. Well, if you have any doubts about the efficacy and power of the literature circle process, banish them now. As I worked through a lit circle role for each chapter, I saw the beauty of the lit circle pedagogy in action. It is reading strategies come alive -- when I read a chapter knowing I was, say, the connector, I read specifically for that goal. I ended up remembering far more with this focus than I ever do just reading something to read. I had a scaffolding to pin my reading on and to give me a road map through what is some dense reading a times (trust me on this one if you have not read UbD). I also knew I did not have to worry about every detail because I had my lit circle partners focusing on the other aspects. I knew I would learn from them, so I could learn at this first stage better because I was more focused. Then the discussions we had helped me pull everything together -- I looked back at the book, I remembered things I had forgotten, I learned things I had never thought about ...

While I knew in my mind that literature circles were a good thing, to participate in one gave me so much more insight into why they work so well. Once again, I am reminded that DOING something is the most powerful way to learn. A great reminder particularly as I begin a new year with my students ... can I get them to DO more in their learning?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What Are Your Thoughts?

I am on the horns of a dilemma ... Frankenstein or A Lesson Before Dying for the final text of ninth grade? I am seeking a challenging text that prepares students for the rigorous reading levels of British Literature in sophomore year but also one that grabs ninth graders deeply. Here are my thoughts ...
  • The reading level of Frankenstein is more challenging overall with its vocabulary and sentence structure. Is this a good thing? Is the reading level of Frankenstein appropriate for ninth grade?
  • The historical background of A Lesson Before Dying seems like it would be more challenging to ninth grade students -- one can read Frankenstein separate from its historical time period much more readily. Yet, the history embedded in A Lesson ... is so vital to our nation's history. Does teaching this book become more of a history lesson than a literature one?
  • In A Lesson ..., is the sex and the use of the f--- word one time appropriate for ninth grade? I was surprised by this content. How do you handle it?
I would love to hear everyone's thoughts and even other titles to achieve my goal if you have them.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stopping and Taking Stock

My wonderful English colleagues in the Upper School, Susan Carter Morgan and Jennifer Clark Evans, and I created a portfolio to submit for the NCTE Media Literacy Award. We worked on it both F2F and collaboratively online, and this wiki is our proud product. I do not know if we will win (and really even what winning this award means ...), but we all decided as we were working that just to have created this portfolio was worth it. It is empowering to stop for a minute and see what great things you and your colleagues have done. There is always more to do, indeed. But for today, pause and pat yourself on the back for what you have accomplished. It is worth it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Summer ...

I am in my third week of summer, and here is my first visit to my blog. This is probably a good thing overall, although not so good for my blog's currency. I blogged quite a bit last summer -- in fact, last summer got my blog and I cemented in a good relationship with each other! This summer though has started differently. I have a deeper set of connections on Twitter (snobles) plus love spending time on the English Companion ning (many of my Twitter connections came from this ning). I am also trying to visit my school's new private ning as much as I can -- we are trying to get it off the ground. My online life has spread in new ways, competing with this blog.

This article on the possible demise of blogging got me back here. I started this blog for me. I was a journal writer growing up but had not written in my journal for too many years. My blog has become my teacher's journal. The fact that others can read it, maybe learn from it, and definitely teach me things in their comments is an added bonus. But I can see that if I had started this blog with the hope of being famous in the blogsphere, I would not still be here. The blogosphere is too diffuse for that. I would also not still be here if I did not have readers who write back to me -- the idea that someone might just be waiting for a new post reminds me to write. I am curious to see where the world of blogs is heading, and I am glad I have this one. I am a better teacher by reflecting, and this blog is my tangible reminder to do that.

So, what have my early weeks of summer entailed?
  • READING -- I am plowing through books like I have not in a long time. Both personal choices and professional ones are grabbing me, and I find myself already worrying if there will be enough time this summer to read everything I want to read! I am trying to keep my LibraryThing library up to date.
  • Getting better versed with Diigo as both a social bookmarking site and a powerful annotating tool. Steve Shann is one person who inspires me to keep blogging, and per his request, I will be sure to write about what I do with Diigo and my 9th graders next year.
  • Working in my yard. One VERY rainy spring later, and our blackberry vines are full, my first tomato literally fell off its vine ready to eat, and we found even more places to plant flowers.
  • Being with my kids and my husband. This is the first summer in many that my husband is not away for a month directing the Virginia Governor's Latin Academy, and the rest of us family couldn't be happier. We swim, walk, bike, garden, read, laugh ...
I read about a saying Suzy Welch lives by -- 10-10-10. She says she makes decisions by thinking about what will matter most in 10 minutes, in 10 months, and in 10 years. I can't think of a better way to regain perspective on life and what matters most. I am off to pack a picnic right now to meet my kids and husband at a local park for an outdoor lunch concert. I think I know this will matter!

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Maybe I am one of the last to discover this neat site, but I am now pondering all of the possibilities. Issuu lets you upload documents to be published online in a great visual magazine format. You then can create different libraries and share the publications -- I am envisioning a class library with all of the online documents we read. Here is an example:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Favorite Short Stories

I asked my irreplaceable Twitter community of English teachers: if you could only teach one short story, what story would it be? Now, being English teachers, some of them actually chose two and three stories (who can narrow literature down to just one favorite?), but here is their list:

"Nineteen Fifty-Five" and "Araby" (@readinator)
"The Story of an Hour," "Scarlet Ibis," and "The Yellow Wallpaper" (@suzieswimz)
"The Yellow Wallpaper" and "The Lottery" (@nicolemurr4)
"The No-Talent Kid" (@pjhiggins)
"The Scarlet Ibis" and "The Most Dangerous Game" (@jmiscavish)
"The Speckled Band" and "The Rocking Horse Winner" (@andyleefisher)

Two of my favorites are "To Hell with Dying" and "Bluestown" by Geoffrey Becker (the short story that became part of a novel).

What is your and your students' favorite story?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ning Wisdom from Students

As my year winds down, I have turned to my students for final reflections. Two chose to think about their experiences with our ning work on Othello. As the actual users of the ning, their responses are invaluable. If it didn't work, they lived through it. If it did, they learned from it. As teachers, we can hope new tools and teaching techniques change our classrooms; our students are the ones who tell us if they did.

Cara wrote, "The Othello character group [that we did on the ning] ... REALLY helped in understanding the text. I felt super-knowledgeable about my character in a way that didn't come from my teacher or a book, but a peer and myself."

There is it -- the evidence that student-directed learning does happen and that it is more powerful in both the depth of the learning achieved by and the confidence instilled in our students.

Neil wrote, "Whatever you do, do not overdo online tools in place of discussion. Class discussion is still king; this is coming from a teenage kid. The best discussion ends up taking place in class, whether everyone responds or not. On an online forum where everyone is required to answer, the temptation is to read only the posts you are required to comment on. In class, you can’t really filter out someone speaking."

Neil's words are a great reminder to us that Web 2.0 tools are tools we add to our teaching kits not that replace everything we have ever done. Yes, many students write more in the online forum than they speak in class, but face-to-face discussions are important too. This is my main goal for my Web 2.0 integration next year: to link the out-of-class online work closely and thoughtfully to our in-class work. I tried to do this as much as a could this year in a few ways:
  • starting class by having everyone return to the discussion thread, read a new part they had not read, and comment on it
  • choosing a few posts to project to the class as discussion prompts
  • having the students review a discussion thread, noting something new they have learned or a question they have, then sharing these and discussing them
I saw time and again that connecting students' out-of-class thinking with their in-class work validates both and deepens their learning. Even those students who are more hesitant to speak out in class did so much more when they could base it on the online work -- they had a chance to get their ideas together and thus had more confidence. Students see that the online work is not just an "add-on" -- it is integral to their overall learning.

I want to end with Neil's reference to being required to participate. This to me is the eternal rub ... we want our students to be excited learners not because they have to be. We hope they see these tools as things they can use in their own lives to further their engagement in our world. Will Richardson would have all learning be self-driven in this way.

However, I have found I do need to require participation, at the start ... and to be honest, sometimes all the way through. I will continue to develop my use of these tools to be as student-driven as I can, but I also know my students do not always LOVE to be online outside of class time. So, thus I require responses. I try to make this requirement as open as I can -- 3 responses of any sort (new posts, comments, whatever) for homework or 15 responses of any sort by the end of our work with a text. This is a pickle I will continue to chew on [:)] -- the power of online tools to increase student-driven learning while also not being what every student always wants to do.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why Do We Read?

Today was my third to last day with my AP English Lit students. Bittersweet times. I have one goal for them as we come to the end of our time together: to be readers and writers in the world beyond my classroom. Today we explored reading. Using Steven Shann's wonderful work about literature and values, my class and I brought in books we value - books from any age in our lives that have stayed with us for any number of reasons. We shared our books, making a map of literature in our lives. My students then answered, "Why do we read?" Their responses show me that my students, as a cross-section of our world, are thoughtful, seek what is good and right, want to grow and learn, and will keep reading -- not just for me, but for their world. I am not surprised, and I am very proud. Here are their words ...

Evan wrote, "I can truthfully say that I am not an avid reader and I don’t know if I ever will be, but some of the books I have read, such as Bringing Down the House or Miracle in the Andes or Into Thin Air, have truly changed my life. Reading these people's life experiences has helped me realize who I am and what aspects of life I should or shouldn’t follow. I believe this is why people read. What I think is unbelievable is that in today’s world, people are always trying to create ways to make things easier and able to be done with minimal effort, but for some reason most humans such as myself will pass on the chance to see a 2hr movie to read a 400 page book that may take a few weeks. I wish I had the answer to why this is."

Cara wrote, "I think we read to lean ... We learn about facts of other places and cultures of course, but I think that what we are really learning is about how much more there is to the world beside our selves."

Griffin wrote, "We read because it is something we want to do. Reading fulfills something that we are want. It is that simple."

Greg wrote, "If you know a book is nowhere like your life (A Million Little Pieces for example) it gives new perspective."

Maggie wrote, "I think we read to gain more out of life. Being able to read the experiences or fictional stories of others takes us to places we would never dream of. We all have our individual sense of who we are and we will go in one direction with our lives, but by reading, we're able to experience and imagine our life as someone else. It could either make us happy with the life we currently have or drive us to make a change and do something else."

Carmen wrote, "Reading is one of the most powerful things in the world. It’s how we communicate and it’s how we learn ... It would be nearly impossible for the world today to operate without it ... It just makes me really happy…so that’s why I read."

Emily Z wrote, "I think that we read to understand something that we didn’t before. I think that along with reading, we understand ourselves better. We put ourselves in the situations, we challenge ourselves to think about what we would do if we were the characters, and as the character grows, I think we are able to grow with them."

Carley wrote, "We read to learn, feel inspired, and connect. We read to understand. We read to know. We read to laugh, cry, and love. We read to identify with characters, make them our friends, and learn from their mistakes ... We read for the impact it makes upon our lives. We read to discover lessons we would otherwise have to learn the hard way ... We read because it makes time worthwhile, and most importantly, we read because we love it."

Nate wrote, "If we can search for a book’s truth and depth AND enjoy the author's hard work, we gain insight from another person’s perspective…that’s why we read. That way we’re always learning and always moving forward."

Jamie wrote, "Currently I read to better myself; however back in the day, reading meant being with my family right before bedtime. I have tons of memories of being with them that I could never replace."

Carlyn wrote, "To be able to experience anything imaginable"

Raleigh wrote, "We read for fun. We read to go places we cannot go within an hour or a day, however long we decide to read. We read to exercise our imaginations and stimulate our minds. We read because we want to. We read because we want to see life from another place or time. We read to think and expand our own knowledge. We read because it is beautiful..."

Emily G wrote, "We read to escape ... We read to learn ... We read to relate ... We read to think."

Joe wrote, "I think people read to experience things we otherwise can't, and to confer with others about their feelings to something in a book. Unlike movies, books are personal, reading a book is like writing a journal. You feel a new you building itself as you read about events you have never confronted in your own life."

Nicholas wrote, "We read in order to escape the realities that surround us and escape the stresses of the world."

Britnae wrote, "It validates what you are feeling. I think this is nearly an exact quote from somewhere I forgot, but there's nothing more thrilling than opening a book and finding the author wrote something that you thought only you had felt before. I tells us that it's okay to be crazy, or dissatisfied, or goofy, or intellectual ... books are like meeting new people."

Carole wrote, "I wanted to go into a new world, I wanted to meet new people. I would pretend that the characters I read and liked were my friends and would talk to them. The more books I read the more friends I got, the more places I knew."

Landon wrote, "We read to escape."

Walker wrote, "If I want to be a warrior battling against the forces of evil, a spy infiltrating enemy headquarters, or a gentleman in the British Aristocracy, I read. It allows me to almost leave my corporeal body and mentally journey into another world. It allows me to meet thousands of new friends, and travel to thousands of new countries and worlds."

Neil wrote, "Reading is a kind of experience you can keep forever; you can hold onto something forever from a good book, and eventually you end up with a mind full of wisdom to share with people around you."

Friday, May 1, 2009

My Goals (answering Will and Sheryl)

Six Months Out ...
  • to refine my PLN (not meaning shrink it necessarily -- meaning find what is most powerful for me and making the time for that)
  • to develop my English teaching network as I reenter the classroom
  • to get my head around what we as a school hope to achieve with the 9th grade and link that to the curricular goals of my department so both sets of goals flourish in tandem
Three Years Out ...
  • to have collaboration be a regular and routine part of my teaching for me and my students
  • to have writing be challenging and authentic for me and my students
  • to create a classroom environment where students explore and create with me and beyond me

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Writing Expanding with the 21st Century

I am reading Maja Wilson's Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment. I started it to be in the English Companion ning's book group, but I have to say I was completely outclassed by the nine pages of comments written the very first two days. Realizing I couldn't possibly keep up with that (in case we ever wondered if we English teachers can write, the answer is "yes" and "yes, a lot!"), I have been reading along at my own pace and have stumbled across two ideas that have me thinking not about rubrics but about how my students' worlds are changing.

"The disconnect between the writing we honor in our own literary lives and the writing we encourage from students is illustrated by our approach to teaching research and expository writing versus the research and expository writing we actually read" (38).

I think I now understand comments my seniors made when they were writing their academic articles. I reworked this assignment because I wanted to make this research paper more authentic to link to the collaborative ning work the students did to build up to the writing. As the due date drew near, I asked my students how the writing was going (something I do if only to see how many work on their final revisions before the last night!), and more than one student said some version of, "This is harder to write than I thought it would be." I then worried about how their final papers would turn out, but that turned out to be an unfounded fear. Then I read Wilson's words above. Now I wonder if maybe I achieved my goal with this paper even more than I had hoped. I structured this paper around the research-based writing scholars do who are debating Shakespeare. I tried to say every day in class, "You are joining the conversation," so my students would see that what they had to say was valuable. We looked closely at academic journal articles to see HOW they are written. In the end, maybe they found this hard because it was not a traditional research paper -- instead, maybe they really felt like they had something to say and they wanted to say it well. I know in the end that their articles were indeed something I would choose to read.

"Literature has broadened because the events of the last century could not be contained by the old forms; new ideas, conflicts, and discoveries have forced new vehicles for expression" (39).

This then makes me ponder how I can revamp other writing assignments to be writing my students and I want to read. We have a very strong writing curriculum at my school, and we as a department think often about how to make writing meaningful for our students. Wilson's words crystallize for me how the collaborative and open world of the web can help us to help our students write writing we and they want to read even more.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri

A change in my school's daily schedule decreased the number of class meetings we have in a year. While I tried mightily all year to trim and condense, I still arrived here, a month before the AP exam, with not enough class meetings to "finish." Deciding to cut texts/authors is very hard for me. What if they are never given a TS Eliot poem in the future and I cut mine? What if Kafka was going to be the spark for that one student?

But with the brick wall I found myself faced with, I could not pretend I could go without dropping Kafka's The Metamorphosis. I just did not have the four days I know I need (at minimum) to do the text justice as an introduction to our Cultural Identity and Isolation theme. So, I punted and ended up making a homerun (sorry for the mixed sports metaphor). I had my students read two stories by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I read her collection Interpreter of Maladies in the fall and loved it. So a few weeks ago, I thought, "Well, she certainly introduces culture and the struggles that come along with it, and her stories are shorter than Kafka. Let's give it a whirl."

What an amazing two days of whirl. My students were fascinated from the start because Lahiri is a living, breathing writer (listen to her in this NPR interview). They said, "She makes us think we could do this too -- she is not Sophocles writing milennia ago." Then her stories delivered. I let them choose between "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine" and "Mrs. Sen's," and they spent the next class period discussing their story with a partner who read the other story. The window into lives defined by culture was paradigm-changing for them. Her style was even more than this -- they read quotes by her and struggled with how to articulate the power they felt running under her words. We worked hard that day and loved it.

So if you can, add Lahiri into your curriculum. Even just two stories. But more importantly, I was reminded again of the spread of literature I can and should show my students. They really liked Sophocles last week, and they loved Lahiri this week. They know where writing came from and where it is today. They can join the conversation.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Finding the Gold

Today my blog is a celebration is teaching, learning, and students.

I am reading my seniors last formal research papers of the year. As I read, I am making a list to show my classes of the "gold nuggets" of writing I have found in their papers. I am so proud of their writing. I can see their work on literary analysis coming through with their use of our literary vocabulary. I can see their confidence as thinkers from our collaborative work and essential questions coming through in their unique and exploratory tones and ideas. I can see their understanding that they really do need evidence for their ideas, and more than that, their ease with finding and interacting with such evidence. These seniors have had great teachers before me who brought them to a place where I could just put on some polish, and I just want to share here some examples to show how well they are prepared to be enthusiastic thinkers, valuable contributors, thoughtful speakers, and powerful writers as they move from us to their larger worlds:
  • "Emilia may not be the smartest, the most noble, or the best leader, but she makes tremendous growth and ends the play with a staggering act of bravery."
  • "All of that aside, we see that Iago is coming up with various plausible motives for his actions but that the actual actions show no real connection to any individual motive."
  • "In the middle of the play our reader senses are prickled by Emilia’s seemingly motivated actions to please her husband."
  • "Through Desdemona’s kind and generous pillar of friendship, Emilia, used to asking and receiving so little from both mistress and master alike, has grown into a strong, angry woman, more aligned with the truth than with any husband."
  • "Othello fends off invaders from allies, Desdemona fends off her father’s disapproval of her union with the general; Othello wears armor to protect himself physically, Desdemona wears an ability to speak her mind to protect herself from being walked on; Othello has the full attention of his followers (minus one unusually cunning Iago), Desdemona commands the attention of the Duke’s court."
  • "Emilia's flowing syntax, full of thought, quickly deteriorates into curt statements as she seemingly arbitrarily turns to Iago in her judgment. This shift reflects the haste with which her decision is made."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seminars Without Me

I have always had my AP Lit students tackle our final novel, Things Fall Apart, in seminar groups. My purpose is to show them as well as I can that they are truly ready to do this kind of thing on their own -- that they can read and read well and that they have great ideas and can create interpretations without a "teacher answer key." They do lit circles, independent readings, and class presentations of new works throughout high school, so this is the last of many times they have been handed the reins -- and I hope to make it a great final one to remember.

Some years though have gone better than others. It is a hard time to get seniors to put in 100%, and some students just have chosen to not engage. So each year, I tweak and revise the unit based on the feedback I gathered from my prior class and my own observations. This year, my goal is to include this kind of reflection DURING the two weeks of their seminar meetings. This ties to my goal below of working in more time for reflection -- and I'd like to see how regular reflection of their own habits affect my students' work and engagement.

I plan to begin with a suggestion by Carol Jago in With Rigor for All: letting them know I will be silently observing each group, noting things to share at the end of class but that I won't talk until then. I will use these final class comments to reinforce positive behaviors I saw in the groups -- encouraging quieter members to talk, supporting an idea with a great textual reference, etc. But in the middle, I will flip it. Rather than ending with my reflection, I will have them email me how they feel they themselves did in that seminar. I hope my final reflections will help them see how to then reflect on themselves thoroughly.

In the end, if my seniors leave me as even slightier adept at self-reflection, then my class will have served their lives well.

Monday, March 16, 2009

What Do Students Think about Nings?

I am wrapping up my first use of a ning with my classes, and from my perspective, it was a great success.
  • All of the students participated not only with what they had to do for their own work but also with commenting on other students' posts.
  • The ning became a part of our in-class work as well as out-of-class collaboration because the students and I referenced it in our discussions, I projected parts of it to get class started, and I set up in-class cooperative learning activities on it.
  • The group of college students training to be teachers who joined the ning pushed my students out of their comfort zones, thus making them think even more.

I wanted my students' perspective to add to mine, and I wanted them to have a chance to reflect on the whole experience (see my reflective struggles below!) So I asked them three questions:

  • What did you like about using the ning? What could be improved?
  • Do you like the idea of using a ning for one text or would it you like to use it for all year (instead of TurnIt In for discussions, the website for docs, individual notes …)?
  • How do you feel about expressing yourself to others on the web (our NJ collaborators, doing things like this overall that are open to strangers)?

Their responses were overwhelming positive. All of them enjoyed the ning, and the most often cited reason was seeing others' ideas and being able to ponder ideas more slowly because they were written down and could be returned to. They truly "got" that sharing ideas makes their own ideas that much stronger. One wrote, "I really liked the fact that just because of what the ning is and how it works we were sort of forced to see other people's thoughts on things. By that I mean, for example, through the character groups I got to really see the opinions of others, and their support for them, of such a complex character as Iago. I think it really helped me to develop my own opinions much stronger."

Half of the class wants to use the ning for the whole year, while the other half recognizes that even the most exciting things can be overused. They made an excellent point though that by using the ning earlier in the year, they will be fully versed in all it can do and then get more out of the work on Othello. One wrote, "The only improvement I would recommend is to use it more so we are used to it before we get into a major book discussion because then it is hard to think that there is a source there for you." So I plan to start the ning at the opening of the year and use it for the online discussions I used for and some other work. I am going to focus on not overusing it before I get to Othello in January, so I will ask my students to reflect throughout the first semester about the ning. Maybe I will find them asking me to use it even more.

Finally, I wanted to know their thoughts about interacting with people on the web, but not in their accustomed social way. Nancy Devine got me thinking about this when she polled her students and discovered an overwhelming fear of being "out there" on the Internet. Our society has focused so much on Internet safety that it seems to be hurting our students' views of what learning and growing they can do with Web 2.0 tools. I teach at a laptop school, so I thought my students answers would be a great counterpoint to Nancy's students because mine have had technology underpinning their whole high school career. Here is what mine say: all but two are confident and comfortable sharing their ideas on the web. What seems to be at the root of this is they feel they have something worthwhile to say and they seem to understand that this type of academic conversation is different than giving your email to a stranger. So what is the difference and how can we bring more students to a place of comfort with such sharing? Maybe you read that question and think, "I don't think they have to share on the web," but I have seen such growth in my students and more importantly in myself through my own collaborations that I have to disagree. The web is a way to help our students learn even more and even more deeply. We need to make sure this door is open to every student.

Here are some ideas I have:

  • regular use of technology is the first step and of course the step that creates our "digital divide" -- by using the technology regularly for more than just social networking (what students do on their own), it becomes a more natural and less fearful place of learning
  • the next step is slowly opening the Web 2.0 door for them -- my students knew that the people in our ning had been invited there by me -- they knew there were none of the much-discussed-child-stalkers in there -- the more we can offer of these experiences, the more students will learn of their value and seek them on their own

In the end, my students' work in and thoughts on our class ning have proven to me that technology used thoughtfully, purposefully, and creatively makes for better learning.

Monday, March 9, 2009


"Although reflection is often the first thing to go when teachers run out of time on a project or a unit, activities that prompt students to look back at what they've learned and accomplished isn't just busywork or an unnecessary step, educational experts say. In fact, encouraging students to pause and think about what they're learning and why it's relevant to their lives is a critical piece, according to Katie Charner-Laird, a principal at Lincoln-Eliot School, in Newton, Massachusetts" (Suzi Boss, High Tech Reflection Strategies Make Learning Stick).

Oh, how many class periods have I taught when my plans for a five-minute final reflection disappeared because a discussion is still going or an activity taking longer ... It is such a hard balance to maintain. I do not want to cut off students when they are engaged in the learning, but I also do really believe that the reflection is what cements the learning. I have larger reflective work set into my curriculum -- personal reflection on the semester exam, reflective letters in final portfolios. I hereby reaffirm my commitment to making the small moments of reflection a priority!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Another View of Writing

A colleague of mine shared this blog post from the Writing Teacher with me. It is all about how history can be taught through the eyes and skills of creative writing. Here is a blurb in case you don't have time to read the whole post:

My first year I taught English, history, science, and two periods of physical education. I was completely unqualified to teach science and physical education, but I did have a minor in history. What I had to do then was figure out how to make history interesting.

All my life I had read historical novels. Every Christmas and birthday my parents bought me books, mostly historical fiction about young girls who lived in times past. I loved these stories. History was stories—stories with real people, not just key figures. History was stories with real time periods, not just dates. History was stories with exciting action, not just names of events. How could I make these stories happen in my classroom? By involving the students in reading and writing activities that put them in those times, those places. By telling them that the study of history should be the study of well-told stories, and of reading and writing well-told stories.

And that’s what I did. I taught history as if it were a literature class. The textbook became a launching pad for research into what really happened, who was really there, and who the participants were. I wanted more for my students than sound bites.

So we researched and we wrote. We wrote letters from one historical character to another, even across time zones. We wrote editorials and obituaries. We wrote speeches to be given at award ceremonies and thank-you speeches for the awards. We drew storyboards for the movies we wanted to make and then wrote about them. We wrote poetry.

And my students said: “When we become the characters and write as if we were those people, we learn so much more than if we were just reading about them.”

I, as an English teacher and fellow literature lover, would LOVE a class like this. But I would like to get the opinion of someone who teaches history and was not an English major. Does this type of approach -- and more specifically this type of writing -- have a place in a history class? Can it meet writing goals you have? Or can it be blended with other writing? In the end, as a history teacher, what goals do you have for your students as writers and for what you hope they gain by writing? I am in the midst of a great discussion with my history colleagues about writing across the disciplines, so I really look forward to your responses to add to our conversations.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Creating Great Writers

If your students are writing as much as you can grade, they're not writing enough to learn. If your students are writing enough to learn, you can't possibly grade it --
a paraphrase of Lief Fearn, Interactions

I have been thinking a lot about teaching writing, assessing writing, encouraging writing, stifling writing, and being buried under piles of the very same writing. In the end, what is it that makes our students strong writers but more importantly excited writers? It just might be a precarious balance of ...
  • assigning frequent writing that is at times on required topics and in required genres to push students out of comfort zones but is just as frequently, if not more so, on topics of students' choice in genres they feel fit the purpose the best

  • giving feedback that focuses on style and voice not grammar and mechanics while also expecting your students to write grammatically (and teaching them how to do so)

  • assigning regular writing and being sure that writing receives feedback (whether it is your feedback or peer feedback or the writer's self-reflection) within the week

  • focusing on specific writing skills through short, directed assignments (great introduction writing practice can mean just writing an introduction) yet expecting your students to write developed pieces the most -- specific skill development is necessary to write, but skill development in isolation does not equal strong and thoughtful writing

  • writing with your students even while you are also balancing the commenting and grading of your other class's papers that came in last week

I think there should be a national requirement that English teachers teach one less class than a typical load and use that "free" period for writing conferences, draft feedback, and grading. Yes, this will mean needing more teachers because each teacher will have a smaller student load (do not make the class sizes even bigger to "remedy" this -- that is subterfuge). Otherwise, teachers have to go into survival mode, knowing they cannot possibly work with the frequent writing of 150 students, and have their classes do less and less writing. The teacher does not like this choice, but what more can they do? And in the end, the students end up writing, and therefore growing and learning, less.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Why Literature Matters

"It is difficult to get the news from poems,
yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."
William Carlos Williams

Williams reminds me again about why I believe there is power in literature, even texts from centuries ago. Some authors have their fingers squarely on the pulse of humanity. Williams would probably be sorely confused to hear he was commenting on the preponderance of Internet skimming, but his wisdom gives us much to think about in this world of Web 2.0 overload. As much as I know skimming is a skill we all need (I went to college pre-web-2.0 days and still had to rely on skimming for those 1000 poli sci pages I was to read every week!), slowing down to ponder and connect is what feeds our minds and souls. I hope, by the end of my time with my students, that they have found something in their lives they enjoy reading enough to slow down and live by and through and with ...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Joining the Conversation

I have reworked my students' final research project on Othello to link more closely with what they will be expected to do in college and in any proposal or paper they have to write for their careers. I want them to see that anything they write is joining a conversation already happening, and that their goal is to listen to the conversation and offer a new voice. Having worked through the play using our ning, I wanted the paper to be a natural continuance of this conversation. In this way, research is done with the goal of responding back to it, whether through agreement and further examination or disagreement and formulation of new ideas. Here is what I have for the assignment sheet. My students start this in a few days, so I am looking forward to seeing what they do with the work. They have an amazing way of always doing even more than I hope.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How Is It Going?

I had my class reflect on their work in our Othello ning today. For homework last night, they had no set work to do in the ning; instead they were to explore what has been going on and comment where they were moved to do so. To start class today, I had them send me an email that began, "I noticed ..." They could finish with things they learned about the play, their classmates, the ning, whatever had struck them.

Here is what one student wrote: "I noticed...that I LOVE the Ning! It’s been really helpful because I’ve been able to see other’s thoughts. I liked that I was able to compare the different paraphrasing people did of Iago’s speech, it helped me get a strong understanding of what he was saying by looking at all points of view. Also, in my character discussion group of Desdemona, I find the Ning very helpful. I really like that we can just throw an idea on there and then let others add on to it or find evidence to support it. It’s a great way for us all to be able to work together without getting confusing."

Wow. I want to hug her. I want to jump up and down. I want to hope that my other students are feeling at least a part of what she feels.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

What Really Works

Last night, I participated in my third Elluminate PLP session with Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Will Richardson. Sheryl and Will were working with us to explore the truism that it is not the tools or the content that matters for good teaching -- it is how we teach. The pedagogy. Hearing that was music to my ears because so often we teachers, in our day-to-day busy-ness, lose sight of this most important thing. So we do not talk about pedagogy enough -- and maybe we can never talk about it enough because there is always something new to learn.

And that is what Sheryl then helped us do. She asked us to think of the teaching strategies we use that are most effective at helping our students learn, and we shared them in the chat. While we only had time to explore a few, it got me thinking that this would be a very powerful activity for every teacher to do every now and then. So here is my list:
  • Higher-order questioning: Using follow-up questions (even those as simple as, "Why?") to push my students to explain and dig deeper into their answers
  • Student-to-student discussions: These can be done in a variety of ways (jigsaw, fishbowling, etc), but the one that has worked the best for me recently has been the online discussion board.
  • Reflection: Asking at the end of a lesson, when a student gets an assignment back, at the end of a novel, whenever there is an end moment -- What did you learn? What might you still need to learn? Wha goals do you have?
  • Portfolios: This is usually labeled as an assessment method, but I think it is equally a teaching strategy (and linked to "reflection" above). The process of looking over the year, pulling out moments to remember, and reflecting on those is a lifelong lesson.
  • Writing with my students: They know you value something when you are willing to do it too, and you see so clearly what they are experiencing.

What are your best teaching strategies?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Life of a Writer

One of my goals for this year was to bring an author to speak to our Upper School. We had an ambassador and public health official speak last year, and the impact of hearing how people ended up in their careers was powerful. I knew I wanted to add a writer to that.

However, having a goal does not mean I can achieve it, particularly in these financial times. Our department budget has been restricted, and finding an author to come with little to offer was not high on my list. Enter technology! Ah, Will Richardson, you will love this story of the wonders of the web ...

I got an email from a Virginia author, Maggie Stiefvater, who had found my name listed as the department coordinator on my school's website. She sent me her information, including links to reviews about her new book and to her blog. I liked what I saw. Many of our students devour fantasy outside of the classroom, and it seemed that people were devouring Maggie's book already. Turns out because we are so close to her, she will come for much less money because she wants to encourage students to pursue lives as writers.

So, Maggie is coming Monday to present to our students. The connections the web have allowed between published authors and us as readers are astounding. In this singular instance, I would never have found Maggie before the web allowed us to find each other. But in a bigger sense, students can meet and learn from authors without them coming to our school. My students this past fall found Paulo Coelho's website and ended up friending him on Facebook and following some of his blog. I was so interested in seeing their reactions to this discovery because Coelho became a different kind of writer to them. They commented that he was even more connected through technology than they were, and this gave him a relevance that was subtle but definitely there. I plan to have my students next year delve even more into the ways we can connect with Coelho, but really, this spontaneous connection was better than any lesson plan I will develop.

So thank you to Maggie and Paulo and any other authors who have made themselves available to the world. My students may just become writers because of you.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

It's More Than Just Content

I have been thinking a lot about my "Ethics in Teaching" class lately and about teacher behavior -- not teacher behavior in the classroom but instead how teachers behave when not teaching yet still in places where students are. This blog is not about specific people or events (in fact, I do not think that would be ethical), but I do want to explore how we teach and instruct students outside the 45 minutes or however long we have them in class each day.

I know I am highly conscious of my actions during the school day -- what I say, more importantly how I say it, and what I do. In fact, at times I feel I am too conscious of this, that my consciousness ends up momentarily creating small walls between students and me. Being human and being natural is important for us as teachers so students see we are people they can relate to and learn from. But I also see or hear about or read about the other extreme in teachers -- how they seem to feel they can do or say anything around students, and students will know the right way to read/interpret/respond. I wonder what students take away from moments when they hear a teacher making fun of another teacher (or worse yet a student) or observe a teacher coming late regularly to class (and not because they have the prior class across campus) or have to laugh with the class again when a teacher is unprepared.

In our society today, so much human interaction is in your face, uncensored, anonymous, "I was just joking." I wonder how students learn to be strong, kind, and considerate people when so much of what they observe and experience is not. Family is the first and strongest part of this education, and schools can come next. Part of our school's technology initiative is focused on this -- helping students see they need to think about how they create their online footprint because it is a reflection of who they are as people. But I think a large part of my job, and the main ethical responsibility I have, is to be a model for students to learn from in day-to-day human interaction. In fact, I think what we do in those moments between formal teaching is what our students end up learning the most from, particularly the way we speak and interact with others.

So I suppose this leaves me wondering if I believe that as teachers we have a responsibility to be more ethical, more careful, more thoughtful. Yes, we will (and should because we are human) make mistakes, but we then must deal with those mistakes directly and correctly. Do you believe this?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Quote

"While most kids’ uses of these technologies are 'friendship based', the more compelling shift is when their use is 'interest based' or when they connect with other kids or adults around the topics or ideas they are passionate to learn about." (from Will Richardson's blog)

So this seems to be where we as teachers come into play ... helping students see the power of the web on their minds and passions. Yes, many/most students use technology all of the time, but they still have more to learn that we can teach them (if we take the time to learn ...) even when they might know more technological applications than we do.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Reflecting on the New Year

Using Dana Huff as inspiration, I want to take a little time to reflect on my new semester. My kids are still napping, the laundry is dry, Christmas thank you notes are finally done, and dinner is a breeze tonight. Don't know how I got to this spot, but I have 20 minutes right now when I really do not have anything else I need to be doing. Guilt-free blogging ... nothing like it.

I started this semester with some heavy duty style analysis writing with my AP Lit students. About halfway through my plans though, I had this niggling thought about the upcoming essay. I wrote about this below, but I want to revisit it here in the larger sense. I relearned the power of being able to tell a class, truthfully, that they as a whole are doing GREAT work. I resist comments like this as a teacher because I hate to lump my class together. My students actually will say to anyone who asks in class, "How did you feel we did on that assignment?" -- "She doesn't answer questions like that!" But when I really can say something to the group as a whole and mean it for everyone in that room, it is a powerful moment. And my kids deserve that right now. They ROCKED on their last essay. They were writing about that now-infamous-among-AP-teachers poem "Death of a Toad" (read Richard Wilbur's wonderful letter here), and I have never seen them as a whole glean so much out of a single poem or passage. Every one of them -- really. I now cannot wait for when I see this class next on Tuesday so I can tell them this -- that their hard work paid off, and I am so happy for them. They pushed themselves to new places because they were willing to try things I asked and, more importantly, took seriously my request that in the end they make this work their own through their style and voice. What more can I ask for as a teacher.

The other thing that has consumed the start of this semester for me is getting my Othello plans finalized. Tuesday is the big day when the nings go live. I have high hopes -- I have decided to do all I can to make this global collaboration thing work in a classroom so I can really see what we can all gain from it. So, a final plea -- if you know this play and want to join any of our conversations, you are welcome here and here.

Now I must reenter my life here -- with my blog time well-spent.