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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How to Make a Better Exam

Our divisions heads have asked us as departments to discuss our semester and final exams with the goals of ensuring that they are truly testing the students on what we hope they learned and that they are worthy of their 20% weight into the semester grade. Our exams are two hours long, and we have the option of using the laptops or not -- although Internet access is not available in our testing site.

While I know there will be many thoughts out there about the worth of such exams and whether they should have such weight, that is not something our school is open to pursuing right now. Instead, I would love to know the BEST exam or part of an exam you ever gave. Also, what have you done to have your exam be skill-centered rather than content-centered? Maybe between us all, we can create the perfect exam that is worthwhile and challenging for whatever school, like mine, is committed to having exams.

I'll start: a colleague and I crafted a section on the British Literature exam where the students wrote about what they learned from their classmates' wiki postings on the novel Regeneration. I thought it was so effective because it forced them to read new ideas and to collaborate. They got to pick any two of the wiki entries to read and learn, so they had choice, but whatever they chose, they were validating their classmates' work and learning more about the novel.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Letting Them Think

I have used Jane Schaffer's style analysis plans for years with my AP English Literature students. I do not promote formatted writing instruction as a whole, but I am fortunate to have students who have done so much writing before they get to me that we can really use this structure as a tool. Some students find it is just what they need to corral their ideas, and they end up with really powerful proofs that finally go from start to finish well. Others find the mere requirement of LOADS of textual support finally makes them do this (I hope I'm not the only English teacher who has students -- even juniors and seniors -- at times turn in writing with NO support -- their adolescent minds just wig out every now and then!).

What I have worked hard to do better each year is helping my students really see it as a tool and not the only way to write. This year, as I am discussing student-centered learning with my PLP group at the same time that I am finishing my Schaffer unit, it was an aligning of the stars for me. I threw out the assignment I have always ended this unit with -- writing an essay (and a VERY long essay at that) that follows exactly the Shaffer structure to "show me you can do it before I let you break the rules" -- and created an open rubric for us to create together for an essay where they show me they know this is a tool and use it.

Here is my rubric. I am very excited to complete it with my class today -- to talk directly about how they can use the tools they have learned to create writing that speaks for them.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ning-ing It

I have just put the most recent touches on a ning I am going to use with my students as we study Othello. I use the wonderful lesson plans written by the Shakespeare Set Free folks, and I think a ning will be a perfect complement to the active and collaborative work already happening in these plans. My main two goals for the ning are:

1. To push my students' collaboration even deeper with their in-depth character studies. I have had each student choose a single character to follow for years, and they ultimately write character studies. Knowing that there is so much Shakespearean literary criticism already out there, my goal last year was to help my students see that they were joining this conversation. I think by collaboratively following their character choices on the ning, and ultimately sharing the sources they find as they begin to research, the students will even more vividly see their participation in a wider intellectual community.

2. To collaborate with another set of students through a Twitter friend, Laura Nicosia. A teacher of pre-service teachers, she is interested in having her students work with mine, so I am waiting to hear back from her to see if the ning can be our platform for this. I will be VERY EXCITED if I can get other voices into the class's ning community. This kind of collaboration has proven to be the hardest for me to achieve (the timing and work it requires has been daunting), so it is a top goal for this project.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

7 Things

Here is my list in response to Susan tagging me for this meme:

1. One of my favorite classes in high school was AP Calculus.
2. I am a Southerner by birth who, after moving to the Northeast in fourth grade, has rediscovered an almost instinctual connection to the South when I went to college in North Carolina. Pine needles underfoot are inextricably connected to my childhood.
3. I am awful at remembering people's names -- even characters from books. I think I never really pay attention when I first hear a name.
4. I love to lesson plan -- I write plans that are more detailed than I really need that I then mark up for changes I want to make for the next year.
5. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, and I really dislike lunch. I cannot make a good sandwich. My brother-in-law makes amazing sandwiches.
6. I am tall (5'9 or 10) and have never really liked being tall. I would be okay if I were 2 inches shorter.
7. I do cross-stitch and just finished a Halloween one.

(and #8 -- This list was really hard to come up with! Wonder what that means.)