This I Believe

June 18, 2009

This is an assignment that I did for a reading class (it was supposed to revolve around reading education, which at first, I didn’t think much of. Then I realized it’s actually one of my controversial stances. So I spit this out quickly. It’s rough, and I’m struggling to wrap my mind around the NPR This I Believe format, so if I’m way off, I’d love your feedback. I plan to write a friendlier example to share with students next year.

Here it is:

This I Believe

I was raised by “readers” so I was always being encouraged to read novels and had a well stocked bookcase of my own. Sometimes I read, sometimes I simply didn’t feel like it. Personally, unlike many, I have always loved being assigned to read books and having a class or group of others to discuss with.  I also have found that there are so many ways to apply the skill set required of “good readers” and that voraciously consuming novels is not necessarily the only path to an educated life, despite what a heretical thought it may be amongst my fellow English teachers.

I still remember a mousy brunette sitting in front of me in Calculus class. It was our senior year of high school and we were part of an elite group who had made it to this level at my small country school. She sat and read books, often cheesy murder mystery novels, during lectures. She rarely kept up with the homework and while that didn’t affect her score much, her test scores revealed her priorities.  She made it into a college below her natural aptitude and today works in a job that is similarly below her capacity. I can even recall many accounts where my mother would complain that I didn’t read as much as she had as she recounted the times when her own mother scolded her for reading too much and therefore ignoring her responsibilities.

Obviously I am not trying to prove that reading is a bad influence or even that Calculus is more important. I’m merely trying to show that it isn’t everything many English teachers make it out to be. Doctors, lawyers, and an infinite number of other professionals must be lifelong readers, but that means different things for different people. For some, it means novels from Harry Potter  to Dan Brown. For others, it means keeping up with professional journals or maybe even blogs and internet articles.

Teaching reading doesn’t require one to make students love reading. They have their whole lives to learn this lifestyle.  It’s about teaching kids how to really understand and read between the lines. Reading Twilight is certainly a good thing but what do students learn from it? While I would agree that reading is better than watching television, sometimes I have to question if the gap between the two is so large.

This I believe: reading is the quintessential skill for an educated life, but it doesn’t require one to be a bookworm. Reading and the skills to be adept at reading are useful in infinite facets of life. Reading the latest young adult fiction piece does not make a person educated. It’s important that we don’t oversimplify these ideas.


Reflections on Classroom Management

May 23, 2009

General ideas:

It’s critical that students enter the room knowing that I will not permit them to leave for trivial reasons, do other homework, sleep, or refuse to participate.  To accomplish this, I have to try to establish a reputation and atmosphere of being both strict and consistent.

As the first students try to push and bend my boundaries, the prescribed punishments should be doled out immediately.  They should understand the expectations before they ever have a chance to break them and should not be surprised when they are enforced.

I would also like to note that I try to choose my battles carefully, and generally, kids know when it’s seriously time to settle down.  If I have to appear angry/extra stern or be loud to get their attention, (I try not to raise my voice) they understand that I mean business. In other words, we can’t freak out every time they get a little off topic or our responses will become mundane and expected. Then what do you have left in your classroom management arsenal?

Smile a lot and be friendly, even when some tell you “not to smile until Christmas.”  The trick is to try NOT to smile or laugh when they do something inappropriate – no matter how funny!

Go ahead and give the younger/bigger/rowdier crowds a seating chart and don’t be afraid to make changes. I’m not convinced that all classes can handle choosing their own seats. If you have older/more mature/smaller classes, then it’s totally up to your discretion. *FYI: I set my room up in straight rows for a while as there were AP tests and then we were getting ready for finals, and EVERY class had students walk in and whine, “This feels like a regular classroom” or “I feel like I’m in 3rd grade.”

Beyond that, the instruction itself is inherently linked to classroom management. You can give “the look,” use proximity, or even pass out demerits (detentions) all day and the problems could potentially remain.

Students should be busy, as I have previously stated, but this should not be applied through busy work and multiple worksheets. For my 75 minute blocks, I aim for 3-4 distinct activities (except days where we are engaged in testing  or large group projects, etc).  Sometimes students should work alone, in pairs, in small groups, and as a class.

Work should vary and be relevant – but that’s not enough – we must explain WHY it’s important, relevant, etc. Students should understand the objectives of the activity before they embark on the task.  It is important to recognize that there is no need to feel defensive over this question as a teacher (provided it the question is posed respectfully).  If we don’t have an answer for them, then what IS the point of the activity?

For me, personally, I’ve been thinking about some problems that I had. Here are my intentions:

*Students will receive 2 “Get out of class free” cards at the beginning of each semester. If they need to run to their locker/car/the library/bathroom (they don’t always go to the bathroom when they make this claim – I am considering using a conspicuous bathroom pass of some sort) they will either use their card or take a tardy. 3 tardies=  1 hard labour detention (scraping desks or wiping down floor boards, no fun here!)

*Students will never be permitted to go to the vending machine during class. If they are desperately hungry, they should already have something simple with them. (Obvious exceptions for medical concerns.)

*Students doing OTHER work during my class will have the work confiscated and returned to the appropriate classroom teacher at the end of the day. This is unacceptable.  If students are copying answers for work, even if it’s for another class, I am considering ripping it up on the spot. I will check with administration before I choose this (severe) path.

*Students who fall asleep during class are required to stay 2-3 minutes after class to “make up the time they owe me”. (Thankfully, this was pretty rare this year.)

*If students do not turn in their homework at the beginning of class, it’s late. If they forget their books and we have an open book quiz/test, they go without.  If they do not have a paper printed at the beginning of class, it’s late. Students who have emailed me papers to print are responsible for coming to me before class starts to print, or papers will be counted late.

*Cursing during class will result in an immediate demerit and conversation with me in the hall. While I know that they are accustomed to speaking like this, it is unacceptable in the classroom environment.

In my 2nd year…

May 22, 2009

While this year is so fresh in my mind, I’d like to jot down some rough ideas regarding how I can improve the effectiveness of my teaching next year:

  • Increase reading strategies instruction through various methods (annotation, etc). Here’s a list of some worth learning/trying!
  • Increase read aloud time to improve fluency.
  • Increase SSR time to help students get into the books. (15 min per class- ish)
  • Change up reading quizzes so that by the 3rd and 4th time, students who have not read do not get unfair A’s for being told answers by students who have already taken quiz. Random quizzing? Random grading? Multiple forms?
  • Get serious about vocabulary instruction. Should be ongoing all year. Incorporate fun activities. (Save 15-20 min for “Fun-day Friday”? Catchphrase in the classroom was very fun!) Show how it relates to word choice issue in writing. *Consider 5 minute bellringer vocab/etymology activities*
  • Increase time spent modeling good writing and editing processes. Change thesis statement instruction to point sentence and hit it hard.
  • Find a way to do some very simple grammar instruction/reminders without it being tedious or useless. Give minilessons during actual editing activities for paragraphs/essays that will be for credit w/high expectations?
  • Write carefully constructed paragraphs on a regular basis. Requires QUICK turnaround to be effective.
  • Read up on writer’s workshop. Test skills in Cr.Wr. 1st semester. As comfort level grows, incorporate in regular English instruction.
  • Maintain portfolios (decide exactly what it will entail over summer so students have CLEAR guidelines. Offer time in class for kids to self evaluate writing and make plan for improvement. (This may go along w/writer’s workshop/conferences.)

The actual activities:

  • Socratic Seminars – increase #, student response was very positive.
  • Find interesting ways to build background information – sometimes/often it should help students with notetaking skills. (Create own webquests: King Arthur and The Crucible?)
  • Gallery Walks – when we do any kind of visual projects, we should use this + student vote for fave ( a couple extra credit pts). Gives better purpose for projects.
  • Find ways of giving roles/using lit circles throughout the year. Make sure it is more efficient/effective. Create product/offer personal synopsis in writing?
  • Debates: 1-2. Assign roles, give time to prepare.
  • Mock trial. Shoot for 1 per year? (OMM; Beowulf ?)
  • Ning use – ongoing all year (like journal) or periodic? Need to decide what role it will play during the regular school year.
  • Diigo – we do lots of research based papers (with plenty of room for personal/opinionated voice). See if this tool can help students organized and improve my ability to check in on them.
  • Think – Pair – Share activities where students are called on periodically to share their responses with the class to keep them accountable.

I feel like there are a zillion other ideas to incorporate but I think this is a good place to start!  What do you incorporate that is missing from this list? I’d love to have some feedback/additional tips! Thanks!

Summer Reading List

May 19, 2009

002At my school, we assign summer reading assignments to students on their way to sophomore through senior year.  I felt like it was only fair to let students assign some reading (and tv/movie watching) for me to accomplish this summer! I will be finishing up my master’s this summer (3 grad classes is a heavy load) but I think I can make time for a nice chunk of these recommendations!

My top picks (reading/rereading):

  • Little Women
  • A Lesson Before Dying
  • The Red Badge of Courage
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Grendel
  • Lord of the Rings (will also watch)
  • 1984
  • Picture of Dorian Grey
  • Poisonwood Bible
  • Anthem
  • Uglies
  • The Lovely Bones
  • Twilight/Harry Potter? (still haven’t read either…)
  • The Kite Runner
  • The Giver
  • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Will add my professional teacher books soon!

Any suggestions to add?

“Ningin’ it up”

April 9, 2009

To see the front page of our Ning to see how it’s being used for yourself, CLICK HERE or HERE.

First, let me say I am aware of how infrequent and inconsistant my posts are; I’m working on it!  This last two weeks has been brutal, though I won’t get into it here.  Now, I’m on Easter break and still not feeling like myself, but vastly improved.  And now, back to the purpose of my post!!!

How I use the ning for my class:

  1. Students post a “reflective” blog over their reading once a week (Note: not a summary; students are to reflect on what stood out or take a stance that might facilitate a conversation.)
  2. Students must respond to FIVE blog posts by commenting each week. They are actually responding to last week’s discussion so all blog posts are available for comment.
  3. Students also post questions and responses on the forum boards for points. This category is flexible, allowing students to choose to participate only in dialogues they find interesting or believe they can contribute. There’s a rubric with a total of 100 points available for participation over the entire unit.

Additionally, students are doing a semi-on-the-side research based “paper” in the form of a “formal blog post” (is there such a thing?).  For now, it consists of researching a controversial scientist, writing an introduction to the paper, a paragraph of dry facts (here’s what he/she really did), and then taking a stance on whether the contribution was positive or negative, ending in a well crafted conclusion.  Yes, it’s a bit formulaic, but it’s only a 1-2 page paper and I want them to get right to the point!  I hope it goes well, as I would like to continue having blog posts requring MLA format to give them the opportunity to practice!

Here’s what I LOVE about the Ning in my class:

  1. Students who are too shy to state their opinions in class finally have an opportunity to “speak” up and I am very pleased to see them sharing their thoughts!
  2. Students will have a built in study guide for the essays and tests rather than asking me to provide their thinking for them.
  3. It offers students the TIME needed to express their thoughts more clearly.  While I still love having Socratic seminars and other fun circle discussions, you have to be really quick to keep up.  Some less aggressive students struggle to get a word in at the times that they have something fabulous to contribute.
  4. Students have the opportunity to make the space their own by personalizing pages not only with colors, but also pictures, music, videos, applications, and so on.  This seems to make them more likely to contribute!
  5. As a total control freak, I cannot help but love the features available!  I approve members, the features described above, the posts and comments.  Even though I cannot control every single thing, I do get email notification of all activity, so I can check in on them around the clock. (Literally, since I receive these emails on my Blackberry. Yes, I’m addicted to checking my email!)
  6. I have even begun holding the blog posts in moderation until all are submitted so that students must come up with their own ideas, rather than mimicking those of their peers.  This not only require more thinking on the part of students, but it also *hopefully* encourages more diversity of thoughts and opinions to respond to!

I’m sure there are plenty more!  We’ve only been on Ning for 2 weeks so far, but I’m very pleased with the progress.  What are your thoughts on the benefits and shortcomings of using Ning as an extension of the classroom? And/Or are there any fabulous ways you are incorporating the Ning that I (anyone else) should be considering?

Great Resources!

March 10, 2009

So you need a lesson plan, an activity, an idea… just some inspiration!?  Where do YOU go FIRST?

Here’s a list of my FAVORITE sites:

Thinkfinity – this site encompasses the biggies: Edsitement, ReadWriteThink, Artsedge, and more!

WebEnglishTeacher – A big Thank You to Carla Beard for maintaining this fabulous resource!

DiscoveryChannel – Some good stuff here, even for English!

MsHogue – A little bit of everything

DanaHuff – A little bit of everything, including thought provoking blog plus handouts

Pete’sPowerpointStation – Looks kiddie-ish, but actually has some interesting ppts all the way up to college level. Bonus: most are regular ppt format and can be modified.

EnglishCompanionNING – This interactive site for teachers to discuss everything is a tremendous “living” resource!

I’m sure there are zillions of other sites I visit for inspiration… What are your favorites to help a newbie teacher (or anyone else to stumble upon my homely blog!)???

Twitter and Technology

March 6, 2009

Alright, I’ve been playing on Twitter! Yes, it IS addictive – I spend enough time on Facebook as it is! So far I’m trying to build a network of fellow teachers. It’s somewhat helpful but thus far I have found that many of the people in education are HARDCORE technies and veteran teachers.

Many are less concerned with curriculum choices and classroom behaviors and more concerned with the newest flashiest way to incorporate technology. Some have moved on the focusing on educational news/economics.   I’m afraid I do not find such posts (“tweets”) to be very helpful and they seem highly ideological.  Personally, I cannot foresee when I might reach that level.  I worry that I will be scaping by forever!

With that said, I plan to remain active on the site in hopes that I will find fellow geeky neophyte teachers in need of simpler discussions revolving around everyday classroom activities and events that include technology only as much as it is practical.

Regarding the hype of using technology as an educational stimulus, I find that often teachers overestimate students – myself included!  I assumed students knew how to perform useful Google searches, how to email attachments, and even thought many might already have blogs.  I was wrong!  While most have Facebook, you don’t have to be very tech savvy to function on that site.  I’ve found that I am more tech oriented than many of the teens I work with!  This was unexpected.  I’ve only been online since 5th grade (everyone had AOL back then – freakishly slow dial up and my Dad used to monitor my hours VERY closely!  We paid for packages much like cell phone packages of today!) while my students have likely been online since they potty trained!  (FYI – I am 24 years old, graduated HS in 2002, college in 2006 to help you get a feel for the generation I belong to!)

In my Technology in the Classroom class (I’m finishing up my Masters during my first year of teaching… masochism sucks) our instructor would randomly throw out ideas he’d heard of and I’m sorry to tell you that mine was the first hand raised in offense each time!  One such whimsical notion was that we could put live streaming video of classroom instruction/lectures on OUR FACEBOOK PROFILES!  Sure… cuz when kids are on Facebook and have numerous friends online to Facebook chat with, they are instead going to click on their TEACHERS’ profiles to watch a LECTURE.  Because the school day just isn’t long enough for them, and they have so much free time leftover after their activites AND homework.

I worry about the proverbial “pendulum” in education.  It often feels as if education is as trendy as fashion.  In retrospect – it is obviously ridiculous! We MUST do whatever the most current authorities tell us and ignore the tried and true methods.  If technology exists, we must use it at every turn because it’s what students love.  I love technology and I do strive to incorporate it, but students must also know how to do regular paperwork and groupwork.  Students should be perfectly capable of finding books in the library and know how to find the most relevant information in the book, even though they can’t scan for the word as they can on the web.

Well, that was a lovely incoherent tangent…  Bottom line:  use technology when it fits well, don’t bend over backwards to squeeze or cram it in.  Don’t feel pressured to include EVERY new gadget that comes into existence.  Trendy is not always better!!!

What do YOU think?

Holy Cow.

March 1, 2009

I’m exhausted.

I find that I have not followed the traditional first year teacher cycle.  I’m just now getting to the disillusionment portion that was supposed to hit last semester.  Actually, maybe it isn’t that at all; maybe I’m just hitting third quarter burnout really hard…  I think that would be fair considering that I’ve always struggled 3rd quarter, plus I’m still taking graduate classes on the side, let alone the fact that I have two toddlers with birthdays (and the planning for the parties) all hitting at the same time. 

I find myself ridiculously clinging to the goal of reaching summer vacation – it represents a break to spend time with my children again!  I miss them!  It also represents an opportunity to reevaluate my curriculum, reorganize, and catch up on my reading.  Unfortunately, it may not be all that I’m hoping for, as I will probably be taking 3 graduate classes in order to finish my Master’s once and for all. (Provided they actually offer the right courses at the right times…)

Anyway, a recap of my spring curriculum thus far…


I’ve got a lot of work to do for next year to rev up this unit.  I need to find a way to make it both more hands on and interactive, but more importantly, more ACCESSIBLE.  It seemed to be a struggle for many of my students to comprehend much of the original language.  I plan on trying to get really serious about this over the summer I just spoke so optimistically about. 

On the bright side, I think the projects were developmentally appropriate.  Next year, I just need to provide more time, more instruction, more notes, and more ENERGY!  (And a non-butt kicking test to provide additional accountability without setting students up to fail.)

Emily Dickinson and the Transcendentalists: 

Idk yet.  I think the Dickinson project was appropriate, but wish I would have had the time to squeeze in a heartier Romantics unit.  I skipped Poe and Irving.  I won’t make that mistake again.  Additionally, increasing the Rom unit will provide the necessary time to break up the “project frenzy” I went on this January.    I just felt like projecty stuff fit the curriculum for both, but they were back to back which felt grueling.  Also, I need to streamline the Transcendental project which sounded complicated but was simple in practice.  My explanation should be much simpler next time… 

The Enlightenment: 

We FLEW through this.  I found it a little stressful going so fast.  Also, I was ill and had a sub for the first day of this unit AND all of my stuff was at school.  I didn’t even have my textbook.  I’m going to bring home a student copy of each text so that this problem doesn’t occur again.  Scraping, I had them watch the Gulliver’s Travels movie that I had been 95% sure was in the library.  Lucky me!    It was freakishly long and I’m gonna be MUCH more selective regarding which scenes I show in class next time. 

Next I had them read a short satire from Twain (I know, American lit in a Brit lit course…) in class because it was short and relatable.  Then we read “A Modest Proposal”.  Next year I will set up a panel or something for discussing it, IF we read it again.   I’m still undecided.  I’m planning on finding an interesting way to return to the idea of satire before the end of the semester.  That way I can offer more structure and guidance.  Satire’s tough to write.

The Great Gatsby:

I did a lead up from Transcendentalism to Harlem using the obvious Whitman and Hughes poetry.  I was mostly pleased with this small group activity, though I hate watching “groupwork” that involves students copying their fellow group members work…  It bypasses the notion of discussion and carrying on an interesting an relevant dialogue…  Yet I am at a loss as to providing a strong form of accountability that does not require me to engage in nagging at any time.  Any suggestions??

Then I passed out a newpaper assignment, “Gatsby Meets the Press” – and yes, that is a borrowed title.  Unfortunately, I haven’t scheduled us to have a solid block of time in the library/computer lab yet and we’re over halfway through the book right now!  I need to set up a much smoother and more conscientious schedule next year to provide ample time for all of our work – novel related and for the project.

We also wrote a paper (early on) that I called a Character Connections Essay where students were required to simply introduce each major character (support from text) and show how they were connected.  It was only summarizing but I feel it is a worthwhile reminder of good writing, using quotes, and most of all a check to make sure everyone knows what’s going on.   Then we did skits and a Gatsby Tea Party to give the kids a little brain break – between that paper and a butt kicking “quiz”, they deserved it! 

I’m planning a second Socratic seminar over the American Dream when we finish up the book.  I’m still interested in seeing what else is out there because I think this novel often resonates with teens and I would like to amp up the unit a little bit.

The I-Search:

Ok.  All I’ve done so far is introduce it and require students to make a plan for WHAT they will be writing about.  The “research proposal” – and I’m not sure that’s what I want to call it – is essentially a “KW” without the L.  You know, here’s what I already know about the topic (my interests, strengths/weaknesses, and the options I’m considering) plus what I “want” to know- what do I need to look up now? 

I’m hoping that writing the paper about what students want to do after high school, now that it’s time to schedule for the exciting Senior Year (you know, ACT scores are in; what classes do I need to make sure I have before I apply for college… lots going on!) will keep them focused.  I feel like this is an opportunity to think seriously about what they want, as this time of life is often so rushed that students don’t feel they’ve had ample time to consider such weighty decisions.  Wish me luck!

Alright – I’m all finished with my tolerably coherent (I hope) ramblings and hope that this will give me some reminders this summer when I’m stuck inside working on next year’s plans.  Any comments would be appreciated!!!

My Job

January 29, 2009

This may not be as much of a useful chunk of info as normal. (I’m pretty much using this blog to keep track of ideas and reflections on the effectiveness of lessons – much like I would have been forced to do in a different format had I student taught in the traditional route.)

THIS POST is about what I’m doing and why.  I put a LOT of thought into what is important to teach and what I consider non essential.  I have a lot of feelings about this that are different from many English teachers.  I don’t force them to memorize much of anything.  (OK, every once in a while there are important terms to learn, and I do work with vocab to some extent and need to step it up in that area.)  But overall, I avoid tedious worksheets full of useless nonthinking questions.

I want these kids to learn how to THINK and read between the lines.  I feel that I am teaching life skills to the best of my green ability.  I have a group of students who are very rarely prepared for class.  I use “Socratic questioning” methods, more or less, and therefore the effectiveness of the class is dependant on their PREPARATION and PARTICIPATION.  Authentic learning would be going on if they did their homework and did it well. 

I feel like I need to spend more time explaining reading strategies.  I fear that this is where I have failed them, by assuming that they are all naturally capable of doing a close reading without emphasizing the skills and strategies to aid them in being successful in this arena.  This is a deplorable oversight on my part. 

With my own guilt acknowledged, I need to express that my intentions are good!    I really do try to teach “critical thinking” and analytical skills above all else.  (To me, this goes hand in hand with the writing process.)  I find that one of the biggest challenges is that this skill is difficult to measure.  I can see it so some extent, but I feel that the students cannot see the change whatsoever.  The question is: when I think I’ve seen progress, is it really the result of working at school or is it simply maturity that comes from age and experience (when they are still so young, a few months can provide tremendous emotional growth). 

Ummmmmmmmmmm… I suppose I’m finished with my rant.  These are issues that I would like to address…  hopefully I can address some of them before the end of this school year.

Socratic Seminar and Blabbering

January 27, 2009

So I gave this a shot yesterday (and was supposed to have one more today, but we got snow/ice!!!) and I was REALLY nervous about it.  I have pretty big classes of sophomores and I was concerned that it would be really hard for them.  While I must admit that it was perhaps out of the grasp of a few per class, the overall response was really positive. 

I even had a wonderful moment where one of my students was not just quoting stuff we had read and discussed in class, but RELATING it to how she felt after.  They were assigned to evaluate excerpts from “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” from Martin Luther King, Jr.   Then, she connected in SOCRATES and Walt Whitman. 

I’m so pleased that I am at least helping some students in pointing things out and helping increase their understanding of ideas.  I’m really coming to realize the idea that you simply cannot please everyone. Obviously this is something I’ve always known, but in my second semester, I’m really internalizing/accepting the concept in a different way. 

*I should note that I did not follow the traditional route for the seminar.  The inner circle had 20 minutes, then the outer circle traded places, I produced a new question not quite addressed by the former, and they were given about 10 minutes.  I was not strict on the time. If students were still engaged in the dialogue, I let them continue until the conversation ended more naturally.  Next time, I think now that they have all had a chance to participate, I will use the traditional style and the outer circle will be assigned to evaluate and present their thoughts on the dialogue after the inner circle has finished. 

I would like to add that my rowdiest bunch seemed exhausted afterwords.  They were quiet and not even attempting to stand by the door or chit chat at the end of class.  This, to me, is a great sign!  Instead of me doing all of the work, they had to do it and all that thinking, etc WORE THEM OUT!!!  While I generally subscribe to the simpler “Socratic method” of teaching by questioning and guiding, I find that sometimes this makes me feeling like I am “pulling teeth” in order to get them to participate.  I am not discrediting this method, but it was nice for a change of pace to hold the students more accountable for their own learning.