Years ago and early in my career, one of my schools was considering sending me to AP Language training, but I moved on to a different school before that happened. I don’t think my previous principal would ever have considered it for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons I finally did it was that our chief AP Literature teacher was overloaded, and I thought it would help him out.
I had a great week at Fitchburg State University in nearby Fitchburg at the training. The other teachers in my group were a great group of educators. Most of them were public school teachers, so I learned a lot about public schools in Massachusetts. Interesting stuff. Frankly, none of what I heard made me want to go back to public schools, though my own children have received a good education from our local public school system. The system just seems designed to frustrate teachers nowadays. It makes me sad. I am a little on the fence about whether or not to continue pursuing my Massachusetts teaching certificate. In some ways, it seems like such a hassle. I am tempted to go for National Board Certification, even though I know the amount of work involved, principally because I wouldn’t have to worry about the different certification rules for different places. (Is that accurate, those of you who are NBCT?) I have wanted to do it anyway.
As to the AP training, my instructor is a brilliant AP teacher. We got a lot of great tools and no-nonsense advice. I liked her a lot. She really helped me clear up why TPCASTT was not working as well for me as I wanted it to (I was, naturally, doing it a little bit wrong—not totally wrong, but wrong enough that the kids were not doing more than scratching the surface). I was dreading the poetry part, I am not going to lie. I know that teaching AP involves teaching a lot of poetry, and frankly, I was feeling like I wasn’t very good at that, but the tools that my instructor gave me have made me feel a lot more confident. I am really excited about the course and getting going now. I was, I admit, feeling a bit intimidated and not at all sure about AP in general. I still think it should be a bit more open than it is at my school, but I learned a great deal about how it functions at other schools. I also learned a lot about the AP rubric and how to grade. I was fairly consistently two points below what the instructor said the College Board graded several of the essays. I guess if you are going to have a grading issue, then grading a little lower is better than being too high because the students will possibly do better on the exam. By the end, though, I was figuring it out pretty well, and the last round of papers we evaluated, I hit the mark each time. The last few days, I’ve been working on reading the books I want to teach and the course audit syllabus. I am feeling pretty confident about the way the course is shaping up.
In other news, I received my new work computer today, and I backed up my old work computer to an external hard drive and restored EVERYTHING without any help. Woo! I was pretty happy with myself. I am going to work a little bit more on my AP materials before I put the computer to bed tonight. The new install went great. It took a little while (but probably less than two hours). I was nervous when the status bar said the time remaining was over 100 hours at one point, but it turns out that the status bar was lying.
What are you up to this fine Tuesday?
I spent June 27 to July 2 in Gambier, Ohio at Kenyon College as a participant in the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. Given how much writing I did while I was there, I had a difficult time figuring out how to begin talking about it here on my blog. I thought about it for a few days. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to put the experience into words, which is ironic given how I did rediscover a writing voice I thought I had lost.
I think one of the reasons I was nervous about going to Kenyon was that I didn’t necessarily consider myself a writer anymore. I don’t really want to characterize what I did as “giving up,” but I guess it was. I no longer did any of the things I told my students to do—to just dump out ideas, to write first and revise later, to write for themselves. I had this internal editor going all the time. Most of all, I just didn’t write. Not really. I mean, I wrote the occasional blog post. But I couldn’t have told you the last time I wrote a poem. I used to write poetry all the time. I always had a notebook for my poems, pretty much all through high school and college. I can’t even tell you when I stopped. I think one day I just thought maybe I wasn’t very good at writing poetry. I have written fiction off and on for a while, but it had even been a while since I had written fiction.
What this writing workshop did is crack me wide open. Now I have all these ideas and all this material to work with, and I feel like I found my voice again. I am a writer again. There was a time when writing was something I thought I would always do. I even started an application to study creative writing Emerson College in Boston (I abandoned it once I realized I would not be able to attend college out of state, and at that time, I lived in Georgia). My high school English teacher, Shelia Keener, encouraged me to write and has been telling me for years that I missed my calling. I do believe that I should be an English teacher, but Shelia is right that I should have kept up the writing.
I feel like I found my tribe at Kenyon. We had excellent instructors, for one thing. Real teachers who work with students in the classroom. My instructor, Emily Moore, is a gifted writing instructor. I am stealing simply everything she did with us. The participants were also writing teachers. I was struck not only by their dedication to the craft of writing but also to their dedication to their students. Many of them are practicing writers, and I admit to feeling a bit intimidated by them. They are really good writers. I was thrilled when one of our tribe, Joe Carriere, not only took on the task of creating a literary magazine out of our work, but also created a Facebook group for us. All of us wrote something to share at a reading, even our instructors. Each time we did a writing prompt, they wrote with us. In fact, Emily has a great technique of freewriting on the board with her students, making the messiness of freewriting public. It is freeing to see writers in process. I knew, as a writing teacher, that writing didn’t come fully formed and perfect from anyone’s pen, but for some reason, this inner critic inside me expected my writing to be different from every other writer. If I had to pick one moment when I realized what I had been doing, it might have been when we read the Robert Frost poem “Design.” Emily shared two versions: a rough draft and a final draft. It was like something clicked into place. Even Robert Frost wrote shitty drafts. Even Robert Frost!
Seeing that poem in draft form really helped me see that I am not a bad writer. I probably need to spend more time revising. Just like my students. And a writer’s workshop is extremely valuable. Given how much workshop I have done with my students the last two years, you’d think I’d have figured that out. Somehow I always separated what I did as a writer from what I did as a teacher.
The five days and change that I spent at Kenyon were transformative. I actually see myself as a writer again. I feel like I have been given a gift. The people I met were amazing. I think I have made new lifelong friends. I really do. The campus is gorgeous. The stained glass windows in the dining hall depict scenes from books! It truly is English teacher (or English major) heaven. In addition to giving me back my writing life and helping me make excellent friends, I also met two writers and had an opportunity to talk shop and now have a year’s subscription to The Kenyon Review. I actually read poetry on the plane back home. When was the last time I read so much poetry? I discovered Andrew Grace in the May/June 2015 issue and liked his poem so much I ordered a copy of his collection Shadeland. I really, really can’t remember the last time I read contemporary poetry.
At the workshop, I ran into Sam Bradford, a friend and former colleague from the Weber School, where I worked in Georgia.
Sam has been writing fiction for years and will be the department chair at Weber next year, so we will have a lot to talk about, and I am so grateful we are back in touch. Neither of us knew the other would be there. I was so excited to see him, but even more excited to see him connect with Charley Mull, a colleague from Worcester Academy and one of my favorite people. I made them both take a picture with me on the last day.
I am so glad they became friends. Charley and Sam were in the same group, which was not my group with Emily. We still had plenty of opportunities to interact.
Here is a picture Sam took of me doing my reading.
A photo of me with my new friend Whitney (and a photobomb with my new friend, Andy).
I learned some new techniques for teaching writing. I wrote some things I feel pretty good about. In fact, I am actually thinking about pursuing publication, which is something I haven’t thought about doing for many years (and that is one reason I haven’t shared anything I wrote at the workshop here). Honestly, I thought that ship had sailed a long time ago. I truly can’t remember the last time I thought about publication for myself.
You should go next summer.
Guess what today is? Ten years ago today, I wrote my first entry on this blog. I don’t know that I had a notion when I started this blog that I would keep it going this long. I didn’t think about it at all. I just did it.
I had just finished my first year teaching in a private school. I started reading education blogs. At that time, most of the education blogs were written by ed tech folks. Very few classroom teachers were blogging. I am really excited to see that is no longer the case at all. Teachers at all levels are now blogging about teaching, educational issues, their classroom, educational policy, and, yes, educational technology, and it is wonderful that they have that outlet so their voices are heard. Do you remember what it was like before we could hear from teachers like we can today? How many of us used to sit in our classrooms, feeling alone? I know I did, which is part of why I started blogging.
One of the things blogging has helped me do is be more reflective. I admit at first I started blogging so that I could connect with teachers like me. I was feeling pretty isolated, as I mentioned. Over time, it allowed me space to think about the craft of teaching, what I was reading, and what I was teaching in some seriously helpful ways. I can’t even tell you how many friends I have made through this blog. I don’t think I could honestly tally it up. It was such a wonderful feeling to meet up with these friends at conferences and know that I was no longer alone.
Once I started teaching at a school that was more in line with my educational philosophy, I admit that I didn’t write as much here, mainly because I was supported and encouraged at work. It makes such a big difference. But it meant that I didn’t really need to blog in order to connect to others who shared my thinking. One thing I have realized just recently, however, is that this blog is really about the conversation. Sharing ideas. Committing to reflect. I say it like that because getting lazy about reflection gets me into trouble. I need to have some time to think, and the best way I think is through writing.
When I was a relatively new teacher, I remember a teacher I worked with, a well-respected teacher whom everyone loved, spoke out when the superintendent visited our school. She let him know she disagreed with the fact that he was cutting PD and taking some of the management away from the schools. I still remember her saying, “In this county, we have a concept called site-based management.” I thought she was so brave. She wasn’t afraid she’d be fired on the spot, like I would have been if I had spoken. She didn’t care. It was worth speaking out because it was a problem, and he needed to hear about it. Even if he elected not to make changes, he would know he was not supported, and in that county at the school board was elected. I don’t remember that he actually stayed that long with us. In fact, I barely remember him at all. But I do remember my colleague standing up to him, and I have always wanted to be brave like her. She just recently retired after teaching the first grandchild of one of her students, which is quite an achievement.
Over the years, I have spoken out about some topics that concerned me, such as the way we teach writing, or the way we put students off books, or censorship, or standardized testing, or homework, or any one of a variety of educational issues over the last ten years. I have been pushing myself to write more. It’s important for me to sift through my ideas and feelings here. One of the things this blog has helped me do, actually, is to figure out how I feel about educational issues and speak out about them. I need to do more of that than I have done in the last few years.
Something I heard last week at a conference has resonated with me. I mentioned it before when I wrote about the conference, but now I’m seeing new applications. Rosetta Lee, one of the speakers at the conference, was speaking in the context of how we can be good allies. She said that when allies are silent, she can’t tell if they are silent because they agree with the comments or treatment that others received or if they disagree, but are afraid to say something. I have been thinking about that comment for a week now because it has so many applications. If we are silent about anything that is important to us, no one can tell what we are thinking. And sometimes that kind of thing is important to share. It might help someone. It might encourage someone. It might teach someone. But most importantly, it helps us because our voices are heard. Teachers need to continue to speak out about educational issues. I really do think it’s making a difference. Maybe not as quickly as we would like. But if we don’t speak out and share our ideas, how quickly would things change?
We have a voice. We have the opportunity. I know you’ve probably heard like I have that the blog is dead. I don’t believe that. It’s easier than ever to start. If you haven’t started a blog yet, I challenge you to do so. If you have one, but you haven’t written in a while, or you’ve abandoned it, or you feel like you don’t have a lot to say, so you just don’t post a lot, I challenge you to resurrect your blog. It’s not easy to start. At first, not many people are reading, and it can be frustrating to feel like you’re talking to an empty room. But people will start reading. In fact, leave a comment and link to your blog here, and we’ll support each other.
At the risk of sounding like a cheesy acceptance speech, I do want to thank a few people for their support of this blog. I want to thank Robert Talbert, who left the first ever comment on my blog and has supported me ever since. I think that comment may have disappeared when I had to migrate my blog from Movable Type to WordPress, as I can’t find it now, but I remember it. I also want to thank Glenda Funk, for pushing me to write and for commenting often. I am not as good as she is about supporting my friends. I want to thank Grant Wiggins for supporting the efforts of the UbD Educators in trying to create a wiki. It hasn’t really turned out like I wanted (which was no surprise to Grant, when I told him), but he didn’t have to support it. I appreciated that he did. I want to thank all the teachers near and far, who have come along over the years and supported this blog. I am afraid there are too many to list, and I am deathly afraid I’d leave someone out and hurt someone’s feelings, but it would be wrong of me not to mention several folks by name: Clix, who made so much effort to help me get the wiki off the ground; Nancy, who has been a long-time reader, commenter, and now a friend; Mike LoMonico, who brought me into the Folger fold; Bud Hunt, who gave me some personal attention when I changed fields (back in English again, though, Bud!); Peter B-G, who is now a more local friend and has supported me by coming to my sessions at conferences; Buffy Hamilton, BEST LIBRARIAN EVER; Megan Hayes-Golding, who made friends with me at the first ever EduBloggerCon (I forget what they are calling it now, but it was nice not to feel alone in that room full of super techy folks when I was a new blogger). There are a lot of people who contributed to making me feel like I was worth listening to, and I appreciate you all very much.
Image: René Schäfer.
I forgot to do my Slice of Life yesterday. I think I’m settling into a lazy summer groove. I haven’t read as much on my time off as I thought I would, but I did finish a couple of books this week (and I started a new audio book). I blog about books in a separate blog. I suppose I could have folded book reviews into this blog, but truthfully, that blog sort of came first, and it had a different audience that I wasn’t sure would be interested in teaching. Likewise, I wasn’t sure everyone who stopped by here would be interested in my book reviews (unless they concerned professional reading). I actually love blogs, and I really compartmentalize my interests in different blogs. None of the audiences for any of these blogs really overlap much from what I can tell based on comments. I don’t write in any one of them a great deal, though I suppose my book blog gets the most attention these days. I decided not to worry about it and just write when I felt moved to write, though I was looking for excuses to write more often.
This Saturday, I’m traveling to Kenyon College in Ohio for the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. I have a notebook ready to go, and I am looking forward to seeing what it will be about, though I admit I am sad I’m missing my children’s first full week of summer. I hope that when I get back, we can take the commuter rail into Boston and have a fun day exploring. Later in July, I’ll be going to AP Literature training. I’m offering a workshop on digital storytelling at my school. In fact, if you are in the New England area, check out our summer learning series.
Tomorrow is an important anniversary for this blog. Today’s post is a bit rambly, but tomorrow’s will be a bit more focused.
I spent three days this week at the Multicultural Teaching Institute at Meadowbrook School courtesy of my Director of Diversity, who invited me to go when we had an unexpected opening to send a teacher to the conference.
If you have a chance to go to this conference, I would strongly encourage you to do so. The speakers pushed my thinking, but even more than that, the conference was organized with plenty of time to think, reflect, write, and work. Not many conferences offer this opportunity, and I appreciated it. We were each given a binder with activities, notes, handouts, and the schedule, but we are also each given a paper Moleskine journal in which to write our reflections. I really think it would be a great practice for all conference organizers to adopt: hand each participant a nice journal. We were also assigned to “home groups” to have discussions and process learning with a smaller group of people, and we were in division groups. I was with other high school teachers for a good portion of our time so that we could work together with others to design a lesson that deliberately included multicultural elements using a framework from Rosetta Lee, one of our speakers.
Rosetta said something that really resonated with me. I like to think of myself as a good person and an ally, but I am often quiet for a variety of reasons. I come from a background with a conservative family. I don’t like to offend. I don’t like confrontations. However, Rosetta said that when people are silent around issues that arise around topics of diversity and multiculturalism, she cannot tell whether the silent person is an ally and is quiet because of fear or not having enough knowledge or some other reason OR whether the silent person is an adversary who quietly agrees with the perpetrator of whatever the issue might be.
So not being silent is hard for me because it is my natural home. It is where I live. There are a lot of reasons for my silence that are lodged deep in my personal history. There are many ways I have been silenced and many reasons why I retreated to silence as a place of solace so that I didn’t have to confront something painful. But one big takeaway from this Institute for me is that if I continue to be silent about important issues, then no one can tell what I am thinking. So I decided I can’t be silent anymore, even if it makes people uncomfortable with me or even if it ends relationships. I am not going to be perfect, and I have a lot of years of learned behavior to work on, but I’m going to try.
I appreciated the real, tangible tools I received at this conference that I can use in my classroom and in conversations with others. I think one of the most helpful aspects was time to work together with other educators to plan a lesson. I really can’t overstate how valuable time to journal and time to work was for me in this conference. Most conferences are a series of presentations or speakers, and you sort of have to opt yourself out of attending a session in order to have this kind of time. I feel like I made some good connections with other educators, and I really don’t think it would have happened if I had done nothing but listen to speakers. The speakers were great, though.
I still have a lot to think about, including the ways in which I have, either through silence or even unintended actions, contributed to hurting someone, but the important part (for me) is not to flog myself, but to move on and do things differently. I tend to beat myself up quite a lot, and that’s a whole different post, but it doesn’t really accomplish anything (except for making me feel bad).
I had an interesting revelation today. This blog will turn ten years old in a little over a week. I used to blog a lot more than I do now, and I have tried to figure out why. I am no less interested in educational issues than I was when I started blogging. I am still invested in blogging as a way to learn and reflect, too. So what gives?
One reason I started this blog ten years ago is I needed validation. I was not getting it where I taught. I was not teaching with other folks who were invested or thinking about blogging or, in some cases, even in reflecting. It was not an easy place. I needed to find my people. I was chatting with a work colleague about my blog today, and I mentioned that I didn’t blog as much after I started teaching at my current school, mainly because I am validated at work. I don’t think I realized it before, but I think blogging was a way for me to connect to other teachers so I didn’t feel like I was crazy. There were other people out there I could talk to about the issues that concerned me, and I had to go outside the school building to find that validation. Now, I tend to have more of those conversations with work colleagues. It’s refreshing.
However, I do find blogging to be a great way for me to think and reflect. Writing is the way I learn, and participating in the Slice of Life weekly writing challenge (is it a challenge? or a meme?) has given me a reason to blog. I have rediscovered why I wanted to blog in the first place. I even wrote a post about an educational issue that concerns me yesterday. I haven’t done that in a while. I really do miss the regular interaction with folks who read this blog as well as the thinking that writing here allows me to do.
Today I went to the Multicultural Teaching Institute (day one of a three-day conference). I am enjoying it so far. This conference gives participants plenty of time to think and talk to each other. It’s active, and I’m engaged. I really like all the journaling they are asking us to do. It’s like my English classes! We each received paper-cover Moleskine notebooks for journaling, and I love mine! I want to have a whole stack of them. I was able to talk about an incident that bothered me this year in a comfortable space and get a few tools for dealing with a similar incident in the future. The food is also great. Often, big conferences skimp on food, if they provide it at all, and it’s refreshing to see such care taken at this conference, mainly because when you gather teachers together, you need to feed them. If you are looking to learn more about diversity issues or multicultural education, I definitely recommend this conference. I think at this point, my mind is a little full, and we have just started, so I don’t have a lot of major reflections aside from the fact that the facilitation is great, and the teachers I have met so far are great. I think I will be learning a lot.
So, no creative writing for me today. Really just some reflection, and that’s a slice of my life today, too.
I have seen an op-ed published in The Washington Post come across my Facebook feed two or three times now, so even though I knew I wouldn’t agree with it, I decided to read it. You can read the original article here: “Why I don’t want to assign Shakespeare anymore (even though he’s in the Common Core)” and a pretty good rebuttal here: “Why it is ridiculous not to teach Shakespeare in school.”
A few thoughts occurred to me as I read the articles. First, Shakespeare may indeed be guilty of being a dead white male, but his writing does include a profound understanding of humanity that I would argue has not changed as much as we might think. Shakespeare deals with matters of family, race, religion, politics, and love. If he were not Shakespeare, truthfully, many of his plays would be challenged (if not banned) in classrooms because of the themes they explore. Othello was taught when it was not legal for people of different races to marry in some parts of this country. It’s a little scary how often the plot of Macbeth seems to be borrowed by those who wield power. What about the fact that inmates studying Hamlet saw themselves in its characters? Jack Hitt, who covered Prison Performing Arts’ work in “Act V,” an episode of This American Life, quoted inmate Derek “Big Hutch” Hutchinson,
Once Hutch got on this riff he kept going. “Denmark’s a prison,” Hamlet tells Rosencrantz in Act Two. And Hutch says you could do a version of the play that takes this central metaphor literally. All the characters in the play are types he sees in the yard every day. The Claudiuses, who’ll do anything for the emblems of power—money, drugs, high-end tennis shoes, Poloniuses who kiss up to the powerful, Rosencrantz and Guildensterns—rats, he called them—spies who run to the administration with information.
James Word, cast as Laertes in the production that Hitt profiles, says, “I am Laertes. I am. I am.” He found himself in the performance of Laertes, and he concluded,
[I]t was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt. It was like the day my daughter was born. And it made me want to be better. Not just in acting. I mean, it just opened up a whole world for me. Like man, if I apply myself, I can pretty much do whatever I want.
I have seen students connect just as powerfully to Shakespeare as Derek Hutchinson and James Word did. They see themselves in the characters. We all do.
My hunch is that Dana Dusbiber, author of the original article, hasn’t discovered performance-based teaching methods yet, and I would love it if the Folger reached out to her and invited her to participate in a Teaching Shakespeare Institute. I know I sound a bit like an evangelist for the Folger, but honestly, their TSI is some of the best and most transformative PD I have ever experienced, and I hear that from everyone else who has done it, too. The best way to get students to understand and even to like Shakespeare is to get them on their feet, with his language coming out of their mouths. They will figure out what is happening and what words mean when they need to perform. Students want to read Shakespeare. It might seem counterintuitive to make that argument, given the challenges that Shakespeare presents, but my experience has been that students enjoy the challenge, and when they meet it, they feel the accomplishment.
Another argument Dusbiber makes reduces teaching Shakespeare to an either/or proposition—we do not have to chuck Shakespeare in order to be inclusive of diverse authors. He does not speak only to those who lived in his own time or else he would not have endured. Ben Jonson couldn’t have known how prescient he would be when he wrote that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time.”
When speaking about the language Shakespeare used in Hamlet, Chris Harris, who was profiled in the episode of “Act V” I mentioned before, said,
The sea-gown scarf’d about me is the fog. I’m out at night. And it’s the flow of the words. Up from my cabin, sea-gown scarf’d about me, groped I in the dark to find out them. Shakespeare really put some work in this. And this is the only play I’ve really studied from him. But he really is good.
I just don’t believe the argument that Shakespeare doesn’t speak to us today. I have seen too much evidence to the contrary. I have seen teenagers connect to Shakespeare when they connected to nothing else. This school year, in fact, I had a student who absolutely loved reading Macbeth, and he was more engaged in the study of that play than in anything else we did all year.
Another argument in the article, made more by Valerie Strauss than by Dusbiber, is that English majors don’t study Shakespeare as much in college these days. I really don’t understand why that argument is made. Is “you will see it in college” the only reason to study anything? We are preparing students for life, and I think Shakespeare is excellent preparation for many of the issues we will confront in life. At some point, we may feel like King Lear, at the mercy of loved ones who disregard us. Many of us have felt like Romeo and Juliet, desperate to cling to a first love. That is life, and that is the business of Shakespeare—to portray us as we are. The argument about college is trotted out quite a lot, from assessment methods to using lecture in instruction. College is four years. Students need to learn to read, write, and think for life. I have seen the argument of what is or is not done in college given too much weight, particularly from people who don’t really seem to know exactly what is done in college now—just what they remember was done when they went to college.
But of course, that argument is beside the point because the article Strauss linked doesn’t even say that English majors are not studying Shakespeare (despite the deceptive headline). What the article does say is that entire courses on just the Bard are not often required. Big difference. I happened to have taken a Shakespeare course in college, and it was lousy (unfortunately). It is possible to teach Shakespeare in a way that turns people off, and I suspect that may be what happened in the case of Dusbiber.
One argument Dusbiber makes is true: no, we should not keep doing something because it has “always been done that way.” That is why I think performance-based teaching of Shakespeare is so crucial. It is not teaching Shakespeare the same old way. I am guilty of being one of the white teachers Dusbiber decries who will “ALWAYS teach Shakespeare.” The author of the rebuttal, Matthew Truesdale, introduces an interesting metaphor of literature as both a mirror and a window. I love it. I have often made the argument that we read to understand who we are as people, and that literature is a mirror that reflects who we are, but Truesdale is right. It’s a window, too, and an excellent way to learn about what we are not and what we could be in addition to what we are.
Should we include diverse voices in the classroom? Absolutely. Should students be choosing more of their reading? Yes. I don’t think that doing either of these things means that Shakespeare must go, however. It’s long past time for us to think about our approach to teaching Shakespeare, though.
If nothing else, these op-eds have inspired me to get going on planning my King Lear unit for my AP course. And I just got out of school for the summer.