The World Might Be Better Off if We Rethink Education

I want to discuss an article my friend Robert tweeted about yesterday.

This paragraph in particular:

First and foremost: From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

One of the best compliments I ever received from a student (thank you, Tali!) was that my class was “relevant.” And she said it because we studied literature (poetry is, by the way, literature, so I’m unclear why the two were separated). We read The Bluest Eye, and Tali wrote an essay about how the novel reflected modern unrealistic notions about beauty standards. She researched the lengths people go to alter their appearance and the mental health effects of being unable to accept and love ourselves as we are. Don’t try to tell me literature isn’t relevant. It shows us who we are, and it shows us others who are not like us. It gives us an opportunity to understand our world. It is one thing for school to prepare us to make a living. It also needs to prepare us to make a life, which is a point Professor Caplan seems to have missed in his argument that the humanities, in particular, are irrelevant. I would challenge anyone in Professor Robin Bates’s English class to tell me what he teaches isn’t relevant.

I can’t understand anyone who would argue we don’t need to study history. A lack of understanding of history is precisely how we wound up in our current political situation. I suppose I want to know who the typical student is, also, because I would argue we should all be well-rounded. The content is not as important as wrestling with the ideas, developing critical thinking and communication skills, and having a greater understanding of our world and all the ways in which it works. It doesn’t make studying the content “useless.”

Caplan argues that “Every college student who does the least work required to get good grades silently endorses the theory [of educational signaling],” meaning that it doesn’t really matter what you study in college—you will exhibit certain traits employers are looking for just because you have done college work at a certain level. The first thing that’s wrong with the argument is doing work to get grades. People who are intrinsically interested in a topic will do the work regardless, but people who are doing the work for a grade are not intrinsically motivated. The work is a means to a different end. And that’s exactly what is wrong with school. Grades. We need to get rid of grading because it gets in the way of learning.

Caplan also mentions learning loss:

The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t. Teachers often lament summer learning loss: Students know less at the end of summer than they did at the beginning.

What kind of learning are we talking about? Memorizing facts? Students will not forget what they apply and what they teach to others. Caplan adds that “Human beings have trouble retaining knowledge they rarely use.” True. What kind of knowledge are we talking about, though? If I can look it up or store it somewhere, I’m not going to stuff it in my brain somewhere because I have a lot going on, and I am not wasting space remembering what I can look up. That’s why, for example, if something I need to remember to do isn’t on my calendar, it doesn’t exist. We do need to make a compelling case for the relevance of what we teach students, or rather, what we ask students to learn. That does not mean college isn’t for everyone who wants to go.

Caplan truly reveals his hand when he remarks, “I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines.”

Frankly, if this is your attitude, you should not be teaching because you do not love your students. It’s classist garbage.

Caplan maintains, “Those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world. This scarcely occurs.” Then the problem is the way college professors teach the scientific method (or whatever else you care to use as an example), right? It stands to reason we should at least examine that it is possible that college professors are not helping students apply what they are learning. After all, Caplan says, “Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world.” That’s because EXAMS ARE NOT APPLICATION. They are not good assessments if we want students to learn what we hope they will learn. They are easy to grade, but as I said before, grades don’t have a connection to learning. I haven’t given an exam in years, and I don’t anticipate ever giving an exam for the rest of my career. Why? Precisely because it teaches students to cram a lot of information into their heads, dump it out on the test, and then forget it. Just as Howard Gardner argues in a quote Caplan uses in the article:

Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.

Being “formally instructed and tested” on a topic doesn’t mean you’ve learned it. Are instructors asking students what they have learned? They might be surprised. So what is Caplan doing to change things? Not much. As he says, “I try to teach my students to connect lectures to the real world and daily life. My exams are designed to measure comprehension, not memorization.”

Caplan is expecting that because he lectures, students are learning. What is he asking his students to do to apply their understandings of economics? What research projects are they taking on?  What sorts of research-based writing are they doing? What sorts of questions are they wrestling with in Socratic discussion?

Caplan adds, right after his remark about being cynical about students, that he’s “cynical about teachers. The vast majority are uninspiring.” I don’t disagree with Caplan here. I’m not sure if I think the vast majority are uninspiring, but I do think teachers who lecture and expect students will retain everything they say and then measure understanding with exams are probably uninspiring. And a large number of teachers do assess in this way.

Educators—at all levels, including and maybe especially college—need to take a hard look at themselves and understand how they teach affects the results they are hoping to achieve. They need to know who they are teaching. They need to stop shaming their students and blaming them for not learning, especially when the way they are teaching students results in the lack of learning and understanding that they decry in their students.

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Slice of Life: The Highest Form of Mastery

Sophia teaches 9th grade
Sophia interacting with students as they read (and listen) to music lyrics in groups

My school has an advisory system. We have from six to eight students whom we advise, which means looking after grades, social and emotional wellbeing, and disciplinary issues that arise as well as being part of a support system for these students.

One of my advisees loves poetry. Sophia read a collection of poetry for a summer choice read. She is involved in our literary magazine and the Poetry and Prose club, which has produced ‘zines for the Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays this year.

Sophia with the Halloween 'Zine
Sophia with the Halloween ‘Zine, photo credit Charley Mull

Sophia asked me if she could teach my 9th-grade class a poetry lesson. She confessed to me today that she was joking initially, but as she started thinking about it, she wanted to give teaching an English class a try. Keeping in mind what I learned from the Bow Tie Boys at NCTE, I agreed.

I know what you are thinking. This could go south pretty quick.

You have to have a great deal of trust in students to turn your class over to them. Sophia and I met in advisory to discuss what she would do, and she showed up to class prepared.

She started the lesson with a short reminder of how poetry connects to our schoolwide essential question: How do we honor and harness the power of our stories? She asked my students to journal for ten minutes about one of two topics:

  • What is your favorite song right now? Why do you like it? What are some lyrics you like?
  • Write about a song that takes you to a different place and time.

I thought her journal prompts were great. She called on students to share their journals, and then she led a discussion about the song “Feel it Still,” especially noting which poetic devices the students found and what they thought the song might be about.

Then she asked students to get into groups and identify a song they liked. If they were stuck, they could use the Billboard Hot 100. They combed through the song lyrics looking for literary devices.

She ended the lesson by reading Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”

Not only did my students have fun, but they also got to apply their understanding of literary devices in a way that was authentic and offered them agency and choice.

One of the Bow Tie Boys said at NCTE (and I regret I didn’t write down his name) that teaching something is the “highest form of mastery.” He said he felt he really learns from his peers when they teach him and when he teaches them in order to study for his AP World History class.

Sophia prepared an engaging lesson. She shared with me that she was worried about filling 70 minutes of time (60 once we take out independent reading), but she did great. I had a backup lesson ready to go just in case, but I am thrilled I didn’t need it. My students seemed to enjoy the lesson, and I know that Sophia did.

Frankly, both my current 9th-grade students and Sophia learned much more about how pop music and poetry intersect than they would have with the lesson I had planned. My lesson wasn’t as interactive. Sophia herself introduced the lesson by stating she didn’t really like the way the subject was approached last year when she was in World Lit I. Ouch! But it was honest.

We should let our students teach more often than we do.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life: Writing a Rationale

brokeback mountain photo
Photo by jiadoldol

I started a unit on Love and Relationships in my AP Lit class today. We discussed everything from what it means to love someone, what it means to love yourself and how you show love to others to the four kinds of love defined by Greeks to Capellanus’s rules for courtly love to #metoo and sexual harassment and rape. It was quite a class.

I took a second look at my syllabus, and I realized something was wrong with it. All the relationships depicted in the stories and poems were heterosexual. I am committed to selecting texts that are both windows and mirrors for students. As such, not only do they need to read to learn about others and develop empathy but also to see themselves reflected back in the books they read. Statistically speaking, even if students are not “out,” I have to have students who either already identify as LGBTQ or are still thinking about their identity. Adolescence is a time of considerable confusion; it’s especially confusing for kids who wonder if they are okay or if other people struggle with the same feelings as they do.

What a gaping hole in my curriculum!

I can’t defend the fact that my syllabus did not explore this issue in the Love in Relationships unit, but I did already include LGBTQ authors Virginia Woolf and Michael Cunningham in my Conformity and Rebellion unit.

Some years ago when I was teaching in Georgia, I taught a short story course for seniors, and Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories was one of my major texts. My students engaged in literature circle discussions of the stories. Students had to read “The Half-Skinned Steer” and could select other stories, including “Brokeback Mountain.” I had students who were eager to read the story, but I also had students who refused.

“Brokeback Mountain” explores some essential ideas within the unit theme of “Love and Relationships.” Most critically, it explores the essential question: How have changing roles in society affected romantic love and relationships? I had to put it in my syllabus, so I made a small change. I took out a story I wasn’t even that familiar with but thought I’d teach since a text I use for reference in building my AP Lit course suggested the story, and I replaced that story with “Brokeback Mountain.”

“Brokeback Mountain” addresses literature standards involving the development of elements such as setting and character and narrative structure and offers an opportunity to read through critical lenses (psychological, sociological, historical, among others).

I decided to re-read the story so that I could identify what issues it might raise if, in the worst case scenario, it’s challenged. After all, it was a long time ago that I last taught the story. Maybe ten years!

If I’m honest, I can’t think of another short story with LGBTQ characters that addresses some of the same issues as “Brokeback Mountain” does.

But there is a depiction of the sexual relationship between main characters Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, and the characters use realistic, coarse language.

So I wrote a rationale for using the text.

It was an interesting experience. I think through in some considerable detail why I am using specific texts, especially for new courses when I am creating backward design units, but I haven’t written an entire rationale for a text. If a text I had selected was challenged, I think I could have come up with a rationale for its use, but it’s so much better to be thoughtful about why we are using texts in advance. One of my big takeaways from NCTE is the critical work of teaching literature means we need to be able to justify our choices. We might not ever need to, and that would be great. However, we should be able to explain why we are asking students to read texts and what we hope those texts will offer.

You know what? I’ve been complacent because I’ve been fortunate. Writing that rationale made me feel like this:

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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NCTE Reflections Part Three

Gareth Hinds delivering the Sunday keynote

I reflected on Friday and Saturday at this year’s NCTE conference in previous posts. This post is my final reflection on Sunday’s events.

Session K started before the Sunday Keynote. I attended K.06: Public Rhetoric: Agency, Voice, and Mission in the Public Sphere, a roundtable discussion. The session included three roundtable discussions. I rotated among tables led by Jennifer Ansbach, Debbie Greco, and Camille Marchand. Jen discussed the shifting nature of language in the news, Debbie discussed memes as visual rhetoric, and Camille discussed using primary source documents (letters) to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. Great first session!

After session K, Gareth Hinds delivered his keynote. I created a Storify to document my own tweets and capture highlights from other attendees.

I especially enjoyed seeing Gareth’s early work.

I captured a bit of video as he did a live demonstration, too.

I enjoyed Jim Burke’s session L.18: Seeing and Hearing Each Other through Nonfiction: For the Good of Kids and Country as well. Jim shared his resources and expertise. One big takeaway from his session:

We need to think about our students as users and design accordingly.

I couldn’t stay for all of session M because I was afraid I’d be late for my own session, but it was amazing. M.08: Breaking the Classroom to Prison Pipeline. The title might have been a bit misleading as it was really more about seeing our students and social justice. I was curious about the session because its leaders were Linda Christensen and Dyan Watson. I knew that Linda Christensen has done a lot of work in social justice in education. I recently ordered two of her books to read. It was a really great session with opportunities to write and turn and talk. I left it a few minutes early to hustle across the convention center for my session.

I presented N.18: Representing, Rendering, and Respecting Diverse Lives and Labels with Ruth Quiroa and Leah Panther. My topic was digital storytelling.

One more minor complaint: NCTE made a deal with the GO Shuttle shared van service, and it was a great discount. Unfortunately, as far as I could determine, the latest shuttle to the airport on Sunday left at 3:00 PM, which was in the middle of the last session. I tried lying about when my flight left to see if there were any later shuttles, and I couldn’t find any. Obviously, this means anyone taking advantage of the great shuttle deal had to leave early. I doubt this is NCTE’s fault, but I wonder if they took it into consideration when they made the deal with Go Shuttle. It was about three times as expensive for me to get an Uber ride to the airport, as I couldn’t take advantage of the shuttle deal. The last session of the last day is hard all the way around, but I felt bad for my fellow presenters who had prepared great presentations. I am glad I have friends who came to my session at the end of the conference on Sunday at the end of the day.

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NCTE Reflections Part Two

The #BowTieBoys and their Teacher Jason Augustowski
The #BowTieBoys and their Teacher Jason Augustowski

In my last post, I reflected on Friday at last week’s NCTE conference. I decided to split my conference reflection into three posts this year, so this post will focus on Saturday at the conference, and the next post will concern the conference’s final day.

The conference guide had a misprint that stated Jacqueline Woodson’s keynote began at 8:00, and even though the app was updated to reflect the accurate time of 9:00, I didn’t check it. I honestly can’t remember anymore how I spent that time. The exhibit hall wasn’t open yet, but people were lined up to enter it. Honest question: why? The exhibit hall will be there all day. What are people lining up in order to do?

Jacqueline Woodson’s keynote was great. I created a Storify of Twitter highlights.  I found Storify and Twitter to be a great way for me to take notes and capture highlights at this conference. I’ve used it before, but not extensively. Some important questions emerged for me from Woodson’s keynote: What can we do to make it easier for teachers of color to attend (and feel welcome) at this conference? The larger question: How can we encourage more people of color to become educators? Children need to see themselves reflected in their school faculty.

I have attended Tom Romano’s sessions for a few years now, and I went again this year. Each year he makes me more excited to do multigenre writing projects. This year, I picked up a few ideas I hope to be able to use with my freshmen when they do multigenre projects later this year. Romano remarked that he is noticing more of his college students have previously done multigenre work than in the past.

I didn’t go to a G session and opted instead for a yogurt lunch and for the exhibit hall, which was pretty much the only time I spent in the exhibits the whole weekend. I picked up the free Scholastic tote (my husband has a running joke about how many totes I have), and I bought Gareth Hinds’s new graphic novel of Poe’s short stories and asked him to sign it.

I attended my friend Jennifer Farnham’s session with Brooke Eisenbach, H.30 Creating an Environment of Social Justice in the English Classroom. Jennifer and Brooke hadn’t realized it would be a panel session and thought they would be at a large roundtable session, but you’d never have known it. We had time to discuss issues of censorship and social justice at our tables. It was an excellent session. Jennifer and Brooke shared some excellent tools.

Next, I attended I.20 Recapturing Assessment: Student Voices in Aiding Our Mission which was a roundtable session led by the #BoyTieBoys and their teacher Jason Augustowski. What an incredible session! Each of the Boy Tie Boys shared an Ignite-style presentation and then rotated to a new table. One big takeaway from their session is that we need to see more students at this conference. We can learn a lot from students themselves about what works with assessment and what doesn’t work. Some themes emerged from the boys’ presentations: students want choice about how they show their learning and they want to get to know their teachers in order to learn from them. I should add also that the Boy Tie Boys’ Twitter game was top notch. They captured some great ideas while attending keynotes and conference sessions.

My last Saturday session was J.37 Fake It ‘Til You Make It: Rhetoric in the Era of Fake News. I’d have been interested in this topic even if I was not friends with most of the panel of presenters, which included Deborah Appleman, Glenda Funk, Debbie Greco, Cherlyann Schmidt, and Ami Szerencse. The panel presentation focused on how to teach students how to think critically about the rhetoric they hear and how to evaluate news sources. It was a great session, and the entire panel generously shared materials and ideas.

I didn’t stay out very late on Saturday as I was nursing a cold and would be presenting and traveling the next day, but I did enjoy a brisk walk around the corner for some delicious pizza before I curled up for the night to read, transcribe some notes, and think.

On a completely unrelated note, I changed the theme of my blog again because it bothered me that visitors had to hunt around to figure out how to comment on posts. I hate anything that interferes with the user experience. I initially changed to a new theme because I discovered the one I used did not fill up the entire screen on devices with wider screens. I didn’t realize this problem because it filled up the screen on my old laptop. However, once I discovered it, it bothered me to no end, so I changed the theme. I never could adjust to the new theme. I tried to find other themes that would work, but I wasn’t happy with anything, so I finally sat down today and created a child theme based on the old theme I was using, which is Twenty Fourteen by WordPress. I think I have successfully made the changes I needed to so that the theme fills the screen, but let me know if you notice anything weird because I have never made a child theme before.

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NCTE Reflections Part One

I anticipate needing more than one post to process my learning at NCTE this year. I had a great conference, and I noticed an improvement in a few areas I’ve criticized in the past.

One complaint I’ve had in the past is that materials were not posted online. Conference organizers made greater efforts (at least I noticed greater efforts) in encouraging participants to post materials online, and in sessions themselves, more presenters explained how to access their materials online. I think this is a trend in general because I have noticed it at other conferences as well, but I am grateful for the increased ease of access.

I have expressed fears that NCTE is becoming an echo chamber and that sessions from more well-known voices in the organization tend to leech away from other presenters. Efforts were made to highlight sessions by other presenters this year, and thank goodness, the “big names” were put in the theater where everyone who wanted to hear them could fit.

I decided to focus on going to sessions with a social justice theme this year. I went to so many great sessions that it will be hard to pick out highlights.

I attended Jimmy Santiago Baca’s keynote on Friday also, and I made a Storify of Twitter highlights.

I only swept the exhibit hall once during the conference, and that was to get Gareth Hinds’s new Poe book and the Scholastic tote. Hinds graciously signed my book for me, too. I also stood in line for Angie Thomas to sign a copy of The Hate U Give for me. I recently read and reviewed that book on my book blog. I wish I had made time for Jason Reynolds to sign something, but I would have had to buy books anyway as my copies of his books are currently in the hands of students.

I walked out of some sessions when it became clear that they were not going to be interactive. If I have one suggestion I hope NCTE will consider for future conferences, and it’s that presenters who plan to read papers be required to explicitly state that they will be reading a paper in their session. I hate to be sitting in the front row and leave once I realize the session description was deceptive. I also hate to avoid sessions by college presenters on the chance they will be reading a paper. I’m sure many of them are exactly what I’m looking for, but it’s taking a risk. I don’t think I’m alone in that I attend this conference to learn and interact with teachers, not to hear papers. I am sure others DO attend to hear papers. Why not make it easier for everyone to figure out this information?

NCTE Pro Tip: For the first time this year, I made a concerted effort to rank my choices in order of preference and write those numbers next to the session abstract in the conference book. By Sunday, I had adopted a scheme that worked great. I used post-it tabs and wrote the room number for the sessions I’d bookmarked at the top of the tab, so I could see the room numbers without flipping through the book. It made my travels Sunday a lot easier, and I only wish I’d thought of doing it sooner. It’s probably just as easy to rely on the app, but I found this to be an even quicker way to double-check room numbers than the app. If I had to leave my first choice session, it was easy to flip through the book and find my second choice.

As a side note: This conference is expensive. The conference fee itself is over $200 for members, and that doesn’t include hotel and travels. I have been in the position of having to pay for it out of pocket in the past because my previous school didn’t value the experience. It has been fairly difficult for me when I’ve had to pay for it myself, too. Many people mentioned how cost-prohibitive the conference is, and how it might be preventing especially teachers of color from attending. I am fortunate that my current school has covered the costs for me to go each year I have wanted to go. If you do go to NCTE, always remember this is YOUR conference. Either you or your school paid good money for you to go. If you are not going to learn from or enjoy a session, by all means, LEAVE IT. There are so many great sessions scheduled each block. You are doing yourself a disservice if you stay in a session that is not going to help you or your students or your school. Don’t feel bad about it, either.

I’ll focus the remainder of this post on the sessions from Friday alone, and then write posts about Saturday and Sunday to make it easier for readers to digest.

Neither A session I attended was memorable, sadly. I walked out of one (reading a paper), and the other was just not executed well, though I didn’t leave it. I probably should have, but by the time I’d already left one and transversed the conference center to a second and stayed long enough to figure it that it, too, wasn’t going to be as helpful as I’d thought, a lot of time for session A had passed, so I wasn’t sure I’d get as much out of my third choice after so much time had passed.

I enjoyed hearing from Tim O’Brien and Lynn Novick about teaching the Vietnam War. O’Brien signed a few session attendees’ copies of The Things They Carried. My rookie mistake? I knew he’d be at the conference. I planned to attend his session. And I left my copy of that brilliant book of his on my shelf at school. I am appropriately mad at myself, don’t worry.

Author Tim O'Brien and documentarian Lynn Novick
Author Tim O’Brien and documentarian Lynn Novick

O’Brien and Novick presented in session B.51: The Vietnam War and the Power of Storytelling. I created a Storify of Twitter highlights from the session.

I didn’t realize the C session was at the same time as the CEE luncheon with Angie Thomas. Oops. So I wound up not doing a C session, but Angie Thomas’s keynote at the luncheon was great, and I also created a Storify of Twitter highlights from her keynote.

I left my first choice D session (which didn’t turn out to be what I thought it would be), and went to the featured D.01 session “Queering English Studies: Navigating Politics, Policies, and Practices in ELA Learning Spaces.” It was a good roundtable session. I was late, so I only went through two roundtables, but both were helpful.

The E session I went to was fantastic. It was E.30: The Fire This Time. The presenters shared a wealth of materials. They were incredibly generous. Their discussion revolved around the core texts of The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (which I finally read on the plane to St. Louis, and… wow). I particularly loved the assignment they presented called “Suckage,” and I plan to steal it for my students. Here is Coates being interviewed at the school of one of the presenters as part of his book tour; you’ll see what Coates means by “Suckage.”

via ytCropper

I am so incredibly glad I attended that session. I not only got some great ideas for writing assignments out of it, but also a great discussion about teaching Baldwin and Coates, as well as how to teach students to discuss writing in general.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how my Saturday went.

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Learning for Life

My Students

This picture shows three special groups of students. In the frame in the upper left is my last group of advisees at the Weber School before I moved away from Georgia to Massachusetts. They took this picture of themselves at the Winter Formal and framed it for me as a going-away gift. These students graduated two years after I left—Class of 2014. They were such a good group that my colleague Nicki Brite claimed them all for advisory before my last school year had ended. They are sophomores in this picture.

On the bottom are my first group of advisees at Worcester Academy. This crew graduated in 2016, and two of them were my advisees for all four years of high school. I picked up the rest in sophomore, junior, or senior year. They were a lively group. This is their senior picture, and they are wearing their college tee-shirts. My current advisees at Worcester Academy are sophomores this year.

The students on the right are standing in front of Walden Pond. Many of these students were in my class for as many as three years, and I think most of them had my class for at least two years. They are sophomores in this particular picture. At the Weber School, American Literature was a sophomore English class, and most of these students also took my Writing Seminar class as well. We knew each other well. They made this picture because we studied Thoreau in class, and I could not be there with them to experience Walden. They graduated in 2009. I was close to these students. Many of them connect with me on Facebook or Twitter. One of them tweeted this response to my last blog post.

His comment moved me incredibly, but if I’m honest, he didn’t have the teacher I describe in that blog post. I was in a different place when I taught him and his peers, and I learned a lot in the years that followed. Issues of conscience and social justice are much more important to me now. Student agency is far more important to me now. Students have more voice and more choices in my classroom in 2017 than they did in 2007. Yet this student’s comment is evidence of one of my core beliefs. Over time, we will probably forget the mechanics of how to format a paper according to MLA guidelines, what a participle is, or what the red hunting hat symbolizes. What we don’t forget is how our teachers make us feel. If we knew they loved us and we loved them back, we remember their classes fondly. And we certainly remember how they helped us grow in the most crucial ways: becoming critical readers and thinkers, effective communicators, and lifelong learners.

As department chairs at Worcester Academy, we recently read an article called “Four Predictions for Students’ Tomorrows” by Erik Palmer in the March 2016 issue of Educational Leadership. You need to be an ASCD member to view the article at the link. What Palmer argues in the article is that what we think about years after we graduate are the things we wish we had been taught. As Palmer reminds us in the article, we are preparing our students for their futures. It’s a moving target. However, we do know that students are going to need to be critical researchers (especially using the internet well), they will need to be media literate and make logical arguments, they will need to be able to speak and listen, and they will need to be good critical thinkers. None of this is new. As Palmer points out in his conclusion, “Argument, rhetoric, and oral communication have been important since ancient Greece” (22).

Thinking about how my approach to teaching has changed, I am curious: What do my students wish they had learned in my class?

Stay tuned. I just asked my students. I’ll let you know what they have to say.

What about you? What do you wish you’d learned in school?

Citation: Palmer, Erik. “Four Predictions for Students’ Tomorrows.” Educational Leadership, vol. 73, no. 6, Mar. 2016, pp. 18-22.

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Tips for Presenters at Education Conferences

advice photo
Photo by Got Credit

I’ve been doing some thinking about things I wish I had known the first time I presented at an educational conference as well as things I observe as I continue to enjoy and learn from the presentations of others at conferences. If you are presenting at an educational conference or to teachers in general, it’s worth considering the following ten tips.

  1. Share your slide deck.
    Google Slides and SlideShare make this so easy. URL shorteners make it even easier to send a quick link at the beginning of your presentation and on social media. You can try services such as Bitly, Tiny.cc, Tinyurl, and Google URL Shortener. These services are all free. In some cases, you can customize the link in the URL shortener you use. We are in 2017, and there is no longer any excuse not to share your slide deck, presentation packets, and other materials online. People who attend your presentation will be grateful, and you will make it much easier for them to implement your ideas when they go back to their schools. Many conferences offer shared folders or sites where you can upload your materials, but it’s not enough, and it’s especially not enough if you don’t do it in advance. If I can’t access your materials when I’m in your presentation, I am not likely to go back later and try. I find it frustrating when people do not share their materials, and it contributes more than anything else to a negative experience in a conference session. On the other hand, when presenters share at the beginning, I’m really happy and I engage right away because I know I will have a tangible takeaway I can look at later, and I don’t have to furiously try to capture everything in my bad handwriting that I can’t read later.
  2. Practice with your technology and equipment.
    Make sure everything works. Test the sound. Test your dongle before you leave for the conference and make sure you can project. Run through your slides and make sure everything works. Test links. Make sure you have set up proper viewing permissions in advance. Most conferences will have a few people helping with technology needs, but in all honesty, these folks are often running all over a large convention center, and there are never enough volunteers for this job. You really can’t rely on technology help when you present. It’s best if you can troubleshoot and resolve your own issues if possible.
  3. Bring any special equipment you will need.
    It’s probably safe to rely on the conference runners to provide a projector and microphone (if the room is big enough), but make sure you check that projectors and mics will be provided if you need them. If you need a dongle to connect to a VGA cable, make sure you bring it. Make sure it works. Bring a backup dongle if possible, as these cables are particularly fragile, for some reason, and even new ones can break fairly easily. If you have a newer Mac without the Thunderbolt 2 port that connects a dongle to a VGA cable, make sure you bring a dongle that connects to the new USB C ports because no one will have a backup dongle you can borrow. Trust me on this. Bring speakers if you need them, and make sure they work for the size room you are in. If you aren’t sure of the size, it might be worth it to invest in a nice Bose mini-speaker if you present (or anticipate presenting) often. Most conference rooms still don’t seem to be wired for sound. Make sure you bring materials you need. If you are displaying an iPad or other tablet, make sure you have a dongle for a projector; I have never seen an Apple TV or similar mirroring tool at any educational conference I’ve gone to, not even technology conferences. If you want a clicker to switch through slides, bring one. Most education conferences provide very little beyond a room, a projector, and a mic, so if you need anything else at all, you should plan to bring it. If you are not sure what the conference provides, and you haven’t had communication regarding what to bring, don’t hesitate to ask someone if you are at all unsure about what to bring.
  4. Make sure your slide deck is easy to see.
    If possible, test it for the person in the back of the room and make sure everything on the slide deck is visible. Avoid using dark backgrounds, which are particularly hard to see on projectors that are not bright. There are some really cool templates with dark backgrounds, but they are just hard to see in a presentation setting. Also, think about the readability of the fonts you use. Make sure they contrast well with your background and are bold, print fonts. Avoid fonts that are difficult to read. Don’t pack your slides with a lot of text. It’s better to break information down into more slides than to put too much on a single slide. Avoid putting information on the bottom of the slide, as sometimes room setups make it difficult to see the bottom of third or so the presentation.
  5. Use a professional-looking design for your slide deck.
    Templates are absolutely fine, but make sure you avoid unprofessional looking color schemes and fonts. (Comic Sans, I’m looking at you!) Use backgrounds and images that are eye-catching. There is a lot of great advice out there for design elements. Research best practices for designing presentations.
  6. Avoid relying on conference wifi for any part of your presentation.
    While it’s a good idea to make your presentation available online, conference wifi is still (in 2017!) sometimes spotty. You can download Google Slide presentations as PowerPoints, and anything you upload to SlideShare probably started as a PowerPoint, a Keynote, or another presentation tool. Download any videos you will be playing. YouTube is notorious for buffering right when you most need it to play smoothly. While you might have the capability of pairing your laptop or other device with your phone in order to have internet access, you should make sure anything you need to access online is available to use. It’s easy to get flustered when your videos won’t play or your slide deck won’t load, so save yourself some stress and make sure you have a backup plan if the wifi isn’t working well.
  7. Keep an eye on the time.
    In many cases, you have a limited amount of time, and if you go over, you may affect other speakers’ ability to share their presentations. Know how much time you have. If you are not sure, ask. Stick to the time you’ve been allotted. When you are practicing your presentation, time yourself. Adjust on the fly when you do interactive activities. Sometimes it’s hard to predict how long activities and parts of your presentation will take. If you consider time well in advance, you will be prepared to make adjustments that don’t compromise the most important things you want to share.
  8. Give people time to talk and reflect if you can.
    Sometimes time is really tight. I have learned that I really enjoy sessions when I can think about the material through writing or discussion with other participants. More and more often, conference presentations that do not include elements of interactivity or audience participation or reflection are rejected because participants are asking for opportunities to be involved and to reflect on their learning.
  9. Leave time for questions.
    People will want to ask you questions or at least share a few ideas, so make sure you give them a platform and time to do so. Sometimes, participants think of wrinkles or problems that we didn’t, and it can be helpful to brainstorm these issues with them and come up with solutions if you can.
  10. Share your contact information.
    I very rarely contact people after attending their presentations, but I have done so sometimes, and it’s so helpful if you prominently display ways to get in touch. I usually share my email, my Twitter handle, and my website link. I think I could count on one hand the number of times people have actually contacted me, but I like to leave that door open because as a participant, I would want that information. I often do follow people on Twitter after particularly enjoying their presentations.

What would you add to the list?

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Slice of Life: Visiting a Friend

On the spur of the moment Sunday, I decided to visit Walden Pond and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, about 45 minutes away from where I live. It was a beautiful fall day, and I was hoping to see the leaves. This weekend will be too busy, and before long, it will be cold up here in Massachusetts. I took my son and daughter. We walked all the way around Walden Pond.

Dylan walking
My son marching to the beat of his own drummer

The trees are indeed beginning to change color, but they are still pretty green because we had a warm spell in September and early October, and I think it confused the leaves.

Walden

We visited the site where Thoreau’s cabin once stood, and my kids indulged my request to pose.

Thoreau's Cabin Site

It is quite a small space, which I suppose was the point, but I think Maggie, in particular, was surprised to learn Thoreau lived in a cabin only a little larger than her bedroom.

There is a marker where Thoreau’s chimney foundation was.

Thoreau's Chimney Marker

But perhaps most striking, next to the site of the cabin is this large cairn and sign.

Cairn and Sign Near Thoreau's Cabin Site

It looks a bit more haphazard in the picture, but there were several very orderly stacks of rocks. Of course, we left stones in remembrance.

Stone Cairn

There are two main paths around the lake. You can go through the woods, or you can walk on the beach. We tried both.

Wood Path around Walden

The leaves were gathering in the shallow water near the edge of the lake. It’s hard to capture in a photo.

Leaves in Walden Pond

We made sure to visit the replica of the cabin, which is near the parking lot and gift shop. Dylan found a friend. He’s got a huckleberry-flavored lollipop, which you can buy in the gift store.

Dylan and Thoreau

My children didn’t know who Henry David Thoreau was, which did not surprise me. I wonder if I knew who he was when I was their age. So I told them about him—why he lived at Walden and what he wanted to do there, about his act of civil disobedience, about his last words to his Aunt Louisa, who asked him on his deathbed whether he’d made his peace with God, “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.”

He was two years younger than I am now when he died of tuberculosis.  But what an amazing mark he has left on the world. Maggie was particularly interested in Thoreau’s night in jail, as she had read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” this year in her English class.

I am not teaching American literature this year. I am sad about it in some ways because I loved teaching Thoreau, especially sharing “Civil Disobedience” with my students, and I always pair it with King’s Letter when I teach it. It’s the introduction to my favorite unit, which involves nonconformists and voices of the “other.”

We grabbed some pizza at a local place, and my children once again indulged me with a visit to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Louisa May Alcott, and of course, Henry David Thoreau are buried.

It’s quite a beautiful cemetery, and the authors’ graves are easy to find. The Thoreau family are buried in a large plot together.

Thoreau Family Marker

I was surprised by how moved I was when we saw Thoreau’s simple marker. I actually felt tears start.

Thoreau's Grave Marker

I love the fact that visitors leave him pencils. I left a stone behind, but it didn’t occur to me to bring him a pencil.

Thoreau speaks to me in some weird ways, and I’m not sure why because truthfully, I didn’t enjoy reading all of Walden. I like parts of it. Thoreau might actually frustrate the heck out of me if I really knew him. Even Emerson said, “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all American, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”

Oh, Waldo. But he was engineering for all America. You all just didn’t see it at the time. I don’t know that it’s true that Thoreau had no ambition. I think what he wanted to accomplish with his life was just different from what Emerson thought he should want to accomplish.

I have been thinking a lot about Thoreau’s wisdom as captured on the sign near the site of his cabin.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Mainly because I am preparing to do something fairly big—and as much as I hate to be cagey, I can’t talk about it on my blog yet. I have been thinking a little bit lately about what I want to reflect on at the end of my life, what I hope to have done. One of the best reasons to try something you’re afraid to do is to think about how you might feel about not trying when you die. I don’t think that’s necessarily what Thoreau meant, but I do think he would approve of the sentiment that if we do not take risks and see what happens, we aren’t really living. I just realized this as I was writing, but I think I went to visit my friend Thoreau to obtain his blessing on my plans. I think I got it. There was a was a transcendent moment when the sun came out from behind a cloud and threw sparkles all over the lake, and I could have sworn I felt his presence. You can roll your eyes if you want. I know what I felt.

If Thoreau taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you really need to “go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” He might add, if we were in conversation for real instead of just inside my head, “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” After all, “there is no other life but this.”

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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The Best Draft

rough draft photo
Photo by KimNowacki
Kelly Gallagher shared a tweet that caught my eye:

It took me many years of teaching, but I ultimately developed this philosophy a few years ago. In fact, I have been known to say the first two sentences of Kelly’s tweet, word for word, especially to parents on Back to School Night, mostly when I explain my revision policy. However, I admit that thinking of papers as “best drafts” was new language for me. I have started using it with my students this year. In fact, yesterday, I told my AP Lit students I have been wrestling with a piece of writing for months now, and I am really frustrated with it. Honestly, I knew some of the changes we had implemented in writing instruction in our department were bearing fruit when their response was to offer to workshop it for me. I nearly cried.

Maybe I will take them up on it. Meeting their writing needs is more important to me, though.

Let’s just say it’s a very important piece of writing. I worked on it today a little bit, and I am much happier with it, but I shared with my students that I was particularly bothered by too many instances of passive voice—ironically, something I just taught to my freshman students in the last couple of weeks. I found about seven examples of passive voice in my two-page essay.

Writing is hard. I really care about this piece of writing. Striking the right chord with its intended audience is critical. I typed a sentence. I erased it. I typed a new sentence. I erased it. I growled in exasperation. My husband, who is busily writing articles for Maxim online about six feet away from me asked me what was wrong. I said, “I can’t write.”

He did what husbands do—especially, I think, writer husbands—and he offered to help me. I was so angry at myself that I probably didn’t respond. I can’t recall what I said if I did. But I did something I am always telling students to do when they can’t start. I began in a different place. I rewrote a passage that came toward the middle of my third draft. Then I filled in a bit at the end. Then I went back to the beginning again. I scanned my third draft, looking for anything I might be leaving out. I thought a great deal about active voice. I researched a little bit online. I added more to my draft.

I am a lot happier with the fourth draft. I wonder how long that feeling will last? In any case, it’s important that English teachers regularly engage in this process they ask students to do. It’s difficult work, lest we forget how hard it is, and if we are to instruct others how to do it, it’s important that we do it, too.

My thinking about the topic, which happens to be assessment, has changed so much over time. I know many people don’t agree with me about this, but I don’t average grades when students revise. I replace the grade with what the student earns on the new draft. I am not even sure that Kelly Gallagher is advocating a total grade replacement when he talks about all writing being eligible for revision. My only stipulation is that students revise within a week of receiving my feedback so I don’t go crazy trying to keep up with work—it’s not fair to me to wait until the last day before a grading period ends, for example. My students revise like mad. A few elect not to do so, but they know the policy, and they are making that choice.

I care a great deal that students’ writing improves—much more so than maintaining a hard line about a grade. I don’t really even like grades, as regular visitors to this blog will know. Some students will demonstrate mastery of a concept the first time they attempt to show what they know. Others will take a few tries. If the end product is similar, why shouldn’t the grade be similar? I understand the argument that we should reward the student who does it right the first time with a higher grade. I suppose I disagree on the grounds that sometimes it took me a long time to understand a concept, but once I did, my understanding was as deep and profound as the person who got it on the first try. In fact, my determination in trying to learn it is worth something.

At some point, this piece of writing I am laboring over will be due. It will have to be a final draft, too, because of the nature of the work. I’ll work like mad to make sure it’s my best draft. One thing is certain: working on it multiple times has already yielded much better work than I did on my first draft.

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Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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