Nine Week Reflection

Nine weeks have passed since the beginning of this year. If you have been around since the beginning, you might recall that I am using Jim Burke’s The Teacher’s Daybook for planning, organization, and reflection this year. After nine weekly plan pages, Burke included two purple reflection pages. This is what I wrote on the Professional Reflections page.

Good teachers bring us to life. Literally. It’s as if they take us by the hand when we are unsure of just what life is, and they lead us to the fullness and beauty of what it means to be alive. I think the Latin educare means to bring out into the light. ~ Alice Walker

I read Alice Walker’s quote for inspiration. I guess I never thought about where the word “educate” originated. If true, this etymology is interesting.

I don’t feel good about how I’ve done with my goal of organization. I’ve not used this planner to greatest effect over the last six weeks especially. I started out so well! Then, I gradually stopped using the daily planner. I had lessons planned each day, but I didn’t pause to reflect over them as I should have [which the daily planner template in the Daybook allows for]. I’m not sure whether my students felt the lack, but I did.

I also allowed myself to get ridiculously far behind in grading. The paper jungle! Will I ever learn to stay on top of it?

I feel good about my lessons and what my students have been learning. I feel overwhelmed by our disjointed October calendar [Jewish holidays off left us with nine days of instruction over four weeks]. I feel relieved NHS inductions are over [I am advisor of National Honor Society].

I am glad I’ve figured out a way to assess my students in light of the standards of my school.

What I’ve managed to “bring out into the light” is that I need to start — tomorrow — with the daily reflection again. I also need to stay on top of grading. Ironically, I think the regular schedule, i.e. lack of holidays, will help me in that regard, because I get nothing done at home.

Ah educator — educate thyself.

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Gifted Education

The New York Times profiled a school for highly gifted students in Nevada today. According to the banner on their website, Davidson Academy serves “profoundly gifted” students. The only concern I have about pushing gifted children through school so that they graduate early is that it forces them to become little adults. While they may have a vast intellect, they do not have the social and emotional skill sets of adults. The movie Little Man Tate, directed by Jodie Foster, explored this issue. In my opinion, what we need to do is create good programs for gifted students that allow them to stay in the same grade level as their peers.

I am certified to teach gifted students. I was also considered gifted in school, though I was not profoundly gifted, and to be honest, my IQ puts me in the moderately gifted range. I was enrolled in gifted classes beginning in 5th grade. I opted out of gifted education in the 10th grade. My gifted education classes in the 1980′s were kind of joke. I went about once a week. I was pulled out of other regular instruction classes, which meant I missed instruction. I mostly did brain teasers and logic problems. While those were fun, I was never really sure what I was supposed to be getting out of the experience. I did one project in which I researched Susan B. Anthony and created a display box biography of her life. That was fun. Once I got to high school, my gifted instruction centered more around subject matter. I was in what they called Honors English, but that was my only gifted course. When I moved to California, my school records were apparently lost. My school in Anaheim wanted me to re-take the gifted test. I was scared to do so, because qualifying for gifted education in 5th grade was very different from 9th grade. My peers were really smart. I was afraid it was a mistake — the fact that I was in gifted education at all. I decided not to take the test, and I was required to drop into regular college prep classes. I regret that stupid mistake to this day — I should have taken that test, continued gifted education, and taken AP classes. Gifted education in high school, at least my experience with teaching it, is so different from elementary and middle school. I hope things have changed since my days as a student.

When I was taking my certification courses, I recall we had a discussion in class about a statement made by our textbook’s author that teachers of gifted students ought to be gifted themselves. I really don’t think that is out of line. Gifted students require some level of understanding, some level of thinking like them in order to challenge them. One teacher disagreed with that statement, and our “professor” agreed with her (he was actually a vice-superintendent of a local school system, so I’m not sure what his actual degree was). I didn’t say what I thought. I read the room and decided my opinion was unpopular.

The article mentions that “Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the ‘vast majority’ of federal spending for children in kindergarten through 12th grade was for the neediest children.” Our position in this society is that if you are gifted, you have everything you need, so we don’t need to devote resources to you. This is true emotionally and socially, too. We assume gifted students are OK because they are gifted. A study cited in the article notes we don’t spend enough money on gifted students:

Nancy Green, executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children, said that state and local efforts were admirable but that their inconsistency reflected lost opportunities. A new survey by her association found that among 39 states that responded, 24 spent as much as $10 million on programs for gifted children but 7 spent less than $1 million and 8 spent nothing.

Green continued: “For a nation, I’m not sure why we value equity over excellence. All kids are entitled to an appropriate education for their ability, not just those we’re teaching to a minimum standard.”

Have you by any chance read the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut? In a sense, what we are doing with gifted education is handicapping gifted students as much as the Handicapper General’s office handicapped any individuals who showed excellence in any area. At one time, gifted students were considered “exceptional children” in the same way as special education students were considered “exceptional” — meaning “different from the norm.” I’m sure someone can correct me if I’m wrong, but I learned in my Exceptional Children course in college (back in 1992 or 1993) that the conventional wisdom was to remove gifted students from underneath the umbrella of exceptional education, although I see the CEC still includes gifted education as part of its agenda. In some ways, this harmed gifted education, because dollars earmarked for exceptional students no longer went into gifted education.

Because our gifted kids are smart, we assume that they will be fine if we focus on students who are not gifted. We assume those other students need us more, while gifted students will get by on their own. All of our students need us.

Some gifted education resources:

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Collins Writing

I asked yesterday if any of you used Collins Writing and Mike Hetherington said, “I still use ‘type two’s’, primarily as a quick assessment tool.”

Basically, the Collins approach groups writing assignments according to five types:

  • Type 1 — Write to Capture Ideas
    Brainstorming; one draft. Evaulated with a check or minus.
  • Type 2 — Respond Correctly
    A correct response to a question; shows what the student has learned. Used as a quiz grade.
  • Type 3 — Edit for Focus Correction Areas
    Meets up to three standards called Focus Correction Areas. One draft; revision and editing are done on first draft.
  • Type 4 — Peer Edited for Focus Correction Areas
    Read aloud by peer. Two drafts; second draft revised by author.
  • Type 5 — Publish
    Multiple drafts; writing is of publishable quality

One of the things I wanted to know from those of you who have used Collins is what you thought about the Focus Correction Areas. The idea is to choose three areas upon which you base assessment of the writing. This is something that can be used in writing across the curriculum. A science teacher might focus on correct use and spelling of vocabulary terms describing a chemical process, for instance. A social studies teacher might ask a student to describe a country and require the student include information about major cities, culture and population, and major exports. I recently assigned a one-paragraph essay to my students and asked that they include 1) an appropriate topic sentence and three supporting details, 2) three dependent clauses (one adjective clause, one adverb clause, and one noun clause), and 3) one verbal or verbal phrase (participle, gerund, or infinitive). For the last six weeks (give or take, because Jewish holidays have disrupted our schedule), my students have been learning about phrases and clauses. I especially emphasized verbals when we discussed phrases. I thought this assessment might be a good way for students to show me what they learned about phrases and clauses and incorporate them into their writing as well as use what they learned about writing paragraphs. I don’t know how it turned out yet, because we’re out for the holidays this week, and not all the students had finished the writing. Some of the students did seem to like the idea that I was looking for three things. Other students seemed anxious, but frankly, those were students who haven’t done well with the grammar we’ve learned this year. A small tangent — I personally feel that unless students translate what they learn about grammar into better writing, it’s pointless to teach it. My principal, who taught English for 30 years, seems to feel this assignment was a good one.

Another critical element of Collins Writing is portfolio assessment. I am doing portfolios in all my classes this year. I think with the 9th graders, we will actually go in and revise writing from the portfolio. With my 10th graders, I’m actually using them as a tool so students can see how far they’ve come with writing. I ask students to complete a chart stapled inside the file folders that serve as their portfolios. The chart has four components: Assignment, Grade, Positive Remarks, and What Do I Need to Fix? If it does nothing else, it encourages students to reflect on their writing and look for patterns across their writing in terms of common mistakes. I think portfolio assessment can be tough to do in large classes. My largest class has 19, which is pretty big for my school. My classes average from 12-15. That makes portfolios more manageable.

In theory, the Collins Approach looks like it could really improve student writing. Instead of overwhelming students in their writing, it sets clear expectations for the assignment and holds students accountable for meeting those standards. It should also make evaluating writing easier. I would be anxious to hear about any experiences you have had with Collins.

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Comparison/Contrast Graphic Organizer

I am wondering if any of my colleagues out there have used the Collins Writing Program. I went to a workshop on the Collins Writing Program led by Henry Dembowski last November, and I was really excited by it. I didn’t want to implement something completely new after I’d already established a writing program last year (though in retrospect, I probably should have), so I didn’t try everything I learned. I will write more on that later, as I’m implementing the program this year.

One of the most useful things I learned was a great way to create a graphic organizer for compare and contrast writing. We have all given our students copies of Venn diagrams. I always disliked the fact that the middle portion where the circles overlap doesn’t have much room, which forces students either to cram information in the space or to leave off points of comparison. Henry taught us how to make a more effective comparison/contrast graphic organizer.

  1. Take a piece of paper.

  2. Fold it in half lengthwise, but do not crease.

  3. Pinch the paper in the middle and crease only up to the top.

  4. Now fold the paper in half the other way (top to bottom) and crease.

  5. Your paper should look like this.

  6. Now fold the bottom of the paper up so that it meets the middle and crease.

  7. You’re done folding. Your paper should look like this:

Please excuse my rough drawings! Anyway, you have two columns and two rows underneath. Label the first column with the first item you want to compare and contrast. Label the second column with the second item. Label the first row underneath the columns “Similarities” and label the second row “Differences.”

Students should write down everything they noticed about Item 1 in the first column; what students write depends on what your subject matter is. If you’re comparing and contrasting two poems, students might list literary devices, theme, etc. If they are comparing and contrasting two versions of a Shakespeare film, they might write what they noticed about costumes, lighting, set design, camera angles, etc. In the second column, they do the same for Item 2.

In the similarities row, they should write down everything they noticed about the two that was similar. In the differences row, they should write down the differences between the two items. When they are finished, they basically have all the prewriting they need to write a comparison/contrast essay.

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New Lesson Plans

I have some updates to announce. First of all, I have updated the lesson plans page (my handouts). Most of the handouts are now available as either Rich Text Format (rtf) or Portable Document Format (pdf). I have added a completely new lesson plan handout based on Discover Schools’ Lesson Plan for Great Books: Walden. My recommendation would be to do this particular lesson with gifted or honors classes. Finally, I have added two new Power Point demonstrations: Fireside Poets (Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, Whittier, Bryant) and American Transcendentalism. I’ve also updated the following pages to reflect these new additions to the website:

Upcoming, you can expect me to include new pages on teaching ninth grade, including grammar, composition, and literature. There are some handouts on the lesson plans page already.

By the way, if you are interested in American literature and want to learn more about the Fireside Poets, I highly recommend Matthew Pearl’s novel The Dante Club, which I reviewed in more detail elsewhere. I have to say that I always teach the Fireside Poets in a cursory manner, but this year, after reading this book, I had a new appreciation for them.

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Teaching Text-Messaging?

Is it just me, or is this article very carefully dancing around their point — that English classes need to change substantially to reflect the way people read today. Frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about this. I believe students need web communication skills in today’s society, but I’m not willing to sacrifice any of the grammar, literature, or composition I already teach in order to do it. My curriculum is full. The article is very unclear about what exactly will change about England’s national curriculum.

When I was in high school, I took typing, which has gone the way of the dinosaur in favor of “keyboarding.” I’m not exactly sure what is taught in a keyboarding class — obviously typing skills. What about using the Internet and e-mail? My daughter, for instance, brought home a page of notes she took on “netiquette.” Is it out of the realm of possibility to include “reading the web” in a computers class? It just seems to me that whatever extra new thing needs to be taught winds up in the English or language arts curriculum. I will say that if we’re talking about teaching text-messaging, not only will I not do it, but I’ll argue that students already have too much proficiency in text-messaging already. I would hate to see this joke become reality: Romeo and Juliet: The Text-Messaging Version (originally published in The New Yorker).

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Thoreau’s Blog

English teachers, did you know Henry David Thoreau blogs? Well, not really, but Gregory Perry has taken excerpts from Thoreau’s own journals and posted them on the web. Often, they are a delightful read, particularly if you are an admirer of Thoreau. I was particularly charmed by today’s journal, in which Thoreau calls for city parks to be established.

I am especially fond of this line: “We are all schoolmasters, and our schoolhouse is the universe.”

I visited Walden last February when my students went to Boston on a school trip. Because it was winter, the pond was completely frozen over, and we got to walk on Walden Pond itself. I took some pictures while there:

Weber '07
This is a photo of some of my students “leaving their school’s mark” in the snow on top of the pond.

Weber '07
This is the finished product.

Most of my pictures at Walden didn’t come out well. The light at that time of day wasn’t very bright, and I think the snow reflection had something to do with it, too.

Actually, though, my favorite picture from my visit to Walden is this goofy one:

Feet on Walden
My feet on Walden

Thanks to the Walden Woods Project, it would seem that Thoreau’s vision that Walden be preserved as a park is largely realized.

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Sophomore Status

Wait a second — according to the Seattle Times, Washington students were considered sophomores if they were in their second year of high school, even if they hadn’t earned enough credits to “pass” their freshman year?

Everyone says Georgia’s backwards, but goodness knows you have had to pass five out of six ninth grade classes to move up to tenth grade in Georgia for as long as I can remember. How is it that Washington just figured out this might be a good policy, and why did it take a concern over test scores to effect this change? No wonder “[s]ome still think if they complete four years and are taking senior classes with friends, they’re going to be able to walk at graduation, when that’s not true.”

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Separation of Church and State

Two hot stories in education news right now involve the ongoing debate over teaching intelligent design in the classroom and school prayer. I am passionate about the issue of separation of church and state with regard to public schools for several reasons. As a parent, I do not want schools indoctrinating my child with religious beliefs that run counter to what I, as her parent, want to teach her. In this country, I am free to practice religion (or not) as I choose, and every religion and various denomination under each religion represents very different ideas. Who gets to choose what is “right”? I am also a proponent of separation of church and state because I think it would be bad for churches. I believe this is what Jesus’ teaching means: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Finally, as a teacher, I would feel uncomfortable supporting religion in public schools, knowing full well that the wide array of religious beliefs of my students.

I currently teach at a private Jewish high school, and it does not bother me at all to support Judaism within the context of my job, because I think it is clearly understood that my students attend a religious institution — their education is not separate from their religion. They have told me some very interesting stories about public school teachers they have encountered. One student said that she had a teacher in the 5th grade who assigned her a seat near the teacher’s desk. Right in front of my student’s desk, on her own desk, the teacher placed a copy of the New Testament. She offered to loan it to the student at any time. She also offered to loan my student her copies of the Left Behind series of Christian fiction by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. I find the behavior of this teacher reprehensible. Who is she to try to undermine the religious teachings in the home of my student? How might she feel if someone did something similar to her daughter — for example, tried to pass her a copy of the Qu’ran?

As a high school student in marching band, our band held hands and recited the Lord’s Prayer before football games. Our band director was not involved. He passively watched on as we did this. In fact, it was in this circle that I learned the Lord’s Prayer, as my family did not go to church. However, I will say I felt awkward and pressured in that situation. I felt uncomfortable. It seems, though, that my director was following the letter and spirit of the decision made in Engel v. Vitale.

I was actually confronted with a dilemma involving school prayer this week when my students watched The Crucible. At the end of Nicholas Hytner’s movie, John Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, and Martha Corey recite the Lord’s Prayer. In the discussion following the movie, my students, unfamiliar with the New Testament, asked what it was. I told them. One remarked that it sounded kind of like a Psalm. Then another asked me why they would recite it at that time. I explained that it was similar to the Jewish prayer known as the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”) In fact, I explained, I had read account of Holocaust victims reciting the Shema in much the same circumstances as the three accused witches recited the Lord’s Prayer. I indicated that the Lord’s Prayer had the same prominence for Christians as the Shema did for Jews. Then a student asked if I knew it. I replied that I did. She requested that I recite it. I thought for a second, decided that it would not constitute a violation of my principals, my school’s principles, or my students’ rights, because they were more or less asking not to be taught Christianity, but to hear the Prayer one more time for their own analysis of my claims that it was similar to the Shema, and I recited it. As an English teacher, I am often called upon to explain Biblical allusions to my students. I think it can be done in such a way as to prevent any discomfort or violation of my students’ rights.

There was a time in my life when I was very active in church. I listened to religious radio a great deal at that time. One of the pervasive fears of many of the hosts of the shows on that station was the spread of Secular Humanism. It was out of this fear that the Religious Right’s movement toward homeschooling began to pick up steam. The idea was that our schools were a bastion of Secular Humanism, and if one wanted to ensure their child was brought up with the proper beliefs and morals, it was incumbent upon the parent to shield their child(ren) from those influences, whether that took the form of homeschooling or private Christian schooling. In our country, parents are free to make this decision. I think it is important that parents have the freedom to choose how to educate their child in their religion (or lack thereof). There are countries where state religion and religious freedom exist in tandem. However, there are also countries with dogmatic state religions which actively encourage the obliteration of conflicting religious beliefs and harm those who have divergent religions.

I feel passionately that students should not have to be confronted with the pressure to pray in school or be taught intelligent design in public schools. Because I feel this way, many have asked me about my own religious beliefs. I actually do believe in intelligent design (or, to be more precise, theistic evolution), and I am a Christian who prays. However, I also believe firmly that these two values are religious values, and in choosing to pass these values on to my children, I would not wish her school to be involved.

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