The English Department

Our English Department consists of three teachers — or four, if you count the college counselor who will teach a short course to seniors who are going to Israel this year — but it feels more like three. Of course, I’m one of them. The other two are Randal and Josh. I am in the odd position of being the only woman in the department for the first time in my career. Randal is probably the best writing teacher I’ve ever worked with. Josh is a first year teacher, but taught undergrad freshman comp classes last year as a grad student.

I gotta say… I think I’m part of the best English department I’ve ever worked with. We delivered the first part of a two-part presentation to the faculty on how we teach and assess writing. I didn’t get a chance to do my bit on the research paper, but that will come next week. I feel very privileged to work with these guys. Their presentation was amazing (I spoke little this time) and really interesting. They received a lot of compliments from the faculty. The faculty were invited to attend, but not required, which was one reason why I was so pleased by the high turn-out.

I asked Josh if he thought I should hook up the laptop and projector next week for the second half of our presentation and show the faculty my class wiki or would it suck up too much time? He thought it would be a great idea. I love being able to do that — just bounce ideas off the fellas. Our meetings are by turns really insightful and productive and completely hilarious — Randal and Josh happen to share a rather sharp wit. Actually, they’re a lot of fun.

I hope, if they run across this, they don’t mind me sharing a recent moment that really cracked me up. We were all in the classroom that Randal and Josh share. There were students in there, too, but I can’t remember why. One the students on yearbook came in to ask Randal if he could take his picture for the yearbook. Randal said no. They argued for a while.

I said, “Randal, quit being so cantankerous and let him take your picture.”

Randal: “No, the paparazzi killed the princess!”

Josh: “You’re no princess.”

Student: “And I’m not the paparazzi.”

Randal: “OK, fine.”

Hmm. On paper that isn’t even close to being as funny as it was in person.

I love being in the English Department.

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Junior Statesmen of America

Our school established a new charter of Junior Statesmen of America (link was giving me trouble, but appears to be active — just down) this year under the tutelage of my colleague (and classroommate), Sarah Parker. They went to their first conference over the last weekend. Of the ten students who attended, three won best speaker awards. I think this is an incredible achievement for students in the first year of an organization like this, and two of the award-winners were freshmen to boot. Congratuations on your achievement, JSA members. I’m really proud of you.

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If a Tree Falls in the Forest…

I wanted to thank my friend Roger for the kind mention in his blog. Roger wonders “how many teachers are using blogs and wikis”? Well, I know of at least three wikis:

I’m sure there are others. I haven’t even tried podcasting, which seems to have a lot of promise. My students aren’t really blogging, either. However, invariably my colleagues and even some students react to this technology with the standard “What is that? I feel frustrated by the fact that my students have not yet tapped the potential that exists in all this technology I provide for them. It isn’t any good if it isn’t accessed and used. I think that I need to start requiring that students post content. Next year, I can just make it a clear part of my course expectations in the syllabus, I suppose.

Roger says my students are lucky that they have a web savvy teacher. Not to toot my own horn too much, but I agree. I’m pretty much alone in that regard at my school, with the exception of our technology specialist. I think I would really have liked to have all this “stuff” I’m providing my students. In my day (listen to how grizzled that sounds), we didn’t have computer labs. We were lucky if we had old Apple IIe’s around. I took Typing class and thought it was snazzy to be able to use an electric typewriter. I used a word processor in college and thought I was really something. I keep telling my students how lucky they are to have all of this technology at their fingertips. I tell them stories about having to retype entire pages after making one mistake — of having to draft essays on notebook paper with pen or pencil (horrors!).

But what good is all of this technology if the students don’t use it? Isn’t there anything else we can do besides IM friends and update Myspace pages?

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Wikis for Teachers

Wikis are “Web pages that allows users to add content, as on an Internet forum, but also permits others (often completely unrestricted) to edit the content. The term wiki also refers to the collaborative software (wiki engine) used to create such a website (see wiki software).”

Many of you may have discovered the wonder that is Wikipedia, a wiki encyclopedia that has entries on everything you can imagine, completely created by people like you and me. And the content is actually very good, based on entries I’ve read in which the focus is an area of my own expertise — literature, some history, for example. Of course, allowing anyone to add content has created opportunities for some folks to vandalize wikis, but most of the time, it is caught right away. I saw such an instance of vandalism on a wikipedia article once — by the time I had logged in to correct it and went back to the article, it was already gone. In many ways, having so many editors helps to ensure the integrity of the content, and when there are disagreements, panels work them out on Talk pages until a decision can be reached. My major contributions to Wikipedia have mostly been editorial — fixing grammar, spelling, wording, etc. I did, however, write a very short article on American poet Edward Taylor, which has been revised several times by others (and, in fact, grossly vandalized and then rescued by others).

Several months ago, I discovered the Teachers’ Lounge Wiki. I thought then that this sort of portal for teachers to share and retrieve lesson ideas had great potential, but I didn’t realize at the time that a wiki is something that, well, just about anyone can create — no real expertise in programming or fancy computer languages is required. In the past couple of weeks, both Tim Fredrick and the Reflective Teacher have created wikis using PBWiki. I really wish I had known about PBWiki when I created this website, because it sure would have made it a lot easier. In about two minutes, I just created a wiki for my own class using PBWiki. I have also set up a wiki for my own lesson plans.

Like any new technology you use with students, if you are the administrator, it’s up to you to monitor content and make sure they’re not being goofy (vandalizing pages and the like), but that should be something fairly easy to do.

I think wikis are potentially exciting in terms of uploading and sharing content. I’m looking forward to giving it a try in my own classroom, and I’ll keep you posted on the results — and thank you to Tim and the Reflective Teacher for the excellent idea.

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GISA Conference

Today I attended the Georgia Independent Schools Association’s annual conference. Last year was the first time I had attended this conference, as last year was my first year in private education. Compared to state conferences I’ve attended (Georgia Council of Teachers of English), I was not blown away, but the sessions I attended last year were very good.

The first session last year detailed a method of teaching the eight elements of literature (conflict, theme, mood/tone, symbolism, irony, character, setting, and point of view) using the photographs of Eudora Welty (Eudora Welty Photographs) during her years working for the WPA. The photographs are very good, of course, as you can see from the cover photo if you clicked the link, and they lend themselves very well to application of literary analysis. I remember asking the students to look at a photograph and tell me which element of literature they thought it best represented and why. The presenter at that session provided us with a few of the photographs and a list of the literary elements and their definitions.

The second session involved a new way of looking at the Declaration of Independence. After studying the Declaration and other Revolutionary documents, students create their own “Declarations,” declaring their right to ________. One of the presenter’s students chose to declare her right to be a drama queen. Another, a Muslim girl, chose to declare her right to dance. After writing the Declarations, students transferred the text to an item that represented this right they wanted to declare. The drama queen created a sash similar to that worn by beauty contestants and wrote her Declaration down the sash. The dancer wrote hers over the top of a CD. My favorite was a pair of jeans, but I can’t remember anymore what right that student was declaring upon her jeans. I thought the project was great. I adapted it for a group of real free spirits I taught last year, paired it with a webquest designed to teach students more about Romanticism, and called it a Declaration of Romanticism. My students declared the right to be Romantic. I was not overly impressed with their own efforts in this project, but I stole the jeans idea and wrote my Declaration down the pants leg of a pair of jeans I bought at the Salvation Army. I wear them all the time, and when I wear them to school trips, students call them my Romantic pants. I actually wore them when we visited Walden Pond, which the students really seemed to get a kick out of.

This year, I was not overly impressed with the sessions I attended. The first session was on teaching literary devices through the Harlem Renaissance. Our presenter seemed ill-prepared. She brought music for us to listen to on an iPod, but it didn’t work. I understand equipment failure, but I think a backup on CD might have been a good idea. Second, she showed us a Power Point demonstration, but did not give us handouts. It would have been helpful to have Power Point slides on handouts in order to take notes on those rather than furiously scribbling the notes down before she changed slides. I have a major quibble with her definition of “Harlem Renaissance,” too. She included works by Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou. I love all three, but they are not part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920′s and 1930′s. If she wanted to explain how to teach literary devices through teaching African-American poetry, then fine, but she specifically grouped them in the Harlem Renaissance. That’s just not knowing your material. She also alluded often to sources that we as teachers would not be able to get — a Scholastic magazine, for instance. Oh, I’m sure I could call and ask for a back issue, but by the time I’ve gone through that hassle for a two-page article on the Harlem Renaissance, is it worth it? She also brought student samples of projects created using this method. The student samples of artwork were good, but the writing samples were not polished and were rife with mistakes. She emphasized that she teaches LD students, but so do I, and my students will draft a project like that until it is polished, and if it isn’t, I’m certainly not bringing it to a conference to show off. Finally, the presenter just didn’t seem poised. There were lots of gaps in her presentation — dead air, so to speak. She inserted several uncertain “um’s.” I tried to picture her teaching. I hope she was just nervous speaking to adults, as many teachers are. One of the most important things to get out of a conference session is handouts. Didn’t really get any, except for a couple of poems I already had. I wanted to leave when she pulled out the crayons and wanted us to make an artistic expression of one of the poems we got. I don’t do that kind of stuff with my own students anymore. Sure, they do art, but it’s more than “draw me a picture of this poem.”

The second session was on teaching reading comprehension to high school students, but it was mostly stuff I already knew. We got handouts, and we discussed methods a bit. The strategies were not new to me, but it was good to bounce some ideas around my head. I hadn’t really thought about asking students to buy composition books for reading journals, but I think I will from now on. Reading journals can be very valuable for teaching reading comprehension, but I’ve often made students type them or write them on their loose-leaf notebook paper. Composition books might be a better idea. I just never liked them myself because they’re almost always wide-rule, and I like college-rule.

I like to walk out of a conference feeling invigorated and eager to try what I’ve learned. I didn’t walk away feeling that way this time. I am pondering the idea of presenting classroom blogging next year. I think blogging is such a powerful tool in the classroom, and I know it hasn’t been presented at GISA before. However, at this moment, my classroom blog mainly consists of fun literary stories, announcements, daily recaps, and homework. The students aren’t very active. I have had to beg them to even comment. I floated the idea of the blog being more interactive. We’ll see how they respond.

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Power Point Jeopardy

First of all, thanks for the good feedback on my instructions for a comparison/contrast graphic organizer. I have used this particular graphic organizer many times since I learned how to make one, and after I’ve taught it to the students, all I have to do is instruct them to make a comparison/contrast organizer. Some of them even do it on their own without prompting if they think it will help them with their assignment. Also, students have reported using them in other classes.

When I taught middle school, I had a colleague that taught us how to create a Jeopardy game using MS Power Point. It was extremely useful, especially for middle school. I thought I would share this “how to” with you. I think it can be adapted for any subject.

  1. Open MS Power Point.
  2. Select the blank slide format.
  3. Choose your color scheme. I went with our school colors.
  4. Go to “Insert” and select “Table.”
  5. Make a table with six rows and five columns.
  6. Drag the corners of the table until it is the size you want it to be.
  7. On the top row, type the names of your categories.
  8. In each row underneath, type the point values. Your slide should look something like this (click for larger view). Don’t worry if your point values are not underlined. This will happen when you hyperlink your slides.

  9. Select “Insert” and choose “New Slide.”
  10. Create a text box by selecting “Insert” and “Text Box.”
  11. Type the question for the first category and point level.
  12. Repeat steps 8 through 10 until you have exhausted questions for the first category.
  13. Repeat steps 8-11 for each new category until you have written 25 questions.
  14. Go back to slide two, which is the first question for the first category.
  15. Select “Insert” and “Picture.” Select “AutoShapes.” Choose the shape you like. I use the little house, because it reminds me to click it to go back “home.” Your slide should look like this:

  16. Select the picture. It should have a little square around it with round dots at the corners and edges — dragging the corners or dots will help you adjust the size of the picture if you like.
  17. Select “Insert” and “Hyperlink” or press CTRL-K.
  18. Select the radio button that says “Hyperlink to” and select “First Slide” from the drop-down menu.
  19. Copy the button by pressing CTRL-C or right-clicking the button and selecting “Copy” or selecting “Edit” and “Copy” from the toolbar.
  20. Paste the button on slides 3 through 26.
  21. Now go back to slide 1.
  22. Select the text for first point value in the first category.
  23. Select “Insert” and “Hyperlink” or press CTRL-K.
  24. Select “Place in This Document.”
  25. Select Slide 2.
  26. Repeat steps 22 through 24 for each slide; be sure to link the point values to the correct questions. For example, your third slide should be linked to the second point value in the first category.
  27. Test your slide show by selecting “Slide Show” and “View Show” or pressing F5. Make sure your point values are linked to the proper questions and make sure each AutoShape links back to Slide 1.
  28. You’re done!

Unofortunately, you’ll need to keep a paper with the answer key near you or else making this game will be a lot more complicated than it already is. I would suggest that when you need to make a new Jeopardy game that you just open your first game and edit it. It will save time. You can download a sample game I created to play with. It isn’t editable, but it will give you an idea of how the show should function and look. Of course, it goes without saying that this is great for test review — and it’s fun.

If any of the instructions are unclear or if you need help, just contact me.

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Our Thoreau Panel

Our school has a copy of the Discover Channel’s production Great Books: Walden. I think it is pretty good (and short) introduction to Thoreau — in fact, I think the entire Great Books series is, well, great. Inside the videocassette case was a tiny little lesson plan that reminded me that has lesson plans. I searched for one to go with the video and found this one created by Gretchen Surber. I thought that my Honors American Lit. students would really enjoy it. As a class, we took on different parts. The lesson plan calls for a cast of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, and Mother Theresa. My students insisted on adding Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Donald Trump. After that, I said I had to put a cap on it, or we wouldn’t be able to function, because the panel would become too unwieldy.

Unfortunately, Gandhi and Mother Theresa were sick and didn’t come to school, which left our panel of “idealists,” as the students called them, kind of small. I jumped in to play Mother Theresa, but we were left Gandhi-less.

The purpose of the panel was to examine Thoreau’s ideas of simplicity versus acquisitiveness. The students’ responsibility was to research their character and figure out how their character would respond to questions arising from this conflict.

My student moderator directed set up of the room. He had made signs with the characters’ names on them for each panelist to wear. While I can’t exactly say that my students dressed the part, they sure did get into their roles. There was a heated disagreement between Bill Gates and Karl Marx. The students had clearly researched and prepared to answer the questions put forward by the moderator.

A couple of days before this event, the student I picked to play Andrew Carnegie begged to be let off the hook, but I had a hunch that he needed to try this — to stretch out of his safe zone and challenge himself. I wouldn’t let him quit, and I encouraged him to give it a shot. He did an excellent job. He stayed after to help me put the desks back, and I told him what a great job he did. “I was sort of surprised with myself,” he said. “I was surprised how passionate we got, considering we were just playing parts.”

It was amazing. What was really incredible is that I did very little to prepare, aside from creating a handout. The students did all of it. I think they learned a lot — much more than they would have if I’d stood in front of the classroom and lectured on the topic. One thing’s sure — they’ll remember what they learned.

I still recall taking part in a similar activity when I was in 7th grade. It was a Social Studies activity called the Great Redwood Controversy. My teacher assigned us roles, and even though I was the only person in my class who voted for Walter Mondale in our mock election, my teacher assigned me the role of the lawyer who lobbied congress to allow logging in the Redwood National Forest. I remember that even though I disagreed with my character, I got into it. I wanted to win. I didn’t, but my teacher gave me a special award, presented to me by my assistant principal. I still have it.

Maybe I should make one for Andrew Carnegie.

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Students Will Be Suspended for Blogging

According to an article in Teen People, students at Pope John XIII Regional High School in Sparta, New Jersey will be suspended if it is discovered that they are maintaining “personal pages or blogs.”

Principal Reverend Kieran McHugh explains that he instated the rule in order to protect students from online predators. “I don’t see this as censorship. I believe we are teaching common civility, courtesy, and respect.”

Students were told to take down any existing accounts they may have at popular blogging sites like, LiveJournal, Blogger/Blogspot, and the like.

While I think the principal’s heart is in the right place in terms of his desire to protect the children, I believe it is a flagrant violation of the students’ rights under the First Amendment, especially as the rule is far-reaching enough to include blogging that students do from their own homes. I personally think teens spill too much private information about themselves online and open themselves up to victimization, but if their parents permit them to have websites or blogs, and the students are updating from home, then the school really shouldn’t be involved. A school can always deny access to blogging sites at school using filtering software.

I think the school is on very shaky ground, and I hope students challenge the rule in court.

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