Write Beside Them: Summer Professional Development Project

Write Beside ThemBecause I purchase The Teacher’s Daybook each year for my lesson planning, Heinemann sends me catalogs and fliers about publications quite often. In my mailbox today, I received a promotional flier for Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. I was intrigued enough to check out the book’s page at Heinemann’s site. I watched the sample videos, poked around for a bit, and decided to make this book my summer professional reading project.

I started to order the book from Heinemann’s website and was pleased to discover that I would receive a small discount, but I was rather shocked at the high shipping price. With tax and shipping, the book was fairly pricey at over $38. I checked out the book at Amazon and discovered that while I didn’t receive as large an initial discount as I would have if I had ordered directly from Heinemann, the book was eligible for free shipping, which brought the price down to a more reasonable (for me) $30.80.

So… who’s in? Who wants to read this one with me this summer? We can have our own online professional development book club.

Bulletin Boards

Teacher Magazine has a piece on bulletin boards. I admit I resemble this remark a bit too much:

I love walking into a primary classroom and seeing all of the students’ work related to learning objectives. They are artistic, personalized, and appealing. On the other hand, when I go to middle and high schools, I am disappointed to see random posters stapled on the walls. Is that a reality or an unfair, broad generalization? I think the walls are an extension of teaching and learning, but there has to be an explicit connection made for students. They have to be a part of the product or the instruction. How much do kids get from posters hung by the teacher and left hanging?

My bulletin board has a Harry Potter poster, an old National Poetry Month poster I got free last year from English Journal, and some Beowulf résumés my students created probably back in October. In fact, they aren’t even my students anymore, as they have been transferred to another English teacher. It’s pretty sad.

I actually have had some good ideas for bulletin boards in the past. My two favorite ideas were both student-centered. Once I had students contribute a typed version of their favorite poem, and we had a poetry wall for National Poetry Month. Another time, students had book recommendations on the wall. I think both of these suggestions were mentioned in the article. One of the teachers in the article also mentions using cloth instead of paper, which is something I also do.

Bulletin boards are tough for secondary teachers. What suggestions do you have for bulletin boards in high school? What is the expectation regarding use of bulletin boards in your school/district?

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare

Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday—at least we think it is. Some awesome ways to celebrate:

Read Shakespeare’s sonnets, or read a Shakespeare play.

Peruse lesson ideas at the Folger Shakespeare Library‘s web site and create a Shakespeare lesson for your students.

Watch an adaptation of a Shakespeare play or the wildly historically inaccurate but fun Shakespeare in Love.

Take up historical fiction based on Shakespeare’s life. I’m reading Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess, but other options include The Shakespeare Diaries: A Fictional Autobiography by J.P. Wearing, The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood (YA), or Shakespeare’s Sister: A Novel by Doris Gwaltney.

If you can’t be in Stratford, be there in spirit while viewing this photo essay on Shakespeare’s Birthday Celebration.

Image source: Yelnoc.

Teaching Poetry

Inspired by this post by Traci Gardner at the NCTE Inbox Blog, I thought I would share some of my own resources for teaching poetry.

Getting the KnackAs Gardner mentioned, Getting the Knack by Stephen Dunning and William Stafford is a really good resource with lesson plans and ideas for poetry writing assignments.  I have used their found poem exercise many times, always to great success.  I don’t care how old students are, they always enjoy using scissors and glue.  These poems can be surprisingly good and surprisingly challenging to write, too.  What I like about the book is that it presents poetry as a craft, and the exercises enable all students to become poets.  This book has been in my professional development collection for years.  It is a good addition to a middle grades or secondary high school English teacher’s teaching and writing toolbox.

Gardner didn’t mention this book, probably because it is out of print, but Joseph I. Tsujimoto’s Teaching Poetry Writing to Adolescents is another handy book to have in your collection, and you can find it through used book sellers at Amazon (follow the book link).  It’s a shame this resource was allowed to go out of print!  The strength of Tsujimoto’s work is in the variety of poetry writing assignments (18) and the student models.  In this NCTE article from Classroom Notes Plus (October 2002), Rosemary Laughlin writes glowingly of Tsujimoto’s models, and this article written by Betsey Coleman in VOYA (PDF) also praises his work highly, and both say pretty much what I would say.

Inside OutI have also used Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing by Dan Kirby and Tom Liner (in an earlier edition not including third author Dawn Latta Kirby, but instead with writer Ruth Vinz).  The focus in this book is not strictly on poetry, but on teaching writing in general, including research writing and expository writing.

Lisa Huff has a a new series of posts on teaching poetry at her blog, and the Reflective Teacher’s Literature Pocket Mod could easily be focused on just poetry.  Finally, I posted my poetry unit idea to the UbD Educators wiki, and I would love feedback.

A Nation at Risk

It has been 25 years since the landmark study A Nation at Risk. The students described in the study would be in their 30’s and 40’s now — in fact, I am a member of that “at-risk” generation of students. My own take on this study 25 years later is that it’s somewhat alarmist. As a member of that generation, I believe we have held our own in the world fairly well. However, when my local newspaper’s education blog asked whether schools are better or worse than they were 25 years ago, I admit I feel that schools are just about the same. Not substantially better or worse. That’s not really progress.

A Nation at Risk made various recommendations (quoted below). Which recommendations have your schools implemented?

  1. Content: State and local high school graduation requirements [should] be strengthened and that, at a minimum, all students seeking a diploma [should] be required to lay the foundations in the Five New Basics by taking the following curriculum during their 4 years of high school: (a) 4 years of English; (b) 3 years of mathematics; (c) 3 years of science; (d) 3 years of social studies; and (e) one-half year of computer science. For the college-bound, 2 years of foreign language in high school are strongly recommended in addition to those taken earlier.
  2. Standards and Expectations: Schools, colleges, and universities [should] adopt more rigorous and measurable standards, and higher expectations, for academic performance and student conduct, and that 4-year colleges and universities raise their requirements for admission. This will help students do their best educationally with challenging materials in an environment that supports learning and authentic accomplishment.
  3. Time: Significantly more time [should] be devoted to learning the New Basics. This will require more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year.
  4. Teaching: (paraphrased, but read it all!) Teachers’ salaries should be “professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based.” Teachers must be “required to meet high educational standards, to demonstrate an aptitude for teaching, and to demonstrate competence in an academic discipline.”
  5. Leadership and Fiscal Support: Citizens across the Nation [should] hold educators and elected officials responsible for providing the leadership necessary to achieve these reforms, and … citizens provide the fiscal support and stability required to bring about the reforms we propose.

Georgia met the recommendations in content with the exception of computer science back when I graduated in 1990. Now Georgia’s requirements exceed the recommendations: students entering ninth grade next year will be required to take more math and science. In fact, I would imagine one half of a year of any type of computer course with no practice or reinforcement at all in any other course would be inadequate today. Interestingly, Georgia is now moving toward college preparatory requirements for all students. For example, all students will be required to meet the same content requirements.

Among recommended steps for implementing higher standards and expectations, standardized tests are mentioned—along with other “other diagnostic procedures that assist teachers and students to evaluate student progress.” Wow, standardized testing totally took care of all of our concerns about student achievement didn’t it? Sarcasm aside, while I see the need for teachers and students to be accountable for learning, we have created an environment in which teachers teach to the test, and students focus on grades instead of learning. I can remember the beginning of standardized testing. It seemed that the further I went in school, the more often we did it until today we test our students constantly, but don’t assess them often enough in any real-word application way. And clearly the report recommends going beyond standardized tests to gauge student understanding. So, why didn’t we do (and why aren’t we doing) more of that?

The school day is seven hours or longer everywhere I’ve worked, but I have yet to encounter a school year longer than about 180 days. I believe Georgia public school teachers are contracted for 190 days—180 teaching days and 10 professional development/planning days.

Teachers’ salaries remain fairly low when compared to those of other professionals. For the most part, they are not based on performance, but on years of experience, so there is little incentive to develop professionally. In addition, teachers are still teaching out of field too much of the time, particularly in the critical middle grades. To attain initial certification in Georgia, I had to take a test—the Teacher Candidate Test (TCT), which has since been replaced twice by other tests—the Praxis and the Georgia Assessments for the Certification of Educators (GACE). In addition to the test, I had to take a certain number and type of education courses. To be honest, I can’t remember anymore which were required in general and which were just required because of my major in English Education. Every five years, as my certificate comes up for renewal, I must provide evidence I have taken coursework amounting to 10 professional learning units or staff development units. This coursework doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with my subject area, and may have little to no relevance to professional growth at all. I suppose educational systems should get points for trying with professional development, but they’re not doing much to attract, keep, and train effective teachers. In fact, we have done very little to implement the seven recommendations made in the study—could it be that the group of people most shortchanged in the wake of A Nation of Risk are the teachers themselves?

As to the last, perhaps with NCLB, we have gone overboard. I do think the government should help fund schools because I don’t think they could fund themselves alone, and I agree with the report that the needs of certain student populations (and their civil rights) could not be met by local school boards alone . Also, I think more is done today to protect students with special needs or lower socioeconomic status and help ensure them a better shot at a good education. My two younger children are in special needs classes (one self-contained, one resource), and special education has come a very long way in the last 25 years, mostly through better education of both the teachers and the public and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Where do you think we need to go from here? What do you think would improve schools? How do you feel about our progress since A Nation at Risk?

Update, 4/23: Education Week plans to do a year-long series on the study—A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later.

Choices for Teachers

I wrote this last night thinking of submitting it to the Faculty Room, but I realized I misunderstood our focus question, and I didn’t want my post to go to waste.  Thus, here are my thoughts on some choices teachers ought to have about their profession and environment.

Teachers have differing degrees of choice in their educational experience, depending on a variety of factors: where they live and teach; who their administrators are and what their philosophies are; what access they have to technology and other tools; and what kind of support they have from the district and community.

I think teachers ought to be able to design their own professional development based on their needs and interests.  Too much of our professional development does little to enhance our learning and teaching.  Furthermore, teacher certification agencies ought to examine these self-designed professional development plans and approve them (or not) for staff development or professional learning units.  The two single most beneficial professional learning opportunities I have undertaken—a course in Mel Levine’s Schools Attuned and a self-directed study and subsequent establishment of a professional learning community centered around Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design—will not count even one PLU credit towards certificate renewal, but you’d be surprised at the insipid courses I have taken that will.

Teachers should have some input in the hiring process of new colleagues.  After all, we will be working closely with new teachers, and it stands to reason that we will work better with colleagues with whom we share philosophies and goals.  The best schools I have worked in have always given teachers some say regarding which teachers are hired.  In the past, I have been interviewed by full panels, including a prospective department chair and colleague as well as administration, and I have also participated in a hiring process that requires the department chair to observe a sample lesson taught by the prospective teacher.  I think this kind of input has made me feel more comfortable about being interviewed as well as selecting potential colleagues.

Teachers should have some input into the courses they teach, including opportunities to write curriculum.  Many schools have a form of hierarchy based on seniority, and I think this is fair.  In addition, teachers should have some autonomy in selecting topics for study or emphasis, too.  I admit I am an English teacher, so to me it seems natural to be able to select novels for study.  I understand that math teachers don’t have the option to decide not to teach quadratic equations if they don’t like them that much.  However, teachers should also follow a curriculum or standards to ensure that all students receive a good, comprehensive education, and I think many if not most teachers should be able to write a curriculum plan that addresses the essential knowledge and skills in their subject matter.

If teachers are afforded the opportunity to shape their professional learning, select their colleagues, and write the curriculum, I think we will find much happier, more collegial and professional educators.  I have had some opportunity to do all three, and it has made a difference in how I feel about my work.  Ultimately, teachers must be trusted.  Teachers who are not trusted will not have opportunities to design professional learning—they won’t challenge themselves to grow.  Teachers who are not trusted will not select their colleagues or write curriculum because they might make poor choices.  If teachers are not trusted to make these decisions, however, why do we trust them with our students at all?

Revisiting the Archives

It occurred to me this week that as my blog approaches its third birthday, quite a lot of content is buried in the archives that might actually be useful to new readers of the blog.

  • Instructions for making a comparison/contrast graphic organizer that I like better than the Venn diagram.
  • While not precisely useful, I really enjoyed analyzing the effectiveness of various Hogwarts teachers.
  • While computer programs exist, if you prefer not to use them, can’t use them, or just like Power Point better, I provided instructions for creating a Power Point Jeopardy game.
  • In this post, I discuss the perils of teaching The Great Gatsby and other books I love.
  • Grade Inflation: A Student and Teacher Dialogue was written with Anthony Ferraro, a high school student (not one of mine) who happened by my blog and engaged in some healthy debate about grading as a means of communication.
  • My article on pairing the Judaic concept of cheshbon hanefesh (“accounting of the soul”) with Ben Franklin’s quest for “moral perfection” as described in his autobiography appeared in English Journal in July 2006, and I shared my thoughts about the article and the process of writing in this post.  If you have an NCTE membership and want to download the article, you can get a PDF version by going to their web site, logging in, and going back through the EJ issues online to July 2006, which is Vol. 95.6.

Week in Reflection, April 14-17

This time of year, I find that I’m not blogging as much as I would like because I’m so exhausted.  You know, people talk about what a perk it is for teachers to have breaks in the winter and spring and a longer one in the summer — usually people who don’t teach, by the way.  These breaks are absolutely necessary to rejuvenate.  I think teachers put a lot of themselves into their work.  Having to be “on” so much of the time wears me out, and I don’t think I’m the only one.  Every time I take any sort of Myers-Briggs test, I always come out INFP.  If you aren’t up on the parlance, that basically means I am introverted, and I find social situations tiring.  People suck the energy right out of me, and you can’t get more people-oriented than teaching.  This article in The Atlantic actually did a lot in terms of helping me understand why I’m so tired at the end of a school day, and as the end of the school year ends, it seems to get worse.  As a result  of this exhaustion, blogging is one of those things that tends to go by the wayside.

I read the blogs of other teachers and feel inspired by what they are doing — especially descriptions of lessons and ideas for teaching –and I want to contribute, too.  Maybe this week will afford me some time to do so, as I am (finally) on spring break!  Why so late?  Passover falls late this year in the Jewish calendar, and my school, as a Jewish school, follows the Jewish calendar.  Our break starts tomorrow.

Teaching the week before spring break is always difficult.  I came home today and took a nap. This week, my seniors finished reading A Streetcar Named Desire, and we began watching the excellent Elia Kazan production.  One forgets how attractive Marlon Brando was.  Every time I watch that movie, I am amazed all over again by his embodiment of the role of Stanley Kowalski.  One of my students pronounced the play her favorite piece of the year, and another quickly agreed.  I really enjoy teaching the play, too, if for no other reason than the opportunity to see the excellent movie again at the end.

My writing class was creating Power Point presentations.  I have seen a lot of death by Power Point lately, and we can’t very well blame the presenters if they are never effectively taught how to create a Power Point presentation that works.  A cursory glance at my students’ works in progress tells me that most of them understood not to cram too much information on a slide or use busy backgrounds, but I’m not sure all of them heard this message, and I am puzzled — I thought I really emphasized that part.

I have been teaching verbals, clauses, and misplaced modifiers.  I struggle with this part of our curriculum every year — not because I don’t understand it or because I don’t impart it with some success.  I struggle with its usefulness.  If a student is using gerunds correctly when he or she writes, is it imperative that they be able to label them as subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, predicate nominatives, and objects of prepositions?  Yet, it is part of the curriculum, and therefore, part of my teaching.  I find it much more useful to spend time on the nuts and bolts of writing that students struggle with — commas, for instance.  I thought I created a fairly effective unit for teaching commas, but I find over the course of the year that students are still not consistently applying rules for using commas.  Marking comma errors hasn’t done much to help my students learn to use commas.  Suggestions are welcome.

Thinking Out Loud

At my school, I am often sought out for technology ideas. For instance, my school is really good about publicizing the things I do with blogs and wikis. When The Atlanta Jewish Times called the school looking to speak with educators about their use of technology, my colleagues made sure the reporter, Suzi Brozman, talked to me. They are really supportive of what I do with technology, and they seem really interested in the applications available. My colleagues, in short, see me as a leader in integrating technology into the classroom. But I’m not nearly doing enough. So much more could be done! A cursory glance at the things Lisa Huff (no relation — I don’t think!) is doing with her students was enough to tell me that. I was quite humbled by what I saw — saving and sharing her posts in Google Reader left and right. Here is what I want to do next year:

  • More wikis. Some ideas: wikis for portfolios, wikis for collaborative learning, wikis for teaching.
  • Blogging. I would like my students to have individual blogs for reflective writing. I think having a student blog where I publish their work is not really accomplishing all that I want to accomplish.
  • Podcasting. You really should hear my students talk. I tried to talk them into letting me record their Socratic seminar on the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, but they knew I’d post it here, and they weren’t ready for that. It’s a shame because it was a great discussion. They debated the issue for well over an hour! I like what Lisa Huff is doing with VoiceThread, a tool I was introduced to at a conference in November and still haven’t experimented with.

I find myself feeling so excited about these potential ideas that I want to sit down and plan it all out, which is crazy because I’m not really sure what I’ll be teaching yet (for one thing), and I still have seven weeks this year. I know what you’re thinking. Go ahead and try some things. Better late than never, right? Well, I just might. My ninth graders will be studying poetry and short stories soon (May), and I see some potential there. I think the student blogs will need to wait for next year, but perhaps I can do a poetry project using wikis and VoiceThread and/or SlideShare.

It didn’t occur to me until I saw Lisa discussing it in her blog that the fact that students could display their finished work through these types of online portfolios might be the “something extra” that makes them attractive to colleges and employers — a pretty persuasive argument for, as we say down here, getting off the stick and making it happen.

Week in Reflection, April 7-11

I feel good about this week.  My senior class started A Streetcar Named Desire, and they are enjoying it.  Well, it’s just a really good play, isn’t it?  They’re excited to watch the movie when we finish.

One of my ninth grade classes finished phrases with a quiz and performed very well on it.  I am sure they studied, and I was proud of their work, but I would like to think I also taught it in a way that was understandable.  We should finish clauses on Tuesday.

My other ninth grade class is finishing up The Catcher in the Rye and seems to like the project they are working on.

I only met with my writing class once this week.  They were in Boston on Monday and Tuesday (grade level trip); on Wednesday we don’t normally have class (unless there is a schedule change); and on Thursday, school was canceled because of a water main break.  So we just had Friday.  After learning about what not to do with Power Point, a lesson for which one student gamely donated a Power Point show in which he effectively demonstrated everything one shouldn’t do with Power Point, students are creating informative Power Points on some topic that interest them.  Some students are doing soccer, while others are doing stem cells and global warming, while still others are researching teen pregnancy.

The water main break is a perfect example of why it’s important to be flexible.  I wanted to finish clauses and do misplaced modifiers and perhaps even start on verb usage with my freshmen, but we missed our entire weekly double-block, so it didn’t happen.  Our juniors were going to have a grade level meeting to discuss registration and learn about senior electives, but that couldn’t happen either.  Registration is still scheduled for Monday, so I will most likely be answering more questions than usual about English electives, especially because my department chair will not be present.  All this is fine, and I am prepared to do it.  I have often thought one of the best things one can be, especially at my school, is flexible, and I’d like to think that I am.