Happy Birthday, Blog

Happy BIrthday Austin

Six years ago today, the first blog post appeared on huffenglish.com. Just as I have done for other anniversaries, I begin by sharing some statistics with you:

  • This is my 765th post.
  • This blog has received 2,942 comments.
  • 1,297 readers subscribe to my RSS feed.
  • 157 subscribe to updates via email.

Some of my favorite posts over the years:

  • A Hogwarts Education: Being interviewed for Irish radio was one of the highlights of my career as a teacher/Harry Potter nerd.
  • Shutting Down Class Discussion: I thought it was an important topic for English teachers, and perhaps all the more timely in light of recent debates on the place of the whole-class novel study.
  • Blogging Teachers: Some Advice: I think teachers should blog, but we have to be wise about how we blog, too. There is plenty of stuff I’d like to write because ranting feels good, particularly when others side with you. But it stays out there, too. People are fired for what they put out there. It’s wiser to be more positive.
  • Why Fiction Matters: A response to Grant Wiggins in which I advocate for the teaching of fiction.
  • Failure: My post about failing as a middle school teacher and how it helped me be a better teacher today. I labored over whether to write that post for years before I felt confident enough to do it.
  • Would You Send Your Kid to Hogwarts?: I never thought this post had much traction, but it was a lot of fun to write. Though it’s now five years old, I still agree with everything I wrote.
  • Grade Inflation: A Student and Teacher Dialogue: I wrote this post with Anthony Ferraro, who was not my student, but was in tenth grade at the time. Last I heard from Anthony, he was studying at Yale. He made a really good case in his argument. I think of this post as a real turning point because it was one of the first posts I wrote that received some fairly serious attention. I also had the distinct feeling of having scored a coup in being able to host the dialogue between Anthony and me.
  • A series on teaching Romeo and Juliet (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four): I’m still proud of these posts and hope that teachers have gained something from them.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: katalicia1

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    Banish the Whole-Class Novel?

    the infernoI’ve been thinking about Pam Allyn’s article in Education Week for a couple of days. I read a few of the comments, too. While I think Allyn makes some valid points about putting the right books in the hands of students, I also think that can be accomplished through independent reading and literature circles without eliminating a whole-class novel study. More goes on in a whole-class novel study than just reading books. Critical thinking—synthesizing ideas, analysis, compare and contrast, application of one situation to another, interpretation—the list could go on. Sometimes, students actually do enjoy those books, too. I’ve seen it happen many times, even with books you wouldn’t think. I have had students not want to stop reading when class is over when we studied The Catcher in the Rye. I have had professed non-readers tell me how much they liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. One former student told me when she packed for college, she had room to take three books. One of them was Wuthering Heights, which I had introduced her to (granted, our study of the story was based on the film and I gave her the book to read when she showed interest in delving deeper).  Do all students like all books? No. I didn’t like all the books I read in school either. And sometimes I think we try to teach books that students are not ready for. I’m not sure I was ready for The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I enjoyed it when I read it in my late twenties for the first time. Same thing with The Great Gatsby. However, I have also taught students who were ready for those books in high school and enjoyed them. One student who was in my class in ninth grade blossomed in his English class when his tenth grade teacher taught The Great Gatsby—he loved it. Would these students have read The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter if we hadn’t done a whole-class study? I’m not so sure. Sometimes it does happen that a student finds a book that means a great deal to him or her through a whole-class novel study, and I and other teachers I work with have been personally thanked for introducing that student to that book. And students do enjoy whole-class novel discussion. It’s not a novel, but whole-class study of Romeo and Juliet has been a hit every year I’ve taught it.

    While I think we really do want to create life-long readers, and establishing independent reading in our classrooms can go a long way toward accomplishing that goal, studying a novel as a class is not a waste of time, and we can and should incorporate more nonfiction and more books that appeal to boys as well as girls. To me, it’s about balance rather than an all or nothing approach—balancing choice reads with whole-class or literature circle selections. One commenter on the original post said, “It’s not the whole-class novel that’s the problem—it’s how we choose those novels.” I agree. The example Allyn uses to demonstrate problems with the class-novel study is of a twelve-year-old reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I read that novel in eleventh grade, and it was the perfect book for me at that time. I taught it for years as a ninth grade text until students began coming to me having studied it in middle school. Even though I see the value in re-reading a novel, I also had to contend with parents who thought I was teaching a middle school text, so I gave that one up. My personal opinion is that To Kill a Mockingbird is perfect for high school students, but there may be some middle school students who are ready for it. So what do we do in the face of pressure to include more rigorous reading in the middle school? What should all literature teachers be doing to foster a love of reading while pushing students forward as critical thinkers?

    Well, the commenter I quoted previously went on to say that “[a]ll choice is no better than no choice.” We need to think about what studying a text will teach us that we can’t learn from studying any other text—the first step in backward design, by the way. When we studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I asked my students themselves to justify its place in our class. Should it even be taught? Wasn’t it racist? Couldn’t some other book do just as well without exposing students to the n-word over 200 times? They put the book on trial, and the conclusion they came to was that it was important for us to study Huck Finn because it captured a moment in our history that was important not to ignore. We should be thoughtful about why we teach anything that we teach.

    Next year, I will not be teaching literature classes for the first time in my teaching career, so this is perhaps not even something I need to chew over very much because it’s not a decision I will have to make. However, I do know that any time I ever teach a literature class, I will always teach the whole-class novel as a part of my curriculum.

    P.S. Unrelated, but speaking of Education Week, Katie Ash interviewed me for her article “Language Arts Educators Balance Text-Only Tactics With Multimedia Skills.” Key word: balance. Check it out!

    Creative Commons License photo credit: church mouth

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    Diigo Links (weekly)

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    The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins

    In her latest book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School, Alexandra Robbins, author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities and The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, examines what she calls the “cafeteria fringe”—the group of kids marginalized by so-called popular students. Robbins’s argument is that schools and parents should be doing more to encourage the unique traits often found in the cafeteria fringe because they are the very traits that will make these students successful after high school.

    I was a part of the cafeteria fringe when I was in high school. For starters, I went to three different high schools. I played the flute, so at least being in band was an activity that enabled me to make some friends. When we moved to California when I was a freshman, it took me a month to find friends to eat lunch with. I dreaded that hour of loneliness, watching all the other groups congregate in their favorite areas of the school year, wishing I could figure out some group to be with. When I moved to Georgia in the eleventh grade, I was already dreading the prospect of sitting alone for who knew how long. However, a girl in my homeroom asked me to eat lunch with her that day. It was a small kindness, but she has no idea how much it meant to me then and still means to me. In other words, I could identify with what Robbins says in this book about outsiders. She’s absolutely right that after high school, it gets better. Of of the most interesting things about Facebook to me is that it has allowed me to see what happens to the so-called popular kids after high school. Most of them stayed close to home in the case of the last high school I attended. But they are no better or worse off than anyone else. The special status they were accorded in high school did not seem to follow them. And that message is important for all students, whether they are cafeteria fringe or part of the in-crowd, to hear. As a teacher, the aspect of Robbins’s book that bothered me most was seeing teachers not only perpetuating the type of bullying that goes on between cliques, but actively engaging in it themselves.

    This is an important book for parents, teachers, and students to read. In fact, it might be a good idea to ship copies to school libraries. I like the way Robbins exposed the workings of high schools by following seven individuals through a year in school: Danielle, the Loner; Whitney, the Popular Bitch; Eli, the Nerd; Joy, the New Girl; Blue, the Gamer; Regan, the Weird Girl; and Noah, the Band Geek. It was easy to identify with each individual for various reasons, but mostly because  the narratives offered insight into how these people saw themselves and their schools; it was easy to see how they were all struggling with similar issues—even Whitney. Interspersed throughout are essays about issues raised and tips for students, parents, teachers, and administrators about how to “set things right and reclaim their schools” (379). It’s a gripping, engaging nonfiction read, which I won’t go so far as to say reads like fiction, as the book jacket does. It’s perhaps more compelling because it reads like the truth.

    Full disclosure: The publisher supplied me with a copy of this book.

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    Girls in Tech

    Child Using LaptopI think we are doing a better job encouraging girls to go into science and math. I think we still have some work to do, but we’ve come a long way. I don’t think we’re doing as well encouraging girls to go into technology. Next year, I’ll be the only female member of my four-person technology department, and that’s not unusual. Actually what’s unusual is that my technology department has any women. Our technology classes are populated mainly by boys, at least by my casual observation.

    This month’s digital issue of Tech & Learning cites a College Board statistic that the Computer Science AP exam has the lowest number of girls of any of the AP exams since 1999 at 18%. I am showing my ignorance here, but I didn’t even know there was a Computer Science AP exam. The National Center for Women & Information Technology has published a fact sheet with more disquieting facts:

    • In 2009 women earned 18% of computer science degrees, down from 37% in 1985.
    • Women comprise 25% of computer-related occupations. Of these women, 2% are black, 4% are Asian, and 1% are Latino.
    • The number of women interested in majoring in computer science for undergraduate studies has dropped 79% from 2000 to 2009.

    One way I plan to try to raise awareness of women/girls and technology among my own faculty is to coordinate some event, even if it’s just a newsletter, around Ada Lovelace Day this October. Raising awareness is all well and good, but what should be done to encourage girls and women to go into technology? What is at the root of the decline in interest?

    Creative Commons License photo credit: Picture Youth.

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    In Progress: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

    I began reading Alexandra Robbins’s new book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School. I am only a little over 20 pages into the book, and I can already tell this is a book that teachers and parents need to pay attention to. I may journal my thoughts as I read here at this blog as I have with other professional reading in the past. I haven’t read any of Robbins’s other books, but I have heard that The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids is also good.

    As a child who had difficulty socially in school and who never was popular, I can relate the book’s message.

    So… anyone want to read this one with me? I know that Gary Anderson is already reading it. Summer book club anyone?

    Full disclosure: the publisher sent me a free copy of this book (not that it will impact any future reviews).

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    Thinking Like an English Teacher

    Moleskineh

    I’m packing up my classroom this week. I won’t have my own classroom next year as I will only be teaching two classes. I am not weepy over losing my classroom. I don’t view it as home or anything like that. I have accumulated a lot of stuff over thirteen years of teaching English. I have been throwing a lot of stuff out. Not in the crazy way I did in 2001 when I swore I was leaving teaching for good and never turning back (I still lament some of the things I lost then). I think I might teach English again some time, but I’m not sure when. For the record, I am teaching a writing class and newspaper next year.

    The weirdest thing is trying to turn off the English teacher in me. For instance, just now, I was reading Holly Tucker’s Wonders and Marvels blog, and she is giving away three copies of Mary Chesnut’s diary. I thought first that I could use that for my classroom library. What a great primary resource for the Civil War era if I teach American literature. But then, I reminded myself, I won’t be teaching American literature any time soon, and where would I put it if I just wanted it for some time in the distant future (just in case, you know)? This incident is not the first of its kind, nor do I think it will be the last. In some ways, it makes me a little sad. I am an English teacher, and it’s hard to switch gears and think of myself differently. I think in some way, I will always be an English teacher, even if I never teach English again (which I don’t believe will happen). Some things happened as I began the transition to Technology Integration Specialist that have left a sour taste in my mouth, and they have contributed to my mixed feelings—I won’t get into them here.

    I am excited. I love working with teachers, which is something that presenting at conferences has taught me. I also love technology. Indeed, I have a passion for technology integration. I have a lot of ideas that I couldn’t necessarily implement in my classroom, but that I would love to help others implement. I have always been interested in other subjects besides English, and working with teachers will enable me to explore these interests alongside them. I will need to think more broadly about an educator. Instead of keeping my eyes open for interesting English ideas, I need to look for ideas of interest to teachers in all subjects. I think I will find the new role challenging and interesting.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: Amir Kuckovic

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    Training Questions

    la nuit blanche – not retouchedI have been charged with training my faculty on Windows 7 and Office 2010 when school reconvenes in August. If you are familiar with one or both, please share something you think it’s important for users to learn.

    For Windows 7, I am already thinking the new taskbar and folder structure will be critical, and for Office 2010, the ribbon, but I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the training from a variety of angles yet.
    Creative Commons License photo credit: Dom Dada

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