All posts by Dana Huff

Wife, mother, indie writer, reader, book and education blogger, Technology Integration Specialist, and English teacher.  Fangirl.

NCTE 2016 Reflections

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My feelings about going to NCTE’s annual conference this year were mixed. I had recently lost my grandmother, and I wasn’t sure I was up the socializing that usually happens at the conference. On the other hand, I thought perhaps seeing friends and learning would be a good respite. As it turned out, I am glad I went. I was so happy to see my friends, and the sessions I attended were really good.

The most exciting thing about NCTE for me was that it was in Atlanta, which meant visiting one of my former homes. I lived in Atlanta for eight years before moving to Worcester in 2012. It’s strange to me that I visited two places that I used to call home in the space of a single week. I was able to visit my former school, the Weber School, where I discovered my goodbye message is still posted on the dry-erase board in the tech office. I can’t say how much it humbled and moved me that after four years, it was still there.

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I discovered some really cool projects are happening at the school and connected with former colleagues, both at the school and at NCTE, where they presented at session D.27: Creative Public Works: Research-Based Art as Social Justice Advocacy.

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They did a great job, and of course I had to get a selfie (above) with those members of the English department with whom I worked while I was at Weber. Weber is also doing a “minimester” experience for students, which looks really engaging. The minimester is called “Haskalah Term” and includes classes that are interdisciplinary, team-taught courses on a variety of subjects. Both the Creative Public Works project and the minimester idea are things I hope to bring to the attention of my colleagues at Worcester Academy.

Other standout sessions for me included F.03: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait: Advocating for Access, Autonomy, and Authenticity, presented by Troy Hicks, Bud Hunt, Sara Kadjer, and Kristen Turner. I was able to get a picture with Bud, whom I haven’t seen in a long time.

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Troy, Sara, Bud, and Kristen shared their slidedeck online (always appreciated). Sara also took a picture of the two of us, but I haven’t seen it yet.

I also enjoyed G.16: A Tale of Two Cities: Multicultural Literature as Advocacy by Nicole Amato and Teresa Strait. These two teachers are doing some cool things with literature and independent reading in their classes this year.

I headed to I.01: Arguing in the Real World: Giving Students a Voice in Digital Spaces by Troy Hicks, Alex Corbitt, Lauren King, Valerie Mattesich, and Betsy Reid thinking I might pick up some cool things to share with my AP Lang teachers and that I could use in my own classroom as well, and it was one of the best sessions I attended. The group has a wikispace with a lot of information and lessons.

My friend Glenda Funk’s presentation with her colleagues from Highland High School in Pocatello, ID, was another standout (J.11: Corners on Our Curving Classrooms: Restoring Voice to Students and Staff). I had never thought of using restorative justice techniques to analyze literature and character before.

I didn’t go to any sessions that were awful. Unfortunately, last year, it was the case that some of the sessions were just not good. However, once again, I do have some criticism, mostly around organizational issues.

Just like last year, in most cases, materials are either not posted online or are hard to find. I really think presenters need to take it upon themselves to share their materials somewhere online and not rely on NCTE to coordinate it for them. As a participant, I appreciate having immediate access to materials, right there in the session. Kudos to the Weber School folks and the folks in the F, I, and J sessions I mentioned above for sharing their materials online in an immediate way. The Weber School English teachers passed out the flyer below with links to everything I needed.

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I went to a fairly interesting B session that didn’t share materials anywhere I could find, and because I came in late, I was already behind in following along. Their ideas seemed good, but ask me what I remember now. We were doing an interactive activity for much of the session, so I couldn’t take notes, and I can’t tell you the instructions for the activities now. Presenters, teachers want to take what you share right into the classroom when they return. Don’t make it hard for them. If you want to make it hard, don’t present. Ostensibly, you are presenting because you have good ideas you are willing to share. I get trying to make money from the ideas. I try to do that, too. But I have never understood teachers who don’t share. It benefits more students. I always put my slidedeck and any handouts online when I present. It’s a courtesy to participants. That’s why I have to give props to Glenda and her colleagues at Highland. Even though they had trouble with the NCTE folder for materials, they tweeted out their materials so that participants could find them. A few other presenters shared links to their materials in the course of the presentation. I reiterate, it is 2016 and there is no longer any good excuse for not sharing your slidedeck and materials. Make use of URL shorteners, QR codes, or even handouts, but share your presentation and materials. NCTE: you have the power make sharing materials non-negotiable. It can be a part of the requirements for presenting a session. Give it some thought.

It seems like NCTE didn’t want a repeat of the protest from last year.

I felt last year’s protest was not exactly directed at the folks who needed to hear it (the folks working the exhibit are not the bigwigs at Pearson), but I thought the appearance of this policy in the convention book was interesting, especially given the conference theme of advocacy. Given the theme, I was much more troubled by the appearance of this sponsor’s handout taped up in the bathroom stalls.

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What message are we sending about assessment if we think outsourcing grading is okay? NCTE has taken a stand against computer-graded writing. It seems to me that asking “teaching assistants” known as “Graiders” is antithetical to NCTE’s philosophy of assessment. I guess the sponsors and exhibitors are not chosen because they adhere to philosophy, though. I’m probably going to get in trouble for what some folks, particularly this organization, will see as unfair criticism of their product, which I admit I have no experience with. However, I strongly believe that teachers are the best assessors of their students’ work, just as Kevin English said to me when he replied to my tweet about this flyer.

If we need to outsource our grading, then we need to take a hard look at what we are asking our students to do. If it’s not valuable enough for us to assess it ourselves, it’s not valuable enough for students to do.

I avoided going to sessions I thought might be crowded. I think we do have some of the “rock star” syndrome beginning to happen at NCTE, just as it did with ISTE, and I avoided sessions presented by the “rock stars.” It’s not that what they say isn’t valuable or important or else so many people wouldn’t be listening to them. However, I worry that we are an echo chamber and that these “famous” voices are drowning out other important voices. I shared this concern directly with Emily Kirkpatrick, NCTE’s Executive Director, and she was quite receptive, so it is my hope that NCTE is thinking about this issue and the challenges of providing the members with what they want as well as honoring all voices.

I didn’t hit the exhibit hall at all. I admit seeing the flyer above put me off. Perhaps it shouldn’t have. I usually go and spend a lot of time in the exhibits. It’s great that NCTE brings so many authors to the convention so that we can connect with our favorite writers. I wasn’t going to be at the convention on Sunday, which is traditionally the best day, as exhibitors slash prices and give away many of their materials to avoid shipping them back home. I might have spent some time in the exhibits if I had stayed through Sunday.

I enjoyed the conference theme, which was a welcome balm after the upheaval in politics this year and was great for thinking of ways to advocate both for myself and my students.  I also think I like the new branding, which was unveiled at the conference. It is bold and innovative. I think I even like that lime green color. It definitely looks more modern than NCTE’s former branding, and the font in particular communicates the organization is dynamic.

Jim Burke led a roundtable discussion in H.24: Reading and Writing: Pathways for Students to Creative Thinking, Innovation, and Problem-Solving on Design Thinking. He is either writing or about to publish a book on the topic and challenged us to think of our students as “users” in designing our curriculum, learning experiences, and assignments. I challenge NCTE to continue to improve with regards to the learning experiences of its members. Make accessing materials the easiest thing in the world, because it totally can be, and it wouldn’t be that hard to do. Continue to think about spaces. The gender-neutral bathrooms were great. It really helped with the long lines in the women’s room this year. I went to one session, ironically the one I mentioned earlier in this paragraph, that used only half the room for the roundtables, and we were cramped and sitting practically on top of each other. We could have used the whole space better by spreading the roundtables out.

In all, it was another great learning experience, and once again, I’m glad I went. I remain grateful to my undergraduate English Education program, in particular Sally Hudson-Ross and Mark Faust, for inculcating the importance of NCTE membership and conference attendance in their students. Many English teachers in the country remain unaware of the excellent resource that is NCTE.

We have work to do. I went to a session at the end of the day on Saturday, K.18: Poet Advocates: Using Poetry to Advocate for Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century. I immediately thought of this quote by Toni Morrison.

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It was tweeted by @KarenAndAndrew, but I’m not sure who created the image, so if you find out who it was, please let me know. Reverse image searching didn’t do much to help.

What Morrison said about artists going to work goes for teachers, too.

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Socratic Seminar: The Importance of Reflection

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Photo by jrobertsplhs

I have been using Socratic seminar as a method of assessment of student learning in my classes for some time, but last year I started asking my students to complete a simple reflection after the seminar and hand it in the next day. As a result, I really have a window into what my students are learning in the seminars.

In the past, I assigned the essential question for the seminar, but I have learned to give control over formulating the question to the students. My AP Lit students recently had a successful seminar discussion on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. The question they designed was, “Was justice served in the end?” Justice (and its lack) are a major theme of the play. Students were able to pull in ideas about what happens when the natural order of things is upended and people are not compassionate for others. Every student was able to contribute thoughtfully to the seminar itself, but when I read their reflections, I understood exactly how much thinking and learning had taken place.

One question I ask on the reflection is “Explain how the Seminar influenced your thinking about the topic or the text(s).”

It changed my opinion on what justice is. I sort of went in not having my own clear definition of what “justice” meant in King Lear, but I thought we’d all be thinking on the same track. The range of definitions, all of which influenced my own, surprised me. I never thought of justice being done to someone in that way, nor did I see justice as when a character finally realized his or her mistake. After the discussion, it influenced my own definition because I took into account that a when character realized their mistakes it was because enough harm had been done to others around them or to them themselves.

Changing views of the definition of justice were a theme in the reflections. In most cases, students said that another student’s comment had changed their minds, made them think about things in a different way, or influenced their thinking in other ways.

[Student 1] said something along the lines of … “justice didn’t care about individuals, it just wanted the natural order of things restored.” I never really thought of this in terms that the individuals didn’t matter.

Another student shifted gears based on a comment another student made.

Throughout the seminar, I mostly considered the sense of justice as individual characters. I thought about the evil characters and their tragic ends. However, [Student 2] pointed out that we should instead inspect the text as a whole and look at the entire book in order to see if justice was served or not. This actually changed the entire course of what I had in mind of the texts and the Socratic seminar. It changed my viewpoints as I started looking at the natural order and the essence of what role [the] god[s] played in the texts.

It always intrigues me when a single student’s comment shows up in the reflections of several peers, and in the case of this comment, the student, whom I have called Student 3 throughout this post, is one who has made excellent progress with each successive seminar. It is exciting to me that his comments were so influential in the thinking of his peers this time.

[Student 3] said that justice isn’t just about the punishment, but also includes a revelation. I thought that this was interesting, since I usually tend to think of justice as being a punishment to fit the crime.

I ask students to reflect on how they did and make goals for the next seminar, both for themselves as individuals and for the group. The student mentioned in the comment above, who influenced his peers with his definition of justice, wrote the following:

I thought I did really well on this seminar and achieved my goals I set for myself from the last one. Next time I think I should try to include more people in the discussion by asking questions to them. I think I should ask more clarifying questions to the group in order to dig deeper into the text, and to become more specific on certain topics.

Another student, an English language learner, who was able to contribute more comments in this seminar than he previously has done in other seminars, reflected that

[Student 3] had lots of great comments this time. The most impressing one was the one he spoke at the start of the conversation. He said the justice is served not only means the justice is served physically, such as bad people being punished by death or being killed. He talks about the deeper meaning of justice, bad people eventually acknowledge what they have done and try to remedy for their bad behaviors…

Before this Seminar … although I knew there were two ways which justice can serve on bad people, I couldn’t come up with all of them. However, after listening to what other people said, especially [Student 3] and [Student 4]’s words, I was inspired by their words and generated lots of innovative ideas during the seminar and eventually spoke a lot because I had so many ideas.

I could almost feel this last student’s excitement. His reflection was much longer than his previous ones, and I could tell the discussion had excited and invigorated him. He was inspired.

When it was suggested that we define the word justice, I never thought of different meanings behind it. I mean I realized that everyone had their own opinion, but didn’t realize it would be from a totally different definition and meaning that would change the way to interpret the play and it’s [sic] characters. [Student 3] said that the way he interpreted justice was justice was served if people learned from their mistakes. I never thought of justice as learning from their mistakes. Although I believe justice is that they get caught, pay for it (karma), and go on with life, I still don’t necessarily agree with him, but it is an interesting point of view. It changes everything, when interpreting the book from [Student 3]’s definition of justice and makes both books seem like less justice was served.

What an incredible insight. How much they learned about the notion of justice in these two books through talking with each other. By the way, I think it’s important to note that I said nothing. I don’t even look at the students when they are talking because otherwise, they look to me and talk to me. A student acknowledged the difficulty of planning a seminar and running it without my interference:

I think we have been doing a great job with structure. This time we started pretty weak jumping everywhere, but after the first few comments, I sorted things out and we found a structure that worked for this seminar. Actually, structuring a seminar without restricting it too much is not easy. I think it should be our task prior to the seminar to imagine how it could be structured based on the question.

Another student acknowledged a difficulty the class is still wrestling with:

I still think we have side arguments and sometimes we went off topic. It will be better if we can all try to answer the main points of the questions. Besides, some people always just talk too much and did not let others to say anything, so I think we should acknowledge this problem so that quiet people can speak more.

As the teacher, I can see that she is right in her criticism, though the group has made progress in this regard. I know they have more progress to make. So do they.

I believe that this was our best discussion yet, in terms of everyone contributing, but I still believe that as a class we have room to grow.

But they also know they are getting there.

I feel like as a group we made a lot of progress compared to the last seminar. We were able to include everyone in the conversation and for the most part organize its structure or at least set a framework for the topics being discussed. Because we were more organized this time around, the material we discussed was much easier to understand.

If I hadn’t asked the students to reflect, I wouldn’t know any of these takeaways. I also think actively setting goals keeps those goals at the forefront during the next seminar. The students in some cases mentioned the goals they made last time and their progress toward reaching them. Last year, a student of mine noted that another student had tried to speak, and he thought that she had been interrupted and shut down. He said he wanted to make sure she had opportunities to speak next time. I suggested on his reflection that he might try sitting next to her for the next seminar to facilitate helping her, and not only did he move his seat for the next seminar, but he sat next to her for the remainder of the year.

I did not create the reflection form that I use. I borrowed it from the Greece Central School District (see Socratic Seminar Reflection, and be sure to check out their rubrics, too). I have found their resources helpful ever since Jay McTighe introduced their rubrics for me about ten years ago.

Another tool I use in my seminars is an iPad app called Equity Maps. Full disclosure, I am acquainted with the developer. He facilitated Critical Friends training in which I participated at my school, and he showed us this app at that time before it was released. Though my class has more boys than girls, according to the gender distribution in all three seminars my students have done, the girls are speaking more. I can also tell for how long and how many times a student spoke. I can record the conversation and take pictures. I can also make notes as the students talk. I use the notes feature to mark instances of good use of textual evidence, asking questions, building on comments, and making particularly insightful comments. The app has a few limitations, but it works quite well for keeping track of the discussion.

The best thing about Socratic seminar is that it completely student-centered. They create the focus question (I step in if they need help), they run and contribute to the discussion, and they reflect on the learning and progress they have made. Students love it. I think they genuinely look forward to seminars, and they take them very seriously as the wonderful learning opportunities they are.

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Slice of Life #28: We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

Granna and MeI lost my grandmother this morning. She is one of the most important people to me in the entire world. She represents love to me because her love was absolutely unconditional, and it was something I knew I had with absolute certainty.

I never think about her without thinking about her in her sewing room. I don’t think I realized when I was a child how unique that room was, that most houses didn’t have such a room. She would spend hours back in that room, but we children were always welcome. The tiled floors were pitted and scarred by the wheels of her rolling chair. She had at least three sewing machines set up, along with an ironing board. There was a table covered with fabric. I don’t think I ever saw its surface. She had trays with stray sewing machine feet, pins, bobbins, thimbles, scissors, and stale Freedent gum.

My mom asked me what I wanted, and the only thing I can think of is something from that sewing room. And a clock that chimes obnoxiously because whenever it marks the hour, it reminds me of spending weekends with her. I used to hear that clock late into the night when she let me stay up watching Johnny Carson or Fantasy Island. I had a pallet by her bed, but she often let me cuddle next to her. The next morning, she often took me out for breakfast and let me have a Coke, which Mom would never have done.

I had a chance to visit her in July 2014 when I was going to a digital storytelling conference in Denver. I recorded many of her and my grandfather’s stories and edited them into at least two digital stories. Here is my favorite.

I wish there were some way to capture how soft her cheeks were, like velvet, and how even though her hands shook with some sort of inherited disorder, she could always thread a needle on the first try. If she made something with her hands, it was going to be better than anything you would buy in a store.

When I was in seventh grade, I got it into my head to make her a small shelving unit. I don’t know why. I had taken woodshop the previous year in school, and I thought I could handle it. I did a terrible job. First, I found wood in the garage and didn’t ask if I could use it. I never got in trouble, but who knows what that wood had been set aside for? I couldn’t cut the wood evenly with a saw, so the two edges that would be the top were uneven. I tried to sand them down, but I couldn’t, not with the sandpaper my dad had in the garage. I tried to nail the shelves to the sides, but I couldn’t. I wound up using wood glue. I used different kinds of wood for the shelves and sides. The shelves were wider than the sides. I got a good look at that shelf for the first time in about 30 years when I visited two years ago. Every shelf is crooked. It looks terrible. And yet it has hung in her living room, in pride of place, with her collectible figurines resting in peril on each shelf. I realized that shelving unit is a metaphor for me. She cried when I gave it to her for her birthday. She immediately hung it on the wall. She loved me, with my faults, with perfect love. I doubt if she ever even saw how ugly that shelving unit was, just like she dismissed my own imperfections.

I decided to go to school today, even though my heart is broken, because I thought that I could either lie in bed all day, crying, or I could come to school and keep busy. It hasn’t worked all that well. I was teaching The Odyssey this morning, and it so happened that my students were studying Book 11—the book in which Odysseus travels to the underworld and sees the shade of his mother, not realizing she had died.

Mother, why not wait for me? How I long to hold you!—
so even here, in the House of Death, we can fling
our loving arms around each other, take some joy
in the tears that numb the heart. (11.240-243)

Odysseus’s mother replies,

[T]his is just the way of mortals when we die.
Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together—
the fire in all its fury burns the body down to ashes
once life slips from the white bones, and the spirit,
rustling, flitters away… flown like a dream. (11.249-253)

Why on this day, of all days, should this passage be the one I must discuss with a room full of ninth graders who know nothing about what I’m feeling? And yet, I also just finished King Lear, and yesterday, after I had spoken with my grandmother for the very last time and shortly before she lost consciousness, my students were conducting a Socratic seminar discussion of the play along with A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, and this line in particular stabbed me through the heart:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? (5.3.370-371)

As blessed as I am to have had my grandmother for 45 years, and I know that I am, I can’t help but feel what Lear feels: “Stay a little” (5.3.327). Would there ever have been enough time?

It’s an accident of life that I happen to be teaching these works right now. I planned the curriculum before my grandmother’s final illness took hold.

I know that death is a part of life. But I don’t know life without his remarkable, amazing woman who loved me so much. I don’t know how to talk about her in the past tense. I don’t know how to keep going without knowing she’s there, perhaps 2,000 miles away, but there.

She told me the last time I spoke to her that she would watch over me, and that she would hold me always in her heart.

And I chanced upon this poem by Emily Dickinson, one of my favorites, while I was looking for something, anything, that spoke to how I was feeling (Fr. 428).

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye—

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

And so of larger—Darknesses—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Perhaps you know this poem? It leaped off the page, and it was almost like Miss Emily was offering me the one thing I really needed to read. We grow accustomed to the dark. It is not easy. We will bump into things. We will grope, trying to find our way. But eventually, life steps almost straight. The perfect word in that line is “almost.” We are never quite the same after such a loss. In the words of Albus Dumbledore, “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever” (Rowling 299). I suppose I draw comfort from the idea that Odysseus, Lear, and even Harry Potter know how I feel right now. They, too, have felt losses not too dissimilar from mine. And they recognize that such losses leave holes in our lives that cannot be filled.

I will always miss my grandmother. In a way, I have been saying goodbye to her since the last time I visited in July 2014. I had a feeling, somehow, that it might be the last time I might see her. She wasn’t ill at the time, but I had no way of knowing when or if I could make the trip back. The sun was setting. I knew the day wouldn’t be lasting much longer. And now, I’ll have to grow accustomed to the dark.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Edited by R. W. Franklin, Cambridge, Belknap, 2005.

Homer, The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, New York, Penguin Books, 1997.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York, Scholastic, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, New York, Washington Square Press, 2005.

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 #27: Organization Journaling

My Journal

I have been trying a new technique to keep myself organized this year. On September 14, on a whim, I divided my journal page for that day down the middle and wrote “Stuff I Did” on the left side and “Stuff to Do” on the right. I hadn’t done it before. In fact, I’d been using the journal mainly to meditate on the day—when I remembered to do it, which was not very often.

Something about making that list of all the things I had accomplished that day made me feel like I had been more productive. What I liked about having the “Stuff to Do” list is that it enabled me to keep things going for long-term projects or for incomplete work. I might have “grade essays” on there for a few days until they’re done, but having to keep writing it again on “Stuff to Do” makes me want to get it moved over to “Stuff I Did.”

I have played with the idea of doing a bullet journal. I’m drawn to the organization. Then again, this weird little system of mine works, so it may be self-defeating to tweak it. I find I enjoy the time I set aside to take stock of the day. Sometimes I write things down as I do them. Sometimes I wait until the end of the day. I do find I am working my way through my to-do lists more quickly, and the “Stuff to Do” list gives me a place to start the next day. I start the day’s list by looking back at the previous few days’ lists to see what needs doing and what I am going to continue to move over to today’s “Stuff to Do” list because it’s not going to happen today.

I also use the journal to take notes in meetings that are likely to involve tasks to do. For example, if I’m in a department chairs’ meeting or meeting with my Dean of Faculty, I will probably have new items to add to my “Stuff to Do” lists.

So that’s your peek into my journal. I have a separate Moleskine cahier notebook for taking notes and writing ideas.

And speaking of writing, I’m trying NaNoWriMo again this year. I didn’t do too badly for the first day. My goal was 1,667 words, and I wrote 1,793.  I have a fun idea, but it was hard to write myself into the story today. I am learning that I have become a much more fluent writer over the years. When I first started participating in NaNoWriMo, meeting the word count was hard and often took hours. Now, I can generally do it fairly quickly, especially if I turn off my internal editor and let the ideas flow. I have been blogging for a long time—and I don’t blog as much as I used to—so I’m not sure why I’ve been more fluent the last few years I’ve participated. I can’t chalk it up to blogging, which is one way I’ve traditionally worked on my writing. I’m not handwriting my NaNo novel, but I am handwriting a lot of other things more often. I wonder if that’s it.  I won’t complain in any case. The big task I need to put on my “Stuff to Do” list is picking up one of my previous NaNo novels and revising it so I can do something with it.

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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Drama Isn’t a Grecian Urn

drama vase photo
Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

I was intrigued by Jennifer Gonzalez’s recent post on Cult of Pedagogy, “Is Your Lesson a Grecian Urn?” Basically, Gonzalez argues that teachers need to be careful that their favorite projects are actually assessing learning and are not fluffy ways to fill time. Gonzalez refers to the work of Wiggins and McTighe in Understanding by Design, particularly their description of one of the twin sins of design—activity-based instruction. If you are a long-time reader, you know I think Understanding by Design is the most important book on pedagogy for any teacher to read, and it has certainly been the most influential professional reading I have ever done.

I agree with a great deal of what Gonzalez says; she also adds that “all lessons have some educational value [and] any kind of reading and writing, manipulating materials and words, interaction with peers, and exposure to the world in general offer opportunities for learning.” However, she also says that teachers should ask, “Does [this activity] consume far more of a student’s time than is reasonable in relation to its academic impact?” She concludes that “If students spend more time on work that will not move them forward in the skill you think you are teaching, then it may be a Grecian Urn.” She defines Grecian Urns as activities that consume time but don’t necessarily contribute to learning, naming such activities after a Grecian Urn project she describes in the post.

Gonzalez explains that “[c]oloring or [c]rafting” should be “used sparingly” after primary school, adding “[t]his doesn’t mean you should never ask students to color, cut, paste, sing, act, or draw, but every time you do, ask yourself if that work is contributing to learning.” While I do see her point, I would argue that some might read her argument as an admonition to cut these art forms from assessments, and I can make a case for using almost all of them for educational purposes. What I fear is that teachers who do not want to incorporate these other ways of learning and demonstrating knowledge will find justification for other teaching methods that don’t work—such as coverage-based instruction (the other of the “twin sins” of design).

I ask students to cut when I give them a scene from Shakespeare and ask them to distill its essence, leaving the most important parts intact. In doing so, students are editing and thinking critically about the text. I ask students to act out scenes from literature, a method advocated by the Globe Theatre in London for teaching Shakespeare, because it helps students understand a text to speak it and create movements that communicate the characters’ feelings and actions and the time invested pays dividends in engagement and understanding. I ask students to draw symbols when creating literary reductions because these images help them explain their ideas.

Another concern I have is that many people automatically assume technology-based projects are Grecian Urns. Yes, some are. But some are excellent projects, and Gonzalez makes the difference between valuable technology projects and Grecian Urns very clear. I do think some of the commenters on the article read the article as permission to dismiss technology. I would argue that in addition to considerations of time, which are important, we should also consider the value of the assignments, even if they take some time. Could the assignment be done more efficiently without technology? Does technology add any value to the assignment?

For example, I find working with digital texts cumbersome. Annotation of printed texts is much more efficient, though tools do exist to annotate online texts. If you have access to a printed text, however, it makes more sense to me to use it. My experience using these online annotation tools is that they just don’t replicate or work as well as what we can do with a pencil and printed text. We should never being using technology for the sake of using technology, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it as a Grecian Urn. To be clear, Gonzalez isn’t arguing that we should dismiss technology. But I could see some folks twisting her argument a bit to imply that technology is a time-waster.

Time isn’t the only factor we need to consider. We really need to figure out what it is we want students to know and be able to do as a result of a lesson or unit. As Gonzalez advocates, we need to use backwards design and design thinking to plan learning for our students so we can avoid Grecian Urn assignments, but I would suggest that we also think carefully before we decide a project is a Grecian Urn. And if it is, Gonzalez is right—it needs to go. I have stopped doing quite a few assignments over the years after holding them up to Wiggins and McTighe’s description of the “twin sins.” But there is a lot of value in integrating the arts and technology, and we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss that value just because rich arts and technology projects take some time.

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Digital Storytelling Presentation at the NEATE Conference

This year is my first time attending the annual New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) Conference. I have been wanting to get more involved with NEATE since moving here, as I was involved with the Georgia Council of Teachers of English (GCTE) before I moved.

If you’d like to check out my presentation, my slide deck is below. There are links to resources and other information I used. If you came to the presentation, thank you!

My colleague, Lisa Iaccarino, also presented, and once she makes her materials available online, I’ll share them here as well because she rocked it!

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Class Size

classroom photo
Photo by Victor Björklund

My daughter’s school recently had a “Know Your School” night, and I heard one refrain all evening—class sizes are too big. Almost all of her teachers said something like “every desk in this class is full” or “I have over 30 students in this class.”

We have a growing teacher shortage in many places in the US, and it’s not hard to see why when you examine how teachers are treated and undervalued in this country. This teacher shortage is only one reason for large classes, which are a growing issue.

My friend Mark mentioned on Facebook earlier this year that he is teaching five classes. He has four classes with 32 students each and one class with 26 for a total of 154 students. Each time he takes up a stack of writing assignments, assuming these classes are one prep (which probably isn’t the case), he is taking up 154 writing assignments. Even if you grade pretty fast—let’s say about 15 minutes per paper (not always realistic), you’re looking at a full work week just to grade those writing assignments—38.5 hours. If you’re fast. I don’t know how he manages it, but he teaches literature and writing under those conditions.

My daughter was in an English class at the beginning of this school that had over 30 students in it. Her teacher thought she might be having difficulty, and we discussed changing her schedule. Ultimately, we decided it would be best for her to be in a different class. She was in an honors class, and I honestly don’t care what level she takes—I just want her to get good writing instruction. Given the size of her English class, I think I was right to be concerned. I even told her assistant principal that I just don’t know how you teach writing to classes with 30+ students.

When her schedule was changed, she was placed in a class with fewer than 20 students. I love her teacher. He is doing some great things with a group of students who are mostly “inclusion” and have IEP’s. I am fairly confident he is going to be able to do some good writing instruction with her class.

The world of independent schools, at least in my experience, looks very different. Because I am a department chair, I teach three classes rather than a full load of four—chairing the department is more work than a single prep, I can tell you. Four classes are a full load at my school, though I have worked in schools with a five-class full load. My largest class has 16 students in it. I have one class with 15 students and another with 12. I have three preps, so I probably will not be collecting writing assignments from all my students at once, but if I did, I would collect a total of 43 essays. Assuming a fast grading time of 15 minutes per student, I am looking at nearly 11 hours of grading. It’s a significant investment of time, but not a whole work week. In fact, I can typically grade writing at school and turn it around fairly fast. Because I have 43 students, I can ask my students to do a lot of writing and give them feedback on their writing. Because I have 43 students, I can accept revisions and give students feedback on revisions.

As Mark says, “Class load and class size are important.” We can’t pretend we are doing right by our students when we pack them into classrooms like sardines and don’t give them opportunities to learn to write well. I often hear my own colleagues worry about class sizes when their numbers approach 20 in a class (never mind approaching 30, which would never happen at my school). In my years of experience, I have found that 12-15 students in a class is a great number for generating thoughtful and rich discussion that allows each student to be heard while still being manageable enough to do plenty of writing. And we are doubling and sometimes tripling these numbers in most classrooms. My daughter’s school is not unique in this respect. I would argue that teaching writing is the most important aspect of an English teacher’s job. And how do we do that when we have 154 students, some of whom are gifted, some of whom need remediation, and everything else you can imagine in between?

I don’t have a solution to this problem because to resolve the issue, there are a host of related issues we need to fix as well—increasing and encouraging professionalism among teachers, treating teachers like professionals, moving away from this toxic test-based educational system we’ve become, hiring more teachers and making their classes smaller and reducing their teaching loads, and making the profession more attractive and lucrative.

Yes, it’s true, I have known teachers who don’t seek to improve their practices through professional learning (although most teachers I know are not like this). We should be encouraging professional growth. I think part of that encouragement could come if we treat teachers more like other professionals.

As much as I like my daughter’s English teacher, even he mentioned that “creative writing isn’t on the MCAS” [Massachusetts’s test]. And he’s right. But he also told me with that comment that he has to prioritize teaching the kind of writing my daughter needs to do for a test instead of the kind of writing she needs to do for life. Students should be doing writing in every genre, for multiple audiences and multiple purposes. Not only is writing important for clear communication, but it also helps us learn and process and figure out what we think. Take a look at this article if you need evidence that we need to do better writing instruction.

We just need more teachers. Mark needs a clone—at minimum one more person—to do the job he is doing by himself. At my school, 154 students would be divided among about 10 classes. We would actually have two and half people doing Mark’s job. Mark should at least be teaching only four classes instead of five. Even if they took away his smaller class of 26, he could save almost an entire day’s work grading those essays (6.5 hours), assuming the figure of 15 minutes per essay. If his classes were also capped at 25—which would give my own colleagues hives, wondering how they’d assess such a large class—he would spend 25 hours grading those essays from 100 students. Of course, 25 hours is still a large time investment, but it’s 13.5 fewer hours than he is spending with 154 students.

We might actually attract more teachers to the profession if we paid them for doing this kind of work. However, teaching has never been a well-paid profession. While I don’t like the idea of luring less capable individuals to the profession with promises of fat paychecks, I also don’t see any reason why teachers should sacrifice the ability to support their families in order to do the job they love. They should make a healthy living wage. If teachers did earn fair pay for their work, we might be able to attract and keep more teachers. As it is, we lose large numbers of young teachers in the first five years of their career. I nearly left teaching myself four years in.

Perhaps visiting my daughter’s school and listening between the lines to her teachers’ concerns about the sizes of their classes, and subsequently, their ability to effectively teach what their students need to learn and manage the learning environment well, brought these concerns into sharp relief. Our children deserve better. So do our teachers.

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Slice of Life #26: Better

A few days ago, I offered up some topics on my mind and asked which ones you might be interested in hearing more about. There were exactly four votes, and they were split four ways. Isn’t that always the way!

Since it’s Tuesday, and I haven’t done a Slice of Life entry in while, perhaps I’ll go ahead and make one person happy and write about a health issue and better living through chemistry.

I went to my doctor (finally—yes, I can be avoidant) for two reasons in August: 1) I knew I needed a mammogram, and I thought my primary care physician would need to order one, and 2) my knees were killing me. Seriously, I thought I might be developing arthritis. Walking up stairs could be excruciating. Walking downstairs often hurt, too. I had to lean on railings. I didn’t think it was normal for a woman my age to have such a hard time with my knees.

The first thing my doctor did was examine my knees. She didn’t see anything concerning, but she pointed out the way I pronate when I walk isn’t good for knees, and she looked at my ankles. “Did you sprain your ankles a lot as a kid?” she asked me. Yes, in fact, I did a few times. “You have weak ankles. They aren’t doing their share of the work, and they’re causing strain on your knees.” Just to be sure, she ordered an x-ray of my knees, but there was nothing to see there. She also ordered some routine lab tests—something I think she does with all new patients, but which no doctor I’ve ever had before actually did. My lab results revealed that I have an underactive thyroid.

If you don’t have any thyroid issues, you might not be aware of how many issues thyroid problems can cause. Many of them completely unrelated to one another (or so it seems).

My husband was growing increasingly concerned about my fatigue after work. I crashed on the couch almost every day. I thought I just had a lot to do at work, and it was exhausting me.

My anxiety was through the roof, though it had calmed down quite a bit since we bought a new car in March, as our old car was the focus of a lot of my anxiety.

I’ve gained some weight over the years, and I couldn’t do anything to take it off, which I chalked up to metabolism changes due to aging.

I was almost always cold. I thought this was normal for me. Everyone else was comfortable, but I was cold. I didn’t even consider this a health-related issue.

It never occurred to me that these symptoms were related. I didn’t even consider all of them big problems. My doctor prescribed medication for me, and I’ve been taking it since August. I can’t even explain how different I feel, but I’ll try.

The fatigue has improved a great deal. I have more energy. I rarely nap after school now, and when I do, it’s because I clearly didn’t get enough sleep the night before. A normal day with normal activity doesn’t exhaust me anymore.

The anxiety issue has been interesting. My medication is not supposed to decrease anxiety. In fact, it has been shown to increase it. However, hypothyroidism can cause depression. Depression and anxiety are often twins, and it stands to reason if depression is decreased, anxiety will be as well. Medication is probably not the only factor in my decreased anxiety, but I think it’s a factor for sure. In any case, my mood has changed. I feel a lot more chipper most of the time.

The weight thing, well, that will take time, and to be honest, I haven’t been trying to lose weight lately. I am not technically overweight, but I should exercise more.

I am no longer cold all the time. That one is weird for me. In fact, there have been a few occasions when I felt fine and others felt cold. I can’t explain how weird that makes me feel.

The knees are a bit better, and I understand that an underactive thyroid can contribute to joint pain. I have to wonder if my medication is helping my knees, too.

I have no idea how long I was suffering with this issue, and I do say suffering because it diminished my quality of life quite a bit. I can’t believe pills I spend less than $10.00 per month to take can make such a difference in my quality of life. I just feel so much better, and I feel happier.

Better living through chemistry, indeed.

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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On My Mind

cobwebs photo
Photo by randihausken

I’ve let the cobwebs collect around here again! All I can say is the same old thing everyone says: time. I always say people make time for things they feel are important, so for one reason or another, blogging has had to retreat to the background for me. I am always thinking about things I want to write about, but making time to do it has been a challenge. That’s not to say that I don’t feel the urge. Obviously, if I’m writing at the moment, I feel like I need to be writing.

I have several things on my mind, any number of which might make an interesting blog post:

  • I discovered in August that I have an underactive thyroid. I’ve been on medication for it, and I feel almost like a different person.
  • I have my first New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) conference coming up in a couple of weeks. I am actually presenting at my first one—on my digital storytelling project. Speaking of which, I have an article in English Journal coming out in January on the same subject.
  • I am visiting Atlanta for the first time in over four years, when I moved from Georgia to Massachusetts, when I go to NCTE. I’m really, really excited.
  • But I’m also concerned about NCTE. It’s becoming an echo chamber, and, honestly, cliquish. I don’t like to see it.
  • I am having a blast with my AP Literature class, and I’m doing a much better job the second time around. Plus, I have some cool tools to share. I haven’t participated in #aplitchat in some time. I need to make time for that.
  • I’m teaching 9th grade for the first time in a while, and it’s been interesting in some ways. My freshmen are a lot of fun. I also have a new advisory group of freshmen as well, so I feel like a part of that class.
  • I have an office. This is a very interesting development. My previous school gave me an office, but I elected to use the common desk space in the computer lab with my colleagues instead because I felt lonely. My new office is not cut off from the rest of the people in my building, so I don’t feel lonely. Plus I am super-productive. I can’t even compare the difference. Part of is a new organization scheme (plus a place of my own to put things).
  • I went to Know your School Night, and just about all of my daughter’s classes have 30-ish students. That’s too many, but it’s not just her school. It’s the norm. That’s wrong when we know what we know about class sizes and effective instruction. I heard over and over (listening between the lines) about classroom management challenges my daughter’s teachers face because of the size of their classes.
  • Also, I am noticing another issue with my daughter’s school that I have encountered before: grading behaviors instead of student work. That’s a whole blog post, for sure, but folks, we can’t hand out a list of rules and give a quiz over the rules. It shows students right off the bat that what you value is compliance and not learning. Come on. Do better.

All of these thoughts probably merit a post on their own. If you want to have some fun, you can vote below. Which one do you want to read about the most? The poll will stay open until midnight on October 9, 2016.

What do you want to read about first?

  • How much better I feel (25%)
  • My concerns about NCTE (25%)
  • AP Lit (25%)
  • Class size concerns (25%)
  • My NEATE presentation (0%)
  • Returning to 9th grade (0%)
  • My office and new organization scheme (0%)
  • Concerns about grading behavior instead of work (0%)

Total Votes: 4

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Fun fact: I have tried to spell “behavior” the British way twice while writing this post, and I have no idea why my brain did that.

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The First Day of School

I haven’t seen any better advice for how to introduce yourselves to your students than that of Carol Jago:

What do I plan to do on the first day?

My classes all meet for 30 minutes, which allows for teachers to give students course information and expectations, go over supplies needed, etc. I have a handout with all of that. We also have an online learning management system where students can check this information any time. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I have read that students form a first impression of their teachers in about four seconds. That’s not even enough time to speak!

Instead of going over all the rules and procedures, I post essential questions for the course in a chalk talk. Each question gets its own sticky poster. I have about four or five questions total. I give students sticky notes. I ask them to think about the questions and respond with their thoughts on the sticky note. They put the sticky note on the poster. Then they move to another poster and do the same with the question on that poster. They don’t have to answer all the questions. After they have posted their answers, they go around and read others’ responses. If they see connections, they draw lines. They can comment on the answers, too.

This activity gets students thinking about what they will learn on day one. It also gets them up and moving around a bit. We follow with a class discussion, and usually it’s time to go. Of course, they get their course expectations handout on the way out, and I post it as homework to read it.

This activity reaps bonus rewards if you pull the posters out at the end of the year so students can reflect on their responses to those questions on the first day.

What do you do the first day?

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