All posts by Dana Huff

English Department Chair/English teacher, doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, reader, writer, bread baker, sometime soapmaker, amateur foodie. Wife and mom of three.

Writing on the SAT

Will Fitzhugh answers some of the questions raised by College Board vice-president Wayne Camara in his article in Journal of College Admission, Summer 2005.

Specifically, why is it that readers for the SAT are instructed to ignore factual errors in essays? Fitzhugh rightly wonders how to “reconcile this with Wayne Camara’s statement that ‘The essay on the SAT writing test…is consistent with the kind of writing students are expected to do in college classrooms.'”

My tenth grade students write a five-page research paper using MLA style. Based on my memories of college, that is going to be the single most useful skill I can teach them, as I had to write papers in science, history, music, and even P.E. classes as well as English classes. Sadly, the “bang it out in 25 minutes” SAT writing sample — which is not required to be factual — will do little to assess how ready students are for college writing.

Homeschooling Pre-K

Perhaps you already know about Georgia’s state-funded pre-K program. I actually taught pre-K for most of a full school year (November 2001-May 2002). What you may not know is how ridiculously hard it is to get into programs. I don’t want you to think I’m lazy, but we only have one car, and I have limited time in the mornings to drop my daughter Maggie off, so I had to confine my searches for pre-K openings to the public school and daycare centers in our area or on the way to work. No luck. Everyone has a (long) waiting list.

My daughter Maggie is bright. She’s very precocious. He has a highly-developed vocabulary, she recognizes all of the standard shapes and most of the odd ones (like diamonds, trapezoids, etc.), she can count fairly well, and she retains things she learns like a sponge. I know what you’re thinking. Every parent thinks their child is gifted. I can very clearly recall having a conversation with my supervising teacher in which she described her younger daughter as gifted, while her older daughter worked hard and was bright, but clearly could not be labeled gifted. At the time, it sort of shocked me. After having earned my gifted certification and having had three children, I understand a little better that Cheryl was not showing favoritism, but merely being objective about her children. So I have three children. I think the eldest is bright, but distractable. Her vocabulary was not as developed as Maggie’s is when she was four. Likewise, my younger son Dylan seems decidedly uninterested in talking at two years old. He says “car” and “mama,” but aside from that, not much moves him to speak. I find it hard to assess his abilities, because he either cannot verbalize them or is uninterested in doing so.

So back to Maggie. She really needs school. She wants to go so badly. But I haven’t been able to find a pre-K program with space. So I have decided that rather than let her “languish” before Kindergarten (yes, I realize how absurd that sounds, but I’m not a pushy parent — I just see an eagerness to learn, and I want to develop it) that I will homeschool her in pre-K. I bought some books at the local teacher store, but I am most eager to receive guidance from any early educators who stumble upon this.

Sadly, I think the thing Maggie really needs out of school is socialization with other children, but since I can’t provide that right now, I’m going to try my best to at least provide some learning experiences. I bought the following books:

They look pretty good, but I’m a high school teacher, essentially, and teaching someone to read — even someone as eager as Maggie — is a task I find daunting. I am looking forward to working with Maggie, too, but I will be happy to receive any advice my fellow educators have to offer.

Teacher Shortage and Competence

Ever since I was finishing up my teaching degree in 1996-97, I’ve been hearing about this projected teacher shortage (free registration or BugMeNot). With increasing demands of NCLB, and complaints about the calibre of teaching candidates (and teachers themselves), not to mention concerns about teacher education, what on earth are we going to do to address this critical issue? Frankly, I know I for one have no desire to return to public schools. I’m way too happy in my current position.

For most of my career, it did seem like I was one of the younger teachers. One by one, I’ve seen colleagues retire after 30 odd years in education. It was actually kind of difficult to find a teaching position when I first went looking. I imagine that at some point, some schools will be desperate for bodies in the classroom, and I wonder what will happen when the number of schools who fail to make AYP skyrockets.

In a somewhat related issue, this is probably old news, but it was new to me. I recently read an article about a New York teacher who failed his certification exam several times paid a former homeless man with Asperger’s syndrome to take his exam for him. We don’t have tenure in Georgia. I think a principal with a documented case file on a problematic teacher could very easily dismiss said teacher from his/her position, and I doubt it would take years, which is something about which tenure-opponents frequently complain when issues of teacher competence make the news. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that a teacher ought to be able to pass a test. I guess this infamous 1999 NY Post article is no longer available for free from the source (free preview), but honestly… if this is not a hoax, and there are teachers who really wrote such things on communication that went home, there is something really scary going on, and frankly, I wouldn’t want such teachers teaching my child.

I think the bottom line for all of us as educators is to advocate for ourselves, but also think about our own children, or if we have none, our hypothetical children, and ask ourselves — would I want this for my child?

You know, the other day, I was talking with a colleague, and she mentioned that there is not one person she’s ever talked to or taught that doesn’t have some story about a destructive teacher. The teacher that in some way inflicted a wrong that still bothers us to this day. My mother will never forget Miss Allen, who broke her brand new crayon on the first day of school in junior high when she borrowed it to demonstrate something, then excused it with a glib, “Oh, well, it’s better like this anyway.” Incidentally, I had Miss Allen myself when I went to middle school and suffered no ill effects. From this incident, I can only assume we sometimes inadvertently cause harm. Barbara, my colleage, says that is her rule of thumb as a teacher — first, do no harm.

Personally, I think if your writing skills resemble those of the teachers in that NY Post article or if you are unable to pass certification tests after repeated attempts, you need to ask yourself if you aren’t doing your students serious harm.

First Week Back

The first week back to school is half over. I have been testing summer reading assignments and establishing routines. I am enjoying getting to know the new students and seeing the old ones again. I feel very lucky to be working at my school. I have taught in some difficult places and worked with some difficult faculty, but the teachers and administration at my school are collegial, friendly, helpful, intelligent, and fun to work with. The atmosphere in our teachers’ lounge is unlike any other I’ve seen — everyone seems happy and no one complains about constant discipline issues. It’s really a pleasant place to be.

Today, a student I taught last year said that he heard I was leaving at the end of this year. I’m not. I’ll stay as long as they’ll let me! I wonder where those rumors get started. That’s an odd one.

I am really excited about some things I’m doing this year. I’m going to try a Socratic seminar with my 10th graders on The Color Purple next week. I think it will be interesting to hear what they say. The challenge will be for me to stay quiet!

Friday we’re having our Field Day, which I think is a great idea, because the students get to know each other and have a day of fun at the beginning of the year rather than at the end. I just wish it wasn’t so hot here. It’s fun for the faculty to participate, too — at least I enjoyed it last year.

It looks like I’m going to be grade level advisor for the 10th grade this year, which may mean that I can go to Boston again on the 10th grade trip. I would really enjoy that, but I would understand if they want to give someone else the opportunity to go.

School’s in Session

I’m ready for school to start on Monday. I have my syllabi printed and photocopied. I have actually color-coded my classes this year in an attempt at organization. I have lessons planned. I know what I’m going to do in all the classes I teach for the next few weeks, even if I don’t have step-by-step lesson plans written out except for the first week.

I really love the start of a school year. It’s something that hasn’t changed since I was a kid. I used to love to go shopping for new school supplies. However, doing likewise with my middle-school daughter was a nightmare last night. Too many people trying to get at the same stuff at the same time.

We had orientation for new students today. I had a very productive meeting with my boss. It was a busy day. I really like getting back into the rhythm of school.

I feel like I learn so much more as a teacher than I learned as a student. I like getting back into that learning mode.

Bleh. This post feels all disjointed. Sort of all over the place.

I’m looking forward to a good year. Here’s hoping I can stick with this organization thing I’ve been trying to make happen for my entire teaching career this year.

Related posts:

Back to School

I went back to school for my first day of pre-planning. I share a room with one of my best work buddies. Isn’t it funny how teachers become really good pals with other teachers at work, but don’t really see them socially during the summer or outside of work? We put together our new locking cabinet, despite our combined lack of spatial intelligence. I am really glad we’re sharing a room, because I doubt anyone else could put up with the way I spread out and clutter up a classroom.

I planned lessons for the first week, which wasn’t a big deal, since I need to test summer reading and give some sort of baseline writing assignment for the portfolio.

Tomorrow, we have meetings all day. Same Wednesday. I think we’re working in our classrooms all day Thursday and Friday, except for the fact that Friday is New Student Orientation, so students will be coming through.

Monday is our first day of school. This year, I am teaching two 10th grade American Lit. courses, a 9th grade Grammar, Comp., and Lit. course, and a Writing Seminar. I have already had a lot of the students I’ll teach this year as ninth graders.

I’m trying to figure out exactly what I’m going to do with the class blog I have set up. How will the students use it? What will be the most beneficial thing for me to do with it? It’s sort of an experiment for this year. Next year, we’ll iron out the kinks, I suppose.

I am going to post PDFs of the lesson documents at this site soon, now that I have the capability to do so. I will update here when documents are available.

NCLB Transfers

Interesting… according to an article in yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a school at which I taught from 2002-2004 was required to allow students to transfer to another school because they failed to make AYP for two years in a row. I wish I could say I was surprised, but after being taken to task for having standards that were too high and being blamed for schoolwide discipline issues when they occurred in my classroom, I just can’t say that I didn’t see that one coming.

I have problems with NCLB, and for all I know, the high number of Special Education students and ESOL students at my former school scoring low on standardized tests may be the reason they failed to make AYP. Thing is, there are more problems than test scores at some schools. Teacher morale at my particular former school was extremely low. I was absolutely miserable there. Even though I disagree with many of the finer points of NCLB, I hate to admit that after the shabby treatment I received by administrators at my former school, it gave me a sort of grim satisfaction to see them fail.

Textbooks are Killing Literature

Patrick Welsh opines about the state of literature texts in USA Today.

[T]he textbooks are feather-weight intellectually.Take the McDougal Littell text that we finally adopted for 9th- and 10th-graders. It starts off with a unit titled “Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Hebrew Literature,” followed by sections on the literature of Ancient India, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient China and Japan. Then comes “Persian and Arabic Literature” and “West African Oral Literature” — and that’s only the first third of the book. There are still more than 800 pages to plough through, but it’s the same drill — short excerpts from long works — a little Dante here, a little Goethe there and two whole pages dedicated to Shakespeare’s plays. One even has a picture of a poster from the film Shakespeare in Love with Joseph Fiennes kissing Gwyneth Paltrow. The other includes the following (which is sure to turn teens on to the Bard):

“Notice the insight about human life that the following lines from The Tempest convey:

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

Shakespeare’s plays are treasures of the English language.”

Both books are full of obtrusive directions, comments, questions and pictures that would hinder even the attentive readers from becoming absorbed in the readings. Both also “are not reader-friendly. There is no narrative coherence that a student can follow and get excited about. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” says T.C. Williams reading specialist Chris Gutierrez, who teaches a course in reading strategies at Shenandoah University in Virginia. For kids who get books and reading opportunities only at school, these types of textbooks will drive them away from reading — perhaps for life.

This is actually something I’ve noticed. The books are full of flashy pictures and photographs, but there are more excerpts rather than full works, and there are some rather odd choices in terms of what to include and what to leave out. My school actually uses an out-of-print text by Scott, Foresman — the same books, in fact, that I studied from when I was in high school. I do have some problems with the books, and frankly there are things I really like about the newer Holt and Prentice-Hall books. I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect textbook.

Education in 1893

I recently became the recipient of a copy of my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary (which I am currently in the process of transcribing and uploading to my genealogy blog). I did not know this before I received the diary, but Grandma Stella was a teacher before she married my great-great-grandfather.

Stella doesn’t write much about school, but I find what she does write most illuminating. First of all, she is like most teachers at the time — an unmarried young woman who may have gone to Normal School, but otherwise received no training. Second, school was frequently interrupted by weather, illness, and farm cycles. As many times as she wrote “small school today,” I’m astonished she felt able to accomplish much. It would have been immensely frustrating to me, but she seemed to take it in stride. Once she mentions arriving at school, but no students showed, so she simply went home and sewed.

Another thing I noticed is that Stella frequently mentions problems with “order.” She even used a switch on a student. Aside from the part about the switch, not much seems to have changed on that front. I suppose kids were as prone to be discipline problems in 1893 as they are now. She does seem extremely frustrated by this issue, as it is the only one she mentions frequently. Frankly, having had my own struggles with that issue, I can only empathize with her across time.

I noticed that Stella had to buy her own supplies, too. She makes note of everything she buys and how much it cost in her diary. Twice she made a notation for “prepared chalk, .05.” Her students probably used slates, so the paper she purchased must have been for her correspondence. She appears to have been paid in vouchers and depended upon local families for board, which she still had to pay out of her salary.

Stella mentions working on grade reports at home, and she appeared to be frustrated by the work. She also frequently taught outside of school hours — she mentions an evening spelling class.

In some respects, much has changed, but still more remarkable to me is how much hasn’t.

Why Does School Have to Start So Early?

Rick Badie (free registration or BugMeNot) laments the loss of summer vacation, as all of Georgia’s public schools start by August 15:

That our kids return to school in a week. That Mom and Dad are already tax-free shopping for clothes and supplies, and that soon our kids will be prepping for high-stake tests.We’ve lost practically all of August. The traditional months of summer have been truncated. We get less true summer time to spend with Big Momma, see movies, have sleepovers, play basketball, read, and yes — succumb, even, to boredom. Our dog days of summer are spent in class, not poolside.

This year, all of the state’s public schools will open up by Aug. 15. Next Monday, Gwinnett’s 142,000 or so students join others returning to class in eight other city and county school systems in the Atlanta area. Some school systems, like those in Cherokee and Newton county, are already in school or start Monday.

While I don’t like starting this early either, I noticed that no mention was made of the fact that students are released around the third week of May, instead of June, and that in some places, longer breaks at Thanksgiving and in February have been instituted. I may be wrong, and someone please correct me if I am, but I don’t think the school year is actually longer. I think it just starts earlier.

And if that’s the case, why don’t Badie and his family sit by the pool and visit Big Momma in June and July? The weather in Georgia is actually a little more bearable in June than in August, in my opinion.

I guess to me, it doesn’t matter either way, but it is nice to end the first semester before winter break instead of having two weeks hang over after the break.