Twelve Years

twelve candles photo
Photo by Pewari

Today this blog is twelve years old. I originally envisioned this blog as a place where I could write about what I was thinking and where I could share my teaching ideas. It hasn’t changed a lot from that vision over the years, though posting has grown less frequent. I have been looking over some of the posts I wrote years ago, and it makes me wish I had a little more time to write—aside from summer, when I seem finally to be able to catch up and write.

I just finished my twentieth year of teaching, and such an important milestone has made me a bit reflective. It’s hard to believe I have been blogging here for more than half of my career now. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I was a teacher before this blog. Perhaps because I wasn’t reflecting or journaling about teaching much until this blog, my memories of my teaching career up until this blog are fuzzier. It’s hard for me to articulate what this space has meant to me over the years. I have said it many times, but I’m not even sure I’d still be teaching if not for this blog because I no longer felt alone, and I was able to share what I was thinking with an audience who cared. Two years ago, when I wrote my tenth anniversary post, I thanked many supportive friends who helped me early on. I’m not sure what more I can add. Thanks to those of you who have been readers, whether for many years or a few days.

For the curious, here are some weird stats:

  • I have written 1,086 posts on this blog. That works out to 90.5 posts a year or 7.5 posts a month.
  • I have received 3,989 comments. That’s about 332 comments a year, almost one per day.
  • I only have statistics for the last five years, but it looks like my best day for visitors was October 1, 2012. I can’t figure out how to drill down into the statistics and find out how many viewers that was.
  • Most of my visitors today were from the United States, although I checked my stats for all time, and it looks like I have had at least one visitor from, well, almost everywhere. See below.
  • The average number of views ranges from a low of 206 per day for this month of June 2017 up to over 1,000 per day in September 2012. I don’t have statistics older than 2012, but five years is long enough to have a fairly good range. I’m not sure if at one time, I had more views than 1,000 per day, but it boggles my mind that so many people were checking into this blog. Thank you!
  • My blog gets the most traffic on Mondays.
  • I have a combined total of 3,145 subscribers from WordPress and email. Thanks, and I hope I made subscribing worth your while. Since Google shut down Google Reader, I haven’t found an RSS reader I like much, despite trying a few, so I am afraid my own blog reading is really haphazard. I used to be so much better at checking other blogs.
  • My most popular post describes how to use TPCASTT to analyze poetry. I didn’t come up with this technique, but somehow, my page is the #1 Google ranking when you search TPCASTT, which likely explains why the post is so popular. Plus it’s a really good tool, and I can’t take credit for it. Thanks to whoever invented it. My students still use it all the time. As of today, the post has had 47,243 views. The most popular posts seem to have remained pretty steady over time. Rounding out the top five (with number of views) are Understanding by Design: Essential Questions (41,856), Interactive Notebooks (33,325), Teaching “A Modest Proposal” (31,836), and Teaching Romeo and Juliet: Part One (29,253). Many of the most popular posts are among the oldest posts.

Statistics

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Related posts:

Comments and Change

blogging photo

I was going through blog posts I wrote almost ten years ago, and I noticed something interesting. Back then, blog posts—and I don’t think just mine, either—tended to generate comments. It was typical for my average blog post to receive at least two or three comments back then.

I know one issue is that I don’t write often, so perhaps newer posts are not being seen. Then again, there are over 3,000 people who subscribe to this blog via email updates. I have often had someone leave a comment that mentions they have been “lurking” for years but never commented.

I’m not bothered by the lack of comments, but I am curious as to why commenting happens less frequently now. It it just being too busy? Do people really still read blogs anymore? Despite predictions to the contrary, blogging seems to be thriving again, though it looks different now than it did when I started nearly twelve years ago now. The lower number of comments is something I am seeing not just here but also on other blogs I read.

I am also seeing a trend I don’t really care for on social media, both on Twitter and Facebook, to made threads or longform updates. I suppose it’s your social media account, and you can do what you like, but I see Twitter and Facebook to be most useful for quick updates.

Without this blog, I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today. I made so many friends through this blog. I learned so much and thought so much about teaching in this space. I was not as reflective as a teacher until I started blogging. Now I find I don’t even need to blog to reflect, which may be why I don’t blog as much as I want to.

Back in the days when my boss was a bully, and I was contending with feeling like a failure as an educator, this space saved my self-esteem. I was validated by commenters agreeing with my ideas and challenged by those who didn’t. I needed this space to think through what I believed.

I suppose I’m just curious about reading habits. Do people still read blogs? Why? What do you think is behind the lower numbers of comments on blogs?

Related posts:

FAQ: Teaching American Literature Thematically

american books photo
Photo by Curtis Gregory Perry

Over two years ago, I wrote a post about my approach to teaching American literature thematically. I close comments on posts once they are a year old, but this post continues to generate some questions, so I thought I would post an update in answer to the questions people most frequently ask me about teaching American literature thematically.

Can I use your essential questions for my own unit?

Feel free. I hope they are useful. If you are using them somewhere online, however, I request that you give me credit. If you want to learn more about creating essential questions, I can recommend no source more highly than Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design. They also have one focused just on essential questions called Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding.

Are you still teaching thematically?

Yes, right up through the school year that just ended. I would continue to do it next year, too, if I were going to be teaching the course, but my schedule does not allow for me to teach it next year. I would never go back to approaching any literature class I teach chronologically anymore.  The only way I could see teaching chronologically is if the chronology was an important underpinning of a course, such as the development of a particular genre or theme over the course of a given period of time. Even our American history teachers have begun to take a thematic approach to teaching American history. One unit, for instance, covered the black experience from the abolition of slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But what about understanding the literary movements?

When I taught American literature (and for that matter, British literature) chronologically, I thought this point was important, too. Seeing how writers collectively influence movements and how movements influence and push back against one another is important… to English majors mostly. To most of our students who are critically in danger of not developing the reading and writing skills or engaging with literature, chronology can sometimes kill their interest by putting the material they are least likely to enjoy reading—in the case of American literature, it’s Puritan writers—at the beginning of the year when we are trying to “hook” the kids.*

Early British literature has the advantage of being a bit more exciting, but nonetheless, it is interesting see how writers across eras are in discussion, too. For instance, if I were teaching chronologically, I might teach “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman around the time I am teaching Romanticism or perhaps a transition to Realism. Then I would teach Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” during the Harlem Renaissance/Modernism. Why? Hughes’s poem is directly talking back to Whitman’s. They should go together. Likewise “Civil Disobedience” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Likewise Crèvecoeur’s discussion of “What is the American?” and voices of immigrants from the 20th and 21st centuries. I care that students make connections and see the relevance of what they read far more than that they grasp that literature periodically shifts around into what we call movements. Controversial, maybe, but I stand by it. I think movements are mostly constructs anyway. No one was looking around and saying, “Well, enough of this Romanticism. Let’s start Realism now.” We can’t agree on whether we’re still in Postmodernism right now or not, and there are plenty of writers who are still writing what we define as Postmodern literature and probably even more who are not. Movements are convenient for organizing literature later, and I would not disagree with people who think English majors should know literary movements, but I disagree that everyone needs to know them (or even cares about them). Writers don’t even necessarily find themselves influenced by what is happening around them. They might hearken back to an earlier writer for inspiration. Or they might be so radically different from everyone else writing around them that it’s difficult to classify them (which is why Whitman and Dickinson are often thrown into a unit unto themselves in literature textbooks).

Can students really get a complete overview of American literature if we don’t teach it chronologically?

That’s sort of up to you. One might accuse thematic teachers of picking and choosing, but chronological teachers do the same thing, only they do it in chronological order. What I have seen typically happen when teachers approach literature chronologically is that students don’t study anything remotely contemporary until the end of the year… if then. I know when I taught chronologically, I often finished the year some time in the 1940’s, if I got fairly far. That’s completely cutting out a good chunk of some of the best American literature there is. If you are building a thematic curriculum, you should choose wisely. I tweak each year when I realize something I really liked doesn’t fit very well and takes up time from other works that will be both engaging and more representative. One freeing aspect of teaching where I do is that we don’t have a textbook. We have novels the students purchase, but we don’t have an anthology because they are expensive, and we found we didn’t make good enough use of them to justify their expense. If you have an anthology, you can still use this approach. You will just need to survey your book and determine what themes jump out to you as important. Then you can move around the book. In fact, you might find you do a better job with the overview if you approach teaching the literature thematically than you would have if you stuck to a strict chronology.

Can you give me your syllabus?

I actually think it’s much better for you to create your own syllabus (and essential questions). You know your students. You know your school. You may have required texts that must somehow fit into the framework. You would know best which contemporary poems and short stories might pair with longer texts. I realize it’s a lot of work to create a syllabus from scratch, having done it, but I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t because I created my own syllabus and tweaked it each year. Taking someone else’s syllabus and using it like some kind of script won’t work for you. I’m not trying to be stingy. In my way, I’m trying to be helpful. Handing you a syllabus that reflects what works for me might result in failure for you.

What questions do you have that I missed? Leave them in the comments, and I will update this post with answers.

*I had a student tell me in a course evaluation this year that he/she learned so much about him/herself this year. I was really proud my course enabled that student to learn more about him/herself. Do students see themselves in predominantly white, male writers of European extraction? I’m not saying they can’t relate to those writers. I’m saying if we approach literature chronologically, that’s pretty much all they will read for the first few months. I don’t think that’s right in our diverse society.

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20 Years of Teaching

Dana's Teacher Stats

This month I finished my 20th year as a teacher. A few years into my career, I almost left it behind. I had finished my fourth year, and it was particularly bad for both professional and personal reasons. I had a really hard time finding a job. I finally found one about October—teaching preschool. The kids I taught that year are in college now, but I think of them often because they brought me back into the profession. Teaching them somehow rejuvenated me and helped me figure out why I do this job. For a while, I thought perhaps I had chosen the wrong age group and considered teaching younger children. I taught two years of middle school after that and went back to high school, this time in private school, and I never looked back. I have now spent 13 years teaching in private schools.

I saw the above teacher stats meme going around, and I had to do some estimating, but the only figure I’m not really sure about is the number of students. I would estimate I’ve taught anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500 students. Some years in public school, I taught five sections and most of them had 20+ students, but I have now spent the bulk of my career teaching 4 or 5 sections with fewer than 18 students in each section (also an estimate, as sometimes the number is higher, and sometimes it’s lower… by a lot). As a ballpark, it’s not bad. Those faces come swimming back years later, even after I have forgotten the names. I wonder about many of those faces. Some have kept in touch with me.

I was feeling quite frustrated a few weeks ago. You know how it is at the end of the year. Everyone’s nerves are frazzled, and we forget to be as kind and thoughtful as we should be. I include myself. I had a particularly draining experience toward the end as well, and I have to really thank my colleagues for their moral support at that time. It’s remarkable what difference some time, perspective, and rest can make. The ending of the year was particularly good for me, as my colleagues nominated me for a prestigious teaching award at my school, which in itself was a huge honor. My colleagues then voted among the nominees, and I was selected for the award. I can’t articulate what it means to me that my colleagues recognized me for my teaching, especially after I had been feeling so down on myself as a teacher. For those colleagues of mine who read this blog (and I know there are a few), thank you very much for such a tremendous honor. You really made my year.

I keep trying to make more time to reflect on this blog because I really miss it. Some post ideas I have in the offing:

  • I wrote about ditching chronology for thematic design in teaching American literature, and I get emails about how it has gone, as the post is now old enough that comments on it are close. It has gone very well. I plan to write an update.
  • One of the most enriching experiences of my career has been a collaboration with my fellow 9th grade World Literature I teachers and 9th grade World Civilizations I teachers (history). I want to reflect on that collaboration and share how we planned and what the year looked like.
  • I brought home several professional books to read, and I will write reviews here once I’ve finished with them.
  • I have now taught AP Literature and Composition for two years. I always contend it feels like year three is the year when things start to feel really good, whether it’s working at a school, teaching a course, or whatever else might be new and different. I have lots of thoughts about how this year went (much better!) and ideas for next year.
  • I went to some excellent professional development at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education with three of my colleagues, and I haven’t written a thing about it on my blog.
  • I am also becoming more involved with my local NCTE affiliate, the New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE), and even though it’s early days, it has been great establishing local connections like I had in Georgia with GCTE.
  • My students have done some great work this year, and I haven’t shared it.

Stay tuned!

Related posts:

Frustration Time

frustration photo
Photo by e-magic

It’s frustration time. I know this is a bit of a pattern with me, and maybe it is with most teachers, but I find I’m at my most frustrated this time of year.

I keep thinking of the things I wanted to accomplish but didn’t. I keep thinking of the students with whom I tried to establish a rapport and a relationship but failed. I keep thinking of discussions and disagreements. I focus almost exclusively on everything that went wrong. I wonder sometimes what it would be like to be the kind of person who wasn’t bothered by such things. I suppose I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t, but this time of year can be agony for me until the summer arrives, and I find myself wondering if my fellow teachers commiserate.

One thing I wonder is whether I care too much. I realize that’s a loaded sentence. One never wants to be accused of caring too little unless we know it’s something we shouldn’t care too much about. For instance, I believe that as a colleague and teacher, I have earned a fair amount of respect—even some appreciation. So why do I focus on encounters in which I have felt disrespected to the exclusion of the large number of encounters in which I have felt respected and perhaps even truly appreciated? Why does the negative weigh so much more in my mind than the positive? Why is the negative so much louder than the positive? I seem to be especially vulnerable to this kind of thinking at the end of the year. Perhaps it’s because I’m clinging to the end of that frayed rope, hoping I can hold on for a few more weeks when I can decompress and get rid of the stress.

The end of the year is so stressful. I think a lot of teachers—perhaps all of them—feel it. Is it just my perception that everyone else seems so much better able to cope with the stress without being upset? Are they just hiding it really well?

I value reflection a great deal. I think it is a helpful practice to examine myself and determine how I might do better. Sometimes, it ventures into the realm of being unproductive, however, and I feel like I beat myself up more than it seems like others do. Is that just a perception? Do we all kind of beat ourselves up?

I have been bending my poor husband’s ears for two days on my end-of-year frustrations, and he’s been a great listener. I know he would like to figure out a way to help or to say something that would make me feel better, but at this stage, I feel like the only thing that will help is a break. And I know it’s coming soon enough. I know I have only a few more days with students, and then just a few more after that with colleagues. I will have some wonderful things to look forward to this summer. A trip or two with family. A U2 concert. The opportunity to study Emily Dickinson and her poetry at her home in Amherst. Most of all, time to read, learn, and relax.

I’m wondering what coping strategies other teachers have for making it through the end of the school year, especially when a pile of frustrations regarding everything from personnel issues up to angry students or parents seem overwhelming. If you’re so inclined, I would love to have a discussion here.

How are you feeling?

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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Time to Blog

time photo
Photo by Naccarato

As E. T. Bell says, “Time makes fools of us all.” Months have gone by, and I haven’t written anything on this blog, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. I have actually taken up letter-writing again, and I have been trying to send letters somewhat regularly to my grandfather, who just turned 92 this last week, as well as two friends from school. I have been journaling. I published an article in English Journal back in January.  While I haven’t been doing as much creative writing, I have been doing some reflective writing or other writing about teaching practice.

I’m a firm believer that we make time for things that are important to us, and for one reason and another, it looks on the surface like this blog’s importance has diminished. After all, if it were more important (I reason to myself), I would post more. I’m forced to consider also, however, that despite much of the writing I’ve been doing offline, I’ve got writer’s block where this blog is concerned. I have often logged into my blogging platform, started a new post, and stared at the blinking cursor. Other times, something will happen in the course of a regular teaching day, and I will make a mental note to blog about it. But I don’t.

Why not? By the time I find I have an hour or two to set aside to write about a topic, my own brain has moved on from thinking it over. I have a little notebook with a few ideas jotted down, but I find when I pull it out and look over them, thinking about what to write, nothing is grabbing my attention. In theory, the little notebook is a great idea.

It’s the end of another school year, my twentieth, and I feel wrung out in a lot of ways. I am doing more presentations, including presenting at the NEATE conference earlier this year. I’m also presenting at NCTE in November. Running my department can be exhausting. I have three preps, which is doable, but involves a lot of planning. I am falling behind grading. And, and, and…

And yet, this blog, I know, is important to me. When I was recently at the Harvard Graduate School of Education participating in the Transformative Power of Teacher Teams, a professional development course for teachers aimed at making teacher teamwork more powerful, rewarding, and productive, I was asked to share what I was proud of in my career, and this blog was high on my list of accomplishments. I have been writing and reflecting (sporadically, yes) in this space for nearly twelve years. When my former host shut me down last year because they claimed my site was not optimized (and wouldn’t help me optimize it without my plunking down several hundred dollars, despite my having been a paying customer for a decade), I was not so much worried that all of my work would be lost, as I know how to back up my files, but I was worried I wouldn’t be able to figure out an affordable solution and that I would be offline for weeks. And in spite of not having updated, I didn’t want to be offline for that long.

I know I need to make more time to be reflective here. This blog saved me when I felt alone, and I found others who shared their ideas and practices with me and who agreed with me. I didn’t feel so lonely anymore. It made me think about what I was doing and why. I am not sure I would have done presentations at conferences or written any articles for publication if I hadn’t had this blog first. This blog gave me some sorely needed confidence.

It doesn’t work for me to schedule time, say, once a week to be reflective here (although it would be good for me if it did work) because I feel pressure, and I just get frustrated with myself if I can’t do it. I have always had to post when I can, when I’m inspired. I just wish that were more often.

Those of you who blog, how do you keep your momentum going over time? How do you encourage yourself to keep writing? What do you do when the cursor is blinking at you? How do you start again?

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Imposter Syndrome and Class in Academia

imposter photo
Photo by thewikiman

I ran into a blog post, “The Coding of ‘White Trash’ in Academia” on The Establishment (originally published in Auntie Bellum Magazine)—I think a friend must have shared it on Facebook—that really resonated with me. I tweeted out a link, and because I have Twitter and Facebook linked, I also shared it with Facebook friends. One of my friends, Scott O’Neil, who is a doctoral candidate in Renaissance Drama and Literature at the University of Rochester, commented on my post with a link to his first blog post.

What Holly Genovese and Scott O’Neil describe in these two posts is something I have wrestled with myself. I think a lot of women have dealt with “imposter syndrome,” as it has been noted to be especially prevalent in high-achieving women. I can remember being in my honors 9th grade English class and feeling like I was quite literally the dumbest person in the room. I understand now that I wasn’t, but I think it was one of the first times I felt like I didn’t belong somewhere in school. I loved school. I always knew I would be a teacher one day. School was a place I felt safe. Teachers liked me. I won awards for everything from citizenship to academics. I was good at school. Until that honors English class. I should back up and say that my achievement in that class was fine. I just didn’t feel as smart as the other students. I understand now that what I was feeling for the first time was that sense of being an outsider in a place where I had previously thought I belonged. They might not have meant to (or maybe they did), but the other students in my classes sometimes contributed to that feeling.

When I took the SAT, I checked the box to receive mail from colleges, and a few colleges jumped out at me through their thick brochures full of possibilities I had never considered. However, I discovered that cost was a factor, and I would need to settle on a school in my home state so that I wouldn’t have to pay out-of-state tuition. I had started an application to Emerson College in Boston, but I abandoned in despair, realizing it was pointless to finish it and polish that piece of writing they had requested. I didn’t know what to do, and time was running out. I wound up applying to a community college so I could spend a year figuring it out. I knew I wanted to go away to school if I could. My parents hadn’t gone to college, and college counseling at my large public high school was non-existent. I settled on UGA when their College of Education came recruiting at my community college. I was lucky because UGA happens to have a great education school, and their secondary education programs have particularly been singled out for praise.

When it came time to settle on a master’s program, I was equally confused. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time, and I also couldn’t quit work as my family depended on my income. And for years, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to study. English? Library Science? When technology integration became an important issue, I knew I had found my calling, and I found a program at Virginia Tech. I had to take more classes than my advisor recommended because I couldn’t afford to go to school without student loans, and in order to qualify for loans, I needed to attend at least half time.

I always went to public school, and my college years have been spent at large, public universities.  In that respect, I am not a lot different from Holly Genovese or Scott O’Neil, who described what he termed “an undercurrent of class-based assumption at top universities.” There is this notion that certain people don’t really belong, and many assumptions are made about students—graduate students in particular, I think—at these schools. Namely, that they went to elite colleges and had private school education. While such assumptions are certainly made at the college level, I would argue they are also made in the independent school world where I work.

On a few occasions, I have noticed a sort of surprise on the part of colleagues, students, and parents upon the awkward realization that I am a product of public schools and public universities and teaching at a private school. On one occasion, a student of mine told a group of students with whom we were working in Israel that she went to our school because the local public schools were not good. Actually, this statement was not true—the public schools in our North Fulton County, Georgia home were quite good—and she either didn’t know or had forgotten that my own children went to those schools. I felt shamed by my own student.

I would argue that this notion of feeling too “low class” to belong is similar to feelings of loneliness that women in fields dominated by men or that people of color in places dominated by white people feel. However, bundled up inside of it in many cases is the fact that many working class students are white and in some cases also male, so there is a dose of privilege that makes it easier to mask those feelings of inadequacy and also makes it easier to achieve and to “hide” one’s background. Scott describes assumptions that people make about him based on the fact that he is a white man studying at the University of Rochester. People have made assumptions of me as a white woman teaching at a private prep school, too. These assumptions contribute to the feeling of being an imposter, that I don’t belong. I have begun working on fighting these feelings, but if you read anything about imposter syndrome, let’s just say I’m a textbook example.

You know, it’s funny that in America, we say that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. But we know it’s not exactly true. Our literature reflects it. Just about every high school student reads The Great Gatsby, for instance, and learns that money and race can’t make James Gatz a member of high society. Not really. We used to celebrate Horatio Alger stories and encourage kids to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and work hard. In some ways, it is true that we can work hard and achieve great things, but it can be hard to feel like we deserve to be where we are, and there are ways that society reminds us of where we come from, too. Our backgrounds can be a stumbling block in that we, like other marginalized groups, don’t start out the race in the same place as those privileged folks with private school educations.

I do an activity adapted from Paul Kivel called “Examining Class and Race” when I teach The Great Gatsby. I assign students a character from the novel and ask them to move from the line based on what they know of the character. I choose questions that would work for the characters in the novel. Students are surprised to see that Gatsby is far behind Daisy and Tom and is even behind Nick in terms of his “starting place.” Of course, Myrtle and George are near the back. It displays an interesting visual with regards to class and how class helps some characters and holds others back.

Is this where some of the heartland anger against “liberal elites on the coasts” comes from? Maybe. I am not a sociologist, but it makes some sense to me. I know I felt it all over again upon reading a comment on a post shared by one of my colleagues on Facebook. One of my students, Kaz Grala, just won the NASCAR Truck Series at Daytona. My colleagues and I were all sharing the news on social media. I noticed that someone commented on a colleague’s post in what I believe he felt was a joking way that it must be hard for Kaz to communicate with the NASCAR audience on their level given his educational background. In fact, Kaz and I have discussed this type of code-switching, and I have watched him in interviews. He has it figured out. But man, that remark, not even directed at me—though it felt like it was because I come from that part of the country—really stung. Let’s face it. NASCAR is really popular among people with my background. People like me. And the insinuation that people like me, people with my background, are dumb wasn’t even implied. It was stated outright. No one challenged it, either. It wasn’t my Facebook page, so I left it alone, too.

In many ways I feel like I am straddling two worlds. All anyone who doubted me might need to do to would be to record me talking with my family, particularly my grandmother, who was born to two teenagers in Oklahoma in the middle of the Dust Bowl. She only went to school through the eighth grade and married young herself. I don’t think it’s coincidence that nothing made her prouder than my academic achievements. I was the first person her family to graduate from college. My grandfather went, but he didn’t graduate. Same with my father, though both my parents went to college and graduated after I did. I am only member of our family with a graduate school degree. And is it any wonder I sometimes struggle with feeling like an imposter? One thing I am learning, however, is that I do have a place at the table, even if I sometimes can’t figure out which fork to use.

Related posts:

On Taking Risks

risk photo
Photo by Bien Stephenson

I had a wonderful discussion with Cindy, my Dean of Faculty yesterday, and I just want to thank her one more time (this time in public) for her encouragement. As I explained to her, I am quite liberal in my politics, but I have always been conservative in my career. I stayed perhaps four years too long in my last teaching job. I loved my colleagues, but my principal was a bully, and she really tore my self-esteem apart. I am still suffering the after-effects from it—second-guessing myself, wondering if I am actually a good teacher or not, worried about losing my job—even when I feel confident my school is happy with me. Part of having anxiety is that you blow up these concerns past the point of reason, and it’s very difficult then to take risks. I am not a natural risk-taker. Even when I have evidence that some chances I took in my life paid off, I still have trouble logically applying those situations to current or future scenarios.

However, I have decided I am going to take a risk. I am going to do something that is not very conservative. I do not want to say very much about my plans at the moment. I am not leaving my current school, so colleagues who might read this blog (or students) need not worry. I don’t like to be cagey on my blog, but I have good reasons for keeping my plans relatively quiet for the moment.

There are many reasons in life to be afraid, but it doesn’t help us accomplish our goals. There are many reasons to be cautious, sometimes the best moves we make in life happen when throw caution to the winds and take a chance on a dream. What I am about to embark upon has long been a dream, and I thought it was entirely foolish and out of reach. However, everyone else I have talked to in the last week or so has thought otherwise. It must be that conservative nature of mine, I decided. I asked myself, if I were anyone else but me, what would I do? And I decided I would probably take the risk—if I were anyone else, it would be a no-brainer. In fact, if I were anyone else, I might already have done it.

It was a powerful epiphany for me. I came to the place where I had utterly rejected my idea, and then I asked myself why. Though I haven’t been seriously ruminating for a long time, this idea has been in the back of my head for probably 20 years. That’s 20 years I could have worked toward accomplishing the goal, but it’s also 20 years I really learned a lot that I could learn no other way. It’s a good time for me to try to accomplish this goal, and better late than never. I don’t want to reach the end of my life and wonder what if I had just tried it.

The biggest thing that keeps going through my mind is “I’ll bet Granna would be proud.” My grandmother, one of the most important people to me in my life, and someone who was my constant cheerleader and thought I could do anything, even when I didn’t believe it myself, passed away in November. I kept looking for her everywhere. One of the last things she said to me when I talked to her the last time was that she would be watching over me. And I tried and tried, but I couldn’t feel her watching me. All I felt was her absence. But after some time has passed, I have learned to be still and listen. And I just realized… she is watching. And nudging. She is behind this decision. I imagine a lot of people reading this won’t believe it, and that’s fine. But I feel it. She wants me to do this, and she thinks I can. So I will.

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Breaking the Silence

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Photo by jsdilag

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.—Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am breaking a long silence on this blog to write about something really important to me. I did not consciously step away from blogging here, and I had ideas about things I wanted to write, but it’s been a process for me the last two months as I grieved the loss of my grandmother and coped with the normal business of school and teaching. Time is always a factor with blogging, too, and I need to make the the time for things I think are important. This is important.

I do not write about politics much here mainly because I know I have readers who don’t share my politics, and we have other areas in common. I didn’t want to unnecessarily drive them away. However, what I have to say is too important to worry about what some of my readers think, and if people decide to stop reading my blog or don’t want to follow me on Twitter anymore, that’s their choice. I have the freedom to speak, and they have the freedom not to listen. But I can’t be silent about it.

I start my American literature course with a reading of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” which is famously attached to the Statue of Liberty, about whom the poem is written. I want my students to examine this poem and think about whether America fulfills the promise of the following lines:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

The President’s recent executive order banning “nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries” flies in the face of what we seek to represent in America. This is personal for me because my school has Somali students and alumni who are studying in the United States. I personally taught one of these students in my American Studies in Literature class in the 2014-2015 school year. He is currently in college in Texas. I don’t know what this means for him. Will he be able to visit his family without risking being unable to return to school? This student is one I will always remember because he was so incredibly kind, thoughtful, hardworking, and polite. He is quite religious, and yes, he is Muslim. The idea that anyone could consider him a threat is repugnant and ignorant. As you might imagine, I have been thinking about him a lot these days. In frustration, I tweeted the following yesterday:

I was thinking about how the fact that the President appears to lack empathy, and I trace it to his lack of reading. There are so many recommendations I have, but one place he might start is that old standby, Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol.

The Ghost of Christmas Present has always seemed to me to be the spirit who most effects Ebenezer Scrooge’s change of heart. Yes, the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come clinches it, but two moments in particular stand out for me in Scrooge’s conversation with the Ghost of Christmas Present. The first is when Scrooge begins to feel some empathy for Tim Cratchit and wonders if the boy will live.

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge seems at first shocked by the spirit’s heartlessness, and is “overcome with penitence and grief.” The spirit adds:

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.”

I find it impossible to believe that the President has not heard these lines, even if he doesn’t read. How can he have escaped one of the many movie versions of this classic text? And yet, it seems not have left an impression, for his executive order will not root out terrorism, but it will separate families. It will hurt students who study in the US, like my student. I do not feel safer because of this recent effort to keep my former student out of the country. Seeing Tiny Tim, meeting him and having a glimmer of understand about how hard his life must be changed Scrooge’s heart. He no longer saw the poor as a mass of people who didn’t take care of themselves and their children or didn’t work hard enough. Their plight became real to him because he met an individual child.

Later in the story, the Ghost of Christmas Present introduces Scrooge to Ignorance and Want:

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The spirit especially warns Scrooge to beware Ignorance, which will spell our Doom. Scrooge goes with the third spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, having already committed to changing his ways, as he says, “I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear your company, and do it with a thankful heart,” before telling the spirit “The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know.”

Though the first spirit attempts to move Scrooge by showing him his past so he might compare it to what he has become, he remains mostly unmoved until the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge others and helps him understand his responsibility to his fellow man. And this is what literature can do. It can show us the experiences of others. It translates our own experiences to us. It offers us a way to understand and even a chance to repent and change.

We cannot let Ignorance become our Doom. It’s our responsibility not to allow another witch hunt. We must fight back in whatever way we can against policies that do not align with our ideals as Americans and which will harm our fellow human beings. We are better than this. After the Holocaust, we said “Never Again.” I am deeply frightened by the direction my country is heading, and I stand against these policies.

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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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