My Kids are Students, Not Fundraisers for Your School

scream and shoutMy husband and I went to Maggie and Dylan’s curriculum night on Thursday. Before we could meet their teachers, we had to sit through the PTA’s harassment over the school fundraiser. I was angry about it, but a series of tweets by @paulwhankins today made me mad about it all over again because he gave some articulation to what I was feeling. The PTA representatives pointed out the number of students who had sold junk for the fundraiser versus the number of students in the school, presumably to make us parents feel guilty enough to push our kids into selling junk, and they also pointed out they are only 1/3 of the way to their goal. In the weekly newsletter, we learned the sales period is being extended so that the goal can be met.

Having taught for some years and also having been a student, I know how these things work. They ply kids with junk prizes to sell their junk and make them feel like it’s one of their responsibilities to raise money for their school. As Paul astutely pointed on on Twitter, there are a lot of adults in the school who can write grant proposals or even post on DonorsChoose.org. Why we have to make children feel like they have to sell junk or they don’t care about their school, I can’t understand. I would have less a problem with a PayPal donation button on the school’s website than with this sort of fundraiser.

It may seem weird, but I exclude Girl Scout Cookies from this sort of ire. I think because the emphasis is less on crappy prizes (and theirs are crappy, too), but some things I think Girl Scouts get right about these fundraisers that schools get wrong include the following:

  • The product has appeal. I think the cookies are overpriced, but for a once-a-year treat for something I can’t really get elsewhere, it doesn’t bother me. I can buy cheese logs, frozen cookie dough, and wrapping paper much cheaper elsewhere, and the only incentive I have to buy from the schools is to support the schools.
  • At least in my daughter’s experience, there has been no pressure to be responsible for selling. My daughter’s troop leaders have established cookie accounts. Money the girls raise by selling cookies goes into those accounts and is used, if the girls wish, to pay for activities, such as camping and trips. They are not made to feel as if they are letting the troop down or causing the troop not to be able to do something by not selling cookies. They are encouraged to sell, but they aren’t guilted into it.
  • The prize is not the goal. Girls can earn prizes for selling cookies, and they’re as unimpressive as prizes for any other fundraiser, but the goal is to raise money for activities (which is the point of fundraisers), and my daughter’s troop leaders, at any rate, make that clear in the minds of their girls. And their troop sold the most cookies of any troop in our city, so something about the approach is working. My kids never know why they’re selling products for the school—only that that should.

I am certainly not anti-technology, and I support my school raising funds to purchase interactive whiteboards. I love being able to use one at school, myself. But I think there are vastly better ways of going about it than to push fundraisers on our kids.

Creative Commons License photo credit: mdanys

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Question: Google Apps for Education Contact Lists

WhyMy school is using Google Apps for Education.

We are looking for a solution to a problem that is proving rather sticky. We have several contact lists that we maintain. For example, we have lists for all 9th grade parents, all 10th grade parents, and so on. All of the students, faculty and staff have email addresses in our domain, and they appear automatically in our contact, but we can easily make groups or contact lists from those emails. The parents do not appear in our domain as they are not given addresses on our school’s domain.

Does anyone know of a solution that allows Google Apps for Education users to create contact lists that could be updated globally so that each user in the system would not have to update every single change? We are trying to minimize the number of people who make global changes (such as when we add a transfer student’s parental emails or when a parent changes their email). CSV files are proving to be rather cumbersome, and they also do not allow for quick global changes.

Right now, we don’t know of a way for a single user to add a contact and share it with everyone on our domain using native Google Apps tools, which means we would have to continue to load CSV files or keep some separate list. This solution is not ideal mainly because of the support we would need to provide faculty and staff as well as the increased opportunity for errors to creep in.

If you have a solution, can you brief me on it in the comments and provide any relevant links as well as personal experience with the tool(s)?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Tintin44 – Sylvain Masson

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Why, Microsoft?

Frustration (was: threesixtyfive | day 244)Microsoft, can you please tell me why you felt it was necessary to change the default line spacing to 10 pts. after a line? The default should be 0 pts., and if a user wants to change it, they can change it. I have to teach my students how to make this change every time they write a paper. Now that we are standardizing Word 2010 at my school, I can see I will need to help faculty and staff change this default, too. I cannot think of a single defensible reason for monkeying with this particular default feature, which prior to Word 2007, was always 0 pts.

Correct formatting for MLA (and every other style I can think of) calls for double-spaced line-spacing, and this setting you changed introduces extra space after each paragraph. You have introduced incorrect formatting by default and have forced users to change this default in order to correctly format their writing. That is not user-friendly, and it is not cool.

Also, I hate Calibri.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Sybren A. Stüvel

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Is Snape a Bad Teacher?

Trust SnapeSeverus Snape can be a nasty piece of work, can’t he? He happens to be my favorite character in the Harry Potter series, but I admit much of my affection for him may be down to Alan Rickman’s portrayal. As J. K. Rowling herself has said of Snape, he’s not a nice guy. My daughter Maggie and I are reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and we just finished the chapter in which Snape finds the Marauders’ Map and is subsequently insulted by it. Each time I re-read this series, I pick up on nuances I missed before. This time, I noticed Snape seems to know exactly who Messrs. Moony, Padfoot, Wormtail, and Prongs are, though Lupin plays dumb as though he assumes Snape couldn’t have known the nicknames he and his friends used in school. Lupin also seems to be using Occlumency on Snape—Harry notices Lupin’s face goes blank and guesses he must be doing some “quick thinking.” Of course, none of this is exactly the point of my post. With all the hubub surrounding the release of the final Harry Potter movie, and Snape’s vindication (as well as Alan Rickman’s performance) making news for those who hadn’t read the final book, I thought it might be interesting to examine his skills as a teacher.

Most people will read the title and wonder how it’s even in question. After all, Snape is sarcastic and bullies students who are afraid of him (Neville). He is disrespectful to his colleagues (Lupin) in front of their students. He favors students in his own house, Slytherin. He takes away points and gives detentions, sometimes for hardly any reason. Is there anything good about him?

As we learn in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape has been protecting Harry out of love for Harry’s mother, and he has taken on the seriously dangerous role of double agent in defiance of the most dangerous dark wizard in recent memory. But what about his teaching? Does he do anything right?

Harry inherits Snape’s old Potions text in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It quickly becomes clear that the notes in the text teach Harry more than he has learned from Professor Slughorn, and he quickly becomes a star in Potions class. It occurred to me that though Harry buys a reference text for Snape’s class (1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi), any time students are brewing potions, he puts instructions on a chalkboard rather than having students read out of a text, as Professor Slughorn does. One can assume he is sharing his recipe refinements with the class, and perhaps if he didn’t scare them so badly as they worked, they might produce the same quality work as Harry does using Snape’s text in sixth year. Dolores Umbridge questions whether he might not be challenging his students too much—she mentions the Strengthening Solution students are preparing when she observes his lesson as being inappropriate for the students. Snape is also capable of brewing immensely complex potions, such as the Wolfsbane Potion he brews for Lupin during his tenure at Hogwarts. He also is able to brew some concoction that extends Dumbledore’s life after he tangles with the Horcrux made from the Resurrection Stone/Peverell ring belonging to Marvolo Gaunt. Sirius Black reports that Snape arrived at Hogwarts knowing more curses than many seventh-year students, and it is clear from his Potions text that even as a student, he was inventing spells and curses.

Hermione compares Snape’s teaching of Defense Against the Dark Arts to Harry’s teaching of the DA. She mentions they both speak about the Dark Arts with reverence for the sort of power and harm it can cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Snape is the only Death Eater described as using a Patronus charm. In addition, as Snape is escaping Hogwarts after killing Dumbledore (by agreement with Dumbledore), and Harry is chasing him, Snape easily deflects all the curses Harry attempts to hit him with and leaves him with what I feel is extremely important advice: that Harry needs to work on nonverbal spells so that he will have an advantage as he gears up to face Voldemort. I don’t think Harry recognized it as such at the time—he wasn’t in any situation to take instruction from Snape at that moment—but it does become important later. In addition to attempting to teach Harry nonverbal spells, Snape also attempts to teach Harry Occlumency so that he can close his mind against Voldemort, one of the most accomplished Legilimens. Though Harry doesn’t master either nonverbal spells or Occlumency under Snape’s tutelage, he does learn the disarming spell, Expelliarmus, at the dueling club meeting run by Professors Lockhart and Snape. Harry uses this spell in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Voldemort rises again and attacks Harry in the Little Hangleton graveyard. It later becomes his signature. Later, he uses it to defeat Voldemort utterly. A spell to disarm rather than attack—I’ve always found it interesting that Snape chose to demonstrate that particular spell at the dueling club. You can say what you like about his personality, but you can’t deny he knows his subject matter—both Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Knowing one’s subject matter does not necessarily make one a great teacher, however.

Snape has several faults that prevent him from being a good teacher. But it could be argued that he is certainly one of Harry’s most important and effective teachers, and perhaps one of the teachers Harry learns most from.

Image credit: You the doormat, then?

Notes on this post:

  1. I am kind of proud to say I didn’t look up anything except whether it was 1,000 or 1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi as I wrote this post. I have apparently read this series rather closely. I also Googled some links I share in note 4.
  2. I keep a Severus Snape action figure on my desk and have a Lego Snape keychain. I’m a big fan.
  3. I hope I didn’t annoy readers too much with this bit of Harry Potter indulgence.
  4. The chemistry teacher J. K. Rowling based Snape on died a few months ago of cancer. He had a good sense of humor about his influence on Snape.

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Banish the Whole-Class Novel?

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons License photo credit: church mouth

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The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins

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

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

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

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

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Girls in Tech

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons License photo credit: Picture Youth.

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Indie Writing

Be seeing you

Writing is hard work, but finding a publisher for your writing in this market might be almost as hard—maybe harder. And yet many people frown on writers who self-publish. Even some of the best writers of classic literature have paid to have their books published in the past—Jane Austen’s father sent First Impressions, an early version of Pride and Prejudice, to Thomas Cadell in London and asked if it might be published at the author’s expense. All of her novels, with the exception of Pride and Prejudice, were published “on commission,” or at the author’s own financial risk. But paying for publication through so-called vanity presses isn’t necessary anymore, either. Nowadays, writers can take publication in their own hands. They can create books using services such as Lulu and Kindle Direct Publishing, and software such as Calibre. Writers can publish their own books in print or e-book format.

Self-publishing requires a shift in thinking, and I had to change the way I viewed it as well. Several years ago, I decided that I wouldn’t have time to keep sending my manuscript out to publishers, to find an agent, or to keep at it the way I knew I should if I wanted my book published. I have a demanding full-time job (if you read this blog, you know that because you probably have the same job—and I’m convinced that there are at least three Jim Burke clones). It’s not that I don’t want my book published by a large house—it’s just that the whole process is frustrating when I just want people to read my book. Enter the concept of the indie writer.

I wish I had made up the concept of the indie writer, but I did a Google search, and of course, there is nothing new under the sun. Thinking of myself as an indie writer shifted my perception of self-publishing. When I was in high school and college, my crowd included a lot of musicians. One thing musicians do is try to find gigs wherever they can and create their own CD’s (nowadays, I suppose they create mp3′s) and sell them at their gigs or on sites like CD Baby. No one looks down on them for that. It’s considered a great way to put your music in the hands of listeners. Of course, if a record company (is that term outdated now?) comes calling with a big contract, then you’ve made it. Some people actually prefer indie music because they love supporting local bands or musicians who are working to generate publicity for their art. But you know, we frown on writers for trying the same thing. What is wrong with publishing your own books, just to put them in readers’ hands? Writers can and have spent decades working to publish their work. John Kennedy Toole’s mother famously spent eleven years trying to attract publishers’ attention for her son’s classic A Confederacy of Dunces. Once it was published, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Publishers are notoriously leery of unpublished writers. Publishing a book is a huge risk for a company in an industry that is struggling. But just as indie bands can attract attention to their music through making their own CD’s and mp3′s, writers can also attract attention through self-publication. Brunonia Barry’s novel The Lace Reader was self-published and became a book club favorite. Eventually, it was picked up by HarperCollins.

Does it necessarily follow that an indie writer’s work will find a home at a large publishing house? No. Not all indie bands make it big, do they? But more people will read my work if I put it out there than will if it languishes on my laptop. To that end, if you want to support an indie writer, you can download my book A Question of Honor in the following formats:

It is the story of a young woman in medieval Wales who takes on her mother’s healing practice and finds herself in over her head the first time she delivers a child. When she is accused of a horrible crime, she runs to her father’s homeland in Scotland. She meets a ragtag group of minstrels on the way, and she wonders if she will ever see the young man she’s in love with again. Meanwhile, her grandfather in Scotland has definite plans for his granddaughter, and it turns out she has a sister she never knew about, too. She begins to wonder if she might be better off returning to Wales and facing the music, but she fears the consequences.

Look for another book soon. I need to do some editing. Also, I am trying to prepare an e-pub version of A Question of Honor, so look for that soon if you need e-pub. The print and PDF versions will give you the nicest layout. I am still learning how to lay out a book for Kindle, and while the book file is readable, it has a few quirks that I am working on fixing.

This post is cross-posted at my reading blog, Much Madness is Divinest Sense. If you want to continue to follow my creative writing efforts, you might want to check in at Much Madness is Divinest Sense.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Olivander

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NCTE Help!

I am scheduled to present a session on the Hero’s Journey with colleagues Paul Hankins, Glenda Funk, and Ami Szerencse at NCTE this November. It does not look like my school is going to fund my trip. Unfortunately, I am not able to afford to pay for the expenses without some help. I am asking for your help, if you feel so inclined.

Send Dana to NCTE

Here’s how you can help. If you have found an idea I’ve shared helpful or useful, or if you have downloaded handouts provided freely, and if you think helping to send me to NCTE would be a good investment for your dollar in terms of continued content, I would be grateful for your donation. If you know of a scholarship or some way that teachers can obtain assistance to travel to the conference, I would love to hear about it. I am open to any suggestions (DonorsChoose is out as I am a private school teacher).

Meanwhile, I will keep you updated regarding my progress toward reaching my funding goal.  You can find this button in the future in the sidebar along with the progress toward my goal.





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Negativity PSA

Folks, I have received two comments lately in which teachers have shared their belief that I’m lucky to be able to get to the literature part of teaching. I published the first. The second was linked to a site that made me wonder if the comment might be spam. In any case, if you do not enjoy teaching where you are teaching, please remember that this blog is not your forum to complain about your job. I think that’s not very wise anyway, but even so, if you have problems with your job, there is little complaining here about it can do to resolve the situation, and such comments do nothing to further conversation here.

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