Some Questions

sensitive noise / obvious 2I work in a private school and don’t have any plans to change that—certainly not anytime soon. I feel like I am on the sidelines in this great education debate. I see the comments on Twitter and read the blogs. But I have some questions.

If teachers’ unions are horrible organizations who protect bad teachers from being fired, why don’t all the students without teachers’ unions, including my own, outperform states with unions? One would think that if the unions are the problem, then states without them would have the best teachers in place, and therefore would have the highest test scores.

Why are we doing this to kids?

Why does everyone think charter schools are the answer? One where I interviewed some years ago wanted to pay me about $7,000 a year less than I was making at the time. Surely they’re not going to attract the best teachers if they will not pay the teachers a wage commensurate with what they could make elsewhere… right?

If testing kids is the answer for teacher accountability, why is it that my school’s students have managed to be as successful in college and work as students with this testing background when we only administer the PSAT and AP tests? (We encourage SAT and/or ACT.) I mean, shouldn’t it follow that my colleagues and I aren’t really being held accountable enough and that our students might somehow be slipping through the cracks?

What am I missing?

Creative Commons License photo credit: milos milosevic

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My Life as a Reader

Thriller readerI have been a terrible blogger lately. I’m sorry—grad school, work, and home responsibilities don’t leave me much time, it’s true, but if I am honest, blogging feels a lot like work lately. Unless I’m blogging about my reading, that is.

Melanie Holtsman has come to my rescue. Dedicated to becoming a more frequent blogger, she has provided a list of topics for participants to use on their own blogs. It’s the 11th, so I’m one day off from the first topic, but I’m writing about it anyway.

What is your life as a reader like? Do you read for work, pleasure, instructions or emails? What is your favorite author and/or genre? What is your favorite reading spot? What did you like to read when you were the age of your students?

You want to know what my reading life is really like? Check out my book blog. I have an RSS feed in the right-hand sidebar if you want to see a teaser of the last five posts. I have enjoyed the heck out of writing about my reading, especially over the last few months. I try to read a little bit every single day. The grouchiest I’ve ever been was during a long period of time when the professional development courses, work responsibilities, and other intrusions prevented me from reading anything for pleasure for a couple of months. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me until I remembered I hadn’t been able to read. Reading feeds my soul. I certainly read for professional growth, but I have to read fiction and nonfiction regularly. My favorite writing comfort food is Jane Austen. I know if I read her books, everything will be all right in the end. However, it’s hard for me to say I have a favorite writer. I love so many books and so many authors. I love the written word. I like many different genres, but I don’t read much mystery, horror, or romance. I love historical fiction. My favorite place to read is in my bed, curled up under the blanket. When I was in high school, I liked to read YA fiction, mostly. Favorites included Judy Blume and Lois Duncan. I also liked to read poetry quite a lot more then than I do now. Shelley was my favorite. I have had a bit of a crush on Shelley for about 21 years now. I read books required for school when I could finish them on time—which wasn’t often the case. I try to remember that when I assign reading in my own classes.

Creative Commons License photo credit: notfrancois

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Risha Mullins and Censorship

Banned Books Week 2010 PosterDrop everything and go read this post at Risha Mullins’s blog.

It is amazing to me that with the evidence in their hands that what Mullins was doing was working, the principal and superintendent—and even department members—railroaded Mullins into quitting. She is a brave person, and I admire her grace under fire. If I were a school administrator, her willingness to stand up for her kids and their learning would make we want to hire her.

I have never been in her shoes, and I pray I never will be. Donalyn Miller said last week on Twitter that she noticed it seems to be parents who don’t read who challenge books, and I think it’s very true. The parents at my school are very literate and supportive of their children reading. I am grateful every day for the place where I teach, the students I teach, and the parents that support my students’ learning.

Creative Commons License photo credit: ALA – The American Library Association

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Tony Danza Teaches English

Tony Danza and class in Teach

I’ve written about Tony Danza’s latest project Teach before. The series will begin airing on A&E in October. Playing around with students’ education is not appropriate for a reality show, in my opinion; however, it should be said that Danza seems to “get it” and is not completely without teaching qualifications—his IMDb bio indicates he has a bachelor’s in History Education.

I am finding myself too busy to blog, but you can find me on Twitter most days. Sorry! It will settle down soon. I do potentially graduate from Virginia Tech with my master’s this December. After that, I might actually have time. Yeah, probably not. I’m working on my portfolio right now and feeling a little lost. Sometimes having too much freedom can be as crippling as not having enough.

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#EngChat

TwitterI wanted to let everyone know that I will be hosting a discussion about integrating technology into the English curriculum on #engchat this Monday, August 30, from 7:00 P.M. to 8:00 P.M. EDT. For those of you who are unfamiliar with #engchat, it’s a regular forum on Twitter for English teachers to talk about various issues related to the teaching of English. For example, one past discussion centered around vocabulary instruction. Jim Burke has hosted a discussion on how we create community in the English classroom.

Honestly, I had to try Twitter myself before I could be convinced of its usefulness because it appears to be a giant, narcissistic time-suck from the outside; however, if you follow smart people talking about interesting things, it’s a great way to learn. If you haven’t tried Twitter before, following the discussion on #engchat might be a good introduction. Also, if you are interested in how we go about integrating technology in the English curriculum, I invite you to join us. English teachers sometimes get a bad rap as the dinosaurs who miss ditto machines and chalkboards. A commenter on a blog I used to contribute to once noted that English teachers are usually the most resistant to technology (actually, the problem was that my buddy Joe Scotese and I didn’t agree with what he said about it). Is that true? Is it fair? Why do people feel that way about us? English teachers are doing exciting things! I am so tired of hearing we teach like we just stepped out a time machine from the 1850’s.

In other news, I am more frustrated than I can express over the lack of time I seem to have to blog. Reflection here has become essential to my growth and well-being as an English teacher, and with school starting up, I’m exhausted every day. Between school and home duties yesterday, my day was 14 hours long. You know you’re tired when you can stop after the first chapter of The Hunger Games not because you’re not dying to see what happens next, but because even though you’re dying to see what happens, you’re too exhausted to read.

It’s about balance, and if I ever figure out how to do it, I will let you know my secret. Or else I will not let you know my secret unless you pay me. I’d make a mint.

Creative Commons License photo credit:  Mark Pannell

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I Just Tried It

Wednesday is supposed to be my day for sharing ideas, lessons or tools according to my new schedule, but I’m going to put that off because something happened today that made me think, or rather made me put together some thoughts I’d already been playing with.

All three of my children are artists. My eldest daughter, Sarah, is a gifted artist. The other two are learning from her and following in her footsteps. Maggie, my middle daughter, watches and reads art tutorials online and in print. Her sister taught her some techniques. Maggie’s art teacher remarked at the end of last year that she is awfully young to have developed such a unique style. Dylan has only recently begun serious experimenting with art, but he is also showing a true gift for creating. I don’t think of myself as an artist because I could never quite make my drawings look like what I wanted them to look like. My kids don’t have that problem. They also draw and draw and draw. They experiment. We learned the other day that Maggie knows how to make screencasts. She can’t really even explain how she does it. To hear her tell it, she just turns on HyperCam and does it. She said she learned about HyperCam from watching other videos and seeing the words “unregistered HyperCam” on them. She wondered what HyperCam was, and in her words, “I decided I better go figure it out.” And so she just did it.

I remarked to my husband that kids are like that. They don’t worry about learning how to do something first. They just do it. I compared it to teachers I’ve talked to who are afraid to blog, to put themselves out there in that way. The way a kid would approach it is to just do it and not worry so much about it.

Today we drove down to visit my parents in Macon. My sister is also visiting. She is going to be moving to Okinawa shortly, and it might be a long time before I see her again. Her five-year-old daughter has a Nintendo DS. She was playing a game, and she showed my sister a new trick she had learned. My sister said, “How did you learn how to do that? I don’t even know how to do that.” My niece replied, “I didn’t learn it; I just tried it.”

It reminded me of my kids and their art. They don’t see what they create as learning. They see it as doing. Partly because of school, and partly because of self-consciousness, I think we lose that perspective as we grow. Maybe it’s around middle school when we start worrying so much about what our peers think about us and consequently become afraid to put ourselves out there. Maybe it’s because over time learning seems to become less and less about doing and more and more about listening.

What do we need to do in our classrooms so that our students feel more like their not so much learning, but just trying and doing? I know, I know. Trying and doing is learning. And yet my five-year-old niece, who hasn’t even started kindergarten, already makes a distinction between them.

I don’t know. Just throwing some of my thinking out there.

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Rudeness

I think many people don’t understand the nature of blogs. I sometimes see typos on blogs, and I don’t make judgments about intellect. I make the occasional typo. It happens. However, I have received one comment and one e-mail lately that alerted me to a larger issue than whether or not Dana can spell (I can, by the way): it’s rudeness. Here is the text of an e-mail I received today:

This article was passed along to the faculty from the powers that be in our middle school. While I disagree with your homework policy and I hope that you have followed up on your thoughts to revamp your policy, this is not the purpose of my writing. My concern is that in this day and age of technology and spell-checking, that you would post an article that had words that weren’t spelled correctly. These words include “respondant” and ‘commenters”. If we have such high standards for our students, then shouldn’t we set the example?

Here is my response:

Thank you for your concern. Typos sometimes happen, and people make mistakes. When people point out my errors, I correct them, and I am grateful for the assistance. I certainly don’t lay down the hammer for a couple of spelling errors or typos in my students’ writing, even if I do point them out.

I have checked the blog post, and I did indeed make a spelling mistake with “respondents.” “Commenters,” on the other hand, is spelled correctly, though spell check marks it as incorrect, likely because it is a word that has arisen in this new age of blogs and spell check doesn’t know what to do with it. “Commenter,” the singular, yields no red flags from spell check.

I truthfully think the manner in which you pointed out my error (while I appreciate it) was rude, which I find much more problematic in this day and age than the fact that I spelled something incorrectly. Of course, tone can also be difficult to convey online, and I could be mistaken.

I am grateful if people point out an error I made. My husband catches most of mine. Here is an example of a way to handle identifying an error in someone’s spelling without resorting to the rudeness of “in this day and age” (read: you’re a moron for making this mistake):

I noticed a spelling error in your article entitled “Accepting Late Work” and I thought you might like to know about it. The word “respondents” is spelled “respondants” in your article.

I wonder why that’s so hard “in this day and age”?

Oh, wait.

Internet Argument

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Autism and Asperger’s

Twelve-year-old Joshua Littman, who has Asperger’s (a form of autism), interviews his mother Sarah.

Watch first, then read what I have to say below.

My son is autistic, and his older sister has Asperger’s. I’m fairly certain my oldest daughter has Asperger’s, too. Autism and Asperger’s are a fact of life around my house. I have noticed that because of my experiences with my children, I am a much better teacher to my students with Asperger’s.

When Joshua expresses here his concern that people like his sister Amy better, I love his mother’s answer. She does not sugar-coat it. She’s honest, but she explains why people have the reaction that they do to Joshua. That heartrending question of whether he was the son that his mother expected, whether he met her expectations, is something that I have thought about a lot over the last year or so.

With my son, I live in the moment, and I don’t think a lot about his future. I don’t think about whether he will have a wife, children, a career. In fact, I don’t think about these things with my daughters, either. I think about where they are now and where they have been. I can’t explain why because normally I think ahead a lot. I imagine future trips to places I want to go. I think about things I want to teach and how I will teach them. I worry over retirement, which is some time away for me. But the point is that I think about my future all the time.

I cannot honestly say that I expected to have children on the autism-spectrum. I had no reason to suspect that I would. But in many ways, just like Joshua has with Sarah, they have exceeded my expectations. I could not imagine them other than how they are, and I’m so proud of who they are and how far they have come. I love them as they are, and I wouldn’t want them to be different. It isn’t that it’s easy. In fact, parenting my children is pretty hard sometimes.

But I got to see my son, who didn’t talk until he was four, teach himself to read and write, and eventually learn to talk. He tells knock-knock jokes. He tells complete strangers “hi.” Sure, he gets in their personal space and misreads their social cues when he does it. He’s a funny, sweet little person, though.

My middle daughter has an advanced vocabulary and a gift for art. My oldest is an extremely accomplished artist and writer.

They are all eccentric, quirky people, and they make me laugh. Life can be hard for them because of their social problems. They can be blunt to the point of hurting your feelings.

If there is one thing I could wish for them, when I do think about their futures, it’s that they will have teachers and friends that understand and accept them. They have so much to give, and I think their teachers and friends can learn from them in the ways that I have.

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Teaching Presentation Skills

Please take a minute to respond if you have insight, feedback, or strong feelings about teaching presentations. I could use some help.

My ninth graders gave presentations this week. Here are some things I noticed:

  • They talked to the screen (SMARTBoard) instead of to their audience.
  • They appeared to be reading their presentations for the first time; they didn’t have a facility or familiarity with their topic.
  • They crowded their slides with clashing colors, animated gifs, and too much text.

I realize that students should be taught how to present, but everything I learned about presenting I dug around and found online. Here’s a good example.

I admit I feel frustrated because so much already falls on the English department, and I cannot be the only teacher who is asking students to present. I just don’t believe that. I also admit it didn’t occur to me to do direct instruction in teaching presentations—a mistake I will not make again, I assure you. So how would you recommend teaching students good presentation skills?

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Choice and Reading

YouTube Preview Image

I showed my students this video and asked them to journal their reactions to it. Here are some selections from their journals:

I think every high school student relates to these students in some sort of way. As time goes on, and hew and more entertaining technology is invented, reading becomes more tedious than entertaining. If I am forced to read a book that I can’t relate to or understand, of course I will get bored and most likely give up on it. Now on the other hand, I read books on programming and starting businesses all the time, and really enjoy reading them. Just like these students, I would have to say, if teachers gave students the option to choose what they read, kids would enjoy reading a lot more and become better readers. Because of school, reading has gotten a bad name to kids and even some adults. If it wasn’t for my father introducing me to my first book on programming and first book on how to start a business, I don’t think I’d ever pick up a book in my life.

A great example of finding a niche you enjoy, I think.

I think the reason that teenagers around the world do not read as much as teenagers used to read in the past is because of the new and advanced technology. Teenagers go on Facebook or watch TV on their free time instead of reading and it definitely takes a big amount of time (and doesn’t have time for reading). Personally, I wish I could read more because I love it and I think it helps me to widen my knowledge and think of aspects in life in a different way.

Personal note of pride: that last student came into my English class two years ago in February of her 9th grade year with no English. None.

I agree with the fact that it is more enjoyable to read something you’re interested in or chose yourself. Another point I would add is that reading on your own is nicer because you can read at your own pace and when there is no pressure I tend to read more.

As I slow reader myself (I often really did want to finish books assigned in school and couldn’t), I can relate to this student. What do we do about that problem in light of the limited time we have in school?

I stopped reading in 8th grade, too. Then I picked books I was interested in (10th, 11th grade) and books were an amazing source because if you forget a part you can go back to it which is just the opposite of what you can do when listening to someone talk. I completely agree with the students in the video. I think what stops people to read is that they are filling a cup they do not have. That cup is the interest and without it your energy is used for something you think is pointless. I started out reading Frankenstein [a recent required read in my Brit. Lit. classes] with apathy and then I started thinking, why not enjoy this? So I took the info. and used it to gain knowledge and expand my thinking.

This student’s cup analogy is interesting in light of the image of futility it provides.

The message in this video was that forcing people to read books that they do not like then they will not read them.

  • Teens need to read.
  • People read more if they like the book.
  • People use SparkNotes if they do not want to read or use what their peers say.
  • More important to read than read classics.
  • People who like the books will read more of them.
  • Classics are okay but what you like to read is better to read.

This student really summed up the video’s main points well because I think he agreed with them though he didn’t say so explicitly.

I believe that the video was very true. I never read for fun. I think if the teacher would let the kids read what they would choose to read, more kids would read. I read all 3 summer reading books for the first time ever, the books were all boring but I still read them. I usually read 1 or 1.5 summer reading books just because they are so boring & I have better things to do.

I do pick up on a feeling of accomplishment regarding completing freshmen year summer reading.

The video is very true. I read books quicker when I like it. The Things They Carried [a summer reading selection] took me forever. Even though I was at camp, I could never get into it. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time took me not even one night & Saturday morning to read. Though it was shorter, I enjoyed reading it more and it made me enjoy reading. It doesn’t matter what we read because reading in general stimulates our brain cells and benefits our writing and the way we think. Classics might help teach morals & provide philosophical ways of thinking, but they are overrated.

The first thought that leaps to mind is that if this poor student of mine has been convinced somehow that classics should be read so that we can learn morals and widen our philosophy, it’s really no wonder he doesn’t like them.

I also have some students who were more critical of the video:

I do not trust the credibility of this video for the following reasons:

  • The data gathered for this video was taken from only one high school.
  • Never showed an interview where a child actually read the assigned books.
  • In the video the person who didn’t read the book talks about how they understood what happened by gathering information from what people in said in class discussions. This means that someone in that class read the book and understood it enough to discuss it.

Even though the credibility of this video is in question, I do believe that they are trying to get across a valid point. If someone likes what they are reading then they will most likely read the entire thing. Also if you let them choose what they are going to read they would likely read it.

I love the way that student really thought carefully about the validity of the message, even though he agreed with it.

In my opinion, these students are whiners. I honestly think that classics are important as they reflect the time in which they were made. You don’t want to do math, but you do it anyway. Reading is made out to be such a chore these days. Reading is television for the mind. What is wrong with that? Come on, people. Grow up and just read the darn book! I mean, my God! Complain! Complain! Complain! Now how do I, who is not a genius, manage to read books for skill and books for fun at the same time?

While I admire this student’s sentiments and have shared them from time to time, is it me, or does reading sound like medicine you need to take, so it’s better to just man up and take it?

Our school is examining ways to bring more student choice into the curriculum. We have no plans to eliminate required reading as a class, but more independent reading reflecting student choice and literature circles are options we are exploring. What is your school doing to encourage more reading and foster lifelong reading habits?

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