How much academic freedom do you have at your school?
In most places where I have worked, I have had some, but nowhere have I had as much as I do at the Weber School. In most places, if I wanted to teach a book that was not in the curriculum, a process was in place to evaluate the book, and in the end, I may or may not be able to teach it. In my first teaching position, I had a great deal of freedom because the school was in a state of disarray. I ordered a set of To Kill a Mockingbird books, and the purchase order was signed without question. In the second position, I needed to use the books I already had in my classroom for my Honors students, and I needed to use what we had in the book room for the others. In most places that meant I had some choice. I did not have to teach book X during time slot Y, but there were certain non-negotiables. I couldn’t choose to skip Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade, for instance, but my novel selection might be The Pigman or it might be something else.
While it’s still true that there are certain non-negotiables regarding works such as Romeo and Juliet, The Odyssey, and the like, I have more choice in my current position. If I wanted to introduce a new book in my course, I could order it for the following year, and there would be no real process aside from ordering it. Our school orders paperback copies of novels and other consumable texts so that students may annotate. I am hoping down the road we can do more with Kindles, which would be cheaper to order for each student than copies of the texts we use.
I have, however, heard of some schools in which teachers follow what amounts to a scripted curriculum and need to be on a certain page on a certain day and have no choice regarding texts they teach. While such a curriculum ensures that students will be exposed to certain things on a defined timetable, it takes away creativity and doesn’t play to a teacher’s passions. I couldn’t teach like that. photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography
I know I said I would talk about tools on Wednesdays, but something came up. A student left a comment on my book blog post “Do You Hate Holden Caulfield?” It seems he had a rather negative (or I should say perceived it was negative) experience. If I understand his comment correctly, he felt silenced in the class discussion because he did not agree with his teacher’s opinion, and he had previously seen his teacher shut one of his peers down for voicing a contrary opinion.
Obviously I was not a member of the class, and I don’t know what was said. I told the student that what I thought had happened was the teacher really enjoys this book and wants students to enjoy it, too. It can be hard when students don’t love the books we love. But we shouldn’t dismiss opinions because they are different from our own. Students do not have the learning and the background with our subjects that we have, and they can make judgments based on much less information than we have. I think it’s our job to challenge students to explain why they make those judgments rather than attacking them for being “wrong.” I think they learn better from us if they feel listened to. I want to emphasize that I don’t know what happened in that classroom, but it sounded to me as if the student was describing a classroom in which he didn’t feel free to share his own conclusions. What he asked me was whether it was OK or right to hate Holden. I gave him my permission, for whatever it’s worth, and I shared my own journey with that character.
I will never forget sharing in an English Education assignment that I didn’t particularly like T.S. Eliot. I guess I hit a nerve because my professor treated me to an embarrassing public lecture on why I was wrong. I still don’t particularly like Eliot, but I understand his importance, and when he comes up in my curriculum, I teach my students to appreciate his work. But all that lecture did is make me dislike Eliot more, and it’s not poor Eliot’s fault.
So how can we share books we love with students and give them permission NOT to love them? How can we challenge them to justify their judgments? I think you should start by being honest with your students about your feelings for a book. They are surprisingly gentle (or at least, my own students have been—your mileage may vary considerably). I think the last message we want to send our students, however uninformed or incorrect we feel they may be, is that their opinions really don’t matter.
The investigation into the blogging of Pennsylvania teacher Natalie Munroe has generated a great deal of discussion about whether teachers should blog or what they should blog about, while Munroe contends she’s done nothing wrong and hopes the attention her blog has received will encourage debate about the more difficult aspects of teaching. I have read some of the cached comments Munroe made on her blog. My own advice would have have been not to express such sentiments in a public forum, such as a blog.
Teaching can be frustrating, and I think it does help to vent sometimes, but it’s important to remember that even if we feel our blogs are small and unlikely to attract notice, as Munroe did, or even if we believe we are anonymous, we are putting information out there into the ether, and I think Munroe would certainly agree that once it’s out there, it’s hard to erase it, especially as caches and archives make it difficult to ensure no copies exist somewhere.
One of the more frightening responses I can imagine administrators might have to this story is to ban their teachers from blogging lest they lose their jobs. I think teachers need a voice to talk about education and to share their ideas. If you are considering blogging or are already blogging and are now hesitant to move forward after hearing about this story, I would advise the following:
Don’t count on remaining anonymous if you choose a pseudonym. In fact, I have long contended that teachers should blog under their real names.
Don’t blog negatively about your students. However frustrated you may feel, think about how you would feel to read a teacher’s disparaging remarks about you online, even if no names were used.
Don’t blog negatively about colleagues or administrators. I think that’s just asking to get fired.
Pay attention to language, tone, subject matter—fair or not, teachers are held to a higher standard regarding public persona.
Don’t give up. Building a readership takes time. You can encourage others to check out your blog by commenting on theirs and linking to their blogs in posts and/or blogrolls.
Try to update consistently, but don’t stress out if you can’t. I know I’ve lost readership as my posts have become less regular, but I had to cut back for a variety of reasons.
Figure out what you want to do with your blog—reflect? share? interact with others? Blogs usually do better with some sort of aim or niche, but you need not feel confined to discussing only that subject.
Keep the conversation respectful. Making a lot of noise and attacking other bloggers might get you attention. The wrong kind, in my opinion. People won’t listen to you if you’re rude and nasty.
Trust your common sense. If you wouldn’t say it at work in front on colleagues, students, administrators, or parents, you should probably not say it online.
Should Natalie Munroe lose her job over her blog? Well, indications are that her school had no blogging policy that she violated. I’m pretty sure they will now, and it’s likely to be a draconian one that prevents teacher voices from being heard, which is unfortunate. I don’t know the context of the comments she made, but on the surface, it’s an issue of professionalism. That said, I’ve had my own comments taken out of context and exaggerated, and I really wish I’d never made them in the first place, but I own up to having made some of the mistakes I’m advising you to steer clear of. Not all of them, sure. And that’s perhaps why I’ve managed to stay out of trouble at work.
What advice would you give? What did I miss? If you’ve been following the Munroe story, what do you think?
Tony Danza and I made the same mistake. The first day I took over a class as student teacher, I did all the talking. I was hoarse at the end of the day. My mentor teacher never said anything directly to me. She quietly put a cough drop in my hand. The message couldn’t have been clearer. It made me wonder how common that mistake is. Did you do it, too?
One of the things I like about this show so far is the respect Danza shows toward teachers and teaching. It is a hard job. I like his principal. I like the fact that she feels strongly about her students’ education and leveled with Danza from the get-go. One of the things you don’t see in a series like this, however, is that as hard as teaching just one class is, or having one prep is, having five or more is that much more difficult. I have five different preps right now, five different classes. I have always had at least two preps when I have taught high school (I had one prep when I taught middle school). I do like that this program shows how difficult teaching is. I will keep watching, I think. It seems to be one of the more interesting, honest programs about teaching that I’ve seen.
I 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 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?
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.