Category Archives: Recommended Reading

An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger, Chapter 2

An Ethic of ExcellenceThe second chapter of Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence discusses the importance of school culture in student learning. If you have ever worked in a school with a negative school culture, you will find yourself nodding as you read and highlighting several sentences in every paragraph. Reading this chapter, I reflected on the school cultures in several schools where I have worked or attended as a student, and Berger is absolutely right that culture is the bedrock of a successful school. If the school culture does not celebrate excellence and is not a safe place for students to learn (not just safe from physical or mental abuse or bullying but also a safe place for taking risks), then it is nearly impossible for individual teachers and students to hope they can be successful. Several movies about excellent teachers show us examples of teachers who successfully fight against a negative school culture to help their students achieve, but the fact that these teachers have movies about them should tell us how hard it is. If it were easy to fight a negative school culture, we wouldn’t have movies about the teachers who did it.

It did not take long for me to understand that administration is key to establishing a positive school culture. When I was a student teacher, I didn’t really see what, exactly, administrators did all day. It seemed to me that all the important work in schools was done by teachers and students, and administrators mattered very little. I said as much in a journal I wrote as part of an assignment in my English Education program. We had a doctoral student who graded some of our work in that program. She was a veteran English teacher. All she said in response to my journal was “I would be interested to know how you feel about this in a few years.” She didn’t tell me I was naive, but that’s exactly what I was. I kept her comment in mind, and later, when I realized what she meant, I truly felt like an idiot. Unless an administration is behind the culture and is a positive influence on the culture, it’s just not going to happen. Berger begins this chapter by describing visiting a school where the principal clearly didn’t want him there and clearly didn’t want to be there himself. He was marking time until retirement. He refused to meet Berger when Berger visited the school. There are a few teachers who want to hear what Berger has to say because they want change. But, as Berger says about the school, “Conditions are so bad that I hardly know what to say” (33). I actually want to ask Berger about this school when he visits us in preplanning precisely because I have a hunch they are still struggling, if they are still around, because their leadership was unwilling to establish a positive school culture. Their leadership didn’t even want to try. Unless the leadership is willing to make changes, nothing will happen, no matter how earnest the faculty and students are. It is too much of a losing battle to fight. If they were able to make some positive changes, then they likely did it after the principal left the school.

Let me tell you about the cultures of a few schools with which I am familiar.

The first school is a small elementary school. Funding has been slashed to the point that the school has no librarian, but parents volunteer to staff the library. Student artwork adorns the walls. Creativity is celebrated. Students are given the opportunity to engage in a variety of arts: music, visual art, drama, and dance. Sixth graders are paired with kindergarten buddies, much as Berger describes his own school doing. The buddies meet regularly, and the older children serve as mentors and friends. The principal knows students. Every student is accountable. It’s a small school, and students are not lost in the crowd.

The second school is a rural combined middle and high school. Students tend to come from backgrounds that do not celebrate academic achievement. Gangs are problem. Yes, even in this rural school. But the principal largely ignores the major behavior issues in the school and prefers to stick his head in the sand because he’s not sure how to change it, or maybe because he isn’t willing to try. Students threaten violence against teachers, and the students might be suspended, but then they are back, and the teachers and students have that issue hanging in the air. Students lock a teacher out of her classroom, and the principal thinks it’s funny. One of the administrators’ own children leaves a classroom without permission, through the window. Thankfully, the school has one level. An administrator tries to convince a teacher to change a student’s failing average from a 40% to a 70% so he can graduate. Otherwise, she says, he will wind up in jail. He had retaken three courses in that same subject that year, and he needed to pass all three of them. He passed two.

The third school has students are fairly good, for the most part, and they understand the importance of a good education, or at least good grades, but the kind of excellence celebrated at the school is not respect for the excellent work done but rather the grade or AP score achieved. Unfortunately, there is a bully at the helm of the school. Certain teachers and staff are regular targets of verbal and mental abuse. Unfortunately, there is little recourse because the bully is in a leadership position. A great deal of attention is paid to appearances, but the school has a foundation built on sand, and there is little attention paid to the most important aspects of building a positive school community.

The fourth school has collegial, hardworking, intelligent leadership with great ideas. The students are polite and hardworking. They take pride in their work. The school is not only invested in building a strong school culture, but in establishing itself as a positive member of the neighborhood and city community at large. The expectation in the school community is that people help each other out. Doors are held open. People help out with heavy loads. People greet each other warmly. Achievement is celebrated.

It is just about impossible to overstate the importance of establishing a school community that supports all of its constituents. Berger describes how positive peer pressure is a part of his school community, and I have seen positive peer pressure be a force for good in my own experience, as well. When students expect excellence out of each other and hold each other to high standards, you’d be amazed what can happen in a school; as Berger notes, it is a powerful motivator.

Berger says that “Every effective school I’ve seen has a strong sense of community,” even if their resources and settings differ wildly (41). And community only happens when all the stakeholders—faculty, staff, students, parents—have a voice and take pride in being a part of what is happening at the school. Berger describes building a foundation for community, starting with the building. His description of an inner city school he visited is compelling enough to quote in its entirety:

The building was surrounded by trash: fast-food boxes, plastic bags, food, broken bottles, wet newspapers, shopping carts, and needles from drug users. People sat on the curb in front of the school drinking from paper bags; the liquor store was across the street. The building had the architectural look of a prison—massive exterior walls of water-stained concrete with few windows. The front entrance was a battered metal door covered with graffiti; if you banged loudly enough they would buzz you in for inspection by a security guard. The boy’s [sic] bathrooms had stalls with no doors, broken toilet seats, and graffiti on the walls and metal mirrors.

This was an elementary school. (45)

I have to say I nearly jumped out of my seat when I read that last sentence. Can you imagine? As Berger says, “If politicians or business leaders were compelled to send their own children to this school, I would guess we’d see changes in the building fairly soon” (45). He says that “Architects point out that it’s easy to see what is valued in a culture by looking at which structures are built with expense and care” (46). The sad thing about the description of the inner-city school that Berger visited is that I wasn’t shocked that a school like that existed. I was only surprised it was an elementary school. As Berger says, if we are expecting students to go to dilapidated schools that look more like prisons, it is no wonder the schools are underperforming.

I enjoyed reading this chapter a great deal, and I agreed with what Berger says. Building a strong school community is not easy and takes time, but it is important work. It can be done anywhere, even in places with few resources, but it has to start with leadership that cares enough to support the work. And frankly, it isn’t the kind of work that is being supported by a society driven by test data as the only marker of success.

An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger, Chapter 1

An Ethic of ExcellenceThe message of the first chapter of Ron Berger’s book An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students is the importance of student models. I think a lot of educators are afraid to use models because they want student ideas to be original, and they are afraid students will simply copy the models. It is our job as an educator to ensure that they don’t. I think most students really want to be creative and original. Sometimes, however, they don’t know how to start with project until they see how someone else did it. Models give us all something to strive for.

Berger also shares his process for collecting student work. He says, “One of my jobs as a teacher, I feel, is to be an historian of excellence, an archiver of excellence” (29). He doesn’t just use the models and portfolios of student work to show his students. He also uses them to show others what his students have learned and what they can do. Several anecdotes describe the surprise followed quickly by skepticism that others can feel upon seeing his students’ work. If the students are given time to draft, revise, refine, and really wrestle with their learning, they can produce amazing things. I have often found that giving students choices about how to present their learning really awakens them. I have also had students that were much more concerned about their grades than learning and doing excellent work they could be proud of, and that pressure was often external as much as it was internal. Sometimes I really wish we could do away with grades completely, as I think grades become the point of learning instead of learning being the point all on its own.

Another issue Berger describes with great honesty is the fact that his students are mostly white and rural. When he has presented to audiences teaching students of color in urban environments, they are skeptical that their students can do the same great work. Berger says it is about a school’s culture. Teaching is hard no matter where you do it. It’s harder when you don’t have what you need.

When Berger comes to visit our school in preplanning, I hope he brings his students’ work. I have to admit I am curious about it after reading his description of it.

Summer Reading for School

What PD reading are you doing this summer?

I’m reading the following three books:

An Ethic of ExcellenceAn Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students, by Ron Berger. This book is an all-faculty read. Ron Berger will be visiting our school to do some professional development at the beginning of the school year. Here is the jacket blurb: “Drawing from his own remarkable experience as a veteran classroom teacher (still in the classroom), Ron Berger gives us a vision of educational reform that transcends standards, curriculum, and instructional strategies. He argues for a paradigm shift—a schoolwide embrace of an ‘ethic of excellence.’ A master carpenter as well as a gifted teacher, Berger is guided by a craftsman’s passion for quality, describing what’s possible when teachers, students, and parents commit to nothing less than the best. But Berger’s not just idealistic—he tells exactly how this can be done, from the blackboard to the blacktop to the school boardroom.”

How to Read Novels Like a ProfessorHow to Read Novels Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster. I have already read and enjoyed Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I have had this one on my shelf for a couple of years and just never read it. This book is an English department read. Here’s the jacket blurb: “Thomas C. Foster—the sage and scholar who ingeniously led readers through the fascinating symbolic codes of great literature in his first book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor—now examines the grammar of the popular novel. Exploring how authors’ choices about structure—point of view, narrative voice, first page, chapter construction, character emblems, and narrative (dis)continuity—create meaning and a special literary language, How to Read Novels Like a Professor shares the keys to this language with readers who want to get more insight, more understanding, and more pleasure from their reading.”

Invent to LearnInvent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, by Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager. This book is my own choice after attending sessions on making at ISTE this year. “There’s a technological and creative revolution underway. Amazing new tools, materials and skills turn us all into makers. Using technology to make, repair, or customize the things we need brings engineering, design, and computer science to the masses. Fortunately for educators, this maker movement overlaps with the natural inclinations of children and the power of learning by doing. The active learner is at the center of the learning process, amplifying the best traditions of progressive education. This book helps educators bring the exciting opportunities of the maker movement to every classroom.” Edited to add: Check out the website for Invent to Learn for more resources.

So what do you think? Do they look good to you? If you want to read along with me, feel free to join me. As I have in the past, I will be reflecting here. On at least one occasion, it turned into a book club that became the UbD Eduators wiki.

Better Living Through Beowulf

Better Living Through BeowulfScott McLeod sometimes shares blogs that “deserve a bigger audience.” I don’t presume to know how many people read Robin Bates’s blog Better Living Through Beowulf, but I find it consistently makes me think about the connections between everyday life and literature. Robin is an English professor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. He regularly shares his insights regarding literature’s and film’s connections to such wide-ranging topics as current events, sports, and spiritual matters. I often save his posts for last when I’m catching up on RSS feeds in my feed reader because I know I will want to read them slowly and think them over. There’s nothing I don’t love about his blog, from his interesting connections and engaging commentary all the way down to his layout. I think even if you don’t teach English, you can learn something from Professor Bates’s blog.

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.

In Progress: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

I began reading Alexandra Robbins’s new book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School. I am only a little over 20 pages into the book, and I can already tell this is a book that teachers and parents need to pay attention to. I may journal my thoughts as I read here at this blog as I have with other professional reading in the past. I haven’t read any of Robbins’s other books, but I have heard that The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids is also good.

As a child who had difficulty socially in school and who never was popular, I can relate the book’s message.

So… anyone want to read this one with me? I know that Gary Anderson is already reading it. Summer book club anyone?

Full disclosure: the publisher sent me a free copy of this book (not that it will impact any future reviews).

Andrew Young on the Youth of Today

We hear so much about how today’s youth are an instant gratification society, and we should be worried, very worried, about the future. It’s refreshing to hear Andrew Young offer a different perspective in this interview with Valerie Jackson on Between the Lines about his book with Kabir Sehgal, Walk in My Shoes: Conversations Between a Civil Rights Legend and His Godson on the Journey Ahead. You will have to listen until the end of the podcast, but it’s worth it—it’s Andrew Young, after all.

Andrew Young on Between the Lines

As a teacher, I find his perspective refreshing. I teach these young people after all, and they’re not perfect, but I am often amazed by them, too.

More on Homework

A couple of years ago when I wrote a post for Grant Wiggins’s now defunct group blog The Faculty Room, I found myself in the midst of a tangle with Alfie Kohn about homework. After reading Shelly Blake-Plock’s post about homework today, I realized Kohn and I were talking about two different things: he was talking about busy work, worksheets, and the like, and I was really talking about preparing for class, although I couldn’t articulate what I meant at the time. Most of the homework my students have is class preparation: reading, answering questions we are going to discuss in class, anticipatory assignments, and the like. Wish I’d been able to explain that was what I meant at the time. However, I’m not sure it would have made a difference, at least not with that particular audience. I have found it interesting how many parents view a large amount of homework, even busy work, as a good thing—it proves their students are learning—and a lack of homework as a bad thing—students must not be learning anything. As in almost everything, it’s the quality, not the quantity, that counts.

Catching Up: Folger Education

English Journal September 2009I have been trying all week to finish the last English Journal so I can gush about all the Folger goodness, but I haven’t had a chance. Lest I let too much more time slip by, I’ll discuss the articles I have had a chance to read. Mike LoMonico, as usual, is on target with his suggestions for teaching Shakespeare in his editorial. The Shakespeare Set Free series taught me a great deal about how to teach Shakespeare, but participating in the the Folger Teaching Shakespeare Institute in Decatur last year transformed how I approach not just Shakespeare, but everything I do.

I also read my friend Joe Scotese’s editorial about reading Shakespeare’s text as opposed to easy versions with “translations.” Joe’s description of the words as the tools of Shakespeare’s art (Stephen Booth) was beautiful, and I have had the occasion to bring it up twice in the last couple of weeks during teaching. Thanks for the timely imagery, Joe!

I read Peggy O’Brien’s and Robert Young’s discussions of the history of Folger’s work with teachers (and students) and its present and future. I began reading Susan Biondo-Hench’s article “Shakespeare Troupe: An Adventure in Words, Fluid Text, and Comedy.” You might recall that Susan Biondo-Hench wrote the Romeo and Juliet unit in the first volume of Shakespeare Set Free.

Several of my friends have articles in this issue. Chris Shamburg and Cari Craighead collaborated on “Shakespeare, Our Digital Native.” Cari and I were in the same TSI, and Chris and I connected at NCTE and online. I also met Chris Renino, author of the Macbeth unit in SSF and the EJ article “‘Who’s There?’: Shakespeare and the Dragon of Autism,” at NCTE last year. Chris and I both have autistic children, and though mine are younger, I am obviously excited to read his article for personal reasons as well as professional ones. Christy Desmet, who wrote “Teaching Shakespeare with YouTube,” and I have a long history together. She teaches at my alma mater, UGA, and we worked together about 12 years ago in an online cohort of new teachers, professors, mentor teachers, and aspiring teachers. Our conversations were so helpful to me as a new teacher. We reconnected at the Folger TSI in Decatur last year.

I really wanted to submit an article for this issue, but I was struggling with new roles as department chair and graduate school student, among other duties. I just didn’t have time to do it. And now I’m kicking myself because I would have loved to have been a part of this issue.

In related news, Folger has a new blog: Making a Scene: Shakespeare in the Classroom. Definitely check it out! I’m really excited about it.

I want to talk about all of these articles and blog posts in more detail when I have a chance, but the weeks have been ticking by, and I didn’t want too much time to elapse before I brought your attention to these resources (if you didn’t know about them already).

In other news, I am not able to go to NCTE this year. I knew it was a long shot because I went last year, and the economy being what it is, well, let’s just say I was fairly sure it wouldn’t happen. I do wish I could go, however, because I really wanted to meet up with some friends (not to mention the learning!). I am planning to go to GCTE and possibly ISTE. ISTE takes place in Denver this year, and school will be out, so it would be a good opportunity for me to visit family in addition to attending my first ever technology education conference, so I would like to try to go.

My Next Book: Readicide

Thank you to all of you who voted in the poll. It was a close one, but in the end Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide inched past Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them by a single vote. The final tally was as follows:

  1. Readicide, Kelly Gallagher—8 votes
  2. Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle—7 votes
  3. Blending Genre, Altering Style, Tom Romano—5 votes
  4. The First Days of School, Harry Wong—3 votes
  5. Genre Theory, Deborah Dean—1 vote

Because the voting was so close, I’ll probably read/revisit the books in the order of voters’ preference. I am going on vacation next week, so I’m not sure if I’ll do Readicide before or after, but it won’t happen at all from July 6-10.