Category Archives: Reflection

FAQ: Teaching American Literature Thematically

american books photo
Photo by Curtis Gregory Perry

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

Can I use your essential questions for my own unit?

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

Are you still teaching thematically?

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

But what about understanding the literary movements?

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

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

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

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

Can you give me your syllabus?

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

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

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

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20 Years of Teaching

Dana's Teacher Stats

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned!

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Frustration Time

frustration photo
Photo by e-magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you feeling?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Time to Blog

time photo
Photo by Naccarato

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Imposter Syndrome and Class in Academia

imposter photo
Photo by thewikiman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

On Taking Risks

risk photo
Photo by Bien Stephenson

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

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

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

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

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

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Socratic Seminar: The Importance of Reflection

socratic seminar photo
Photo by jrobertsplhs

I have been using Socratic seminar as a method of assessment of student learning in my classes for some time, but last year I started asking my students to complete a simple reflection after the seminar and hand it in the next day. As a result, I really have a window into what my students are learning in the seminars.

In the past, I assigned the essential question for the seminar, but I have learned to give control over formulating the question to the students. My AP Lit students recently had a successful seminar discussion on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. The question they designed was, “Was justice served in the end?” Justice (and its lack) are a major theme of the play. Students were able to pull in ideas about what happens when the natural order of things is upended and people are not compassionate for others. Every student was able to contribute thoughtfully to the seminar itself, but when I read their reflections, I understood exactly how much thinking and learning had taken place.

One question I ask on the reflection is “Explain how the Seminar influenced your thinking about the topic or the text(s).”

It changed my opinion on what justice is. I sort of went in not having my own clear definition of what “justice” meant in King Lear, but I thought we’d all be thinking on the same track. The range of definitions, all of which influenced my own, surprised me. I never thought of justice being done to someone in that way, nor did I see justice as when a character finally realized his or her mistake. After the discussion, it influenced my own definition because I took into account that a when character realized their mistakes it was because enough harm had been done to others around them or to them themselves.

Changing views of the definition of justice were a theme in the reflections. In most cases, students said that another student’s comment had changed their minds, made them think about things in a different way, or influenced their thinking in other ways.

[Student 1] said something along the lines of … “justice didn’t care about individuals, it just wanted the natural order of things restored.” I never really thought of this in terms that the individuals didn’t matter.

Another student shifted gears based on a comment another student made.

Throughout the seminar, I mostly considered the sense of justice as individual characters. I thought about the evil characters and their tragic ends. However, [Student 2] pointed out that we should instead inspect the text as a whole and look at the entire book in order to see if justice was served or not. This actually changed the entire course of what I had in mind of the texts and the Socratic seminar. It changed my viewpoints as I started looking at the natural order and the essence of what role [the] god[s] played in the texts.

It always intrigues me when a single student’s comment shows up in the reflections of several peers, and in the case of this comment, the student, whom I have called Student 3 throughout this post, is one who has made excellent progress with each successive seminar. It is exciting to me that his comments were so influential in the thinking of his peers this time.

[Student 3] said that justice isn’t just about the punishment, but also includes a revelation. I thought that this was interesting, since I usually tend to think of justice as being a punishment to fit the crime.

I ask students to reflect on how they did and make goals for the next seminar, both for themselves as individuals and for the group. The student mentioned in the comment above, who influenced his peers with his definition of justice, wrote the following:

I thought I did really well on this seminar and achieved my goals I set for myself from the last one. Next time I think I should try to include more people in the discussion by asking questions to them. I think I should ask more clarifying questions to the group in order to dig deeper into the text, and to become more specific on certain topics.

Another student, an English language learner, who was able to contribute more comments in this seminar than he previously has done in other seminars, reflected that

[Student 3] had lots of great comments this time. The most impressing one was the one he spoke at the start of the conversation. He said the justice is served not only means the justice is served physically, such as bad people being punished by death or being killed. He talks about the deeper meaning of justice, bad people eventually acknowledge what they have done and try to remedy for their bad behaviors…

Before this Seminar … although I knew there were two ways which justice can serve on bad people, I couldn’t come up with all of them. However, after listening to what other people said, especially [Student 3] and [Student 4]’s words, I was inspired by their words and generated lots of innovative ideas during the seminar and eventually spoke a lot because I had so many ideas.

I could almost feel this last student’s excitement. His reflection was much longer than his previous ones, and I could tell the discussion had excited and invigorated him. He was inspired.

When it was suggested that we define the word justice, I never thought of different meanings behind it. I mean I realized that everyone had their own opinion, but didn’t realize it would be from a totally different definition and meaning that would change the way to interpret the play and it’s [sic] characters. [Student 3] said that the way he interpreted justice was justice was served if people learned from their mistakes. I never thought of justice as learning from their mistakes. Although I believe justice is that they get caught, pay for it (karma), and go on with life, I still don’t necessarily agree with him, but it is an interesting point of view. It changes everything, when interpreting the book from [Student 3]’s definition of justice and makes both books seem like less justice was served.

What an incredible insight. How much they learned about the notion of justice in these two books through talking with each other. By the way, I think it’s important to note that I said nothing. I don’t even look at the students when they are talking because otherwise, they look to me and talk to me. A student acknowledged the difficulty of planning a seminar and running it without my interference:

I think we have been doing a great job with structure. This time we started pretty weak jumping everywhere, but after the first few comments, I sorted things out and we found a structure that worked for this seminar. Actually, structuring a seminar without restricting it too much is not easy. I think it should be our task prior to the seminar to imagine how it could be structured based on the question.

Another student acknowledged a difficulty the class is still wrestling with:

I still think we have side arguments and sometimes we went off topic. It will be better if we can all try to answer the main points of the questions. Besides, some people always just talk too much and did not let others to say anything, so I think we should acknowledge this problem so that quiet people can speak more.

As the teacher, I can see that she is right in her criticism, though the group has made progress in this regard. I know they have more progress to make. So do they.

I believe that this was our best discussion yet, in terms of everyone contributing, but I still believe that as a class we have room to grow.

But they also know they are getting there.

I feel like as a group we made a lot of progress compared to the last seminar. We were able to include everyone in the conversation and for the most part organize its structure or at least set a framework for the topics being discussed. Because we were more organized this time around, the material we discussed was much easier to understand.

If I hadn’t asked the students to reflect, I wouldn’t know any of these takeaways. I also think actively setting goals keeps those goals at the forefront during the next seminar. The students in some cases mentioned the goals they made last time and their progress toward reaching them. Last year, a student of mine noted that another student had tried to speak, and he thought that she had been interrupted and shut down. He said he wanted to make sure she had opportunities to speak next time. I suggested on his reflection that he might try sitting next to her for the next seminar to facilitate helping her, and not only did he move his seat for the next seminar, but he sat next to her for the remainder of the year.

I did not create the reflection form that I use. I borrowed it from the Greece Central School District (see Socratic Seminar Reflection, and be sure to check out their rubrics, too). I have found their resources helpful ever since Jay McTighe introduced their rubrics for me about ten years ago.

Another tool I use in my seminars is an iPad app called Equity Maps. Full disclosure, I am acquainted with the developer. He facilitated Critical Friends training in which I participated at my school, and he showed us this app at that time before it was released. Though my class has more boys than girls, according to the gender distribution in all three seminars my students have done, the girls are speaking more. I can also tell for how long and how many times a student spoke. I can record the conversation and take pictures. I can also make notes as the students talk. I use the notes feature to mark instances of good use of textual evidence, asking questions, building on comments, and making particularly insightful comments. The app has a few limitations, but it works quite well for keeping track of the discussion.

The best thing about Socratic seminar is that it completely student-centered. They create the focus question (I step in if they need help), they run and contribute to the discussion, and they reflect on the learning and progress they have made. Students love it. I think they genuinely look forward to seminars, and they take them very seriously as the wonderful learning opportunities they are.

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Slice of Life #28: We Grow Accustomed to the Dark

Granna and MeI lost my grandmother this morning. She is one of the most important people to me in the entire world. She represents love to me because her love was absolutely unconditional, and it was something I knew I had with absolute certainty.

I never think about her without thinking about her in her sewing room. I don’t think I realized when I was a child how unique that room was, that most houses didn’t have such a room. She would spend hours back in that room, but we children were always welcome. The tiled floors were pitted and scarred by the wheels of her rolling chair. She had at least three sewing machines set up, along with an ironing board. There was a table covered with fabric. I don’t think I ever saw its surface. She had trays with stray sewing machine feet, pins, bobbins, thimbles, scissors, and stale Freedent gum.

My mom asked me what I wanted, and the only thing I can think of is something from that sewing room. And a clock that chimes obnoxiously because whenever it marks the hour, it reminds me of spending weekends with her. I used to hear that clock late into the night when she let me stay up watching Johnny Carson or Fantasy Island. I had a pallet by her bed, but she often let me cuddle next to her. The next morning, she often took me out for breakfast and let me have a Coke, which Mom would never have done.

I had a chance to visit her in July 2014 when I was going to a digital storytelling conference in Denver. I recorded many of her and my grandfather’s stories and edited them into at least two digital stories. Here is my favorite.

I wish there were some way to capture how soft her cheeks were, like velvet, and how even though her hands shook with some sort of inherited disorder, she could always thread a needle on the first try. If she made something with her hands, it was going to be better than anything you would buy in a store.

When I was in seventh grade, I got it into my head to make her a small shelving unit. I don’t know why. I had taken woodshop the previous year in school, and I thought I could handle it. I did a terrible job. First, I found wood in the garage and didn’t ask if I could use it. I never got in trouble, but who knows what that wood had been set aside for? I couldn’t cut the wood evenly with a saw, so the two edges that would be the top were uneven. I tried to sand them down, but I couldn’t, not with the sandpaper my dad had in the garage. I tried to nail the shelves to the sides, but I couldn’t. I wound up using wood glue. I used different kinds of wood for the shelves and sides. The shelves were wider than the sides. I got a good look at that shelf for the first time in about 30 years when I visited two years ago. Every shelf is crooked. It looks terrible. And yet it has hung in her living room, in pride of place, with her collectible figurines resting in peril on each shelf. I realized that shelving unit is a metaphor for me. She cried when I gave it to her for her birthday. She immediately hung it on the wall. She loved me, with my faults, with perfect love. I doubt if she ever even saw how ugly that shelving unit was, just like she dismissed my own imperfections.

I decided to go to school today, even though my heart is broken, because I thought that I could either lie in bed all day, crying, or I could come to school and keep busy. It hasn’t worked all that well. I was teaching The Odyssey this morning, and it so happened that my students were studying Book 11—the book in which Odysseus travels to the underworld and sees the shade of his mother, not realizing she had died.

Mother, why not wait for me? How I long to hold you!—
so even here, in the House of Death, we can fling
our loving arms around each other, take some joy
in the tears that numb the heart. (11.240-243)

Odysseus’s mother replies,

[T]his is just the way of mortals when we die.
Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together—
the fire in all its fury burns the body down to ashes
once life slips from the white bones, and the spirit,
rustling, flitters away… flown like a dream. (11.249-253)

Why on this day, of all days, should this passage be the one I must discuss with a room full of ninth graders who know nothing about what I’m feeling? And yet, I also just finished King Lear, and yesterday, after I had spoken with my grandmother for the very last time and shortly before she lost consciousness, my students were conducting a Socratic seminar discussion of the play along with A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, and this line in particular stabbed me through the heart:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
And thou no breath at all? (5.3.370-371)

As blessed as I am to have had my grandmother for 45 years, and I know that I am, I can’t help but feel what Lear feels: “Stay a little” (5.3.327). Would there ever have been enough time?

It’s an accident of life that I happen to be teaching these works right now. I planned the curriculum before my grandmother’s final illness took hold.

I know that death is a part of life. But I don’t know life without his remarkable, amazing woman who loved me so much. I don’t know how to talk about her in the past tense. I don’t know how to keep going without knowing she’s there, perhaps 2,000 miles away, but there.

She told me the last time I spoke to her that she would watch over me, and that she would hold me always in her heart.

And I chanced upon this poem by Emily Dickinson, one of my favorites, while I was looking for something, anything, that spoke to how I was feeling (Fr. 428).

We grow accustomed to the Dark—
When Light is put away—
As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp
To witness her Good bye—

A Moment—We uncertain step
For newness of the night—
Then—fit our Vision to the Dark—
And meet the Road—erect—

And so of larger—Darknesses—
Those Evenings of the Brain—
When not a Moon disclose a sign—
Or Star—come out—within—

The Bravest—grope a little—
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead—
But as they learn to see—

Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight.

Perhaps you know this poem? It leaped off the page, and it was almost like Miss Emily was offering me the one thing I really needed to read. We grow accustomed to the dark. It is not easy. We will bump into things. We will grope, trying to find our way. But eventually, life steps almost straight. The perfect word in that line is “almost.” We are never quite the same after such a loss. In the words of Albus Dumbledore, “To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever” (Rowling 299). I suppose I draw comfort from the idea that Odysseus, Lear, and even Harry Potter know how I feel right now. They, too, have felt losses not too dissimilar from mine. And they recognize that such losses leave holes in our lives that cannot be filled.

I will always miss my grandmother. In a way, I have been saying goodbye to her since the last time I visited in July 2014. I had a feeling, somehow, that it might be the last time I might see her. She wasn’t ill at the time, but I had no way of knowing when or if I could make the trip back. The sun was setting. I knew the day wouldn’t be lasting much longer. And now, I’ll have to grow accustomed to the dark.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Edited by R. W. Franklin, Cambridge, Belknap, 2005.

Homer, The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles, New York, Penguin Books, 1997.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York, Scholastic, 1997.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, New York, Washington Square Press, 2005.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #27: Organization Journaling

My Journal

I have been trying a new technique to keep myself organized this year. On September 14, on a whim, I divided my journal page for that day down the middle and wrote “Stuff I Did” on the left side and “Stuff to Do” on the right. I hadn’t done it before. In fact, I’d been using the journal mainly to meditate on the day—when I remembered to do it, which was not very often.

Something about making that list of all the things I had accomplished that day made me feel like I had been more productive. What I liked about having the “Stuff to Do” list is that it enabled me to keep things going for long-term projects or for incomplete work. I might have “grade essays” on there for a few days until they’re done, but having to keep writing it again on “Stuff to Do” makes me want to get it moved over to “Stuff I Did.”

I have played with the idea of doing a bullet journal. I’m drawn to the organization. Then again, this weird little system of mine works, so it may be self-defeating to tweak it. I find I enjoy the time I set aside to take stock of the day. Sometimes I write things down as I do them. Sometimes I wait until the end of the day. I do find I am working my way through my to-do lists more quickly, and the “Stuff to Do” list gives me a place to start the next day. I start the day’s list by looking back at the previous few days’ lists to see what needs doing and what I am going to continue to move over to today’s “Stuff to Do” list because it’s not going to happen today.

I also use the journal to take notes in meetings that are likely to involve tasks to do. For example, if I’m in a department chairs’ meeting or meeting with my Dean of Faculty, I will probably have new items to add to my “Stuff to Do” lists.

So that’s your peek into my journal. I have a separate Moleskine cahier notebook for taking notes and writing ideas.

And speaking of writing, I’m trying NaNoWriMo again this year. I didn’t do too badly for the first day. My goal was 1,667 words, and I wrote 1,793.  I have a fun idea, but it was hard to write myself into the story today. I am learning that I have become a much more fluent writer over the years. When I first started participating in NaNoWriMo, meeting the word count was hard and often took hours. Now, I can generally do it fairly quickly, especially if I turn off my internal editor and let the ideas flow. I have been blogging for a long time—and I don’t blog as much as I used to—so I’m not sure why I’ve been more fluent the last few years I’ve participated. I can’t chalk it up to blogging, which is one way I’ve traditionally worked on my writing. I’m not handwriting my NaNo novel, but I am handwriting a lot of other things more often. I wonder if that’s it.  I won’t complain in any case. The big task I need to put on my “Stuff to Do” list is picking up one of my previous NaNo novels and revising it so I can do something with it.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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The First Day of School

I haven’t seen any better advice for how to introduce yourselves to your students than that of Carol Jago:

What do I plan to do on the first day?

My classes all meet for 30 minutes, which allows for teachers to give students course information and expectations, go over supplies needed, etc. I have a handout with all of that. We also have an online learning management system where students can check this information any time. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I have read that students form a first impression of their teachers in about four seconds. That’s not even enough time to speak!

Instead of going over all the rules and procedures, I post essential questions for the course in a chalk talk. Each question gets its own sticky poster. I have about four or five questions total. I give students sticky notes. I ask them to think about the questions and respond with their thoughts on the sticky note. They put the sticky note on the poster. Then they move to another poster and do the same with the question on that poster. They don’t have to answer all the questions. After they have posted their answers, they go around and read others’ responses. If they see connections, they draw lines. They can comment on the answers, too.

This activity gets students thinking about what they will learn on day one. It also gets them up and moving around a bit. We follow with a class discussion, and usually it’s time to go. Of course, they get their course expectations handout on the way out, and I post it as homework to read it.

This activity reaps bonus rewards if you pull the posters out at the end of the year so students can reflect on their responses to those questions on the first day.

What do you do the first day?

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