Category Archives: Reflection

Slice of Life #17: Thanksgiving

Slice of LifeToday was the last day of work before Thanksgiving break. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. In the last few years since we moved to Massachusetts, I have enjoyed cooking our large Thanksgiving meal. It seems appropriate to talk about what I’m thankful for today.

I’m thankful for my family and friends. I had a wonderful time in Minneapolis at NCTE this week. I missed my husband and children. I don’t travel much (just for work, really). We’re really sort of homebodies, and I know they are happier staying behind (even if they miss me, too). My childhood best friend Darcy lives in Minnesota, and we were able to get together while I was at NCTE. We had dinner together Thursday night.

Darcy and Dana

It was wonderful to see her again. It has been at least 20 years because my oldest was a baby, and she’ll be 22 next month. Darcy and I have been friends for 35 years now. On Saturday night, we took her children to see A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater. We had an excellent time, and it was a great deal of fun to meet and talk with her children. I’ve heard so much about them over the years. Bright, funny, charming kids! I am exceedingly thankful to have been able to visit with Darcy while I was in Minneapolis.

I was also grateful to spend so much time with my friend Glenda Funk. We think a lot alike, and she pushes me in ways she probably doesn’t realize. She told me I go quiet in crowds, which is true. I’m an introvert, and as much as I can make myself go out and have fun, it’s a bit hard to be talkative at the same time. It’s just not my nature. But she told me that I should speak up more (in her kind way), and so I did, and I felt pretty good about it. I will try not to make it a one-off. I’m also thankful for old friends and new ones made at the conference. It was great to see Lee Ann Spillane, Gary Anderson, Kim McCollum Clark, Jennifer Ansbach, Paul Hankins, and so many others at the conference. There is nothing quite like being around so many of my people. It’s funny; someone at the conference mentioned that we English teachers can identify each other out in public, and it’s true. As I was riding into downtown Minneapolis on the light rail from the airport, I saw another woman sitting in my train car, and I could just tell she was an English teacher. Sure enough, she asked me if I was going to NCTE (I guess I look like an English teacher, too). I suppose after this weekend we shall also know each other by our red and black Scholastic bags.

I’m also thankful for books and the writers who go to this conference. I always walk away with a huge TBR list, as if it’s not huge enough already. Even though I feel like I read a lot (and I’ve just finished my 49th book for the year), I can’t touch some of the people who go to this conference. Book love is in the air at NCTE, and it’s one of the few places where I feel like a reading slacker. I am thankful that I came back from the conference committed to bringing independent reading into my classroom. Even though I believe in it and support it and was thrilled when my department members started doing it, I didn’t do it in my room yet. Yet. I would tell myself “Next year.” Well, this time, I told myself that even though the semester ends in January, we aren’t waiting. My students told me at the beginning of the year that they don’t like reading. I need to work on that. Honestly, if I were in an English class that had independent reading, even if it was only ten minutes at the beginning of the period, it would be my favorite ten minutes of the day. So I met with our librarian, the fantastic Jenn Hanson, who will select books for and talk about books with my students after Thanksgiving break. Exciting!

Today, in between parent/teacher conferences, I organized the books already in my room by fiction, poetry/drama, nonfiction/memoir, and PD/resources. I will be hauling books from home to school to flesh out the selections. I can’t wait to share with my students.

Finally, I’m thankful for folks who read anything I might have to say here and consider it worthwhile. I began this blog as sort of an experiment ten years ago, and though I sometimes feel pressure to write more and don’t know what to write, it has turned me into a reflective educator. I’m not sure I was as reflective before the blog. Thank you for joining me in that journey.

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NCTE 2015 Reflections

I had a great time at NCTE this year. I have, as usual, a lot to process. I walked away with some great ideas, too.

I really liked the High School Matters session, which I typically miss. I have a lot of great ideas for books to read, especially after also going to Carol Jago’s “share what you are reading” session right before High School Matters.

I went to the CEL roundtable last year and found it to be just as good this year. The Carnivals of Truth: Rainbow Perspectives on Critical Issues in ELA Roundtable was also excellent but poorly attended (more on that in a moment). I got some great stuff I can take into my class next week. Because there were few attendees, I was able to talk one-on-one at length with the presenters and ask them some questions about their work with students.

I love this photo with Kwame Alexander, Gary Anderson, Russ Anderson, and Jaclyn Han (I’m photobombing in the back).

I also enjoyed the session presented by friends Glenda Funk, Paul Hankins, and Lee Ann Spillane with Melissa Sweet, Word by Word: The Art of Crafting Responsibility and Creativity. I pulled some ideas for how I might use art and picture books with my own students.

My favorite artifact of that session is noticing that Glenda, Lee Ann, and I have matching haircuts and part our hair on the same side.

Now for the part that’s going to get me in trouble. But I’m trying to be a bit braver about discussing things that make me uncomfortable. I tend to be a kind of positive person, and I avoid conflict if I can. But I feel I should speak up.

I am really concerned about NCTE. I’m concerned that we have a few very popular voices and that those voices dominate the discussion. I am concerned that a handful of folks who have written some popular books have been elevated to rock stars and that we are not listening to others. More people should have been at that Rainbow Perspectives roundtable. But they weren’t because that session was up against some popular voices. Let me be clear: I don’t necessarily blame the popular folks for being popular.  I don’t know that these few folks necessarily cultivate a cult of personality, but what if they didn’t present every year? Just a thought I’m putting out there. I know full well I’ve presented several times, too, and perhaps it’s not fair of me to criticize, especially because the voices about which I speak are strong educators and advocates for what is best in English classrooms. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps they deserve to direct the conversation.

My own session proposal was relegated to a poster session. Now, it is true that I have presented before, but so have the folks I’m talking about here, and from my point of view, they presented the same thing they have done in the past. It’s an important message that they have, and it should go out. I declined my invitation to present writing workshop and Socratic seminar as a poster session because it would not have worked. I cannot understand how NCTE thought it would. And I also cannot understand why we hear from the same voices every time. I cannot understand why proposals that involve people reading their papers are accepted. If I want to read a paper, I can read a paper. I go to sessions to learn about others’ ideas with the hope of adapting them for my own practice. I cannot understand why such presentations were given a room while my voice was effectively silenced in this conversation. I don’t mean to sound bitter because I’m not. I had a good conference, and I listened to some very good presenters. But I had some pretty good work to share, too, and it doesn’t fit on a poster.

It’s pretty easy to put slidedecks online or share links via URL shorteners. I don’t understand not putting your materials online, especially if you’re going through a slidedeck too fast for me to take notes. In 2015, this shouldn’t be a problem. I have to be firm on this one and take a stand. Participants will enjoy your sessions better if they are not scrambling to capture everything you say because you have not posted your slidedeck or materials online. NCTE makes this one easy, folks. You don’t even need to have a website or storage space. Having said that, if you don’t intend to share it, is there anything wrong with telling the audience and explaining your reasoning?

I have to admit I wasn’t happy about the protest. First of all, I fully support a boycott of Pearson. I support protesting their intrusion into education. I don’t agree with the things that company is doing. That said, the folks in the booth are not the people we are angry with. They are not the people we really need to listen to us. They are just some folks selling books and materials. Putting myself in their place, I would have felt mortified. True, they could work for someone else. But sometimes we don’t have a lot of choices about work. The people NCTE members need to mount a protest against are the Department of Education, the state governors, the legislators, and the administrators. By all means boycott Pearson by refusing to purchase their products. The protest was not aimed at the people that should have heard it. If we really want to be brave and reclaim education,  we could try directing that protest to the right people. Perhaps it’s not my place to say anything because I’m not a public school educator. I work in private school, and Pearson does not test my students nor does it/will it test me. Maybe I don’t have a right to speak out on this issue at all, as a result. But you know what? Some of the folks in the protest are also not K-12 public school teachers. If we care about education, we should be able to speak about issues that concern us, even if they don’t touch us in the same ways.

The Minneapolis Convention Center was a great venue. It was easy to navigate (that was refreshing for a change), and the rooms were a good size, so plenty of people could fit in the various sessions offered. Also, there were plenty of amenities such as snack bars, bathrooms, easy recycling. It was close to the hotels and restaurants as well as public transportation. NCTE is doing a much better job at least determining rooms for sessions. I didn’t go into a single session that was too full for me to find a seat. There were some issues with the coat check station, but those were the only inconveniences I experienced with the venue.

I realize some of the points I’ve made here are not popular ones, but I do hope we can have a civil dialogue about these issues. NCTE is important to me. I have been a member since I was in college preparing to be an English teacher. NCTE has been critical in my evolution as a reflective teacher of English language arts. I have actually left another organization because it is plagued with problems related to, for lack of a better way to put it, a sort of rock star faction that took over the organization and turned it into something cliquish and deeply uncomfortable to experience. I can’t foresee attending that other organization’s conference again. Ultimately, I could let it go because it wasn’t important for me to involve myself in that organization. But NCTE is too important for me to lose to that mentality, too.

As always, I appreciate the work that NCTE does to bring authors to the conference. I was able to meet and have books signed by Alison Bechdel, Deborah Wiles, and Laurie Halse Anderson.

Alison Bechdel

Deborah Wiles

Laurie Halse AndersonI plan to go next year in Atlanta. Despite some of the issues I raised, I still value NCTE as the best conference for professional development.

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Teaching Science

This week, Worcester Academy’s science department chair and teacher of physics and engineering has been out on paternity leave (congratulations, Derek!). At our school, we try to cover for each other when we have to be out. I opted to take two of Derek’s classes, an engineering class and a physics class, for a few reasons: 1) I like to help out when I can because it can be hard to get your classes covered, 2) I really wanted a peek into what Derek is doing in his classes, and 3) I like to see how students work in classes outside my subject.

Derek is a project-based educator. It was fascinating to visit his classes, even his absence, and see what his students are doing. I subbed in his engineering class yesterday. Students were building a wind tunnel and constructing cars using modeling clay. I know this is leading up to an interesting experiment, but I admit I don’t know a lot about it. I was fascinated watching the students work. They got right to work and knew exactly what to do in Derek’s absence. They were busy the entire time. In fact, I had to make them stop so they could clean up.

In physics today, students were conducting a test using Hot Wheels ramps. The students had to construct the ramps so that their cars, set loose at the top of the ramp, would fly cleanly through  hoop on a stand. I think that if Derek had been present, the plan was for the hoop to be on fire. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do anything that involved fire, but when the students were ready to do the final test, they had to let me know, and I needed to watch. It was so exciting. I have to admit I’ve never taken physics, so I don’t feel qualified to explain the purpose of the experiment. The students were so nervous for each other. One student (whom I also teach), was also anxious for the other groups (besides her own) to be successful in their experiment. The students had to turn in their lab writeups. All period long, there was action. Students were measuring, checking measurements, running tests. Cars were flying across the room. Again, students knew just what to do and got right to work, even in Derek’s absence.

One aspect of subbing for Derek that fascinated me was watching my own students in a science class. Students who rarely speak in my class or are quiet and reticent are active and participate in Derek’s classes. Part of that is their comfort level with the material. I am thinking in particular of international students who do not speak English as a first language. It was interesting to see this completely different side of my students. It was fascinating to see their level of confidence shift in a different subject.

I have to admit I’m jealous of these kids. I wish I had a science teacher who had made science half as interesting as Derek does. I really want to go back and observe when Derek is present. His classes ran so well with minimal help from me. I feel like his students were doing all of the work. I spoke to a few of them. I said to one girl today, “This seems like such a fun class,” and she said, “Yes, and we do stuff like this every day.” To a boy in engineering yesterday, I said the same thing, and he said, “Yes, it’s my favorite class.”

I can’t believe how much I learned from Derek even though he wasn’t present. His classes are so engaging, and he really gets project-based learning. Our students are lucky. I’m lucky to have him for a colleague. He has much to teach the rest of us.

If you get a chance to visit a class outside your domain, you should do it. It’s really interesting to see your students working in a different subject, especially when it’s under the guidance of such a gifted educator.

You can follow Derek on Twitter and read his blog.

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Slice of Life #16: NCTE 2015

Slice of LifeI spent a good part of today looking over the workshops for the NCTE Annual Conference. I am noticing a few interesting trends.

First, there seem to be quite a few workshops focusing on using our voices for advocacy. It’s not really surprising that in a time when many teachers feel silenced or ignored, it’s great to see NCTE encouraging teachers to find their voices, and especially to blog. Many folks will say blogging is on the way out, but I maintain it’s still relevant (of course, I must; I’m blogging at this very moment). Time is a very important reason teachers give for not blogging (tech know-how is another). The tools are pretty easy to learn (most of them are WYSIWYG and are familiar to word processor users), but time is not so easy. I maintain, as I frequently do, that we make time for the things that are important to us, and if blogging is important, then we’ll make time for it.

Second, I’m noticing that I am much more drawn to Rainbow Strand and LGBT Strand sessions than I have been in the past. I have been doing some work with inclusive classrooms at school, and I find myself connecting to ideas around diversity. In fact, I have begun to approach my teaching of American literature through this lens.

I am also noticing argumentative writing as a motif in the sessions. I am really not up on the Common Core. I imagine this must be a part of it? (Folks who might not know: I teach in an independent school, and we have created our own Portrait of a Learner.)

I am not sure I can articulate this half-formed thought, but I’m going to try. I find myself at a crossroads of sorts. I’m trying to figure out what I believe as a teacher. I’ve shifted a lot since I started writing this blog. I have written about ideas and beliefs here, and I find that I no longer agree with myself. I don’t think I’ve really processed some of the ways in which I’ve changed. What is non-negotiable? In particular, as my role as a department chair/leader, what do I need to do to bring my department to the place where I want it to be and where the school wants it to be? Like I said, these thoughts are not fully formed. I am trying to figure out exactly who I am as an English teacher. I guess, in some ways, I am working on some identity issues. Perhaps that is why I am so attracted to discussions about students’ identities. I don’t know.

Am I going to see you at NCTE?

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Slice of Life #13: Workshopping

Slice of LifeMy American literature students had writing workshop today. We read an excerpt from Michel-Guillaume Jean Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, which I like to read with students because it is the genesis of two tenacious ideas Americans have about themselves: 1) that our country is a great “melting pot,” and 2) that we are somehow a new people (the concept of the “new Adam”) and unique in the world (precursors to American exceptionalism). Crèvecoeur defines an American in the selection we read, and I asked students to write a compare/contrast essay in which they define what they think an American is and see how it aligns or doesn’t with Crèvecoeur’s definition. Students brought drafts to class today to be workshopped.

I have one class that is a bit smaller, and I would characterize the students as lacking in confidence. They can be reluctant to speak up in class discussion sometimes because they second-guess themselves or are afraid of being “wrong.” I have been working on building their confidence, and one of the most surprising methods I’ve tried has been writing workshop. One might think it would be dangerous to try writing workshop in such a class because students who are usually reluctant to participate in class discussions would be doubly reluctant when their own writing is on display. In fact, I have found the opposite to be the case.

We had a student’s paper on the screen today in class. The student said he wanted help with organization, sentence structure, and his introduction. We did some work on the introduction, and by the end of it, it was working well. It also offered an opportunity to clarify some language and to talk a bit about integrating quotes. We took some time to notice and discuss what was working well in the piece. We worked on the sentence structure. One of the students in this class has emerged as a really strong editor. She had some great ideas for alternate word choices and ways to revise sentences to include some more variety. She is particularly astute at holding what the writer has asked for help with in her mind as she makes suggestions. I have noticed many students tend to make comments about whatever they notice, but this girl is a particularly focused editor. I commended her in front of her peers today, and she smiled shyly and said, “I like doing this [editing and revising].” Students who are generally quiet during regular class discussion are more animated in writing workshop.

Another thing I noticed about the student writer was that he had a hunch about some of the issues in his essay. One example he shared went something like “I don’t like that sentence.” I asked him why. He said “I feel like there is something wrong with ‘this.'” Another student said, “Yeah, ‘this’ can be a lot of things.” I said they had zeroed in on a common problem in writing called an unclear pronoun reference, and we spent some time tweaking the sentence until the student decided to add the word “thought”—”this thought”—to clarify what he meant. I bet he and his peers will remember the unclear pronoun reference and look out for it in their writing. I think teachers sometimes think that students don’t believe there are issues with their writing, but it was clear to me today that the student recognized an issue but wasn’t sure how to resolve it, which is where his peers came in.

I think writing workshop is going to be crucial in helping these students develop confidence in English class. I find it interesting that in contrast, my other American literature class, which is usually much more active in class discussion, was a bit quiet and reticent in writing workshop today. While they may have some confidence in discussing ideas in literature, perhaps they are not quite there when it comes to writing.

The smaller class has already asked for a second day of writing workshop. I will offer it to my larger class, and I’ll be interested to see what they want to do. I would like to push them a bit harder with workshop, but I also recognize that they are not comfortable with it yet. I am feeling the tension between helping them build confidence and pushing them into that zone of proximal development.

My favorite quote from a student in that larger class today: “Man, you know a lot about citations. And stuff.”

My goal for the end of the year is for them to say that about themselves.

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The AP Audit

audit photo
Photo by LendingMemo

Today, I uploaded my AP audit syllabus. What a lot of work. I have been working on this syllabus since about July. I was extremely lucky to have my colleague Cindy Sabik’s AP syllabus from several years ago, which helped me quite a bit, but ultimately, I had to make the audit syllabus my own. I organized it by thematic units, and I have to admit I found Literature & Composition: Reading – Writing – Thinking edited by Carol Jago et. al. extremely helpful in my planning because it, too, is organized by theme, and was invaluable in helping me think about directions in which I might take my class.

I created essential questions for each unit, and I organized a list of authors for shorter works and poetry as well as assessments. I really am crossing my fingers. The materials for the AP audit are lengthy, and though I checked everything against the checklist and think I’ve built a solid syllabus (which actually goes beyond my AP training instructor’s syllabus, which was approved), I will breathe much easier when I find out whether or not the College Board has accepted it.

My AP class has been on my mind. I only meet with my classes three days per week—two 75-minute periods and one 65-minute period. A couple of weeks ago, we had a holiday on Monday and a testing/community service/college visit day on Wednesday—which are the days my 75-minute AP classes meet. We only had one 65-minute class that week, which was devoted to writing workshop of some rumination essays my students had written. I looked at the calendar and realized we needed to get an out-of-class essay in before progress reports. The rumination essay is an assignment I learned about at Kenyon this summer. My instructor, Emily Moore, assigns it to her students and shared the instructions with us. It is a combination of a literary analysis and personal narrative in which students select a quote, analyze it and put it in context, and then connect it to a personal experience. Because I didn’t come up with this assignment, I’ll link you to Stuyvesant High School’s resources for the paper (Emily teaches at Stuyvesant).

My students are currently reading King Lear and A Thousand Acres. I was really impressed with the ways in which students connected to the text in their essays, and because of the nature of the assignment, we didn’t have to have finished reading the play in order to write something substantial. I must admit, I was particularly proud of one of my students, who was also in my regular American literature class last year. He was a most reflective writer, and he quickly emerged as a strong student in that class. I recommended that he try AP this year, and of course, I was thrilled to see him on my roster. He told me recently that he is really enjoying the class. His rumination essay was simply outstanding.

However, in spite of some successes, I have still been worried about the pacing of the course. I fretted about whether I was going too slowly. I was concerned that giving students a play and a novel (and an hard play, to be honest) at the same time as they are completing college applications might be a lot, so I set the pace for reading at an act a week (in class, in small groups), while students read the novel outside of class. I grew concerned that some of my students were not being challenged. I discussed my concerns with two colleagues who also teach AP, and one gave me the obvious and insightful suggestion to simply ask the kids how the pacing was working. Of course. So I did, and they assured me the pace felt “just right” to them.


In the same class, we discussed revising and editing their rumination essays and also doing quiz corrections for an AP-style multiple choice quiz I gave them. I suggested if they scored 7/10 or lower, they might do corrections to earn back points. One student asked if that were not unfair to students who earned 8 or 9. I said that I didn’t think two points would make a lot of difference in an overall grade, which was where I came up with my idea about 7/10, but I said he had a point, too. If students want to make corrections and think it will be a valuable use of their time to earn back two points, why not? After all, it’s their learning.

I have to say I’m learning a lot teaching this course, and I am really enjoying it. We have a really democratic classroom, and the students are a lot of fun. I am really enjoying watching and helping them learn. I am so glad I took the time to check in with my students about the class this week. I need to make time to do it on a regular basis. I invited their feedback and shared partly I need their help because I’m new to this, and partly, I really value their comments about the learning. After all, aren’t students are the best kind of AP auditors?

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Slice of Life #12: The N-Word

Slice of LifeI started The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my juniors today, and I always like to begin study of this novel with a frank discussion of the repeated use of the n-word. In a book that uses the word over 200 times, students will be confronted with it often. I wrote the word on the board followed by some quickwrite questions, and as the students settled in their seats and looked up, there were quite a few exclamations and audible gasps. They confessed they thought I’d lost my mind for a minute.

I learned some really interesting things from my students today. The first is that one student has heard the n-word used as a verb that means something like “played a dirty trick,” as in “He really n-d that guy.” I have never heard that use before. Other students shared (and I admit students share this idea often when I teach the book) that the connotation seems different to them when the word is spelled out “n-er” versus “n-a.” I try to wrap my head around that idea, but I admit I don’t have a lot of luck.

We read an essay by Gloria Naylor about a time when a little boy called her the n-word when she was in third grade, and we read Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” which seems simple on the surface, but packs a punch. We also watched part of a segment from the program 60 Minutes on the NewSouth books publication that expurgated the n-word from the novel and substituted it with “slave.” The discussion is a powerful and important one to have prior to reading this novel, I think, but I have two observations:

  1. My students don’t know enough about what is going on in the news and the #blacklivesmatter movement. At all. We are going to talk about it, and if I need to, I’ll bring in the news articles. But I admit to wondering why they don’t know what is happening.
  2. The controversy surrounding this book, 130 years from its publication, which has been a part of the book’s history for the entirety of its existence, still manages to provoke thought and debate. It might be one of the most consistently relevant books written.

I close with a great quote from the preface of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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Integrating Technology: The Cart and the Horse

My Students, Learning
My Students, Learning

Some weeks back, I was looking at my site statistics. It’s not something I do a lot, but every once in a while, I like to see what people are searching for that led them to this site. It’s curiosity more than anything else. I noticed that someone Googled terms that were something like “technology to use with ________.” I’m being a little vague on purpose in the hopes that I don’t inadvertently embarrass anyone, especially because what I really want to do is help. Looking for “technology to use” with anything is putting the cart before the horse, but I think I understand why people do it.

Whenever you design a lesson or unit, it’s best to start with this question: What do I want students to know or be able to do at the end of this? Backward design really will resolve a host of planning problems because everything you plan will lead to the answer to that question. Backward design will help you figure out what to do during individual lessons. Backward design will help you figure out which texts to teach or what kinds of writing assignments students should do. Backward design will help you figure out which technology to use. Individual lessons, texts and writing, and technology are not the ends themselves—they are the means to the end. They are the materials you use to reach the learning goal you’ve set. As such, asking what kinds of technology you might use to teach X is putting the focus on the technology instead of on the learning, and it probably won’t take your students where you want them to go. The best analogy I can think of is the apple unit described in Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design. If you’ve read the book, you’ll remember the description of this unit—lots of fun activities about apples, but not much understanding or deeper learning taking place.

When you design a unit for students, you want to think about what activities you might use or create that will help students reach learning goals. If, for instance, one of your goals is that students will understand Shakespeare’s language, you might design a series of lessons that engage students in study of his language—lessons in denotation, connotation, stress, and inflection that lead to an understanding of subtext; lessons in Foley art and sound effects in creating a podcast or radio play that communicates the tone and mood of a scene; lessons in diction that teach close reading. Might you use technology for these lessons? Perhaps you might create an engaging lesson using technology to teach Foley art and sound effects because the technology will add relevance to that lesson. Without technology, in fact, students might not understand the point of the lesson at all. However, it might be wholly unnecessary to use technology for teaching subtext or diction. In fact, plain old books, pencils, and paper might be the best tools to use.

When should you use technology? When it will make learning easier for students or when it will make learning possible for students. Technology is meant to save us time. If it’s not saving us time, or if it’s actually impeding the learning, we should think about why we’re using it. On the other hand, technology enables us to do many wonderful things we couldn’t do without it. If we can extend learning in ways that we couldn’t without using technology, then of course we should use it. If using technology is going to help engage students, we should use it. I’m thinking here of my colleague Lisa, whose 8th grade students blog. If they just wrote for their teacher and their classmates, they wouldn’t have the larger, more authentic audience that blogging offers. I’m also thinking of my colleague Pete, whose math students used robots to learn integers. Could Lisa’s students have learned writing without blogging? Sure. But blogging provides an audience and adds engagement. Could Pete’s students have learned integers without robots? Again, sure, but the robots add engagement and help students visualize the number line in a new way.

Why search for technology to add to our lessons instead of thinking about the lessons first and whether or not technology will enhance the learning? My hunch is that the person who was looking for technology to use with X was probably told he or she was not using enough technology. Perhaps an evaluation indicated as much. It’s impossible to know for sure. The best way that administrators can support the use of technology is to provide opportunities for faculty to learn about it and give them the tools they need. I don’t think it’s wrong for faculty members to ask for help using technology. Too many schools want teachers to use technology without really giving them proper tools to do so. In both cases, what often happens, is the teachers are labeled “reluctant.” In some attempt to appease, they might just resort to Googling “technology to use with X.” They won’t find the answers they are looking for that way. They might find a one-off activity, but without some real thought about lesson and unit design, it’s not likely that any sort of technology will help teachers reach their goals.

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Slice of Life #11: The Year of Lear

Slice of LifeI haven’t taught King Lear in a few years, but my AP students are reading it alongside Jane Smiley’s modern adaptation, A Thousand Acres. I so enjoyed returning to this play, which is one of my favorites. As students read, they are creating character maps with the twinned characters in each work, detailing which characters are allied with Lear (or at least have his best interests at heart), and which ones are his enemies. At the end of the play, students will create a literary reduction.

A quick Google search of the term “literary reduction” doesn’t yield fruitful results. I learned about reductions from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, who has used them in her own English classes. Essentially, students create graphic representations of what they have learned. Using a standard 8½ x 11-inch sheet of paper, students  distill the essence of the work by organizing quotes, ideas, images, and connections from a work of literature. My students are working in groups focusing on four different themes in the play. They will create reductions based on these themes, so as they read, they are looking for quotes that connect to their themes.

Look what I received in the mail today:

The Year of Lear

I’m so excited for this book. I absolutely loved James Shapiro’s other books A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 and Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, and given that I am currently teaching Lear and have often taught Macbeth, I expect I will learn a great deal from this book. Actually, I’ve just read the first chapter, and the first thing I wanted to do was go back in time and do Monday’s class over again. Ah well, I can still share what I’ve learned with my students tomorrow. Shakespeare is a deep well, and even when I think I know just about everything, I plumb a little deeper and uncover something new. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 looks like a great addition to my learning library.

Later this week, I will be presenting on writing workshop in my classes at OESIS (Online Education Symposia for Independent Schools) in Boston. Here is my presentation (for the curious). I want to share one interesting finding. My students use Google Docs to write, and I selected an assignment from the end of last year at random from which to draw some data. I selected an assignment from the end of the year because at that stage, students were acclimated to the workshop process. Students wrote an analysis of Macbeth. I examined how many edits they made to their essays. Keeping in mind that not every single edit is a substantial change, each edit does represent a different time that students opened the document and made some changes. Google Docs saves work every few seconds, but that does not mean a new version is created every few seconds. If you do want to see these more detailed revisions, you can click the button that says “Show more detailed revisions.” Students must stop working and return to the document after some time has passed for it to count as a new version. With that caveat in mind, here are some figures:

  • Students made an average of 8.79 edits on this one assignment.
  • One student made only two edits, but I suspect he wrote his essay in Word and pasted it later.
  • One student made 19 edits.
  • All of the students who made 12 or more edits are currently taking AP-level classes. They were not in an Honors class last year.

Even if each edit was not substantial, I admit I was blown away by these numbers.  It’s entirely possible students were making the same number of edits before I introduced writing workshop / in-depth critique to my classes (but I doubt it). It’s also possible that when students use Word, they make just as many changes, but I can’t see them because there is no revision history available for me to see. This kind of data is just one more reason, in my mind, to use Google Docs.

Just as an experiment, I decided to take a closer look at the student who made 19 edits. His last edit was insertion of a citation and a few word choice tweaks. The previous edit included removing a block quote and adding the evidence to a different part of the essay (and integrating it more tightly), deleting a sentence, lots of word choice tweaks, and reworking his conclusion. The edit previous to this one included the addition of three sentences and the deletion of two others. The previous edit included quite a lot of revision of the first page of the essay—lots of additions and deletions. The previous edit was minor, including only a sentence and a few punctuation marks. Over time, it’s interesting to see the way the essay took final shape.

In our last department meeting, we were discussing writing and the ways in which our school has embraced writing workshop, and one department member shared that he feels that students seem to understand how to revise and edit better than they had in the past. In addition, bringing writing in to the peer editing club has carried a bit of a stigma in the past, but now, he added, it’s just something that you do to improve your work. I couldn’t be happier that the work we are doing is bearing such fruit. When you treat students like writers, including emphasizing the process and teaching them to edit, they become better writers.

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Slice of Life #10: What I Like Best

Slice of LifeI have an American lit class that meets after a half hour period we’ve designated for collaborative learning and talking and working with peers and teachers. Many of my students came to class quite early today. Some of the students were discussing a quiz in history, sharing strategies they’d used to study and lamenting faulty memory when reading their history textbooks. I shared with them that my 8th grade math teacher had taught us the SQ3R method for reading textbooks, and since they hadn’t heard of it, I explained it to them. I mentioned I found it helpful for reading history textbooks in particular, but that I thought it also worked well for science. Maybe not so much for English, and I never used it in math. One student mentioned it was kind of strange that a math teacher taught it to us as it might not have been directly helpful in studying math. I said she was the kind of teacher who shared general success tips, such as study hints and note-taking methods, with us, even if it wasn’t necessarily going to help us in her class. She also taught us how to take cluster or web notes. I have never found that technique useful myself, but I’ve taught it to students who have found it quite helpful. My teacher—I still remember her name, Mrs. Sands—cared about our success and not just in her class. I knew she cared about us.

What I like best about teaching is not necessarily teaching the subject, but helping kids learn, whatever it is. I love sharing ideas and hearing from students. The conversation I described was a five-minute conversation before class, but it was a lot of fun for me, and I felt like we shared a bond over the study tips. Will they give SQ3R a try? I don’t know. But it only took a few minutes to show, and it didn’t take a lot of effort either, that I cared about my students’ success, and not just in my class.

I was in a colleague’s classroom either late last week or early this week (I forget which), and he had a small stack of writing taken up from his seniors. I noticed the names of former students, so I peeked (my colleague didn’t mind). I pulled the second paper out of the stack and started reading. It was good. I felt so proud of the student who wrote it. He had spent two years in my English classes, and he didn’t have a lot of confidence when he came in, but he worked very hard. He came in to work with me. He revised. He volunteered to have his writing workshopped. He is reaping the rewards of the effort he put into improving his writing. Of course, writing is an integral part of the English classroom, and we should be teaching students to write for a variety of audiences and purposes. It’s such an important skill to take forward, and I loved helping this student learn how to improve his writing. But make no mistake: he did the work that resulted in that improvement. He’s carrying that success forward in his English classes this year, and I don’t doubt he’ll carry it forward to future writing he does.

It doesn’t take a lot of work, I don’t think, for us to show our students that we are interested in their lives and struggles beyond our classroom walls. They will remember how we cared for them many years after they no longer remember content. Relationships are important. I remember most of my favorite teachers because of a combination of how interesting their classes were and now much we connected as people beyond the subject. I can clearly remember having teachers who made me feel invisible in the classroom, and I knew they didn’t really care about any of their students, or at least I didn’t feel it. In fact, I have had teachers who really seemed to dislike their students. I am not sure why they were teaching. Students are what I like best about teaching. More importantly, students are why I teach. And perhaps most importantly of all, I really like my students.

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