Category Archives: Reflection

Slice of Life #3: Leading and Learning

Slice of LifeToday marks the end of my first year leading the English department at my school. I have been department chair previously, but the circumstances were quite different. In that situation, I led a department with four other teachers, grades 9-12, at a relatively small Jewish school.

My department this year included 14 people teaching grades 6-12 (plus post-graduate students). It was a different challenge to work with so many moving parts and personalities. Sometimes, it was a fun challenge, like a puzzle. Sometimes it was not such a fun challenge. I am still really glad I’m doing it. I like working with teachers, and I really think I have a good idea or two on occasion. Otherwise, I wouldn’t want to do it.

Some of the things I think I do well:

  • Listen. This is hard for some people, but I try to hear what the teachers in my department are saying, good and bad. I think often teachers don’t feel heard. I have not always felt heard in my history as a teacher. And in some places, I felt I was actually not valued. I want teachers to feel their value. Listening to teachers is an important part of valuing them.
  • Share good feedback. When things are working, I let teachers know. If parents pass on compliments, I tell the teachers. I think we are under-appreciated in our profession, so I have always made it a habit, even when I wasn’t chair, to pass on the good things that others say. I had a great opportunity to do that today after a parent told me at graduation what a fine department I led, and how much her daughter had learned from our teachers. She didn’t have to tell me that. I never taught her daughter. But it means a lot to hear, and it should be shared with those who need to hear it, too.
  • Make suggestions and share ideas. I love to plan units and lessons, and I always love to share ideas for approaches I have taken with teaching material. If you have read this blog for a while, you know that I am invested in backward design or UbD, and I am a passionate advocate for using UbD with teachers.

Things I am getting better at:

  • Having difficult conversations. I sometimes have to explain why something isn’t working and that it has to change. I sometimes have to share tough feedback. I sometimes have to help colleagues who might not be working well together. These conversations are hard, and I am a bit of an introvert, and I don’t necessarily feel like I have all the answers all the time. But I am learning how to have these conversations, and honestly, they have gone much better than I anticipated they would (in most cases).
  • Juggling the work. At the end of the year, it was a lot of work planning schedules, navigating the tiredness of my department (teaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and like a marathon, sometimes you have to pull out that burst of speed right at the end when you are exhausted), and engaging in the hiring process for the first time in my role as chair (we didn’t make any hires when I was last chair). I am definitely tired, but I am going to do some things differently next year after learning this year.

Things I need to work on:

  • Directives. To be fair, this was a year of figuring out the state of the department and learning the various intricacies of leading an eclectic group of teachers. I didn’t want to roll out top-down initiatives. That is changing. I have some ideas about writing and reading. The best thing is when the teachers present the very ideas I had themselves. They already have buy-in, and the initiative will be more successful as a result. However, at some point, certain things need to happen, and the students come first. They need to have a high-quality education. The teachers need to be on board with the school’s mission and initiatives.
  • Inviting conversation. I do listen, and I do encourage teachers to talk with me. I do think that not all of them felt they could, to varying degrees (some felt I was completely open, while others might have perceived that I was closed). It is a bit strange that I consider listening a strength even if not everyone felt I was inviting conversation. I can get better at this. I can go to teachers and actively seek them out. I tended not to do that with some teachers.

So having said all that, I think it was a pretty good year. Teaching—it was my best teaching year yet. I felt the design of my classes really hung together well, and my students saw the relevance of what they were learning and connected it to work in other classes and to events in the world. That’s a success.

This summer will be a bit busy. I am going to the Multicultural Teaching Institute next week. At the end of this month, I go to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. I am presenting a day-long digital storytelling workshop in July. I am going to AP English Literature training in July. In August, I am participating in critical friends training at school. Because I’m teaching AP, I have some light reading to do:

BooksMost of these books are texts for AP. You might be able to see the Newkirk and Kittle on the bottom. Those are professional reading. I also plan to bring in A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. I have read some of these books, and even taught them before, but not in a while. Others I have read only but not taught. Others I have not read. I have some work to do this summer. One thing I love about my job: It’s never boring!

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Slice of Life #2: Thank You Gifts

Slice of LifeI had a few meetings today, but my Thursday is looking like a long string of meetings, so I’m really glad I got my grades and comments finished today. In part, I needed to wind up some business with my final paper. Things did not go as well with that last assignment as I wanted, and I will not be doing it again next year. I have a plan: I want to use our school’s Portrait of a Learner—the description of what we want our students to be and do in the world—as a touchpoint for a portfolio. I want students to select the work that demonstrates the ways in which they feel they have met the goals in Portrait of a Learner and also our five core values of Honor, Respect, Community, Personal Growth, and Challenge. Then I want to sit down with each student and his or her portfolio while they talk to me about their learning. It will be a year-long project. I am already excited. I ran it by one of my history teacher friends, and he likes it, too.

On another note, I received a wonderful gift from a student whom I taught last year.

Dana in Traditional Vietnamese Hat

She left it on my desk with a note saying it is a “traditional Vietnamese hat.” She is from Vietnam and is studying here in America. She started out in our English language learner classes, and this year, she was in AP English. She used to sit with me when I had my desk in the library and just do her work and prep for the SAT while I did my work. We sat near each other and just worked. We didn’t always talk, but sometimes we did, and we had really interesting conversations about her home country and about her studies. She has a gift for spinning a story. She picked it up in SAT prep. She would write an essay about how she wanted to pursue her passion for cooking and how she had to help her parents accept her dreams. I said, “I didn’t know you wanted to cook!” She would reply, “I don’t. I just thought it would make a good topic for the essay.” She had a real knack for it. She also gave me a beautiful silk scarf. Her mother is coming to see her graduate on Friday, and my student wants to introduce us.

Working with students is such a blessing. They don’t always thank you, and sometimes it’s hard when you know something you did didn’t work out so well (my final assignment), but in the end, it’s rewarding to be appreciated, and most of the time, the kids are all right.

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Remembering Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins and Dana HuffIf you have been reading this blog for a while, you know how influential Grant Wiggins’s thinking has been on me (and so many other educators). Many years ago, I decided to read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe after Jay McTighe visited my school and led a helpful PD session. I was new to backward design, and it’s one of those things that once you see it, the light bulb goes off, and you say, “Ah, yes. Of course. That is exactly how to plan learning for students.”

We managed to cobble together a reading group here on this blog. Without thinking about it, without asking permission or anything, I created the UbD Educators wiki. I was so taken with the ideas in Understanding by Design, and the only thing I could think about doing was the work. And the best way I could think of to do the work was to share and collaborate. In hindsight, Grant and Jay McTighe could probably have sued me, but they were also much more interested in spreading the work, so instead, Grant commented on my blog.

Great blog! And I really appreciate the time and thought that is going into your reading. Yes, ubd is not for those looking for a quick fix. Nor is it great to be lonely – I hated that as a teacher myself. But there is actually a lot you can do on your own to sustain the work. The [key] is to take small steps – try out a few ideas here and there; work on 1 unit a semester – especially a unit that now is so boring it bores you to teach it. Learn the various ‘moves’ but only use the ones that appeal. And, finally, avail yourselves of the various forums and resources we and others have put together to support the work. Go to for starters. Check out the ubdexchange. Go to the virtual symposium on ubd and differentiated instruction run through ascd. And write the poor authors, who rarely get this kind of lovely feedback!

Later, he offered wiki members an extra boost:

Because I want to be supportive of this, I am going to give all those who use this wiki access to our still-not-public course on ubd. Go to . The enrollment key is Hopewell. I would love you to use it and give feedback – there is also a book study guide. I’ll also build in a link to this wiki.

Last year, when we finally met in person, I was able to thank him for not suing me. He laughed. But the truth is, Grant cared deeply about design and making learning experiences better for students and teachers. He changed everything about the way I teach. He was such a supportive coach and mentor.

I was thrilled when he asked me to be one of his education bloggers on the Faculty Room (it’s defunct, and as far as I know, no longer exists anywhere). Some of you might have some vague memories of that blog.

He met a lot of people, and in the last couple of years in particular, he was becoming more and more active online both on Twitter and his blog. I didn’t always agree with Grant, but he was hugely influential in my thinking and teaching, and I have to admit that most of the time, I thought he was right.

In the last year or so, we really became friends. He would comment on the oddest things I posted on Facebook. Things I wouldn’t expect him to care about at all. The last comment he left in response to a silly cartoon I posted:

Who's on FirstCommentA lot of times, he passed over educational posts completely, but I did get to know the Grant Wiggins who was a lifelong learner and musician and loved his family deeply through Facebook. Seems really odd that Facebook helps us forge those connections. That was just a few days ago. I am in shock. I can’t believe Grant passed away so suddenly and so soon. My condolences go out to his family and friends. I will miss his contributions to education. We owe him so much. But even more than that, I think I’ll miss his funny little comments in reply to the oddest things.

The last exchange we had on Twitter was just about week ago.

I replied, and he said, with his typical wit:

Grant knew there was still work to do, and the best way we can honor Grant is to carry on with the work.

Rest in peace, Grant, and thank you for everything.

Grant Wiggins at Worcester Academy
Grant Wiggins teaching teachers at Worcester Academy. Photo credit Shirley Balestrier.


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Meeting Students Where They Are

meeting halfway photo
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about how important it is to meet students where they are. I am not saying we should not have standards, but we are going to have students in our classes, and they are going to be all over the map when it comes to backgrounds, experiences, interests, and ability (for lack of a better word).

I know sometimes I am frustrated that my students don’t know something I would have expected them to know. Granted, I also teach in a private school. Just like any other school, however, we have students from a variety of backgrounds. With those caveats in mind, I would venture to guess that all of us have heard teachers we have worked with who complain about students not knowing something. It might be nice if we didn’t have to fill in what we perceive as gaps, but it’s not realistic, given the different places from which students arrive in our classes.

It took me some time, but I have come to the conclusion that we really need to meet students where they are. I know that many teachers are stressed about high-stakes tests, and yes, that’s not something I need to worry about, so maybe it’s easy for me to talk. Bottom line, I think students need to feel we like them and care about them. Otherwise, it can be hard for them to invest in our classes. Did you invest in classes in which you felt the teacher didn’t like you? I remember I didn’t. Oh, I did my assigned work, but I wouldn’t ever put myself out for a teacher who didn’t care.

I try to see to it that all of my students make some progress while they are in my classroom. For some students, that means feeling more confident. For others, it means turning work in on time. For others, it means reaching for AP classes. Maybe I will feel differently about this issue next year (though I suspect I won’t), when I am teaching an AP class myself, but I am going to try to have the attitude “How can I help this student be successful on the AP exam given where they are now?” rather than “Why is this student in AP?”

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American Literature: How I Threw Out the Chronology and Embraced the Themes

america photoIf you went to an American high school, I’ll bet your high school had an American literature course. Other courses seem to vary based on type of school, location, and other interests, but American literature seems to be the one universal course. I know it’s the only literature course that all the high schools where I have taught have in common. After all, it makes sense, right? American high school students should study the literature of their country. One would expect British high school students to study British literature and Chinese high school students to study Chinese literature and so on.

Many students seem to take this course in 10th or, more commonly, in 11th grade. My school requires American Studies in Literature for most 11th graders. I have taught an American literature course for a large chunk of my teaching career. Typically, the schools I have worked in have had an American literature anthology such as one of the following:

At one time or another, I think I’ve used all of these books in one of their incarnations. The latest editions I used had lots of nice glossy pictures and references to standards, reading questions, and lots of introductory reading material. I think they are all pretty much arranged chronologically, and therein lies the problem. It’s tempting to rely on the way the textbook is laid out when teaching. Grant Wiggins says in his blog post “How do you plan? redux” (emphasis mine):

For myself, I haven’t ever been a slave to a textbook, and go through the process you describe every time I get a new course, constantly revisiting as I move through the year. I always find that I still go too fast the first year, then slow it way back the second, and then pull in subjects slowly as I get better at designing the course. I encourage all other teachers to do the same. My coworkers are always taken aback when they ask me what chapter I’m on and I say, I don’t do chapters.

The easy thing to do is to use the textbook as the plan, but this year, I ditched the textbook, and it was liberating. Instead of marching chronologically through American literature, starting with the Puritans and perhaps a few token Native American pieces and trying to get through as much as possible before stalling out around the 1940’s or so at the end of the school year, I spent a lot of time last summer designing the American literature course I’m teaching from the bottom. I discovered some really interesting things, too, and it entirely changed the way I approached teaching the subject.

Instead of thinking about the texts, I thought about the themes. The themes that immediately came to mind are the American Dream, the American Identity, and Civil Disobedience. I gave it some thought and wound up with the following themes in the end:

  • This Land is Your Land: The American Identity
  • Song of Myself: Individuality, Conformity, and and Society
  • American Dreams and Nightmares
  • In Search of America

For the unit I called This Land is Your Land: The American Identity, I wrote the following essential questions:

  • What is an “American”?
  • How is an American identity created?
  • Why have people come to America, and why do they continue to come to America?

Then I decided the works of literature we would study would need to respond in some way to these questions, so the final unit included works such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but also a short piece from Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club usually titled “The Rules of the Game.” We read the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. We read poetry like Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” Hughes’s “I, Too,” and McKay’s “America.”

The unit took quite a long time, so the first thing I plan to do this summer is examine the whole year and see what reorganizing I can do.

The second unit, “Song of Myself: Identity, Conformity, and Society” included essential questions:

  • How has the concept of civil disobedience influenced America?
  • What is the role of the individual in society?
  • What is good for the community? What are implications for individuals?
  • Why do people conform? Why do others choose not to conform? What happens as a result of these choices?

The unit includes readings such as Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and works by Dickinson, Whitman, Hughes, and Emerson.

The third unit, “American Dreams and Nightmares” includes the following essential questions:

  • What is the American dream? To what extent is it achievable by all? What values does it reflect?
  • Is America a classless society?
  • Can we repeat the past?

We will read The Great Gatsby as a centerpiece and will explore a wide variety of poets from Eliot to Simon and Garfunkel and from Frost to Baraka.

The final short unit will explore the lure of the American highway:

  • Is the journey as important as the destination?
  • How do we relate to our families, communities, and society? To what extent is each relationship important?
  • How do our personal journeys shape who we become?

We will read short works by Welty, Hughes, Frost, Simon and Garfunkel, and Giovanni, but the bulk of the unit will be a digital storytelling project we have been gearing up for with a focus on storytelling that has run through the year, including This American Life, among other texts. Whatever happens, even if I have to chuck out literature I would love the students to study, that digital storytelling project is happening.

One thing I discovered as I planned the year is that without the constraints of a chronology, I felt free to explore works I might never otherwise have chosen, but which define or illustrate the themes quite well and perhaps say more about who we are as a people than works I might have taught in a chronology.

I strongly believe that literature is a mirror. We see ourselves reflected in what we read, and we either connect or don’t connect based on what we see. Using this process, it was my hope that I would choose works that my students could find themselves in but would also still help them understand who and what America is. I felt Barack Obama articulated well what I was trying to create in his speech at Selma.

Obama Selma WordcloudWe are a great country, and we can be greater still if we are willing to take a hard look at ourselves in that mirror.

I discovered that the thematic thinking showed more of an arc—it told the story of America and allowed for more diversity in the literature. I ran across this 100-year-old article in English Journal today when I was poking around online: “Required American Literature” by Nellie A. Stephenson. The first sentence killed me (in the sense that Holden Caulfield means).

For the last ten years I have been slowly gathering the impression that graduates of American colleges and American public high schools are appallingly ignorant of American literature.

Admit it. This person is in your department. She goes on to argue that she thinks too much emphasis is placed on English literature to the detriment of studying American literature (with little data aside from anecdotal impressions) to support her assertion. But rather than “exploding the canon,” she really only argues for establishing a new American canon. Among her essentials are Sidney Lanier, Walt Whitman, Samuel Sewell, and John Woolman. Are they on your list? By the way, no references in the article to women writers or, for that matter, any writers besides white men. And therein lies the problem with the textbooks. If we rely on them, we let them tell us who is important. To be sure, many of the texts I chose for my course are also canonical, but I also made an attempt to bring in non-canonical works and writers with a large diversity of backgrounds and time periods (more modern literature always seemed to get the short shrift from me in the past).

What I need to work on now is paring the list down and offering more choices to students. I was struck the other day in speaking with a young teacher who explained that he didn’t much like to read when he was our students’ age because he wasn’t offered a lot of choice, so he didn’t know what he liked to read. Instead, he either read (or pretended to read) the required texts in school. My own high school experience was strange because I went to three different high schools, and as a result, my background in literature was patchy. I hadn’t read all the literature you were supposed to have read. And I still went on to read it later and become an English teacher. I just don’t buy the argument that we have to read certain texts in high school. I think if we really want to read them, we will come to them when we are ready. Or maybe we don’t read them, and the world doesn’t end.

Perhaps we teach the chronology because that’s what we have always done. Perhaps we do it because it makes organizing the curriculum easy. Perhaps we do it because our books are arranged that way. We should think about why we are doing it. If we threw out the book, how would we teach the American literature? Or any course, for that matter?

One thing for sure: there is not enough time in the world to teach all the literature worth reading. There is not even enough time to read all the literature worth reading. The best we can do is remember the dictum of that great teacher, Socrates (or at least attributed to him): “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

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gardening photoI have been writing this blog post in my head for months now, and I’m not sure I will really capture what I’m thinking.

I have changed a lot as a teacher over the years. I no longer agree with many of the ideas I expressed earlier in this blog. Perhaps some of the ways I have changed can best be expressed by exploring some of those opinions, why I held them then, and why I no longer hold them.

I used to be strict about late work. As in, I didn’t want to take it. Sometimes, I still would, despite saying, here on this blog, that I didn’t do it. I struggled with the issue of keeping track. It was easier for me, organizationally, if I asked students to turn in work on time. And that has not changed. It is still easier on me if they turn their work in on time. However, despite the fact that my school has a policy about late work, I take work late, and I don’t really penalize for it unless it becomes a chronic issue with a student who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have come to believe that perhaps students do not always meet a standard at the same time. Sometimes, some students need to take a little longer. Sometimes, things happen, and maybe it’s not even that catastrophic. Maybe they forgot. I forget stuff, too. That’s why, when I asked a student about a late project today, and she sheepishly said, “I’m still working on it,” I replied, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar.” It does cause a bit of an organizational issue for me, but one way I manage it is to have students do work electronically (which, by the way, was a suggestion from a commenter on the blog post I linked above). Keeping track of Google Docs and online quizzes works better for me than having bits of paper everywhere, and I find I can manage the work more easily.

Students also ask me if they can revise their work, and I always let them. Why? Because I think it helps them become better writers when they do. And I care more about that progress than I care about keeping a grade at a certain level. Some folks disagree with that stance and call it grade inflation. I used to have some real issues with grading myself, but partly those issues were based on expectations of an administrator who thought I was too easy on the kids. I was actually threatened with my job, so I decided I needed to be harder, and I tried to justify it to myself philosophically as part of being a rigorous teacher with high expectations. I just don’t think my students would say I don’t have high expectations today, even if I allow late work and revision. If I didn’t have to give grades, I don’t think I would. I have come to see them as a false construct. They have the value that we give them, and we can’t really even agree on what that value is. Some folks bestow A’s on students unwillingly and always sparingly, but the grade inflation battle was lost a long time ago. We can keep trying to defend that hill if we want to, I suppose, but I don’t want to die on it myself. So, I have a lot of high grades, and I didn’t used to have as many. I don’t think they came easy. I am quite concerned that students and parents focus too much on grades and not enough on the learning, and the funny thing that happens when you allow students to revise and to turn in late is that it doesn’t really become about the grade. It does seem to help students understand that the issue at hand is the learning, and they will work harder for me and do more than they did when I felt like I had to keep grades lower to please my administrator. At the time, however, I was very concerned that too many A’s said something negative about my expectations and the level of challenge in my class. Now, I think they tend to say students are learning the material successfully.

I used to talk too much in my classes, and some days, I probably still do. But I have really worked on it over the years. I can remember writing lectures that were basically scripts, if you can believe that, when I first started teaching. I had to have complete control and go bell to bell. My second day in my own classroom was a complete disaster. I had just received my 33rd student in the class, and I was trying to get him sorted. I only had 28 desks, I think, and the kids were being too talkative, and I wasn’t starting class on time because I was dealing with this new student, and I said to the kids that they should be working quietly while I handled the situation, adding that “It should be so quiet I could hear a pin drop.” Geez, does that make me cringe. Guess what happened? Every kid in the class dropped his or her pen. I was furious, but then we “started” class, and I pushed through. That first year is not something I like to think about at all. I made so many mistakes. Part of the issue, though I didn’t understand it at the time, is that it was all about me and my control and not about the students. Today, one of my classes had a Socratic seminar. They are actually one of my favorite things to do with students, and I should do them more than I do. Students do all of the work in a seminar. I look down at my notes and do not say anything. Students run the discussion themselves. One of the girls in the class today remarked that it was the best Socratic seminar she’d had in school. The students really need to be taken seriously as leaders of their own learning, and they need to be given the control. Giving students control doesn’t mean we have lost control. Letting them take control of the class, the direction of the discussion, tells me much more about what students have learned than standing in front of a room talking at kids did.

I actually sent this article to my students, my students, today. I honestly believe that ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have shared it with them because I wouldn’t have wanted them to get ideas. A few years ago, I heard a student ask one of my colleagues, “Why do we have to learn this?” and the guy actually responded, “Because I said so.” I cringed. But that the same time, I used to think certain content was dreadfully important to learn. I used to give regular tests. I can’t remember the last time I gave a test (aside from a final, which I was required to give or which I agreed to give because the department wanted to). What I want students to learn has changed completely compared to my early years as a teacher.

  • I want students to learn to work together collaboratively.
  • I want them to learn that writing takes work, and you need to revise. The writing process helps.
  • I want them to learn to communicate their ideas to others with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • I want them to learn to think critically: to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. I want them to learn to ask questions.
  • I want them to learn to create. All kinds of things: videos, podcasts, poems, essays, stories.
  • I want them to learn metaphors. We think in metaphors. When we learn new information, we compare it to what we know and classify it through metaphor.
  • I want them to learn to comprehend, use, and enjoy what they read.
  • I want them to learn the value of critique: how to do it helpfully and how to use it to improve their own work.

These are all important skills and habits of mind that can be taught in a variety of ways. None of it really requires certain content, which is what the article I linked is getting at. Working with content is a means toward teaching these more important skills, but the content is not the end itself. When I began teaching and relied on lecture, content was all I taught. I don’t think students learned a lot of the more important skills in my bullet list. And the truth is, they didn’t really learn the content either.

One of the messy aspects of having a blog is that some of that evolution of thought has taken place in public. As a result, I have had to field emails or comments from people who quibble with some stance or other that I took seven years ago because my thinking on the issue is still published here. I actually had to close comments on older posts because 1) after a year, everyone else has moved on, and the only person who will see the comment is me, so it’s not really a conversation anymore, and 2) most of the time, if it’s a comment on a post that old, the commenter really isn’t invested in a conversation anyway, and they can be downright trolls on occasion. The occasional negative or even rude comment is part of blogging, I suppose, but we all want folks to judge us on what we’ve learned and the progress we’ve made. We don’t want to be held to ideas and opinions we no longer think are important. Maybe we have learned some things that have changed our minds about something we used to believe. We grow, we change, we evolve. Maybe we should let the learning be a little messy and give students that same time to evolve.

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NCTE 2014 Recap

Audience at B.24
Audience at B.24. Photo by Lisa Iaccarino

NCTE is over. My brain is full. I have a few major takeaways:

  1. My students are not given nearly enough opportunities for independent reading. As in none, really. I am not going to go so far as to flagellate myself for malpractice, but I definitely need to bring in opportunities for students to select what they read. There is a good balance I can strike with required reading and self-selected reading.
  2. My classroom library needs an overhaul. I have two bookshelves (inherited) in my classroom. One is broken. The other is leaning precariously against classroom heating system. Both of them need to go. I want my students to be able to peruse the shelves. Seeing a picture of Penny Kittle’s classroom library gave me serious shelf envy. My husband and I talked about it, and he would be thrilled if I would get some of our books out of the house and into my classroom. I really just need to get some shelves and fill them.
  3. I missed YA fiction. I haven’t read any in a while, and one aspect of NCTE that I have always enjoyed is the access to titles and conversations about YA literature. I had Eleanor & Park on my Kindle, and I hadn’t read it yet. I started reading it last night, and I didn’t stop until I was done. I found John Green’s quote particularly compelling: “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.” You know what book I keep thinking about now that I’ve finished Eleanor & Park? Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. I fell in love with that book hard. I wore out my copy. I still remember the cover.

Tiger EyesMore soon. Still decompressing.

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Tales from Writing Workshop

writing photoWhile my students engaged in writing workshop with short persuasive speeches, this year’s workshop really began in earnest this week with essays about the definition of an American. My students have read the frequently taught and anthologized letter by Crèvecoeur in which he offers his famous definition of an American. I won’t link to any particular version because I used a condensed version I edited myself. My students compared their definitions to his. I imagine it’s a fairly standard assignment for that particular piece of early American literature. We workshopped two essays in each of my American literature English classes. My goal is to offer each student in my classes an opportunity to workshop their writing.

As we workshopped the first essay in one of my classes, I could hear the student next to the essay’s writer talking to the essay writer (and not in an out-loud-I’m-sharing-feedback-for-workshop way). I asked him what was wrong; he seemed if not exactly distressed at least a little uncomfortable. He said, “Oh, I just need to rethink my whole essay.” I said, “You won’t appreciate my saying this, but my reaction is: good! I’m glad. How much better is it to figure that out in this early drafting stage than get it back and realize you had some problems?” He agreed it was probably better that way and took my teasing—even if did contain a serious message—in good-humored way.

Because I’m nosy, I just checked his Google Doc to see what the revision history looked like. Check this out:Google Docs Revision HistoryThe pink icon belongs to the writer whose essay we were workshopping. I didn’t tell them to share. They just decided to help each other. I was able to see what the suggested edits were—a couple of grammar/mechanics suggestions. More important to me is the number of times the writer made his own edits, and the substance of edits. He’s not finished either. The end of his document contains quite a lot of notes and ideas for proceeding. In any case, the paper isn’t due until next Thursday.

The evening after this writing workshop class, I received an email from one of my students. He was requesting that we workshop his essay in the next class, if we had time, and he was hoping he could get some help with development and structure. We did look at his essay. It was well written. Some quotes were tightly integrated; others needed more anchoring. He used outside research. He developed his ideas well. He crafted a fine argument. One of my students (just so happens it was the same one who said he’d need to rethink his essay), remarked that he felt sure the writer would have earned an excellent grade without the help of workshop. I pointed out, “But we made it even better.” I could tell the writer was really happy with the accolades of his classmates:

“Please don’t grade my essay after his, Mrs. Huff.”

“Wow, that was amazing.”

“That was awesome.”

“Way to set the bar high.”

I would love to have a picture of his beaming face.

Today, a student in that class came by during our cooperative/collaborative learning time. “After reading that essay yesterday, I realized I need some help with mine.”

Students have an authentic audience of their peers in writing workshop. They learn to be much stronger writers and editors as a result of sharing their own work and reading their peers’ work. My student writers probably did more for helping their peers with their own essays this week than I could have done all year. I’m willing to bet quite a few of them turned to their work with a more critical eye after seeing the possibilities. And it’s only a few weeks into the year.

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Using Evernote for Lesson Plans

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Photo by joe.ross

Before I get into the meat of this post, I wanted to mention that I’ve been having some issues with pages taking a long time to load and general slowness on this site. I put in a help ticket with my web host after trying to fix it myself without much success. The site appears to be running more smoothly, so even though I haven’t heard from my host, I am wondering if they took a look already and figured out the problem. At any rate, please be patient with me if you are having issues.

This year, I am trying a new experiment using Evernote for my lesson plans. I love Evernote. I use it quite extensively for personal note-taking, such as keeping my soap-making journal, planning trips, and the random article or PDF I want to save. I have Evernote Premium, which allows me to annotate and take notes on PDF’s as well. I also have offline access to notes, higher monthly uploads, and some other additional features, but I mainly wanted to be able to annotate PDF’s without using a separate app.

As much as I use Evernote, I wasn’t really using it for lesson planning at all. When I inquired on Twitter, I discovered Jim Burke would not be publishing a 2014-2015 Teacher’s Daybook. I had decided to go back to the Daybook after trying an electronic planbook that was brilliant, but just wasn’t working for me (not sure why). I was bummed about the Daybook, and though Jim publishes the templates online, I just didn’t want to print them out. Something told me that I wouldn’t stick with it. I happened on Nick Provenzano’s post about using Evernote to plan a while back, and I decided to give it a shot, particularly since I already liked Evernote.

First, I created Evernote notebooks for each of my classes. This process is fairly straightforward, so I’ll skip the explanation, but if you have trouble with it, feel free to ask for clarification in the comments.

I created a calendar template next. The dates can easily be changed each month. In order to create new calendar notes, I use the following process:

  • Navigate to the appropriate notebook (in my case, World Literature II or American Studies in Literature—whatever you called your class).
  • Add a new note and name it with the correct month and year.
  • Go to my calendar template note and copy the text in the note (the calendar grid).
  • Paste the text into my new note.

After I created the calendar template, I created a daily lesson plan template. This template suits my needs. It includes my school’s Portrait of a Learner (objectives), which are not as extensive or complicated as CCSS. This template forces me to think about a good hook or interest grabber at the start and how to tie everything back together at the end of the lesson with a good wrap up. In between, I can list all the parts of the lesson with detail. I can think about which areas of Bloom’s Taxonomy the lesson addresses and be thoughtful about the kind of homework (if any) required. My favorite part, however, is a reflection. After the lesson, at the end of the day usually, I take about five minutes and write short reflections on the lessons.

I can link the daily lessons on the calendar template by right-clicking on the note and selecting “Copy Note Link” in Evernote. Here is Evernote’s Knowledge Base article on this topic in case you need help. Then I paste that note link on the appropriate date in the calendar, and I have a nice, linked up monthly planner that organizes my daily plans.

In addition, I use tags, such as unit titles, course titles, book or other literary work titles, authors, and types of lesson (e. g. writing workshop) to further link my notes. I can then search my notebooks using any of these tags and see all my lessons from a given unit, course, etc.

Evernote notebooks can be shared, so using Evernote is a solution for teachers who are planning together as well.

So far, I am liking it quite a bit. I’ll keep you posted on the experiment.

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Digital Storytelling Workshop

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Thanks to my school, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a digital storytelling workshop with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Denver at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.

I will admit that I went into the workshop with a fair amount of hubris. I thought to myself, I’ve been teaching English for sixteen years. I know a lot about these kinds of projects. I’m a technology integrator. I know iMovie pretty well. I’d go so far as to consider myself an expert in comparison with many teachers—though I’d not go so far as to say I know everything there is to know about it, I can do pretty much everything I might want to do for school purposes. I didn’t really expect to learn very much from this workshop, but I was glad I would have the opportunity to visit my grandparents, who live in the Denver area.

On the first day of the workshop, we engaged in probably the most powerful part of the entire experience (for me), which was a story circle. We were advised to come with a draft of a script, but I tried to sit down and write one, and I found I couldn’t figure out what to say. As it turned out, very few of the participants were prepared with a script. In story circle, we each had twelve minutes to talk about our story, answer questions, ask questions, and obtain feedback from the facilitators and other participants. I think the reason it was such a powerful experience is because it was such a bonding moment. Several of us cried as we reached the heart of what it was we wanted to say, and the facilitators were excellent at provoking us to really think about what story we wanted to tell.

I started my spiel with the idea that I wasn’t going to cry at all. I told everyone I was visiting my grandparents. My grandfather is a WWII vet, and I decided I would make a digital story about his experiences in WWII. He has some really interesting stories about being inducted into the Navy, joining the Seabees, breaking his glasses and running afoul of postal censors when he wrote home asking for his parents to send him two pairs to replace the broken ones, coming up with a secret code so he could communicate with his mother, and contracting meningitis and causing the Army’s 7th Division to fall under quarantine and have their Christmas leave canceled. A couple of years ago, he was able to travel to Washington, DC on an Honor Flight to see the nation’s capital, specifically the World War II Memorial. He enjoyed the trip a great deal. So, I said to the story circle, that’s what I want to tell a story about.

The facilitator looked at me, a pointed expression on her face, and she asked me, “Dana, how is this story about you?” I was startled by the question, but I thought for a minute, and then, naturally, I burst into tears. It was about me because of everything my grandparents had done for me. It was about me because they are elderly, and I don’t know how much time I have left. It was about me because I will be devastated when they are gone.

With this much-needed clarity, I began to write my script. I was having trouble paring it down to the 300-word suggested limit. I thought I might be able to do 500 words, but 300 was too little to say everything I thought I needed to say. I decided I would just rebel and make a longer video, and I set to work with that script. The facilitator helped me record my voiceover. I interviewed my grandfather, who spoke for an hour about his experiences, and I selected the parts I would use in the story. I scanned lots of pictures my grandparents had around the house.

When I began stitching together the different pieces, I accidentally deleted a whole segment in which my grandfather goes into some detail about having meningitis during the war. After I listened to the video, though, I realized I didn’t exactly need the clip, so I let it go, and I actually managed to get the video at the upper time limit. I never thought I’d do that. It has taken me a couple of weeks’ worth of soul-searching and wrestling to decide whether or not to share the story I created.

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The experience of making the video convinced me to pull digital storytelling into my own curriculum. One natural place I could see it falling is in my American Studies in Literature course. I had already decided to incorporate This American Life into my American literature curriculum, as I see media like podcasts and videos as the new “wave” of writing/storytelling. Well, maybe not so new anymore, but you know how it is in education. Near the end of the year, I plan to explore the theme of the journey. I did not select a large number of works because I knew I wanted to do a culminating project of some kind. The journey, can, of course, be a physical journey. It can also be an inward journey, a self-discovery. Like my video was, after a fashion. Here is another example from the Denver director of the Center for Digital Storytelling:

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It really impacted me when I watched it. Obviously, I would not ask students to tell stories that they are not ready to tell, but I think this could be one of the most powerful experiences for my students:

  • We all have stories, and think about how important it is for us to tell them. Think about how interesting your average episode of This American Life and The Moth is. Think about how entertaining it is to read, say, David Sedaris.
  • We often ask students to read the stories of others, but we don’t ask them to tell their own. We ask them to analyze the stories of others.
  • Digital storytelling is a new way of sharing narrative. In the past, we listened to storytellers. Then we read. I think this might be the next thing. Not that we stopped listing to people tell stories or that will will stop reading. But this adds a new dimension to storytelling.
  • The “writing” aspect of this project is some of the hardest writing I have ever done. I can see people challenging the idea that this is writing, but drafting the whole story was an extremely challenging and rewarding process.

Here is more of Daniel Weinshenker on storytelling:

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One aspect of the process that I will definitely borrow is the story circle. It fits hand-in-glove with the kind of writing workshop I have been doing in my classes.

In the end, I even learned some useful technical tricks that made my video better (and here I thought I was an expert!).

Years ago, I was in Coleman Barks’s last poetry class at the University of Georgia. The final project we did in his class was to bring our own poetry to class and share it. Dr. Barks anthologized it. He told us explicitly that after we studied the great 20th century American poets, we were now among them, the next generation if you will. And I believed it. I want to give that gift to my own students.

If you have a chance to take one of the Center for Digital Storytelling workshops, don’t hesitate. They do excellent work. Next to Folger Teaching Shakespeare PD, it’s the best PD I’ve ever had in my life.

Photo by Jill Clardy

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