2010

The Road to Tomorrow (and Happy 2009!)

I have never been much of a fan of New Year’s Eve. I think it’s the grandmother of all parties, and I just don’t like parties. I know that makes me weird. I don’t like going out on New Year’s Eve, and I never have understood why it’s such a big celebration.

Reflection, on the other hand, I understand.

I had a pretty good 2010. I earned my master’s in Instructional Technology from Virginia Tech. I presented at a national conference for the first time and was asked to present again next year. I was named GCTE Secondary Teacher of the Year and NCTE Teacher of Excellence. Professionally, I accomplished more this year than I have any other year. I also read more books than I have in any other year. I went on a trip to Salem, MA. I made some new friends. My friendships with others deepened. I’m looking forward to doing more this year, and I hope it will be a good one. I do have some dreams and goals that remain unaccomplished, and this year feels like a good one to get rolling on them. After all, I’ll be turning 40 in September, and one thing I won’t have is more time.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Stuck in Customs

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The Kids are All Right

I just came across this tweet by Jim Burke:

Jim Burke's tweetI feel the same way. I love to hear from students, both current and former about the great things they’re doing out there in the world. Jeremy came by the school to visit last week and told me about his work with the Wilderness Society. He’s been blogging with them at WildernessU-Georgia. You can learn more about him by clicking on their About page. They don’t have posts tagged by author, but if scroll a bit, you can find some of his posts. Here are a few recent ones:

As his former English teacher, I’m thrilled he’s writing. He graduates from college this year, and I’m proud of him.

I shared Jake’s blog and wonderful photography with you recently, but here it is again, in case you missed it: Life of Jake. Jake is a gifted artist with that camera—something I didn’t know about him when he was my student, but I’ve been happy to discover it since then. He’s also an excellent writer and thinker.

Julian is really busy with college, but he blogs about GTD, organization, and productivity at 2WheeledLife. He has some helpful tips, and I have enjoyed discovering all he’s learned.

They are just beginning to go out into the world and do great things, but I’m really proud of them, and I will be interested to see what they do in the future. And I don’t worry too much about the future, because in the inimitable words of Who, “the kids are all right.” [Sorry for the paraphrase—I teach grammar and can't write alright. See? Although I will voice my radical opinion that it should be standard when its cousins altogether and already are. Just saying.]

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Edublog Awards

Nominated Teacher BlogThis blog has been nominated for an Edublog award in the category of Best Teacher Blog. If you feel this blog has earned this distinction, you can vote for it here.

I mentioned on Twitter tonight that I have some mixed feelings about these kinds of awards. I think often this particular awards competition turns into a popularity contest. As far as I know, this is the first time I’ve ever been shortlisted for any sort of Edublog award, but I see a lot of the same names appear on these award shortlists over and over. Also, I don’t know about a Lifetime Achievement Award. Education blogging has only been around about ten years or so, and Lifetime Achievement doesn’t seem like the best language to use. I also don’t really think these awards are necessarily about good or helpful writing or tweeting.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m honored that any readers enjoyed this blog enough to feel it deserved to be nominated for the award. As far as I’m concerned, if I was that helpful to anyone, then I won.

I think Edublogs does good work, and I think it’s nice that they recognize the hard work of other bloggers, even bloggers that don’t use their service, but I also don’t like the idea of “competition” for this sort of thing. I like to see blogging, tweeting, and wikis as collaborative, as conversations. I like to reflect here, to share resources. If there were any awards for blogging when I started doing it five and a half years ago, then I didn’t know about them. I would hate to think anyone was motivated by these awards (and I actually don’t believe that). Who knows? Maybe it bothers me that this blog has never been recognized until now—I fully admit my ambivalent feelings about blog awards could be tied to the fact that I haven’t won one. If I had, perhaps I might value them more highly.

I think this kind of thing is different from teaching awards, such as teacher of the year. The process for selection is so different. As far as I know, the process is blind in that judges evaluate the parts of a TOY application without knowing the nominees or perhaps even knowing the names of the nominees. The application package I submitted included a description of a typical day in my classroom, two letters of recommendation (one from a student and one from my headmaster), my philosophy of education, and descriptions of two sample lessons. I have no idea how many people were in the running for the award. I can tell you that I tied for GCTE’s Secondary Teacher of the Year. The reason GCTE selected me for the NCTE Secondary Section Teacher of Excellent Award is that they could not recognize both of their winners for the ToE award, so they took a revote, and I was selected. That award means a lot to me because I was selected by other English teachers—my peers.

While Edublogs awards work in a similar fashion, I think it is dominated (and understandably so) by “tech” folks—instructional technologists, technology educators, and ISTE folks. They would, after all, be the most comfortable with blogging, at least early on. Older blogs have an edge in this competition, and most of those older blogs are owned by tech folks. But tech folks aren’t the only ones with great ideas and knowledge to share, and I think in recognizing these same people over and over, we are missing out on some great new voices or even some older voices who for whatever reason are not nominated.

One of the reasons this blog has a high page rank in Google is that it’s been around for five years, so lots of people have linked to it (and thank you!). If I’m honest with myself, I’m not sure it is the best teacher’s blog out there, or even the best English teacher’s blog—it is, however, one of the oldest. I’ve been very absent from writing here as I attended graduate school. I have felt uninspired with regards to this blog, too. As a result, I haven’t posted a whole lot on this blog in the last year or two. I do feel that may have changed in the last week, but the year as a whole has not been a stellar blogging year for me, at least not here (my book blog is quite another story, and frankly, I think the nomination and shortlisting process for Book Blogger Appreciation Week is much more sound and thorough—and no, that blog wasn’t nominated for a Book Blogger Award because I didn’t submit my blog for one). Actually, I think Silvia Tolisano’s Langwitches blog has probably been the most influential teacher’s blog I’ve read in the last year. Plus the witches are extremely cute. It has a great design and great writing. And she updates frequently.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for nominating me.

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But Thence I Learn, and Find the Lesson True

Double Double Toil and Trouble...

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said “Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place; if we do not understand him, it is our own fault.” Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare with inventing humanity. Certainly there is no writer I enjoy teaching more than Shakespeare. Part of what makes Shakespeare special is the way that people from all walks of life can find themselves in his works and can connect their own lives to those of characters created hundreds of years ago. One of the more compelling stories I’ve heard regarding Shakespeare’s ability to impact lives is that of Prison Performing Arts, an organization I’ve discussed before. If you aren’t familiar with their work, please listen to this episode of This American Life and come back. I will wait. You must hear it.

Anyone who has ever listened to that program can never forget James Word, the man who played Laertes and credits Prison Performing Arts with helping him “see options” and to express himself. He says that “The delivery of the message, through Shakespeare and mythology, taught me life’s lessons.” I receive a newsletter from Prison Performing Arts as a supporter of their organization, and in the recent issue, Ann Haubrich has written an update on James Word. He has been released from prison and is attending college full time. He mentioned earning an A on his first English paper, which absolutely thrilled me to learn, and he discussed his desire to start a theater program for young people at his father’s church. As Word says, “If you can catch them while they’re young, before they get sent to prison, they can recognize their potential and be saved.”

It may sound idealistic, but it obviously works. Prison Performing Arts works with people that most of society has given up on, and it’s encouraging to read about their successes. I came home to find this letter in my mailbox after a great day teaching Shakespeare. My students have finished Act 1 of Macbeth, and I gave them a quiz over Act 1 from Shakespeare Set Free Volume 1. I read an article in the September 2010 issue of English Journal by Timothy Quinn and Todd Eckerson about collaborative reading quizzes. I applied this strategy to this quiz over Act 1. The students talked about each of the quotes and came to a consensus about who said the lines, to whom the speaker was speaking, and what the context of the quote was. Both of my classes earned perfect scores on the quiz. Obviously, it means that the methods in the Shakespeare Set Free unit work for helping students remember the language and learn the story. If you could have been a fly on the wall listening to my students talking about the play, I think you’d have enjoyed their discussion. It was especially interesting to hear them figure out when they were initially mistaken about a quote and discuss it. I never said a word. They conducted the discussion and reached the answers on their own.

I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach Shakespeare to my students. Shakespeare belongs to everybody, from prison inmates to Jewish high school students. As Ben Jonson observed, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” His ability to teach us about ourselves, and the richness of his language and his themes never grow old. To paraphrase Domitius Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither [him], nor custom stale / [His] infinite variety.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: Arbron

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Finished

Having Coffee #2Before Thanksgiving, I turned in my final portfolio for the Instructional Technology Master’s program at Virginia Tech. Once I receive word on how I did, I will share the portfolio here.

Turning in my portfolio was the last thing I needed to do to complete my degree. If it’s accepted, I’ll have a master’s degree. I am happy to be finished, and I feel the portfolio was a great way to show what I’d learned. I do wish that my program had worked in opportunities to build the portfolio throughout the coursework rather than just at the end, but in the end, I think I did learn from the program, particularly during the last three semesters when I took Multimedia Authoring, Project and Report, and Portfolio Evaluation. I had a truly great learning experience in Multimedia Authoring. I learned how to use Flash and built a little grammar game. My instructor for that course was the best instructor I had in the program. Project and Report was great because I was able to create my own project, and I learned a great deal about manipulating digital audio and video and the Fair Use doctrine of copyright law. Assembling the portfolio allowed me to reflect on my learning. I have already begun using some of what I’ve learned at my school as a member of the Technology Committee.

On an unrelated note, I have been meaning to share a former student’s new blog with you for some time. Jake was an absolute pleasure to teach, and I enjoy seeing what he’s up to as he makes his way in college and the world. I was really pleased that Jake not only felt comfortable sharing the blog with me, but also with my sharing it with you. Jake’s an amazing photographer, and I’m very proud of him. Hope you enjoy it!

Creative Commons License photo credit: ReneS.

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Failure

Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895

Failure is weird. Everyone experiences it, but when it happens, we feel embarrassed and alone. I have been writing this blog post in my head for years, but I haven’t posted it because I have been afraid. I decided after this weekend that it was the right time to share it.

I taught 8th grade language arts in the 2002-2003 school year. Our principal left in cloud of scandal, and we had a new principal. I was on maternity leave when she came in, but she didn’t have a good first impression of me, I’m sure, because I had a little bit of trouble adjusting to teaching that grade level. My test scores were great. Only one student on our middle school team of over 100 students failed the state’s writing test. By the measure that higher ups usually care about, I was a success. But before he left, my principal expressed concerns over the high rate of failure among my students and suggested my team leader was influencing me to be too exacting in my standards, and that perhaps I needed to lower them.

I left work one day and went into labor the next morning. I wasn’t due for a couple of weeks, and I hadn’t expected to be out the next day. I had some ungraded student work. While I was on maternity leave, I received a phone message from the assistant principal insisting that I needed to get the work graded, so I finally managed to do so, but I expected a little more sympathy, to be honest. I had a newborn at home.

The county let me know in no uncertain terms that my contract would be terminated if I didn’t return to work six weeks to the day after my leave ended. That day was the last day of post-planning, by the way. So I came back to discover my long-term sub had allowed the students to destroy some of my personal belongings and had done none of the things we were supposed to do to wrap up the year—filling out information in student files being the most onerous task. No one offered to help me. I had to take frequent breaks to nurse my son. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to leave school that day, but I finally was able to obtain the necessary signatures that said I had finished my work.

When I came back the next year, I was no longer teaching language arts but a journalism course instead. My new principal made it clear it was, in her eyes, a demotion. After her first visit to my classroom, she put me on a professional development plan for classroom management. I can’t even remember anymore all the tasks she had me complete. I know one of them was that I had to receive an observation with all satisfactory scores. She made sure that wouldn’t happen. She observed a perfect class but gave me a needs improvement because I had chosen to read a short article to my students instead of having a student volunteer read it. Suffice it to say that I was unable to meet the demands of my professional development plan and she elected not to renew my contract. The district must have wanted to make sure they were getting rid of a bad teacher for real because they made her observe me yet again. If I had been wise, I’d have tried to find out if I could have had a different administrator do the observation, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference.

I remember very clearly what my principal said. She felt I would never be a good teacher. She felt that I had been in the classroom too long at that point—six years—for anyone to expect I would improve. I am sure she felt that she was doing the right thing by removing a failure from the ranks of educators.

But then my current principal took a chance. I had been honest about the fact that my previous principal would not have good things to say about me, and I know my current principal did call the former one to find out what my issues were. She also talked to a former department chair of mine and another assistant principal who told a slightly different story. She thought about it and took a chance. To this day I’m not sure why she took a chance on me because a lot of people wouldn’t. I am grateful.

In my current setting I have been encouraged to grow. I have not, interestingly enough, had classroom management problems. You can’t insist it’s because I’m in a private school because I know private school teachers who cannot manage a classroom.

By any measure including my own, I was a failure as a teacher. But I learned that with the right support, it didn’t have to be that way. I could not only be a successful teacher but a really good teacher if I were given the assistance I needed from my administration.

I know a lot of folks like to blame others for their failures, but I really have to wonder what my former principal would think if she were able to see what I am up to now. In my case, I really think that I could have been a better middle school teacher if my administrators had given me the support to make it happen. Failure was probably one of the best things to happen to me because it put me on the path I’m walking now, but it stung. It hurt for a few years. I’d like to think I bounced back from it pretty well in the end, though. My former principal would have been completely gobsmacked if she had seen me walk across the room at the Secondary Section Luncheon on Saturday to receive a Secondary Section Teacher of Excellence Award from NCTE.

Creative Commons License photo credit: robynejay

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Speak Loudly: Banned Books Week

SpeakLaurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak has recently been the focus of a new attack by Wesley Scroggins, associate professor of management at Missouri State University. He describes the novel as “soft pornography” and apparently levied a formal challenge against this book in addition to Slaughterhouse Five, which he also deems inappropriate because of its language and its description of Jesus, and Twenty Boy Summer. He also has complaints about Republic School District’s (Missouri) sex education program, teaching of evolution, and teaching of American government and history. School Library Journal interviewed Halse Anderson about this latest attempt to ban her work.

I think parents have every right to decide with their children what is appropriate for their own children to read. Note I think the child has a voice and should have some stake. My nine-year-old became interested in the Salem witch trials after we visited Salem this year, so we checked out library books, and she learned more about them. And the facts in that case are not pretty, nor are they easy even for adults to understand, much less children. Man’s inhumanity to man is tough. But I will not shield my child from it because it exists. Not to allow her to learn about difficult subjects is to shackle her education. She can be a part of a better future because she will have learned about the mistakes of history. She will, I hope, recognize a witch hunt when she sees one. Like I do.

Parents like Scroggins are dangerous because they seek to promote an agenda with their challenges—their own. They have decided that the way they parent and their choices are the best and are more beneficial for your children than the choices you would make. They would seek to educate your own children in they way they think they should be educated. They seek to take away your right to make choices with your child.

I wish Speak had been around for me when I was in the ninth grade. It was something I needed. It’s something many girls—and boys—need. I was pleased that my own daughter read it for her English class in ninth grade. I was glad that she could learn about the trauma of rape in a book, that it happened, and that boys you liked and trusted did it—not just strangers—instead of experiencing it firsthand.

Paul Hankins has rallied around Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel with a Twitter-based campaign called #SpeakLoudly. He has also started a Speak Loudly website. We all also need to rally around Slaughterhouse Five and Twenty Boy Summer. Do not let anyone tell you what you and your children can read. Speak up! Speak loudly! Let your voice be heard this week, during Banned Books Week.

Check out these links for more on what you can do during Banned Books Week:

Feel free to share additional resources in the comments. I can add them to the list.

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Portfolio

Any idea?

I began really working on my ITMA portfolio yesterday. It seemed like a huge task because I wasn’t really sure what was expected. After I started working on it, I found myself really enjoying it. I liked the freedom to choose artifacts. In choosing documents that illustrate my progress with design, I included my project from Instructional Design, which I am decidedly not proud of, simply because I was proud of subsequent designs in Multimedia Authoring and especially Project and Report. I knew I had learned a lot, and showing that progress was important to me. I am enjoying writing the reflections, too. Once I’ve completed the portfolio sometime later this semester, it will have a permanent home on my website.

Speaking of reflection, I was wondering the other day why writing over at my book blog is giving me so much joy lately. It’s not the conversation, exactly, because aside from a few regulars, I don’t actually receive that many comments over there. I keep meaning to update my education blog, but I think that grad school, coupled with work demands, seems to be sapping so much of my energy lately. And my education blog suffers because I associate it with work. My book blog, on the other hand, I associate with reading and escape from work. So it’s probably no wonder I am feeling more like hanging out over there lately. The upshot is that I graduate this December, and maybe I’ll have more time then. Then again, maybe not. I just have to tell myself that’s it’s really OK if I need a little break. I certainly don’t want this blog to feel like one more thing I have to do.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Massimo Barbieri

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Tony Danza Teaches English

Tony Danza and class in Teach

I’ve written about Tony Danza’s latest project Teach before. The series will begin airing on A&E in October. Playing around with students’ education is not appropriate for a reality show, in my opinion; however, it should be said that Danza seems to “get it” and is not completely without teaching qualifications—his IMDb bio indicates he has a bachelor’s in History Education.

I am finding myself too busy to blog, but you can find me on Twitter most days. Sorry! It will settle down soon. I do potentially graduate from Virginia Tech with my master’s this December. After that, I might actually have time. Yeah, probably not. I’m working on my portfolio right now and feeling a little lost. Sometimes having too much freedom can be as crippling as not having enough.

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New Year’s Day

Flowers / 花(はな)It’s New Year’s Day for me—the first day of pre-planning. I am teaching two sections of British Literature and Comp., one section of American Literature and Comp., the Hero with a Thousand Faces elective, and Journalism/Newspaper. Newspaper is new for me. I have sponsored a newspaper before, but it has been a few years. I think it’s going to be a good year. Of course, a new year is always exciting for teachers, or at least it is for me.

In addition to the wiki I have created, I decided to use BuddyPress for forums, blogs, and class groups. Jeff Utecht discussed BuddyPress the other day, and though I’d seen it mentioned other places, I finally checked it out after reading Jeff’s tweet, and I have to say I think it’s going to be a really powerful extension of my classroom. Plus, I have my own domain, so why not?

I’m going to have trouble getting used to this back-to-school schedule. I am NOT looking forward to school-supply shopping. Poor Maggie has been bugging me to do it for weeks. She wants a new, more grown-up backpack. I’m just glad I don’t need to get anything for my own classroom—for a change. My own children don’t go back to school until the 23rd. Almost all the other school systems around here started today. I think their system just decided to shorten the year by starting later—systems all over the state are doing it to save money. Sad they have to.

More soon!

Creative Commons License photo credit: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

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