Your Favorite Teacher

Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September 1950, teacher at deskTell me about your favorite teacher.

What role did your favorite teacher have in your own decision to become a teacher? In choosing the grade level or subject matter you teach?

What made your favorite teacher special? Why was he/she your favorite?

In what ways are you like or do you try to be like your favorite teacher?

Creative Commons License photo credit: George Eastman House

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What I’ve “Drawn” Up

CreativityIn a previous post, I discussed some trouble I had teaching a lesson, and basically, it all hinged on the vocabulary my students had. One mistake I made, I think, was assuming I needed to get in the middle of the learning. When my other class reads “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” today, they are going to use a remixed version of Joe Scotese’s group work lesson on the poem. Changes I made to the lesson:

  • I took out references to the Milton poem and “The Rape of the Lock.” (Essentially removed questions 1-3 on Joe’s lesson).
  • I tweaked the other questions
    • I removed references to Uncle Remus, Song of the South, etc. from question 4.4.
    • I added the word “pastoral” to terms to look up and discuss along with the image of The Shepherdess by Jean Honoré Fragonard (which I put on the back of my revised questions).
    • I removed question 4.9 because I removed the Pope excerpt.
    • I altered question 4.17 to remove reference to Uncle Remus.

Joe’s work is copyrighted, rather than licensed under a Creative Commons license, but you are free to join his site and download the lesson. I am not able to publish my altered version because I respect Joe’s wishes regarding the publication of his work.

One critical component of Joe’s work is that in the groups, students read the poem and do not go on until they understand what is being said. I think students might need to read with dictionaries in hand, and I will be able to facilitate as they discuss in groups, but putting more of the work on them and making them more active is a positive change. I’ll leave a comment here after the lesson and let you know how it went.

I have also recently come upon Dawn Hogue’s text for Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (PDF). Dawn has created a great text that invites students to annotate and think about the story. A lot of the fat literature anthologies don’t include this story, and I like it better than some of the more commonly anthologized stories, so I am grateful to Dawn for sharing.

I was also pleased to discover Romantic Circles as I prepare to teach Romanticism in British Lit. and Comp. Romantic circles has electronic texts, audio, literary criticism, and teaching ideas.

On an unrelated note, I discovered that my Diigo account wasn’t updating with a links post each Sunday, and I have fixed the problem. My Diigo links should now publish each Sunday for those of you who follow the RSS feed and don’t see them in the sidebar to the left.

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Back to the Drawing Board

Tapping a PencilMy lesson on Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” bombed pretty spectacularly today. Well, that might be a bit hyperbolic. Surely the time of day, and few classroom irregularities also bear some blame.

I began the lesson by telling students I was going to tell them a story. In Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain, there is a fantastic story about General James Wolfe’s capture of Quebec in the French and Indian War. Things were going badly for the English and Americans. The French wouldn’t budge out of Montreal, and the only way to get to them was up a steep cliff. To top it off, Wolfe had consumption and was so sick at one point he could barely lift his head. He tried to give orders, but all the English attempts to engage the French were failures. Summer was passing quickly, and before long, fall would come, freezing over the St. Lawrence, and making an attack unfeasible until the spring thaw. Suddenly Wolfe’s consumption went into remission, and he hatched a crazy plan. He had seen a little inlet and wondered if he could get his troops up the cliff. From the text:

At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.

When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.

Wolfe died of wounds received in the battle, but his attack was successful, and the English captured Quebec. And yet he says he would rather have written Gray’s poem. After telling my students this story, I asked them to close their eyes and try to picture the images as I read the poem. That was a mistake. It’s about 128 lines long, which is bearable, but longer than their attention spans for sure. Second, they did not have the vocabulary to picture the images in the poem. After I read the poem, the students journaled, and that was where I lost them. They didn’t know what to write, and they knew they had trouble comprehending the language, so they felt a little lost. That was when I realized my mistake. We read it a second time, and I redeemed myself a bit. If I were to do the activity again, I wouldn’t read the poem aloud. Instead, we would read it together or I would split them in groups to read and annotate. I might even have had them read the poem for homework and define all the words they didn’t understand as they read.

My thinking with the read-aloud is that the poem has such strong imagery that I thought listening would lead my students to a stronger understanding of the images used in the poem. I had always intended to read the poem twice, but the first time through was a bit of a waste of our time.

Back to the drawing board!

Do you teach this poem in your class? How do you tackle the vocabulary?

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Mubarak Resigned

Protestors“Mrs. Huff, Mubarak resigned!” Jacob said.

“What?” I wasn’t sure I understood him correctly.

“Mubarak resigned. Egypt.”

“Really? No way.”

In moments, my Newspaper students were attempting to find the best coverage. We pulled up Twitter to see what people were saying. We read the Wikipedia article just updated. One student was shocked to learn there was an entire article devoted to the current events in Egypt. I said it might be merged into the larger Egypt article once the crisis died down. Jacob complained about the coverage in The New York Times. I said to check The Guardian—they usually had pretty good world news coverage. I pulled out my iPhone and opened my Guardian app. Sure enough, updates every few minutes or so. I read some of them to the students.

“He was president for 30 years, wasn’t he?”

“I think so.”

“Egypt is free,” Jacob said.

I have to say it was a really cool moment to be teaching Newspaper.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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