School’s in Session

I’m ready for school to start on Monday. I have my syllabi printed and photocopied. I have actually color-coded my classes this year in an attempt at organization. I have lessons planned. I know what I’m going to do in all the classes I teach for the next few weeks, even if I don’t have step-by-step lesson plans written out except for the first week.

I really love the start of a school year. It’s something that hasn’t changed since I was a kid. I used to love to go shopping for new school supplies. However, doing likewise with my middle-school daughter was a nightmare last night. Too many people trying to get at the same stuff at the same time.

We had orientation for new students today. I had a very productive meeting with my boss. It was a busy day. I really like getting back into the rhythm of school.

I feel like I learn so much more as a teacher than I learned as a student. I like getting back into that learning mode.

Bleh. This post feels all disjointed. Sort of all over the place.

I’m looking forward to a good year. Here’s hoping I can stick with this organization thing I’ve been trying to make happen for my entire teaching career this year.

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Back to School

I went back to school for my first day of pre-planning. I share a room with one of my best work buddies. Isn’t it funny how teachers become really good pals with other teachers at work, but don’t really see them socially during the summer or outside of work? We put together our new locking cabinet, despite our combined lack of spatial intelligence. I am really glad we’re sharing a room, because I doubt anyone else could put up with the way I spread out and clutter up a classroom.

I planned lessons for the first week, which wasn’t a big deal, since I need to test summer reading and give some sort of baseline writing assignment for the portfolio.

Tomorrow, we have meetings all day. Same Wednesday. I think we’re working in our classrooms all day Thursday and Friday, except for the fact that Friday is New Student Orientation, so students will be coming through.

Monday is our first day of school. This year, I am teaching two 10th grade American Lit. courses, a 9th grade Grammar, Comp., and Lit. course, and a Writing Seminar. I have already had a lot of the students I’ll teach this year as ninth graders.

I’m trying to figure out exactly what I’m going to do with the class blog I have set up. How will the students use it? What will be the most beneficial thing for me to do with it? It’s sort of an experiment for this year. Next year, we’ll iron out the kinks, I suppose.

I am going to post PDFs of the lesson documents at this site soon, now that I have the capability to do so. I will update here when documents are available.

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NCLB Transfers

Interesting… according to an article in yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a school at which I taught from 2002-2004 was required to allow students to transfer to another school because they failed to make AYP for two years in a row. I wish I could say I was surprised, but after being taken to task for having standards that were too high and being blamed for schoolwide discipline issues when they occurred in my classroom, I just can’t say that I didn’t see that one coming.

I have problems with NCLB, and for all I know, the high number of Special Education students and ESOL students at my former school scoring low on standardized tests may be the reason they failed to make AYP. Thing is, there are more problems than test scores at some schools. Teacher morale at my particular former school was extremely low. I was absolutely miserable there. Even though I disagree with many of the finer points of NCLB, I hate to admit that after the shabby treatment I received by administrators at my former school, it gave me a sort of grim satisfaction to see them fail.

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Textbooks are Killing Literature

Patrick Welsh opines about the state of literature texts in USA Today.

[T]he textbooks are feather-weight intellectually.Take the McDougal Littell text that we finally adopted for 9th- and 10th-graders. It starts off with a unit titled “Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Hebrew Literature,” followed by sections on the literature of Ancient India, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient China and Japan. Then comes “Persian and Arabic Literature” and “West African Oral Literature” — and that’s only the first third of the book. There are still more than 800 pages to plough through, but it’s the same drill — short excerpts from long works — a little Dante here, a little Goethe there and two whole pages dedicated to Shakespeare’s plays. One even has a picture of a poster from the film Shakespeare in Love with Joseph Fiennes kissing Gwyneth Paltrow. The other includes the following (which is sure to turn teens on to the Bard):

“Notice the insight about human life that the following lines from The Tempest convey:

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

Shakespeare’s plays are treasures of the English language.”

Both books are full of obtrusive directions, comments, questions and pictures that would hinder even the attentive readers from becoming absorbed in the readings. Both also “are not reader-friendly. There is no narrative coherence that a student can follow and get excited about. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” says T.C. Williams reading specialist Chris Gutierrez, who teaches a course in reading strategies at Shenandoah University in Virginia. For kids who get books and reading opportunities only at school, these types of textbooks will drive them away from reading — perhaps for life.

This is actually something I’ve noticed. The books are full of flashy pictures and photographs, but there are more excerpts rather than full works, and there are some rather odd choices in terms of what to include and what to leave out. My school actually uses an out-of-print text by Scott, Foresman — the same books, in fact, that I studied from when I was in high school. I do have some problems with the books, and frankly there are things I really like about the newer Holt and Prentice-Hall books. I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect textbook.

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Education in 1893

I recently became the recipient of a copy of my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary (which I am currently in the process of transcribing and uploading to my genealogy blog). I did not know this before I received the diary, but Grandma Stella was a teacher before she married my great-great-grandfather.

Stella doesn’t write much about school, but I find what she does write most illuminating. First of all, she is like most teachers at the time — an unmarried young woman who may have gone to Normal School, but otherwise received no training. Second, school was frequently interrupted by weather, illness, and farm cycles. As many times as she wrote “small school today,” I’m astonished she felt able to accomplish much. It would have been immensely frustrating to me, but she seemed to take it in stride. Once she mentions arriving at school, but no students showed, so she simply went home and sewed.

Another thing I noticed is that Stella frequently mentions problems with “order.” She even used a switch on a student. Aside from the part about the switch, not much seems to have changed on that front. I suppose kids were as prone to be discipline problems in 1893 as they are now. She does seem extremely frustrated by this issue, as it is the only one she mentions frequently. Frankly, having had my own struggles with that issue, I can only empathize with her across time.

I noticed that Stella had to buy her own supplies, too. She makes note of everything she buys and how much it cost in her diary. Twice she made a notation for “prepared chalk, .05.” Her students probably used slates, so the paper she purchased must have been for her correspondence. She appears to have been paid in vouchers and depended upon local families for board, which she still had to pay out of her salary.

Stella mentions working on grade reports at home, and she appeared to be frustrated by the work. She also frequently taught outside of school hours — she mentions an evening spelling class.

In some respects, much has changed, but still more remarkable to me is how much hasn’t.

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Why Does School Have to Start So Early?

Rick Badie (free registration or BugMeNot) laments the loss of summer vacation, as all of Georgia’s public schools start by August 15:

That our kids return to school in a week. That Mom and Dad are already tax-free shopping for clothes and supplies, and that soon our kids will be prepping for high-stake tests.We’ve lost practically all of August. The traditional months of summer have been truncated. We get less true summer time to spend with Big Momma, see movies, have sleepovers, play basketball, read, and yes — succumb, even, to boredom. Our dog days of summer are spent in class, not poolside.

This year, all of the state’s public schools will open up by Aug. 15. Next Monday, Gwinnett’s 142,000 or so students join others returning to class in eight other city and county school systems in the Atlanta area. Some school systems, like those in Cherokee and Newton county, are already in school or start Monday.

While I don’t like starting this early either, I noticed that no mention was made of the fact that students are released around the third week of May, instead of June, and that in some places, longer breaks at Thanksgiving and in February have been instituted. I may be wrong, and someone please correct me if I am, but I don’t think the school year is actually longer. I think it just starts earlier.

And if that’s the case, why don’t Badie and his family sit by the pool and visit Big Momma in June and July? The weather in Georgia is actually a little more bearable in June than in August, in my opinion.

I guess to me, it doesn’t matter either way, but it is nice to end the first semester before winter break instead of having two weeks hang over after the break.

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Azar Nafisi

I am currently reading Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, much interrupted by my Harry Potter fixation, I must add. When a new Harry Potter book comes out, it takes me a long time to turn back to the world of Muggles again, but I digress.

Reading Lolita in Tehran has a segment about putting The Great Gatsby on trial, which I think I am going to ask my students to read. I found it very interesting, the perspective students in an Islamic republic had on such a Western book.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is also the second book I’ve read lately to include some high praise for Nabokov’s novel, Lolita. I also read How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, who mentions the book frequently. I suppose I was nervous about tackling the book, but I’m not sure why. I noticed it on a sale table at Border’s and picked it up.

I was talking about Azar Nafisi, though. At NPR, you can read her thoughts about how literature creates connections between people. If there is one thing I have learned from her memoir, it is that literature transcends experiences and binds us together in so many ways that may not even be apparent until years later. I highly recommend her book to teachers of literature.

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Censorship in School Publications

According to the Seattle Times, Shorewood High School in Shoreline, Washington recently shredded remaining copies of the student literary magazine and reprinted it minus a poem with an offensive expletive in the title. A 35-year veteran teacher of the district, Steve Kelly, was asked to step down as the magazine’s advisor.

Here is the poem, as reprinted by the Times:

My first (expletive) sure he claims he loves me
and holds me oh so tight
he makes me believe this is special
that he can hold on all night
he claims he isn’t pressuring me
but his hand is down my pants
temptation rises and I give in
he turns over
checks the time
gets up and drives me home
no kiss goodnight
no I love you
and no telephone call

— Zoya Raskina

In the 1988, the Supreme Court decided one of the most important cases involving student publications. Hazelwood High School’s newspaper, Spectrum, printed printed some articles about teenage pregnancy, including personal experiences of Hazelwood High School students. The administration decided to censor the articles, and the students fought the decision, as the expression goes, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court decided in favor of the district:

In a 5-3 decision, the majority of the Court found that the students’ First Amendment rights had not been violated. The Court decided that Spectrum was part of the school curriculum and school administrators could control its content. The newspaper was not a “public forum” and school officials could impose “reasonable restrictions.”

Depending on your point of view, this decision may have overturned part of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, which asserted that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” According to David B. Rubin, an attorney who specializes in school law:

[O]ne of the main criteria in dealing with school censorship cases relates to what is called the “Tinker disruption standard,” that the Court outlined in the case’s ruling.”Students do have First Amendment rights to express themselves as long as it doesn’t interfere with the order of the school day,” Rubin explained. “The question is, does the student expression cause disruption in the school,” he stated. “Censorship issues depend on what is being said or expressed to whom, and in what context.”

Rubin noted that what is called the “forum issue” is the second criteria in deciding school censorship cases, namely whether student expression is part of a school function regulated by the school district, or whether it is entirely initiated by students.

“If it’s a school-sponsored function or forum, then school authorities have the right to set their own standards,” Rubin said. “The school districts have a certain leeway as to how vigorously they exercise their legal powers.”

Rubin clarified that schools must have “legitimate pedagogical [educational] concerns” when dealing with censorship issues.

Personally, I don’t see that the school crossed any lines. They exercised their right, according to the Supreme Court, to impose “reasonable restrictions” upon the content of the magazine. To be honest, were I the advisor of that magazine, I probably would not approve a student work containing that sort of profanity — and I think it is fairly clear what the “expletive deleted” was. I know many students and possibly teachers believe that is a violation of First Amendment Rights, but I don’t agree. By excising the poem, the school is not prohibiting the student from publishing her work elsewhere. And frankly, deciding what to publish is a right exercised by every publishing company in America — yet no one complains about not being given a voice if their work is denied publication by one house. They simply submit the work to another house.

I believe students should have access to reading material without censorship. I don’t agree with preventing access to works of literature. However, I also don’t think the school is necessarily required to provide students an outlet for their work, especially if it might be considered offensive. In my opinion, the school district needs to consistently enforce its own rules about censorship, which the article implies it has not done, and the magazine advisor should have used, well, a little bit of common sense. Technically, he didn’t lose his job, and there are schools in America that would have fired him for this — teachers have lost their jobs over similar issues. Cissy Lacks, a 25-year veteran teacher was fired from the Ferguson Florissant School District in Missouri for allowing students to use expletives in dialogue written for drama exercises. She was ordered reinstated by a jury, but her school district appealed, and her reinstatement was overturned. The Supreme Court refused to hear her case. Considering the precedent the Cissy Lacks case established, Steve Kelly is fortunate.

Sources: Objectionable Content vs. Freedom of Expression: Battles of School Censorship and FileRoom.org — Cissy Lacks, high school teacher

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Harry Potter

My students laugh about my Harry Potter mania. I have a Professor Snape action figure resting in front of my diploma in my classroom, and my computer desktop wallpaper is a movie still from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in which Snape is protecting the trio from werewolf Lupin.

Thus, I will be incommunicado for a few days while I read the book with my father and 11-year-old daughter.

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Teach to the Test

The New York Times (free registration, or BugMeNot) reports that even when teachers are enthusiastic about new teaching methods and would prefer to implement them, they feel too much pressure to teach to the test — in this case, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP.

Becky Karnes, a 16-year veteran high school English teacher explained,

“MEAP is not what writing is about, but it’s what testing is about. And we know if we teach them the five-paragraph essay formula, they’ll pass that test. There’s a lot of pressure to do well on MEAP. It makes the district seem good, helps real estate values.”

Well, it’s good to have our priorities straight — helping the district look good and increasing real estate values. No criticism meant toward Ms. Karnes, as I’m sure she’s feeling considerable pressure to teach to the test.

The National Council of Teachers of English has warned that standardized state tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, as well as the College Board’s new SAT writing sample, are actually hurting the teaching of writing in this country. For their part, the makers of these tests emphasize that they don’t mandate a writing formula, and they, too, say it would be a mistake if schools taught only by the formula.

I wish, wish, wish I could say more about the SAT writing sample, but there is a good reason I can’t.

Kristen Covelle encountered the specter of teaching to the test during job interviews for English teaching:

The interview will be going great, and then MEAP will come up. They want to know will I teach to the test, that’s what they’re looking for. They asked how I feel about using “I” in writing. Would there ever be a case when “I” is appropriate in an essay. I knew the answer they want – you’re not supposed to use it. But I couldn’t say that. I said there could be times, you just can’t close the door. They didn’t say anything but it was definitely the low point of the interview.

I feel very fortunate to be outside the burden of tests like these, as a private school teacher. I know what it’s like. I can vividly remember the curriculum director at a low-performing school where I used to teach coming in my classroom and reviewing the five-paragraph formula with my students. It looked a lot like the one in the Times article. Her visit was part of the counselor’s pre-test workup. Karnes is right: “For kids struggling, if you can give them a formula and they fill in the blanks, some will pass the MEAP test who wouldn’t otherwise.” But what is our ultimate goal as teachers? To teach students how to write more effectively or to teach them to pass a test? Karnes added, “It turns into a prison. It stops you from finding a kid’s potential.”

Prison is such an apt choice of words. I distinctly remember feeling constricted by testing demands on the curriculum.

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Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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