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 bigideas.org 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 http://www.authenticeducation.org/courses . 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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Slice of Life #1: Misery Loves Solitude

Slice of LifeI admit that my blog has been on the quiet side going on a couple of years now. I used to post much more regularly. I recently asked friends on Facebook about education memes, and though I had seen friends participate in the Slice of Life Challenge, I admit I wasn’t really sure what it was. I am rather hoping that trying for some kind of regular writing habit will help me break out of this rut.

Something people might not know about me is that I’m pretty sensitive. I tend to read between the lines and try to figure out what people mean when they are talking to me. I know a lot of the time that people mean exactly what they say, but I don’t always take it that way. I made myself upset today reading between the lines and trying to figure out what someone I was talking to really meant. I really chewed on my feelings for a few hours, too. I was in the midst of grading final exams and final projects, and I put on some sad indie music. I didn’t have a cry over it or anything, but I really wallowed in misery of my own creation. Sometimes I do that, you know? And sometimes I can put myself into a right tizzy over trying to interpret a situation instead of just asking. A lot of times, when I just ask, I discover my perception is just wrong.

I have some theories as to why I’m like this. I think it’s deeply rooted in childhood and all the inherent difficulties in interpreting situations that goes along with being young. For whatever reason, that insecurity really stuck with me. I envy people who are secure. I wonder where it comes from. I don’t know if a lot of people are like this, but I can dismiss 100 kind comments for one slightly critical one. I try to recognize it when it happens and fight it by remembering the kind comments.

So that is my slice of life for Tuesday, May 26, 2015. I spent a few hours feeling insecure. I talked to my husband about it, and surprisingly I felt a lot better. And now when think about it, I am really mad at myself for spending so many hours being miserable today. I should be happy. I had the best year teaching I think I have ever had. I feel good about it. Thanks Jackie and Glenda for convincing me to try Slice of Life.

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Digital Storytelling Final Projects

I struggled with whether to write this post or not because digital stories are personal, or they can be personal, but I really believe my students have done good work that is worthy of the world, so I am plunging in.

As I have mentioned before, I went to a digital storytelling workshop last summer. It was life-changing. I decided I had to do a digital storytelling project with my students, but the concept of narrative needed to be woven through the year in order to make the project work. I asked my students to listen to podcast episodes of This American Life to learn more about storytelling in general. Students chose to examine the stories or the production values or related the stories to a story of  their own in a written reflection each month. Students really came to enjoy these assignments. Often after a due date, they came to class talking about the episode they chose to listen to and recommending it to others. I still recall one student writing in his reflection that he thought all his classmates should listen to the episode he chose, even if it was not for an assignment (that’s how I knew the kids were really getting the point). I also wove narrative writing into the curriculum, particularly in the second semester. We wrote narrative essays and discussed elements of storytelling. Next year, I want to do a better job with shorter narratives that will help my students learn to show more instead of tell.

When the time came to begin the project, I started with some good digital story models. We brainstormed ideas for topics and had a topics workshop that the students really liked. We shared ideas for stories and gave each other feedback on the ideas as well as thoughts about how to proceed with the stories. This stage of the process was absolutely critical, and the students agreed that it needed to remain a part of the project next year. I myself found this part of the process to be the most valuable when I went through the workshop.

Next, we wrote drafts of the digital story scripts. And we workshopped the drafts. And we wrote second drafts. And we workshopped second drafts. I limited students to 300 words, but I think I will raise the ceiling next year to 400-500 words. I am worried that in doing so that the videos will get too long, but I think students will find it easier to cut than add details. One important thing I learned in my own workshop is that five minutes is really a good upper limit. Longer, and the viewer loses interest. Three minutes seems to be a sweet spot.

After that, I gave students a tutorial in using iMovie and GarageBand to put together their movies and record voiceovers. One issue I noticed is that students recorded their voiceovers in one single chunk. Next year, I will give them more guidance on pacing and cutting up their voiceovers into segments so there is judicious use of silence when viewers can take in the images and music. One student commented that more of a tutorial would be helpful, but the best way to really learn how to use the software is to use it. I think we can show people how to use technology, but until they actually use it, it’s hard to learn. Another student suggested I could collect a playlist of helpful tutorial videos for iMovie and GarageBand, which was a helpful (and obvious) suggestion that I will will definitely implement next year.

Students felt they did have enough time to complete the project. Keeping in mind we did a process of revision and were also doing other things in class, such as reading literature, writing, etc., we spent about a month on the project from start to finish. That is not a month of working on it every day, but we did have class time to work on it, particularly with scripts and with iMovie drafts. I checked with students at various stages of project completion.

About a week and half ago, I was really worried about the projects. Right before a performance or a game, practices look terrible, and teachers and coaches often despair of students pulling out a performance at the concert, play, or game. Learning is messy, and it never looks messier than with a project that both the teacher and the students are trying for the first time. In the end, I think the students made some quality videos. I am proud of what they did. You can view their work here, and cycle through the videos using the fast-forward and reverse buttons if you want to skip around.

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Meeting Students Where They Are

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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Digital Storytelling: Models for Students

I have written before about the profound experience of attending a digital storytelling workshop run by the Center for Digital Storytelling, but I thought I would gather here some resources for teachers to use as models for students. Selfishly, it helps me by gathering all the models I want to use for my own students in one place. Some of these videos were made by my workshop facilitators. Others were shown to participants at the workshop. Still others are stories I found compelling and plan to share with my own students. The final two are my own stories, and feel free to share them with your students. If you ever get a chance to go to a Center for Digital Storytelling Workshop, do it.

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Featured on the CDS website right now, a short and incredibly moving video about adoption and expectations.

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Holly was one of the facilitators at my workshop, and we saw this video during the workshop. I love the way Holly was able to use the song her father recorded in the video.

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Daniel Weinshenker is the Rocky Mountain/Midwest Region Director at CDS and was present when we shared our own digital stories at the end of the last day of the workshop. We watched this video during the workshop.

We watched this video in the workshop. It is an excellent example of what you can do if you don’t have a lot of your own pictures to tell your story. Brad Johnson created this story using mainly clips from Archive.org. As Johnson explains, “95% of the images and footage is from archive.org. I have about 5 shots of my grandfather in there that are mine.” He adds, “I was experimenting with telling a personal story using footage that was ‘public’ and that was about the ‘larger, American immigrant’ story that seems part of our collective identity (or at least for many of us).”

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This story is a remarkable example of what students might be able to do with just one photograph, no music, and a powerful narrative.

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Students think a lot about who they are, and pieces about identity are important to share with students, especially those who think they don’t have a story (we all do).

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This excellent letter to a beloved grandmother not only tells a powerful story, but also shows what finding the perfect music will add to the video. We saw this one in the workshop.

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What I liked about this one was the way in which the video’s creator tied the story of her own car to the greater history of women.

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This wonderful video shows what students might do with a single Foley sound effect.

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This one is a little on the longer side for a digital story (we were advised to try to keep the videos at shorter than five minutes, but it tells a powerful story about place and family.

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This story is told with a series of self-portraits strung together in a powerful narrative about difference.

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This video is a good one to show students about the power of well-timed music and what they can do with video that might not even illustrate the narrative they’re telling.

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Again, a little on the long side, but worth it and and a great example of pacing.

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I also liked this one as a poignant story about being the other and well-timed music.

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This one is mine, and it includes an interview with my grandfather about World War II. Students might find an interview with someone else will add something to their story.

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This last one is really my grandmother’s story. It also includes an interview. As soon as I heard the music, I said, “That’s the piece,” and once I added it, I could hear how the music pulled the whole story together.

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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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Covering Isn’t Teaching… Or Learning

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Right about this time of year, teachers everywhere (particularly secondary school teachers) are looking at the calendar and freaking out about what they haven’t covered.

I, like many teachers, have fallen into the trap of thinking that certain content has to be covered, even at the expense of engaging in deeper learning, because of time constraints. I should have known better. Because my family moved around quite a bit, I went to three different high schools. I had what I perceived as “gaps” in my education. I didn’t read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t learn much about history after World War II. I could think of other examples of things everyone is supposed to learn in high school, but you get the general idea. I’m not sure if I realized I had gaps when I was in school. I did have a sense that I missed things because the school I left hadn’t covered them yet, and the school I moved to had already covered them.

At some point I started to worry I wasn’t ready for college and asked my English teacher for a reading list. Just to cover my bases, I found a library book that had a list of books every student should read before they went to college. I’m not sure, but I think the list was about 100 years old. It was a great, long list alphabetized by title. I stalled out in the middle of Agamemnon. I managed to make it through college without reading Agamemnon, and given I graduated magna cum laude, I suppose I did okay. In fact, I managed to make it all the way to last summer before finally reading Agamemnon, and though I enjoyed it just fine, I think I could have lived my whole life without reading Agamemnon and nothing dire would have happened.

The longer I teach, the more convinced I become that the most important thing we do is help students learn how to learn. If you can learn how to learn, you can teach yourself anything, and if you need help, you can generally figure out who can help you learn it.

I have loved reading since before I could read by myself. I taught myself all about dinosaurs when I was little. I found all sorts of books about dinosaurs. As I grew older, I turned to books to learn about ancient Egypt, the Middle Ages, and making soap. Books are a great way to teach yourself.

If we English teachers can cultivate a love of reading and help students learn to think and learn, the content we use can take a variety of forms. Students don’t have to read Agamemnon in particular in order to be prepared for college or the world. But they do have to learn to read critically, identify themes, analyze ideas. The particular content we use doesn’t matter as much as what we do with it. Just because I covered material doesn’t mean students learned it. I have learned over time that if I really want students to learn content, then I need to let them wrestle with it. That takes time. If I rush it, students will not learn it. Oh, they might know it long enough to do some assessment, but they don’t really learn it. Are they going to be able to apply the information? Who decides what information is critical and what isn’t? And why?

When I first started teaching, the textbook was my crutch, and I covered it. It’s liberating not to have a textbook. It forced me to think about broad themes and ideas and create units of study based on those big ideas. Unless I completely misread my students, I think it’s more engaging, too.

In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe urge teachers to ask, “What should [the students] walk out the door able to understand, regardless of what activities or texts we use?” and “What is evidence of such ability?” (17). Only after those questions are answered should teachers ask, “What texts, activities, and methods will best enable such a result?” (17). Much of the time, the texts come first. After first reading Understanding by Design, I realized my problem as a teacher was that I relied on covering material, and then I was upset when students didn’t learn. As Wiggins and McTighe state, “When our teaching merely covers content without subjecting it to inquiry, we may well be perpetrating the very misunderstanding and amnesia we decry” (132).

We don’t have all the time in the world to teach everything worth knowing. There isn’t enough time in a lifetime, or even in several lifetimes, to do that job. As teachers, we do have the ability to ignite curiosity. We should be figuring out how to create curious learners instead of worrying about covering material.

I came across these resources that might be of interest:

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Evolution

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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