A Poll: What Would You Like to Read?

I have been trying out quite a few new things, and I don’t know where to start in terms of talking about them here. Take a look at this list and let me know in the comments which topic piques your curiosity, and I’ll do my next blog post on the topic that generates the most interest.

  • Using Google Docs to create rubrics
  • iMovie book trailers
  • (Almost) Paperless Classroom with Google Docs and Schoology
  • Carving out a hybrid position (or how I’m teaching two English classes and working as a Technology Integration Specialist at the same time)
  • Writing Workshop: going beyond peer editing with partners
  • Teaching The Catcher in the Rye

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Shutting Down Class Discussion

Dana Huff Teaching

I know I said I would talk about tools on Wednesdays, but something came up. A student left a comment on my book blog post “Do You Hate Holden Caulfield?” It seems he had a rather negative (or I should say perceived it was negative) experience. If I understand his comment correctly, he felt silenced in the class discussion because he did not agree with his teacher’s opinion, and he had previously seen his teacher shut one of his peers down for voicing a contrary opinion.

Obviously I was not a member of the class, and I don’t know what was said. I told the student that what I thought had happened was the teacher really enjoys this book and wants students to enjoy it, too. It can be hard when students don’t love the books we love. But we shouldn’t dismiss opinions because they are different from our own. Students do not have the learning and the background with our subjects that we have, and they can make judgments based on much less information than we have. I think it’s our job to challenge students to explain why they make those judgments rather than attacking them for being “wrong.” I think they learn better from us if they feel listened to. I want to emphasize that I don’t know what happened in that classroom, but it sounded to me as if the student was describing a classroom in which he didn’t feel free to share his own conclusions. What he asked me was whether it was OK or right to hate Holden. I gave him my permission, for whatever it’s worth, and I shared my own journey with that character.

I will never forget sharing in an English Education assignment that I didn’t particularly like T.S. Eliot. I guess I hit a nerve because my professor treated me to an embarrassing public lecture on why I was wrong. I still don’t particularly like Eliot, but I understand his importance, and when he comes up in my curriculum, I teach my students to appreciate his work. But all that lecture did is make me dislike Eliot more, and it’s not poor Eliot’s fault.

So how can we share books we love with students and give them permission NOT to love them? How can we challenge them to justify their judgments? I think you should start by being honest with your students about your feelings for a book. They are surprisingly gentle (or at least, my own students have been—your mileage may vary considerably). I think the last message we want to send our students, however uninformed or incorrect we feel they may be, is that their opinions really don’t matter.

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Week in Reflection: March 31-April 4, 2008

This week was a really good week for me, personally, which I think translates often into good teaching.

One of my ninth grade classes is completely done with The Catcher in the Rye, and the other is still in the discussion part of studying the novel. The discussions have been good. Students always seem to enjoy this book. One of my students who didn’t like it actually asked me if there was something he was missing, as all of his classmates seemed to like it, and he expected to like it. I confided that I didn’t like it either in high school, but I loved it years later when I read it again. When I was in high school, I had trouble getting past the part when Holden hires Sunny, the teenage prostitute. Even though they do not, shall we say, complete the transaction, and Holden winds up getting beaten up by her pimp, I found the notion that he would even hire a prostitute distasteful. I just didn’t like Holden. Years later, with more experiences and perhaps more empathy, I viewed Holden entirely differently. I think it helped my student to hear that he is perfectly fine, thank you very much, if he doesn’t like the novel. On the other hand, one of his classmates read the novel four times before it was due. I am in a quandary about this student, too, because this student did not perform well on my reading quiz, which should have been a breeze after reading the novel four times. I still can’t figure out how that happened, but it makes me feel rotten. Talk about a motivation-killer.

I am teaching grammar, specifically phrases and clauses. I have some problems with the efficacy of this required part of my curriculum.

I had interesting conversations with a few senior students this week. They are presenting their Flat World Willy handbooks on Monday. The conversations we had centered around the idea that a few of the students recognize that I (and their other teachers) are trying to put together good learning experiences that are relevant to their lives, and I think they like the handbook assignment. But they are also frustrated by working with peers whose minds are already checked out. I have heard more than once, “I didn’t want to come to school, but I thought about you, Mrs. Huff, and how mad it makes you when we skip class.” I suppose I should be grateful that the students have empathy for my feelings after planning and being disappointed, but I wish they came to school because they wanted to learn. Their course loads have been pared down. They are doing internships in the afternoons. Their minds are on the colleges they will shortly be attending. I can empathize with them. I remember that feeling. Heck, I got accepted to grad school this week, and I was elated. Even though I am taking courses online, registering for my Virginia Tech personal identity so I could login and use all the resources available to me as a student made it feel very real — I feel like I am going back to school, and I am excited. But my students haven’t graduated yet, which is an important step to attending college, and I don’t want them to check out when have such a small amount of time together.

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Week in Reflection: March 10-14, 2008

This week, one of my ninth grade classes finished The Catcher and the Rye, and we began discussing it in class.  We also studied adjective and adverb phrases.  The students really enjoyed the discussion of the novel, and I think they liked the book a great deal.  That novel always seems to be popular, especially with boys.  It brings up a good point.  A lot of what we read in school isn’t necessarily appealing to boys.  I think my male students enjoyed Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey.  I really do try to think about how to draw boys in when we study literature.  The discussions this week went very well.

My tenth grade writing students watched The Freedom Writers.  I know a lot of people don’t like the movie, but I do, and the students were rapt.  We had a really good, insightful discussion about the movie on Friday.  One student in particular really seemed to be able to understand the motivations of Erin Gruwell’s department head.  He said he was playing “devil’s advocate,” but his points were all well taken — why shouldn’t the students move on to a new teacher?  Wouldn’t that be the ultimate test of how ready they were?  Is it really good to have the same teacher all four years?  He also wondered about the issue of seniority.  Was Gruwell getting a “promotion”?  The department head certainly considered it to be one.  Laying aside the assertion that she deserved one (I think she did great work), she had only been teaching two years.  Another issue that concerned the students was the practicality of what Gruwell did — in the movie, her marriage falls apart due to neglect on her part, and she has to take two extra jobs to pay for what her students need.  My students saw the good that resulted from these choices, but they were, I think, right to question the cost.  I thought the students had some really good insights into what they were seeing.

My seniors finished Death of a Salesman.  I wasn’t sure how they would like it, but I think discussing how it is the story of many people today really hooked them, which isn’t terribly easy to do with seniors at this time of year.  I am really excited about this unit, so it could be that my own enthusiasm showed.  I also spent a lot of time planning it — thinking of questions for discussion, assessments, etc. — and that always pays off.  It was remarked by someone who shall remain anonymous that I had put a lot of work into the unit, and I think the insinuation was that given the climate (seniors just ready to graduate and move on with the next stage of life), I probably wasted my time.  I don’t think so.  I think we have to work even harder as teachers to engage students when they are distracted by this future that’s just out of their reach.  They can’t help their feelings — and I had the same ones when I was a senior.  It’s a really exciting time.  I envy them getting to go off to college for the first time, learning so much, figuring out who they are.  I had a great college experience, and I wish I could do it again.

I obtained permission from one of my ninth grade classes to post their writing at a blog I have admittedly only occasionally used for student writing.  The last posts are reflections of the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn done a year ago.  The writing I will be posting is collected from creative writing diaries from characters in Romeo and Juliet.  I plan to post one diary entry a day beginning on Tuesday.  If you are interested in reading them, you might want to pop over to the Room 303 Blog and subscribe to our RSS feed.  I don’t have e-mail subscription set up on that blog.

I have been approached to do a blogging project with a teacher in Hawaii, and I am really interested.  I would like my students to have their own blogs for written reflection, but sometimes I feel like I should have established that early on, and how do you do that?  I should think it would be great for interaction, discussion, exploration, and reflection.  Does anyone know if I can do that with Moodle?  I hesitate to put students in the position of public reflection if they feel uncomfortable about it, but if we can do it just within our community, I don’t think there would be a problem.

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