One of My Teachers

When I talk about certain works of literature, I can hear the words of my own professors coming out of my mouth.  I truly received a good English education at my college, and I look back in fondness at my college classes, perhaps none more so than the very last one I took, Twentieth Century American Poetry, which was the last class Coleman Barks taught at UGA before he retired.

Coleman Barks is probably best known for his translations of the poetry of Rumi, but he is a fine poet in his own right, and he was a great teacher.

Perhaps he made it a practice every time, but perhaps it was because we were the last class — I remember he asked us to submit our own poems and he had them made into an anthology for us.  I wrote one about my great grandfather that he found kind of dizzying, but to be honest, it really captured my feelings as I watched a man who I wasn’t personally close to, but who was important to my family, slowly dying of Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

We read only one female poet in that class: Adrienne Rich.  I remember we tried to talk about that omission, but he didn’t seem as concerned as we were.  I think he just picked what he liked.

It was a great class, and I remember the day of his last lecture, he was crying as he walked quickly out the door — he was trying to hide his tears from us.

And then he slept through the final exam.  I didn’t know he’d slept through.  I think we were told there was a a problem with a flight.  We waited.  And waited.  Another professor stuck his head in the door, ascertained the situation, then left to find out what was going on.  He returned to tell us that we should just write Coleman letters about what we thought of the class.  So we did.

I didn’t realize until this very day, which is at this point over 10 years later, that Coleman wrote a poem about us.  Wow, I didn’t know he felt that way about us or the final exam.  I’m so glad I found it.

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Folger Shakespeare Mini-Institute

Last week, I participated in a Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute with the Folger Shakespeare Library. If you ever have the opportunity to participate in one of Folger’s institutes, seize the opportunity. You will not only learn great practical methods for teaching Shakespeare and learn about Shakespeare and his plays, but you will also develop professional ties to amazing educators from all different backgrounds.

Much of the Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute’s methodology will be familiar to teachers who use Folger’s popular Shakespeare Set Free series. Our focus was on Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We began the first four days with a lecture from either Barry Gaines, professor at the University of New Mexico, or Christy Desmet, professor at the University of Georgia. We also had curriculum sessions twice a day, seminar discussions, and performance classes taught by Laura Cole from the New American Shakespeare Tavern and Caleen Sinnette Jennings from Folger. Our culminating project was performance of a scene on the stage of the Shakespeare Tavern, which was an amazing experience. Here is a video of my group’s take on the scene when the Mechanicals in MND are receiving their parts from Peter Quince.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/WRzrvPXxPqk" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

We all went to the Shakespeare Tavern to see Laura as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, which was a great experience.  The actors were kind enough to stay late for a Q&A with all of us, and the Tavern was generous with great seats.  If you live in the Atlanta area (or even just Georgia or nearby) and have never been to the Tavern, do yourself a favor and go.  You will not be disappointed.  Laura was brilliant, and the rest of the cast was also a delight.

I had an amazing time, learned a lot, and made new friends.  I am still processing everything I learned, so please be patient as posts about the experience will come out as I think it through and make connections.

Here’s a picture of all of us on the stage at the Shakespeare Tavern.  Click the image to see a larger version.

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New Teacher Assistance

My friend and colleague Lauren, who returned to teaching this year after working with administration at my school, has started a blog called New Teacher Assistance.  Lauren’s self-proclaimed audience is new teachers, but we can all learn from her insights.

Welcome to the edublogosphere, Lauren, and watch out — I might recruit you to help me with my GISA presentation on using blogs and wikis for professional development!

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The Power of a Positive First Impression

I e-mailed my adviser at Virginia Tech with a question about registration.  She wrote back in what I thought was an unnecessarily irritable way because I had used the wrong e-mail address to contact her, and because she was upset about that one detail, the tone of her whole reply made me feel as though I had bothered her when I was only trying to seek help.  I didn’t get a positive first impression of the person who will not only be my adviser through this program, but also who will apparently be teaching all my classes, and it made me think about how teachers unwittingly start off on the wrong foot with students, leading to self-consciousness and insecurity on the students’ part.  I know in my case I immediately felt discouraged about my decision to go to Virginia Tech, but I am hoping perhaps she was cranky for some other reason and won’t make a habit of snapping at me when I have questions.  It can be hard to be patient when you’re a teacher, and the students asked something you just answered five minutes ago, or they could find the answer if they just read the handout, and it can be hard to put ourselves in the shoes of our students.  We should really try, though.  It’s hard to be vigilant about each interaction we have with students, but it is so easy to tear down and so hard to build up.  I would hate for my students to have the kind of first impression of me that I have of my professor.

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Georgia’s CRCT

When 40% of an individual teacher’s students fail a standardized test, I imagine the teacher would be scrutinized, and rightly so. Whatever I think of standardized tests, 40% of a teacher’s students shouldn’t fail one, or something’s wrong with the teacher’s instruction. If 40% of a school’s students failed a standardized test, the school might be sanctioned depending on other factors — part of making Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) for NCLB means schools must maintain or even improve their pass rates for standardized tests. If schools fail to make AYP, a series of sanctions will follow, from losing funds to faculty “reorganization.” Again, if 40% of students at a school fail a test, there is something wrong with the school’s instruction.

But what if 40% of students in an entire state fail a test that they must pass in order to go to high school?

Unofficial results indicate that 40% of Georgia’s 8th grade students failed the math portion of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT), the main standardized test used in Georgia to meet NCLB requirements regarding testing. Last year, about 19% of students failed the math portion of the test. Students must pass this section of the CRCT in order to proceed to high school. Some are blaming the new math curriculum, while others are saying the test must be poorly constructed. I can’t say, not having seen it. I asked my daughter, who took it, and she says she believed she passed, as she thought students at her school who didn’t were instructed to see the counselor, and she was given no such instruction. She has been an A-student in math all year, so I shouldn’t have cause to worry, but the fact that 40% of students failed the test worries me.

The news regarding social studies was even worse. Less than 30% of 6th and 7th graders passed the social studies portion of the CRCT. Again, results like this for one teacher or one school can be explained, but for a whole state? Especially troubling to me are reports from students that they were asked questions about material they hadn’t learned. How could that happen on a “criterion-referenced” test?

I know the perception exists that Georgia schools are universally backward, but after having graduated from a Georgia school and watching my children in Georgia schools, I have to say that like everywhere else, Georgia has good schools and poor schools. A pertinent quote from the New Georgia Encyclopedia entry on Public Education:

The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) is a college entrance exam often used to compare the performance of high school students among states and among school districts within a state. In 2003 Georgia students averaged 984 (combined verbal and math scores) on the SAT, compared with a national average score of 1026. When SAT scores are used to compare states, Georgia usually finishes near the bottom. The College Board, which administers the SAT, cautions against the use of SAT scores for this purpose, because the population of students taking the SAT in each state varies considerably. In some states, most students take a different test, the American College Testing [sic] (ACT). In those states, students who take the SAT generally have strong academic backgrounds and plan to apply to some of the nation’s most selective colleges and scholarship programs. For example, in 2002 there were nearly 54,000 Georgia students who took the SAT. In contrast, only 1,900 Iowa students took the SAT. (As a point of reference, Georgia had more than 72,000 high school graduates in 2002, while Iowa had nearly 34,000 high school graduates.)

My point in bringing this up is that I think it’s unfair to dismiss problems with the CRCT with a blanket generalization like “Georgia’s just got bad schools.”

So what happened, I wonder?

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Choices for Teachers

I wrote this last night thinking of submitting it to the Faculty Room, but I realized I misunderstood our focus question, and I didn’t want my post to go to waste.  Thus, here are my thoughts on some choices teachers ought to have about their profession and environment.

Teachers have differing degrees of choice in their educational experience, depending on a variety of factors: where they live and teach; who their administrators are and what their philosophies are; what access they have to technology and other tools; and what kind of support they have from the district and community.

I think teachers ought to be able to design their own professional development based on their needs and interests.  Too much of our professional development does little to enhance our learning and teaching.  Furthermore, teacher certification agencies ought to examine these self-designed professional development plans and approve them (or not) for staff development or professional learning units.  The two single most beneficial professional learning opportunities I have undertaken—a course in Mel Levine’s Schools Attuned and a self-directed study and subsequent establishment of a professional learning community centered around Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design—will not count even one PLU credit towards certificate renewal, but you’d be surprised at the insipid courses I have taken that will.

Teachers should have some input in the hiring process of new colleagues.  After all, we will be working closely with new teachers, and it stands to reason that we will work better with colleagues with whom we share philosophies and goals.  The best schools I have worked in have always given teachers some say regarding which teachers are hired.  In the past, I have been interviewed by full panels, including a prospective department chair and colleague as well as administration, and I have also participated in a hiring process that requires the department chair to observe a sample lesson taught by the prospective teacher.  I think this kind of input has made me feel more comfortable about being interviewed as well as selecting potential colleagues.

Teachers should have some input into the courses they teach, including opportunities to write curriculum.  Many schools have a form of hierarchy based on seniority, and I think this is fair.  In addition, teachers should have some autonomy in selecting topics for study or emphasis, too.  I admit I am an English teacher, so to me it seems natural to be able to select novels for study.  I understand that math teachers don’t have the option to decide not to teach quadratic equations if they don’t like them that much.  However, teachers should also follow a curriculum or standards to ensure that all students receive a good, comprehensive education, and I think many if not most teachers should be able to write a curriculum plan that addresses the essential knowledge and skills in their subject matter.

If teachers are afforded the opportunity to shape their professional learning, select their colleagues, and write the curriculum, I think we will find much happier, more collegial and professional educators.  I have had some opportunity to do all three, and it has made a difference in how I feel about my work.  Ultimately, teachers must be trusted.  Teachers who are not trusted will not have opportunities to design professional learning—they won’t challenge themselves to grow.  Teachers who are not trusted will not select their colleagues or write curriculum because they might make poor choices.  If teachers are not trusted to make these decisions, however, why do we trust them with our students at all?

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UbD Wiki: Summaries

Miguel Guhlin has joined the UbD Educators wiki and wants your help.  He is posting UbD chapter summaries and wants input from other wiki members.

I want to ask wiki members a question: Miguel suggested that we unlock those summary pages to allow nonmembers to participate.  What do you think?  My idea was that allowing editing by wiki members only would prevent vandalism, but it also closes participation — I have not denied membership to anyone, nor do I plan to (unless they join then vandalize the wiki, which seems unlikely), so perhaps the point is moot.

Check out the summaries and add your thoughts.  I’m really excited about Miguel’s work and plan to begin adding my own ideas this weekend.

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If You Liked…

In our high school literature studies, we often stick to tried and true classics, which is fine. There are very good reasons why these books are classics. But what if you want to read something newer, but somehow related to a classic? What if you want to extend learning for your students and want to choose a similar book? What if your students must read a certain number of books to fulfill state objectives (Georgia’s GPS require students to read 20 books a year) and you want to steer them toward books related to others you have studied?

I provide you with ten recommendations for extension. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments.

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund

Read it with Moby Dick by Herman Melville

What it’s about: In a small passage in his chapter, “The Symphony,” Melville’s Captain Ahab tells Starbuck about his young wife. As God fashioned Eve from Adam’s rib, so Naslund from Melville’s brief description creates Una, who begins her own narrative no less memorably than Ishmael began his: “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.” Una’s story is every bit as fascinating as that of her husband. She meets and rubs shoulders with such ninethenth century luminaries as Margaret Fuller, Maria Mitchell, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The book is a lush garden of literary allusion, from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene to Homer’s Odyssey.

Why students should read it: Naslund’s Una is one of the literary characters you will wish you could meet in real life. She is vibrant and real. Students will learn a great deal about mid-nineteenth century life and history from reading the book, too. The prose is gorgeous literary fiction.

A Thousand AcresA Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Read it with King Lear by William Shakespeare

What it’s about: Larry Cook, a farmer in Zebulon County, Iowa, decides to divide his thousand-acre farm among his three daughters, Ginny, Rose and Caroline, insisting he is saving them an inheritance tax. The daughters do not want him to do this, but Larry possesses a single-mindedness that will not be crossed. When Caroline objects more firmly, she is cut out of the deal. The family gradually implodes under Larry’s seeming madness, a suit to get back his land, and Ginny and Rose’s competition for the affections of neighbor’s son Jess Clark.

Why students should read it: This Pulitzer-prize winning novel closely mimics the plot of King Lear, but gives Lear’s daughters some depth — while Goneril and Regan are “unnatural hags,” Ginny and Rose have good reasons for hating their father, and Caroline is not the unflinchingly honest daughter that Cordelia is. Students will see quite clearly how Shakespeare’s timeless stories and themes still apply to readers today. Students will be fascinated by how Smiley takes a quintessentially British author’s story and makes it profoundly American.

A Lesson Before DyingA Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Read it with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

What it’s about: Jefferson is a young black man who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Falsely accused of murder, tried by a jury of his white “peers,” and sentenced to death by electrocution by a dismissive judge, Jefferson believes the defense attorney’s closing argument, which compares him to a “hog.” Grant Wiggins (no relation to Grant of UbD fame!), a teacher at the black school in the Quarter, is employed by Jefferson’s godmother to help Jefferson die like a man.

Why students should read it: While To Kill a Mockingbird works because a child who doesn’t understand why certain things should be reports what she sees, this novel works because a jaded, bruised, and downtrodden teacher who is all too acutely aware of the oppression of racism tells us the story of the journey to self-discovery. It’s a powerful book, and through a study with To Kill a Mockingbird would make for interesting exploration into the justice system as it existed in the 1930’s and 1940’s, as well as questions of inequity in education and living conditions. Both teach profound lessons about acceptance and love.

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Read it with The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and/or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

What it’s about: Gerard Freeman is an Australian librarian who lives with his mother — a clingy, obsessive woman afraid above all that Gerard will leave her. His only real friend is a pen-friend, Alice Jessell, an English woman with an injury which confines her to a wheelchair. Though the two have never met, they have been corresponding since they were 13 and eventually fall in love. Intensely curious about his mother’s past after finding short fiction written by her grandmother, Viola, Gerard travels to England to see Miss Jessell and learn more about the darkest secrets of his mother’s past.

Why students should read it: If your students thought Miss Havisham was deliciously creepy and loved the haunted Victorian feel of The Turn of the Screw, they will enjoy Harwood’s love letter to both novels. Viola’s creepy short stories are as delightful as the novel itself and would be good illustrations of the “story within a story” idea that students might encounter in other works, such as Hamlet.

The Poisonwood BibleThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Read it with Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

What it’s about: Baptist minister Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo [Democratic Republic of the Congo] to serve as missionaries right before that country’s independence from Belgium. The story is told through the viewpoint of Orleanna Price, Nathan’s wife, and each of his four daughters: Rachel, Adah, Leah, and Ruth May. Africa has a way of getting under the skin of the Price family women, each in a different way, and the book is a grim illustration of America’s own culpability in the devastation of colonialism on the African continent.

Why students should read it: The novel is rich in gorgeous prose and biblical allusion and shows readers a side of colonialism that is an interesting counterpoint to Conrad’s vision in Heart of Darkness. Kingsolver has a gift for creating vivid, realistic characters and bringing her setting into vivid relief (see also her novel The Bean Trees for an example set in America).

The Dante ClubThe Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Read it with The Inferno by Dante and/or selections from the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the other “Fireside Poets.”

What it’s about: A murderer is stalking Boston. Strange and gruesome crime scenes appear to be coming right from the pages of Dante’s Inferno. The Dante Club, the group of poets engaged in helping Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translate Dante’s work, are the only ones who make the connection — which also makes them the likeliest suspects!

Why students should read it: Students studying Dante’s Inferno will gain an understanding of and appreciation for Dante’s work and the path scholars took to make it accessible for American readers. Pearl’s novel is also an interesting insight into literary Boston following the Civil War.

PossessionPossession by A.S. Byatt

Read it with British Victorian poets, such as Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and others.

What it’s about: The relationship between Randolph Henry Ash, a fictional Victorian poet modeled perhaps after Robert Browning, and Christabel LaMotte, is uncovered by literary scholars Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, who turn Victorian literary scholarship on its head with their findings.

Why students should read it: I will admit that perhaps you want to recommend this one to your most voracious and enthusiastic readers because it is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding read. Students will be fascinated to learn about the dark, seedy underworld that is literary scholarship when territorial specialists are more concerned with preserving their pet theories than with disseminating the truth about their “charges.” The love story at the center will likely appeal to the resident romantic in high school and college students.

The Thirteenth TaleThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Read it with Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and/or The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

What it’s about: Margaret Lea, a fan of nineteenth century fiction like Jane Eyre, turns up her nose at the popular books of Vida Winter. Until, that is, her father, a rare book dealer for whom she works, acquires a first edition of Miss Winter’s Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation. Margaret tears through the book, dismayed to discover the title is a ruse: the book lacks a thirteenth tale. Miss Winter, impressed by Margaret’s writing, contacts her to write her own biography, tantalizingly promising the secret of the thirteenth tale will be hers if she accepts.

Why students should read it: Setterfield clearly loves gothic fiction of the 1800’s, and I have to admit, I finally read Jane Eyre this past fall because of Setterfield’s devotion to the book as expressed through the pages of her own novel. This novel will hook students with its mystery and gothic atmosphere, while enhancing their appreciation for the gothic fiction of the nineteenth century.

WicketWicked by Gregory Maguire

Read it with The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

What it’s about: Maguire tells the famous story of Dorothy’s nemesis, the Wicked Witch of the West, through her own words and in a sympathetic light. This answer to Baum’s classic becomes a political allegory in the deft hands of Maguire, who imagines the Wicked Witch to be Elphaba, shunned and rejected from childhood, and fashions a complicated past complete with Galinda (Glinda — her college roommate and friend!), the Winkies, and the Wizard himself.

Why students should read it: Most high school and college students won’t be studying The Wizard of Oz, I suppose, but they will benefit from looking at the other side of the story and examining point of view in narrative. Students will be hooked because of what they already know of this story, but they will stay intrigued by what they learn when Elphaba shares her side.

Reading Lolita in TehranReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Read it with Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Daisy Miller by Henry James

What it’s about: Azar Nafisi was a literature professor when the Shah of Iran was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini became the leader of the new Islamic republic. She was fired when she refused to wear the veil, but secretly conducted a book club for female students. This book chronicles her stories teaching Western literature both in and out of a university setting. Her focus is on the four books mentioned above and her Middle Eastern students’ responses to and connection with Western literature.

Why students should read it: Not only does this memoir give Western students a different lens through which to interpret literature, but it also gives students a new and deeper appreciation for these four books of the Western canon. The trial of The Great Gatsby was particularly intriguing to me; I shared this section with my American literature Honors students when we studied Gatsby. I also read Lolita after reading this book (thank you Professor Nafisi — it was wonderful).

Do you have other recommendations for books that can be paired with classics?

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Clayton County Schools to Lose SACS Accreditation

The Southern Association of Colleges and School (SACS), the chief accreditation agency here in Georgia, is recommending that Clayton County Schools lose its accreditation. The AJC article linked focuses on the fact that loss of accreditation would strip Clayton students of HOPE Scholarship eligibility. At any rate, the real losers in this system are the students and teachers. I interviewed for a teaching post in Clayton County right out of college, and I’ve never been so glad I didn’t get a job. The stories I’ve heard from teachers in that system are upsetting. What do you do to fix an entire school district that is “fatally flawed”?

Update, 3/24/08: I know this issue makes many people angry, but I must remind you to read the comments policy before submitting comments.

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