Tag Archives: reflection

The Empty Garden

Granna and Papa

These are my grandparents. I spent seven years of my childhood living near them in Aurora, Colorado. They mean a great deal to me. I am sure they are the reason that I consider Aurora “home” even though I didn’t live there the longest, and even though I have not lived there since I was 14, and even though I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited Aurora since I moved.

My grandfather was a tremendous gardener, and his lawn was always beautiful when I was a kid. He isn’t really able to keep a garden now. I remember going with them to Dardano’s Flowerland in Denver to buy marigolds and other flowers. In the front yard, right in front of the front door, they grew marigolds with large, bulbous orange and yellow heads, almost too perfect and too similar to one another to look real. Around the corner from the front door, on the side of the house they grew roses. In the backyard, way in the corner of the yard, they planted purple irises. The power lines hung low over their backyard, and I can never hear doves cooing today without being once again in the back yard.

The other two gardens were devoted mainly to experiments. Granna usually had some zucchini going, but we tried watermelon with some success, and one year she let me pick out some seeds, and I grew some pretty little flowers that looked like closed mouths. I could squeeze right under the bud and make the mouths look like they were talking. The grass was thick and green and cool under my bare feet in the summer. We used to lie under the bean tree in her front yard at night and look up into the sky filled with stars and almost feel like we were falling into the sky.

I knew how much work went into cultivating this yard. Every year we went to Dardano’s Flowerland for the big spring trip. We circled around the greenhouses for what felt like hours as mt grandparents puttered, inspecting and selecting plants. I tried to do anything to relieve the boredom. I looked for rocks with green moss growing on them under the wet flower trays. I touched all the plants. It seemed like the yard was transformed as if by magic almost overnight somehow into a wonderland of plants and trees and flowers. The sprinkler ran every other day; Papa never tried to cheat the water restrictions that I knew of, but his lawn was always verdant and lush.

I was sad to learn from a quick Google search just now that Dardano’s is closed. I can’t really say I enjoyed the trips to the greenhouses at Dardano’s because all I really recall is boredom. Strange that I recall that boredom with so much fondness. I can feel the humid air in the greenhouses. I can smell the flowers. I can hear the trickles of water running. I don’t know much about the history of the place, but I gather it was one of those Mom and Pop businesses that had been around for over 60 years. It’s such a weighty history, and it won’t be too long before people forget it ever existed. Their URL is up for grabs. Their last tweets were posted in 2012. People have moved on and buy their flowers from another nursery, I’m sure. This place was an institution in my childhood, though.

Dardano's
Photo by Dardano’s

I visited Aurora almost two years ago. It was wonderful to see my grandparents. But there was so much about the town that I didn’t recognize. To be fair, much was the same, too. The plains are still flat out there east of the Rockies, and the sky still goes all the way to the ground. But there is a University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and Children’s Hospital on Colfax Ave. now, and it looks completely different with all the new buildings in the huge medical complex.

I used to walk down the street to Hoffman Park to play, and as early as the 1990’s, all the playground equipment had been replaced—I’m sure the playground equipment we used was unsafe. A lot of the places I used to walk or ride my bike to are closed. The library was probably the first casualty—the old library on 13th Street, where I used to check out books and get hot chocolate from a machine on cold fall days. Dolly Madison’s ice cream and dairy—that was an old-fashioned soda fountain place. Hatch’s Gifts. The Munchen Shop, a German deli. Hancock’s Fabrics, where my grandmother spent hours. The art supply store where I used to buy posterboard for my projects. The large number of empty storefronts, pawn shops, and check cashing and cash advance places tell a story of the kind of place the old shopping center has become. And yet, there is still a donut shop where old Winchell’s Donuts used to be. The large grocery store is still there. It’s hard to explain. Enough of it is similar that its recognizable, but it’s changed enough that in many ways, it’s completely different. Those places are new, and they don’t remember me anymore.

I guess, in that way, it’s kind of like all of us. Parts of us are the same, but we change enough that those we knew in our youth might not recognize the people we’ve become.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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How I Decided to be a Teacher

Playing School, William Hahn
Playing School, William Hahn

Teaching was the first career I ever considered, and I actually do remember making that decision. I was in first grade. My experience with education was not that expansive at that point. I couldn’t possibly have had any idea exactly what age group or which subjects I would teach when I grew up. I don’t think I had even considered high school. I’m not sure I even knew the subject of English existed. But I was pretty set on teaching. My teacher that year, Mrs. Jones, awakened my curiosity about dinosaurs and books. Aside from an incident when she embarrassed me in the midst of scolding me for talking with a neighbor, I remember her fondly and remember wanting to be like her.

I remember putting my stuffed animals and dolls in circles and lines and giving them assignments to complete. I remember reading to my sister. My best friend in elementary school swears that I used to go over the material we were studying in school with her. I wish I could remember that.

I thought briefly about being a lawyer in seventh grade after doing a project in which I played the role of a lawyer, but I think my understanding of what lawyers did was quite narrow. I assumed, based on what I had seen in TV and movies and read in books that all lawyers were trial lawyers, and being a trial lawyer didn’t appeal to me. It wasn’t long before I was back to my original plan.

In middle school, I fell in love with French class. I thought I might teach French. I took French in high school, where my teachers were admittedly a lot less inspiring than my middle school teachers (with the exception of one teacher in my upper level French classes). I thought I might one day teach French. I can’t remember if I was told I should also study Spanish, or if I assumed I should, because many of the world language teachers I knew taught both languages, and I just didn’t have any interest in teaching Spanish.

I honestly don’t remember exactly when I decided to teach English. My middle school English teachers were good. I loved reading and writing in their classes, and I have fond memories of projects I did. That changed once I was in high school. I started out in Honors English classes, which were fine, but not all that interesting. I found the ideas shared by the other students intriguing, but I felt they were smarter than me. I understand now that they were just faster and more extroverted. I took regular-level English classes the rest of high school. My tenth grade English teacher was probably one of the worst teachers I ever had. I learned so little in her class, and it was incredibly boring. All I really remember was doing exercises out of Warriner’s grammar books at my desk.

I had a decent first semester eleventh grade teacher, but I remember feeling desperate at that stage that I was missing something. I asked her for a reading list, and she brought me a box of books. I don’t think anyone had ever asked for such a thing from her before. At any rate, I wasn’t in her class long before I moved, and my new English teacher in Georgia was my favorite. The class quickly became my favorite class. I absolutely loved her. I still do, as a matter of fact, because we have remained friends. I was lucky enough to be in her class again senior year, too, though not for first semester. I had a miserable experience in that class with a teacher who did not reward my hard and honest work on a research paper and gave my then boyfriend a good grade on a paper on which he had made up sources and which didn’t meet the assignment requirements. It was so unfair. It still rankles. I am not saying my paper was amazing. It probably wasn’t. But it was the honest work of weeks spent in the library reading Robert Frost’s poems and conducting research.

If not for my second semester junior/senior English teacher, it’s tough to say if I would be teaching English. In some ways, I learned what kind of teacher I didn’t want to be from the other teachers. It is a shame when a kid who loved to read and write as much as I did couldn’t enjoy high school English classes, though. I have tried to do better with my own teaching. I believe I have.

In some ways, I think the fact that I decided to teach long before I decided on who and what to teach contributed to the way I teach. I could easily have taken a different path in terms of subject matter or age group. As a matter of fact, I have taught pre-K and every grade from 6-12. In my role as a tech integrator, I’ve also taught adults. As a result, I don’t have ideas that work of literature X simply must be read at a certain age, but I do believe we should scaffold and build skills in reading and writing.

I was always going to be a teacher, even if I didn’t know the particulars in first grade when decided on that path. There was a period of time about four years into my career when I thought perhaps I shouldn’t be teaching. It lasted a few months before I was back in a classroom again. Being a teacher is such a part of my identity that I can’t imagine doing something else.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #22: Hello to my Students

hello photo
Photo by Franck Mahon

During a discussion with students today over Robin Bates’s wonderful blog Better Living Through Beowulf, and its potential for ideas for their papers, a student asked me, “Don’t you have a blog?” I said, “Yes, I do,” and the students were curious. I told them where they could find it.

In the early days of the edublogosphere, educators often blogged under pseudonyms or were discouraged from blogging at all. Many feared retribution over what they might post, and at that stage, blogging was considered a bit edgy. I have been blogging here for ten years now (eleven in June), and I can’t think of anything I would write here that I would be nervous about administrators, work colleagues, students, or parents reading. In fact, I invite it. I want the people I work with, the students I teach, and their parents to know I think a great deal about teaching, and blogging is a big part of that reflective practice. Blogging about my teaching has made such an immeasurable difference in my teaching career that it’s hard to say what kind of teacher I would be if I hadn’t started blogging. It was through encouragement on this blog that I tried just about every initiative in teaching, and each of the initiatives that has worked has made my practice that much better. In fact, I am not completely sure that I would still be teaching if not for the support and reflection this blog has offered me. When I began teaching at a school where that support and reflection was built into the expectations and culture (in comparison with other places I’ve worked), I admit I slacked off on posting, but I have yet to find any ongoing PD that has been as beneficial to me as blogging about what I am doing in the classroom.

Even though I have improved my teaching practice over time, and this blog reflects that improvement (I find in reading older posts that my positions have shifted quite a lot in some areas), I am proud that my colleagues read my blog (and sometimes leave comments) and if my students were to find it interesting that I reflect on ways I can be a better teacher out here, then they are welcome to visit. (And hello!)

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Slice of Life #12: The N-Word

Slice of LifeI started The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with my juniors today, and I always like to begin study of this novel with a frank discussion of the repeated use of the n-word. In a book that uses the word over 200 times, students will be confronted with it often. I wrote the word on the board followed by some quickwrite questions, and as the students settled in their seats and looked up, there were quite a few exclamations and audible gasps. They confessed they thought I’d lost my mind for a minute.

I learned some really interesting things from my students today. The first is that one student has heard the n-word used as a verb that means something like “played a dirty trick,” as in “He really n-d that guy.” I have never heard that use before. Other students shared (and I admit students share this idea often when I teach the book) that the connotation seems different to them when the word is spelled out “n-er” versus “n-a.” I try to wrap my head around that idea, but I admit I don’t have a lot of luck.

We read an essay by Gloria Naylor about a time when a little boy called her the n-word when she was in third grade, and we read Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” which seems simple on the surface, but packs a punch. We also watched part of a segment from the program 60 Minutes on the NewSouth books publication that expurgated the n-word from the novel and substituted it with “slave.” The discussion is a powerful and important one to have prior to reading this novel, I think, but I have two observations:

  1. My students don’t know enough about what is going on in the news and the #blacklivesmatter movement. At all. We are going to talk about it, and if I need to, I’ll bring in the news articles. But I admit to wondering why they don’t know what is happening.
  2. The controversy surrounding this book, 130 years from its publication, which has been a part of the book’s history for the entirety of its existence, still manages to provoke thought and debate. It might be one of the most consistently relevant books written.

I close with a great quote from the preface of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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Back to School 2015

school photoI forgot to post yesterday for Slice of Life Tuesday. I was tired when I returned home from school and wound up taking a nap. While Monday was our first day of school, it was mostly taken up with orientation activities, so Tuesday was the first day we met with our students. We had shortened classes.

This year I am teaching American Studies in Literature and AP English Literature and Composition. American Lit is familiar territory. I have been teaching it for most of my career—and this will be my eighteenth year. It doesn’t seem that long in a lot of ways. AP Lit, on the other hand, is new for me, so I have been doing a lot of work to prepare for that course.

I began the year in my AP class with a chalk talk: “What are your goals for AP Lit this year?” on one poster, and “What challenges do you foresee in this class?” on the other. Students wrote responses silently for ten minutes, stepped back to read what others wrote, and added comments or agreed with peers’ comments by starring, checking or adding some other mark. They liked it, and they discovered they really have similar hopes and fears. I am going to like this class very much. They put me on the spot right away and asked me what my goals are for the class. And as it turns out, we have pretty much the same goals: 1) I want students who are taking the AP exam to go into the test feeling like they are well prepared, 2) I want students to feel well prepared for their college English classes, and 3) I want to have fun while we learn. Today in AP, we examined the rubric. I was proud of them for pointing out its vagueness (I think it could be clearer in the top end as well), and we tried our hand at reading a student’s AP timed writing and determining 1) what prompt the student was attempting to answer, 2) writing the prompt in our own words, 3) evaluating the essay (two students nailed the exact grade the student received, and the rest lowballed the student, which gives me hope that if anything, they will be harsher graders (which is potentially better than grading too high), and 4) talking about thesis statements. They are great, engaged class.

My American Lit students began the year with some discussion of essential questions:

  • What is the American Dream?
  • Is the American Dream accessible to all? Why/why not?
  • What makes a person American?
  • How is America different from/similar to other countries?
  • Why do people come to America to live?

I asked students to take sticky notes and pick at least two questions to reflect on and write answers to. Then they put one of the sticky notes on chart paper and made connections between notes: two ideas were similar, two ideas were opposites, two ideas were connected in some other way. Then I asked them to take another sticky note and put it on the appropriate chart and connect a negative with a positive or make a connection between a note and something they heard in the news. It won’t really surprise most folks (and didn’t surprise me) to learn they didn’t follow the news much, though one student commented he’d heard candidates talking about “anchor babies.” We talked about what that was. I told the students we would put the charts away and take them out at the end of the year and look at them again. We would reflect on what we had learned. Are our answers the same? Are they nuanced in some way? What do we know now that we didn’t know in the beginning?

I think these classes will be interesting in particular because I have many international students. I have students from China, Vietnam, Russia, Sweden, Thailand, Nigeria, and South Korea, as well as students from Massachusetts and the rest of New England. It looks like a really diverse group, and I think they will bring some very interesting perspectives to our discussions about American literature. Of course, they are likely to need support as non-native speakers of English. I always think my international students are brave for traveling so far away to study in a second (or perhaps third or fourth) language. I wouldn’t have been able to do that when I was in high school.

We are plunging into the deep end of the pool without water wings tomorrow as we have a Socratic seminar on Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus.” I like to frame the year with this poem because I like students to ask questions about why this poem is on the Statue of Liberty and whether we believe the idea expressed in the poem (or, indeed, if we ever have believed it). I was proud that one of my former students who is in my class again approached me to check because he remembers our 70-minute Socratic seminars from last year, and he was concerned we weren’t ready as a class to do that yet. He’s right, so I was able to reassure him by letting him know they will have time to prepare for their seminar in class (half the class, in fact), and the seminar would likely be more like 30 minutes. The reason I was glad he approached me is that he 1) advocated for himself, but really 2) advocated for his peers and showed concern for them.

I have written in the past about how I reworked my curriculum so it’s thematic, and it worked well last year. I did the same opening activity last year, and you should have seen my students’ faces when I pulled out their chart paper from the beginning of the year, and they could actually see how their understanding and thinking about the questions had evolved, even if they still basically agreed with the sentiments expressed—they had evidence to back up those sentiments by the end of the year. I am hoping this year’s class walks away feeling the same way: proud of how much they had learned.

My advisory students are now seniors, and I have been with some of them all four years of high school. They are a great group—very conscientious and hardworking. I am looking forward to seeing them through their last year as they work through the college application process and prepare senior projects. I really look forward to seeing them walk across the stage at graduation at the end of the year. I am so excited to see what they will do.

I had a great start to the year. Last year was my best teaching year yet, and I’m hoping to top that one, even. I am really in a happy place right now.

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Slice of Life #4: Blogging

Slice of LifeI had an interesting revelation today. This blog will turn ten years old in a little over a week. I used to blog a lot more than I do now, and I have tried to figure out why. I am no less interested in educational issues than I was when I started blogging. I am still invested in blogging as a way to learn and reflect, too. So what gives?

One reason I started this blog ten years ago is I needed validation. I was not getting it where I taught. I was not teaching with other folks who were invested or thinking about blogging or, in some cases, even in reflecting. It was not an easy place. I needed to find my people. I was chatting with a work colleague about my blog today, and I mentioned that I didn’t blog as much after I started teaching at my current school, mainly because I am validated at work. I don’t think I realized it before, but I think blogging was a way for me to connect to other teachers so I didn’t feel like I was crazy. There were other people out there I could talk to about the issues that concerned me, and I had to go outside the school building to find that validation. Now, I tend to have more of those conversations with work colleagues. It’s refreshing.

However, I do find blogging to be a great way for me to think and reflect. Writing is the way I learn, and participating in the Slice of Life weekly writing challenge (is it a challenge? or a meme?) has given me a reason to blog. I have rediscovered why I wanted to blog in the first place. I even wrote a post about an educational issue that concerns me yesterday. I haven’t done that in a while. I really do miss the regular interaction with folks who read this blog as well as the thinking that writing here allows me to do.

Today I went to the Multicultural Teaching Institute (day one of a three-day conference). I am enjoying it so far. This conference gives participants plenty of time to think and talk to each other. It’s active, and I’m engaged. I really like all the journaling they are asking us to do. It’s like my English classes! We each received paper-cover Moleskine notebooks for journaling, and I love mine! I want to have a whole stack of them. I was able to talk about an incident that bothered me this year in a comfortable space and get a few tools for dealing with a similar incident in the future. The food is also great. Often, big conferences skimp on food, if they provide it at all, and it’s refreshing to see such care taken at this conference, mainly because when you gather teachers together, you need to feed them. If you are looking to learn more about diversity issues or multicultural education, I definitely recommend this conference. I think at this point, my mind is a little full, and we have just started, so I don’t have a lot of major reflections aside from the fact that the facilitation is great, and the teachers I have met so far are great. I think I will be learning a lot.

So, no creative writing for me today. Really just some reflection, and that’s a slice of my life today, too.

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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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On the Horizon

On the Horizon photoI’m interrupting my alphabet series as the year closes. Today was our last day of post-planning, or post-sessionals, as my school terms it. I had a great year. My students were awesome, and I tried some great things in my classroom.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned my changing role on this blog yet. A few years ago, I went into technology integration. I am going back to teaching English full time next year as the English department chair at my school. I am very excited about this changing role, and I believe in some ways it’s a return to my first love. I did enjoy technology integration, but if it had ever taken me completely out of the classroom, I’m not sure I could have handled it. I don’t think this transition means I will not be talking about technology. I do anticipate this blog will shift back towards more of a focus on teaching English, however.

My school is moving toward backwards design/UbD, and long-time readers of this blog will know how thrilled I am about it. Many of our teachers already use the format for planning, but with a more institutional focus on UbD, I think the teaching and learning will become even better. I work with some excellent teachers, and I think we have the best kids anywhere, so I’m really excited to see the ways in which project-based learning and UbD makes my school even better.

Even more exciting than seeing our school embrace UbD? Grant Wiggins is coming to our school to do a workshop during our pre-planning (pre-sessional) meetings. I am so excited to have the opportunity to meet Grant and learn from him in person.

I also recently had the opportunity to attend a CLA/CWRA Performance Task Academy led by Marc Chun. If you have ever struggled with creating performance tasks, I can highly recommend the workshop, which really helps break down the process and offers opportunities for you to build your performance task with Marc’s guidance.

In preparation for working with Grant, my school has combined our curriculum mapping (which greatly resembled UbD) with our new learning management system. I was one of the early adopters, and I was asked to flesh out one of my unit pages so that I could model use of the LMS to colleagues. I chose to flesh out my unit on The Catcher in the Rye. I will be teaching the novel again next year in a sophomore World Literature class (and I will also be teaching American literature again after a few years’ hiatus—perhaps folks who have been reading a while will remember I taught American literature for quite a long time, and that it was the focus of many blog entries and lesson ideas posted here). Because I’d recently been to the Performance Task Academy, and also perhaps because I love planning, I couldn’t just build my unit page without actually tackling my UbD unit for The Catcher in the Rye. I did borrow the idea behind the performance task that Wiggins and McTighe describe on pp. 199-200 of Understanding by Design. I have used the performance task before without as much success as I would have liked. I realized at the Performance Task Academy that the missing piece was grounding the performance task more solidly in a real-world situation and giving more definitive parameters. The general idea is the same, but the performance task as I revised it will make more use of real-world tools and materials and will have real-world stakes that more closely mimic the work a psychiatrist treating Holden might do. I am really happy with it, though the unit as it is posted is still a little incomplete, as I haven’t finished thinking about discussion questions I will want to use in class discussion.

I have also been fortunate enough to find a fabulous friend and mentor in my Dean of Faculty, Cindy (and I hope she doesn’t mind my calling her out on my blog when I didn’t ask first). It’s been so refreshing to work with her this year (and last), especially as I transition into my new role. She’s my English teaching soulmate, and anyone who has ever worked in a vacuum with no like-minded administrators knows how it feels to find someone like that in your workplace. It doesn’t just make it easier to go to work every day, it makes it fun, invigorating, and challenging (in the best way) to go to work every day. Under her leadership, I joined our school’s Vision Committee, and it has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done with colleagues. Together we designed a professional development day unconference.

With all of this buzzing around in my mind, I’m so eager to get started on planning for next year. I’m really excited about the work on the horizon.

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An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger, Chapter 2

An Ethic of ExcellenceThe second chapter of Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence discusses the importance of school culture in student learning. If you have ever worked in a school with a negative school culture, you will find yourself nodding as you read and highlighting several sentences in every paragraph. Reading this chapter, I reflected on the school cultures in several schools where I have worked or attended as a student, and Berger is absolutely right that culture is the bedrock of a successful school. If the school culture does not celebrate excellence and is not a safe place for students to learn (not just safe from physical or mental abuse or bullying but also a safe place for taking risks), then it is nearly impossible for individual teachers and students to hope they can be successful. Several movies about excellent teachers show us examples of teachers who successfully fight against a negative school culture to help their students achieve, but the fact that these teachers have movies about them should tell us how hard it is. If it were easy to fight a negative school culture, we wouldn’t have movies about the teachers who did it.

It did not take long for me to understand that administration is key to establishing a positive school culture. When I was a student teacher, I didn’t really see what, exactly, administrators did all day. It seemed to me that all the important work in schools was done by teachers and students, and administrators mattered very little. I said as much in a journal I wrote as part of an assignment in my English Education program. We had a doctoral student who graded some of our work in that program. She was a veteran English teacher. All she said in response to my journal was “I would be interested to know how you feel about this in a few years.” She didn’t tell me I was naive, but that’s exactly what I was. I kept her comment in mind, and later, when I realized what she meant, I truly felt like an idiot. Unless an administration is behind the culture and is a positive influence on the culture, it’s just not going to happen. Berger begins this chapter by describing visiting a school where the principal clearly didn’t want him there and clearly didn’t want to be there himself. He was marking time until retirement. He refused to meet Berger when Berger visited the school. There are a few teachers who want to hear what Berger has to say because they want change. But, as Berger says about the school, “Conditions are so bad that I hardly know what to say” (33). I actually want to ask Berger about this school when he visits us in preplanning precisely because I have a hunch they are still struggling, if they are still around, because their leadership was unwilling to establish a positive school culture. Their leadership didn’t even want to try. Unless the leadership is willing to make changes, nothing will happen, no matter how earnest the faculty and students are. It is too much of a losing battle to fight. If they were able to make some positive changes, then they likely did it after the principal left the school.

Let me tell you about the cultures of a few schools with which I am familiar.

The first school is a small elementary school. Funding has been slashed to the point that the school has no librarian, but parents volunteer to staff the library. Student artwork adorns the walls. Creativity is celebrated. Students are given the opportunity to engage in a variety of arts: music, visual art, drama, and dance. Sixth graders are paired with kindergarten buddies, much as Berger describes his own school doing. The buddies meet regularly, and the older children serve as mentors and friends. The principal knows students. Every student is accountable. It’s a small school, and students are not lost in the crowd.

The second school is a rural combined middle and high school. Students tend to come from backgrounds that do not celebrate academic achievement. Gangs are problem. Yes, even in this rural school. But the principal largely ignores the major behavior issues in the school and prefers to stick his head in the sand because he’s not sure how to change it, or maybe because he isn’t willing to try. Students threaten violence against teachers, and the students might be suspended, but then they are back, and the teachers and students have that issue hanging in the air. Students lock a teacher out of her classroom, and the principal thinks it’s funny. One of the administrators’ own children leaves a classroom without permission, through the window. Thankfully, the school has one level. An administrator tries to convince a teacher to change a student’s failing average from a 40% to a 70% so he can graduate. Otherwise, she says, he will wind up in jail. He had retaken three courses in that same subject that year, and he needed to pass all three of them. He passed two.

The third school has students are fairly good, for the most part, and they understand the importance of a good education, or at least good grades, but the kind of excellence celebrated at the school is not respect for the excellent work done but rather the grade or AP score achieved. Unfortunately, there is a bully at the helm of the school. Certain teachers and staff are regular targets of verbal and mental abuse. Unfortunately, there is little recourse because the bully is in a leadership position. A great deal of attention is paid to appearances, but the school has a foundation built on sand, and there is little attention paid to the most important aspects of building a positive school community.

The fourth school has collegial, hardworking, intelligent leadership with great ideas. The students are polite and hardworking. They take pride in their work. The school is not only invested in building a strong school culture, but in establishing itself as a positive member of the neighborhood and city community at large. The expectation in the school community is that people help each other out. Doors are held open. People help out with heavy loads. People greet each other warmly. Achievement is celebrated.

It is just about impossible to overstate the importance of establishing a school community that supports all of its constituents. Berger describes how positive peer pressure is a part of his school community, and I have seen positive peer pressure be a force for good in my own experience, as well. When students expect excellence out of each other and hold each other to high standards, you’d be amazed what can happen in a school; as Berger notes, it is a powerful motivator.

Berger says that “Every effective school I’ve seen has a strong sense of community,” even if their resources and settings differ wildly (41). And community only happens when all the stakeholders—faculty, staff, students, parents—have a voice and take pride in being a part of what is happening at the school. Berger describes building a foundation for community, starting with the building. His description of an inner city school he visited is compelling enough to quote in its entirety:

The building was surrounded by trash: fast-food boxes, plastic bags, food, broken bottles, wet newspapers, shopping carts, and needles from drug users. People sat on the curb in front of the school drinking from paper bags; the liquor store was across the street. The building had the architectural look of a prison—massive exterior walls of water-stained concrete with few windows. The front entrance was a battered metal door covered with graffiti; if you banged loudly enough they would buzz you in for inspection by a security guard. The boy’s [sic] bathrooms had stalls with no doors, broken toilet seats, and graffiti on the walls and metal mirrors.

This was an elementary school. (45)

I have to say I nearly jumped out of my seat when I read that last sentence. Can you imagine? As Berger says, “If politicians or business leaders were compelled to send their own children to this school, I would guess we’d see changes in the building fairly soon” (45). He says that “Architects point out that it’s easy to see what is valued in a culture by looking at which structures are built with expense and care” (46). The sad thing about the description of the inner-city school that Berger visited is that I wasn’t shocked that a school like that existed. I was only surprised it was an elementary school. As Berger says, if we are expecting students to go to dilapidated schools that look more like prisons, it is no wonder the schools are underperforming.

I enjoyed reading this chapter a great deal, and I agreed with what Berger says. Building a strong school community is not easy and takes time, but it is important work. It can be done anywhere, even in places with few resources, but it has to start with leadership that cares enough to support the work. And frankly, it isn’t the kind of work that is being supported by a society driven by test data as the only marker of success.

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