Tag Archives: reflection


Golden Gate SunsetI began a new job this week (well, really last week, but this first week with teachers back made it feel more like the first week), and this image of the Golden Gate Bridge seemed to capture something about how it feels in many ways.

I am excited. The opportunity to use my technology skills to help my colleagues has been exhilarating, and they seem so appreciative. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

So far, I have written documentation for using our gradebook software and grade/homework site (Edline) and also conducted training in these two programs. I have also had training on our copiers that I translate into training faculty. I sent my first technology newsletter to our faculty (Gmail tips for Outlook users and Dropbox). I have also helped a few colleagues with some questions or issues that have arisen as they prepare for school. To be honest, I am starting my own classes on Monday, and I was completely unable to prepare anything this week, but I will work on that over the weekend.

Google Calendar has a new feature that allows users to create appointment time slots, so I have created slots and shared that calendar with my colleagues. I already have several appointments booked for next week. I have already learned so much, and most of all, I have actually had a lot of fun, even though I’ve been busy. I have been happier in my job than I can ever remember being. I think it’s really important to me to feel useful, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt this useful before (at least, not at work). It was a busy, busy week, but it was a good week.
Creative Commons License photo credit: vgm8383

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The Road to Tomorrow (and Happy 2009!)

I have never been much of a fan of New Year’s Eve. I think it’s the grandmother of all parties, and I just don’t like parties. I know that makes me weird. I don’t like going out on New Year’s Eve, and I never have understood why it’s such a big celebration.

Reflection, on the other hand, I understand.

I had a pretty good 2010. I earned my master’s in Instructional Technology from Virginia Tech. I presented at a national conference for the first time and was asked to present again next year. I was named GCTE Secondary Teacher of the Year and NCTE Teacher of Excellence. Professionally, I accomplished more this year than I have any other year. I also read more books than I have in any other year. I went on a trip to Salem, MA. I made some new friends. My friendships with others deepened. I’m looking forward to doing more this year, and I hope it will be a good one. I do have some dreams and goals that remain unaccomplished, and this year feels like a good one to get rolling on them. After all, I’ll be turning 40 in September, and one thing I won’t have is more time.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Stuck in Customs

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Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895

Failure is weird. Everyone experiences it, but when it happens, we feel embarrassed and alone. I have been writing this blog post in my head for years, but I haven’t posted it because I have been afraid. I decided after this weekend that it was the right time to share it.

I taught 8th grade language arts in the 2002-2003 school year. Our principal left in cloud of scandal, and we had a new principal. I was on maternity leave when she came in, but she didn’t have a good first impression of me, I’m sure, because I had a little bit of trouble adjusting to teaching that grade level. My test scores were great. Only one student on our middle school team of over 100 students failed the state’s writing test. By the measure that higher ups usually care about, I was a success. But before he left, my principal expressed concerns over the high rate of failure among my students and suggested my team leader was influencing me to be too exacting in my standards, and that perhaps I needed to lower them.

I left work one day and went into labor the next morning. I wasn’t due for a couple of weeks, and I hadn’t expected to be out the next day. I had some ungraded student work. While I was on maternity leave, I received a phone message from the assistant principal insisting that I needed to get the work graded, so I finally managed to do so, but I expected a little more sympathy, to be honest. I had a newborn at home.

The county let me know in no uncertain terms that my contract would be terminated if I didn’t return to work six weeks to the day after my leave ended. That day was the last day of post-planning, by the way. So I came back to discover my long-term sub had allowed the students to destroy some of my personal belongings and had done none of the things we were supposed to do to wrap up the year—filling out information in student files being the most onerous task. No one offered to help me. I had to take frequent breaks to nurse my son. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to leave school that day, but I finally was able to obtain the necessary signatures that said I had finished my work.

When I came back the next year, I was no longer teaching language arts but a journalism course instead. My new principal made it clear it was, in her eyes, a demotion. After her first visit to my classroom, she put me on a professional development plan for classroom management. I can’t even remember anymore all the tasks she had me complete. I know one of them was that I had to receive an observation with all satisfactory scores. She made sure that wouldn’t happen. She observed a perfect class but gave me a needs improvement because I had chosen to read a short article to my students instead of having a student volunteer read it. Suffice it to say that I was unable to meet the demands of my professional development plan and she elected not to renew my contract. The district must have wanted to make sure they were getting rid of a bad teacher for real because they made her observe me yet again. If I had been wise, I’d have tried to find out if I could have had a different administrator do the observation, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference.

I remember very clearly what my principal said. She felt I would never be a good teacher. She felt that I had been in the classroom too long at that point—six years—for anyone to expect I would improve. I am sure she felt that she was doing the right thing by removing a failure from the ranks of educators.

But then my current principal took a chance. I had been honest about the fact that my previous principal would not have good things to say about me, and I know my current principal did call the former one to find out what my issues were. She also talked to a former department chair of mine and another assistant principal who told a slightly different story. She thought about it and took a chance. To this day I’m not sure why she took a chance on me because a lot of people wouldn’t. I am grateful.

In my current setting I have been encouraged to grow. I have not, interestingly enough, had classroom management problems. You can’t insist it’s because I’m in a private school because I know private school teachers who cannot manage a classroom.

By any measure including my own, I was a failure as a teacher. But I learned that with the right support, it didn’t have to be that way. I could not only be a successful teacher but a really good teacher if I were given the assistance I needed from my administration.

I know a lot of folks like to blame others for their failures, but I really have to wonder what my former principal would think if she were able to see what I am up to now. In my case, I really think that I could have been a better middle school teacher if my administrators had given me the support to make it happen. Failure was probably one of the best things to happen to me because it put me on the path I’m walking now, but it stung. It hurt for a few years. I’d like to think I bounced back from it pretty well in the end, though. My former principal would have been completely gobsmacked if she had seen me walk across the room at the Secondary Section Luncheon on Saturday to receive a Secondary Section Teacher of Excellence Award from NCTE.

Creative Commons License photo credit: robynejay

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Any idea?

I began really working on my ITMA portfolio yesterday. It seemed like a huge task because I wasn’t really sure what was expected. After I started working on it, I found myself really enjoying it. I liked the freedom to choose artifacts. In choosing documents that illustrate my progress with design, I included my project from Instructional Design, which I am decidedly not proud of, simply because I was proud of subsequent designs in Multimedia Authoring and especially Project and Report. I knew I had learned a lot, and showing that progress was important to me. I am enjoying writing the reflections, too. Once I’ve completed the portfolio sometime later this semester, it will have a permanent home on my website.

Speaking of reflection, I was wondering the other day why writing over at my book blog is giving me so much joy lately. It’s not the conversation, exactly, because aside from a few regulars, I don’t actually receive that many comments over there. I keep meaning to update my education blog, but I think that grad school, coupled with work demands, seems to be sapping so much of my energy lately. And my education blog suffers because I associate it with work. My book blog, on the other hand, I associate with reading and escape from work. So it’s probably no wonder I am feeling more like hanging out over there lately. The upshot is that I graduate this December, and maybe I’ll have more time then. Then again, maybe not. I just have to tell myself that’s it’s really OK if I need a little break. I certainly don’t want this blog to feel like one more thing I have to do.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Massimo Barbieri

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Happy Birthday, Blog

Birthday (Cup) CakesFive years ago today, June 25, 2005, I started this blog. I had seen a few other education blogs and websites, and I felt inspired to start my own. I found out quite recently that one of the people who inspired me to start my own site had to shut her site down because of an illness. The other site that inspired me to start mine is still around as a blog, but hasn’t been updated since January, and I don’t know if it’s down for the count or on an extended hiatus.

Last year, I shared some statistics about my blog. Over the course of a year, a few things have changed. This post will be my 650th post. This blog has received 2,471 comments. Feedburner reports that I have 885 RSS feed subscribers, though site statistics like that are kind of hard to pin down. Feedblitz says that 104 people subscribe to this blog via e-mail updates. I know my Statcounter isn’t 100% accurate because I haven’t had it for the duration of my site, but it says that huffenglish.com has received 842,044 page views.

I talked about some of my favorite posts last year. Over the course of this year, some new additions include the following:

  • A Hogwarts Education because it was really cool to be on the radio in Ireland, and I was really excited that Sean Moncrieff’s staff sent me an mp3 of my interview.
  • Teachers and Facebook, which generated a lot of really good discussion.
  • Double, Double, Toil and Trouble, which was a great opportunity to showcase my students’ work.
  • Shakespearean Insults, in which the virtues of an iPod Touch for concocting Bard-inspired barbs are extolled.
  • The Perils of Teaching the Books We Love, which describes my trepidation about teaching Wuthering Heights. P.S. It turned out OK. The students enjoyed my sharing that speech I wrote about how much the book means to me, and I converted one of my students! She told me that the book was her “new obsession.” She came by several times to talk about it with me. I also had a student from last year thank me for introducing that book to her; she said it remains a favorite.
  • GCTE Conference 2010, which has a run-down of what I learned at that conference. It was a wonderful conference, not the least because I was awarded the Georgia Secondary Teacher of the Year award.
  • The Journey, which describes my Hero with a Thousand Faces course.
  • I Just Tried It, which discusses how we change our perceptions of learning and doing over time.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Gerry Snaps

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I Just Tried It

Wednesday is supposed to be my day for sharing ideas, lessons or tools according to my new schedule, but I’m going to put that off because something happened today that made me think, or rather made me put together some thoughts I’d already been playing with.

All three of my children are artists. My eldest daughter, Sarah, is a gifted artist. The other two are learning from her and following in her footsteps. Maggie, my middle daughter, watches and reads art tutorials online and in print. Her sister taught her some techniques. Maggie’s art teacher remarked at the end of last year that she is awfully young to have developed such a unique style. Dylan has only recently begun serious experimenting with art, but he is also showing a true gift for creating. I don’t think of myself as an artist because I could never quite make my drawings look like what I wanted them to look like. My kids don’t have that problem. They also draw and draw and draw. They experiment. We learned the other day that Maggie knows how to make screencasts. She can’t really even explain how she does it. To hear her tell it, she just turns on HyperCam and does it. She said she learned about HyperCam from watching other videos and seeing the words “unregistered HyperCam” on them. She wondered what HyperCam was, and in her words, “I decided I better go figure it out.” And so she just did it.

I remarked to my husband that kids are like that. They don’t worry about learning how to do something first. They just do it. I compared it to teachers I’ve talked to who are afraid to blog, to put themselves out there in that way. The way a kid would approach it is to just do it and not worry so much about it.

Today we drove down to visit my parents in Macon. My sister is also visiting. She is going to be moving to Okinawa shortly, and it might be a long time before I see her again. Her five-year-old daughter has a Nintendo DS. She was playing a game, and she showed my sister a new trick she had learned. My sister said, “How did you learn how to do that? I don’t even know how to do that.” My niece replied, “I didn’t learn it; I just tried it.”

It reminded me of my kids and their art. They don’t see what they create as learning. They see it as doing. Partly because of school, and partly because of self-consciousness, I think we lose that perspective as we grow. Maybe it’s around middle school when we start worrying so much about what our peers think about us and consequently become afraid to put ourselves out there. Maybe it’s because over time learning seems to become less and less about doing and more and more about listening.

What do we need to do in our classrooms so that our students feel more like their not so much learning, but just trying and doing? I know, I know. Trying and doing is learning. And yet my five-year-old niece, who hasn’t even started kindergarten, already makes a distinction between them.

I don’t know. Just throwing some of my thinking out there.

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Next Semester

It looks like I will be teaching five classes next semester. Five different preps. Now, two are British Literature, and two are ninth grade, but the courses are at two different levels, so though the preps are similar, they’re not the same. I’m not going to complain except to wonder aloud how I will manage with a difficult grad school course on the horizon (to be honest, I’m not sure my second grad school course is difficult or not: could be). I am lucky in that I’ve taught all the courses before. I already reflect here too little because of all the constraints on my time, and it bothers me. I don’t post. I don’t have any time to do everything I need to do, and I stay busy. Wish me luck.

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Interactive Notebooks: Professional Development Goal

My school has an interesting professional development program. The first year of the program involves exploration of a topic, and choices include educational research and reflection, general teaching practices, and career and leadership development. During the second year of the program, we can either 1) write one or two goals based on Charlotte Danielson’s domains as described in Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching or 2) work on a project that relates directly to an improvement in instruction of our students. In year three, the focus is on teacher observation and evaluation based on Danielson’s Framework and especially focused on instruction (Domain 3).

I decided that my goal would be to increase students’ critical thinking and engagement through Interactive Notebooks. It seemed a worthy goal because I am already using the notebooks, and now I will be collecting data and analyzing their effectiveness. I have collected all my students’ notebooks for the first time over the last couple of weeks with the following observations:

  • My students in British Literature and Composition (juniors) are really getting the idea behind the notebooks. They are naturally a pretty organized group, and they remind me if I haven’t told them that I need to indicate which section items go in and whether the assignments should be on the left or right. Thus, I was pleased with what I saw when I examined their notebooks. I still need to remind students about fleshing out the left with their own ideas.
  • My ninth grade students had major confusion about the notebooks. They are not as naturally organized as my juniors, so it stands to reason they will need more help, and if I am honest with myself, I haven’t given them all the help I think they need after looking at their first notebook checks as a baseline. I would like them to make more connections, but they need more help. I am also not giving them enough assigned left-hand side work.
  • My seniors seem to understand what to do, but many of them didn’t do it. I don’t think I have buy-in with that group because they have all, except for one student, had my class before, and they liked the notebook checks I used to do. I think they liked them because it did involve a little bit less work for them. They didn’t need to make the left-hand side connections. I had assigned a reading journal for the left-hand side for this time, and only a few students completed it. I think they just weren’t reading. It’s an elective class, and I hate to go the reading quiz route, but I may have to. Seniors are kind of a different animal in terms of engagement, and I suppose I can expect they won’t necessarily be invested in trying something new.

What I need to do to improve is give my ninth graders more opportunities for connection and reflection on the left and work with my elective students to convince them of the value of the notebooks. I could supply models from my juniors so that they could see the notebooks at work. Models actually wouldn’t hurt my ninth graders either. Even with my juniors, who are doing well, I can improve by suggesting ideas and opportunities so that the notebooks, particularly the left-hand side, are on their minds as a natural part of learning.

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Rethinking Heroes

Last year was the first year I taught my Hero with a Thousand Faces course, which is based upon Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. The course, by the way, begins with a study of the monomyth, followed by study of several works of literature and films that exhibit the hero’s journey. I wanted to start the year with a classic text, and students had read The Odyssey in 9th grade, so I settled on The Iliad. I had not read The Iliad until the summer before, as I was preparing for the course. Last year I felt that the size and sheer weight of the storyline stopped the forward motion of the course, but it was the first time I’d ever taught the work, and sometimes I have noticed that until I feel I know a work better, I spend too long on some parts, not enough on others, and with large works like The Iliad, which can be read in pieces rather than its entirety, I don’t know what to skip and summarize and what to give close attention to. I chalked my troubles up to my unfamiliarity with the text.

This year, I really think that the problem is with the book. I have slashed parts of the book from our study, and it’s still dragging. It’s just too long to begin this course with, I think, and I plan to replace it next year with a collection of Greek, Norse, and Celtic myths (perhaps Hercules, Perseus, Cuchulainn, and the like). It would give students the opportunity to practice applying Campbell’s theories to a number of short works prior to tackling a longer work. Also, I am not too sure The Iliad is the best work to illustrate Campbell’s theories: Achilles may not even be a hero, and he doesn’t really journey anywhere, and though Hector may be a hero (he was considered one of the Nine Worthies by medieval writers), his story doesn’t really fit the journey either. I love the work, and I think it’s great for students to read and be exposed to, but I am thinking it’s not a good fit for this course.

Another logistical problem unique to my situation is the fact that the Jewish holidays in September and October often create challenges in terms of timing assignments, as I cannot give students homework that is due the day after a Jewish holiday. The past two years in a row, we have encountered some problems with finishing The Iliad as the holidays approach. I think all in all, it will be a much better solution to start small with some shorter hero stories from mythology.

I think it’s a good practice to examine the books, units, and activities we do each year to see if they are still working for our current students. I was dismayed to learn this week that this practice isn’t as widespread as I thought, and I wonder why.

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Grendel’s Ima

I have been doing some tweaking with my Beowulf unit. In the past, my performance task has been to compile an annotated résumé for Beowulf. It’s good practice for their own résumés; my students have to compile résumés for college applications toward the end of their junior year, the year in which they study Beowulf at my school. It’s also a close-reading exercise, as each item on the résumé must be supported with an annotation. What has bothered me about it is that I want it to include more writing. Sure, it’s a specific kind of writing that I think is important. Suffice it to say something about it was bugging me, so I tweaked it this year. Instead, I will ask my students to write a letter of recommendation for Beowulf. The purpose is still the same: to analyze Beowulf as an epic hero. The assignment just looks different in the end. If you’d like to download this new essay assignment, here it is: Beowulf Letter of Recommendation. You might try this PDF converter if you want to make changes.

When I read Beowulf in high school, I didn’t like it much. Well, I hated it, if the truth be told. I took a sophomore level class in college on British literature up to 1700, and we read Beowulf again. I have no idea why, but this time, I loved it: perhaps a really good teacher, a different time of life, whatever. I have loved it ever since. It’s one of my favorite works to teach, and I enjoy being able to start the year with it. I am completing a unit on Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons this coming week. My students, for the most part, seem engaged. I won’t fool myself into thinking all of them love it as I do, but certainly they seem interested and are participating. One of the classes I teach began referring to Grendel’s mother as Grendel’s ima. This term makes sense if you know a bit of Hebrew, for it is the Hebrew word for mother. I work at a Jewish high school, and I loved it that my students made this fun connection, so I started using the term, too.

I just collected my students’ interactive notebooks for the first time, too. It was really interesting. The two British literature classes did a good job on the notebooks. I saw real reflection and thinking. I am hoping the notebooks will become a more natural reflecting tool as the year wears on. I really liked a peek at their thinking. The connections they make and the ideas they are putting down in their notebooks are insights into what they see as important. I suppose that’s why I liked the Hebrew connection to a piece of Anglo-Saxon literature.

My department chair has talked me into using the Interactive Notebooks as my professional development exploration/goal this year. It’s new, and it can be something that I can pilot and perhaps present to my colleagues after I’ve tried them this year. My goal is to help students improve critical thinking and make connections. So far, at least based on what I’ve seen in my British literature courses, it’s working. On the other hand, I have some work to do in the other courses I teach. First of all, I don’t think all of my students have buy-in. They’re used to my old notebook checks, and they’re balking at change. Second, it’s new to me, and perhaps because it’s new to me, I haven’t found that balance of support and freedom that my students need. At any rate, I’ll talk about notebooks next week, and now I have some good models to share for students who might need them.

I’d like to be able to tie all this back to my title again, but everything I keep thinking of sounds cutesy and forced, so I’ll cop to it: I really just wanted to title this post “Grendel’s Ima.” L’Shanah Tova.

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