Tag Archives: reflection

A Mishmash of Assorted Thoughts

When you update as seldom as I have lately, it seems posts are destined to become a mishmash of assorted thoughts as I catch everyone up.

First, as you can see from the sidebar, I am supporting NCTE’s National Day on Writing. I am not sure exactly what I and my students will do, but I would like to make a big deal out of it at my school and perhaps support our literary magazine in the process. Speaking of literary magazines, my daughter is in the literary magazine class at school, and it sounds like the coolest class ever. Her teacher lets them work on whatever writing they want, and they are guaranteed to have a submission published in the magazine. My daughter loves to write, and she starts lots of projects, but I hope a class like this will encourage her to finish one. Her teacher told us on Curriculum Night that students can write poetry, short stories, or even spend the time working on their novel. I was so impressed to hear a teacher talking about students writing novels. I didn’t ask if he’s going to encourage the kids to participate in NaNoWriMo. I can’t think of a year when I’ve wanted to participate more myself, but alas, grad school will most likely make that unfeasible. There’s always next year, by which time (cross your fingers) I plan to have graduated.

Speaking of grad school, this semester finds me in Graphic Design for Electronic Presentations, Telecommunications and Distance Learning, Software Evaluation, and Digital Video. I am finding it hard to get motivated to work. The degree at the end of my studies has become my carrot. One thing I have learned from my classes, and I believe it’s possibly an unintended lesson, is that students need the clearest possible instructions before they begin an assignment and that rubrics must be clear. I have turned in quite a few assignments over the course of last spring and beginning this fall in which instructions and rubrics were not clear, and I feel I lost points because of problems with instructors rather than my own work. If I do not follow directions, I expect to lose points, but it’s a shame when it’s because an instructor is not clear. I do think it’s helped my own teaching. Who wants to play the game of what does she want? How many points do you think she’ll take off for this arbitrary thing I didn’t even know I did?

Looping back to the National Day on Writing, I have a complaint to lodge about NCTE’s website. I followed a tweet by Kylene Beers to add a badge to my blog in support of the National Day on Writing. She sent her followers on Twitter to the main NCTE page. I had to hunt around for the National Day on Writing information, and even then, I couldn’t find the badges until I used the search feature (here it is, by the way, so you don’t have to hunt). Folks, we are working with teachers of all sorts of levels of technological ability, and it’s not the first time I have had to hunt all over the NCTE website for something they’re actively promoting, which to me means it should be screaming from every page. Am I alone in this, or does anyone else find their website a bear to navigate? I also have never had a response from either Traci Gardner or NCTE about the fact that the companion site for Designing Writing Assignments is missing.

In other news, I upgraded my Mac to Snow Leopard, and I like most of the improvements, though I haven’t had a chance to play with many of them. My favorite Twitter client, Nambu, is broken in Snow Leopard and those folks move about as fast as Christmas when addressing issues like that. I understand that it’s free software, and it’s in beta, so I don’t complain, but I do miss the software. Tweetdeck just doesn’t do it for me, but I find I can’t keep up at all unless I use a Twitter client.

Aside from all these thoughts, I’ve barely had time to talk about school. I have some great classes this year. My Hero with a Thousand Faces class is full, and a lot of students who requested it were not able to get in. Considering we had about half capacity last year, that tells me the word on the street is pretty good, and that makes me happy because I designed this class from the ground up. It’s a study of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and Jungian archetypes. So far we have learned about Campbell’s ideas. To get rolling, I had students split up the section with the three parts of the hero’s journey and present their findings in groups. Then, I used a wonderful SMARTBoard notebook file (I think you need to be a member of TeqSmart to download, but it’s free) I found by James Longwell-Stevens to review our presentations. We are currently in the midst of a study of The Iliad. I found a great portfolio with lesson plans shared by a student teacher, and the calendar has been extremely helpful to me in planning. I also used some of the student teacher’s ideas. I will let students select our next text to study. My British lit. classes are also off to a great start. We are in the middle of Beowulf. I am tweaking my performance task slightly. In the past, I’ve had students create Beowulf’s résumé as a culminating activity, but I think this year, they will write from Hrothgar’s point of view to some made up king (or queen—perhaps Queen Huffgar the Wise?) recommending Beowulf for the job of monster-killer. The premise is the same. They need to do the same close reading. The format will be different, but the audience is essentially the same, too. I can still require the annotation piece, as well. Of course, I have also totally stolen Joe Scotese’s wonderful Beowulf ideas as well. No one can put together a close-reading exercise like Joe. He’s a master. My ninth grade class is wrapping up a study of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. All in all, it’s been a good start, folks are engaged (or else they are good actors, which I don’t discount), and I am enjoying school very much.

My family and I enjoyed the Decatur Book Festival yesterday. It was exciting to be among so many book lovers. We really enjoyed the Georgia Shakespeare Festival‘s Will Power troupe, who did a production of Alice in Wonderland. It was a great day, even if I wasn’t able to see Diana Gabaldon after all. You can read more about it on my book blog.

Before I go, I will put in a plug for Plasq’s Comic Life software, which enables you to create handouts that look like comics (or, indeed, to create comics). They have some great layouts and fonts, and they have a great educational discount. I only paid $19.95 for the educators’ version of the software, which enables me to install it on Mac and Windows, or at least that’s my understanding. I downloaded it on my Mac, but I haven’t tried to put it on my desktop at work, yet. At any rate, it’s a fairly low price and a substantial discount, and if you like making funky handouts, it’s worth it.

Right. I’d better start my Telecommunications and Distance Learning homework, and I have an assignment from another class I need to resubmit now that I understand what I was supposed to have done the first time (but never mind, I’ve already complained about that).

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Back to School

Last Monday was our first day back to school with students. Generally the first day is kind of a toss up because our classes are only about fifteen minutes long. I have very good classes and am teaching all the same things as last year: 9th grade Grammar, Comp., and Lit., 11th grade British Lit. and Comp., and an elective called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

At this point, my British Lit. and 9th grade classes are discussing summer reading. We are not spending too long on that so that we can get into the curriculum proper. The 9th graders are going to create a Facebook page for the main character of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher Boone. The Hero class is learning about Joseph Campbell and the monomyth so they can begin applying that knowledge to the books and films we will study.

I have good classes, and we are off to a good start. We implemented homeroom for the first time since I’ve been working at my school, and I think it’s working out well. I have seniors in my homeroom. We told silly kids’ jokes in homeroom the other day. We also changed our schedule to an A-B-C rotating schedule (A-days are blocks 1-6, B-days are blocs 7-9 and 1-3, and C-days are blocks 4-9). It is an adjustment. We no longer have any double-blocks, but all our classes meet for an hour. It nice because I am not having to roll lessons over to the next day as often, but between the first day and Field Day on Friday, I didn’t feel like we hit the ground running. But that’s OK. We will this week.

I am back in my old classroom after a year in a larger one, and I am actually happy to have the smaller one back. I will take some photos soon. I haven’t had a chance yet. It’s been tough getting back into the school schedule. My body is protesting about it. I have already developed a stuffy nose and I’m praying it won’t turn into a sinus infection. I just feel so busy.

My classes at Virginia Tech start back next week, and I will be taking 6 hours (4 classes): Digital Video, Software Evaluation, Graphic Design for Electronic Presentations, and Telecommunications and Distance Learning. If I am able to get my last 3 hours this summer, I can finish my degree this school year. I will have to take 6 hours again next semester. I am starting to wonder when I will hear again about my portfolio. No one’s said much of anything about it since I was asked to create the portfolio shell early last year.

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Happy Birthday, Blog

Fourth BirthdayToday is the fourth anniversary of my blog. In light of that fact, here are a few facts and statistics:

The first post on this blog was a review of Constance Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context. Since that post, I’ve made 564 posts (including this one).

The first commenter was Ms. Ris, who commented on my post about The Teacher’s Daybook by Jim Burke. Since that time, this blog has received 2,004 comments. Some were lost when I had a problem with a Web host.

Although readership is kind of hard to track, and I tend not to get caught up in readership stats for that reason, Feedburner reports that I have 683 subscribers to my RSS feed. Feedblitz reports that 57 people subscribe to posts by e-mail. If you want to subscribe, click here. I don’t check site statistics that often, so I was interested to learn that since I installed Statcounter (and I confess, I can’t remember at all when that was, so this next bit is fairly useless), my site has received 809,143 page views. Now, many of those are for subdomains that serve other areas of interest and many are for Google searchers who landed here and probably were not looking for my site. That number has nothing to do with readership. That much is evidenced by the fact that 68.9% of the last 500 visitors only stayed for 5 seconds or less. Then again, I haven’t updated in a few days, and some of those visits may in fact be regular readers who are checking to see if I’ve updated. (You can save yourself the trouble if you subcribe!)

I began this blog using Movable Type. Here’s a peek at what my blog looked like back in those days. Some time after I started this blog, I had a major problem with my Web host at that time (see a page I put up in the interim until I could fix it). Some time later, I came back with WordPress, and older readers might recognize this design. I have not changed the look of this place many times. My blog has only had those two looks and this current one with the exception of some slight experimentation that never lasted long.

If you are a newer reader, you may not have seen some of my older posts. Here are some of my favorite posts over the past four years:

In this time when some folks are saying blogging is dead, I have to say that nothing I have done for myself as an educator has helped me learn more and be a more effective teacher than starting this blog. Nothing else has contributed as much to my reflection and enabled me to connect with other teachers and learn from them like this blog has. Starting it was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I am glad and humbled by those who visit and find it useful for their own learning as well.

Happy birthday, blog!

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Designing Writing Assignments: The Essentials of an Effective Writing Assignment

Last November at the NCTE convention, I purchased Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments with the intentions of reading it much earlier than I have. I find it helpful to reflect on my professional reading here, so I hope you’ll pardon me if this kind of thing isn’t why you visit the blog (why do you visit, anyway? I’m curious). I don’t intend to rush through the book, but I do have several professional books I want to read this summer.

As its title suggests, the first chapter discusses “the essentials of an effective writing assignment.” Gardner notes that the problem with the language we use in constructing writing assignments is that we typically use academic language the students have difficulty “unpacking” (6), or we use vague “stripped down” language that invites “extremely general responses with unclear purposes and audiences” (1). Gardner cites several research studies and articles, including Storms, Riazantseva, and Gentile (2000); NAEP/NWP (2001); Nelson (1990); Nelson (1995); and Yancey (2004) in support of her argument that one factor in students’ inability to meet expectations for writing assignments is ineffectively written prompts. Based on the NAEP/NWP study, Gardner suggests four essential characteristics of effective writing prompts:

  • The content and scope asked students to focus on critical thinking, rather than reiteration, by interacting with a text.
  • The organization and development provided scaffolding that supported students’ writing process.
  • The audience for the writing assignment focused on communication with an authentic group of readers regarding a topic on which the writer was an expert.
  • The range of choices for students’ focus was balanced with support and direction so that students could engage in the process as equal partners, rather than be directed to complete teacher-driven tasks. (Peterson qtd. in Gardner 2-3)

One area in which I can improve is creating more choices for students. UbD has really helped me think about how to create authentic performance tasks that address audience, and on reflection, I have to say my most effective writing assignments are performance tasks created as part of a UbD unit. I could do more with the writing process. With my lower level students, I build in a lot of in-class writing with the requirement of peer editing, and I think that scaffolding is effective, but it could be more effective if we went through the writing process in a more formal fashion. I noticed a key word in that sentence, too: we need to provide scaffolding for the students’ writing process. To me, that means it’s ineffective to require students create a formal outline as prewriting if a web, jot list, drawing, storyboard, or just plain plunging in and drafting works better for that student. I think construction of questions that focus on critical thinking is at the heart of UbD.

Gardner quotes Kathleen Blake Yancey’s Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice (2004), describing three (often different) curricula in the classroom. The “lived curriculum” is based on students’ prior experiences and knowledge; the “delivered curriculum” is “the one [teachers] design”; and the “experienced curriculum” is the result of the students’ prior knowledge and the delivered curriculum (qtd. in Gardner 5). Garder describes the experienced curriculum as a mashup of the other two types—a term I liked for its connotations with Web 2.0 interactivity. I think it’s important to remember that students don’t always make the connections we think they’re making or learn what we think they’re learning, but we can do more to enhance what Gardner calls overlap between the delivered curriculum and the experienced curriculum: “expand the writing assignment in ways that help students construct a reading that matches the goals for the activity” (6).

One of my favorite quotes from the chapter, which I tweeted in two sections earlier this evening: “Because all readers come to a text with different experiences and prior knowledge, all readings are different and none is absolutely identical to the writer’s original intentions” (6). Gardner isn’t suggesting that all readings are correct or that any interpretation goes, but I have a better answer for students who challenge my or their classmates interpretations of texts than I have in the past. We have all, at some point, been asked by a student if the writer intended something or other we have found in a text. My answer in the last few years or so has been close to Gardner’s, but her sentence captures the essence of what happens with interpretation so much more eloquently than I have been able to do thus far.

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This Post is Kind of a Downer

So don’t say you weren’t warned.

This week my family went to Tennessee for my husband’s grandmother’s funeral. She was a lovely person, and though I didn’t know her well and had only seen her a few times, she was well loved and will be greatly missed. Going to her funeral reminded me of my own great-grandfather’s funeral. I was only a little older than my daughter Maggie is now, and I remember feeling distinctly rotten because I was not sadder. I felt that I should be crying as all the people around me seemed to be, but I hardly knew my great-grandfather. I have one really good, warm memory of him. He used to whittle the neatest little things out of peach pits, walnut shells, pecan shells, and bits of wood. He made these tiny little owls perching on branches and little baskets. Out the side door on his farm was a tree with a knothole in it. He told me to follow him outside: he wanted to show me something. He pointed inside the knothole and there was a tiny owl he had made. I couldn’t have been older than eight, and I was so excited to be receiving personal attention from my great-grandfather and so impressed by the little owl. But I didn’t cry at his funeral. I got the feeling Maggie felt like she should be more sad than she was about her own great-grandmother’s passing and that she, like I did when my great-grandfather passed, felt bad about her inability to grieve. She looked down at her feet and said, “This is a sad moment,” as if asking me if she were supposed to be sad. I told her what I wish someone had thought to tell me: “Some of the people here are very sad because they loved Granny very much.”

On our way home, my husband took me by his grandparents’ old homestead. We were in the country proper and turned up a gravel drive so steep and narrow we would only be able to back out rather than turn around when it came time to leave. The maple trees he describes surrounding the house are all there, but the house itself is gone. It looked like no house had ever even been there. Can you imagine? You live in a house for decades, sharing laughter and tears and love, and it can just disappear with no indication it was ever even there.

We don’t have long, do we? And even if we are good teachers and parents (and grandparents), within about 50 years of our deaths, the folks that loved us will pass on, and those that remain won’t know who we were or remember us. As much as I would like to think that’s not true, it is at least more true than it is not.

Maybe it’s because sometimes I feel underappreciated (if you go into teaching thinking you’ll be appreciated regularly, please let me disabuse you of that notion—you will get the occasional kind message of thanks from students and parents). Maybe I’m frustrated with some aspects of this school year. I did juggle grad school, a new position, and family, and not too well, I might add. I don’t know exactly why, but I’m feeling right now like much of what I do will be so fleetingly remembered.

So I don’t have any grand solution or poetic thoughts, except maybe this lesson from Mr. Keating:

YouTube Preview Image

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No Blogging = No Reflection

My full schedule has not been conducive to blogging. I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth, but I’m not blogging as much as I have in the past for two main reasons 1) grad school, and 2) department chair. Well, I’m not taking any classes this summer for a variety of reasons, most of which have to do with money, and I will no longer be the English department chair at my school. I think it’s a good thing for my family that I will no longer have this role. I am hoping that giving up this leadership role will enable me more time to be reflective here at my blog.

Like my students, I can feel the end of the year. We really have just three more weeks before final exams. I am noticing that I’m working hard to try to keep my students engaged. In the past, I’ve given in to spring fever, but I’ve learned that I have to work extra hard at the end of the year on planning engaging lessons. I am not going to flatter myself that my students always respond the way I wish they would, but I had a great class today (at the very end of the day, no less) in which we read and discussed Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover.” I created the lesson plan I used today about 10 years ago as part of a model lesson for a job I really wanted (and got). I also published it in an old edition of Ideas Plus (I think it was No. 16, but I’m not sure). I’ve described it in a previous post. Because this is only my second year teaching British literature (my passion), I have only had the chance to teach this lesson three times, but each time, I have had the same success with students. It’s so exciting to see them debating about a poem, each side pulling out lines to back up their claims. It’s a great little close reading exercise that can be done in a class period. It’s important for me to have time to reflect—to celebrate the successes and dissect the flops.

When it works and a class is really clicking, and all the students are into it, there’s nothing quite like teaching.

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Week in Reflection: February 23-27

This week I am caught up on grading.  I’ve seen lots of talk out there among the English Edublogosphere and Twitter about feedback on student writing.  Something I do about once a semester is type comments as I read a student’s writing.  I usually wind up with about a page when I’m done.  It’s like a written conference.  I wish I had more time for writing conferences in my schedule.  I tried recording my feedback, and it felt like an awkward additional step.  Because I have smaller classes, I am able to give substantial feedback on writing and still ask my students to do plenty of writing.  That’s not to say it’s not a challenge to grade, but it’s such a reward when I can compare students’ progress.  It’s really evident when I compare ninth graders’ writing to eleventh graders’ writing.  It’s not that eleventh graders necessarily are inherently better writers, but I can see the growth that has taken place because I know they were writing like the ninth graders two years ago.  Another thing I have done is allow students to revise for a higher grade.  I gave my students a handout with Seven Deadly Sins — seven common grammatical issues I see in their writing — and a point value to be subtracted for each instance of the “sin” in their paper.  They can erase their sins by figuring out what they did, correcting it, and attaching an explanation of their errors and corrections to the second draft.  All is forgiven.

Right now my juniors are writing poetry explications.  I don’t think I was asked to write an explication until I was in college.  My freshmen are busily writing argumentative essays.  My sophomores are in the midst of a research paper.  Lots of writing going on!

I have really been enjoying the conversations with my department this week.  Teaching can be so isolating, and it is good to connect and discuss with those who share the same burdens and joys that we do as a result of working in the same place.  I feel sad when I hear stories of departments that aren’t close and refuse to collaborate.

My juniors read poetry (John Donne to John Milton) this last couple of weeks, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of positive comments regarding the readings that they were making on the classroom blog.  My students are generally, I believe, fairly honest about their likes and dislikes.  When I was first exposed to these writers, I admit I didn’t care much for them.  In fact, until college, I didn’t much care for writing before about 1800 or so.  All that changed, and I actually find I like the older literature more now (go figure), but I have to admit that my teachers in high school did very little to engage me in that literature.  I had one excellent English teacher in high school, and the rest of my English classes are a blur.  I remember a lot of what I did with her because it was engaging and interesting.  I hope I am not flattering myself too much to think I have actually engaged my juniors in Late Renaissance/Restoration poetry, but it feels good to read such positive comments.

What this post lacks in coherence chalk up to the fact that what I share is more or less stream of consciousness.  Grad school is starting to get challenging.  I’m learning, and I am enjoying my classes, but I can’t pretend it’s not difficult.

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GCTE, Reflection, Looking Ahead

Some of you may know I went to the annual GCTE (Georgia Council of Teachers of English) convention this weekend.  It was great, but the numbers were down — probably the economy.  I know lots of the schools systems have probably told teachers they would not pay to send them to conventions this year.  For instance, my children’s system is not paying for field trips this year, so it may be they are also not paying for conventions.  I presented a session on Using Blogs and Wikis for Professional Development.  I was at first disappointed that it was somewhat sparsely attended, but I think that was the norm.  Several sessions I attended were like that.  I had six folks, which I think is just about what I had at GISA.  It makes sense that the folks who attended the Folger TSI except for Mike LoMonico, who was awesome moral support, didn’t come as I had presented some of the technologies I shared with them over the summer.  Lots of my fellow TSI participants were there, and it was good to see them again.  I was also grateful that my friend and colleague Rebecca came to my session, even though she didn’t have to because she works with me, and I was thrilled to finally meet Clix after working with her online for a couple of years.  She also came to my session even though she already knew everything I was sharing (thanks!).  Aside from my three friends, I had three other attendees, and I hope they found it interesting and learned something they can use.  I do think the presentation went well.  I used Keynote instead of PowerPoint, and I basically wrote down everything I wanted to say in my notes and created the presentation from that so I could avoid crowding my slides.  I’m learning!  Keynote has such beautiful templates!

I went to Mike LoMonico’s Folger presentation, and it was good as always.  Julie Rucker and I covered some of the same ground, but our focuses (foci, if you want to be a pedant) were different, and it was good to meet her as well.  I also attended Buffy Hamilton’s presentation on multigenre research projects, and I am most excited to try one.  Multigenre research projects are something I had heard about but didn’t know much about, so I saw Buffy’s presentation as a great opportunity to learn more.  She created a fabulous wiki to share her presentation.  I found it so inspiring; I think I’ll work some more on the wiki I created for mine.

Aside from the wonderful presentations, the best part of GCTE was seeing everyone again.  Gerald Boyd, who is our state Language Arts Coordinator, used to be the Language Arts Coordinator for Houston County when I worked in that system, and we had crossed paths on several occasions.  It was also good to see Peg Graham again, who was not my professor when I went to UGA, but whom I knew through my own professor.  Of course, all the Folger folks were fun to see again.  I also got to meet Jim Cope, with whom I have exchanged e-mails and who really saved my rear-end when he loaned me a cable I didn’t realize I had forgotten to pack.

I had a great time, and I hope Rebecca did, too.  I feel excited and energized!

Last week, I had one of my classes present their scenes from Taming of the Shrew. I have some great comic actors in my classroom.  This coming week, another class will present scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I am looking forward to seeing these scenes as well.  My ninth graders will begin preparing to present scenes from Romeo and Juliet, too.  I am so excited to have finally figured this out.  I have used some Folger stuff for years, but I shied away from performance because I just wasn’t sure how well it would help students learn the play.  And yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds.  After actually going through the process of performance and presentation myself, I learned how much it truly does help foster close reading, critical thinking, and enjoyment of the plays, and the light bulb finally went off.  I will never teach a Shakespeare play in the future without incorporating some elements of performance.

Here is my GCTE presentation for those who are interested:

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I Need a Rewrite: Week in Reflection, 1/26-1/30

Teaching composition is difficult.  I think I had to teach it for several years before I felt comfortable.  One strategy I frequently use is peer editing.  Interestingly enough, students are often more able to help each other edit and revise than they can edit and revise on their own.  I’m not precisely sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the idea that we know what we meant to say, and we don’t always realized we haven’t communicated what we meant to say.  It can be difficult to be objective about one’s own work.

I don’t have students peer edit every time they write, and I frequently don’t tell them in advance that they will have the opportunity to peer edit because I worry, perhaps falsely, that knowing they may not have a chance to edit will entice them to work harder on their drafts.

My students recently wrote short essays comparing and contrasting two versions of Act 2, Scene 2 (the Balcony Scene) in Romeo and Juliet.  Prior to viewing the scenes, we created a graphic organizer to take notes as we viewed.  We shared our notes.  Students noticed very interesting things about the scenes that I in fact had never noticed before.  For instance, did you know that Olivia Hussey’s Juliet is spelling out Romeo’s name on the wall with her finger when Romeo first spies her?  I never picked up on that small action before, but I found it to be an interesting choice on the part of the actress.  I sent them home to write their compositions, and I felt very good about everything they had learned.

Students turned in their essays after the weekend, and I noticed something interesting.  They had not shared all the interesting details in their writing that they had shared in class.  It may have been that my directions were not explicit, or it may have been a disconnect on the part of the students, but I knew that they could make their reader “see” the two films better with a revision and some more direction.  So I wrote my own paragraph, modeling for the students the types of details they had shared in class but not in writing and asked them to do a rewrite for me.  They did, and what improvement!  Interesting how with writing a little modeling goes farther than almost any other instructional strategy I’ve tried.  The students don’t know it yet, but they will revise one more time to correct some mechanical issues.  We learned all about commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, and I want to be sure students can use them correctly in composition.

Lesson learned: Model or scaffold at the start. I could have walked students through the process of moving their notes to a composition, but I incorrectly assumed the discussion would be sufficient for them to make the connections.  It was for some, but not for all.  I should have generated some questions and asked students how they planned to proceed.

I know time is hard to come by, and many of us have a lot of students.  Teaching composition effectively in those conditions can be difficult, particularly if your students have difficulty with writing.  It’s essential work, however.  In fact, I have often thought that teaching writing is at the heart of teaching English — is the most important thing we do as English teachers.  Students have to learn the writing process, that drafting is critical, that there is a lot of work before a piece of writing is “finished” (or that it never is?).

I may be blessed with smaller classes in my private school setting, which enables me to grade students’ drafts more quickly and provide more quality feedback than I think I could if I had classes of 30 students.  The best thing we could do to help our students become better writers is limit English classes to 15 students.  Still, if we are willing to sacrifice some of our sacred cows in the name of helping our students to be good communicators, it might be possible for students even in larger clases to obtain more individualized writing instruction, including modeling, drafting, revising, editing, and quality feedback.  How could we do it?  What should a writing classroom look like?  What is your dream writing classroom?  Money is no object, and you can create whatever you wish.

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Proof Folger Methods Work: Week in Reflection, 1/20-1/23

Here in America Monday was a school holiday: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  I believe some of my students engaged in a service activity.  One was organized by the school.  I did not, and I feel bad about it.  Even if I had just gone around the few blocks around my house and picked up trash, it would have been something.  I will try to be better next year, although to be fair, I have done volunteer work at other times when it hasn’t been a national event, and I try to help others.  Still feel guilty.

So teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream is quickly becoming the best part of my day.  And maybe I’m not too crazy to think perhaps my students are enjoying it, too.  Here are some comments gleaned from the classroom blog (by the way, the requirement seems to be helping, and I think the students are actually engaging with the blog more):

Mrs. Huff I just wanted to say that I am really enjoying what we are doing in class right now. It was a very unique and different style than i am used to. (Adam E.)

Preparing for the performance that we will get to act out in front of the class on Monday has been a lot of fun. Choosing who gets what part, deciphering whether or not it is apt for a character to cry, laugh, or even move in a certain way at specific points in time, and creating the prop that will be incorporated in the performance have made this project very enjoyable (not to mention that it also helps elucidate scenes and setting contexts that might otherwise be confusing or unclear) . To be honest, before we began MND, I had never thought that studying and analyzing Shakespeare’s works could be this entertaining. Because we have separated into different groups, it will be interesting to see how each group has personalized the scene in their own, unique ways. (Jake S.)

i really liked our pantomime/charades activity in class yesterday. it was fun yet educational and a lot of us participated more. We should do more activities like that in our class! (Mor L.)

I found that by analyzing the text in more detail and actually using the text to act out what was going on really helped me finally understand what we were reading. (Sophie S.)

I thought doing subtext in groups was a lot of fun because it was more hands on then we usually do in Brit Lit. I loved that we weren’t just reading for 45 minutes, but instead actually learning (Sophie S.)

OK, mea culpa if Sophie hasn’t traditionally seen reading as learning, but I think she did mean that the close reading they did to determine subtext was more valuable than reading alone.  It is true, however, that students who are not as, shall we say enthusiastic about my class as I’d like, are starting to show signs of enjoying what they’re learning.  Jake is referring to a presentation these students will do on Monday.  Let me explain what he means.  Mike LoMonico shared this idea with us at the Folger Teaching Shakespeare Institute last summer.  In the TSI, we were given copies of the scene when the plebeian mob kills Cinna the Poet in Julius Caesar along with a checklist of items to include in our presentation of the screen.  The checklist includes the following items:

  • the assigned text from Julius Caesar
  • a contemporary prop
  • a tableau at the beginning of the presentation
  • a tableau at the end of the presentation
  • at least one moment of direct address to the audience
  • at least one unexpected entrance or exit
  • at least one line of unison speaking
  • at least one moment of unison movement
  • at least 10 seconds of silence
  • someone must laugh and someone must cry

Because this class has 15 students (it’s my largest class; don’t throw things—I also have four preps and might have five next year), I recut the scene for three players so I would have even groups.  You may want to figure out how big you want your groups to be and cut accordingly.  You can download my scene for three players or create your own.  The essential idea is to pick a scene from the play you are studying that will work well for this type of exercise.  Some suggestions:

  • Tybalt kills Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet
  • Anything with the three Weird Sisters in Macbeth
  • Cinna the Poet is murdered in Julius Caesar
  • Bottom is transformed into an ass in Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Petruchio forces Katherine to skip their wedding banquet in Taming of the Shrew
  • The guards see the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet

Obviously, these are just suggestions.  If you have ideas for scenes that might work for this activity, feel free to share in the comments.

My students have actually been doing a great job.  I have circulated and viewed their practicing, and wow, how wonderful to hear the walls ringing with Shakespeare instead of the usual.  And as Jake said, it will be interesting to see how each group personalizes this scene.  The feedback I am getting all the way around is that acting like this really helps them think about and understand what they’re reading, and they seem more enthusiastic.  Not only that, but their quiz grades are improving.  We started acting with the second act of the play, and the quiz grades improved dramatically.  In fact, the class average on quizzes from Act 1 to Act 2 increased by 16 percentage points from a respectable B- to an astounding A+.  I should add these are not objective quizzes but short answer quizzes.  Therefore, my conclusion is that Folger teaching methods work.  My students learned more and had more fun while learning.  What I need to do is plan for more experiences like this in all my classes.

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