Tag Archives: reflection

Tom Discusses Teacher Shortcuts

I really enjoyed Tom Woodward’s recent post “There Are No Shortcuts at Bionic Teaching,” but I left a comment that really didn’t say all I was thinking.

Tom mentions using fun fonts to make boring content exciting (and has particular ire for Comic Sans).  I have been known to use fun fonts, but I hope I graduated from using them to disguise boring content many years ago.  One of the main issues I had with a recent word processing assignment I did for one of my grad school classes is that it was intended only to see if I could do a variety of different tasks in Word rather than make something attractive, interesting, and substantial in Word.  The resulting document looked like an aesthetic mess to me because I had to single space, double space, triple space; use three different fonts; prove I could bold, italicize, and underline text; and manipulate images for different effects.  I didn’t wind up with a document I could use for anything later.  In fact, I was embarrassed by how it looked (I was following the directions to the letter).  The content was not an important part of the assignment.  I wound up riffing on what I was currently doing with Beowulf in my classes and putting a bunch of Beowulf-related pictures in the document.  I suppose I proved I can use Word to manipulate images and text, but I don’t think the assignment proved I can use it well to create a document that has substantial content and an attractive design.

That said, I don’t use Comic Sans because I teach high school, and I consider it an elementary font, but I don’t have any particular hatred for it.  Still, I think Tom’s larger idea is that some of us create documents that are crammed full of proof that we can manipulate images and text, but that contain little substantial content.  In the interest of full disclosure, though I labored over this decision, you can download a PDF of the document I created here, but I removed my required heading because I think it’s the polite thing to do.  I also removed the file name from the footer because even though my files cannot be accessed except by my teachers and me, I don’t want to give folks who are interested the encouragement to try to break into my files.  By the way, inserting the file name in the footer of only the last page was the only new thing I learned in doing this assignment.  How useful a skill is it?  I don’t know.  We’ll have to see.

Tom also skewers using technology to make a boring assignment interesting.  Too many teachers fall prey to this trap with Power Point.  I have seen more Power Point presentations that make me want to tear my eyes out!  I would much rather listen to someone talk without visuals at all than view a poorly designed Power Point.  I think this guy captures Death by Power Point really well:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/lpvgfmEU2Ck" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

And this guy shows how you can use it effectively to enhance a presentation:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/vXFi7AdhhGk" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

I liked what Tom said about “digital native/digital immigrant” terminology.  I have yet to meet more than a handful of students who know as much or more about technology than I do, and that’s not boasting — it’s an observation.  Granted, I think I know a bit more than the average teacher, but everything I know I taught myself by playing around with it.  I haven’t worked with too many students who are willing to play around with a bit of code or a piece of software to see what happens.  To my discredit, I admit sometimes (a lot of times), I take the easy way out of showing them instead of letting them struggle with it a bit.  How much better would they learn if I asked them to teach themselves a bit?  Likewise, teachers labeling themselves digital immigrants can be a way of giving themselves a pass on being ignorant about technology.  I’m not saying teachers all need to be Vicki Davis (though she’s wonderful and it would be great if more of us were on her level), but I think we’re past the point at which it’s OK to be a complete luddite.

As an addendum to Tom’s admonition about “faking it,” as he did, I can say only that when you genuinely like and understand something the students like, and connection is genuine, it’s wonderful.  I don’t pretend to be up on everything my students listen to, but the ones who like classic rock know I’m a pretty good resource, and if they have a question, they ask me.  That’s genuine interest.  I can talk about my passions, and Tom is right — that’s what students are interested in seeing — not that I like what they like or that I’ve latched on to the latest trend in education.  I can remember vividly the occasions when I saw my teachers’ passions shared and finding what they had to say intriguing even if I didn’t necessarily share that passion.  A good case in point was a recent class of my own that was derailed by a passionate discussion between a visiting teacher and me about why it is important that “Han shot first.”  Truly, the students couldn’t have cared less about the issue (we are going to study Star Wars in that class beginning next week — it’s my Hero elective class), and most of them haven’t even seen the movie (!!!), but they remarked later on how interesting the discussion was.  I felt like a failure after letting my class go off on such a long tangent (we discussed The Iliad very little that day), but perhaps it will be valuable in some other way down the road.  At any rate, they saw two individuals talk about an issue they both knew a lot about and felt really strongly about, and I think their interest in studying the movie is piqued.  And I suppose we were both certainly really ourselves in front of the students.

If you want to a see a teacher who is passionate about what he does and uses technology effectively not only to create handouts that are informative and attractive but also to have his students create thoughtful presentations with Power Point, you need to check out my friend Joe Scotese’s site.  He blows me away.  To me, Joe is a perfect of example of avoiding the shortcuts Tom discusses in his post.  At any rate, Tom’s post resonated with me so strongly that all I could really do was agree at the time.  After spending a couple of days thinking about it, I decided that for all the reasons I have discussed, Tom’s shortcuts shortchange our students, and they don’t make us good teachers or help our students learn.

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The Calm Before the Storm

Somehow it seems appropriate that the very outer bands of Tropical Storm Fay brought some sprinkles and a few gusts of wind today, as this weekend is my last before I begin working on my master’s degree, and it really does feel like the calm before the storm.  Classes start Monday.  I have been so busy this week, and I already feel behind.  I have had to start making to-do lists.  I know some people swear by them, but I haven’t really needed to use them often in the past.  It feels very good to cross items off that list.  I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew — I already feel busy without worrying about my own studies!

I have found blogging to be important for my own teaching practice.  This space helps me be reflective and connect, and after doing it for three years, I have discovered I need it.

I guess blogging needs to have an important position on my to-do list.

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Writing and Reflecting

After I viewed some pieces on the DVD that accompanies Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, I thought about my improvement as a teacher over the last few years, and I have decided that a lucky confluence of two events contributed to making me a better teacher: I began teaching at Weber four years ago, and a year later I began writing this blog.

Working at my school with an administration that has supported my efforts to grow and try new things, like blogging and wikis and other ideas, has been so freeing, and if I had not found Weber, I wonder if I would be blogging now or trying some of the other things I’ve tried.  In fact, I wonder if I would be teaching.

Here I am, in the middle of July, and I’m blogging about education and reading education books and blogs.  Why?  I can take a vacation, right?  The thing is, I really want to be back in school and try it all over again.  I am lucky in that my school doesn’t mind that I blog.  This is huge in an era when blogs are routinely blocked at schools, never mind encouraged.  I have always been able to blog about my journey as an educator, here, under my real name, and not worry about it.

And the blogging is what really made me a better educator.  I really began thinking and reflecting about my practice in a way I hadn’t done before.  I read professional literature and wrote about it here.  I jumped in and took risks with projects, and even if they failed, I felt better for having tried.  I shared.  I asked questions.  I helped.  I got feedback.  The audience I have here has truly been helpful to me as I struggled to figure out who I was as an educator and what I wanted to do.

I am excited about the next school year already.  Each year is better than the last.  I am learning and growing all the time.  Blogging has energized me and made me excited about my career.  I have struggled with my career in the past and even quit teaching for a time.  Now I just can’t imagine doing anything else, and this reflection, this space to think and discuss ideas, has given that to me.

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Nobody’s complained about the absence of my weekly reflections, but I suppose I feel the need to explain anyway. Our last day of school was today. This week was finals week. I have been crazy busy because not only am I finishing up the year, but I’m also moving classrooms and wearing a new hat, which has taken up some time this week. My department chair is leaving us, and I was offered and accepted the position of English Department Chair. I have never been an administrator of any sort, and I always said I didn’t want to be, but I do want to do this job, and I want to do it well. As department chair, I will take on duties such as managing department issues (professional development, book orders and inventory, ensuring department tasks are done), facilitating meetings between my department members and parents (if necessary), serving as a liaison between administration and my department, planning and conducting department meetings, and probably a lot more stuff I don’t even realize I’ve taken on.

OK, I admit I am excited and honored. I didn’t think I would be in this position a few years ago. Initially, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it because I wasn’t sure I could do it. Over the last few weeks, however, I have decided that as long as I approach this new position as I always tried to approach my job and I do the best job I can do, it will be fine. I actually am pretty good at the paperwork and bookkeeping elements of teaching. What will be new for me is being in a position of some authority.

I am looking forward to this new challenge. My school has offered me a great deal of freedom and support to grow as a teacher. In the four years I have been there, I have written an English Journal article, made a presentation at a statewide conference, offered professional development to my colleagues in the faculty, connected with educators all over the country and the world through blogs and wikis (with the support of my administration when many schools discourage blogging), and genuinely felt embraced and valued for my contributions in way I have never felt anywhere else. And it has only made me want to do more. I have done more in the four years I have been at my school because I have been able, through their support, to do more.

So… onward and upward to even more great things!

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Week in Reflection, May 12-16

We’re truly in the home stretch now.  My own students have two more weeks of regular classes.  My children have just one more week.

Once again, poetry has been squished in at the end of the year.  I suppose this happens because poetry is generally short, and teachers can expose students to poetry (and do a pretty fair job) in a short period of time.  Still, if I teach 9th grade again next year, literature in general, and poetry in particular, is something I want to focus on improving.  In our curriculum, which emphasizes a grammar survey and composition, literature tends to get the short shrift, but with careful planning, it doesn’t have to.  I have to say I did a much better job this year than I have in the past with integrating more literature; however, room for improvement exists, and I will make it a focus next year if I teach the same course(s).

I had the opportunity to teach my colleague’s British literature class, which was a real treat for me.  Because I think the lesson is potentially useful, I will post it soon.  I taught Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “Porphyria’s Lover.”

In true “what works with one class doesn’t work with all of them” fashion, I am trying an SAT introduction unit with my own tenth grade class that worked beautifully in a colleague’s tenth grade class when I took it over for a couple of weeks.  My perception is that my own class resents the instruction.  That could be because of the time of year, and perhaps they would resent whatever I cooked up for the final few weeks, but it puzzles and bothers me that something that was so well-received and appreciated by one class is borderline rejected by the other.  I suppose I need to think about this unit over the weekend.

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Week in Reflection, May 5-9

I try to write these reflections on the weekend, but perhaps I can be forgiven for skipping Mother’s Day weekend.  This time of year is so busy for teachers, isn’t it?  Even as things are wrapping up, which should make me feel lighter, I seem to have more to do than ever.

I have already reflected a little bit on last week in a previous post.

One thing that’s been on my mind this week is that it is taking quite a while for Amazon to ship my copy of Write Beside Them.  I would like to have it by June, so I am starting to wonder if I shouldn’t cancel my order and order directly from Heinemann.  I was so excited to save money by ordering from Amazon, but it’s taking unusually long, and I feel I should apologize to folks who ordered the book through my referral.

As I write this, I find I am not feeling particularly reflective at all because I can barely remember what I taught last week.  I think I will chalk it up to the time of year.  I do know that utilizing backward design has made all the difference in my teaching this year.  At this time of year when students have one eye on the calendar (and so do their teachers) and the other out the window, I am pleased to say we’re still learning and thinking and writing and reading.

Each year gets better, but I’ll save that reflection for the end.

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Week in Reflection, April 28-May 2

Our Spring Break was last week, so I didn’t post a reflection.  As this was the week of our return to school, and we have also entered that final stretch of the year, I’m not sure either I or the students were as plugged in as usual.

My seniors basically have two weeks left because our school allows them to finish early.  Next week and the week after, they will be working on a final paper for me.  This week, we finished watching A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was struck again by Brando’s performance.  You probably know this bit of trivia, but Brando was the sole member of the core cast not to receive an Academy Award, though he was nominated.  Vivian Leigh won Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche; Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stella; and Karl Malden won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mitch.  The Best Actor award that year, however, went to Humphrey Bogart for his performance in The African Queen.

My ninth grade students are working through grammar.  One class finished up phrases and started on clauses.  The other class learned about active and passive voice and began discussion of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.

The tenth grade writing class I teach presented Power Point presentations.  So often our kids add animations, busy backgrounds, and too much text, then read the text rather than use it as a guide for the audience.  Despite my instructing students on the perils of Death by Power Point, a few of their presentations included some of the problems I’ve mentioned, and I am frustrated that I somehow was not able to communicate how to avoid these issues to my students.  Also, I am frustrated by the fact that in order to be successful, they had to unlearn bad Power Point habits, which may explain why all of them weren’t successful.  We need to teach kids how to use Power Point correctly from the start.  I think too many teachers are a little too impressed by all the bells and whistles and actually reward students for making cluttered, busy, and ultimately unreadable presentations because they themselves don’t know how to do some of the things the students do, thus the teachers assume it’s hard and took a lot of time and effort.  Let’s face it, our students have become accustomed to being rewarded for style over substance.

The last two days of the week, my writing class began a unit on SAT preparation and practice.  I have evaluated SAT essays in the past, and as I haven’t done so for quite some time, I suppose it’s safe to disclose this fact.  Students generally find this unit to be very helpful.  I have been using Sadlier-Oxford’s helpful Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests as a guide; I highly recommend this book, as it focuses on the SAT’s writing section (error correction, sentence and paragraph correction, and essay).

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Week in Reflection, April 14-17

This time of year, I find that I’m not blogging as much as I would like because I’m so exhausted.  You know, people talk about what a perk it is for teachers to have breaks in the winter and spring and a longer one in the summer — usually people who don’t teach, by the way.  These breaks are absolutely necessary to rejuvenate.  I think teachers put a lot of themselves into their work.  Having to be “on” so much of the time wears me out, and I don’t think I’m the only one.  Every time I take any sort of Myers-Briggs test, I always come out INFP.  If you aren’t up on the parlance, that basically means I am introverted, and I find social situations tiring.  People suck the energy right out of me, and you can’t get more people-oriented than teaching.  This article in The Atlantic actually did a lot in terms of helping me understand why I’m so tired at the end of a school day, and as the end of the school year ends, it seems to get worse.  As a result  of this exhaustion, blogging is one of those things that tends to go by the wayside.

I read the blogs of other teachers and feel inspired by what they are doing — especially descriptions of lessons and ideas for teaching –and I want to contribute, too.  Maybe this week will afford me some time to do so, as I am (finally) on spring break!  Why so late?  Passover falls late this year in the Jewish calendar, and my school, as a Jewish school, follows the Jewish calendar.  Our break starts tomorrow.

Teaching the week before spring break is always difficult.  I came home today and took a nap. This week, my seniors finished reading A Streetcar Named Desire, and we began watching the excellent Elia Kazan production.  One forgets how attractive Marlon Brando was.  Every time I watch that movie, I am amazed all over again by his embodiment of the role of Stanley Kowalski.  One of my students pronounced the play her favorite piece of the year, and another quickly agreed.  I really enjoy teaching the play, too, if for no other reason than the opportunity to see the excellent movie again at the end.

My writing class was creating Power Point presentations.  I have seen a lot of death by Power Point lately, and we can’t very well blame the presenters if they are never effectively taught how to create a Power Point presentation that works.  A cursory glance at my students’ works in progress tells me that most of them understood not to cram too much information on a slide or use busy backgrounds, but I’m not sure all of them heard this message, and I am puzzled — I thought I really emphasized that part.

I have been teaching verbals, clauses, and misplaced modifiers.  I struggle with this part of our curriculum every year — not because I don’t understand it or because I don’t impart it with some success.  I struggle with its usefulness.  If a student is using gerunds correctly when he or she writes, is it imperative that they be able to label them as subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, predicate nominatives, and objects of prepositions?  Yet, it is part of the curriculum, and therefore, part of my teaching.  I find it much more useful to spend time on the nuts and bolts of writing that students struggle with — commas, for instance.  I thought I created a fairly effective unit for teaching commas, but I find over the course of the year that students are still not consistently applying rules for using commas.  Marking comma errors hasn’t done much to help my students learn to use commas.  Suggestions are welcome.

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Week in Reflection: March 24-28, 2008

The end of this week leaves me feeling somewhat exhausted. I was rear-ended last weekend, and I have been dealing with the problems that entails — reporting the accident, waiting for the police report so I can file a claim with the other guy’s insurance, getting an estimate for damage (nearly $1300), and worrying about the fact that no one knows I’m signaling with my left turn signal, thereby making changing lanes and turning left more awkward and stressful.

My tenth grade students handed in the final draft of their research papers. I know it felt strange to be handing that assignment in after working on it for so long. I can tell that my students learned a great deal from the process.

My freshman are learning all about phrases and working on The Catcher in the Rye. I am not 100% satisfied with how phrases are going because my students come from such disparate backgrounds, depending upon the teachers they have had before. Students who ordinarily catch on quickly and do well on other aspects of my class are feeling awkward about their knowledge and understanding through no fault of their own. I agreed to meet them for some review at lunch some day next week, so I hope that will help.

My seniors are engaged in an assignment I called “Flat World Willy.” After reading Death of a Salesman, students looked at the play’s continuing relevance to our own society through an examination of outsourcing and globalization. They read an excerpt from The World is Flat (the chapter entitled “The Untouchables”), viewed Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod’s “Did You Know?” (which they really enjoyed), viewed part of an episode of The Simpsons called “Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore” (which examines outsourcing in a humorous way), and viewed a Discovery Times special “The Other Side of Outsourcing” (Thomas Friedman). They are creating handbooks for either high school graduates or college graduates that will help the grads navigate the job pool in the age of globalization and outsourcing, ensuring that a) the grads will always have a job, and b) the grads won’t end up like Willy Loman. I think they are having fun with it, and what I have seen so far of their planning looks really good.

I’m so tired. Lots of stuff going on right now, and it’s sapping my energy. This is the time of year when it’s easy for teachers to get burned out. The first rule is to take care of yourself. You can’t be an effective teacher if you don’t.

Update, 3:41 P.M.: I keep forgetting to mention my 9th graders’ Romeo and Juliet diaries have been appearing bit by bit at the Room 303 Blog. It helps to scroll down because the entries are posted chronologically.

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Week in Reflection: March 10-14, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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