Tag Archives: teaching

New Year’s Day

Flowers / 花(はな)It’s New Year’s Day for me—the first day of pre-planning. I am teaching two sections of British Literature and Comp., one section of American Literature and Comp., the Hero with a Thousand Faces elective, and Journalism/Newspaper. Newspaper is new for me. I have sponsored a newspaper before, but it has been a few years. I think it’s going to be a good year. Of course, a new year is always exciting for teachers, or at least it is for me.

In addition to the wiki I have created, I decided to use BuddyPress for forums, blogs, and class groups. Jeff Utecht discussed BuddyPress the other day, and though I’d seen it mentioned other places, I finally checked it out after reading Jeff’s tweet, and I have to say I think it’s going to be a really powerful extension of my classroom. Plus, I have my own domain, so why not?

I’m going to have trouble getting used to this back-to-school schedule. I am NOT looking forward to school-supply shopping. Poor Maggie has been bugging me to do it for weeks. She wants a new, more grown-up backpack. I’m just glad I don’t need to get anything for my own classroom—for a change. My own children don’t go back to school until the 23rd. Almost all the other school systems around here started today. I think their system just decided to shorten the year by starting later—systems all over the state are doing it to save money. Sad they have to.

More soon!

Creative Commons License photo credit: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

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Teaching Schedule

Material escolarI received my teaching schedule for next year. I am stepping back into some comfortable areas as well as taking on some new challenges.

I will be teaching two sections (two levels) of British Literature and Composition, same as I did this year, and I will also be teaching my Hero with a Thousand Faces elective first semester and Writing Seminar II second semester. I have taught Writing Seminar II for at least second semester, if not for the whole year, ever since the course was created. The reason for that is the academic research paper is assigned for all tenth graders, including those in that Writing Seminar class, during second semester. Teaching the research paper is one of my areas of expertise, which sounds really self-congratulatory, and I’m not usually like that, but I do understand why I am consistently given the task by my principal.

I am returning to American Literature and Composition, which I haven’t taught for a few years. I already used this word, but that curriculum feels comfortable to me. It will be good to get back into again. I really did kind of miss it.

I am taking on the new challenge of teaching Journalism and running our school paper. I have taught a Journalism course before in middle school, and I feel the course was great considering the lack of support I received by the administration and the lack of materials I received. Aside from getting a local car dealership to underwrite a two-day a week subscription to the newspaper, I had no teaching materials. In my new position, I will have computer access and software, a few seasoned newspaper veterans in the class, and I would wager I’ll have all the support I will need to make a go of it.

As I gave the teacher edition of one of the 9th grade literature anthologies to the teacher who will teach the class next year, I remarked to her that I had taught that course (Grammar, Composition, and Literature CP2) since its inception at our school. Wow. That has been for the last six years. I have taught ninth grade for every year of my high school teaching career. That means teaching Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey every year for 10 years. It was wearing thin, and when I realized a couple of years ago that I was no longer enjoying teaching even these favorites, I knew I needed a break. Maybe I won’t mind coming back to it after a rest.

I think I have decided not to buy a Teacher’s Daybook this year. I find Jim Burke’s planner to be the best I’ve ever used. It’s flexible, but one struggle I’ve had is that I have a lot of preps and a strange alternating schedule, and in my search for a planner that works better for me, I found this: Planbook by Hellmansoft. The video demonstration gives you a good idea of all the planner can do, but here’s a great description from the site:

Planbook is a lesson planning application developed by Jeff Hellman, a high school science teacher. Planbook is designed to completely replace your paper plan book with an intuitive application that lets you harness the power of the computer to make your lesson planning time more productive. You can enter the schedule that you teach (rotating and A/B schedule are easily handled), quickly enter lesson information, attach files to lessons, track standards, print hard copies of your plans and publish your plans to the web for students, parents and other education professionals and more.

Planbook is simple enough to use that you’ll get going in no time, but robust enough to deal with schedule changes, days with abnormal schedules and just about anything else that comes at you.

Given the price, and given all the strangeness in my schedule, as well as all the features and the fact that its on the computer, it just makes sense. I can use iCal or Things to manage any reminders for non-instructional tasks (such as due dates for college letters or recommendation or meetings).

I’m looking forward to next year. I think it will be a good year.

Creative Commons License photo credit: sergis blog

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“Look What I’m Reading for Pleasure”

I have a student whom I just love (well, a lot of them, actually, but I’m going to focus on just the one today). I have taught her for three years. I teach in a small school, and sometimes that happens. When she was a ninth grader, she let me know she didn’t like to read. One day it dawned on me she might really like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, so I told her she should check it out—I thought she’d like it. I don’t really remember for sure, but I think she was in tenth grade by that point. She devoured the book. And the next. And the next. She got the last one when it came out.

Yesterday she showed me that she’s reading The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George. She said, “Look what I’m reading, Ms. Huff. For pleasure! For pleasure!” She watches The Tudors and has developed a real interest in the historical personages depicted in the series. This book is nearly 1000 pages long. I know the Twilight books aren’t skinny, but I admit I was impressed. She is excited about next year and the opportunity to take a Shakespeare course. In short, whether she’s a voracious reader or not, I don’t know, but she is a reader now. So am I taking credit for that? Heck yes, I am (/Napoleon Dynamite voice). In all seriousness, I made a suggestion. It seemed casual at the time, but it did have an impact in that my student did read and love the book I suggested for her. But I didn’t do anything, really. The book did.

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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:

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

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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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One of My Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Sticky Problem: Teachers and Grammar

Laura Diamond at the AJC’s education blog Get Schooled discusses a sticky problem: teachers who use poor grammar in communication with parents.

Many of us admit we have poor grammar and horrible spelling skills. So why do so many of us get concerned when we see these same faults in teachers?

Can you respect a teacher with poor grammar? Do you worry he or she won’t be a good teacher?

OK, so I admit I make typos on occasion, and I’ve even done it on handouts or assignments.  If I catch them I correct them, but there have been times when I haven’t caught them because I didn’t proofread carefully.  However, when I send e-mails to parents, I always proofread carefully.  I am acutely aware that parents will have little faith in an English teacher who makes grammatical mistakes, and if my children had such a teacher, I would be concerned.  I suppose my answer to Laura Diamond’s question depends on how bad the mistakes are.  If I see an obvious typo in a teacher’s communication to me, I’m forgiving.  If I see embarrassing grammar mistakes that indicate the problem is not proofreading but knowledge of grammar, I do question whether or not the teacher can be effective.  Engaging students is great, but if you don’t have good communication skills, how much knowledge are you going to be able to impart?  Honestly, good communication skills apply to everyone, and all teachers ostensibly have college degrees; therefore, I don’t think it is expecting too much to insist that they be able to communicate using proper grammar.

Teachers are also our models.  When I was young, it never occurred to me that a teacher could be wrong about a fact.  If my teacher said it, I thought it must be so, and when I was presented for the first time with evidence to the contrary, I remember questioning the accuracy of that evidence!  I don’t think teachers need to be perfect, but they do need to be aware of how much stock students put into what they say and do, especially in elementary school.

Have you encountered this problem?  What’s your take?

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Folger Shakespeare Mini-Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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The Power of a Positive First Impression

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

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Choices for Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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