Today I attended the Georgia Independent Schools Association’s annual conference. Last year was the first time I had attended this conference, as last year was my first year in private education. Compared to state conferences I’ve attended (Georgia Council of Teachers of English), I was not blown away, but the sessions I attended last year were very good.
The first session last year detailed a method of teaching the eight elements of literature (conflict, theme, mood/tone, symbolism, irony, character, setting, and point of view) using the photographs of Eudora Welty (Eudora Welty Photographs) during her years working for the WPA. The photographs are very good, of course, as you can see from the cover photo if you clicked the link, and they lend themselves very well to application of literary analysis. I remember asking the students to look at a photograph and tell me which element of literature they thought it best represented and why. The presenter at that session provided us with a few of the photographs and a list of the literary elements and their definitions.
The second session involved a new way of looking at the Declaration of Independence. After studying the Declaration and other Revolutionary documents, students create their own “Declarations,” declaring their right to ________. One of the presenter’s students chose to declare her right to be a drama queen. Another, a Muslim girl, chose to declare her right to dance. After writing the Declarations, students transferred the text to an item that represented this right they wanted to declare. The drama queen created a sash similar to that worn by beauty contestants and wrote her Declaration down the sash. The dancer wrote hers over the top of a CD. My favorite was a pair of jeans, but I can’t remember anymore what right that student was declaring upon her jeans. I thought the project was great. I adapted it for a group of real free spirits I taught last year, paired it with a webquest designed to teach students more about Romanticism, and called it a Declaration of Romanticism. My students declared the right to be Romantic. I was not overly impressed with their own efforts in this project, but I stole the jeans idea and wrote my Declaration down the pants leg of a pair of jeans I bought at the Salvation Army. I wear them all the time, and when I wear them to school trips, students call them my Romantic pants. I actually wore them when we visited Walden Pond, which the students really seemed to get a kick out of.
This year, I was not overly impressed with the sessions I attended. The first session was on teaching literary devices through the Harlem Renaissance. Our presenter seemed ill-prepared. She brought music for us to listen to on an iPod, but it didn’t work. I understand equipment failure, but I think a backup on CD might have been a good idea. Second, she showed us a Power Point demonstration, but did not give us handouts. It would have been helpful to have Power Point slides on handouts in order to take notes on those rather than furiously scribbling the notes down before she changed slides. I have a major quibble with her definition of “Harlem Renaissance,” too. She included works by Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou. I love all three, but they are not part of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s. If she wanted to explain how to teach literary devices through teaching African-American poetry, then fine, but she specifically grouped them in the Harlem Renaissance. That’s just not knowing your material. She also alluded often to sources that we as teachers would not be able to get — a Scholastic magazine, for instance. Oh, I’m sure I could call and ask for a back issue, but by the time I’ve gone through that hassle for a two-page article on the Harlem Renaissance, is it worth it? She also brought student samples of projects created using this method. The student samples of artwork were good, but the writing samples were not polished and were rife with mistakes. She emphasized that she teaches LD students, but so do I, and my students will draft a project like that until it is polished, and if it isn’t, I’m certainly not bringing it to a conference to show off. Finally, the presenter just didn’t seem poised. There were lots of gaps in her presentation — dead air, so to speak. She inserted several uncertain “um’s.” I tried to picture her teaching. I hope she was just nervous speaking to adults, as many teachers are. One of the most important things to get out of a conference session is handouts. Didn’t really get any, except for a couple of poems I already had. I wanted to leave when she pulled out the crayons and wanted us to make an artistic expression of one of the poems we got. I don’t do that kind of stuff with my own students anymore. Sure, they do art, but it’s more than “draw me a picture of this poem.”
The second session was on teaching reading comprehension to high school students, but it was mostly stuff I already knew. We got handouts, and we discussed methods a bit. The strategies were not new to me, but it was good to bounce some ideas around my head. I hadn’t really thought about asking students to buy composition books for reading journals, but I think I will from now on. Reading journals can be very valuable for teaching reading comprehension, but I’ve often made students type them or write them on their loose-leaf notebook paper. Composition books might be a better idea. I just never liked them myself because they’re almost always wide-rule, and I like college-rule.
I like to walk out of a conference feeling invigorated and eager to try what I’ve learned. I didn’t walk away feeling that way this time. I am pondering the idea of presenting classroom blogging next year. I think blogging is such a powerful tool in the classroom, and I know it hasn’t been presented at GISA before. However, at this moment, my classroom blog mainly consists of fun literary stories, announcements, daily recaps, and homework. The students aren’t very active. I have had to beg them to even comment. I floated the idea of the blog being more interactive. We’ll see how they respond.