Monday, December 26, 2011

Am I a Hack?

My apologies for the lack of blogging. The sprint to break, moving across town, and a friend's wedding really took it out of me Some time to reflect during break has me thinking about an issue that visited me often during the semester.

I'm guilty of talking up the hormonal teenager aspect of Romeo and Juliet, reading aloud the cursing in Of Mice and Men, and finding violent poems to share with my students. I'm not out to get their childhoods. Just their intrinsic motivation. And I keep coming back to one of the Big Questions I tell my kids to ask: Is this hack teaching? More importantly, is it good teaching?

I reject completely the view that we should treasure this young adults as little children and censor any texts that might make them angry or sad. But I am often reminded by how child-like they are as I was when one of my juniors told me that he looked forward to all the extra money he would have when he made $26,000 a year. These are people who need introducing into the adult world gradually.

Many of them already have at least one foot in that world. Most of my ninth graders could relate to a love so consuming it made you forget everything you held dear (including your previous love which also consumed you). The eleventh graders were not shocked by Steinbeck's use of language, but they were able to articulate that the language sounded like kids who had just discovered cursing and what that immature quality helped reveal about the men's characters. They were able to use a poem full of violent imagery about a young man who accidentally killed his younger brother on a hunting trip to discuss the complexities of our own hunting culture and practice their close reading skills.

But shouldn't I be able to get my students to hone these skills without sinking so low? How do we balance helping students find intrinsic motivation with respect for the waning years of their childhood? Will my hack teaching make students think that classes that don't dwell on the more lowbrow aspects of the material are boring? Perhaps this blog post should be longer, but I don't have any answers to these questions. I'd appreciate your insights!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Finding the Switch

Those of you who know me have heard me talk a lot about the light switch analogy when it comes to teaching kids who have been put in lower-level classes. Humans are born curious. Watch any baby try to stuff things in his or her mouth for an afternoon and you will see that we enter this world wanting to know all we can about it.

So, it broke my heart when one of my students asked at the beginning of the year, "What kid likes to learn?" She had so obviously been surrounded by other kids who felt like school wasn't for them, she had concluded that her classmate's feelings were the norm. Another teacher in my department and I started talking about curiosity switches. Everybody has a switch. When you get here, it's usually on. Something in your life--parents who don't read or read to you, a teacher who is mean, a friend who teaches you to de-value learning--can turn it off. The switch is firmly off for most of my last block class.

You might remember, careful blog reader, that we did a project exploring survival during a zombie attack in October. The switches were on then as students worked diligently in groups, problem-solved, and gave creative presentations on how they would stay safe. I've been searching for another project that would capture that same spirit ever since.

Yesterday, I had the students who had just received their writing test scores read this account of a successful school board member who nearly failed his state's standardized tests. We used this text to analyze author's purpose because we knew it would be on the reading test coming up in January. We also began a conversation about how we are smarter than the test makers. We know the scores matter in that they're required for high school graduation, but past that, we don't need those numbers to validate any one as a scholar or a person.

The students talked (mostly) one at a time. They asked each other questions. They never suggested my greatest fear--that because of this conversation, they wouldn't try to pass the next standardized test they have to take. I spoke very little. Accountability and testing aren't bad, my students concluded. The tests they're asked to take just aren't designed well.

"You know, you're the only teacher in this whole school who would let us talk like this," said the same girl who once told me no kids likes learning, "and it's really made me think."

(I don't think she's right about the other teachers. Most teachers seem to feel similarly about the tests. I'm just glad English gives me leeway to use conversations like this to sharpen our critical thinking skills.)

By her own admission, I made a student think critically. It was almost as good as the zombies.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Please De-Track Our School

I often wonder how different it is to teach "higher-level" kids. Do they write on task all the time? Are they less disruptive? Are they smarter? They are certainly still children. They still would rather be hanging out with their friends than be in class. I can't imagine that they are fundamentally different they my crop of "lower-level" students.

Rather, I think these students have been conditioned to be successful. They've never been put in a room they perceive to be "the stupid class." They are surrounding by other kids who have kept their curiosity and also conditioned to succeed.

I like the idea floating around the English department of doing away with tracks. Right now, they're talking about keeping the honors level and then mixing everyone else together. I don't think that's ideal. The kids who can be the best example will, for the most part, still be removed to a little island. There will still be arguments made against kids moving up to the honors level. According to some chatter overheard in guidance, a kid in the lowest level ninth grade English class could never make it up to the Advanced Placement English class offered in twelfth grade. With such a system, where kids are registered for their English class in the spring of eighth grade, we say to students that what you do at thirteen will define your academic career.

Going from three tracks, to two, however, is definitely a step in the right direction. I remain very grateful for an administration that is open to change and focused on outcomes for kids.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Glasser v. Wong

I spent most of last week out of school because of the death of my grandpa. My family is doing alright and the school was very supportive giving me the time I needed to be there for the family. My students, however, played their subs like a two-dollar banjo, as Toby would say.

I was reminded of passages both in The First Days of School and Teach Like a Champion where teachers ran such ship shape classrooms, the kids would work in the teacher's absence while the administration didn't even know the teacher was running late. Doesn't that sound like an amazing dream? Just get students to buy in to daily procedures and everything will run smoothly, even in your absence?

Here's my problem: I'm really uncomfortable with procedures. I'm not uncomfortable with them for myself. I like that every other Saturday is clean sheet day. I enjoy etiquette handbooks. I love organizing everything from my closet to my tax returns. But I can't wrap my brain around the idea of getting kids excited about how fast they pass in papers or sitting them in alphabetical order because I said so or even because it's more efficient for them when it comes to passing in papers.

I don't think school should be about having someone tell you where to sit and how to behave all day every day. The real world doesn't work like that. No one makes sure there's an alarm set when I'm supposed to get up or go eat. Sometimes I have to sit beside people that I don't like. Sometimes I sit beside people I do like and end up getting shushed in the library. I make choices and I have to live with the consequences. My ability to turn in papers quickly or even a larger ability to listen blindly to authority doesn't really do much for me.

I also continue to be affected by my experiences at the Glasser Quality School where I did a practicum in grad school. Students were quiet. They were orderly. They definitely learned. There were no detentions or raised voices. There were five minute breaks and CHOICES -- a program where students set down with specially-trained teachers to make plans for how they would get their act together in the classroom. This worked because everyone in the school bought in, the kids knew this was their last chance to graduate, and class sizes were small.

I knew that my classroom couldn't be exactly like the ones I saw at the Glasser school. But I thought I could incorporate some of it, mostly the respect that students and teachers showed each other and the way that students were prepared to live with their consequences. Just like in the real world. But it doesn't always work at my school.

Students take breaks, after two infractions they stay after in detention to write out a plan, we sign the plan, they get better. Two weeks later, however, they start going downhill again. I think I need to get serious about calling parents after they make their plans. I think I also need to get serious about handing out detentions to my eleventh graders. I know that I could have them passing alphabetical ordered papers in less than twenty seconds. But I also know that seeing them live in the sort of world where that's the behavior I reward would break my heart. And I'm not really sure what of value that sort of system would teach them.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Student Work Sample

Students were assigned an oral history project in which they interviewed an older member of our community and recorded a story about the person. Student W. asked if he could "embellish" his story about his grandfather. I told him that's what storytellers often do. This is what I got (with permission to share):

Robert Edmund Harrell was created long ago in an underground laboratory, roughly below Siberia. He was made by the will of the Earth God, fusing rock and magma to form the greatest hero the world has ever known. Once the Moon God of the Earth's God's shenanigans, the Moon God constructed his own abomination, Jeffery. Jeffery and Robert Edmund Harrell fought for years, which created the oceans and continents. Eventually, Robert Edmund Harrell prevailed and saved the world from evil Jeffery's wrath.

A few years later Robert Edmund Harrell became very lonely and was looking for a mate he could carry on his legacy with. He found a human named Janet Compton and decided that she would be the best choice. Together, the populated the planet and maintained peace until around the year 1939 when a large war began. The United States of America wanted to control Robert Edmund Harrell because he was a very strong ally to have and if controlled well, could mean victory or defeat for the country. Robert Edmund Harrell realized quickly the position he was in. The United States was smart, but not smart enough to outwit Robert Edmund Harrell. He took control of the country from the inside, disguising himself as a regular human being. His goal was to force every country in the world to worship his power, and what better way than to start with one of the most powerful countries in the world.

By 1945, Robert Edmund Harrell had successfully taken over the United States of America. However, his action were being noticed by many people from around the world. A group formed called POTATO.

This is a rough draft. More to come. Names changed to protect the hilarious.

Friday, October 28, 2011

"I'm Going to Study Really Hard for My Vocab Quiz . . .

. . . so I can take it fast and get to work on the zombies." - Student R.

Yesterday, I introduced a modified version of my father's Zombie Apocalypse project. Students work in teams to plan reasonably for the impeding zombie apocalypse. We assume they will have one hour to prepare for an onslaught of Romero-style zombies. They will write 500-word essays and make a group presentation on Monday. Each group has a copy of The Zombie Surival Guide (thanks, friends!), Florida's zombie apocalypse plan, and links to sites such as the CDC's zombie blog.

The students are quietly working in groups, asking questions, working until the bell rings. Why can't every week be Zombie Week? Any other ideas for projects that are similarly engaging?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Parent-Teacher Conferences

Although my colleagues warned me ahead of time, I became a little disappointed at the low turnout for parent-teacher conferences at the end of this week. Eight parents (about two-thirds with their student) came to visit over two days of conferences (scheduled at different times to accommodate any parent working any shift). I just can't help but think, like many things in public education, there must be a better way.

I'm not sure what that better way might look like, though. I know that some schools often hold conferences at large employers in the community, but how would that work for parents who don't work there? We have a place like that in the community I teach and they often partner with the schools, but it doesn't sound like a satisfying, simple answer to me. One of our wonderful APs called the parent of every kid sitting on a D or F average in any class, so you'd think that would jump start some conferences. And I will say that out of those eight parents who showed up, five had kids who were in danger of failing. I also made sure to talk up the conferences in every note I've mailed home in the last month and called the parents of kids who seem to struggle the most.

The student-teacher across the hall said that when her daughter was in elementary school, she went to conferences all the time, but kind of tapered off as she got into high school. And she couldn't decide if she had done the right thing or not. What's the appropriate level of parental involvement? Does not coming to conference night mean you don't care? Should we have our conferences somewhere else in the community people feel more comfortable attending? For our community, the school really is a community center of sorts, so I'm not sure that's the solution.

Dear readers, if I have any, I am interested to hear what you think. How do we re-imagine the parent-teacher conference to make it worthwhile for student success?

Monday, October 17, 2011

You Win Some?

So, today a couple of things worth blogging about happened. Also, since I've broken my foot, my after-school activities have been severely curtailed and leave some space for blogging. Little blessings?

Anyone who works with teenagers knows that it's a constant battle to keep them from saying gay or retard in a derogatory way. A lot of teachers give up. But I can't. Maybe it's the thought of my wonderful younger brother standing proudly as his class's homecoming rep last year. Maybe it's all of the people who happen to be gay who have loved me in my life. But I can't let these words go. If my job is to teach kids that words have meaning and power, then I think I have to show them how using words negatively can affect people around them. So, I don't allow those words in my classroom. I try not to be mean about it and I give kids a chance to rephrase, but I never, ever let them slide (when I hear them). Today, one of the eleventh grade girls who rarely gives me a lick of trouble busted out the r-word. I was shocked and surprised, but she immediately corrected herself, and I forgot all about it. After class, she came up to me nearly in tears apologizing for how disrespectful she'd been. I mean, I couldn't even remember what she had to apologize for, but it was obviously weighing on her. I'm sorry she felt so upset, but it's kind of nice to see kids Getting It -- especially when the It is something bigger than worrying about their SOLs tomorrow.

I've also started to notice that I'm not exhausted when I come home in the afternoons any more. I still stay at school till around five most afternoons, but when I get home I still feel alert enough to enjoy something besides hiding under my covers and watching Glee on Hulu (still eight days behind). This increased energy seems like a huge victory. I can't wait to take advantage of it when I'm back to being a biped.

Today did have its absurd moments, however. After school, I had a phone call from an irate parent demanding to know why I hadn't held any practices for the male cheerleaders who are supposed to perform at the pep rally on Thursday. After patiently explaining that I had tried three times to reschedule after breaking my foot and no kids had showed up, she explained to me that was because I wasn't holding my practices at eight o'clock at night after all the other commitments had ended. Now, I know the juniors have met after school and I really can't imagine my very wonderful administration expecting me to have practice for a fake team at eight at night on top of all the other things a first year teacher gets to experience.

I didn't tell her this, of course, I just let her volunteer herself into practicing with the kids at night and turning a video into me. I hope this works out because I'm a little preoccupied with the testing, conferences, and other duties of actually teaching coming up this week. Please say a little prayer for my eleventh graders taking their SOLs tomorrow and Wednesday. Mostly pray that they don't lose focus halfway through the test and can keep it together long enough to get the pass advance I know each of them has inside themselves.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Thirty by 30

So, I know I have the terrible habit of posting about once a year, but I think I'm going to change that! In fact, blogging once a week is one of the thirty things I plan to do before turning 30. I've been inspired by my new friend Emily. Here's the list:

1. Visit NOLA

2. Visit India

3. Run the C’ville 10 miler

4. Publish an essay about education policy

5. Hike the AT

6. Work in Honduras

7. Start work on my doctorate

8. Become a National Board certified teacher

9. Go out West

10. Re-read the Frank Atkinson books about VA politics

11. Keep Atticus a healthy, happy dog

12. Send my parents on a trip to the Homestead

13. Throw a really great pig roast

14. Fall in love

15. Keep in touch with at least two students from every year I teach

16. Visit France

17. Drive in London

18. Stay at a convent for at least a week

19. Organize my finances (and keep them that way!)

20. Learn to fly fish and make my own flies

21. Raft the New River Gorge

22. Eat at the fancy new restaurant at the VMFA

23. Take my friend Bekah to a really nice ballet

24. Live in a city bigger than Charlottesville for at least one year

25. Go on a beach vacation where I do nothing but read, eat shrimp, and sip margaritas

26. Come up with a solid curriculum for grades 9 – 12 in Virginia

27. Blog at least once a week

28. Never give up on going to the gym at least four times a week

29. Help my brother sell his art

30. Decide there’s really no such thing as “settling down”

Also, I promise to keep y'all updated on my summer reading adventures. This summer I'll revisit the books I didn't get to last summer. I'm also starting The Moor's Last Sigh today for book club. Let me know if you'd like to read along with us!