Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Happy Break!

This holiday season I'm grateful for you, dear readers. You've helped me improve my teaching practice and thinking about the ways in which larger policy issues affect our classroom. I'm also thankful for my wonderful students who encourage each other to come to class, work hard, and breathe when things get too crazy.

Whatever you're celebrating, I hope you're a little healthier, happier, and wiser than you were at this point last year. I also hope you get some rest and hugs from people who love you regardless of your position on bathroom passes.

Signing off till 2013,
Ms. T.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fall Reading Adventures: Son

Yes, yes, it's nearly the winter solstice. So, that means there's time for one more fall reading adventure! For my birthday, I received the last novel in The Giver series. I didn't even realize there was a last novel in that series till I came across it at this wonderful bookshop in Norfolk.

But it's great. Son is told from the point-of-view of Gabe's birthmother. Gabe is the baby who spurs the main character, Jonas, to action in The Giver. I found it really interesting to learn more about the dystopic community that started my life-long obsession with dystopic fiction.


When my students saw Son on my what I'm reading board, we had a walk down memory lane. The Giver was the last required book some of my students finished reading and the last required title a lot of them actually loved. We talked, in classes of all levels, about the nature of the community, if it was good that the citizens didn't have to feel pain, and what other places in the world were like.

The prose here didn't excite me like The Giver. Maybe I'm more discerning that I was at nine. May Lois Lowry, like me, wanted to get to the end so that we know things end up okay for the people we love but questionable for the world in general. Who knows? This book would make a great enrichment project for classes reading books like 1984 or Brave New World. Son could also make a great selection in a dystopic fiction literature circle. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Group Work

First of all, my prayers go out to all those affected by Friday's school shooting. I haven't been able to read about the principal and teachers protecting their students and the kids' families without crying. I hope that in the coming weeks we can have meaningful conversations about what in our culture allows these tragedies to happen and what we can do about them (at home and abroad). Maybe one way to do that is to start using schools as places to build community.

I try to include plenty of group work in our classroom. I've bought into the idea that the 21st Century workplace requires teamwork and that group work is also a great way to build the community that I strive for so much.

But it sure is hard sometimes.

Jane doesn't like to work with John and Paul doesn't like group work at all. Lila will do all the work no matter which group she is in. Then there's that one time Dan, Joanie, and Zach made a beautiful presentation about what to do in the even to of a zombie apocalypse.

I know that a part of group work is not just turning students lose to produce whatever you've assigned but teaching students how to communication, collaborate, and create. Some tactics I've found useful are community meetings about what good groups look like, creating rubrics for group work rather than just the assignment itself, and reflections on what worked and what didn't in the group.

What works for you, teacher friends? For those of you not teaching, what skills about getting along with your co-workers do you wish you'd been explicitly taught?

Names, as always, have been changed.  


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fall Reading Adventures: A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Do you all know about Rachel Held Evans? She blogs about the intersection of feminism and Christianity. Her blog became a book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, in which she spends a year living out Biblical edicts about women. RHE sleeps in a tent when she's on her period, celebrates Passover, and explores how women from Orthodox Judaism to Mennonite communities explore and live out Biblical definitions of womanhood.

Evans concludes that all such definitions of womanhood pick and choose from the parts of the Bible with which its adherents feel most comfortable (very few people expect women to camp out during their periods or marry their rapists). This conclusion means for Evans that she chooses to focus on the strongest thread of the Biblical narrative: liberation.

This is a blog primarily about teaching, so I won't get too spiritual here, but I have to say that A Year of Biblical Womanhood contained some of my favorite non-fiction prose of the year (and this is from a lady who finishes The New Yorker every year). Check it out (and recommend it to all your students who love feminism, exploring spiritual issues, or "stunt" journalism in journal)!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fishman Prize

Although I look askance at most things with which Michelle Rhee is associated, I want to point out  TNTP's awesome Fishman Prize. Five $25,000 awards go to stellar teachers who then spend their summer writing a lengthy paper about a given educational topic. The application criteria says nothing about value-added or standardized tests. They look for teachers who have "a passion for teaching and a deep commitment to advancing the teaching profession."

We need more programs like this prize. We need to not just celebrate teachers, but also cheerlead for our profession (and, ultimately, our kids). Make it clear that those summers "off" are spent thinking deeply about our practice And we need to, well, show our work. 

Workaholics

Don't worry about your grades so much, I tell my students. Worry about your learning, your growth, your becoming you, and grades will follow. If you focus solely on the grades, you miss out on the richness of learning for the sake of learning. What does it serve you or your family or the world around you if you stay up until 2 a.m. working on a calculus problem set for your umpteenth Advanced Placement class when politics or literature or history is your true love? I believe in well-rounded people and well-rounded educations, but let's set some priorities here, people!

I am such a hypocrite.

Yesterday as I left school, one teacher remarked good-naturedly that hell must have frozen over since I was out of there while the sun still shone. I left the parents uncalled, the papers ungraded, and the administrative forms unfilled out because I am sick. Too many days of going full throttle at school to feeling obligated to have a social life outside of work have left me curled up with my puppy, my hot water bottle, and my copy of Lois Lowry's newest book.

I want to think that the difference between me wrecking myself for school and my kids doing it is that I like what I'm doing. It makes me happy to pour over student data, call parents, and plan grammar mini-lessons. I get the teaching high daily.

But I still don't take very good care of myself. I sleep and I exercise and I try to socialize and do good things in my community. I don't, however, take very much time for myself, nor am I able to be very spontaneous.

So, teacher friends, these are my questions: How do you find a work-life balance when you really, really love your work? How do you help your students see a difference between work they love or need to do and work that is gratuitous? And can anyone bring me some soup?    

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why I Teach

In case you missed me bragging all over Facebook last week (sorry about that), I got to do a blog post for PBS about why I teach. I encourage you to read it and think about how kids don't know their paths until they know them (and we help show them the way a little bit).

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fall Reading List: This is How You Lose Her

In case you haven't spoken to me all fall, I reckon it's time to let you all know just how much I love Junot Diaz. It took me several readings of the final story in his episodic novel This is How You Lose Her to understand why.

Like his earlier books, TiHYLH is narrated by Dominican-American Junior. Junior teaches at Harvard and is capable of being very good and very bad with the ladies at the same time. Never has he ever not cheated on a girlfriend. And it isn't until the very last paragraph of the last story he tells us does he even show a readiness to correct that behavior.

But he gets there. In the end, he wants to be better. And I think that desire to grow and change is what has drawn me back to this book, especially the final episode, several times this fall. For myself, it's helped me think long and hard about previous relationships and how I'm ready to hope those people turned out to be good people in the end. For teachers, there are some killer mentor sentences, like this closer:

That's about it. In the months that follow you bend to the work, because it feels like hope, like grace--and because you know in your lying cheater's heart that sometimes a start is all we ever get. 

If any of your mature, older students are moved by this prose (and your community is open-minded), direct them toward This is How You Lose Her, but it's definitely peppered with too many curse words in multiple languages to make comfortable students forced to read it.

Happy reading!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Is College for Everyone?

In this weekend's New York Times, we heard about several very (monetarily) successful college drop outs. The author fails to point out, however, that many of these people came from already successful situations. Bill Gates, for example, went to a fancy private school in Seattle before dropping out of Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg spent time at an elite public schools in Westchester, NY and at Exeter before doing the same. These examples already had funding, networking, and critical thinking skills that colleges often sharpen for kids who may not already have them.

Among many progressively-minded educators, it seems fashionable to say that not everyone needs to go to college. College isn't for everyone. I agree with that statement, but it invites some questions: Then who is college for? If your child came to you and said he or she didn't intend to go to college, would you allow it? I'm fine with the expectation that college isn't for everyone. But in a meritocracy, it should be for virtually everyone who wants to go. And we should not be making assumptions about who it is for based on race or income level any more than we should have made those assumptions based on gender forty and fifty years ago. Unfortunately, when people say that college isn't for everyone, they often mean kids who no one has ever encouraged to go to college any way.


This idea that we shouldn't privilege graduation, college attendance, and other markers of middle class life in the US is a difficult one for me. I do see an alienating factor in saying XYZ is the best thing to do. There's an implicit "What's wrong with your family that they haven't been doing XYZ for generations?" that college-focused educators haven't really figured out how to address. But we aren't going to address it by saying we're okay with not sending kids to college for circumstantial reasons. Arguments about kids coming out of college without a job or tons of debt says to me that we need structural economic and student aid reforms, not fewer people who love learning for learning's sake. To complicate things even further, we're also not going to address the alienation problem by pretending it doesn't exist, either. 

The college for all issue gets thornier when we think about it outside of economic terms (are you feeling my conflict on this issue yet, dear reader?). What about learning for the sake of loving learning? I have not had a fundamental impact on the fields of ecology, astronomy, or religious studies. But not only can I speak knowledgeably at them a cocktail party where I may meet someone to fund a grant for my classroom, I am better at thinking for having spent some time considering their complexities.

If a kid wants to be a mechanic or own a restaurant or build things or go directly in the military, that's great. But every kid deserves a plan for some sort of post-secondary education. And I think we owe it to our kids to make sure those plans have nothing to do with race, income-level, or parental involvement. To do otherwise keeps public schools from being the great equalizer they aspire to be.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Am I the Only One Who Thought This Was About Camp Counselors?

The Teacher - An Instrument of Power
by Haim Ginott
I have come to a frightening conclusion.
I am the decisive element in the classroom.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher I possess tremendous power
to make a child's life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture
or an instrument of inspiration.
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. 

In all situations, it is my response
that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated,
and a child humanized or de-humanized
.

This was always in our staff manual, but teacher was changed to counselor. I don't mean to suggest that we are the only people of good in kids' lives or that you're not allowed to be a human around them. But isn't this nice? 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Do When?

The do now receives a lot of attention in secondary classrooms today. The do now provides a way to start class with an academic focus, encourages promptness, and allows teachers to take care of attendance while figuring out who is about to have a meltdown and who needs to switch seats. Some teachers criticize them as adding to the factory-like atmosphere of public high school today. We can talk about that later, but for the purposes of this blog post, I'm sold.


In our classroom, we start the day free writing. I provide a couple of topics that relate to what we're working on or that may provide a way to further classroom community. Students always have the option to write about whatever they would like. We all just keep writing for ten minutes and then share out. I learned this technique in grad school and find it really helpful for setting the tone in our classroom.

After about three people share their free writes, we do a grammar exercise. Together, we correct one of these passages and then explore the vocabulary embedded within the passage. Grammar exercises can get tricky, and I think Ms. Kiester has caught on to something here. I don't want to stop doing them.

But we have got to put some pep in our step.

I wonder if part of the reason we're behind is because we've lost some of our beginning of the year energy. I'm thinking about moving the grammar portion to the last ten minutes of class. The risks include students zoning out, going over on another worthy activity, or competing with the other end-of-class administrative tasks like announcements. Potential pay offs could include having ten minutes of a calm beginning and then time for a more exciting activity where students move around (you can only make grammar so fun, y'all). Thoughts? Ideas? Experience from the field?

Monday, November 26, 2012

What is an Achievement Gap?

A couple of weeks ago, a teacher named Camika Royal wrote an essay asking us to stop talking about achievement gaps. By achievement gaps, she meant the often wide differences between in test scores between kids who are white and kids who are not (except for kids who are Asian. That's a whole other blog post).

Royale suggests that labeling these gaps as such suggest that kids who are white have smarts that kids of color don't have. The phrase, according to Royale, normalizes white achievement and makes it the standard for all other racial groups. But should we hold kids to different standards based on race?

Here in Virginia, the state department of education recently came under fire for creating standardized test goals that are different for every race and ethnicity. The creators of the varied goals said they were trying to be honest about where kids are and not set up schools to fail by expecting them to overcome the deficiencies in learning.

I don't think that white kids are smarter than black kids. I do think that kids who come from homes with higher incomes tend to do better in terms of graduation, college attendance and completion, and health. I do think that kids who are white are more likely to come from homes with higher incomes than kids who are not. I don't think we're privileging whiteness. We're privileging an upper-middle class existence that is most readily available to white people (although many of them struggle, too).

Royale seems to argue these aren't deficiencies. They just are facts of society's inability to prepare kids from minority backgrounds for scholastic success. She starts to make some sense to me when she talks about calling these differences not in achievement (obligatory point out that what we're using to measure this achievement is a questionable measure at best and harmful at worst), but in opportunity. I think introducing the idea of opportunity gaps and what they do to people on the bottom of them is the main point of Royale's argument. It just takes her awhile to get there, and we have to wade through some semi-questionable ideas to get there. Once we're talking about opportunity gaps, however, I am on board.

It is fundamentally unfair to expect schools, teachers, and other educators to pick up the slack for other community resources. That sort of expectation also sets students up to fail. But that doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and go home. We should account for the fact that schools can't make up these gaps in opportunity now, and then create ways for them to do so going forward.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Zombies!

Minus a few technology glitches, the zombie projects went pretty well this year. There aren't as many natural places to hide in this new community, so kids had to get creative. What really impressed me, however, was the way kids got excited about zombie literature. We talked about The Walking Dead, of course, and how masterful the graphic novels are. My favorite, however, was this Neil Gaiman poem one of my typically struggling students e-mailed me one evening:


The Day the Saucers Came
by Neil Gaiman

That Day, the saucers landed. Hundreds of them, golden,
Silent, coming down from the sky like great snowflakes,
And the people of Earth stood and
stared as they descended,
Waiting, dry-mouthed, to find out what waited inside for us
And none of us knowing if we would be here tomorrow
But you didn’t notice it because
That day, the day the saucers came, by some coincidence,
Was the day that the graves gave up their dead
And the zombies pushed up through soft earth
or erupted, shambling and dull-eyed, unstoppable,
Came towards us, the living, and we screamed and ran,
But you did not notice this because
On the saucer day, which was zombie day, it was
Ragnarok also, and the television screens showed us
A ship built of dead-men’s nails, a serpent, a wolf,
All bigger than the mind could hold,
and the cameraman could
Not get far enough away, and then the Gods came out
But you did not see them coming because
On the saucer-zombie-battling-gods
day the floodgates broke
And each of us was engulfed by genies and sprites
Offering us wishes and wonders and eternities
And charm and cleverness and true
brave hearts and pots of gold
While giants feefofummed across
the land and killer bees,
But you had no idea of any of this because
That day, the saucer day, the zombie day
The Ragnarok and fairies day,
the day the great winds came
And snows and the cities turned to crystal, the day
All plants died, plastics dissolved, the day the
Computers turned, the screens telling
us we would obey, the day
Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars,
And all the bells of London were sounded, the day
Animals spoke to us in Assyrian, the Yeti day,
The fluttering capes and arrival of
the Time Machine day,
You didn’t notice any of this because
you were sitting in your room, not doing anything
not even reading, not really, just
looking at your telephone,
wondering if I was going to call.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sometimes I'm Scared of Literature

I love to read. I love to read just about everything. Anna Karenina makes me feel the same way as Cold Mountain. And I love to talk about what I read. At one time, I was an active member of three different book clubs (and a fourth that met electronically).

But sometimes, I get really scared to talk to my students about literature. So much of my training in ed school was about engaging students, teaching them skills that translate to critical thinking, and thinking about the role of school in a democratic society.

No one taught me how to lecture about Beowulf. Last year, I faked it. A lot. I borrowed powerpoints from other teachers about Shakespeare and The Odyssey. Now that my feet are a little wetter (and my body a little less exhausted), I think it might be time to venture into designing my own lectures.

Is that even useful? Some people say the lecture is dead. The Freirian in me wonders if there's a better way for students to get the cultural capital that I know they can use to compete if they choose to go on to college.

The tired teacher in me just wants to finish this jazzy powerpoint.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

We Are So Behind

We are very lucky here in Central Virginia that Hurricane Sandy caused very little physical damage, and my prayers continue to go out to places like this town that had to cobble together uniforms to get to the playoffs when most kids weren't even living at home.

But we really couldn't afford those two days off.

I had planned for tenth grade to finish A Raisin in the Sun before Thanksgiving. Twelfth grade was going to read Beowulf by then. We haven't started A Raisin in the Sun, and I did read the first fifteen pages of Beowulf out loud today to last period.

The English department at school is moving toward a skill-based curriculum that emphasizes what students can do with texts rather than which texts they read. But I still think there are just some things every one should read -- if only to understand the allusions in headlines. I have three canonical texts for each class that I want us to read this year. We've gotten to one in tenth grade and fifteen pages into the first one in twelfth grade. At this rate, Shakespeare will have to happen over summer break.

Other teachers, does this happen to you? What do you do to stay on track? Or have you mastered the art of knowing they're mastering the skills and the texts themselves truly don't matter?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

What Do Teachers Make?

About a month ago, it was World Teacher Day. It's okay if you didn't notice. We don't tend to do much to celebrate teachers in the U.S. the way that many other countries do. Teachers here work about 500 more hours a year for about 40 percent less pay than our counterparts in countries that often best us on national tests.

Hours worked and pay received are just two measures of value, but I think they are important ones. These measures can be compared across professions and they are a quick way to discuss the problems of expecting teachers to move data-driven mountains without giving us the resources to attract and keep the best and the brightest.

One professional facet that isn't as easily measured is respect. For educators with at least a bachelor's degree, teachers are the bottom of the pyramid. Becoming an administrator constitutes a "promotion." And while the job of an administrator is also extremely important, stressful, and time-consuming, it isn't classroom teaching. We need classroom teachers who feel like they can stay classroom teachers but also have room for professional growth. In just a year and a half as a classroom teacher, I have seen colleagues leave for more lucrative careers with less stress or decide to start phoning in their instruction because their job can feel like a bit of a dead end.  Both of these outcomes hurt students (as does the incredibly high teacher turnover that many Title I schools face).

So, what can we do to help teachers feel more respected in this country? A report McKenzie did while I was still in graduate school suggested that starting teacher salaries at $65,000 and topping them off at $150,000 would encourage 68 percent of high-achieving college students to consider teaching. That sounds awesome, and I'm for it, obviously, but I think in this economy it's not feasible to demand that sort of pay. Nor is it very empathetic toward the millions of Americans who struggle so much more than my colleagues and I do to make ends meet.    

But what about a national campaign to recruit teachers? To explain the importance of teaching? To highlight just how hard these often bombarded people work? EdWeek had a blog post about how countries around the world encourage caring, high achieving folks to become teachers. I'd never really thought about how we don't celebrate teaching nationally, although it makes perfect sense as a recruitment strategy. Every year at my university, hundreds (thousands?) of kids sign up to be wined and dined by executives in the finance and consulting industries. They are willing to do a job that consumes their life because they feel special for even considering it. And sure, the money helps.

Here is my favorite video EdWeek shared. I got a little teary at my desk and challenge you not to as you remember all of the teachers who encouraged you to do your best even when you had no idea what your best might mean. How cool would it be if we spent a little time and money encouraging people across the country to do the same?
 

http://youtu.be/l48FyAmQNOc

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kony in the Classroom, Part 2

At my new school, tenth graders read Things Fall Apart, so I'm teaching it for the third semester in a row. One of the great things about teaching the same book over and over is that I get to tweak my previous lessons instead of trying to come up brand new ones.

This time, we did the Kony exercise as a pre-reading activity. We watched the video, read the same article, and then I had students answer questions about article that steered them toward author's purpose and persuasive techniques. The day after they did this work, we had a circle discussion on whether or not the Kony video worked, how people from different cultures should and do interact, and what colonialism means to both the colonizers and the colonized.

I'm not sure if spending more time on the activity, the kids being a year older than the ninth graders I did this with last year, or their honor status had anything to do with the increased level of participation and dialogue. But I'm definitely going to keep this as a frontloading activity rather than a summary. The activity also let the kids know that while Things Fall Apart starts out as a chronicle of traditional Igbo life, the book quickly becomes a text in conversation with the world around it.

I don't know about you other English teacher nerds out there, but I remember being really excited in college to start thinking about books as cultural artifacts and not just pleasant ways to pass the time or think about the world within the book. The whole experience was really cool to see happening for my tenth graders now. Societal awareness in English class, FTW.

Although I do have to wonder if this particular activity will be spent by this time next year. I definitely need to be on the lookout for cultural memes aimed at teenagers that give us a way to explore colonialism in the present day. Any ideas?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What We're Reading

Our Donor's Choose books arrived last week, and my students are so excited to delve into these books! I thought I'd share the list so that those of you who helped out know exactly what we got and those of you who teach might get some ideas. These books are targeted toward reluctant readers in the twelfth grade. 

Tyrell by Coe Booth
Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
A toda velocidad/ Overdrive by Eric Walters
B Negative by Vicki Grant
Back  by Norah McClintock
Bang
by Norah McClintock
Bull''s Eye by Sarah Harvey
Charmed by Carrie Mac
Dead End Job
by Vicki Grant
Comeback by Vicki Grant
Chill by Colin Frizzell (this has to be a pen name, right? Love Actually, anyone?)
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
A Child Called It: One Child''s Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer
Help Yourself for Teens: Real-Life Advice for Real-Life Challenges by Dave Pelzer
The Privilege of Youth: A Teenager''s Story by Dave Pelzer
Lost Boy: A Foster Child''s Search for the Love of a Family
by Dave Pelzer
16 1/2 on the Block, Vol. 2
by Babygirl Daniels
Sister Sister
by Babygirl Daniels
Glitter: A Baby Drama, Vol. 4
by Babygirl Daniels
Frenemies
by Megan Crane
Second Chance (Drama High) by L. Divine
Jayd''s Legacy (Drama High)  by L. Divine
The Fight (Drama High) by L. Divine
Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member
by Sanyika Shakur
T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. by Sanyika Shakur
Inside a Thug''s Heart by Angela Ardis
The Rose That Grew From Concrete and Other Poems by Tupac Shakur
The Barrio Kings by William Kowalski
Love You to Death by Natalie Ward
16 Going on 21 (Denim Diaries #1), Vol. 1 by Darrien Lee
Queen of the Yard, Vol. 7
by Darrien Lee
Grown in Sixty Seconds (Denim Diaries #2), Vol. 2
by Darrien Lee
DMZ 1
by Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli and Brian Azzarello
DMZ 2 by Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli and Brian Azzarello
DMZ 4 by Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli and Brian Azzarello
Snitch by Norah McClintock
El Soplon by Norah McClintock
Homeboyz by Alan Lawrence Sitomer
Hip-Hop High School by Alan Lawrence Sitomer
Hoopster by Alan Lawrence Sitomer
Secret Story of Sonia Rodriguez
by Alan Lawrence Sitomer
Gangsta Rap by Benjamin Zephaniah
Midnight: A Gangster Love Story by Sister Souljah
No Disrespect
by Sister Souljah
Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah
Harlem Hustle by Janet McDonald

Monday, October 29, 2012

On Loving Your Job

One of my favorite professors in graduate school always counseled us against becoming "the martyr teacher." She said you should take care of yourself and your family and give to the kids what you have left. This practice would prevent burn out and what she calls "institutional press."

I think this is good advice. It's really easy to get caught up in all that I could be doing for my kids (and sometimes I do and need a reality check that I can't fix everything that's wrong with their lives). But for the most part, I have a lot of life outside of school. So, I get a little frustrated when people want to know why I work on my day off or act like I shouldn't be doing work-related things on a snow hurricane day.

I do it because it makes me happy. This work makes me happier than almost anything else could. I have waited my whole twenty-five years on earth to know what I'm supposed to be doing, and I finally know!

I have a life and a life abundant outside of work. I run. I cook. I knit. I fiddle. I practice yoga. I study Spanish. I love my crazy rescue dog. I love my friends. I love my family. A lot. I go to every UVA home football game. I run a scholarship/mentoring group through one of the churches I attend. I go to Bible study and prayer group and political functions. I canvass for candidates I care about. I cook. I read. I watch weird foreign films.

So, please don't feel bad for me when I send a work-related e-mail at 10:30 at night on a day we have off. Believe me, there is plenty else I could be doing.

Class Size Matters

Here I am at the end of the first quarter, extending deadlines, and grading what students should have done weeks ago. I don't mind. I don't think I'm doing my students a disservice because in "the real world" you get an extension almost every time you ask for it (and is their world not real till they graduate?).

But goodness, I wish I had fewer things to grade. 

How can people say class size doesn't matter? I love to go to their games, call them in the evenings to chat about behavior issues, and learn who they are outside of the classroom. Those are some of my favorite parts of my job. But I can't do those things all day every day for over one hundred people. I cannot.

I could do it for fifty. I definitely did it for fifty kids last year. Maybe if I taught only one class I could see that adding more students into the physical space wouldn't matter as much (although the fire marshal might have something to say about that at this point). But I cannot understand how I can do the things that need doing or would be nice to do for my students and have a life at the rate I'm going now. Smaller class sizes would equal smaller caseloads for teachers which would in turn lead to more and more meaningful behavioral and academic interventions. How is the class size doesn't matter canard surviving? And why aren't we talking about the issue in terms of caseload rather than bodies in a room?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

They're Honors Kids; They Can Handle It

This is my first year teaching an honors class. In fact, this is my first brush with honor students since I sat in my umpteenth AP class in high school (because obviously I would take every AP class possible. Was not taking it even an option?). I've preferred teaching lower-proficiency and reluctant learners because they seemed to be "my" kids. They really needed as many caring adults as possible. They needed teachers who could stay late freed from constraints of family, and you know, a life. There is an intellectual challenge in figuring out kids who don't love English class.

Honors students, I reasoned, don't need me. They would learn to analyze, dissect, and create whether they had a long-term sub or a National Board certified teacher (not that I'm either). Honors kids, however, I'm learning are still kids. This probably goes without saying to the thousands of wonderful teachers who love, encourage, and write thirty-seven college recommendations for their honors students. But it's a whole new world to me.

In trying to figure out how to engage their minds that are eager to learn, I've realized I've just given them more stuff to do. Today, I extended a deadline for an essay and a collective sigh of relief filled the room. I didn't even give back the second drafts so they couldn't be tempted to work on them over their long weekend. I had a student break down in tears because of the number of tests and projects due this week as the quarter ends.

Maybe this is old news to many of you, but it seems to me that our education system hasn't gotten it right for kids at either end of the spectrum of interest/proficiency/parental involvement. We can't seem to engage kids at the lower-interest end in a way that encourages them to pursue something beyond high school (or even finish high school) and we just keep throwing things at kids who have an honors designation thinking that more stuff to do equals more rigor. Teacher friends, how are you balancing these needs? How do I provide a space that is challenging and engaging but still acknowledges the fact that these students are all teenagers who need social lives, exercise, and (most often missed) sleep?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Branding Yourself as a Reader

Last month, Education Week had a great blog post about branding yourself as a reader. The author examined ways in which the Kardashian machine inspired her to brand herself as a reader to her students. I took two of the pieces of advice, and they've really worked.

I started listing what I'm reading on a piece of my whiteboard. I make sure to update it and include whatever whole-class novel we may be working on so they can see I'm reading along with them. I also talk about authors I love. A lot. For the first few weeks of school, I think my students thought that Junot Diaz's first name was Myfuturehusband. Now, a handful of them are reading The Brief, Wondorus Life of Oscar Wao. Kids who have never finished a book are reading the book that won the Pulitzer when I was in college. Boom.

I also used Ms. Miller's idea for building excitement around new books. Thanks to the generosity of my wonderful friends, family, and the universe at large, we've received several shipments of new and exciting books. I've stacked them up and had them visible as I've been putting in the slips identifying them as the property of our school. When someone asks about a book, I say, "That one isn't ready yet, but it's coming soon!" And as soon as I point out it's been moved to the shelf -- bam! -- arguments break out in my lower-proficiency English class over who claimed A Child Called It first. Then it gets quiet, and kids actually complain when SSR is over.

We'll be working on some of Ms. Miller's ideas in the weeks to come. I'll report back, but I've got a good feeling!

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Status Quo is Not Okay

In this month's Atlantic, you can find a clever set of graphics. In the special report on schools, there is a list of several groups working on education "reform." The description of each organization (such as Students First and Democrats for Education Reform) has a scale to tell the reader where the group falls between "status quo" and "radical." The page does not explain what these terms mean.

Can you be a teacher and accept the status quo? If you want a child to grow up in a place where his or her natural curiosity is encouraged at every turn, are you supporting the status quo? Is it supporting the status quo to come early and stay late to make sure a student can graduate?

To be a teacher is to encourage change. It would be really nice if the popular media realized that. That realization might also spark a real debate about what is and isn't working in our public schools.

These sorts of simplistic understandings of what actually goes on in schools and what we should do about educating fifty million kids in the US reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, which is often attributed to Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson, "If you've come here to help me, you're wasting your time. But if you've come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Teacher Care Packages

I get this uplifting e-mail that highlights one good thing going on in the world every day. A few weeks ago, I read about a woman who had organized sending teacher care packages and cards to a school in Florida.

Teaching is fun, y'all, and I know it's exactly what I was made to do, but it's really hard, too. It's hard to see students who are hungry or don't know how to talk to their friends without using abusive language or are stressed out because they are taking seven Advanced Placement classes. It's hard to get teenagers to care about anything (especially when that thing is how to use relative pronouns and commas in a non-restrictive clause, believe me). Hearing about these care packages made me feel like maybe our profession is a little more respected that we sometimes think. Send one to a teacher you love today!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Persuade Me

In the tenth grade, we've just started our persuasive essay projects, and I am so excited! I did something similar last year, but, as with so many things, I think having the time to reflect and modify instead of just create, this project is a little, well, better (aside -- I spent a lot of time thinking about the commas I just used there, but I'm pretty sure I got those right).

We started out by reading this New York Times op-ed written by a twelfth grader. In it, he implores politicians and policy makers to get over their obsession with multiple-choice testing. We used the article to have a class discussion about the author's purpose, the thesis statement, and the need for counterexamples. In the course of our discussion on counterexamples, we thought about why policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top became popular. Students challenged each other to think of other ways to make sure that schools focus their attention on all students. All I had to do was sit back and listen.

Then, we moved into the project proper. Students will write a two-page paper attempting to convince an administrator to change a school rule or policy. Technology use, the tardy policy, and time between classes have been the favorites so far. After workshopping our pieces, I'm going to give my supervising administrator a sample of student papers. She's going to read them and come talk to our class about what policies can be changed and why other ones may have to stay in place.

Before students peer conferenced yesterday, we read the Sunday Dialogue around the original piece in order to look for examples of what makes a compelling argument. We talked about how to ask the sort of questions to guide our friends to making those arguments (How can you add more substance to your emotional appeal? Have you thought about ___________ reason for the rule? How can you address that reason?). I'm so looking forward to getting the second drafts tomorrow!


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Things I Had Time To Do Today

Things I Had Time to Do Today
Teach my classes
Staff the school store
Eat lunch (!)
Call some parents
Read eight student journals
Go to book club

Things I Didn't Have Time to Do Today
Walk my dog as long as I should
Follow up with all the parents and students who had scheduled tutoring sessions but didn't show up
Finish reviewing exit slips (but I have till Thursday till I have these students again)
Actually finish reading the book for book club

Not a super woman, but not a lazy bones, either. Just a normal, rewarding, and hectic day!

Building a Better Beowulf Unit

Hi friends! I'm trying to get a class set of the wonderful Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf before we start our class unit in November. If you could give just $22.50 and use the code INSPIRE, you're donation will be matched, AND our project will be finished! Would you please consider helping us out? Thanks!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Where I'm From

The very brilliant Linda Christensen has created a poetry-writing activity called "Where I'm From." Using George Ella Lyon's poem of a similar theme, she has students create lists of items in their home, yard, and neighborhood. She has students write down sayings they hear around their houses, food they eat with their families, and places they keep childhood memories. Doing this activity last year inspired this poem.

To get to know my new students this year, I took the activity a step further. After we made our lists and wrote our poems, I had students write their poem out on a sheet of paper with their name on the back. We then hung our poems up in the classroom. I read the poems aloud. Then, students wrote each others' names on post-it notes and put their post-its to the poem they thought corresponded to the correct classmate. Students then looked to see how well people had guessed before turning in their poems. We debriefed by talking about what we learned about each other and our community from the activity.

Students had the option to turn their poem in without hanging it up, but most chose to participate. Everyone else was really good about not judging those who chose not to participate. We're going to start blogging next quarter, and I think we might start out by doing another draft of those poems. I'm not exactly sure how to make that work for students who don't want to share their work. We did essays our name as our first workshop, so that's an option, too. What do y'all think? Any ideas on how to balance students' needs for privacy with instilling confidence in who they are?


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Back in the Saddle

Getting used to my new division has taken a lot of work, but I think things are calming down enough that I can commit to blogging again. Those of you who have been here before will notice a name change. I've been searching for something that wouldn't get confused with a mommy blog and embody the edu-nature of the blog. I was inspired by this post on Education Week.

So many of the problems I see with including teachers in conversations about changing education have to do with the fact that many people involved in the conversation think they know what happens in the classroom. Almost everyone has had some sort of brush with the American education system. And almost everyone has had a bad teacher along the way.

What we don't have enough of are regular teachers, well, showing our work. So, that's what I want to work on here -- sharing things that work and don't in the classroom as well as thoughts on education policy from a teacher's perspective. I hope you will all stick around!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Help! My Students Have Fallen in Love with Reading!

Hi friends,

I have so much to tell you about my new school, new students, and new teaching activities. I promise to get to all that excitement in the coming days. In the meantime, I really need your help to fulfill my Donors Choose grant to expand our classroom library. Every little bit helps, and we would all be so grateful. Please consider giving!

Thanks!
Ms. T.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

About Those Hats

Today was the first day of school, and school is so much better with students! I decided to let hats in the classroom. About three students took advantage of the allowance. I'm ultimately glad I did because I think it showed my students I am willing to figure out where they can have choices and where I need them to follow (a useful life skill, always).

School isn't working for a lot of students. They don't put school in what Glasser calls their "Quality World" (which is just a fancy way of saying that, for some students, educators haven't done a very good job of showing students why and how school matters. If it takes wearing a hat to let a student know that this is a place where he or she is welcomed, I'm willing to let that piece of my culture go. I trust that as we all work to show students that we have their best interests and hopes and dreams in mind, they'll listen when we say you shouldn't wear a hat to a job interview (or a job).

Ultimately, I took my direction from other teachers on my hall who know the school culture better than I. Nearly all of them allow hats. Nearly all of them seem to enjoy very meaningful relationships with their students. And all of them have students who go on to be very successful in a variety of ways. With and without hats on.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writing Workshops

Tomorrow I'm supposed to give a little workshop to my new department about the way I do my writing workshops. So, I'm going to practice on you!

1. Free writing
We start off (nearly) every day in my classroom free writing for about ten minutes. I try to give one prompt related to the content, one prompt related to pop culture, and a free write option. This year, we're writing about poems every day in twelfth grade, and I'm really excited about that!

2. Choose a topic (or genre)
Students can choose a free write to expand into an essay. If you need them to focus on a particular type of writing, assign free writes that can lead to persuasive writing or what have you. Or, skip step one and just assign the genre.

3. Rough draft
Students write. At my previous school, I was pretty adamant about handwriting. Since everyone has access to technology here, I'm thinking about relaxing that requirement this year and allowing students to keep all their rough drafts on an access-restricted blog. 

4. Peer Editing
Teachers don't read the rough draft. It's a place for students to work out kinks and think about the revision process. Students switch papers and fill out a TAG sheet. The TAG sheet guides peer editors to Tell something you like, Ask questions, Give advice. Once the student gets his or her paper and TAG sheet back, there's a section for the writer to make a plan. Students write three goals for their second drafts.

5. Revision Rubric
After making their goals, students create revision rubrics. They identify three (or more!) areas where they can improve (examples include conclusion, word choice, and conventions). They use their goals created on their TAG sheets to identify the areas. They then assign each area its own color using colored pencils.

6. Second Draft
Students write a second draft keeping their goals in mind. These drafts should be typed. Once they're printed, students underline the areas where they think they've met their goals. This draft, the rubric, the TAG sheet, and the rough draft are turned in. Teachers should read this packet and comment on growth -- if you need a grade here, it's for completion to show students they've been successful in growing. If you think they haven't grown, that's a completion issue that needs to be addressed before they turn in a third draft. 

7. Third Draft and Reflection
Taking into account teacher comments, students write a third draft. They turn these drafts in along with a paragraph explaining how their writing has changed over the course of the project.

This workshop allows students to see writing as a process and not as something that needs to be perfect the first (or second or third) time. Lower- and higher-proficiency students benefit from understanding the process when they have to do it much more condensed forms. Also, this way seems to make writing a little less stressful -- and maybe even a little fun!

A note about hats: I appreciate everyone's feedback about the hat situation. I have a follow up post coming about it taking what y'all said into account; I promise!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hats Allowed?

My new school allows teachers to choose their policies on two highly contentious teenage possessions: hats and cellphones. I feel like I need to give the administration a little shout out for giving teachers the space to decide what works in the classroom, but I don't know what to do about hats!

I was raised that men always took their hats off upon entering a building. Women wearing ball caps also took those off. This action communicated respect to the people around you, especially your host. It also showed professionalism.

One of my colleagues pointed out that disallowing hats for that reason is making a cultural value judgment. What if your home culture doesn't equate respect with removing your hat? I definitely agree with being as open to other cultures as possible in the classroom (with the caveat being that I think it's also my responsibility to teach how students will be expected to act at jobs and college). I also like being able to see a student's face at all times.

So, what would you do?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Fall Reading List

I had so much fun with the summer reading list, but I didn't get to finish all my titles. I thought I'd try to make a list of books I'd like to read by the end of the year. You can read along or offer suggestions. Also, I plan to disappear from normal human life the day Junot Diaz's new book comes out, in case you are wondering.


Fiction:
This is How You Lose Her -- Junot Diaz
East of Eden -- John Steinbeck (for real this time)

Nonfiction: 
How to Be a Woman -- Caitlin Moran
Class Meetings That Matter 9-12 -- Susan Limber
Teachers Have it Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers -- Dave Eggers, Daniel Mouthrop, Ninivie Calegari
Conscious Classroom Management -- Rick Smith
Classroom Instruction that Works -- Robert J. Marzano, Debra J. Pickering, Jane E. Pollock

Young Adult Lit
Little Brother X -- Cory Doctorow
Divergent -- Victoria Roth

That's kind of a lot, so we'll see how it goes! I hope y'all read along.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Poverty in the Classroom

Have you ever taken part in a poverty simulation? I had as part of my Americorps training in 2008, but I was surprised about how much I'd forgotten of that feeling that, no matter what you do, you cannot get enough money to meet your basic needs and those of your family.

As part of the new teacher orientation for my new school division, we took part in such a simulation. Put into teams of varying sizes, participants work to have enough money to pay rent, buy food, while making sure that all dependents are cared for. Each "week" lasts fifteen minutes, and there's just no time. If you have a full-time job, you have to spend five minutes "working" in order to get your check. Then, you have to go to the bank (where you probably don't have enough money to open an account and thus must pay fees). Oftentimes, your movement is interrupted by the need to go buy more bus tickets. This leaves no time left to sign up for social services, check in with a kid's teacher, or attend any sort of classes to help you advance to the middle class (I'm getting stressed just typing this as I remember the frenetic pace at which my family ran trying to get jobs, secure services, and navigate a world of volunteer "business owners" willing to take advantage of our situation).

Sometimes people make bad decisions and take their kids along with them. Sometimes people have medical disabilities. Sometimes one family member bails, and you have to figure out a whole new way to run your household. A friend summed it up best after a class about education policy: Think about what you would do in a situation where your family didn't have enough money. Do you really think the people living that reality are so different from you?

My new school division serves a lot of different kinds of kids, and every kid has something going on in his or her life that comes before school. Educators have to find ways to reach students and make school meaningful in light of a student's problems. It continues to be unbelievable to me, however, that some think we can overcome educational inequality without overcoming inequalities in standards of living.

As one of the participants said, "When I was at school, even playing a nine-year-old, I couldn't help but think of my family and all they had going on. I couldn't concentrate on school." Maybe those interested in bettering education should concentrate on some of those problems that distract our students, too.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Summer Reading List: The American Way of Death Revisited

I've had three good friends lose immediate family members this summer. Watching them grieve and not being able to do much but offer a chance to talk or a few canned phrases has been hard. What's also hard to watch is the way in which the funeral industry takes advantage of the grieving. In one friend's case, advertisements were presented alongside the live stream of her sister's memorial service.

Jessica Mitford died before live streaming funeral services became routine, but after reading her book The American Way of Death Revisited, I can imagine her take on the matter. Mitford explores how funeral directors often tell families that embalming is legally required when that is the case in only very certain, very rare circumstances. When the federal government took steps to ban that practice, cemeteries--often owned by the same three corporations that own most funeral homes--began to require embalming.

Using trade publications, interviews with funeral directors and consumers, and her own research, Mitford explores the ways in which funerals in the US differ from most other post-industrial nations in terms of cost, focus on the body, and terminology. If this all sounds a little depressing, I have to say that this book was surprisingly un-morbid. In fact, the section that describes exactly how the embalming process works has been anthologized in several writing textbooks.

Mitford doesn't gloss over the abuses of an industry that consistently takes advantage of families who are grieving or people thinking that by paying ahead they're saving their family money (the family still usually gets a bill that includes adjustments for increased fees). This book is very honest and, at times, very funny.

Because teenagers as a general rule like to question the status quo, I think many high school students would like this book. It could be very instructive for a creative nonfiction writing. A teacher could also use it as a literature circle pick paired with other books that look at how industries often take advantage of consumers (The Jungle seems like a logical choice). If nothing else, the unusual subject matter could be a great way to hook a reluctant reader.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Teaching the Teachers

A central tenet for many education reformers is that if we just fired all the bad teachers, our educational problems would be solved in the US. Even before I became a teacher, I questioned whether or not the statistics claiming that most teachers come from the bottom third of their classes. Even if that's true, how do we fix it? Can we elevate the profession if we're routinely telling teachers they are stupid, lazy, and the main source of educational inequity in our country?

Probably not.

A small study of Cincinnati's Teacher Evaluation System suggests that targeted, teacher-led can help struggling teachers improve. Teacher evaluators (who are also currently teachers) give targeted feedback to struggling teachers. In Cincinnati,  teachers in the bottom quartile of the corps and the TES program were able to become average teachers after one year. This measure is based entirely on student test scores and only worked for math teachers.

Are tests really an accurate and fair representation of student learning? Will we ever figure out exactly how the language acquisition parts of our brain work? These are big questions worth answering. If we continue to shame teachers and insist that they are the only hope in a system riddled with inequitable funding, unresponsive curricula, and 25 percent of students experiencing the food insecurity associated with poverty, we aren't going to attract people into the profession who help students become the kinds of people who answer those big questions.

[Update: I think that anyone living in poverty experiences some sort of food insecurity. My boy Rikesh would like for you to know that the people who compile things have figured that just over 16 percent of kids live in food insecure households.]

Friday, August 3, 2012

Summer Reading List: Looking for Alaska

In the spring of 2010, my young adult literature professor suggested a number of books to us that I'm just now getting around to reading (this class was where I first heard about The Hunger Games). Among that list was John Green's boarding school novel Looking for Alaska. I had a hard time picturing my public school students being able to relate to kids with the means to go to school away from home (there were a lot of questions when I showed eleventh grade Dead Poets' Society).

Looking for Alaska, however, focuses mostly on students who have earned scholarships to a prestigious, fictitious boarding school in Alabama. The protagonist and his roommate explore the death of their close female friend Alaska. In doing so, they hit upon a lot of your basic YAL fare: identity, understanding money and class, love, sex, drugs, a little rock 'n' roll.

What makes Green's novel stand out (and it's starting to hit some bestseller lists seven years after publication) is his absolute honesty. With a lot of YAL novels, I sometimes think that authors have forgotten how teenagers talk to each other. Green hasn't, but that means there are copious curse words and sex. While I think that most teens would really enjoy Alaska, I can only recommend it as a free choice novel made available to students or incorporated as a lit circle book if you have a very supportive administration who understands this philosophy of young adult lit.

My next two summer reading list book reviews will be surprises not from the reading list. Get excited, fellow reading nerds!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Amen, Brother

"If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had forty people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn't want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher's job." -- Donald D. Quinn

I can't wait to go back, but it's always nice to feel a little solidarity.

Reward Me

Fellow teachers and other education enthusiasts, do you all subscribe to Education Week? I get their Teacher Update e-mails as well as their daily digest of interesting education news. Yesterday, I had an epiphany while reading about this study.

Students did better on tests and got better grades when they were rewarded before taking the assessment. The students also had to write briefly about what they planned to do with the rewards (older kids got money and younger kids got trophies). The paper posits that students did better because they were mentally holding themselves accountable for the reward they already received.

Even though this study looked primarily at extrinsic motivators for learning, I think I can get some great ideas for classroom management next year week. Those of you who followed along last year remember the work we had to do in first block to get students to act appropriately and foster a learning community. One thing I tried at another teacher's suggestion was a point system. We talked as a class about what specific behaviors would earn them points (taking turns talking, writing for the entire free write time, etc.). When they got to ten points, we had a party.

I hated that system. It felt manipulative. Students would often lose focus as they tried to point out to me that they had earned the point (resulting in the new expectation that points wouldn't be requested). But the system did seem to focus them on thinking about appropriate behavior in the classroom and that was what we needed.

I think a system that rewards first and asks questions later can create that same focus. I really like the idea of giving my students something (a pizza party, a few minutes to just talk, baked goods) and saying this is because I know you are going to do great things in here. That sort of system feels less like a bribe and more like a relationship. Any other ideas on specifics for this way of rewarding students?

Friday, July 27, 2012

On Switching Schools

In a little more than a week, I go back to work. I report earlier than most of my colleagues because for the second time in two years, I will be new to a school division. Deciding to leave the school that took a chance on little ol' provisionally-licensed me was really hard.

Fellow Curry alums will remember the mantra know your students, know your students, know your students. When you are in the business of building relationships, it can feel hard, wrong, and maybe even damaging to your students to leave your school. The commute added up to an hour and a half each day, way-early mornings, and having even less of a life than many first-year teachers. So, when a position became open at the high school in the city where I already live, I applied. About a week after I put in my application, one of my favorite professors from grad school co-authored this study about teacher turnover negatively impacting whole schools. Awesome.

In the end, I had to decide what kind of teacher I want to be. I could be a martyr teacher who pulls myself out of a bed at 5:15 every morning and never sees my friends or take my dog for a walk. I think there are a lot of teachers like this -- especially young teachers. But I can't imagine that they last long.

I decided, instead, to be a teacher who is a real person. Living and working in the same community doesn't seem like too much of a stretch. I could have moved to the small town where I worked, but that seemed like giving up a lot for a job, too. I have an amazing network of friends where I live as well as constant access to entertainment aimed at young professionals.

As I continued to debate myself (and got the job offer), I realized two things: I cannot stem the tide of teacher turnover myself. More importantly, in any other career, accepting a job that is closer to home, pays more, and offers more benefits would be a no-brainer. So, while I couldn't "fix" teacher turnover, I could act like any other graduate-school educated professional and push against the idea of teachers as people who should sacrifice a living wage, reasonable working conditions, and a life outside the classroom. I really do believe that it will take seeing teaching as a job much like any other to increase teacher quality. I took the job.

My students at my old school were hilarious, smart, and challenging. I will miss seeing them grow and learn more. In the end, I had to take the job that made me a more whole, balanced, well-compensated person. I really do think the resulting peace of mind will make me a better teacher.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Summer Reading List: River of Earth by James Still

James Still is a legend in Appalachian literature. Silas House and friends run a journal of Appalachian literature named Still in the author's honor. Many Appalachian Studies scholars consider Still to be the first Appalachian author.

I didn't know any of these things until about a month ago. I was excited (and maybe a little surprised) to discover a piece of Appalachian literature I hadn't yet explored and put Still's River of Earth on hold at the UVA library.

Once I got a hold of the book, it took a couple of days to get into the story. River of Earth is told from the perspective of a young boy whose family bounces between mining towns when his dad can find work there and farming rented land -- where his mother is happiest. A rotating cast of relatives and friends prey on the father's deep belief in hospitality whenever the family is able to scrape together a living.

Still struggles with the country life/town life dichotomy that plagues so many Appalachians. He also explores the ways in which mining is not a sustainable industry for the region. When a mine closes unexpectedly, so do schools, stores, and company housing. And he wrote this criticism in 1940.

Although the main character's reflections are written in "standard" English, the dialogue is an extremely well-done southern Appalachian dialect. The novel's title comes from a sermon delivered by your run-of-the-mill hillbilly preacher:

“I was borned in a ridge-pocket,” he said.  “I never seed the sun-ball withouten heisting my chin.  My eyes were sot upon the hills from the beginning.  Till I come on the Word in this good Book, I used to think a mountain was the standingest object in the sight o’ God.  Hit says here they go skipping and hopping like sheep, a-rising and a-falling.  These hills are jist dirt waves, washing through eternity.  My brethren, they hain’t a valley so low but what hit’ll rise agin.  They hain’t a hill standing so proud but hit’ll sink to the low ground o’sorrow.  Oh, my children, where are we going on this mighty river of earth, a-borning, begetting, and a-dying – the living and the dead riding the waters?  Where air it sweeping us?”

And in the midst of that dialect is a question that people have been asking since the beginning of questions. I think that Still makes a powerful statement about the ability of his characters to discuss God, environmental concerns, and economic plans in such a dialect. Hillbilly? Sure. Stupid? Hardly. 

For the classroom library, I'd recommend this book for any student interested in identity exploration. I can also think of a couple of boys who were interested in farming that I think would really enjoy reading about the family's struggle between that life and a life based on cash that can be earned in coal mines. Happy reading!  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Summer Reading List: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I finished one of the books on my summer reading list! Mama gave me Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project in my Easter box to balance out all the chocolate. I'm so glad that I finally got around to reading it.

I also have to confess something to you all before we go any further: I like "stunt journalism" where someone spends a year doing something like trying to find herself, create an object lesson on what the Bible really says about being a woman, or see what it is like to be a low-wage earner. Prior to looking at reviews of The Happiness Project, I didn't know that some people consider books like these pedestrian. I just think they are an interesting way to confront an issue.

Rubin takes her inspiration from Benjamin Franklin's quest for moral perfection. She spends time researching what modern science thinks makes us happy and then divides up the year to focus on one particular facet of happiness each month. Some of her suggestions about taking up a project and eating real food inspired me to finally finish my 2010 campaign scrapbook and to finally kick gluten out of my life for good since a doctor told me in 2008 I should quit.

She does a great job of explaining how to find happiness, but it isn't until the middle of the book she explains why happiness matters. Maybe it's just my friends, but I actually know a fair number of people who don't value personal happiness. These folks think of it as, at best, an indulgence, and, at worst, a distraction from serving others. Rubin makes the really important point that research continues to suggest that happy people can make others happy. Unfortunately, she doesn't make it until about halfway through the book. I think the book would benefit from an upfront discussion about why happiness matters.

For all you teacher types working on your classroom libraries, I would recommend this book for higher-proficiency readers. While you all know that I'm not into any of that gender essentialism business, I do think that girls might be particularly drawn to the ways in which Rubin organizes and analyzes her happiness project. A book like this would have been just the ticket for me in high school when my obsession with ordering my life toward some defined purpose through lists and plans began, but I also wasn't reading enough non-fiction to prepare me for college.

Next up: River of Earth by James Still -- I have about a hundred pages to go.

Monday, July 16, 2012

An AT Update

Many of you know that my original plan for my first summer vacation was to hike about half of the Appalachian Trail. That plan took some serious tweaking after I broke my foot during a section hike in Maryland over spring break. After a lot of healing and help from my friends, I started walking normally again. I planned a two-week hike to finish Maryland, hike through West Virginia, and end up three-quarters of the way through the Shenandoah National Park.

The first two days went really well. My dad joined Atticus and me to finish up Maryland and make it to Harpers Ferry. It was about 105 degrees, there was a hailstorm, it became real. I was really going to do this. We collapsed at a pub in Harpers Ferry where Atticus was so tired he had his first successful restaurant visit! I took my dad back to his car in Maryland before heading home for a day and a half of adjusting.

Atticus and I hit the trail again two evenings later. We walked back to the spot where we'd left off and followed the AT over the Shenandoah River and found a nice spot to camp in the woods. It was my first night camping without another human. It was hard and awesome at the same time. We were up early to hike to the Blackburn Trail Center before starting the roller coaster that precedes Front Royal if you're southbound.

After we stopped for a mid-morning break, Atticus didn't want to wear his boots any more. He's had them for about six months and has never minded them. But he stopped about every ten yards to pull at one with his teeth. When I took it off to see if there was something inside, I saw a big wound that must have been irritated by the boot. He couldn't walk in just three of them, so they all had to come off.

Later in the day, we were scrambling over some rocks when Atticus tripped and scraped the front of one of his paws. I stopped the bleeding pretty quickly, but he was obviously agitated and kept licking at the place throughout the night. When I woke up in the morning, one of the sores had burst open and was oozing some gross stuff. My once-broken foot that had hurt a little since we'd stopped for the afternoon break was also in a lot of pain.

We had to go home.

I've wanted to hike the entire Appalachian Trail since I was six and my dad took me to Whitetop. I've watched my friends thru-hike, and I knew that wasn't in the cards for me. I have a job I love that I can't imagine leaving even for a few months if I knew I could come back to it. I made my peace years ago with the fact that I would finish the trail by section hiking. But it sure is slow going.

I know that I have the rest of my life to hike the trail and that it isn't going anywhere. I know that I don't have to do it contiguously. I know I'm 53.4 miles into a journey that is going to take a little longer than I had originally planned. I also know that I need to find a good, two-legged hiking buddy. Who's in?

Friday, July 13, 2012