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
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
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
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!