Saturday, February 27, 2010

Student BOE?

I recently posted a link on our class website to The New York Times' "A Diploma in the 10th Grade?".

This led to a discussion in our class on the direction education is headed - or perhaps I should say the many directions, since my students voiced the opinion that the adults and "experts" (those are their vocally-implied quotation marks) involved are running around with a million expensive fixes, many of which seem to have little bearing on what actually works for kids.

They asked why more people don't talk to the students, why no high school tenth graders were included in the Times commentary. This reminded me of Andrew B. Watt's response to Scott McLeod's question "What's wrong with the Edublogosphere?" Where are the kids' voices?

One of the points that many bring up when it comes to classroom tech integration is the power of turning over some of the authority to students. They're often more creative than we are, and quite frankly many of them are smarter than we are, so the end results have the potential to turn out better than we could have hoped with just adults running the show.

We have a student task force at our school that meets regularly with administrators to provide the student perspective on school issues, and their involvement has made a noticeable impact on the climate in the building. Are there any systems that have something similar to this at the district level? A sort of student board of education? My kids are interested to know.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

In Need of Vertical Teaming Advice

Tomorrow I'm leading an English / Language Arts vertical team meeting at our school. It's the second of these meetings this year, and I'm looking forward to it because it's always cool to get to find common ground among other teachers, share strategies, and work to line things up properly for our kids.

I'm worried, though. While I'm certain that the teachers both at my school and our feeder schools care a ton about our kids, and everyone seemed open and involved at the last meeting, I feel like we've made little progress in continuing our discussion since. Face-to-face meetings are tough to schedule and expensive, so I created a Ning to allow us to share resources and carry on the conversation, and there's been some great participation from within our building. However, the teaming has felt far more horizontal than vertical, and that's not going to get the job done.

What can I do to get all parties fully involved and make our vertical teaming successful? I would appreciate any advice or resource suggestions.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

An Evening with Neil Gaiman and a Reflection on Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Last Thursday evening, I - accompanied by several students, my husband and dad, @maporch, @theprofspage and her mom, and our school librarians - attended a reading and talk with Neil Gaiman sponsored by our local university. The author has been one of my favorites since my husband first introduced me to the Sandman series (my first comic books) when I was in college, so this was an exciting time, indeed :) It was also a HUGE experience for our kids. Their comments included the following:

"My adjective would have to be AWESOME!"
"I loved 'Orange'!"
"Can we make up a creative writing activity like that?"

And the adjective my husband picked was "charming." I'll try not to concern myself too much with the possibility that he's been bewitched by Mr. Gaiman.

The author mentioned that it was his first time in Alabama, and he touched on the notion that publishers don't really believe there's much of an audience here in the South. He discusses this further on his own blog.

Perhaps those publishers share a perception that literacy and love of language are somewhat spotty in this area of the map. And unfortunately that perception and the resulting lack of visiting authors, artists, etc. can lead to a dearth of cultural experiences for our kids. Thus, the potential for developing that love of language takes a bit of a hit.

So, nerd that I am, this self-fulfilling prophecy thing gets me thinking about my classroom.

I have a tendency to say to myself, "Let's try [insert cool new thing here] with the AP classes. They'll behave. Any other class probably wouldn't get it."

I am at times blocking my kids from things that could genuinely affect their love of language, appreciation for learning, ability to acquire new skills because of... what? Belief that the payoff won't be sufficient? My own laziness? Prejudice?

An experience from a few years back came to my mind Thursday evening. I planned to do a geocaching activity with my AP Lit class, so early that morning I enlisted a couple of my tenth graders to help me plant caches on our school grounds. These boys had very rarely expressed much interest at all in anything class-related, and the behavior in their class in general was such that I didn't want to venture outside of our room to try any different activities. When I handed them a couple of GPSs, however, they were immediately engaged, wanting to know how they worked and what they could do with them, asking questions, helping me... all the things we want from our kids.

Why did I forget about that morning? How did I so quickly fall back into practices that may guarantee lack of engagement and exposure to valuable tools for my lower level students?

Thanks, Mr. Gaiman, for helping me remember.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Goal #13: Give Students Reign

This goal presented itself somewhat unexpectedly.

We spent today in the library doing some study group reflections on the week, working on a couple of different research activities, making videos for the "Why Shakespeare?" project, and playing with my Kindle. Just before my AP Language students headed out for lunch, a few of the girls in the class called me over to their table. They looked... defeated.

The gist of the conversation was this:

1. They are frustrated with monotony in class after class.
2. Some of them are involved in an awesome program that gives them hands-on training in health-related fields, and they recently found out that to receive their one required health credit they must also sit through a semester's worth of a textbook-and-lecture type class. A semester of practical experiences, job shadowing, etc. alone won't count.
3. As part of a Sister Cities program, they traveled abroad last summer and were able to get a taste of student life outside of the U.S. Their assessment was that the practices they observed there made far more sense and seemed much more likely to prepare students for the real world than many of our current practices.

They said they didn't feel this frustration regarding my class, which was nice of them, but I know that I can improve in terms of providing them with what they need how they need it.

My response... First, I resisted the urge to make any preacher-choir comments. I told them that - while I can't become Queen of the Schools for a day and magically make things make sense in the world of public education (though I do wish for it with all my pennies, most of my stray eyelashes, and the occasional dandelion) - I might be able to give them a bit more say during the 98 minutes they're in my class each day.

I proposed a 3rd block student takeover, during which time they'll get to design a lesson that reflects what they want and need from an English / Language Arts class and how they think those things should be delivered. They shared the idea with some of their classmates, who seemed at least somewhat intrigued by the idea.

Next week, we'll be discussing the details of what they'll do for their block of time and when that time will be. I'm excited to hear about their ideas and to learn from my kids.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Why Shakespeare?

My kids have been required to read at least one of Shakespeare's works during three out of the four years they've been in high school. Many of them have no idea why.

Today they are starting a project to determine why it is that they should care about reading the works of the Bard. We'll be doing some research, interviewing students and teachers around the building, talking with people in the community, and sending the question "Why Shakespeare?" out into the world via Twitter and other means. Then they'll work together to develop a showcase of the responses.

We'd love to get as many perspectives as possible and see how far our social media tools can spread the word. If you'd like to offer your thoughts, please feel free to comment here or post on Twitter using the hashtag #whyshakespeare.

Thank you!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Alfie Kohn Chat Food for Thought

Author Alfie Kohn recently participated in a live online chat and answered questions from educators regarding his views on education. Though I was not part of the chat, I’ve been able to read some of the comments thanks to Shelly Terrell’s blog Teacher Reboot Camp.

I’ve worked with a number of pre-service teachers over the past several years, but because this is my first semester with a full-time intern in my classroom the following question and Kohn’s response particularly caught my attention:

Noah Geisel asked, “Most agree that quality teaching impacts student achievement but what makes for quality teaching and how to best prepare great teachers are quite contentious. This especially seems to be the case in looking at traditional teacher prep programs and the ‘alternative’ routes to licensure. What is your ideal teacher prep program?”

Alfie Kohn quote:
The mentor-apprentice relationship as a way of helping people to acquire proficiency in any career is something that is underappreciated in teacher ed programs as is the failure to look at the goals we have. Most schools have Methods courses, but I haven’t seen very many that have Goals courses that invite teachers to look at what is it we are really looking to get here and what are long-term goals for our students. When you don’t address that explicitly and collectively, you end up by default with goals like doing well on a standardized test, which is the least ambitious educational goal I can think of.

So I find that I’m asking myself the following questions:

Do I spend enough time addressing the big picture with my intern? It’s dangerously easy to be carried away by the everyday minutiae: Are the correct graduation exam objectives on the board for the state department visit? Have we filled out the forms for this afternoon’s meeting? But these things are not the job we’re really here to do.

Have I adequately discussed with her the things I want for our students by the time they leave us at the end of the semester? As a high school English teacher, I want our kids to become more effective communicators, both in speaking and in writing. I want them to know how to go out there in the world, gather reliable information, and do something with it. Something of value to them and hopefully to others. I want them to love language, understand how some may use it to manipulate, and participate actively in a world in which the ways we communicate continue to change.

Do the daily lessons in room 176 reflect these things, so that my intern sees how to become a teacher that sets priorities that will serve her students in the long run, or are we fixated on those “least ambitious” goals?

Monday, February 15, 2010

From the NYT: "Wi-Fi Turns Rowdy Bus Into Rolling Study Hall"

This article is for my dad, a special education teacher who drives a bus full of high school kids before and after classes each day. How awesome would this be?

Also a nice little reminder to us to stop and look up from our screens every now and then, lest we miss opportunities to "stare in wonder." :)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lost Generation: A Palindrome

My dad sent me a link to this video this morning. It was posted on YouTube a couple of years ago, so it may be old news to some, but I thought it was awesome. And I'm a sucker for a good palindrome ;)

Thanks Papa Burger!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Goal #4: Support a New Blogger

I cannot begin to express how exciting it was to get my first blog follower and first comments! It is immensely satisfying to feel as though you're beginning to connect with others who care about doing this job and doing it well :)

So it's time to pass a bit of that on. I encourage anyone who may read this to check out the following new bloggers:

A New Teacher of English
My intern just began this blog yesterday to write about her last semester as a pre-service teacher and the beginning of her teaching career. She's also building her PLN at Twitter as @maporch.

The Prof's Page
She's Frenchie to me, and this is her first year teaching. I've seen this new blogger in action in the classroom, and she's good! She's also just started the 30 Goals Challenge. Check out her blog or follow @theprofspage on Twitter.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Massive hugs are due to my husband, who surprised me this afternoon with this!

My first Kindle book purchase is Markus Zusak's I Am the Messenger (my AP Lit kids are currently reading The Book Thief), and I'm already loving the notes, highlights, and built-in dictionary. Can I find a grant for a class set of these?

A Rough Start, a Transition

On the second of our teacher work days before the start of this semester, I awoke to the sound of our home security system beeping to notify us that we had lost power. My husband and I felt our way half-blindly through our morning routine, sorted out how to raise the garage door manually, and headed off to work. A minor inconvenience caused by some downed trees. No big deal.

As I pulled into the driveway of my school, I could immediately tell that something was amiss - primarily because we don't often have a team of men in our lobby push-brooming water out the front doors. The water, by the time I arrived, had begun to freeze on the sidewalks around the main entrance, so I picked my way carefully and entered the building without breaking myself.

My principal, clad in boots, rolled up jeans, and a sheepish grin, greeted me with "So the good news is... it didn't start in your classroom. The bad news is... you don't want to see your room right now."

It - blown sprinkler system pipes and the resulting flood - started in this room across the hall from mine:

So we spent our morning rescuing textbooks, tossing anything that was clearly a lost cause, testing class materials for floatability, and finally searching for dry socks. It was such a ridiculous situation that it was nearly impossible to be genuinely upset. The whole day was feeling a bit silly and surreal.

Then we headed to the library (thankfully, a dry zone at the time) for a faculty meeting. At the meeting, our principal, still in her boots and rolled up jeans, thanked us for being such a great faculty and told us that she'd gotten a new job and would be leaving within a matter of weeks. So that was about all I could handle for one day.

This Monday was her last day, and I've had all manner of thoughts about the whole deal, from sadness (she was the only principal I've ever worked for), to anger (how do you leave your colleagues and your kids in the middle of the year?), to fear (how will things change now that she's gone?). And somewhere in there was a day or two of pondering Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium and the possibility that the flooding may well have been the building's reaction to our leader's departure.

The one thing that has tempered my fear is the fact that she was not the only leader in our building. We are lucky to have leaders all around that can keep us up and running and hold to the same spirit that's driven us all along.

And so, a bit of advice for any readers:

1. Develop leadership anywhere you may see potential.
2. Invest in a good pair of water wings, and stash 'em in your desk drawer.

You never know when you might need these things.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Goal #3: Start an Adventure

First, a little back-story...

In the fall of 2005, I was a second-year teacher, and our school librarian, Shelley, came to my classroom one day and said, "Hey, I'm going to recommend you for membership in this technology group. It's called the Master Technology Teacher Program (MTT). They meet a few times a year and teach you to integrate technology into your lessons."

Still relatively fresh out of college and eager for good professional development, I was happy to join.

MTT was led by a faculty member at our local university and a Technology in Motion representative, who taught us about different tools and what they might mean for our instruction. We'd observe classrooms in which the tools were being implemented, discuss with both the teacher and the students, play with new goodies in the afternoons, and commit to using what we'd learned and sharing at our next meeting.

I'm now in my fifth year as a member of MTT, and I know my participation in it has transformed me as a teacher more than any other professional development experience I've had. I'm brave enough to speak up at faculty meetings because of it, I've gotten to present at conferences because of it, I'm trying to develop a paperless classroom because of it... hell, I'm writing this blog because of it.

And yesterday I submitted my application to graduate school because of it. I hope to be working toward a degree in Computers and Applied Technology in the College of Education and getting to explore even further the things I've done in MTT. Let the adventure begin :)

*Note: I'll be coming back around to Goal #2 on a day when I'm feeling just a bit more brave.

The Paperless Plan: A Recap and a Question for the Future

I began this blog as an effort to chronicle my move toward paperless teaching. This started out as a six-week experiment with one of my classes. We read 1984 and other short texts, students posted reflections and analyses on personal blogs and on the class wiki, they used Twitter to post links and questions as they completed related research, and for their final assessment groups created Animoto videos (one research-based on a theme related to the novel and one reenactment of an assigned excerpt).

The response from my students was positive pretty much across the board. They were more interested in completing assignments, were more willing to write, had a better understanding of the material, and were better able to discuss the issues inherent in the novel both with their classmates and with me. There's an interesting elegance in paperless lessons, as well... a flow that you have to work a little harder to achieve in a traditional classroom. Once the kids get a feel for the daily routine, the tools connect one to another, and activities feel more intuitive. It just makes more sense to do it this way.

The one kink in the paperless plan is our network. It has become increasingly unreliable, particularly our wireless. For my classes, I've used a set of thirty laptops checked out from our library. While last semester we were able to carry on with our work with a few hiccups here and there, this semester's attempts have been incredibly frustrating; at times, only two or three students have been able to log in successfully. Moreover, I've been told that getting our network running properly is "not a priority." The computer tech that is assigned to our school has been immensely helpful, but for anything beyond tending to the computers themselves his hands are often tied.

So the question is this: How do I try to improve this situation so that my kids have access to the tools they need?

In the meantime, we're being flexible. Last Friday we had access to six working computers in the library. So as some students held discussions of the week's material in their study groups, we rotated others through so that they could get a little work done online. We're setting deadlines far in advance to make sure students can arrange for computer time outside of class. And I'm re-working a number of my assignments, turning them into collaborative projects, so we can still use those working computers (in some ways this has made the lessons even better!).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The 30 Goals Challenge

It's been three months and three days since my last blog post. Clearly, I need a little discipline to get things up and running again. Enter the 30 Goals Challenge...

My plan is to use this challenge to get my head screwed back on straight after the holidays and a rocky start to the professional new year (more on that in another post). So here's "Goal #1: Post Your First Diary Entry of 2010", and with it comes a commitment to myself to see this project through. I may attack them out of order on occasion, and it may take me a bit longer than thirty days to accomplish the goals, but it's time to get back in gear :)