Let them play

I covered a class for another teacher today and was reminded how important it is for kids to have unstructured structure.

Now, these kids are seventh graders, and I usually teach tenth; a big age difference.

They finished their assigned work and enjoyed my room. I have magnetic poetry all over my front blackboard from about six girls arranging and rearranging words to form sentences while discussing whether or not what they had put together was really a sentence.

Another group was discussing the previous magnetic musings of some of my previous students, now juniors and seniors. What did this word mean? Why did they write it that way? I was impressed to see them using reading comprehension strategies in such a flexible way – outside of an English classroom.
Two separate impromptu study groups formed for science and math classes.

I have to find ways to provide structured opportunities for my kids to play more.

Technology Enabled Pedagogy Improvement (pt 1)

I’m tired of hearing the term “21st Century Skills.” To me, it’s just an other buzz-phrase that you can throw around in an interview to make yourself sound current. Another way of saying, at best, this student has used a computer in our school. I’m an English teacher; sexton of the hallowed volumes of Hawthorne, Crane, Cather and Fitzgerald (among many, many others.) I don’t just read books – I devour their words and inscribe their pages in an ongoing discourse with the often-dead author.

I bring that dialogue to students, driving them crazy with my refusal to answer their questions with more than a “what do you think?”

And in such a classroom – one based on reading, thinking, and speaking – what role could the cold, passionless presence of technology play? There are lots of powerful ways to improve our teaching; specifically by enabling authentic learning and assessment, learner centered experiences and utilizing communities of practice. These three things can help engage our learners in experiences that transcend their classroom environment and engage in rich experiences through which they will build their own knowledge instead of just parroting ours.

Over the next week, as I solidify the content for a regional conference presentation on just this, I’ll post my thoughts about these three areas and how tech in our classrooms can help our learners’ experiences break out of those confines.

paperless plot charts

I’d love to have a more exciting title for this, but I’m pretty excited about what I’ve been able to do with plot charts and google apps.

Each of my tenth graders is currently keeping track of the action in The Scarlet Letter using a google spreadsheet. Each student created a spreadsheet with the column headings: Chapter, Summary, Representative Quote, and type of plot action.

What’s really awesome about this type of assignment is that it really allows students to meet the text where they are, and allows me to join each of them there.

Each student’s google spreadsheet is shared with me, and so I can monitor their progress… see when/if they are working outside of class and give them just-in-time feedback. Because of this feedback, it’s a living assignment. Students can correct their work as they go based on my feedback.

I give feedback in class during days with our in-school computers using the chat function within the actual document. They really get a kick out of being able to talk with me that way – and it gives some privacy to what otherwise may have been deemed “stupid questions.”

Feedback from students is positive as well. They like the self-directed aspect of it – that they can go at their own pace (within reason) and more than a couple have remarked that it’s a really good way to keep track of a book.

And, of course, the whole process is paperless. No printing, saving, emailing or keeping a notebook that gets left at home or lost in study hall.

Scarlet Letter Plot Chart Example

A student's Scarlet Letter Plot Chart in Google spreadsheet.

another 90mins

We are well underway in our school year, and it’s time for the implementation of the pilot 90min stretch periods we tried last year. We will have two weeks per grading period that have two days each of stretched period. This basically means we get to teach each of our sections for 90mins twice in each grading period. The rest of the 35-40days of the marking period remain the same as they always have.

I love the idea of 90mins, but I’m finding it really hard to switch back and forth.

1) The tricks you use with a class in a 50min period don’t always lend themselves to success in a 90min period. I’m completely willing to try, and to learn to use new ones… it’s just that the back and forth is tough.

2) No matter how you arrange it, I just don’t cover the same breadth of material in on 90min period as opposed to 2x45min. I love that we can go into further depth but, again, if most of my teaching days are 50mins… I set my kids’ reading schedules as such.

This 90minute thing lends itself much more strongly to my style, but there are other teachers that it is a significant challenge for, and I think it’s due in large part to the challenges I list above. If we went to all 90min, or even 2 stretch days every week it would be a different story, but my aging mind is having trouble with the flexibility required to adjust back and forth between 50 and 90mins.

So what will I be doing in the next two weeks with my longer periods? Today and tomorrow we’ll be going into depth about the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, and next week we’ll be debating who’s worse: Dimmesdale or Chillingworth?

Bullying the schools

The school board in Tucson (and everywhere, I believe) has duty to the community and the children it represents and educates. That duty includes creating and presenting a curriculum for all it’s students.

Working at an independent school, I feel uniquely free to decide what content my students are exposed to. Further, I feel a unique burden to read into their interests, their biases, and their motivations. It is my responsibility that they are able to navigate a complex, pluralistic world, even when that world isn’t evident outside our front door.

At the end of the day, despite guidance from department heads and headmasters, we teachers close our doors and teach. We customize our conversations to each individual student. There is relatively little control by any administration over what we do. They hire good teachers, and get out of the way.

Our educational system is supposed to be set up to acknowledge the regional differences in demographics, history, economies and even climates. Unfortunately, what we end up with is standardized curriculum and testing. The feds can’t tell the states what to do, the states can’t tell the districts what to do. UNLESS, of course, it’s tied to funding.

Threatening to remove funding from already overpopulated and underfunded districts to promote cultural hegemony (as is the case in Arizona), in my opinion is akin to bullying.

And aren’t we trying to stop bullying in our schools?

Cinco de tres

Cinco de Mayo, a day of regional and moderate celebration in Mexico, has been appropriated by the non-Mexicans here in the US. The preponderance of cerveza and margarita drinking, salsa and burrito eating, sombrero wearing college students aside, even those who believe themselves “enlightened” seem to think we’re celebrating Mexican independence.

Briefly, the holiday celebrates the victory of the Puebla over the French occupation force in 1862. The French occupation didn’t end until 1867.

The stronghold created in Puebla that day in 1862 prevented French forces from advancing on the country’s capital, Mexico City. This past Tuesday, a similar battle was fought in a schoolboard meeting in Tuscon.

The Tuscon Unified School district appears to be trying to align its curriculum with state legislation that took effect this Jan 1.

The law promises to withhold funding from state run institutions like public high schools and the University of Arizona that offer academic classes or programs that “advocate ethnic solidarity,” “promote resentment of a race or class of people,” or “promote the overthrow of the United States government.”

The people of Tucson aren’t taking this assault on their identity and history lying down. In a remarkable display of non-violent community organization and protest , they forced a continuance of the community discussion about the decision to make their Mexican American Studies program elective. The school board has now been set to vote twice and has posponed due to the community outcry.

While the ultimate goal of the community has not been reached, the delay leaves us all with hope that it may be. Congratulations to them for this small, Cinco de Mayo type victory: small but celebration worthy, and wrought with cultural re-appropriation.

Don’t be a language looter…

We continue to look at -ism through the lens of Morrisons book, The Bluest Eye. Yesterday through her 1993 Nobel Laureate lecture .

The lecture is an old wise blind woman’s scathing description of how language dies; how it is corrupted into oblivion through exploitative use, for the purpose of reinforcing dominance. But more than that – it encapsules Morrison’s hope that our children (her metaphor, perhaps, for young writers) can be trusted with language. That these young can extract from our stories, the narratives of our lives and those lives that came before us the why of the way things are.

The children in the piece bristle at the old woman’s commentary, asking: “Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong?”

My students tell me that this piece is angry-hopeful: angry about what is, and hopeful for what will be. They like it, because like them, the children in the piece don’t want to be told what to think.

They also tell me that Ms. Morrison’s writing is poetic and worth reading.

I tell them to respect language as a means of the birth and re-birth of ideas. I tell them to be specific, assertive, confident when they speak. It is their job to learn the best way to express themselves, and it’s my job to help.

What a great job.

Fifty minutes isn’t enough…

In setting up our reading of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, I gave my students a little background on her and the time in which the book was written. I was even able to insert a clip from VH1′s “I Love the 70s – 1970″, which kept them awake until I could get to this:

The ensuing discussion, “Does racism still exist?” was fascinating proof that a 50min class period is no good for any real learning.

I needed a lot more time. We needed a series of follow up questions a mile and a half long (if not longer.) But what I was able to get to after giving them some time to watch the tumble weed blow through the classroom, was that race and racism is something we each contribute to without trying or asking to. We get privilege or are denied privilege, without earning or deserving either.
Big stuff. Hard stuff. Difficult stuff, Especially if you’re only 15 or 16. I hope though, as we continue this discussion in the context of Ms. Morrison’s first novel, that they realize that they need to start to think about it now.

This coming week we are starting to pilot a couple of days a week of double periods. I will have 90mins straight with each of my classes, and I am beyond excited about what I can do as far as having a good discussion. I’m dying to hear what they have to say about whether or not Pecola Breedlove could achieve the American Dream.

Spring Break Lessons

My daughter and I spent the last couple days in Boston. Our intent was to enjoy a “big city” and see a good friend. Mission accomplished.

But I couldn’t help but think about my students, and how they are spending their breaks…

My limited and un-scientific polling last week led me to the conclusion that two things were happening with my kids: 1) they were staying here, or 2)they were going on some resort-based extravagant trip. I can’t help but think how these students are growing (or not) in the 10 days we are apart.

The kids staying here are probably working, helping out at home and playing an inordinate amount of video games and most certainly sending an inordinate amount of social-networking based communications. Maybe they’ll get an idea that this isn’t the best way to spend all of their time. Or maybe they’ll play some video game set in World War I and get the reference to Kaiser Wilhelm that Fitzgerald made in the gossip about Gatsby.

Don’t get me wrong – these kids, and we teachers, deserve a break from our everyday hectic lives. Our curriculum is fast-paced and rigorous, and everyone needs a breather. But, I’m recalling one of those quotes so ubiquitous that I can’t remember the exact words or who wrote it. It’s something to the effect: the day you stop learning is the day you stop living.

The kids who went on trips will surely also pick something up. They will either absorb tips about how to or how not to conduct themselves in airports, around large groups of people. They’ll probably pick up some pointers on how to get through security, and some girls may even learn that wearing tall boots is not the best idea. (I wish someone had told the lady in front of me on our trip outbound. It took her longer to wrangle her boots and laptop through the TSA circus than it took me travelling alone with a toddler.)

Maybe they will even learn something while at their resort – this is where I fear they may learn some not-so-great things. Gatsby’s Valley of Ashes was the pit of proverbial stuff that rolled down hill as the rich built their post-WWI wealth. I fear that without someone to point out the parallel, one of the reasons why I teach this book will go unnoticed. The Valley of Ashes still exists. There will always be the grey, the “fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”

Dear students: can you find it outside your resort’s shiny gates?

My toddler is a little young for this type of discourse, however, we waved and made friends with everyone we saw, homeless folks, restaurant patrons, police officers, and vintage poster dealers. My fear, looking back, is that most of the darker skinned people she saw were working in uniforms, not buying over-priced jeans on Newbury Street. I wonder what she learned from our trip…

Test-tastic dilemna

I have struggled all year with the idea of testing as a form of assessment. I’m pedagogically opposed to it, and yet forced to educate in an environment that doesn’t understand the damage testing can do.

All testing is not bad. The Pennsylvania drivers test is a good example of useless testing that now approaches authentic assessment. When I was getting my learner’s permit, there were still only two places you could go to get your license in my area. The test was given by a state trooper at a facility housed in the police barracks. It required the driver to complete a series of driving-related tasks on a closed course: turning on your lights, pulling up to a curb, navigating a serpentine. There was no actual DRIVING involved. The test was changed a few years later. There are a lot more driver’s license centers now, and the closed portion of the course has been limited to two-traffic cones you have to parallel park between. The driver’s test now requires you to drive. On the road. You know, like you will when they give you the license.

The driver’s testing people got smart. Driving through a serpentine of cones doesn’t mean you can confidently and safely make it through a stop sign, or perform any number of other important driving tasks. If I were a better blogger, I’d probably have some research here about how since PA changed their driver’s test, early driver’s got in fewer accidents or something. I don’t, but I’d bet money that there’s a connection.

Learned here, among other places: testing makes you better at taking the test. If the test asks you to perform tasks that you will actually have to perform in the context in which you will have to perform them – it is a good test.

I’m still waiting for the day when someone runs up to me at the grocery store and asks:

Hurry! If turbid is to transparent what is the analogy with dense? is it a)sparse, b) opaque, c) liquid or d) powder.

This is why I hate testing. I am required to give a multiple choice and essay exam at the semester and end of the year. I didn’t give any tests last semester, and my kids performed horribly on my exam. So, I promised them I’d give them a chance to practice for the final. Tomorrow I’m giving a “test” on The Great Gatsby, even though I’m reasonably sure from my other unit assessments that they know what they each individually are going to know about the book. I’m ok with their outcomes. The test isn’t going to tell me anything I don’t already know, but it will give them a chance to practice for the final I have to give them.

Decidedly not a paperless event. I’ve tried online quizzes, with much struggle. But that’s another post.