Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fun on the Tech Committee

So as any teacher knows, you tend to get a lot of unneeded emails. Our school has recognized this and has the technology committee spearheading a new folder system in our inboxes that will simply post a message to a separate folder. This folder will be for selling items or other trivial things. In any case, the tech committee was supposed to test it out so here was the post I put in there:

Subject: Time Travel Tickets available to the year 1492

Due to a conflict in schedule, I have two tickets to the year 1492 if anyone is interested. Shoot me an email if you would like to take these tickets off my hands. My only request is that you bring me back a signature from Columbus.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Back to School

Today was my first day teaching in my new school. It was somewhat of an early start, but I've been eager to get back in the classroom. Since this was my first year teaching 6th grade, I wasn't sure what to expect. The students seem pretty excited to be there. Today was all sorts of hectic because I had to assign lockers, hand out a million forms, take attendance and also fit my first days activities into the class as well.

Even though we blocked off two hours of time to get all of those things done with my students, I still felt short on time. The first hour didn't go as smoothly as I would have hoped. Chalk that up to me not pacing myself enough or allowing the students enough time to fiddle with their locker combinations. I eventually got everything sorted out but I felt exhausted after the first 2 hours of the day.

The rest of the day progressed much more smoothly. However, I'm still not used to teaching the same class five times a day. To be honest, I was getting a little tired of the whole song and dance by the fourth or fifth time I had done it. While the students are all different, I didn't have the energy to give the same speeches and announcements each time. In that way, each class was different.

I am very thankful for the wonderful staff I work with. They were all extremely supportive of me during and after the school day. I teach on a team of four other teachers and I've found the math teacher to be the most supportive so far. This is not to say that the other teachers aren't supportive, but she's just very good at the whole unofficial mentoring thing. I really admire the presence she has not only in the classroom but outside of the classroom as well.

It probably needs to be said that I'm the only male teacher on my team. In fact, out of 15 6th grade teachers, there are only 3 men. You know, I'm fine with that sort of ratio. I've always been more comfortable around women. Most of my close friends tend to be women, so having the majority of my coworkers be women isn't a problem.

I'm currently working on the writer's notebook and deciding where to direct the class. It's tricky but I have a pretty good idea of where I want to take things. Tomorrow is another day. I can't wait to start again.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Getting Enough Sleep

So far, today has been a pretty good day in front of the class. I haven't had any issues and the students have been enjoying the work we've done so far. I think part of the reason has to do with the amount of sleep I got last night. I got 7 hours instead of 4 or 5. As much as I hate to admit it, my overall health, both mental and physical affects my teaching. If I'm coming into the classroom shortchanged on sleep then I'm less likely to be patient or thinking in a reflective manner. The problem is I'm an night owl. I hate going to bed before midnight, but I really may have to readjust my lifestyle if I want to continue to be an effective teacher in the classroom. Next year, I'll be teaching at a school which starts even earlier than my current one. In addition, I have to worry about traffic and travel time. So goodbye, midnight chats with friends. Goodnight, late night walks. So long, sleep deprivation.

This is all common sense, but I need the reminder from time to time.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Abstinence Only Education Misses Out

My school recently brought in a public speaker who spoke on the dangers of having sex outside marriage. To illustrate her claim, she described how she contracted HIV the first time she had sex. She didn't find out about this until after her current husband proposed to her. She decided to get tested for STDs just to be sure she was free and clear. As it turns out, she was not. It's an unfortunate story though not an unfamiliar one. The gist of her talk was to not have sex until you're married, because sex should only be shared in a committed (married) relationship.

It's not that I think abstinence education should be disregarded. Rather, abstinence only education is ill advised. I live in a realistic world where my students, some as young as 14, are having sex. You can talk about the dangers of teen pregnancy and STDS till you're blue in the face, but that's not going to stop teenagers from having sex.

Abstinence only education relies on fear and guilt. The message is don't have sex because you might get an STD or get pregnant and that would be shameful. Sex education that acknowledges other options such as condoms and birth control drops the guilt aspect but relies more heavily on fear by explaining in detail all the wonderful conditions your genitalia can experience. Bonus points for any sex ed that uses full color pictures.

I have yet to really see a pragmatic sex education approach that relies on maturity and respect. Ideally sex education should neither vilify or glorify sex. The inherent problem with teaching sex education is that it is tied so heavily into perceived morality that any discussion about consequences and responsibility gets lost in the implicit morass of tongue clucking, head shaking and finger waggling.

Ultimately, I don't think schools have enough leverage with students to influence a their decision to have sex or not.

Humans become sexual mature in the early teens, but only hit emotional maturity later on in life with some never reaching it at all. Until the day our physical maturity slows down or our emotional maturity speeds up, we're still going to be faced with this difficult task of teaching sex education to minors. Not teaching it seems irresponsible, but only teaching a narrow perspective on the issue seems just as bad.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Good and the Sad

I was recently hired to work in Parkway Northeast Middle School in Creve Coeur, MO near St. Louis. I'm excited about the job and will be teaching 6th grade communication arts. The administration seems really supportive and I'll also be working with a friend I went to college with. We'll be on the same middle school team. Unfortunately, I've had to tell my current students this and it's been rather heartbreaking. They haven't taken the news too well and seem to think I'm abandoning them because I don't like them. Oh that's simply not true at all. I am really going to miss seeing them and I want to know what type of adults they end up growing up to be. The easiest and most honest thing I can tell them is that my current job was a temporary one year thing. But you know, I would have stuck around for a few more years if the school had offered a contract. The pay isn't as high, but it's a great place to work and I am going to miss it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


It's always nice to find out that your students are thinking about the things we learn in class. During a field trip today, one of my students remarked that the hotel/arcade we were visiting reminded him of the book Fahrenheit 451 because of number of TVs and flashing lights meant to grab your attention. Very astute observation, and one that I didn't even make myself. He's a surprising student at times. He's bright, but his mind doesn't work in a very sequential fashion. None of the work he does has any polish, but it has a lot of heart if you can understand that. He also has an uncanny ability to see around problems to a solution and I have to applaud his unconventional learning style. His work habits could use improvement though.

He doesn't know it, but he's given me their writing prompt for tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Teaching isn't a 50-50 Split

Pretend for a moment that I'm a parachute instructor. I'm going to show you how to pack your parachute, jump out of a plane and, and make a safe landing. Now I want you to do all of this yourself, flawlessly of course. You will also need to provide your own plane and parachute. Now don't try and complain because I'm going 50-50 with you. I'm meeting you halfway aren't I? I showed you how to do it, so now it's your turn. Shouldn't you have the gumption and determination to pick up your end of the slack and get with the program?

This sounds crazy, but we ask this of our students all the time, and when our students jump out of the plane and reach terminal velocity because they didn't pack their own parachute correctly, then we blame them for their failure. Why, it's not my fault, we intone, we did after all show them how to do it.

Teaching should never be about equity of effort and work. There should never be a tally sheet or ledger where we demand that students do equal work. Students learn and move at their own pace. They also develop self-reliance and self-motivation at their own pace too. It's not that we should do 100 percent of the work, but if we go 90 and they go 10, then that's fine if 10 is all they can go.

It is not a student's job to get an education. It's their opportunity to learn. As teachers, it is our jobs to show our students the benefits of learning and that may mean from time to time the effortload is uneven. Let's face it, there will be many days when we are putting in more effort than our students.

I'm not espousing a system where everyone passes or even a system without accountability, but rather a system where student potential is taken into account. It's easy to write a student off and say that it's not worth your time and effort to help them with their essays or provide a bit more structure on an assignment. It's easy to refuse a student the chance to make up their work and let them fail the semester. It's easy to let a student fall through the cracks. But it's also easy to catch them before they fall. It's easy to take some initiative and work out an individualized education plan. It's easy to give a damn about the eventual success of your students even though it seems as if they are failing in all aspects of their life, including your class.

Let me provide an example. For 7th grade, I crafted an assignment where my students had to write instructions for a skill they would present. This could be anything from how to tie your shoes, to how to assemble a clarinet. One of my students who struggles both in my class and socially asked if she could show how to make pizza. Now this is a student who I haven't had the best rapport with. At times she's told me she's hated my class, the reading, and everyone else. During my second week teaching, she blew up in the classroom and being the green teacher I was, I took her to the principal's office. I didn't know how to handle it. Anyway, I told the student that she could make pizza. She considered this for a moment and said that she only had cheese and a baking sheet. I thought about it and then told her to write down the other ingredients and I'd get them myself.

After class, I realized that this was an assignment that my troubled student seemed interested in. I had been accustom to listening to her yell "This is boring!" After school, I went and bought the stuff myself and also talked with another teacher in the school to see if I could flop rooms with her because her classroom had an oven and mine didn't.

The day of the presentation rolled around and the student not only presented the recipe but got some of her classmates involved in the process as well. The relationship with her classmates is not very good, but this event seemed to help things a little bit.

In any case, opportunities like this don't always present themselves, but when they do come about, it's best to be as accommodating as possible. I could have just as easily as said, "It's your responsibility to get all the ingredients and arrange a room. However, that would have been irresponsible of me. The student had already expressed what she was capable of doing and for her sake, I picked up the slack. By doing this, she eventually went above and beyond what was called for.

Now it's not always going to work out this way. I've been burned by students before in the past, but you live and learn. I try to give students the benefit of the doubt and even when they burn me, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt again, a chance to show that they've grown and changed. I suppose this means from time to time students will take advantage of me and my classroom. But it is my hope that students will also take advantage of the opportunity and change the 10-90 split from their 10 and my 90 to their 90 and my 10.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why I Want to Teach Freshman English

I've known for a while that I wanted to teach freshman English, but I hadn't yet been able explain why, at least in short and simple terms. A recent conversation brought about a metaphor to explain my reasoning.

The English teacher who teaches honors English or AP English is a stone polisher. They take a finely cut stone and make it shine. The freshman English teacher is the gem cutter though. They are the ones who pulled the diamond out of the rough.

I'd like to be involved in the entire process, but if I had to choose, I'd cut gems any day of the week.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Facebook, Education, and Cyberbullying

It seems that a lot of my posts involve facebook and now I'm going to talk about it yet again. I have found another reason why it isn't in my best interest to be friends with students on social networking sites such as facebook. As you may know, many employers use facebook to snoop in on their employees. Schools are no different and some schools including the one I'm at, access facebook in order to gather information about inappropriate or illicit behavior from students. In order to do this though, they need some sort of in, meaning a student or faculty member who is friends with the student on facebook and willing to share that information. Let me blunt, I would not be willing to participate in those types of investigations.

An important part about being a teacher is building a trusting relationship with students. I can't in good conscious build this sort of rapport knowing that I may be asked to use this trust in order to access student's facebook profiles for investigative purposes. I suppose I could just refuse the administration access, but that wouldn't sit well with me either. The other option would be not telling my administration that I was friends with students on facebook which would also violate my principles. There needs to be a level of transparency to what you do. I'm not saying that you need to be the perfect teacher at all times or that you discuss every detail of your teaching with your administration, but if you are asked about goes on in your classroom or in what manner you are interacting with your students, you should be able to justify your actions.

In regards to my students lives and facebook, what I don't know, I can't reveal. My attitude is that I should maintain some distance from my students' lives. I don't want to know the details of their hookups or alcohol binges. Hell, I know they happen, but I rather not have to play the role of the narc. If I did know the information, I would feel obligated to report it.

This whole issue becomes further complicated when we consider the issue of cyberbullying. Schools are being urged to not tolerate cyberbullying, but how do we do this without violating privacy? At the moment, I think the best option is education about the issue. Students should be made aware what cyberbullying is and what one can do to stop it. Students also need to be made aware of how their actions live on in the internet forever. In the days of gossipy notes and writing on the bathroom wall, those pieces of evidence could be erased and destroyed. This is not true with the internet.

I see schools acting in the role of conflict mediator. If a student wants to volunteer their information in regards to how they are being ill-treated by classmates online, then that that's their prerogative. However, I don't think schools should be acting as the policeman or investigators for these actions. Just because we're faculty and administration doesn't mean we can't put on a great witchhunt.

I have a slightly different attitude toward attacks made on the internet while at school, regardless of if a student is using a school computer or internet connection. In that case, I see schools as within their right to review web history and actions made. It's impossible to ban a website because students can use proxy websites to get around the ban. To be safe, schools and teachers should monitor student internet use and have them sign a technology user agreement in regards to what is and isn't appropriate use.

I suppose this is just another reminder of the dangers of mixing your social circles when there is a disparity in power and authority. Of course, I can still see advantages to being friends with your students on facebook. If a student were to write a suicide note or death threat, then being friends with a student could potentially save lives. However, it's more likely that another student would see the note and report it. It's a cost benefits analysis for me. If I were to be friends with students on facebook, it would be for an educational purpose, not social. I wouldn't really want to look through their pictures or read their notes and comments.

In summary, I refuse to be used as a tool for investigating students. If something life threatening was happening and a student was talking about a school shooting or killing themselves, then I see that as a probable cause for the school to search cyberspace. Bring the student into the office and have them sign into their account. If they don't want to cooperate, then turn them over to police for official questioning. However, leave me and other teachers out of that sort of investigation. I don't want to be used as a front line defense to find and report student behavior. Hopefully, schools would use approved protocol, but if they decided to skip a step or two, and gather information through more shadowy methods, then it certainly wouldn't be my facebook account or integrity they used.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Failing Your Students into Achievement

People who never experience failure or difficulty in their early life, have a habit of crashing hard later in life when they are faced with challenges. Not developing any sort of resilience is detrimental to personal growth and the only way to develop this sort of personal fortitude is through failure. As Bruce Wayne's father says in Batman Begins, "Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up."

Students who never fall, never learn to pick themselves up. With that in mind, I wanted to talk about the power of controlled failure. Design a lesson where the intention is for the students to fail at it. Whether you tell them that your objective is to have them fail is really up to you. Afterwards, have the students share their failed ventures as a class and discuss how one can convert failure into success. What changes can be made to remedy the situation? Or, now that we've failed, where do we go from here? By having students fail in a somewhat controlled manner, students will be better able to handle future roadblocks. Instead of just lying on the ground and giving up, students will know that there is another option out there.

The thing is, students will fail to achieve all the time. Some students are quite used to it, while others have never tasted the bitterness of defeat. This type of activity helps both ends of the spectrum. It helps the students who have never failed experience a reality of life and it helps students who struggle know that there are alternatives. If you aren't comfortable with designing something where your students fail, go ahead and fail at something yourself and then discuss with the class how things could have improved. Come on, we've all had lessons flop on us? Did you just curl into the fetal position behind your desk or did you try something new to remedy the situation?

As teachers, our job isn't to pick up our students when they fall, but to show that they can get up themselves and move on. It's the difference between between guiding a rope and pulling a rope. The person who has been guided will eventually learn the paths and nuances, but the person who has been pulled, won't be able to find their own inertia to start.

I'm a pragmatic teacher and I don't expect every GLE or CLE or NCTE standard to stick like glue with my students, but if they can mature into responsible, self-guided adults, then I haven't failed completely as a teacher.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Facebook Friendly Education?

As you may recall, I've already stated my opinion that teachers should be wary about being facebook friends with students because it creates a disparity in the student/teacher power structure. This is more true with younger teachers who are having to deal with challenges to their role as an authority figure.

A new bill is being introduced into the Missouri congress that would ban teachers from being friends with students in these social networking sites. The bill's sponsor Rep. Jane Cunningham (R) says, "We're trying to make sure parents know that there is not private communication that is blocked from that student's parents or other school staff or administration." In short, it's for safety/PR/covering their ass reasons.

I'm personally against this type of bill. There are some teachers who use Facebook as a means of communication with students in responsible manners. They start groups for clubs and as a reminder for upcoming events. Facebook communication really isn't off limits to the courts and records of conversations between students and teachers could be subpoenaed and used. In short, a teacher would have to be pretty stupid to use Facebook inappropriately in that manner.

I suppose I should amend my previous position. Young teachers who have facebook profiles already shouldn't be facebook friends with students using that profile. If they want to set up an alternative profile just for school, then that might work out better. I personally don't want my student's writing on the same wall that my friends do.

I still don't plan on friending my students through either my actual profile or through a proxy profile any time soon. In the actual classroom, I'm more open to redefining the roles of student and teacher as I believe any good teacher is a learner and that any student has the potential to be a teacher in a self-directed classroom. However, in the social networking community, I rather leave those distinctions where they are. I'm willing to be a student's mentor or friend, so as long as the actions don't usurp my primary role as the teacher.

Edit: After thinking about it for a while on my drive to the Write to Learn conference today I decided that facebook friending students should only be done if there is some educational benefit from it. Otherwise, stay away.

Online Highschool Newspapers

I do not want to be a newspaper adviser, at least as things are now. Print journalism is dying. It's a noble medium but the internet has surpassed the printing press. As advertisers catch on to this simple fact, expect more and more daily newspapers to go under. It's happening already as major newspapers such as the Washington Post and L.A. times cut staff members. Asking me if I want to be the newspaper adviser is like asking if I'd like to be a deckhand for the Titanic. No thanks, but I've seen the movie and I know how it ends.

I'm no stranger to journalism, at least at the high school and collegiate level. I was the editor in chief of my high school paper and I wrote for my college newspaper as a columnist for 2.5 years before quiting in disgust in regards to editorial direction. As such, I know that journalistic writing is an important skill to teach, but I think the time has come for high school journalism to be a bit more proactive and head to the digital realm. My High School Journalism hosts 660 high school papers online and it's a step in the right direction. Forgive the fact that the site layout for these cookie cutter online papers is about as exciting as standardized testing, because at least they're trying to move into the 21st century. One thing to keep in mind though is that these online papers are not the primary medium. It's a supplement for the printed paper, a handmaiden to the old traditions.

There are a few advantages to publishing online. The most important one for any journalist is timeliness. Newspapers that publish weekly or monthly suffer from the fact that their news is rather old and stale by the time it gets printed. An online high school paper could have students reporting on events as they unfold. Another benefit would be cost. Printing newspapers is expensive. Ink and paper cost so very much. With an online paper you have server costs to worry about, but ad revenue and budgeted money could offset that. As well as low costs and timely news, online papers would also have a broader base of appeal in the community as a whole and for alumni.

I suppose I am somewhat of an advocate for online technology in general, so that bleeds over into online publishing as well. Speaking as something of an outsider/insider in the world of journalism, I believe that in the next five years, the following things need to start happening in the realm of high school journalism:

Teaching New Design Skills
Start teaching website design in conjunction with graphic design. If students can master Indesign and Pagemaker, then they can handle Dreamweaver. Flash and Java can come later, (and often look tacky) so we might as well concentrate on html and the basics. In all honesty, many students are better with these programs than the teachers, so it might be best to let them handle the training.

Journalism Community
I know, there are communities out there already, but high school journalism staffs need to stay connected online. Some sort of directory of high school papers, both online and offline would be great. In smaller communities, schools could pool their resources and have several schools publish on one online paper. Heck, I think that could work well in larger communities too.

Blog It Up.

Professional papers make use of bloggers on staff to contribute commentary and perspective to issues. In a web 2.0 world, blogging makes sense for the high school community. Blogs are a medium with which the average student is familiar. Let's take advantage of that.

Student Editors
Every high school paper has student editors, but not every paper has a system which trains and supports good student editors. With the flexibility of publication that online publishing would bring, student editors will play a very important role in deciding what events are newsworthy and deserve immediate publication and attention. It will also require a larger degree of autonomy, unless the newspaper adviser wants to micro-mange everything. That is a recipe for insanity though.

Goodbye Darkroom
Digital cameras have already more or less taken over for film in many areas. I still prefer film myself. There's just a certain magic that film captures that a memory card does not. However, it's a much faster process of uploading pictures when the camera is digital. In addition to digital film, students should be trained in the uses of photoshop and adobe illustrator. Furthermore, we must discuss with students the ethics of photo alteration. When is it in poor taste and when does it enhance the subject?

Freedom of the Press
This is both the easiest to solve, but the hardest to change. Without freedom of the press, web 2.0 is dead. You might as well shackle high school journalists to the anchor that is print journalism and forget the whole thing if freedom of the press isn't allowed. At the moment, many high school journalists are being dragged to the icy depths since free press isn't guaranteed to all high school journalists. Content and publishing is up to the discretion of the administration at many schools. The internet, especially online news and journalism does not work that way. I'm not saying that there aren't checks from editors, but online journalism requires room to work. Of course, if the administration wants to approve everything a student writes, I'd be happy to have them approve every single article before it goes online, though I'd require my students read it to them over the phone.

Change moves slowly in the educational system. I don't expect any of these changes to happen on a national scale for a while, but they'll happen eventually. I don't mean to pretend that the print paper will completely go extinct, but if we continue to insist to use it in high schools while the professionals abandon the medium, then we'll be training future journalists in obsolete methods. We don't teach fighter pilots how to fly biplanes before they actually fly jets and we shouldn't have students publishing in print papers if their older contemporaries publish online.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Not so Flattering

It's tempting to ignore things that reflect poorly on your teaching when you're writing a blog, but when I started this project, I decided I wanted to be honest and open about my experience. With that in mind, I'd like to share something a student wrote about me in the classroom. The assignment was to rewrite something they wrote from the perspective of another person. This student chose me and the view he presented isn't flattering for either of us:

"Dale (name changed) I hate you, you truble making kid. Your Just gona be a pice of crap garbage guzzler when you grow up. That is if you get out of the pen. I will hate paying Taxes because they will go to feeding you in Jail. they should feed feed you moldy bread and let rats in your frame of a bed." (spelling and grammar mistakes were left)

Now this is a student who I get along with fairly well. He isn't very motivated to work and I have to tell him to be quiet and to behave himself on a daily basis. He's funny and apologetic when he does something he knows he isn't supposed to do, but he'll do the same action again without fail. He just never learns to quit. His disruptions have gotten better as the year has gone on, but he's still a handful in class.

I'm not sure if this is how he really thinks I see him or if this is his attempt at humor. I've never suggested that he was going to prison. In the past, I have tried to tell him that I could see him being successful someday. In another story he said that he would probably die in a drunk driving accident and I said I didn't think he would.

I'm not sure if this perception has to do with the fact that I have to remind him to adjust his behavior everyday or if he really thinks that I see him as a worthless person. If that's so, I'm disappointed in myself for not dissuading that perception. As a teacher, you have to balance being a supportive role model, and being an authority figure that requires respect. I feel as though I'm loose enough with my discipline as it is and to go any further would break the tenuous hold I have on the classroom management. I prefer rapport over the rod, but I have to draw the line somewhere and with Dale, I've had to draw it on a regular basis. Most likely Dale is going to forget this, but it's giving me something to reflect upon as the week progresses.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

I didn't know you wrote...

It's been a long time since I've written here, almost a month in fact. Were it not for the fact that the number of readers for this blog is so low, I would feel a bit guilty. In any case, things have been progressing normally. Second semester is going smoothly. Since I've last written, I caught the flu which knocked me out of commission for two days straight. It was a pretty horrible time especially since I tried to go in to teach during the first day. Other than that, things have been great.

I experienced an eventful moment in teaching just last night. I had gate duty for a basketball tournament so it basically meant that I took money. However, since I was at a door where so few visitors came in, I didn't really have much to do. I mostly sat there for 3 hours listening to the maudlin lamenting of one of my 7th graders who is currently heartbroken because the girl he likes isn't interested. It was kind of endearing, though it got old after the first hour. After a while, the student asked if I wanted to read his dream journal. This surprised me because this is a student who complains vocally before, during, and after every writing assignment. You would think that I was pulling his shoulder out of the socket given the amount that he protests. However, here he was, showing me his dream journal which was filled with a rather detailed record of his nightly adventures.

I was pleased that he decided to share something so private with me, but also a bit disappointed in myself that I had written him off as someone who would never enjoy writing. Apparently, he had already found a mode of expression for his writing and the activities I had planned in school never seemed to fulfill his desire to write. It was a small reminder that the will to write can come from different inspirations and apparently even the most resistant student can find a outlet for expression through writing.

I'll have to keep this in mind as I design future lessons.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Books and Authors for Girls

Perhaps I shouldn't segregate books by sex, but let's face it, some books are more appealing to boys and some books are more appealing to girls. As I discussed earlier, there are many more young adult books directed at girls opposed to boys. My own personal library reflects that and to be honest, they're still pretty good books. The boys in my class complain that these books have female narrators, talk about feelings too much, and discuss dating and relationships to excess. Boys just aren't typically into that sort of stuff. On the other hand, these same books also deal with character development through internal and external struggles. The good writers make their books both smart and funny as well as worth discussing in class. I'm not going to spend any more time discussing the whole boys versus girls dynamic in literacy at the moment. Instead I'm going to jump in with my own personal suggestions of authors that girls may enjoy.

Joan Bauer
Bauer tops my list not due to any alphabetical reasons but because she's a fine author. There's no good reason that I should enjoy her writing. The endings tend to always be happy and the action is always pretty lowkey. However, Bauer knows how to write and write well. Her dialog is sharp and crisp and there is always an element of self-deprecating humor interjected throughout. Her narrators are self-aware and intelligent, but still undeveloped enough to where you can see some definite growth throughout the books. I would especially recommend her books Squashed, Hope was Here, and Rules of the Road.

Laura Halse Anderson
Anderson is another top-notch author who writes books intended for girls. Her books stray to a more dark and foreboding place. Most of her characters are hurt or broken in some way that really affects how they narrate and perceive the world. Eventually they usually come through the adversity, but it's a hard and difficult road to get there. Anderson pulls no punches which is something that I enjoy. My students also seem to appreciate this as well. I loaned out a copy of her book Speak a few months ago and it's still making its rounds throughout the class. Almost all of the girls have read it. Anderson does historical fiction and contemporary fiction, though she seems to be stronger in the modern era. I would recommend her books Speak, Prom, and Fever 1793.

Louise Rennison
Rennison is a British author who primarily writes about the chaotic and silly life of Georgina Nicolson in her Confessions of Georgina Nicolson series. To be honest, these books don't quite have the literary merit that Anderson's or Bauer's books do, but they're entertaining. Rennison's writing is funny, inappropriate, and strange. I wouldn't ever teach her books in class, but I'd gladly loan out her books to my students. One nice thing about Rennison is that she doesn't stray away from any topic. If a teenage girl is potentially going to encounter it, she'll write about it. This may make parents and other educators a little leery about suggesting the book, but I'm all for it.

Ann Brashares
If you're familiar with Brashares, it's most likely due to her ever popular book turned movie The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Since I saw that pretty much every one of my female students was reading or had read the book, I decided to see what the big fuss was all about. I discreetly picked up a copy of the book and read it in secret under a blanket with a flashlight so as to lessen the chance that anyone might see me. What I found as I read the book was an entertaining story about four friends who can all fit their butts into a single pair of pants. Some of the characters were developed better than others in my opinion and at times it was difficult to follow all four story arcs but it still ended up being a good read. None of the characters were perfect and they all had a very distinct personality as well. Brashares is great a creating character and I can see why the series is so popular with girls. It echoes those feelings of dare I say sisterhood that many girls and women feel in regards to their friends. I say that as a man though, so take it with a grain of XY salt.

Marjane Satrapi
I'm somewhat torn about including Satrapi on the list. She's a graphic novelist who has created the critically acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis. On one hand I feel as if she is writing with a female audience in mind, but on the author hand it seems to be so much broader than that. I've never actually shared the graphic novel with any other student so I don't know how they'd react. Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis details her life growing up in Iran during the Iranian Revolution. Some of the themes are universal for any teenager or young girl, but others are a bit more limited to her particular situation.

Jane Austen
For your older girls who have developed into more mature readers, Austen may be an author to point them to. Her books are smart and insightful and funny if you can get the humor. Most of them have to do with courtship and various other dramas. I am not a huge fan of Austen, but I recognize that many older readers do enjoy her writing and books. Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility should all be suggested.

Jerry Spinelli
I know I included Spinelli in my other list, but I think he deserves a nod on this one as well. Stargirl and Love, Stargirl, are books that anyone can enjoy but girls seem to relate better to the struggles that Stargirl and Leo are going through. I didn't actually like the Stargirl character until the sequel, which I believe is a better book. In the sequel Love, Stargirl, the character is more fully realized and honest. My complaint about the first book was that Stargirl was a pretty flat character throughout most of the book, but the sequel starts to take off all the bells, whistles, and gimics and you can still see that she's a unique person behind it all.

Beatrice Sparks
Ok, even though she isn't coming forward to claim many of her books, it is more likely that Sparks wrote Go Ask Alice. She is the sole copyright owner of it afterall. Anyway, her books tend to deal with all the dark things in life: drugs, sex, and abuse. For these reasons, many parents get squeamish about her books, but for the same reasons, many students get interested to read them. Potential anti-drug propaganda aside, students seem to enjoy her books.

Nicholas Sparks
Sigh. I haven't read any of his books, but I understand the basic premise. The girls in my classes all love him, so I'll eventually have to read something of his.

Paul Zindel
I'm ending my list with Zindel because two of his books The Pigman and the Pigman's Legacy have both a female and male narrator. Both the voices are fairly balanced and it has a little something for everyone. His books might be a little dated by today's standards, but they deal with the timeless issues of growing up and perhaps growing up too fast. This was a book that both my boys and girls seemed to enjoy fairly well and I'd suggest it to either sex.

There are many other books and authors out there but these are just a few that I have encountered and thought to suggest. I'll probably write a post about books for your growing reader. You know the type, the one who wants to move out of the young adult section and into the world of adult fiction. That can be a difficult transition if there's nobody to guide those choices.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Teach From Large Print Books

Have you ever tried writing notes in the margins of one of those tiny pocketbooks? You know the ones I'm talking about, the paperbacks that you can palm in your hand without a problem. They're great for travel and handing out to your students, but they're the worse type of book imaginable if you like to jot down notes for future teaching moments. I was watching this show on TV over winter break about how prisoners practice the ability to write tiny code messages on slips of paper. It's agonizing and painstaking work and even if I could write that small, I wouldn't have enough room in my books to contain all the things I'd like to jot down.

Tonight I was at the bookstore in search of a copy of Romeo and Juliet. I have one of those pocket copies as well as a copy of the play in a large anthology, but I didn't want to ruin my nice hardback by writing in it. The makers of cliffnotes actually have these rather large print books of the classics called CliffsComplete. They're fairly cheap and have some additional information, but what I love about them is the fact that the print is large enough that even your most nearsighted geriatric could read this thing from space. It's also paperback so I don't feel like I'm harming a beautiful thing by writing in it.

I get a little attached to my books. I loan them out to students and they come back to me well worn and well read. I cringe a little, but I'm also happy that they're reading at least.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Edifying Education

As I was typing up a brief biography, I accidentally wrote that I was in edification instead of education. I make a lot of typos and squirrel around a lot of words, so this is nothing new. (In fact, it took me about 30 seconds to spell squirrel correctly.) I quickly corrected my mistake, but after thinking about it for a moment, being an edifier isn't that far off from what I do. An edifier instructs in intellectual, moral and spiritual growth. While I make no claims on that third aspect of growth, I can see teachers as encouraging intellectual and moral growth in their students. I wonder if I should my resume to include this added job description.

I know this is a short post, but I wanted to share it anyway because any little incident can provide an opportunity to reflect.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Books Boys Might Read

Whenever I go to the bookstore I always hit the young adult section to see what's new. Most of the time I leave with an armful of books, but I've noticed something rather vexing. A lot of the books tend to sparkle and shine with playful pastel colors. To be blunt, these are books directed at girls.

Now before you make fun of me for my reading choices, keep in mind that it's professional development (and some of the books are good reads if you can get over the frilly covers.) Furthermore, there just aren't that many books directed at young boys and men. There are plenty of books for young girls, but not as many for boys. Boys tend to read less than girls do and their reading ability lags behind their female counterparts. Part of this has to do with the assumption that girls are a better market than boys are. Perhaps this is only fair though. Most teachers privilege boys in their classroom over girls by calling on the girls less than the boys. It's something I struggle with myself.

I like to think of myself as a book dealer. I gauge student interest and loan out books. I even loaned out my first graphic novel to a student and he read it in one night before returning it. (He was actually reading it during class, so maybe I should have given it to him after school, but I digress.) I've found that it's much easier to appease the girls in their reading selections. They make my job of finding books for them easy. While the girls will read books about boys doing activities stereotypically associated with the male sex, the boys, on the other hand, are much more resistant to reading about girls or "the mushy stuff" as they like to call it.

This is something of a problem when I try to convince the boys in my class that there are books ot there with topics they are interested in. Though there aren't as many authors writing for young adult boys, I wanted to go ahead and list a few that I recommend.

Gary Paulson
Paulson's books tend to center around the outdoors or wilderness survival. He's the author of the popular Hatchet series. Most of his books are directed at the 10-14 age range. A middle school English teacher should have a large selection of his books on hand.

Robert Cormier
Cormier is one of my favorite authors, hands down. He writes dark and intense literature which has been controversial. He is a rare example of an author who writes young adult literature well enough to simply call it literature. His books have merit in their own right regardless of where you put them in the library. Depending on the book, the age range can be as young as 12 though some should be read by an older, more mature reader.

Robert Peck
The other famous Robert of my list, Mr. Peck writes captivating and simple prose. He paints his characters with a thick brush, using deliberate but steady actions. The topics of his book range from light to serious though most of them provoke good discussion. I've only read a handful of his books but I'd place them at the 12 and up range.

Louis Sachar
Before his monster smash Holes, Sachar was well known for his Wayside School Stories. I loved those books in elementary school, and Holes was a nice transition to the older kids. Both boys and girls tend to like Sachar, though the boys have especially warmed up to him. His audience is mainly middle school though.

J.D. Salinger
I'm not a huge fan of Salinger. His short stories just never appealed to me and there always seemed to be this undercurrent of adults interacting inappropriately with children and teenagers. Still, the man has some talent and Catcher in the Rye does seem to attract male readers to the story. Salinger could be introduced at any high school age, though 10th and 11th seems ideal to me.

Eoin Colfer
Author of the Artemis Fowl series, Colfer has successfully created a series that blends fantasy with modern day intrigue. The characters are entertaining and complex, though I don't see it as winning too many awards for outstanding literary merit. It's good writing, but has some trouble standing up against the Literature with the big L. I'd recommend Colfer for ages 10-16.

Orson Scott Card
Card is something of a counterpoint to Colfer's fantasy with his science fiction writings. The Ender's Game series is almost ruthless and primitive in some ways, but it's exciting and interesting all the same. I'd introduce this to boys 13 and up.

John Marsden
Now I'm only familiar with his Tomorrow when the War Began series, but all the students in my class really enjoyed it, not just the boys. The series details the events surrounding the invasion of Australia by mysterious outside forces. Be warned though, there are some sexual scenes in the series which may not be suitable for less mature students. I'd introduce this at 8th or 9th grade.

Jack London
Another classic author who boys may like, London's focus on animals may hook young male readers. The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Seawolf are all good reads that boys may enjoy. Boys who like hunting, action, blood and gore will enjoy London's books because they're heavy in that. Who knows, they might also gain a better appreciation for life in the process. I'd suggest London's books to the 13 and older crowd.

Jerry Spinelli
Spinelli is a talented author though his Maniac Magee series is best suited for young students. Like Sachar, Spinelli's books deal with subjects like racism and discrimination in appropriate ways which aren't preachy. Spinelli also recently wrote a book called Stargirl and Love, Stargirl, though the boys in my classes have been less than fond of that one.

Nancy Farmer
I've only read one of her books, House of the Scorpion, but that's enough for me to suggest her as an author to check out. Her book pulls no punches and is disturbing yet exciting. It's a fast read even though the book itself is rather large. I enjoyed her complex characters and the moral and philosophical questions on the nature of humanity which she posed.

Joe Scieszka
I'm mainly including Sciezka in this list because he's a large advocate for "guy reading." Check out his website. I've only read his Stinkycheese man story and while it really wasn't my cup of tea, I can see where a 12 year old boy would enjoy it. I'm not sure how I feel about his method and approach to getting boys to read, but his heart's in the write (sp) place.

There are of course other talented authors writing books aimed at boys, but these are just a few which I have more familiarity with. I'll write a post about books for girls later. When I get around to writing my own fiction, I'll probably have it aimed toward young adults and hopefully it'll be enjoyable to both sexes.

Rolling with the Punches

Some days your students are simply going to get the best of you. There are more of them than you and if you're not careful, they'll conspire to bring about your downfall. I say that half-jokingly, but there's a good deal of truth to that statement as well, because your students can make your job much more difficult if you let them.

If you have a rowdy class, some days you can roll with the punches and other days you come up spitting blood and teeth. Today, during my last hour, was a dental reconstruction day. Something to know about my last hour is that it's composed of 8th graders who don't take band. As luck would have it, this leaves me with some of my more active personalities at the very end of the day. Having to see the same students twice a day can be difficult. If they had a bad hour with your earlier in the day, it's most likely going to carry over into the next hour. On top of that, your last hour of the day is always going to be a bit more lively. Students are watching the clock as they covertly stretch their calve muscles in preparation of sprinting home. The last thing on their minds is the lesson plan.

Today I just couldn't get them to settle down. All through class I kept asking myself what I was doing wrong. I hate giving out homework as a punishment for misbehavior. I also dislike having my students write as a punishment because it conditions them not to like writing. In retrospect I think I should have started withholding privileges. I let my students go to the bathroom when they want and they can eat and drink as long as they clean up the mess. They love their soda. In fact, at the end of the day when the soda machines get turned back on, almost every student has one. Taking away the soda privilege could really get them listening.

I always wonder whether my response to student behavior is fair. Most likely, it's not going to be fair 100% of the time, though all but one of my students reported in the end semester anonymous survey that I had been fair with my dealings with them. To be honest, classroom management can be extremely frustrating. I've spent the last few posts atop Mt. Idealism telling these teaching strategies, but it's not always like that. I made a few mistakes today that hopefully I don't repeat.

Here's a list of what I didn't do right 7th hour:

1. I asked for a volunteer to type the notes on the overhead projector. I selected a student who was less interested in typing notes and more interested in making jokes and rude gestures when my back was turned. I was trying to give him the opportunity to positively contribute to the class, but he didn't really seize that chance.
2. I didn't take him off note typing duty fast enough.
3. The overhead projector can cut off access to parts of the room if you're afraid to walk in front of it and get in the way. I should have done my normal patrols of the classroom.
4. I didn't settle the class down early enough.
5. Today was a student presentation day and I didn't set up the classroom expectations for behavior clearly enough.

Ok, those are some things I could have done better. Now is the time to take a deep breath and let it all go. Everyday is a new ballgame and Monday has the potential to be different.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Teachers and Facebook

I am reminded that I am not too far removed from my student's age on a regular basis. We listen to similar music, go to similar movies, and even wear similar clothing when not in school. I'm not trying to say that I'm particularly cool, just that the generational gap between my students and me is easily bridged. Give it a few more years and it'll grow into a chasm.

One of the dangers of being so in touch with the culture of young America has to do with the fact that I as well as my students are fairly connected to the social networking scene of the internet. In my case, it's Facebook. I've been using Facebook since its inception a few years back and I have no plans of giving it up in the near future. It's a convenient way to stay in touch with friends as well as share pictures and information. On Facebook, users create a profile where they can add information about themselves, post photos, and write messages on other user's public "walls." Recently Facebook opened up their site to third party applications, which translates into even more inventive, and in some cases contrived, connections with people. Individual users can control who can view what information on their profile by inviting or being invited into a "Facebook friendship" with another person. I apologize if what I just said repeats the obvious to you, but not all my readers are familiar with the Facebook interface.

The problem I've found is that some of my students want to be friends with me on facebook. At first I was surprised that they found me, but I was even more surprised that they wanted to add me as a Facebook friend. Ultimately, I turned down the invitations and told my students that I couldn't be Facebook friends with them. There's nothing inappropriate on my profile or in my pictures. That's not what I'm worried about. What prevents me from becoming "facebook friends" with my students is not wanting to cross that teacher-student boundary. In a sense, it puts students on equal ground with you in an arena where equal footing should not be the norm. Let me repeat this again, Facebook is a SOCIAL networking site. It's sole purpose is to connect individuals socially. In social situations with students, there can and there should be a discrepancy of power. While I'm supportive of treating students fairly, I also support the idea of professionalism.

While it wouldn't be impossible to maintain this standard of professionalism, why set yourself up to that added scrutiny? Once you put your digital footprint on the internet, it's almost impossible to erase. Hypothetically if you were accused of abusing a student, having the courts find out that you're friends in the same social networking site is not going to look good for you. It's simply a difficult position to defend and justify. Things will look especially bad if the court orders Facebook to hand over the records of your viewing history in order to see what profiles you had been looking at.

I can honestly see some benefits of being facebook friends with your students. For one, it could increase rapport. Two, it could increase your credibility as someone to be trusted. Three, it could give you an ear to the ground on the going ons in your school. However, rapport and credibility can both be strengthened and increased in other ways. Also, I know enough about what my student's do in their free time without having facebook fill in the gaps for me.

Though I believe it's possible to safely be Facebook friends with your students, it's not something I would recommend for the young teacher. Trying to establish your role and position as an authority figure can be difficult enough without Facebook undermining it. I may change my mind in the future when my temples are shot with grey and I start telling stories about walking to school 15 miles in the snow, but not right now or any time soon.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Brainstorming: The Value of an Error

For most people, solutions to problems don't always make themselves readily apparent. In fact, not even the most gifted individuals hit the mark on the first try every time. After all, to err is human. I've found that individual brainstorming is a great way to generate possible answers. Just write down the first thing that comes to your mind and try not to weed out any of the suggestions mentally. Just let your common sense do that afterwards. Who knows, perhaps you'll find a gem in there yet. Brainstorming isn't just something to do as a teacher, but something to encourage students to do as well.

If we're trying to educate a generation of students who can solve tomorrow's problems, they need to be willing to generate errors, and not just one or two, but many. Brainstorming creates these errors in a relatively safe arena, but these errors aren't failures. There's something to learn from each one. Perhaps one solution lacks the elegance that is needed. Maybe another solution lacks a certain morality. Maybe another solution isn't even addressing the right topic. However, what does the suggested answer bring to the table? Every answer has merit in its own right.

Now, try to bring this brainstorming mentality to the classroom and treat class discussion as a time to brainstorm. Finding value in a student's response can be a tricky situation at times. There's a reason the whole phrase from Alexander Pope, "To err is human; to forgive is divine." It's simply harder to forgive less then perfect answers. Now, the goal isn't to praise every answer, but to acknowledge how it still contributes to the conversation and discussion. Students will provide a multitude of wrong answers, but they can still help point us in the direction of a right answer. It's not easy. It requires patience, a discerning ear, and the ability to just pause for a moment to really take in what was just said. It's easier to just say, "wrong" and call on the next student, but the only thing anyone learns in that situation is to that you need to have the answer the teacher is looking for next time. Evaluation is on the top of Bloom's taxonomy behavior. Knowledge is on the bottom. They're both needed, but let's promote the higher order of thinking.

One of the reasons I'm bringing this whole idea up is that it took me a while to think of a name for this blog. I ran a lot of ideas through my head, but it was only when I sat down and did some brainstorming was I able to really figure out what I wanted. I'm going to go ahead and show my brainstorming list. Some of the possible candidates were just plain bad. Other choices, while clever, didn't reflect the tone I wanted for this blog. Without going on too much more, here's the list of names that could have been.

Unteachable moments.

My students' pupil

Learning from my students

the teacher creature

brain surgery in process

Oh English

Wry education

Those who can't do teach

Reflective education

Audacious Education

Pragmatic Education

The Temerity of Teaching

Who Needs Tenure?

Unlearning how to teach

The teacher's learning curve

Learning the teaching curve

Elegant education

Learning the Unteachable

Irreverent Educator

indelible education

Noninvasive Brain Surgery

The noninvasive brain surgeon

The Educational Investment

evolving education

Sleeping in Class

Tutoring the Teacher

It's ok if you're boring, just don't let your class be

Winter break (Yes, I'm using the Pagan designation instead of Christmas) ends tomorrow and it's back to school for me and my students. I'm frankly looking forward to seeing them and getting back into the swing of teaching. Sure this break has been nice but there's only so much free time one can have without going batty. One of the things I'm really looking forward to is the addition of a projector in my room. Now all we need are VR helmets and we'll be good to go. One of my Truman education professors once said that the goal of class isn't to get the students to have fun, but to get the students at the end of the class period to go, "Wait, where did the time go?" In a sense, class should be engaging over fun, though there is a considerable amount of overlap and exchange between the two.

Due to the number of preps I have and the fact that I'm a first year teacher, I rely heavily on personality over hardcore planning to make the classroom engaging. This isn't to say that I don't plan, but I let my personality pick up the slack where my lesson plan may have yawned it's way through the material.

Of course, let's say that even though you have a passion for education, you're about as exciting as watching a glacier move. There's still something that can be done to make the lesson plan more engaging.
  1. Provide opportunities for students to talk to one another about what is being learned.
  2. Show connections between the learning material and the real world or other subjects.
  3. Make the material applicable to something worthwhile. If you can't explain why what you're learning is in anyway needed or valuable, it's probably not worth teaching.
  4. Vary the assessment process. Some students respond better if they're allowed to formulate their response in an artistic manner. I can barely distinguish the ends of a paintbrush let alone draw, but I still try to include artistic homework alternatives for students who are more artistically inclined.
  5. Learn how to read your class. If they're bored or falling asleep throw a monkey wrench into your lesson plan and try something new. While you may be able to plow on through your planned material, it's not going to make much of a difference if nobody was awake for it. So take a field trip to the library or the gym or outside and on the way try and figure out how you're going to make the lesson work.
  6. Use games as a form of engagement. Ripoff all your favorite Parker Brothers and Cable TV shows for the ideas and format. If the material is being learned, who cares if it was framed in a mocked up version of Temptation Island. (I'm not serious of course. You're better off modeling your games off the Bachelor or Joe Millionaire.)
  7. Pull another teacher into your classroom to help team teach or share their area of expertise. If the teacher is uncooperative, find another teacher or threaten to give his students Red Bulls and donuts before they go into his class.
  8. Make use of the internet and youtube for examples or illustrations. Kids love the internet and most of them will know which proxy sites to visit to get around the school filters.
  9. Don't be afraid to show movies and videos, though it's better if these have to do with the lesson objectives.
  10. And finally, if all else fails, frontal lobotomies for your bad students and puppies for your good students. Works like a charm, every time.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Ribbon Cutting Ceremony

I didn't plan on starting a teaching blog; it just sort of happened. I often found myself writing about my experiences in the classroom as a first year teacher, but I didn't think I had enough material to really fill an entire blog by itself. Boy was that a silly thought. After noticing that my other blog had 1/3 of its posts centered around teaching, I realized it was time to find a more permanent home for my thoughts and reflections on education. I made this realization in November and it is only now in 2008 that I'm actually doing anything about it. I'd like to say that in the meantime, I was planning how this blog would look or what type of topics I would focus on, but to be honest, I just couldn't think of a good name for it. I'm not sure if the current name is the greatest, but it's serviceable and reflects the nature of the writing I plan on doing here. This blog will hopefully focus on my experiences teaching, education news, and perhaps the occasional cool English tidbit. I'm an English teacher if you weren't aware.

Every post prior to this one was imported from my last blog to sort of flesh things out and provide a basis for things. I considered just starting clean, but I thought since this blog grew out of my last one that I should at least respect that growth and transplant some of the structure over to here. Hmm, that makes me sound like more of a new age hippie then I intended.

In any case, the design and layout of the site should hopefully be changing. This is just a template for the moment. I have high expectations of this blog and we'll see if I can attract a readership outside of just a few personal friends.