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.