Wednesday, August 29, 2007

It's on!

Tomorrow is my first day back with the kids. It should be exciting. I hope they are ready to work hard, because I know I (already) am.

I was at school nearly 13 hours today. We had a variety of meetings, then I spent almost seven hours planning and working on my classroom. I also went in both days this week and two days last week. On an average day I will spend 10 hours at school, arriving around 6:15 a.m. and leaving a little past 4 p.m. That's an average day. Some days I'm there until 6 or 7 p.m. I can count on one hand the number of days I left before 3 p.m. last year.

I do try my best not to bring work home, but still it happens - especially around grading periods.

To any teachers reading this, have a great year. Your hard work will pay off. To any of my students reading this, know that I am looking forward to getting to know you and helping you become stronger readers, writers, and thinkers. And to any of my administrators who may peruse this blog from time to time, know that B-G will again be giving his all to a job he finds truly rewarding and inspiring.

Here's hoping we can get a good night sleep before the big day.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Personal intelligences

Click to view my Personality Profile page

A number of other bloggers have been posting their results from, so I figured I'd take the tests and post mine too. I did this three years with my English classes, and ended up determining the overall multiple intelligences of each class and each individual student. I was able to create a couple of authentic writing prompts based on the results.

It might be useful (and fun) to do it again this year.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The movie moaner

Last night I saw La Vie En Rose, the hard-hitting portrayal of singer Edith Piaf's rise from the streets of Paris to the stages of New York City. The movie was bold and graphic, illustrating the depths one can sink to in this life, be it of neglect, drug abuse, heartache, or self-loathing.

About 15 minutes into the film, a woman in her early 50's entered the theater - which was less than half full - walked in front of me and my fiancee, and sat down next to me. I thought this was a bit strange.

The woman then proceeded to make loud moans and gasps whenever anything slightly dramatic happened. Given that this was a dramatic movie, and dramatic things were happening about once every 30 seconds, the woman's grunts, exclamations, and utterances were, to put it mildly, making me uncomfortable.

Every time I would look in her direction, I would see her wearing a narcotic smile and staring intently at the screen. She was completely oblivious to the sounds she was making, or was pretending to be oblivious. My fiancee even "shusshhed" her, but to no avail.

At one point I thought of asking her to be quiet, but I didn't want to cause a scene. My fiancee and I ended up moving forward a few rows, and although we weren't fully out of her range, we did enjoy the rest of the film.

This encounter with the movie moaner made me think about my methods of classroom management. I'm the type of person who would prefer to ignore a behavior until it goes away rather than react like a volcano at any annoyance or distraction. I, frankly, don't enjoy confrontation, and have never viewed myself as a type A authority, like a policeman or Army sergeant.

I don't like yelling at people because it raises my blood pressure and causes me to get tight in the chest. I believe that reason and understanding are the keys to resolving conflicts and disputes, not "because I said so." I've always been unimpressed with people who give orders and demands without proper justification. As a teacher I do my best to explain everything that we do in the classroom. Sometimes the students don't really care why, and in that case we just roll with it. But if they ever want to know my reasoning for teaching a novel a certain way or giving a specific assignment, I am happy to share my thought process with them (and how that process aligns with school and state curricula). I feel it's something they deserve.

Sometimes there are moments when I have to put my foot down and kick a student out of the room. I don't like to do it. I want my students to stay in the room and take part in whatever activity or lesson we have planned for that day. But when a student ceases to be reasonable, and is distracting his or her classmates from learning, and attempts at redirecting the student have failed, the student has got to go.

Had the movie moaner been one of my students, I would have politely asked her to listen and watch the movie quietly. If she continued moaning, I would have given her a clear warning so she knew the next offense would result in a disciplinary measure. If the warning didn't work, and she moaned again, I would write the name "Movie Moaner" in my "detention den" (a small rectangular box in the bottom right corner of my board) and send her to the hallway.

Once the movie moaner came after school for a 20-minute detention, I would remove her name from the board. If she didn't show up, the next time she moaned after receiving a warning she would be sent to our school's Planning Room, rather than the hallway. The Planning Room is staffed by a professional who telephones the student's parents and explains the offense. A trip to the PR is accompanied by an office detention, and negates a student's opportunity to participate in any extra-curricular activities planned for that day.

I probably sent 15 students to the PR my first year of teaching at my current school. Last year I didn't send any. I don't know what this year will bring, but I'm hoping that I can provide students with such an intellectually engaging class that they'll have little time or inclination for disruptive behavior.

Of course, regardless of what I create for my students, there will be a handful of movie moaners I'll need to deal with over the course of the year. Here's hoping reason and understanding can prevail. If not, one of us is going to have to change seats. And I'll tell you right now, it ain't gonna be me!

(Those last two sentences were written in my tuff-as-nails persona. Quite intimidating, eh?)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Blogging with students

Recently a teacher from Missouri e-mailed me asking for info about how I've used blogs with my students. Here's what I've done so far, and what I'd like to do in the future:

Last year students posted three assignments online - a short fiction story, an essay on The Old Man and the Sea, and a favorite poem from their poetry anthologies (click here for more info on the anthology project).

Students wrote the essays at home and in class using laptop computers from one of our school's two computer carts. After peer-editing and revision activities, students passed around one of my USB drives and saved their writing as word documents on the drive. I then uploaded the text to Blogger by copying and pasting their writing into the "create a post" text boxes.

Some students also saved images as jpeg files, and I included them with their writing. Click here, here, and here to see the three student blog pages I created last year.

Once their entries were up, I posted comment criteria, and as a homework grade, required that they provide specific responses to a minimum (three to six) number of posts. This year, I am also going to require that the original authors reply to the comments, in an effort to further the dialogue and encourage reflection, insight, and improvement.

In an effort to protect student's identities, only last initials were used. I have also only used my initials in identifying myself, and have not referenced the name my school.

My purpose in creating classroom blogs was to give my students a real audience, and to allow them to grow and learn by reading each others' work. Some of my students are very strong writers, and exposing classmates to their work and insights into the writing process can only make everyone stronger articulators of the written word.

A number of students were also able to share their writing with friends and family members, which helped to demystify just what exactly we "do" in English class.

One of my goals for this year is to find another teacher to collaborate with on similar assignments. I think it would be great for students to receive feedback from a group of peers in another state or, even better, country. If any teacher is interested in collaborating - even just for one assignment - please click here to contact me by e-mail, or post a comment below.

Eventually I would like to teach students how to create their own blogs, and give them more ownership in the process. Right now I am planning to again have class blogs, where students give me their writing and I do the postings. Eventually I would like to segue to individual blogs, but it will require teaching Blogger (or some other application) and instilling a code of ethics and guidelines, as well as getting parental consent.

If any of you have had success with individual student blogs as venues for students to share and receive feedback on writing, please leave your links in the form of a comment so I can check them out!

Also, anyone who has questions about what I did last year or plan to do this year should feel free to ask.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Making a break

On Saturday morning my fiancee and I will head east to Gloucester's Good Harbor Beach for a final care-free weekend before the reality of school's impending start fully sets in.

After this Sunday, I'll be back in edu-world. Fortunately, school doesn't start until Aug. 30th, so I have a little bit of time to wade into the waters and re-acclimate. I'll be heading in three days next week - one day to set up the room and print handouts for the first week or so, another to attend a professional development workshop on Podcasting, and a final to take part in our 9th grade orientation, dubbed "Tracks to Success."

Depending on how much I accomplish, I might go in one other day before Aug. 29th, which is a mandated "teacher day," although most of the day is consumed by meetings. Part of me is looking forward to returning to the classroom, while another has really appreciated and taken advantage of the much-needed downtime, and doesn't want it to end.

Looking back on last year, it seems I only remember my successes and the fun classes and the kids who did amazing work and the students I feel I reached and really challenged and inspired to dig deeper. I tend to forget the failures, the students who dropped out, or never made an effort, or whom, for whatever reason, I never connected with. I definitely dwell on my accomplishments. They make me remember why I love this job, and how it truly can be rewarding.

This isn't to say I don't reflect on my failings. I do. Although I don't think I actually "fail" so much as "trickle." There are some days when a lesson or activity is like a huge tidewater or a class 5 rapid. It storms the classroom, enraptures everyone, and takes us along on an invigorating ride. And then there are the weak lessons which just seem to trickle by, never really gaining momentum, never capturing or inspiring.

I want to be a roaring tide. But not everyday. It would be too exhausting. Perhaps my motto for this year will be "more flow, less trickle." Or less dribble? I don't know. I do know, though, that I've stumbled across an idea I had no initial intention of writing about. I was going to blog about the beach, but I've kept the focus on what I'm doing after the weekend, as I'm thinking about what I'll eventually be doing when school starts.

Am I digressing a little? Perhaps. Maybe this is an example of a first draft of something that could be more cohesive and polished. But am I not following a single thought wave? Doesn't this entry "flow?" I'm not entirely sure.

Writers on any level must have opportunities to share their writing with other experienced writers and readers before they declare it final. Good writing owes much of its success to good eyes - those who provide a writer with honest and helpful feedback.

One of my goals for this year is to find ways to get students to feel comfortable critiquing each others' writing. And I don't mean finding comma splices and fixing its/it's. I mean responding to higher-order concerns like ideas and organization. I also want them to look at sentences not just for grammar, but for fluency. For beauty. For artistic and expressive merit. For originality. For their ability to capture and enthrall. This means students need to see authentic first and second drafts, and they need the revision process modeled and explained. They need opportunities to take risks and to trust and to feel the power and satisfaction that comes with expressing one's self in the written word.

Soon I will appear in Room 512 as Mr. B-G and strive to summon the streams of knowledge, but not yet. This weekend I will just be Peter. Just one more person seeking solace from the sun's August rays. One more guy trying to catch a rideable wave.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A cooler classroom

Envision your ideal classroom. What do you see? Students working constructively on a project? Feverishly typing an essay? Or are they reading silently, or perhaps engaged in a Socratic seminar discussion about human greed and the desire for power?

Now look closer. One of them is brewing some tea. Another is snacking on a cracker. And wait, are those two kids lying on the floor?! What's that couch doing in here? Hey, that student is using an electronic device to listen to music!!!

While I have never seen him teach, based on this post from Eric Hoefler, I have every reason to believe that everything I wrote in the first paragraph occurred in the classroom he describes on his blog, Sicheii Yazhi. The post is called "Remember Their Bodies," and in it, Hoefler argues that our classrooms, as currently constituted, are less than ideal places to learn. An excerpt:

Remembering, and planning for, students’ bodies is a foundational way to build rapport, trust, and respect in the classroom. When students enter a classroom that has been designed with their bodies in mind, it sends a message that the teacher is concerned with the students as people–not just as students, test scores, or check-marks on an attendance sheet.3 In contrast, a classroom that doesn’t seem concerned with students’ bodies implies that the teacher is not concerned with an aspect of the students’ identity about which they are nearly obsessed.4 Even if these messages don’t register consciously, they still affect how teachers and students relate to each other and can have a profound impact on the learning that does or does not happen in that classroom.

Here are a few things I did as a teacher to be more considerate of my students’ physical needs:

  • Comfort: I had an old couch that I didn’t need any more, so I brought that in and placed it in a corner of the room. I also bought some cheap inflatable “air-cushion” seats and some cheap mats to cover the linoleum floor. (When students met in groups, they would use both.)
  • Options: When students were working individually (reading or writing) or meeting in revision groups, they always had options for where to do that work. They could stay in their desks, or they could use the cushions, mats, or couch and could take the cushions and mats into the hallway to have more space and reduce noise.
  • Breaks: Most educators know that the brain needs pretty regular breaks in order to process the new information it’s gathering. I tried to stop every 15-20 minutes throughout our 85 minute periods to allow students to stretch, walk around, get a drink of water, etc.
  • Refreshments: I kept a water-cooler in my classroom that gave cold and hot water. Students were always welcome to get a cup of water or to make a cup of tea. I also kept a basket full of mints (helpful for group work). Students could bring in additional food or drink to share (we kept a small refrigerator, too.) I had a “Scooby fund” (a Scooby-Doo doll with a pocket in front) for students to contribute change to help cover the expenses. They policed the sharing themselves.
  • Environment: My classroom had no windows, so getting things to grow was difficult. I had two tough little plants that survived “the dungeon” and a few other fake ones. I also used a number of lamps so that I could turn off the glaring fluorescent lights. We put up posters and student artwork on the walls. I played music throughout the day when appropriate, and students could bring in their own selections.

The result was far from perfect, but the students appreciated the effort and enjoyed being in my classroom. I have no doubt that this positively impacted their willingness to learn, and therefore positively impacted their ability to learn.

I also admit that most of what I did above was against the school’s stated policies. Here I can only say: I did what I thought best for my students, and I supported my actions with theory and practical results.

Hoefler, after 9 years on the job, is taking a year off from teaching. He's written that this is due largely to a disconnect between his ideals and the system in which he operates. I know at my school, hats, food, and all electronic devices are banned from the classroom. I don't necessarily agree with the entirety of this policy, but I enforce it because it is my job to do so, and also because a majority of my colleagues seem to support it, and I want to stand behind their collective will, not in front of it.

Brendan Halpin (see earlier post) might call me a wuss or a sellout for doing this, but he's no longer an educator, and it is frankly not surprising. Experienced teachers know that we must pick our battles carefully, and be willing to make concessions. This "team player" approach can then yield benefits when we request a favor or take a stand on something we feel is important.

Anyhow, in case you are wondering, here is where I stand on the unholy trinity of hats, cellphones, and food:

Hats - They should be allowed 100 percent of the time or 0 percent of the time. I am comfortable with either extreme. I don't know if there is any research regarding how student behavior, effort, and attitude are affected by hats, but if there is, I would be in full support of whichever policy had the greatest effect on those qualities. I don't view a hat as a symbol of disrespect. I view a hat as a symbol of identity, and I think we need to consider how we're affecting students' abilities to form identities when we decide if they can or cannot wear hats.

Cell phones and electronic devices - The best policy would be one that instills within the students proper behaviors regarding when and how these devices are used. I don't think cell phones should be allowed in the classroom, but if a student wants to listen to her iPod while quietly working on an assignment, what's the big deal?

Food - I believe that if a student has the ability to discretely eat food in class without being disruptive or causing a mess, then that student should be allowed to eat. If a student shows an inability to do this, then a student should be banned from eating.

I know I learn and study best when I'm in a comfortable environment. While my classroom isn't as progressive as Hoefler's, it does contain numerous plants, a meditation bell, and a Chinese wind gong, among other adornments. While I don't see adding a water cooler or fridge anytime soon, it would be cool to have a couch - or a least a few floor mats I could roll out as an option when students are doing group work.

It's my belief, though, that regardless of my teaching environment, I am only as good as my curriculum - I'm only as good as what I know how to teach. Fortunately, I have all the same classes this year as I did last year, which is a first. This will allow me to really focus on my subject matter, my pedagogy, and my assessments, as these are truly what will determine my (and my students') success in the upcoming year.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Losing [His] Faculties

A few days ago I finished Brendan Halpin's riveting, expletive-laden memoir Losing My Faculties. It chronicles his 9 years as a high school teacher in the greater Boston area. In his own words:

I set out to write something different from the usual 'I saved those difficult kids in one short year' teaching books: I wanted to show how and why people keep at it, to be honest about what a great job it is without sugarcoating how hard it can be and how easy it is to get discouraged by the other adults. An elementary school principal who reviewed it for the Boston Globe called it, 'Cynical, mean-spirited, and depressing.' I humbly suggest that any book by a teacher which makes a principal apoplectic is worth a read.

Faculties is one of only a few books I've read recently that I didn't want to put down until it was done. It maybe took me five or six hours to read. At one point I read for almost three hours straight. That is rare for me, as my mind usually wanders elsewhere after about a hour or so.

Not with Halpin. His writing was direct, honest, and biting, and it really captured me:

"I have one senior class, and although I am undoubtedly the kind of guy they would beat senseless for fun if I were their age, the boys in the class decide that I'm cool" (60).

"I want to empower them, I want them to be free citizens rather than obedient automatons, and so I am just terribly uncomfortable with the reality of my authority" (39-40).

"Many, many [faculty] meetings degenerate into someone holding forth on the importance of the hat rule. Once I make the mistake of saying that the kids don't really understand this rule, that they generally obey rules that they understand, and that they continually break this rule because it seems arbitrary to them, and if we could just explain it, we might have better compliance. I am shouted down by a history teacher who yells, 'It's about RESPECT!,' thereby ending the discussion without actually saying anything" (91-92).

These are just three of hundreds of nuggets found in Halpin's book. I personally enjoyed it because it gave honest insight about the four different school cultures in which Halpin worked. He doesn't dedicate as much time to describing his lessons as he does to detailing his coworkers' quirks and annoyances, so don't go into it expecting to have profound pedagogical insights afterward.

Read it for his voice. Halpin comes off as idealistic but broken, and he's both bitter and earnest. I think all high school teachers should read this book, as it serves to honestly (and, albeit, quite subjectively) remind what is both great and troublesome about our profession.