Sunday, July 29, 2007

Keeping up with my peers (and grandma)

I've been down in Pennsylvania for the past few days celebrating my fiancee's grandmother's 100th birthday.

It's pretty damn impressive. The woman's memory is good, and she can still see, hear, talk, and eat her own food. She can even walk with a little bit of aid. Every day she completes a workout routine which involves lifting five pound weights.

I can only hope I am so fortunate should I reach her age.

Technically, the celebrating really begins tomorrow, which means that today I've had time to catch up on a lot of my fellow edubloggers' latest postings. I must say that it is quite cool being part of this virtual community. Regardless of if it is reading about a new teacher's quest for employment, a veteran educator's search for the perfect boarding school, or the restlessness that comes in August as we prepare to return to our respective places of employment, the education professionals on my blogroll never fail to teach, entertain, and inspire.

I have a lot of new lessons and ideas that I am eager to unveil for 2007-2008, and a number of these insights and approaches have been spurred by what I've read on the blogosphere.

Here's wishing everyone a great school year, and a continued (hopefully) restful and rejuvenating summer. Also, happy birthday grandma!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A walk

A few days ago I went for an evening walk around my neighborhood. I enjoy walking, especially on summer nights when it's cool and one can see and hear the fireflies and crickets.

The loop I like to travel is about 3.5 miles. At one point it descends down a hill, crosses train tracks, and passes by a large stretch of open field. At night this field comes alive with chirps, squeaks, and the transformative glow of fireflies.

There must have been hundreds of fireflies darting about the field, lighting in unison to the crickets' chirp. For a moment I stood transfixed, marveling at the beauty and splendor of the natural show before me.

The above image by Bruce Nichols invokes a feeling similar to the one I experienced. While my walk takes only one hour, its effects can last for days. Aside from the physical exercise, there is a clarity of mind that comes from traversing the sleepy streets of my town and soaking in its natural and man-made vistas.

It's important for us to remember to get out and explore, and to be willing to be swept away by something as simple as insects in a field, or the silhouette of a grain silo in the moonlight.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


Each year at the end of August, our superintendent shares his goals for the upcoming school year with the entire K-12 staff. This meeting is followed by a second gathering, where the high school principal and his administrative team share their goals for the high school. In a third meeting, the English Department chairman shares his goals for - you guessed it - the English Department.

Teachers are then asked to declare their personal goals for the school year. I am not sure what my "official" goals will be for 2007-2008, but below are some of the things I would like to accomplish (Included are also some things I know I will accomplish... it makes the list less intimidating.):

* Continue professional development by attending a podcasting seminar this August, and the New England Association of Teachers of English conference this October.

* Continue working to establish a professional school culture by collaborating and sharing with colleagues.

* Work to maintain open communication with parents (via blog, e-mail, phone, and student/teacher/parent conferences).

* Spend more time focusing on the writing process, and consider assigning more weight to brainstorms, freewrites, rough-drafts, and revisions.

* Improve implementation of writer's workshop by better modeling the drafting process and explicitly teaching what constitutes effective peer feedback.

* Create assignments that foster higher-order thinking skills.

* Ensure students write every day.

* Ensure students read every day.

* Provide the opportunity for students to think critically every day.

* Spend more time developing a reader's workshop, and improving the reading skills of all students.

* Be aware of students' multiple learning styles and provide opportunities for ALL to engage in small group and whole-class discussions. This includes finding ways for students who struggle with public speaking to comfortably express their views and thoughts.

* Do a better job helping reluctant readers to read class literature outside of class. I'd really like to arm these students with a list of reading strategies and get them to tolerate and perhaps even find pleasure in reading.

* Use non-fiction articles and shorter writing pieces to flush out themes and major ideas from the required curriculum in hopes of making the novels, plays, and short-stories more accessible and engaging .

* With my journalism class, find a balance between teaching and assessing concepts and skills with time for students to work independently on our high school's newspaper.

* Build on the use of blogs as a place to post and share writing. Perhaps this also means starting a class wiki or using podcasts and other technological tools to lend a 21st century bent to various assignments.

* Get students reading newspapers and paying more attention to current events. See this post here about the thoughts I have for my classroom's Current Events Cove.

* Find ways to hold all students accountable during small-group discussions by setting baseline standards that all students must meet when working in groups.

* Elucidate the steps required for an in-depth discussion, rather than simply hoping one will organically evolve. Sometimes the students will naturally take a discussion into deeper waters. I need to do a better job of observing the conditions present when this happens, and then be able to articulate it so they understand what led to them having a "really cool" or "awesome" discussion.

I could probably spend a few hours sitting here writing about what I'd like to do as a teacher next year, and what I'd like my students to accomplish, but I think I'm going to try to bring this post to a close, as it's getting close to dinner time, and I want to do some reading a bit later.

If any of you have thoughts or suggestions about some of my goals, or would like to share any of your own, please do!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Read a book

How effective do you think this video is in getting reluctant readers to dive into a work of literature? WARNING: Contains explicit lyrics and is not appropriate for children (or, for that matter, most adults).

A personal aside on explicit lyrics: In 9th grade I was one of the first members of my class to own Body Count, a rap album that contained a number of highly controversial songs, the titles of which I am not going to list. I initially enjoyed listening to the record because of its shock value and "taboo" status, but over time I grew disinterested.

I don't think the vulgar language contained in the following video is necessary to communicate its positive message that reading is beneficial, but perhaps others will find that this "gloves off" approach to lyrical composition works.

* FINAL DISCLAIMER * Mr. B-G does not condone the use of offensive language in his classroom.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Journalism and the digital revolution

Despite being a former newspaper reporter who has always preferred reading a paper copy of the day's events to an electronic one, I must say that the purchase of my first laptop ($699 w/ zero percent financing for 12 months) is making me a possible convert. Since I graduated from UMass Amherst with a journalism degree in 2000, the field has literally transformed itself.

Journalists now blog live, are expected to be proficient in Internet publishing, and are required to meet deadlines faster than ever. As online audiences grow and print subscribers dwindle, the papers that make it will be the ones that provide the clearest, most timely, most accurate, most accessible online content.

While I do enjoy reading live reporter blogs and articles with clickable hyperlinks, I still enjoy reading the print edition of The Boston Sunday Globe, accompanied by a cup of freshly brewed Dean's Beans coffee.

I write more about this affinity here, in an example of an essay assignment I modeled for my students that was inspired by a Socratic seminar discussion of Steinbeck's The Pearl.

Leaders, Sox, and Movies

A few days ago I watched Bobby, the poignant recreation of the hours leading up to U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy's assassination at the Ambassador Hotel on June 5th, 1968.
Simply put: We need more leaders like him, and we needed them seven years ago...

Yesterday I went to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox take on the Toronto Blue Jays (Sox won 7-4). It had been a few years since I'd been to a Sox game, and it was great to soak in the electric atmosphere that is home to the Green Monster.

Tomorrow I head to Gloucester's Good Harbor Beach for a week of reading and relaxing by the surf. It is here that I plan to tackle more of my summer reading, do some shoreline jogging, and catch a few movies, specifically Ocean's 13, Knocked Up, and Chuck & Larry. Come August, it will be time for the Bourne Ultimatum.

Teachers and the media

We need to be wary of how Hollywood and the media portray our profession. The following excerpt from a 2004 English Journal article by Kenneth Lindblom, "All I Need to Know about Teaching I Learned from TV and Movies," is telling:

If, through representations of teaching and learning in popular culture, ordinary people come to believe that teaching is a natural talent that does not require much professional development, they may be loath to pay for it. If they come to believe knowledge is simply knowing isolated facts, they may clamor for even greater amounts of testing. If they believe teachers should be treated as saints, in the profession only for the chance to do noble work, they may be less willing to understand the need for pay raises. I enjoy as much as anyone the shows and films that include teachers, but their impact gives me pause.

In the wake of the recent success of Freedom Writers, Lindblom's words ring loudly.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Overworked and overschooled?

While I'll admit I don't know much about the pros and cons of extending the school day, one article I read recently said that Bill Gates (above) and other billionaire executives are behind a 10-hour school day largely because that translates into a normalized 10-hour work day.

Time is one of the most valuable commodities we have, and we spend far too much of it toiling on the job. Americans work significantly more than Europeans (two weeks paid vacation vs. two months), and our country is the only developed nation that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time. Why? Because most U.S. laborers are not members of unions, and thus have little negotiating power. For more, check out this article from Znet.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Fresh from the kitchen

With school out, I am free to indulge in a few of my favorite pastimes, one of which is baking pizza from scratch.

The first step involves making the dough. In a large bowl I combine flour, sugar, salt, yeast, and a bit of olive oil. I knead the dough with my hands until it is firm. I then shape it into a ball, cover it, and wait for it to rise.

Next comes the red stuff. I like to throw tomato chunks and paste into a saucepan of spaghetti sauce, and heat until the mixture begins to simmer.

The dough is flattened and applied to a circular sheet pan, which has been dusted with cornmeal. The sauce, cheese, and selected toppings are applied, and the pie is placed in a 400-degree oven for 15-20 minutes.

The pizza goes down best with a cold beverage and good company.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Early return

The Shays Rebellion monument, one of many intriguing spots along the 2,157-mile Appalachian Trail.

I am back from four days of hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and despite a mild head cold, my body feels great.

My old roommate and I hiked about 35 miles, and decided to call off the second leg of our excursion due to my congestion and his achy knees and ankles. While I missed many of the creature comforts of civilized life (ice cream, sandwiches on toasted rolls, the Red Sox on my 46-inch HD DLP TV), I appreciated the calmness of nature.

On our first night we camped under a full moon. The site we stayed at had an incredible view into a pine valley. As we watched the moon rise through the clouds we could hear the eerie call of an owl in search of a mate. In the morning we awoke to the sound of birds chirping and chipmunks skittering.

While it was difficult - and at times strenuous - carrying my 45-pound pack up and down the Berkshire mountains, it was also exhilarating and sustaining, as I could tell my body was grateful not to be sedentary.

I definitely plan to go out again this summer, perhaps with two additional friends. Now is the time to do it. In a few months I'll once again be wrapped up in the duties and trappings of my profession. Hopefully, by the time summer ends, I'll have devised a way to schedule sufficient time for myself during the school year. I know that living a well-rounded, healthy life will make me a stronger, clearer, more satisfied, more effective teacher.

If any of you have a story about how you've been able to strike a balance (or not) between career, family, and personal well-being, please feel free to share.