Saturday, September 29, 2007

The power of the ORB

Each quarter my students read a 300-page minimum Outside Reading Book of their choice. They then pick one of 50 alternatives to the book report and present their book to me and their classmates. Depending on how well they satisfy the ORB presentation criteria, they can earn up to 3 points on their final quarter average. Those who don't present lose 3 points.

Students also must write a 400-500 word book review, which students post to their class blogs. The blogs allow students to share and learn about what they are reading, and helps them when making future Outside Reading Book selections. The goal is for students to become self-empowered readers.

During high school, my friends and I independently read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. My experiences reading these books were some of the most enjoyable literary encounters of my young life. There was (and is) something about the freedom of choice and the luxury of proceeding at your own pace that makes reading rewarding and fun.

I can remember hiking out to the peninsula of a local pond, propping against a tree, and soaking in the chronicles of Frodo, Gandalf, and friends until the fall sun hung low in the sky. I can still hear the crunch of leaves beneath my legs and smell the woodsmoke from nearby fireplaces. There was something ethereal about that spot and that time, and those surroundings made Tolkien's narrative seem more magical and majestic than it already was.

In the chaos and uncertainty of high school, these outdoor excursions and rich literary adventures were sources of sustenance and inspiration. I hope my students' ORB experiences can be as powerful and valuable to them as mine were to me. Even in an increasingly digital and visual world, a good book can still grip hold of the mind and provide an experience as moving and affecting as any.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Parents, Blogs, and Socratic Seminar

Midterm grades close this Friday. It's hard to believe we're already halfway into the first quarter. Yet then again, it feels like we've been at it for awhile.

Last week I met about sixty parents at open house. It was great to see such a strong turnout and meet those responsible for the fantastic students I've been blessed with this year. Today, for example, one of my 9th grade classes had a Socratic seminar on Steinbeck's The Pearl. The kids asked rich questions, listened to and built off each others' responses, and waited to be called on by the student moderator before speaking. The students were respectful, sincere, and well prepared.

The day after open house I gave a presentation about using technology to enhance one's practice at our district's mentor/protegee meeting. I plan to blog more about that later and post links to a variety of resources that helped me launch my blog and use electronic tools in the classroom.

A few days ago I received an e-mail from a teacher in Florida who wanted to know how I was able to avoid cyber-bullying on my student blog pages. I did iterate with students that the blogs were an academic space, and modeled for them what would be considered an acceptable comment. I also provided specific instructions (posted on the student blog pages) for commenting that depended on the nature of the assignment and the type of feedback I wanted them to provide.

Because I was the sole administrator of the blogs, only I could make blog posts, and I was free to delete any comments that were inappropriate. I think I removed about five comments total, and that was largely because they didn't follow the prompt instructions, not because they were vulgar.

For more about my experiences blogging with students, read this post from earlier.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The 48 Laws of Power

While on vacation in Vermont this August, I stumbled across a Unitarian Church book sale in a quaint town nestled in the foothills of the Green Mountains.

I spent nearly an hour perusing the offerings before settling on a mix of about 60 fiction and non-fiction titles for $40. This particular bargain-bin book raid was heavy on non-fiction, with a number of works written by or about journalists and media figures (Bill O'Reilly, Donald Trump, Chris Mathews, Jim Hightower, Al Franken). I focused on this genre largely because I am requiring all students in my journalism class to read a 200-page minimum non-fiction book each quarter, and wanted to bulk up my classroom library.

I also picked up a handful of titles I thought might help me as a teacher, leader, and motivator of people. One such selection is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. While I've only read the first five chapters (on the first five laws), I am thoroughly enjoying the book, as it mixes maxim with history in an enlightening and entertaining fashion. Greene explains the theory behind each law, then culls from history both a transgression and observance of that law.

The 48 laws can be found here.

Not all the laws are applicable to classroom teachers. Some of them could even be considered contrary to our mission. But for anyone interested in viewing history through the lens of individualistic human behavior - and gaining insight on how to achieve and maintain power - 48 Laws is not to be missed.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Still alive

OK, so the title reeks of hyperbole, with perhaps a hint of sarcasm, but yes, after one full week of my return to the classroom, I still have my faculties intact, and am actually enjoying myself despite the chronic fatigue.

One of the conundrums I've recently discovered while keeping this blog is knowing my audience. There are teachers, students, parents, and administrators who peruse this site. Given this diversity, it is hard to be as informal as I might like, because I don't want to offend some of my readers or give the wrong impression.

In my experiences as a reader the most enjoyable writing I find is unapologetic and pulls no punches. I love it when an author truly tells it like it is, or at least how he sees it. Honesty can be a powerful vehicle for voice. I hope I've found a voice for this blog that is professional yet laid-back, serious yet sarcastic.

I know it's still early, but I've really been impressed with my students. The freshmen are eager to learn, they ask good questions, are curious, and encourage a diversity of opinions. Sometimes I feel as if I'll have done a good job if I manage simply not to destroy their enthusiasm and naiveté. Sure they have a lot to learn, but there's also a lot they could unlearn.

My senior class so far been a nice mix of reluctant and eager students. Right now they're blending well and it's nice to see. I had a few of these kids sophomore year, and they have really mellowed and matured.

In my elective, journalism, there are a number of strong writers who fancy themselves future members of the fourth estate. Their curiosity and dedication is admirable. I have new ideas and plans I will be implementing this year that I will blog about later. Suffice to say I am excited about the course's potential and what the students will create.