Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My classroom

Ever since I started this blog, I'd been meaning to post photos of my classroom. Well, here they are:

Above is the door to my room.

Here is the view once you walk inside.

My semblance of organization. Class handouts and important documents can be found on this desk.

The other side of the desk where I conduct my business.

My quad-core Intel i7 PC and sweet 23-inch LCD monitor, gifts to myself at the start of the new school year. Also pictured is a wide format color inkjet printer, an old HP LaserJet that still gets the job done, and, on the left corner of my desk, a netbook our assistant superintendent purchased for me to use with my students.

The back of my classroom, featuring nine fully networked, Internet-ready PCs. The one on the far right was purchased for my classroom by the school. The others I acquired secondhand over the last couple of years.

The Literary Treasure Trove, my classroom library.

The wooden Thai frog that I "play" to get students' attention when we're transitioning to a new activity.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Writing Without Teachers

I recently picked up Peter Elbow's "Writing Without Teachers" because I'm looking to re-ground myself in authentic ideas about the writing process and what actually leads to good writing.

If you stay in K-12 education long enough, there's the chance that your foundational, intrinsic understanding about how meaningful learning occurs will be eroded by bureaucrats who prescribe to have all the right solutions despite lacking the necessary background and/or classroom experience to make such claims.

One of the current popular methods of writing instruction involves showing students models and "exemplars" of writing that meets the highest criteria (usually a set of numbers from a standardized rubric), with the expectation that students - like mimeograph machines - can simply duplicate that product when they're asked to respond to a similar writing prompt.

The problem is that the template for good writing can't be mimicked and reproduced from assignment to assignment,  because no such template exists. When students DO try to copy formulae for "good" writing, their writing ends up sounding vapid. That's because quality, authentic writing is generated, not parroted from nameless "model" papers.

How do we teach students to write? We teach them to think. We teach them to develop content. We help them understand ideas like elaboration and explication. We provide them with opportunities to stretch their minds and flex their intellectual muscles. We give them opportunities to pump out words and ideas without fear of judgement. We teach them how to think critically and make sense of their musings and meanderings. We show them how to tailor and edit and rethink and resee and rearrange. We empower them to be creators.

This type of work is not easy. Years and years of practice are required for most of us to learn how to string words and sentences and paragraphs together in engaging fashion. Before one can write well, one needs to have something to say. Yet sometimes we don't know what we really have to say until we begin writing. When I started this posting, had I already preselected the words and points and contentions I wanted to bring up? No. I knew I wanted to write about how I felt writing instruction in many K-12 schools has become weakened by the advent of formulaic writing and the five paragraph essay. I knew I wanted to get down a few of the techniques that have helped me become a better writer. But I did not use a graphic organizer. I did not make an outline of three main ideas, topic sentences, or supporting details. I simply sat on my couch, kicked my feet up on the coffee table, grabbed my netbook, and attacked the keyboard.

(Once I finished my draft of this post, I went back and read what I wrote, deleted lines, changed words, added phrases, and asked myself, Is this really what I mean to say? I needed to tweak a number of paragraphs before the final product reflected my intentions. Before I could use the chisel, I needed to have the block.)

Among Peter Elbow's many contributions to writing pedagogy is the spreading of the concept of freewriting. In essence, freewriting encourages writers to lay down ideas without stopping, reflecting, or editing. It proposes to help us "get the junk out" so we can later go back and mine the gems worthy of extraction. Freewriting helps us explore ideas and permits us to open the valve connecting thought and expression. When we no longer feel constricted and restrained, we are more likely to explore greater depths and take risks. Rather than saying what we think we're supposed to say in the manner in which we think we're supposed to say it, we can express genuine ideas in the way those ideas are best meant to be expressed.

Does this mean models and exemplars are bad? Of course not. What it means is that they're a limited resource. They show you what the container looks like, but they don't show you how it was filled. Only through the labor of idea exploration can we learn how to fill those containers. And each container - once filled - will be unique, its appearance and contents determined by the reason for its creation.

Elbow describes this organic process:

"The turning point of the whole cycle of growing is the emergence of a focus or a theme. It is also the most mysterious and difficult kind of cognitive event to analyze. It is the moment when what was chaos is now seen as having a center of gravity. There is shape where a moment ago there was none" (35).

I hope that after finishing Elbow's book (which I am finding to be very affirming and validating about some of my core beliefs about writing), I will have a renewed sense of confidence about how good writing is created, and I will have ideas I can implement in my classroom that will help my students experience what it feels like to create writing that's truly worth reading.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A snow day

At 5:35 this morning, the message I had been waiting for finally scrolled across the screen of my laptop: "Xxxxxxx School District No School." After a late night of grading, the news couldn't have been sweeter or more timely. I hopped back into bed for another three hours and woke up refreshed and ready to enjoy this found day.

Rather than rushing to make a breakfast to eat on the run (usually a bagel w/ cream cheese), I was able to take out the blender and enjoy a mixed berry smoothie along with my coffee. It's a treat usually reserved just for the weekends. While I was preparing the coffee, my wife - who is also a teacher and also did not have school - started a fire in the woodstove. As I sipped my beverages and watched the flames work their way from twigs to larger pieces of wood, I made sure to appreciate the moment.

Inside my living room, I was shielded from the harsh weather outdoors. And it was because of the snow and wind and frigid temperatures that the normal hurriedness of my day ceased to exist. It's the duality of life, the simultaneous existence of extremes. It's why at any given time, every emotion and experience that's possible to have on this Earth occurs. Birth and death, joy and sadness, frustration and relief. Sometimes I wonder, if it were possible to quantify the sum of all human emotion, where on the spectrum would the reading register? Do we, as a collective species, experience more good or bad?

These are the thoughts one has when the mind has a moment to wander. We all need times like today to reflect, pause, and let our thoughts travel where they may.

The image of the wooden wind chime was taken on my back porch after the snow stopped.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Occasional Paper

While reading the latest version of NCTE's English Journal, I came across a reference to a teaching idea that first graced EJ's pages back in 2003. It was an assignment called the Occasional Paper by Bill Martin.

The premise is simple. Once or twice each quarter, students write a brief essay on a topic of their choice and read it out loud to their classmates. The idea for these papers is that they are miniature reflections and meditations on life. Martin asks his students to be observant of the moment, and to "explore occurrences that would usually be dismissed as unimportant." The assignment isn't graded, and the teacher refrains from making negative comments. Martin explains:

If a paper is bad, I don’t penalize. By not
penalizing for lack of effort, I make it shameful not
to put some effort into it. By not counting off for
laziness, I make laziness a lazy choice. Carelessness
is prevented by caring more.

Once students have something worth saying, they will
struggle willingly to say it right. Eventually, students
will start to see what it is that makes a paper have impact.
The student who tries to get a grade without any effort does
not come across as a clever trickster who “got something
for nothing”; instead the student is seen as
someone who gets something and gives back nothing.

The motivation to do good work is like the motivation
operating on the playing field or on the
dance floor. It is motivation from inside and from
pride in doing good work. Ironically, by not assessing
content I put more pressure on students to come
up with something substantial.

The benefits of providing students an opportunity to write an "occasional paper" certainly seem to outweigh the drawbacks. In fact, it's hard for me to find the drawbacks, as the OP encourages students to be reflective and develop meaningful, personal compositions that show a measure of thought, creativity, and insight. It gets them up in front of the class reading to an authentic audience, and it guarantees them immediate response from their peers. And, because the only instructor feedback students receive is positive (as if the piece bombs the teacher refrains from comment), students will be more willing to go beyond the safe and predictable to the bold realm of imagination, creativity, and risk-taking - the realm where good writing lives.

Monday, November 23, 2009

50 Years of Research on Writing: What Have We Learned?

Three of the greatest minds in the history of writing instruction come together to discuss the craft. If you're willing to be a patient viewer, they unearth a lot of valuable gems about writing pedagogy.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Faux swine flu survival

I'm finally back to 100 percent after a bout with what turned out to be walking pneumonia. I had initially self-diagnosed my ailment as H1N1, succumbing to the swine flu hype. It took a visit to the doctor's office to confirm what I really had. When I first began feeling congested and fatigued, I assumed I had been bitten by the bad pig, and that a doctor's visit would prove futile, as media reports continued to say that doctors were turning away those showing flu symptoms because there was nothing they could really do to help.

After taking a couple of sick days where I did nothing but rest and drink fluids - and after showing no signs of improvement - I finally decided to call my physician. I was able to get an appointment that day. I went in, talked with my doctor, breathed through a machine, received a diagnosis, went to CVS, popped an anti-bacterial drug, and was on my way to feeling better.

Walking pneumonia really knocked me out. Since I started teaching high school students in 2004, I'd taken ZERO sick days until this faux-swine reprieve. While there have been times in the past six years when I've been sick, I always went to school and toughed it out. This isn't to say teaching when under the weather is something to boast about - it's not - but I suppose I wanted to keep my streak going as long as I could. Walking pneu was powerful enough to put it to an end.

It was a bit alarming how little I was able to do when I was sick. Simple tasks like taking out the garbage or doing laundry seemed impossibly arduous. Bringing in firewood or raking leaves were both completely out of the question. Now that I'm back to full health, I'm thankful for all of the things I can do, and I have a fresh awareness of the physical, emotional, and cognitive demands associated with teaching. Effective teachers need to bring it ALL to the classroom as they inspire, lead, explain, prompt, urge, and encourage their students.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Meditative mulching

This afternoon I spent some quality time with my lawnmower and front yard. It's that time of the year here in Massachusetts when the leaves fall and cover the ground with their golds and reds and oranges. They're quite pretty to look at, but left unchecked, they'll turn into dark brown soggy bits of biomass that can ruin a lawn or make exiting the driveway dangerous once the Fahrenheit hits 32 degrees.

And so, today I pushed the mower up and down the yard in long vertical passes, trimming grass and grinding leaves in rather efficient fashion. My lawn-cleaning efforts are more effective this year thanks to the Gator Mulcher Blade that I picked up this summer. In mere seconds, leaves are pulverized into fine pieces of debris that actually nourish the lawn and serve as fertilizer.

After a few hours of work, the lawn was looking good. I then used the blower contraption on my Shop-Vac to clear the driveway of leaf bits and powder. How rewarding it was to see the results of my labor! Tangible progress before my very eyes!

As those of you who work in education know, the type of change and progress that we effect as teachers isn't nearly as immediate or obvious. Sometimes students need to regress before they advance forward. And it isn't uncommon for our teachings to have their full effect on our students after they have left our classrooms. People grow and mature at different rates. It's helpful to remember that just because we're not seeing immediate improvement doesn't mean our students aren't learning.

Often the passage of time yields the perspective we need to reach those epiphanies and experience those ah-ha! moments. Ironically, with added distance I can better see former teachers' motivations, intentions, and lessons. As our world becomes faster and more aspects of life become instantaneous, it's important to remember that true growth takes time.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Marathon days

For the last couple of weeks, I've been arriving at school around 6:30 a.m. and leaving, on average, around 5:00 p.m. I've been planning, grading, organizing, messaging, filing, cleaning, e-mailing, calling, researching, tweaking, printing, copying, editing, recording, reserving, requesting, previewing, reading, and reflecting. I've also done some sighing, laughing, and talking, usually with others but sometimes just with myself.

There is SO much that goes into the planning and execution of a teacher's day. When students walk in it all seems so simple: there's an agenda on the board, a fresh handout to take, and a lesson to do. Students don't see the hours that go into the crafting of each day's plan. I sure do. I experience it at the end of each day when I come home feeling like I've been drained by Dracula. Yet somewhere I'm finding the reserve to go for a jog or lift some weights. One of my goals this year was to be active at least four days a week, hopefully more, but at least four days. So far I've been sticking to that plan, and it feels good.

Today for the first time I feel like I was actually able to do some advanced planning. I'm getting a better handle on where I'm going with all my classes, and it feels good. I'm starting to get to know the kids a bit more, and individual and class identities are starting to form. I like my students, and I love what I do. The thing is, there's just so much to do. And I want to do it all well, and as a result, I spend more time than I probably should on some things. Yet each year I become better and more efficient at older tasks, which gives me time to experiment and try new ideas.

The key is finding a balance between the new and the essential, keeping it fresh while also ensuring the foundation remains solid.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The The Impotence of Proofreading

If your in kneed of a laugh cheek this out. Samoa the languid is a bit risk knee, so proceeds at you're hone wrist.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rolling along

It's hard to believe that midterm grades for first quarter close this Friday. I feel like it wasn't that long ago (because it wasn't) when I was introducing my students to my classroom and the expectations for the year. Fortunately, I have found some time to catch up, but I'm still working my way to a comfortable spot.

So far I've managed to tweak and improve a couple of my key handouts, including my Literature Circle Jobs sheet. Once I upload the new version I'll link to it here in this post and on my English Teaching Resources page. I've also made it a priority to be more explicit in my instruction and provide more silence and wait time than in the past to make sure all students understand what it is I want them to do and how I want them to do it. Adults speak at a faster rate than teenagers can process. As such, I'm trying to give kids enough time to digest what I say the first time, with the hope that this will reduce the number of times I need to repeat myself.

My 9th grade students are ready to dive into The Pearl. We'll read it in about a week, respond using literature circles, and wrap up with a Socratic seminar before writing an essay on value (what do you value, why do you value it, how is value determined, can you put a price tag on those things most valuable to you?).

My seniors will tear into Oedipus later this week, and my journalism students are already working on their second articles of the quarter. In two nights we'll have open house at my school, where I'll be able to explain to parents all the exciting things their children are doing. Open house certainly makes for a long day, but it's nice to make connections with parents and give them a little glimpse of the students' experience.

In October I'll observe an old colleague at his new high school, take a tour of the local newspaper with my Journalism class, and attend the New England Association of Teachers of English's Annual Conference. I've gone for the past five or six years. Each time, the conference ends up being one of the highlights of my year. It's a great opportunity to network, learn some new tricks and teaching ideas, and commiserate with other teachers of the trade.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I am still here

For some reason, it seems like the school year started at about 85 mph. Despite this being my sixth year in the classroom, I feel like I've been treading water since day one. My students are great, classes are going well, but I'm struggling to find momentum.

I suppose a large reason for this is it's still early. In the beginning of the year I spend more time than usual talking, directing, and explaining. I'm trying to teach my students a variety of systems, protocols, procedures, and expectations, all while trying to delve into content. It's a balancing act that's confounded by picture day, fire drills, standardized assessments, and assemblies.

And then there's technology. One of the first things I have students do is create individual class blogs where they will post writing over the course of the year. For a few, the blog setup is quick and painless. For most, though, it's fraught with login errors, buffer overruns, browser freezes, e-mail attachment failures, and Internet crashes.

The key is anticipating and adjusting to the learning curve required to get the most out of the school's older technological devices. It's figuring out how to print, where to print, when to print. It's knowing when to log off or shut down, it's remembering to hit "save," it's opening a Word 2007 document in Word 2003. It's transferring text from Word Perfect to AbiWord to Word to a blog. It's learning the difference between "Publish Post" and "Save Now." It's understanding what a URL is and how to e-mail a link.

It's skills, competencies, strategies, and ways to navigate, manipulate, move, and display. It's systems and procedures and a good way and a better way and the best way. It's all happening in 55 minutes. That and homework and vocabulary and literature and a warm up responding to a quote. It's following an agenda and taking out a planner and writing notes and finding the tissues. It's where do I sharpen my pencil and how do I leave for the bathroom and is there any scrap paper?

It's all of that and so much more. Every day. Questions and needs. Problems and solutions. It's "what did I miss yesterday?" and "can you repeat that?" And there's a lot of "wait." I notice students say "wait" a lot. Am I going too fast? Is this too much? Stimuli flying at 85 mph nonstop in every direction.

Finally, a bell. Pack it up, put it away, bundle it for a journey to the next room. A new routine. More stimuli. Different variety. Again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Then a short reprieve, followed by practice, or work, or both. Then homework. Late nights. Early mornings. The shuffle and cycle of students moving through the machine.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The science of human motivation

Author Daniel Pink on rethinking the use of incentives to get people to accomplish tasks:

"Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the building blocks of a new way of doing things."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Summer sentiments

Greetings from the land of summer vacation! School has been out for about two and a half weeks. In that time, I've read four books, gone jogging every other day, worked on my (absolutely horrible, but slowly improving) golf game, brought my car in for repair, had a checkup with my doctor, booked a teeth cleaning, tended to the yard, cleaned, saw friends and family...

There's a lot one can do when one has time. Many of the aspects of my life that I neglect during the school year can finally be tended to during the summer. When I am on vacation, I really try to focus my energies on things other than school. Periodically though, thoughts of school and teaching pop up.

Later this month I will meet with nine other teachers of freshmen in hopes of developing some common strategies to help the incoming 9th grade students acclimate themselves to the rigor and demands of high school work. We're meeting across disciplines to talk about ways to help them with organization, notetaking, reading, writing, study skills, homework, asking questions, speaking in front of the class... skills that can be used in any academic environment.

In August I'm going to hit Vermont's Long Trail with one of my old high school buddies, then after that my wife and I will spend a week at the beach on the North Shore of Massachusetts. After a few more days of R&R, I will trek back into school to begin setting up my classroom and preparing lessons for my new students.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Peace brotha

Thanks for the music and the memories Michael. Those sweet soul tunes and deep funky grooves will stay with me forever.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Annabel Lee

Our school's Poetry Out Loud winner advanced to the Massachusetts Semi-Final Poetry Out Loud Championship with her recitation of this classic Poe poem. Below is a creative interpretation of the work I found on YouTube. There's nice symmetry between the text and the video.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

End game strategy

As the year rambles to a close, it's worth noting one device I've employed that's allowed (at least thus far) for a relatively smooth finish - the distribution of end-of-year timelines in all three of my classes.

The week before April vacation I toiled as an alchemist, combining curriculum goals, the school calendar, and computer lab availability to create documents that detailed all the major activities I'd be doing with my seniors in World Literature, freshmen in Accelerated English, and juniors and seniors in Journalism. The guiding document wasn't too challenging to create for Journalism, as this is something I already do with each production schedule of our newspaper.

The 9th and 12th grade courses took a bit more planning, as I had to figure out the due dates for homework, a quiz and assessment schedule, and time for class discussions, mini-lessons, and group projects. My seniors (two days left!) finished the year with a research paper and Lord of the Flies. The 9th graders are ending with poetry, Romeo & Juliet, and a mini non-fiction unit that dovetails with R & J in the form of a "Verona Times" newspaper creation assignment.

Because I've taught the same classes for a couple of years, I am familiar with the curriculum, what I want my students to learn, how I want them to demonstrate what they've learned, and what they'll need from me to help them do it. I know the pitfalls. I know the potential snags. Of course there are always things I don't account for, but usually they're manageable, and don't impede our progress through the class itineraries.

Another thing that helps make these "unit syllabi" work is my administration's ability to minimize end-of-year class disruptions. I routinely read about other teachers whose classes are continuously disrupted by assemblies, events, and special gatherings that usually rear their heads with little - if any - advanced notice. My administrators aren't like that. They generally give ample notice of such events, and work to keep them at a minimum. The benefit of this cannot be understated.

To view my Romeo & Juliet schedule, click here.

This link will take you to the Lord of the Flies assignment and activity timeline.

The Journalism article & production schedule can be found here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Remix Culture: Fair Use is Your Friend

A decent primer on how to use copyrighted material in online videos. Click here to download the "Code of Best Practices" in PDF form.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A new netbook

A couple of weeks ago I bought my first netbook, the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE. It's light, powerful, plays videos better than my laptop, runs Windows XP (no Vista compatibility issues or unnecessary resource hogging), and, best of all, has an incredible battery life of more than 8 hours on one charge.

I scored it at a funky tech web retailer called for $349 thanks to a mail-in rebate. The Eee PC earned fantastic reviews on Amazon, and has so far lived up to the hype. I like it because I can bring it to any room in my house and surf the net or check up on my Yahoo Fantasy Baseball team, the Alliteration Animals (who are currently in second place). I recently used it to read essays students had posted to their class blogs from the comfort of my living room couch.

The Eee PC will even pick up an Internet signal from the porch outside, which makes it the perfect companion for reading the newspaper online along with a cup of coffee and a blueberry smoothy - a morning delicacy I reserve for the weekends. Given that the weather is finally getting nice, I wanted the ability to bring the web outdoors so I wouldn't feel guilty about sitting behind a computer screen inside my house on a pleasant day.

A couple of weeks ago I made a request for my school to use some of President Obama's federal stimulus money to purchase Eee PCs for the classroom. The laptop computers at our school can be tempermental, and rarely hold a charge for more than an hour and a half. The beauty of the Eee PC is that one charge will get it though an entire school day, which means it can be used consecutively class after class after class.

The size of the keyboard is 92 percent that of a standard typing pad, which takes a little getting used to, but is still quite managable. Programs run quickly, the display is sharp and bright, and the Eee PC has a fast Internet adapter that works with newer Wireless-N WiFi routers. No word yet on if my proposal has been approved by the administration, but it would sure be nifty to have these devices available for use next year at school. I think the students would dig the chic style and fast speed, and the smaller size would help them fit the Eee PC on their desks along with handouts, notebooks, and other materials.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Green savage poetry

I'm still here, just being consumed by the many end-of-year responsibilities that come with being a high school English teacher. My seniors have about two weeks left until they depart our fine educational establishment for good. I've been keeping them occupied with Lord of the Flies, which is an apt selection, as the urge to descend into savagery is strong at this time of year.

I'm wrapping up my poetry unit with the freshmen. Poetry anthologies are complete, we're currently doing our poetry recitations, and then we'll finish with a poetry slam before moving on to Romeo & Juliet.

My journalism kids recently pumped out our fourth issue of the year. Last week we won two awards at the New England Scholastic Press Association's annual conference at Boston University. The final issue will be produced by the junior year staffers. Next year I'm hoping to have us also create a web site with video, soundslides, Twitter updates, and other content that will make our news organization more timely and relevant.

The Celtics just beat the Magic. Awesome. I love the Celtics' heart. It's hard to say for sure if they'll advance. The key is Rajon Rondo. If he plays like he did tonight in Game 3, chalk up another W for the Green. It's fantastic to have the C's relevant again these last two years.

Friday, April 10, 2009

MCAS passings

The administration of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System's English Language Arts subject matter test (gosh that is a mouthful) went off without a hitch earlier this month. As an English teacher at my high school, I was required to proctor the exam. As a result, I saw one of my classes only once during the week of testing, and a second class only twice. Logistically this proved a bit challenging, but I planned as best I could to ensure students didn't get too far off track.

Administering the test is a bit nerve-racking. There are a number of high-security protocols that must be followed - any missteps, and an entire school's test results could be rendered invalid. Most students take the test seriously, as if they don't pass it, they won't earn a high school diploma regardless of how successful they are in their classes.

It surprised me that in the days leading up to the exam, no announcements were made by administrators urging students to get a good night's sleep or eat a full breakfast. For better or worse, there weren't any proclamations about the test before, during, or after its issuance.

At my wife's school, no other students are allowed into the building during testing times. This policy alone illustrates the significance the test is given there. At my previous school, breakfast sandwiches were purchased for all 10th grade students taking the test. This edible carrot also exemplified the test's importance at that school - which, incidentally, is annually one of the highest scoring schools in the state.

I believe if students read and write regularly, and are taught to think carefully and critically by their English teachers, they will do well on the test. There are certain skills we can teach students that increase their chances of a high score, and specific content we can review to put them in a position to succeed, but beyond that, the X factor is each student's personal level of motivation.

Most are content to do well enough to pass. A driven few want to outshine their classmates, but the majority don't have motivation beyond what is required. It's my theory that breakfast sandwiches, administrative encouragement, and a delayed opening would provide an additional boost beyond what many might expect.

These actions would show students that we really care about their success, enough that we're willing to shut down the rest of the school and provide them with food. If these strategies work at two neighboring schools, I have every reason to believe they would work at mine.

I should mention that our scores are better than the state average, and part of me is glad the administration doesn't make a focus on MCAS the end-all, be-all of academic instruction.

It's worth noting that if the MCAS was administered when I was in high school, I have no doubt that a warm ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on a toasted everything bagel would do wonders for my score!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Flying into spring

Some observations and announcements as the ground begins to thaw...

Third quarter grades close this week. Fourth quarter here we come!

My seniors have a little more than 30 days left. Still enough time for their "three-search paper" and Lord of the Flies.

My journalism students won five scholastic awards at an area high school journalism contest. There were over 200 entries from more than 30 high schools across New England. I couldn't have been happier for my kids. Definitely one of the year's highlights.

I added a fifth student computer to my classroom. I saw one offered on Craigslist for cheap, and decided to pull the trigger. The workstations are great for group research projects, students looking to pull up and print an assignment, or those in need of a space to write before or after school. They also serve as backups if the school's laptop cart computers lose their charge or malfunction while we're using them in class.

I spent this past weekend in Salem. Visited the Salem Witch Museum, caught a live band at a Mexican restaurant, and went on a walking tour of the city. A much needed respite just before grades, MCAS, and general end-of-the-year craziness.

I recently formed a working group to discuss the possibility of creating a student-staffed writing center at my high school. Right now it looks like the logistics will prove too difficult, as there isn't much time in the school day for students to be able to visit a writing center, and there isn't funding in the budget to hire a professional staff member to supervise it and train writing tutors.

With April comes the poetry unit I do with my 9th graders. It's one of my favorite units, and the kids have a lot of creative freedom to pursue poets and poems of interest. They analyze poetry, write their own poems, and write a research essay on a poet of their choice. They bind all this poetic goodness together in an anthology. There's also poetry reading, poetry slam, and poetry recitation. Check out this past blog post for more info about my poetry unit.

Last week I joined a Yahoo Fantasy Baseball League with some friends. My team, the Alliteration Animals, is poised to dominate. Its strength lies in the infield and bullpen. Outfielders and starting pitchers are always easy to acquire as the baseball season gets underway. But good second baseman, shortstops, and closers are harder to come by. That's who I drafted.

Right now I'm about 170 pages into Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. It's engrossing, fast-moving, and extremely violent. With themes from Brave New World, 1984, and Lord of the Flies, it's right up my thematic alley. I know many of my seniors would love it, but it's probably too gruesome and morbid to ever make its way onto our high school's summer reading list or English Department curriculum.

I think it's time to end this missive and get the coffee ready for the morning. I hope all who read this blog are well. Happy spring!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Envy the Night

It's been a while since I tore through a book in less than 24 hours. Faced with the luxury of a week off from school for February Vacation, I easily found time to digest Michael Koryta's latest offering, Envy the Night.

Up until a few years ago, I hadn't been a big fan of crime/mystery novels. I preferred fantasy tales like Lord of the Rings, the ramblings of Jack Kerouac, and non-fiction stories on technology, teaching, and travel.

It was actually one of my former students who turned me toward this genre. She was a fan of Mary Higgins Clark, and usually picked one of her novels when it was time to present an Outside Reading Book for my English class. I was always impressed with how into the books she seemed, and how well she was able to keep her classmates' attention as she detailed key plot events and discussed things like mood, tone, and theme.

Shortly after one of her presentations, I picked up The Night Gardner by George Pelecanos. I finished that in a few days, then went on to read almost all of his books. While searching for a new crime novelist, I came across heaps of praise for Koryta, and decided to check him out. He did not disappoint.

The plot of Envy the Night progresses quickly. Koryta's writing is detailed, yet never at the expense of forward movement. His protagonist, Frank Temple III, is both common and unique, predictable yet independent.

From the inside of the book jacket, Koryta sets in motion a story arc that seems headed for an obvious conclusion - that is, until things in Tomahawk,Wisconsin start to get dicey.

He moved at the first sound of her voice. Whirled and came toward her, fast and aggressive, and she had the sudden thought that surprising him like that had been a bad idea. The overhead lights were long, old-fashioned fluorescent tubes, and they didn't snap on like an incandescent lamp would. There was a hint of a glow, followed by a short humming sound, and then the room filled with light. By that time the guy had closed the gap between them to about five feet, and Nora stepped back, stumbling over the stool. When she pulled up short, he did, too, but her sense of command over the situation was already gone. He'd frightened her - she knew it, and he knew it. (45-46)

Koryta mixes action and insight effectively. Dialogue is authentic, and serves to advance the plot. Koryta also uses internal dialogue - which he places in italics - to provide emotion and backstory to his characters.

It's been a while since I was so engrossed in a novel that I didn't want to do anything else until I completed it. For those who enjoy a clean, plot-driven thriller with characters who don't try to step outside their roles, Envy the Night is highly recommended.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Tinker's 40th Anniversary

In celebration of Scholastic Journalism Week later this month, my journalism students and I will be wearing black armbands in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Tinker court decision, which affirmed students' rights to free speech within public school settings.

Other students, teachers, and even members of our school's administration - including the principal - will be wearing armbands in recognition of the Tinker children's unwillingness to allow school officials to censor them.

Because of the Tinker ruling, students in American schools are free to express their views, so long as that expression does not disrupt the educational process of the school. By ruling in favor of the Tinker children, the U.S. Supreme Court found that neither students or teachers "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

The Tinker children's "crime" was the wearing of black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam war. School officials disapproved of the message, and suspended the students indefinitely until they agreed to not wear the armbands. More than two weeks passed until the students returned to school after their scheduled period of protest ended.

Once news of the school's disciplinary action got out, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union agreed to represent the Tinker family in court. The plaintiffs argued that the school's actions violated the Tinker children's rights to free speech. The nation's highest court eventually agreed, and as such, future generations of schoolchildren have a legal precedent that supports their right to free speech.

Because I teach in Massachusetts, my students have additional free speech rights thanks to the state supreme court case of Pyle vs. South Hadley. That case found that students may engage in vulgar, non school-sponsored speech, so long as it does not disrupt the educational process of the school. The case stemmed from two brothers' attempts to wear Coed Naked t-shirts during gym class. Coed Naked t-shirts - known for sexual innuendo - were popular in the early-to mid-1990's. I remember because I owned a few of them while in high school. As members of the cross country team, a number of us had the shirt "Coed Naked Cross Country: Do It To The Rhythm."

Other popular shirts were "Coed Naked Soccer: Use Your Head to Score," "Coed Naked Football: Bring Out The Chains," and "Coed Naked Hockey: Two Minutes In The Box Isn't Enough."

My classmates and I never experienced any flack from teachers or administrators over the shirts. However, a South Hadley High School gym teacher didn't appreciate their messages, and tried to ban students from wearing them. Eventually the Massachusetts State Supreme Court ruled that the "vulgar" standard was capricious and subjective, and that the true measure of if something could be worn by a student was if it caused a substantial and material disruption to the educational process.

My students and I are extremely fortunate to conduct our business within a Massachusetts school led by an administrative team that acknowledges and understands the value of a free independent press, and the importance of students being free to express themselves. John and Mary Beth Tinker, Mr. B-G's English Blog salutes you!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Monday, February 9, 2009

Free Rice Goes Grammar... and Geography!

Free Rice, the website that allows you to earn and donate rice to hungry people through the United Nations World Food Program, now has new ways for you to feed those in need.

New subjects include English grammar, art, basic math, chemical symbols, and geography. The site is a great way to help others and kill time without rotting your brain.

Check out all the Free Rice categories here.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A New Look

I've decided to mix things up here at Mr. B-G's English Blog. After stumbling across what just might be the most helpful Blogger site out there, Blogger Buster, and perusing its beautiful link list of blog templates, I made the decision to make a switch.

A word of warning to any of you newer bloggers considering a switch: Most - if not all - of your widgets will be lost, and chances are the things you liked about your old blog won't necessarily reproduce themselves in your new blog. However, if you keep searching for the right template, it's likely you'll eventually find more things that you DO like with a new look that will make a switch worthwhile.

I suppose I grew tired of my bland background. I wanted something a bit more graphically appealing, yet still visually simple and easy to read. This template, called Zen, seemed to satisfy both of those requirements.

Monday, January 19, 2009

From the Teacher's Desk

A sampling of musings from the mind of a suburban high school English teacher:

School administrators are using adjectives like "bloody," "gloomy," and "bleak" to describe the current financial state of affairs for the rest of this year and next. I am hopeful that Barack Obama will authorize federal legislation to help cities and towns deal with declines in state aid revenue. I find it a bit disconcerting that we can easily lend billions of taxpayer dollars to automakers and finance companies, yet are forced to pause and deliberate when it comes to ensuring all our country's students receive a solid education. Anyone who has ever worked inside a school can tell you, every dollar does make a difference.

Are there any teachers out there with writing centers at their schools? When I was a M.Ed. graduate student at Plymouth State University, I worked in the college's writing center. It was one of the most enjoyable jobs I've ever had. In order to get the hang of it, I underwent training in the non-directive approach to writing consultation. One of the most valuable things I learned was "silent and wait time." For the non-directive approach to be effective, the writing consultant must be patient and give the student time to ruminate on an idea or improvement. This was quite different than my days as a newspaper reporter, when editors would explain everything I did wrong and then fix it for me. I hope to eventually create a student-staffed writing center at my high school, as I've seen how they can be effective. I believe that if implemented with care, they can work at the secondary level. Please contact me if you have experience with high school writing centers.

Launching a high school newspaper advertising initiative in the middle of the year is difficult. For years my high school's newspaper was published in-house on an archaic printing press that only one teacher knew how to use. When he retired last year, so did the press and all that it produced. Left without a means to publish our newspaper, I was relegated to performing evening prayer rituals to Joseph Pulitzer in hopes of securing funding. My calls were eventually answered by my principal, who offered to give us enough money to publish five papers this year. My goal for next year (or perhaps even later this year) is to create an advertising department with a business manager responsible for generating enough ad sales to allow each issue to pay for itself.

We finally got around to hosting our Poetry Out Loud Recitation Contest. The original date was a wash due to a snow day. As a result, interest waned, and only two students ended up reciting a poem. We do have a winner though, and she'll represent our school at the Massachusetts semi-final recitation contest this March.

Second quarter grades close this Friday. I should be in decent shape grading wise, as unlike years past, I made sure to not have a major essay due right before the close of the quarter. It took me five years to figure this out, but I am learning, albeit slowly.

I plan to add a new section to my blog called "student work." Recently two students did stellar jobs on their Outside Reading Book presentations. One created a movie trailer for Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," which he published to YouTube. I highly recommend checking it out, as it's professional quality. Another did answering machine messages for five characters from Stephanie Meyer's "Breaking Dawn." She captured the characters' essences to the T.