Sunday, January 24, 2010

21st Century Literacies

I enjoyed this short video about students using technology in their English class. While I have yet to incorporate Twitter into a lesson, it's something I'm open to trying. The National Council of Teachers of English has recommended that teachers begin working 21st century literacies into the classroom. The NCTE has also put together a policy brief for teachers and administrators about what 21st century literacies are, and what they look like in the classroom.

Here is one more video about using Twitter specifically in the classroom.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A long week

Last week was one of the longest and most difficult I've experienced as an educator. The first source of stress was the closing of Second Quarter grades. The second was our monthly faculty meeting, although that really wasn't as stressful as much as it was simply a time commitment. Despite much of the negative publicity that seems to surround teachers and faculty meetings, it's my feeling that our principal really tries to make our meetings as relevant and engaging as possible. For the most part, he succeeds at this task. I can honestly say I actually enjoy some of these meetings!

The third stressor was the fact that we weren't allowed to use our computers because a Trojan had infected the entire network. This was a MAJOR problem for me, as so much of what I do in the classroom is dependent on technology. It appears that most computers have been fixed, but the mini-lab in my room still needs to pass a clean bill of health before I can reconnect to the network. Given that my 9th grade students are working on short stories, I really need the ability to do word processing. They could initially write their stories by hand, but eventually I want the stories posted to their class blogs, so the sooner we have the ability to get them into digital form, the better.

The greatest stressor though, the one that really puts those above three items into perspective, is that one of my students, a 15-year-old freshman, killed herself. It's an unbelievably tragic event that has really rocked my world and the school community. While some of my peers have met tragic ends  - via cancer, a motorcycle accident, and suicide by hanging - I've never had a student so young die, let alone take her own life.

The circumstances surrounding why she killed herself are complicated, and currently under investigation by local and state authorities. As such, I'm reluctant to say much more. I do know that the word of her death devastated me for the past few days. I found myself thinking about her constantly, searching for some kind of insight or solace. One of the last things she said to me involved a conversation she had had with a former student of mine. "Mitch said I'm really lucky to have you as a teacher," she told me. I told her I appreciated the sentiment, and that I enjoyed having Mitch in class. What I wanted to tell her, what was on the tip of my tongue, what I would have said had I not at that moment been distracted by one of my other students, was that I was equally as lucky to have her as a student.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lit Circle Jobs 2.0

Today my district had a three-hour professional development day. While many teachers might cringe as they envision high-priced education bureaucrats and consultants lecturing at teachers in cramped auditoriums, fortunately my school decided to let the staff propose a variety of activities for which colleagues could sign up.

Our tech-savvy librarian offered a workshop on Google Documents. Our special-ed director led a seminar on the school's co-teaching initiative. And I participated in an independent study where I did research and created a new assignment.

One of my most popular blog posts from a couple years ago was about literature circles. During today's workshop, I created six new literature circles roles. When I originally started using literature circles, I had the basics - Connector, Illustrator, Quoter, Question Creator. Click here for my first version. I worked to refine the wording and increase the amount of written response over the last couple of years. At the start of this year, I added two new jobs and tweaked the titles for all. So, in September my students were greeted with this document and presented the following options: Line Illuminator, Connection Captain, Word Warlock, Question Commander, Illustrious Artist, and Summary Sultan. Pretty snazzy right?

For the most part, students got excited about their roles, met my expectations, and effectively used their "jobs" to facilitate both small group and whole-class discussion on the reading. And just when you thought it couldn't get any more exciting, along comes Lit Circle Jobs 2.0! featuring the Character Commandant, Mood Maven, Insightful Identifier, Symbol Sleuth, Mind Muser, and Reactionary Revealer. I'll be trying out these new jobs with my seniors as they read Treasure Island, and my freshmen when we dive into The Old Man and the Sea.

If you have any questions about how I use literature circles, or if you've had your own success using them in your classroom, I would love to hear about it. Those of you who do use my work in your classrooms, please give credit to Mr. B-G, Thanks!

Circle image from Wassily Kandinsky,

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A decade of my life

I first saw the format for this post on Epiphany in Baltimore, the honest and insightful blog of a 30-something high school English teacher in Baltimore City. I really appreciate his candor, and at times wish I could be as forthcoming.

When I started this blog at the end of 2006, I made a decision to publicize it with my students, colleagues, and administrators. As such, at any given time, the superintendent of schools, my department chair, or Johnny's mom could be reading. That doesn't bother me. In fact, I am elated to have a variety of readers. What it does mean, though, is that I sometimes filter feelings and raw emotion, which, in turn, makes my writing not as powerful or affecting as it could be. Yet that's OK. This blog's purpose is not to serve as a drippy digital journal where I reveal my innermost thoughts and secrets. It's primarily designed to be a sharing and learning tool.

With that said, I will now, ironically, reveal more intimate details about my life than ever before...

2000: Graduated from college with a degree in Journalism and a minor in English. Landed my first full-time job as a newspaper reporter at a mid-sized daily in central Massachusetts. While living at home, I managed to save $7,000.

2001: Quit my job at the paper to fulfill a dream I'd had since high school - hike the 2,175 mile Appalachian Trail. I manged to last three months and 1,000 miles before succumbing to two straight weeks of rain. Wrote a series of columns about my hike called "Tales from the Trail." Landed my first "job" in education as a volunteer tour guide at a nature reserve, which eventually led to a full-time middle school sub position.

2002: Survived the year as a building sub and decided if I could handle that, I could handle just about anything the world of education could throw at me. I enrolled in graduate school and spent the summer working at a really fun arts camp for kids.

2003: Had success teaching composition to first-year college students. Gained experience working at a writing center where I learned of the "non-directive approach." This would have a significant effect on my teaching philosophy.

2004: Earned a M.Ed. in English Education. Landed my first full-time teaching gig at a small high school in Western Massachusetts. My first year of teaching proved to be challenging and more work than I had imagined. I made it through the year, but had doubts about teaching as a career choice.

2005: Spent the summer mulling my future in education. I eventually switched to a larger high school in a nearby community. This was fortuitous, as I was paired with a mentor who would validate my ideas about education and encourage me to stick with it. He became an outstanding professional resource and great friend.

I met the girl I would marry at a coffee shop. She was a grad student studying to be a teacher who agreed to meet me on the condition that I would help her prepare for the teacher test. Fortunately, our next date did not involve test preparation.

2006: Served on a variety of committees at my school. Was given better classes to teach, including a Journalism elective. Started blogging. Won a grant from the New England Association of Teachers of English, which went toward the purchase of a new classroom computer. Hiked a 100-mile section of the AT with an old high school friend. Decided I would finish the trail bit-by-bit, knocking off various chunks during summer vacations.

2007: Proposed to my wife outdoors on snowshoes. Rewrote the Journalism curriculum. Had my students published in a national poetry anthology.

2008: Got married. Purchased my first home. Earned tenure. A huge year.

2009: Took a breath after all the action of 2008. Settled into married life and home ownership. Revamped the school newspaper as advisor and enjoyed success as students won awards. Earned the title of Certified Journalism Educator. Enrolled in a Master of Educational Technology graduate program.

Friday, January 1, 2010

This year I will...

Thanks to Kevin for sharing this cool little New Year's Resolution generator. While I have a number of goals for this year (which will likely be the fodder for future blog posts), I like the simplicity of how "JOG" fits neatly in the center of this image. This also makes for a good metaphor, as jogging has always helped keep me centered and feeling  right, both mentally and physically.

I ran cross-country in high school, and was a captain my senior year. My best mile was 5:10. While I don't necessarily have ambitions to run that fast again (although I'm certainly open to the idea), my plan for 2010 is to make running a regular part of my routine. Starting today, I vow to run at least two miles four times per week. By doing that consistently, I will be able to bring balance into other areas of my life and have more energy and mental focus. Here's to good health for all in the coming year.

Canon S90 Review

This holiday season I received a present that has rekindled my enjoyment and appreciation of photography, the Canon Powershot S90 digital camera. Ever since the digital revolution began at the turn of the century, my experience with photography has been limited to point-and-shoot cameras that had paltry manual controls. Given the high price of digital SLRs, I was content to compromise camera creativity and artistic freedom for portability and convenience. Well, with the S90, I no longer need to make that trade-off.

While the S90 doesn't have the image quality of true single-lens reflex cameras, it packs an above-average size sensor that's closer to those found on full-size rigs. It also has a fast f/2.0 lens that lets twice as much light in as most compact cameras. The larger sensor and wider (faster) lens provide greater image quality and better shots under low light conditions. But I did not decide on this camera just for its sensor and lens. What sets the S90 apart from other point-and-shoots is a fully programmable control ring on the front of the camera that allows the user to adjust shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focus, zoom, exposure, or white-balance.

The selection of the front ring's function determines the setting of a second control wheel located on the back of the camera. For example, I have my front ring set to control aperture. As a result, the rear wheel defaults to control shutter speed. And, as if that weren't enough manipulation, an easy-to-access programmable shortcut button allows me to change the ISO with the flick of a finger. In the days of film, a photographer would be stuck with whatever speed was in the camera. When I used to carry my Olympus OM-2 everywhere, I usually went with 200-speed film. It provided some flexibility in low-light situations, while also allowing for high-quality outdoor shots when lighting was optimal.

With the Canon S90, I now have the portability of a point-and-shoot with a full array of easy-to-manipulate manual controls previously found only in SLRs. While it's going to take me a little while to learn how to wield all of the camera's features to their potential, I'm looking forward to becoming acquainted with this new camera that's willing to let me be an equal participant in composition process.

If you're seriously considering purchasing this camera, I can't recommend enough Richard Franiec's S90 Grip. Aside from making the camera more sturdy to hold, it's also made it more enjoyable to use, as it really feels right on your fingers. Plus, it looks cool, and appears to have been part of the camera's original construction. The image of the S90 above features the grip. The first link in this post takes you to Canon's website where you can see the camera without the grip.

S90 image from, accessed 1/1/10