Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year

In a few hours, the clock will strike midnight and we'll bid adieu to 2011.

After a two-month hiatus, I hope to blog with greater frequency in 2012. While life has a way of keeping us busy, there's real value in finding the time to record and reflect on events - both in and out of the classroom.

Catch you on the flip side.

Fireworks image by Flickr user martin.linkov

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A good walk

Recently, I went for a walk with one of my 9th grade classes. It was an impromptu, unscripted jaunt, and in total took less than five minutes.

It was the last period of the day and it was gorgeous outside. My students were about to work on major essays. What I would be asking of them would require focus, concentration, and attention to detail.

As soon as the bell rang and they were seated, I made an announcement that we would be going outside for a walk.

Their faces beamed. Smiles and grins filled the room. "Really?" "Outside?"


And outside we went. I had charted the route a few minutes earlier during the end of my prep period, leaving one of the side doors to the school ajar with a rock. I told the students I knew they had a lot to do that period, I knew it had already been a long day, and that I thought a little fresh air might help them focus. They all agreed.

"We should do this every day." "How far are we going?" "Can we go all the way around the school?"

We went about one quarter of the way around the building before turning in a side door and returning to the classroom. Once inside, students pulled up their essays on the computers and netbooks and began making revisions. Once done, they copied their work from Google Docs to Blogger, where they posted their essays for classmates to comment on.

Most of them did a nice job focusing on their work and being productive. I was able to circulate through the room, offering feedback and answering questions during mini writing consultations. It was a positive ending to the day, set in motion by a gut judgement about what the students needed most at that time.

Forest path photo by my sister-in-law, mindwhisperings at Flickr

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Vocabulary Video - Ebullient

As I wrote about earlier, one of my goals this year was to create vocabulary videos with my students. The above is an example video I created and shared with my classes. By early next week, my seniors will have made their first videos. The freshmen will follow suit. I'm excited about the possibilities of this new teaching tool.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Keeping my jog on

I just got back from a 3.5 mile jog. One of my personal goals this year is to maintain - and eventually improve - my current level of fitness. Part of being a public high school teacher is coming to terms with the fact that there is always going to be an inordinate number of things to do, and never quite enough time to do them.

This means that when I go to complete a task - be it grading an essay, crafting a lesson plan, writing a letter of recommendation, or researching an idea for a new lesson - I need to be at the top of my game. In order to maximize my time and efficiency, I need to be taking care of myself.

This year, that means adding a banana and yogurt to my regular breakfast of an English muffin or bagel. It means getting seven hours of sleep at least five of the seven days of the week. And it means working out five of those days as well.

I've found it's easy to pay lip service to the idea of working out, eating better, and sleeping more. It's quite another to actually live those ideas. I will say that since my wife and I got a dog this past summer, we've both been more active, and a little less self involved. Having something else to care for besides ourselves has helped expand our sense of what home life is like. It's allowed us a bit more perspective, and given us more opportunities to live in the moment, something our dog Alyza is able to do quite well.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Inside a Honda Accord

That's where I was, driving to my first education-related interview, when I learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center. It was a picturesque September morning. I was listening to NPR, when all of a sudden they switched from local to national coverage to give us minute-by-minute updates of what was happening.

It was a true juxtaposition of images and sound, my eyes taking in the morning sun as it bounced off leaves and was absorbed by the grassy fields that marked my way to a local nature reserve. The sound, the voice of Peter Jennings and other correspondents working to make sense of the chaos unfolding in real time in New York City. It was bizarre and frightening. I remember trying to explain it to the man I was meeting with, the director of a wildlife sanctuary where I was trying to land a gig as a volunteer tour guide.

Fresh from hiking 1,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail after quitting my job as a newspaper reporter, I was looking to gain entrance into the field of education, hoping to parlay my affinity for nature and my abilities as a journalist into something new. Fortunately, the director of the reserve decided to give me a shot. I was paired with a veteran staffer, taken on a tour of the grounds, and given the green light to welcome school groups to the sanctuary.

I used my experience there to land a paying job at a local YWCA, working with kindergarten and early elementary school children. My gig at the "Y" helped me get some substitute teaching work at area middle and high schools. Eventually, I was hired as a full-time building substitute at a middle school, where I spent time as a sub and special-ed paraprofessional.

Later that year I worked as a journalism and creative writing teacher at a summer arts camp, then went on to graduate school, where I studied English education. After earning a degree and passing the state's teacher test, I landed a job teaching English and journalism to high school students in Massachusetts. I'm now in my eighth year working at the secondary level.

In addition to being linked to 9/11, my ascension from volunteer tour guide to full-time classroom teacher also has parallels with the meteoric rise of a certain New England Patriots quarterback. Tom Brady, a 2001 sixth-round draft choice, went from being a bench-riding rookie to Super Bowl MVP. While I don't have any trophies to boast of, I do have an excellence in teaching award, bestowed upon me by one of the members of my high school's 2010 graduating class. While the award is nice recognition for the hard work I've put in, even more meaningful is the personalized message that accompanied the award, written by one of my former students.

Just as I hope that Tom Brady's best days as a quarterback are not behind him, the same goes for myself as an educator. Currently enrolled in a second master's degree program, I hope to continue to learn about ways I can be an effective teacher and make a positive difference in the lives of my students. On this day, 10 years after my journey as an educator began, I am thankful to those who have helped me grow from a young man uncertain about his place in the world to a (slightly older) man who, while still seeking, has landed on a path that's proven to be both personally and professionally rewarding.

The Honda Accord image above, while identical to the car I used to drive, came from here.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Google Docs and student blogs

Tomorrow begins week two of the 2011-2012 school year. One of the tasks students will be expected to complete for Tuesday is the creation of a Gmail account. While the majority of my seniors already had Gmail accounts, the same cannot be said for my freshmen. And, for those students who did use Gmail, very few of them had ever used Google Docs, the free office suit that allows you to create text documents, spreadsheets, presentations, surveys, and pictures, in addition to providing users with online storage for their documents.

One of the greatest benefits of Google Docs is, aside from the cost (free), its ease of use. All one needs to create a document is an Internet browser and an Internet connection. Work is saved automatically to the cloud, which is a huge benefit for students who are working on assignments both in school and at home. Google Docs also allows for easy collaboration, as multiple users may access and edit the same document in real time.

For the past three years, my school has placed emphasis on helping students transition from 8th to 9th grade. Aside from teaching content, all freshmen teachers are asked to explicitly teach organizational and study skills, as how students study is almost as important as what they study. Google Docs, I believe, is a crucial tool that will help students stay organized as they further develop their academic personas.

While Google Docs is a tool that students can use for all of their classes, Blogger is a tool that, at least initially, can be best utilized for English class. Because Blogger is run by Google, once students have a Gmail account, they're ready to create their own blogs. In 2007 I began using blogs as a way for students to share writing and provide each other with feedback. When you're writing for an audience beyond just your teacher, there's a little bit more incentive to see that your words accurately convey your ideas.

As a student, I certainly cared about grades, but I think I cared more about what my friends thought of me and my ideas. As a writer, having a real audience to read your work and provide you with feedback is invaluable. My role as a teacher is to model for students how to constructively respond to their classmates' writing. If I am successful, they will begin to look for the kinds of things that I would look for. And eventually, they'll be able to turn that critical eye on their own work.

Depending on students' previous exposure to the writing workshop model, this can either go smoothly or be quite arduous. Either way, we'll eventually get to a place where we feel comfortable sharing constructive feedback aimed at helping each other see how well our intentions for a piece measure up with reality.  

Google Docs image by Lucia Agut

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The new year

Tomorrow marks the start of the new school year, my seventh at my current school. My room's set up, handouts for the first day are copied, seating chart's done, and the tissues/hand sanitizer/lotion station's resupplied and ready to go.

I've made a few tweaks to my grading system, and clarified a couple of initial lessons. I still want to tweak my summer reading essay assignment, revise a quote of the day analysis activity I've used as a warm up in previous years (which will serve as my "Do Now" on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), and create a "non fiction reading log" type of assignment that students can use on Tuesdays and Thursdays when we read the newspaper.

One of my goals this year is to incorporate regular reading of the newspaper into all my classes, not just Journalism. There's a lot of value in knowing about what's going on in the world. There's also something to be said for the element of choice that comes into play when one picks up a newspaper. Helping students to better read non-fiction texts while simultaneously fostering a positive association with reading are two great things. To this day, there are few things I enjoy more than Sunday mornings with a fresh cup of coffee and the latest Boston Sunday Globe.

Aside from getting kids to read the paper, I'm going to want them all to have Gmail accounts, so they can become familiar with Google Docs. Almost all of my students who have used it in the past love it, as it's user-friendly and makes it easy to work on assignments at home and at school without having to worry about USB drives, e-mail attachments, and the like.

This weekend I hope to create my first vocabulary video, which I can model for the kids. I'm excited about the potential this idea has, but like anything new, it needs to be explicitly taught. And before I can explicitly teach it, I need to be sure I know what I'm doing and why I'm doing it!

While it can be easy to let the weight of local, state, and federal mandates sink our spirits as educators, we're also buoyed by the opportunities to create and help our students make meaning of this amazing and complex world.

Happy First Day!

Buoy image by jouste

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A delayed return

Due to Tropical Storm Irene's touchdown in Massachusetts this morning, my district's opening day for teachers has been pushed back to Tuesday. While this means that technically my summer vacation is one more day, the reality is I have one more of "my own" days to work and prepare for the new year before doing so in official capacity.

My district, like my wife's, only requires teachers to come in one day before the students arrive. As you likely know if you are or have been a teacher, one day is grossly insufficient to prepare for a new academic year. Aside from the literal logistics of unpacking items from storage and setting up the classroom, there's mental setup to do as well.

For me, that means reviewing the various notes I've made to myself from the previous year about what didn't work so well and what needs to change. It's also incorporating ideas from various journal articles, newspapers, and pedagogical texts that I think will engage the students and help me be a more effective teacher. Sometimes I'll scrap something I'm bored with, or try a different approach just because I'm curious about the results.

In no particular order, here are some of the things that I've either been doing or need to get done for the start of school:

- Print class rosters
- Create seating charts
- Review my syllabus and make changes to my "teacher expectations"
- Revise the interview activity I typically do on the first or second day
- Make any changes to my grading system I feel are necessary and put them in writing
- Revise my list of staff descriptions for the newspaper students
- Decide how I am going to assign and assess outside reading books this year
- Create a new non-fiction writing assignment that incorporates research
- Decide how I want to integrate the reading of newspapers into my classes
- Figure out what I want to do for the "Do Nows" mandated by administration for all 9th grade teachers
- Rethink how I teach vocabulary, and possibly introduce vocabulary videos.
- Revise the summer reading essay assignment I plan to give students  on the second or third day of school
- Create a survey to administer to my students about their previous experiences reading, writing, and speaking, both in and outside of school
- Decide exactly how I want to blog with students this year. Will we use Blogger? Something else?
- Tweak/create my permission forms for parents to sign (movies, blogging, YouTube)
- Remember to collect parent e-mail addresses
- Install the Smartboard software onto my computer
- Create new class folders
- Decide where on my boards I want to place the agendas for each class
- Think about how (if) I want to use Twitter this year to post assignments
- Finish updating my netbooks and classroom computers
- Write a letter to parents and students explaining my educational philosophy
- Place students' names on Post-It notes on my classroom desks so students know where to sit on the first day
- Put up a couple of labels describing the various parts of my classroom and where things are

And these are just some the things I want to do. My department chair will have other things, and so will my principal. Now, I enjoy my job. It's meaningful, important, and allows me to be creative and work with some great people and students. It also is a job. It's a lot of work. People who think teachers have it easy, or are overpaid, really don't understand what we do. And again, this is an incomplete list of things I need to do, notwithstanding creating engaging lesson plans, executing said lesson plans, designing assessments, delivering assessments, evaluating assessments, communicating with students, communicating with parents, communicating with colleagues and administrators, studying and implementing special ed accommodations and modifications, filling out administrator-mandated rubrics, deciding how I want to run a new mandated advisory group, overseeing production of the school newspaper, taking classes for a second master's degree...

The purpose here is not to devolve this post into a rant, but rather to illustrate some of the things teachers must do and consider before the school year commences.

Having one extra day to work on them is nice.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Principal encourages social media in the classroom

It's nice to know that educators like Eric Sheninger are getting recognized for their sensible approach to technology and learning. Sheninger, principal of a high school in New Jersey, believes in tapping the power of social media to engage students.

"The Internet as we know it is the 21st century," Sheninger says in a recent article from USA Today. "It is what these students have known their whole lives. They're connected, they're creating, they're discussing, they're collaborating."

I have been very fortunate to have worked for a principal who embraced technology and supported my efforts to use digital tools and social media in the classroom. While he retired last year, his replacement seems equally interested in using Web 2.0 tools, and has plans to start a blog in order to allow him to communicate with students, parents, and faculty. I think it's a wonderful idea.

If you're an educator, and you aren't blogging, you should, according to Wired Educator's Kelly Croy.  Click here to get started and join the conversation!

Social media image by Stephen Traversie

Creativity on the decline

University of Oregon educational psychologist Ron Beghetto observed the following about the effect NCLB and Race to the Top are having on America's students in a recent study on creativity

"The current focus on testing in schools, and the idea that there is only one right answer to a question, may be hampering development of creativity among kids. There's not much room for unexpected, novel, divergent thought."

What a sad commentary on the state of our schools, which seem to be rewarding regurgitated factology and uniform verbiage. And just what are the repercussions of this creative drain caused by the beauro-corporate testing squeeze? Research scientist Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary:

"If we just focus on just No Child Left Behind — testing, testing, testing — then how can creative students survive? If this trend continues then students who look different, nonconformists, will suffer, because they are not accepted."

We are a culture obsessed with being "right." We've got to get the right car and the right house in the right neighborhood. We need the right music and the right phone. We need the right dress and the right style and the right attitude.

Students need the right answer, with the right bubble filled in the right way in the right amount of time. Teachers need to be giving students the right (corporately sanctioned) education in the right (one-dimensional) way, with the right (jargon-filled, administrator-approved) agenda and the right (factual, memorizable, testable) skills in the right (curriculum-dictated) order on the right (scripted) day.

Well, maybe right now is the time to call an end to this nonsense.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A review of Fish!

Based on a recommendation from a fellow journalism teacher, I picked up and read the book Fish! - A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results. It was a quick read with a simple parable about how the qualities of a successful fish market in Seattle can be applied to any business or organization to make it a more productive and enjoyable place to work.

As the advisor to my high school's newspaper, I am interested in ways to make the staff more productive and engaged in their task of creating a quality scholastic publication. Fish! gives its readers a glimpse of the inner-workings of Pike Place Fish, analyzing the business for the qualities that make it a world-renowned market.

The authors found that the market's employees demonstrate the following: 1) they live in the present moment, 2) they aim to truly make their customer's day, 3) they infuse elements of play with their work, and 4) they're aware that they have the power to choose their own attitude each day.

That last concept is the most important. While we can't always choose the work that we do, we can choose the way we do it. By bringing positive energy to what we do, and by doing it to the best of our ability, we can transform mundane tasks into meaningful ones.

I am currently on vacation at the beach. A couple of miles down the road from where I am staying is a small coffee shop. Its ice coffee is flavorful, its breakfast sandwiches are hearty, and its wraps are a delectable balance of meat and accoutrement. What makes it special, though, are the employees who work there. The last time I was in, the woman behind the counter engaged me from the moment I placed my order until the second the door closed behind me on my way out.

The server spoke to me with energy and passion, excited about her culinary offerings and invested in making sure I got everything I wanted, in as pleasant and joyful a manner as possible. She referred to me as "honey" and "sweetie," and asked her coworker if he could "be a doll" and get her an iced coffee. The fancy chicken wrap sandwich I ordered not only had the word "fancy" written on it, it also had a picture of a bow, as if it had been wrapped up all nice and special, just for me.

These actions are those of employees who are engaged, living in the moment, and bringing energy to what some might consider the basic, even menial task of working food service in a small coffee shop. The way these people approach their job makes for an enjoyable customer experience. It also leads me to believe that their attitude helps make Cape Ann Coffees a fun place to work.

If you're looking for insights on how to boost the productivity of your workers and cheer up your workplace, I'd recommend this book. Its effectiveness lies not in the depth or profundity of its message, but rather on the few simple truths it manages to capture clearly and convey earnestly.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Vocabulary Videos

One new idea for this coming school year involves having my students create vocabulary videos. While I have yet to formally think everything through, the gist is that every week or so, students - working in groups of two to four - would create a one-minute video on a given vocabulary word, Latin or Greek root, or literary term.

Each video would contain certain ingredients (a brief history of the word, its usage, parts of speech, synonyms, antonyms, appropriate background music, use of props) and would be uploaded to a private YouTube account which only students in the class could view.

Students would be given one or two class periods to do research on their word, strategize for their video, film, and edit. What they didn't accomplish in class would be homework. Then, on "viewing days," I would pull up the class's YouTube page, provide each group with a critique sheet, and we would watch the videos. Each group would be assigned to assess another's video. The assessment sheets would ask students to think about the required video "ingredients" and ask them to observe if they were absent, present, or exceptional (or something like that).

The idea is that if the video had all of the required pieces and conveyed the meaning of the word in an accurate, entertaining, and creative way, the group would get an "A" for the video. Points would be deducted accordingly for videos that didn't meet the various criteria. Students would be shown sample videos and given an opportunity to assess them before actually grading each other's. This way, students would hopefully be "calibrated" and have a grasp of what constitutes a complete and well-crafted project.

After all the videos were viewed, students would share their rating sheets with the respective groups whose videos they evaluated. This would give students an opportunity to discuss with each other the strengths and merits as they saw them. In the event a disagreement arose about a group's rating, I would step in as mediator and help the students work things out. In the end, I will have the final say about what each group gets for a grade, but I'm optimistic that the students will be fair and accurate evaluators of each other's work. When I've done peer assessments in the past, I've found students to be as - if not more - critical than I. The key is getting students to look for strengths as well as weaknesses. 

The creation of these videos will serve as a substitute to more traditional vocabulary quizzes. Too often I've seen students cram for vocabulary quizzes, get the necessary information into their short-term memory, do well on a quiz, and then fail to use the words later on in their speech or writing. My theory is that by producing something and being actively engaged in "meaning-making," they'll retain the words and their meanings better (and hopefully use them more frequently).

The nice thing about uploading the videos to YouTube is that they'll be available for viewing later on. Then, maybe every four or five weeks, I'll have some kind of written assessment where students have to use the words in sentences or fill in the blank or match or write an antonym or something. In order to review for the written assessment, they'll be able to cue up the YouTube page and peruse the videos of the words they don't know.

While I'm sure there will be some kinks to work out and quirks I won't have planned for, I'm confident we'll be able to overcome them.

As for the technological end of things, I've been able to acquire a number of computers for my classroom over the years, and, thanks to websites offering educators steep discounts, I have a handful of Flip video cameras I can lend to students. They'll also, of course, be able to use their own devices to create and edit the videos should they so choose.

Look for me to post my own vocabulary video(s) in the coming weeks. Also, if you've ever done something like this before, or know of any possibly helpful resources, feel free to drop a note in the comments section. Thanks!

Video camera image by chelzdd

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A School [We'd] Love To See

Chris Lehmann from Practical Theory recently shared the following idea for a high school:
Every morning, the first thing everyone did was read the New York Times for an hour, [and] using some kind of Kindle-style software they can annotate with ideas, questions, etc... such that at the end of the hour, the school community could see who had similar questions from the day’s paper.

Imagine what it would look like if the kids spent the better part of the day researching those questions and seeing where that took them, with the end of every day being a "share out" where kids shared what they learned across a variety of media.

Wouldn't that be a better high school experience than many of the schools across the country? Wouldn't it be an amazing way to encourage life-long learning, inquiry-based learning, research, collaboration and presentation if kids did something like this every day?

Yes and yes. What Lehmann is really speaking to is the value and relevance of using newspapers in the classroom. As a former journalist and current classroom teacher, newspapers are a great way to expose students to professionally-written prose that is accessible and relevant. For seven years I've used various newspapers (The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, USA Today) in my journalism classroom. This coming school year, I'd like to extend this use to my other English classes.

One good thing to come out of the Common Core Craziness is a renewed focus on using non-fiction texts in the classroom. While I haven't figured out exactly how I'd like to structure it, I would like to begin most of my classes with a 10-minute newspaper reading session to catch up on the day's events. After the 10 minutes, we might have a discussion, respond to a prompt, or simply segue into the next activity.

I'm a big fan of meaningful routines, and it's hard to think of one more valuable than starting each day by reading about the world we live in.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A redesign... and a return?

As you might have noticed, I recently changed this blog's template. The text area is wider, and the font is larger. There's also a nice background image of a field and a trail leading up a hill. It's been a little while since I've posted regularly to Mr. B-G's English Blog. This is certainly not for a lack of ideas or a lessened desire to be a participant in the dialogue. Rather, obligations for my master's of educational technology degree with Boise State University have taken up much of the time I used to dedicate to blogging.

As part of a "culminating activity" for my degree, I will need to create an electronic portfolio full of blog post reflections, discussions, and "artifacts" from each of the 10 courses which will comprise my degree. So far I'm about halfway there, ready to begin my fifth class, "Theoretical Foundations of Educational Technology," in a couple of weeks.

Aside from my EDTECH classes, I also took an online course from Kent State University this past June called "Teaching Photoshop." It was a great way for me to overcome my fear of using some of Photoshop's more advanced features. Each week we had to create a project that utilized a variety of tools and filters. The lessons built on each other, requiring us to truly grasp earlier concepts if we were to have any success on the more complicated projects.

As far as learning tangible skills, it was one of the best online courses I've taken. I'm excited about the opportunity to help my students take their Photoshop know-how to the next level.

So, yeah. Graduate school. That's my excuse for not blogging as frequently. It's certainly valid, but it's not the sole reason. Truth be told, so many of the harmful developments in education, and the hurtful and derogatory ways teachers have been portrayed in the media and, subsequently, treated in reality, have given me pause about the number of years I have left in this profession.

Could I still end up spending my entire professional career in education? Sure. Does the possibility of doing something else also entice me, especially in the wake of the testing craze and the blame-teachers-for-all-the-ills-of-society rhetoric? Yes. 

This summer I taught myself how to build a computer. So far I've built two complete systems, with two more in the queue. I've really enjoyed the process of specing out a unit, amassing the components, and then putting them together so they function at an optimal level. It's very rewarding to be able to take the steps from concept to creation. 

As a kid I was interested in making things from salvaged or second-hand parts. In fourth grade I created an "inventor's club" at my elementary school, which featured regular meetings and trips to area museums. It was neat stuff, being on the cutting edge of an idea or the implementation of a theory. One "invention" I recall involved ripping the guts out of a standard walkie-talkie and retrofitting it with parts from old radios to boost the performance. 

After changing out a few things and stringing 20 feet of wire up a large evergreen tree in my backyard, I was able to listen to and speak with truckers on their CB radios. I remember this being quite awesome, especially because it was made possible by my own tinkering.


I hope to return to this space more frequently as I work out my own feelings about where public education is headed in this country, and what my role will be. Shall I stick it out and work to be an implement of positive change (assuming this is still actually possible), or will politics and an edu-corporate agenda drive me to test the waters of free enterprise?

Stick around to find out.

Pine Tree image by chikachika72

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Matt Damon and his mom represent in D.C.

Damon to America's teachers:

"The next time you encounter some simple-minded, punitive policy that’s been driven into your life by some corporate reformer who has literally never taught anyone anything, please, please, please know that there are millions of us behind you.

"Our appreciation for what you do is so deeply felt. We love you, we thank you, and we will always have your back."

Well said Mr. Damon, well said.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Springing to the finish

Tomorrow I head to Central Mass for Easter with my wife, folks, and sister. After that it's back home to read some essays, tackle this week's assignments for my Evaluation for Educational Technologists graduate course, write a letter of recommendation for a friend interested in becoming an English teacher, and catch the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

On Monday I'll be busy compiling seniors' midterm grades, and on Tuesday and Wednesday I'll assist with the visits of our two finalists to fill the position of principal when our current leader retires at the end of the year. I'll also be putting in extra time to assist my journalism students as they work to create their next issue of the newspaper.

Spring is a busy time in the world of education. It's also an exciting time, as students become giddy with the warmer weather and the anticipated arrival of summer. Before school lets out, though, there is much to be done. My seniors are currently working on in-depth research essays on the subjects of their choice. The topics run the gamut, and include: the science of the Big Bang theory, methods of treating autism in adolescents, the makings of Ray Allen's jump shot, the dangers of texting and driving, and the prevalence of supplement use among high school and college athletes.

Left to their own devices (and with proper scaffolding), students picked some meaningful topics that they all had some connection to or personal interest in. The essay itself involves research, a personal interview, and effective use of both exposition and narrative. It's a variation of an assignment I taught during my two years at Plymouth State University as a graduate student and adjunct composition instructor.

This essay is one of my favorite assignments, as it requires students to do meaningful, scholarly work on a topic relevant to their lives. Helping students think through their theses and assisting them with their research sources is rewarding. The end result generally yields a product that I both look forward to and enjoy reading.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Three on three

Last week I participated in a three-on-three basketball tournament at my high school. I decided to play two hours before the tournament after one of my students asked me if I'd be on his team at the end of class. Having played basketball in high school - I was a force in my town's recreation league, but lacked the requisite size and quickness to make the cut for the official school team - I agreed.

I can recall quite vividly one game my senior year where I scored 18 points, hitting five 3-pointers and completing an "and one." That game was probably one of my top 10 highlights from high school. The fact that the team we played that day contained a number of former members from the high school team (who decided for whatever reason to play rec league that year) made it even sweeter.

While it had been almost three months since I shot a basketball, I can honestly say I did not embarrass myself in the tournament, which was a real possibility. While I was by no means "good," I set solid pics, had a few assist, hit some open jumpers, and tossed in a few old-school post moves. While my basketball skills weren't as rusty as they could have been, my overall lack of conditioning made me a defensive liability. One of my students buried two 3-pointers in my face, then took me off the dribble on a baseline move that rendered me incompetent.

After two games I was exhausted, chugging my water bottle whenever there was a break in the action. By the sixth game, I was having trouble focusing, and was incapable of keeping track of the score.When my team finally lost after I threw up an airball that could have tied it, I thanked my teammates for some good games, gathered my stuff, and limped to the car.

Since that game I've decided to put an end to this winter of sloth. I went for a 2.5-mile jog yesterday, and went for a long walk today. I stretched, and even did a few push-ups and sit-ups. In order to ensure I can enjoy myself when I go hiking on the Appalachian Trail this summer, it's important that I begin exercising regularly now. I also wouldn't mind an opportunity to play a few of my students one more time so they can see Mr. B-G's still got (some minute semblance of) game. 

Image from Cherokee Boys Basketball, accessed 3/20/11

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A quick hello

I haven't been posting much, as obligations with graduate school and a new course I'm teaching have taken up much of my blogging time. I still regularly read education blogs and articles, but rather than posting reflections and implications for my teaching here, that output has gone toward assignments and discussion postings for my classwork, and the creation of new lessons and units for my Accelerated English 12 class.

I've also been using Twitter to post links to articles I find interesting and useful. You can follow me there by clicking on this link:

As I have more time I hope to provide some updates of what I've been up to recently. I hope everyone is having a good year.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Literatue and the Carter Effect

On a recent trip to get a haircut in the city of Northampton, I ended up giving a homeless man $2. The man, who looked to be in his mid 40s, had positioned himself in front of a set of lights at an off-ramp. He held a cardboard sign with a simple message scrawled in marker. At first I instinctively went into defensive mode upon seeing him, locking the doors of my car and beginning the painful wait for the light to turn green so I could be on my way. Within seconds, though, I had a change of heart.

One of my earliest memories of encountering homeless people is set in the city of Boston. I am young, five or six, with my parents and sister. We're walking to some museum or attraction, and there they are, seated on the sidewalk with small containers of coins and $1 bills. As a child, these people fascinated me. Sometimes they would address me or my younger sister specifically, asking us for help. My father would instruct us not to look or talk to them. We were to keep moving and get to where we were getting.

At the time I didn't understand why my dad insisted we hurry past them. While I knew there was something unusual about grown men spending their days propped against the wall of buildings begging for money, I never felt threatened by them. Perhaps that's because I was just a kid, when one's oblivious to the dangers of the world. Regardless, I eventually learned to treat homeless people with a weary eye.

This was probably for my own good, as this outlook as a youngster kept me out of uncomfortable situations with vagabond strangers. When or if I have children, I will likely impart a similar dictum, as a good father needs to be protective of his children. While it was impossible to know if the risks of interacting with homeless people as a child were real or perceived, I suppose any dad worth his salt doesn't want to find out.

As a young man, my first meaningful experience with a homeless person occurred my senior year of high school. I had taken a trip to Grand Bahama Island with one of my best friends during February vacation. As we sat on a pier overlooking the ocean and the evening stars, a man approached and engaged us in conversation. He was affable and good natured, and told us a story of how he'd been homeless for 10 years. His advice to us was to stay in school, a decision he appeared to have regretted. We offered him some raspberry ginger ale, and after a cordial goodbye, he was gone.

My interaction with this Bahamian of no address went a long way in helping me to see that most homeless folks are people of poor circumstances - some brought on themselves, some by external factors. Our conversation enabled me to experience this man's humanity. Afterward, I saw homeless people as individuals rather than members of some collective. When I could, I'd donate .50 cents or a dollar to their coffers.

Through the years, I've given to a wide range of homeless individuals. Some just beggars, others musicians or artisans offering something - a song, a drawing, a trick - in exchange for a schilling. All of these people I experienced face to face. I had stood next to them, looked into their eyes, occupied the same physical space. It wasn't until recently that I finally decided to give to a "traffic braver." And it was because of a book that I decided to roll down my window and extend my hand with two crisp dollar bills to a pair of gloved fingers.

Over Christmas vacation I finished Justin Cronin's 766 page tome The Passage. One of the characters, Carter, was a man who because of destitute circumstances, became homeless. For part of the story, Cronin explains the various reactions Carter would receive from motorists as he stood by a highway overpass with his cardboard sign and extended hand.

When I saw this man standing by the off-ramp, I eventually thought of Carter, and how much Carter would have appreciated my charity.

One of the reasons we read fiction in school is to engage in the telling and appreciation of a good story. Through the stories of others, we discover more about ourselves, our motivations and dispositions, and we acquire a greater understanding of - and compassion for - those around us.

Stories don't need to be true to affect us in the realest of ways. Indeed, it's often works of fiction that have the most meaningful and lasting impact.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A look back at what was

Now seems as good a time as any to look back over the highlights of 2010...

January 2010 - I enrolled in a Master of Educational Technology degree program through Boise State University.

February - Spent school vacation with my wife, parents, and sister at my late grandmother's condo in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

March - Attended the Massachusetts Poetry Out Loud semi-finals in Western Mass, where I got to see some of the state's top student poets recite the likes of Byron, Dickinson, Plath, Frost, and others. The quality of their recitations was both inspiring and humbling.

April - Our high school's newspaper, which I advise, was recognized for excellence in both regional and national scholastic journalism contests.

May - I completed my first two MET courses, Introduction to Educational Technology and Internet for Educators, earning A's in both.

June - Students at my high school selected me as one of three Teachers of the Year. It's the greatest honor and compliment I've received in my 10 years as an educator.

July - Hit up Vermont's Long Trail with my old buddy Dan from high school. We spent about a week in the woods and got great weather and fantastic vistas, none better than the one from Camel's Hump. When I returned from the hike I proceed to go on a Wire binge, watching all five seasons in less than a week.

August - I spent a week at the beach with my wife and read a number of books, including The Kite Runner (disturbingly enjoyable), A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (heartbreakingly incredible), and Doing School (which caused me to reflect on the way I grade and assess student work).

September - I returned to the factory. For the first time in seven years, I am not teaching freshmen. This is due in part to my success at growing the journalism program sufficiently to warrant two sections of the class. My other preps involve one low-level senior class and two honors-level 12th grade English classes. While I miss the energy and enthusiasm of 9th grade students, I appreciate the opportunity to see how students I had three years ago have evolved and matured. I also get to meet new members of the class of 2011.

I begin the third course in my Master of Educational Technology program, Instructional Design.

October - I have a great time mingling with fellow English teachers at the New England Association of Teachers of English annual conference. Next year I'm definitely going to spend the night and attend the offerings on both days. It's so rare that teachers actually have an opportunity to talk with one another about instruction and ways to improve our practice. I know I was sad to leave at the end of Friday's session, as there were a number of new people I really enjoyed meeting. In addition to attending both days, I might even present!

November - Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. There's great food, you're with the ones you love, and there's no pretense to make purchases. It really is a time to be thankful and appreciative for what you have, and I am.

December - My Instructional Design class finally comes to an end. While the course exposed me to a number of relevant strategies designed for planning and assessing instruction, many of the course's requirements seemed grounded in academia, without any realistic application in the real world of public education. For example, the "culminating assessment" worth 40 percent of our grade involved creating a 35-page instructional document on a lesson designed to take 1 to 3 hours. In an average week I'll teach about 22 1-hour lessons. Assuming I created one instructional document for every 2 hours of instruction, that would mean I'd be generating 385 pages of instructional materials each week. As you can see, this has no grounding in reality.

It would have been more beneficial to ask us to implement strategies and theories into existing lessons as opposed to creating one which can only live within the Ivory Tower. I am hoping that my next class, Evaluation for Educational Technologists, is more practical.

I spent Christmas in New England, and dedicated a large portion of the holiday break to reading Justin Cronin's The Passage. It is by far one of the most gripping and enveloping stories I've read in years. I found myself reading late into the night until my eyes glazed over. When I wasn't reading, I was thinking about the characters, and eagerly anticipating the next time I'd be able to pick up the book. At 766 pages, it's certainly a commitment, but reading was 100 percent willful pleasure. I am deeply upset that I have to wait more than a year for the sequel.