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