Archive | May, 2013

Alternative Classroom Discussion Formats

25 May

I’m closing in on my sixteenth year in an English classroom, and as any veteran teacher will admit, falling into ruts can be fairly easy. I will freely acknowledge that I can sometimes slip into default mode, especially when it comes to class discussions. I know how to foster a well-paced, inclusive discussion that avoids the Select Few dominating the discourse. I don’t, then, feel particularly impelled to change the format. But, boy, I’m glad that I still do.

My colleague in sophomore English is a gregarious, inventive, and reflective teacher just finishing his second year. He has some really good ideas on how to flip modes of discussion to play to various students’ strengths. In this post, I’m just going to rip off his ideas (and some ideas from others), giving full credit, of course.

The Experts Panel:

My colleague came up with this idea. At my school, students taking English for honors credit and those receiving standard credit are in the same section. We have to differentiate in some creative ways. One thing honors students must do is read an extra book and participate in extra discussions outside of class. This term students read Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.

As the students read the book, we constructed a series of Fishbowl Discussions to monitor their understanding of the text. (More on the Fishbowl technique below.) For the final discussion, however, we devised an alternative format using Google Hangouts. Unfortunately, we hit a snag. Users under 18 years of age cannot record Google Hangouts. Scrambling for an alternative, my colleague came up with the Experts Panel format.

We determined general categories of discussion topics beforehand and asked each student to prepare a few discussion questions from each category, emphasizing that the quality of their questions would help us gauge their understanding of the novel.

On the day of the discussion, we randomly chose three to four students to sit at the front as our expert panel. Then, using to make a spinner, we randomly chose the topic. In addition to the categories listed in the assignment description, we added Teacher’s Choice and random prizes.

Once the category was chosen, the audience asked questions and the panelists provided answers. When a topic was exhausted, we rotated panelists, with every student getting a chance to be an expert. Of course, the teachers asked questions and sat on a panel, but we were largely observers.

The rapid fire Q&A format led to one of the best literary discussions of my teaching career. Students on the experts panel really worked to provide erudite and original answers, while a healthy competition arose in the audience to ask the most intelligent question.

This Experts Panel format would work for any subject area. Of course, if used too often any format becomes tedious, but the students truly responded to this approach.

Fishbowl Discussion:

This video at Edutopia does a better job than I could explaining the format. As my honors students read Swamplandia! we scheduled a few fishbowl discussions so I could monitor their understanding and guide their analysis. Students also took notes on a shared Google Doc as they discussed so they could reference these notes later on. Due to numbers, I was the only one on the outside of the fishbowl, but I’ve used this format often. Giving students the chance to observe discussion can greatly improve their contributions when they are active participants.

Structured Academic Conversation as Debate Alternative


Tweet the Debate


Alternative Discussion Formats: Dr. Cavanaugh


50 Alternatives to Lecture

I Would Wear that Pink Suit: an English teacher reviews “The Great Gatsby”

18 May

The Great GatsbyThe book is always better than the movie. What would you expect an English teacher to write? Yet, some adaptations can become something wonderful in their own right: The Lord of the Rings, The Wonder Boys, Out of Sight, The Princess Bride, Shawshank Redemption….I better stop because those last three disprove my rule. I prefer the movies to the books.

This past week a colleague and I watched Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby with about thirty students (and one Bruins player I would never-ever recognize but who sent the kids into a minor flutter). I did not expect to see the novel perfectly transposed on the screen,  so I was not surprised to find that I like Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby and his green light.

First, let’s celebrate the fact that the glittering, bass-bumping film puts teenagers in the seats (without the promise of extra credit). The critics panning the film have probably never worked with teenagers. I have taught this novel 20+ times and am excited to teach it again with this film as a resource. It will certainly help me hook more of my students on one of the greatest American novels.

Baz Luhrmann’s style works well with many of Fitzgerald’s major themes. The director’s kinetic cuts, thumping scores, and lush-and-purposefully-cartoonish color palettes perfectly articulate the grandeur and absurdity of Gatsby’s vision. I spend considerable time in the classroom helping students see the over-the-top nature of Gatsby’s choices. The kids, however, end up imagining party scenes where stiffs in suits sip martinis and swoon stylishly over droll, blue-blooded humor.

A few seconds of the movie’s pool party, however, smashes this misconception and replaces it with a visceral portrayal of the excess Fitzgerald splashes throughout the novel. Inflatable zebras might not have existed in the Roaring Twenties (or maybe they did?), but we should overlook such anachronisms and bathe in the hypnotic extravagance. Very few teenagers would want to be invited to the parties described in the book. (Their loss, of course, as Fitzgerald knew what a good time looks like.) But, almost every person under the age of 35–and plenty of us over that benchmark–would jump at the chance to rage at one of Luhrmann’s blowouts.

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Landing an International Teaching Job

11 May
Land and a group of suitcases. To take a vacati

copyleft image uploaded to by kolobsek

For the third time in my life, I am in the process of selling most of my worldly possessions. My wife and I live “lightly” to begin with, so it isn’t as if we have much to let go that didn’t originally come from Craig’s List. The process of divesting, however, is always cathartic: it acts as a physical reminder to focus on accumulating experiences and relationships rather than things. They’re much easier and cheaper to take with you.

We have accepted jobs at Frankfurt International School, a wonderful international school in post-card perfect Oberursel. In July we will arrive in Germany with an obscene amount of clothes, a few favorite books, kitchen gadgets Julia Child would envy, and one loving-but-psychotic Australian Shepherd mixed breed.

It is a homecoming. We worked at this school before moving to Boston, and many of our good friends are still around. We own an apartment there, and our German language skills are spotty but passable. Here’s my one joke in German: Ich spreche Deutsch gleich ein blautig Juenger. Not everyone thinks it’s funny, so I’ve got to get some new ones.

Luckily, I will miss my students and colleagues at Beaver Country Day School. I’ve been fortunate. Every time I have left one school for another, it has been on positive terms, and I have always loved each new place. I know I am fortunate.

In this post, then, I want to share some of my advice for why you might want a job at an international school and how you might go about looking for one. My experience comes from an American point-of-view, but I think it could easily work for teachers from other countries as well:

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The Great Gatsby Resources

4 May

gatsby bannerThe very first website I ever visited was for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. I instantly fell in love with the movie and the power of the Internet. Needless to say, I am hoping for similar magic from his adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Of course, I’ve seen Australia, so I’m not getting too hopeful.

My colleague and I will take an eager group of students to see the film, so I thought I would share a quick post on some of my favorite Gatsby resources:


The Roaring Twenties On-line Game from McCord Museum (a great way to introduce some cultural context before reading the novel)


Daisy’s Lullaby (my favorite Gatsby YouTube video)

A Series of Links I use to generate discussions on wealth distribution in the U.S. Today:

How Is Wealth Divided in the U.S.?
Graphic Information on America’s Distribution of Wealth
How the Rich Get Richer
How the Poor Get Poorer
NYT Interactive Class Calculator

Was Gatsby Great? Asks John Green at Crash Course Literature:

Go Gatsbify Yourself





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