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Finding Time to Maintain a Blog

18 Dec

Black windup clock“Where do you find the time?” That’s the question fellow teachers most often ask me after reading my blog. I am a really busy person. They are really busy people. WE ARE ALL REALLY BUSY PEOPLE.

The reality of a teacher’s life is that there are too many things to do in too little time. While I live in the daily reality of this time crunch, another part of me realizes that we make time for the things we really want to do. I mean, I did not really have time to watch seven episodes of Orphan Black in three days…but somehow that still happened. Procrastibaking is a very real thing. You’re making the time to read this blog post. (Thanks for that.)

 

A few years back I read an article about Buddhist monks and how they cope with stress. They try to keep a mindset of working within the present moment. In other words, whether they have 25 things to accomplish in a day or just two, as they perform a task they realize they can only perform that one task in that one moment. In this way, they stay focused on singular events and actions as they move throughout the day.

ProcrastibakingI try to do the same. Notice, I write that I try. Last week I was winking awake at 2:30 a.m. worrying about the mediocre way in which I have been leading my students through Twelfth Night due to time constraints, but after a few nights of that silliness, I returned to deep slumber because I focused on the time I had and did my best within it.

This same mindset gets these blog post written. I take comfort in routines, and I have created a set of daily rituals that help me carve out writing time. Maybe some of my habits will help you find time to write, too? At the very least, making my habits public might help me stick to them more regularly.

 

My Writing Ritual of Late:

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Setting Fire to NealEnglish

14 May

Flame_of_fireCompletely by accident, I just set fire to four years of work. My classroom YouTube account (NealEnglish) no longer exists. Vanishing with this account are all the tutorials and examples of student work I have collected. My old work email was deleted, and with the removal of that Gmail account, the YouTube account went with it.

This accident was completely my own fault. When switching jobs, I knew I needed to transfer necessary information, and I thought I had taken care of all the necessary steps. Yet, in the chaos and daily grind of a big move, I did not notice that my NealEnglish YouTube channel was linked to my work email…so poof.

I doubt I can do anything to recover this work. I’m exploring all options (so share an idea if you have one), but I am not hopeful. Of course, I am sick about the loss, but I am also trying to take a more enlightened, objective view.

I am happy that I had work to lose in the first place. For many years I have been methodical about carving out time from a busy schedule to write and curate and capture. I have developed work habits that help me share classroom work that really matters, so I now just need to put in the time, little by little, to rebuild.

If you navigate this blog, you are will hit many dead video links (for a while). I apologize. It will take me some time to restore the important videos, but I will. And, as I do this I will try to improve each one (and ensure I safely store them in such a way that I don’t lose such a massive amount of work again). I am going to treat this re-doing of work as a meditation of sorts, and hopefully something more meaningful will rise from the ashes.

Visualizing One Million

10 May

one million bonesTo help my students care about one, I try to get them to picture one million. Big numbers are really big…too vast to properly understand without help. This activity can be used in any situation where students would benefit from grasping big numbers, but I use it as an opening exercise in our study of The Diary of Anne Frank.

In this situation, understanding the expanse of one million helps students begin to comprehend the vastness of six to 12 million, the estimated number of people killed during the Holocaust. When students have a nascent, sobering understanding of the horrific scale of this genocide, they approach our study of Anne’s diary with more care, solemnity, and empathy. I emphasize the privilege and duty we have to explore one small part of one life. In doing so we begin to understand the immeasurable loss and, hopefully, do what we can to ensure something like this never happens again.

 

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Recap: 2013

2 Jan

2013 sparklersLooking back at my blogging for 2013 I wish, as always, I had been able to write more. I try to publish one post per week, but I can’t always make that happen. Of course, that minor shortcoming isn’t so important. Far more significant is the act of carving time out each day (well…almost every day) to reflect on my teaching, scribble some words on a page, and share something with my readers. Overall, I am very proud of these posts. “Putting my stuff out there” is always an energizing act, especially when I receive feedback, so special thanks to those who took the time to respond to this work, either on the blog or in person. I hope you found at least one these posts useful, and I look forward to sharing more in 2014. In case you missed any of these, here are the five most popular posts in 2013 (and not all of them were even written this past year):

1. #Flipclass with Membean: A Vocabulary System that Works

2. Teaching Theme: The Red Tree

3. Grading Essays How-To: Use Macros to Save Time

4. Taming the Paper Beast: Time Saving Techniques for Essay Grading

5. Mini-essays: Go Small to Get Big Results

Gone Fishin’ (In Germany)

28 Jun

Gone_Fishing_by_Leaping_FaithA quick post to explain my recent silence on this blog. My wife and I are moving to Germany on Sunday, and I have been QUITE busy with the details of the move. I promise to make time for more regular writing once we settle in to our new home and our new country. Thanks for your patience and here’s a preview of the topics I will be blogging about:

  • Students Publishing Online: The Importance of Authentic Writing Audiences
  • Solve-Crumple-Toss Game to Teach Comma Rules
  • What I Learned About Teaching From Transporting My Very, Very Anxious Dog Overseas
  • The Joys and Perils of Schnitzel??? (Who knows.)

Teaching in a Boston Classroom: “This State of Grace”

20 Apr

Boston Marathon CondolencesThrough the filtered lens of my classroom, I have lived through terror before. Fourteen years ago to the day, as a beginning teacher in suburban St. Louis, I watched the dark horror of Columbine snake through the classroom T.V. I can still easily conjure the slithering shock we all felt when the Towers fell. My father, a commercial airline pilot, was flying that day and the dread I felt during the few hours it took to learn that he was O.K. will always be with me in some way. Without any real effort, I can play, on a mental loop, my colleagues’ dumbfounded reactions when their former neighborhoods in London and Mumbai were attacked.

This week has been different. The bombs at the Boston Marathon exploded only two miles from my doorstep. My neighbors and I spent yesterday “sheltering in place” as authorities searched for one of the suspects. Thankfully, nobody in my immediate community was injured in the attacks, but, of course, all Bostonians are affected.

This morning I woke up thinking about those who died: Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, Martin Richard, and Sean Collier. I prayed for all those who have lost limbs, for those who must carry the mental and physical trauma of these events. I mourn for those families who must bear the tragedy of these surreal days in more immediate and lasting ways. I suppose my reactions are not any different than millions of others.

As a teacher, however, I cannot help but process this senselessness by considering how it will shape my interactions with my students. Inevitably, when people meet me and learn that I teach, I get some sort of comic empathy…something along the lines of, “Oh, man! I could never do what you do. You must be so worn down.” I always politely respond with something like, “Actually, I really love my job. Being around optimistic young people every day fills me up. I’m really thankful that my life’s work is not about making money. It’s hard work but it’s rewarding.” Yet, that reaction is sometimes a lie. I do get worn down.

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Teaching Theme: The Red Tree

15 Dec
click the image to read more about this book

click the image to read more about this book

My very first department chair regularly read favorite books to his classes. He wasn’t a snob, either. He reveled in good writing, regardless of genre or target audience.

He was the first person to tell me about Harry Potter. He said something like, “The kids in England are reading this. It’s wonderful, and I think it’s going to be big over here.” Yes, he was a prescient guy. He was also brave. He often read picture books to seniors in high school…and they loved it. One of his favorite children’s books is now one of mine: The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. I use it to teach theme.

I begin my introductory lesson on theme by asking students to formulate a working definition (SEE THIS HANDOUT). As a class, they always come up with a decent one. I might have to do a bit of prodding, but this stuff is usually “in there.”

After collecting definitions, we refine our conception of theme. Depending on what was compiled in class (I usually use a common Google Doc to have students shape collective definitions), I emphasize certain aspects. My key points are always:

  • Multiple themes exist in any piece of art. Art is nuanced, so any painting, story, photograph, play, sculpture, or song will have multiple lessons within.
  • The author really means it. I tell my students, “I don’t think authors intend every message English teachers squeeze out of the work, but I’ve been around enough writers and written enough on my own to understand that writers are very intentional, even neurotic…so critical readers honor the craftsmanship of artists.” Or, I might just say, “They mean most of this stuff. Trust me.”
  • A theme is never one word. There’s a difference between topics and themes. Family, love, and betrayal are all topics. The specific comment the author wants to make about families is the theme.

No surprise. The students breeze through the definition process but STRUGGLE to write coherent, original theme statements that go beyond the obvious and avoid simple summary. In other words, they can define concepts but need help applying them. No matter… I keep my job because they need such help.

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