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Year 16 Recap: Every Single Day

8 Jun

I have jumped out of an airplane only once in my life, and what I remember most vividly is the sound. Upon first jumping from the plane the ripping wind and my own primal screams mixed into a roaring mayhem that I can’t really recall, but once the chute deployed, a clean silence instantly replaced the chaos.

The end of every school year feels similar. The wild stir of things-to-do is quickly replaced with sudden (and delicious) emptiness. I always try to savor this shift and give myself at least one day of nothingness.

My last day with students was yesterday. As I end my 16th year in the classroom, I can’t honestly write that I have reached this beautiful absence of work. I am moving to Germany at the end of this month, so I still have a crazy amount of things to do.

Therefore, since I am not yet free of the howling wind of the school year, I’ll make this post brief . . . but hopefully useful. I keep my class calendars through Google Docs and Google Sites and thought it might be interesting to share with you what my students and I did this school year. Here you go. Each day of my school year is here. Dip in. Ignore it completely. Stalk us through every single day. I hope you find something useful.

Public Speaking: TEDx Classroom

American Literature 10th Grade

Rhetoric 11th Grade

An Alternative to Traditional Summer Reading

5 Jun

Our Head of School hates summer reading. He has banned it.

Before you think ill of him, he’s a former English teacher who cares deeply about engendering a love of reading in all students. His position? Assigned summer reading does more harm than good.

Our students, then, are required to read the equivalent to at least three novels over the summer. They decide what they read. They can even read magazines, blogs, or other genres as long as this reading approximates the length of three books.

We want our students to read habitually, and we want them use summer reading time to explore their passions. When they return from summer break, we spend some time talking about their summer reading (and I have them write about it). We do not, however, quiz them or assign major projects. The program is largely run on an honor system.

Now, I KNOW some students fail to complete any summer reading. Yet, far fewer students slack off than one would think. The majority of the students choose appropriate, engaging work, and as a result, many more students enjoy summer reading.

It’s important to note, too, that the majority of the students I teach do NOT consider themselves natural readers or writers. Many of my students have language-based learning issues that require some form of accommodation. A choice-based system, especially for this population of reluctant readers, makes even more sense.

Over the three years we have used this summer reading policy, I consistently receive feedback from struggling readers about how it has helped them. I have also found that all students are more likely to continue to have a positive attitude toward our choice reading throughout the school year because they have been given the chance to develop their own reading habits.

Betty writes: “At the end of every school year, there’s only one thing I actually dread that’s upcoming in the summer, and that’s summer reading. Some of the books that I’ve had to read in middle school were absolutely dire, probably the most uninteresting stories I’ve ever had to sit through. The fact that I’m not an avid reader and that I don’t enjoy it in general makes it all the worse. The Beaver summer reading policy helped me as a reader in many ways, mostly by letting me be engaged in the texts that I got to choose on my own.”

Jackson writes, “In most cases when I read an assigned book over the summer, I only read it because I have to. I tend not to be very engaged and just read to finish the book. In addition, I usually take the lazy way out while reading an assigned book. I might end up skipping parts of the book, which does not happen if I am reading a book that interests me. When I read a good book, tt usually makes me want to read more books and expand my knowledge. I think this goes for a lot of kids out there that are in the same boat as me.”

Carl writes, “I have never liked to read very much, but the summer reading policy allowed me to be interested and actually like what I was reading. Beyond that, it also made me want to read…I read the book American Fencer, and I was very interested in this book because he was going through a process of international and Olympic fencing, which I would like to do someday.  I think that I am the only one in the class that would be interested in the book, so it would not get assigned by any teacher.  Because I was able to read a book that I was interested in, there were times during the summer that I wanted to pick up a book and read instead of doing something like play video games.  If we were assigned books I would have tried to procrastinate and avoid reading as much as possible.”

These three students (changed their names, of course) grew so much this year, and they are representative of the type of student I love to teach…an interesting, independent student who just doesn’t really “get” English class without some help. While each of them is still not likely to consider himself or herself a “reader,” each approaches reading with far less dread than one year ago. I know that my work in the classroom has helped shaped their improved attitude toward reading, and I’m happy that our summer reading policy nurtures this enthusiasm instead of squashing it.

It really is impossible to choose the perfect summer reading book to assign every student, so I think we should stop trying. Instead, set a total book (or page) goal, and let the students choose their own texts. We can tackle the dense stuff during the school year. Such an approach will do more to engender a love of reading that lasts well beyond our time with each individual student.

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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Writing Rubric Reboot: 6plus1

30 Apr

red penIn my second year of teaching, I made a grievous, but memorable, error. I was always the type of student who was motivated by tough love. My favorite teachers were the ones with the highest expectations, and a scribbled, gruff marginal note like, “You’re a better writer than this. Try again” was often enough to send me under the hood of the text. Of course, I am not every student. Wanting to motivate a student I knew could do much better, I returned her essay with this brief message scrawled across the top, “This is the worst essay I have ever read. Try again.”

Looking back, I don’t recognize the young teacher who would be so callous with a not-much-younger student. Of course, my comment only did harm. It gave my student no hope, no information about what to do next. The only saving grace about this regrettable action? I was allowing her to revise. That, and I learned to never do something like this again.

Thankfully, this student and I worked past this incident. I apologized; she forgave. A year later, she moved to another school, but during a return visit, she visited me and shared the 6plus1 Writing Traits rubric her new English teacher was using. Not surprisingly, it was helping her, and I instantly adopted the practice in my own classes.

Over the years, for whatever reason, I have drifted away from the 6plus1 terminology, but this trimester I decided to bring it back. The shift only required slight alterations to the scoring guides I already used:

Timed Essay Scoring Guide w/ 6+1

The Six Plus One traits have existed since the mid-80s, and these descriptors of good writing are an attempt to quantify what makes writing work. Using them—especially when they are used across grade levels and disciplines—can demystify writing feedback for students and help them recognize what they do well and target what they need to improve.

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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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Wikis as Textbooks

7 Apr
Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.

Is it just me? Every time I hear WIKIS I think about wookies.

Let’s be honest. Wikis are ugly. At least the wikis I make are not sleek and arresting in a visual sense. Yet, I use wikis in a variety of ways that I find elegant and interesting. Think of them as a ten-year-old Toyota Corolla. They usually won’t turn heads, but they run beautifully and always do what they should.

Wikis as Textbooks

This past fall, I taught a brand spankin’ new public speaking course based on TED talks. I had never taught public speaking, so in preparation, I searched for the perfect textbook. I have never used a textbook in any class, but my own insecurities where sending me looking for some solid backup. Well, I didn’t find the perfect textbook (because they don’t exist). Instead, I decided to have the students create their own textbook using a class wiki:

Public Speaking Class Textbook

The experience reinforced my belief in constructivism. While far from perfect, our self-constructed textbook served our purposes perfectly. After giving their first speeches, I asked the students, “O.K. Now that you’ve given one speech, what do you think you need to learn?” Their answers became our chapters.

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Interactive Video (Part Two): Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker

16 Mar

Mozilla Popcorn MakerTo my shock and horror, my students claimed to have never seen a PopUp Video. They were vaguely aware of VH1 and suspected that some old people still watch it? If it even exists?

We were brainstorming uses of Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker, and I was sharing that a colleague had a great idea of using the free online tool to make a PopUp video of a presidential debate. As candidates make their claims, viewers could fact-check or point out rhetorical techniques, completely changing the viewer’s experience. A quick search and fifteen seconds of the Ghostbusters’ Theme Popup had them back on track. (They actually knew what I was talking about after all.)

Recently, I have been exploring how to make online videos more interactive for the viewer. In Interactive Video (Part One), I reviewed TED-ed’s Flipped Video Interface. In this post I will examine Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker, an easy way to take most anything that exists on the Internet and “lay it” over a video or audio track.

For my first experiment, I took the same video I flipped at TED-ed and used it to explore Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker. I have about two hours invested in this current version, and after a colleague gave me some time saving tips, I found the interface to be simple and intuitive. I suggested the tool to some students, as well, and they picked it up without any instruction on my part. In addition, some of my colleagues and I brainstormed uses for Popcorn Maker during a recent  in-house professional development session. Feel free to add your own ideas to this list! As I collect examples of the various ways we use the tool, I will share them.

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Interactive Video (Part One): Flipping at TED-Ed

9 Mar

TEDedYou, like me, have spent a fair amount of time watching on-line videos. Who can blame us? When we need a break from grading, routines, or vacuuming, lovely owls, talking dogs, or five people playing one guitar are irresistible draws. Of course, video can be a powerful teaching tool, too. You surely are amazed by my obvious commentary. No? Well, let me try to impress you, then.

Two free online tools—Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker and TED-ed’s Flipped Interface–can make online videos more interactive. I am still in the early stages of experimentation with both, and my students are using the tools, so my opinions are still very much developing. Yet, at this nascent stage, I am intrigued (and harbor some reservations). In this post I will focus on the TED-ed channel’s “flip” interface.

You have probably already been to TED-ed. If not, stop reading this. Go there now. I’ll see you in a few hours.

TED-ed is a valuable resource for classroom teachers, a nicely edited platform with many visually arresting videos on a variety of topics. The “flipped” videos already have comprehension questions and supplemental resources built in.

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My Dog Makes Me a Better Teacher

23 Feb

Finn's Crazy EyeI love mutts. I love all dogs, regardless of pedigree, but I have always favored the scrappy, intelligent mash-up that is a pound puppy. Every dog with which I have shared my life has been a rescue, and until my wife and I adopted Finn, an Australian Cattle Dog/Poodle mix so intelligent she could probably crack a safe, every dog I have welcomed into my life has been relatively easy work. Finn, however, is another story.

A cute but neurotic pup with a skull-rattling bark, Finn has required more training, patience, and “accommodations” in order to adjust to our lifestyle. And, more than any other dog for which I’ve cared, she has forced me to adjust my lifestyle to her. In just one year we were her third family, and I do not think many people would have the time or resources to help her in the way that we can. Of course, she helps me, too.

In both the classroom and my personal life, I expect things to work. I believe with enough thought and hard work, I can solve any problem. Yet, I have come to accept I will ever really “fix” Finn. I can help her become a calmer, more predictable, more relaxed dog, but I don’t know if she’ll ever be the “perfect” dog that I’ve had in the past. Accepting this fact is an ongoing process but one that teaches me quite a bit about myself.

I know she has made me a better teacher. As I change my mindset to better work with my dog, I realize I am bringing these positive attributes into my classroom as well.

 A good teacher (of dogs or humans) must…

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Spanking Shakespeare: My Blind Date

16 Feb

pileofbookmarksWe do not have a library at my school. We do, however, have the BiblioTECH. The unusual name is purposeful, indicating our school’s focus on the intersection between books and information technology. Before you groan too loudly, don’t despair. Our BiblioTECH is still a place firmly dedicated to enticing young readers to fall in love with the printed word.

As part of a clever marketing campaign, our un-Librarian (yes…her official title) urged us to take a book on a blind date in February. She wrapped 30+ titles in brown paper and displayed them at the entrance. Anyone could pick a book at random, unwrap it at home, and agree to read it within two weeks. Of course, I couldn’t resist (nor could several of my students).

I’m pleased to report this blind date was a memorable one, an instant attraction filled with easy laughs and serendipitous connections. I was lucky enough to meet Jake Wizner’s Spanking Shakespeare.

spank_shakespeare_new_cvrShakespeare Shapiro, a witty and neurotic high school senior, longs to win his school’s memoir contest and lose his virginity. Naturally, in the course of his misadventures he learns a bit about his friends, his family, and himself. A very funny YA read that cleverly sidesteps a pat ending, this first-time novel was a delightful surprise.

I feel lucky to work with fellow passionate readers who are committed to enticing young people into the tribe. I hope you will consider setting up Blind Dates for the readers in your life. Some will be disasters, and others will just be “meh.” Yet, more often than we would expect, there’s magic in these chance encounters.

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