Category Archives: What it is all about

Inviting students to the table: “Circle up!”

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Why are the most elegant solutions also the simplest? Call it Occam’s razor, call it what you will, but sometimes when I reflect on my practice, I realize that I’ve started to forget some of the best things I already knew about teaching!

One of these things is very, very simple. So why does it feel almost like a secret? Here it is: teaching can–and probably should–happen in a circle. One. Big. Circle. With everyone in it. Including you. It is my hope that many of the teachers reading this post say to themselves, “Yep, already do that in my classroom,” and move on. But the rest of you, hear me out.

There’s a huge priority on small group collaboration in today’s K-12 educational landscape, and more and more classroom sets of desks are consequently being replaced by collaborative tables where students sit in pods of two, three, or four. While I’ll be the first to say that students do benefit from working together, there’s more than one way to make that happen. Often, a classroom needs to work as a whole, unified community. So what does that look like? For many of us, we default to a stand and deliver format for whole class work–every student faces the front of the room, and the teacher instructs them while standing front and center. This can be problematic, though! Physically, such a classroom mode sends the message that the teacher is creating and dispersing knowledge while students absorb it. However, that approach doesn’t work so hot when you need to create knowledge together alongside your students.

I started (re-)understanding this last year, when I assembled a group of my AP students into a big, whole-class circle. It was a small, intellectually mature group, and I thought it would be “fun” to put our desks in a circle for discussion.

Four easy steps to put a classroom in a circle:

1. Tell students, “We’re going to put the desks/chairs in a big circle today. I’m going to ask you all to help me with that.”

2. Say, “Let’s go.” Start moving your own chair or desk, and they will follow suit.

3. (Optional step) Make fun of how terrible of an attempt at a circle the resulting shape is. This lays down the gauntlet for geometrical accuracy in the future.

4. (Most important step) Sit down in your own spot in the circle. Direct any members of the class who are not truly on the circumference line to adjust so that everyone can see them, and they can see everyone else.

Once in the circle, we all took a moment to say, “Whoa… this is different!” We were connected. We could all make eye contact with one another easily. I was sitting in a desk, on the same visual level as my students. Discussion was more dynamic, more considerate, and more organic than ever before. The kids loved it, and asked to do it more often. As they bounced out the door, I wondered, “Why don’t I do this all the time?”

This year, I made the circle a regular part of my AP classes. Every time we had a class discussion planned, I’d chime out, “Circle up!” and watch the room morph before my eyes. I love having a front row seat to my students’ faces as they think, process the ideas brought to the table by others, raise questions, and share their own interpretations. The circle brings my students physically to an equidistance with myself, sending the message that we’re all creating this moment of learning together. And, when I step in to guide or laugh or offer an idea, I feel less like an authoritarian and more like a mentor, because we’re all at the table together. This is how college workshops and workplace team meetings operate. Of course, it worked here, too. Obviously, it worked with these small, mature groups of AP students. I’m not saying I would try the circle with my most rowdy, crowded group of juniors.

OR WOULD I?

I would, and I do. After the wild success of the circle in my AP classes, I’ve experimented a couple times with class circles even in classes where I thought, “The circle will be too big to fit in the room” or “These kids might not be able to handle this kind of thing.” Guess what? The circle did fit in the room, and they were totally able to handle it. It’s hard to misbehave when one is literally face to face with the teacher, no matter where in the room they may be. Again, these students also asked for the circle to happen more often, and I’ve set it as a professional goal for next year to develop more circle-friendly lessons, in all of my classes. Isn’t it interesting how these millennial kids, so often criticized as the generation who can’t hold an in-person conversation, are so keen on sitting in a circle and story-sharing? My inkling is that even our born-with-Google clientele craves a little more real life discussion, which can only happen if we create a classroom environment which invites it. Most of us start our learning lives in circles, whether around the family table or cross-legged during kindergarten story time. Let’s not let it die in high school.

Long live the circle.

Also, this Onion article always makes me chuckle. Just another reason to circle up! (Click on the image for the full text of the article.)

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Back to School 2015: Have a Karaoke Year!

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One of my favorite teaching memories actually has nothing to do with curriculum. It was the very end of the school year three years ago, during the last period of the seniors’ last day of school. As it worked out, that final hour was a flexible resource period, usually used for remediation or enrichment in learning. But since it was the last day, I did something a little more unconventional–I offered a karaoke session (surprisingly easy to organize with the power of YouTube) for any of my seniors who were brave enough to sign up. It’s a memory that still makes me smile unfailingly. Just me and a bunch of students who I had worked with over the course of three years, taking turns belting out ballads in the spotlight and laughing with delight at the utter seriousness with which each performer approached the task, regardless of skill level. We brought it home with a team-sing of “Hey, There, Delilah” by the Plain White T’s, sitting in a circle of school desks, watching the words pop up on the projector screen, and feeling summer right around the corner. Magic.

As I stand veritably peaking around the stage curtains of the new school year, I am intensely reminded of that moment. And I think that the concept of karaoke might have something important to do with how teachers can approach this new year. Maybe it’s because I’m still a little nostalgic for that special class of 2012. Maybe it’s because I watched the MTV Video Music Awards last night and Kanye West said, “Listen to the kids.” I’m not sure. But this metaphor of karaoke is working for me right now. Hear me out.

Karaoke is like good teaching.

You know the song. It’s familiar. You’ve been listening to it for years. The words are right there to look at. You’re ready. You have a plan. You walk up to the front of the room and grab the mic.

The plan doesn’t always work, though. Maybe the track is in a different key than you expected. Maybe you accidentally stumbled over the different lyrics of the radio edit. Maybe someone decides to join you on stage and it was not intentional.

But you muddle through. You sing your heart out. You recover and you rock it. Because you Love. This. Song.

And after you’ve had your brief moment in the spotlight, time moves forward and people mill around, resettle. Some of them might have been distracted by their own thoughts and completely missed it. But most of them clap, because if nothing else, they know that you’ve given them this raw, sometimes hilarious, always unique gift of your experience with this song. And every once in a while, that girl sitting way in the back, she got something really meaningful out of that performance. Most of the time, she quietly leaves without even saying “hi.” But it meant something awesome to her.

One woman show. Five days a week.

This is what we do. 

Bring ’em on! Happy new school year to all.

Fighting the Good Fight

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When I teach metaphor in my literature classes, I encourage my students to push beyond decoding simply for meaning, toward interpretation in a connotative, cultural sense. In other words, I not only want them to be able to say what the metaphor means, but also to show why that particular metaphor was chosen in the first place. For instance, take Gascoigne’s poem “For That He Looked Not upon Her,” in which he uses animal metaphors to reflect on his past relationship with a woman who turned out to be nothing but trouble:

The mouse which once hath broken out of trap
Is seldom ’ticèd with the trustless bait,
But lies aloof for fear of more mishap,
And feedeth still in doubt of deep deceit.
 
And so we start with meaning. The speaker uses the analogy of the once-caught mouse avoiding the trap to mean that he, once caught in this woman’s manipulation, will not be ensnared again. But there’s more. “Why is it a mouse in a trap?” I ask my students, “Why not a bear, or a robber, or a beaver?” So much more then comes to light. By putting himself in the role of the mouse, the speaker shows his comparative weakness and low status in juxtaposition with the former lover. She’s made him feel like a tiny, brainless, scurrying animal. She has “fed” him deceit–betrayed him so completely that he literally feels that he’s ingested the shame that her affections lured him into. She, cast as the trap, is cold, metallic, and brutal; a mere snap of deadly machinery to his soft, innocent (and now wary) mouse.
 
Metaphors carry the weight of old instincts with them. That’s what makes them one of the most powerful literary devices, along with allusion, of them all. Metaphors are worth considering for a moment. It’s this belief which led me, today, to think more deeply about my favorite metaphor to use when encouraging fellow teachers, and sometimes even myself: Keep fighting the good fight.
 
“Why this metaphor?” I asked myself. It’s downright combative, suggestive of violent struggle. Where does it even come from? Do I even know what I’m saying?! (You can see how quickly being a literary thinker can lead one to crisis.) So, I decided to do some research.
 
I found that the origin of this particular idiom is actually a Biblical quote from Timothy 6.12–“Fight the Good Fight of Faith.” It was a popular phrase in several English hymns of the 1800’s. Over time, the phrase has adopted a more general meaning, which The Oxford English Dictionary (aka the unquestionable word nerd guidebook) describes as,  “To campaign or struggle valiantly for a just cause; to defend what one believes to be right.” After reading it phrased as such, the instinct that makes this phrase pop off of my tongue so often is clearer to me.
 
Especially at this time of the year, teaching can feel like a good fight. The attention of students who have been engaged all semester long can start to wane with warmer weather. Seniors begin checking or stressing out as the life beyond high school looms. Students who have been difficult since day one can become downright maddening in their habitual apathy or resistance. It can be tempting, as a teacher, to feel helpless and resigned. This is where the fight comes in. It’s the time to appeal to the noble warrior spirit that lurks within every teacher who cares too much to quit fighting for kids.
 
Late April and May are the time to dig deep. Something that feels almost blasphemous to say–but which is absolutely true–is that caring, really caring, about over a hundred kids each day on a personal level is exhausting. Sometimes they don’t listen. Sometimes they don’t perform. Sometimes they don’t understand your explanation the first, second, or third time. Sometimes they don’t follow through. Sometimes they’re rude. But good teachers don’t lie down. Good teachers fight the good fight. We fight to care harder. We fight to crank out lessons so exciting that the students can’t help but look up. We fight to keep challenging our learners of all levels, refusing to let them give up. Because we sure as heck ain’t giving up. It is a good fight. It’s the best cause I can think of. But we can only win if we’re willing to go into battle.
 
If teachers are warriors, we also have our spoils of victory. Some of mine recently have included…
 
*A previously combative student who completed almost none of my assignments during Quarter 3 is now interacting positively with me and is working AHEAD on a major project.
 
*I found a reminder letter from a student organization left behind in my room with spontaneous poetry scribbled on it–extra non-assigned practice in a style that we taught to our juniors over a month ago.
 
*My AP students are discussing ideas of race and privilege in Native Son with such astute intellect that it puts many groups of upper level college students I’ve seen to shame.
 
*My Comm III students are asking cool, conceptual, thought-provoking questions in their synthesis essays… and actually care about pursuing those questions on a philosophical level.
 
*Seeing the names of a few kids on next year’s AP roster–students who I encouraged to take the course even though it will present them a significant academic challenge.
 
*Every smile. Every “good morning.” Every “have a good weekend.” Every kid, honestly.
 
If you feel like the end of every school day has you emerging from battle these days, well, you’re not alone. Just remember, we’re all fighting together toward the same end. I’ll leave you with a snippet of lyrics from the fantastic, super-literate modern folk band The Decemberists.
 
This is why
why we fight
why we lie awake
this is why
this is why we fight.
 
 
 
 
 
 

My Funny Valentine: Raising Awareness about Domestic Violence in the Language Arts Classroom

valentineThere are few traditions as sweet as the handmade valentine, but the process of making them is usually reserved for the elementary classroom. The teenagers that share the halls with me every day usually take their approach to love far more seriously–for many of them, their love relationship is a cornerstone of their young lives. But, for many of them, their vision of what love is, should be, or could be is still as simple and naive as that kindergarten valentine card. For all their rehearsed cynicism, young people are believers in love. But that doesn’t always mean they know how to handle it once it enters their lives.

They have much in common, then, with the protagonist from one of the texts I teach in my AP Literature and Composition class, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In the book, young Janie forms an idea of love that, to me, is one of the purest and most beautiful in American literature:

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom […] So this was a marriage!”

As the story moves forward, Janie soon learns that not all unions are as lovely as the example from nature that she seeks. She is forced into a loveless, arranged marriage with an elderly landowner as her grandmother hopes to protect her from poverty. In her compulsive need to escape this first marriage, Janie later runs away with the ambitious Joe Starks, who marries her in an attempt to make her into his “bell cow”–a beautiful business asset to accentuate the authority that he holds over the town of Eatonville during his many years as mayor. While the relationship begins sweetly, Joe’s need for control and his rage at any deviation from Janie bring their relationship to a dangerous, damaging place–he controls what she wears, who she may talk to, what she may say, what she does, and when she does it. She is beaten and verbally abused, and cannot pursue her desires freely until his death.

The moments of domestic violence and simmering, sustained power struggle described above are only one component of this complex and rewarding literary work. They would be very easy elements to address briefly and then gloss over while teaching. But knowing what I do about my own students’ lives and the blind faith they often place in love spurs me to talk quite a bit about domestic violence as we discuss the novel, and to call it by name.  We watch a TEDx talk from Leslie Morgan Steiner that identifies the warning signs and progressively dangerous cycle of domestic abuse in love relationships. We talk about Janie’s reasons for complying with Joe’s wishes, even though it is clearly not what she wants. And, right around February 14th, we also make what I call “honest valentines,” as you can see in the picture above. My simple directions are found below.

 AN HONEST VALENTINE, FROM JANIE

1. Spend some time talking with a small group about the various discoveries that Janie has made about love in her journey so far. Make a list. They can be positive, negative, broad, or specific.

2. Select one of the discoveries off of the list to work with. Find and mark two direct quotations that support this discovery.

3. Draw a valentine. Decide if Janie will give it to Logan, to Jody, to Tea Cake, or to herself.

4. Put a statement on the valentine that sums up the truth about love that she has discovered. Incorporate the quotations you’ve marked into your design as well.

This activity is always an interesting one for my students. For as much as they talk about love in their daily conversations, they are rarely encouraged to step back and think about love: What is it? When is it real? What happens when it is broken or dangerous? As I look over their creations, it reminds me that studying literature really is important. One of the main reasons it is important is this: it allows students to live other lives, to confront difficult ideas without having the often-painful life experiences that are otherwise required to do so. Literature gives students the freedom to talk about the hard parts of life though the experiences of characters, where it’s not personal, but rather a conceptual process of coming to understanding.  Reading literature gives students (dare I say?) wisdom. As an educator who cares deeply about their futures, I suppose I also put faith in the hope that some of these stories might provide them with a protective sense of déjà vu from the “lives” they’ve lived within the pages, leading them to a future where they have a better shot at feeling confident, safe, and whole.

Literature isn’t the only pathway to addressing the important topic of domestic violence in the language arts classroom, though. In fact, one of my longtime friends and colleagues, Mr. Jamie Spagnolo, has been getting some great press for a community PSA project that he created with his students from Prentice, Wisconsin. Here are his own words about the origins and outcomes of the project, which he agreed to share here:

[The coordinator of a local domestic abuse shelter and I] talked about the possibility of her coming into the classroom to speak with the kids about domestic abuse. Blending [her] desire to perform outreach in the classroom with her connections to local media and my desire to create a unit that involves research about issues that impact American teens, we got the ball rolling. A local radio station asked us if we’d create short PSAs for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (February), and I felt that it would really be a great project that I could get behind academically and ethically.

Creating short persuasive/informative PSAs on the topic of teen dating violence was a great way to introduce the students to rhetoric and, in particular, audience. While the overarching target audience is teens, there were sub-audiences that required different approaches (victims, abusers, or bystanders). This kept the project from becoming an anything goes free-for-all, while at the same time allowing for a variety of approaches. We did a fair amount of research, analyzed the credibility of sources, talked about how to cite sources in a verbal medium, discussed how best to present statistics (Do you use “one in three” or do you go with “33%” or “9.3 million”? Which will be most effective for this particular situation?), and studied what approaches would appeal to or alienate particular sub-audiences.

The project opened some eyes with the kids. Ms. Steinbach and I have talked about how this project isn’t necessarily to reach teens who might be listening to the radio. Sure, if it connects to any of them, great; but the real target audience and the audience that it’ll have the most impact with is the kids who are making the PSAs. Every junior in our community walked away from this project more aware of a very serious issue, and they all now know how they can safely get help for themselves or for a friend. Additionally, some of the students who may have been exhibiting abusive behaviors in their relationships might now be aware of their own actions. They walk away with some pretty serious empowerment.

[You can listen to sample PSA’s from Mr. Spagnolo’s classroom here.]

When the teaching of skills and content intersects with helping our communities, it’s a reminder about why we teach in the first place. Teachers have power to impact students’ ideas about their own lives. Regardless of the methodology we choose to do so, let’s keep using that power for good.

 

Spirit Wear

I was never much one for “dressing up” for spirit days when I was in high school. Like most teenagers, I was terrified to look silly or wrong, and only participated in spirit days if there was a way that I could look (what I deemed as) somewhat cool in the process. And plain ol’ school pride days? No way. I was above that. School pride was for goons–I strictly held a “sleep tight, ya morons!” mentality à la Holden Caulfield when it came to sporting the burgundy and silver. For one, I was angry that my school had a racist mascot. (I’m still mad about that.) For two, I was… er… too sophisticated?

Call it karma, call it irony, call it what you will, but it’s now part of my job to show my support for school pride by wearing the team colors on a regular basis. I no longer have any problem with that, and even enjoy my Friday green and white staples. Wearing spirit wear does build a sense of togetherness, and it offers me an opportunity to show that I’m proud to be a teacher and leader in my school community. However, up until this past year, I was still uneasy with the idea of dressing up in costume regalia for spirit days. I believe that it’s important to maintain a visual sense of professionalism along with a mental one, to garner students’ respect, and to show my own commitment to my profession as a serious one. Leave me to my own devices, and it’s heels, dress pants, and snappy sweaters all the way. But my colleagues are a very all-or-nothing crowd. So, in the spirit of solidarity, these kinds of things tend to happen during the more spirited weeks of the school year:

 

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90’s Day

traveltuesday

Travel Day

Holiday Day (New Year’s Eve)

Character Day

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Department Holiday Card

So what have I learned, having been forced into a little bit of buffoonery for the sake of the overall, spirited good? Well, the main thing I keep learning is that the department that plays together, stays together. The sense of convivial one-upmanship that comes along with our theme day plans has brought us closer together as colleagues and friends while we delight in one another’s weirdness. Teachers tend to be hilarious people, and it’s nice to see that quality shine amidst the tireless push to provide the best instruction to our students. The students, by the way, are the providers of lesson number two: kids delight in the occasional breach of seriousness from their teachers, as long as the norm is professionalism. Looking back once more to my own high school days, I do remember my respect for my teachers remaining fully intact, and maybe even increasing a little bit when they had the courage to go all out on a spirit day. In particular, I remember a strict, gruff technical education teacher once instructing our Architecture & Design class in a red bunny onesie complete with ears and pinned-on tail. No one dared to acknowledge it and neither did he. Class was simply business as usual, with the sole addition of furtively exchanged glances among us ninth graders, awed and disbelieving, while his back was turned. Thanks for that, Mr. Spencer–I’d like to shake your hand.

High schoolers understand the concept of how clothing reflects community, branding, and allegiance on a deeper level than most. They are often obsessed with using their clothing to create an image, and look carefully to ours. Every once in a while, their image and ours collide, and that can be the greatest compliment; for instance, the day about a month ago when one of my students bounded in to my classroom to show off her new sweatshirt with a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Of course, I asked her where she got it. And I bought one, too:

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I still maintain that professional attire needs to be the day-to-day norm for teachers, but my students and colleagues are teaching me that it’s ok to wear my heart on my sleeve… so to speak… every once in a while. And I think that’s pretty wonderful. I look forward to the next round of spirit day mischief, and to broadcasting a hefty dose of school pride throughout my years to come as an educator. If only my sixteen year old self could see me now. I can only hope she’d approve, if for no other reason then her trust in me as someone who cares deeply about ideas, people, and the written word. And, of course, cats.

Now, all I need is a way to work this gem into a spirit day:

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Wish me luck.

Back to School Feels Like This

I was doing some professional reading recently, and was struck by a quote from D. Jean Clandinin in an 1989 article, entitled “Developing Rhythm in Teaching: The Narrative Study of a Beginning Teacher’s Personal and Practical Knowledge of Classrooms.” Here’s the quote:

“The cyclical organization of time is a particularly striking feature of the professional context of teaching. […] In our work with experienced teachers, these cycles are experienced not merely as objectively imposed cycles but as having meaning; that is, they are experienced rhythmically. In the narrative of experienced teachers, there is an annual reconstruction of experience and it is through this cyclic repetition of school life that teachers come to “know” their classrooms rhythmically” (123). 

We find ourselves here again, at the beginning of another school year cycle. What Clandinin says is true: the longer you teach, the more fundamentally and personally you experience the cycle of teaching as a natural ebb and flow marked by long slow climbs, determined momentum gathering, and frantic happy bursts. It’s a special type of rhythmic understanding that only teachers have.

Everyone who has school age children (and everyone working in big box store retail) knows that it’s Back to School time. That’s as clear as the calendar. But what does Back to School feel like for educators, as we stand, ready to hurtle into the orbit of another new teaching cycle? I’ve heard it jokingly described as “one long Sunday night,” but that’s not quite it. At least, that’s not the rhythm that beats for me.

The end of August is like waking from a sound sleep, still dreaming, but with eyes slowly registering the sight of the sun rising. It’s a charged stillness. Colored paper signs and decorations on the classroom wall flutter, almost imperceptibly, in the quiet humid air of the empty school. Waiting. It’s imaginings of raised hands and the knowledge that sometimes there will be dull headaches that will be instantaneously forgotten when a student approaches the desk asking, “Can I talk to you?” It’s planning out particular blends of tea you will drink at your desk while you read and hold the words of the young, struggling, and bold.

It’s being in the wise company of other teachers, just before the voices in the halls return. It’s the sweet final feel of summer sun on shoulders, running in 5K races and screaming with joy at each other to sprint faster to the finish line. It’s notes of support and love for the teachers who start early, laughing at the familiar stories of negotiating new spaces and new young brains. It’s cardamom zucchini bread and the quiet laughter of Christmas lights misplaced on a foggy lakefront porch, sharing questions and knowings in bare feet. It’s iced chai-fueled conference session planning. It’s eye on the horizon, greeting tanned colleagues with nod and knowing look. It’s being convinced that you are now, suddenly, working harder than you ever have in your life.

It’s saying, “I’m back.”

It’s “This is what I do.”

It’s “Here we go.”

 

It’s newness.

 

Happy BTS14, everyone. Make it your best.

Dear Kid, (The Magic of Summer Email in AP Literature and Composition)

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Like most other AP (Advanced Placement) instructors, I require my incoming AP Literature and Composition students to complete a summer assignment. The idea behind summer coursework is to keep students’ skills limber over the summer, to give them a realistic look at the level of work they’ll be expected to complete during the year, and to provide me with a preview of where each student shines and struggles as a starting AP scholar.  Last year, I was feeling a little out of sync around this time as I transitioned to a new school, since my new AP students were working with a summer assignment that was designed by their previous AP teacher, and hence unfamiliar to me.  I really felt hampered by flying blind–not being able to depend on the summer assignment that I had so lovingly designed during my previous two years teaching the course.

This year, though, as I am fully installed in the Port Washington High School English Department–with a new classroom and everything!–my original AP summer assignment is BACK. And, at risk of sounding like the tagline for a Godzilla movie, it’s bigger and badder than ever.

I’ll be the first to admit that my summer assignment is, in fact, a little bit beastly. If you’d like to see the monster in full for reference in the development of your own AP course, or just out of curiosity, CLICK HERE! For everyone else, here’s the breakdown. My new students are required to (1) Read and annotate How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster. (2) Read a book off of my provided list of literary classics. (3) Write an analytical essay about said choice book, and also (4) Write me two letters via email during the summer, to which I will respond. I’ve got my reasons for including each of these elements, but I’d like to address this last requirement in this particular post, because I think it makes a huge difference: the summer email back-and-forth with my future students.

That fourth component may seem a little bit unnecessary. I mean, I’m already asking them to read two books and write a paper… why must I force my students and myself to deal with even more responsibilities during the summer? I was definitely asking myself that a few days ago when I sat down to the task of responding thoughtfully to over forty emailed letters. But, I’m telling you: SO worth it. I got a lot out of it, and I gave a lot to it. These interpersonal transactions add up to an invaluable starting rapport with a group that I’m going to be asking a lot of from September to June. Here’s a little look at why this process is so awesome.

What I Ask My Kids to Do

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What I Get From The Process

During the process of reading these letters, I get a flavor for who these kids really are, especially as it relates to the subject matter that I teach. Since this communication happens before I am formally evaluating, there’s no pretense, no “I am performing for you” filter. They are honest about how they feel about past English classes, the idea of reading in general, their own writing skills… and they usually have a pretty good handle on assessing their own personalities. This helps monumentally. It jumpstarts my understanding of the interpersonal originalities each student brings to the table–it serves as kind of a cheat code, to use video game jargon, into the level of interaction that allows me to be a successful mentor.

The best part, especially of the first letter, is that I also get a built-in dose of self advocacy as each student tells me of their hopes and fears related to the class. It serves as a window in to where I’m going to have to supply extra support, where I’ll have to be extra sensitive, and where I can challenge and push. Without these letters, it would probably take me weeks to figure out this kind of information for each student. In the special space of summer letters, where the hectic rhythm of the school year is removed, I get a more realistic, candid beat on student skill levels and personalities.

What I Give To The Process

I respond to each and every student letter with an original response, which helps me put my best foot forward as an instructor. I make sure to read to their letters very carefully, making sure to highlight specific things that they mentioned which caught my eye. In my response, I might do any or all of the following:

*Encourage a declaration of academic ambition. (Ex. I am blown away by your goal to read every book ever written by Toni Morrison! That is SO cool! )

*Relate to a similarity that I share in writing style, reading preferences, or personality tendencies. (Ex. You mentioned having a hard time speaking up in class discussions. Guess what? I was the same exact way in high school. Even now, it can be hard for me to navigate unfamiliar social situations unless I work at it. I get that.)

*Offer advice related to areas of struggle. (Ex. I hear what you’re saying about distractions making it tough to focus on reading. I’ve found that finding a specific time of day where I step away from all electronics can be helpful–sometimes making it a habit can help train your brain to know that it’s “reading time.”)

*Be frank. (Ex. You spent a pretty big portion of your letter addressing how you dislike assigned reading. Just so we’re clear, there will be a TON of assigned reading in AP Literature & Composition. I’m guessing you’re ready to take on the challenge, but if you find that this isn’t the course for you, please let me know, ok?)

*Appreciate humor. (Ex. P.s. I loved the picture of a donut-eating shark that you included at the end of your letter–hahaha!)

*Encourage and remind. (Ex. I am so excited to have you in my class this year! I’m looking forward to reading your second letter about your choice book and essay ideas!)

As I write back to my students in way that is focused zero percent on evaluation and one hundred percent on relating to them as learners, I get the chance to establish myself first and foremost as someone whose job it is to support them in their academic journeys. When I see my students for the first time in September, we’re already all going to know each other a little bit. And that is priceless.

I would be really interested to find out how a process like this might work for elementary classes or other secondary level classes outside of AP… has anyone else tried this kind of summer communication with future students? It’s a pretty powerful practice. It does take an extra donation of time… but for me, it’s worth it. What do you think? Leave a response in the comments below!

Literature as a Window and a Mirror

Way back in 2007, I wrote my first post on this blog, with a type of mission statement that has grounded my career as an English educator from the start–I talked about the idea that Universe as Text embodies: the idea that we need to read and interpret the world around us in order to understand our lives. This idea still lies at the very heart of why I believe in my work so intensely. Teaching English is a way of encouraging new realizations about the human experience in the next generation through stories that are consumed and created.

I’ve been working alongside my teaching partners Mrs. L, Mrs. J, and Mr. B all year to refine the curriculum for our junior level communications class, which we’ve been trying to make more and more about seeing the relationship between rhetoric and society, exploring how authors use narrative as a vehicle for social commentary. We’ve also taken a more individualistic look at literary works, through a psychoanalytic lens, to show what fiction can reveal about a character, about an author, and–in turn–about us.

Somewhere during these professional conversations, I suddenly remembered something that one of my mentor professors, Dr. Tom Scott, used to say in lecture at UWM. He used to reference the idea that literature works both as a window and a mirror. We look out, and see things we wouldn’t otherwise see. We look in, and see ourselves. It’s a simple, but very effective metaphor. As I prepared to transition my class from two units that focused heavily on author purpose and social commentary to a more personal exploration and study of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, I created a stick-figure comic to share with my students to demonstrate the difference in the ways of thinking that we’d be applying. It turned out to be a highly effective way to explain the different ways that we can use to study stories, and the disparate yields (both of great value) that we can gain from that study.

I formalized my comic a bit on the iPad and decided to share it here. [P.s. Procreate is an amazing drawing and painting app, despite its unfortunate name.] It is my hope that this image will also be of use in your class, especially in framing the varied approaches that you and your students take when exploring texts of all kinds.

 

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Top Ten, the Sequel

A year ago, I wrote a post about attending the Top Ten banquet at my school for the first time. The event is organized at the end of each year to give the top ten academically ranked students a chance to gather along with their parents and the school administrators to pay tribute to their chosen most influential teachers. I was lucky enough to be invited back this year, as the guest of a student that I’ve worked with over the past three years in English 10, AP Literature and Composition, and on the school newspaper editorial staff. Here we are in all our plaque-holding smileyness:

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The Top Ten banquet was the perfect special event to mark the end of my time at my current school. Seeing students taking an evening to honor their teachers is always touching and gratifying, but in many ways this year meant so much more to me than the last. Seeing the young people who were my very first batch of sophomores during my first year at SFHS grow up and graduate has given me a taste of what it’s like to become a veteran teacher–one whom students know, trust, and come to for guidance each and every year of their high school career. Seeing this particular young man and his classmates come of age is sparking in me the first inklings of that classic realization which we all understand more the older we get: time is moving very, very quickly. And the time that we share with students in our classrooms can be quite a small space afforded to make a lifetime of impact.

As I listened to my student give me the best tribute speech ever, I got a little teary-eyed. The emotional weight of being handed that wondrous “you meant something to my life” type of recognition is overwhelming, especially when it brings into clear focus how much time, care, work, and trust we’ve  invested, hoping that our teaching will have lasting meaning. I think most teachers, from time to time, secretly dread that… maybe no good has actually been done. Maybe no matter what we do, our students will become who they will become and we’re just here to watch over them for a while. Maybe they won’t retain a dang thing I worked so hard to get across to their young, distracted minds. I know I’ve felt that way on my bad days. But then you have moments like this, where a kid who cares about you stands up and says, Hey. You made me see things I couldn’t see. You helped me learn what I am capable of. You’ve made me want to be better. I wouldn’t be who I am without you, and I will not forget it.  And when that happens, you remember all kinds of things about why you chose this career in the first place.

Endless thanks to all my SF kids for being my shipmates on this six-semester voyage. I won’t forget you, either. 

The Last Three Years: What makes a great teaching team?

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Most teachers find themselves at a crossroads or two, as careers reach transitional points and the best teaching “home” turns up in a new place. I now find myself at such a crossroads for the second time in my career, as I prepare to leave my current placement, which I’ve held for three years, to pursue a new position in the Communications department at Port Washington High School. This fills me with excitement and zeal for discovery as I look forward to connecting with new students, advancing my career, and learning new things from colleagues with vast experience and wisdom to share. Still, while packing up my classroom this weekend, I realized how difficult it will be for me to face this final week of teaching at Sheboygan Falls High.

The experience of teaching at SFHS gave me so much that one might think it would be difficult to pinpoint just one particular thing that made three years’ worth of plans, projects, presentations, performances, professional development, and pedagogy memorable. But it’s not. All alliteration aside, when I think about the last three years, it’s the people that will keep this chapter of my career ingrained in my heart. Specifically, the people in my department. As we all move on to shift our teaching directions in big and small ways next year, I know that I need to thank the stars that I somehow landed in such an amazing team. So, I’ve decided, as my tribute to these many days spent teaching together, I’d write my thank you in the form of a list: Things that Make a Great Teaching Team. This, of course, comes with the implication that I could not have learned these things without working alongside my outstanding team, lovingly and forever known as “the superdepartment.”

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Things that Make a Great Teaching Team

Laughter: Teachers who work together with positivity are able to find humor in all situations–to ease frustration, to find a way through befuddlement, to celebrate success, to delight in the work of teaching.

Expertise: A fantastic team is made up of wickedly smart teachers, who have measured expertise in specific content/pedagogical areas. The members of the team know each other’s strengths, and put each other in the position to share, develop, and actively use their specialized outstanding knowledge and abilities.

Drive: The team is comprised of people who have a strong desire to work together in order to make each day better and more successful for students. They simply don’t ever stop creating, reading, questioning, revising, experimenting, and collaborating.

Communication: Effective team members trust one another, and are clear about what they are thinking, needing, and doing. They ask questions, challenge one another when appropriate, and relate to and support each other openly. They build lessons, curriculum, and initiatives together, working in person and online as a group.

Risk-Taking: An outstanding team is not afraid of doing things that have never been done before. In fact, when convinced of positive potential, they actively pursue it. They welcome challenge, ambitious projects, and new approaches. They know that as a team, their risk-taking will result in new knowledge and breakthroughs.

Compassion: A truly cohesive team cares for one another and their students unconditionally. A warm, receptive, caring attitude towards every team member is something that can be counted on at all times.

Purpose: Team members are able to develop and define their mission(s) for the year. This mission unites the team as each teacher does what he or she can to make progress toward the team goals, with the knowledge that results will be seen. A sense of purpose pervades the cohort and inspires them to work for results.

 

Thanks for a great ride, guys. This has been three years well spent. 🙂