Issues in Education

In this post, I’ve attached the materials from my July 8th teacher inquiry workshop at UW-Milwaukee. Teachers, please feel free to cite my PowerPoint¬†as you plan your writing curriculum to rationalize your teaching of creative writing while still maintaining alignment with the Common Core State Standards. If you are interested in or have questions about this workshop, please contact me through the Universe as Text Facebook page. (See link on navigation bar at the top of the screen.) ūüôā




Presentation preview: crucialcreativityworkshop


I am extremely proud and happy to return to this year’s Invitational Summer Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee ¬†affiliate¬†of the National Writing Project. Three years ago, I participated as a teacher consultant. This year, I’m serving as a facilitator. I’m excited to get a second go-round at this transformational, career-changing piece of professional development, this time as a guide and coach for other educators who are having their very first Writing Project experience.

The point of the Writing Project ISI is to develop teachers as researchers, experts on the teaching of writing, and as writers themselves. When I participated in 2010, the latter was the aspect of the experience that rejuvenated my soul. Having the time, the space, and the reason to write creatively brought me back, mentally, to why I first had the idea to become an English teacher–writing sustains me. Something about making thoughts permanent, making words into art, and giving strength and structure to my imagination makes writing one of the most fulfilling things in my life. For me, becoming a storyteller was always the most thrilling part of being an English student; and being in charge of the training of young storytellers, poets, and philosophers was what I had in mind when I applied to the School of Education in my undergrad years. Creating fiction, in my opinion, is a vital task for the development of creative thinking in students.¬†

Even though I’m a facilitator this summer, I’m still going to be conducting new research of my own, and creating a new Teacher Inquiry Workshop to demonstrate my findings as they are applicable to the classroom. And I’ve decided to let my strong feelings about the importance of creative writing guide my study. Since Wisconsin adopted the Common Core State Standards, it seems that less and less space is being afforded for the literary arts while argumentative, informative, and research writing take center stage. In fact, nowhere in the ¬†Common Core State Standards for high school language arts does it overtly require a high school student to write a single poem, play, or story during any of the four years. It seems to suggest that creative writing is superfluous fluff. Personally, I feel that this view is a disservice to the minds and hearts of our students, who need experience in creating something altogether new in order to know how to envision solutions to problems. More than that, they deserve a chance to tell stories, let their voices off a tether, and explore the power of their own generative imaginations.

I believe that the teaching of creative writing in high school is crucial to the development of young writers. And I want to prove that teachers can address the writing standards–even as overtly geared toward non-fiction as they are–through the teaching of creative writing.

The following are my working inquiry questions:

1. How can the teaching of creative writing (such as poetry, fictitious prose, and drama) be used to directly address and fulfill the Common Core State Standards for Writing in the high school classroom?

2. What are the benefits of teaching creative writing–as far as student motivation, learning outcomes, marketability, and critical thinking–that cannot be addressed by non-fiction writing alone?

As the summer goes on, I’ll be posting more about what I discover, in an effort to provide other educators with the justification that they need to keep creative writing alive in the classroom. Also, in an effort to practice what I preach, I’ve started an online collection of some of my own creative writing, which I hope to add to throughout the summer.

SAVE ¬†CREATIVE WRITING IN OUR SCHOOLS! Comment below or “like” the Universe as Text Facebook page to join the conversation.

At the beginning of the month, I got the chance to attend an educational technology conference called TECH Forum, sponsored by¬†Tech & Learning.¬†I headed down to Lincolnshire, IL along with my superstar colleague Ms. J and our school’s technology specialist, Mr. L. This was the first teaching conference I’ve attended where technology was the sole, specialized focus, and it was really refreshing to be able to consider both educational theory and practical methodology side by side.


The opening keynote, given by the hilarious and brilliant Dr. Yong Zhao, reinforced the message that our schools are in a creativity crisis. He discussed the “side effects” of a standardized test chasing culture that leave students dry in their desire to learn and create, and called attention to the value of asking where we really want our students to go: “Sure, we have the Race to the Top. But… Race to the Top of what?” The essential messsage of the keynote can be boiled down to simple, but powerful terms–Through the incorporation of technology and¬†teaching methods that allow for students to ideate, create, and disrupt the status quo, we can better prepare our students for the astounding modern world, where the norm is persistent reinvention.

The morning session I attended, “Approaching a Holistic Technology Integration Strategy” presented by Daniel Rezac, Andy Kohl, and Elizabeth Greene, focused on how to inspire true teacher buy-in for technology initiatives. It grappled with the question of how to establish teams to help tech integration become more than just the delivery of gadgets but rather a way of teaching and learning. I could very much relate to the key points and problems raised–with time stretched thin and new technology¬†rolling¬†out at a breakneck pace, how do we establish a¬†space¬†for educators to embrace and integrate new classroom technologies? The solutions offered gave the overall impression that a “coaching”/co-teaching model of school IT can help make that space that is needed to launch new methodologies in a more relevant way, in more classrooms, for a more lasting impact.

In the afternoon, I facilitated a roundtable discussion, “Teachers as Bloggers,” where I shared my experience as a teacher-blogger both in and out of the classroom. [My handout from the discussion can be found here:¬†Teachers as Bloggers¬†] While I was expecting more of a mini blogger convention to be happening at my table, I was surprised that the majority of my participants came with questions of their own about the purpose and effectiveness of blogging–many were from schools where a blog for every teacher was newly mandatory. It seems that maintaining a web presence is quickly becoming an expectation for every educator… And indeed it must become so, if teaching is to develop alongside other disciplines. We had some great conversations, and ultimately defined four key components of successful blogging: (1) Visual content such as photos/video, (2) Candor and the sharing of true anecdotes, (3) Demonstrated expertise, and (4) Practical, immediately applicable information or resources. In such a young genre, there’s still much to explore. But if we’re teaching kids who are already cultivating their own online presence, it’s crucial for us to go there as well, as teachers and participants in the digital-social landscape.

After eating WAY too many of some of the most elegant mini-desserts I’ve ever seen, I finished up the day by attending “Managing Schools, Classrooms, and Information with Google Apps” presented by Hank Thiele and Jennie Magiera, to refresh my knowledge of all things Google. The things teachers can use Google to do…for free…just continue to amaze my brain. In the five past years, the possibilities have exploded: sharing and co-editing content, giving/receiving feedback, building websites, gathering data, conducting synchronous meetings through messaging/videochat, relying on self-saving, self-updating everything that’s accessible from everywhere. It’s. Just. INSANE!

Today’s students have so much power to impact their world. All they need is an internet connection. As teachers, we have new responsibility to guide them in how to wield that power for good, for themselves, in order to alter the futurescape in the countless new ways that they will envision.

Unfortunately for me, I began my teaching career in a place and in a time that is… well… maybe not the best place and time to be a teacher. Teacher morale across the U.S. is¬†at the lowest it’s been in 25 years.¬† And in case anybody’s wondering if, as just one teacher in just one school, you can tell that there are some serious morale issues in the system, trust me: you can tell. It’s an issue of politics. It’s an issue of economics. It’s an issue of the performance of our national public education system. But for teachers, it necessarily becomes personal. The first time I wrote about this was in 2011, when I shared some reflections and a mental approach for dealing with some of the uncomfortable realities of how public education has changed in my own state. I find myself needing to weigh in on the topic again, after reading this sobering teacher morale-related blog post from one of my longtime colleagues and friends, Ms. S. She expresses many of the same concerns I’ve heard about from fellow teachers from many different schools–the burden of exponentially increasing responsibilities and accountability, the financially crippling cuts and freezes in pay, the sense of powerlessness, and the fear associated with speaking up about any of it. Some of these I’ve experienced myself. Plainly said, it’s an injustice, especially to highly effective, early-career educators who are trying to establish themselves as leaders and innovators in the churning belly of a system that seems hell-bent on merely spitting them back out. ¬†

Taking political action, on local, state, and national levels is one way to try to make a difference in the current climate, but that’s not useful for making a personal difference right now.¬†As professionals with a daily, important job to do, we can’t just tune out until the next election term rolls around.¬†So, what do we do–today–about teacher morale… as teachers?

I don’t have all the answers. But I have a couple. I am, after all, the very official self-appointed Morale Officer of the English department at my school. Yeah, it’s a made up title, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not legitimate! ūüôā ¬†Sometimes, to get out of a very deep, dark hole, one has to be creative. And that’s not limited to inventing honorary titles. Here are some other things you can do:

Morale Toolkit

I think the absolute best defense against low morale is building a strong support system via a professional support network. I wrote in-depth about how to do that in this post from a couple years back. Nothing is more helpful during times of struggle than relating to and seeking support from other educators.

Also, don’t let this job kill you! Stay strong, literally, by being kind to yourself in what you eat, how much mental and physical rest you afford yourself, and opportunities you give yourself to exercise and feel physically alive and well. If your devotion to your teaching (and associated responsibilities) are impinging on your ability to fulfill these things, you have taken on too much. Teachers are heroes, but they don’t need to be martyrs. You’ll be a better educator if you are healthy and whole. Jealously guard your own health and sanity. Sometimes, the grading can wait.

While I don’t think that “do it for the kids” should be a reason to pile extra expectation without compensation onto our educators, I do think that teachers should take a moment each day to look around at the difference that they are creating. Look at those kids, and what they can do, and what they love to do that they never thought they would, because of your influence. No amount of bureaucracy will ever be able to stomp out the wonder or beauty of that.

One very specific thing to try in order to stay interested in and inspired by your teaching career is incorporating your own interests and hobbies into your teaching methods. Since I can’t always find the time or money to pursue creative endeavors, I sometimes make my teaching into my creative endeavor. For example, I love to write, draw, and perform. So, I’ll make a comic strip to teach my students a new skill. Or I’ll write a piece of short fiction to demonstrate author craft. I’ll recite a rap to my class to teach them something. These things give me joy and fulfillment because they are my favorite things to do! By applying them to my teaching, I’m making my job fun, and my students also get to feed off of my engaged interest in the method/medium of the day’s lesson.

Another strategy that’s a bit harder to define is… silliness. Laughter is a¬†necessary remedy in low-morale environments. It’s ok to be a little “out there” sometimes in one’s efforts to make colleagues smile or to create a positive vibe in the teaching day. How about a short, relevant-to-the-curriculum Play-Doh activity at the beginning of class? Maybe have your students write a parody skit to review some literature. Play very, very mild practical jokes on your colleagues, if they are up for such a challenge. Or, when all else fails, you can make a poster¬†of your department members as superheroes like I did.

Oh, yes I did: omg_dept2

Courtesy of’s “Create Your Own Superhero” game.

Finally, the gold standard for beating low morale is what I like to call stupidly stubborn positivity. This means coming into work with a (stupid?) grin and calling out “good morning!” to everyone you pass. This means smiling at and personally meeting every student at the door. This means occasionally responding to the dreaded, “How’s it going?” question in the copyroom with a brave, non-sarcastic, “Pretty fantastic!” Think I’m crazy? Try it. Things are going to get better–that possibility needs to become a fact in your mind in order for you to reframe your reality into a positive one. There is such a thing as good days. Don’t let the bad things–because there will always be bad things–completely steal the spirit that got you into this career. You’re here. You are doing good things. Keep. Fighting.

I know that none of these suggestions will make the struggles evaporate, pay the bills, or protect us from forces over which we have little control. But they might help in the meantime. Please share other strategies, connect, and lift up. From our joined sense of mission and our combined intelligence as educational leaders, we can help keep the otherwise overwhelming tide of low morale at bay.


One of the biggest words in education theory today is rigor. According to the Rigor/Relevance Framework established by the International Center for Leadership in Education, academic rigor refers to “learning in which students demonstrate a thorough, in-depth mastery of¬†challenging tasks to develop cognitive skills through reflective thought, analysis, problem-solving, evaluation, or creativity.” This expectation, that teachers will demonstrate a curriculum that not only covers the basics, but also challenges each student to the utmost of his or her ability, can leave already overburdened or disenfranchised educators feeling pressured. We might find ourselves asking things like, “How am I supposed to show rigor when some of my students can’t even read up to grade level?” There’s no magical potion to turn struggling students into savants, this much is true. But I’d like to posit that boosting the rigor of our courses, rather than something to shrink from, is something that we should be applying with a vengeance.

On the curricular level, standards are set by the nation, the state, and the district. For those of us working with the Common Core State Standards, we’ve noticed the rigor ramping up. But really, when you walk into a real world classroom, it’s not the state of Wisconsin that’s setting the bar for the students’ performance. The person setting that bar is the person standing at the front of the room. We all know about The¬†Standards, but what about¬†our standards? I don’t know about you, but I’ve got them. Go ahead, say it with me:

“I have standards!”

This is what I tell my students when they ask me why something is so hard, or why they are expected to do something in such a particular way. It’s because I have standards–for them, for my classroom, for myself as a professional. And they are rigorous standards, because I know my students will reach toward what I expect for them. And I expect excellence! As my hideously wonderful tie-dye classroom poster proclaims, excellence is the goal. No matter where we fall, we are better when we aim for superior performance. And my daily demand for a higher standard from my students is far more immediate and powerful than the CCSS binder sitting sagely on my bookshelf. It makes them want to be better. That desire is fuel for a fire that can equate to greater achievement, even in the most unexpected places.

Concrete and Realistic Ways to Implement Greater Rigor in the High School Classroom

Communicate Effectively and Often: Students really do want to please, despite how much they may sometimes protest. And that’s a lot easier to do when they know what is expected. Create challenging, but very clear learning targets and explain them often, in different ways. As students begin work, engage the lost and distracted in an open conversation–“do you know what we’re doing right now?” Many times, the answer is “no,” but quickly becomes “ok!” after a personal connection. You can also recruit more with-it students to explain classroom processes to a nearby classmate. Take the time to verbally monitor success (it’s a great way to formatively assess on the spot). It only takes a moment to say, “This part that you wrote is really strong because…” or “What did you think of the way the author comes across in this paragraph?” The more acquainted we can be with our students’ current performance, the better we learn how to appropriately challenge and support them next.

Dare to Demand Amazing Things:¬†Wish your students could do something like… perform a scene from Twelfth Night for a live audience? Or market and sell a unique product? Or have professional conversations with local community members? Or design a school vegetable garden? They can. If you need someone to say it, I’m saying it: They Absolutely Can. They need resources and guidance, and may have some failures along the way, but young people are unbelievably capable. Society doesn’t always view teenagers for the wonders they are. Especially if they know that an adult believes that they can do something, they will rise to the occasion. Try to implement one amazing thing per year–something that expects students to reach beyond their normal capabilities for a classroom cause.

Accept that there Is Such a Thing as “Unacceptable”¬†Part of rigor is making a clear statement that mediocrity is not enough. Resist the fear of the irritated parent phone call and draw a bold line that defines unacceptable performance. If a student falls short of expectations, it’s ok to hand work right back to them and say, “This is not acceptable.” Paired with an understanding ear, a re-clarification of expectations, and an opportunity for another try, this is an important moment for teacher and student. Struggling students in this¬†scenario¬†are able to express their areas of struggle, while the lazy or line-pushing students get the message that… well… we have standards! I also try to mirror society’s expectations by defining unacceptable social actions (such as trash-talking anyone in my presence), and even unacceptable grammar mistakes (papers with instances of the wrong “there/their/they’re” get harshly downgraded or, on occasion, handed back without a grade)!

Research Your Own Practicum and Content ¬†Students can tell when their teacher is working hard to provide quality instruction. Consider doing a bit of new reading on something you’ve taught many times before. If we want our students to respect the idea of lifelong learning, we need to model it! High standards for our teaching translate to rigor in expectations… because when our passion overflows, we want our students to understand the subject with the same intriguing complexity that we do.

Celebrate Hard Work ¬†Through your classroom actions and outright statements, communicate the value of hard work. Help students understand that the immediate gratification of Google searches will only go so far in building true knowledge. Help them build reading stamina. Rejoice in the painfully slow but successful interpretation of a 17th century text. Share the deliciously frustrating reality of the writing and research process that makes the payoff that much sweeter. When students know that success doesn’t just descend from above onto the “A” students, they start to make a connection between industriousness and¬†achievement.

Be a Cheerleader ¬†Be vocal when students do well. Write proud comments on their work. Brag about them in the announcements. Post their work in the display case. Write an article about them in the school newspaper. One honest, affirming comment can inspire a student to work twice as hard. Yesterday, after my students finished reading their original poems for the class, I said, “These were so good! You guys make me want to stand up and cheer!” It was true! Every kid deserves to hear something like that once in a while. And don’t reserve praise just for overachievers–when a D average student pulls out a B- performance, it is just as much cause for affirmation and validation.

Create a Culture of Team Achievement¬†The broken record classroom management philosophy that I’ve had since day one has been “We’re all in this together.” Friendly competition can be stimulating, but at the end of the day, students need to understand that the classroom is a community. Make them aware of the fact that their actions, words, and attitude have real power over those in their vicinity. Encourage them to encourage each other, and they’ll want to do well–not just for themselves, but for each other.


I’m giving a session during my district’s aptly named “Summer Technology Extravaganza” entitled Six [totally awesome] Web Presentation Tools for Teachers at a Glance. If you’re a teacher like me, you get bombarded with periodic e-mails that tout these lists of “great” web resources for teachers throughout the school year. And we mean well when we get those e-mails, don’t we? We flag them to follow up on later. We might mention the e-mail to a co-worker at a department meeting, saying, “Hey, did you see Greg’s e-mail?” and “Oh, yeah, that stuff looks really cool. I definitely am going to check that out.”

But we almost never end up using those resources, for three main reasons: (1) We don’t have time, because we’re up to our ears in grading, lesson planning, collaborating, meeting with students, going to grad school or professional development seminars, and running extracurriculars. (2) Maybe we do¬†make a little chunk of time to check out the list, but there are thirty-five¬†items, and we get frustrated dealing with so many unfamiliar resources, some of which seem¬†like a waste of time since we have zero idea about how to connect them to our own teaching. (3) Even if we do actually find a resource that seems usable, we realize that we have to put in¬†a¬†ton of time¬†before we’ll be able to¬†use it… which brings us back to reason #1, and we say “maybe next year.”

However, as teachers, we cannot allow ourselves to back away from new technology. We can’t afford to be afraid of it, since our students are pretty much capable of inventing some of these resources on their cell phones during our study hall! As someone once said, you can’t outrun a tidal wave…¬†and that can be what technology feels like: a scary, overwhelming tsunami¬†moving at¬†the speed of light, ready to flatten¬†us and our¬†traditional ideas about teaching. However,¬†I’m challenging us as educators to ride that dang wave, and turn it into something not¬†so threatening, but rather, something TOTALLY¬†AWESOME! Go with the surfer mentality.¬†It’s all good, my friends.

But where do we start? Here’s where my session comes in.¬†I’ve done the work for you–I isolated six web presentation tools that met a set of criteria that I established for total awesomeness. I wanted only tools that were immediately applicable to all areas of curriculum. I wanted things that would be fairly simple and satisfying for teachers to create, modify, and share. I wanted things that would retain their usefulness over time.¬†Here are six.

Below, you will find a link to a table I’ve made that puts information about these sources into an “at a glance” format. You’ll be able to easily reference what the tool is, what it does, and how it could be used in the classroom. You will also get access to links for the actual websites so that you can sign up and start creating! Before you do that, though, I’ve also got links to some examples on the final page for your perusal. (Keep in mind that these are just samples, not Pulitzer or Golden Apple material.) It is my hope that my own hours of time narrowing the field of free web tools will help others in their teaching, and help some new surfers to get up on that wave. Try to learn and implement one new thing this year… even that is a huge accomplishment. Come on in, the water’s fine! At the live session, you even get me to come around, assist you, and personally answer your questions about how these contraptions work… ūüôā

Click HERE-> Web Presentation Tools



Shoutout: I owe many thanks¬†for my preparation to Picky Reader. She gave me an amazing, and already annotated, list of web resources to start from. She’s an absolute guru when it comes to such things, so check out



Most of us have read ‚Äúthat book‚ÄĚ: the book that changes the course of our life or changes our mind or our hearts. For me, one of these books is Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. I first read it in my sophomore year of college, and have been rereading it contemplatively ever since. For those who haven‚Äôt read it, it is difficult to explain exactly what gives this novel its incredible power‚Ķ The language is gorgeous, but also gritty when it needs to be. The structure is non-traditional, interspersing oral poetry amidst a storyline that is cyclical, fragmented, and out of chronological order. The plot edges along the realm of the spiritual as well as the political, but really stays centered on the fate of one man, Tayo. The story is his ceremony of healing for an impossible wound, and in many ways he stands for much more than himself. In my eyes, every reading of this book is a ceremony of sorts, and it works on its readers in unique, spellbinding ways.

I could go on, but I think I‚Äôve sufficiently conveyed my personal investment in this beautiful work of literature. So why do I bring it up now? Because I finally got to teach it for the first time this past semester! The decision to include Ceremony was an unexpected but strong compulsion‚ÄĒone that caused me to deviate from the original syllabus and made me require my students to buy the novel, since the school didn‚Äôt have copies. (This strategy is actually a good one in a pinch‚ÄĒused novels go for about one cent plus shipping on Amazon; since it was my last minute decision, I offered to cover costs for any students who legitimately couldn‚Äôt spare a few bucks.) That‚Äôs how bad I wanted to teach this book, and how convinced I was that this was the right time to teach it.

I did have some worries, though, as I contemplated how to present and teach the novel, which is so embedded in Pueblo culture, in a socially responsible way. Here’s a segment of an email I wrote to one of my former literature professors about my concerns:

I’m wondering about the sacred nature of so much that Silko weaves into her writing. I mean… “ceremony”, ritual, story… the whole thing is sacred. I guess I want to be able to help my students understand this culture that surrounds the narrative, this culture so foreign to their conservative, Christian, small town community. But I don’t feel qualified to do that in ways other than drawing from my own very basic knowledge or pointing them to (who knows what this even means:) internet resources. I fear presenting them with an oversimplifed charicature, which might actually be worse than leaving them completely in the dark. Especially since the Laguna are a very private cultural community, it seems intrusive as a non-member of their community to be spouting secondhand information about their religious beliefs in my classroom. At the same time, my students’ current knowledge of indigenous people is limited to Disney’s Pocahontas, superficial history textbooks, and (for some) local stereotypes about reservations. We’ve already been through Native Son, and other demanding texts dealing with cultural boundaries and the tension of power structures, so they’re used to me pushing on their worldviews. But Ceremony is new teaching territory for me. And I want to do it right.

My professor was kind enough to write me back, reassure me that my own respect for the story would likely translate, and recommend some resources, including ‚ÄúSpecial Problems in Teaching Leslie Marmon Silko‚Äôs Ceremony‚ÄĚ (Allen 1990) and a chapter from Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (Owens 1994). I also scouted out a fantastic, illuminating article by Silko herself, ‚ÄúLanguage and Literature from a Pueblo Indian Perspective‚ÄĚ (1979). With these readings, I was able to figure out my teaching plan. Since I had a hard time locating any other high school teaching resources for Ceremony online, I figured I‚Äôd include some of the resources I created and approaches I used. Teaching this novel is a difficult but intensely rewarding process.

*My ‚ÄúDay One‚ÄĚ presentation included information on the novel‚Äôs renown, the non-traditional structure of the book, connections to Laguna Pueblo culture, and some reminders about approaching indigenous writing. There is also an introductory discussion and writing activity at the end. [CEREMONYintro.]

*I had students freewrite about sacred spaces (this could be anything from grandpa‚Äôs garage to a secluded lake bluff to a church altar) to help them understand Tayo‚Äôs connection to his homeland. After sharing our writing, we talked about what makes a place ‚Äúsacred‚ÄĚ and how we would feel if anyone ever vandalized or violated our sacred spaces.

*As students read each section, I expected them to interact with the story in a blend of analysis and personal response. I created a response guide [ceremonyresponsequestions] to help them come prepared with writing for discussion. This helped immensely, as they came prepared to offer a variety of ideas in the discussions we had in class each day. I tried to stay as hands-off as possible, and my students generated many unique responses. [Click here for some samples of their response writing.]

*When it made sense, I shared segments of the scholarly articles mentioned above to help students understand why the book is written the way it is, and to enhance their understanding of the book’s cultural foundation.

*We did some drawing to help envision and talk about scenes. A very successful application of this was a sketch of Betonie’s cabin. This is a striking and important setting, and the things students included in their drawings helped them decode what could have been dismissed as a crazy man’s junk collection.

*We wrote an informal literary/comparative analysis of the lyrics to ‚ÄúThe Humbling River‚ÄĚ by Pucifer, interpreting and connecting the speaker‚Äôs struggles and realizations to those of Tayo.¬†I provided the lyrics and played the song for my students while they wrote. Check out this gorgeous, haunting song. (However, fair warning: much of their other material is explicit. Tread carefully.)

While I have much to add and develop as far as this unit is concerned, many of my students came away with a love for the novel. This student‚Äôs writing shows one of the overall reactions that make me feel like I at least did partial justice to Ceremony, one of ‚Äúthose books:‚ÄĚ

One of the most important or the most powerful messages that I got from Ceremony was about the interaction of the world. There are different levels, different worlds that all blend together, influencing the other worlds. These worlds involve the past, present, and future, the land, history, people, animals, witchery, love and so much more, but they are all circling and whirling around at the same time. When they are out of balance, there’s grief, almost like the nausea that Tayo experiences. Balance is achieved when these worlds align. The cycle continues in a circle, over and over, like the star picture in the book! This culture’s view of an individual as a part of the world rather than as a separate, detached being is striking.

Thank you, Leslie Marmon Silko, for your gift to us. If any other teachers out there have awesome ideas for teaching this novel, please leave us your ideas in the comments!

The school that I work for has the tradition of holding a formal banquet to honor the top ten students in the graduating class and a group of ten influential teachers as chosen by the students. This year, I was lucky and surprised to be chosen by Miss D., a shining young literary scholar who took my AP Literature and Composition class as well as my Theater Arts class this year. It was interesting and enjoyable to say the least to meet the parents of these fine young individuals, to get a nod from administration, to eat delicious food, and to see everyone dressed up in formal attire..

It really is special to attend a banquet that honors outstanding academic achievement as well as the role that teachers play in creating the atmosphere for that achievement to occur. The honors and accolades earned by this group of students was impressive to say the least, but what made the occasion memorable was how honestly and precisely¬†the students were able to pinpoint, in¬†their brief speeches,¬†ways¬†in which¬†a particular teacher¬†was able to spark something¬†important in them, to light their path on the journey of self-discovery. Each student needs something a little different to discover his or her genius, and that made me sit and ponder the vast diversity in teaching styles, personalities, and types of expertise among teachers. As much as popular culture may at times reinforce a single¬†image of what “the teacher” looks like or does, real teachers have¬†extremely individualized ways of doing what they do. All teachers have an individual, unique potential to really strike a particular type of student. Skilled teachers are able to engage every kid in their classroom. But really clicking with a student to the point that he or she views you as truly influential? That’s something rare… and has much to do with the chemistry between a student’s way of¬†seeing the world¬†and the unique style and spirit¬†of the teacher whom they admire.

Thinking about the fact that I clicked with one of these outstanding students, that I sparked something within her, makes me feel proud to be her teacher. It also makes me feel proud to be a teacher, since we have such an exceptional opportunity to connect to other human beings in a meaningful way by virtue of our profession. And the best thing is that each new year presents new opportunities for unique connections, as the cards are reshuffled and both students and teachers hopefully anticipate a lucky hand.

Top Ten 2012 009

Objective-based teaching is something I’ve internalized. Students need to know the desired outcome and how to get there before we can expect them to perform. Whether we call them learning objectives, learning goals, or (now, apparently), learning targets, these roadmaps for students are a crucial part of learning.

But are they the only part? German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.” It makes me wonder a certain wondering that has been creeping around my brain for some time now…. If we make learning targets too simplistic and explicit, are we drawing students away from those invisible targets that lead to true innovative thought? Is there room in a learning target for experimentation? For discovery? I think there can be, if one writes and explains the target with care and intention. But I also think that there is more to learning than “hitting targets,” and there’s more to understanding than performing a certain skill like a circus pony pawing the air for a sugar lump. I tell my students, “You are not a parrot. Don’t just say what I say and do what I do. Show me something that is 100%¬†you.”¬† It can be frustrating to attempt to nourish 21st Century skills such as creativity and adapatability while simultaneously breaking lessons down into dry, compartmentalized goals of various sizes.

This whole conundrum prompted some off the clock thinking. As teachers, we are trained to ask ourselves “What do I want my students to learn?” as a starting point when crafting objectives/goals/targets. So I sat and asked myself, “What do I *really* want my students to learn? What do I wish for them, to be able to do by the time they leave my class for the year?” I came up with the following list.

Things I Wish for My Students, for Them to Be Able to Do

Notice details.¬†¬†¬†¬† Write outside of class, to express and discover.¬†¬†¬†¬† Extract thematic ideas from texts–ideas that are unique and insightful.¬†¬†¬†¬† Observe life and share realizations about it.¬†¬†¬†¬† Stand up straight and speak out.

Bring things in to class that relate to what we’re learning.¬†¬†¬†¬† Revise–truly revise–their own writing with a ruthless pen in search of perfection.¬†¬†¬†¬† Use language that is fluent, beautiful, and complex.

See education for the true opportunity that it is.     Become comfortable with quiet and solitude.     Search for truth.     Be able to adapt to an ever-changing world.     Think with fierce independence.

Know what CREATIVE is/be it.¬†¬†¬†¬† Get past the “right” answer.¬†¬†¬†¬† Put their energy to use.¬†¬†¬†¬† Tell stories.¬†¬†¬†¬† Ackowledge the beauty, genius, and talent in one another.¬†¬†¬†¬† Fight for the changes they want to see in the world.

Believe in their own power.     Overachieve.     Push themselves.

Know, as Tolkien did, that not all who wander are lost.

All of this is my target, really. This, and a whole expansive field teeming with invisible ones. I just hope that I manage to express this to my students, alongside the daily learning targets we shoot for together.    

As part of my syllabus for AP Literature and Composition, I am teaching The Divine Comedy (otherwise affectionately known as Dante’s Inferno). It’s an amazing work of literature, widely considered to be one of the major literary works of all time. It provides a veritable playground of imagery, figurative language, allusion, and tone for my literature students to analyze, and gives them experience grappling with interpreting a difficult text. It’s definitely AP material. However, as my unit approached, I wondered about the entrenchment¬†of this text within the Catholic, Christian tradition.¬† I mean, let’s face it–this piece creates a layout of¬† hell (as imagined by Dante, informed by his religious beliefs) that straight out condemns certain people and behavior based upon very religiously saturated reasons and examples. The entire piece, down to¬†its terza rima structure, is reflective of a Christian worldview. As I began to envision our classroom discussions, I wondered about my students’ ability to talk about religion in the context of literature.¬†Would they be able to¬†delve into ideas about the novel¬†without turning the class into a “whose religion is right?” type of fiasco?¬†Would they become confused and think that I was teaching The Inferno¬†as a sacred text?¬†I didn’t want to shy away from discussing the text,¬†I wanted to have quality discussions that included religion, and I wanted to address my students’ lack of experience in this department. (My situation is also exacerbated by the fact that my students come from a small town where religious diversity is largely overlooked or even feared. They are, generally speaking, uncomfortable talking about difference in religious beliefs, even between Christian denominations.)
With all that in mind, I dedicated a portion of one of my introductory lessons to talking about how religion plays a part in academia, particularly in the humanities. A part of this was instruction on how to participate in an academic discussion where religion features prominently.  I created the following list to help manage our discussions, and my students have responded well so far.
Things to adhere to when discussing religion in an academic context:

¬ěBring your beliefs, but treat their discussion as an intellectual exercise. Detach from extreme spiritual passion in this context.

¬ěExhibit tolerance, respect, and curiosity¬†regarding the beliefs of others.

¬ěRefer to a religious belief/worldview as a belief, worldview, tradition, cultural stance, etc., rather than The Truth. (It may be YOUR truth, but¬†it may not be the truth¬†for others.)

¬ěDo not openly react to a belief-oriented comment which offends you.

¬ěDo not try to convert others to your point of view, or condemn your classmates.

¬ěSeek commonalities between traditions.

¬ěDescribe cultural impact of religious traditions.

¬ěBe able to have discussions on ethics/morality that stand upon foundations other than that of religious tenets.

A public school classroom is the State, and not the Church, without a doubt. However, as I tell my students, intelligent people understand that these two entities profoundly impact one another in an¬†interdependent way. Religion is powerful, and to shy away from discussing it is to water down our understanding of the world, of culture, of ourselves. Students bring their beliefs to class every day. While we don’t, as public school teachers, teach in terms of faith, we do owe it to our students to allow this part of their culture to be recognized as a part of who they are. Discussing religious themes (whether¬†Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or agnostic in nature)¬†can be sticky, but when done appropriately it provides a deep look into human nature and motivation that, in my opinion, composes much of what literature, humanity, and truth¬†is all about.