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This morning, I had the honor of presenting a sectional at the 2009 Wisconsin Council of Teacher of English Convention in Milwaukee, WI.

Please click to view the information from the session:

Learning the Art of the Semi-Colon

My presentation included discussion about two bits of pedagogical theory–(1) teaching grammar in the context of writing and (2) using visual arts in the teaching of writing. For me, finding practical applications of these theories can sometimes be challenging, so I demonstrated a lesson that I use in my persuasive writing unit which integrates both of these theories into actual practice. It’s a really great lesson that middle school AND high school students enjoy and that is exciting to teach. It makes grammar fun! But even better, it produces sophisticated student writing in the end. The participants in my workshop had a chance to try out the activity for themselves, and then to discuss the experience and offer ideas about how this lesson (or those similar to it) can work in the classroom. Some of the cool suggestions generated by this discussion included:

-Using a picture as a starting point for a follow-up lesson, where students view the image and generate an accompanying sentence.

-Displaying posters side by side with formal persuasive essays.

-Tying visual elements into descriptive writing, asking students to describe a photo or illustrate a written description.

-Creating a unit around punctuation, with the unifying idea of a punctuation “map” that could be displayed in the room with “paths to good writing” that would feature various punctuation marks as X-marks-the-spot symbols on the map.

I was so excited to have this chance to present one of my ideas and to hear those of others. My room was pleasantly overflowing with knowledge: there were pre-service educators, other first-year teachers, experienced and veteran teachers, and post-secondary teachers in attendance.¬† It was my absolute pleasure to serve as the leader for a great activity and discussion. Many thanks to all that were there! It was an incredible day for me–I was recognized as the WCTE 2009 Outstanding Student Teacher and gave a successful workshop for my colleagues! It doesn’t get much better than that.

Do you need more ideas about how to utilize grammar in context, visual arts, or BOTH into real life teaching? Check out the last two slides of my Powerpoint for my list, and share your own by leaving a comment and continuing the conversation!

Please share by leaving a comment. ūüôā

I’m always on the search for visual aids to help exemplify those super-abstract concepts that we encounter in language arts. Like a gift from above, this idea came to me over the weekend. I used it with my 12th grade class today, and it seemed to work pretty well… Success!

The goal: Visually portray what it means to conduct a literary analysis. I’ve been teaching my students how to analyze a text, through a kind of mental excavation process… identifying elements, paying attention to how language works, going as deep as possible into the implications of the author’s choices in order to discover the thread of meaning that’s interwoven within. But that’s a lot of big words. So how do I make what I’m asking for clearer? This is what I came up with.

First I asked my students, “What is this?” And I held up a paper ball.

Of course, they answer–A paper ball.

Then I tell them: “It’s fairly obvious, right? We look at this, and we see the surface. It’s round. It’s a ball. It’s made of paper. Pretty straightforward. Now I’m going to be using this as a metaphor for a text that we might want to analyze. What do we do in order to analyze something, if you think back to our discussions from earlier this week?” ¬†Take it apart. Look for deeper understanding. Look closer. “Great! So let’s start taking this apart.”

Then, I uncrinkled the paper just a little bit.

“We’ve started our analysis, beginning to look closer and take this object apart. What do we see now?”¬†Dark marks and shapes on the paper… “Right! So we have started to identify some things that we see here. We think they might mean something… but what? To find out, we have to look closer.”

Next, I completely uncrinkled about a third of the paper, so full letters were visible.

“Now what can we see?”¬†Letters! I-N-G. Ing! “Yes, we now see some things that we recognize, that we can connect to. We know these elements, we know what they mean alone, and we know together that they are probably part of a greater whole. We’re almost there, but in order to find what unites this whole piece, we need to spread out all these elements for ourselves to see… So… what do we get?”

I finally uncrinkled the paper all the way, to reveal the full word, written boldly on the page… “MEANING.”

“This is what we’re going for,” I told my students. “To unfold and uncover and analyze enough to get to a place where the underlying meaning of a text is clear. Now, let’s practice!”

And the lesson continues.  To my surprise, my class actually seemed to get the concept more than before! And I displayed the crumpled sign as a reminder right next to the pencil sharpener.

Whatever it takes. ūüôā

Behold, a nifty little graph given to me by my district mentor:

I thought this was rather entertaining, especially considering the current time of year. Apparently, I’m m0ving swiftly from survival mode into “disillusionment”, which looks like an all-time low as far as morale is concerned.

I’m pleased to say that I don’t feel anywhere near the bottom of that valley. Every day is a new chance to learn, to test my strength, and to hang out with my students. While I do submit to the idea of seasonal changes (especially losing light here in the Midwest) having a real effect on the attitudes and inspiration of people in general, I’d like to redraw this graph to a steady uphill climb. We might slip along the way, but we’re building on the progress we’ve made, and every step brings us closer to the top.

As I say so often, struggles do exist. BUT, we first year teachers that plan on staying… we have to be stronger than the statistics.

Something I stress in my teaching is teacher-student communication. From day one, I tell them to remember to speak up if they EVER need help with something, have a special need or concern, or need to let me know about what’s going on in their lives. As I tell them, I’m willing to bend over backwards to get them what they need, but I need to know what that is first. Trust and respect are two other things that I often talk about.¬†I try¬†to do more than “give the respect speech” but to truly demonstrate and expect a high level of respect and a willingness to trust.

When I get disillusioned, though, I sometimes start to give up on those ideals.I start to think, “Why should I care?” And that’s a dangerous thing. I was starting to feel that way a little bit last weekend, after reading some¬†disheartening student responses–one of my seniors, Deshaun,¬†had written¬†two detailed poems about how much he hates my class, wishes he could be back with his former teacher, and thinks school (with the emphasis, again, on my class) is a giant waste of time.

While normally immaturity doesn’t get to me, this incident hit my heart for some reason. It made me so angry. “Why,” I asked myself, “Am I spending hours assessing these students who don’t give a damn about me or what we’re learning? What a waste of MY time.” After being miffed for a few minutes, I decided I’d take a trustful approach, and that I would tell this student honestly and openly about how I felt. I wrote him back a paragraph, where I said something to the effect of… “I’m really sorry that you dislike my class so much. I know what it’s like to be stuck in a class missing the preferred style of a former teacher. Obviously, I can never be Ms. L.¬† But please tell me what I can do to make English 12 bearable for you, otherwise it will be a long, l-o-n-g¬† year for both of us. P.s. While it might not seem like it, I do have feelings. Imagine how I feel when I’m logging hours grading papers and this is what I get. Ouch!”¬† While part of me felt weird being so open with a student (maybe¬†it was more professional to¬†just ignore it?), I really believe that one cannot teach without solid rapport or relationships. So I left it at that, and decided to hand it back to him.

On Monday morning, I ran into Deshaun as he came in to school. Having heard from another teacher that joking is a good technique to use with him, I smiled and yelled after him, “Deshaun!”

“Huh?” He said, turning around to face me. “What?”

I put my hand on my hip and cocked my head. “Why you such a hater?” I asked him.

“A hater?” He broke a small smile.

“Yeah,” I said, looking stern now, “What’s with you writing on all your assignments about how much you hate me and my class?!”

“Oh, Ms. H! I didn’t mean that stuff… I was just playin’. That’s just what I do.”

“Oh, all right,” I said, hesitantly. Then I added, “Well, just know that if you’re for real, we can talk about it.” Later that day, I handed back the anti-Ms. H poems with my note. I felt kind of silly for getting so worked up, but I still wasn’t sure if Deshaun was just trying to appease me face to face. Who knew if he would even read what I had to say.

The following morning, as class was wrapping up, I was getting some things sorted on my desk before the bell, and I heard a gentle, “Ms. H?” I looked over–no, up–to see Deshaun, with his 6’5″ frame, wide shoulders, and crazy mohawk,¬†towering beside¬†me.¬† “Yes?” I said, noticing the concerned look beaming out of his dark brown eyes.

“I just wanted you to know that when I wrote those things on my papers, I was just joking around. And I really didn’t mean to hurt you. I just like being sarcastic and playing around, but that’s my way of saying that I do like your class. Trust me, if I didn’t like you, you’d know already. So I’m sorry that I made you feel bad. I like your scarf.”

“Thanks, Deshaun,” I said, “I just wanted to make sure. I’ve been in that situation where I’m stuck in a class I hate, so I didn’t want to be responsible for making you feel that way, but I’m glad to hear that you do like the class. Thanks so much for communicating with me.” I was floored… and relieved.

Later that week, I had a “class meeting” with my seniors where I opened a Real Conversation about what we can do as a class (and what I can do as a teacher) to make this sometimes-rowdy¬†group a more respectful, effective, and welcoming place. I thought it¬†might be a train wreck, but instead they really responded to that opportunity. Many of them came forth with both honest frustrations and excellent suggestions, and we came to the conclusion that we’d all work harder to become “more of a family.” I was so proud of all of us, working together, like real people should, instead of going through the motions of coming and leaving by the bell, unconcerned about the interpersonal realities of a classroom. My biggest point was, “I will be real with you if you are real with me. We need to trust each other. The more I can trust you, the more freedom I can give you. Let’s get better together.”

It takes guts to be honest. But I’m proud of the fact that both my students and I are learning how to take that risk, because it really, truly pays off.

Last week I had the privilege of attending a professional development workshop as part of the PEP grant at my school. I had gone to the first session of the series last year as a student teacher, and it felt good to be back. It was so nice to have a day away from school where I could reflect more completely on my practice and think about what I do that’s successful as well as my areas for improvement.

The workshop was held in the endlessly charming Milwaukee K-12 school Golda Meir–which is an unbelievably remarkable place with, no doubt, the cutest kids in the city. (But I digress). The presentation was led by Laurie Frank, author of the book Journey Toward the Caring Classroom: Using Adventure to Create Community. [You can view an extensive preview of Laurie’s book by clicking here.]¬† I was impressed by her warmth and wisdom.

The seminar focused on techniques and strategies for creating active, brain-based learning using constructivist teaching methods. (Quick review: constructivist means that students and teacher are working together to construct understanding, beginning from what is known and familiar, moving to the generation of ideas and products, then revealing the underlying general concept, and eventually applying that knowledge in practice…)

Much of what we talked about included things I’ve heard of before, but I was newly reminded of how important it is to design instruction that accomplishes a few very important things that are so often overlooked in teachers’ efforts to “get through the content” or even “get through the day.” Some of these important things, which I know that I need to refine, reinforce, and newly commit to are:

*Consciously and transparently building compassion, trust, and open-mindedness into classroom instruction.

*Engaging the senses, including utilizing physical movement in instruction. Allowing a controlled goofiness to occur once in a while.

*Celebrating baby steps, and allowing students to attempt a new strategy multiple times before expecting it to run smoothly.

*Teaching, practicing, and assessing procedures as well as content.

*Reinforcing instruction with hands-on, interactive activities.

*Using brain-research to inform constructivist lessons.

*Realizing that the environment, both within and outside the classroom have a significant impact on student performance.

Talking about all these things set some new teaching ideas swimming about in my head, which was wonderful! But much more wonderful was the heightened sense of commitment I began to feel. Hearing stories from many other educators from the city, I noticed that the theme running through the discussions was that of a sincere devotion to teaching, and a fierce, almost protective, zeal for giving kids the best, safest, and most enjoyable education possible. It pumped me up to get back in the classroom and keep building that community that teachers and students create, piece by piece, hour by hour.

We’ve got a lot of work to do.¬† Let’s get crackin’!

I love to write celebratory posts, where I focus on small successes and new ideas. But reflecting on challenges is also important, and it’s something I think I need to do more. So here are some ruminations about what I consider my biggest challenge of all–large class size.

I’ve taken to sitting at my kitchen table and saying aloud, “I am the old woman who lives in a shoe. I have so many children, I don’t know what to do.” I jest, of course, but only partially. A reality I live with: My students are vast in number. One hundred and sixty to be exact. And that’s a lot of children to have. I really feel like, if I had one more student, I might actually lose my mind.

My school is a traditional one, with eight periods of 45 minutes of instructional time, separated by four minute passing times. This “factory model” of education sweeps kids, thirty-some at a time, in my door and out at what seems like breakneck speed. Sometimes it’s very overwhelming, just to manage these large groups of young people that fill my room. I am a one person wonder, responsible for making sure everyone is present, safe, awake, engaged, inspired, and learning. And someone always needs something. At any given moment I’ve got someone needing to go to his or her locker, someone needing to go home sick, someone who needs more explanation, and someone who needs to be told to bring his or her focus back to the classroom.

My style of teaching involves a lot of conversation, a lot of individual feedback and attention. And, unfortunately, it’s not possible to commit to this natural preference completely with my giant classes. Just think–even if I spent my entire class period on individual conferencing, a class of 35 would only get 1.3 minutes of my time per student. I can’t get to everyone individually everyday. It’s just not possible.¬† But I wish I had more time to give.

Sometimes it blows my mind just to think that I am monitoring the progress of 160 human beings, daily, all by myself. So how do I make this crazy factory model of education work for my individualized style of teaching? Here are some things that I try to use to my advantage!

*I speak individually with as many students as I can during independent work time.

*While grading, I write conversational feedback on student assignments in order to affirm, instruct, or redirect.

*While lecturing, I involve student input as much as possible, and try to be captivating and passionate enough for each and every student to have something that catches their imagination. I try to leave nothing at the door.

*I trust that my students can fill in the gaps in instruction that I must necessarily leave. I trust them to meet me halfway.

Whenever I start to get overwhelmed or daunted by the number of students I have and the fact that time is racing ahead while I’m still trying to figure out if they “got” what we were talking about five days ago, I try to put things in perspective by asking myself this question… What is my job?

My job is not to agonize over every word my students write (or don’t write), or every single thing they know (or don’t know). My job is to place the ladder, to supply tools, to boost them up on my shoulders and say, “Here, guys. We are building something together. Here’s our schematic. Let’s get to work.” Some will build me the Taj Mahal, others might only be able to install a doorknob or two. But the point is that something more is there, when all is said and done, than was there when we started. They work with me, they work with each other, they work with themselves. Really, the energy of running the class comes from within them. I’m just the one steering this energy in the best direction I can.

I just witnessed an appearance of this mysterious force last week, when I spent the hour before school pinning up stellar examples of student work on the huge “publication board” in my classroom. I may have put the papers on the board, but the students did the work. (And mighty fine work it was.) When each class came in, they all buzzed exitedly around the board, looking for their names, peering over shoulders, shrieking out when they saw something that their best friend wrote pinned up for all to see. (Yes, even the eighteen-year-olds were practicing this giddy behavior!) This tells me that they’re proud to be here with me, that they’re happy to be recognized, and that they’re invested in what we do. This community energy that helps me do my job is sometimes measurable, sometimes invisible. But when I see it, it makes me smile. It reminds me that while I am the adult leader, I’m merely one small part of the learning that’s taking place in my class.

P.s. All that being said, I still would prefer classes of 20 kids or fewer.¬†¬† ūüôā