Literacy Victories!

One of the best things I get to be part of as a teacher is introducing young people to great books they love. Granted, 99% of what I do in this department falls on deaf ears, but those glorious moments of success–few and far between though they are–really do make it all worth it.

Here are a few recent ones:

Last semester for a book project, one girl chose to read The Handmaid’s Tale from a list of options I gave. She loved it and, when they all had to do presentations on their books, she was overjoyed to learn that it’s being made into a series on Hulu.

Cormac McCarthy is always a safe bet. I often recommend his books to students, and they tend to love him. So many kids read his various books last semester that some classes had spontaneous compare/contrast discussions where they picked up on stylistic and thematic trends across his works. They did this on their own.

Earlier this month I had classes take notes on a documentary about Moby Dick. At the end of class when they turned their notes in, one girl was so excited about it that she had already put the ebook on her phone and said that she’d start reading it that weekend. This wasn’t assigned–she just wanted to read Moby Dick on her own. For fun.


Some Funny Student Writing

Last month I taught a lesson on parallelism as a rhetorical writing tool. At the end, I assigned students to come up with some examples of their own, based on templates I gave them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • There should be a woman in tears, running from the past; a man in love, chasing the girl; and a person in agony, awaiting the end.
  • It is not nice to play with dead bodies, to talk with them, or to dance with them.
  • Kermit the frog abuses his fame, ignores his children, and denies his dependence on PCP.
  • There should be a cat in labor, birthing the kittens; a dog in heat, attracting the males; and a centipede in solitude, contemplating the electoral college.
  • Obama created life, destroyed the housing market, and ate my parents.
  • Mr. Huston was a huge fan of showing the “relevant” episodes of The Simpsons, spoiling the Star Wars episodes, and disappointing the sociopaths of fourth period with bad jokes :)

Forcing Students To Revise Their Writing

My college classes this last semester had some of the best writers I’ve ever had in English 101. I felt very lucky to get to work with them. But there was one thing about those two classes that irked me to no end throughout our first two big essay units: no matter what I did, they wouldn’t revise their work.

I marked specific things on their papers and told them what to do to improve them, but much of that advice was ignored on subsequent drafts. And when I gave general feedback about writing style and missing elements, nothing in the next draft reflected that at all.

Few things are as frustrating for an English teacher as seeing their careful commentary on student work completely ignored by those students.

I even integrated some basic revision exercises into our classwork to remind them of (introduce them to?) the mechanics and mindset of revision. I labored the point that first drafts are never good enough–that strenuous attention to perfecting work is a must in any endeavor.

Finally, after the midterm, I decided to launch a nuclear attack on the subject, and after returning the first draft of their third essay project, I gave them these directions:

For the revised draft due next week, you must take the first draft and revise it as follows:

Choose any two or three of the five articles given below. Incorporate an analysis and discussion of each of them (as per the original directions) into your existing essay draft. HOWEVER, you may not add any new paragraphs–that total must not change–nor can you just add new sentences to the ends of existing paragraphs. The new material must be smoothly integrated into the existing essay–the commentary from the first draft must be revised to also address the new material.

There must be new material in *every* paragraph of this revised draft.

BUT, this new draft must also be no longer than the original first draft–this means that some material from the first draft must be condensed and/or eliminated, and what you add will have to be succinct.

Yes, that’s a cheap, sneaky way to micromanage their progress, and I hated doing it, but it did get results. The next drafts were substantially different, and they were even better. Now I just have to hope that as they go through future classes, and the rest of their lives, they keep the lesson in mind and continue living it.

Why Don’t Students Like School?

UntitledAs I prepare to start another school year, it might be helpful to review my notes on one of the best education books I’ve ever read, Why Don’t Students Like School?


1.  People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.

a.  Be sure there are problems to be solved

b.  Respect students’ cognitive limits

c.  Hook students on questions that will lead to the factual answers a lesson provides.  Don’t rely on trivial connections to their interests.

d.  Puzzle/dazzle students to get interest AND later to help review material, even during ongoing learning.

e.  Alter student work to match individuals’ ability; don’t give everyone the same thing.

f.  Change things up to redirect lost attention.

g.  Keep track of what works and what doesn’t


2.  Factual knowledge precedes skill.

a.  Teach the touchstones of Western Civilization’s culture.

b.  Teach the core concepts of each discipline deeply over time.

c.  Be sure that the knowledge base is mostly in place when you require critical thinking.

d.  Shallow knowledge is better than no knowledge at all.

e.  Students must read A LOT.

f.  Make opportunities for incidental, ancillary knowledge acquisition.

g.  “Start early” (level the playing field for students with poor home environments–somehow!)

h.  Avoid lots of lists–knowledge must be meaningful.

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“The Changing of the Guard”

I don’t really like much “warm-fuzzy” teacher stuff (which makes it hard for my mom to shop my birthday), but I love this episode of The Twilight Zone. I don’t think most casual viewers realize just how sentimental that show often got. This episode is basically It’s a Wonderful Life, for teachers. Especially as an English teacher, I love the idea that what we do actually matters.

First is the best copy I could find on YouTube, which still isn’t great, though I’m sure you can find it on Netflix and Hulu–it’s the last episode of season 3. Below that is a very cool all-female-student remake a school did. Enjoy.

Notes and Review: Fair Isn’t Always Equal

51KK0WZvPCL._SX397_BO1,204,203,200_Last semester, administrators at my school bought copies of this book about grading in the “differentiated” classroom for the staff and encouraged teachers to read it. “This is the direction we’re moving in,” we were told. I don’t know if this dictate comes from them or their own bosses far above us all, but based on my notes for this book, I’m worried about that direction.

  • Chapter 3: the first of the big red flags, this quote: “He or she has to understand each student’s ‘truth,’ and convince students that their perceptions are incorrect or incomplete, and that the ‘truth’ the teacher has is the one they should adopt.” (20) Creepy indoctrination much? A similar puppet-master mindset comes across later on page 129: “[grading on a curve is] an obsolete practice indicative of less enlightened times. We’ve progressed…” Fascistic rhetoric really shouldn’t have any place here.
  • The top of page 24 uses the phrase “death bell” when the author means “death knell.” Similarly, the bottom of page 182 mentions “the big questions that get circumnavigated in our daily attempts,” when clearly the word he was looking for was “circumvented.” There are more examples. Such mistakes from an “expert” make me worry.
  • Page 31: “Some students’ mindmaps of their analyses of Renaissance art rival the most cogent, written versions of their classmates.” Yes, but mustn’t everyone learn to write well?
  • Chapter 7: a meandering, pointless mess of gobbledygook here.
  • Page 90: grading is “a single symbol in a tiny box on a piece of thin paper that may or may not make it out from the crumpled darkness of the boom bag–and only if parents ask for it.” Isn’t that a bit of a straw man? Those always worry me. And do the reforms to grades suggested for report cards in chapter 14 really fix this? If not, why not?
  • One problem with edu-expert books like this is that they tend to see each factor of teaching in a neat vacuum, separate from the rest. For instance, Wormeli often paints problems and offers solutions that either have already been solved by 504s and rubrics, or that couldn’t be solved in the ways he suggests because of 504s and rubrics! Chapter 7 has too many examples of this.
  • The mindset behind Chapter 8 is almost entirely proven false by that one simple Woody Allen quote: “80% of success in life is showing up.”
  • Chapter 8: “laziness is a myth…laziness doesn’t exist.” (104) Students aren’t immune to human nature. Nobody is immune to human nature.
  • Page 108: “To purposely set up a compelling goal that everyone else can easily earn but they cannot seems to be a penalty of sorts.” It’s called life. Good grief. America’s young don’t need more bubble wrap.
  • Chapter 9: “There is no solid evidence to support the current emphasis on students doing large amounts of, or even daily, homework.” (120) Besides all the evidence that might be given here, I might suggest Wormeli read up on Robert Marzano’s work, except that he must already know it well–he cites four of Marzano’s books in his own. Seems oddly convenient to ignore him now.
  • Chapter 15 is a weird collection of ways for administrators to manipulate teachers into accepting the advice in this book. Page 185, for instance, suggests slipping an “expert” into the teachers lounge to casually strike up conversations in favor of these reforms. Seriously. The last of many red flags.

Overall, this book seems like slick pseudo-professional propaganda for things like unlimited late work with no penalties, minimum F, and abolishing homework (or graded homework, at least). The author’s tone makes it clear that this is just science, people, not an attempt to make things easier for kids and harder for teachers. Let’s put it this way: if you really were trying to dumb down our system so that more students do well and we all magically look better, isn’t this exactly how you’d do it? Shouldn’t that make us wary?

Not to seem too cynical, I actually highlighted lots of good ideas in the book, but here’s the thing: all of them were reviews of simple, common sense teacher training that had nothing to do directly with the main thrust of the book. So why were those things here? You’d find that same material in any of a number of beginning education textbooks.

I suppose this truly is the direction into which we’re going. The signs are clear. Alas.


“Relatable” Reading

There’s a popular trope among students (and many teachers) that the things people read should be “relatable,” meaning that stories should reflect the ideas, cultures, and even ethnicities of the readers. That, we are told, is what gets people interested, and helps them to enjoy and benefit from reading.

Hogwash. Balderdash. Baloney.

If the point of reading–of education in general–is only to wallow in a celebration of ourselves as we are, then what’s the point?

Some of the best reading experiences I’ve ever had–and certainly the ones that have mattered the most and stuck with me the most–are those that challenged me by presenting things that were not relatable. (I still remember sitting in some waiting room about a dozen years ago and passing the time by perusing a copy of Latina Businesswoman Magazine; it was a joyous glimpse into another world.)

There might even be an almost inverse relationship between the power of a text and the degree to which it resembles the life of the reader.

The pandering instinct behind the push to present more relatable texts to students is only going to stunt their minds further. After all, even for the selfie generation, staring at themselves eventually becomes boring.

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Three Thoughts About Education Today

  1. Combining two big current trends in education: student grades are subjective and counterproductive…and teachers should be increasingly evaluated by them.
  2. At some point, some panel of school “experts” must have sat down and decided that the solution to America’s education problems was obviously to give teachers more regulations and paperwork. Was there a time in the past with higher achievement and more paperwork? I don’t remember Socrates having to file regular evidence collections and data reports.
  3. No matter what educrat “experts” claim, there is no Grand Unification Theory of education. No matter what they try to saddle us with, it will always come down to each of us implementing what works in our own ways. I read professional development stuff and suspect that our leaders are dreaming of a future filled with TeacherBot 5000s.

Teachers as Curators

An old dichotomy has it that teachers are “the sage on the stage” or “the guide on the side,” (though I think it’s really a bit of both), but especially in the digital age, we’re also curators. For an English teacher in particular, a lot of our job now entails being a gatekeeper of media materials.

We’ve always taught students how to evaluate such things (as credible sources in a research unit, for example), but more and more I find myself actively showing young people how to be critical consumers of mass media. From web sites to classic movies to whatever’s on Netflix, the little tangents in class are now frequently spent in comparing and contrasting things, noting on what criteria various things succeed or fail, or modeling some other process of sifting the timeless from the ephemeral in the electronic world.

It doesn’t hurt (or help?) that practically any given day in my classes will consist of bits of various media squeezed in to help illustrate things, make connections, and extend ideas.

Today, for instance, my speech & debate class watched this video about vocal fry. Classes that are starting Huckleberry Finn just got a posting on our class web page about free audio resources online to help them understand the dialects. This was after our last class, where they annotated this article about free speech controversies in American schools, and which I supplemented with another post on our web page with ancillary resources, including this NPR interview with President Obama’s recent thoughts about banning unpopular speech in colleges (he’s against it).

The illustration at the top of that free speech article, though? I pointed out that that little boy looks like Danny in The Shining. Only a few kids got the reference. I briefly summarized the movie and recommended it, for those who like horror. Other great but obscure-to-kids-these-days movies I’ve name-checked and given a thumbs up to in recent classes: Animal House, The Sound of Music, The Iron Giant, Seven, Galaxy Quest…and Dude, Where’s My Car? (They don’t all have to be masterpieces.)

I see myself doing more, not less, of this in the future. With an ever-greater abundance of choices, with an ever-greater past body of work behind them, and with increasing consolidation and dumbing-down of mainstream media, such cultural literacy and evaluative skills will be more important to them than ever.

What this also means, though, is that teachers need to be constantly updating their own reserve of media resources. That’s the professional development of the 21st century.

My Students Feel Hester Prynne’s Pain

My juniors just started reading The Scarlet Letter, that tale of the poor Puritan Hester Prynne, who has an affair, gets pregnant, and is subsequently shamed by society ever after. In chapter 2, she must mount a scaffold and spend part of the day being stared at and scorned by the entire town, in an act of public shaming meant to punish her sin.

After reading that part with them, I asked my class, “Can you imagine what that must have felt like for Hester? To be forced to stand on a stage while a thousand people stare and judge you for your human mistakes?”

They all looked a bit amused as the answer to my clumsy rhetorical question finally became clear to me.

You see, I teach at a school for the performing arts.


How I Do A Semester Review

Last week my school district had semester exams–we’re halfway through the year! The week before, my classes spent a day doing this review of the semester’s units.

I put up six poster-sized sheets of butcher paper around the room, one for each of the major units we’ve done so far. In the center of each, I wrote the theme (Romanticism, logical fallacies, Revolutionary rhetoric, literary analysis, etc.).

I broke the students into groups of 4 or 5, assigned them to a poster, and gave them ten minutes to create a mind map on the poster, using markers I’d asked them to bring. They could use our textbook, online notes, whatever.

After ten minutes, I spot checked each poster, gave some quick editing advice as needed, and checked off that they were all contributing seriously (I’d told them that relevant illustrations were fine, but random nonsense like “buy my mix tape” was not).

Then they rotated to the next station, where they could edit what was there and add on more. Each team cycled to each station accordingly. Each student in each group had to contribute to at least one poster as a “scribe.”

By the end of class, they had produced mind maps like these below. I also posted these to our class web pages to help them study for the test.


Sick Day Origins

Teachers: “It’s 3 A.M. and I’ve thrown up five times.  Maybe I should call in sick?  But the juniors have that big project due today, and I want to be sure I hold them to it.  Besides, a lot of them worked really hard and they want me to see their final product.  And I have two parent conferences I need to be there for.  And if I stay home sick, I’ll just have to go in for a bit anyway, because I’ll have to switch out half the materials for 3rd and 4th period for stuff the sub will be able to use.  And I have three kids coming in for detention today–no way do they get off the hook!  Plus, I’m doing my favorite lesson of the quarter with the sophomores and I don’t want to miss that, or push it back, or have a sub messing that up.  …Oh!  And I wanted to talk to those guys in 1st period about the game yesterday!  *sigh*  I’ll just go in.  It’s too much hassle to take a day off.”

Students:*Achoo!*  Sweet!  I have the sniffles.  I’m gonna take a week off!”

A Teacher’s Week

I’m still tired.  Last week was a big one, work-wise.

For my main teaching job, I show up by 7 AM, and the last class ends at 2 PM.  That’s a 35-hour week.  Not bad.  Most years I sell one of my two prep periods and teach an extra class–it lowers class sizes for the school and boosts my paycheck–but this year my school didn’t do that, so I have even more productive time during the school day (but, alas, a lower salary).

I also teach part time at UNLV–usually two freshman writing classes per semester.  This time I have those classes on Tuesday and Thursday, from 5:30 until 8:15.  On those nights, I get home around 9:00.  I use the time between the two schools for office hours–grading papers, mostly.

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