There is so much ugliness in the world. Enough to last us all for a good long while. As I was adjusting my classes this week, I thought, why not beauty?
My AP students have been fixated on the weird and wonderful language in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. And frankly, I’m not over it, have never been over it, will never be over it. Each year, I teach this novel and find some new, exciting sentence I get all shivery and weird over. Each year, my students and I tag the quotable, the tattoo-able, and the indelible.
After some student requests for mini lessons that “focus on beautiful language,” I decided that there was no better moment than the present.
So, here’s what we did…
First, I asked students: What makes a sentence beautiful?
I gave them a few minutes of notebook time to write down their thoughts. After…
Inspired by David Theriault – @davidtedu – I started off the ’16-’17 school year with a series of questions to my classes that would allow me to get to know them. Teachers who invest time to get to know their students better work together with their students to create a better environment in the classroom.
One of the questions is “If you want, you can ask me a question.” I’ll then choose a handful of those student-generated questions and answer them.
This is a tough question. It’s like picking your favorite moment from an entire championship season (Warriors, Giants, 49ers): there’s too many great/thrilling moments. Or maybe it’s like picking your favorite Jelly Belly flavor when you absolutely love 15 different flavors (but, make no mistake, there a several Jelly Belly flavors that are hideous).
In general, some books are just seriously entertaining and some are “deep” and thought provoking. “The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright was mesmerizing. (It’s an account of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the rise of Al Qaeda). It’s fascinating, frustrating (thanks to the FBI & CIA for not working together) and completely terrifying.
You want good fiction? Try “Beach Music” by Pat Conroy. He’s a fantastic story teller.
Fairly short post but the ’17-’18 kinda came soft into the paint (meaning = a decent percentage of students didn’t do the Interest Inventory).
Among one of the too many edu-blogs that I read I recently come across a photo of a teacher who prints out what she is currently learning and tapes it to the door frame on the outside of her classroom so her students can see it when they walk in.
I first came across the idea of encouraging others (teachers, administrators, etc.) to observe a teacher just for the sake of getting feedback from Robert Kaplinsky. He started the #Observeme (click to see his blog post about it) campaign where he posts a few goals outside his classroom and invites others in to see if those goals are being met while he is teaching. (Check out the hashtag on Twitter to see what teachers are doing).
I like that idea. It needs to happen this year for me.
So, what’s new?
I’ve invested a lot of my professional reading this summer to a fairly interesting idea. It is very much a “so far” type of idea. As in, here’s what I’ve read/thought about and tried so far. It’s a bit similar to the “not yet” concept I like to repeat – almost as a mantra – to students. You haven’t learned something “yet.” Or, when I am coaching whatever sport I happen to be at any one time (soccer, basketball, baseball), I encourage the athletes to keep trying a new idea or a new move and that it will take time to learn it.
So, how does a gradeless class sound?
Going Gradeless. This idea has me very excited with some uncertainty. Gradeless doesn’t mean not giving any grades as every teacher has to, in the least, assign a grade for every progress report. Per our teacher contract, a grade needs to be assigned 3 times a semester.
What going gradeless means is a fairly radical shift from grading, which is fraught with of all sorts of issues, to learning.
Lastly, but not a Harvard note, is this: grade inflation is just not at college. As SAT scores continue to drop, the average high school GPA in the USA: 3.38. (So, more students are doing HW more often, with better results?)
What is learning and how do you measure it?
This is the hard part, but this is where the radical shift in education needs to go. This is, hopefully, at the heart of many conversations between among teachers, and between teachers, students and their families (or, at least where the conversations need to be).
A gradeless classroom will focus on learning. The exciting thing, to me (natch), is that going gradeless asks a lot out of the students. This is that “rigor” thing that education strives for. A gradeless classroom asks that students argue for their grades. But before students think “I’m great at arguing” or “I hate confrontation” that’s not what it is about. This means students:
Have to understand the standards.
Identify how and where, specifically, they have met those standards throughout the semester, or where (on a continuum) they fall in their attempts to meet the standards.
As this is still a fairly new concept to me, I’ve come to terms with just how much more I’ll need to read, discuss (also with students) and learn about before I’m comfortable making the complete switch.
The original title of this post was about failing but assessing to see where things went wrong. Keeping-the-good/learning-from-the-bad kind of a tone.
But I liked the idea and imagery of being a bit lost in the weeds a bit more. Maybe it’s more poetic yet still able to capture some my experiences with my seniors classes last year.
For the ’16-’17 school year, I tried something new with my senior English classes, a 20% Time project, something like this, this or this. The concept is that students have a year-long project where, usually (but not always), they develop some sort of service project or maybe they even create something (a product). The project does not have to be a community service, where students volunteer their time, etc, but many choose that route. (Not that there’s anything wrong with service, but too many students took that option too easily and created a project that was lacking depth and authenticity). Some also students took the route of learning something new (which, technically, is more of a Genius Hour type of project). And, yes, some students took the service option and created unique experiences.
At the end of the year, students gave a presentation where they spoke about their project and what they learned.
Much of the idea behind the project is that it is student directed. Student choice and voice is something that I’m trying to get better at building into the classroom.
Into The Wilderness
I wandered into the wilderness, so to speak, with a colleague who was also boldly going into educational experiences neither of us had previously experienced.
And it was…just ok.
Madeline Will has written about this very process in Education Week. In her article “What Happens When Students Design Their Own Assessments?” she writes, “Initially…a lot of the projects were ‘fluff,’ while teachers learned how to incorporate meaty content and the state standards into students’ projects.”
I can definitely say “yes, this happened.”
Of course, some students had very original and authentic learning experiences, and for that I felt privileged to be a part of the audience when they shared their experiences.
What to do next time?
I need to be better about having the students peer assess and self assess. They’re going to, basically, need to successfully argue (just as they might in an essay) for the grade they think they have earned. This puts the concept of the students being in charge of articulating their own learning. This needs to be taught – directly – starting at the beginning of the school year. It’ll also align with an increase of peer feedback (hello, Starr Sackstein) I want to be emphasizing this year as well.
I’m not sure how to do this yet, but I need to create some sort of process that (hopefully) has more students choose/create projects that are more original and authentic, avoiding the projects that were nothing but “fluff.” This is a huge challenge. It’s like when we English teachers want students to produce more original writing that has more of an independent and unique voice. Asking students to do this is easy; creating the conditions for this to happen is the challenge.
There’s easily a step 3, 4 & 5 for what I need to be better at for the ’17-’18 school year for this project. Time spent in conversation with my intrepid 205 Time colleague @mrsbnakamura could yield some ideas.
Being in a thicket of weeds isn’t a bad thing. In John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, he writes “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Ideally, I’d like to think that critical thinking and communication are already happening in any classroom, especially an English class. However, when it comes to collaboration and creativity, a traditional approach to teaching (a teacher-centered/conservative-pedagogical approach) does not, ironically and sadly, create enough space for that to happen.
It’s the 21st C – all 4 Cs need to be a mandatory part of education; it should be a student right.
I had my students “compete” with Dan Ryder’s Folder Challenge – “How Can We Bring Joy to Others?” (Twitter handle @wickedDecent and he’s a must follow). The focus of the experience is to have students practice empathy as a skill, a process where they have to be mindful of a “user.” We’re all users and designers; getting students to think of themselves in this context is important. Getting them to think of themselves of creating something for a user, creators of something other than “a typical response to literature” (think: essay) is better. And, ideally: fun. (Note: teachers say this will be fun” and, usually, it really isn’t to students. The Folder Challenge is actually fun).
With the constraints of time (20 minutes), and a few variables/supplies (folder, 4 paper clips, pens, pencils, glue/tape, etc…), the focus is on students also spending time interviewing a partner on “what brings them joy?” (Also, “what takes it away?”). From there, it’s time to make.
Making Means Thinking; Thinking = Time
People are socialized that artistry is an innate skill, a gift, something that’s to be admired in others, with many claiming “I’m just not artistic.” Well, no one learns how to breath. It just is; it’s autonomic. As far as art is concerned, maybe it’s not quite autonomic, but it’s natural for humans. If not, then how did prehistoric humans in Europe learn? There were no art centers throughout France or Spain. (By the way, most of the cave painters were women. You can tell by finger length).
Creativity comes from being creative. In other words, just do it. Getting better at turning a double play comes from working on many skills. In baseball, it’s called practice. This is both practice and creativity in action. San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford had to both work at this and play around enough to link the two ideas together. It’s fun for Crawford, it’s practice and practice means spending time on a craft.
The Folder Challenge
This year, I’m trying something new for my students. We’re working on a 20% time project, a year-long attempt at a student-led project that will have students, in the words of super-teacher and “sharer” extraordinaire David Theriault, “Feed a Need.” (@DavidTedu is also a must follow on Twitter. His blog is changing my teaching practice).
To prepare for the project, I read Kevin Brookhouser’s “The 20 Time Project” book over the summer. I’ll need to re-read the book this summer as this year is, essentially, my primary iteration at the project. (Effective projects ask designers to iterate, iterate and iterate). Basically, I know that I’ve had some missteps and will look to improve upon those for next year’s classes.
Something that I should have done much earlier in the year is the folder challenge. Of course, first came the handshake challenge. More than anything else, I just thought it would be fun for my students to use it as a warm-up, especially since I picked the partners. (I gave students 2 minutes to create an “awesome” handshake, something close to what you can see in the 21 Pilots “Stressed Out” video). Right away, however, it gave the students a challenge to solve based upon a quick conversation between partners.
From there, they got 20 minutes to interview and create.
I thought it was totally worth it. I forgot to ask my students if they thought it was worth it. (Asking students to reflect/assess my lessons is an area I want to improve). But, I did see smiles on faces during class. That’s some kind of an assessment.
All 4 Cs? Yep.
So….this has what, exactly, do to with writing an essay?
But I don’t teach a literature class; never have in 19 years. I teach a language arts class. Yes, it’s called “English,” but if that’s only defined as a class where you write essays and most likely prepare students with only soul-crushing, non-creative, 5-paragraph essays; have fun with that! (I’ll tackle the 5-paragraph essay problem – written about here, here, here, and here – in another post in the future.)
The folder challenge asks students to consider what writers & thinkers have been doing since Ancient Greece: consider audience, purpose and message. (They study the heck out of that in an AP Language class. College classes, too).
If I can get my students to consider the “Rhetorical Triangle” in a way that gets them to incorporate the 4C’s of 21st Century education, then that’s a good day.
There were a good amount of interesting questions from my classes.
“What’s your favorite hobby/pastime/what do you do in your free time?”
Wow, that’s tough. There’s a lot of things I love to do: ride my bike (cycling), coach sports (baseball, basketball, soccer), listen to music/podcasts, cook, hang out with my kids and wife, eat too many cookies, exercise, learn. I like to geek out with my 8-year daughter when we listen to her favorite music. We loving singing “Roar” by Katherine Perry. #socute
Why did you choose to be an English teacher?
After working as a journalist (a reporter/writer for something called a “newspaper” that people used to read everyday) for about 5 years, I was growing unsatisfied with that career. I had the opportunity to help out in high school newspaper class and I really enjoyed the interactions with the students. I had also been putting a lot of thought into the idea of coaching high school basketball, so it was a natural fit to go into teaching high school English.
“What is the most important thing in your life and why?”
Can I surf? I’m from Santa Cruz. (Represent!) So, yes…I know surf.
“What college did you attend?”
My college path was rather circuitous. I spent 4 years at Cabrillo junior college as I wasn’t ready to be a college student after high school graduation. It’s a bit rough to do something you aren’t ready for. Once I got my act together, I did pretty well. [But my first three semesters were really messy; like almost-getting-kicked-out-of-school messy because I wasn’t ready to be a serious student.] I then transferred and graduated with my bachelor’s degree from Sacramento State, earned my teaching credential from San Jose State and took a few literature classes along the way at UC Santa Cruz.
“Who’s your favorite musical artist?”
Waaaaaaay to hard to narrow it down to one. Let’s see…Prince, The Beastie Boys, Oingo Boingo, Public Enemy, Slightly Stoopid, The Beatles, Devo, Bob Marley, The Blues Brothers, Tchaikovsky, Skankin Pickle, Streetlight Manifesto, The Budos Band, RATM, Primus…
“Who’s your favorite author/book?”
Again, this is tough.
Try these sometime: Authors: Terry Southern, Shakespeare, James Ellroy, Steinbeck, Books:Beach Music, Cutting For Stone, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Grapes of Wrath, You Can’t Win…
“What is the key to success in your class?”
Ask questions. Be organized (still a challenge for me). Honesty. Focus on what’s important.
“Where would you travel if you could go anywhere in the world”
Ireland. My peoples.
“You look a lot like Benedict Cumberbatch”
Actually, I get that a lot. Maybe I can be his stunt double?
“How long have you been teaching seniors/How long have you been at Leigh?”
In my 19 years at Leigh, I have taught seniors for 18 years. Once, I had all seniors
“How did you get over your nervousness of public speaking?”
I like this question. Honestly, if I had to speak in front of a bunch of my peers or other adults, I might be a bit uncomfortable, but nowhere like when I was young. I got over it by just not caring any more about being nervous. That and performing in a band. Like at clubs and such. (Another story for another time).
What years did you coach Leigh girl’s basketball?
I coached the boys hoops team from 1999-2001 and the girls team from 2001-2004. I am the first coach of the girls basketball team at LHS to win 20 games #humblebrag. My other claim to fame as the girls coach? We never lost by more than 40 points when we played Mitty. #perspective
If you could do anything other than being a teacher what would you do?
I’d like to be a strength and conditioning coach (like a trainer but it’s a job that requires more education) for a high school.
What is your favorite color?
Blue.Of course. Come on, you know you want to click on it – it’s not like you have to answer 5 questions or anything hard like that.
I mean, of course I have vices: ice cream, HBO binge watching, cookies: you know, the good stuff. (Thought: maybe not too good for my waistline).
Time to go all English teacher on you
“Habit” comes from a Latin word meaning “condition” or “appearance.” Think of how the word “habit” is used to describe a priest’s or nun’s clothing, and you’ve got a sense of the original meaning.
The more common meaning is to denote “physical or mental constitution” or an acquired behavior. Eating cookies – habitually – is a pretty good life goal. I mean, after all, they’re so good, especially when cooked at home. Unfortunately, eating cookies on a frequent basis is too easy as the store (several stores) is not that difficult to reach.
And, the point of this post, publishing online more often.
Writing to write – the act, the exercise – is valuable. Get it on paper/online; put the paint on the canvas or arrange the flowers in the vase. Just, well, do it. Practice does not make perfect – it makes permanent. The act, the habit of not writing – or not posting online – makes it easier to not post.
In another lifetime, I was a newspaper reporter. I believe that a bit of an inaccurate description. I’ve always been partial to thinking of myself as a writer. Certainly not in the sense of Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, or Terry Southern, but I thought of a reporter as an investigator, (ideally) striving, in whatever small way, to help the community. I just wrote. Oh, I talked to people, but I wasn’t an investigator; I just wrote, and did it so much that I got good at it. Not Jessica Silver-Greenberg good, but “local” good.
I improved (it was “unpolished” at first) because it became a habit. Yes, it was my “job.” But, my habit was to write, habitually, daily, often; write, edit, polish, re-write (when time). It was also interesting writing with my editor standing over my shoulder, looking at a watch and saying, “you’ve got 10 minutes to finish or it doesn’t make the paper.”
I’ll (usually) ask my students to write about 200 words for an informal blog post, especially early on in the school year. Some, of course, will be longer. Much longer. Maybe even some will be a bit shorter. But once we develop the habit of publishing online, getting that content, those ideas, that creativity and innovation, out to others will be a good habit.
Going to a workshop this summer was a breath of fresh air. Invigorating, stimulating but, best of all, challenging. I need to step up my game. I fancy myself a teacher who is constantly on the lookout for new, better, innovative. It’s easy to be on the sidelines, prowling the internet for the latest research, lesson idea; “what’s Twitter got in store right now?” is a great way to get ideas.
But, as wonderful as it must be to go to the Louvre, it’s better to be an artist.
The World of the Real
Some of the most fun I’ve ever had was rehearsing with the two bands I was in after college. Gigs were cool, of course. Live performance – of any kind – has an energy that cannot be replicated, even though there was rampant drunkenness and fighting. But rehearsal, that was more personal. It’s creative, hard, and fraught with failure and dead ends. But, it’s necessary.
Teaching is very much like that.
My first few years were godawful. Art is like that. Yes, teaching is an art. Some teachers have it right from Day 1. Others, your truly, has ups and downs. But, it’s the rehearsal that’s important. Collaboration, iteration, discussion, practice, research, rehearsal; find mentors; experiment and try things. Evolve.
The Puritan Work ethic or, Nancy Sinatra’s bootstraps
If you work hard enough, it easily opens up the doorways to success. Just make sure to wear your overalls.
Of course it’s that easy. I’ve had many students try to get into Stanford. They definitely put their overalls on. I’m sure all of them routinely did homework past midnight. In 18 years, all but 1 “failed” (no doubt, many consoled themselves with the 2nd place trophy of, say, Cal Poly SLO or, more importantly, somewhere where they felt was a good fit).
The ethos of “hard work conquers all obstacles” is in the DNA of what it means to be an “American.” Millions of immigrants have come to the United States to live a more prosperous life and were successful due to unyielding levels of hard work.
Naturally, it must be so in the classroom. Thus 50-75 math problems 2-3 times a week. Or read 10 chapters of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in over the weekend and answer 20-30 comprehension questions with at least 4-5 sentences each (because, you know, a paragraph is a unit of length and not a unit of thought). Or, my personal favorite, over 40% of my son’s grade in his 6th grade English class was based on spelling tests and they wrote a single essay all year.
Homework, in a sense, becomes a math problem that is undeniably both Puritan and American: more > less; more is better than less. Running 5 miles? Run 10. Eating 10 g. of protein post workout? Eat 25 g. Supersize those fries and drink? You betcha!
Wisdom of the elders
Eat them; it’s good for you. And, of course they are. Preached at dinner tables across the country, our parents and grandparents, aunts/uncles have helped pass along this accumulated wisdom. Many, most likely, were also told the same thing when they were young when they balked at eating vegetables.
(I hated many veggies as a child and now I am a vegetarian. Go figure.)
Denying the positive health implications of a diet rich in vegetables is just ignoring science. Although, people do like to deny science.
Doing a lot of homework “must” be good for you as a learner, for your future academic possibilities, for the sheer Puritan-based ethos that it is simply good for you and good for your soul, so make sure to do a lot of it.
What do teachers, parents and students do about it?
As a teacher, I need to design homework assignments that allow students to “increase accuracy, fluency and, if appropriate, speed.” (Marzano & Pickering, Classroom Structure that Works). The problem is, that sounds like something a factory worker would be told or maybe even someone working on the pivot of a double play. The other problem is that students do need practice. You want to write better? Write more. You want to surf better? Surf more. It is that simple.
Just as there are problems with the Standard Model of the Universe (that pesky gravity; always being disruptive and causing problems), homework is that problem.
Consider the choices by teachers:
No homework (students are happy about that, and maybe some parents)
A lot of homework (some parents might be happy about that and it makes a teacher’s class appear hard. Gotta be rigorous, right? But too much rigor = rigor mortis and whatever happened to vigor in the classroom?)
The “right” amount of homework, whatever that is. But that brings up a host of other issues & questions. What’s the right amount? What type of homework? What topics? What format/platform? How many days to complete it?
Maybe it’s better to ask what should be done about homework?
It’s better, socially and mentally, for my students, to be “kids” (though I don’t call them that). They need to be young and outside and running, thinking, playing (music, sports), surfing, drawing, hiking, singing and dancing, working at a job and sleeping. They need to explore, unplug, visit museums, go to concerts, and feel the sand beneath their feet.
But, they need to practice thinking, reading and writing. Is a teacher a “good” teacher if he or she is trying to not add to the stressful lives of their students? How many teachers have had a student cry in class because they got an A- on a test or essay? (all of them). That’s not healthy. Homework as an extrinsic motivator has long since been turned into a hammer and our students are the nails.
Is a teacher “bad” if homework isn’t assigned? Then what’s the right number of math problems to assign? Or pages to be read, paragraphs to write?
Ideally, a school site has these critically-important conversations. Teachers need to be informed (through self study and professional development) about how to design effective homework and then the staff needs to wrestle with this issue to determine what works best for all students. And it will be a wrestling match. Getting 75+ teachers to agree on much of anything is a complex and challenging task.
I started blogging as a different way to communicate with and for my students and about my experiences as a teacher.
Shortly thereafter, they started blogging [I had them start is more accurate] as well. It’s all this punk’s fault [If you’d like to learn a lot of things about thinking, art, music and education, check it out. And no, punk is not a slight; he’s only threatening in minor way.]
“Why do we have to do this?” came much earlier than I anticipated. After 18 years in the classroom, I tell my students that not much that happens in the classroom surprises me anymore. It surprised me, however, when a few students weren’t exactly jazzed about blogging. Part of that should be expected: it’s a different thing and change is often met with resistance [which is fine – I want my students challenging me, the status quo, etc].
But it’s blogging, it’s computers, it’s the Internet…. it’s theshiny red button? No? It wasn’t exactly a thud, dud or spud, and I wasn’t expecting a parade to be thrown, feting me like a Roman emperor, but some reacted as if I was a salesman from Blammo.
You know, Ren and Stimpy:
As I forge through my 18th year, I’ve taught long enough to know that I need to innovate, change, and adapt to teach not necessarily as I was taught, but teach as my students need me to teach. It’s no longer the 20th Century, but much of school is still organized by, curriculum is still organized by and many teachers still teach as if it were the 20th Century. [But, I’m not advocating a “throw the baby out with the bathwater” approach: being wise about the past as a guiding principle – just not the only one – is a good idea]. For a peek into what needs to change in education, watch this documentary trailer for “Most Likely to Succeed” – h/t @clonghb.
“But, orderly to end where I begun…” (Thanks, Will)
Vegetables. They’re good for you. Really good for you.
So is thinking, and being creative, being challenged, being uncomfortable.
Hence, blogging with my students.
The keys to being a successful student, heck, a successful learner, is, generally to be like Miles Davis (Yep. It’s a steep learning curve here). Educated in a somewhat proper manner, Davis was accepted into Juilliard. He had the basics, the standard information and education; Juilliard gave Davis a foundation. But what allowed him to explode onto the music scene was his time in jam sessions, playing in clubs, learning and experimenting.
Not everybody gets to create new forms of art; but everybody can DIY.
That’s what blogging is. It’s experimental; it’s jazz, punk, hip hop; it’s skafunkrastapunk; blogging is street. But the best blogs have the best writing.