Little Things

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Often it’s the little things that make life in our classrooms easier.

GOLF PENCILS. One of the biggest roadblocks to getting down to business is the old “I don’t have a writing utensil” problem. Instead of getting all uptight and letting it derail a portion of a class period, I keep lots of golf pencils on hand. It removes the hassle. “I need a pencil” + “Okay here” is a lot less stressful than “Goll dangit kid! Can’t you just be responsible? I guess you’ll have to go to your locker or borrow from a friend or give me your shoe so I get it back!” (Who really wants a high school student’s shoe? I mean … really.)

CARPET SQUARES. I listen to lectures better when I am a doodling. Some people like to have something in their hands to play with to help them focus. Other people are tappers. While doodling and fidgeting are usually not distracting to others, tapping can be, so I keep carpet squares on hand. The students can drum them with their hands or a pen or pencil and it pretty much muffles the sound altogether. My tappers and the people around them can all be happy at once.

WHISPER PHONES. Reading aloud is helpful to some students. It’s one more kinesthetic layer to their learning. Obviously, if you have a room full of students trying to read, some prefer quiet though. Reading aloud isn’t quiet, unless you whisper into a whisper phone (which can easily be made with two PVC elbows). You hold it like a phone and whisper it into one end and the sound travels to your ear through the “C” without broadcasting to the room. I can have a room full of silent readers with a handful of students quietly reading to themselves out loud. This works well too for students who are checking their own writing for errors in a quiet room and need to listen for errors (because we often catch errors with our ears that our eyeballs miss).

DRUM. Reading your own writing aloud in front of peers is for some reason less scary when you have a drum accompaniment. Weird, but true. Also, if you teach English, the drum is vital for any reading of “The Telltale Heart.”

None of these ideas are mine. I’ve learned of them from other educators over the years, and like a chef using someone else’s recipe, I’ve tweaked them to make them work in my classroom.

life: magic and adventure

This is cross-posted HERE.

Last night I was fortunate enough, along with my husband, daughter, and father-in-law, able to see Dr. Jane Goodall speak on the opening night of her lecture series in my hometown of Omaha. The tickets were free to the community thanks to the sponsorship of Dr. Goodall’s good friend, Omahan and fellow conservationist, Tom Mangelsen.

My mini-takeaways from Dr. Goodall’s lecture:

  • Life is full of magic.
  • Don’t squander opportunity.
  • Books. Read them. Read, read read.
  • Social media can be used for good!
  • Risk leads to learning.
  • Learning is everything.
  • Love and compassion DO make a difference.
  • Dogs are great teachers.
  • Life is an adventure.

Press Conference by UN Messenger of Peace

United Nations Photo via Compfight

A mix of takeaway and reflection:

Apathy is a problem today–for adults, but of even more concern–for young people. (I am a teacher, so this is something I see everyday.) One thing that Dr. Goodall said that touches on this is: “When youth loses hope, there is no hope.” Something that I would love to be able to do is to tap into my students’ passions and ensure that apathy is not an option for them. I want them to care about something–anything–so much that they can’t be apathetic about the world. I have felt the sting of apathy in my own life. It is easy to become numb. It is easy to brush off the things that we care about because sometimes caring about things hurts. Apathy can be a form of self-preservation. When you know that there are people out there hurting animals, when you know that there are people out there raping the land, when you know that there are people out there who don’t care about other people, sometimes it’s easier to steel yourself to avoid the pain of awareness. The pain of awareness can force one to act. Action isn’t easy. Apathy is. This is exactly why apathy is so dangerous.

When youth loses hope, there is no hope.

~ Dr. Jane Goodall, March 11, 2016, Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha, NE

It’s hard to be one person trying to make a difference, especially when it feels like, as an individual, you can’t make one. Last night, Dr. Goodall addressed that. She reminded us that there are people in this world who do care. The reason we have 500+ whooping cranes in the world right now, when not too long ago we only had 12, is because people cared about them (and what it would mean to lose them).

Dr. Goodall spoke of the children she worked with through Roots and Shoots. (Some from the Omaha group were in the audience last night.) She talked about how kids “get it”. She talked about a young person who made sure to turn off the tap to conserve water, instead of allowing the tap to run unnecessarily. That one young person might not make much of a dent in the water conservation movement, but if that young person and other individuals band together, it does make a difference. When there is a network of people working toward the same goal, a change will be made. Sometimes it’s hard to see the big picture when you’re just existing in your own little bubble. But that shouldn’t stop you from doing what is right. When you do the right thing it adds to the sum of all the other people doing the right thing. When you give up, it subtracts from the good of the cause.

There are so many things that we do every day that are detrimental to the world around us. When you go to the gas station and you buy a disposable beverage container, that’s a decision that is detrimental to the environment. That’s a decision that I make far too often. When you decide to drive somewhere when you could easily walk or ride a bike, that’s detrimental to the environment. When you give in to societal pressures on food choices, on the vehicle you drive, on how you spend your time and money, ask yourself if it’s something you need, or how it might affect the environment.

There are four things that give Dr. Goodall hope. 1. youth (As long as we have young people who care, we have a fighting chance.) 2. the human brain (The human brain can be used to think up all sorts of awful things, but it can also be used to think up amazingly wonderful things too. It’s the wonderful side of things that give us hope!) 3. the resilience of nature (Dr. Goodall’s discussion of Gombe National Park’s regeneration is good example of this.) 4. the indomitable human spirit (Dr. Goodall herself is this personified!).

She shared with us stories from her time on her grandparent’s farm. She grew up in London, so although she was able to interact with pigeons and earth worms, she didn’t have much face-to-face time with animals, until she spent some time on her grandparents’ farm. She says she was born loving animals, so this was nothing new, but this face-time awakened the young scientist in her. She recounted wondering from where an egg was issued, since she couldn’t observe a hole the size of an egg anywhere on any of the hens she’d encountered. No one in her family seemed to have a satisfying answer, which spurred her to seek the truth on her own. This led to her hiding out in the coop quietly, (much to the astonishment of her family, who had no idea where she was) long enough to find the answer to the question that no one seemed willing to give her.

She also had no problem naming some of the things that are harming our world in a scary way (in her word’s “Climate change is real. Science tells us so.”)–reckless burning of fossil fuels, cutting down trees (something that gets worse and worse each year in Nebraska–the supposed “Tree Planter’s State”), and the consumption of cattle. She said, “It’s strange that people believe in unlimited economic growth on a planet with finite resources.” She mentioned all of the similarities between chimpanzees and humans and noted that humans are the smarter of the two species. Our DNA is very similar, but humans are superior in intelligence. She noted sadly, “The creature with the most intellectual capability is destroying its own home.” The message here? Ask yourself, “How will what I do today–in this very moment–affect future generations?” It seems so lofty, but if we work toward a better future, we will have a better today.

Dr. Goodall’s lecture last night made me feel so much better about Truth Farms CSA. We started this business three years ago. We had fantasized about it for long enough. I finally told Caleb that if we weren’t going to do it, we could no longer talk about it, so we did it. He quit his job (big risk) and we shifted our focus to learning everything we could about responsible, sustainable farming. (He already had a background in horticulture, but there is always more to learn.) Then we put what we already knew and what we learned into practice as best as we could. We made our mission to treat our animals kindly and with compassion and to be stewards of our land. Even though we’re doing many things right, there are so many more things we could be doing. Dr. Goodall touched on the detrimental effects of agriculture, which is not a popular stance in Nebraska, understandably, considering how much our economy relies on the industry. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about how to make it better. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act on making it better. We don’t make very much money running our CSA, but we believe in what we do. Our hope is that one day all of our customers will have gardens of their own and we can share and barter the way people used to.

Hearing Dr. Goodall speak of her hope for the future gives me hope and it also reminds me that apathy is not an option. Even though it hurts to build awareness of all of the ugly things going on in the world, it is up to us to confront it and to take small steps to add to the network of small steps that people are taking around the world.

Seeing one of the people that I’ve admired since childhood speak last night was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I don’t want to squander her message. Apathy is the enemy because apathy makes it easier to ignore the things that you can do better. I am happy to think of the things that my family and I do right, and I am overwhelmed to think of all of the things we do wrong or could do better. The hard part is keeping that fire alive so that we continue to care and continue to strive to do better.


I encourage you to learn more about the Jane Goodall Institute and consider supporting this worthy cause.

Also, if you live in southeast Nebraska, or are visiting, please stop and see Tom Mangelsen’s amazing art gallery too. Tom, if you’re “listening,” know that you gave Omaha a huge gift when you sponsored Dr. Goodall’s lecture. It’s easy to look at Dr. Goodall’s body of work and be inspired by it from afar, but it there’s no comparison to seeing her speak in person–the compassion in her voice and the kindness of her posture. A sincere thanks to Tom Mangelsen and anyone else who made it possible for the Omaha community to see her speak in person. My daughter, who is 13 will remember this for a lifetime.

The Truth Farms CSA crew: Steve, Caleb, Jodie, and Adeline

The Truth Farms CSA crew: Steve, Caleb, Jodie, and Adeline

On Overparenting

Walk towards the light

Creative Commons LicenseJoris Louwes via Compfight


Jessica Lahey: We really need to stop looking to our kids for validation. They are not extensions of us, nor indicators of our performance, and it’s unfair to saddle them with that responsibility.

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Yeah. And our need for validation needs to be taken up with a therapist, not imposed on our kids’ existence. As Carl Jung said, ‘The greatest harm to a child is the unlived life of the parent.’

~ How Schools Are Handling An ‘Overparenting’ Crisis


This is NOT a judgment on ANY parent who reads my blog. I am an imperfect person and parent and I am definitely guilty of some of these overparenting “sins” (e.g. driving an assignment that one of my daughters has left at home or in my car to her school … or signing something digitally that should’ve been signed a week ago on paper … ) In fact, I did this yesterday. My daughter needed her paper signed, but she left it in my truck. Instead of just letting her experience a consequence, I drove it to her. I “rescued” her. I allowed her to be a damsel in distress. I shouldn’t have done that. 

Overparenting IS a thing. I’ve noticed it as a teacher and a parent and I acknowledge that it is an individual parent issue but that it is also a systemic problem. The unwieldy goals we (as in we, a society) expect students to attain at younger and younger ages puts unneeded pressure not only on kids, but on their parents as well.

Image is everything in the United States. We (the collective, general parent we) don’t want to look bad in the eyes of the school (as in the people who work at the school) or of other parents, so we protect not only our kids from failure but our own images in the eyes of others. It doesn’t help that, as a mom, who knows other moms, I know that some moms judge each other. That IS a thing too. As a teacher, I know that some teachers judge parents based on factors that they shouldn’t. And so that IS a thing as well. (Conversely there are some parents judging teachers based on things they shouldn’t too … ) So, we all know that we are all silently judging each other and some of us are just vain enough to worry about what other people are thinking–so much so that we manipulate our own image and the images of our children to portray the things we think we want to be (or what other people want us to be) rather than what we are. Humans are inherently judgey. And inherently vain. And inherently insecure … so it’s no wonder overparenting exists. We are all on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Letting your kids suffer natural consequences is GOOD for them. Having a 4.0 is overrated. One of the best things that ever happened to my oldest daughter was getting a B. Bubble popped and she survived. This helped her understand that she was still a valuable human being–even though she no longer carried a “perfect” GPA. Guess what happened … She still got a good scholarship at a school she wanted to attend in the program of her choosing.

You get a detention for not having your assignment done? BOOM. No one hurt you or berated you (too extensively) for said detention, and you survived, but you sure remembered your assignment the next time, right? You forgot your lunch … Well, you might be really hungry when you get home tonight, but you have enough energy in your body to survive until dinner, and I bet you’ll remember your lunch tomorrow. You waited until the last minute to do the project you’ve had weeks to do? Hmmm … you might squeak out some C-level work there at the end, and it might not best reflect your learning and it may affect your overall grade, but that’s better than having your mom finish it for you so that you can maintain your 4. POINT. Oh.

Allowing our children to experience and more importantly SURVIVE failure is one of the best things we can do for them. If there is someone judging you based on your child’s inability to remember gloves day after day after day, despite blizzard-like conditions, not only does Judgey McJudgerperson need a new hobby, but you can find friends who will commiserate with you rather than scrutinize you for the inconsequential anyway.

I love what Jessica Lahey says about our children NOT being extensions of us as parents. It’s not fair to the parent to view a child as an extension of herself and it is certainly not fair to the child–who is her own person, with her own mind, and her own need to experience and learn first-hand. This process (known as “growing up”) can be painful for the child and the parent, but failure is the best way to learn.

I speak from experience. I am a failure. I have been a failure time after time, which is why I know what I know (which is infinitely tiny compared to what I could know). I learn so much more when things are a struggle for me than I do when things are going well. I’m not saying it’s NOT nice to have things go well, but it’s also good to temper the easy-breezy with some learning. We owe it to our children to back off and let them learn some things “the hard way” too.

Parenting is not for the weak, but neither is life. Letting our children fail in safe ways when the stakes are lower (e.g. letting them go hungry at lunch for one day) will prepare them to be adults who can handle life–even when it’s hard.

I am an activist teacher.

X is for...340/365

Creative Commons License AndYaDontStop via Compfight

It’s amazing how a 20-minute conversation can change the way you view yourself. Just like that, I became an activist teacher. 20 minutes! I have never thought of teaching as a political act prior to today, and I feel naive admitting this, because now it seems so obvious, but in the interest of transparency and honesty I’m sharing this with you, dear reader. I’ve always considered myself a little bit of a quiet system bucker, even in my earliest days of teaching, but the word “activist” wasn’t on my radar in relation to ME.

Today the class I am in went and visited another class that has been studying teacher activism. We rotated through two of three stations and in one of the sessions they asked us to think of a time when we opposed a policy, curricular choice, or something else in our school and what step we took to oppose it. It was very easy for me (and my colleagues) to come up with several examples. The older I get the more squeaky of  a wheel I become. I cannot stand idly by and allow things that are not good for our students to happen.

When I think about the educators I admire most, (from those I’ve studied –John Dewey, Paulo Friere, Ira Shor, bell hooks, Jean Piaget–to those I’ve grown to admire more recently–Rick Wormeli, Ken O’Connor, Sir Ken Robinson, Diane Ravitch, many of my Twitter friends–and those I know personally–you know who you are …) I have come to realize that one of the reasons I am drawn to them is because they stand up for what is right for students.

Every time I make a decision in the interest of my students, even if it goes against the status quo, I am an activist. Every time I post something on my blog that aims to change the way someone thinks, I am an activist. Each time I defend public education to the naysayers, I am an activist. Each time I stand up for my students, I am an activist. Acknowledging this makes me feel brave.

I might be taking small steps in the world of activism compared to other more public figures in education or even some of you that I know more personally, but as my confidence builds, so shall my activism, especially now that I know I am an activist.

 

 

Kids these days: They just don’t know how to communicate …

 

The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings.

~ Kakuzo Okakaura

There are all sorts of posts on social media and comments being made about how “kids these days” are becoming less social and less able to interact socially/intelligently because of smartphones and tablets and computers and drones and wifi and cyborgs … (WATCH THIS–> We are ALL cyborgs now. ~ Amber Case)  but I can tell you that this weekend I took a road trip with three 12/13-year-old girls who spent the entire weekend reading, writing, researching, AND speaking with one another both through traditional language (speaking), through writing (texting, messaging) and through visuals (Instagramming, SnapChatting). They type; they talk; they make videos; they share images; they giggle; they consume viral content; they CREATE content; they experiment; and they are just like I was when I was 12, except that they have modern technology–(just like I had modern technology when I was 12. It just happens to be 26-year-old technology at this point in history).

Here is one of the many non-digital activity the girls participated in this weekend.

Here is one of the many non-digital activity the girls participated in this weekend.

 

I understand why people see it this way. There are people (kids and adults) who over-use the technology that is so readily available to us. There are people who rarely see sunshine, or have hunched backs from constantly huddling over screens. There are people who have taken waaaay too many pictures of themselves (myself included). But, I do not believe for a second that modern technology hinders communication. Social media is a form of literacy. If you don’t learn it, you will become, in a way, illiterate. Refusal to learn is refusal to live life to its full potential.

The girls spent a lot of time using their screened devices. I am the mean mother who still hasn’t purchased a smartphone (nor a stupid phone) for my daughter, but she has an iPad from school and her friend has two smartphones, so she let my daughter borrow the smartphone she no longer uses, as a wifi-ready device for the weekend. There were several remarkable things I’d like to note about what happened our trip.

On the way to South Dakota, the girls decided that they wondered what it would be like to time-lapse themselves for the entire way there. One of the girls time-lapsed herself sleeping the other night and that idea spurred this idea. They set up one of the iPads and began time-lapsing the trip. Then they decided it would be pretty awesome to not only have a time-lapse of themselves, but also of the road, so they set up a second iPad. We had simultaneous time-lapsing going on. It was a rather nifty experiment.

This was part of our self-guided statue tour of the USD campus.

This was part of our self-guided statue tour of the USD campus.

 

The next thing that happened was they did a lot of sharing through digital communication. They also talked … a lot. They would be talking while they were sending each other digital content. Color-me-impressed with how much talking occurred this weekend. (It was nearly non-stop.)

These girls are documentarians. If you wanted to create a timeline of our weekend, you could. You might be overwhelmed by the massive body of work, but you could definitely chart our activities through the girls’ pictures and posts. At the end of the trip, my daughter’s two friends told their moms to follow me on Instagram so that they could see what their weekend was like. As a mom, I would really like to be able to see that. If my child is away from me, I would find it a blessing to know what she did while she was away. (Now that my oldest daughter is away at college, this is especially true!)

Anytime the girls were unsure of something, they researched it online. The answers are there. We were able to talk about website credibility through this. We were also able to practice concert etiquette–one of the important components being–>put your phones away during the concert! When the girls started to interact in catty ways with girls who weren’t physically there, we had the opportunity to talk about how staying out of “the drama” of being a girl is really better than engaging in it. If someone baits you online, it’s best to not take the bait! We had some excellent conversations. If someone says “like for a #TBH DM” don’t hit LIKE. Don’t do it! I learned some things this weekend, but I think they did too.

We saw three separate concerts while we were at USD this weekend.

We saw three separate concerts while we were at USD this weekend.

 

At one point during the trip, there was a “fight,” as often happens when you get three girls together for any extended period of time. After said fight and after a little parental intervention (AKA group therapy sesh), I witnessed the three girls work out a problem they were having through Snapchat. One of them sent an (intentionally) unattractive photo of herself to the other with the message, “Why can’t we be fweinds?” right before the concert started, and then they were all holding in laughs and giving each other knowing looks that conveyed “WE ARE FRIENDS” or “fwiends” if you will. Up until that point, I thought Snapchat was a good-for-nothing app that served only as a way to send inappropriate images to one another under the guise of “safe anonymity”. It still CAN be that–no doubt about it–but if we educate our children how to use such apps responsibly, then amazingly enough, even Snapchat can be useful.

In addition to all the things I mentioned above, we also saw three collegiate orchestral, concert and symphonic band concerts, went thrift store shopping, took a self-guided tour of the statues of the USD campus, went swimming, sang songs, visited the National Music Museum where we were all able to take a crack at playing the gamelan and my youngest daughter got to spend (face-to-face) time with her big sis.

We took three "groupies" as the girls called them or "us-ies" as Dave Guymon calls them (which I favor due to the connotation of "groupies" in my generational vernacular. We took one at every concert.

We took three “groupies” as the girls called them or “us-ies” as Dave Guymon  calls them (which I favor due to the connotation of “groupies” in my generational vernacular). We took one at every concert.

 

So, do these devices make us less social? NO. We may socialize in different ways, but we are not less social. Are kids super-self-centered in that they take a thousand selfies per minute? YES. Have you ever heard of a generation of adolescents who have not been self-absorbed though? They may have shown their self-absorption in other ways, but kids have always been on some level (varying by individual, of course) of the belief that they are the sun and the rest of the people in their lives are the world–revolving around them. Being self-absorbed at that age is NORMAL. My friends and I used to stare at ourselves FOR HOURS … (no hyperbole here … ) in the mirror making weird faces and bursting into laughter. HOURS. Now, they just do it into a screen and possibly make a montage of the most awkward photos or a mashup or a meme. If my friends and I could’ve done the same, we would’ve.

YES: Our kids do lead digital lives, but they haven't stopped interacting socially with one another. They just are doing it in new ways. Their kids will do it in new ways 20 years from now. Just like I did in new ways than my parents. It's called change. It's what happens as time marches on.

YES: Our kids do lead digital lives, but they haven’t stopped interacting socially with one another. They just are doing it in new ways. Their kids will do it in ways currently unimagined  20 years from now.

 

Balance. Of course, we need balance in everything we do–not just in digital VS. face-to-face interactions, and technology vs. nature–but in work vs. play, health vs. indulgence, physical vs. mental activity, fun vs. serious, and so on. Technology changes communication, but in my opinion, communication is easier today than it has ever been. Communication is more creative today than it ever has been. And kids are the same as they ever were; they just have new ways of expressing themselves.

In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

~ Eric Hoffer

On The Danger of Books That Have Been Made Into Movies (and Potential Flim-Flammery)

Brookland Theatre

Bill Dickinson via Compfight

The title of this blog post is a bit alarmist, especially since I was specifically speaking from an academic standpoint. Some teachers fear that students who have been assigned to read books that have been made into movies will not read and will just watch the movies instead, presumably working under the assumption that the movie is exactly the same as the book. Alarmist indeed, especially since I don’t think there is any danger in this situation, even academically speaking.

If your student hasn’t read the book, you will know. After all, you can’t flim-flam a flim-flammer … eh? I mean we were high-schoolers once. We went to college! We know all about tomfoolery, malarkey,  funny business, and shenanigans. (I would’ve used another better-known saying at the beginning of this paragraph, but I like to keep this blog family-friendly … ish.) If your student hasn’t read the book, but watched the movie (or for that matter listened attentively during lectures or class discussions), s/he might be able to answer very basic content questions, but it will be nearly impossible for him/her to analyze or evaluate without being vague. This is when you can pull out your questions that pertain to the movie but not the book or vice versa … and BAM! you know you have a flim-flammer on your hands. Proceed according to your classroom policies regarding students who don’t do their work (which hopefully includes trying to get to the bottom of WHY the student is avoiding the work). Will there be the rare exception of the student who is so skilled in the art of bull-skooting that s/he will be able to dazzle her/his way through an assessment over a book s/he has not legitimately read? YES, but you don’t have supernatural powers, so there is nothing you can do about it, so let it go. As long as the student isn’t doing something to hurt her/his classmates, school property or you … for good gravy’s sake, let it go.

CONFESSION: I used to be one of those teachers who lived in fear of students poppycocking their way through a literary unit armed with only their cinematic knowledge of a piece of literature. What if they don’t read? What if they lie to me? What if they trick meeeee? What will my colleagues think of me? What will my principal think of me? Why am I so worried about me? Me? Me? Meeee? Why am I worrying about things that haven’t even happened yet and might not ever happen? Why don’t I trust kids? Why am I such a control freak? The older I get, the more I realize that, except for what I do and feel, I cannot control much else, which allows me to live in fear no more.  A conversation I overheard during a lit circle discussion a day or so ago helped to solidify this and I will tell you about it, but first, a digression:

In my Contemporary Literature class, one of my goals (which is-dare I admit this publicly?–NOT ATTACHED to a state standard—GASPPPPpppp!) is to take each of my students’ stance on reading and move it closer to LOVE.

Allow me to expound visually …

I'm just below considering Reading as marriage material.

Where do you fall on the Reading (the feels) Spectrum? I’m just west of considering reading as marriage material.

 

In other words, no matter where the a student is on the Reading (the feels) Spectrum, I want that student to be closer to LOVE when s/he walks out of my class at the end of the semester. Most kids walk into my class with a basic MERPitude toward reading. They don’t outright hate it, but it’s not something they crave. Some kids walk in somewhere between MERP and HATE. Even fewer walk in somewhere between MERP and LOVE. It is a rarity that a student is already in LOVE with reading when they walk in, but it does happen. In fact, every so often I have a student take Contemporary Literature because s/he wants to, even though s/he is already enrolled in another English class and doesn’t need the extra credit to graduate. When that happens it is a true compliment to English Language Arts–probably one of the highest.

In Contemporary Literature, (which originally was created for students who did not plan to attend a four-year college, but now has been overflowing with students of every post-high school intention imaginable … !!!) I use the following things to help move student closer to LOVE:

A. high-interest books: I do not pay attention to reading level or text-complexity. I look for well-written, interesting, books with relatable characters and topics that affect modern students. I don’t give a flying fig if it appears on some elite College Board or ACT list. I don’t care if scholars think it’s trashy, or simple, or cheesy. If it hooks a reluctant reader’s interest, I’ll take it.

B. self and group regulated activities: –like literary circles, for example. Activities like lit circles gives the students choice and independence–something that EVERYONE needs to thrive, whether they are 2 or 100. These are also elements that are too often left out of the classroom, sadly.

C. alternative texts: We dive into graphic novels, science fiction, articles from the web, podcasts, and movies. YES: Movies ARE a -visual- text.

And now back to my original topic … Sometimes books inspire students to watch movies. On the other hand, sometimes movies are the gateway drug to books. Yes indeedy: Movies can lead students to books! Sometimes a kid likes a movie so much that s/he decides to read the book. And, sometimes a kid is assigned a book that has been made into a movie, and even though the movie isn’t exactly like the book, it still helps the kid understand the book–either before the student reads or retroactively. Those are positive things!

Personally, I prefer to read a book THEN watch a movie. However, other people have different preferences. Just because that’s the way I like to do it DOESN’T MEAN EVERYONE HAS TO LIKE IT THAT WAY. (That’s hard for some teachers to grasp, I’ve noticed.) For me, once I’ve seen a movie, it’s hard for me to NOT picture the actor who played each character as I read, and I don’t like that, but not everyone has those issues. They are either able to block the actors’ images from their minds or they enjoy having a visual upon which to rest the mind’s eye.

sunny windless days

Read everywhere!

 

If you choose a book to teach (or allow students to choose a book to read) that has been made into a movie, will you have a percentage of kids who will watch the movie in lieu of reading? ALWAYS. Just like you will always have a percentage of kids who “replace” reading with Wikipedia or Sparknotes or LitCharts or the next newfandangled thang that comes along under the guise of helping people understand literature but which actually serves as a means for kids (and adults) to cheat on content-level tests (and book club meetings). (In fairness to the aforementioned entities, I will say that when used with integrity, they do serve as a resource for helping people understand literature–at a surface level.) That being said, if a kid is able to pass an assessment without reading the book, are you asking the right questions? (That is for another blog post, methinks.)

Now back to that conversation I mentioned earlier in the post. During lit circles the other day, I overheard students discussion the book, The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, which is not only a popular book, but also a popular movie. The group members had all seen the movie. They were comparing the book to the movie and making note of all of the differences. They were also evaluating the movie based on the book–what they liked about the book and what they thought the movie did better. They were also qualifying WHY they felt that way. This was a grown-up conversation, and they were doing this without my guidance and without micro-management of any sort. The lit circle provides a flexible structure for the students. They build outward from that structure. It is always an honor to lead a class in discussion, but it is an even more rewarding to listen to young people do it on their own. And guess what? They held each other accountable for reading. Based on my experience, students are more motivated to be prepared when they know their peers will be upset with them than they are when they just know that the teacher might be upset. And it is one thing to attempt to bamboozle a teacher. It is another thing to attempt to hornswoggle a group of your peers. They will call you out–publicly. And they will determine whether or not you read or just watched the movie and said you read. They will ask the trick questions outright!

The movie version of The Fault in Our Stars served as another point of dialogue for the students. It did not detract from the conversation. It did not demotivate them. They still read the book. They held one another responsible. They got into higher levels of thinking (analysis, evaluation) BECAUSE they watched the movie AND read the book.

Outside of lit circles, there will be kids whose interest is sparked enough by a movie that they will read the books that inspired the movies  … and they might even like reading those books … maybe even a little bit more than they enjoyed their last reading experiences.  As a result, they move a little closer to LOVE!

That is a good thing. That is what teaching is all about.

“Don’t worry about the grade. Focus on what you’re learning.”

Out on town
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Kristina Alexanderson via Compfight

On Thursday, one of my students bombed his vocabulary and sentence structure test. He seemed less disappointed when he found out that he could retake it and receive some remedial instruction pre-retake. This morning he was waiting for me when I arrived at school. We reviewed comma splices (and how to avoid them), as well as the complex sentence structure. He retook the test and I told him I’d have the results for him later in the day.

When I gave him the results, he seemed pleased to learn that he recovered almost all of his points. He told me that his father had texted him earlier in the day to find out how he did on his retake. When this student told him he didn’t know the results yet, his father, (sensing his son’s apprehension regarding the results, I imagine) said, “Don’t worry about the grade. Focus on what you’re learning.”

That is a remarkable things for a parent to say in the day and age of the Almighty GPA, high-stakes test scores, and an overall desire to “keep up with the Joneses.” Our culture has a general obsession with how people look on paper regardless of what they actually know and can do. We can talk multiple measures all we want, but until more colleges start looking at the student as a total package and actually using multiple measures to determine admission, and even more importantly, who receives scholarship awards, we will continue to perpetuate the culture of distilling people into numbers. (I realize this isn’t the ONLY thing that needs to happen, but it would be a very influential place to start. I also believe that those who run colleges are starting to recognize this.) We can push from the bottom, but what we really need is some top-end action.

I can tell students that it’s important for them to challenge themselves by taking more difficult classes, by doing their best, by trying, even when trying is hard, and I might make a difference, but when a child grows up in a home where the learning process is valued above sheer numbers, that is the most powerful influence of all. Learning is a lifestyle. What a powerful message–what a powerful gift–that father gave to his son this afternoon.

Many students spend so much time fixating on their GPAs that they lose sight of what school should really be about–learning transferable skills that they can take with them into the world (not just college, but THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD). Any time I hear of parents taking some of the pressure off of their children by assuring them that the process they are going through is more valuable than a number on a paper or in a grade book, that makes my heart happy. It gives me hope for our system.

Drama Games For Every Classroom*

*This post was inspired by this week’s #slowchated.

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Why school? Because: Relationships. Relationships are why education is.

It is for the above-stated reason that I spend so much time at the beginning of a semester (even for year-long classes at the beginning of second semester) front-loading rapport-building activities. As far as I’m concerned, content and skill development can wait because without a student-teacher rapport, learning will suffer. I have a friend who lives by the mantra: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” If you invest this time connecting to students, you don’t even have to think about classroom management later on. When you earn your students’ respect, you set the stage for smooth production.

In my current position, I teach English and drama. Some of the same games we use to build performance skills in drama class are also brilliant community-enhancers and can be used in any classroom for such a purpose.

Why do drama games work for building classroom community? They’re fun. They’re a little silly. They give license for people of all ages to play together in a low-risk situation that has no other goal than to strengthen the relationships in the room. (SRSLY, doods. Everyone wins. Every. Single. Time.)

In this post, I’ll discuss drama games that have worked well in non-drama classes for the purpose of relationship-building. Some of these games came from books that I have acquired over the years and some came from workshops that I’ve attended. I will give credit whenever memory serves me well enough to do so. Many of these games are much like oral literature in that they are passed by word-of-mouth over time and tweaked by each new recipient, so the way I present them are versions of the way I learned them, but I’m certain they have changed from the way I was taught in a subtle or maybe even sometimes drastic way, just as I’m sure that the way I was taught was personalized by the teachers in some way, shape, or form as well.

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THE GAMES

☆☆☆ —> THE MAGIC SUBSTANCE

The Wizard
Photo Credit: Sean McGrath via Compfight

Source: A Drama Workshop (but I can’t remember which one–sorry!)

Premise: Suspend your disbelief. Sit in a circle. One person (the starter) in the circle has a magical substance. It can take any form or shape. The starter should play with the substance for a while, changing it’s weight, size, texture a few times before passing the substance to the person sitting next to him/her. (S/he may choose to the left or to the right.) That person must receive the magical substance as it is delivered to him or her, but then s/he must change it somehow before passing it to the next person. Each person, in turn, must receive the substance as is and change it somehow before passing it, until it comes back to the starter.

Note: You may not change the substance into a thing. For example, you can’t change it into a cell phone or a gun. It must just be an indefinable, but constantly-morphing, magical substance at all times.

 

☆☆☆ —> DEFENDER

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Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Ol.v!er [H2vPk] via Compfight

Source: Theater for Community, Conflict and Dialogue: The Hope is Vital Training Manual by Michael Rohd (with a foreword from one of my all-time favorite educators, Dr. Doug Paterson from University of Nebraska at Omaha)

Premise: Move around the space freely. While in motion, everyone must SILENTLY and WITHOUT OBVIOUS FANFARE choose a Defender and an Enemy. In the time remaining (5 minutes or less) continue moving (still silently) around the room, but the object is to always keep your Defender between yourself and your Enemy.

Note: In some cases, individuals will select a Defender who has selected him/her as an Enemy. This only adds to the complexity and challenge of the game. Encourage students to choose others who they would not normally choose. (For example, someone may choose their best friend as their “enemy” for this game, or someone with whom they’ve rarely talked as a defender.)

☆☆☆ –> BLOB TAG

 

Source: I don’t remember. (EEK!)

Premise: One player is The Blob. (In traditional tag, this person would be called “IT.”) Everyone else must try to stay away from The Blob. The Blob must try to tag everyone else. Once The Blob tags someone else, that someone else, hooks arms with The (original) Blob and becomes a part of The Blob him/herself. Each person who is subsequently tagged becomes part of The Blob until EVERYONE is part of The Blob.

Note: You will want to set boundaries in the space, especially if you are in a large one. A stage, a commons area, a gym, or an outdoor space works well for this.

 

 

BONUS: Blog Tag + Costumes (This was taken during Homecoming Week on Cartoon Day.)

 

 

☆☆☆ —> BUNNY

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Source: A Church Youth Leader, somewhere in Minnesota … 

Premise: Form a circle. Choose someone to be the Starter. The Starter places his/her two thumbs on the side of his/her head with the rest of his/her finger stretched outward. (Think of the nanny-nanny-boo-boo gesture.) S/he wiggles his/her hands and says “Bunny, bunny, bunny, bunny, bunny, bunny, bunny.” On the 7th(ish) “bunny” s/he takes his/her hands off of his/her head and puts his/her palms together and “sends” or “zaps” the bunny to someone else in the circle. Whomever the Starter points to then receives the bunny, by placing his/her hands in the aforementioned “bunny” stance AND the person to the receiver’s right, places his/her right hand on the right side of his/her head and the person to the left places his/her left hand on the left side of his/her head and all three people chime in with “Bunny X 7ish” until the middle person zaps the bunny across the circle again. If any of the three receivers do not react quickly enough, or make the wrong gesture, that person is OUT and steps out of the circle. As more and more people get OUT, the circle tightens until it gets down to three. The last three will be the quickest paced portion of the game because ALL three people will be involved in ALL of the bunnies. When it gets down to TWO, you must have a VEGETABLE DUEL. (A vegetable duel can be used to settle all sorts of classroom scores, by the way.) For the vegetable duel the last two people must stand back to back, until the duel master spurs them to take four swift paces away from one another. Then the duel master must call out the name of a vegetable. Upon hearing the name of the vegetable both duelers must turn and do an impersonation of the chosen vegetable. Whoever makes the best impersonation of said vegetable (as determined by duel master or by clapping vote–house rules) WINS.

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☆☆☆ —> CIRCLE DASH

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Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley via Compfight

Source: Theater for Community, Conflict and Dialogue: The Hope is Vital Training Manual by Michael Rohd

Premise: Form a circle with one volunteer in the middle. The object of the game is to get out and stay out of the middle, but it’s also to challenge yourself with taking a (safe) risk with the help of another student. When the person in the middle isn’t looking, make eye contact with someone at least one person away from you. Make eye contact with that student and give a slight nod, raise your eyebrow, or make some sort of tiny gesture to indicate that you want to trade places with that person. Once you and the other person have silently agreed to trade spots, make a run for it. When you are in transit, the person in the middle will try to take one of your spots. If s/he does, then you will take his/her spot in the middle and try to take someone else’s spot, when s/he trades with another student.

Note: This is the only game during which I have been positively FLATTENED by a student in her zeal to trade spaces with the student who was standing next to me. It hurt like HELL, caused bruising, and the student felt awful about it, but it was also really really funny. The students couldn’t believe I wasn’t mad. I explained, “That’d be like me getting upset that I got tackled in a mosh pit. It’s all good.”

—> BABY I LOVE YOU

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Source: A Childhood Game

Premise: Everyone sits in a circle. Someone volunteers to be the Starter. The Starter turns to the person on his/her left (his/her choice) and states, “Baby, I love you, but I just can’t make you smile” using any voice or facial express s/he desires. However, s/he may not touch the receiver. The person who receives this message must follow these guidelines: Eye contact is required. No sucking in cheeks or biting lips. S/he must not smile or laugh. If s/he smiles or laughs s/he is out. If the Starter gets that person out, s/he must repeat the process with the next person in the circle. If the Starter does not succeed in making the Receiver smile, then the Receiver must go through the process with the next person in the circle. As more and more people get OUT the circle must tighten and those who are out can become the audience. When it gets down to the “stone cold killahs” you can choose new bizarre phrases for them to try out on one another. (For example: “I baked you a muffin” or “I’m a cotton-headed ninny muggins” could work, but you know what will make your group giggle.) The last person standing is the winner and should be celebrated as such with joyous aplomb.

Note: I usually play the games with the students, but this is one from which I abstain, simply because it is too weird for kids to be telling me they love me, even in jest.

 

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Other Resources that I <3 <3 <3 (in no specific order)

  • Games for Actors and Non-Actors by Augusto Boal (translated by Adrian Jackson)
  • 3-Minute Motivators by Kathy Paterson
  • Theater Games for the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook by Viola Spolin
  • Children Tell Stories: Teaching and Using Storytelling in the Classroom by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss

Relationship Is King! (A Beginning of the Semester Sharing Activity)

 

Big Heart of Art - 1000 Visual Mashups
Photo Credit: qthomasbower via Compfight

Building relationships is king in my teaching philosophy. It trumps content every day of the week. If a student doesn’t trust you, it is very hard for them to learn (what you want them to learn) from your class.

That is why when we come back from break, whether a class is semester-long with all new students, or year-long with returning students, I like to focus on building new relationships or strengthening existing ones.

Yesterday was a cold day. In other words, we got the day off because it was so cold–so like a snow day, without snow, and probably colder than the average snow day. I spent the day catching up on housework (ugh) and reading articles that people from my PLN posted (yay!). One of the things I stumbled upon was this NPR article: These Are A Few Of Your Favorite Things. After I read it, I knew that I wanted to do this as an opening activity with all of my students. Good thing school was called off yesterday or this might not have happened.

I’m sharing the article with them today through my Twitter feed. My requirements for the assignment are as follows.

FAVORITE THINGS ASSIGNMENT:

  1. Read this NPR article: These Are a Few of My Favorite Things.
  2. Choose 5-10 items to photograph.
  3. Arrange them, artfully. (See the article for examples.)
  4. Photograph them with your iPad.
  5. Write a brief description of each item and why you selected it.
  6. If you want to, tweet a copy of the photo, using our class hashtag: World Lit = #phsWORlit; Contemp Lit = #phsCONlit; Forensics II = #phs4N6; Drama = #phsDRAMA; A.P. English Lit and Comp = #phsAPeng.
  7. Submit your photo and writing to our shared Google Drive folder.

As usual, I will be participating in this assignment as well. If I am asking my students to expose personal facts about themselves, I must do the same. After all, relationships are for taking, but the giving is the most important part.

When I have completed the assignment, I will post my photo and writing here. If my students give me permission, I will post some of their photos and writing here too. Stay tuned.

 

UPDATE: Here are the results of the assignment:

#phsWORlit #phsCONlit #phsAPeng Favorite Things Assignment–> Desk: One of my favorite places to be is school where so much learning takes place, so I chose a desk as a backdrop. Top Hat and Rabbit Ears: As a drama teacher, I appreciate what a simple bit of costuming can do for an actor or even a non-actor. Modge Podge: In my (very limited spare time) I like to dabble in art–specifically mixed media art and one of my main ingredients is Modge Podge. Hagrid Figurine: I am a Harry Potter nerd. Literature Anthology: Reading books is one of my favorite things to do and I can’t pick just one favorite, so I chose this anthology since it is full of a variety of stories and poetry. Note Card: My Fall Play cast gave this to me in a bouquet of flowers after our show wrapped this year. My students are very important to me. Skull: The image of a skull represents many things to me: theater, the fragility of life, decomposition and a return to the Earth. Pencil: I love to write and sketch with a pencil. Ticonderogas are the best. Photo: These are my three favorite people -> my husband and my two daughters.

This Feels Like Failure: Why Are So Many Students Dropping My Advanced Placement English Class?

I teach an Advanced Placement English class. It’s a challenging class. It’s hard. Really. There are times when it’s not fun. High school me would’ve struggled with it. Undergrad me probably would’ve struggled with it a bit. Shoot! Come to think of it, there are days when I would struggle with it now, if I were juggling what my students are juggling.

The students have to learn difficult vocabulary–words that show up frequently in classic literature–and they have to use said vocabulary in context. They have to learn how to identify AND write in sentence structures that I didn’t learn about until college or after. They have to read challenging, sometimes dense, sometimes archaic, sometimes confusing (but beautiful! controversial! poetic! lovely! wonderful! universally truthful), texts, rife with figurative language, dripping with irony, loaded with difficult-to-decipher symbols (but that have withstood the test of time). They are in charge of leading discussions. They are responsible for analyzing literature through writing.

I view this class as not just a way to prepare for the Advanced Placement test they will (hopefully) take (and DOMINATE) in the Spring, but to prepare them for college, and more importantly, to ready them for the cruel world after college. In it, they are exposed to rich content, but even more importantly–they practice and (usually) master transferable skills that they will use for the rest of their lives: effective writing in multiple modes, critical thinking, creativity, idea generation, collaboration, decision-making, time management …

They blog. They analyze. They interact face-to-face. They interact digitally. They do or do not hit deadlines (and there are consequences for both). They write. They speak. They think. They think. They think. They think and think and think!

They are currently synthesizing their skills in the form of a mimesis–an assignment that requires them to create an original short story that mimics (in more than one way) the work of a famous author, whom they have studied in depth. It is–to use one of their vocabulary words–arduous. It is hard work. It takes time. It takes tenacity. It’s not something most people can write in an hour and half (though I have a student who claims he did … !)

And, at the end of last week and today, nearly half of them brought me paperwork to drop my class at semester.

Herein lies my feeling of failure.

Some of the students have legitimate-sounding excuses for dropping the class. Some of them do not. However, underneath all these reasons–legit or not–is a nagging question: What did I do wrong?

I want this class to be rigorous. In fact, it’s required, by College Board standards to be rigorous. My district requires it to be rigorous. However, I don’t want to be so rigid as to drive away my students. They are, after all, some of my favorite people in the whole world! Don’t get me wrong: I realize that not every students is cut out for Advanced Placement English, and it is a typical event for some of them to drop at semester, but the sheer number of drops this time around has me in a bit of a stupor.

As a result of these drops, I’m not feeling like the greatest teacher. Not that I ever feel like I am THE greatest teacher, but today, I am feeling pretty down. It is my instinct to keep these feelings to myself or maybe to whine a little to one of my mentors, but I have decided to reflect here–”out loud”–because I don’t think we lament enough in public. It’s important to put our best selves forward to the world when we can, but it’s also okay to reveal the moments that are the most trying. This week has started out with a fizzle, but this anticipated mass exodus of students has deepened my resolve to continually improve myself as a teacher. But for today, I’m going to take some time to marinate in this feeling of disappointment and to labor over my aforementioned question, along with these:

  • What can I do differently to retain more of my students?
  • What can I do to impart–to students and their parents–that what you learn in a class is more important than the almighty grade?
  • Is this class’s level of rigor befitting a entry-level college English literature and writing course or have I taken it too far?
  • Are my expectation too high? (I don’t think so–but believe me–I will think about this.)

I’m holding onto the hope that tomorrow and the next day and the next day will be better days–as a result of reflection and time. I’m holding onto the hope that next semester, I’ll be a better teacher–as a result of this semester’s events and as a result of this public reflection on some very raw feelings.