Sunday, May 13, 2012

The world is a better place for him having been in it

Maybe this is just selfish catharsis, but a student of mine died this morning and I'm writing about it. The feelings will out, I just discovered, dissolving into tears while typing his name in farewell.





Today, I stared at the face of my 3 month old niece while the death of a beautiful 19 year old rattled around in my mind. The sun was shining. He was gone. Spring is here. He is gone. He was ill, and now he is gone.

I can't think of any other reason besides love that leaves me sitting here with tears dripping down my chin. We call students "our kids"- we call them "ours". I think I'm realizing that the term has or had nothing to do with ownership, and everything to do with love, or pride- some kind of attachment or connection. And it works both ways. We are theirs as much as they are ours. When one is lost, so are we.

 I hadn't felt it in sadness before, how all the students would always matter to me, long after they walk out of the classroom for the last time. Always, and not in a small way.

Students are supposed to move on. Why else do we teach them: preparation for the future, right? You'll thank me later. You'll need this later. One day you'll think back to this, and... "Future, future, future."

Teachers remain behind, in space and in time. Locked away in our classrooms, sure, but also in the memories of the students we teach. For many we'll always be wearing that sweater, those glasses, or the haircut that they remember on us. Telling that same joke. I know all about that- it's something I accepted when I became a teacher: the knowledge that for a while I would matter to these people, and after a while, I wouldn't. I'd be a memory, and then only sometimes. That, I'm ready for. I'm ready to be left behind. Being left behind is easy.

Being forced to move on is not. It's that hopeless plea of "don't leave me here". Here becomes anywhere you aren't. I'm still here, and you aren't. I'm going to get older, and you aren't. I'm going to laugh again, one day.

I have a photo of this boy up on the wall behind my desk, a gift, and it will always remain there. That white jacket. The glasses, the hair. That smile.








Sunday, April 1, 2012

First Post of 2012 - April Fools! - It's actually an essay!

Right, so I haven't posted anything to this blog in so long! But it's not because I'm not writing. It's because I've been writing essays like the one below instead.

So I'm posting it, not so much to share information but actually to share my pain. (It's a good pain though. Like, brain pain.) And to prove that I haven't let my brain and typing fingers atrophy completely. Of course, you may beg to differ on that last point if you actually read it. 

Roads and Rivers: Navigating the Image and the Real in Pleasantville

In a scene from Pleasantville (1998), a group of young people are gathered in the local soda shop. The subtle five-four rhythm of Take Five plays in the background, though it’s likely that music was added in during the editing process. Actor Tobey Maguire takes a deep breath, pausing slightly before speaking his lines: “There are some places where the road doesn’t go in a circle.” The actors that surround him appear surprised, astonished, intrigued. They lean in closer as Tobey continues: “It just keeps going. It all keeps going. Roads and Rivers.” And so, about 50 minutes into the film, the character David instigates a full-fledged youth revolution propelled by, of all things, classic American Literature.
          The originating image of the 50s sitcom that Pleasantville expresses perhaps never existed; it was projected onto an eager America through TV, but these programs become artifacts unto themselves. The ‘Black and White’ television era is a reference to both its appearing and its appearance: whole, smiling families; full plates of home cooked dinner; a population of obedient and successful (and yes, docile) bodies. But the images in Pleasantville don’t begin there; instead, the film situates itself in the real with David, one half of a set of twins. The image of the real, Baudrillard’s first phase, “the reflection of a profound reality”, is where and when David lives, which we assume from the fashion is the 90s (though, interestingly, these shots are preceded by a title card that reads “Once Upon a Time...”). As Baudrillard might suggest, the real for David truly seems to be a desert: the establishing scene shows him standing alone in front of a vast expanse of concrete that makes up the yard of his high school. 
  Once inside the high school, we see lecture after lecture delineating one bleak future after another: Hollywood’s exaggeration of the potential of the 90s. It’s no wonder that David is enamored with the TV show Pleasantville, it serves as a way to mask his inability to interact with females - a twin sister who hates him, a mother who ignores him - these all amount to a feeling of rejection by the Symbolic order of David’s ‘real’ world, and so he turns to the Imaginary, amusing himself by quoting the lines of dialogue of the TV mom while his real mother quibbles over the phone with David’s otherwise absent father. One would imagine that David’s sudden literal immersion into the television show ‘Pleasantville’ would be his dream come true, permission to happily function within his desired Symbolic Order. Instead, David and his twin sister Jennifer are both one phase further removed from the real. 
 When first thrust into the world of the television show it becomes clear how David is now even more fully invested in living in the Imaginary, David wants to “play along” and demands that his rebellious sister do the same. David seems to take comfort in the Imaginary order of Pleasantville: here he is taken care of, he is part of a whole family, he is a successful and accepted member of the world. But this is also the second phase of the image, which “masks and denatures a profound reality”. Accordingly, Jennifer, despite experiencing what David does, is severely alienated by these events. In a somewhat tragic turn, the Symbolic norms of a mother cooking a hot breakfast and complimenting her outfit are deeply distressing to her. And, as she explores the world further, she simultaneously moves away from the Imaginary order she had set up for herself in the ‘real’ world. In that world, Jennifer cut class to smoke in the yard and hook up with boys. In Pleasantville, when confronted with a geography lesson that is summed up in two streets, Main and Elm, she raises her hand. And, after she is rejoined with the idea that “the end of Main street is just the beginning again,” she desperately seeks to find her way out of the hyper real prison, and ends up a library. There, she discovers that the books are all blank. The price of pleasantness is lack of knowledge, a motif that the film plays with through various allusions to the biblical Adam and Eve. Jennifer’s desperation even drives her to attempts at destruction, but she’s still thwarted: though she’s somehow managed to find a lighter, nothing burns.
     Of course, it is David who disrupts his own illusion, causing a basketball to miss the net when he attempts to defer a date between his sister and the captain of the basketball team. This is where the image of reality begins to move into its third phase, where the image “masks the absence of a profound reality.” This too is the part of the film that challenges all the characters’ notions of the Symbolic order by introducing glimpses of the Real, and leaving those characters and objects changed. The initial upset, which David unwittingly began by ruining the perfect basketballs, is taken up by Jennifer, whose dalliance with Skip prompts a rose bush to spontaneously bloom in red- Real red. Sex is also the means through which Jennifer and David’s TV Mom traverses her own reality. A symbol of chastity in Pleasantville is the parent’s double beds: a reference to the lack of intimacy that the term pleasant carries with it. In a perversion of the ‘sex talk’, mother and daughter sit at the kitchen table beside the wholesome symbol of milk and cookies and it’s Jennifer who carefully informs her mother how to “enjoy yourself... without Dad.” And Betty does so, in a scene that is extremely uncomfortable to watch with a classroom full of seventeen year-olds. It’s Betty’s first experience with pleasure that brings her and those in the town closer to the Real than ever before in the film; as she orgasms, the world of Pleasantville responds, and the tree on the front lawn bursts into flames. Things do burn in Pleasantville after all: literally, figuratively. Again, it’s David who tries to put out the flames and dampen whatever they represent, but he manages to continue to subvert the town, now symbolically echoing Jennifer’s lessons by showing the hapless firefighters how to use their own equipment. 
  By the time the image has made its fourth revolution, “it has no relation to any reality whatsoever”; in Pleasantville, this imagining makes the implausible plausible and makes meaningful allusion out of the ridiculous. The changes in the town manifest in a thunderstorm, and all but David and Jennifer flinch and recoil in fear from the thunder and rainfall. The kids especially, are afraid of the rain at first, eyeing it dubiously as they ask if it is “real rain?” And it’s not real rain, though by then, David has forgotten that. The town divides. Signs pop up in shop windows that read “no coloreds”. Angry citizens gather around Mr. Johnson’s nude of Betty, which is exhibitioned on the soda shop window and eventually destroy it. The ridiculous hyper reality of this violence is underscored in the filming, as a high angle creates the image of a group of dissidents converging on a giant ice cream cone.  As the tension escalates, the traditionalist citizens, who previously had no knowledge of fire, burn books. Finally, the most organized attempt to quell the reading revolution begun by the “changists” of the town results in the creation of “The Pleasantville Code of Conduct” which include such provisions as “there will be no preparation for inclement weather” and “No bed frame or mattress may be sold measuring more than 38 inches wide.” When David reads this edict aloud, there is a marked difference between Jennifer’s reaction and that of the other colored youth gathered in the soda shop. She smirks, fully aware of the foolishness of a government sanction of bed frames. Her Pleasantville friends are not.
Her chuckle indicates her rejection of these newly imposed Symbolic rules, where the earnest attentiveness of the other youth ground their placement in Lacan’s Imaginary. In terms of Baudrillard, it's the hyper real. David learns from something in which he has basically no stake - he is never really threatened, not physically or intellectually- though the characters around him are. His own approach to the real comes in the form of violence, when he punches a boy who is threatening Betty, but why does he defend her? Even though David is moving farther and farther away from his true existence, his action without thought – defending and protecting his TV mother – brings him closer to the Real than he has ever been before. And after the conflict of the town has neatly resolved, the town is fully colored, the borders come down and the roads unloop themselves and stretch out into the unknown. Pleasantville has become its own simulacra. 
  In a most satisfying twist, David then decides to return to his real world, and it’s Jennifer who   stays behind. She seems to finally acknowledge the value of the rules she flouted for so long, both in terms of school and in terms of the Imaginary order of Pleasantville. In this sense, Jennifer created the simulacra in which she could thrive. When she says to her brother “I did the slut thing,” she’s both rejecting her previous (performative) Imaginary expression and embracing the Symbolic rules of this new world. After questioning, changing and scoffing at the orders of both her real world and this Pleasantville world, she decides to pursue an Academic career, and armed with the knowledge of the two worlds she’s inhabited; it is an act of freedom, not an act of prolonging her subjugation. David’s return to his real world shows his readiness to seek out the Real in his original circumstances, and he is immediately confronted with the opportunity to connect with his ‘real’ mother. Interestingly, he also returns with a physical symbol of the world he left, the letterman’s jacket at once symbolizing his social acceptance and the validity of the simulacra of Pleasantville to part with physical parts of itself, blurring the lines between those two iterations of the Real. 
  But that’s not where the movie ends. In its closing moments the film reveals itself and what its true conclusions are: Pleasantville, now fully realized, goes on without its savior or destroyer. It’s ambiguity that has awakened this place to its own reality, and it’s a celebration of this ambiguity that closes the film. We are back in Pleasantville. We see Joan Allen, who plays Betty, seated on a bench beside William H. Macy, who plays her husband George. “Do you know what’s going to happen next?” She wonders aloud. The camera pans over to a close up of William’s face. “No, I don’t.” he replies. They both laugh as the camera pans back to Joan, still laughing, then back again. William H. Macy has been replaced by Jeff Daniels, who adds, “I guess I don’t either.” What phase of image are we watching now, where one character seems to become another? Or perhaps this is no longer part of the narrative, and we are simply watching actors speaking to one another? This is the final expression of Pleasantville as its own complete Real image, not only does it now offer the Betty character an unexpected Real possibility, but that the viewer should be taken aback by this visual inconsistency from a world where objects and people spontaneously change color is remarkable. In all worlds: Pleasantville, David’s and finally, in our own, the roads and rivers flow on into the unknown as the soundtrack plays: “Nothing’s gonna change my world.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Hey Man, Slow Down

To begin, a lyrically related song from the 90s to set the mood:




More than ever, the feeling I’ve been fighting this year has been the nagging voice that urges me to “go faster! Teach faster!" Sometimes I can't seem to shake that feeling: "We’re running of out time! We’re not going to finish!”

I’ve heard that voice probably my entire life (yes, speaking figuratively; this is not an exposé on the voices I hear in my head)- or at least the message, likely from the actions of my own teachers as I made my way through school, and sure enough, their instructions to me gradually became my instructions to myself.  That voice really took over once I started teaching, and along with it came those familiar feelings of frenzy, panic, flailing, and finally, drowning.

A familiar metaphor, right? Treading water, drowning in marking, wading through whatever. But this year I’ve gotten into the incredibly annoying habit of questioning everything, and the question I’m asking now is “Drowning in what”? Learning? Wow, what a tragedy. Teaching? That doesn’t make any sense. And after thinking about it for a while I realised I was like a character in a classic movie gag: flailing and panicking, yelling “Save me! I don’t know how to swim!” when I’m actually thrashing around in a foot of water.

So, back to the voices. This semester I had the pleasure of reading Rosenblatt’s Making Meaning with texts, (pdf of Chapter 5 available here) and a line that’s stuck with me was “we need to resist the pressures from without and from within ourselves that lead to such empty results." What a pleasure to have such a reasonable and erudite voice in there with the others.

Perhaps I'm fortunate that I don't feel a lot of outside pressure to push through or past or over the subject I'm teaching. Fortunate, or numb. Either way, I don't feel it as strongly from the outside as I ever have from the inside. That's where this pressure is coming from- for whatever reason, I'd adopted the stance that no matter what or how I was teaching, I could be doing it faster.

What is that? Is it the year plans I make for myself, invariably tying a major work to a season or month, annually pretending that school isn't full of planned and unplanned changes in schedule? Is it the curriculum that I've misread, interpreting every single student experience or ability as something I need to program ahead of time? (There it is again- ahead of time- maybe time is what I think I'm drowning in. How Doctor Who of me). Maybe there's a more general phenomenon to blame: microwaves, or instant coffee, or .34222 second Google searches. 

The thing is, I'm only interested in the cause if it helps me to figure out a solution, and blame is not the way to do it. Looking at my students, and looking at the experiences I’ve had teaching for the last 8 years, I’m finally making peace with my inner ‘go faster’. I don't want to get faster, I want to get better. And no, they aren't automatically exclusive. But neither are they the same.

 I'm not drowning. I'm fine. Finally, after teaching under this self imposed bogeyman pressure I’m finally asking why. And the silence that follows is telling.



This wasn't the clip I was looking for at first, but in a way, it's exactly the clip I was looking for.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

EdCamp Edmonton

photo by Heather Laturnas (@hlaturnas)

A few weeks ago, I challenged a few other edcamp Edmonton co-organizers to blog about the edcamp experience, so it's high time I meet my own expectations, don't you think?

One day, I forget when exactly, it occurred to me that in Alberta we have a lot of active, interesting and involved educators. I'd name them, but then I'd forget someone and it would be #FF all over again. (winky face) So, it began with a simple tweet that I can't really be bothered to go retrieve that basically asked "Why Edmonton didn't yet have an edcamp set up?" Once a few local and interested educators replied, we were good to go.

After two meetings in person, we remembered that it was 2011 and started meeting via Google+, and I'm glad we did. It was nice to take advantage of those tools and learn as we went. Hangouts remain the sole thing I've used Google+ for, but then again, I had a twitter account for a year before I started using it for education, so who knows what will happen.

Organizers kind of came and went as the planning progressed, which is an observation, not a criticism. As a person who is really into coming up with ideas and less interested in finishing them, I truly understand that things come up: trips, responsibilities, sick family, the whole pesky teaching thing. It's all life.

To those organizers who did stick it out: you know who you are, and you also know the password to the website, so go add your name to the list already!

Do I feel the day was a success? Yes, I really do. We had over one hundred registrations (though half as many attendees, and we're on it); we had 12 concurrent sessions; we had environment minded prizes (gas cards for 2 farthest carpools travelled); we had participants from Medicine Hat, from Millwoods, and from Michigan; I love alliterative sentences; we even ended up with an amazing Google Doc.

Truly, the best word that sums up how I feel about the event and every one and thing surrounding it is gratitude. I'm grateful to the following websites for being the beacons in the darkness they turned out to be:

http://edcamp.wikispaces.com

http://www.edutopia.org/blog/about-edcamp-unconference-history


I'm incredibly grateful to my parents, who graciously donated their time and sandwich making skills to our lunch.

Photo taken by Heather Laturnas (@hlaturnas)

I'm grateful for all the those individuals who contributed, either via Twitter or in a Hangout or in person, or stepped up on the day of the event to present, share, speak and listen.

I'm grateful to the Educational Technology Council of Alberta and the Alberta Social Studies Council for donating the funds to cover food and prizes.

And I'm grateful to the staff of Lillian Osborne High School, the first building I've ever truly loved. I'll never get over you, LO. You and your flying buttresses.

Here's the thing about the edcamp organizational experience: it was really, really easy. Why? Because it's easy to do what you love. Because the day is so focused on collaboration and spontaneous conversation, the planning is rather minimal. And also because the group of educators that offered their help and resources were so awesome, everything pretty much fell into place. Things fell into place so easily, in fact, that I think we're going to do it all over again:


EdCamp Edmonton - Saturday April 14th, 2012 - Still looking for a theme

Oh, one last thing: someone forgot their travel mug in the library:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Glass Roses

So, have any of you read or taught Alden Nowlan's Glass Roses? I'm a fan. I like the Canadian stuff, what with being Canadian and all. Here's a really rough draft of an explanation of the lessons I tried with this story this term.

1.

The first thing we do, obviously, is read it. Well that's not really true, this time around I read it out loud myself. It was the first short story we'd done all year, and so I wanted to model, as best I could, the "art" of reading aloud. I got this idea at the end of last year, when I asked my grade 10s to take turns reading stories out loud (without practicing first) and the whole exercise ended up being a diagnostic tool for which of my students had reading fluency and which were struggling. Too bad the diagnosis was happening in June. I think this year I'm going to try getting the students to either vlog or make a podcast out of themselves reading a short story aloud. Maybe as part of my final multi genre project, maybe something separate.

Next year I'm going to try to take things even further. A major element of the story is that midway through, "The Polack" reveals his name to be Leka, and further, that he's in fact Ukrainian, though he's been displaced and run out of his home so many times that he'd just as soon accept the label he's been given, or call himself a Canadian- which, given the way the Canadians in the story treat him, is possibly a sign of his resignation. Anyway, I was speaking with a very kind and open Ukrainian coworker and asked her if her husband (who, I was told, has a pronounced Ukrainian accent) would be so generous as to record himself saying Leka's lines aloud. I'm thinking that hearing his words read in a voice besides my own will emphasize his 'otherness', and after some discussion, his loneliness.

After reading, the first question I ask is 'what are your questions'? The length to which this activity goes depends on how much time we've got left in class. Sometimes I just ask and wait for volunteers, and sometimes I get students to write their ideas and questions down as a kind of exit slip activity.

2.

The next class involves what I called 'the 16 square page'. When students ask how they should fill up the squares, this year I said "any way you want or can". Students can use this page as a way to organize ideas and suggest possible topics of discussion. I asked students to take a piece of paper and create 8 equal squares on each side. The headings for each of the squares are:

(Characters)
Stephen Leka
Father The Workers/The Cook

(Setting)
The Wind Trees
The Bunkhouse Canada

(Symbols)
The Glass Roses The Cathedral
The Cavalry Men The Axe

(Something extra)
Nightmares Is Leka Gay?
Xenophobia Freedom

3.

We spent a class going through these squares, where I'd ask students to share their ideas and encourage them to write down as much as made sense to them. The character one was nice to have first, followed by the setting, because those aspects of the story are pretty literal, and so a good place to start.

Theoretically, the groups of 4 get a little more challenging as they go; but by the time we got to the final square, the students were ready to talk about a concept like xenophobia because they'd already given some thought to how Canada has been illustrated throughout the story (Leka's yelling that the country was made to teach man humility or that it's the country itself that doesn't like people) as well as how the other characters in the story behave towards Leka. I definitely enjoy the discussion around Canada and fear of foreigners the best because I think some students (or people, really) are too quick to assume that everything in Canada is fine, just fine, and I like this example of a Canadian author pointing out Canadian flaws. Canadian!

I also like to leave the discussion of the Nightmares for the end of the discussion, because it's a snazzy way to tie the other squares together (Leka, Glass Roses, Cavalry Men, Trees, Canada, etc) and to leave the discussion on the note of Stephen's final act, or at least the beginning of this act. Yes, I believe Stephen woke Leka up.

Some students were surprised about the "Is Leka Gay?" question I think, maybe because it seems inappropriate to bring up in class, or maybe because they were thinking it themselves. For the record, I don't think so. But in previous years, when students asked that I'd just kind of dismiss the question or give them a firm "no" without explaining myself. Now, I'm thinking that this is a question that deserves deliberation, if for no other reason than students ask it seriously.

4.

Once that was done, the next thing students did was quotations. Quotations, I find, are a major area of concern for my students. Interesting, because 'Support', as it's called, is a major concern for Alberta Learning as well. For this, I turned once again to a quick graphic organizer. Scaffolding!

(Setting)
p. 1 Quotation What this tells you about the character or story
p. 2 Quotation What this tells you about the character or story
p. 3 etc. etc.

You get it. I included as many rows in that page as there were pages, though that kind of organization is kind of arbitrary. My reason for asking for only one quotation per page was to not overtask students by asking for 3 or 4 per page, and also to encourage collaboration: at some point in the class, students were invited to share their quotations. There were quite a few who worked 'as a group' who assigned one another one page each and then shared their quotations at the end. I think that's what happens when the perceived goal is to complete the worksheet, and not to reread the story for deeper understanding. Tension between time, management and focus, I guess. I mean, it annoys and maybe even grieves me, but I also think part of teaching grade 12 is learning to accept their choices as valid.

5.

The next bit involved sticky notes. I handed out a bunch of notes to the students, and asked them to return to their 16 square pages from earlier. Naturally, there were those students who by then (an entire 2 days later) had lost their notes, but what can you do? Photocopy someone else's notes, that's what. (And next time, type it on a Google doc.) I asked students to affix the sticky notes to the squares that contained the most information (ostensibly, the subject with which they were most knowledgeable or comfortable) or the topic that they were interested in learning more about. It's probably worth pointing out that I also suggested that if the student had encountered any other topic that I didn't mention, they were welcome to pursue it. I don't recall anyone actually doing this, though my next short story unit will involve students creating their own 16-square headings. Scaffolding!

So, let's say the student ended up with 4 stickies: Stephen, the Axe, nightmares, and Canada. The mini lesson that day had to do with shaping an essay through ideas, so, play with those 4 stickies and rearrange them until you have them in the order that makes the most sense to you. (I will point out here that the whole 'strongest vs. weakest' argument makes me quake with frustration, but that is a post for later, or never.) Some interesting conversations came out of this activity, and it was funny to me how naturally the students became involved in physically moving their ideas (or stickies) around on the page, long before any topics sentences or thesis statements were even on the horizon. This, of course, is where I may lose some other teachers- I believe that the thesis comes from the writer's ideas, not the other way around.

6.

Next, computer lab for typing up the first draft.

After that, I used Google Docs to comment on some of them, and for others I'm currently using class time to conference with the students one on one, though I confess it's using far more class time than I am comfortable with.

Soon, I'll get their final drafts and I'll mark them and the cycle will begin anew. Also, am I using the term scaffolding correctly?

No, not my best work. But not bad for neglecting this blog since July!

=)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Summer School Lessons

I just finished my first Summer School class ever, and let me tell you, it was one of the best teaching experiences I've ever had. I realized a few days ago that my favourite class is usually whichever class is in front of me, and this last class was no exception.

What I want to quickly jot down here are my personal highlights about this last month of teaching.

  • Students hand wrote every single assignment
The school I taught at didn't have wireless, and the classroom held one 'teacher station' computer. So, students wrote every assignment- save one- by hand. In my regular school, I've been campaigning (I call it campaigning, the dictionary would call it incessant whining) about getting our school equipped with a wireless network because for God's sakes, Burger King has a wireless network and we still don't? I'm definitely pro 1:1. So it came as a minor shock to admit that I think part of the reason for the students' improvements in their writing was due in no small part to the fact that they were putting pen to paper. I know there's an anti-cursive murmur out there, but I can't get on board with it, not after this month.
  • There were 9 students in class
Does this really need any kind of discussion? 9 students, 4 hours a day. Every day I could look every single one of them in the eye, ask a question, smile, tease, whatever. Every day I could (and sometimes did) collect one or two assignments and had them covered in feedback and returned the next day. Could I duplicate this with my normal assignment of 200 students? Ha. That is actually the sound of me crying.

  • Every time I assigned a piece of writing, I wrote one myself. 
Before the course started, I had just finished reading 'Write Beside Them' and it was like getting written permission to be a better teacher. I don't have the same circumstances as Penny Kittle in that I teach both writing and reading texts, but I made sure that at least one third of our day was dedicated to the writing process. I intend to keep this habit up when I return to my regular classroom because it was transformative for me and oh yeah, for the students too. Silent Reading became my favourite part of the day. We responded in Quick Write form to everything from YouTube videos to the tragedy in Norway. I shared my work and my challenges, and then they shared theirs. I learned (or relearned) that part of making a safe place for sharing in the classroom was not just expecting trust but showing it too. And I learned humility, when I shared what I thought was a brilliant first draft essay on happiness based on Alden Nowlan's "Glass Roses" to one of my students and she said it was 'just ok'. 

  • I forgot to give Unit Exams
This may sound facetious, but it's true. At about the three week mark I realized that I hadn't yet given a single unit exam, simply because we were too busy doing other things. And at pretty much that same moment I realized how useless and needlessly distracting unit exams have been for me. Series of rhetorical questions to follow: Am I anti measurement? Yes, probably, and especially as I get older (Har, har.) Would I rather my students spent their time at home reading, relaxing or enjoying their lives instead of stressing out about mystery exam questions and what the resulting number will be? Absolutely. Can I get away with not giving unit exams in my regular school? We'll see. I can be awfully forgetful.

So there you go, best month ever. I am a total teaching nerd. And now to enjoy August and to think about ways to make the 10 months of next year a lot like the month I just had. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

A novel unit - with illustrative diagrams

Interviews are silly things, aren't they- like the standardized testing of hires: no one learns anything meaningful, but you'll certainly come away feeling good or bad about yourself. Only in that kind of contrived environment would one adult ever ask another what her greatest weakness is. You don't want to know what my greatest weakness is- I probably don't want to know what my greatest weakness is.

Anyway, in the interview for my current job, I was asked by my now department head (a fabulous and wonderfully generous woman) if I would describe my best lesson. I had two answers for her and the assembled committee, the standard 'interview' response, and the real one. The first one I mentioned was pretty standard: Macbeth, grade 11. Lots of links to YouTube videos. Active use of a recently purchased foam rubber sword that I would slam onto desks at random times during the day. All of the info that I've covered in a previous post. The second lesson is what the rest of the post is about. (and transition!)

So, two years ago, in a desperate bid to not have to reread Lord of the Flies, I asked the then grade 11 students if they would be willing to read a different novel- anything else- and if so, would they be willing to buy their own copies? (No, I don't hate Lord of the Flies, this will be a post for later). Socioeconomics were not a grave factor at my school, and I bought a few extra 'class copies' just in case. Anyway, they were and they did, and so that year we read The Kite Runner, to moderately successful effect. My favourite day was definitely when we cut kites out of garbage bags and went outside to the field. There's something so touching about a group of 16 year old boys running around yelling 'for you a thousand times over!'

My best lesson happened the next year, since after that taste of deviating from the cannon: both in terms of literature and class structure. This of course meant that I also had to cope with losing a lot of control, or at least what I perceived as control: tests, lectures, chapter questions, everyone sitting down at the same time. All the things that look like great teaching on paper, but in practice quickly become monotonous and boring as reading Lord of the Flies for the sixth time in two years.

I figured I knew about 10 novels that I could help students understand. They ranged in difficulty, and frankly, the book selection had a lot more to do with which class sets sat in our bookroom than which concepts or themes I wanted them to explore. I think the final chioces included Lord of the Flies (yeah!), The Great Gatsby, The Kite Runner, Of Mice and Men, 1984, Brave New World and Night. To get them to make their selection, I just passed the books around for a few minutes. I think that for several students, book length was a major factor in their choice. The stickler in me balks at that- some of my favourite novels are nothing short of tomes, but when you're in a good story, it flies by. "Experience that!!" I wanted to yell at them. "Learn to love books the way I love them!!!" But the, um, rational part of me figured that for someone who isn't already in love with reading, length can be a real concern that does need to be taken seriously. (Which feels like a different post in the making).

Once they chose their books and groups (not always in that order but oh well), the next thing I did was rearrange the desks accordingly. Some groups sat at tables, some sat in pods make up of desks that were pushed together. It was an unquestionable hodgepodge- definitely not a shape you'd see in a student teacher undergraduate management class.


Which of these seating plans is more interesting to you?

Next, their first assignment involved filling up a blank calendar. I figured the novel unit would take about 15 days (90 minute classes every day for 4 weeks). The handout I made ended up looking something like the diagram below. Nowadays I'd add a task about Voicethread, something involving online discussion boards, maybe making a cake or something. Or I'd have the students come up with mini projects of their own, even better.

So, on that first day, the only job the students had was to discuss and fill up their calendar with those tasks, in any order they wanted. If they wanted to do the final first, fine, good luck.* If they wanted to do a trailer towards the end of the unit, good call, I think that makes the most sense too. But most important to this task, I stepped back (a bit) and even if the students chose an order that had some clearly flawed logic, I either let them do it or at least got them to explain their reasoning.

*In retrospect, now I probably would put that task twice: write the final, write the final again.

At the end of each class I'd collect what they did and look over it. For some, I'd just put a checkmark if it was done satisfactorily. Depending on the assignment though, most things got handed back with comments or questions that tried to move the students to the next level of understanding (the bloom's taxonomy way, not the 'think outside the box' way). If there was something amiss though, like a clear language problem, or a misunderstanding of either the task or the text, I'd write down that feedback and the next day, the students would have to add to, or modify the task from the previous day before moving on.

And so, every day that class would come to class and get started. I didn't lecture or introduce anything. I'd walk around and ask 'what are you working on today?', sometimes I would have to gently or firmly remind them to get it together.

There were quite a few gratifying moments that came from the experience: walking past a group of two boys who normally showed up to class just to put their heads down arguing rather spiritedly about Piggy's death. Getting to sit down with a group and talk about dystopia and whether or not Big Brother's telescreens sort of already existed. Playing a silly game with great music to get a group of girls in the mood for the Great Gatsby era.

I don't want every unit I ever plan to take on this format: different genres wouldn't fit, and I don't think all lecturing is all bad.  At the end of the unit, all the students wrote a final essay for me, and yeah, I'd say those essays were on par with those that I've received after lecturing a full unit's worth. The difference was that for that unit, the students were the ones doing the work.