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:

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.


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.


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:

Stephen Leka
Father The Workers/The Cook

The Wind Trees
The Bunkhouse Canada

The Glass Roses The Cathedral
The Cavalry Men The Axe

(Something extra)
Nightmares Is Leka Gay?
Xenophobia Freedom


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.


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!

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.


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.


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.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Classroom Library

I've noticed that twitter (#engchat in particular) has been full of a lot of classroom library talk. It's been so long since I last posted, so in the interests of keeping this blog 'alive', and of course in the interests of sharing, here are pictures of my classroom library (last year, at my last school).  

Last year I got a grant from le gouvernement, as we don't really call it here, to buy books and furniture to create a classroom library. I taught (and still teach) grades 10, 11 and 12, so the books I bought ranged from YA to adult literature. I got a good mix of fiction, non fiction as well as some great poetry titles. (Read: award winners, not bestsellers). Not as many graphic novels as I'd like, so I have to work on that one. Very luckily, there was another teacher who volunteered to order the YA books (so she could have the Scholastic points, which was absolutely the least I could do) and I ordered most of the adult titles online from 

 The comfy chairs are from my sister's basement. I totally recommend buying secondhand and spending a Saturday afternoon with one of those steam cleaner machines, that would be a big money saver. The pillows and ottoman below are from Superstore.

Funny thing about the pillows: they were absolutely the best purchase I made. I got about 6 in total, and even when students weren't using the reading corner, they'd just grab a pillow, and literally 'hug' it or keep it on their laps for the entire class. (Same with the two stuffed animals- our class mascots- which unfortunately never made it into the pictures). I know it might sound a little strange, but I think having those pillows really helped some students focus or be more comfortable in class. One student who suffered from sports-related back pain was especially grateful. Plus, I got to add "no pillow fights" to my course syllabus.

The carpet is from a liquidation outlet (as is the artwork). Incidentally, that same liquidation store was where I previously got about 100 journals for 50 cents apiece. The carpet looked nice at first, but there weren't any vacuums around, so it got pretty grungy by the end of the year.

In case this is news to anyone: fabric makes a great bulletin board cover.

Baskets were organized very superficially by genre: "Pink Covers" or "There could be vampires in this book" or "These books are thinner than the other ones". (I got the baskets from another liquidation centre.) Whenever I wandered over to that corner of the room I'd move the front book to the back of the  basket. Circulation!

The high tech sign out system, which I borrowed from the phys ed office. (The clipboard, not the containers.). Not that I really kept track; kids signed their own books out. Students were pretty diligent about signing out, less so about signing back in. I know that books walking away is a major concern for many teachers with in class libraries, but you can't stop the beat. That's what Hairspray taught me.

 Anyway, theft happens and I figure the best I can do is remind students that it's never too late to bring a book back. Another good anti-theft device is talking to students about the books they've borrowed, and making recommendations. For example, I know two former students who have just finished their first year of university: one still owes me 'The Glass Castle' and the other my copy of 'Equus'. Ok, so clearly those conversations were terrible anti-theft precautions, but at least I know that two of my students have some good literature on their home shelves. 

On a separate note, is anyone out there teaching Equus? There's a conversation I'd love to have.

The shelves in the photos were already in my classroom, and I know that shelving is a major budget killer for most people. I've heard of people stacking milk crates and other things, but the truth is, I actually prefer tables to shelves.

Laying out books this way took up more room, but for me, book shelves are kind of like junk drawers. (As in, if I can't see it, I basically forget it exists. Like my marking, or my car.) And, for a beginning library, this is probably a good way to make less look like more.

On that note, the pictures are a little misleading, because the books on the purple shelf were actually lifted from the book room to fill the shelving out a little. Also exempt from that grant were the tupperware containers on the bottoms of the shelves, which were purchased by the school for a separate project that just ended up being stored in my classroom.

 I usually had a few students who would volunteer to organize the books, which meant rearranging, picking up stacks that fell over, etc. Some students preferred to organize alphabetically, some liked to keep like colours together: didn't really matter too much to me. I think as the years go on I'll likely supplement the library with books of my own, purchased from second hand stores and library sales. Also not shown are a number of picture books: some very low reading level to the most popular book in the collection- an illustrated book about Nazi Youth. 

So there it was, my classroom library. I really liked how it changed the feel of my classroom to a markedly more welcoming space. I got a few comments from other adults about how my High School English Classroom looked more like an elementary classroom, but that doesn't bother me- and why should it? I figure that 'higher learning' refers to little more than the height of the students and the furniture.

Now, I wonder if anyone looking at those pictures would find it strange to know that that classroom also had an interactive whiteboard mounted on one wall, 20 dedicated laptops, a wireless environment, and two mini greenhouses full of tomato seedlings on the windowsills? It was a regular flea market in there.

Wish I'd taken pictures of that side of the room. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Confessions of a Standardized Test Marker

 On Twitter lately, in the educational sphere at least, it seems that nothing is as polarizing as the idea of standardized testing. This is especially prevalent among some of the more vocal tweeps in Alberta, the frozen wasteland of a province that I call home. Is vocal the right word? Tweety? You get it.

Also, maybe polarizing is the wrong word, because no one seems to be on the supportive side of standardized tests. And why should they be? I understand all the reasons against those tests, and I agree with most of them.

And yet, I am a willing participant in standardized testing. And I don't mean in the ubiquitous way, like how all teachers in this province right now who teach grades 3, 6, 9 and 12 know that their students are facing provincial exams at the end the year. I do that too, as responsibly and non-teaching to the test-y as I can. But I do more: I mark diplomas.

This means that for the last 3 years, I've been paid by the government to correct English 30 diplomas, a written exam administered to all grade 12 students at the conclusion of their English 30 course. In Alberta, final exams (referred to as the dread diploma exams) (not really, but it's nice to work in alliteration whenever one can) are worth 50% of the students' final grade, and the exam that I correct is worth 25% of their final grade (the other 25% comes from a 70 question multiple choice exam). The written exam involves writing 2 pieces in 3 hours. Also, students in Alberta must pass their English course to be awarded a high school diploma. It's a pretty textbook definition of high stakes testing. (All this information can be found on the Alberta education website, btw.)

So, twice a year I eagerly- yes, eagerly!- look forward to diploma marking, and have always found the experience thoroughly enjoyable. Who wouldn't love the opportunity to get away from our classrooms to meet with like minded teachers twice a year? We joke about texts, we giggle over innocently misplaced typos, we ruminate on the different effects of a well placed semi-colon. Where else can you get into a lunchtime discussion over the significance of homosexuality in Paul's Case? Or discuss all the possible interpretations of Gertude's character from Hamlet? Or laugh hysterically about that one time you taught Oedipus in class and a student asked point blank: "So are you saying that this guy was literally a mother****er?" Seriously, this is an English teacher geek's dream come true, and I regularly refer to it as the best professional development I get all year. 

So there you go: the test markers in Alberta are English teachers. We're not robots. We're not evil. Some of us wear trendy scarves on the marking floor and others wear sweatpants. Some of us live in Edmonton and others drive up (or down) from as far as 5 hours away and spend the weeknights in a hotel room. We take the job very seriously: we're not ignoring the fact that the essay we're correcting belongs to a living, breathing, valuable and creative human being. We care about "our kids". Yet we remain complicit in what so many educators and educational writers consider the greatest evil since something really evil that happened prior to this one. (Yes Taylor Mali, speak with authority, I know).

So, here's what's been nagging at me: when I go mark these exams, am I doing something wrong? Morally, I mean. Or do I mean ethically? Or is that initial question far too simplistic for the situation that education has written itself into? I've come to understand lately that the ultimate defiance of a system involves the rejection of it, but how is that possible as long as I teach grade 12 English in Alberta? Isn't it as useful to learn the rules of the system as well as I can in order to figure out how to work around them?

I don't think the answers to these questions are as simple as yes or no. Or I'm hoping not.  Frankly, after reading this article, I'm thankful that I teach in Alberta: at least here we acknowledge the importance of test markers being an expert in what text they are correcting. (If I haven't taught it in the last year, I can't correct it. No essays on Othello for me!)

On one side, I value what I bring back to my students after a marking session; I value the collaboration that these sessions offer; and I value the community of English teachers that I feel quite lucky to be a part of. I fully intend to mark diplomas for as long as they will have me. But on the problem side: I mark test after nameless test, judging the writing ability of these students as if it were the same as thinking ability, punishing them for mistakes made under duress, and knowingly contributing to a grading system that insists on taking the thoughts, ideas and values of my students and using them to produce a neat little bell curve.

My Papa, as he is called, used to have a poster on his classroom wall that asked "Are you part of the solution? Or part of the problem?"

Damn you, rhetorical poster!!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Lesson as an Obstacle

So, I'm taking this class about curriculum as part of a master's degree. Besides the icy shock of being plunged back into the role of student, the experience is incredibly broadening: both horizon wise, as well as my hips in relation to how much snack food I put away while trying to complete these 1000-something word papers that keep getting thrown at me.

Anyway, inspired by this class, I've been trying to be more mindful of the metaphors we use in teaching and their effects on how we think about the profession. It's nothing surprising really, but still worth reflecting on.

The lesson as an obstacle

"I have to get through this"
"We'll go over this quickly"
"Let's just get past this part and we'll do something else"

I use these phrases in class really often, actually, or I did. Then I realized that by using those phrases I was implying (and probably believing) that my own lesson was getting in my way.

It seems strange that the activities or concepts we bring to a lesson lose their importance once they leave the 'plan' stage and get put into practice. (That's called praxis, isn't it? Educated!) But it's at that stage that they become objects- specifically, an obstacle to get on the other side of.

And our language is full of this- it's almost impossible to get away from. After all, as I am reminded nearly every class, the word curriculum comes from the latin word currerre, which means to run. Run to where? And by the time we get to high school, most of us start referring to our classes as courses. I haven't seen the movie "Race to Nowhere" yet, but I imagine it's title refers to this phenomenon as well.

The problem, I think, with this problem, is that in class, in our lessons and lesson plans, the goal is the end. And what awaits as at 'the end'? It's the test, the summative or formative or whateverative evaluation that we have to get to. But I don't believe that schools are where kids go to get tested, I've never believed that. I didn't become a teacher because of my undying passion for marking- if anything, the undying marking will the reason for my leaving the profession and following my other dream of becoming a mid-afternoon baker.

So, if schools aren't where kids go to get tested, the language indicates that school is where kids go to run. And as a teacher, that's what I teach: I teach them how to run. Not to run around the lesson, or over or under it, but to run with it- on it. The lessons aren't the obstacle, they are the track.

Question mark?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Macbeth: it grew on me like a fungus.

A blog post just for you, Ms. Bayles!

Ok, so here is the slapdashiest of slapdash lists. The subject: things I've done with Macbeth.

Subheading: This is just a list of what works for me and is not intended to patronize or repeat the obvious, though it will likely do both.

  •  I normally use Macbeth as an excuse to check my horoscope in class. I like this site because instead of reading a paragraph for each sign, it breaks the horoscope down into a bar graph format for quicker comparison.
(The reason I use horoscopes is that it's a good place to lead into a discussion about determination and mysticism. There are so many different takes on what the witches in Macbeth actually represent, whether they are real, how malevolent they are, whether or not they were responsible for the 3rd murderer that allowed Fleance to escape, etc. I use the horoscope idea to play with the suggestion that with or without the witches' prophecies, the decision to act was Macbeth's and his alone. And to check my daily intellect level, 'cause that is totally based on the stars and not my intake of sleep and/or coffee.)

  • If you have a theatre background you likely already know about the bad-luck-to-say-Macbeth-in-the-theatre thing. If not, it's not a bad way to start a lesson. There are lots of examples of Macbeth's curse and its ill effects online. Trivia, you know.
  •  OMG- this is the best rap ever. For Macbeth, I mean. I usually show it to the kids before the 3 apparitions bit, cause they can connect with the mentions of the first 3 acts and then the rest is like pre-reading. And the hook seriously gets stuck in your head. 
  •  I hope it's not patronizing to mention here that I usually bring up the fact that King James was Scottish and so the play was Scottish and that King James was into witches, and so Shakespeare put in witches, and King James published the King James bible during Shakespeare's lifetime and if you look up Psalm 46 and count 46 words from the beginning, you get the word "shake" and then 46 words from the end you get "spear". More trivia, but there are worse things. Are there worse things? Anyway, for me the King James conversation comes up late in the play, after the witches show! show! show! him the 3 visions and he demands the 4th, which is the line of 8 Kings that were likely make up to look like King James. King James!
  • Oh yeah, don't forget to use a map. It's fun to find these places on a map, even if Shakespeare himself never really went there. I find that the smartboard in my classroom comes in handy for this because I can call up a realistic map of Scotland and use pictures of the characters * to move around. I find this makes it easier to explain the minor but potentially confusing details like Scone, Northumberland and Fife.
* Another silly but fun activity is asking students to cast actors of their choosing for the major the roles. Admittedly, the conversation begins with a list of dreamy or hot people, but once the students (and myself) get that their (our) systems, it's a place to start considering the different aspects of Macbeth's character as well as actor range. I usually do this via an online discussion board so that students can post pictures of the actors they are thinking of, as well as search for actors that they don't immediately know the names of.

  • Oh yeah, and this may seem simplistic, but when we get to the Bloody Soldier's speech in Act 1, scene 2 and he gets going about the 'unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps', I always use a sword (I went out and bought a styrofoam one after breaking my meter stick) to kind of highlight the whole 'unseam'd' business. Something about the idea of a smoking bloody sword and a man's guts spilling out from a cut in his belly really seems to get kids sitting on the edge of their seats. Or bolting to the bathroom to throw up, you know, whatever. Engagement!


I always use films with Shakespeare. I'm of the school that likes to approach the play as a play, not just a story, and to me plays were meant to be watched. So much of Shakespeare is lost with the absence of stage direction, blocking, expression, so filmed versions really help to fill that part of the play out.

Normally, I switch between versions as we go, not showing the same scene more than once, with the exception of the Banquet scene with Banquo's ghost. For that scene I show usually 3 different versions, some with the ghost and some without, which is a nice starting point for students to talk about what's more effective.

I remember asking a wiser, more experienced teacher what he thought of that and he told me to can it because then my students would be stuck with that one interpretation in their collective heads forever, instead of what the author intended. So, I show multiple versions to highlight the idea of interpretation. And honestly, I'd rather have something stuck in those heads.

  • The Sam Worthington version is full of potential and is a good enough looking film, but it cuts a lot of text out and every visit from the witches (3 schoolgirls in this version) results in an out and out orgy. Titilating, definely; appropriate for 15 years olds, less so. Past my comfort zone anyway. There's one neat detail with the "Is this a dagger" bit where he grabs at a shadow and it's a fern or something, but it's pretty short lived. I guess it's alright though for highlight context and seeing how long it takes for someone to say, "Hey, that's the guy from Avatar!" Simple pleasures.
  • The Roman Polanski version: naked witches; a real life example of the curse; a banquet scene that is at once disturbing and clear, and a final battle scene that never fails to get laughs, but does a good job illustrating what fighting in armor was probably really like. Incidentally, I also use that final battle scene to point out to students how prevalent cuts are in modern action sequences. But I'd never show the film from beginning to end.
  • The Trevor Nunn movie, or as I like to call it, the you-probably-had-to-be-there version. It's always a pleasure to watch Shakespearean Ian McKellan and Judi Dench, but this film is not a film, it's a play on screen. You'd think that would be exactly what I was looking for, but I truly feel that this film works best for people who are familiar with the play already, as in, teachers. Or actors, I suppose. Don't get me wrong, there are a few treats: the drool in the banquet scene, Judi Dench's ear piercing wail in the sleepwalking scene, and I actually find the exchange between Malcolm and Macduff in this film pretty endearing. But overall, I would never show this film from beginning to end.
  • Just discovered the Patrick Stewart film, which is actually stored in its entirety online. I think this is a filmed version of the Broadway production, and the fact that I'm totally a Star Trek the Next Generation geek has nothing to do with the fact that this is my favourite one. But I think Picard, I mean Stewart, brings a kind of worn desperation to the role that I haven't seen before, as well as a wicked moustache. The parts with the witches in this one are a little different though, but not sexualized, and that's how I interpret the play personally. (As in, if I have to watch one more witch scream 'Double! Double!' in orgasmic delight, I'm switching to Romeo and Juliet- and I mean it this time.)
  • There's another version with Nichol Willamson version of Hamlet that I've only ever seen clips of on YouTube. From the little of it I've seen, it's a decent version: I've shown both the banquet scene and the sleepwalking scene.
Other stuff
  • Lady Macbeth's "Out Damn Spot" bit, by this point in the play I find students are getting into the routine of watching the film (as in, heads down and napping) so I try to show this speech from a different perspective by showing a clip from Verdi's opera. I used to show this one, because of the captions. That made sense back when I worked in a French Immersion school. It may also help that I'm an opera fan.
  • Anyway, there are trillions of ways to teach Macbeth. I know one teacher who actually hosts a banquet with his students for the banquet scene (Marshall, are you out there?), though I'm not sure if he invites a ghost or how that works. Sounds fun though.
  • Something I tried once when I was student teaching was reserving Fridays for performance days. We'd rearrange the desks into an Elizabethan theatre shape, and kids would draw cards to see who would be groundlings, who would be nobles and who would be royalty. Royalty got comfy chairs to sit in, and (for a while) we played the game that whenever a royal would stand up, so did everyone else, a la Hallelujah Chorus. For obvious reasons, this game did not last. But they still got the best seats; nobles got to sit at desks towards the back and groundlings had to sit in chairs, or on the floor, depending on what we were doing. Anyway, these performances would range in goodness (and relevance) from students reciting lines like rap songs, showing pictures of images in the language, performing scenes that were transported to different settings, etc. 

So, these are all activity suggestions, not really teaching suggestions, if you know what I mean. I could (and likely will) (and sometimes do) (k, often do) wax poetic about the thematic poignancy, relevance, horror and thrill of what Macbeth has to offer, but not today. I will tell you this though: every time I teach Macbeth, I never fail to quote Laura Ingalls Wilder: "Ambition is a good servant but a bad master." The beauty of that quote is that it works for any theme, really. Another reason to read Little House on the Prairie, as if we needed one.

Last, I think it may be worth mentioning that for the first few years of teaching, I hated Macbeth. Hated it. Hated. But it grew on me, it did. Like a fungus. Or a rash.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

SMRT... I mean S-M-A-R-T

I was going to post next about the day my students all tried to kill me, but instead I think I'll jump into the interactive whiteboard discussion. I'm of both minds when reading Gary Stager's article on the Tech and Learning website.

I've been a Smartboard mentor in my school district for nearly 3 years now. I don't know if what I feel for the board is love, exactly, though for the first few months the very sight of it would make the butterflies in my stomach flap around like crazy.
That was the feeling of fear, not of love? Oh dear.

Over these last 3 years, I've amassed quite the repertoire of tricks and abilities related to the interactive whiteboard (as I will now refer to it in order to avoid brand name related conflicts) and please note: I choose the word 'tricks' deliberately. After all, a lot of what the board and its software does are simple and simply that: things flash, or spin, or change size or color. You can even add sound to most things- the roaring bear icon is an oft-used personal favourite. These are the elements of the board that I demonstrate first during a PD session, and here's the story I tell when I do it:

"When I first started teaching (grade 7 Language Arts), I would often lament to myself that if only I could make my notes flash and change color then maybe, just maybe, my students would finally stop fooling around. They would finally stare at the board as intently as they stared at Tetris Battle, or whatever fad was at the forefront that month. When I got an Interactive Board, I finally could make the notes do that, and guess what? Students still fooled around and looked in whatever direction they pleased. Gasp."

note: The gasp at the end can be either read aloud, or replaced by an actual gasp. Either way.

Now, is that a lesson that's worth the $3000.00 price tag? Of course not. And did that realization make me want to rush into my classroom and tear the board down or deface it with permanent marker? No man, that thing is worth $3000.00. Besides, it was the wrong realization. My mistake in the first place was wanting students to stare, transfixed, as my notes spun around in circles like the hypnotic vortexes of the Notebook vortex game. (Another personal fave).

If I were more clever and able to add, I would probably format this next bit with prices beside each element, and magically have the sum be worth more than the cost of the board in my room. Thanks to those old Mastercard commercials, just mentioning that idea is now more effective than its execution will ever be. 

  • The Van Gogh painting, above. I've long been a fan of impressionist art, though I'm not educated enough in that field to fully understand why. (Pictures are pretty!) With my current set up, I can project these paintings onto my walls and share their beauty and emotional effect with my students. Not really for any reason, you understand, but those pictures are so pretty.
  • I do quite a bit of close film study with my students. With the board, I can project very large still images of the films onto the board; analyze or have students analyze the images using pen tools to highlight; spotlight tools to, uh, spotlight; or the roaring bear to add roaring bear emphasis to important speaking points.
  • My handwriting is terrible. The board's software will normally recognize my words and turn them to typed text for ease of communication, or to the incorrect word for hilarious effect and enthusiastic derision of my terrible handwriting.
  • The Whirling Vortex game. So handy for a quick starting lesson on connotation, character trait review or other binary sorting activities. Also super handy for when students can point out that my sorting skills are flawed and deliberately leave certain words "between" the vortices on the board. And who am I to insist that 'sober' has a negative connotation and not a positive one?
  • The fact that I can save whatever is on the board and call it up again the next day, month or year. This may be notes, it may be instructions, it may be a picture of a walrus that my block 8 class seems to have adopted as their mascot. It may be last month's lesson on Paul's Case where I know we were talking about the -ide suffix and... see? Oh that wasn't you, that was block 5? Well, check out what they came up with, because it was great.
Now before this entry fully enters into the world of blogs that I hate, the realm of "I have all the answers and because something worked out once, it's clear that the reason was ME", I must mention that for every positive experience there was an equal amount of fumbling. Though, by equal, I mean that it took me almost two months to figure out how to get my coloured pens to work. And it took about a year to realize that I could save my files as PDFs if I wanted to. And that I still haven't really used the recorder tool in class. So yeah, I'm still learning, if that wasn't a given.

Heidegger warned us (between paying his Nazi dues, of course) about technology encroaching on us bit by bit, and while I will readily admit that I actually read Ted Aoki's interpretation of that particular essay,   I hear the warning loud(ly) and clear(ly). We have created tools so powerful and pervasive that we risk becoming the tools ourselves, both metaphorically and colloquially. I worry that that is what's happening with the 'clickers' and response systems that are also making their way into schools, but that's another post entirely.

I think that all of us know it's not exclusively teachers who are making the decisions to install these boards on every flat surface in the school. (Parking lot, ha!). I also must point out the futility and frustration of the 'this money could have been better spent' argument. It's gone, like the thrill, the love and the wind before it.

To conclude, I've long thought that the conclusion was the least important part of any piece of writing.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Scary Stuff

Well, I took the plunge, if only briefly: I unchecked the 'count this towards final grade' box in my online gradebook.

This meant that while I was still grading, still testing and still teaching, my students did not have a posted average that they could access online. Their reaction? One class seemed pretty nonplussed; one class nearly took my head off.

"There are our grades. Don't we have a right to know what they are?"
"We need to know what our averages are so we know how we're doing in class."
"How are we supposed to improve if we don't know our grade?"
"How are we supposed to apply to universities if we don't know what our average is?"

I was surprised by the reactions, and by which students seemed the most outraged: the students who were the most disengaged in class. Of course, this likely confirms my worst fear- that these students are disengaged in class because they truly see no connection between what goes on in class and what their grade is. As in, they only 'turn on' on the days there is a test. Oh, my breaking heart.

Yes, motivation and engagement and interest are my job (at least, that's what Twitter tells me most nights) and honestly, I don't think I'm doing too badly on that front. (And the war metaphor rears its ugly head once again). What is with all these parenthetical statements? Ugh, hopefully regular blogging help refine my writing style.

Anyway, my little rebellion didn't last too long; I was quickly told to stop messing around with my gradebook by the assistant principal, and I don't really mind. For a few days it felt like I was having a professional identity crisis, and while I recognize that discomfort and resistance create change and stuff, it was still an uncomfortable moment. Anyway, the moment has passed. I think my point was made to the students- it turns out that a lot of them heard me when I told them my fears point blank: that they were addicted to their grades.

Next post: The Intervention...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Experiment Time

Well, it took some fast talking but I think that I may have convinced my department to try something new this year.

Typically, all the grade 11s at our school study Hamlet. The unit probably lasts around 2 months (we're a non-semestered school) and as always, likely culminates with an essay, a unit exam and a final project of some kind.

So this year, another teacher and I thought- why do this alone? Why not put our classes together? Sure they don't meet at the same time, but with this new-fangled internet thingy it couldn't be that hard. Our idea grew and grew, and we're now at the point where we have every grade 11 student in the school involved, with the exception of one class. That's nearly 300 students.

The project? We're going to film Hamlet from Act 1, scene 1 to the very last line. It's going to be a full length movie, but not limited to live action, so I've been trying to think of creative options for the students, even while knowing that it's they who should be doing the thinking. Old habits, right?

Of course there will be the usual pitfalls, students who can't meet deadlines, problems with video programs, losing steam as we go because of all the other trillion things going on at the school between now and April 7 (opening night, of course). Still, I'm looking forward to see how this plays out because I think it's an exciting prospect for our school and really, for my experience as an English teacher in this digital time.

Although, this isn't a concept that should be limited to English, is it? Really, students are already sharing school related things online. I am not only referring to free essays and answer keys. Just the other day, I showed my students the stop motion Oedipus as vegetables video ( - it's funny, if not exactly true to text) and the next day some students came in telling me that they had shared it on Facebook. I will tell myself that this is because of its textual connections to Hamlet, and not because of the tomato on potato sex scene. But there's probably a lot of instruction that does go on on Facebook, beyond the "omg thats due 2morrow?" type thing.

It pained me to type that without the possessive apostrophe, it really did.

Anyway, kids are signing up on our district Sharepoint site as I type this, and tomorrow the other 3 teachers and I are going to divvy up the play for their consumption. Exciting.

And you know what is the most exciting part? Shhhhh... I may not be supposed to say this... I think I may have convinced my colleagues that we don't need mark it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Teaching Hamlet

Man, I love teaching Hamlet. Hamlet! I still remember sitting in my grade 11 English class ( ____ly, the very same classroom I now teach in), reading the line "But look, the morn in russet mantle clad" and actually getting goosebumps. Russet? Seriously.

At this point, it is now clear how a geek like me would grow up to become an English teacher. And this English teacher is about to embark on a Hamlet unit once again.

Here are a few assumptions I make about the students before I begin:

- Students struggle with the language
- Students struggle with envisioning the action of the play
- Students struggle with the context of the time the play was written

Sense a theme?

I should probably acknowledge that the very notion of struggle seems to me to be a very physical image, as if the shakespeare textbooks fly towards the faces of my young charges and threaten to suffocate them with pages and pages of endless blank verse. But, that's probably how a lot of my kids feel. And, in past classes when students read the lines aloud, that's also how it sounds.

Again, throughout this entire unit (which is supposed to last about 7 weeks- this seems like a very tight timeline to me) I'm going to try to avoid the words 'get through' or 'cover' or 'go over' because I think it reinforces the idea of Hamlet as an obstacle, instead of a play.

Here is where I'll compile a list of aspects of my Hamlet unit, but there are some things I will not do. I won't create an order for presenting information. I won't be including worksheets with my units, because I don't use them anymore, and I think the notion of 'busywork' is kind of not what I'm going for here.

Things I haven't had success with

  • Getting students to memorize a soliloquy - some teachers get kids really pumped about it, and I admire that. It's just not for me.
  • Worksheets.

Things I have had success with

  • Asking seemingly silly questions on a student discussion forum such as 
"If Hamlet were a cupcake, what flavour would he be?" (Not all the answers are gold, but it's a good excuse to bring cupcakes to class)
"Who would you cast as Hamlet? Include a picture!" (God bless the Kenneth Branagh version, but 1996 was a while ago.)

  • Taking the time to explain to students that when words have mysterious apostrophes in the middle (ne'er, i', e'er) it's because there are letters missing for rhythmic reasons and they are not encountering some new mysterious word. I find it especially difficult to hear a student read aloud " I am too much "I" the sun". Gah! That makes no sense!
  • Using different versions of filmed interpretations in class. This is a tricky one, because it's so easy to just let the movie run and run and tell yourself that students are 'getting it' because it's on screen. Still, when I teach Macbeth I've always made a point of showing as many different versions of the banquet scene as I can find so the students can discuss staging and director's interpretation. 

    Things I haven't tried yet but will get back to you about

    • This year I am going to include parts of the David Tennant film, but it will be difficult to practice equanimity due to my Dr. Who fangirl-dom. Still, from the limited previews I've seen this looks like an extremely attractive film that highlights how the play actually works as a play. (I was always more impressed with K. Branagh's sets than his soliloquies.) 

    Work in Progress!

    Friday, January 28, 2011

    Who is doing the work?

    When I was in my first year of teaching, my principal handed me Harry Wong's First Days of Teaching and told me to read it. At the time, I was indebted to my principal and the book. Being a young teacher, I did feel underprepared in terms of class management and organization (the organization problems, please note, have never gone away, regardless of how many Professional Growth Plans I've come up with). If that book did one thing, it was to calm and give me a strong sense of what I wanted my students' behaviour to look and sound like.

    As I went on in my career, I heard other people voice some serious criticism of Harry Wong's methodology: how he values method over product, and routine over spontaneity. I understand that, and still, one of the messages from that book has never left me- something to the effect of at the end of the day, it should be the students doing the work, not me.

    I wonder if I cling to that notion out of desperation, instead of any sense of wisdom. Is it wishful thinking to imagine such a life? As an English teacher (and as an inherently lazy person), I constantly collect and collect assignments and papers and then proceed to drown in them. The other day in a presentation I think I referred to myself as a 'swirling paper vortex'. This needs to change, for environmental reasons: saving both the trees and my home life.

    I've begun to think about that concept of treating assignments as currency, and referring to course work as an obstacle or a barrier. So many times I'll say or hear my colleagues say 'We have to get through this', 'we have to go over it' or 'we have to cover this'. It sounds like I teach in an obstacle course instead of a classroom. On second thought, of course, it occurs to me that maybe the notion of obstacle course is as salient as anything else.

    Am I the obstacle?

    As I start this second half of the year, I am going to have to really try hard to avoid a few things.

    • being as obsessed with grades
    • lecturing, and pretending that is my love for Hamlet and not my love of my own voice that leads me to do so, and
    • making any sense at all

    Tuesday, January 25, 2011

    The Novel Study

    Below is a post that I began last night around midnight, which is usually when inspiration strikes. Who needs sleep, right? I'm posting it because it may prove useful to make public parts what I go through when planning, which is basically to cast about blindly until I stumble upon something useful. (Note the sensory imagery in that last sentence that alludes to the idea that the perfect or 'right' lesson is already out there, and all I need to do is find it). Sorry- I've been thinking about metaphors all day today.

    Anyway, this year with my classes I'm dealing with a number of new challenges that precede this particular challenge- the novel study:

    • New school and the general befuddlement that arises from that.
    • Full year 55 minutes classes- when you're coming from semestered 90 minutes blocks, gah what a change.
    • 215 students at a time. I teach English; I love reading, but not that much.
    • No wireless environment.
    • Students who *seriously* actually verbally ask for traditional teaching styles and then tune out and nod off like the pros they are, which of course is why they want it but my God that's so wrong
    • And my personal favourite, canonical books with no end in sight, but I will rail against the canon another time.

    Anyway, these factors, coupled with my general lack of perceived success with novel studies has led me to try this option: independent lit circle type group work things. I'm still working on the name- especially trying to distance myself from the 'lit circle' concept. But after the Jane Eyre debacle of 2010, I refuse to 'do' the novel the traditional way. I refuse!

    What do I mean by traditional way? I mean handing kids a novel, every class they answer chapter questions, every few classes there's a closed book quiz, at the end there's an essay, then a final, then we close the book and never speak of Jane Eyre again. Until the movie comes out in March, of course. Then we add that movie to the end of the unit.

    Maybe I'm exaggerating. Yes, I'm leaving out all the brilliant discussion and things I have to say about the novel to the students and interesting observations they will make and questions they will ask. But really, when I plan my unit the first way, instead of planning the brilliant discussion, I'm creating the foundation, or the purpose of my novel study. The purpose is to answer chapter questions. The purpose is to read chapter 7, because it comes after chapter 6.

    I figured that out about a year ago- the second I start turning pages because I have nothing else to do, that's when it's over.

    So, lit circles.. maybe lit ovals.. we will try. I'll probably still create a schedule for reading, because I know a few of my grade 12s will appreciate and follow it. And I think I'll assign important quotations and passages. Grading? I don't know.. maybe a question based grade?

    As in: read this page out loud, discuss its significance, ask 5 random people 5 questions based on your passage... ? Work in progress.

    I know its counterproductive to consider the novel a 'problem' that I need to solve. And I love novels. When I have the time, I read all the time (read: never) (ok, more like read: 2 months of the year). 

    I guess we'll see. 


    Damn you, late night inspiration!

    So, before I forget, and/or fall asleep mid-sentence: a brainwave regarding my upcoming novel studies in 10 and 30.

    Starting with 10, what about doing lit circles, alternating every day with reading. As in, reading on day 1, activity on day 2. Or, reading/research on day 1s and activities on day 2. I know what I mean!

    1- reading
    2 - draw the island
    3 - reading/research
    4 - characters, etc.

    This would go on for a total of probably 25 classes... so, 12 total activities. And I could alternate this with the To Kill a Mockingbird kids, if there are any. Same format, but alternating days. So day 1 we could talk about the N-word(!) and then the next day they would read about it.


    Good thing no one's reading this blog but me.

    Now, what about the grade 12s? I think that whether they do the Wars or Gatsby... I think I should let them choose but just prepare similar activities for both. The only problem with the Great Gatsby is that it reads like a fable... and C. did it last year with her 11s. Humph.

    So, 1 month or let's say more like 20 classes. 10 classes reading, 10 classes different things. A poem. 2 poems. Symbols. Characters. Image. Sex, for both, really. Money for Gatsby. I could let them play that jazz age game, if it's still up. Sweet, it
    totally is.

    Questions? I could ask C, maybe, if she has any.

    Thursday, January 20, 2011

    Square Watermelons

    This is attempt number something to start a blog, so I've decided to stop compartmentalizing and just to go for it.

    Today I gave a presentation to a group of elementary teachers and SNTAs about how to use Sharepoint in school. The presentation was as random and disorganized as I am, but that's how I like it. I'll call it "organic". Costs more but tastes better. Or so I would have you believe!

    An idea that came up over and over while I was speaking was that I really hate folders. I really hate the idea of organizing and shuffling and sorting. All those gerunds that have to do with moving things around without actually creating anything. I suppose I should ponder later the essential difference between 'creating' and 'accomplishing', and until then maybe hate is too strong a word. Alright, then folders are not for me.

    Because I hate them.

    In class the other night, a question was "what unites us in curriculum inquiry"? The best anwer I cuold think of was 'the desire to give shape to things'. I know, what kind of poetic nonsense is that? But I can't get more specific than that. Because truly, who I am to tell you what shape to be or to take?

    This is what things like Sharepoint, Facebook and any other application or program created ever does to us: it creates a shape and we fit ourselves into it. What's funny to me is that people know this without recognizing it- every time Twitter or Facebook upgrades all the posts take on the "why did this change?" flavour for a while. Even think of the uproar about the new astrological signs thing this week- though, what with that being a cosmological or perhaps spiritual thing it's different. Maybe.

    But I don't want to grow up to be a square watermelon, and neither do I want that for my students. And I can't help but feel like when I tell a group of people, be they students or teachers, that they need to start shuffling files and papers into certain places that I'm stifling something. It makes me feel like I'm back in my first year of teaching, trying to force short short stories into a diagram for an audience of 13 year olds. Ridiculous- as if Guy de Maupassant really planned out his stories in terms of initial incident and climax. Climax! Maybe it's labels that I dislike. Maybe I am just a surly human.

    What's even odder is that my favourite SMART activity is the vortex sort. It's those whirling vortex things, they hypnotize me.

    So how did the presentation go? Well, I made a few lame jokes and got some pity laughs. Score one. I made eye contact with the principal a few times and not once was he frowning or doing the 'drawing the finger across the throat' sign. Score two. Last, and best: by the end of the day, all the teachers and SNTAs were sitting in front of a computer, creating pages, asking questions, and in some cases even helping one another to explore and figure things out. And I got free lunch.

    Today was awesome.