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.