Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Importance of Proofreading

What I just caught as I read over an email I was about to send to a parent:

Hell Mr. Smith,
I just wanted to touch base about Tommy's grade.....

That would have been a nice one.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fun with Homophones and Homonyms, Part II

I noticed prints left in the flour. 

I noticed Prince left in the flower.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fun with Homophones and Homonyms

Sam has two Polish pins. 

Sam has to polish pens. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What I Think about Teaching

I love being a teacher.  I'm enjoying one of the best things about it right now.  I have to admit, it's pretty great to see a boost in my checking account twice a month... while I'm lounging at the pool, reading in my hammock, planting things in my garden, and sleeping til 10.

Now, as the end of summer starts to appear on the horizon, I have to admit that there's a tiny bit of dread setting in, too.  I feel like summer just started! I'm not ready to go back to school! There's so many items remaining on my to-do list!

But I know by the time August rolls around, I'll be ready.  And in the meantime, I think I'll remind myself of why I know being a teacher is the perfect career for me:

  • Summer. I know I already said it, but it's so wonderful to still have room in my life to do the things that make me who I am-- besides an English teacher.
  • Identity. When I meet someone and tell them what I do, they already know a lot about me and what I value. 
  • Challenge.  There are always new problems to conquer, always a way to improve, to tweak.   There's so much information out there about how to improve as a teacher. There are so many cases in which I can just examine my own methods and apply tactics I know will be more effective. There's always a way to be better.   It's true that, as a perfectionist, at times this aspect of the job is really hard for me.  Nothing's ever good enough.  The job is never done. However, it forces me to examine myself not only as a teacher, but to grow as a person. Speaking of growing as a person....
  • Personal Growth: .Man, there are so many ways being a teacher has made me a better person.
    • Addressing Conflict:  I hate conflict.   In my personal life, I have always tried to avoid it. In my career, though, it is very clear to me that in order to be the best teacher I can be, I have to stand up for myself and what I believe is in the best interest of my students.  This has helped me tremendously in becoming a more assertive person.  
      • I recently got an email with a parent complaining about my choice for summer reading.  It was respectful and considerate, but it made me feel terrible and anxious. I really had to think about how to respond in a way that honored the parent's concern, but explained my point-of-view as well.  I was able to (hopefully) respond kindly without completely backing down, which I've been known to do. This is good practice for me. Maybe in the future I won't feel so shaken any time my choices are questioned. ( I hope so. It feels awful)
      • I once had a student whose mother was clearly writing his papers for him.  I was able to confront her because I felt strongly enough about the disservice she was doing her child that it was worth  enduring the discomfort of a painful conversation.
    • Becoming more thick-skinned.  One of the hardest things about my first year teaching was the emotional burden of managing 100 different relationships with teenagers.  Sometimes they say mean things. Sometimes the lesson goes poorly. Sometimes I made wrong conclusions about a student.  Sometimes I tried to do nice things for them and they were ungrateful and rude.  As a result, I cried. A lot.  I took it all personally. If they were rude, it really hurt my feelings.  If I made a mistake, I felt I was the worst person ever to try to teach adolescents.  Eventually, I had to realize that if I kept letting it all get to me, I wouldn't last very long.  I don't know how it happened exactly, but over the last 4 years, I've learned, to some extent, to let things go a little easier. I know I still have a long way to go in this arena, but school definitely makes me cry a lot less than it used to.  That has to be a good sign, right?
  • Recognizing My Strengths and Weaknesses:  Being in charge of a class really highlights some of the things I'm terrible at,  but I also see much more clearly the things I'm really good at.  Teaching  plays to my strengths (creativity, desire to help, compassion, bossiness  :) , morningpersonness). And asks me to be better at things I really value but sometimes struggle with (organization, sensitivity/knowing where a person is coming from & what they need, assertiveness, flexibility)
What about having an impact?  This is the part they always tell you is so rewarding about being a teacher, and so far, I've experienced  a few examples of this, and it certainly does feel good.  But, honestly,  the moments when I really sense that what I'm doing "really matters" are few and far between. So while I do love feeling oh-so-important, I can't say it's a major player in my job-satisfaction.  I  do hope I'm making an impact, more than I can easily express... but if that's the only thing I liked about my job, it'd be pretty hard to drag myself to work every morning.

It's just a pretty awesome gig, really: I get to be with really neat kids all day, talking about things I am nutty about.   I'll have to write more about those two things sometime... the kids and the content. Because really, those are the best part of my job, and I just ran out of steam before I got to write about them!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Student Evaluations

I remember complaining about teachers when I was in high school. Ugh! I hate how Mrs. Stokes never even reads any of the stuff we turn in. Don't you think Mr. Thomson is totally sexist? Ms. Bates really doesn't explain the homework. I have no idea what I'm even supposed to be doing! Ms. Porter has, like, no control over the class. I could like walk out of here and she wouldn't even notice. Have you ever noticed how Mr. Jones says "if you will" every other sentence? Mr. Davis's class is soooooo boring. Gah!

It never occurred to me that these teachers might not have known their students thought those things about them or their classes. It never occurred to me that they weren't doing it on purpose. Now, I know, as a student, my evaluations may not have always been fair, but I think some of those insights were really valid.

Now that I'm a teacher, I realize how very little opportunity there is for evaluation. How do you know what you're doing wrong? Even if you're observed 2-3 times a year, there's no way an administrator can know all that is or isn't happening in your classroom after spending one class period with you. The people who really know what's happening are the students. And while they don't have the same perspective an adult might have on education, they still have a lot to offer.
At least that's what I've found.

At the end of the school year, I ask my students to write on a piece of paper the things I could improve for the next year. I tell them they can certainly tell me the things I'm doing right, but the most helpful comments will tell me what I need to work on, too. I tell them they can be honest, but they have to be courteous. I tell them they can try to disguise their handwriting if they want, and they don't have to put their names on it.

I tell them I really want an outside perspective on what's working and what's not. I tell them it's ok to say, "Sometimes you are harsh and people are afraid to ask questions," but not ok to say "You're a terrible teacher and everyone hates you."

Each time, I have been pleased to receive a collection of helpful, challenging, and encouraging notes. The first time I did it, I was really nervous. In some ways, the art of constructive criticism is a lot to ask of a 14 year old . And I do have feelings, and they get hurt sometimes. But they have done it so well. I've certainly had my share of student conflicts, so I've been surprised that I've never had a student write anything that was just mean. (I sometimes wonder why they haven't taken that opportunity to get back at me...) What's more impressive to me, though, is just how many students have managed to offer real suggestions in a thoughtful, mature, respectful way.

Of course I get some predictable (and very brief) answers, like "Too much homework!" or "good job overall!" But I also receive numerous comments like "I know we have a lot to cover in class, but sometimes it's really confusing when we have two units going on at the same time, like when we read Fahrenheit 451 and were working on poetry." or "When we have so much homework, it's hard to focus on doing it right. It seems like you forget we have other classes, and so we just have to cram it all in and rush to get it done" or "Sometimes you go over grammar too fast and think everyone understands because the people who do get it are the ones who speak up."

Those are exactly the kinds of things that are so valuable to me. And it's amazing how much more impact a respectful, thoughtful note has.

This activity is so useful to me, but I think it might also be helpful for the students, which I hadn't really considered until now.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Analysis Paralysis

I'm trying to make plans for the upcoming school year.
I have a lot of ideas I'm excited about.
I am stuck.

I want to take a new approach to some things. I have a couple books I'd like to read. In particular, I want to get through Understanding by Design (UbD), which my principal gave me last year; he's hoping to eventually shift the school to that approach. I'm very excited about the ideas in the book, but it's a significant text, and I'm having a hard time making myself plow through it. As a result, I'm not getting much planning done either, since I expect my ideas will be influenced and improved once I've read the book.

Here's why I'm excited about it: It's all about tackling lessons with the end result in mind; instead of generating a test over what you ended up teaching, you design your evaluations first with big picture questions in mind: When my students finish this unit, what do I want them to understand? What skills do I want them to have? What big ideas should they be pondering?

Then you design your evaluations. Once you've decided how you want to evaluate them, you create lessons and activities accordingly that will prepare them to learn the material and master the skills you have already decided they need to know. It's different from the disdained "teaching to the test" approach since the tests in this case will actually evaluate their understanding of the most important skills and concepts, not just ask them to memorize facts that are easy to test over (guilty!).

It sounds pretty obvious. It makes sense. Maybe most teachers work this way anyway, but I certainly didn't this year. Being new to my school, coaching two sports, and creating a curriculum for the first time, I was all too often struggling to stay one step ahead of my students. While they read book 9 of the Odyssey, I was reading book 10 and writing comprehension questions for the next day's homework. I'm not beating myself up; you gotta do what you gotta do. But it wasn't a great system, and because I was just keeping my head above water, I didn't do a lot of the things that I know would have been great. I didn't have time to plan a lot of activities or think deeply about the best approach to a short story or to find connections in media to share. Also, my tests didn't really assess any kind of higher level thinking. Instead, they asked the students to regurgitate the answers to the study questions I had so frantically prepared for them---because that's what I had to pull from as I was writing my tests.

I have forgiven myself for not having the best approaches. I really didn't have time to read and apply UbD this year. I didn't have time to incorporate a lot of the things I wanted to do. I did the best I could. And I recognize that I still had a pretty successful year in many ways. But it's year two now, and I seem to have no grace left for myself.

I am determined, it seems, to be perfect this year. To do everything right that I did wrong last year. After all, I know what I'm teaching. I have generated lots of resources that I have time to tweak. I have time to create activities. I have time to do it right. I have no excuse to not to. I have time to ponder what the best approach is instead of taking whatever the easiest approach is. Except time's running out. I mean, I still have 5 weeks, but that's not very long to become the perfect teacher. And I also want to do some gardening. And read books in my hammock. And sleep late.

Right now, I'm terribly stuck and frustrated with that. I want to ingest the whole UbD book, but at some point, I'm actually going to have to do some of this planning instead of just thinking about it. I'm also going to have to stop entertaining all the ideas for all the possible ways I could do things and pick one so I can actually get some concretes in place."If I taught poetry first, then they'd have a great foundation for analysis.....but if I teach short stories first, we can ease into it..... but if I teach mythology first and teach poetry at the same time, then that will..... " You get the idea. Basically, I don't have all the answers yet, so how can I make any plans?

If you haven't noticed, I'm teasing myself a bit here. My intentions are good. I want to learn. I want to be informed. But if I don't start doing something, it's going to be a repeat of last year--- I will be so strapped for time that I just end up doing what's simplest.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Video Conference

I am very happy. I just completed a video conference with Phil Toledano, a photographer and author who created "Days with My Father," a photo essay we studied in our non-fiction unit.

It went well. So well. Better than I dared hope. I was so nervous that my kids would be bored, be inappropriate, be disrespectful... but Phil was amazing with them, and they loved him. He answered their questions, made them feel comfortable, and really engaged them.

The experience really reinforced a lot of my thoughts about teaching: You can say the wisest, most useful things, but if you can't get them to pay attention to you, they won't get any of it.

I can make them be quiet, but I can't make them really listen to me. To be successful, I have to make them want to listen to me. I have to entertain them. Whenever possible, I have to hold their attention, not demand it.

Phil did just that. He was funny and just edgy enough, but he wasn't just funny and edgy. He offered meaningful insights on aging, respecting our parents and grandparents, and gave useful advice about writing and art.

But he also shared an impression of a valley girl commenting on how large her derriere looked in a certain skirt--an impression I know my kids will be quoting for weeks, though I imagine it will be edited a bit when they're in earshot of a teacher.

Now, the kids probably won't be able to quote everything he said with such accuracy. For instance, I don't expect they could tell me exactly what he said about how to begin a photo essay or recite his words on the value of family. But they heard it, and they will remember some of it-- way more of it, I would bet, than if he had repeated all his answers twice, but had been boring.

Is being entertaining requisite to being a good teacher? I don't know. Maybe not. I've had great teachers that weren't particularly hilarious. But maybe they were still engaging somehow. Those aren't necessarily the same thing...

At least for me, for my personality, my set of gifts, I feel that working to be entertaining is something I have to do if I'm going to be as effective as I can be in my classroom.